On a train

 

On a train, gently swaying at a casual pace. The twilight casts odd shadows through my compartment as I try to finish the page Iím on before itís too dark. The lampís release is dim, but enough to read by if I so desired. But the lamplight seems dirty, greasy, compared to the clarity of the daylight sifting through the window and I choose not to light it. I just want to finish this page then Iíll put my book away and watch the last bit of scenery until that too is gone. I just want to finish this pageÖ

I hear the door open with a bit of struggle. I look up from beneath the brim of my new hat to see a man tugging the door shut behind him. He tips his hat, shyly moving to the empty seat opposite me.

"I am sorry, I hope I am not intruding."

"No, not at all," I reply, returning to my book. With what I hope is a subtle gesture, I tug at the cloth of my skirt to cover myself more completely. Heís not the least bit suspicious-looking and I berate myself silently for my action, yet Motherís admonitions repeat in my mind. "If a man enters your compartment, leave immediately unless there is a woman of a more advanced age also in the compartment with you." Mother would never have taken a trip like this and certainly did not understand my desire to do so. She nearly changed my mind with all her warnings, heightening my nerves to the near breaking point. But nothing could have swayed me in my determination. Now here I am, sitting on a train, traveling through pastoral France, alone but happily so. Mother would never understand.

I finish my page and debate whether to put my book away. Despite myself, Iím a bit worried about the fellow sitting across from me, not for any reason but the fact of him. I surreptitiously examine him from under my lovely new hat. His shoes are brown oxford, neatly shined. Cuffed trousers, tailored double-breasted jacket, perfect Windsor knot. From the glint on his shoes to the careful dents in his felt hat, there isnít a thing of suspect about him. He looks a bit like Jeffrey, really, a man who would never do anything untoward. Making a final snap decision, I put my book away into my travelling bag and let out a soft breath. I turn to look out the window at the passing countryside. If he speaks to me, I think I shall respond not impolitely but briefly and continue my examination of the scenery. If he does not speak to me, I shall know he is a man of impeccable breeding and sensitivity.

"Excuse meÖ" I freeze, the fact of his voice telling me all I need to know. I let out a little sigh and do not look at him. I cannot encourage him.

"Excuse me," he says again and I allow myself to turn a fraction to glance at him. I feel my cheeks begin to burn. "I believe you dropped your, eh, bookÖmark." I force my hand to reach out and take the proffered item, ashamed of myself and furious with Mother for instilling this distrust in me. In what I hope is a conciliatory gesture, I smile at him, not too forwardly.

"Merci," I say, hoping he wonít notice how flustered I am. Not that I seriously hold out any hope for that.

"Oh, you speak French?" he asks interestedly. I smile sheepishly again.

"Un petit pou. I am afraid I was not a very good student and it was a few years ago. I have found that it has helped me very little in your country. I should have listened to my teacher." He smiles genuinely and I find myself not at all nervous of him after all.

"I have found that teachers usually tell you that what they are teaching you is the most important thing you could learn. Though really you need just to live a little and you learn it all on your own. If you spend a bit more time in France, you will soon be talking like a born French." I canít help but grin at his charming phrasing. His eyes twinkle a sapphire blue and I donít seem able to turn away, back to the safety of the scenery.

"Where are you from?" I ask, realizing that Iíve entered into a conversation with a strange man and Mother would faint dead away.

"I am, was born in Nice, but I have been living in Paris for many years. It is where I do my business."

"What is your business?"

"I make shoes." I puzzle this out for a moment.

"Youíre a cobbler?" He seems to ponder this a bit before apparently deciding Iíve misunderstood.

"I own a company that makes shoes and sells them."

"Oh," I say, somewhat embarrassed. Iíve mistaken an entrepreneur for a manual laborer. A major sin in my country, perhaps not so bad in his since he continues to watch me pleasantly. "I am sorry."

"Quite all right. I am not offended. May I ask what you are doing in France?" I donít quite know what to tell him, curiously worried about telling him the truth. I ultimately decide there is no harm in the truth.

"Iím on holiday. I wished to explore a bit on my own and came first to France. Iím now on my way to the Riviera, then I hope to see Italy." I stop to consider a moment then decide I might as well just dive in. "I was even thinking of going toÖGreece." I say it as almost a whisper and as I do, realize how silly it must sound. But to Mother, Greece might as well be Sodom. For me itís always held a certain fascination.

"Yes, Greece is very beautiful, you really should visit. But are you truly all alone? It is perhaps a poor idea to make that trip alone." I frown, chagrined.

"It is a minor thing, I think, that I am alone. I am entirely capable of travelling without a companion."

"I did not mean to dictate to you. I apologize." I feel a bit remorseful for my outburst, after all heís just trying to be chivalrous, something to be encouraged. But Iíve just had too much of that of late. I feel a bit too much that people are trying to protect me.

"No, Iím sorry, itís just that my mother has given me so much headache about my decision to undertake this trip alone that I have become awfully defensive about it. Really, please try not to take offense if Iím a bit grumpy when it comes to that subject." He grins, a good sign I think. Really, he is quite a good-looking man when he smiles. He has an ease about him that I like, a relaxed air. It makes me relax, too, something I am grateful for. I often get so tense on these long train journeys, worried about my destination, my luggage, strangers. And here I am, talking with a stranger and feeling perfectly content with the world at large. I smile back, perhaps a bit too broadly but I donít care.

