Ada liked Maurizio. A lot. In fact she had a crush on him. But the shy girl she was, she never approached him. So when he fell in step with her on her way home from school and said hi, her heart stopped beating. She was flustered and lost for words. If he noticed it he didn’t show that he did. He was talking but she was in a haze, not registering any of his words. He went silent. Why was he silent? Oh, he had asked her a question and was waiting for a response. She said, sorry, what was that? He asked again. Oh God, she thought, he must think I am an idiot. She shook herself out of her trance and answered yes, I dislike history as well. Maybe thousand years back history was easy, no? . He laughed and she breathed a sigh of relief. They talked all the way to her home. And did it again the next day and the day after that. Nothing had made Ada this happy.
What she couldn’t figure out was why Maurizio seemed so sweet to her on her way home from school but at all other times seemed completely indifferent and even hostile. In school he would not even smile at her, walking past her like she didn’t exist. Maybe she ought to put her foot down and confront him. If only she were not so timid.
Ada was the name of the protagonist in Arianna’s story, the one she started telling me over breakfast my first day in Florence. Arianna and her boyfriend Viktor managed a hostel in the city. The entire second floor of a three storied building was converted into a hostel. The apartments on the first floor were rented out to tenants. The building owners themselves lived on the third floor.
February is a low season for tourists and I was one of the few guests they had then in the hostel. Arianna made me breakfast of a boiled egg, some cuts of salami, crackers and cheese and a glass of orange juice. As I sat down to eat she made small talk in halting English. Where was I from? Was this my first visit to Italy? How long I planned on staying?
She was surprised that I really didn’t have an agenda on where I planned to visit next or even how long I planned to be in Italy. A nomadic backpacker. But when I told her I write for a living she got excited. She told me she always wanted to be a writer. She asked me if I would be interested in listening to the idea for a story she had. And before I could give my consent or protest she launched into it.
“Do you know why she is confused?” she asked me with eagerness in her young eyes.
“No idea,” I replied
“She is living two lives. One is real. One is a dream,” She grinned.
Just then Viktor walked in to the room. They made an odd couple, Arianna and Viktor. Viktor was tall and big built, Arianna short and petite. Behind Viktor followed two tourists, a married couple from France. Viktor had printouts for all us guests. Maps of the city and a list of attractions to visit.
“We have umbrellas if you need,” he said. And I did need to borrow an umbrella.
It was cold and rainy. But that didn’t keep me from just wandering around aimlessly in the city, soaking in the sights. Around noon I sought refuge in a cafe in the Piazza della Signoria.
I sat by a window, pen in hand, notebook on table. Half an hour later I was done eating a bowl of pasta. My notebook was undisturbed. There were times I couldn’t write for days or weeks on end for a lack of inspiration. That day no matter what train of thought I had it seemed to end with Ada, the girl from Arianna’s story. I wondered if it was Ada or Arianna’s childlike exuberance that drew me to that story.
“Too much rain?” Arianna asked when I returned to the hostel. She was in the middle of cleaning the rooms and I guessed she didn’t expect any guests to return this early in the afternoon.
“No… well, yes, it is raining quite a bit. But I really wanted to ask you about your story. Do you have time later to tell me more?”
A smile, equal parts delight and surprise, spread across her face. “Yes, yes. I finish this room first?”
“Sure,” I nodded, “I’ll be in the common area.”
After school Ada sometimes worked on her hobbies of stained glass and wire sculptures. While she was obviously talented, most of her art focused on the macabre. Ghostly images or sculptures of animals with mismatched body parts. Other times she hung out at her neighbor Elena’s place. Elena was in her early twenties. She baked pies and cakes and sold them from her home for a living. She lived with her much older boyfriend Valentino. Valentino was a construction worker with a passion for guns and owned several firearms. When he had work he would return home late, so Elena loved the company of the kid next door. Ada liked how Elena treated her like a grown up. She loved even more the gluten free cookies Elena baked. Ada’s wheat allergy meant she had to watch what she ate. Once too often she had eaten the wrong foods and found herself with crippling stomach pains and nausea. Elena’s baked treats were a godsend to her sweet tooth. In return Ada sometimes gifted Elena some of her crafts. Elena’s favorite was a wire-frame ‘Siamese horses’ sculpture with two horses joined at the hips and facing opposite directions.
Arianna read out the ideas for her story from a notebook she had scribbled them in. She had to read and translate from Italian to English and it was a slow process. And it seemed every time she just got the story going she had to go attend to chores.
One of the mornings, as I entered the dining room, I saw the French couple seated there. They greeted me and waved me over to join them. I grabbed a sandwich and sat at their table.
