It wasnt necessarily homesickness that plagued her, it was complete and utter fear. She wanted to kill Carl and if it hadnt been for the fact that they couldnt afford two tickets at that moment, she would have flown back right then to kick his ass. Christian and Alex had swapped use of the pay phone in the back of Paolos to tell their parents that they were safe. Chris refused her mothers invitation of a conference call with Carl; talking to him wasnt going to lessen the anger. But, she did pass a message along to tell him some ugly things that she knew her mom wouldnt repeat.
"So, you dont know my brother? Never met him before? He used to live near Wall Street."
"In Micheles building?" He said as he looked off. It seemed as if he was waiting to see Carl walk into the bar.
"Yeah Micheles building." She said through gritted teeth.
"Um is he tall, kinda stocky with really "
"Curly hair yeah, thats him." She was now saddling up on a bar stool looking totally defeated.
"Yeah, I remember him he was a funny guy. We talked to him for a while; it was right before we moved here to start the biz. He did mention you, now that I think about it."
"Well, Im glad he mentioned us to you. Id hate to fly halfway across the world to discover we were meeting a guy who had never at least heard our FRIGGIN NAMES FOR CHRIST SAKE!"
"Hey lady, Im sorry! We never talked to him again after that. I didnt think you guys would ever come here. Especially without knowing you were taken care of." Paolo walked to where the liquor was lined along a mirrored wall and began to pour two syrupy drinks. Christian looked like she was going to explode. Alex held her shoulder.
"Christian, calm down. Well figure this out." She turned to face Paolo. "I mean, there might still be an opening for a job, right?"
"Actually, no we filled up last week. We cant hire you guys anyway because, and Im assuming here, you dont have any papers?" He set the drinks down on two little napkins. "Here, drink this itll help." He pushed the glasses towards them.
"Why would we need to get papers, Paolo? Carl said that you would have them for us." Christian spat the words out like she was sucking on lemons. Then she laid her head down on the bar.
"Man, did you guys get screwed." Alex looked at him and rolled her eyes.
"Sorry" He said.
"So what is this anyway?" Alex said as she reached for the glass. A little change of subject could do no harm for the moment.
"Grappa. Its pretty strong so drink it carefully."
Alex tapped Christian on the shoulder and motioned towards the drink.
"I dont want any Crappa!" Christian flopped her head down onto the table.
"Its Grappa, with a G". Paolo said as a smile crept onto his face. "Look, why dont you leave your stuff here and go find a hotel. You guys need to figure out where youre gonna stay before its too late." As soon as he spoke, he wanted to grab a spoon and eat those words straight from the air.
"Too late for what?" Alex said.
"Well, its Carnivale. People come from all over the world to be here. A lot of the hotels are probably booked already, but I am sure that there are a few around that you guys could find no problem." He smiled and walked down to help a customer at the end of the bar.
"Okay, this isnt that bad. I mean, its bad but it could be worse. At least we didnt get robbed, or lose our luggage or something."
"Alex- not trying to be a total ass here -but what idiot would try to steal these packs?"
She sighed, sipped her drink and tried again. "Here, take a big ole mouthful of Crappa and lets get moving. I dont want to sleep on the cobblestones tonight."
Christian chuckled a little and grabbed her drink, downing half of it before the taste of pure alcohol scorched her throat. She hated feeling this angry and when she looked at Alexs face, she remembered her words on Raffaeles boat. Whatever happened, however hard it was, at least they were together. "Alright lets go."
Christian got Paolos attention and he showed them where they could store their bags. As they heaved them into a closet, Paolo appeared with a well worn travel guide and handed it to Alex.
"Listen, a lot of these places are small, cheap, and ugly. Most people avoid them, so Id check them out first. Go ahead and book through the rest of the week. Heres my cell number. If you need a translator or something give me a call okay? Ill be at the restaurant tonight with Michele, Its called Il Grotto, heres the address. Its around the corner from Saint Marks Square but ask somebody to show you where it is cause you guys wont find it on your own. Come by around ten well have a drink and Ill try to help you figure some of this stuff out. But remember - its Carnivale. You guys are gonna see some weird shit. Its a tradition here, everybody dresses up. Its like an Italian Mardi Gras. Be careful, watch your wallets. The Italians dont steal, but the gypsies do. " He gave the little slip of paper with his number to Christian and winked. "You guys are gonna be alright." Christian grabbed him and gave him death wrenching hug.
"Thank you!" She said vehemently.
He wheezed a tiny "no problem" out before she released him.
The air outside was damp and smelled of the tide that was soon coming. The chill was not as fierce as they walked their way through the alleys. Canals snaked around every corner and under every pathway. It was truly amazing how the city grew around the water. The greenish brown hue of the canals seamlessly melded into a line on every algae plagued building and quietly ticked away at its foundation. The sky was grey, a proper winter day, though far from Carls promise of eternal spring. It was beautiful in a melancholy way; like a rainy day in the English countryside.
It suited them at the moment. Two figures quietly moving through the old city, eyes at half mast. They were tousled and tired but had already been seduced by the spell that the city cast. There were masked people beginning to come out as the afternoon wore on. Their costumes were amazing and added to the mystique that surrounded the city. They passed a woman dressed as a courtesan with a beautiful painted on porcelain face, a tiny mole dotted over her full lips. She smiled at them as they passed by and Christian smiled back, pushing the short blonde locks from her face.
