Short Story: Uncoiled

Claudia B. Flisi ’69 has been writing professionally since the age of 16, with articles appearing in hundreds of magazines, newspapers, web publications and several books. She worked for American Express, Burson-Marsteller, and J. Walter Thompson before beginning her freelance career in Italy and the French Riviera.  She is vice president of the Mount Holyoke Alumni Club of Italy, and headed the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association in Italy for 10 years.  She served as chair of Democrats Abroad – Milan for two terms.  She has a BA with distinction from Mount Holyoke College and an MA from the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins.  Her website is www.flisi.net.    She lives in Italy.

They were lying in bed together, facing the window that faced the sea. The lovemaking had been good, and little conversation was necessary, as usual. He wondered if she were thinking about marriage too. The thought of it terrified him, but he couldn’t avoid the issue much longer. “Liana? Will you be joining the boys for Easter in Rome?”

He watched her as she propped herself up on sun-browned arms, hair in disarray but always seeming just so, as if she had planned the disorder precisely that way.

“I don’t know, caro,” she said. Andrea plans to go hiking with his new girl friend and Giancarlo is so determined to finish his thesis this year. Why?”

Serge thought a moment before replying. He would be in Turkey on the Marietta project most of February. The engineering conference was scheduled for Paris the first week of March. He had been asked to address a symposium at the Polytecnico di Milano before Easter. Perhaps he would have some time after that to spend a few days with her in Rome if that is where she would be. “I want to spend more time with you, Liana. It’s always a problem of scheduling.”

She smiled in a way that was no longer enigmatic to him. He knew what she was thinking: “Oh, Serge is so didascalico.” He didn’t consider himself didactic, but accepted the fact that she did. Once she had told him that his unfaltering belief in temporal reality, and his lack of belief in anything else, did more than reassure her — they were her anchor. But he didn’t want to be her anchor; permanent ties were anathema to him. The open sea, not the sheltering inlet, was his preferred destination when they went sailing.

Serge touched her bare brown shoulder, and she rolled back instinctively against his chest. He appreciated her smooth, supple skin, a characteristic of Italian women, and considered it one of her most sensual features, though of minor importance in the Overall Scheme of Things. If something couldn’t be quantified, he found it difficult to spend more than a few minutes at a time thinking about it. Sexual attraction was one of those things — useful, desirable, even necessary in its place, but ONLY in its place. Spill over was not allowed.

When they talked about sex, for example, she would describe it in elemental terms — a volcano, a hurricane, the ocean. He was inclined to think of it as a waterfall, pounding and pulsating and spectacularly beautiful, but clearly confined to a specific geographic location.

Yet here he was, thinking about a subject less amenable to numerical codification. Marriage. More disturbing, the thought was spilling over into the normal routine of his life. He had been divorced so long ago that he barely remembered what marriage was like (if two years of living and fighting in a graduate students’ dormitory on a bleak street in Cambridge could be called marriage). Liana had been widowed for many years, her sons were grown, her business flourishing. She seemed to welcome his company, but her life had been full before they met, and she never asked him about the next encounter, much less a future together. Marriage, he theorized, was something she no longer needed to make her life complete.

Nor did he. His life was demanding, exciting and satisfying. He was respected by his peers and sought out by his clients. Women were always available to satisfy his professional and personal needs: a man of a certain age and professional prominence has no trouble finding companions appropriate to the moment. But every so often

— and with greater frequency these days — he would be sitting in an airplane and thoughts of her would crowd out the business documents displayed on his laptop. A colleague’s banter would turn into her soft laughter. The sandalwood smells of an Asian airport became her rose perfume. The computer screen summoned up her face. These sensory impressions, imprecise, unquantifiable, were framing his travels, weighing him down, heavy as any anchor.

Now day was fading outside the window that looked to the sea. Serge tried to ask her, Do you ever think about the future? Do you ever think about our future? The words that came out were, “What do you think about at night?”

She turned, breaking her gaze from the darkening tapestry of yachts moored in the bay below them. The most wonderful thing about this apartment, the reason they came here so often, was that view from the cliffs of Rapallo. The faint movement of her head brought the scent of crushed roses to his nostrils. Her voice, when she finally spoke, was so soft he strained to hear it.

“Sometimes, when I am lying in my bed alone, I think about our, how do you say, la condizione humana, the human condition? What did Shakespeare call it, the mortal coil? And I am afraid again, the way I used to be when I was a child.”

He could not imagine Liana afraid of anything. When her husband died, she had taken over the family firm instead of selling out. She had stood up to demands from the unions and threats from corrupt government officials. She had survived the earthquake in Aquila and the plane crash in Turin, and wasn’t there something about the death adder she had shot, just in time, while vacationing in Australia?

Nor could he easily imagine her as a child. Had she not always been a fully-formed woman – with a child’s body perhaps, but blessed with the maturity of mind that comes from inborn sophistication?

Yet here she was, describing someone who could not be the person beside him in the bed.

“When I was small, I would run to my mother for answers. She could not give me any, of course, because she was also bound by the mortal coil, but she would hug me and eventually the terror would disappear.”

Serge sat up in the bed. He could hear the sound of the air passing through his own nostrils, smell the incredible sweetness of Liana’s breath. Her eyes were no longer visible in the darkening room.

