AFTER THE ACCIDENT, CARLA WANTED A MENIAL TASK IN A PLACE SHE’D NEVER LIVED BEFORE; TO BE LEFT ALONE AND SURROUNDED BY PEOPLE WHO DIDN’T EXPECT TOO MUCH OF HER. This is what you want when something terrible happens, Carla thought, because the accident that took Geoff away had taken everything from her, except for an odd kind of recklessness.
So when her friend Fiammetta, who worked for a small opera company in Florence, suggested a job ironing and altering costumes, nothing could stop her from taking the chance. She caught a train from Brussels Gare du Nord. There were rooms near the theatre she could use for a few months, overlooking a courtyard with a lemon tree. Schoolgirls in the courtyard below her window played hopscotch. Their voices rose up with the soothing illusion of eternity.
As for the ironing, there was, quite literally, loads of it. There was something reassuring in a never-ending task, standing at the window pressing out the creases of other people’s lives. There was also an art to the collar and cuffs of a ruffled shirt, the band across the shoulders, the wide skirted pleats of a satin dress.
Carla discovered another peculiar truth. Nobody bothers you when you are ironing. She could unravel and ravel up again those last moments in the car with Geoff, when the driver hit them on the Chaussee de Waterloo. Geoff in a split second change: a crunch of metal and glass, semi conscious moments in a crumpled car; paramedics shining flashlights into windows and police waving on a never-ending procession of traffic, as if there could be a destination beyond this. But there was a destination, because sure enough, here she was.
Some days she did nothing but watch Italian soap operas. The exaggerated stories took her out of herself. Afterwards, gazing down at the children in the courtyard, she found herself startled, almost appreciative.
She walked into shops on the Ponte Vecchio on her way to a wine bar. The streets had a faintly botanical smell, mingled with the aroma of garlic and coffee. People drove up on scooters and kissed the air at the side of each other’s faces.
She sat at the counter. Next to her a young man ordered a plate of cheese and sliced prosciuto. And when she ordered the same, he turned towards her. “Where are you from?” he asked in English.
His name was Hamid, and he came from Palestine. He was in a summer art program, three weeks remaining. She told him about her work at the opera company – how lucky she was to have such a job, and then he said he had an extra ticket to see the Boboli Gardens. “Perhaps you would like to join me.”
His English was precise and pleasing. He had refined features and a straight narrow nose and the shaven skin of his face was the texture of fine sandpaper.
So they walked to the Medici palace and strolled in the Boboli Gardens, and sat underneath the orange blossoms between hedges. Conversation was stilted, until they walked back to the theatre. She showed him the collection of paper masks she’d found on a dusty shelf in the prop room. She tried them on, one after the other – the Marshall, the Prioress, King Ludwig and the Professor. They had tiny eyeholes and Hamid laughed freely before tucking his smile away, with what she thought of as charming and forced sobriety.
The following day at the Uffizi they stood together in front of a triptych of Adam and Eve, depicted like two spoiled courtiers, with childish, inexperienced faces.
“You see,” he said, “Their life was not perfect. It’s better to live by the sweat of your brow.”
They went to a rooftop café, with its view of the Duomo. Hamid reached for her hand, and before she could pull away she noticed the skin of his hand was very soft, nothing at all like Geoff’s. “I still cannot understand the full beauty of this town,” he continued. “It is all too squashed together. This cathedral, for example. It doesn’t have breathing room. It needs the space to breathe.”
A few days later, they took a bus to Fiesole in the shimmering heat. He wanted to see the ruins. Carla took off her shoes and felt the grass on the soles of her feet while Hamid stood by himself, looking at the view. “Here I feel more comfortable,” he said.
“Do the hills remind you of home?”
“They remind me of the Palestine I carry in my soul.”
“In your soul?” she repeated, smiling. Then she realized he was serious.
“Many of our villages are gone forever,” he explained. “Now they exist only in memory. So we tell the stories of our villages over and over again. And thus, Palestine, for the next generation, has become not a memory but a wish. A dream, perhaps. A story that we tell.”
They got onto politics, and his view of suicide bombers, and an experience that altered him forever: how he’d locked eyes with a suicide bomber seconds before he blew himself up. “That is how we live,” he said. “I am not a religious person. And I don’t agree in principle, with violence. But I’ve heard it said that the suicides are cowardly. What is cowardly about dying for your beliefs?” he asked. “Only a lover would do such a thing. ‘I would die for you.’ Only a lover could utter such a phrase.”
