Venezia by Vivian Darkbloom

VENEZIA 
Vivian “Mambo Italiano” Darkbloom

viviandarkbloom@hotmail.com

 

You will come in any case, so why not now?
Life is very hard: I’m waiting for you.
I have turned off the lights and thrown the door wide open
For you, so simple and so marvelous.
Take on any form you like.
-Anna Akhmatova, from “Requiem”

1969

The map flutters in Mel’s grasp; the autumn wind twirls the corners, soft with age.

She knows this much: She is on the Fondamente Nuove, it is late afternoon and the low sunlight slashes across her sight – she blinks, even the dark sunglasses can barely restrain the power of Italian light – and all the whores, male and female, are staring at her boldly. The women and girls are curious, and the boys eager for her to pick one of them, for they are certain it is a man she wants.

She wants nothing. She’s not even certain how she has managed to wander all the way from Piazza San Marco to this, the city’s edge. But, like the past five years, everything is a black blur. She tucks the map away into a pocket of her skirt, and walks along a boardwalk. A young man leans against a railing, watching her appreciatively. He is too well-dressed to be a prostitute, unlike many of the people loitering in this particular location; he carries a leather satchel brimming with books and papers. Occasionally she feels his dark eyes on her – but then he looks away, frowning, perhaps contemplating what he could say to her, a worldly, older woman, that would suitably impress her. It is vaguely flattering that others still find her attractive; her dark hair is threaded with some gray, but her figure is still impressive, and few wrinkles crease her handsome face. In her youth, compliments were pleasing yet hardly unexpected. Now they feel truly meaningless.

Dead inside. She closes her eyes. Some days were better than others. Some days she did not feel death pulling at her, did not want to put Janice Covington’s .38 pistol to her head and pull the trigger, did not want to throw herself out a window or into an ocean, did not want to cry herself to sleep and pray that she would never wake.

It is not one of those days.

Why? Why did I come back here? I should have stayed in Tuscany, I should have gotten on a train in the opposite direction. The reasons were tangled up in masochistic desire and flawed logic. Come back here, where you spent a “honeymoon” of sorts?where she gave you a ring, where she said she would never leave again, where you were happy. That was?1948. The trip had filled her with expectations; she had not been in the country, let alone Venice, since she was a teenager: How had the war changed everything? Would a certain café still exist? What buildings were destroyed or lost? Would Janice get seasick and throw up in a gondola? She still remembered, vividly, the look of disgust on Janice’s face as she first peered into the murky waters of the Grand Canal, from a vantage point on the Rialto Bridge. “Isn’t it wonderful?” she had gushed.

“It stinks,” Janice retorted, her compact nose scrunched in sensory horror.

“You’ll love it,” Mel had assured her.

“I love you,” Janice had replied, face alit with the reflected light of the water.

Mel had dropped her head in a happy blush, staring at the stones of the bridge, dark and damp, slowly curving, glistening. It looked like an elephant’s back.

“Still can’t get used to it, huh?” Janice remarked wryly, with a silly grin that indicated she, too, had not adjusted to the concept: They were alive, the war was over, they were in love. So many things had gotten in the way before. But then, it was just them. History was forgotten. They were in Venice on another holy-grail search for a scroll – a lead had emerged, about an Italian nobleman who had possessed one during the war – but time seemed languorous, and this business was secondary, as was the archaeology conference they were attending.

Idiot, she berates herself. You drag yourself here, knowing it’s Venice, knowing it’s where you were the happiest with her…what did you expect?

I thought it might make me feel better somehow.

You damned fool.

Signora?” the boy says.

It pulls her out of the darkness. She stares at him, startled.

“Are you not cold?” he asks in Italian.

“No, thank you, I’m fine,” she responds, voice low and polite.

Many years of living both abroad and in the Northern United States has tamed Mel’s accent, despite occasional terms of residence in the South; nonetheless, it lingers lightly in her speech, like a delicate perfume, and the alert young man can detect it even through her impeccable, impressive Italian.

“You’re not Italian!” he exclaims.

She smiles weakly. “No.”

“British?” he ventures.

“American,” she supplies absently, watching the water.

He is surprised. “Really? All Americans are fat and ugly, and wear bad clothes, no?”

“Not quite,” she corrects gently.

She looks away from him, in the other direction. Down the long boardwalk.

“You are on a vacation, then?” he asks. He leans closer to her, the wind battering the brown curls of his long hair. Young men have long hair now, Mel thinks. She can’t quite get used to it. She feels the pressure build up in her skull again. A headache. She is tired, so very tired, of other people’s conversation. Of questions. The same old questions. Who are you, where are you from, why are you here?Everything possessed a repetitive quality that once upon a time soothed her, assuaged her, even amused her – the patterns of a life. Now? It bores her, exasperates her. Makes her envision the mystery of death. And just what is it about Venice and death, she mused. Now there’s a book I haven’t read in years. How depressing it was.

Janice, of course, never had time to read novels. Or so she claimed. She would rather watch a baseball game, drink a beer, mow the lawn?. How did we stay together as long as we did without killing each other?

His hand shifts along the leather strap of his bag, and the movement draws her back into the present.

“You are very far away.” His voice is grave and his smile slight.

Si,” she murmurs.