On a train, rushing along past villas and yards and brightly sun-lit cliffs. Iím trying to get some sleep but itís not easy. Iíve been just travelling for what seems like days, just train after train on my way from here to there and here and there. My legs are stiff and my neck aches from trying to curl up on the compartment seat, my head against the wobbling side of the train, using my small backpack as a pillow. Iím getting cranky; as much as I love the scenery, itís been such a long day. Yesterday I was in Spain, before that Portugal. Today, itís on to Italy. And the rocking of the train doesnít lull me gently to sleep, as Iíd always read it would, but instead jars me awake every time I start to drift off. The train has just taken off from the last station and people are still stumbling through the halls, luggage in tow, searching for empty seats. The door of the compartment flies open and in stumble a family of Italians, speaking irritably to one another and shuffling their suitcases in. So much for my solo compartment. I unfold my legs from the bench and make room for the kids. They look sleepy too, like theyíve been awakened too many times over too short a time. The family of 4 settles into all the seats but the one directly in front of me, so I slip off my shoes and put my feet up on the vacant seat. They ache and it feels good to have my shoes off, but I hope they donít smell too bad. I havenít showered in days and I spent all of, hm, yesterday or the day before?, walking around Madrid, trying to see everything there is to see one last time. I wiggle my toes a bit and no one seems to mark a new odor in the compartment so I relax. We make a turn and the sun slants in through the scratched window, hitting my brown outstretched legs. Iíve gotten so tan over the last two months, not enough to blend in with the natives, but good enough to abolish my usual pallor. I lean my head back again and close my eyes, thinking of the sun of Portugal heating my skin, remembering falling asleep on the beach my first day in Cascais.

I wake up with a little sigh, not ready to relinquish my lovely dreams. I dreamt of Greece, of dry hills covered in scrub and white buildings with columns. I saw the relentless sun beating down on our backs as we walked amid the ruins. I imagined the two of us, exploring it all together. Upon awaking itís a dim memory but the feeling remains, a calm happiness and warmth. With regret, I force myself to rejoin the waking world.

My eyes blearily wander my sleeping compartment, just a touch of sun creeping in under the lowered shade. I stretch and swing my feet over the side of the bed. I remember with only a little embarrassment the night before, the night I spent too much of sitting up talking rather than in bed sleeping, the reason for my late rising. Gerard spent hours telling me stories of his youth in the South of France while listening just as charmingly to my far less fascinating tales of my New York upbringing. We found much in common, from a love of mystery novels to an excitement for history. We argued long and hard about the merits of Agatha Christie versus Dorothy Sayers. Weíve both traveled as much as possible, getting a real thrill from seeing places weíve always read about. I told him about the joy Iíd experienced the first time I walked along the stone floors of Westminster Abbey, the click click of my boot heels resounding through the cavernous halls. He remembered his first sight of the Pyramids as a little boy with his parents, awe struck to the point of fear by their enormity. I explained that for me, to go to Athens to see the Acropolis would be the ultimate happiness, something Iíve dreamed of seeing all my life. He has never been to America and dreams of seeing the Statue of Liberty and Hollywood. I get a little shiver as I think of the way he looked at me when I said I would show him around New York if he ever visited. The glimmer in his eyes and the warmth of his smile had made me believe he would like nothing more.

I blush as I realize how long Iíve been sitting lost in thoughts of him. I force myself to shake it off and leap out of bed. A few splashes of cold water on my face and a quick run through my morning ablutions bring me back to reality. I hope Gerard doesnít think me too forward for my behavior last night. I was perhaps a little loose by Motherís standards, but if Iíd stuck within Motherís guidelines, Iíd never have met him at all. And suddenly that seems like a tragedy of grand proportions.

After dressing with just a touch more care than usual, I go to the dining car for breakfast, trying not to obviously scan the room for a certain someone. With only a small sigh of disappointment, I allow myself to be led to my table and I sit, alone. I order a cup of tea, an egg, and some toast. The waiter comes with the tea and I take a sip, turning the slight bitterness around my tongue. As I add some cream, I hear his voice.

"Good morning," he says, and I try not to smile too broadly. I turn to him; his eyes are glowing. I feel lost in his eyes. "May I join you?" he asks needlessly and I nod, gesturing to the empty chair across from me. "Did you sleep well?" he asks as he sits and shakes out a napkin onto his lap. I nod as the waiter returns and takes his order. He asks for coffee and croissant and two eggs, poached I think. I watch his lips as he orders, they move over the French words so beautifully I wish I spoke the language better so I could watch him speak it to me. I feel a blush coming on at my own thoughts so I take another sip of my tea and look out at the passing trees.

"You are very quiet this morning," he says and I realize I havenít spoken a word to him yet. I feel bad; I donít want him to think Iím not happy to see him. I just feel a bit embarrassed about last night and donít know quite how to act with him. I take my cue from his attitude, friendly yet not overly familiar.

"I apologize, I hadnít meant to be so. I think itís been a bit difficult for me to shake off the sandman this morning."

"The sandman?" he says, puzzled. I laugh.

"Yes, the man who comes at night and sprinkles sleepsand in our eyes to make us sleep." He still looks puzzled. "Perhaps itís an American thing." He begins to laugh.

"It must be. It certainly sounds unpleasant to me, sand in oneís eyes." I almost correct him, explain that itís only an expression, when I realize that heís joking with me.

"Youíre so bad, to lead me on like that," I say with a light tap on the hand he has sitting on the table. The brief touch puts a little thrill through me. I regretfully move my hand after only a moment, but the warmth of his skin remains on the tips of my fingers. He fixes me with a gaze, the intensity of which Iím startled by. But I donít look away. I canít, Iím still lost in those eyes.

Iím shaken awake by a small hand on my arm. I sit bolt upright, a lesson taught by fear of losing my luggage. Once on the train from Paris, I was awakened by a light tug on my ankle. It had turned out to be someone trying to steal my bag, not realizing Iíd wrapped the strap around my leg. Iíd stared him dead in the eye and said, "What are you doing?" To which he replied, "Pardon, mademoiselle," and had trotted right off the train into the station weíd just pulled into. The conductor had been too late and my description too foggy to catch him, but heíd thankfully failed in his attempt. This time itís nothing so sinister. The small Italian child next to me is laughing, pointing to a man standing in the doorway. He says something in Italian and points to the seat my feet are propped up on. With an inaudible sigh, I nod and move my feet. He slides into the compartment and, after stowing a small bag on the rack above, takes the seat. He looks at me curiously.

