Italy was beginning to get on Lily’s nerves.
In Florence, where she’d lived for the past three months, no one seemed
to have a job. They walked around downtown in their gorgeous plain
clothing all day and half the night, but never seemed to be headed anywhere;
they reminded her of the boutique models in ladies-who-lunch restaurants,
moving from table to table to pose in their Pappagallo dresses. Lily
suspected the Florentines, all of them, of supporting themselves by posing
for Vogue in a warehouse on the outskirts of the city. Even the police
force seemed more like a scout troop; they rode four to a tiny car, and
Lily once saw a cop reading poetry to his three colleagues. On her
good days, she was bedazzled by these signs of faith in a benign universe.
On her bad days, which were increasing in number, she thought she was living
in a city, a world, of ineffectual flakes. On the worst days she
thought about calling Alan, who’d caused her to run away to Italy in the
first place. Alan was a known quantity.
When she could, she made her own known quantities. It seemed to
her that if she did not keep a grip on herself, her meals, her showers,
she might become unrecognizable to the few shopkeepers or bartenders who
knew her by name or face. So she rose at the same time each day and
did stretches on her cold stone floor. She ate spinach pie for lunch
and spaghetti for dinner and lost six pounds. Each Saturday she attended
a Bach organ recital in a small overdecorated valentine of a church, then
stayed for the Mass, though she’d never had a religion. There were
several American churches in Florence, but Lily liked the anonymity of
this one, the unlikelihood of having to explain herself. She sat
in the back pew, so the young priest wouldn’t get to know her face and
peg her as someone who needed comfort. She spoke grocery Italian
and no more.
One Saturday she came home late, having stopped for a while near the Duomo
to watch a Muslim anti-American demonstration. Though she knew President
Bush was threatening to blow Iraq to kingdom come, it bemused Lily to think
of herself as the enemy. When she entered the lobby of her hotel,
Johnny, the Somali concierge, looked up from his heroin-induced stupor
and said “Phone call for you.”
“Who from?” Lily asked. She and Johnny had gradually become friends
of a sort, ever since she’d taken to watching Laverne and Shirley
reruns with him in the evenings. They were broadcast in French, the
language she and Johnny used to communicate.
“She said she was your mother.”
“She tells everyone that,” Lily said. She was grateful for Johnny’s
company, though he was a horrible concierge. For one thing, he often
just stared at the phone when it rang. Sometimes men would come to
the hotel looking for him, and he would run to his room and pretend he
wasn’t home. Since she was the only tenant who ever seemed to be
around, Lily sometimes got on the intercom and tried to deal with the men
herself, just so they would stop buzzing. They seemed to her rather
more polite than American drug dealers. Although she and Johnny never
discussed who the men were or what wasn’t being paid for, she’d been getting
extra towels and more phone messages since she’d begun running interference.
“Can I watch Kojak with you later?” she asked him. Shows she
made fun of at home she couldn’t get enough of here.
He shrugged. “Sure.”
In the lobby phone booth, she got through on the first try. “Mom,”
she said. “Is something the matter?” She’d had nightmares about
an unloved aunt or cousin dying while she was overseas and the moral dilemma
that would present.
“Nothing’s the matter,” her mother said. “You’re such a pessimist.
I just wanted to see how you are. Wait.” A pause. “Your
father wants to know how the weather is.”
“It’s fine,” Lily said.
“Anyway,” her mother went on, “I was thinking of you because it’s Sound
of Music night and I wish you were here to watch it with me.
Especially since certain people”—this would be Lily’s father and sixteen-year-old
brother—“find it such a source of humor.”
“I’m sorry, Mom. I wish I could be there too.”
Her father was on the line now. “How’s the money situation?”
“It’s okay. Things are expensive here. A banana costs two dollars.”
She’d had nearly four thousand dollars in savings when she arrived, part
of it from her job and the rest an inheritance from her grandmother.
In the back of her mind, she’d always known she might need money fast some
“Well, we’re sending you a little more,” her mother said. “I don’t
want you going without fruit.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Lily said. “Dad.” She paused. “Enjoy the
movie. Maybe Rolf will see the error of his ways this time and ditch
“Hope springs eternal,” her mother said. Later, lying in bed, Lily
thought, well, there’s a stupid saying.
Sound of Music night shifted form over the years. At first
it was the one night she could stay up until eleven. In high school
it was something to be kept secret; for a couple of years Lily watched
on the TV in her room, headphones plugged into the set so her mother wouldn’t
know they had anything in common. In college and after, they watched
over the phone together, which Alan could not stand. “What possible
reason could you have for liking this movie?” he asked. “You like
it because when you were three you were told to like it. You’re just
trying to please your mother.”
