photo by Trey Ratcliff, some rights reserved

First published in Short Vine, No. 4 (Spring 2006), the undergraduate literary journal of the University of Cincinnati.

That was the summer I stayed in Milan for eight days with a girl who wouldn't tell me her name. It was also the summer that my dad disowned me for not wanting to do taxes for a living.

I was backpacking across Europe, celebrating my new political science degree by doing my best to forget all about it. No laptop, no cell phone, no responsibilities: the definition of perfection.

We used only two feet of bed space under her ragged blue sheets, arms and legs intertwined, holding each other as if we were about to jump out of an airplane. I awoke the last day I was there to sunlight streaming through her thin, yellowed curtains and the ceiling fan circling lazily overhead, patiently collecting dust on the edges of its tilted blades. We were naked and sticky from earlier that morning, and I peeled myself away and got out of bed.

I made eggs and toasted pita because I couldn't find bread, pretending that it wasn't weird to be poking around her kitchen. She padded into the room in a long t-shirt, dreads falling moppishly over her face. She was beautiful, especially in the morning, her eyelashes still hovering low over her eyes and the fabric of the pillow embossed upon her cheek. But it wasn't just sexual attraction. It was deeper than that. We connected somehow.

Her nipples showed through her shirt and turned me on.

"I made eggs," I told her.

"And toasted pita."

"There wasn't any bread." She sat down at her kitchen table, piled high with art supplies and dirty dishes, and smiled radiantly. "Hey," I said. "What's your name?"

* * *

She worked at an ice cream parlor near the triumphal arch. I met her my first evening in Milan &mdash my second-to-last stop of my two months of freedom that had started in Paris in July, and would be ending in Paris in a little over a week. I arrived at the Milan train station &mdash a gaping neoclassical monolith that lorded over a magnificently empty urban plaza &mdash intent on staying for a few days before heading to Barcelona. I was raw and gummy from trying to sleep on the train. I threw my duffle into a locker, bought an overpriced map, and walked into the glaring Italian afternoon.

The city was abandoned. The streets were barely populated; the storefronts along the boulevards were gated; graffiti covered their rusted metal screens. I walked past an older man with a moustache and couldn't help feeling as if I'd done something wrong, mistakenly gone to the wrong place. It was late afternoon, and after walking the streets for several hours I concluded that Milan was either overrated or populated by hermits.

I ate my grocery-store dinner in a darkening park covered with towering trees, patchy grass, and neat piles of dog shit. I tossed my trash and ended up following a set of green neon lights into an ice-cream parlor.

There were people there, enough to form a semblance of a line and fill most of the seats in the small storefront. An old lady next to me grumbled something in Italian. A child at the counter cried, probably because it wanted a waffle instead of a sugar cone.

"Hello," I said when I got to the counter, enunciating clearly. "Do you speak English?" I felt ignorant and stupid, like I had throughout most of the trip, since everybody I met spoke at least three languages. Even the guy who scraped gum off the sidewalks in front of the Reichstag spoke three languages.

She smiled. "What can I get for you?" Her accent was almost more beautiful than she was, beneath her green ice-cream cap and in her green ice-cream apron. Patches of a loose patterned skirt shown through beneath her uniform.

I'm terrible at flirting. But when you're traveling alone, these things don't matter. Complete anonymity breeds reckless indifference. "What do you recommend?" I asked flirtatiously.

She recommended ice-cream. She handed it to me with a spoon and too many napkins. I ate it slowly enough that the parlor had emptied out by the time I was finished, and Milan was once again a ghost town. I hadn't picked up my bag from the train station &mdash which was probably several miles away &mdash and I wasn't looking forward to the walk.

"Is Milan always this dead?" I asked the girl.

"After the stores close, yes," she said, flipping off the neon sign.

"Oh god, sorry." I got up, tossed on my backpack.

"This is August. It's vacation time in Italy," she explained. "Everybody is on vacation."

"Ah." So it was explicable after all &mdash and yet the derelict city never stopped seeming surreal. She was standing between me and the door.

"Where are you from?" she asked.

"Boston," I said, which wasn't really true, but it was the first thing that came to me. "In the States."

"I know where Boston is."

"Right. Are you from Milan?"

"Kansas City," she said. I must've looked surprised, because she laughed. "But I haven't lived there for a long time."

Her friends were waiting for her outside. I hadn't noticed that she had dreads when she was wearing her ice-cream uniform, but now I saw them, and connected them to her friends. Worn dress shirts and loose clothes and facial hair: the type that I immediately imagined decorating basement coffee shops with brick barrel vaults and a stratum of smoke stuck permanently to the ceiling. She talked to them in Italian, and we all ended up going back to her place and getting high. And then she kicked them all out and we fucked unsatisfyingly, our mouths sweet and ashy.

This was all okay, because I was backpacking.

