Days passed, and romance blossomed. Of course, it wasn’t mine. Lee started dating Pietro, the round, balding member of the trio while Kathy, who already had a boyfriend waiting for her back home—making it even less fucking fair—was being squired around town by the blue-eyed Adonis. Daphne had found her very own Fabio in tight white pants while Beth was dating his less flamboyant friend. I sank back into old familiar emotional territory: anger, resentment, self-pity.
So when our first night off rolled around, I smiled through clenched teeth when asked to be the fifth wheel or, in this case, the seventh, at a dinner party hosted by big-toothed smiley guy with the hair. Did I want to come? Yeah, sure, what the fuck.
I knew nothing about this man other than a snippet I’d heard from Irene: that he loved everything even remotely American and that he was nice. I’d noticed the cool glasses, the look that was so distinctly Euro – the real deal, not the cheap imitation – but I knew, I fucking knew by insight or foresight or sheer desperation that by the end of the dinner party, that smiley Italian would be mine.
His apartment was on a narrow street, “La Strada” come to life. Large pieces of furniture were being lugged, with directives shouted from all corners—even the woman in her sixties with dyed blonde hair who had planted herself in a plaid Sears beach chair right on the sidewalk had an opinion. Four sets of stone stairs took us into an apartment of exposed beams and modern furniture. Black and white photos of New York covered mottled walls dating back to the Crusades. The terra cotta rooftops of Florence seen through a big retrofitted window. The old mixed with the new in a beautiful balletto of its own. I could so live here.
He welcomed us in. His smile was generous and enveloping. Then he raced into the kitchen to cook the pasta. The place smelled of Chef Boyardee.
The evening began with a bad flashback to a junior high school party. I was in the kitchen stealing gulps of cooking wine while everyone else was paired up on the couch like a gigantic octopus. Once again I was mano a mano with myself and my inadequacies. But then, fate did a one-eighty. I managed to get our host alone, and we got to talking about the States, Italy, and the ocean in between. The evening ended with big-toothed smiley guy and me making out on his balcony overlooking the rooftops of Florence and his hand up my dress.
Giovanni. If you’re going to write to your friends and tell them you’re dating an Italian, does it get any better than being able to say his name is Giovanni? It rolls and wiggles and undulates. It’s the verbal equivalent of a Prince concert.
Giovanni. He liked me. I was open to liking him. And it wasn’t just the idea of him. I thought I saw in that smile and those eyes someone itching to jump out of that bolted-down seat and take a flying leap right through the movie screen and into a world more perfectly poetic than anything real life could dish out. My version of that included a man with cool glasses living in an apartment with a view of the Duomo; his involved New York and a showgirl who wasn’t really a showgirl but a spunky gal with a sense of adventure. It was all so meta.
Unlike his two buddies, he wasn’t slick. He had squat legs and a body that seemed directly descended from peasants who were evolutionarily designed to be close to the arugula sprouting from the soil. Occasionally, a loud snorty sniffle would come out of his nose. Also unlike his buddies, he spoke near-perfect English.
“Willuh you-a come withuh me to dinner tomorrow nightuh?”
I made sure to dress primly for the occasion. This guy was all hands, and I wasn’t going to make it that easy for him. We went to a nearby restaurant and dined on food that was unlike anything I’d ever tasted in my life; and he wasn’t the least bit put off by my Puritanical outfit – a long-sleeved button-down shirt and slacks in late June. He told me about his life, how he’d studied law but went into the shipping business, a business that would offer him, he hoped, the chance to move to New York. We argued over which was Woody Allen’s best movie. He said Manhattan; I said Annie Hall. He thought New York was the most romantic city in the world. I said it was Paris. He loved Ronald Reagan; I hated him. I was having a conversation I could have been having in New York, only I wasn’t in New York. I was in Florence, and I was there to do a show – a show I did not want to be late to. I downed the last gulp of Chianti, took a gargantuan bite of Tiramisu, and said it was time for me to go.
Suddenly, his mood darkened. It happened in such a flash I barely registered the shift. “Theez place-uh where you girls do your-uh show—it eez notta a nice place. I am-uh sorry but-uh I think-uh you girls were trickuhed into coming here. No, this eez notta nice place at all-uh.”