“So what if I am?” Lily said, settling in on the sofa. “Is that so
pathological?” Alan had rediscovered Ayn Rand and had also, perhaps
coincidentally, decided that doing things one didn’t want to do was a sign
of sickness. “If I’m going to be faithful,” he’d say, “it has to
be because I want to be. Don’t you see how meaningless it
is if I do it just because you want me to?” When Lily had the energy,
she would argue the point. Usually, she kept her mouth shut.
A cool voice in the back of her head said, over and over for two or three
years, I really ought to get out of this.
Lily was unhappy in Florence, but she was unhappy all by herself, and
that made her proud. After the first few months she stopped doing
Florentine things—museums, markets—and took up reading. She found
an English language book store and spent a small fortune on Edith Wharton
and Rebecca West and all the books she used to eye in the grocery checkout
lines, the ones where a beautiful young woman inherits a cobwebbed mansion
and eventually runs screaming from it in her nightgown. The heroine
always had two men to choose from: a sandy-haired nice one, who turned
out to be a psychopath, and a dark snide one, who was widely thought to
be a psychopath but in actuality just needed to meet the right woman.
Lily collected these books and displayed them in her room, where she could
look at the covers and imagine what Alan would have said if they’d popped
up next to his Barthes and his beloved Stanley Fish.
She went to movies almost every day: Fellini, the Antonioni films
that put her right to sleep. She saw The Terminator in Italian
five times. A downtown theater was running a Martin Scorcese series
and she bought a pass for the week, feeling at home, almost cozy with his
assassins and obsessives. Travis Bickle, she thought, wasn’t afraid
to show a woman how he really felt.
Then there were days she couldn’t seem to leave her room; she’d stay
under the green striped comforter all day, listening to the bells, eating
stale rolls she’d snuck from the breakfast room. Her mind raced way
ahead of her. Johnny would die in some unpleasant way, and no one
would know what to do with him. She would be mugged, she would lose
her passport, she would be raped and get pregnant and have to get an illegal
abortion. She would die of a blood infection after the abortion and
no one would tell her family. One night she called Alan every hour
on the hour from midnight to seven a.m. He wasn’t home. She
decided he’d moved across the country and she’d never find him again.
Or he had died, and no one was going to tell her. Maybe her
father had hunted him down and killed him, and now he would have to go
underground and she’d never see either one of them ever again.
In late January, the United States finally attacked Iraq. The next
day, someone threw a small bomb into the courtyard of Harvard’s Florence
campus. Overhearing news of this in the English bookstore, Lily thought
that at least now she had something tangible to worry about. No one
had been hurt in the bombing, but it was enough to shut down half the American
schools in the city. Junior-year-abroad kids skittered everywhere,
drinking and buying last-minute souvenirs, enjoying the drama of being
a Voyager in Dangerous Times.
Lily spent the evening in bed, wondering what she should do. She
felt perfectly safe. She didn’t belong to a school, and never went
to American bars; if some nut wanted to make a point, surely he’d want
to knock off a large group of U.S. pigs and not one lone one. Daily
life in Florence sailed on, as cool as ever. In fact, the only really
stupid thing she could think of doing would be to get on a plane in Rome.
Johnny knocked. “Telephone.”
“Go to Switzerland,” her mother said. “Honey, go to Switzerland.
“Hi, Mom. How’s it going?”
Her father picked up the extension. “Lily, how are the conditions
“They’re fine, Dad,” she said. “Italy’s not at war, you know.”
“Well, I don’t like this bombing business,” he said. “I think it’s
very bad news.”
“I have to agree with you there,” Lily said. “But I’m perfectly okay,
and I’m not coming home yet.” The fact was, she had very little to
come home to. She missed her family, but it had been years
since she’d lived within four hundred miles of them anyway, and she wasn’t
about to humiliate herself by moving back in with her parents. I
can humiliate myself right here, she thought.
“Can you at least get out of Florence for a bit?” her mother asked.
“Go on vacation?”
Lily liked the sound of the word Innsbruck, so that was where she went.
She checked into a cheap hotel with piped-in yodeling in the hallways and
stenciled dancing children on the walls. That night, she decided
to buy herself an expensive Teutonic dinner involving slabs of meat and
black-red wine. As she lacked even the most rudimentary understanding
of German, however, the menus posted outside restaurants proved indecipherable.
After an hour of helpless wandering, she gave up and started looking for
a grocery store. Instead, she ran smack into a McDonald’s boasting
“no cover charge.”