“If,” he begins cautiously, “you would like to stay in this world for a while?”

She looks at him in surprise.

“?I would like to buy you a drink.”

Silly, she thinks, it’s silly to assume that simply because he is young enough to be her son, that he cannot detect these things: a sorrow that hangs about her like a cloak. Like dirt.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be among the young? The living? You’re still alive, Melinda.

Again, she looks off down the boardwalk. She yearns to move. The fever of wandering has consumed her for many years. Somehow – perhaps in a kiss, or a touch – Janice transferred that desire to her. The golden-haired archaeologist was never one for settling down for long. Even standing still, or asleep, her body shimmered with motion, a barely restrained vibration?each way free, to quote Herrick.

Oh, how that glittering taketh me.

“Perhaps?” she manages, and he stands straighter in happy anticipation. “Perhaps another time.”

He bows his head, a respectful gesture, gathers up his easy smile and slightly wounded amour propre, and leaves, quietly bidding her a good evening.

She stands alone for a few more minutes, then heads in the direction of the waning sun.

Is it too early to go back to the hotel? she wonders. Do they all think she is strange, because she leaves before daybreak and returns before dusk, just when the city begins to live, and always alone? Who the hell cares?

After many years of living with Covington, the swearing comes naturally. If only in her thoughts.

Four women are clustered around a bench. Two are dressed in garish miniskirts and ludicrously patterned tops that reveal bare midriffs, another is dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, and the last one, sitting atop the back of the bench, is obscured from Mel’s view. But a corona of orange light catches her eye, and she slows her pace as she starts to walk by. And stops.

A girl, about 16 or 17, is perched among these older females. She is obviously entertaining her friends with a story, and her rapid, slangy Italian and heavy Venetian dialect render it almost impossible for Mel to understand what she is saying. Not that she cares. The language washes over her in its familiar currents and eddies as she stares in disbelief: The girl looks almost exactly like Janice Covington – a very young Janice, as when she and Mel first met. The youth of that face?.It had been her very first thought upon that fateful meeting, almost 30 years ago, when the notorious Dr. Covington stuck a gun in her face: Dear Lord, she looks like she’s 18 if a day.

It is uncanny. The hair the same burnished gold, the tanned skin, the smile, the eyes.

Her pulse thuds, its beat almost deafening – in the roar of blood her sanity swims, flailing, her heart drowning. She closes her eyes for a moment, willing the mirage to disappear. She pulls off the sunglasses and lays a hand across her face, the cold dampness of a palm meeting a hot, dry cheek.

Through the sliver of two fingers, framing the scene like a camera, Mel sees them all staring at her, the young girl who resembles Janice right in the middle. Madness. Her fingers close, shuttering off the image.

I can’t. I won’t. The urge – to die, to scream, to run, to do something – is choking her.

High heels nicker rhythmically across the pavement, growing louder until she senses a presence. “Signora? ” A husky female voice demands her attention.

Mel allows her hand to slide down her face. One of the women from the bench is in front of her, a brunette, slathered in makeup, day-old mascara clinging stubbornly to the slender stalks of eyelashes, the brown eyes dark and hard, yet oddly sympathetic. Unbidden, the thought occurs to Mel that the prostitute resembles a man trying – and failing miserably – to impersonate Maria Callas.

“Are you all right?” the woman asks solicitously, in Italian. “Would you like to sit down?”

Mel’s eyes dart nervously over to the bench, to the girl, who stares at her with blatant curiosity, unlike the others, who mask their interest with looks of disdain.

“No,” Mel blurts. She won’t permit herself to get too close.

The whore touches her arm. “Please, you are as pale as snow. You must be ill. Come sit on the bench. We’ll move.” She snares Mel’s arm and, before Mel can dig in her heels like a stubborn mare, steers the tall Southerner over to the others. “Francesca! Move your fat ass!” she barks at the golden-haired girl, who immediately jumps off the back of the bench.

Francesca. She is about Janice’s height, perhaps an inch taller, wearing a t-shirt with brown and blue stripes, ragged, cut-off denim shorts, her bare feet jammed into brown, hippie-ish leather sandals. As Mel walks to the bench she stops and stares at the girl, who returns her frank interest with pale, gray-green eyes.

No sooner is she sitting on the bench than the dark-haired whore claps a rough hand across Mel’s forehead. “Si, you are feverish!” she declares.

Signora,” coos another woman – a platinum blonde – in venomous teasing, “I swear, we have not seen your husband!” The third, a girl in blue jeans, closer to Francesca’s age and with mousy brown hair, laughs.

Francesca continues to stare at Mel, a smile on her lips and puzzlement in her eyes, as she hesitates to join her friends in the teasing.

“Ah, shut up,” grunts the brunette, who is fussing over Mel as if she is a child. “Can’t you see, something is wrong? Signora, do you need anything? Some water? Some aspirin?”

Dottore Sofia!” crows the fake blonde.

Finally, Mel manages to speak. “Please, I will be fine. I am only a little tired.”

“If you are looking for the boys, they are further down,” the blonde says to her, pointing in the direction from which Mel came. They laugh again, save for Francesca and Sofia.

Mel extracts a handkerchief from her purse and mops her brow with it. “I don’t want a boy,” she mutters, more to herself than the others.

