From the Piazzale Michelangelo you can see all of Florence. In the sunlight of late afternoon it looked like one of the pietra dura inlays at which Florentine craftsmen excelleda picture shaped from antique gold and semiprecious stones, amber and carnelian, topaz, heliodor, and chrysoberyl. Few cities are as beautiful; few can boast such a heritage. The names ring in the mind like trumpetsMichelangelo, Leonardo, Brunelleschi, Fra Angelico.
I sat sullenly in the car with my back turned to the spectacular view. I didn't want to be there. I had done my damnedest to avoid the place, and Florence itself. On the map the route looked simple. Leave the Autostrada del Sole at Firenze Est, cross the Arno by the first possible bridge, and head north toward Fiesole, skirting the inner city. I never even made it across the river. The map didn't show the sprawling suburbs with their mystifying mazes of streets and their inadequate signs. At least when I reached the Piazzale Michelangelo I knew where I was. I stopped there because I had a feeling that if I turned the steering wheel one more time I would keep on turning it, around and around, in circles, till I ran into another car or a tree or somebody's front door.
Finger by finger I unglued my sticky hands from the wheel. The weather wasn't hot. It was early spring in Tuscany, crisp and cool despite the brilliant sun. My hands were slippery with perspiration and stiff with cramp. I had held that wheel in a death grip all the way from Rome. But I had made itso far. If someone had told me three months ago that I would be in the hills above Florence, Italy, after driving a rental car all those miles from Rome, I would have laughedand laughed, and gone on laughing till a nurse came and gave me a shot.
It had happened, more times than I cared to remember. Even now I wasn't sure what had shaken me up and out of what Aunt Mary called "Kathy's high-priced crazy house." Dear, tactful Aunt Mary. Nobody in our family had ever had a nervous breakdown. Only weaklings had nervous breakdowns. That was how Aunt Mary referred to it; the newfangled jargon of psychiatry was not for her. Call it a crazy house or a nursing home or a psychiatric institution; call it a nervous breakdown or severe depressionor melancholia, as the Victorians did; it hurt just as much by any name.
Aunt Mary was smugly sure that it was her "down-to-earth, no-nonsense" lecture that had shamed me into getting my act together, after weeks of lolling around feeling sorry for myself. Dr. Hochstein took the credit for "curing" me with his new, advanced methods. Dr. Baldwin didn't think I was cured. "We haven't reached the root of the problem, Kathy. Four or five years of intensive psychotherapy.…" Baldwin and Hochstein belonged to opposing schoolsBaldwin the traditionalist, Hochstein a firm believer in encounter therapy: Never mind what caused the problem, face it and learn to deal with it. Theoretically I've nothing against that approach, but the application of it in my case almost killed me. The first time Hochstein got me into a car I just sat there behind the wheel and sobbed till he let me get out. The second and third times weren't much better. I hated Dr. Hochstein, but it worked for me. I had just proved that it worked. Even in my carefree pre-breakdown driving career I'd have had qualms about driving on an Italian autostrada in a rented car.
I picked up the car at the airport outside Rome, avoiding the city traffic. But it had not been an easy drive. I had to concentrate fiercely on every movement I made and keep a close eye on the movements of other cars, all of which appeared to be driven by people even crazier than I was. I concentrated so hard I was able to forget, for minutes on end, the memory that haunted methe bright-red Torino looking like a child's toy in the distance, spinning off the road, lifting in dreamlike, impossible flight before it dropped, down into the trees below. Then the sound, splitting the winter stillness, and the leaping column of flame and smoke.
I reached for my cigarettes. I'd quit smoking years ago, started again after.…Baldwin protested. Baldwin didn't believe in crutches. When he lectured me about emphysema, heart trouble, lung cancer, I laughed and quoted Alfred P. Newman. What, me worry? Why should I worry, Dr. Baldwin? Who cares about heart trouble thirty years from now? The young lives are snuffed out too soon, mangled and crushed and burned. I saw it happen, Dr. Baldwin.
I moved so fast I bruised my knuckles getting out of the car. It was the only way I knew to stop that train of thought. Do something, anything, and do it fast.
I knew what I would see. I had read the brochures and seen the photographs. The view from the Piazzale is the view of Florence. But I didn't know it would be so beautiful. I couldn't see crumbling mortar or flaking paint. I didn't know the soft mist in which the city floated like the fairy land of Lyonnesse was auto exhaust. I wouldn't have believed it if someone had told me. It was not a real city, it was a legend suspended above the earth; Avalon, swathed in veils of cloud.
I hung over the parapet for a while playing tourist with the other tourists, trying to see how many landmarks I could identify. Brunelleschi's great dome, with Giotto's bell tower beside it; the slender crenellated tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and the spires of Santa Croce and the Bargello. The gentle curves of the Arno, gilded by sunlight, and the Ponte Vecchio.
The sinking sun furnished me with the excuse I had been unconsciously seeking. I couldn't walk into a house of strangers so late in the daynot on an errand like mine, at any rate. Given my obviously inadequate sense of direction, and the fact that I had only the vaguest idea where I was going, I was bound to get lost againand again. It had been a wild idea anyway, to plunge in without some preliminary reconnaissance. I'd never have considered doing it if I had not been driven and possessed. Get it over with, get it donea childish approach to a dreaded but necessary task. I wasn't a child. I was twenty-three, independent, self-supporting, andrelativelysane. No matter what you say, Dr. Baldwin.
