I sat at Caffe Greco, staring as the raindrops dissolved into puddles. It was a picturesque day—if people still used that word. I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything about this place.
I tried to think about how I got here, how or even why. There were so many things he hadn’t told me, so many things I longed to know. But he wouldn’t let me. If I was the bridge, then he was the barbed wire at the end of it. Forever trapping me into places I didn’t understand, around people I didn’t recognise. He never told me what was happening. I always had to figure it out myself. This time, I didn’t think I had it in me anymore. It was hard. Constantly changing and rearranging your life. Especially when you felt the need to be grounded into reality so badly. Especially when you knew you didn’t always have that option.
I sat at Caffe Greco. The carved wooden statue on my right reminded me of Thursday evenings when I’d come here with my friends and sip on caffe after caffe. This was the only place that was familiar to me. That was I why I brought him here. He had gone to order himself a tea because he didn’t like coffee. I sat on my table, drinking my coffee—trying to remember what it was like before I met him.
Everything else on Via Condotti had changed, and transpired into names I couldn’t even pronounce. I felt uncomfortable out there. In here was the only ease I got. I rearranged the table, moving the cutlery to one end and the candle on the other. He never understood why I always did this. I took out the small book of John Keats’ poems I had hidden in the back of my jeans, he would kill me if he found out I still had the book. I opened the cover, and placed the book in front of the candle. Perfect, I murmured to myself. I traced my fingers over the smooth texture of the words inscribed on the first page. The handwriting was hard to decipher because of how many times I had moved my fingers over these very words. But I didn’t need to read them to know what was written, I would never forget those words.
“I don’t understand why you like this place so much,” he barked.
His thin lips were peeling as they formed into an O.
“The service is terrible. The tea is cold. They charged me 20 Euros for this,” he went on, tossing the teacup onto the table, and ruining what I had spent time rearranging.
I stared at his tiny lips, at the vein popping in the middle of his extremely large forehead. I just kept watching because I couldn’t listen anymore. I quickly slipped the book onto my lap, and as usual, he didn’t notice. He was too busy glaring at the waiter to care about what I was doing.
“Let’s try to enjoy our drinks, okay?” I whispered.
Afraid of him causing a scene in the one place I felt relaxed. I leaned back in my chair and looked down at the book. It was my little secret, the only one he hadn’t had the chance to steal away from me. I remembered the day I got it. How I was sitting on this exact chair. Staring at the same wooden statue. I couldn’t believe how much time had passed. Everything was so different now.
“Take it,” George said, as he nudged the book into my hand.
“I don’t have much time.”
“How will I see you again?”
I barely made out, my throat was dry even though I had just finished the last sip of my coffee. Maybe this is what crying does to you. It makes your eyes red and throat dry, and most of all—it makes you resent yourself. The big mirror in front of me was already telling me I wasn’t happy. I didn’t need George leaving to tell me that even more.
“We’ll meet here,” George said.
It had been three years since John’s death. Three years since we had been pretending everything was the same.
“You’ll know when to come.”
George planted a light kiss on my cheek, and with a silent Arrivederci he slowly walked out onto Via Condotti. I looked at the book in my hand, it was a leather bound pocket-sized book. I opened the first page. Above John Keats, there was a small inscription in his cursive script that I would recognise anywhere.
For Emma, never doubt that things won’t be as they once were.
That was it. No name, no date. I guess it didn’t need one. But then, at the bottom of the page in writing so small that I would have normally skimmed over, I read, GB. George Gordon Byron.
I didn’t wait for George to come back. I never came back, until today. I heard that George died later that year in April. I cried for seven days. But by then, I had already met him. He had already taken me.
I always wondered why George had given me John’s book when he knew it would make me nostalgic. They had never gotten along. I was always the one that forced them to come here. Even during his last days, we sat here, drinking caffe’s while he and George fought over whose poetry was better. They always asked me to choose. I never did. John would stand up on the chair he was sitting in right now, and read his poetry out loud, almost as if we were at a mead hall. George would mock him. And I would listen. But then John died, and it wasn’t the same. We still came and sat on this table, George still read me his poetry, but it wasn’t fun anymore. It almost seemed forced. I think that’s part of the reason why he left—he would never have told me that though.
I sat at Caffe Greco. It was no longer 1824. There was no longer any poetic competition, no longer any friendly banter. It was just me and him now. Him and me.
