Well, I was warned about Italy in August, wasnít I? It was broiling again today. I didnít see a thermometer but it had to be up over a hundred by four oíclock. What a scorching introduction to Europe. I didnít think it would be so stifling though, thought it would be cooler here in Senigŗllia after Rome. The Adriatic coast is less humid but just as hot. I was on the wide beach this afternoon, shading in one of those wicker cabanas that they line up in exact formation like parade soldiers, when she just walked up, started talking, and changed my life forever. I can close my eyes and remember today so well, as though itís a video inside my eyelids. I can run it fast forward, reverse and pause. I like pause.
"Hi," she said, "your legs are hanging out. The cabanaís supposed to protect you from this sun but you can get badly burned without realizing it."
She sat in the burning sand, her towel around her shoulders, red wiry hair tucked messily under a straw hat framing a clean featured face. A bright reflection glinted in the corners of her star sapphire eyes. She was only a little younger than I, perhaps thirty-one or two. She touched her finger to my calf.
"Itís hard to notice the redness yourself in all this white brilliance."
"Youíre right." I observed the pink of my flesh and the oval light spot left by her finger, tucked my legs into the droplet of shade clinging feebly to the cabana.
"Iím Shawna Kelin," she said brightly. "I saw you talking to that man. Heard your voice. Are you American?"
"Canadian," I answered, "I wasnít actually conversing with him. I was telling him to go away."
"Oh," Shawna Kelin nodded with understanding, "one of those. Italian men master the lascivious smirk in grade school you know. Itís part of their early macho training. Maschio, I think they call it here." Her mouth exploded into a wide grin of wonderfully white teeth. She had such presence I expected a chaotic horde of paparazzi any moment. I laughed, glad she had arrived. I wanted her to stay a while to discourage the brazen Italian. She twisted around and stared at him. He was lying casually stretched out on the sand, propped up on an elbow, a lock of black hair curved over one eye. A poster pose. Ultra-brief black swimsuit. Virility on display. He grinned at us both, undaunted by my previous rejection. He was about twenty-three, way too young. As if Iíd be interested anyway. Iím still in mourning, for gosh sakes. Yet he probably thought he had a second chance now, a second choice.
I said to Shawna, "I didnít want to talk. I donít speak Italian but I believe he commented on the heat, said es caldo or something? He wasnít really bothering me but I didnít like the look in his eyes."
"You want to be alone then?"
"Oh no," I said quickly, "I just didnít want a man trying to chat me up."
"Hmm. If he comes back Iíll tell him weíre freddo, no caldo!"
I laughed again. Imagining with that bright face she had plenty of experience getting rid of unwanted men in her life.
"They point these shelters toward the water but thereís nothing much to see out there, is there?"
We squinted toward the azure Adriatic. There was no horizon, just a hazy blend of blue gray blue. The beach here at Senigŗllia is a wonderfully fine beige sand but sort of boring after a while and the sea is a milky aquamarine close in and also flat. A few toddlers frolicked in the gentle swells, watched by two obese women with dimpled thighs, engaged in hand-flinging gossip. One of the women looked like the pink hippo in a tutu from Fantasia. Somehow the childrenís treble voices didnít reach us. Yellow paddle-boats were grounded farther up the beach in front of the hotel that has the orchard of big blue parasols. There are sporadic splotches of green where sparse umbrella pines struggle against the baking sun and blowing sand. Accommodation is reasonable but you have to rent everything else. I forget how many lire they want for those plastic boats.
I introduced myself. "Iím TherŤse Fielding."
We touched hands. The young Latin watched us closely for any sign of encouragement or any reason to make another try at conversation. He wanted us to notice his bulge. I refused to. Shawna glanced at him several times as she talked to me. Her thin lips turned up at one end and down at the other, sort of like the way you draw a wave and seemed to onlookers as a scowl when she wasnít smiling, which wasnít very often. She said once, over to him,"Vai via," and translated the comment as, ĎHit the road, Jack.í Eventually he decided she was making fun of him and skulked away, if it was possible to skulk in such intense light. She had incredibly blue eyes under the wide brim of straw.
"Heís too young to be chasing you anyway, isnít he? I saw you in the hotel dining room last night, Teresa. Are you travelling alone?"
"Itís actually ThťrŤse, Shawna." Emphasize the ĎThí, ĎAYssehí at the end. ThťrŤse.I donít know why I said it like that, was I trying to impress? Trying to seem important. The knowledgeable Ďinternational traveller?í Worldly and time worn? I hadnít pronounced my name like that since childhood.
