T. Nicole Cirone
I waited at our usual table, knowing that soon I would see Lou’s black curls appear on via Manzoni, moving above the crowd of old women carrying paper bundles home from the market. Here, in the Piazza della Repubblica, we met every day around noon. I watched for him, for the slow, deliberate way he would climb the steep hill that ran up to the piazza from the city gate.
Absent today was the sweet, cool breeze that usually blew in from the hills; the fringes of the umbrellas did not even flutter in the baking noon heat. My bottle of mineral water was warm. I’d come too late today to get one of the tables with an umbrella. The old men of the town talked and smoked, sitting in the heat along the wall that bordered the piazza near the street that led from the gates to the top of the hill. They barely looked up when a pretty girl walked by, her sundress lifting and uncovering her bare brown knees as she walked. The only movement came from the splashing of the fountain in the middle of the square. Two young boys reached into the stream of water to cool their hands.
People of all ages gathered at the café—mostly locals, but some, like myself, were university students visiting from abroad. The locals smoked and talked languidly, their voices fading into the thick air. Two American students stared at the pages of their Italian books and chatted from time to time with their table mates, who read letters and news clippings from home.
I watched the clock that hung above the Benetton store in the piazza. Noon arrived and passed. Shop doors shut, one by one; the old men abandoned the low wall and shuffled off to cafes, to wives, to families for lunch. The laughter of the children trailed in the heavy air as they left their games by the fountain, scattered up the hilly streets, and disappeared behind heavy wooden doors. Lou’s face was oddly serious as he crossed the piazza and sat down in a metal folding chair across from me.
I glanced at the clock. “It’s 1:30,” I said.
“I know.” He handed me a small package, which the old woman at the pharmacy had carefully wrapped in paper with a delicate floral design.
“It’s pretty. The paper.”
“Yes, the Italians take such care with everything. She even wrapped the toothpaste.”
“In the same paper?”
“No.” He showed me the toothpaste. The paper was mauve but plain. “She loves you, that woman. She loves your American freckles and bel seno. She smiled. ‘Un regalo,’ she said. She called you my moglie.”
“Yes, my wife. Mrs. Lou.” He smiled.
I laughed and dropped the package in my bag. Lou put two cigarettes in his mouth and lit them both with the matches on the table, then passed one to me. I watched the smoke curl into the air over the table. After we finished our cigarettes, we gathered our bags and packages and set off down the Via Manzoni and through the city gate toward the university. There was still no breeze, and a haze had started to settle in over the hills. The air was heavy but the sky was blue and clear; as much as we hoped for it, rain didn’t seem likely.
There were several hours before dinner would be served in the mensa. I needed to clear my head. “I have to study,” I said.
“Well, I am here on scholarship, you know. I have to make some effort.”
“It’s a sick world, Mrs. Lou. And we’re all stuck in it. Especially now.” He looked at me and at my bag, where the test wrapped in the beautiful fleur-de-lis print paper bumped around against my notebook, keys, ID and a few crumpled lire.
“We don’t know for sure,” I said. “I’m just week or two late.”
“Maybe everything’s fine.”
“Everything will be fine, Lou.” We kissed against the wall for a few minutes until we heard some of the male students whistling as they came down the hallway. “O, piccioncini!” they called and grabbed Lou by his shirt sleeve as they passed by.
“Later, tomater,” Lou said, joining the crowd of rowdy guys, who poked him and bantered as they drifted down the corridor and left me at the entrance to the female wing of the dormitory.
Alone in my narrow room at the university, I sat on the windowsill above my desk and opened the screen-less casement window that looked out over the hills. The dormitory was a functional concrete block that, oddly, seemed to grow organically from the green landscape. Sitting in the window, I could only see the hills and the mist settling in between the afternoon sun and the verdant landscape; it didn’t matter how ugly the building was. I thought about what Lou had said: We’re all stuck in it…we’re stuck. But we weren’t always stuck.
