Fiction • Martha Cooley
They passed it on the way back from Cremona, on a mild evening in July.
In the low foothills of the Apennines on the Parma side of the Cisa Pass, the light was harshly golden; by the time they approached Borgotaro, the sun’s rays were no longer in their eyes but came at them aslant. Huge clouds bloomed and drifted above them. Twisting below, the wide rocky riverbed of the Taro was intermittently visible, little streams emptying into it: Erbetello, dei Cani, Pizzarotta. Descending, the streams cut stony runnels that zigzagged erratically downward, as though someone had scored the earth with a huge sharp stick.
She marveled at the autostrada, its construction such a feat of engineering— all those high viaducts over valleys and rivers, the long well-lit tunnels, the curves on the Parma side of the pass, the varying elevations of the parallel roadways. The entire autostrada system had taken over a decade to build, and its maintenance, Eligio’d said, was a ceaseless job. The A15 stretch between Emilia-Romagna and the Ligurian Sea had been among the toughest to complete, because of the mountains. Quite tricky to design, actually. Lots of foreign engineers came to see it and learn how such roads were built.
There was little traffic on their side; only cars, since trucks were forbidden on Saturdays and Sundays. They proceeded at a good clip, seldom having to pass anyone, staying mostly in the right-hand lane. Shortly after the tunnel called Il Partigiano, she noticed there weren’t any vehicles on the other side, heading toward Parma. Not a single one.
Weird, said Eligio when she remarked on this absence. You’re right, I hadn’t noticed.... Nothing’s coming at us.
Emergency lights flashed several hundred yards ahead of them on the opposite roadway. Eligio pumped the brakes lightly.
Tell me what you see, he said as they slowed down. I need to keep my eyes on the road.
The accident had happened between Borgotaro and Berceto, on a sharp curve.
At the point where it occurred, the two lanes heading toward Parma were separated from theirs by a thin median strip and a pair of sturdy guardrails. The opposing lanes were elevated slightly, perhaps ten feet; just beyond them a hill ascended steeply, walled in concrete for a few yards til low shrubs and thick grass took over. The roadway had very narrow shoulders on either side—as was the case, she’d noticed, for most of the curves on the A15. Apparently there hadn’t been room to make wider shoulders; the curves hugged a series of thin ridges.
Several emergency vehicles were parked in the middle of the roadway on the other side. A pair of men in neon-orange jumpsuits moved about quickly, yelling; one man gestured at an ambulance, urging it forward. From nearby a police siren blared. A car, a gray sedan (later, in her memory, it was neither large nor small, old nor new, just an ordinary automobile) lay tipped over and pressed against the guardrail; she noted, fleetingly, a black tarp on the ground. A barricade had been erected a hundred yards before the overturned car; flashing its lights, the ambulance skirted the barricade and drew up next to the sedan. Then the lights were behind them, the scene receding as they proceeded.
What a mess, said Eligio.
The vehicles ahead of them had slowed to a crawl as they passed the scene, so he’d been able to take a quick look himself. Rubbernecking, she told him it was called. A kind of instinct, an impulse that manifested in circumstances like this. The traffic on their side picked up speed, but on the opposite roadway the halted cars snaked as far as they could see. Drivers were standing around talking; whole families gathered alongside their cars. She watched a mother pushing a stroller slowly along the highway’s thin shoulder. Did all these people have bottles of water? Were they sharing provisions up and down the line, like soldiers at the front? Hard to say how long they’d be stuck there, knowing nothing of what’d actually happened. Waiting for someone to tell them the story.
Earlier that summer, she’d developed a strong and, to her, startling attraction to certain kinds of cars. Luxury European brands such as Mercedes, Audi, Lamborghini, BMW, Porsche—prohibitively expensive, latest-model cars. Nothing she’d ever had the slightest interest in driving, which made the attraction all the more peculiar.
At first, sitting in the passenger seat, she found herself noticing the elegance of expensive cars’ taillights as they zipped by. Ordinary cars had rear lights shaped like ugly lozenges, or set in silly overlapping circles, or wrapped awkwardly around the side of the car like bad sunglasses. Or, worst of all, designed as a series of loudly blinking dots, like a Times Square newsflash. But the taillights of luxury sedans were sized in perfect proportion to the cars’ rear windows and bumpers and weren’t in the least ostentatious.
