Chronicles of a Cursed Love
Three months earlier
Ever since my parents died in a fire, I’d been having nightmares in which I failed to save them. Maybe I felt guilty because I had been out with friends when the electrical short burned down their cottage. Or maybe my pain was just so overwhelming that my mind sought alternative ways to torment me.
I had woken from another one of those bad dreams and found my Aunt Anna’s hand resting on my arm. She was familiar with the routine now. “It’s alright, honey. It’s alright.”
Finally, my mind returned to the airplane and I shifted in my plush first-class seat.
My Italian grandmother, Carmella, had her seat reclined and was sound asleep. She was on her side, her blanket up to her neck. All I could see was her gray hair gathered in a bun.
I studied Anna as she gently squeezeed my hand. God, I felt like I was looking at my mother. Not only due to the close resemblance, but because Anna had made the exact same gestures that my mother used to make to soothe me.
If my parents’ death could not have been avoided, I was glad I had landed in such good hands. I was Carmella’s only granddaughter and in my seventeen years of life, she could not have been more devoted to me. She was from Venice and when she married my American grandfather, she went to live with him in Bloomington, Indiana. They lived a couple of blocks from my home, for over four decades. But when Grandpa died, Carmella decided to return to her hometown and spend the rest of her life in her ancestors’ house.
It was a big shock for all of us, but Carmella did her best to keep in touch. She visited once a year and called me every weekend. In spite of the geographic distance between us, I always felt closer to her than to my paternal grandmother in Boston, and that’s why I chose her as my guardian.
Nonna, as I affectionately called her, also taught me Italian without ever imagining that one day the language would actually be useful to me. At 65, she led a calm, quiet life. Her schedule consisted of hosting small parties for her friends and helping at her church’s charity events. She couldn’t have been happier with my decision to move in with her.
Anna, like my mother, was American. Until two years before, she had been living in New York City, managing an art gallery on Madison Avenue. She was thirty at the time, and had such an open mind. When we spoke, she was always very direct, and brutally honest. I saw her more as an older sister than as an aunt. It was to Anna that I confessed my secret aspirations to become an actress, talked about the boys at school, and confided all the other things that Mom could not understand.
Anna was always hopping a plane to visit us in Bloomington, and on school holidays, she used to take me to New York where we walked through art galleries and museums, went to Broadway shows, and explored designer boutiques. My friends used to say that I was lucky to have such an experienced, liberal aunt to broaden my horizons.
I grew up with Anna around, so I felt like an orphan when she, too, moved to Venice to become the curator of a museum.
It had been more than a year since Anna and I had seen each other. She seemed more serious and mature now, but it was not only because of time. She and Grandma were about to be responsible for me and I had the impression that this was weighing on Anna’s shoulders.
Finally, fatigue overcame me and I fell asleep. When I came to, the airplane was landing.
Marco Polo International Airport is on the continent, but since automobiles are not allowed in Venice, there are only a few options to get to the city. The water taxi is expensive, although it is a lovely ride. The most popular is the bus that transfers passengers from the airport to the Piazzale Roma – drivers’ last access point to Venice. From there, passengers can take the waterbus, known in Italian as the vaporetto.
I had been used to driving everywhere since I was sixteen, and I still wondered how strange it would be to live in a place that had canals as streets and only boats for transportation.
I was just about to grab a cart for our luggage when Anna stopped me. Holding a sign bearing Carmella’s name was a uniformed man who took care of our bags and then drove us to the water taxi station. So used to my middle-class lifestyle, I forgot that my grandmother had received a sizeable inheritance.
Anna and I got onto the water taxi unsteadily – we were both suffering from jet lag – and sat outside on the deck, shielding our tired eyes behind sunglasses. Grandma seemed unfazed by the trip and moved gracefully on the platform, instructing the porter with such eloquence and giving directions to the captain.
What a strong woman, I thought. I was still devastated by my loss, but I had poured out part of my pain and anger and managed to place myself in a gray zone, between emotional dormancy and resignation, where I was capable of functioning. Anna had cried with me several times, but Grandma had not shed a tear after the funeral – at least not near me – and I worried about what was going on behind her stiff façade.
As the boat sped up, the bridge connecting Venice to the continent faded in the background, just like my life. Everything that had been familiar to me was left in America and now my pain was mixing with a sense of not belonging. Upon seeing my destination, one single thought hammered in my head: a new country, a new language, a new culture…I will need an entire new me.
A sea of golden domes greeted us first and then, gradually, the city fully revealed itself. Venice seemed to hover just above the lagoon, surrounded by a moist, pink aura, like a photograph in sepia. The captain of the taxi slowed down, turned around and we entered the Grand Canal. I shut my eyes and saw myself as a little girl, listening to my grandmother tell stories about her home country. I had never been to Venice, but I used to imagine everything she said in sharp detail: the monuments, the gondolas, the masked balls. Later, when I was older, I checked online to see if my imagination had corresponded to reality. Some things came close, others didn’t, but nothing could have prepared me for what was emerging in front of me.
The black cloud hovering over me couldn’t dampen the awe I felt amidst all the beauty. At the most famous district – Saint Mark– the two columns that once marked the entrance of the city scraped the sky of the beautiful summer morning. I could see the fat domes of St. Mark’s Basilica, the Clock Tower, the Doge’s Palace, and the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health, rising above the Venetian waters as in one of my favorite postcards.
Our taxi headed into the heart of the city, putting its way through a series of narrow canals where the buildings on both sides looked like islands. I understood that the Venetians were used to living at the mercy of the waters. Natural forces like tides, humidity and mist had set the rules of their game for centuries, but I silently hoped that my new house was not so sunk in the canal. I felt vulnerable enough knowing that the city itself was slowly sinking into the Adriatic.
We continued through the city’s labyrinth of narrow waterways, where the behind-the-scenes Venice exuded a less glamorous charm. Women appeared frequently at the windows, hanging clothes on cords that ran from one building to the next. And the gondoliers, in their traditional black pants, striped shirts and straw hats, yelled Oye! to signal to the other gondolas that they were coming up on an intersection.
Venice was magical, seductive, and mysterious, and I felt the urge to both decipher all of its secrets and to simply accept them. Everything was exotic and, yet, strangely familiar. It all reminded me of what Grandma had told me before we left the U.S. Eventually, the blood you inherited from me will allow you to recognize Venice as a part of you.
I laughed to myself, thinking that maybe she was right.
When we reached our stop, a young man in a crisp uniform was waiting with a pushcart. He loaded it with our luggage and we were soon on our way by foot. As we walked I realized two things: some areas of Venice had a good amount of firm land between the canals, and I could say goodbye to my sedentary American life. The only option for any destination inaccessible by boat was walking.
We mixed with the flow of passersby that populated the street, with the porter always a step behind us. It was not necessary to look both ways before crossing a street or intersection – there were not even bicycles in this crazy city! Yet, I looked both ways automatically the entire time, with Grandma and Anna laughing at me at every corner.
Most houses in Venice had no yards; their windows and doors opened straight onto the cobbled streets. However, as we got closer to the Saint Elena neighborhood – where Anna and Carmella lived – I found tree-filled squares, wide streets, a few houses with front yards and even a football stadium! Everything in Saint Elena seemed much more solid.
“It doesn’t even seem like I’m in Venice,” I said. “It’s so different from what we saw from the taxi.”
“It is, but we’re not as far from the heart of the city as you think.” Anna pointed to my right. “If you go down straight ahead, you will soon be in Saint Mark’s Square.”
Grandmother’s house was a two-hundred-year-old duplex that had been in her family for generations. Its pale green façade dotted with dark, wooden windows seemed to have been recently painted. And the balconies that overlooked the street exhaled romance with their white cambric curtains dancing in the breeze.
“This house has always been a place of joy,” Grandma said proudly. “You’re going to be happy here.”
I smiled. I was already happy not to be surrounded by water on all sides.
The porter headed toward the service entrance, and a maid in a gray uniform opened the front door for us. She greeted us formally and helped us with our luggage.
“This is Maria,” Carmella said. “She takes care of the house.” The short, middle-aged woman nodded before offering me a shy smile.
Grandma chatted a bit with Maria in Italian, much too fast for me to follow, and then turned to me. “How about a small tour of your new home?”
I was desperate to fall into a bed, and I normally would have suggested that we do it later. But the way Carmella looked at me told me it was some sort of welcome ritual. So, my only answer could have been, “Of course, Nonna. I’d love to.”
Carmella held me gently by the arm and led me to the wide living room, with classic furniture and numerous pieces of art scattered about. In one corner, above the largest sofa, I recognized a Raul Duffy that Anna had bought in New York, years earlier.
Anna smiled at me. “Do you remember that painting?”
“How could I forget?” I responded. I had gone with her to the auction – my first and only art auction. I remembered that I was biting my nails, listening to the auctioneer shout out higher and higher prices at dizzying speed, as if thousands of dollars were mere pennies. At last, Anna had bid for the piece at forty-five thousand dollars. For me, that sounded like a fortune.
The house held a refined, elegant air to it, but bright-colored flowers and candles gave it a cozy touch. After showing me each room, Grandma and Anna eventually brought me to one of the guest rooms.
Before she closed the door, Anna looked back at me and said, “Just know that you have another option, but we thought this room would be perfect for you.”
It was love at first sight. My room was large, with white lacquered furnishings and ivory walls. The window faced east and the morning sun illuminated the room in a warm glow. The furniture consisted of a queen-size bed, a nightstand with a crystal lamp, a desk with shelves of books, a heavy armoire, and an antique dressing table.
“Wow…” I said, turning to the two of them. “It’s beautiful…”
Grandma smiled. “Why don’t you go take a look outside?”
When I opened the glass door to the room’s private balcony, the morning’s church bells sounded. I looked out over the terracotta roofs that went as far as the eye could see. In front of me, a grassy field was the only thing standing between our house and the lagoon, whose blue-green waters sparkled under the early sun. I closed my eyes, took in a deep breath of fresh sea air, and turned back to them. “I don’t want to see the other option!”
They laughed, pleased, and then Carmella came close and stroked my face. “Welcome home, darling. Now we’re going to give you your privacy to get settled in.” She looked at my luggage in the corner. “Call us if you need anything.”
I hugged them both. “Thank you. I appreciate everything.”
When Carmella and Anna left, I looked around my new room one more time. It was, without a doubt, the room of my dreams. I just wished I had gotten it under different circumstances.
I picked up a picture frame carefully nestled in my suitcase, and sat on the bed. In the photo, I was hugging my parents in front of our old fireplace on the night of my previous birthday. Their cheery voices still echoed in my mind, and the memory formed a lump in my throat. I sent the two of them a sad smile and ran my finger along the photograph. I hope there is a heaven and that you are there.
I placed the picture frame on the bedside table and cried until I fell asleep.
I woke up from my nap, famished. Is that coffee brewing somewhere downstairs? My body was still adjusting to European time and my biological clock was confused about which meal I was supposed to have. All I knew was that I needed to eat!
I headed to the bathroom, brushed my teeth and fixed my hair into a ponytail. I used to wear my hair long with smooth, brown waves cascading down to the middle of my back. Now it was simply straight, cut at the shoulder. The honey-colored eyes staring back at me also seemed like those of a stranger.
When I got to the steps leading downstairs, I heard Grandma and Anna talking with someone. I hesitated, listening in on their conversation. When I recognized the voice, I smiled and ran downstairs.
Loretta was the granddaughter of one of Carmella’s friends who lived a few blocks from our house. She was petit, with brown curly hair, delicate features and bright green eyes – a porcelain doll brought to life. I had met Loretta five years earlier in New York, when she and I both stayed at Anna’s apartment. We soon became close friends. Every summer, we would go to the Big Apple for two or three weeks, and then speak through Skype or email almost every day. When Anna moved to Venice, thus closing our “free hotel” in New York, Loretta begged me to spend my vacations at Carmella’s house. But my parents never had enough money to send me to Europe and they would not allow Grandma to pay for my trip.
My dad tried to ease my frustration by renting a cabin somewhere in the mountains, or a house in the Florida Keys. To my surprise, Loretta kept up our tradition. Every summer she stayed with me for two weeks and we would catch up, retell each other our best stories from the year, and engage in secret adventures. Our last adventure had been trying to learn to kayak, just because my dear friend was obsessed with the tall dark stranger who was our instructor.
Loretta hugged me and then kissed my cheeks. “Finally, you’re in Venice!” she said in her perfect English, with a clipped British accent. She then looked at me with an air of remorse, as if she had just realized the circumstances that had taken me here. “How’s it going?”
“As well as it can be,” I answered. And this time, Loretta merely nodded and wrapped me in a long, warm embrace.
We all headed to the dining room where I sat beside Loretta. Maria brought a spread of juices, breads, cheeses and cookies that in my home would have been a table set to entertain guests. In Grandma’s house, it was the day-to-day norm. For Venetians, having a large snack between lunch and dinner was as traditional as High Tea for the British. It was called merenda.
I was glad that the attention had shifted from my arrival and onto snack time. I could now satisfy my ravenous appetite in silence while they talked. Anna spoke about her work at the museum, Grandma about their mutual friends, and Loretta – poor thing – completely unprepared to deal with our mourning, spoke nervously about recent episodes in the city, and then about the sites she planned to take me.
When Anna and Grandma finished eating, they excused themselves to tend to their chores, and Loretta and I spent the next hour talking about everything, except my parents’ death.
My Venetian friend was a self-declared lover of architecture, just like me. Only she intended to make a career out of it. Loretta had already been accepted to a college in Florence and to another in Rome, but had not enrolled in either.
“I told my parents that I want to take a year off to travel and explore other possibilities,” Loretta said in a rebellious spirit that made me laugh. “My advisor said that the first year is going to be so intense that I think I deserve some vacation up front.”
“Your excitement is contagious!” I exclaimed. “If all of the freshmen think like you, the enrollment rate is going to plummet this year.”
Loretta served herself more coffee and said casually, “Why don’t you take two or three days to get settled and come with me to Rome? From there, we can go to all the other places you’ve wanted to visit.”
I thought she was joking, but Loretta looked at me without any hint of a smile, waiting for my answer. “You can’t be serious,” I said.
“Of course I am! I have even spoken to Anna and Carmella about it. They think it’s a great idea.”
“What?!” Now I understood why those two had left the table so fast.
Loretta lowered her voice. “Claire, you’ve been through a lot. You barely managed to finish your school year. Don’t you think it would be good to get a breath of fresh air?” She looked me in the eye, and before I could respond, she added, “You won’t have to worry about anything. I already have it all organized. You just have to throw a few things in a backpack and come with me.”
Loretta had apparently created an entire plan to rescue me from limbo, so I did not want to seem ungrateful. But she had forgotten one small detail: Venice for me was already “a breath of fresh air,” and I had a ton of things to learn and adapt to before exploring beyond the city.
I traced the rim of my mug with my finger while I searched for the right words. “Loretta…I know you have my best interests in mind, but my priority right now is to settle in here. Did you forget that my classes are going to be in Italian? I have less than three months to become fluent.”
“I know all that. I just thought that before you begin your studies, you might want to take a couple of weeks off to see Rome…Paris…Barcelona…” Loretta pronounced the names of my favorite European cities slowly, tempting me. “Are you sure you don’t even want to consider it?”
I smiled – I was used to her persuasive methods. “I’m sure. This time you go and have fun for me. There will be plenty of chances for us to travel together.”
Loretta studied me for a moment, and realizing that I was not going to change my mind, nodded. “Alright. But do not think you’re getting rid of me that easily. I’m not going anywhere. If you’re staying in Venice, I’m going to stay here with you.”
“No…I don’t want to ruin your vacation!”
“Well, have you forgotten who I spent the best moments of my past five summers with?” She smiled playfully, but held my hand tightly, with the loyalty of a true friend. “I’m going to stay, Claire. Summer just wouldn’t be the same without you.”
I smiled, tears welling up in my eyes. “Thanks. I couldn’t have found a better friend than you.”
It was hard for me to fall asleep that first night, but once I did, I had no bad dreams.
I woke up bright and early and watched Anna head off to work. After breakfast, I insisted that Grandma go back to her routine as well. It was not fair for her to continue babysitting me after having spent the past few months with me in America.
After I returned to my room, I first brought my laptop to life and connected to the home’s WiFi. My inbox was overflowing with messages from relatives and friends, asking how I was doing and what I had thought of my new home.
It was hard to describe what was still unknown to me, so I wrote a few lines in a forwarded message to everyone that my new environment was all right. I turned off the computer, emptied the entire contents of my suitcases onto the bed, and looked for a place for each thing. When the room finally looked inhabited, I unrolled the poster of the play A West Side Story and taped it to the wall above my bed. Then, I opened the box with my favorite books and trinkets.
When I was finished, I placed the empty box inside one of the suitcases and smiled. Clearly, my star-shaped clock did not match the classic furniture of my new room, and a poster stuck with Scotch tape was truly a crime on that impeccable wall. However, my mother’s crystal angel saved the day. It went so well over the antique dressing table that it was almost as if my previous home had just been a temporary place for it.
