Signora Rosa. Such a delicate name. She must be someone’s grandmother, stout and soft with a halo of white hair; this had tricked me into thinking that she would be soft with me. But she is all hard edges. No sooner have I closed the door than she is there on the stairs with that same side-eyed look. Why? It is almost September. Almost a new month. Only cash, she’d said when she agreed to rent me this bright apartment, even though it was caro, caro, caro. Only cash. Up front.
“Signorina,” she rasps. A term meant for someone much younger than me, a little girl, and I’d like to upend her assumptions, tell her I had every intention of paying her, but I can’t form the words. Instead I mumble, “Sì, sì, mi scusi, momento,” and scurry around the corner to the bank to face my dwindling funds. I have enough to get through September, and that will be it. Every last cent. But as soon as I hand her the bills in that old stone lobby, I feel free.
And then I walk. Every morning I walk, circling the bones of Florence, treading a well-worn path through the bodies of transients to whom I am invisible. Today I walk until my skin is on fire and my legs are slick and shaking. Until I’m ill with the smell of sewage that the heat pulls from every crevice. Until I grow dizzy and my mind grows numb and I arrive at the place where I always end these walks: by the wall of the Arno River at the city’s center. I lean into it, feel the heat coming off the stone, feel the bodies pressing against me, tourists burrowing in to snap photos of the Ponte Vecchio, their cameras storing the same image again and again.
The rowing club sits below on a narrow embankment in the bridge’s shadow. It is a launching point for the boats that, even in this heat, cut lines up and down the lazy Arno. For days I’ve watched from this perch the young Italian men carrying sculls down to the river. There is something calming in their movements, in the quiet way that they shoulder those boats, like pallbearers, and lay them down on the water’s surface.
But today is different. Because for the first time, a woman emerges on the embankment, a boat balanced on her shoulder, oars balanced on her hip. She is alone. She is at ease. I watch as she lowers the body into the water, slides one oar into the metal U-ring, then the other. She pauses, glancing up and down the Arno—there is no one else out yet, it is hers alone—then steps carefully into the shell. She nudges the dock with one hand, and the river offers no resistance as she pushes off gracefully, adjusts the oars, and begins her course, making her way toward the next bridge with purposeful movements. It is a separate existence, one far from this city with its crush of bodies and sounds and smells. I watch until she disappears from sight, a single body at peace.
Tucked into the busy street behind me is a green door that I have also watched on these mornings and, beside it, a small plaque—società canottieri firenze, it reads, “Florence Rowing Club”—half hidden by a vendor’s cart heavy with belts hanging thick and dark like vines. To the right is the long courtyard framed by the arms of the Uffizi Gallery; to the left is this green door.
Today will be different. I inhale sharply and push against bodies, launching myself across the street. But before I reach it, the door swings open with a rush of cool air, and a group of teenagers clambers out, jostling by me with a chorus of permesso, scusi, permesso. Another figure is behind them. A man, tall, with dark hair brushed back.
“Attenzione, ragazzi,” he calls as they disappear down the street in an explosion of sound. “Scusi, eh?” he says to me, his hand propping the door. The skin gathers around his eyes in bursts as his cheekbones stretch to accommodate an expansive smile. I feel surrounded by it.
“Dove va?” Where are you going?
I look past him into the darkness, my face still hot from my walk, my dress sticking.
“Mi dica,” he says then.
Tell him what? “Questa è la Canottieri Firenze?” The words catch strange in my mouth, half swallowed.
“Sì, sì.” He gestures for me to enter. “Che cosa vuole, signora?”
“Vorrei . . .” I put my arms out to the surroundings, foolish, and I can smell my sweat now. It smells sour to me, acrid, like an infection—it has for months, and I don’t know if it is my sense or the odor that has changed. “To join,” I say finally, hugging my arms back to my sides.
“Va bene,” the man says, and chuckles. He pushes the door open wider. “Allora, you must speak with Stefano.”
“Grazie,” I mumble, scooting past him into the dark foyer.
“Certo. Arrivaderla, signora, arrivaderla.” I hear him still laughing until the door abruptly shuts, taking with it the heat, the light, and this laughing man.
I walk down a flight of steps, blind until my eyes adjust—an office glowing fluorescent, another door. There is no one here. I should leave. But I think about the woman on the water, and then I hear distant punctuations of sound that must be human. Stefano. I cling to the name and keep going, through the door and down more stairs. I am tunneling into a cave, a warren, down and down until I reach a low stone doorway I have to bend under to clear, and when I do, I’m accosted by the smell of coffee and sweat. A little bar filled with tables, and daylight beyond. An old man in a unisuit looks up from his paper, squinting like an angry gnome. I wait for him to ask me a riddle, but he shakes the paper and lowers his eyes.