Though they had searched through most of the pensiones in the little guidebook to no avail, they were content, probably because it did no good to be anything else. But it was also because they felt rejuvenated. Christian was moved by the city as she hoped she would be. There were stories everywhere, in every person and each building that ached at the assault of the water. She could hear it all whispering to her as if she were the only medium between their secret histories and the vibrant, spooky life that surrounded them.
Alex could feel it too. Some sort of a film lay between her eyes and everything she saw there. It was far from anything she had ever seen before and beautiful in a way that she had only seen in movies. She could sense a calmness taking Chris over and it soothed her. They hardly spoke at all, but there was no need, it seemed as if any noise, even a whisper would end the romance.
It was ugly and small. Cheap? Yes, it was cheap. But there was a bigger price to pay. Irvanas Pensione was filled with little squawking rat like parakeets that flew
willy- nilly around the place. Their room overlooked a red rooftop where pigeons were nesting by the thousands. They were staying in a coop. But it was the last coop on the list and the only one with a room.
There were signs in the communal bathroom that showed a picture of a bird falling into the toilet. It was a drawing that fit into a circle and had a line drawn across it "No bird in toilet please" was scribbled underneath the sketch.
"Do people put these birds in the toilet?" Alex asked as she wobbled wearily over the bathroom sign.
"I guess somebody must have. I wonder how long it took before they gave in to the urge." Christian turned to walk to their bedroom door which was next to an enormous birdcage that housed only four birds at the moment. The door to the cage was open they were coming back. "I hate Carl." They looked at each other and giggled a little.
It was anywhere from the thirteenth to the thirtieth time that Alex heard Chris utter these words. The sentence had lost its venom. "Listen, why dont we take a nap? I think that things will be a little easier to handle if we sleep a bit." She started to unzip her fleece jacket before sitting on the bed.
"Youre right. Im going to go call Paolo and ask him of we can pick up our stuff later. I cant imagine walking all the way back there right now." She picked up the phrasebook from her travel bag and pulled the door open to see the ominous birdcage outside. "Do you need anything?" But when she turned to look at Alex, she was already curled up sleeping away quietly.
Chris descended the marble steps to the "office" (A.K.A kitchen) carefully. She passed at least twenty portraits of parakeets on the way down the staircase. Over the squawking, she heard the low tones of Irvanas singing. She entered the kitchen and took in the sight of the woman. She was rather short and a bit stout with gray hair that was whisked into a half-hearted bun that rested on her neck. There were tiny spindles of grey that hung down like cobwebs, deviously escaping her attempt at order.
"Ciao signora!" she said, trying to put on a merry voice. She pulled her phrasebook up to read the next line.
Irvana looked up from her magazine and raised her eyebrows. "Si "
"Posso usare il telefono?"Chris said proudly.
"Si. Avanti a la sinistra sotto il tavolo"
Chris flipped madly through the book looking for avanti. Irvana must have sensed this was the end of the phrase exchange because she rose from her seat and took Chris by the arm.
"Avanti.." she said with her finger pointing straight ahead. They walked into the hallway and upon turning left Irvana pointed her finger left and said "Sinistra"
"Grazie, signora." Chris felt the calloused hands scratching her forearm. It reminded her of a first grader on a potty trip.
Irvana released her arm and bent over to grab a dusty black phone from underneath a card table. "Ecco" she handed Chris the phone.
"Grazie signora!"She smiled at the woman and Irvana rolled her eyes.
"Prego." She scooted away down the hall.
Chris pulled out the slip of paper and called Paolo.
Upon her return to their crappy little room upstairs (with one bed), It occurred to her then, while she was drunk with sleepiness, staring at the still, innocent form of her sleeping companion, that perhaps she had taken this adventure for a reason other than merely experience. She tilted her head and stood by the door lost in thought. It was an old pattern. One she had traced and retraced in her youth with the same painful outcome.
Christian found herself staring at Alex roiling with a sickness whose power she had forgotten. It was a flashback that ran the gamut from seventh grade slumber parties to sorority girls. Memories of sleeping next to women who would "accidentally" touch her seductively in the night, stolen kisses that were so tender they could have been friendly, but like no friendship she had ever seen. It had been confusing, confusing, confusing. As she looked upon Alex, anger rose up in her. "Never again" she thought.
Christian knew that she was "different" from the time that she was a kid in junior high. She had gone to a co-ed private school where all the other kids had gotten whatever they wanted. Many of them had parents who couldnt have cared less what they did. So, they started doing everything at a fairly young age. Little girls pressed their pink lips to the television set practicing a kiss every time some good looking guy came on screen. They were impatient and demanded to be fully prepared for the first time they would be caught in a passionate embrace with their future thirteen year old lovers. They were eager to shed their naivety and even more eager to let other little girls know, or at least think, that they already had.
Christian was a different little girl. She found her eyes cast down every time that they went into the locker room. She found that she lacked the pillow talk that the other girls were so proficient with. When her body began its pubescent betrayal of her, she tried to hide it in hand me downs from Carl. But, it was a preppy little school and Christians mother dressed her accordingly. There was no quelling puberty; there was no hiding her body. So, Christian was stuck. This mode of life became her, it transformed her. She, who was so different on the inside from all the other little girls, had become as easy to hide as a little red ladybug in the branches of a sequoia.
All of this hiding led her to a place where she felt shameful of her attractions and her emotions. While she listened to each one of her friends talk about their lame dates and sweaty fumbling first kisses, Christian would be mending a broken heart from within. No one knew her then, including herself.
