Christmas Story 🎄

by Kathryn Temple

“Wait a minute! Can you back up?” she said.

What bright leaves, not merely red, scarlet maybe. She couldn’t pass them by even though she was late and he was waiting, not patiently, already settled in the rental car he’d picked up. He was blocking her view.

“I want a picture of this house. The car’s in the way.” She could sense him taking a deep breath, then exhaling slowly, but he reversed while she tried and failed to get the cellphone lens to frame the image. There had been no real fall color here in Florence, everything was sort of blah and had been since October. Gray skies, rain. But the vermillion leaves made this house glow. Vines of some sort. She wanted to capture the contrast, not just the leaves. The leaves were all the brighter for the dull bricks they grew on.

She took a few steps back, angled it, but no, her cell couldn’t manage this.

When she finally walked over to the passenger side, the door was locked. She tapped the window and watched while he poked this and that button, unable to get the rental car to cooperate. She fidgeted, he reached across the seats to open the door and again waited while she stowed her backpack and found the seatbelt.

“I couldn’t get the picture,” she said. “The camera wouldn’t reduce the size enough to get a good frame.”

“You should have used my camera,” he said.

“Yes, but then I’d have to carry it.”

“I didn’t say you should carry it; you could have just used it.”

“Yes, I know, but to be ready for a shot like that I’d have to have it with me all the time…”

“I didn’t say you’d have to carry it.”

She sighed and sat back in her seat, fiddling with the phone to get the GPS set for Lucca. Another side trip and another argument not worth having, she thought.

Since they’d arrived in Florence, it had been like this. A few good moments, a lot of bad ones. If she wanted to buy a 5-euro step stool, he argued that she should use an overturned wastebasket. If she wanted to turn right, he wanted to turn left…and then argue about which route was longest. Why didn’t she know the rules about letting people pass on the narrow sidewalks here? Why did she want to walk when they could take the bus? Why didn’t she introduce him to this or that person? She had no idea, but it was all fuel for argument and in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

He was having a hard time hearing her or maybe processing what he heard. Or maybe she really was mumbling and forgetting to tell him things. They were both getting older but they weren’t getting any wiser. Often, she would start explaining something, sharing her day, and three sentences into it he’d ask what or who she was talking about. It was discouraging. She wanted to be gentle, understanding. But what she felt was somewhere between irritation and pure rage. Older didn’t mean wiser but it also didn’t mean nicer.

It was easier to live alone than to be married, she thought.

The drive to Lucca was long. Her back hurt and she squirmed in the Fiat’s small seat. He plugged in his phone and put on some Christmas carols. Cheery, irritating Christmas carols. She didn’t want to think about Christmas. She had come here to get away from all that.

As if knowing her thoughts, he said, “I can’t really get in the spirit of Christmas. There’s nothing here to remind me of it. I don’t have to get down the tree or put up the lights…”

“Right,” she said, “nothing here to remind us of all the work.”

“Nothing to remind us of the stress,” he said.

“Or the endless expectations which I’ll never, ever meet,” she added.

“Right, exactly that.”

And then things were better. For a while.

Pulling into Lucca presented the usual problems. These Italian tourist towns never had any parking and walking uphill was difficult for him. They circled the town a few times, finding full parking lots and even cars in line waiting for someone to leave. They were getting hungry and she knew they were soon in for tedious discussions of where to eat. This place is too expensive (him), that one will take too long (her), this one looks good but what about that place down the street? By the time they parked and finally got some sandwiches they were starving and irritable. Standing up eating sandwiches in the street didn’t seem right to her but that’s what he wanted. Italians never eat in the streets.

After the food, she was less irritable but much colder. They had come to Italy in late August but now it was early December, late fall for the Italians who still liked to take their meals at the outdoor tables that lined every piazza. The wind was picking up. Leaves and debris flew around them as they walked through narrow streets trying to escape the designer shops and tourist traps, looking for the real Lucca. Which, no longer existed, at least according to the ex-pat newsletter she read.

