Flora and Bruno drive for hours – her fault, partly. Curled up in the front seat of the stolen Impala in a nightie and Bruno’s Blackhawks jersey, Flora demands, “Show me Niagara Falls!”
Sparks fly from the tangle of wires, red-blue-green, hanging from the dashboard. Bruno is worried that if he stops, he won’t be able to get the hot-wired ignition to turn over again.
“I’ll drive past the Falls. You take a quick look. Capito?”
Bruno slows to a crawl as they pass the gorge. Even though it’s after midnight, tourists in orange plastic ponchos throng at the brink, balancing children on the stonework barrier. Flora sticks her face out of the window, her skin shocked by the spray. At first she can hardly see anything. Then the colours burst into view, green, pink, purple, shimmering over a vast emptiness.
“Allora! The water has colour?”
“Only in summer. They shine lights from a tower.”
Flora struggles to see the cataract behind the rainbow. “Why do they paint on a wonder of the world?”
“To make it more interesting, I guess. When you see it all the time, the excitement kind of wears off.”
Bruno drives them to a cottage on Lake Erie, his buddy’s family’s summer place, where he jimmies the lock on the door (what a strange word, thinks Flora). The little shack – you could not call it a house – smells of fish and sand and mould. Bruno doesn’t want to turn on the lights. “One of the other cottagers could come over to see who’s here.” As Flora waits for him to find a flashlight, she hears a flurry of panicked wings in the rafters.
“Uccelli?” she asks.
“Not birds. Bats. Come se dice – pipistrelli.”
She screams and throws her arms over her head. Laughing he pulls her to him. “Don’t worry, that’s an old wives’ tale about bats getting caught in your hair.”
“Just a dumb saying. English is full of them.”
Folded into Bruno’s arms, his voice rumbling through her body, Flora smells sweat, motor oil, and scorching from the sparks that burned tiny holes in his shirt. She believes that she has never felt so completely happy and safe with anyone in her life.
With Bruno leading the way, they pick their way through a patch of scrubby trees to the beach, if you can call it that: a narrow stretch of hard packed sand littered with pebbles and seaweed and the odd dead fish. They gaze at the crescent moon dangling over the lake like a fishing lure, Bruno’s arms wrapped around Flora from behind.
Flora has the feeling that the millions of stars are actually the bright little eyes of animals, watching to see what Bruno does next. Flora is wondering about this herself.
Bruno points heavenward. “Guarda. The North Star. Polaris.”
“Ah,” says Flora, leaning against him and pretending to look.
“The stars have been dead for thousands of years. It takes that long for their light to reach us.”
She pushes her hand under his shirt, running her fingers from his chest down his belly to where a thick trail of hair leads into his jeans, drawing a sharp gasp out of him.
Bruno puts his hands on either side of her face. “I feel like I’ve known you all my life.”
“Also me,” whispers Flora.
In the cottage, on a mattress softened by a threadbare beach towel, they kiss and touch in a haze of excitement and exhaustion, drifting in and out of sleep. When light floods the room through uncurtained windows, Flora sees that what she thinks of as their honeymoon suite is a room with plywood walls, hung with a framed photograph of a man proudly holding a fish on a string. A large mirror reflects their bodies in its crazed surface, Bruno’s tanned deep brown and covered in coarse black hair, hers as pink and smooth as strawberry gelato. They look like two different species, a bear cradling a flower, not human beings born in the same part of the world. Something about the stark contrast between her body and his excites Flora.
“You look like a little naked bird,” Bruno whispers, as if reading her thoughts. “And you look like a wild beast,” she says, peering at their reflection over the barricade of his arm.
A bedside table holds a stack of paperbacks, pages bloated by water, perhaps left out in the rain or dropped in the lake. Flora reads the titles running down the cracked spines: From Here To Eternity, East of Eden, The Naked and the Dead.
She turns on her side. Bruno is staring at her.
“Are you sure, Flora? We can wait until we find a priest, if you want.”
“We marry ourselves,” says Flora. “You are my husband now.” She takes Bruno’s hand and rubs the finger bearing a wedding band. It belonged to Bruno’s father, before the foundry accident. Bruno used to keep it in the pocket of his work pants so it wouldn’t catch in machinery and rip his finger off. He’s seen such things happen.
On the night he ran away with Flora, he slid the ring onto his finger for the first time. Flora had her own ring, her Nonna’s, one of the few valuables she brought with her to the New World. She’d come to make a fresh start after someone back in the Old Country had – to use her Zia Giovanna’s word – ruined her.
Ruined or not, it took one month for Bruno to fall in love with Flora and convince himself that the theft of Zia Giovanna’s Impala was just a loan. Bruno would pay her back: all it would take is time and a little hard work.
He moves his body over Flora, blanketing her. He does this so quickly that she’s surprised when it happens.
Flora has to admit that the lovemaking is not what she expected. She finds it swift and brutal, the tearing between her legs anything but pleasurable. All she feels is a stinging pain. At least it’s over with fast. When he rolls off her, he sees the blood covering her stomach and his thighs.