Overall, too, the designs of costly cars were more refined than those of normal ones. Of course the refinements didn’t change a basic fact: all cars, fancy ones included, were aggressive, in appearance as well as function. So much metal and chrome, the side mirrors and antennae and dashboard icons, all of it a form of weaponry... Not worth thinking about, really—the basic craziness of sitting in a metal box hurtling along with a bunch of other metal boxes, all of them weaving from one lane to another. And a good percentage of the drivers were sleepy or texting or drunk or drugged.
Luxury sedans, though, could announce their efficiency and power without overdoing it. They offered their owners an illusion of safety, neatly packaged as exclusivity. You’re different, their murmuring engines seemed to say to their drivers. Exempt from the usual dangers.
She wondered about her obsession with high-end cars. They were just like the rest, simply a means of getting from A to B, so why care? The purported sexiness of expensive models, their rapid acceleration, their leather interiors and high-tech gadgetry: all that stuff had never before meant a thing to her.
To Eligio her newfound interest in expensive cars was amusing, something he could tease her about. You actually want one of those? he asked at one point, gesturing with his chin as he drove. A Mercedes or a Porsche? I can’t imagine it.
No, of course not. They had a Volkswagen, a Golf, compact and fuel efficient. It’d belonged to Eligio’s former father-in-law; too old to drive any longer, he’d given the car to them a few years earlier. The Golf had a hundred thousand kilometers under its belt. Though a bit nicked and scratched, its upholstery torn on the driver’s side, the car suited their needs just fine.
Maybe you’re having a midlife crisis, Eligio said as she gazed at a black Jaguar whipping past them. Usually it’s boring heterosexual guys who get excited about expensive cars, you know, when they’re having a midlife crisis...
It is pretty strange, she responded.
He smiled. Well, everyone has a midlife crisis if they get to live that long. It’s just a matter of what shape it takes.
Whenever she said or did something out of character, Eligio liked to tease her about it. It didn’t happen daily—her being or acting out of character—but when it did, he made sure to draw it to her attention. Not roughly; lightly.
Why’re you startled? he’d ask when she surprised herself with some unexpected reaction. Past a certain point, you can’t fool yourself... I mean, you can go ahead and insist I’m just X, but you know you’re Y, too, and Z... It’s one of the reasons I’m attracted to you. You’re a mongrel, is that the word for it? My favorite mongrel.
Sometimes his teasing troubled her. Mostly, though, she liked it, since it was linked with his desire. And he was right: she was a mess of contradictions. She admired other women her age, pushing sixty, who seemed to cohere as they aged. Perhaps their coherence was mainly at the level of their social selves, a function of habit or necessity. Within themselves, privately, maybe those women felt as mercurial and blurry as she often did. Well, not blurry, exactly: incompletely inventoried. Like a house with unexplored rooms.
Let me count the ways, she’d sometimes say in response to Eligio’s teasing.
That phrase was a code between them. Not long after they’d married, she’d read aloud to him the sonnet from which it came, Elizabeth Browning’s “How do I love thee?” Eligio hadn’t heard of the poem, though he did know Browning had lived in Florence with her poet husband. Casa Guidi, their apartment was called; it sat nearly across the street from the Palazzo Pitti. A house museum, these days. She liked imagining the Brownings in Florence, writing and taking walks and talking politics. They’d let their son play with other kids along the banks of the Arno, almost like a pair of expat poets might do now, she told Eligio. They’d lived like real Florentines.
Only without the parking hassles, he said. And renting an apartment near the Palazzo Pitti would cost you a fortune today. Lucky poets!
Listening to the poem, Eligio had pronounced it old fashioned. Which of course it was. But also beautiful, especially when feeling out of sight / For the ends of being...
Those lines were clunky in translation. How best to say or explain them in another language? Groping—that’s what Browning had meant. Her love for her husband had groped blindly for the borders of self, so as to reach and cross them. A vast, hungry love, Elizabeth’s, yet simple and fluid, too. Rising like water to the level of every day’s / Most quiet need.
What a strange verse, Eligio’d said after she read the poem aloud again, at his request. It starts off as a list, then it goes haywire.... All those rational reasons for love—but by the end, the poet says she’ll love her man more after death than beforehand. Wow!
Eligio liked the expression going haywire. There was nothing like it in Italian.
