He was an Italian whom she had met a few days earlier at a bar. Now she was on the back of his motorcycle as they rode down Sunset Boulevard. She wore a black dress, black heels, and a black motorcycle jacket with a wine-red-colored lining. She didn’t zip up the jacket, and when the wind got to it, it looked like the lining was a part of her flesh that had been peeled back. The poetry reading was his idea. He thought she’d enjoy it since she was a script writer. He had seen a flyer for the reading on a message board inside a café. They arrived late to the gallery where the reading was being held. People were already seated on the unfinished, paint-splashed wooden floor, and the poet was reading from his work. The work was not written on sheets of paper, but on paper plates. After reading each poem, the poet flung the paper plate into the audience like a Frisbee. People reached up and caught them midflight. What sailed into her lap were the words, I mistook all the wind chimes for whispers and the rustling of clothes. When the reading was over, she left it on the floor. Other audience members, though, took their paper plates with them.
“Look, a souvenir,” she said when they were out on the street getting ready to leave on his motorcycle. She showed him a splinter from her palm where she had rested it on the floor while listening to the reading. He took her hand by the wrist then, and pulled out the splinter. Then he tried to kiss her palm where there was now a red dot, but she pulled her hand back. “It’s nothing,” she said.
They ate in an Indian restaurant at a small table with a bad leg that needed a folded-up piece of paper under it to keep it from wobbling. He used the flyer from the reading, folding it precisely like it was origami and the creases mattered. It did the job, but the table surface was now slanted toward her. When the food came, the yellow grease on the platter from the lamb dish pooled at the end closest to where she sat.
“Did you like the reading?” Pietro asked.
“Lovely,” she said.
She wondered why she had agreed to go on the date in the first place. She wasn’t even attracted to him. She noticed that either the lighting was poor or his teeth were slightly gray. While he ate, she looked out the window at the cars driving by, trying to catch sight of the drivers and passengers. She wondered if she’d want to trade places with them.
One car stopped in the street. A man and a woman got out and switched places. She could tell they were angry and yelling at each other. The man, who had been driving, barely had time to get in the car and shut the door before the woman sped off, running a red light.
She looked at Pietro sitting across from her, holding his fork the way her mother had taught her not to hold it, with the fingers curled on top and around the handle. “People who do that look uncouth, like they’re shoveling the food into their mouths,” her mother had told her.
She straightened her back. Just thinking of her mother made her remember all the other things she had told her as well. Sit up straight. Look pleasant. Don’t jiggle your leg up and down. Don’t twirl the ends of your hair. Enunciate. Don’t wear white in winter. Black and brown don’t go together. Horizontal stripes make you look fat. Men need to be told how good they are at doing something. Line up your side part with the center of your eye. When sautéing, add oil to butter so the butter won’t burn. When cooking rice, measure the water level by using the first joint of your thumb as the gauge. Count months on your knuckles and the spaces between them to figure out if a month has thirty or thirty-one days in it. She touched her hand and counted. This was a knuckle month. There were so many things her mother had told her. Pietro said, “The food is good, isn’t it?”
“Delicious. You picked a nice restaurant,” she said, even though the grease from her food was starting to make her feel sick.
“Where did you grow up?” he asked, and she thought that he somehow sensed she was going back in time and thinking of her mother and her childhood.
“The Village,” she said.
“Me too,” he said, and she realized he meant he grew up in a village in Italy. She did not bother to explain to him that she meant New York.
“Tell me about it,” she said, because she didn’t want to have to tell him anything more about herself. The more she told, the more she knew it would be harder to never see him again, as if the words she spoke were cells from her body that would branch out, grow toward him, and connect them forever.
His explanations were factual. His village had 1,200 residents. It was one and a half hours from the airport. The fountain in the town was the main tourist attraction.
He ordered more wine. When it came, he frowned looking at the label, then poured it into their glasses anyway.
“What about your parents?” he said. She told him how her father had died long ago, but her mother, not so long ago. It had only been at the beginning of this month. It was now the end of the month. It had been a hard month, this knuckle month. She longed for it to be over.
“Yours?” she said. He told her their ages, and their occupations, and how his father could no longer climb stairs.