Before Lou and I had arrived for the summer session at the University of Urbino, we had passed a long year of waiting for something, anything, exciting to happen. It was cold and damp from November to May, and the winter seemed endless. We kept our spirits up by telling each other stories of the respective Italian journeys we’d taken as undergrads, the experiences that had drawn us each to the graduate program in Italian Literature, and then to each other. In that cold New Jersey winter, while we tried to focus on literary criticism and on Manzoni and Leopardi, we longed for the warm breezes and the Italian sun, for fields of sunflowers, for the golden dust that blows about the cities and lingers in the afternoon air, for chilled local white wine, for afternoons of getting lost in narrow winding streets of obscure little towns. All these things we remembered about Italy from our previous visits there had seemed so foreign, dream-like when research and lectures and icy rain and snow were our daily realities. When I was awarded a scholarship to study in Urbino for the summer, there was no question of Lou’s going with me. It was our chance to reconnect with Beauty, with Love. We were hardly concerned about the research we’d have to conduct and papers we’d have to write; what we both wanted was to love each other with a greater passion than we could in the gray slush of a New Jersey winter. I loved the Italy in him as much as I loved him.
In Urbino, Lou and I passed the days studying, walking through the town and in the fields outside, reading at café tables, writing long letters describing the lovely countryside to friends back home. It seemed that we really had left all of life’s practical cares in America. News of the world we had left came in sparse pieces from fellow students who had telephoned home or letters that arrived weekly from family members, who sent news clippings to keep us informed—and, I suppose forewarned, of the latest international disasters. But we felt immune to the clippings and the bad tidings they brought, as we leaned over our usual balcony at the park by the fortezza and read various messages of love—the only graffiti in the town– inscribed in the old marble balustrade. One of my favorites was: Giorgio, ti amo. Grazie d’esistere! – Anna.
The Italian life was sweet and pleasant. I took to wearing full, strappy sundresses. Lou would kiss my shoulders as we sat on park benches and along the low wall behind the teatro. We walked to class hand-in-hand, sensing each other’s bodies across the table in the upstairs room of the old palazzo where we studied each day. One July afternoon, while we were walking home by the old theatre, a surprise thunderstorm rolled in quickly and violently from the hills. The rain whirled around us, and we ducked into the gallery of arches that led from the theatre to the piazza. Cringing at each thunderclap, we pressed against the porous stone wall to wait out the storm. Lou’s black curls were wild, and we laughed as we hadn’t in a long time. His dark eyes fixed on me; in the rain, we ran through the gallery and down the staircase to the gate of the city. Back at the university, in his little room, we made love all evening, and into the night, not even leaving the room for dinner or for the nightly trip to the Cagliostro Bar, where the rest of our classmates were getting drunk on Fin-du-Monde beer and dancing on tables. And in the dead of that July night after we had made love, while I sat before the window and looked out over the silent hills and the shadowy valley, while Lou lay sleeping, while the white gauze curtains swept with the moonlight into the tiny room, I knew I was pregnant.
Yet, my hand shook on that sweltering August day as I carefully tore at the beautiful wrapping of the box Lou had given me. The instructions were in Italian, but the test seemed simple, and I understood the words gravidanza and incinta. I held up the wand with the double blue stripe, checking the little window several times. Was that second stripe fainter than the first? No, it was a double line. The test results confirmed my anguish in a detached, wordless language. The rough stone of the bathroom wall at the university was frigid on my burning cheek. Somehow, this acknowledgement of what I had already sensed with such clarity made everything more real, bound me to the town and the piazza and the handsome earth-colored buildings and the old woman in the pharmacy and the tragic American newspaper clippings and the gray New Jersey winters, as though all of my life’s beauty and darkness had been presented to me in one beautifully wrapped sinister box.
