Italy

Listen to Antonio Elefano read an excerpt from his piece:

We had been dating eleven months and fourteen days when you asked the question: “Why don’t you tell me you love me more?”

To my mind, the inquiry had two potential meanings: (1) Why don’t I say I love you more? As in why don’t I favorably compare my present love to the love I felt in the past? And (2) Why don’t I say I love you more? As in why do I not employ the phrase “I love you” with more frequency? The latter seemed more likely, though I considered the former the more interesting possibility. As I parsed the semantics, you threw up your hands and directed me to go fuck myself. (I declined.)

After twenty-two minutes of convincing you to unlock your bedroom door, I explained that I’d already told you I loved you approximately six months before.

“I remember,” you said. “But don’t you find it odd you’ve never said it again?”

“Did you not believe me the first time?”

I have never been a person to say things for the sake of saying them. The son of an engineer and a linguist, I value precision and economy. To those who would say love is not the realm of such virtues, I would point to over a dozen relationships I’ve seen derailed by failures in communication. Not just lack of communication, but lazily constructed, reckless verbiage. Choose your words. Especially to those you hold dear.

A month later, I asked you to marry me, to which you said yes, to the minor dismay of your friends. A year after that, we were married in a greenhouse in Cape Cod. Small ceremony. Friends and family. Writing our own vows. You called me the most reliable man you had ever known. Dependable, honest, remarkably forthright—I said what I meant, never exaggerated, and it was that quality—that directness for which others would take me to task—that you found so terribly romantic. It seemed, for just a moment, you were addressing the crowd more than me—as if to say: here it is; here are my reasons. I took no offense. I wondered it myself.

My vows consisted of nothing more than a series of observations. Our third date. A hole-in-the-wall steakhouse you’d discovered on a shopping outing with your sister. You were wearing a burnt orange sweater over a white collared shirt. You ran late that evening from an afternoon jog and didn’t have time to straighten your hair. Thick, dark strands hung in loose waves around your flush-from-the-cold face. You spoke excitedly about your newest project at work. There was a rhythm to your voice, an acceleration of words leading to a pause—a breathy rest—and then a more deliberate predicate bringing your point to cadence. Your shoulders slumped inward; you used your outstretched hands for emphasis—fingers splayed, like an insect’s antennae. When you told a bad joke or sensed your story was getting dull, you averted eye contact. When you laughed, your neck craned upward, your shoulders relaxed, and your top lip disappeared into your smile. Two hours into our dinner, you excused yourself to the ladies room, leaving the entire room in a gray haze. I could only focus on you: your syncopated step, your forward lean, the way your legs seemed to disappear amidst the tables as you glided across the room. You caught me looking at you and were embarrassed—apologizing again with your eyes until a waitress directed you. You returned, smiling bashfully. You laughed though nothing had been said. You told a disturbingly detailed account about catching your grandmother making love to a handyman, then insisted on paying the check in consideration for my listening. You thought you were so boring, so unworthy of attention, when in reality, you were just painfully self-conscious and easily distracted.

My mother had always told me marriage was the covenant of witnessing another’s life. I could observe you forever.

After the wedding, we moved to New York, where I’d been offered an assistant professorship at Columbia. Through a friend of a friend, you secured a position as event coordinator at the New York Public Library. We moved into an apartment on the Upper East Side, walking distance from the Park. Together, we took jogs in the morning—you deliberately slowing your pace, I deliberately quickening mine so that we could begin and end together. Our life was a study in reason and compromise. We developed routines. One movie a week (normally at one of the independent theaters downtown). Eating out twice a week (one casual spot, the other—whatever was in vogue according to New York Magazine or the Times). Theater once a month (classics for you, contemporary for me). Dinner parties twice a month with divided cooking responsibility (you, a specialist in Asian and Latin cuisines; I, more inclined to American comfort food). When either of our parents visited, we offered our bed and refused to let them pay for anything; we went on tours, led them through museum exhibits, and both pretended to enjoy the opera.

