On our last day in Rome, we have an option to wake up early and go to Santa Maria della Scala. Chelsea says the name means “Saint Mary of the Steps” and that it’s going to be “creepy-cool.”
Chelsea is our tour guide, and “cool” is her favorite operative word, her first and foremost descriptor. “It’s really cool,” is her way of psyching us up for basically everything, which makes her sound our age. But most days she wears denim skorts with sneakers, so she’s not fooling anyone. She’s from Florida but she lives in Italy, giving tours. For the past week she’s been shepherding our high school Latin club (plus chaperones) through different Italian cities via a combination of her unusually loud voice and a hot pink paper umbrella like I’ve always wanted to buy myself from Hobby Lobby—a giant version of those little umbrellas people supposedly put in cocktails. Mostly she raises it over her head still closed, but on really hot days I see her actually carry it like a parasol, casting a hot pink-tinted shadow over her already-tanned skin.
Chelsea wears a necklace with a silver hand on it—not a bare, open palm offering peace or a high five but the back of the hand, the fingers closed, casually resting, like someone considering shaking your hand. Chelsea loves hands, she says—she’s a painter when she isn’t giving tours—and she uses her necklace to talk about the Incorruptibles. There were saints whose bodies were still intact after they died, who didn’t rot or turn to dust; their graves gave off a sweet smell, even in climates where it was impossible to be accidentally mummified. And so it happened that all over Europe, people kept digging up other people after they’d died to see if they were confirmed to be saints yet. And when the bodies were miraculously preserved—when the skin still felt supple, when the scent of flowers was clearly coming from the body itself—the standard celebratory procedure involved hacking the body into pieces so as to have more holy relics.
Apparently, it’s fallen out of vogue, the incorruptible thing—or at least the part about digging people up. Apparently being incorruptible also might just mean very slow decay rather than none—Chelsea knows one saint who’s just bones now, the bones displayed and venerated all the same. (“Cool, huh?” she prompts.)
Sometimes a wax mask or a metal cast is made, to protect the corpse from premature destruction (the lights of the church, or smoke from incense). Chelsea’s been to a convent in Spain where they keep a saint’s hand encased in a beautiful golden cast, a reliquary. Teresa of Avila’s hand inside is probably just bones at this point, but the reliquary wears elaborate jeweled rings. Precious stones trace the lines of her fingers.
In Assisi, a man cleaning the bathrooms grabs my ass. We spend the morning in a giant glorified gift shop of pottery, a place where everything is suns and moons because they call St. Francis of Assisi “Brother Sun” and St. Clare “Sister Moon.” Then the bus zooms on to a weird parking lot with an escalator built into the hill and it turns out we’re in Assisi, that we start at the top and wind our way down through the town. Everything is closed because the Italians are taking their afternoon nap, but we manage to find some gelato on our way.
In Sunday school we’d heard about St. Francis of Assisi walking through the streets and preaching the gospel, but I’ve never pictured the town as a gigantic hill. It makes the story that much more intense, that St. Francis was having to climb all that way up and down just to talk to people.
I have to trek a little ways up the hill to get to the bathrooms before the bus leaves. Nobody wants to go with me, and Chelsea says to hurry. When I get there it looks like the bathroom is closing for cleaning. The man who’s there to clean pauses in putting up the sign and gestures that he will wait, that I should go in; and I am grateful. When I come out I have to exit through a paid turnstile—because heaven forbid Italy offer a free public bathroom—but the man insists via a series of gestures and confused English that I should squeeze past without paying, that there’s plenty of room. I do as he says and he plants his hand firmly on my backside, I suppose to help me through. I open my mouth, searching for a curse strong enough but hesitate. In the end, I don’t know how to say “fuck you” in Italian so instead I say grazie.
Chelsea tells us that when St. Teresa’s body was exhumed a year after she’d died, her spiritual director cut off her left hand to send it to the convent—but he kept her ring finger for himself, wearing it on a necklace for the rest of his life. Chelsea holds up her own hand necklace, looking mischievous, and laughs.
