When I teach Carmen Maria Machado’s story “The Husband Stitch,” the first in her collection Her Body and Other Parties, to my fiction workshops, it’s unlike teaching any other story. For one thing, the men in class don’t speak. I’m not sure if, like me, they don’t know what to say, something I admit before we begin. “I don’t quite know how to discuss this story,” I say. “I’m really having us read it because I love it.” Or maybe they feel like they shouldn’t because it is, among other things, a story about being a woman. The conversation limps along, uncharacteristically weighted with all the things the students are thinking and not saying. Often, one woman admits she cried when she read it, and when I nod and ask why, she says she doesn’t know. Always, a student says that she sent it to all of her friends.
Although I often feel that I have been reading him since I was in the cradle, the somewhat embarrassing fact is that I came late to Henry James. It was in the mid-1970s that I first read The Portrait of a Lady, the great achievement of his middle years, if not the greatest of all his novels, as many readers consider it to be. I fell at once under the spell of the Master, and have knelt at his knee ever since.
That first encounter with The Portrait took place in Florence, where I was staying with my wife and son, in an eccentric little hotel run by two cadaverous but kindly and almost identical brothers, in the Via della Scala.
It seemed to me a nice coincidence that so much of the action in the book I was reading takes place in Florence. However, there was a greater coincidence that I was unaware of at the time.
It’s the seventh day of this self-assigned quest, and I emphasize “self-assigned” because I must make it horrifyingly clear, for character development reasons, that no one asked me to do this, no one wanted me to do this: to eat at the Times Square Olive Garden alone for ten days in a row. Using my Never Ending Pasta Pass, a $100 plastic card that, this year, sold out in less than one second, I’m free to sample an unlimited amount of pasta during the eight-week promotion: I choose my shape, sauce and protein and can refill the bowl as many times as my physiology will allow. I’m entitled to unlimited breadsticks and salad or soup, too, and that irresistible chain-restaurant ice water, all with pulsing neon views of New York’s most shat-upon quartier. Could I eat here, alone, every night for ten days? Could I trust myself to dine reasonably, or would I, like a golden retriever playing fetch until he dies of exhaustion, eat spaghetti until I am gone? Some people, I’ve heard, do yoga.
In 1951, Sylvia Plath signed off on a letter to her mother: “The only quiet woman is a dead one.”
Was anyone ever so wrong?
Twelve years later, Plath would kill herself in her London flat on a winter morning, while her small children slept in the next room and her husband was off with another woman. But she has never stopped speaking to us.