Just Before Mid-Day
By Caroline Swicegood
Vidhi waved to the woman behind the counter, trying to get her attention to ask for another cappuccino. Two white cups, already empty, sat before her on the square wooden table, coral lipstick marks around the rims. It was 11:45 am; Vidhi was the only person in the hotel dining area since all the other guests were out exploring Venice, too late for breakfast and too early for lunch, at least on Italian time. The dining room was small, with only a smattering of tables and the à la carte counter, but large windows let in the mid-day light and it smelled of ground espresso beans. She inhaled deeply, feeling the obfuscating effect of jetlag and wishing just for a second that she could fall asleep and float away on the scent.
The attempt to get the attention of the cappuccino lady failed and Vidhi figured that was probably for the best. She could already feel her heart beating in an erratic flutter motion, was having a hard time getting her hands to stay steady as she picked at the crusts of a cherry-filled pastry. She was running her tongue over her teeth with each bite to make sure the red jam didn’t unwittingly get stuck in the crevices or smudge her lipstick, which she’d bought on a whim at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. She was twenty-three, and most girls her age didn’t wear that kind of opaque lipstick unless it was in some sort of bright or shocking color, but she’d held the coral sample up against her skin at the Beauty Zone store and thought they complemented each other nicely. Now, looking at her reflection in a compact mirror she’d slipped out of her purse, she thought it made her look older than she was and started scrubbing it with a napkin. The top layer came off but the color stayed. She checked her phone. Two hours until Tommaso got out of class.
He was a year younger than her and still finishing college, which was why Vidhi offered to be the one to make the trip to him, since she was done with school and had job. She hadn’t told anyone but a couple of trusted friends what she was doing because she knew her parents could never understand flying to another country for someone you’d met in an online gaming forum without knowing his family first and without him being vetted by your own family, even if you’d been talking with that person for four years, giggling over video chat, exchanging Christmas presents (even when one of you didn’t celebrate Christmas), and, most recently, sharing declarations of love. Vidhi’s parents were less conservative than most of the Bengali families they knew in North Carolina and they might even have been okay with it if they had “met” him and talked to his parents first and if he had been the one to come visit her, but after all this time of keeping him secret, she still didn’t want to share what they had with anyone who might tell her no. Her parents thought she was visiting friends in Boston. She felt a quick stab of guilt and an even stronger burst of anxious anticipation hammering through her chest; she barely noticed as the hotel owner, who had checked her in that morning, came to clear her empty cups away. She checked her phone again. Time was barely moving. Suddenly a text came through, Tommaso’s name lighting the screen and she jumped, the hammering quickening until it was almost unbearable.
Giovanni smiled at the girl, since he always tried to make his guests feel as welcomed as possible, but her mind was somewhere else. He was okay with that. If there was anything he had learned after running La Serenità for thirty years, it was that each guest needs something different and it was up to him to accommodate whatever that need was (within reason, of course). The families and the backpackers were easiest to accommodate, because the families usually just wanted a culturally enriching and educational trip, and all he had to do was make sure he had extra snacks at the desk for hungry kids on the verge of afternoon meltdowns when they returned from whatever sightseeing they were doing and that the parents had hot beverages easily accessible for winding down. The backpackers, they were even easier, because they mostly just seemed to be thrilled to be there and would stomp around cheerfully and rarely hogged the hot water. The travelers that fell outside those two categories—family or backpacker—were more difficult to discern as far as what they were there for and what they needed. This girl, she was young but put together, even for someone who had probably had an overnight flight, quiet, reflective. He spent a few seconds trying to imagine what she was there for but then moved on. She would show him when she needed it.
He had a running list of updates and renovations he wanted to do to La Serenità, but he didn’t have the money to do much more than fix things as they broke. His family had owned the hotel a long time ago and sold it when money got tight; it had a reputation in the twenties and thirties for being exotic and glamorous. There were rumors that his great-great-great grandmother was of Ottoman heritage, the daughter of a trader from Constantinople who had decided to stay in Venice; however, no one had proof and it sounded to Giovanni like it was probably just a convenient way to brand their business. The people who had bought the hotel had renamed it La Serenità del Mare and Giovanni had loved the intricate metal sign hanging outside the door and the allusion to the city’s nickname of La Serenissima, so he’d kept it. La Serenità could no longer be considered glamorous by the time Giovanni bought it back two generations later, but he kept it up the best he could and liked to think it had its own charm. There might just be one communal bathroom on each hall, but there were original (albeit chipped) Turkish tiles in the shower and around the windows, and the elevator was slow but guests often exclaimed that the vintage iron cage made them feel like they were in an old movie. That was another reason people came to Venice—for an imagined enchantment that people saw in black and white films, so utterly removed from their lives at home.
