Siena

By KATHERINE DYKSTRA

 

Bomolluck: not a thing in the night, but what you fear in the night.
It can sit on your chest

The train was pointed toward a hill town in Tuscany. From my seat on the exhausted maroon upholstery, I watched the bustle on the sooted platform: the hop-skip of those running late, the toe-to-toe and clutch of goodbye.

I’d just parted ways with my travelling companion and closest friend. Jenny and I had spent the past ten days flip-flopping around Italy. We crowded into the Sistine Chapel, stared up at David’s perfect ass, watched the sun set through the bridge over the river Arno. We walked everywhere, our blistered feet covered in Band-Aids, faces beat with June heat. Now Jenny was headed back to New York.

Outside the train station, she and I had faced one another, our rolling suitcases jutting out behind us.

“Well, bye,” she’d said, shrugging. “Have fun.” I reached out to hug her and felt my throat go tight. I might have anticipated the tears if I’d been more honest with myself about who I was then, but it was my custom in those days to throw myself blindly at whatever it was I thought might make me whole, so they both surprised and disappointed me. Sadness was not what I was supposed to be feeling. Jenny’s leaving was part of the plan, my plan. 

Our trip had been designed as a sort of circuit breaker. Jenny had recently left the cheating man with whom she’d moved to New York, gathering up her things and moving in with me. I too was in the throes of remaking myself. I’d moved from Kansas to New York the minute I graduated from college—New York being where everything happened and where I knew everything would happen to me. But among the glossy magazine editors with whom I worked, I found myself hopelessly other—my clothes, my references, everything about me so obviously wrong. I was in the wrong job with the wrong boyfriend. I was living in an apartment I couldn’t afford, in a city that felt unconquerable, everything contributing to the dawning realization that I knew nothing about the ways of the world.

For two years I writhed in place, and then one fall I quit my job, broke up with my boyfriend, and started graduate school all in the same desperate breath. 

The miracle was that it seemed to be working. School suited me: my teachers inspired, I’d made friends, and for the first time in my life I felt beautiful, the men in my classes giving me attention I’d never received before. This trip was an extension of the new me, a self-assured and successful woman, someone who could pack a bag, book a flight, and just go whenever she felt like it. Jenny only had a week and a half off work, but I had the whole summer. She’d go home, but I’d head off on my own. This was my opportunity to travel, something I’d always professed love for but never really done. But as soon as Jenny stepped away, I felt as if a chasm had opened around me. 

Sitting on the train, I was alone in a way I’d never been before—in a country I didn’t know, among people whose language I couldn’t speak. It felt as if the world might just swallow me without someone else there to pin me to the present.

 

As the whistle lowed farewell, a woman, small as a sparrow, clambered into the seat facing mine. Her presence comforted me. She looked like she was in her early twenties too, and I imagined that she was also travelling alone for the first time. But as the train hefted itself out of the station, she began to cry. 

Feeling responsible, I asked, “Parla inglese?”

She issued a string of words in Italian. 

I shook my head. “Non parlo italiano.” 

She dropped her head in her arms. 

In Rome, Jenny and I had been taken for more than two hundred euros by a cab driver and his accomplice. The men, built like fire hydrants, flanked us at the airport: “Need a ride?” In the cab, they’d turned to grin at us over the partition as we whipped past the city; Jenny and I, wide-eyed out the windows. They drove us into a skinny alley behind our hotel, and, while the friend cornered Jenny under the open trunk of the car, the driver took my hundred-euro note and turned it into a ten. Dumbfounded on the sticky plastic seat, I handed him another.

What if the woman’s crying was a ruse meant to get me to lower my defenses? The car was empty, save a pair of backpackers; why had she chosen to sit next to me?

I glanced over to see if the backpackers could help, but their eyes were closed, their arms wrapped around their packs like pregnant bellies. 

Outside, the Italian countryside unfolded, a Rothko, green under blue. I worked to keep the tears from running down my cheeks. 

The speakers crackled to life. The crying woman perked up, looked back and forth, out the window, then sprung up, gathered her things, and fled.

 

I found my pensione behind a pair of great wooden doors shaped like a tombstone. A woman in a prairie skirt and severe bun led me through a courtyard, up a half set of stairs and into a bedroom no bigger than a parking spot. It was the cheapest room in the inn. 

