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Friday Chupacabra Blogging

You know those moments when something you absolutely didn’t intend to happen has indeed happened, and it’s over, and you’re just sitting there absorbing that, and you just KNOW, down into your core, that you can’t move a muscle, because as long as you sit absolutely still, it sort of DIDN’T happen, like you don’t have to interact with the world in which it happened, but then you eventually have to move because life goes on and also because you have to go to the bathroom?

Yeah, me, neither.

Here’s a chupacabra.

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TRAVEL JOURNAL: Rome, Day Seven

DAY SEVEN

We were, or at least I was, still determined to get to the Vatican museum, and this was our last day to attempt that journey. My previous visit to Rome, my ex and I had saved that attraction to the last day only to find out that it was closed and that the stupid pope was holding a mass. As if he owned the place! This time, after a bit of subway navigation, we found it awaiting us.

Father Craig had suggested we find an English-speaking guide, who could get us in for a private tour while avoiding the impossibly long lines, so we promptly engaged a cute American boy who was hawking that very thing. I forget his name, but he hooked us up with a group led by Stan, a laconic George Clooney lookalike who didn’t really come to life until much later, while explaining the artistic treasures of the Vatican. But first, he had to deal with the horrors of American tourism in the form of fawning Texan women who couldn’t believe his English was so good for a non-American (he was Canadian and spoke more intelligible English than they did) and one Angry Man who could not even be satisfied by one of the most significant collections of Western culture ever assembled and kept barking about how long the tour was taking.

The entrance to the Vatican museum is an enclosed space half the size of a football field, filled almost shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists. We congratulated ourselves on bypassing most of this, although not fast enough for Angry Man. We finally navigated our way in and saw all of the loot, including a bathtub (Nero’s) that is probably worth more than the whole of Baltimore, if not the state of Maryland. Each individual item was exquisite, but taken together, these treasures were dizzying if not, on many levels, nauseating. I’m thrilled beyond words to have spent fifteen minutes in the Sistine chapel, of course, and to have had the chance to bask in the works of some of the greatest artists who ever lived. And I also appreciate the fact that a major religion like Catholicism, especially back in the days before easy transportation and communication, needed to create a spectacle worthy of pilgrimage, which would then be glorified throughout Christendom when the reverent souls returned to their homes. But to stand amidst that incalculable wealth, where almost every visible square inch is quite literally priceless, really gave me a sense of what the Protestants were protesting. A church that had been truly interested in spreading the philosophy of Jesus and taking care of the sick and poor, instead of amassing as much worldly power as possible, could have changed the course of history (in a good way, I mean, not in the bloody, violent, tortuous way it actually did).

There’s a difference between capturing the imagination and controlling the mind. At best, I can accept that the generations of popes aspired to the former by building sanctuary worthy of the first of their number, Saint Peter. (And Saint Peter’s actual tomb, by the way, was the most awe-inspiring part of the place, actually radiating a palpable energy I could feel with my whole body, although I’m not sure if it originated from within or was only a reflection of what was projected from without.) But as they began to style themselves as opulent kings rather than disciples of a wise Jewish peasant, they chose to increase and maintain their power by doing the latter. I suppose, if he had a sudden change of heart, the one thing in the way of Ratzinger selling the whole place now to feed the hungry and solve other worldly problems in Jesus’ example is simply that not enough money exists in all currencies combined to do so. But I suspect that his highness is not so inclined, making the Church’s increasing irrelevance to the modern world an irrevocable trend. There’s a reason why literally all of the monks and nuns and a good half of the young priests we saw in Rome were African, East Asian, or South American. “Indentured servitude,” muttered a tipsy Father Craig when I mentioned this to him. Of the stomach, I suspect, and also of the soul.

But I’m a terrible guest, to enter the pope’s country only to complain about it. The Vatican is truly magnificent and, whatever their reasons, everyone in the world should see it in person. It’s just that my cynical mind can’t help but to make connections with another seat of earthly and spiritual power just across the Tiber, the Palatine, which, unable to withstand the forces of history, is now mostly dust.

