The last time I spoke to my husband was a year ago, he contacted me- first time since the separation hearing- because he got a letter informing him that he had to pay property tax on our flat, and it wasn’t fair. As I read his name, there was a flood of emotion. Not hatred, not hatred. Just the memory of when his name went with mine, when we were tied up together. His name, his name, the name I was forced to sign after my own on the act of sale when we bought the apartment, even though I didn’t take his stupid name because I didn’t want to, and I already had my own double barrelled name anyway. But they were all men around the table.
There was the ancient white haired notary, impeccable, ivory hands like a pope’s, latest in a long line of king’s lackeys, Oh the money that man skims off the top. The cream of my life’s earnings. Then my father, shaking hands and knocking his fist on the table, asking if it’s mahogany, one piece? What a table. One solid piece of wood. One of these for the office, eh? Waggling his eyebrows at me. So alien to us, the legal, the formal world. He’s a businessman, there’s a certain amount of respect for him even though he’s scruffy and unconventional with bitten cuticles and a battered leather briefcase. Me, dressed up nice, makeup, well groomed for an Irish woman but not quite up to Italian standards. I was just a little girl to them, playing house, peering over the shoulders of the men. And there we were, my dad, my Papi, who was getting more estranged from me every day, and my husband, and then the owner, a weasly man waving his hand sickly to indicate all the properties he owned, who regarded our odd little family with some disgust. Foreigners, and an Italian who didn’t drive or dress in the style he could clearly afford to. Those men, they just looked at me blankly as I said I didn’t want to sign his name after mine on all the documents.
Why should I? I elected not to take his name when we married. Isn’t a signature something important, something expressive? How could I SIGN a name that isn’t mine? They just looked at me and said “that’s how we do things in Italy.” I said no, it’s not my name. There were so many pages in that document, each to be signed. Each page. And it wasn’t my name. But my dad said this isn’t Ireland, this is how it goes here. I bristled. The little notary added, trying to help, trying to move it all along, because his time was more money than I could imagine, he said “it’s so we know who you are, who the document is talking about.” Without my husband’s name at the end, presumably, I could have been anyone, anyone. I wonder if an unmarried couple buys a house, how the hell anyone knows whose name that is, with the female name, the name unattached to any man mentioned. Who is she, if not someone’s wife?
But this feminist blather, I couldn’t even begin to verbalise. I was outnumbered, and making too much of it, so I swallowed the bile and gracelessly signed around 80 times, 80 times, like I’d been a bad girl, 80 times to drill it into me, Abby Natascha Di Gianni Flicker in Garcia Ramirez, over and over as the men watched until I had hot tears stinging my eyes, and I fell into a place where the words had a beat, and it drummed through my fingers, Abby Natascha Di Gianni Flicker in Garcia Ramirez, again and again and again and my fingers cramped and seized up, it wasn’t fair, nothing was fair, I was buying a lousy little apartment that needed work, and I was the only one of us with any money at all, and I was putting my every penny into the notary fees, to pay the little man, and the estate agent fees, so Graziella could have her Jimmy Choos, the odious woman, almost deformed by her sense of style. Blue mascara and perma tan and frosted lips, and everything so bright and lifted, a sad caricature of youth.
All my money, my grandparents’ generous gift to me, into this apartment with this man, and I loved him still then, but then I know that I had learnt to love alongside hate, too. Stubbornly, because I didn’t want to let go of love wherever I found it, it was too intoxicating. And I sort of always hated him, from the beginning, when he was awful and cruel and used me. And made me feel stupid, or invalid, or like a silly woman, when I was so much cleverer than him. Perhaps that was why he did it.
So I handed over the money, all those thousands, I never saw money like that before or since, and the notary thanked me but it was nothing to him. It was just some kids playing house, plankton, and he had such big fish. But it was all the money I ever had. And then three years later, a year ago, maybe, he emails me, this man whose name I signed with mine, his name brings me back to that table made from one piece of mahogany and impregnated with the metallics of sweat and money. And after his name, after I let myself float off into venomous memory, it subsides, and I can read the message.
