Book excerpt

Abroad

A Novel

Katie Crouch

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

1

 

In my suitcase: three pairs of jeans, six shirts, one practical travel dress, black cotton. One bra, white, trimmed with lace. Three photographs of my cousins and sister; one picture of my parents; two of Babs and me hugging, the first on the field and the other one at a pub. One photograph of Sean, taken out again. Also taken out: one worn, stuffed dog called Tobo. In, reluctantly—marmalade, because my mother wanted me to. Antibacterial soap, also at her insistence. My passport, of course. Three lipsticks. Seven pairs of underwear, all black. (I’d switched to black at thirteen under the instruction of my sister in order to hide stains.) Ibuprofen. Condoms, just in case, knicked from the uni health center. One copy of Ripley Under Ground, by Patricia Highsmith. One copy of Italy, Go!, highlighted and marked. The suitcase itself, a large Samsonite with wheels, inherited from my father when he moved to Dublin.

This case was eventually returned to my father by the authorities. It came back empty, save the marmalade, which never made it out of an inner pocket and was still carefully wrapped in a pair of clean running socks, blue.

*   *   *

I was a girl from Ireland, gone to Italy to study abroad. The country I chose for the language, the city I chose by chance. A boy I knew a little told me Grifonia was a good place for students. Much smaller than Rome, but not boring. Safer for girls than Florence. Good chocolate, a big uni.

“And there are those parties,” he said, as if I should know what he meant.

My first afternoon, I wandered up to the main square and sat on the steps of the cathedral. I brought a guidebook, but I was too tired from the train ride to look anything up. The square was crowded with students and foreigners. I had never seen so many kids my age in one place, just doing nothing. They leaned against the warm stone, drinking and smoking, comparing photos from home. I tried to eavesdrop on the Italians, though unsuccessfully, then pretended to read, so as not to look too lonely.

A few steps down, a girl with hair dyed lavender, half of it slipping out of a braid. She was kissing a boy. He seemed Italian, his skin dark, his hair short. He was heavy, carefully dressed in a cheap shirt, ironed, perhaps, by his mother, his brown wrists thick and covered in fur. He whispered in the girl’s ear, and she leaned over and laughed.

“I wish I knew what the hell you were saying,” she said in English, and then giggled and kissed him again, more insistently this time.

I felt strange watching from so close, but in fairness, I had been there first, and besides, the two seemed not to care. I tried to pay attention to my book, but I couldn’t help it—I couldn’t stop looking.

The boy’s hands traveled over the girl’s shirt, then under. Still kissing, the girl turned slightly and seemed to smile at me slyly, as if we were sharing a secret. I blinked, looked away, then back again. Yes, she was, in fact, grinning at me. A sign, somehow? Or was she just laughing?

I stood, disoriented, my book and open purse falling to the ground.

“Hey, let me help you with your stuff,” the girl said, leaping up. She was next to me now. The boy peered over, irritated. Apart, their incongruity grew. Her: shabby and a bit tough, yet possessing a silvery, enviable loveliness. Him: the sort of lump no one will go near at a dance.

“No, no. Thank you.” I crouched and gathered my things. She shrugged and went back to the boy. Without turning again, I hurried away.

*   *   *

When I first arrived in this small town in Umbria, I was childishly disappointed. I’d imagined charming villas—wide, gardened boulevards lined with flowers, the permeating smell of pastries and fresh bread. Instead: walls of stone emblazoned with graffiti, a scarcity of trees. Men with dark eyes slipped through Grifonia’s medieval alleys, muttering words I couldn’t catch. As a newcomer, I felt clumsy and mute. Having studied Italian for three years now, I was, at least according to my university instructors, almost fluent. Yet in the beginning I was too afraid to use any of it. Mostly, I moved about silent, flattening against walls in shops and restaurants, trying to make myself as invisible as possible.

Soon enough, though, I fell into a pleasant, lazy rhythm. I had a glass of wine at ten a.m. in an overpriced café, watching the tourist families squabble by. I ate gelato twice a day and tried on handmade shirts I could never afford. One afternoon, I even sat in the cathedral for three-quarters of an hour, trying to drum up some inkling of faith, which, for the daughter of a Jew and an on-again off-again member of the Catholic Church, failed to make itself known.

Yet I was a terminally responsible person, and this sort of loafing could not go on for long. I had classes to sign up for and, more immediately, living arrangements to make. The program had provided an initial stay in a clean if charmless rooming house near the train station, but my patience with the twenty-minute hike to the city center was waning. And so my third morning in Grifonia, I went to the bulletin board at the college and, using my new cell phone, called a few numbers pinned there on scraps of paper, hanging as precariously as the frayed threads of a tattered dress.

