» Fiction

The Herbalist

Before we met up in Rome, I hadn’t seen Samuel in ten years, and most of what I recalled from our conversations on smoke breaks and at parties were details about his girlfriends—the one with the long nipples whom he had loved and who’d eventually left him for her high school sweetheart; the one with a dead little brother and a penchant for being choked; the one who was ethically non-monogamous yet completely obsessed with him. Did I remember these stories because I’d been a little in love with him? Or had he simply repeated them so many times?


During my library fellowship in Padua, I had spent my days in the dark of the archives taking photographs of very old books about plants and my nights walking back to my apartment through the rain to eat pasta and sausage and drink vino sfuso from the two-liter plastic bottles that I had refilled every Wednesday. I knew my last week in Italy would be greener as I ventured south to Rome, but I wanted it to be different, too. I had visions of myself like Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name, suddenly young and trembling underneath someone’s hands. Why not Samuel’s? He was the only person I knew who lived in Europe, and I hadn’t been with anyone since my last relationship, the one that had made me want to flee my life in the first place. When I messaged him on Facebook, I didn’t explicitly say it was a fuck trip, but he agreed to meet me there and accepted the offer to stay in my Airbnb.


His flight from Berlin got in before my train, so he met me at Termini, where I was disorientated by all the flashing billboards and signs, reminding me of Times Square in a way that made me feel both comfortable and homesick. And then there was him, another flash of the familiar, a face I’d known so many years before. His blond curls were shorn, and he had a man’s face now, the boyish softness I’d once liked supplanted by a network of fine lines that extended out from the corner of his eyes toward his temples and down along his cheeks—many more lines than I had, in fact. His blue eyes lit up with his smile, and soon he was hugging me and telling me that I looked “great, really great,” which was a relief to hear after all the pasta and wine. “You too,” I told him, and then I asked if he’d ever been to Rome.


“Four or five times,” he said.


“Oh. So this is familiar.”


“It’s been a while. Actually, one of my best mates lives here, George, and I haven’t seen him in three years. I don’t know where the time goes.”


“Yeah? Did you two make plans?”


“Nothing concrete. I figured I’d see what you had in mind.”


I told him somewhat abashedly that it was my first time, and I wanted to see the sights—but he didn’t have to come with me, of course.


“I’d love to tag along,” he said. “The Colosseum never gets old.” The dad joke pleased me, as did the ease of speaking in English again, even though he had a bit of an affected European accent now, as vague and placeless as I suddenly felt.


I planned to take a cab to the Airbnb, but being less intimidated by the public transit system than I was, Samuel directed us to the proper machine to buy tickets, and then to the right bus, and after thirty minutes of swaying and conversation about the book I was writing on herbal remedies for grief and what he’d been doing in Germany—he was a sommelier, it turned out—we arrived in a one-bedroom apartment in Trieste, smaller than it had looked in the photographs, but not too small. We put our things in the entryway and explored the unit, recently remodeled to look like an Ikea showroom, white and ordinary. The only signs of life were the corn plant in the bathroom and the succulents in the bedroom window, although even they were only visible when the blinds were open. I was relieved when he suggested we go for a drink right away.


As we walked to the restaurants on the closest piazza, the sun broke out from behind the rain clouds that had followed me for most of the fall. No longer trapped inside a bus or underneath the arc of an umbrella, I turned my eyes toward the palm trees and umbrella pines that arced above the tops of ochre buildings up to the sky. If we were brave enough, we could sit on a patio beneath them, tempting the rain to come again.


We were.


Samuel made everything easy by speaking to the waiters in English, making no effort to go through the charade of attempting Italian after the first obligatory ciao. Focaccia and hummus arrived along with our wine, and I didn’t feel hungry, but within twenty minutes, everything before us was gone, so we ordered more.


It turned out that Samuel remembered more than I did from the nine months we’d worked at the same restaurant. He asked me about my brother, my parents, and of course our manager Mark, who I’d been dating at the time. “There was always something off with that guy,” he said. And there had been, but I didn’t want to tell him about the time Mark shook me so hard I bit my tongue, spitting blood out in his sink, the pink stream mingling with his beard trimmings. I should’ve quit right away, but I’d just gone on with life and the effort of loving him until it became too much. I’d kept my graduate school admission a secret, staying until the day my father drove up to help me move, and then I left forever.


