Happy Valentine’s Day!
Even if you don’t buy into the commercial pressure to conform to textbook definitions of romance, and even if you’re one of those who says “I don’t need a day to love my [fella] / [gal] / [parrot], I can love them every day” – you can’t deny it’s fun to get bubbled up in a froth of giddiness! And if you’re single – go out and flirt for goodness’ sake!
Here is a short story I wrote about a disenchanted couple trying to stir some romance back into their lives. If romance can’t be ignited by stinking canals, overabundance of tourists and a dog licking its own penis, then it can’t be ignited by anything. Enjoy.
The Song of the Gondolier
by E. A. A. Wilson
Ah, Venezia bella. Imagine the labyrinth of architecture enveloping the charming little island city cut by crystalline canals. Narrow cobbled streets frame the gondoliers who paddle serene and winding canals. Listen! The gondolier serenades. His tones are soft, and the sound of the water at his oar as he glides a forward stroke is at once soothing and evocative.
This is where Mr. and Mrs. Grubfeldt were to rekindle the flames of their courting days, rediscover each other’s coital mysteries and once again embrace one another in the naked, fleshy inferno that is the true romance invariably strangled by marriage. For, after smelling her swollen husband’s body gases for nearing thirty-five years, Mrs. Grubfeldt finally snapped and demanded that he prove that his passions extended further than watching UFC and eating chicken wings dipped in butter. And to his unexpected credit, he got off his enormous behind and booked them a trip to Venice.
Within months (for spontaneous romance of this nature ought to be carefully prepared, outfits ought to be coordinated with shoes and exclamations such as “mi scusi, il cane sta leccando il suo pene”, ought to be perfected), Marty and Gail had checked into their hotel and dropped off the Louis Vuitton luggage Gail had bought for this purpose. On Gail’s insistence they were now seeking the pinnacle of bona fide Italian romance: The Gondola Ride. Gail’s bleached hair was newly permed, the camera was charged, and Mrs. Wazenski and Mrs. Cabot at the golf club would be most jealous upon viewing the photographic evidence of the Grubfeldts’ fiery new marriage.
They were carried along by the multicolored stream of tourists. A sea of T-shirts, baseball caps, backpacks, glow sticks and iPhones dipped and bobbed across the cobbles, and Gail and Marty fought their way through the mass, enduring other people’s elbows in their armpits. Bedraggled, they arrived at the line for the gondolas that the concierge at the hotel had pointed out on a map they had extracted from a vending machine.
“What’s that smell?” Gail screwed up her nose. “Sort of eggy mushrooms?” She made the same face she had made twenty minutes earlier on the other side of Piazzo San Marco when she had spotted a filthy Italian dog licking its tiny lipstick penis. “Oh God, Marty! It’s the canals!”
“What did you expect?” said Marty, a belch rolling out of his gullet as he spoke. “They’re toilets for Pete’s sakes. Pure piss.” He scrunched up the map and dropped it in the offending canal. It landed on a solid film of pollution.
“Please Marty, don’t be revolting. Oh dear, the magazine said the canals were crystalline. I wanted to see ‘the silhouettes of tiny fish playing in the wake of the gondola’.”
“There’s something floating over there, that could be a fish.”
Gail pressed a hand against her mouth to stem the rising nausea. She had a delicate frame and a fragile constitution. This was not romantic. She tried slipping her hand into Marty’s but he only grunted and stuffed his hands in his pockets.
“I hate tourists, Marty,” said Gail, dabbing her handkerchief against her cheeks. “Why do they have to ruin every romantic experience?”
“Damn foreigners,” grumbled Marty.
When they arrived at the front of the line and were about to board the one-way water journey to romance, Gail’s heart sank. He was, granted, wearing the red and white striped T-shirt as per Gail’s magazine, but she could see his nipple piercings through the material and she simply couldn’t forgive the jeans with a worn patch by the pocket where he clearly kept his keys. It was supposed to be romantic, not ordinary. Keys implied that the handsome gondolier had a house and maybe a fridge that he cleaned rotting vegetable juice out of from time to time, with other mundane needs of everyday life that certainly didn’t meet her vision. She pressed her lips together tightly.
“Buongiorno!” he sang, and opened his arms. Marty shouted something in return that was neither Italian nor English, and with a thud he stepped in to the narrow river boat, making it wobble and splashing eggy mushroom water into the hull. Gail covered her mouth with her handkerchief and held out her hand for Marty to help her in, but he was too busy settling his mass into the wooden pew to notice. He shuffled his weight around and released a vibrato of bodily gases.
Just as Gail prepared to scold her husband, a warm hand closed round her frail fingers. The gondolier helped her in with a smile.
“My name is Pio,” he said.
Gail sighed. Why couldn’t he have been called Giovanni, or Salvatore, or even Raffaelo?
Pio continued, still grinning. “You like cruise? We call this Italian cruise, no? Hah!”
“Now you look here, Luigi,” bellowed Marty. “We ain’t happy about payin’ you a hundred Euros for a boat ride, but we’ve been in that line for an hour. You better make this good.” And then with another burp, he added, “My marriage is on the line here.”
“Hah!” laughed Pio. “You want better price? For good price you go to Camp Sant Angelo, you find gondoliere sitting on stone steps that lead to San Stefano. He give you better price.” He put his hand on his heart and continued, “I, sadly, am regulated. But my friend, he charge whatever he wants!”
“Why in the hell would you tell us to go to your competitors?” asked Marty, his voice an octave higher than before. Gail settled in next to him and tried to snuggle up. He shrugged her off.