A single bed was pushed against one wall; beside it was a nightstand. On the opposite wall was a dresser. The lampshade was cracked; the sheets the color of dishwater. A window overlooked the courtyard. The room was warm and smelled faintly of bleach. 

I unpacked my clothes, folding them into the drawers. I placed my book on the night table, my toiletries on the dresser. I pulled out my guidebook and, with nothing left to do, went out to explore.

 

I was one stride into the road in front of the pensione when I heard the bleating of a horn. I looked right and saw a tiny Italian sports car careening toward me like a pinball in a groove. The car skidded to a halt inches from my bare leg. I looked over the hood at the driver, who wore mirrored aviator sunglasses. He slowly shook his head at me.

 

Piazza del Campo is a shallow bowl open to the sky, bright compared to the shadowy alleys I’d taken to get there. People flocked like pigeons around me. I sat on the bricked ground, pushed my skirt between my legs, and opened my guidebook. 

As I flipped to the section on Siena, a shadow darkened my page. I looked up to find a man standing over me. I couldn’t see his face, as it eclipsed the sun, but I recognized his aviator sunglasses.

“You should be more careful,” he said in flawless English, though his raven hair and tapenade skin told me he was probably Italian. The shade he gave made goose bumps spring up on my skin. 

“Join me for an espresso,” he said. 

“No, thank you.”

“Fine,” he said and awkwardly sat down on the ground beside me. His bent knees created knotty angles in the luxurious fabric of his pants; his shoes were alligators, long and pointy. 

“Let me see your hand,” he said.

I squinted at him. 

“I am going to read your palm.”

He removed his sunglasses, revealing murky green eyes. I guessed he was more than twice my age. He raised his eyebrows with impatience. I lifted my hand into the air between us. He took my wrist and turned it so that my fingers curled and he was looking at the place where my pinky met my palm.

“You will marry for love, not money. You will have one divorce and one child.” He positioned my hand palm-up, but looked at me rather than at it. “You are a nervous person; you think too much, and that makes you lazy. You are an artist, and everything you love makes you crazy.” 

Though my instinct was to yank my hand from his and flee, some seeking part of me felt strangely reassured. I’d shaken free from all I perceived was holding me back, landing in even greater uncertainty. My master’s program was in writing, an endeavor that made my parents’ brows furrow. I’d traded my relationship for a string of wrong men, whom I’d either withhold myself from or throw myself at, depending on whether or not they wanted me. I no longer had a 401k, health insurance, a steady paycheck. 

I’d gotten it in my head that I might find myself in the land of my ancestors, that just being in Italy might put my path in some sort of order. Now here was this man, telling me that I was an artist; that I would marry, have a child. What I heard was a voice saying that I was on the right path. 

“Now come with me to get an espresso. I do not like sitting on the ground.”

When we were down to our muddy dregs, the man leaned over the table and said, “Come to wine country with me tomorrow. I will give you the best wine you have ever tasted.”

I looked at him, ugly, hunched forward in his chair, watching me over his mirrored glasses, his thin hair swept back like a cock’s comb, black leather jacket draped around his shoulders; I didn’t want to go. I knew what happened to women who went with strange men, what could happen. My childhood babysitter had accepted a ride from the dishwasher at the restaurant where she waited tables in college. He drove her to a field, raped and strangled her. Her story followed me through high school and college, serving as a warning: Women were vulnerable; never go with strangers. But in New York I had a friend who’d been to twenty-three countries, haggled in bazaars in Morocco, shared bunk beds with Eastern Europeans in Croatia. She once told me that she could be dropped in the middle of any city in any country in the world and she would be able to navigate it, to find a place to sleep, something to eat. I envied her confidence, her worldliness. She would have seized the opportunity to taste wine with a local. Here life was, presenting itself to me. Who was I if I did not accept its offer? And so I agreed.

 “Wonderful. I’ll pick you up at your pensione. That is where you are staying, correct?” he leaned closer. “Where I nearly ran you over?”

 

That night as I lay on the thin mattress in my monastic room, I was unable to sleep. I envisioned the man in the aviator glasses creeping around the back of the pensione, up the stone steps, jimmying the lock on the door that led to the rooms, and somehow figuring out which was mine. Smelling me, perhaps—my shampoo, my deodorant—with his hooked nose through the hollow door. 

