By evening, a German man would swear he had seen the woman in orange leave, walking quickly towards the train station where he had taken his wife, suddenly ill with a stomach ache; a Chinese couple would attest that she had gotten in a car with a strange man, kissed him and put her heels up on the dashboard; and a child would say he saw her, naked, in the trees.
“Hey babe, turn to me for a sec,” George called to his wife Frances, who was bent over admiring a bronze fish that appeared frozen while flapping up from the surrounding patch of pachysandra, its head green with patina, barely above ground. Frances obliged, mostly to silence him. “Perfect,” he said. “Okay, now I want to get one of you with the Henry Moore in the back.”
Click. His woman, tall, slender, happy.
“Do you mind?” Frances said, talking through her teeth for the camera. Her neck mirrored the fish – twisted, tense – and she smoothed her shorts as she stood, tugging the fabric from where it caught above her thigh. George had a knack for catching all sorts of unflattering moments and calling them candid.
Click. Click. Blue sky, bright sun. Click. Birds.
“Mind what, hun-bun?” he said.
George had been unusually loud all morning, ever since Frances had first subtly suggested that they might try speaking more quietly while on the trip. Their trip. She didn’t like the term honeymoon, so much pressure there. They were adults, after all, and honeymoons were for the young, bleary-eyed kind of lovers who could handle its expectations along with the performance of it all. The canoodling, the sweet talk, the uninterrupted eye contact. Frances and George, they were practical. It was one thing to get married, to brand the intangible thing that had sustained itself perfectly fine unnamed for years. But the post-wedding jet lag was still fresh and George was already acting differently.
Earlier, when they had gotten on the wrong train line from Copenhagen and had to ask several kind-looking strangers for directions, George had seemingly taken pleasure in hammering his words in slow, loud punctuations. Awesome, he had said to the sleek Danes’ delight; they would no doubt mimic him later in their white, mid-century modern flats, performing before a curtain of natural light. George’s display had continued for the entirety of the ride once on the correct train as well, with comments like Holy shit, where are we babe? as the Baltic coast first sparkled out the window behind the lulling horizon line. George never talked like that in the states; in fact, he had always seemed mild-mannered there, almost out of place in his restraint amongst other Americans. So what was bringing this out now? His own insecurity? Some kind of maliciousness towards his poor new wife? (George had, after all, wanted to honeymoon in Hawaii.) Is this who Frances had committed to spending the rest of her life with? In sickness, health – and travel?
“I just thought we were going to not speak so loudly,” Frances answered at last. “In English, I mean.”
George laughed. “What would you prefer I speak to you in?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “but we don’t have to insist that we’re tourists.”
“You’d rather be extremely quiet locals?” George said. “Danish mutes? There does seem to be something Scandinavian about a mime. What is it, the striped shirts? You do look good in stripes.”
“I think we could maintain the façade a bit, that’s all.”
Frances sighed. “That we might actually be Danish.”
“But babe,” George whispered as an attractive, blond couple dressed in all black walked by, beautiful hand in beautiful hand, “they are Danish.”
“So?” Frances said, looking down at the front of her floral silk shorts, wrinkles like whiskers darting out from where she’d tightly crossed her legs on the train.
“Well, do you walk around The Bay thinking how cool it is that you’re surrounded by people speaking English? Basking in your own coolness, surrounded by echoes of yourself?”
“You know that I don't, George,” she said. “Don’t mock me, I’m on vacation.”
“I’m not mocking you,” he said in that new tone of his. “I just think maybe it’s better to stand out. People like seeing tourists, it makes them think of vacation. Just like people like seeing a couple, you know, making out in public. Vicarious pleasure.”
“For the last time, George – people do not enjoy watching couples make out. It’s tacky, it’s gross. And it makes anyone nearby feel a bit pervy, honestly.”
“Not like, tongue,” he said, “just the cute cuddly stuff.”
“Forget it. And anyway, it’s different. I like seeing tourists in SF because they’re not American.”
“We get American tourists too,” George said.
“And I hate them,” Frances said, retracting the harshness with a smile. “Come on, you know me. I’m always complaining about –”
“Most people like Americans, hun,” George interrupted. “Lots of people move to America, arguably because they like Americans! You just can’t see it because you are one.”