She kept asking him questions. As he drank more, he answered with more emotion. He recalled a school friend, who was his best friend, who had died in a terrible moped accident. He wiped his tears away with a cloth napkin riddled with grease stains. She looked away again, not to watch people in cars, but to avoid seeing Pietro’s eyes well up. She turned her head away from the window when Pietro reached across the table and held her hand. It was strange to hold hands across a table. She was reminded of a séance, only they were missing someone sitting beside them to close the circle and hold their free hands. She pretended to cough and let go of his hand to cover her mouth. Then she kept her hands folded in her lap.
She drank more of the wine, not because she wanted to, but because she was worried that he would drink too much and not be able to safely drive her home when they had finished the meal. He excused himself and went to the men’s room. While he was gone, she drank most of the wine left in his glass, only leaving him a small amount.
“Do you want dessert?” he said when he came back. She quickly answered no, because she wanted to leave and go home. He said, “I love the ice cream here.” And he ordered some for her anyway, even though she had told him again she did not want any. When the waiter brought it over, she saw yellow chunks in it.
“Mango,” Pietro said. She pushed her dish toward him.
“Eat mine,” she said.
“No, I insist, you try it,” he said. He scooped up a spoonful and put it against her lips. It was easier to open her mouth and take the bite, she thought, than it was to say no. The frozen mango made a cavity hurt before she swallowed the fruit down.
Finally, he was done. The waiter placed the check next to Pietro’s elbow. She wanted to pay for half of the dinner, but he told her that she could pay the bill the next time they went out to eat.
She grabbed the check from him anyway. It ended up tearing in half, so that they each held a piece. He grabbed her piece out of her hand.
“Ah, that was naughty. Now what have you got to say for yourself?” he said, shaking his head with a smile.
“I mistook all the wind chimes for whispers and the rustling of clothes,” she said, the line from the poetry reading popping into her head. But he did not hear her—he was already standing up and walking over to the cashier holding the bill torn in two. She wished she hadn’t drunk the rest of his wine. It had made her tipsy.
Outside, she stumbled a little walking across the parking lot to his motorcycle.
“Let’s go to a bar,” he said.
“No. I’d like to go home now,” she said.
“One drink. That’s all,” he said.
“If you don’t take me home now, I’ll walk home,” she said. He said something in Italian that she thought might be a curse, then he said, “Has it your way.” She had to keep herself from correcting him.
It was a Saturday night, and because the weather was warm, everyone seemed to be sitting in traffic trying to get to where they were planning on having fun. Pietro wove his motorcycle in between the cars. The motorcycle dipped left and right, left and right. At one point, she held him very tightly, worried she’d fall off and land on the street.
He stopped outside her ground-floor apartment. She hopped off quickly, forgetting about the muffler.
“Shit,” she said, and immediately bent down to see the burn on her calf. It was as long as her forefinger. When Pietro saw what she’d done, he turned off the motor. He got off the seat, and made the kickstand come down. “Goodnight. Thanks,” she said, running to her door with her key ready, trying to get rid of him, but he was close behind her.
“You need butter for that burn right away,” he said.
Now he was in her small apartment. He was going straight for her kitchen.
She told him she was fine, she could do it herself, but he was already in the refrigerator. She could hear him opening the butter compartment, and then sliding the carton of milk across the glass shelf, looking for butter. She sat down in her living-room chair. She looked down at her burn. He came back with a half stick of butter, and knelt down beside her. He peeled off the paper, then swirled the end of the stick on her leg. “Shit!” she screamed from the pain and knocked his hand away, but he immediately put the stick back on the burn, and kept spreading on the butter.
“This is all my fault. I should have warned you about the muffler,” he said, shaking his head while moving his hand in circles. Tears came down her cheeks. She realized it had been a long time since she had cried from pain, maybe years. She thought of her mother, and how when she was badly hurt, her mother used to say to her, “I wish I could take the pain from you and feel it myself.” She let out a sob now. It escaped suddenly, without her realizing it was even inside of her.
“Hey, there. It’s okay,” Pietro said. He hugged her, and when he did, she sobbed more on his shoulder. Her mother had died in her sleep. Her mother’s friend had found her mother in bed. Her mother’s friend had said that the phone beside her had been off the hook, as if in her last moments she had tried to dial for help. She didn’t have money for the airfare to fly home for her mother’s service. Her mother’s friend had sent her the ashes. They sat on the table beside her, where she was now sitting. She took a deep breath. Pietro left the room to go find a Band-Aid in the bathroom. She put the plastic urn on her lap. She wrapped her arms around it and clasped her hands together. Pietro came walking out of the bathroom with some tissue and a box of Band-Aids, and said, “What’s that you’ve got?”
