I thought I’d try a little experiment and post the first little bit of my fictional book.
I literally fell for my wife in Pompeii on a hot Italian September day, 1991. My eyes on my guidebook, I strode along blithely, sweat dripping down my forehead. Not seeing her crouched in the middle of the shimmering, hot road, I toppled over her hunched form. Lethargic tourists, their cameras slung around their necks like giant, all-seeing necklaces, limped past trying not to make eye contact. I cursed and rubbed my knee. She was mortified, stammering her words of apology as she stood. I was surprised she spoke English and reached up to take hold of her outstretched hand, noticing its softness as she pulled me up with surprising strength. I stood shakily, looking into her eyes, which were a greenish yellow, like an olive, but flecked with light brown and blue and with a dark purple ring around the iris. I might have overlooked them under different circumstances, but she was looking directly at me. They were eyes filled with concern. They were familiar eyes.
â€œSarah?â€ I hadnâ€™t seen her for ten years. The last time Iâ€™d seen Sarah Willis was August 15, 1981, the day my father died. Sheâ€™d been my fourteen-year old crush, an infatuation both light with innocence and marred by tragedy. Iâ€™d spent many summers at Sarahâ€™s cottage, swimming in the lake, bunking in the boat house, playing crazy eights on rainy days. She was two years older, an eternity to a sixteen year-old girl who was in love with Marcus Pellegrino, one of her cottage friends from down the road. At eighteen, he trumped me with his fully matured biceps, deep baritone and Italian-Irish confidence. The last Iâ€™d heard of Sarah, she was living with Marc in a tiny apartment in Toronto while she studied Fine Art at the Ontario College of Art and he worked as an account executive for some big Toronto ad agency.
Meeting here in an ancient, city-sized graveyard seemed impossibly ironic, as if death followed us here and arranged for this serendipitous chance meeting. Sarah looked good. A little older without the baby fat, and her hips had filled out nicely. To me in that moment, she was as sexy as it got.Â She wore a tight tank top over low-slung utility shorts cinched with a wide leather belt, a brass star for a buckle.
â€œJay? My god! What are you doing here?â€
I still clutched her hand as she spoke my name.
â€œI could ask you the same thing. What the hell were you doing down there?â€
She gave me a sideways glance, looking coyishly sexy.
â€œI was feeling the ruts in the street. I know itâ€™s weird. But I find them amazing.â€ I glanced down. Two parallel grooves â€“ the distance between them presumably a standard cart wheel width â€“ were deeply etched into the stone. The two lines wavered down the block until they seemed to meet far in the distance.
â€œThose ruts were formed by ancient carts driving along this street thousands of years ago, and yet here they still are, as though a cart had just driven along this road yesterday,â€ she said as she looked down at them, shaking her head in amazement. I could tell she wanted to touch them again.
I smiled. Sarahâ€™s fascination with such a myopic detail was typical of her artistic obsession with details and textures. I remembered her at the cottage, always picking up stones and shells, rubbing them in her hand, passing them to me to feel. But here in Pompeii, there was something more to it. As if by touching those ruts, she could transport herself back to another time and relive what had happened there. It was hard to deny oneâ€™s mortality in a place that remained frozen in death â€“ the grisly aftermath of a volcanoâ€™s wrath, scant reminders of once-busy lives, instantly ended.
â€œAre you just traveling in Italy for the summer?â€ I asked. I was on an open-ended post college backpacking trip, trying to avoid being a grown-up and find a real job.
â€œI came to Italy a year ago. I got accepted to this artistsâ€™ commune at a monastery near Rome.â€
â€œYeah, it has been. More or less.â€ Sarahâ€™s face clouded over.
â€œWhat? Has something happened?â€
â€œWell, you remember Marcus?
â€œYes. I remember him.â€ I hoped my voice sounded neutral.
