|A Long View
Have you ever noticed? All the angels in the Uffizi
have colored wings, rows of feathers lined up: red, yellow, blue, purple, green. The 16th
century putti are round and pink-cheeked, casting their eyes heavenward into impossibly
blue skies afloat with cottony clouds. Go back to the 13th century and Cimabues
flyers look like withered corpses, rendered in shades of gangrene, staring into a future
full of famine and disease.
Rachel points these facts out to me and at first I
want to believe shes wrong. She is after all only fifteen. What does she know about
angels, or paintings, or for that matter, Italy? Shes never been before. I know the
color of the trees, those shapely umbrella pines balancing needle-covered plumes on tall
naked trunks. I know the colors of Florence, Bologna and Venice, one pinker, one browner,
one more orange than the other. And the light. I know the light. That light is something a
young girl like Rachel doesnt know.
In Lido de Jesolo, a few days ago, she bought a bottle
of wine, wandered out onto the beach and let four Italian boys pull at her clothes. The
other students, in particular a couple of hysterical girls, turned it into a big thing.
"Rachel was almost raped," one of them told
the others and stepped back to watch the rumor spiral around the hotel lobby.
"Nobody forced me to do anything," Rachel
told the two teachers who had raced down the beach to rescue her.
Her voice was colored by the wine shed downed
with her gelato. Her lips had turned bright red, her shirt was unbuttoned. Everyone could
see her flesh spilling out of the black bra that was too tight for her pillowy chest.
"They were cute," she said. "We just
went for a walk. Whats the big deal?"
Shes a big girl, all cheeks and lips and pink
fleshy fingers. Her hair is a color somewhere between blonde and brown. She wears it up in
a messy ponytail. Today her shirt is buttoned up, a mock camouflage print. Her denim
overalls are so big that even with the pant legs rolled they puddle around her sneakers.
Shes slung a dark blue canvas bag with a wide woven strap across her chest. It cuts
a diagonal path between her breasts.
"Its your own fault," I say.
"From now on youre stuck with me."
"Dont think Im any happier about it
than you are," I say.
Weve skipped the guided tour of Florence, left
the guide, the other teachers and her classmates to set out on our own. Too many side
streets for her to take off down. I dont trust her not to disappear again. The
gallery seems safe, full of guards. I havent given her a map. She squints at
Botticellis Venus. Rachels eyes are bright blue marbles set in pads of
fat, blue buttons on the plump cushion of her face.
"Cunt on the half-shell," Rachel says.
"What on the half-shell?"
"You really shouldnt use that word.
Thats a terrible word."
"Dont you just hate those pretty girls.
Look at her. That face. And the other one. Look at that dress. What if hed painted
someone who looked like me standing on that shell? Can you imagine that?"
I dont have an answer for her because shes
right again. I cant imagine it. Shes such a shapeless thing, a young girl,
full to overflowing with Pop Tarts and Big Macs.
"I hate the breakfasts here," she told me
this morning. "Who eats meat and cheese for breakfast? Whats with those
dried-out rolls? Id sell my soul for a Dunkin Donuts Honey Dip and a real cup of
"Youre in a different culture. Its
only nine days. When in Rome do as the Romans do. And eat as the Romans eat."
We step out of the Botticelli room into the long,
"Look up," I say.
Rachel tilts her head back.
The ceiling is vaulted. Every surface, every curve of
the arches which run down the full length, is decorated. Paintings within paintings within
bands of elaborately detailed patterns. As we walk along she notices that each segment has
a different theme.
"Freaky," she says. "Just look at those
things, part man, part woman, or bug or bat. Kind of creepy, dont you think?"
Shes talking about the creatures woven into the
"Ill bet each one has a meaning. They
probably tell a story."
"Looks like whoever painted them was on drugs.
Whatever he was smoking, I dont want any of it."
"Forget what he painted for a minute and look at
how he painted it, at how skillful the painter was."
"Must have taken forever."
We reach the end and turn left. Theres another
hall, identical in length to the one we just walked down. The ceilings are painted in the
same style. They look to be by the same hand. Rachel reaches into her bag and pulls out a
pen and a small ring-bound pad. She flips the cover back and begins to sketch, careful to
be sure her hand is shielding it so I cant see. In my English class she draws all
over her papers when shes supposed to be writing. I know this but have never said
anything to her.
