Fiction and Drama
Inversion of Marcia
People keep offering me tongues
We’re pleased to announce that Thomas Bolt’s “Inversion of Marcia” is a winner of the 2018 O. Henry Prize for best short stories of the year, along with Jenny Zhang’s “Why Were They Throwing Bricks?” from Issue 28.
“You awake?” Alicia asked. No answer.
I opened my eyes: Alicia stood there in the dark, watching my sister sleep. After a minute she leaned over Marcia’s bed and whispered, “Hey. It’s chilly. I’m getting in with you.” Bracelets jingled. The bed squeaked. I heard her kiss my sister’s cheek and say a few words in Italian, probably a joke. They began to whisper, too quiet for me to hear.
Great. Now if I made a noise they’d say I’d been pretending to be asleep so I could lie in the next bed and listen. I kept so still I wasn’t there at all, and thought about building a tiny house in the woods one day out of silvery lumber; about how Dad kept missing the turnoff and driving us through the same ancient arch; about painting my nails, which were disgustingly bitten and chipped and had last been painted in the United States. (I’d happily try some random Italian color, but we were out in the country, sort of, and you couldn’t walk on these roads.)
Marcia whispered something and they laughed. Fine: I didn’t want to know.
Mom called this place a villa, but really it was a cross between an old hotel and a school. There were sandpapery towels and glass doors with golden coats of arms, but also rows of coat hooks and a library. Anyway, Dad’s friend Ian had gotten us a deal, and it was obvious why, since we were the only people here. But you could see the Gulf of Naples from your room (unless it was the Mediterranean). It looked close enough to walk to, though I was the only one who wanted to try.
The whispering went on and on and on, like rain falling so softly you wonder if it’s rain at all. I woke from a wild dream about kids with flashlights racing through a construction site: still dark. Marcia’s bed was empty. That interested me: where else was there to go?
The big tiles were cool underfoot. You could feel how old they were, uneven and smooth.
At the end of a long hallway, I saw their backs: they were standing out on a balcony, sharing a blanket. I wondered what they were doing till I saw the smoke.
My feet were freezing, so I went back to bed. Anyway . . . we’d only been in Italy a few days and already it felt completely normal, as if this was the way things ought to be and it was everything else that was strange. I’d never been out of the US before; never heard of Cuma, where we were staying. My dad said it was where the alphabet came ashore in Italy, but he said things like that. Whatever it had been thousands of years ago — famous religious center, Greek colony, biggest city in Italy — it was off the main highway now.
So was I: I’d been “asked” not to bring my computer, and my phone was the wrong kind, so I couldn’t even text. Mom and Dad probably thought it was “healthy for Mary to take a break,” but they didn’t understand: it was like my friendships were these tiny twinkling lights and they’d yanked the plug. I put my earbuds in and skipped from song to song until I realized I didn’t want to listen to anything, not even silence: I listened to the wind. Where was it coming from? Probably the whole building was infiltrated by any breeze that really took an interest.
We were going to Pozzuoli and Pompeii — both close by, out there in the dark somewhere; then back to Naples to see more churches and museums, shop, and eat more amazing food; then north for a bit; and back to Connecticut. Simple, but fine with me. I liked it here. Even the villa was interesting, all curves and scrolls, with odd little balconies. Our room looked out onto an orange grove that was just there, and the trees — with real fruit you could actually eat — grew on a sloping, stepped hollow that exactly followed the shape of the amphitheater buried underneath. Beyond that some olive trees that got a faint silvery look when the wind blew, something industrial, a stretch of absolute darkness, a few lights, and the black of the sea (unless it was the gulf). Across the water was Naples, a crazy city with traffic worse than New York. The pizza there was completely different from anything we had in Norwalk or even the city, but it happened to be perfect: these people knew exactly what they were doing. All you had to do was forget what you already knew and just go along with it.
Marcia was really taking her time. Getting high, fine — but Alicia was in college; my sister wasn’t even 16 until next month, so it was a little weird the way they were hanging out so much. And a bit insulting, since the way Alicia probably saw it, there was no one else to hang out with but me. I closed my eyes. I could always sneak down to the library and pick through the beach novels, old board games, random histories (“the emperor’s pallor worried his advisers”), guidebooks from before I was born, and rows of serious scholarly thingies bound in red or green, by or about people like Chrysippus, Lucretius, and Philo of Megara. There was even a book called The Tenth Muse: A Life (as if muses were real? I loved it). Whole shelves were in Latin or Greek, some with no English at all . . .
They were never coming back.
Actually, Alicia was all right. She had this little philosophy book that proved that whatever you thought (though she had no idea what that might be) was wrong — as much a part of the past as whatever was in those red and green books. Her blond hair was cut short in a way that made her seem almost tough, but had a cute flip to it. Her lips were big and soft-looking like a wilty flower, one of those huge blossoms with droopy clinging petals, so she’d start to look all pretty and romantic — but then would say something hilarious and sharp and her eyes would squeeze almost shut, and if she laughed she wouldn’t make any noise at all. She had a nice body — her breasts were very proud of themselves. Anyway, you have to be careful not to dislike people for no reason.
I turned on my side. When I opened my eyes it was bright out; Marcia hadn’t come back.
No sign of Mom and Dad. I followed the smell of coffee down to the kitchen. Alicia and Marcia sat at the end of the long table reading my guidebook. They looked up as if it were their kitchen and their book and I’d interrupted some secret discussion, and would I please go away? I screamed like the goddess Alala until they turned to stone and cracked and crumbled to dust and sifted away, poured myself a glass of blood-orange juice, and sat twisting my bracelet, the one I loved, with the irregular beads of blue and amber glass. “Good morning?”
Alicia yawned. “I need a shower.” She winced, pursed her soft, soft lips, and took about four years to slide her leg off the bench. It was like watching someone do physical therapy — only her disability was laziness. She smiled at me and skipped off up the stairs.
Marcia lifted her tiny cup. She had Alicia’s lipstick on, deep red with flecks of blue-black sparkle. “Hey,” I said. “Where are Mom and Dad?”
The dark lips formed a smile. “Like it? It’s called Glitterjack. She’ll let you try it. Just ask.”
“Thanks?” I wasn’t going to ask. “Hey, are they going north without us or something? Did Mom say anything?” For some reason we were skipping Rome, and Rome was what I really wanted to see — though the way Dad kept getting lost, we might end up there anyway.
“Actually . . . Alicia’s going to stay with us for a few days. In Dad’s friend’s place, in Siena.”
While our parents took off for Florence, Ravenna, and Venice: great. And my role would be to make my sister, who was barely nineteen months older than me, feel sophisticated and adult, just by being myself. She’d done her fingernails, too: she looked Alicia’s age.
“We’ll have the car. She’ll drive us anywhere we want. After all, she’s our babysitter.” Marcia poured herself the last of the coffee. “Oh — sorry. You’re welcome to make more.” She slid the faceted metal pot my way. “You know how, don’t you?”
“I thought you drank coffee with lots of sugar and milk.”
“When I was ten. I like espresso; it’s bitter, like my heart. Oh, by the way, we’re going to see the Sibyl of Cumae. Her cave’s still there — cut into the living rock.”
“Thanks for the information you got from my guidebook.” I headed back upstairs.
“And we’re going out for cinghiale,” she called after me. “Wild pig! Alicia says it’s delicious.”
“Alicia should know,” I said, but not out loud. You don’t have to say everything you think.
Dad was standing in the hallway, jacket on, studying a map. He said to get ready and get in the car: we were going to walk around on a flat volcano! “Bring water,” he shouted. Mom put on a floppy straw hat, got her bag, and we walked down. Something kept making her smile.
On the way, Alicia told us about the old brick sauna that looked like an oven, and the place where you could camp (really? I could already smell the sulfur). We parked and went up.
PERICOLO • DANGER
said a warped yellow sign. Alicia and I laughed: the sign itself was smoldering. Steam drifted by or rushed up from under the dirt. Hot spots kept shifting, leaving safety barriers tilted and twisting, about to be swallowed up, or neatly fencing off some harmless stretch. I stared at a distant pit of bubbling muck and tried to get used to the smell. “It’s literally on fire.”
“What do you expect?” Marcia said. “It’s a volcano.”
Sky was so blue. Alicia stretched out her arms and whirled around. I squinted and smiled. Mom put on her movie-star sunglasses.
“So . . . this is a caldera.” Dad studied my guidebook. “And these are . . . fumaroles?”
“Sounds like a fancy dessert,” Mom said. “Forget the guidebook, Peter, look around!”
He blinked and smiled, but he did look: I could see he liked it, too.
I picked up a rock and wandered toward the lake of boiling mud. Alicia stood by a repositioned fence, nose in the air, wrists against her hips, hands turned out, neck elongated, like she was posing for a fashion shoot. She wore black jeans and a dark red sleeveless shirt that was actually perfect. On her bicep was a neat, needle-thin tattoo, plain punctuation:
? > !
— whatever that meant. Still, her posture was a little odd: like she was a model, but a really clumsy one. I couldn’t decide whether she posed like that on purpose or couldn’t help it.