"What a lovely name."
"Yes. I am alone."
"So am I." Shawnaís constant grin infected my own mouth.
We struck an immediate rapport. Talked about the heat for a while, traded tidbits of information about Canada, America and Italy (it is her fourth time here) and finally waded into the tepid water and floated around together. Sun Gods have heated this transparent part of the Mediterranean for centuries.I thought Shawna would be an actress or model at first, so tall, with such star power, but she is an advertising agency copy writer from New York City. Very intelligent. No husband, no boyfriend. Has a year off to try to write a novel. How exciting! She wouldnít say what it was about except that it might be a love story based in Italy.
Tormented clouds were gathering in the Northeast and I could see flashes of lightning in the distance. Shawna told me that every year in August, storms were born in the Dolomites, swept down upon Venice like marauding Huns and then strode violently across the Gulf of Venice to what used to be Jugoslavia, is now Slovenia, gaining momentum and electric fury all day. She laughingly said it was the Italians punishing the Slavs for trying to keep Trieste after World War II. Far-off thunder rumbled to our ears.
She said, "By tonight the sky will be lit up with flashing over there."
"But not here I hope?"
"Oh no, over there. Way over."
We talked amiably a few minutes longer before she marched off across the burning sand toward the hotel. The hotel here is large and modern, squarish lines. White, reflective. The westward view back to it is more interesting; people loaded with beach paraphernalia coming and going, cars cruising, the ever present yammer of motorbikes and wind-blown teenagers. But looking toward the sun at that time of day leaves you no place to rest your eyes, so you have to return your squinted gaze to the sea for relief, tuck yourself into your rented portion of shade to avoid roasting. Italians were streaming back to the seaside after siesta, filling the cabanas and staring out at the patient water as though it had some attraction besides its colour, now the blue of Mexican turquoise. Perhaps they are, after centuries, habituated to being on the alert for Greek or Phoenician or Carthaginian invaders. My guidebook says the saying; Ďthe bogeyman will get you,í comes all the way down from about 200 BC when Hannibal was stalking around the walls of Rome with his army and mothers began telling their children - to keep them quiet - ĎHannibal is at the gates.í He actually threw a spear over the wall but never attacked the city. The flat Adriatic is hypnotic. Perhaps itís the slow rhythmic movement, eternal movement. You feel everything in Italy is eternal. You have to stare at the sea even though nothing piques your interest except those distant flashes. Mars is angry at what happened in the Dolomites.
I languished in a cool shower after the beach. My legs ARE sunburned. I wanted to sight-see while here but there isnít that much of interest. Itís a tourist resort town. I think that hotel in Rome has a connection with this one. I know they understood that I wanted a quieter, cooler place to enjoy Italy and they knew of my interest in art and architecture. Oh yes, thereís the Palazzo Comunale dating from the fifteenth century, and the Cathedral but I saw those on my first day. It is all too commercial here, everyone trying to sell you something. Iíll carry on to Venice soon. Tom and Jeffrey hardly occupied my thoughts at all today. Except at the swimming pool - and at the beach when Shawna commented on my wedding ring.
I ran into her again later while shopping, not shopping really, just wandering in the settling orange light. I was standing outside an outdoor cafť (they call them bars here) discreetly envying the occupants their gay parties. The tables looked inviting under a green lattice of grape vines but it was too early for Italian supper. The siesta prolongs the evening into the night and many Italians donít seem ready to dine until around nine or ten oíclock. I was hungry though and would have ended up eating back at the hotel with the first feeding of the assembled foreign hordes. She appeared beside me.
"Looks interesting, doesnít it?" Her eyes held the same afternoon brightness as if she had stored the sunís rays and they were now spilling through the filigreed irises.
"Were you going in here for dinner tonight, TherŤse?"
"It does look like a nice place but I ..."
"I was. We should try it together. Want to?"
I did want to try somewhere other than the huge hotel dining room. I was sick of eating alone and having men trying to catch my eye. The waiters put you at an enormous table for six or eight, expecting to place the single people together but you feel foolish if no one else comes.
"Sure. Okay, but weíll go Dutch," I suggested.
A low fence and large potted shrubs circled the tables. Shawna walked boldly through the entrance, declining the proprietorís gesture and picking out the table she wanted.
She explained, "That other table has a bright light above it, moths would be falling into our plates later."
