Fiction: How Did We Get Here by Claire Taylor

The hotel was located on Via Calimala. Lily looked again at the directions her husband had scrawled on the back of a receipt. They were supposed to take Via Sant’ Antonino south until it connected with Via Roma, which would intersect with Via Calimala, at which point they would turn right. Except Via Sant’ Antonino did not connect with Via Roma. They had been up and down Via Sant’ Antonino a dozen times and Via Roma was nowhere to be found. Where the road should be, there was only the side of a centuries-old stone building.

“It’s gotta be right on the other side of this wall,” Jack said. He ran a hand through his hair then smacked his palm against the stone. “I told you we should have let the guy take us to the hotel.”

They got turned around coming out of the Central Market, doubled back to retrace their steps, and still somehow ended up on a road they hadn’t been on before. An old Italian man in a VW Bug noted their confusion and pulled over to offer them a ride. He was perfectly pleasant, but all the same, there was no way Lily was climbing into the back seat of a random car in a strange city only to be murdered before they’d even made it to the hotel.

“It’s not a strange city,” Jack argued when she told him just that, but it had been six years since they last visited Florence on their honeymoon. The city was as new to them now as they’d been to each other back then.

“How would that have helped?” she said to him now. “Clearly the guy had no clue how to get us there. Unless you’re the one who screwed up and wrote his directions down wrong.” She said it to see the way his jaw clenched, how his throat pulsed as he swallowed a retort.

It was after the second loss that she decided to turn her anger outward. She’d felt the familiar clench in her belly, pressed a hand to the warmth between her legs, and pulled back two bloodied fingers. Something in her shifted then. The soft, rounded edges of her sorrow turned to sharp points she dug deep into him every chance she got. “It’s funny,” she said on the morning she took it too far, after more than two years with the hushed wail of her grief echoing through her empty center, “Your brother doesn’t seem to have any trouble getting his wife pregnant.”

Jack set down his coffee mug too hard against the counter and grabbed his face with one hand. He squeezed until his knuckles blanched, his smashed cheeks and lips burning red beneath the crush of his palm. “Fuck you, Lily,” he said so quietly it scared her. Later she would go to place the mug in the dishwasher and find a crack had formed along one side, snaking its way from base to rim.

When she slid into bed beside him that night, she rested her cheek against his chest. “I’m sorry,” she said, expecting his forgiveness. But instead, he turned onto his side and let her head fall to the mattress as he reached to turn out the light.

She needed to make space for anger in her grief, her therapist told her. This made sense to Lily, her sorrow like a mythical beast trapped inside her, thrumming against the underside of her skin. Gnawing on her ribs.

“I hate you sometimes,” she told Jack one night as they were getting ready for bed. “I hate you so much I can barely stand it. It’s not fair.” She swiped at her eyes. “But it’s true.”

“Yeah, well. I hate me too,” Jack replied. He squeezed a line of toothpaste across her brush and handed it to her.

This trip was their attempt to repair what had broken. It was Lily’s idea to return to Florence. She hoped it would remind her of how she felt at the start of their marriage—the world full of possibility. She had gone from being all alone to suddenly in love, her life warm and hopeful for the first time in ages. But over the years, the loneliness had returned. Not just in the way her body sat empty, a constant reminder, but in how she and Jack came together—rote and methodical, every press of their bodies heavy with resignation.

Their time in Florence had felt so light. Candles glowing on every restaurant table. The whole city smudged and blurring at the edges as they spent long evenings drinking bottle after bottle of wine. She hadn’t noticed then how forbidding the city could feel, everything thick stone and cold marble.

The afternoon was warm, but still she shivered a little. She stepped out of the shadow of the building and into the sunlit street, where a car streamed past, narrowly missing her. She jumped back and laughed. She shook her head and smiled.

“What?” Jack said.

“Nothing. I was just remembering—”

“The bike trip?”

“Yeah.” She looked at him with surprise. “I was remembering the bike trip.”

There was a little bike shop down the road from the hotel they had stayed in. They passed it each morning on their way to breakfast.

“We should rent some bikes,” Jack said on the second to last morning of their honeymoon. “We could ride out of the city, check out the Tuscan countryside.”

Lily laughed at the image of Jack on a bike.

