Not many women attend their funeral and get married on the same day, in the same church. Yet Isabel couldn’t have been happier.
Carlo, the unwitting bridegroom, arrived at Saint Luke’s Church eight minutes late for the funeral of Antonio’s father. The crowd was packed tightly, so Carlo sat in the back row, next to an old woman dressed in black lace who he had met many years ago, Mrs. Toscani if he recalled correctly.
He peered through the gaps between heads and shoulders searching for Antonio. They had been friends since they were five. For nineteen years, he’d been spotting Antonio in crowded bars and festivals, and only last week he’d seen him on the back of Javier’s motorbike speeding through 108th street, wearing a yellow helmet, so why couldn’t he find Antonio at his father’s funeral?
The priest was encouraging family and friends to come forward with gifts, and that was when Carlo realized the funeral was almost over.
“Ernesto, I go,” Mrs. Toscani whispered to Carlo, pushing down on his arm as she heaved herself up. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, and Carlo gave her a consoling nod when he realized that she’d mistaken him for someone else.
Carlo stepped into the aisle to let her pass, but Mrs. Toscani linked arms with his. “We go up together.”
He nodded, and they walked up the aisle. All the while, Carlo looked out for Antonio but none of the faces in the front rows were familiar.
Mrs. Toscani dragged Carlo forward to the altar, moving toward the open end of the casket. She touched the head of the corpse, pulling Carlo closer. He glanced down. A young woman in her early twenties—heart-shaped face, long dark hair, ruby red lips—stared up at him.
She’s beautiful, he thought. The most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.
Mrs. Toscani took Carlo’s hand and pressed it on the girl’s heart, then pushed his head toward the girl’s face. “Tell her, Ernesto, how much you love her,” she whispered.
“I love you,” Carlo said, without thinking.
Then, the moment was over and they were walking back to their seats.
Carlo forgot about Antonio. All he could think about was how beautiful the girl was. Such a waste of life. Dead so young. I could have married her. I would have married her.
When the mass was over, Carlo led Mrs. Toscani outside. The crowd was dead silent as the coffin made its way to the hearse. Carlo watched, imagining the girl’s body lying inside the red velvet lining, so lifeless yet moving through space. Murmurs from the crowd broke out as family and friends embraced, and Carlo scurried back to his car, keen to see Antonio and explain that he’d gone to the wrong church.
After attending the wake of Antonio’s father, Carlo arrived home at eleven that evening but when he opened the front door and switched on the light, he hesitated for a moment, wondering if he’d entered the wrong place. He stepped inside and closed the door, giving a sweeping view of his decluttered studio apartment. The magazines were stacked in a neat pile, the cushions on the sofa were in a neat row, the dirty dishes in the kitchen were gone. His bed was made; a flower was on his pillow.
“Ma,” he said, smiling to himself. He wandered over to the refrigerator to see what food she had left for him when she had visited, but the sound of water running in the bathroom made him stop.
“Who’s there?” he asked. “Mama, is that you?”
“It’s me,” a girl’s voice answered.
“Isabella.” The bathroom door opened. Her bright red lips curved. She was wearing the same blue dress, the one that his palm had touched when Mrs. Toscani had pressed it against the girl’s chest.
“I’m Carlo.” He stepped forward and held out his right hand.
She took his hand and giggled. Her touch was light, as weightless as a finch’s feather. “It’s been a long day,” she said, walking into the kitchen. “Are you hungry, Carlo?”
He followed her. “No. But what about you? It wasn’t exactly the best day for you.”
“Today was perfect.” She smiled and caressed his face. “Not many women can say that they were buried and married on the same day.”
She nodded. “Tonight is our wedding night, and our honeymoon begins tomorrow.”
“I need to work.”
“That’s fine, my love, I’ll take care of everything.”
Carlo awoke the next morning to the smell of coffee brewing. He rubbed his eyes, and memories of her long dark hair and soft hands returned. Smiling, he sat up, searched for his boxer shorts and t-shirt, and got dressed.
