In Adam’s fall we sinned all, the old rhyme says, but sometimes Jaime believed that he had shouldered an unfairly large portion of that burden. He was sitting on the steps of the Palazzo Vecchio, just a few feet from the sign forbidding people from doing so, talking morosely about some horrible experience in his life while Jaime listened attentively and finished off the last of her gelato. It was pretty chilly, a November kind of day, and he thought her silly for bothering with ice cream; her nose was already red from the weather, and her ears–only the tips of which were visible from under her grey knit cap–were also red, contrasting sharply with the little white earring studs she wore that day. As Jaime spoke he avoided looking at her, feeling that staring off into space would make his words seem all the more dramatic, as though he were speaking through that un-self-conscious fog of memory that dimestore novelists often have their more dramatic characters speak through. Jaime also knew that looking at her would distract him and break his mood: even in her present half-frozen state Jaime was by far the most beautiful person he’d ever known, and the sight of her dancing eyes would only make him happy, and happiness was not the effect he was going for here. Happiness would ruin the mood.
With the carefully mannered and thoughtfully articulated cadences of someone who wants to be taken seriously, Jaime spoke. “It would be easier if I knew what I wanted, then maybe I could figure out how to get it. But I feel like I’m just floundering about, rudderless. I miss who I was, but even more so I miss the prospect of being what I wanted to be.”
Through a mouthful of waffle cone Jaime replied, “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” She stood and dusted herself off, munching as she walked over to the trashcan to throw away her wrapper. And with that the matter was settled. Jaime was always quick with a comment, and being so vastly superior to Jaime intelligence-wise and otherwise-wise, her comments often had the effect of shutting his self-deprecating musings up. She moved quickly, with the easy gait of someone that knows and understands herself, and when she spoke she did so in her sleek and pleasantly lilting voice that served as the perfect conduit for her wit, which always roared.
“You’re in Italy, homebelly,” she offered when she returned, “cheer up a bit.” She extended her hand to help lift him from his illegal perch and he took it, dusting off his rear after standing. They made an unlikely pair, the coincidence of their names notwithstanding. Her eyes were blue and her hair mousy-brown; his were the other way around. Though he towered over her, his evident lack of self-respect diminished his stature somewhat; Jaime often called him the littlest giant she’d ever seen. She herself was rather small, especially in relation to him, though she adamantly insisted that she was of average height.
Jaime and Jaime had met in the Frankfurt airport a few months earlier, though neither one could remember it now. He had reached for the complimentary New York Times while waiting for his flight, but Jaime was there a split second earlier. After a moment of muffled “Oh I’m sorry/No you take it I insist” awkwardness, he had let her walk away with it. Neither one had bothered to look at the other while the exchange took place; they could only remember looking at the Times’ banner and seeing a stranger’s hand reach for it first, whenever they remembered it at all.
Even after arriving in Florence–he was there for school, she for something that could almost be described as pleasure–it was weeks before they found each other again, this time at a bar where it was proven once and for all that Jaime couldn’t hold his liquor. As they sat on the curb that night, both thankful that his hair was short and that the streetlights in Italy don’t always work, a sort of bonding happened. It can be supposed that the fact that neither of them had any friends to speak of made it easier for them to get together, but then that would be oversimplifying it. Jaime and Jaime are complex as people sometimes are, and in their dissatisfaction with reality they found something they could consider mutual. Jaime had left his home because it was too static, he was too ingrained in his routines and felt he would never be able to break free from them. Jaime had fled America because it wasn’t home to her, no place was. She was rootless and hated it as much as she needed it. Being always on the move made it harder for her nightmares to catch up and strangle her at night. She was never alone and in fact couldn’t stand to be without human contact, but her every interaction with people left her cold and wanting, and so she set herself off to find whatever there was to find. Her arrival in Florence was disappointing because she encountered nothing new in it: the airport she’d already seen in Ceiba, the buses in Einsiedlerhof, the view out of her window was the same as in Dakar, her balcony was from Chelsea, and even the name of the town was a city in South Carolina.
