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Burning the Map
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Our taxi bumps and jostles its way along Rome's cobbled streets, swerving around centuries-old buildings, narrowly missing women shopping at the outdoor markets. The scent that gusts through the open windows is old and heavy. Lindsey and Kat wrinkle their noses, but to me it's a sweet, familiar fragrance-bread and dust and wine and heat. The way Rome always smells in the summer.
I haven't been to Europe since my junior year in college, most of which I spent in Italy sodden with Chianti and wide-eyed over a bartender named Fernando, yet I've always considered Rome my second home after Chicago. It's a place that sticks with me, so that an image in a movie or a line it a song can immediately send me back here in my mind. Now I really am back, and I feel the first twinge of optimism I've had in months.
The taxi driver continues his Formula One maneuvers through the slim stone streets, winding toward Piazza Navona. The Colosseum appears before us, a towering, earthy structure with gaping holes like missing teeth. I raise my hand to point it out to the girls, but the driver accelerates and drives by it with all the reverence of passing a 7-Eleven store.
"We are definitely going to crash," Lindsey says through clenched teeth as a pack of mopeds streaks alongside and passes the taxi.
I laugh for what feels like the first time in a long time. "No, he won't. This is how they drive here. He knows what he's doing."
Lindsey gives me a long look, which was designed, I'm sure, to wither her underlings at the ad agency where she's been crawling up the ranks for the last four years. "What he's doing is trying to kill us. You know some Italian, Casey. Tell him to slow down."
Lindsey, or Sin, as we call her, has always been a pragmatic, cut-through-the crap type of person, but all that cutting seems to have sharpened her edges. Lately, she often borders on a state of irritation, and I find myself holding my breath around her, afraid to piss her off. Her nickname is something of a misnomer, since she's the most straight-laced of all of us. The name should have been bestowed on Kat instead.
I lean forward in my seat. "My friends find you attractive," I say to the driver in rudimentary Italian. In fact, I think I may have referred to him in terms usually saved for food, but he seems to get the point.
The thirtyish, swarthy, perspiring man slows the cab considerably and gives Kat and Lindsey a meaningful look in the rearview mirror.
"Grazie," Kat calls to the driver, trying out one of the Italian words I taught her on the plane.
I'd also told Kat and Sin that one of the most important Italian words they could learn was basta, which, loosely translated, means "get the fuck away from me." It would come in handy for some of the Italian men, I explained. Lindsey had nodded intently, mouthing the word, but Kat told me I was nuts. She wanted to meet Italian men, not tell them to take a hike.
You know that stereotype about how most men are like dogs, wanting to mate with hundreds of different women, while we gals pine away for the split-level suburban home, minivan and offspring? Well, Kat blows that one out of the water. She constantly has at least three guys on deck in case she gets bored with the current one, and I don't think she's been celibate for more than two weeks since I met her eight years ago.
By the time the car rolls down one of the side streets that lead to Piazza Navona, I'm sweating along with the driver and sticking to the cracked leather seats like gum. Yet when the taxi stops outside the courtyard for Pensione Fortuna, the sight of its burbling fountain and abundant flowers rejuvenates me.
"It's gorgeous," Kat says. She pushes open the door and practically skips down the path between the flowers, looking like Maria from The Sound of Music.
Sin and I follow her, Sin lugging Kat's suitcase along with her own. Lindsey can be like that-biting and impatient one minute, mothering the next.
The mothering is something I've looked forward to on this trip, since my own mother seems more like a teenage sister right now. For the last year, I've been trudging through my days trying to avoid lengthy, intimate discussions with her, while at the same time attempting to engage in them with my boyfriend, John, who's been practically living at his law firm, slaving over a huge M&A deal. Meanwhile, since I blew off my corporate law class, I can't even have an intelligent conversation with him about his work.
I'd found Pensione Fortuna when my parents came to visit me in Rome, and I'd hoped to bring John here this summer, figuring a few romantic weeks in Italy and Greece would be just what we needed. But he couldn't, or wouldn't, get away.
So I turned to Kat and Sin, knowing they both had always wanted to go to Europe and had lots of vacation time racked up. I hadn't seen much of them this summer, and to be truthful I'd been a little distant before then. I'd spent most of my last year of law school studying at John's condo on Lake Shore Drive, painting and repainting the walls of my own apartment in an attempt to find a color that would uplift me, or holing up in the school's library checking citations for obscure law review articles no one would ever read. Even though I've been out of circulation for a while, or maybe because of it, they quickly agreed to the trip: a few days in Rome and then a few weeks in the Greek islands.
