by Flo McClory
Edited by Elyssa D Perkins & Misha Boone
Patri and I sit against a stone wall on the piazza of San Stefano. Our belongings are scattered around us. We don’t have a plan and the sun is already slipping behind the domed roof of the Basilica, bathing that old, ochre city in gold. I feel too cold, too soon.
“Well, where to?” Patri asks, with that lazy smile that used to make me light and pliable in his hands. All I know is this: I am wearing the wrong shoes. We’d been squatting at a flat in the old town, but Patri got caught dealing and they voted us out. Squat politics. At some point during all the yelling, I’ve picked up somebody else’s shoes, ruby red and shiny like they’re nearly new. I like them, but they don’t suit me.
“These aren’t my shoes,” I say, staring at them.
“What the fuck is wrong with you? Those are your shoes.” Patri barely looks up; he’s trying to roll a cigarette from the dregs of tobacco at the bottom of our rucksack. He stands up tall and yawns, then bums a light off one of the tourists.
We met at a festa in the south of the country. We ate spaghetti and courgette by a campfire and told each other the same messed up story, in broken English and broken Italian. I used to think he had all the answers. Lately, I hate him. He smells of booze and stale sweat and his grip pinches in the night till it stings.
We’ve emptied out my tattered Berghaus, trying to find something useful like loose change. I’ve never had much, but I had what I needed. Now, the sum total of our lives fits into the side pockets. His ‘Che Guevera’ t-shirt and my bikini lay crumpled on the ground. There was a time when sharing a backpack felt like the ultimate alliance; now it seems like the darkest depths of dependency. I want out.
I am the poster girl for what not to do while travelling. Don’t leave your stuff in a hostel and still expect it to be there when you get back; don’t pick up strangers along the way. Don’t believe the booming voice in the sky or wander off down side streets in strange cities. Think twice before you leave a place with no means of return, and never trust a backpacker who doesn’t have his own backpack. Truth is, I can’t even remember what my true shoes look like; I just know that I wouldn’t wear these. Patri lowers his sunglasses and packs up our belongings.
“I’m done,” I say, “I’m not coming with you.”
Patri laughs like I knew he would, that cruel screw-you laugh that wins every time. I hold my breath and bite my lip, awaiting the worst: his kiss, his fist, his resistance. But when I look up, he’s still smiling. His sunglasses hide his eyes, and it’s just my own cowering reflection, blinking back at me.
“What are you going to do?” he says, stubbing out his cigarette on the ground by my shoes, “Click your heels together and fly home?” Patri lifts the backpack on his shoulder and without even a backwards glance, he walks away with everything, melting seamlessly into the city.
I follow the yellow brick pattern that leads across the piazza. Small, sceptical steps to the centre. Maybe these are my shoes, maybe I had them all along?
I can’t make out the shape of her. She is all angles and motion. She is strange, uncomfortable, triangular like jazz music. In the early hours, I think I feel her foot or hand reaching out and impressing against the peachy light of my insides. Who does she reach for?
I stand naked before the bathroom mirror. There is no bath in my apartment, just a small latrine and a shower head. Outside, the streets are windswept and waterlogged from a storm that has shaken us for days. I feel strange and still, and the reflection in the mirror is foreign to me. Each contraction is visible in the mirror, a discernible tightening through the middle of my being.
I should have known she would come tonight, while the phone lines are down and the roads are blocked. She is like me: wayward, tricky. I had planned to call on Signora Barba, who could send her son Aldo with me in their car, but it's almost midnight, and I can't walk as far as their villa on the outskirts of town. I could wake my stony-faced neighbours, who give me black looks when they see me coming home with groceries and who play tombola in the stairwell on weekends. They call the numbers out all evening and they sound like incantations; wise, and weird, and arbitrary. Twenty-three – lo scemo – the fool. Seventy-eight – ‘a bella figliola – the prostitute. Eighty-eight – le sorelle grosse - the two fat sisters. Number two – la picarella – the little girl.
I put on my bathrobe, and the pain makes me sway and grip the doorframe. I turn out the lights and dance slowly, rhythmically, in my kitchen. I imagine I can dance all night till morning, when the storm calms and the streets are kinder. The rats come up from underground when the sewers flood. They are fatter than you’d think. They dart behind bins and dawdle beneath the streetlamps; their own dance.
I bought a second-hand dress in the market last week: a long, corseted gown with an ivory charmeuse skirt. It could have been a wedding dress, or the frock from some fairy tale ball. The stall owner sneered as I gave him my money.