Groping, he said. In English, doesn’t that word have a sexual connotation?
It does sometimes. It can be vulgar, like a guy grabbing a girl’s ass on the
subway. Or it can be what teenagers do with each other in sleeping bags at
sleepovers. Which isn’t vulgar, just sort of confused.
Ah, said Eligio, smiling. Well, searching for the borders of self—is that how you put it?—ought to be more like that. Confused. Without any reasons or lists.
At the start of that summer, when her attraction to luxury cars arose—after twelve months had gone by, a year spent in the small stone house they’d rented for her sabbatical leave—they bought the old canonica up by the church. It stood at the end of a cobbled lane, just below the castle gates.
Almost no one lived full-time on the lane, which served as the spine of the medieval borgo. In summer, a few of the lane’s houses filled as owners and their extended families returned for vacations; during the rest of the year, though, the lane was deserted. The borgo wasn’t the easiest place to reach. Most cars were too wide to fit through the arch at the upper entrance, where the main lane T’ed out. Residents with small-enough cars didn’t like bringing them up; side-scrapes happened easily. Even the oldest inhabitants usually parked at the base of the village and walked up the hill to the arch.
The canonica, they’d learned, was once the local priest’s house; before that, it’d belonged to peasants who’d worked the church’s land.
Across from the front door of the house was the ramp to the castle; to its left sat the church. The castle’s upper garden was visible from the front door, its tomato vines bordering a high stone wall. At the back of the canonica were pomegranate and fig trees, along with an old cistern no longer in use. A low wall ran the length of the church’s piazza; beyond it, the terrain dropped precipitously into dense copses of trees.
It’s like you could fall right off this hill, said Eligio one day as they stared downward. Unless you cling to the church, of course, he added, poker-faced. Then he smiled. I sure never thought I’d be bargaining with the church for a piece of its property!
Me neither, she said. I guess you’d call it an accident of fate.
Yes. Una felice circostanza.
The view from the house was what’d attracted them initially: the other side of the Magra Valley, lushly green, where the hills of Groppoli rose up from the river.
The house itself, they agreed, would be terrific when redone, but best of all was the quiet and light all around them. Throughout the valley the light was limpid and serene; breezes played across fields bordering the river. During the day, birdsong was the only noise save for the slight, low hum of a car or truck wending between Monti and Villafranca.
Evenings were peaceful, too, though on summer weekends, a disco’s annoying thump could be heard some nights. Trouble in paradise, said Eligio one night shortly before they closed on the purchase of the house. It was a Saturday, close to midnight; they were standing by the canonica, gazing up at the inky, star-filled sky.
That music, you mean?
Yeah. Not the end of the world, though. We’re lucky. When the house is done, we’ll get to stand here quietly and see all this—the stars, the darkness— whenever we want.
Not just see it but live it, she said.
Yeah. I didn’t think you could say it like that in English. Well, he added, smiling, there’s no going backward now—we’ve already begun living it...
They hadn’t planned on buying the house, hadn’t even known it was for sale til a neighbor mentioned the church wanted to get rid of it. The proceeds, they were told, would go into the village bell tower, which was badly in need of repair. The price was low.
Eligio raised his arms over his head, fingers outstretched toward the glittery sky. Then he dropped his arms abruptly to his sides: his way of releasing tension.
You know, renovating a run-down house in a near-empty borgo isn’t exactly a normal thing to do, he said. I bet our American friends will think we’re nuts for buying this place. A lot of Italians would say the same thing...
Eligio liked the word nuts. Like haywire, it had no Italian equal.
Oh, they won’t say that, she said. It’s a good deal.
Fixing it up will end up costing most of what I’ve got. That means you’ll
have to pick up more of our expenses when we get home.
I know. And I’m not saying I’m not scared.
Before buying the house, they’d found a local architect who declared it solid and safe. All the rooms were bright and dry, though the house had been locked up unaired for several years. There was mildew on some walls, but no serious water damage. The main things needed, the architect said, were a new roof and a set of metal struts for protection against earthquakes.
Eligio had pressed for a rationale; the struts weren’t cheap. Antiseismic regulations were enforced in the region, the architect explained. There’d never been a really bad quake in their locality, but small ones did happen from time to time. They’d have to spend the money.