Must have been unconscious: I saw her do the exact same thing an hour later in the Pozzuoli town square. A soccer ball rolled by — followed by a curly-haired boy (dark blond, tan, blue shirt) who looked my way for a second with bright-dark eyes. Amazing, though, to see the palm trees near the ancient columns: pretty obvious where the whole idea for columns had come from, right down to the leafy decorations on top.
The restaurant was big and empty and had a woodburning forno. The people who ran it were crazily busy but nice. Dad joked about ordering a dormouse glazed with honey, stuck with poppy petals; Alicia slitted her eyes and murmured, “Petronius.” Since the menu was a choice between noodles with a gamy sauce and some kind of local mushroom, I asked for a sandwich. While everyone ate flat pasta with wild-boar sauce, aka pappardelle al sugo di cinghiale, and went on about how it was the best meal of their lives, I picked at a huge piece of crusty bread and a hunk of cheese. Dad offered me wine, but I said “No, thanks” before Mom could object.
Marcia sucked a long noodle into her mouth and looked up to see if anyone had seen. It was sad: we used to notice things together — find the meow in homeowner — and laugh till we couldn’t breathe. We’d be having fun together now, but apparently we’d been to the beach with Alicia’s family when we were little and had both “adored her.” We hadn’t even seen her in six years, but it made sense to them: Alicia could “help out” in exchange for a free trip to Italy.
We all got tired at once. Sulfur clung to the weave of our clothes, a disgusting smell that might never wash out. There was no escaping it — as if it were somehow inside you.
No one spoke on the drive back. Marcia fell asleep. We passed an unlit villa — old, crumbly, streaky, and gorgeous, like lots of things in Italy. Even the darkness seemed ancient. This road had older roads underneath; people had lived here, lied to each other here, cried, prayed, fought, spoke languages no one living even knew, and died, and now we were here: just for a second, it was our turn.
Headlights swept over trees. I caught Alicia staring at me, her head a little to one side: she didn’t look away. Instead, she got this irritating look of satisfaction, as if she’d let me in on a big secret in perfect safety, because it was something I would never understand.
“Didn’t you take the left fork last time?” Mom asked.
Tall, shadowy, with weeds and bushes growing out of it, the ancient arch passed over us.
Dad didn’t reply, which meant he was either angry or super frustrated. I’d been chewing so quietly that the last thing Alicia expected to emerge from my lips was a pink bubble the size of a grapefruit. I let it deflate and wrinkle back into my mouth. Even the gum tasted sulfury.
Then there we were, back on the ancient pavement, gliding through the arch again, wondering how many more times we’d see it tonight before we could collapse into our beds. (Or whichever bed we planned to sleep in, anyway.)
No note. I checked the rooms: everyone was gone. Alicia had left a neat little pile on her pillow. The name on her International Driving Permit was Mary Alicia Minnen — we had the same first name? I sat on the edge of her bed and untangled a wonderful charm bracelet: silver telescope, bronze acorn, enameled ham, tiny hourglass with real sand in it — nice. The velvet pouch I guessed was her makeup bag was jammed instead with prescription medicines. Wow. Why so many? Their names made me think of those late Roman emperors who issued coins, marched around the frontier for a month, and died without visiting Rome: Valpax, Mortorian, Afflexitor, Numerian, Cerulazapam. I picked up her music player and touched the button:
If you work hard and get counseling
You can turn your life around, but . . .
I don’t fucking WANT TO!
I don’t fucking WANT TO!
Sleep in and everyone abandons you. I showered and put on jeans, a dark red shirt, and a thin charcoal cardigan with one tiny hole in it. Touched my lips with the Lipdust Matte Stick I’d brought, so my shirt and lips were almost the same red; and that was it. I couldn’t go anywhere, but at least I was dressed. I couldn’t drive, there was no place I could walk to, I didn’t speak Italian; but that was just a situation. I felt like I knew this place. You don’t have to kiss someone to know exactly how the kiss would be. When that boy in the soccer shirt walked past, guiding the ball without ever seeming to touch it, I didn’t know him at all, but I knew what it would be like: his breath hot, his lips a little chapped, his mind on something he couldn’t describe. (It’s amazing how defenseless people are.)
I slipped through my secret passageway, a cloakroom that joined the LOUNGE to the LIBRARY: narrow hall, long shelves, row of hooks. I liked the stillness, the way the old books smelled. I sank into a chair and tried to follow the mental adventures of Diodorus Cronus.
Alicia and Marcia bubbled into the lounge next door, laughing and talking. I turned the page but didn’t read. “No, but his villa was walking distance from here. When they put him under house arrest, he threw a suicide party. Just a normal night with friends — except he let himself bleed to death.” Alicia, talking about some guy she knew — or some musician or director she only knew about. I couldn’t hear Marcia’s voice. “Anyway, he liked you. Did you catch what he said? In English it’d be something like: ‘I want pictures of you to decorate my dreams.’”
I read on over their laughter: I didn’t really get the Master Argument.
“I’m not a good example,” Alicia said. “I was having sex before I knew what sex was. Mostly older men who ‘thought’ I was 20 — and I was your sister’s age. She’s pretty, your sister.”
“She’s afraid someone’ll think she’s pretty,” Marcia said clearly.
My chin touched my chest. I blew air across the pages of my book.
“Oh, come on . . . you two look alike! Big brown eyes, olive skin, brown hair . . . long-waisted — ”
“My eyes aren’t ‘brown’ at all. They’re hazel, actually. See?”
I was sorry I’d looked in Alicia’s pill bag. At Solfatara she’d dragged me over to the old brick sauna and shown me where to stick my hand, into a gap in the brickwork: hot. Quite hot, but I could stand it. OK, now move your hand a tiny fraction higher, and keep it there. What? It was so hot my hand just jumped away on its own.
My sister squealed in the next room. “You’re playing with something dangerous.” She was out of breath.
“What am I playing with?”
They went quiet. After a minute I got up but didn’t leave. I felt ticklish all over, like when someone tells a ghost story late at night and stops at a scary moment and everyone listens.
“You lose,” Alicia said. “Now you have to do what I say.”
A muffled laugh. “All right — this one. Wait: does it actually work?”
“Oh, it works. It’s a kiss timer. We’ll have until the sand runs out: no more, no less.”
“That’s not much sand.” Silence. “Barely a pinch. Anyway, no. You’ll mess up my lipstick.”
“I’ll mess up your life. Did I say you could stop? You lost: pay the price. Andiamo, amante.”
Leaves rustled overhead; wind flung my hair around. I hiked past the excavation, sat down on some crumbly steps, and spoke mock Italian to Luca, one of the dogs. Trees creaked. It was already getting dark. What a waste of a day! Where were Mom and Dad? Why bring us to Italy and disappear? One star out. No, that was Venus: slightly blue and very, very bright.
I went in. Whatever had happened was over and they’d slid the wooden doors open. Marcia was telling Alicia that Mom and Dad had lost a lot of money, taken out a loan, and were trying to start a new business. Huh? What money? What business? Was she making it up?
I went down to the kitchen and turned on the tiny TV. Weird ads, then girls in miniskirts and lots of makeup singing jingly love songs and smirking. I trudged back up: now the lounge was empty. I sat and wrote postcards to Kristen Wilbeck and Anita Alvarez, and thought about writing one to Anita’s brother, which made me so nervous that I had to stretch out on the rug and close my eyes for a minute. Even so, I was smiling.
Alimar and Malicia dropped onto the couch and started leafing through magazines. I ignored them. Whaaaat? Now Marcia was wearing Alicia’s socks, the ones with the helmeted cartoon Martian. I wrote another postcard, got some tiny thing wrong, and had to tear it up.
“Ooh. I want that,” Marcia said.
“The handbag? The skirt? . . . Or just the model?”
“Very funny, Lee.” Every time they laughed, I ruined another card — and they laughed at everything, as if they were high. Wait; they were definitely high. I could smell it. Fine . . . Whatever Alicia did, my sister was right behind, like a towed boat.
“Wow . . . the Tetrarchs live on in the old ‘marching Ks’ Krispy Kreme logo. That’s the Nicomedian Augustus on the left.” Alicia sat up. “Hey, Britta Choatelle! I used to work for her.”
Marcia leaned over the page. “You know her?”
“I don’t know anyone. Britt knows a lot of people. I was her assistant for three weeks once, while her real assistant was sick. It was pretty crazy: she has this huge space in Chelsea — ”
I felt like asking them whether celebrities and scenesters were the only people worth knowing, but they’d be all “Of course not,” whatever they really thought. I copied my words onto a fresh card, and wrote two more before they distracted me again, reading a love letter out loud and laughing. It was apparently from some man Alicia barely knew. Marcia laughed so much I had to leave: it was not her normal laugh.
I moved my postcard operation to the MAP ROOM, which no one else had discovered — or so I’d thought. An actual letter lay on the table half-written, next to Alicia’s little notebook.
