The old men at the wharf told her it was six kilometers to the Temple of Aretusa. Beyond the peninsula and over by the papyrus marsh. A bucket full of dead gray eels on the pier. Mireille bought a few bottles of water from a café and started off down the dirt road. But it was probably twelve kilometers. She realized this halfway into the afternoon. One of her sandal straps broken, water gone, her fine black hair scalding her scalp.
Not a car for hours. Gold dust caking the hem of her jeans. She was nineteen. The summer after her mother's death. She spoke French, English and Italian and was using them to weave herself around Europe without a plan.
She walked through a lemon grove—the fruit so plentiful that the trees were painful to look at. The intensity and mystery of Sicily could fill her with glee or bring her to tears from one instant to the next. It had been like this in a disco in Rome with the flashing lights, the strange bodies rubbing against her, the noise and the smell of alcohol. Not knowing whether she should keep going or turn back. Now she felt like crying, but didn't.
She heard the hum of a motorino behind her. A boy about her age, dark hair, strong body. He pulled up beside her. Smooth, plump lips like many of the boys there. Irises black, even in the sunlight. There was a mesh pack dripping water down his back. "Ostriche," he said with an apologetic smile, even before he said, "Ciao." He was just returning from the oyster farm. A strong smell of seaweed, dirt and lemons.
"Hi," she said.
"Are you lost?" They were speaking Italian.
"I'm going to the Temple of Aretusa."
He smiled again. "You're from France. Touriste."
"Yes, very good," she said. "You speak French?"
"Only a little. I'm learning. Let me give you a ride to the temple. I'm Giuseppe."
She told him her name, and he let her sit in the front and drive so that she didn't get wet. She knew how to use the brake and gas on the handles. It gave her a sense of pride she hadn't felt in a long time. His hands on her hips. The lemon trees were streaks of yellow and green.
They stopped at the papyrus marsh. He pointed at a small opening in the reeds. "Go through there and you will find the temple. I could go with you, if you wish."
"Yes. I'd like that." They walked into the reeds. It was quiet and still. From below, the tufts at the top of the papyrus looked like palm fronds, like the ceilings of cathedrals.
The temple was crumbling into the marsh. White rubble like clean bones. There were only three columns left standing. "Not much," he said. "The Temple of Apollo in town is better." He picked up a piece of marble and handed it to her. "A souvenir." She put it in her pocket, but when he wasn't looking she put it back since she knew it was wrong.
They walked onto the foundation, sat on the steps. The sun was going down and it was getting cooler. Giuseppe opened his sack and dumped the oysters onto the marble step. He removed a fishing knife and a couple of lemons from his pockets. He sliced the lemons into wedges and deftly opened an oyster. The meat was dark pink, like a bloodless wound. When he squeezed the lemon juice onto the flesh, the oyster cringed. He offered it to her and she ate it in one quick scoop before she could change her mind. Delicious and repulsive. It was warm, and she could taste seaweed and lemon, very different from eating dead oysters on ice as she had at parties in Paris. He fixed one for himself and then one for her, back and forth like that until they had a small pile of shells. They began to talk; he asked her how long she'd been traveling. She said she'd been in Italy for a month. He told her he had a job working as the concierge's assistant at a hotel. He eventually wanted to be a hotel manager.
"Why are you traveling alone?" he asked.
She didn't want to tell him about her mother and the inheritance. Nor did she want to explain her wish to be away from the people who knew her. She wasn't ready to tell anybody about it, and wouldn't be for a long time. "I don't know," she said.
"Don't you get lonely?"
"No. I'm always meeting people."
He smiled down at the pile of shells. Mother of pearl opalescent in the late sun. "I'm sure you do."
"No," she said. "Not like that. Like this." She pointed back and forth at the two of them. But that was wrong, too. Flushed cheeks. The dizziness of fatigue. "Do you have any water?"
They got back on the bike and rode to the baroque district. Sat at a café on a curve, overlooking the turquoise Ionian. The golden buildings became pink in the late afternoon sun. A cool smell like wet cement drifted out of the café. They ordered Coca-Colas; practiced their French, Italian and English. He had shiny, wavy hair. Teeth slightly crooked. He taught her how to say a few things in Sicilian. "We say bedduzza for bella. It's very similar. You see?"
She laughed. "It's not similar at all."
She wanted to know where he lived. She thought maybe he would point to one of the old apartments on the block. He told her he stayed with his mother and two younger brothers in a different district, one of the newer parts of town.
"What's your mother like?" she asked.