Three years into our marriage, we tried conceiving a child. Three months into our attempts, you became pregnant. A month after that—miscarriage. Through numerous doctor’s visits and countless tests, you were very brave, and I admired your fortitude. We tried to conceive again six months later and two months after that you were pregnant again. Toward the end of your first trimester—another miscarriage. This time, you took it harder. We had been confident. We had told our parents despite the advice of friends to wait until trimester two. We had chosen names.

A few months later, we talked about adoption but ideas never solidified into plans. Eventually, we came to accept that our life together, our future, would be isolated to the two of us. Finally dismissing all visions of parenthood, we came to realize the myriad beauties of accountability to only ourselves.

In the years that followed, I received a tenured professorship at Columbia; you were promoted to head of event planning at the library. We moved out of our one-bedroom on the Upper East and bought a more spacious two-bedroom in Park Slope (converting the second bedroom into an office/guest room). We hosted a well-attended housewarming where we served a Middle Eastern buffet and spicy rum punch. We increased the frequency of our theater-going to twice-a-month and continued the tradition of alternating holidays to my family and yours with the occasional Thanksgiving hosted by us.

Compared to most couples married for a similar duration, our marriage had few conflicts. No indiscretions. No separations. Arguments, certainly. Some quite heated. But most—small, trifling in the grand scheme, differences in personality rather than loaded betrayals.

My aversion to travel, for example, stemming from my fear of airplanes (which I readily conceded as irrational given the statistical data). You, by contrast, loved to travel. In the spirit of conciliation, I didn’t make a fuss when you took your annual trip with your mother. Ireland, Sweden, Thailand, Malaysia. Even though I felt disoriented without you, even for so short a time, I did not complain, and neither did you.

After your mother passed, however, at the age of seventy-seven, you still wanted to see the world and I still had the fear that a metal tube self-propelled into the sky would spell my certain doom.

Nevertheless, for our twenty-third anniversary, I booked two flights to Rome. For the first time in a long time, you seemed surprised and kissed me in a way you hadn’t in years, a way I had forgotten to miss.

“Thank you,” you kept saying.

“You’re quite welcome,” I replied.

 

By the grace of modern pharmaceuticals, the only thing I remember about the flight to Italy was sitting next to a window, fastening my safety belt, and holding your hand. I was unconscious by the time we left the runway.

The day we arrived we napped in our hotel for three hours. We woke up hungry and eager to explore. After a brief stroll through the surrounding blocks, we found the pizzeria suggested by our porter, where we shared rigatoni with tomatoes and pancetta, wafer-thin anchovy pizzas, and a chocolate cake made with olive oil. We were serenaded by a local chanteur named Fabricio, dressed in blue jeans and a beige embroidered vest; we delighted in the novelty until we didn’t (around “Cuando Cuando Cuando”), but then, aided by the third carafe of table wine, looped around again to good spirits. We told him we were celebrating our anniversary, and he kissed your hand, and patted me on the back, and wished us another twenty-three years. Afterward, we took a walk under the sycamore trees lining the Tibre River, held hands and kissed when the mood struck us. We got lost walking back to the hotel, but found our way just before midnight. We didn’t sleep until dawn.

Running my fingers through your hair, now straight and long and back to your natural color, I remembered past styles: the sensible Pixie of ten years ago, the semi-rebellious bleach blond/blue-streaked phase, the ill-advised perm of seventh grade, and finally, the childhood bob of the girl in the blue dress, who now, at last, was more than just a silly fantasy—but a love, true love, with flesh and struggle and history. Hovering just above your sleeping eyes and semi-parted lips, I watched you drift into a peaceful slumber.

