Signora, the Telephone Is for You
The small room is filled with German tourists, a few English, and a table or two of locals. It's November 6, 1993, and I arrived in Venice that morning, two friends in tow. We speak quietly together, sipping Amarone. Time passes and the room empties, but I notice that one table, the one farthest away from us, remains occupied. I feel the gentle, noninvasive stare of one of the four men who sit there. I turn my shoulders in, toward my wine, never really looking at the man. Soon the gentlemen go off, and we three are alone in the place. A few minutes pass before a waiter comes by to say there is a telephone call for me. We have yet to announce our arrival to friends, and even if someone knew we were in Venice, they couldn't possibly know we were lunching at Vino Vino. I tell the waiter he's mistaken.
"No, signora. Il telefono F per Lei," he insists.
"Pronto," I say into the old, orange wall telephone that smells of smoke and men's cologne.
"Pronto. Is it possible for you to meet me tomorrow at the same time? It's very important for me," says a deep, deliberate, Italian voice I'd never heard before.
In the short silence that follows it somehow clicks that he is one of the men who'd left the restaurant just moments before. Though I've understood fairly well what he has said, I can't respond in Italian. I mumble some linguistic fusion like, "No, grazie. I don't even know who you are," thinking that I really like his voice.
The next day we decide to return to Vino Vino because of its convenience to our hotel. I don't think about the man with the beautiful voice. But he's there, and this time he's without his colleagues and looking more than a little like Peter Sellers. We smile. I go off to sit with my friends, and he, seeming not quite to know how to approach us, turns and goes out the door. A few beats pass before the same waiter, now feeling a part of something quite grand, comes to me, eyes direct: "Signora, il telefono F per Lei." There ensues a repeat of yesterday's scene.
I go to the phone, and the beautiful voice speaks in very studied English, perhaps thinking it was his language I hadn't understood the day before: "Is it possible for you to meet me tomorrow, alone?"
"I don't think so," I fumble, "I think I'm going to Naples."
"Oh," is all the beautiful voice can say.
"I'm sorry," I say and hang up the phone.
We don't go to Naples the next day or the day after, but we do go to the same place for lunch, and Peter Sellers is always there. We never speak a word face to face. He always telephones. And I always tell him I can't meet him. On the fifth daya Fridayour last full day in Venice, my friends and I spend the morning at Florian mapping the rest of our journey, drinking Prosecco and cups of bitter, thick chocolate lit with Grand Marnier. We decide not to have lunch but to save our appetites for a farewell dinner at Harry's Bar.
Walking back to the hotel, we pass by Vino Vino, and there is Peter Sellers, his nose pressed against the window. A lost child. We stop in the calle a moment, and my friend Silvia says, "Go inside and talk to him. He has the dearest face. We'll meet you at the hotel."
I sit down next to the sweet face with the beautiful voice, and we drink some wine. We talk very little, something about the rain, I think, and why I didn't come to lunch that day. He tells me he is the manager of a nearby branch of Banca Commerciale Italiana, that it's late, and he has the only set of keys to reopen the safe for the afternoon's business. I notice the sweet face with the beautiful voice has wonderful hands. His hands tremble as he gathers his things to leave. We agree to meet at six-thirty that evening, right there, in the same place.
"Proprio qui, Right here," he repeats again and again.
I walk to the hotel with a peculiar feeling and spend the afternoon lolling about my little room, only half celebrating my tradition of reading Thomas Mann in bed. Even after all these years of coming to Venice, every afternoon is a ritual. Close by on the night table I place some luscious little pastry or a few cookies or, if lunch was too light, maybe one, crusty panino which Lino at the bottega across the bridge from my Pensione Accademia has split and stuffed with prosciutto, then wrapped in butcher's paper. I tuck the down quilt under my arms and open my book. But today I read and don't read the same page for an hour. And the second part of the ritual falls away altogether, the part where I wander out to see images Mann saw, touch stones he touched. Today all I can think about is him.
The persevering rain becomes a tempest that night, but I am resolved to meet the stranger. Lagoon waters splash up and spill over onto the riva in great foaming pools and the Piazza is a lake of black water. The winds seem the breath of furies. I make my way to the warm safety of the bar at the Hotel Monaco but no farther. Less than a few hundred yards from Vino Vino, I'm so close but I can get no closer. I go to the desk and ask for a telephone directory, but the wine bar is not listed. I try calling assistenza but operator number 143 finds nothing. The rendezvous is a wreckage, and I haven't a way to contact Peter Sellers. It was just not meant to be. I head back to the hotel bar, where a waiter called Paolo stuffs my soaked boots with newspaper and places them near a radiator with the same ceremony someone else might use to stow the crown jewels. I've known Paolo since my first trip to Venice four years earlier. Stocking-footed, fidgeting, drinking tea, I sit on the damp layers of my skirt, which sends up the wooly perfume of wet lambs, and watch fierce, crackling lights rip the clouds. I think back to my very first time in Venice. Lord, how I fought that journey! I'd been in Rome for a few days, and I'd wanted to stay. But there I was, hunkered down in a second-class train, heading north.