"Parli Italiano?" Iím surprised for some reason; to hear the Italian being addressed to me. I hesitate, generally uncertain about striking up conversations with strange men, especially in Italy. I flew in to Rome and had plenty of experiences dealing with Italian men in the few days I spent there. They tend to be quite forward and though I donít mind that as a rule, in certain situations it can get uncomfortable. I ultimately decide that itís somewhat unlikely that heíll know English well enough for a conversation to last long. Also, the adult members of the Italian family are watching us curiously, I suspect they would come to my rescue if necessary.

"No, non capisco Italiano," I say poorly. He nods and I turn away to look out the window. Iíve generally been ecstatic when the locals actually will talk to me; it seems like as soon as they ascertain that Iím an American theyíre not especially interested. But when the men talk to me, itís almost always for one reason. And so many of them turn out to be so slimy.

"Parlez-vous Francais?" he asks, surprising me yet again. I reluctantly tear my eyes from the scenery and look at him. Iím shaking my head yet again.

"Non, umÖ" In frustration I give in, holding up one finger while I rustle around in my pocket. I pull out my handy dandy Italian phrase book. The appropriate phrase book for each country is never more than a few seconds from my hand. I flip it open quickly. "Sono da America." Whew, that was much more difficult than it should have been. I struggled for each word in Spain and I actually know some Spanish. In Italy itís just a disaster. I look at him and heís grinning. I worry that perhaps Iíve said something pornographic rather than what was intended. He shakes his head at my worried gaze.

"Ah, American," he says, "I should have guessed." Hello, three times a charm. His English is heavily accented but itís there and Iím impressed. I take a second look at him. Attractive, casually dressed, as suits train travel, but not shabby. He has a bit of a cocky air about him, but that seems to be standard issue in Italy. His dark hair is cut short and his eyes are a strong blue. Unusual.

"Why is that?" I ask, raising one eyebrow.

"There are more Americans in Italy than Italians during the summer." I laugh despite myself but turn my head to look out the window again, determined not to get sucked into conversation, stuffing my phrase book back into my pocket.

"Excuse me," I hear but try not to acknowledge that heís speaking to me, though Iím the only native English-speaking resident of the compartment. "Excuse me," he says again, and I allow myself a half-glance back at him, at which point I feel a blush coming on. Heís holding out my train ticketóit was in the phrase book. "I believe you dropped your bookmark," he says with a grin. I take it from him, embarrassed as all hell.

"Grazie," I say, making the effort and feeling foolish. He just smiles, seemingly unaware of any snub. I try to think of something to say, feeling like I owe it to him now. Nothing comes to mind. I turn back to the window.

"Where are you from in America?" he asks. I turn back to him again. I feel like I should be getting whiplash by now.

"New Jersey," I say, usually a conversation stopper. No one in Europe seems to know that New Jersey exists. "Itís next to New York," I say. He nods.

"Ah, yes, I have been to New York. It is an ugly city." Iím a bit shocked; usually all tourists love New York. The residents donít always like it much, but if youíre not spending much time there, it can be very appealing.

"I find it to be very colorful," I say, defending it in spite of myself. Heís shaking his head.

"So dirty, so violent, so many homeless, such trafficÖ"

"And how does that differ from Rome?" He stops at my interruption and his eyebrows go up in surprise.

"Not at all. Which is why I dislike Rome as well. However, Rome is very beautiful and very historic. New York is too young and unattractive, there is nothing worthwhile about it."

"Are you joking? New York has some of the most fabulous museums, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, theater, culture, a long tradition of poetry and art from which some of the greatest innovators of our century came out of, diversity of ethnicity, I mean, what more do you want?"

"Everything youíve named, any city in Europe can claim to a greater degree. How can your American culture compare to the history of Rome, da Vinci, Galileo, the Coliseum, the Vatican, I mean, really, you think New York can even come close?"

"Thatís an absolutely skewed world view coming from the closed-minded European attitude that Iíve had to take far too much of in the last two months. Do you realize how ridiculous you are, standing behind your crumbling monuments spouting strictures about what a great society is supposed to be? Then where do you go on your vacations? To America. What do you see when you go to the movies? Hollywood movies. You idolize Baywatch, you listen to Madonna, and yet you spend all your time babbling about how childish our society is. You need to make up your mind, hate our culture or embrace it, because this running hot and cold just doesnít work for me." I turn away, back to the scenery again. I hear him laugh but I ignore it. Men.

"Van Gogh is overrated."

"You must be joking," I venture, disbelieving. Surely no one would dare to say such a thing.

"I find his work, eh, unsatisfying and unrealistic."

"Itís called impressionistic, itís a form of art that is well respected to those of our century," I say, a gentle smile softening my jab.

"Not to me. I prefer da Vinci. Even when he was painting or drawing things heíd never seen, he made them seem beautiful and realistic. He was a great man. Michaelangelo as well, a truly gifted artist." I shake my head, laughing.

"Yes, I certainly would not disagree with that; they are both great. However, I cannot dismiss the works of others like Monet or Picasso simply because their representations were not photographic in nature. The feelings their paintings evoke, the passion and character they give to their subjects without being overly interested in the actual appearance of the subject makes their art truly astonishing. I consider Monet an equal of da Vinci; I would not say one is greater than the other." He shakes his head, obviously disagreeing with me. Weíve been like this for hours, discussing painters and poets and less lofty things. We agree on occasion but there seems to be a greater pleasure in debating the differences in our points of view. I love that he does not agree with me, that he does not simply nod his head, like so many men have with me, while I can see in their eyes that they believe me to be a silly female, not worth arguing with.

