A Lovely Night
This story appeared in Northwest Review, 2002.
Beth’s family had money, Don’s did not, and it was occasionally a problem one way and another, so when they married they decided, in common agreement, to pay for the wedding themselves. Beth and Don didn’t have much money as a couple, but they themselves rented the white tents and hired the single trumpeter to stand in the meadow, and together they drove an uncle’s borrowed pick-up to the island’s best farm and bought basketfuls of vegetables that could be grilled, and visited the island’s friendliest fisherman, Henry Fine, and bought from him arm-length filets of tuna that had been caught offshore. Dark, oily, slippery, the filets seemed individual creatures themselves; in their two deep coolers they lay wrapped in plastic, smelling of the deep, clean ocean. Don counted out the cash into Henry’s palm, feeling a swell of sexual pride that the tall blonde dark-eyed woman beside him was about to become his wife. “Good choice,” Henry told him, seemingly not only about the fish, and gave him a look of complicit congratulations. The tuna, enough to serve their forty guests, cost them two hundred dollars.
The wedding went just perfectly. Everyone cried, and afterward laughed at how much they had cried. His homemade dance floor, made of plywood and two-by-fours, was a flop, but their friends danced in the grass instead. It was Beth’s family’s summer house; the house stared west into the Pacific from its gently rising lawn, and the meadow climbed the gradual hill behind into a creaking stand of ash trees. The food was cooked by two caterers they’d hired from a nearby town at fourteen dollars an hour, and dinner was served at the rented round tables set up in the orchard. Beth’s family did not do weddings this way, to say the least. But they were good-natured people, and nobody complained, and after dinner everyone got drunk and smoked a lot of cigarettes, and when the older people were hustled off to their various rented cabins around the island the newlyweds and their friends smoked pot and lit fireworks on the rocky, driftwood-strewn beach, and stayed up very late watching the supertankers sliding past across the darkened water. All in all it was a success. They were happy to have done it this way. Don in particular felt, as he did not always feel, that they had managed to pull something off without being too frugal (they had once hosted an embarrassing party where there wasn’t enough food), or, through Beth’s family’s money, too lavish (for six months they had owned a new Honda Passport that was a gift from her father until a festering self-disgust propelled them back to the dealership). Their wedding certificate was signed by a friend who was a certified Minister of Reasoned Light in the Temple of the Living Earth; he had received his investiture over the Internet.
Don himself, the child of a Lutheran minister, had been conceived in a dark back flat in Cleveland. He felt this fact as the first of a series of autobiographical impoverishments, followed by his father’s early death by stroke, his mother’s remarriage to an elementary-school principal, his brother’s descent into the world of muscle cars, and his own unhappy college days, in payment for which he still carried seventeen thousand dollars in loans at eight-point-two-five percent. He had survived by virtue of a lucky intelligence and skepticism, and maybe even more than this, his own good looks. He was handsome–dark-eyed like his wife–and he suspected his looks had helped him get his first job after college, taking tourists around a minor-league ballpark. Certainly it had helped him in countless ways since then, not least in his marriage to the beautiful Beth. He did not think of himself as particularly distinguished or promising. At thirty he was a marketer for an advertising firm called Hartman + Culligan, where he invented tag lines: The solution is everywhere. Style for the rest of us. Excellence comes standard. He’d also named a few companies: Fieldwork. Mandrake.com. Blossomania. The money wasn’t great, and to be sure the work was anything but noble. But he liked coming up with fitting words, words which filled all the necessary spaces in the brain, the way an answer in a crossword lays itself down letter by letter. He had a facility for the language, he supposed, and recoiled when his supposedly literate co-workers mistook their for there or it’s for its. Beth worked down the street in a flower shop; their apartment was constantly filled with flowers on the soft, nearly odorless brink of wilting. His dead father’s impoverished congregations had had the same sad smell, of donated flowers.