*

The remainder of our last day in Rome was for the most part lovely. We ate lunch on the Piazza Navarone, site of the famed Four Rivers fountain, and watched the passers-by and the open-air art vendors. Soon after we sat down, however, I made Rob aware of the danger in our midst: a clown wearing a yarmulke and a red nose began setting up shop directly across from us. “A mime!” I warned, much in the tone of Admiral Ackbar’s “It’s a trap!” (Like Admiral Ackbar, I know when things are a trap.) But as in the case of Admiral Ackbar, it was too late. As we waited for our food, we were forced to watch the spectacle of the clown mocking everyone in sight, including police officers and old ladies. Most took this good-naturedly. As I was observing a different culture, it was unclear as to whether the yarmulke was Jewish pride or an anti-Semitic jibe, so I tried not to succumb to what humor there was, but luckily I was too far back from the action for my schoolmarmish attitude to attract his attention.

After our long lunch, we made our last daylight stroll across Rome back to our room. Cognizant of this, I tried to appreciate every step of the way. I also tried to talk myself out of purchasing the snazzy laptop bag I had seen the day before at the Apple Store clone near where we were staying, but powerless against my American consumerism, I knew I was going to do so. While Rob napped, I slipped out and made the transaction, my first entirely in Italian (because, until then, everyone spoke English instantly upon seeing me). Jet-lagged up until our last day, Rob continued to nap throughout the evening as I got hungrier and sleepier (I was tired but couldn’t sleep), and my blood sugar crashed. We had planned on traversing the city once more to a restaurant housed in the ruins of a theater, but once I finally roused him, Rob wanted to rediscover the corner of Pope Joan’s monumental revelation because his previous photos had not come out. Getting hungrier and sleepier by the moment, I was in short temper as I trailed after him, and prevailed upon him to find someplace closer to eat. We got into a short argument and ended up in a wonderful restaurant, on a balcony overlooking the illuminated Coliseum. Other occupants included a strolling minstrel, a guitar player, and a bridal party giving a small reception at a nearby table. The view was breathtaking, and I tried to absorb everything in my last few Roman hours, including the massive plates of food that we had ordered, overestimating our hunger.

One thing I won’t underestimate, now that I am home, is my desire to return to Italy. Despite the fact that it is basically a third-world country tacked on to Europe (mostly because of its wackadoodle political antics, incalculable bureaucratic corruption, and lingering patriarchal attitudes), there are few places in my travels that I’ve felt so drawn to as this classical Disneyland. I know that America’s history extends as far back as Rome’s and is equally fascinating, but the Native Americans, for better or for worse, didn’t leave as much of a palpable historical record. On the other hand, Italy is the land of much of my ancestry. I’ve studied the Roman Empire and can read a bit of Latin, so what is preserved of these entities leaps out at my approach. I meditated on the spot that Julius Caesar was murdered, walked the halls of Octavian’s home, stood on the very mosaic tiles that once supported Cleopatra’s feet (or more likely, those of her litter bearers). In general, I am not a fan of historical preservation as a force of glorifying the past. The past sucked, and being confined by its art and architecture is a way of being trapped in antiquated attitudes and limitations. But there’s something about seeing these ancient wonders and even the religious works, of being reminded of the capabilities of humanity when inspired by various kinds of earthly and spiritual power, that is awe-inspiring. Even that which has fallen to pieces is more interesting in some ways than anything we create today, not because the past is more interesting, but because it was built by people who couldn’t conceive of what would happen to it. No one today expects a shopping mall, for example, to last for two thousand years, and it’s not built to; it’s built to be inoffensive for a couple of decades and then paved over. But Rome was created by hubris, and Romans live under its crushing weight on a daily basis. The builders of the forums and of the cathedrals will live forever because, even when their creations are dust, they can be forever known and appreciated in a way nothing made today ever will be. By feeling an ancient marble column, we can touch two millennia of history and know that, in two millennia, if it isn’t underwater, others will be doing the same, wondering the same things. We can only hope that the future people will be able to appreciate these relics from a position of even greater social evolution, and that the lessons of history will finally be understood. That’s what history is for, and that’s what Rome is for, really.

