by Jennifer A. Kuchta
In Bellagio, Gustavo stands beside the Mercedes, my bags in his hands, alert and ready to take them into the hotel, but above and behind him I can see her. Seimone stands on a second-floor balcony looking across Lake Como towards the villas on the opposite shore. She is surrounded by red geraniums, and her white linen dress glows against the sky. The porter is directing us inside to the front desk, and Gustavo waits patiently for me to follow.
Gustavo—a man collected somehow in Rome when I was a child and re-collected every time my family sets down once again in Italy. As we grew, my sister Lauren and I joked that someday we’d have “Gustavos” of our own. We determined we’d ultimately have to “flip” for him when we left home, but who knew I’d win by default, a phone call and a life cut short.
My mother didn’t think we should return this summer. She thought it was still too soon, and except for last year, we’ve spent at least a week in Italy every summer since I can remember. I may not recall exactly what we did or where we went, but we have always, always gone to Italy. It is July again, and I am back in Italy and, as always, accompanied by Gustavo as per my parents’ request. We have ashes to scatter, lives to put back together.
“If you please, Melanie. The reception is this way.”
Over the years Gustavo has nearly perfected his English, but I have never bothered to learn Italian. It could be laziness or lack of desire. Why learn it when Gustavo is there to speak for me? My father speaks it—mostly dictionary phrases about the cost of wine and authentic fakes.
At the front desk, Gustavo greets the woman behind it, telling her that Signorina Mueller has arrived and gesturing to me with his right hand. She smiles and asks for my passport. When she’s done making sure all is in order, she smiles again.
“Signorina Francis has already arrived,” she says, handing back my passport along with a room key. There is something else in her smile now, and I am not sure that it’s not just me, always the paranoid American, fearing that my mere presence in her country somehow offends her. She tilts her head towards the bellhop, who has taken possession of my two bags, and tells me, in my language, that he will show me to my room.
I thank her, a single word in shaky Italian: “Grazie.”
Gustavo puts his hand on my arm. “I will see you in the morning, yes?”
It’s always a question with Gustavo. As if he must always check in to be assured that he will still be allowed to do his job. I know full well that in the morning he will magically appear in this very foyer or next to the Mercedes, which is always at the ready as if he knows exactly when I will want to go somewhere. Where he goes in the meantime, I have no idea. Lauren and I used to joke that he simply ceased to exist when we weren’t around. We couldn’t imagine him having a life without us or touring another family around Italy. Sometime between now and when I see him again, my parents will have arrived. And my sister, too, in a sense.
Nodding, I bid him goodbye and turn to follow the bellhop. I feel Gustavo’s eyes watching me until I disappear out of his sight around the corner. .
The last time I was in Italy, in 2001, Lauren and I stood in the piazza in front of the Milan Cathedral, staring awe-struck at each of its hundreds of turrets and spires and sculptures that reach God-ward, extending endlessly toward the heavens. Scurrying masses filled the square pushing in on us as we waited for our parents to finish their tour of the cathedral. By that time I had sworn off entering cathedrals and temples of all types, fearing that I could only tempt God so many times before he dropped an ancient church on me, leaving my toes to curl up mercilessly under its tons of granite and marble. Each person in the square seemed to be trying to outshine the cathedral’s beauty—each thinking himself a model or movie star. Boys in tight pants and tighter shirts swaggered around, talking on tiny cell phones, their eyes shielded by Gucci, their bodies sheathed in Versace.
I was wondering which was the greater sin, which the greater abuse of pride and vanity, the cathedral or the crowd, when Gustavo came rushing towards us just as my mother and father came out of the cathedral. He cut through the crowd of pretty young people, his dark suit and sunglasses making him look like Secret Service, and I played at being a Kennedy, if only for a moment.
He took my mother’s elbow and hurried us through the pulsing crowd back towards the waiting car. The big Mercedes van always found a place to park among the ruins and a way through the sea of scooters that moved through the ancient, narrow streets like funneled schools of fish.
“We must hurry,” he said as he slid open the side door of the van and helped my mother in. “The parade is coming this way; we must get out before it is impossible.”