She had allowed herself to love women who were "maybes". Maybe one time, maybe Ill try it Maybes. There had been women before who had loved her fiercely when the door was closed, but never any other way. The experiences with these lovers and potential lovers had woven the tapestry of her life until then, and the choices that she made. When she went to college, her search for openness and acceptance ended when she met Kate. Whatever problems they had were shadowed by the fact that she loved Chris and acknowledged this love. There was no maybe. After she experienced that kind of undisguised love, she vowed never to want or pursue anything else. She promised to be smart and careful with her heart, never to want anything she couldnt have.
That was what she was thinking in her slightly tilted, very tired, blonde head as she stared down at her. It wasnt Alex that infuriated her, but her betrayal of her own promise; the one she had made to herself years ago. Yet, here she was standing in a tiny room, in pensione miles away from home, wanting someone whom she could never have. She would have to hide it all over again while sleeping right next to her in the same bed.
It was then that she attempted to make another promise, one she almost didnt even let herself acknowledge. It was a promise for self preservation. She decided that she would not ever love Alex and possibly not even like her if that would save her heart.
She slipped into bed with her back facing Alex and fell asleep almost immediately.
Alex had set her watch to wake them up at eight pm. She figured that two hours might be enough to rejuvenate themselves for the continuing adventure. She could not remember ever waking up that tired in her life. She rolled over and saw that Chris was tucked neatly in the corner of the bed, almost falling off of the edge. In fact, Chris had one foot on the floor that seemed to be in the ready position in case of fire or a flock of parakeets. Alex chuckled to herself and tapped the woman on her shoulder.
"Wha..Whats wrong?" She mumbled.
"Nothings wrong, but its eight and I figured we should start getting ready to meet Paolo." She was propped up on her elbows now, pushing the dark hair from her face. "Did you talk to him about our stuff? Im sorry I dozed off, I dont know what happened. It was like someone slipped me something. I had the weirdest dreams too. Anyway, what did Paolo say?" She rubbed her eyes and waited for a response that didnt come.
"Chris?" She leaned over the woman and heard a little snort.
Alex rose slowly from the bed, grabbed her toothbrush, and stretched her way out the door and into the bathroom. She splashed some water on her face and ran wet fingers through her hair. She stood there brushing her teeth for a minute, staring at herself in the mirror. She noted the bags that were underneath her eyes. She also saw plastic cups sitting on the side of the sink. She hatched an evil plan.
Alex filled the cup with cold water and tiptoed into their room. She crept over to Christians side of the bed and quietly crawled on top of her, holding the cup steadily all the while. She straddled her belly with little reluctance from her victim.
"Chris .wake up." She sang.
"Five more minutes " she said sleepily.
"In five more minutes, youre going to be wet."
"WHAT!" Christians eyes popped open as she jerked awake. She stared at the woman who sat on top of her.
Alex was so surprised that the cup fell out of her hands and onto Christians face, which was supposed to be merely a threat.
"Oh my God, I am so sorry. It wasnt supposed to fall."
Chris got out of bed and stormed into the bathroom slamming the door behind her.
"It really was a joke. I wasnt going to dump it on you. You scared me it fell out of my hands." She pulled the scarf tightly around her neck to fight the chill.
"Its OK. Im just tired, thats all." It wasnt the prank; it was waking up to find the woman she had just tried to peel out of her heart, straddling her on a bed. It was a luxuriant nightmare. Her hair had been tumbling down tickling Chris face. She was strong, beautiful, sexy, and completely off limits.
"Yeah, I guess I could have waited to pull a trick like that. It just seemed too perfect. You should have seen your face! Man, it was great!" Christian looked at her with a stone stare and then turned her head away.
"Yeah well, like I said bad timing." They continued walking for a bit in silence.
"Paolo said that he would have our stuff taken to the restaurant, so we wont need to pick it up tonight." She had shaken off her irritability after chiding herself for a while. Her childhood promises were stupid, she knew it. There was no taming her feelings, and it was a simple attraction. A feeling that could be avoided by following simple procedures possibly finding another person to pique her interest. But she had brought this woman here, under the "watchful" eye of Carl. He had failed them both, but she wouldnt.
Alex was glad just to hear her speak, much less the news that she wouldnt be making that trek tonight. She was elated. "That is so nice of him! God, Im glad we dont have to walk back there."
"Me too. I couldnt imagine pulling those packs over the Rialto."
They were following signs from the hotel for San Marco. They had tried to get directions, but Irvana was unwilling to assist them. Apparently, she was still exhausted from helping Christian find the phone. When they left the hotel, Irvana had said "Ciao testi di catzi!"
They smiled and tried to return what they thought was a simple pleasantry. When they looked up the phrase in their book, they found that she had called them something equivalent to "dickhead".
Paolo said that his restaurant was just around the corner from the square. There were signs everywhere though it seemed they all pointed in strange directions. There seemed to be three or four variations on each direction. There was right, to the right and hard right. The bright yellow signs were hanging precariously on the walls as if a slight breeze would send them crashing down. If the signs could speak, they would have laughed at all of the tourists trying to follow their careless directions. There were people from all over the world staring at the signs in the same way, hands on their hips, muttering expletives in five different languages. They laughed easily at their hopeless attempt to make sense of the winding pathways. As they rounded the last "to the right" directions, their smiles were replaced with a look of awe.
The basilica was looming before them, bathed in the green hue of light from below. Christian pulled the collar of her fleece upright around her neck and steeled herself against the wind that was coming off of the canal. There were colors everywhere that stood out against the old monument like bits of confetti. Some of the costumes for Carnivale were so lavish and so completely real that it seemed that they had been taken out of some ancient relatives trunk and simply dusted off.