"You never know from day to day. Sometimes she's so sweet. But she gets on my case. She'll be mad at me for not going home with the oysters." He laughed, propped his chin on his palm.
"It's okay. She'll get over it." He tilted his head. "She and my dad are separated right now, and she's having a hard time with it. He's in Palermo."
"He had an affair. It was years ago, but only recently did she find out. They started fighting about it, and then they weren't fighting, not even talking, so she kicked him out. It's just a matter of time before she forgives him."
"You think they'll get back together?"
He looked at the sea and nodded. She rested her index finger on the knuckle of his pinkie. They stayed like that for minutes. His sinews twitching below her fingertip.
The town woke up at dusk. Children chased each other on bicycles. Couples walked side-by-side, looking at the sea. Old men walked arm-in-arm with young beauties. Granddaughters or maybe even great granddaughters. A few old women and a thin dog walked alongside a burro pulling a cart.
Mireille didn't feel she belonged here. She didn't feel she belonged anywhere. Her mother had been a Pakistani-American who had moved to Paris to marry her father. She'd had a private tutor until college.
She said, "My mom died nine months ago." She hadn't talked about her mother with anyone since the funeral. Everyone gave her such a look of pity that it caused her to feel guilty. She was still waiting for the deluge to hit.
Giuseppe returned her gesture, placing his finger on top of her knuckle.
Later that evening, she and Giuseppe went to a restaurant and ordered salads of olives, cheese, basil and tomatoes. Baskets of bread and a dish of olive oil. It was a hole in the wall place from the outside, but inside there were paintings of knights on the walls, chairs with real velvet seats and dusty chandeliers. Mireille looked up at one of the chandeliers just as the single center strand of drops fell. It clanged down a few feet away. She jumped. No one else seemed to notice. She and Giuseppe looked at each other and didn't mention it. She looked down again. There it was—a large crystal sphere with a tail of smaller radiant drops. Unbroken. For the rest of the night, Mireille watched as waiters pranced around it. Just before they left, Giuseppe picked it up. "Here," he said. "You should have this to always remember me."
"No, that would be stealing. It belongs here."
In a few days, Giuseppe took her to his family's apartment for lunch. They lived on the eighth floor of a lower-middle class high rise. Three bedrooms, crowded but clean kitchen, upright piano in the living room, Giuseppe's father still looming from picture frames on the piano and walls. A short man with a dramatic moustache, beginnings of a potbelly.
They had an incredible view of the Ionian and its grand freighters that never seemed to be moving, but appeared and disappeared between morning and night and morning again.
His two brothers, Mario and Daniello, were scuffed school children who liked to play soccer on the trampled common lawn. Giuseppe's mother, Laura, was a tiny woman with huge black eyes like Giuseppe, who wore black leggings and long wispy tunics. Smoked like mad on the balcony.
"Well hello, bedduzza," she said slowly and expressively upon meeting Mireille. "So you're the one who ate all the oysters?" She wrapped her arms around Mireille. "Oh, don't you worry. I am only joking."
She served them bowls of conchigliette pasta and tuna with a plain lettuce salad. Talked about neighbors, soccer games and coworkers. Touched the top of Mireille's hand repeatedly. Asked her about France, Germany, the Czech Republic, the cost of a liter of gas in Paris.
"Mamma, stop badgering her to death," Giuseppe said.
Laura slapped him lightly on the side of the head. "Don't be disrespectful. If you don't want me to talk with your friends, don't bring them home." She turned back to Mireille. "So, what is the most beautiful place you've ever been?"
"Here," she answered.
Laura shook her head. "Look how polite she is," she said gratefully. "No, I mean really."
"I'm serious," Mireille said.
Laura set down her fork. "To be honest, if I had a daughter, I wouldn't let her leave Sicily on her own. What do your parents think about you traveling by yourself?"
"My father is very busy and my mother passed away in September."
Giuseppe said, "Great, Mamma. Fai i cazzi tuoi."
"Hush. That's nothing to hide," she said to Giuseppe. To Mireille she said, "My dear girl, I'm so sorry to hear that. My own mother died when I was twenty-one. Giuseppe had just been born, and I needed my mother's advice more than anything, so I made a shrine in the corner of my bedroom, and I kept talking to her, asking her a million questions and feeling as though she were answering me. No one was allowed to speak about her in the past tense in my presence. I didn't accept her death until he was two."
"I wish I could talk to my mother like that. Right now, I don't feel anything."
"Everyone grieves in her own way," Giuseppe said.
"How true," Laura agreed.
Laura collected the dishes and set chocolate-dipped biscotti on the table. She made espresso with a stovetop percolator. "How would you like to live here with us?" she asked as she set a cup of coffee before her.