And as my father looked on, puzzled, it was then that I understood what the banners hanging all around the square had said. My sister looked at me knowingly and laughed as she climbed into the back of the van. I wanted to stand there and let us be trapped; I wanted to be accidentally part of something. It was something to tell Seimone later on on a postcard of The Last Supper: Gay Pride in Milan. I glanced back at that cathedral. Perhaps God was sending me a sign.
Gustavo put his hand gently on my back, not understanding my hesitation. Why would he? My own parents didn’t know then, didn’t know about Seimone tucked away back home in New Orleans. Only Lauren knew.
He shrugged as he spoke, seeming to have trouble finding his words. “It is no big deal, yes?” He smiled and scratched his cheek. “It’s just that they love differently than we do.”
And as that silver door slid shut and Gustavo hurried around to the driver’s side to whisk us away to safety, I could just hear the chants of the crowd and the drums beating as the parade neared the square. I imagined the banners coming down the street between the buildings. I pressed my forehead to the tinted glass, forcing myself to see a rainbow of colors, and when I was convinced I could, my throat broke, and I sobbed silently in the back of the van. But as we twisted and turned our way out of Milan, out of the concrete and billboards, Lauren’s hand crept across the back seat and squeezed mine tight.
Seimone is still out on the balcony when the bellhop lets me into the room and follows me in with my bags. The room is crazy ornate, all gilded frames and antiques, something you’d expect to find in Versailles or Windsor Castle. My family has stayed at this hotel before, but I don’t remember it being so luxurious. I guess we come to see things in a different light as we grow older. What has it been? Ten years? Have I changed so much since I was twenty-three?
I tip the bellhop, and then slip through the open floor-to-ceiling doors, which are swung open wide, allowing the late afternoon breeze to blow in off of the lake. Seimone has her hand over her eyes, shielding them from the sun, but even without her fully turning towards me, I know she knows I’m here. A smile turns up the corner of her mouth as I come up behind her and put my arms around her, pressing my face into her bare shoulder and inhaling.
“When did you arrive?” I ask as she squeezes my arms to her chest.
It is chance that she should be here. She taught literature in Prague for the last month, so it made perfect sense for her to come here instead of heading straight back home. Our paths would have crossed somewhere high over the cold Atlantic.
“About an hour ago. The train was late.”
“And how were the expatriates?”
She laughs and kisses my hands. “The same as they are at home. Bored.”
Down below, beyond the fence, there is something of a beach, and people are swimming in the lake. A few women are sunbathing on a floating platform, but most are stretched out on chaise lounges, making the most of the dropping sun.
“It’s so beautiful here,” Seimone says, putting her elbows on the railing and leaning forward. “I can see why you wanted your family to come back here. Have you swum in the lake?”
“It makes me think about Frankenstein. In which of those villas do you suppose Elizabeth was strangled?” She shivers with pleasure, looking me directly in the eyes at last.
Even though she is smiling, her gray eyes are not. Maybe it is too much too soon, or maybe it is nervousness or exhaustion. My parents are spending their retirement traveling. With so much of their time abroad and with Seimone’s and my work schedules, there hasn’t been much time for meetings between the three of them on any grand scale. Sure, there’s been an awkward Christmas and a weekend or so here and there, but most of those meetings have been shadowed by Lauren’s death.
“It is inappropriate,” my mother said when I told her over the phone that Seimone would be in Bellagio. “This isn’t the right time.”
“Mother, I want her to be part of this. I need her to be. It’s just the one weekend, and then we’re going to Venice. She’s never been to Italy.”
As I waited for my mother’s response, I imagined her shaking her head on the other end of the line, endlessly spinning her wedding ring.
“Besides Melanie, we’re going to Rome, not Bellagio. That’s where we’re taking Lauren.”
“No,” I said. “We’ve already discussed this. It must be Bellagio. You promised it would be Bellagio.”
And at some point she and my father gave in, agreeing to meet me here after Wimbledon, before going on to Rome.
“It’s going to be fine,” I tell Seimone, taking her hands. “Just a few days here and then we’re off to Venice. You’re going to love the Doge’s Palace. I promise.”