Their eyes traveled from the basilica to the clock tower to the libraries to the Doges old palace. They tried to take in the sight, to process the beauty and magnificence of the scene, but it was almost too much. The square was like an amphitheater making voices and laughter and music rise up and spill over the walls.
Christian grabbed Alexs arm and they stared together. Alex covered Christians hand with her own. They looked at each other briefly, and smiled slowly before returning to their eyes to the sight.
A man was standing alone in the corner of the square dressed in a pink overcoat with pink stockings that met pink leggings at his knee. He wore a pink cravat underneath a pink vest. As they walked closer they realized that his entire outfit was lined with lace and tiny pearls. There must have been hundreds or thousands of pearls woven tightly together. The pearls seemed to catch every glimmer of light that showered on his pink suit. From the café signs to the glow sticks that little children had cracked open and run amuck with; the pearls reflected each glimmer and shone like rhinestones against the backdrop of the square. He tipped his three point hat at the two ladies as they approached, no doubt thinking they wanted a photograph of his costume. He took pride in its completion. He was the epitome of a Venetian man of power during the tumultuous times of the Doge.
Chris approached him with a smile as she burrowed her hands deeper into the flimsy jacket that she wore.
"I am looking for a restaurant .Il Grotto? Do you know where Il Grotto is?"
"Il Grotto?" He had already taken his stance for a photograph and was a little miffed that she merely wanted directions. His face turned into a smirk and he flung his arm out to the left, allowing for his cape to flow up and around his arm for effect.
"He seemed really nice." Alex said sarcastically.
They walked together through the swarm of costumes, feeling brushes of silk or velvet on their hands from the fabric. It reminded Christian of parties that her parents had thrown during the holidays. Women would come dressed in their furs and silk couture dresses whose richness would surround her in its warmth and luxury. Ladies whose breath smelled vaguely of some imported liqueur and skin bearing the last efforts of perfumed oils imported from France. Christians fingers were stretched out to improve the chance of contact, as if they too were remembering those times.
The two women moved carefully and clumsily through the crowd, drinking in the laughter, feeling the city that was now their home. They walked in the direction of the Grotto stopping occasionally to browse through some of the local artists wares. It was a glorious way to experience the city for the first time. The sleepy town was proud and vibrant, in love with itself and its history. They were putting forth every effort to celebrate, making up for the winter months that would find the city quiet and somewhat lonely.
Alex eyes couldnt stop moving. She was very much in love with her new home and as they moved through the square, it only pressed that love deeper into her heart. It surprised her that she could love this place so much though it was so different from what shed known at home. It was as if her eyes had only opened for the first time there, that she had been seeing nothing until that night. The jet lag that raked through her seemed only to enhance her visions, making them dreamlike.
They crept their way around the corners and alleys trying to keep to the general direction of the pink mans arm. With a little more help from various masked people, they found there way to a red neon sign that arched between two walls and pointed to the entrance of the Grotto.
They pushed on the door and realized it was locked, so they knocked tenderly on the glass. A few moments later, a short stout dark haired man appeared and ushered them in quickly as if he were afraid some of the partiers outside would squeak past. As they moved through the empty restaurant, the sounds of laughter became louder and louder until they found themselves in front of Paolo.
His eyes were squinting with laughter as a very handsome man finished what seemed like a very good joke. He opened his eyes and took in the sight of the two girls.
"Hey I cant believe you found us! Here sit, have a drink tell Michele and I what you think of the city! He doesnt speak English so dont think hes being rude"
Paolo did a quick introduction as they sat down. There were two glasses of red wine poured before them.
"Its amazing! Chris and I have been walking through the square just staring at all of the people those costumes, its beautiful!"
"Yeah, people from all over the world come to see it; Venetians take pride in it sort of the last hurrah for the winter. Its a celebration of an old tradition when people used to wear masks to vote in elections. Then they turned it into a parade, now its Carnivale. Itll be pretty quiet for a while after this. Aqua Alta starts soon, the tides take the city over, its still beautiful, but different, its "
"Sad." Christian lifted her eyes to meet Paolos.
"Yes sad in a way but beautiful."
They all took a slow sip of wine. "So, I think I have some good news for you ladies!"
Their heads perked up and they stared intently at him.
"Michele here says that he can help you guys find an apartment and probably a job too."
They looked at each other and then back at the two men. Christian opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by Paolo.
"Before you guys start asking a bunch of questions, I gotta tell you Micheles friend Raffi, with the apartment? Well, hes kinda weird. I mean a nice guy, definitely wont cause you two any problems, hes just a little strange." Chris and Alex looked at each other and raised their eyebrows. "Now, he can take you guys in and he says he wont charge you anything as long as you guys clean his apartment for him."
"Clean his apartment?" Alexs face scrunched up.
"Yeah, and iron his shirts too. He needs em for work. Him and his best friend own a restaurant down near the fish market, his apartment is right around the corner."
"So, we pay no rent, iron a couple of shirts and sweep up? Thats no big deal. We already rented through the week with Irvana though." Christian was feeling adventurous again after her march through the square. She looked at Alex for a sign of approval.
"Yeah it sounds great."
"You guys rented with the bird lady! Oh man, thats great! Shes a real sweetheart huh?" He turned to Michele and told him where the girls were staying. After a couple of minutes, their laughter died down.
