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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
One cave dwelling looks much the same as another, and this was the very same, the exact tour as yesterday only with a different guide, one younger with longer legs and shorter sideburns whom I found better informed and less attractive. My husband disappeared without a flashlight into the vast sandstone cellar with the rest, but I decided to survey the souvenir shops drinking hot tea from a cold plastic bottle.
I did not want any more souvenirs, did not want especially a small ceramic statue of tapered fairy chimneys with “Cappadocia” inscribed at its base, which you saw everywhere. Our guide had asked us again and again on our hike the day before what shapes we saw in the towering basalt. All the right answers were animals, most native to Africa and the Amazon. But they were lingams, stone phalluses all. A fact as plain as desire itself. That morning at breakfast, my husband still asleep, my waiter had pressed such a small statue between two paper napkins and set it leaning against my coffee cup, whispering that it was a present, that he hoped I would visit Cappadocia again soon. A man in a baseball cap at the table beside me looked up from his laptop as I stood to leave without placing my silverware parallel as snow skis on my plate. I had my secret from the world now, twin lingams folded in paper napkins I held at my hip with the mole in its sulcus. I didn’t need to venture underground to unveil more mystery. I could leave my cutlery in a tangle.
But as the rain fell more heavily above the underground city, the only place to escape was to the neighboring souvenir shops where I needed no more three-inch phalluses. So I strayed toward a shop selling nothing but fabric dolls without any noses stitched on, keeping my pace slow as the rain fell faster; there would, I knew, be plenty of time to dry. Inside, the shop smelled of aniseed and cardamom and I picked up the doll I thought looked the loneliest with the most room for a nose should I find one of these here too. I began combing through her knotted skein of hair with my fingers when a woman with a mustard-colored scarf enshrouding a shrunken walnut with blinking black eyes invited me to sit on a canvas chair beside her. So I sat with my doll looking out toward the sunless city, trying to concentrate on the rain and evade her stare. But as she leaned in closer to wordlessly examine my face, I wished I could offer her a clearer show of beauty. Had she found some, she would not have stared with such a raw curiosity, I felt. She would not have rotated her index finger in a loose orbit at my ear, circling it faster with each rotation. As it was, her finger’s circuit grew tighter and tighter still, until she pressed hard on the mole on my right cheek. As if this beauty mark without much beauty were a button that would open a trap door to another woman beneath this moon-mottled skin.
She returned her finger to her lap and began speaking in a high voice from the bottom of her throat. I understood nothing but saw that she had only a few bottom teeth, that her tongue swam across her gums like neap tides against the sand. I laughed, unable to respond otherwise, knowing she wouldn’t understand even this, and so I laughed some more. She couldn’t have known my name, but she had found my identity. She had pushed the mole on my right cheek with force enough to penetrate to the mole on my right hip to match.
When I was 5, I decided that when I grew old enough to forget who I was, these moles would remind me. I would put a finger to my cheek, slide my panties off over my right hip, and know I was myself still and no one else. Wherever I was, I would be home then, inside this body.
That I would eventually forget myself was beyond question. What might happen to me was also beside the point. It still largely is. But palpating one of either two birthmarks with my forefinger, I could feel the light of the sun in the darkest cave. There was, I told myself standing naked before my bedroom mirror, nothing so very important to see. Better to live by feel altogether.
But I couldn’t tell the woman this, that I had remembered something so sacred here sitting in the rain. Her hand rose from her knees and again her finger pressed into my mole, now with more force. Her fingernail pierced my skin, etching into the mole’s soft aureole like a carver of caves with his bilbo. So I stood and thanked her and hurried across the street to a shop selling rugs, medieval weaponry, and gramophones whose copper horns had long oxidized into an emerald patina, whose music began to play a static waltz of an undying sun when I walked through the door. The man counting coins behind the counter looked up then fixed his eyes on my breasts, chilled beneath my rain-spattered shirt. He would miss the mole on my right hip even if I stood naked before him. He had no idea who I was.
Plants with any sense about them grow toward the sun. They abjure the cold beauty of erect posture for phototropism’s lean disfigurement, allowing their spines to become gnarled in the lust for light. But if plants grow toward the sun, human bodies grow toward each other. Desire, that is all this growing is. It is why there are fairy chimneys in Cappadocia that are no chimneys at all. It is why people abandoned the underground city long ago, why there’s little need to visit now.
In Rome 12 years earlier, I paced through the catacombs a half step behind my professor, a graduate student of theology named Angelo with a pregnant wife he’d left for the summer in Chicago. Gifted with an Italian last name and a long-nosed classical profile to match, he came here, he said, to visit a certain seaside town an hour’s drive east of Naples where his paternal grandfather had shined shoes and stolen sardines from unmanned dinghies. But he hailed from nowhere farther than the Chicago suburbs, so near O’Hare’s airstrips he feared the planes’ noses would shatter his bedroom window when he was a boy.
A few hours before our class was to venture underground I was reading Middlemarch on a towel in the grass when Angelo’s shadow eclipsed the sun lighting my page. He groaned, asking how I could read that for fun. “But Dorothea has gone to Rome for her honeymoon,” I chirped. Seeing him frown, I added, “Of course she’s miserable. The naked statues disturb her.” I watched his eyes graze my thighs and then follow a group of girls walk past into the dining hall. A butterscotch tabby cat skirted my ankles before leaping onto the fountain’s edge beside me. A cherub holding a dolphin stood in the fountain’s center and stared at the cat. Looking down again at my book, I saw the shadow had lifted and he had paced inside to have his lunch.
