A cappuccino con creme in Paris costs $5. I sip the drink and am not consoled by the green paper umbrella sticking out from the cloud of whipped cream. I crudely play with the toy like a vulgar American. Open close open close.
Since my arrival yesterday I've been inordinately clumsy. I keep tripping, spilling coffee, knocking over chairs. My ballerina hostess, a stunning girl with long, plaited hair, high cheekbones and lips painted every day with an impeccable smear of red gloss, is very tolerant if not terminally cheerful.
"New York City is my dream!" she exclaims, when she hears that I'd moved there from Montana's big sky country. She insists we go to Shakespeare and Company to search out a magazine that has published one of my stories.
Later we return to her farmhouse, and I pull up my quilt and recall the steady, chugging train of events that provoked me to cross the Atlantic onto foreign soil, decidedly away from the dream of New York.
There was an emotionally vacant lover to come home to every night, obsessed with scratching out designs on paper for architect Richard Meier. But it wasn't really home, it was a two-room flat in the East Village located above a dicey Mexican restaurant. I squeezed in with two humans, a cat and a host of bean-fed roaches, which we took turns setting aflame on the gas stove. My glamorous writing career was supported by a stint as a cocktail waitress, serving Wall Street tycoons whose drunken blatherings I simply could not stomach anymore.
No, the ballerina didn't know how one night everything ground to a halt during the peak of a Thursday night shift when a barrage of drink orders flew from my mind and my manager, noticing my catatonic expression, pulled me aside.
"Sorry, I'm a little low on energy," I'd mumbled, downplaying the full extent of my sleep deprivation.
"Follow me," he had said. And we went downstairs into the bathroom where he proceeded to cut the lines. I joined him, crouching over the counter, snorting the snow-blow, quickening to the clean pulse of life that shot through, sickening and wonderful. I made $300 in tips that night, then threw up in the cab on the way home, fortunately, just as my manager was unzipping his pants.
The next day I sold my car for $1500 and bought a one-way ticket to Paris.
"Yes," I say to the ballerina in the cafe, "New York's very glamorous."
In the early morning I stroll across frosted patches of field dotted with giant hay tootsie rolls and take in the pastoral setting that inspired Van Gogh. Back in the farmhouse, over flaky croissants and Nutella, I let my hostess convince me to take a ballet lesson with her back in Paris.
We drive to the city and are warming up in the studio -- which for me consists of vigorously flexing and pointing my toes -- when the instructor barks something at me in French. I assume she's noticed by now that I can't bend my leg around my neck. But when I don't respond she snaps at me again, hitting her walking stick into the ground for emphasis. All I can think to say in protest is, "I'm American." It does the trick. The instructor looks at me in mock sympathy and repeats to the class "Ah, an Amarikeen," while they giggle.
I politely excuse myself and end up sulking in the cafe downstairs, chain-smoking with the rest of the ballerinas who've ordered nicotine for lunch.
I decide it's time to leave Paris.
I am the only one on the bus as it rambles through yellowing vineyards to Civita de Bagnoreggio, the smallest, most obscure town in Italy I could find in my tourist book. The driver chats pleasantly with me (at this point I consider a few sentences "chatting" since I am speaking only broken Spanish) as the bus rumbles a mile out of its way to the door of Angelino's Inn. I check in and Angelino himself takes me down into the cellar to sample his port wine and stick a coin into the clay ceiling for luck.
After settling in, I wander through the Tuscan hills and encounter a flock of sheep. I step through the wood fence and am wrangling out my camera when I hear a noise behind me. A teenage boy and his father are sitting atop the fence watching me. I point to my camera and gesture "photo."
The older man responds by hiking up his suspenders, catapulting himself over the fence and herding the sheep into a corner as they resist in a cacophony of bleating. When the sheep are pressed into a wild-eyed, condensed, fleecy cube, the man, sweating and panting through his efforts, looks to me to take a shot.
"Grazie," I manage, holding up the camera and releasing the shutter.
Back at the inn I'm invited to sit in an empty dining room for supper by a light-skinned, slightly nervous man named Jean-Franco. I can hear the bawdy growls and hearty laughter of men playing cards in the tavern next door while Jean serves me salad, bread, wine, fettuccine with rabbit and biscotti with a disquieting attentiveness.
At last I push away my plate and muster the nerve to enter the tavern.
"Poker?" I say cheerily, pushing up my sleeves while one swarthy mountain of a man bellows with laughter beneath his handlebar mustache. The other card players regard me with silent amusement, clenching cigars through their grins.
Jean-Franco reappears to break the ice, "Liberale femme, no?" he says, as they scoot their chairs over to make space for me. It is after midnight when I finally drag myself upstairs and collapse into bed.
