Excerpt

Florence in Ecstasy

Jessie Chaffee

May 15, 2017 
The following is from Jessie Chaffee’s novel, Florence in Ecstasy. A young woman arrives in Florence from Boston, knowing no one and speaking little Italian. Hannah is isolated, estranged from her own identity after a bout with starvation that has left her life and body in ruins. Jessie Chaffee's debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy, will be published by the Unnamed Press in May 2017. She lives with her husband in NYC, where she is an editor at Words Without Borders.

This morning is every morning. I’ve been here almost a month, and still I wake too frequently, too early, to the buzz of mosquitoes, gray light, and the window shutters swinging open and closed. I wake from violent dreams filled with strong winds and slamming doors. Bodies thrown against windows loose in their frames, frames loose in their sleeves. I wake in Florence, afraid. The shutters swing open and each time I catch just a glimpse of the Palazzo Vecchio’s tower against violet sky before they swing closed again. The image is familiar now. This empty apartment is mine. Still, this is not quite life. On this morning, I relight the citronella coil and walk to the window. In the alley, a man puts on a magenta helmet, climbs onto a moped, and pulls out onto Via Malenchini, the last to leave the bar below. Once he’s gone there are only the birds that shoot past my window like darts thrown screaming from an unseen hand. It is feeding time.

I wait, as I do every morning, for the sun to come into view. When it does, it shines at such an angle that the hidden city emerges. I no longer see edges and perimeters. Instead, the roof tiles, drainpipes, plaster walls, cobblestones, and glass panes become a single canvas for the pattern drawn by this glow. All I see is the pattern, etched in light and shadow. I am in a new place, unmarked and alive. This moment is an answer, a stopping point. This morning is every morning. This is when I do not feel alone, when I feel held by this city. Until the sun is fully up and the pattern fades like exposed film, the rooftops, drainpipes, stones, and windows regaining their edges and returning to the foreground. Another long day stretches ahead. But something is shifting.

I walk to the bathroom, pull my T–shirt up over my head, let my pants drop to the floor, and drag the orange scale away from the wall. It rattles across the blue tiles, catching in each valley. I adjust the needle to zero. Not cheating—never cheating—I watch the numbers spin like a slot machine until they stop, predictably. “It’s good,” I say aloud, running my hand along my face, my arm, my stomach. “It’s good,” I repeat, overly decisive and sober, trying to coax my reflection into agreement. Today, I think as I dress, tie back my hair, and climb the three stone steps to the kitchen, will be different.

I open the long slatted doors and step out onto the small balcony, which is so steeply pitched it feels like it may topple into the courtyard below. It is one of the reasons I took this apartment, even when the landlady quoted the rent and I felt my stomach drop. She felt it, too, saw the fear in my face, and showed me another place, smaller and darker, said, Much better price, in her raspy voice, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t. I needed the light. The other one, I said, the bright one, as she eyed me skeptically and repeated, Caro, caro, caro. It’s not a problem, I lied, I need the light, the light, the light. When I pass her on the stairs now, she always gives me that same look.

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It is the end of August. For weeks the other windows have been quiet and dark, except for the apartment across the way and one floor down, where an old woman sits all day, her arm spreading on the sill. She is sometimes staring out, sometimes cooking sauce I can smell as steam climbs out and over the terra–cotta roofs. But even her window is vacant this morning. The Italians have fled the cities for the coast, and all over Florence there are handwritten signs taped to shop doors. chiuso per ferie fino al 1 settembre. The type of scrawl that normally says “back in five”—only, in this case, it’s “back next month.” The signs do not deter the tourists who fill the piazza around the Duomo, who line up at dawn to be the first into the Uffizi Gallery, who haggle and hassle at the Mercato Centrale, who shout at the buses that lumber down the narrow streets and heed no one, who walk the bridges with gelato dripping down their hands in the evenings and watch Italian bands playing the Beatles. A manic, frenzied movement repeated day after day, night after night. They are looking up, always up. Up at the frescoed ceilings of churches; at the parade of Madonnas in museums; at the oversized head, hands, and feet of the David; at the performers dressed as mummies who move only at the sound of money in their jars; at the buildings edged in angels that circle and circle.

