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A Thousand Days in Veniceby Marlena De Blasi
Signora, the Telephone Is for You
The small room is filled with German tourists, a few English, and a table or two of locals. Its November 6, 1993, and I arrived in Venice that morning, two friends in tow. We speak quietly together, sipping Amarone. Time passes and the room empties, but I notice that one table, the one farthest away from us, remains occupied. I feel the gentle, noninvasive stare of one of the four men who sit there. I turn my shoulders in, toward my wine, never really looking at the man. Soon the gentlemen go off, and we three are alone in the place. A few minutes pass before a waiter comes by to say there is a telephone call for me. We have yet to announce our arrival to friends, and even if someone knew we were in Venice, they couldnt possibly know we were lunching at Vino Vino. I tell the waiter hes mistaken. “No, signora. Il telefono è per Lei,” he insists. “Pronto,” I say into the old, orange wall telephone that smells of smoke and mens cologne.
“Pronto. Is it possible for you to meet me tomorrow at the same time? Its very important for me,” says a deep, deliberate, Italian voice Id never heard before. In the short silence that follows it somehow clicks that he is one of the men whod left the restaurant just moments before. Though Ive understood fairly well what he has said, I cant respond in Italian. I mumble some linguistic fusion like, “No, grazie. I dont even know who you are,” thinking that I really like his voice.
The next day we decide to return to Vino Vino because of its convenience to our hotel. I dont think about the man with the beautiful voice. But hes there, and this time hes without his colleagues and looking more than a little like Peter Sellers. We smile. I go off to sit with my friends, and he, seeming not quite to know how to approach us, turns and goes out the door. A few beats pass before the same waiter, now feeling a part of something quite grand, comes to me, eyes direct: “Signora, il telefono è per Lei.” There ensues a repeat of yesterdays scene. I go to the phone, and the beautiful voice speaks in very studied English, perhaps thinking it was his language I hadnt understood the day before: “Is it possible for you to meet me tomorrow, alone?”
“I dont think so,” I fumble, “I think Im going to Naples.”
“Oh,” is all the beautiful voice can say.
“Im sorry,” I say and hang up the phone.
We dont go to Naples the next day or the day after, but we do go to the same place for lunch, and Peter Sellers is always there. We never speak a word face to face. He always telephones. And I always tell him I cant meet him. On the fifth day—a Friday—our last full day in Venice, my friends and I spend the morning at Florian mapping the rest of our journey, drinking Prosecco and cups of bitter, thick chocolate lit with Grand Marnier. We decide not to have lunch but to save our appetites for a farewell dinner at Harrys Bar. Walking back to the hotel, we pass by Vino Vino, and there is Peter Sellers, his nose pressed against the window. A lost child. We stop in the calle a moment, and my friend Silvia says, “Go inside and talk to him. He has the dearest face. Well meet you at the hotel.”
I sit down next to the sweet face with the beautiful voice, and we drink some wine. We talk very little, something about the rain, I think, and why I didnt come to lunch that day. He tells me he is the manager of a nearby branch of Banca Commerciale Italiana, that its late, and he has the only set of keys to reopen the safe for the after-noons business. I notice the sweet face with the beautiful voice has wonderful hands. His hands tremble as he gathers his things to leave. We agree to meet at six-thirty that evening, right there, in the same place. “Proprio qui, Right here,” he repeats again and again.
I walk to the hotel with a peculiar feeling and spend the afternoon lolling about my little room, only half celebrating my tradition of reading Thomas Mann in bed. Even after all these years of coming to Venice, every afternoon is a ritual. Close by on the night table I place some luscious little pastry or a few cookies or, if lunch was too light, maybe one, crusty panino which Lino at the bottega across the bridge from my Pensione Accademia has split and stuffed with prosciutto, then wrapped in butchers paper. I tuck the down quilt under my arms and open my book. But today I read and dont read the same page for an hour. And the second part of the ritual falls away altogether, the part where I wander out to see images Mann saw, touch stones he touched. Today all I can think about is him.