I'm determined to make up for lost time with Kat and Sin. I don't want to fall into the same trap my mother has. My father's gradual withdrawal is destroying her, and I'm the one she talks to about her womanly needs and her upcoming face-lift, as if she can't trust her friends with that information. But isn't that what friends are for?
As we walk through the courtyard, I notice that it's changed little since I last saw it. A few wrought-iron tables with linen umbrellas still surround the fountain, and the carved oak door to the pensione still stands open.
For a second, I flash back to my parents sitting at one of those tables, sharing a bottle of wine, laughing as they play their hundred thousandth game of gin rummy, but I can't reconcile the image with the present.
"You coming, Casey?" Kat calls from the doorway.
I look at the table one more time, seeing my parents smile and raise their glasses, before I nod at Kat and shake off the memory..
Our room is sparse but cheerful with three single beds covered in sunny-yellow spreads, the color reminding me of a recent paint I had on my apartment walls. It was cheerful all right, but I could never seem to match my mood to the color. I went next to an eggshell-blue that made me feel twelve years old, then to the current mossy-green. It gives the place a foresty feeling, which can be good or bad depending on whether I'm feeling lost at the moment.
The beds here are placed under huge French windows that open to the courtyard, while a bureau made of dark wood is pushed against one wall, a vase of fresh cut flowers on top. If they'd let me decorate, I'd put the beds on the other side of the room so you could lie down and see the flowering tree outside.
After a two-hour nap, it's eight o'clock at night, and our stomachs are beginning to rumble. We decide to get cleaned up and hit the town.
"What's with this dribbling?" Lindsey calls from the bathroom. "Is this really the shower?"
"Get used so it," I say. I don't know what it is about Europe, but as far as I can tell, the entire continent suffers from a lack of decent water pressure.
When I get my turn in the bathroom, I peer at myself in the mirror and sigh. I'd hoped that taking this trip, even just getting to Rome, would alter me, make me feel more alive, look more exotic. No such luck. Same old Casey.
I give myself a big smile in the mirror, thinking of those self-help books I've read that recommend acting happy as a means of transformation. The grin looks fake, though, almost lecherous under the fluorescent light, so I drop it.
As we get dressed for the night, we fall back into our old patterns-I can't decide what to wear, Lindsey is ready in two seconds and talks me through my outfit decision, and Kat dawdles. Finally, Lindsey and I sit on the bed, waiting for Kat to make her finishing touches-a dab of perfume between her breasts, the application of jewelry.
"Let's go," Kat says at last, but as she turns around from the mirror, something glints and sparkles from her ears.
"Are those diamond earrings?" Sin asks, leaning toward Kat. "Where did you get those?"
Kat fingers an ear, a self-conscious gesture, which is strange for her. "Hatter," she says.
"The Mad Hatter gave you diamonds?" I can't keep the surprise out of my voice. Phillip Hatter is Kat's stepfather, whom she'd nicknamed the Mad Hatter shortly after her mother's marriage to him when she was nine, He's one of those ridiculously wealthy Chicagoans who gets his money from a trust fund and whose name is always in the society pages followed by a phrase like "patron of the arts" or some other pompous description. His contact with Kat is usually limited to those occasions when his presence is absolutely required for a show of family unity. I do recall him being in Ann Arbor for our college graduation four years ago, seeming ill at ease and slightly mortified to have found himself in such a provincial setting. I don't think he's ever given Kat a gift on his own, so the diamond earrings seem a bit much.
Kat shrugs. " They were a present."
"When?" Lindsey asks, her voice hard. "When did he give them to you?"
Kat shoots Sin a look I can't read. "My birthday."
"Oh, shit. I'm sorry," I say. Kat's birthday was in June, and I'd totally forgotten it. For months, I'd been completely consumed with the bar exam and my too-frequent, too-revealing chats with my mom. Menopause, hidden insecurities, vaginal dryness - my Catholic mother who used to shield me from anything she considered unpleasant suddenly has no censor on her mouth. Last week, during one particularly illuminating conversation, I'd learned that my father never really knew how to give her an orgasm.
Kat waves a hand at me, as if to say don't worry about it, but she keeps her eyes on Lindsey. I begin to feel like I can't understand some significant undercurrent.
"I was with you on your birthday when we had dinner with your mom and the Hatter. He didn't give you anything then." Lindsey stares at Kat.
I glance down at the floor for a second, thinking that I wasn't invited to that little dinner party. I can't blame them really, since I didn't even call Kat to wish her a happy birthday, but I've always been included before, and hearing about it now smarts a little.
"It was later," Kat says. "Now let's get out of here." She picks up her purse and heads to the door.
I look at Lindsey, who doesn't move, still watching Kat as if she's trying to decide if she should say something more. She gets up from the bed then, silently following Kat, and I trail behind, wondering what I missed this summer.