One stormy Friday morning in a still wintry Milan, while Tony grated his rusty Alfa Romeo into first gear and pulled away from the curb, Clelia bit her lip. Why had she agreed to go to the park with this virtual stranger? It was sure to be deserted.
“So, you really liked my blog posts?” she asked. She studied his profile with its stately nose, receding brow, and prickly white beard. He looked exactly like his Facebook photo but with less hair and shinier skin. He wasn’t unattractive in an unctuous sort of way. But she wasn’t that desperate to make it as a writer, was she? He had at least thirty years on her. He had to be pushing seventy.
“That I did,” said Tony, giving her a fast smile that revealed too perfect teeth—dentures no doubt—that were bleached to an unnatural white. “But I have some suggestions. Some, quite daring even. And while I entertain you with them I do so aspire to us becoming good friends.” He peered at her through his steamed-up glasses, his eyebrows piled above the lenses like snow on window sashes.
Clelia’s stomach lurched. But she masked her panic with a laugh and shifted her knees away from him, toward the passenger door.
“You’re so gallant,” she said, responding to his antiquated language in kind. His flowery phrases would suggest he was a gentleman and a chivalrous one at that. “Honorable and true. Sterling even. A veritable knight.” She hesitated. The words she was spewing were over the top, not like her at all, but Tony was smiling; a positive response to her encouragement to behave? She bent over to hide her confusion and fondled Scamp, her Jack Russell puppy, nestled between her feet. The blood rushed in her ears like water boiling linguini. Outside, the windshield wipers scraped, flinging rain from side to side. The car screeched forward through puddles and over potholes on the way to their coffee klatch at the park.
Sometimes you have to give first in order to receive later, she told herself while fidgeting with her silver bracelet. It was inscribed with the word ‘BITCHIN.’ She’d bought it soon after her ex, Rodolfo, left her for a younger man.
Shaking her head to clear it, she suddenly pictured the Roman Colosseum. She’d recently seen an exhibition of 18th-century drawings in which the arena had been heavily featured. Even though it had seen better days, the Colosseum with its remaining tiers of gorgeous arches, its measured bays and solemn corridors, still shone with the erudition of ancient architects. Martyrdom had occurred there, but so had sophisticated theatrical plays. Maybe Tony was like its nobler side. Old, but not so far gone that he didn’t have important artistic truths to disclose. She hoped so, at any rate.
Tony had contacted her on Facebook—asked to be her friend—after her spate of depressed January tweets and random messages to the world at large. “I’m sick of rejection,” she’d declared first. “Love&the written word, who needs them?” She tweeted next. “I won’t trust men from the Veneto ever again #effinglagoonslime.” Rodolfo had been from the Veneto; specifically, Mestre across the water from Venice. “Corriere&Mondadori don’t recognize talent,” she added shortly thereafter. “Not even when it hits them square between their eyes, #wakeupcall #mystuffsgood.”
And that’s when Tony popped up in her feed, first following her on Twitter and Instagram, and then asking to be her Facebook friend. She hadn’t expected a response to her ramblings. After all, she had practically no social media followers or friends. Soon though, Tony sent her a personal message after she’d added him to her Facebook roster. Introducing himself, he explained he’d been a journalist at the Corriere della Sera newspaper where he had worked with luminaries like Indro Montanelli, Eugenio Montale and Dino Buzzati. Later, he’d moved to Mondadori where he confabulated with the in-crowd who ran the place, including the executive director. He said both establishments championed excellent writing and he was sorry she’d been unlucky. An oversight, no doubt: a heavy-handed intern with no taste, skimming the slush pile. He knew it was hard to break in when you were unknown. Maybe he could give her a hand.
Clelia was flattered when he asked if he could read her writing. While she deliberated about what to send, he began leaving comments on her all-but-abandoned blog with its three-year-old posts.
“I adore this piece on Venice,” he enthused on one. “These photographs of Como are absolutely fantastic!” he wrote on another. “They capture the essence of the city as all fine art should!”
After a few days of pleasant commentary, Tony revealed he was a neighbor. He lived in the building across the street on the very top floor. In the penthouse. Over the past few months, before he’d asked her to become his Facebook friend, he’d seen her walking Scamp. “You looked sad,” he wrote. “But I couldn’t presume to intrude much as I wanted to. You didn’t know me. It would have been much too forward.”