The city became more bewitching with every change of light. Shadows of mauve and lavender and opalescent gray dimmed the rooflines, and I reluctantly turned from the parapet and bade farewell to the two amiable Danish ladies with whom I had been playing "identify the monument."
"I have to find a place to stay," I explained.
The ladies were scandalized. "But, my dear, don't you have reservations?" one asked. "You should have made them in advance. Never travel without reservations."
If they weren't somebody's aunts, they should have been. Their lecture had the familiar ring, but I couldn't resent it. Their concern was too genuine. After they had done fussing at me they admitted that the less time I wasted discussing the problem the sooner I could get to work on it. They insisted on giving me the name and address of the pensione where they were staying. It was filled by the tour group of which they were members, but if I found myself in a bind I must come to them, they would think of something.
I had forgotten strangers could be so kind. "Strangers" was the key word; I'd had too much concentrated solicitude from my family, from my doctorssmothering me, imprisoning me in a muffling featherbed of concern. It's easier to accept favors from people you will never see again. Hello, good-bye, it's been nice knowing you. I thanked the Danish ladies and drove away, ready to face the horrors of Florentine traffic at what would have been rush hour back home and probably was here, too.
There is no such thing as rush hour. The traffic in Italian cities is horrendous all the time. I didn't exactly lose my way. I kept seeing things I recognized; it was like a family reunion where there are all those people you've encountered in old photograph albums"Good Lord, that must be Cousin Jack!" "Good God, that's the Medici Palace!" But I didn't want the Medici Palace, I wanted a hotel. The first two I checked were full up. I was beginning to think I would have to sleep in the car or cast myself on the generous (in every sense of the word) bosoms of the Danish ladies when I got lost again, and this time lost was lucky. I had wandered away from the city center, past the University and San Marco, when I spotted the Grande Albergo San Marco e Stella di Firenze. It wasn't as big as its namea narrow slit of a building squashed in between two massive piles of stone that might have been medieval palazzi or modern banks. In Florence it's hard to tell one from the other. As soon as I walked in the front door I knew it was my kind of place. Everything was red and white. Red walls and white trim in the lobby, white walls and red trim in the dining room visible through an arch to the right.
I rushed to the desk. "I'm doubled-parked," I gasped. "Have you got a room?"
The man behind the desk looked up from the magazine he was reading. Its cover depicted a mostly unclad female in the hot embrace of a masked man with a knife.
"For you, signorina, there is a room. All the rooms are yours. For one person or…" He paused. "For two?"
"I'll take anything. I'm double-parked"
A delicate flick of his fingers dismissed the problem as unworthy of consideration. "If you expect a friend, you will want a room for two."
I was about to say I was not expecting a friend when I caught the dark eyes fixed on mine. He was barely a manseventeen or eighteen at a guess, though his expression of weary cynicism would not have been out of place on an old roué. I hesitated.
Why did I hesitate? I wish I knew. There were several theories. Aunt Mary's is the simplest: "That girl is the worst liar I've ever met." Sister Ursula took a more charitable view, which was rather nice of Sister Ursula, since she had been fighting for twenty-some years to combat the varied vices of the tenth graders of Our Lady of Sorrows High School. It was an uphill fight, and might well have soured her outlook on life. A frown of perplexity wrinkling her smooth, pale brow, she would say, "I'm sure you don't intend to lie, Kathleen. You simply tell people what you think they expect, or want, to hear. But you must overcome this weaknessyou really must. One of these days it will get you in serious trouble."
I tried. I really did, and I would like to believe that Sister Ursula's interpretation, not Aunt Mary's, was correct. Sometimes, though, I lied out of cowardice instead of kindness. My reply to the young man behind the desk was compounded of both elements. He so wanted me to have a lover. He expected me to have a lover. And I was afraid that if I said I didn't have one, he would take it upon himself to supply the missing necessity. It was so much easier to say, "My friend has been delayed. For tonight, a single room."
"Delayed? Not coming?"
"Not till later."
"He is a foolish man."
"Thank you," I said, trying not to laugh. "You are very kind. Are you the manager, Mr.?"
"Angelo. To you, signorinaAngelo. I am everything. I do all things, to learn the business of the hotel. Someday I will own my own hotel. Very fine, very expensive hotel."
After I had registered he carried my suitcase upstairs. The Grande Albergo had no lift, which may have accounted in part for my success in finding a room. Then he asked for my car keys, saying confidently but rather vaguely that he "knew a place." As I unpacked I wondered what other hats Angelo wore besides those of bellboy, desk clerk and car-park attendant.
He was also the waiterthe only waiter. The dining room was small, only six tables, but he was kept busy whizzing back and forth with aperitifs and the endless courses that constituted an Italian dinner. I guess the food wasn't particularly goodin fact I was soon to learn that it was notbut it was all new to me and I enjoyed it. After I had devoured spaghetti alia bolognese, scaloppine, salad, and creme caramel, and finished half a carafe of wine, I began te realize how tired I was. When I looked out my window and saw silver tinsel streaks of rain against the pane, my vague intention of taking a walk was forgotten. I fumbled out of my clothes and fell into bed, confident that tonight at least I would sleep.
I dreamed, of course, but this time I was lucky. I didn't remember the dream.
Copyright © 1984 by Barbara Michaels