White, Green, and Gold
by Elana Gomel
She wanted to remember the colors. Not the smells. But the colors, the colors were safe. White, green, and gold.
Erin walked out into the garden. It was one of those clear California evenings that seem as fragile as a soap bubble but go on forever.
She broke off a twig of rosemary, rubbed it between her fingers, sniffed. The tart sweetish odor made her nauseous.
Rosemary is for remembrance...
She made a note to tell her Mexican gardener, Mario, to do something about it.
She went into her tidy kitchen, made a cup of herbal tea and sat staring at it.
A widow at 35!
Move on, kid, they told her. You have your entire life ahead of you.
They did not know that time was measured not in years but in intensities. Her life lay behind her: a field of bright green, sparkling gold, pure white. And ahead was a flat featureless expanse of gray. That it was larger than the island of brightness behind her only added to the despair.
She did not drink her tea. Eventually she poured it down the drain. The steam tickled her face with a faint trace of rosemary.
In her bedroom, she stood looking at her own body in the mirror. Her weight loss was beginning to bother her. She promised herself to eat more, to put some flesh on these thin delicate bones. Bill... her mind shied away from the thought, went back to where it was safe. Back to Venice.
There was a mask on her dresser, regarding her with its almond-shaped eye-holes outlined in green against the gold background. She picked it up and watched her tears splash erratically among the faux pearls of the fringe.
The mask brought it back so vividly: the emerald wallpaper, setting off the gilded lily-shaped sconces dim in the white glow seeping through the slats of the blind. The city called La Serenissima, the Serene One, in her bridal veil: the rarest of all weathers, snow in Venice.
She lifted the mask and sniffed its silk lining. It smelled of stagnant water. An old smell. This was strange because the mask was new, made in Erin’s presence.
It had been Bill’s idea to go to Venice for their honeymoon. She had never been to Europe before. But she instantly felt at home in that magical place, so soaked in the past that the gray water in its canals seemed dusty with years.
One day they stopped by a tiny shop where a thin, dark man was painting masks. A wall of blind faces towered above him: pale women with lips on their cheeks; seductive scarlet cats; elegant men with bird-wings instead of eyelashes; snarling tigers under the fringe of glittering crystals.
Erin was both fascinated and frightened, but Bill fell in love with the oblique grotesquerie of the traditional Venetian craft. He wanted to buy a mask for her, and she chose the simplest one: a green-and-gold domino.
She put the mask back onto the dresser and huddled in the empty double bed, as large and cold as a field of snow untouched by the rosy sunset outside. The negative of Venice where the warmth had been in their room, keeping the winter out.
Eventually she fell asleep but woke up in the middle of the night, the digital clock blinking 12:03 a.m. She had been dreaming of climbing the creaking stairs toward a half-opened door that bled white light. The creaking was so loud that it followed her into wakefulness.
The next day passed as all her days did: endless while it lasted, contracting to a single point when it ended. Nobody called. She had made sure they would not, and now she was angry because they did not.
Going into the garden she ran into Mario. She had forgotten it was his day. She smiled vacuously, her gaze sliding off his sun-browned skin. Then she remembered the rosemary and told him to take it out. He responded with a flood of quick Spanish syllables, in which an occasional English word stuck out like a rock in a mudslide. She nodded and repeated slowly that she did not want the plant anymore.
The mask was staring at her while she was staring at the TV. Eventually she picked it up, ran her fingers along the raised ornament on the cheek, green on gold, gold on green. It slipped out of her fingers as she was falling asleep.
When Erin woke up, Bill was lying beside her. She could hear his even breathing and without thinking she snuggled closer, spooned against his broad back. The clock was blinking on her side of the bed and she noticed, without surprise, that it was 12:03 a.m.
But the glimmer of the display was not the only light in the room; a pale wintery glow was seeping through the blind, making it possible for her to see every strand in the thick tousled hair on Bill’s head. He lay on his right side, turned away from her, breathing deeply and contentedly. And so did she, eager to make this dream last.
A muscle in her thigh cramped and she held herself still, afraid to wake up.