“I’m serious,” Jack said. He grabbed her hand and led her toward the shop.

“What? Now? We haven’t even had breakfast,” Lily protested, but Jack only shrugged.

“We’ll find a little countryside café and have breakfast there.”

Only they never found a café. After two hours of biking over rolling hills, they finally came to a tiny town of terracotta roofs. There was one little shop that sold mostly bottles of wine and small watercolor paintings of the very fields they’d been biking past all morning. There were chocolate bars available for purchase. Lily hungrily stacked a pile five high on the counter, but they had used the last of their lira to rent the bikes and the shop owner wouldn’t accept the one traveler’s check they’d held back from cashing.

“What now?” Lily said when they were back out on the street, the sun high above them in the sky. “You didn’t think we’d need money for this plan to work?”

Jack ran a hand over his head. It was a sign Lily would come to know well in the years to follow. He did it to swipe away his anger, push down what he wanted to say. Whenever he did it, she imagined grabbing his hand and turning it over to read all the unspoken thoughts he’d scooped into his palm.

“Let’s go,” he said. He grabbed his bike from where they had propped them against the wall of the shop.

“Go where?”

“Back to the city.”

“Are you kidding? I’m starving.”

“Do you have a better idea?” They stared at each other for a long moment before Lily picked up her bike and they headed back down the road they’d come in on.

After thirty minutes of biking, Lily’s legs churning like slow sluggish mush, Jack suddenly turned off the road and came to a stop beneath a tree. Not expecting the change of course, Lily went pushing past him and had to double back. As she dropped her bike beside his and collapsed on the ground, Jack pulled himself up onto a low branch of the tree and slowly made his way higher and higher.

“Catch.” She heard his voice coming through the leaves and then something fell onto her stomach with a thunk. She gasped.

“Oops, sorry!” Jack shouted down as Lily lifted an apple off her belly. It was small and green, warmed by the sun. She bit into it, the skin easily giving way. The fruit was hot in her mouth, but juicy, the sweetness quenching her thirst.

“How did you spot those?” she asked as Jack climbed down from the tree, his pockets stuffed full of small, round apples. The lower limbs of the tree held no fruit. The apples were clustered high in the branches, little green orbs camouflaged by the leaves.

Jack shrugged and took a big, noisy bite of an apple. Small juice droplets scattered across his chin and jaw, shining ever so slightly in the sunshine. It made her hungry for him.

Jack finished his apple in four bites. He pulled the rest from his pockets and dropped them gently into a pile next to Lily. She watched as he did this, her own apple suspended in front of her mouth, half-eaten. He took the last apple from his back pocket and rubbed it against the bottom of his shirt, lifted it to his lips to take a bite, but then he caught Lily staring at him and paused. He smiled and flung the apple over his shoulder where it rolled into the road. He knelt down in front of her, came onto his hands and knees so his body hovered above hers. First, he pressed his mouth to hers. The apple juice still lingered on his lips. Then he pressed his body to hers and she let his weight push her flat. The ground cradled the back of her body, firm and supportive.

By the time they finally made it back to the city and returned the bikes, evening had arrived. Lily’s stomach was tight from hunger, but she desperately wanted to shower before they went in search of dinner. She was coated in a sticky film of dirt and sweat.

“Admit it, though,” Jack said, as they stepped out of the bike shop, back into the cool evening air. “That turned out to be a great idea.”

Lily laughed. “We biked halfway across Tuscany with only a couple small apples for fuel. We’re lucky we haven’t died from dehydration.”

“I’ve never felt more alive,” Jack said, spreading his arms wide. He took a step backward into the street right as a car came speeding down the narrow road. A horn blared and Jack leapt toward Lily, crashing into her and knocking them both to the ground. They rolled around, moaning and laughing, struggling to stand up on tired legs. Jack managed to get up first and reached down to pull Lily to her feet. They stood together, their arms wrapped tightly around each other’s bodies, breathing heavily through their laughter.

Now she watched him as the memory played through his mind. A small spark flared briefly behind his eyes and for a moment, it ignited a heat deep inside her in a place she thought had frozen solid. But just as quickly, it was gone—the spark and the heat, the reminiscing.