“I’m sorry, I thought you had already…”
Flora shakes her head. “No one ‘ruin’ me, Bruno. I make up this story so they send me to l’America.”
“You’re kidding. Did I hurt you?”
She sits on the side of the bed, feeling as though she’s been torn in two, then goes to the bathroom and uses a hand towel to staunch the blood, relieved to get a trickle of water from the rusty faucet to wash herself. When she returns Bruno is dozing, the bloodied beach towel on the floor. She lies down beside him and feels him stir.
“It was my first time too,” he murmurs.
Now it is her turn to be shocked. Flora thinks a boy as handsome as Bruno would naturally have found an opportunity to sleep with someone. When she voices this thought, Bruno acts hurt: “Where do you think I would have taken a girl? The pull-out couch where I sleep in my Nonna’s house?”
Flora shrugs. “I always think Americani make love in their cars, no?”
“I never had a car til now,” Bruno reminds her, and yawns.
Rummaging through drawers, he finds proper Canadian clothes for her – a pair of elastic short-shorts and a tee shirt reading Port Dover Smeltfest 1958. He digs a pair of grubby pink flip-flops out from under a bed.
Their first meal together as man-and-wife is canned tomato soup and hot dogs (tasteless wieners, really) that Bruno chips out of the icebox with a fish knife and boils on top of the stove in a pot so dented that it barely sits upright on the burner. When Flora finds an elastic band on the floor, she tugs her hair back into a ponytail, making Bruno laugh: “You look like Gidget, cara.”
She has no idea who he is talking about, but says: “Grazie, Bruno.”
They eat their meal quickly, suddenly realizing how ravenous they are. Afterwards, Bruno leads her back to bed and gently tugs the tee shirt over her head. He brushes her little pointed nipples with the palms of his hands, making her shiver.
“Let’s try again,” he suggests.
She is still sore but agrees. And it is a little better, because he doesn’t try to push himself inside her all in a rush as if she were some puttana he’d backed up against a wall in a back alley. But still, it’s not what she had expected, especially from a boy so beautiful. Of course, she isn’t really sure what she expected. Perhaps that Bruno would conjure music and candles and roses from out of nowhere like a magician, or that she would feel the physical ecstasy some of her friends at home talked about.
Afterwards she sobs into a mouldy pillow while a bewildered Bruno rubs her back, whispering Now now now. When he asks why she’s crying, she answers, “Because I love you so much,” which is true. But it’s also because she isn’t quite sure who she is anymore.
Later, she asks, “Where we go now?”
Bruno stares at the ceiling. “I stole the Impala. And you. We better lie low til the trail gets cold.”
“Non capisco. ‘Cold trail’?”
“Cowboy talk. Like in Gunsmoke. It means, until your people stop looking for us. Then we’ll go to Toronto. Lots of work there for a strong Wop like me.”
Flora frowns. “Such an ugly word.”
“Everyone calls me that,” shrugs Bruno. “But if you don’t like it, I’ll never say it again.”
They hide at the cottage for two nights and three days. In daylight hours, Bruno insists they stay indoors, playing board games that he takes out of a cupboard: Scrabble (good for Flora’s English), Monopoly and Twister (Bruno’s favourite). At sundown, the two sneak out to the scanty beach, strip naked and swim just offshore. The lake feels as warm as bathwater. Bruno kisses and teases Flora, diving and swimming between her legs, Flora shooshing him: Stop it, someone hears us Bruno, just before he pulls her giggling below the dark surface.
When she thinks back to those nights, she’ll remember the two of them playing like children. The memory will ambush her when they bring Bruno home from a sewer excavation, his blood full of nitrogen bubbles. Dead from the bends before he had a chance to drown – a blessing, the priest will suggest, as he folds Flora’s fingers over Bruno’s ring.
But all that’s yet to come. Between now and then, the nervousness of new lovers will turn into something hot and durable like the second-hand Moffat stove Bruno buys for Flora on St. Clair West. One night he’ll surprise them both by making Flora cry out, almost knocking him cold when her knee hits his forehead. Their landlady will pound on the shared wall and embarrass Bruno the next day by calling him Romeo.
All this, before the headlines shout ITALIAN SEWER WORKERS TREATED LIKE ANIMALS! The Toronto Telegram will report that the bosses inspected their workers’ muscles as if they were plough horses. No hard hats. No breathing masks. The men are disposable.
That’s still a year away, give or take. An eternity, when you’re nineteen.
On the third night of their honeymoon, Flora and Bruno go to the patch of scrub where the Impala is hidden. He switches plates with a set he pried off an abandoned car – plenty of junkers like this in farm country.
They leave for Toronto, a city big enough, Bruno assures Flora, for him to get work just by standing on a corner until someone comes by in a pick-up looking for a guy with a strong back.
It’s a place where they can lose themselves forever. ®
“Flora and Bruno” won Third Prize in the 6th Annual Accenti Magazine Writing
Contest. Terri Favro grew up in the Niagara area and lives in Toronto where she works as a freelance copywriter and magazine writer.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 24.