This was their third visit to Italy, so they obviously loved it here. We exchanged sightseeing stories over lunch. Well, they did because apart from the statue of David I didn’t have any story to share. I admitted I made a terrible tourist. They insisted I at least visit Ponte Vecchio.
Our conversation shifted to our rooms. We agreed the hostel was perfect for a budget traveler and that Viktor and Arianna made great hosts.
“Interesting decor as well,” I said, gesturing at the watercolors that hung on the wall.
I had noticed the surreal paintings before but had paid them no heed. Now as I looked at them more attentively I noticed the details in each of them. One was of a cup of coffee with a girl in a bathing suit balancing on the rim, ready to dive in. One was of a girl peeling off her smiling face, like a mask, under which was a sad face. A third painting was of a painting of a broken vase in a frame that had fallen down from the wall it hung on, and there were pieces of the vase on the floor as if the pieces had fallen out of the painting and on to the floor.
Later I learned that the paintings were the work not of a professional but of a little girl who lived upstairs, the daughter of the hostel owners. So even if Arianna and Viktor thought the paintings were too dark they dared not take them off the wall.
Elena and Valentino were by no measure a perfect couple. Both being headstrong, they argued and fought a lot. But every time they did fight they did make up just as quickly. And when they didn’t fight they made a wonderful couple.
Elena loved to remind Valentino of the sacrifice she made when she chose him over her cat.
“I made the bigger sacrifice,” he would say, “I dislike cats and we still made love in your apartment the first day.”
“On the floor!” she would complain
“Well, what do you expect? The cat was on your bed.”
“Let’s go on a vacation somewhere. Just the two of us.”
“Say when. Just not the next four months.”
She would sigh. “Your work will be the death of me. I should have kept Buttercup. At least she wouldn’t complain about going on a vacation.”
“If we are going to fight again let me know. I’d like to eat some of your brownies first.”
“What is the most beautiful place you have been to?” Arianna asked me.
I found Arianna in the common room, with a few of the other hostel guests, watching a travel show on TV. I carried a bean bag and sat on it next to the one she was seated on. Peru was what was being showcased on TV.
“So beautiful,” Arianna said when they showed Machu Picchu. “I want to live in Peru,” she said jokingly.
“Well, apart from Machu Picchu there isn’t much in Peru. Italy has much more to offer in terms of beauty,” I said. “Both the country and the women,” I added with a wink.
Arianna held her head up as if she were posing. “Yes, we are beautiful,” she said and giggled. “What is the most beautiful place you have been to?”
“Hmmm. I am a water person so I would go with Fiji.”
She brushed the hair off her forehead and said, “Look at this.”
I didn’t see anything. “Look at what?” I asked.
She took my hand and ran my fingers along the top of her forehead. I could feel the bump.
“I was swimming in the pool and I hit my head to the ground,” she said.
“You mean the bottom of the pool? How did you manage to do that?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I was swimming deep down and just hit my head. It was all black when I came out.”
“It’s ok,” she said, “I love swimming.”
“I hear you. It’s been a while since I swam last. I am ready to go swim at the drop of a hat.”
“There is a swimming pool here. But you have to be a member.”
“Sigh,” I said with an over-dramatic gesture of the back of my hand to my forehead, “I’ll try to survive.”
“Maybe I can take a guest when I go on Saturday. I’ll have to check.”
“That would be awesome. Will Viktor join us?”
“Hmmm… Viktor does not swim. So no.”
“Bummer. Saturday can’t come soon enough. Don’t plan on bumping your head on the pool floor, ok?”
Ada was biking back home from her favorite hobby store, lost deep in thought, trying to complete a rather long palindromic phrase in her head. All of a sudden she found herself in an unfamiliar neighborhood, the road was barely paved and the few homes on either side were rundown. There was no one in sight. It was like she had stepped into a ghost town. She had no idea at what point she had strayed off from her regular route home. Instead of turning back to try to retrace her steps she carried on, out of curiosity rather than bravery.
Couple blocks down she came to a field with a dilapidated fence around it. At the other end of the field was a building, also in disrepair as the rest of the neighborhood; cracked windows and what little paint there was was peeling off. It seemed like a vaguely familiar building and as Ada walked her bike closer to it she recognized it. This used to be a school.
Ada walked up to one of the windows and peered inside. She thought she saw movement indoors. She wiped the dirt off the window and recoiled in horror. Inside were children, some standing, most of them lying on the floor and they were all chained to the wall. Ada was terrified. She hopped on her bike and rode it as fast as she could away from there, this time desperately trying to retrace her way out of the neighborhood.
