Joseph M. Ditta (Ph.D., University of Missouri-Columbia) teaches American literature and creative writing at Dakota Wesleyan University. He has published short fiction in Weber Studies and Connecticut Review, while his poetry has appeared in The Centennial Review, The Missouri Review, The Illinois Review, The Mississippi Valley Review, Voices in Italian Americana, and others.
See other work in Weber Studies by Joseph M. Ditta:
"Madison Blues" (fiction)
"Raphael in Brooklyn" (fiction)
"Hour Before Dark" (fiction)
"Imagination and Technology: Reflections on the Future of Poetry" (essay)
"To My Mother" (poetry)
"On the Banks of the James" (poetry)
Aaron leaned on the stone wall and looked across the Arno to where the Ponte Santa Trinita met the Lungarno on the other side. On the corner there was Henry's, a tavern in the British style, one of the very few taverns of any size in the old City. Its green Venetian blinds were always drawn half way up so passers by could look in. It was their favorite place to go in the old city. But after a month, it came to be more than a place to go in the late afternoon. It came to be a problem.
He pitched his cigarette. Looking across the river, he could see the heads and shoulders of pedestrians bobbing over the wall on that side, the heads of motorcyclists in the street smoothly zipping along, and the tops of cars in the usual jerking motion of rush and stop that characterizes traffic in the city. The day was bright and cold. The old people wore coats; the old ladies especially wore furs or cloth coats with fur stoles. But the young people wore slick sport coats with sweaters under them and silk ascots, tailored trousers, and expensive shoes, and the women glided along with that seductive Italian femaleness that suggested the air about them should be grateful they deign to walk in it, so that one felt, sitting outside in the Piazza della Reppublica, sipping espresso, like one was living within a glossy photo meant for travel magazines.
They had been all over Europe. The summer was hot everywhere, and the large crowds of tourists always took the pleasure away whenever they tried to go for walks or to find a place to eat. They learned to stay away from the cities and found towns and villages where they could walk around freely and make easy trips to sightsee. At first, being in Europe was good. They had become closer than ever and learned how to relax with each other. But it didn't last. The drinking got worse and worse. And it was always an ordeal to get her to eat. They came to Florence by way of the small mountain village of San Gimignano, where they had spent a week in relative peace and made several trips to Siena. But by their third day in Florence, Les said this is where she wanted to stay.
He saw her, then, step out of the bar into the street. He knew it was her, even across the distance, because she had become thin as a rail again, because she stepped when she walked with that carefulness of the invalid, and because she wore jeans and Nikes and her black blazer—advertising her Americanness. It was barely two in the afternoon, and he had been up for only a little while, his head pounding and his mouth dry and foul. When he saw she was gone, he showered and dressed and came out to the little courtyard of their hotel, lit a cigarette, and kept his eye on Henry's. How long she had been there he had no idea, but he knew she was there. She made her way slowly and deliberately, not toward the Ponte Santa Trinita, which would have been the fastest way back to their hotel, but in the other direction, toward the Piazza Goldoni, and he knew she was going to the stazione. He knew that as surely as he knew she was drunk.
Well, he'd be on his own today. He doubted he'd see her again till morning, if then. Well, let her, he thought. But he couldn't help wondering where she had taken it in her head to go. She got herself fortified for it. Where was she going? Why did he care? It was a beautiful day. They had met many people at Henry's, and he could go there himself, in an hour or so, when most of the people he and Les met there regularly would start coming in, and get himself invited somewhere for the evening—out to dinner at the least, or to a concert, it was the Christmas season now, at the very best. He didn't worry about what to do. They had let things come always in an unplanned way and took up with whomever seemed to please them at the moment, and they were never without something to do or someplace to go.
People were different here. Almost everyone spoke more than one language, dressed carefully and expensively, and had extravagant tastes and an appetite for conversation that sometimes exhilarated him and sometimes embarrassed him, too—he often found himself ignorant of the very things that most interested them. He didn't belong among these people, the kind who frequented Henry's, but that sense of fitting in never troubled Les. He couldn't imagine her being an object of any man's lusts, here. She looked like she'd crack into pieces if you tried to touch her. But she was a wit. She picked up Italian so fast it scared him, speaking conversationally almost from the first day, and the people they met were delighted with her. He struggled with all that, and never could make others laugh or even get very much interested in anything he had on his mind, like Les could and did, all the time. He envied her. He was frightened of her, too, mostly because of her obsessions and her recklessness, but also because she seemed to live on a different plane from him and knew things he never even guessed at.
He jammed his hands in his pockets and stood there, erect, undecided, feeling abandoned and lonely. There was no one in the hotel, this being the wrong season for tourists and the time of day when the few people who were there were out, anyway. A pang of hunger then made him restless. So he decided to find that little shop where he and Les bought wine and cheese one day and buy himself a fruit along the way and carry what he got back to the room. He was sure only of the general direction and would have to hunt and peck around the narrow streets on this side of the river. He liked the idea of doing that because he loved the little shops, poking his head in to see what there was inside, and the smells were always fine, distinctive and pleasant and unfamiliar. Eventually he came across a little piazza in front of the Chiesa Santo Spirito, an old church that Les told him something about but which he had forgotten now. There was a kind of bazaar set up in the square, a flea market type of thing, where people displayed their wares on folding tables and sat in rickety chairs beside them.
Across the square there was a little restaurant and he forgot the wine and cheese and bought himself a sandwich and a beer and sat at a little table in front, and watched the comings and goings of housewives and kids and old men, and their hagglings with the vendors, and enjoyed the sunshine and the cool air, and the many colored polyester scarves that one vendor had fastened to a cord stretched over her table and which flapped in the breeze like flags, and ate his sandwich with a sense of satisfaction and with an unaccustomed forgetfulness.
There was one other person, a dark young man in work clothes, eating at the tables on the sidewalk, the area being blocked to the general traffic by a hedge on one side, and by a row of big flower pots along the curb, and a rope slung between posts on the third side. He ignored the other man as he ate and sipped his beer, and the other ignored him, in a kind of mutual recognition of non-existence. But soon he heard some familiar sounds, words and laughter, and without realizing it, he looked up in anticipation. Entering from the door of the restaurant came two women, about the same age, speaking American and looking American—like Les, wearing sneakers and blue jeans but covered on top by bulky sweaters. He took them at first for students, but they weren't. He greeted them and asked them to join him, and they were glad he did and were very friendly. After the first burst of introductions and where-are-you-froms, they settled in to their sandwiches.
They were not staying at a hotel, they said, because they wanted to spend a couple weeks and had found out about an old convent where the nuns rented rooms to tourists at favorable rates and provided breakfasts and evening meals. He thought of himself and Les living in a convent and couldn't help but to smile. The convent was only a short walk from where they were and shared the piazza with a very lovely church, where they heard the Ave Maria performed during a regular service the evening before.
"Don't you love the way the churches all over the city ring their bells in the evening? The sound vibrates right through you," one of them said.
