On one such evening, when the rest of her classmates were playing poker in the courtyard over Italian beers, Dominique wandered off down the hill, notebook in hand and pencils sharpened. She had planned to park herself outside of the Café Milanese facing the façade of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, more commonly called The Duomo, in the center of the city. She knew them to have reasonably priced Chianti and fresh napolitan pizza slices. This had by now become her favorite combination. She had begun to shy away from many and creative toppings on a pizza, having had her fill in late night New York parlors which she frequented usually after a night of drinks with friends as to avoid an intense hangover. At that point, broccoli, bacon, and artichoke slices had weaned on her, and she grew to appreciate freshness and simplicity more than eccentric combination. The napolitan seemed the perfect match. It was a thin, almost paper-like crust topped with tomato slices, fresh slices of round ball mozzarella, and a leaf of basil. It was the perfect accompaniment to a few glasses of red wine, which by then she had become fluent in ordering. They were in fact the first Italian words she mastered.
“Una pieqierri vino rosso” she stated with an air of confidence marveling at her perfection of an indigenous Italian accent.
The waiter nodded, and returned inside the café as she gently parked herself at a table for two. She adjusted her 50’s style knee-length black skirt and moved the tea-light atop the small round surface aside to make room for her journal. She seemed to recently get more creative juices flowing when her brain had been properly lubricated with a splash of wine, so as she waited, she decided to look somewhat busy and read from prior entries of random thoughts and poetry couplets. The waiter arrived with a glass, and asked her in broken English if she wanted anything else. She was rather dismayed that what she thought was perfect Italian had not masked the fact that she was an American and by their definition, a tourist. She told him she wanted a small napolitan and decided against ordering a half carafe immediately. This would be an evening of glasses.
As she finished her first one and took a bite of the napolitan she looked back on a messy paragraph she had started. It was more of a journal entry than incendiary prose.
So I’m sitting in a café in the center of the magnificence
of Firenze, drinking Chianti and watching the sun slowly set over the ancient buildings that surround it…
of Firenze, drinking Chianti and watching the sun slowly set over the ancient buildings that surround it…
An hour had passed, and that was all she had so far. Besides the ever-present presence of mental blockage that she tried to ignore and erase with wine, she was fully aware of her inability to focus on anything for too long. This gave credence to her avoidance of her school library for study. During her academic trajectory, when called upon to write papers and complete assignments, she had to be in her room with the door locked and window closed as not to pick up any excess noise from the bustling of 3rd Avenue. Everything had to be completely quiet and unwavering. Why she decided to negate this method in Italy was because of her inclination for inspiration extracted from life abroad in a foreign country. She had seen all of the busy streets of New York, walked them a thousand times, and observed the same people. She found very little beauty in its atmosphere. Instead, she saw dirt, intimidation, and too much catharsis of movement. Everyone was always running somewhere, doing something; everything was in hyper speed. Florence, on the other hand, was a city of beauty; of peaceful sunsets, ancient architecture, and gentle, sophisticated folk who took time to say hello and thank you.
Amongst this peace, she thought that she would finally be able to be comforted in her surroundings and allowed the opportunity to thrive in her creative endeavors. She felt it somehow wrong to negate the wonder of this city and sit in her quiet room to complete her work. Inspiration would be found on the streets and the café’s. It was paramount for her to intersperse with this profoundly different pace of culture. But in the midst of all of this philosophizing, she had failed to understand that her creativity was not stifled by environment but from her personal lack of enthusiasm that had reared its ugly head only very recently, and any external change to affect it would prove futile, as it was this particular night.
She ordered another glass of wine and sighed out of fatigue. She finally elected to put her pen down and lean back in her chair and relax. The prospect of feeling uncomfortable while being alone, constantly thinking that everyone’s gaze was concentrated specifically on her, seemed to wither with the steady intake of alcohol and she no longer felt it incumbent of her to ‘look busy’. Her eyes wandered about and after a while ended up centered at the interior of the café, where the young attractive waiter who had been working her table was sitting atop a bar stool conversing with the proprietor behind the counter.
Not too much else was going on at the café. There was an elderly woman sitting at another table outside; otherwise, it was empty. She flirted with the idea of asking the young waiter to join her for a drink…her treat of course. But she figured that she should stop making impulsive decisions under the influence of wine, even if they were relatively harmless, as to avoid early morning regret. She came up with this conclusion just as she realized that she was staring at him, at which point he had noticed too and smiled before turning to the proprietor of the café with a careless laugh.
“Great” she muttered under her breath.
He probably thinks I’m a sex-obsessed desperate who pulls this with every waiter in the two block radius. She thought to herself in a tangent of paranoia, which came too easily to her now a days.
In her fervor, she accidentally jerked her arm towards the glass and missed. The glass fell, spilling bright red liquid over the table and her precious journal. The waiter had by then gone behind the counter and bent down to retrieve something from the lower shelves, missing her embarrassing little mishap. In her clumsy moments, she preferred to fix it herself without sympathetic aid from strangers who would turn around and snicker about it later. She took a large wad of napkins from the brass antique holder on her table and thrust them upon the wetness. Quick as she tried to do this, she had not realized that she was being even clumsier in her agitated state, as napkins also began to spill on the floor and unto her feet.