Inside the catacombs there were no naked statues, while the silhouettes of his female students blurred into the shadows thickening the walls and muffling our whispers. Underground, Angelo walked as fast as he did above, but he lingered over the crypts no more than four feet long, the graves of children, then those of saints, longer and wider than necessary, for bigger souls. He said we were looking at our own resting place and waited for his voice to echo through the silence, though it never did. The air was too resonant with death to give the living more than a ghost of a say. Outside, the heat fell heavily on my sun-blistered shoulders, and I was grateful for the cool air blanketing the crypt. In no hurry to leave this temporary death at all, I listened longer than I need have done for the echo that would not come.
The next weekend, all the students left town, as if Rome were, like some small town in the Dakotas, a place to escape as soon as we had the chance. As if the catacombs lay too close. That Saturday morning with the bathroom to myself, I let the blue shower curtain hang open. I turned on three adjacent faucets, bending their heads in toward each other like erstwhile radio singers, and created a single opulent alluvion of hot indoor rain. I washed my hair in sudsy languor, extending my elbows wide as bows poised to release their arrows while straddling two rusting drains.
The night before, I had taken the bus to the Piazza Navona, to sit on a rounded plinth beside an Egyptian obelisk and watch tourists have their portraits drawn on thin brown paper. But Angelo had knocked on my door while I was gone, thinking perhaps I was reading more Middlemarch. He left a note underneath the door of the room I shared with Ethel, a Korean exchange student who had taken the Eurorail to Munich early Friday morning. He wrote that he would be happy to cook me dinner in his apartment that Saturday, naming seven as the hour. When I knocked on his door, he handed me a glass of cold white wine smelling of young lemons.
I no longer remember what he prepared as the primi and secondi piatti in his kitchen with the broken verdigris shutters. But I know I was grateful for its splendor, for the fact that it swam naked in aromatic juices of olive oil and butter and volcanic tomatoes and exhaled warm, vaporous bodies of steam.
Through dinner I talked too much. I asked about his wife and told him about my boyfriend. Over my third piece of bruschetta and second glass of wine, I confided that my boyfriend told me less than a month ago that he wasn’t falling in love with me. That I had looked into his flat, lightless gaze and given him a blowjob anyway. Angelo asked if I had slept with him. I said yes, hundreds of times, and he threw up his hands and said I was done for. “But why am I done for?” I pleaded, knocking my wine glass onto the floor. “Because you’re from Indiana, darling,” he faux drawled while sweeping up the broken glass. “Girls from Indiana can’t sleep with men and not love them; the dustpan, dear, is in the closet.”
After emptying the glass into the waste basket, I stood up and walked over to his nightstand, peering at a picture of his wife in her wedding gown, he in his tuxedo, both looking foreshortened against the cathedral’s high domed ceiling. “She’s lovely,” I effused. He took the picture in his hand and smiled knowingly to himself. Then he set it down facing the wall and began kissing my hand, each finger in turn to the nail’s pale half moons. I looked toward the back of the picture frame where they stood stiffly on an altar of blood-red carpet as his lips traveled up my forearm. Before his lips met the mole on my cheek, I had left the room.
Eight years later, I returned to Rome, leaving my husband alone in our garden apartment with black rats patrolling its borders. For ten days I stayed in a pensione in the purlieus of the Piazza Navona, a house of eight rooms ensconced in long-fingered ferns and owned by an Australian couple who sold Italian textiles of supine odalisques to the Sydney elite.
At breakfast, squeezed along a single satin banquette beside smooth-faced European couples whispering through raised napkins, I sipped my coffee quickly, not allowing it time to cool or be refilled. I had returned to Rome, I told myself, to steep all my body’s cells in small, sensual Italian pleasures, cats on windowsills and unpasteurized cheeses. But I ate my roll without butter, scurrying from the sky-lit room before I had chewed it entire.
Each day, after revisiting the Fontana di Trevi, the Keats and Shelley House, the Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel, and finally the catacombs, I lapsed into overlong causeries with the hotel manager, an Egyptian who had immigrated to Rome eight years ago, when I first ventured underground after reading George Eliot in the grass. One evening I walked upstairs around 11 o’clock smiling and composed, but his eyes registered concern. He asked if I was OK and immediately I understood there were cameras in the foyer. He had seen the man who had invited me to dinner on the steps of the Pantheon pin my arms against a wall and tear my breasts from my dress, sucking then biting my nipples as I tried to writhe away. Then, looking into his wide midnight eyes, I found myself wishing he would do the same. But I told him I was fine, wished him goodnight, and walked briskly down the marbled corridor to my room, where it was too hot to sleep without leaving the windows open to the growing blackness. For the next two days, I didn’t leave my room but ate all the rolls the manager set outside my door swathed in melted butter. I made of the pensione a cave, keeping my windows and curtains closed. I sealed in the sun, burning without light.
Early May in Cappadocia, however, is far from hot. It is not even warm in the rain. There is no need to venture underground to escape the sun, well on its way to dying. When I tired of listening to the static of gramophones and the sky’s assault began thinning into spare, ascetic raindrops, I walked farther on, to a playground behind the mosque half a mile from the entrance to the underground city. I sat kicking my legs on a dirty yellow swing, slick from the rain, and shivered. And putting a finger to the mole on my cheek, I began trying to remember who I was.
Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer and editor who flies her sailboat-shaped kite at close haul along Lake Michigan. Invoking the memory of her parents, her home on the Island of Misfit Toys, and the beauty of caterpillars, her creative nonfiction has been published in a number of literary magazines.