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By KATHRYN KAY
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Loma Kathryn Kay
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMarina felt the train ride in every limb as she hefted her backpack onto one shoulder and headed down the deserted platform. It was close to midnight. The tears she'd fought earlier that day blurred her vision as she headed for the exit in search of a taxi. Her plan of arriving in the safety of daylight had gone awry when she boarded the wrong train in Milan and, instead of arriving in Florence, had ended up in a tiny station somewhere on the coast. Her dream—of speeding through flat fields dotted with whitewashed farmhouses and cypress trees, of turreted towers and terra-cotta roofs in the distance, the red dome of the cathedral rising from their midst—had been reduced to a black nightscape dotted with blurred pinpoints of light.
She scanned the sole cab at the curb with a practiced eye honed by years of hair-raising Yellow Cab rides, and decided that the middle-aged man in a sweater-vest and tie looked harmless enough, more like a college professor than a cabbie. She pushed her pack into the backseat of the Fiat and climbed in. He waited patiently as she pulled a crumpled paper from her pocket and read the words, "Pensione Alberto," but before she could read the street address, he put the car in gear and said, "Sì, sì, andiamo," and pulled away from the curb. After a few twists and turns down narrow, cobblestoned streets, she let go of any attempt at tracking their route. Besides, there were no discernable markers, only a sheer façade of shuttered buildings, dim streetlights, and shadowed doorways. Suddenly, they broke free from the tight tangle of streets and turned onto a wider road that ran along the river. She leaned forward with a rush of excitement at the sight of the Arno River and, yes, there up ahead was the Ponte Vecchio spanning the river as it had for centuries. She was here. It had taken years of dreaming and persistence, but she'd finally made it! A few minutes later, the cab turned again and stopped at the curb.
Marina awoke the next morning to ripples of sunlight playing across her face. Peering over the edge of the coverlet, she took in the wardrobe, beautifully carved with cherubs and vines, that the night before had appeared dark and hulking, and in the corner, her discarded sweater and jeans looked quite at home where she'd flung them on the threadbare armchair.
On her arrival the night before, she had attempted to apologize for the late hour, but the woman who received her in a sagging cardigan, nightgown, and leather slippers was interested only in getting back to her bed as quickly as possible. She took Marina's passport, indicated where to sign the thick guest register, then delivered her to the top floor in an elevator the size of a telephone booth, unlocked a room, handed over the key, and pointed out a bathroom at the end of the hall.
Now as she lay staring at the shuttered window, part of her wanted to leap out of bed, throw open the sash, and shout, "I'm here! I'm here!" but another part of her hesitated. It had been eight years since she'd happened across the pictures of Florence, eight years of dreaming of this moment, and she wasn't sure she was quite ready for the dream to become a reality.
Her fourteen-year-old world had been hazy, flat, tasteless, filled with irritations: her parents, her friends, school; even the Rolling Stones were getting on her nerves. It was a Saturday afternoon and her parents were out, her mother at the gallery, her father at his chess club. She was supposed to be working on a term paper for social studies but had yet to come up with a topic that would fulfill the assignment to write about an international catastrophe. From her point of view, the entire world was one big catastrophe. As she often did when she was bored and alone in the house, she wandered into her father's study in search of a distraction. Sitting at his desk with her eyes closed, she tried to imagine her thoughts as groups of numbers the way her father, a mathematician, once told her he saw his, but all that appeared behind her closed eyelids were fluorescent squiggles. She opened her eyes and studied the collection of Victorian glass paperweights that were lined up along the back edge of the desk. One by one, she picked them up, allowing their cool, smooth, blue-green heft to fill her hands as she stared into their depths, admiring the fissures and imperfections. As always, when she was done, she replaced them as she had found them, equidistant, one from the other. Inevitably, her restlessness led to the bookshelves where her mother's novels and art books shared space with her father's tomes on math and science. She already had Lady Chatterley's Lover hidden under her pillow, and she'd read the dirty parts of Goldfinger and From Russia with Love when she was twelve, so it wasn't sex she was looking for that day.
A stack of coffee table books on the window seat caught her eye. She sat down and pulled the top book onto her lap and ran her fingers across the raised gold letters printed across a panoramic view of the city. Florence: Art and Architecture. Turning the pages, she found photographs of paintings that were nothing like the ones her mother hung in her cavernous, white gallery, with their splashes and slashes of color that pretended to be something they were not. Although she tried hard to see what her mother saw in this artwork, she found neither recognizable objects nor beauty. However, in the paintings of the Renaissance, she discovered a world revitalized. There was love in cherubic faces, peace in the eyes of a Madonna, pain and devastation in chaotic battle scenes. Even the folds of a robe made sense to her. In the photographs of the city itself, the light and color drew her in, inviting exploration. She sat for hours that afternoon wandering the streets of Florence, imagining herself a lady in a long, flowing gown, or a painter in a spattered smock.
