By Beate Sigriddaughter
The waves of the Adriatic Sea look so gentle this early morning. The daily assembly of beach chairs and umbrellas hasn’t been set up yet. The sand looks pristine. I wish I could own a moment like this forever. The red sun rises, the silhouette of a sailboat slowly crosses the disk of light, a shimmering path of light aims directly at me on the calm water. No one can take this away from me, not this cool morning breeze, not my long yellow silk dress fluttering against my legs. Might as well dress like a princess. Martin treats me like one. It is all like a dream. Why is it then that I cannot seem to relax? Maybe in time I will. I wish I could inhale all this deep into me to where my own sun would glow, red and golden. Instead, I feel like a stranger in my own skin, though the hair on my arms tingles as though in answer to a caress. The breeze is cooler than I expected.
We spent the first week of our marriage in a castle at the foot of the Dolomites. Martin brought me fresh flowers every day. We spent the evenings holding hands, then touching and talking by candlelight and the glow from the fireplace. Even in May, the nights were surprisingly cool. Here too. I can tell he wants to make me happy, and he does. All this is more than I have ever asked for, and yet I can’t quite own it. I don’t trust it. The princess makes good. And she cannot believe she is good enough to deserve it. The memories of humiliation seem more real. The gossip. The sadness.
Jeff didn’t die in my arms. He died from a heart attack after a fancy dinner his parents gave at their fancy house. He simply collapsed in their hallway, reaching for his coat. I have no idea what they ate and drank that night. He was nine years younger than I. Seemingly healthy and full of nervous energy. We’d lived together for just short of three years. He thought that was good enough for me, and what was I going to do? There was something murky going on underneath. I wasn’t going to give any ultimatum. He didn’t want to get married. Not to me anyway. And that was that. Was it that I was already too old to give him a whole bunch of children? That’s what I told myself on good days. On bad days, I told myself I simply wasn’t good enough in his eyes. He never introduced me to his family, not in all our time living together. It’s true, I made my living as a secretary, never went to college, and he was an attorney. But I paid my share of our living expenses, and my share turned out to be larger than what I had paid when I lived by myself in an efficiency apartment before moving in with him. At times I thought I merely stayed because my ego insisted I was owed something. His arrogance was enormous. I suspect I met his needs well enough. His greatest need was to be better than someone. In his eyes, I fit that bill. So much so that I gradually came to believe it myself.
His family’s arrogance was even larger. When he unexpectedly died, they curtly informed me I wasn’t welcome at his memorial or his funeral, though I had been welcome in his bed. The ceremonies were reserved for family and friends, not lovers. I didn’t count. I wasn’t his widow. If I had been important enough to him, he would have married me. He didn’t, and so, for all practical purposes, I didn’t exist. Jeff didn’t leave a will either. So, when he died, I simply moved out of the apartment, letting his family scramble about the lease and all his belongings. I didn’t have much. Found an efficiency apartment again. Rents had gone up in those three years. I could just manage it though. I visited his grave once to say goodbye. He wasn’t a bad guy. He wasn’t a particularly good one either.
Sometimes I feel maybe I’m not meant for love, neither loving nor being loved. I wanted to give all of myself. And then there were all these diminishments. Jeff wasn’t proud to be with me. If anything, he was ashamed of me, my lack of education, my lack of pedigree, that sort of thing. Not that he was anything special in the pedigree department, but I guess being a lawyer was way up there in the of-consequence milieu. I think if I lived in a society where higher education wasn’t so expensive, I could have been his equal. But the way our world was set up, he had enough clout and nerve to sign up for student loans. I didn’t. Maybe it’s good we weren’t married. I might have ended up being responsible for his student loan balance. I have no idea, and since I was so unwelcome by his snooty family, I didn’t take the time and trouble to find out.
I was prepared to wander the back alleys of life once again, just so as not to be a burden on anyone. Cockroaches. Drunks hollering or retching into garbage bins in the middle of the night outside my window. At least in that milieu nobody was looking down on me. Now I don’t quite know how to handle the open door to a better life. Martin says I’m free to do whatever I like. We can afford it. I could stay at home. Quit my job. Even go to college at long last and get a degree in something. I don’t know. I should be ecstatic. I’m married to a generous man. I stand here on the balcony in fairytale surroundings. The air is getting warmer now, though there are still goosebumps on my arms. I’m afraid of feeling like an outsider for the rest of my life.
Three small people walk on the sand down below close to one another. Picking up shells? Trash? Lost valuables?
And here is Martin’s voice now from inside our luxurious suite.
“Are you ready to go down for breakfast?”
I don’t know if I am ready for anything.
“Yes,” I say and turn to go inside.
* * *
Beate Sigriddaughter, http://www.sigriddaughter.net, grew up in Nürnberg, Germany. Her playgrounds were a nearby castle and World War II bomb ruins. She lives in Silver City, New Mexico (Land of Enchantment), where she was poet laureate from 2017 to 2019. Her occasionally prize-winning work is widely published in literary magazines. Recent book publications include a poetry collection, Wild Flowers, and a short story collection, Dona Nobis Pacem. In her blog Writing in a Woman’s Voice, she publishes other women’s voices.