Like the true believer’s relationship with the holy Madonna, much of mine with Maria is illusory. In solitude I study faded pictures. I read old diaries, journals. Texts that describe events of the distant past, some of which may be literally true but then might just as well be fabrications or allegories.
Maria tells me about music she heard centuries ago, in a different world. I reply that we were together in previous lifetimes, and we are destined to meet again and again, through eternity. The feelings of rightness and fulfillment that always flood me when we are in each other’s arms confirm it. Wholeness, perfect contentment—these are the entirely new sensations she brings to me, ones I’ve never experienced with any other woman.
Then I think of how it was a long time ago.
She likes to put on different costumes, to assume different looks, each wildly different from the other, and she directs me to photographically document these various personalities she’s snatched out of the air. I wonder: Is she desperately searching for an identity that is fully her own creation? I mean, as opposed to the one her family always tries to impose upon her?
I see her transformations as the most tentative of experiments, a flirting with something dangerous. Just a little step in this direction, then in the other. Just to see how it feels. Or to see if God will send a clear sign of His displeasure for her straying from the path.
Like a dream, her acts are largely symbolic, saturated with metaphor. She is not yet ready to venture into the literal. For her to openly become someone other than who THEY want her to be is entirely too scary. Too dangerous.
When she was six they made her go to confession. She didn’t tell her sins, instead she said she was deeply concerned about her father’s behavior. This immediately caught the old priest’s attention. He asked for details. Well, she said, papa blasphemes repeatedly, shamelessly, with words he does not permit anyone else to use! Can you imagine? Yes, she whispered, he is like this. He uses horrid and disgusting words nearly every day. There are many other bad things he does as well--to ME, she said, but I can never speak of them. Never. They are just too disturbing.
Now this was, of course, a string of lies. She made it all up. Which technically was a very serious offense, a mortal sin in fact. But that didn’t scare little Maria. In her mind it was merely an amusing game, nothing to get too excited about. She loved the frowns the old priest later gave to her father as they crossed paths at the piazza.
At five she learned she could easily manipulate her father, that her power over him was greater than his power over her. And her fabricated confession reflected a basic truth of how things had always been in that village. Which is, that while the church deserves respect and a minimal public display of obedience, the individual family invariably commands much more. Everyone knows blood is thicker than holy water.
And then for a child like her to twist her father around her little finger is merely what she sees all the other women doing. The men believe they run the village and the vineyards, yes, but the women run the men. Nothing is what it seems to be. She lives in a village of facades. Of secrecy and silence. She witnesses a series of little dramas acted out in public that disguise an inner life, which is never revealed to anyone.
Maria tells me I have no clue who she really is. I reply that every time I ask her to just tell me, she smiles and changes the subject.