Gretchen has never been married. She decided early on she would devote all her energy to her career as a fashion designer for a big German company. Clothing for men and women, aimed at the mass market. Places like J.C. Penny, Bloomingdales, Sears, etc. That kind of thing.
Meanwhile she exhibits her photographs and paintings in the church lobbies and halls in Forio, Lacco Ameno, Ischia Ponte. She showed me her favorite. A chalk drawing of a nude woman in profile, which she’d put on the wall where the Amor Vincet Omnia plaque used to be. A big-hipped, big-assed nude, with her face pressed up in the top left corner of the picture. A most clever detail was a vertical row of tiny discs on the left edge—suggesting this was a piece of drawing paper that had been torn out of a spiral binding.
“So what we have here,” I said, “is an enigmatic representation of the reality of a nude woman, juxtaposed on the reality of a chalk drawing on paper. A sort of story within a story.”
She nodded, as if she understood the faux-art-critique gibberish I’d just uttered.
Gretchen had all the stuff ready for the big get-together later in the evening. It was much like one of her exhibitions. All that preparation and work, and you sit around wondering how many—if anyone—will actually show up. She said you never know about these things. “Sometimes everyone who is invited appears, sometimes just a few, sometimes…”
On the rustic wood table was a lighted candlelabra with the red wax dripping down, a confused mass of melted wax and tarnished silver. From the kitchen she brought a basket full of pretzel bits and crackers. And then she brought out a tureen in a woven basket and placed it on the grass beside the table and spooned the soup into shallow, thin plastic bowls. Soup with mushrooms, sea shell pasta, and bits of white meat I presumed was chicken. Some herbal overtones. Sliced bread. A bone white plate, on which was half of a glistening red pepper, cut precisely, either as a garnish or...what?
“It’s a metaphor of yearning,” she said.
That massive hulk of a woman, in her big, billowing, multilayered Bedouin tent of a floor-length dress! Her white blouse was covered by a sweater, and she had a tangle of necklaces made of cord and thin metal chains with various smooth stones and unrecognizable artifacts attached, hanging beneath her plump neck.
She asked me, once again, if I’d like a glass of wine. I said no, thank you.
Now, who did she remind me of? Let me think.
To change the subject I asked her to tell me what she and her German landlord had discussed the other day. She hadn’t bothered to translate the heated exchange because for her it was difficult to find the exact English words.
She heard a noise. It was Anthony, her first guest, ambling up the path.
“I’ll tell you about it later,” she said.
What, I wondered, did she mean by later?
I could see it. It’ll be around one thirty in the morning. All her guests have left, and we’re still sitting at the table, in the golden light of those candle stubs, listening to some Vivaldi from the CD player she bought the other day in Napoli. I knew exactly what she’d say to me, shiny-eyed, emboldened by the wine. Just a touch of your hand, John. That’s all I need. Just a smile of kindness. Is that too much to ask?