Italy, where they honeymooned, surprised him. He had never been overseas before; Beth had, in college and after. After a week Don was tanned and looked good in his white shirt and dark pants among the old sooty porticos. Not Italian exactly, he didn’t flatter himself that much, and Beth looked very American in her flat white shoes and crumpled sundresses. And they were always looking at a map or walking the wrong way, or reading the Herald Tribune. But they were a handsome couple, and it was especially good to be with Beth here because she knew how to negotiate the trains, and knew a little more about art than he did. In the Uffizi he found himself drawn to the Fillippo Lippis: the angels, the cardinals and petitioners all realer-than-real, as though their supernatural fourth dimension had imparted to them an extra measure of roundness. Beth liked the expressionless Giottos, which he thought looked mostly dumb. How could you be considered a serious painter if you couldn’t even paint hands? “But this,” she said, standing before an enormous gold-shining panel, “is what it felt like to be Giotto. This is what the world looked like to him. Stacked-up.” Well, he didn’t buy it. He couldn’t draw either, but he knew what a hand looked like. But the guides, when he eavesdropped, said more or less the same thing. She was better, it occurred to him, at seeing things. And she was better with the language than he was, too. Even the primitive Italian coming from her had a nice tilt, an implied admission of happy incompetence that was expected to be overlooked, assuming, as she flipped up the brim of her sun-hat, that people would mostly get the gist. Usually they did. Whereas when he talked he was hopelessly ministerial, and received looks of pained pity in return. It was a little worrying. He was supposed to be the one with the facility for language, and here he was struggling. He put it down to nervousness.
But really they did fine in Italy. They saw Florence, Rome, Venice. He relaxed as the weeks went on. They traveled west on the train through Tuscany, then out to the high warm tourist coast of the Cinque Terre, which was full of Germans, and where no one really expected anyone to speak Italian. They swam naked off the rocks below Cordelia, full of lunchtime wine, and Don even in his postprandial fullness felt himself buoyed by the salt water, the blue air, the hot brown rocks that formed the walls of their isolated lagoon. He scraped himself on coral climbing out. Bright blood pulsed over the bones of his ankle. Below him Beth’s breasts were brilliantly pale in the bright water; her short white fur swam between her legs as she kicked, kicked, kicked away from him, wearing sunglasses. In their rented apartment afterward he knelt and peeled down her dress and fastened his mouth to her, his knees cold on the hard stone floor. Their set of rooms was cool, shaded, and had been cheaply rented at the last minute from a man named Alberto. Their kitchen window looked down on a shadowed courtyard full of fluttering laundry, and beyond the bedroom the cobblestone street tipped down to the Mediterranean. From the windows they could hear the echoing calls of boys playing soccer before dinner. From the courtyard came the sound of water trickling ceaselessly from a broken faucet into a stone saucer. Beth, on the broad flat bed, with her legs open, was content to do nothing forever but lie and shift her hips, and caress his hair as he worked between her legs, while around them, despite its freight of sounds, the air seemed very clear and weightless, full of nothing. On the nightstand, left behind by another renter, was a paperback by Lawrence Kurtz; Don’s eye kept drifting to its bright orange cover. Brush-Off it was titled, one silver word above the other.
Afterward they showered and walked out into the evening in their white, sink-washed clothes. Don’s ankle was beginning to throb, but it was a beautiful evening. He was proud to walk with his beautiful wife through the narrow streets of Cordelia. Far below them the coastal train ran clicking from town to town, a long green serpent, and far out on the water ran gray ships he could not tell the shape of. Down a side street they passed a pair of old ladies on a bench, who called out to them in Italian, “What a lovely night it is!” and he, feeling a masterful, sublime mood rising in him, cried, “Yes, yes, yes it is!” as he and Beth walked by. Only a minute later did it occur to him–did he belatedly decipher in his own head–what the old women had been saying. They had been crying, “What a beautiful couple this is!”
Bright-faced with shame, he confessed his mistake to Beth. “I know what they said,” she told him. “But that’s awful,” he moaned, “that’s terrible! How embarrassing!” “But we are a beautiful couple,” she told him, with a great unshakeable serenity. “They were happy for us, sweetheart.”
His ankle took weeks to heal, and was itchy for months afterward. He scratched it through his sock while sitting in his glassed-in office, remembering that evening with a violent inner cringe. He could not decide which bothered him most: that he had embarrassed himself so completely in front of two old women he would never see again; that he had ended up with a wife who was capable of such marvelous satisfaction with things, while he was not; or that he could not keep himself from thinking of the incident over and over again–twirling and twirling it in his brain–while outwardly he appeared to be going about the decent, blameless business of living a normal, admirable, and husbandly life, free from that kind of prideful concern.