Instead of staying next to her husband holding her desire back, as the movie shows, in that tense instant under the rain, stopped at the traffic light, the woman gets off the family truck, runs covering herself from the rain, and gets into her lover’s car. She gives no explanation to her husband nor has time to leave a letter. She can’t say goodbye to her children either, who are still young, but everyone knows what the pull of desire is like. She has made a good choice. In their seats, the audience that had been anxiously holding their breath, finally sighs in relief. They like the new ending to The Bridges of Madison County and, with their dose of romanticism still intact, they leave the movie theatre.
Away from the cameras, finally far from the spotlight, the woman is sitting in the passenger seat. She lets the photographer put his hand on her shoulder and thus their journey begins. She has only known her lover for a few days, but that’s enough to make her want a life together, he has managed to awake in her body the certainty of passion and the echo of a lethargic youth. She’s not your ordinary woman either. Years ago, pushed by this same uncontrollable fire, she left Italy and followed a soldier to marry him. He was an American hero and she, without hesitation, accepted to become the wife of a good man and to go with him to a farm in the US, where their two children were born.
She turns back and sees in the distance the image of that soldier who is not wearing a uniform anymore and is now a farmer without the shine of adventure. She feels guilty, but not too guilty; who would have been able to resist the call of passion? The lover now puts his hand on her knee.
She doesn’t have any luggage so, before getting on a plane to New York, he buys her clothes for the trip. They’re nice, different, and the woman feels she has shed her old skin. Now she is someone else: younger, classier, brighter. While she walks around the city, he takes pictures for National Geographic, visits libraries, and in just two days he introduces her to more people than her husband has in an entire lifetime. As if fame were contagious, she feels content having joined this internationally renowned photographer. She’s the lover of an artist, a bohemian, and when he hugs her in that hotel room in Tanzania, she is on cloud nine. Sleeping under the mosquito net, waking to the roar of the lion, being a female awaiting the rut, peeking out of the tent to discover flaming sunrises, wading across rivers bursting out in waterfalls, seeking refuge from terrifying storms, reviewing photograph after photograph until she finds the best framing, cooking dinner for two with exotic ingredients, travelling aimlessly.
Soon she has seen twenty countries, hundreds of sunrises, thousands of faces. And her lover, as a tribute to the moment they found each other, has photographed the bridges of every city. One sticks out in her memory. The scene takes place in a park in Buenos Aires, where an elderly couple is looking in the opposite direction, as if they didn’t know each other. She’s also overwhelmed by the picture of an abandoned park taken over by peacocks. In the rare moments of rest, in some hotel somewhere, she writes to her children. She never receives a reply and she blames it on the constant address changes. This hurts her but her lover recommends not thinking about it.
One morning she wakes up with a hunch. They are now in the North of Russia, interviewing a reindeer herder who has discovered, among the snow-capped peaks, the body of a mammoth calf. In its frozen state, it still remains in the same fetal position in which it died, like a child in fear. She returns to the hotel feeling sick, as if instead of the ancient animal, she has unearthed her own pain. It’s a freezing feeling that makes her lock herself in the bathroom and throw up, it’s as if she’s pulling out ice cubes from her guts. In the afternoon, and since her lover isn’t there, she tries calling her old home, and while the phone rings, she can picture it, still on the same table, over the crochet cover she knitted, next to the flowery sofa, the fire lit, and the open curtains. She pictures it in that life where nothing changes. She would love, oh how she would love it, to speak to her children. She would also love to speak to her husband, ask him how he’s been. But no one picks up the phone. She doesn’t sleep well that night.
Just like the ice under which the mammoth was hiding, something has cracked inside the woman’s heart. She doesn’t enjoy travelling that much anymore and she feels lonely when her lover, sometimes for weeks, has to leave her at the hotel organising his photographs, going over the bookkeeping, and scheduling interviews for him. She has been acting as his secretary for some time now; everyone admires how bright this passionate couple is. “How romantic!” they cheer when he tells their story in public, and they look at her enviously, as if she were some sort of heroine.
One day, he tells her he needs to do an interview in Rome. The woman is touched. She thinks that now she’ll be able to go back to her mother’s home and finally be able to speak with someone from her past. She’s nervous during the whole trip which, because of his commitments, ends up lasting for weeks.
Since her husband has an important meeting, she takes the chance to hop on a bus to her hometown. Everything has changed. Where time had spread poverty and war, destruction, there are now beautiful villas, vineyards, hotels. Her mother almost doesn’t recognise her, but they hug so hard it hurts. “How you’ve changed,” she tells her. “You look beautiful,” she tells her too. She’d rather not answer; her mother is now an old woman. Then, once they calm down, she invites her in, they sit, hold hands, look at each other without knowing what to say. Finally, the mother lets out: “Darling, I’m so sorry.” Startled, she asks her what about. “About your husband,” she says, “he was a good man.” That’s how she finds out she’s a widow, but her mother doesn’t know what kind of disease ended his life. She does tell her, though, that the children write to her every now and then, that they seem alright. She shows her a picture. The woman feels her life, her real life, is laying there on that table with a plastic tablecloth, in that house she left centuries ago to follow a man. She thinks about what would have become of her if she had married someone from the town, if she had stayed there. She thinks about life’s infinite possibilities. She thinks about her children too, who are now like strangers. She doesn’t say a word about her feelings and gets back to the hotel in time, so her lover won’t ask her where she’s been.
Although they stay in Rome for several months, she doesn’t go back to visit her mother. She has lost some weight and it suits her well, she attends the most luxurious cocktail parties, and the fame of her lover precedes her. He is already almost an old man, she is an almost young woman, the age difference is now noticeable. Nevertheless, she is still fond of his body, although she could be with someone younger. She has a chance and takes it, but she ends the affair feeling bad. “This boy sleeping next to me must be about my son’s age,” she thinks.
Sometimes she thinks of her lover’s hugs under the bridges of Madison County. Some others times, of the mammoth calf. And others, of that old couple on the bridge, separated by life. One day she receives a letter; it’s from her children. “Dear mother,” they write, “we’re all grown up now, and we’d like to see you. No hard feelings, we just want to talk to you about our father. My brother and I wonder how there could have been such passion in such a simple man. Maybe you, who knew him so well, could give us the answer. Going over some of his papers, we found this envelope with your name on it, it’s yours to keep.” The woman opens it and finds a paper with a single line: “I’ll love you till the day I die.” Since then she dreams about him. Sometimes she wonders if she made the right choice getting out of the car on that rainy morning. When the dilemma becomes too pressing, she tries shooing it away, as if it were a fly.
Clara Obligado is an Argentine author. Following the 1976 Argentine dictatorship, she moved to Spain where she has lived ever since. She is the creator of one of Spain’s first creative writing workshops and she has introduced the micro story genre there as well.
She is the author of the novel La hija de Marx and the collections of short and micro stories Las otras vidas and Por favor, sea breve 1 y 2.
Denise Kripper is a literary translator from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
She holds a PhD in Literature & Cultural Studies from Georgetown University and is now Assistant Professor of Latin American Literature and Translation Studies in Lake Forest College.