Andrew cracked his butter knife through the shrimp’s pink shell. Droplets of olive oil flung across the table. One landed on Gillian’s cyan blouse. She had called the color cyan and had bought it for the honeymoon because she still tried to impress him.
“This is silk,” she said. “Can you ask the waiter for club soda?”
“We’re in Italy, bella. Try to speak-a Italian.” Andrew waved his pinched fingers in that Roman way. The stain began to set.
The waiter appeared carrying a beaten brass pot adorned with an acorn-nubbed lid. When he lifted it, a smell of stewed thyme and roasted garlic wafted through the restaurant. Fish bits, half-shelled clams, and fatty prawns lay drowned in the boiling stock.
Andrew had read an article, “Amalfi’s Festival of the Holy Skull” on The New York Times travel site. Twice a year, St. Andrew’s head was revealed to tourists and worshippers. He had emailed Gillian a link with the subject, “How amazing would this be?”
“The soda,” Gillian said.
“Scusi,” Andrew said. “Bigoni bikini acqua di club.”
“Bikini?” The waiter turned. “Bikini are for the butts.”
Gillian pointed to the glass on the table. She had wanted to honeymoon in Hawaii, the Big Island, where people spoke English and it was all-inclusive.
“Ah, si, si, bella donna della mare.” The waiter fluttered off.
“This language is too poetic. Just because every word ends in a vowel, doesn’t change the words’ meaning. A melody is only half a song’s harmony. The Anglo-Saxon’s were right to chop down the falso romance,” Gillian said. She dipped her napkin into the still water and dabbed the spot.
“There you go,” Andrew said.
The article also mentioned La Trattoria di Gemma. It was nestled in a sea cliff above St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Diners could see the tiered, colored homes of Amalfi dripping down to the ocean below. There were yachts bobbing in the distance, their lights illuminated hoops of water. Everything seemed contained in a large dome. That morning, they had gone to the cathedral to witness the unveiling. Sixty steps led up to the black and white striped cathedral. The inside was plainer than most Italian churches, more Moorish than Renaissance the tour guide had told them. In the crypt, an ancient nun pulled a maroon, velvet curtain revealing a white coral altar and a head incased in glass. When it was revealed, the nun prostrated and wailed, repeating, mio santo, mio santo
Andrew scooped a clam from underneath the broth. “Maybe l’ll move here and become a fish monger. You can learn to really cook.”
“I make us meals all the time at home.” Gillian rubbed, hoping to erase the stain, but she only spread the oil. “Do you see the waiter? It must be club.”
“You’re the one who said you wanted to study different cuisines.”
“I don’t think I could eat a fish if I saw its eyes.”
“I’m not Catholic anymore,” Andrew said, “but when I saw people praying to St. Andrew’s head, I felt like my name meant something.”
When Gillian first saw the head, she so badly wanted to sob like the sister so Andrew would see she understood the depth of it all. But it reminded her of a swollen Yukon gold potato. It had no distinguishing facial features — no sockets, no nose, no lips or chin. It looked weathered, eroded to a mummified ball. She imagined children tossing it back and forth.
Abandoning the napkin, Gillian folded her blouse at the stain’s center and scrubbed the wet silk together.
“It was a holy mind, preserved for centuries so people could worship it. And that altar. A sculptor spent twenty years carving it out of white coral to enshrine my saint’s head.” Andrew flayed the fish. “Taste? I should buy you a cookbook,” he said.
“I think I could cook this food. It’s about having the right kitchen.”
“They say the batter makes the bat.” He ate a whole scallop.
“Saint Andrew demanded to be crucified on a saltire cross because he thought himself unworthy to die in the same position as Jesus.” The pot had become a cemetery of fish exoskeletons. “Americans don’t see life as one big symbol.”
Gillian did. She had said yes when Andrew asked her to marry him because he wore a fitted jacket — a symbol for intelligence. She had loved laborers, mostly.
“I could become a coral carver,” he said it as if it were a revelation.
“What are you talking about?” she said.
“Life and what I want from it.”
“I think you should say we now.”
“You don’t want to cook, Gill, that’s fine, we’ll find you a new hobby.”
“That’s not the point, and I think you know it.”
“What’s the point?”
“You’re attached to nothing.” The stain had become a splotch that covered her right breast.
“Dolce?” The waiter said.
“Two tiramisus,” Andrew said.
“Just one,” Gillian said, “and the soda.”
The waiter snapped once and left.
Quickly, he returned with a goblet of tiramisu. Andrew shaved the side of his fork through the layers of sponge cake soaked in espresso. His mouthful had a glob of the whipped mascarpone topped with bits of chocolate. He ate it and moaned and Gillian wondered if Andrew closed his eyes right then, could he tell her the original color of her blouse.
It may have been the way he said it or that he said it before bothering to completely swallow, as if he knew before the tiramisu even arrived that he’d make sure she understood not ordering one was a mistake, but at that moment Gillian imagined leaping into the sea and swimming towards a twinkling yacht.
Instead, she picked up her fork and stabbed his desert. She closed her lips around it and bit hard into the metal prongs.
“Far too sweet,” she said, and the waiter reappeared with a cup of club soda.