“È la prima volta?” Correggio asks. First time?
“Sì.” I try to sound confident.
We’re in the hallway at the club choosing a scull. Correggio maintains the boats and helps the solo rowers, like me, carry them to the river. He is older and has a kind smile, but he speaks almost no English.
“Allora.” He looks at me, looks at the boats. “Persefone,” he says after a moment. It’s not the widest scull but it still looks like a rowboat. Difficult to capsize. “Sì. Persefone.”
He grabs the nose of one end, sliding it slowly off the support and resting it on my shoulder. He skirts around me, lifts the other end onto his own shoulder, and I can feel the full weight of it then. It is heavy, digs into the bone, and I have to reach up with both hands to keep it from toppling off.
“Andiamo,” he instructs, and we walk the boat down the hall—“Ciao, Hannah of Boston,” Manuele says as we pass—out into the sun, down the brick steps, and onto the metal dock. It is a brilliant day. It doesn’t feel like a weekday in September. The sound of jazz from the Uffizi courtyard, the people leaning contentedly over the river’s walls, and the flashing of cameras on the old bridge all suggest that this is still summer, that life is still free and open.
Correggio lifts the boat on his end and I mirror his movements. We spin the body, lower the spine down into the water. Then he grips the edge with one hand and offers me his other. I place one foot in—the boat shifts, the dock shakes—then the other, and crouch onto the small wooden seat, sick at the loss of solid ground. The river is empty today and I’m grateful for this. Correggio places my hand on the dock and squeezes it. “Un momento.” He disappears back into the dark tunnel and reemerges with two oars on his shoulder. He slides them into the metal casings, then holds the scull steady as I take the handles. Don’t let go, I think.
But Correggio smiles encouragingly and, with an “a dopo,” pushes me off without a word of instruction. The momentum carries me away from the dock and the boat shifts side to side. He waves one last time before turning his back. I feel exposed, paralyzed, with nothing to anchor me. I look over my shoulder at the Ponte alle Grazie. I hadn’t even thought about the fact that I’d be facing away from the direction I’d be rowing. I will have to navigate without seeing where I’m going. The boat begins to spin of its own volition, shaking me to action. I need to start moving. I need to find a rhythm. I imagine myself from above then. This boat is a fish. No—this boat is a bird with long wooden wings. Or a person with arms outstretched and curved palms striped red and white reaching down into the river.
Keeping my legs locked and using only my upper body to start, as I’d watched others do, I dip each oar. As I pull back against the water’s resistance, I imagine those wooden arms are mine, those striped palms mine, my hands skimming just below the surface. But I dig too deep. One oar catches and the boat pitches left as the end surfaces with a splash. I breathe in, breathe out, realign the oars in a T, then lean my body forward and push the oars behind me, a diver preparing to launch. I close my eyes, dip them again, not too deep. I pull—my muscles shaking—and watch the wooden arms fold forward, taking with them a gulp of river. The ends emerge in unison this time, and I shift the handles so they are parallel to the water’s surface, palms facing the sky, like St. Catherine in ecstasy, arms open, ready to receive.
I look over my shoulder—I’m close to the bridge now and I’ll need to turn. I dip one oar into the water and use the other to pull myself around, the boat rocking one way and then the other, until I’m facing the Ponte alle Grazie. As I make my way back toward the Ponte Vecchio, I add my legs, sliding the seat forward, pushing against the footrests, then pulling with my arms. There’s something wrong, though. The line of water in my wake is not straight but jagged. My right oar hits a rock with a loud clunk and the rattle reverberates through me. I stop, my body pulsing—I’m too close to the wall. I look at the club, directly across the river from me now, but there is no one on the embankment to witness this. I push off the rock, then use one oar to pull the boat back to center as I approach the Ponte Vecchio. I don’t look up at the bodies leaning over the wall or at the sky bright above them. I keep my gaze fixed on a point behind me as I pass into the shadow of the middle arch. The underbelly of the bridge is brushed with soft reflections, and I can hear the water licking lightly at the supports. I pause, happy to be hidden here, and bring the oars into the boat. Their palms curl around my feet, dripping. The boat begins to spin on its own again, and I take one last breath of this cooler air before lifting the wooden arms and righting it.
