That night Mohan, Starr, and I eat dinner off thick paper plates in the darkening living room, splitting a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon between us. We have microwaved hot dogs and baked beans. It was my turn to cook.
Starr sits cross-legged on the dirty hardwood floor, remote in her hand, flipping incessantly through the channels. She pauses briefly to evaluate each show: 60 Minutes, a hospital drama, a sitcom about two men living together, a high school football game. Then, on the public broadcasting station, an aerial shot of a mountain flanked by rolling green pastures and an aquamarine coastline fills the screen, casting a jewel-like glow into the living room. I can feel her neon green thumbnail twitching on the control.
"Leave it here," Mohan says desperately.
"This shit?" Starr snorts. "Whatever. I'm out." She rises and saunters past me toward the door, her plaid miniskirt fluttering with her hips.
The documentary is about Pompeii. We sit in silence, listening to the unseen narrator's basso profundo as he tells the story of how the ancient Roman city was destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted. A melodramatic reenactment accompanies the soothing voiceover. A Hiroshima-like cloud had blackened the sky and rained pumice on the city for two days before it was buried in lava. The Pompeiians hadn't realized they were living at the foot of a volcano until they were trapped in the city, unable to escape.
"Christ," Mohan whispers.
The narrator begins to talk about the excavation of Pompeii, and the camera pans down a ghost-town street of roofless buildings that had been unearthed, tourists strolling down the cobblestones. The ash and lava had preserved things so well, the basso profundo tells us, that Pompeii was a time capsule, an invaluable glimpse into the daily life of a Roman trading town. Twenty-seven loaves of bread had been found in a bakery oven. Eggs had remained uncrushed. Archaeologists had even been able to make plaster casts of the mummified victims they had found there.
"I've been there," I admit suddenly. I do not turn to see if Mohan acknowledges this comment. We had been at a neurobiology conference in Rome in February when Colin and I had decided to play hooky and take a bus to Pompeii. Romeo, our tour guide's son, had run ahead, pointing out the massive penises that were the focal point of the city's artwork. When we'd come to the display cases of the plaster casts, Colin had grown silent, poring over each one, stopping for a long time at a cast of a dog that had been writhing to break free of its leash. I had stood there tight-lipped, shifting from foot to foot. I had felt shrouded in death in a way I had not felt in a long time, since the morning they found her on Brown's Island. On the return bus, we'd split several bottles of wine we'd bought from a street vendor. The next morning, I'd awoken, dry-mouthed and nauseated, in Colin's hotel room.
A plaster cast of two women who had been buried beneath a collapsed roof plays across the screen. Their bodies curl around each other, and the smaller one rests her head against the larger one's stomach. It is us, lying in the warm grass, or on the boat dock, or on our beds, listening to the churn of each other's insides and the secrets they told, swooning over Blake and plotting ways to torture Jacob. It is us, coated in the dust of a thousand years, and forever preserved together.
"Jeez," Mohan says, "I can't even imagine."
"At least they were together," I say vaguely, feeling hot and claustrophobic, my own chest buried in invisible pumice. The two figures blur before my eyes, until they are replaced by another image on the screen.
"I dunno. They look more like sculptures than mummies when you see them up close. It's just another Italian tourist trap."
I wipe the water from the corners of my eyes swiftly. I think of booking a plane ticket until the tears fill my throat and I can swallow again.
About Iowa Writes
Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.
In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.
Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.
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Casey Westlake was born in Cedar Rapids and lived there until she was eight, when she was dragged out of Iowa. She graduated from Ohio University in June 2007 and is studying for an MA in Creative and Media Writing from the University of Wales Swansea. She hopes to own a dog named Julius Caesar someday.
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