“What the hell,” she said to herself. “It’s Teutonic enough.”
Lily’s favorite thing about McDonald’s in Europe was that it sold booze.
She bought a Quarter Pounder and fries and a half-liter of red wine and
ate in the courtyard. Halfway through her meal, a drunk man came
over and demanded in English that she go to a disco with him. She
looked him over and gestured toward her nearly empty bottle. “I could
break this over your head, you know.”
He didn’t seem to understand. “You come home with me to Milano.”
“I should have known you were a fucking Italian,” Lily said, getting up
and sweeping past him. In her experience Italian men spent most of
their time asking American women to go to discos, a euphemism if there
ever was one. Mercifully, this guy didn’t follow her. She never
knew what to do when they followed.
She bought another bottle of wine on the way back to the hotel and drank
it in her cramped room, wondering melodramatically just how homely a girl
would have to be to have a simple drink in public sans stares, comments,
and marriage proposals. When she’d gotten sufficiently worked up,
she picked up the phone and called Alan. It was three a.m. on the
East Coast, but he sounded awake. “So,” she said without preamble,
“we’re at war. What’s the draft cut-off age these days?”
“Jesus. Where are you?”
“None of your business,” she said. “Far.” She cleared her throat.
“Listen. I need to ask you something. I need to know what you
gained by being a philanderer.”
“That’s such an old-fashioned word,” Alan said. “Philanderer.”
“Just answer me,” Lily said. “This is expensive.”
“I don’t know, Lily,” he said. “I just like women, I guess.”
Lily remembered something her college roommate had once said: “Alan
doesn’t like women. He likes women’s bodies.” She thought of
using that line now, but chances were he’d heard it before.
“I just am who I am,” Alan was saying, “and I’m not going to change anytime
soon. I’ve been telling you for three years that I’ll probably never
be faithful to you.”
“I thought you were lying.”
“Obviously, I was telling the truth.”
“Yes,” she said, “that much is obvious.” She stared at the boys in
lederhosen on her wall. Their cheeks were unnaturally red.
“I like myself, Lily,” Alan went on. “I don’t feel the need to let
you mold me into your warped idea of what a boyfriend should be.”
He paused. “I still love you, you know.”
Lily closed her eyes. “Well, stop it,” she said, and hung up.
She left the hotel at dawn the next morning and rushed through freezing
rain to the train station. She thought she’d go to Vienna, where
she could get a Hungarian visa. She wanted to get away from what
she thought of as Honeymoon Europe. I could stay for years and never
see Paris, or Venice, or Bruges, Lily thought. She’d stay in Vienna
until her visa was approved, then move on to Budapest, Prague. Then,
who knew? Finland loomed large in her mind. If she hadn’t browsed
at the tourist desk in the Innsbruck station, and hadn’t seen a pamphlet
reading “EXPERIENCE THE MAJESTY AND WONDER OF THE WORLD’S MOST BELOVED
MOVIE!,” she might have made it all the way to the Faroes.
Salzburg was half under water when she arrived. From the station
lobby she saw people moving as fast as they could through the rain, hats
facing forward; the little gold lights which lined the shops were like
candles in a blackout. It was the kind of weather which is so bad
it becomes romantic; it begged to be discussed over tea on the safe side
of a picture window: the dramas of weak ceilings, of making the dog
go out to pee, of just getting home. It brought out Lily’s self-pity
in grand style. What a delightful way to spend an afternoon, she
reflected, if one were not alone in the world, if one’s company were sought
by anyone at all for reasons other than access to a vagina, if one had
the most rudimentary knowledge of the German language.
She dragged herself to the tourist desk. “I would like the cheapest
room you have,” she told the clerk.
“The cheapest room I have is forty-five a night,” he said.
Fat chance, but she signed the reservation slip anyway. “Also,” she
said, lowering her voice, “can I make a tour reservation here?”
“But certainly. What tour do you wish to attend?”
“Um, the Sound of Music one?”
“Sound of Music,” he said. “Sound of Music, Sound
of Music. Here we are.” He pushed a ticket at her.
“That will be twenty-five.” Lily gave him some more money, thinking,
this had better be worth three dinners and a pack of cigarettes.
But as she left the station and trudged through puddles to her hotel, she
had a flash of lightness. I’m going on the Sound of Music
tour, she mused. I’m a simpler creature than I thought.
The bus picked her up at her hotel. She climbed on and faced a
very tall blond man with a Prince Valiant haircut. “Welcome to the
Sound of Music tour,” he beamed. “I am Fritz. You may sit wherever
you might like.” He swept a big hand toward the seats, then peered
out the door.