The next morning, we walked to the Pantheon. We put our fingers in drainage divots and marveled at the tiny tomb of Raphael. We threw coins into Trevi Fountain (one coin each—guaranteeing a return trip) and walked the upstairs circumference of the Coliseum, where we contemplated ancient battles of man and beast. Exiting toward the forum, we recalled our own personal battles, silly and long ago. A fight about where to invest our savings (which you won); a quarrel over which car to purchase (which I won).

In the afternoon, we took a drive to the hills of Trivoli and the grand fountains of Trivoli Gardens. “When we get back to the city,” you said, “I want to grow a garden like this.”

“You killed a cactus in college. Now you want an olive tree on our fire escape?”

“You know what your problem is? No faith. No imagination.”

“A cactus. A plant that thrives on inattention—”

“I hate your examples. You always pick the most ridiculous one and you repeat it—”

“There was also the hydroponic herb tank.”

“Now you’re just being mean.”

The next day, we went to Saint Peter’s Basilica where you were mortified by the wax and bronze-covered popes; you made me promise to cremate you when your time came. I agreed quickly, if only because death had always frightened me, though over the years the thought of my demise was now overshadowed by the fear of yours. Outside of Saint Peter’s, we snacked on fried rice balls filled with mozzarella, tomato and peas before driving north to Assisi and the Basilica of Saint Francis.

“So let me get this straight,” you said. “This guy lectured in the nude for attention, preached to pigeons, and prayed for the stigmata—and you canonized him?” You still had the habit of talking to me as if I were the personification of the Catholic Church.

“Well, anything in that tone sounds ridiculous.”

“If we had had kids, they would have been agnostic.” It was the first time in years either of us had mentioned the specter of our lost children. I gave you all the reasons why spirituality, even if not organized religion, was important to a child and important to me. You nodded and suggested we table the hypothetical, which we did.

I got seasick the next morning on the way to Capri. I closed my eyes and lowered my head. You pressed me against you and asked a noisy band of teenagers to pipe down. I felt better once we reached shore, but you got me a glass of water and insisted we sit before taking the shuttle to Anacapri.

The drive up the mountain was beautiful and hectic—sharp zigzags revealing countless variations of breathtaking land and sea. We each took a chair lift to the highest point. On wooden seats that looked like something from an ancient primary school, with nothing to hold us but a rusty, retractable bar, we rose upward along the grassy cliff. The Mediterranean—blue and bluer; the pastel houses—heterogeneously lovely. Once at our destination, it was easy to fool ourselves into believing we were, in fact, at the top of the world.

“This is my new favorite place,” you said.

It was mine as well.

On our last full day in Italy, on the way back to Rome, we stopped by the remains of the ancient city of Pompeii. Inside the gates, we were transported into a city preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. We passed mosaic-floored bathhouses, temples to Roman gods, and your favorite—a two-story brothel with frescoes of suggested sexual positions.

I pointed at one, jokingly raising an eyebrow.

“Really? You’re going to proposition me in the middle of an ancient whorehouse.”

“There’s a stone bed right over there.”

“Keep it in your pants, Jupiter.”

And so I did. The next morning, we were on a plane to New York. I decided to forego the drugs, which impressed you until a one-hour crying jag over the Atlantic. With the exception of the ride home, you called it the two best weeks of your life. It would be followed by the two worst years.

 

We were starting to plan our next trip (Germany at the suggestion of your library co-worker) when we received the news.

Ovarian cancer. As if that particular part of your anatomy weren’t sensitive enough. The doctor told us about an experimental trial at Mount Sinai. Risky, with terrible side effects, slim chance of recovery, essentially your only hope. You had stopped listening. You were tapping your foot against the ground and looking out the window. The doctor started addressing me. I nodded. I took notes. I told him we needed time to consider it. After we were dismissed from the office, you shot out of your chair, bolting in front of me. I didn’t catch up until we’d reached the parking lot.

“You’re upset,” I said.

“You picked up on that?”

“You need some time to absorb the news.”