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TRAVEL JOURNAL: Rome, Day Six

DAY SIX

We could not go to Rome without seeing the Forum and the Palatine. There are a few different fora in Rome because Julius Caesar and his heirs kept building new ones and rebuilding the old ones. All of these are rubble now anyway. But even strolling through the ruins on Day Six, we could get the vaguest sense of what they must have been like in their heyday: grand enough to put any modern city to shame is my feeling. Relatively speaking, of course.

We actually started the day climbing the Palatine, the hill on which Rome was supposedly founded by two greedy babies and what was probably a rather startled wolf. Subsequent generations built huts and increasingly grand palaces on that spot until it became the center of the known world. So much of those structures has been lost to age, wars, natural disasters, and looters (I’m looking at you, Catholic Church), but the remaining puzzle pieces are still awe-inspiring. I’d like to see what New York will look like in two thousand years. Of course, this is where the emperors lived in luxury; the crude houses of the polloi have long been paved over. I might have been disgusted by the excesses of the Palatine as the Common Era got off the ground, but there is something romantic about a ruin.

By this time, I was starting to like Octavian more because according to his statues, he was actually sort of hot, but we chose not to wait in the line that led into the rooms of his house. Instead, after the ruins proper, we wandered around the gardens and found the steps down to the Via Sacra and the Roman Forum. Poor Rob was broiling like a lobster at this point, so we didn’t spend as much time there as we might have, but again, it was enough to give us a sense of the ancient life. We used our iPhones to snap photos like mad then exited at the far end in search of lunch.

And then: Nap Mountain.

As you have come to expect, our naps had grown to epic proportions. It was late in the afternoon before we got back to our room, but we slept and/or dawdled until nine or so, before wandering out in search of another of Father Craig’s recommendations. It was his favorite “cheap eat,” he had said, and another friend of Rob’s had confirmed this. So it was with much anticipation that we sat down to the most disgusting meal I’ve had in ages. I think we must have gotten the wrong restaurant, actually—another restaurant nearby must also have been named after an Italian bear—because the menu didn’t at all resemble what had been described. But by then, it was too late. The Roman gods had decided that Rob had avoided octopus for too long and the pasta with bacon that he ordered transmogrified somewhere before it reached our table into a plate of writhing tentacles. The beef I ordered medium well turned out to be a hunk of fat and gristle dripping with blood. Rob’s veal (which I traded him for even though I don’t like veal) tasted like very, very dry roast beef that someone had left out in an alley. After this depressing disaster, almost none of which we actually ate, we just paid and left. To cheer ourselves up, we wandered back by the Pantheon, which looked so enchanting in the moonlight that the gelatos we ordered in its shadow were a bit of an overkill. But just a bit, and they did serve to get the taste of dinner out of our mouths.

We walked home past the Trevi fountain, much less crowded after midnight. We sat for a while there, as well, and pooled our remaining coins in an effort to each toss three in. We had five, so I gave Rob the extra one and just tossed two; ten years ago, I had just thrown in one, so I figured my long journey was finally complete.

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TRAVEL JOURNAL: Rome, Day Five

DAY FIVE

We had intended to go to the Vatican museum on Tuesday, but we got a later start thanks to the previous night’s ministrations of Friar Whiskey. Instead, we walked over to the Quirinal toward Piazza Barberini, where we had enjoyed lunch the day before. Today, our goal was skellingtons, notably those bones on display on Via Veneto in Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. The whole thing is freakish, but I suppose we must be forgiving of the people who brought cappuccino to the world. If they want to line their rooms with the skulls and femurs and cowled corpses of dead monks and other random bodies, who are we to argue? (Actually, I don’t know if the Capuchins invented cappuccino, and I don’t even like cappuccino, but are you going to argue with five thousand skellingtons? I don’t think so.)

The church features a series of tableaux made out of human bones, the point of which is apparently to remind the viewer that he is going to die and decompose, and also that there is more to life than the physical. Although, as Rob noted, it’s rather zen, it’s also spectacularly ugly and unpleasantly musty. I was feeling dizzy afterward and we had an expensive lunch across the Veneto. Mine was a caprese salad with a huge hunk of fresh mozzarella. Take that, bones.

