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Excerpt: 'The Scenic Route'

Here is the story of Henry and me.

I wish it had a different end.

It had a good beginning.

That's what I would say. If Ruby would hear me out, I would say, "This is the story of Henry and me," and no matter that it's of the recent past, past is past, and to tell Ruby this story now would be to call on memory, to travel back, and, as it was, to be with Henry was never quite of our time but of another time better than all that. A time before my time. Like how it was in New York during the last days of the Automats, when there was still the Biltmore Hotel and that pink place for ice cream, the name of which escapes me, and Henry, he was not quite of our time either. "I wish it had a different end," I would say to Ruby. "It had a good beginning."

Also, I would apologize to her.

I would say, "Ruby, I am so sorry."

Ruby is living some six-hundred-plus miles away at her mother's house, which is never a good thing, a middle-aged woman living with her mother. That Ruby lives with her mother, it's my fault. In a roundabout way, but still my fault.

Rumpelmayer's. The pink place for ice cream was called Rumpelmayer's. I would apologize to her not for what I did because I did nothing. I did nothing and I said nothing, and for sins of omission, such as mine was, there is no good excuse, and I'd say that, too, and again I'd say, "I am so sorry."

And Ruby, she'd say, "You're sorry? You're damn right you're sorry," and then she'd hang up on me and I'd be standing there holding the phone with no one at the other end.

Or, who knows? Maybe she would say, "It's okay, Sylvia. It's over. Forget about it now." Not likely but possible because all things are possible, and it could happen that she'd say it's okay.

'It's okay, Sylvia. Really. It's okay. It's all behind us now.'

And I then could tell her, as I could tell Ruby and only Ruby how it is that, precisely that, that it's all behind us now, that is what I am most afraid of, that everything good is over, and where do I go from here?

To which Ruby might say, "You give up. Or you begin."

'You begin.'

· · ·

To begin. Florence, to begin. Florence, the one in Italy. I had not been to Europe or to anyplace else much either in how long? Eight years? Maybe six. Before I quit travel as a thing to do, I'd done my fair share of it, but then it happened that I stopped because effort expended is not always worth the price of getting there, and it's not as if New York doesn't offer a surfeit of art and music and theater to feed on, much the way a goose is force-fed to make foie gras, which, for the record, is something I consider to be immoral, the way geese are force-fed to make pâté. Ducks, too. In New York, we've got culture coming out our ears, plus the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Grant's Tomb, and the cuisine of all nations, so who needed to pack a suitcase or fret over the decline of the dollar or worry about how, just like that-poof-a plane can vanish from the sky? Travel became something I thought of as fixed in my past, something done and over, a youthful avidity, perhaps, until I got to thinking about how I had never been to Italy, and how that fact seemed to alarm people. Coincidental to thinking about how I had never been to Italy, that is to say, right around the same time, I got a letter in the mail. A registered letter. A letter that you have to sign for, you know it's not going to be a greeting card or a love letter either. Walking from the living room to the kitchen, I read it, the letter, the letter that exuded the same milk of human kindness as a letter that begins with "Dear Occupant." I read the letter regretfully informing me that as a result of company downsizing, I was to be let go.

Let go.

Let go: dropped carelessly, the way an empty soda can is let go from a car window. Let go, and so what that "this decision bears no reflection on your job performance," blah, blah, blah. The words boiled down to their essence, which was a pink slip. A pink slip that matched the pink of my face as it went hot, pink and hot from shame, which is a category of embarrassment but embarrassment entirely unlike embarrassments such as a trail of toilet paper stuck to your shoe or your dress tucked into the back of your panty hose or getting caught in a lie or in a compromising position. Those embarrassments we get over, those become funny stories we later tell, but shame is a pyric ember of humiliation, and it lodges within the core of us. The burns are searing; shame leaves scars.

My function, the letter said, was to be absorbed.

Absorbed: a spill mopped up with a sponge. Absorbed. My Services were no longer needed, although if I were to be perfectly honest, it's something that it took them, what, fourteen years to figure that one out. My services were never needed. Often I wondered, What exactly is it that I do here and why?

Oh, there would be a great display of sympathy, solidarity even, from my colleagues, and I would be sorely missed for two or three days. Then no more. Then my office would be turned into a conference room or be used for storage.

I folded the letter and put it back in the envelope and left it on the kitchen counter as if it hadn't yet been read.

There I stood: five feet, six inches tall, forty-two years old, divorced, no children, without-for all practical purposes-any family, and now, let go. Unemployed, and think about this: how everyone always said, repeatedly said, "Sylvia does not live up to her potential." Broken-record said how I am, how I have always been, the paradigmatic underachiever, which means I was let go from a job that was beneath me, a fact that was not a source of comfort.

Such a life was not inclined to elicit envy, although I did receive a severance package, enough money to tide me over until I could figure out what comes next. A severance package, which was not entirely an ungenerous one, although it wasn't as if I was especially grateful for it, either.

But I took the money and I went to Florence, and on my fifth day there I got on a bus, a dark green rickety bus that went seven kilometers north, fifteen to twenty minutes up, up, uphill to the ancient Etruscan town of Fiesole, now famous, if famous isn't pushing it, for a handful of Roman ruins. A light breeze billowed the air, but it was hot. Midday in June, in Italy, that kind of hot, and because the ruins weren't going anywhere, rather than rush off to see the sights, I went directly to a café. Umbrellas advertising Cinzano shaded tables set with matching Cinzano ashtrays of the sort that tourists are inclined to pocket, as if a free ashtray comes with your limonata. There I had a view of the amphitheater that could knock your socks off. I ordered an espresso. The thing about a view, even one that could knock your socks off, is this: once you've seen it, you've seen it, and it's not likely to offer up anything new while you are sitting there. Changes in the landscape are slow in coming, and my attention drifted.

To observe people

is ornithologic in design, and throughout Europe, in cafés where tourists flock, you are likely to spot an American sparrow: ordinary, without brilliant plumage or anything much distinctive, these are solitary creatures but not by choice. In the cafés they read guidebooks, read intently about where they are, as if all experience belonged to someone else. That, or they will be writing in their journals or on the backs of postcards. "Dear Diary," or "Dear Aunt Louise," whichever, the words will not address the loneliness, the loneliness this trip was supposed to assuage but instead served only to exacerbate. The one desire articulated is predictable and flimsy: "I am seriously considering moving here." That desire, to pack up the house in Portland or Amherst or Indianapolis and move to Florence or Prague or Barcelona, is a desire that, once they are home, fades the way all dreams do in the light of morning, but the man seated at the table next to mine, although unmistakably American and alone, he wasn't reading a guidebook or writing in a diary or addressing the back of a postcard of the Ponte Vecchio. He was reading the Wall Street Journal. Without my glasses, I could not make out the date or even the headlines, but it was the Wall Street Journal that, along with the kelly-green kelly-green! Brooks Brothers polo shirt he wore, led me to peg him as a person to whom I'd have little to say and nothing to share, and that was a damn shame because he was someone rather lovely to look at, and I am not entirely beyond superficiality.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Binnie Kirshenbaum
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