“Whatever you say, Professor. You are, after all, the Genius grant nominee. Self-nominated, of course.”

“You encouraged me to do that.”

“Only after you’d already decided. Honestly, it embarrassed me. That you would think so highly of yourself. Year after year.”

“Is this what you need right now? A punching bag? I’ll allow it if it has some therapeutic value.”

“How generous.”

“I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.”

“Then shut up!”

“You need to take a moment. Your blood pressure—”

“—is the least of my worries.” You shook your head. “Couldn’t you be insensible for one minute? Join me on the edge of an irrational act? I feel— I need— I just want to drive a car against a brick wall or scream in an overfilled church. Can you understand that?”

Your tirade had begun with an order of silence. But you’d ended with a question. Context indicated you were being rhetorical, but I always erred on the side of responsiveness.

“No.”

“Fuck you.” Rhetorical.

Later that night, you returned to your normal self. After an evening of silence, you burrowed yourself into my arms and fell asleep.

The next morning, you apologized for your behavior the day before. You said you were fine, everything was fine—it was uncharacteristically general, frighteningly vague. This time, however, I let it go, as per the suggestion of a book entitled Letting Go of Loved Ones.

Nevertheless, that night, despite my protests, you insisted on sleeping on the couch. The next morning, I made coffee which we drank over the Sunday paper. Without looking at me, your eyes still on Arts & Leisure, you said: “I’m enrolling in the trial.”

Though I had at least seven follow-up questions, I replied: “Okay.”

 

After your first treatment, a combination of radiation and a new cocktail of drugs, I realized you needed full-time attention. I took an indefinite leave from the university.

I never understood the details of your regimen. This was at your request, or rather—your demand. After the initial doctor’s appointment, you wanted to go to all subsequent visits alone. It was, I could tell, your hope that in depriving me of knowledge you would strip me of the will to inquire.

I did everything you asked. I absorbed your fits of anger. I held you when you were in pain. I hid my own pain from you. That was my gift: the appearance of strength, even if illusory, the security of an unchanged husband who adored you as he always had, even in your altered—you would say diminished—state.

Your health deteriorated. Increasingly frequent trips to the hospital. You lost weight. Lost the ability to eat solid food. Lost the will to cry.

One night, after you’d vomited blood, I took you to the emergency room. Your regular nurse, Nancy—on the last hour of a double shift—was called in from oncology. After she’d talked to your physician, a spindly, ringlet-haired boy, not a day over twenty-eight, she greeted me in the hallway.

“Twenty-one weeks,” she said. It took me a moment to understand she was referring to the duration of your treatment.

“That’s correct,” I said.

“No one’s ever done twenty-one weeks. Maybe one. Woman in Minnesota.”

“They’re doing this in Minnesota?”

She nodded. “I think that’s what I heard.”

“And how did she do?”

She paused. “I don’t know. Fine, I think.” I did not appreciate being lied to but allowed her to continue: “She was a widow. No living family. After week nine, it’s normally the family that stops it.” She was looking ahead and not at me.

“It’s not really my choice, though, is it?”

She turned. “You could convince her. She’s in a lot of pain.”

“I’m aware. And she may stop it at any point.”

“I don’t think you understand.”

“I understand all too clearly. My wife has chosen this course, has endured its terrible side effects, and for what? For people like you, for one. For if, God forbid, you should one day find yourself with her unenviable diagnosis, no doubt the results of this trial will be at least marginally helpful. And yes, for selfish reasons as well. For a chance at survival, however unlikely. If she chooses to grasp on to that, if she wants to fight despite unfavorable odds—who am I to stop her?”

“What do you mean ‘fight’? She hasn’t told you?”

“Told me what?”

Though she was violating your doctor-patient confidentiality, I was thankful for Nurse Nancy’s clarifications. According to her, your trial had essentially ended, failed two weeks ago, at least in terms of its central objective. Now, what was happening, to my horror and confusion, was simple—no, not simple—excruciating, radioactive, blood-in-your-stool data-gathering.