I arranged the vase of fresh roses that Maria had brought me and sat by the dressing table, noticing for the first time the richness of the floral designs carved in the wood of the drawers and handles. When I lifted my eyes to the elegant mirror, I tried to imagine the reflections of my ancestors looking at themselves here, generation after generation, since the eighteenth century.
Had they been happy? Sad? Anxious?
My guardian angel’s eyes looked up – as if she were looking at me – and I asked, “Do you think one day I will be happy again?
The following morning, Loretta picked me up for my Italian test. She recommended that I wear comfortable shoes because she was taking me to my first tour afterwards. As I left the house, I squinted my eyes in the strong morning sun, feeling like a hermit who just left her dark cave for the first time after months of isolation. The sky had never seemed so blue, the lagoon so green, and even the pace of that small, carless city seemed faster than when I had seen it two days before.
“Are you nervous?” Loretta asked in Italian.
“Yeah,” I replied in English. “I hate tests.”
“That’s why I’m talking to you in Italian, dummy. For you to practice!”
“Va bene, va bene…”
The Italian Language Institute was located in a district called Cannaregio. Loretta and I caught the vaporetto in the Saint Elena station and kept practicing my poorly pronounced Italian along the way. Loretta corrected me and gave me tips, and in less than a half hour, we had reached our destination.
The Institute was a baroque four-story building with a blue façade, which had once been a private residence. It was in the heart of this busy neighborhood, surrounded by souvenir stores, restaurants and cafes. Upon entering the main hall, I heard students from all over the world leaving classrooms, speaking foreign languages.
I turned to Loretta. “Are you sure this is an Italian school?”
She laughed and we headed to the reception, where a woman was helping a group of students. We waited until she was finished and when I explained that I had an interview, she consulted a calendar on her desk.
“Please, fill out these forms,” she said, handing me a clipboard. She showed me where the waiting room was and promised to call me in a few minutes.
The test went well and I registered for the second level of an advanced course that began two days later. I would have regular classes every morning from eight to twelve, and field classes a few times a week in the afternoon. In the latter, the teacher would take us into the city to practice Italian in day-to-day situations. I was excited to begin.
Loretta and I returned to the office where I handed in the forms and paid the tuition with the credit card Anna had given me – my first credit card! When we left, we ran into someone rushing in the opposite direction.
It was a tall young man with dirty-blond hair and intelligent brown eyes. A smile broke over his face when he saw Loretta.
“Hey you, what are you doing here?” he asked.
Before she could answer, he kissed her on both cheeks and hugged her like an intimate friend.
The stranger had the air of a college student in his early twenties. I watched the two of them, intrigued, as Loretta and he exchanged words and smiles. They didn’t seem to be dating – or at least nothing official, judging by the kisses on the cheek – but I noticed the intense affection between them.
Finally, Loretta remembered that I was there. “Claire, this is Kevin Spencer, a childhood friend. He’s Australian, but he’s lived here for years.”
A childhood friend she never mentioned to me?!
“Nice to meet you, Claire!” Kevin said, stretching out his hand. “Are you studying here?”
I shook his hand. “I just registered. I need to be fluent in Italian by the fall.”
“Speaking of which…” Loretta interrupted, “we need your help, Kevin. Claire just moved to Venice and she’s going to study at the Accademia. Maybe you can introduce her to some people there?”
“Of course. It will be a pleasure!”
Loretta smiled, grateful, and turned back to me. “Kevin studied for a few years at your new school and currently works in their History department. There’s no one better to help you get in gear.”
I thanked both of them and then asked Kevin what type of work he did for the school.
“Nothing terribly exciting,” he said. “Basically research and translations of old texts.”
“He’s being modest,” Loretta said. “This boy is a genius. At 21, he already has a degree in Archeology and is doing his Master’s.” Loretta seemed proud, as if she were talking about a member of her family. “Aside from English and Italian, Kevin speaks fluent French and German. But what he translates for the History department is nothing less than extinct languages!”
I stared at Kevin in frank admiration. “That’s pretty encouraging…I’ll be happy to manage Italian!”
“Please, don’t believe Loretta’s compliments. She’s my best friend. Of course she has to praise me!”
“Well, she’s my best friend, too, but she’s a long way from complimenting me like that!” I said, smiling.
Kevin laughed. “Fine, but getting back to Italian, don’t worry. This school is excellent and Venice is a fun city. Your living here is going to speed up your learning. Soon you’ll be fluent not only in Italian, but also in Venetian, the local dialect.”
“I hope so. In a few weeks, I’ll let you know if I agree.”
Kevin was about to tell me something else when an older gentleman appeared at the end of the hallway and summoned him.
“Please, wait here. I’ll be right back.”
Loretta and I watched Kevin approach the elderly man. The man shook Kevin’s hand affectionately.
“That’s Professor Sintra,” Loretta told me. “He’s the head of the Language department at the University of Rome. He was one of Kevin’s mentors and they’re now working together on a few projects.”
“It seems like Kevin’s a really nice guy,” I said, after he and the professor were out of earshot.
“He is,” Loretta agreed. “His only problem is that he lives for his work.”
I sensed a certain resentment in her voice. “You never told me about him. You two didn’t by chance…”
“No,” Loretta hurried to say. “We met when I was nine and he twelve, and since then we’ve been friends. He travels a lot, but Venice ended up becoming a home base for him, and we see each other often.”
I was not convinced that I had the whole story. They seemed to truly like each other, but I stopped there. “Does his family also live in the city?”
“No, he lives alone. His family is very wealthy, but Kevin never seemed to realize that he could be sitting in an office in Sydney, commanding his ancestors’ empire. Or, maybe, simply living in one of his family’s properties around the world, driving a Ferrari and dating super models.”
“Jeez, he’s that kind of rich?”
“Yeah. But he thinks he’s Indiana Jones.” Loretta laughed. “Lucky for him, Mr. Spencer is proud of his son and spends a downright fortune to sponsor Kevin’s projects.”
It was about time we started our tour so I asked Loretta what the plan was. She looked distracted, however.
“Check this out, Claire!” she said, walking up to an announcement board. “The school is throwing a masked ball this weekend!”
“Isn’t carnival only in February?”
“Yes, but masquerades take place throughout the year for tourists – and in this case, the foreign students. It’ll give you a taste of Venetian culture.”
I contemplated the poster, which featured a woman wearing a colorful sequin mask. “I know you’re saying that because I always dreamed of going to a masked ball. But right now, I don’t feel like it at all.”
“I know, Claire. But it’s time for you to have some fun. For your own sake and for Carmella and Anna’s. They are worried about you.” Loretta held both my hands. “It’s fine that you don’t want to travel, but please, come to the ball with me. Even if it’s only for an hour or two, just for you to see what it’s like.”
I fell silent and Loretta sighed. “Are you really going to make me beg?”
I laughed. “No. But even if I hypothetically agreed, I don’t have a costume.”
“That part is covered! Today is Monday, and the ball is on Saturday. I know boutiques that would rush me an outfit for the next day.” Loretta threw me a defiant look. “So, problem solved. Are we going?”
Resigned, I nodded. “All right...”
Kevin returned from Professor Sintra’s office, carrying two old books. “I’d like to take you both to lunch,” he said, “but it’s still early and I have to stop by David’s place first. What if we go together and then go out?”
Loretta’s face lit up. “David Winslet?” Kevin nodded and she turned to me. “Remember when I met you I had just moved back from London? I told you about this friend who had shown me around and helped me with everything when I was studying there.”
“That’s him! He’s half Brit, half Venetian. It was Kevin who introduced us.”
“David got here a couple of days ago,” Kevin continued, “and listen to this, the Winslets are renovating and they accidentally found a secret room in their home.”
“You mean something like a secret chamber?” Loretta asked.
“Apparently, yes. But David doesn’t know what’s in there and he wants me to go take a look.”
Loretta turned to me, euphoric. “Sounds like fun! Do you mind if we go take a look?”
“Of course not, but I don’t even know your friend. Don’t you think it’s bad form to show up with you two?”
“David won’t care,” Kevin assured me. “He is a close friend.”
“Besides…” Loretta said, “His home is actually a palazzo. You have to see it!”
I was not interested in going to a total stranger’s house – or palazzo – to check out a secret chamber. But Loretta was so excited that I gave in. “Fine. If you guys don’t see an issue, I’ll go.”
The number two vaporetto had already docked at the platform when we got to the station, and we ran to catch it. Loretta and I managed to grab two seats by the window. Kevin excused himself and stood at the back of the boat.
As I watched him leaf through one of his books, I told Loretta, “You seem to have interesting friends here. I never imagined there were so many foreigners living in Venice.”
“There are. You’ll be surprised that you won’t be out of place in this city. There are people like Kevin who live and work here full-time, and others like David who visit often.”
“Is this David an academic, too?”
Loretta laughed. “Definitelly not! He is eighteen, like me, and is like a younger brother to Kevin. Their families have known each other for years and they grew up in the same circles. David’s father is a British millionaire who married a Venetian aristocrat. The boy has noble blood.”
“You mean like a Baron or a Duke?”
“An Earl, actually. But David will not inherit the title. The old Negrini – David’s maternal grandfather – wasn’t fond of the idea of his daughter marrying a foreigner. He said that the title should remain with pure Venetian blood, so they struck a deal: David inherited the family’s palazzo; and the title, along with some other properties, went to a cousin born and raised here.”
“I agree. But some people are stubborn. And from what Kevin told me, blood was not the only problem. Apparently, David’s father also likes to speak his mind and he and his father-in-law didn’t see eye to eye.”
I was fascinated. Why did some people like me have to spend their entire lives in a small city, mired in routine, while others more or less my age got to travel to foreign countries, and own mountains of money, Venetian palaces and even nobility titles! “What a story…”
“Yeah, and I’m serious, you shouldn’t miss the chance to see David’s place.” Loretta pointed outside, where the majestic façades of the palaces framed the periphery of the Grand Canal. “Most Venetian palaces were turned into hotels, museums, or government properties. And those that remained residences were broken into multiple apartments. Very few traditional families could maintain them through the centuries.”
We got off at the Dorsoduro district and walked for about ten minutes until we arrived at a quiet area, far from the tourist action, which housed the luxury residences.
Via Spinozi was a very long street that ran parallel to the Grand Canal. It seemed imported from a fairytale. On one side were magnificent villas with impressive baroque façades and colorful flowers cascading down the windowsills. On the other stood the back of the colossal palaces that faced the Grand Canal. Some of these homes had been renovated, with modern entrances on the back street. In the space between the buildings, the water reflected the sun’s rays like daytime stars.
Clearly Kevin and Loretta were accustomed to the view, because they didn’t even glance at it. Instead, they slowly walked side by side, lost in conversation. Shocked by their indifference, I walked ahead, taking my time to admire these architectural gems.
Kevin and Loretta remained about a hundred feet behind me, so I eventually glanced back to make sure they had not forgotten me. Loretta smiled and signaled for me to keep going, so I continued onward, wondering which of these palaces we were about to visit.
The deserted street made a subtle curve to the left and there, looming before me, stood a beast with fiery eyes like the flames in my nightmares.
The dragon was over seven feet tall and covered most of the property’s front gate. Its body was dark and muscular, with sharp claws and wings poised to attack. Its fiery yellow eyes pierced into me, sending a chill down my spine.
I had never felt such illogical fear. The sculpture appeared very old, carved from solid metal, yet I stood petrified, as if surprised by a living monster.
At some point, the dragon must have been painted black, but the sea breeze blowing throughout the centuries had covered the metal with a green-grayish crust, and now its body’s texture resembled the scaled skin of a reptile. The monster was so real that I was afraid to place my hands upon its broad chest and discover that beneath those muscles beat a living heart.
“How did you guess this was it?” Loretta asked over my shoulder.
I hadn’t noticed her approach and gave a violent start. “Jesus! You scared me!”
“Sorry,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t realize you were staring at this ugly thing...”
I could hardly believe that this house was our destination. I looked back at the dragon and tried to analyze it more objectively. It still seemed scary and I wondered what kind of lunatic had picked such a decoration for his front gate.
Maybe the type who does not like uninvited guests…
Kevin pressed the intercom button and was soon speaking with someone inside the house. There was a metallic pop as the electric lock opened. Kevin rested his hand on one of the dragon’s wings and the monster split into two halves, granting us passage.
“This way, signorinas,” Kevin said, gesturing for me and Loretta to pass in front of him.
I merely stood there, looking for the first time at the house beyond the gate.
David Winslet’s three-story Gothic palace exuded nobility. Its wide, sand-color façade was detailed with white carvings in bass and high relief along its tall doors and pillars, and a variety of stained-glass windows. The second floor boasted a vast balcony, in the shape of a half-moon, which split the building into two wings. And the top floor was adorned by a magnanimous dome, granting the place an air of both power and reverence. I could imagine it playing host to a string of fancy parties and remarkable balls throughout the centuries. Yet, everything about it felt cold and gloomy, except for the marble plaque on the wall bearing the property’s name: Casa Negrini.
Loretta looked at me. “Are you all right?”
Part of me knew it was foolish to be intimidated by the metal statue at the gate. But it was not the dragon per se that was keeping my feet rooted to the ground. I had always trusted my ability to foresee danger. At that moment, all my instincts were crying out for me to turn around and go home.
Normally, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Something sounded wrong about that house. But I had been disturbed since my parents’ death, and I wasn’t sure any longer that my intuition was reliable.
Kevin and Loretta’s worried faces were studying me, waiting for me to make a move. I eventually found the final push to make my decision. The last thing I wanted was to appear crazy in front of my friends. “Forgive me…” I said, forcing a smile. “Everything’s fine.”
“I bet it was that hideous beast that scared you,” Loretta said, throwing a glance at the dragon. “I was shocked too when I first saw it.” She turned to Kevin. “Why don’t the Winslets get rid of that horrible gate while they’re renovating? Is their intention to scare away their visitors?”
Kevin laughed. “They have no choice, Loretta. This is a landmark. Like it or not, no original work can be removed from the property.”
Loretta looked at me and shrugged. “Well, in this case, it seems like we’ll have to put up with it.” She gently held my arm and we followed Kevin across a small yard. “Don’t worry,” she whispered to me. “No monsters live here. Actually, David is the most gorgeous guy I’ve ever seen!”
“Guys are the last item on my list of priorities, Loretta. Handsome or not,” I replied.
She giggled. “But the view won’t hurt!”
A butler opened the front doors and greeted us. Loretta bowed low with a grin on her face and said, “Good morning, Mr. Spencer!” He looked at Loretta and me. “Signorinas… Please, forgive the mess with all these workers around. Mr. Winslet is upstairs. He will be right with you.”
Kevin nodded. “Thank you, Filipo.”
The palace guarded by the threatening dragon was a trip back in time. The living room – large enough to hold hundreds of guests – was lit by a massive crystal chandelier. And in the back, a monumental marble staircase rose to the upper floors.
I wandered around with my mouth open, my initial fear completely forgotten. The luxury was impressive: walls covered with paintings and tapestries, marble mosaics on the floors, and golden adornments along the staircase and columns, like in a castle. I had never seen so many antiques, Persian rugs, and works of art out of a museum.
Loretta seemed satisfied with the awe on my face. “Didn’t I say you had to come?”
“This place is incredible!” I admitted. “Anna would have loved it.”
“By the way, Kevin knows Anna,” Loretta said. I looked at him, surprised.
“Yeah. I can barely believe that you are Dr. Hayes’s niece. I love your aunt. She’s a wonderful person and an authority in restoration. I go to her museum every Wednesday and I’ve learned a lot from her.”
“I’m starting to agree with Loretta, Kevin. You are seriously a genius. You perform exotic translations, inspect archeological sites and also restore artwork?”
“Not really. I specialize in what’s called dead languages, since they’re involved in the main archeological findings. And I understand enough about relics and antiques to catalogue them, or oversee a restoration process. But I don’t do these things myself.”
Kevin suddenly raised his eyes toward the stairs behind me and smiled. “Hey, David! You found any treasure yet?”
As I turned around, I realized that Loretta’s words had not done justice to the incredibly gorgeous young man coming down those steps.
David was tall and lean, with broad shoulders and a chiseled chest. And his features were breathtaking, as if they had been carved by a generous and skilled sculptor, who granted him a straight nose, high cheekbones and a strong jaw.
As David laid his eyes on Kevin, his mouth curved into a wide smile, spotlighting two cute dimples on his cheeks. “It would be no fun to look for the gold before you arrived!” – He hugged his friend – “Good to see you, man. Thanks for coming.”
When I returned from my trance, I found Loretta beside me. “Didn’t I tell you he was hot?” she whispered, “Even his name suits him. Michelangelo’s David!”
She laughed, and left my side to greet him. “Hey, there! Are you lost in Venice this week?” she asked.
David embraced Loretta. “Lost for two weeks. Enough time for us to have some fun!”
David spied me over Loretta’s shoulder and said in perfect Italian, “Please, excuse my lack of manners.” He came toward me and outstretched his hand. “I’m David Winslet. Welcome to my home.”
