In Naples by Roxana Robinson

“Today,” said Julian, “I recommend the catacombs.” He unfolded his napkin with a little flourish.


They were in Palermo, in the hotel dining room, where the two couples met for breakfast every day. Julian, who had read up on Italy before they left, had an idea for them each morning.

“And what are they exactly, the catacombs? I think of Romans,” said Vivian. She was Julian’s wife, and was beginning to find the daily suggestions irritating. “Celia?” She pointed across the table at the heavy silver-plate coffeepot. Celia, Rob’s wife, passed it to her.

“Underground chambers, where people are buried,” Julian said. “Or actually not buried. Where they’re kept.”

“Not buried? How do you mean, kept?” Vivian asked. “Coffins and drawers, like a mausoleum?” Vivian was small and neat, with short, feathery hair and high cheekbones. Her fair skin was becoming papery; fine lines fanned out from the corners of her eyes, around her mouth.

“No coffins,” Julian said.


“They’re loose?” Vivian asked. “Don’t they rot?” She felt faintly scandalized.

“Apparently not,” Julian said. “I don’t know why. They’ve been doing it for centuries.”


Julian was tall and olive-skinned, with dark wavy hair. When Vivian had married him, he’d been slim and agile, like a harlequin. He was still tall, but his waistline was thickening. This wasn’t so evident at home, in a suit, but now, in a polo shirt and khaki pants, Vivian noticed the loose bulge at his belt. His forehead was rising; Vivian noticed that, too.

“Corpses?” Vivian said. “Really? Do I want to see them?” She wrinkled her nose and looked to Celia for support.

But Celia shrugged her shoulders. “I’ve never been.”

Celia was lean, with wide fashionable shoulders and streaked blond hair. Vivian and Celia were good friends but not best. They rarely did things alone. Their politics were different, for one thing, and then Celia was from that strange country, the South. But the couples were very close. They all lived in a small leafy town in northern Westchester. Rob and Julian commuted to Wall Street, Vivian did PR for the local museum, and Celia was on the board of a historic site and played very good golf.

Celia was an unreliable ally: she might take Vivian’s side or she might shrug. She was the same way with her husband. Sometimes she was loyal—“Rob’s absolutely right, that man was an idiot,”—and sometimes flatly dismissive—“Oh, Rob, don’t tell that awful story, no one wants to hear it.” Celia’s family had been rich.

If Vivian told Julian to stop telling a story, he’d cheerily go right on talking. Julian was impervious to things like that, something else Vivian was beginning to find irritating. Actually he was impervious to everything: he was buoyant and optimistic, and saw the world as benign. This was getting on Vivian’s nerves.

His buoyancy had been charming when they’d gotten married, 18 years ago. It was the second time for them both, and the first years had been awful, four kids and two ex-spouses. Vivian had often felt she was foundering in those seas, but Julian had sailed through them, refusing to blame or regret, being charitable, carrying on. Vivian had then thought him charming; now she thought him oblivious.

All that emotion, swirling around them like a cyclonic storm. She’d been in the thick of it, there was always some crisis going on, everyone upset. Julian’s crazy ex- wife and her impossible new husband, Vivian’s impossible ex-husband. The children, acting out. Vivian had always been at the center of it, earnest, involved, talking and listening, delving. Full of empathy.

But she was through the storm zone. She couldn’t do any of that now: she was done. Emotion made her tired.

All that emotion, swirling around them like a cyclonic storm. She’d been in the thick of it, there was always some crisis going on, everyone upset.

Apparently she’d been born with a finite amount of patience, like eggs. Three years ago she’d run out of eggs, and now, apparently, she’d run out of patience. Possibly empathy, too. Everything made her impatient. She wanted to get on with things.

“Well, I definitely want to see the catacombs,” Julian said. “If no one else does, I’ll meet you all for lunch.”

“I’m going.” Rob folded his hands on the table as if making a pledge. He had a pleasant, craggy face, like a friendly mountain. “It’s a big part of their culture. La cultura. All the aristocratic families are there.”