“I’m hungry,” Jack said. He pointed down the street. “Let’s look back down this way once more just in case we missed it and if we still can’t find Roma, we can stop to eat at that place with the weird bird on the awning and see if anyone in there can give us better directions.”

It was an umbrella bird. The feathers on its head were piled high like an oversized pompadour, and a long wattle hung down its front like a wide necktie. The Little Richard Restaurant, they would call it in the future. They spent most of their meal trying to figure out who the bird reminded them of, circling back to the topic again and again whenever they hit a lull in conversation and any discussion of the reason for their trip threatened to creep in. Like Elvis, Lily said, but only at his most flamboyant, Jack added. It had an air of Liberace. They agreed it lacked the intentional coolness of The Fonz. Jack suggested John Oates, which led them to Prince, where they went back and forth for a while—glasses of wine and baskets of bread emptied and refilled—before settling on Little Richard.

Their waiter shook his head, confused when they told him the name of their hotel. He peered closely at the directions Jack had gotten from the man in the Bug, but then handed the receipt back to Jack with a shrug.

“Via Calimala,” Lily said, and the waiter finally nodded. He said something in Italian that neither Jack nor Lily could understand. Then he began waving his arm, pointing diagonally across the restaurant.

“That way?” Jack asked, mimicking the movement.

“Sì. Sì,” the waiter said, pointing again.

“That way,” Jack said. “Gratzi.”

Outside the restaurant, evening was beginning to settle over the city. Jack crossed the street and Lily followed him.

“Do we know where we’re going?” she asked.

“No,” Jack said. “But we don’t know where we are right now. The guy said to go this way,” he stuck his arm out diagonally in front of him, “so I’m going this way.”

They turned onto the first street they came to. Lights were blinking on in the homes they passed. Through one window Lily spied a man bouncing a baby in his arms. She slowed her pace to watch as he lifted the baby to rest against his shoulder. She could see the man’s lips moving in a song as he closed his eyes and gently swayed back and forth. Up ahead, Jack continued down the road without her. She watched him walk. The broad spread of his shoulders, the spot on his lower back where a small splotch of sweat had started to soak through his shirt. He was so solid, her husband. A thick block of stone she had to chisel away at whenever she wanted to know what he was feeling.

“I feel nothing!” He shouted at her one night when she kept pressing. She was overcome with envy. Every inch of her felt flayed open, raw and pulsing, pain working its way deep into her cells, changing the very composition of her being. What right did he have to feel nothing, to enjoy the comfort of being numb? But of course, he had meant he felt empty, hollowed out. As he turned the corner onto another street, she imagined him like a balloon, all the effort it must take to keep himself anchored to the ground.

She ran to catch up with him just as he turned another corner. They weaved their way through narrow streets, back and forth across the neighborhood. They passed people out walking dogs, a mother pushing a stroller. Could these people see Lily’s pain in the set of her shoulders? Was the wall that had built up between her and Jack visible, a thin shimmer like a spider’s web in the right light?

Lily imagined the lives taking place inside the homes around them—families arriving home after work and school. Televisions turning on. Dinners being prepared. Everyone moving through the routines of their lives, private sorrows carried with them like so many invisible stones tucked into pockets. Everyone, ever so slightly weighed down.

Jack turned once more and then threw his arms in the air. “Hey! Via Calimala!” He looked back at Lily and smiled. “We found the goddamn road. I can’t even believe it.”

Up ahead they could see the carved wooden sign marking their hotel. Lily’s feet were swollen and achy. Her neck was sore from where the strap of her luggage had been digging into her skin. Later she would ask Jack to rub it and his hands would quickly find the small muscle knot that had formed at the top of her shoulder. He would press his thumbs into the spot and a hot bolt of pain would radiate down her arm, making her wince. “Does that feel okay?” Jack would ask and she would nod. Yes, she would tell him, please keep going.

Claire Taylor is a writer in Baltimore, MD. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and her micro-chapbook, A History of Rats, is available from Ghost City Press. Claire is the founder and editor in chief of Little Thoughts Press, a print literary magazine of writing for and by kids. She serves as a staff reader for Capsule Stories. You can find Claire online at clairemtaylor.com or Twitter @ClaireM_Taylor. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s