At the discotheque in Florence, I find a seat on the balcony that overlooks the first floor. The club is mostly empty, and below my classmates are dancing, or pretending to, and enjoying the freedom of buying drinks from the bar. We’re sixteen or seventeen, all of us, and our parents have signed waivers permitting us to drink—except Grace, whose mother is a chaperone. I don’t know where the chaperones are, but from my vantage point I can see Katie passing her drink to Grace, Deanna acting as lookout. It’s dark and there’s an honest-to-God disco ball with colored lights shining on it and as soon as Grace has finished her drink Deanna goes back to dirty-dancing with Eric.
I don’t like dancing, or at least I don’t like trying, even in front of friends. I don’t like making a show of my body, don’t like putting it in a position where I could be watched and ridiculed. For all of middle school and high school I hadn’t been to one dance until Prom this past spring, when Jackson Lewis asked me if we could go “as friends.” Deliriously happy, I said yes, ignoring the qualifier he put so much weight on—because I was obsessed with him, because I was in love with him, because I hoped it was all a ruse and that he’d confess his undying love to me as we slow-danced in the gym. But Jackson was a man of his word, dutifully giving me a corsage that, like his tie, matched the blue of my dress; posing for pictures with our group of friends in someone’s backyard for half an hour before dinner; buying my meal and ticket to the dance as prom etiquette seemed to dictate; and slow-dancing with me exactly twice, after which he seemed to believe he’d fulfilled all his obligations as my date. He ditched me as soon as the second slow song ended, gyrating into the middle of our group of friends like the showoff I knew he was. I lingered at the edge of the circle for the next couple of songs, barely swaying; but he didn’t check on me, speak to me, look at me again until the dance was ending and he had to take me home. I spent the rest of the night sitting at a table off to the side, reflecting on how bad and loud the music was and feeling uncomfortable as I watched my friends grind on each other just a few feet away. Sitting in the discotheque feels like déjà vu, even without Jackson there to ignore me.
When Chelsea gathers up our group to leave, Deanna loudly tells me I’m a great dancer, her words a little slurred. I don’t try to correct her because it’s easier letting her think I was somewhere out there with them. Back in our hotel room, Deanna and Katie and Grace joke that next year’s Prom should be at a discotheque. Deanna waxes poetic about dances, about the baby-pink gown she saw two weeks ago on clearance and how now is an optimal time to go ahead and buy our dresses.
As she flings her sweaty clothes off and stumbles into her pajamas she starts imagining what we’re doing for Homecoming. She wants to get a real Italian cookbook, from Italy, here, and an Italian dictionary so she can read it. She wants to have gelato for dessert. She’s listing the guests and when she lists me, she pairs me with Jackson; I make her drink a glass of water to help with the alcohol and nod and smile until we turn the lights off.
Long after Deanna falls asleep, I lie awake wondering about the rumor Deanna’s apparently missed—that, as of the fourth of July, Jackson has a girlfriend, some skinny, petite girl who sings with him in the choir. I think her name is Wendy and I don’t know her except that she makes her own earrings and buys all her clothes from thrift stores—not because she’s poor but because she has actual style. Unlike me, she doesn’t take a yearly back-to-school shopping trip to JCPenney, where she will inevitably fight with her mother about the way something fits her. I stare into the dark room, listening to Grace snoring and remembering our group Prom pictures: how trim Jackson looks in his suit, how voluminous I look alongside the other girls in my bright blue dress.
Chelsea tells us that the same convent that has the hand has St. Teresa’s heart. She says the reliquary looks like a championship trophy, tries to illustrate it in the air with her hands—cupping them first at the center in a vague heart shape—a glass case—and then fluttering her rounded hands on the top and sides, drawing imaginary arches. The reliquary is ornate and golden, she says, but the heart inside is shriveled and gray. (“Way cool.”)