Rob and Celia had once lived in Italy, which entitled them to slip Italian words into their sentences.

“It sounds kind of awful,” Vivian said, but she said it quietly. She wanted to disapprove, but not to miss out.

 


 

Their hotel was old and grand, with lofty ceilings, carved moldings, and noble proportions. Vast gilt mirrors held other centuries in their dim shadowy depths; the corridors were carpeted in papal red. It was grand but shabby, in a Sicilian way: the mirrors were flaking, the carpets threadbare, the table linen thin and limp.

All of Palermo seemed like this to Vivian: splendid and in decline. The baroque buildings, with their polished columns and ornate scrollwork, were stained and grimy. Holes gaped in the streets, and trash moved in sluggish tides along the gutters. It seemed no one was in charge, not just of the buildings, but the city itself. Traffic lights had no effect: there was never a pause in the steady onslaught of cars and scooters. Anarchy flaunted itself, and something more sinister. An undercurrent of darkness ran through everything, from the women’s clothes to the glances of the passersby. You understood that you were a victim.

Crime flourished here. All the guidebooks held warnings: don’t carry valuable jewelry, cameras, watches. Don’t carry handbags. Don’t wear bright clothes, or draw attention to yourself. These were like the rules Vivian had been given as a teenager: Don’t dress provocatively, or draw attention to yourself. The unspoken message behind those rules had been “Be good or be raped.” Here it was “Be good or be robbed.”

They were obedient. Vivian and Celia dressed quietly, in khaki pants and muted T-shirts. Vivian had bought a cheap watch just for the trip, and Celia’s big gold earrings were obviously fake. Despite the warnings they both carried shoulder bags: they refused to wear those awful bum-bags.

They’d gone to see small neighborhood churches, the great echoing cathedral. The men were the leaders, Julian with his maps and guidebooks, Rob with his Italian. Julian was wearing shoes Vivian had never seen before: big, galumphing, thick-soled running shoes, as though he were 80 years old and came from the Midwest. Vivian found that irritating, too.

The irritation had started months ago. She’d begun noticing things: that when Julian came home at night he smelled unpleasantly of the train—a sooty, mineral odor. His stomach had always been covered with a river of dark hair, but the pelt seemed to be growing thicker, as the hair on his head was thinning. And when he brushed his teeth, instead of spitting, she noticed that he swallowed the whole mess. She must have known this before, but now it had a peculiar effect on her: she actually gagged slightly. Also there was the fact that he had no sense of dignity. He didn’t care how he looked, or how people saw him. He made fun of himself: she remembered one time in particular, when he’d tried moonwalking, with the children. He’d looked absurd. And now he laughed, quite loudly, at his own jokes, which were not always funny. Vivian found this irritating, too. In protest she had stopped laughing at them herself, though Julian hadn’t noticed. He noticed nothing.

She knew these things were minor in terms of a marriage. She knew perfectly well that she admired Julian, trusted him. Loved him, of course. But she couldn’t help the way her throat closed when she saw him bent over the sink.

On this trip they were together all the time, and Vivian couldn’t help noticing more things that grated on her. It was like being rubbed by sandpaper. She told herself these were small things, and she was small-minded. It didn’t seem to help: her jaw was beginning to hurt a little, from clenching.

 


 

The entrance to the catacombs was just a stairwell in the sidewalk, like the entrance to a subway. Julian went first, with Rob and Celia next. Vivian was behind them all. The stone stairs were long and steep, leading down under the street. As Vivian descended, alone, the dark masonry walls rose on either side, blocking out the sky. It was like going into a dungeon; she could feel the stone turning cold beside her. At the bottom of the staircase, a portal opened onto a shadowy corridor. As she approached Vivian felt a draft of air wash over her like a premonition. It was chill and damp, with a strange sweet smell. Beyond the door was a long dim passageway. One wall was lined with shelves, crammed with dark fearful objects, like in a nightmare.

Ahead of her was another couple, and just before the doorway they stopped. They were both small and dark-haired.

