This is Mona’s favorite public market in Europe. She buys mint here, just to hold it, smell it, remind herself that yes, she’s landed, she’s actually here, in Rome.
Here, too, is the stall with the man she flirts with and the other man who flirts with her, and his wife, white-haired, seated, shelling beans, who never fails to reach for her hand and hold it tight and tell Mona what wonderful skin she has. And then she gives Mona a bean and bends back to her work—the bean is the woman’s signal that their exchange has ended and it’s time for Mona to move on—and good thing, because Mona would be susceptible, like Jack of beanstalk fame, to giving this old woman everything, anything, in return for another magic bean. The first time she gave her one, Mona stealthily pocketed it. The woman gave her a sharp glance, mimed it going into her mouth. So this Mona did. It tasted green and waxy and meaty and mealy and salty. It tasted like she was eating dirt. It tasted like a rebuke: never cook a vegetable again; always eat us raw.
Mona is American, 51, visiting (always). She’s breaking up today with Massimiliano, Italian, local, whose age she never did learn but whose tastes she knows well.
She thought to make a show of her announcement, meet him at, say, a real convent, but while scouting one, she got cold feet at the door. When a nun on her way inside asked, “can I help you?” Mona ran away, and found herself here, this market, again.
It’s the damn arrows. Painted on the pavement by someone who understands aviation. Has to be. Yellow arrows to the sides; white down the middle. Just like an airport: taxiways, runways.
The market, a mix of indoor and outdoor stalls, would have drawn her anyway: there’s always a musician, a rotating cast, some of whom the vendors tolerate less well than the others. There are two young men who not only look alike but, she’s learned, are actual twins who sell cheeses whose names and descriptions are untranslatable to her, though her Italian is decent after so many trips. The word purple always comes into the conversation for reasons she can’t identify—the cheese is not purple nor its rind—but she buys it because Massimiliano loves it.
Massimiliano loves rabbit, too, and that’s available, but she won’t buy it because, rabbit. And so she looks at the chicken and the duck and further on, the lamb—this is no better, so it’s on to the salt cod stand where everything, even the fishmonger, seems to have succumbed to a saline hoarfrost.
She runs her tongue around inside her mouth, along one row of teeth, then the other. They will eat first, a simple salad that he will dress and then they will undress and then they will make love. He is more attentive to her than any man she’s ever slept with, kind, tender but not tentative. She will miss that. And the wine after, tiny globe glasses right there in the apartment or more often, downstairs at the shop. And then he will look at his watch, unless she looks at hers first, which she tries to, to show that she, too, has obligations, another life, plans. And he will signal to pay. This she never interferes with. In her twenties, with other men in other cities near other oceans, she interfered with this part of the meal all the time. She’d grabbed checks out of presumptuous waiters’ hands. Out of dates’ hands. Cheap meals, expensive ones. She could pay! And she did.
After their wine, she and Massimiliano would kiss, one cheek, then the next. To anyone watching, they could be cousins, but for the additional second it takes for their hands to part. Then he would be gone, up the stairs and into his building, and she would look at the market packing up. The men in bright coveralls with the miniature garbage truck sweeping through the market, missing more than they get. Frilly, plate-sized leaves of lettuce would have affixed themselves to the cobblestones, sanpetrini, petite saint peters. Wrapped in lettuce, they look like bright green gifts and complement the red, red pedestrian-punished tomatoes (always present; no other market item sacrifices itself so readily). Left behind: paper and plastic and smears of gelato and pockets of water wherever anyone has half-heartedly slopped a bucket across the pavement.
The market, like its products, ripens over the course of the day. She’s come early on occasion, shopped, and then sat outside one of the cafés on the square, and so she knows what the square smells like when it starts, which is fresh and crisp and wet. She has long been tempted to sit at the rival café across the square—where they’ve never sat together; Massimiliano, like all good Romans, lives a life bracketed and buffeted by years-long feuds, and one concerns the café across the square—but she has no feuds, only curiosities, and one of them is what his ex-wife looks like. He has seen pictures of Mona’s daughter, Audrey, she has seen pictures of his boy and girl. Their beauty makes clear their mother’s. Audrey has her father’s eyes. Neither mother nor daughter has seen him for months.
