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Bolognese

by Nicola Waldron


He was nearly twenty. Already in his prime, we both knew. He was a god, truly: blond and muscled with the face and body of a Hercules, the arrogance to match. He was born in the Swiss alps—you could see it in the blue of his eyes, cerulean, forget-me-not—and he’d been schooled in England, all boys. They’d fashioned their own education, those sons of privilege, under the scratchy Robert Louis Stevenson counterpanes at night or behind the cricket pavilion, undisturbed by the dorm masters. Boys will be boys, a different set of rules.

I’d met him the year before at a party thrown by his best friend, a big German with a taste for the good life. I was a few weeks away from entering that same school, which had just started accepting girls, bowing to pressure: they couldn’t, those masters in their black gowns, say we didn’t matter anymore, that we couldn’t meet the standards. They made us prove ourselves: put us in the remedial classes at the far edge of the campus, punished us with silence. It didn’t take long.

I was seventeen, oh God. How skinny and inconsequential; how burstful. I’d been reading Shakespeare and the Brontës: tales of lost yet spunky girls. I had a lisp, a nervous giggle, and a developing case of trichotillomania—the habit of yanking out one’s hair, one’s eyelashes. I wouldn’t be class kitten, not ever. I might, though—oh, sweet teenage delusion—make a literary-style heroine, a small intense figure, good with words, my virtues coming to light late in the action (once my lashes grew back in). I was waiting for a Rochester, an Orsino, or a Ferdinand. I just had to control the hysterical titter and sit on my hands, sit tight. I didn’t expect a god. I’d avoided the Greeks—my brother’s books—and didn’t know about their custom of disguise: their taste for the unsuspecting maiden, little girls picking flowers.

I was sitting on a low wall beside my companion from church, oh yes, glass of wine in hand. While we talked, someone came up behind us and touched the tips of his fingers to my hair. I turned and saw him, a reprimand stalling in my mouth. “It’s okay,” I said to the other boy. He moved aside, muttered.

The stranger sat. His hand brushed my thigh. He was wearing cologne and a sweat-darkened wristband that drew attention to his muscles, his tanned skin, the vessels that stood out in relief against his arms. I thought of horses at night in a field.

Moissonné,” he said, reaching out again to touch my hair. “Like summer wheat,” and I looked up at his hair, shoulder-skimming, layered—a young Björn Borg, only with better facial symmetry: a broad, god’s face. He told me his name. I’d encountered it at the art museum and in French class at the girls’ school, the one I’d just left to enroll with the boys, tired of the disparity and lack of opportunity. That last term, Mademoiselle—unmarried and, we girls had decided, fated to remain that way—had shown us movies by all the famous directors. Each one had a female protagonist and always her story ended badly. Sanatorium is the same in both languages, I learned; no need for a dictionary to understand the moment a person’s fortunes are flung over. One of the actresses looked just like me. Hélas!

I told him my name, and he transposed it instantly to the French: “Nicole, Nicole,” he chanted. A bit rude really. He was going to the university at Fribourg that fall, he said, and would pay his way by working in the vineyards. I imagined us trampling grapes together, our feet and ankles purpling the trough.

I remembered Heidi, The Sound of Music. “I’ve always wanted to visit the alps,” I said. The truth.

Almost midnight when he slid his hands under my thighs and carried me inside the house, up the stairs toward a bedroom, not his. I kicked my foot against the door and my shoe fell off, went bumping down the stairs. We laughed, the same laugh. The host, his friend, came charging up after us, flanked by his younger brother and the church boy (oh, I saw, I was bad; it was delicious). “He’s drunk, you know,” the friend puffed. “You can’t trust what he might do.”

I’d had a glass or two myself.

“I’m a big girl,” I said. I was wearing dark drainpipe jeans, Byronic frills, a black lace bra of which I had no need, black suede pixie boots. I’d flipped up my hair at the sides. Charlie’s angel.

Someone whispered the word rape.

I said he could walk me home. We took the two miles hand in hand, our fingers locked. When we got to the turning for my street, I gestured into the darkness. “I live all the way down there,” I said, waving toward the end of the gravel track where my mother waited alone in our gingerbread cottage. We’d been reduced, my father gone. There were no streetlights.