"I simply like a painting of a woman to look like a painting of a woman not like a childís finger painting," he says, shrugging his shoulders.

"You are too old-fashioned," I tell him and he nods with a chuckle.

"Perhaps so," he says fondly, his eyes sparkling.

He leans forward suddenly and takes my hand. Iím taken aback, but donít remove my hand from his grasp. He unbuttons my glove and lightly touches the skin of my palm. My heart almost stops, while at the same time beating madly. He lowers his head and touches his lips to my wrist. I tremble and smile and want to run all at once. I know I should stop him, but I canít. I hope he never stops.

He runs his fingers up my arm, so lightly it almost tickles. I should be terrified; Iíve not much experience with men. But I feel a tremendous sense of calm. He moves to sit next to me in the compartment, slowly, as if Iím a nervous cat ready to spring away. He fingers a loose strand of hair at the nape of my neck and I feel shivers run down my spine. A little sigh escapes my lips and when I look at him, heís smiling. His eyes holding mine, he comes close and his lips touch mine. I feel a twist in the pit of my stomach, a knot of excitement growing there. He draws away, his hands grasping mine, tender but urgent. He watches me as if expecting me to say something, but there are no words in my mind. I have in my head only a movie reel replaying the last few seconds over and over again. I see in him a John Gilbert and me Greta Garbo. I see us running away together. I would risk everything for his kiss.

I donít know how I fell asleep, I was so angry. But I doze, fading in and out of awareness. Sometimes I hear the kids giggling, I hear the parents talking, I hear Him talking with the parents and laughing. I try not to wake up enough to wonder what theyíre laughing at. When Iím jarred into consciousness at last at the next station, I find myself alone in the compartment with Him. I glance around to see where the family went, knowing full well that they must have gotten off. I accidentally catch his eye and he winks. I roll my eyes. Iím a bit hungry, I wish Iíd brought something with me on the train. Instead I take a swig from my water bottle which does nothing to eliminate the hollow feeling in my stomach. I wonder where we are and search out the window for some clue.

"La Spezia," the fellow across from me says. I spare a glance for him.

"Grazie," I answer flatly.

"Are you going to Firenze?" he asks, putting down the book heíd been holding when I woke up.

"Yes," I answer, wishing heíd just leave me alone. Well, ok, he doesnít seem to be overly slimy but annoying he certainly is. I donít need that kind of irritation.

"I was born there," he says, his voice fond and soft. It jars me more than his overbearing tones did earlier. Itís such a contrast. "It is the most beautiful city, if you will forgive me for being so bold as to say so," he says with just a trace of a smirk. "I never cease to be in awe of its beauty." I speak in spite of myselfó

"Thatís what Iíve heard. Iíve always wanted to see it." He nods, happy I think that I didnít bite his head off.

"How long are you going to be staying there?" he asks. A rather personal question, I think, though only to my defensive state.

"Just a day," I answer reluctantly. "Iíll stop there again on my way back through Italy, but Iím on my way to Greece. I just wanted to stop in Florence long enough to satisfy my curiosity, then Iíll explore it more fully when I come back." He nods.

"It is good that you are coming back; you really cannot see everything in just a day." I nod.

"Thatís true of any place I think. Iíve tried to allow myself at least a few days for each place Iíve visited."

"How long do you plan to stay in Greece?"

"I donít know yet. It depends on how much I like it. I need to spend at least a couple of days in Athens. Iíll need a full day just to see the Acropolis." I started to get a little giddy just thinking of it. Imagine, to actually be in Athens, walking around the Acropolis. Itís like a dream, that it could really happen."

"It is a sight to see," he agrees, nodding thoughtfully. "When I was there, there was a storm coming. The clouds were huge and dark and threatening. But the sun still hit the Parthenon and there it was, shining and beautiful, framed by this show put on by nature. I have never seen anything so wonderful." I smile, picturing every bit of it in my head, getting even more excited to be there. I want to lie in the middle of the Parthenon and let the sun that beat down on Aristophanes burn into me. I want to walk through Hadrianís Arch. I want to be there, now. But there is a lot of Italy and sea between Athens and me. The train seems to be moving very slowly.

I toss and turn, my sleeping compartment is mostly dark, just a dim glow from the moon making shadows on the walls. Iíve lain here for hours already, trying desperately to dismiss my fears about what I am doing. I know itís right, deep down in my heart but my head seems to echo with my motherís voice. Mother would be dead right now, just have dropped down dead, if she knew what I had done. But when Gerard asked me, no, he almost begged me to stay on the train, to forgo the Riviera and continue on to Florence with him, how could I say no? I think I love him. I donít really know; Iíve never really been in love and so canít say what it feels like. But if love feels any more wonderful, more awful, more confusing, more intensely than I feel right now, I donít think I could manage it.

Oh, what would all of Motherís friends say if they discovered that her maiden daughter was on such a dangerous adventure? Mother would never live it down; she could never face them again. What would Jeffrey say, after Iíve pushed him gently to a distance for two years now, to know I was running away with a strange Frenchman?

No, not running away, I say to myself, shaking my head as I leap out of bed. Iím merely skipping a small portion of my itinerary. Really, who wants to be on the Riviera this time of year, itís so crowded and dreadfully dull and hot. Florence will be much more entertaining. Especially with Gerard there. I sigh. My mind can play all the tricks on itself that it wishes, trying to rationalize my decision. But the fact remains that I am still on this train because of him. I could not leave him.

"How can you say that, you must be insane," I tell him, crossing my arms adamantly. "Youíre saying E.M. Forster had no business writing about Italy because he wasnít Italian? I mean, I canít believe you could spout such an incredibly idiotic theory. Do you even think about these things before you say them?" He shrugs but refuses to get angry. That maddens me more than his foolish ideas. Weíve been arguing like this for at least an hour. It seems the more heated and irritated I get, the more pleasant and smug he gets. Itís really burning me up.

