By Erin Bedford
This could be the last week we spend together. We begin it halfway around the world from home, at a bus-stop in Rome, both of us desperate for the final leg of this vacation to be over and wishing we’d never had the conversation that brought us here.
I might never have said the words if I had to look you in the eye and watch you being hurt. Instead, I concentrated on the contents of our disorganized closet spilling onto the floor as I lay beside you in bed.
“This isn’t working the way we thought it would, right?”
“It’s not perfect, but we just have to try harder.”
It was the fundamental difference between us, you with your belief in the simple goodness of nose-to-the-grindstone, while I thought there were some essential things that shouldn’t need to be honed, love being one of them. In your lifetime you’d lived with three people and claimed to have loved none of them. In mine, I’d dated over twenty and loved every one of them, at least for a time.
“I think maybe we should separate.”
You said nothing, but your breathing grew louder, like you were yelling at me through your nose.
“Maybe you think that too?”
Your wool socks and my chambray shirt mixed in a heap and overflowing our half-closed drawer said something to you which it didn’t to me, something hopeful instead of terribly sad.
“I think we should go away together. Have some fun before we decide anything.”
As if that wasn’t a decision in itself, as if the Eiffel Tower or the Ponte Vecchio could help me accept that you sometimes couldn’t stand being in a room together with me, but would never admit to any failure, even one of something as fallible as love.
A solid-looking woman whistles to get our attention, and waves us over to a dusty Volvo station wagon. She introduces herself—a brusque handshake, the name Antonia practically shouted at us—and loads the luggage herself. You protest, but she shoos you away.
“This? This nothing. Look at my muscles.” She hefts our bags into the back and slams the hatch. “So, what brings you to Roma?”
Instead of explaining all the complicated details, we tell her we are just married.
“Ah,” she says, “Nuovo amore. You make it through the first year, you make it through anything.” She raises her right hand as if to bless us.
What we wanted was an apartment near the Trevi fountain, with a balcony so we could eat homemade dinners al fresco. What we can afford is a basement flat half an hour from Rome, out in the country. The apartment has a sleeping loft, and a three-piece bath, a kitchenette and three dogs that sleep in the vestibule.
“My bambinos. It is cold for them yet, so they cuddle here. You mind?” Antonia sets down our bags.
You shrug and I shake my head.
“Bueno.” She draws a rough map on an old bus schedule. “Groceries here, just down the hill. Bus stop across the street. Restaurant? Nah, you just knock upstairs and I feed you. Eight euro, wine, antipasti, pasta, veal, as much as you can eat, which not so much for you. You skinny. Okay, you settle. Pronto, pronto.” The dogs follow her, barking. A minute later a door bangs and then the sound of her footsteps overhead.
You turn on the tap for the bathtub and peel yourself out of the clothes you’ve been wearing since we left Vienna yesterday morning.
“Come in with me?”
“It’s a pretty small tub. I’ll wait.”
“Nah. You skinny.” You throw your grungy shirt in my face. “Come on, we’ll just cuddle up.”
But the tub is too small, after all.
We used to finish each other’s sentences, glasses of wine, sandwich crusts. Why not? Your mouth was my mouth. And we didn’t say Pardon me or I’m here or Move over. We hardly needed words at first. There was a kind of ultra-sensitive field working between us, so that the slightest signal from me—a barely perceptible muscle twitch, the movement of air—caused an immediate reaction in you, and vice versa.
My elbow to your nose is as good a sign as any that those days are over. We almost get the bleeding stopped and then it starts right back up again. “Just hold still. Lie back and pinch. Pinch!”
“Yelling won’t make it stop. Just let me be.”
“Do you want ice? God dammit. There’s no ice in here. I’ll ask upstairs.”
“For fuck’s sake! It’s just a bloody nose. Why do you blow everything out of proportion?”
And now there is nowhere in the apartment that is far enough away from me. You go back into the bathroom and slam the door.
Later, the injuries repaired, we put on clean clothes and go out. The black dog with the white patch over her eye brings you a bald tennis ball. You pick it up and throw it as far as you can. The dog races to get it, brings it back, drops it at your feet. You throw it again. Fetch, throw, fetch, throw, repeat.
“You know she’s never going to get bored of that.”
“Yeah, but I hate to let her down.”
When she runs back this time, you scratch her behind the ears and put the ball down firmly on the gravel. “Good girl. Good girl. That’s all.”
