Sea of Love

Canale Grande — Venice
(Oil on canvas, 74 × 92 cm)
BY Frans Wilhelm Odelmark
PHOTO COURTESY OF STOCKHOLMS AUKTIONSVERK

When I stepped out the front doors of the Venice train station, I thought I had entered the frame of a painting. The real world wasn’t full of marvels like this — palaces, balconies, canals, steeples, domes, bridges — all reflected, mirrored, echoed by water. This must be a dream. I dropped my suitcase and rubbed my eyes in astonishment. And then I saw them. They were standing at the foot of the stairs leading up to the station, watching me. Linda looked just as I remembered her from her only visit to Louisville six years ago. Her bangs were still a bright flame though now she wore a scarf and sunglasses and Capri pants with ballerina flats instead of a suit and heels. But the little girl with the brace, standing beside her, shocked me. I’d forgotten that Simone had polio, or no, I hadn’t forgotten, I just hadn’t thought about the consequences. At four she’d been a show-off, twirling around in her Polly Flinders smocked dresses, flashing rainbow-colored crinolines. This solemn ten year old, wearing a pleated plaid skirt and a light blue blouse, her blond hair in a smooth page boy, her right saddle oxford attached to two metal bars that supported her withered calf, did not resemble the pretty and frivolous exhibitionist that I remembered.

Linda waved. They waited for me to come down the stairs.

“That look on your face when you came through the door! I love to watch people who are seeing Venice for the first time.” Linda kissed me on the cheeks the way I had seen people kissing in Paris, where I had changed trains with the help of a friend of Linda’s, who had met my boat at Le Harve.

…I thought I had entered the frame of a painting. The real world wasn’t full of marvels like this — palaces, balconies, canals, steeples, domes, bridges — all reflected, mirrored, echoed by water.

My glamorous aunt Linda, divorced, sophisticated, an essayist, reviewer, travel writer and “a real globe-trotter” according to my awestruck mother, was working on a long article on Venetian art for Harper’s. She’d invited me to stay with her for the summer, and my mother had talked my father into letting me go. This was back in the late 50’s. Linda wanted a companion for Simone. I was sixteen going on seventeen and had jumped at the chance to get out of Louisville.

“Oh sweetheart,” Linda said, pulling back to look at me. “You’re so grown-up. Short hair becomes you. Here’s Simone. You remember Simone?”

Simone smiled shyly. We shook hands, and Linda picked up my suitcase.

“Oh, no,” I said. “I’m used to carrying that.”

“Nonsense. You walk with Simone. We’re going to take that boat over there.”

Simone was able to walk almost normally, and even bend her knee when we climbed from the dock into the boat, though the boatman took her arm and helped her down onto the deck. We stood outside as we chugged down the Grand Canal, and Linda shouted at me, though I couldn’t understand her for the noise of the motor, and pointed to buildings now familiar but at the time fantastic and overwhelming.

We got off just under the Rialto Bridge and plunged into a maze of narrow, crowded streets full of tourists in Bermuda shorts and old women in black dresses carrying baskets of produce. I don’t know how many bridges we crossed, how many canals I peered down or stared into as Simone and I hurried to keep up with Linda, who was always several strides ahead of us, sometimes invisible in the densely packed streets. Simone kept her hand on my elbow, steering me this way and that, and we finally came to a heavy, studded door, which Linda had already swung open.

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