In between his vomiting fits that night Jaime had confessed to her that he was still a virgin; Jaime couldn’t remember ever having been one, and was fascinated by her companion’s filthy innocence. The years of fermentation, twenty-three years old without a roll in the hay to speak of, had sullied his thoughts and now he couldn’t sit near a woman without thinking all the disgusting things men sometimes think about; this much she could divine even in the dark street where his breath smelled of regurgitated beer nuts and Sangria. Secretly, she suspected that he kicked with the other foot. But Jaime knew she suspected this, even his parents suspected this, and so his continual efforts to show how he so longed for a woman were amplified in the company of one, which turned Jaime off sexually but made Jaime an interesting case study.
He was in Florence for educational purposes, though all he’d learned so far was to never count on Italian plumbing. He’d been born and raised in an anonymous community in the shadow of New York City, and secretly he’d always wished that he could see the skyscrapers from his bedroom, if only so that his pain could be so much more poetic. His parents had been depressingly nurturing and helpful, and his community was obnoxiously safe. He’d earned his badge of courage for not crying too hard when a hornet stung him one night at a Tiki-lamp-lit barbecue. Of course in retrospect everything seems nicer, and so since moving away he found himself crippled by the image of Cassie, whom he had never loved but who had always been there anyway. Moving to Florence would have been a way to get the waters of his stagnant life running again, but instead he’d fallen in with Jaime.
She noticed off the bat that all he ever talked about was the past; not yesterday, or even last week, but the passato remoto, the years when all of his favorite artists appeared exclusively on the Disney Channel. The obvious explanation for this, Jaime reasoned, was that the past is easy to understand, it happened and you know what the results were. Everything that isn’t past is a void, and sometimes it’s scary to look into that. Jaime herself never spoke of the past, and when she did she always left out the important parts, Laurence in the bathtub and Jonathan everywhere else, things she would never be drunk enough to acknowledge in public. And so she always looked forward, dreading the thought that she had at least another fifty years left on this planet. No serious education to speak of made a solid future into something illusory, but she was intelligent enough and knew how to extract kindness from strangers. Jaime, on the other hand, was an educated fool who could probably live forever and be successful at it but was nonetheless convinced that he’d be dead by thirty-two.
In her he found a sort of hope, a beautiful girl with no place to go. In him she found a bit of comfort, a friendly guy with no way of getting there. And so the sad lonely boy and the poor broken girl set off together to conquer the world, or at least survive the nights.
Jaime was shivering but wouldn’t show it; Jaime had insisted that he wasn’t properly dressed for the weather but he assured her he would be fine, and he was fine so long as the sun was up, but it was almost gone now and he was cold, and his pride was such that he couldn’t let himself shiver in front of her. He could never tell which was more infantile, the smarmy “I told you so” or the annoyed pout that would follow.
“Don’t you ever miss being a kid?” he asked her out of the blue as they walked past a young Gypsy girl who was selling flowers instead of doing homework. Jaime sucked in her breath and thought for a second.
“I miss being able to fight people without my boobs getting in the way, if that’s what you mean.”
“No, I mean, having no worries and being…I don’t know. Those were great years, and I feel like I didn’t pay enough attention.”
She paused to consider for a moment, and when she spoke she chose her words thoughtfully. “This is all I’m saying about that: our memories are filtered through our current mindsets; when we’re sad we’ll think of anything old and it makes us happy, even if it was something horrible. We find comfort in it because we survived and were able to have happy days afterwards. I laugh when I think of the time I was in the hospital with all the wires and tubes and needles sticking out of me because it just seems kind of funny now, and besides the scars don’t hurt anymore.”
“I disagree. I think our current actions are always done in relation to our memories, the past casts a long shadow over us. We were happiest when we were little and today we just struggle to recapture that. That’s why lovers always act so childish around each other and Cher still sells records.”
“Your problem is that you only view today as tomorrow’s memory; you get stuck in the past and completely lose sight of what is real and what isn’t. And anyway, even the clearest memories are always fuzzy.”
And so there they stood, he a white horse with black stripes and she a black horse with white stripes, though to anybody who was just passing by they were a couple of zebras and hopefully a cheetah would come by soon and fell them and take us all out of their misery.
