Note: What follows is a work of fiction. While the characters in the story- including I, Pier, the narrator- are inspired by real life, their existence is bounded by the of the limits of the story. They cannot escape.
I began to see Bella everywhere I went. She was there unannounced when I expected her least. I saw her at my café in the morning, an apparition in the steam of cappuccino. She was in the hallway as I was leaving class, a blue-eyed blur in a sea of brown. I passed her under the porticoes, but she disappeared with a doubletake. I don’t know if she was following me or if I was following her, but soon it was clear that our stories were to cross once again.
When the scene finally settled, she was on the grass of Giardini Margherita as I was walking by. It must’ve been early November; the leaves were dry and crunchy, but her toes were bare and painted red. She was stretched out on a blanket; in one hand a cigarette, with the other she flipped through an Italian version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. She looked up from the book as I approached, unsurprised as always to see me.
“Ciao Pier, come stai? Still trapped in your story?” she said with her devious smile, greeting me with two kisses and offering a pack of papers and loose tobacco.
“It seems to be a story only when you’re here,” I said, sitting down beside her. “You must be the protagonist, not me.” She watched with entertainment as I rolled a cigarette, my fingers had practiced since when we met, months before, on the steps of the basilica.
“You are learning, I can tell. But don’t worry yourself, we are together in this story.” She looked around at the colors of the changing seasons. “It’s almost winter, so this must be Act 3. Everyone knows that’s when the conflict peaks,” she paused, thinking, as if she had forgotten her lines. Laughed lightly, she improvised, “che bella, questa storia.”
“But is it a tragedy or a comedy?” I asked her.
“When it’s finished you will know,” she said, “it’s good for the story to have an element of dramatic irony”
It was an echo of what Calvino had told me in Act 1. My mysterious Napoletano roommate was not present in this act, but I imagined he was off writing somewhere, like always. In Act 3 it was just Bella and I, pushed together and pulled along by the author or God or maybe fate or chance.
In that moment, for the first time, I realized I was not in control; it felt like every move I made until then had been planned and scripted. Like a puppet on a string, I felt crafted and manipulated by an unknown hand that held me out from behind the curtain. I needed to break free.
Bella was watching patiently behind blue eyes, like she already knew what I was about to ask. I looked at her and realized she was all I needed. “Do you want to run away?” I asked.
“Run away from what, Pier? There is nothing but the story; you cannot run from who you are. But if you need something to chase, I’ll run. I’m bored of Bologna, anyways.” She closed her book and stood, blocking the afternoon sun, “you should know the further you run from the beginning, the closer you’ll be to the end. Are you sure you want to continue?”
She posed it as question, but she already knew my answer.
We escaped Bologna that evening in a black Fiat 500, heading south into the hills. I was in the Coop buying beer and Nutella when she pulled up outside, windows down, music blasting. I don’t know where she got that car, but she drove it like she’d stolen it: one hand on the wheel, the other on the shifter, gas pedal to the floor. She set a fast pace and cut quick around anyone in our way; when she wasn’t shouting or making hand gesturing at slower cars, she was rapping bar for bar with Salmo and Fabri Fibra, hair blowing in the wind.
I couldn’t drive stick, nor could I keep up with Italian rap; I sat shotgun, smiling and nodding. I knew wherever she went was where I needed to go. For a long time there was nothing but Bella and I and the road before us, and I let myself forget what she’d said about the inevitable end. The only time was the present, the only direction was forward. Italia blurred past in the window and when it finally stopped, I felt like a different person.
When we reached Firenze it was almost midnight, but for Bella that was still early. She parked the Fiat in the middle of Piazza della Signoria and we walked among the illuminated statues, her favorite was Judith holding the decapitated head of a postcoital Holofernes. She winked at me and mimed slicing her neck. My favorite statue was Perseus with the head of the Medusa, but still I was frozen in her icy blue gaze.
We crossed Ponte Vecchio to Piazza Santo Spirito, where a young crowd was still beginning the night. Bella bummed a smoke off a university student and he directed us to a discoteca, il Disagio, he called it, which was a fitting name. The basement dancefloor was small and packed with dudes smoking cigarettes, dancing alone. Bella and I lost each other in the loud techno and they circled her like sharks with insecure dance moves. She reached out through the swarm and put her arms around my neck, and we comfortable in the blast of the music.