Dear E, hope you just dumped me and aren’t ill. Either way, I miss you. I miss the way you used to bring me toast and juice (with a lemon slice) on your old Bakelite tray, the one with the rooster on it. I miss your black kimono and how you never smiled (not before coffee, anyway). I miss the hand-lettered newspaper you wrote out on rice paper that morning, just for me. I miss the complicated board game with the dozen dice and the awful penalties we dreamed up, and I miss your laugh, all soft and papery like a hornet’s nest falling in the woods. I miss fucking you. I miss kissing your throat, I miss nuzzling around to find the source of your smell, I miss that old shirt you used to wear, I miss seeing you without your glasses. By the way —
By the way, in the morning, once we got outside, it was almost warm. It had rained, a dirty wash that left a spatter of silt on everything. Dad tested the fine grit between finger and thumb and told us it came straight from the Sahara — picked up in a storm and blown across the sea to coat the hood of our rented Zeus. “A sirocco.” And, for a moment, everything seemed fine.
At the museum in Naples, we all stared at Hercules, at the hard curves of his muscles, at his tremendous marble buttocks, and were impressed. “Why does he carry that enormous pickle?” Marcia said, and giggled at her own dumb joke, one I guarantee every child makes. (His club was exactly like a pickle, but so what?) She had too much mascara on, but looked good — really good. Alicia ignored her for once, absorbed in some lustery glassware from Pompeii.
“What are you thinking?” Mom took my hand. “You’re like your father — he could lie on the floor for hours and stare down at the dust. What do you see? Are you having a good time?”
“Yes,” I said, and squeezed her hand and let go.
We feasted on filetti di baccalà and marinated zucchini and gnocchi alla sorrentina at an amazing restaurant near the water. My father raised a glass to the stuffed boar’s head on the wall, its neck still draped with last year’s Christmas tinsel. On the drive back, Alicia held her philosophy as steady as she could under the trembling clip-light. As a reader she seemed completely different — serious and at ease. She read as if she slowly took things in without rejecting or accepting anything right away. If she could really do that, she was wonderful.
The arch loomed up and passed over. We made the loop ten times, following the same exact route; the eleventh time, the villa was just there. We crunched to a stop. A dog barked off in the dark, near the olive grove. This place was nothing like Connecticut.
Mom headed for the villa, walking fast, holding Dad’s phone, which was all lit up.
Dad got out and stood petting the dogs. Bracelets jingled as Alicia bent over to adjust the ribbons on her shoes. Her breasts almost came out of her top; I heard the juicy little click of metal as her tongue arched and the steel bead in her piercing touched her teeth, but Dad just went on patting Luca. He hardly noticed her, and I loved him for it: no matter how she dressed or what she did, he ignored her completely, without trying to at all.
Marcia went right to our room, so Alicia and I ended up in the kitchen, drinking supercold mineral water. She swung her feet up onto a chair and cursed. “Left my philosophy in the car.”
“Lots more in the library. Try Philo of . . . someplace? Not Parmenides, there are a bunch of loose pages. And, I only read a little bit, but Lucretius is awesome. One of the red books.”
Alicia slumped down, tilted her head to the side, and gave me a look like: I wish you were prettier. The way you look really depresses me. But all she said was, “You seem older than your sister sometimes.” (Thanks?) “Anyway . . . you can have my book if you find it, Mary. In a way it’s the only thing I really own; but I’m pretty much done with it.” She kept looking at me, and for a second I could see how tired she was. “I’m only evil part-time,” she said. “Aaand, like most people, it’s when I’m thinking fairly highly of myself.” She went up to her room.
I got out my flat little zip bag and wrote a Vesuvius postcard to Bethany Taylor and one to Maya James, and spent a long time drawing Hercules and his club to send to Todd Chan. It got messy and the club looked too weird and I threw it away. I made another drawing that was sort of worse, but decided to send it anyway, mistakes and all, because why obsess? Also, the ribbons on Alicia’s shoes were actually beautiful. You had to give her that.
Marcia wasn’t in our room. The clothes she’d had on were strewn on her bed. The floor was solid — no one could hear a thing — so I popped my earbuds in, put on crazy music, and danced.
I said, “Morning!” but Mom didn’t seem to hear. I went back in after my shower: she sat brushing her hair. She stopped with the brush still in; leaned forward little by little; the brush dropped. All I could think of to do was leave: I closed the door as quietly as I could.
It had rained again and was cool. In the kitchen we ate pizza bianca and delicious little yogurts in glass jars, and peeled the fat, round oranges a landscaper at one of the villas had given Alicia and Marcia, who’d risked their lives to take a walk along the road. Handsome, Marcia said, but married, with a newborn baby named Eleonora Orfanelli.
Mom came down and sat with a cup of tea. She smiled, like she was trying very hard to be herself. “Mmm,” I told her. “Frutti di bosco is the best flavor in the world.”
“I miss bacon,” Marcia said.
“Seriously? Since when do you even eat bacon?”
“I don’t. I miss its being available.” New earrings: rubies like tiny drops of blood.
“They do have bacon here, honey,” Mom said. “Pancetta. It’s better than our kind, in some ways.” Marcia looked at me: We have pancetta in Connecticut.
Dad showed us a photo of an octopus relaxing in a bed of seaweed, taken just a five-minute swim from where we sat. Alicia reappeared in an olive-green raw-silk sheath and wooden jewelry. Where was she getting her clothes? Midnight shoplifting expeditions? Waking up to find the outfit she’d dreamed about in a neat pile at the foot of her bed? Anyway, she looked sophisticated, completely comfortable. She smiled at me.
We spent an amazing day exploring Pompeii, but got lost coming back: Mom drove us straight through Naples, into the craziest rush-hour traffic I’d ever seen — in and out of tunnels, along the waterfront, and then onto a huge highway . . . heading away from the coast. Dad gave up and handed me the map. I got us as far as Cuma, but the villa was gone. We glided again and again past old walls, shivery bamboo groves, dark restaurants, palm trees, signposts, tiny trucks, sudden forks in the road — but any choice we made took us back through the arch. No one spoke. Once, I was sure we’d found the way — but there we were, on the Roman road again, the archway rising up ahead. Alicia said it used to carry a new highway laid out by the emperor while Pompeii still smoked under pumice and ash. “We’re on the even older road it replaced.” I didn’t think so; couldn’t be sure. I rested my forehead on the glass and closed my eyes. We would all dream of gliding through that arch: recurring dreams.
I woke and lay listening to Marcia breathe in the other bed. Almost dawn: you could hear the quiet; nothing moving at all, just still things waiting. Then Alicia’s voice, somewhere nearby — on the balcony of an empty room, or stretched out on a couch in the hall. Of course, her phone worked. But when did she sleep?
Down in the cool, dim kitchen, I sat with a glass of blood-orange juice and watched the sun touch each tomato on the sill, until all five seemed to be lit from inside. I stared at the bulletin board until it blurred, thinking of things that might happen in my life, turning them over like curious stones, bits of surf-smoothed glass, slivers of shell. So many choices I might make; so few I really would. I went back upstairs and slept for three more hours.
There was a note from Mom in the kitchen: she’d taken Marcia out for breakfast. I poured a glass of cold peach tea, went to the library, and grabbed a book about satyrs. They had tails and pointy ears and were incredibly horny. As the book put it, “They bring the wine, provide the music, and misbehave.” Ha! I loved the vase paintings: in one, a tame and pleasant satyr pushed a lady in a swing, but they had horse-size erections everywhere else. Hilarious.
Alicia came in, stretched out on the couch, and swung her feet across my lap. “Is this old place really safe, do you think? I mean, if there were a fire, where would we go?” With a silent finger, I showed her: there were signs on all the walls, everywhere in the building.
“And if there’s not a fire?”
I didn’t bother to roll my eyes. I wanted to say: “You can take a break, Alicia. There’s nobody here but us.” Instead I sucked cold, sweet tea through my sparkly straw.
Her eyes moved all around the room. “Can I tell you something?”
“I guess.” I turned the page. “Wait. Are you wearing my mom’s perfume?”
She tilted her head. Of course she was too smooth to say anything, but I knew that smell.
“So, I had this thought,” Alicia said. “About pornography. That the people who make it aren’t trying to imagine or portray actual people, but only a situation. Then I realized: philosophy is pretty much the same. Right? Back in a sec. Then I’m going out again.”
“Wait, wait, wait. Isn’t being a person a situation, too?” (Also: exactly how much porn did she think I watched?)
Alicia swooped back in and set something down with a click, as if she’d put me in check: a lipstick. I said, “Oh . . . thanks!” but she was already gone.
In the bathroom upstairs I screwed the color out, almost touched it to my lips, and stood like that, thinking. Somewhere a wild wind was peeling signs off walls. Somewhere a girl my age was practicing her sport with a serious trainer. Somewhere millions of strangers were doing billions of things I’d never know about. And, in the mirror, a girl who was me and no one else stood waiting for something to happen.
Nothing did. I screwed the color in, capped it, and dropped it in my pocket. (Not today.)
“We had breakfast at Baia Castle!” Marcia called up from the entranceway. She wore a floppy straw hat and a sky-blue shirt, and looked completely happy. “We went window shopping, too! Ugh, dude, those Shroud of Turin beach towels are in poor taste.”
Mom looked worn out. She said our dad was waiting to take us to the Sybil’s Cave.
“ — and of course the Arch,” Marcia joked. “Mary, the castle was amazing. You have to go. Wish I’d brought Rollerblades.”
Mom said she would stay behind and have a nap. Her smile was small and tight; you could tell she’d stop smiling as soon as we left.