“Oh god!” she blurted in frustration and bend over to retrieve the excess. As she did so she saw an arm underneath the table moving towards her.
“Oh!” she exclaimed as she almost jumped out of her chair.
Being a nervous type, mishaps and clumsiness only yielded profound levels of anxiety where jumping up in seats were regular practices; from scary parts in films to the loud slamming of cabinet doors. She had no time to calm herself and take in the knowledge that a man had stopped in his tracks to notice her troubles and sprung forward to help her clean up. After catching her breath and taking a quick second for self-composure, she took a good look at this stranger with a penchant for random acts of kindness.
Because he was kneeling, it was impossible to estimate his height, but from his body mass, it was evident that the man was at least 6 feet tall. Built yet trim, he was dressed neatly with an essence of class and sophistication that harkened back to the times of the 1940’s when Cary Grant sported debonair suits accented with clever ties. He had on a white button-down shirt underneath a thin black wool sweater with the cuffs tucked into the sweater’s sleeves and the collar pulled out comfortably yet stringently. He coupled this with a pair of khaki slacks that looked like they had been ironed three times over and were at perfect length so that one would take notice of his shoes, but not his socks. It looked as though a person had literally sewn this outfit around his body so that nothing was too short, too long, or needed any kind of adjustment.
His hair was something not often seen in the current affected culture where the mantra is: the more hair gel the better. It was a beautiful thick brunette sea atop his head that was tucked at the sides behind his ears. It glistened not from grease, but from freshness and clarity, accented by the moonlight. It was parted in the middle, with soft waves moving from his forehead to the back of his neck. His eyes were round and large like teacups. They were the color that of wet mahogany; dark and piercing to where in a dim light, one wouldn’t be able to point out his pupils even if standing right in front of him. He was clean shaven, with a small birthmark on the bottom of his left cheek; too far away from his mouth to be a beauty mark, but too close to the middle of his face to be disregarded as an unimportant physical trademark.
He smiled at her gently and subtly…too subtly to know whether he was considering this a pathetic instance that needed his kind assistance, or whether he took pleasure in helping her out because of an initial attraction. His smile seemed to be more natural and welcoming than any she had ever seen in her past experiences with initial introductions. To that end she was able to finally calm herself.
“Hi…it’s ok.” He said in an almost whisper.
And it was then that the thoughts of embarrassment, creative bankruptcy, atmosphere, and everything that had permeated itself in her mind since the evening began finally cleared. It was a sound so beautiful that it seemed to silence all of her cynical thoughts. His voice was deep but welcoming. He spoke softly but not hoarsely, with an accent she immediately interpreted as not that of outlandish heavy Italian she had heard day in and day out since her arrival. It was a subtle, almost lyrical speech that gave her comfort. It was like the sound of a gust of cool wind hugging her on an especially hot day.
“Thank you…ugh I’m sorry” she replied tongue-tied and nervous, now that she realized her initial attraction to him.
Stay calm, breath, don’t talk too fast, don’t use ‘um’, ‘ugh’, or any other Americanized determents towards an unsophisticated barrel of personal language practice. She told herself.
--And don’t introduce yourself too fast…don’t assume this is an introduction…test the waters…test the waters…
The stranger finished picking up the napkins and grabbed her journal from the table to gently wipe its exterior. He grouped the dirty ones into a corner and held out her journal for her to take, rather than placing it back on the table. She reached out her hand and took hold of the other end. It was too big a book for their hands to subtly touch. He remained kneeled on the floor as not to intimidate her by standing up, so that the two would be eye level. It was evident he had more to say.
“I hope it is not too damaged on the inside.” He stated.
“Oh no, no I’m sure it’s ok. It didn’t get through the cover…besides there’s nothing good in there anyway” she said with nervous laughter.
Stop shooting yourself in the foot damn you. How does he know you don’t have Shakespeare in there?
“You know, I think writing always looks more romantic when it is stained and worn…it gives it a sense of history” He contradicted.
Dominique was sold. This was completely congruent with her notions of romanticism of objects. She began to run with a tangent of what other possible common ground they would have, but abruptly stopped. She reminded herself that considering how much trouble she has with answering questions on the spot. In the past this lead to rejection from certain important jobs because of her awkward interviewing skills. She elected to constantly be on mental point.
Think of what will be asked next and next, know the answer before he asks the question.
Alas, her mental processes and self-advisory had done little to curb her anxiousness that at times manifests itself outwardly as shyness. She didn’t know whether to agree verbally, or just nod her head. There was always the possibility of offering a contradiction with a cohesive counter-argument that would make her sound intelligent but not too intelligent, so as to avoid intimidation. This excess of reflective thought caused her mind to go completely blank. All she could do was offer a smile. She slowly raised the corners of her lips, remembering that her mother always told her that when she smiles naturally, she is at her most beautiful.
Don’t make a photograph face. Smile naturally, comfortably…NOT TOO MUCH!
“Um…(damn it!)…Yeah, I never thought of that.” She finally blurted.
