The floods had ravaged the cities, drowning the sparkling skyscrapers in dirty brown water. The heat waves had cracked the concrete, warped the glass, littered the parks with the crisp bodies of the unfortunate. The hurricanes had torn apart the suburbs and the farmlands, shedding cow carcasses amongst splintered piles of wood. The cold snaps had frozen the crops into brittle twigs, permeated the thin walls of the people’s homes until frost settled where air used to. The tsunamis had raged in and raged out, a frothing wall of doom laying waste to what used to be beachfront paradises.
The world leaders congregated in a panic. “Something must be done,” they agreed in hushed whispers, huddling around each other in front of the photographers. The time to do something had come and gone, long past, but immediate steps were taken to mitigate the size of the crisis.
The basic idea was simple - prevent further damage. Flights were shut down; only travelers with immediate, urgent business (pre approved by the United Nations Environmental Protection Coalition) were allowed to fly. All other tourists were required to travel by sailboat or similarly environmentally economical means. Families had their carbon dioxide outputs tracked, and were fined if they went above a certain amount. The meat industry crumbled as severe limits were imposed on cattle and pig production.
The lack of food, lack of money, lack of resources all paled in comparison to the lack of people. A devastatingly huge amount of people had been killed, ruthlessly and senselessly, but the natural disasters that loomed over the world. As the climate crisis grew more aggressive, so did the restrictions. The once majestic, towering citadels and castles gave way to bunkers, halfway hidden underground, designed to withstand all different sorts of temporal pressures. Public parks grew back into jungles, vague dense wilderness with the occasional rusty car peeking out. The beaches became desolate and turbulent, marred by the ever-changing winds and relentless tides, emptied of human touch.
It was during a particularly grainy sandstorm that Leo opened the news to find out that all travel was being banned, effective the following Monday. All tourists in foreign countries were advised to return home immediately. Long distance transportation for people was being permanently shut down. The dust and soil particles beat against the reinforced biodegradable plastic windows as Leo beat his fists on a pillow.
The phone lines rattled as Leo paced back and forth, ignoring the muddy hailstorm battering his little square home. “She’s in Italy, and I’m in America, and we’re both getting our Ph.D. 's and there’s no way she’ll be able to complete the paperwork for a visa to come here in time, and I don’t think I could do it by then either. So what, we just never see each other? Should we break up now?”
“You should call her,” his brother replied, his mind clearly elsewhere. “Or just marry her. Instant citizenship.”
The conversation stayed with Leo as he paced back and forth in the apartment. As soon as the sandstorm cleared up and the whistle sounded that it was safe to go out, he bounded out of the apartment into the still-hazy air. As dust slowly settled around him and the sky returned to piercing blue, he jogged up the old pathways, the road to his former school, now a crumbling heap of bricks and childhood memories. He could see the missed calls and texts accumulate from her as she noticed the news, too, but he couldn’t bring himself to confront her.
The truth was, he didn’t know what to do. There didn’t seem to be many options - an online girlfriend, fated to be never seen or touched again, seemed like a pointless, childish exercise. Breaking up seemed unmanageably painful and getting married? Utterly overwhelming concept.
That night, he paced back and forth in his apartment again, collecting memorabilia along with his thoughts. He’d texted Ludi that they’d call tomorrow, once they both cleared their minds and decided on what to do. Except, he still hadn’t decided on what to do. He picked up a pen he’d borrowed from her the first time they’d met, behind the dense, dusty bookshelves of the Biblioteca Vallicelliana. He twirled in his fingers the stem of the wineglass he’d accidentally stolen from her sister, after a champagne-soaked summer garden party. He picked up the envelope filled with the little notes she’d written him, good luck for your exam, and there’s chicken soup in the fridge, and Call Luca if you don’t hear from me after Tuesday. A lifetime’s worth of love packed into little notes, draped around the furniture of the humble little apartment he’d rented on his year abroad. As he reached to smooth a crumpled post-it on the bottom of the pile, something sparkly dropped to the floor. He dropped to his knees after it, his fingers scampering along the floor until they caught it. The instant his fingertips touched the cool metal he knew what it was. The ring he’d given her. He’d won it by accident, in a carnival game, intending to win the gold hoop earrings, but his aim had been off, and the consolation prize was a silver ring with little crystals embedded in it, properly worthless but pretty nonetheless. He’d given it to her, nonchalant, not realizing until minutes later the implications of giving your girlfriend a ring. He’d turned to her, panicked, stuttering that he hadn’t meant it as a proposal, that it was just a game, just a gift, and she’d laughed, whole hearted and throaty, and reassured him that she hadn’t thought it was.