Dad took a detour to the Birdless Lake to show us the Entrance to Hell, so we got to the Sybil’s Cave right before closing. The men at the gate weren’t going to let us in, especially after Dad told them in his flimsy Italian that it was their job and they had to, but Alicia stepped forward, pushed her soft lips out, and asked them, Please, per carità?
The gate swung open. They didn’t even let us pay.
We spread out over the site. It was late, so we were more or less alone. Alicia jogged ahead, sprinted to the end of the cave, and stood there, arms outstretched: her mouth made an O. The Sybil’s scream went on and on and on: echoed down the rock walls and left everything quiet.
Alicia dropped her arms and laughed.
On the path to the acropolis I ran into Dad; we walked up together. “Having a good time?”
“Yes,” I said.
We climbed all the way up to where the temples had been and looked out over the gulf. Far below, three people on horseback galloped along a beach. Sun was about to set: in a few minutes we’d all have one less day (obviously). Dad seemed to want to say something, but didn’t. We just watched the horses, and a speeding, bucking motorboat way out on the water that made no sound at all. Maybe he wanted to tell me why he and Mom were so preoccupied, as if they had to remind themselves that they were here with us at all? Or why Mom was so upset?
I didn’t ask; he didn’t say. It seemed like those were the rules.
We sat down on a slab. “About Marcia,” he said. “Hey. I know she must seem a little annoying these days . . . but please don’t take it personally.”
“Oh — I know.” I looked over, but couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “I love these long bricks. And the color of the water. I guess the marketplace would have been up here, too?”
“Exactly: the agora. You know, the last king of Rome died here. Julius Caesar spent time in Cumae, too. And, after Hercules finally caught him in the snow and hurled him into the sea — ”
“Dad? Sorry. What were you going to say about Marcia?”
“Oh . . . I just don’t want you to feel outnumbered. But your sister’s at an age where, sometimes, you feel so ready. Whether you really are or not.”
We looked off at the water: the boat was gone. The horses and riders were specks. Ready or not, here I come.
“You’ll get your turn, Mary. Soon enough — too soon for me! — but for now, please don’t take it to heart. Shall we head back down? I don’t think the others are going to make the climb.”
And in not so many years, first Marcia’s room, then mine, would be as empty as these archaeological sites, and things would be different for all of us. Maybe we would love our parents just as much, or even more, but we wouldn’t need them at all. We went down the hill.
My sister grabbed a sheet, tripped on it, ran out of the room naked. I stepped back, mouth open. Marcia’s bare feet pounded down the hall. A door slammed.
Alicia was naked, too, but she didn’t move. “It’s OK,” she said slowly. “It’s all right.”
I closed my mouth. (Why was I the one blushing?)
Alicia kept giving me the same steady look, but I could hear her breathe. “OK? It’s no big deal. We were playing around.”
I was shaking. I tried not to shake. “I couldn’t find Mom or Dad. I was just going to ask if you wanted something to eat.”
The Italian boy went on getting dressed, taking his time, as if he were in his own house. His skin was smooth and very, very tan. His lips curved like a statue’s. He didn’t look at me.
Wait — no — he wasn’t a boy at all! He was one of the landscapers from down the road, the one who’d given them oranges, the one whose wife had just given birth to a little girl!
Alicia held her bra like a cat’s cradle, looped it over her arms, shrugged into it, fastened the strap, adjusted herself. Shaved bare below, she did nothing to cover up. She seemed amused.
He was way older — 27, 28. He had a family. The door clicked shut and he was gone.
“You OK?” Alicia asked. “Are you OK?” She came closer, her eyes on mine.
My face kept trying to smile on its own, which made me hate myself a little. “Am I OK?”
“Oh, Mary, I know you won’t say anything, of course, you aren’t like that at all, but I want to thank you anyway. So here’s your reward.” She leaned in like an actor in a film and gave me a long, soft kiss on the lips. The kiss went on and on, as if we weren’t both girls, as if —
“It’s the Tyrrhenian Sea,” Alicia whispered, so only I could hear. “I found a map.”
We were squished into the car. Mom was driving, Dad was up in front, and they were talking about some “symposium” they had to go to all of a sudden. They were going to dump us with Alicia, leave us stuck in Siena without a car. Oh, there’d be “plenty to do.” I watched the traffic. Alicia’s arm was warm against mine, our bare skin touching now and then, as if it were a test to see if I’d pull away. I didn’t: I wasn’t playing her game, whatever it was. Why should I? The road was actually interesting — what I could see of it. On curves, Alicia leaned into me.
Her lips had tasted like grape jelly. Then there she’d been, back across the room, getting dressed, putting her earbuds in, hunting down a playlist as if nothing real had happened and nothing meant anything and that was that. All night I’d tasted traces of that kiss, felt it all over, and now (I could feel my cheeks go warm) I needed a few minutes or days of the kind of privacy that probably only shipwrecked people get. Not because I was embarrassed — because the whole thing had sprung open at me without warning and folded away before I’d had a chance to know what it was. I could still feel that kiss.
Sun flashed on Alicia’s piercing. She liked showing it off — catching the little barbell between her teeth, arching her tongue so the steel bead gleamed — but, honestly? It was a little gross. I closed my eyes. Sometimes there isn’t much to do but wait. Maybe things will improve: maybe not. You wait.
Alicia was nudging my sister. “That sign again. You’re famous.”
Marcia laughed. “Yeah: famous upside down.”
OK, and that man’s wife? Their newborn baby? Are they part of your stupid private joke?
Long day in Naples; night rushed by. It still felt so different here. Even when there was nothing special — a highway, some industrial landscape, cars — I loved it. And that dark blue shadow against the darker sky was Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed Pompeii.
Wheels on gravel woke me. Dogs barked. I avoided everyone and went straight to bed — so of course I couldn’t sleep: I lay in the dark thinking of every single time I’d ever been shallow or mean or afraid, or hadn’t paid the attention someone or something or someplace had deserved. Would I even like college when the time came? From the little Alicia said, I imagined people socializing chaotically while ideas slid by like roadside scenery. Though maybe a real idea would just insist, like that gap between the bricks at Solfatara, where you can’t keep your hand in the serious heat for even a second before it shoves you back.
Marcia was in Alicia’s room again. I wondered what the octopus from Dad’s photo was doing right now, this second, tonight. Undulating out there in the dark, moving exactly like the water at first, then suddenly not as it reaches for prey, all of its suckers flared.
I read Lucretius until late — his philosophy was all about sex! — and finally got sleepy. When I went to the bathroom, Dad was down the hall, his back to me, talking on the old phone you had to put a token in. “I don’t know what else I could have done.” He listened. “Soon.”
God. I’d overheard a thousand conversations on this trip and actually had maybe two.
I woke up late. Suitcases stood by the door and the whole place felt different. I ate breakfast alone; sat watching a spider with pale, transparent legs investigate the hinge of Mom’s suitcase. Dad came in. With care, he took the spider up on the brim of his hat and flicked it lightly onto the nearest sill. “Siamo pronti? Time to pack, Mary, we’re going north.”
I gave him a hug and he patted me on the head, just like he always had — even when I was a baby, probably. Only this time I was feeling nauseous and hollowed out, so it didn’t really stick.
We said good-bye to the dogs and got in the car. Dad tried to drive through the archway one last time, for fun, but we couldn’t find it. We passed a CUMA sign with a red slash through it, meaning no more Cuma — ciao! — and were on the road.
Alicia’s bracelets jingled. I let my forehead rest against trembling glass. I loved the umbrella pines: I’d seen them in paintings and always assumed they were cartoony, made-up things — but they were real. Italy was real. A cloud passed out of sight and into my mind, where it floated slowly on, dimming a little as I closed my eyes and we rushed up A1, the Highway of the Sun.
When I looked over, Alicia and my sister were holding hands. I couldn’t see my mom but I knew she was staring out of the window, seeing the same trouble everywhere we went. I wanted to reach over the seat and pat her, but she would only tell me to put my seatbelt on.
“I can’t believe they gave this place two stars,” Marcia said. I had to agree: the room was disgusting. You couldn’t bathe without brushing against the toilet, which was inside the shower, and the bathroom ceiling was black with what Mom called “terrifyingly mature” growths of mold. Still, when you stepped outside, there was Siena. Dad and I climbed to the top of the old tower and saw the city spread out like living geometry; Piazza del Campo opened like a fan.
We all met up at a pizzeria on a steep narrow street. Marcia wore a thin white sweater over a wine-red dress that was practically see-through — Alicia’s, of course. Mom didn’t even notice. “I need a nap before we do the Duomo,” she said. In the hotel’s tiny lobby, the TV was on. An American actor whirled to face the camera and shouted: Che cosa fai?
“Non lo so, idiota,” Alicia told the TV, and gave me a quick smile. She wore a perfume that smelled like lemon peel and grass and some spice you couldn’t be sure was there or not, but I was honestly getting a little tired of her. Something about her was maybe a little cruel? What I’d thought when she’d kissed me (or a bit after, once I could think again) was mostly, why? It was like sitting in someone’s car and revving the engine, then not bothering to take them anywhere.
Back in the tiny room I shared with Mom, I lay on my bed reading. Dad came in and said something that made Mom jump up. “No. Absolutely not. I’m not letting you out of my sight!”