"Im glad you find that funny."
"Sorry, cant help it. Irvanas quite a character. Well, stay through the week cause Raffi has to get his place in order anyway. Besides, birds or no birds, its a great location."
"What does Michele think about jobs?" Alex leaned forward to look around Chris at the handsome man behind her.
"He thinks that he can get you guys a bartending job at a place in Campo Santa Margherita. That, however, is a bit of a long shot. Something will come up though. Just give it time."
Christian and Alex both eased back into their chairs and relaxed. For the time being, there was no worry, only satisfied sleepiness and good conversation.
Michele told them some of the history of Venice through Paolo, who translated his melodic Italian voice into rag tag bronxian english with ease. He spoke of the first settlers and their quest for safety from barbarians in the tiny islands. He spoke of Saint Mark who was entombed in the basilica and the battle that brought his remains to the city. Alex started to nod off so Christian smiled and thanked them for their tremendous help. She tapped her lightly on the shoulder and they began to gather the strength to carry their luggage.
They made arrangements to meet up at Paolos again the following day to check on the job situation. As they walked out the door, Christian jumped forward out of the entrance. She turned around to see Michele wink and wave at her as he locked the door to the restaurant.
"Whats wrong Chris?"
"He just pinched my ass!"
"You too? God, I guess that saying is true, huh?"
They walked in companionable silence back through the square, eyes fixed on the basilica. Plodding sleepily back through the dwindling crowds until they reached Irvanas.
Christian and Alex took the next few weeks to say goodbye to a grumpy, eye rolling Irvana, move into Raffis , try to find jobs, and get to know the city. They found they were well matched, providing a balance of some sort. Alex was good with directions and money, Chris was good with the language, due to the years of studying Spanish in high school and at university. The languages were very similar, some words even the same, so the transition was easier for her.
Chris had spoken to an eager Kate a couple of times, but her phone calls home had dropped off. She explained that she needed time away and that neither could afford the expense. After all, they were on a "break". What Chris found so annoying was that it seemed the emotion that Kate had found so hard to express before, was now coming forth in copious amounts. It was too little, too late. Kate had instated the "seeing other people" rule when she moved to New York, thinking she would have plenty of girls around her, but law school proved to be a very different environment. Chris had been so hurt by her decision at first, thinking it was callous. But she had been right, whether it was for her own good or Chris.
"Im gonna tell her tonight Alex." She spoke in low tones over dinner on a heated patio by the Rialto.
"Good. This is ridiculous. I mean, shes even called Paolos bar." She reached across the table and touched Chris hand. "Im sorry that you have to go through this. I know everything here seems complicated enough already."
"I know I know. Im just avoiding the inevitable." They paid for their dinner and Chris walked to a phone nearby. Alex went for a quick walk around the corner to give her some space.
She dialed the familiar country codes and area codes that took forever. "Hello"
"Hi Kate, Its me"
"Did I catch you at a good time do you have a minute?"
"Yeah I tried you earlier at Raffis."
"I know, I got the message. Listen, Kate we have to talk. I "
"Have you met someone else?" Christian laughed at this, which was a mistake. But it seemed so ridiculous at the moment. Apparently, Kate thought she was living with a harem in the next room. She hadnt even had the money or the time to buy a coat yet. "How can you laugh at me? You have havent you? I bet that youre shacking up with that Alex girl, huh? You are arent you?"
"Wait a minute, Im sorry I laughed, but its funny that you could even think that I have the time to meet anyone. And Alex, Kate shes a straight girl. There is nothing going on between us."
"Oh really, well your track record with the straight girls isnt that bad honey. I mean bad for you in the end, butyou always walked into it with eyes wide open didnt you?"
"Stop it Kate." She was trying to keep her calm, knowing how hurt Kate was.
"Ive seen her; shes exactly your type. I knew I shouldnt have let you go there."
"Let me go you couldnt have stopped me with a truck..." There was silence on both ends. "Listen, lets not talk anymore tonight. Were just going to say horrible things to each other. Kate " She rested her hands on the telephone booth and waited for a response that didnt come until the buzz which indicated a dead line. Chris tousled her hair and kicked the phone booth. She was angry and hurt at what Kate had said. To think that she might have been right only added salt to her wound.
Alex came slinking around the corner and put an arm around Chris.
"How did it go?"
"What do you think?"
"Hmmm she made you feel guilty and then said something horrible to hurt you?"
"In a nutshell." Chris looked up at her friend and shrugged of the proffered arm.
"Im sorry Chris."
"I know, but it was time .you wanna go get a beer?"
"Yeah yeah, I do. Breakups suck!" She started marching like a soldier in formation towards the Irish Pub which was around the corner in Campo San Bartolomeo. Chris looked at her silly form striding through the square and tried not to laugh but gave in after a few moments. Alex turned around and winked. She had no idea how beautiful she was.
Christian received an apologetic letter from Carl the next day, addressed to Paolos bar, begging her forgiveness. He said that he knew she would be okay and he wanted her to "explore the world" in an "exciting way". She wrote him back a quick letter saying he could "explore her fist" in his face when she returned. But, she signed it with love she could never stay mad at him. Especially when he had hand delivered her to this precious city. And he sent her five hundred bucks in the mail.