I am no different. I still cannot cross Piazza della Signoria at night without looking up to the golden lion at the top of the Palazzo Vecchio, to the harsh glare of Neptune who rules the fountain outside, to the writhing sculptures in the loggia at the piazza’s corner—lit from below, the Sabine woman twists and twists out of the grasp of her attacker, all that stone tapering from the massive base to the single point of her finger reaching toward the sky. There is something more, it says.

*

I choose my evening meals in Florence carefully. Early on I made the mistake of going to a traditional spot, candlelit, with couples who eyed me suspiciously. I had not anticipated such stares. Disapproving and reproachful, they presented a uniform front, said, This place is ours, as I took too long reading the menu, inevitably falling on the contorni—the side dishes—and then ordered quickly, avoiding the waiter’s skeptical gaze: È tutto? Yes, that’s all. When my small plates arrived, the stares returned, the pairs glancing up from their own dishes piled high with meat or pasta—glistening, those items stared at me, too. I took in their stares and ate quickly.

So I choose carefully. There is Fuori Porta, or “Outside the Gate,” a wine bar just beyond one of the city’s large doors, the last lit building in a trendy quarter before the road winds up into the dark hills. Between six and nine each night, appetizers line the counter. I dine on pickles and carrots. I drink three glasses of wine. I listen to the hum. When the young bartender asks if I would like a fourth glass, I smile and say no. I’m meeting a friend for dinner, I think, for all he knows. I always leave Fuori Porta feeling better. Something in the walk home through the silent streets, past the dusty buildings, and across the Ponte alle Grazie—bridge of thanks—leaves me lighter.

And then there is Shiso, a sushi place where I go when I feel alert enough to face conversation with the owner, Dario. Tonight I turn the corner to find him arguing with one of the drunkards who fill the square outside—their hair is stringy with grease, their eyes drained of color. Sometimes I feel their hot breath as I pass and a phrase is thrown my way, but they go no further. I am no threat to them. And there is something of them in me, too.

Dai! Dai! Dario shouts at one of these shades, a cigarette hanging from his hand. When he catches sight of me, he drops his voice low and presses something into the man’s palm. Then he throws his shoulders back and inhales deeply, looking off into the distance as the man disappears down the alley. He’s pretending he hasn’t seen me.

“Ciao,” he says, overly familiar once I’m upon him. “Come stai?

Bene. How are you?”

“Busy, always busy,” he says with a sigh. This is his mantra, though there are never more than a handful of people in the restaurant. I am, I believe, his only repeat customer.

He puts out his cigarette and opens the door, placing a hand on my elbow to guide me in. The interior is steel and red, about a decade too late to be modern. This place is his passion, opened after his travels in Japan. He explained it all to me one evening. Very good, I lied, picking at the small strips of overpriced fish. Because it’s good, sometimes, to be known. I let him walk me home one night, let him kiss me outside my door. But not tonight. Tonight will be different.

There is only one table occupied—a young American couple—and the waitress, unsmiling, doesn’t move from her post by the kitchen. Dario wipes down the counter and pours me a generous glass of wine.

“A good day?” he asks.

“Very good,” I say, meaning it for the first time.

“You are lucky to be on such a vacation. For me it is always work, always busy. What is your work—in Boston?”

It catches me off guard. “I do fund–raising,” I say, as though it were still true. “For a museum.”

Cosa?

“I work with art.”

“Ah. An artist.”

I don’t correct him. What would be the point of explaining that my job had nothing to do with art—though that was why I’d taken it—and everything to do with money. I was good at it at first. Pretending that I gave a shit, I mean. Pretending that it mattered.

“Then you understand what it is,” he continues, “to be always busy.”

