She had been in Italy a month when Pietro first asked her to coffee. He had long brown hair curled slightly around his ears, a boyish look, and he brought his fingers to his lips when he was thinking deeply, something she'd noticed very early in the course, when the light was pouring in from a row of distant windows, making her sleepy. Often, when he was speaking about the omnipresence of the Catholic Church in Italian literature, Pietro's voice rose in timbre, and she found herself admiring his persistence, his facility with language.
She watched him closely as he spoke and sometimes when the teacher spoke, not because he was particularly handsome, but because she was so lonely in Italy, and his voice sounded nice. She'd gotten into a program for American scholars based on an essay she'd written about Natalia Ginzburg. Her admission had been a surprise. And she's briefly debated putting it off. A literary friend of hers had recommended Little Virtues to her, and she'd become obsessed with the deceptively simple essays about how best to raise children or navigate the inevitable irritations of a long-term relationship. The essay had been written in the feverish way of love poems or undergraduate papers, a wild foray into thoughts as they occurred.
Then she'd been accepted and had to decide whether to go. Of course, to most people the decision seemed easy. Italy! Five months! You'd be crazy not to go. But she had Nathaniel, and they were thinking of moving in together soon, of choosing a ring. But they'd settled it quickly enough. They had a set of ideals for their relationship. They weren't going to be the sort of couple who were going to hold one another back because things would be difficult. They'd call and write and wind up more deeply connected for having gone through it. The trip would set a good precedent for their future. Nathaniel was from the Midwest and possessed a Midwesterner's kindness. He was the sort of person to whom you gave a life because he would treasure it.
And then a month passed, and she'd boarded the plane to Italy, kissing him goodbye and threading her way towards the gate, passing by a host of other people, squalling children, distant businessmen in overlarge suits, all going on about their lives, not caring about her quiet sadness.
The teacher, a white haired-eccentric man, often bubbled over with open-ended questions about literature that kept her fascinated. And yet, somehow it wasn't quite the life she'd imagined for herself in Italy, a quiet apartment, an elderly landlady, reading essays and looking out over the quiet square as dusk quietly fell on the jagged uplift of buildings. She didn't know what she'd imagined instead, but perhaps not this deep well of loneliness.
Most of the other students in the program were buried in their books in the library, trying to turn this scholarship into another scholarship, a Fulbright, maybe a Rhodes, and then the climb up the academic ladder. Others were here without that ambition and were happy to party with locals they'd somehow managed to infiltrate.
The professor often asked for her input, and she found herself speaking hesitatingly, always unsure if her interpretation had any validity at all, and when she finished speaking, she often assumed everyone else thought what she'd said was patently obvious, and her cheeks burned.
She had a single good friend in those early weeks, Sandra. Sandra was from the East Coast and seemed to have already lived three lives to Lily's one, boarding school and cigarettes and losing her virginity in her early teens. Sandra was crass and funny and brought Lily incredible comfort. Sandra lived a block away, and they'd walk home together after class, Sandra's raised heels clicking on the cobbles as she talked of her life back in the States, a series of boyfriends, older men, sometimes married, with whom she'd conducted affairs and minor entanglements.
You're only young once, so you need to make the most of it. Marilynne Monroe said that or someone famous. It has the ring of truth.
Sandra and Lily were at their regular coffee date, where they went after class two times a week to drink cappuccino and talk. The shop had a courtyard in the back where grape vines climbed old stone walls and wrought iron chairs were set evenly across a sunny patio. On the first day, she'd been embarrassed when Sandra asked her who she'd most like to fuck in the class. It seemed indecent.
The class isn't exactly a garden of earthly delights, Sandra said, sipping her coffee and looking at Lily with her small, dark eyes.
I have someone, Lily said, eyes widening slightly.
We all have someone until we don't, Sandra said. You can probably loosen up a little. A few birds hopped among the tables and collected scraps of bread. Lily watched their furtive movements intently, remembering how much she'd loved to read about dinosaurs when she was a child. Sandra was silly, but she liked her immensely, liked her openness to the world, her willingness to be wrong in class, to have strong opinions and make mistakes.