In Venice, I hate my ugly gray school t-shirt and ugly purple skirt. I bought the skirt at Walmart the day before we left, predicting correctly that it would be much cooler than my jeans; but what I don’t predict is the way my thighs stick together in the heat, the painful rash that has me crab-walking like an idiot by the end of our day. I don’t predict that the new walking shoes I got at Payless—sneakers that look like Mary Janes—will rub and blister my feet, that the no-show socks I took such pains to select will slip down under my foot each time I take two steps, to the point that I’ll ask the girls to wait as we cross some bridge and un-Velcro the shoes one at a time, fishing out the offending socks with one hand and leaning on the railing with the other. I stuff the socks into my backpack and don’t say another word about it; though each time we stop at a bathroom I’m folding toilet paper to put into the backs of my shoes to protect my skin and dabbing at my raw, red thighs with wet hands.
Grace and Katie split off from us eventually, and Deanna feels bad for me so she pretends not to notice, but Chelsea loudly calls me “poor thing” when the group is meeting up at the end of the day and everyone turns to look. I snap back to walking like a normal person, even as my legs rub and burn with every step, even as the shoes make my feet bleed. When we get back to the hotel, I borrow baby powder and lotion from one of the chaperones. At the night market in Jesolo I buy Band-Aids and a pair of ugly tie-dye knit shorts to wear underneath the skirt.
It’s pretty normal to have bone fragments or blood of a saint, Chelsea says. She says there are classes to relics, levels of intensity and authenticity: even just touching a piece of cloth to a piece of their body makes a relic, makes something pilgrims can cherish.
The group that wakes up early for our last morning excursion is small—a few guys I know marginally, Grace’s mom, three of the older women whose eight-person tour group was the perfect number to round out our not-quite-full-sized group from the Latin club. The hotel sends us off with breakfast in brown bags: a pastry encrusted with sugar and a cup of grapefruit juice.
One of the older ladies wonders out loud on the bus if this is what Italians actually eat or if it’s the “American” breakfast. “Wherever we go we’re served the ‘American meal,’” she complains, as if she expected anything other than that from a tour package that mostly serves high-school and college students. It’s been embarrassing, being associated with her this past week: she’s the woman who brought a pair of white Crocs as her only shoes and complained when they got dirty in the streets, who carries a hand-held battery-powered fan that buzzes when she turns it on, who purchased too many delicate masks in Venice and scolded the rest of us for the difficulty she had squeezing her oversized bag into the luggage compartment under the bus. Grace and Katie call her Tourist Tracy—not that we actually know her name.
We talked about this in Latin club, about not being those Americans. When the bus arrives at its drop-off point, all progress grinds to a halt as Tracy announces she’s lost one of her contacts in the area around her seat. One of the guys a couple of seats behind me heaves a long-suffering sigh and I turn so we can exchange sarcastic smiles: Here we go again. But when we get off the bus, when I have to discreetly tug at the hem my new shorts to keep my thighs from chafing under the purple skirt, I wonder if maybe I’m a Tourist Tracy, too.
No one knows what’s happened to Teresa’s left eye or part of her jawbone, even though we know they were taken—or maybe it’s just that Chelsea doesn’t know, that she’s never seen them for herself. Chelsea makes a ring with her first finger and thumb, holding it to her face like a monocle, then mimes plucking her own eye out. She bobs her head backward as if in shock, closing her eyelid in time with the snatching; and her fingers curl around an imaginary eyeball. The movement is convincing and practiced, an act she performs for every tour group.
“Cool,” someone from Latin club mutters sarcastically; people snicker. I dwell on the thought of the eye for a bit too long and swallow thickly, feeling a bit ill.