He wasn’t wrong about the region. A few weeks before, a mild earthquake had occurred in the middle of the afternoon. She’d been sitting with Eligio in the rental house, sipping coffee, and felt the ground do something it wasn’t supposed to do. As soon as the tremors ended, they’d gone up to the canonica to see if it’d been damaged; several days later, a structural engineer confirmed that the house was fine. They’d been fortunate: only an hour away, lots of homes had sustained damage.
Seems we’ve bought a strong house, Eligio said to the engineer at the end of his inspection.
Yes, but the antiseismic struts were important, the engineer responded. Just to be al sicuro.
On the safe side, said Eligio by way of explanation when the engineer left. We ought to stay on the safe side.
An odd expression. In English, anyway. As though in any setting or situation there were always two sides, safe and unsafe, and you’d necessarily have to cross from one to the other; and you might not know which side was which, hence might find yourself suddenly no longer on the safe but the unsafe side—unable to recross, to go back to wherever you started from.
Right after the earthquake, Eligio had taken her hand as they walked up to the canonica. To reassure her—and himself, too: the money they’d just plunked down wasn’t going to be wasted. The house would survive earthquakes and anything else: the so-called acts of God. There’d be no flooding; of that she was sure. They were too high above the river. The bell tower was the tallest structure in the village, so it’d take the brunt of any lightning—had already done so, a few years back; there was a blotch on its side where the burn had happened. What about tornadoes? No, not in this part of the country. But there’d be heavy rainstorms, hard winds. Snow and ice, too.
The climate-related stuff wasn’t so worrisome, though. It was scarier to think about the future of the village itself, already near-deserted except for those weeks in July and August when people came back to air out their mattresses and trim their little plots. A dozen or so families would gather each evening at the base of the village; the elders would trade nostalgic stories about growing up in the borgo. But none of these returnees were deeply invested in the village’s future. Their lives happened elsewhere, in towns and cities up north: Como, Brescia, Milan. How much longer would the village attract fresh visitors, especially if no one took care of the decrepit houses flanking the main lane? What if the vines and trees already encroaching upon the borgo were victorious? That tangled undergrowth was already a fire hazard....
And then there was the castle. Its octogenarian owner had died that autumn, leaving insufficient funds for its upkeep. If the castle went into decline, the village would eventually empty out; there’d be little reason for anyone new to come visit or live there. Nobody would be adventuresome or crazy enough to show up out of the blue, purchase a falling-down house, and restore it. She and Eligio would be left with a renovated canonica worth next to nothing, and virtually no human neighbors—merely an expanding community of feral cats, plus martens and the occasional fox. Might the wild boar near the cemetery down the road grow bold enough to come up and root around, too?
It’ll be okay... Eligio’d said quietly after the engineer’s departure, sensing her thoughts. No teasing in his voice.
The canonica’s been through a lot and survived, he added. But we do need to be ready.
You know, health problems, other unexpected things... But we’ll deal. Isn’t that how you say it in English?
She’d thought again, hearing him say that, of Elizabeth Browning’s poem. Of how the poet had redirected her passion from the old griefs, as she’d called them—all her prior losses and sufferings—to her newly beloved, her husband. To Robert’s unexpected arrival in her life.
And how it’d been like that for herself and Eligio, too: emotion redirected from anguish to ardor. With my childhood’s faith, Browning wrote. With a love I seemed to lose / With my lost saints—seemed to lose, yet managed to find again. And somehow to reconceive. How surprised by that Elizabeth must’ve been! Perhaps Robert had teased her about being surprised.
Even worse beatings. Eligio was right: anguish would come again, how not? Some sort of illness. One of them would have to go first, and the other would be left. The earthquake to come... but putting it like that was too dramatic. He’d tease her if she said it aloud.
All during that summer, as the contractor began gutting the house and the struts were put in place, they did a fair bit of driving in their Golf—the little silver chariot, as Eligio called it.
They went to Parma several times to see Eligio’s daughter and her family; to Lerici for swims in the sea; to Sarzana to meet with the architect. Each time they returned home, the Golf climbed uncomplainingly up and down the twisty road to the village. She pictured the car with a mind, a will, telling the car’s body to conserve its energies, stay in shape, last a while longer.