I nod. His confidence is aggressive and catching, and I, too, act as though I don’t see the empty tables, the waitress’s frown as she takes my order, the sweat that beads on Dario’s forehead and scalp where his hair is thinning. I accept a second glass of wine and eat slowly once my food arrives, thinking back on the day. Dario crosses his thick arms and commences a fresh monologue.

“I have this place for three years, you know. Tre anni, almost.”

As he speaks, I begin my necessary ritual—the list. I construct it carefully in my mind.

“I think, sometimes . . .”

The coffee this morning—no milk, no sugar.

“. . . è brutto, Hannah. Davvero.”

On top of it I place the toast—two slices, choked down.

Sicilia. Penso di . . .

The salad, after my walk, is more challenging.

. . . è sempre la stessa cosa.

I nod. Dario pauses, refills my glass.

Allora I go in vacation . . .”

I start over: break the list up into compartments, slide the toast to one side, put the wine in its own square—a larger square, it’s true. Alcohol counts, isn’t air, I know this. But it gets me through, so I account for it. Leave room.

  . . . è diverso . . .

I return to the salad. Take it apart. Compress the pieces.

. . . che cazzo . . .

A roll of green. Slivered tomatoes. A sheet of cheese, almost translucent.

. . . non voglio ma . . .

There is no place for the almonds, a handful this evening before going out.

. . . è un casino.

Finally the salmon. Five pieces. Slimy. I feel them already swimming in my stomach.

“She says to me, ‘Dario . . .’”

Then I stack the items, one on top of the next. They become a tower, tall and spindly.

Che posso fare?

But it does not feel spindly, this tower. I feel the weight of it.

Così è la vita . . .

The almonds sit to the side, disturbing. I cannot place them on top.

. . . però in future . . .

I dare not.

. . . credere—” Dario’s phone rings. “Cazzo,” he bellows, picking it up and walking quickly to the corner of the bar.

I look again at the tower. Close my eyes. Try to figure it out. Start over.

Giggling behind me. I open my eyes. In the mirror I can see the American couple—they are looking this way, the woman with her hand over her mouth. Why? I look at my reflection. What does she see? A woman, almost thirty, older than her, I must be older than her, my face drawn and serious. My hair is limp. I blew it dry before going out, in spite of the heat, and it should frame my features, dark. But it didn’t work and it’s gone limp, sits flat, hangs to my shoulders in strings. Like the men outside. Like dribble. Strings of dribble.

There is something I’ve forgotten to do. Somehow during the day, over the course of this evening, I lost it. I try to focus, to grasp it, but it’s gone, out of reach, disappeared. Why can’t I hold on to anything? Always it slips and slips and slips.

A voice shouting. Is it mine? No. Outside. A man is shouting at someone or something in the street.

Magari.” Dario sighs loudly. “Hai visto? What I have to do. Always busy.” He disappears outside, and I open my purse and leave money on the counter. Too much I think, but I’ll go. Before Dario comes back and I let him walk me out, I’ll go. I glance quickly for the waitress, but she’s disappeared as well. There’s only the smirking couple now.

Outside it is dark, but still the air sticks. I hear raised voices behind me and they chase me on. The stones catch my heels, echoing loud each time. There is something I’ve forgotten to do. My street is empty and the music from the club beats loud. The door of the building feels heavy, the air in the lobby is heavy, too. I hit the switch of the timed light and, with a click, the stairwell illuminates but goes dark by the time I reach the third floor. I put my hand on the wall and find my way up, my steps loud and clumsy, and somewhere below a door opens.

Signorina?” The landlady—what else does she want from me?—and I speed up, catch my thigh on the edge of the banister rounding the corner. It feels hot, spreads, will bruise. I hear the phone ringing, shrill, as I get to my landing.

Yes, that’s it. I’ve forgotten again. Four, five, six rings. I find my door, put the key in the lock. Turn one, two, three times. The ringing continues. Seven, eight, nine. The door swings in and the sound pierces. Ten, eleven, twelve.