"I didnt know you liked to draw?" I
All day I've been trying to find some common ground.
Something to make her step outside of herself. Last night she snuck off to a tattoo parlor
she spotted on a side street. Because of her the rest of us were two hours late for
dinner. This morning I caught her showing off her tattoo to some of the other girls so I
showed her the one on my ankle. My crudely drawn butterfly is not nearly as nice as the
delicately shaded orange tiger lily decorating her hip.
"1968. Sailor Eddies at 9th and Arch in
Philadelphia. I drank too much that night. Just like you." I didnt tell her
about the opiated hash. "The next day I woke up so scared I rushed to the E.R. at
Pennsylvania Hospital for a gamma globulin shot."
"A gamma what?"
"Oh, Ive been inoculated."
"For A and B, you have. Not for C. There
isnt one for C and C is the one you get from unclean needles."
Suddenly I want to scare her out of her wits. I want
to tell her about my friend in L.A. who is on a liver transplant list. I want to tell her
about my other friend who dropped dead in a bar in Connecticut. I want her to wish she
hadnt let some guy in a room on a third floor in a back alley in Florence stick a
needle into her. But whats the point? I remember being her age. She still thinks
shes going to live forever, and that prospect might be more dangerous for her than
anything if it turns out shes one of those kids who decides that forever is much too
Rachel turns and looks at me.
What does she see? A teacher? Someone whos just
along for the ride? Someone taking advantage of a cheap trip back to Italy? Nine days on
planes and buses, seven cities, north to south, staying in three-star tourist hotels, a
step up from my hosteling days but a step down from the house I rented in Umbria a few
See Rachel. See how the colors change, darker here,
lighter there. Look at the light.
My son said, "What, are you crazy? Youre
going to chaperone a bunch of arrogant high school kids? Youll hate that."
He was right. The kids have been arrogant and petty
but last night when we walked through Florence in the dark and turned the corner into the
Duomo piazza, most of them opened their eyes and saw. That magnificent building, with its
intricate surface, a patchwork, two tones of gray stone made them see something
theyd never seen before. And Rachel had lingered. I watched her. She stood apart,
staring up at it, detached, transported to another century. That was just before she took
off to find the tattoo parlor.
This morning when the art teacher who had been
assigned to stick with her like glue looked longingly at the giggling group of kids
getting ready to march off to view Davids marble penis I found myself volunteering
to be Rachels keeper.
"Thanks and good luck," the art teacher
said. She rolled her eyes in the direction of where Rachel stood off to one side of the
hotel lobby, her expression unreadable, alone.
In the museum cafe Rachel cant make up her mind.
The pastas arent smothered in red. The tortellini is speckled green with pesto and
the carbonara is iffy because of the pancetta and the peas. She settles on the Italian
version of a sandwich, slices of ham and cheese between thick slabs of focaccia.
"Dont they sell real bread anywhere in this
country?" she asks as I take my plate from the servers hand.
The restaurant is run cafeteria style and the young
man who spooned the tortellini onto my plate tells us the same quaint story he probably
tells all the tourists.
"Ah, the tortellini," he says. "Can you
guess where the name comes from."
"Little hats?" I answer.
"No, no, those are capellini. These are named for
the Goddess Venus, her bellybutton."
He stares at Rachels chest as he says it. She
groans and readjusts the strap of her bag before lifting her tray. We find a table by a
window overlooking the courtyard and sit.
She spreads her napkin across her lap and waits for me
to eat first before taking her first bite. Someone taught her manners. Who?
From the other teachers I know theres a father
(he drinks), a stepmother ( theyre estranged), and a mother (long gone). Rachel,
they say, is needy, looking for attention; all the things they say when they cant
figure out how to crawl into a kids head. What Im beginning to see is that
Rachel is alone, not necessarily lonely, but definitely alone. There are other kids in the
group who are overweight, and lord knows most of them, fat or thin, come from less than
perfect families these days, but they try to fit in. Rachel stands apart. She disconnects
and drifts along in a space all her own.
"Did you see a sign for the bathroom?" she
I point. She stands, takes off her bag and sits it on
the table before she leaves. Maybe I should go with her? What if she doesnt come
back? But I stay in my seat. If shes going to bolt she wouldnt have left the
The bag is big and bulging. A large pocketed flap
covers the front. I can see the outline of her sketchbook through the thick fabric. I
reach over and pull it out. When I flip the cover Im back at the Duomo. Her drawing
is delicate. It covers the page edge to edge. Shes caught the spirit of the place.
