by Patricia O’Donnell
Emily Stephens couldn’t decide if she hated traveling, or loved it. Traveling is stressful, she thought, as she leaned an elbow out the open window of the Fiat driven too fast by her new husband, Nate. She liked the feel of the wind whipping through her hair. It must be stressful for everyone, right? Why, then, did society—in this case, in the form of Emily’s mother and father—insist that a newly married couple subject their tender baby marriage to this turmoil, to this potential trauma? Tickets to Italy, and money for this vacation, were part of their wedding present, and could not be refused, or put off for a year. “It’s not a honeymoon if you put it off,” her mother had said astringently. “Then it’s just a trip.”
Travel did have moments of startling beauty. This morning from the hotel terrace Emily and Nate had watched thunder clouds rolling in the distance, over the mountains, while the sky above them was blue. They were staying in Basilicata, a mountainous region in southern Italy. At one spot in the distance rain poured down in a blue/gray misty sheet, while sun shone on the mountains around it. “That must be Fiorellino,” Emily had said, jokingly, referring to the town they planned to visit. Now as they approached the town, however, Emily wondered if it was true; the sky was growing overcast, and the air became suddenly colder. Emily rolled up her window just as the first big raindrops splatted against their window.
A writer Emily had studied at Swarthmore had lived in Fiorellino, and set his most famous novel, The Moon and the Ravine, in the town. The name of the town had been changed in Giordano’s book but the hotel clerk assured Emily that this was the town, Fiorellino, he lived in and wrote about. The clerk circled it on a map, and pointed out the route to drive. Nate hadn’t read Giordano but agreed to visit the town. They had gone to the beach at Policoro the day before, where they spent the afternoon lying on striped chaise lounges, watching teenage boys show off to a group of lounging, indolent young women. Emily couldn’t stop looking at the golden brown limbs of the girls, the way they leaned against one another, stroking each other’s hair. They smiled at the young men but barely spoke, glancing occasionally over to where Emily and Nate sat.
In a few minutes the rain was pounding against the car, making it difficult to see the road. Nate pulled off to the side and they sat silently, watching the rain pour down. Emily heard clinks. “Is that hail?” she asked, then saw the small white icy balls collect at the bottom of the windshield. The storm stopped as quickly as it had started, and as Nate was about to pull back onto the road Emily said, “Wait.” Ignoring Nate’s impatient sigh she opened her door and stepped out into the ditch, where a pile of the white ice rocks had gathered. She took out her iPhone and scooped up a handful for a photo.
Nate was silent when she returned to the car, and she sensed his irritation. He was staring straight ahead, face impassive behind his Ray Bans. He’d been impossible ever since the wedding, or was it before? He had the nerve to say that he would have preferred her parents had given them a down payment on a house rather than this vacation. “You don’t get to choose gifts. That’s why they’re called gifts,” Emily had sputtered, aware she sounded like her mother. His parents had given them a microwave oven, and she would never have criticized their gift. “Weddings aren’t about gifts,” Emily had said, her voice falling as she realized how feeble that sounded, how unrealistic. She didn’t need Nate to tell her she was being flaky; she could see it on his face. His ambition and lack of sentimentality were what had drawn her to him in the first place; they were antidotes to her dreaminess, her impracticality, and they were sexy. He was sexy, even now, with his muscular hands gripping the wheel as he turned a corner, with the way he narrowed his eyes above the two-day beard growth.
The rain had stopped but the sky was still dark above them as they twisted up a narrow mountain road, hairpin curve after hairpin curve. “It is so cold all of a sudden,” Emily said. She was wearing a light shirt over linen pants, and he wore knee-length shorts. Neither of them had brought a jacket.
“Maybe we can make this a short trip,” Nate said. Emily didn’t answer, just craned her neck to see the buildings of the town perched on the cliff above them. She couldn’t say the gray clouds bunched above the town disappointed her; the weather matched perfectly with her memory of the novel, its dark and brooding mystery. The book was a literary ghost story, telling the story of Carlo, who as a young man marries the daughter of the town mayor. In a fit of rage he pushes his young bride off the edge of the ravine, and manages to conceal his crime. He marries again and becomes prosperous, a substantial town official, but is haunted by the memory of his first wife, hearing her cries in the winds that circle the town. He becomes an alcoholic, and eventually throws himself off the same ravine he pushed his wife from. Emily tried to get Nate to read it but he preferred his contemporary thrillers.