Lou and our best friend Gregory were sitting on the steps that led to their rooms in the male wing of the dormitory. They were laughing and smoking, and Gregory was telling jokes in Italian that he’d learned at the bar. My body trembled as I approached them through the smoke and the echoes of their laughter. I had no words for the now certain uneasiness inside me. Gregory, who could always read my emotions, stopped laughing. “What is it,” he asked, “did someone die?” I shook my head and opened my mouth to speak, but no words came. “What happened?” he asked again. Lou put his cigarette out on the concrete floor and brushed away the ash with the tip of his shoe. He put the cigarette butt on a saucer that held a cooling cup of coffee. I looked at Lou, and he lowered his eyes. I “We three,” he said to Gregory, with an embarrassingly dramatic pause, “are no longer three.”
We sat on the terrace outside of Lou’s room, smoking and making uncomfortable small talk for the rest of the evening. We went at nightfall to the Bar Del Colle and drank sweet violet-colored wine. We didn’t know what else to do with ourselves. We drank until nothing seemed to have changed, and, well into the night, walked through the deserted streets of Urbino. Even the usual crowd at the Cagliostro bar had gone home, and a loneliness seemed to ooze from the stones of the buildings in the town and seep into our skin with the night air that swept in from the hills. A strange chaos was there, echoing through the deserted streets of the hill town, sounding hollowly inside of me. None of us said anything, but we knew something had changed.
On the last day of the summer session, we decided to travel south. Lou and I had both wanted to explore the Mezzogiorno, where our ancestors had worked the land for centuries before emigrating to America. Gregory made a date to meet up in Taranto with Daniela, a charming university student he’d met a few days before, and a jovial companion we called “Red Shirt” after his habit of wearing a red t-shirt almost every day, had family he wanted to visit in Molfetta. And so, over homemade grappa at Café Degli Artisti, our favorite place to eat thick strozzapreti pasta (a local explained the name—so good it could choke a priest) and roast rabbit, the four of us planned to leave the hill town at dawn the next morning, hoping to catch the earliest bus to Pesaro and then the earliest coastal train to Bari, our first intended stop.
The morning mist rolled across the valley as I packed away the clothes and books I had acquired during my stay. The air, fragrant with late summer, blew through my open window. It was going to be a long journey, I knew, but the plans had been made, so I would just not think about anything and keep traveling. I was glad to escape the unbearably fertile hill town, where, with each new day, I felt the weight of decisions I was not ready to make.
I met my companions at the Bar del Colle, and we had breakfast together, as usual: Italian coffees and tramezzini, the layered breakfast sandwiches that we all loved. After breakfast we said a final good-bye to the couple who owned the tiny cafe, walked away from the university and our roadside table, and headed toward the piazza that hugged the wall of the town, where we boarded the bus to Pesaro.
The treno rapido southbound was hot and crowded. We hadn’t made reservations, assuming that the coastal train from Pesaro would be half empty in mid-August. Everyone, we had figured, would by then already have arrived at their ferragosto destinations. But apparently, there were several families who had put off their annual return to their hometowns until the last minute, and they all seemed to be boarding the train with us. A scrambling of solid-heeled shoes, the swish of summer dresses, and the pungent odor of mid-August bodies; crowds of south-bound faces swarmed the narrow passageways of the train. Passengers searched for the numbers written over the compartment doors that matched those on their tickets. We paid a hefty supplement in addition to the already expensive fare; it did not matter. The conductor shrugged his shoulders. “È pieno!” he exclaimed heartlessly, “no seat.” We took our places on the hallway floor.
Wind rushed through the narrow corridors of the old train as it rumbled heavily down the coast toward Bari. Periodically, I heard compartment doors open and shut. Lou and Gregory went to the dining car to stretch their legs and smoke. Names of tiny towns fleeted past and became glimpses of green hills and sunflower fields. A man stepped over me on his way to the WC, and, tired of constantly making way, I decided to join my companions in the dining car.