"I wouldn't want to intrude."
"Oh, no, no. Please. You must stay. I would love it."
"Yes, please stay," Giuseppe said.
Then Mario and Daniello, who had been quiet all this time, began to clap their hands. "Stay, stay, stay," they cheered.
She went to the bathroom to think it over. Five towels cluttered the one towel rack. Toothpaste scum on the faucet and sink. Grime in the tub. Hair on the soap. The acrid smell of a dirty soccer shirt. She observed them the same detached way she studied everything else that was strange and new. So this was siblinghood.
And so, after lunch, Giuseppe and Mireille went back to the hostel where she'd been staying, gathered her things, and checked out.
Mireille moved into the bottom bunk in Giuseppe's room. They made love on a blanket on the floor so as to not make any noise. Their hands gently over the other's mouth to stifle the gasps and moans.
Giuseppe had become the man of the house. He was in charge of Mario and Daniello when Laura was at work. There were many fights between the two younger brothers. Sometimes they'd be joking around, and then they'd get mad and start to punch and wrestle. When they came up panting and sweaty, it seemed like they were joking again, but even Mireille was never sure. Sometimes the two ganged up on Giuseppe—Mario, the bigger of the two, jumped on his back and Daniello punched him in the stomach. Giuseppe tolerated their punches and kicks like a father lion. All three hid the bruises and scrapes from Laura.
There were fights between Giuseppe and Laura. He criticized her cooking, rolled his eyes when she asked him to run to the market or pick his brothers up. When Mireille made her bed, he yanked the covers back into disorder and said that it was Laura's duty to make the beds. Mireille's mother had scarcely lifted a finger. They had always had a maid and a cook.
Sometimes when Giuseppe was at work at the hotel, she and Laura folded laundry or washed the dishes. Laura took deep drags off her cigarette and talked about her husband. "They're all cheaters, you know. I just never had proof until I found the pictures and letters." Once Laura even showed her these letters—worn yellow stationary with Sicilian words that Mireille pretended to understand. Mireille wondered if the letters were so worn from Laura or her husband handling them.
"Could you forgive him?" Mireille asked.
Laura, ironing furiously, cigarette hanging from her lips, ashes peppering Giuseppe's dress shirt. "He's living with another woman." She snubbed the butt into a teacup. Leveled her gaze. "Mimi, maybe things are different in France—I don't know, I've never been farther than Rome—but the Sicilian stronzi will use you up, my child."
"But what about Giuseppe? He's so good."
Laura blew the ashes away. Lit another cigarette. "Giuseppe," she said as if trying to place him. "Yes, he is a very dear son. Thinks highly of himself. But you, my child, are a blessing." The smoke in the room was blue in the afternoon light. "Tell me about your mother."
"She was beautiful and smart, but very sad most of the time."
"Ah, I see. Stronzi!" Laura said and sighed. "And how did she die?"
"She had a condition that caused her to stop breathing at night, which destroyed her heart."
"Oh you poor, poor girl." She snubbed out the cigarette and pressed Mireille to her boney chest, tears dripping down her face and dropping onto Mireille's bare arm. "You can call me ‘Mamma' if you like."
Mireille flinched. The tears on her arm. Laura's kind words. She felt a stab of pain, but the feeling passed.
Laura taught her how to make pasta and gnocchi. Gave her little gifts—a silver ring, a box of sassafras candies. But at night, she treated Mireille as a rival. When she and Giuseppe came home from dates, Laura would insist on smelling their breath for marijuana. Her eyes would narrow to slits and she would curse at Giuseppe for wasting their money on drugs. In the middle of the night, she would randomly open their bedroom door to try to catch them. A couple of times, she came very close.
Mireille implored Giuseppe to treat his mother with more respect. "She's having a hard time. She didn't want your father to cheat on her."
"Okay," he said. "I'll work on it."
They were having lunch at a pizzeria and the bill had just arrived. She understood that part of his bitterness toward Laura had to do with giving her some of his earnings to run the household, instead of putting it into savings for his future. Mireille slid the bill off the table in mid-sentence as she'd seen her father do when he was surreptitiously paying for someone's meal.
"What are you doing?" Giuseppe asked. "Do you think I can't take care of you?"
"I just thought it would be my treat for a change."
"What kind of man do you take me for?"
So she handed over the bill.
