JEFF double-checked the emergency procedures card against the flight attendant’s previous instructions as the jet lifted into the air. He crooked his neck to see past another passenger and watched as the land and water dropped away. Like zooming out on Google Maps, he thought. But then the plane passed through the nothingness of heavy gray clouds and into the bright sunshine above, and he settled his head back and closed his eyes.
The seat beside him was empty. He should probably be grateful for that, because it gave him a little more room to stretch out and meant he didn’t have to worry about jabbing someone with his elbow. But still, Jeff couldn’t help the sad little twinge in his heart.
Despite being thirty years old, he had never gone farther from Sacramento than Vancouver. And this flight would be a long one. It was Jeff’s first journey to Europe—a trip that was supposed to be a romantic getaway with Kyle. Instead, Jeff felt very alone. He tried to sleep but couldn’t even doze, tried to read but couldn’t concentrate. He flicked through the in-flight movies and TV shows, but nothing held his attention.
He caught himself imagining what the flight would be like if Kyle were there. Kyle would play cards with him and start a conversation with the lady in the window seat. He would flirt with the flight attendants and cadge free drinks out of them, and then he’d fall asleep with his head on Jeff’s shoulder, probably snoring softly.
But Kyle was back in Sacramento, likely helping redecorate his new condo, picking out an expensive leather sofa with his rich new boyfriend. He’d left Jeff to deal with the hassle of emptying out the house they had shared, getting rid of unwanted junk, and getting the place ready to sell.
Thirty-five thousand feet aloft, with the engines rumbling and a nearby toddler screaming his lungs out, Jeff closed his eyes again and drifted back to the previous day.
HE HATED it when the house was a mess. Less than twenty-four hours before his flight, and he was surrounded by half-filled cardboard boxes and big plastic bags full of stuff Kyle hadn’t bothered to take with him. No doubt he had fancier things now that he’d moved in with his new boyfriend. Partners in law firms made a lot more money than guys who worked IT for a time-share company.
“Jeff? What do you want me to do with this?” His mother stood in the doorway to the bedroom with a Crock-Pot in her hands.
He sighed. “Toss it.”
“You sure? It’s in perfectly good shape.”
“It was his. I’ve never used the thing and I don’t plan to. If you want it, it’s all yours.” His tone was a little sharper than he’d intended, but he was tired and cranky and just wanted this whole thing over with.
She made a face, as he’d known she would, and stalked back to the kitchen. To the best of his knowledge, his mother had never cooked anything more elaborate than canned soup. When Jeff was a kid, they’d had a housekeeper who prepared the meals, and nowadays his father made something or his parents ate out. Jeff wasn’t much of a cook either, actually; he’d relied on Kyle for that. Which meant he was now subsisting mostly on salads, takeout, and anything microwavable.
He was still scowling down at the small suitcase on his bed when his mother reentered the room. “You can’t be serious about taking only that much, darling,” she said.
“I’m totally serious, Mom. Every website I’ve looked at says just one suitcase, and even better if it’s a carry-on.”
“But you’re going to be gone for a month!”
“Yeah, but I bet they have washing machines in Europe.” He waved the piece of paper in his hand. “I have everything that Rick Steves recommends. I double-checked my list.”
She looked unconvinced, but then she never left the house without a purse nearly as big as his suitcase. When he was little he’d thought her purse was a lot like Mary Poppins’s satchel—anything she needed seemed to be in there. Hard candies, Kleenex, a book or two, pens and notepaper, her makeup and glasses and wallet, a shawl in case she got chilly, an address book, aspirin, a mirror, a comb and brush, keys, and Christ knew what else.
Suddenly exhausted, Jeff sat on the edge of the mattress and let his shoulders slump. “I shouldn’t go.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, sitting next to him. “Your plane tickets are nonrefundable, and all your arrangements are made. You’ve been planning this trip for months, Jeffy.”
True, but the trip had been Kyle’s idea. Jeff had ventured off United States soil only once—that trip to Vancouver. Honestly, the idea of going somewhere truly foreign—where he didn’t speak the language and didn’t know how to get around—scared the crap out of him. But Kyle had wheedled and whined, pushed and persuaded, and finally made a demand in the midst of an unusually good blowjob. Jeff had given in at last. Of course it was Jeff who did all the research, Jeff who made all the arrangements. He’d collected all his unused vacation time and all the time-share credits he got as a perk of his job, and he’d booked them plane tickets and rooms in Venice, Vienna, Paris, and London.