"I guess I noticed," he said, "but haven't really paid much attention."
"Well, pay attention at exactly five fifteen, and listen to them. How can you have been here a month and not noticed them?"
"At five fifteen I'm usually at Henry's having a drink and deep into conversation with someone I've met for the first time, who is telling me something I don't want to know, but so earnestly I have to listen."
He didn't say anything about Les, not wanting to turn them away. Less and he were falling all the time now into acrimonious bickering, like they used to, and he was finding talking with these girls pleasant. They were evidently taking in what he said, for they were looking at him curiously, and then exchanged a glance.
"What is this Henry's?" the other one said.
"Oh, it's a British style pub on the Lungarno across the river."
"Do you go there a lot?" she said.
"Yes, I do. Almost everyday, late afternoons. A lot of the people who go there are foreigners who live in the city, and Italians, too, of course. Men and women. It's a nice place, comfortable, good drinks, friendly."
"Is it expensive?"
"Yes. If you're living on a budget, you shouldn't go there," he said, feeling guilty for what he was about to do, because he hated living off his father-in-law as it was, but using the old man's money like this stirred his conscience.
"But why not come with me? Drinks are on me, so it won't bust your budget."
Their names were Abby and Lucy, and they were look-alikes. Both were blond, about the same height and weight, and both were twenty-five. They both worked for JP Morgan in Manhattan. They were well paid, but New York was a sponge and kept them always nearly broke. So they saved the difference in rent payments by moving in together to pay for this trip to Florence.
He was especially attracted to the one named Abby. She had a full face that was pretty, open and alert eyes, and a shy manner that gave way as soon as her interest was aroused. He could see himself with her, and the thought stirred both his conscience and his feelings. When he took Les home from the hospital she looked like hell. There was a time when he wasn't sure she was going to make it. And it certainly wasn't her will that brought her around. More likely, he thought to himself, it was his own.
He had wheeled the little red Honda around the corner and rolled slowly up the street and turned again into the narrow drive between the two houses. He didn't go all the way down the drive to the double garage at the very end, behind the houses. Instead, he stopped just beyond the sidewalk, and opened his door with a loud creak and stepped out wearing jeans, a sweat shirt, and a light green windbreaker. He straightened out his back when he stood, as though he had been driving a long time, a gesture that made him seem fatigued, though it was still morning, and he had only driven a few miles, taking Les from the hospital. He slammed the door, which made another loud creaking sound and then, as it thudded, a rattle of glass in the door channels, which had lost their rubber weather stripping.
Les, on the passenger side, threw her door open, gently laid her right foot out, and waited for him to come round and help her. There was still snow on the ground, heaped here and there where it had been shoveled into mounds during the winter, and it was covered with soot and dirt and deep yellow streaks and blotches that came from leaves caught up in the storms of late fall. She was impatient, as invalids are when they feel that their needs are not being tended to promptly. She waited, though, without yelling at him to hurry. But he was taking his time, too much time, so that she couldn't help but to know he was communicating.
He had shoved his keys into his jeans pocket, then stuffed his hands into the pockets of the windbreaker, and then just stood there. First he looked up to the porch of the house, where the front door was, assessing the steps, the depth of the snow along the walk going straight down to the sidewalk, and the narrow opening in it he had shoveled during the winter to get to the drive from the front of the house. The snow had remained only along the side of the walk and along the side of the drive. The porch was run down, its paint peeling off, sloping to one side like it was falling in, and was barely covered by the leafless bushes that grew unshaped and wild in front of it. He seemed in no hurry to move to Les' aid, and she finally called to him. He came back to himself and to what he had to do.
"Finally," she said, in a burst of irritation, as he neared her and reached in to take her hand.
"Come on," he said, flatly and without feeling, "don't be bitchy. Let's just get it done."
She pulled herself and was half pulled by him into a standing position. As she unsteadily got her two feet under her, with her left hand on the top of the Honda's door, she steadied herself for the walk to the house. He moved her gently away from the car and slammed the door.
She was half the person she was only a month before, and she walked like an old woman suffering all the pains of age. She was emaciated and her face had that look of bony fleshlessness that one sees in the faces of the famished. Her almost orange hair had thinned, and now it bushed from her head and hung at the ends so that it made her look apparition-like, mad, like a witch. She was also uncommonly white and bloodless. It was with some considerable effort that he got her up the stairs, and with a sigh of relief, into the house and nestled upright into the big chair beside the door in the living room.
The house was a mess. Dirty trousers, underwear, dinner plates, forks and knives, glasses, cups, used napkins, socks, shirts, and all sorts of debris from eating were chaotically scattered across the room, up the long hall to the kitchen, and into the bedroom, whose door was half open just in front of her. Empty, crushed beer cans, an empty vodka bottle, and two cigarette-filled ash trays wafted their aromas, with all the rest, in welcome to her.
"I hope to hell my parents didn't come in when they came for the baby," she said, resting her head back on the chair.
"Why?" he asked, looking around. "When the hell has it been any different? You never clean the damn place, why should I?" He was sensitive to being criticized on that score, having more than once been slammed by her for complaining about her housekeeping. But he was unprepared for the vehemence in her voice when she responded.
"At least I don't see any strange bras lying around, though how the hell could I tell if there were." Then, without changing tone, "Fix me a drink, I can't get up. Make me a screwdriver, and make it strong."
He made them both one and sat on the couch next to her, handing her up the glass just as he fell to the cushion.
"Your parents were here," he said. "But I had the place straightened up when they came, and the baby's things all packed."
"Good. Keeping up appearances! That will at least keep the money coming. We need daddy's money." She took a long drink and closed her eyes. "I suppose we should call them and tell them to keep the baby for a while, a long while if we can get them to do it."
He didn't say anything. They never called it by name; it was always "the baby." He had a bad conscience over the baby, because it was the reason they got married and then it interfered in their lives. It was expensive, and one of them always had to tend to it. She bitched about it all the time, and it crawled around and got into his things. It screamed at night sometimes when they wanted to sleep, and sometimes the only way to shut it up was to take it to bed with them, and there it lay sleeping between them, blissful as only sleeping babies can be. And he would look at it and feel stirrings in himself that he supposed were love. And this was what made for the bad conscience.
"How do you feel," he said. "Maybe you shouldn't be drinking."
"Oh, the drink is for me, not for my body. I don't give a damn about my body, anyway. It's just about shot. There's not much left, is there? What do you think when you look at me? I can't look at myself. I hate to."
"You're going to be all right, Les. Don't get in a mood. But maybe you should have some food. Want a sandwich? You should eat, really, you should."
"Let me finish the drink first. Then you can make me a sandwich. I don't feel hungry, though. I don't feel hungry hardly ever. I have to force myself to eat. And the hospital stuff, ugh."