In the states, Sandra was the sort of person who would have annoyed Lily, who she would have found slightly trivial. But here, she found herself comforted by their burgeoning friendship, by Sandra's extravagant eyeliner and pencil thin eyebrows. She had a deep and throaty laugh that came out at seemingly innocuous things and set her whole face aglow. The laugh embarrassed Lily at the same time as she loved it. It was like the Fitzgerald quote, what was it? Something about being able to hold two opposing ideas in one's head at once and intelligence. The laugh reminded her of home, Nathaniel, and a life where she had many friends.
The light was appearing and disappearing behind a row of distant clouds. They were sharing the courtyard with a group of men their age who were arguing about socialism, and the values of the Italian government.
I'd fuck Pietro in a second, Sandra said. In a second.
The day was still very young, Lily thought, watching the remains of coffee swirl in her white ceramic cup. She enjoyed Sandra's irreverence even if she couldn't claim it as her own. In Sandra, she sensed another life, one of bees alighting on flowers small legs dusted in pollen, of large animals lowing in the dark, of sex.
If he asked me to coffee, Sandra continued, I'd ask him if we could have it in his bed.
He was a bit shorter than Lily thought he was, as though he'd shrunk in the time since he asked her to coffee. He seemed somehow larger when he was debating the merits of 20th century Italian writers, Levi, Ginzburg, Calvino. Perhaps her misperception about his height was because everyone listened so attentively when he spoke, waited for him to give a pronunciation about the merits of the work before moving deeper into the discussion themselves.
They met at a non-descript café two blocks from the university. Just a few chairs set up on the sidewalk, a convenient spot to meet someone if you'd both been studying. The wind blew lightly, tousling the top of his hair. She wanted to reach out and touch it, push it further up his forehead. Her fingers almost tingled with the effort of not touching him.
What do you think of the class? Lily asked.
Not so bad, he paused and smiled. Also, not so good.
The professor is always asking us questions, asking and asking. Sometimes I don't think he knows a thing about the writers themselves, no?
Lily didn't agree, but she was an agreeable person, which meant she tried to find some way to accommodate his opinion, to shape herself around it.
Well, I do think he knows a lot about the literature. He probably hasn't been working at the university for 30 years for nothing. Maybe he's just trying to build us up? Let us explore.
I think he stays at the university for 30 years because it's a good job. You are very generous though, he said, lifting the small cup of espresso and holding it in front of his lips, and very smart.
Lily's heart jumped in her chest. I don't think I am. I just got lucky to be here. Basically, I'm here because I fell in love with Natalia Ginzburg. She blushed, stopped talking and looked at the dark masses of shadows on the ground.
What do you love? Tell me.
Oh. Nearly everything. Like, I love the way she writes about the sorts of things that really matter, living with someone, raising children, balancing the political and the personal, love. I suppose a lot her topics have the ring of domesticity, and I think, at least in America, we tend to think of those things as inferior.
It's the same here.
But most of our lives are like that, small and domestic. That's what I love.
Pietro looked down into his espresso as though it held answers. I love her too. I love how she hides things in her writing, no? You don't always know why she's telling the story the way she is, but when the story ends it's like a thunderclap. Yes? He looked up while he delivered his brief answer, his brown eyes searching for hers. He had a steady gaze, which gave everything he said a certain gravity and intimacy.
Yes, she answered, feeling a hot flash of something she pushed away. Yes. That's just the thing. All those mundane details of life, the shopping and the gossiping in her winter in Abruzzi. And then she sneaks in with those last two paragraphs about her husband's death. And it makes you reread everything that has come before, brings it into a new light.
As she left the coffee date Lily wondered if she would ever have coffee with Pietro again, wondered if it was proper. She'd talked to him for an hour, all the time they both had. The sky was full of straggly clouds pierced by the spires of nearby buildings, and the distant church, looming in the foothills. She felt something light in her as though her bones were hollow as those of a bird. She hadn't felt so raw and attracted to someone in years.
When she'd picked up her bag to leave, he'd asked if she'd like to meet him for coffee again. Maybe, she'd answered, I really do have a lot to study.
Of course, he'd answered, pushing in his chair.
The dates became a routine part of her life in Bologna, but they weren't the center of things. She had Sandra after all, and regular dates with her books, giants of literature she'd never read. Not having read Dante's Inferno now felt like moral failing needing immediate correction. How had she gotten to be 24 without finishing it?
In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself astray in a dark wood where the straight road had been lost sight of. How perfect a description of her time in Italy, her brief respite from the life she was moving towards with Nathaniel. They were months away from the engagement, then a well-attended wedding with smiling friends and family. But here in Italy, she felt as though she too was wandering through a dark wood, strolling with Italian writers as her guide. She hugged her knees to her chest, thought of Pietro reading Dante.
