Last year Paul and I celebrated our fortieth wedding anniversary in Florence. Our hotel was old, and for several nights the lights in our room had flickered strangely. Once I heard someone crying in the empty garden below our window. Paul noticed nothing. On our last night, Paul went straight to bed after dinner and I locked myself in the potty. I was desperate. I have trouble traveling and I hadn’t gone for three days. So I was sitting there, straining, looking up at my good silk dress, which I had hung on the shower rod to air, when suddenly the temperature dropped and I knew I was no longer alone. I grabbed a towel to cover my lap and watched as the right sleeve of my dress rose straight up. It stayed in the air and did not move.
I called for Paul but it’s hard to wake Paul when he’s been drinking. To tell the truth, I had been drinking a bit myself, but I could still carry on a conversation. I groped for the Italian dictionary I’d propped on the edge of the bidet and opened to “Useful Phrases.” I could not find the expression I needed so finally I had to ask it in English.
“Are you a ghost?”
The left sleeve rose to join the right, and both held themselves out to me. My heart was pounding and I felt so sad, I don’t know when I have ever felt so sad.
I skimmed the book for the right question but could not find “How Did You Die?” so again, in English, had to ask, “Were you sick? Were you injured? Did someone,” I remembered the rickety elevator, the dark corridor outside or door, “come in here and murder you?” A shiver ran through me. “Suicide,” I guessed.
Both sleeves dropped, acquiescent.
“I am so, so sorry,” I said. And I was. I know what it’s like to want to kill yourself. Sometimes I have felt like dumping the whole bottle of Xanax down my throat or driving my car straight into a tree. “How did you do it?” I asked.
The dress shrugged, a very Italian shrug, and then, almost causally, one sleeve rose as if to slit the seam in the other.
The sleeve dropped.
I glanced at the tub. It was the same color as the one in our guest room at home in Arizona: White Tea. It must have happened here. Shaking, I reached for my cigarettes. I lit one and then, remembering my manners, held the pack out, but the sleeve did not reach for it, so I smoked it myself, wondering what else to ask.
“Your English is very good,” I offered.
The dress shrugged again. It occurred to me that this ghost was young and male and probably quite handsome and I felt uneasy sitting there in nothing but my bra and bunion pads. I tried to think. The front of my dress made a little in and out cough movement so I ran the cigarette under the tap I always keep running when I’m on the toilet. I tried to think of other ghosts I’d encountered in the past, but most of them had been animals and all I’d had to say to them was Go Home. This ghost apparently was home.
“Is there anything you want?” I asked at last. “Anything I can do for you?”
The sleeves came together in a prayer position.
I leaned forward with my own hands out, eager to help, but just then a big fecal burp escaped, and I gasped, first with relief and then with horror. “Oh no,” I said, “This is terrible. Excuse me.” I gripped the towel around my hips, turned, unlocked the door, and backed out of the bathroom as fast as I could.
It was not easy waking Paul and of course he was furious about having to find another room that late at night. It was worth it, though. I cannot tell you the relief. The next morning I asked the signora at the desk if anyone had died in the hotel and she gave me a haughty look and pretended not to understand.
I didn’t care. I knew what I knew. While Paul was paying our bill, I took the elevator back upstairs, opened the door of our old room and stepped into the bathroom.
“I came to apologize,” I said to the dress. “I didn’t mean to run off like that. I hope you don’t think all Americans are rude. It’s just that I have never been able to go with someone else in the rom. It is the one thing I cannot do.”
The dress didn’t move. I’d bought it at Saks and it had cost a small fortune but in the morning light it looked shabby. I could see all its stains and wrinkles. One of the buttons was loose and the armpits probably stank to high heaven. Even though I could tell it was no longer inhabited by my new friend, I closed my eyes anyway and said, “Forgive me.”
I hope that was enough. Paul says it was more than enough. But I feel bad. I should have found his family. I should have called a priest.
Molly Giles has published a novel, Iron Shoes, and two short story collections: Creek Walk and Other Stories, which won the Small Press Award for Short Fiction, and Rough Translations, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Giles has also published book reviews in The New York Times and won The National Book Critics Circle Award for Book Reviewing. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts award and has won two Pushcart Prizes. Her short story “Two Words,” which was first published in The Missouri Review, won the 2003 O. Henry Prize. She served as the 2003 Lurie Professor of Creative Writing at San José State University and currently a professor at the University of Arkansas.