Prompted to Tell: Scarlett O’Hara at the Pensione Seguso
This piece is by Amy Pechukas, a student at Juiceboxartists writing workshops.
The prompt was to write a piece about something you memorized in your youth.
The armchairs at the Pensione Seguso ooze dust and mold when you sit on them. Sometimes they squish slightly. They are made of old, brown leather and they smell like the canals that rise and fall outside the iron-grated windows of the sitting room. Every winter the bottom floor of this hotel floods and the armchairs never seem to lose some of that water. Even in the summer, the bottom floor of the Pensione Seguso feels and smells dank and dark like the bottom of a canal. In the tiny wooden desk in one corner of the room, there is a guest book that goes back many years, back to the first time we came here when I was four years old. Two of my mother’s students, Sam and Gibbs, artists, cartoonists and practical jokers, have a two-page entry from 1984 full of illustrations, one of a woman trying to eat Venetian bread and losing teeth and others that I don’t remember. I don’t remember Sam and Gibbs exactly, but I remember the feeling of them. I have been told many times how they stole my carriage when my father was shopping for fruit and hid with me around the corner just to terrify him. The story gives me a certain pleasure. I think I remember liking them, even if I can’t recall their faces. There are also two entries in the book from me and Fiona. I was four and I scribbled all over a page, but she was eleven and did a beautiful illustration. There we are, side by side, in the book. I close the cover and go back to the bench where I am reading.
Scarlett O’hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a coast aristocrat of French descent, and those of her florid Irish father.
I have memorized almost the entire book although it is over 1,000 pages long. My mother bought it for me in the bookstore on Seventh Ave. the day before we left for Venice. I love it. I have had dreams of Scarlett’s husband and lover, that I am her. I read it every day while my mother works for hours, and when I look up, my vision is blurry and everything is in triplicate.
This same thing happened to my vision this year when I won Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo. I played until I won and then I noticed I couldn’t see the walls in gym class anymore, so I gave it up. I am ten going on eleven this year. Every day I am alone for most of the day in the Pensione Seguso while my mother teaches and runs her art history program. Almost every night we have a faculty dinner at the Pensione Seguso with her priggish Greek colleague who always looks at me disapprovingly and compares me to his perfectly behaved one son. He sweats constantly and my mother says he is shaped like refrigerator. There is also the gray-haired, I’m-smarter-than-you woman art teacher and that woman’s white-haired, also-an-artist husband. Finally, there is the painting teacher, who had melanoma and survived it. He is the only one I kind of like. During the day, I am not allowed to leave the hotel really. I can read in our bedroom or in the sitting room. Sometimes I can walk to the bar on the corner and buy a pack of gum or ice cream. Now, I am at the point in Gone with the Wind where if you tell me a scene, like when Scarlett killed the yankee soldier or lost her husband in the war, I can start reciting it word for word. I never meant to memorize it. It just happened somehow on this trip.
Our bedroom has marble floors made of several different colors in tiny triangular shapes, orange and tan and white and black all mish-moshed together. It is one of the nicer rooms, facing the canal, with a little balcony. On the first night here, we heard the people above us making love on their balcony. And one time, during a faculty dinner, there was a couple across the canal, who were kissing and touching and feeling each other and the faculty members, especially the greek guy, couldn’t stop saying how inappropriate they were and how they should be ashamed. The sheets on the bed are thick, white, rough cotton. They dry in the sun on the roof of the hotel and you can feel it when you lie on them.
When my mother comes home in the late afternoon or right before dinner, I feel like a canal, swelling with dirty, green, ugly water. She says I am always in a bad mood, and then I feel guilty about it. After a day in the hotel, I am never in a good mood. She tries to make plans for me. That we will go for lunch at a place that serves bright yellow and orange bell peppers and grated carrots in a huge salad for me – my favorite. That we will go to the island where they blow glass. Or that we will visit the Frari, because it is the one church with a painting I really like. It shows Mary on a cloud in a bright blue robe, ascending to heaven. It is huge and joyous, and the church is tall and peacefully musty smelling, with cool tiles that calm you during a hot day and warm wooden benches and candles to light for people you are thinking of.
When I am alone, I think about things. I wait for my period to come because I am almost eleven. I told my mother on the train on the way to Venice that I was going to be an adolescent. I asked if she had any concerns about that. She said no, she had been through it four times before. Then she said, the first thing I needed to learn if I was going to be an adolescent was modesty because my skirt had gotten caught up and was showing my thigh. She pulled it down. I sat down and we didn’t talk about it anymore. Sometimes I dream about Scarlett O’hara’s husband. I dream that I am married to the boring one and making love with him is very boring. Then I dream that I am in love with Ashley, like she was.
I talk to my mother about the men in Scarlett’s life and which ones I like. We agree that Charles wasn’t interesting and that even Ashley seems like a “ninny.” She pays attention when we talk about Gone with the Wind—her eyes look interested and alive. The rest of the time she is distracted because all she thinks about this summer is Klaus. He is her married boyfriend from Norway. He was there visiting us when Fiona died in November. It has been seven months since Fiona died. Sometimes I wonder if there are places in this hotel that she touched that no one else has touched since. I try to find them and touch them. A place on the wall under the sink. A place in the green bathroom. I imagine her feet on the floor where my feet are and want to touch her. In this hotel, we used to both go to the roof to see all the wild cats and kittens that lived up there. A woman who ran the front desk, Carla, would take them all in and Fiona loved to go up and feed them. She used to say that I didn’t know how to do it right because all the kittens would run away from me.
This is the first time I have been to Italy since Fiona died. Mrs. Seguso, the owner, met us with big, sad brown eyes that teared and my mother spent a long time talking to her in Italian. I knew the speech she was saying because I have memorized that too even if I didn’t understand it in Italian. It was a hit-and-run accident. She was hit walking on the sidewalk in Brooklyn. She was the only one who died. It was a boy her age who was driving the car. He got sentenced to three years in prison. The whole story also has a lot of sighs that are always the same and gestures, like smoothing a tablecloth (which she will do on any surface, even if there isn’t a tablecloth), that are always the same. People constantly tell my mother how strong she is, but I really feel annoyed by this. They don’t tell me I am strong. They tell me, take care of your mother. She doesn’t seem that strong to me and it seems like she tells the story in order to hear that. I hear the story at least several times a week.
But my mother never cries much. She cried at the funeral and in the days after, but now she never cries. She yells and screams at me and the hotel staff when she misses a call from Klaus. She tells me how she saw him crossing a piazza with his wife and he didn’t even acknowledge her. She throws stuff around our room and calls me dumb when I drop a call to my sister Sarah in the United States, but she doesn’t cry or talk about Fiona. I kiss pictures of Fiona goodnight every night until they are cracked around the area of her face, and I cry when I am alone and away from my mother, and I feel lucky that I can and I am not like her.
One day, she comes back to the hotel and she is not like she usually is. Her eyes are more open and bigger. I show her that Carla left me some candy in our tiny slotted mailbox. It is a long, white marshmallow with pink stripes on it. “It looks like a maxipad,” my mom whispers as we go up the red, carpeted steps towards our room. She never jokes, and we never laugh, but I laugh now. “That dummy,” she says about Klaus, “what a dummy,” and I am in a very good mood that night. We have fun. “You like it when I’m mad,” she says. I don’t know if she is right, but I like it when she is alive. It only lasts that one night, and I read Gone with the Wind every day and pray at night that my sister knows that I love her and that nobody else dies.
Amy Pechukas won Ruminate magazine’s 2016 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org