It was a dull, late winter evening. Ellie had just gotten around to washing the dinner dishes when the phone rang. “Hi, it’s Amy. Sorry to call so late. What’s happening?”
“Same old, same old. I’m cleaning up in the kitchen. Joe’s watching some game. How about you?”
“It’s all good. We met the that fun couple from Keswick last night – the Winchesters – at the new steak restaurant on the Mall that’s been getting excellent reviews. The steaks are super expensive, but they have a great wine list, and we loved it. Actually, though, I’m calling about the tour to Rome that I’m taking with the UVA women’s group next month. Remember, the one focusing on Caravaggio. I got a really exciting email from the booking agent saying that it’s undersold and anyone who is signed up can take a guest at half price. It’s an amazing deal.”
“Wow! That’s wonderful. You know anybody who can go.”
“Honestly, the first person I thought of was you. We’d have so much fun together. And you’ve never been to Italy. Now that the kids are out of the house, you need to start traveling. What do you think?”
“I’d love to, but there’s no way. Joe’d be lost if I left him alone for a day, much less a week. And I know the kind of trips you take. Even half the cost would be over my budget. But, just out of curiosity, how much is it?”
“Well, I’m paying $8,000 for seven days, so it would be $4,000 plus airfare. The hotels, restaurants, everything is first class, so it’s a great price. I guess it’s the recession in Europe.”
“I’d love to see Rome and you know how much I loved the Caravaggio book, but I can’t even think about it. We’re saving up to redo our bathroom and there are tons of other expenses. Maybe another year when things are more settled.”
“I thought you might be reluctant, so I’ve got a proposition. Larry really wants me to start traveling without him, since it’s so hard for him to get away from work and when he does, he just wants to take those boring golf trips, which I hate. But he just got a huge bonus, so I guess he’s earned the right. Anyway, he knows how much I enjoy your company, so he said that if you couldn’t afford it, then I can pay for everything. How does that sound?”
“Honestly, a bit insulting. We’re not rich, but we’re not looking for handouts either. I know you mean well, but it doesn’t work for me. We’re just in different situations. Now I have to go look at the bathroom plans with Joe. I’ll see you next week at book club”
“Okay. I wish I could convince you. We’d have a ball. By the way, I’m loving this month’s book. Can’t wait for you to tell me what’s wrong with it. See ya.”
Ellie was hurt. In over thirty years since they had met at UVA as sorority sisters, Amy had never patronized her, despite their differing backgrounds and financial circumstances. Ellie had grown up in a modest home in Scottsville, Amy in a large house in the toney D.C. suburb of Potomac. Ellie attended public school, while Amy was at Miss Porter’s – a fancy New England prep school for women. They both married men that they met at UVA, stayed in Charlottesville, and worked in non-profits for a few years before having two children, then quit to take care of their families. Now in their mid-fifties, they were empty-nesters but neither wanted to return to work. Ellie suspected that Joe would like her to get a job and help save for their retirement, but they had never discussed the subject. Larry and Amy were already wealthy and thoughts of a job never entered Amy’s mind.
Joe still worked at the insurance company that he joined right out of college, having moved up through the ranks to become a Vice President in underwriting. He never thought about changing jobs since he would lose too much in retirement benefits. Larry had started out in a commercial bank, then moved to the private investment business, changing firms twice since, with each change bringing more money. He and Amy had a large home in town, while Ellie and Joe lived in a town house in Crozet. Larry and Joe had almost nothing in common, so the couples rarely saw each other socially, but the wives met for lunch every few weeks at Amy’s club, and at book club each month.
Two days later, Joe mentioned to Ellie that Amy had called him to describe her offer, and see if he could persuade Ellie to join her on the tour. “Really? That’s obnoxious. She has no right to call you. What part of ‘no’ doesn’t she understand?”
“I think maybe you’re overreacting. She likes being with you and knows that you’d love Italy. And you care so much about art. My first reaction was the same as yours. We don’t want their charity. But then I thought about the fact that they’re loaded despite Larry’s being a self-absorbed jerk and not all that bright. Frankly, it’s just a lucky accident that they’re rich, so why shouldn’t you share in some of what fell into their laps? But the most important thing is that you’d have a great time and you deserve a trip like this.”
Ellie was surprised by both Joe’s enthusiasm for the trip, and how much he disliked Larry, but was still hesitant. She was proud and had always related to Amy as a peer. Accepting the offer could change that relationship. She might be like a dependent child traveling with a parent. But her concerns were trumped by the fact that ever since she had read Johnathan Harr’s wonderful book – The Lost Painting – for book club, she harbored a burning desire to see every Caravaggio painting, and she knew that there were more in and around Rome than anywhere else. No artist’s story had captured her imagination in the same way. Joe hated traveling, and she’d never get to Italy with him. So, despite being embarrassed about freeloading, that night she called Amy to say that she would go, preserving a modicum of self-esteem by offering to pay for her own flight. Amy was thrilled and spent ten minutes describing the spa, the four pools, and every other luxurious feature of the Hotel Cavalieri where they would be staying. Ellie listened though she had little interest in the fatuous embellishments that earn a hotel a fifth star.
