Calvina, the Italian woman guiding our university group through Pompeii, has feet like cracked clods of earth. She is in late middle age, a grandmother possibly, her ponderous body the color of the reddish-brown earth she treads, her eyes muddy, her lips like a pond in deep shade. But it is her feet that none of us can stop staring at, amazed and appalled, as she turns her back and paces ahead. The crumbling masses of her heels hang over the backs of her leather sandals, layers of unshed skin shot through with impossibly deep crevasses. Her heels are two parched desert floors.
“Look,” Amy whispers, too loudly. I shoot her a warning glance. I am not much older than Amy, but I feel the vastness of the experiences separating us. Amy has come to trust me for some reason. Maybe it’s the slight swagger in my step, the Marlboro 100s I smoke, my throaty laugh. I am a little callous—at twenty-one, I have already been reckless and lost things, have been disappointed—and this makes me seem worldly, perhaps, someone to follow. When the group is debating where to go or what to do, Amy looks to me to make a decision. She hangs near my side through each city and village, requests to room with me in each hostel.
Leading us into the entrance to the city, Calvina tells us about Mt. Vesuvius erupting and smothering Pompeii and Herculaneum beneath layers of scorching heat and ash. She is a good guide, knowledgeable and expressive. From the way her eyes linger lovingly on the crumbling frescoes, I can see that she is still moved by the story she has told so many times. Her English is heavily accented but precise. I alternate between walking close behind her, catching each word, and wandering off to peer into a doorway, around a corner. The street lined with ancient, gutted shops and houses is bustling with people in floppy sunhats and t-shirts that say “Firenze” and “Roma.” Moving through them, I reach out, run my hand along a rough wall. I cannot keep myself from handling the ancient places we visit, furtively, searching with my fingers for the residue of lives I know everything and nothing about, hungry to add my touch to theirs. I must be wearing down the walls incrementally faster, shaving off slivers of them at the molecular level.
Not a year before, I lay in a hospital room curled around a suddenly desolate womb, grieving the loss of a baby. It had been an unplanned pregnancy, an intrusion of life that I had come to embrace, only to watch it slip through me. From this and other losses, I have, I think, learned lessons. Now, a college student again, I have regained a semblance of youthful expectancy. I am young, after all. I pose smiling for pictures at the Venetian cemetery, try to interest myself in Dante’s Purgatorio on the train.
Next to me, Amy’s face is pliant with wonder. How to describe Amy? Angel? Sylph? She has blushing porcelain cheeks and yellow ringlets that hang halfway down her back. Not a babe so much as a classic beauty—Dante’s divine Beatrice. An opera major, she demonstrates her talents for us one night at an open-air bar in Florence. I see her mouth open and before I know that she has begun, a high, otherworldly note is climbing the night air on ethereal stair steps. The sound seems not to come from this girl but to belong to the universe’s store of beauty, which has made Amy a generous gift. Or is the gift to us, who get to gaze and listen? I wince at the pang of envy I feel in a marketplace in Rome, where older Italian women approach Amy, lifting strands of her hair, telling her she is bella, bella.
Amy, who can play jazz piano, whose voice can be lilting as well as strong. Amy, whose entire family is waiting to pick her up from the Houston airport, each sibling taller and blonder than the next, while my mother idles outside in the car—not because she doesn’t care but because she assumes I don’t need such coddling. Amy whose life seems happy, uncomplicated. Amy, of the object of my jealousy.
When have I ever felt comfortable in my body?
Maybe in childhood. The early years are all urge and frustration, all pain and limitations and profane joy—at the earache, the wetted bed, the throated screech. But by five or so, I was steady on my feet and had not yet fallen down the rabbit hole of self-critique. Seeing myself in the mirror meant recognition and nothing more. I had the boundless energy that so exhausts adults. Exhaustion is an adult condition. A five-year-old may grow weary, but she doesn’t recognize the sensation that makes her peevish. Nor does she feel shame about her peevishness. An untroubled sleep erases her weariness, which is not carried over to the next day or drawn out for weeks, years, a lifetime. She can’t imagine the endless uphill trudge that is living in an adult body, plagued by its pathologies and neuroses.
At five, I ran and fell, and stood up to run again, blood bright on my knee.