â€œIâ€™ve been living with him for the last three years in Toronto. When I got this fellowship, he thought it would be an adventure to come with me. Of course I was thrilled. I didnâ€™t want to leave him. I wasnâ€™t even going to come to Italy because of him. We were going to get married. Well, we talked about itâ€¦ Anyway, he gave up his job in Toronto. He thought he might be able to get a job in Rome, but he didnâ€™t speak Italian. He took language classes, but then he found a motley group of Italian musicians to play with in a band. And he found some cute Texan singerâ€¦â€ Sarah shook her head as if trying to shake away the memory. â€œIt hasnâ€™t ended well. He left two weeks ago. With her.â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry, that must be tough.â€
â€œYeah, but Iâ€™ve been doing some amazing painting. All that angst I guess,â€ Sarah smiled.
â€œIâ€™m really sorry, Sarah.â€
â€œNo youâ€™re not.â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry to see you in pain, but Iâ€™m not sorry about Marc, thatâ€™s true. I always thought he was an arrogant prick.â€
â€œI know. You have a weird history with him. With your dad and everything.â€
â€œYou could say that, yeah.â€
â€œBut heâ€™s a good guy. Really. Heâ€™s passionate and smart andâ€¦â€ Sarah began to cry.
â€œIâ€™m sorry Sarah. I really am.â€ I patted her shoulder. Sarah wiped away a tear and gave me a shy smile.
â€œEnough about me, what are you doing here Jay?â€
â€œJust bumming around Europe, I guess.â€
â€œI heard you went to Dal. How was that?â€
â€œOK I guess. Got a degree in Poly Sci. Typical. Have no idea what Iâ€™m going to do with it. Iâ€™m thinking about going to business school. What about you? I heard you went to OCA.â€
â€œYeah, I graduated a couple of years ago.â€
â€œThatâ€™s great Sarah. What kind of art do you do?â€
â€œI guess Iâ€™m a painter. And an installation artist. Iâ€™ve even had a show at a tiny gallery in Toronto.â€
â€œCongratulations. Iâ€™d love to see your stuff.â€
â€œThanks. Yeah, youâ€™ll have to come to a show.â€
We both looked down and watched a drip of blood snake down my shin from a cut on my knee, threatening to seep into my one pair of clean sport socks.
â€œDo you need a Band-Aid or something?â€
I smiled at her concern. â€œNah, Iâ€™m fine,â€ I said, brushing ancient volcanic dust from my shorts.Â Sarah squirted my wound with water from her water bottle, causing a dusty, bloody mess to run onto my sock and shoe.
â€œItâ€™s OK. Iâ€™m fine. Really.â€
â€œIâ€™m just trying to help.â€ Iâ€™d forgotten her alluring pout, a tiny puckered rosebud. â€œI feel terrible I made you fall!â€
â€œSo ruts in the road, eh?â€ I put my hand out for her water bottle, which she handed me and I took a swig.
â€œI know, itâ€™s dumb.â€ She squatted down to run her fingers over them once more. â€œThey are proof of what was, Jay, a reminder of another world. And look at these.â€ She reached over to point out a small, sparkly, inch-square tile embedded in the stone. â€œTheyâ€™re called â€˜cats eyes.â€™ They reflect the moonâ€™s light, guiding travelers at night. Funny how it took the rest of the world so much time to rediscover that technology!â€ She stood up, grinning.
â€œI could hang out here every day for a year.â€
â€œYeah, I know what you mean,â€ I said, my mouth strangely dry. I tore myself away from her eyes and crouched to pick my guidebook off the ground and shove it into my backpack. She blew a thick curl of reddish hair that had escaped her ponytail off her face. I noticed a few faint freckles across her nose. I had never noticed before that she possessed the same intriguing coloring of many of the people I admired in the region around Amalfi and Positano â€“ that same deep shade of auburn hair, a complexion that turned coppery in the sun and those green eyes. I remembered her dad Peter had the same coloring and now faintly recalled him talking of his Italian ancestry. It hadnâ€™t meant anything then.
â€œHave you seen any of the castings of some of the people who died that day?â€ She asked.
I nodded, grim-faced. They had spooked me. Bodies contorted, captured in their moment of death, trying to ward off the tons of ash that was about to bury them.
â€œThey have some amazing mosaics and frescoes in one of the villas just down the road,â€ she said, sensing my discomfort. â€œI was just heading there now. Would you like to join me?â€