That night, her mother told her about the flood that had devastated Florence a few years earlier when the river overflowed, leaving the city underwater to depths as much as fifteen feet in places and priceless works of art buried in the mud once the waters retreated. She told her about the "mud angels," young people from all over the world who had gone to Florence to help retrieve and restore the artwork. She gave Marina the issue of Life magazine that covered the catastrophe, and suggested she might consider the flood as a topic for her term paper.
For weeks, as Marina researched and wrote her paper, she begged her mother to take her to Florence. "Maybe we can help," she pleaded. When that did not work, she resorted to accusations. "I thought you cared about art. Or is it only the art that makes you money?" Finally, her mother told her that if she still wanted to go to Florence when she graduated from high school, she would take her. High school came and went, as did college, and invariably, her mother always had a show to hang, an opening to arrange, or an artist in crisis.
Marina stared at the stains on the ceiling and tried not to feel bitter. Hadn't she been lucky to have parents with interesting careers, to be treated like an adult, to meet famous people and get to stay up late? So what if no one was ever home after school? In the face of envious friends who begged to be invited to gallery openings, she pretended to be that lucky girl, but she would have exchanged their mundane lives for hers in a second. While she never doubted that her parents loved her and had basked in their praise of her self-sufficiency, their distraction often left her lonely and longing.
But she wasn't fourteen anymore, she was twenty-two and she was in Firenze! When she'd told her mother she was planning to take the long-awaited trip on her own, her mother had simply said, "Of course you are, you're an artist." In that respect, Marina was profoundly grateful for her mother's unwavering support and encouragement of her interest in art. Preoccupied as she might have been, her mother had recognized her daughter's talent early on and had spared no expense when it came to art classes. It was the one area where Marina might have rebelled, and there had been times during her adolescence when Marina had feigned disinterest, but it was always short-lived.
Unable to wait another minute, Marina pushed back the covers, crossed the room, and unlatched the window. As she parted the shutters, she saw in her mind's eye every panoramic view of the city—with its domes, spires, and towers—that she had ever seen in a book or on film. However, all she saw now was a jumble of red-tiled rooftops, TV antennas, and clotheslines hung with washing, but surprisingly, it was enough. It was perfect.
Dressed in clean jeans and a fresh sweater, Marina slung her leather satchel across her chest, covering it with a woven poncho. Unsure how to work the elevator, she took the wide, faded runner down the stone staircase to the ground floor, hoping she would not run into the woman from the night before. Grateful to find the foyer deserted, she made her escape into the day.
As she stepped from the building, the noise of cars and motorbikes funneled down the narrow street, pushing her back against the building, as if by a physical force. The air smelled of exhaust and damp stone. She stood for a moment, her heart pounding. Which way should she go? In her excitement, she had not bothered to look at the map or make a plan. But wasn't that why she was here, to dive into a new life and see where it led? Maybe her mother was right. You can't always plan everything, Marina; sometimes you just have to let life unfold and trust that it will be all right.
Across the street, a man was cranking an awning out over three sidewalk tables in front of a small café. Marina hesitated a moment, then surrendered to the scent of freshly baked pastries. She managed to order her breakfast by saying, "Cappuccino," and pointing to a pastry in the glass case, adding "Per favore," then "Grazie," which she had learned from a cassette tape before leaving New York. The woman behind the counter smiled and nodded encouragingly when Marina indicated she would like to sit outside. The early-morning air was still crisp, but the patch of sun splashing the face of the buildings opposite held a promise of midday warmth, and Marina congratulated herself on skipping out on New York's cold March winds.
But what to see first? The coffee coursed through her veins, flooding her mind with a thousand thoughts: the Uffizi or the Duomo, the Bargello or the Pitti Palace, make a list or just wander? She dug in her bag for the guidebook and a pen. On the inside of the front cover was a list of every site she wanted to visit. At the bottom of the list, in capital letters, she had written, FIND APARTMENT and LANGUAGE SCHOOL. Now she put a star by LANGUAGE SCHOOL. She would need that right away if she was going to understand anything in the gilding course she had signed up for. Her art history professor at NYU, Teresa Campione, had convinced her that the gilding course would satisfy her thirst for history as well as her need to do something with her hands. "I've seen your drawings and your sculpture, and I've talked to the studio faculty. You've got the touch, trust me." She advised that an "immersion" class in Italian was the thing to look for and would be easy enough to find, and that the American Consulate might possibly have leads on an apartment. Marina made a mental note to send her very first postcard to Teresa with thanks for all her help in planning the trip and an apology for what must have seemed like a stalking during the months preceding her departure.