"Are you going to Venice?" asks a small voice in tentative Italian, trespassing on my Roman half-dream.
I open my eyes and look out the window to see we have pulled into Tiburtina. Two young, pink-faced German women are hoisting their great packs up into the overhead space, thrusting their ample selves down onto the seat opposite me.
"Yes," I finally answer, in English, to a space somewhere between them.
"For the first time," I say.
They are serious, shy, dutifully reading the Lorenzetti guide to Venice and drinking mineral water in the hot, airless train car as it lunges and bumps over the flat Roman countryside and up into the Umbrian hills. I close my eyes again, trying to find my place in the fable of life in the Via Giulia where I'd taken roof-top rooms in the ochered-rose palazzo that sits across from the Hungarian Art Academy. I'd decided I would go each Friday to eat a bowlful of tripe at Da Felice in the Testaccio. I would shop every morning in Campo dei Fiori. I'd open a twenty-seat taverna in the Ghetto, one big table where the shopkeeps and artisans would come to eat the good food I'd cook for them. I'd take a Corsican prince as my lover. His skin would smell of neroli blossoms, and he'd be poor as I would be, and we'd walk along the Tiber, going softly into our dotage. As I begin putting together the exquisite pieces of the prince's face, the trespasser's small voice asks, "Why are you going to Venice? Do you have friends there?"
"No. No friends," I tell her. "I guess I'm going because I've never been there, because I think I should," I say, more to myself than to her. I have hopelessly lost the prince's face for the moment, and so I parry: "And why are you going to Venice?"
"For romance," says the inquisitive one very simply.
My plainer truth is that I am going to Venice because I'm being sent there, to gather notes for a series of articles. Twenty-five hundred words on the bacari, traditional Venetian wine bars; twenty-five hundred more on the question of the city's gradual sinking into the lagoon; and an upscale dining review. I would rather have stayed in Rome. I want to go back to my narrow green wooden bed in the strange little room tucked up in the fourth-floor eaves of the Hotel Adriano. I want to sleep there, to be awakened by powdery sunlight sifting in through the chinks in the shutters. I like the way my heart beats in Rome, how I can walk faster and see better. I like that I feel at home wandering through her ancient ecstasy of secrets and lies. I like that she's taught me I am only a scintilla, a barely perceptible and transient gleam. And I like that at lunch, with fried artichokes on my breath, I think of supper. And at supper I remember peaches that wait in a bowl of cool water near my bed. I've nearly retrieved the pieces of the prince's face as the train lurches over the Ponte della Liberta. I open my eyes to see the lagoon.
Back then I could never have imagined how sweetly this ravishing old Princess was to gather me up into her tribe, how she would dazzle and dance the way only she can, exploding a morning with gold-shot light, soaking an evening in the bluish mists of a trance. I smile at Paolo, a tribal smile, a soundless eloquence. He stays near, keeping my teapot full. It's after eleven-thirty before the storm rests. I pull on boots all hardened into the shape of the newsprint stuffing. Damp hat over still-damp hair, still-damp coat, I gather myself for the walk back to the hotel. Something prickles, shivers forward in my consciousness. I try to remember if I'd told the stranger where we were staying. What's happening to me? Me, the unflappable. Even as I am drawn to Venice, so am I suspicious of her.
It seems I did tell him the name of our hotel, because I find a sheaf of pink paper messages under my door. He'd called every half hour from seven until midnight, the last message letting me know he would be waiting in the lobby at noon the next day, exactly the hour we were to leave for the airport.
Morning brings the first sun we've seen in Venice during that stay. I heave open my window to a day limpid and soft, as if in apology for all that weeping the night before. I pull on black velvet leggings and a turtleneck and go down to meet Peter Sellers, to look him in the eyes and to find out why a man I'd hardly met could be so disturbing to me. I don't know how I'm going to find out very much though, because he seems to speak no English and the only clear discourse I can carry on in Italian is about food. I'm a bit early, so I walk outside to feel the air and find I'm just in time to see him climbing over the Ponte delle Maravegie, trench coat, cigarette, newspaper, umbrella. I see him before he sees me. And I like what I see, feel.