When young people decide they want to sound intelligent, they will often adopt a flattened tone of voice and speak with awkward sentence structures, keeping their faces very straight and earnest, perhaps in the belief that it is impossible to be smart and smile at the same time. A cynic might say that this belief stems from the fact that after a lifetime of simply regurgitating information, the average young person finds original probing thought to be a joyless and somewhat painful exercise not worth smiling about; however, upon closer inspection, it is revealed that this mannerism is more a form of conceit than anything, a signal that what is being said is weightier than thou. And so as Jaime and Jaime walked down to the Ponte Vecchio, Jaime, who wanted his pseudo-intellectual musings to carry an appropriate weight, adopted this manner of speech, and Jaime, too intelligent to take the bait, took to singing “Sooner or Later (One of Us Must Know)” to herself. They carried on in this manner for quite some time. It was quite a lovely day, all nippiness aside, and Jaime let her friend’s voice seep into the collage of sound that surrounded her. She immersed herself in the senses, letting the sounds of voices and motorini blend into her, and letting the smells of chestnuts and toasted panini blend in, too, along with the sensations of being shoved by rude Florentines and foreigners alike, the sights of Gypsy children selling roses and African men selling tissue paper; all of this blended into her and she was happy. Jaime at this point in her life was somewhere between seventeen and eighteen, though she could have easily been a little older or a little younger. A well-meaning Midwestern couple had arbitrarily assigned her a mid-November birthday when she was around four, partly because it coincided with some anniversary, but Jaime herself rarely celebrated it. The date was coming up in a few days, but she’d already told Jaime that she was a March baby in order to keep him from making a fuss. He’d be gone by then, and though she would probably miss him she had no intention of keeping him around after December.
They were surrounded by the Uffizi galleries now, and the mad crush of tourists always wanting to go in. “In the room the women come and go,” Jaime suddenly blurted out to the Prufrock walking alongside her, “talking of Michelangelo.” She hadn’t realized that she’d said it out loud until Jaime noticed the rhyme and commended her on it. Then he resumed his narrative of his personal disasters, including how the face of dear sweet Cassie seemed to be imprinted everywhere he looked. Considering his avowed goal to get into Jaime’s pants, it was perhaps odd that he was talking about another woman incessantly, but Jaime believed that doing so would make him look sensitive and would perhaps pique her interest, or at least she’d pity him and give him a consolatory lay. And then maybe she’d fall in love with him. Cheap sex wasn’t his thing, but in a pinch it would have to do.
Walking beside them were lovers necking and spouses carrying small children, a sort of living cause-and-effect case that struck Jaime as a bit funny and made her laugh. Jaime, who had paused to gather his weighty thoughts, tossed a glance at her and found himself rendered speechless by the warmth trapped in her powder-blue eyes. Her lips danced perilously close to a smile, and her whole face, rosy red from the cold, made him want to smile, too. She noticed his look and returned it; he burst out a short laugh. She mock-punched him lightly and began bounding around a bit.
“Come on, cheer up, you silly thing.” The sight of her laughing for no obvious reason made him smile, too, and this made her laugh more. She ruffled his blue-dyed hair. “You look like somebody peed in your cornflakes. You know what’ll make you feel better?” And she described what she said then with exaggerated gestures. “We…,” (adding an extra pause for emphasis–in his mind she followed this up with something dirty), “are going to go to the Old Bridge…” and her extra pause here made it already seem like it would be wonderful, “and buy a bag of marbles…”
“Marbles!” he laughed at the improbability, not because it was funny or even witty, but because she put such life into the words that he couldn’t help but forget his sorrows. She stopped him with a finger and continued her train of thought, which wasn’t traveling nearly as fast as she wanted it to at that moment.
“And then we’ll,” and in a mad rush of words she concluded: “run up and down the bridge tossing marbles at all the bald-headed people.” She turned around and began to run towards the bridge, and for a second he thought she really would. When she’d been young doctors had warned that her state of malnourishment—which had made it so difficult for them to determine the unnamed, unspeaking infant’s exact age—would stunt her growth; now, nearly fully grown, her petite size and limitless energy made her extremely attractive to Jaime, like a forest nymph from Greek legend or something like that. Of course Jaime had no way of knowing (and nobody had any way of confirming) that her five-foot-two-inch frame was the direct result of her unfortunate infancy; he only knew that she was beautiful, and when she was in front of him anyway he loved her.
