Chapter Two. Rome. Day One.
Down the hall from the Perls, Art and Eva Manookian were in an even tinier room, and also suffering from jet lag, but in two different ways. Art had fallen into what appeared to be a coma and was snoring so loudly Eva thought it might be heard through the walls.
Eva was ferociously pacing figure-eights around the room and into the bathroom and back, her uncombed gray-blonde hair frizzed around her like an electric halo. With such magnificent energy, she could have painted all night, especially with Art asleep, leaving her in no danger of his wanting sex, the old satyr. But instead of being at her easel, she was trapped in this dark hotel room with no supplies and a brain full of images.
The ride from the airport into Rome had been stunning, unforgettable, and (Norman had been right here) indispensable to an understanding of the Renaissance and Italy with its new humanism. Ancient city walls jamming up next to medieval palazzos with rough-piled stone bases, an Egyptian obelisk rising in a Baroque fountain. Italy was a monstrous mess of beautiful art, you could never have guessed from the stately films. She loved this hodgepodge and wanted to take it all in, without a guide, thank you very fucking much. Frothing over with pictures, she felt the curse of the artist: to be unable to forget what you had seen.
Art’s snoring was driving her crazy. If he didn’t shut up, she was going to smother him with a pillow and make it look like a heart attack. She worked this scenario out while pacing. She often liked to fantasize ways to kill Art. For what? For his cheery calm, for his lack of internal torture. Sometimes for his shaved head and that little silver earring. He could annoyingly hip, especially when he was playing guitar with his jazz buddies. She could kill him cheerfully for that and for his fidelity and for her occasional lack of it. And for his being such an all-around good guy when she was a hot-tempered stinker. Yes, all good reasons. The judge would understand.
Who was she kidding, she would never paint again. If she had all the light of a midsummer day and a thousand canvases and art supplies that never ran out or dried up in the tubes, she’d never paint, hadn’t painted decently since Rebecca died. How do you make paintings after losing a child? Useless to paint mere things. Damn Art for being able to sleep. She knew what he would say if he saw her pacing like this, he’d know what she was thinking. She had stopped saying these things years ago, after he ordered her into therapy and she had come out of it exactly the same. When the painting stopped, that was the second end of her life. The only reason she had agreed to this cockamamey idea of Norman’s was hoping that maybe Italy could restore her imagination.
As she had the thought, the small crystal wall sconce seemed to smile at her like a Renaissance cherub, with all the lush sweetness of the period, and a kind of malevolence underneath that she liked. She glared at it until it again resolved itself into a crooked wall sconce.
She went to her suitcase on the stand and pulled out of an interior compartment a small plastic bag containing a small dollop of ashes. Art would be alarmed if he knew she had brought this bag with a pinch of Rebecca’s ashes to Italy. He would be alarmed because he could not understand that she was never going to stop what he called obsessively grieving. A mother just does not. It would make her feel Rebecca was still close if some tiny bit of her came with them on this trip.
It was time to rest, if she could not sleep, and without cherubs and madonnas, thank you. She needed a good, muscular Michelangelo to counteract all the sappy stuff. Or a martini, but it was too late now for that.
Down the hall from the Manookians, Sandra was in a different kind of hell. As one of only three single women, she had been forced for economy’s sake to share a room with Becca, the drama instructor, and her elderly, deaf sister Daphne. Beccas had brought her sister along because she felt she could not leave Daphne alone for three weeks. Becca spent the entire time they were getting undressed and into bed complaining about her departmental budget and the lavish expense of this trip. She had undressed quickly and then lay on her bed staring up at the ceiling, intoning her list of complaints while Sandra got into the bathroom when she could and then got into her bed.
Daphne, blissful in deafness, said nothing in reply to her sister.
Sandra lay on her bed listening and staring up as if she, too, were deaf. The complaints were probably intended for her to report to her father, but they bounced off the plate armor of her disinterest.
Suddenly she got up, startling both the muttering Becca and the nearly asleep Daphne. She stalked over to Daphne’s bed, pulled her suitcase out from under it and opened it on the floor next to the bed. Opening it, she began pawing through the contents, which had to be kept in the suitcase because there wasn’t enough room for her clothes in the one drawer allotted to her by the other two. She pulled out tee shirts and sweaters and skirts and bras until she came to a black thong and a demi-bra that matched it, the bra trimmed in tiny fuchsia ribbons. She laid these things out on the top of the bureau, on the jeans and sweater she had set out for tomorrow. Then she stomped back to her cot, turned her back to the room and putting the pillow over her head, fell asleep.
On the floor above Sandra, Marianna Waller had been long asleep in the very center of their small double bed when Rick found the farthest edge of wakefulness. Marianna’s dark wavy hair was spread like strands of cloud in a moonlit sky across the pillow and one arm flung above her head, her legs sprawled.
He stood up from where he had been huddled, still half dressed in his tee shirt and shorts, on the edge of the bed. . Marianna had rolled to the center and then stretched out. He hadn’t undressed all the way and still wore his heavy underwater watch.
Rick went over to the window and pulled back the heavy curtain to look out. Their window faced onto a small service courtyard and a wall of windows on the other side. Several were lit; travelers perhaps suffering jet lag. He looked down at his watch, which he had efficiently set for Rome time as soon as they had boarded the plane in San Francisco. Two forty-six a.m.