They were college students when she got pregnant, and on graduation she already showed, even beneath her black robe. They had only known each other casually, going out together drinking and partying only a few times before it happened. But she pretended to be in love with him and that the pregnancy was her sign of that. She was the youngest in a family of four children, and the only girl. Her parents were not only wealthy but politically active, her father being the mayor, for two terms, of the town where she grew up, but now they lived in another, larger town, a virtual city, Grand Island, where her mother owned and ran a restaurant and her father managed a very large shopping mall. They lived in a big house, and she had always had clothes and cars and everything that mattered to a girl growing up. They sent her to the university at Lincoln to major in languages, one Asian and one European, with hopes that she would make a career for herself in international business or in government, and she was very bright and very good at learning Japanese and French. She also had other languages, learning them partly on her own and partly from courses she took as electives. She could read German and Spanish and Italian and was teaching herself Latin and Greek, just for the fun and the sheer interest of it. In fact, she had a passion for the classical texts and was working at translating Cicero and Pliny from the Latin and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations from the elegant and simple Greek he was famous for. His austerity of thought and feeling was so much the opposite of anything she had ever known that it appalled her.
She pretended to be in love because to have told her parents that it was all the result of partying and drinking and emotionless sex, and that he was just the one who happened to do it that time, rather than any one of half a dozen others, was just beyond her. He was good looking. He was making his way through college on his own, coming from a family who could not afford to help him. And he seemed to be ambitious. She thought of their marriage as a solution to a problem, nothing more.
But nothing worked out for her. She applied for job after job, after researching them and making calls and visits and introducing herself, and doing everything she could think of to make herself an attractive hire, and nothing came of what she did except now and then a terse note saying the company would keep her resume on file and would be in touch at a later time. Her father used what influence he had to put her in touch with people in Washington, a good friend there knowing someone in the State Department, but nothing came of that either. Her father offered them both jobs, but neither wanted to live in Grand Island and start out in jobs they didn't want and might get trapped in for who knew how long. So they stayed in Lincoln, in a rented apartment in an old run-down house, where she ignored the baby, translated from the classics, and went out in the evenings drinking and partying with friends and prowling, while he worked in video production for an advertising company and was gradually setting himself up to go independent, working weekends and nights on his own shooting videos for weddings and baptisms, birthday and anniversary parties. He earned just enough to pay their bills, and she found herself living on the edge for the first time in her life.
But it was worse than that for her. She had always been the one around whom her parents planned their lives. And she prospered so easily in college that she was always a favorite of her professors. To be suddenly cut out of everything, to be ignored, unvalued, and treated like a nonentity, seemed like a betrayal to her. She had no choice, finally, but to cling to her husband, whom she never loved and didn't even like anymore, and who was a loser, a grown man who wanted to play with his toys to make a living. And then the sickness came, and the long debilitation, and the visits to the doctors, and finally the hospitalization. Now the doctors said it would be a long recovery, maybe a year, maybe more. And she didn't care. She sipped her screwdriver down till the ice rested on the bottom of the glass, and instead of the sandwich, asked him to make another.
"If you want to kill yourself, I guess I won't stand in your way," he said. He went to the kitchen and fixed them both drinks.
When he came back, she said, "Would that please you?"
"What? Your killing yourself? You're the mother of my son. Why would it please me?"
She laughed at that, weakly; her pale cheeks flushed, and he noticed.
"I know you don't give a damn about me, and I know why you married me. Getting married wasn't my idea, if you remember. But we are married; we do have a child. I guess I shouldn't let you drink like that."
"Dear Aaron, do you feel like I've trapped you? That you're stuck with a broomstick now, a baby, and a lousy place to live? Good. Good for you. That's the way I want you to feel. Because that's the way I feel."
"Do you want to get better or..."
"Do I want to waste away and die? How dramatic! But why not? Yes, I think it wouldn't be a bad thing. For both of us."
"You're crazy, Les. What the hell! You make me sick. You drank yourself sick every night before this came on. You blocked me out and the baby, too, with that damn translating. It's self-pity, plain and simple. It's disgusting."
"Do I disgust you?"
"Good. That's what I want. Disgust is such a powerful feeling. Enjoy it. I can't feel a damn thing! Except the alcohol. That's starting to do its job now, what I pay it for."
And she drank off the second drink, swallowing like she was taking a glass of cold water on a hot day. He got up, then, and started to clean the apartment, which was the downstairs of a house that had been converted into two living quarters. They had what was originally the living room of the house, together with a dining room that was converted into a bedroom, a kitchen, and a small room for the baby. He set to work methodically. First clearing away the things that went in the kitchen, then the clothes, then the ash trays and beer cans, the bottle, and the debris from eating. Then he took out a duster and wiped down all the surfaces, threw open the door for clean air, and brought out the vacuum.
While he was doing all this, she sat mutely, watching him, at first with a look of amusement, then with a look of concern, and finally with a mingled look of contempt and fear.
But he didn't look at her, trying deliberately to keep his back to her or his face turned from her. Over the sound of the vacuum cleaner she shouted to him to bring her a blanket because the open door made her cold. So he shut off the machine, went into the bedroom, and came out with a blanket. This he placed over her knees and lifted to her shoulders and tucked in behind her back to keep it up when she leaned back again. And as he was wrapping her up, she looked in his face and saw that he was feeling something, and she could only guess at what it was. She was glad when he finished and asked if that was better. She looked at him standing over her and felt indebted, a feeling she wasn't used to. And he noticed that look, too. She noticed that he did that, noticed things about her. She could see him taking things in about her, and it always made her uneasy.
When he finished vacuuming, he went to the kitchen, and she could hear him at the sink, could hear the water running and the dishes and cups and glasses clinking as he set them in the strainer. After a while, she smelled coffee brewing and heard the refrigerator door open and close two or three times, and she knew he was making them a meal. She wanted to get up and go in the kitchen, so she tried to rise and found that she didn't have the strength to, and all those feelings of abandonment and worthlessness came over her again, and the bitterness became a taste in her mouth. She was struggling with the bitterness when he returned.
He shut the door first, then took away her blanket, and reached down behind her with his arm and gently lifted her to her feet. Then with his arm still around her back, he led her to the kitchen. She didn't protest or speak at all. She just let him lead her. She found the kitchen clean and everything put away, the table set for two, sandwiches on the plates, and coffee poured for both of them. He led her to a chair and helped her sit.
"Thank you," she said, under her breath.
But he heard it and didn't reply. He just looked at her, taking in the expression on her face. He kept his own expressionless.
"Try to eat, now," he said. "Doctor Massey told me to make sure you eat regularly and take those vitamins everyday. And everyday a little exercise."
She looked at him. She felt ashamed at the care he took lifting her from the chair, his gentleness walking her to the kitchen, and the careful way he helped her to sit. She kept looking at him, and he tried to not notice, looking at his sandwich, away from her as he bit into it, then sipping coffee.
"You know, don't you, that I might never get better, that I might get worse," she said, wanting to get this said before what she was beginning to feel could come on her all the way. "Some people recover from this kind of polio, some don't. We don't know which I will be, yet."
"I know all about it."
"Do you? I don't think you know all about it."
"Of course, I don't know what you feel, physically, but don't think that I can't feel what you're going through."
