The Eternal City

In Piazza Navona, two buskers play 'Hotel California' on their guitars. They wear tie-dyed, neon T-shirts.

“Where are we?” I say.

When are we?” Cal says.

The fountain in the middle of the piazza reflects the surrounding lights and the water is gold. Reading from the guidebook, he tells me it is the Fountain of the Four Rivers, by Bernini, designed for Pope Innocent X in 1651.

“Don’t tell me which four rivers,” I say.

“You want to guess?”

“No.”

He glances at me and turns back to the guidebook.

“The Nile,” he says, “the Danube, the Ganges, and Río de la Plata.”

We go to a cafe in the corner of the piazza. It is Monday night, eleven o’clock. A few diners finish their meals and the waiters are tired.

My skin is warm, the blood humming barely beneath the surface.

“London is a million miles away,” I say.

Cal does not say the actual distance between London and Rome, although I see him thinking.

The waiter, Aldo, guesses we are from England, before we have said a word to him.

“What gave it away?” Cal says.

Aldo pushes a finger to my sunburnt shoulder, searing me. His fingerprint is white before turning pink again. He repeats my name, in full—Angela—and he makes it sound like another name altogether.

We order two bottles of Peroni and Aldo shakes his head and says, no, no, no. He brings us two small glasses of limoncello.

Cal chinks his glass against mine and says, “Saluti”.  

“I really just want a fucking beer,” I say.

#

Cal lays a blanket on the ground for us, beneath a large plane tree. Sunlight falls in shadow-cut shapes upon us and, only ten feet away, the Tiber flows.

“Someone should write a poem about that river,” I say.

He smiles. “Virgil did. More than two thousand years ago. Aeneid."

Cal’s skin turns more golden every day. He puts his head on my stomach and the weight of his head pressing me against the ground is immense. He laughs at the noises my stomach makes. He reads “The Tiber” from Aeneid to me from his phone and tells me it is about an invasion that came ashore.

I touch the purple-green bruise on my upper arm which Cal made last night, sinking his teeth so deep into my flesh. I waited. I didn’t know whether I was excited or wanted to throw up. He released his jaw. Later, in the shower, he touched the bruise with his fingertips and mouthed, sorry. I shook my head, but I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know he had that in him.

#

I tell Cal I want to go shopping.

“You know I hate shopping,” he says and waves his book at me, Dante’s, The Divine Comedy. “I’ll stay here.”

I catch the crowded Metro to Cipro station and walk to the Vatican. We have already been here—we came yesterday. I wait in the queue. Something I cannot name is bubbling beneath my sternum and doesn’t let up.

Inside St Peter’s, to the right of the Holy Door and the altar of Saint Sebastian, it is before me again—'The Pietà' by Michelangelo, dated 1498-99. The body of Jesus lies in the lap of his mother, Mary, after the Crucifixion. Her arm is around him, her hand holding his ribs. Cut from one piece of marble, they gleam. Camera flashes blast against their skin. They are behind a panel of bulletproof acrylic glass and all of us are crowded on the other side.

#

My birthday. In our hotel room, Cal gives me a beaded necklace, pinned flat in a box. He lifts it gently, his hands big as he undoes the clasp. The beads are cold when he lays them against my skin, but I know they will warm to become the same temperature as me.

“You don’t like the necklace?” he says.

I lean into the mirror. “It’s pretty.”

“The beads look like rubies,” he says. “The salesperson said it’s their cut that makes them shine.”

I don’t tell him they look like drops of blood. Maybe it is this place. Keats was eight blocks away, almost two hundred years ago, coughing up blood and being bled.

Cal hands me a second present. “I know the doctor said you won’t want to wear a bikini anymore, but this is different.”

He wears his reading glasses. The sunlight behind him is bright, hard, endless. His hands move around and against each other, as if they ache.

“I don’t need presents,” I say.

“Of course you do.”

“I don’t want to go swimming.”

“Just open it.”

It is a two-piece swimsuit, halter-neck, black with small, white polka dots. It is flattering with a clean, European cut.

“They call it a tankini,” he says.

I hug him, pressing my face into his shirt that smells of our laundry detergent, and I want him to speak so that his words rumble through me. I want him to tell me what else they told him.

#

For my birthday dinner, Cal takes me to an expensive restaurant, Aroma. The Colosseum is right there before us, almost touchable. I think of animals and people torn limb from limb. Damnatio ad bestias, he told me, was a form of Roman capital punishment in which the condemned person was killed by wild animals. Since I was a child, I have feared being killed by animals. I haven’t told him that. I should have feared more likely things.

At the table beside us, a boy, about five years old, eats with his parents. He wears a flat cap, a bow tie. He asks his mother for more acqua. She pours it.

I watch Cal watch the child and I don’t know what he sees now. Cal smiles at me and it drags deep, somewhere near the base of my spine and the pit of my stomach, an ah-well-such-is-life smile.

Later, in bed, Cal moves down my body and calls me angel. He moves so slowly, down, down, and he may as well be a blade cutting me open. It takes every bit of effort for me to not say, sorry and please, don’t leave me. I am gasping for air, waiting to be clubbed over the head. He kisses my stomach and says, breathe. He pulls my knees over his shoulders—the definition of anticipation.

#

The next morning, we lie on a daybed beside the pool on the rooftop of our hotel. I wear a dress when everyone else wears swimsuits. I sip my it’s-almost-twelve-o’clock-and-it’s-practically-a-milkshake-anyway frozen coconut daiquiri. Below us, Rome swelters and a thousand mopeds speed through the ancient, cobblestone streets. They roar.

Cal has been swimming. He adjusts the umbrella above us so that I am shaded. Cold beads of water fall onto me from his hair, his skin.

He lies down beside me and takes up The Divine Comedy.

“Is Dante coming everywhere with us?” I say.

He keeps reading. “Yes. I am still in ‘Inferno’, trying to get to ‘Purgatorio’.”

“And after that?”

He smiles over at me. “‘Paradiso’.”

I lean into him and kiss him, the book between us. He smells of chlorine and his mouth is warm. His hand closes over the back of my head.

I pull away and climb from the daybed.

“Don’t go,” he says. “Where are you going?”

I step out of my dress, wearing the new swimsuit. I wear the necklace too.

“What are you doing?” he says.

I dive into the pool and from underwater I hear him laugh. I laugh too, deep in my throat, bubbles rising from my mouth.

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Photo by Braden Collum

Melissa Goode’s work has appeared in Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, WhiskeyPaper, Split Lip Magazine, Forge Literary Magazine, and matchbook, among others. Her story ‘It falls’ (Jellyfish Review) was recently chosen by Aimee Bender for Best Small Fictions 2018 (Braddock Avenue Books). She lives in Australia. You can find her here: www.melissagoode.com and at @melgoodewriter.