There had been an accident on the highway, though no one seemed too worried. Traffic stalled, and the car doors behind us flew open. Teenage boys in sleeveless shirts started playing hacky sack along the median. Their knees, their ankles swiveled. Jeans sagged from hipbones as hair straggled free from armpits, catching the wind in places. Policemen rode past on motorcycles while reflecting the boys’ serpentine movements through the mirrors of their sunglasses. I rolled down my window, and the air stopped moving, staying stagnant.
Dozens more cars froze behind us. A phalanx of men left their engines running to walk closer to where two cars and a motorcyclist collided, a mile or more in the distance. Cigarette smoke lengthened out Roman noses as the men arched their backs and surrendered to the day’s altered rhythm. Only minutes before this, most had been driving twenty miles an hour past the speed limit. Now they followed the sirens. They carried themselves like gladiators as the promise of some bloodletting called them forward.
I’d been married a little less than a week then. My husband and I were both sleepless for going on 24 hours. The day’s swelter deepened as I watched a parade of male bodies but missed their chiseled faces. My husband closed his eyelids, and I noticed how Italian men wore their pants tighter, closer to their buttocks. My husband wore his own pants baggy, said he needed room for his wallet, though he never had much money and was thinner than average. I sank lower in my seat and started rotating my wedding ring around the bulb of my finger, pushing its diamond so it faced my palm instead. We sat there for more than two hours, until the broken cars and motorcycle were separated, their drivers taken away in ambulances to Florence. By the time traffic moved again, my body had grown heavy with a lifetime of marriage.
When we drove into Montisi, a town of only a couple hundred residents, Roberto was waiting outside to show us where to park and take our luggage. The only other people staying at the inn were two hot air balloon pilots from Oregon, middle-aged women undergoing divorces, something they confided to us next morning at breakfast as we sat a couple tables away from them. Stepping out of the car, I watched a cat stalk a lizard near the doorway of the bakery across the alley. The cat lashed its tongue toward the tail in a single, fluid movement. It devoured the living lizard with an insouciance I envied.
The cat’s belly sank, sated. Roberto followed my gaze and nodded. He said cats were wonderful creatures so long as they weren’t domesticated. Long as it had been since I’d had anything to do with wildness, I stretched my arms out and nodded in the lazing cat’s direction. I watched its rib cage expand then contract again and widen. In my sleepless exhaustion—in my heightened or lowered awareness—I suddenly ached with the loss of the cat’s same daily carnage. In one of my life’s most clarifying moments, I understood the underlying reason for all the world’s antic violence. Our natural bloodthirst forced to atrophy, our lives gentler than the species that leads them, we inflict violence en masse with less conscience. None of the men smoking cigarettes as they walked along the highway had gone to help the accident’s victims. They had gone only to inspect the mangled cars, the yet more mangled limbs. They had gone to confirm what happens when the normal boundaries of traffic are broken.
A little less than a week before this, the Monday after my wedding, I’d returned to work and cowed at the quiet congratulations. I made my co-workers empty promises to show them pictures. Twelve years later, and I still don’t have any. I long have lost the few prints of what there are no digital records of to my knowledge. I cannot say I mind this. I went through the Catholic motions only to please my parents. I decided against being either especially miserable or happy, avoiding arguments. When my mom said my nurturing instincts would kick in once I confessed I never wanted children, I nodded, knowing they wouldn’t.
After only a few days in Italy, I admitted to myself how poorly I fit into my own life at the moment. Among the crooked Tuscan buildings, the wild cats and dusty bottles of chianti, I came alive to another instinct. To live a life of the senses, I only began glimpsing, is to succumb to their desire for excess. During sex, I started biting my husband’s nipples, the skin smoothing his knees, his shoulder blades. I clawed at his lower back a bit, made small growling noises. Back in Chicago, we showed each other our teeth marks, our scratches. We laughed then agreed to keep doing this might lead to darker places. We agreed, though part of me wanted to keep biting. We agreed, because I knew it would have done little good explaining that for as long as I had been a girl growing into a woman, which was 25 years then, I had never been allowed to hurt anything. For all those who nurture things, there must be counterbalancing forces. I was starting to realize I was one of them at bottom.