Afterward, we felt invigorated enough afterward to walk for miles to the Trastavere neighborhood, which is across the river. This would not have been my first choice for a destination, but Rob wanted to see this quaint area, and in fact, it was quite beautiful; much more laid back than the central part of town. We had Second Lunch at a sidewalk café, and when a thunderstorm threatened, ducked into the Museum of Rome at Trastavere to see some watercolors of Roman daily life in the 1800s. I’m not a big fan of watercolors, but it was interesting to see paintings of what some of the areas we had already visited looked like about a hundred fifty years ago (mostly the same except for colorful peasants lounging around in the foreground). This is also one of those museums that sets up terrifying manikins in life-sized dioramas of days gone by, and the viewer spends so much time being repulsed by the manikins that they don’t notice the other aspects. In general, I would say this was a FAIL, except it did keep us out of the thunder and lightning.

It was still raining when we emerged, however, and unable to get a cab, we walked the two point two miles back to our room, fending off the hoards of salesmen who sprung up out of the cobblestones to sell five-euro umbrellas. I don’t know why we turned them down because we were both soaked to the core, but there was something creepy about the way they materialized and shoved umbrellas in our faces as the first drop of water hit the pavement. The walk was somewhat romantic, but my advice would be to avoid Roman rain if at all possible: the two white shirts I was wearing turned brown upon exposure to that mysterious element, and I’ve been unable to get some sort of greasy fog off my glasses ever since.

That night, we had dinner at a place recommended by Father Craig. Once again, we went late, and my blood sugar was at an all-time low, but I did cheer up a bit over helping Rob decide whether he had just ordered meatballs or baby octopus. They turned out to be meatballs, but the gods of irony were watching, and it wouldn’t be long before they had their revenge.

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TRAVEL JOURNAL: Rome, Days Three and Four

DAY THREE

Walk walk walk: that’s what we did on Sunday. That morning, we swooped down past the Coliseum again, this time turning away from the Corso and heading out past the Circus Maximus to the plaza of the Boca de la Veritas. This is the famous two thousand-year-old manhole cover that is rumored to bite your hand off if you tell it a lie. (I’m starting to think that the fall of the empire was not a mystery for the ages.) We were not in the mood to wait in line to test this Judge Judy avatar; instead we hung around the adjacent temples for a few minutes then sauntered down the riverbank toward the part of town that contains the Protestant cemetery. This walled-off park featuring overlapping monuments and lush gardens is so gorgeous that I might just have to convert to some wackadoodle sect of Christianity to get in when the time comes. One end is anchored by an oddly scaled pyramid tomb, and Rob found an unassuming grave toward the other end that we believe was either a gay couple or business partners who were uncommonly fond of each other.

Trekking back through the Avatine toward our bed and breakfast, we discovered first that it was the wrong time of day to eat lunch (the restaurants didn’t open until one) and, further along the route, that there were no restaurants to be found. At all. This must have been the only such route in all of Rome. I was famished when we finally found a seafood restaurant that was friendly to my no-seafood requirements. After a two-course lunch, it was back to our room for another epic nap.

Because we didn’t do much else that day except eat dinner, I will take this opportunity to complain about a few aspects of Rome that have been pissing me off. The first is the shoes. Last time I came here, nine years ago, everyone said that I would be spotted as a tourist a mile off if I wore sneakers, so I purchased a pair of stylish black shoes that gave me blisters the size of asteroids. This time, I went out of my way to buy a new pair of non-sneaker walking shoes and break them in, and when I got here I discovered all of the Romans have changed their tune and become sneaker freaks. All of them. This casualness goes for the rest of their wardrobes, too. Most of them have foregone the fashion of my recollection in favor of looking just as dumpy as I usually do; except I only packed nice clothes and look wildly out of place. I would hate them all except I’m getting some good ideas that I will try and duplicate from the Banana Republic clearance rack.

The other thing is the racket. There is a lot of it, especially when we’re trying to sleep. I bought ear plugs, but poor Rob has been tossing and turning as motorcycle and other diesel motors roar past, tires rumble over cobblestones, ambulances and cats howl their general displeasure, horns shriek, crazy people yell, and jackhammers jack. Of course, if we didn’t try to sleep so much, this phenomenon would be less noticeable, but it’s been particularly hard to get past our jet lag this trip. We slept the rest of the day and crossed town for dinner at a restaurant Rob found on the Internet. Nobody here eats early so we had a twenty-minute wait even after ten o’clock, but it was worth it because I had artichoke pie and chocolate mousse.

