The Other Side of War (3)

“The Other Side of War” (page 3 of 5)

Ashley pushed herself back onto her feet. The palms of her hands, with which she had absorbed the impact of the fall, throbbed with pain. Her gloves were scraped. But otherwise her hands were okay. Her knees hurt. So she checked them. They too were all right.

“You fool,” she said to herself, brushing the bits of dirt off her coat. She then fingered the loosened strands from her pulled-back hair and tucked them in place. After she was done, she closed her eyes and drew in a lung full of air.

From a cypress tree beside her came a faint sound. A birdsong. It came like puffs of air whistling out of a rolled tongue. Why hadn’t she heard it before? She opened her eyes and looked but she couldn’t find the bird. Only its song. She then heard another birdsong coming from a nearby juniper tree. This one rang like jingling suzu bells, those tiny bells with which Japanese women adorned their pursues they tucked between obi and kimono, the bells that Ashley adored and collected when she was stationed in Misawa, Japan, before her transfer to Naples, Italy.

Listening to the sounds, she felt a kindling of warm inside her heart. She closed her eyes again. She felt a strange calmness. She imagined the birdsongs in the dense cold air, the songs showering on her from trees like droplets of icy rain, the songs spattering on the ground, sinking, slowly, into the earth, deep into the ground, deep into the earth.

Deep into the ground . . . Marcello lay in a casket.

“Stop it. You’re a stupid fool.” Ashley thrust her hands into her coat pocket. “Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.” She strode toward the gate. “You stupid fool.”

Leaving the park, she turned right onto Via Cimarosa, a narrow bumpy cobblestone street with cars parked on both sides. A man on a moped blared his horn. He almost ran into her. Ashley yelled at him. She crossed onto a side alley that led her to Via Scarlatti, a broad promenade lined with Italian maples.

There she slowed her pace.

Here men strode with their hands thrust into their jacket or overcoat pockets, and women walked bundled under their hats and heavy coats. They lacked the leisurely vivacity of Neapolitans in warmer weather. The pedestrians flowed with brisk strides, solemn-looking, as if they were late, as if they were running out of time.

Ashley strolled the length of Via Scarlatti, deep in her thoughts. When she realized, she was all the way to Piazza Vanvitelli, where a polizia was waving his red-lollypop-shaped wand at a taxi driver blocking the traffic. Cars blared their horns.

She turned around and walked back down the wide pedestrian street. The maple trees along Via Scarlatti stood tall, stretching up as high as the third floor of the buildings bordering the promenade. Most of their five-toothed leaves had turned brown, clinging to the branches like crinkled old hands. Those that had fallen clustered in windswept corners.

At the corner of Via Luca Giordano, she walked up to a maple tree. This was the spot where Marcello had knelt on the last night they were together. This was the spot where he had done what he thought was the right thing to do. This was the spot where Ashley had rejected him and said things she wished he could take back. She touched the trunk of the maple and traced her fingertips where the bark had peeled.

Taking a deep breath, she straightened her posture, turned around, and walked away from the tree. She had to stay strong. She had to move on. But wherever she looked, whatever she saw, her world had changed. Now everything was stained by her remorse.

Ashley walked up to Café Gabriel.

The open-air seating section in the front of the bar in the winter had been partitioned by Plexiglas. She walked in. The table she wanted was unoccupied. She sat. Nearby a gas heater on a stand radiated warmth on her. She took off her gloves.

A waiter in a black jacket attending an elderly couple at the other end of the café glanced toward her. His face lit up. He stuck his index finger up in the air. Ashley waved at him.

Her hands were cold and numb, as if they were wrapped in surgeon’s elastic gloves. She rubbed her fingers together to put warmth into them. The palms were slightly swollen from her fall. She massaged her hands.

From the café door, a boy walked out, chuckling, following a man, perhaps his father, who walked with broad steps. The boy wore a brown down jacket, puffy-like, a size or two too large. On his head perched a brown knit cap with a white wool ball that bounced as his tiny legs quickened, trying to catch up to his father, his gaze locked on his mitten hands that held a paper-wrapped sweet cornetto pastry.