"I know. You are good. I'm sorry that sometimes I seem to resent you. I don't, really. I'm glad you're with me. I feel like I can count on you. You must not let me say nasty things; you should shut me up."
"You're going to get better."
"Oh, because it's just too terrible to think I'm not! What if I'm not? What if I don't get better? What will you do?"
"I'll do what I will have to do. Why think about it?"
"I want to think about it. If we pull through this, our lives will be different, better; we'll really be husband and wife."
"And mother and father? Don't forget that. The baby isn't going to go away."
"And mother and father. Oh, what the hell. You make it sound like playing house when we were kids. Do boys ever do that? Oh, forget it. Yes, mother and father. God damn! You do have a way of killing the feeling in me," she cried, almost shouted.
He winced at her outburst. Bringing up the baby was a mistake. She wasn't ever going to adjust to him. He knew that. His bad conscience came on him because sometimes he felt the same way; and whenever he did, he remembered those stirrings he felt when the baby slept between them, blissfully unaware of their drunkenness, their mutual coldness, the resentment they both could express, that was sometimes so strong it froze their hearts.
She had finished the sandwich and her coffee. That was a big thing, he felt. They were making progress. He got up and cleared the table and put the things in the sink and washed them. Then he lifted her up and walked her back to the living room and set her in the chair again. He asked if she wanted to try for a short walk outside, just a quick turn to the corner and back, maybe five minutes.
"The air will be good for you, and you need to walk. The doctor told me that it was critical that I make you walk."
"Oh, all right," she said. "Just let me rest a bit from the meal."
After a while they put their coats on, and he led her out to the sidewalk, and, his arm supporting her at her back, they walked to the corner. She was very tired when they returned, dropping into his arms, so that he had to carry her up the steps. At the door, he had to let her stand so he could reach for the knob and push it in. She leaned on him with all her empty weight, and he stood, looking into her face. He moved in closer and kissed her on the cheek, and she let him do it and didn't flinch like she used to before he stopped kissing her altogether.
While he was eating, he had been looking at the Italian woman with the polyester scarves. She was young, too. And also attractive. But she had none of the air about her that the women did whom he saw in the piazzas, women on display, with or without men. Women like that didn't interest him. One time he mentioned their seductiveness to Les, and she had said the two women he had pointed to, who strolled by them like they were in front of an audience, had just been talking about how to make cinnamon rolls for breakfast. Then she told him to relax. But he could never get used to Italian women. This woman in the flea market, though, was plainly dressed and sat by or stood around her table looking dejected, for no one came to buy her scarves, or even to look at them, and he felt bad for her and wanted to buy something from her. So he told Abby and Lucy to go over there and pick out a couple of scarves each and he would pay for them. They were astonished and laughed. But he said, "Do it as a favor, please!"
And so they walked over chatting together and laughing, and picked out a couple of scarves—Abby a yellow and a purple one, and Lucy a green and a black one. He paid for them after getting the woman to tell him in English how much they were. He understood the Italian, but he wanted to keep her talking. He tried then, half in Italian and half in English, to say something flattering to her, which she finally understood, and she smiled and said thank you. Her response made him feel good, and the girls laughed as they walked away, Lucy saying, "What are we going to do with these hideous things?"
"Put them in your suitcases and when you get home, tie them to the antennas of your cars."
"But we don't have cars. You can't live in Manhattan and own a car! Nobody does."
"Then send them as peace flags to your parents. Tell them to hang them from their front porches on the Fourth of July."
They laughed and headed for Henry's
The girls were not big drinkers, and after one cocktail declined a second. They liked Henry's, though, and were almost immediately being flirted with by men who came for introductions. They came to Aaron, knowing he was married and that he must, therefore, have just made the acquaintance of the blondes, asking to be introduced, offering to buy drinks, starting conversations, and slipping away with them. Aaron made the introductions, and in a very short while was sitting alone, like the victim of a conspiracy. He sipped his drink and thought about Les and where she had gone. And after a long while, when Abby returned, she passed her hand in front of his eyes and said, "Hello!"
"That guy, the Spaniard with the consulate? He put his hand on my butt and squeezed me. What a nerve!"
"What did he say?"
"What do you mean?"
"What did he say while he was squeezing you?"
"I'm always curious how they keep conversation going while they do things like that."
She laughed. "I don't remember," she said. "I think he was telling me about Madrid, something about the Prado. He was saying that Florence was a museum but that Madrid was a city that had a museum. And then he was caressing my butt."
"Did you like it?"
"I did not!"
And they laughed again. He was beginning to enjoy himself as he never really did when he was here with Les. She had a way of turning conversation into serious business, and he could see that the men admired her as well as liked her. But he never saw the Spaniard fondle Les. It just never happened. Not because she was his wife and he respected that, but because he, the Spaniard, was as afraid of her as he was. Les still looked like an invalid, getting worse since they came to Florence, which she attributed to the change in diet, and assured him it would pass after a while. So she still had the boniness and weightlessness of the sick, and it killed her sex appeal. But he knew it wasn't for that that the men didn't play with her. It was who she was that kept them from it. Her hard drinking. Her never appearing drunk. The way she judged people. Her shifting from Italian to German without skipping a beat, and then to Spanish. Her hard drinking. That, mostly. Plain and simple.
The Spaniard, whose name was Jorge—Les called him George, which he didn't seem to mind—once remarked that she shouldn't drink so much because her health wasn't so good, and she responded, "Thanks for your concern, George, but the drink is for me, not for my body." She always said that when Aaron complained, and he smiled and glanced at Jorge to see how he took it, and was surprised to see a grim expression of respect. He certainly didn't feel that way, because he knew it was the body, and the body alone, that drove her. Being drunk was for her a bodily experience. Like sex used to be. She tottered when she walked, and he tried to stay near her just in case. When he got drunk, there was no Aaron. All there was was body, and he knew it was the same for her.
Abby touched his hand and said, "Come back, Aaron, from wherever you are."
And he smiled up at her and decided he really liked her. "Have you been to the San Lorenzo?" he asked.
"We were there this morning. Why?"
"They restored the old organ there," he said, "and tonight they're going to have a concert of music composed especially for it—I mean music from its own time. I'd like to go. Those things are open to the public, no tickets or anything. Just walk in."
"I'm going!" she said. "When?"
It'll start in about an hour, so we should leave now."
"Lucy's having a fine time. If she doesn't want to go, we'll leave her here."
But Lucy wanted to go, so he paid the bill and, taking leave of everyone, they walked out. The evening was calm and cooler, and the streets were decorated for Christmas. There were many people out, and the old city was cheerful and festive. They walked vigorously, Aaron between the girls, touching their elbows to steer them. He felt fine. Sober and in possession.
He half expected to find Les at the San Lorenzo, and dreaded that he might. They had talked about the concert yesterday afternoon, the last time they were together and still sober. It was really her idea that they go. He didn't know where or when she would show up and hoped that it wouldn't be here. He wanted to have this evening with Abby and Lucy, with Abby, mostly. He wanted her to get to know him, he wanted to reach an understanding with her, to leave her when she left Florence with the idea that he would see her again, that he wanted to. But that was a lot to happen in one night, and he was afraid she would think him pushy if he became too familiar too fast.
