When I got off the train in Florence from Paris, I realized I knew almost nothing in Italian. Not even hello. I knew ‘ti amo,’ as Julia, my ex-girlfriend, had started signing her emails with it when she returned from her semester abroad, the emails she sent asking if we could still be friends, a request she stopped making after a bar fight and a slap across my face. But that was the only expression I knew.
Why Italy? Julia, for one. The autumn after our relationship ended she came here. I grew obsessed with the place, thinking that getting to see it, to experience it, would make the pain of that fall go away. I spent that season in my room listening to Kind of Blue and feeling sorry for myself, wondering how many Italians Julia had slept with so far until I broke into her email and found out: all of them. The pain eventually subsided, long before I got to Italy. But curiosity lingered. And a desire to be somewhere detached. Specifically not to be in the US, or Jordan or Palestine, places that would’ve made more sense for me to spend a year in. But those places had notes in the margin that proved distracting. In order to think, I needed blank sheets.
I’d graduated from college that spring. It had taken me five years to finish. I’d dropped out twice; the first time to backpack through South America but instead ended up as a waitress at a dive in my college town, driving Julia to and from her classes, and the second time for a medical condition known informally as lollipop syndrome, caused by acute anorexia. Graduation was in May. I spent the summer working at Starbucks and accompanying my mother on her social outings, consistently forgetting that midway through the evening I was usually silent and subsequently ignored. I was ill-fitting, especially against her lack of self-consciousness, her fluidity of wit and charm, though I knew these could take a terrifying shape. By August I’d saved up enough money to buy a twelve-month plane ticket. I left the States in early September. I would not have wanted to stay at my mother’s house for one more day.
‘Via delle Carra,’ I said to the bus driver outside the Santa Maria Novella station in Florence. I’d rented an apartment before arriving. I got to the building and walked into the courtyard, where a group of people sat playing cards. They offered me a glass of Chianti and I spent the evening getting to know them. There was a redhead from Copenhagen who worked in a local government office. There was an Indian DJ who lived in Liverpool and had an effortful cockney accent. There was an American journalist who wrote a weekly fashion column. And a designer from Madrid, who spoke with a lisp and whom I could tell was post-lollipop too. Everyone was referred to by their country of origin. They called me Palestina.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Sleep would take away from my time here. Instead I stayed up marking cities I wanted to travel to in my Let’s Go! Italy guidebook. Decisions would have to be made – finances were limited. Siena or Cinque Terra? Definitely Naples, which I’d heard was a lot like Nablus, pre-’48. Sicily, if I didn’t run out of money by spring. I felt intoxicated by my levity. For the first time in a while, I was bound to no one.
The following afternoon I enrolled in beginning Italian at Dante Alighieri language school in Piazza della Repubblica. Every weekday I had lessons from nine to one with a mid-morning break at ten forty-five, which I would use to run across the street for an espresso. Sometimes I went to the deli next door for a pecorino cheese sandwich or a Ritter chocolate bar. One morning a girl from class followed me there.
‘Hey,’ a voice from behind me called, and I turned around. ‘Which is the flat kind?’
‘What?’ I looked to where the girl’s finger was pointing, at the bottled water, two kinds, marked Frizzante and Naturale. ‘Oh. Naturale.’
‘You’re in my class,’ she said. She had blue eyes and blonde hair, half a dozen friendship bracelets on each forearm and the deepest voice I had ever heard out of a female. It was incongruous with her soft appearance, like a ballerina chewing tobacco. I chose a sandwich from the display and the man at the register rang me up. The girl grabbed a tray and asked, ‘Can I sit with you?’
We sat at a table outside with our sandwiches. Just as I was taking my first bite she pulled out a pack of Marlboro Reds. ‘Want one?’
She was Dutch. Just finished high school, here for her gap year. Her older sister, who was twenty-three like me, did hers in Barcelona. She hoped she’d made the right decision by choosing Italy over Spain. She had one friend so far, a Salvadorian named Katia, also here for her gap year. They lived in a house with a bunch of American girls. ‘They’re loud as hell,’ she said, smooshing her cigarette onto the sidewalk and finally picking up her sandwich. ‘And it’s fucking annoying.’
‘I live in a pretty cool building,’ I told her. ‘You should come hang out with us some time.’
‘Can I come tonight?’
She showed up at seven, while we were drinking and making pasta. When she got up to use the bathroom, the Indian DJ asked, ‘Who’s this blonde bombshell you’ve brought to us? She’s gorgeous!’
I hadn’t noticed that she was beautiful. All I saw was the blonde hair, and after Julia I’d somehow stopped noticing blondes. ‘I didn’t ‘bring her’ to you,’ I responded. ‘She’s not some sort of sacrificial offering.’
They nicknamed her the Sacrifice.
After that night the Sacrifice followed me everywhere, and at first I found it irritating. I had come here, primarily, to be alone. Wherever I went she was right behind me, like a lost puppy. She even showed me how to pedal my bike with her seated on the back. ‘It’s how we do it in Holland,’ she said.
