By Amber Paulen
Stories from the old can change the direction of life for the young.
Someone called my name and a figure came toward me—a shadow against the yellow lamplight of the road, and beyond that, of Atrani. It surprised me that someone knew me. I had been in the small town for only three hours and spent most of that time sitting in a damp cove where hearts and initials were etched into stone, watching the gray sky become night and the sea turn black and shimmery.
It was a midwinter evening obscured by loneliness, as the clouds earlier had obscured the blue of afternoon. But what could be done about loneliness? I had left my family, friends, and country with the finality of a one-way ticket. I was twenty-two and thought I could take on anything. After five months of lugging a backpack through Europe, I should have been buoyed up by my independence.
Yet here I was feeling sorry for myself, upset that my efforts to see my ex-boyfriend in Rome had proven fruitless. I told myself I wanted to see him because I needed a break from the anonymity of traveling alone, a conversation with a familiar person. But he hadn’t replied to my email during the five days I was in Rome, so I traveled south. The only plan I had made before traveling was that there was no plan; where I went, what I did, was guided by my whims and desires, precarious things.
As I crossed the road, I saw that the figure was Bernard, the talkative painter who lived alone up the mountain in Ravello: the guy I had met on the bus.
“This is great!” Bernard exclaimed when I stood before him, his curly russet hair filled with light. “I just left Grosdana’s to find you. She wants to meet you. She agreed. You can stay at her place.” Bernard took off walking and I followed. “I had a feeling you would be on the beach and I think you’ll really like Grosdana. She’s a superb woman. Su-perb!”
I kept pace with Bernard, under the brick arches, through the empty piazza, as I had done earlier that day when we got off the bus together and he led me to the hostel. He had told me not to stay at the hostel but with a friend of his who needed money. I hadn’t expected anything to come of the imperative, but now we were standing at Grosdana’s door. Above the apartment, its neighbors ascended the steep hill like a picture on a postcard of the Amalfi Coast. Bernard rapped, and light from the open doorway poured around the shape of a woman. “Bernard? You’re back. And Amber? Come in.”
A heavy green shawl hugged Grosdana’s shoulders. Her hennaed hair sprang on end. She walked deliberately to a long couch that consumed most of her studio apartment and lowered herself onto the cushions, which seemed to absorb her on contact. I sat next to her. Under the lamp, gold veins glinted in Grosdana’s ash-green eyes, tired and alive. She pulled a cigarette from a light blue pack labeled Ms and offered me one. Bernard sat on my other side, his hands gripping his knees, bouncing.
“Bernard says you’re staying at the hostel,” she said and lit her cigarette. She passed me the lighter, then leaned against the couch’s bolster. As I would learn, Grosdana’s every action was mirrored by inaction.
“Yes.” The hostel had white walls and a long row of empty beds. It was part of what had driven me out to the beach in such a gloomy, lonely mood.
“Who owns that? Ah, yes, the Guarellis? Right, Bernard? I don’t trust them completely. They’re charging you more than it’s worth, I think. Stay here with me for a week for one hundred euros. A good price for Atrani in the winter.”
I agreed. But it wasn’t up to me, I knew; the decision had already been made.
“Come here at eight to pick up the keys. And now, are you hungry? Bernard, stay and talk to Amber while I make pasta.”
“That’s O.K.,” I said. “I was planning on getting a sandwich.”
But Grosdana insisted I stay for dinner. I think I gave her the impression that I needed to be cared for: months of eating on a budget had intensified my thinness, and my clothes were frayed and worn. After dinner we three retired to the couch, where she and Bernard filled the apartment with conversation of the war in Croatia, Grosdana’s homeland. Their presence and words were blankets I wrapped around myself, a warmth and temporary respite from the effort of moving alone through the world.
~ ~ ~
The next morning, I left the hostel early and met Grosdana at her door. She handed me a ring of keys and went off to work. When I returned in the evening from exploring Atrani and Amalfi, she was already home. I handed her a 100-euro bill, and with the note balled into her palm she headed across the piazza to the tiny alimentari. Grosdana would insist on making me dinner every night of my stay.
Like the night before, once the table had been cleared, we went on Grosdana’s lead to the couch. Her studio apartment had no windows and the open room was sparsely decorated with ethnic knickknacks, such as a long-necked wooden woman with breasts that hung from her chest like long goat teats. But her stories filled the space.
Now, I have trouble pulling apart what she said and what I have since imagined.
“I’m a spinster,” Grosdana told me. Pleasure animated her aquiline face, sparked a flare of wrinkles around her eyes. “Which means I can do whatever I want, whenever I please.” A cigarette vacillated between her mouth and the ashtray. Occasionally, Grosdana’s soliloquy would suffer a fit of interminable coughing, followed by a minute of silence as her breath came back. I waited in silence.