The persevering rain becomes a tempest that night, but I am resolved to meet the stranger. Lagoon waters splash up and spill over onto the river in great foaming pools and the Piazza is a lake of black water. The winds seem the breath of furies. I make my way to the warm safety of the bar at the Hotel Monaco but no farther. Less than a few hundred yards from Vino Vino, Im so close but I can get no closer. I go to the desk and ask for a telephone directory, but the wine bar is not listed. I try calling assistenza but operator number 143 finds nothing. The rendezvous is a wreckage, and I havent a way to contact Peter Sellers. It was just not meant to be. I head back to the hotel bar, where a waiter called Paolo stuffs my soaked boots with newspaper and places them near a radiator with the same ceremony someone else might use to stow the crown jewels. Ive known Paolo since my first trip to Venice four years earlier. Stocking-footed, fidgeting, drinking tea, I sit on the damp layers of my skirt, which sends up the wooly perfume of wet lambs, and watch fierce, crackling lights rip the clouds. I think back to my very first time in Venice. Lord, how I fought that journey! Id been in Rome for a few days, and Id wanted to stay. But there I was, hunkered down in a second-class train, heading north. “ARE YOU GOING TOVENICE?” asks a small voice in tentative Italian, trespassing on my Roman half-dream.
I open my eyes and look out the window to see we have pulled into Tiburtina. Two young, pink-faced German women are hoisting their great packs up into the overhead space, thrusting their ample selves down onto the seat opposite me. “Yes,” I finally answer, in English, to a space somewhere between them. “For the first time,” I say.
They are serious, shy, dutifully reading the Lorenzetti guide to Venice and drinking mineral water in the hot, airless train car as it lunges and bumps over the flat Roman countryside and up into the Umbrian hills. I close my eyes again, trying to find my place in the fable of life in the Via Giulia where Id taken roof-top rooms in the ochered-rose palazzo that sits across from the Hungarian Art Academy. Id decided I would go each
Friday to eat a bowlful of tripe at Da Felice in the Testaccio. I would shop every morning in Campo dei Fiori. Id open a twenty-seat taverna in the Ghetto, one big table where the shop keeps and artisans would come to eat the good food Id cook for them. Id take a Corsican prince as my lover. His skin would smell of neroli blossoms, and hed be poor as I would be, and wed walk along the Tiber, going softly into our dotage. As I begin putting together the exquisite pieces of the princes face, the trespassers small voice asks, “Why are you going to Venice? Do you have friends there?”
“No. No friends,” I tell her. “I guess Im going because Ive never been there, because I think I should,” I say, more to myself than to her. I have hopelessly lost the princes face for the moment, and so I parry: “And why are you going to Venice?”
“For romance,” says the inquisitive one very simply.
My plainer truth is that I am going to Venice because Im being sent there, to gather notes for a series of articles. Twenty-five hundred words on the bacari, traditional Venetian wine bars; twenty-five hundred more on the question of the citys gradual sinking into the lagoon; and an upscale dining review. I would rather have stayed in Rome. I want to go back to my narrow green wooden bed in the strange little room tucked up in the fourth-floor eaves of the Hotel Adriano. I want to sleep there, to be awakened by powdery sunlight sifting in through the chinks in the shutters. I like the way my heart beats in Rome, how I can walk faster and see better. I like that I feel at home wandering through her ancient ecstasy of secrets and lies. I like that shes taught me I am only a scintilla, a barely perceptible and transient gleam.
And I like that at lunch, with fried artichokes on my breath, I think of sup-per. And at supper I remember peaches that wait in a bowl of cool water near my bed. Ive nearly retrieved the pieces of the princes face as the train lurches over the Ponte della Libertà. I open my eyes to see the lagoon.
Back then I could never have imagined how sweetly this
ravishing old Princess was to gather me up into her tribe, how she would dazzle and dance the way only she can, exploding a morning with gold-shot light, soaking an evening in the bluish mists of a trance. I smile at Paolo, a tribal smile, a soundless eloquence. He stays near, keeping my teapot full. Its after eleven-thirty before the storm rests. I pull on boots all hardened into the shape of the newsprint stuffing. Damp hat over still-damp hair, still-damp coat, I gather myself for the walk back to the hotel. Something prickles, shivers forward in my consciousness. I try to remember if Id told the stranger where we were staying. Whats happening to me? Me, the unflappable. Even as I am drawn to Venice, so am I suspicious of her.
It seems I did tell him the name of our hotel, because I find a sheaf of pink paper messages under my door. Hed called every half hour from seven until midnight, the last message letting me know he would be waiting in the lobby at noon the next day, exactly the hour we were to leave for the airport.