Her silliness finally broke his mood and he bounded after her; without the pretensions Jaime was actually fun to be around, and when they stopped in front of the man pretending to be a statue, he watched and laughed and even joined in a bit as Jaime went up and poked at the performer. She was speaking loudly and animatedly in English, which always made Jaime very self-conscious—he loathed sticking out as an American in Florence. But this time he didn’t feel too bad.
Jaime’s nature wasn’t inherently gloomy; he enjoyed laughing as much as everybody and deep down inside he wanted the kind of happiness that Jaime seemed to be perpetually immersed in. Jaime’s happiest moments were all like these: a pretty girl, a nice day, all caution tossed aside; a moment of abandon of the sort that he could never manage on his own. Despite all the people in the area, he and she may as well have been alone, annoying a poor street performer dressed in gold lamè and face paint. Every now and then Jaime thought that he would change, that he could become a charming extrovert and not spend his days and nights alone; he always hoped that somebody would come along and change his life for the better that way. In those moments of inspired lunacy with Jaime he felt himself becoming that charming person.
They moved on from there shortly afterwards, Jaime’s high laughter filling the air as Jaime became self-conscious again and stifled his laughter a bit. She clung onto him, so close, and he wanted to run his finger along her cheek which looked so smooth, and touch her lips which he knew would be so soft, and in a moment turn their three months of friendship into something slightly more, but then she took in a deep breath and mumbled, “Too silly,” to herself and the moment was over, at least for him. For the small-framed girl that shared his name and his time and nothing else, moments like this went on forever because they had to.
Throughout his life, the only thing that kept Jaime from being a face in the crowd was the fact that he was always alone. Not completely alone–that would have made him a freak–but he had never been a part of a circle of friends and had never had a serious girlfriend to speak of (except for a brief disastrous encounter in the tenth grade that had left him hurting for a good two years). Not that he was disliked: during school hours he was spoken to quite often, invited to lunch tables and treated with a reasonable amount of warmth. After school, though, his social life was over. The telephone in his house very rarely rang for him, and when it did it was because somebody had forgotten what the homework in Geometry was and hoped he would know. Nobody ever came over to visit. Only one person outside of his family had ever seen his bedroom, and that was only fleetingly. Jaime was never invited to parties and never threw any himself. Without a trial he had been sentenced to life in solitary, without so much as a fat scary warden to keep him company and beat him up now and then.
And in his room he sat around, listening to music (all Top 40–Jaime simply didn’t have a subversive streak) and watching television. His parents had given him a computer when he was young and he had always used it for educational purposes until one day he began trying to draw naked women on it, a genuinely pathetic way to get a cheap thrill. It was years before he thought to look online for pornography, but porn wasn’t his thing either; it actually made him sadder to think that some guys could convince a girl to not just undress, but to get into unnatural positions occasionally involving vegetables, midgets and Evian bottles and have the whole thing recorded on film for all the world to see while he himself couldn’t even get a girl to offer a phone number.
Cassie was a girl who was rumored to have a crush on him, though why any girl would waste her time pining for such a guy was beyond the comprehension of even Jaime himself. He was reasonably funny and easy to get along with, sure, but couldn’t offer much in the way of charm or intelligence despite whatever it was his grades said; he seemed doomed from birth to amount to nothing much. Cassie, while not a contender for being the prettiest girl in school, was at least friendly and she did have gorgeous eyes. Her hair was very soft, which he liked, and though her voice was flat and a little monotonic, it could have its own sort of pleasantness if you bothered to pay attention. But all the time spent in his room had given Jaime the opportunity to become delusional, and he figured there was no sense in settling for a girl that was “good enough” just because he was lonely. There had to be something better out there.
Upon arriving at college he decided to take a desperate gamble and make himself a radically different person; instead he dyed his hair blue and left it at that. It seemed joltingly out of character then, but after a while he got used to being the nothing-special guy with the blue hair. And so when he arrived in Florence and found Jaime, he suddenly felt that things were on their way up; she didn’t let him stay at home alone, and she saw his bedroom on many occasions (she even actually slept over once, though he’d been too drunk to offer her the bed and so she slept on the floor—in the morning she’d borrowed some of his clothes, and he suspected that those boxer shorts she wore would be his favorite pair for the rest of his life). With Jaime, Jaime’s life was improving in ways he could have never imagined, or so he felt; but he’d been wrong before, and he’d most likely be wrong again when it was all over and done with.