I wouldnít have noticed. I did notice that whenever someone stared at her, (and they often did) she returned their look directly. She was not the least bit intimidated by being a woman travelling alone. Her red hair was loose and barely under control without the straw hat. Quite eye catching for men. She had an attractive straight nose over that tilde mouth that swept into the line of her arched eyebrows. A patrician face. Clear skin, not freckled like many redheads. A bit of sunburn on her cheeks. A cover-girl whiteness to her eyes with a fashion model grace. Her nails wore a light tangerine. I remember I felt different immediately that we sat down. It was as though WE were suddenly the Ďiní people. It was the best feeling I had this summer. Inside looking out, protected by the trellis of verdant grapevine overhead. Ripening grapes hanging like green jewels. I noticed another couple who looked Nordic outside the perimeter of the fence, reading the posted menu and glancing timidly around, trying to decide whether they could join this privileged clique. Saw how apprehensive I must have looked moments earlier. Everyone in the cafť knew what the couple was thinking and I wanted to call out to them to come in and enjoy. A waiter appeared, talked quickly in Italian while dropping menus. Shawna ignored whatever he said and spoke in English, "We are going to order dinner a little later, do you have a cold bottle of bianco Friuli? freddo."
"Si." He left to get the wine.
"Do you know Italian?" I asked.
"Not really," she grinned, "but as long as you are brusque they understand. The ones who donít will be very kind to you."
Shawna was entertaining. Interesting. Charming. She had a glint of fun in her eyes and a hint of the devil in her demeanour. We talked about Italian men and their aggressive manners.
"Theyíre really pussycats," she advised, "but they all love to flirt and their crotches are their favourite possessions."
"I was pinched in Rome," I said, "the man did it and then simply stood there watching my reaction, he laughed that I was so indignant because he touched my person."
"Thatís just how they are. The government passed a law against it a few years ago because so many women tourists complained, but Italians donít obey anything written down."
"Seems that way."
"Benito Mussolini once said, ĎIt is not impossible to govern Italians, it is merely useless.í"
The waiter brought the wine and Shawna poured, saying, "They donít sample it in Italy, thereís no such thing as bad wine. Did you enjoy Rome?"
"Very much, but it is far too crowded and too hot with all that heat retaining stone and heat generating traffic. Even the marble statues seem to be sweltering and youíre standing there with your guidebook so everyone knows youíre a tourist."
"Hmm." Shawna thought a moment. "I love the Romans for their attitude. The Milanese say Africa begins south of Milan; The Florentines say Africa begins south of Florence and the Romans agree with them. Theyíre a lot of fun if you can see the humour in their monkey-cage lifestyle."
"I was sitting in a little trattoria right across from the Coliseum one time and a fire truck suddenly sped through the piazza, off to a fire and you know all those tiny little Fiat cars? Cinque-centos? They tuck in behind the fire truck like a childís toy chained together and follow it, going through the red lights with it! Even traffic policemen wave them on!"
"Yes! It sounds silly but if they tried to stop them doing it, it would simply tie up the traffic longer. Itís almost practical when you think of it."
"That is funny."
"A horn-honking clamour can be set off at any moment. Iíve even seen the Vigili Urbani - those are those traffic policemen who look so romantic with their white gloves and perfect neat uniforms - abandon the worst traffic jam and go have an espresso until it clears itself!"
We laughed heartily. Shawna refilled my glass with the fruity cool wine. There were several men glancing over at us. Sweater arms tied loosely around their necks and sunglasses angled above their heads. Somehow they didnít intimidate me tonight. I didnít have to stare down at my food. I was having fun for the first time this year, felt too worldly to pay attention to longing glances. I began to see the comedy in my own experiences. "You know what happened to me? I was humiliated at the time but I guess I think itís funny now, looking back."
Shawna leaned forward attentively, her eyes sparkling with life.
"I got on the wrong bus. Actually the right number bus but it was going the wrong way. When I realized it after a few miles, I told the driver. He laughed uproariously. Actually told the other passengers! Even though he spoke Italian I could understand what he was saying. They thought it was hilarious too. I wanted to get off but he wouldnít allow me to, saying in broken English that he WAS going where I wanted to go but he had to drive to the end of his route first. Then he told everyone who got onto the bus along the way and they all laughed again ..."
"Thatís hysterical," Shawna interjected, chuckling in fits.
"Wait. Itís not all of it. Once, he even stopped in the street and waved at an oncoming bus, when the other driver stopped he told him! And HIS passengers all had a good laugh about it too. He even pointed me out to them!"
She howled with laughter. "But it was all in good fun, TherŤse."
"I see that now, just now, after you telling me those things. I should have been laughing more about it. I am now."
