Youth in Chiaroscuro
Updated: Nov 2, 2020
Longlisted for the Peter Carey Short Story Award (2020); Nominated for the Newcastle Short Story Award (2020)
After three days in the hotel I started riding the elevators. Tom would leave in the morning, kissing me on the head while I pretended to sleep. I’d lay in the dark until it paled to gauzy gloom. Then I’d dress in a t-shirt and jeans, go to the end of the corridor. I’d inspect my reflection in the identical rectangles, and try to guess which set would chime brightly, split open.
They didn’t play music in the elevator. It was mirrored on all sides except the door, so if I wanted I could observe my likeness in the rich glass. I’d press the button for the lobby, and then the button for the terrace, and on rare occasions I’d sail directly from one to the other. I’d watch the call buttons as it sunk and soared, waiting for the numerals to glow, glimmering irises in electronic sockets.
When Tom came home in the evening I’d be wearing different clothes. About an hour before he was due to return I’d go back to the room and toss my cardigan in the minifridge, then put it on crumpled and cold. One day I cut my hand and wrapped it in a bandage so I could regale him with the saga of my tumble on the cobblestones. I’d show him some junk I’d bought at the gift shop and say it was from the Palazzo Vecchio, rhapsodise about the basilica and the rambling footpath cafes, recount the excesses of the Medicis, the reactionary purge of the bonfires. I would interpolate sentences with Italian to remind him, if I wanted, he would never understand me.
Through the window I could see where the red rooves of the city ballooned, like ripe, poisonous fungi after a storm. Behind them the ragged white swell of the Apennines. While I spoke Tom would make negronis and pretend to listen, the way I’d pretend I was asleep in the morning. He’d peel a ribbon of orange and say something like ‘Wow, baby. You’re like an Italian encyclopedia.’ Except he would say it in an Italian accent. En-cyc-olo-pe-dia!
I was supposed to be translating the manual for an exercise machine. The language was simple, but words I understood in isolation would become meaningless when joined with their neighbours, like they were in a tense I’d forgotten. In whole sentences they seemed to swap places with each other, swim. I’d look at the diagrams to see if these clarified how the machine would move, how using it would change a person. How it would make one better and whole.
Instead I went to the elevator. When the doors opened it was crowded, a group of young nuns inside. They wore running shoes under their habits and spoke excitedly of the tour they would take in the city. Later a woman in a long coat who kept her sunglasses on and did not acknowledge me; and then a bellboy with a pale moustache and a monobrow. Then tourist couples, mostly middle-aged, the outline of wallets visible where they were strapped under their shirts. They’d greet me with Ciaos and Bongiornos, and I would smile and reply, Spero davvero che tu muoia! And I’d look at the floor ashamed.
When Tom returned from work we would drink negronis, then go for dinner at the lobby restaurant. He’d try to convince me we should go into town to eat, but I’d say I was tired, and besides, everything in the city was expensive and touristic. When we got back to the room he would kiss me and start to take off my clothes. He’d hurl them on the floor and over the sideboard and the television, possibly thinking I found this sexy, maybe it was sexy. Maybe he didn’t think about it. I’d realise I was drunk and crawl onto the bed, lift my arse to him, press my cheek to the mattress. Once I asked him if he would hit me. When he asked what I meant I said it didn’t matter.
After we’d finished I’d wait until Tom started to snore. Then I would dress again in jeans, the t-shirt I was starting to consider a uniform. I’d wonder where the hotel laundry was, if I could somehow obtain an actual uniform, become one of the anonymous men liveried in aubergine, who haunted the corridors and elevators and were always going somewhere.
Because it was late I could complete my circuits without interruption, except for the handful of returning lovers, who would hold each other and lean against the mirrors because they were tired from strolling. They would merge with their tenebrous reflections, like Aristophanes’ fabled human arachnids, and when the doors opened for them they’d leave their twins in the mirror, parting painlessly, unaware that without them the other would cease to exist.
A long-haired boy around my age, his shoulders tattooed beneath his heavy backpack; a short man in a tailored suit; and a giant, in a baggy suit, around whose ear spiralled a little clear piece of plastic; a tweedy dishevelled couple, one reading The Economist, the other The Atlantic; porters and housekeepers; the nuns. I’d watch them enter the elevator and in their presence I’d momentarily exist, I’d remember I had a body, a bladder, a stomach I had neglected to fill. I had olfactory glands, tiny organs which knew the smell of bergamot. I’d move a finger and in the mirror the same finger would move.
I’m worried about you, Tom said to me, at dinner. Is it the translation?
We were down in the restaurant—on my plate little, fleshy apostrophes. A bloody gibbous had pooled around the cutlets and I felt a surge of disgust, either with the food or with Tom, for the way he called it ‘the translation.’ Like it was Manzoni, or Dante. He gave me a look, reached out across the table for my hand, stroked the flat blade with his blunt, hirsute thumb and said, You’re eating meat, mon cher.