But Les didn't show up. The concert was all that he had hoped it would be, and they got there early enough to get seats. The organ was installed in San Lorenzo in 1503. The music they performed on it was not all devotional, but it was all beautiful, varied and prolonged. And when it was over, the girls were effusive in their gratitude. He walked them back to the convent, but wouldn't make any definite plans for the next day. They wanted to meet him, but he was evasive, saying that there weren't that many places to go in the old city and that they would probably run into one another. "Be on the lookout," he said, and, "Try Henry's, after four." He shook their hands and left. When he got back to the hotel, there was a note on his door saying there was a message for him at the desk in the lobby.
The letter was in a strange hand, telling him that his wife was in the hospital, the Nuovo San Giovanni di Dio, on the Via Torregalli, and that he should come there as soon as possible. He called for a taxi and left when it arrived. On the way, he thought how much like an aimless stork Les looked when she walked, and wondered if that wasn't a sign of drunkenness so much as a return of the polio. Was it to the hospital she was going when he saw her leave Henry's? He was sure she was drunk. But now he wasn't sure of anything. Except that he was dreading what he would find when he got there.
It was worse than he expected. He had no difficulty explaining who he was, since they had been waiting for him. When he saw her, his stomach fell. She had oxygen tubes in her nose and an IV in the top of her hand lying limply on the bed beside her. She was colorless and asleep, but she sensed him and opened her eyes. He pulled a chair to the bedside and took her hand as he sat. She could speak only in a whisper, and he couldn't make out what she said, so he leaned over and put his ear to her mouth.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, paused a moment, and then, "feel like hell."
A doctor came in with someone who spoke English, an older woman who introduced herself and the doctor. She explained that his wife was very ill and that he needed to sign some papers so they could treat her. They had already been in touch with her father and he was coming to Florence and should be here tomorrow or the next day. It was too bad that he couldn't be found until now. It was his wife who told them to call her father. She was too weak to call herself, even to speak on the phone. She, the woman, hopes everything will be all right. The doctor says his wife has experienced a relapse of the Guilliame Barré, but that they will do plasma treatment tomorrow, and after that she should be fine, but that she needs to rest and recover her strength. He thanked them both, said it couldn't be helped, and that he was sure everything would be fine. They left him alone with her, finally.
He sat beside her again and took her hand. It was limp and motionless. She looked at him and whispered, "I'm sorry."
"It's OK, don't be. We've been through this before. We know the routine. You're going to get better, you'll see."
But she was worse now than before. She never seemed so listless then, even at its worst. Now she could hardly speak and didn't move at all. She was like a rag doll with its eyes closed. He sat for a long time looking at her and holding her hand, and then, more to himself than to her, he said, "You're going to get better, you'll see."
"I don't know if I want to," she said, looking at him out of the side of her eyes. And then they closed and she seemed to slip off. But she opened them again and said, "I've done this to myself and to you, too. I'm really sorry." And this time she did slip off.
He felt badly, very badly. His conscience was pricking him, and his ill will towards her was turning into pity, in spite of his efforts not to let himself feel that. He sat looking at her. Asleep, drugged no doubt, she looked almost like a newborn, her face pale and thin and her eyes bulging. What a strange woman, he thought. And he gradually began to rehearse their reasons for coming to Europe, the marriage, the life they lived in Nebraska, his resolve to break with her, and the evening they spent walking around the pond near her parents' home.
They quarreled all the time. As the weather improved he wanted to walk her more often, but she didn't want to be seen in the neighborhood. So he took her to the park, but after a while the park bored her. Everything bored her. He bored her. She would sit at her table in the bedroom, working on The Meditations, and he would interrupt, saying, "You've been sitting for hours," and she'd say, "So?" and he'd say, "Put those damn things away and let's go out and get some air," and she'd say, "I have enough air, thank you." And they'd quarrel, ending up shouting at each other.
She'd put on some weight, mostly because he insisted she eat, and sometimes he'd actually feed her. She drank too much when he was away, and he'd always ride her about the drinking. But it didn't make any difference. Gradually, however, after the first month since her return from the hospital, she had improved enough to be able to walk on her own, her color had returned, and her hair began to look lustrous again. They still did not take the baby back, however. Whenever her parents asked about it, she told them she wasn't ready, she couldn't cope yet. Actually, she didn't want it back. She was getting used to living without its interferences, and she dreaded having to take it back. Her parents didn't seem to care, though, being content to keep him for as long as she wanted them to. Aaron, on the other hand, pestered her about the baby. He wanted to take it back, feeling that its presence might pry her away from the alcohol and the books. They quarreled bitterly over the baby. On the matter of taking it back she held firm. No! and No!
One day he said, "We can't go on like this."
"Like what? What's wrong? Aren't I getting better? Isn't that what you want?"
"Yes," he said, "You're getting better, and that's what we both want, isn't it? But that's not what I mean, and you know it." He sat on the edge of the bed, and she turned her chair from the desk to see him better.
"I go to work, and you sit here. I come home from work, and you sit here. Half the time you're barely sober. I'd like to move. Get away. We just need to do something. I mean, I feel like we're in a tunnel between two places we want to get to, and we can't move. You don't want to do anything. I have to scream at you to go out for a walk. You sit and drink, and that's just not good. Les, look at yourself. C'mon. You sit in the half-light of this room like a troglodyte."
"Ha!" she yelled. "Where can we go? You earn enough to pay our rent and put some jelly on the table."
"That's a cheap shot, Les, and you know it. We can go wherever we want. We just have to want to."
On this matter of leaving Lincoln, Aaron became obsessive. He pushed and pushed, and she resisted and they quarreled. The quarrels became serious, and she became vicious in her attacks against him, calling him a loser, a minimum wage man, a sod savage who should go home to the farm and let his mother care for him. He took these blows in the spirit in which they were flung at him, as attempts to hurt and nothing more. He gave his share in these fights.
But it wore him out and finally he decided to make a break. He worked the entire weekend, videotaping a baptism, a wedding, a birthday party, and an anniversary, and he actually had hired help to get the work done, someone he knew from the ad agency, who also helped with the editing. Work from the week before had piled up, so he brought Les to her parents to be free to concentrate in the evenings as well. She was gone for almost five days, and he felt a calm and peacefulness that he hadn't known before. He realized how much energy she drained from him just being around her, and how much she drove his life, and he came to blame himself not her for the daily sapping. She is what she is and is not going to change, but he is always what she wants to make him. He realized how little will he had where she was concerned, and how much he felt free during these last few days.
At first he thought he would just pack his things and throw them in the car and take off, stay in a motel until he got paid for his last jobs, and then just leave town. He didn't know where he'd go, just that he'd go. But after a while he realized he couldn't do that. So he called Les and told her he was coming for her that night.
