I couldn’t believe she went to Evergreen State College. “You’re kidding”, I blurted, leaning forward, tan fingers grasping the bottle, eyes wide. She knew the streets, the bakery with baskets full of the best salt bagels to be found, the statue in the park. She knew these things, and thus she knew a bit of my conscious and memory that felt so removed from the present. If only I could remember her goddamn name. I knew it started with an “S”…or was it an “M”? Suddenly I wasn’t sure. I shook my head, thinking it would somehow clear the thought but instead it just made me feel I was swimming in a dense cloud, dizzy. The effects of wine don’t change when you’re on vacation, apparently.
Florence is a city of lights. The stars and the paintings and the plazas in my mind, all solitary, flushed and beautiful. Her name, what was it? I giggled nonsensically. It all seemed so crazy: halfway around the world, sharing an impromptu bottle of wine with perfect strangers, bonding over salt bagels. Who lives that sort of life, really?
Salt bagels brought me back to reality. They were familiarity, they were home. They were solid, tangible – her face, though, her face was blurry. Blurry yes but smoky eyes, I remember those. And she wrote in a notebook, scribbles and musings in smeared midnight ink. It was purple – or black? – and it reminded me that the sunflower-covered journal in my tent was comparably denied such lavish attention.
We began that night, Javi and I, with full intent to retire early. A pizza, a drink, and a bed. A cot, to be more precise – we slept on a cot in a tent. Traveling cheaply meant hostels outside the city center; in this case, we were perched high above the center of Florence. Tents here were occupied by a mini-society of students, wanderers and a disproportionate number of hippies. Yoga circles and the like. Wiry tree branches and iced cappucinos, and always the sun beating down. Florence simmered.
We carried books to the bar with us – he reading Angels and Demons, I reading Angeles y Demonios. A twist of irony, I suppose, considering he was the Spaniard and I the American. Pizza came, thin and baked with tomato and garlic. Basil, I think. The cold drink pressed to my forehead (pause), my cheeks (pause), my chest (pause) and then to his (repeat). “Ah”, understood in both languages. Smiling at each other, cheers it was. An early night it would be, in preparation for an early morning involving trains and planes and who knows what else.
Happy hour at the bar attracted other hostellers, equally impressed with the sight of the sinking sun, the cathedral dome and – lest it be forgotten –bottles of wine selling for four euros apiece. The tables were long affairs with benches, a callback to primary school. Dark wooden, stained here and there with coffee rings and rebellious bits of marinara sauce.
Our drinks were finished, but the sunset was not. Perhaps a bottle of wine, and then it was decided. Wine at sunset, absorbing rays and words and his hand on my knee. Why not? Glancing around, we noticed her. She was alone, and she looked nice –that’s really all the thought that went into it. A wave, and thus here we were, inviting this girl – Sarah? Melissa? – to share a bottle and pass the time. Wandering infuses the need to bond, I think. There’s some commonality in it all: the cobblestone streets are hard on all our feet; the accent makes us feel perhaps a bit isolated in all the excitement. The flurry that night – the jokes he cracked, her eyes, my smile.
Bottles on the table multiplied, and so did the people. We spoke of salt bagels and statues in parks, her and I. Portuguese words on my right, spoken slowly. I don’t remember her name either. Something Portuguese, anyway. She was chubby, with hair down to her lower back and bangs cut stiffly across her forehead. Auburn, I think. We spoke in something between Portuguese and Spanish, mingled with bits of English when the other languages failed us. I remember the husky tone of her voice, deep and it seemed so bold. She drank something mixed with raspberry flavored syrup, some mixed affair, vodka flirting with ice cubes.
Someone from California approached me; a photographer, now I recall it. Yes, that’s how it went. He was tall, sandy hair streaked with bits of copper here and there; a caramel latte sort of hair. I came to compare so much to coffee during my year abroad – dreams of almond syrup and steamed soymilk; my Seattleite roots transparent, naked. His eyes were puffy, tired, the color of fir trees. He was board shorts and Budweiser. Brian? His photos would make him famous one day, he had a plan, he was sure of it. The beer he drank was amber colored and thick, the froth stuck to his lips. Serena – or was it Melanie? thought he was a joke, all made-up in Abercrombie t-shirts cut too small. I thought it to be so typical of an Evergreen student to say this. Our home, our upbringing; I knew this thought process. Salt bagels, my god! I couldn’t fathom that we shared a hometown and a bakery down the street, her and I. Shannon?
Looking upwards, the open air was coated in stars, blurring though they were. It smelled of jasmine and orange, contrasting with our breath, all red wine and memories of recently-consumed garlicky pizza. The wine came in drops and blurbs, half-finished phrases in syncopated rhythm. Yes, that’s how it was. There was a fullness to that night; a sense of perpetually falling forward. The rush of her purple journal, his slew of photographs, her raspberry concoction, his hand on my knee, I remember. Sleep seemed a forgotten jacket – easily misplaced, and after all, is it really that important? Suck it up, we’ll survive. Only live once, right?
The book at my side had bent corners, folded down. His shorts, bright orange with vanilla lining covered its backbone so that the cover read “geles and Demonios”. Leaning over, he whispered something in Spanish and I understood why: so nobody else would know. Pronto, si, vayamos dentro de poco. We’ll leave soon, of course. One more, and then to the end of this swirling world. Our glasses refilled, clinking echoes - he and I and she and this California boy and Portuguese girl. A bonding.
The city of Florence and its hovering dreams below us. The stars and the moon and those smoky eyes, but it’s blurry.
Drifting my gaze towards the Cathedral dome, round like the moon like the bottom of my glass. Empty. The world shifted, swaying – the lyrics he murmured “Sway with me, sway with me”. A flower in the breeze, bending, something like that. Samantha – Marissa? Urged me to write a message in her journal. Dark ink, I nodded. Dark sky, my eyes squinted. The wine on my lips, staining them dark. Yes, that’s it: it was dark by this time.