Sofia has heard her, however. And raises an eyebrow. “Well,” she asks ingenuously, “what do you want?”

“I don’t want anything,” she replies perfunctorily. Nonetheless her gaze is riveted to the young, tanned woman. Oh, don’t look….But she is helpless.

Francesca is smiling at her. Almost as if she knows. Impossible. Or is it?

Mel hangs her head in acute embarrassment.

But it is too late. The look has passed between them – an acknowledgment of desire, an offering of services – and the raven-haired whore has caught it. Her overplucked eyebrows arch in surprise. “Well!” she drawls. And laughs.

It takes a moment for the others to catch on. “Mamma mia!” shrieks the platinum blonde.

“The English are so funny that way. Both the men and women, I guess,” the brown-haired girl observes philosophically.

Mel neglects to correct the mistake in her nationality, as Francesca feigns surprise, coquettishly touching her chest in mock disbelief. “Me?” she squeaks. The women titter nervously.

You? I’ve spent the past five years looking at your face embodied in old photographs, yearning to hear your voice again, your laugh, missing your touch, your kiss, the smell of your body…the feel of you, lying across me?the leather, the cigars, the cigarettes, the teasing, your hair upon a pillow, the way you would caress an old book, the taste of bourbon on your lips, seeing you throw a baseball, pitch a tent, wield a pick ax, fix a car, argue with me, cry on my shoulder, give yourself to me….you said once that if you ever left me again, you would surely come back.

But it’s not you, is it, Janice?

The apparition – no, you fool, she is real, dear God, she is real – resembling her lover smiles, a lascivious, cocky grin, and knowingly folds her arms over her chest.

“No, not for that,” Mel says quickly. Liar!

Francesca raises an eyebrow expectantly.

“Just to talk,” Mel says.

The raucous laughter of all four women is almost deafening.

“Talk, eh?” Sofia finally gasps through her giggle fit. “It still costs the same, Signora…no, wait?” – she raises a hand imperiously, making it up as she goes along – “it’s double, since this is a special situation.”

Mel shrugs. She knows whatever the price is, she can afford it. What the hell are you doing? a niggling voice intrudes on her thoughts. Buying a prostitute? Are you insane?

Just?to be with her a little. That’s all, she reassures herself – and the demanding voice.

But, like a car crash, the situation has escalated quickly into something beyond her control, something she has not really thought about. All she knows is that she wants to spend time with the girl. Suddenly, she does not want to be alone.

“Well, Francesca, what do you think?” Sofia asks. The brunette frankly inspects Mel with her eyes. “She is good-looking, obviously has money and” – she bends down and quickly sniffs with comical loudness at Mel’s hair and the nape of her neck – “she is clean. I don’t think you’ll do much better than this.”

While Mel is not exactly experienced in this type of interaction, she wonders if, perhaps, it is a little unusual for the buyer to be scrutinized by the product.

Francesca’s mouth is an o of wonder, as if she too cannot believe the rapid transaction, which belies the super-confident facade she wore just a moment ago. She can’t have done this very often, Mel thinks. Or rather, hopes. The young woman pauses, shifting her weight on to one hip, and somehow manages to stuff her hands into the tight pockets of her shorts. “All right,” she says softly.

The deed is done. Mel blinks, as if waking from some strange dream. Her head is swimming in the low sunlight.

Sofia holds out a hand, wiggling the fingers almost obscenely; the whore with a heart of gold is replaced by the practical businesswoman. “100,000 lire,” she demands.

*****

Sunset. The sky is violet, rent through with scarlet and orange, like a wound.

“For someone who wants to talk, you do not say much,” Francesca says, in slow yet precise English, breaking the silence.

Mel raises an eyebrow. “You speak English.” And rather well, at that. She studies the profile, so astonishingly familiar, and shudders at the sudden ache to touch the bow-shaped lips, remembers all too well the way that Janice, eyes closed, sighing, would take fingers into her mouth, a gesture of delicious surrender. What else do you do well? Tell me.

“Yes, I do. We can speak in English, if that is okay with you. I like to practice.” The girl’s accent is pleasingly heavy, the rolling vowels hanging off her tongue, threatening to fall from her speech like ripe pears.

“That’s fine,” Mel says.

“But please, do not misunderstand. Your Italian is very good.”

“Thank you.”

Suddenly, the whore stops walking. “Why?” Francesca blurts.

Mel too stops, and looks at her. “Why what?” Her voice is hoarse, roughened by desire and the jagged bits of her heart.

The young woman’s brows collide as she attempts to undo Mel with the power of her gaze. “Why do you want to?’talk’ to me?”

It almost works. “You remind me of someone.”

She watches as the girl processes this, her body restless in her movements, the motion of youth. “Tell me more,” she says softly, eagerly, as if anticipating some fantastic story.

We did have a wonderful life together, didn’t we? We had a story to tell. It wasn’t just the story of Gabrielle and Xena, it encompassed so much more.

“Perhaps later.” Mel glances away, then starts to walk again. Francesca catches up with her, and they fall into step together.

“We go to your hotel?”

“Yes.” Mel studiously ignores looking at the young woman, and her gaze remains fixed on the pace of her shoes along the cobblestones. What are you doing? Tell her to go away!