There was nothing to it. After all, she'd mentioned Pietro to Nathaniel again, said they were having coffee. She'd done her duty. She wasn't avoiding telling him. At coffee, she often talked of Nathaniel's quiet kindness and their phone calls, while Pietro smiled at her, said Nathaniel was the luckiest guy he knew.
You don't' even know him, she said.
But I know you, he answered, resting his hand on her arm playfully, of course, nothing more.
How easy it is to lie to ourselves to keep the pleasant fiction of our happy lives afloat.
Lily lived in a small one bedroom near the university, which she'd rented from an elderly Italian woman with blue-grey hair. A woman who often looked at Lily and said, Buongiorno Bella, making Lily think her life had somehow become what she'd wanted, an Italian idyll. The room had a small window, slightly dusty, which looked over a square with a fountain and the God Neptune in the middle. He was endlessly holding a goblet aloft, water flowing over the sides, while water nymphs reclined around him. It was clear the sculptors had all been male, thinking the women just happy to sit around topless while a distant man enjoyed himself.
After coffee with Sandra and Pietro, Lily would walk home through sun-drenched streets, down the cobbles, thinking of her class. In the small courtyard, the landlady was endlessly sweeping the steps, moving bits of dust or the occasional stray leaf from the yard to the outskirts. The quiet scratch of her broom moving along the cement became a sound as familiar as anything to Lily in Bologna. The woman would greet her, face lighting in a smile, and Lily would shout Buongiorno back and then berate herself for not learning more Italian while she was there. What was the use of traveling to Italy only to return as an ugly American?
And nothing happens between you. That feels like a mistake. Good Lord, are you a secret Christian or something? Fucking isn't all that bad.
They were drinking espresso to stay warm. Fall was ending, the last vestiges of leaves clung to the branches of trees as peach fuzz hair to an old man.
Nothing, Lily answered, blushing. And no, I'm not a secret Christian.
You know I'd kill to be you, right? Actual murder.
The waiter was leaning on the counter inside, watching them drink coffee with interest. He wasn't unattractive, just not what they were looking for. He wasn't a professor or a scholar or unavailable.
Who would you murder?
You probably for being so damn stupid.
It smelled of cold cement. A pair of birds were dive bombing one another over a discarded piece of bread. Your idol would be disappointed in you.
Natalia Ginzburg, Lily said. I think not. I think she would have been proud of my character.
No one on their death bed has ever thought proudly of the things they didn't do.
How many hospitals have you been in?
Before literature, I was basically Florence Nightingale. Of course, Sandra paused looking into the distance, you might be right about Ginzburg. But that doesn't mean anything, either. Sometimes I just say things to stir shit up, make something interesting. Otherwise, life is just talking about a bunch of dead writers with a girl who wouldn't know a good fuck if it knocked on her door.
Quiet, you, Lily answered. You sound like an ugly American?
But aren't I a pretty ugly American.
The waiter had stopped watching them. A soccer game had started, and he'd found something more interesting than dramatic American girls.
They began to debate whether to get patisserie and the role of the Catholic church in Italian literature.
The pontiff has his dick in everything.
Why didn't you say that when you were called on in class?
My deep sense of propriety.
Sometimes Lily thought about the life she'd left behind, how easily she'd return to it. After finishing her studies in the evening, she'd turn out the lights and sit in the dark, thinking. This ritual, her mind palace, helped her to hold together the edifice of something falling apart. She thought of Nathaniel's kindness. She thought of Pietro and what it might be like to have her kissing the inside of her thighs.
They finished their coffee, cheeks bright with laughter. He had a scarf wrapped around his neck, and the top of his ears were exposed, and she adored the wind-reddened bits. What an odd thing to adore, but here she was. The days were getting intensely short now, which meant her time in Italy would be ending soon. Neither of them spoke about it as players don't mention when a pitcher has a perfect game. It was painful, what they now felt for one another, the magnetic pull, but they'd keep it buried forever, safe.
I feel misled, she said.
Every movie I've ever seen about Italy is all sunshine and green hillsides.
I know. I know. Flower pots on windows and vineyards, yes?
Why aren't we crushing grapes right now?
Ugh. All lies.
I guess I should run around shouting bellisima too.
