SATURDAY, 10 AM
Sitting on the toilet lid, I adjusted my towel and the angle of the phone so that it looked like I was naked on the john. I smiled and waved at the camera and satisfied with the result, hit “send to contact.” In a musty hotel room on the other side of the bathroom door, the lucky recipient of the toilet selfie, author Torre DeRoche sat on a bed with a bag of frozen peas tied to her left foot when her phone signaled the arrival of a picture message. Normally I would not recommend sending what appears to be a nude photo taken mid-bowel movement to someone whose professional endorsement you’d like to attain, but in my defense, she sent me one first.
That was Saturday and the start of our second day in Piacenza, a Medieval maze of cobblestone streets filled with well-dressed Italians riding around on bicycles or walking their groomed dogs. Torre and I were pausing in Piacenza indefinitely after after she’d hurt her foot on our third day of walking the Via Francigena together. The two of us had met only once before in New York and though that first encounter had been pleasant, it was not indicative of the kind of bond we would form after just a few days. I’m talking about the kind of bond that makes one comfortable eating canned tuna on the floor in front of another person, which is what I have a recording of Torre doing and it goes like this:
“Can you tell us what we’re doing here Torre?”
“We are eating tuna on the floor.”
SATURDAY 12 PM
Torre’s pained hobble to the corner café for cappuccinos made it clear that we would need to extend our stay by at least another night. Now we just needed to let the management of our accommodation know. The problem? Our place was less hotel and more abandoned residential building with neither a reception desk nor even other guests, as far as we could tell.
“I can’t get through,” I had been calling the only contact number we had without success while Torre and I lunched on baguette, prosciutto, mozzarella and white anchovies in our room.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if we just stayed here and they discovered us like a week from now?” Torre asked, reaching for the jar of anchovies. “Shit!”
Anchovy oil spilled all over the tablecloth and we jumped up to do damage control; Torre tried to mop up the mess with napkins, while I grabbed a box of salt and poured a mound onto the table. I had hoped it would soak up the oil but mostly I created an additional mess to clean up.
We looked around—our hiking clothes were hanging off chairs and bed posts, the table was covered in bread crumbs, salt and oil slicks and the hotel’s white towels had streaks of puke green from Torre’s leaky bag of peas. What could we possibly say should someone from the hotel open the door right now?
“One more night?” Torre’s high pitch was meant to feign innocence to the phantom hotel employee we were both imagining in the doorway. But of course, the evidence of her complicity in our domestic chaos was too strong for any person with the gift of sight to overlook, even an imaginary one and we collapsed in our chairs with hearty, sidesplitting laughter. Every time I thought I was done, I saw a normal person walking into the absurdity of what had become our status quo and though I felt bad for them, I couldn’t help letting out another stream of giggles as I pictured how uncomfortable and scared they would be.
For the rest of the day, every time a hiking boot found its way onto the bed or another towel was stained green, one of us raised an index finger and repeated, “one more night?”
Once the sending and receiving of naked bathroom photos had lost its appeal and boredom began to set in, I came up with the idea to go and find us a board game. Several books and toy stores later I hadn’t found so much as a deck of cards but before coming home empty-handed I decided to sneak in a visit to the Duomo, Piacenza’s 12th century cathedral. I must have lost track of time as I wandered among carved columns, boxes of calcified relics and empty confessionals because by the time I stepped out into the street, I had received another message, with a more joyful and somehow more naked Torre. The appeal of the toilet selfie hadn’t been lost after all and I ran back to the last toy store I visited and took a photo next to a toy bathroom set to the horror of the store clerk and the children.
“On my way home now,“ I added.
“Is that a tiny toilet next to your head?” Torre wrote back.
Torre sat at the table soaking her foot in a pasta pot. The water was laced with green crystals, which had dissolved and now smelled like we were embalming her appendage rather than healing it. This was ironic because though Torre had asked me to buy her Epsom salts, what I brought back (with no hidden motives) were salts meant to banish unpleasant foot odor.
Breathing through my mouth, I told Tore about what I’d seen in the Duomo.
“There was this glass box with a what I think was an actual body just dressed to the nines. Do you think that’s possible, that there’s an actual person in there?”
“That’s so weird, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. Whoever’s in there is wearing gauzy gloves and I think you can see his finger bones!”
Our dead saint discussion was interrupted when we heard a key in the door. The moment we had been imagining had come, the manager was here, and not only was the room unrecognizable but it also smelled like death and Torre sat with her foot in a cooking pot.
“Bonjourno! One more night?” The phrase we had been practicing all day came out of my mouth before I could think of anything better to say to the man surveying us with curiosity. This was absolutely the exact situation in which I preferred not knowing what was being said. We handed him fifty Euros and took some fresh towels in case we ran out of things to ruin.