They scoured Venice in search of work every day. The memory of Chris breakup was quickly replaced by worrying over their dwindling bank account. They were quickly running out of cash and neither of them was willing to phone home for cash, admitting defeat. Michele had not mentioned the bar again. They didnt want to bring anything up to him for two reasons: One he had hooked them up with Raffi already and Two every time they saw him, they were assaulted by an ass pinch. After they searched for work all day, they would usually go out to a cheap little restaurant and get something to eat. They tried to find things to do at night that would give them a sense of the city. It was so elaborate that it seemed they would never figure it out. They could walk down one street every day for a week, never noticing a tiny alley that led to another entire part of the city.
In their search for night life, they were also escaping Raffi. Weird had been an understatement. Raffi was one of a kind, actually one of a pair. He and his "best friend" Mario were always together and they fought like an old married couple. When they had first arrived at his apartment, they were deluged by the mess. Scarier was the thought that he had actually prepared for their arrival. Alex and Chris had been given a key and when they opened the door, they found there was only one tiny bedroom; one tiny bedroom, with one tiny bed. Raffi slept outside on the couch. The bed hardly fit the two of them when they slept and Alex noticed that most nights, Chris ended up "rolling" off the bed and onto the floor. They had scrubbed every inch of the apartment, not for rent but merely to make it livable. The kitchen was a windstorm of beer bottles and empty plastic take out bags from Raffis restaurant.
The apartment was located over a second hand book store that opened at six am. The sound of the chain storefront woke them up every morning as it made its clumsy ascent above the doorway. They became fast friends with the bookseller who was eager to try his English out. Their apartment was so tucked away from the main streets that tourists never discovered it, so he had been practicing by himself. In return, he allowed the girls to borrow books at their leisure.
Raffi was so excited about his new, clean living space that he insisted on buying their lunch at his restaurant every day for the first week. This, to two jobless foreigners, was priceless. On most days, they arrived to find Mario and Raffi scuttling about preparing food, smiling quickly at them. When they had a moment, the two would come over and give them bone crushing hugs. They staid about an hour and ate pizza together, gathering their plans for job hunting for the day. After they searched the city for work, they returned home, showered, and searched for dinner. That night, they decided on Paradiso Perduto.
The place was near Fondamenta Nuove, the first view of Venice they had seen on their arrival in the boat. They walked over a million bridges towards the desolate part of the city, following a brave little map that nearly had marked all of the necessary turns. It was their first venture out into this area. They noted all of the colorful houses and tiny garden trellises that peeked out from between the walls. The afternoon sun had long gone, leaving a spooky feeling to their long walk. They began to hear the welcome sounds of laughter and music resonating over the water. The restaurant faced a canal that was wider than most. A few family boats could be seen spotting the water, bobbing up and down in cadence with the music. When they got closer, they saw a crowd outside huddled together laughing in the cold.
By then, it was late February and the temperature had dropped significantly. They had gotten used to the cold and had bought two pea coats from a store close to Raffis apartment. Alexs stride was longer than Christians and it was sometimes hard for the little woman to keep up her pace, but Chris had grown accustomed to that as well, looking like a speed walker in a shopping mall. As they drew nearer to the restaurant, they instinctively locked arms. It offered a sense of comfort as well as security from groping hands.
When they walked through the front, they were immediately assaulted by the sickly sweet smell of marijuana wafting above the crowd. The music inside was so loud they couldnt hear the waitress approaching them from behind.
"CIAO- DUE POR FAVORE!"
The girl led them to a picnic table in the middle of the room where two spaces had been emptied a moment before. They squished in between two couples, one German and one French. Everyone was staring at the man elevated on the tiny stage in front of them playing the piano. He was singing in Italian. It was an aria from Turandot, one of Christians favorites, called Nessun Dorma or no one sleeps. He was doing an impeccable job and the crowd let him know it. Chris squeezed Alexs knee and leaned in.
"This is my favorite aria, its from "
"Turandot, I know".
"I didnt know you liked opera."
"Yeah, well, I do. What else is there to do on the ranch but listen to music?" Alex smiled down at Chris and returned her gaze to the man on stage. She felt a tingling spot where Chris hand lay the moment before and she wondered at the power that this girl had over her. It was disarming and yet natural. They had a stressful few weeks and her touch felt as comforting as a sister? If she had any sisters, she figured that was what it must have felt like.
Chris found herself feeling closer and closer to Alex, as much as she tried to deny it. Deep within her, when she caught herself off guard, she would admit that her feelings were rooted in something much deeper than attraction. At night, she was assailed by sexy dreams of sweaty nights and messy kisses. The dreams were so real that on some mornings, she awoke next to her dark haired friend forgetting they were not lovers. It was a horrible realization to awaken to, but the nightly roaming of her subconscious thought supplied her with so much sensuality, she woke up with the urge to smoke.
To her credit, it was unavoidable. Even if she had really wanted to alienate Alex, they had been forced together to a much greater degree than ever imagined. They were together almost every moment not only because they found comfort in it, but because they needed it. It took every effort to do things that would normally take a second at home. They had to learn twenty to thirty vocabulary words a day, at the minimum, just to get a newspaper, toothpaste, a fork whatever. And directions, Christian got lost in a moment without Alex around. The courageous mental battle that she had waged against herself was lost.
Alex looked over at what must have been the owner. He was smiling, obviously a little drunk. He was wearing a deflated chefs hat that flopped over one side of his head. He had a white double breasted chefs coat on that was trying valiantly to stay buttoned over his big belly. He waved the pianist off of the stage and looked out into the crowd beckoning someone from behind. All of a sudden, the lights dimmed and two belly dancers started shimmying through the dense crowd towards the stage. The music changed to a beautiful sensual Indian dirge as they moved forward. She looked over at Chris. Her eyes were nearly shut, she was humming along with the music and a smile crept onto her face.
