“Woman with a Parasol” (from a painting by Henri Matisse)

 

She left. She left her husband and children. She left the chilly city whose tall buildings seemed to contain space that she always felt inside of. She went to Salerno and rented a room in a pensione that overlooked the sea.

Bay of Salerno
Bay of Salerno

It was May. She loved the colors. The sea was bright blue and dazzling in the sun. It was wide, opening toward endless unseen possibilities. The town itself, though, was white, brilliant shining white reflected to itself in the sun. The tiles on the floors of her room were white. This white was enhanced by the blue-green of the shutters on the door to the balcony.

She herself took to wearing white and would go out mornings to inspect the many archaeological treasures of the Sorrentine peninsula. A lone American woman walking, watching. In the afternoon she would return to the pensione for a rest. She loved to sit outside on the balcony, for even though the sun was strong, the breeze was soothing, caressing. She would open her parasol against the sun and gaze out at sea.

After a month she felt more her old self again and began to long for companionship. She observed herself sitting on her balcony, facing into the room as if waiting for her husband to come through the door.

© Antoinette Carone 2009

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Via Partenope

On a warm morning toward the end at the café overlooking the sea on Via Partenope Antonio and Giaccomo enjoyed their quiet companionship. Antonio cherished his solitude and also relished the feeling of being open to any possibility. Without being aware of it, he was waiting to fall in love.

At precisely thirteen minutes past ten, he saw her. She was running along the Bay of Naples, along the lungomare. She was wearing black pants that fit loosely and ended just below the knee, a black tee-shirt and black running shoes. She had dark curly hair, but there was something foreign about her. Antonio was curious. He had never noticed her before.

Via PartenopeVia Partenope

Antonio began to watch for this woman every morning at ten.   He was convinced she was not Italian – she ran alone, hair disheveled, no makeup or jewelry, loose black pants and black tee shirt.   No effort to make la bella figura. Each morning as she ran by he raised his cup in a salute. It was only on the fourth day that this strange and interesting woman realized his greeting was directed at her. Antonio liked this – a good-looking woman who was not interested in him.        “Signora, he called out, “Le piacerebbe un caffe?”

“No, grazie.” She continued past him.

He was right. He could tell that she was not Italian, but he couldn’t place the accent as either English or American. He needed to hear more. He couldn’t very well get up and follow her. It wouldn’t look right to run in a business suit, even though Giaccomo would love it. Antonio watched as the woman disappeared around the curve past the Fontana dell’Immacolatella. He took one last bite of his cornetto and held the tip of the pastry out for Giaccomo who had been waiting patiently for his morning treat. The little dog had sat quietly by Antonio’s chair, watching, waiting. Now was his moment. Giaccomo jumped up and opened his mouth. He caught the tip of the cornetto in mid-air doing a little pirouette then sat down again very satisfied with himself. Antonio regarded Giaccomo. The little dog seemed to be smiling. He looked up at Antonio with an amused slightly condescending expression. What did he know that Antonio didn’t?

In the evening Lucia sat in the café on Via Partenope gazing at the Bay of Naples, sipping a glass of red wine.   This had become her habit now. She would begin her day with a run along the Bay, first with her back to the sun and the sea on her left. She would run for about half an hour in this direction, passing the fishermen’s dock.

Every morning the fishing boats were moored while the fisherman displayed their catches of the day in plastic dishpans and white enamel basins. Housewives came and bargained.   The fishermen would leave by eight o’clock but the clever and frugal housewives who arrived at a quarter to eight would walk away with what was left of the fish for five euros. Their plastic bags would bulge and wiggle with the flapping living fish.

Just past the fisherman’s dock Lucia would turn around and run in the opposite direction, with the sea on her right and the speeding traffic on her left. Now she was running toward the sun.   The sea was a calm bright turquoise the color of her Siamese cat’s eyes. She always said a silent greeting to Grimaldi when she changed directions. She hoped he was happy.

This particular morning was a day of grace. When Lucia turned by the fisherman’s dock, she saw the sun rising over Vesuvius, appearing to sit on the summit. In profile was the former Roman villa and medieval fortification Castel dell’Ovo jutting into the sea. Lucia herself had performed a gracious act that morning and was now duly rewarded with this perfection of alignment of natural and constructed elements, the timeless mountain, the ancient castle and modern day cars and vespas racing toward them, all illuminated by the light of the sun and displayed for her in full splendor at the precise moment she turned to face them. An act of gratitude on the part of the Bay of Naples.

Castel dell'Ovo and Vesuvius
Castel dell’Ovo and Vesuvius

Just moments before at the fishermen’s dock, Lucia had stopped to glance at the fish on offer. She noticed an octopus stretch out its tentacles and inch its way to the edge of the wharf, trying to make its escape into the sea. Before it reached the edge, one of the fishermen caught it. Back in the white enamel basin the octopus stayed still, sensing the fisherman’s presence. When he moved away to attend to one of the housewives, the octopus again stretched out its tentacles, pulled itself out of the basis and crawled across the dock. It felt for the edge and when certain that it had found it, it pulled itself over and dropped into the sea. Lucia smiled. The octopus is an intelligent creature, she realized and promised herself that it would no longer be a part of the seafood she consumed almost daily. She made this vow as she turned and was greeted with approval by Vesuvius, the sun and the sea.

Now this evening Lucia sat at the café sipping her red wine and thinking about the octopus. She hoped that if had learned enough not to get caught again. She looked toward her left at Vesuvius, now a dark blue bulge against a blue-violet background. The sun was setting on the right of the Bay of Naples. Half of the Castel dell’Ovo was a purple shadow, but the other half was still illuminated by the brightness of the setting sun. And Capri was outlined in the darkening sea against the red-gold sky to the right of the castle. Lucia took another sip of her wine and tried to imagine her future, but could not. In Naples, the present seemed eternal.