Non. Je ne peux pas,” said the woman rapidly. “Je ne peux pas y entrer.” Her voice was low and anguished.

The man touched her shoulder and spoke quietly.


Non,” the woman said. “Non.” She shook her head. Panic radiated from her.

An undercurrent of darkness ran through everything, from the women’s clothes to the glances of the passersby. You understood that you were a victim.

As Vivian passed, the man looked over his wife’s shoulder, directly into Vivian’s eyes. His own were dark and intense. Vivian could feel the same fear that swept through the Frenchwoman: she shared the racing pulse, lowering heart, pounding dread. She could feel the terror. The husband leaned toward his wife and murmured, and they turned back toward the street and began to mount the stairs. His response was so quick, so tender: it struck Vivian like a blow.

Vivian hurried on, and at the bottom of the steps she walked into the dooming shadows.

Human skulls lined the wall. They lay in crowded ranks, dark, avid, voracious, with gaping eye sockets, black maws, missing teeth and jaws. Behind them, bones leaned haphazardly in a charnel still life. The earth pressed down; they were deep underground here. The air was thick and chill, with a sweet, sickish odor. It was unfamiliar, but her body seemed to know it. Something rose and clenched inside her chest. Dim ceiling lights flared feebly against the darkness. People moved quietly, their voices hushed.

The next hallway was lined with bunks, like a dreadful dormitory. In each lay a corpse, staring upward. Decaying garments covered the hidden landscape of bones. The smell was everywhere. Vivian breathed through her mouth but it still flooded in, thick and suffocating, at the back of her throat. Panic uttered near.

Julian had paused to look at his map.
“What are we doing?” Vivian whispered.


“There’s something in the guidebook,” Julian said. “I’m trying to find it.”


Rob came up. “Wow. This is quite something.” He raised his eyebrows. “A bit sniffy, as my grandmother would say.”


“Do not talk about the smell,” Celia commanded. She pulled her sweater more closely over her shoulders.


“This way.” Julian set off past the awful sleepers.

At the end of the next hall a little crowd had clustered around a glassed-off niche.

A small girl, swathed in lace and satin, lay in a crib edged with frozen ruffles. She was horribly intact, her yellow waxen skin stretched taut over her skull. A bow was fixed in her greasy ringlets. Her closed eyelids were translucent; tiny eyelashes gathered along the lids like feeding insects. She was a thing shaped like a person.

Vivian put her hand over her mouth. “I’ll see you upstairs.”

“Are you all right?” Julian asked. Under the dim overhead lights he looked yellowish and strange, his bare scalp gleaming.

“I’m fine,” she nodded, backing away.


“Want me to come with you?”


But Vivian shook her head: he had brought her here. She wanted nothing to do with him.


By the time she reached the last hall, lined with the gaping skulls, she was nearly running. She wondered about the French couple, but when she reached the sidewalk they were gone. Vivian stood still, jostled by the seething crowd. Julian was still down there, walking around and looking at his maps. She thought of the Frenchman, setting his hand tenderly on his wife’s shoulder. She felt something inside her turning smooth and impenetrable. Her whole self hardened.

 


 

The next city was Naples, where they stayed at the Hotel Vesuvio. It was on a wide cobblestone street, facing the water. Beyond the stone quay spread the operatic view. The volcano, brooding and unpredictable, rose low and sullen to the east.

They asked the concierge for somewhere small and quiet, but the restaurant, of course, was full of tourists. It was faux-rustic, with rough plaster walls and clumsy wooden chairs. The waiter refused to meet their eyes, looking pointedly elsewhere, his lids half-lowered, eyebrows raised in aggrievement.

He took their orders, ignoring friendly blandishments, Rob’s Italian. When he left, Celia said, “Wow. These people really don’t like outsiders.”

“To be fair, they aren’t used to them. Naples doesn’t get a lot of tourists.” Rob was the mediator, the peacemaker. “It’s not like Rome or Florence.”

“There’s a reason for that,” Vivian said. “They’re so unfriendly. ‘See Naples and die.’ Who would use a death threat as a motto?”