“No, you can’t see it because you are one,” Frances whispered. “The Kardashians are American.”
“Bad example,” Frances said. “Michelle Bachman is American. Snooki. Snooki is American.”
“Well for one, I think there’s a certain diplomatic immunity within tanning beds, and two – you really think these Danes care about Michelle Bachman? Nein.”
“That’s German, George,” Frances said. “Can we just drop it? I didn’t think it’d be so much to ask.”
“No, I get it,” he said. “You’re embarrassed of me. I probably would be too.” George turned the camera on himself.
Click. Puppy dog eyes. Vacation stubble.
Frances felt the hair on her neck stand. Was it possible to hate someone you loved? No, hate was too strong a word – but to feel such sharp annoyance from someone so dear to you. She loved George, she did. And yet, she watched the other couples – the tall, lithe women wearing no makeup, as if straight out of an advertising campaign for makeup, and their men with perfectly rugged facial hair and strong, Viking brows. They didn’t stop to take photographs as they wandered the museum grounds, nor feel the need to talk to each other. No, their connections permeated as if through osmosis, witnessed only by the occasional nod or smile. And even though they rarely held hands, they seemed to flow together as if riding the same current, while George held tightly to hers, dictating their direction with a pointed finger. Honeymoon, she repeated to herself, waiting for the flutter. Though wasn’t that precisely what she liked – no, loved – about George? Stability. Was it even possible to flutter on such stable ground?
“I just want to feel like I belong in the place,” she said. “That’s what vacation’s for isn’t it? The taste of another life, an alternate reality?”
That alternate reality, or the feat of the invisible tourist, was easier when one traveled alone. Perhaps Frances had been spoiled from years of Tables for One, entire beds to herself, and the silence of solitude. Where any passing man, dashing and mysterious, could fulfill any future. Their foreign words could mean anything, everything. Alone Frances had walked the ruins in Rome – hot, sticky, dirty summer there. She had been to Kyoto. Cairo. Sicily. Wherever she had traveled, she maintained an unspoken pact that had been passed down from her mother like their fuzzy auburn hair, wide hips, and square knees. As they’d moved around when she was younger, Frances’ mother had shown her how to blend in so that no outlines existed, nothing to separate her from the background, nothing to make her stand out from the whole. Certain physicalities were hard to deny, of course, but it was incredible what an attitude and the right aura would hide. Alone, travel let Frances escape herself – and sometimes she even felt her mother there with her, praising her ability to blur. Away, she could live the lives of others, if only until she deplaned the flight home, bags full of trinkets to transport her back to that other self who still lived next to the Campo de Fiori, its market bursting with fruit and vegetables each morning, or to the one who walked along the Seine to work each morning. Whoever she might have been, she could still be. And there she felt her mother, invisible in life and death, beside her.
George had always seemed touched by Frances’ understanding that his schedule didn’t allow for extended travel, and each time she returned from a trip he remarked how she came back a bit lighter, brighter, than when she had left. Their vacations as a couple were allocated to weddings and baby showers, the kind of travel where one felt most grateful not to be alone. And those obligatory trips had brought them closer, made Frances grateful to finally have a partner for all those parties she dreaded. All these years, Frances had assumed it was her who would eventually be tested in their relationship, her who would fail. She had never thought to test George. And yet it was a mistake, she now realized, all those years together and never one trip overseas.
“And here I thought vacation was for relaxing,” George said. He pulled Frances in and kissed her on the cheek. He held the museum guide so tightly rolled like a diploma that he now needed both hands to hold it open. “Where should we start?”
“Inside,” she said.
Frances slipped her hand into George’s – honeymoon, she thought again – as they crossed the museum’s outdoor gallery space, where bright green grass replaced traditional white walls, blue sky for ceiling. The lawn stretched all the way to the coast where only a Calder, majestic and doubled in its grand shadow, stopped the eye just before jagged rocks and the occasional white spray reminding visitors of the harsh waters kept at bay. As they walked across the lawn towards the museum’s original building, a beautiful stone farmhouse, George whispered that they were passing the new installation.