He came with me, all the way to the end. My mother must have heard us. Her bedroom light, there at the front of the house, flashed suddenly off. There were literally only a few feet between my body, down on the ground beside Hercules, and hers, up there in her narrow cot. She’d sold the marriage bed at the time of the move, just before the decree nisi. If I’d stood on Hercules’s shoulders, I could have reached up, pulled open the window, and touched her face, but just then he loosened the back of my shirt and slipped his hands up inside, warm. “Who are you?” he murmured, intending, I suppose, to find out.

The next morning, my brother and I had a visitation with our father. We shared a Citroën 2CV, rouge cerise, and in those days we drove ourselves, or my brother did. I didn’t trust myself. It was raining hard and we practically slid down the hill, the inadequate tires slipping, the lone Gallic windscreen wiper flicking uselessly at the torrent. I begged him to make a stop at the German’s house, where Hercules was staying. I pushed open the car door and snapped open my umbrella: “I won’t be long.”

Through the rain I hurtled, down the driveway. I hovered at the big oak door—Jane Eyre—then pulled on the brass ringer. I was dressed in black. As I was about to turn away, the door cracked open: the German.

“I came,” I stammered. “I thought . . .” and said Hercules’s name. It clacked stupidly around my mouth. The German, kindly, breathed, then pulled open the door and showed me into the library. They had one.

“Wait here a minute.”

I was wearing a skirt I’d sewn myself, its border printed with images of haystacks and farm girls. I’d paired it with the buckled Mary Janes my mother had bought me for school. I stood beside the green leather Chesterfield, then sat, then stood. A raindrop bled into my tights.

I considered bolting.

Then Hercules came in, sheepish. There was another girl, he explained. She was there now, upstairs. If only he’d known . . .

I wrote my address on the slip of paper he gave me. Something to do with my hands.

~

I left for a summer job on the Welsh border. Chambermaiding. I wore the Mary Janes. The owner of the hotel, a blowsy, trusting divorcée, put me up in a garden shed on the edge of the property, where the waiter, a nice farmer’s son from Hereford, used to drop by on his way home. Clearly my employer hadn’t remembered her Lady Chatterley. Or else she had. A pale blue envelope edged in airmail flashes, royal blue and red, came Exprès to save me from corruption, and I went home still a virgin, just. The farmer’s son knew how to till a row. I rushed out with the wages I’d saved and bought writing paper printed with images of couples wandering through misty forests, embracing under waterfalls. A reply came back, jokey, affectionate: “Please stop using that awful paper. Those pictures are what they print here on packets of préservatifs!”—the French word, though I didn’t know it then, for condoms. French letters, they used to call them, no? Jam, I thought, and imagined the sweet, thick juice running down my chin, staining my white cotton. Blackberries. Switzerland must be an interesting place indeed.

He sent me postcards by the bale. My mother, getting scared, enrolled me as a boarding student at the boys’ school, and I covered all four walls of my dorm room with his postcards. It was a single—they thought I would behave. I fell asleep gazing up at wooden chalets and the sharp-toothed mountains that separated nations, while smiling cowherds—alpine satyrs—toasted me with glasses of golden wine beneath balconies draped with Swiss flags.

“I live yes up up in the deep green mountains and my head in the sky and my feet in the snow,” said the message on the back of the very first card: “The sun dies and the moon takes up its place in the east, a great yellow disk. The cows are put out for the night and their bells echo across the valleys. People sit outside and one can hear their laughter like ripples over a lake.” The names of the places he mentioned—les Pléiades, les Paccots, les Fougères, les Rochers de Naye—required the same exaggerated buccal movements necessary to a healthy session of French kissing. All the best things: foreign, French. He quoted great sections of Women in Love (I was studying Lawrence for my high school exit exams) and sent copies of Byron and Shelley from his English grandfather’s library. I volunteered each day to fetch the mail from the school gatehouse. I ran. Later on—a sort of graduation gift—he bought me The G-Spot and Shere Hite’s report on female sexuality, followed by the one detailing, in men’s own words, what they liked done to them. He left little notes in the margins. He used a pencil.