As Samuel asked me questions, images came back to me in uncertain flashes. Besides the alley behind the restaurant, we had once talked on a brown sofa, and once on a staircase strung with Christmas lights. I’d forgotten almost everything about that time, but he remembered so much of me and who I had been then, a person I almost never thought of, and a person who was in many ways lost to me. I felt bees take up residence in my chest. I didn’t even want to remember those years when I was living them.


Another memory floated to the surface. Samuel had once gone to the airport without his passport and asked me to bring it from his apartment. I had searched through boxes and drawers, then sat on his white comforter in the morning light. I must have found it—it was on that trip, after all, that he’d met the girlfriend he followed to Berlin. So I asked Samuel about her.


He let out a long sigh and looked up at the sky, blue except for a cluster of gray clouds crowding together in the distance. He shook his head. “Fuck this,” he muttered.


I didn’t know what to say. “Sorry?” I asked, trying not to be offended.


“No, no, it’s not you. I just can’t keep talking about this shit.”


“If it makes you feel better, I don’t really want to, either.”


“God! Thank you!” he said, relieved. He lowered his eyes to mine again. “When you see old friends, there’s always this ritual, as if we can’t enjoy ourselves now without resurrecting our memories first, trying to crawl back into who we were.”


I knew what he meant, yet I now felt annoyed and a little embarrassed. I could feel my face hot, probably red. If we weren’t going to talk about the past, what was left? Maybe this had all been a mistake.


I could feel Samuel looking at me. Then, he half-stood, leaning over the table and bracing himself with one hand as he kissed me. It was a long kiss, and I could taste the wine in his mouth, rich and leathery. He pulled back and sat down again, his stained lips still slightly parted.


“Sorry,” he said.


I laughed and told him, “Don’t be sorry.”


We could have gone back to the apartment right away and taken off our clothes, but I think both of us knew that that would be less satisfying than prolonging the feeling between us and the question of whether or not we would sleep together—although of course we would. Really the question was whether it would be full of passion and desire, the urge to wring something out of each other, or whether it would be ugly and awkward, the simultaneous consummation and death of another part of our youth. The longer we waited, the more the desire would grow. So we walked toward the Borghese gardens.


Now, there was a levity to our conversation. I could feel the laughter bubbling out of my throat as we walked side by side, or sometimes, through a crowd, with him slightly ahead of me. His phone was out as he navigated the streets, so I didn’t have his full attention, but I wasn’t sure I could bear it if I did.


When we got to the gardens, he stopped at a picturesque cart to get us two plastic cups of wine, and then we were wandering past the Villa Borghese, which I’d bought tickets to visit the following Saturday. We walked down a long, wide sidewalk with cloud-like pine clusters above it. Soon, the sound of harp music was in the air, and we were navigating around puddles to get a view of the Temple of Aesculapius, the water reflecting the purple-streaked sky and the gathering clouds. We stood at the fence and gazed out toward the figure obscured behind the columns, but my eyes kept flitting back to my own reflection, our reflection. I remembered one particular photograph of us together at twenty-two, his arm around my shoulders. The last few hours revealed that I’d barely known him, but something had inspired that embrace and my bright gaze within it, perhaps precisely the same things that inspired the image I was looking at now in the water. Perhaps there was really something there, here.


Samuel looked down, and then he kissed me again, his hand on the back of my neck, and I used my free arm to pull him as close as I could, to feel the realness of him, nearly dropping my wine in the process. After a minute, though, he seemed to remember our surroundings. There were other tourists clumped around the harp player, children splashing in the puddles in their little yellow boots.


It started to rain. We ran back toward the museum, where there were men selling umbrellas for two euros a piece. We each got one and then, for the walk back, we were forced to stay in our own circles of protection. It wasn’t a romantic rain but a miserable one—I was wearing my suede boots with the little heels for the occasion, and they were soon soaked. I could feel my socks getting wet underneath them, my feet becoming cold, then numb.


When we got back, we were both drenched from the shoulders down. Samuel broke the coldness that had crept between us, taking off his jacket, his shoes and socks, all while still standing in the foyer, and then turning toward me as he took off his shirt. I saw the expanse of his chest, his lungs heaving beneath his bony ribcage, and then he picked me up and carried me to the bed in my wet layers, which he peeled off one by one. I giggled, I laughed, I tried to protest that I could do it myself, but he was in a serious mood as he warmed up each of my hands between his palms, lifted my shirt, and started to drag his hot breath down my ribs, down past the waistband of my jeans as he helped me shimmy them off.