It wouldn't hurt.
Very well then, bella.
A thrill of desire coursed through her and stayed there, raging wildly. She looked at him.
I'll walk you home, he said.
More time to talk to you about Dante.
It's all any girl has ever wanted.
The streets were barren, and the long line of houses along either side created a wind tunnel, and they leaned together against the cold. And suddenly, for reasons she couldn't fathom, the hot closeness of him, Lily burst out laughing and started running up the street. She felt that same lightness she'd had as she was boarding the plane, the wild abandon of childhood. She was watching herself running through the streets of Bologna with a handsome man chasing after her. Life could be magic.
Stop, he said. Please stop. We intellectuals don't run like that. We walk slowly. We're too busy thinking for pleasure.
Pleasure, the word stuck in her mind. Pleasure. There it sat. She put her hand around his waist, pulled them together.
You move all right for a Dante scholar.
Do you know other Dante scholars?
Thousands, she answered, looking up at him with adoration. Here it was. The moment they'd been moving towards inexorably for weeks. Why had she thought they wouldn't get to it?
I think about you often, he said.
I think about you too, Lily answered, feeling heat rising in her cheeks. Almost everything I do makes me think of you, coffee, studying, thinking. I'm sorry. I know, she said, leaning against his chest. Her heart pounded. This, this was life.
Ah, came a voice. Lily. Buongiorno.
The landlady was sweeping the leaves, pushing them towards the street while the wind scattered them where it pleased. She was reminded of the myth of Sisyphus, which Nathaniel had always loved, had always described as the best description of the human condition he'd ever read. Nathaniel. With the thought, suddenly he arrived there, a third presence, and she leaned away.
I should go.
Really, he said, looking at her, slightly hurt.
Really, she answered. Then skipped up the stairs her thoughts still racing, still thinking of what it might be like to kiss him.
At the college the next day, the oldest in Europe, Pietro waited after class, idly fiddling with his books, shifting them on the table with no rhyme or reason until he could ask Lily if she'd like to get a drink. It was a deviation from their fixed pattern, a sign of a subtle shift in their relationship. Intimacy. If she said yes, she understood she'd be embracing it. What would Sandra say? She'd say she was worth throwing away a life because a life not lived isn't worth it anyway. Sandra was impractical though. Not the sort to truly get what she wanted. She said yes.
After he left, she felt strangely forlorn as though she were a child being left by parents at camp. She knew she should gather up her books, move on with the responsibilities of the day, the reading and thinking over essays, doing laundry, but she also knew her world was about to come apart, that none of those things mattered anymore. She'd always thought decisions like this were easy once they were finally made, that she'd find herself passionately in love with her choice. But life wasn't like that at all.
As she got ready that evening, laundry quickly done, essays skimmed, her mind raced, tumbling around as clothes in a dryer. Certainly, the invitation had only been for a drink. They'd talked so many times of Nathaniel. They had an understanding. He'd respect that and her. It's not as though they'd be able to have sex in a restaurant anyway. Well, you could, but it was gauche. But how gauche? She was being silly. It was a drink, nothing more.
She glanced at the clock and put on her light jacket in case it rained. The current of life was pulling her towards the door now. And still, after she'd turned the handle, she stood silently in the door frame, wondering what kind of person she'd be, wondering what sort of life this decision would cause her to embrace. She wanted to stay and to go, to be split off and carry on with her life both ways.
The landlady stepped out of the front door, probably on her way to sweep the steps. Buena suerte, she said brightly. Cosa fai stasera?
The question made the decision for her. Con un amico, she replied, then moved towards the long row of stone steps, so her landlady wouldn't think her the strange sort of woman who stands at her doorway, not knowing whether she'd like to stay or go.
Wind was blowing from the west, sending caramel and bright colored leaves in eddies and currents among the brick buildings, making patterns like birds in the air. The sky was stark and distant, clouds moved hurriedly across the canvas as children were hurried towards bed. Small birds hopped in and out of trees, feathers ruffled in the breeze. Her decision had been made. She straightened her shoulders and felt a sudden surge of lightness, of freedom, of having done something reckless.
She hadn't mentioned the drinks or Pietro to Nathaniel in quite some time. Their phone conversations had begun to dwindle, a combination of time zone differences and end of the semester busyness made it feel natural. It wasn't a sign of anything.