Her eyes cut away from me as she looks out at the lake again, and I feel a sinking in my chest.
In Pompeii, eight years ago, our tour guide was a fretful Italian man. His name might have been Bennie or Benito, I don’t recall. Gustavo set him up for us; the man was his friend, and I wondered how many hundred thousand lire his knowledge would cost my father. Lauren and I had been there before as children, fifteen years before, perhaps, but all I remembered was the volcano and being afraid that it would suddenly spring back to life and envelope us in red lava. The guide looked us over, and I wondered what he thought of us. Did we represent nothing but another band of dirty, raucous Americans who would spit out our gum and scratch our initials into ancient walls?
The man wiped his brow with a thick blue handkerchief and prattled on at my mother’s side as we headed into the ruins. Lauren marveled at the wagon ruts in the stone road, and she fawned over the black and white mosaic of a dog that remained in place forever, calmly panting his warning up from the ground.
“How could I have forgotten about him?” she whispered, squatting down to run her fingers over his stone coat when no one was looking. “He’s so beautiful.”
The dog was a stark contrast to the sick strays that wandered, as we did, among the ruins. They were thin and listless, probably struck with parvo and distemper. It killed Lauren to see them. She wanted to pick them up, to hug each of them to her chest and pick the fleas and ticks from their ears, to take each home with her and offer it a soft place on her bed.
She couldn’t stop looking, her green eyes tearing up, but I looked away, sickened. Strays come in all forms on the tourist circuit of Italy. Over the years, we’d been warned about the pick-pocketing gypsy children outside of the Coliseum, but who would have expected stray dogs in Pompeii? Perhaps the ghosts of an entire city silenced at once keep them there, loyal.
Mount Vesuvius loomed over the city—its sides strangely flat, its caldera crooked against the sky. We ducked into another house and then a bath and then the remnants of what was once a shop. We looked dutifully into the holes and at the remaining bits of paint and tile. I wanted to see the underside of Pompeii, not the mummies forever frozen in time or the burned out jars or statues. I wanted to see the house painted with scenes of a Bacchanalian ritual, the fresco of a satyr weighing his manhood, not another villa or temple destroyed by time.
All of our summers have been Milan, and Rome, and Florence, and Venice. It has been preordained that I should love Venice, being a moonchild born under a water sign. And there is prosciutto e melone and caprese. There are fortresses on the tops of every hillside and anxious priests and nuns checking the length of our skirts and shorts before we enter any cathedral or church or tiny chapel.
And between all of our destinations Gustavo has driven us across Italy faster than anybody I’ve ever ridden with. Over eighty miles an hour up and down and across the Italian plains and over and through the Italian Alps. Zooming through Tuscany and Campania. Careening around the curves of the Amalfi Coast on a road barely wider than the van. Sometimes he drove so fast I was sure I would die, and I closed my eyes and braced myself for the impact, prepared myself for the loss of life and limb, wondering who would identify us on the outskirts of Positano. But Lauren loved it, was thrilled by it—riding with her eyes wide open and seeing more of Italy than the rest of us ever did.
Then Gustavo would smile as he parked the car wherever he wished, always smiling in his suit as he let us out, calm and cool as if we’d just been cruising the Vegas Strip. Always smiling when he found something new for us to do. A private gallery in the basements of Vatican City. A private tour of a Murano glass factory. A stay at the Castello di Spaltenna. Always wanting us to see everything. To experience everything.
Those summers were always Lauren and I. Lauren and I buying tiny pink and blue glass poodles in Venice. Lauren flirting with the gondolier. Lauren on the lookout as I made out with a sweaty Venetian waitress, my parents sipping Chianti just yards away. Me convincing my parents that a month-long snowboarding trip to the Dolomites was in Lauren’s best interest. That there was nothing wrong with my sister wanting to build a career out of rescuing strays and snowboarding.
The day after that last trip to Pompeii Lauren swore that when she went pro and got famous that her first snowboard design would have cave canem written across the base: Beware of Dog. And there’d be a mosaic on the deck—a mosaic of a black and white dog, a faithful companion to guide her safely down the slopes.