Ostiense was more of a working-class neighborhood when Mona first came to Rome, years ago. It was the home to the gasworks and a massive transit center. There were no tourists here. There was nothing to see. The Colosseum was only a mile away, but then, in Rome, everything is closer than it seems; distances shrink the longer you’ve been in the city. Massimiliano used to live a 45-minute walk from where she usually stayed. He still does, and the walk still takes 45 minutes, but she always arrives before she realizes it, before she’s ready.
Today came too soon. She’s going to tell him the truth, finally, she has to, and she’s worried, rightly, that he’ll think it’s just another lie: she does not live here in Rome; the reason she can’t see him more often is because she only flies this route a couple times a month; she’s not what, whom he thinks.
It’s his fault. He chatted her up at the market two years ago, made an assumption, hardly even gave her a chance to refute it. Blame him, then, or the decapitated swordfish, whose head, snout—sword—had been set up on the seafood counter like a pylon.
Or blame herself. She’s the one who’d stopped stock still in front of it, head down, as if praying, or —
“Scared,” he’d said, in Italian, not quite a question.
She shook her head. She’d been studying the pavement. Those arrows. One was pointing to him. If he stood there on the tarmac, he’d be killed. She’d thought to tell him, but how? She was, is a pilot. The twentieth female pilot her airline had ever hired. Equally incredible, there are fewer at her airline today. One fewer still, tomorrow.
“Don’t be,” she said back then, in English, smiling, and that, he said later, is when he fell for her. She for him? When he apologized, eyes down like a little boy’s, “sorry, suora.”
He’d mistaken her for being part of a group of nuns who were shopping. None of them wore full habits, but a few of them wore veils, and they all wore a vague uniform: simple button blouse, sturdy skirt, sandals. As, she noticed, did she. Her own take on the outfit was more stylish, and expensive, but who’d expect him to be attuned to that? And she had to admit that her sandals were exactly the same as the nuns’.
She’d been married at the time and instantly liked the armor this new identity afforded her; at that point, she’d still thought she could save her marriage, she’d still thought she’d wanted to, she knew one step was to not keep sleeping with strangers on layovers.
What do you do?
I’m a pilot.
You could almost start a stopwatch then.
That Massimiliano (she might not have fallen for him had not just saying the name made her tongue do so very much) had confused her for a celibate nun was perfect.
Of course she went back to the market on the next trip. Thought about buying a veil from a costume shop, decided she wasn’t that kind of nun—of fake nun—and settled for a cross instead. Wooden, on a jute strand. An aunt had given it to Audrey and Audrey had somehow neglected to take it to college with her. Mona found it, and a roach clip, while rummaging through the crash pad (at this point, essentially a storage unit) she rented near JFK.
When he saw Mona that second time, when Massimiliano said he’d rung the doorbells of all the convents in the neighborhood looking for her, it was like everything that would happen already had. She told him she didn’t live nearby, but on her own, closer to the…school where she worked.
Which was where, he asked?
Passengers worry about all the wrong things. Turbulence. Noises. Landings. What they should worry about: solar radiation, faucet handles in the bathroom, takeoffs. There comes a point on the runway where you absolutely must make it into the air; there’s no room to decelerate: a fence, water, or at some airports, special crumble-beneath-you arresting pavement await. In this way, every runway is an aircraft carrier at sea. Mona once worked at an airline where procedure was for the pilot-not-flying to put his hand (incredibly, only once in all her years of flying has it been ‘her’ hand) behind the pilot’s, at the base of the throttle during takeoffs. If the pilot suddenly got a wild hair, or died—it happens, their instructors swore—the PNF would grab control. In due time, you’d circle around, drop the dead man off. Some airlines specify no such takeoff protocol. Others specify it on landing. She’s never wrested control or had it wrested from her, but she was a connoisseur of the moment, how lightly or heavily men hovered their hands. She never had time in the moment to reflect, but afterward she would think: how close did his hand get to mine? With some, she felt something, imagined a tiny Tesla-leap of lightning, worried mutual attraction might short the cockpit.
