When I graduated from university, I had the good fortune to spend six months in Naples, Italy where, of course, I studied Italian and visited all the works of art to be found in that city of visual opulence. I wasn’t there alone, however. I was with my lover, also a graduate in art history. This was to have been our romantic interlude between the time of study, research and exams and the time of assuming a life of work and day-to-day responsibility. This was to have been a joyous time of fulfilled curiosity. We had arrived in May when the weather had begun to turn warm and the winter rain had ceased. This was to have been our time, utterly free.
Sometimes, I wandered the streets of Naples alone. My lover liked his solitude – he could spend hours in the Archaeological Museum sketching. He did not like learning foreign languages, so I took Italian classes by myself. It fell to me to achieve all our verbal navigation of the city, such as ordering in restaurants. I didn’t mind. It made me feel knowledgeable, essential to our Italian experience. After class, in the afternoons, my lover and I would meet for coffee in Piazza Bellini, a point between the Museum and the language school. I usually arrived first.
To get to Piazza Bellini, I usually passed near the monastic complex of Santa Chiara. Outside the gates, almost every day, I would observe a beggar and his dog. The man was swarthy, with thick curly hair. The dog was a black and white mongrel, very well behaved. I noticed that from time to time, passersby would offer the animal some tidbit of food. The beggar always seemed to have lire coins in the tin dish that he proffered. I noticed that he always wore gloves, even as the weather turned from warm to hot.
Then one day, while I was waiting for my lover at a café in Piazza Bellini, the beggar approached my table. My lover was late and I was reading – an English novel, I don’t remember which. I was tired and wanted to think in my own language for a while. I was startled by the words that interrupted my browsing, the tones, in rapport with the writing before my eyes:
“If you give me five thousand lire, I will be your friend for life.”
The beggar was American. I looked up, stupefied. He held out one hand. The other, gloved, he held up. The middle and ring finger of the gloves flapped, empty. His index finger and pinky were held up, palm toward me. This is the classic gesture of horns in their aspect of bringing good fortune. However, since two fingers were clearly missing, I didn’t take the sign literally.
The time that it took for me to collect myself, gave the beggar the chance to scrutinize me. I could not avoid looking back. He smiled. His eyes sparkled.
“I have seen you pass on your way from school,” he said. “I lived on Mulberry Street when I was little. After the war my family came back here.”
My cappuccino and cornetto arrived, along with the bill. The waiter stood by the table, waiting for me to pay. The change included a five-thousand lire note, equivalent to about three dollars. This was a lot to give a beggar; usually twenty-five cents was appropriate.
He repeated, “If you give me five-thousand lire, I’ll be your friend for life.”
Something about this good spirited bargaining called to me. I passed him the note.
I spotted him several times afterward, by the gate of Santa Chiara or by the gelato store nearby. He always greeted me, first saying – in English – that he doesn’t want money; that he’s fine now. Sometimes, I would pet his dog, who was actually reasonably clean.
The last time I saw the beggar was again in Piazza Bellini, in October. My lover was with me. Our time in Naples was coming to an end and the weather was turning cool. The winter rain had started, slowly, just in the mornings. Afternoons were still warm but not so much as they had been and there was a slight but unrelenting dampness underneath the warmth.
We were drinking expresso and avoiding conversation. I had suspicions that my lover had become involved with someone else and wanted to break up with me. He would not say so directly, but talked about wanting to stay in Naples a while longer. I should return to the States, however. He didn’t want to disrupt my plans.
My “friend for life” came up to our table. He looked at my lover and then at me. He lifted his semi-fingerless hand, palm facing the ground and moved it back and forth, the classic gesture of cheating. Then he looked at me and smiled and shook his head.
“You will be all right. Go back,” he said.
As I stood up bewildered, my “friend for life” nodded and turned his fingers downward, making the sign that protects against the evil eye.