“No, no. It doesn’t mean you will die.” Julian smiled at her. “It means once you’ve seen Naples you can die happy. The world has nothing more to offer.”

“Most places outside the mainstream are unfriendly toward outsiders,” Celia said.

“You mean provincial places,” Rob said.


“Neapolitans wouldn’t call themselves provincial,” Julian said. “This was once the crossroads of the world.”


“Any place can be provincial,” Vivian said. “It’s a question of how you view the rest of the world. Anywhere that thinks it’s the center of everything is provincial. A big city, small town, anywhere.”

“Hello, New York?” Julian looked up at the ceiling.


The others laughed, but Vivian looked away, frowning.


“Where I’m from,” Celia said, “really is provincial.” She’d grown up on a plantation in Mississippi. She’d grown up rich, but most of the money was gone now.


“When Rob came down for our wedding,” Celia said, “he was literally shunned. Tawson is really small, and Rob was really an outsider.”


“No kidding,” Rob said, shaking his head.


“He came down with all his Northern friends. No one could stand them.” Celia’s accent deepened, which it did when she talked about the South. “Including me.”

“But why?” Vivian asked. “Rob is so nice.”

“He wasn’t nice then,” Celia said. “For one thing, I hadn’t seen him for months. I’d been down there getting ready for the wedding, and I’d always seen him in New York. Down there he was awful.”

“I have a hard time imagining Rob as awful,” Julian said.

“He and his ushers thought they were Freedom Riders,” said Celia, “come down to save the South.”

“To be fair, dear,” Rob said, “the South did seem a bit prejudiced. Thirty years ago.” He coughed politely.

“But you know what?” Cecilia said. “No one actually likes being called a racist. Especially not by a Yankee. My father was, I’d have to say, offended. So was I.”

“What did Rob do?” asked Vivian.

“He told my parents that it was racist to have the people who worked on the plantation sit upstairs at the church.”

Vivian thought it did sound racist. “And?”

Human skulls lined the wall. They lay in crowded ranks, dark, avid, voracious, with gaping eye sockets, black maws, missing teeth and jaws. Behind them, bones leaned haphazardly in a charnel still life.

“The thing is, they were used to sitting up there, they’d always done it,” Celia said. “They had their own pews. They all sat together, in their beautiful hats. They didn’t want some Northerner telling them where to sit in their own church. They owned that place as much as we did. Rob thought it was up to him to decide how things should be done.”

“So, what’s your version?” Vivian asked Rob.

“I got down there and Celia had completely changed.” Rob shook his head. “All of a sudden I could see that everything I did irritated her. I couldn’t figure out what had happened.”

“I’d fallen out of love with him, that’s what happened.” Celia looked at the others. “We’ve never told you this story? He came down for the wedding and we realized we hated each other.”

“It was bad,” said Rob. He shook his head.

“I was the only daughter,” said Celia, “so the wedding was huge. Seven bridesmaids and eight ushers, mostly cousins. Blood, as we say. Lunches and dinners and cocktail parties. Hundreds of presents. I knew I hated Rob, but I didn’t have the nerve to call it off. So Rob and I agreed—this was the only thing we agreed on—that we’d go through with it and stay married for six months and then get divorced. We wouldn’t even unwrap the presents.”

“Did you tell your mother?” Vivian asked.

Celia gave a short bark. “I hardly ever spoke to my mother,” she said. “I’d never have told her that.”

“So what happened?” Julian asked.

“The closer it got, the worse it was,” Celia said. “We fought every time we saw each other. It was a nightmare. One of my cousins was in the hospital, and I went to see her and I told her the whole thing.”

The waiter appeared with platters of pasta, red sauce slopping over the edges. “Ecco, signori,” he murmured.

Grazie tanto,” Rob said.


“And so?” Vivian said. “I’m on tenterhooks.”


“By the day of the wedding we weren’t speaking,” Celia said. “We only spoke to say the vows. At the reception we never looked at each other. There isn’t a single photograph of us together, smiling.”

“Oh, my god,” said Vivian. “What about the honeymoon?”