"I just suggested that perhaps one cannot truly understand a place unless one is born there. I am not saying that he canít write about Italy, just that his writing will not have the depth of one whose life is more fully connected with the country. Could I write a novel about America and truly understand what it is like to be American? Of course not."

"Youíre completely missing the point. The point is that A Room With A View was written about English people in Italy, not really about Italians. He used Florence as a device to create the passion between Lucy and George, something that would have been repressed had they met in England. He was creating Italy in the eyes of the English, not attempting to have the perspective of a native. And he did it beautifully." He grins at me again and I long to slap the expression off his face.

"You are right." I stare at him. Surely I couldnít have heard him right. "Yes, I said it, you are right. Youíve convinced me." I watch him suspiciously.

"Youíve just been baiting me. No, donít give me that innocent look. Youíve just been baiting me, you donít believe that about Forster, you probably donít believe half of what youíve been babbling about. Whatís your game?" Heís clearly repressing a laugh and I want to hit him more than ever.

"I just wanted to watch you get angry. Youíre really very beautiful when youíre angry."

"Oh, cut the crap, you pig. Is that the best line you could come up with? All this is some kind of elaborate scheme to get me into bed, is that it?" He shrugs. Iím infuriated. I slap him, canít help myself. But oh, does he deserve it.

Gerard meets me at my door at 8:30 exactly so we can breakfast together. He takes my hand and places it in the crook of his arm and I let him lead me. The tenderness in his eyes when he turns to look at me is touching and I almost laugh at myself for doubting. I tap him lightly on the arm when he makes a joke, so happy to be with him.

At breakfast we chat, he tells me what Iíll see in Florence.

"I cannot wait to show you everything," he says excitedly. "I have been there many times on business, but this city still amazes me every time. It is so beautiful, and there are many unusual things to see. I will take you to the market on Ponte Vecchio, to the Pitti Palace, and to the leather mart. I will show you the Duomo, the most striking church you will ever see. I will take you everywhere and I will see it all anew in your eyes." He makes me excited too with all his talk and Iím eager to arrive at our destination.

As we eat, he watches me; I catch him several times. Iím embarrassed and flattered, pleased that he does.

"You are very beautiful," he says, heís said it before but each time it surprises me. Not to say I havenít had a few suitors in my time, but Iím considered pretty at best. The word beautiful is like a gift.

"You are very sweet," I say. He grins and is extraordinarily handsome. He has become more so with time, as Iíve gotten to know him. Perhaps the same could be said for my sudden transformation into "beautiful." I smile to myself. Thatís fine with me.

"I love you," he says. I feel my heart stop, or perhaps itís beating wildly I donít know.

"Iím so glad," I say, smiling madly at him. He laughs at my response and I blush. "I love you, too, I think, that is, Iím fairly sure. Whatís it like?" Iím speaking nonsense, I know, but I canít help myself.

"Exactly like this. To want to be with someone constantly, to feel desperately alone without her, to use all your thoughts on her, to adore every little thing about her. I believe that to be love."

"I do love you," I say and he takes my hand. I canít think of another thing to say. We sit and watch the scenery as our coffee gets cold.

I sit silently, sullenly, disbelievingly while he remains in the compartment. I canít believe he hasnít left. I could go, but I know weíre not far from Florence now and itís such a struggle to move my luggage. Ok, itís just a backpack, but itís locked to the luggage rack and itís a pain. I just donít want to move. I was here first. Heís watching me, I can feel it, but I refuse to look at him. He can stare all he likes; heíll get no response from me.

"I do apologize, I did not mean to offend you."

"Like hell you didnít," I canít help but respond, "that was your whole evil plan, you all but admitted it yourself. Fuck off." He starts to laugh again. "What is so goddamned funny to you all the time?"

"You, of course. Youíre so charmingly American." I want to yell at him again, but I know heíll just be amused. I wonít contribute to that anymore. I watch the scenery. Within moments weíre in the station, much to my surprise. I see the signs reading "Firenze" and with an "aw shit" I leap up and start to unlock my luggage. Itís not a terribly long stop, so I have to hurry. He gets up as well, dragging his bag down from the rack above.

"May I help you?" he asks, as I begin to struggle my bag down.

"No," I tell him emphatically and he chuckles quietly to himself but doesnít leave. He waits until Iíve gotten my pack down and on my back and motions for me to exit first. I give him a final glare and stalk off. He follows me as far as the ladies room, where I enter without looking back. After a visit with the unappealing facilities, I check myself in the mirror. I look suspiciously like Iíve been traveling for some time on a train without enough sleep and without a shower. I run some water through my hair and pull it back tightly into a ponytail. I wash my face, hands, and arms, I even wash my feet when no oneís looking. I canít wait for a shower. I hope I can find a room somewhere. I leave the ladiesí room and head toward the nearest phone to make some calls.

"Do you need a hotel?" I hear, and groan inwardly. I turn to see Him watching me with a smile. Iím torn between my pride and my travelerís sense, which is telling me to take the nativeís advice on a place to stay. I really want a shower.

"I suppose itís better than sleeping on the street," I say, not willing to abandon my sarcasm since judging by all evidence it wonít make a dent in him anyway.

"La Mia Casa in Piazza Santa Maria Novella will be your best choice. All the hostels will be full this time of year at this time of day. You should have taken an earlier train."

"I donít need your travelling advice." I turn and walk away. Such an arrogant sonuvabitch. I keep walking but pull out my Berkeley Guide pages for Italy. I find a map and locate Piazza Santa Maria Novella. Iíll have to circle around once Iím out of the station. I couldnít stand his knowing I took his advice.