Through the open windows of the car, the landscape evolved as the train rattled down the coast—elegant resort houses, white sandy beaches dotted with colorful umbrellas, and the turquoise sea, until, well below Foggia, the sea disappeared from view and fields of tomatoes, grapes and other vegetation replaced the beaches. Farms dominated the landscape, and beyond the flatness of the fields, the blue-gray shadows of hills rose in the distance. As we journeyed deeper south, the soil became more arid, and the rich, deep earthy tones faded to terracotta. The north is verdant and rolling, lush and fertile; the south, flat, gold, faded green and dusty brown.
Looking out over the changing landscape, I remembered the last cool mornings in Urbino, when, from the terrace at the university, we watched the thick clouds of mist roll across the green hills and the valley below, the nights filled with stars appearing one by one above the Ducal Palace, the handsome city rising in soft, golden light from the shadowy hills.
I thought of one July evening in particular, when the protective walls of Urbino seemed to crumble around us. I sat with Lou at the top of the steps of a narrow alleyway that led down to via Manzoni. At ease with the silence, we sat lost in thought, our arms barely touching in the warm summer night. A bat appeared, disappeared, and then appeared again around a corner where a lamppost cast its golden glow onto the vicolo where we sat. We watched the bat circle the lamppost and listened to the flapping of its wings. “This is it,” Lou whispered. “These are the doorways to happiness.” He didn’t look directly at me, but instead fixed his eyes in the distance, beyond the step where we sat, beyond the circling bat. I followed his eyes to the Palace, which was strong and imposing with a masculine beauty. “Maybe,” I whispered, “maybe you’re right, Lou.” Maybe the palace, the narrow, hilly streets, the austere grace of the town and the simple pleasures we had known there were the only protection we needed from becoming “stuck like the rest of them,” Lou’s favorite expression to describe Americans and the way of life back home. Here, in the quiet of early evening settling over the hill town, I wanted to believe we were free.
Watching the bat, I was suddenly aware that we were not immune to the newspaper clippings, that the love notes scrawled on the balustrade would fade with the wind and the rain, and that the nights of making love with the curtains blowing in through the windows and the books of Leopardi’s poetry abandoned on the floor would not have been enjoyed without consequences. I felt confused.
He turned to me and was immediately disconcerted by the look on my face. “What is it?” he asked, slightly annoyed that I had broken the moment.
He didn’t say anything, but he put his arm around me and held me close. I don’t know if he had also sensed what had happened the night of the rainstorm. I don’t know if he, too, could tell there was a deep, underlying chaos beneath those monuments, beneath the carefully-planned hill town, beneath all of the beauty that we knew, and it would only be a matter of time before it devoured us and all of our plans for a beautiful life. The bat flapped away. We stood and Lou took my hand as we descended the dusty cobblestone steps to the street below, our heels echoing in the night air.
The conductor called, “Molfetta!” We said goodbye to Red Shirt. We each kissed him on both cheeks, the Italian way. Ci vediamo, we said, but we never did see him again. Lou, Gregory, and I stood without speaking at the windows in the stuffy dining car, anticipating our arrival in Bari. Lou smoked and stared into the distance. I wanted to touch his black curls, but I didn’t. Gregory commented about one of the towns we passed. His cheerful voice felt unnatural.
We drew closer to Bari. The arid fields, scorched before replanting, seemed to belong to another world altogether. As long as we were still in Italy, still traveling, nothing seemed real. The rich green hills and fields of the north were far behind us. Now, I wanted to lose myself here, in this barren southern landscape.
T Nicole Cirone holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She also holds an MA in English Literature and BAs in Italian Studies and Political Science from Rosemont College. Her work has been published in Reaching Beyond the Saguaros: A Prosimetric Travelogue, Gateways, an anthology (forthcoming), Serving House Journal, Hippocampus, Red River Review, Philadelphia Stories, Perigee, Bucks County Writer, Schuylkill Valley Journal. She lives in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, with her daughter and two cats, and her parents next door.