In our honeymoon suite, a narrow pane of glass was cut just above the shower to let the light in. A red cord hung from the ceiling and dangled beside the toilet. A government regulation, Roberto said when he followed where my eyes went. Pull it and we’d summon emergency services. A couple weeks before this inside my studio apartment, before my husband and I moved into a larger place together, I had slipped getting out of the shower. Only half awake, I’d gotten dizzy, lost my balance. I’d cracked my head on the side of the tub then lay on the floor wet and naked. I offered my boss no explanation for coming in an hour later than expected, knowing she wouldn’t want to hear the reason, knowing the reason was stupid. Italians, though, had foreseen how this might happen. I could have come here alone and been as safe as I was with my husband. In Montisi, the bruises on my knees were turning from blue to yellowish.
Roberto left our room, my husband lay down on the bed, and I showered in the full stare of the sun. The window above my head, I realized, was a person. No wider than my body, the window could accommodate only the smallest portion of the sky’s vastness, allowing only one cloud at a time in. Unable to control the shape of each one drifting past, however dark or flocculent, the pane of glass was only a witness. It could never have existed and nothing would have been any different. The window indulged none of its own destructive urges. For any rain to pour in, someone else would have to break it.
This was my life now, I said to myself as my hair began to smell of the shampoo’s citrus, its shards of squeezed oranges. My husband started snoring as I rinsed my hair, half deluding myself into thinking this was real life, not a vacation. Still for a week, I told myself this was life as it should be. Should I fall in the shower while my husband was sleeping, Italian men wearing their pants tighter than Americans would come rescue me. Accidents here were taken more easily for granted. Even on the highway, the sirens sounded a more muted panic. While hundreds of men had walked up to examine the carnage, the women they left behind them lounged on car trunks, elongated smooth necks with closed eyelids. They shook off their sandals so their feet hung lank over the highway’s cement carpet. Only the Americans had stayed seated inside their cars with their seatbelts fastened.
From the window’s height above the shower, the ceiling angled so much lower toward the bed that the room looked made for two species of humans, one only half the size of the other. Each morning, I rapped my head against the beam above where I slept while my taller husband managed to avoid this. When my eyes watered with fresh pain and I flopped my head back on my pillow again, he offered me less sympathy than I wanted. I closed my eyes as he showered, as he enjoyed his own time with the window who was a person. While the water fell below the square of sky, sibilant and soothing, I listened to the hot air balloon pilots two floors below us talking to Roberto, who was offering them pastries from the bakery across the alley. The inn’s walls were thin, and I wondered if they had heard me hit my head again, if Roberto too had shuddered. If we had any other room besides the honeymoon suite, this would not have been a problem.
I no longer remember when Roberto told us he had gotten his own divorce only a couple months before this. He may have never told me directly. He probably didn’t. Otherwise, I feel certain the memory would come clear again. He likely confided this only to my husband, telling him in private how he had left Rome and tried starting his life over, had tried but was maybe failing. I only know when I saw Roberto after I knew this, when he waited up to make sure we arrived safely back from a long drive to Umbria, this seemed obvious. The skin below his eyes looked heavy, though it may have only been fatigue, too many late nights, too many early mornings. The signs may have been there all along without me noticing. He wore the same yellow cotton sweater three days in succession, something I can still see clearly. His nipples poked through the fabric. I saw suggestions of the small breasts men sometimes grow with aging, hinting they have become more feminine, more nurturing. Life here, I thought, had a softness to match the landscape. If Roberto was suffering, he was doing so beautifully.
