Mauro Covacich’s short story, translated by Marino D’Orazio, “The Bride,” appears in Michigan Quarterly Review’s Fall 2019 issue.
He motioned for her to climb up and she jumped in. What luck finding someone willing to stop in this weather; usually they spot you at the last minute and keep going. They’re afraid to put on the brakes, or that you’ll get their seats all wet. Another minute or so and she would have given up, instead here she is all cozy, she and her dress, together with this guy with a mustache. Thank you. Tesekkur ederim. No Turkish? Where do you come from? Nothing. She hasn’t been able to extract anything from him except a tight-lipped smile. And yet he looked like a Turk, she would have bet on it. So where is he from? Syria? Lebanon? A glance at the license plate would have helped, if only it hadn’t been raining like that and she hadn’t been so happy to see him pull over. There had been a moment when she almost gave up. The dark, the wind blasts from the rigs, all that spray within which drivers’ lives proceeded, compressed. An unexpected sense of hostility. I’ll count to sixty and turn back. It had taken her less than half an hour to reach the highway from the center of the city; she could look for a little hotel and leave again at first light. But then he showed up.
What made him stop? You can’t say it was the dress—sometimes that’s the reason they take off. What is a woman in a bride’s dress, is she really a bride? Form and substance—she’s always pondered this. Take a leaf from a plane tree and cut it into the shape of an olive leaf: what is it now, a plane leaf or an olive leaf? Crochet a penis: what is it, a pot holder or a penis?
He’s relaxed as he drives, one hand at the bottom of the steering wheel, the other clutching the stick shift, his three external fingers holding his cell phone as if he’s just about to use it, although in the twenty minutes since she’s gotten in, he hasn’t made or received any calls, and now she finds herself thinking that in fact that little Nokia, not the latest model, is the only proof that her angel in a mustache isn’t mute. But what’s the difference, the project doesn’t require that she talk with everyone who offers her a ride. Isn’t traveling together on a rainy night, confined in the same cab moving quickly away from the outskirts of Istanbul toward the cosmic expanses of Asia, already an intimate form of intercourse? Aren’t they already communicating? She decides to stop focusing on things for a while and rests her head on the window, savoring the warm breath of the heater in her hair.
Only now that she’s alone has the trip really begun. She understood it as soon as they said good-bye. Silvia agreed with her right away. Two girls hitchhiking in wedding gowns look like two girls in costume—an apparition somewhere between folk revival and student prank—but one girl hitchhiking in a wedding gown is a bride. Immediately, for everybody, nothing but that: a bride who’s waiting, sitting on a guardrail. By separating they would be able to maximize the symbolic value of their performance. All the vulnerability, the confidence, the faith of a young woman offering herself in marriage to the world. e very image of purity thrown into the arms of another. Some might have said into the jaws of another, but their project was conceived precisely as a protest against the paranoid cynicism of advanced societies. Our worst enemy is paranoia, men and women withering away bunkered in houses equipped with panic rooms and video surveillance cameras. If you expose yourself to casual contact with a nice smile you’ll be rewarded. She has the proof, she has always traveled this way. The pilgrim has no reason to fear human beings, least of all if she’s a new bride. Each ride a wedding, dirtying the dress but renewing, almost intensifying, her purity.
Who knows if he’s asking himself why she’s dolled up this way. She would love to explain to him that he’s also part of the performance. Her husband on this part of the road. Together they’re staging again the ceremony, the union. They’re repeating the message with another interpretation, different from the preceding ones and the ones to follow. A very silent wedding ceremony uniting the world through them. e dress cries out to the four winds, I believe in you, in all of you, but it needs someone to help her show it. Helpful husbands. She’s had plenty who wouldn’t shut up, plenty of nosy ones. She’s had truck driver husbands, traveling salesman husbands, professor wives, whole families for husbands. She’s married a lot of people. One went fifty kilometers out of his way in order to take her where she was going. Another invited her to dinner at his mother’s house in a village near Banja Luca. They all collaborated. Without knowing it, this is what he is on this short ride in the night: her collaborator, the artist’s assistant.
If their eyes meet, he smiles and raises his eyes to the roof of the cabin. She smiles back, feigning that she’s tired, trying to show that she’s grateful for their silence. She’s tempted to take his picture for her blog, but is afraid to be mistaken for the typical pretentious tourist, or worse, for a nut. is way, with her filthy backpack and ankle-length dress shaped like a lily, she’s still an unresolved presence in his mind, she’s sure of it. As she gradually dries out, she feels the muscles in her back becoming less tense and her whole body sliding down a little to occupy her seat better. Outside, the last stretch of illuminated highway has given way to the thick darkness of the countryside. Perhaps in daylight you can see the mountains, but now everything is dissolved in the intergalactic blackness that slides along the window with the rivulets of rain, interrupted only by the painful glare of their fellow travelers, terrestrials caught on the E-80 by the first serious spring downpour.