Close up, he was truly tall and his eyes were not dark blue as I had assumed, but violet, creating a stunning contrast with his white complexion and black hair.
I shook his hand, and knowing that he was British, answered in my own language. “I’m Claire Thompson.”
“An American!” he said, surprised. “On vacation?”
“Claire is new in Venice,” Loretta answered for me. “I’m trying to break her in.”
“Oh, one more neighbor then,” he joked, turning back to me. “And what do you think so far?”
David was charisma, personified. Handsome, articulate, and nice. When he talked to you, he seemed to really be paying attention to what you said, and his voice was deep and alive, the type you wanted to listen to, regardless of what he was saying.
“I don’t know yet,” I managed, still dumbstruck. “I arrived two days ago and Loretta is giving me my first tour.”
He smiled. “Welcome to Venice, Claire. This city is really amazing. I live in London, but I’ve been coming here since I can remember, and I’ve never gotten bored.”
“That’s what I told her,” Kevin said. He glanced at his watch. “Let’s go take a look at the chamber. I hate to hurry things, but I still have to go to Florence tonight.”
“Of course,” David said. “The workers just removed the rubble and it’s perfect to explore.”
David led us toward the back of the house. We passed through an enormous kitchen connected to a pantry, and then a series of empty rooms that used to be the servants’ quarters. We ran into the workers still removing debris, and David pointed toward a hole in one of the walls. “Can you see that? They were repairing the plumbing when part of the wall collapsed, revealing the secret chamber.”
“Have you told your father about it yet?” Kevin asked.
“No. This happened yesterday, just after he left for Rome. I didn’t want to tell him anything over the phone. He would be so excited, he wouldn’t be able to focus on his lectures.” David headed toward the exit. “Please, come with me. I had the men open a door through the other side.”
Only the precarious light of a gas lamp illuminated the chamber, which was no more than a three-hundred-square-foot room, virtually empty, except for a long marble table and some dull sconces on the walls. Centuries of dust and cobwebs clung to the ancient fixtures, but they weren’t particularly interesting.
“I’m sorry,” Loretta whispered in my ear. “I thought it would be something more exciting.”
“It’s okay. We wouldn’t know if we hadn’t come.”
The gas lamp didn’t provide enough illumination for us to explore, so David and Kevin walked into the chamber armed with two powerful flashlights.
Kevin silently studied the walls for about ten minutes and then announced, “It’s truly a secret chamber. I’ve been inside one like this before. Notice that nothing indicates that any doors or windows have been obstructed. This room was made like that. And when I inspected the door that David had made, I saw that the bricks were not bound together with mortar like in regular construction work of the period. They connect to each other like Lego pieces, which means that there must be a secret passage somewhere down here.”
The chamber was dark and humid, so Loretta and I opted to remain by the door, guarded by the electric light that leaked in from the neighboring room.
“What do you think was here?” David asked Kevin.
“I don’t know. There are records about this type of chamber in various old properties throughout the world, but the purposes were diverse, from storing treasures to practicing secret rituals.”
“This one doesn’t seem to have any treasures,” Loretta said.
Kevin was now before the mysterious table, inspecting the reliefs along the marble. “It’s still too early to tell…”
“This table looks more like an altar,” David joked. “If there’s no treasure, we’ve still got the possibility of the secret rituals.”
Loretta rolled her eyes. “Sure, David! And I bet the nut who practiced these rituals was the same guy who picked out that bizarre dragon at your front gate.”
Kevin interrupted his work and turned to us. “You know what, Loretta? I always thought that dragon wasn’t there by chance. You may be right.”
Loretta’s smile faded – and so did mine. “Really?” she asked in a weak voice.
Kevin nodded, serious, but after relishing her suffering face for a moment, burst out laughing.
David followed, and then even I could not resist.
Loretta went ballistic –I could see the red in her cheeks even in the dim light. “You idiots! Just wait and see what I’ll do with you next time you try to scare me!”
Kevin’s phone rang, and, still laughing, he looked at the number on the screen. “Shit, I have to answer this.”
He left the chamber to talk outside, where the signal was stronger.
David aimed his flashlight at some loose stones underneath the altar. He then tried to remove the stones with a trowel.
“Don’t you think this chamber could collapse?” Loretta asked him, looking suspiciously at the ceiling.
“Don’t worry. We haven’t touched any load-bearing parts of the structure.”
“Well, but look what you’re doing. What if this is like the Egyptian chambers, full of booby traps for intruders?”
David got up and rested the trowel on the table. “So that’s why you decided to stay out there?” He came towards us where it was brighter, and turned off the flashlight. “You are safe, girls. And Loretta…”
“We’re in Venice. I can guarantee you this is not an Egyptian chamber.” David winked at me, and then started to laugh.
After having been the butt of Kevin’s joke, Loretta unleashed on David. He allowed her to punch his arm a few times and then smiled. “Is that the best you can do?”
“No. I’m just getting warmed up!”
When Loretta attacked him again, David ran back into the chamber and she followed on his heels. The two circled the marble table, and David seemed to be having fun, fleeing Loretta’s pursuit as if he were playing with a small child.
I stood there, watching them with a smile. The lamplight illuminated David’s features – now laughing and scrunching into teasing faces – and I was certain that I would never meet someone like him again. He was definitely gorgeous, but his attraction did not come merely from his good looks. He was so accessible and sweet that being near him was like a shot of instant happiness.
Finally, the two calmed down. “All right, Loretta!” David said, panting. “Save a little of your anger for Kevin.”
Loretta stopped, also breathless, and gave him a final punch on the shoulder. “Coward!”
David smiled at me. “Sorry about that. Loretta and I have the mental age of a twelve-year-old.”
“Nine-year-old,” I offered, and he laughed.
“I guess you are right.”
I entered the chamber with hesitant steps, and David explained that his oldest ancestors had bought the palazzo in the mid-1700s, and since then, only family members had lived there. The problem was that there were no records of when the property had been built, so it was impossible to know if the chamber had already existed when his relatives bought the house, or if someone after him had built and maintained it in secret.
Intrigued by the mystery, I ran my fingers along the bass relief of the marble, trying to guess what had happened there centuries earlier.
I had no guess. Or perhaps, I just refused to consider there might truly have been some bizarre connection between that supposed altar and the dragon outside.
A moment later, Kevin was back. “I’m sorry guys, but there’s a problem with the roof of the San Michele church and Father Firmin is hysterical. The contractor said there is no risk of damage to his altar, but he begged me to stop by before going to Florence. I’m very familiar with the panels and statues over there and he wants to know if they can be safely removed from their original places, just in case. I couldn’t say no.”
Loretta groaned. “I don’t believe this, Kevin! You’re like a doctor, always rushing to some emergency! I was about to invite David to join us for lunch!”
Kevin approached Loretta and kissed her cheek. “Don’t be mad, but our lunch will have to wait.”
“Maybe not.” David grabbed a ring of keys from his pocket. “I see you’re having a busy day, Kevin, and it was kind of you to stop by. I will take you there.”
“Oh, that will be helpful. Thanks. When I get back on Sunday, I’ll come straight here and we’ll look at everything, okay?” He turned to Loretta. “Now that David is going to give me a ride, we can resume our plan! I’m not going to spend more than an hour there. You guys can join us and then the four of us can go have lunch.”
Loretta surprised me by shaking her head. “Thanks. But I promised Claire that I would give her a tour. And I don’t think San Michele is the best place to start.”
“But it is such a beautiful place!” Kevin insisted. “Dozens of tourists visit both the church and the cemetery every day.”
Loretta threw him a scathing look. “Maybe some other time.”
Kevin faced her, confused, and I interrupted. “Listen, Loretta, if you’re saying it because of me, I don’t mind going. You know Carmella had my grandfather buried there and Anna was actually planning to take me to see his grave.”
“Are you sure?” she asked. “We could do something else.”
Kevin and David exchanged confused glances, and I turned to them to explain. “Sorry for talking in code. It’s just that my parents died recently and Loretta was trying to spare me from going to a cemetery so soon.”
“Oh, God…I’m so sorry,” Kevin said, embarrassed. “I had no idea.”
“Don’t worry about it. It may seem strange, but actually, this was the one place I really wanted to see.”
Kevin nodded, still uncomfortable. “All right, let’s go then.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that David was staring at me. I turned toward him, expecting to find the typical look of pity that people had been offering me recently. Instead, I found him pensive and serious, as if he was seeing me for the first time.
On the way to the dock, David approached the construction supervisor and said, “Bruno, we’re going to work in that chamber over the weekend. I’d like you to install some light fixtures in there.”
“Of course, Mr. Winslet. And I need your advice on a few things before you leave.”
The man walked next to David, asking questions regarding the renovation. I was surprised by David’s maturity and business-like manner. Apparently, he could play childishly, as he had moments before, but when it called for it, he owned the confidence and authority of a leader.
David’s boat was small, since the city didn’t allow anything larger in the narrow canals. But I could see it was state-of-the-art, equipped with hi-tech gadgets. I looked at the other private boats docked nearby, and David’s was like a swan in a crowd of ugly ducklings.
Kevin boarded the boat first, as if it were his own, and sat in one of the back seats.
“Let’s go, Claire,” said Loretta. She was used to driving her brother’s boat, and ignored the rocking with firm steps.
I stood on the platform, pretending to wait until Loretta settled herself, but I was actually trying to imagine how to board the thing without losing my balance and ending up in the canal.
In the middle of my dilemma, I felt a strong hand on my waist and another on my left elbow. “Let me help you.”
David led me onto the boat and held my hand until I was seated next to Loretta.
“Thank you,” I said, truly grateful.
He nodded and took the steering wheel.
The worker untied the boat and David pulled into the canal, until we had entered the traffic. It was truly a quite different lifestyle from anything I was accustomed to; but sitting there with my new friends, I had the sense that eventually I would adapt.
Kevin grabbed his camera and showed us photos of some of the mason work he was about to examine at the church. Apparently, he had been involved in their restoration project a couple of years ago. The conversation was a little too technical for me and as soon as I noticed that Loretta was giving Kevin all of her attention, I took a moment to admire the scenery. The day was gorgeous and it felt great to sit in silence, just feeling the wind and the sun’s rays brush against my skin.
David had driven us to a part of the lagoon that looked out on open sea. There were no canals, only a vast body of water with the city far behind us.
I fixed my gaze on him as he steered the boat, wondering what he was thinking. What was that odd look he had given me a few minutes ago?
As if he had heard my thoughts, David peered over his shoulder and caught me staring.
Oh no…I shifted my eyes immediately, but the damage had been done.
“Why don’t you come up here?” he said. “You’ll have a much more interesting view.”
I bet I will...
The boat was cutting smoothly through the water now, so it was easier for me to approach David and stand next to him. Just in case, I held tightly onto the boat’s dashboard.
“That building with the neon cross is the city’s main hospital,” David said, pointing to his left. “And the island right in front is San Michele, otherwise known as Cemetery Island.”
“The whole island is a cemetery?” I asked, surprised.
“Yes. Venetians used to bury their dead in the city, but in the early 1800s they considered it unsanitary, so they converted the island of San Michele into the city’s cemetery.”
Neat rows of speared cypresses rose above the brick wall surrounding the island, and soon, the glowing white marble church came into view. David showed me the gates, bearing the imposing figure of an angel. “That’s Archangel St. Michael, protector of the island.”
It was then that I realized that Michele was Michael in Italian.
A man in a cassock waited on the dock and Kevin told us he was Father Firmin’s assistant. As he recognized Kevin, he greeted us with a huge smile. “Good morning to you all! And Kevin, I’m glad you could come. Father Firmin is very distressed.”
“I noticed when we spoke over the telephone,” Kevin responded. “Now listen, my friends are going to wait for me. Is there somewhere we can leave the boat?”
“Of course.” Paolo signaled to a middle-aged man standing near the gate and said, “Antonio will take care of everything. Come with me, please.”
David stayed on the dock, chatting with Antonio. Kevin headed toward the main gate beside Paolo, and Loretta and I followed them.
The sound of voices reached me and I noticed that a vaporetto had docked on the platform. Along with a group of tourists, armed with their city guides and cameras, were hundreds of Venetians, carrying flowers. For a few moments, San Michele’s beauty had made me forget that it was truly a place of pain and loss.
We continued under a gothic archway, which led to a cloister that had once been part of San Michele’s monastery. Loretta and I paused there briefly and I looked back, my eyes scanning the crowd, searching for David. But he was nowhere to be found.
“Do you ladies want to accompany us to the church?” Paolo asked.
“First I’d like to take Claire to see her grandfather’s grave,” Loretta said. “We’ll catch up with you later.”
Still haunted by images of the gray cemetery where my parents had been buried, I was shocked by the explosion of color that appeared before me. In the main burial grounds, every stone seemed adorned by fresh bouquets – some of them guarded by angels and saints. It felt like walking into an exotic garden.
“Now I understand why this place attracts the tourists,” I said. “This is not something you see every day.”
Loretta nodded. “It really is beautiful, isn’t it?”
As we walked closer, I could see that each gravestone held a glass-covered photograph of the deceased. I strolled silently among them, noting every face, every customized monument. It seemed to me that the Venetians had a very special relationship with their dead.
“We’re here,” Loretta said, diverting my eyes from the photograph of a girl my age. “Want me to keep you company?”
“No, thanks. I’ll meet you in the church.”
Once Loretta was gone, I focused on the man who smiled at me from the gravestone. Grandpa had died when I was ten and I was very fond of him. Years after his death, I still had vivid memories of his jokes and the hours we spent studying his coin collection. Strange that now, standing before his resting place, I could not feel his presence. What nonsense to imagine that going to see him would be like symbolically visiting my parents.
I suddenly heard Anna’s words in my head: You don’t need to go to a cemetery to feel close to them… But if that wasn’t the way, what was?
I heard a rustling in the distance, and saw an old woman diligently cleaning the grave in front of her. Once she had removed the fallen leaves and dust, she grabbed a sponge and a small bucket and washed the marble headstone and statue behind it. Finally, she discharged the old flowers in the vase and replaced them with a bouquet of daisies.
The devotion of that woman made my heart ache. And when she ran her finger over the photograph on the stone and smiled, I was overcome with tears.
I thought all my suffering had hardened me, and what remained now was just the lingering pain that made me cry before going to bed. But I was wrong, and going to San Michele only sharpened the pain. I would never again see the two people whom I loved most. I would never be able to force open the cabin door of my nightmares and save them. And I had to find a way to live with that.
I wasn’t sure how long I cried, but suddenly, I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder. I glanced up and found David looking at me.
“I’m very sorry about your parents. I know it’s early to say this, but with time you’ll find other ways to feel them close to you.”
I did not manage to utter a word. I only dried my tears and composed myself. I didn’t understand why people kept insisting on giving me advice about things they didn’t understand, but I appreciated David’s support.
“You don’t believe me...” he whispered.
My eyes had fallen again on the old woman, now standing still, defeated. I let out a weary sigh and told David, “Thank you for your words, but you have no idea how I’m feeling.”
David forced a smile. “Actually, I do.”
I stared at him, confused, and noticed that the expression on his face was remarkably different from the joker I had met that morning. His eyes reflected my pain.
“Please, come with me,” he said. “I want to show you something.”
David led me to a section of the cemetery that was clearly reserved for wealthier occupants. All I could see were family mausoleums; some with modern designs, others boasting religious themes on a much larger scale than in the main burial grounds.
David pointed to a black marble mausoleum, with a glass dome and a pair of nine-foot-tall angels guarding its entrance. The construction was imposing and elegant. A heavy metal door blocked the entrance, above which one could read Famiglia Negrini.
David produced a key from his pocket and opened the door. “After you…”
The inside of the mausoleum was like a small, ornate chapel. Stained-glass windows filtered in a mosaic of warm colors, and a golden altar with a mother-of-pearl cross adorned the back wall. Hung on the walls were photographs of David’s relatives, with plaques bearing their names and dates of birth and death.
A large photo of a beautiful woman in her early forties was surrounded by a sea of white roses. She had dark hair and long-lashed violet eyes.
“This is my mother,” David said. “She died two years ago.”
That was like a punch in my stomach. “I’m sorry…” I said, embarrassed. “I didn’t know.”
“It’s all right. I just wanted you to believe that I know how you feel.”
“I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just that everyone tries to console me when they have no idea of how difficult this is. Now I see that you do.”
David nodded, but remained silent, staring at the sign with his mother’s name – Laura Negrini Winslet. “She had a rare type of cancer and died four months after the diagnosis. We were very close and her death was so sudden, I still have the feeling that I will wake up one day and find out that this was all a bad dream.”
That should have been my cue to tell him what had happened to my parents, but I was not ready. I continued looking at the photo of that beauty in front of us – now I understood from where David had inherited his perfect face.
“She was gorgeous,” I offered, changing the subject.
“And very talented. Mom was a great opera singer.”
David smiled faintly. “You can Google her.”
“I will,” I promised, and shifted my eyes to the bouquets. “The flowers seem so fresh, like they were placed here today.”