As she walked, the thought of Nathaniel came unbidden into her mind, his brow creased as he leaned over a copy of a cultural magazine, fresh-brewed coffee cupped in his hands. His family had more money than hers. He'd been the one who'd introduced her to those types of magazines. Her family was more into Yahtzee than discussions of American politics. He had intensely strong views about things like the invasion of Iraq. It wasn't the sort of thing she thought you could even have an opinion about. To her family, such things were as distant as the sea.
She boarded a bus, which lumbered down the main street, passing the lengthy arcade of covered shops. The arcade had been built to keep a statue of the Virgin of Mary dry when she was marched from the church down through the town. Now the arcade housed chain stores, and even if the statue still sometimes traveled the streets, Pietro said it was like everything Catholic, merely a symbol of something lost.
Two older men sat at the back of the bus, gazing into the abyss of middle distance, bodies swaying as sailors adrift at sea. Lily gazed at the men, then back out the window at the stone, the sparse trees, the fountains and statues so unfamiliar to her that first week in Italy, but now she'd assimilated the place a bit, made a home for it. Maybe she should have mentioned Pietro to Nathaniel, given him the chance to fight for her. But what was the use? He was so far away and what he didn't know, he didn't know.
She got off the bus and wandered towards the restaurant, feeling untethered from herself again, letting the streets guide her towards the place Pietro had mentioned. She passed an older woman with dark brown hair, pushing a pair of children in a stroller. The woman's eyes were half-dazed as though she too was dreaming of another life. Lily felt a strange kinship with her. The air was chilly, and she pulled her coat tightly around herself. She thought about Pietro's mouth and how lonely she'd been for sex during her trip in Italy.
After two glasses of Pinot Noir, any illusion they'd come to discuss the same old things had passed. Their knees were touching beneath the table and Pietro's hand rested on her knee. The moment was full of that quiet tension that only comes a few times in life, when you care deeply for someone and are in the last hours before you will fuck for the first time, when every ritual seems charged with the meaning of what hasn't arrived yet but is to come.
You were radiant from the first time I saw you, he said.
Lily didn't believe him. At least not entirely. But there was still a pleasant buzz in hearing it. She wanted, who didn't want, to be told they are the desire of someone else's heart. What else is there but connection?
Tell me more, she said, smiling.
It was what you said about the writers, actually. It was so striking, so much more intelligent than anyone else in the class. I thought to myself, I need to talk to her more, so I asked you out. And then you were twice as attractive in person.
Lily blushed. He slid his hand further up her leg as she looked at his aquiline nose and playful brown eyes. Was this an affair like in the novels she'd read? She wasn't silly like Emma Bovary. But she desperately wanted to kiss him, so she did.
I have a place, he said. A family place. Close by.
Pietro didn't suggest they'd go to his place to listen to records or talk books or drink tea, and Lily appreciated the honesty in his silence. He took her hand and they threaded their way through a seemingly endless sea of tables until they reached the street. The buildings seemed impossibly large, like the masts of tall ships or perhaps Lily was just drunker than she'd been in months. Whatever story she'd told herself about the evening had evaporated. She'd known how the evening would end as soon as she'd left the safety of her doorway. The moon was in a silent phase, watching without judgement.
They walked quickly through the streets, Pietro's confident stride taking her through the slightly fetid odor coming from alleys where small bits of water gathered. His clarity clarified her thinking. She felt the narrative of her life had been all wrong and that this walk was a corrective, a stepping out into the unknown, where she belonged.
Pietro turned the key in the door of his complex while she leaned into him. They stepped into a large courtyard full of cobblestones and a few small trees. A group of boys kicked a soccer ball through tatters of lamplight spread across the yard. One of them called out to Pietro, who took a pass cleanly on his right foot and touched it across the yard and towards a makeshift goal. An older woman with long grey hair stood on her balcony, quietly smoking a cigarette as she gazed out in the direction of the dark city beyond. Life was inevitable.
They walked up two flights of stairs, and Lily grabbed him from behind as they walked, her hands searching his body. He fumbled with the key in the knob, and they started kissing in the hallway. Once inside, Pietro kissed her warmly, hands gripping her face and then he lifted up her dress and the two of them were on the couch.
Afterward, she looked around the apartment, a small wooden bookcase crammed full of Italian books, an old globe, several scholarly works about Dante strewn haphazardly across the oak coffee table. On the far wall was a picture of a man sitting in an arched window, in the distance, a field of flowers and butterflies. Strangely, in the deep sadness she felt in that moment, the image of that painting would always remain with her.
