My husband is quiet at dinner. He’s normally quiet but now he is somehow more so. Behind him, through a pair of open doors that lead to the balcony, I can see the tip of the Duomo enshrined in a dying, golden light.
‘Do you want me to take it away?’ I ask.
‘Your plate. Do you want me to take it away?’
‘Right, sorry. I was a million miles away.’
‘Where were you?’
‘It’s just work. You understand.’
I do understand. I take the plates to the kitchen. He follows, standing next to me at the sink. We’re crowded together and I feel his elbow pressed up against my ribs. Here, in this small space, I’m keenly aware of his presence, of his smell. It’s a small kitchen and he’s a big man. It used to be all muscle but over the years some of the muscle has given way to fat. He’s still handsome, though. I can see that. He just used to be more handsome, that’s all. In the way that I used to be more beautiful. I begin working at the dishes, handing the clean ones to him when I’m done.
‘I want to take you out tonight. You know that. It’s just that I’ve really got to finish this. You get that, right?’
I nod and continue cleaning, watching the suds as they pour over my reddened fingers and hands. Beside me he uses a cloth to slowly wipe the plates dry. I’m glad, really, the idea of spending an entire evening with him now seems somehow unbearable.
‘Don’t be mad, I would if I could. You know that.’
I leave the rest of the dishes in the sink and walk out of the kitchen to the big living room windows. It’s mostly dark now. He has started on the dishes I’ve left behind; I can hear the clink of ceramic plates as they are stacked on one another. I walk through to the balcony. Out here the air is full of conversation from the restaurant below. It’s a nice, friendly sort of place, with plenty of light and bright red tablecloths on the tables outside. We went there the first night we were in Florence, just a few months ago. We stayed up late and drank too much red wine before stumbling back upstairs. The next day he had gone down to pay the bill.
I look at the people down there in the restaurant, they are all laughing and shouting at one another. I wonder about them sometimes, but not often. It makes me think of that afternoon in the city among the crowds of people. There had been a point, as I had been trying to make my way across a piazza, that I had begun lost and disorientated. I had seen nothing but hundreds upon hundreds of cameras and camera phones, pointed in every direction, flashing in the sun. They’d been capturing something, but I couldn’t see what it was. I had felt the sweat being drawn to my skin, felt it prickle the back of my neck. It had become hard to breath, claustrophobic, and all I had wanted, more than anything, was to be away from it all. I had tried to navigate the empty spaces cleared by the camera lenses, ducking and weaving hopelessly to avoid being captured by their gazes. When I came back to my senses I could see the red tablecloths ahead and knew that I was home. It was as if I had been lost at sea and had finally been cast, sputtering and gasping, on some island shore.
I decide to head back in. My husband is working at the little wooden desk in the living room, his books strewn in landslides around him. His back is rounded, as it always is when he types at his computer. I let my fingers run along his shoulders as I walk by and he blocks the screen with a turn of his shoulder. I don’t mind. I take one of the books off a pile to read in bed. He doesn’t react so I assume that it’s okay. Not that that changes anything.
I open the door to see them both standing there, Michael and Nicole. They smile widely and he thrusts out the bottle of red wine they’ve brought for the occasion. He’s a small man, and neat. He isn’t particularly good-looking but he compensates by taking conscious care of his appearance. What does make him attractive is an inner, quiet, confidence in himself. She, on the other hand, can be called petite. She is cute, in her way, with her pixie face and large unassuming eyes, though she’s never held my interest for long. Other than the titillation of her accent there isn’t much that draws me to her.
I step aside and let them into the apartment. Michael smiles at me as he walks past. I hate him in that moment. Him and his smile and his prim way of holding himself. As if life were a game with a set of rules that only he has discovered can be broken. As if it were that simple.
‘I told her.’
He stands there in front of me with that look on his face, as if he has the whole thing worked out.
‘She had to know. And besides, she won’t tell anyone,’ he says.
We’re out on the balcony. Michael has cornered me under the pretence of wanting to see the view. My fingers work at the material of my dress, balling it up and smoothing it out, then balling it up again. I’d been happy when I’d found that dress in a little store off the Piazza Della Republica. I’d been excited, too, when I’d found the sandals that matched it, the ones I’m wearing now. I’d even been happy when I had put them on only little while ago.