“Yes, perhaps so,” she responded. When Rodolfo ran off with his personal trainer, she’d rescued Scamp from a shelter and had taken to therapeutic walks during which she’d ruminated, talked to herself and even cried, working on getting her angst out. She supposed that Tony had noticed her sidewalk rants, discovered who she was, and then looked her up on the internet. She shrugged, not at all miffed that he had pursued her this way. He was a neighbor and an important one too.
A couple of days later, Tony wrote to say he had bought a book she had to see about Venice. “It’s just the ticket. You could do something along the same lines. Develop your blog post further. Into a travel essay, perhaps? We could pitch it, you know. I’ve got people in my pocket!”
“Sounds fantastic,” she responded, her stomach queasy. She wasn’t interested in developing her Venice post further. Venice conjured up Mestre. Mestre conjured up Rodolfo. She wanted to forget Rodolfo. But she had a novel she was hoping to publish. She’d love to pick Tony’s brain about that.
“Fabulous. Let’s get some coffee, talk shop.”
“When?” she responded, giddy with thoughts of finally being discovered. She’d steer the talk away from Venice to her book and bring a digital copy to give him. She’d get his expert opinion and stellar contacts. If she were lucky, maybe even the executive director’s email.
He suggested Friday, March 13th, at the corner of Manzoni and Ungaretti. That was fine with her. Then he showed up in his corroded car and insisted she get in. Instinct said she shouldn’t. Past experience concurred. But then her manners—she didn’t want to make a scene—and her desire for his help took over.
“This is my favorite part of the city,” said Tony, turning left onto the fog-shrouded avenue that cut through the park.
“Frankly, I don’t see the draw.” Clelia rubbed her sleeve on the passenger’s window and peered out. “It’s dark, damp, deserted. Even in the middle of the morning.”
“Far, far from the madding crush.” He giggled.
“Great,” said Clelia. She’d feared it might happen. Tony was morphing into the freak she’d feared he might be. “You said coffee but you’ve just passed the kiosk.”
“Yes,” he said, stepping on the accelerator, “I did.” The car splashed through a puddle. To the right the river flowed, its banks near to overrunning. To the left, a file of bedraggled trees and empty benches stretched.
She’d been prepared to give first and receive later. But it was her decision to make, not his. “On another day, the park might have been a good idea, but today the weather’s putting a damper on this outing,” she said.
Tony didn’t respond.
“I’d like you to turn us around.”
Tony drove onward.
Clelia frowned. She needed to mine her Tai Kwan Do lessons for a defensive move. Trouble was, she was drawing a blank. Scamp would be no protection when Tony threw himself on her. The dog was small and generally clueless. Case in point: right now, the little beast was curled around her ankles and snoozing. Clelia began to hyperventilate. She envisioned fashioning a slip knot out of Scamp’s leash and strangling Tony with it, if things got out of control.
“You’re not listening.” She pulled at her door handle but it wouldn’t budge. Tony had locked her in. Her heart rate sped up. She didn’t want to jump to conclusions. Most of her adult life she’d struggled against jumping to conclusions. But given the present set of circumstances, she felt Uncle Vito’s gift, the old childhood terrors, submerge her like a battery of nasty waves.
“Hello? Hello? Why aren’t you answering me?” Clelia cried. Admittedly it was hard to see out the windshield; the rain came down in torrents and the wipers were hard-pressed to clear it away. This could explain why Tony was sweating. On the other hand, the lascivious look in his eyes reminded her of Uncle Vito. He seemed to be positively drooling. She felt sick.
Just then, Tony veered right. The car bumped over a bridge, and, between a crumbling brick building—part of an ancient dwelling—and a tall laurel hedge, it stopped.
“Voilà,” he said and turned off the motor and pressed a button. She heard a click. “Your door’s now unlocked. You may alight if you wish.”
“I may alight if I wish?” Relieved, Clelia’s voice went up an octave. He wasn’t abducting her after all. She wouldn’t have to beat him over the head or strangle him either. Her therapist was right. She couldn’t let the old thought patterns take over. Just because a door was locked didn’t mean something bad was about to happen.
“Yes, of course you may.”
“Here. At the ends of the earth. In the rain.” Now that she had a choice, Clelia shook her head. She was wearing her best suede boots. They’d get stained if she hiked it. “Now that’s a bad idea.”
“Are you alright my dear?” Tony frowned as he studied her.
“Am I alright? Of course I’m alright.” She snapped. Her voice was still on the shrill side.
“You don’t want out?”