I stared, eyes wide, at the ceiling and kept still, my ears sharp for any sound, my breath small waves in my chest. When the sky turned light in the morning, my eyes felt thick from lack of sleep.

 

From where I stood on the stone steps outside the guest rooms in the back of the pensione that morning, the city cycloned out, concentric circles ending in a great wall. It was then that I noticed the birds, hundreds of them, sharp and black against the watery blue sky. They spun and dove erratically—roller-coaster cars without a track—a swarm, in tireless, constant motion. 

“I think they’re bats.”

I started and found a man with a sweater tied around his waist standing beside me. 

“They’re all over the city,” he said.

“But it’s daylight,” I said.

He shrugged and walked away.

 

Pushing open the tombstone doors, I found the man in the aviator sunglasses leaning against his gleaming red sports car. My dress, cheap red cotton with spaghetti straps, which had looked sophisticated in the pensione’s mirror, dulled in comparison. I’d worn the dress because it made men stare. I was afraid of being beautiful, afraid of what it might inspire in a man who had already tracked me down after nearly running me over, but I was equally afraid not to be beautiful, to be a disappointment. 

I spent college and my first years in New York eager for male attention and mostly looked-over. I’d go to clubs with my friends and watch as they chatted easily with the men who approached them. I hadn’t yet realized that I disliked both clubs and most of the men who frequented them, that there was an alternative to this kind of nightlife. All I knew was that my friends went on dates. They had relationships. I did not. But in grad school things started to change. 

“One of the fiction guys was asking about you,” another writer said playfully. “Wanted to know who the hot one in the red sweater was.”

“Really?” I felt the shock and swell of pride. 

When I complained about dating in New York, another of the writers looked surprised. “You have no clue how other people see you,” he said, squinting. “It’s refreshing but sort of confusing.” 

I was too shy to approach the fiction writer, and he never made a move to talk to me, but it didn’t matter—what I gained were the first glimmerings of confidence, going home after class at night, smoking cigarettes out my open bedroom window, and replaying these conversations in my head.

As my self-assurance grew, I realized that in many cases attracting male attention was as simple as making eye contact, one thing I never dared do in the past, so frightened was I that merely looking conveyed interest, opening me up to the possibility of rejection. But at the bar where we writers floated after class to drink acrid red wine and show off how well-read we were, I learned that the first step in starting any conversation was looking someone in the eye. In Rome, this became my mantra with post-breakup Jenny, who had wrapped herself snuggly in the lowest of self-esteem. We’d spot a cute Italian guy down the bar, and I’d whisper, “Just look at him! Seriously, just look! It’s that easy.” And sometimes it was. 

If the aviator noticed my dress, he didn’t let on, opening my door and circling back around to the driver’s side barely looking at me. He drove us through the warren of roads at terrifying speeds and then down out of the hills and away from the city. The enoteca was in a sixteenth-century stone fortress. In the soaring foyer, he introduced me to the sommelier, putting his hand on the small of my back and gently pushing me forward. 

In the center of the fortress was a stone grotto. Lichen slinked over the ground and the walls, all wet with morning. We used bar towels to wipe the white wrought-iron chairs of dew. 

The man chose my wine—Montepulciano—but did not order any for himself. And there, as I sipped at the glass, indeed the best wine I’d ever had, he began to talk. He told me that he was a chef at a Michelin restaurant at the edge of the city. If I came to dinner there, he said, I would eat “gratis.” He said he was separated from his wife, that he had a twelve-year-old son. He explained that he missed his son, but that his failed marriage hadn’t been his fault. That none of it had worked out as he had planned. So many mistakes had been made. 

He looked at me as if he wanted me to forgive him, absolve him in some way. But his experience was so removed from my own. I could not fathom a man who left his family. I could only fathom being left, and I mentally sided with his wife. Over his aviators, in his creased brow and the M of his receding hairline, I thought I saw a sudden menace, a glowering awareness of my loyalty. 

He and I were alone in the grotto. The sommelier was the only person I’d seen since we arrived, and he hadn’t shown his face since he set down my glass. As far as I knew, we were the only people in the whole place. The wine went down, and my body began to buzz. I became increasingly uncomfortable. We were far from Siena. I was dependent on this man to get me back. I knew that he was aware of both of these things. 