He nodded. “Normally we hire someone to replace them every week. But whenever I’m in town, I like to do it myself. It’s my Venetian side. As you must have noticed, the locals take very good care of their deceased.”
“I did notice.” My gaze was still on the roses when I spied a tiny crystal bottle – like a perfume bottle – set amidst the flowers. “What is that?”
“One of my mother’s eccentricities.” David intended to cut the explanation short, but I kept looking at him so he continued. “In Buckingham Palace, there was a room called the Room of Sorrows. They say that Queen Mary used to collect her tears of sorrow and joy there, in a bottle similar to this one.”
“The Queen collected tears?” I thought I had misunderstood.
“Yes. She kept the bottles containing her tears of joy closed, so that they would be preserved for as long as possible. She left the bottle filled with her tears of sorrow open, hoping that when the tears evaporated, the sorrow would go away with them.”
He paused, lost in thought. “When my mother was dying, she said that she didn’t want my father and I to suffer eternally. She asked us to remember Queen Mary’s story and to always keep the bottle open.”
David’s pain was still so fresh that I felt my heart constrict. “That’s a beautiful story…”
“It is, but it did not help us much to leave the bottle open.”
David drew a deep breath, as if he were swallowing a knot in his throat. “Trust me, Claire, the pain never leaves completely. But sooner or later, you’ll convince yourself that your parents wouldn’t have wanted to see you upset all the time, and you’ll make an effort to truly move on.”
David’s words brought back a long lost memory. At my paternal grandfather’s funeral, my father did not cry. When I asked him how he had managed it, he stroked my face and said, “There is nothing worse for a parent than seeing their children suffer. Wherever your grandpa is, he wouldn’t like to see me devastated. Remember that, Claire, and when your mother and I die, do everything you can to make your life go back to normal.”
When I finished telling David the story, he said, “See what I’m saying? Your parents can still talk to you through your memories. If you don’t want to take my advice, take your father’s.”
I smiled, not only because of the playful air in which David said it, but also because of the comfort that I felt remembering Dad’s words.
“You seem a little better now,” he said.
“I am. Thank you for bringing me here and talking to me.”
“We’re in the same boat.” We faced each other in silence for a moment, sharing a rare complicity, and then David slightly touched my shoulder. “Now we should go see if Kevin’s finished.”
It was nearly 2 P.M. when David and I walked back toward the church. The sky was spattered with white clouds, and a gentle breeze caressed the trees.
He asked me who I live with now and I told him about Grandma and Anna and how well we got along. David nodded, pleased, as if that made some difference to him. “It sounds like you’ll be fine.”
We completed the rest of our trajectory in silence until we found Loretta.
“I was coming after you,” she said. “I thought you were lost!”
“Thanks, Loretta, but my sense of direction isn’t that bad.”
“I brought Claire to see my family’s mausoleum,” David explained. “We ended up taking a while there.”
“No problem. Kevin needs a few more minutes and then we can go.”
“Great,” David said. “I’ll go get the boat and I’ll see you all out in front.”
David left in a haste and when he was far enough away, Loretta nudged me in the ribs. “Taking you to meet the family, huh?”
“Loretta! Don’t joke about that!”
Loretta laughed and linked her arm in mine. “It was very nice of David to share something so intimate with someone he just met. He must like you.”
“He was only being sympathetic.”
Loretta raised an eyebrow. “Sure…”
“Did you know his mother?”
“Not formally, but I saw her a few times. Laura Negrini was a famous soprano. Whenever she was in Venice, she lived at the city’s social events. David didn’t mention this?”
“Vaguely. He spoke more about overcoming grief, and I’ll admit that it was wonderful to talk to someone who had a similar experience to mine. He seems cool.”
Loretta studied my face. “Yeah, apparently, you found him really cool.”
Kevin suggested we had lunch at the Cipriani Hotel, located on an island close to Saint Mark’s Square. The young valet who came to dock the boat was on a first name basis with David and Kevin. I gathered that the two must come here frequently.
A tunnel of grapevines led us into the restaurant, where the hostess sat us at a table next to the pool. I sat between Loretta and David, with Kevin in front of me. In spite of the peculiar affectation of a five-star hotel, the ambience was relaxed – most people eating there were in beach outfits. Even so, I was not used to such sophisticated places and felt like I was walking on eggshells.
I cast my eyes over the menu, which was in Italian and English, but could as well be in Arabic. The majority of the dishes were unknown to me and I was ashamed to ask for Loretta’s help in front of Kevin and David.
Loretta tapped my arm. “Do you like it here?”
“It’s beautiful; I just never imagined seeing any pools in Venice. I thought everything here needed to be built on stilts.”
“Not on this island,” Kevin explained. “But you’re right. Cipriani is the only hotel with a pool in the heart of Venice.”
The waiter came back, asking what we would like to drink. Loretta shrugged. “A glass of Pinot Grigio, if anyone else is drinking.”
“I will,” Kevin said. “Claire?”
No one seemed to care that I was underage. “No, thanks. I’ll have a Coke.”
“Tonic water with ice and lemon, please,” David said.
Kevin’s eyes returned to the menu. “Do you all know what you’re ordering?”
“I do.” Loretta put her menu aside. “I’m going to start with the Caprese salad and then the duck with peach sauce.”
“Same for me,” I said. In a place like this, I assumed that I could not go wrong, even when choosing with my eyes closed.
While Kevin was deciding between the lamb chops and the Dover Sole, David engaged me. “Not to be intrusive, but since it’s your first time here, do you mind if I make some suggestions?”
“Of course not.” Actually, I’m happy to be rescued!
He came closer and pointed to one of the main dishes on his menu. “Their Provencal Shrimp is the best I’ve ever had. And the pineapple lobster salad is much more interesting than the Caprese.”
I looked at my menu for a few seconds, pretending to deliberate. “Well, I do love seafood. I think I’ll take your advice. Thank you.”
When the waiter returned, David took the lead and ordered my meal along with his own; then Loretta and Kevin placed their orders and the man left.
My phone rang, and seeing that it was Carmella, I excused myself from the table.
“So, sweetheart? Are you having fun?”
“Yes, Grandma. I registered for the course and now I’m out with Loretta. I should be home in a few hours.”
“No rush. It’s a beautiful day. I just wanted to know if everything was all right.”
“It’s great. Thank you for calling.”
When I returned to the table, the topic of conversation was Kevin’s upcoming trip. Loretta sighed. “What a shame that you’re going to Florence! I was going to invite you to the masquerade with us on Saturday.”
“Yeah, I saw the sign and I’d love to go, but this time I really can’t.”
Loretta looked at David. “Maybe you’d like to come with us. Did you know this’ll be Claire’s first masquerade?”
I felt my cheeks catch fire. I’m going to kill Loretta as soon as there are no witnesses!
David turned to me. “Really?” I nodded, and he said, “Of course. I’d love to.”
The waiters brought our food to the table at that moment, saving me the embarrassment of continuing the subject. As David had promised, the two dishes he recommended were incredible. We stayed for more than an hour, eating and talking, and then Kevin looked at his watch.
“I still have a thousand things to do before catching my train. You can stay if you want, guys, but I’ve got to run.”
I looked at Loretta. “I’m a little tired. Would you mind if we went home, too? We can visit more places tomorrow.”
Kevin paid the bill and we headed toward the exit. David dropped Kevin off close to Saint Mark’s Square, where I assumed Loretta and I would also get off, but he insisted on taking us home. This time, I sat in the back while Loretta stayed up front, chatting with David about his new acquisition.
Since I knew nothing about luxury boats, once again I was adrift. I started to imagine the numerous subjects I would have to Google if people like Kevin and David would become a part of my circle of friends.
When Loretta sat near me, David glimpsed back and said, “I was thinking…if you like, I can take you both out in the city tomorrow. Claire still has a lot of Venice to see.”
Loretta looked at me, radiant, and mouthed, “Well?”
I agreed and she said aloud, “Sure David. We’d love to. Is your cell phone still the same?”
David nodded, and we rode the rest of the way home in silence. To avoid explaining to her parents where she had been all day, Loretta decided it would be better if David docked somewhere away from her house. So he dropped us off close to the Saint Elena vaporetto station, where we agreed he would pick us up for the tour the following morning.
I ate dinner with Anna and Carmella, and they wanted to know everything about my first day out in Venice. I spoke about the Language Institute and how excited I was to start studying. But I found it prudent to omit my visit to David’s house until I figured out if they were familiar with his family; and if that was the case, what their opinion about them was. I simply told Anna that Loretta had introduced me to Kevin, and that we had gone to San Michele to visit Grandpa’s grave.
Anna spent about fifteen minutes gushing about how much she liked Kevin and how intelligent he was. Around dessert, I announced that Loretta and I would continue our tour the following day. Anna and Grandma seemed pleased.
Later that evening, I decided to enjoy my room’s private balcony. I stared out at the fading golden domes of the city, remembering my conversation with David at San Michele, and my father’s request, years ago. My family’s photo was in my hands and for the first time, looking at it brought me comfort instead of pain.
Soon, hundreds of stars flecked the night sky above me, and the full moon spilled its silver rays over the dark lagoon. I could not remember seeing anything so beautiful and I took that moment to make peace with God, with destiny, or with whatever had decided to change my life forever.
I’ll be happy again, I promised myself. I still don’t know how or when, but I will.
The following morning I met Loretta at her house, and she introduced me to her family. Her brother, Toni, two years older, had long brown hair, and green eyes identical to his sister’s. He was in a hurry, and after giving me the traditional kisses on the cheek, he jetted toward the dock behind the house, where he hopped on his boat and disappeared.
Loretta’s father was reserved. The short, forty-something-year-old wished me luck, holding my hands with the heartache of someone who knew everything about my personal tragedy. But Loretta’s mother was straight out of a Fellini movie. She was pretty, with all the exotic appeal of Sophia Loren, and extremely loud. Aside from kissing me, she hugged me twice, squeezing me against her large breasts. Unlike her husband, the woman was all smiles. She asked an endless list of questions, which explained why Loretta did not want David to approach their house. If he had, the gossip of us hanging out with him would already have found Anna and Carmella’s ears.
Loretta told her mother that we were running late and she finally freed me from her interrogation. When we approached the vaporetto station, I saw David’s boat docked nearby. He was standing outside, talking over the phone.
Catching him distracted, I took a moment to observe him. He wore a flawless pair of dark blue jeans and a white shirt that accentuated his light tan. It seemed unbelievable that he had managed to look even more handsome than the day before. In sunglasses and windblown hair, David looked like a model for Armani.
“Isn’t it much more fun to have a tour with a gorgeous guy on his boat than with me on a crowded vaporetto?” Loretta teased.
I feigned indifference, but when David turned to me and smiled, I felt a chill in my stomach.
“Good morning,” he said, covering the phone. “It’s Kevin calling from Florence.”
“Let me talk to him,” Loretta snapped.
And before David knew it, Loretta had kidnapped his phone. He laughed, watching her walk away, and then asked me, “Is there any special place you’d like to go?”
“Not exactly. You and Loretta live here. I’d prefer you two to set the itinerary.”
David and Loretta decided on a non-conventional tour, which meant leaving the touristic Saint Mark’s Square to the end of the day. David left the boat in a quiet area of the San Polo district, and we continued on foot to the Rialto section. We began our trip in the open-air market because the vendors started to pack up around lunchtime. This was one of the oldest parts of the city and I marveled at the architecture and the exotic scents that permeated the air – a mixture of flowers, spices and fresh fruit.
It was not by chance that the street markets were so popular in Italy. The succession of tents skirting the canal offered a much more pleasurable experience than the supermarket. We stopped at a fruit stand and I could not remember seeing such large, succulent figs outside a still life painting. David bought a bunch of red grapes and split them with Loretta and me, then the three of us continued strolling through the twists and turns of Venice’s narrow streets, enjoying the sounds and smells of the ancient city.
When we left the market, we stopped for gelato – a Venice tradition – and then headed toward the Rialto Bridge, the main connection across the city’s Grand Canal. From atop, David and Loretta pointed to the rustic buildings lining either side of the wide waterway, and casually told me about the local history. My ears perked up when Loretta mentioned how Venetians used to look highly upon their courtesans. These women had been worshipped by the most powerful men in Europe and had lived like queens. From precisely where we stood, centuries earlier, I would have witnessed them pass underneath in their boats, waving beneath a curtain of red roses tossed by their admirers.
Venice preserved its history in the air, and all you had to do was open your nostrils and inhale it. Walking through its millennial streets, I had the impression that time was standing still. In every curve, every narrow street and every bridge, I felt the vibrations of centuries past, and it was easy to imagine how things had been in the days of the doges, the courtesans and my beloved poet, Lord Byron.
I was fascinated by the city’s craft shops; they all displayed glittering Venetian glass and decadent masks of all types in their windows. Loretta noticed my interest and took me to one of her favorite shops. It belonged to a talkative, elderly man name Paco and he brought us to the back of his establishment, where we witnessed the artisans hand-painting their works of art.
Loretta and I sat before a large mirror and had fun trying on different masks, while Paco told us tales about each one of them. Harlequin, Columbine, Pantalone – all of the masks represented the characters from the Commedia dell’arte.
David appeared suddenly, wearing a strange mask with a long, pointy nose. “This is my favorite!” he said.
“Ah, the Plague Doctor!” exclaimed Paco. “This one is very popular.” He reached out to a nearby shelf and grabbed a black and gold mask. “But if I had your looks, my boy, I would strictly use this one.” He added something in Venetian and David smiled and answered in the same language.
The old man laughed and patted David on the shoulder, like they were old friends.
While the two stood, chatting at the entrance of the store, I asked Loretta, “That mask Paco showed David represents Casanova, doesn’t it?”
“Yep. The most famous ladies’ man in Venice. Paco was talking to David about girls. You know how Italian men are.” She smiled. “But you know what David answered when Paco asked about his conquests?”
I removed my mask and placed it back on the shelf. “I have no idea…”
“Come on…don’t play indifferent. You are dying to know!” Loretta deepened her voice to imitate David. “I’ll stick with the Plague Doctor, Paco. My Casanova days are nearly over.”
My best friend looked at me with a knowing smile, making her message clear, and I involuntarily looked in David’s direction.
He was still talking to Paco, but his eyes were fixed on me.
When we left the mask shop, we headed to a busy street and briefly split up to browse the city’s different wares. The first thing that caught my eye was the window of a restaurant decorated with mask-shaped breads. I laughed at their creativity and continued to the next store window, a patisserie whose variety of cookies and nougats made my mouth water. Sweets are my weakness. My mother used to say that I could forgo every meal if at the end of the day a slice of cake or a bar of chocolate were waiting for me.
It was entirely true. I would have to watch my diet, living in such a gastronomic paradise as Italy, and with Maria preparing those delicious meals at home.
David appeared at my side and looked at the window display. “Any favorites?”
“They all seem delicious, but I lose my appetite just knowing that I have to go in there and say their complicated names to buy them!” I started to read the signs with the names and prices of the pastries. “Ciambella, Moretto, Golosone, Bucellatto…” and David couldn’t help laughing at my awful pronunciation.
“You see?” I feigned offense. “I’ll starve in this country!”
He laughed again. “No. You just need to practice. Do you want me to go with you, for moral support?”
“No. It’s almost noon. If I have them, I won’t eat lunch. But thanks!”
I turned to the Benetton store across the street, where Loretta was watching us somberly. I beckoned her to come over and when she approached us, she seemed mortified.
“Sorry, guys, but I won’t be able to have lunch with you. I was talking on the phone with my brother and I’m going to have to tend to a family problem.”
“What happened?” I asked, worried.
“Well, Toni has a hot temper and got himself into some sort of situation at his job. He doesn’t want to call our dad, so I have to go meet him.”
“Was he arrested?” I asked.
“No. But he asked me to go meet him. I need to go.”
“Is there anything I can do?” David asked.
“Yeah. I don’t want to ruin the day. Would you mind continuing the tour with Claire?”
“Sure. It would be a pleasure.”
“Wait, guys!” I said, incredulous. “My tour can wait. If you have a problem, Loretta, I will go with you.”
Loretta shook her head. “No way, Claire. I need to go by myself. Besides, starting tomorrow, you’ll be busy with your classes and homework. Let David take you around the city, and if Carmella or Anna call you, tell them that I am with you.”
I did not like the idea of lying to my family – I was already omitting enough! But how could I say no to Loretta? “All right. But text me later and we’ll meet you somewhere, okay?”
“Ok. But if you return home without me, my mother will know something is wrong and you won’t want her interrogating you,” Loretta said. “If I finish early, I’ll text you and we’ll meet somewhere. Otherwise, I’ll be waiting for you at seven, at the St. Lucia vaporetto station, and we’ll head home together, okay?”
Resigned, I nodded. “Ok.”
“Now stop looking so sad and go have fun!”
The next stop on David’s tour was the Peggy Guggenheim museum. It had caught my eye on our way to Rialto, and David promised we would return. Peggy was the niece of Solomon Guggenheim, the famous art collector from the States, and an avid collector herself. When she stepped foot in the majestic city of Venice, she refused to step out of it. Like me, she was a foreigner who had fallen in love with the food, the buildings, and the people, and decided to live here. After her death, her expansive modern mansion on the banks of the Grand Canal was converted into a museum.