Swinging past the Uffizi galleries onto the street Jaime and Jaime looked out over the river. The sun wasn’t out anymore but the sky was still well lit; dusk was only beginning to set in, and the last rays of light caught on the edges of the clouds overhead reflected beautifully in the swollen river. Jaime loved the river with its murky water and troubled history. She had lived near a river once, a much smaller one that was naturally cleaner than the filthy Arno. That was when Laurence was taking care of her, if only for a season, before she’d found him in the bathtub, the red-tinged water staining his clothes, eyes and wrists both wide open; she’d sighed deeply then, thanked God for small favors and put her clothes back on before returning to her bedroom and falling fast into a wonderfully deep sleep. That was what, ten? twelve? years ago. Who knows. Time is relative, even if nobody seems to have any idea what it is relative to, and she could never understand why those days seemed so recent while the day she met Jaime seemed so distant. Besides, this was a different river, a different country, and a different guy, one who wouldn’t go to such lengths to fulfill his fantasies only to have some Catholic guilt overwhelm him and bring it all to an end. Jaime was harmless. She knew what he wanted but it didn’t really bother her because at this point he would settle for whatever little she bothered to give. He was like a nonalcoholic beverage: she could drink her fill of him without worrying about a nasty hangover, and if he didn’t taste as good as the real thing then that was just a price she would have to pay.
She felt her energy flagging as she and Jaime passed the phalanx of tourists, crossed the lungarno and began making their way down to the Ponte Vecchio, which Jaime in her unabashed Americanness insisted on translating as the Old Bridge. She wasn’t in the mood to throw marbles at bald people anymore, though Jaime couldn’t tell. To him she was still smiling warmly, the tip of her nose turning adorably rosy in the bitter wind. Her thin lips when smiling revealed her little white Chiclet teeth and for some reason his heart doubled its beat. Mortals shouldn’t be allowed to be so beautiful, it tends to drive the ordinary people crazy.
Because she could not stop for death, and had no intention of letting kindly death stop for her, Jaime kept herself going. Her having survived this long would have been very surprising to the well-meaning New York City couple that had spent six months caring for a five-year-old girl that would play and sing all day and then scream herself hoarse all night long, frightening the neighbors and causing irreparable damage to their marriage.
Then there was the young well-meaning couple in Ohio that had first taken pity on the dirty girl by the gas station and given her a sandwich, and then a Christmas dinner and a change of clothes, and finally a place for the thirteen-year-old to stay in return for light housekeeping and a promise to go to school. She’d been far behind her grade in math and science, but in literature she was phenomenal, and gobbled up the couple’s treasure trove of books in the year she was with them; then one night they offered to adopt her and as they slept Jaime found herself on a train to Florida with a stolen credit card. They didn’t report it stolen for almost a solid week, perhaps out of sympathy. Regardless, it was enough, giving her a wonderful idea that would carry her over North America, West Africa, the Caribbean, and central Europe.
Because how exactly does a homeless orphan with no high school education fund an open-ended trip to Italy? By charming the pants off a corporate lawyer and stealing his credit card in the night. She knew that he could report it stolen at any time, and prepared herself for the possibility that some day she would go to use it and the cashier would take a pair of scissors to it; that’s what had happened to the first one and it had completely surprised her, she’d gone hungry for two weeks. This time she’d withdrawn two hundred American dollars from the card and kept that cash on reserve at all times; she tried to keep her expenses modest, lest he become tired of paying off her sojourn and thus end her shopping spree. Was she a thief? Not until he reported her she wasn’t. Until then she was a beneficiary who had earned his love or respect or something, enough that he didn’t mind a monthly bill for a card he couldn’t account for.
When recording human history, some historians will opt to jump from war to war, as if humanity had been shaped entirely by Marathon, Trafalgar, Verdun and Corregidor. Others will instead chart history by jumping from Virgil to Dante to Shakespeare and Eliot, as though history was nothing but a series of artistic triumphs. And they are both right, I guess. One finds meaning in the tragedies, and the other in the victories; Jaime was of the latter mentality, and her friend Jaime was of the former.
