Probably too much pecorino the night before, but you haven’t figured that out yet.
Your eyes struggle to focus in the dark, unfamiliar room and the lingering haze of sleep. You stretch out of a tight fetal position, first one arm and then the other until the knuckles of your left hand reach the headboard cushion. Your stomach is sore, as if you were punched in the gut.
Seeing him, even with your eyes closed, always has the same effect.
The air had shifted, as it always does, when he entered the imaginary living room that was supposed to be his parents’ but didn’t look anything like the real one.
You don’t want to be with him anymore, in any realm, but were still hoping he thought you were pretty anyway. The slippery slope that happens while awake too. You didn’t look directly at him in case you wouldn’t like the answer.
You announced that you were leaving, hoping to save yourself from how much you wanted him to want you. That’s when you noticed a young woman relaxed in an armchair, her long alabaster legs hanging over one of the arms.
She smiled and said that she was staying a little longer. She tried to be nonchalant. Most people might have believed her, but you knew better. You had used the same look before. It meant there was hope, or already a silent agreement in place.
The gut-punch. In an instant you hated her. More than a little. Even if you were just toying with the idea of getting back together, like you do sometimes when you Google him and find nothing.
Then the proof of him moving on was draped carelessly in front of you. He (or rather your masochistic subsconscious) left you and her alone in the living room to make the connection.
Then you woke up breathless to the world outside of your dream.
Where are you? You sit up, studying the soft light through closed slated shutters and sheer drapes, and swing your legs over the edge of the bed to place your bare feet on the room’s cool terracotta tiles.
San Quirico d’Orcia.
A church bell must have saved you. It’s 6:00 a.m.
You could go back to sleep in case your subconscious decides to be kinder. Or, you could explore.
You put on pants and a long sleeve shirt, and head outside.
Everything is a hill in this tiny, red-bricked medieval town. You cross the street to sample a wild blackberry you saw the neighborhood children picking as you arrived the evening before. A branch catches your sleeve and pricks your forearm stunning you a bit more awake.
You climb a set of steep stone stairs to a park. The sun is bright and already warm as it rises over a distant mountain range. Below in the rolling valleys of dry clay dirt and cyprus trees is dense mist. If the elevation were higher, you’d swear you were above the clouds.
You stop, forcing yourself to take in the natural beauty around you, reminding yourself that this is vacation. A good thing.
It doesn’t work.
Ahead of you on a flat paved path is a couple walking, the man in front of the woman. Both in clean white sneakers, he with a white t-shirt and baggy navy pants, and she wrapped in a red and gold sari. As you approach them, you exchange Buon giorno with each in turn, and the sound of the shared greeting helps you remember how to smile.
You cut through a school yard, and come upon a small pond with ducks. Five adults dip their tails in the air in succession, their orange feet paddling just below the water’s surface as they search for breakfast, while six fuzzy babies scurry around them. Bouncing into each other, and then rushing just as fast in the opposite direction. You step through matted grass and dried duck droppings to watch the scene.
Moments later you’re off again, the soreness in your gut persists and propels you onward, trying to get as far away as you can from the dream.
Climbing higher, you reach the old wall of the city center and walk around it running your fingers along the stone, imagining who else did the same centuries ago, what they were thinking, dreaming.
The plaster, clay and rock fortification opens gracefully into a manicured garden with worn marble sculptures and a maze of cropped thickets and flowers behind a rusted iron gate.
Every step brings more beauty, and yet they register merely as a ticked-off list in your mind.
Through the garden and the shade from a row of trees, you reach the city wall again that this time opens onto a ledge. You peek your head out, curious, and take in another stunning view of the Tuscan valley. So quick is your pause that you nearly miss the speck out of the corner of your eye: a hot air balloon floating between you and the sun.
You step further onto the ledge and take out your phone for a photo. You take a deeper breath, perhaps your first of the day, from the uphill exursion and allow the warm air to fill your lungs.
That’s when the tears overtake you.
Your throat tightens, your earlobes burn.
She’s found her way here, half a world away — the one who tried to be who he wanted her to be, and who lost herself, yourself, in the process.
You grieve for her then, and for how much it still hurts two years later.
You squint holding the balloon in your sights, unsure what else to do.
Minutes later, maybe more, you’re walking again. Slower this time. Around the town, staring up at carved Madonnas, faded wooden doors and climbing rose vines, and past the church as its bell tolls for 8:00 a.m.
You descend the quiet cobblestone main street as one proprietor emptys ashtrays from the night before. You pass through the sturdy stone wall, and check in with the baby ducks too busy to notice as they continue racing to or from something even they aren’t sure of.
Your inn comes back into sight, and with it you feel your first pang of hunger.
Fresh croissants await.