I take one stroke and then another. With each one, I feel more centered. When had I last felt so centered? How do you cut so close to the bone? Back then, yes, even when the comments changed direction, praise replaced by suspicion and carefully framed questions. They were envious, I thought. The nerves in my face went numb, and still I felt centered. I stopped sleeping, I stopped bleeding, and still I felt sure.
May. I was seated in the museum’s courtyard, where I went when I needed to mute the world. Students were scattered around the garden and up and down the arcaded walkways, separated into small groups. They were drawing and occasionally speaking, their voices absorbed into the vacant air above. They had each chosen a different model: Persephone, her hip cocked to one side; mosaicked Medusa screaming; a maenad reaching out to a figure unseen.
I sat cross-legged at a distance, watching. In the museum’s café the cash register chimed and the sound hung in the air like a tuning fork struck. The world was foggy but I was clear. Centered. I could feel each of my vertebrae, buttons against the stone column, shallow ditches dug around the bone. My ring was loose, my pants were loose, my joints were loose, unbound. I was changing form.
The galleries upstairs held endless cycles of love and pain. I understood this movement. I heard Julian’s voice grasping for me even as I said, Leave me alone. And now he was gone. He had disappeared, too. Or had been replaced, as though in reaching for one thing, I’d found something else entirely.
It was raining, drops tap-tapping on the glass ceiling above, and the light in the courtyard went blue and then gray. One of the students cried out, her voice cutting through the fog—when had the world grown so loud? She shrieked again.
Then loud heels on marble and there was Claudia, looking down at me.
“Hannah, here you are,” she said in a tone that suggested that I was no different from the students, in need of a chaperone.
I struggled to get up, ticked through excuses in my mind, then said nothing because what did it matter? Claudia gave a small smile, put a hand on my arm, but it was false. Look at you is what her eyes said. She was wrong. She could not see who I was becoming. There were these things that I could be.
“Robert wants to see you.”
“All right,” I said.
The cash register chimed and I followed her out slowly. I was well sculpted. Close to something.
I don’t know how much time has passed when another figure appears on the river. I’ve made a single loop, under the three bridges and back, and am approaching the Ponte Vecchio again when I see a flash of silver catching up to me. It’s Peter. I stop rowing as he passes.
“Ciao, Hannah,” he says, not slowing his pace but smiling broadly as he glides by, leaving a clean line framed by a perfect series of rings behind him. I look over my shoulder and watch as he and the boat become a single form again and pass under the next bridge. He is a bird, he and that silver scull, a bird. Would I ever have that grace?
There are these things that I could be, I had thought in the gray light of the museum. But what did I know then? In the months that were a haze, were a dream—the world coming into and out of focus, the contrast sharper than the movement from the dark hum under the bridge to the sunlight on the other side—in those months, a voice arrived and kept returning. If only you were... It did not arrive as I had expected. Its grip was soft at first, and I welcomed it. This is mine, I said, wrapping it around me. I gave it words. I gave it language. I heard it, I embraced it, and I replied. Digging ditches around the bone, I replied. If only I were...
But now, pulling long these wooden arms, I know that there are things that I will never be. Never the bird that is Peter in that boat, never my sister’s ordered apartment, never the S of the Italian women. The thought catches and catches and catches. It comforts me, terrifies me, breaks my heart. If only you were... You will never be. Pitching one way, then the other.
There must be a balance between the things that I can be and the things that I will never be. There must be a time when the spine of this boat will hold the body steady along a straight course. There must be words for that moment.
Excerpted from Florence in Ecstasy by Jessie Chaffee. Copyright © 2017 by Jessie Chaffee. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Unnamed Press. Read an interview with Jessie Chaffee about Florence in Ecstasy and this excerpt here.
Rumpus original art by A.D. Puchalski.