Your place is nice, she said.
Well, not perfect. But it suits you, this place. I can see you in it. She didn't know if what she'd said was true, but it had the sound of it.
It's not all mine.
The light came in rectangles through the window, making geometries on the area rug. He traced the edge of her lower breast with his finger, as though he were a student carefully tracing words on a page. The sadness left her as suddenly as it had arrived as a flock of birds sometimes descends and then leaves a tree. His mouth was on hers again, and she forgot whatever sadness had seemed so essential moments before.
Over the next week, they met after class and had sex in the later afternoon, when the light was turning blue, and the kids in the yard were passing the soccer ball through the goals. Sometimes she heard them yelling after a goal, and she wondered if they could hear her too. Then she and Pietro would lie together, naked on his couch and talk about things—books, their childhood, the church. Pietro was an eager lover, and she'd never had sex as frequently with anyone as she did with him. His need charmed her.
As for Pietro, she thought, who could know, really? Whether this was something he did with American girls who came to study at the university or if she was someone special. Sometimes she thought about asking him this very question, but denied herself. She felt asking the question might be like putting one's full weight on a slender piece of ice. Better to let it be.
How long Lily could have continued in this state of affairs was to remain a mystery. She'd missed a few calls from Nathaniel and held a couple of short and distracted conversations. They were both so busy, he with his PhD, and her with her studies. But then he surprised her.
I've bought tickets.
To Bologna. To see you, of course. Where did you think I was going?
She searched her mind, you've always said you wanted to see Machu Piccu.
Yes, but I said I wanted to do it together. I wouldn't just fly off and hike there without you, silly.
I know. I know, she said. Sorry, it just caught me off guard.
Are you excited? You sound stressed?
Of course. I'm thrilled!
In the distance, a long line of curved trees bent in a stiff breeze, yellow leaves gleaming in the sun's cold glare. She wondered why he hadn't heard the false notes in everything she'd said on the phone. Why he hadn't been able to tell that every word was a lie. She sat on the floor and started to cry.
Sandra met her early for coffee the next day. They sat in their usual spot on the patio, withered grape vines overhead, checkerboard sky, everything heedless of Lily's internal commotion, the slight tear in her heart. It seemed clear to Lily in that moment, everyone remains hidden from one another.
Lily cried. She'd thought she could keep it a secret from everyone, that her silence could be its own time machine, carrying her back from the patio, from Pietro's couch, from her decision to come to Italy.
I've been sleeping with Pietro.
Good for you, Sandra said, after a slight flinch, as though she'd been struck.
I'm horribly sad.
Was the sex that bad? Kidding, sweetheart, Sandra said, reaching across the table to hold Lily's hand.
Nathaniel, Nathaniel, Lily said, looking up and sniffling.
I know, Sandra said. But he's not here, and we're both very young. What's the point of being young and in Italy if we weren't going to make any mistakes? We have the rest of our damn lives to do the right thing with the right people. Fuck it, she said, waving her croissant in the air, piercing the air between us.
I have to tell him, Lily said. I have to. I can't live with myself if I don't.
People can live with nearly anything.
Later that evening Lily called him, and in the space between rings, whole lifetimes flashed before her eyes, the two of them on vacation near her childhood home on the coast of Maine, monumental rocks, the breaking of waves, wind passing through his hair, and the quiet and attentive way he had of smiling at her as she spoke, as though she was the most intelligent woman in the world. She hoped she'd slipped into a wormhole, that the phone would ring forever, and she'd never have to say a thing. Outside, the hills were dappled in useless light and a flock of geese soared by, forming a perfect V. It was winter in Italy.
The sun kept rising and falling over the next week, wandering through the sky on a low trajectory. She had stopped going to the university, which served as a reminder of her former self. She pulled down several books by authors she'd grown to love, but found herself unable to focus on the ideas. The pages seemed filled with words lacking the essential thing, a relationship to one another. The cord of meaning had been severed.
She tried to imagine what came next in her life but drew a blank. She saw an open and terrifying plain full, not of possibility, but of absence. The study of literature was a bit silly, a small subsidiary to the real business of life. It became clear through her actions, you could study writers like Calvino and Ginzburg without learning anything about the real question, which was how to live a good life. She could no longer lock herself away and puzzle over translations, tracing the subtle nuance of the words and pretend it was worthwhile.
