LETTER TO A STRANGER:
TO THE SIGNORA I LET DOWN
BY ADAM REID SEXTON
I’m sorry, signora, I really am. I wanted to visit with you that day in Tuscany—Fiesole. Your home. Your hopeful smile, it broke my heart, as I descended Via Verdi, the street so steep a foot slid forward inside one of my shoes with every step. You stood in that street, in heels, in pearls, your hair looking beauty-shopped, waiting. Anticipating, as I had, the espresso you’d brewed, the pastries you’d laid out atop your best china. I’m sorry.
I held a gift-wrapped present in my hand from your childhood friend: my student Vera. Back in New York, she was writing a novel inspired by a German soldier she had loved once. The adult-ed class was up in arms—a Nazi! He wasn’t a Nazi, Vera said. When I said I’d be missing a week, a week to be spent in a Tuscan farmhouse, Vera asked was I planning to visit Fiesole? And would I deliver the gift? To you, her friend?
But can’t you come in? you asked me, confused, a widow alone on the slanted street in front of your house, Via Verdi. Where is your girlfriend?
And that was the problem. My girlfriend sat in Fiesole’s old Roman theater, a ten-minute walk away.
She felt unwell, I said, and your eyebrows steepled.
But signora, I lied to you. My girlfriend and I were fighting again. And again.
The trip had been cursed from the start, in effect, in that it was ill-conceived. (Later an Actual Curse would be laid upon us.) My brother and his girlfriend and my parents had stayed in the farmhouse—La Casacce—in August, or the August before, and came home touting al fresco meals on a terrace where grain was once threshed, a crenellated torre in the distance down a long slope inscribed with olive trees and grapevines, exclamation-marked with cypresses. Water was fetched from a spring in the pine-tree woods! Movies were shown on a sheet in a nearby square! A wild boar roamed the property! But it didn’t bother anyone!
Could we go, too, sometime? I asked them. Could Kira and I go to La Casacce?
We went, with my brother and his girlfriend, though not in August. August was booked. July was booked, and September and June. We went in April—early April. La Casacce’s American owner had never rented the place before mid-May; it wasn’t heated. But if our hearts were dead set on it, he could ask the caretaker, Paolo, to open the house a few weeks early this year.
La Casacce sat near the top of a hill (a mountain, really, albeit a Catskill or Pocono). The gear-grinding road to the house from the Arno was so steep that… well, Was it legal, I may have asked, for roads to be this steep? Stone-walled, with a roof tiled in terra-cotta, the house did not disappoint. What was it, four hundred years old? But beyond the louvered shutters and narrow doors stood night-dark rooms, undisturbed since autumn. A sheet lay over every bed and chair. On the stone kitchen floor: a child-sized broom, presumably abandoned by caretaker Paolo. Nearby rested a miniature dustpan, a few strokes of kitchen flotsam within it.
The peak of that small Tuscan mountain in April was cold all the time. All the time. Kira and I lay spooned in a twin bed each night, fully clothed. (My brother and his girlfriend had snagged the master bedroom, with its duvet-covered matrimoniale.) The bathroom boiler needed an hour to heat up a tubful of water; thus each of us bathed every four days or so. The only time we had sex, Kira wore a windbreaker. We dined on the terrace, shivering, once, because we felt we should.
The Actual Curse: Between our arrival in Florence by train and the Avis office where I found I’d forgotten my driver’s license, I’d insisted we visit a church. I mean we were in Italy, you guys! Inside Santa Maria Novella, jet-lagged senseless and as giddy with expectation as you would be, signora, later that week on the street before your house, I kissed Kira. Open-mouthed. Mauve-faced with rage, a priest emerged from the gloaming to deliver what was clearly a malediction, complete with hand gestures. The black cat crossing my path came later, when, sleepless at dawn (the jet lag again), I walked on a dirt road near the cold Casacce, breathing steam.
Was it the Curse or the cat or the ceaseless cold that triggered our weeklong series of spats? Kira had never spent much time at close quarters with me and my brother. Did she resent our palpable filial love, our inside jokes? Maybe. In the car on the way to Pisa she said that in Israel, too, the shutters were painted turquoise, to ward off evil, and I said, But these shutters aren’t really turquoise, are they? and she didn’t speak to me for the rest of the day. In a fit of pique by a fountain in San Gimignano, she tore off her sex-windbreaker—at last, a day it was clement enough to do so!—and thereby lost her passport, we deduced later. I have a photo of Kira in her striped sailor blouse, glaring at me above its pretty boat neck.
Finally, Fiesole. Who can say what we fought about that time? All I remember is Kira wouldn’t budge from the Teatro Romano and, worn down by the fights and achy from shivering, I didn’t have it in me to socialize with an older lady. I know it was rude, signora—and more than that, I’m aware that I could have brightened your day and I darkened it instead. I’m sorry. Leaving your espresso unsipped, your Florentine pastries uneaten, I gave you the present from Vera. I shook your hand.
Thank you, you said, and I said: Prego. I turned to walk up the hill to my angry girlfriend.
Visiting your town ten years before, I’d encountered an image I’ve never forgotten: Florence in the distance, long-shadowed and golden. And in the foreground, also golden, along a wall where they’d stopped to rest: ten or more girls, college-aged. Against the yellow sky they sat, pretty and chic and clearly worldly. They chatted in pairs and groups of three. And I, a boy, alone, thought this: I want one of those—a girlfriend in Fiesole.
Kira and I have been married for sixteen years. We rarely argue.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adam Reid Sexton's books, which have been translated into Indonesian, Japanese, and Farsi, include Master Class in Fiction Writing and, for younger readers, graphic-novel adaptations of four of Shakespeare's tragedies. He teaches writing at Yale University, where he is a Silliman College Fellow and a Critic in the School of Art. His favorite place on nobody else's list: the Gowanus Canal.
Photo by Moyan Brenn