They went to Cremona a handful of times as well, to visit Eligio’s former father-in-law, Bertrando, the Golf’s original owner. Bertrando was a senile ninety-five-year-old with a full head of hair. He always recalled their names yet was stunned to hear they were living just a couple of hours away. They kept reminding him of this fact, but the information wouldn’t stick. Davvero, he’d say incredulously, really, I had no idea, I thought you got married and were living in New York... Yes, they told him over and over, we did get married, and we do live there, usually. But we’re here now, living in Lunigiana for a year.
Bertrando had no idea. For him, the information about her sabbatical and their move to Italy had come and gone, evanescing like a scent he’d sniffed for an instant. It didn’t matter how many times they’d passed the vial beneath his nose. Watching him express bewilderment, seeing him confused over and over, she’d found herself wishing there were a switch in a person’s mind that might be turned on and off, so particular feelings and understandings could be put out of reach. So sources of worry or distress might be tamped down, at least for a while. A false peace, of course, but compelling. Pain not banished but distanced. Bertrando had done that with his daughter’s death: put it out of reach. Not on purpose, not consciously, yet the fact had been erased from his daily thinking. He never alluded to it.
A pragmatist, Bertrando was. An emotional pragmatist. Unlike Eligio, whose eyes would well up if a strong emotion caught him unprepared. He’d weep outright if he needed to, without embarrassment. For as long as she’d known him—during the final couple of years before his wife Serena died, when it was clear she was ill yet unclear she’d really not make it; during the days when, after the metastasis was diagnosed, what lay ahead for her was something neither Serena nor their two adult children could confront head-on; and during the final hours of her life, when, unbeknownst to Eligio, Serena was having the heart attack that killed her before cancer could finish the job—during all of that, Eligio had let distress wash over him again and again, let it swamp him and take him under. And then he’d let himself bob to the surface again—gagging and heaving and sputtering, but alive. In his own way Eligio, too, was an emotional pragmatist. He grasped what Bertrando knew: you felt things, joyful or awful, it didn’t matter, and you moved with the current they carried you on, knowing the current would change. You didn’t flail. You just moved.
They’d been en route home from a visit to Cremona when they came across the accident.
During the hour or so they’d spent with him in his apartment, Bertrando had spoken, as he always did, solely of the past. Though he possessed vivid memories of his youth, he could recount almost nothing of the present, or even of his wartime experiences. He did know that the younger of his two daughters, the dead one’s sister, would be out with her husband that evening. And that one of his pair of granddaughters would be making him dinner.
What a strange life he’s had, Eligio said as they wound their way through Cremona, aiming for the Po River and the autostrada beyond. I mean, think of it... First Bertrando served in Mussolini’s army, and then after the switch in 1943, he reported to the Americans. Imagine that! From one day to the next, your enemies turn into friends and your friends into enemies... But for Bertrando it was all more or less the same.
Because his country was at war. So he had to serve somebody—had to do what he was told. Then after the war he got married and had two girls, so the war was something he didn’t have to think about anymore. Then he lost his wife and moved in with his younger daughter—and meanwhile Serena and I got married and had kids and made a life of our own. And then Serena died. Bertrando was left without his wife and his older child. But he’s got two more girls now—his granddaughters.
Eligio paused. They were at the entrance to the autostrada; he pulled a ticket from the tollbooth, and they merged into the traffic heading for the Cisa Pass. What is it, she asked. You’re thinking something.
Yeah... You know, I’ve always admired Bertrando. He’s simple, straight. But the thing is, he’s never been able to love anyone but himself. Not that he’s nasty; he’s just totally... I guess I’d say self-possessed. Is that the right word for it? You’ve spent a little time with him, what do you think?
I’m not sure, she said. To me self-possessed implies self-confident, but in this case, it’s like... I feel that Bertrando owns himself, belongs to himself. And other people have nothing to do with that. So he doesn’t have to worry about feeling confident.
Yeah, said Eligio, that’s right, that’s it. He just lives his life his way, and is basically uninterested in how other people do it. He’s his own little fortress. All locked up nice and tight. Never hostile or aggressive; just chiuso, closed.
The drive over the pass was dramatic no matter the weather.
There were the flat plains of wheat and corn outside Parma, then the gently ascending slopes, and a little later the deep ravines and treeless summits of the mountains. Here and there was a tucked-away cluster of farmhouses, mostly abandoned; occasionally, a barn commanded a small clearing. An august landscape, this one. No wonder the partisans hid out in these hills during the war: if a person wanted to vanish, he could do it easily here.