“Your husband, he is coming?”
“No,” Lily said, flushing. “Just me.”
“An adventuress!” Fritz exclaimed. “We have a young lady
adventuress,” he explained to the other passengers, “much like Maria Von
Trapp when she crept out of the convent to dance in the mountains.”
The other passengers, most of them Japanese, smiled at Lily. She
smiled back and slunk to a seat in the middle of the bus.
As the bus headed out of town, Fritz, speaking into a small unnecessary
microphone, outlined the tour. First they would drive around the
lake country, visiting some of the castles and manors that were used in
the movie; they would also see the mountains where Maria frolicked.
“Maria, she had strong legs,” Fritz said, “because the mountains are ten
miles from the abbey you see in the film!” Everyone laughed.
Finally, he explained, they would visit the church where Maria and Captain
Von Trapp were married. This, he said, was generally the most touching
and moving part of the tour. “Have we any newlyweds?” Two couples
raised their hands. “Ah!” Fritz boomed. “Then the wedding chapel
will have very special meaning for you.” Lily tried to wish herself
invisible, but it was too late. “And our young adventuress will perhaps
think of the man she may someday marry.” He came up the aisle toward
“Okay,” Lily said meekly.
Fritz returned to the front of the bus. “And now,” he said, “as we
leave Salzburg, we will enjoy the beautiful voice of Julie Andrews.”
The overture flooded the bus, and Fritz sat down.
They drove around for a couple of hours and looked at castles that had
appeared in the film for a second or two. They were from the grown-up
part of the movie, when it looked like the Baroness might steal the Captain
from Maria. Even at six, Lily had known there wasn’t a chance in
hell of that happening. Now she stared through the rain-plastered
window at the massive stone houses while Fritz talked earnestly of their
histories, the details of their windows and doors. At one point,
someone asked him about the gazebo where Liesl and Rolf had their first
kiss. “Ah,” he crowed, “that has long since been torn away!”
Finally the bus stopped in the little village that contained the wedding
chapel and many, many restaurants and souvenir shops. “Please we
will meet back here in one hour,” Fritz said. “In the meantime, may
I suggest you partake of some crisp apple strudel with vanilla sauce.
If you have careful ears, you will know it is one of Maria’s favorite things!”
Lily ran the song through her head as she got off the bus. Snowballs,
sleighbells, schnitzel with noodles. When the dog bites, when the
bee stings, when I’m feeling sad. She headed for the nearest restaurant
and ordered a gin and tonic. Gin and tonics were fun to order in
Europe because each ingredient came in its own little silver pitcher.
Just as her drink arrived, she saw Fritz coming at her, grinning.
He was so tall she feared for the chandeliers.
“If you do not object,” he said, “might I sit with you? The others,
they are off mooning in the wedding chapel in pairs.” He slid in
across from her. “You have visited the chapel already?”
“No,” Lily said. “I’m not sure I want to.”
“Ah,” Fritz nodded. “If I may ask, you have been jilted at the altar?”
The waitress set a beer down in front of him. She ruffled his hair
and winked at Lily.
“Oh, no.” Lily had to laugh. “I got jilted long before the
altar. Well, I jilted him. Well, it’s complicated.”
“If I may say something wrong for a tour guide.”
“Go for it,” Lily said.
“A man who would jilt you is stupid.” Lily felt the blood
rush to her face and thought that she was doing an extraordinary amount
of blushing today. “I have made you embarrassed,” Fritz said.
“I am sorry.”
Lily laughed again and turned even pinker. “No. That was—that
was a really nice thing to say. It’s just funny how—well, it’s easy
for men to say things like that to women they don’t know.” Fritz
looked puzzled. “If you knew me,” she explained, “you would find
a thousand things to hate about me, and I could be Venus incarnate and
it wouldn’t make any difference.”
“But I do not know you,” he said, “and you are a pretty girl, and it’s
Lily considered that. When she and her girlfriends talked about men
it was always he’s smart, he’s mature, he makes me laugh,
as if the men had no bodies at all, and that seemed a little screwy.
And then while the women were bragging about the men’s brains, the men
she knew were running around clutching at pretty girls, who were supposed
to say Who, me? as if they had no clue how pretty they were, or
as if they were sorry about it, or as if they were angry at the men for
seeing something shiny and wanting it. There was enough tail-chasing
on both sides to cause a meltdown.
Lily peered at Fritz. “I don’t know if pretty or not pretty is so
simple. Frankly, I think it’s fraught with weirdness and guilt.