“I have to go,” I said.

“You cannot go so soon. I have just bought you wine.”

“Yes,” I said, “but my friend from Paris is coming in today, and I need to be in Siena to meet her.”

I did have a friend in Paris, whom I was supposed to meet. But not until the end of the week, and I was to go to Paris to her, not she to me. 

“I will take you both to Chianti,” the man said. 

“We can’t.”

I looked into his sunglasses, trying to convey confidence, but could see only my reflection—a scared and uncertain girl. 

“My friend is coming,” I said. “I thought I told you that yesterday.”

He stared at me, hard. “You should finish your wine, and then I will take you back.”

 

That afternoon, as I navigated the labyrinthine city, I found myself furtive and alert as a squirrel. I imagined the man around every corner or watching me from afar, knowing that I had lied. I envisioned him approaching me as he had the day before in the Campo, surprising me by coming up from behind, blocking out the sun.

 

Another fitful night begot another aimless day. When I booked my room for a full week, it hadn’t occurred to me that I would have trouble entertaining myself. A friend had spent a whole semester in Cortona drinking red wine and eating bread; Frances Mayes had moved to Tuscany, written a book. 

I meandered into a museum housed in the twisting, cool tunnels of a cathedral. I stared at a painting of the she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome. I’d seen these three before, depicted as a statue in an arched stone cove snowed with bird droppings. The story went that when the twins were infants, they had been set adrift on the river Tiber by their mother, Rhea Silvia, for their own safety. Rhea believed that the world would look after them. Indeed, when the she-wolf found them, she fed rather than harmed them; a rooster brought them food, and later a shepherd raised them as his own. Trust in the world, the story seemed to be saying, and it will care for you.

I went to a café where the waitress scowled at my attempt to order in Italian. “What do you like?” she asked, her eyebrow raised. She served me coffee with a soiled napkin. 

I drifted into stores where I couldn’t afford the wares. I listened for English-speaking voices but inevitably found them emanating from senior citizens, families, no one who seemed a potential friend. 

I stared longingly at couples and knots of friends. The man with the sunglasses had been my only contact since I’d left my friend three days before. When the shadows grew long, swallowed the city, I wandered back in the direction of the pensione. 

There was a pub across the street. I’d stood outside of it in the dark the night before, willing myself to go inside. When a couple had spilled out speaking Italian, giving me only a sidelong glance, I’d lost my nerve and instead turned to the tombstone doors. It was one thing to look boldly across a bar with my friend beside me, and another to go into a dark bar alone, to pretend I was content to sit by myself.

But that night, after skulking past once, I forced myself to turn around and pull open the pub’s door. One drink, I said to myself. 

Shadows hung about the place and people. The forbidding din of a foreign language. I saw one available stool at the bar. I sat and tried to get the bartender’s attention.

“Need some help?” 

I turned to find a man sitting beside me. He was young, with a thick mat of black hair that stuck up like a Brillo pad. His English sounded American; his look, amused.

In minutes I had a drink and, for the first time since the aviator, someone’s attention. Isaiah was from California, where he was learning to sing opera, but he’d been teaching English in Siena for more than a year. “It’s a funny little place,” he said of Siena. “Very insular.” 

He asked what I did, what I was doing in Siena. I did my best to tell him. When I spoke, his eyes moved from my eyes to my mouth. 

When his friends arrived, he forewent joining them in order to stay at the bar with me. The beer went down easily. The bar grew crowded, but I felt protected sitting there with someone I now knew, a friend. Isaiah put his hand on my leg. We took pictures of one another with my camera. We threw back shots of cloying peppermint liqueur. He told me he owned a scooter, and I imagined him taking me out into the countryside on our own wine tasting; I would wear the red dress and cling to him from behind.

When the bar closed and we were tossed into the streets, Isaiah asked to see my pensione. I didn’t want to sleep with him, but I had this notion that if I let him out of my sight, he’d vanish, and the thought of letting go the first person who’d been able to understand me in three days was too much for me to bear. 

As soon as we got inside, Isaiah laughed, “You stay here?” 