It was late when he arrived in Grand Island, after nine. He never liked her parents' house, it was too big and pretentious, and they lived in it alone, just the two of them. The garage had space for five cars and a parking apron like a supermarket's. The rear entrance to the house had a big foyer with an antique light fixture hanging from its ceiling and a slate tile floor that ran into a bathroom on one side and the kitchen on the other and straight ahead up the hallway to the front foyer, off of which were doorways to a dining room and a living room—both with huge fireplaces—and a stairwell that was wide enough for four people to go up side by side. He stood at the bottom of the staircase and yelled up for Les, and after a minute she appeared at the turn, holding onto the banister, looking down at him.
He waited, and she waited. And after what seemed like an unendurable stand off, neither giving in to make the first move or to say anything, her mother appeared. She was getting heavy. She also had orange hair and was always heavily made up. She was that kind of self-conscious woman Aaron intensely disliked, always looking you over, always aware of the impact she had on you, always over-bedecked in jewelry, smelling like she spilled a bottle of perfume on herself. She called down to him, "Aren't you coming up, Aaron?"
And Les said, "No, mother, Aaron's being a pain again. He wants me to go down."
"Aaron," his mother-in-law called, "come up and see the baby. You haven't been here in so long, don't you want to see him?"
"No, mother, I think Aaron has a problem with the baby."
That really angered him. So he turned and went into the living room and sat down and waited for her. He knew she felt something was up. He could see it in her face and the way she stood, the way she looked down the stairs. He lit a cigarette, mostly because they didn't like him to smoke in the house, intending to flick his ashes in the fireplace, but Les came in and said, "Do we need to go for a walk?"
"Yes. Maybe we should."
It was still cool in the evenings, so she put on a coat, and he had not taken off his own, so they left through the front door. They walked in silence for a while, until they got out of sight of the big old house, making their way to a little park that had a pond with benches around it and lampposts beside the benches.
"I'm taking off, Les," he said. "These past few days..." and he paused, taking a long time to start again. "I've been thinking. Neither of us is happy. Our `arrangement' isn't working. You've got what you needed from me. There's no purpose to be served in our going on. I've got nothing. Really. I have nothing to stay for."
"What am I supposed to do? Stay with my parents? That would be the end for me," she said, in a whisper, as they reached the pond and turned into the path that circled it. They walked close to each other, and anybody who saw them might have mistaken them for lovers. She took his hand, and he let her, and they walked hand in hand.
"Les, don't play this game with me. That's why I'm leaving. You can do what you want. Don't threaten."
She sighed and was silent and didn't quarrel. They walked slowly, into the gleam of the lamps and out again, fading into the darkness and appearing again up ahead, close to each other.
They completed a circuit and she had been silent all the time. "You're taking this pretty well," he said.
"I knew it was coming," she said, calmly. Then she said, "I don't want you to go. Not for any but selfish reasons. I know we act like we hate each other, but I don't hate you, and you don't hate me."
"So? What are you saying? We should stay together because we don't hate each other? That's what's wrong, Les. You think like that."
He turned toward the pond, and they walked to the bank together and stood looking down into the brown water. Something touched the surface, an insect from above or a fish from below, and the ripples widened and gradually disappeared. They were silent the while, looking at the spreading ripples, neither starting to move.
"You know," she said, "since I've been home I've had nothing to drink. Mother has been like you, stuffing my face. I haven't been near the books. Mostly, I've played with the baby. You would have liked me." She took his hand again and swung it cheerfully, and by this means turned him away from the pond, and then she stepped into a brisk pace and walked him a complete circuit and came back to where they were, out of breath but feeling heated and energetic. Her face was flushed and her eyes were gleaming. And she looked like she did when they first met.
He was losing his resolve. She took his arm and held it close to her and leaned into him. He didn't fight the move but let her stay that way. They were in the glare of the lamp and he could smell her hair, and he put his chin on her head. He hadn't made love to her since she was pregnant. Their relationship was strange, more like partners who couldn't get along in some business, except they slept in the same bed at night. He never had the impulse to touch her, and she never attempted to waken it. Their talk almost always ended in acrimony. Once, he tried to videotape her on a walk, when the day was warm and bright and she looked good and seemed cheerful. Her anger was so swift and severe that he was dismayed. When he played the little he had recorded, he was so upset to see her livid face that he had thrown the tape away. He thought about that now, as she leaned on him, and tried to harden himself against her.
"We last only a day," she said, dreamily, staring over the pond, "both we who remember and those of us who are remembered."
"And who is that," he said, knowing the mood she was in.
"Marcus Aurelius," she said. "I get a lot of comfort from him sometimes. He can be grim. But then he helps you to see something that comforts. He also says we are little souls bearing around our corpses."
"Great. That's a comfort to know. What else does he say? Does he say anything that makes our lives, I mean yours and mine, more intelligible than I can make them out? When I think about us, Les, all I get is darkness and confusion."
"He says everything that happens is familiar. The rose in spring and the fruit in the summer. Disease, death, slander, treachery, all that delights and vexes us."
And they were silent again and near and touching. He still had his chin on her head, and she still hugged his arm. He tried to imagine the emperor who thought such things, things which didn't please him at all, but made him afraid. He moved to release his arm, and she hugged it tighter, but he told her to let go, and when she did, he put his arm around her shoulders, and she leaned into him again. He felt comforted by her, and needed to feel that way, and he seldom did. But she was being warm and pleasant, and he wanted her to continue.
Finally, she said, "Aaron, I don't want us to part. I need you, I think I love you. I know that's not what you want to hear and that you don't believe it. Sometimes I don't know what I feel, and I make you hate me. Why haven't you gone before now? That's what I don't understand. Don't leave me now. Don't leave me."
"I came here to tell you I was leaving. I'm not changing my mind. Though you are trying pretty hard to make me. Why, Les? Why do you want to keep up the lie that we have anything like a marriage, a relationship? That's all it is, a lie."
She was alarmed by this admission. She had tensed up under his arm, and she looked up into his face and saw that he was feeling something very intensely. She hugged him and held to him. She was afraid, and she turned again to her Greek.
"We quarrel with what we most commune. Consider, we ought not to act and speak as if we were asleep; and we ought not to act and speak simply as we have been taught."
"What does that mean?" he said, this time not seeing any relevance in the thought.
"It means we must try to be original and to accept ourselves, to be ourselves, and not try to be like others. Aaron, if we can do that, we can be fine. We can make it work."
"C'mon, let's go back to the house. I'm tired. I'd like to go to bed. I haven't been sleeping, hardly at all."
"I think, Aaron, we will do what you want. I'll agree to leave Lincoln. We can go wherever you like. Would you like to go to Europe? I mean, like, live there for a while—Madrid? Rome? Paris? London? Anywhere!"
They were walking briskly, still holding hands, leaving the pond behind and entering the dark of the sidewalk. They had been out over an hour, and it was getting colder as the night wore on.
"Money, Les. Money. Wherever we go, I need to find work."