They drove the first forty-five minutes without talking much. Listened to a CD of Janis Joplin singing “Summertime,” that no-no-no of hers at the end part praying, part keening. “Me and Bobby McGee” next, the ballad soft at first, then careering into wails. Then “Mercedes Benz” with its comic plea: Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town... They sang along to that one, Eligio’s fingertips tapping the steering wheel.
Later she recalled there’d been an older-model station wagon (were cars still called by that name?)—a Mercedes—ahead of them, not long before the traffic on the other side stopped. An elegant navy-blue station wagon. On a sharp curve before Borgotaro, the Mercedes passed a sluggish truck, performing the pass in midcurve. The speed and smoothness of the maneuver made it seem as though there were no centrifugal leftward pull, no destabilizing strain on the vehicle. As though the Mercedes’s chassis couldn’t possibly leave the ground. The station wagon swept past the truck, then returned to the right-hand lane.
Whew, she whistled softly.
Not a good idea, Eligio said. You should never pass a truck on a curve. You should always just hang behind.
People do it, I’ve seen it happen before.
I know, but it’s just not worth it. Sometimes the truck will move slightly to the left as it’s going around the curve, without realizing it—because it’s being pulled there by its own weight. So you could get squeezed between the truck and the guardrail. Or just thrown off balance, into a spin.
Ahead of them, the Mercedes passed another car and zoomed ahead.
Ciao, she said, waving at its receding rear lights. You know, Eligio continued, this stretch of the autostrada is famous for being difficult to drive. If you go too fast it’s really a problem, especially on curves. There aren’t any shoulders, just the guardrails between lanes, and if the road’s not—oh, I know the word... yeah, banked. If it’s not banked just right...
I’d say that Mercedes wasn’t having any trouble taking that curve.
Those kind of cars handle the road really well, Eligio said. If we tried that in this car—
Don’t worry, I won’t ever try! But what a car, that Mercedes, such a clean design... Did you see its rear lights? So much nicer than those of that Fiat over there. Or that Lancia. No comparison.
Honestly, I never realized you noticed such things! What one learns about one’s mate while driving...
I usually don’t notice. But that model of Mercedes was really handsome. Or should I say pretty? Not sure which is the right adjective... Anyway, I quite fancy that car.
Eligio frowned in confusion.
Fancy? he asked.
That’s how Elizabeth Browning might’ve said it. With a British accent. It means, “I’m really infatuated.”
Ah, infatuato, said Eligio, smiling.
Yeah. Elizabeth Browning might also have said she was mad about the car—crazy about it. Like when I tell you, sono pazza di te.
He smiled. Ah... so you’ll have to decide on the right word. Well, it’s your love affair, you should call your object of desire whatever you want!
She wrapped her fingers around his right forearm, its muscles firm as he held the wheel.
I’ll think up a list of words, she said, and show it to you.
That, she recalled later—the moment when she alluded to making a list, and Eligio turned to her and murmured (so quietly she almost didn’t hear) and I’ll count the ways—was just before the traffic on the other side vanished. As if all the cars had run into the hills, like the partisans.
Within a minute they were driving past the site of the accident. An hour later, they were home. And the next afternoon, Eligio reported on what had happened on the A15.
A man was driving; his wife was in the passenger seat. They were headed to Bologna, to the airport, to pick up their son. The man lost control of the car on the curve, and the wife was killed. She was fifty-seven. No other car was struck. There weren’t any witnesses, or at least no one who could give a clear account.
What about the man, the driver? she asked.
He was seriously injured.
Does he know...?
I have no idea. The article didn’t say.
What kind of car was it?
A four-door sedan—that was the only description given. He was going too fast, for sure. I don’t know if he was trying to pass someone.
The tarp, she thought, must have been covering the wife’s body; the ambulance had been there for the man. At that point the husband hadn’t known what’d just happened to him, to the car, to the wife. His body in shock if not in pain. His mind shut down.
And when he awoke in the hospital (if he hadn’t already) and asked where is she, my wife, how is she? And when the son would have to tell him, Papà, you never made it to the Bologna airport to pick me up, you crashed into the guardrail and flipped over, it happened on one of the viaducts, I waited for you, I tried phoning but no answer, then the police called and told me, but no one can explain, no one understands why...?