Thank him…THANK HIM!
“…Thank you…” she stated too early to realize she had already done so.
He smiled and let out a single laugh. He was if anything amused and thereby interested. It appeared as though he was enjoying this elementary exchange of pre-supposed phrases and glances, but the question of what he will decide to do or say next remained a complete mystery. She wanted to ask him where his accent was from…she wanted to compliment him on his clothes, and offer him a seat. In short, she wanted him to stay. In her past, she felt she had been too forward, too seemingly desperate, and too laughably extraverted. She wanted him to take initiative, to say something, and to offer his company to her. Why must it always end in this excruciating dichotomy? There are so many things she could do to be proactive, but what if being proactive was not and never had been the best option? It’s hard-to-get types that men go for. It’s those frivolous, ambivalent, waifish types that have the men chasing after them. They forward their proactive energy to their counterparts, and thereby are the ones receiving invitations rather than giving them, at least this is what Dominique had deciphered from her personal experiences.
But something told her this was going to be different. Whether it was his appearance, his dress code, or his strangely welcoming sensibility and charm; this was going to be a different encounter, even if nothing came of it.
“What do you write?” he asked.
She was right. This was different. The usual next exchange would be inquiry about her name. If this were a man who just bend down to help and then said “Bueno notti, bella” on his way back to the road, then that would be the end of that. But this stranger who lingered about and stared deeply into her eyes without detracting to the table, the dirty napkins, or her journal, had more to say. It was a surprise that it was about her work rather than her initial identity. Where did this man come from? And why was he so good at projecting his comfort upon others?
“I don’t know yet. I’m trying to find out…” She answered trying to avoid specifics.
“Are you working, am I interrupting you?”
“Oh no. No! I’m actually done. I was just sitting.” She assured him.
There was a pause. She thought that now was her chance. He obviously wants to talk to her. He continues to linger and lean over her table. She began to think he was waiting for an invitation. This was Europe, maybe it wouldn’t be considered so forward here? She reminded herself she had time and had no other place to be. The wine in her body warmed her face and sent a subdued wave of relaxation through her limbs. She was finally at a good comfort level. She didn’t have to think so much and could just go with the unfolding of events and phrases of looks and gestures. With a reboot of confidence, and an abrupt excitement which caused a wave of sober thought to come into her head, she felt that as one thinking clearly, if she wanted this and acted on it, there would be no regret as it would not be out of desperation, compromising of logic because of wine, or overt anxiousness. This was a clear though, and she cherished it. She was not thinking too far ahead, just that she didn’t want to let this opportunity, whatever it may be, to slip through her fingers.
“Would you like to sit?” she finally asked.
Oh god, oh god…what did I just do? He’s going to decline. He’s going to laugh at me. He’s got better things to do; a girlfriend, a beautiful Italian girlfriend with long legs and a 24 inch waist—
“I’d love to…as long as you don’t mind.”
The stranger got up and seemed to slide from the ground into the chair opposite Dominique in one graceful motion. He adjusted himself, leaning slightly to her side as if to see her face from a better angle. He looked around a bit.
“Was that Chianti before the incident?” he questioned with a sly smile.
Dominique nodded her head, laughing at herself. He motioned for the waiter, who came out with a rather judgmental look on his face. He looked at Dominique and then at the stranger, waiting for instruction. The stranger ordered two glasses of ‘the same’, dismissing the waiter with his tone of voice rather than an elitist hand wave. Dominique began to assume all kinds of things. He must be a cultural paragon with aristocratic pedigree, ordering so casually and yet so cordially. He must be a baron or the descendant of some rich side of the ancient Medici; old money with extensive knowledge of manners and accountability.
The two continued to talk for what seemed like only a short period of time, so when Dominique finally checked her watch, it said: 12:30, and she had been there since 5:00 in the afternoon. Neither of the party seemed anxious, nor felt it incumbent to check the time so they could excuse themselves and go their separate ways. The conversation stuck to the simplicity of elementary basics one learns about another during their first meeting. What was she doing there? Where was she from initially? How does she like it? To which she offered counter-queries of the same nature. And though one could attribute these kinds of exchanges as mundane excuses to avoid uncomfortable silences on a first date, this stranger who by then had introduced himself to her as Federico, gave off an air of genuine curiosity that allowed her to flourish in her answers without subjecting herself to answering on the spot and with swift, unguided precision as if at a job interview. She avoided the backdoor ways girls usually go about a conversation that would help them find out whether the other party had a girlfriend/wife, because he initially had mentioned to her that he was in Florence not only for career purposes, but to get away from home which served as a constant reminder of his now defunct relationship with someone named Claudia. Career wise, he was there on location to shoot a film, as one of the leading roles in a small but what he referred to as an ‘important tale’ of a film. Not quite established as an actor to audiences in his home in Madrid, much less to worldwide acclaim, his salary was comparably modest. Yet, this lack of fame allowed for him to branch out into important and significant work rather than concentrate on a particularly forward career trajectory, concerned primarily with creating a persona. He still had the advantage of being an actor who was working while maintaining his anonymity, which according to him was of absolute importance at this point in his life.