"Why dont you ask that guy if hes hiring?"
"That big guy over there. I think hes the owner."
"I was just thinking that, isnt that weird? I mean, wouldnt this be a cool place to work? Look at all of the people here and the music!"
"Its not my kind of place, but I know you would like it here."
"Too hippified for ya?" Christian said with a wink.
"Something like that."
"Okay, where is he"
"Behind the bar at the front. Do you want me to go with you?"
"No Ill be fine."
Alex watched Chris walk to the bar smiling. Not that she would be picky if an opportunity arose, but it was a little too disorganized for her taste.
Christian smiled at the grey bearded man and wagged her finger. Soon enough, his rosy face was right in front of her, smitten.
"Can I help you, pretty lady?" Thankfully, the music had died down enough for them to speak instead of yell.
"You speak English? Thats great! I wanted to know if you have any jobs available."
"What you do?"
"I can wait tables, or bartend, wash dishes, whatever."
"I dunno " His eyebrows knitted together sympathetically.
"Look, I really need a job. You seem like a nice guy could you give me a chance? One night, just to see if it works?"
He smiled and pointed to the stage." If you sing a song pretty lady, then you work here."
"There." He pointed to the stage.
Christians heart started pumping harder in her chest. She could sing, she sang all of the time, but it was always alone, in the car, in the shower. As she looked out into the crowd, she felt the music all the way down in the bottom of her feet. She wanted it.
"Si, one song "
"Una Grappa per favore" She needed a nip before the deed could be done. He chuckled at her request and poured the clear liqueur into a tiny pink glass. When she looked to the shelf with all of the glasses, she saw that no two were the same, which went for the dishes as well. She smiled and drank.
"I tell you when you come to sing and then, you come to me here and you sing. Okay?"
"Yeah si okay." She looked out to meet Alexs stare. She needed the comfort of her. Alex felt her looking and turned her head. She smiled at Chris and winked.
The man got up on the stage and spoke to the crowd then beckoned Chris the same as he had done with the belly dancers. She walked tremulously onto the creaky wooden stage as if she were walking the plank, the odd grey bearded chef her pirate. He pointed to the piano asking if she wanted to play or wanted someone to accompany her. She nodded and the pianist that had sung Nessun Dorma approached her. He nodded at her song suggestion and assumed his post on the piano bench.
Alex had left their spots on the picnic bench and moved through the crowd to see Chris. What in the hell was she doing? She looked like she was going to be sick, but had managed a weak smile when she saw Alex below her. Her hands shook as she held the microphone, and then she began to sing. It was a gravelly voice rendered up from deep within her. Alex stared in disbelief that Chris could have that kind of a voice inside her ebullient speaking tones. She listened to the soft words of Summertime snaking their way out of her body as if it had been trapped inside her wanting, all of this time, to be freed.
Christians eyes remained shut for the entirety. She was imagining Alex and she together, moving alone in the Venetian night as quietly and seductively as the moonlight that shone in through the beleaguered restaurant. She realized under that spell of Billie Hollidays rendition of the song, that she had always longed to sing. She remembered her father playing the records over and over till the needle clicked off of the vinyl, until the party was over, until he fell asleep. So much love and release wrapped around her that she hardly thought about singing until it was over.
When the piano stopped the final chords, she opened her eyes and strained against the dim light. She nearly forgot that she was there at all. There was applause and screaming everywhere. But it seemed as if it came from a different room because when she looked down, Alex was staring up at her with a look of warmth and pride and love? Was that love that she saw in her eyes? They were brimming with tears. Alex shook her head as if caught in the same spell and blinked a couple of times to release herself.
She stepped off the stage and was welcomed by a bohemian crowd that formed quickly around her. She smiled and said grazie to whomever she spoke, eyes searching for Alex all the while. Chris spotted her leaning against the wall in the back with her hands in her pockets. Her head was tilted, a very sexy smile across her beautiful face. She had been watching them congratulate her. Chris felt more than a little sheepish under her gaze. As she approached, Alex held her arms out wide welcoming her into an embrace.
She walked right into her arms and nearly cried. The emotions had been so raw, such fond memories of her father, such powerful pain released so easily like a breath of air.
"You know what you are, dont you?" she whispered into Christians ear "You are a singer."
Chris squeezed harder and closed her eyes.
They stood there until someone tapped Chris on her shoulder. Alex released her and stood with her arm around her. It was grey beard.
"Lady, you have a job." He smiled and stuck out his hand.
"Thank you .what is your name?" she took his hand and shook it vigorously.
"Maurizio, and yours?"
"Christian, and this is Alex."
"Christianna and Alexa, beautiful names for beautiful ladies. Come by tomorrow evening and you can start to working here. First in la cocina in the kitchen not as pretty as you, but it will do for now. Maybe you can sing here? I think that the people, they like it." He motioned to a little crowd behind him that was staring at her smiling.
"Yes, maybe I can." She thought briefly how strange it was that one could wander about looking for a place to fit in and suddenly find it. In the time it takes to sing a song, she had known.
"Come! Tonight the dinner is on me I pay! Anyway, this is the last time I am not your boss!" He laughed as he led them to a nice table that sat just the two of them.