That summer ended, and her sabbatical leave ended as well. They had to go home—back to what they’d taken to calling their other life, though the one they’d lived for a year in the village was their other life, too. Even more other, in fact, than the urban, American one. Other and centrifugal, pulling them up and away from what they’d grown accustomed to, the borgo and its quiet.
We’ve become in-betweeners, said Eligio. Or I have, anyway. Neither Italian nor American.
Unmoored, she thought sometimes—they’d been unmoored. Which wasn’t itself a bad thing, just unnerving, because you had to accept whatever waters moved you.
Back in the city, she recalled Bertrando’s face, its placid expression.
He’d had two daughters, and one of them died when she wasn’t supposed to. Leaving a husband and grown kids, a sister, a grandchild who’d never know her. Serena would’ve wanted—wouldn’t she?—not just her father but her husband and kids to let themselves get knocked over and pulled down, and then somehow get up. She’d been scared to talk about dying: to admit out loud it’d happen. Her family’d had to go along with her silence. But Eligio’d understood.
Perhaps the man who’d been driving the crashed sedan, recovering now in a hospital near Parma, no longer had an intact mind or heart. Eligio’d had more time than that driver to prepare for what would happen; not a lot, but enough. He’d let himself get knocked over. And he’d had, afterward, a friend in America to turn to and talk with, grow closer to, trust. He’d be the first to say that was just pure luck.
In the fall, a month or so after their return to the States, their architect sent them an e-mail with a report on the work underway. The roof of the canonica had been redone, he stated. Tutto al sicuro, without mishap.
The contractor sent photos. She gazed at pictures of the roof with its terra- cotta tiles; of the valley, its swaths of green changing color now. In the photos the rest of the village looked utterly empty. Of course the undergrowth was still encroaching, the martens and foxes still paying nocturnal visits. But if an earthquake were to happen, the house would be fine.
Back in the city, they spoke of how the other life was waiting over there, or simply passing. They worked, read, took walks, made love—the same things they’d done in the village, only without the quiet.
The light in the city’s nice, too, Eligio said one evening. Different, yet nice. But the quiet of the borgo... That’s what I miss. The city will never give it to us. Well, who knows, once we get back there—it’ll be different, too. All over again. Don’t think it won’t change.
She’d taken his hand, run her forefinger across the ridged knuckles. Like mountains, valleys; as if permanent, immutable. Sensing, he’d leaned in and kissed her.
It’ll change, it all changes, he said. And we’ll deal.
She’d stopped being interested in cars. In the city they didn’t drive; they took subways and buses.
Now and then, with winter approaching, she wondered about the man who’d been driving the car that had crashed. Did he survive his injuries? And his son, what sort of life was he having now?
She pictured the son getting into his own car and heading toward the autostrada. He and his parents had lived somewhere in Liguria; his home was probably still there. He’d enter at Sarzana and make the turn for the A15, a few kilometers north. It’d be the first time for him on that stretch of road since the accident. He’d pass Aulla and go through the long tunnel after Pontremoli, then another before Berceto. He’d note the names of various streams; he’d see stone farmhouses dotting the hills. He’d take the curves and wonder where exactly it’d happened, what it’d sounded like, if his mother had died instantly. What his father had understood in that instant when he lost control.
And then the son would think about exiting at Fornovo. He’d do it. He’d exit and pull to the side and contemplate taking a narrow road up into the mountains, going higher and higher til he couldn’t see or hear the autostrada any longer, then ditching his car and walking into the dense woods. He’d picture pine needles and cones underfoot, their dark sponginess, layers burying layers. But he’d fear getting lost; it was late in the day, he ought to head home.
So he’d make a left and return to the autostrada entrance in the opposite direction. Approaching the Cisa Pass, he’d slip a CD into the player—some music, relief, distraction. The low rays of sun slanting across his face would make him want to shut his eyes. Perhaps he’d sing along with the music, mindlessly at first, then really hearing the words: Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz...
He’d want to stop then. Lie down on dark pinecones, or asphalt. Not get up. May he be lucky, she thought. May he surprise himself somehow, and keep going.
Martha Cooley is the author of two novels, The Archivist and Thirty-Three Swoons (both Little, Brown); and the translator, with Antonio Romani, of a collection of Antonio Tabucchi’s stories, Time Ages in a Hurry (Archipelago).
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