David bought our tickets, ignoring my pleas to pay for myself, and we drifted through a series of white-walled rooms, admiring the centuries of artwork. Unlike other traditional museums, the Peggy Guggenheim gave me the impression of being in a quaint art gallery, or in one of Anna’s friends’ spacious lofts in Manhattan.
We stopped in front of a Picasso, which was hung above a fireplace, and I smiled – it seemed perfect there. “So, do you like modern art?” David asked.
“I do, but I prefer Impressionism.”
“That’s my favorite too! I started drawing when I was seven, and then joined an art school and never stopped. I love Monet, so I studied his work obsessively for years and now I’m trying to find my own style.”
“Really? Do you want to do it professionally?”
He grinned. “I don’t know if my work will ever end up in a museum. But I intend to try. I’m going to Cambridge to study Fine Arts in the fall.”
I liked David’s company, and I felt a pang of disappointment remembering that he lived in England. “Loretta said that your father lives in Venice. Does he work here?”
“Not exactly. He’s an anthropologist. He has written several books and travels a lot, giving lectures and doing research. But he likes to have Venice as his base; maybe to feel closer to Mom. I live in our home in London and come to stay with him for a couple of weeks every once in a while.”
I wanted so badly for David to hang out with us before school started. I looked up at him with worried eyes and asked, “And what are your plans for the summer?”
David studied me, his face pensive. “Probably Saint-Tropez. A friend from London has a villa there and I go every year.”
I turned my eyes to the Picasso. “Sounds like fun.”
We decided to eat lunch in the museum. There was a café in the garden and we decided it would be pleasant to sit outside on such a beautiful day. We ate in silence, until halfway through his sandwich David asked, “What are you thinking about?”
“Only that it’s great that you are going to follow your dream. I’m finishing high school next year and have no clue what I want to study in college.”
“Nothing sparks your interest?”
Normally I would have just shaken my head, ashamed to tell him the truth. But David’s plan was to spend the rest of his life painting canvases that he didn’t even know would sell, so what did I have to lose?
“I’d like to be an actress.”
“An actress?” There was no disapproval or mocking in his voice. Just surprise.
“Yes. Does it sound crazy?”
“No, it’s just that…” – he took a sip of his Coke, as if to buy time to pick the right words – “it would be more natural to imagine an outgoing girl like Loretta being an actress. You seem a little shy.”
“I am not shy onstage,” I said with a smile.
“Well, I would like to see you there.”
“Maybe one day you will.” I returned my attention to my delicious salami and mozzarella sandwich, and then said, “If my parents were alive, they would tell me to choose a more stable career. Become a doctor, a lawyer, something I could make money with.” I shrugged. “Now I don’t know… I also like art and architecture. Maybe I will pick one of those.”
David shook his head. “I don’t think you should. You don’t talk about art or architecture with the same enthusiasm you talk about being an actress. And I don’t see any reason to choose something else if this is what you want to do.”
In a few moments David had moved from incredulous to encouraging. “Have you ever studied dramatic art?” he asked.
“Just in school. My teacher thought I had talent and used to let me write plays to perform in the local auditorium.”
“Oh, so you do have experience!”
I laughed. “If three years casting and rehearsing my classmates counts, I am not only an experienced actress but also a producer and a director!”
Since Anna had moved from the United States, I had not spoken about my artistic aspirations with anyone. But David seemed genuinely interested and I found myself talking about my acting classes, my work at the school’s theater, my favorite plays, and even the night I watched my first Broadway show and then waltzed around Times Square, singing the soundtrack of the play.
“So, that’s it! I’m not sure I have what it takes to become a professional actress, but that’s my dream.”
Once we finished our meal, I tucked my used napkins into my plastic cup and headed to the garbage can. David followed me, bringing his tray. “Claire, what if someone from the business could give you his opinion?
“What are you talking about?”
“Remember I told you my mother was an opera singer?”
“I know some people in the show business. If you like, I can arrange for you to talk with a theater director who’s friends with my dad.”
I stared at David, my heart swelling. Handsome, sweet, helpful. So different from all the boys I had met. I wondered from which planet he had come. “Do you always appear just in time to help damsels in distress?” I said, smiling.
“No. I’m lazy and selfish, but once a year, I take a week off for good deeds. You were just lucky to meet me on a good day.”
“So?” David asked. “Do you mind if I speak to this guy about you?”
“Not at all. If it’s not a problem.”
We wandered a bit more through the museum’s gardens, admiring the outdoor sculptures. Near Peggy Guggenheim’s grave, we found a small tree covered with slips of paper. It was surrounded by a crowd of visitors and more were filtering in. “What is that?” I asked.
“That’s the Tree of Wishes. Come take a look.” David grabbed a sheet of paper and a pen and handed them to me. “Write your wish and go hang it there.”
“Are you serious?”
“What’s the matter? It can’t hurt.”
“Okay,” I said. “But give me some privacy.”
David grabbed a sheet of paper and a pen for himself.
There was so much to wish for that I didn’t know where to start, so I wrote what seemed most urgent. I want to learn Italian, fast!
David and I approached the tree and I hung my sheet on one of the hooks attached to the branches. As I did, I stole a glimpse at other wishes – a few quite bold! David was not willing to share his wish with me, so he circled the tree and placed his somewhere in the back.
I watched him carefully. David was knock-out sexy and charming, but there was also an incredibly sweet side to him that was almost naïve, shy. The man totally fascinated me.
“Ready to go?” he asked once he had returned.
“Yep,” I replied and we walked toward the exit gate. Once we were back in the narrow streets, I could no longer contain my laughter. “Sorry, but you were so mysterious circling that tree that I got curious about what you wished for.”
“Sorry, but I’m afraid if I tell you, the wish won’t come true.” He put on his sunglasses and grinned. “But I think it’s something pretty obvious.”
I walked next to David on weak legs, wondering if he had said what I thought he had. When we got to his boat, though, I didn’t have as hard a time getting on as before. I was growing more accustomed to the lifestyle here.
Once we were both firmly on the boat, David took the helm.
“Is it hard to drive a boat like this? I asked, watching him steer.
“Do you want to try?”
“No…Not yet. I just want to know how hard it is.”
“Easier than driving a car. One day I’ll take you to Burano, an island tucked away from the city, and teach you. Here, if you don’t have a license, we could end up being arrested.”
I nodded, but as David was always joking, I did not take his promise seriously.
David docked at the Daniele Hotel near Saint Mark’s, and again, he knew the valet. I began to understand that docking a private boat in the hot spots of Venice was virtually an impossible feat, which required some connections.
Apparently, David had plenty.
We walked toward Saint Mark’s Square, and I found myself standing before the same monuments I had seen from the water taxi on my arrival in the city. Yet, walking near them was an intense experience. As I circled the Doge’s Palace, I admired the carvings on its complex system of arches and pillars, and also every detail of the magnificent Saint Mark’s Basilica.
The one-thousand-year-old church boasted five round arched portals, enveloped by polychrome marble columns, and from its upper register, a statue of St. Mark watched over the city. David and I had to wait a few minutes in line before entering, but it was well worth it. I wished the place were emptier so we could explore every section, but there were so many tourists that I started to feel claustrophobic.
When I spied a quiet chapel in one of the laterals, I asked David if he minded ducking in for a moment. He agreed and without warning, grabbed my hand and forged our path, murmuring permesso and scusi until we reached our destination.
We entered the chapel, leaving behind a procession of devotees marching toward the main altar, and settled in the last row. The chapel could house about a hundred worshippers, but there were only twenty inside, mostly old women, with lace veils over their heads and rosaries in their hands. They were kneeling in front of their seats. Some had their eyes closed, while others stared straight at the altar with pleading eyes.
It was very peaceful.
To my surprise, David held his hands together and lowered his head, as if in prayer – I had not known that he was religious.
I sat there, wracking my brain for a single prayer, but nothing came to me.
After a few minutes, David whispered, “Are you all right?”
"Yeah,” I whispered back. “Can I ask you something?”
“Do you believe that we go somewhere after we die?”
David let out a long sigh. “I do,” he finally said. “Do you?”
“I don’t know what to believe. I was never very religious, but now I miss my parents so much that I’d like to think that I’ll see them again.”
David studied me for a moment. “A sheep lost from its flock…What am I going to do with you, Ms. Thompson?”
In spite of his playful tone, I was touched by the sweetness in his eyes. Somehow, our personal tragedies had created a bond between us, and although David and I hardly knew each other, I felt very close to him.
This time, when he held my hand, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. We held onto one another in silence, and I don’t know if I exactly prayed, but I thanked God for the small miracle that was happening to me. There, holding hands with a near stranger, I felt at home for the first time since I had arrived in Venice.
When we left the Basilica, David led me to the center of Saint Mark’s Square. It was the end of the most perfect summer afternoon. The day’s heat had dissipated, making way for a soft breeze that carried a slight evening chill. The sky now showed hues of pink and orange, hiding a shy moon in the distance.
The crowds of tourists taking photographs and running after pigeons had disappeared. Now couples strolled by, holding hands in their lazy dance, untouched by the time displayed on the Clock Tower. All the cafés had placed their tables outside and the sweet sounds of solo violins and accordions filled the air. The magical atmosphere played out before me in slow motion, as if I were in a dream.
David took me to a corner of the large square, where a musical quartet was playing. “This is the famous Café Florian,” he said, pulling a chair out for me. “Personalities like Casanova used to frequent here.”
I remembered the episode in the mask store and found his choice hilarious.
When the waiter brought out the menus, David asked, “Do you trust me?”
I smiled. “It’s been working so far...”
The waiter returned minutes later with two cappuccinos and some typical Venetian desserts that David had chosen for us. “Baicoli is a cookie made of nuts,” he explained, “And Zabaglione is a cream with a light touch of alcohol used to soak the Baicoli.” He pointed to a familiar dish. “I also ordered pana cotta, in case you didn’t like the others. They make the best in the city.
I grabbed a Baicoli and dunked it in the Zabaglione. The cookie dissolved on my tongue, the subtle flavor of almonds perfectly marrying the lightly sweetened cream. A smile curled up on my lips as the flavors exploded in my mouth
David seemed pleased. “I’m glad you like it. And you didn’t even have to worry about pronouncing their names.”
“True!” I sipped the cappuccino and said, “Thank you so much. For everything. It’s been a great day.”
“For me, too. It’s never been so easy to talk to a girl.” David’s tone was playful, as if girls were extraterrestrial beings, and we both laughed. But gradually, our smiles wilted and we stared at each other in silence.
I can’t believe this handsome boy is flirting with me!
Normally, I would have lowered my head, embarrassed. Yet, I could not look away from those violet eyes, until an explosion of applause reminded me that the quartet had finished playing.
We laughed again, both aware of the awkward moment we had shared, and then joined the others in a second round of applause.
The musicians took a ten-minute break. When they returned, the repertoire changed to world music and soundtracks from famous films. On cue, David and I chatted about our favorite bands and movies while we savored our desserts.
I had eaten pana cotta in the United States, but the dish now before me held the best pana cotta I had ever tried. “This is truly divine,” I whispered. “I could eat ten of these!”
David gently wiped the corner of my lips while a smile danced on his. “I can tell.”
I blushed scarlet red and grabbed a napkin. “Jesus, I’m a mess!”
“You are really too shy for someone who wants to be an actress.” He looked around and then back to me. “We have to do something about this.”
A new song had begun and David stood up, reaching out his hand. “Let’s dance.”
“You’re joking,” I said. “Here?!”
“But…” I tried to protest, but soon realized that he wasn’t asking. David already had me standing, and was leading me to a spacious area behind the tables. Other patrons smiled as David dragged me to the improvised dance floor, my legs wobbling in embarrassment. Perhaps now was a good time to learn how to pray!
“This is the perfect place to chip away your shyness,” David said, placing his hand on my waist. “You don’t know anyone here.”
“Good. Because I was trying to tell you that I can’t dance ballroom.”
“It’s easy. Trust me and I will guide you.”
“I’m starting to doubt if trusting you is a good idea,” I grinned.
David pulled me closer. “I like you, Claire. You make me laugh!”
David started to lead me in a basic box step. One… two… three… four… One… two… three… four… I was doing well until suddenly he had me in a pirouette.
I nearly lost my balance and grabbed onto him. “Whoa, Fred Astaire. You speak Italian, you paint, you dance…is there anything you can’t do?”
“Tons. But for now, I’ll just show off what I can!”
As we continued to glide on that unlikely dance floor, I picked up the steps. Another pirouette and David bent me backwards, then pulled me into him. “You see? You can dance.”
Those who were nearby applauded and slid their tables out to make room for us. “You’re insane…” I whispered.
“And you worry too much. When you’re dancing, forget everything around you. Pretend that you and I are the only two things in existence.”
Not a bad idea…
I was embarrassed with everyone turning their heads to watch us. But, simultaneously, I was experiencing an excitement that I had never felt before. The music intensified and suddenly I was spinning, being pulled forward and backward, and it was no longer my brain controlling my movements. My body was at David’s mercy, following his steps and the subtle commands he gave me by turning my shoulder or touching my waist.
When the music ended, an enthusiastic applause erupted around us, as much for the orchestra as for us. David smiled and thanked everyone, as if that had been the most natural occurrence in his day. I walked with a thumping heart back to my chair, where I collapsed.
David was laughing at me. “You’re a natural dancer! You just need some practice.”
“And you?” I said, breathless. “Where did you learn to dance so well?”
“With my mother. My old man hates to dance. We used to attend a lot of parties and as soon as I was old enough to be her partner, she taught me. Then I got the hang of it.”
“I can see that!” I said. “From now on remind me not to visit public squares with you anymore!”
“Fine. But it doesn’t mean we won’t dance again.”
My phone rang, interrupting that magical moment, and when I saw Loretta’s number I realized that it was already seven o’clock!
“Claire, I’m at our meeting place,” she said. “Where are you?”
“Loretta! I’m sorry… I lost track of time! Please, wait for me. I’ll be there in a minute!” I whipped my head around to David. “If my grandmother or Anna sees Loretta at the station alone, I’m sunk. I have to go now!”
David did not wait for the check. He placed a fifty-euro bill on the table and we flew through the square, toward the Daniele Hotel dock.
When the valet brought the boat around, I jumped right on, not even thinking about the rocking waves. I blinked, suddenly realizing my amazing feat.
“What did I say?” David teased. “Everything in life is a matter of practice.”
David thanked the boy, handing him a tip, and slipped the key into the ignition. “Okay, sailor,” he said to me. “I know you’re confident now, but hold on tight, I don’t want to dive in the canal to rescue you.”
Along the Riva degli Schiavoni I watched rows of long gondolas whiz by, most of them covered in dark canvases.
“I don’t understand,” I said, nodding toward the covered boats. “There are still so many tourists here. Aren’t there tours at night?”
“Sure, but the best gondola rides are at sunset.”
“An old legend. Do you see the connector between the Doge’s Palace and the neighboring building?”
“That’s where the city prison used to be when the Doge still ruled. The connector is called the Bridge of Sighs because from there, the prisoners had their last view of the city before being incarcerated. The legend goes that if a couple passes underneath by gondola at sunset and kisses, they’ll be together forever.”
I laughed. “Even if it doesn’t work, you can’t say it’s not romantic!”
“True. But speaking of gondolas, how could I be so stupid? I take you on a tour of Venice and forget the main tradition!”
“Our tour was perfect, David. I couldn’t have had a better day.”
“No…this is a catastrophe! Will you give me a chance to rectify it?”
I was still laughing at his faux dramatic tone. “Of course, but I’m not exactly on vacation, remember? My Italian course starts tomorrow.”
“And what time do your classes end?”
This boy was persistent. “At noon.”
“So how about taking a gondola ride then?” he smirked. “It might be a bit hot, but I wouldn’t dare to invite you to the sunset ride. Imagine if the legend is real? What girl would want to be stuck with me for the rest of her life?”
What girl wouldn’t? “Well, I thought the couple had to kiss under the bridge for the legend to work…” I pointed out, feigning innocence. “So, I guess the sunset ride is safe.”
“Right…” was all David said, but I could see he was enjoying my tease.
“Now, seriously, David, I’d love to continue our tour tomorrow, but the ball is on Saturday and I have to meet Loretta after class to try on costumes.”
“Okay. Some other time, then.”
As we approached the station near my house, I spotted Loretta pacing around the square, talking into her phone. David docked the boat and tied it to one of the posts.
“Thank you again,” I said. “I had so much fun.” Timidly, I gave him a kiss on the cheek, and ignoring that I no longer needed assistance, he held my hand and helped me exit the boat.
“You’re welcome. Call me if you’d like to do it again.”
David left and I ran toward Loretta.
She finally saw me and hung up the phone.
“I’m sorry I left you waiting!” I said, as we headed toward my house.
“Relax, Claire. It was only twenty minutes, and I already called Carmella, telling her we’re coming.”