I got up and left. I didn’t hear what he said back, but it sounded like he was trying to be quiet and patient in a way that wouldn’t calm you down at all.
Marcia and I went for a walk. We wandered all over Siena, stopping to look at the yellow pottery or figure out which contrada we were in — we loved all the different coats of arms. We didn’t really talk, which was nice. After an hour she headed back; I stopped at a newsstand. Some of the magazines had little presents shrink-wrapped onto them — change purse, lotion sample, diary. I flipped through a flimsy gossip magazine: an ad for lingerie. Rings. A baby carrier. A wristwatch encrusted with every color of jewel. Gardening soil. Goofy furniture. Puffed-up, perforated weight-loss pants. Little muffins sealed in bags. Ugly suede wedges. Biscuity cookies that looked like little gears, that you somehow had to buy at the pharmacy? Amazing furniture. A special fitness shoe that would definitely injure you. A crystal ball (though the ad was for something else). Oh, and the articles all seemed to be about old men in bathing suits and topless women with lots of makeup on. The pictures were amazing: an ominous old man gripping a young woman’s duffel bag. A woman in plush purple sweatpants talking on a jeweled phone. And I recognized none of the celebrities, which made me feel FREE.
Mom and I both went to bed early. I slept pretty well — until a man screaming for quiet woke everyone up. Down the hall somewhere, an Englishwoman went on shouting at her daughter. “I should not be doing this! I should not be cleaning your vomit from my car keys!”
¡Cállate! ¡Quiet! screamed the Spaniard in the next room, ten times as loud.
Mom put a pillow over her head. I put my earbuds in, set an instrumental track on endless repeat, and went back to sleep with wild jazz in my head.
Alicia and I lived in a big old house in Rye, near the amusement park, playing a game with complicated rules. We had to act like we were married; but, since the whole point of marriage was to get the upper hand, you could never relax or be nice. When the wind blew, the house creaked like a ship. She sang while she loaded the dishwasher: O, O, they call me Jack-A-Roe.
I was glad to wake up and leave the moldy hotel forever.
We moved into a neat little appartamentino in the newer part of town. Our parents took off right away, saying they’d be back in time for dinner, which no one believed. I put Mom’s sunglasses on. Pushed my bottom lip out as far as it would go, just to see how far: pretty far.
“Teach not thy lip such scorn,” Alicia said. Silent, unsmiling, like a cop who was half machine and half man, I swiveled and turned my dark lenses on her. She laughed.
Marcia was in the kitchen painting a hunk of bread with Nutella. While I waited for her to offer me some — since that might take forever — I poured two glasses of mineral water and put one in front of her. “When we get back,” she said, “I’m getting a labret.”
“A lab rat?” I felt my nostrils widen: the gloss on her lips smelled like grape jelly.
“A piercing. Right here. A little silver loop over my lip. Alicia says it’s good for kissing.”
“Alicia would know. God. You’re consuming that whole thing? What would Mom say . . .”
Marcia chewed intently. “You really don’t get it?” She licked her fingertips. “Our parents are breaking up, Mary: divorcing, separating, ending things, moving on.”
“No, they’re not.”
“They’re probably working out the details now.”
“Shut up. You sound like something on TV.”
“Yeah . . . OK . . . My brain weighs as much as an adult’s. Yours won’t for at least another year.” She took a giant bite of the loaded bread and walked away, leaving her mess behind.
I wanted to shout: “I’m not a dumping ground for your MOODS.” Instead I rested my cheek on the marble counter and breathed. Anyway, it wasn’t true. Nothing was going to change. Was it? I reached for the sparker wand and clicked out sparks. Spark-lick. Spark-lick. Bizarre: Why didn’t they just have pilot lights? Why didn’t we just have wands?
I put the Nutella away: I didn’t want to get blamed and have a fattening-foods discussion with Mom. Of course, I’d seen Marcia at her worst — puffy face, matted hair, blotchy skin, so thirsty we’d had to feed her ice from a spoon. This was all because I knew her — I really did — and she was trying to become somebody else.
She sat on the living-room couch, her head on Alicia’s shoulder. I didn’t go in.
The car keys lay in a bowl on a table by the door. Hey, the compass on the key ring was real! I looked out: our car was right there, so Mom and Dad hadn’t really gone to Monteriggioni . . . Unless they’d taken a bus?
“I said, ‘Don’t even ask me,’” Alicia was saying. “I’m no judge of what’s normal.’”
So, there was the car. I was tall enough. I understood the signs. It was an automatic.
“Anyway,” Marcia said, “she’s supposedly very nice. We’re going to be there for at least one night while my mom and dad do . . . whatever they do when they abandon us.”
I slipped my jacket on, stepped into my shoes. Stepped out of them again and looked into the living room: they were reading an old church magazine and giggling.
“Listen to this! ‘Dance, which works to arouse the senses, can never be pure.’” They laughed.
I didn’t. Because, actually, if you were honest about it, wasn’t it kind of a serious thing, to rouse the senses? Just because it’s easy to do at first didn’t mean it would go on being easy. THE BODY SEEKS THAT WHICH HAS WOUNDED THE MIND WITH LOVE.
I stuck my head in. “Hey. I’m going out to walk around a bit. See you.”
Alicia looked up: they went on talking. I snagged her license on the way out. Ciao, ragazzi!
It was quiet in the car. I sat gripping the steering wheel. People my age could probably drive here anyway — couldn’t we drink wine? Have sex? Be emperor, if all that started up again?
I strapped myself in, adjusted the seat, played with the mirror until I could see behind me. The engine started right up. I let it run for a bit, pressed down on the brake, and shifted: a jolt of power told me I could move. No one was around. Ready or not . . .
I pulled out — whoa, too fast. I went easier on the gas, made a turn, and there I was, driving through streets full of cars and people! No one noticed or cared. I went faster, faster, until I had to stop and pressed the brake too hard: a truck in the mirror came suddenly close.
After that I was a little too careful, too slow; cars collected behind me, but somehow no one honked. I got nervous, pulled off onto a side street, and sat breathing. Sky brightened. Trees rushed and went still. A lean, toast-colored cat trotted by, leaped up onto a wall, and picked his way along: a Siamese. The engine ran on. A woman in a window went on brushing the hair of a doll with brief, fierce strokes. The doll was the size of a child, the woman ancient. When the sun caught her eyes I saw she was blind.
No tourist would come here. Maybe this was what Italy was really like. (Though I had no idea, of course.)
I turned the car around. It took me an hour to get back, but, just as I pulled in, a tiny truck backed out of our spot. Whew. I parked, cut the engine — and remembered to shift into P.
Mom and Dad were back. Alicia and Marcia sat slumped under a blanket, watching TV. I dropped the keys into the bowl. No one even noticed I’d been away.
I put earrings in, little buttons made of gold. Mom and Dad were going to dump us at the country house of some couple we’d never met, so we were dressing up. Why not make it fun?
Alicia, busy pinning up part of her hair, offered to lend me a skirt.
“Don’t bother,” Marcia said. “She’ll never wear it because of her ugly legs.”
I just looked at her.
“What? You said so yourself!”
“After I flipped my bike, and was all bruised and scabby? Anyway, I have tights. Thanks, Alicia.” The charcoal skirt was wonderful: lana cotta lined with silk. It was nice to wear something so adult. Even Marcia said I looked five years older — “Non è una gag.”
Mom stared at us, but said nothing. She and Dad drove us way out into the country, pulled up at a big old farmhouse — part stone, part brick, with pinkish uneven roof tiles — waited for us to get out, and just drove away.
No one answered our knock. No one answered our pounding, either. Was it even the right place? We stood there like idiots.
Around the side we found a door propped open with a chair. Alicia called Hello! and led us into a huge kitchen with uneven ceiling beams and an arch at one end. Shrivelly sausages hung next to strings of peppers; big piles of American mail lay on a long pine table in the sun.
“HELLO?” No answer. A pot steamed and rattled on the stove.
We stood waiting like children in a fairy tale.
A man with shoulder-length gray hair came in, smiled, mock-bowed, and welcomed us. He wore sandals and comfortable pants. His loose black polo shirt didn’t minimize his belly at all, if that’s what he was after, but he was very polite; we sat and had acqua minerale with lime slices in little unadorned glasses. We’d expected a whole family, but Milt Melling — he made us call him Milt — was all alone: his wife had just taken off for Milan with their nephew Giorgio, a boy my age (probably perfect for me). Milt asked us what we’d thought of Naples and Pompeii, and we talked about ancient villas, each with its hidden interior open to the sky.
“Wouldn’t work in Connecticut,” he said, “except as a metaphor.”
Alicia smiled. Milt leaned in close and took her hand “to get a better look at your charms,” as he put it. I’d seen that smile in a fresco. Her red lipstick smiled back.
He inspected Alicia’s bracelet and looked up happily. “But this is the real thing!”
His face was red and puffy, as if he spent too much time in the sun. He was older than Dad, but she definitely flirted back. It even seemed to give her energy in some weird way.
He released her hand and turned to Marcia. I was being ignored, as usual. I stared at a bowl of artichokes, the long stems still on them; reached over to pet his black, silky cat, who got up, stretched, and moved to a sunnier spot with a view of vineyards, hills, distant dirt-colored buildings. The pot rattled away. Milt got up and turned it down.
