Each word sounded out songs and promises.
He gripped the tasso da caffe and watched her leaving. She wore a red wool pencil skirt, a little too tight across the hips but not unattractive for all that. From inside the cafe he glimpsed a flash of thigh as she climbed awkwardly into a yellow cab.
Then it was a white mug again, the day was a little less bright and the coffee when he sipped it had turned cold.
“La prossima settimana.” He outlined the words silently with just his lips, his tongue curling luxuriously and jaw working. Another week. The sibilant ‘s’s escaped his soundless mouthing, so that the angry young man at the table beside him in appearance more a protester than a student glared in full protest before bowing his head again over a well-worn copy of Ulysses.
No wonder he’s angry, Charlie thought to himself. He remembered reading Joyce in college, arguing into the night with Anna who had been the loveliest thing on the planet then all pale gold curls and chubby cheeks.
For a second the vision again: the hospital bed, the body curled up into itself like a shrimp’s, the generalizing mask of death, withered lips and hoarse voice speaking slowly, so much slower than ever in life; Anna’s voice rattling from the bed: “I want to smell your hair.”
The nurse stiffened. Charlie thought she would refuse, would say this is highly irregular, Mrs. Stevens, or something official-sounding. She only put a diffident hand to her loose bun of hair.
“I didn’t wash it,” the nurse said almost apologetically. “It smells like hairspray I think.”
Anna’s hand made a brusque movement as if to say who cares. Her beautiful hand thin like a claw.
The nurse let her hair loose; it was long and brown and surprisingly pretty. Anna always had an eye for that sort of thing. She had hated her own curly hair. The mask inhaled deeply. She touched the nurse’s cheek, then settled back into the bed: “So beautiful,” she said.
The nurse was an ordinary-enough nurse, brown hair, brown eyes, but beside Anna she glowed with vitality. With her hair down she was softer. The two women smiled at each other.
Charlie whispered aloud this time: “Bellissima.”
The young man beside Charlie cleared his throat loudly, shut the book with a bang and began to pile his papers into a haphazard stack before unceremoniously stuffing them into his bag. He’d have to sort them later. But he had all the time in the world to read Ulysses, to piece together meaning for himself in Joyce’s strange, disjointed prose.
All the time in the world.
Then in the flash these longings and visions arrived in Charlie, he longed to give the boy a kiss.
A non-sexual but very tender and specific kiss on his young lips.
These horrible strange impulses came over him all the time these days. He had to clench his fists, shut his eyes tight and hold on to the new words and meanings:
“Il mano, la prossima, una settimana, il tasso da cafe.”
His lips moved, they had to move for it to work– his tongue tasted as much as sounded out the words.
He still stood beside his wife’s bed. When he shut his eyes, he would always stand in that room no matter where he was,but now there was sunlight pouring in through the dusty curtains. The words pushed the curtains aside. The sunlight was blinding.
His teacher in her red pencil skirt stood beside him holding a glass of wine. Through the glass the light shone until the wine sparkled like rubies. He could sense the bed behind him, but he could no longer see it. The darkness veiled with light.
“Il vino?” she said to him offering her cup, arching one eyebrow meaningfully. At his level that’s all he could make her say.
Even in his fantasy he could hear Anna’s stertorous breath behind him.
“IL VINO,” he repeated aloud. The worse it got the louder he had to become.
Then she vanished as she always did when he could think of nothing more to say to her.
Anna looked at him from the bed.
“You always wanted to learn Italian,” she said.
He was tearing up now and ashamed.
When he opened his eyes, he was surprised to see the boy was still there staring at him.
He no longer looked angry: “Do you need help, sir?”
Charlie wondered when had he become a sir? Then he remembered his hair was white now. He would not have thought to put that word into this boy’s mouth; he felt badly having imagined him as some kind of hoodlum.
“Hai bisogno di qualcosa, signore?”
The translation just came to him. His first.
He smiled to himself.
“No, but thank you,” he said.
He had never been so conscious of words before. Thank you. It was a richer phrase than he’d thought. When you said it the Italian way with your whole mouth and jaw and tongue, the “th” forced you to smile wider, wider.
So he repeated it again: “Thank you.”
The boy echoed his smile.
Izzy David is an actor and writer living in New York City. She attended UVA where she crafted a major reflecting both her interests and continues to try to meld the two pursuits into one career. She recently wrote and starred in a short play for Centerstage’s Friend Me Festival and is working on a longer play. Her stories, essays and poetry have appeared in The First Line, Apollo’s Lyre and Every Day Fiction.