Watching the boy, Ashley tucked her hand into the coat pocket and touched the Neapolitan amulet. When the boy disappeared into the flow of the pedestrians, she retrieved the red coral horn. It was cold in her bare hand. Then she gazed in front of her, at the empty chair.

On that July afternoon in 2011, Marcello had sat facing her. The summer air was tinged with the smell of earth before the coming of rain. She held a glass of Campari soda, with a moon-shaped slice of orange in it, swirling the red liqueur with a tiny straw, clinking the ice, waiting for Marcello to say something more.

“But you are an American naval officer,” Marcello finally said. “You must understand what it means to be a soldier.”

“Of course. I understand that,” Ashley said, her voice charged with harshness that surprised her. She set the glass on the table. “What I don’t understand is why you volunteered.”

“Because it is my duty as a soldier to do so,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “This is your country’s war, is it not? We support your war, do we not?” He stretched his arms, his palms facing upward. “So I do not understand why are must complain.”

“I’m not complaining.”

“My dear, Ashley,” Marcello said, leaning his body slightly over the table and taking her hands into his hands. “You know I love you.” He squeezed her hands. “Everything will be okay. Nothing to worry.”

“It’s easy for you to say.” She withdrew her hands, placed them on her laps.

“Eight months will go presto. You will see.”

“When do you leave?”

“In three weeks.”

“That soon?” Ashley crossed her arms. “What’s going to happen to our relationship?”

“I will do the right thing. I promise.”

“The right thing is for you not to go to Afghanistan.”

“I am a good officer. A splendid soldier. Nothing will happen to me.”

“Of course, nothing will happen to you,” she said. “But what will happen to us?”

How time passed. If only on that July afternoon, six months ago, Ashley had known what waylaid in their future, she would have said or done things differently. Now everything was too late. Things have changed.

She gazed at the empty chair, clutching the amulet.

The waiter in the black jacket jockeyed out of the café door, his white apron ruffling with his strides, an old man, his uniform loosely fitted over his skinny body. He came to her table side. “Buona sera, Signorina Ashley,” he said, and spread his arms. “It is so wonderful to see you again.”

“Hello, Francesco,” Ashley said, standing up. “It’s been too long. It’s so good to see you again.”

Francesco rested his hands lightly on her shoulders and pressed his stubby cheek first against her left cheek, and then against her right, smacking his lips at each contact, making an audible kissing sound. He then pulled his face away, his hands still resting on her shoulders, and gazed into her eyes. “I was very much worried about you,” he said. “But now I see you. Now I can stop worrying.” His eyes narrowed, almost disappearing into the folds of his wrinkles. “Everything okay?”

“Yes, tutto bene,” Ashley replied.

“Please, please, si accomodi.” He gestured with his hand toward the chair.

Ashley sat.

Francesco stood, his fingers fumbling the pocket of his apron, still gazing at her. His eyes glittered, as if they were welling up with sadness.

“Really, I am okay, Francesco,” Ashley said. “At first I was not okay. I was a big mess. But now I’m okay.”

“Ho capito,” he said, swaying his head gently up and down. “That is good to hear.” After a brief pause he asked, “What may I bring you?”

“I’d like a cup of cappuccino.”

“Si, certo,” he said, but he stood unmoving, his eyes suddenly shaded with a look of uncertainty.

“What is it Francesco?”

“Oh, Signorina Ashley.” He averted his gaze toward his hands that still fumbled his apron. “I know not how to say it properly in English but I must try. I must say it.” He raised his eyes, pressed his withered brown hand against his chest. “From deep in my heart I am very much sad and I am very much sorry about what happened to Marcello.”

“You’ve always been good to us. Thank you for saying it.”

He curved his lips into a sad-looking smile. “Okay,” he said, “cappuccino for Signorina Ashley. Subito.”

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