- Mary, – I said. – How did you like Rome?
My eyes got all jumpy and jittery from the road, so I put away the book and turned to my fiancée. Mary had all but given up hope of falling asleep, and was presently aimlessly acquainting herself with the rather dull scenery dragging along outside. It was one of those old-fashioned bus trips through Europe where you are equally frustrated and amused. Frustrated – because of uneven food, uneven sleep and uneven toilets, and amused – because Venice is still worth it regardless of the drowsiness or the sorry state of your bladder.
In fact, Italy was magnificent. Rome was the first city on the itinerary, and despite the drizzle and the relentless time limit, I was duly impressed by the sights and by the women – I really couldn’t tell which were sexier. And now, with the gaping neighbours and dusty bus windows closing in on me, I decided to invoke some of that enthusiasm. The thought of Rome’s playful freedom got me into a playful mood, so here was the deal: if Mary said a bad word about that city (and how could she?), I would break off the engagement.
- Rome? – said Mary. – You mean honestly?
- Quite honestly, rather boring. – And, as if to prove her point, she sighed all over my face. Slovenly, with no subtlety or tact. There was this distinct smell of a particularly bad cheese sandwich on her breath. The one we had bought the previous day in a cheap roadside café greasy with petrol and bored customers.
My excitement cut short, I felt like I choked on a shot of expensive red wine (quite possibly Italian).
- Mary, tell me you are joking.
She wouldn’t. Mary was dead serious (she rarely joked, and I couldn’t blame her: women can only be funny for no particular reason and without actually realizing that). What was more, she gave me a scornful sideline glance that I kept refusing to get used to – and, for the record, have kept doing it since. Because frankly, coming from my future wife, that was not too encouraging.
And now I was so overwhelmed by her words that I couldn’t find a retort strong enough. Also, there was this secret deal I’d made prior to asking my question. Surely I had no intention of dropping that. Even though by that point I had retained none of my initial playfulness. None at all.
- Bullshit! Bullshit, Mary! What exactly did you find so boring about Rome? The streets, the people, the statues, the air, the what? Tell me it was atrocious or disgusting, just don’t tell me it was boring. ‘Cause this is pathetic.
- Well, everything, really. – She disregarded everything except the question, which annoyed me. – Maybe not boring, but definitely nothing special. It’s all right, darling, it’s just my opinion.
She took my fingers in hers, as if that was all it would take to calm me down, but it only riled me even more. I jerked my arm away, indignantly.
- I’m breaking up with you. We’ve just been to one of the greatest, most spiritual places in the world, and your ignorance wouldn’t even let you admit as much. I’m telling you, that’s it. We’re through.
Of course she couldn’t believe that. Even I couldn’t believe that, my words coming out like a bunch of terrified and terrifying aliens. But however infantile it might have seemed, getting worked up like that, my tone was harsh and left no room for misconception. Mary looked like she was gasping for air, like some beached fish. When in fact she was groping for words.
- Huh?.. What does it all mean?!? Just some goddamn city I didn’t like, and look at you!
- Goddamn city?
- Yeah, goddamn city!
- We’re not getting married.
- We are not? I’m pregnant.
At first it sounded like an average hysterical point you would make in an argument you are not going to win anyway, but then suddenly everything inside turned sour, and I jumped out of my seat and bumped and staggered my way to the driver. It all happened in a flash. I said I wasn’t feeling well and needed to get out. The driver wasn’t too happy about that, but at the next filling station he did stop the bus.
It felt like I had to relieve myself or at least throw up, but nothing happened. My feet heavy and limp, I just walked around the place for five or ten minutes, irritating the other tourists waiting for me in the bus. I tried to think about Rome, but presently Rome didn’t make any sense. Just a blurry concoction of random streets, faces and buildings. What should I say to Mary?
While I was walking back through the narrow passage, overstuffed with sleeping legs and packets full of smelly leftovers, some husky male voice said: “Who the fuck do you think you are?” But I couldn’t care less.
When I got back, Mary was sleeping. She looked so cozy and content that I didn’t want to wake her up. But then a conversation was the last thing I needed at that moment. Instead, I just stared at her belly as if expecting something to happen. But nothing happened, and I gave up. I felt angry and confused. I felt lost. Frustrated, too, but not like a tourist: there was no feeling of amusement to reimburse the raging stomach or the uncomfortable seats. Perhaps the next city…
There were words in me, perhaps hundreds, millions of words, but they were an obscure, inarticulate mess. Like what was inside that belly of hers. I knew I wasn’t dreaming, and when I looked away it felt so much like switching off the Christmas tree when the celebrations are over. So: the next city. I examined the itinerary: well, Mary absolutely had to like that one.
I got back to my book. The Maugham short story was damn good, so I was ready to put some effort into getting used to the restless motion of the bus. Sheltered from thoughts, I had gone through that same story twice before we reached Florence.