And then Kyle left him.
Now Kyle was shacked up with a lawyer from the firm where he worked as a paralegal, and Jeff was left with a mortgage he couldn’t afford and that, thanks to the housing slump, was probably more than the place was worth.
He let his packing list fall to the bedspread and rested his forehead in his hands. “I’m gonna just stay here. It’s stupid for me to be jet-setting when I—”
“It’s stupid for you to stay,” she interrupted. Then she continued in a softer tone, “Honey, if you’re around, you’ll just get in the way when I show the house. We’ve been over this already. You go off and have fun and forget about you-know-who—”
“You can say his name, Mom.”
“Forget about Kyle. I’ll stage the house really nicely, and somebody will snap it right up. And when you come back, you can start fresh.”
He knew better than to argue with her about real estate—she’d been selling houses since before he was born. And she was undoubtedly right—his place would show better with Kyle’s junk gone and with most of Jeff’s belongings stored in his parents’ spare bedroom. “I don’t want to start fresh,” he grumbled. He wanted his old life, with his comfortable old house in his comfortable old town, and his comfortable old boyfriend sitting beside him on his comfortable old couch.
His mother ruffled his hair like she used to when he was a boy, and he huffed and smoothed the strands back into place.
“Sacramento is boring and provincial,” his mother announced, as if she hadn’t grown up in the much-smaller neighboring community of Lodi. “You need to broaden your horizons. I don’t care if I have to drag you on that airplane myself. You’re going on this trip.”
Jeff frowned, stood, and went to fetch his five pairs of underwear. But he stopped when he got to his dresser and saw the framed photo he hadn’t yet packed into a cardboard box. Three boys in front of a waterfall: one in his early teens, wearing a sullen scowl, and a pair of twins a few years older. The twins were a little darker than their younger brother, their hair sandy-colored while he was a towhead, their skin tanned instead of sunburned. They were built more heavily than him too, both of them slightly pudgy, but all three shared the same wide-cheekboned face and generous mouth.
There really should have been some portent in the photo. A black cloud hanging ominously overhead, maybe, or a crow perched darkly on a nearby tree branch. But the sky was bright blue, there were no birds, and his brothers’ faces shone with happy mischief. One twin was making rabbit-ear fingers behind the youngest boy’s head, and the other twin had been caught in midlaugh. So much for omens, Jeff thought as he opened a drawer.
HE COULD have flown out of the Sacramento airport. That would certainly have been the most convenient option. But doing so would have required him to make a connection somewhere in the United States, and his research had informed him that flights through O’Hare, Denver, and other domestic hubs were often delayed. So instead he had booked the flight from San Francisco. There was still a layover in Zurich, but according to his online sources, delays were less common there.
The original plan had been for Kyle’s brother to drive them to the airport, but that wouldn’t work under the current circumstances. After their six-year-long relationship suddenly evaporated, Jeff realized that most of their friends had really been Kyle’s friends. The post-breakup distribution of assets had been really unfair, Jeff thought. Kyle got the friends, the rich new boyfriend, and the fancy penthouse condo. Jeff got the mortgage, the slow cooker, and the ride to the airport in the backseat of his parents’ Lexus.
“Now remember,” his mother was saying as his father hurtled down I-80 with his usual disregard for speed limits, “you’re getting me earrings. Real Murano glass in yellow or green.”
“Yes, Mom,” Jeff answered automatically. This was the fifth or sixth time she’d reminded him.
She twisted her head to smile back at him. “I wish I was going to Europe.”
“Why don’t you? You and Dad can afford it.”
“Because we cruise, dear.” They did, twice a year: once to Mexico and once to Alaska. Jeff would have thought they’d be bored to tears with it by now. But his mother liked the shopping and the onboard spa, and his father liked the classes and the casino, and they’d accumulated enough loyalty points that they got all kinds of gifts and upgrades. Besides, their friends went as well—two other couples plus a pair of sisters—and they all looked forward to their shared vacations.
“Maybe you should try a cruise next time, Jeffy. They have special gay cruises, you know.”
He imagined being stuck for days with a boatload of lust-stricken, partying men in Speedos, and he shuddered. “I think I’ll pass, Mom.”
