“Look at that,” Ben said, needlessly pointing out the window. “They go on and on and on.”
Maggie leaned across him and peered down at the sea of jagged white peaks. “Beautiful,” she nodded.
He turned to her, his face radiant. “The Alps!” On his breath she could smell the mushroom omelet he’d had for breakfast. They had flown straight through the night and the blue shadow of his beard was just coming on. His upper lip was chapped; a small line of blood had dried on his chin. She placed her hand on his arm and forced a smile. A moment later the mountains vanished and the land turned into a flat patchwork of green fields and water.
“It looks flooded down there,” he said.
Maggie’s head ached and an odd pain had developed in her left ear. Once again her gaze moved from the orange seatbelt sign, to the air phone (such a temptation), to the laminated flight information, and finally to the lumpy turquoise sweater growing in the lap of the woman beside her. The woman had not spoken a word, had done nothing but knit―click-click, click-click―ever since they left New York. Across the aisle, hunched beneath a blanket, a man snored steadily.
“That’s the landing gear,” said Ben when they heard a high-pitched whirring.
“Thank god,” Maggie sighed. “I can’t wait to get off this plane. My shoulders feel like somebody poured cement in them.”
He looked at her, his face solicitous. “It was a good flight, though, don’t you think? Not much turbulence.”
This was their first trip abroad. To celebrate the year 2000, the turn of the millennium, Ben had decided that they would finally visit Italy, the birthplace of his forebears. Determined that everything would be splendid, he had spent months reading guidebooks and talking with travel agents, methodically plotting a nine-day tour. He knew precisely which trains they would take, what sights they would see and where they would sleep each night. She didn’t care about the lodging, Maggie had stated, so long as they had their own bathroom.
It was impressive, the lengths he had gone to, buying security wallets and electrical adaptors, studying the customs, learning the language. Each morning for the past several weeks she had heard him talking to the bathroom mirror: “Mi chiamo Ben. Come si chiama?” At his encouragement Maggie had memorized a few words herself, though she didn’t have much faith in them. How could they stake their survival on a handful of chummy phrases?
They could never let down their guard, that’s what she’d been told. Big cities were the worst: corrupt shopkeepers; berserk drivers; smiling, treacherous children. One wrong move could cost them dearly. She had tried to explain this to Ben, but the subject only irritated him: “You see what you’re doing? You’re setting us up. You go over there looking for trouble and you’re going to find it.” ¬¬¬
He had a point of course. This was not the first time they had argued about her dark prophecies. But didn’t it work the other way as well? Didn’t Ben, with his ceaseless faith, burden himself unduly? Nine glorious days, he promised. That, Maggie thought, was a lot of pressure.
When they got off the plane, four yellow buses were waiting. No announcements were made; the passengers simply boarded the shuttles, like cattle or prisoners, in a dumb, orderly fashion. There were no seats; everyone hung onto the bars and peered over each other’s shoulders, trying to see where they were going.
“Pretty slick operation,” Ben observed, as their shuttle lurched to a stop. The doors opened and people began spilling onto the tarmac. Maggie took hold of Ben’s arm and they walked, a little wobbly, into the airport. It was a toy-like structure with brightly colored beams and girders, containing one large room and a few self-explanatory booths. They exchanged their dollars for lire, then bought two bus tickets to Milan.
“Isn’t this easy?” Ben said, beaming. “Now this is the way to run an airport.”
Maggie eyed the two policemen who were strolling through the room, armed with guns and a German shepherd. “It’s no-nonsense alright.” The men unnerved her with their swaggering authority, their gleaming weapons, their thin hard smiles. They spoke only to each other, not even bothering to look at the dog as it nosed its way through passengers and luggage. Maggie froze when the men approached her and Ben. “Screw you,” she whispered as they walked away.
The ride to Milan would take forty-five minutes, Ben informed her, and the train to Florence was just over two and half hours. Maggie ignored these facts and peered out the clouded window of the bus.
“It’s nothing like I imagined,” she said as they passed a row of industrial buildings.
“You’re probably thinking of Tuscany. This region isn’t like that.”
“We’re staying in Tuscany, right?”
Ben nodded. “And Umbria and Latium.”
The pain in her ear was more noticeable now. If it became constant, if it felt hot, those would be signs of an infection.
“Florence first,” Ben went on, “then Siena, Orvieto and Rome.”
“What about Venice? Can’t we squeeze in Venice?”
“Venice is in northern Italy. We won’t be anywhere near it, not this time.” He smiled and patted her knee. “We can’t see everything in one trip.”
“I suppose not,” she said. Ben turned back to the window and Maggie frowned. It had taken them nearly half a century to get here. When would they be back?
Back in Sacramento their daughter Helen was taking care of the cats and fish, hopefully the houseplants. This was not the original plan. Helen and her husband Jake were supposed to be traveling with them. Maggie wasn’t sure if Helen had been deterred by the winding steps and steep stone streets of Italy, or if, presented with enough new challenges in her own country, she’d lost interest in world travel. In any case, Helen had said no and Jake didn’t argue, and that’s when Maggie felt her own enthusiasm collapse. All those gay scenes in her mind—the four of them sipping Campari, dining on rooftops, gazing at golden towers—they were all sucked away.
Eighteen months before, on a bright and breezy morning, Helen was riding her motorcycle on a country road. There was a curve in the road and she didn’t see the fallen tree until it was too late. She broke three ribs and lost her leg.
At least she was alive, friends had said, at least it wasn’t a head injury. One had gone so far as to say that Helen might be spiritually enriched by the experience; it was all Maggie could do to keep from striking her.