Our last full day in Tuscany, Roberto left for Rome to visit his mother, who lived alone, elderly, with all her teeth, he boasted. He would be gone until late evening, so he gave us the key to the front door, asking us to lock it before we went to bed. His wide eyebrows were combed back toward his forehead. His loafers smelled of polish, of sweetened almonds. Although temperatures had climbed into the upper eighties, he wore a tweed jacket with velvet elbow patches. Before we left next morning, we gave him a bottle of wine and blue hydrangea we bought in a town where we had eaten dinner then watched a wedding procession fill the piazza with singing, with pale and yellow roses, on what might have been our last night in Italy for the rest of our lives but wasn’t. Roberto said he would save the wine until we returned, for the three of us to share, in the afternoon if we wanted. We signed the guest book of the Locanda di Montisi. We waved then left Roberto alone to clean all the cups we had dirtied.
Five years later, I made our second reservation through the inn’s online booking system. I didn’t bother sending Roberto a message. He had likely forgotten us, I reasoned. He might have moved back to Rome again, having exhausted Tuscany’s quiet. One of our last conversations at breakfast, he said he had been skiing four years ago in Colorado with his ex-wife and some friends. He wanted to visit the West again, he confided. He wanted to buy a cowboy hat, to learn to wrangle a bull if we could promise to show him. We told him we would meet him anywhere he wanted. Yet apart from the mass Christmas and Easter emails he sent to all his former guests, we never heard from him.
Inside the Locanda’s intimate front office, still papered with medieval maps crumpled at their edges, Roberto was absent. I tapped the same silver bell still resting on the desk now losing its varnish when a woman with a wandering green eye rushed inside to greet us. Her dark hair was wriggling loose from a braid, which was falling down her back into a second spinal column. Her external coccyx was fraying and uneven. It had been too long since she cut her hair. The ends were splitting into factions.
She introduced herself as Mariella and confessed our room wasn’t ready yet as I tried to steady my focus, to look into only the one eye that saw me. There were no other guests, we noticed next morning, when the cup for my coffee betrayed remnants of lipstick from another woman. When we asked for Roberto as she confirmed our reservation, she said he had left the inn a couple years ago to open his own taverna, bringing the town’s number of restaurants to two, doubling them. We asked where it was, and she said down a few doorsteps. She threw her arm sideways and pointed. We could eat dinner there while waiting for her to clean our room if we wanted.
Reaching the taverna, we found a wooden sign slung over the gate to the patio saying both in English and Italian that the restaurant would not open before seven. Almost as tired from our flight and drive as we’d been five years before this, we slept for an hour in an olive grove sloping gently toward a flatter surface. For pillows, we bundled our jackets, while the day’s lingering warmth ensured no need for blankets. Walking back again once the sun started falling behind hills growing plusher as they receded in the distance, we heard English-speaking voices filling the air above several place settings now laid in slim, symmetrical precision. They came from what appeared to be a large, extended family discussing varietals of honey. They sounded like Americans from somewhere around Boston. I couldn’t see any honey, however, on any of the four tables Roberto had placed together for them.
That evening and for every evening we ate there afterward, Roberto was the taverna’s only server. He had hired a chef but later acknowledged he didn’t trust him. He ended up cooking most of the meals himself, he said, wasting the wages he paid him. With his American guests, he was kind and patient, though he refused to serve them any wine until after the meal was well in progress, after the primi piatti were already eaten. He liked, his said, his establishment quiet, while my husband and I stood outside the gate, hushed and expectant. Whether he would remember us, we were both uncertain.
Both the taverna and the inn had inevitably seen thousands of versions of us, Americans sleeping late and speaking poor Italian, since we left. When I creaked the gate open, Roberto’s eyes sparkled, though, widened. He approached me with his arms outstretched. He hugged me for several seconds then shook hands with my husband. He said he had drunk the wine we gave him but planted the hydrangea. He left his other guests and showed us to the taverna’s garden, where he grew herbs, white asparagus, edible flowers to accent his dishes. The hydrangea had lost then never regained any of its blue blossoms, he admitted. I felt grateful he kept our gift yet disappointed at its inability to flower again.