Isabel was sitting at the table, with a subtle smile. He sat down opposite her in front of a plate piled with eggs and toast. “Aren’t you eating?” he asked.
“I neither eat nor drink, sleep nor bath.”
“Really?” He looked up from his breakfast with his mouth full. “Last night, I swear I heard you snoring.”
She laughed. “You imagine things.”
And that was how their relationship was. Whenever he arrived home, no matter how late it was, she was waiting to please him; and every day when he woke up, she was smiling to greet him. When he was at work, she washed his clothes, ironed his shirts, reorganized his shelves, vacuumed the floor, scrubbed the bathroom, cleaned the windows and dusted the ledges, cooked his meals, read his magazines, and learned many things she never knew before.
For two years, they lived in harmony. Carlo thought it was the perfect marriage. He could do whatever he liked on weekends, and Isabel always greeted him with a smile. In the rare event that he wanted to be left alone, she hid inside his closet. The darkness reminded her of how lucky she was to be living with Carlo, and her absence reminded Carlo of how lucky he was to be married to Isabella. He couldn’t take her to restaurants and movies, and she couldn’t bear his children, but whether he liked that or not, she was married to him.
Then everything changed when Carlo met Mariana one evening. Her green eyes reminded him of Pluto, her cheeks were chubby, and her lips were thin, but her touch was warm and heavy and awkward. He had forgotten how the seductive curves of a woman felt when they brushed against his body.
A year later, Carlo and Mariana were strolling by the lake at Flushing Meadows, when Carlo bent down on his one knee and proposed. He hadn’t planned it in advance; the words came out all strung together like pearls on a string. He hadn’t bought a ring, but Mariana said yes.
When he returned home to Isabel and told her the news, she cried. He asked her to leave and she said that she couldn’t. The next day, Carlo did the only thing he knew to do. And within an hour, his mother and grandmother arrived armed with cloves of garlic, frankincense, and all seven penitential psalms. Isabel stood in the far corner of the room, her bloodshot eyes drowning in tears, watching as they cleansed every square inch of the apartment.
When they were finished, Carlo’s mother approached Isabel. “Young girl, please leave, you are no longer welcome here.”
“But, Mama, I have nowhere else to go. I would leave but don’t know how.”
Seeing Isabella’s troubled expression, she hugged the girl and prayed that the Holy Mother guide her lost child back home. The prayer went unanswered, and over the coming months they all tried many things to make the girl leave. Nothing worked.
On the day the newlyweds returned from their honeymoon, Mariana moved in with Carlo, and Isabel retreated to the kitchen.
Later that evening, Mariana and Carlo were lying on the bed, and Mariana’s seductive laugh echoed across the apartment. Isabel was desperate to escape but she could no longer hide inside the closet, not with Mariana’s clothes, handbags, and shoes.
So she decided to make bread, grinding the whole wheat flour by hand. She gripped the stone pestle and pressed it hard into the grain, squashing it against the mortar. Working slowly at first, she then increased to steady, faster motions. Mariana giggled in delight, and Isabel ground the wheat harder, rotating the rounded tip into the tight grain, breaking it, softening it, thrusting her arm up and down. Her brow was sweating and the bench began to shake. She pounded harder until the windows were rattling and the wooden floorboards were shaking. Her lips parted into a smile as fine white flour formed. Hearing Mariana’s ecstatic cries, she worked faster and with more intensity, in small, quick motions. And then it was all over. The flour was soft and smooth, just as she had desired. She added the yeast and mixed in the other ingredients, feeling its stickiness between her palms as she began to knead the dough. Her racing heart slowed, and she heaved a gentle sigh.
By the time she placed the tray of soft bread buns in the oven, Carlo and Mariana were fast asleep, wrapped naked in each other’s arms.
That night, instead of watching Carlo sleep, Isabella sat by the window, peering down at the people passing by, gazing up at the moon, and wondering what life would be like if she could die all over again.
Copyright © L.A. Golding 2019
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