At the end of the driveway is a four-lane highway. I thought Italian countryside meant dirt tracks and grapevines. There are at least some sheep grazing in a field across the traffic. And the Romany shepherds explain where to get our bus tickets using nothing but sign language.
We step off the subway into the middle of a ruin, blinking at the strong sun. The light is strange. Beautiful and golden, but also old somehow, like the ruins. We eat flatbread and meaty green olives in the park near the Spanish steps. The cypress trees are more than just landscape with this strange sun lighting them up, each one an ancient poem, and every person casts a long shadow, an inky mark on the earth that you say is like a flag planted. This time and space is mine alone.
At the Piazza del Popolo, you take pictures of the chiese gemelle, the twin churches that look exactly the same, but which the guide book says are not. It is a real-life version of the Find the Differences page of the Highlights magazine I used to read as a kid. Here the girl is smiling, here she is not. Here the cat has whiskers, here he does not.
Here we were three years ago, here we are now.
There is no meet-cute story for us, no missed-connection fairytale, no great anecdote to tell at parties. We didn’t hate each other before we loved each other. I didn’t expect anything when we met at work.
I had an unconscious checklist and you did not tick many of the boxes. You were taller than I was, but not by much, more interested in basketball than books, with a perpetual shadow of stubble that made you look relaxed in a sort of slouchy way that made me uncomfortable. Also, you were dating someone at the time and you told me all about her, her name and age, what she did for a living as if I were collecting information for a census. You were loyal. I respected that.
Except that each time I saw you, you smiled easily and had at least five things to tell me that no one had before. You used my name every time we spoke, like you were casting a spell. Say her name 100 times and she will be yours. Soon, the two of us in close proximity made the air around us thin out, so that my breaths came fast and shallow. When I felt your eyes on me, I ignored you with such intensity that you guessed how I felt long before I said it aloud.
It took you eight more months to break up with your girlfriend. The relationship had faltered around week three. In frustration, I made a joke one night as you drove me home from work.
“On the bright side, you’ll probably never get divorced. Just stay married for a year and it will take you thirty more to get out of it.”
You didn’t laugh, and on this side of our marriage, I’d have to agree. It’s not that funny.
Like so many disgruntled spouses before me, I blamed my in-laws, staunch Catholics not permitted to think of divorce as an alternative to a horrible married life, and too proud to admit their misery. Every sweet-seeming thing they did for each other was born of showmanship and obligation, so that watching them as a kid, you came to think of love as a thing you must convince yourself to be in every day.
In support of this theory, by your late thirties you’d still not met anyone whom you could continue to love without some kind of willpower on your behalf. Until me. Or at least that’s what you said, that until you met me, love had always been such hard work.
After wine and pizza at a tourist trap near the Vatican, we head back to the apartment on the subway and then the bus. We feel like native Romans for a moment, finding our way with all the suburbans and their groceries, their cranky toddlers, their work-weary faces. I misread the fare schedule and we are kicked off the bus one stop early. We walk along the highway, cars and trucks blasting by, just inches from us, and I am so afraid that I will die or you will. All I want is your hand outstretched behind you, an instinctual, thoughtless reassurance that will do absolutely no good at keeping us safe.
We survive though, so it could be I was overreacting. We walk up the hill toward the house and our apartment underneath. You turn the key in the lock and the dogs almost bowl us over in their excitement. The little black and white one runs to you with the ball in her mouth. We stand outside, taking turns pitching the ball to her, while the other two bark and chase her. The light begins to fade away. Above us, a swarm of small black birds, maybe a thousand or more, in murmuration across the lavender sky. It’s beautiful, the birds swirling about as one large group, a puddle of black oil tossed on a wave. Utterly spontaneous movement, but in synchronicity. Swooping and diving, circling back, each one at the same time.
And then one bird breaks away, heading off in a corkscrew whirl across the sky, all alone. I don’t realize I am holding my breath until the gasp. When you reach for my hand, clutching it tightly in yours, I know this one perfect uncomplicated thing will be what I remember most about this trip when I think about it thirty years from now.
Erin Bedford lives and writes in Toronto. She attended and won a Certificate of Distinction from the Humber School for Writers for her first published novel, Fathom Lines. At present, she is writing poetry and short stories and acting as shill for her newly-completed second novel. Find out more here: erinbedford.ca or @ErinLBedford.