"Daddy has money, dear. Lots of money. And you have your pride. I know. I know. You couldn't rest until we stopped taking money from him after I came out of the hospital. But why not let him finance a year in Europe for us? We'll consider it convalescence time. Besides, maybe I can make some contacts, meet people who can be helpful when I go back to job hunting."
He thought about it. He really wasn't enthused about going to Europe, and he was less enthused about letting her father pay for it. He didn't know. Les was being helpful, and he should let her, because she had never since they were married actually tried to make things work. He should let her. Maybe it would help. Maybe it would change her. It's been a long time since she has mentioned looking for work again. He could sell his equipment and raise perhaps five thousand dollars, and he could borrow that much from his own father, he was sure, because his father had told him when he married that if he needed that kind of help, he shouldn't hesitate to come to him. It would be a onetime gift of that little sum of money to help him out after college, money that he and his mother had put aside for that purpose because they couldn't afford to pay for his college tuition and other expenses. So he could come up with about ten thousand altogether. If her father gave her maybe twice that, they could do it. Why not, he thought. Why not?
It was all so bizarre, all so much her own doing, that he was like a leaf flowing on the current of her will. He didn't know what he felt towards her. He didn't love her. He didn't want to let himself pity her. He was often afraid of her. As he meditated, he almost unconsciously withdrew his hand from hers, and he felt hers tighten around his and hold on, so he sat there with his hand clasped into hers.
He felt her stir and leaned over again to hear better.
"Forgive," she said.
That was all he heard from her. She slipped off again and this time remained asleep. "Forgive." Was it possible she said that? It wasn't like her to say that. He left for the hotel after sitting with her for another half hour. When he was sure she wouldn't come to again, he left. He wondered if that last word meant that she thought she was going to die. He was sure she wouldn't have said it if she felt she were going to recover. No. Not Les. He knew her. He felt very bad. He got back to the hotel feeling as bad as he had ever felt. No, that wasn't Les. He went to bed feeling, "Poor Les, poor, poor Les."
The next morning he got up early and remembered that Les' father might be arriving that day, so he called down to the desk and asked if there was a message for him, and there was. It said that he would arrive at the station in Florence on the Al'Italia express from the Rome airport at seven in the evening. He went to the hotel restaurant and had breakfast, then took a taxi to the hospital.
Les looked about the same, sleepy and limp. He sat beside her and took her hand and stroked it, careful not to bother the needle where the IV was inserted. She felt him and opened her eyes. Her look was one of pity. He felt it, too. She wasn't going to make it. It was very bad this time. He couldn't find anything to say to her, and she didn't try to speak either. But she did press his hand in her own, and they sat like that until the nurses came to take her away. They were going to do the plasma replacement. So he sat in the waiting room and thumbed through magazines for as long as he could stand it. She was gone a long time. It was afternoon before he saw her again. He told her that her father would be there in the evening, and she responded by pressing his hand and blinking her eyes. Then she slept.
When it was time, he went to the station. Her father was a big man who was decisive and energetic. He had broad shoulders, a great paunch, short gray hair, and his tie always looked a few inches too short for him. He said that he was taking Les home, tomorrow if she could stand it, the next day for sure. He could come with them or stay. That was his own decision to make. That's all he said when they met. He had eaten on the plane and wanted to go to the hospital right away. So they got a cab in front of the station and, ten minutes after arriving in Florence, he was sitting beside his daughter. Aaron found the old woman who spoke English and introduced her to his father-in-law. He said, gruffly, "When can I take her home?" She said he would have to talk to the doctor. He said, "Where is he?"
That's the kind of man he was. The next morning, he had Les fully dressed in a wheel chair and wheeled her himself to the cab in front of the hospital, picked her up and placed her in, and took off. That was the last time he saw either of them.
The old man never even said, "Are you coming?" He guessed that Aaron felt he'd be in the way, Aaron thought. And that was really what he would be. He was relieved that she was gone, but already he felt purposeless. She had been his reason for being for so long that the habit of it lingered and made him feel adrift.
Later in the day he went to Henry's and had a scotch and soda. But he didn't stay long. Abby and Lucy had not come in, and he didn't feel like conversation. So he left. He had crossed the river on the Ponte Vecchio this time, and by the statue of Cellini he stopped and leaned on the rail and watched a guy slide a shell into the water and begin to punt up the river. The water was green as the Chicago river on St. Patty's day. And that's when he saw Abby and Lucy. They had already seen him and were coming his way when he noticed them. Abby came up and said, "We were at Henry's yesterday, and people were talking about you. They said that your wife was very sick. Why didn't you say you were married?"
"She wasn't around," he said, "and I didn't know what had happened to her. She's gone, now, back to Nebraska. Her father came and took her home."
"Why didn't you go, too?" she said. Lucy had ambled away and was looking at jewelry in the showcases of the shops on the bridge.
"Look," he said, "Les and I were husband and wife in name only. There never was anything between us."
"Oh?" she questioned, "One of the men at Henry's said that you had a child, and they all felt very bad for you, for both of you."
"Yes. We had a child." He couldn't tell her that its own mother didn't want it and that's why he is himself estranged from it. He knew he couldn't tell her anything. For the knowledge that Les was very sick would probably soon become that she was dying. How does a man say that he never loved his wife, while she is dying? He was glad now that he didn't go as far as he wanted the other night and that the night ended with them shaking hands and his being evasive about whether they'd meet again. At least he would part from her with some honor in her eyes.
It began to grow dark, and Abby said that she and Lucy were leaving for Rome in the morning.
"I thought you wanted to spend another full week here?" he said.
"We've seen what we came for, and we have plenty of money left, so why not go to Rome? We'd be there in time for Christmas day at St. Peter's. And then we would have another five days to explore."
He was sure she was making an excuse. He could feel her embarrassment. They were leaving Florence because they didn't want to risk snubbing him. He knew how he looked in their eyes. He couldn't blame them. He wished them farewell, shook their hands, turned on his heels, and crossed over the river.
It was all screwed up. For better or worse, in sickness and in health. All screwed up. Those virtues of fortitude, loyalty, care, that make any relationship last and make any relationship worthwhile, he had them and she didn't. In their screwy matrimonial unmarriage, he was loyal and she mocked him. He cared and she didn't. He had the fortitude to stick by her and help her and share in her craziness and suffer her abuse, and she strove to kill herself almost everyday. And yet, to Abby and Lucy he was the reverse. While his wife was fading in the hospital—and everybody at Henry's knew this, it seemed—he was sniffing around those girls. No wonder they were leaving. He couldn't go back to Henry's anymore either. It was time, now, for him to go. But he didn't want to. Not yet. He knew that Nebraska would not be good for him. At least there were other things besides his own worries to occupy his mind in this city. He was staying. He had enough money to stay at the hotel through March if he wanted to. If he economized he could make it last much longer—he thought of the convent where Abby and Lucy were staying. If he went there he could probably stay till summer.
