Bill and I do a lot of things differently. This includes unpacking, which we have both been doing pretty much nonstop since the moving truck disgorged all of our stuff onto our newly-polished floors just a few weeks ago. I unpack fast, maniacally focused on what I imagine to be the big picture, while he moves slowly, looking carefully at all the letters and photographs he finds along the way. Sometimes this makes me impatient. But other times, he unearths rare gems that I would have missed, or ever-so-efficiently chucked in the trash. As he was unpacking one of his very last boxes last night, he came across this rather magical little talisman:
It was a postcard he sent me in the spring of 1992. He was then in the midst of his epic European tour with Alain, and I was in my first year as a teacher. Nearly every day during the ten weeks he was away, a beautiful postcard with his chickenscratch affection on the back would float into my mailbox at The Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut. E-mail hadn't really taken hold way back then, and there were no such things as internet cafés, texting, cheap cellphones, or godforbid, the magic of Skype. So I had only these slips of paper to remind me of his existence.
Nearly every one of the postcards featured paintings or sculptures of beautiful women from the museums of Western Europe. On the back of each one, he would tell me the ways in which that woman reminded him of me before describing his day's wild adventures. The particular one he just found was Toulouse-Lautrec, "La Blanchisseuse," (the laundress.) At that point I had not yet started to do anybody's laundry but my own, so I imagine that it was the set of her jaw and the intensity of her gaze that drew him in. The way she looks out the window, towards something that we can not see and she can not stop seeing.
When I saw that card yesterday, I totally swooned. But Bill quickly reminded me that at the time, I found his postcards sort of irritating. He said that I told him that I wanted him to stop looking at art, and look instead at me. That I wanted him to stop tormenting me with news of his wild times seven thousand miles away. One of the postcards featured the broad marble female back of a Rodin sculpture, and Bill wrote to me about how much he missed my shoulders. When we managed to talk to each other on the phone, I lit into him. "If you love my shoulders so much," I told him, in distress, "then why did you break up with me, and then leave for the whole spring and summer? You're not doing anything over there; why don't you just get on a plane, and come back!"
It's strange, really, that while he broke up with me before he left, his postcards described all the ways in which he did seem to be pining away for me. And as it turned out, I took better advantage of the breakup he initiated than he did. You know what they say: "if you can't be with the one you love..." I suppose on some level I was glad for him that he was having all these wild adventures. And I wasn't precisely unhappy about the wildness of my own. But mostly it felt complicated, and messy, and pointless. I just wanted him to come home.
In retrospect, I realize that this series of cards constitute one of the most romantic gestures that has ever passed between us. They were written at a rare moment of high drama, at least in part out of guilt. They were received less than graciously, and may have exaggerated the similarities between me and the subjects of the great paintings of Europe. But now it seems fairly astonishing that he took the time, nearly every day, to write to me.
We were young then, and break-up or no break-up, we were seriously in love. Each card landing in my mailbox was a telegram from forever. Back then I read his letters with profoundly mixed feelings. But now, whenever I come across one of them, and I read the rawness of his feeling on the page, the words and the images never fail to melt me.
Enough messy backstory: I should return to the card he found yesterday, and why it gives him the last word. The actual painting hangs in Paris, but this card he sent from the Piazza San Spirito in Florence, a beautiful square surrounding a spare, gorgeous church. In contrast to the wild rococco of the rest of the city, the church there looks downright modern, even New-Mexico pueblo plain, in its clean lines and lack of crenellated detail. It is on a much smaller scale than the Duomo, but still it leaves you breathless. It was the first place Bill dragged the three of us when we visited Firenze, and reading his postcard, I could see why: it had been there, in that square, that he had seen and predicted our future. The past and the present telescoped together as I read his familiar scrawl:
"I love this painting. Please let me have this card back. She's smart, hard-working, yet very sensual and enigmatic, a lot like you. I am sitting in Piazza San Spirtio in Florence, having finally broken away from what seemed like a ubiquitous throng of other tourists. You would like San Spirito. It's simple and graceful. I took some photos for you. I also photographed a meat market because it was packed in so beautifully. The counter-people thought I was a major loon but were also flattered, I think. 22 days left. This trip has been too short. We are going to live in a foreign country for at least 6 months. I'm sliding away from allowing CAREER to run my life. I've even thought about bagging my summer job so we could live with Alain in Paris.
Maybe next summer…."
Maybe next summer…."
Here on this card was the outline of our entire magical year, predicted like a tarot card from eighteen years in the past. He would see the best in me, and love me unceasingly, even when I least deserved it. While the romantic postcards would stop when he returned, the prosaic, daily act of creation that is our marriage would begin. (I would also start, à La Blanchisseuse, doing a whole lot more laundry than I ever had before, but that's a different story…)
We would travel, always seeking ways to break away from the throngs of other tourists, and he would find us great places to visit. We would become obsessed with the way that European markets arrange the food in ways both beautiful and appetizing; and yes, the people we met on our travels would find our ardent admiration of their foodstuffs both loony and flattering.
But I most love the flat-out statement he makes here: "We are going to live in a foreign country for at least 6 months." He put it out there, so long ago, as clear fact. And as it turns out, he also predicted the reason why we would leave. As it turned out, we waited until we both felt we needed to slide away, at least for a little while, from allowing some bully all-caps CAREER to run our lives.
His wistful "Maybe next summer…" turned into a wait of nearly two decades, but no matter. We got there. We were there in the Piazza San Spirito, drinking rosé while the girls sipped Orangina. The past became the future he had predicted. And, like a lot of Bill's crazy ideas turn out to be, it was good. Really good.
And now I realize that that future has once again become the past. The post-script of this entire love letter we have written to one another and to our children was written nearly two decades ago, packed away in a box with the rest of our memories, and has emerged in the here and now, when everything again feels new and open.
Sometimes my life feels random and pointless, a series of false starts and doubling-back. But this card from the past draws a through-line from the past through every moment that Bill and I have spent together, right up until now, unpacking our new/old house.
I like to imagine that I am the big picture gal of this family -- getting us to places on time, and making sure things get organized and accomplished. We pretend, sometimes, that Bill's role is to make it all interesting and fun, adding the icing on the cake of my rule-bound approach to things.
But this postcard reveals the bigger picture. This postcard proves that it is -- and always has been -- Bill who is truly steering this ship. Wait long enough, and the truth wills out. In the glacial pace of decades in a relationship, Bill's powerful desires often trump my momentary insistences. "We will live overseas for at least 6 months," he writes, from the fog of the past. And then, so many years later, we do. We escape the throngs. We walk away from that all-caps imperative. We stare into the eyes of our children for long stretches of time. We take pictures of the churches, the snails, the sunsets, our friends, and the beautiful stacks of meat. Just for a moment, we put down the laundry; we stare, intent on the beauty glowing right in front of our eyes.