Inversion of Marcia

People keep offering me tongues

Piero del Pollaiuolo, Apollo and Daphne, 1470–80, oil on wood. 29.5 × 20 cm. Courtesy of the National Gallery London.

“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.)

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