That’s what she thought of then, that second market meeting, when she lightly put her fingers to the back of Massimiliano’s wrist, saw him look at her jute-strung cross and told him, no. As in, I will tell you nothing more about me, my work, my life. But she had a quiet question for him: where do you live?
Imagine her surprise when Audrey at Thanksgiving last year asked if Mona knew any nuns. Research for a paper. Something. Mona said no, though she’d been doing her own research by then. Movies, novels, memoirs, sunny, hellish, intriguing. All kinds of useful detail, though none satisfactorily explained how you did it, that devotion, commitment, whatever it was, how you made the leap. Still, she read, ducked into bland airport chapels, prepping if Massimiliano ever tested her. But apparently some invisible force was, instead. Audrey’s query Mona eventually understood to be a warning from whatever lurked beyond the stars, a brush-back pitch, not unlike the catering truck that had almost cut Mona off while she was taxiing that snowy night in Cincinnati (only ‘proceed’ means proceed, idiot, ‘go ahead’ only ever means, ‘speak’). The truck, another omen, had meant she had to pay better attention, and a future landing in Chicago during a storm had proved fate, and Mona, right. Trouble ahead.
And there was. The airline said the early retirement offer (like ‘go ahead,’ ‘offer’ didn’t mean what it meant) wasn’t about Cincinnati and Chicago, but it was. Her union rep was no help, and neither was the lawyer he found for her who said, “sue for discrimination on what grounds?” Well, she thought. Gender, age. Maybe religion?
Audrey was close to graduating now, her father reportedly settling down with someone new. All Mona had to do was fly a final leg to Fiumicino, find a permanent apartment, then Massimiliano, come clean. Oh, to be able to dress up again! Or down. Or wear the outfits she bought from one delectable window after another on the Campo Marzio and only ever wore stateside.
Why hadn’t she told him the truth months ago? Massimiliano had never asked, true: leave the convent, marry me! Nothing like that, ever. Once, in bed, he said his younger self would have been ashamed of what he was doing, but also—and here he drew a finger down the full bare length of her—very impressed. She was impressed, too, with herself. She felt like she’d summitted two careers, pilot, nun, three if she included Italian paramour, each with exacting codes and ways of dress.
But she hadn’t told him the truth. Or that she loved him, but only in a way. He was handsome, smart but not too, could make a meal from just about whatever she brought him, but she could never get over that he’d made her break her vow.
Finally: not at a convent door, not at the market, not at the table, not the airport, but his apartment, afterwards, once they were dressed. She went first because she always went first.
“I have something to tell you.”
“The priest said this would happen!”
“I confessed everything. It was—I was—wrong.”
She will check the job wikis next week, look for gig assignments, delivering planes, fetching them back. Or she’ll try Alaska, where it’s hard to impanel a jury without a plane to go around and collect jurors. Or the South Pacific, where the Wycliffe folks have been flying bible translators about for years. Only 200+ local languages to go, the ads say. She’s always wanted to fly a floatplane.
She’ll miss the big jets, though not so much today’s models, computers crowding you out of the cockpit, Kevlar-reinforced doors sealing you in. She misses 747s, the old days, midnight, midway to Europe, radar and the weather clear, walking the length of the plane, darkened not just for sleep but so that passengers’ eyes adjust to the dark, necessary should things go awry. Those awake would unfailingly smile at her, and she’d smile back, marveling at their simple trust in her uniform, the plane, in the principles of flight, that air can hold them aloft. She’ll miss all that long after she’s finished missing Massimiliano, that bedrock belief in her, that fierce and boundless faith.