I find my way to La Mia Casa, a big rambling hotel with several floors and big sparse but clean rooms. I pay a little extra for a single there than I would to share at a hostel but itíll be nice to have some privacy for a change. Besides, I saved enough on hotel rooms the last few days sleeping on trains to splurge a little now. The little man at the door is a little odd and doesnít speak much English but shows me to my room. I drop my backpack on the floor and flop on the bed when he leaves. I donít know which to do first, sleep or shower. I decide on the latter, figuring that afterwards Iíll use whatís left of the light outside to see a bit of the city.

The train lets out a great puff of steam as we arrive in the station. Gerard steps out and offers me his hand, which I gratefully accept. My boot heel catches in the grate of the step as I step down and I tumble into his arms. He laughs and I smile, his arms around me keeping me from feeling clumsy in the slightest.

"I canít let go of you for a moment," he says.

He swings me around and places me safely on the platform while he collects our luggage. A porter comes along to take charge of it, so Gerard puts my hand in the crook of his arm and leads me off toward the waiting taxis. I let myself be led, knowing he has a much better idea of where we should be going than I. In the taxi, he directs the driver to take us to the Grand Hotel Baglioni. I sit back, looking forward to the moment coming soon when I will no longer be in a moving vehicle. Gerard pats my hand, as if he realizes how weary I am of travelling.

"We will be there soon, mon amour. Relax, I will take care of everything."

When we arrive at the hotel, Gerard gets us two rooms and requests that our luggage be taken up to them. He speaks impeccable Italian, at least from what I can tell, considering I speak none. He suggests dinner and I agree, as Iím quite famished. We go to the dining room of the hotel, where a waiter who seems to know Gerard seats us; they chat amiably.

"What would you like, mon cher? Do you enjoy veal?" I nod and he orders something in Italian and the waiter rushes off with a grin.

"What did you order for us?" I ask.

"A lovely Italian veal dish you will love, I am certain. And a bottle of wine, I hope you do not mind." I shake my head.

"No, I donít drink much, of course, but I have had wine a few times, when Mother wasnít around." He shakes his head.

"I will never understand how a country as forward-thinking as yours could be so heathen as to make such an absolute pleasure such as wine illegal. In France, this would never happen." I grin, nodding.

"Yes, but you know, true lovers of a drink manage to do just fine in America. Laws or no."

"Does your family know," he begins with an evil spark in his eyes, "that you do not obey your laws? Do they know that you are a, eh, rebel?" I laugh, shaking my head.

"Donít be so silly. There is nothing unusual in our country about taking a drink, mostly everyone does. As for my family knowing Iím a "rebel", Iím here, arenít I? I canít tell you how many disbelieving stares I got when I told people I was coming on this trip alone. But no one could keep me away. I have the means and the desire, why shouldnít I travel on my own if I please?"

"Why did you want so much to do so?" he asks.

"IÖ" I trail off, not sure how to explain it. "I needed to do something on my own, something that would allow me to prove to myself that I was strong and capable of being alone. You seeÖ" I stop, not sure if I should go on. "You see thereís a man who has wanted to marry me for some time, back in America. I do love him, like a friend or a brother. But I just couldnít see the point of marrying someone just to be married. I felt I would be better off alone than in that kind of a marriage. But I wanted to prove to myself that I could be alone and still enjoy my life. I wanted to take a hand in my own happiness. Does that make sense?" He nods thoughtfully, looking into my eyes.

"Does that mean you never want to be married?"

"No, it just means I donít see any reason to do it if it doesnít seem like the right thing."

"Does it seem right to marry me?"

I wander out past the lobby and the strange old man who sits in an easy chair by the door. Iíve got my traveling pack and a map; Iíve risked leaving the rest of the stuff in my room. I plan to make a b-line to Santa Croce, the church in A Room with a View, possibly the number one reason Iíve come to Florence. I canít help it, I love that book and the movie was the most beautiful thing Iíve ever seen.

"Where are you going this evening?" Iím sure I couldnít have heard it, not that voice again. I turn around.

"If you tell me youíve been here waiting for me to come out, Iíll assume youíre a stalker and go straight to the police." I turn around again and start walking.

"Iím sure you would communicate that well, with no Italian," he says, walking next to me. I roll my eyes.

"Iíd find a way, believe me. Go away." To my continued irritation he laughs and keeps pace.

"Where are you going this evening, bella mia?"

"None of your business," I say, angry that heís ruining my first evening in Florence.

"Let me guess," he says, his voice cool. "Santa Croce." I stop expressly to glare at him.

"How did you know that?"

"After your impassioned defense of Forster, I assumed you would be following in his bookís footsteps. Besides, that movie has inspired enough people to visit this city that there is a movie theater here that plays "A Room with a View" year-round." I take off again at a brisk pace. He keeps up.

"Thatís not true."

"It is."

"Where?" I ask, hoping he canít tell that it isnít disbelief but rather excitement that makes me ask.

"Wouldnít you like to know," he says, a smug smile showing that he could tell. "Iíll take you there," he says.

"No thanks."

"I would like to take you out," he says.

"Like a date?" I ask, amazed that he would suggest something so reasonably civilized.

"Yes."

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because I donít like you, thatís why. Because youíre an insufferable control freak with stalker tendencies whoís done nothing but irritate me since we met."

"But Iím very cute. And I can tell you like me, you just wonít admit it. Our discussions were heated, but not without pleasure. I believe you enjoyed them."

"Believe what you want, just leave me alone."

I look up suddenly and realize where Iíve gotten myself. I look at my map just to be sure.

"Yes, it is Santa Croce," he says and Iím in awe. Itís so beautiful, though Iím not sure I would have known it if I hadnít seen the fountain in the Piazza. The fountain where, in the book, Lucy saw the man get killed. I walk over to it and look in. Itís old and disused and completely unassuming. I take out my camera and get a picture of it. I canít help it; at the very base of it, Iím a tourist.

I walk across the Piazza to the church, climbing the steps. Iím a fool, entranced by the act.

