All Roads

by Jacqueline Goyette

Rome is in Valentina’s blood. It didn’t start out that way. At first, Valentina was only looking for a way out of small town Italy – the sixth-floor apartment, overbearing parents, the kind of misunderstood that people feel at her age. In Italy, leaving home is a foreign concept, and so when Valentina applied to college in Rome, everyone shook their heads in disbelief. And when she packed up her luggage and moved out of the house, people were downright offended. “Rome?” they said, aghast. “Yes,” she said, hauling her suitcases down six flights of stairs. “Rome.”

And now, it’s in her blood. Scorre nel sangue, the Italians say. Here in Rome her apartment overlooks the highway, in one of those buildings the color of sunshine that just speaks of Rome and its Romans, of lines of laundry in the summertime and balconies that lean out precariously into the middle of quiet, worn-out piazzas. Once, when I visited her, we sat at the table with the windows wide open, and she spoke about the city like it was her own. As if all of the ghosts of these past lives – the saints, the artists, the actors, the politicians – who had lived and loved in Rome, at one point or another, were only paving the way for this 25-year-old from small-town Italy to walk through it, to stare up at the dome of Saint Peter’s or at the fountains in Piazza Navona that carve every corner of the globe into their stone, and nod her head, in faint approval, as if someone had built the entirety of this city to her exact specifications.

She is my niece, my husband Antonello’s brother’s daughter. We share no blood, but she is more family than most. In her, I suppose I see a version of myself, or the girl I wanted to be. All of the daring, the reckless, the brave – all of the stories I’ve never told, even if I would’ve liked to.

Today, May 1st, we are visiting her. We – her father, her uncle (my husband), her aunt (me) – spent the cold morning driving through hill towns, past towers and through the tunnels that wage their slow wars with the mountains, to be here, where all the roads eventually lead. Valentina’s mother is still at home, having made a last-minute decision not to come. She has made a lot of these decisions lately. Valentina asks us about her mother when we arrive. Her father shrugs, hands her the pair of black-heeled sandals he has made for her. “Non c’è,” he says, as she tries the sandals on. She isn’t here.

Antonello drives us from Pigneto to Trastevere, on the other side of the city, where Valentina used to live. “This city…” she admits, “sometimes it’s like I’m a tourist as well.” And we stare wide-eyed out the window as we drive by the Baths of Caracalla, where all that is left is a bundle of columns and Roman arches that are wiser than us. Antonello drives a little scared, a little fast, over those thick grey slabs of Roman stones. He careens toward the Colosseum and the Bocca della Verità. Valentina and I talk in our usual mix of garbled giggles and minor truths. We are the backseat drivers, today. I am at once aunt and sister, confidant and friend. It is comforting. It is family.

I think of my mother. She loved Bach. It was in her blood. She used to make mixtapes of his music – the cantatas, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Goldberg Variations. I can recognize Bach’s music anywhere. It is my hidden talent, my superpower, so that any time I hear it – in the grocery store, on the radio – my mother floats right up next to me and whispers in my ear. Mom loved his fugues the most, and she would explain them to me: the pattern that turns upside down, the mirrored notes that spill from one page of sheet music to another like two sister melodies intertwined. “Can you hear it repeat itself?” she would ask as we sat at the piano in the house and she played. And she used to play the mixtapes on every single drive. Every one! I remember complaining as Mom would push the cassette into the tape deck with a click, and there it would start: the piano, the easy tempo of the Goldberg Variations, that first aria that tiptoed into being, haunting and slow. In those moments (without me knowing), I was memorizing it along with her (or maybe memorizing it for her). She would hum along, her fingers tapping the notes on the steering wheel. Sometimes, I would hum along as well.

I decided to visit Leipzig long after Mom had died. My friend Corrie and I had begun taking yearly trips – Amsterdam one year, Stockholm the next. As the adults that we were (or at least were trying to be), we chose places that had meaning, taking turns in the discovery. I had dreams of where I wanted to go. Quebec, to see my grandfather’s birthplace. The Philippines, to visit my mother’s childhood home – knock on the door to see who answered. But we didn’t have that kind of time, and most of our trips centered around places we could both reach: Corrie from America and me from Italy. As I flew home after our very first trip – five good days in Amsterdam – it hit me, right there, in economy class, gazing out onto the first stars of night: I had to go to Leipzig. My mother had always wanted to visit the church where Bach spent most of his life as an organist. And now, here, with Corrie and my yearly trips, it just made sense. We had to go. We had to take the trip for her.

