Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer 1 (1907), by Gustav Klimt
“I don’t mind living in a man’s world, as long as I can be a woman in it.”
I am dressed in a yellow maxidress, long enough to hide my feet. Face coated in Lancôme emulsion, eyelashes big enough to shield the midsummer sun from my eyes. Squinting gives you wrinkles, don’t you know?
I slip as elegantly as possible from the water taxi onto the pier. I pay the driver and steer myself around the largest of the tourist groups, just making it past and into the open air of the square before they collide, inevitably, with another slowly moving bundles of foreigners.
“Ooh look!” says one.
“Ooh look!” says another.
You get the picture.
It’s a hot day, and I slow my pace to retain my composure, my impatience waging war against my antiperspirant. The canals around me steam with the passion of the season, their gondolas overflowing with strange change. San Marco is Babel and it is heaving.
I dislike summer intensely, can you tell? I have a particular allergy to the wilfully idiotic, noisy youth. Look at them, skipping over the bridges and sneaking down alleys, imagining they are the first of their kind to play hide and seek behind carnival masks. They get in the way and turn history into some kind of playground. I dislike their happy clothes, and the air of bronzed freedom that trails behind them like seaweed. Their annoying, high pitched voices give me earache. Close your eyes and try not hearing them. Go on. Impossible, isn’t it?
The Pope’s got the right idea, you know. Seal the city. Don’t let them in. Post some prancing men in funny outfits outside to distract the would-be invaders, those modern-day Napoleons and Ottomans.
Is the city truly sinking? No, it’s trying to escape.
It’ll come as no shock, then, that I generally advise against all but essential travel through this sestiere in the middle of a holiday afternoon. Today, however, I am on my way to visit a friend. A “friend”, you understand. More than an acquaintance, but less than a lover. But between you and me, they’re making solid progress up the scale, like the mercury creeping towards midday, or a soprano building towards Monteverdi’s climax over in the Opera House after dark. Hence the maxidress.
Ah, but Venice, she has my heart. For some time now she has been the only woman for me, and I couldn’t leave her if I tried. She and I are two of the few genuine Venetians left, or so it seems. Don’t get me wrong, there are no Marco Polos in my veins, no Doges sitting pretty in the palace, although admittedly there were a Casanova or three. My family was, like so many others, built on the water. Someone sometime had the excellent idea of setting up a nice little import-export business, floating wools and textiles out of Venice in big boats, in exchange for the exotic spices of the East. Long story short, I spent a not too shabby childhood playing dress-up in my mother’s gowns behind the tapestries of the Grand Canal.
I haven’t been there in a while. My parents sold it after my brother moved out and I was asked to leave. It’s not apartments now, it’s not even a hotel. As far as I know it’s empty, which seems a shame.
This is a dangerous thought to be having on a day like this, as it rarely leads to smiles and almost never to anything more romantic. Yet it’s a cupboard I can’t permanently seal – I know this because I’ve tried – so I must be prepared to endure the lingering odours when they come leaking out around the joints like the tell-tale fragrance of something-gone-bad. It’s been said that one gets used to most smells over time, but I happen to have a very good nose, thank you very much.
I am the last of my family left in the city now, which is something to be grateful for. I have no real fear of bumping into them, though I do remain troubled by this hypothetical – would they recognise me if I did? What if they didn’t? Which would feel worse?
My brother moved to Rome to marry an interior decorator and to sire numerous (I imagine) squawking children. My parents are… not something I am prepared to think about just now. I should focus on the present. Now’s pretty great, really. I live a life of my choosing in a city I love. I have a darling little apartment, with ample scope for modernisation, on Murano – itself a beautiful, small island, somewhat insulated from the seasonal hubbub.
“Why are you moving there?” my brother had asked, watching me pack my trunk.
“The fresh air,” I had answered.
“It’s the same air.”
“Then it’s the people.”
“They’re the same people.”
“Then it’s the men.” He hadn’t asked me anymore after that.
The next best thing about living on the island, which really should not be overlooked, is that I get to see so many glass vases and ugly ceiling ornaments on a daily basis that I have never felt the need to own one myself.
Look, I am nearing his apartment now. Time to shake off these unfestive thoughts. Time to get in the mood. A quick check of my hair in a restaurant window, a subtle hitching of the maxidress. I tell myself I look great; I feel like a new woman. I laugh a little to myself as I think that. I breathe deep of the humid air and compose a winning smile on my face.
The teenagers sprawled across the steps of the small bridge leer at me as I approach. I do my best to ignore them, concentrating on keeping my expression intact, ducking my head slightly so the boys don’t get the wrong idea.
“Ciao bella!” comes the predictable mating call nonetheless. In case you’re in need of a translation, that’s roughly equivalent to the English vernacular, “Oi, love, great bum, gizza flash will ya”, although I think we can all agree it at least sounds marginally more enticing in Italian.
My heart defies my precise instructions to the contrary and thuds a bit heavier under my maxidress as I approach. It’s as if their distance and my panic are inextricably entwined – as one ebbs, the other flows. I remind myself sternly of who I am now, and lift my chin as I enter their hormone-infested gaggle. I pick my way between them and for a mercifully short time find myself surrounded by sibilant muttering and muffled laughter.
As I break free, I straighten my smile, pinning the corners of my lipstuck lips back where they belong just beneath my cheekbones. Whatever they’re thinking, they’re probably wrong anyway.
The woman I was a year ago would be proud of the woman I am today. That woman lay in a shuttered room long after the stitches were removed and the swelling deflated. She was starved and enfeebled by her own fear and – I can still hardly bear to admit it even now – regret. That last feeling, that one I just mentioned, faded long after the bruises, but fade it did. It shames me to remember those days.
That woman would have limped several sestieri out of her way in order to find a route free from the ignorant infestation of sneering youth. She would not have dreamed of wearing stilettos to the Rialto Market first thing on a Friday morning. Not that I actually do that now, I should admit. I still haven’t found any Louboutins in my size. But when I do, I will most certainly wear them everywhere.
Now then, I don’t want you getting the wrong impression of me. I’ve painted you quite the caricature, haven’t I? You probably think I’m some kind of fashionista, a queen of the catwalk. In fact I am clumsy, clunky, awkward and always have been. I have broad shoulders and an ungraceful gait, but by God I will feel feminine if I want to. I probably spend too long in the salon improving my hair when I should be improving my mind, but I still have very much to learn about this new way of life, so indulge me a little, won’t you? I have been lonelier than you – I hope – can imagine. And I won’t risk returning to those shuttered-up days.
But enough of that for now. Deep breath. Here I am. On his doorstep. Reaching up to press the buzzer. A gust of nerves almost overwhelms me, blowing down the canals and through my heart, like one of Veronese’s paintbrushes thrown down from ceiling to floor in petulance. It has been like this each time we’ve met, except for the first. But today it’s different. Today I will bend the butterflies to my will. I will gather them together and have them help lift my burden and carry it far from me, over the sea and beyond.
Today I will tell him about Roberto.
Will he accept me?
I hope so.
But if not – screw him – he’s not half the man I was.
Rachel lives in London, UK, with her husband. She holds an undergraduate degree in Classical Archaeology and Ancient History from the University of Oxford and a Masters in International Public Policy from UCL. When she’s not writing fiction she is working for the British government, or travelling, or sometimes both.