We’ve walked about ten miles a day and I’m fatter than ever.

*

DAY FOUR

I know you are wondering how we fit all of these wild frenzies of sleeping, naps, and jetlagging into our otherwise uneventful days. It does get better: I think we only slept for about a half an hour on Monday afternoon. In the morning, we had struck out in a completely different direction, stopping first at a Michelangelo-designed church that has been transformed, at least temporarily, into a mea culpa exhibit honoring Galileo Galilei (the church having four hundred years too late decided that he might have been on to something). We then had an early lunch at the Piazza Barberini and then wandered over to the Spanish Steps, site of what will forever be known as the String Bracelet Incident.

It’s funny that it happened because between myself and Rob, I’m usually the Bad Cop who would have no problem telling someone where he could shove his ball of string, but perhaps I was lulled off my game by being at this intensely beautiful location or because I was not used to being awake during daylight hours. What happened was, as I was taking a photo of an azalea flower, I heard Rob talking to someone and, not realizing that it was some sort of argument, turned around to join in. It turned out to be some guy who wanted Rob to put his finger in a loop of string so he could make him a string bracelet in the colors of Italy. Rob kept objecting and the other person kept insisting. Eventually, he asked me, and I just did it. I don’t know why. As the guy wove the colored strings together, he kept mumbling something in unintelligible Italian-accented English. At one point, he said something about this string bracelet making my wishes come true and bringing me ten children, which bears no resemblance whatsoever to any wish I may have ever had unless these ten children were tied together under a falling piano, but I suppose an allowance must be made for a cultural divide. I ended up paying five euros for the thing, which pissed Rob off because he thought I was being taken advantage of, but really, I thought it was nice and I’m still wearing it. Bad Cop though I may be, I think that it is a good idea for an American in a foreign country to allow himself to be occasionally taken advantage of for the sake of international relations and life experience and colorful bits of string.

After the Spanish Steps, we wandered across town toward the Pantheon. It was an enchanting, maze-like journey through alleys that, while only as wide as my living room and lined with restaurant tables, still channeled thousands of pedestrians, cars, and scooters to their destinations. The Pantheon has got to be my favorite thing in Rome and maybe the world; I wish I could have seen it in its heyday when it still had all of its carvings and before those blasted Catholics had converted it into a church. Of course, I have mixed feelings about it since it was built by Octavian’s general Agrippa, who defeated Marc Antony at Actium and set the stage for Rome’s annex of Egypt. As someone who is generally sympathetic to Cleopatra, it’s hard for me to appreciate the actions of her enemies, Octavian and Agrippa. (Octavian is sort of the George W. Bush of Ancient Rome: they gave him an inch and he took a mile.) But oh my gods, the Pantheon is simply the most stunning thing ever, even moreso because it is so unassuming amidst the other beauties of the city: wander down the right alley, turn a corner, and there it is in its own little piazza. I kept wanting to hug it. The guy who built this knew Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Octavian, and any number of other figures from that tumultuous era, and he was grandfather to the notorious Caligula and great-grandfather to Nero. (Actually the building Agrippa built burned down and was replaced with the current one a few years later, but his name is still on it.) The inside is just as breathtaking if you ignore all of the baroque Christian crap around the edges; the dome is just jaw-dropping with light pouring in through the hole at the top. You simply have to go here.

We walked back to the bed and breakfast for a short nap then pulled ourselves together to meet one of Rob’s high school teachers, Father Craig, who has been living in Rome for twenty years and coincidentally lived just a few blocks from where we were staying on the Esquiline. Father Craig is an authority in Aramaic and teaches that language at university; he also lives and works at an old church that was built over the two thousand-year-old ruins of a Roman market. These ruins, which have never been excavated, are historically significant because they also housed Pope Sylvester I in the days of Constantine in the third century. Father Craig took us on a private tour, pointing out ancient frescoes and mosaics, as well as features that were added later. The church above had apparently been using the tunnels as a dumping ground for centuries, so there were also toppled columns, millennia-old ceiling tiles, and sarcophagi just lying around. From the basement, we went up to the roof for two bottles of wine and increasingly drunken conversation. Craig then invited us to dinner and up to the community’s recreation room, where he lined up four bottles of whiskey in the order of their smokiness and ordered us to appreciate them. We did, as did some of the other monks and priests and whatnot, who wandered in and created a mild cacophony of at least four languages.