The truth is, certain aspects of the adventure were becoming harder and harder to ignore. I caught those disparaging glances the waiters in the downstairs café threw at us when we straggled in at four in the afternoon for our first cup of coffee. It may have been my sensitivity to suddenly being part of a nocturnal subculture—after all, our workday started at eight p.m. and ended at four in the morning—but then there were the people we kept company with. This being pre-wall-coming-down, there were about two dozen women from Eastern bloc countries working in the club. They were not the American Balletto, and in fact, didn’t dance at all; and what they did beyond having drinks bought for them was a mystery only to a bunch of naïve Americans lucky enough not to be forced to do such things.
Giovanni and I saw each other every night for six nights in a row. We dined in ristorantes perched on remote Tuscan hilltops. We spilled our life stories while eating steak and drinking Chianti in trattorias packed with sexy, smiling people talking and laughing and living.
And each time Giovanni deftly whipped his car around the curves of the narrow, one-way roads we were flying down, I realized I would gladly surrender my life here—if it came to that. Because my life had suddenly merged with the idea, I’d always had in my mind of what it could be, what it should be, if I insisted hard enough; and if that were only to last a moment before another Fiat plowed into ours … well, fuck it. At least, I got there and proved it was possible.
On the seventh night, we rested. In each other’s arms, following sex for the first time which, truth be told, was mediocre, but who cares—everything else wasn’t. He had whisked me out of town, to the beach house his family had rented for the summer. It was about an hour and a half south of Florence. A modest place on the inside, but stepping out onto the patio the next morning wearing only his shirt, my hair properly tousled, I was blasted with a sight—made that much more dramatic by the fact that I’d had minimal sunlight exposure in the two weeks I’d been in Italy. Opening out before me like my own personal 3D movie was a panoramic view of the terra cotta rooftops nestled into the hills and the royal blue Mediterranean shimmering below. As I was basking in the beauty, Giovanni came out bearing a tray of espresso and biscotti. Then he leaned down, kissed me and with a slight, shy smile said “I thinkuh I lovuh you-uh.” Then he carried me back into the bedroom, and we had sex again.
It was our second night off and what a difference a week made.
Our mini sojourn was made that much sweeter by the fact that in eight hours I had to be back at work. But after speeding through the delicate arteries of Florence, I walked into the club late. It was only a matter of fifteen minutes, but it caused Loretta’s face to contort and her little body to tense up like a Russian gymnast landing a dismount. “WE managed to get here on time. WE had fun and went places, but WE got our asses to this club at eight o’clock, and are ready to do the show that allowed us to come to this country and meet these men in the first place.”
It didn’t matter that I gave the show the same all I would have given a Broadway musical. Loretta knew that Giovanni wasn’t just some continental type in tight white pants whose entire career was staked on meeting girls like us. Within days, she started implementing rules, docking our pay for such gross violations as being late or not keeping the pieces of our costumes neat. One night, Giovanni and his friend Massimo decided to pay a visit to the club. Loretta hit the roof. A meeting was held. There was a change of plans: the show was cutting its stint in Florence short and moving to Genoa in two days.
“You cannot-uh go to-uh theez town. Genova, eet eez a port town and not good-uh place-uh. There are drugs in Genova. Believe me – eet eez bad place.”
But I gave up a job and an apartment to come here. Besides, people are counting on me. The show is dependent on six people doing it. I had costumes made especially for me by the guy who designed the wardrobe for Pat Benatar’s last tour. We went back and forth. He begged me not to go and to come live with him in Florence. I said I had to go. Both of us were crying. There may have been someone singing an aria out of a nearby window.
Then he uttered the words that would come to haunt me for years to come: “I am on a train. You can either get on my train or stay at the station.”
Looking back on this moment umpteen million times, I realize this was the first critical juncture in my journey with this man. I heard those heavily-accented words in my own particular language of desperation. It didn’t even occur to me that I was on a train. I didn’t stop to consider even for a second the possibility that my life, such as it was, held its own value and was worth considering. All I saw were two camps: the American Balletto and all my newly-made friends plus our dubious leader were in one. A boyfriend – an Italian boyfriend – was in the other.