“Or,” she said to Gustavo, pulling his arm as we strolled around the Forum, “I’ll put a picture of you on it.” She paused near a broken column and pretended to take his picture.
He had scrunched up his face, looking confused at first but then saying, when he saw us laughing, heads together, “Oh, it is a joke, yes?”
And us falling all over ourselves. Lauren and I laughing and laughing and laughing.
Here I am, two years since my last summer in Italy. Two years since Gustavo opened my doors and looked through mirrored sunglasses at me. It’s 2003. Almost a year and a half since Lauren was found cold and huddled under six feet of Rocky Mountain avalanche—her snowboard still strapped to her feet as if she would simply jump up and glide off again. But she had been there for hours, and she was so frozen, so cold.
She had called me, as she always did, at some point just before she took to the slopes, her hollerings full of static as she raved about fresh powder and no tracks. Nearly every weekend, she and her friends drove to the top of the pass and then took turns boarding down again and again and again—until it was too dark, too dangerous. But it was always too dangerous snowboarding out of bounds and away from the resorts.
“It’s great, Melanie, no tracks as far as I can see. Just powder, powder—”
“Lauren?” I was sorting laundry, while Seimone sorted through the mail.
Her voice scratched in again, cutting in and out, and then I lost her, figuring she was out of range, too many mountains and miles between Loveland Pass and New Orleans.
Last summer was my family’s first summer with no Italy. I sweated it away in New Orleans, feeling lost when I wandered beneath French Quarter balconies. No Romeo and Juliet there. No Trevi Fountain. No Spanish Steps. Just heat, heat, and more heat.
I spent a lot of time safely hidden behind drawn blinds, cooled by blasting central air, trying to recall our summers abroad. Searching for traces of Lauren’s face in Seimone’s for some reason, but finding it impossible, finding it unfair to all involved. Gray eyes instead of green. Tangles of long dark curls instead of dirty blond wisps.
I would flip through album after album of photos. All of them taken on the various cameras I’ve had over the years. Some twenty years of photos—the earliest mere squares, barely in focus. Lauren a tiny figure in the center, pointing at something not in the picture. My parents two ants arm in arm near a brightly painted boat, the ocean in the background.
In one batch there were pictures of Lauren and me, I maybe twenty, she sixteen. Photos obviously taken by my father—the blur of his thumb in the corner as his signature. Pictures of Lauren and me wrist-deep in the gaping mouth of a large, round, stone visage: the Bocca Della Verita. The Mouth of Truth. Legend says the mouth will close around the hand of the person who doesn’t speak the truth while her hand is in it. Lauren’s face glows with a toothy smile, but I look nervous, as if I know that mouth will suddenly clamp down and never let me go, leaving me exposed for all to see.
That evening Seimone and I dine in the hotel restaurant where we gaze out at the lake, watching its dark waters lap the shore. Then we walk around town, peering into shops and picking out treasures to take home, but strangely quiet in each other’s presence. I chalk it up to our fatigue—her flight and train ride from Prague and my long flight from the states. Still, one would think that, not having seen each other in a month, we’d be filled with some sort of energy, sexual or otherwise. But there is only this polite quietness, this sense of impending doom. Maybe I am imagining it. We go to bed early, and I am grateful for the weight of Seimone’s arm across my back.
During the night I dream of Pompeii and Herculanium. Of Lauren and I running and running as Vesuvius erupts—Lauren desperately trying to collect the strays as the ash comes down, covering us like snow.
In the morning, Gustavo is in the foyer waiting for me, and he informs me that my parents have delayed their arrival in Bellagio until this evening. He tells me that he must go to Milan to pick them up, that they want to do some shopping there, and that they will meet me for dinner at seven here in the hotel dining room. He rattles all of this off so quickly and matter-of-factly that I hardly understand.
“I am sorry,” he says, looking truly remorseful as he takes his car keys from his pocket. “Is there anything I can do for you before I go?”
And at that moment, while I am still sorting through his message, wondering why my parents didn’t just call me, Seimone comes down the stairway, pulling her sweater around her bare shoulders and then lifting her hair out from under it. She catches both of us staring at her and winks, and Gustavo and I look at each other awkwardly.