We turned back toward the kitchen. A woman with cropped hair dyed cinnamon approached us and smiled as if we knew her when we didn’t. Her blue eyes blazed electric, and she spoke with a honeyed Southern accent. She wore her own pants fitted tightly to her buttocks as if she were male, Italian. She wore so dark a color of lipstick, so many silver bracelets weighting lean and freckled wrists, I felt embarrassed, too conscious of the beauty she had lost years before this. I felt she had still not come to terms with this. The first three buttons of her blouse were undone, revealing wrinkled cleavage. Yet she seemed at ease inside her body, whose movements had a smoothness, a languor to them. Roberto wrapped his arm around her shoulders and told us Gail was from Georgia. He said this then repeated it, I believe, because neither my husband nor I reacted.
She stretched her arm low across his hips then slipped her hand inside his back pocket. I felt certain they had sex more than people of their age normally managed, more than myself and my husband. Though 20 years younger, I sensed Gail was stronger than I could ever be or ever had been. She seated us at a table farthest from the entrance. She handed us our menus, paper coated in plastic, as I inhaled some of her perfume’s vanilla and noticed her fingernails were sharp as daggers. I watched her sway back inside the kitchen, watched Roberto’s eyes follow her, and saw the power she wielded over a man I realized I had liked a little sadder. Yet Gail was the cat, Roberto the lizard. Unlike most of us, they seemed one with nature.
I looked at them and remembered being a little girl in Indiana, probably not yet in kindergarten, and leaving my parents on the porch swing as I ran to chase a black kitten, one of dozens of feral ones then roaming our garden. I caught the cat by the tail and showed my parents, who both told me to hold it gently. My dad said not to dangle a living thing as if it were dead already, when I felt some of the shame he intended. I curled the kitten’s spine into a roundness, contracted my own body, and held the mewling animal as if it were a baby. I rocked the kitten until it started crying so loudly I hated the sound of it.
The cat clawed my cheek, left it bleeding, and I swung it by its tail again. I swung the animal in punishment, my mom and dad scolded me again, until I dropped it on the grass then watched it vanish into the shadows of our rhubarb patches. I have never willingly held a cat since then. I left them alone, became allergic. My husband, I knew, would have liked one in our Chicago apartment, but I didn’t want to always be taking medication. Since my parents both died so much younger than expected, since both grew sick soon after my husband and I returned from Montisi, I didn’t want to have to care for anything weaker than I was already. I knew there would only be the same temptation to hurt it again, and I had already seen how well cats fared on their own in Italy.
In Roberto’s taverna, on the patio where all his tables were set, I sat facing the buildings across the street, where children were kicking a ball, playing soccer, dodging only occasional traffic. Gail came back from the kitchen and asked if she could sit beside us, get to know us better, when we smiled and nodded. She wanted to take my seat, however. She told me to sit level with the last of the sun, which still was setting. She turned my chair facing west while she became an avian silhouette stripped of its plumage, so thin were her limbs for an older woman. She allowed herself to watch lizards race down drainpipes, cats slurp them with indifference, while I saw only sunspots. She said I should never miss a Tuscan sunset, though I was blinded all the same. There was still too much light for me to see that which was disappearing.
I raised my hand for shade when she asked me to take it down again so we could see each other’s faces. She said the sun would set soon enough, too quickly. Still it hovered orange and ripe and rotting for longer than she promised, from the bruschetta to the panna cotta, which Roberto said he made from a family recipe. Before we left that evening, Gail took a picture of us sitting beside each other, my husband’s arm hung loosely over my shoulder while I squinted into the camera, whose flash double blinded me. In what she emailed me a few weeks later, my pink bra strap lay exposed and slanted on the shoulder my husband was hugging. My eyes were almost closed. This was the way she and Roberto would have to remember me, however, should they be the type of people to organize their photos into albums. Our own pictures from our two trips to Montisi must be somewhere, though where don’t ask me.