Helen never railed against her fate. After two weeks of shocked silence she emerged grim and determined. Her wound healed faster than expected, and her arms grew strong and shapely as she vaulted through space on her crutches.
Sometimes, in those first few weeks, Maggie forgot how to breathe. She would think of her daughter’s ruined body and she would start to gasp. She would fall asleep and wake up choking. It wasn’t just the physical impairment, the things that Helen could no longer do, it was the injury to her womanhood. A man could get away with such a loss, but a woman was undone. “Imagine it,” Maggie had ranted, drunkenly, to Ben. “She’ll never feel desirable, ever again.”
As if he didn’t know this. He still couldn’t bear to look at Helen’s prosthetic leg, and he had cried the first time he saw her walking on it. Maggie had cupped Ben’s face in her hands and reminded him that the crutches were exhausting and cumbersome, and he said it was just that Helen looked so strong when she used them, like an athlete. He hated seeing her limp on that plastic leg, hated the thought of her buckling it on each day.
They didn’t share their grief anymore―it hadn’t helped. Now when they spoke of Helen they offered each other only blithe reassurances, bland and safe as samplers. Their words were like smooth stones skipping over deep dark water.
Ben was going on about the train, and how fast and quiet it was, and why didn’t they make trains like this in the States.
Maggie looked at him askance. The States?
“And that station in Milan―wasn’t that incredible?”
Maggie reflected. “It reminded me of a casino.”
“Yes, Ben. A casino.” She turned to the window and squinted up at the pale sky. “Have you noticed that the light is different here? It feels like it should be late afternoon.” She closed her eyes. “Jesus, I’m tired.”
Ben pulled a pen from his pocket and made some calculations in his new spiral notebook. “Well, by the time we get to Florence we will have been traveling twenty-six hours.”
Maggie studied her husband. His beard was very noticeable now but the rest of his face was nearly as pale as his windbreaker. In this stark light everything about him appeared older. Under his thinning hair she could just make out the shape of his skull. His nose was definitely bigger and his upper lip was beginning to shrink. She did not want to imagine how she looked at this moment.
“Why didn’t we just fly into Florence?” Maggie said.
“I told you. There aren’t any direct flights from New York to Florence.” He gestured at the scenery. “But this way we get to see more of the countryside.”
Which was far from inspiring. It was flat, for one thing, and the trees, most still bare, held their network of black branches against a pallid sky. Here and there low-slung vacant buildings, painted ochre or dull orange or muddy pink, squatted on the landscape in silent defeat.
“How long till we get to Florence?” she said.
Ben checked his watch. “Twelve minutes.”
“And how far is our hotel from the station.”
“A few blocks―walking distance.” She looked at him incredulously. “We can take a cab, though.” He stretched his arms out in front of him and grinned through a yawn. “I can’t believe we’re in Italy, can you? I thought we’d see the Duomo and the Bell Tower this afternoon, and then have dinner at a pizzeria near the hotel―it’s a Frommer’s favorite.”
Maggie shook her head. “I am not doing any sightseeing this afternoon. Can’t we just relax for five minutes?”
Ben’s face fell.
“I know, I know. There’s so much to see and so little time and you’ve got it all worked out, but I am not going to be rushing around every day like a maniac. And right now I’m exhausted, Ben. I can’t even think straight. If I don’t lie down soon I’m going to have a goddamn stroke.”
Ben nodded slowly; she could tell he was making revisions. “You’re right,” he said. “We should get some rest. We can see the Duomo in the morning, when it opens.”
Maggie brought her hands to her temples and began massaging them. Her head still throbbed but the pain in her ear, she noticed now, was gone. Heartened, she squeezed her husband’s leg.
“We can still go to that pizza place tonight. We need a decent meal. What does Frommer’s say about it?”
This was a travel day; it really didn’t count. Italy, she and Ben―they would all be better tomorrow.
There was a big kitchen store in Florence, Ben had told her on the flight. High-end. Lots of hand-painted dishes. “Mmmm,” Maggie replied without interest. Ben still assumed, like everyone else, that because she sold culinary supplies she was enamored of them. The truth was, she was sick to death of tart pans, ring molds and precious platters.
She had entered the business by default―who aspires to be a peddler of kitchenware? Not many people knew this, but she had wasted a lot of money pursuing an education in psychology. For two and a half years she had worked for the state, trying to help troubled teens. When one of them pushed her into a parked school bus and dislocated her shoulder, she collected disability for six months and then attempted private practice. This was worse. These children were ostensibly normal. It wasn’t until you got them alone that you learned, bit by bit, the cruelties they were capable of, the random, vicious ways they took their revenge. Mostly they were beyond her help. And the stories she was stuck with, all those odious images she had to bring home, into her living room, into her bed.
She simply hadn’t the hide for it. There was nothing to do but cut her losses and close up shop. In a last-ditch effort to justify her diploma she took a job as a high school counselor, and while the work was more palatable she had never felt so useless, there in that foolish cubicle, trying to steer contemptuous teens toward a future they wouldn’t regret.
At least there was a measure of gratification in what she did now. People sought her out, took her advice. It wasn’t easy either, keeping current on all the paraphernalia you could cram in a kitchen these days. While her customers didn’t need half the stuff they bought, she could hardly be accused of coercing them. People came to The Gourmet Chef with their checkbooks wide open, convinced that a set of French butter molds was going to make a difference in their lives. The hours were good, the commissions adequate, and if Maggie wearied of the frivolous merchandise, the silly, privileged patrons, she had only to recall her first career.
