By: Leah Browning
It’s late, but she can’t sleep. Instead, she’s lying in bed in her hotel room watching a movie on MTV. It’s Footloose, but dubbed into Italian, so she can only understand a word here or there. She’s at the point where John Lithgow stops the townspeople from burning the books. He gives an impassioned speech, shaming them just enough that he can hand the books back and send everybody home.
It’s been several years since Elise has seen the entire movie, but she’s found it often enough while flipping channels at home that she knows the story backwards and forwards. The preacher father, the rebellious daughter. She was that kind of daughter herself, at one time.
They’re already past the scene where the girl’s boyfriend slaps her and says, “You’ll wrap those skinny legs around anyone.” Or, at least, that’s the way Elise remembers it. She hates that part, and she’s always relieved when she watches the movie on American cable and it’s been edited out.
Now, to her surprise, she wants to see it—at least, to see the crescendo of anger and sexual jealousy filtered through this particular lens—to see what Italians make of the moment when the daughter’s boyfriend is sure about Ren. The first time Elise was in Italy, she saw a bus driver who had narrowly avoided a collision with a small car lean out the window of his bus to scream and wave his arms at the other driver. No one else seemed to find this remarkable. Then both men finished screaming and drove away.
It’s only been two days, but on this trip, Elise hasn’t left the hotel since she checked in. It’s all she can do to pull herself together and go downstairs for meals. Ciao. Buongiorno. It’s been so long since she’s been to Italy that she had to look up the word “breakfast” when she got back up to the room. She can’t remember how to communicate. The best she can do is offer a weak smile and say grazie, but it is all right. In the hotel restaurant, they smile back. They accept her limitations.
Kenny Loggins is singing. Now I gotta cut loose. Footloose. Kick off your Sunday shoes. The preacher is outside with his wife. She has already spoken in her soft voice and pressed up against him in the dark. The music from the television suddenly seems too loud.
In the middle of the night, Elise wakes and can’t go back to sleep. She stands at the window in a white nightgown and looks outside. Under the darkness there are churches and piazzas that have been here for hundreds of years. One afternoon, she sat at a table in an outdoor square and ate a green salad with lemon while the voice of a woman singing opera floated from the upper windows of a neighboring school. At night, though, alone in this hotel room, Elise could be anywhere. If she didn’t know better, she might think she was back in Ohio right now.
She walks away from the window, touching everything in the dark. Her suitcase, the tabletop, the back of a chair. The smooth gray floor is cold on her bare feet. It’s a business hotel, with rooms that are clean and quiet. There’s the flat-screen TV behind her. White pillowcases and a white coverlet on the bed.
Elise picks up a hotel pen and turns on the little desk lamp. She takes out a piece of paper. Dear Michael.
The therapist has told her that it might help to write him a letter.
She stares at the wall. On my way here, I saw two young men carrying a mattress, she thinks. I turned to ask where you thought they were going, but you weren’t there.
For several blocks down Via Genova, they carried it between them—a small mattress, suitable for a child. They walked slowly. It was dusk. A man on a bicycle rode past, illuminating them briefly with his headlamp. From the opposite direction, a teenage girl passed them with a giant stuffed bear clutched against her stomach. Inside a salon, a woman lay with her head in a basin while another woman rinsed purple foam out of her hair. Next door to the salon was a laundromat with wedding dresses in the window.
In the adjoining hotel room, someone opens and closes the closet doors. What is this person doing in the middle of the night?
At last, Elise puts the pen down and turns off the light.
She’s almost asleep when the telephone rings. Her heart is beating fast when she picks it up and says hello. There’s no one on the other end. She can hear a series of tones. A mistake, perhaps? Or not. She hangs up the phone and lies still, waiting for another signal. An alarm, a knock at the door. A message of some kind, telling her what to do next.
Leah Browning is the author of three nonfiction books for teens and pre-teens. Her fifth chapbook, Out of Body, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Browning’s fiction and poetry have previously appeared in Chagrin River Review, Toad, Fiction Southeast, Bluestem Magazine, Halfway Down the Stairs, Mud Season Review, Amygdala, Storyscape Journal, 300 Days of Sun, The Citron Review, The Blue Hour Magazine, LitroNY, Lime Hawk, Nebo, Cape Fear Review, Glassworks Magazine, and Per Contra, as well as on a broadside from Broadsided Press, on postcards and bookmarks from Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf, with audio and video recordings in The Poetry Storehouse, and in several anthologies. In addition to writing, Browning serves as editor of the Apple Valley Review. “Elise in Italy” is the first of three linked stories.