When we met again, the summer after the party at the German’s house, I’d lost, inevitably, my virginity to a persistent classmate, a would-be surfer/artist who sketched me in life class after school, big hipped, lying on my side. Hercules didn’t seem to mind. “Come to Switzerland,” he whispered in my hair when he came back the following summer. “You can see the mountains from my bed.”

~

The vallon was just as it had been in the postcards: an exquisite feat of geological and natural artistry, saturated with high-altitude color. The people drank and laughed. They subsisted on a diet of wine, chocolate, and cheese; for balance, a bowl of Birchermüesli drenched in liquefied honey. When I visited during school holidays, we drove down to the Saturday markets by the lake and sampled the local wines, rustic breads, and cheeses ripened in the goats’ grassy piss. I put everything in my mouth.

Hercules’s bed, two beds in fact pushed together, did indeed look out over the mountains; at dusk, the lake at their steep base lit up like a Turner painting, as if water had swallowed sun. There was a small window looking out from the room, gingham clad: air in, noise out. There was, too, a cattle shed down the road, half of it converted into a sort of bachelor pad that Hercules’s uncle had put to use before he got married. He’d left behind a bed, a stove, a record collection including Gilberto and Getz and Barry White, and the unrivaled soundproofing of frustrated cows waiting to be milked.

We used to cook. We began, always, with a head of garlic pulled down from the rope of heads that hung, silent, doomed, from a nail hammered into the broad frame of the kitchen window. Garlic, mon amour. Here it is, all pulled apart and peeled clean. All chopped up.

Hercules’s mother, Maman (or Alcmene, the deceived), was bottle blond, skin toasted by the alpine sun, eyes pink from cigarettes and the wine habit impossible, in that culture, to resist. She was cruel as they come: grief personified. She’d lost a baby, older brother to my paramour. I didn’t know. Nor did he, then. But it wouldn’t have changed anything. Had the brother lived, then yes: a different story. Violent, perhaps.

Maman left early each day in her Jeep, its cloth sides flapping, to go to the valley floor, where she typed for corporate crooks who held her hostage till sundown. We were left alone, Hercules and I. It was his mother’s chalet, her kitchen, sort of. She rented from a man called Rouge. I imagined his face: ruddy, mean. It was hard to keep up the payments, she said. Sometimes there were threats. Her son invited me to stay, and she paid the bills. She brought home big bags of chocolate. Lindor balls. I said thank you. Oh, I was grateful.

She had a lover too. When she spoke of their rendezvous, of the wife she’d befriended, mother of two lovely girls, she laughed her smoker’s laugh. We were hungry. I went through pounds of bananas: all her bananas. She bought them at Migros, and I ate them. Couldn’t get enough. We hiked to the café at the top of the mountain and drank chocolat chaud, sugar-laden and creamy thick. I didn’t get fat—not yet. I burned it off. He exercised me like a racing filly. On the way down the mountain, I loosened his belt.

Afterward, we cooked:

1. Bring in the wood: his job.

2. Fill woodstove. Strike match. Scan pages of local papers while twisting into tapers. Stoke flames: the kindling my favorite stage, my pride.

3. Put on water. The mounting sound of bubbling, a music not forgotten: the rumble.

4. Peel and chop one large onion. My job: weeping. I always volunteered—something I could do, a sacrifice. He insisted I wear no makeup.

5. Break garlic from stem; separate cloves. Heed the cracking. Strip, with fingernails, the fine paper, its skin. Crush. The sticky juice would seep under the nails. It ran down to the fingers’ crotch, leached into the blood, the cunt. I brought my fingers to my face. I put them in my mouth, in his mouth. Oh, Mister Pavlov; oh, Monsieur Proust.

6. Chop vegetables. Carrot? Zucchini? Who can remember.

7. Heat oil till it spits. Stand back.

8. Throw in onion, garlic; unstick tiny cubes from fingertips.

9. Take one pound of ground beef, defrosted. Unwrap meat. Drop into oil. Watch meat turn from pink to brown—blood to food—making its own water. Like sunbathing, or torture. I wasn’t vegetarian yet. Sizzle, sizzle.

