Excerpt of A Life in Men By Gina Frangello.
(CANARY ISLANDS: GEOFF)
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open. —Muriel Rukeyser, “Käthe Kollwitz”
On New Year’s Eve, 1994, she didn’t think she’d make it to ’95, but here it is almost spring, and she is not only still kicking but feeling inconceivably fresh off another overseas plane ride and holding a fruity welcome drink in the main house of the most luxurious resort she’s ever seen. Its architecture resembles that of a turn–of–the–century village, as envisioned by a partnership of Travel and Leisure and Gaudí. Instead of one big hotel, approximately twenty “villas” dot the elaborately landscaped gardens like mini fairy–tale castles, all squat turrets and shiny tiles and pastel shutters. Instead of outhouses or vermin carrying bubonic plague, the place is so clean that Mary would feel perfectly comfortable licking the floors.
“This looks like someplace Snow White would hang out if she had a price on her head,” she whispers, and she and Geoff laugh into their drinks, intoxicated by their shared delight at the absolute lack of authenticity. They will be on Tenerife for a week, and their covert plan is to never leave the premises of the resort. In their first few days, they stroll the gardens, eat gourmet meals or quick snacks at their choice of restaurants, read novels and drink on the private beach, and then go back to their villa to make love until they are exhausted enough to sleep, only to wake and do it all again.
Geoff calls this a “no stress” vacation. No backpacks, no flooding bathrooms, no hitchhiking. “I don’t want to see you while I’m at work,” he tells Mary, meaning at the hospital. Over their first shared paella he informs her, “I’m going to fatten you up.”
Imagine a man saying he wants his woman fat! Envisioning a fuller swell in her breasts, her thighs brushing one another when she walks, Mary orders a third margarita — plus crème brûlée.
“No more slumming in the third world for you,” Geoff says later, as they float aimlessly in their personal Jacuzzi, sprinkled with fuchsia flower petals, the aroma deepened by steam, so that the air is thick and perfumed like an opium den. “I’m going to make you take it easy if it kills you.”
Then he grimaces.
Places to make love at the resort abound. The hammock on the hill, late at night when no one is around. Their Jacuzzi, Mary lying on her back outside the tub, droplets chilling on her body, while Geoff, standing inside the water like a statue of a Greek god, thrusts his hips, her legs slung over his shoulders. The crevices of the garden, on all fours behind bushes, peacocks gazing on. Mary and Geoff sneak around like children, looking for new places to copulate. A deserted chaise longue at sunset, while the rest of the guests are at the dinner seating. “This is what I wanted to do to you on that chair in Plati Yialos,” Geoff says, diving between her legs. For a moment the ghost of Plati Yialos — of Nix’s nude body hurling itself into the surf — hovers, but then Geoff’s tongue sets to work, sun looming above the water before dropping under, a giant yolk falling into a bowl, and Mary’s back arches and her thighs grip Geoff’s head and muffled voices in the distance only spur them on.
If happy families are all alike, the only thing more homogeneous still is a happy couple. See Mary and Geoff lying poolside with the other young men and women, all paired off like animals marching onto Noah’s ark. Pretty, tanned twentysomethings chatting around the bar, swapping meet–cute stories (Mary and Geoff’s always wins) in their various German, English, American accents. If Mary coughs now and then, even pulls out an inhaler, nobody seems to notice. If she disappears into the villa for a stretch of time to do her PT, surely everyone only assumes she and Geoff are in there swinging from the proverbial coital rafters.
Or maybe that is too simple. Mary’s lungs are still suffering the aftershocks of her Mexican infection; her daily life continues to revolve around time–consuming physiotherapies; now that she lives with a pulmonary specialist, she is less able than ever to forget about her illness. Geoff even does bizarre things like invite his supervisor, her longtime physician Dr. Narayan, over to their house for dinner, and insists on calling him by his first name, Laxmi, though Mary blushes every time, and lives in perpetual fear that the elderly man who has handled her lungs since she was seventeen will now accidentally encounter a pair of her thong underpants or, say, her vibrator while visiting.
She knows that her current bliss cannot be explained away as her feeling “exactly like everybody else” suddenly, but precisely the reverse. To be in such normal love, while simultaneously cognizant of her own difference, makes it seem that the bond she and Geoff share must be deeper, more profound or extraordinary, than bonds shared by the other, regular couples at the resort. Yes, for the first time since high school, Mary has been granted entry to the Normalcy Club, but this time undercover. She and Geoff are complicit in their pretense, so that the average itself has become exotic: every ordinary moment carries an electrical thrill.