I shook my head, and smiled at him. I had no choice but to smile. Otherwise he’d know something was wrong. And he’d take me back there. That was the last place I wanted to be.
I was sitting in Piazza di Spagna. I was close enough to Caffe Greco to see the people that walked in and out. George wasn’t one of them. I was reading the book he had given me. It was most of John’s poetry, and I still didn’t understand why George hadn’t given me his own poetry. Maybe they did really respect each other. Maybe this was George’s way of showing it to me. I started reading Ode to a Nightingale, I had always loved it when John read it aloud. I looked up to the window on my left, wondering if he was looking out of it when he wrote the poem. I could almost make out the damage that had been done to the apartment from down here. All that was really left were ruins. Ruins, and this book.
“Excuse me?” A male voice interrupted.
I looked down to see a tall, well built man around my age. His hair was the colour of mahogany, and his eyes were small. So small I couldn’t make it out his expression. He had the largest forehead I had ever seen.
“Yes?” I answered.
“I’m looking for Isola Tiberina. Would you know where that is? I need to walk there,” he said.
What had I gotten myself into. I couldn’t describe the way under any circumstances and have him actually understand. Something on his face told me he wasn’t going to give up.
“I could show you the way, if you want,” I whispered hesitantly.
But as soon as the words left my mouth I regretted them. I didn’t know him. He could be dangerous.
Little did I know just how dangerous in that moment. I don’t even remember how it happened really. But on our way there, we got to talking and I was having fun. He spoke to me about neoclassicism, and medieval literature and ancient roman art—everything that I loved but no longer had anyone to talk to about. There was something about the way he looked at me as I pointed out Corinthian order columns and frescos in the antiquities on our path. He glared at me with this intensity that made me feel appreciated. That made me feel like my words mattered. I hadn’t had that much fun since the days at Caffe Greco with George and John. I was still young then.
After arriving at the Isola, he asked me to meet him back there the next day. Soon it became part of my morning routine. We’d walk along the Lungotevere for hours—I discovered him while he discovered the city.
It was a year later that we got married.
That was when it really began.
I couldn’t breathe. It was so dark. I couldn’t see and I couldn’t breathe. I tried screaming. But he was the only one that could hear me. He was the one that brought me here. I didn’t understand how, or why, for a moment I thought maybe he had drugged me so I wouldn’t see where we were going. But this felt real. I was awake, and every single sense of mine heightened. I looked around and could almost make out a door. I opened it, and saw a room. A room with a large table, and a lot of lights. Across the table was a huge window. Outside the window was something I had never seen before. This didn’t look like the view of the Roman Forum from Capitoline Hill. They were monuments of some sort, towering overhead, so high I couldn’t make out where they ended. I could see the tip of St. Peters, but the rest of it was hidden by these new buildings.
This was not my world.
I didn’t understand how we got here. He had been reading a short story about a future dystopia. I had been drinking a caffe.
That was all I remembered.
I looked at him. He looked back, taking in my expression. I didn’t understand what was happening. My throat was too dry. All I knew was that he had taken George’s life and brought me here. Wherever here was. He knew we were friends. I found out through a letter from his brother. I can never look at him the same way again. He was the reason I hadn’t gone back to Caffe Greco. He was the reason so many things had changed.
I had finally learned the way this worked, or at least, the way he did.
“Emma,” he said loudly.
“Let’s go. It’s time.”
I stood up, forgetting that I still had the book in my lap. It fell open right in front of him. Page 45. Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music: —Do I wake or sleep?
I looked at his face, as he read the verse. I watched as his expression changed from being mildly annoyed to surprised, and then completely shocked. He tried to snatch the book up. I didn’t understand what was happening. But I grabbed it before he could. At the bottom of the page, two lines were circled. George must have done it. I didn’t know why. I didn’t even know why he had killed George. Nothing made sense anymore.
So I read the lines again.
Do I wake or sleep?
Do I wake or sleep?
I couldn’t sleep anymore. I had been sleeping for too long. The lines kept echoing in my head. I couldn’t see clearly. I couldn’t breathe. Everything around me was dark as I screamed. There was a door leading to some light, so I walked towards it. I opened the door and I was back at Caffe Greco. Except, he was gone. I went out on Via Condotti. It was almost as if I had never left. There were no longer any shops with names I couldn’t pronounce. No longer any buildings hindering my vision. There was a newspaper stand on my right, and I grabbed the first copy.
I looked at the date on the top.