Santa Maria della Scala isn’t much on the outside—it’s a plain, sandy color, crammed in beside orangey buildings of nearly the same height. A stone marker across the way from the entrance proclaims this area “PIAZZA DELLA SCALA,” but I can’t help but feel it’s anticlimactic. At St. Mark’s Square, the arches seemed to stretch on forever. Florence’s Duomo, a massive structure in pink, white, and green marble with a giant brick dome, towered over an appropriately impressive square of its own. Piazza della Scalla, tiny by comparison, has cars parked in it and graffiti on one of the walls.
Inside the church, though, is a sensory overload—it’s colored marble everywhere, it’s arches and chandeliers and everything in gold and gold trim, brightly-painted ceiling masterpieces and elaborately-ornamented alcoves dedicated to various saints every few feet. I feel crowded by all the art, as if the walls are closing in, as if the space is shrinking for all the decorations; and our group stops moving as we wait for Chelsea to find someone to let us in to where we’re going. A few people take pictures, but I don’t even know where to begin, which direction to point my camera in.
When Chelsea returns with a man carrying a set of keys, we follow her, perfectly-behaved ducklings, to another chapel where we see—behind a pane of glass, reddish marble as a backdrop—an elaborate golden box held up by sculptures of cherubim. The main pillar of the pedestal is a heart spouting tongues of flame and golden rays—a vision of beauty in contrast to the box’s contents.
It’s ugly—dark and greasy—and if I look too long I can start thinking about it being lopped off, about the bones and tissue I might see if I was able to look at it from above instead of from the side: St. Teresa’s right foot.
Deanna asks me about it later, how I felt worshipping the Foot God. I tell her that’s not how it works but she hasn’t been listening to Chelsea. She’s more concerned about her imaginary plans for Homecoming—how she’s worried that there won’t be time in the airport to find a cookbook, that I need to help because I’m part of this plan, too. But the airport isn’t like Atlanta or Newark—not nearly as many stores—and the chaperones don’t want us going too far from the gate, so Deanna settles on conducting a Napoleon Dynamite quote-off between herself and Eric. I’m about to tell her more about seeing St. Teresa’s foot—it’s still forming, something on the tip of my tongue. It’s not the reliquary that’s sacred, I want to explain, but the sad, greasy foot inside of it, and that’s the weird part—the fact of that shriveled, ugly thing. It is absurd and beautiful, for all the marble trimmings and gold adornments, and I think it means something—but by the time I open my mouth, Deanna’s stopped listening, her question forgotten, and I wonder vaguely whether we were even having a conversation at all.
Before we all say good-bye and take a group picture with her, Chelsea says that St. Teresa’s arm is encased in a “v”-shaped tube of glass, bent at the elbow, in perfect keeping with what Chelsea calls “the bizarre trophy theme,” and though I can’t quite understand what she means I still try to imagine it for hours after. As we wait on the runway for takeoff I squeeze at the skin of my arms, press my palm into the bone of my elbow, smooth a finger across my wrists to feel the round, taut bands of muscles and tendons. I can’t stop tracing the lines of my ring fingers. I remember watching Chelsea chat easily in Italian with the bus driver. She looked like Grace and Katie and Deanna dancing at Prom or in the discotheque—comfortable, effortless, in her element. I know that I want the way Chelsea belongs without question, even in skorts and sneakers. I wonder what it takes to be confident like that.
In the row behind me, Grace’s mom starts snoring. “Oh my God,” Grace says, sounding mortified. Across the aisle and two rows back, Deanna and Eric are still quoting movies. Nothing much has changed, but I wonder if that isn’t true. The air conditioning is blowing ineffectually and I feel the sweat collecting in my armpits, the slight sting of irritation where my shorts rest against the raw part of my inner thigh, the uncomfortable warmth in my cheeks and forehead that means I need to drink more water before I get dehydrated. And then the plane accelerates, lifting up, up, up and launching into the sky, all of us safely encased within metal and glass.
Margaret Emma Brandl is a Ph.D. candidate at Texas Tech University, where she has taught English courses and serves as an associate editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, Pithead Chapel, Hobart, jmww, and other journals. Visit her website or say hi on twitter.