Francesca takes the awkward tension streaming off of Mel as inexperience. “Do not worry,” she proclaims, touching Mel’s hand gently, “I have done this before.”

The tall woman flinches as the fingers brush her knuckles, then hopes the whore hasn’t noticed. As the words settle in, she looks at Francesca in surprise. “You’ve?”

“With a woman? Si. Sofia taught me everything,” she replies with pride, as if Sofia were Sappho herself.

“I?see.” Mel pauses, flustered. “We aren’t going to do anything. Just?”

“Talk?” the young woman responds, with a wry smile. “Whatever you want. I am yours for the night,” she says in the tone of an indulgent parent.

The street is filled with stores, restaurants, and people. Francesca stops walking, and touches Mel’s arm. “Wait here,” the girl says, and darts quickly through the crowd.

Mel feels a stab of panic. Was she being deserted? Had the girl decided it was all too much, too strange, she didn’t want to go through with it? It’s for the best. Stupidly, she stands there for a few minutes, passers-by jostling her, until she catches sight of the coppery head moving through the crowd and toward her.

Francesca holds a brown paper bag shaped like a bottle. “Andiamo,” she says. Mel nods. As they walk down the street, she tries to combat the jolt of surprise and desire as the young woman takes her hand. The warmth is overwhelming; to be touched again is like a drug. But she fights it, perversely, wanting to luxuriate in it and yet not trusting it, not wanting it?unless it was Janice. But that’s impossible.

“Does this bother you?” Francesca asks.

“No,” Mel lies tightly.

“Yes, it does.” The girl chuckles. “Do not worry. Everyone will think you are my mother.”

The reminder of her age is annoying to the older woman. “We don’t really look alike.”

“Tell them I look like papa,” retorts the whore.

Mel says nothing as a blush travels along her face.

The facade of the Hotel Cavalletto becomes visible, a brilliant ochre shining even more ostentatiously in the fading light. Mel takes a deep breath as the door is held open for her and she sails in, relying on the drama of her height, her bearing, and her still considerable beauty to distract anyone from the fact that a young, raggedly woman is trailing in her wake and following her to the elevator. But the concierge, loitering discreetly nearby, bars Francesca with his arm. Mel turns sharply once she feels the girl is no longer on her heels.

The concierge is about to read the riot act (or its Italian equivalent) to the young prostitute, when Mel says, in clipped tones, “É con me. 

She is with me. His eyebrows shoot up. He looks at Francesca is disbelief; this little hippie-slut? He recovers, nods, and allows Francesca to follow.

In the elevator, the girl giggles. Mel is mortified. It’s not too late, a voice warns inside her, as the door opens and they walk down the still corridor.

Her hands shake as she removes the key from her pocket and unlocks the door to her room, all the time aware of the girl’s green eyes on her. It is ludicrous, she thinks, bringing a common prostitute here. And an underage one at that. She looks quickly at Francesca, who delivers a voracious, lusty grin on cue. Crinkles deepen around her eyes, lines that – she’s not even sure anymore and it pains her – Janice probably didn’t have until she hit her 40s. You are far too young to have those kinds of wrinkles. A memory comes to mind, of the last excavation: Janice, tilting her hat back, squinting in the sun, laughing with Fayed, the foreman. Her hair still golden. She had often teased Mel about that – the fact that the black-haired translator had gone gray and she hadn’t. The gray hairs had appeared the year that dreadful movie came out – the cartoon about the Dalmatians – and Janice had made some remark about Mel resembling the film’s villainess, Cruella DeVille. There had been “Southern-fried hell to pay” (as Janice phrased it) after that comment.

The room is large and airy, simple and elegant, with tones of red and gold. The hotel’s literature refers to it as “classically Venetian, with hints of Orientalism.” Mel has no idea what it means. She drops her purse on a table, and turns to the girl, hand extended. Wordlessly, as she gawks around the room, Francesca hands the bottle to Mel.

Mel sheds the skin of the unknown bottle in her grasp. It is bourbon, the Covington drink of choice. She doesn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or smash the bottle and draw a broken shard across her wrists. Unbidden, an image of the chakram slicing a throat flashes in her mind. Not me. Ironic. After so many years, Janice became comfortable with the idea of being the bard’s descendent. But I, more than ever, fought against my own lineage. Xena.

“Bore-bom,” says the young whore. “You like?”

I’m not a killer. I’m not a heroine. But I am a wanderer.

She hates whiskey of all kinds. But Janice?.hadn’t it all started with a bottle of the stuff, that bottle of Bushmill’s that Janice half-consumed at her house? “Fine.” Mel feigns casualness. She sits the bottle on the table. A phone call downstairs will yield a bucket of ice and glasses within five minutes. As she cradles the phone receiver against her shoulder, Mel watches the girl prowl around the room, restless, taking in everything, from the tasteful framed prints, to the new couch, the expensive rug, the mahogany sitting table. Francesca is half in awe, yet half outraged that such extravagant living is the province of very few. Janice was like that too, but she usually managed to deflect how impressed she was with her smart-ass remarks. Jesus, Mel, another dump!