“A cousin lent us a house in Barbados,” Celia said. “We spent a week there and we fought the whole time.”

“But how do you end up here in this restaurant?” asked Julian. “What happened?” He loved stories.

“We went back to New York,” Celia said, “and right away Rob’s company sent him to Milano. We’d agreed on six months, so I went too. When we got there—” Celia started laughing a little, helplessly, and Rob began laughing, too. “We didn’t know anyone, and we didn’t speak any Italian. So we kind of clung together. And then I got pregnant with Annie, and that was that. Thirty-two years ago.” She picked up her fork.

“And that was it?” Julian asked. “Everything was fine?”

“Well, everyone has bad patches, no?” Rob said. “But we stopped talking about splitting up.”

“Oh, of course we talked about splitting up, everyone does,” Celia said calmly. “But after that it wasn’t worse than anyone else’s. All marriages have dire straits. We just got ours over early.”

“What did you say to your cousin in the hospital?” Vivian asked.

“Nothing,” Celia said. “I never mentioned it again. I’m sure she told everyone. I didn’t care.” She gave a little pleasurable shake. “I still remember that time before the wedding, waking up every morning and thinking how much I hated Rob. It felt so great!”

They all laughed, then, at the wild swings that life took, at the way emotion plunged you first one way and then another, how unaccountable it was, and how uncontrollable. And Vivian felt a private electric thrill at the idea of holding onto something bad and secret, hugging it to yourself, savoring and hoarding it.

 


 

Their room at the Vesuvio was high-ceilinged and dark. In the center were heavy wooden twin beds, set close together, but held strictly apart by their thick wooden frames. Facing the beds was a huge walnut armoire with a creaking mirrored door. Two high dim windows, hung with bottle-green curtains, overlooked a narrow street.

After dinner, Julian stood by the armoire, getting undressed.

“You never told me what you thought about the catacombs.” He was unbuttoning his shirt.

Vivian was already climbing into the high bed. She was always the first into bed, the first asleep.

“I thought they were creepy.” Vivian slid her feet down tentatively. The sheets were cold, possibly damp.

“Definitely creepy!” Julian said, sounding pleased. “I loved them.”


“You loved them?”


“I love seeing things I’ve never seen before.” He smiled at her. “‘Travel broadens the mind.’” He liked to quote that, partly mocking its sanctimoniousness, but partly meaning it. He peeled off his shirt and flung it onto the chair: he had a reckless undressing style. In his socks and boxers, he lifted each foot, cocking the ankle to strip off the sock. He tossed the socks, crumpled and sweaty, into his open suitcase among his clean clothes.

“I thought they were revolting,” Vivian said. “That child.”


“Well, yes,” Julian said. “There is the revolting aspect.”


“Those bodies must be embalmed,” Vivian told him. “Injected with something. They couldn’t just stay there without rotting.”


“Probably you’re right.” Julian went into the bathroom. The tap screamed shrilly, and Vivian thought of the mouthful of froth. She turned off her light and pulled her mask down over her eyes. When Julian came back she lay still, as though she were asleep. He would stay up reading, he always did.

Julian climbed into bed. “Goodnight.” He spoke in a normal voice, as though he knew she were not asleep, and was reminding her that they kissed before they slept. Vivian lifted her mask: he was nearly on top of her, leaning across the gap between their beds. His face was inches away.

“Goodnight.” She brushed her lips against his. She thought of the tiny yellow face, the eyelashes like insects.

“I’m sorry you didn’t like the catacombs,” Julian said.

Vivian smiled distantly and shook her head. She pulled the mask back down and settled against the pillow.

After a moment Julian spoke again. “Is something wrong?”

Vivian froze. The room became hushed and attentive. Julian was still, waiting for her answer.

After a moment she said, “Of course not. What do you mean?”


“You seem as though something’s on your mind,” he said. “Are you angry?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t know what you mean.” Whatever was on her mind she would not share.


There was another pause. She could hear him breathing.


“All right, then,” he said.