Wide awake on the hard mattress, Maggie listened to the other guests tromping down the halls and stairways, their shoes striking the marble floors. Why not throw down some carpet, she fumed, recalling the plush corridors of the Best Westerns back home. Then the rushing of water through pipes as showers and toilets went on and off. And after that, after every last tourist had tucked himself into bed, a couple across the alleyway began to have noisy sex, the girl’s dramatic ohs and ahs resounding through the Florentine night, until the boy—Maggie assumed it was a boy―finished with a grunt.
Through all the ruckus Ben slumbered on. He could do that, could fall asleep at will. And his dreams! If only, if just for a night, she could dream like Ben. He flew, he told her, with his arms stretched out like wings, nice and slow, over valleys and rivers. He fished for bright blue marlin, sailed yachts across the Caribbean. The joyous feats, the things he would never be or do or have, came to him in sleep.
It wasn’t fair. Didn’t she deserve equal treatment? Hadn’t she labored long, suffered sufficiently? What would it hurt to throw a few sweet dreams her way?
In the center of her chest Maggie felt a rising pressure. She turned her attention to her left arm―no pain there. But she did feel queasy, almost nauseous, and her abdomen was swollen. It was probably the antipasto plate: those glistening ribbons of fat-streaked prosciutto, the peppered black olives drowned in oil. They had a salad after that, some mixed lettuces with sliced tomato, which they had to dress themselves. Ben got a kick out of drizzling on his own green oil and cloudy vinegar, but Maggie complained that you couldn’t mix it properly. The pizza was even stranger. Instead of distributing the artichoke hearts, mushrooms and olives, the cook had placed them in neat little piles so that you had to dismantle the whole thing before you ate it. The vino della casa was another disappointment, though after the first carafe Maggie stopped caring. Ben had warned her that Italian house wines would seem very mild compared to California varietals and he was right. “Toddlers could drink this stuff,” Maggie said, polishing off her third glass. “I think they do,” he told her.
Maggie’s stomach rumbled ominously. Flipping back the covers, she got to her feet, padded into the bathroom and snapped on the light switch. For several seconds she fished through her nylon sack of cures and cosmetics, and then, provoked, she dumped the contents onto the terra cotta floor. A bottle of Ibuprofen rolled one way, her eye drops another. There, under a pink wrapped panty liner, were the Mylanta tablets. She pushed two through their foil backing and quickly chewed them.
Using the opportunity to pee, she sat on the toilet and regarded the bathroom. In front of her was the shower, an ineffectual arrangement consisting of a circular metal rod and a curtain that traversed it. There was a drain underneath and a slight depression in the tiles, but as she had discovered this afternoon, the water simply pooled for a moment, then spilled across the entire floor. On the wall beside the shower hung the towels, large squares of white cotton that looked and felt like tablecloths. Above the tiny sink was an electrical outlet that had shorted out her hair dryer despite the special gadget Ben had installed. Well, what could they expect for the money they were paying? Their rooms would be clean, the travel agent had assured Ben, and they would have private baths, but beyond that he could guarantee nothing.
If this was to be the trip of their lives, Maggie had argued, why not loosen up the purse strings, at least for part of the time: maybe one upscale hotel, three or four swank restaurants. But Ben said why go into debt needlessly. The accommodations he had chosen were approved by Frommer’s, and wasn’t it more fun anyway to experience a few of the cultural quirks? They didn’t want a corporate, sanitized version of Italy, they wanted the real thing. As for the food, it was supposed to be rustic, and what they bought at salumerias or ordered in trattorias would likely be more authentic than the meals they’d find in pricey, heavily touristed ristorantes. He had used just those words, smugly employing his new Italian.
While these arguments sounded reasonable, Maggie was not convinced. If Ben had one overriding feature, it was his infuriating thriftiness. He held dire views about their future and the money they would need to stay alive, and so every month after the bills were paid he swept whatever was left into various retirement funds. Maggie had grown to resent this onerous, unquenchable old age that looted their youth and promised nothing. What were they to do with that money while they were nodding off in their rockers? For a few upgrades right now, she would trade one whole dusty year.
Church bells. Maggie opened her eyes and listened to the hollow notes as they echoed through the streets. Michelangelo had heard these bells. Leonardo da Vinci. Botticelli. She had just seen a PBS special on Renaissance art. God, what a time for geniuses! A tormented artist around every corner, chipping at stone with bloody fingers, painting the long sad faces of saints on an endless procession of frescoes.
Maggie heard the key in the door and looked up expectantly.
“I couldn’t get coffee to go,” Ben said, coming into the room. “They don’t sell it that way. But all the little corner shops are opening now and we can get coffee at any of them. I just had a cappuccino―it was delicious.”
“Why don’t they sell coffee to go?” she asked, aggrieved by this latest disappointment.
Ben shrugged impatiently. “I don’t know, they just don’t. It’s a good idea, if you ask me. Cuts down on plastics and litter.”
“Okay,” Maggie muttered. “Okay, I’ll get dressed.” She went into the bathroom and Ben talked to her through the closed door.
“I took a walk down Via de Cerchi, the street to the right of us? The produce vendors are setting up their stalls. Wait till you see the fruit, every color you can imagine, and they arrange it so carefully. You can’t touch it; you have to point to what you want.”
Maggie, rubbing lotion into her face, frowned. “How can you tell if it’s ripe?”