During the course of the next day, I saw four flats. Having enjoyed a fairly large on-campus apartment back in Nottingham, I wasn’t prepared for what passes for sizable in Italy. I had refrained from signing up for the Enteria housing out of allegiance to this idea I had of my new independence. The other girls might live in that sterile residence for foreigners, I’d boasted to Babs, my best friend back home, but I was going to live with real Italians. Now I was wishing I’d just filled out the damned form and split a flat with some nice girl from Glasgow. Two of the places required room sharing, which, after a couple of years of privacy, I just couldn’t do. Another “four-bedroom” (there was a sagging cot in the kitchen) housed five somewhat angry-looking cats. One place looked promising and clean enough from the hallway, but when the door opened I was greeted by a stout, middle-aged woman who kept me prisoner for an hour and a half, instructing me, among other things, on where to buy the best sponges for scrubbing “our” floor.

The next morning I woke dejected with only two numbers left in my notebook. I called the first and hacked through an awkward conversation with a woman who called herself Gia, then agreed with little hope to meet in front of the university. If these two were dead ends, I told myself, I’d just go to the Enteria office. Surely someone had canceled their semester, and perhaps, with a little arranging, I could just move in with some other English-speakers after all.

Within an hour, I found myself following a ropey woman with friendly eyes and platinum hair across a dirty brown square near the entrance of the school. Grifonia’s center is comprised of a maze of alleyways and tiny passages that flit back and forth between ancient buildings; places that once were mere cow trails have centuries later become crowded streets. Even though the cottage couldn’t have been more than five hundred feet away, the path she took was so confusing I felt unsure I’d ever be able to find my way back.

I hurried to keep up. It was incredibly hot—Grifonian heat being different, somehow, from that of other places. Weightier. The sports park was filthy and smelled of sour milk, marijuana, and spilled wine. The yellow air shimmered around us, and sweat trickled down the sides of my face in persistent lines. Even the thin cotton dress I had on felt too heavy for the day. How did the Italians manage to look so fresh in weather like this? My bag sagged on my shoulder and I found myself thinking longingly of the deep, clean tub in my mother’s bathroom, lined on the rim with glass jars of lavender salt.

Gia led me through an alley, then down some stairs and across a busy street that was all curves and no stop signs. As I trailed after her, I was already preparing myself for another disappointment, horrified in particular by the way the Italians drove. Why on earth would I want to live on a traffic artery? Besides, there seemed to be nothing across the street but decrepit buildings.

But then this potential landlady—lithe, pierced, with her cropped white hair, ripped jeans, and loose red tank top—opened a black gate, and all at once we were off the street and in a garden with a soaring view of Umbria. Vines climbed enchantingly up the side of the house; ripe lemons weighed heavily on a tree next to the door. Whether despite or because of the unpleasant walk, I was instantly, blindly smitten. It was sweet as a dollhouse, filled with miniature tables and chairs.

I suppose there’s a time in life when a garden of roses and lavender fails to blind a girl to the true shabbiness of a place. I myself had not reached that moment of clarity. The color of a stale biscuit with a red tile roof and peeling shutters, the building squatted at the end of the gravel yard, looking as if, at any moment, it might slide into the ravine below. The gate behind us stood open, I saw, inviting any passerby to come in and enjoy the view. Gia jiggled the door of the cottage for a moment and then, with an apologetic smile, pushed it open without a key. Even at twenty-five, I believe I would have said no. But I was twenty-one, and to my naive eyes the whitewashed hut was a paradise.

Later, after everything, I wondered if it was the place itself that was cursed. It would make sense, after all. The cottage stood directly across from what had been a school for wayward girls. Gia later told us that in the seventies, when they tore the building down to erect a petrol station below our house, the builders found an old bureau filled with the tiny skeletons of discarded infants. Mightn’t that have been enough in itself to render a spell into the ground?

There was a large, wild garden below, perhaps as much as an acre. The cottage had once been a farmhouse, with terraced farmland that provided produce to the inhabitants within the city walls, Gia explained. The building was over three hundred years old. I could make out row upon row of fig and olive trees on the hill below us, then farther, a tangled, fragrant ravine. I’ll plant vegetables and herbs, I thought. We’ll have picnics. When I mentioned my idea of planting basil and rosemary, someone new behind me laughed.

“Oh, the boys downstairs already have enough plants to make their own farm.”

I turned to see a woman with a warm face that was no less pleasant for the scars she’d clearly incurred in a long-running war with acne. She was not as striking as Gia, but her countenance was kinder; she looked at you as if she were about to set you down in a large chair and feed you a plate of pastina, whether you were hungry or not.

“I’m Alessandra,” she said, smiling.

“I’m Tabitha, but everyone calls me Taz.” I put out my hand, but she brushed it off and kissed me on both cheeks instead. It was a custom I never grew used to, even at the end. Recovering, I smiled politely and stepped back.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand you, though. The neighbors are farmers?”

“I mean they grow plants, for spinello. Or they try.”

