Personal Space

by Mary Elizabeth Pope

To get to Rome from Urbino by train, you have to take a bus to the station in Pesaro, which is where I meet him, Scottish brogue and boyish, boarding the 6:05 to Bologna, where I’ll catch my second train. On the platform he tells me his name is Alan, asks where I’m from, teases me about my accent, not just American, but midwestern to boot, my vowels Michigan-long and nasal. When we’ve put our bags in the overhead bins, I pick a seat by the window and begin the first leg of my journey that will carry me to the Eternal City, to the man who waits for me there, to the Sistene Chapel where we’re headed this afternoon. For months I’ve seen my favorite panel, The Creation of Man, drawn by graffiti artists on the sidewalks of Verona and Florence and San Marino, but today I’m finally going to see the original painted by Michaelangelo.

My immediate plans are to gaze at the sun coming up over Adriatic until the train veers inland, but Alan sits down next to me, rambling about rugby and American baseball and the former colleague from Glasgow he saw last night in Ravenna until I open up the window to let in some air.

“Thank you,” he says.

“No problem,” I say.

No problem,” he repeats, only in his brogue it comes out new p-r-rroblem. “Why can’t Americans ever just say you’re welcome or my pleasure?”

“I’m not sure,” I tell him. “I never thought about it before.”

“Why mention the ‘problem’ bit,” he asks, “like it might actually be one after all?” But since I can’t answer this question either, and since the universal sign for I don’t want to talk anymore is cracking open a book, I pull out the volume of Calvino’s Marcovaldo I’m trying to finish without a translation dictionary and read for a while. But just when I’m starting to get somewhere, Alan reaches across me for a copy of La Nazione someone left on the floor, and when I automatically pull my leg away from the sudden threat of contact with his arm, he sighs.

“That’s another thing,” he says. “Why do you Americans need so much personal space?”

* * *

I don’t know if what Alan says is true of all Americans, but I know what is true about me: in hallways and subways and crowds on the street, I keep a radius around me at all times, two or three feet of space I obtain by reading the movements of people nearby and then speeding up or slowing down, stepping left and then right to avoid contact, maneuvers that are so second nature I never really thought about them until I moved to Italy and people kept cutting in front of me at the fruttivendolo or farmacia thinking I wasn’t in line. I equate physical contact with intimacy, the kind that is reserved solely for lovers, like the one I’m on my way to meet this afternoon, which is why I’m always unnerved by friendly handshakes, avoid the casual grazing of shoulders on airplanes, refuse even the anonymous arm offered to steady me when I’ve stumbled.

Alan is still waiting for my answer, and I want to give him a simpler one, to tell him that space is a form of politeness back home, a way of not encroaching on other people, but politeness seems a hollow excuse when I have the distinct impression I’ve just been rude, and so instead of answering him, I smile and shrug, annoyed now, or embarrassed, I’m not sure which, and turn back to Marcovaldo, though the question hangs in the air of our compartment like smoke that never clears.

When the train finally pulls into Bologna I shove my book in my bag and nod goodbye to Alan, glad to be free of these questions I can’t answer. But in my haste to escape him, the heel of my shoe catches on the threshold at the top of the stairs and my body pitches forward, the contents of my bag falling like rain. Then I’m falling too, the ground gone beneath me, the train upside down, until I crash onto the concrete platform below, limbs akimbo, the beads from my necklace scattering like marbles.

But when I try to stand up, the station whirls into blackness. The next thing I see is a gray ceiling. I’m inside a van, moving somewhere, the blip-blip-blip of a siren blaring, a paramedic working over me. Behind him I see Alan, smiling as I blink.

* * *

In a hallway of the emergency room he stands beside my gurney talking with the admissions staff, filling out my paperwork, handing over the passport he fishes from my bag. He tracks down a pillow for my head, begs a blanket off an orderly, negotiates with the nurses for something that will stop me from writhing in pain. He trades a bill from his wallet for the coins in someone’s pocket, slips them into a vending machine, hunts for a straw to help me drink. Then he calls the man I’m meeting in Rome to tell him I’ll be late, a man who bristles and rages and does not want to know how I am, only just exactly what Alan is doing with me, and when Alan puts the phone down, the look he gives me says he’d like to know just exactly what I’m doing with the man who hung up on him. But he doesn’t ask, and for this I am grateful: it would be one more question I don’t have an answer for.

* * *

Six hours later, there’s a cast on my leg. Alan carries my bag while I work the crutches a doctor has given me, a doctor who has told me I’m young and strong and healthy and should feel better soon, and as we sit in the restaurant across from the station, eating steaming plates of pasta I’ve insisted on buying since it’s the least I can do. Alan gives a jokey translation of the doctor’s prognosis: “You’re young and strong and ugly,” he tells me. “You’re going to be just fine.”

I say, “You must have had somewhere else to be.”

“Not really,” he tells me, and when I ask where he was headed, he says, “Back to Glasgow.”

“Why are you in Italy?” I ask, something that never came up in the scurry and shuffle of the emergency room, and when he doesn’t say anything right away, I wonder if I’ve actually stumbled upon a question he can’t answer.

“My wife doesn’t want me at home,” he finally says.

He looks up at me then, and I know not to ask anything more. Instead, I think of him, a complete stranger, sitting beside my gurney all day, handing me napkins from the cafeteria until the painkillers kicked in and I finally stopped crying, and I can’t imagine who on earth wouldn’t want a husband so kind. I also can’t imagine that the man I’ll sleep next to in Rome tonight will ever be as kind to me as Alan has been today, or why, when I know this, I’m still meeting him there anyway, which is why after Alan and I have walked back to the station, I hug him goodbye, and he lets it pass without a single joke, leaning into me silently until the whistle blows. After he climbs aboard the train that will carry him to Milan and his flight back to Glasgow, I sit down on a bench to wait for the next train to Rome, but when I look up again, Alan is waving to me out the window. The engine has started to roar.

“Thank you,” I shout over the racket.

Through the glass he mouths, “No problem.”

I watch his train until it disappears in the distance. My own train is due any minute, and when it pulls into the station, I hook my bag over my shoulder and half-wobble-half-hop to the nearest open doorway. Above me a conductor is taking tickets, but I don’t know how I’m going to make it up those stairs.

“Lasci che la aiuti,” the conductor says when he sees me. Let me help you. And when he reaches down and offers me his hand, I take it.

Mary Elizabeth Pope’s short stories and essays have appeared in The Florida Review, Sycamore Review, Fugue, Dos Passos Review, Crab Creek Review, Ampersand Review, and others. She holds a PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Iowa and is  currently an associate professor at Emmanuel College in Boston.

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