And so I pedaled through cobblestone streets with the Sacrifice sitting behind me. We rode along the Arno River, over the Ponte Vecchio, all the way to the Piazza Michelangelo, way above the city, where a statue of the artist towers over Florence. In time I got used to the extra weight. And when it was absent, I found myself missing it.
The Sacrifice introduced me to Katia from El Salvador. Katia was boyish and still had her baby fat, and she was warm like a grandmother. When she introduced herself to the guys in my building and told them where she was from, they nicknamed her the Saviour.
The Sacrifice, the Saviour, and I quickly established ourselves as a trio, going for long lunches after class, riding to bars and nightclubs on the backs of each other’s bikes. We bought a pet hamster, Mr Bandera. We all got matching piercings through our upper ear cartilage, metal rods that all got infected within a month. We always knew where to find one another: at Caffè Giubbe Rosse, the coffee shop in Piazza della Repubblica where the Futurists used to congregate. I would get there before class and read the paper in Italian; often I’d skip class and read the International Herald Tribune, too. I came to know the regulars, including an Iraqi playwright named Ahmed. We’d speak occasionally, sometimes in Italian, mine still rudimentary, and sometimes in Arabic. I told him my idea for a musical about the House of Medici, with Savonarola as the central antagonist. Ahmed suggested I try writing it, and I came up with a couple of song lyrics but never finished them. He asked me why I chose Italy to live, and not Palestine or Jordan.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, feeling a pinch of guilt for being in Tuscany and not the West Bank doing something to help the cause, or at least something related to my heritage. Every country outside of my own feels like a luxury, especially Italy, and at twenty-three I wanted to indulge. In a way I felt I deserved to.
‘I have no responsibilities here,’ I said. ‘And no ties to anyone.’
He smiled, and his white beard spread like smoke. ‘You’ll find that having someone you can claim is one of the greater things in life.’
Our trio went to Venice one weekend in early October. I had just started working as a production assistant at a Berlusconi-owned television station, getting paid under the table since I didn’t have a work visa, so we could afford to get a hotel room over a hostel. Katia slept on the couch and me and the Sacrifice in the bed. She fell asleep right away the first night. I lay awake for a while. I noticed she breathed heavily and slowly when she slept, like an infant. I stared at the ceiling and thought about nights I’d spent sleeping in my mother’s bed after my father left. I’d lie awake then too, listening to my mother’s breathing, wondering if my father would ever live with us again, how long I would get to occupy his spot. I lay there recalling these things, listening to the Sacrifice exhale until eventually the rhythm of her breaths lulled me to sleep.
Back in Florence, I would pedal fast to the Sacrifice’s house after work with vodka, ricotta cheese, little toasted squares, Nutella. Usually I’d find her sitting on the veranda, smoking cigarettes. ‘You’re too young to be such a heavy smoker,’ I would say.
‘Shut up,’ she’d respond, pulling out the pack and lighting one for me.
I accompanied her to get her hair cut, helped explain to the stylist the look she wanted. We spent weeks planning her nineteenth birthday; she’d requested a dinner at Il Tavolo, three-star Michelin ranked, followed by dancing. ‘Can you make the reservations?’ she asked. Eventually I stopped learning Italian and started learning Dutch. ‘Hey,’ I called to her while she was on the phone with her boyfriend back in Holland. ‘Badkamer!’ Bathroom. She burst out laughing, her laugh throaty, then she mouthed, ‘elephant shoe.’ I had taught her a trick, that when you mouth the words ‘elephant shoe,’ it looks like ‘I love you’. I watched her practise it, her lips forming a pout each time she got to the word ‘shoe.’
In November my brother came to visit with his friend Martin, who also happened to be Dutch. I brought the Sacrifice along almost everywhere we went, and if she wasn’t there then I was talking about her, telling stories about things she’d done, funny things she’d said. ‘Are you in love with her or something?’ my brother asked.
‘What?’ I felt my cheeks redden. ‘Of course not. Actually I was thinking Martin might be interested, since they both live in Amsterdam.’ I turned to Martin. ‘You know, like if she breaks up with her boyfriend.’
‘Um, no thanks,’ he said. ‘She seems like kind of a brat.’
After their visit I got evicted. Apparently guests weren’t allowed in the apartment complex, and renter’s rights seemed to hardly exist in Tuscany. I considered leaving the country. My entry visa had expired, and even with my job I was barely making enough to live on. Maybe it was time to go home.
The Sacrifice cried when I told her this. ‘You can’t leave,’ she said.
‘But I can’t afford to pay rent and still have money to eat!’
‘Then you can live with me!’ she said. ‘You can share my room.’ I felt my chest tighten, and immediately I thought of Julia. During an argument in the denouement of our relationship she accused me of not loving her. At the time I thought she actually believed that; only later did I realize it was an attempt to get out gracefully, the equivalent of ‘it’s not you it’s me’ or ‘you deserve better.’ Eventually she came out and said it – ‘I’m Catholic!’, to which I lifted my head from her lap after getting on my knees and begging her not to leave me, and said, ‘And I’m Muslim!’ I was able to muster a laugh through sobs. ‘Isn’t that worse?’