Morning brings the first sun weve seen in Venice during that stay.
I heave open my window to a day limpid and soft, as if in apology for all that weeping the night before. I pull on black velvet leggings and a turtleneck and go down to meet Peter Sellers, to look him in the eyes and to find out why a man Id hardly met could be so disturbing to me. I dont know how Im going to find out very much though, because he seems to speak no English and the only clear discourse I can carry on in Italian is about food. Im a bit early, so I walk outside to feel the air and find Im just in time to see him climbing over the Ponte delle Maravegie, trench coat, cigarette, newspaper, umbrella. I see him before he sees me. And I like what I see, feel. “Stai scappando? Are you escaping?” he asks.
“No. I was coming to meet you,” I say, mostly with my hands.
I had told my friends to wait, that Id be half an hour, an hour at most. We would still have plenty of time to take a water taxi to the Marco Polo airport and check in for our three oclock flight to Naples. I look at him. I really look at the stranger for the first time.
All I see is the blue of his eyes. They are colored like the sky and the water are colored today and like the tiny, purply-blue berries called mirtilli, I think. He is at once shy and familiar, and we walk without destination. We stop for a moment on the Ponte dellAccademia. He keeps dropping his newspaper and, as he bends to retrieve it, he thrusts the point of his umbrella into the crowds that pass behind us.
Then, holding the newspaper under one arm and the umbrella under the other, its evil point still a thwart to the strollers, he slaps at his breast pockets, his trouser pockets, in search of a match. He finds the match and then begins the same search for another cigarette to replace the one that just dropped from his lips into the canal. He really is Peter Sellers.
He asks if Ive ever thought much about destiny and if I believe there is such a thing as vero amore, real love. He looks away from me out over the water and speaks in a throaty sort of stammer for what seems like a long time and more to himself than to me. I understand few of the words except his final phrase, una volta nella vita, once in
a lifetime. He looks at me as though he wants to kiss me, and I think Id like to kiss him, too, but I know the umbrella and the newspaper will go into the water and, besides, were too old to be playing love scenes. Arent we too old? Id probably want to kiss him even if he didnt have blueberry eyes. Id probably want to kiss him even if he looked like Ted Koppel. Its only this place, the view from this bridge, this air, this light. I wonder if Id want to kiss him if Id met him in Naples. We take a gelato at Paolin in Campo Santo Stefano, sitting down at a front-row table in the sun.
“How do you feel about Venice?” he wants to know. “This is not your first visit here,” he says, as though flipping through some internal dossier that tracks all my European movement.
“No, no, this is not my first time. I began coming in the spring of 89, about four years ago,” I tell him brightly.
“1989? Youve been coming to Venice for four years?” he asks. He holds up four fingers as though my pronunciation of quattro was muddled. “Yes,” I say. “Why is that so strange?” “Its only that I never saw you until December. Last December. December 11, 1992,” he says, as though eyeing the dossier more closely. “What?” I ask, a little stunned, rummaging back to last winter, computing the dates when Id last been there. Yes, Id arrived in Venice on December 2 and then flown up to Milan on the evening of the eleventh. Still, hes surely mistaken me for another woman, and Im about to tell him that, but hes already lunging into his story.
“You were walking in Piazza San Marco; it was just after five in the afternoon. You were wearing a long white coat, very long, down to your ankles, and your hair was tied up, just as it is now. You were looking in the window at Missiaglia, and you were with a man. He wasnt Venetian, or at least Id never seen him before. Who was he?” he asks stiffly.
Before I can push out half a syllable, he is asking, “Was he your lover?” I know he doesnt want me to answer, and so I dont. Hes talking faster now, and Im losing words and phrases. I ask him to look at me and, please, to speak more slowly. He accommodates. “I saw you only in profile, and I kept walking toward you. I stopped a few feet from you, and I just stood still, taking you in. I stood there until you and the man walked off the piazza toward the quay.” He illustrates his words with broad movements of his hands, his fingers. His eyes hold mine urgently.