“You did? And she didn’t ask why you called instead of me?”
“I didn’t give her the chance. I said what I had to say quickly, and then pretended we got disconnected.”
“Poor grandma…her trusted friend is a professional swindler!”
“If you had a controlling mother like mine, you would be one, too.” Loretta smiled, watching David’s boat in the distance. “So, are you going to thank me for leaving you there with him?”
“What? That story about Toni was another one of your tricks?”
“Yep. I thought it would be perfect for you and David to get to know each other.”
“You are a goddamned good liar! I totally bought it.”
“I know you. If you hadn’t bought it, you wouldn’t have stayed.”
“Well, I admit I had a lot of fun. So, thank you!”
“Leave the ‘thank yous’ for later. Feed me with the details!” “There are no details to tell. David was wonderful, but nothing special happened.”
“Of course not! What were you expecting?”
Loretta shrugged. “At least tell me you’re going to see each other again before the ball.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Please, don’t keep pushing me on David just because he has been nice to me. I will be embarrassed.”
“Nice?” Loretta shook her head. “Claire…I’ve seen David with other girls before. He likes you!”
I stopped walking and looked at her. “Ok, I’ll give you that! A few times he acted as if he liked me, but let’s be realistic. David is handsome, rich, and lives in London. Don’t you think I have enough problems without falling for him?”
Loretta smiled. “Too late to worry about that, honey. I know that look on your face.”
During dinner I hardly paid attention to the conversation with my family. I couldn’t get Loretta’s words out of my head. Did I really have that look on my face? There was just one way to find out. Later in my room, I started to Google David. To my surprise, there was a lot about him on the Internet. I browsed some websites and then focused on recent pictures of him on Facebook. The boy traveled a lot. There were pictures of him in Rome, Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong, and on beaches all over the world. I caught myself sighing when he appeared in a sexy pose or flashing a sweet smile, and frowning when he was surrounded by girls.
My brain told me that getting involved with David was completely masochistic. Even if he liked me, he would soon go to college, and we would barely see each other. He would then end up falling for someone from his own world. My heart, on the other hand, ignored all my fears. It only remembered the hope that David had brought to my life, the way he understood me and seemed to care about me, and how happy I felt when he was around.
The jury did not reach a verdict.
I downloaded one of David’s pictures into Photoshop, but his face needed no retouching. All I had to do before pushing “print” was zooming in until I had a perfect close-up. Seconds later, his perfect features appeared in my printer’s tray and his smile warmed my chest.
I stared at the photograph for a long time, trying to understand how it was possible that I could fall in love with a boy I had only known for less than forty-eight hours.
My Italian class was about as easy as scaling the Tower of Babel. The only other American in the class was a New Yorker named Melissa Stewart – Mel, as she liked to be called. Her father was a banker who had worked in Venice for two years, and had just moved the entire family here permanently.
Melissa offered me her sympathy when I mentioned my parent’s death, but she was not the type of girl who would mingle with someone like me in the States. She would hang out with the popular crowd: she was tall and blonde, athletic –the cheerleader type. She never would have bothered to remember my name back home. In Venice, however, we were just two Americans trying to adjust to a foreign country, so we immediately had something in common. In fact, Mel not only started the conversation but stuck around during the break to talk to me. Even though I never would have hung out with a girl like her back home, I was happy that she was attending the Accademia. I wouldn’t be the only new girl at school.
“So, what do you think so far?” Mel asked, drumming her manicured fingers on the cafeteria table.
I shrugged. “It’s all right. I don’t understand every word the teacher says, but so far I’m keeping up.”
“Same with me,” she said. “I took an intensive course in New York before coming here, but even so, it is too much to learn in only three months. I’m considering hiring a private teacher.”
I just sipped my Coke and nodded.
Melissa looked around and found a group of boys staring at us. “The blond one is handsome, isn’t he?” she asked.
“Yes. Do you know him?”
“He’s American, too. We talked a little in the waiting room the day we took our admission tests. A shame he’s doing a crash course and is only going to be here for a couple of weeks. I will have to move fast.”
I chuckled, and she looked back at me. “Did you find anyone interesting in our class?”
After meeting David, it was hard for me to find anyone else more handsome or interesting. I tried to recall the faces of the boys in our class. “Um... that tall Spaniard is pretty cute,” I finally said, sending Melissa off on a long lecture about how cute European guys were.
Melissa’s tedious conversation migrated from boys to her favorite boutiques in town and then back to boys. When we finally left the cafeteria, I asked if she was attending the masked ball. She shook her head, almost offended.
“No way! My family and I are spending the weekend in Rome, but I wouldn’t go anyway. I’ve been to real masked balls here before. This one is for tourists.”
Mercifully, the bell rang, saving me the embarrassment of confessing that I was excited to go to a ball that Mel thought was hokey. Mr. Moretti – our teacher – appeared at the end of the corridor and she rushed over to him, not even bothering to ask if I was going to attend.
At noon, our last class ended and my classmates rushed out of the door, as if they had a million plans ahead of them. I only had to meet Loretta at 2:30 P.M. to try on our costumes, so I took my time gathering my things. Melissa was with me, and she was asking me about my life.
“So, Claire, what does one do for fun in a city like Bloomington?”
I could sense her irony, almost as if it were hard for her to imagine there was life outside of Manhattan. I counted to ten and answered in the best way I could, trying to avoid friction. But when she began interrogating me, asking about my home’s size and which car I drove, I started to realize that hanging out with a snobbish girl like Melissa Stewart might not be a good thing when school started up.
I cut her off by talking about Anna’s work at the museum, and rubbing my knowledge about art and architecture in her face, so she stopped treating me like I was some little countryside girl. I may never have lived in Manhattan’s Upper East side, nor was my father an important banker who sent me all over the world each summer. But I had always been a straight-A student. I always wanted to learn everything around me, and one good lesson my parents taught me was: you are no less than anyone else, so don’t let anyone wipe their boots on you.
Melissa understood right away that I was not someone she could wipe her boots on.
As we reached the main gate, I found David with his arms crossed, leaning against a building across the street. I instantly forgot all about Melissa next to me.
He waved at me and it was only then that I believed he was not a mirage. I waved back with a pleasant smile and Mel asked, “Do you know that guy??!” Her incredulous expression made it seem like Prince William had been standing here.
“Yes, I do. See you tomorrow, Mel.” And without waiting for her reply, I crossed the street to meet David.
“What a coincidence!” I said sarcastically. “You passing by right when my class ended.”
He laughed. “Please don’t think I’m stalking you. But I thought you might like to have lunch with me before meeting Loretta.”
Oh, boy… “That would be nice. But this time I can’t be late!”
On our way, I called grandmother, and told her that I was not going to have lunch at the house. I then called Loretta, asking her to meet me at the store.
David took me to a small restaurant with vintage wine bottles decorating the back wall, and wooden tables covered with red plaited cloth. It was cozy and the smell of fresh pasta and pesto sauce lured us in.
“You said you like seafood,” David said, pulling a chair out for me. “This place is simple, but the food is excellent. And the boutique where you’ll be meeting Loretta is only a few blocks away, which gives us more time together.”
“Then you made a smart choice. All the way.”
We placed our orders and when the waiter left, David asked, “So how was your first class?”
“Not bad. The teacher is nice and Loretta offered to help me with whatever I don’t understand.”
“May I take a look at your books?”
I found David’s request strange, especially there at the restaurant, but I simply said, “Sure.”
He opened my textbook and to my surprise, donned a pair of black-framed reading glasses. That boy was so handsome that reading glasses seemed out of place on his flawless face. I had the impression that I was looking at Superman in disguise.
I got lost in his features as he studied my books, and suddenly realized how quiet I had become. David lifted his eyes and asked, “Is everything okay?”
I choked out a dry cough and stammered, “Sure! I was just waiting for you to tell me what you think.”
He leafed through the book for a few more moments, took a quick look at the course exercises, and then said, “Sorry, but I learned Italian like a native. My mom only spoke to me in Italian since I was a baby, so it’s hard for me to imagine what your challenges will be. What is harder for you, vocabulary or grammar?”
“Definitely grammar. I know a lot of expressions and loose words, but I get confused with the verbs. I just hope I will make it until September.”
David put away his glasses. “You will. You will have plenty of people to help you.”
The waiter approached with our food and I put the books away to make room for him. A large tray was open before us, revealing a seafood risotto in white sauce. It looked and smelled divine, but I was no longer paying attention to the food.
“What do you mean by plenty of people to help me?” I asked David.
“When Loretta is busy, I can help you with your lessons. I called my dad this morning and told him that I want to spend the summer here.”
I thought I would float off the chair in ecstasy. “Really?”
“Yes. And I’d be glad to help you with your Italian. And since I’m staying...” David’s smile broadened, “if you can bear my company, I’d also like to give you more tours through the city. There are still so many things that you need to do.”
I couldn’t recall the taste of anything I ate, but that was the best lunch of my entire life! When I met Loretta later, I was euphoric. For the first time since I had met her, I took the initiative and kissed her cheeks. “Sorry, Loretta, but you’re going to have to be my alibi for a little while longer,” I told her. “David’s planning on spending the summer here!”
Loretta laughed. “Dear God! This has become more critical than I thought!”
First, the attendants showed us a parade of exuberant dresses made of silk, taffeta and brocade. Then came the matching masks, which bore no resemblance to those I had tried on at Paco’s shop. These were made of light, delicate metal and decorated with pearls and multi-colored crystals. Everything here cost a fortune, but Anna and Grandma were so happy that I was finally attending my first masked ball, that they told Loretta to spare no expense to get me the prettiest costume she could find.
Three days earlier, I would have protested, but now that David was coming, I was excited and wanted to pick a costume that made me look nothing less than stunning.
The next day at the language school, Mel would not stop asking me who the Greek God who had come to pick me up was. I told her that David and I were just friends, but later I regretted it.
David had invited me to a gondola ride that afternoon. When he came to pick me up, in jeans and a blue Polo shirt, Mel studied him from head to toe, drooling like a famished wolf. He was standing across the street again, this time talking to the newsstand vendor in his cheerful, charismatic way. When he looked over at the two of us, Miss New York ran her fingers through her long, golden curls, and smiled at him.
“Claire, your friend is really out-of-this-planet gorgeous!” she shrieked. “If you are not interested, why don’t you introduce him to me?”
"Some other time, Mel. We are in a rush. Bye!” And I crossed the street as fast as I could, hoping that David hadn’t paid too much attention to my competition.
Instead of saying “hi” right away, as he always did, he remained quiet, studying me carefully with a mischievous grin on his face.
“What are you up to?” I asked, already laughing. “Planning another dance performance at Saint Mark’s Square?”
“Much better. If the gondola ride can wait, today I’m going to teach you how to drive my boat.” David took a set of keys out of his pocket and placed them in my hand. “So?”
"You are crazy. What if we get caught?”
“I told you how it works. We won’t do it here.”
I deliberated for a moment. My family would kill me – one, for driving a boat without a license, and two, for hanging out with a stranger all the way on Burano Island. I looked back at the keys in my hands, and then at the violet eyes staring at me. “All right. Let’s do it!”
David steered the boat slowly through the city’s canals, all the while teaching me the basics. “The only problem with boats is that they have no brakes, and water has no traction,” he said. “So the most important thing to remember, Claire, is that you need to calculate your maneuvers very carefully and reduce your speed far before an obstacle, so that the boat can gradually decelerate.”
I watched him attentively. It didn’t seem complicated.
We passed San Michele Island and Murano, with its famous glass factories, and headed out toward Burano. As David promised, there was only a modest flow of boats in the area. When we got to a point where there was nothing ahead of us, he told me, “Now you try.”
I positioned myself behind the wheel and drove straight ahead for a few minutes, just to feel the boat’s movements.
“You are doing great,” David said after a while, “but I want you to go a little faster, so we can practice something different.”
As I shifted the gear, the boat gained speed and I started to feel what that strong engine could do. This is going to be fun.
“Now, you see that small island over there?” he asked, pointing to a tiny island on our left marked with the ruins of an old building. “Let’s go around it. Start to slow down now, before turning the wheel, and don’t forget to look behind you to make sure there’s no boat coming your way.”
I reduced the speed and turned the wheel gingerly. The boat pivoted a little, but was still going too straight to do what David had instructed me to. “What am I doing wrong?” I asked.
“You need to put more energy in turning the wheel.” David placed his hands on top on mine and turned the wheel with me. “You see?”
It had been the closest his body had ever been to mine. I could feel his chest against my back and his breath on my ear as he instructed me. He was saying… Do you see this? Did you notice that? And I nodded, but the truth was that my heart was pounding and I was finding it difficult to focus on anything.
We turned around the tiny island and then resumed our approach to Burano. When we could see our destination in the distance, vaporettos began to appear around us, so David took charge.
Burano was like a small fishing village, yet it seemed more contemporary than central Venice. While David searched for a place to dock, I took several photographs of the landscape from the water. Once we were ashore, he guided me around the island on foot. I continued to produce my own postcards, taking photos of colorful houses and the graceful leaning tower of the island’s church.
At one point in his tour, he turned to me and said, “Now let me take a picture of you.”
“But the landscape is much more interesting!”
We took turns posing for goofy photos with my camera, until David took me tightly in his arm. Before I knew it, he had taken a photo of the both of us. When he showed it to me, I realized I had been wearing the most awful expression of surprise on my face. I begged him to delete the photo.
"All right. Let's take another one," he laughed.
This time, he hugged me and when his cheek touched mine, I involuntarily trembled.
“Smile,” he whispered, and it had never been easier for me to do so.
David was not familiar with the restaurants in Burano, so we explored the nearby streets until we found a trattoria with an attractive menu. We ordered two types of pasta to share: Lasagna Bolognese and Mushroom Ravioli.
Between forkfuls, I said, “It’s impressive. Almost a week in Italy and this is my first time eating pasta!”
“Did you know that pasta was not even invented here?”
I looked up, surprised. “No?”
David shook his head. “Marco Polo brought it from Asia and the Italians liked it so much it became a popular dish.”
We ate the spaghetti first and then David split the lasagna in half and placed it on my plate. He was not only a gentleman, but very protective of me. When we walked around the city he always made sure I was comfortable and safe, and whenever we stopped to eat, he always helped me pick out the dishes. He was so amazing in every way; it was hard to imagine he could truly be interested in me.
Burano is famous for its lace work, and after lunch we visited some shops. As we passed by a gelateria, David asked, “Got room for dessert?”
“You know the answer.”
He still remembered my favorite flavors from our visit to the Rialto with Loretta. He bought the gelato and we headed to the other end of the island, which was quieter and boasted a beautiful view of the lagoon.
The gelato was melting fast so David and I made a bet as to who would be able to reach the end of the island without losing all of their ice cream. Thankfully, we both made it in time to enjoy our dessert.
A fresh breeze blew in from the water. We found a small pier and sat there in the shade, watching the boats pass by. David was radiant. He wore a constant smile and talked nonstop about his life in London, about his paintings and his trips, until out of the blue he said, “It’s incredible that I’m telling you my entire life. Kevin used to be the only person I could tell these things to.”
“I’m flattered,” I replied, “but the incredible thing is hearing you say that you are so reserved. When I met you, you seemed so outgoing that the first word that came to my mind to describe you was accessible.”
Not quite the first, I thought, but one of them.
“Well, I like people, but I’ve had many two-faced friends who have let me down. So I’m very social and playful, but I never let anyone in. Accessible fits you better, Claire. You may be quiet and sometimes even shy, but you are very transparent. I think that’s why I trust you.”
I looked down at my empty cup of gelato, embarrassed. “Thank you. But what you said also means that I am not good at reading people. I totally misread you.”
“You misread that part of me, but many people do, so it’s all right. What concerns me is that you might misread someone else who could hurt you.”
I stared at him, wondering why he cared, and he smiled. “My point is that you seem a bit naïve. I guess that’s why I feel this urge to take care of you.”
Trying to disguise the butterflies in my stomach, I teased. “Urge to take care of me? I thought you were a selfish bastard who was just being nice because it was your annual charity week.”
This time, he laughed aloud. “Yeah, that’s right.”
I laughed, too. A nervous laughter, actually, because I was clueless where that conversation would lead us. David was opening up not only about his life, but about his feelings for me, and I didn’t know if he expected me to say that I had feelings for him, too.
I did, but I didn’t know how to express them without making it clear that I was falling for him. As usual, when I couldn’t find the words, I tried to be funny. “Well, this damsel in distress thanks the knight in shining armor for his concern. He has been great and she’s very thankful.”
Instead of laughing, David studied me for a moment. He then said, “I do care about you, Claire, but the last thing I want is for you to think that I’m some sort of hero. I have all kinds of flaws, and now that we are becoming close friends, it’s time you knew something important about me.”
David fixed his eyes on the horizon and I waited, frozen in place, until he started talking again.
“After my mother died, I was lost, but in a much more dangerous way than you. I disappeared for two weeks with the worst company possible. My father found me in a prison in Paris after I got involved in a serious fight. He brought me back to London, but even under his supervision, I started drinking a lot and was almost expelled from school. Things got so critical that my dad locked me up in a rehabilitation clinic.”