“Gustavo,” I say, touching Seimone lightly on the back when she stops beside me. “This is Seimone.” Her gray eyes search Gustavo’s face above her smile. “Seimone, this is Gustavo.”
He smiles and takes her hand, clasping it tightly in his. For a moment, I am afraid that he will kiss her on the cheek or hand and she will swoon under his touch, but he doesn’t and she doesn’t, and I feel the wave of insane jealousy subside as quickly as it came.
“I am very happy to meet you,” he says.
She laughs lightly and puts her other hand on top of his. “Likewise. Melanie has told me so much about you. When she talks about Italy, it’s always ‘Gustavo this’ or ‘Gustavo that.’”
A touch of color rises in his cheeks, and he drops her hand and quickly pulls his sunglasses out of his breast pocket. “I am sure we will have time to talk later, but for now, I must go.” He looks at me. “You will have a good day.” It sounds like more of a question, and I nod in agreement.
“Good,” he says, excusing himself and heading out of the hotel as he thrusts his sunglasses onto his face.
We watch him drive away, the van glinting in the sun.
“Where is he going?” Seimone asks, pulling her sweater in tighter around her.
“To Milan,” I say, still watching the space where the van had just been parked.
I turn to her now, feeling something ugly starting to brew inside of me. “To pick up my parents.”
She looks confused, looks around the foyer as if they are standing somewhere nearby or might suddenly appear from behind a counter or down a hallway. “What are they doing in Milan?”
“But I thought they were spending the whole weekend with us.”
“So did I.”
She starts to say something, but she catches that something stirring up between us and thinks better of it. “Well,” she says, trying to quell the beast. “Shall we get something to eat?”
I could have said yes, or I could have said I wasn’t really hungry, but because I say no and because it comes out the way it does, the day goes from bad to worse very quickly.
We go our separate ways. Seimone chooses a boat tour of the lake while I wander aimlessly through the town and hillside, half expecting Lauren to pop out from behind a bush or building.
When I come out of the shower later that evening, Seimone is stretched out on the bed.
“You’re watching television?” I ask, surprised.
She nods and fiddles with the remote. “There’s nothing on but soccer and Italian music videos.”
I sit down on the edge of the bed, wanting to make things right between us, but not understanding why they went wrong. “How was your tour?”
“It was nice. Peaceful even. I didn’t know the lake was so big.”
“No Frankenstein sightings?”
She smiles and shakes her head.
“Well,” I say, standing up to finish drying my hair. “I’m done in the bathroom if you want to shower before dinner.”
Sitting up, she pulls her knees to her chest and straightens her skirt over them. “I think it would be best if I passed.”
I stop toweling. “What? Why?”
She traces the pattern on the bedspread. “I’ll just grab something in town. It’s no big deal.”
My heart starts knocking around in my chest. “It is to me.”
“You haven’t seen your parents in months. You should go by yourself.” She flips one of her hands out at me. “Spend some quality time together.”
She cuts me off, getting up suddenly. “I am not going to spend time playing nice with people who want nothing to do with me. I know why you think they didn’t come earlier, like they were supposed to.”
But before I can answer, before I can tell her that I was probably wrong and that they probably did just want to shop, she has grabbed her purse and rushed out the door. I look at myself in the mirror–wet brown hair sticking out in every direction. Even I don’t believe me.
My parents are standing just outside of the dining room when I come down to dinner. They have their backs to me and are looking at a portrait of a buxom Italian woman with an array of lap-dogs at her feet. My father turns first, looking young and tan in his linen suit. He sees me and smiles, squeezing my mother’s upper arm. She spins around, holding something shiny in her hands, something that looks like a golden ostrich egg.
“Melanie,” she says, handing the object to my father as she comes towards me and then wraps her arms around me. “I’ve missed you so much.”
I hug back. “I’ve missed you, too. What is that thing?” I ask over her shoulder.
My father looks down at it and then holds it up like he’s testing its weight. “It’s your sister,” he says and jerks a thumb toward the dining room. “Let’s eat.”
And if my mother hadn’t still had me in her clutches, I would have fainted dead away.