That evening, I waited until you were comfortable, until the drugs you received in ICU kicked in. It was a rare and fleeting respite from pain. I hated to sully it, but you had left me no choice.

With a hard and clenched face, you explained the reasons you’d entered the trial—not out of some misguided hope (the doctors and your own independent research had already dashed that) but out of a need to retain some sense of utility. With your retirement from the library, with me taking care of the affairs of the house and our general well-being, cancer had essentially become your occupation.

“I understand,” I said with a nod. “But if you ran a true cost-benefit analysis, surely the diminishment of your quality of life outweighs the benefit of the limited data you’re contributing. It seems unethical for your doctors to even be allowing this.”

“Never mind,” you said. “Leave it alone.”

“This isn’t just about you, dear. But patients in the future. Vulnerable people.

“Leave it alone,” you repeated, softer but with more force.

I conceded.

In the weeks to follow, without the burden of the treatment’s side effects, you became mellower—a temporary uptick in mood and manner. A too-brief window of actual improvement. Then, no more.

You became weak, bedridden. A daily struggle to get you to the bath. Bowel movements were elaborate if infrequent productions. You started having trouble with memory. The doctor hadn’t told us about this last possibility. You kept asking for stories, but when I came to your room with a stack of books, you looked disappointed.

“Tell me about Italy,” you specified. “Tell me what happened in Italy.” Of all the stories about us, Italy would become your most common request. I told the same story over and over in exactly the same way. My consistency, you said, soothed you.

Then, one quiet Thursday morning, in the middle of an unusually cool spring, I awoke next to you and noticed you were no longer breathing. It had been your wish to die in your sleep. It was little comfort at the time.

 

It has been five years since you passed. The university allowed me to return soon after your funeral, and though I’ve been encouraged since to retire, I’ve remained in their employ for the duration. I do not know what to do with free time without you. We had always imagined additional traveling upon our dual retirements. Still, as much as I enjoyed Italy, I do not think I would enjoy traveling alone.

I think about our trip often and repeat to myself the story of our excursion, sometimes—absurdly enough—out loud. It is not the measure of my happiness with you, contrary to my analyst’s suppositions. (A year after your death, I found myself weeping during an airline commercial and immediately sought professional help.) Yet when people inquire about you, it is the story of Italy I tell—not because it is a particularly riveting account (too little conflict, not much in the way of narrative momentum), but because it is pleasing, gentle, easy listening in every sense of the phrase.

My therapist spent seven sessions on the topic but came to no satisfying conclusion. Nevertheless, I continued to see her. With your death came two losses: both the only person I ever enjoyed observing regularly and the only person who ever bothered to observe me in kind. And so I settled for the latter only, which I paid for, though I found her theories facile at best, despite her impressive credentials. “You’re not unlike a prostitute,” I told her at our final session.

I am done with therapy. Its minor benefits no longer justify the cost. Besides, I have already diagnosed my problem, and no amount of analysis can alleviate the attached sadness. The most interesting person I’ve ever known is no longer.

All of these words, this entire account, has been nothing more than a prelude to a long-overdue declaration. Though it must be clear by now, though you already knew it, it deserved to be said a thousand times over:

I love you. I love you. I love you.

 

 

Antonio Elefano is a fiction writer/playwright/attorney living in Houston, TX. He received his JD from Yale Law School in 2005 and his MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University in 2011. He has been published in 236 and is currently a Writing Fellow/Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Houston.

By the Same Author

The Journal is a magazine of literature published four times yearly and supported by the Department of English, private contributions, advertisements, and sales. The magazine is endorsed by the Ohio State University, and its contents determined solely by the editorial staff. Address all correspondence to The Journal, The Ohio State University, Department of English, 164 W. 17th Avenue, Columbus, OH 43210. E-mail: managingeditor@thejournalmag.org.