“Barbara’s son Timothy went on one last year and had a wonderful time. Which reminds me, I hear Timothy’s not seeing anyone right now. When you get back I’m going to call Barbara and—”
“Lois, leave the boy alone. He doesn’t want you matchmaking.”
Jeff might have been annoyed at being referred to as “the boy,” but he did appreciate his father’s intercession on his behalf. He also marveled at the way fifteen minutes spent in his parents’ company always regressed him to an embarrassed, slightly sullen fourteen-year-old.
His mother shook her head but turned back around to face the front, his father increased the radio volume as A Prairie Home Companion began, and Jeff checked for the thirtieth time to make sure he’d remembered his pills and his passport.
When they arrived at SFO, his parents got out of the car. His mother hugged him and kissed both his cheeks. “Have a wonderful time, darling,” she said, sniffling just a bit. His father hugged him too and gave him a wink. And then they climbed back in the Lexus and drove off, leaving Jeff standing at the curb with his little suitcase, feeling slightly abandoned. Entering the large terminal with its milling crowds further added to his insecurity, making him feel small and insignificant.
Jeff felt a little weird about handing a brand-new passport to the girl at the Swiss International Air Lines counter. Her passport was undoubtedly chock-full of exotic stamps and visas. But she only glanced at the photo and then at him. Yep, she must have concluded, it all matched: straight white-blond hair, broad face, gray-blue eyes. She gave him a mechanical smile and handed him a boarding pass.
The security check made him nervous, as if the TSA agents might find a four-ounce bottle of shampoo he’d overlooked and drag him into a back room for a body cavity search. The fact that one of the agents was a really buff guy with dark-brown skin and dimples only made the fear of an intimate grope more intense. What did a TSA agent do to you if he saw you pop a woody when he reached for his latex gloves?
But Jeff got through the full-body scanner and retrieved his luggage without incident and then had three hours to kill because he’d been neurotic about getting to the airport early. After all, what if there had been an accident on the Yolo Causeway or a backup on the Bay Bridge? These things happened.
He’d stuffed some granola bars into his suitcase for the journey, even though he knew meals were free on international flights. Christ knew what they were going to serve, and he might get extra hungry. Besides, if he didn’t eat the bars en route, he’d have them in Europe. Didn’t Europeans have muesli instead of granola? In any case, he left his stash where it was and bought a bagel and a bottle of water from one of the airport snack vendors. Then he found his gate and settled in before carefully recording the total of his purchase on the iPhone app he’d downloaded for that purpose. He’d never been much of a spender and had a little extra money saved up, but he intended to stick to a pretty tight budget because his housing situation was bound to be dismal when he returned.
Once he’d tucked the iPhone away again—set on airplane mode and with data roaming off—he pulled out his Kindle. He liked to think that everyone else assumed he was reading great literature, or at least something with spies or rogue cops, but the truth was that he had a single vice, one that Kyle had teased him about unmercifully: Jeff liked to read romance novels. Gay romance especially, although he’d been known to dip into the het stuff now and then. He knew that it was a stupid addiction, that he would never fall head over heels in love with an angsty baron or sexy fireman or handsome cowboy, that there were no happily-ever-afters in real life. But he read the things anyway.
He was three-quarters of the way through a novella about a gladiator and his master when the plane began boarding. Jeff put the Kindle away and got in line, his boarding pass clutched tightly in his slightly sweaty hand. He was really going to do it—he was going to get on an airplane and fly thousands of miles to another continent, and he was going to do it by himself. He felt faintly ill.
IT WAS an enormous relief to deplane in Zurich, although Jeff felt groggy as he slogged his way through passport control. He was relieved to see that the airport looked pretty much like any American airport he’d been in, and all the signs were in English. Although he noticed they were in German as well, and the prices at the duty-free shops were all in euros. Before he found his connecting gate, he used an ATM to withdraw some euros from his debit card—a much better deal than trying to go through a currency exchange, according to his research—and bought a Toblerone, then carefully recorded the expense.
He didn’t feel as though he was in another country, despite the multilingual conversations buzzing around him. Not that he’d expected Switzerland to be especially exotic. In fact, he was a little disappointed, as if he had secretly thought he might find yodelers and alphorns at the snack bars or Saint Bernards delivering brandy to weary travelers.