I was shocked at the contrast of his character. “I’m sorry, David. I had no idea…”
“I’m not proud of telling you that. But I want you to know exactly who I am.”
“I’m not disappointed, just surprised. I just assumed you were flawless.”
“So did everyone else. And that’s why Kevin and I are so close. He’s the only friend who supported me when my life was no longer perfect.”
David remained silent for a moment, throwing small stones into the lagoon. After a few splashes, I asked, “How are you now?”
“I’m... better. It happened two years ago and I consider myself cured. Other than the treatment at the clinic, I had a psychologist who was very helpful. He made me realize that my weakness was never a true addiction to alcohol. It was just my way to escape. Now, I avoid drinking, but if I have to do it socially, I know I won’t go from a glass of Champagne to two bottles of Whiskey.”
“I’m glad to hear that. But if you are okay now, why do you still speak of it as if something was bothering you?”
“Because my father thought I was the perfect son and I disappointed him. Since then, he thinks I’m prone to doing something stupid and I have to keep proving him 24-7 that I have since grown up and am responsible.”
Now I understood David’s business-like behavior when he dealt with the construction supervisor in his home the day we met. That was probably one of his ways to show his father that in his absence, he could be the man of the house.
“I am telling you all of this because I don’t want to let anyone else down. I try to be nice, but I am far from perfect.”
David lowered his head and I timidly placed a hand on his shoulder. “You don’t have to be,” I said in a low voice. “And maybe it’s not that your dad expects you to be perfect. Have you ever considered that your crisis, right after your mother’s death, might have been too much for him? He may be just afraid to lose you, too. If you give him some more time, eventually he will realize that you are reliable again.”
“Eighteen months should be time enough for him. You don’t know my dad, Claire. He will never forget.” He gave me a sad smile. “But thanks for your words. They mean a lot to me.”
I merely nodded and we sat there in silence, gazing at the lagoon. After a while, I said, “I’m happy you are spending the summer here. Now we can get to know each other better.”
David turned to me. “Me too. But after this conversation, do you still want to be my friend? What if my father is right and I am an irreversible sociopath?”
He smiled, but I could sense that my answer was important to him.
“Well, someone told me that I am terrible at reading people, so what you just said changed nothing of what I thought of you.”
We both laughed and then I told him, “Where I come from, if someone makes a mistake and tries to fix it, we support them. Maybe I’m really naïve, David, but I trust you.”
David took my hand and intertwined his fingers in mine. “I’ll never let you down,” he said, his eyes filled with affection – and his voice held the seal of a promise.
The sun had already started its slow descent and the water shimmered with gold, reflecting the giant fireball traveling toward the horizon. The distant boats, perfectly visible before, now were black silhouettes dotting the sea.
As I stared at the vulnerable boy under a prince’s façade, I was certain that I loved David. I would never forget my first summer in Venice. The summer in which the most handsome boy in the world had showed me the city and taught me how to overcome my grief. Regardless of what happened between us, I would be eternally grateful to David Winslet for all he had done for me. And even if I never saw him again after those months, he would be part of my memories forever.
That Friday would be a busy day. My regular class would end at noon, and at 2 P.M., we were supposed to have our first field trip into the city. I had loved that part of the program when I enrolled, but now afternoon classes meant that I could not meet with David. This frustrated me. Twenty-four hours without seeing him seemed like an eternity.
At break time, David called, saying that the workers had found a chest buried in the secret chamber. “Really?! What’s inside it?” I exclaimed over the phone.
“Nothing fun. Just some old books and ugly statues. Stuff that only Kevin and my dad would like.”
I laughed. “I’m sorry. Maybe they will find something more interesting within the next few days.”
“I hope so. Since you are busy today, I will stick around and see what happens.”
I hung up, still laughing. I bought a soda and sat on a bench in the school atrium with a book of Lord Byron’s poems. After an overdose of Italian, I needed a few minutes to get back in touch with my own language.
I savored the first page and when I was ready to start the next, Melissa sat beside me.
“I will have to miss the afternoon class,” she said, excited. “My mom called and we are taking the one o’clock train to Rome.”
“For someone who is so worried about learning Italian fast, you seem a little too happy to miss class.”
“I’m so bored that I jumped for joy when dad decided to travel earlier so we would have more time in Rome.” The blond American boy that Mel liked passed in front of us and she waved at him, sending him a flashy smile. “Maybe for a small town girl, Venice is not much of a shock, Claire, but I will die of monotony living here.”
“Well, have fun in Rome, then,” I said, hurt. I was a small town girl and now Venice was my small town. The city that was embracing me as my new home. I resented the pejorative way Mel had referred to it.
I reopened my book, hoping she would take the cue to leave, but showing off about her trip to Rome hadn’t been enough for Melissa.
“What about you?” she asked. “Any plans for the weekend?”
I remembered Mel’s face of disdain when I had asked if she was attending the ball. I considered saying that I had no plans. But I was fed up with her and wouldn’t mind some friction that afternoon. “I’m going to the masked ball.”
She shook her head and shrugged. “Well, what can I say? If you haven’t been to a real masked ball, anything will do.”
I closed the book and forced a smile. “You know, Mel, I don’t give a shit about the ball, but a handsome boy can be a great motivator. David insisted so much that I went with him.”
Mel’s brain took a few twists and turns to process the idea of this small town girl going to the ball with the Greek God, and I took the opportunity to attack her again. “Come on, if that cute American boy you just smiled at had invited you to go with him, you wouldn’t mind if the ball sucked, would you?”
The American boy had bought his tickets two days earlier, right in front of Mel and did not even bother asking if she was attending. She smiled, embarrassed. When she spoke again, her voice was almost sweet. “Your friend David can make anything interesting. I guess you are going to have fun.”
“That’s what I thought.” And finally, she shut up and I was finally able to get back to my reading.
Normally, the third row was the perfect spot to sit in my classroom. Not so much ahead to seem a nerd, yet close enough to read Mr. Moretti’s lips – that helped me understand him when he spoke too fast. But at 11:50 A.M., I had to make a few maneuvers to read David’s text message with my teacher standing so near me.
Change of plans. Want to have lunch with me?
I smiled. Apparently, twenty-four hours were too long for David as well.
Hiding my hands under the desk, I typed “Ok” and started to count the minutes left until class ended. I glanced at Melissa and smiled to myself. I wouldn’t exchange tomorrow’s ball for a thousand weekends in Rome.
David took me to a café two blocks away from the Institute, and while we ate he said, “I know you have a busy day today, but remember the theater director I mentioned to you? I left him a message about you and he has just gotten back to me. He wants us to meet him in two hours.”
“Today? No way!” I breathed. “My class takes the whole afternoon.”
“I know. But he’s going to New York tomorrow and will take six months to return. I thought it would be worth it to miss class.”
I hesitated and David tapped my hand. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to. But if you are in a dilemma about your career choices and this famous guy is willing to do me a favor and talk to you, you shouldn’t miss it. His opinion could really help you.”
“You are right, but…” I looked down at my plain clothes. “I won’t even have time to go home to change. Do you think I can go see a man like that wearing jeans and a T-shirt?”
David laughed. “Why do women always think of clothes first? You’re not going to an audition, Claire; it’s just an informal conversation. You look fine.”
David and I headed to the back entrance of the theater and he identified himself to the door attendant. A few moments later, we were allowed inside. The theater was small – it probably sat about three hundred – and was old and poorly kept.
Noticing the disappointment on my face, David said, “I know this place is not much, but Eurico Galliati is a genius. He’s worked here for years and has recently directed several acclaimed performances all over the world. He’s here this week just for casting.”
I nodded. “It’s very kind of him to make the time to see us. Your father must be a very good friend.”
“He is, and Eurico worked many times with my mother.”
Standing by the stage was an elegant man with gray hair, talking to a few women in medieval costumes. When he saw David, he asked the ladies to excuse him. He then approached us, smiling. “David! Your father said you had grown up, but I did not imagine you were taller than I!”
David hugged Mr. Galliati affectionately and then introduced us.
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Thompson,” Mr. Galliati said. “David said you would like to be an actress and you want my advice.”
I looked at David, nervous, then back at Mr. Galliati. “Yes. But I have never been to any famous acting schools. I just love acting and I’d like to know if this could be a viable career option for me. David caught me completely by surprise suggesting we come here today. I don’t even know exactly what to ask you.”
“Young lady, in my experience, you can ask me a thousand questions, but there is only one way I can give you true advice.” Mr. Galliati pointed at the stage behind me. “I need to see you act.”
I chuckled nervously, and he said, “This is not a test. It can be anything you have performed in the past. Just so I can have an idea of what you can do.”
Noticing my hesitation, David said, “Why don’t you try?” He then turned to the director and said, “She can always show you something better some other time, right, Eurico?”
Finally, I nodded. “All right. I have something in mind...”
Mr. Galliati and David sat in the fifth row, right in the center, and I headed up the stage, thinking of Isolda’s final monologue after Tristan’s death. I had acted that play numerous times at school and I knew it by heart.
When I had positioned myself in the center of the stage, David gave me an encouraging smile, but I could sense he was feeling guilty for putting me in that unexpected situation.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
I was nervous when I spilled my first lines, but I tried to keep my voice firm and move around the stage with confidence. David’s surprised face was the last thing I saw of my audience. The stage really had the power of transforming me. Moments later, I was so involved in my part I felt I had truly become Isolda. I forgot where I was. I forgot that a famous director was watching me, and suffered over Tristan’s death with all my passion. When I finished, I was kneeling on the floor, still panting, with tears staining my cheeks.
I remained silent for a while, remembering who Claire Thompson was, and then faced my audience. A third person had appeared, a woman, and she was at Mr. Galliati’s side. The two looked at me, seemingly pleased, but I found my greatest surprise in David’s eyes. His feelings for me were all there, with nothing held back. For a moment, I forgot how to breathe.
It was obvious that David liked me, but I did not expect that look. There, in silence, he had made any doubt that I had about us magically disappear.
All I wanted was to go down the stage and run to his arms, but Mr. Galliati broke the spell. “I liked what I saw, Ms. Thompson. You did well.”
I looked back at the director, still stunned after my exchange of glances with David.
“You are still very raw, as we used to say, and of course you have a lot to learn to become a professional actress. But you seem confident on stage; you have focus and your performance is quite convincing. Most of it will depend on you, but I recognize a talent when I see one. You have it.”
David looked at me and smiled, his face glowing.
I could not move, intoxicated by so many good things happening at once.
Mr. Galliati rose and shook David’s hand. “Son, now unfortunately I have to go. I hope we can meet again soon.” The woman was rushing him and the director did not even wait for me to come down. He approached the stage and shook my hand. “It was a pleasure, Ms. Thompson. David has all my contacts. Call me whenever you are ready to get started and I will recommend you to some good schools.”
I smiled. “Thank you, sir…Thank you so much!”
David waited by his seat until Mr. Galliati and the woman disappeared. He then ran to me, catching me in the middle of the steps and spinning me around.
Slowly, he put me down, but we remained close, lost in each other’s eyes, my arms still resting on his shoulders.
“I’m so proud of you,” he said. “I’m glad we came here.”
My heart was drumming inside my chest with his proximity. “I don’t even know how to thank you, David. What you did means a lot to me.”
“Thank me by not giving up your dream.” His eyes traveled down to my lips, and he leaned forward to kiss me.
“Hey, guys!” the light technician yelled from the upper level. “I’m going to have to shut off everything here and I thought you might want to leave before it gets dark.”
That was a frustrating moment. David’s lips did not even get to touch mine. But considering that man could have been there the whole time, watching us, we had no choice but to laugh.
The theater was in the Saint Mark’s district and this time, instead of taking me in his boat, David and I walked all the way back to my neighborhood. It took us a half hour, but we were in no rush. Along the way, he made no more attempts to kiss me, but our eyes shared a silent conversation that was as exciting as a kiss itself. Now I knew that he loved me, too, and that everything would happen in its rightful time and place.
We stopped a few blocks away to say goodbye and I said, “Sorry I kept you away from your secret chamber. I’m sure you are dying to explore your newly found treasure.”
He laughed at my sarcasm. “Believe me, I have no regrets about my afternoon. But I can’t say I’m not curious. Those things may be boring, but they are centuries old. Kevin asked me to go through them tonight and then tell him exactly what they are over the phone.”
“Have fun then!”
“I’ll try. Now, are you sure you don’t want me to pick you up for the ball tomorrow?”
“No, thanks. We can meet there.”
“As you wish, signorina.” David bowed gallantly and kissed my hand. “I’ll be counting the hours.”
I laughed and he gracefully took his leave.
He turned back.
“Who exactly did you say was fantastic, Isolda or me?”
He grinned. “Tomorrow you will find out.”
Finally, the big day had arrived! I woke up early, full of energy despite having been up late. I told Loretta a hundred times what had happened between David and me. After a quick breakfast, I returned to my room and admired my costume that the store had just delivered.
A moment later, there was a knock at the door and Loretta said, “It’s me!”
She had insisted on giving me a spa treatment for the ball and entered my room carrying a briefcase filled with beauty care paraphernalia – makeup, a curling iron, and several hair and skin products.
“Wow! Do you really know what all this stuff is for?”
“Of course! Leave it to me and you will look like a princess.” Under her arm, Loretta pulled out a long tube. “This is from your beloved, by the way.”
“Who else? Two days ago he gave it to me and asked me to deliver it on the day of the ball.”
I smiled and started to open the small envelope attached outside. The card read:
The first masked ball is unforgettable.
I painted this after attending mine.
I hope you like it.
David was definitely an impressionist. With intense brush strokes and vibrant colors, he had depicted such a realistic masked ball that I felt like the orchestra in the painting would begin to play, engaging the guests in a cheerful dance.
“It’s so beautiful…” I whispered, smoothing the canvas.
“It is,” Loretta agreed. “But the coolest part is that he’s doing everything to make this ball unforgettable for you.”
This time, I did not try to hide my emotions. “He’s doing a great job!”
I called David right away to thank him, but it went straight to voicemail. So I left him a message.
“Now let’s go!” Loretta rushed me. “I intend to make you look so gorgeous that when David lays his eyes on you, he will kiss you right away!”
At 9 P.M. I was – all modesty aside – the prettiest thing I had ever seen.
As I studied my reflection in the old mirror, I traveled back in time and pretended to be a noble woman. I was wearing a golden brocade gown and a black mask adorned with crystals on one side and feathers on the other. Loretta had dressed my hair in a fancy hairdo; my twirling locks bounced down my face playfully, and my makeup was subtle, but very sexy. David would have loved to see me in such great style.
The problem was, he was no longer coming to the ball.
You heard that right. He never returned my voice message, so I had texted him several times. Having received no reply by 6 P.M., I was quite anxious and called him again. This time, he answered but he didn’t seem himself. He was lying in bed, his words incoherent. He sounded… drunk.
I first felt an invisible hand squeeze my heart with disappointment, but I was soon overwhelmed with anger. Apparently, everything David told me in Burano about having recovered from his drinking addiction and his father being unfair to him had been a lie.
“Have you been drinking?” I asked, incredulous.
He mumbled something about being tired and I grew impatient. “David, you sound like you are drunk and I need to know whether or not you are coming to the ball.”
He mumbled some more about not wanting to go, so I hung up and tossed the phone on my bed with trembling hands. Mr. Winslet was right. His son had become not only an alcoholic, but a coward, unable to face his problems. It was true that our relationship was moving too fast, and maybe David was having second thoughts about us. But why did he have to behave that way? I would have been upset if he had told me he was not ready to be my boyfriend, but I would have respected him for his honesty. What disgusted me was how insincere he had been about it.
The last thing he said to me before I hung up had been, “I’m not in the mood to go out. I’d rather sleep.”
With those simple words, the greatest summer of my life had turned into the worst.
Needless to say, the party had completely lost its enchantment and I no longer wanted to attend. But Loretta convinced me that it would be easier to go for an hour or two, than to explain to Grandma and Anna why I had suddenly changed my mind. In my frustration, I had agreed. But three hours later, looking at myself in the mirror, I felt nothing. I was back to the “numb zone,” which had always protected me from pain.
When I descended the steps to the living room, Anna and Grandma applauded as if I were a movie star. Loretta was right. After all the money they had spent on me, I truly owed them by going to the ball.
“Thank you,” I said, forcing a smile.
Grandmother was thrilled. “I can hardly believe you are such a grown up, darling! You look so gorgeous!”
“She’s right,” Anna agreed. “A princess from a fairytale.”
If only they knew what my fairytale had just turned into…
Loretta arrived a few moments later with her brother, Toni. He was a couple of years older than us and played the part of the good boy like no one else. Knowing that my grandmother trusted him, Toni had been strategically invited to serve as our chaperone. Little did she know that Toni was Loretta’s accomplice whenever she secretly wanted to hang out with boys.
“Toni, my dear, please watch over these two beauties,” Carmella said. “They are too irresistible to be left alone in a ball.”
