The Italian Teacher

The Italian Teacher

Tom Rachman

Rome, 1955


Seated in a copper bathtub, Bear Bavinsky dunks his head under steaming water and shakes out his beard, flinging droplets across the art studio. He thumbs a bolt of shag into his pipe and flicks a brass Zippo lighter, sucking hard to draw down the flame, tobacco glowing devil-red, smoke coiling toward the wood-beam ceiling. He exhales and stands. Beads of water rain off his torso.

His five-year-old son, Pinch, hoists a thick bath towel, arms trembling under the weight. Bear runs his fingers through receding reddish-blond hair and—hand on the boy’s head for balance—steps onto newspapers previously used for wiping paintbrushes. His wet footprints bleed across the print, encircling dabs of oily blue and swipes of yellow.

“That’s final!” Natalie declares from across the studio, chewing her fingernail.

“Final, is it? You certain?” Bear asks his wife. “Not the slightest doubt?”

“All I’ve got is doubts.”

He proceeds to the iron front door and shoulders it open, dusky light from the alleyway pushing past him, glinting off glass pigment jars, illuminating abused paintbrushes in turpentine and canvases drying along the bare-brick walls. In the early-evening air, he stands in place, a fortyish male animal, naked but for the towel twisted around his neck, his shadow narrowing up the studio, hurdling the tub, darkening his wife and their little boy. “Absolutely positive then?”

Natalie yanks a strand of black hair over her eyes, wraps it around her baby finger, whose tip reddens. She darts into the WC at the back of the studio and closes the warped door, her head bumping the bare bulb, which alternates glare and gloom as she consults the mirror: emerald ball gown cinched at the waist, box-pleated skirt, polka-dot overlay. It’s as if she were wearing three outfits at once, none of them hers. She tucks her hair under a cream beret but it hardly helps, the same gawky twenty-six-year-old looking back, all elbows and knees, a manly jaw, deep-set black eyes, as uncertain as if drawn with smudged charcoal, the worry lines added in fine-nib pen.

She joins Bear, who remains naked in the doorway, a puff of smoke released from his pipe. “I’m not even acceptable,” she tells him, and he rests a rough palm against the swell of her bosom, firmly enough to quicken her pulse. He strides to his leather suitcase and plucks out neckties, one for himself, one for their son. Bear raises the louder tie, holding it up as if considering a mackerel. He sends Pinch to fetch the canvas shears, with which he snips one of the ties in half, twirling it around the boy’s neck. “What do you say, kiddo?” Bear grins, the beard rising to his eyes, which disappear into slits. “Natty, I love the hell out of you. And I listen the hell out of you. But damn it, sweetie, we are going.”

She clutches one hand in the other. “Well then, hurry!” she responds, quickstepping past her husband, nearly stumbling as she crouches to knot their son’s tie. Natalie touches Pinch’s forehead, her hand throbbing against his brow, jittery fingers like a secret message: “We waited all this time, Pinchy, and now he’s here!”

Bear, who moved in only weeks earlier, approaches his son, mussing the boy’s fine sandy hair (quite like Dad’s), playfully flicking the kid’s nervous chin (like his mother’s), while Pinch’s blue eyes (with an urgency all their own) gaze up, awaiting his father’s command.


High above the cobbled streets between Trastevere and the Vatican, a cloud of starlings swings back and forth like a black pendulum across the sky. The three Bavinskys are speed-walking from the studio toward the center of Rome, with Natalie clasping Bear’s arm and pulling Pinch to her other flank. She raises her husband’s sleeve to read his scratched wristwatch.

“Don’t fret, Natty,” he tells her. “Nothing but friends tonight.”

“Yes, your friends.”

When she was living here with Pinch alone, Natalie heard from nobody. Then Bear moved to Rome and the invitations gushed in. He avoids soirees but agreed for her sake—there’ll be fellow artists, and she needs to circulate, to find collaborators for her own work. This is her night, promised and planned, minutes away. “They’ll be busting to meet you,” he insists.

Natalie has spent six years in Rome—an astonishing stretch given that there were days she scarcely endured, crumpling from isolation, especially after giving birth alone, a disastrous delivery that ruined her insides, meaning Pinch will be her only child. From the start, she clung to him, yet was clueless about child-rearing, rescued by Italian neighbors around whom she played the free-spirited Canadian lass, awaiting her famed American painter husband (even if she and Bear weren’t technically married at the start). He turned up each summer, painting compulsively, Natalie sitting for him in the sweltering heat, their son dozing by the wall. At summer’s end, she would pack his suitcase, bereft at the sight of Bear dragging himself back to New York again, where three daughters and a spouse wouldn’t let go. All that is done now. He pledged to move here for good, and proved true to his word.

As they hurry over Ponte Mazzini, Bear leans over, smushing their boy between, and kisses his young wife flush on the mouth, smearing her lipstick. “Listen to me, rhubarb: I love you, and they will too.” As long as his gaze holds, she believes it.

They arrive at a palazzo overlooking the weary green Tiber, and Bear thumps on its vast door with both fists, a syncopated jazz beat. The footman bursts forth, hurrying them in—late! late!—conveying the Bavinskys past a drizzling Renaissance fountain, up a marble staircase lined with ancient Roman statuary, into a ballroom of soaring ceilings frescoed with Mars and Venus in various stages of marital discord. At twin grand pianos, maestros in tailcoats tinkle Debussy while scores of revelers chortle and slurp from champagne coupes, their cigarettes leaking gray ribbons before rococo murals and avant-garde artworks by Guttuso, De Chirico, Burri.

Tom Rachman's Books