The morning air was cool and damp. Buildings of stone loomed on both sides of the narrow streets, turning them into tunnels, all of which ended with a glimpse of the green-striped Duomo, massive and inescapable. Already the city was clotted with people, and Vespas kept roaring by, sending everyone up against the brown walls. Maggie felt bad for the dogs who, leashed and wretched, picked their way down the street on stiff little legs. She cast a baleful look at one of the owners. Who would put an animal through this?
“Let’s try that one,” Ben said, pointing to a store. They crossed at the corner, where the smell of coffee and fresh bread mingled with the warm stench rising from a sewer grate.
An older couple ran the shop, he making coffee and sandwiches, she taking the money. Both were heavyset, their faces creased with age and resignation. Maggie had seen that same sag and slump on most of the local men and women, as if they were functioning collectively, as if at a certain age they all agreed to discard their vanity and merge into obscurity. How different they were from the young Italians who swaggered down the streets in tight black clothes, ignoring everything but each other.
Her cappuccino was served in a pretty yellow cup. She wanted to drink it at one of the tables but Ben shook his head: “Remember what I told you? It costs three times as much if you sit down.”
“Naturally,” she murmured. And so they stood at the bar alongside several other customers, some of whom pointed to a collection of bottles on the wall (“grappa,” Ben whispered) and demanded a ‘caffe coretto‘. This was fascinating, the boredom with which the men doused their cups of espresso, the no-nonsense way they dispatched them. Spiked or straight, there was something seductive, something not quite licit about these miniature coffees, dispensed as they were in potent, measured amounts. And suddenly, as if her own dose had kicked in, Maggie felt buoyant, even reckless. “Grazie,” she said to the man, sliding her cup back across the counter. Ben wrapped an arm around her shoulders and smiled approvingly. For God’s sake, she thought, her expression hardening, give me some air.
Halfway up Giotto’s Tower Maggie got a stitch in her side and had to rest. Ben, red-faced and breathing heavily, sat on a step and opened his guidebook. Seeing him like this made Maggie nervous. He was a middle-aged man with a desk job. Sudden death would not be remarkable.
“192 steps to go,” he panted.
“You’ve been counting?”
“The book might be wrong—I want to see for myself.”
She stared at him a moment and then began massaging her side.
“I’m going to need a nap this afternoon,” she said. “I still feel like hell.”
“You do?” he said, tilting his head sympathetically.
“Don’t you?” she asked. “You must be feeling some jet lag.”
He shrugged. “A little, I guess. I could probably use a nap, too. That’s what they do here, that’s why the shops close at three.” He looked at her hopefully. “I thought we might see the Bargello after this―it’s the one with all the statues?”
She did love statues. Horses rearing, men grappling. Frozen struggles.
“Fine with me,” Maggie said. She nodded toward the stairs. “Let’s take this slow, okay?”
It was worth the climb, they agreed, just to be up this high, in the wind again, clear of the foul air and noisy vehicles. They leaned across the stone ledge and surveyed the red tiled rooftops of Florence. There were trees on the fringes of the city and dark green hills etched on the horizon. Colossal white clouds hung over the landscape.
“Trees,” Maggie said with a sigh. She shook her head. “I’d go nuts in this city―it’s all stone.”
“I guess that’s why they have window boxes everywhere.” Ben pointed. “Right down there is our hotel. See? That’s the Via del Corso.”
Maggie recognized nothing and then stopped trying to. “Doesn’t it surprise you, how big this place is?”
“Yes,” Ben said, snapping pictures.
“I didn’t like the Duomo,” she went on. “I mean, the outside’s pretty impressive with all that colored marble, but the inside is so bleak. Those gloomy, awful paintings.” She shuddered. “It’s such a depressing religion, don’t you think?”
Ben aimed the camera at the church’s dome. “The Italians are very serious about their faith,” he said. “They spent fourteen years building the Duomo.” He lowered the camera and looked at her. “It was finished in 1434. So it’s what―564 years old.”
Maggie, as always, was impressed. She could not do math in her head, or remember the date a church was finished, or spot their hotel from their air. In peevish, and sometimes idle, moments, she tried to imagine life without him: It seemed possible, but risky.
A misty rain was falling. They were walking down the Via dei Neri, on their way to a restaurant Ben had seen earlier.
“You’re right about the shops,” Maggie said as they passed another spotless meat market. She eyed the jaunty hanging sausages, the neat rows of olive oil and anchovies. “So picturesque. When I think of all the ratty corner stores back home. Oh god,” she said, grabbing Ben’s arm. “Look at that!” A stuffed boar’s head sat on the counter, snout raised, teeth hooked and yellow.
Ben chuckled. “It gets your attention.”
They arrived at the restaurant a little early, but the proprietor, a tall man with a long grey beard, smiled gently and offered them a table and a glass of wine.
“I like this place,” Maggie said, restored by the Chianti. It was a small eatery with yellow lights, chipped green walls and old photos of Italians working their fields. From behind a curtain came the rattle of pans, and the seductive odors of wood smoke and roasted meat drifted into the dining room. Maggie ran her hands over the green marble-topped table. “It’s quaint.”
Ben was concentrating on the menu. “What looks good to you?” he asked.
“Not a full meal,” Maggie said. “My stomach’s kind of iffy. Maybe just a salad.”
“Okay,” Ben said. “And how about the crostini?” He pulled out his phrasebook. “Vor-ray-moh,” he murmured, “vor-RAY-moh.”
“What does that mean?”
“We would like.” He slipped the book back in his pocket.
“You look nice tonight,” he told her. “You look healthy.”