"Come, Iíll show you around," he says and I blindly follow.

"Are you asking me to marry you?" I ask, a bit breathless, a bit terrified. He wraps his hands around mine, drawing himself closer to me.

"You said you love me," he says and I nod.

"Yes."

"Is it a different love from that man, the one who is like a brother?"

I nod.

"Yes."

"Does this feel right to you? Do we seem right to you?"

I nod.

"Yes," I breathe.

"Will you marry me?"

I stare at him and try to imagine a life with him. I see the culmination of all my dreams. I see myself in the Acropolis change to us in the Acropolis. I nod.

"Yes."

In the depths of his eyes I believe I see myself. Strong but not alone.

The waiter appears with our wine. After he pours I take a long drink, hoping to steady the butterflies in my stomach. It only serves to make them hyperactive and I feel as though I might faint. What would Mother think?

He shows me Michaelangeloís tomb, the Giotto chapels, the dedication to Dante, the Medici chapelÖ He proves to be a passable historian, knowing a great deal about Santa Croce and even giving me quite a bit of information on the individuals who are represented in it. I hardly speak throughout the tour. I feel like my brain is overloaded with colors and forms and quantity of information.

"I need some air," I say, and head toward the door. Itís all too overwhelming. When I get out, I breathe in the hot, fresh air, trading the stale smell of passing time thatís trapped in my nose for the smell of an approaching rain. I sit down on the steps of Santa Croce and think of where I am. He sits down next to me.

"My name is Cesare," he says, and I nod.

"I appreciate the tour. I didnít knowÖ," I start. Iím not really sure where Iím going with this. "I didnít know what it would be like, that it would be soÖmuch."

"Reading about a place does not prepare you for being in it. If I had been merely imagining Firenze for half my life, I would probably have to take it in slowly."

"With Portugal and Spain, I mostly didnít know what to expect, didnít know much about them. But Italy and Greece have always been the unreachable for me. To be here, here," I said, hitting the step to prove its solidity to myself, "is like suddenly being in my favorite movie, in living color." He wisely and surprisingly doesnít say anything, letting me revel in it.

Within moments I leap up and rush off to the nearest café and order an espresso. I take a deep breath then gulp it down, letting the bitterness burn down my throat. I turn and head to a gelato parlor. I get a scoop of tiramisu and take a long slurp, the richness slinking down my tongue. I speed into a tourist shop, breathing in deeply, the smell of leather so strong in my nose I can almost taste it. With a final burst of energy I walk back to the fountain and run my hands over itís stone surface, the sun having given it itís own warmth. I sit down at the foot of the fountain, smiling with satisfaction. I canít imagine being more full of Italy than I am at this moment.

"May I ask what that was all about?" Cesare asks. The Italian accent has miraculously become lovely to me, rather than merely an aspect of the irritating whole. I narrow my eyes as I look at him. He watches me bemusedly and I laugh.

"I donít want to take it in slowly," I say. "I want to take it all in now. I want to devour Italy." He looks a bit startled at my vigor, I suppose. I canít help it; Iím filled with an energy and excitement that I canít control.

"Kiss me," I say, to which he seems even more taken aback. That doesnít stop him from doing it. The back of his shirt is damp with sweat and the muscles it clings to move with a strange rhythm as he pulls me up from the ground. He hesitates, then with a broad grin he kisses me. His lips taste of spice; his scent is like cinnamon. I take it all in quickly and want more.

"What about your business?" I ask, not wanting him to abandon his obligations for me. He shakes his head.

"You are all that matters. I shall telegram an associate and he will take over for me. He will be only too happy to know that he will not have me around for awhile." I grin.

"I canít believe anyone would be happy to be rid of you. But his loss is my gain." He kisses me happily; we are in the sitting room of my suite. My heart seems to be in constant palpitations, so shocked am I at what Iíve done. Yet I canít for a moment think of a reason to change my mind. Well, Mother, of course, but Iíve lived my life too much for her these last few years. She shall have to concentrate her energies on another relative, perhaps a young niece. I am going to do what I choose.

"Well then, since you shall have all this free time, where shall we be married?" I ask, thinking he would like to be married in France, Nice perhaps, where his family is.

"I should think Rome would do, would it not? Weíre not far away." With a start I sit up straight.

"So soon? You mean, you want us to go get married now?"

"Yes, why not? Do you think anything would change for us if we waited?"

"What about your family, donít you want them to be there?"

"Thereís not much left, since the war." He looks seriously into my eyes. "I do not need family or friends, simply you." I watch him, wondering if heís joking with me. Seeing that heís genuine, I give it another momentís thought. It is not for our families that weíre getting married. Weíve got each other, so, why not? What do I have to lose?

"Yes, letís be married in Rome then go immediately to Athens. Letís go tomorrow." He kisses me, a sweet soft kiss. He nods.

"Iíll go make the arrangements immediately. Shall I knock on your door later to say goodnight?" I nod my head.

"I wonít be able to sleep at all." He kisses me again then hurries out. I walk into the bedroom and to the window. I slide the curtain aside and look out at the falling dusk. Florence looks like a dream; I can see the Duomo, rising above all else. I regret a bit that we wonít have time to explore tomorrow. But there are more important things before me. And thereís always the trip back.

"You certainly change your mind quickly," he says, lying sprawled on my bed, without even a sheet to cover him. "I thought you didnít like me." He waggles his eyebrows in what he probably thinks is a seductive way and I laugh.

"I donít, really. But you were awfully convenient." He looks a bit hurt and I try not to laugh again. I pull on my underwear and a t-shirt, heading toward the door and another shower.

"You mean you didnít succumb to my charms?" he says, rolling over onto one side to face me. I lean against the closed door and look back at him.

"I succumbed to Italy, which you seemed to embody for that fleeting moment in the piazza. Youíre beautiful, aggressive, sexy, animalistic, a little intellectual, and very brash. Italian to the core and just what I wanted."