“Shhh,” I said, “Quiet hours start at ten.” He picked up my things, scrutinized them and tossed them down, moving carelessly about my room. He sat by the open window. Lit a cigarette. 

“You can’t smoke in here,” I said. “Maybe this wasn’t a good idea.”

“No, no, I’m sorry, I’ll be good,” he said, looking up at me, his eyes soulful and brown. He reached out and pulled me to him with one hand, kissing me roughly on the mouth. His stubble scratched my face, but his lips were soft, and they felt good like I had hoped. I closed my eyes and swayed with alcohol.

When he tried to push me toward the bed, I braced. “I said you could see my room, not stay in it,” I said, clinging to my moxie, but I knew it was no use; the dynamic had changed. 

“Fine, I’ll go,” he said.

“No,” I said. “Don’t go.”

There were two men from my grad program who fought over me. One I slept with and accompanied to brunch on Sunday mornings; we spent weekday afternoons stretched out and reading on a blanket in Central Park. He held my hand and talked about what it would be like when I met his parents. The other I flirted with at readings, at the bar after class; we exchanged emails brimming with subtext. Occasionally he’d convince me to join him for dinner, usually somewhere over candlelight, where I boldly received his long looks, then demurred. The men knew about one another and carried a mutual loathing. They shared their low opinions of one another with me, likely in the hopes that I’d realize the error in my judgment. But they didn’t have to convince me of the other’s unfitness; I was well aware neither of them was right for me. Telling them this, though—that I did not love them, and didn’t think I ever could—only made them more willful. “If even the smallest part of you is conflicted over this, then there’s a chance,” one of them had said to me on a streetlit city corner after I’d tried to break it off again. And that’s where he had me, because it was that smallest part that held me captive. They were both kind, intelligent, gentle men. I wanted to fall in love; to be loved in return. What if I didn’t recognize it when it came? 

Isaiah and I pushed and pulled through the night, kissed, pawed, slept. I did not have sex with him, which annoyed him but never so much that he left. I didn’t get what I wanted either: I would not spend the following day watching the vineyards fly past from the back of his scooter, the sun on my face. 

The next morning, as he buttoned his shirt over the black pelt of his chest, I pointed out the birds from my window. 

“The Italians call them ucelli,” Isaiah said.

Ucelli?” 

“It means ‘birds.’” 

Some things, apparently, were exactly what they seem.

After Isaiah left, I scurried to an Internet café and e-mailed the man in New York whom I slept with. This, even though I’d promised myself I wouldn’t reach out while I was away. The trip, totaling four weeks, was the impetus, as I saw it, to put him behind me once and for all. 

From the hard, foreign seat, I typed: Hi! I’m in an Internet café. In a little town in Italy where I’ve been for the past five days. Italy is amazing…. I continued with a breezy rundown of my week that ended in something noncommittal. I’ll be back in July, I said. I’ll talk to you then.

The moment I hit Send, I felt both the relief of connection and the certainty I’d just done something I’d later regret.

 

That evening for dinner, I chose a restaurant that abutted a cobbled square on the way into town. At the maître d’s greeting, I held up one finger in apology. I was seated at a table for two on a patio strung with lights. Couples and families fanned out around me. Sometime during my pappardelle, the waiter sat a single woman at a table adjacent to mine. She was older than me, but not as old as my mother. She had shoulder-length brown hair and a nonchalant way of sitting and speaking to the waiter that told me she was comfortable with her aloneness. When she looked up at me between bites, she smiled. “Hi.”

Agnieszka was Polish and also travelling solo. When I told her that I’d been in Siena for five days, she said, “Well, you have to get out of here.”

She told me about a medieval hill town an hour north called San Gimignano. It was famous for the stone towers that encircled it. Constructed in the thirteenth  century, they were the world’s first skyscrapers. But what was truly amazing about the town, she said, was that it existed at all. During World War II, it had been wired for destruction by the Germans. Mere hours before the Nazis were to detonate, reduce the towers to rubble, the Allies rode in, saving the town.

“You should go,” she said. “Tomorrow.”

I waited for Agnieszka to finish her dinner. We both had a second drink. And a third. Afterward, standing outside the twinkling patio, she and I made a plan to meet for dinner the following night. Feeling light, I walked home under the waxing moon.