I awaken early, refreshed and eager to explore the village and surrounding countryside. I'm lent a rusty bike and I roll down the dusty road past my sheep herding friends who press sweet figs into my palm. But later, coasting down a hill, my front tire begins to hiss, forcing me to a skidding halt.
I am dragging it along when a car pulls over, its passengers looking straight out of "Drugstore Cowboy" with their longish hair and flared pants. Bob Dylan is groaning from the car radio. Two of them speak broken English: Andrea, a wide-grinning blond, and Giorgio, a lanky, olive-skinned farmer.
I trust their smiles and end up in their company for the remainder of the day. They both work in the vineyards picking grapes. Andrea is training to be an engineer, but Giorgio tells me he dropped out of school because the professors in Italy are too traditional and rigid.
We drive to a farm belonging to Andrea's grandmother. A few grunting pigs and a scrawny rooster roam freely about the crude interior of a modest cabin. A fat, wrinkly woman runs out of her bedroom, long gray hair loose and disheveled, and begins to rail at Andrea. He keeps grinning, speaks a few words to console her, then looks at me and explains, "She little crazy."
Seemingly pacified, the woman pads back into her bedroom on her bare feet, muttering to the hapless rooster. Andrea leads me down into the wine cellar and strains some pulpy fluid out of barrels into a dirty glass. I sip the unfermented wine, licking cool and sweet drops off my lips.
Back on the road, we head toward town to celebrate a neighbor's birthday. I enter a flat full of strangers and smoke hash with a honey-skinned girl with silver bangles up and down her arms until the stars through the window liquefy into brilliant streaks of light.
Giorgio is on the porch playing his guitar. I join him and sink to my knees, still dizzied by the stars that have begun to spiral in the night sky.
"I prefer the old songs of my country," he says, and begins to sing softly in the shadows of the porch. When he finishes he looks at me with an arched eyebrow.
"Not bad," I answer shyly, slightly hypnotized, my voice sounding like a caged bird in my throat.
Suddenly he grasps my hand and urges, "Come, let me show you my city!"
A faint whisper of protest escapes from my lips, but soon we are standing outside in front of the old, stone tub where the women of his village still wash their clothes. Like children we wander through the cobblestoned streets, past the sheep snoring in the grass and the skeletal remains of an amphitheater near Viterbo. Finally we pause breathlessly in the purple night and Giorgio points over to a shadow rising above the hills in the distance, the ancient city of Civita. He tells me the city is accessible only by a narrow walkway, that its 15 residents get their daily supplies by donkey.
"Tomorrow I take you," he promises.
We enter a pub and order two pieces of cheesy flat bread. It has been easy with us all night but suddenly I am aware of his discomfort. I look around the restaurant and notice, with confusion, those seated at tables nudging each other and looking our way. They seem to know something about Giorgio that I don't.
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Giorgio returns to the inn at lunch time as promised. He greets Jean-Franco who conspicuously lingers but, giggling into his palm, refuses my invitation to join us for the afternoon. Outside Giorgio tells me Jean has been a "little strange" ever since his wife died last year during childbirth.
I ponder Jean-Franco's past while watching a movie without subtitles. Giorgio whispers in the darkness that the film is about a journalist's moral struggle working within fascist Italy. I wonder what cause Giorgio would fight for.
Afterward we begin our steep ascent to Civita, stumbling over cobblestones. After 20 minutes we reach the summit and pass through a stone archway supporting a bell tower. I lift my gaze to the clusters of bats, shrouded in cobwebs, shrieking from atop the tower. Within, the dusty stillness of the piazza encloses us. It is ghostly.
A small weed tumbles over my shoe as I listen to the low moan of wind passing through columns of rock. I feel I'm in a Gothic western and try to convey this to Giorgio, but he doesn't understand. So I draw a line in the sand with my shoe and tell him to press his back to mine.
"Now uno ... dos ... tres ..." and I begin to walk forward and he, comprehending, matches my pace. At "10" we both spin around and shoot each other to ribbons. He feigns death and collapses in a heap. Gingerly, I approach his motionless form, noticing how velvety his eyelashes appear against his fastened lids. Suddenly he leaps forward and I scream like some cheerleader at a drive-in horror movie.
"Not funny," I say, composing myself, leaning against the cool stone tower.
He sits next to me smiling, but after a moment he seems to catch himself and stares hard into the distance. After a lengthy silence I learn of the fiancie. He seems relieved when I sympathize at the distance between them -- she is studying in Paris.