We woke to the angry shouts of a groundskeeper in the Gardens of Boboli; we must’ve scaled the fence. Bella hated being woken the middle of a dream and she screamed angry Siciliano at the palace guards, swearing on the graves of the Medici to never return to Florence. We ran back to Piazza della Signoria, where somehow the Fiat was still parked, surrounded by tourists taking selfies who thought our car was part of the aesthetic. Hoking and cursing, Bella broke through the crowds and soon we were back on the autostrada.
They say all roads lead to Rome, but it took us over a month to get there. Bella took the scenic route; she liked the long quiet narrow abandoned highways that bend around the countryside, twisting through fields of grain, curving over hills and switching back and forth up mountains. She had a sense of direction; I was completely lost. On the road we ate when we were hungry and stopped for caffè when we were tired, sleeping only when we were bored and there was nothing new to see.
We spent two weeks at a bed and breakfast in a nameless hamlet outside Roma. The owner was an old woman with no one left to talk to and the only other guest was a man from Napoli, who spent the whole day in his room. I told the owner we were married and she gave us a sunny space at the front. It had a desk where Bella rolled her cigarettes and a bed in which she smoked, a letto matrimoniale the owner called it, with a wink. I felt like Hemmingway, but I was not an author.
We woke late every morning and spent the days watching cars pass every now and then through the window from the bed, never bored in each other’s company. Every night for dinner we ate pasta carbonara; the old woman served us slowly, speaking Romano dialect. The Napoletano ate quickly and spoke only when spoken to. I had all the questions and he had only answers.
“What do you do for work?” I asked him on the third day of carbonara.
“There is no work in Italy,” he said bluntly, not looking me in the eyes.
“Then what do you do all day, why are you here?”
“I am working on a story. I’m here because this is where it brought me, as the story did to you”
“What’s your story about?” I asked.
“When it is finished you will know,” he said, winking over at Bella, who looked uncomfortable. “For now you must keep going, there’s more for you to see.”
He spoke like he knew me, but I didn’t recall his face. I didn’t trust him, and I didn’t like the way he looked at Bella. “You don’t know me,” I said, suddenly angry. “Why do you speak this way?”
He burst out laughing, looking me in the eyes for the first time. “I do know you,” he said. “I know your story better than you. I know your name is not Pier, something you chose to forget.”
We ate in awkward silence after, I was lost in thought. I didn’t know what he meant. I tried to remember back to before I was in Italy, before I met Bella on the steps of the basilica, before she called me Pier. But suddenly the floor slipped out from under me and the walls began to spin. I tried to get up and run away, but I tripped and the world went black as Bella’s hair.
It was morning when she woke me, her eyes blue and infinite like the sky over the sea. “Too much wine last night,” she said, but I didn’t remember drinking. That night at dinner the man from Napoli was gone, and it was only me and Bella once again. The story continued.
We reached Roma at dawn on Christmas Eve; it had snowed the night before. The cobblestone streets were gray and slushy, the traffic stuck in every direction. Bella skid and honked the Fiat down to the Roman Forum, cursing the name of every god the city ever knew.
She saw an opening and stepped hard on the gas, but lost control in the snow, bursting through a fence and over the edge. We landed on top of Caesar’s grave, an airbag in my face. I was blurry for a moment but when I came to, Bella was laughing hard next to me.
We crawled out through the trunk of the Fiat; Bella filled her pockets with the coins people had thrown on the grave for good luck. “Aren’t you worried about Caesar?” I asked. “He had the favor of the gods.”
“He was only a man,” she said. “Besides, there’s no such thing as gods, it’s only a story.” There were sirens approaching in the distance, but the snowy streets kept them at bay. “Andiamo,” she said. “We walk from here.”
“What about the 500?” I had grown quite attached to that little black car.
She laughed, “forget about it, it was never mine. It was only a vehicle used to move the story forward. We don’t need it anymore, we have each other.” She scooped up more coins and made me do the same, then we ran into the light of the morning to hide out in the old twisted maze of Roman roads.
Trudging slushy streets, we befriended people we encountered. There was an old man with no coat but a hat by a cardboard sign, a haggardly woman sitting on a bucket, a tan-skinned teenager with a blanket around a chihuahua and a mix of migrants looking lost on the steps of the station. Everyone was cold. We gave them each a handful of Caesar’s money, wising them a “Buon Natale”. They took it as a blessing, even if the coins were cursed.
On Christmas morning we went to mass at St. Peter’s Basilica; Bella wore all black. I hadn’t been to church in a long time and humbled myself with holy water as I entered the enormity of the Catholic Church, hoping we could act like good Christians for at least one day. But Bella was bolded out of spite from years of oppression from the church and sat sarcastically next to me, mocking the masses.