We haven’t spoken in so long, it’s surreal to converse with him. Scary, because for so long he’s inhabited a world that’s unchangeable, fixed- that is, the past, but now he’s writing to me and I remember how volatile and poisonous he became, so I’m very aware that this exchange now is not fixed, this is all being written as I write, as I choose my reply. Choose carefully. He holds some power still, to fuck with my life. So I read and reread, and think before I type. He says they’re asking him for property tax, but it’s not fair, because he doesn’t even live in the apartment, so why should he pay? Oh, fair. That word. What is fair? Who teaches us the word, even? What use does it have? The last time you could judge a thing to be fair, I believe it was a birthday party and somebody was cutting the cake with Pythagoras theorems and a spirit level. I point my index finger at the computer screen and its neighbours squeeze tight into a fist. It’s a strange gesture, I’ve never made it before. But I must be physical, or I’ll burst something in my head. My jaw is clenched too.
Oh you you you… Not fair. Not fair to leave me with the whole mortgage, and all those old bills, and never pay, knowing if you don’t I will, and if I don’t, my father has to, because he’s our guarantor. And all the money I put in, and all the money my dad put in, and then you say it’s not fair I get to live in the apartment.
When I told my lawyer, the bitch with the sexless frame stamped in Versace, when I told her he moved out, and never paid me another cent, she told me firmly, you’re a fool. she didn’t think much of my dad or I. She was polite to him, and talked to me like I hadn’t just got married too young, but more like I’d come over from Estonia and given my passport and money to a man in a van who claimed he was a modelling agent. She glared at me as I spoke, her jaw sharp enough to castrate, and I never knew if I was giving her too much information or too little, but she thought I was a damned fool for not trying to get anything from him when we split, and not just that, but to lose money too.
I asked her if I could sue him for the money he owed me, but she said no, there was no point, it would cost more to sue than I’d get back. And he could just skip the country anyway. That wasn’t fair. Debt is an awful thing, it hangs around your neck like a bag of rocks, and it hurts because it’s heavy but also you remember when you picked up those rocks, and you remember that you made that choice for yourself, back then, and you didn’t care it would hurt now because it was good then. It was hard to be stuck in Italy for a year on my own, with a separation, having lost my closest ally in the country, and custody of all our friends, and with my little sisters wanting to cheer me up but lacking the tools, because they were too young. And with that debt, but it was worse still because it wasn’t my debt, and I hadn’t picked up the rocks.
They were his, him, the man with the name, the name they slapped on me, and he left when he wanted, he moved on as soon as he was ready, he met a new girl, kept the visa from our marriage, met his new girl. An Italian. She’s older than me, less attractive, simpler looking. The kind of girl a man would go crazy to love, because she’d make him happy. Not me. I don’t make men happy. I drag them down, and up, and down again. I’m sweet sometimes but then maybe too sweet, and then I’m all claws and pathos and I need, need need. And I’m not sure of anything but I’m passionate about it all, passionately optimistic, but nihilistic, and obsessive and compulsive and impulsive and lazy and hopeless and full of scorn. A woman like that, all simplicity, grounded, real; god, I’ve looked down on that kind of wman but she could make a man happy.
I don’t feel jealous, no, he’s a stranger now, I look at his face and I don’t even know if I remember anything about him, anything I used to know, his secrets, his face, the lines… Oh yes, but there were lines under his eyes, in a sort of network, I remember looking at them, scrutinising his face and thinking he’s older than me, he’ll die first, and I’ll be so lonely without him. But that was another face, and another version of me. there isn’t a grain left of the girl who loved him or cared if he lived or died. I’m not jealous, not of that petty, greedy, mean bully. I’m not jealous. It just feels sad, sometimes, that the people who aren’t good enough for me, supposedly, well, they’re much more capable of finding happiness. Simplicity, and perhaps humility. I find it harder now,because I want so much, and I start to wonder if all my self satisfaction isn’t just self soothing, and maybe i don’t have anything to offer a man after all.