There is a chill in the air now, and he offers me his mother-made sweater for warmth. The cinnamon-colored yarn is flecked with white and it reminds me of the Irish cable-knit sweater my father wore, smelling of Old Spice and with corduroy patches on the sleeves. Giorgio starts to hum one of those old folk songs. The song sounds sad and lonely, and his voice is so hushed I have to lean in to hear him. Sometimes I lean too close, feel his breath and draw away with flushed cheeks.
Today I walk to a cafe to write. Yesterday Giorgio had showed me the rough slivers of his chafed palms, the black stains on his hands where the grapes had bled through the gloves.
"From work," he had said and then took my smooth hands and laughed, "No work."
But then he ran his thumb over the callus on the side of my index finger, stained with the blue blood of my pen, and murmured, "Ah, here."
Attention is oppressive today. I can't walk without men in cars or on scooters insisting they give me a ride. They don't seem to understand that I want to ramble aimlessly about.
"You like to walk?" they tease.
"To see the boys?" says one.
"So boys see you?" leers another.
I feel weary and spend all day searching for some private space. In the cafe I cannot concentrate because I feel eyes boring through the back of my head. When I turn to look, a green-eyed man licks his lips, raises his glass and cries out, "Bella!"
Where are the women in this town? I have seen the nonnas knitting sweaters in cafes and clucking their tongues as I pass. Giorgio has told me that most young women here are Catholic and don't have sex outside of marriage (or at least not openly). In fact, an unmarried or even divorced woman is rarely seen without an escort. My lone wanderings must appear somewhat suspect to the women of this village.
I leave the cafe and enter a church, and am admiring the pastel frescoes when a man rushes upon me hissing "No look good in church," waving a hand over my dress.
People turn to stare and I glare at him as I leave. Walking back toward the inn I pause before a statue in the piazza, of a woman on her knees grasping the bleeding hand of a man who shields his eyes away from her as if in shame.
I trudge on and sigh wearily when I hear the slowing of a car behind me.
"Me gusta caminar!" I mumble grumpily for the hundredth time.
"Why are you speaking Spanish?" returns an English accent. I turn to face a handsome man in a Mercedes. Welcoming the opportunity to speak English, I accept his offer to share a drink back at the inn.
His name is Christian and his mother is Scottish, father, Italian. For two hours we talk of local politics. He says, contrary to what the locals say, people can find work here. They don't have to be poor.
"In fact, gypsies live quite well off their robbing and begging," he laughs. "Yes, the government is corrupt, but so is everything."
Suddenly Giorgio arrives and I invite him to sit. The two men regard each other stiffly. Christian abruptly rises, kisses my cheek and says he has to see to some business. Giorgio ignores Christian's departure and flips noisily through a newspaper.
I stare at him a moment and then ask him to translate the local headlines.
He folds up the paper, "You know Christian?"
"No, he just gave me a ride home. You don't like him ..." I say, stating the obvious.
"Christian is rich and arrogant," Giorgio spits forth with a vehemence I haven't yet seen. "He doesn't work yet looks down on us."
He scowls, then waves his hand. "No matter, I don't like to speak bad of people." He lights a cigarette. "So what to do today?"
I feel a surge of warmth for this moody man.
"Well, Jean-Franco told me about a swimming hole nearby ..."
"Wait, I have better idea," he says, exhaling a stream of smoke.
We drive an hour over bumpy roads, scaling the dark hills. Finally, in the middle of nowhere, Giorgio parks alongside a small cluster of cars and leads me to a steamy pool. In the moonlight I see several springs with shadowy forms hovering around them, moving like monks, exhaling humid breath.
"Ah, perfecto," I say, peeling off clothes in the protective darkness, stepping into an empty pool and sinking into the rich mud.
Giorgio follows, playing shark, blowing bubbles, until I'm cornered and squirming away from his tickling fingers. I collapse with laughter, but suddenly he is holding me tight, kissing my dripping neck, between my shoulder blades, licking salty sulfur off my skin, pressing against my thigh. I feel his heart beat wildly beneath his paper frame.
"Who are you?" he says, looking pained, holding my face tight between his hands. With a miserable, misguided sense of honor I shove him away.
Afterward in the car, we are wrapped up in towels and silence. He is staring hard through the windshield. I think he is feeling guilty, but then he puts his hand gently on my knee.
"Tienes hambre?" he asks.
Famished, I nod, so we drive to a nearby town where no one knows us. Only one restaurant is open. It is cramped, dark, and everyone is drunk. Our waiter, an elegant old man with a big belly, red suspenders and a neat mustache, fingers his pockets for 10 minutes before he finds some paper to take our order. But then he is distracted by a Spanish bard in the corner who has begun to sing with tremendous bravado. Everyone is singing now, with closed eyes, hands on their hearts, even Giorgio. An enormous man stands up with his glass lifted and expounds something with teary eyes.