At the time I had been smiling stiffly in embarrassment on that bus, but after trading silly stories about Romans I realized a lot worse things could have happened to me in Rome. Shawna assured me I could have gone to see Trevi Fountain at night. No one would have attacked me and there are too many people lingering near its enchantingly lit cascades to be in danger. I donít know what I would have wished for from that fountain anyway. The pictures of it looked nice.
Shawna even had her own version of Italian crime; "They ride two up on those little Vespa motor-scooters, the passenger grabs your purse as they speed by, but Italians are so kind that if they knock you over, theyíll stop and pick you up and dust you off before continuing their escape!"
We perused the menu. I said I wanted to try a pepperoni pizza but Shawna warned against it. "They have no idea how to make it here. Actually donít want to try either. What youíre used to is strictly a North American dish. It wonít be the same."
The linguine was delicious. We continued our animated chatter through dinner. I havenít had so much fun in a year, no, two years. I had remarked on the automobile traffic and how dangerous it seemed. How Iíd never ever drive in Europe.
Shawna said, "Itís hairy everywhere but Italy is the worst, or the best, depending on how you look at it."
"You drive here?"
"Yes, I have a car, not mine but Iím borrowing it while Iím here, a small BMW."
"Really. Iíd be petrified to drive."
"You know those Cinque-centos, the tiny Fiats? They want to race you everywhere! And every Italian driver thinks heís Enzo Ferrari. At a red light, if Iím in the center lane of three? TWO of them will squeeze in on both sides, revving their engines and then all five of us race for the three lanes available across the intersection. If youíre too slow you get squeezed out. Of course I beat them every time but it doesnít discourage them from racing me. They do it at every stoplight."
"How silly," I said.
"Yes, maybe, but it says something about Italian spirit, doesnít it? Itís actually a lot of fun once you get into it and theyíre even more competitive when itís a woman beating them."
She made it sound like an absurd adventure.
"Where are you going after here, TherŤse?"
I had told her in the afternoon something about Tom and Jeffrey, how I was planning to spend at least six months seeing art in Europe. That I couldnít bear to return home before the new year. She seemed to know I was escaping but didnít comment.
"Iím heading up to Venice."
"Oooh. Venice! The Sinking City." Her mouth contorted, eyebrows dipped. "In the summer? Itís not at all like a Canaletto painting. All those stinky canals with their bloated dead rats and crowds dripping with sweat and bad breath jammed into the Piazza San Marco."
"And hot handed Latins scoping your bum at every opportunity."
"Iím sorry, Iím not trying to put you off it, somehow the crowds seem part of Venezia. It IS a spellbinding place in the winter. But Iíd bypass it in the summer."
She did put me off it. I wanted somewhere cool to go now. Somewhere quiet where I could muse the art and castles and ruins in serenity. But Venice is what I had planned, for the Grande Canale and Dogeís Palace, and of course the Piazza San Marco. Then Milan for its magnificent cathedral and Galleria Poldi Pezzoli.
"Have you been to Florence, TherŤse?"
"You should add it to your list. Sometime while youíre here. Itís said to be the most beautiful city in Italy. Youíve seen pictures of it."
"Yes, the red dome and that, Vecchia bridge." Of course it was on my list after Milan.
"The ponte Vecchio. Firenze is nothing like Rome though. Very civilized."
We finally left the bistro and strolled into the warm night. The heat still radiated off the buildings and I felt the effect of the wine. I hadnít noticed when Shawna ordered the second carafe. She knew a tiny ice cream vendor up a quiet street, made it himself in his house. Italian ice cream is the best in the world but only if you buy it in Italy. Shawna says the Carabinieri come to take you away and put you in jail for even saying the words; Ďartificial flavour.í It was delicious and the man seemed to recognize her from a previous time, held her hand, but then Shawna elicited that reaction from most of the men we saw. We meandered toward the hotel. Stopped once under a street lamp.
Shawna said, "Watch, there." She pointed upwards. Huge moths were helplessly blitzing the bright light. Little brown bats fluttered out of the darkness trying to catch them. The bats missed often yet still hit the moths, causing them to fall injured into the street. "Thatís why you donít sit under a bright light at dinner."
They gave me the creeps but Shawna accepted it as a fact of nature. She coaxed me to have a nightcap in the bar but I was tired and came up here to my room. What I wanted to do was write these words to you, dear Diary. To record the day while it was fresh and I felt so good. This is the best feeling I have had since last year. I didnít believe I could find space in my mind to fit enjoyment, the slot that holds good feeling has shrivelled like a sunbaked raisin. It was only a little cooler just before I retreated to my room tonight, the air still, compacted, unable to drift even. What a day! The first day I remember really laughing. And so much. Thatís why I recorded these dialogues so enthusiastically right now. Yet wasnít the reason I came to Italy to try to have some fun? I donít think it is disrespectful to the memories of my husband and son to find myself laughing after all these melancholy months. After all, the idea was to get away and heal, wasnít it? I donít feel guilty about the enjoyment I had tonight, and today. Should I?