“I began to follow you, but I stopped because I had no idea what Id do if I came face to face with you. I mean what would I say to you? How could I find a way to talk to you? And so I let you go. Thats what I do, you know, I just let things go. I looked for you the next day and the next, but I knew you were gone. If only Id see you walking alone somewhere, I could stop you, pretending I mistook you for someone else. No, I would tell you I thought your coat was beautiful. But anyway, I never found you again, so I held you in my mind. For all these months I tried to imagine who you were, where you were from. I wanted to hear the sound of your voice. I was very jealous of the man with you,” he says slowly. “And then, as I was sitting there at Vino Vino the other day and you angled your body so that your profile was just visible underneath all that hair, I realized it was you. The woman in the white coat. And so you see, Ive been waiting for you. Somehow Ive been loving you, loving you since that afternoon in the piazza.” Still I have said not a word.
“Thats what I was trying to tell you on the bridge just now, about destiny and true love. I fell in love with you, not at first sight, because I saw only a part of your face. With me it was love at half sight. It was enough. And if you think Im mad, I dont care.”
“Is it okay if I speak?” I ask him very quietly and without a notion of what I want to tell him. His eyes are now deep blue bolts, holding me much too tightly. I look down, and when I look up again his eyes have softened. I hear myself saying, “Its a very sweet gift, this telling of your story. But that you saw me and remembered me and then that you saw me again a year later is not so mysterious an event.
Venice is a very small city, and it is not improbable to see the same people again and again. I dont think our meeting is some sort of thundering stroke of destiny. Anyway how can you be in love with a profile? Im not only a profile; Im thighs and elbows and brain. Im a woman. I think all of this is only coincidence, a very touching co-incidence,”
I say to the blueberry eyes, neatly patting his arcadian testimony into smooth shape as I might a heft of bread dough. “Non è una coincidenza. This is not coincidence. Im in love with you, and Im sorry if this fact makes you uncomfortable.”
“Its not discomfort I feel. Its only that I dont understand it. Yet.” I say this, wanting to pull him close, wanting to push him away. “Dont go today. Stay a little longer. Stay with me,” he says.
“If theres to be something, anything at all between us, my going today wont change it. We can write to each other, talk. Ill be coming back in the spring, and we can make plans.” There seems a forced syncopation to my words before I hear them falling away into near paralysis. Still as a frieze, we sit there on the edges of the campos Saturday fracas. A long time passes through our silence before we shuffle to our feet. Not waiting for a check, he leaves lire on the table under the glass dish of his untasted strawberry gelato, rivulets of which drip onto the paper money.
My face is burning, and I feel startled, flush up against an emotion I cant name, one eerily like terror but not unlike joy. Could there have been some gist to my old Venetian forebodings? Have the pre-sentiments spun out into the form of this man? Is this the rendezvous?
I am drawn to the stranger. I am suspicious of the stranger.
Even as I am drawn to Venice, so am I suspicious of her. Are he and Venice the same thing? Could he be my Corsican prince masquerading as a bank manager? Why cant Destiny announce itself, be a twelve-headed ass, wear purple trousers, a name tag, even? All I know is that I dont fall in love, neither at first sight nor at half-sight, neither easily nor over time. My heart is rusty from the old pinions that hold it shut. Thats what I believe about myself. We stroll through Campo Manin to San Luca, just making small talk. I stop in mid-stride. He stops, too, and he wraps me up in his arms. He holds me. I hold him.
When we exit from the Bacino Orseolo into San Marco, la Marangona is ringing five bells. Its him, I think. Hes the twelve-headed ass in the purple trousers! Hes Destiny and the bells only recognize me when Im with him. No, thats rot. Menopausal gibberish.
Five hours have passed since I left the hotel. I call my friends who are still waiting there, and I vow to meet them and my baggage directly at the airport. The last flight to Naples is at seven-twenty. The Grand Canal is improbably empty, free of the usual tangle of skiffs and gondolas and sandoli, permitting the tassista to race his water taxi, lurching it, slamming it down brutally onto the water. Peter Sellers and I stand outside in the wind and ride into a lowering, dark red sun. I pull a silver flask from my purse and a tiny, thin glass from a velvet pouch. I pour out cognac and we sip together. Again, he looks as if hes going to kiss me, and this time he does —temples, eyelids, before he finds my mouth. Were not too old.
We exchange numbers and business cards and addresses, having
no more powerful amulets. He asks if he might join us later in the week wherever we might be. It isnt a good idea, I tell him. As best I know it, I give him our itinerary so we might be able to say good morning or good evening once in a while. He asks when Ill be re-turning home, and I tell him.
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