“The old men of Atrani think I’m crazy to live alone and they tell me. A few have asked, ‘How can you possibly live without a man?’ And as they talk, I watch their fake teeth bumping in their gums. I laugh at them and ask back, ‘What can you offer a woman at your age?’ They think a woman’s happiness depends on a man. Ha! I tell them, ‘I’m happier alone than stuck with a wrinkled prune like you.’ I don’t mind them thinking I’m a little crazy. Their wives aren’t any happier than me.
“The longer a woman is alone the longer she’ll be alone. You see, I can never live with a man again. Imagine, if along came an old prune! Maybe, if we lived in separate houses and he provided for himself, cooked his own dinners and if he had money. Money would be good. The problem with old people is they get stuck thinking people need to be one way. They’re so rigid. And me too! I don’t have patience for men anymore. Men are like children, wanting to be taken care of, and that’s part of why I never married.
“I was with a man for many years though. I was in love with him. We had a son. When you are in love, then you’ll do anything for a man, even pretend to be someone you’re not and that’s fine, but be careful. How you are in the beginning creates a habit in the relationship. Then, years later, the man still expects you to be like you were—and that, of course, goes for your expectations of him, too.
“When this man and I were living together, I liked to read in bed. One night, when the man came to bed, he asked me to put down my book, turn and pay attention to him. He wanted to make love but I wanted to keep reading. Then he closed my book.
“We fought and I knew then that the relationship wouldn’t last, that I would leave. I didn’t think he would be that kind of a man. And eventually I left.
“I’ve never put down my book for a man. I have friends who set down their books when they are asked, and these women have nothing for themselves. Their husbands are uninterested, their children grown and gone. You can only give so much until there’s nothing left. When these women are alone they don’t know how to be alone, they know nothing about themselves. It’s as if they throw out their person when they set down their book.
“Remember what I tell you, so if you find yourself in a similar situation you can think, ‘This is what the old spinster in Atrani told me!’ Remember, a woman experiences herself as a person first and then as a woman. Whereas men think a woman is first a woman and second a person. It feels good to be a woman, but no woman wants to be a woman all the time. Many women are married to a life that only supports one half. I hope this will change.”
~ ~ ~
The soft mattress of Grosdana’s bed was unlike any I had slept on in the hostels; the downy pillows and comforter surrounded me as I stayed up to read and write in my journal. Her heavy breathing from the couch downstairs deepened into snoring that sounded like a chainsaw cutting through the apartment. I supposed, because I was paying, this bed was mine, but I didn’t feel I deserved it. Grosdana’s experiences towered over me. Against the wishes of her family, she had left Croatia when she was young, had adventures, and regretted nothing. And here she lived alone in the twilight of life, not indulging in loneliness or debilitating self-pity.
Grosdana’s experiences had created a towpath through long grasses. Not even in books had I come across a character, a female character, I could hold up as an example, who had journeyed away from home as I had, tossing away family expectations like the maps of cities already traveled. Before I told my family I was leaving the country, I had dropped out of university so I could save money for my journey—first one shock and then the other. I drew strength from Grosdana, and I think she sensed it.
Grosdana’s life was replete with domesticities and rituals that bound it together. Today, as she had done every morning, she made Turkish coffee and served it in porcelain cups so thin that the light shone through like lace. She said: “Don’t think during your first cigarette and coffee. The best way to start the day is with an empty mind.”
When only a sludge of coffee grounds remained at the bottom of her cup, Grosdana bemoaned the climb up the steep hill to the hotel—owned by a friend—where she worked. I lingered at the kitchen table after she left, but without her the apartment was lifeless.
I went out, taking the path to the right. It ascended back and forth past the stacked white houses of Atrani, arched over a ridge and finished down the hill in Amalfi. At the top of the ridge the wind blew in from the sea and I leaned my elbows on the low wall overlooking it. Wind played with my hair and I held it down. At the bottom of the hill, I passed through Amalfi and its shop displays of bottles of bright yellow limoncello, to the trails that led me up through the Lattari Mountains.
Grosdana never asked what I did with my days on the coast in the off-season, but if she had, I wouldn’t have known what to tell her. I sat in the sun when it shone or walked in the forest that climbed the cliffs of the coast. I sought unobstructed vistas where the cloudy sky and gray Mediterranean were a blurry, two-toned painting, the horizon barely a line.
I thought about where to go next. I was supposed to leave Grosdana’s in three days. My ex had finally emailed me, inviting me back to Rome, and I turned over the idea. If I went back to Rome, it would be the first time I saw him since our relationship had ended in the States.
Part of me wanted to know if he still liked me. Part of me wanted some familiar conversation. And another part of me wondered if I could keep on going without it.
~ ~ ~
In the evening, I returned to find the aroma of bread baking filled the windowless studio. Grosdana was sitting at the table smoking when I opened the door, nothing before her but an ashtray, a distant look in her eyes. At first I thought I had interrupted her, absorbed in the practice of one of her maxims, but she smiled warmly and stood, pushing back her chair. “Just in time,” she said. “Let’s check if the bread is ready.”