10. Add vegetables. Zucchini? Carrots? Can of tomatoes.

11. Pour in wine. Pour in cream.

12. Boil water. Tip spaghetti from box, an avalanche. Push in till drowned. Salt.

13. Drain pasta. Toss in butter. Add cheese.

14. Eat, with wine. Sit at the table looking over the valley: narcissi in spring; later, snow. Go back for seconds.

“A pleasure to have you,” they used to say. “Come again.”

I went back every school holiday. I worked on weekends and took a gap year before going to college, to get “real life experience” as the wisdom had it, to make money. I ended up a breakfast waitress. The customers pawed me. The chef ogled me, knives flashing.

Hercules took me west across the border with his friends, a culinary tour. We were to see the Bourgogne through its bistro windows, through the bell of a wine glass. It was a long drive, and hot. In front, the younger men talked in French and laughed—ils plaisantaient. I sat in the back with the old farmer, whose eyes shimmered, who liked to put his hand on my thigh. Inside the first restaurant, at a thickly laid table, I ordered truite amandine, the best meal of my life, and soup. With every course, a new bottle and the directive to drink, drink! More pressure than for anything before or since, the men’s faces, their voices pressing me: their eyes. After the fourth meal, my liver began to hurt. I held my side. Stuffed goose, I thought. Was Hercules actually trying to make me fat? Kill me?

Back home, Maman told me about Christine, the other girl. She showed me pictures. “Elle est belle, non, cette Christine?” She lingered on the “ch,” her throat a grater, guillotinish, as if she could cut with her glottis a piece of meat: me.

~

The summer before freshman year, I took myself over one last time. Jeans: tighter now, pinching. Mascara: something to hide behind. He failed to meet me at the station in Vevey. No flowers, no fanfare. When I arrived at the chalet, a boat, three trains, a funicular, and a post bus later, it was his stepfather who greeted me, the grizzled American. Jim. Jeem. I went outside and told my troubles to the dog. I said I felt like a rabbit in a cage. Cage, I said in my best Swiss French, lower lip drooping. Lapin.

The dog met my stare.

Hercules talked about his plan to study in England. He took me down the mountain and bought me a ring—diamond dust, the jeweler said. Hercules told me I shouldn’t read into it. I did. I thought he was coming over to be with me for good. And he did come. He stayed two days at my mother’s house in the Home Counties—my mother, she who tugged at the curtains and looked at us as if we were terrorists, invading, ransacking her home. I pulled my mattress onto the floor and spilled candle grease on my bedroom carpet, pink like a virgin’s stain. It was her carpet, she reminded me.

He got us out of there quick, took me to the elementary school in North Wales that he’d attended as a boy. He shimmied up a drainpipe, just like in the adventure books—Just for Boys—and broke in through a window. At first I wouldn’t follow him, but he got angry, so I let him pull me inside. I trotted behind him in my Mary Janes, trailing him along the abandoned, musty hallways. “What if someone catches us?” Still wet for him, still hungry, scent of garlic on my fingers. Always that way.

I marched behind him back across the fields, through herds of cows gently grazing. We stopped at a farmhouse, whitewashed, dirty, and had dinner with a former schoolmate of his. There was mud on my shoes. Mud everywhere. The friend, large and sunburned, had inherited the cattle farm we’d crossed. He made us sit and fed us steak. The dark slab, venous, sat on the plate, surrounded by a hopeful, scattered archipelago of peas, a terrible island in a sea of its own blood.

“We just killed it this morning!” he declared.

 

 

Note: This essay owes a debt of inspiration to Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, a delicious collection of essays edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler, and in particular to Phoebe Nobles’s piece, “Asparagus Superhero.”

 

Nicola Waldron was born in England. In 1996, she used the money she was awarded for the U.K.’s Bridport Prize to come to America. Her poems and essays can be found in The Common, Her Kind, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Sonora Review, and Mason's Road, and her work is forthcoming in Your Impossible Voice. Her chapbook, Girl at the Watershed, was published in 2013, and she recently completed a memoir. She teaches creative writing at the University of South Carolina. (8/2014)


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