It was the wine of course; it had flushed her cheeks. She did not feel healthy, she felt tired. And sore. Her whole body was sore. Was it from the plane? Climbing all those stairs? But she felt this way more often than not. Would she become arthritic? Was it happening already? Wasn’t it odd, at forty-eight, to be this stiff?
“So what was your favorite place today?” he asked. “The Bargello?”
Maggie nodded firmly. “Definitely. I liked that big statue of Bacchus. The upper floors weren’t as good—the suits of armor, and all those perverted little satyrs with erections. I’m a little tired of looking at penises.”
“Uh-oh,” Ben said. Maggie, lifting her glass, laughed.
“The Bargello used to be a jail,” he said. “They tortured people there. There were hangings out the windows so the public could watch.” He leaned across the table and looked at her squarely. “Would you have watched?”
“Once,” she said. “I’m sure I would have watched once.”
It was a good evening, one she would look back on as the high point of their trip. Walking back to the hotel they stopped for gelato, and then they strolled in a falling mist through the Piazza della Signoria, where brawny, fearless statues kept watch through the night.
When Maggie woke the next morning Ben was sitting in a chair by the window making notes in his spiral binder. His blue travel shirt was wrinkled, though it wasn’t supposed to do that, and a tuft of hair was sticking up on his head.
“Buon giorno,” he said. “Did you sleep okay?”
Maggie struggled to pull herself up against the headboard. “Better than the night before. This bed’s awful, though.”
“A little while ago you spoke in your sleep. You said, ‘Lock the door.’ You said it twice.”
She reached into her vanishing grab bag of dreams but came up with nothing. “I haven’t a clue. Did I sound panicky?”
“Maybe. It was hard to tell.” He looked out the window. “Listen to the doves!” A medley of notes sailed into the room, clear and round, as if the birds were blowing their songs through a flute. “Have you ever heard anything like that?” Ben whispered.
Maggie shook her head. “It’s pretty. It’s like music.” She stretched her arms above her head. “What are you doing over there?”
“Figuring out how much we spent yesterday. It’s tricky, all these thousands of lire. 20,000 lire is only about $13.”
“So what did we spend?”
“$40 on museums, $48 on food and tips. Plus the room, that’s another $60. If we’re careful about the incidentals, we’ll be fine.”
Maggie crossed her arms over her chest. “What do you mean by incidentals?”
He capped his pen and looked at her. “Oh, you know, little things―coffee, snacks, souvenirs. That map of Florence cost us six bucks.”
“Jesus, Ben. Coffee? Maps?” She yanked back the covers and got out of bed. “I’ll try to control myself.”
“Adoration of the Magi.” Ben looked at the painting, then back at the booklet in his hand. “There’s supposed to be a self-portrait in this one.” He peered again at the scene and pointed. “Right there—I think that’s Botticelli.”
Maggie cocked her head at the painting. “I’m numb. I have no idea what I’m looking at anymore.”
Ben read on. “The Botticelli rooms are the highlights of the Uffizi.”
“Then we should have seen them first,” she said, glancing at her watch. “We can’t possibly get through this place, not with these crowds.”
“No, but let’s try to see a little more. Da Vinci is coming up.” They walked on to the next group of people, all clustered in front of The Birth of Venus.
Ben chuckled. “They call this Venus on the Half Shell.”
Which made Maggie think of icy cold oysters―how she’d love a plate of those right now!
“I’m starved,” she whispered.
Ben turned to her. “A half-hour, okay? We paid a fortune to get in here.”
They were eating lunch in a park, looking out over a row of shrubs and an empty flower bed. Behind them was a dense tangle of woods. On a hillside to the left men were swinging big hammers, demolishing a stone wall. Ben bit into his sandwich and squinted at the workers.
“They’re not wearing eye protection.”
Maggie regarded the shaggy hedge and said, “We probably shouldn’t be here. I think this place is under construction.” From what she had seen, the entire city, from the grimy statues to the fractured palazzo, was in the process of being rescued: small, ceaseless measures to stall the ruin of time. Maggie looked at her sandwich. “This is pretty good―it could use some mayonnaise though.” She passed her cup to Ben and he poured her more wine.
Maggie gave a deep sigh. “God it’s nice to be away from people for five minutes.” She squeezed Ben’s arm. “Remember those two women at the museum, the docents? How bad they smelled?”
Ben folded his wax paper and tucked it in the pocket of his windbreaker. “I really didn’t notice.”
He draped his arms across the back of the bench and yawned. A piece of prosciutto was stuck in his teeth. Maggie pointed to her own mouth. “You’ve got food stuck right there,” she said, baring her teeth. He dug a moment with his fingernail. “Gone,” she told him.
“The weather’s perfect,” he said, gazing up at the blanched sky, “almost balmy. I was afraid it would be cold in April.” He cleared his throat. “I thought we might see the science museum after this―it’s not far from here.”
No. Not today. She could not drag herself through another gallery, could not stand before one more spectacle and summon the proper wonder. Admiration, she’d discovered, was exhaustible, and she had spent most of hers at the first stop, gaping at Michelangelo’s David. How do you absorb such a thing? How do you know when to move on? That Ben had room for more faintly disgusted her.
“You go,” she told her husband. “I need to regroup. I think I’ll poke around on my own a bit.”
She could see the hurt come into his face, though he didn’t burden her with it, which was yet another decent thing about him. Instead he got to his feet and handed her the street map of Florence. “Have fun,” he said. “I’ll see you back at the hotel.” Maggie watched him walk away, a slight man in a light blue windbreaker, until he was out of sight and she was alone in the world.