The work was a glass house, the size of a children’s playroom, made of window panes in varying shades and colors. The structure itself jutted out from the ground, teetering upside down on its sharp, pointed roof – steadied only by its short, kickstand of a chimney. Frances thought how the tones inside would be different depending on where you stood.
“I don’t get it,” George said.
I do, Frances thought as they passed a sign with the title, Marriage, 2016.
Inside the main building was the museum’s permanent collection of Alberto Giacometti, with an entire room full of his skinny, knob-kneed sculptures lined up as though waiting for judgment. Frances stopped at a female sculpture displayed on a square stand at her height. She was no more feminine than the rest of Giacometti’s stretched stick figures, save the two lumps on her chest that pointed out from the rough, heavily-worked bronze, where muscles clung to bones that shouldn’t have shown. Some parts of us were meant to be round, Frances thought. If only to soften our harsh, skeleton mortality, to forget what remains when the life in us is gone. She winced remembering her former body that was still in there somewhere, feeling the hole inside her that occasionally threatened to creep back open aching with envy at the figure before her; the control, the safety such deprivation contained in its emptiness.
“Creepy,” George said from across the room.
Who was she to judge George? George who had pulled her from her own cold and hollow cast of a life, which now stood facing her on that white square stand, thin bending metal arms at its sides. The figure was helpless, passive, and yet Frances felt the assault. Before George, Frances had lived in its structured denial. Before George, she made plans with friends in The Mission only to meet up with them late after dinner so she could skip and drink her allowance of calories. Before George, Frances would hide away for days or weeks, whenever she didn’t feel capable – or deserving – of being seen, whether the scale confirmed her fears or not. Before George, Frances had believed she needed to deprive herself to earn what she now took for granted. Before George, Frances had lived in quicksand. The constant tallying, the negotiating with her own mind that threatened to swallow her whole.
The night they had first met, at a friend’s IPO party in Pacific Heights, George had held her hand when he walked her home. For months he continued to hold on to her gently, like a balloon whose helium kept her just out of reach. But slowly and patiently George had reeled her in. He cooked for her in heavy cast iron pots, anything she would tolerate – eggs with no yolks, quesadillas with no cheese, foods marked more by their absence. George had watched her eat it all with patient eyes. He held her at night, around her full stomach that expanded as she relaxed into sleep. He didn’t look away when he walked in on her naked in the bathroom – hunched over, shaving – but smiled and kissed her shoulder as he grabbed a Q-tip.
George squeezed her softness as if to say it was okay. Pants clung around her thighs where they once hung loose, and waistbands she had been able to fold in on themselves dug in below her belly button, creating a crease in her skin that now seemed permanent, like a scar from some invisible, interior wound. Despite their cinching pain, Frances refused to go up a size, in case these former clothes might be all that protected her from infinitely expanding. George had pulled her back down to the land of the living, but only now that he had coiled her string into a band on his finger, did Frances realize what it meant to be tied to someone.
Click. Pensive wife, silhouetted by sun streaked windows.
“Ha,” George said, “check out this guy.”
The long, thin man was nearly George’s height and leaning into its own movement, chest bent forward, arms pulled back, legs long and feet heavy – grounded to the thick metal base at its toes. The outstretched legs formed a tall triangle, where amber leaves outside the glass wall showed through the space framed by the figure’s gait.
“Wonder where he’s going,” George said, mimicking the position.
“L’homme qui marche,” Frances said quietly. “I don’t think it matters where he’s going, so long as he keeps walking.”
George looked at her, smiled, and turned back towards the row of sculptures, examining the pointed breasts of another female with wide hips and a nearly nonexistent core. Frances watched his face for some understanding – recognition – but felt relief, if momentarily, at his lack thereof. George was simple and so was his love. Seeing him now in the clarity of a new setting, however, Frances couldn’t help but wonder if a man who seemed to lack such nuance could truly understand how much she depended on him. Cruel, the way one person’s support could leave you feeling so crippled.
Outside, they wandered through tall, scattered trees, the landscaping creating a sense of mystical happenstance each time a sculpture appeared amongst the trunks. To the left, bronze faces peeked up through the grass, as though floating in a pool, with their eyes and noses breaking the surface. Only here, through the leaves and dirt, the piece gave the sense of something else – something stubbornly permanent coming up from decay.