“Don’t worry, ma’am. I’ll take care of them and bring Claire back home safe and sound.”
When we left, Loretta said, “Don’t let this loser ruin your first masked ball. I can’t believe David is back to drinking! I’ll kick his ass myself as soon as I see him!”
“I don’t want to talk about him, Loretta. Now let’s just go and get it over with.”
I marched toward Toni’s boat with anguish eating at my insides, and told myself that this night could not get any worse.
I had no idea how wrong I was.
A gorgeous palazzo played host to the ball. Golden and silver balloons cascaded down the upper balconies and the entire façade had been decorated with gas torches, whose orange flicker bounced off the canal waters, resembling Venice’s glory days.
As our boat approached the dock, Loretta said, “Okay, Toni, now you may disappear. Thanks.”
Her brother laughed. “Have fun, girls!” He maneuvered his boat and headed to his true destination.
The party had started only one hour earlier, yet the ballroom was already packed with characters hidden behind their masks. There were around four hundred people just on that floor and waiters moved around in a frantic pace, serving hors d'oeuvre and Champagne. There were four bars in different corners of the main ballroom and a long buffet in the back, where guests could help themselves to fruit, cheese, smoked meat and an array of breads.
“Let’s get a drink,” Loretta said.
As we made our way towards one of the bars, I noticed girls wearing lavish costumes and bejeweled masks like Loretta and me. Others wore pantaloons and columbines, while still others dressed as peacocks, kings, medieval butchers and priests. Dance music echoed throughout the large halls, and the scent of dozens of perfumes impregnated the air.
When we finally reached the bar, dozens of masked revelers had crowded around it and it was impossible to get close. “Are you hungry?” Loretta asked. “We could grab some food first.”
“Not really. Why don’t we just hang out here for a while?”
She nodded. “I’m amazed it’s so crowded. It’s not even ten yet!”
As we surveyed the spectacle, a tall man in a black cloak and white mask approached us. “Can I get you ladies a drink?”
“Why not?” Loretta answered, throwing him an inviting look. She turned to me. “What do you want?”
“Just a Coke.”
Loretta ignored me and told the guy, “Champagne for both of us, please.” When he was gone, she looked back at me. “A Coke? For Christ’s sake, Claire! Make an effort to have some fun, okay?”
I let out a sigh. “You know what? I came here but obviously I can’t have fun. And I will end up ruining your party if I stay. So I guess I’ll just go back home and tell my family that I got sick.”
“Listen!” Loretta looked me straight in the eye. “What happened sucked. I would feel the same way if I were in your place, but going home to cry will not make you feel any better. You look so beautiful! Please, just forget about David for a couple of hours. Forget about everything. Let’s pretend we are in New York like in the old days and enjoy the party, just the two of us, okay?”
Loretta was as loyal as a dog and if I insisted on leaving, she would follow me. It was not fair. I gave her a small smile. “Okay. But I’m doing this for you. I don’t want to deprive you of that hot guy coming with our drinks.”
She turned around, and there was the masked stranger with his perfect smile, handing out our Champagne flutes. He started chatting with the two of us, but his interest was clearly in Loretta. She was having fun, too, so I resolved to stay – for her.
What I didn’t expect was that another guy would come over to join the first one – this one wore a black cloak and a tricorn hat. The one interested in Loretta was Swiss and the second, a Russian. I didn’t remember their names.
The Swiss was not only attractive but also nice. And, of course, Loretta found him interesting. But the Russian, who unfortunately was hitting on me, was a spoiled rich brat who was convinced that he was the king of the world.
“Shall we dance?” the Swiss asked Loretta.
She hesitated, glancing at me, and I mouthed, “Go.”
Instead, she approached me and whispered, “I said we would stay together.”
“Yeah, and I said I didn’t want to ruin your party.”
“You don’t like this Russian.”
“Just go! I’m fine!” And I pushed her forward.
As Loretta followed the Swiss onto the dance floor, the Russian asked me, “Shall we dance, too?”
I was prepared for that question. “No, thanks. Actually, I’m not really…available.”
“Oh…” He looked at his fancy Bulgari watch and then back at me. “Waiting for someone?”
I wish. “No, I just want to be alone.”
He threw me an angry look, as if I had deeply offended him. “Well, suit yourself then,” he said, and then left.
Jesus. What a jerk!
I decided to look for a quiet place where no one would disturb me for another hour or so and then I would definitely leave. I found Loretta and said I would be at the upstairs balcony.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “Where’s that Russian guy?”
“I sent him away.”
She smiled. “I guess you are not as defenseless as I assumed.”
“Not at all. I will be enjoying the view for a while, and later I’ll come get you. Have fun!”
Before climbing the steps, I stopped at the buffet for a little bite to ease my anxiety, and found out that some genius had placed buckets with ice on each side of the table, containing bottled water and sodas. I put a few grapes and cheese on a plate, got a Diet Coke and headed to the second floor.
It was much quieter upstairs; only a few couples were drinking and chatting quietly. There were no seats, so I stood by the edge of the balcony, plate in hand, to admire the amazing scene below me. I wondered why life had become so complicated. First losing my parents, then moving abroad, and now with what had happened with David. I abandoned my plate without touching it and gazed absently at the lagoon, trying to get rid of the lump forming in my throat.
“Not hungry?” a masked man asked in Italian.
I noticed by his accent that he was American. When I turned around to face him, ironically, he was wearing a Casanova costume.
“No, I’m not,” I replied in English.
“Oh, American too? What a relief not having to speak my lousy Italian!”
I laughed. “Yeah.”
“What do you mean? Yeah, it’s good? Or yeah, my Italian is lousy?”
He was funny. “Yeah, it’s good.”
The stranger stood by my side, marveling at the view over the balcony. “It’s a wonderful place, isn’t it?”
Casanova turned to me, now studying me more carefully. “You don’t seem too happy to be here, though.”
Am I that obvious? The truth was that I hated David for getting drunk and standing me up on my first masked ball. But I also loved him for everything else he had done for me that week. In fact, I hadn’t stopped thinking about David throughout the entire party, and I was actually worried about what had led him to drink.
“I’m okay,” I said simply. “A bit tired, perhaps.”
“Oh? I know exactly what you need! I arrived yesterday and I am still jetlagged, so I tried the bar’s fruit punch-energy drink mix. Do you want me to get you a glass?”
“I don’t drink, but thanks.”
“Would you like to dance?”
“I guess I’ll just hang out here for a while. I’m waiting for a friend.”
“Wow! How can you resist Casanova?”
We both laughed and then he said, “I got it. And I promise I won’t make a pass at you. But why don’t you dance with me while you wait?”
This American boy was nice, but not the one I wanted to dance with at my first Venetian ball. I planned to dismiss him gently. But before I could utter half a syllable, a deep, familiar voice answered him for me.
“Because her friend has just arrived.”
I did not need to turn back to know who was behind me, but my neck instinctively did. David was wearing a classic masked ball attire, a tuxedo, a long dark cape, and a black mask. I was so stunned by his unexpected appearance that I did not notice when the American guy vanished.
“You look terrific,” David said.
Normally, I would have reciprocated his compliment, but my thoughts were all mixed up. I was both happy and annoyed to see him. Finally, I asked, “How did you find me among all these people?”
“I found Loretta.” He glanced at my glass and smiled. “But even if I hadn’t, it would have been easy. You are the only girl here who’s drinking Coke.”
I did not laugh and David said, “You’re still mad at me, aren’t you?”
“I am, and I don’t know what you are doing here. I texted you that I did not want to see you again.”
“I know.” He stepped closer, his face serious now. “You said I was drunk. But I wasn’t. Last night, I was checking the stuff in the trunk that the workers found and I guess I fell asleep. Next thing I know, I am waking up in my bed, my clothes soaked with sweat. I swear I didn’t drink, but I had no memory of what had happened and my head hurt terribly. I slept the whole day. When you called me, I could barely make sense of what you were saying. All I wanted to do was to keep sleeping.”
I continued staring at David, not knowing what to think. But he seemed sincere. “Are you telling the truth?” I finally managed.
“Yes. It must have been a virus or something. I felt sick. But suddenly I woke up, feeling greater than ever and I knew I had to come see you. Check your phone. I called you a dozen times within the last hour. The music must have been too loud for you to hear it.”
I checked the phone and there they were: six missed calls from David. So it had been just a big misunderstanding. David still liked me and he was not back to drinking. The poor thing had just fallen ill. All of a sudden, the room gained new color.
I gave him a small smile, still adjusting to the new reality, and he asked, “Can you please forgive me?”
My smile broadened. “Of course. Now I see it was not your fault.”
David smiled back, brought my hand to his lips and kissed it. He had done the exact same thing the day before, only this time, I felt a flow of energy travel through my fingers and up to my arm. My pulse raced and my knees turned into soft Jell-O.
Whoa! I laughed nervously. “How did you do that?”
I shook my head. It was probably just my nerves. “Nothing… I’m glad you are here.”
“Me too. Sorry I upset you.” David gently removed my mask and then his, and stroked my face with an almost painful expression. “I never want to lose you, Claire. I love you.”
This time, there was no hesitation. David wrapped me in his arms and kissed me in a long embrace.
Everything around us ceased to exist. The music, the chatter. All of it simply faded away. Our first kiss lasted for hours yet felt so short. When I opened my eyes, David was looking at me as if I were the rarest treasure. I had never felt so special.
“I love you, too,” I said, and he pulled me close to him. That was the first time we hugged each other that way and I felt so safe that I would have stayed in his arms the entire night. It was as if we had always been together and nothing could tear us apart.
Gradually, the clatter of the party intruded my perfect world. The master of ceremony announced that the ball would be officially opened with a waltz.
“So here we are, Claire,” David said. “Your first masked ball. Shall we dance?”
My legs were still weak and I was not sure if I would make it down the steps without falling, let alone dancing. But of course, I said yes.
David led me down the stairs along an ocean of people moving around the dance floor. Loretta saw us and waved, then headed in our direction.
“I see you found her,” she told David. She just smiled at me as she noticed our hands clasped. “I’ll be in the back, by the bar. Have fun!”
David and I advanced toward the dance floor, which was soon filled with couples. When he placed his hand on my waist, I said, “No pirouettes this time.”
He chuckled. “No promises there.”
We started to dance, very slowly at first, and then faster, spinning around the room. I was exuding happiness. David’s eyes were back behind his mask and they were as sweet and open as always. I forgot about our fight, the pain, and the fear, and just focused on that magic moment. After all, the memories of my first masquerade would be as remarkable as I had dreamed.
We continued dancing, until David stopped abruptly and placed his hand on his forehead.
“Are you okay?” I asked, alarmed. “Maybe you should go outside for some fresh air.”
“No…” he said, his eyes still closed. “I’ll be fine.”
David led me around the dance floor as if nothing had happened, but his eyes were no longer on me. He glanced around, as if looking for something and he seemed increasingly disturbed. I followed his gaze, but could not make out anything unusual. What did he see?
“No!!” he screamed – And it was definitely not at me. He shook his head, clearly disoriented, and said, “I need to go…”
Beads of sweat formed on his forehead and when I touched it, his skin was on fire. “Jesus, David! You have a high fever! You need to see a doctor.”
“I just need to go back home.”
He started to leave and I followed him. “I’ll go with you.”
“No! Stay here. I’ll call you as soon as I can.”
“David, I can’t let you go like that!”
“You must!” He gave me a stern look. “Don’t follow me,” and rushed to the exit.
I refused to listen to him. David quickly reached the main entrance and I had to get there before he disappeared. I looked around, but there was no time to find Loretta. I would have to call her later. I meandered through the crowd as fast as I could.
When I sprang out of the palazzo, I saw a bunch of masked party guests smoking and chatting on the landing, but no sign of David. Finally, I saw him far away, rushing into a back street. I was about to follow him when someone grabbed my arm.
“Here’s my beauty!” It was the Russian with the tricorn hat. He was completely drunk.
I did not want a scene, but David had just turned the corner and was now out of view. I was very nervous. “Can you let go of my arm?”
“Well, you rejected me, so I was just checking to see if you found someone better.” He laughed. “I’ll let you go when you tell me which of these guys you were running to.”
“Get off me!” I screamed, but he was strong and I could not get myself free.
Several guests glanced at us, but they seemed uncertain whether it was a couple’s fight or if they should interfere. The Russian took it as an endorsement and grabbed my other arm. “Come here, sweetie. What about a kiss?”
I turned my face away for a moment. Next thing I knew, David was back. He pulled the Russian off of me by his cloak and hit him so hard that the guy instantly collapsed.
I stood paralyzed, staring at the blood covering the man’s face. David took my hand, furious, and said, “Let’s get out of here.”
He led us down the side of the building. When I glanced back, a group of party guests were huddled around the Russian. He was sitting now, his hand on his face. One man threw us an angry look and then rushed inside.
David dragged me through numerous alleyways, snaking through the now dark, abandoned city streets. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked, scared. “That guy was an idiot, but he didn’t deserve that!”
“I wish I had hurt him more.”
I no longer recognized David. This man sounded ironic and cruel, completely different from the sweet boy who had kissed me earlier. “You sound like someone else…For Christ’s sake, David, what is going on?”
He did not answer.
“Please stop! You’re hurting my arm!”
David let go of me but continued walking in silence, his steps heavy, his breathing so labored that he removed his mask and threw it on the street.
I followed him, but I was getting desperate. We had made so many twists and turns that I was clueless as to how to find my way back. If David passed out from this illness of his, it would take me a long time to find help.
“There he is!” someone cried from behind us.
When we turned around, we saw the Russian, now accompanied by four other men.
It was past midnight in this dark, narrow side street. If they wanted to, this group of masked men could kill David without caring about being recognized. The possibility terrified me, but it didn’t seem to bother David. He gave his enemies a threatening look and I wondered if his high fever was making him lose touch with reality.
He stood no chance.
When he advanced on the Russian, I said, “They want revenge, David! Please, just apologize!”
He just turned back to me and smiled. “No.”
I leaned against a wall, breathing heavily, and watched on as the five men surrounded David.
It all happened so fast. A tall man on David’s right made the first move, throwing a fist at David’s face. To my amazement, David grabbed the man’s wrist and twisted his arm around, pushing him to the street. I could hear the man moaning as David kicked his face, knocking him out. Two others rushed forward and grabbed both of David’s arms, but he easily knocked their heads together and threw them almost ten feet away!
I could not believe my eyes. David clearly had supernatural strength and I wondered if an adrenaline rush could have triggered it.
The Russian held a handkerchief against his broken nose and told the strongest man in the group to take David out. The man looked like the Russian’s personal bodyguard: he was tall with broad shoulders. Top heavy. And, judging by his moves, he had combat training. He advanced on David and in a flash began pummeling the boy’s face and ribs.
I begged for the man to stop, and he finally did. But I soon realized his pause had nothing to do with mercy. David’s back was toward me, so I could only see the Russian and the bodyguard’s faces, which now displayed an expression of fear.
The bodyguard screamed something in Russian and then ran away, as if he had seen a ghost.
The remaining Russian froze on the spot, and David told him, “Now… I’m the one who’s going to kill you.”
I was relieved that David had escaped the massacre, but I could not allow him to get arrested, like in Paris. Those men on the floor were unconscious – I hoped. I needed to stop David from attacking the Russian and get him out of here.
I called to him, but he ignored me and continued his advance toward the Russian. Fearing that David might accidently hurt me if I approached him from behind, I circled them carefully, hoping to make eye contact with him to calm him down. But when I faced him, chills ran from the crown of my head to the back of my heels and I let out a scream.
David’s face bore no bruises or blood. It was flawless as usual, but his eyes were glowing a fiery yellow, burning like flames.
I stood in place, petrified. David did not even notice my presence. His gaze was on his victim. He grabbed the Russian by the throat and lifted him sheer off the ground. Apparently, David had no intention of simply knocking him out quickly like the others.
The Russian tried to extricate himself from David’s grasp, but all he managed to do was grab David’s shirt and something else that seemed like a part of his costume – a chain with a large golden medallion. As David slapped the man’s arm to shake him off, he accidentally broke the chain and the medallion bounced onto the street.
David roared in anger and punched the Russian’s face, knocking him unconscious. Slowly, David fell on his knees. He remained still for a short while with his eyes closed, and then abruptly passed out.
I could not find the strength to run or to check on him. My whole body was trembling violently so I sat on the ground, panting and crying, worried and terrified, trying to understand what had just happened.
Finally, David raised his head, and his eyes found mine. The horrifying glow no longer burned brightly from his sockets. Instead, he looked at me with the innocent eyes that I had admired when I first met him. But they were filled with pain and shame.
I stared at David behind a curtain of tears, and we both understood that although we were soul mates, our worlds were far apart.
David glanced at the immobile men on the floor with a lament on his face, grabbed his medallion and vanished in the darkness of the night.
My intuition was right the first time I saw the dragon at the Winslets’ gate. A monster did live in that house. And now, I was in love with it.
Chronicles of a Cursed Love – Liza Andrews – All rights reserved © 2009