“Cauliflower Heads,” by Francine Prose, appeared in MQR’s Spring 1992 issue.
Europe was crawling with adulterous couples. Mostly, for some reason, one saw them at ruins, respectfully tripping over the archeological rubble. Just like regular tourists they seemed to be under some terrible strain, but unlike regular tourists they hardly looked at anything, so that when, say, a lizard streaked across their path, they’d jump and fall into each other with apologetic smiles, more like awkward teenagers than adults risking the forbidden.
In the ruins of Herculaneum, Susanna saw the quintessential adulterous couple leaving one of the underground rooms just as she and Jerry were entering. The couple startled as if they’d been caught embracing, as if they often met in the cavelike room and were shocked to see anyone else. They looked vaguely Eastern European–raincoats in the summer heat and frumpy business suits. The woman was pretty, in a frizzy way, with oddly colorless eyes and hair. She carried a leather briefcase and wore sensible, mannish shoes. The man was tall and also had colorless hair combed to cover a bald spot.
Later, when Susanna and Jerry stopped at a trattoria down the road, the couple was eating lunch there, or rather chain-smoking through it. A haze covered over the plates of food they ordered and didn’t touch. Once, when the woman lit up a smoke, her lover pushed back her sleeve and pressed his cheek to the inside of her forearm.
Watching, Susanna felt something in her chest go soggy and expansive, like that trick when you pleat a straw wrapper and then drip water on lit. Across the table Jerry was happily tucking away his penne al’amatriciana. Jerry and Susanna had only been married three weeks. Susanna wondered: Wasn’t one’s honeymoon cruelly early to be envying the adulterous?
Image via Slate: Lu, Yao. “Viewing the City’s Places of Interest in Springtime, 2007.”