by Isabel Wolfe-Frischman
Thrust across the Atlantic in the business class limbo of a commercial jet, Beatrix and Hester read travel magazines, discussed their planned Italian odyssey, and drank vodka from tiny bottles. When they arrived at Amerigo Vespucci, they completed the metamorphosis into unabashed tourists, walking miles with goofy smiles on their thirtyish-year-old faces before checking into their pensione. As they walked they debated the potential merits and faults of various eateries. The walk-and-debate became their daily routine as they settled into their vacation.
The two had agreed on today’s restaurant fairly quickly, and it was perfect: only locals dined there it seemed, no English spoken. A radio played Frank Sinatra at one of the cafés they had passed that morning: “That Old Black Magic.” Cool and retro but much too American, they agreed, although Beatrix secretly desired a hamburger. This place turned out to be so Italian it was a challenge communicating with the waiter. Dove il bagno? was the extent of Beatrix’s lexicon, and she usually forgot to take her copy of Italian for Doomed Midwestern-American Tourists from the hotel.
Red wine—delicious Italian red—golden bread dressed in olive oil and garlic, a plate of noodles, calamari fritto. September. Leaves gaudily appliquéd to the sky, then ripped out by the seams, tumbling to the ground.
Sky so like blue velvet Beatrix wanted to sleep on it. Clear and clean and warm. Florence. Firenze.
The women noodled with their noodles, toyed with their bread, drank their Valpolicella wine, devoured the squid. Eternal lunch. They compared pinchings—three in various piazzas for Hester, one at the hotel for Beatrix. On the third carafe, they began to dissect their divorces.
Hester’s had been painful, no doubt. But Beatrix, with her penchant for the dramatic, monopolized the conversation, getting louder and more animated with each hard-earned, martyred, one-upping detail.
Lucedio, the sunburned, goateed man at the table closest to the kitchen, spoke quietly to the waiter in some Italian dialect. He worked tarring roofs, and was therefore responsible for a good ten percent of the pollution in the city. He also wrote daytime soap operas and spent a lot of time collecting dialogue everywhere he went. When Beatrix hiccupped and then slurred loudly, “He was a premature fucking ejaculator,” Lucedio choked on a breadstick.
Hester’s eyes had long since glazed over.
“Did you hear anything I just said?” Beatrix asked.
Lucedio leaned over to Hester and whispered, “They have pills for that.” The Italian winked and went back to his meal.
Hester began to laugh. “He speaks English,” she said, between guffaws. Beatrix called for the bill, slapped down some Euros, and lurched out. Hester followed, without a look back.
After lunch, the pair split up—Hester going to visit yet more museums as Beatrix climbed onto l’autobus numero sette.
Transforming into Anonymous Woman on a Bus, Beatrix blissfully realized that she had finally let her husband go; she had escaped. She remembered a book she read as a child, about a family that fled, leaving eggs drying on chipped plates. Fleeing either the Holocaust or some goblin or pirates, she couldn’t remember.
Her mind was all over the place. Probably the Valpolicella, or the Valpolicella combined with the calamari. She felt the bus was going nowhere. Or somewhere dead-ended, like a wine tasting with Cheezits and Thunderbird or a lecture on the wholeness of the universe, given by a man with only one leg.
Beatrix had been an actress, in Chicago, in her twenties, and a waitress at the 9th Circle Café. She left the nest early, like a bird. She had traveled quite a few hero’s journeys by the time she was eighteen. She once fantasized about tucking two little children into bed every night and then running off to sing in a Broadway show. No more than two kids though—she had read something called The Population Bomb in her adolescence, and it scared the devil out of her.
The guy at lunch, the dark guy with the big ears, Lucedio, the guy who made the hilarious comment that made her friend laugh at her, had learned all this over his zuppe. Almost as much as she knew about herself. As if he were reading her palm, her tarot cards. She had noticed Lucedio (she new his name and that it meant bringer of light but oddly couldn’t remember being introduced to him) watching her as she scuffled into the restaurant, toes pointed inward, one pant leg riding up over her calf, exposing an ill-fitting Ugg boot. Did he know she had been quietly ambitious in her youth, that now she watched mountains grow, knew she would bear no children, or that any children of hers would have been sent to boarding school or locked in the closet for most of their formative years, until their growth was stunted and their teeth rotted, as her ex had once suggested? Could he know that she was a whiz with Top Ramen and wasn’t much of a housekeeper? The day Beatrix asked for the divorce she found her husband scouring the tiles in the red bathroom with a toothbrush and solidified Spic and Span which had been in the box for almost five years, the length of their marriage.