Diego, the maid’s son, ran into the dining room and stopped just short of running into the counter, put his hands behind his back and smiled shyly at the woman manning the cappuccino machine, and she gave him a leftover pastry from the tray she had covered with stretch film. He ran back out again, beaming at Giovanni as he passed. In the year Diego had been at the hotel, the boy had lost both front teeth and grew new ones, giving his constant smile an exaggerated look. Giovanni liked having him around. Diego had energy when the rest of the staff was exhausted at the end of the day and was often responsible for giving everyone a second wind, was polite and sweet, and made a good play partner for the kids who stayed there when their parents wanted some time to themselves. At almost sixty, Giovanni figured his chance at being a father himself was probably far gone; he had long given up whatever vague daydreams he had once had about building a large Catholic family. He still sometimes thought about meeting a woman, probably around his age, probably a little plump and easy to get along with, to help him run La Serenità, but there were very few available women that fit that description in Venice, and as much as he liked to meet the tourists that came through, he knew that whatever woman he ended up loving would have to really understand his roots in a way that an outsider couldn’t. There were so few true Venetian families left; it seemed more and more old apartments emptied out each year. As the areas around the Grand Canal throbbed with growing numbers of visitors, the back neighborhoods became echoing ghost towns inhabited mostly by fading old women with head scarves and canes and orthopedic shoes. You’re not far behind, he reminded himself. Give it twenty years—if you and the city are both enough lucky to make it that long—and you’ll be among their ranks. Giovanni crossed himself quickly and plunged the coffee cups into a bin full of hot, soapy water, scrubbing at them under the suds.
Diego sprinted up the six flights of stairs to the top floor, ran into the room he shared with his mother, and collapsed on the ground. He wiggled on his stomach until his top half was under the bed and reached all the way to the back corner, where he hid his box. He made sure to take it out each day and wipe the sides and top so it never got dusty and his mom wouldn’t have to clean it. Inside the box were a few soccer cards he’d brought with him from Uruguay and the choose-your-own adventure books his oldest cousin had given him when he lived with his family in Argentina, before he could come to Italy and be with his mom. His favorite had a gorilla swinging from a banana tree and said ESCAPAR DE LA SELVA! on the cover. The box also had little plastic dinosaurs that his mom had given him before she left for Italy, Lego trucks she gave him when they were together again, a Gameboy that Giovanni had given him for his birthday, and a handful of random things like coins and eye masks that guests left behind in their rooms. Sometimes, like if the thing left behind was a cell phone charger or an umbrella, Giovanni would keep it by the door in a box for other guests to use, but mostly he just let Diego keep whatever he found. Giovanni was really nice, almost as nice as his cousin.
On Sundays he and his mom used the computer at the front desk of the hotel to talk to their family. It was usually night here and day there, and his aunt and all his cousins would wave at them on the screen and they’d talk and talk and laugh, although his mom did most of the talking. Diego was just happy to see them. His oldest cousin, who could drive now, would pick up the computer and walk it to the window and show Diego what was going on outside, the people passing by in the streets and the birds crouching on window sills, or the rain or sun or snow. He missed his cousin, but he didn’t miss Argentina. He missed Uruguay, especially his bed with the solar system sheets in his old room, but he didn’t miss his father. He didn’t miss either his cousin or his solar system sheets enough to wish he was still there and not with his mom. He’d missed her the most.
He took out his latest treasure, a kaleidoscope he’d found in a room yesterday he was helping his mom with. His mom and Giovanni had both stood in the room talking rapidly in two different languages, hands on hips or flying around or sometimes over their faces, pointing at a destroyed wall and Giovanni kicking at bags of trash in the corner. Diego picked up the kaleidoscope from beside the trash pile and asked Giovanni if he could keep it, and Giovanni, usually so patient, had just waved his arm at him. He’d stuck it in his pocket before taking the trash bags down to the ally for them, and then ran upstairs to put it in the box for the night. Now, he lay on his back in the room he shared with his mother and brought it up to one eye and closed the other, pointed it towards the window, and let the patterns spiral in front of him. The colors reminded him of the bold fruits in the markets back in Uruguay, the rainbows inside of seashells on the beaches, the painted drums of the street musicians. He rocked to and fro on his back and hummed while he remembered all these scenes of home, images parading through his mind like a candombe band.
Two floors down, his mother stripped a bed of its sheets. Maja felt so lucky to have a job that gave her and Diego a place to live, that housing was one less thing she had to think about in a foreign country. Her sainted sister Filomena had helped her find the job at La Serenità. Maja couldn’t count the things she had to be grateful to Filomena for. When Maja told her about her plans to start over in Italy, Filomena hadn’t tried to dissuade her; instead, she immediately got in touch with an Italian neighbor, who put Maja in touch with Giovanni, who was looking for a new cleaning lady, and the neighbor translated everything. Then, Filomena had helped Maja buy the ticket, came to say goodbye in Montevideo, brought Diego back to Buenos Aires on the ferry and treated him like one of her own for six months, and then, after Maja was settled a bit, put him on a plane with a sign around his neck stating his name, age, destination, and contact information in English, Spanish, and Italian. Maja had expected a bit more of a pushback from her sister, but there had been none. Maybe she hadn’t been as successful at hiding the bruises and black eyes as she thought.