‘Of course she will. You have no fucking idea,’ I say.
The air is still oven-warm. All I want is a glass of crisp white wine and not to see this man’s face in front of me. I imagine what it would be like to be down on the cobbled streets, to be walking with no direction in mind, as the sun slowly sets on the city.
‘I’m going to get a drink. Come join us when you’re ready.’
The latticework of the balcony railing is almost too hot to touch. I pull myself up to it, not minding the burn of my palms, bringing my heels off the ground so that my hips brush up against the metal. I can feel the soft breeze in my hair. My name is being called somewhere behind me. There is nowhere left to go, so I walk back into the living room. My husband has his camera out, has it pointed at Michael and Nicole. They smile with their arms wrapped around each other. With his free arm Michael beckons towards me, inviting me to join his fun. My husband motions at me to get into frame.
The three of us stand, naked to my husband’s lens. I feel myself slipping from behind my fixed smile. I drift sideways, watching. I can see us all from outside of the room, I’m floating somewhere above. There we are, a little group of false perceptions being framed in a single photograph. I watch as Michael leans towards Nicole and whispers something in her ear, his left arm holding my body in close. I see Nicole break free of him and walk towards the kitchen, tapping my husband’s shoulder as she passes. The two head away from the scene, the one small and resolute, the other large, still fiddling with his camera.
Michael is laughing at a joke he’s told. There isn’t anything left for me to do. I think of trying to leave, but there is nowhere to go. A while passes before my husband reappears. I feel the wall against my hip and I’m back inside my body. There is no expression on my husband’s face. Upright, dignified, in control of his actions, he slowly clears the room of its furniture. To the side go the two, mismatched, wicker chairs. So too does the small, wooden coffee table. The standing lamp is brought into the corridor. Only when the room is clear does Michael notice that anything is wrong. He starts to say something but there isn’t time. My husband turns and, his face still blank, grabs Michael’s shirt underneath his right shoulder and pushes him up against the wall. He tries to protest but by then my husband has already started. He works like a lumberjack, chopping Michael down blow by blow. His punches come equally from the left and right. Whenever Michael tries to escape my husband is already out to his side, bringing him back to the wall with a few jabs and hooks. Michael cowers, his hands now up. Then my husband really lets go. He ducks under Michael’s arm, barrels forward, and comes crashing down on top of him. From there it just takes a heavy elbow to knock the smaller man unconscious.
My husband rises to his feet, panting. His shirt is missing two buttons but there is an expression on his face that resembles contentment. He turns, looking around the room, stopping when he sees me. My hands shake at my sides. He steps forward and then stops. He looks down at his hands and at the cleared wooden floor.
‘Come on. Let’s go.’
I don’t say anything.
He steps forward again. I feel a pinch as he grabs my wrist. He begins to pull but my feet refuse to move. I look up at him, at his red, sweaty face as if seeing it for the first time. He pulls at me again. Then he lets go. His hands drop. He doesn’t say anything for quite a while. The anger has fallen from his eyes and all that is left is disappointment. And, perhaps, a sense of pity.
‘Okay. I’ll go,’ he says.
He turns slowly and without a word walks out the living room, not once looking back. He reaches out to grab his keys from the table near the door and then lets his arm fall. The door whines as it swings closes behind him. I don’t know what to do. I see Nicole, framed by the kitchen door, staring out at me, her hands tucked into her jean pockets. I nod to her as she walks by. She doesn’t look at me, and kneels down by Michael’s slumped figure. She coaxes him to a laying position, arranging a throw pillow under his head. The scene seems too personal, too intimate, and I find myself looking away.
‘You’re staying with him?’ I ask.
She doesn’t look up.
‘I don’t know. Not yet,’ she says.
There’s a silence. I don’t know what else to say.
From the open balcony doors, I begin to hear the soft susurration of conversation. It’s coming from the restaurant down below. A woman is now laughing, her voice loud and trill. Down there people are happy. It sounds like such fun.