A knock at the door announces the arrival of the ice and tumblers. With a grunt and a quick tip, the bellboy disappears. Mel prepares the drink automatically, having done so countless times for her lover, without thinking to ask how Francesca really takes it. But the whore says nothing as she offers the drink; she accepts it gratefully and downs it in one gulp. “Bah!” Francesca cries with hoarse enjoyment, eyes watering. “I hate it so much I like it.”

What else do you feel that way about? Mel sips at her drink. The girl laughs at her. “Come, you are not an old lady. Drink like a real person.”

Well, the sooner it’s over with, the better. She shrugs. She pitches the drink down her throat, the burning trail contrasting neatly with the ice cubes pressed against her lips. She almost gags at the taste; experiencing the flavor via the alchemy of Janice’s mouth had been much more enjoyable – the hot power of the alcohol held a sweetness it lacked otherwise.

“What is your name?” Francesca asks.

“Melinda.”

Bella. Bee-you-tee-fool.” She drawled the English word comically and smiled flirtatiously. “Like you.”

For the first time in years – probably since the early years of her involvement with Janice – Mel ducks her head in embarrassment at a compliment. “You don’t have to flatter me,” she mutters.

Che cosa? 

The blue eyes look up at her sharply. “I said you don’t have to talk to me like that.”

“Silly. You do not like when people say nice things to you?”

The older woman glowers at her, resisting the charm.

Merda, lady. Please don’t act like people never say, ‘Ah, Melinda! She is lovely!’ ” In mock melodramatics, Francesca flings a forearm against her face. “She blinds me with her beauty!”

In spite of it all, Mel grins and chuckles. “Now who’s being silly?”

“Me. I am always silly. My brother says so.”

“Your brother?”

Si. He works at a cafe. Ottavio.” Mel is uncertain for a moment, not knowing if she is referring to her brother or the place where he works. But the girl smiles wistfully, and Mel realizes it’s the name of the brother. “We save money, together. We want to start a café of our own. Soon.”

Mel sits, gestures for the girl to do the same, but Francesca remains standing, leaning against the mantelpiece, staring off into space. “This is why I do what I do,” she murmurs, almost to herself, as a reassurance, a prayer.

“There are other things you could do,” Mel counters.

The girl snorts derisively. “Not for this kind of money.” Uncomfortable, she decides to turn the focus on Mel, and does so with unerring tactlessness. “You always fuck women, yes?”

The glass, beaded with moisture, slips in Mel’s hands, but she recovers just in time to prevent it crashing to the floor, and tightens her grip accordingly. “You’re very blunt,” she replies, avoiding the question.

Scuzi? ”

Mel sighs and ransacks her weary mind for an appropriate translation. “Esplicito.” That’ll do, she thinks.

“I do not mean to offend you.” Francesca relents in her brute assault as an apologetic tone creeps into her voice. “I am curious.”

Mel clears her throat nervously, feeling as if she is being interrogated by the IRS. “It’s all right. Yes, I’ve made love to women before.” Do I get a deduction for that?

“Ah. And men? Have you ever – ”

“No,” responds Mel. “Close, but no cigar.”

Cosa…?” Francesca frowns again, as her limited English rubs up against yet another strange expression.

“Never mind.” She sits the glass on the end table. Their eyes meet. Involuntarily, she feels her lips part, her mouth hanging open in disbelief; it’s a silent cry, an ache that this doppelganger has brought and laid at her feet, like an offering. For Francesca stands, hand on a jutting hip, in a pose so reminiscent of Janice she cannot believe it to be true. Right down to the sunset-colored hair and the clear eyes, as pure as morning light.

The girl knows – she has been told so many times by Sofia – that while it is acceptable to feel a fondness for certain customers, one cannot afford to grow seriously attached to any. She is soft-hearted; Sofia knows this, hence the volume and hysteria of the warnings. And Francesca, thus far, has heeded the advice of her mentor. But she does feel an empathy for this tall, lovely woman who sits in front her, almost crying, an emotion she has never quite experienced with any customer before. She feels an awe at the power of the love that brings this proud, aristocratic woman to the brink of tears, that made her buy abucaiola, that makes her beautiful blue eyes flash with pain and remembrance. It is a mystery. She wants to know the woman’s story. “What is it about me??” the whore begins slowly, in a gentle, wondrous voice.

“You?” Mel drops her head, cannot say anything further.

“I look like someone you know.” She takes a step toward Mel. “Someone you loved, si?”

“Yes.” The Southerner cannot believe the raw, husky tone to be her own voice.

Another step. “Did she not love you back?”

“No, no, she did. But now she’s gone.”

“Gone?” the young woman echoes. She is now sitting on the arm of the chair, and Mel can feel the heat of her body, can smell the sun in her hair and clothes.

Mel finally looks up at her. “Don’t ask me any more questions. I can’t -”

She is silenced by the woman’s hand on her face, the fingertips mapping the lines of her jaw, still strong and firm, her touch traveling and dipping into the shadows along her neck. Mel’s breath buffets the thumb that lingers near her lips. The fact that she is feeling something – desire – other than pain is a temporary haven, but she remembers the one she wanted so long ago – and still wants. The tears that have been perched on the edge of release for the past hour or so finally fall. She is crying as the girl crawls into her lap

and proceeds to catch the shimmering drops with both fingers and mouth.