She spent a moment studying the map and then headed back toward the hotel, past the golden Pitti Palace and the muddy Arno, past the silver jewelers and leather merchants and the windows filled with trendy footwear (how the Italians loved their shoes!) On impulse she stopped at a corner coffee bar. “Uno espresso,” she said, “per favore,” and the stern-faced woman took her lire without comment. Sandwiches were stacked on the counter under a plastic cover and Maggie wondered how long they’d been there and if people ever got sick from bad meat, because come to think of it, there sure was a lot of unrefrigerated pork in this city. What would Helen say about that? She’d have to remember to ask her.
Maggie was the only customer, and it wasn’t much fun standing by herself, trying to think of something she knew how to say. She pointed to her little painted cup.
“Bella,” she said, smiling.
The owner, a corpulent man with oily, gray-streaked hair, looked up from the espresso machine he was polishing. “Grazie,” he sighed, turning back to his work. The woman, who stood near the register, arms folded, gave a nod. Where was that famous Italian warmth, those cheery mama mias you see on TV?
Back in the hotel room, Maggie peeled off her slacks and blouse and sat on the bed, idly regarding the small purple veins that had bloomed on her thighs. Compared to many women her age she was in pretty good shape, plump around the waist, but who cared? Not Ben. He saw her every morning, with her puffy eyes, her sheet-pleated skin, and he smiled, the same way he had smiled at her for twenty-three years. Even after Helen’s accident, when he could not bear the solace of an embrace, even then he had brightened at the sight of her.
He had never been hard to please, a trait Maggie both scorned and envied. Was the formula as basic as that? Did a life well-lived demand nothing more than a simple and sweeping concurrence? Once, not long after they were married, she asked Ben if he was happy selling cars, and after a moment he said, yes, he supposed he was, and then, warming to the subject, he told her about the psychology of the business and what he had learned about people.
“You always say ‘Welcome,’―it reduces their fear. And you ask them if they’re first-time customers, so they get a warm feeling about the company.
“I always do what they do,” he went on. “They scratch their chin, I scratch my chin; they clear their throat, I do too. But this is the most important thing.” He paused and brought his fingertips together. “Never discuss the price until you’ve sold the car.”
Wide-eyed, Maggie listened to every word, amazed at the stealth her husband was capable of, the life he lived quite competently without her.
Naturally he had done well, had moved up from domestic to European models and now sold only “reconditioned” vehicles―luxury cars with hidden pedigrees. Maggie had fantasies of Ben coming home one day in a champagne Mercedes, though she knew he was perfectly happy with their maroon Camry and saw no sense in trading up.
What she wanted right now was a nice tall scotch and soda. Wistfully she thought of the six miniature bottles of Johnnie Walker stowed in her suitcase. Why didn’t they have ice machines in these hotels? You couldn’t even find a real bar around here, not that it would be open anyhow; these people napped through the cocktail hour.
Uncapping her bottle of spring water, she took a swallow. This was better for her anyway. That’s what Helen kept telling her. Helen was a dietitian. She knew all sorts of things, like how long it took an egg salad sandwich to move through one’s digestive track. Disturbing, pointless facts.
A sudden dull pain moved in her ear. She waited a few seconds and it came again. Probably an infection after all, something she picked up in the mall last week―all those swarming children. She took three Ibuprofen and got into bed, pulling the stiff sheets over her.
What if it got bad? She couldn’t just let it go. Would the doctors speak English? They would have to, wouldn’t they? A few of them? And what about the paperwork? Would that be in English?
The night before they left Sacramento Ben’s sister had gone on and on about her trip to Spain and how rejuvenating it was. “There you are,” she said, “smack dab in the middle of a brand new world, and you don’t pay taxes, and you don’t know a soul, and everything around you is something you’ve never seen.” She beamed at Maggie and threw up her hands. “Is there anything more freeing than travel?” At the time they had all agreed with her, had lifted their glasses in a toast to adventure.
But it wasn’t true. You weren’t free at all. You spent twelve cramped hours on a plane, and then you were herded into an airport run by armed police, and when you finally got to your hotel they took your passport and made you keep your room key at the desk, and after that you stumbled around a city where you couldn’t speak to anyone or find a restaurant that opened before seven, so you ended up back in your hotel room, on a mattress too hard to sleep on, with some scotch you couldn’t drink and an earache you prayed wouldn’t get worse.
The restaurant Ben had chosen was crowded and noisy.
“They just opened,” he said as they followed the host to a table. “This is a good sign.”
“They’re all tourists,” Maggie informed him, glancing at the family of Asians next to them.
“The guidebook said not to miss it. The pasta is supposed to be out of this world.”
Maggie looked at the menu. “What’s trippa?”
Ben pulled his menu decoder out of his pocket. “Let’s see…veal.”
“I know that one. Lamb.”
“Jesus,” Maggie said. “What a carnivorous bunch.”
Ben arched an eyebrow. “And we’re not?”
Maggie shrugged. “I don’t know. You just see so much of it here. Sausages hanging in your face, and those huge hunks of pork with the fur still on them.” She shuddered.
Ben closed his menu. “Well, I think I’ll try the bistecca fiorentina―it’s grilled T-bone, a specialty here. In Florence, I mean. What about you?”
Maggie pushed her menu aside. “Minestrone, I guess.” She looked to her left, where a thin man in a white T-shirt was sliding pizzas into an oven. “Jesus Christ,” she murmured.
“He’s smoking. The pizza guy. His cigarette is hanging over the dough.”
Ben glanced at the man. “Yeah, they’re not much concerned with that here.”
