My British boyfriend was good at pursuing the mysteries of the universe but not so good at driving. The day before we set out by car for Sicily, he read the guidebook from cover to cover, planning our trip in detail from the town in Germany where he lived and worked at the nuclear power plant. He was a nuclear physicist who specialized in theoretical physics—about which I knew nothing. Nevertheless, we made frequent trips to see each other. He, to New York. Me, to a town near Dusseldorf.
     It is probably not surprising that customs police stopped us at the German border. The police thought he might be one of the notorious Baader Meinhof gang. His banged-up Audi with scratches and scrapes and a dented front bumper looked like a car that might have been chased by police. Also, my boyfriend had a beard and longish hair and spoke German without an accent.
     I don’t think his ascot was a problem.
     That day red.
     Some days yellow.
     I had never been afraid in a car before, maybe because no one I knew in New York owned one. I didn’t count taxis. Short trips with my boyfriend didn’t bother me but driving all the way from Germany through Italy was something else.
     In the Audi, he would occasionally swerve from side to side, speed up or slow down for no apparent reason, forget to signal turns, ignore road signs and lane markings.
     More than once, we lost our way.
     His driving was not much better in Sicily but frequent stops to see all the sites on our itinerary certainly helped. He was better at parking—not good but better—than one might have expected. But what possessed him one day to drive up to a little mountaintop village which I’m certain was not on our or anyone else’s itinerary, I will never know. I doubt he knew either.
     The road—if you could call it a “road”—grew steeper and less accessible as we ascended. I tried hard not to imagine him losing control and the car rolling down to the bottom. Upon reaching this poor little village with narrow lanes, instead of stopping, he rammed into the wall of one crumbling house after another. I felt like I was riding a bumper car in Coney Island where people crashed into each other just for fun.
     But this wasn’t fun.
     Fortunately, the villagers had a sense of humor. “Americano? Americano?” they screamed, doubled over in laughter, slapping their thighs. Finally, the car, stuck between two houses, wheels spinning, stopped. I wondered if anyone had ever tried to drive through this village before.
     Probably not, I thought, as they continued shouting, “Americano?”
     Getting out of the car, embarrassed, he finally said, “No, English.”
      “Ah, English! English!” they cried, laughing even harder, holding their bellies, stamping their feet. We must have been the best entertainment they’d had all day—maybe a lot longer, considering the sorry state of the village.
     Even my boyfriend had to admit our plight was ridiculous.
     Finally, one of the young men offered to drive the Audi back down the mountain.
     Sheepishly, my boyfriend handed him the keys. The young man shook the car loose and drove it with seeming ease.
     Had we not been in love, this incident might have been “a deal breaker” for me. But I was not the only one who suffered mostly in silence. Occasionally, in the car my boyfriend tried to wave away the smoke from my cigarettes. He hated that I chain smoked, especially when he was driving.


Though the artist and her ex-boyfriend both smoked “like chimneys” as the saying goes, he did not have a cough like hers. The hotel rooms they shared in Turkey were so foggy with smoke, sometimes they could barely see one another. He kept on telling her she had to quit which irritated her to no end. “Quit yourself!” she would say.
     They were traveling in Central Turkey when they met the young newlyweds in Cappadocia. They seemed like a nice enough couple. She was an American banker from Boston, he, an accountant from Melbourne. They were taking a year off just to travel.
     The banker was well over six feet and big boned. So was her partner but he was scrawny. The ex-boyfriend, a writer, was even an inch or two taller than the couple. The artist was short. Very short.
     The artist hoped that meeting the couple would change the tenor of their trip. It did somewhat. They stopped getting on each other’s nerves for a while. “Don’t rush me!” had been one of her frequent refrains. More than once, she had wondered what she had seen in the writer, apart from his intelligence. But in truth, his intelligence had been a big turn on. The ex-boyfriend was an expert on Byzantium and was writing a book. She, the artist who took wonderful photos, was along to take pictures, so this was more of a business trip than anything else. He was paying her out of the advance from his publisher which was not enough to pay for separate rooms, he said.
     He was cheap.
     The newlyweds were not altogether pleasant. They were only eight years younger than the artist and the ex. It didn’t take long for the artist to see that the banker did nothing but criticize her partner who was all too passive. According to the banker, the accountant did nothing right. As much as the artist didn’t want to, she could recognize the banker in herself. The artist wanted to tell the accountant to stand up to her but, of course, it was not her place to interfere. Unlike the accountant, her ex had responded to her fault finding which helped end their relationship.
      In Cappadocia, the couple accompanied the artist and the ex to an ancient underground city of lunar forms made of soft tufa stone that had solidified over centuries from distant volcanoes.
      In the underground city, a labyrinth of narrow corridors, ramps, tunnels, and twisting stairways, less than six feet high, descended into the rock for eight stories. Thousands of rooms extended for several kilometers. The ex said they were used centuries ago as temporary refuges during invasions.
      That was not all the ex had to say.
      Despite the truce between them, or whatever it can be called, he managed to get in a few choice remarks. “Do you think you can survive without a cigarette here?” he said to the artist.
      “Can you?” she replied, unable to suppress a cough.
     On the way down, dim lights dangled on electric wires at long but seemingly regular intervals. The lights revealed painted arrows on the cave-like walls to keep them from getting lost in side passageways—of which there were many.
     Otherwise, total darkness.
     She had to laugh watching her ex—at those moments when she could actually see him ahead of her, bent over. “I guess the people in this city were short,” she said, smirking though no one could see her face. “Is the ceiling low enough for you?” she said, sarcasm in her voice.
     No answer.
     The couple was quiet too. All their energy, she suspected, was used to focus on the uneven, rocky floor, walls and ceiling. The artist could only imagine how it was for the couple and her ex, but they all soldiered on until they came to what was called a “room.” The ceiling was high enough for the three of them to stand upright, so they uttered a sigh of relief. Of course, the artist had no problem. According to the guidebook, the room contained rock-cut beds, tables, storage areas, kitchens, ventilation shafts and other things though the rock was so roughly hewn, they recognized nothing and had to laugh. Their laughter echoed in the chamber which made them all laugh even harder though the artist and the ex-boyfriend were beginning to miss a smoke.

Roberta Allen is a conceptual artist whose work explores how language informs
our perception of images. A Tennessee Williams Fellow in Fiction and a Yaddo
Fellow, Allen has also published nine books, including her latest, The Princess of Herself.