“When I got married, beh, my husband didn’t understand this sort of thing, and that was salvation itself in a way. But I could never talk to him about it,” Liana continued. “Sometimes I would go in and hug the boys in the middle of the night to fight my way through the thoughts that do not end. When Silvio died, my days were more crowded. But my nights weren’t any easier.”

The flocked taffeta curtains rippled with the breeze from the ocean. The room was now so dark that Serge could hear the movement more than see it, a sound like a sigh. He swung his feet down to the Oriental rug, found his slippers, stood and with a single practiced movement donned the silk robe he had left on the bed stool.

“It is almost night. Come to the window so we can enjoy the view together.” He extended his arm in the direction of the bed, but was not sure whether she could see him. “Please come.”

He could hear her moving from the bed, the rustle of her silk vestaglia, the almost imperceptible tread of her feet, first on rug, then on marble, then beside him. Her satin sleeve whispered against his.

“Ever since knowing you, when I am terrified at night, I think of you and wish you were here next to me and couldn’t you please put your arms around me? But why should I tell you this? I know you don’t have the answers,” she said.

You are right, I don’t, he thought uneasily. His response had been so loud in his head that he wondered whether she had heard him.

“But maybe you could keep the mortal coil from choking me.”

Surprised, he said nothing. He wondered if she were embarrassed at her confession. Did she think he was annoyed by her talk of the unquantifiable? As the shadows darkened in the room, he saw the outline of her body hunched forward slightly, as if she were straining for some word or gesture from him. Did she think that he could make the Human Condition go away?

He struggled for an appropriate response. Liana had never spoken of this before. Why would such a confident woman waste time on unanswerable questions? In business, she was the quintessence of competence. In all other matters, she was warmly Latin, with amore or pasta proffered as a reasonable answer to every question. He imagined he knew what she longed to hear, but could not bring himself to say it to her. His intellectual integrity was too rigorous to hand her false promises.

“I get frightened, too, sometimes,” he said, but without any emotional conviction.

He knew he not given her the answer she sought. Perhaps she thinks I don’t see her soul. But no, this is ridiculous: how can I be having these absurd thoughts? I don’t believe in the soul.

She interrupted his internal monologue, “The English ask ‘a penny for your thoughts’. I gave you more than a euro’s worth, Serge. Do you have your answer?”

“Let’s get dressed,” he said. “I’ll set the table on the terrace and grate the cheese for the pasta . . . or are we having risotto tonight?”

Serge loved good food, especially Liana’s good pasta, but he was genetically incapable of cooking it al dente. It was a failing of the French, one of the nation’s few in culinary matters, but egregious for those who saw pasta as an indispensable element in a meal. So he loved her home-cooked dinners when they were together in Rapallo.

“’Would trenette col pesto be all right?” She called to him from the closet, where she was slipping on a pale green linen dress. Her voice was again confident, unperturbed. He was relieved. I may be incapable of feeding her soul (if in fact there IS a soul), but apparently she still wants to feed my body.

Fantastique. I love your pesto.” Pause. “You still haven’t given me an answer about Easter.”

He set the table on the terrace with a fresh tablecloth, candles, a bottle of Sciachettrá, and dark bread, the local pane di Triora. He absorbed the night air, heard the sounds of the sea now barely visible beneath him, smelled the pesto and pecorino as Liana stirred the pesto, strained the pasta, shredded a salad. She came out with two heated bowls and laid them down at their usual places – his faced out to the sea, hers toward the French doors of the apartment. Serge impulsively reached up to embrace her. This spontaneity from someone so abjectly unspontaneous surprised both of them.

“So much garlic makes my eyes water,” she said, touching her apron to the inside corner of her eye. “Would it be easier if I met you in Milan?”

“But don’t you have that trade fair in Bari the second week of March?” Serge had a memory that put a mnemonicist to shame.

She flicked the grated pecorino over his bowl. “I’ll change the date.”

He shook his head. This was not the affirmation of a successful business woman. “You can’t change the date of a trade fair!”

“I can change the way I do business.”

Serge looked out beyond the terrace to the jagged silhouettes of cottages tumbling to the sea, the fishing boats and the moon gleaming over a dark expanse of water that stretched to the horizon. It was possible to estimate how many gallons of water there were in the Mediterranean, how much salt, the mineral composition, the oil pollution. But he was incapable of quantifying how beautiful was that scene at that moment in time.

“I won’t let you choke, Liana.” He had never before made a promise about something that could not be substantiated, but he knew he was telling the truth.

“The pasta is getting cold,” she whispered. “Mangiamo.” Her finger, still warm from the heated bowls, reached out to stroke the skin on the back of his hand.

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About Sandi Sonnenfeld

Sandi Sonnenfeld is a fiction writer and essayist. Her memoir, This Is How I Speak (2002: Impassio Press), which recounts how her views about what it means to be a woman in contemporary America changed after suffering a dangerous sexual assault, was a Booksense 76 finalist. With the memoir’s publication, she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, which recognizes writers whose work merits special notice. Sandi has published more than two-dozen short stories and essays in Sojourner, Voices West, Hayden’s Ferry Review, ACM, Raven Chronicles, Necessary Fiction, Perigee, Revolution House and The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review among others. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Sandi holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she won the Loren D. Milliman Writing Fellowship. She currently resides in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and the world’s most perfect cat.