THE BIRDWHISTLE PRIZE IN NONFICTION 2017
She was 19 the summer Federico Fellini met her at Fiumicino and helped to fold her legs inside his limousine. She looked out the darkened windows at the slipstream of taxis and confessed she held her purse to her bottom as she walked through customs. Making biscuits back in Indiana, slathering them in gravy, her grandmother warned her Italian men might try and pinch. Yet with her hand-sewn dress fraying at its hem, with its print of white daisies unraveling, Sandy left the airport unmolested.
Stunned and sleepless, she’d forgotten the extent to which her size offered its own protection. Looking for Fellini, for someone graying and stout waving her to his side, she gripped her luggage with the hesitation of a much smaller woman alone in a country where she doesn’t speak the language. Yet this in itself was freeing, she realized long after it happened, this sense of being frozen in a warm and unfamiliar present. The only sensation that had ever approached it was wearing her first skirt of the spring, sliding one leg past the other with only air between. As she stood waiting for the limousine, she felt her face loosen into something silken without being able to name the feeling.
Somewhere over the Atlantic, she’d begun smelling of citrus. She thought at first it came from out the air vents in the cabin. Later, she knew the aroma wafted from her own inner wrists. She knew this for certain only as she opened the shutter of a window too small to hold her face yet letting all the sky in. Though the plane landed in Rome safely and on time, her legs wobbled when she left the jet bridge. She felt vaguely as if she could drop from a tree, as if while flying over Greenland she had somehow shrunken into an orange or a lemon still hanging suspended. Weightless compared to what she’d been in Indianapolis, she felt someone had peeled her without her knowledge. She had been peeled but not yet fallen.
Crouched inside a car with leather stitched by Tuscan workmen, she thanked Fellini for making her accommodations. Inside what she knew to be something lavish, but also something that struck her as smaller than expected, she scratched a bug bite on her neck. She let her hands rest in her lap a moment, then struggled to remove her sandals after her feet had swollen while flying across the ocean. Seeing this, Fellini bent over at the waist. For several minutes, his fingers wrestled with her shoes’ leather strap. Only once the flap gave way, once the buckle opened, they laughed together at his easy exhaustion, at his cursing in Italian. On a mild late morning, he was visibly sweating.
They had needed this, however. They had needed some small struggle between them to mask his embarrassment at her reason for meeting a maestro, a man looking little different to her from other middle-aged men whose hair was thinning. Fellini had imported a giantess, the world’s tallest woman, standing at 7 feet 5 inches and still growing. He’d hired attendants from the Vatican to escort her to the set for a small part in Fellini’s Casanova, a film of which I’ve seen only segments, a film whose duration I doubt I’ll ever see if for no other reason than—for all Casanova’s conquests, for all her own unwanted attention—Sandy herself remained loveless. After leaving Italy, she smelled of citrus for no reason.
And this Sandy Allen. She has never broken her hymen. Days later, this is what Fellini told his producers in private when sitting on his terrace drinking cognac, when overlooking the Coliseum backlit in the distance. He thought this to himself first in his studio as the dwarfs he’d brought back from a Sardinian vacation adjusted their wigs, as he imagined each of their heads inserted between her legs, first their heads and then their stomachs, until even their feet were swallowed by her vulva’s expanses. Each man still too small a phallus to fill this woman with dark down lining her upper lip’s peaks and central canyon.
More muscular than expected when shirtless, the two dwarfs still are shorter than Sandy standing end to end. They say next to nothing in the script, only bathe her in one of two scenes in which her character, Angelina, makes an appearance. Casanova himself stays silent as he peers through a seam in her tent. His smile is toothless as he watches, as is that of his director behind him. Both smear their lips in a sickle across their faces.
Through serpentine alleys and recessed windows framed with succulents, more than a mile in the distance, Sandy cannot hear what Fellini is repeating then slurring in Italian over another glass of cognac. She has lived all her life without touching her finger to her hymen. She is still more child than woman, though Italy has already begun to change this, has begun but will not finish. She realizes she is the only woman Casanova does not sleep with. She acknowledges she is here as spectacle. Still falling deeper into her bed’s depression as her ankles wrestle themselves free from her sheet, she allows herself to think Italian is a language made for birthdays while knowing the thought is silly.
