Courtney Preiss

The Truth about Pompeii

Courtney Preiss

When they find us,” he says, clasping my hand a little harder, “it’ll be like Pompeii. It’ll be like when they found the baker handing his customer coins in suspended animation. They’ll find us and they’ll see my Giants cap and they’ll see your Big Mac wrappers and they’ll see us holding hands and they’ll know our story.”

I kiss the soft pale spot where his neck meets the back of his ear. “You were right. I should have let you drive,” I tell him, yearning for even a feeble version of the laugh I fell in love with. He smiles quickly but his face is stricken with pain. When he looks down at where the dashboard has crumpled to meet his lap, I pump his hand twice.

While I was earning my master’s, I lived in a high-ceilinged room in a tall mint-colored building off the Almafi coast, just thirty kilometers from Pompeii. I befriended a group of young German archeologists studying the ancient city and had them take me around and teach me as much as I could swallow about the ruins. I wouldn’t call this life flashing before my eyes, but it is strange that this is where the waters of my mind have come to settle. I think about the details of each of their faces for the first time in a very long time and the affection I feel towards them makes my insides soft like a boiled egg.

I pump his hand twice more. I push his hair off his forehead and lean into him and whisper into the curl of his ear.

I tell him the truth about Pompeii: there was no suspended animation. There was no baker handing off coins frozen in an instant. There was no couple curled into each other in bed in an eternal morning embrace. There were no bodies recovered from Pompeii at all. There were only plaster casts in their likenesses made from spaces found between the ash. And it was ash and sandstone burying them all along. Not a drop of lava ever touched the city.

Well whaddaya know,” he rasps. “My grade school teacher lied to me about everything.”

He rests his head on mine and I synch my breathing to his like my mother did to get me to fall asleep as a child. It grows quieter. There is a deafening void that the sounds of an asphalt avalanche occupied only an hour ago. I worry the city I love has turned to dust and no one can rescue us because everyone is trapped like us, or worse. I think about the baseball players, taking the field in their World Series caps and toppling like bowling pins while the ground ripples beneath their cleats.
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Carl and I had been arguing over what they should call this year’s World Series. I thought Battle Of The Bay had a nice ring to it. He called his good taste into question by favoring the plain-sounding Bay Series, or worse, the BART Series.

He was cranky because his boss didn’t let him out early. Mine did. I have a boss who loves the Giants more than his own children. “Game three!” he’d bellowed from his ornate corner office. “Everybody get the fuck out of here!”

But I hung around to drive home with my less-lucky love, toiling away at his office just down the street from mine. I’m a bit of a lapsed A’s fan, and missing the game wasn’t the end of the world for me. “I don’t mind much,” I said sliding into the driver’s seat.

He gave me a side-eyed scowl. “Don’t look at me like that,” I said, as I slid the seat back from its Carl-customized position. “You’re feeling crabby and I am a perfectly capable driver.”

We sat in silence as we careened south on I-880. “It’s still early!” I chirped. “Not even five o’clock yet.” He squeezed my hand twice, like a pumping heart, to let me know he still loved me. I smiled.

How do cardiologists shake hands?” he had asked the night we met. The joke was weak but my laugh was sincere and I wanted to be next to him in any capacity that was available to me.

Our moods were directly proportional to our distance from the office and pretty soon we were both howling along to the Top 40 station, using the commercial breaks as precious time to bicker about our baseball teams.

While we drove across the Cypress Street Viaduct we sang along to “She Drives Me Crazy” by the Fine Young Cannibals, and maybe if I’d sensed the tremor sooner I’d have switched radio frequencies. Maybe if the slab of upper-level concrete didn’t drop to kiss the lower level so quickly, we wouldn’t wonder if the last song we lived to sing was destined to be sung in an unconvincing falsetto.
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Tell me about Italy again, Annie.” And so I do.

I tell him the stories I’ve told him fifteen dozen times before. I tell him about drinking limoncello on the tiled terrace and reading Joan Didion on the balcony, smoking filtered Lucky Strikes and propping my legs up through the wrought iron rungs so the breeze could run right through me. I tell him about watching the sky change when evening fell, turning an impossible shade of cerulean before an inky wave of black obliterated any remaining bit of air or sea. I tell him about the olives and the jasmine and the Germans and how I’d sing Van Morrison songs in the piazza when I’d had too much to drink.

I tell him about the time I floated dangerously far out into the water, too paralyzed to swim back out of fear—fear of drowning or fear that no one would come looking for me, I couldn’t exactly tell. Once I’d begun making peace with the heavens, I heard splashing and panicked cries of Signorina! from my scrawny rescuers.

I tell him how once I returned to America, I missed Sorrento every minute of every day until I met the Giants fan who turned it all around for me.

That’s you,” I whisper. “The Giants fan who bought me McDonalds on our first date and made me want to stop smoking cigarettes and stop fucking around and stop missing all the places I’ve already left behind because when I met you, I only ever wanted to be here. I never missed anything ever again. You found me out at sea.”

The quiet around us continues. I long for the noisier hour in the immediate wake of the chaos when I could focus on any other sound besides his shallow breath, when I could blindly grasp for a fragile strand of hope—the faint promise of a rescue amidst the din.

I had too much to drink on our first date but I resisted the urge to sing Van Morrison. Before he took me to McDonalds he asked if I was okay and I only kept repeating: I am feeling no pain. There was a chorus of painlessness until we summoned the collective courage to kiss for the first time.

He closes his eyes. I put my hand to his chest, watch it rise.

There’s another thing about Pompeii, Carl—about the baker. They didn’t find him handing change over but when they excavated his oven, they found eight perfectly preserved loaves of bread inside. And each loaf had initials baked into the surface. Back then everyone had a ring with their initials carved in it to punch into the dough. That way they’d know which loaf belonged to them.”

I look down at the ring he gave me last summer. They might break through the stone, free our legs, pull our limp, broken bodies through the windows and look at my ring and tell our story. They’ll hypothesize about who we were and how we loved each other but they’ll never get it quite right. It’s the difference between exhuming the body and creating the plaster cast from the empty space left behind.

No one can say the traffic in San Francisco is killing them until they’ve driven through an earthquake on the interstate,” I say, wondering if it’s the last joke I’ll live to crack.

He touches the side of my face. I am the girl he loves despite the Athletics jersey hanging in my closet, despite my terrible taste in television and penchant for fast food.

When I run out of stories and jokes, I pump his hand twice more.

He turns his face to me, eyes still closed, and says: “Annie, I am feeling no pain.”

I admire the long roping muscles of his neck as he leans in to kiss me with such conviction, you would think he was kissing me for the very first time.

COURTNEY PREISS is a scrappy Jewish girl from Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Hobart, Cobalt Review, and American Short Fiction. Her story “Life Ain’t Easy for a Girl Named Mickey” won the Jim Palmer Baseball Writing Prize in 2013. She tweets @cocogolightly, mostly about dead celebrities.