Is this finally “happiness”? she wonders. Is this what she always craved? And if so, how long will it last?
On the fifth day, guilt–tripped by the other couples who rave about the casinos and discos in the touristy Playa de las Américas section of the island, Mary and Geoff venture outside the walls of their resort and head for the beachy boardwalk. But despite a dearth of American tourists in the Canary Islands (mainly because most Americans have never heard of them), it turns out that Germans and Brits are just as adept as any ugly American at co–opting a place until it becomes a Fort Lauderdale – like strip mall, complete with fish–and–chips joints, bratwursts, and endless pints of beer, with neon signs and fat senior citizens in sensible shoes. Bombarded by gaudiness, Mary and Geoff scurry past the casino, the dance clubs with wildly pulsating 1980s tunes shaking the sidewalk, the bars in the big, glitzy chain hotels, bypassing the crowds. They amble along the rocks
that line the beachfront, until they once again reach seclusion. Mary takes off her clothes and Geoff looks around nervously but then removes his, too, and they do it up against some rocks that poke and scrape their skin but provide good foot leverage for Mary, since usually she is too short for them to have sex successfully standing up.
Mission accomplished, they hurry back to the idyllic world of their resort.
This, then, is love. That elusive bird that managed to fly forever out of Mary’s reach even in the great cities of Europe and the African bush. That state of being or beast or concept, impossible to pin down, that had started to seem to her a great, mythic hoax — or if not that, then some salve for the simpleminded, not worth its hype. But how underrated, joy. How incompatible with everything she thought she knew of life. In real life your boyfriend ditches you the moment you get sick; in real life planes explode in the sky; in real life your long–lost father is a polygamist shaman. Now, only two months in, Mary is a zealous convert to love and its attendant happiness: an optimism junkie.
She never wants to go back.
On their last night at the fairy–tale resort, they dine in its five–star restaurant. There is only one seating per each evening’s three–hour affair, and you have to dress for dinner. Mary and Geoff wait in the cigar lounge for the seating, sipping cognacs. Geoff has put on what Mary’s father would call a sports coat, and he looks so handsome her brain hurts. At twenty–eight, he is less muscular than the boy she met years ago in Greece (he says he was on crew back then), but his new spindliness becomes him, has taken the macho edge she distrusted in Mykonos off his appearance. He looks kinder now, more vulnerable in his beauty. Sometimes Mary thinks Geoff looks like an actor cast to play the role of himself in a film; his face is too pretty to make sense in the context of a Cincinnati hospital and seems more Hollywood’s idea of what a “good–catch doctor” would look like. His dark hair falls softly in a curve over his eye, making him look like a boy in a 1980s band, sans the eyeliner and with his square jaw for a dose of masculinity. Mary is pretty sure every woman he encounters would like to fuck him, though Geoff says this is ridiculous; he has slept with fewer than ten women, her included. Still, she sits in her strappy black dress next to him, euphoric. This is my boyfriend. This is my life.
At dinner, they order the catch of the day, filleted tableside. They drink a sauvignon blanc from South Africa, which Mary is relieved is dry. She doesn’t know much about wine but recalls having had a sauvignon blanc with Geoff before and its being distastefully sweet. Geoff explained that this has to do with where the grapes come from and in what region the wine is made, but sauvignon blancs seem to come from all over the place, and she cannot keep it straight. He claims it’s his favorite white wine, although Mary finds this perplexing, since it never tastes the same. However, she likes that Geoff knows about wine. It seems a grown–up thing to know about. It makes him seem the antithesis of Joshua or of Mary’s parents. It seems an obscene, glorious luxury to be genuinely invested in the idiosyncratic taste of a grape and to have protracted discussions on this topic without the slightest tinge of irony.
“Look.” Geoff points toward the entrance of the restaurant. “There’s Olivier.”
Mary turns her head. Olivier is what they call the Frenchman who wears a skimpy black Speedo at the pool, his penis coiled like an enormous snake inside. They do not know his actual name, the penis being too terrifying to permit small talk, but Mary, Geoff, and all the other couples have been laughing about him for days. What is he doing here all alone? What is his story? Is his penile bulge fake? Mary watches him enter the restaurant in a loose–cut suit, no woman on his arm. It seems entirely reasonable to suppose that perhaps Olivier exists only for their amusement.
“We should have toasted,” Geoff says, and Mary has to turn away from Olivier’s grand entrance to look at him again. “To our last night in Tenerife.” He raises his glass.