I was encased in a protective aura today, somehow insulated from reality and I liked the feeling. Of freedom. I would never have pronounced my name like that before when meeting someone. Was I being pretentious? Silly? But there was something about Shawna Kelin that shoved the real world aside and TherŤse Fielding welcomed it. Shawnaís easy going personality made me feel comfortable. Relaxed. I told her little about myself and asked her less because my mundane life was left in Canada. I was someone different today. I was in Italy.
If those two boys hadnít been at the swimming pool this afternoon I would not have left it and gone instead to that torrid sand beach. Wouldnít have met Shawna. I was unable to stay at the pool side and witness the gleeful cries of those two young spirits displaying their exuberance of life - even though the reason I had gone there in the first place was to be around children - especially the one with the sandy hair. Did he really resemble Jeffrey or am I going to superimpose my sonís image over every other youthful countenance from now on?
Tomís sister, Mary, seems to think I should wear black for the rest of my life, to mourn forever, but even she didnít know Tom that well anymore. He was a good man but he wasnít perfect. She didnít know about his drinking. I should have told her. Wanted to sometimes in a fit of ill humour and retaliation but for Tomís mother. I had to get away from them. All of them. They wanted something from me that I can not give. Iím alone now. I have to make a new life. I must. Jeffrey.
Why did I write your name, child?
I am crying right now, dear Diary, just a few soft tears. The good humour of this day has allowed my grief well to fill a little and Iím able to weep some small saline drops again over that bright little seven-year-old. No child deserves to die at such a young age, without experience, without accomplishing anything. Perhaps he did accomplish something. He made me happier for seven years didnít he? Made me have plans for his future. How horrid of God to dash them like that! Jeffrey enabled me to tolerate other parts of my life. It wasnít always going to be the same. There were bright lights ahead somewhere. Werenít there?
Well, those lights are extinguished now. Iím in a tunnel alone. Nothing will ever be the same. But then I donít want the same, do I? I want to seek a new life. Oh dear. Iíve moistened the page with a tear. I wonít blot it though. Iíll let it dry into the paper, imbue a part of my soul into this narrative.
I can see the shadowed beach from my window. Deserted now, lit by a wan light from the street lamp. The beach attendants have raked the sand. The cabanas wait silently for tomorrowís throngs. Morosely. Theyíve been precisely realigned in marching order. An honour guard of wicker warriors. The crowd of blue sun umbrellas along the beach are folded, looking in the dark like hanging bats, the skeletal beach chairs beneath them like the remains of insects just eaten. I see the reflected headlights of a car moving along the beach front road but I canít see it from here or hear the engine.
This is one of those new modern hotels. Concrete and glass. The windows donít open. If you want cool you just turn up the air conditioning. You canít lean out and smell the smells and hear the sounds of voices. Or laughter. Or even arguing, as Italians are wont to do. Iíd prefer older hotels with open windows and wood and worn stone and smells and real people in them but I donít think a single woman could seek them out. I can see a ship out there in the dark on the Adriatic, lights steady and unblinking, heading north along a flat sea, toward Venezia, as Shawna calls it, and farther off, somewhere, another warning flash of lightning.
I feel a strange excitement tonight. Something is different. I canít explain what it is. The words elude me, dear Friend. Except to comment that there IS a day beyond tomorrow. I guess Iíll head up to Venice. The train goes right there from here. To see the steaming canals and sweating tourists. And the Piazza San Marco.
Isnít that what I planned?
Perhaps not. Perhaps I wonít. Perhaps Iíll go somewhere else.
Chapter One of 500 pages
|© 1990 - 2015 - Dahlia|
reg. Writers Guild Canada # S04-8228
A young widow traveling alone in Northern Italy meets a lesbian writer, faces death, falls in love and discovers herself. The Dear Diary account of Therťse is a love story - about a woman's struggle against her inner turmoil and her feelings for another woman while plunging into adventure and danger. The story of Therťse and Shawna is fun, adventurous, brave, poignant, and eventually satisfying and inspirational.
Acts of Empathy is now published by Amazon on Kindle -
All writing and photography © Dahlia - © RC Westerholm
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