“There’s no reason to feel like this,” he heard himself say aloud.
It didn’t matter, because Marianna wore earplugs. The slightest noise could keep her awake and now that she was pregnant, her health was even more delicate and she needed her rest, the doctor told her, and she kept repeating.
He had a great job, a gorgeous wife, a fantastic house her parents had helped them build. He had just put Norman in his place. He stood at the window combing his long fingers through his thick brown hair that stood up spikey in the front of his head, thanks to the mousse, giving him the look of a man whose thoughts electrified the air.
Suddenly he gave a sharp kick to Marianna’s pink suede tote bag in the corner next to him, then he grabbed his toes and hopped with pain for a few satisfied moments. He had succeeded in damaging it not in the least. He stalked over to his cell phone and furiously typed out a long text, then got back onto the bed and fell asleep.
In a room on the same floor as the Wallers, Norman and Kathleen weren’t sleeping either. Norman was working on his laptop while Kathleen paced in her pink nightgown and tossed out ideas.
“Hotel Scacciapensieri!” Kathleen said. “That’s even better than the hotel I booked for Siena. I can’t imagine we can get into it, but if we could, there would be no complaints. It’s got killer views of the walled city across the valley.”
“Really?” Norman asked. “Because you researched so many hotels in Siena, and I remember you saying there were no good alternatives.”
“I wanted us to be in the city, but we can’t and save money.”
“Okay, I’m looking online . . . Spell it.”
“You’re kidding, Norman. You know I can’t spell in English. I certainly don’t spell in Italian!”
“Well, say it again, slowly.”
“Hmm. That doesn’t sound the way you said it the first time.”
Kathleen turned and faced him, putting her hands on her narrow hips.
“Norman, just look it up. You’re the researcher. The internetist.”
“I’m an economist.”
“Okay, say it again. Slowly.”
“Sko-chow-pan-sier-y. For God’s sake can’t you find it? We could email and then call in the morning. This one might save us a lot. And it has bathrooms in every room, so Marianna and Rick can’t complain. Plus it has a nice dining room with tables on a vine-covered patio.”
“Okay, I found it,” Norman said. “If we can book this, maybe we can save a third of what we would have paid the other hotel in Siena.”
Kathleen sighed. “Let’s hope they can take us. I must have talked to dozens of hotels. More than you have zeroes in your ledger books.”
“We don’t use accounting books anymore, we use software.”
“Whatever. Everyone’s computer-crazy these days.”
“Just relax while you think, walk if you need to. Do you want anything? I can ring the desk if you’d like a glass of wine.”
“Wine will make me sleepy, and if I’m sleepy I can’t pace, and if I can’t pace I can’t think.”
“Let’s look at Assisi. Maybe we can save money there,” Norman offered. “No, forget that one,” Kathleen said. “it’s cheaper than dirt. Next.”
“Hotel Villa Cora, Florence.”
“There couldn’t be a more expensive place in all of Italy! Florence is always packed, so this won’t be easy, but maybe we can find something in Settignano, outside the city.”
“Okay. How do we find something good but cheaper near Florence?”
“A million phone calls!” Kathleen sank into the chair. “I’m too tired!”
“You said we needed to do it fast. You’re tired because you feel guilty.”
“Who elected you psychiatrist?”
Norman put his laptop aside, got up from the bed, and came over to her. He put his fingers on her temples and rubbed gently.
“You need a neck rub. You’re all tense in the face, which means your neck is tense.”
Kathleen gave in and let him rub her temples. They had often started out making love this way, with his gentle touch on her head, but that was years before, when Norman had been handsome in his North Dakota way: lean, with a full, well-groomed head of hair. Now she leaned into his fingers, but then suddenly sprang up.
“If we’re going to get more ideas out of my brain tonight, I can’t relax.”
Norman sighed, went back to the bed and picked up his laptop. “Why don’t we look up all the hotels around Firenze tomorrow and get some help to make calls?”
“Are you crazy? Do you have any idea how many inns, hotels, and villas there are around Florence?”
“No, but I’m sure Rick and Sandra can help us tomorrow. And maybe we can get one or two others to skip touring and make some calls.”
“Norman, you would make a hopeless travel agent.”
“At least I know how to use a computer.” He said it with his head down, staring into the screen.
“What if you had taken your laptop out and the gypsies had nabbed it? Don’t act like it’s all my fault!”
Her voice rose to a pitch that distressed him with its potential to disturb people even through the walls.
Finally he said, “Honey, let’s sleep and pick it up in the morning. Let the group go out and we’ll work. I have to talk to Jacob about finding a guide.”
Kathleen came over to the bed and got in. Within minutes she was snoring. Norman continued to stare into his laptop, wishing that she had at least thanked him for helping. He knew she felt the responsibility, whatever she said, and didn’t handle criticism well. Rick had been rough on her.
At last he powered down, put away the computer, turned off the light, and lay back. Tomorrow they would begin a life-changing adventure. Forming The Renaissance Club was probably the most daring thing he had ever done, after standing up to the school bully Roger Stark. Rome was out there, and his Renaissance. Wide-eyed in the dark, he wondered if Jacob’s friend could guide them. If he couldn’t, this would be a very short adventure.He got out of bed and went to the phone, called the desk and got Jacob’s room
number, and phoned Jacob. After a few minutes, Norman hung up, put his clothes back on
and headed down to the bar. Jacob had news.