Long-time readers will be aware that I have no patience whatsoever for Christianity in any form, but I confess it was a joy to be a part of that fellowship, and that’s not just the wine and whiskey talking. Craig travels the world, has the best Macintosh computers money can buy, drinks like a fish, knows all of the best places to eat, and can maintain a deeply intellectual conversation on almost every topic (skillfully, I noticed, turning said conversation away from those areas he is more fuzzy on). If this is the life of a priest, I want in . . . I’m just going to cross my fingers when those pesky vows of celibacy come up.

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TRAVEL JOURNAL: Rome, Days One and Two

DAY ONE

Tell someone that in mere moments you are going to drag him to an unspecified extra-national location, restrict his movement by stuffing him into a cramped chair for many hours, introduce sleep deprivation, then enforce miles-long marches that generate painful blisters and other unholy symptoms, and it sounds like a page out of one of Dick Cheney’s torture memos. Present him with a guidebook to Rome beforehand, however, and it becomes a romantic adventure of a lifetime.

I don’t know what possessed me to try to surprise Rob with a week’s vacation for his birthday. Skulking around and making clandestine arrangements give me hives, and Rob is the sort of person who doesn’t like to go on a trip without researching it into tatters before stepping onto the plane. Still, I thought some time away would do us good, and his recent birthday presented motive and opportunity. What ensued was like something out of a mystery novel, if mystery novels usually involved wacky surprises instead of bloody murder. I arranged for a week’s worth of non-Rob coverage at work, arranged with his lovely mother to watch Goblin and provide a staging point for our drive to Dulles, and suggested his sister, who needed a birthday present idea, purchase a particularly picturesque guidebook. Then I packed three bags (including Goblin’s), hid them in the car the night before, and prayed that the dreaded swan flu wouldn’t interfere too much with my nefarious planning.

It didn’t. Everyone played their parts perfectly (even Goblin and the swans), and after a nine-hour United Airlines flight, we breezed through Italian passport control, grabbed our suitcases, and located our fleabag bed and breakfast, where we collapsed into an unplanned seven-hour nap.

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DAY TWO

Day Two of our trip dawned at 6:30 pm when we fought ourselves awake from jetlag-induced slumber. Our bed and breakfast had assigned us a room for the first night but was going to upgrade us for the second, so we couldn’t unpack. Instead, we decided to walk down toward the Coliseum, which was advertised as being relatively close to our room. This was the truth (if you consider a mile relatively close), but navigating Rome is not the same as getting around in a more sensible city. We had our iPhones with GPS-assisted Google maps, but were thwarted by the largely unmarked streets, which bore long Italian names that changed after every intersection and, apparently, with even less provocation at random points in between. We eventually found the awe-inspiring Coliseum at dusk, peered into some other ruins around the Forum, and worked our way down toward the Via del Corso looking for food. We found it, in abbondanza, near the Trevi Fountain. We ate at one of those fabulous random restaurants in the area, our table sitting on the cobblestones of the narrow alley with taxis, mopeds, and strolling accordion players passing inches away. Amazingly delicious, although getting the check in any Roman restaurant, no matter how many people they have waiting to sit down, is an exercise in managing hope and despair.

The after-dinner gelato among the throngs come to bask in the lighted Trevi was just the thing. Rob got a flavor that translated as “English Soup.” I got vanilla, which I presume they considered so boring that it didn’t have a special name. Then the long walk back to our room by the train station. We passed a gay bar across from the Coliseum called Coming Out, which by that time on Saturday night overflowed into the street, forming, as Rob put it, an open-air husband market. We managed to find the intersection near there where Pope Joan allegedly delivered her baby before being murdered by the furious crowd. I’m not one to limit a woman’s choices, but it’s possible she would have had a less bloody end if she had stuck to the husband market.