On Fiorellino’s main street in the lower part of town they drove past a statue of Simone Giordano, the author. Emily asked Nate to stop but he said there was nowhere to park, so they drove by slowly, Emily turning her head to look at the statue of the man. The statue was life-size, and was remarkably lifelike. The man stood casually, wearing a suit and holding a hat in his hand, as if at any moment he might step off the concrete base and buy himself an espresso. He was posed in front of the ravine; Emily caught a glimpse of its deep gulf before the car twisted up the narrow road.
Halfway up a hill they found a parking place. Nate yanked the wheel back and forth to fit the car into the small space. When they stepped out the wind caught Emily’s shirt and blew it up. It was amazingly cold. “Shit!” Nate yelled. Two men stood against a gray wall, watching them. They were both smoking, the wind carrying the smoke away. One man wore a worn down jacket.
Emily took Nate’s arm, for warmth and for protection against the men’s stares, which felt aggressive. She offered a tentative smile; they stared back at her. “Bongiorno,” Nate said loudly. They mumbled something, and looked away. Nate stepped through a doorway, pushing aside the green bead strings covering the opening.
Inside was a small cave-like room where a young man stood behind a bar. Nate ordered two espressos, and they waited while the man prepared them. He nodded curtly as he took their money and pushed the cups across to them. At the small table, Nate sipped his espresso and made a face. “What a terrible place this town is,” he said.
Emily gave him a look, glancing at the man at the man behind the counter. “What?” Nate said. “He can’t understand me. It is, isn’t it?” Nate stared at her, and in the aggressiveness of his look she was reminded of the men outside.
“The setting is so dramatic,” she said. “On a sunny day it must be spectacular.”
Nate looked grimly into his espresso. “Miss Glass Half-full.”
Emily set her cup down. “What is up with you? Why are you such a . . . grouch?” She’d wanted to say asshole. It seemed she had been holding her anger in for days, tiptoeing around Nate’s moods, coddling him. Was this what their married life would be like?
He lifted his hands, and let them drop. “Italy, so here we are. Thanks, Mom and Dad Stephens. Thanks for the dream two-week vacation, in return for which we will—what? Do whatever you tell us to do for the next several decades?”
Emily couldn’t help it, she gasped, and clutched the edge of the table. Her anger was sudden and blinding. She knew he didn’t like her parents, but how dare he. How dare he. “Your main complaint with my parents,” she said, trying to keep her voice quiet, “seems to be that they have some money. And yours don’t. This doesn’t bother me. If it bothers you, I suggest you . . .” What, she thought? “ . . . get over it.”
Nate’s color was high, but he seemed to hold in a small smile. Was he pleased by her anger? Amused? He leaned across the table in a sudden movement and grabbed her hand. He said, “I love you. Not your parents. You’re the one I chose, and I want to be married to you all my life.” He squeezed her hand, so strongly it almost hurt. “We will make this work.”
On the street again, Emily leaned into Nate—into her husband—for warmth. He wrapped an arm around her as they walked up the hill. His ability to change moods quickly had always baffled her. It was part of the attraction; he seemed to embody some powerful elemental force, some energy that rarely surfaced in the polite and cheerful household of her childhood. She felt it in the taut intensity of his body, in the way he passionately argued his cases in court. Her parents had drawn back from his energy, since the first time they met him. Emily had learned not to tell them of the occasional argument she and Nate had, of any of their disagreements; it just increased their distrust. Instead she told them of his success in his legal work, of the clients he represented.
The narrow street curved around at the top of the hill to reveal a view of the hills beyond. They were on the opposite side of the town now from the ravine. They stopped to see the hills falling away from them, looking for Noepoli, on one of the mountains out there in the sunshine. Here the clouds still hung above their heads, and the wind was wet and cold. In the novel, Emily remembered, there were sunny days, the town described as a beautiful place to fall in love. Carlo, the protagonist, fell in love with his first wife, Guisippina, even as he also realized that marrying her was a practical thing to do. Giordano showed the killing as a moment of passion, almost an accident; it was night, the moon was full as they overlooked the ravine, and Guisippina had said something rude to Carlo, something demeaning. He had shoved her, not meaning to kill her, but she fell to her death. He had immediately regretted his action, but had to live with it the rest of his life.