For dinner we ate pieces from the tan wreath of bread. Its soft texture was broken up by toasted hazelnuts, and the butter I spread on melted immediately. The outside was a perfect layer of crust. As I ate, I asked for the recipe.
Grosdana’s eyes betrayed pleasure while she continued to chew. “I thought you would like it. I’ll show you how to make it,” she said. “The best part about this bread is it’s cheap. And if you add nuts or olives or whatever you like, it tastes different every time.”
On my last day in Atrani, in the narrow hall that was Grosdana’s kitchen, she taught me how to make her spinster’s bread. I had decided I would go back to Naples for the night, call my ex and then probably catch the train to Rome. After she had deftly kneaded the lump of dough, Grosdana peeled off the scales it left between her fingers and brusquely rubbed them together under warm water. She dampened a tea towel and draped it over the pallid ball. “Now, leave it to rise in some warm place,” she said.
We waited on the couch for the bread to rise and, later, to bake. Grosdana lit a cigarette and, leaning back into the couch, picked up her monologue from the previous nights. “I’ve been thinking again about the man I was telling you about. I almost married him. When I first met him I never thought he would get so upset over my reading in bed.
“When we were first in love, he invited me to go with him on a business trip to Tunisia. He went a few days earlier than me. During our days apart, I had the most intense daydreams, him and me in a foreign country, palm trees, exotic foods, a luxurious hotel room, the clothes I would wear, the sleepiness his eyes got after making love, how we would walk hand-in-hand through the dusty streets.”
Grosdana’s laugh shook her body and lit the gold in her eyes. “Sometimes it’s like these things happened to me in another life, like I was another person. As I tell you about them, the time doesn’t seem so far past. I can picture everything so clearly. When you’re my age, you’ll see.
“Life is a mystery,” she added. Her voice had dropped in sudden seriousness.
“When I stepped off the plane in Tunis I entered my dream. As I rode in the taxi to the hotel it was as if I were drunk on the strange city. From the windows, I saw men dressed in traditional robes, the deep blue of the doorways and shutters. I smelled street food and spices mixed with dust.
“The taxi stopped at our hotel. While it waited before the big glass doors, I was to get ready for dinner and even though I knew it was waiting, I took my time. In front of the full-length mirror, I changed into one of the most beautiful dresses I’ve ever owned. Long and black, it caught the littlest light and shimmered. I prepared myself slowly. It’s good to leave a man waiting, to build his anticipation.
“The taxi driver opened the car door for me and as I stepped into it I became nervous for the first time. But as we drove through Tunis’s streets, through the blur of city lights, my nervousness left me. I opened the window and let in the warm, fresh air. I was being driven through a foreign city, wearing a beautiful dress, going to see the man I loved. I don’t know what happened to me during that moment, but it was as if everything was perfect and right, beautiful in a way I cannot explain. I fell in love with the country.
“At the restaurant, nothing was what I expected. The man put his arms around me and kissed me, but not with the passion I had imagined. I had completely forgotten about his business partners. After introductions, my lover pulled out my chair where I sat and we ate dinner as the men had a boring conversation. The best parts of the trip were the taxi rides through Tunis, when I had been alone.
“Of course, the man couldn’t be who I wanted him to be. I was smart to fall in love with Tunisia. Since that trip I have gone back many times. Have you ever been to Tunisia?”
I shook my head and told her I had never thought about going to Tunisia. But as she talked about the country and showed me the things she had bought there, the pastel tunics and the pail of blue paint, my curiosity was piqued.
“You must go if only for the color blue. It’s the most beautiful blue I have ever seen. In a city not far from Tunis, Sidi Bou Saïd, there are whitewashed houses with doors and windows painted this blue. You must go there. I don’t have many years left, but I want to live some of them in Sidi Bou Saïd. I am drawn there. Some days I think of nothing else.”
Grosdana stubbed out her last cigarette of the night and pushed herself off the couch to get ready for bed. I remained there until she was done, picturing a Tunisia where villages looked almost Greek, scattered between the desert and sea.
~ ~ ~
Early the following morning, I stood on the main road waiting for the bus back to Naples. From Naples I would take the overnight train to Palermo in Sicily, stay a few days, then go to Trapani, where I would catch the ferry to Tunis, as Grosdana had explained over breakfast. In Palermo I could sort out the details online at an internet cafe. Rain fell while I waited for the bus. The only other faces passed alone in their cars. Tires pulled up rips of water, windshield wipers oscillated frantically, and headlights smeared white on the wet pavement.
When the bus came, I tossed my dripping backpack on the floor and rested my head against a steamed window. I felt crazy pushing on like this, going to a continent I knew nothing about. North Africa made Europe seem easy, similar to the States, familiar. I thought of Grosdana and the pride in her voice when she said that word, crazy. I felt it, too.
Amber Paulen is currently continuing her studies at Columbia University in New York after more than a decade of living and traveling in and out of Europe. In the fourteen years between starting and finishing university she has worked many jobs in many cities. “The Spinster of Atrani,” was previously published in Front Porch Journal and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.