“Hannah?” My sister’s voice hits like cold water, pulls me in. Even this far away, I feel pulled. Weighted. I breathe in, breathe out.

“Honey, are you okay?”

I nod. I will not cry.

“Hannah?”

“I’m fine. I just hurt my leg.”

“What? What do you mean?” Kate is suspicious. She is always suspicious.

“Nothing. I don’t know. I just got home.”

“The list, Hannah. It’s been five days. You didn’t—”

The list. My inventory. The tower swims in front of me now in the dark. Laughter bubbles up from downstairs. “Bastardo!” a man shouts. More laughter.

“You can’t do this, Hannah.” I see her seated on a stool by her counter, dialing and redialing, intent on mending. She is a mender.

“I’m fine.” I see the words and then say them. “I’ve just been busy.”

“With what? What do you do all day?” She stops. “I’m sorry. How are things?”

“I went out to dinner,” I say. “And I was going to write you, but I forgot.”

“Hannah, you can’t forget. That’s the deal.”

That is our agreement. Every three days: the list. That and no scales—but Kate doesn’t know about the orange scale, purchased on my first day here. And I do send the list. Today was different, though, and my words begin tumbling now, spilling out of me as I explain—the meal, the wine, the men, the shouting, the wad of money left on the bar. “Too much, but I needed to leave before Dario came back. And then I forgot to write you. Because of everything that was happening.”

I’ve fucked it up. I know it before she speaks.

“What are you talking about? Who’s Dario?”

I think through it. The mirror, the almonds, the shouting. There’s an answer in it I can’t find. It slips and slips and slips. I give up—it won’t make sense to her. Kate breathes in sharply, and I can see her looking out her window as though she can see me all these miles away.

“We’ll talk about it next week,” she says. “When you’re back.”

And now I’ll have to tell her. “I’m not leaving.”

“What? Are you—”

“I’m staying. A little while longer. I already changed it—my ticket. It’s done.”

“Are you sure? Don’t you think it’s time to come home? To start looking for work? Have you started looking? Or don’t worry about that. You can stay with us.”

“No,” I say quietly.

“Hannah—” Her voice catches. “You can’t just disappear.”

That’s what she’s afraid of, my total erasure. I am disappearing. But not anymore. Not anymore.

“This was supposed to be a break,” she pleads. “A break. That’s what you said. But it’s been a month. What are you going to do for money? How are you going to live?”

“I’m fine,” I say, focusing on the words.

“I don’t understand this. I don’t know what to do.”

It is the same voice I heard months ago, when I had gone as deep and as low as I would go. The voice that reflected back to me the rock bottomness of my existence.

“Won’t you come home?”

My anger surges up, cuts through the fog, and I’m surprised at the growl in my voice when I say, again, “No.” It doesn’t sound anything like me. It’s mine, I want to say. I don’t know what it is, but it’s mine.

Kate is crying now. I need something—something to convince her. And then an image emerges from the fog of the day. The woman on the water, her body at peace.

“I’ve been rowing,” I say. “I joined a rowing club. It’s helping. It’s beautiful on the river. Quiet.” And it’s not really a lie—not if I make it true, which I will. If I can just get past this call, get to sleep, get to the next morning with its clean slate.

“That sounds nice,” Kate says softly. Then, “Call tomorrow. Call tomorrow when you’re feeling better.”

I hang up the phone and take off my skirt, my body racing. I lie down on my bed. Dinner seems far away now. The club seems far away. Home, farther still. I am propped up here without a backdrop. I am stiff, straight. Not soft like my sister, as I should be. She is a question mark, I think, before I fall asleep. Miles away, curled in the dark, she is a question mark and I am an exclamation point. And it seems to make everything come clear that all I need is to become a question mark again.

Tomorrow, I will begin to bend. I will begin tomorrow.

 

 

From Florence in Ecstasy. Used with permission of The Unnamed Press. Copyright © 2017 by Jessie Chaffee.


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