Yet each time she hears another incomprehensible sentence’s rhythm, its laughing music, she imagines someone licking his fingers clean of icing. A week before she left Indiana, her grandmother sewed her a new dress looking like an apron with sleeves, leaving room for Sandy still to lengthen. The dress began fraying at its hem once the plane landed in this new country. The print of daisies started wilting as her body seemed to lighten.
She wakes well before morning when the world is still swathed in darkness. She opens her window’s curtain and looks out over the Pantheon, observing its dark oculus from her higher vantage, its hole through which rain cools the building. She sees the eye that itself sees nothing and hears a couple on the other side of the wall. It is the first time she has heard the quickened breathing, the cries of panic followed by a softer silence. She holds her breath and remembers her body’s size offers its own protection against pinching. She fills a glass of water from the bathroom sink, knowing that with each new birthday she still is growing. And though she cannot hear what Fellini is saying closer to the Coliseum—though she has never thought about the blood that will flow from her hymen if it’s ever broken—still she catches some of the phrase’s music. It filters into her fitful dreaming in a time zone to which she never adapts completely before the time comes to leave.
Years later, Sandy will become a sideshow attraction in the Guinness World Records Museum near Niagara Falls. Later yet she’ll work as a secretary in Indianapolis, where she will be grateful simply to make a living, to have money to pay for groceries, for slim slices of cheese she’ll melt over bread nearly every evening. She will all but have forgotten Italy. Her face will loosen into something silken only in sleep. She will die in 2008 at the age of 53, a few months after my paternal grandmother has likewise stopped breathing, only a few doors down in the same home of convalescence without the two ever meeting. For several months before this, both will do little more than eat canned peaches off plastic trays. They’ll take turns walking with the same nurses’ aides down the same hallway. Lying flat in their beds, they’ll press plastic buttons on a remote control when a channel grows snowy with static.
I never glimpsed Sandy in the building’s entrance, where daytime programs were rebroadcast yet more loudly in the evening. Only after my grandmother was buried that spring did my father mention Sandy was still there, still barely living, something he’d gleaned from a nurse on a smoke break. In my sophomore year of college, I visited my grandmother there only twice before she succumbed to a minor illness. Both times I left quickly.
At her wake, I looked past her skin stretched flat across her cheeks and cast my gaze instead into the casket’s amber varnish, found my own reflection. I confronted a woman of 19 whose beauty was still more felt than seen, something I hoped might be changing. I told myself I would not die in a place this ugly, the same as all my family, the same as Sandy. In Chicago where I was studying literature and philosophy, a place too large for everyone to have always known me, I’d discovered love came freely from strange men in passing for women no taller, no shorter, no prettier than average, love that of all places is most forthcoming in Italy. Next semester, I was going there to study.
Closing her window’s curtains as Fellini grows yet drunker on his terrace, as he puts a napkin to his mouth and acts as if he is talking through her hymen, Sandy goes back to bed. She closes her eyes and lies awake with her knees tucked inside her chest. She lies like a fetus who might be growing inside another giant, someone whose growth is expected. As she falls again unconscious, she tells herself Italian is a language of more than birthdays. She remembers how people whisper when she walks past them, when she stops to drink water from an ancient fountain. She knows here she is both wanted and unwanted, and the former to her is strange. It has been since the beginning, when her mother, an alcoholic, abandoned her to her grandmother’s custody, so the only touch she has known has come from the elderly. The only touch that has come voluntarily within memory.
Within the next few days, she signs her autograph several times in her hotel lobby. Waiters place patches of linen over her lap as she eats outdoors in the heat, something she has done before only at picnics. Men with mustaches resembling blackened caterpillars set napkins so gently across her upper legs she feels she is being put to sleep with a small blanket. They protect what her table has already hidden with some white swath of fabric while her mind lapses into deeper dreaming, into fantasies that she need never go home again, can keep traveling. So shy at school she sat always in the back of class, making vain attempts to vanish, she has come to Italy only to loom larger than she does already. She cannot escape, cannot become the same as any other tourist. Yet she can wash her bread in the juice of olives. She can have her eyelids painted by an artist whose name will roll through the closing credits.