Pietro dropped by several times during that week, but she pretended as though she wasn't there, freezing as a deer in headlights, not moving a muscle on her couch.
Lily. Lily. Come on. Let's talk.
And she'd sit there, holding her breath, waiting on him to leave, not moving for an hour, letting dusk fall and shadows gather in trees. After a week, she found herself able to read again, an essay by Ginzburg, He and I, which details the litany of differences between her and her second husband. The husband is always blustering around the house, insisting on opening windows, complaining of her timidity, blaring music, and retreating entirely from his life if he has the slightest cold. They seem like polar opposites, and it comforts her at the same time she has to hold back tears. Not because Ginzburg hadn't found the right match in her second marriage, in the end, she suspected no one did, but because she had found a better match and he'd been killed. But at least the thing had been out of Ginzburg's control, not a choice.
At night, as she brushed her teeth, she tried to close the chasm opened inside her, the great distance between the person she'd thought herself to be and the person she was. She drank wine. The moon was a piercingly bright lantern floating in the deep hallway of the night. The branches of the curved trees clacked in the distance. She opened the bottle of wine and drank recklessly, drinking glass after glass and crying as she scrolled through old emails from Nathaniel telling her about the person she used to be: early professions of love, half-forgotten afternoons when they'd rolled down hills together, gotten cheap pizza and eaten it on the softball field. As she got drunker, the sadness filled her like the moon, full and lowing.
She called Nathaniel again, convinced if he picked up just then, she'd be able to tell him this time. It went straight through to voice mail, and she waited for a few seconds, wondering what to say, then she croaked, "I love you," and hung up. A violent surge overtook her, and she rushed to the bathroom and leaned over the toilet, cradling it like a child. She stared into its depths with the concentration usually reserved for a lover and then heaved and heaved, until small bits of green bile came up in the toilet. Her eyes blurred, she fell to the cold tile and slept.
In the morning, she called her mother and booked a ticket home.
Oh honey, said her mother. We'll all be so excited to see you.
She drank her morning coffee slowly, feeling her spirits lift at the decision. Snow started to fall in heavy flakes, and she wondered if her flight tomorrow would be delayed. She began packing up her apartment, gathering her meager things into a suitcase so small, she felt it didn't represent her, but was put there by a stranger. As she was cleaning, she came across several books from the university library and had to decide whether to return them.
She took a bus to the university to return the books and to say goodbye to her professor, the kindly man with snow white hair and large glasses. When he asked why she had to leave, she told him her grandmother had gotten sick, and she watched his face turn into a sorrowful smile. The lie had come so quickly to her lips. Outside, the wind howled and large snowflakes brushed against the window.
They say it's going to be pretty bad, the professor said, watching the flurries.
Yes. It is.
In the library she ran into Pietro for the final time. He was studying beneath a green lamp, his face creased in quiet concentration. He looked up at her and waved.
I've missed you, he said, vibrantly handsome.
Yes, she answered. Yes.
I've tried to see you lots of times, but you've never gotten the door, he said, looking at her with his deep-set brown eyes as though he was measuring her response to see if the ingredients are correct.
I've been so busy with Sandra, she said. So busy.
Once, I even waited for 20 minutes, and I swear I could hear you breathing. Do you want to sit?
Lily considered the offer from outside herself, wondered if this decision to leave wasn't as rash as the decision to sleep with Pietro in the first place. She didn't know if she was thinking clearly. If only.
Take this. Take this, huffed the kindly old professor who had materialized at her shoulder. This will be a memory of your time here. He pressed a first edition of The Little Virtues into her hand, and she wondered why this work of sparkling morality didn't burn her.
I hope you will remember us fondly, he said, his eyes twinkling.
Hours had passed since the snow had started falling and large drifts were beginning to pile up, where the wind blew it across the road and into drifts against buildings. A preternatural dark lay over the city. She thought of a line from a Ginzburg essay, wondered if she'd known her life was about to take a radical turn, a premonition of the sadness she'd have to carry.
Snow fell on the street. Snow fell on trees, on rooftops, snow fell on lives less real to Lily than those she encountered in her books. The trip and seeing Pietro had left her exhausted. The hum of the bus, and the warmth of the heater lulled her into a quiet sleep as the bus carved its way through the depths of snow as if it were a giant whale scattering through the watery depths.
