By the Pantheon

Weike Wang

The wife has asked the tour guide what happens when it rains. There is a hole in the ceiling that is open to the sky. Here the tour guide pauses. A slight twitching of the mouth, the cheeks, her forehead tightens. The wife can see what she wants to say: Americans. That is not a hole but an oculus. Rain? This is art. Except instead of art, the tour guide often says l’art.

From the get go, the wife knew that she would not like this girl. Part of her dislike was envy. She had once been young, bold. Tossing her chin up, she would have said it too. This is art.

Actually, the wife has never said anything like that, and no one who knew her would have described her as bold.

There are pros to going on vacation with a tour—the convenience, all inclusive—but the wife mentions one con: less chance of getting lost. Her husband, who is retired but worked for three decades in a bank, asks Why do you want to get lost? That is valuable time wasted. Though they are not rich, they are comfortable.

The tour guide holds up a bright-orange umbrella. It is the universal sign for let’s keep moving. There are other tours here as well. A plastic sunflower. A Chinese flag. Another umbrella, but polka-dotted. A balloon animal. The balloon animal is attached to the arm of a mime. The wife soon realizes that he is not a tour guide at all. He is just here selling balloons. He mimes his own advertisement, that he will fashion the balloon into anything your heart desires.

How about into the likeness of a good and faithful wife? she asks. But he puts his hands up. Sorry, no inglese.

• •

The scene outside: A bag shop. A shoe store. A boutique with dresses made from the thinnest of fabric, gauze-like and invisible, hugs every curve, shows every inch. Could she pull that off? The wife hovers at the window display and finally decides No, don’t be absurd. What else is there to do here besides shop? Eat. At every street corner, a colorful gelatoria, two men in white aprons, silver scoopers, hair slicked back with gel or sweat. Late spring. Early summer. Waiters in metallic suits stand outside noisy restaurants and thrust menus into her hands, Please, lady, ma’am, miss, sit down, have a water, have a spritz. She wishes she could but she must follow the tour group to another piazza. This new piazza looks similar. Were they going around in circles? The streets, so congested, the traffic, fast moving. No one would know if this was the same piazza as before. No one would care. A bag shop. A shoe store. Then out into the streets again.

Up ahead is her husband, taking pictures. He takes wonderful pictures. The angle, the colors, he always seems to get these things right. He says it is the art history student in him, which is an ongoing joke between them because he took only one art history class in college and did horribly. Though something he does remember from that class is this French art technique. He forgets the term but it is when a two dimensional painting can look real. The husband goes on a little more. Somehow this technique is linked to a contest between two feuding painters. One unveils a painting of grapes so real birds fly into them. The other unveils a curtain so real that the first goes to lift it. Who is the better painter, the husband then asks, The one who tricks the birds or the one who tricks the painter?

The wife is momentarily surprised by the story. It does not seem to be something her husband would tell. She is about to praise his telling of it when he asks if she is ready for the punchline. What? she says. (The story takes place in ancient Greece. The two painters are Zeuxis and Parrhasius.) Suddenly he chuckles. Curtains. Why would a grown man be interested in curtains?

• •

She meets the hotel receptionist on their first night. The first time he unzips her dress, he flings it across the room with great passion. After that, she asks if he could drape the dress quietly over the bed post or just let it fall.

No, he says, and then flings it across the room again.

Well, OK then, she replies.

How old are you? some men have asked, including the hotel receptionist, usually afterward. How old do you think I am? She doesn’t like the word sex. She prefers lovemaking. But the skin around her neck is still taut, her neck, long and elegant, and even though her husband no longer lusts after her as he used to, he continues to rest a hand on the back of her neck after meals and she continues to let him. Seeing this sight, the other couples on this tour will marvel at the loving pair.

• •

She has come to Rome once before. Without a husband. Or a boyfriend. Just her, alone.

In hindsight, it was an experience. Or this is how she spins it now.

But at the time, she gets lost; it rains and she is drenched. Eventually she finds a dry stoop to sit on. Then a young woman walks by. The one on the stoop sees the shine of the other’s nylons before she sees the Chanel scarf over her head. She watches the woman lean in and kiss her.

On the cheek? On the forehead? On the mouth. The peck is over before she realizes it has begun.

For a while she tells this story to no one. Just recalling it makes her feel strange. It is not quite shame or embarrassment. It is more of a thrill. Finally, she tells her soon-to-be husband, then a casual acquaintance at a bar. He tries to picture it but ultimately wonders if she is making up the story. You got lost? You were alone? That doesn’t sound like you. The word prudent comes to mind. The word proper. At least this is how he sees her. Also two women in a rainstorm. He tilts his head toward her. Isn’t that a bit dramatic? But it’s true, she insists. It happened. All right, he says, What happened next? Nothing. She left. What did she look like? She can’t remember. Someone who would ruin a Chanel scarf in the rain, she supposed.

• •

During her time with the receptionist, the husband is out buying a milkshake. A milkshake? That too was her response when he tells her. At this hour? It’s almost midnight. He knows but he has a craving, not just for a regular milkshake but one with chocolate ganache, whipped cream, a maraschino cherry, then struck through with a striped blue straw. He raises his eyebrows just thinking about it. Delicious, no?

When he leaves, she watches him out the window. If the windows were open, she might have heard him whistling. If she had kept looking, she might have seen him look back.

It is almost too easy. First a call to the front desk. Then a soft tap at the door. The time it takes her husband to drink the entire milkshake is the same amount of time it takes her to finish. Surely he must know. She has never been that careful. She has been waiting to be found out.

For years, she has readily given out their home number.

Call here, she says, anytime.

As such, many calls come through. Whereupon, hearing her husband’s voice, the caller coughs and hangs up.

That’s strange, he then concludes but does not press further.

A few times when the caller is brave enough not to hang up, he brings the phone to her bedside. You don’t have to do that, she says, and hurriedly gets out of bed. He smiles at her. Often she thinks back to these exchanges. Were there hints of suspicion or disdain? Not that she can remember.

• •

The wife did not have a troubled upbringing. She had come from a happy home. As did the husband. So maybe her infidelity is the result of being too happy. Or maybe, she thinks, she is just secretly very angry. But she does not feel angry. She is annoyed sometimes when her husband still tilts his head at her and says her full name as he would to a child. This annoyance can feel like a toothpick going through her eye.

Before the hotel receptionist, there is a potter with soft hands. And before the potter, a car mechanic who runs a finger down her back. The next day, her husband notices the grease traces. What’s that, he asks, and she prepares herself for the great reveal. She tells him point blank, a car mechanic, mid-caress. She has never seen her husband laugh so hard. The wife considers it possible that she has married a fool. But what about the other possibility? She can’t decide which is worse.

• •

The tour group is back to where they started. It seems that they have been walking around in circles. Pantheon, in translation, means the temple of every god. Look here the Corinthian columns. Look there the tomb of Raphael. Finally, the tour guide takes a break to fan herself with a brochure. The wife is close enough to smell her honey perfume, to see her chapped lips. She looks around for her husband. She thinks she spots him in the back, a mop of brown hair behind a camera lens, the lens pointed directly at her.

Later when they are back home, she will go through the pictures until she finds the one with the kiss. She and the tour guide are small, in the periphery. A moving crowd blurs a clear sightline to her, but who could miss that orange umbrella dangling from the girl’s hand? She asks her husband what he thinks of this shot. He looks closely, even squints. Ah, yes, the tomb of Raphael. L’art, he jokes.

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