“We’ll need a few things from the village,” he said. “Anyone up for a walk?”
Alicia and Marcia volunteered. Milt gave them a map, a bag, a list, and some cash; they went off holding hands. I sipped my mineral water, but, man, I still didn’t understand Diodorus Cronus. Lots of things are possible. Once something has happened, sure, its having happened stays true. But all the things that have failed (so far) to happen are not untrue, or not untrue yet. You have to come to a definite end before you can say: Well, here’s the list of things that never happened; their possibility was always just an illusion. Ah! Just thinking about it (or trying to) was like swimming underwater, straining to hold your breath till you touch the wall. And what if the things that hadn’t happened (yet) but might were not for that reason unreal or false, but only balanced in some unknowable state of potential? The pre-real. The ready.
Milt uncovered the pot and stuck a long fork in. He quizzed me over his shoulder: Had I known Alicia long? Did she go to school? Where? What was she studying?
“Hats,” I wanted to say. I could feel the steam on my face from across the room. He covered the pot, opened the fridge, and put a bottle of pale green wine in front of me.
“A nice, crisp Greco di Tufo. Do you know Greco? One of my favorite whites: medium dry, a little tart.” He gave me a slow grin. “I have some prep work to do. Why don’t you open it and pour us both a glass.”
Wait: he thought I knew how to open a bottle of wine? The corkscrew he put in my hand was dark with age, heavier than it looked. I peeled back the foil, put the tip against the cork, and did what I’d seen my parents do but never tried. I knew you had to get it in deep, so I aimed at the center; it kept slipping off. Then it went in, but at an angle. I leaned over and got a grip. The farther it went in, the more it straightened: a little pressure and the cork came out.
He set two plain glasses down. “You know, Greco may well be ancient. Pompeian graffiti allude to it — and here it is, straight from Vesuvio to our table. I have a Lacryma Christi as well, also white, or, as Marlowe calls it, ‘liquid gold . . . mingled with coral and with orient pearl.’” He smiled like an old statue. “Nothing to prevent us from sampling both.”
“Oh, no, this one’s fine,” I said. “Thanks!”
I forced my hands steady — I don’t know why they seemed to want to tremble — and poured two glasses out, with just an inch in mine. Moisture condensed on them right away.
Before I could even move he claimed my glass, filled it all the way, and raised it to toast me.
I’d never been toasted before. As our glasses clicked, I probably even blushed. I took a sip, just to taste: made my nose wrinkle. But it was nice to be treated as a person for once.
Milt sat down with a little cutting board, kitchen scissors, and some herbs. He finished his glass and poured himself another. “Something’s up with your sister,” he said. “Am I right?”
I definitely blushed. Was it that obvious? I took a sip: watery and strong, cool and tart. I had to force myself not to make a face, but I didn’t have to talk if my mouth was full.
He snipped at an herb. “Did you notice Alicia’s charm bracelet? The hourglass?”
“Oh, the kiss timer?”
“Ahh. Then you’ve divined the secret.” He snuck the bottle’s snout into my glass and poured me more wine before I could even say yes, all right, sure, thanks: glig glug glug. “It’s an old trick, you know. It looks like your time would run out right away, but there’s a pinch too much sand.” A broader smile. “So it never runs out.”
“Cute.” I took a sip. Though I didn’t really get how you could kiss while looking at a tiny hourglass on your wrist? And anyway, why would you? When you like someone enough to kiss them, don’t you just want to keep on kissing? I would kiss until I caught fire.
He went back to the sink. “How long have those two been an item?”
“Not long,” I said — not what I’d meant to say at all.
He turned and gave me a happy look. I took a quick gulp of wine. I wanted to kick myself under the table, but I wanted to laugh, too! Though it really wasn’t funny. (Yes, it was!)
Milt put out a red plate with a slumped-over little loaf of goat cheese surrounded by these amazing pieces of bread toasted up in olive oil, and started asking me all about myself — which was weird because he always seemed to be insinuating something, and I didn’t even know what he was getting at? So I just kept swallowing little mouthfuls of wine while he chopped and stirred and whisked and told me funny things about his neighbors and the local towns and the history of the region, and something about Renaissance philosophers and the local wine, and someone called Gallino Nero (another emperor?). I was about to mention Diodorus Cronus when he topped up my glass again, exactly to the brim. It was like a test: could I avoid spilling it? I had to lean over the table and take a long, slurpy sip before I could even lift the glass.
He watched me, smiling. I got very quiet, which seemed to amuse him even more. He kept asking questions; I kept taking long, slow sips. It was actually kind of fun. I drank the last of my wine and tried to smear goat cheese on a piece of toast but it was cakey and crumbly and wouldn’t smooth out so I made a mess of it and ate it in one bite: delicious! — but of course I’d left my glass unattended: it was full again. He had to know I wouldn’t drink a third glass of wine (fourth? fifth?), but maybe he was just being ceremonious. Or wanted me drunk so he could drag me off somewhere. I made a note of where they kept the knives, because fuck that.
Anyway, how had he even poured it so full without spilling? You could see the surface tension making a dome. Plus, I couldn’t reach. I had to climb halfway onto the table to bring my lips to the glass — slipped; caught myself and laughed. He laughed, too, but I hadn’t spilled!
The glass sweated. I could smell the wine. I bent over, kissed the rim, and slurped.
He stopped stirring to stare. He didn’t deserve those blue, blue eyes. Of course, if everyone only had what they deserved, the world wouldn’t be so easy to recognize. I sat back in my seat and drank the rest. “Funny,” I said, a little out of breath, “how people with good luck can usually manage to — I don’t know. Muster up a feeling that they deserve it?”
Milt made a grave tilt of his head. He poured more wine, but I liked it now — I mean, I was totally used to it. He started to ask another question, but it was my turn: “So . . . Milt. What do you actually do?” Because I was finding his whole existence a little hard to understand. Was he on vacation? Like, all the time? I mean, he mostly cooked and drank wine?
Once again there was that little smile. “I suppose you could say, having failed at the things I wanted to do most — and having succeeded at something I did not want to do at all — I’m taking time out to rethink my life. For the moment, that means I cook, shop, tidy up, run errands, open and close the blinds, and find my days quite busy enough. I travel a little. I read. Friends come to visit, or we visit them. Do you mind if I put on music?”
I shook my head. He went down a hall and up some stairs, leaving his little smile in midair.
I lolled back in my chair, chuckling to myself without making a sound. Whatever he was cooking smelled good, but it was hot in here. I got up, unbuttoned my cardigan, and snooped around a little — sloppily, not caring at all what kind of mess I made. I almost tripped — over nothing. Found a hand-carved walking stick topped with a sort of pine cone; traced the vines that wrapped around its shaft. Ha! I loved D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Lots of mail from investment funds. Fancy invitations. But where was the bathroom?
Leaning, laughing, I swayed down a dim hallway that was all books, touching spines with my fingertips. In the bathroom, framed pictures showed Milt’s wife (amazing cheekbones, ponytail) and Milt himself from years and years ago; he’d been handsome, which explained a lot.
I sat on the toilet and let my head drop back, mouth open, not needing to move. Actually, I felt pretty good. With a loud, scratchy sound, a needle touched vinyl and fast old asymmetrical jazz came on — wind instruments going wild, drums all feathery except for an occasional punch.
As I flushed I saw I’d forgotten to close the door. Whoops! I grabbed the doorframe: the hall tilted away. I liked this place. I wanted to explore. Was it really a farmhouse, like Mom had said, or random buildings, yoked together at various times . . . ?
Milt stood at the stove, stripped to the waist. His potbelly glistened with oil and sweat. It was huge — bigger than I’d thought — and very tan.
“Mary. Would you care to see what we’re having for dinner?” I swayed there for a second, but had no choice: tucked my hair behind my ears and came up just out of reach of the rattling steam, willing myself not to wobble. I was a brim-full glass, trying not to spill my self.
Milt’s face shone. He poked his fork into the pot, speared something enormous, raised it, and held it dripping for me to see. The huge lump of flesh — a disgusting pinkish gray, pores everywhere — flattened down to a rounded tip.
Oh — gross. It was a tongue. An enormous tongue.
“You’ve had tongue before, of course.” He cut a slice from the tip and held the steaming bit of meat, pierced with the point of his knife, right up to my lips.
Actually, it smelled all right: like corned beef. I took it in, worked it over slowly, and swallowed. It was OK, once you got over what it was (if you ever did).
I floated to my chair and sat down with a thump. The glass I’d left empty was full to the top. I stared at the sweating green wine and wondered what would happen if I had even one more taste. I was going to throw up anyway. Were Marcia and what’s-her-name ever coming back?
People keep offering me tongues.
I snorted, almost spilling; leaned over and took a long, slow sip.
“Delicious with a little Dijon,” he said. “Or the local senape, when you can find one sharp enough.” He dabbed his face with a cloth. “Hot work, this.” His eyes were incredibly blue. “You don’t like Alicia much, do you?”
“No, no, no, sometimes I do!” I said loudly. “I don’t know. I think . . .” (I forgot to talk for a minute.) “She steeps herself in her own psychology.”