There was only a two-hour layover, so Jeff didn’t have to wait long until his new flight boarded—a much smaller plane with only two seats across. A woman in her early twenties sat in the window seat next to him, but she ignored him as she scribbled busily in a journal of some kind. At least this flight was very short—a fact that he especially appreciated when the passenger in front of him reclined his seat nearly into Jeff’s lap.
It was early evening by the time they landed in Venice. Jeff was glad that his carry-on preempted the baggage claim, but his pleasure flagged when he was faced with the truly daunting prospect of leaving the relative familiarity of the airport. Map and guidebook in hand, he went off in search of the vaporetto stop. He could take a water taxi, but that would be quite a bit more expensive, and the vaporetto would let him off within a few blocks of the building owned by his time-share employer. Assuming, that was, he caught the correct boat, got off at the correct stop, and didn’t end up spending the night aimlessly wandering the lagoon.
He bought a seven-day pass—thankfully, the man at the booth spoke good English—and with some fumbling, figured out the automatic validation machine. But the vaporetto itself made him nervous. It wasn’t a very big boat, and it was packed full of people. He wondered how careful the Italians were about safety regulations. Did the boats capsize very often or crash into one another? Were life vests tucked away somewhere? Jeff wasn’t a very strong swimmer. He chewed his lip nervously, tried to concentrate instead on the cute guy who tied the vaporetto to the dock at every stop, and then dredged up his very rusty Spanish in a vain attempt to decipher some of the Italian signs.
He was relieved to recognize the name of the appropriate stop: Fondamente Nove. It must have been a popular destination, because almost half the boat got off with him. But once he was on shore, he was struck very suddenly with how different this place was from home.
The buildings here were old. Not midcentury old, like his mortgaged house, which was relatively ancient by Sacramento standards. Not gold rush-era old, like the wooden buildings of Old Sacramento, most of which were probably reproductions anyway. No, these buildings in front of him, three and four and five stories high, had probably been built around the time Columbus was mistaking the Bahamas for India. And they weren’t roped off as part of a museum—people lived in them. He looked up at a woman in a nearby building, leaning out a window to drag her laundry in from a third-floor clothesline.
The age of the city wasn’t the only difference. There were no cars. For a born-and-bred Californian, this was especially jolting. There were no real streets at all, just stone sidewalks of various widths, each with a sign on a wall indicating its name. Jeff couldn’t imagine living in a place where you got around solely on foot or by boat. All the stuff you owned—furniture, groceries, everything—would need to be carried or carted. Of course, he’d read about all this before leaving Sacramento, but to see it in real time was something else entirely.
And the other thing that hit him right away was that the layout of the city wasn’t in neat little square blocks. Although a river ran through Sacramento, most of the city was dry and flat, and the streets were laid out in a grid. Downtown they were numbered in one direction and lettered in the other. Here, he couldn’t even pronounce the names of the streets, and they wandered this way and that, going off at angles, crossing through squares of various sizes, traversing water via footbridges. The route to the time-share looked pretty straightforward on his map, but in the darkening reality of nightfall, Jeff was soon hopelessly lost.
As he passed by a particular restaurant for the third time, he had to stop himself from leaning up against a wall and giving in to tears. He was tired and hungry and lost, and he wished he’d never left home.
But then a woman stopped to look at him. She was probably in her midsixties, with carefully coifed gray hair and a neat suit. She had a plastic grocery bag on one arm and a large purse on the other. She said something to him in Italian.
“Um, sorry,” he said, flushing hotly. “I only speak English.”
Her polite smile didn’t fade. “Of course. May I help you?” She had an accent, naturally, but she spoke the language very well.
He wanted to kiss her. Instead, he held out the piece of paper with the address of his destination. “Can you please tell me how to get there?”
She had to put on a pair of reading glasses to peer at it, but then she nodded. “You are very close. Please, come with me.” And she was off at a smart clip, heading in the direction from which Jeff had just come.
It turned out that he was only a few blocks off, having chosen a path at the far right of one of the squares when he should have stayed to the middle. His new temporary home was in a different square, and it had a small and very discreet sign over the arched wooden door.
“Thank you so much,” Jeff said. “I really appreciate this.”
She gave a tiny shrug. “Enjoy your stay in Venezia.” And then she sailed away into the darkness.
Maybe, Jeff decided as he approached the building, Venice wouldn’t be so bad after all.