For the scene in which Casanova spies her bathing, Fellini had wanted her topless. He does not tell her this, however, until filming begins, when Sandy insists on wearing a silk wrap the color of her skin, on being bathed in something she can show her grandmother without her ears turning scarlet, though they will still do this. More stubborn than Fellini had foreseen, she smiles on screen without baring her teeth as she receives her ablutions. The scene begins and ends with the camera’s close attention to a cluster of china dolls she plays with. However overgrown, she is still more child than woman. The woman she portrays, Angelina, travels with a circus.
Only seconds before this, one of the dwarfs tells Casanova this is his chance to see Angelina naked. Wearing a wig dyed onyx, Sandy sits gentle and impassive as the dwarf aware of Casanova’s surveillance begins to relish himself being examined. His eyes sparkle as he hops inside a wooden tub, as he hints by his expression that he himself has begun wondering whether Casanova or the director behind him is the true voyeur. Only Sandy sees no difference, because Casanova died centuries before this, because Fellini’s version of him is all that matters once the film is finished. Both dwarfs lightly splash, then kiss, Sandy’s wrists. A long pause elapses as they sit lulled by tuneless music.
After she takes off her wig, after Fellini says they have done their last take, Sandy drinks her first glass of wine in Roman Polanski’s mansion for a party she leaves alone and early. In the director’s water closet before Fellini calls her limousine, she gropes for but cannot find the light switch, which lies just outside the room she locked as she went in. It is a fact of European life she has already forgotten. She bumps her head against a lamp above a mirror in which she cannot see her face’s reflection.
Inside her hotel room not long after this, she undresses beside the toilet because she knows people have watched her enter. She knows they may be looking through her curtains from the piazza’s fountain. In another mirror, she sees a gash across her forehead and soundlessly laughs. She shifts her weight, feels the bidet sweat against her calf, and tells herself this is what comes of being drunken. She hears the couple on the other side of the wall making love again as Fellini tells Polanski back inside his mansion he has signed another actress to read Sandy’s portion of the script. He will dub the voice of someone shaped into a violin over what he finds too mannish.
Later still Fellini will confide to him, as well as several other friends, the main reason he cast Donald Sutherland as his lead was because he resembled an erection. Casanova punctured one hymen after another according to the autobiography from which Fellini’s script was adapted, making this reason valid. Again and again, he stabbed through this skin without thinking how little he had in truth accomplished, if only because his own pleasure always took precedence, if only because the hymen itself serves no purpose. This strange skin from which nothing new ever breaks but is only broken.
When I think of Casanova, when I think of Sandy Allen, whom he never ravished, I find myself wanting to believe Italy rescued her when it didn’t, when there was never any lasting transformation. She had no choice except to die in the town I was born in, a place where I have no more funerals to attend and so will never likely visit again. There are so many more sidelong glances to be found in larger places, where love is often less gotten than glimpsed. Time and again, I still fall deeply into the delusion that beautiful places can make you beautiful with them, freeing you from the lovelessness that small towns can enlarge out of proportion.
Before he spies Angelina undressing, Casanova arm wrestles her in a tavern. He wrestles and loses then follows her as she remains unaware of his movements, as she wears a white veil that to Fellini becomes a monstrous hymen, a vaginal membrane overspreading the whole woman. When she enters her tent, though, she drops this. Nearly naked, she reveals the largesse that people normally pay to witness, the expanses that allow her to be part of a circus traveling through Venice. Whether Sandy Allen wanted to remain Angelina after she left Italy I cannot be certain. All I know is there are worse things than becoming a sideshow virgin. Worse than traversing Europe always with a circus, of sleeping always in a tent, is staying in a Midwestern town so small it allows little room for movement.