The guy seems used to driving in bad weather. He hasn’t changed the rhythm of the windshield wipers even though the visibility has gotten worse. He maintains a constant speed. As soon as he finishes passing someone, he reacquires a safe distance. If it weren’t for that cell phone he holds with the knob of the stick shift like a second ball to serve, everything would make you think that he’s enjoying a beautiful stormy evening. He’s probably around fifty, almost bald with a small tuft of very black hair just above his forehead. A working man, although judging from his shirt and his hands, not a laborer. Maybe he’s Bulgarian—in Bulgaria she’s seen a lot of men with the same mustache and eyebrows—but she doesn’t want to ask any more, looking for clues in the truck so she can figure it out on her own.
She realizes now that the cab is devoid of any knickknacks: no pendants, no rubber bands, no notes or photos or magnets, no cocktail decorations in the heating vents, no pennants, no suction cups except the one for the GPS. e dashboard seems recently wiped clean. In the coin slots, next to the glove box, all the coins are lined up in size order. ere are no catalogues or sample books in the door pockets, nothing that might provide a hint as to what type of cargo is traveling in the back. Where are the cigarettes? Could he be the first in these parts to have given up smoking? The half-open ash- tray would seem to indicate otherwise, but on closer inspection she notices that the only thing inside is the now almost completely unscented residue of the vanilla car deodorant. It’s as if they had delivered the truck to him a minute before he saw her, but not even a truck rental could achieve this result. Every object her eye falls on looks used and at the same time without a story. The windbreaker on the middle seat certainly doesn’t look brand new, yet the collar is immaculate, the cuffs still perfectly elastic.
She tries to dismiss her discomfort—this man has just rescued her from the downpour and won’t stop smiling at her—but a new feeling begins to spread its abundant toxins in her brain, producing something that is still far from true concern, but nevertheless causes her to stiffen in her seat. She looks at her boots, they’re almost unrecognizable. The white has disappeared, just like at the bottom of her dress, from which thick muddy designs are rising. The hem, in the back, after having been stepped on so much, has become a brown rag full of holes. Does her angel with a mustache see the beauty in all this? Has he guessed what the trip is about? The husbands, the dress’s memory? Is he disgusted by it? What does he make of her? No girl running away from her wedding would still be wearing her gown, and she seems too happy to have been recently abandoned. But verisimilitude isn’t so necessary when a man begins to judge you. The runaway bride, the unsatisfied woman, the unrepentant adulterer, the nymphomaniac. She too has seen the movies with the brides who let the best man screw them in the restaurant bathroom during the wedding dinner. They forced her to watch them so she’d be prepared. She has hitchhiked across over continents and no one has been less than correct, like this poor guy, who now, for no apparent reason, she’s begun to doubt. She’s disturbed by the negative direction her thoughts are taking. Stupid ruminations, handmaidens to boredom and silence. In the next town she’ll look for a place to sleep, tomorrow she’ll already be at the border. If everything goes as planned, in a little over a week, she’ll reunite with Silvia in Beirut.
She’d like to ask him to turn on the stereo. Any other time she wouldn’t have hesitated, but she abandons the idea even before it has fully formed, and besides there’s absolutely no sign of any CD’s (though there could be a CD changer in the back compartment)—that’s enough, just stop it. She’d like to hear him utter just one syllable, exchange a couple of words on the phone with a friend or his wife, the official one. She’d like to explain about the dress.
She hasn’t done that as much as she thought she would. Many ask her about everything but that. And yet that’s the object on display: the metonymy of the performance, symbol of an ecumenical mission through art. The shawl with traces of all the midwives whose feet she’s washed. The jacket turning gray, despite the almost daily use of liscivia. She’d like him to ask about liscivia. What’s liscivia? It’s ash, ash plus boiling water. Really? Oh God. She’d like to see him slap his leg, burst out laughing. She would tell him how she prepared it, about the afternoon when her friends brought her small objects dear to them—a draft card, a diary of I Ching sayings, a little wooden train—and they watched her burn them. Pieces of those friends left with her, reduced to ash. What is that mixture hidden in her backpack now? What is its substance, soap or cremated love? No one has given her the chance to explain, and surely he won’t be the one, this mute husband, to give her this satisfaction.