I spend the entire meal staring at Lauren’s urn, half listening to my father’s analysis of the state of American tennis. The urn is some sort of egg shape—something I’m sure Lauren would be appalled by. A big brass egg. Brass. In between bites of prosciutto and cantaloupe I can’t help but wonder how my parents brought her on the plane, and, more importantly, what happened to the porcelain urn they had her in at home.
“We’re going to tour all of the fountains,” my mother says as she finishes her chicken. “They were Lauren’s favorite.”
Instantly I remember Lauren laughing at the Trevi Fountain, flirting with one of the many policemen that had shown up to protect the fountain in the aftermath of the Rome team winning some big soccer game. Apparently the police didn’t want revelers taking a victory lap with the river gods in Salvi’s masterpiece, not even under Neptune’s watchful eye. The streets were filled with billowing orange, red and black striped banners. Romulus and Remus suckled their she-wolf mother in triumph on flags hanging all over the place.
But then what my mother is really saying settles over me, and I stare at them. “You’re going to put her in the fountains? Just like that?”
They nod, looking particularly pleased with themselves, as if this is some plan they had long devised. My mother puts her hands around the urn and closes her eyes.
“I was so happy when we found this this afternoon. It was in a beautiful antique store not far from that glass-roofed shopping mall. Oh, what is it again…the Galleria something or other.”
“The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, the second,” my father says, holding his wine glass up to the light before taking a sip.
The urn is resting on the table near my mother’s half-eaten salad. “You can’t just put her in the fountains,” I say.
My father wipes his mouth with his napkin. “Why not? Lauren loved those fountains when she was little. Both of you girls did. We could barely keep you out of them.”
“But what if they clean them or refurbish them or something? What if she gets drained into some Italian sewer?”
“Melanie, lower your voice,” my mother says, her eyes darting around the dining room. “We’ve made our decision. On Sunday, Gustavo is taking us to Rome and that is that.”
I sit back in my chair feeling swimmy in my head. “But this is the last place we ever were with Lauren in Italy. Well, before we raced off to Venice and got on that goddamned train to Paris.”
“It’s the best thing for her,” my father says, patting my arm. “For all of us.”
My mother smiles at him, tears glistening in the corners of her eyes. “Yes.”
He hands her his handkerchief, and she dabs her eyes with it, sniffling. She’s trying not to cry, but all I can think about is Lauren being trapped in all of that snow and ice only to wind up being trapped in some fountain.
I take a long drink of wine, wanting not to be having this conversation and glad that Seimone isn’t here to witness this. I can feel every drop of the wine as it glides down my throat. I close my eyes, take some deep breaths, and try to let the conversation cease, but I just can’t.
“But, Mom, Dad, don’t you remember Lauren here?” I tap my finger on the table. “At that villa we stayed at last time after driving up from Milan? Don’t you remember? Lauren swore Bellagio was the most beautiful place she’d ever been. Better than Aspen or Paris, or Rome, for that matter.”
They stare at me incredulously. How can they not remember? Even in this red dining room, I can still see Lauren standing out on the balcony of that huge estate, her blond hair dancing in the breeze. She was holding somebody’s tiny mutt and whispering into its neck as they looked out at the lake. She’d been snowboarding in Australia. Had just lined up her first serious sponsor. Was one step closer to that mosaic.
“I can’t believe you’ve forgotten,” I say, quietly. “I just can’t believe it.”
We sit in silence until my father lets out a low cough and takes my mother’s hand. “Why don’t we let Melanie take care of Lauren for now, until we leave for Rome ?”
My mother nods, a tight smile on her lips, and gently pushes the urn across the table to me. “She would have wanted it that way,” she says, touching my cheek.
I take the urn in my hands, surprised by how warm it is, and with the blood pounding in my veins, I thank them for dinner, rushing away from the dining room before I can say something I will regret. It is only when I’m halfway up the stairs that I realize they haven’t even asked about Seimone.
Upstairs, Seimone is sitting in bed reading Jane Eyre in the light of a single lamp. Her gray eyes go immediately to my hands.