There is pleasure too to be gotten from holding your purse to your bottom as you walk through customs, from the illusion you are having your transformation. There is something to be said for drinking wine with Fellini, who glimpsed her body’s topography through her dressing room keyhole without wanting to pinch any part of it. If Sandy’s later life was not changed by Italy, still she walked the streets of a city smelling of oranges before she left it for somewhere grown even uglier in comparison. Worse than being bathed by dwarfs for the lurid pleasure of a man resembling an erection is never having silk wrapped around your abdomen as the warmth of bathwater dissolves you into the weightlessness you have long imagined.
And though she’s dead now and all her traveling is finished, I still pretend I am waving silk flags across a field to her on occasion. I am speaking in semaphore to Sandy, because we have long needed our private language, because the town where she died and I was born is bordered by fields of corn and soybeans, making the brightness of our flags all the starker against their autumn brownness. No taller, no shorter, no prettier than average, I still sometimes think Sandy alone would have listened could we have only found enough silk to make our flags with—silk because these are the kind of wings we would have grown had we only returned from Italy different, freed of our chrysalises. And what could the silk flags have said if we had them? What would I have signaled to her and she waved back? That I live here unnoticed, while she says the opposite. I feel loveless, we would have waved to each other, in unison.
For a moment, as the dwarfs kissed her wrists, Sandy felt herself fill with beauty and knew it was preposterous. No man would kiss her lips except to tell his friends, except to fulfill a drunken challenge. Still looking out on a hill covered by cypresses, she realized it was the feeling she had needed without knowing it. The feeling alone was freedom.
Sandy Allen lived 25 years longer than expected, a fact my father mentioned when he read her obituary in the local paper. She lived with a heart twice as large as anyone else’s, and no doctor had foreseen her living past 30. In later years, however, she suffered from severe depression. Her melancholy deepened as she developed arthritis and her movements became more restricted. Even had she flags to wave as a form of communication, doing so might have made her shoulders pop painfully in their sockets. Had she tried to speak to me, to relieve her own lovelessness, she might have become even sooner silent.
By the time Fellini’s Casanova premiered in the 1970s, hundreds of years had passed since Italy had seen its last traveling circus, a world meaning circle in Latin, a word denoting wholeness. Casanova famously escaped a Venetian prison after being sentenced for witchcraft in the 18th century, after attempting to become an alchemist and practicing dark magic, after attempting to turn base metals into gold and failing. Yet alchemists only attempt to speed a process already in progress. Even stones eventually undergo transformation, sparkling and turning translucent, given enough time, given ages. And a circle is unbroken. A woman goes on living even after she has left the circus. Sometimes one life too is not enough for metamorphosis. Sometimes you surrender to the feeling of beauty knowing the feeling is fleeting.
Women who have had and not had their hymens broken may also not all glimpse love from men in passing, but their hearts still beat like living lumps of jelly, a sign they are pupating—they are waiting—instead of doing what others might call real living. Tightly contained within their skin, they feel at times as if they are decaying, though this long life of dying is necessary. It is what is needed for them to become something else to which they now bear no resemblance. Only once they emerge from their chrysalis, they don’t brandish their bright wings by day, don’t bother sucking all their nectar before sunset. Instead, they are moths drawn to flames, black and winged creatures of the evening. They breed in corners. Their larvae eat holes through clothing.
According to Chinese legend, Empress Hsi Ling Shi sat sipping tea under a mulberry tree when a cocoon fell into her cup and began unraveling. Its threads shimmered as the scalded pupa fell lifeless to cup’s bottom. Meanwhile the threads continued to brighten as the empress began twisting them around her ankle into a bracelet. Making her face into a moue so she looked more attractive, she told her husband she wanted more of the filaments, and for several centuries after this the Chinese carefully guarded their method of silk production. The industry flourished for women loving the feeling of the fabric next to their skin. Men’s hands then became even rougher in comparison.
Yet silkworms as a species do not exist. They are only caterpillars engaged in a process we interrupt to our own advantage. Silk harvesting relies on boiling water to kill the pupae, replicating what originally happened with the empress by accident. The caterpillar now is valued solely for its chrysalis, for its place of hiding before it can grow its moth wings. As a result, roughly 2,500 caterpillars die for every pound of fabric.