SUNDAY 10 AM
Torre woke up the next morning feeling much better and we decided to branch out and have our coffees two long blocks away at an outside table on a pedestrian shopping street. While we were on our first taste of cappuccino foam, the Piacenzans sitting around us were well into their morning wine, a Sunday ritual I’d noticed in other parts of Italy.
We were enjoying watching the kitten-heeled female population of the city weave in and out of our line of vision when I blurted out the following: “What if you’re just a figment of my imagination and I made you up so I don’t have to be alone anymore?”
Torre turned and stared right at me. I felt my stomach drop. Like a lovesick schoolboy, I said too much too fast and freaked out the object of my affection by crossing a line that even she, who eats tuna on the floor, respected.
Finally Torre spoke. “Can I just tell you, I’ve already thought the same thing about you? Sometimes when we’re talking, it feels like I’m talking to myself.”
“You want to go see the dead guy in the Duomo after this?”
SUNDAY, 12 PM
It just so happened that we showed up to leer at the body of a respected saint in the city’s holiest place during Sunday mass. We tried to be as inconspicuous as possible while we shuffled past pious Italian grandmothers, but our anonymity, had we any in the first place, was lost when I almost knocked over a statue of Jesus along with the velvet roping meant to keep idiots like myself away from the son of God. To be honest, the assault on Jesus was not even the most wrath-inducing thing about our appearance at the service. I think that honor went to our tank tops, Torre’s short shorts and my floor-length yet transparent skirt. When to the relief of the congregation we made our exit, we noticed a sign on the door showing two figures wearing pretty much our exact ensembles with a big X through them.
“So now that we’re done with our naked romp through the church, want to get some gelato?” This time it was Torre who said what I had already been thinking.
If you were upset earlier because you weren’t planning on reading about bathrooms today, don’t blame me, blame my friend Stefano—the original toilet selfie messenger and the man who was coming down from the north of Italy to spend what remained of Sunday with us. Earlier in the week Stef had sent me a birthday greeting with a photo of himself smiling and waving, bathed in the unmistakable fluorescent lighting of a bathroom. Stef’s face showed no signs of embarrassment or even awareness of there being anything strange about sending someone a shirtless salutation from the toilet in the middle of the night.
Stefano took us to lunch in the Piazza Cavalli, and we filled him in on our adventures and showed him the slew of photos he had inspired over a plate of parmagiaono, bresola and arugula. Stefano is an incredibly caring and giving man, and not just when it comes to photography inspiration and his lightness diluted our madness in a very psychologically sound way as we talked about books and ligaments, love at first sight and gelato.
Torre’s foot began acting up again so Stef and I sent her home while we scoured the streets looking for the one pharmacy that’s open on Sunday to get our patient some Arnica cream and some painkillers. This should surprise no one, but we made a detour to the bathroom of a café to check in with Torre via a text message. At first we couldn’t decide what was worse, explaining to the staff why we were piling into the single bathroom together or letting them find a suitable explanation on their own. In the end we decided it was best to leave something to their imaginations, though this approach may have been more suitable when Torre and I had been selecting our church outfits.
SUNDAY 10 PM
After dinner at a tavern sharing plates of local specialties like ravioli with stinging nettles and spinach we said long and warm goodbyes in front of our empty apartment building.
Torre and I had decided that on Monday we would look for a used bike to buy so she could ride alongside me while her foot got better. It was an inspired plan and we were optimistic as we were getting ready for bed.
I thought back to lunch when Stefano had been telling us about a scene in a memoir he was reading. The author, a woman traveling through Australia met with a spiritual man in a cave who said to her, “Do you know why we are here? Because we have planned this meeting between us millions and millions of years ago.”
The idea that we choose what happens to us in this life really appeals to me. It’s a way to gain back some control when you feel powerless. It could be an incentive to trust that even in the worst of times, there is a deeper purpose that your eternal self put there, assuming of course that your eternal self isn’t a masochist asshole. In my own life, I have had a thousand moments that were too perfectly timed and effortless to seem anything but orchestrated, like this meeting with Torre and our weekend in Piacenza. Lying in bed, I could picture the two of us billions of years ago, two spirits hovering over a couple of beach chairs, bronzing our souls in the eternal sun of the pre-life.
“Hey, you know that lifetime where we’re both writers and you’re Australian, but raised by Americans and I’m Russian but raised in the States?” I’d say.
“Yeah?” Torre would ask, turning over to get a bit of color on her paler side.
“I was just thinking, wouldn’t it be funny if instead of our original plan you came out to Italy when I’m doing that walking thing and then we ended up stuck in this Italian town for a few days eating gelato and bonding over bathroom humor?”
“That’s so weird, I was JUST thinking that.”