“My mother,” she said.
“Oh. I see,” he said.
“She wanted to be scattered over the ocean,” she said. Pietro nodded.
“I haven’t had time yet. My car’s in the shop,” she said. Pietro knelt beside her again and peeled off the paper from the Band-Aid and then placed it carefully over her burn.
“How does it feel?” he said.
She looked at him. “Horribly sad,” she said.
He cleared his throat, then said, “I meant the burn. Is it any better?”
She looked down at her leg, remembering the burn was there. “Much better,” she said, and it did feel much better. She wondered if it was her mother’s doing. If, in her afterlife, her mother had managed somehow to take away her daughter’s physical pain.
“I could take you there. If you’re up for it,” Pietro said.
She looked at him blankly.
“The ocean. For the ashes,” he said, and he looked down at the plastic urn that she was still holding in her lap.
When she climbed onto his motorcycle again, the moon was so full, it seemed more like early evening than late night. She thought that if Pietro had wanted to drive without his headlights on, he could have done it. He would have been able to see the road.
The streets of Venice were crowded. People were eating at restaurants with outdoor seating and walking the strip where music blared from stores, but the beach was quiet. She and Pietro walked onto the pier, all the way to the end. Pietro helped her with the lid of the plastic urn, because it was hard to take off, but she did the rest. She scooped up handfuls and held her palm upward and wiggled her fingers, letting the ashes sift through. The finer ashes were carried off in the wind. Some of the larger pieces became stuck between her fingers for a second, before she turned her hand over so the larger pieces could fall straight down. When she was done, she put the plastic urn in a wastebasket and turned to Pietro and said, “Should we have a drink?”
At the bar, she told him all about herself. She told him what it was like growing up in New York, how she and her mother lived in a welfare hotel room on Eighth Street and shared the same bed until she went to college. Her mother was a waitress in a Mexican restaurant. When her mother came back to the room late at night, the smell of garlic always entered the room with her. In the morning, while her mother was sleeping, she would eat breakfast before school. She would be as quiet as she could so as not to wake her mother. She would eat cold fajitas and beans and rice that her mother had brought home the night before. For dinner she had the same thing all over again.
When she had friends over for a sleepover, her mother would lift the coffee table up on its side and push it against the wall and sleep on the floor, so she and her friend could have the whole bed. “If you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of night, be careful not to step on my mom,” she would tell her friends. Once, when she was twelve, a man who sold hot dogs in the park befriended her. He would give her free hot dogs and chocolate bars, and then one day he kissed her on the mouth and put his hands on her breasts. When she told her mother, her mother took a huge knife from the kitchen at the Mexican restaurant, the one that the cook used to slice steak for the fajitas. Her mother went up to the man and shoved the knife toward him so that the tip touched his mustard-stained white apron. She told him, “If you ever put your hands on my daughter, or any girl again, I will cut you to shreds.” Now, some of her mother was floating in the ocean, or sinking down to the bottom, where bits of her would remain shored up against the pier pilings for years to come until the waves smoothed them down into grains as small as sand.
Pietro said, “Anytime you want to come back to this spot, I will take you. Just let me know.”
“Thank you,” she said. She noticed how the light in the bar was better than the light in the restaurant they’d been to earlier. In this light his teeth were not gray at all, but white as the moon. She reached across the table and held his hand. She looked around the bar. “This is a nice place. I think we should come here again one day,” she said.
“I would like that very much,” Pietro said, and he reached across the table and took her other hand, as if holding just one of her hands wasn’t enough.
The streets were almost empty now. Clouds began to sweep quickly across the moon as if they were late to some destination. When Pietro stopped at her apartment, he reminded her to be careful getting off the bike. “You don’t want to get burned twice,” he said.
They made plans to see each other again, and then she kissed him goodbye. Inside her apartment, she got ready for bed. She went to the bathroom and washed her face. While the water was running, she heard someone whisper. When she turned the water off, the whispering stopped. She did this a few times, and then she just let the water run for a long time, imagining the whispering was her mother talking to her, telling her the usual, telling her all the ways she should be in the world.