For Jaime all the little triumphs amounted to nothing. He’d been a boy scout—big deal; a National Honor Society member—who cares; parents gave him a car—doesn’t matter. It was the stinging rebukes, the girl who’d turned her head when he tried to kiss her, the teacher that had been too busy for a conference with him but not too busy for a chat with someone else, the get-togethers that excluded him though nobody could ever give a reason why. He had two black eyes to match Jaime’s blue ones. Sure, he had a lot to be thankful for, but he’d give it up in a second. And that’s perhaps what kept him going, the chance that someday he’d be able to trade his lonely stability and find something to love and love him back.
Jaime and Jaime began passing the rows of overpriced goldsmiths and silversmiths on the Ponte Vecchio, neither one even pretending they could afford anything there. As always the bridge was full of people who didn’t speak Italian—Jaime felt at home, but Jaime did not. He hadn’t traveled to Italy to feel at home.
The noise on the bridge precluded the possibility of a conversation, and so Jaime and Jaime roamed on in silence, separated by throngs of Germans and Kansans, two groups of people seemingly caught up in a competition over whose accent clashed the most with the Italian landscape. Finally the Jaimes managed to meet up again in the middle of the bridge, under the semi-secret Vasari corridor, facing east. The sun hadn’t completely set yet—the sky was blazing with colors; Jaime failed to notice them, just as he had failed to notice every other sunset in his life; Jaime let the light show slip over her, tried her best to inhale it and let it soak into her. She remembered the time when she finally got away from Jonathan (was that really only a year ago?): standing on the beach in Dakar with the almost innumerable bruises on her back and legs (and the one on her cheek) smarting but only a little, the eastern Atlantic surf washing over her bare feet; she had no idea how she would get home or even where home would be, but it didn’t matter, the sun setting over the ocean was a sure sign that she was free and this time it was permanent. On the Ponte Vecchio now–another sunset, another country, another insecure American guy whose name started with “J”–she stared out in silence, and as a bird flew overhead (she knew it was pigeon but wanted it to be a dove) she felt herself soaring, in spirit if not in body. She wanted to be aloft, swept away from this crazy world and its troubles, pure and serene. Below her the Arno–the same river that had destroyed beautiful Florence so many times and had spitefully stranded poor Pisa by silting up its harbor–churned on, its water level higher than normal after a week of torrential rains but not high enough to be frightening. The murky water which reflected the sunset so gorgeously hid the river’s secrets well: to believe that it could have so easily smothered the cities on its banks was almost as difficult as believing that this slight blue-eyed girl with the sweet lilting voice had once pointed a knife at a lover in an African hotel room, demanding money and the right to be left alone even as an impossible torrent of blood ran down from her nose over her split lip. The cut on her lip was almost invisible now, just as the waters of the Arno were today nonthreatening. And both their secrets lay willfully buried except for a scar here or a plaque there.
Because the trick to laying away the past is to forget it entirely, Jaime tried to let herself do this; but because the weight of it was so great, she found herself unable to. She wondered if one day she could. If not, then those churning brown waters would probably find themselves with one more secret to bury. And she hadn’t come this far to do that.
Jaime looked at her as her eyes shifted from the sky to the river and back again. He wanted to reach out and touch her, just to hold her hand and feel the weight of those thin fingers. That, he told himself, would be enough. Human contact, was that too much to ask? In the water he fancied he could make out the shapes of the fish crowding under the bridge for whatever scraps of schiacciata the tourists decided to toss down. The fish had no hands to hold and seemed to actually make an effort to avoid touching each other. He may as well join them, just lose himself in the water, cut off his hands before jumping in because nobody wanted to hold them anyway, under water or above it; let the water fill his lungs and drag him down—unlike a fish he’d be unable to dart around in search of unsalted bread, he’d just sink and eventually die. And would that be so bad? Because here he was in the middle of Florence with a girl who had become perhaps the most intimate friend he’d ever had in his life, and she was still three feet away, not talking to him.
In their silence the sun set. The colors of the clouds overhead changed to a muted blue and then black, and the city around them switched to the slower rhythms of the night. Tonight they would go out and have some liquor, and Jaime would probably puke himself silly in some gutter; Jaime would walk him home and decide to spend the night and in the morning she’d be showered and gone before he even woke up. This was their world, with pain and joy so heavily mixed that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. Without thinking, Jaime let her thin hand slip over to Jaime’s and took it; he sucked in his breath and held it as she leaned her body forward against the rail and let herself be lost in the waters below.