“Un poco tarde” he said: It’s a little late for that.
The dismembered dress is arranged on my kitchen floor. I had planned to use the skirt for pretty slips with capped sleeves, with plenty of fabric left for booties, but I’ve run out of time. The electric clock on the cooker blinks at me: four expressionless zeros. The pressure and pain is sovereign now; it is absolute. I get down on all fours, and fumble on the floor for some shoes.
There is a knock on the door, and I strain to unhook the safety chain. I see the elderly woman from upstairs, with her hands in her pockets.
“Come? ” I ask. How did she know? She says she heard my cries through the ceiling, but I can’t recall making any sound at all.
“E tutto bene.” It’s all ok, she whispers.
“My other shoe,” I say and point at a slipper crumpled in a corner of the hallway. She holds my ankle gently in her hand and she places the shoe on my foot.
The book says: the baby must be vaccinated at eight, twelve, and sixteen weeks of age. The nurse must have warm hands and the mother must be brave and patient.
We have been waiting outside the doctor’s office for an hour. They might call her name, or they might call mine. It won’t matter either way, because she’s mine and I’m hers. My baby was safe when she was growing inside of me, but now she’s on the outside. The book says she has natural immunity in the beginning. This is called passive immunity because she does it without even noticing.
“People are looking at us.” Signora Barba hates it when they stare.
“Let them stare, mama,” Aldo says, and he smiles beside me. People say that Aldo is a little pazzo - folle, soft in the head. At first, I thought this was in reference to his offer of marriage, because everybody knows that I am bad news; I am a woman of ill repute. But I’ve realised that people’s mistrust of him is practiced; it precedes me. Aldo was married before, more than once. He is not a young man, and in their eyes, I am still a child. Una bambina con una bambola—a little girl holding a dolly. I cradle her in the hook of my arm, and her eyes are the widest I’ve ever seen. She is so strong, I could hold her upright and facing forward so she could stare right back at the world, but I want people to see that I’m doing it right—that I know how to support her head correctly.
The book says: the young mother will need to be supported in her choices from the earliest point in the pregnancy. She will need additional care and instruction in the first few weeks after the birth.
She has a hole in her head where her skull hasn’t grown all the way over yet. I worry about it all the time; I watch it beat when she’s sleeping. I can’t wait till she has a whole, hard head like mine. When she was a newborn, I sat up in the hospital bed and placed her on my legs so I could look at her closely. But the nurse told me: “If she rolls off, she’ll smash her head open on the floor and she’ll die.” I guess she thought I didn’t understand the gravity of things. I think she was sorry after, because she placed my baby in the cot by the bed and said, “you wouldn’t want that, would you?”
The book says: there is no shame in asking for help.
Signora Barba said she’d help us. She has given us a room in her big house with clean furniture and clean clothes. In return, I can marry her son and live happily ever after. That’s the deal. And she gave me a book in English about the baby’s first year. She fights a lot with Aldo, and he leaves for days on end. Sometimes, when he’s gone, I take my baby outdoors and I push her pram down the driveway. But it’s so hot that we have to sit under the big, bold pine trees, and I’m afraid of pine cones falling and killing us instantly. I might survive, but she’s so tiny. If pinecones or planes or grand pianos should fall from the sky, she’ll die.
By the time they call our names, Aldo is flush and the baby has begun to fuss. “Shush,” I whisper. It will only be a quick pin prick. She is fat and delicious with plump white feet and sticky, marshmallow thighs. I smile as the doctor weighs her, so he knows that everything is ok, but my teeth are too big for my face. Signora Barba tells the doctor that I eat plenty. I eat fruit and I drink milk, and I feed my baby every four hours. The doctor is not convinced. He hands me two tiny pills from a black bottle on his shelf.
“Take these,” he says, and I swallow them down with water from a plastic cup. It isn’t until the car ride home, when I lift her to my breast to ease the fussing, that Aldo explains the purpose of the pills.
“You cannot do that now—the medicine has spoilt your milk—you don’t do that anymore.” He shakes his head and wags his finger at me. The baby howls a little louder, but I cry silently, turning my face toward the window so he cannot see.
Aldo took my papers from the doctor, and our health cards. He slipped them into his back pocket, and later he will fold them into the locked box on his desk. Signora Barba keeps the key for the box on a chain round her neck, along with the key to my room and the key to the pantry.
The book says: if you accidentally trip and fall and wind up pregnant, then you must eat a lot, so you can grow strong enough to make a run for it. You must not eat too much or you will not fit through doorways. The book says: be patient and hope will appear on the horizon.