Giovanna rubs sunblock over and around the mole on her shin. Her eyes slide over him as her knees lower into sand. Waves and breeze, salty air in Marc’s mind and lungs. Her shoulders smell like basil. Her thick hair doesn’t dry after a swim. He calculates the number of nearby seashell echoes. Every medusa that will sting. When in Roma, call it medusa. While roaming in California, call it jellyfish. He moves often, and he wonders why he tortures himself with heavy boxes of possessions. With his finger he draws in the sand a modest house, writes the year: 2000. He draws the curls of her hair and draws his bony legs. They hold stick figure hands. Giovanna draws a beach and umbrella.
Marc sits in the corner of a diner booth after midnight, surrounded by friends who bemoan concert hearing loss. On LSD, the ringing in his ear transmits chords he could only play if he possessed a few more fingers. He pierces the pancake’s browned skin with a fork. Steam rises and hisses. Marc asks, “Is my face as burned as I imagine?” Danny presses his finger to his brother’s forehead, then neck. Contrast blossoms between sunburn and paleness. Red in flames. White fades. In the photo taken earlier at the Earth Day concert, Marc’s face tilts, his hand emerges from the cluster of his brother’s friends. LSD changes his mind to stay within the frame. His brain processes added chemicals and plays a slow motion movie of friends at the Paolo Soleri amphitheater.
In this Earth Day photo with curves for corners, he keeps his eyes open for the flash and thinks of someone he recently met. He and Giovanna will write letters in Italian and English for two years; he plans to leave New Mexico to travel with her. Firenze a Napoli, the letter will end. In the Earth Day photo of friends, his brother leaps into the frame. The red flannel shirt collar itches Marc’s neck. His only brother shouts “Queso!” and sounds like a melodious thrushing. Giovanna thanks him for mailing her the concert photo and for writing on the back a Loa Tzu quote about courage.
An hour south of Roma, Giovanna cranks the beach umbrella handle to widen the shade. Sand crusts her heels and toes. Marc wants his mind to still while he rests in her arms. He’s twenty-five and buries words when the two of them sit in parallel. The sun finds her legs. Edges of shade urge them closer; they scoot on sand that finds crevices and removes callouses. He withholds forecasts of melanoma. “Va bene?” He points to the mole, the ubiquitous cluster of skin cells forming a dark signal. He asks sand to exfoliate it away. He asks for a microscopic miracle beneath her legs. All he has to do is impress it upon her. Glimmering grains drain from the soft side of his fist. Sand percusses her leg. Nearby exclamations of children and lovers on teams, divided by a net, hitting one ball. And waves of salt and water and medusas. She shrugs. Va bene.
She tugs at his shorts. “Dov’è costumi?” He insists his cargo shorts are swim trunks with no speedo underneath. Her laugh tumbles. She’s unsure about her travel friend from New Mexico. Thinking in Italian exhausts him, but he still wants to trade Santa Fe for Roma.
In the southwestern United States, hard soles trample an old saloon floor. Cracks creak underneath a pack of Italian tourists. Fall threatens the summer’s Sundays of ’98. The motor of the bus parked on Water St. rattles store windows. Feet pivot near Marc’s register. Women mumble in his mother’s tongue. “Benvenuto a Coyote Café,” he says to the one who stares. He ignores the other Italian tourists he will never know. “Siamo di Roma,” she says. With the Italian of a four-year-old he announces that L’Avventura is one of his favorite films, Paolo Soleri his favorite architect. She elbows a friend. The air stays high plains dry. She asks about the elevation. About Billy the Kid. He recommends drinking a gallon of water and watching the film Young Guns. His broken Italian disguises his ignorance about New Mexico.
“You see extraterrestre?” she wants to know.
He lets her know he wants to move to California. “Or Italia.” He wants to ask her sign but points to the gift shop stereo and tells her about the band Dead Can Dance.
She nods and scrunches her mouth to say the music’s okay. Then, “Non è vero dead will dance.”
“It’s a band name.”
Her friend elbows her.
“Mi chiamo Giovanna.”
“Piacere. Marc. Marco.”
His Nonna brings the last piece of cannoli to a large table. Not one table, but many joined and covered with red and white checkered table cloths and Christmas candles. “Grazie, Nonna.” He sits near the landscape painting of Capri, thinks that every year he sees something new in it. In his tenth year, he finds a distant woman rendered with a few monochromatic strokes, sitting on a curb, studying something in her hands. A map? At Nonna’s funeral, he will wonder if she painted the island while on vacanza. Now, his brother disappears after manicotti lunch. Sauce on plates crusts in terracotta patterns. Vinaigrette and tomatoes wilt the lettuce, and fine fumes rise and sting Marc’s nose within slow breaths. Nonna asks to dance. She pinches strands of his hair, inspects her latest cut. “Who do you love?” She extends her hand—he imagines Nonna’s fingerprints. He imagines traces of her in his hair, how the oil from her skin bonds the strands. She must’ve licked a spoon while making cannoli. She must’ve baked traces of dead skin and saliva into the crispy shells. He doesn’t enjoy the accordion music. He understands some of the lyrics.