Sometimes, we go to places that remind us of moments that never were. When Corrie and I got off the train in Leipzig, we fell in love with the city right away. Every step was meant for us, as if my mother had already been here in dreams, and she’d taken the necessary measures to build the perfect city of bright yellow facades, of gleaming cobblestones, of a German market filled with cheeses and hams and fresh asparagus that stood up on the tables like bouquets. This was the perfect day, with the perfect friend (Corrie had stood by my side when my mother was dying and answered my calls when I had no one else) – she’d been there through all of it and was here once again). Inside Thomaskirche, the church where Bach had been an organist for years (his house was across the street), I stood at Bach’s grave, roses strewn over it, and wept as if it were my mother’s. I lit a candle in the church, my hands shaking so much that I almost knocked over the entire candle stand (Corrie had to steady me and sit me down in a pew, and we laughed and cried together). I wept at Evensong as we listened to the organist play the fugues that I knew by heart. I wept because she was there, and yet I knew she wasn’t. That morning, we had seen a rainbow rise over the town square. Corrie saw it first. “Jackie,” she said, “look at that.” As if to say: this trip is for you, Jackie. She has been here, with you, waiting, all along.

Scorre nel sangue.

We will stay a little late in Rome this time. Valentina will ask us to. She will tell me, as we walk through crowded, cobbled streets in Trastevere, past entire walls of ivy climbing up all that is medieval and ancient, past sidewalk cafes that are making the most of this sudden spell of sunshine, that she has missed these family outings. That she misses her mother too. And she will laugh when she says it, off-handed and fleeting, but it will stay with me. I will know that she meant it, even so.

These are the things that we pass on without meaning to. The cities we love. The languages we learn together. New countries, new roads. This love for Bach, finding and meeting my mother in the spaces where Bach was – knowing that she would always be there, as long as I was there. The days after my mother died, I sat at the dining room table at the house in Indianapolis with my brother and sister-in-law. We picked through my mother’s things and decided what to keep. My brother took a pair of silver earrings for his daughter. I took the gold ones with the pearls dangling down that I’d worn at my own wedding, something borrowed. I went through her cookbooks and the dresses in her closet, but none of us took the Bach mixtapes. We left them there, in her dresser drawer. Do I wish I had taken them? Do I wish I could go back and touch them, where her fingers had been, press them gently into place and listen to the music starting up? Maybe. But her voice, singing the fugues, humming along, and my memory of it – I still have that, even today. It cannot fade (I promise you). Perhaps that is inheritance enough.

Today in Rome, we spend the late morning in the Botanical Garden. Here are greenhouses with cacti and carnivorous flowers. Here the fountains have lazy nymphs who spit water in blissful spouts high into the Roman sky. We walk through the herb garden, the part closest to the rest of Rome – where you can almost smell the city, its busy perfume, mingling with the sage and the rosemary. “If you touch the stems, you can tell that they are herbs,” I tell Valentina. It is something my mother taught me: the square-shaped stems and the leaves – some soft and fuzzy, some green and slick. We check the stems, touching them, rubbing the leaves: mint and dill and sage – their aromas sticking to our fingertips. These are hand-me-downs too, the heirlooms of my not-so-distant past. Above us, bright green parakeets are perched on the big fronds of palm trees. They’ve run away from home as well, haven’t they?  Now they are flying, flocking, finding themselves. Squawking and singing, all the melodies they can – fugues and folk songs and anthems to their adopted homeland – as loud as their little voices can go.

Jacqueline Goyette is a writer from Indianapolis, Indiana. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and has appeared in both print and online journals, including trampset, JMWW, Heimat Review, The Citron Review, Eunoia Review, and Cutbow Quarterly. She currently lives in the town of Macerata, Italy with her husband Antonello and her cat Cardamom.