It was only a coffee at his place. No big deal. Like apple tea in Turkey, coffee in Naples was sipped all day long. Besides, she’d only ever seen him twice.
The first time she met him was at one of their university parties. Bruno, a name heavy and ancient like a rock. She didn’t catch the long and forgettable name of his village in the province of Avellino. He pronounced her own name with a succinctness that betrayed that he’d practiced it beforehand. And somehow he knew she wasn’t from Naples either, something she had almost forgotten herself. With his shirt tucked in, Bruno looked nothing like her fellow language students from the Oriental Institute, who hid their upbringing behind dreads and tattered suede jackets. In the still center of that whirling party, he stood there at a loss for words, a stranger waiting for her approval. She looked back at him the same way she looked at love, like a linguistic puzzle. He handed her a cassette tape of mixed music, before shoving his trembling hands in his pockets and heading home.
But where was his home anyway? She was disoriented, despite being still within her adopted neighborhood, the Quartieri Spagnoli. She didn’t look up, instead keeping her gaze glued to the slippery but pockmarked cobblestones, which always reminded her of large sucked candies. She didn’t want any of the locals – the fishmongers, the contraband cigarette sellers - to see she was lost. Just as they were designed to do, the symmetrical grid-like lines of the ancient Spanish military barracks had succeeded in confusing her.
She veered left and leaned against a peeling poster under a balcony. She took a deep breath, a familiar fusion of car exhaust and fresh octopus, and once again unfolded the piece of paper with his unexpectedly eccentric handwriting.
Via De Deo, 33. Franceschi.
Bruno Franceschi. The second time she saw him, the scirocco had already arrived in the city – without warning, direction or sound. Rolling thick and hot like a mudslide through the deep shafts of the Quartieri, it pressed itself almost indecently against everything in its path. As they all dined out on her friends’ rooftop, the wind wrapped them in its warm affectionless embrace. Bruno sat opposite her, separated only by a few glasses of wine and a plate of bucatini. He was a geology major, she learned. That injection of earthiness made her momentarily question the wisdom of studying such elusive subjects like Sanskrit, Bulgarian, glottology, semiotics. Someone asked him about Vesuvius and he answered that it was one of the most volatile volcanoes on the planet. Even the wind went still for a moment as they all looked out across the bay at that shadow puppet against the strangely electrified air, as if noticing the volcano’s power and beauty for the very first time. She looked over at Bruno and had the same epiphany. He pulled out a Marlboro. “They’re Lights,” he said to her apologetically. Then the Saharan wind pushed open his shirt. She could smell the cool forest of his cologne as she stole a peek at a pendant: a silver sun? She looked away, catching herself in some act of transgression, though it was the lawlessness of the scirocco that had been to blame.
“Hey, toothpick!” called out a young girl on the street, rousing her from her thoughts. How maddening it was to always stand out like that, when her heart was unmistakably Neapolitan. Besides, the anarchy of the scirocco tended to blow away all those trivialities. From the relative shelter of the balcony, she looked up at the street sign. Via De Deo. She smiled with relief. Naples always came through for her in the end.
As she climbed the steep street under a spiderweb of laundry, her thighs tensed up. Men on Vespas buzzed past, and women dragged up shopping bags and uncooperative children. Twenty-five. Twenty-nine. Her heart hammered in her chest, though it might have just been the incline.
At the big iron gate at number thirty-three, she paused, staring at the button labeled “Franceschi”. It was just a coffee, but somehow it felt as if she were standing on the edge of an abyss. She could feel the scirocco ploughing its fat fingers through her hair as it slowly shepherded the summer up from Africa. In that promise of heat was an ache that had no name, an ultimate reminder of powerlessness that she couldn’t – or didn’t want to – contain.
She pressed the button.
“Top floor,” came a deep voice. The gate clicked open and she stepped over the threshold.
(I wrote this to enter into an Italian competition once I translate it. I'll tell you more about that later! In the meantime, what do you think of this piece that I've tentatively titled "The Beginning of Something"? Can it stand on its own as a short story?)