Vivian burrowed further against the pillow and closed her eyes. She felt swollen and proprietary, as though she had wrapped her arms around a treasure. She wanted to stay like this, holding onto her rage in silence. All those years of empathy and patience, eggs, were over. This was new, a kind of splendid power: ruthlessness.

 


 

In the night she woke to feel him reaching for her. He’d moved again across the gap and had raised the covers, sliding into her narrow bed. His hands moved along her thigh, his breath warm against her neck. She lay motionless. He slid his fingers across her belly, up to her breasts. He stroked gently; she didn’t stir. Resentment flooded through her like a fiery tide: she’d been asleep. Was she meant to be on 24-hour sexual call? She waited, furious, deliberately inert.

His hands kept stroking, but more slowly, less purposefully. She tried to stay still without being stiff, to breathe as though she were asleep. Though he must know she was not. Finally his hands stopped, and he rolled away. His bed creaked as he moved back onto it, pulling the covers up over his bare shoulder.

 


 

They came out of the museum into slanting sunlight. It was late afternoon on their last day; they had spent two hours wandering through the stately corridors. Originally the Capodimonte had been a palace, and was still surrounded by a royal park: sweeping green lawns, ancient trees, stone pathways. Children ran across the grass, calling out, while the four of them walked slowly on the paths. The light was golden, elegiac.

“My god, that is one of the great museums,” Vivian said. She was in a state of exaltation, under the spell of Masaccio and Bellini, Lotto and Caravaggio. The regal chambers, with their carved moldings and painted ceilings, the hushed calm of the great paintings, echoed in her mind. She’d been feeling distanced from the city, jostled by its hurrying traffic, disheartened by its squalor, disliked by its residents. But the museum had changed that, with its magnificence, its elegance and sumptuousness. Abbondanza. She felt entitled to use the word, if only to herself: now she understood Naples. Loved it.

“The Bellinis,” Julian said, looking at her.

They all laughed, then, at the wild swings that life took, at the way emotion plunged you first one way and then another, how unaccountable it was, and how uncontrollable.

She didn’t answer. Bellini was one of her favorites, but she didn’t think Julian had even seen the ones inside. He was only trying to be ingratiating.

At the edge of the park a stone archway opened onto the street. A uniformed guard, with a dark moustache and bold black eyes, nodded as they walked through.

Arrivederci,” Rob said.


Arrivederci, signori,” the guard responded.


The street beyond was empty.


“Where’s our cab?” Celia asked.


The driver had offered to wait, if they’d agree to pay him. He told them they’d have trouble finding another cab up here. They refused to pay him to wait, but had promised to take him back if he were there at 5:30. It was now quarter past.

“Do you think he waited for us?” Julian asked Rob.

“No idea,” Rob said. “He said he would, but he used the subjunctive. He might be here, he might not.”

“Isn’t that his car?” Vivian pointed to one across the street. “It had those ads plastered all over it.”

It was parked outside a gelateria across the street, and Celia and Vivian went inside to look. Rob went back to ask the guard, who said the driver was in a bar, and waved toward the end of the street. Rob set off to look for the bar; Julian watched for another cab. Celia and Vivian came back out; Rob returned. The husbands were on one side of the street, the wives on the other; they called back and forth to each other.

“Shall I call a radio cab?” asked Celia. “There’s a phone in the gelateria.”


“Let’s give our man another few minutes,” Rob said. “It’s twenty past.”


About the gate idled some young Neapolitan men. They were black-eyed and dark-skinned, with thick black hair and an air of suppressed vitality. One leaned against the post, another stood frowning, rolling up his sleeves. A Vespa sputtered up, carrying two more. It pulled into the archway but the riders stayed astride. The driver set one foot on the sidewalk, propping up the leaning scooter. Vivian wondered why they didn’t dismount.

“This looks like the beginning of an opera,” Vivian said to Celia. “They’re waiting for the principal, and then they’ll all sing the opening of Cavelliera Rusticana.” She felt euphoric. Now she owned Naples, which was full of charm and beauty.