They had been married in a chilly rain in the middle of the wilderness, next to a black, altar-shaped rock—the minister ordained by a matchbook cover. The groom wore a white linen suit, and the bride, determined to be unconventional, and proud of her body, was naked, save for the veil. As they walked to the black rock, they held hands—the groom’s were clammy. Punctuating the ceremony were a single distant thunderclap and the smell of lavender, slightly tinged with the ozone and brimstone smell of struck lightning. The only other witness was the photographer, the author of the one photograph that remained. Who, along with most of Beatrix’s friends, said the marriage wouldn’t last.
The bus motored to the far outskirts of town, Beatrix sweating, alternately sticking to and slipping off the vinyl seat. The town resembled a child’s finger painting. Not vivid like the artwork at the Uffizi, but stark, brown, like a burnt sienna crayon. Here she would need to know more Italian than where’s the bathroom. She cradled her bag, which had very little in it besides her emergency toothbrush and a good novel about dysfunction. The sky greyed. Her jeans popped open. Be open to change, she thought, and giggled a red wine giggle.
That was when he boarded the bus. Lucedio, now dressed in white. Handsome. He jerked his head in her direction. “Hello, ma’am,” he said. Her favorite greeting. Every woman’s. Did he recognize her?
He stood, holding a strap, although seats were available. She could hear the music bleeding out of his iPod. Piano music. Pianissimo. Atonal, weird. Other worldly. And she could hear her own breathing, the man from the restaurant’s breathing, the bus breathing, all the people on the bus breathing, and their sniffling and their gurgling stomachs and their scratching and picking. The sound of a dry mouth being licked. Someone grinding teeth. No conversation. She closed her eyes and saw a parade of faces, people she knew, people she didn’t. She wished to share the crazy thoughts that were uniquely hers with Lucedio. She pictured him walking on his toes, carrying a butterfly net. She pictured him very, very fat. With pimples. She got goosebumps.
She could taste onions in her mouth, yet she had garlic at lunch. When she was little she mixed them up, garlic and onions. She could taste Jack Daniels, although of course she’d had red wine. Not since her wedding day had she swallowed sour mash and that was just the one shot, the dare-you shot for good luck. She flashed to a memory of a doctor she had seen, to treat a bald spot she had in tenth grade. Wondering if the alopecia areata would ever return. Remembering that doctor. A quarter-inch of clear mucus dripping from an ancient nostril as he diagnosed her.
Things are not what they seem, she thought, I’m down the rabbit hole, and something about the look on Lucedio’s face told her that he was thinking it too.
She thought of eggs on a plate. Of kidnapping. She looked out the window, saw the parapets of a medieval building. Imagined this man taking her there and chaining her to a wrought-iron table.
As if tapped on the shoulder by a ghost, Beatrix realized that she was supposed to have met Hester thirty minutes ago. But hadn’t she just gotten on the bus? Time was playing tricks on her. She felt full of electric energy, full of madness, as though she were coming down with chicken pox, or falling in love. She flashed on last spring’s first roses, somehow withering on their stalks before the buds had even opened.
Beatrix was tired, her mind muddled, and her numbing confusion escalated. She longed to be all right, to savor the moments, to breathe freely. One moment at a time. On the bus to nowhere, as if in a strange, lucid dream, she began to pray for an angel of mercy to rescue her, to make sense of her life.
Lucedio chose this moment to sit down next to her. She felt a rush of heat; she removed her jacket and boots.
“Hold out your palm,” said the dark man, the bringer of light. Beatrix was about to comply when she realized she already had. The sounds of the bus ceased. Such perfect silence. Beatrix thought she had lost her hearing until he spoke. “Your love line. Here, where it intersects with your life line—be open to change,” he said.
Beatrix vomited red with chunks of squid.
They got off the bus holding hands. Lucedio’s was clammy. Cold raindrops fell. Somewhere in the distance, a peal of thunder. She smelled lavender, sulphur. Beatrix shed the rest of her spoiled clothing, and naked, except for a thin scarf covering her face like a veil, she stood in front of a black stone cliff. An incredulous tourist snapped a photo. Beatrix knew to the hollow of her soul what tonight’s lovemaking would be like: passionate, burning, with a quick climax.