“Sequence I: On Romance” by Douglas W. Milliken

[“Sequence I” was originally published in the short-story collection White Horses, released by Nada Publishing in 2010.]


We spent the night in Italy. In a hotel whose proportions seemed almost cartoonish, each floor boxy and narrow but stacked like stones in a monolith, reaching high up to scratch the night sky. The light drizzling down the hall from room to room was false gold, ornamental and cheap. A claustrophobic compound of cramped corridors and too many doors. A carpet worn thin by ten thousand transient feet.
After checking in, you and I talked of going out, of soaking in this wonderful and fleeting country, but we spent our evening in bed instead. We’d have to check out early, we told one another, to keep with the group. We changed into loose warm clothes. We watched Italian TV. At some point in the night, some fellow travelers–not companions, just other Americans sharing our passage–knocked against our window. They were overweight and blemished and locked out on the fire escape, asking if we’d let them in. We agreed, they ought to come inside, but it was morning before we opened the window for them to finally duck down, creep ungainly in.

The streets of Italy are narrow and flanked by tall plaster buildings, punctuated by pale trees like elephant legs. Nobody walks terribly fast. You cannot pass them. You are forced to slow down and to gawk.
Overhead, a jagged river winds between the rooftop banks, immeasurably blue and reflecting white clouds you cannot see billowing beneath your feet. Meandering. Lost. Flowing always toward the hope of a greater sea above.

On our way to our point of disembarkation (how do you make such quick passage between nations? were we on a boat or a plane, a gondola on wires high, high above?), we found ourselves at a used-book store. As we stood in line with our arms heavy with books–whether to buy or sell, who can say–some American soldiers came in from the boot-smoothed streets outside. GIs from the Second World War. Young and sturdy. Faces carved in razor blades. Rendered invincible by their dissonance in time and country, the soldiers were loud and obnoxious in the line behind us, and I began to wonder with some sort of subconscious logic if everything here was stolen. It seemed far too likely to not be true.
When the time finally arrived and the clerk handed me the credit slip, I signed someone else’s name.

Another night on an anonymous vessel spanning the distance between us and them, forgettable and tiring and surrounded by people whose accents sound just like our accents, and suddenly we’re home. We’re home and we’re still home and after some time we are home still longer and why bother? Home is a long spell of nothing. Of dreamless sleep. Of not wanting to clean the toilet or put the dishes away. Why would anyone ever want to be home?
But a week passes and you decide that we ought to go back. Not as part of a larger group of strangers, of Americans unashamed of their American-ness. On our own. Make our own arrangements all the way. Order grappa at street-side cafés and drink like we mean it. Sure, fine, whatever, I say. I leave all the legwork to you.

On the way to the waterfront to catch our boat back to Italy, we stop in a store–a floral jewelry shop where you once worked–and from a friend there we learn how someone else we know, our friend Brandon, was mugged while driving through the city. At a stoplight, our friend tells us, the attackers jumped into his car, held him at knife- or gunpoint, demanded his money or his life. He said yeah yeah, sure, just gimme a minute. Then he drove them all over the city, forcing them to accompany him on errands. To the bank. To the laundry mat. Wherever. Blasting Lifter-Puller between stops and singing along, pounding the heel of his hand into the wheel while his kidnappers looked on in horror-bound dismay. We listen, delighted, at what we’d doubt if the story were about anyone else but believing every word because each word’s about our Brandon. This is exactly what Brandon would do. This fits our concept of Brandon. So we believe.
Yet some questions fail to arise. Was Brandon harmed by these people? Did they take his money? Is it even clear who abducted whom? Ferns drip fragrant dew on the diamonds on display. Our friend wishes us safe passage, and we are gone.

Between nations, the passage is a bobbing black, a bobbing deep blue. The muted groan of the ocean pushing against us. The rise and dip of a fragment moon.

Again, it’s dark when we arrive. A different city, streets wider but glossed with rain fallen just moments ago, blue in the moonlight. Sometimes we walk. Sometimes we drive in our rented car. Skinny blonde prostitutes like children playing grownup walk the umbrose streets, sweeping their hips in exaggerations, in pantomime, in black plastic leather. I wear old glasses of tired prescription and scratched lenses: everything is a comic blur, and everyone looks familiar. As if Italy were peopled with exact clones of the folks I know back home, clones who wish I wasn’t here and do their best to ignore me. I try and fail to make eye contact with everyone we pass, try and fail, try and fail.
Like a worried deaf mother, you guide us from café to café, wine bar to neon sign, never once going inside. We do not stay in a mammoth hotel. We maybe sleep in the car.

Yet even as I write this, I am not alone. Somewhere I wake and creep out of the low embers of our bed, into the dark of the kitchen, turn on a light and make the coffee. I sit down with my cereal and my papers and as I write my waking thoughts, I become aware of a big grey spider trekking across the table toward me. Making direct progress toward my scribbling hand. I sit still and watch as he takes up roost at the corner of the table, near my elbow, slips off the side and hangs upside down, watching me, watching me watch him, sometimes descending on a strand of silk to examine my fastened robe, my exposed knee, my bare hobbit feet splayed on the floor. Of all the things in the world, I ask him, what am I to you? I wonder what loneliness rides a spider. I wonder what he wants, but a moment later I forget about him, finish my cereal in a milky gulp, stand to carry my bowl to the sink but stop halfway, attention drawn over my shoulder where I see the spider following me, tagging along, dragged across the floor by a silvery thread connected to the hem of my robe, and again I wonder, what do you want, what do you want, what do you want?

I come to in the passenger seat. We aren’t in the city anymore. You’ve made some calls in the night, and now we are heading toward the dawn’s horizon. Watery blue and pink and red. A spill of colored ink soaking through the page. A marshland and forest develop around us, and far off I see the speaking lip of distant water, giant water, singing the chanted promise of forgiveness. All the trees look like crippled things, peasants and scorned moms. Birds scratch across the sky. We turn off onto a dirt road and pass a few weathered and strangely–shaped houses, as if each was framed from hulks of driftwood or shipwrecks, and on one house’s stoop, some older men are gathered in palaver. Dirty beards and pirate eyes. They fall silent to watch us pass, for we as strangers are a spectator sport.
They wave.

Still half-sleeping, I watch you from the far side of our mid-size compact world. Watch the furrow of your sleepless, worried brow. Watch your hand shift between gears. You protected me through the night, are guiding me safely through strange lands. And for this, I love you. I forgot the hairy men as soon as I saw them. I watch you drive and know that I am okay.

The house we arrive at seems in the throes of emerging from a board-and-batten chrysalis, half home and half boat, surrounded by the dross of scrap wood and shingles. Tossed curtains and mail in the box. As though vacated in a recent rush.
This, you assure me, is where we’ll stay.
We get out of the car. Stretch our legs. Walk around. There is no sound above or below the pounding of the surf. Salted wind and that chanted promise. Out back, we see that the house is half in the clear lapping ocean water, its sloping foundation built within the tide’s grasp, already prepared to lift up and sail away. Is this the Adriatic, I ask, or the fat lip of the Taranto, but you don’t know, examine instead the wilted windowbox flowers. In the nearby shoal stones, massive turtles lazily lay, careless, somnambulistic, slowly retreating when finally, like felons, we’re spotted. The sun is still the first glimmer from a dream. This dream is a burning red eye. We stand outside this amphibious house, surrounded by bent groves that might be olives or might be sycamore while over my shoulder, I hear heavy footsteps approach.

Profile: Douglas W. Milliken

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