I found the piece of onionskin paper in a moving box. Light as a whisper, it was folded, folded, folded, until it resembled a tiny pillow. It was the draft of a letter I had sent from Italy.
I was there, in Italy, to make TV commercials. We traveled with an Italian crew, a handful of men who drank their morning coffee spiked with grappa, who talked about opera and shopping and food. One wore bright orange jeans. Another was named Fabio. At first we were convinced they were gay. It turned out they were just Italian.
Their boss, the producer, had recently broken her hand while hitting her boyfriend. “It felt good,” she said, “He deserved it.”
We would stop in the middle of the day for two-hour lunches with plenty of wine, cigarettes and cell phone calls to mistresses. We ate at restaurants far off the tourist track. Plates appeared rakishly garnished with cooked roosters’ heads.
Was it possible to avoid being seduced?
The four other Americans took up smoking. The two married women among us, Kate and Janet, flirted with Mario-of-the-orange-jeans. At a florescent-lit truck stop with Formica tables, we ate lemon sorbetto splashed with vodka, then sat by a swimming pool in the dusk of the Tuscan countryside. The woods filled with fireflies. I suspect Mario did not sleep alone.
We careened at top speed from one innocently beautiful town to another. The little TV-commercial dramas we were shooting shrank to almost an afterthought amid the richer dramas enveloping us.
A traveling bicycle club from Bologna serenaded us in a tiny village square from the steps of an 800-year old church. By song’s end, the local nanas, like a flock of black ravens, stood in their doorways singing along.
A woman showed up asking for Paola, the producer. “Madonna!” Paola exclaimed, waggling clasped hands before her face. “I had an affair with her. Now she won’t leave me alone.”
At a restaurant, the waiter refused to grate cheese onto any dish containing seafood. “It is forbidden,” he said. As I left, he pressed a pale chunk of local stone into my hand. “Latte di luna – milk of the moon,” he whispered.
Kate was nearly arrested for trying to drive away in someone else’s rental car. (Her key was an exact fit. Madonna! Could you blame her?)
Janet savored the distance from her husband and sons, laughing quietly with Mario, the sharp angles of her face softened by his attention. “I’m a Gemini,” she said, “I can never choose one life.”
As the shoot came to an end, Kate and I chose to spend a few extra days in Italy. Somebody mentioned Elba, Napoleon’s island of exile. Exile, how peaceful, I thought. We sailed on the car ferry from Piombino.
The island was thick with large, ugly, modern hotels. Then we saw the sign. Winding down a road choked with tropical plants, we came upon the Villa Otani, embracing the shore, doors and windows flung open to let the cool breeze slink into every corner. The villa was 150 years old, a bit worn, the kind of place where thousands of secrets can be shaken from the bedclothes.
My room had a terrace that faced out to sea. In the soft twilight, I pretended I was the emperor, gazing wistfully toward the forbidden mainland. There was a ceiling fresco, remnant of a once-splendid ballroom. I awoke to stare up at doves and cherubs and the mysterious bare leg of a woman who disappeared into the next chamber. I suspected my dreams had floated to the ceiling while I slept.
We laid on beach chairs, reading, rising now and then to wade into the languorous Mediterranean. Giancarlo the barman called us “delicious American girls.” He would take our orders for Bellinis.
Kate decided she didn’t want to be married to her husband. I realized I didn’t miss the man I lived with.
I took out the onionskin stationary of the Villa Otani, made for writing reams about love and exile that can be posted for a song. I penned a letter to a man I knew, someone who had held my hand a bit longer than necessary the last time we met. I poured out my soul. I spoke of passion and destiny and the insignificance of the continental distance between our homes. The words were reckless, my version of smoking cigarettes and making love with Italian men originally thought to be gay. In exile, I had seduced myself.
I slid the fine pages into their delicate onionskin envelope and posted the letter. But I saved the draft – folded, folded, folded and tucked in a corner of my suitcase.
* * *
Janet and her family visited Italy a few months later. They had dinner with Mario and his family. Kate left her husband and moved in with a photographer. I broke up with my boyfriend. Nothing ever happened with the recipient of my letter. A few months later, I met a man on an airplane, and now we are married.
I crumpled the fragile onionskin covered with blue ink and dropped it in the wastebasket.
In Italy, the drama continues.© 2003 Gayle Keck Reprint rights to this story are available for purchase