A taxi appeared at the end of the street. The guard shouted. “Here’s your cab. Take it! Take it!”

“But our driver is waiting for us,” Vivian called, pointing at the parked cab.

“He’s loyal,” Celia said.


“He’s drunk,” Julian said.


Avanti!” shouted the gatekeeper.

“Come on,“ Rob said. He stepped into the street.


“We did wait,” Vivian told Celia. “We tried to find him.”


Celia asked the gatekeeper to tell the driver they’d waited.


“Si, signora,” he nodded.


Rob climbed in front. Julian sat behind the driver, Vivian in the middle, and Celia by the window.

Hotel Vesuvio,” Rob said, and they rattled off.


Arrivederci,” Celia said to the parked cab. “I kind of feel like we’re betraying him.”

“Well, we’re not,” Rob said, turning around. “He’s in a bar. If he’d wanted to take us, he’d have been on the street when we arrived.”


Around them pulsed rush hour traffic. It was always a surprise, when you were on vacation, to be reminded that the city you were visiting had its own working life. Lumbering trucks steamed and fumed, tiny grimy cars labored along, ubiquitous scooters slid in and out like quicksilver. But now Vivian loved all this, she loved Naples. The cab moved from lane to lane, starting and stopping. On a steep downward slope it halted abruptly and Vivian turned, ducking her head down, to peer out at her last views of the city.

There was no view. The window had been darkened by a face that blotted out everything: a man, dark and huge, was invading them. He was outside and then unaccountably he was inside with them. He was reaching and grabbing, and Celia was screaming. It was like hell, tumultuous and horrible, everything happening impossibly at once. The man was a demon, his long arm tugging at Celia’s bag, beside her on the seat. Vivian grabbed hold of it too; she and Celia tugged back. The Demon’s face loomed right in front of them: bold nose, snarling mouth, furious black eyes. Rob and Julian shouted, and Julian leaned across Vivian, punching at the air, unable to reach him.

Get out, get out,” Vivian screamed. Celia screamed.

His arms were like twisting serpents, writhing and muscular. He grabbed and tugged, his contorted face staring into theirs. Then all at once he was gone. Through the window, Vivian saw the cab driver, now beside him in the street. Celia slammed the door shut and tried to lock it, but the lock didn’t work.

The driver came back around and got into the car. Parked by the front was a Vespa, the driver glaring at them. The Demon appeared and climbed onto the back. He stared vituperatively at them as the Vespa slalomed off through the traffic. Now Vivian recognized them: They were the two young men from the museum gate.

The cab still echoed inside with the presence of the huge swarthy face, the grabbing hands, the hairy arms.

“My god,” Celia said weakly. “I can’t believe what happened.”

“Are you all right?” Julian put his arm around Vivian. Vivian looked down: her wrists and arms were red.


“He took my watch,” she said.

Rob turned around. “Your watch?”

“It was a cheap one,” Vivian said. But his hands had been on her, wrenching off the strap. She looked at Celia. “Are you okay?”

“A bit shaken.” Celia shook her head. “But we kept the bag.”

They drove on in stunned silence. They were all in shock.

“We did just what the guide books told us not to do,” Vivian said. “Walking around and shouting. Being conspicuous.”

It was they who the men had been waiting for, but they weren’t the principals, the heroes; they were the victims, the fools. Shouting and calling.

“Someone must have called those guys on the Vespa,” Julian said. The two men had ridden up and sat waiting for a cab to arrive, so they could follow it.

“It must have been the guard. He told us to take that cab,” Vivian said.


“That nice man who called us signori,” Celia said.


“What did our driver do?” asked Julian. “I couldn’t see.”


“He came around the car and kicked the guy,” Rob said. “Yelled at him.”


“He’s our hero,” Vivian said. “He saved us. We have to thank him. Big tip.”

Rob spoke effusively to the driver in Italian, thanking him, but instead of smiling and nodding the man shook his head. He spoke without turning, his voice low and tense.

“What is it?” asked Vivian.