He laughed so hard he had to wipe his cheeks. “The shape of your lips,” he said, “is really quite something. You have an audacious little mouth, Mary. But you know that, of course.”
I rolled my eyes, picked up my glass, held it in front of my face, and looked at him through it: he was fatter, greener, smaller. I liked the Wine Milt better. I peeped over the rim.
“No. It isn’t even Alicia — not as herself. It’s just . . . she’s having this effect on my sister.” I swallowed more than I’d meant to and coughed. “We went to Solfatara,” I explained.
My glass was empty. A chilly new bottle stood in front of me, unopened, complete. Milt came up behind me and leaned in to whisper something secret, but didn’t whisper; didn’t move away. Just stayed there, close enough to smell. Before I could think I felt his hand slip down to my waist, his lips brush my ear, his tickly fingers reach in under my hair —
I ducked under the table and ran. Books, bathroom — I slammed into a cabinet and set it rocking. In a side room with dark furniture, a woman sat in the glow of a computer screen — sparse white hair, an ancient face, a profile like the Duke of Urbino, but with headphones on. I scrambled up more steps, turned again, and raced down a second hallway, lined with vinyl records. The hall went on, narrowing as it went, until there were no more records, no more shelves, only plain white walls spotty with dirt or mold. An empty jar rolled after me. Would the hall NEVER come to an end?
A narrow arch led down to a rough-walled room where, past brown quilted jackets, through a glass-paned door, there were hills and sky. I dodged a sink, jumbled a lineup of rubber boots, twisted an old iron key back and forth, and kicked and kicked and kicked the dried-out door until I forced it wide enough to squeeze through: free.
I half-waded, half-limped across a freshly planted field to a country lane, which I trudged along till I could breathe again. It was getting dark. Burrs stuck to my clothes. A dog barked somewhere. I pulled a leaf from my hair, tucked my chin down, and kept walking.
They left me alone with him? Really?
Milt didn’t follow: he probably just smiled, topped up his glass, grabbed the big fork —
I vomited into a ditch. Vomited again. Remembered, too late, to pull back my hair.
Mom and Dad were in their room with the door closed, but we could hear everything: Dad insisting he had “business” in Rome, Mom saying, “Fine! Then I’m going with you. Leave Alicia the car. She can drive the girls down to Terracina. We’ll meet them in a few days.”
Dad said something very quietly, and that was it: they came out of the room with their bags.
“Dad,” Marcia said. She was reading a gossip magazine. “Who’s Vittorio Bazzini?”
“He’s gross and old and has a saggy potbelly, but the woman he’s been seeing (not his wife, though she’s nice, too, apparently) is incredibly pretty.”
I sat on the couch and watched my parents move around, their eyes never meeting. The emperor’s pallor worried his advisers. Alicia, in a rust-brown silk wrap, turned cushions over, looking for a lost bracelet. “Can I speak with you?” Mom asked. They went off.
I unzipped my bag and took out the rock I’d picked up at Solfatara: it still smelled exactly like that day, like sulfur and sun, already memory. The emperor carried the bags out to the taxi, Mom kissed us good-bye, and they were gone.
Alicia threw her wrap at Marcia, spread her arms, whirled around, and sang: “WE’RE FREE!”
I’d seen her naked before, so no big deal.
I sat on the cemetery wall, hugged myself, and turned toward the sunrise: didn’t help at all. Edges were brightening, making it seem a little warmer, but we were freezing. We were lost. We hadn’t slept. Alicia and Marcia had gone off to have a smoke and maybe make some kind of plan, but Alicia just kept kicking the side of someone’s mausoleum. She wore dark lipstick and more eye makeup than I’d ever seen her use. She looked fantastic. It seemed to amuse her that so many things had gone wrong: the worse things got, the funnier she thought it was — and she was the one in charge. She went on kicking, scuff, scuff, scuff, her short skirt flipping up. The weathered marble sparkled like sugar cubes. (I used to sneak those cubes home from restaurants and lie very still while a temptingly crisp shape dissolved in my mouth, uncrunched.)
First Alicia had driven us all over Italy. We saw some amazing things, but our theories about where we were stopped making sense. We circled and circled an enormous crater lake and then got lost in some dusty industrial countryside. We stopped in a random hill town to pee and finally got to eat, in a long, fluorescent basement filled with local soccer players in uniform. After dinner we explored the town on foot, down to its narrowest, most dead-end street, until we were ready to lie down on the cobblestones and sleep; Alicia couldn’t find the car keys. We spent hours searching everywhere in the dark, getting lost, arguing, circling back, and found the keys hanging on a nail outside the locked restaurant. The car wasn’t where we were pretty sure we’d parked, so we hiked all the way to the other edge of town, ran from a barking dog we never actually saw into someone’s vineyard (a bad place to run in the dark), and ended up watching the sun come up from inside a little shop that hadn’t technically opened, drinking espresso and staring at a mortadella the size of a man. Alicia thought we might be able to see the car from higher up, so we climbed all the way up here, but no. Of course not.
I popped the last mint into my sour mouth. My skin felt sticky and I needed to pee. Were we ever going to sleep? I yawned. A humpbacked dog trotted by, nose to the ground: wiry fur, big teeth, spindly legs . . . I had to laugh. Maybe being amused when things go wrong was a good approach. Strange how the wild boar either had no neck or was nothing but neck: just a massive head with legs and a tail. It was definitely a boar: certain animals have that medieval look. Pelicans don’t seem modern either; the ones on coats of arms seem as real as any photograph. What did wild boars eat? Acorns? Mushrooms? Girls from Connecticut? I closed my eyes and tried to will myself warm. Alicia had not only lost the car, she’d lost the keys again, in a stream we were crossing. We’d ended up groping about in freezing shallows for quite a while before Marcia held the key ring up on a wrinkly thumb. They were going to lose me next.
I took a walk to get warm. Some of the tombs were actual little houses where you could visit your dead relatives. It seemed like make-believe to me, a child’s tea party with bodies instead of dolls, but the Romans had done it, too; they’d even poured wine into a special hole in the grave.
Wine. Had Milt thought I liked him? Oh God. That couldn’t be it. More likely he’d been too lazy and self-amused to care who I was at all.
I wandered past slabs, headstones, a pedestal with a sort of stone bathtub on it, and more little houses: NANONE. BIZZARO. CARBONE. STELLACCIO. Old marble, slightly rough to the touch; stone vases empty, or full of dirty plastic flowers, or dried-out husks of real flowers, or fresh flowers just beginning to droop. It was quiet, except for my steps and the wind. I didn’t even feel tired anymore — though I really needed to pee. Just not enough to risk it in the open, with wild boars running around. D’ELIA. VECCHIONE. PARADISO. MAROTTA. Surprising breezes would sweep past, fade suddenly. I tried but couldn’t really picture the lives these people had lived, whoever they were: COLLOMOSSE. CRISCI. DELLE DONNE. I didn’t know enough: about the past, about this place, about these people. I could hardly imagine my own life, much less theirs. PAVORONE. ACQUAVELLA. DOCILE. One slab looked comfortable enough to stretch out on, close my eyes, and rest like a marble angel in the sun . . .
I heard them both — their voices suddenly there, my sister sucking in smoke in a dramatic way, letting it out endlessly. I could tell by the harsh way she breathed and gave dull, one-word replies that she’d been crying and was miserable. Why?
Alicia was saying, “That’s silly. You’re beautiful. You’re intelligent. You’ll find someone.”
“I already did.”
Wind rushed the trees. Marcia tried to laugh bitterly but only coughed. Alicia murmured something, but it was none of my business: really. I tiptoed away, turned a corner, and went on. Old slabs blanked with shadow, blanked with sun. A row of tombstones sparkled: DETUCCIO. FICINO. VERDONE. CHIAROLANZA. Maybe I could loop around from the other side, so they’d at least see me coming. Or just take off, head for Venice or Sicily. Why not? They wouldn’t notice for days. AGITI. SICONDOLFI. AUTULLO. LA LANCIA. This adventure wasn’t going to turn out well. But how do most things turn out? They all end here: grandparents, parents, kids, whole families, nothing left but old buttons and bones. Skeletons in boxes, dressed in rotten clothing long out of style. Atoms and the void.
I turned, walked for a bit, turned again. A cigarette burned on the edge of a slab.
They sat on the front step of a mausoleum, backs to the bronze-barred door. They leaned into each other and seemed to be whispering. No, they were kissing. Really kissing.
“Nothing I haven’t seen in a movie,” I said in a flat voice that didn’t sound like me.
Dogs were barking: two, three, maybe more; faint but getting louder, coming this way.
Alicia and Marcia didn’t look up. Alicia’s hand moved under my sister’s shirt.
I chose a big white tomb (DA PORTO), grabbed the window bars, and hoisted myself up to the roof. The barking got louder. A man shouted nearby. Marcia and Alicia stopped, stared into each other’s eyes from an inch away, and went on kissing.
Bristling, its jaws wet with foam, the wild boar ran right past them. Gravel chips flew.
Alicia shrieked. I saw Marcia’s open mouth, heard only squealing barks.