Behind the counter a man with a white mustache fills a glass with bright pink juice. He’s watching me. “Buongiorno,” he says. “Americana?” He places a spoon in the glass, then points to himself. “Manuele.”
“Hannah.” I relax. No riddles, no tricks. “Is Stefano here?”
“Anna,” he says, losing the h. “Anna di . . .” He raises his eyebrows.
“Anna di Boston—ecco Nico.” He nods at the old man, who sighs and shuffles to the counter.
“’Sera,” he mumbles, before taking a sip of his juice.
Manuele winks, then calls, “Stefano!” and a third man appears in the sunlit doorway. He’s tall and deeply tanned, his mouth a sharp line. Manuele speaks to him too quickly for me to follow until I hear “Anna di Boston.”
“Hannah,” I say. “I’d like to join. The man upstairs told me—”
“Sì, certo.” Stefano’s smile is still tight, his brow now furrowed. “You row?”
I hesitate. I know how I must look to him—it is written across me in spaces and hollows. But I’ve come this far, and so I continue. “No. I’d like to learn, though.”
Stefano says nothing, then, “Va bene. You’ll learn. Andiamo,” and gestures for me to follow him out into the sunlight. Above us, the Ponte Vecchio sprawls, a triple-bellied beast, reflections catching in its arches and water pouring between its supports like a churning shadow. Tourists lean over the river’s wall where I stood moments before, but that world is distant now. It feels like the city itself has opened up, as though I’m peering out at it from the inside.
“Oh,” I exhale softly.
I look around for the woman I’d seen, but the river is empty, and there is no one on the stretch of grass or the long brick steps that lead to the Arno’s edge.
“Today it is quiet,” Stefano says, “because of vacation. But tomorrow people will return.” Then, in a mixture of English and Italian, he explains that this was originally a stable for the Medici horses. As he speaks, his smile loses its tension. He is the club’s manager and his father was before him.
“Hey, Stefano,” a young man says brightly as he passes us on his way down to the dock.
“He’s American, too,” Stefano explains. “A student.” He leads me back inside and shows me the locker rooms, the weight rooms, then walks me down a dark, boat-lined corridor—at the end, an old man is tending to one of the sculls, laid out like a body before him. He gently polishes its bowed wooden sides.
“Ciao, Correggio,” Stefano calls, before leading me into a room crowded with rowing machines. Against one wall is a raised pool of water, four sliding seats balanced along its lip. “For practice in the bad weather,” he says. “This is a special room. You know why?” I look at the quiet ergometers, the placid water, our reflections in the mirrored wall, until Stefano points to the ceiling, smiling wryly: “Uffizi,” he says, letting me in on the secret. “C’è state?”
“Of course.” I smile, really smile, for the first time in days, maybe weeks. We’re right below the museum. I imagine the crowds wandering the galleries above, and that could be me, had been me, and yet in a month, a day, a single afternoon, you can become something new, can become undone but also transformed.
And so when Stefano tells me the cost of membership and says, “It’s okay?” I nod, though I barely have enough to get through the month, but still I nod.
“It’s perfect,” I say.
“Okay. Tomorrow my assistant is back—you register with her. Then you begin here, in this room—to practice, to learn, okay? One week, two weeks. And then the river!”
“Sì. Certo. And why not?”
“And why not,” I echo, taking the warm hand he offers me.
Before I leave, I walk up and down the hallway lined with wooden boats. They are overturned on shelves, spines raised, bodies stretched, stacked floor to ceiling in rows running from the largest eight-man boats to the small one-man sculls at the far end. I have the sensation of the past hovering just below the present, as I so often do here, my own past leaping out, fast and fierce, and suddenly I remember. I walk slowly, examining the names stenciled in white block letters along their sides—fortunato, borea, persefone. I search for inconsistencies in the repeated symbol of the red-and-white rowing flag that ripples across each boat, trying to find a place where the human hand had wavered.
JESSIE CHAFFEE is the author of the debut novel Florence in Ecstasy (Unnamed Press, May 2017). She was awarded a Fulbright grant to Italy to complete the novel and was the writer-in-residence at Florence University of the Arts. Her writing has been published in The Rumpus, Slice, Electric Literature, Bluestem, Global City Review, and The Sigh Press, among others. She lives in New York City and is an editor at Words Without Borders. Find her at www.JessieChaffee.com.
Adapted from Florence in Ecstasy, by Jessie Chaffee, Copyright © 2017 by Jessie Chaffee. With the permission of the publisher, Unnamed Press.