It was a cheap ring; it had broken only two months later, while she was chopping tomatoes, and he’d promised to fix it, which is how it ended up in the envelope of little notes. Now, he touched it, the sharp, brittle surface, the crystals peeling out of their tiny saddles, and felt that it was a sign. He’d needed a sign. Some higher power he didn’t believe in, to reassure him of one path or another. And now he had it.
By the next morning, Leo was halfway to Italy. All airports had been opened, and new flights had been released, to allow everyone to return home. Leo was reasonably sure that four days was enough time to get there and get back. It was only once the plane landed and he stumbled into the sleepy haze of early-morning Southern Italy that he realized the absurdity of what he was doing.
Not one to be easily deterred, Leo allowed the momentum of his midnight decision to propel him towards the high rise block of austere, environmentally friendly apartments that he knew Ludovica was in. He imagined her sitting there, with her hair in a bun and coffee in her hand, hunched over a croissant and textbook on the sofa.
Ludovica texted him, ironically enough, just as he sidestepped a Vespa and entered her building’s lobby. He texted her, come down. The shock on her face was almost worth the total sleep deprivation. Sure enough, there was a coffee in one hand and a textbook in the other.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, breathless, after she had squealed and bounced and jumped into his arms.
“I wanted to talk. Face to face. About our future.” Leo took her by the hand and pulled her away, out of the building. She was still in her slippers, and his clothes were wrinkly and smelled like stale airplane air, but neither of them cared as they sped through the streets, stumbling over each other as they raced to be the first to summit the little hill. It was their hill - the hill they’d lived and loved on for the nearly 9 months Leo had spent in Italy, and even though they moved beside each other wordlessly, somewhat awkwardly, it was as if their bodies knew exactly where they needed to go.
There, atop the hill, overlooking the gray foam shuddering from the hissing waves of the nearby contaminated beach, Leo knelt down.
She gaped at him. She’d expected breakup sex, a tearful goodbye, a tragedy of epic proportions. Not a proposal.
He seemed to sense her hesitation. “I know we’ve barely dated a year, and we’ve never even properly lived together, and you haven’t met my parents or seen the town I grew up in, but Ludi, the world is changing, so much faster than we can anticipate. I love you, and you love me, and I know it’s scary, to make such a big commitment, so suddenly, so soon, but isn’t it much scarier to think that we might never see each other again? Look, life is short, and love is scarce, and whatever happens on this planet, it’s less terrifying to face it with a hand to hold. I want to hold your hand. If the core of the earth erupts on us, I want to be melted down next to you. I’m just as scared as anyone else about what new restrictions we’ll have, what chaos our lives still hold, but I know that I can stand it. I can bear it. What I can’t bear is doing it, doing anything, without you.”
Ludovica looked into his eyes, his legs straining against the uneven rock he knelt on, and only one sentence came to mind, “I don’t match my socks.”
He gaped at her. “What?”
“I don’t match my socks. I want to marry you. I want to spend the rest of my, probably not so long, life with you. But you need to know, I don’t match my socks.”
His knee wobbled. “I don’t make my bed, unless I know for sure my mother is coming to visit.”
And with that, he slipped the cracked nickel ring onto her ring finger. “It’s really a proposal now.”
The floods had ravaged the cities, and the heat waves had cracked the concrete, the hurricanes had torn apart the suburbs and the farmlands, and the cold snaps had frozen the crops into brittle twigs. The tsunamis continued to rage in and out, restless in their desire to torment the race destroying their planet, but deep in the heart of the endless destruction, hidden behind an ugly square environmentally friendly apartment building, Ludovica and Leo held hands.