There I am, dancing in the living room of my childhood’s house. My parents, still married, maybe still in love, two-step to my father’s Bob Wills records. Nearby, cinched in one of my mother’s castoff skirts, I jump up and down in place, enjoying the way the skirt billows up and sinks slowly back down. Sometimes I twirl, levitating the skirt into a disk like an opening umbrella. It is all about the movement of the skirt.
The skirt hypnotized me. I came to love being a girl. That must be where new troubles began. I witnessed a virginal Disney Snow White trilling out her wishes to a well, and I longed for romance, for the consummating moment of the closed-mouthed kiss—O brave new world! Of course, my kid body was unequipped for the supposedly graceful motions of womanhood. It loved to get dirty. When it ate, it smacked its food, crumbs spilling onto its lap. But my kid mind began to play the part of the demure, slim-waisted princess, ignorant of the incongruity between who it saw me to be and the tripping, chocolate-stained person actually bumbling about the world. Many a chilly winter morning, I refused the blue jeans my mother pressed on me, pouting until I was allowed to wear a dress, pretending for the rest of the day that I wasn’t cold.
In middle school, I moved from children’s formless clothes into tank tops and short shorts, but my body refused to keep up. I was skinny, flat-chested. Dresses that fit around my hips slumped loosely at the torso. Shirts sagged at the neckline. Bras gaped, their molded cups only half full. I worried over the parts of me that seemed not woman enough.
As much as physical beauty preoccupied me, so did physical health. For as long as I can remember, I have been combing my body for cancers. When Magic Johnson came out about his HIV diagnosis, I worried, absurdly, that I had it. Had I received a blood transplant sometime and forgotten about it? Been inoculated for measles with a dirty needle? I was eight.
I still dream, almost weekly, of my teeth falling out one by one. A common anxiety dream, I am told. Always, I try to gather them, pushing them back into my gums, hoping no one will notice.
I know the culture I live in affects me. In America, beauty is equated with nobility. Health with virtue. The flat ass, the deformed hand, is a character flaw, a transgression. We rush to replace the lost tooth, conceal the oozing acne pustule, scaffold the lame limb.
Death is the most egregious offense. What used to happen in the home and be laid out lovingly in the parlor to reek in the afternoon heat now gets shuttled off to clinical settings, handled through latex. The bodies we loved in life become odious to us the moment their hearts stop beating. We embrace the departing spirit while shrinking from the decaying corpse.
I wonder about this reluctance to approach our carnal, dying selves. Am I not everything that has happened within my body? I am not just speaking of the stories that my scars tell, although those are important. I am speaking of the experience of embodiment, the way that our selves are our bodies, the way that our bodies feel and move and exist in the world. What could speak more acutely to the self of a person’s life than her body?
At the same time, what could be more misleading to the outside world?
Calvina opens an umbrella with a faded floral print, a child’s umbrella, and shades herself with it. Seeing it over our guide’s heavy head makes me sad. I admire this woman’s knowledge, her talent for telling a story. But looking at her thick heels and ugly umbrella, I feel sorry for her, too. When she is not speaking, just shuffling along glancing from side to side, she looks shabby, old, ravaged by time.
In the forum at the center of the city, she tells us about the people displayed there in glass cases. Here is a woman pulling her child into her breast, her face split open by a silent scream. Here is a man with a quiet expression, either resigned to death or caught unawares by its opening furnace.
Amy, wide-eyed, seeks out my gaze. I avoid her eyes, wanting to be alone with these bodies. I do not find them horrifying but strangely comforting. Their lives, cut off midsentence, had ended, their stories left untold. But the hot ash pressing around them had been a gift. It had transformed the failures of their pumping hearts, the beating of their limbs, into something greater than themselves.
What more do we remember of a story, of a life, really, than a gesture, a face, an expression frozen on the page?
My body has one great failing: it could not keep my child alive.
There have been other weaknesses, of course: chronic migraines, a feeble stomach, a haze of anxiety that settles over me sometimes, garbling my thoughts and actions. But these have hurt me more than anyone else.
My body killed the child it set out to bring to life. Some would say my not-yet child. I never heard her giggle or burp. She arrived too early and was gone almost at the moment of birth.
I was twenty when I found out I was pregnant. The father was a man I had been dating for only a month. Nothing about it was right. I was jobless, attending the local university and living with my mother. Chris, was even less stable—a moody musician who rebelled against a difficult life by letting job after job slip through his fingers. The very morning after our first sleepover, he blew off a temporary position at a flower shop—it was Valentine’s Day—to laze off a hangover with me. He was soulful, unstable, dangerous. He might have described me in the same way. We enjoyed the wildness of each other’s minds, the distraction of our bodies.
