WE WERE EXHAUSTED FROM THE TRIP. I tried to nap but couldn’t still my mind. Serenity had immediately closed herself in her room and I wondered if that meant something. When I knocked, no answer. I nudged the door open, expecting to find her earbuds in but she was sleeping. Her brown hair fanned out on the pillow, cheeks flushed with fatigue or dreams, lips parted. She could almost be my daughter, but she belonged to Richard, not me. Never me. My own daughter had wide-set gray eyes, sun-freckled skin and a mess of brown curls that used to frustrate me if we were in a hurry, always twisted into stubborn little nests. I stood in Serenity’s doorway and considered lying next to her on the bed to listen to her breath move through her body, to take in that sleeping girl smell to which I was no longer privy. Instead, I backed out of the room.
RICHARD WAITED FOR ME ON OUR BED.
“Join me,” he said.
Ignoring him, I walked over to the window and opened it wide to the smells of Rome: bread dough; diesel, sewer. I undressed in front of the open window, my nipples stiffening in the cool air. Bells resounded from the cathedral near the river. When I turned around, Richard was staring at me, his desire apparent. I lay next to him. He touched my body as if it were his, as if its very existence was for his pleasure. His arrogance excited me. I knew this made me a bad feminist.
“What do you think of her so far?” he asked me, his fingers writing unknown words on my back. The words stopped as he waited for my answer.
“I’ve haven’t known her long. One flight over the ocean.”
“Bright girl. The best of me.”
“Children usually are.”
“Are you jealous?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“I’ve dealt with that kind of thing before.”
I was jealous, but not in the way he probably meant. I was jealous his daughter still inhabited his world.
“She has a sharp sense of humor,” he continued.
I hadn’t seen it. In fact, she appeared to be entirely humorless.
THE FIRST TIME WE MET was in the airport the day before. She looked like a model; thin, dark-eyed, with long brown hair dyed blonde at the tips. She smiled without her eyes and when Richard introduced us, she barely took me in, irrelevant as I was.
We stood near our gate; our flight wouldn’t board for twenty minutes.
“Daddy, did you bring the Xanax?” Serenity’s voice was sandpapery.
Richard dug through his briefcase and tapped two pills from a bottle into her palm. He looked at me. “You want one?”
There was a time I would’ve had my own bottle of those little white miracles, but no more. I told him I was going for coffee. When I returned, I bumped into Serenity and coffee leapt out of my cup and onto her jeans.
“Oh my god!” Serenity stared at the stain as if doing so would make it disappear.
I apologized and handed her my napkin. “I didn’t burn you, did I?”
She lifted her eyes to me. Disdain, thick as butter.
“It’s not a big deal,” she said, though of course it was.
I watched her toe off her knee high boots and step out of her jeans. Underneath: silky black boxers. People around us snuck glances.
“What? I’m not wearing wet jeans for eight hours on a plane,” she snapped at her father.
“Get something from your suitcase.”
“This is the empty one. So I can shop, remember?”
Serenity slipped her boots on, adjusted her black sweater so it nearly covered her boxers, and wheeled her empty suitcase toward the crowd now gathered to board.
“Fucking shorts are so high you can almost see her butt,” he muttered to me.
I shrugged. “It’s what they all wear.”
“You being an expert and all.” He gestured for me to precede him toward Serenity.
Don’t think him an asshole. I hadn’t told him about my losses.
RICHARD HAD BEEN MY NEUROLOGIST. A couple of years ago, long past losing my husband and daughter, I’d have these episodes as I was falling asleep in which I was fully awake and cognizant yet unable to move. Sometimes I’d hear a susurrus in the air above my head; could have been my own pulse but it sounded like ghosts conversing. He explained the mechanics of sleep paralysis without patronizing. The episodes went away as he said they would and the next time I saw him was at a fundraiser. Three of my paintings were being auctioned off for a non-profit started by a friend. Richard took the seat next to me and under his breath delivered inappropriate comments that should have made me blush, but instead, made me laugh. That was one of things that excited me about him: his ability to say whatever he thought without self consciousness or embarrassment, his ability to reach out and grab what he wanted with only his words.
LATER THAT EVENING, after the three of us strolled the streets around the Trastaverre, we were back in the flat, Serenity, watching Italian TV in the living room, and Richard and I in our room, freshly warm from the shower. I stood in front of an ornate mirror smoothing lotion over my body. Richard came up behind me and circled my clit with his fingers before slipping them inside. Sex with him was nearly always wordless and I discovered I liked it that way. It was like stepping in and out of another dimension. We talked before, after, but not during. Sometimes he whispered commands, do this, do that, but that wasn’t conversation. Sometimes I noticed him circling me like a predator does with prey. My husband had been so polite. Polite only got me so far. Richard pushed me onto the bed, face down. He was rough and quick before starting on me with his hands again. Polite never felt transcending.