When the collection basket passed, she took a handful of coins and ran outside. I ran reluctantly after, before receiving the Eucharist. When I finally caught her, she was on a bridge over the Tiber, giving change to another homeless man. She looked out over the river and for the first time ever I saw tears in her eyes.
“What is it?” I asked, unsure of what to do.
“It’s you,” she said. “You are so… stupid, so naïve! Why do you pray like that? No one is listening- I told you, there are no gods in here, it’s all just a story, can’t you see? You need to think for yourself! Stai sveglio- are you awake? It’s not a comedy anymore, this is tragic!”
“What do you mean? Bella, where are we, really?”
“You can’t know yet, he won’t let me tell you. I wish you could see for yourself, but it isn’t time. It’s good for the story to have an element of– NO! I WON’T SAY THAT LINE AGAIN!” She screamed into the wind, that rushed around her like it was trying to drown her out. “LET US OUT OF HERE!”
I thought she had lost her mind. “Bella, what the hell? Who are you talking to? Who is he?”
She crumpled into the street, looking lonely and helpless, as if she were the only sane one left in the world. She looked up at me, her blue eyes bloodshot red. She managed only two words.
The snow started up again, the icy wind burned my eyes, and it felt like the end of the scene.
We were pulled away from Rome and back onto the road. When there were no trains, we took the bus, with no bus we walked along the highway, riding on Italian hospitality. We drifted from one region to another: Lazio, Abruzzo, Molise, Puglia. I learned from the light on snow-capped mountains and the cold darkness that falls quick on the valley. It seemed like Bella was trying to outrun her fate, with me still on the chase. No matter where we went, the author was always one move ahead, and every step we took brought us closer to the end.
On New Year’s we were in L’Aquila, the mountains spread around us. I wanted to stay there for some weeks, but Bella preferred the beach. We got a ride to Pescara, then another down to Foggia. Eating orecchiette at a trattoria by the station, we met a woman from Vieste who drove in seafood every morning. She gave us a ride into Gargano and left us on a beach near Peschici.
It was January, the beach was empty gray and cold. Bella wasn’t happy; she missed her childhood beaches of Sicily, but the story never took us south in that direction. We wandered away from the beach and back into the hilly forest, following an ancient riverbed deep into the woods. “Are we lost?” I asked her. She sighed and rolled her eyes, “We can never be lost, we are stuck in the passage of the story.” She seemed weary and tired of travel, or maybe tired of me.
We walked for hours, led by the echo of our footsteps on the stones of the dry riverbed. Suddenly there was break in the action- a brown blur burst from one side but dropped with the crack of a gunshot in the distance. A wild boar lay before us, squealed painfully its last breath and died.
Three hunters dressed in brown emerged from the woods with rifles, surprised to see us in the middle of the forest, far from anywhere. They took up the boar on their backs and without a word we followed, we all knew this was how the story was supposed to go.
They stayed in a red hunting house in the woods near Vico del Gargano. The driveway was long and rocky, it took four-wheel drive to get there. The hunters gave us the room with a fireplace, and we stayed there until spring. There was no phone service, no Wi-Fi, but by then I’d forgotten there was a world outside, anyways.
We lived the land like the sheep that roamed the hills around us. We woke every morning with the sun to wander through the forest, lost with each other’s company. We had nothing but what was given to us, fed and nurtured by the story that dragged, unrelenting, closer to the end.
The hunters took us with them when they went out to hunt. They taught us how to stalk our prey and how to sight a rifle. I was never good at shooting, never got a boar. But Bella had a steady aim, she put a bullet through every heart. Sometimes she scared me when she was on the hunt.
When spring came, we had a stockpile of salted meat. The days were longer, but the nights still cold. We sat around the bonfire drinking scotch whiskey with the hunters, who toasted Bella’s prizewinner roasting on the spick. She smiled and took it straight, no ice. I saw the fire reflecting in her blue eyes. She was staring at her boar, but I could tell she was thinking of someone else.
She woke me the next morning, before the sun broke through the hills. “Stai sveglio- are you awake? Andiamo- it’s time to leave.” She was at the kitchen table, polishing her rifle in the blue light of dawn. It was like the other mornings when we’d woken to go hunting, but I heard the snores of the hunters in the rooms upstairs. My mind was still groggy from the scotch whiskey. “Where are we going now? I like it here, let’s stay for the spring.”
“I’m done, Pier. The story must continue, but I’m not following it anymore”
I looked into her eyes, seeing angry red behind bold blue, and I knew she was serious.
“Are you coming?” she asked. “In Act 4, we kill the author.”