You come back to that first time with someone again and again. The moment when desire was at its peak and you held yourself taut, waiting to see if it could be fulfilled. That time, it was. I realized I had wanted this for a decade. With him, I became my younger self again, but not naïve or open to abuse—just unashamed, ready to grasp what pleasure I could take without worrying overmuch about the consequences.


“Wow,” he said afterward. “I didn’t expect this.”


“Then why’d you bring condoms?” I asked jokingly.


“Well, I thought it would take more effort to seduce you, at least.”


We kissed, and I asked for him to warm me up again.


The first night was lost to love. I didn’t leave the room again, although he briefly put on his raincoat and pants, too rushed to get fully dressed before dashing down to buy a few slices of pizza and another bottle of wine. We went to sleep in the wee hours of the morning, and I kept startling awake from dreams. In one, we were making love on the floor of the Basilica of St. Anthony, the saint’s preserved tongue falling from its reliquary to get between us. In another, we were apart, me trapped in the belly of a strawberry bush, Samuel eating the fruit rather than cutting me out. After each, I woke and found him next to me, wound my arms around him. I couldn’t get close enough.


The next day, we reemerged into the world. We walked to see the obvious sites. Each one seemed less beautiful than the prospect of losing myself with him again. But Samuel had made reservations for lunch on the opposite side of the city, so we spent all day out in the bright cold, kissing in front of strangers and staring at each other and laughing at the surprise of it all. What was art next to this? All of culture, really, existed simply to try and capture the feeling that was in our chests, waiting to be looked at and stoked into flames again and again. The next day in Vatican City, I looked up at the Sistine Chapel and thought, meh.


By the fifth day, we had given up on the world. We tried to order in pizza, but instead we got two plastic containers of burrata, each with different accoutrement—peppers, pieces of basil, a whole tomato. We ate them laughing. I wanted to stay inside those moments forever, but of course, another urge was rising, too. I wanted to ask him, What next? He wasn’t going back to the States for the holidays, he told me—his parents were coming to Germany. And a small, irrational part of me thought that perhaps I could come, too. Nothing was waiting for me in my apartment back home, except for the gift my subletter had left on my counter. She’d sent me a photo of it along with the keys, and from the size of the box, I guessed it was a mug. Perhaps—definitely—it was too soon to meet his family, but I was willing to pay the ticket change fee for even another day, another night.


When the sun fell that evening, I was ravenous. Samuel had a restaurant in mind, and after a three-course meal down the street from the Pantheon—a building I had still not set foot inside—we ran through the cold to the bus stop to wait for the vehicle that would take us back to our temporary home. We found two seats, one in front of the other. Samuel sat down behind me. As the bus drove past the glorious fountains, the ancient architecture done up in wreaths and ribbon and lights, all I could think about was how to voice the whispers in my heart.


He leaned over my shoulder. “Hey. What do you think about going over to George’s tonight?”




“You know, my friend who lives in Rome.”


“Oh. Where does he live again?”


He told me the neighborhood was on the other side of the river, in the opposite direction from the one we were heading in. It was past 10:00 p.m. already—not that we’d been going to bed early—and going back out into the cold was the last thing on my mind. If Samuel sensed my hesitance, he pushed right through it. He told me about meeting his friend in Berlin, and the crazy nights they’d had together in their twenties, and the fact that he’d been feeling guilty because George’s fiancée had just left him. With just two nights left in the city, he wanted to get the visit over with. That way, he and I could enjoy the rest of our time together. I didn’t have to come if I didn’t want to.


“No, no,” I said. “I can come.” The truth was that I couldn’t bear to be away from him.


We got off the bus at the next stop and hailed a cab. We held hands in the back seat, and I asked Samuel what to expect. He told me George was “a riot.” When we arrived, he leaned on the doorbell, and then we stood in the cold outside an ancient stucco building. We waited for so long I started to doubt we had the right address, but just before I asked Samuel to call, a man came down. He was short with a little bushy beard and a beanie pushed over his brow.


“Look what the cat dragged in,” he said to Samuel. I expected George to be American, but no, he was British. “This wanker!” he exclaimed, standing on his tiptoes to ruffle Samuel’s thinning hair.


“And you must be Hannah.”