* * *

I dialed my father's office from a pay phone in a public square. My bag was still in the Milan train station, and my t-shirt was more than a little rancid. I cracked the door of the phone booth.

"Dad. It's me."

"How are you!" he blustered, overflowing with warmth and fatherly good-naturedness.

"I stink," I told him.

I hadn't called him since Paris. We talked about the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Art History Museum in Vienna, both of which I'd failed to actually see. We chatted about the family and the business (as usual) and the weather in Milan and the cat's urinary tract infection. And then, "So what are your plans when you get back?"

"Travis got me a contact with a lobbying group," I said.


"In D.C. His roommate from college works there."

My father wasted several dollars with a melodramatic silence. "We've talked about this. It's your choice. Finance would be an amazing opportunity for you. It pays well. Your grandfather started the company. You don't need to listen to everything your brother says. It's your decision; you need to make it on your own. I don't see why you wouldn't want to work in the office."

"I hate filing."

"For half a year or so, to see if you like it."

"I have a political science degree," I said.

"We could use your help when tax season rolls around."

"From Harvard," I said. "I have a political science degree from Harvard." I always repeat myself when I talk to my dad. The same way he used to talk to Mom before she divorced him and ran away with a costume designer in L.A.

"Let me know what you decide," he said.

* * *

Instead of picking up my bags from the train station, I went to the Leonardo da Vinci Museum. It was deserted, and I felt cheap asking for the student discount, so I bought an ugly postcard as an apology. It was the classic Renaissance image of the man inscribed in a circle and a square. Back when we used to think that man was perfect.

Leonardo's monumental genius was made abundantly clear in the three different languages that adorned the placards next to his enlarged sketches. It loomed over me like a lead shadow, and I had to find a pub and down several beers just to feel normal again. I didn't want to believe that Leonardo was a genius, that he was endowed with special vision and power. I wanted him to be a regular guy who went to bars and happened to have a killer sketchbook.

I met up with the girl's friends at the park near the ice-cream parlor. The trees were thin and breezy, and deep orange sunlight brushed casually over our bodies. The huge plaza with the triumphal arch had been fenced off and transformed into a summer escape, complete with an above-ground swimming pool and three volleyball nets. A beach ball bounced off the nose of a Romanesque figure carved into the monument's faŤade. I watched the shadows creep perceptibly over the cobblestones.

"What's her name?" I asked them.

"She does not like to tell it," one of the guys told me. He had black hair and dark rectangular glasses and seemed to be one of the more intellectual of the bunch. Most of her friends were guys. They didn't speak much English, and most of the time they just ignored me and talked in Italian.

"But you know it."

"Yes," he said. "I know it."

When she got off work I suggested we go out. I wanted to see Milan, to find the nightlife. "Nothing happens in Milan," she told me. "It's boring here."

"There must be something," I prodded.


"Then what do you do?" We went back to her apartment, got high, and fucked.

She was smaller than me by nearly a foot, but perfectly proportioned. There was something about her &mdash something in the way she smiled, the way she moved, the way she brushed her dreads away from her face &mdash that made her irresistible. They were like the movements of a child: careless, reckless, unabashed. I lay next to her and watched her body move beneath the ripples of the sheets.

I wasn't tired so I got up and wrote to my brother on the back of the Vitruvian man postcard. "Travis: The contact in D.C. worked out, but Dad's pissed again. Help me out? Milan is great. The people here are very friendly."

But I didn't want the job in D.C., either. I would still be an intern, wearing crisp shirts and polished shoes so I could run about filing paper all day. This is why I went to Harvard. That, and because my father went to Harvard. My grandfather probably founded the place. I cuddled up with the girl and dreamt about Leonardo da Vinci.

* * *

It was her day off. We walked the main boulevards of Milan, finally seeing the trendy shops and street cafes I'd been expecting, laughing and talking nothing. We sat on a park bench, contending with over-flowing ice-cream cones. She slipped her sandals off and wiggled her toes in the grass.

"What's your favorite flavor?" she asked me speculatively.

I couldn't think of a creative answer, so I told the truth. "Chocolate."

"Of course it is," she said. "Mine's blueberry." And she took an enormous lick of her ice-cream. It teetered dangerously on the brim of the cone and dripped voluptuously between her fingers. "Is my tongue blue?" she asked.

"Aren't you going to lick your fingers?" I asked.

"Does it bother you?"

"No." I watched her take another lick, and another sticky rivulet covered the first. "So what's your name?" I asked her.

"If it bothers you, you can lick them," she said, smiling impishly.

"Why won't you tell me your name?"

"You need to loosen up," she said, but her voice was tight. "Look, is that all you care about? Is that all you want to know about me?"

I wanted to say No, but I was suddenly afraid it wasn't true. I said nothing.

"I'm from Kansas City. We moved here when my mom got a job teaching art history. And I hate Milan," she said.