Francesca is going shhh, soothing her like a child, kissing her forehead and pulling her against a breast, so that her wet face soaks the striped t-shirt.

“Mel?”

Was it 24 years ago?

“Am I alive?”

She had barely managed a response before starting to cry, rising from the chair but then falling to her knees on the floor next to Janice’s bed, hating herself for being weak and breaking down as she gasped and sobbed into the white sheets, her body heaving convulsively. Janice’s strong fingers burrowed into her hair, her husky, lovely voice saying over and over again: “Mel. Mel. Melinda. It’s okay. I’m here. I’m here.”

The kiss is uncertain, feeling all the more intimate for its delicacy, the fragile brushing of lips. The next one is stronger, as is the one that follows after that. Mel arches into it, tasting the bourbon and the salt of her own tears.

I’m here.

*****

Morning is revealed gradually, like a gauze bandage stripped away from her senses. First, the sounds of the street below, the ever-present lull of the water, the loud cries and the songs of the gondoliers, a church bell, other voices, ghost-like, on the wind. Then, Mel grows aware of the body next to her, the deep breathing, the warm skin.

She opens her eyes, utterly unbelieving. The girl is curled fetally, clutching a spare pillow. Nude, of course. As is she. And if any doubts remain concerning what activities occurred during the night – the smell of sex, the wetness between her legs, the ache of unused muscles, and the violently twisted sheets dispatch them with alacrity.

Mel tries to sit up for a moment, then falls back onto the pillow. “Oh, God,” she moans aloud. That particular quality of morning – the brightness that discounts the night’s mysterious elements, the bluntness that can reveal details harshly – has a bracing effect, like cold water splashing her face. You are a middle-aged woman in bed with a teenaged prostitute. Probably the most deplorable thing you’ve ever done in your life. This is the stuff that scandals are made of.

But it felt good, didn’t it?

She examines the bronzed back just within her reach. Slowly, as if fighting the urge to touch, she reaches out and lets her fingers brush against the firm, warm flesh. This skin, this body, was all so similar to the one she slept beside for twenty years. Similar, but not the same. The curves are softer, the arms and shoulders lacking the hard muscles lurking underneath the tan. Her hand wanders and traces imaginary lines along the bare thigh. Here, Mel thinks, the pads of her fingers gliding over an unmarred expanse of skin, was where Janice had two jagged, intersecting scars, from gunshot wounds during the war. Another scar on the leg from an SS dagger. And here – her fingers continue their journey down, beyond the knee to the calf – is where she broke her leg, falling out of the back of a truck, in Morocco, in 1938. (And Harry had told her – how many times? – never stand up in moving vehicle.)

And on the stomach – eluding the time travel of her fingertips – was a souvenir of a near-fatal bullet wound. The war and its generous bounty. The scars that never went away, the cries from dreams that plagued her in the night. Mel slides her palm along the upper arm. And here was a razor-thin white scar, from falling rocks during a tunnel excavation in 1956. Her gaze falls to the hands – young and uncallused – clutching a pillow. Two fingers on Janice’s left hand had been slightly crooked, having been broken, and one knuckle permanently flattened below the skin’s surface – courtesy of a knockout punch delivered to a Belgian archaeologist during a conference – Where was it? London? Cairo? No, Amsterdam. 1951. The unlucky young man had insisted that Xena was a mere myth, created by a “society of matriarchal wanderers” – in a word, Amazons. It would have been fine had he stopped there – she and Janice were not so rigid that they did not respect someone else’s right to believe otherwise – but a certain lewd comment directed at the archaeologist had prompted Mel to throw her drink (mineral water with lime) in his face. Outraged, he had slapped the translator, not hard, and didn’t see the fist flying at him from the little blonde he coveted.

Afterwards, in the taxi heading to the hospital, Janice was elated, relaxed, as she usually was after a fight, and Mel was sullen, guilty, at having started one. Can’t blame this one on me entirely, Mel.

Even with broken bones and threats of imprisonment (the Belgian was quite annoying and relentless about pressing charges), they still made love, quick and laughing, back at the hotel, before a reception.

Five years without sex. Without this pleasure. After spending twenty years with someone, where hardly a week went by?.Except on the digs. She smiles at the memory: No fucking around during a dig, Janice had declared. Or we’ll jinx it. That was her superstition. All the weapons in Mel’s arsenal seemed powerless against this irrationality: She tried a different perfume, oysters, a tight black slip (which, she was happy to note, almost did the trick), various garter belts….But to her immense surprise Janice did not cave in.

“Dames are always trouble on site.” Janice would mindlessly recite the questionable wisdom of her father while conveniently neglecting the irreversible fact that she herself was a “dame.”

“We met on site,” Mel would mumble the protest, her eager tongue boxing an earlobe, her hands grappling with a belt buckle, before Janice would skitter away from her attentions.

“Sure we did. And look what happened. We resurrected an evil god and almost got killed.”

It wasn’t until much later when the archaeologist admitted another motivating factor: fear of getting caught by one of the workers. And, in a Muslim nation (where they were, most of the time), it wouldn’t be a mere small scandal, or tacitly accepted.