On the overnight flight to Rome, Amy sat in first class (“Larry always insisted”), Ellie in coach. Larry loaned Amy his iPad and had downloaded a current movie for her. Ellie chose to read and sleep. As she dozed, her mind wandered between the excitement of the trip and the dilemma of how she could retain her self-respect with Amy, given her dependent position.
After a morning arrival, they checked into their rooms at the Hotel, then met the other six women in the group for breakfast. One of them, Linda, who had come by herself, lived near Ellie in Crozet. They discovered that they had several friends in common. After breakfast Amy went to the spa for a massage, while Ellie and Linda toured the hotel’s impressive art collection. Later Ellie invited Linda to join them as they visited some of the City’s sites. The three had dinner at a touristy, and rather ordinary, trattoria that Amy’s guidebook had described as “exuding Roman charm and sophistication”.
The next morning Amy and Ellie met at breakfast. “Ellie, you seem to like Linda, but I really hoped that we’d be together on this trip.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I thought you liked her too.”
“She’s okay, but you’re much sharper and more interesting. And I invited you so that the two of us could share the enjoyment of Rome and the tour. I hope we can keep it that way.”
“All right. I understand. Hey, it’s your trip, so whatever you decide is fine. We’ll all be together as a group every day, but don’t worry, I’ll come up with some explanation, so that Linda doesn’t join us in the evenings.”
That day the Caravaggio tour started with a private showing at the Galleria Borghese, home of the largest collection of the master’s works. For Ellie it was the most thrilling art experience of her life. The paintings lived up to their reputations and the guide made every aspect of the artist’s creative genius come alive, just as she remembered from Harr’s book. At dinner, Amy was admiring the pictures she had taken at the Gallery on her iPhone. “The painting of David holding Goliath’s head is even more grotesque then I had imagined. I’d love to email this photo to Marian Green, since it was her idea for the club to read the book and she liked it more than anyone – well, except maybe you. But I don’t have her email address. Do you know it?”
“No. But doesn’t her husband Bert play golf with Larry? His address may be in Larry’s contacts list in his iPad.”
“Beyond my iPhone, I’m a computer dope. I have no idea how to access that. Maybe if I brought it to breakfast tomorrow you could do it.”
“Possibly. I’ll try”
At breakfast Ellie signed in to the Hotel’s wi-fi, and opened Larry’s email to his Inbox. “Uh…, he’s got an unopened message from Judy Winchester. Maybe you should look at it?”
“If I open it, won’t he know it?”
“You don’t have to open it. The whole message seems to be right here in the Subject. Look.” Ellie had already read the message, which she showed to Amy. It read cutely “Perfect Date. Omni at 8. Can’t wait!”
Amy turned ashen, but was stolid. “Oh, I just remembered that I’ve got to take care of some things in my room. If I’m not back by the time the group leaves, then tell our guide to go without me and I’ll catch up later.”
“You sure? Can I help you with something?”
“No. I just have some chores to do to get ready for the day.” Without waiting for a response, she walked to the elevator.
Amy missed the morning tour to The Vatican and its museum where the group saw The Entombment, another Caravaggio masterpiece. She met up with them in the afternoon to view additional works at the Galleria Doria Pamphilj and the Corsini Galleria, but barely spoke to Ellie or anyone else –seemingly going through the motions of appearing interested. Ellie loved the museums, but was too worried about Amy to fully enjoy them. She decided that at dinner she would try to find out what Amy was experiencing and if she could help. When they returned to the hotel, Amy said that she wasn’t feeling well and would skip dinner. Ellie dined with the other members of the group including Linda, who was standoffish, though Ellie didn’t care, being so distracted by her thoughts about Amy.
Until the last night of the trip, Amy didn’t join Ellie or the group for breakfast or dinner, but did go on the daily tours. Ellie was frustrated that she couldn’t find a good opportunity to talk privately with her, but accepted that it was what Amy wanted. The last day, Amy asked if Ellie would have dinner with her, apart from the group, at La Pergola, the Hotel’s acclaimed “Michelin three starred” restaurant. She seemed a bit more upbeat. After exchanging some small talk Ellie confronted the issue. “Amy, you clearly haven’t been yourself since you saw that email. If you want to talk about it, I’m happy to listen.”
“No. I’m fine. Of course, I was surprised, but I’m sure that there’s an explanation for it. I shouldn’t have allowed myself to become preoccupied and ruin your trip.”
“Well, you haven’t ruined my trip. I’ve loved it despite being worried about you. Have you called Larry to discuss it with him?”
“I’ve called him but we haven’t discussed it. He’d be really angry if he thought that I was looking at his private emails.”
Ellie was incredulous that Amy couldn’t discuss such an obviously incriminating email with him. That he would be angry. She asked herself “what kind of a one-sided relationship do they have that he screws around and she has to feel guilty for finding out about it?” She persisted. “Amy, you had no intention of seeing his email, but it happened. You can’t pretend that it didn’t. You’re married to him and you have a right to know what that message is about.”