There really isn’t much to do in these places, she thought. Old churches, sometimes quite amazing but they all blurred together. A painting by a famous Renaissance artist here or a medieval fresco there but mostly it’s tourists who don’t care about art. And mostly the tourists sit around and drink or shop at chains they could find in any mid-sized city in the U.S. She was a snob.

“If you don’t want to shop, let’s go to the Chiesa di Santa Maria Corteo…uh, can’t pronounce the rest of it,” he said, then pointed to her phone, wanting some response. “What?” she said, “oh, you want me to use my GPS?” Yet another well-chewed bone of contention was his refusal to pay for a sim card. Her phone had become their extended brain and at her expense. She tapped google maps, a 15-minute walk, okay, at least they might warm up. Maybe. She knew he wouldn’t go in if the church charged a “donation.”  He wouldn’t pay a euro even if the church turned out to be the Notre Dame of Lucca. (She also knew this was a sour exaggeration, not worthy of her. He had been to Notre Dame, probably on a discount if they charged, but still…)

They headed away from Piazza Grande, her with the phone clutched in one hand, trying to make out the directions, him striding ahead through narrow cobblestone lanes, barely room for two to walk together. It was getting dark already and the walls on either side seemed to close in. The cobblestones were slippery with pigeon droppings; she could hear the pigeons cooing from above as if they had nothing to do with the mess. “Wait,” she said, “I’m not sure where we’re going…” but he kept on. Several wrong turns later, she was still trailing and asking him to stop. “I can’t get oriented if you keep moving,” she said, but it was to the empty air as he had already rounded the next curve, a high wall of damp, gray stone.

By the time she caught up, she was furious. Why use her expensive GPS if he wasn’t going to follow her instructions?  Before she could say anything though, he pointed ahead and said, “I’m following that priest, he’s probably going to the Chiesa.”  “He’s probably NOT,” she said, “Remember, this is Lucca–the City of One Hundred Churches?” “Let’s try it anyhow,” he called over his shoulder and on they went.

How many times had this scene played out? Twelve years of this second marriage, she always went along with it, even that time in New Orleans when they walked so far out of their way that she had bloodied her new heels. If she said anything, they’d be back on script, and a predictable discussion would ensue. She was too rigid, no spirit of fun, he was spontaneous, outgoing, ready for anything. It occurred to her that their hair and their arguments had both gone gray together.

At that moment, he stopped short. The narrow lane they were in had gradually become more dirt than stone. And the sky was opening up; they were no longer enclosed by the town walls. She joined him and gasped. The priest, a bit of dark cloth off in the distance, was winding down through the high field, the path almost obscured by the dusk. About 200 yards below them light and color streamed out into the surrounding darkness from what looked like, yes, it had to be, a Christmas market. She could see a tree, glowing red and green in the middle of a small piazza, lighting up the presepio nearby. A large creche for a small town. She couldn’t make out the baby Jesus, but she thought the three bigger figures were the Wise Men. The whole thing was encircled by stalls outlined in rows of Christmas lights. Could she smell hot sausages? No, not likely from this distance. But even from here, she could hear people laughing and singing in Italian. The beat sounded like Little Drummer Boy, Tamburino in Italian, one of her favorites. “Jesus will come,” she thought.

“Isn’t it amazing?” he said, “I didn’t care about Christmas, but now…”

“It’s wonderful, it’s perfect,” she looked directly at him for the first time that day. He really did have the nicest face, even at this age, the most expressive blue eyes. “We would never have found it without getting lost.”

He turned, gesturing with wide arms as if to embrace her and the whole market, “See,” he said, “I knew I’d find something you’d like. Let’s go down.” But together they stood there for a few seconds, just looking. She was hoping they would remember this later.

“Wait a minute, it will just take a minute,” she said, taking out her phone. She couldn’t pass this by. She had to capture the contrast.

“I need to take a picture.”

Kathryn Temple is a professor at Georgetown University. She has published in Fauxmoir and Streetlight and in a number of academic journals. As a senior faculty fellow with the Christian Literary Imagination Series, a Georgetown-Oxford collaboration, she is completing an essay on religious ambivalence in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. You can find some of her personal essays and some writing advice here and her CV with references to her academic work here.

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