Reluctantly, Mel rises. A sense of shame burns through her, something she hasn’t felt in years. She whips her robe around her nude form, the familiar coolness of the satin soothing. Her legs feel unsteady and there is a faint throbbing at her temple – am I really such an old ninny that a glass of bourbon has made me hung over?

She indulges in a long shower. She washes carefully, thinking that the traces of last night are riding a whirlpool into the drain. But there is a slight soreness between her legs that she will keep as a reminder of the night. The ache blends seamlessly into pleasure and roams an emptiness inside her. She had encouraged the girl thus: Harder. Faster. Deeper. Sometimes in Italian, sometimes not.

Afterwards, as she dries off, a sudden fear hits her as she towels her hair. It takes the form of a practical voice, sounding like Janice: Let’s see here, now?You left a strange prostitute alone in your room, with your cash, your passport, your watch, your ring?.

Her toes clench the soft mat under her damp feet.

That wasn’t smart, sweetheart.

It isn’t that she truly cares about the money, or even the passport for that matter – the latter, she knows from experience, can be replaced soon enough. The Cartier watch, however, is old, and had been a gift from her father, and the ring, its Celtic whorls mimicking the design of Xena’s armor, was, of course, from Janice. Maybe I can’t marry you, but I can give you a goddamn ring at least. That’s not a crime.

She throws the robe back on. With a concerted effort to appear neither melodramatic nor accusing, yet nonetheless failing, she flings open the bathroom door and stalks into the room.

Francesca sits, naked and cross-legged, in the middle of the bed, consuming the hotel’s complimentary bowl of fruit. A banana skin lies near the soft, wrinkled bottom of one foot. Bits of orange peels are scattered in the bed, like blossoms. At Mel’s sudden entrance she looks up, alarmed, but then, very matter-of-fact, slides a slice of orange into her mouth. She chews while watching Mel very intently, expectantly. She swipes her mouth with the back of her arm.

With some relief, the older woman notes that the watch and ring are still on the nightstand, where she had placed them last evening. After removing the watch Francesca had snared her arm and wetly kissed the pale band of skin, sucking gently, as if attempting to undo the tangle of veins pulsing within.

Her wrist tingles at the memory.

“I’m very hungry,” the girl declares.

A light-headedness overtakes Mel. She feels giddy, perhaps because of how unreal the situation appears, how funny, and how strange it all seems. And, at the same time, how very like Janice this girl was acting. “I’ll buy you breakfast,” she replies.

“Thank you.” They continue to stare at each other. Francesca then consumes the final orange slice. “You enjoyed what we did during the night?” She smirks; her lips glisten.

“Couldn’t you tell?”

“I like to hear.”

“Well, I?yes.”

“Yet you run away this morning. Are you in a hurry?”

“No,” Mel admits.

“But you feel bad. You wanted to wash it all away.” Francesca shrugs. “Many are like that. It is okay, I understand.”

But I want more.

A wry, knowing smile pulls at the girl’s lips. She lies back, propping herself up on an elbow, casually displaying her body: the firm breasts, the smooth, slightly rounded stomach, the sex camouflaged by a triangle of curled golden hair. “So you are clean now.” She sounds amused.

Si.” Mel feels lust crawling, prickling her skin, as her heartbeat picks up. She knows the desire is visible upon her face; apparently Janice Covington was not the only person who could read her like this.

“Do you want me to make you dirty again?” She is half-mocking, half-seductive.

Oh God, yes.

*****

Still panting, she places her head against the taut belly, slick with sweat.

Non sono io stesso. ” It seems apropos to say this – I am not myself – in a language not her own.

“But you said you have done this before,” the girl says, breathless.

“Everything is not about sex. That wasn’t what I was talking about.”

“Tell me what you were talking about.”

Mel wonders why the girl can’t just relax?but this is business to her, no matter how pleasurable.

“You are very mysterious, Melinda.” She feels the whore toying with her hair. “I think?” Francesca begins.

Mel looks up at her expectantly, letting her hand caress a hip in an absentminded, almost proprietary way.

“?Sofia did not teach me everything.”

The translator laughs, and is inwardly amazed. How long has it been since I really laughed?

“You have many skills,” the young woman says.

“Tell me about it,” Mel murmurs, temporarily sated and happy, into the haven of tanned, soft skin. She knows enough about a woman’s body to know that her young companion was not faking the orgasm.

Francesca slips out from under her gracefully; Mel lies back, and the girl straddles her. “I like you. You are different from the others.”

Ovviamente. ” Obviously.

“No, not that. But no one I fuck is concerned with my pleasure. Except you.” The blonde grins. “You are nice, you are smart. You are not disgusting, like some old man.”

No, I am a disgusting old woman. “Old man? You’ve done that?”

“Bah! Some old fascio. He makes me wear a German uniform. Tira seghe, I am paid much money, we are all happy.” She shudders involuntarily. Mel frowns, unfamiliar with the expression, but too embarrassed to ask what it means; if it means what she thinks it means, then he…relieves himself. “I am glad I do not have to touch him.”

Mel realizes that she is feeling relief – that the girl doesn’t have to actually fuck the old coot. Why? Jealousy? Temporary insanity: She imagines trying to make a life with this girl. I am 53 years old, no doubt a good three times older than she. I know nothing about her.

She closes her eyes for a moment. Memory strips her of time, of age, but not of the name of the one she loves.