He walked us through the lobby and up the five flights of stairs, past peeling paint and the sounds of television sets coming through the doors. Panting, we arrived at a tiny, split-level apartment with a sofa and a kitchenette beneath a spiral staircase that led, I assume, to a lofted bed. There was so little in the apartment that it was hard not to notice everything in it—the dishes in the sink, the Clockwork Orange poster on the wall, the coke on the table. I wasn’t aware it would be that kind of night, but almost as soon as we sat down, both men had done lines.


I hesitated, and then told them I’d have just the tiniest bit. George offered us wine, too, and I accepted, then perched opposite the sofa on a little, leather, heart-shaped ottoman while the two men caught up.


George told the story of his jilting with a certain hysteria, as if he couldn’t quite believe what had happened. He and Anna had known each other for a year, been engaged for six months. He’d never thought he’d get married at all, but she’d been so jealous, and in June, when he’d gone on a trip to Marseilles, she’d been convinced he was cheating. Knowing this tale was not meant, really, for my ears, I made myself small. I looked at my phone, scrolling through the photos we’d taken. George was telling Samuel how Anna had left him the first time, via text, and he’d flown back right away to swear his love and win her back. She’d thrown the ring he’d bought onto the ground. It hadn’t been good enough for her, she told him, it was a fucking piece of crap. And it had been—he’d just grabbed something pretty from a vintage store in the neighborhood; he’d thought it was about the gesture. In one of my photos, Samuel was in front of the Trevi Fountain. In another, I was in front of a blooming oak leaf hydrangea. There were none of us together. As I scrolled, I half-heard the tale of George and Anna’s reunion, how they’d finally bought a proper ring and she’d moved into his flat—this one, although it was hard to imagine a second person’s possessions inside it—and they had started actually planning the wedding, her mom visiting from Naples and sleeping on the sofa, as if there were room for that.


“Fuck. Women,” George said.


“I know it,” Samuel said.


“Is she your girlfriend?” George asked, and I realized he was talking about me. Trying not to look too interested in Samuel’s response, I stood up and started looking for a glass. Samuel didn’t say anything, and when I sat back down with my water, George pressed him.


“Well, is she or not? Would you share her?”


Samuel just smiled and rolled his eyes. When we made eye contact again, he winked at me. It was true that even I could see George was just heated up, but I wished someone would try and tamp it down.


My new love and his old friend drank more, did lines, talked. Mostly George talked, going on and on about Anna’s mom’s visits. I drank water; I drank wine. We heard about the way she kept the house, the things she made and didn’t make for breakfast, the way she made it impossible to fuck with her snores and sighs. Maybe there were signs earlier, something he’d missed.


“Signs of what?” Samuel asked.


His ex-future mother-in-law had had a dream a few weeks prior to Anna’s departure. In it, the family dog had been pregnant with puppies, but she hadn’t ultimately given birth to them. Her swollen stomach disappeared, and Anna was the one who had the litter. There were four of them, tiny and brown, and the dog was so jealous she could barely be kept out of the nursery. She scratched and scratched at the door, the paint peeling up underneath her claws, and the puppies whimpering behind it. Anna didn’t have enough milk, the right milk, and the dogs began to grow up thin and angry, their cries an unceasing, hideous peal.


At first, George had thought it was funny. They didn’t have a nursery, and Anna wasn’t going to have puppies, or kids, or anything. She had an IUD. Slowly, he started to understand that she was actually upset about it. She thought it was some portent of what they would give birth to together. He’d tried to make light of it, tell her he could wear a condom. Or if there was something wrong with their kids, so what? They could raise a differently abled child together, couldn’t they? As long as it wasn’t actually a dog. Hell, even if it was. But Anna couldn’t let it go. For a week, she wouldn’t have sex with him, and then when she finally did, she spent the whole time staring up at the ceiling. She cried afterwards, making him feel guilty as shit. A week later, she moved out of the apartment without warning. He didn’t know where she’d gone, George told Samuel. He hadn’t looked, yet, but maybe he should start with her parents’ place in the south.


Underneath the tannins of the wine, I could still feel the numb drip at the back of my throat. I wanted to relax—just an hour before, I had felt so stupidly happy—but now, the bees were back again.


“I don’t think you should do that, man,” Samuel counseled. “It sounds like all you can do is move on.” He tried to get me involved in the conversation, to tell George about my research. “Is there an herb he could take?”


“I’m a historian, not an herbalist,” I said.