"Stai scappando? Are you escaping?" he asks.
"No. I was coming to meet you," I say, mostly with my hands.
I had told my friends to wait, that I'd be half an hour, an hour at most. We would still have plenty of time to take a water taxi to the Marco Polo airport and check in for our three o'clock flight to Naples. I look at him. I really look at the stranger for the first time. All I see is the blue of his eyes. They are colored like the sky and the water are colored today and like the tiny, purply-blue berries called mirtilli, I think. He is at once shy and familiar, and we walk without destination. We stop for a moment on the Ponte dell'Accademia. He keeps dropping his newspaper and, as he bends to retrieve it, he thrusts the point of his umbrella into the crowds that pass behind us. Then, holding the newspaper under one arm and the umbrella under the other, its evil point still a thwart to the strollers, he slaps at his breast pockets, his trouser pockets, in search of a match. He finds the match and then begins the same search for another cigarette to replace the one that just dropped from his lips into the canal. He really is Peter Sellers.
He asks if I've ever thought much about destiny and if I believe there is such a thing as vero amore, real love. He looks away from me out over the water and speaks in a throaty sort of stammer for what seems like a long time and more to himself than to me. I understand few of the words except his final phrase, una volta nella vita, once in a lifetime. He looks at me as though he wants to kiss me, and I think I'd like to kiss him, too, but I know the umbrella and the newspaper will go into the water and, besides, we're too old to be playing love scenes. Aren't we too old? I'd probably want to kiss him even if he didn't have blueberry eyes. I'd probably want to kiss him even if he looked like Ted Koppel. It's only this place, the view from this bridge, this air, this light. I wonder if I'd want to kiss him if I'd met him in Naples. We take a gelato at Paolin in Campo Santo Stefano, sitting down at a front-row table in the sun.
"How do you feel about Venice?," he wants to know. "This is not your first visit here," he says, as though flipping through some internal dossier that tracks all my European movement.
"No, no, this is not my first time. I began coming in the spring of '89, about four years ago," I tell him brightly.
"1989? You've been coming to Venice for four years?" he asks. He holds up four fingers as though my pronounciation of quattro was muddled.
"Yes," I say. "Why is that so strange?"
"It's only that I never saw you until December. Last December. December 11, 1992," he says, as though eyeing the dossier more closely.
"What?" I ask, a little stunned, rummaging back to last winter, computing the dates when I'd last been there. Yes, I'd arrived in Venice on December 2 and then flown up to Milan on the evening of the eleventh. Still, he's surely mistaken me for another woman, and I'm about to tell him that, but he's already lunging into his story.
"You were walking in Piazza San Marco; it was just after five in the afternoon. You were wearing a long white coat, very long, down to your ankles, and your hair was tied up, just as it is now. You were looking in the window at Missiaglia, and you were with a man. He wasn't Venetian, or at least I'd never seen him before. Who was he?" he asks stiffly.
Before I can push out half a syllable, he is asking, "Was he your lover?"
I know he doesn't want me to answer, and so I don't. He's talking faster now, and I'm losing words and phrases. I ask him to look at me and, please, to speak more slowly. He accommodates. "I saw you only in profile, and I kept walking toward you. I stopped a few feet from you, and I just stood still, taking you in. I stood there until you and the man walked off the piazza toward the quay." He illustrates his words with broad movements of his hands, his fingers. His eyes hold mine urgently.
"I began to follow you, but I stopped because I had no idea what I'd do if I came face to face with you. I mean what would I say to you? How could I find a way to talk to you? And so I let you go. That's what I do, you know, I just let things go. I looked for you the next day and the next, but I knew you were gone. If only I'd see you walking alone somewhere, I could stop you, pretending I mistook you for someone else. No, I would tell you I thought your coat was beautiful. But anyway, I never found you again, so I held you in my mind. For all these months I tried to imagine who you were, where you were from. I wanted to hear the sound of your voice. I was very jealous of the man with you," he says slowly. "And then, as I was sitting there at Vino Vino the other day and you angled your body so that your profile was just visible underneath all that hair, I realized it was you. The woman in the white coat. And so you see, I've been waiting for you. Somehow I've been loving you, loving you since that afternoon in the piazza."
Still I have said not a word.
"That's what I was trying to tell you on the bridge just now, about destiny and true love. I fell in love with you, not at first sight, because I saw only a part of your face. With me it was love at half sight. It was enough. And if you think I'm mad, I don't care."