OUR SIGHTSEEING AMBITIONS BEGAN WITH BONES. A set of cement steps led to the door of the Capuchin Monk Crypt. No tickets were required; a wooden box near the entry held donations of pastel Euros and metal coins. Richard and Serenity read the museum board while I made my way through the crypt. Four rooms; in each, dun-colored bones decorated every surface. Bones formed flowers around chandeliers and lacy designs on walls and ceilings. In one room, whole skeletons lay on stone beds as if merely asleep. Remnants of people, castoff shells. Bones were the positive space left after the negative lifted away. My husband and daughter were cremated. It might have been a comfort to have evidence of the people I lost. Some tangible proof that I had loved and been loved.
ONE AFTERNOON, near the end of our stay, Serenity and I took a table outside a café. It was a gorgeous, blue-sky day, warm enough to not need a sweater. Richard’s daughter had finally begun to open to me, to see me as a person with potential value and our conversations were no longer as awkward. From where we sat we could see the Capitol; the word ROMA in red and yellow roses on the front lawn.
When the waiter came, I ordered a red and two glasses. Serenity lifted her brows.
“It’s legal here,” I said.
“I’m not arguing.”
After the wine appeared, her face relaxed, brightened, as she poured a glass for me then herself. That afternoon I learned of her friends, what music she liked, heard about the boy who told her she wasn’t much to look at and then a couple of weeks later grabbed her ass at a party. Her hair was pulled back into a pony tail and some of the pieces around her face had come loose. I wanted to touch her hair, tuck the pieces behind her ear. If she were mine, I wouldn’t hesitate.
The waiter delivered our meals and when he left, Serenity said, “My father really loved my mother. She broke his heart.”
“He doesn’t share things like that with me,” I said. “It’s not that kind of a relationship.”
“No past? More in the now?” She smirked, but in a good natured way. “My mother fell for a younger guy who ended up dumping her.”
“It’s not my business.”
She shrugged, took a sip of wine. “Just trying to tell you why he can be sort of a dick.”
“I don’t have any problems with him,” I said. What I didn’t say: I didn’t mind that he was sort of a dick. It’s what I wanted at the time.
OUR LAST FULL DAY we took a train to Florence to see art. It should have inspired me, all that art, but my desire to create more of it remained underground.
It was late when we boarded the train back to Rome. Serenity and I grew ever closer and Richard didn’t seem to like it; perhaps didn’t like that his compartments were so easily bleeding into one another. He fought for my attention, texting me things like:
I want to make you wet.
His sexting used to have an effect, used to heat my body into some kind of life. On the train though, it was a distraction from what really lit me up: Serenity. Serenity’s chatter about what she wanted to do after high school, her opinions about the sculpture and the art she’d seen, her movie recommendations. I drank her in, parched.
The train lurched to a stop.
Two men in uniform ran through our car, Italian voices crackling on radios.
Serenity looked to her father, then me. “What’s going on?” Her voice high with stress.
A conductor entered our car and ordered us to leave the train immediately. In Italian, French and English: “Leave your bags, leave everything and depart the train.”
We disembarked and made our way with the crowd to a large field. The silhouettes of industrial buildings stood tall and dark against the purpling sky. People talked rapidly in languages I couldn’t understand.
Serenity shivered, her teeth clicking together.
After a while, a couple from Canada shared what they knew: a man from Tunisia claimed to have a bomb on the train, but neither the police nor the dogs found anything.
I could see Serenity allow relief to fold into her body; then, quiet sobs. Richard was still scanning the situation, trying to figure out what next.
I gathered his daughter into my arms. Her hair smelled of rose shampoo. Her heart beat hard and fast in the side of her neck. I rubbed circles on her back and said, “It’s going to be all right. Everything’s fine. There’s no danger.” I told her over and over she was safe, rocking my words into her body, though I understood how wrong it was to think any of us is ever safe. Still, it was a necessary lie. A lie a mother might have told.
There’s no danger here.
Katrina Denza’s stories can be found in REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, The Jabberwock Review, The Emerson Review, Storyglossia, New Delta Review; The MacGuffin, Confrontation, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly, Word Riot, elimae, wigleaf, Pank, and Gargoyle #57, among others. In 2011, Katrina was awarded the Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Currently, she’s working on a collection of stories: Desire is a Willful Beast.