In an attempt to pay her way, she helped around the house. Picked up Daniello and Mario from practice, helped them with their homework, tried to teach them English and French, and fixed lunches. She didn't dislike it. At night, they would turn on the radio and play hide and seek in the apartment. They hid in closets, under covers and beds, piles of clothes, and when they found each other, they would runaround in the living room. Green lights from the radio dial illuminating their silhouettes. One of the popular songs that summer was called "Gino," by Davide de Marinis. Mireille tore through the house singing, "Gino ha perso la testa, è andato fuori. Si è innamorato perduto di un' amica di mia sorella!" It made Daniello and Mario shriek with laughter, so she would find them immediately. A decade later she would hear "Gino" in a hip Paris café, and the images of that summer would come back in streaks and flashes like brain seizures.
Mireille often rode into town with Giuseppe on days that he worked. She would spend the day sketching and wandering while Giuseppe arranged travel itineraries for guests and called the train station to make reservations. They'd meet for the midday break and drive around visiting his friends. Some of them didn't even have to work, like Angelo. Angelo's uncle was cappa mafia and had bought him a Baby Yogurt shop, so he spent the days as he pleased, occasionally dropping in for a dish of yogurt and to hassle his female employees. Mireille was afraid of him.
Once, Angelo asked Giuseppe if he liked dating an Arab.
"She's as much Arab as we are Algerian, stronzo," Giuseppe said.
"We're not Algerians," Angelo said.
"They came to Sicily thousands of years ago and stayed. What do you think happened to their descendants? Do your homework."
Pakistan wasn't an Arab country, and her mother hadn't been born there nor had she raised Mireille as a Muslim. She had to say this to herself countless times.
But no one had ever stuck up for her like this, and she loved Giuseppe more for it. "What if he tells his uncle?" she asked after Angelo swaggered off.
"I'll be a goner," he joked. "I guess we should get a room at the hotel and hide out until it's blown over." They went to the hotel where Giuseppe worked. One of his friends, the day clerk, gave him a key. Giuseppe led her to the bridal suite. The antique bed had a canopy of Spanish lace. Pink coral carvings of Leto and Zeus adorned the walls. Doors opened to a balcony over the sea. Bathtub shaped like a scallop shell. They made love. Giuseppe ordered wine and bruschetta. Ran water in the tub, carefully unwrapped the bar of soap. Washed her like an infant—building a slight lather and then bringing the water over each soapy centimeter with a cupped hand. She leaned back against him when he was done.
"Do you miss your father?" she asked.
"Yeah. When we talk on the phone it's hard to keep a conversation going."
"Why don't we visit him?"
"He says he's not ready for that. He still has to put in long hours at work to prove himself. "
She wasn't sure if he knew about the woman Laura had spoken of. "Maybe you should just go. Call him from the station, say, ‘Dad, I'm here.'"
"That's crazy woman talk."
They were quiet for awhile. Listened to the water dripping from the faucet. Wind rushed in from the balcony, carried a butterfly into the bath. Giuseppe lifted it out, and it sat on the side of the tub moving its wings up and down to dry them. "What are you doing in the fall?"
"Going back to the university."
"I'm going to have a three month internship at a hotel in Cefalú. Cefalú is so beautiful. Shells like this," he slapped his palms on the bathtub, "the size of your fist. Wash up on the beach every morning. And the hotel is a top rate. I'll have a room there. Come with me."
"I don't want to dropout."
"Take one semester off. Travel is worth ten college degrees."
"I don't know."
"I'm not ready to lose you. Are you ready to lose me?"
"No, I don't want to lose you. I'll go."
One evening in early August, they all went to the restaurant where the strand had fallen from the chandelier. Mireille noticed that it was back in its place, but someone had cleaned it before replacing it, and it sparkled brilliantly among the rest They ordered pasta de ricca del mare and bottles of wine. Even Daniello and Mario got glasses. Just before the waiter brought the tiramisu, Giuseppe shoved his chair aside and fell down on one knee. "Mimi, will you be my wife?" He was hopeful and expectant. He smiled and stroked the top of her hand. He uncurled his fist to reveal the ring, a small round sapphire surrounded by tiny diamonds, set in white gold.
Laura, Daniello, and Mario smiled at her from around the table. Laura wore a purple silk dress, and the boys were in suits. Giuseppe was still on bended knee, suddenly nibbling his lip as she hesitated.
They were all there, watching her, their hopes as a family hinging on this mysterious foreigner. "Yes," she said, though she was shaking. Wine and pasta rising up in her throat. The worn red velvet glowing on the backs of empty chairs like eyelids closed to intense light.
He put the ring on her finger. The sapphire winked at her. She'd not expected this, and now she felt foolish. All the things she'd done, on a whim or because she loved them—moving in, helping Laura with the housework, playing with the children, accepting Giuseppe's offer to go to Cefalú—had made silent promises.