In pity she slept with me afterwards and I was happy to take what I could get. She then offered up a compromise: we could continue to live together, to share a room, a bed, even, but not have sex. In desperation I accepted, and the torturous situation helped me slowly wither away.
I looked up at the Sacrifice. ‘OK,’ I said.
That evening I got my stuff together and hauled it to her place. I dragged my suitcase up the stairs to the bedroom and then lay down on one of the two single beds. ‘Why don’t we push them together,’ she said, ‘and make one big bed?’
We stayed up most nights talking and watching movies on a laptop in our makeshift full-size bed. I told her about Julia, only I referred to her as ‘Jeremy’, concerned that I might scare her if I admitted the truth; she told me about her boyfriend, how while she enjoyed the sex she didn’t know if it was possible to form an emotional connection with a man. ‘Sounds like you had that with Jeremy, though,’ she said, and I nodded quickly, unable to look her in the eye. While watching a movie one night I went down to the kitchen to get water. Katia was sitting at the table listening to music, Mr Bandera spinning away beside her on his hamster wheel. ‘Hey,’ I called out, but she didn’t answer.
I knew she was hurt that our threesome had become a duo. ‘Katia,’ I said, placing a hand on her shoulder.
Katia raised the volume, and I went back upstairs.
We found the coat in a boutique near the Piazza di Santa Croce. It was white, with fur around the hood that fluttered when she exhaled. And when she wore it she looked regal. I wanted her to have it, to think of me every time she slipped her arms into the sleeves, as if somehow that meant I could keep her. ‘I love it,’ the Sacrifice said, trying it on and looking at herself in the mirror from various angles. ‘But it’s so expensive.’
I was making about ninety euros a week at the television station and was still spending more than I was taking in, even while living rent-free. ‘I’ll buy it for you,’ I called out, like a last bid at an auction, surprising even myself. ‘As a present.’
We rode home together, the Sacrifice on the back of my bike, in her new coat, her arms wrapped around my waist. I could smell her Gucci Rush even as the cold air assaulted me. We locked up my bike and went to her bedroom, closed the door and put on a movie. When she fell asleep I burrowed my nose in her blonde hair, closed my eyes, and inhaled deeply.
I had never been more sure.
By January I still hadn’t gone anywhere besides Venice. I’d made several attempts but each time I disappointed myself in my inability to pull away, even for a weekend. The Sacrifice was leaving soon, to go skiing with her family in Switzerland, then to Rome for the spring. One night I came home tipsy and found her in bed reading. Once I managed to get out of my clothes and into my pyjamas, I started jumping on the bed. She laughed. ‘What are you doing?’
I kept jumping, spinning around in mid air and tapping the ceiling with my palms, until I fell onto her. She was giggling and I was breathing heavily until we both puttered out. We lay there staring at each other, me still on top of her. When the room stopped spinning I looked down at her mouth. I had observed it intently over the past months, watched it suck the tips of cigarettes, lick gelato, sip wine, kiss cheeks, kiss my cheeks. I could feel her staccato heartbeats as I inched closer to her face, her breaths coming at me in short puffs. By now we were both shivering, goose bumps lining the surfaces of our bare arms.
I pressed my cheek against hers. My eyelashes fluttered against her cheekbone. I then reached up and pushed her bangs back with my hand, and kissed her forehead. I pressed my mouth against it fully, remaining there. Finally I pulled back, rolled off of her and faced the wall. I didn’t turn back around until I heard her breathing her deep rhythmic sleep breaths.
A few days later I accompanied her to the airport. We barely spoke during the bus ride or at the ticket counter. When it was time to go through security, she fumbled in her backpack and pulled out a neatly folded piece of paper.
‘Bye,’ she said, handing it to me, and then she turned and walked away.
I waited until I could no longer see her to open up the note. It was just one line. ‘I’m tired of elephant shoe. I love you.’
I stared at it for a while before crumpling it up and putting it in my pocket. On the bus ride home I sat against the window and watched cars whip by on the autostrada. When I got back I noticed that she’d forgotten to pack her Smurf pillowcase. I lay down and buried my face in it. Hours later I was still lying there when I heard, ‘Hey! Get up!’
Katia was standing in the doorway, though I didn’t turn to look at her. ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Let’s go to Giubbe Rosse.’
‘I don’t feel like it.’
She sighed. ‘You’re pathetic. You know that, right? It’s draining.’
I nodded, keeping my cheek pressed to the pillow. I’m aware I can be exhausting – ‘you exist too much,’ my mother often said, and I knew exactly what she meant.
Katia then lay beside me and tossed an arm across my back. ‘Completely pathetic, I swear.’
At the end of February I flew home, six months earlier than planned. After much searching I found a salaried, full-time position, and an apartment I could afford. The job was consuming, but I did not mind letting it claim me. ?
Image by smenjas