Nonno plays cards every Thursday night in the back of a famous pizza shop. The elders scare Marc when they smile and compare Nonno’s face to his; dentures threaten to fall out, anger flares over wasted youth.
Marc pouts and dances. Nonna blinks more than necessary. Excess eyeliner weighs her lashes. Her silver and turquoise earrings stretch the holes in her lobes. She points at girls and asks about his interest in dancing with the tallest one.
Roma stinks. Windows shut out the August sewer smell. Roma stirs along Via Veneto and via passing trains and small cars and terse Vespas. He imagines Giovanna sleeping on her parents’ couch in the dark that isn’t dark enough for sleeping late. She’s three years older than he is and her parents forbid her from sharing the hideaway bed. He sleeps in a nearby apartment bedroom and shares a bathroom with strangers. The landlord insists the tub doesn’t need a shower curtain and brandishes a mop to prove it. A stranger in the shared kitchen offers him a beer and a taco and he wants to save them for Giovanna. He wants to know where to buy tacos in Roma.
He will move to Los Angeles before he dies. He will teach creative writing to college freshman. On his first California spring break, Marc will beach-dive with his cousin in Monterey. His cousin will rent a house surrounded by pink clusters of mesembryanthemum flowers. They will cross the street wearing wetsuits and clutching fins, tanks strapped and heavy and paint chipped. He will feel like a spy in a film. The cousin will rush. Marc will navigate kelp gardens alone, swimming through the same veils of light that striped Capri’s sea. Underwater jungles will sway. Surface seaweed will toss like thick hair submerged in small waves. Sunblock will abandon him in his fifties. Jellyfish won’t sting. Otters will observe Marc’s search for his cousin. Sharks will watch the otters. Who will watch the sharks? Afterward, his cousin will suggest they watch the last screening of La Dolce Vita at the local art house theater. In the car he will tell the cousin about the passive medusas in Giovanna’s sea. The cousin will praise his life in Italy. “Are you sure it’s over?”
Marc mumbles in Italian that he is never sure. About anything.
He sent his last letter to Giovanna two days before visiting Roma. Marc made a promise inside an Aries birthday card. He responded late to her Easter card that announced Buona Pasqua! and chimed when he opened it in blistered heat, standing in his front doorway with his back turned to a gravel road in Santa Fe.
A month after vacanza he will dig in the moving box that his brother packed and shipped. He will press the battery tucked in the Easter card to stir it awake from a month’s rest. He will enjoy the rhythm of Giovanna’s body on top of his in their noisy Napoli apartment. Weight and exclamations will measure his life of its brighter days, and a courtyard neighbor will scream at him and Giovanna each night, “Per favore, zitto!” He will understand why Jesus would choose to return. Giovanna will anticipate responses to his English tutor applications. Marc promised in English, at the end of his last letter, to ask for her hand. Mi chiamo Marco, he signed.
She opens the glove compartment and removes his last letter. She reads and reminds him she’s older than he is but would still say yes. She would leave Italia with him. Or stay. They sit in a car in the airport parking lot, surrounded by ochre fields that remind him of Fellini’s Il Bidone, but with color. Too much color amongst empty surroundings. Too little space in the living room of her parents’ apartment to consider landing there tonight. The family next to her yellow car watches and sees his hesitation. Giovanna honks at no one. He removes her hand from the horn. She cradles his face with both hands and when he looks away, she looks with him.
“What do you want to say, Marco?”
“Non so come dirlo.”
“Inglese, per favore. Say everything!”
“My fears say run. I have too much imagination for one person. I used to respond to risk to avoid it. I want to run fast. This dear and inadequate man behaving like a boy with a man’s rucksack wants to run away now. I want to know the answers I know I can only live.”
Knowledge of the Rilke reference crumbles his guard. Eyes water. When he stops laughing at his own discomfort, language dies inside his mind. They are insieme if he stays, insieme if he retreats. He folds his return ticket inside his passport. She names a secluded beach saved for his second visit. She asks him to drive. They chase each other past small sand dunes. They find warmth and evening privacy under large towels, two faces too close to see with eyes much older. Today, an airplane shrieks over them, over the medusas, a flight west with at least one empty seat in coach. Today her hair doesn’t dry after they swim senza costumi. He says yes to everything she asks of him.
Two days prior to vacanza, he spends an afternoon on a floral-print couch. He listens to Italian language cassette tapes while packing a large rucksack. He studies the Aries star formation on a paper card. He empties the ink of a pen onto blank pages by writing studied Italian phrases and drawing the embrace of two stick figures. Marco writes beneath the romance: ’giorno Giovanna, I will land in Roma soon for vacanza, hope to see more of Italia than in the movies and paintings, and thank you in person in many ways. My stick figure rendering proposes to your stick figure. We will see what memory has to say about a future.
Casey Haymes teaches creative writing and research to first year students at Parsons at The New School. He published a story in LIT, read a story in the Hi-Fi Reading Series, and won a writing residency from The Jentel Foundation. He earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, where he served as the editor in chief of Lumina. Some of his thoughts appear at bypasserby.com.