"Look," Laura said. "It was such a surprise that she's in shock." She came from the other side of the table and embraced her from above and behind, one arm over her chest and a hand on her head. "Finally, I will have a daughter." She kissed her on each cheek, and then Daniello and Mario crowded around and began to hug and kiss her.
Giuseppe kissed her, and everyone clapped. The waiter brought the dessert and another table bought them a bottle of wine. An old man sang them a love song in a deep baritone that echoed against the stone walls.
Later that night, Laura went home with the boys, and Angelo and his seventeen-year-old wife, who looked to be five months pregnant, showed up to celebrate. Angelo kept joking about how long it would take Giuseppe and Mireille to have Muslim babies. She followed them around to the various bars with a bemused smile on her face, eventually letting the Sicilian language slide over her like a black curtain. She hadn't even known Angelo was married.
If anyone knew that she was mourning, it was Giuseppe. She caught him looking at her with concern and tenderness, and so she looked back with the same, knowing it would be the last night she'd spend with him. She'd never know if he understood, but as the night wound down, he became calm and removed, as though he had made up his mind that she was only as frightened as she should be. That they would get married and fight and work through it like everyone else.
He'd never really known her. She'd not told him that she was here to escape her life, that she wanted to get her education and have a career before even thinking of marriage, children. She'd left out the inheritance—enough to pay for her education or live a nomad's life for a decade—because that changed how a person saw you. She hadn't trusted him to understand her, and she'd misrepresented herself.
Angelo and his wife gave them a ride. In the back seat, Giuseppe held Mireille close and fell asleep. Leaned heavily on her shoulder. Angelo and the wife squabbled in the front.
The apartment was dark and quiet when they got in. The living room drapes were open, and a full moon shed light on the sea. Giuseppe said that they could sleep in the same bed, so they crawled into the bottom bunk. She fondled and kissed him, but he was too far into a drunken sleep. For an hour she stayed there, stacked against him and breathing the smell of his hair and skin, inhaling and exhaling as his back expanded or withdrew from her chest.
Then she got up and quietly packed. She left a note in half Italian, half French, on the nightstand saying she couldn't marry him. Didn't specify why. Said she was "sorrier than he would ever know." It was a sentiment she did not feel, but thought she might in the future. Left her aunt's address in Paris if he wanted to find her later. Folded the note until it was only a small square. Placed the ring on top.
She walked to a pay phone and called a taxi to take her to the train station and bought a ticket for the first train to Rome. From there she could go to Paris or Austria or Switzerland. The next departure wasn't for a couple of hours, so she rested against her suitcase, looked up whenever she heard footsteps. Finally the train came and she slipped on. Smells of dusty fabric and wind. The relief from waiting was a comfort so great that it reaffirmed her intentions.
Thus began her love of trains. You could pack up and leave whenever you wanted. Start a different version of your life somewhere else. Mistakes were only real if they were present. And they were only present if you had someone to remind you.
She shared a couchette with a mother and her two young children. One child asleep on each side of her. A tote filled with food for the long ride. Toy horses lined up behind the seatback. Mireille stowed her suitcase and pretended to sleep.
After the train was a few kilometers away from the station, she left the couchette. She stood in the aisle and looked out the windows. White cliffs. Citrus groves. Houses with metal shutters beginning to open as the towns they passed began to wake. Patches of Fica d' India persisting in the dry rocky cliffs. The sea. When the train came to Messina, it slowly shifted itself onto the ferry. Men disassembled it to fit all the cars on the lower level. She got off when they had loaded the last of the train onto the tracks that ran across the ferry like lesions. She climbed up to the deck, looked at the hazy mainland in the north. Went to the back of the ferry and watched as Sicily melted away.
Suddenly she was angry that Giuseppe hadn't found her at the station, hadn't stopped her just before she got on the train. Her heart palpitated, and she became weak with grief. She steadied herself with the railing. A sharp pocket of air trapped in her throat. She saw her mother's image for the first time in almost a year. She was propped up on the sofa, straining to stay awake as she often did when Mireille came home from school. The image was so sharp—Mireille saw white streaks in her black hair, which Mireille had forgotten—and her eyelids were drooping, but she didn't have purple lips and circles under her eyes as she had in the last days. Mireille imagined having a conversation with her, explaining her betrayal. Her mother would stroke the top of her daughter's head, take a long pull of air and pause. "My Mimi," she would say at last, "You can't have your freedom and your rescue. It just doesn't work that way."
Title graphic: "Great Wide Open" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2009.