Another rivulet of ice cream. My eyes followed it obsessively. "Then why don't you leave?"

She didn't answer. She slipped her sandals back onto her feet. Some kids chased each other, yelping and shouting, running past us in a blur, a yellow t-shirt tumbling over a blue. The late afternoon sun slowly baked my thighs. She finally looked back up at me, her naked intensity gone, evaporated like water in the heat of the afternoon. "Let's go swimming," she said. And so we did.

* * *

"I'm supposed to leave today," I told her, muffled by the pillow. Her eyes were closed but she was awake. "I have a train ticket to Barcelona."

"You've only been here five days. You can stay a few more days," she mumbled. And she was right. Barcelona would always be there.

"But then I have to go. I have a plane ticket back to the States."

She opened one eye. "I'm not really from Kansas City," she said.

"I'm not really from Boston," I said.

"I'm from Detroit."

I smiled. "How do I know that's true?"

"It isn't," she said. And she brushed a lock of hair from her face. But I believed her anyway.

We explored Milan until she had to work: an art museum, the grotesque encrusted cathedral, the sparklingly empty La Galleria. I did a sketch in my sketchbook and was embarrassed when a passer-by looked at it. I had messed up the perspective, and the buildings looked ten feet high. "Buono, buono," he lied, smiling with his teeth pressed too hard to his lips.

We went to a coffee shop with plants in the windows. "You need to stay here," she told me over a glass of iced tea. Her eyes twinkled with brown reflections of the tea.

"I have a job lined up in D.C."

"You could find a job here," she said, eyes twinkling. "I could find you one."

"At an ice-cream parlor?" I asked, and was immediately sorry for saying it. Her smile evaporated, and no matter what I said it didn't come back before she had to go to work.

I paid too many Euro for ten minutes on the Internet. I had an angry e-mail from my father. Why was he hearing my plans from Travis? Was the D.C. internship what I really wanted? Whatever I chose was fine, but at least tell him myself. I could feel him growing increasingly agitated as he wrote the email, as if upset that I wasn't responding. I was grateful that I'd turned him down when he'd offered to buy me an international cell phone.

I'm staying in Milan, I wrote. And my heart lurched around in my chest when I wrote it, but I hit "send" anyway. I would've loved to see my father's expression when he read that email. But I didn't talk to him again after that.

I went outside. I started running: a nervous running, just to let off some energy. It was too hot for running, so I ran toward the dense shade of the park.

I was lying to my dad when I told him I was staying in Milan. But I was also lying to the girl when I told her I was going to leave. My shirt smelled awful by the time I finally stopped moving, so I went to the girl's apartment and washed it with dish soap in the sink, avoiding the piles of dirty plates.

* * *

We went out that night. I needed to drink. My plane was scheduled to leave from Paris in three days, and I needed at least a day to get there. The girl's friend &mdash the one with dark hair and glasses &mdash came out with us, and we went to a bar with a rainbow flag over the door. She and I got some beers and stood at a tall table near the wall. Her friend was hitting on a British-looking guy with spiked hair and a tight black shirt.

"He's cute," she said, pointing. The guy was baby-faced: clean-shaven, puppy dog eyes, crocodile smile. "Would you fuck him?" I could hear her grinning wickedly.

"I'm not gay," I said.

"Come on. Look at him."

"You're after a threesome," I told her.

"That round ass," she whispered seductively.

"You've been in too many gay bars."

"Those muscles," she said. "Those eyebrows."

Maybe it was the beer, maybe I was just confused. I asked her how many tourists she tended to pick up, and she smacked me hard across the face. I spilled my beer; she stormed outside. Her gay friend told me in quiet broken English that she had never picked up a tourist before as far as he knew.

I caught up with her in the street. She wouldn't talk to me or let me put my hand on her shoulder, but I followed her home rambling apologetically. When we got to the stoop of her apartment, she turned around violently. Her beautiful eyes were swollen, and I loved the way she cried.

"You're such a fucking asshole!" she shouted. And she kissed me, angrily. And we went upstairs and made love badly on her unmade bed, our kisses tasting like cheap beer.

We woke up at dawn and made love again. This time we got it right.

* * *

She padded into the kitchen in a t-shirt. "I made eggs," I told her.

"And toasted pita."

"There wasn't any bread." She sat down at her cluttered kitchen table, and smiled radiantly. "Hey," I said. "What's your name?" But she only smiled.

"I need to go to the train station and get my bag. If it's still there."

"I have clothes you can wear," she said.

"I'd prefer to get my bag," I told her. She was beautiful, and I loved her. I thought about her as I walked through the deserted city to the Milan train station, and I continued to think about her as I boarded the train to Paris.

Beyond the city are the barrel-vaulted wastelands. The train sped past them like a steel bullet.

copyright © 2013 by carl s. sterner, unless otherwise noted. more...