She picks up her own to clink and drink. And there it is.
The reasonable conclusion to all her happiness.
When Mary sees the ring, she does not feel shock. She and Geoff have been together only since the New Year, but still Mary finds she expected this, not only in general but tonight. She thinks maybe she should gasp and clap her hands to her mouth or offer another dramatic gesture of surprise, but all she can do is smile.
“I should have gotten your number at home before you got on that ferry,” Geoff says, not for the first time. “I knew I’d never forget you — I was already in love with you.”
“I want to have a baby,” Mary blurts out. She knows she should be worried that this admission, or at least her timing, will make her sound some combination of unhinged, pushy, and desperate. But she is not worried. It feels perfectly reasonable to conclude that worry has been banished now, too, along with shock and loneliness.
Geoff beams. “Of course! I want that, too!”
“But,” she begins, unsure why she is suddenly compelled to play devil’s advocate to her own desire, “pregnancy could make my health decline. What if I were to leave you with a young child? You’d be saddled for the rest of your life, and I wouldn’t be there to help. It might make it harder to have a full career and to, like, find another
Geoff gapes at her. “Another wife? Are you nuts?”
“Well,” she stammers, “I mean . . .”
The ring is at the bottom of the glass. Geoff glances at it nervously, as if he has suddenly realized that maybe it wasn’t the best idea, chucking it in there while she was scoping out Olivier. All at once he picks up the glass and drains it in one gulp, sticking his man -fingers into the delicate bowl of it and fishing out the ring, thrusting it forward at Mary. “I want you to listen to me,” he says, sliding the wet diamond onto her finger. “Your FEV values are amazing for your age, you have a milder gene mutation — I think you’re going to live for a long, long time, Mary. And as far as a baby goes, I’d never want you to do anything you weren’t comfortable with, but studies are showing that women with good pulmonary function don’t usually decline from pregnancy — some show that women who have children actually live longer. Plus, when the pancreas isn’t affected, as in your case, a transplant could someday offer an entirely new lease on life, where you’re not sick anymore at all.” He gets out of his chair and comes over to her side of the table. For a moment Mary thinks he will get down on one knee, but he is too dignified for that, too full of midwestern reserve, and merely crouches next to her chair. “Look, I’m not kidding myself — I know there are no guarantees. But if I were ever to lose you, the only thing that could make it even slightly bearable would be if I were raising our child and still had a part of you in my life.”
If they were in a movie, this is the part where Mary would begin to cry — where she would fling her arms around him and shout, Yes! to the cheers of the other restaurant patrons. But she is too numb with relief to even speak. She cannot cry. She cannot even feel, precisely, except for an enormous wave of letting go, of surrender. She looks down at her ringed finger and nods, unable to meet Geoff’s eyes. He hugs her tightly, and she wraps her arms around him and hangs on, thinking of the first day he brought her back from the hospital to his condo, and the way she wondered at her lack of nervousness or even, precisely, lust, when they fell together onto his bed. She felt, in contrast, as though they had already been making love for years and had returned to each other after an involuntary absence. For the first time, nakedness seemed neither a costume nor an escape route. Above Geoff’s bed was a framed Nagel print, and abruptly Mary cackled and said, I didn’t realize we were back in 1986, so Geoff, naked with his hard–on bobbing up and down, had stood on the bed, taken the picture from the wall, and put it inside his closet. “I guess since my decorating skills are so awful, you’re just going to have to move in and save me from myself,” he said, and although he had not even been inside her yet, the deal was done. She had already resigned from her job in Columbus and was unlikely to find a new teaching job before the fall, but the very next day Mary took the art she’d acquired in France, Japan, Kenya, and Mexico and, clutching the emptied travel tubes to her chest, spent five hundred dollars having it all framed.
“Hey,” Geoff says, standing quickly, discreetly, before the other restaurant patrons start to stare, “maybe we should come here again on our honeymoon.”
“I can’t believe it,” Mary whispers. “I was just thinking that.”
Gina Frangello is the author of three books of fiction: A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014), Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010) and My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She is the Sunday editor for The Rumpus and the fiction editor for The Nervous Breakdown, and is on faculty at the University of CA-Riverside’s low residency MFA program. The longtime Executive Editor of Other Voices magazine and Other Voices Books, she now runs Other Voices Queretaro (www.othervoicesqueretaro.com), an international writing program. She can be found at www.ginafrangello.com.
Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Jen is a writer and retreat leader based in Los Angeles. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Jen and author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing & yoga retreat to Vermont in October.