We went to Assisi to rekindle our romance. It was my idea, not his. The decision to go there, in particular, was fueled by the fact that it was more original than Paris and it was far cheaper to fly there, stay there and generally consume there. Considering the only touristic point of interest was The Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi and a couple of medieval castles, we figured it wouldn’t exactly be jam-packed during the off-season in late April.
We both took two weeks off from our jobs, much to Mark’s dismay. He was an environmental documentarian, and a recent project he had shot about pigeon abuse in Battery Park needed to be heavily edited in time for him to submit to a festival. Thus, he wasn’t exactly feeling in a romantic spirit as we embarked onto an Italian budget airline at JFK. A part of me could somehow foresee that this trip was only going to make things worse between us. And yet our purpose in going was not to “detox” from the city, as we initially told ourselves, but to attempt to stoke some long ago burned out flame. I also think that, in both of our minds, going to Italy was something intended to be done in a couple, at least when you experience it for the first time and you’re not at what’s called “hostel age” to do so.
Although he was usually rather controlling and meticulous when it came to matters pertaining to planning, he let the reins slide slightly on this as he grew increasingly stressed about finishing his documentary in time for the festival deadline. It gave me more license than I was used to in trusting my own aesthetic judgment, so vastly different from Mark’s in that I tended to prefer a more expensive one. When I presented him with the breakdown of his half of the costs, he went ballistic, calling me a shameless spendthrift whose parents had never taught her the value of a dollar. Usually, I was accustomed to his tirades, but it was a new low for him to bring the way I was raised into it, as though he wanted to dig the knife in deeper than the normal benchmark.
I let his insults ricochet off of me as I poured a glass of Umbrian wine. I, unlike him, was trying to get into the spirit of our upcoming geographical repositioning. All he could do was seethe. And I saw no excitement in him about going on this journey at all. Even if we had our disputes, at the very least, he could express a bit of giddiness about popping our Italian maiden voyage ciliegia.
The following morning, with just three days left to our departure, I found myself being the one to apologize, to placate—even going so far as to pay a little extra for my share since he didn’t have a say in the decision making process. This seemed to thaw his coldness a bit as pecked me on the cheek and said, “Thanks Alma, I have to go edit.”
“Before you do, why don’t I make you some coffee?” I was really overreaching in my attempts to be dutiful, therefore the ideal impending traveling companion. He paused briefly before succumbing to my offer, following me into the kitchen as I prepared the moka pot and put it on the stove. It was here I proceeded to begin my buttering up spiel about how great he was going to feel once we got to Assisi, about how it was going to be endlessly beneficial to the project he was working on—give him a touch more empathy for his subjects.
“Are you saying I’m not empathetic? That I don’t die a little each time I have to review the footage of those pigeons?”
“Um…no. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m simply trying to get you more excited for our jaunt. That’s all.”
“I don’t need lessons in how to see silver linings from you. You don’t even want to go for Francis, you’re all about that Sextus fellow.”
Sextus Propertius. It was true. Before Francis of Assisi came along, he had the primary claim to fame of being born in that town. For being part of the Augustan elegiac poets, a highly specific trade as you can infer. I didn’t want to tell Mark that he reminded of Propertius in certain ways—at least in terms of his father serving the Maecenas role of patron in his life. Instead I said, “So what? We can appreciate both men for their varying values.”
“Propertius was a sex fiend. Francis, a saint, I’d say that demarcates more than varying values,” Mark sneered.
“He wasn’t a fiend, he loved one woman.”
“So he claims in his poetry.”
“What’s so wrong with having a little ardor in one’s loins, huh?” I countered, unable to keep up the meek pretense I had tried to put on just minutes ago.
“You’d love it if I could keep up with your sex addict ways, wouldn’t you?” Mark sipped his coffee as he shook his head. “It’s funny, you know? Men think they want a woman who’s ‘game’ all the time, but when she actually is, there’s just something so off-putting about it.”
“Wow, Mark. Thanks for that insight. I also don’t think wanting to have sex more than once a week equals ‘sex addict.’”
“It does for me, Alma. I’ve got shit to do.”
Resisting all of my better instincts to chuck my coffee-filled mug at him, I gripped the handle tighter and said quietly, “Then go do it.”
