Fiction by Shoshana Akabas
Good & Kind
All you know are the stops left on your trail: one day to the Italian border, two days to Chiavenna, five days to the South of Lake Como. Train to Milan. Flight to Newark.
You arrive at the hostel, Soviet-style, five stories, the tallest building you’ve seen in weeks. The polite man behind the desk tells you in perfect English that luck is on your side: They have one bed left on the 5th floor.
You look at the stairs, pull a trail map out of your pocket. “How far to the next town?”
“Two miles to Splügen,” he says. “Big town.”
Population: 400 people, your guidebook tells you.
You contemplate walking the two miles in the hopes that you will not have to climb any stairs once you get there. But it is almost dark outside and you promised your uncle you wouldn’t hike in the dark. So you take the bed.
You loved her first: the way she listened to people, took everything in, corneas like photo paper. When you complimented her on the fact that she took linear algebra in high school and still appreciated lowbrow action movies, she said, High brow wouldn’t look good with my bone structure. You smiled, certain you’d never love another girl so smart, and you probably haven’t. There are days on your trip when you can’t get her black hair, husky eyes, pale skin off the projection screening on the back of your eyelids.
The man with whom you are bunking offers you a grin, his teeth splayed like gambled dice. He is large, hulking, but you are also large and not worried. The stairs have left your quads feeling like stretched out rubber bands, and you are not in the mood for talking.
But your roommate feels otherwise inclined. He is from Istanbul, family was moderately wealthy before some sort of crisis that he describes in detail but you do not understand. You nod, like your life situations are identical.
Since you have spoken to exactly seven people in the last week – the owners of the seven beds in which you have slept – the tsunami of words coming out of this man’s mouth overwhelms, and you’re unsure if answering his questions will quiet him or provoke another wave.
“I just decided to take a semester off. Travel for a month or two,” you explain in the vaguest terms possible.
“Your parents are probably very upset?”
“My parents aren’t alive,” you say.
“‘What do you need to walk around the mountains for?’ That is what my wife would say. She is dead now, but these relationships,” he says, by way of explanation, “they last even after they are over.”
You watch him turn his wedding band.
“So tell me,” he says. “Where are you from?”
When you mention New York, his eyes rev like the engine of a car. He asks, so you talk about growing up in the city.
“Tell me what I should do when I go visit. What I should see? Not the Met, not Statue of Liberty. What New Yorkers like to do.”
“Walk the High Line Park,” you suggest. You describe the boardwalk park near the Hudson River built into the elevated train tracks that run through the cracks between the buildings like an estuary. You probably won’t remember who told you the High Line was beautiful in the summer, but you are certain that if you still lived in New York, it would be your favorite place.
Before you can tell him about your parents and how they hiked the Appalachian trail when you were a baby, carrying you the whole way, he says, “There is beautiful park in Istanbul – Gülhane Park. I walk around it for hours every day. My brothers, they become very worried about me. ‘Make happy memories with new people,’ they tell me. It’s not so easy. This is where I remember her; this is where I want to be.”
You have little to add to his portrait of grief, so you ask how long he has been away from home.
“Where is home,” he asks, “when the people who made it so are no longer there?”
You nod again, this time with more understanding.
When you wake up in the morning, you eat the best cheese of your life. The fancy kind of soft cheese sliced like a pie. You sneak a block of Havarti off the plate on the counter, wrap it up for lunch, and don’t feel bad because you paid enough for the room.
When you finish breakfast, you trek back up the stairs. You want to say goodbye to your roommate, but he has already left. So, you pack up your books and head out, south on the trail to Campodolcino.
You likely spend most of the day thinking about the only other time you felt this sore: hiking with your parents in Yosemite. Your father told stories on the trail, incorporating everything around you from the falcons to the sequoias in the plot and setting of those adventures. You never wrote them down, certain you would remember them forever. Now you don’t even know where to begin.
You buy a postcard – write to her about the cheese, the number of sheep you’ve seen, the ache in your muscles that you don’t even realize is caused by something more severe than walking – but you don’t send it because you don’t know her address, and there are no post offices in these small towns.
When you arrive in Chiavenna, the rain is pouring off the hilltop, and the gargling stream that runs through the town turns to a river that washes the cobbled streets. The lattice windows on the small houses are shut, and this town – the largest you will visit – feels like the mountainside it nestled into for comfort is about to swallow it whole.
You told your grandmother not to expect word from you for at least a month, but you feel guilty knowing she is worrying about you. So, you find an internet café in Lierna on Lake Como, set up a new email address because you can’t look at the condolences in your inbox, and email your grandmother. You tell her that you are safe, that you love her, that you are sorry you left, that you know how sad this makes her, that you will call her when you are back in the United States next week.
Sitting on a bench in the shade of a greening tree, you see the ferries move across the water, and, in the distance, the Swiss Alps you crossed seem humbled. Your guidebook has a list of movies that were filmed on this lake. You picture her laughing, gathering her dark hair into a ponytail, saying They forgot Star Wars Episode II, pointing across the lake, It was filmed in that house over there. She loved movies, loved their permanence, never forgot a character’s name.
When you land in New York, you will call her, forgetting that you loved me years ago for the simple adjectives: You are good. You are kind. When I see you walking the other way on the High Line in the summer, I will wait for you to recognize me before I call your name.
Shoshana Akabas is an MFA candidate and instructor in the undergraduate writing department at Columbia University. She has worked at several literary agencies and publishing houses including the Wylie Agency and Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Her work has been published in The Penn Review and McSweeney's The Believer.