Antonio parked his vespa on the street beside the café. He noticed the woman again. She seemed eternally present and he started to formulate a plan to introduce himself.

The last day of October is Halloween in America. In Naples, it is the day to visit cemeteries and acknowledge the dead. By giving the past its due respect, the Italians are then launch themselves into life. On this morning, as was his custom, Antonio and Giaccomo sat at the café on Via Partenope.   As Antonio saw the woman approaching, just before she passed his table, he tossed Giaccomo’s piece of pastry onto the sidewalk just out of reach of his lead. Giaccomo was puzzled. He looked at Antonio seeking an explanation for the change in ritual. “Piglia,” said Antonio using the colloquial Neapolitan word for “take.”

A Jack Russell terrier is very lively. They love a good chase. Antonio let go of Giaccomo’s lead just as the running woman passed. Out stepped Giaccomo and grabbed his treat.   Antonio had let go of his lead and the little dog decided that was a sufficient go-ahead to run himself. Jack Russell’s are also talkative. Gaiccomo yipped and took off with the running woman. He got her attention. She was not frightened. Not at all. She was delighted and stopped to pet Giaccomo.

In Naples it rains in the fall, winter and spring. It rains from November until May when the rain stops, the sun comes out and everyone goes to the sea. This was the beginning of Lucia’s second rainy season and a full year since the death of Jonathan.   October had been beautiful but on exactly the first day of November, the rain started.

Lucia did not have an umbrella. She hated umbrellas and refused to carry one. Besides, it didn’t rain constantly, only for several hours each day. Taking advantage of a break in the rain on that early November day, Lucia decided to go for a walk before lunch. She didn’t want to walk along the Bay of Naples today even though she had foregone her run that morning due to the pouring rain. She did not want to walk along the lungomare now because the sea was meant to be loved in the sunshine. She regretted the missed run. She was interested in the man with the Jack Russell, the man who said “buon giorno” to her every morning as he sat drinking his coffee at the café overlooking the sea on Via Partenope, and who let the dog run a little ways with her.

Lucia debated whether to walk in the dense historic center where the buildings stood so close together that they fended off the rain, and where she could stand in the Roman arcade on Via dei Tribunali if the rain got to be heavy again. Instead, however, she decided on Via Chiaia. She could always go into a café. Although she didn’t acknowledge it, in the back of her mind, she wondered if that man with the dog worked or lived nearby. She knew there were offices – elegant ones – on Via Nicotera just off Via Chiaia. If you worked there or lived nearby of course you would go to the Bay of Naples to take coffee on Via Partenope while gazing out at the sea, the Castel dell’Ovo and Capri.

Lucia dressed a little differently this morning, a little more fastidiously. She still wore black pants – but slacks not running pants – to which she added her grey cashmere sweater. She added a Harris Tweed jacket to fend off the damp and a hat in case the rain started up again.

She had just reached the fountain of lions in Piazza dei Martiri close to the book store where she had wanted to stop anyway when the rain came again. Lucia began to walk faster and headed toward the book store. The rain became a deluge. Then an umbrella was being held over her. She looked up and the man but without the dog this time. Today he had an umbrella with him instead. Lucia smiled. “Buon giorno, signora,” said Antonio. “Do you speak Italian or English?”

“Both,” answered Lucia

Lucia and Antonio walked in the Naples rain, his umbrella held over them both. Although this was the first time they walked together both were lost in their own thoughts. They touched under the umbrella but did not need to speak. By silent consent, they did not turn back to the Bay of Naples whose calm turquoise ripples had become grey white-tipped waves. They turned inward toward the elegance of Chiaia. They passed the fountain of the lions, still spouting water from their mouths. Water that on other days caught the sun and reflect the whiteness of the fountain but today seemed superfluous. They continued up the narrowing street to Piazza Plebiscito whose expanse of fifteenth century stones glistened slippery and treacherous.

Naples had touched Lucia like a lover. The sunny days were warm and enduring. The only darkness were glimpses into courtyards where stone demons lurked. The rain – il tempo brutto, literally the ugly time – revealed all the potential missteps one might take. She glanced at Antonio. He was focused straight ahead and she felt the pressure of his arm directing her to a nearby café, the one she had never been to because she thought it would be too expensive and not good. They entered, still not speaking and found a table near the window. The rain stopped and a cloud opened revealing the sun. This was Naples, an unlooked for moment of grace in a dark time. Antonio smiled and ordered coffee with grappa and sfogliatelle. They still did not speak.

The coffee and pastry arrived, as well as tw0 shot glasses of grappa. Antonio smiled and toasted her with his grappa, “Salute.” Lucia smiled and returned the toast. The expresso and pastry were delicious. She had discovered another unexpected treasure in this nineteenth century coffeehouse with its empty, unused rooms kept in perfect order and beautifully maintained, waiting for laughing celebrants to fill them. “I could stay here forever,” Lucia thought. Then realized she had said it aloud.

“Would you?” asked Antonio.

The rain should have started again but didn’t. Naples, life, is unpredictable. Perhaps there would be no happily ever-after but an everlasting present that is dreary and glorious by turns but solid and enduring like the city itself. Lucia could not separate the city from the man. “I have spent all my life to get here,” she thought.

Antonio raised his grappae again in salute. “To life,” he said.

 

© Antoinette Carone 2011