Next day, after he was sure the girls had left, he went to the convent, got a room, and checked out of the hotel. Even with meals it was cheaper than he expected. But he was alone, now. Really alone. And the convent was like a maze, always dark, except at the entrance. And the nuns who lived there were all elderly, and in the afternoons they gave bread from their big doors to the needy who came and lined up for it. It was depressing and made more so when the few people he met in those long, dark corridors who were not nuns turned out to be Albanian refugees and couldn't speak Italian. And then the weather began to mimic his mood, settling a dense fog over the city and chilling the air.
The one time he and Les had been happiest during the whole of their marriage was the week they spent in San Gimignano. He had a profound itch to go back there. It wasn't because he wanted to retrace his steps with Les. That wasn't it. It was because he wanted comforting, and Florence had too many too recent associations with her, and thoughts of her disturbed him and made him anxious. Suppose she is dying? Shouldn't he be there? What must her parents be thinking about his not returning? What might she say to them about him? He got angry with himself when he thought these things. Even her dying was turned inside out. He resented her. He felt guilty about her. He hated her. No, he didn't love her. Love was never a part of their relationship, and she, he believed, was not capable of it.
He wandered aimlessly around the cobbled streets and found himself walking out of the city and passing an old Roman gate that sat in a great puddle beside the new road where cars zipped by, their occupants oblivious to the fact they once would have to have passed through the arch of this ancient structure to enter the city. Her father wouldn't let her die. He knew that. Unless she did, of course. He knew that, too. He saw a taxi approaching which looked empty of passengers and flagged it down, and it stopped, and he asked the driver to take him to the stazione.
Almost without thinking he bought a ticket to Poggibonzi. The train was already in the station and left only seconds after he boarded. For an hour, he closed his eyes and tried to sleep. At Poggibonzi he found the bus that climbed the steep hillsides and lifted him through the clouds to the mountain top where the city lay. Immediately on arriving, he went to the old decrepit hotel where he had stayed with Les and got a room for the night. Then he went into the deeply misted atmosphere that had settled onto the mountain, which made the old stone towers look like deep shadows in the sky, and began to wander the streets. The walls of the city, its facades, castles, churches, palaces, were all made from the same stone, but the streets were paved with a red cobblestone. It was the day before Christmas eve, and the streets were almost all empty, and only a lone little truck puttered up and down once in a while. He felt free and happy, and a kind of deep obscurity came over him which made him feel unattached to anything human.
He came upon the museo that exhibited medieval instruments of torture and punishment. It was closed, as it was the whole time he was here with Les. She wanted to visit this museum in the worst way, and insisted they return over and over again, but it was never open. She asked everyone they met in the city to explain how the museum's hours were arranged so that she could visit it, but it never mattered, because the place was always closed. The intensity of her desire to see these instruments of torture and punishment made him uneasy, and he asked her why she cared so much, but all she ever said was, "Why not? Don't you want to get in?" But he really didn't want to.
He stood there now, looking in the window, staring at the sign that said, "chiusi." It didn't take long to walk from one end of the city to the other. He had traversed it many times, and he and Les had made friends with some of the shop keepers, and they loved especially to go to this little restaurant for coffee in the middle afternoon, where Les talked so fluently in Italian with the waitress. He went there and took a seat behind a table so small that it could barely support two cups. A waitress came and he didn't recognize her, but he asked in Italian for an espresso and a grappa. His Italian was limping along, but without Les, who always did the talking when they were in public, he expected his Italian to improve rapidly. He knocked the grappa back immediately and asked the waitress for another. He took his time, though, sipping the coffee, which he loved the taste of.
The waitress placed another grappa on the small round table, and just then a very young girl walked in. She wore a navy blue sailor's pea coat and blue jeans and carried on one shoulder a black backpack. She looked like a middle teen, and she smiled immediately when she caught his eye. But he didn't return the smile. He sensed that she wanted to talk and that in a moment she would get up and come over, and he wanted to be alone, so he gulped the second grappa, took another sip of the espresso, got up and paid the waitress who was standing at the cash register, said good-bye, and left.
Later, he was standing on a rampart beside a great tower to which he had climbed from a long, steep stone stairway and was looking out over the mist-clung valley below. He felt that he was himself wrapped in the mist and was one with it when he saw that pea coat like a silent shade slip onto the rampart. Annoyed, he slipped himself along the wall and descended as quickly as he could. He made his way toward the Duomo, which rested upon a hill and had many steps going up to it. He really didn't want to go in, for he had been in it before, with Les, who had read about its frescos and wanted to see them. So he sat on the steps, pulling his jacket collar up and shoving his hands into the jacket pockets.
In Florence he and Les had gone to see a church called the San Miniato off of the Piazzali Michelangelo. They had found a stairway that descended to a dark vaulted chamber deep below the church. It was lit very dimly by two burning candles that sat on what seemed to be an altar almost in the center of the room. Off to one side, almost out of the gleam of the candles, was a great glass case that contained an open coffin with the skeletal remains of what they assumed was the saint himself. It was dressed in a monk's robe and was so placed in the coffin as to seem to be rising, with one boney hand holding onto the coffin's edge while the other was lifting the body up from the bottom. Les was dead silent, looking at it almost in a trance. He had noticed how struck she was and tried to edge her away, but she was immovable, and he was becoming frightened. Then they heard behind them a loud clap of hands and a shout, and a priest was rushing towards them. He had taken their arms and turned them around, and said in English, "You are not supposed to be here. This place is not open to the public. Go,go,go, now. Go,go." And Les walked up that steep stairway still in her trance.
He was thinking about this when he saw the pea coat come up the stairs. He groaned to himself, figuring he could not escape this time. She sat beside him and was silent for a long time. He felt bad, because he had been trying to evade her. She was uncertain and insecure and obviously didn't know how to begin. He admired her persistence.
"So," he began, after a while, "You're alone."
"Yes," she said, "and so are you. I noticed that you're just ahead of me everywhere we go."
She had a British accent, so he asked her where she was from, and she said she was from Australia, and he felt like a fool, knowing that Les would not have made that mistake. She was a high school exchange student in Siena and was just touring on her own, because if she didn't get around while she had the chance she never would.
"What about you?" she said. "You're American, aren't you?"
"Yes," he said, and left it at that.
"Well," she said, "I'm not spending the night here. I'm taking the bus back to Siena. It'll be leaving in about an hour. How about you?"
"I'm spending the night," he said, "and going back to Florence tomorrow. I'm living there now."
Again, he fell silent, and he could see that he made her uncomfortable. After a few moments she got up and apologized for intruding and went into the church.
He was still there when she came out, sitting with his elbows on his knees and his face buried in his hands. She had passed him going down the steps but paused and turned to look back.
"If you want to talk, I'll be over there waiting for the bus," she said, and pointed across the piazza where buses pulled in and stopped to take on passengers or let them off. She continued to the area and stood there alone, since there were so few tourists in San Gimignano that day. He still sat on the steps in front of the church, and when the bus came and she got on, she looked at him a long time, and was still looking when the bus pulled away.