George leaned across the table toward me and told me, “I bet you could help me forget.” Then he turned back and asked Samuel, “Seriously, is she fair game?”


“Ask her,” Samuel said. “She speaks for herself.” I went into the bathroom and shut the door.


Sitting on the toilet with my tights around my ankles, I messaged him from my phone, which I’d had the foresight to keep in my hand. I’m ready to go, I typed. I listened to the muffled talking—George was on again—and waited for a response.


It didn’t come.


I went back out and took my seat on the ottoman. I kept my phone in my hand. Now, George was leaning back against the sofa, his red face jutting toward the sloped ceiling and the square pane of glass set into it. When Samuel glanced in my direction, I widened my eyes, can we go? and he gave me a subtle shake of his head, no, not now. Or maybe we didn’t know each other well enough to silently communicate. Maybe he had no clue what I was saying. Instead of trying to figure it out, he laughed at George’s stories. He offered me more wine, and I refused.


“She’s not very fun,” George said.


And Samuel looked at me brightly and said, “She can be.”


“Well, what’s her fucking problem tonight?”


I had had enough. I stood up. “I think I’m ready to leave,” I said. And then I put on my coat and went down the stairs, my legs trembling.


On the ground floor, I messaged Samuel again, but he hadn’t even seen the last two. Maybe his phone was in his coat pocket. Or maybe he knew that as soon as he took it out, George would grab it.


I stood there and looked through my email. I read the news. I gave Samuel all the time in the world to come down and get me, but he didn’t. So I went back out into the night and tried to remember the path the car had taken. I’d been relying on Samuel to know where I was, and now I was as good as lost. I looked at my phone again and again, toggling between my messages and the map that would get me to the appropriate bus stop, but I kept taking wrong turns onto narrow, darkened little streets. What was wrong with me? Why did I feel like this? It was late, now, but as I wandered on, I began to pass couples, to see orbs of light suspended above the street. And soon, I realized I was by the American University, young people still milling around at the end of the semester. They came in groups of twos and threes and fours, everyone a part of something—as I had always hoped to be, as I had always failed to have been.


Finally, I gave up and called an Uber.


Back in the Airbnb, I took off my shoes and crawled into bed with my coat on. I clutched my phone in front of me, reading through our whole exchange on WhatsApp since October. But since we’d spent every moment together for five days, there was no record of our affair in text. I tried to think through it from beginning to end, from the first kiss to the last one just before we’d gotten on the bus. As I wrapped myself in these recollections, I first worried that Samuel would be angry at me when he came back. Or maybe he wouldn’t come back at all. Then, remembering the suitcase spilling open just to the side of mine, I began to dread the certainty that he would. I fell asleep composing a speech in my head.


At six that morning, the doorbell rang. It took me several minutes to find the light switch, my shoes, and the key. I took my coat off. When I arrived at the front door, Samuel had an apologetic little smile on his face. A smirk, some would say.


“Did you have fun?” I asked.


“I did. Sorry George bugged you, though.”


“I wanted to leave.”


“And you left.”


What was there to say after that?


We had only one more full day together, and he spent most of it asleep in bed.


Late that afternoon, we went to the Villa Borghese at our appointed time despite the fact that Samuel was hungover, actually wrecked. A part of me wanted to confront him, but another part felt pity for the way he winced in the sunlight, the lines etched more deeply on his face than the day before. And another part knew that all confrontation would accomplish was the utter destruction of the bright, sparkling feeling that had breathed between us for five days. There was still a glimmer of it as we stood side by side looking at Bernini’s Daphne and Apollo, more beautiful than I had imagined. This was the stuff of myth—pursuit and desire so intense that they make us inhuman.


Samuel’s flight left in the early hours of the morning, and I don’t think he woke me up before he left. If he did, the moment receded into the landscape of my dreams, which had become boring again. In them, I was arranging my photographs into files, trying to decipher lines of curling text, checking my email. When I woke up, I remembered that I preferred them to be that way. I cleaned the apartment. I packed my bags with my clothes, my souvenirs, my toiletries, and a clip from the Haworthia that grew by the window.


Rebecca van Laer

Rebecca van Laer is a writer based in Kingston, New York. Her work has appeared in Joyland, TriQuarterly, HAD, Electric Literature, Columbia Journal, Salamander, and elsewhere. Her novella, How to Adjust to the Dark, is forthcoming from Long Day Press in 2022. She holds a PhD in English from Brown University.