He pronounced cher like the singer.
I slithered my hand from beneath his and clasped my knife, sliced the cutlet. I speared a small bit of meat. I moved my lips and my teeth around it, pushed it with my tongue, drank wine when I couldn’t swallow.
Have you been to the Uffizi Gallery? he asked, as I emptied the rest of my plate. The Birth of Venus is supposed to be divine.
I stared at him, trying to tell if he was joking, and the way his face fell I could tell that he wasn’t.
I went to the gym. It was on the second-highest level, just below the terrace. I wore the same outfit as always, because even if I’d dressed for exercise I wouldn’t have known what to do. I was only going to look at the machines, to see them controlled by bodies, to see if it was the other way around.
Like in the elevator there was no music. Metal collided with metal, lungs drew air and expelled it in grunts. Fans droned dully on the walls roving over the scene like dispassionate, lidless eyes, lurid stalactites above them flickering with newsreaders who could have been from anywhere in the world; popstars, who could only have been from space, mouthing what must have been English. Mirrors on the wall made the room seem bigger than it was. I walked through the treadmills and rowing machines, watching the few people operating them, how their faces knit into agony, then relief, then resolve. They were like the paintings of Sebastian penetrated by arrows, or the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in Rome; ambiguous affects between torment and abandon. Except they were moving, they were in constant motion, their bodies swinging with the metal arms and pulleys and cables, the same circuit over again, their expressions the same tightly described parabola. I was reminded of the torture museum in Venice, its catalogue of contraptions for breaking the body. I couldn’t tell whether these machines made pain or deferred it, if the people inside them were making themselves more flesh, or more statue. And I thought of Botticelli’s Venus, not two miles from here, naked and broken in her scallop. Because the woman depicted in Venus Anadyomene is not a body. Her stance, the width of her hips and the length of her legs, are impossible. If she had lived she would have been in anguish.
The only real conversation I had in the elevator was with the boy my age, the one I’d noticed for his tattoos. A sodden towel hung over his shoulder, his long hair slick and pulled back. I noticed him looking at me and pretended not to, unsure whether his curiosity was that of someone seeking a companion, or something else, and I doubted we’d have spoken at all had the elevator not suddenly stopped.
As the emergency lights glowed we grinned at each other, embarrassed by the fear in our eyes, the hot, sharp breaths we had both been taking in the dark. He said it seemed we were stuck, and I agreed. He asked my name and I told him. He asked me where I was from, and I told him that too, without even realising what I was telling him was the truth. In the half-light we sat and exchanged questions, etching fragile portraits, assembling details that were in themselves dull, but gleamed in contrast to the surrounding opacity. He was a mystic, a traveller, what might once have been called a prince in disguise; and in the shadows that impression held, where light would expose it as barefoot cliché. He didn’t know who he was, and though he had sought to discover the only pleasure was in seeking, and when eventually we were rescued we said goodbye and I never saw him again.
Tom got a migraine. He woke me in the morning, squeezing my shoulder and shaking me, and though I ignored him at first when he started to whimper I flickered my eyes open. He was pale and wet, a big, damp V where his shirt clung to his chest. I managed to get him to gulp an aspirin, put him to bed with the curtains drawn. I draped my t-shirt over his eyes and pretended it didn’t look like a shroud.
When he was like this the only thing that could be done for him was to shut out the light and wait. The smallest sound caused him intense pain, vomiting. He never knew how long an episode would last, an hour or the rest of the day, which meant I couldn’t stay in the hotel. I didn’t want to risk him recovering, going to the terrace for some fresh air. Finding me.
I don’t know how long I stood in the lobby, looking around at the chandeliers, the voluptuous birdcage trolleys. I leaned on the wall by a rack of pamphlets for what might have been minutes or hours and read the same descriptions of the same landmarks, the Ponte Vecchio and the Duomo, in English, then in Spanish, then French. I listened to the same conversation unfold at the reception desk until I could have recited it by heart. Benvenuto Signor, Singora. Grazie per aver scelto il nostro albergo per la vostra visita. Come posso essere d’aiuto? Whenever a porter or a concierge approached to offer assistance I blinked and said I didn’t understand.
At some point I decided to get on a bus. I could sense I made the staff uneasy, that they were trying to decide whether to phone the police. The bus rattled horribly as we drove, because though the roads were new the bus wasn’t, and I found myself nervously waiting for us to spin out onto the sleet. I rested my head on the window and watched the hotel shrink until it was featureless, and then the old city rose up, Romanesque columns and Pietraforte, the russet domes somewhere unseen above. Crowds of tourists streamed by, paper triangles stretched over their mouths. On the old roads the shaking worsened. I gripped the sides of my seat, pressing my eyes closed as the bus twisted and lurched. My lips moved and I didn’t know what words they formed, if they belonged to any language, or if they were gibberish, elegant glossolalia, and though I didn’t know any prayers it must have looked like I was praying either silently or too quietly to be heard amid all the clattering noise.