Pio just smiled, and soon Mr. and Mrs. Grubfeldt were gliding along the Grand Canal, with Pio navigating the heavy traffic of vaporetti, work barges, rubbish boats and all the every day traffic that made the pinnacle of bona fide Italian romance seem like the highway interchange back home in Dallas.
Pio didn’t serenade as he rowed. And neither did Marty. A hot dog wrapper floated past, and Gail watched as it bobbed and dipped in the gentle wake of the gondola. Then a droplet of water from Pio’s oar landed on it and it sank into the murky depths.
Pio’s muscles flexed as he manipulated the oar. A forward stroke and then a compensating backward stroke brought the gondola to a halt by the entrance of a brick house. Steps were leading from a door directly into the water. There was no rogue gondolier sitting on the steps, but there was a puddle of what looked like porridge and smelled like goat. Gail shrieked and grabbed her husband’s arm.
“What the hell are you stopping here for?” barked Marty. “You trying to rape us? You think I’m gay, you Ah-talian faggot?”
“No, no!” Pio laughed, holding his hands out in a gesture of gentility. “I bring you to Camp Sant Angelo like you say so you can get good price. You want to get out here? Nice architecture, molto bello! You get out here you pay me only twenty Euro, you wait for my friend Fico, he take you on his gondola. No? I keep going? Ok, I keep going.”
Soon after the Grubfeldts were almost raped by Pio at Camp Sant Angelo, they found themselves gliding along the canals described in Mrs. Grubfeldt’s magazine. Apartment blocks rose, with washing lines suspended between buildings and hosiery that was more colorful than necessary fluttered like the flags of European promiscuity. Gail shuddered. Though, if this trip succeeded in defrosting her marriage, she would perhaps invest in something silky, she decided.
“Ah, Ponte de Sospiri!” announced Pio. “The Bridge of the Sighs.”
An arch of carved white stone traversed the water between two giant billboards. “Ok, so you cannot see much of the bridge because of the billboards, but look, we have the picture of David Beckham!” Pio saluted David, who just pouted in return.
“We Italiano, we love football!” laughed Pio with a twinkle. “My team, Venezia, maybe one day we buy David Beckham, no?”
Marty grunted. “If by football you mean soccer, then it’s a sport for faggots and pussies.”
“Ah, the American faggots and pussies have good taste in sport.”
The gondola glided under the bridge, and Pio stopped rowing. He turned to his passengers, beaming.
“You kiss now. Kiss your lady, si? Give me your camera, I take photo. Kiss her! This is romantic, no?”
He took the camera out of Gail’s outstretched hand and began to poke at the touch screen display. “You kiss under the bridge! Very romantic. All the local Venetians do it, si, I promise.”
“I’m not going to kiss her with you looking at me like that, you faggot!” barked Marty. “You think I’m gay? Give me that!” He snatched the camera back, but the sudden shifting of his three-hundred pound bulk caused the gondola to rock and he flung his arms out to steady himself, sending the camera spinning through the air like a shot put. It smashed into the brick wall and thousands of pieces of shattered equipment rained into the brown water.
“Marty!” shrieked Gail. Tears were already spilling down her cheeks. “Oh, Marty, look what you did.” Protecting her newly permed hairstyle, she leaned over the side of the boat to reach for the camera strap that was floating beside them.
“No, signora! Leave it! It is dangerous to lean out of the gondola!” Pio stepped across and grabbed Gail by the elbow to steady her.
“Get your hands off my wife, faggot!”
“Signor, I try to help!”
“Only person touching my wife is me, you hear?” Marty grabbed hold of Gail and held her tight. “You just stick to sailing this boat, you’ve already lost me my camera and I don’t want you to lose me my wife.” He looked into Gail’s eyes, wet and bloodshot with clumps of mascara smeared into the lids. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, and kissed her on the forehead. “It was insured.”
“Hah!” laughed Pio. “You kiss your woman under Ponte de Sospiri! Very romantic!”
Gail blew her nose and stuffed the tissue back into her sleeve. “Just keep going, Pio.”
The gondola bobbed along until it came to a smooth stop in a water-based traffic jam between walls of damp brickwork. There were gondolas loaded with tourists jammed into the tight space with the Grubfeldts’ little black boat. A garbage boat emitted yellow fumes of rubbish, and a man sitting at the back of a vaporetto was playing an accordion over the sound of a tourist kid screaming.
“Honk, dammit!” demanded Marty. “Hey you! Get out of the way! We’re trying to get through here!”
“This music is beautiful ,” sighed Gail, trying not to smell the garbage boat. “Isn’t it, Marty?” She put her hand on his knee. Sensing something, Marty didn’t swat it away but instead placed his own over hers. “I’m not angry with you about the camera,” she continued, her voice still thick but much softer. “We don’t need it really—romance is about feeling, not seeing.”
“Get moving, Pio,” Marty growled as the gondola traffic jam slowly dispersed. “What are you waiting for?”
“Red light, signor,” smiled Pio. “I wait for it to change.”
Soon the swishing of the oar once again disturbed the sludgy water, and Gail leaned in to Marty and put her head on his shoulder. She closed her eyes.
Pio smiled, and began to hum.
Gail and Marty did not explore each other’s hot and fleshy mysteries in their hotel room that night. Instead they ordered room service and ate it in bed watching Oprah Winfrey. It’s also true that Gail went home with no photos to show Mrs. Wazenski and Mrs. Cabot of her beautiful perm against a backdrop of crystalline canals and Italian architecture. Marty continued to belch and fart for the remainder of their marriage. But ever since their romantic visit Marty and Gail Grubfeldt hold hands a little more often.