The building is drawn in sharp focus. The figures in the foreground are blurred.
Shes drawn them in motion. The one with a face, I recognize: a boy Ive seen
her chatting with.
On the next page shes copied one of the
creatures on the gallery ceiling, part man, part bird. In an arcing script around its head
shes written, Italian angels fly on colored wings. Suddenly guilty I close
the pad and slip it back into the bag.
Rachel returns. Her cheeks are bright red as if
shes been outside. Its winter and cold here, not as cold as at home in New
England, but cold for Italy. When we left this morning she was jacketless, sweaterless,
wouldnt go back for one or the other. When she speaks I smell cigarette smoke.
"Maybe Ill buy some postcards, send one to
my grandmother," she says. "Im not sure why I should though. She
doesnt like me."
"Oh, Im sure thats not true."
"Its true all right. She calls me
"Im sure she doesnt mean it that
"To be hurtful. Sometimes when people think
theyre being constructive it comes out the wrong way."
"Shes no toothpick herself. The sizes on
the tags in the necks of her clothes all have Xs after them."
I take a longer look at her. Shes padded but not
what anyone could call obese. In another time she might have been considered a
"Finish up," I say. "More galleries or
the gift shop?"
"The gift shop," she says and quickly drains
the last of her soda.
I find the rack of postcards first, vistas down each
of the hallways and card after card of the painted ceilings, disappointing because the
camera has flattened them out. We count thirty-five plus the three long views. I quickly
convert the lire to dollars. The cards are about a dollar-fifty a piece times thirty-five.
Too much for her to spend on postcards. Too much for me.
The shop is almost empty. The only salesperson is
turned away from us, sitting at the cash register, chatting on the phone. I look at
Rachel. She looks at me. We both look back at the clerk. I dont need words to know
we are about to do something. We are about to do something we shouldnt do simply
because we can, Rachel and me. I watch as she begins to remove one card after the other
from their slots. She starts at the top. I glance back at the clerk still talking.
I kneel down, and start pulling cards from the bottom until Rachel and I meet and clean
out the middle row together. I hand her my stack. She adds them to hers and taps the edges
against the palm of her hand like shes straightening a deck of cards before she
slips them next to her sketchbook in the front pocket of her bag. The clerk is still
talking. Her voice rises and falls, carrying across the tall room.
I know I should say something like, "Okay, that
was cool, now lets put them back," but instead I say, "Lets get out
We take our time leaving the shop. Rachel looks
through the posters. I lean over a jewelry case. The clerk is still on the phone. She
doesnt even look up when we walk past her and out the door.
I retrieve my coat from the cloakroom. Rachel goes to
the bathroom again. When she comes back we dont speak; in fact we dont speak
again for the rest of the trip. We walk through the narrow streets, stopping to peer into
the shop windows, jostled by other tourists. The Americans are easy to spot, like us, in
sneakers and jeans. The Japanese are all smartly dressed and carry packages emblazoned
with logos: Prada, Gucci, Versace. Every other block seems to have a Versace store. Rachel
clutches her bag to her chest. In a small square we stop to listen to a trio of musicians
- Peruvians playing Andean pipes - until we realize that the song, which I thought at
first was a delicate native tune, is actually the theme to the movie Titanic. The
streets eventually open out onto the Duomo square and I see the familiar flag of our tour
guide floating over one of the many huddled groups of kids, waiting to march off to the
next museum or monument or cathedral. Rachel rushes ahead of me to join them.
From that afternoon on Rachel doesnt misbehave.
She figures out how to blend in. She sticks with the group, sits with the boy in the Duomo
drawing; on the bus, in the trattorias, on the plane back to Boston. Every so often I
think I catch her looking over at me but Im never quite sure. When I get home
theres a pile of mail waiting. I flip through nine days of bills and circulars, a
couple of promotional freebies, then there it is. A postcard with an Italian stamp and
postmark. No message. Just a delicate drawing of a hand holding what you would think if
you didnt know better, was a fanned out hand of cards. I turn it over. Its a
long view down one of the Uffizi hallways.