Of All the Spoiled Places

Amy R. Martin


London is tainted. Do you know the way a slug or snail leaves a sticky silver slime in its wake? That’s what they did to London for me—my London, where I’d been besotted by Cassandra Austen’s pencil-and-watercolor sketch of her sister Jane behind glass on a plinth in Room 18 of the National Portrait Gallery. But London is where my husband watched his lover play Ultimate, when he was supposed to be working in Canary Wharf, then joined her and her friends at a pub. He kept his wedding ring on; she called him “a friend,” but they all knew what he was to her, and one even said, “You’ve got yourself a real silver fox there.” London is where he worked, and, as it turns out, where she worked, and where, when together, neither worked. Dublin is stained, too, because she is Irish. My Irish friend Nuala hates that she is Irish: “She gives Irish girls a bad name.” Now, when I think of Dublin, I can’t help but think of her, of them. It’s a shame, the stain, because I always wanted to go to the Long Room, the main chamber of the Old Library at Trinity College, walk beneath its barrel-vaulted ceiling, between its double-story-high bookshelves and long sash windows, and smell the books. I love the smell of old books, that heady brew of grass, almond, vanilla, sometimes even coffee or chocolate, sweet and smoky. Biblichor, I’ve seen it called, the smell of ink, paper, and glue degrading; makes me think of vellichor, the melancholy one feels among books trapped in and trapping time, books I’ll never have time to read. Vienna is where they first took each other to bed at a hotel—so it, too, has a mark. Last time I was in Vienna, I ate sachertorte and saw the Lipizzaner horses. I didn’t like the sachertorte, which was too dense and too dry (though the coffee, topped with whipped cream, was superb). And the Lipizzaners? Rapt, tearful, I watched them once, as they rehearsed the haute école movements of classical dressage, while my husband bribed our children outside the arena with ice cream and a horse-drawn carriage ride (children weren’t allowed inside). Vienna had been my grandmother’s favorite city, so I’d esteemed it. But of all the places they spoiled for me, the worst is Sicily. The villa I rented for our family vacation slouched in a gated citrus grove in Riposto, at the base of Mt. Etna, on the Ionian Sea. The lemons on the trees were the size of globes. In Taormina we walked along the Corso Umberto, and I marveled at #81, the Hotel Victoria, where Oscar Wilde stayed. (“I can resist everything except temptation,” he wrote.) At the Bam Bar we ate brioche and granita, and the waiter wouldn’t bring one of our daughters a scoop of chocolate with a scoop of lemon, although that’s what she’d asked for. “No!” he practically shouted, and we jumped. “I will bring you arancia and limone.” A better combination of flavors. “Why can’t I have what I want?” she asked me. On the way to my father-in-law’s birthplace, a small mountain town to the west of Messina, my husband reached for my hand as he drove, while the whole family sang Jidenna’s “I’m a Classic Man,” and we laughed at the sun and the sky, the toe of mainland Italy across the water, and our youngest daughter saying the name of one of the nearby towns, “Giarre,” over and over again in a perfect Italian accent, a slight roll of the tongue in her r‘s. In a cable car ride up the slope of Mt. Etna, this same daughter jumped up and down, up and down, rocking the car wildly back and forth, the terrain below brown and smoking and otherworldly, my hands braced against the grimy, scratched windows of the car, my eyes wide as I looked across at my husband, and though I tried to laugh I really just felt like I was dying—or about to. I spent our week in Sicily looking at the top of my husband’s head as he texted on his phone. Always texting…texting…texting. I spent that week trying to get his attention. Look at me, I willed him. Be here now. Back at the villa we stepped over the black millipedes and peeled them from our red tile floors and our yellow walls (they seemed to be multiplying, we had to step gingerly, they were everywhere that night, wily and worming, like they knew something was coming, my god where were they all coming from?) It was April and still cold at night, so he disappeared down the outside stairs to get firewood. Time passed. So much time. The children and I waited, nibbled on biscotti and sipped San Pellegrino. Finally, in irritation, I retracted my soft parts, went to the top of the stairs, called down to him, “What are you doing? Why is it taking so long? Are you okay?” And, seconds later, he rounded the corner, a blot on the landscape, cradling the wood like I cradled our babies but not looking me in the eye, his phone a lighted rectangle in his pocket. The body knows betrayal a split-second before the mind knows it, and my body closed like a fist.


Amy R. Martin is a screenwriter, essayist and mother of four based in Vienna, Virginia. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama and her book reviews and interviews in the Southern Review of Books. She has an MFA from the Queens University of Charlotte.