She awoke to a gentle shaking on her shoulder.
Ultimate fermata. Ultima fermata.
She looked into the kindly and crinkled eyes of the driver and smiled. She tried to explain her situation, but he shook his head, smiling at her and holding up his hands helplessly.
The last vestiges of light had faded from an early winter sky. Lily felt as though she'd awoken into a dream of ice. Still half-asleep, she stumbled off the bus and into the street. She walked down the main road with no destination in mind. She knew she should try and find a taxi or call Sandra, but the wind and cold felt refreshing. The street lights made harbors of phosphorescent light on the snow.
The air was quickly frigid, and her breath turned swiftly into crystals. Elsewhere in the city, people were tidying up for bed, tucking in children and reading books, pouring glasses of wine and sitting down to an evening show with someone they loved, and she was walking the streets alone. The moon made small patches through the bare trees, stepping stones of light.
She thought about Natalia Ginzburg, about her essay making the case she was a genius, a term usually reserved for male authors. And how relevant that insight still seemed, how Ginzburg had been just that, a truth teller into the mysteries and sorrows of any human life. As she walked, she felt closer to her writing than she ever had. The trick was to see things clearly, to know and act and go forward with whatever burden you needed to carry.
She started moving again, ploughing through bits of snow with her head down. Flurries of snow fell in wild patterns. A light flickered on in a distant window, and she looked up, started walking towards the house with the light, knowing she'd find temporary respite before the long drive home.
Everyone is drunk. The Martin's have brought over two bottles of wine, and they've all tacitly consented to give in to the lavish pours, to let themselves cut loose on the weekend. The children are in their teens anyway, and can manage for themselves, would probably prefer it. Lily had prepared a series of appetizers for the evening, but they are now just gorging themselves on stuffed peppers, poached pears and crackers and cheese.
The evening is well off the rails and everyone is telling stories of their misspent youths. Tom has just told a story about running naked across the Ponte Vecchio on a dare.
My bare ass as white and bright as the moon.
Oh, Tom, Mary said, though she was smiling at the story.
Lily was in Italy too, her husband says, overly loud. But I don't think you ever did anything crazy, did you?
Not too crazy, she says, blushing.
Lily spent that time studying the great Italians. Did you ever make it to Rome, Lily? So many of the best movies are shot in Rome. You know the type, where two people are in love but doomed.
Never, said Lily. Who needs more wine? She hears a chorus of yes's and disappears into the kitchen.
The party is over now, and Lily is rinsing the dishes while her husband takes out the trash. Her daughters are watching her, laughing slightly at her drunkenness.
Mom. Mom. How many fingers am I holding up?
Eleven, she says.
Fifteen, Lily says.
I didn't ask you my age, mom.
Oh, Lily answers. How many tentacles do I have, Lily says, waving her arms around. Do you need tucking in?
I think we're good, mom, the girls answer, slipping back up the stairs. Lily tries to remember if they looked like her when she was that age. Her parents had said so before they'd died, but that was the sort of things your parents always said, endlessly supportive. The girls were so sweet, the treasure, she supposed of her life. Things turn out right in their own strange ways.
Nathaniel is up and bed now. She's given him two Tylenol and put a large glass of water next to his bed.
I'm too old for this, he says.
We both are, she answers, lightly kissing his forehead.
She dries her hand and stands in the kitchen, peering out into the quiet yard beyond. These houses at the edge of the city often attract deer, and she thinks she sees one in the dark, moving around. She looks over at the refrigerator, a smattering of Christmas cards, smiling families with aging fathers, teenage children looking bored. And then one of Sandra and Pietro, standing on the beach in Sorrento, the deep blue sea lurking in the distance.
Who are these people again, Nathaniel had asked her.
Just some friends I knew from a very long time ago.
Sandra had been right, of course, she often had been. You could live with almost anything. Even if it hurt. She pours herself a glass of water and peers out into the darkness trying to identify the shape moving in the dark. In the foreground, she sees her ghostly half-reflection, staring back at her, and she imagines her ghostly self was still in Italy, still wandering around those Italian hill towns with Pietro, getting buzzed and gazing down into the lush green valleys below, dancing and fucking and reading all the Italians. Then she stops looking for her face, turns off the overhead light and walks up the stairs as she always does when she's alone, heavy with what she will always carry.