Carla thought of telling about Geoff. Then she changed her mind.
“So,” he said. “How long did Adam and Eve stare at that apple before they took a bite?” He leaned towards her, looking at her mouth.
Her room was flooded with the odor of honeysuckle. She felt nothing so much as gratitude, sliding across the sheets. He knelt before her, proudly as a god. It had been such a very long time. He held her ankles to one of his shoulders, pressing, pressing as she drew him further in. She shifted position, wrapping her legs around his waist. She looked at the lattice of the windows, at the vines of honeysuckle clinging and blooming at once. Is this what you want, closing her eyes. Until, at last he fell onto the sheets, laughing, exhausted.
He pulled on a pair of boxer shorts and she watched the shadow of her naked legs against the wall. How strange the distance between chaste and chastened. She was chastened by his fervor, doused by it.
He sat at her table smoking a cigarette, watching her wisely. “Come,” he said. “Let’s go out for dinner.”
The banister rail smelled of furniture polish. The particles of dust spun in shafts of golden light, streaming between the window slats. The dust of Florence felt suddenly terminal, and the scooters outside were too noisy.
They wasted time looking for a restaurant she couldn’t find. “I’m sure it was here,” as they walked the narrow streets. “Fiammetta brought me. And it was here. I know it was.”
At last they settled for a different cafe. A man played guitar, and for reasons she couldn’t explain Carla couldn’t stop laughing. She decided she must be happy, shockingly and amazingly happy.
The following afternoon, she spent time ironing costumes and then delivered them to the theatre. Hamid went down to the courtyard where boys were filling surgical gloves with water, and exploding them against a wall. He sat on a wrought iron chair, smoking. When Carla came back with another bag of wrinkled costumes, most of the children were gone. Hamid was helping a little boy make a funnel from paper. They were pouring sand into a rubber glove. She stood at the door watching, and something slipped inside her. The sand-filled glove was heavy, a dead hand made of dust. They had several already, piled like sandbags at the foot of his chair. Hamid looked up and smiled, all his features softening. She turned. The corners of her consciousness, plastered over with harmony, seemed to be flaking, lifting up from the surface of her mind.
They sat in the courtyard with a bottle of wine, as evening came down. The courtyard was empty and they ran out of words. Hamid walked across the terrace underneath the lemon tree, and looked back to where Carla sat in the twilight with her feet up. Their gaze strung between them like a ribbon of birds. “We are a danger to each other,” he said. “Now I have this image of you I can’t get out of my mind. I play it in my mind, over and over again.”
He must have a woman, she thought to herself, another story, something like mine, that he never tells.
On their final night, Hamid lay with Carla scooped inside him, hollow and withdrawn. When they made love she cried. “I don’t know this one,” he said, stroking away her tears. “This weepy one,” as he held her close. She turned and touched the scar on his chest, a scar like an assault, thicker and creamier than the rest of his skin. “Barbed wire,” he told her. “Once in Tel Aviv, several years ago, there was a barbed wire fence. I was crazy then. I could have died,” he said. “They were hunting me down like an animal. But fortunately, I escaped.”
They fell asleep. Carla woke to see him, without any pants on, in the thin light ironing his shirt. “I only wanted to try it,” he said, trying to press out wrinkles.
His buttocks had a map shaped birthmark – a darkness under the skin. He was peaceful ironing his shirt. “This is a good iron,” he said. “It is very light, but it does the job.”
She prepared coffee, then sat on a divan with her cup, underneath the window. His skin was brown and his bones were beautiful. She looked at his birthmark, his distinguishing characteristic, realizing she could make him hers if she wanted. I know his birthmark, she’d tell his woman. If there was a woman. If she really wanted him.
She crossed the room and turned on the television intending to watch an Italian soap opera but instead it was the news. Confused people were running from the rubble with bloody hands covering their faces. The ruins of a pizza shop loomed in the background where someone had purposely blown himself up. “In diretta da Gerusalemme,” the caption said. Live from Jerusalem.
Amanda Holmes lives in Falls Church, Virginia. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Moxie, The Christian Science Monitor, Rattapallax, and the Ether Books app. She has written and edited art gallery listings for 'Goings On About Town' at The New Yorker, and currently reviews for The Washington Independent Review of Books.
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