Maybe I’m just young, and men are attracted to me, and I’m intelligent, so I tell myself I’m this full package, this wonderful woman, too good for most I meet. But I’m lonely, now, sometimes. Not in my own thoughts. It’s the physical space, it starts to feel like time for me to move on, onto someone, try it again, more sensible this time, less of a fool, or a different kind of fool. I’m not jealous he moved on, I’m just sad that he’s better at it than I am, that I’m the one still recalling these moments with anger because he’s the last person to share my life, and I haven’t found someone to fill that space since, not really. And tonight, he wrote to me again, a year since we last exchanged some curt, emotionless words, and tonight he asks not for money, but for information. When are we getting divorced? When can we apply? Can we already? Are we good to go?
It occurs to me, he wants to marry his girlfriend. I tell him October. We’ll need a lawyer. A lady told me we could share one, if it’s amicable. I snorted.
Amicable, like our marriage. He never hit me.
He never hit me. But I took a fucking pummelling.
Tonight I tell him October, and I’m about to say we need a lawyer, but I choose not to. I don’t need to enter a discussion with him now. I can’t bear to let him back into my reality. He’s boxed up, fixed, sealed, he stays the same, in the past. If I engage with him now, I can’t… it’s all old. It’s all been pored over, I’ve woven all my own justifications around the past, processed everything, and now I’m firmly in the right, and I didn’t hurt him, no, he deserved it. And anyway I was hurt too. And he got a visa, and I got his debt. So it’s all set in stone, and let it rest. Please.
But sooner or later i’ll have to not just engage, but speak face to face with him.
With husband. Dick.
The last time I saw Dick was Italy, two years ago, and I had lost weight and given up smoking and I felt so good and happy to be casting off the things that held me, that saddened me. I wore a blue dress I’d bought before our wedding, that I’d considered getting married in but it was a bit tight and then it got too tight altogether as I put on weight.
I had never worn it before, and he didn’t know it was nearly my wedding dress. But I knew, and it gave me a secret power. I wore it confidently, looking great, looking much better than I looked on my wedding day. I felt better. I felt free, or closer to it than ever. In the pit of my stomach was a little twisted piece of pleasure, because I was wearing a dress I couldn’t wear while we were together, and now I was better, a better version of myself without him. We met outside and walked in, the Palazzo di giustizia, big awful hideous eyesore, reminds me always of the Ministries in 1984. Minitru, Miniluv… We walked past staircase A, B, C… it’s a huge complex. A path runs all around, and it takes ages. Lawyers everywhere. The invisible strings of money and power whipping past as heels clicked neatly. Ball stomping heels.
We made small talk. Waited outside the courtroom, finally were ushered in. An old man, a beautiful old man with crinkled eyes and an appropriately gentle smile for us, in a little room. He was the judge, apparently. I expected an amphitheatre of a court room. Of course it wouldn’t be that. It was a little office. We sat in rows facing the judge. Mari Angela, my lawyer. Dick. Me. I remembered our wedding day. The stony faced registrar asking do you, and Dick bellowed “ABSOLUTELY.” And I was embarrassed, a little, and annoyed that he did it and not I, and then I was going to be the boring one who said I do.
But the judge read our statement made nine months before when we had really split, and the terms of the separation, which I craned my neck to see because I remembered his tears falling on the page and a sick part of me wanted to see the smudged writing. We agreed and signed, and I signed my own name, and then the judge said you are now legally separated, and I wish you the best of luck. And his eyes were on mine as he said that, and I got a feeling of his wishing me well, specifically me, and his understanding, in those eyes, of what I had escaped from, the sad stifled life. I felt he must see so many couples do what we did, and he must catch these glimpses. But his eyes sought me out, and I thought he recognised me and understood. And I felt the whoosh of freedom, and my mouth stretched out into a grin, and I begged myself to stop grinning, to switch it off, go back to the sombre divorce face, it was so rude, so cruel to grin, god, no, and Dick there looking sad and lost. I couldn’t stop smiling so I smirked, but that was awful too, so I strained and strained and covered my face with a hand and scratched my nose, desperately. But the smile leaked out anyway and I was just grateful my body didn’t break out into a dance, or leap into the air, because it felt like it might have.
Oh, to be truly free. October, October. How long will it take and how much will it cost, to get there?
To finally leave him behind, Dick, his name, his face, his part in my life.