“He’s in trouble,” Rob told them. “Now those guys know his face and they’ll come after him. He won’t be able to work. He’ll have to put his cab away and stay home. They won’t forget this.”

“Because he saved us?” Vivian asked, indignant. “He was supposed to just sit there while we were robbed?”

“He took our side,” Rob said. “They’ll go after him.”

They were silent until the cab rattled to a stop at the hotel. When Vivian got out she stopped at the driver’s window.

Molto grazie, signore,” she said, but he shook his head and wouldn’t look at her.

 


 

Their packed suitcases lay on racks; they were leaving early in the morning. Vivian was already in bed, curled up tightly, facing the wall. She was still vibrating inside. When she closed her eyes she saw the huge dark face thrust into hers, the strong wild hands everywhere. Celia screaming. The Demon’s thrusting invasion. Inside her head everything had come undone: panic and urgency seethed through her like a tingling mist.

Julian came out of the bathroom. Vivian heard the creak of the bed as he climbed in, the click of the light as he turned it off. She raised her mask: the room was dark.

“You’re not going to read?” Vivian asked.

“No,” Julian said. He lay still. “There’s something I wanted to tell you.” She waited. The silence had become alive. “Or ask you, I guess.”

“What is it?” she asked.

From his voice she understood that what was coming was something she didn’t want to hear, couldn’t stand to learn.

After another pause Julian spoke.

She was still vibrating inside. When she closed her eyes she saw the huge dark face thrust into hers, the strong wild hands everywhere. Celia screaming. The Demon’s thrusting invasion.

“Something’s gone, between us. Something’s happened.” His voice was slow and muted. “There’s a gap, between us.”

She stopped breathing, held her breath.


“I can’t make you laugh. You won’t even look at me.”


He had prepared this. “I won’t ask you what happened,” he said. “I won’t ask you to change back. But—” he stopped. It seemed he hadn’t planned this part. Or else for some reason he couldn’t go on. “But I hope you won’t leave me,” he said, then stopped again.

“Because that would break,” he said.


After another pause, he said, “My heart.”


For a moment she lay without moving. Whatever she did would not be large enough to address the pain she could hear in his voice. It was immense, a huge reservoir of anguish. She saw with perfect clarity that it was she who had caused it. She had done this, with her cool withholding, her disdain, her judgment. She had caused this wound. She was causing him such pain that he could not now look at her, could not finish his sentence. In his voice she heard the shame of not being loved.

How had she done this? How could she have made this happen—his lying there so quietly, his voice breaking? She had held him in her two cupped hands. She’d held his heart, as he’d held hers, without wavering. All this time she’d been driving needles of pain into that heart. She was a thing shaped like a person.

Her heart flooded with remorse, with horror at her own cruelty. She lay still, too. She had to ask his forgiveness. She thought of Celia’s story: she’d misunderstood it. The story wasn’t about how you fell out of love, and allowed yourself to wallow and welter in your rage, but about how you gave it up, that secret prideful luxury, how you let it melt and slide away.

She thought of the Frenchman, listening to the fright in his wife’s voice and turning back. She thought of the cab driver, risking himself for strangers: that was how you opened your heart.

What she’d done was something different.

What had happened to her was like embalming, the slow invasion of some other flow within her veins, some awful cold fluid that replaced her blood, transforming her from the person she’d once been into something else. This was how you became something you never thought you’d be, she thought: heartless, hardened, self- absorbed, listening only to yourself, locking your heart against someone who’d given you himself, his trust.

It was she who’d committed the crime.

She lay still, gathering her courage before she could ask if he’d forgive her, take her back. Turn her once again into a human being.



Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books, five novels, three story collections, and the biography Georgia O’Keefe: A Life. Her work has appeared in The AtlanticThe New YorkerHarper’sTin HouseSlateThe New York TimesBest American Short Stories, and elsewhere. She is an NEA Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and the President of the Authors Guild. 

 

Buy the issue (Summer/Fall 2015, Vol. IX, No. 2) here or through Submittable.

Copyright © 2016 TSR: The Southampton Review. All Rights Reserved.
error: Alert: Content is protected !!