She looks at him again. It could just be shyness, or he might be thinking she’s possessed, like that guy in the Mercedes who wanted to be a wise guy and asked her if she was a professional hitchhiker, and after her answer, just stared at the windshield like he’d been guillotined.
Is being an artist so scandalous? And yet the world is full of women like her. Artists who let their cervixes be inspected by spectators with speculums and flashlights. Artists who decorate their breasts with scalpel cuts, or inject themselves with repeated doses of valium, or offer themselves naked on a table, providing spectators with weapons. Artists who jump in landfills, or walk blindfolded for five days along the edge of a mule path in the Andes. Artists who dip their feet in a bucket of blood and then trail the halls of ministries, marking the passage with their footprints. Artists who try to escape out of wet cement, or complete a walk all around Ireland with a fifteen-pound stone on their shoulder. Artists who endure sitting with legs spread on top of a steel pyramid, waiting to lose consciousness.
Embarrassment and scandal, the same sentiments provoked by the nudity of Christ on the cross. She and Silvia display their dresses, the White Dress, imbued with humanity’s goodness, with all the good deeds of citizens of violent and bloody countries, a lengthy collective gesture of hope for a future with lower levels of testosterone. The White Dress is a life choice, because artists are neither born nor made: art is simply the means through which one decides to take one’s vows.
She thinks about the family in Trieste that drove her up to the Croatian border, mistaking her for a nun. They were taking advantage of the father’s cardiology conference in Sarajevo to take a trip together. She removed the sash from her hair and displayed the dress for them. The little one’s name was Marco. He used the familiar tu like the modern kids all do. Where did you buy it? What did you pay for it? He had just discovered the effectiveness of money as a contrast dye and was following its revelatory pathways, despite his parents’ reprimands. I made it, so it would be just the way I wanted. The skirt is shaped like a lily; the veils look like petals, can you see? One for each country I visit during my trip. Here in the corner of each veil- petal I’ve embroidered a symbol of the country. The chess board for Croatia, the star for Bosnia, the crescent moon for Turkey, the cedar for Lebanon. See, they’re all enclosed in the same corolla. Are you the stem? Yes, Marco, I’m the stem and the flower. I’m the flower of all the people who welcome me like you have.
Is she also the flower of this man with the mustache? She’s not so sure any more. She begins to look with urgency at the highway signs. The first town—Gezbe—is five kilometers ahead. She decides that she’ll ask him to let her o there, even though she’s barely just gotten on. It saddens her to doubt her benefactor, but now it seems that her newfound attention to the road has awakened his curiosity, triggering an exchange of smiles and rapid looks that she doesn’t like at all. She hates falling victim to the most banal defense mechanisms—anxiety brings on heat ashes that each time leave her more disillusioned—but she’s already decided, which at least lets her keep at a dignified level the chain of thoughts that have ruined her evening. In fact, knowing that she’s getting o soon has helped her regain control. She’s already moved beyond the man’s animation, that new excitement in his eyes, the so-called bad experience she’ll laugh about with Silvia on the phone tonight. Not even the appearance of the cab worries her any more— such an impersonal space, aggressive in a way, like the little gardens where every so often, even now, they surprise some old Nazi official—even the guy’s silence is no longer a problem, nor the useless urgency of the cell phone he keeps clutching. They’re five kilometers away but she’s already arrived. This is the way professional hitchhikers file away unpleasant experiences. She touches the window with her forehead: that clump of lights on the hill above the overpass looks like a city. Gezbe will be enough tonight; the cosmic expanses of Asia can wait until tomorrow.
But the man has stopped smiling and now that muscle in his jaw is twitching, something new she needs to consider, whether she likes it or not. Like the fact that they’re pulling over at a space that’s neither a rest stop nor an exit—Gezbe is still just a tiny trickle of light on the horizon—and now he’s getting o to make a call in this downpour. Why doesn’t he call from the truck? What does he have to say that’s so secret that his wife can’t hear? And here, now, when for the first time perhaps the alarm begins to sound for real, God raises his eye following the camera boom, and the frame widens, and you can see the directional microphones, the spotlights, the sprayers for the rain, the sound man, the prop people, the stagehands, the cast’s trailers, and the generators on the other side of the barriers, and there won’t be any thirty year old sacrificed, and no new shroud, and the performance will be interrupted before becoming a parable and she’ll quickly say good night— Ciao guys! Ciao Pippa!—and like every other night, she’ll go straight to the production limo without even taking off her costume.
Translated from the Italian by Marino D’Orazio
Read more short stories like, “The Bride” by purchasing Michigan Quarterly Review’s Fall 2019 Issue.