Giorgio laughs and tells me, "He says the soul of that song must be a woman for it is so beautiful."
This, he whispers in my ear, is the real Italy, the way it used to be.
Our food (that we never ordered) eventually arrives and we eat gratefully: potato ravioli, red pepper spaghetti, white wine, crusty bread, a flan and cherry tart. The fruity dessert wines bite like whiskey. The Spaniard stops his music to give me a rose, and it is after midnight when the owner, snapping off his suspenders, ushers us out with tired amusement.
"Food, wine, flowers?" Giorgio says, teasing me for getting so much attention.
"It's the novelty of being American," I say.
"No," he touches my face, "it's because you are beautiful," and again I feel the rush of blood stain my cheeks.
We return to Civita and climb the steep path once more to the place where the bats fly and the orange moon hangs low. But he is distant.
"Your girlfriend," I begin, but he puts his finger to my lips and begins to speak in unfettered Italian. Then he stops, exasperated by the language gap.
"I have much to tell you and you can't understand," he sighs.
"Try," I whisper and let my own caged words tumble out; that I will miss him and am sorry I trespass on his heart, that I am drawn by his tenderness, his conscience, that he has opened up this joy in me that had grown so very dim.
And he answers, like music, in this ancient hill town in Italy. He explains that he too will miss me and uses a word he says he cannot translate, but it's "like love." And this is the truth, this "like-love" intimacy we share.
He takes me back to the inn, sneaks past the ever-watchful Jean-Franco and into my bed. His kisses are everywhere, like blessings, so, for a few moments, I drown and surrender nonetheless. But then I resurface.
"Sometimes you are like ice," he says, "and then you smile."
"I don't understand you," he sighs. He takes my hand in his own, which is trembling, and says, "I think this never happen in my life again ... It is strange ... I feel strange ... for you."
A lonesome day. I miss his company but know it's better not to see him. Tomorrow I return to the United States. I am playing cards in the tavern when Jean-Franco asks me to get cigarettes with him. I decide the air will relieve my melancholy and walk outside. In the garden Jean-Franco abruptly opens his wallet and gestures to a thick wad of bills. I look at him dumbfounded while he stammers on about why I should stay with him in Italia.
"I can teach you the language," he says, "and you can work in the inn."
He pats his wallet again hoping for a reaction.
Saddened, I point to his money and say only, "Es bueno para tu," and turn back toward the inn, marveling at how loneliness can create its own mythic passion out of anything, and wondering if my own sudden passion for a stranger was spawned from my loneliness.
There has been a blackout at the inn. The tavern is lit with candles and Christian is there with a glass of wine for me, which deepens my weariness. Christian's eyes are bloodshot tonight. He looks like a wolf, draining his glass of blood-red wine. I don't trust his smile and decide to retire early. In the lobby, one of the card players, a man with no teeth, insists on helping me climb the dark stairway.
"Emotivo!" he exclaims halfway up, and impulsively places my hand on his heart, which I snatch away, rushing to my room, locking the door fast behind me. The absurdity of my status with men in this town has passed its peak and left me numb.
That night I dream of meeting the singer, Madonna, on a bus leaving Bagnoreggio. We bond, finding common ground as American sluts. Two old Italian signoras with dark rosaries around their sagging necks are shaking their heads at our scandalous presence when Madonna looks at me, shrugs and cracks her gum.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I bolt awake to the piercing buzz of the phone at my bedside table. Giorgio says he'll be over in 10 minutes to take me to the train station. After a quick shower and haphazard pack job I stumble down the stairs. Giorgio is already waiting in the bar, nervously drinking a cafe and smoking. Angelino and the card players kiss my hand goodbye. Jean-Franco is conspicuously absent, but I push the poem I wrote in the cafe underneath his door, of a dying mother's eyes that haunt me less and less.
Giorgio and I drive in silence to the station and discover my train is delayed a half hour. He buys pastrami sandwiches and tells me of his grandfathers, a philosophy professor who went crazy from thinking too much, and a fascist. Giorgio says it was scandal when his parents wed. After a while his face grows long and he begins to expound that he wishes I had met his cat, that my smell was on him all day, that he doesn't understand why we met, and finally, he laments ever meeting me.
I suggest we are two ships passing in the night but the image falls flat. He stills my lips with his fingers and we just stand there, suspended in the confused silence of our hearts. He looks away first, and coughs out a dry laugh, telling me to wave a white hanky from the train like the old black and white movies. The train's muffled explosion announces its arrival into the station.
I am struck by a quickened panic. We clutch each other, kissing deep before breaking apart. My last glimpse is of him looking startled and dazed at the miles of steel track lengthening between us.