Marina knew she couldn't present herself at the consulate in jeans, so that would have to wait. Besides, she wanted to give herself a few days to explore the city and soak it all in before getting down to business, the business of making a life here. She consulted the map at the front of the book and fixed a short route in her mind so she would not have to walk along clutching her guidebook like a tourist, then drained her cup, licked the sweet crumbs from her fingers, and set out toward the Duomo.
She didn't know if it was the coffee, jet lag, or culture shock, but as she made her way along the street, it was as if her consciousness had split in two, part of it floating above her body, observing her progress along the street. She watched herself look in a store window, push her hair back off her face, and hook it behind her ears. Yes, there she was, an ordinary-looking girl, average height and weight, chin-length brown hair, blue eyes, but she definitely looked like someone who knew what she was doing and where she was going. Embracing this confidence, she continued along the wide street to the next corner, where she turned and then stopped abruptly. Although she was still two blocks away, she found herself in the shadow of the cathedral, the church of Santa Maria del Fiore, otherwise known as the Duomo, which sat like a too-large toy in a make-believe village. Only a giant's hand reaching down from above to lift off the dome for a peek inside could possibly put it into perspective. Cars, tiny by comparison, buzzed around the base of the massive structure, while the ground swarmed with an ant-sized public.
She felt herself jostled by people on their way to work, running errands, keeping appointments, citizens who passed this masterpiece of engineering every day without giving it a thought. She had an urge to grab them, stop them, and make them look. Moving forward, she looked every inch the tourist—head tipped back, mouth slightly open—as her dreams became her reality.
Chapter TwoBy the end of the first week, Marina knew her way around the center of town, had located all the sights on her list, and had given each at least a cursory visit. She even managed to pick up a little Italian along the way, how to ask for directions (although she rarely understood the answers) and the names of the pastries she pointed to every morning in the little café across from her hotel. Now it was time to focus on the sites with gilded carvings, the church of Santa Croce being the first on her list.
The interior of the dim church was chilly, belying the signs of spring that flourished outside. Pulling her poncho tightly around her, she moved slowly into the gray stillness, walking as quietly as possible across the stone floor, but it was as if the silence inhaled the scrape of her leather-soled boots and the tap of their heels, breathing it back at her like a reprimand.
She made her way toward the front of the church, her eyes on the altar, her brain working to reconcile images in her mind from books and magazines with the one coming into focus. It had been like that all week, the split sense of being in the dream and living it at the same time. Then, unexpectedly, her foot struck an uneven part of the floor and her ankle buckled, bringing her down onto all fours.
"Shit," she muttered, pushing herself back into a squatting position, rubbing her knees.
"That was a rather sudden genuflection." The voice from overhead had an American accent. A pale hand reached into her line of vision. He was tall, at least six feet, his tweed jacket and corduroy pants hung on a thin frame, his face showed concern. She took his hand, cold in hers, and allowed him to help her to her feet.
"Look. You've stepped on the face of a Medici."
Marina withdrew her hand and looked down at the stark white face that pressed up from within the marble floor. Taking a step back she saw that it was attached to a life-sized bas-relief of a nobleman dressed in a long robe.
"Oh, sorry. I didn't see it. I was looking at the altar."
He shrugged. "It's nothing to me, but these old priests don't take kindly to young women throwing themselves onto their revered countrymen." He held out his hand again. "I'm Thomas."
Marina gave it a quick shake. "Marina. Thanks for your help." She turned away, moving toward the center nave.
Thomas moved with her. "Is this your first time in Santa Croce?"
Getting picked up was the last thing she wanted right now. Every day she had been hassled by men in the streets who did not seem to understand either the shaken head or the word no. She'd even resorted to giving one of them the finger, only to receive his fisted version in return. But Thomas did not seem to fit into that category. He spoke softly, as if he, too, respected the silence. She took in his wide-set gray eyes, long narrow nose, and the soft, rosebud mouth that saved his face from its harsh angles. Salt-and-pepper hair curled across his forehead and around his shirt collar. He looked harmless enough. She told him, yes, she had been in Florence a week, that she was here now to see the altar.
Excerpted from The Gilder by KATHRYN KAY Copyright © 2012 by Loma Kathryn Kay. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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