Roberto wore an apron for much of the last time we saw him, for what I now feel safer saying is probably forever. Still we could tell he had lost some weight, was maybe 15 pounds thinner. He wore no yellow sweater this time through which I could see his nipples sagging. In Gail’s presence, his small breasts receded. He became more masculine, more assertive, refusing to serve his customers wine until the meal was halfway finished. My husband thought his face had more color than the time before this. Our old innkeeper looked five years younger rather than five years older. Yet the first time we met, I saw nothing wrong with him.
For my life to fit me better, I see now more clearly than I wish, I had to lose my parents not long after we flew back from Florence, when the memories were still too fresh for me to think of making another visit. My life had to break me into a thousand pieces for me to fit better inside it. After their deaths, I still had a job that held little personal meaning, still only editing other people’s writing. I still was married to the same man, still living in the same city. I had no real desire either to change these things. Yet I felt newly free to inflict a certain daily carnage, and this has made all the difference. I became a slightly feral thing, used coarser language, wore tighter clothing, screamed louder during arguments with my husband, occasionally still bit him. No more Catholic ceremonies, no more talk of grandchildren. No more naturalizing of female nurturing instincts when men are equally capable of growing breasts with weight gain, with aging. I never asked Gail if she had any children, but I suspect, I hope, she didn’t. Her destructive instinct seemed too well developed. Roberto himself reaped the benefit.
The morning we left Montisi, Roberto met us in the bakery for coffee. Encouraged by his wondering aloud when we’d come back again, I asked whether he loved Gail when they first met, however that happened. Laughing from his abdomen, he asked, But didn’t she tell you the crazy story? At dinner the evening you met? I shrugged, confessed she didn’t. Roberto leaned back farther in his seat and said during her visit with her ex-husband, a couple years before this, she made advances. While her husband was napping, she pressed Roberto into a linen closet. Her mouth watered as she rubbed herself against him. My own mouth fell a little open, and Roberto waved his hand, said he never even considered it. He turned his face from her lips, told her she was a wild woman. He opened the door of the closet and went about his business.
A couple months after she flew back to Georgia with her husband, Gail received the same Christmas email sent to all his former guests. She interpreted it as personal and earnest. She filed for divorce in Atlanta within a month then booked her trip back across the ocean, a one-way ticket. I received the same email as she did, I told Roberto, laughing. I interpreted it to mean nothing, and he nodded. When I read it, my parents both were dying, I didn’t mention. Unlike Gail, I had no need to kill anything. I had no need to use my woman’s strength to hurt my husband, my marriage, as I now see could have happened. Life had done the killing for me.
We left Roberto and Gail for another part of Italy, closer to the Adriatic, where we swam with a man who looked like Napoleon and I sculled my hands at water’s surface for hours as the sun was setting, as I looked across the water in the opposite direction. I performed fellatio on my husband on top of a stone tower dating back to the ancient Romans with the seagulls screeching overhead, with footsteps of other tourists sounding in the closing distance. Gail assured us we would enjoy our time there, and I had no reason to doubt anything she said. Although she didn’t have an Italian visa, although she had to travel frequently back to Atlanta because Roberto was wary of another marriage, in the past few years she’d still managed to see almost all the country. She and Roberto were planning a trip there themselves come October.
Roberto waved while growing smaller in our rearview mirror as the dust gradually obscured him completely. When he’d casually spoken of his mother still living in Rome, still with all her teeth as we chewed our pastries, I wanted him to know I was changed forever since last seeing him. I wanted to tell him that my eyes stung so much in the light now I often left my apartment only after dusk on weekends. I wanted to say that Gail did her best to blind me by making stare into the sunset. I wanted to see if he might sympathize with me. There was never time, however. From his perspective, we were the same couple we had been. Now his life had room for only for happiness, of which we wished him and Gail a lifetime.
Melissa Wiley is the author of “Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena” (Split Lip Press). Her creative nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in places like The Rumpus, DIAGRAM, Waxwing, The Offing, Juked, Noble / Gas Qtrly, Drunken Boat, PANK, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. She also serves as assistant editor for Sundog Lit. She lives in Chicago.