Soon after I found out about the baby, I ended things with him. He remained involved even though, inwardly, I came to see him as someone to protect myself and the baby from. Friends and family members urged abortion or adoption. But no. The baby was mine. Someone to read to and sing to. Someone to reflect my own beauty, whatever I had, back to me. Someone to love during a time when I did not know how to love anyone.
That’s unfair to me. I loved the baby in a deep, visceral way. I delighted to feel her tumbling in my abdomen. I took vitamins and read books to my belly. I circled ads for apartments.
I enjoyed the fullness of my body. It was springtime. My breasts swelled.
I found a job at a deli, concealing my condition until I couldn’t, and then letting my coworkers fuss over me. Don’t lift that, they’d say. Sit down a moment. I was strong, I thought. I admired pregnant women who mowed lawns and lifted half-grown children to their hips.
In the end, the loss had nothing to do with me. At twenty-two weeks of pregnancy, a section of tissue and muscle hidden within my body betrayed its weakness. It could not take the weight of her. The baby was born, and within minutes, unable to breathe through her underdeveloped lungs, she died. I held her tiny body and cried so forcefully that my mother, crushed by the tableau of grieving, had to leave the room.
Chris was there. Our relationship had been over for months, but in the days after the baby’s death, his presence became essential to me. Only he might understand the strangeness and depth of this loss. He slept in my hospital bed that first night, his body curled around mine.
Recently, I heard that he has a child of his own. A sturdy little girl. Not a baby any more. I hope, cruelly, that he remembers the past and feels sad about it.
Every few years, I open a box kept in my closet and finger the contents—a blanket half crocheted, a few photographs that I show no one. I find something pathetic about this grieving that is mine alone. I suppose we all have our private woes.
In life, Pompeii was a city given to pleasure. The bright frescoes and mosaics, some still onsite, others smuggled off to air-conditioned galleries, are frequently pornographic. There are images of plump women contorted around their lovers, of Priapus, the Roman fertility god, displaying a cartoonishly large phallus. Shelled-out brothels are as common as shelled out bakeries.
Calvina points out a bit of graffiti over the door of a bar and translates it: “I screwed the barmaid.” Another, scrawled in an alleyway, says, “Atimetus got me pregnant.” Graffiti elsewhere hints at the allure of the gladiators, mostly slaves, to the city’s female population. Sex between men is referred to casually. Lust is the common language. Sealed into the walls, it pairs nicely with death.
After the glass cases in the forum, we are grateful to Calvina for repopulating the city with its precocious residents. The tone of her voice frames the different sectors we pass through. The forum is for respectful mourning, the neighborhood adjacent to it for gossip and laughter in the open air. In my mind, the topography of the place orients itself around this short, froggish woman from whom histories tumble, newborn and glistening.
I begin to think of Calvina as the keeper of this place, the guardian of its ghosts. The pity I felt before for her body and its meager trappings is replaced by admiration. She grows more vivid than Amy, whose beauty is pellucid, a vase waiting to be filled with flowers, no thought of wilting yet reflected in its slick curves. Calvina is real, round, and firm, her heavy feet lifting from the earth, plodding forward.
In the living room of an ancient house, I linger after the rest of the group has moved on. I can picture couches warmed by afternoon sunlight, family members passing through. The archaic squatness of the structures aside, I can almost see them inhabited by people like us, people who like to eat and drink and laugh and cry. Or maybe they are nothing like us.
If a volcano boiled over onto an American city, chances are many of us would die clinging to strangers. In Pompeii, people’s walls were shared with their neighbors, all built of the same rock from the same quarry. There is intimacy in these quaint, vacated pieces of real estate—it is laid into the stonework. I imagine women laboring, men dying. All in public, almost, together like this. It was no utopia, to be sure, but still. To live near each other’s sweat and piss and menstrual blood, the roads doubling as open sewers. Was there not comfort in that? The reminder that none of us are beautiful and healthy all the time? That we are not alone in this?
I peer into a circular hearth, hear voices echo in the entryway. I hasten out the back door to rejoin my group.
Rumpus original art by Mobius Design Studio.