Sacred and Profane by Melissa Goode
In “Sacred and Profane,” Melissa Goode writes an entire marriage in one flash. With a precise mosaic structure, Goode seamlessly interweaves themes of struggle, misunderstanding and understanding, love and commitment, against a backdrop of fine art and architecture, of travel and displacement. Each segment holds tension and offers a new layer of understanding. There is power both in the silence of the white space, and in the quiet of the story—we readers are given space here (see Goode’s author’s note for more on this). By choosing present tense and a first-person POV, Goode helps us approach art with no artifice, through the eyes of the wife, our narrator. There is a whole level of subtext to the dialogue and action here; what is unsaid carries as much weight as what is said. —CRAFT
Our hotel in Rome is a former monastery, darkly shadowed, stone. There is no elevator.
He hauls both of our suitcases up three flights of stairs. I wait for him at the top. His muscles flex, his forehead creases.
“The monastic life makes sense,” he says, and plants the suitcases at my feet. “Poverty. No possessions.”
“Chastity and obedience?”
Our room is large enough for a family, a double bed, a few twins. There is only the two of us and we share the double.
At the Church of San Francesco a Ripa, we see Bernini’s funerary monument, The Ecstasy of Beata Ludovica Albertoni, dated 1674. She lies on a bed, said to be caught in the moment of mystical communion with God. Her head is thrown back, her neck arched, a hand clutched to her breast and the other to her stomach. Her knee is pushed up. Her eyes are closed, her mouth open. She is supposed to be in the act of dying.
“I thought it was all going to be crucifixes,” he says. “I want to die like that.”
He says it softly and all I hear over and over is—I want to die.
Lunch is spaghetti alla puttanesca for primo, osso bucco for secondo, and vino with every course. The cannoli di ricotta melts on my tongue.
“This is heaven,” I say.
He takes a sip of my vin santo and says, “Yours is much better than mine.”
He shakes his head. “I want yours to be good.”
We visit the Pantheon, dated first century AD—a temple to all the gods. At the top of the domed roof, a circular opening—the oculus—provides the only light. Even in winter, the light falls on us, gold and sepia, ancient.
The walls are lined with the sarcophagi of Italian monarchs.
“Is there no getting away from the dead?” I say.
“I wanted to go to Hawaii,” he says.
He leaves for a walk and is gone for three hours. He returns, smelling of liquor, and flops fully clothed onto our bed.
“You don’t know everything about me,” he says.
“Then tell me.”
He closes his eyes.
“I am your wife,” I say. “I am not the enemy.”
In our bed, he pushes my hair behind my ear.
“We’ll be alright,” he says, and he splits the word in two—all right.
He traps my hand against his chest. His skin burns.
“You haven’t said sorry,” I say.
He drops his forehead to my shoulder. He moves my hand down his chest, his ribs. Okay, okay, I whisper and slide my hand down between us.
I want to say, we are married. I will not leave you, even if I want to.
The menswear store is piled high with starched linen. The radio plays The Cranberries, “No Need to Argue.” She sings about knowing she’d lose her love and I tell myself it is not a prophecy.
“Don’t say it,” he says.
“Anything about Dolores O’Riordan dying.”
“Why can’t I?”
“Jesus,” he says. “Please.”
He chooses pajamas, striped business shirts and tries on a suit. I lean against a wall and wait. He sweeps open the fitting room curtain. He stretches his arms forward, checks the shoulders, the wrists. In a suit, he is the man from back home, working sixteen-hour days.
“Don’t buy it,” I say.
Salome, by Titian, dated 1516—Salome carries on a plate the head of John the Baptist. The card alongside the painting says the decapitated head may be a self-portrait.
“How could anyone paint themselves beheaded?” I say.
“Isn’t it a fantasy? To split the brain from the body?”
He slices the museum brochure across his neck, half closes his eyes and sets his mouth in a line.
“Stop,” I say.
I can’t say it—I don’t want to see you dead.
“You’re so serious these days,” he says.
On the fourth morning of our stay, he turns over in bed away from me.
“Go out for the day,” he says.
Downstairs, at a convenience store, I buy a take-out coffee, bottled water, a salad sandwich, M&M’s, an apple. I leave it all on the nightstand, together with his antidepressants.
He opens an eye. “You look after me.”
“Of course I do,” I say and stop myself—I-always-will-baby-don’t-send-me-away.
He swings an arm from the bed, captures my hand. “I need a rest.”
I kiss his cheek and his stubble scrapes, but beneath, his skin is soft soft soft.
I catch the Metro to Spagna station and walk up the hill to Villa Borghese. The pristine gardens are winter-bare. Below is Rome, our hotel, our bed, and he is so far away.
Inside the villa, I stop in front of Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, dated 1514. Two women, physically alike, sit upon a sarcophagus. One is clothed elaborately, a bride, the other nude, except for a white cloth draped across her lap. They are said to symbolize marriage—carnal, human love and heavenly, divine love.
Beside me, an older woman leans on her walking stick, studies the painting. Her silvery eye-shadow and mascara leak into the crevices around her eyes. If she turns to me, if she speaks, I’ll blurt—I don’t want to become you, but I’m scared I will.
I rush outside into the weak, gray afternoon. The air is frozen and I gulp at it. I gasp. A man glances over at me and I raise a hand, meaning I am alright, meaning leave me alone.
Back at our hotel, he sleeps. His phone plays, Tom Waits sings about holding on. I undress and climb into bed behind him, my skin awash with goosebumps. I wrap myself around his back. He slides his hand over mine and weds our fingers together and we are cold and warm and female and male and me and him.
MELISSA GOODE’S work has appeared in The Penn Review, CutBank, Best Small Fictions 2018, SmokeLong Quarterly, Superstition Review, Wigleaf, and Monkeybicycle, among others. Three of her stories were chosen by Dan Chaon for Best Microfictions 2019, including her story “I Wanna Be Adored” (CHEAP POP) which was also chosen for the Wigleaf Top 50 for 2019. She lives in Australia. You can find her at melissagoode.com and on Twitter @melgoodewriter.