The afternoon of our flight, we had managed to suppress the long-standing rages that had boiled to the surface that morning of a couple days ago. It was as though we were preparing to resign ourselves to the idea that we would be all each other had over the next two weeks. Two weeks. Of having to do our best impression of a couple in love. But those sentiments had dissipated into something else long ago. And what I felt for Mark now was something closer to a thorn in my side that hurt so good. As for him, I had no idea why he stuck around based on his constant beratement of my every move. Including my recent declaration of wanting to quit my job to write the book I had always envisioned. He balked and told me that real writers can write in any conditions—not having time was just an excuse. I shut up about my intentions quickly after that. I’d rather quit and pretend to go to work every day than tell him that I actually did it. I should have probably seen there was a glaring issue with that in terms of the state of our relationship.
After transferring in Milan, we touched down in San Francesco d’Assisi Airport, both of us too tired to focus on anything other than getting to the expensive lodging choice I had made: the Nun Assisi Relais & Spa Museum. It had the words “spa” and “museum” in it, so of course it was going to be decadent. But more than that, I chose the hotel because it was a reconverted nunnery. What better way to soak up the spirit of Assisi than that? Even Mark couldn’t argue with the decadence I had hand-picked as we settled into our room, spartan in its homage-to-a-residual-convent style, yet also oozing pure luxury (that’s the irony of Catholicism, espousing the virtues of poverty while simultaneously showcasing unachievable sumptuousness). And, much to my amazement, Mark became aroused despite having complained of his tiredness nonstop on the way. So for the first time in months, he fucked me, there in the spiritual confines of our deluxe suite.
The next day, our rapport quickly digressed to its usual state, even in the face of our terrace breakfast overlooking the Rocca Maggiore castle. It didn’t take long for Mark to pick a fight about the itinerary for the day. “Look, I don’t want to see Propertius’ purported birthpl—”
“Gee, say that ten times fast: ‘Propertius’ purported.’”
He glared at me. “I want to kick off our time here at the Basilica of Saint Francis. It’s the only logical starting point.”
“Well, call me illogical then. Because I’m going to the site of Propertius’ childhood home.” So it became the precedent set that we were on the same trip separately. Maybe that’s what got us along so far without tearing each other to shreds that first week… That, and the sanctuary of our nunnery hotel.
I returned multiple times to the place where they claimed Propertius lived, in the excavated architectural remains of a Roman domus near Santa Maria Maggiore. It was a short walk from the hotel, and I took advantage of leaving in the morning before Mark woke up to make my way there (he was hopelessly weak when it came to getting over jet lag). What Mark did during our time apart, I would never know. I liked to assume that some vision of Francis of Assisi made him turn on me with such full force as he finally did at the midway point through our stay.
For I returned one fateful evening to find Mark stripped down to nothing, throwing his clothes out of the window. He was frighteningly sober. As he completed the ridding of his possessions, he turned to me to shout, “People like you deserve to be put down when they’re born. All you want is to get your nails done, have nice things and just fucking exist.” It seemed somewhat rife with irony that we would go to a place that celebrated a man who renounced all possessions in favor of poverty, and that Mark would call me out about my love of the material. What’s more, I hadn’t had a mani or pedi in a fucking age. It seemed more than slightly out of turn. And sexist in tone, to boot.
He then confessed he hadn’t had the courage to end it between us because he feared my wrathfulness afterward, that I would prattle on to our friends and the entire city of New York about what an asshole he was. He decided, however, that he no longer cared about other people’s opinions, least of all mine. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to go back to New York at all.
I told him that there was still love between us, he just seemed so hellbent on quashing it all out instead of nurturing it. He laughed in my face and told me I was delusional. When he made his feelings of unshakeable contempt for me that transparent, I could no longer engage in the fight for us that had drained me of so much of my will and creative ambition (even if he had dubbed me someone who wanted to “just fucking exist,” I did very much fear that I would leave no trace of me behind if I didn’t at least finish the book, which I now saw clearly as a reworking of Propertius’ The Love Elegies from the point of view of Cynthia).
Taking in his bare, frankly foul, body one last time, I then marched down to the concierge’s desk to have her help me book an immediate flight to Naples where I could stay with a distant relative and at least get the most out of my first time in Italy, seeing both the north and south regions. The woman at the desk brusquely told me that the next flight out was 1,200 dollars. I happily accepted the charges as a small price to get the hell away from Mark.
On the plane, the lines from Book 1 of Propertius’ elegies called “Constancy in love,” stuck out in my mind: “Why do you urge me to alter, and leave my mistress, Bassus, praising so many lovely girls to me? Why not allow me to spend the rest of my life in increasingly familiar slavery?” I smiled, absorbing the notion that Mark would not allow our relationship to continue solely for the sake of that—a familiar slavery.