I bring a runny nose and too many tank tops. Beth and I share a bed even though she’s still mad at me from the plane, from when she said Tommy meant nothing to her and I said she meant nothing to Tommy. The windows are shuttered when we get back from dinner so Beth sings a song from The Sound of Music and we pretend we’re nuns. We wonder why the black people don’t come out until nine o’clock at night, why they all have Haitian accents and sell knock-off Fendis in the streets. At 2 a.m. Beth is asleep holding her ratty stuffed monkey and I’m watching “Family Ties” in Italian.
There are no trees, or dead people. Our gondolier has six piercings, four of which are visible, and a photograph of himself with Jude Law, whose name he can’t recall. He won’t sing, but he makes an indistinguishable vowel every time we round a corner. He tells us Venice is made up of one hundred eighteen islands; Venice is sinking; he says every island has its very own church and then he says look that that’s the whorehouse. He uses our tip to buy us each a glass of wine. He says come back tonight, there’ll be more wine and we’ll smoke hashish.
The foundations of the buildings are striped green like oxidized pennies. No one lives below the second floor now. I see trees but no cemeteries; I think there are no cats, then I see four. Stephano is late so we eat a cheese plate. On the radio an Italian woman sings “Every Breath You Take” in English and the waiter teaches us the word for tomato, pomodoro. When we finally get in the gondola, he takes us across the canal, waves his arms and says something about a light, a dead battery, and the carabinieri. We understand this to mean Get out, and we do. There will be no joint wrapped in a brocaded afghan under a Venetian moon. A half hour later he smokes us up in a padlocked shed hung with oars he says is inhabited by unusually large rats.
In every square there are stacks of what look like folded bleachers. These are temporary sidewalks, wooden planks you can walk across when Venice floods. At breakfast I steal seven packets of Nutella and help a small French boy reach the prosciutto. We buy a train ticket to Florence and it looks like Ohio so Beth falls asleep. I think about the U.S. country code (001), how ciao means hello and also goodbye, and the absence of clocks. Around Bologna the sun goes in, Beth wakes up and says Let’s play a game, Mom.
In Florence there are cars and the skirts are shorter. A short and energetic man named Dominico chases us from the train station and sells us on Hotel Balcony for 75 euro a night. The television is suspended from a hook in the ceiling, like in the hospital, and the shower is missing a door. When we shave our legs we brace one foot up on the toilet. My cough is so bad Beth is calling me Typhoid Mary.
For not the first time I think about him. I wonder if the distance will make him smaller or larger, if in Italy he is more real or less real. I think about his new girlfriend, who is from Rome, and how he is learning Italian, how before I knew about her I thought this was another way he could take something that was mine and make it his. In an outdoor market I see a belt that looks like his and I don’t feel anything.