There were so many Italians in Argentina, especially in Buenos Aires, and Argentinians from Italian families. People said ciao all the time and spoke in an accented Spanish that sounded different from the Spanish spoken in Uruguay. Filomena had been there long enough that her own accent had shifted to something smoother, more lilting. Maja wanted to open a bakery in Venice and had saved a good bit of money towards it, but she knew, more than anything, she needed to work on the language. Diego was having no trouble picking it up, to her relief, and they huddled together around children’s books in Italian every night before bed and took turns reading the words out loud to each other. She could speak it now a bit, slowly, but it was exhausting. It was like coming up for air when she video chatted with Filomena and could let the Spanish bubble out of her like a stream.
Those six months without Diego were the hardest thing she had ever been through—even harder than being with her husband in Uruguay at times—and she often wondered if she had made a mistake, if she should have stuck it out; but, of course, Diego was the main reason she knew she had to leave. And he seemed so happy here. Maja, she was happiest that she could put her arms around his chubby body as they fell asleep each night, knowing exactly where he was, and that that place was safe and warm. Sometimes her last thoughts before falling asleep were a mental ticking down of the time she had left before he was too old to be held by his mother, and she had to chase off the thoughts, telling herself, No, no, just think about now; figure out tomorrow, tomorrow. Maja sighed as she gathered the dirty towels from the hotel room floor, picked up a passport someone had carelessly left on the floor and put it on top of the new folded towels she left on the chair.
The owner of the passport, Simon, was standing on the perimeter of San Marco Square as his wife talked to a tall African man who was trying to sell them silk flowers. Whenever Simon went anywhere alone in Venice, he was inundated with tall African men trying to sell him things, and they would look at his blond hair and make their pitches in English, German, and Dutch (always in that order) no matter how much Simon shook his head. When he was with Abeni, however, she just held up her hand as if saying “stop” and talked with them in the quick, rollicking patois that she used on the phone with her sister, so thick he could barely understand even though it was English, and the men laughed and moved on.
They had just finished medical school in Indiana—had met in a hematology lecture their second year—and were taking this honeymoon around Europe on a credit card, reasoning that residency and then kids wouldn’t afford them the chance for at least another ten years. Abeni’s sister was a doctor too, in New Orleans, and their parents were both doctors , in Abeokuta. Simon had never been to his in-law’s home, since Abeni refused to take him to Nigeria. She had tried a few times to explain it but really, Simon didn’t understand it all, just understood that Boko Haram had been around for much longer than the Western media shared and that Sharia law was spreading from the north and Abeni had no desire to be part of it, even just to visit. So instead, Mr. and Mrs. Oladipo spent two weeks every season visiting their daughters in the US, when the family would gather around fat plates of jollof rice and efo elegusi and listen to old Baba Legba CDs that Abeni had taken out of storage.
Simon watched Abeni chat with the vendor with envy. It wasn’t that Abeni actively hid her culture from him; she and her bridesmaids had worn traditional Yoruba clothing in their wedding, she was enthusiastic about introducing him to her friends from “the homeland,” and she answered his questions, but often he didn’t know what to ask. Hearing her voice soar when she talked to other Africans made him want to crack open the shell of cultural divide that kept him from knowing this part of her more intimately and crawl inside, wrap himself around her until he understood who she was, where she came from, in a way that seemed impossible so far. It also bothered him that this cultural divide didn’t seem to bother Abeni more. She seemed to accept it as she accepted so many other things: calmly and with grace. That was the trait that originally drew Simon to her, actually. He loved her so much.
Abeni handed the vendor a couple of euros and chose a mustard yellow silk flower, which she wove into her knit cap behind her ear, and turned back to Simon. “Hungry yet?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Not yet. How about some coffee?”
“I could do coffee.”
The mustard yellow of the silk flower mimicked the flecks of gold in Abeni’s eyes as she smiled at Simon. Somewhere, unnoticed by them, a clock struck noon. Pigeons in the square scattered; Abeni slipped her hand into Simon’s as they walked to find a café, the crowds eddying around them until their paths were swallowed and erased.
Caroline Swicegood is a writer and teacher. Her fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including Fiction Southeast and Upstreet Magazine, and her nonfiction has appeared in Compose Journal and The Literary Bohemian. Her professional website is carolineswicegood.com and she blogs at https://takeoffsandmeanderings.wordpress.com/. She lives in Istanbul with her husband.