Arianna had mentioned Ada confused her dream life with her real life.
“Which one is real life and which one is the dream life?” I asked her. She was shopping groceries and I had tagged along.
“Ah, you won’t find out till the end,” she replied.
“But will the reader know that she confuses dream life with real life?”
“Hmm…Maybe. I will have some clue she is not ok.”
“How about you have something appear in the dream scenes that doesn’t exist in real life. Umm… Like a teddy bear she owned once but does not any more.”
Arianna’s face lit up. “That is good.”
“Thanks. Can you stop waving the zucchini in my face? It looks like you are threatening me.”
She smiled her infectious smile.
“So, does she have her teddy on her way to this scary school full of chained childred?” I asked
“Yes,” she grinned, “she holds it tight when she sees the children and gets scared.”
Ada was persistent and Elena gave in.
“Just this once,” she said, as she unlocked the pistol display case. She carefully held the semi-automatic in her hand, letting Ada examine it. Valentino would be livid if he heard of this.
But it wasn’t just that once. The next time Elena took the pistol out of it’s case she showed Ada how to handle the firearm, how to load and unload, how the safety worked. What was initially just curiosity for Ada turned into fascination.
I didn’t want to venture out in the rains and I was bored indoors. I stepped out to the balcony from the common room to join Viktor. He was smoking and offered me a smoke. I declined. Arianna would go ballistic if she found Viktor smoking in the hostel. I figured she was not home.
We sat there staring into the rain, both of us eager to talk to each other but with a huge language barrier between us. Viktor was Hungarian. He had come to Italy soul searching after his ambitions to become a professional hockey player had all but ended prematurely after a series of knee injuries. He met Arianna, who convinced him to stay. Arianna argued that if she cooked and cleaned and if he was a handyman and handled finances then they could run a hostel. And that is exactly what they did.
Although his Italian was better than his English it was not easy for Viktor to converse with Arianna either. Which was probably why Arianna loved to chat with guests. I looked at his rugged profile and wondered if the infatuation Arianna must have obviously had for him once had worn off. Maybe she still nurtured a romantic fantasy in her young heart. It was hard not to be romantic in a city that oozed romance.
Ada didn’t always have a problem in her head. And her father carried the burden of guilt over what had happened. He had promised Ada’s mother he would fix the carpet at the top of the stairs. If he had not procrastinated Ada would not have tripped over it and she would not have fallen down the stairs and she would not be lying concussed at the bottom of it, bleeding from her head.
The doctors could find no visible damage to the brain and she was released from the hospital with what they thought was nothing more than a scar on her forehead. And she seemed ok for a few days. Then she started ‘zoning out’ for a few minutes once in a while. She would be still and unaware of everything around her until she snapped out of it.
Her parents took her to see more specialists. No one could really tell what was wrong but one of them did prescribe medication that seemed to help. As long as she was on it she seemed not to ‘zone out’ and could return to the routine of a normal life.
It was near the end of my second week in Florence that I saw the girl upstairs. I had walked up to the third floor just to admire the paintings along the staircase. She was standing at an open doorway. I said, hi, I am sorry, I was just looking at the paintings. But she just stood there staring. Straight through me. Like I didn’t exist. After a brief moment I excused myself and went back down.
Arianna obviously based her characters on the people around her. Ada on the girl upstairs, Elena and Valentino on herself and Viktor.
In the story Ada gets terribly depressed when she learns that Maurizio likes her only in her imaginations. She sneaks into Elena’s house late one evening, steals Valentino’s gun from the case, loads it with a bullet she stole earlier and fires the gun into her head, dropping her teddy bear in the process. That was the end to Ada’s life, a suicide in her imaginary life which locks her brain up in the real life. As far as I know the girl upstairs neither suffered the same delusions as Ada did, nor the same fate that Ada did.
I wonder if Arianna ever completed writing her story or did she abandon it as a series of ideas. If she did complete it, I wonder if she decided to make the changes I suggested. In one of the scenes Elena and Valentino have a fight. It was supposed to be over money. What if, I had said, they fought because Elena had fallen in love with a stranger in town? A nomadic backpacker with whom she discussed ideas for a book she wanted to write on cake recipes. I looked at her into her eyes and added, Is that a possibility? She wanted to ask What? but the word choked in her throat. She looked away. I am sorry, I said, that was out of line. I got up and left her there, at the table, in the common room, in the hostel, at Florence. Later that day I left the city but the romance still clung to me like a desperate child for a few days after… at least till I visited Venice and was cloaked with a new whiff of romance.