For the last haul I attempted to orchestrate solitude. When I found an empty compartment I did everything possible to keep it that way, pulling down the napkinesque blind on the door and slipping into an expansive faux-coma every time the old train eased into a station. With more forethought I could have clinched my Do Not Disturb tableau by adding some empty liquor bottles. Now, forehead rattling against the enormous window on my right, I am eating slowly with my eyes shut. Popcorn—infused with that mysteriously invisible, intensely salty salt—is all I could find in the Paola station; it burns my face when I miss my mouth. Having never taken an overnight train before, I decide that I have done well, and begin courting sleep. The air smells of vacuum exhaust; outside the night flushes the sky with a deep, preliminary blue. It seeps to the corners like puddled ink. I try to smooth out my thoughts, invest myself in them, but get tired of turning to the empty seat when I have something funny to say. It’s all wasted on windows and hotel-room walls.
Skimming my bare feet down the train car back to my compartment I get a bad feeling. I had thought I could get through the night without making this trip but decided the risk of losing my compartment was not that great. In the two minutes the whole thing took, the train made another stop and three people are now pawing through my things as I stand, defeated, in the doorway.
They are an Italian family: mother, father, and teenaged daughter. Somehow the tiny father bears my suitcase high up over our heads, like a fire ant with a chunk of flesh. I thought they might take one side of the compartment and leave me the other—at worst we’d be two to a side. Instead, the mother and father wedge in beside me, leaving their daughter three seats to stretch out on across from us. I am no one’s daughter tonight.
The silence is close, closer than when I was alone, and I try to come to grips with the fact that I will not sleep at all. I ponder reading myself into a stupor, but remember that I finished my last book earlier. I had timed it almost perfectly! Helen was right, though, Scobie never loved anyone. I join the parents in watching the girl laid out like an odalisque two feet away and try to imagine times when I was loved and didn’t know it. In a few hours I will be standing by my dad on top of Fiesole. He’ll pan his video camera out across the spectacular view of Florence below us and prompt me: “Say something profound, Michelle.”
“The most peaceful place on Earth is among strangers,” is what I’ll say, and I’m trying to believe it now, but the mother beside me really puts the “on” in “among.” I can hardly move under her weighted knees, shoulder, and elbow.
Dawn breaks with sleepy, slick warmth in Florence. I had stumbled off the train, eyes and ears and elbows ringing, waited for the termia’s hotel service to open, waited in line for a hotel and made my way there, to be told I cannot check in until 11 a.m. It’s 8. I leave my bags, valiantly descending to wander the streets once more, but don’t make it very far. Florence feels awful. The sudden abundance of places to hide leaves me oddly exposed. How could I have ever liked it here? For the first time in over a month I just don’t know what to do with myself. I can’t find the sun, the buildings are too tall, so I sit down on the sidewalk, exhausted, and wait for it to find me.
I have run afoul of myself. Finally stowed in my tiny room, having hoped to make something of the day, I now prepare to take to my bed; I know I’m beaten when I can’t imagine running ever again. I start to undress slowly, but it’s a clumsy affair. I stop, thinking perhaps I should eat something, but when I peel back the lid of a tin it slices into my middle finger and there’s blood everywhere. I’m too tired to complain and quietly bundle it with tissue. The cut looks like a shark’s mouth. I manage to get down to my underpants, middle finger aloft, and lie back on the bed. Looking down, disconcerted but too spent to sit up, I raise my left leg and then my right: they are covered in bruises. Wanton, stormy bruises; midsize, efficient brandings and then trails that just seem to have flamed out, the ephemera of something more spectacular, like a comet. Old ones, new ones, borrowed ones, blue ones …
As I’m reaching over to examine my right leg I find more bruises, two of them, on the inside of my left arm. They look like a pair of strawberries: one the size of your unassuming, wild, Italian version, the other of the bloated, Trojan-horse variety available at home. Maybe I hugged my angel on the mount too hard after all; more likely I hugged myself too tight and too long all night, straining angrily to resist the pressure of the mother bearing up like a sandbag against me. You must hold the thing that can hurt you closest of all, or so it has been whispered. Then it can’t get a bead on you, or room enough for a good wind-up.
My eyes slowly accept the trick. In the artificial night I have fashioned, my room becomes either a spacious coffin or a modest crypt. I never sleep during the day; it seems like the ultimate defeat. Outside my swaddled window there are dickering Germans, bickering Italians, and chattering birds beyond them both. I tried to be good, to take care of myself, I think, distraught and drifting between the thick, cold sheets. My breathing slows into a rhythm and at last I am human. Coffin or crypt? Just don’t burn me up, I always say. Imagine, sleeping while not so far away my father is checking into the hotel I recommended to him, the one I stayed in my first time to Florence. For weeks, when I felt discouraged, I would imagine the walk over to that hotel … there was triumph in it, there was a story. And there was proof: shoulder blades cocked like eagle’s wings, light and strong in the hands; there are high notes in my step, butterflies in my teeth, miles coiled behind my knees, mercury rising in my veins, planets aligned between my shoulders, milkweed ribboned through my hair, and all of it cast in platinum and rolled in dirt-cheap experience. I know things and you will know them just by looking at me.
When I wake I’ll have to buy a new dress, one that covers not only the mess the sun made of my back—which has resolved into a Lascaux cave detail—but my legs, which look, I decide, like I staggered through a life-size foosball game. The arm and the finger are lost causes. Even in my dream, which is suspiciously like being awake, I try to hold sufficiently still to recover something useful from the driving fear that I didn’t do enough, won’t be enough, don’t have enough, give enough, and yet. And yet, I sleep.
I’m pushed up onto my elbows, the afternoon is gone. I hear the tinny clatter of dishes, water, and cutlery across the alley. The shark’s mouth on my finger opened while I slept and roared blood all over my sheet and pillow. I get up to wash it, but not before a mosquito bites me on the neck, below my right ear, the unscarred one. At my radiant—achingly radiant—cousin’s wedding I will eat little potatoes the size of gumballs and wonder if I have ever tasted anything so fine. My poor waiter, who, it will seem, has never faced a greater trial than me, will notice my surprise and nearly lose his composure with relief. I will be seated at a circular table in a villa’s opulent dining room, where walls and faces are painted in flickering amber light. As I sit there, surrounded by dazzling young American men I don’t know, English will once again fill my ears and the elegant hands of the boy at my side will strike me as close to perfect. My dad is in Italy by now, I remember, swinging my feet onto the floor, and this makes me intensely happy: imagine! When I walk across the piazza San Marco to board the bus waiting to take guests up to Fiesole, my dad, already seated inside and looking out the window, will not recognize me. He will turn to his companion and say, “Who’s that?” Perhaps because my hair is up, and I never, ever wear my hair up. Perhaps not.
Cool water is flowing from a tap beneath the small mirror in a bathroom so dim it’s better off dark. I twist my finger so the water pushes up under the hood of the cut, the exquisite pain so exquisitely contained. I have almost slept away the circles under my eyes and feel a little swell of pride: I was tired and I slept. Simple. I push my chin out and lower my eyelids until the pocket of jittery, pallid light above me hits them, carving little half-shells. Either the shadows or I pull my mouth at the corner. “It looks like an M,” someone said once, pretending to prick his finger on the sharp peaks of my upper lip. The day will never end. It can’t be more than 5 and I’ve been here forever.
I turn out my left arm to reassess the damage. I press my thumb into the smaller bruise but it’s one of those ones that doesn’t hurt.
Reading in Florence:
Directions on battered wedding invitation
When Michelle Orange returned from Italy two days later, this was waiting in the mailbox of her Toronto home: