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The Visit

Catherine Pearson

Two sisters

She lands in Florence on a Tuesday and leaves three days later.

My parents, our parents, buy her the tickets as a present. "We're sending your sister over for a small vacation," my mother says to me, "I think she really needs this break. You know, before her big day."

When I leave for good in eleven months, I will have lived here for almost three years. I work for a museum that exhibits contemporary art. The paintings are bland, and I do not blame the tourists who pass it over every day. I applied to all the right places: the Uffizi, the Bargello, the Pitti Palace. I heard nothing for months until I opened a congratulatory note, carefully printed on Museo Contemperaneo letterhead. I had applied on a whim but I rationalized. It's not the masters, but it's something. You'll be there. You'll be working at a museum, in Italy.

I live by myself in an apartment tucked deep into a small piazza. Piazza Saltarelli is like so few things left in the center of Florence; private and dignified. Calm. I am the only non-Italian in the building. I learned after my first night that it's best to decline invitations for dinner. My Florentine neighbors are hospitable, but prefer to forget that there is now an American living in their midst.

The handle of her suitcase is tied with a big, yellow ribbon. "So I know it's mine," she explains before kissing my cheek with sweet, sleepy breath. Her bag is heavy which annoys me. It's a pretense. She will end up borrowing most of my clothes. We take a cab to my apartment, and she babbles on about the wedding, about her dress, about the flowers. Blue hydrangeas, her favorite. She looks through the window at the city whizzing by but doesn't seem to notice. It is her first visit to Italy.

We unpack her things into a soft, linen box I bought at the mercato two days earlier. She eyes my closet, scanning for fresh Italian clothes to borrow. She picks a marigold shawl which she wraps around her high, meaty shoulders. She pinches her cheeks and smiles at herself in the mirror. We head out for a stroll.

She is two years younger than me but at least four inches taller. Her hair is thick and brown and her skin is a nutty tan. She is very pretty. Our mother, who likes to compare, tells me in secret that she looks healthy but that I am the real beauty. I wonder what she whispers to my sister when I am gone.

She slips her hand under my elbow, and we head arm-in-arm towards the Duomo. As we walk, I try to show her the things that I love. "Down that street is my favorite café. And this church has the most beautiful mosaics." She squeals at the fake statue of David before saying to me, "Oh, I don't care. I just want to take it all in!" I smile and tell her "Ok."

I tip-toe around the apartment once her eyes give way to jet-lag. I scribble out an itinerary for the next day, and brew a pot of espresso for the morning. I taste a sip. It is syrupy and stale. I have burnt it again but I doubt she will notice. I slip into my brass bed. It whines as I turn onto my side. I look down at my sister, tucked deep into her sleeping bag and feel nervous. I want her to love this place. I want us to share something good.

The next day is sunny and warm. We nibble on crusty pastries from a tourist café. I try out my Italian, wanting her to see how much more I've learned. The man behind the counter eyes me suspiciously before responding in English. "Yes, you can-ne ha-ve two croissants." I am annoyed but she is unfazed. She pats me on the back. "That was so good! How do I say thank you? It's 'grazie', right?" The man winks at her and she repeats her new word. "Prego," he says with a hefty laugh. My sister smiles cheerily.

We walk across the Arno. She hands her camera to an old man and I am relieved. I don't have any pictures of myself in Florence. I'm always too embarrassed to ask. We hike up the long steps to the Piazzale Michelangelo with the other spring visitors. I am out of breath, but she pushes on. We drink water as we stare out onto the city below us, a grid of faded pumpkin roofs. She asks me about the church towers. She asks me about the museum. She asks me about everything and listens patiently as I ramble on. Her smiles are contagious and we grin the whole day.

That night she falls asleep early and I dial my parent's number. I answer my mother's questions: "Yes, her trip was fine. Yes, her plane got in ok. Yes, she thinks it's beautiful. No mom, you can't talk to her. She's asleep." Before she hangs up, my mother warns me. " I'm sorry to sound so concerned, but well, I'm worried," she says, "I'm not sure she wants to---I'm not sure she's perfectly happy about getting married I suppose. That's all."

The next morning we head out early and walk all day. My sister lets me coax her into Santa Croce where we stare at the Giotto frescos. I am surprised to see her cross herself as we enter, like we did when we were young and spent our Sundays at Saint Mary's. She slips two centessimi into an offering plate before kneeling to light a candle. I have not done this in any church thus far, and I am touched by her gesture. When we leave, I ask her what she thinks. "The church was so beautiful," she replies, "Magical really." "And the frescos?" I wonder. "They were pretty." She says politely, "They were really neat."

That night we primp like we used to before our high school dances. She borrows a dress, a white strapless shift I bought on a trip to Barcelona. It grabs at her chest and stomach, pulling the cotton into long, strained lines. She is, as the Italians say, A donna donna. A woman woman. I look down at my own bony chest and feel like I might disappear. "I'm practicing" she says. It takes a moment for me to remember that she is getting married. Soon she will slip on another white dress and become somebody's wife.

I met my sister's fiancé just before I left for Florence. I'd met lots of her boyfriends over the years but I liked this one right away. He's thin and smug but also patient and calm. Together they are like no other couple I've seen. They don't pet or coo. They don't banter or tease. But there is something sexy about them as a pair. Like they are constantly remembering a punch-line that no one else has heard.

We walk to the restaurant, a small, brightly lit room across the Arno. A woman from work suggested it, recommending its hearty portions and authentic food. We sit on long shared benches. We hear a few words of English fight through the thick, punchy Italian that fills the space. My sister turns and smiles at the only other Americans in the Osteria.

I order for us. Pears with pecorino, gnocchi and lamb. A large carafe of the house red. I ask her about the wedding. She tells me about the silverware, how expensive the limo is and about a bridesmaid whose dress is just the wrong shade of pink. The food comes and then comes and then comes again. It is delicious. I ask her if she is excited to become someone's bride. "Of course," she says flatly, "I've been getting ready for this my whole life." Another carafe of wine arrives and we drink too much. The waiter brings complimentary glasses filled with Limoncello. " For the beautiful sisters," he flirts. We choke down the sugary, neon liqueur.

"What about you?" she asks, winking, "Any big romance?" I remember another dinner, the last dinner with my family before I left for Italy. They'd laid it on thick. "And maybe, just maybe, you'll find a great beau." My mother prodded. "You could meet someone like your sister's got." My sister went pink with pride and smiled for the rest of the meal. Later that night when my parents thought I'd gone to bed, I overheard my father say to his wife, "It's about time someone thought about our other daughter that way."

Tonight I am drunk so I lie. "Yeah, Innocenzino." I say. I cringe about the made up name but she doesn't catch my slip. I give Innocenzino a job. "He bartends every night at the bar near me, uh, bar Leon." I remember her fiancé is a lawyer so I upgrade: "But he wants to play soccer. Professionally of course." I give us an adventure. "One time, Ino took me on his Vespa to Viareggio. It's this great, glamorous beach community on the coast. We walked down the beach all day and went skinny dipping at night. It was amazing, so romantic." I finish my limoncello and bring us to an end. I credit him with the breakup, wanting to make the whole thing seem more plausible. "I don't know", I say, "He ended it and it hurt, but it's completely over."

The waiter brings the check and we hobble home. We open another bottle. We sit at my kitchen table in pajamas and take fat sips of red wine from chipped, crystal glasses. We slur our words. I ask if she is having a good time and she nods.

"I'm having the best time, really. I can't even believe how great this all is, that you, well, you get to live here. On your own. And you're doing your art-thing which is just so… I'm so proud of you. It's good." She sips and pauses. She continues. "And I know that I'm getting married, but, it's just, well, I don't know. I've always had that, you know? I've always had some guy. And you haven't, but now you did, and now you have all this. This whole life."

I feel proud. I forget that I've made the affair up. For now, I feel like I imagine an older sister should. Satisfied. Accomplished. Like I have it all. I squeeze her soft shoulder. My sister looks up at me but does not cry. Her eyes are cold and determined.

We wake up slowly the next morning. My head throbs as we leave the apartment. It throbs with each step we take through coiling, cobbled streets. It throbs and throbs until we sit down to lunch at a quiet café. She suggests that more wine might help and I agree. We eat bruschetta and grilled salmon and watch a river rat as it paces back and forth under the Santa Trinita Bridge. We say nothing of the previous evening.

For our last dinner we head to the mercato. I buy us greasy brown olives, fresh pasta and sweet plum tomatoes. I show off my new culinary skills. We open the wooden shutters and let Lesley Gore drift through the building's atrium. It's my party and I'll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to. The song reminds me of twirling. When my sister was seven and I was nine, she'd wanted to become a dancer. Our father would play this record and I'd try to teach her. Twists I'd learned at jazz class, second position from ballet the day before. But she'd never listen and would go on twirling and twirling and twirling instead. I tell her this now and she laughs. We wash the dishes and she opens another bottle of wine. I am drowsy and she tells me she might go for a walk. I am too tired to worry so I give her a map and write my address on her palm. I let her borrow my shawl.

The next morning I wake up early. My sister lies on top of her sleeping bag with the shawl scrunched under her head. I tip-toe again, this time unloading her clothes from the box and placing them neatly into her suitcase. I brew more espresso. I wrap a few slices of proscuitto and melon in wax paper and pack them in her bag for a last Italian snack on the plane. I nudge her awake and she glares at me with morning eyes. We call a cab and leave for the airport. This time, she watches the city intently. Her eyes fix on certain buildings and she turns with them as they slip behind the taxi's windows.

She has something to tell me, she says. I ask the driver to turn down the Italian disco beats coming from the front stereo. "I went to Bar Leon last night." She says. She pauses, waiting for it to register. She waits. I remember my story. "Uh huh." I answer. I think of her, asking around for Innocenzino. I imagine the blank Italian faces wondering, who? I compose myself. I will simply tell her that it was his night off. "And I saw Innocenzino."

I turn to face her. I am confused, so I wait.

"Well, look. I know it's really awful and you might hate me for forever, but I kissed him. He didn't know I was your sister, I promise, I didn't tell him. It's not his fault at all really, its mine. I just asked for him and then kissed him, and we kissed for a while. I just, I don't know. I needed this. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry, but I needed to do it."

When my sister was thirteen, she drew a portrait of our mother. She used a photograph she kept in a silver frame by her bed. In the photograph, our mother is young and her hair is bright and curly. In my sister's drawing, our mother is the loveliest woman in the world. Her pencil lines are smooth and forgiving. They are filled with innocence and admiration. My sister gave it to our mother as a present and it made her cry. It was hung on the refrigerator door.

A few months later, my high school pottery class came to an end. I stayed late one day at the kiln. When I finished, I looked at the seed pot I'd made. It was a sideways, frumpy thing with sloppy green glaze. I thought of my sister's drawing and of our mother's tears. I spotted a pot on the drying rack and slipped it into my bag. It was a beautiful, round pot glazed in a soft, pearl blue. On the bus ride home, I scratched out the initials etched into the bottom with an unwound paperclip. I blew the clay dust into the empty bus and made the pot mine. "She's a true talent," my mother said to my father when I handed it to them. "A real student, a real artist," my father agreed. My sister's drawing was packed up and stored in the basement but the pot remained. My mother uses it still. She plants her first seed in it every spring and calls me each time she does. "You are our real talent." She says, "I am so proud of you."

We pass through the doors of the airport and I give my sister a long hug. "I will be back in five months for the wedding" I say. She nods. She thanks me for having her. And then she says to me, earnestly, urgently, "You won't tell, will you?"

I hug her again. She is my little sister.

"No, of course not," I answer, "There's nothing to tell." She looks at me for a moment and then turns, the bright yellow ribbon crushed underneath her palm.

I walk outside and sit on the curb. I watch the planes fly overhead. They head to Paris. They head to Germany. They head to Spain. And for my sister, the plane heads home to America. Home to get married. I pull my jacket around my chest and walk towards a cab. I try to smile at the driver like my sister would and am grateful when he smiles back. As my sister flies above me, I know the distance between us has grown smaller. Our lives are different but, for the first time, I know our lies are the same.

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