Gary Percesepe learned the hard way that sometimes love means letting her go.
We met online in December, then on the corner of West Broadway and Chambers in January. She is a writer too, a damn good one. I stayed with her in March, in her apartment high above the Hudson River with a sweeping view of the Statue of Liberty. We traded divorce stories. Her stories easily trumped mine. She showed me the computer where she had found her ex’s emails to his hookers, one year earlier, the stitches still fresh from her C section. The baby girl, now a year and a half old, slept in her crib under a brightly colored mobile. Her five year old son bunked in the room adjacent to the computer, where his father had once arranged his trysts.
That night in March, I slept on the nanny’s narrow vacant bed. The next day I caught a flight to Italy.
It may have been the crown of Positano shot with sunlight, the descent to dinner on the beach, the road to Amalfi—a drunken switchback of deep, blind turns above me—or the three bottles of red wine with writers I barely knew.
It may have been the conversation at dinner, or long thoughts of faded love and the death of romance. But on the slow walk back up the hill, passing a boutique, just above the church, these words escaped my stupid mouth: “I no longer have anyone to buy a dress for.”
I had been married a long time.
Three women in our group responded with groans and comical offers to help. I tried to be a good sport, but was inconsolable. Begging off a nightcap, I returned to our charming hotel, Le Sirenuse , site of the annual Sirenland Writer’s Conference, and switched on the overhead fan. I opened the balcony door to the night air and listened the sea’s faint music, and the call of the sirens from Odysseus’ unhappy island, a short distance away.
After my divorce, I wrote a poem set on the Amalfi coast, writing of lemons that fell like pale tears. In June, 2000, I’d stayed at the Santa Caterina, celebrating a wedding anniversary. It was a happy time in my marriage. Everything ends. A year later, in 2001, the New York woman had stayed at the same hotel, in the Honeymoon Suite. Before I left for Italia, I promised her that I would wave at the Santa Caterina for us as I drove past on my way to Positano.
Alone in my room, I contemplated the ironies. My beautiful bride. Her Harvard husband. Both gone. Both of us New Yorkers living in exile, me in Ohio, she in New Jersey, marooned with her mother. We were a pair. Divorce pals. I fell asleep to the poetry of failure.
The next day I went in search of a dress.
It took a week to find one whose color reminded me of the streaked Italian sky.
Back in Rome, I purchased a pair of heels to match the dress, discarded the box, met my plane in Naples, and settled in for the long flight home. I smiled at the thought of some guy in customs going through my luggage and finding size five high heels (size 35 in Italia) wrapped neatly in tissue paper next to my spent Calvin briefs.
The Positano woman who sold me the dress smiled and nodded at my choice. Dresses I’d picked over were strewn all over the small shop. The ones I liked best I had laid side by side, passing the fabric between thumb and forefinger. The clerk placed the dress I’d finally selected into a clear plastic bag and smiled. Prego. You want for wife? Girlfriend? No, I said. But I thought of her runner’s body, her baby skinned bubble ass, nipples dark as raspberries on her small chest, those tiny feet coiled like steel springs as she ran from what troubled her. I knew she was not running toward me. But the dress, I imagined, would hang perfectly.
Two days later I was back in lower Manhattan. In the lobby of her building, I handed her the dress. The heels too. I put a finger to her lips to shush her squeals of delight. She moved into my open arms. She had just completed a seven mile run. Her gray T-shirt was soaked through with sweat. I’m getting you so wet, she laughed. But neither of us wanted to let go. Outside, a taxi waited to take me to LaGuardia. I kissed her wet cheek. I’ll be back, I promised.
The next month, New York. Tribeca. Another hotel, another literary event. I threaded onyx studs through the narrow slits of my tuxedo shirt, brushed my hair, ran a white cloth over patent leather shoes. Hotel life is blank, repetitious, and desultory, with the bareness of new furniture. The hall was deserted. I kept the shades drawn. The floor was scraped and varnished. I looked at her picture in my phone and texted to see when she would be ready.
I walked west on Duane Street. There was another guy in a tux walking the streets of Tribeca. We nodded at each other. I cut over to Chambers, headed down North End in Battery Park and there she was, her long brown hair in wavelets against a coat of winter white. Underneath, I knew, was the dress.
She reached up to hug me. Her voice was a whisky and soda whisper: I need you to tie my dress, she said. She took my arm and walked unsteadily beside me on her heels. I tried not to guess at the number of pills she had taken this time. Her divorce was not final, and she didn’t know when it would be. He was contesting it. We walked arm and arm with dress untied.
In Brooklyn, I removed her coat and knotted a pretty silk bow against her shoulder blades. Inspecting her narrow back, I adjusted the flesh toned bra straps. Her white coat draped on my black tuxedoed arm, we entered the party, where we drank fast to catch up, but then hurried to leave.
On a bench outside the gallery we shared a cigarette. She pulled me into a long smoky kiss, the shock of her tongue wet against my lips, then pushed against my teeth. Still kissing, she raised one perfect leg and placed it into my lap. A faint cracking, as of joints, shivering. I fingered the black bow on her shoe. Her calves were muscled and tanned and smooth as glass. Her fingernails were bloody and bitten to the quick. I wanted to kiss her behind the knees. I wanted to know how to heal her, but I didn’t know how.
We walked to the Bergen Street station, passing storefronts where we saw our reflection in the chilly pane. Bells from a church filled the air. We rode in silence back to the island of Manhattan. Where she quietly took my hand, kissed my stunned fingers. We passed the speeding headlight of another train and her white throat appeared. I heard again that breathy little girl voice when she found two small cuts on my hand I hadn’t known were there. Maybe I had smashed them against the elevator door at the party thinking of her ex, or maybe I bruise more easily these days. The blood was dull red. She said, Baby, you’re cut.
We arrived at the hotel. Voices inside, rising. It will be her. Another, mocking: She’s just another girl. You cannot save her. A third: If she takes off her dress, you will never forget it.
It’s been almost a year since that night. This week, I wrote her this poem.
In These Rooms
On a day when the October light poured through holes
in the clouds, when the world was blank and the air raw
we came running to these rooms from bordering planets.
Winter settled in and the frost deepened . Snow fell faintly. What
was unspoken between us continued as before. I orbited
in the Miami River valley, you tanned and did hot yoga in Jersey.
After my divorce we joked Ohio is like New Jersey, only more so.
You found me the perfect little house on the railroad tracks. You promised
to visit but we both knew you couldn’t. We cancelled Christmas
that year, but watched The Goodwife together by phone, tracking Alicia Florrick’s
bangs. Stacy’s Mom played in the car we bought; your children howled with glee.
Quiet episodes of longing on the phone, then you’d say, knock it off. It made me
laugh, to think you knew me that well. And loved me, anyway. Once, you called
at 3 am wondering what was your five year plan? Where would you be,
where would you live, what the fuck was the plan? I was asleep, but listened gamely.
Then said: Marry me. Through my open window I watched the great star fields
splinter as seconds stretched to minutes of stunned silence. Then these stupid tears.
Boy and girl, we walked back up the poet’s hill. While the
north wind pressed against your mother’s house, I cleaned the refrigerator
and checked my Facebook messages. If the future has any waves we’ll ride
one in. For now: these rooms, this marble moon, your nippled dog in bed, grinning.
—Photo anna gutermuth/Flickr