For every living thing, however, you cannot expect fulfillment. Some moths must die as caterpillars so empresses can wear the threads they spin only to enable a metamorphosis that never happens. Some people must travel with circuses while others can only watch them, never leaving the towns they were born in. Wanting often has nothing to do with what happens. Ask the silkworm. Ask Sandy Allen.
After shutting off all the lights in her hotel room and opening the shutters to starlight streaming through the Pantheon’s oculus, after washing her face with the milk of almonds making her smooth soap still smoother, she feels something inside her throbbing. She becomes conscious of the old loneliness now flown to Italy to keep her company. She has finished filming.
What has lain for several weeks dormant now begins to yawn and stretch within her. It asserts its own life again inside her ribs, though she tries to hush it. Pulsing in the night when her grandmother on the other side of the ocean has only awakened, it is the same loneliness that has been with her as long as she remembers, the closest she will ever come to carrying a baby, a child she will be pregnant with always. Only here she senses what she has come to think of as larvae is itself, this sterling isolation, briefly bathed in beauty. This old, pained life inside her is becoming. Maybe when she returns she will look different, she thinks while knowing the thought is silly. Maybe all those who have always known her, who have seen her grow so much larger than necessary, will recognize someone no taller, no shorter, no prettier than average. Fellini had told her she looked best in profile when she was pouting.
Even while being served tomatoes arranged in red star patterns next morning at breakfast, Sandy tries to imagine inhabiting her old life again, tries to imagine she doesn’t mind it. She tries to resolve herself to its ugliness by pretending there is no value in a traveling circus, pretending she is not freer than her audience, who must return to walls and windows covered with curtains while she lives in a tent, by pretending there is no such thing as wholeness. She pretends but cannot do it while tasting the juice of olives, while men later offer her roses as she sits on Spanish steps she knows cannot be Spanish. She has found herself almost too good an actress. The circus has traveled through her but has left too quickly.
The last time I visited Rome was with my husband—who had never been. He found the city smaller than expected. Rain was streaming through the Pantheon’s oculus when we walked in, flooding the floor’s marble center then draining toward the edge of the building. We have a small film of it, but the rain falling through this slim cylinder, this eye that sees nothing, is quickly occluded by all the other tourists’ bodies. At a nearby pizzeria, we were later seated below the edge of the awning so my husband’s right shoulder and my left were both being drenched. We inched our table closer toward four Norwegians, who asked if we minded taking their picture. The small patio was bordered by orange trees in planters. The rain and steam released by the Roman heat had opened their pores so even the red wine we ordered tasted of citrus.
All professors at the same small college, the Norwegians spoke perfect English. The two seated beside my husband were spouses, and those to my right were widowed, they said, when I made the wrong assumption. The man sitting next to me taught Proust and other French poets, and his bottom lip was bleeding. Food kept spilling out of his mouth’s right side as he spoke, and there was an ugliness not to him as a person, but the decay that had come from aging.
I forced myself to look into his blue eyes directly to keep myself from looking away, to keep focused on his eyes alone. And though most of his eyelashes had fallen, I found the light of recognition once I kept my gaze steady. Long after our meals were finished, long after my husband and the others had exhausted their topics of conversation, the two of us continued talking, of what I have now forgotten. I only remember that, despite the differences in our ages, despite the fact I was bathed in beauty in comparison, I became deeply conscious we were neither of us as we seemed. We were both pupating. We would need another life for anyone to see us clearly.
I was 7 when Sandy, then 30, had grown even taller than when she was while in Italy by a couple of inches. It was the only time I ever saw her in person. She was at the age past which no doctor predicted her to live, and somewhere in the back of her mind she likely knew that she was dying. She never saw me standing in line waiting to ride the small roller coaster she had left, smiling and still dizzy after letting the ride carry her over what later felt to me like gusting waves of a tsunami. I said nothing, either to her or to my younger sister standing beside me. I only noticed that the teeth she could not help baring were yellowed and spaced apart, none of them touching.