“Half the people in this room are smoking―it’s disgusting.” She turned back to her husband. “You know, for a country so smug about its food, you’d think they’d ban smoking in restaurants.”
Ben gave a noncommittal nod.
“I don’t think I’ve had a lungful of fresh air since we climbed the Bell Tower. All those beat-up little cars spewing out smoke. No emission controls whatsoever. And they wonder why their statues are deteriorating.” A swell of patriotism rose in her. “You know, we may not do everything right, but at least we make an effort to clean up the planet.”
Ben covered her hand with his own. “Stop comparing. You’re not giving yourself a chance to enjoy anything.”
She glared at him. He was right, of course. “Okay,” she said, her voice hard and dismissive. “Okay.” She took a deep breath, illustrating her self-control. “So. How was the science museum?”
A bored-looking waiter appeared then, and Ben ordered their meal.
“Why are all the waiters men?” Maggie asked when he left.
“I’m not sure, but I know it’s a very respected profession here.”
“Well, there you go,” Maggie murmured.
“Anyway,” Ben said, “the museum was amazing, just amazing. All these intricate models and instruments―you can’t really understand them. They’re inventions, mostly, or the beginnings of inventions. Lots of astronomy and physics.”
Maggie picked up her bread plate and turned it over, looking for the name of the manufacturer.
“And they had some really weird medical stuff. They had these life-size models―I guess they were made out of wax―of babies in the womb, in all these different positions. But it wasn’t just the baby, it was the whole thing, the whole inside of the woman from the waist to the thighs.”
Maggie put down the plate. “Good god. What were they for?”
“Training tools, I guess, for the obstetricians.”
“Sorry I missed those,” Maggie said.
“And the surgical instruments!”
Maggie put up her hand. “That’s enough. I’d like to keep my appetite, thank you―such as it is.”
“You’re not very hungry?”
Maggie shook her head. “I haven’t felt right since we got here. And I have this earache thing going on. What do we do, anyway, if we get sick here?”
Ben gave her arm a reassuring tap. “Don’t worry, I covered that. I have a list of English-speaking doctors.” A smile broke over his face. “Tomorrow we’ll be in Siena; they say everyone loves Siena. No cars allowed, by the way.”
“Thank god,” said Maggie.
The minestrone was appalling: chunks of hard vegetables floating in a watery broth. Maggie nudged the bowl toward Ben.
He picked up his spoon, took a sip and shrugged. “It’s not the best I’ve had, but it’s not bad.”
“The vegetables aren’t even cooked! For god’s sake, Ben. You can say it’s awful. You are not responsible for this goddamn bowl of soup.”
He put down his fork and looked at her wearily. “Stop it. Please.”
Shame warmed her cheeks. She reached out and squeezed his hand. “I’m sorry. I really am. I feel strange. I think my period must be coming.”
“You just had your period.”
“I know. But it feels like hormones.”
“Try this,” he said, spearing a piece of meat. “It’s delicious.”
He was right, the smoky flavor was wonderful.
“Very good,” she nodded, chewing. And chewing. It was also tough as hell.
The clamorous lovebirds were at it again.
“So much for a good night’s sleep,” Maggie said, rolling onto her back.
“My god,” breathed Ben. “What’s he doing to her?”
“I’d love to throw a bucket of ice water on those two.”
Ben propped himself up on his elbow and brought his lips close to Maggie’s ear: “Maybe they’re trying to tell us something.”
Maggie frowned in the dark. Now that was the last thing she felt like doing…but she had been so unpleasant at dinner. With a sigh, she turned onto her side and faced her husband. Who, it turned out, couldn’t quite manage the job.
How glad she was not to be a man, everything dependent on that poor dangle of flesh. It was the wine, she supposed―they drank quite a bit at dinner. Or maybe just an age thing, a flagging prostate―most men, she’d read, have that trouble sooner or later. He had felt bad about it of course, and perversely she had let him, had in fact feigned a slight annoyance before offering a few pat words she knew wouldn’t assuage him. Eventually he was rescued by sleep, and for a long time after that Maggie stared into the darkness, acquainting herself thoroughly with the monster she had become.
Ben deserved more, she’d be the first to admit it. She had no right to make her husband as wretched as she was.
Helen’s accident had devastated them both, but for Ben, who had taught his daughter how to ride a motorcycle, the grief must have been harsher. In those first weeks afterward, he used to roam the house at night, unable to sleep. When he came home after work he hardly spoke, just ate his dinner and retreated. Locked in her own hell, Maggie scarcely noticed. Suffering from the same affliction, they were of no use to each other.
But Ben had managed to emerge. How had he done that? If anything, he had turned kinder, while she had clearly gone the other way, her bitterness running neck and neck with his goodness.
She had seen that decency in him the first time they met, the subtle ways he rescued people, noticing their small embarrassments and swiftly easing them. Maggie wasn’t sure just what balance of qualities led to her loving him, but that was surely in the mix. She even considered that marrying such a person would be advantageous, that over time she too might become imbued with tenderness. Obviously she’d been wrong. She could not keep up with Ben and she was tired of trying. What had prompted him to choose her was a mystery. She must have been quite different back then.
The train sped smoothly toward Siena. Budding trees covered the landscape. It had rained the night before but now a wan sun was emerging and Maggie felt renewed. She would put on a better face, salvage the time they had left. They were in the country, away from the cars and crowds, and they still had five whole days.
Their hotel, a pretty brick building surrounded by flowers and trees, was on the outskirts of town, and the window of their room perfectly framed the city. The view was so nice, Maggie said, why didn’t they forego a restaurant tonight and eat in the room; there was a small table they could pull under the window.