To the right, two mirrors stood in a clearing, sunlight peaking through the leaves like a kaleidoscope, reflecting a rainbow of colors off of the strange surface. Another couple was circling the installation, giggling to themselves, as Frances walked up to examine her reflection. Nothing unusual, except perhaps the presence of oneself mirrored in nature, made foreign amongst the leaves. Then, from her own eyes emerged a new pair that flickered and blinked out of tune; her nose, twisting into another, larger, with lips underneath that curled hers into a smile. She saw two feet beneath the mirror, then two more, then four shuffling away. Her own face returned. A couple giggled as they disappeared further into the forest. Frances wandered around the other side, where another mirror, now empty, reflected back. She watched her face again, until from her own mouth came the words, “Frances is that you?”
She didn’t answer, just watched the words leaving her mouth, her own face twisting to accommodate his. Seeing George’s features on hers, his voice from inside her, unsettled something, but Frances found it hard to look away from this perverted metamorphosis of their union.
Then she was herself again, and with a quick tug on her hand they were back amongst the trees, the light fluttering through the leaves above, a chill under each bit of their shade.
The bathrooms were down a twisting staircase inside a glass cube structure, one of the museum’s later additions, its low-lying, modern design brilliantly contrasted with the elegance of the original farmhouse. The lower level opened into an extensive subterranean floor, which must have been where the offices were housed, their workers shielded from light just like the art. The brutalist concrete line of bathroom sinks came out from beside a tall, steel beam, whether a sculpture or support rail for the stairs, which extended nearly to the ceiling of the glass structure. Between the glass enclosure and the flood of bodies using the faucets, adjusting themselves and puckering like blowfish in the mirror, the space took on a humidity that reminded Frances of an aquarium.
She pushed through the young mothers clasping children’s hands, teenagers standing with their arms crossed, and groups of older women gabbing as they refolded their handkerchiefs. When she finally found a stall Frances squatted over the pee-covered seat, clenched her thighs, and let go. From the stall next to hers, she could hear the sound of gentle weeping over the pee and running faucets. Even once it stopped, Frances could feel the silent sobs, the harsher tears implied by muffled breath and the temporary absence of sound. She flushed.
As Frances washed her hands at the sinks, a woman about her age approached and began washing her own furiously, her cheeks glistening where tears had trailed like slugs down her thick-pored face. Frances focused on herself in the mirror. Her oily vacation hair from the shower with low water pressure that didn’t get out all of her conditioner; the humidity she wasn’t used to at home. She inhaled and imagined smoothing the line between her eyebrows from within. She let the breath out slowly, watching her eyes spread apart in the mirror. Then she took out a small compact and began to powder her nose.
Frances noticed the other woman’s eyes on her in the mirror.
"Do you have any making-up?” the woman said, her face now smudged with the sooty remains of mascara. Her nose and her cheeks were red, depleted. The English words sounded foreign in her mouth. Then she held out her forearm, touching it next to Frances’. “I think we are the same, this color, yes?”
Frances couldn’t place the accent, but it made her jealous even of the European sadness. Eastern European, perhaps. Frances shrugged into the mirror, then half smiled and shook her head as though she didn't understand.
“Forgive me,” the woman continued. “You see, I –”
Frances looked down to the sink, where its wet ledge was leaving a line that crept and spread up the woman’s skirt, her hideous orange skirt. She imagined the woman's husband outside, plump and wearing a shade that was similar but just different enough to really clash. She felt something mean and hard inside of her open. She imagined that man in his off-shade of orange telling this woman, moments ago, that he was leaving her. She was too old, too thick, too slow. All of the mental and physical manifestations of our own fears – aging, slacking, failing.
"We're the same, yes?" the woman repeated, pointing to the skin on her arm.
We are certainly not the same , Frances thought. She too had struggled; she had fallen apart. But she had never done so publicly. She shook her head. I don’t understand, it said. She snapped the compact shut.
Frances looked around, embarrassed by her own proximity to the woman in orange. But what was she so afraid of anyway? What was it that made her stomach clench and her face turn? What would it mean to share something with this woman? To extend her arm and say yes, we are the same. What would that small gesture, which might mean so much to the woman, take from her? When Frances came out of her head, the woman had begun choking on her own tears again, and Frances couldn’t stand it. She couldn’t stand that noise.