I shook my head.

“They like drugs,” Gia said, patting my arm. “You?”

“Not particularly.”

“Smoke?”

“Now and then.”

“Well, bella.” Alessandra gave me another squeeze. “I’m glad. You are very sweet. Very cool. And you want to farm? You farm! Basil, pineapples. Anything you want.”

The house was tiny for four people, true. I was still comparing every space with my flat back in Nottingham, but I was heavily charmed. There was a small wood table with a bright ceramic bowl sitting on it, full of shiny apples. The walls were freshly painted white. The floor was cheap wood, but scattered with bright, clean rugs. Above the Lilliputian sitting area that consisted of a small sofa covered in a knitted blanket, van Gogh’s Starry Night was tacked up, along with two posters of Johnny Depp. The kitchen was modest, but the countertops were scrubbed to a shine and the pots, pans, and knives hung in an orderly fashion. It was a poor house, but these were good Italian girls, clearly, and they had burrowed in and made themselves a home.

There were two free rooms right next to each other, flanking the tiniest bathroom I’d ever seen. The spaces were simple but clean, with one twin bed each, a dresser, and a desk. The two rooms were exactly the same in every respect, save that the one in the back had a window that opened up to a wide green-and-gold view of the Umbrian hills.

Gia stood behind me, looking out. She stood closer than an English or Irish girl would. I tried not to visibly stiffen—I had never been good with strangers.

“You have boyfriends?” I tried.

“Sure. You?”

“Not right now.”

“Not yet,” Gia said. Alessandra looked me up and down in a way that was frank, but somehow not rude. These girls were older than I was. Twenty-five, twenty-six.

“It is very easy in Grifonia,” Gia said.

“But don’t pick the first one you see,” Alessandra said. “You are too nice for that.”

“Yeah, for you it will be a barrel of fish shooting,” Gia said, suddenly switching into English. I laughed, and they led me to the kitchen, where Gia poured us all a glass of wine, even though it wasn’t even noon. It was terrible, worse than the cheap stuff we drank in Nottingham.

“From the enoteca around the corner. You take a water bottle, they fill it for you. Three euros.”

“Mmmmmm.” I took another sip for show. Alessandra took off her little cardigan now, revealing an emblazoned T-shirt straining against her motherly curves:

YOUR NEVER FULLY DRESED WITH OUT A SMILE!!!

“We are gone a lot,” Gia said, getting back to business.

“I understand. I’ll be busy as well. My Enteria exchange—”

“Ah, Enteria. Good,” Alessandra said, pulling her long, dark hair up and fanning her neck. “Not that we won’t be around for you. You will be welcome to be with us at any time, bella.

“Any time,” Gia repeated.

“Still, you will have many friends.”

“And there is an American girl, too, who just rented,” Gia said. “She’s away now, but you will be friends, I think. She is very sweet.”

“Lovely.” I put down my wine. “So, then, it’s three hundred a month?”

Sì.” They gave each other a look. Obviously, they themselves were paying significantly less. But it was their lease, and though three hundred was high, between the scholarship and the money my father had given me, I could afford it. “What do you think?”

I looked around at the terrace, the little table, the warm faces of my potential flatmates. I didn’t want to look too excited, but this seemed exactly the place I’d been dreaming of.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll take it.”

“Fantastic!” Alessandra cried. And the girls embraced me again, showering me with more cheek kisses.

“I hate to ask,” Gia said, stepping away first, “but do you have … a deposit?”

“Certainly.”

“It’s okay to give it later,” Alessandra said.

“No, no—it’s fine,” I said. I reached in my purse, pulled out the envelope, and gave them two months’ worth of rent.

“Well, bella, here is your kingdom,” Alessandra said, kicking the bedroom door open lightly with her foot. “You see? The bed, the closet, the desk. All yours. It is not big, but it has everything. Sheets and towels you can get at the co-op.”

As I stood in the threshold, I heard a sudden roar, far away but insistent. The room seemed all at once airless. I leaned against the doorjamb, in order to catch my breath. I knew something was going to happen here. Something colossal. The sensation never happened again in this particular place, but that was it. My first ghost.

You see, it all started very simply. A girl packed a suitcase full of soap and clean underwear and went to Italy. She was young—open as an empty highway. She met some people there. Love happened. And then, her ending began.

“Tabitha?” Alessandra asked, touching my arm. “You okay?”

I looked at her, blinking.

“I’m fine, thank you.”

“You sure?”

“Positive,” I said, managing a smile. “I’ll just go now and get my things.”

 

Copyright © 2014 by Katie Crouch

Katie Crouch is the New York Times bestselling author of Girls in Trucks, among other novels. She contributes to The Guardian, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Slate, the Rumpus, and Salon. A MacDowell fellow, Crouch teaches at San Francisco State University and lives in Bolinas, California.