They leaned against a wall at an overlook space on top of the hill, trying to shelter from the wind. Emily pushed herself into the warmth of Nate’s chest, felt his hand stroke her hair, caress her neck. Again she felt his force, his vitality; she was a pale, weak thing compared to him. But he brought her to life, he made a panoply of emotions—emotions that surprised her by their intensity—course through her. She held his hand as they turned and started down the hill.
“Giordano’s house should be here somewhere,” Emily said.
“Do we care? It’s just where he lived, like any other guy.”
He couldn’t understand. The old houses in this part of the town looked like faces, with upper windows for eyes, a chimney for nose, and stairs leading to an arched doorway for a mouth. That was in the book, she remembered; the faces kept the evil spirits away. The houses themselves looked like evil spirits to Emily; do we attract, she wondered, what we are afraid of? Or do we become it? Nate dropped her hand. She could tell that his dark mood had returned.
Arms wrapped around her middle, Emily mused as they walked down the hill toward the ravine. Nate walked along beside her, hands in his shorts pockets. She thought of the look that had crossed Nate’s face when they were arguing, a sort of smile which he tried to hide. She’d seen it before. He enjoyed fighting, she realized. It was fun to him, it was why he’d become a lawyer. He got a charge from it. She didn’t enjoy fighting, but she would not—could not—let him push her around. “So I’ve been thinking again about grad school,” she said. Nate remained silent, but she felt his attention. “I think I will apply after all.”
“Okay,” he said. The wind pushed the branches of the trees and whipped her hair across her face. She could hear a kind of moaning in the wind; it was the sound Giordano described Carlo hearing at night, the sound he thought was his dead wife’s voice. “And how will you pay for that?” Nate asked. He was not in favor of her earning a graduate degree in English. The job market was non-existent, he said.
“I’ll apply for financial aid, of course.” He didn’t answer. They’d discussed this already. He didn’t want her parents to help her pay tuition, and he didn’t want her to give up her job working for an educational non-profit. Her salary was low, but it was a salary.
They had reached the small, empty square with the statue. Houses, which seemed deserted, looked out on them with blank windows and broken front doors. Emily approached the statue and stood looking up into its face. It was slightly downturned, and she felt that it was looking at her. His expression was one of compassion, almost of sorrow. “What are you so sad about?” she murmured. “I’m fine.” She snapped a photo of the statue, and turned around to take one of Nate, standing with the ravine as a backdrop.
He stood with his hands on his waist, looking at her. Behind him the clouds parted and she caught just a glimpse of blue sky, before they closed again. He spoke to her as she walked toward him. “If your parents end up paying, we will always be in their yoke.”
Emily looked up at Nate almost insolently as she passed. “I’m not under anyone’s yoke,” she said. “Not my parents, and certainly not yours. And the correct usage is ‘under’ the yoke, not ‘in.’” She could almost feel the force of his anger as she passed, or imagine it; he hated to have his grammar corrected, felt that it was her being superior to him, putting herself—and her fancy private college—above his public college. Her golf and ballet lessons above his childhood jobs mowing lawns and shoveling snow.
She stood by the low iron railing separating her from the ravine. The chalky cliffs fell away breathtakingly before her. The clouds parted again, to reveal a pale daytime moon. At another time, another day, she would have pointed this out to Nate, and they would have shared the strangeness of the sight: one spot of sky clear, and there was the moon. She leaned over the railing to see the bottom, but it was out of sight, too far away. She leaned farther, and from behind her she felt a force, as if the air had been sucked out around her, as if something dark and implacable was rushing toward her, something against which she was utterly powerless.
Patricia O’Donnell’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Agni Review, The North American Review, and Prairie Schooner, among other places. Her first novel, Necessary Places, was published in 2012; her memoir, Waiting to Begin, will be out soon from Bottom Dog Press. She is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Maine at Farmington, where she directs the BFA Program in Creative Writing. You can learn more about Patricia O’Donnell by visiting her website.