Nothing happened. The glow was as soothing as the reflection of streetlights upon the snow. But there was no snow in rural Northern California, and no streetlights either.
The same muscle twitched again, she moved slightly, and then the forgotten mask slid off Bill’s pillow and tumbled down to the floor.
She knew he would turn around now, face her, and then something clenched inside her, a wave of pungent reek making her eyes water and her throat lock up as she rolled away from him.
But Bill did not turn around. Instead he reached down, still with his back to her, and groped as if trying to catch something in mid-air. Their bed was pretty low to the ground, not even room for a storage drawer, but his pose was of somebody hanging off a cliff.
His entire arm disappeared below the edge, then his shoulder tilted downward, and then he overbalanced and flipped over the edge. His naked legs flashed as he fell. He made no sound and there was no thump of his body hitting the carpet.
Erin huddled among the blankets. The reek was gone and so was the glow. The clock was flashing the fall of seconds into the past. Finally she clicked on the bedside light, crawled to the edge of the bed and looked down, expecting to see a sheer drop.
She saw the carpet that needed cleaning and the mask, lying face up and mocking her with its empty sockets.
Erin powered up her laptop and went through their honeymoon pictures. Bill’s face gave her a familiar pang but she forced herself to study the backgrounds. The peeling shabby walls of ornate palazzos; the wavering line left by the rising and falling waters on the boarded-up ground floors; the brooding, empty little squares where the snow lay like a shroud, unmarred by anybody’s feet but their own; the leaden sluggish canals...
It was not surprising that the city looked empty, since their vacation had been off-season. And still it struck her as peculiar that she could not remember the faces of any Venetians. Perhaps they were unimportant. The city belonged to her and to Bill.
La Serenissima, the timeless city, where the dead and the living mingle, where the borderline of past and present is erased.
But what about the mask?
She tried to google it to find out if it had any hidden significance but found only long histories of Venetian carnivals.
She woke up at 12:03, half-expecting not to be alone in bed. But she was. Lying still, she listened to the dark and heard silence.
Her throat felt parched. She got up and padded down the stairs to the kitchen.
She stepped on the hem of her nightgown and almost tumbled down, managing to break the fall by clutching the banister. And then she just clung there, her heart beating erratically.
She had had no nightgown on when she went to bed. Now, after Bill, she slept wearing a ratty UCSF t-shirt that barely covered her thighs.
Erin ran her hands down her body, encountering sumptuous layers of satin and prickly borders of lace. Was she dreaming? She had never had a tactile dream before.
Something creaked at the bottom of the stairs and a thin wash of light spilled into the hallway. A shadow crossed it. Somebody was walking in the kitchen. The fridge door banged.
Her throat was locked; she could not squeeze even a whimper through it.
Only Bill had joyfully butchered her name like this, and she had loved it coming from him. Her right foot touched the stair below, bare toes like frightened mice. Then her left.
Something rolled down the stairs from above; something light, like tumbleweed. It brushed the back of her leg, and this was enough to upset her fragile balance and send her careening down, a scream finally tearing through her numb lips. She banged her shin and ended up sprawled at the foot of the stairs in the impenetrable darkness, her t-shirt riding up above her waist.
Erin hauled herself up and stumbled into the kitchen, snapping on the lights on as she went.
The kitchen was empty; the fridge undisturbed.
She limped back. On her way up to her bedroom, she stooped and picked up the Venetian mask.
She contemplated the mask next morning as she was drinking her coffee.
“You’re trying to keep me here, aren’t you?” she said aloud. “You’re trying to prevent me from going back to him.”
It was insane: talking to a mask like this. But was not it even more insane to deny your own experiences? She knew what she had seen. Bill had been in bed with her; Bill had been in the kitchen, calling her to come down.
Wasn’t time flexible? She had read it somewhere. She had never been interested in esoteric fields like physics or ancient history. This world was enough for her: here and now. Or it had been enough when she had shared it with Bill.
If it was possible to go back to the past... Go back to Venice. This was the moment of perfect happiness, perfect togetherness, unsullied by the shadow of cancer.
Copyright © 2015 by Elana Gomel