Dogs formed a ring, but the wild boar whipped around, its snout glistening with snot and grit — and went for one of the dogs. Like an explosion, they all spun away — but circled back right away to face the boar. Dense and muscular, it broke through the line and took off fast. The rush knocked Alicia down. In a second the animals were out of sight.
She leaned over and spat. A spittle thread hung from her lips and disappeared.
“Alicia? Allie, are you OK?” Marcia crept out from behind a tomb. “I think they’re gone.”
“Um,” I said from above, “I wouldn’t be too sure — ”
More loud barks; an awful yelp. The boar made a strange cry, sharp with agitation and rage.
Marcia was gone. Alicia crouched down, her back to a tomb, and looked around rapidly.
More dogs rushed by. The boar screamed again, sounding almost like a monkey or a man.
A worker in a blue jumpsuit jogged past; a tall man followed, taking his time. His stiff gray hair looked oddly like the boar’s; a rifle hung from his shoulder by a strap. He was eating an apple. The sounds moved off with them.
Alicia sat on the gravel, knees to her chest. She raised her head — as another boar swept past.
“Alicia!” I called. “Up here!”
She ran to my tomb, jumped up, grabbed at the roof, and tried to claw her way up.
“No, look, it’s really easy — use the window. Put your foot — grab my hand!” She almost made it; fell back. “Come on, you can do it. Take a breath.”
With a stunned, angry look, she made a running leap, gripped the roof, got a leg up, and slid off before I could catch her. Her lip was bleeding. Bits of gravel stuck to her cheek.
“Use the bars. Put your knee on the window,” I advised. My knuckle was raw; Alicia was shaking. Twenty dogs poured in, shouts and barks came from all directions, and the sky was so wonderfully blue! Italy was by far the best place I’d ever been.
Another boar rounded the corner, leaning hard, going nearly sideways. Alicia ran, tripped on a step, and crawled off rapidly on her hands and knees.
My mouth was open and I was making noise. I didn’t know what noise at first: I might have been screaming for help or crying, but I was laughing — laughing so hard it hurt. From the roof I saw more men in coveralls, an old farmer limping along, dogs rounding corners only to run into other dogs, and — appearing and disappearing here and there — a blur of brown bristle with live little eyes, enraged or frightened or both.
“What are you laughing about!” Marcia screamed. “She could have been trampled or bitten or gored! They could be taking her to the hospital right now! We all could have died!”
I couldn’t help it. I was aching. Aching! Face wet, nose running, hardly able to breathe, I couldn’t stop laughing: just couldn’t. My face must have had the shape of the empty mask they hang over theater doors. At the edge of the roof, stooped over, shaking, I laughed.
Marcia yelled, “He’s back. He’s coming! RUN!” but I couldn’t even see, which made me laugh harder, though I was so tired of laughing and so needed to breathe . . .
With a quick scrape like a match being lit, the cemetery reeled away: I hit gravel, hard. Lay on my back looking up at blue, blue sky. Carefully, bruise by bruise, bone by bone, I sat up.
After a minute Marcia came up and leaned over me, breathing heavily. Her face was wet: she’d been laughing too. When we looked at each other we started to laugh again; tried not to, but only started laughing harder, though every laugh was its own stab of pain. And of course Marcia was my sister and I was hers; it didn’t matter if we liked each other or not. So, that was that — except for the sound of gunshots, far away. I’d been hoping the wild boars would escape somehow, and get on with their lives; and who knows, maybe they did. But probably not.
I wondered what it was like to think in Latin. My suitcase having been packed, I sat out on the cozy modern balcony, leaned back in my chair, and picked cloudflowers. Traffic passed below, or didn’t pass; I heard its sounds but saw only sky. I felt good: though I was going to miss all this. I even missed driving through the arch, which Alicia had been wrong about — I’d checked.
Harsh lipstick. Wouldn’t look at me. Even the way Marcia stood now was weird. Her slipdress was on backward and she wore Alicia’s socks, the ones with the maps of Portugal. She picked up a terra-cotta Buddha and put it back on the shelf; headed off to the kitchen, walking slowly, tilting to one side, the way our grandmother had the year she died. It made me feel like being nice to her, though she hadn’t been nice to me. Anyway Marcia had to be feeling what I felt, that Alicia’s power or glamour or charm was just gone: as if she’d been disproven.
I went inside. My jaw felt heavy, delicate as glass. It rested on my chest as if on a velveted display in some old museum. Without moving my chin, I picked up the remote: on BBC News, people carried bodies from a blast-scarred building. An angry woman vowed revenge. It occurred to me that I didn’t even know what side I’d be on if I had to choose; though probably the woman hadn’t had a choice herself, but it was weird: she was Alicia’s age. In her situation, I’d be screaming and cursing, too, obviously — but what then?
Alicia had taken the barbell out of her tongue. She hardly spoke, unless to say something like “I’ll bruise if you touch me. Sorry: I think I’m ill.” All she seemed to want to do was sleep.
Someone — and this made me really sad — had taken a pair of pliers and crushed Alicia’s hourglass. She’d showed me the little wad of wreckage, the twisted silver, the burst glass, and just looked at me. There were tears in her eyes, but she’d refused to cry. Anyway, we both knew it wasn’t me.
Marcia was busy emailing everyone using her phone — it would cost more than our house when the bill came. I skipped from channel to channel until I found an old American movie dubbed into Italian. A boy hid in a schoolbus from some kids who wanted to beat him up. Now what? How do I get out of here? What do I do? But I knew the answer: you just have to wait.
I poured a glass of wine and sat with it. I’d never had wine all on my own. I took a sip: it was a different kind, dark red, and I absolutely hated the taste. It was practically poison, it could do you harm, you had to force yourself to like it — so of course it was part of being an adult.
Dad drove us to the airport. No one talked. Mom would be staying on for a week (if you believed what she and Dad kept telling us in serious tones), so she could “wind up some important business in Rome.” When I finally saw the sign they’d been joking about —
— no one even noticed. We passed old walls, umbrella pines: I was going to miss Italy.
There was snow all over Connecticut — filthy mountain ranges at the edges of parking lots, lumps and crusts still glittering in the woods — but it was easy to be back: I went to school, hung out with friends, used my phone and laptop like a regular person, and glided along in the familiar strangeness of being myself. I tried to take things as they seemed to want to be taken, which wasn’t quite so easy anymore. In school, on the bus, at volleyball, during meals, I’d think of random things that had happened (or almost happened: always more of those), and the oddest moments would come back: my sulfury chewing gum. The sparker wand. That irresistible arch. My taste of hot tongue. How easy it was to drive. The old man in Terracina (when we finally got there) who wanted to know why we’d bombed the town in 1944, after the Germans had left, and killed his girlfriend? He showed us a colorless, scallop-edged photo of a girl my age and looked intently at each of us in turn.
An older boy — in Marcia’s class, actually — started calling me. I wasn’t sure about him, but we texted all the time and talked for hours very late at night. Or we’d be silent and listen to the connection, which had its own sound sometimes, like faraway surf. I’d lie on my back, fingers laced across my stomach, phone propped up by my ear, and fall asleep listening to him talk.
I still drink the occasional glass of wine.
Of course Mom did come home from Italy after a week and everything was fine, or seemed that way to me. They would never get a divorce — I was right about that.
Once there was no one around to impress, Marcia stopped being so mean, but we’re not close; maybe I know too much. Anyway, I just went ahead and decided that I would treat her as an adult and expect the same, which means we don’t talk a lot right now unless there’s a reason.
In April, Alicia’s mom fell asleep while driving on the Turnpike. After the funeral, Alicia left school, moved to Texas, and got a job as a bartender. Maybe she read her philosophy book on breaks. Maybe the book was right, at least as an approach to certain things? Or anyway better at asking questions than forcing a definite set of answers. I actually do hope she’s OK. I wouldn’t mind getting to know her again someday, once she figures out how to be herself without driving herself crazy, and how to get along in this weird civilization of ours without giving up her own idea of life (probably most people need to figure that one out).
I’d been sure she was going to mock me without mercy when they found me sitting by the road in Tuscany, a vomity, grubby, drunken mess, but Alicia had dropped her bag in the grass and put her arms around me, vomit and all; when she let go, she was crying, too. “I’m so sorry,” she kept saying. I refused to go back to that house, and she agreed, and Marcia had nothing to say about it, so we all sat by the blue metal gate to someone’s farm, ate the bread and olives and apricots they’d bought, and laughed about all the wine and the boiling tongue and my introduction to the kind of thing every woman has to deal with in one way or another — which isn’t fair, gentlemen. Really.
Of course I’m exactly the same as I was before, only maybe I understand a few more things. And when you understand a thing it’s yours, even when it stays a little bit out of reach. When I think of our trip now — about how it felt to be kissed for the first time; to stand on the spot where a huge temple had been; to get a pretty good sense of why a panicked nymph, her bare feet pounding the dirt, might beg to be transformed into a tree; or just to pass through an old arch again and again, until the villa, our beds, our belongings, even our selves, began to seem mysterious and out of reach — I feel a kind of nostalgia for the future. It’s like knowing that something quite important is already mine, but having no idea how to get to it. Or anyway how to wait. The way a bus driver probably feels at the start of a shift, passing her lover’s house along the route. I mean, seriously, I’m ready. Put a red slash through it, let’s get on the road.