But I like what you said. Thank you.” She smiled at him and
tried to think of something less insane-sounding to say. The Sound
of Music seemed like a safe topic. “You seem so passionate about
the movie and the music. I would think you’d be sick of them by now.”
Fritz shook his head. “I am crazy about them. For two years
I have had this job and still I love it. I love to see all the people
so excited about this little story. That is simple, no?”
Lily thought about that. “I guess it is,” she said.
“And it is simple that you should have dinner with me tonight.”
She laughed. “Oh, you are slick.”
“At a restaurant if you fear for your safety, of course. But I am
a chef hobbyist.”
Though she had no real reason not to, Lily didn’t fear for her safety.
“Okay,” she told him. “You can cook for me.”
Fritz lived in the suburbs of Salzburg, in an apartment complex that
could have been plunked down in the middle of Cleveland. His apartment
was neat and ordinary, with blue upholstered furniture, but the kitchen
gleamed with spotless copper pots. Fritz handed Lily a glass of wine.
“You will forgive me if I am chopping garlic for a little while,” he said.
“Can I help?” she asked him.
“I would not hear of it. You are on holiday.” I guess I am,
Lily thought. She took her glass of wine and wandered around the
apartment, automatically checking for bookshelves. There was only
one small one, and she found herself filing this fact in the Con column.
It was a bit of a revelation. Do you like men, or do you like men’s
books? she asked herself. Deliberately avoiding the bookshelf, she
poked her head into a door off the foyer. It was a bathroom, a white-tiled
bathroom with a tub. Lily had nearly forgotten that bathtubs existed.
She wondered if Fritz took baths; it was hard to imagine him all scrunched
up, his knees bent to his chin. Thinking of that, she felt light
again, dizzy and bold, and went back to the kitchen.
“Here’s the thing,” she said, watching Fritz gut a chicken. “I like
you. You seem really nice. And I’m drinking this wine,
which is going to make me less defensive and standoffish than I ordinarily
try to be, and that could lead to all sorts of things which might have
already occurred to you. But maybe they haven’t occurred to you at
all, so I just thought I should warn you.” She paused for breath.
“That I like you.”
Fritz nodded. Then he kissed her. It was a nice kiss, and then
it turned into a real kiss, and it went on just long enough for Lily to
surmise that all sorts of things had occurred to him too. “I would
like to kiss you more,” he said, pulling away, “but I have chicken insides
on my hands.”
“That’s okay,” Lily said, picking a bit of chicken off her shoulder.
“I wanted to ask you something else, and this is totally separate from
all the other stuff I just said. I haven’t been in an actual bathtub
in almost four months, and I couldn’t help noticing that you have one.
Would you mind if I took a garden-variety, completely non-sexual bath,
all by myself?” He’s going to think you kissed him for a bath, she
Fritz laughed. “Be my guest,” he said. If he thought she was
some kind of bath-whore, it didn’t show, and as she headed for the tub
it occurred to her that something like that might never cross his mind.
He might believe her to be good and hopeful and in need of a hot bath,
exactly as she was.
Upon her return to Florence, Lily found Johnny in his usual position
on the lobby couch, watching Maude. He tilted his head in
acknowledgement. “Mail,” he said. Lily went behind the desk
and found two envelopes from her mother and one from Alan.
“Thanks,” she told Johnny. She went up to her room and left the letters
unopened on her bed, then walked down the block to get something to eat.
What a relief, she thought, to be back in a country where she knew how
to order a plate of spaghetti.
As she waited for the light to change, thinking of Fritz’s bright face
and his blue flannel sheets, she saw a hansom-cab horse break loose in
the Piazza del Duomo. She stood frozen and watched the whole thing:
the buggy driver shouting after the horse, the horse jogging nervously
in widening concentric circles. She thought she knew exactly what
would happen and it made her cringe. But she was wrong. What
happened was this: the hollow-cheeked, glamorous people of Florence
put down their briefcases and their Prada bags and went after the horse,
forming a circle around it. Some of them stroked its neck, its flanks.
And when the driver approached and Lily steeled herself, she was wrong
again. She never expected the apple he produced, the scattered applause
all around the piazza. The light changed, but she didn’t move.
She stood still and watched the driver, his face bent close to the horse’s,
talking quietly to it, rubbing its mane. Amazing, she though, exactly
how mistaken she could be.
Write "Ellavon" at email@example.com.
Editor: Robert Basil.
Publisher: the Raylock Design Group.
by the author. Released:
Sept. 9, 1998