“Ellie, I don’t want to discuss this. I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding. I’ll find out more after I’m back. Now let’s move on and talk about Rome, Caravaggio and all of the things that we came here to enjoy, including this fabulous menu and wine list.”
Ellie was skeptical, but Amy’s marital relationship was her own business, so she moved on. Amy quickly reverted to her old self, and they had a wonderful meal accompanied by their usual light banter. Amy put the meal on her bill. The next day they returned to Dulles and home.
Joe took a vacation day to pick Ellie up at the airport and welcomed her back with a gift of Howard Hibbard’s Caravaggio biography, which Marian Green had told him was the best book on the author. That night he took her to Tavola, for a romantic dinner. Typical Joe. It never occurred to him that Italian food wasn’t what would excite her after seven days of it, but she said nothing because his feelings would have been hurt, and she knew that he had planned everything just to please her. A surprise was that dinner was as good as nearly all that she had in Rome, which in an odd way, disappointed her.
The monthly book club meeting was scheduled for the next week, and Ellie called and emailed Amy to find out if she was going, but got no response, which was unlike Amy. Ellie went to the meeting and regaled the group about the extraordinary art, food and everything else that they enjoyed in Rome. Amy didn’t come.
After another week of hearing nothing, Ellie called again and Amy answered. “Amy, where have you been? I’ve been calling and emailing you since we got back. You missed a great evening at book club. Everyone was really excited to hear about our trip. I had so much fun reliving it, but we all missed your witty comments. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I’m sure that you did a good job speaking for both of us. Frankly, I’ve been really busy since the trip. I’m not sure that I’ll have time for book club any more. Suddenly we’ve got a lot of work to do on our house, and Larry wants me to be around here to manage it. And we found out that John and Wendy are having their first baby in January so I’ll be preparing for that. Also, Larry surprised me by signing me up for golf lessons.”
Ellie thought “Golf lessons. Really? Has she become a Stepford Wife?” She held her tongue, congratulating Amy on almost being a grandmother, but felt that she just couldn’t give up easily on their friendship. “Amy, I miss seeing you. Something has changed. You seem different. I can’t help but think that it’s related to the email you saw in Rome. Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not really. But since you asked, as I suspected, that email was nothing. Larry had agreed to meet Judy Winchester to discuss plans that she was making for a secret fiftieth birthday party for her husband. In fact, Larry had to work late and cancelled the meeting. It was completely innocent, didn’t happen and now it’s forgotten.”
“Amy, you can’t be that gullible? Who goes to a hotel at eight o’clock at night to discuss plans for a birthday party? And why would she say ‘Can’t wait’? For what, to get Larry’s fabulous party ideas? Does he do event planning on the side? Amy, his story is not believable.”
“Maybe not to you. But it is to me. Larry and I have been together for a long time and I have to trust him. So please don’t ever bring this up again. Call me next week and maybe we can make a lunch date. And say hi to Joe. Bye.”
Joe walked in from the den. “What was that all about? You sounded upset.”
“I was, but I’m okay. I just feel so bad for Amy. You were right about Larry. He’s a creep. He lies and worse. And she’s got to live with him.”
“Whew! Did something happen with you and Amy on your trip? I thought you spent all of your time looking at art and eating pasta.”
“Yeh, that’s pretty much true. And it was all great, especially the art. In fact, lately I’ve been thinking about Caravaggio and how he’s still relevant.”
“Really? To whom, other than a few art junkies?”
“To us. To everyone. For example, do you know what painting technique he’s best known for?”
“No. Can’t say that I know any painting technique. And, honestly, I don’t get why I should care how an artist does his work or what he is trying to say. All that matters to me, is what I get from the painting and whether I like it or not. The rest of it seems like pseudo-intellectual mumbo jumbo, trying to make something simple seem complicated.”
“I get your point, but it’s different for me. I think a painting is the expression of an artist’s life experiences, beliefs and passions, and understanding those adds to my appreciation and comprehension of it. Anyway, Caravaggio was famous for chiaroscuro, an Italian word that has no English equivalent. It means having light focus on one or two subjects in a painting that the artist thinks are critical and leaving the rest in shadows or even darkness. Other painters have used the technique, but Caravaggio raised it to the highest artistic level. I never thought about chiaroscuro as a metaphor for life, but spending time with Amy has brought the point home. Most of what happens in everyday living is just background noise, but there are a few crucial things that have to be right or you can never really be happy or satisfied. When I left on the trip, I was feeling vulnerable just because Amy was paying for me, but now I realize how naive I was, that I had no concept of what it’s like to be truly vulnerable. That’s probably more than you wanted to know.”
“Yeh, I guess so, but I suppose it can’t hurt me to learn something about art. I do think that sometimes you over-analyze things. Anyway, I’m thirsty. How about joining me in a beer?”
“I’d love to.” She looked up at him with an impish smile. “But a real one. I’ve been seeing too much ‘lite’ lately.”