After dinner, they walked hand in hand out of the restaurant Alex still recounting Christians victory as if it had been her own. When they returned to the apartment, Raffi still at work, they collapsed onto the bed. It was the first time that Christian slept next to Alex comfortably since their arrival. Soon after, Alexs arm was safely around Christians side pulling her closely in the unconsciousness of sleep. It was the first time they felt at home.
When Chris arrived the next day, it was hell. Maurizio, so sweet and full of life, was a terror. He stomped around the kitchen screaming at the cooks two very nice Indian guys something about the polenta (grits), something about fritti pecsi che non e buono (bad fried fish) blah blah blah he was a temperamental tyrant; though he spared her for the time being. This special treatment did nothing for her relationship with any of the other girls. They treated her as if she were invisible.
Apparently, she had two jobs. One was to wash dishes with a West African guy named Jao. Jao didnt speak any Italian. He spoke French with a West African accent. There was no talking to Jao however hard she tried. The Indians that worked the grill/fryer tried to be inviting, even conspiratorial, flipping the bird to Maurizio whenever his back was turned. They did speak English. And they tried, as did the book seller, to help with her Italian throughout the night. However, it was worse to learn Italian from a couple of guys from New Delhi than from a Venetian.
Her second job was to clean squid. Specifically, she was supposed to take the "culo" or "ass" out of the creature. This proved to be as disgusting as it seemed when she first heard the description. Because the squid ink from the animal was close to the culo, she consistently popped the fragile vessel and squirted black ink all over herself.
As the night got busier and busier, she worked at a feverish pace to complete her tasks. Calamari was selling like crazy and because the restaurant prided itself on fresh fish, she found herself covered in squid ink and up to her ears in asses. When Jao went for a break, she manned the dish station for a while. Happy to take a break from the culos, she washed dishes until the end of her shift.
At midnight, the restaurant closed. Chris finished her work and wiped what mess she could from her clothes. As she walked to the door, Maurizio called her over.
"Bella Christianna you did nice job tonight. I give you one hundred fifty thousand lire, okay? But, I can only work you three times a week. Every two days you want come back here?"
She looked down at her black spotted clothes and smiled wearily at him, pushing her matted hair away with her hands. "Yes, I will."
Alex went to Paolos as soon as Christian left for work. She sat at the bar and had a glass of wine while talking to him. It was good to be alone for about twenty minutes, and then she started to miss her. It was strange that she could go from being alone all of the time and loving it, to missing someone after only twenty minutes. Paolo was excited to hear about Christians employment and surprised to hear about how shed gotten the job.
"She can really sing? Wow. And Maury gave her a job just like that?" He snapped his fingers. "Impressive."
"It was. People went nuts too. I havent known Chris for that long, but still to hide that voice away and when she got up there, it was as if she was born to do it really, born to do it, you know? I mean shes always been a hummer, but I was amazed and proud too. I couldnt have done that. She really wanted that job though. I think the environment will be great for her too. All of those hippies running around writing and singing, its like a commune."
Paolo smiled knowingly at Alex. "What?" she said defensively.
"Nuthin". He flipped a bar towel over his shoulder and went to help a new customer.
Alex returned to her glass of wine and began reading.
A few minutes later Michele came rushing in and grabbed Paolo. They talked quickly about something and then he turned to Alex. Michele nodded and winked, smarmy pincher that he was. Apparently, Leo, the owner of the bar that Michele had mentioned earlier, was looking for new help for the winter. His bar, Café, was the most popular among college kids and especially exchange students from the States that came in for the school year. He spoke English and wanted to hire someone else that knew the language. Paolo said that he was expecting Alex to come around eight if she could, which was only forty five minutes away.
She quickly got up, thanked Paolo and Michele (regretfully), and went back to the apartment to change. Fifteen minutes later, she was on her way to Café, and Leo.
She walked hurriedly through the streets and over the bridges, smelling the crisp winter air and enjoying the walk. She discovered the Scuola Grandes big white facade and ear marked it in her memory to show Christian in the future. She arrived five minutes early, thanks to her long legs, and approached the bar.
Leo was a short guy, stubby and full of machismo. He saw her walk in through the glass door and stopped pouring the beer in his hand. He had never seen anyone so beautiful. He hoped that she was the American Michele had mentioned. He had lived in New York City for a few years and had seen all the models, even dated a few, but she was amazing. Alex walked straight up to the bar and smiled.
"Ciao! Posso parlare con Leo?"
"You must be Alex." He smiled while walking around the bar to meet her. She was close to six feet tall, but you couldnt tell that he even noticed, nearly a foot below her.
"You must be Leo." They shook hands and he gestured towards a table in the corner.
"So, you need a job?" He looked into her eyes, they were careful, guarded.
"Yes I do."
"I need a bartender. Have you ever bartended before?"
"Yes, Ive bartended my way through school in the States."
"Okay, you start tomorrow. Come in around six. You work until two am. Dress in black. Angelo will help you learn everything then, Im sure it will be easy for you. One thing though, you will be working here illegally, understand, so if the polizia come around, and they do, I might tell you to sit down for a while. Dont ever ask me why because it looks bad. Just sit."
"Yes, but be careful here Alex" he said with a smile.
"The boys are going to love you." He shook her hand again started to return to the bar.
Alex smiled in return "I think I can handle it."
"Good" he said over his shoulder.
Alex rose from her seat and started for Paradiso. She couldnt wait to tell Christian - to see her face. She passed by an old couple returning from dinner. They smiled at her when she walked by hastily and Alex said a hearty "Ciao" in return. They were reminded of their youth and love, when old feet were not so tired and they too ran to find each other on cold winter nights.
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