“This is more like it,” said Maggie as they walked through the peaceful stone streets, passing tidy shops filled with cheeses and meats, colorful rows of produce. With every turn another vista opened up: age-old turrets, distant green hills. But the best sight, the real treat, was the sunlit expanse of a giant plaza that appeared suddenly before them. “The Piazza del Campo,” said Ben, spreading his arms.
They had to stay. They had to sit in this wonderful, ancient marketplace and have a glass of wine. Ben said they should probably eat something to tide them over, and so they ordered an antipasto plate. Lounging in her chair, lazy with wine and sun, Maggie felt a tug of happiness, a second or two of perfect splendor, as if youth, carried on a breeze, had briefly, tenderly, touched her.
“These are my favorite,” Maggie said, piercing a wrinkled black olive with a tiny wooden sword. “Aren’t these great?” she said, raising the olive pick. “If I could just find a distributor.”
Ben was looking out over the piazza. “You still have the price tag on those sunglasses,” she told him. “It’s stuck to the frame.”
He pulled them off his face and removed the sticker. Putting them back on, he said, “This trip would have been hard on Helen, don’t you think?” He turned to her; she could see her reflection in his sunglasses.
Maggie turned away from him and looked out over the plaza. “Yes. She would have had to miss a lot.” She thought of their first day in Florence, that long climb up the Bell Tower.
A few days after Helen’s accident, Ben had looked up from his dinner and said, suddenly, “You blame me. Don’t you?” Maggie had been so shocked by the question, coming out of nowhere, that she couldn’t speak right away, and Ben rushed out of the house. He was gone for hours. When he returned he went straight to the study, shutting the door behind him. Maggie stood motionless in the hallway; finally, through the door, she answered him: “I don’t, Ben. I don’t blame you.” And this was true. No doubt she had wronged him in other ways, but this was a thought she would not allow. There was no reply.
On the way back to the hotel they stopped at a market and bought a wedge of gorgonzola, some fennel salami, a flat loaf of herb bread, two pears and a bottle of red wine. It was just as she imagined: They sat at the window, tree limbs in the foreground, Siena in the distance, a deeper gold each moment; and everything was superb, every bite, every sip.
Even so, Ben was distracted, oddly quiet, and Maggie found herself thinking about the night before, their last night in Florence, the awful dinner, the failed lovemaking, and gazing out at Siena, another beautiful city she would never grasp, Maggie wondered if travel wasn’t better suited to the young, who didn’t expect too much of a place, who moved through the world with ease and forgiveness. She almost expressed these feelings to Ben, and then thought better of it.
When the wine was three-quarters gone, when the gorgonzola was starting to ooze, to turn into something they no longer wanted, Ben said how about a little television; maybe they’d find something in English. And they did, only it was the news, and after listening to it for ten minutes they found they didn’t care to know what was happening in America. They settled instead on a movie, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Because she had seen it, Maggie didn’t mind the Italian dialogue, and soon she was wrapped up in the story, the sad, sad story of the obese mother and the children who adored her. At some point she started sobbing and couldn’t stop, and she didn’t know if it was the movie or the fact that they were reduced to watching it. At last Ben made her turn it off. They picked up the debris from dinner and pushed the table back where it belonged.
“Go wash your face,” Ben said, rubbing her shoulders, “and we’ll walk into town.”
It was getting dark, and as they walked through the stone streets they saw lights coming on, illuminating doorways, bringing signs and carvings to life.
“Are you chilly?” Ben said, bringing his arm around her shoulders.
“No,” she replied, “but your arm feels nice.”
Inevitably they were drawn into the plaza. Now it was a different world, softly lit, closer to antiquity. They stopped for a moment and looked up at the notched medieval rooftops, the single soaring tower.
“It’s even prettier now,” Ben said. He turned to her. “How about an espresso? We’ll get a table somewhere.”
No one wanted to serve them just coffee; if they wanted to sit down they had to order food.
“For Christ’s sake,” Ben said when they’d been turned away a third time. “It’s not like they don’t have room.” And abruptly he stopped. “It’s greed,” he muttered. “Goddamn greed.”
Maggie’s stomach lurched. Ben almost never swore. She looked at his hunched shoulders, the disgust on his face. This was her doing.
She took his hand. “Come on, let’s just walk for a bit.” Gently she began leading him across the plaza.
“The moon’s coming up,” she said, pointing. A bright crescent, it hung beside the tower. “How many centuries have people stood here and looked at the moon?”
“Almost seven,” Ben offered.
Reaching a narrow, sloping street, they paused. Darkness was total now and in the black crevices between the buildings, in the places they couldn’t see, echoes were spilling into the night. A city this old, how could it contain all its secrets?
“Let’s keep walking,” Maggie said. “Let’s pretend it’s 700 years ago.” They headed down the winding street, lit here and there with glowing lamps. “Imagine the people who’ve lived here,” she whispered. It was a calming thought, all those lives that came before, lives no less full than her own. She ran her fingers down the cold pitted stone of a window sill. She studied the archways and heavy wooden doors, the elaborate pulls. Stopping at one shaped like a dragon, she reached out and grasped its smooth iron belly, then looked at her husband and smiled.
They were getting closer, she could feel it.
Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Other Voices, Pleiades, The Summerset Review, The Massachusetts Review, Blue Lake Review, damselfly press and EarthSpeak Magazine. Nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize, she has also published a novel, Lost Sister. Her debut collection of short stories, Survival Skills, was published in April 2013 by Ashland Creek Press. Please visit her website at http://jean-ryan.com.