“Tell me again,” Janice had urged in a whisper, body moving restlessly against her own, ceaselessly, as if trying to break the barrier of blood, skin, and muscle between them, and crawl inside her. The archaeologist’s warm, damp face is pressed against Mel’s cheek.

Her fingers strum across the small of the back, playing a glissando of silent exhilaration. She loves this part of Janice’s body, the ridge of muscle poised and ready to plunge into the gentle swell of the hips. “Tell you what?” she asks, confused yet knowing she would say anything, do anything right now.

“What you said – in the doorway.” Janice gasps. There is a thread of pleading in the tone, tangible to her, that she can grasp and follow through the maze of defenses and rejections, of harsh words, of other obstacles…to this heart, laid bare, not for taking, but for giving.

Earlier they had stood at the threshold to Mel’s bedroom, and, not daring to confess her love quite yet, Mel had opted for another truth upon her lips and yearning for release.

And now she says it again. “You’re beautiful, Janice.”

In the dark she could feel the soft, fair brows clench, and the startling, cool splash of a tear. She could hear the catch in Janice’s voice.

“Nobody’s ever said that to me before.”

How I hated the world for letting you think that, and how I loved that I was the first to tell you.

She opens her eyes, having fallen asleep. The girl is curled up against her, almost protectively; a slender, tanned arm is around her waist.

A faint rumbling vibrates against her. It is not snoring, but, pitched lower, in the abdomen. She knows it is not her own stomach; she abolished hunger long ago. At least I thought I had: Hunger for food, for living…maybe not the hunger for this.

She touches the crown of golden hair. Francesca jerks awake. “Ach!” she cries with a growl, stretching. “I am so hungry now.” She twists in Mel’s loose embrace, trails a hot tongue along the carotid artery that pulses in the translator’s neck, earning a sharp gasp from Mel.

“You’ll feed me,” she murmurs to Mel, “then fuck me again.”

“You’re awfully fond of that word,” Mel manages to respond. And so was Janice.

“What? Fuck? It is a good word. Fuck, fuck, fuck?” she chants it softly against Mel’s ear.

Mel finds herself smiling. Certain elements of her admitted prissiness, her priggishness, went out the window years ago, along with common sense and her neatly ordered life, when she fell in love. “It is no longer night,” Mel reminds the whore cautiously. My time has run out, hasn’t it?

“Sofia charged you too much,” Francesca intones solemnly.

“I see. Perhaps?if I am teaching you new things, then you should be paying me?” Mel retorts, deadpan.

The girl’s eyes go wide. For a moment she tries to picture telling Sofia this. I had to pay her, Sofi?she really knew what she was doing, more than me?. knowing the older whore will slap her silly and chase her up and down the street, cursing worse than a blue-balled sailor?then she notices the mischievous glint in Mel’s eyes. And she laughs.

Her laugh is something rough, voluptuous, full of life. Filthy, even. It is suitable to the city she lives in. The mistake that visitors always make is this: They assume the city courts death and decay, Mel thinks. It is easy to think that, within the marbled ruins, stained and old, the murky lagoons, the rotting canals. But among it all, life goes on, life is here. The ruins are here because they have survived; they are a testament to life. They live. I live.

The white curtain along the balcony door flutters. She strokes the young woman’s cheek. In a few hours she will be alone again. She accepts this. It’s the best she can do.

*****1948

The city had a deceptive stillness that unnerved Janice. She was well experienced in the rhythms of cities throughout the world, and always expected some sort of noise no matter what the hour, but this was odd: It was quiet, yet there was some perpetual undertone, a murmur that she could not identify.

It must be the canals, she thought. This was a city on the water. It was an island unto itself.

She balanced her chin on the edge of Mel’s broad, smooth shoulder. The translator, still asleep, gave a slight moan. She smiled. It would be fun to wake her up – again – and make love – again – but as it was, Mel would only get a couple hours of sleep, and Janice wanted her to be at least coherent for the meeting tomorrow.

But temptation beckoned. She aimed a light, nipping kiss in between Mel’s shoulder blades, striking a sensory bullseye – automatically a firm butt was ground into her thighs. Did Pavlov use a dog or a Southern woman? Janice grinned. What would happen with a higher kiss, at the back of the neck? Dr. Covington investigates! “Steak tartar,” Mel mumbled. Obviously her companion had not recovered from the disappointment of not having dead cow for dinner – the café had no steaks. This is too easy. She slid out of the bed and threw on Mel’s robe. So she carried her lover’s scent with her – it was not enough to have it on her fingers, on her face, on her belly – as she went to the balcony.

The dawn was fair. The colors of the sunrise trickled across the sky. Birds swooped wildly in the sky with faint cries. I am happy, she thought. Would I dare admit that to anyone? She fingered the elaborate patterns of the scrolled, iron banister, one swirl leading into another, seemingly endless, a world leading into another world.

She hung over the railing, smiling. Even the canal was beginning to smell good to her. Or maybe it’s just the bathrobe. The water appeared to mimic the motions of her fingers curling around the black edges of iron. With a free hand she pushed back her loose gold hair and watched, fascinated, the motion of the water, its mysterious swell, receding, then returning.

The End

Continued in Coup de Grace

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