"You make it sound so romantic," he says sarcastically, rolling onto his back again.

"Donít get me wrong," I say, walking back to the bed and sitting down on the edge. "It was lovely. But this is not the beginning of a great love affair. My real goal is still ahead of me. Tomorrow Iím on my way to Athens." I get a little shiver as I say it. Against my will, a broad smile spreads across my face. "When I arrive, I will make every attempt to devour Greece." He reaches out quickly before I can react, his arms winding around my waist and pulling me down to him.

"Wouldnít you like another taste of Italy before you leave?" I grin despite myself.

"Alright, but you know that too much of anything can spoil your appetite." He shrugs.

"Iím willing to risk it."

I look out across the Ionian Sea, a deep blue as far as I can see, and breathe deeply. The salt stings my nose and I laugh, turning to see if Gerard feels it too. He looks down at me affectionately and puts his arm around my waist. I melt into the curve of his side, fitting neatly into the space. He bends and kisses the top of my head, hatless, my hair blowing in the breeze, salt tangling it. I donít care. I feel my skin starting to tan and I raise my face to the sun. I want to be dark and wild; I want to look like a native.

Gerard looks off to the horizon, waiting for a glimpse of the country Iím so eagerly awaiting. His shirt collar is open, his jacket unbuttoned. He looks relaxed and easy, his forehead unlined for the first time since we met. I look down at my hand on the railing, a simple band of gold on my finger. It had been a rush, getting to the jewelry market on Ponte Vecchio before our train left for Rome, but weíd made it and I had the perfect band, bought in the city where my life began. I touch the gold to the iron of the railing, the coolness of the metal, even under the sunís direct rays, making the band cold on my finger. I like the newness of it, and twist it around my finger. I look up to see Gerard watching me fidget and he laughs.

"Look," he says, pointing off the bow of the ship. In the distance I see just a blur, a vague shape, that has to be Greece. With a little leap of excitement I lean against the rail and stare. Before long weíll be there. Before long Iíll have it all.

I look out across the Ionian Sea, a deep black surrounding me, and I breathe deeply. The salt air enters my lungs and I hold it there, not wanting to let it go. Eventually I exhale and do it all again. I lean against the railing, the steel cold even through my shirt but I donít move. I try not to listen to all the Americans behind me, lying on their sleeping pads, drinking, talking, a few sleeping. I tried to sleep earlier, but between the hard cold metal floor of the deck and the jabbering Americans, it had seemed futile. So Iíve been leaning against this railing, watching the ship cut through the water, the stars cut through the sky, for hours, I guess, I donít know how long. But Iím happy just standing here.

I sense my muscles move with the rocking of the boat, adjusting automatically to keep me from tossing. I feel so connected to everything, to my life, this moment that Iím in right now. I think of days passing in my normal life, in school, at work, without my even realizing it beyond the fact of my alarm clock being set and going off at regular intervals. I shake off the thought, not willing to lose the present. The moon is bright above me and I raise my face to itís light, feeling its glow. My hair tickles my neck as itís tossed by the wind off the side of the ship and I know Iíll have some monster tangles to take out in the morning. But for now Iím content.

I remember with a grin leaving Cesare in my bed, night before last, slipping out in a rush, trying not to wake him. I must have looked like a madwoman, my hair going every which way, clothes twisted and damp from drying off haphazardly after my shower. Iíd been trying to make the earliest train, one that became the night train to Brindisi. Iíd just made it and after killing most of the next day in Brindisi, a town with no redeeming value except the ferries that left to Greece, Iíd left on the first ferry out this evening. Now I watch, as long as I can stay awake, for a glimpse of my goal. But thereís nothing but sea in front of me.

Eventually I try to get some sleep, knowing Iíll regret it if I donít. The Americans are mostly quiet now and I find myself lying on layers of my clothing to protect me from the deck, listening to the steady beat of the waves against the side of the ferry. Iím surprised to discover in the morning how well it lulled me to sleep.

When I wake up, I sit up and look through the railings. There it is. Greece.

I walk through the ruins.
I walk through the ruins.

I walk with bare feet and bare head, wondering what Gerard would think if he saw me.
Iíve taken off my shoes, the heat of the ground beneath my feet makes me feel connected with this place, this place I canít believe Iím right in the middle of.

I ignore people who watch me, who think me strange for the whiteness of my skin or the lack of shoes, as I walk through the remains of the buildings of the Acropolis. In the last few days Iíve found everything I want. Iím whole, a married, happy woman with freedom and strength. I walk alone; Gerard sitting in the shade of a statue.
I pass tourists speaking various different languages, walking with their tour books open, checking maps. They seem oblivious to everything but what their books tell them. In my mind they disappear and I see only the whiteness of the columns, the curves of the women carved so perfectly into the buildings, stones left where theyíve fallen like childrenís blocks--the remains of the buildings of the Acropolis. I have what Iíve wanted now; it seems all Iíve waited for is to be here. Iíve left everything I know behind and I feel renewed.

I walk up some steps to a high point of the grounds.
I walk up some steps to a viewing area.

I gaze off at the hills of Athens, brown and dry and beautiful.
I stare down at the city, white buildings mixed with new ones of metal and glass.

I watch storm clouds in the distance coming slowly nearer, trying without success to dismiss the bright Greek sun.
I see the dark clouds overhead and hope the rain waits until Iím ready for it, after Iíve soaked up all the hot ancient sun I can stand.

I bend and grab a handful of dusty earthÖ
Öand let it drain through my fingers.

I stand absolutely still, unable to move in fear of disturbing the perfection of this moment.
Iím here and thatís all I can think.

I have everything I could wish.
I know I can never return to my old life.

Iím strong and happy.
Greece has devoured me.

 

 

 

 


All stories copyright 2001 Alyssa K. Wodtke