Frances shook her head again and put a hand to her ear. It wasn’t her fault; she simply didn’t understand.
Frances and George ate outside on the patio of the sleek cafeteria building, whose glass panels reflected the surrounding art amidst the greens and blues of the landscape. Their table was at the edge of the lawn beside another Calder sculpture that was as towering and ethereal as a giant praying mantis. At the far end of the sculpture dangled a mobile of primary colors, which swayed gently, almost imperceptibly, whether from the breeze, the pant of dining conversations, or the earth’s very rotation.
“Lift your fork up for a minute,” George said.
Click. Click. Foodporn.
Frances picked at her smørrebrød with delicately ribboned smoked salmon, crème fraiche, and generous sprigs of dill artfully arranged atop the dark, grainy bread, until suddenly it was gone and she had nothing left to wash down with her second glass of Riesling. The wine’s sweet acidity caught in the back of her throat, and she reached for a potato from George’s plate, perfectly peeled and shiny with butter, just as he crushed it under his fork.
After merely her second glass of wine, Frances already felt a lightness in her body that extended all the way up to her forehead, so fuzzy that it made her head swirl, as though her eyes were suddenly free to wobble in directions she’d never had to control before. George chewed the roast beef from the 40 Euro buffet loudly, and saliva rushed into Frances’ cheeks.
“It’s probably the jetlag, babe,” he said when she pushed away her glass.
“George,” she said, pushing her tongue into her cheek. “Since when am I babe?”
“That’s just how vacation George talks,” he said, stretching his arms overhead, then letting his palms grasp the back of his neck. He closed his eyes. With his elbows extended, his head looked like it had newly sprouted wings, and Frances imagined them flying him away. “But you’ve always been a babe.”
The coastline view from their seats was enough to make anyone want to try their hand at dabbling its waves’ white crests and frothy peaks, at smudging the rocks’ smooth descent to the water where they became freckled with sediment stains. The view was so perfectly rugged that it risked the screensaver cliché, made particular by only – what was this now? The bright flash of color (a skirt! a person!) unclear but certain. There, a burst of orange, then gone, wiped clear from the canvas. Vanished.
Screams came up from the water between the static sounds of crashing waves, their shrillness carried in the wind. Several figures came running up the sloping grass, silhouetted by the sun behind them, their legs swinging in triangles faster and faster until they reached the patio.
Someone’s in the water! A woman is in the water!
One by one the visitors at the cafeteria got up until every table on the patio was empty, some with untouched trays, hundreds of Euros and complimentary bread. Frances, feeling her legs wobble as she stood, grabbed a roll from one of the abandoned tables as they headed down the grassy hill towards the waterfront, where she thought she saw – yes, she was certain of it – an orange skirt, shape-shifting in the rough surf.
The men stopped at the shoreline, testing the steadiness of the large boulders before they went further, fingers extended back towards their worried wives. When Frances got to the water’s edge, she saw the orange dancing further out to sea, until a wave brought it tumbling in where it got stuck along a rock, twisted like a rope. It was impossible to tell what the fabric was, or if its wearer was out there, the crowd said, but Frances saw the skirt, the orange skirt with the sink’s water spreading up its creased front, and then she saw the woman’s eyes again – We are the same, yes?
Moments later Frances was waist deep, plunging her hands deeper, watching them disappear into sapphire sea. They were too numb to feel anything, but she watched the water spill colorless from her open palms as she brought them up. The men on the rocks behind her yelled in a confetti of languages urging her to come back. She even thought she heard an American tourist yell to his wife over the waves, “Those Danish women, fuckin’ fearless!”
The whole thing happened so quickly that George was still trying to get service on his phone to call 911 when he heard someone calling to a woman who had gone too far in. And then there she was, the water making Frances both weightless and heavy, her soaked clothing pulling her down as the current beckoned her further. Frances felt her body watching from above, her legs too cold to feel the meat of them brushing together, her mind too frantic to notice the hands on her shoulders, the arms closing around her, and then the air — sun-tingling heat – which moments ago had felt merely light.