“It’s exactly what you think it is,” I say, crossing the room in three or four huge steps and gently setting the urn on the mantle. “It’s Lauren.” I point at it. “Right here. In our room. My sister.” The blood is pumping so loudly through my head I feel like I’m going to erupt, to stroke out.
Seimone closes her book and looks at me across the dark room, her hair tangled around her face.
“You know what they want to do with her?” I half yell as I start to unbutton my shirt, wanting to rid myself of any reminder of dinner. She shrugs. My fingers struggle to work the buttons out of their holes. “They want to dump her in the fountains. Just walk around Rome scattering her here and there like they’re feeding pigeons.”
She looks at her hands and then crosses her arms across herself. “And what’s wrong with that? I thought you all wanted to scatter her ashes. Isn’t that why you came here?”
“Yes, but not like that. Not in Rome. Oh, I don’t know.” I stop with the buttons, throwing my hands down in defeat. “I guess I don’t know what I really expected. I just know I wanted to be here. Something just told me. I thought it was right. This is the last place we were all together.”
Suddenly it’s all too much, and I cross the room and go out on the balcony. I sense Seimone behind me, but she doesn’t touch me. Doesn’t come close.
“What did Lauren want?”
I can’t answer through the tears. I just shrug and shake my head. No one thinks about those things when they’re twenty-eight. Maybe she would have wanted to have been left in her snowy grave or dropped into some crevasse. Or maybe she would be happy in the fountains, which is surely illegal, but that’s just not enough.
“She should be in Pompeii protecting the strays,” I say finally, swiping at my eyes. “And in Sienna watching the horses race around and around the square. She should be getting big air in the Dolomites and drifting across Tuscany. To Lauren, Italy was about way more than those goddamned fountains.”
Seimone touches me on the shoulder. “She’s already doing all of those things. Those are just ashes, Melanie. Lauren’s already gone.”
“Don’t say that,” I say, pointing a finger at her. “Don’t ever say that.”
I stalk back into the room and pick up the urn as she calls me again.
Outside of the hotel in the small courtyard where I arrived only yesterday, Gustavo is leaning against the van, smoking. He jumps when he sees me and immediately puts out his cigarette. It’s the first time I’ve ever caught him off guard.
“Melanie,” he says, brushing at his coat. “Your parents, they are inside having a drink in the bar. Shall I take you to them?”
I shake my head. “No.”
He spots the urn, looks at me, and then drops his gaze to his feet before looking out at the lake. “Your sister and you…your whole family…you have always been my favorite.” He reaches out slowly and just barely touches the urn with his fingertips. “Like my own,” he says.
I smile at him because I cannot possibly speak. Suddenly I understand. There was safety in those painted landscapes Gustavo allowed us to see in Pompeii, in all of those flowers and cherubs and trees, and even in all of those goddamned cathedrals and churches. But Gustavo couldn’t protect us from the worst of things.
I start toward the beach. In an instant Gustavo is there, opening the gate for me and following me to the water’s edge. I pause for a moment, gazing out, before putting one foot, shoe and all, into the water and then the other. I look back, and Gustavo is standing on the beach, his dress shoes in the sand, his hands on his hips. He nods, and I turn and wade slowly into the water, knowing that he, at least, remembers.
And I swim out, some sort of bastardized doggy-paddle, Lauren held just above my head, the brass urn clasped tightly in one hand. There is no noise, just the lapping of the water around my chest. When I have swum out far enough, far past the floating platform, I stop and struggle to tread water. Never before have I felt such darkness, even with the moon bobbing alongside of me.
The urn is made of two pieces that screw together near the top. Shivering, I try to unscrew them, but my wet hands slip, and I nearly drop the urn. I clutch it to my chest, inhale water into my mouth and nose. Choking, I bob up and down in the waves until the top finally comes off. I hold the bottom half up above my head like a chalice. I toast my sister with a silent prayer and then gently tilt the urn.
Lauren catches on the slight breeze—the lightest ashes drifting into my nose and eyes and sticking to my skin, the heavier ones slipping into the lake. As she sinks, the gray ash spiraling downward in the moonlight, I breathe the last airborne bits of her in, imagining her flowing forever out of this northern lake, carried southward by the rivers, down throughout all that is Italy.