 

 

I awoke in the blackest hours to a crash outside my window and voices, and found my bladder full. Thus far I had managed never to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. The thought of leaving my room, walking through the cold, dark hallway and into the open air in order to get to the toilet, terrified me. When I first arrived, I’d envisioned the aviator, hands encircling my wrists, pinning my arms to my sides. But now the fear wasn’t so much of him but of something amorphous—perhaps that I might disappear. I wasn’t afraid of the pain that might entail but that my disappearance would go unnoticed. I’d vanish, and there would be no one to look for me.

The voices in the courtyard were male. Their tone low and sharp. They weren’t fighting but maybe disagreeing. I assumed they were guests, but how could I be sure? There were no chairs, so I figured they must be standing. I considered getting up, putting on my clothes, but I could not bring myself to walk past them. To show myself to them. So I didn’t leave my bed, instead willed myself back to sleep, hoping the singing pain in my bladder would go away. 

When I woke up, I didn’t have to feel down to the large, cold circle under my hip to know that I had wet the bed. I changed my clothes, flipped the mattress over, pressed at the sheets with my threadbare towel, feeling like a child.

 

 

Though my desire to go to San Gimignano paled in the face of my shame, I felt beholden to making the trip happen, if only to prove something: that I could move about the world on my own two feet. 

The bus station bustled. Onboard, luggage stowed in the belly of the bus, we lumbered out of Siena and into the verdant Tuscan landscape. 

An hour later, I walked toward the city’s great stone gates. The towers soared defiantly up before me, edifices that should not have been there but, against all odds, were. I felt the sting of tears. 

I walked the perimeter of the city, along the top of a great wall. The farms stretched out like patchwork. I wore an orange dress and asked a man to take my picture with the world laid out behind me. 

There was a museum of torture and an art museum, but instead of going into either, I took a seat at a café and read my book. I felt calm. Courses could be changed; paths were not fixed; a city could be saved.

 

Agnieszka and I met that night in the same piazza in which we’d left one another the evening before. When she asked where I wanted to eat, I suggested the restaurant where the aviator was chef. It was the highest-rated in my guidebook; there was no reason I should miss it.

We were seated on a patio outside the restaurant under a bruised early-night sky. Agnieszka ordered tripe and I, penne. She asked about San Gimignano, and I told her about the defiant beauty of the city. She asked more about how I’d spent the last five days, and I ended up telling her about Isaiah, and then the men from home. 

“You, I think, are motivated by finding a mate,” she said, looking carefully at me. “People who are motivated by finding love often never really find it.”

I was uncertain how she’d gleaned this, having only spent an evening with me, and bristled, but had no comeback. What she said was true.

 

When I returned to my room to pack the following morning, I found the owner of the pensione. She was talking loudly in Italian. When she saw me, her eyes narrowed. “You have wet the bed!” 

Shame spread out inside me. 

“I will have to throw away this mattress,” she said. “I should charge you for it.” 

I did not speak. 

“You must pay me now and go,” the woman said, brushing past me and walking away, never looking to check if I was behind her.

I followed her back to her office and handed her the cost of the room. She did not look at me when she took it from my hand. She waved me away. 

I packed my things, and, though I was four hours early for my overnight train to Paris, I walked to the station, dragging my suitcase behind me. 

I bought my ticket from the station attendant without attempting Italian. “Paris,” I said. One word. 

An hour passed. Another. A man approached. He was dark, handsome. He spoke very little English. But he tried, asking if he could sit down beside me. I nodded. He was a police officer. He lived outside Siena. His eyes sparkled. We smiled at one another, struggled through conversation for two hours. He touched my hand. When the train came, he took the lanyard off his neck and handed it to me.

“For you,” he said and raised an eyebrow as if he were bartering. “I can kiss you?”

“You can,” I said and closed my eyes. 

The whistle blew; the train threatened leaving. I pulled away, clutching the lanyard in my fist. Anything could happen, I thought.

 

Katherine Dykstra‘s essays have been published in The Washington Post, Crab Orchard Review, Shenandoah, Gulf Coast, and Real Simple, among other publications. She was a finalist for the 2014 John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize. She is senior nonfiction editor at Guernica. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son. 

[Purchase your copy of Issue 10 here.]

Isabel MeyersSiena

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