Clelia watched the rain drum on the windshield. She still had to pick his brain and mine his contacts list. She pulled at the door handle and it rattled open. She could go if she wanted.
“No,” she said. “Not yet. I’ve got something I want to show you.”
“I’m glad,” said Tony, unlatching his seatbelt. “But first things first,” he said, bowing his head. “That coffee I promised.” Whisking a tasseled linen placemat out of his pocket and spreading it on the dashboard, he removed two cups, two saucers and two teaspoons from the glove compartment. He set the china on the placemat.
Reaching under the seat, he extracted a porcelain saucer with twisted lemon rind (covered with plastic), a small, cork-stoppered bottle (filled with white fluid) and an antique silver flask. Opening the flask, he poured her a cupful of steaming liquid. “A smidge of lemon? A dollop of cream?”
“Black,” she said.
Passing the cup, Tony tapped her cheek. “Drink up, my sweet writer friend. This is a special blend.”
“This is all rather weird.” Clelia stirred with her spoon.
Tony looked hurt.
“No offense.” She sipped her coffee slowly. “Mmmm.” It was rich, like blackberries and hot chocolate. “You had me a little worried.” Clelia waved at the dilapidated structure looming to her right. “This place is a dump. Spooky even. Why here?”
Tony blew on his coffee and licked his spoon. His tongue was long and thin like a lizard’s. He opened his mouth as if to say something. Then he closed it.
“But wait. I get it.” Clelia sat up, remembering how she’d thought he was like the Colosseum. “I saw a museum show recently.”
Placing her cup on the dash, Clelia pulled out her phone. She Googled and then read: “’The ruin became a tantalizing destination for Romantics, a place where they reflected on transience. It was deemed a place of mystery where the discovery of a better and more honorable past could take place.’”
“You chose this backdrop for our rendezvous. The old china and antique thermos. And is that placemat an heirloom too?” Now that she was noticing, she could see it had been elaborately embroidered in an old-fashioned, hand-stitched way.
“What if it is?”
Clelia pursed her lips. “What’s your message exactly?”Tony swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing. Now his eyebrows drooped around his lenses and his skin had turned gray. His face looked like a late winter ski slope after the sun had ravaged it.
“Is it ‘time flies’? ‘Seize the day’? ‘Old is better’?”
“Actually,” said Tony, straightening, his eyes widening, “I’m not sure I know what you mean.” He looked upset.
“No. I know. It’s ‘Ruins are Romantic’.”
Tony cleared his throat. “Well they do speak of both the past and the present, of growth and decay, of myth and history, as well as the here and now.” He peered at her.
“Ruins attest to the fall of empires,” Clelia laughed.
“They attest to survival, to triumph, to Golden Ages that live on.” His voice squeaking, Tony lifted his chin.
Clelia patted his arm. He was hardly a threat. Unlike Uncle Vito, it didn’t take much to deflate him.
“Don’t you agree?” Tony was almost begging.
Was he asking her to ravish him? Clelia thought of her manuscript. She supposed she could like antiques on a rainy day even though, if you got down to it, she preferred the contemporary with its clean lines and no-nonsense vibe.
“What do white hair and wrinkles matter?” she whispered, tracing the word BITCHIN on her bracelet. She could go through with this. All she needed was to visualize a positive ending. Like she used to do with Uncle Vito. Back then she imagined him behind bars and herself free. Now she imagined sitting at a table in Feltrinelli bookstore. A line of people waiting for her to sign her book stretched out the door. She could be transactional too, if she wanted. Why not?
Leaning over, she took his coffee cup from his hands. She set it next to hers on the dashboard. Then she removed his glasses. His eyes without the lenses seemed to shrink, but even if they were smaller without ophthalmic magnification, they were still a pretty shade of blue. She found his lips were dry like sandpaper, and his beard was scratchy like gorse, but his long lizard tongue tasted deliciously of the coffee.
When his bony arms went around her, pulling her toward him, she shivered. She hadn’t expected to shiver, but it had been so long since Rodolfo had left. Unzipping first her jacket and then his, she melted into him. His hands were warm but his thick nails clawed at her pink bra and scraped her nipples. Instantly, Clelia was having trouble envisioning the table in the bookstore.
When she cried out, Scamp stirred and, scratching, wormed up into her lap between them, growling. Her dog could be counted on, after all.
“Why don’t you let her out?”
“She’d get muddy and then dirty the inside of your car when I let her back in.”
“Ah,” said Tony. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Or she might fall in the river.”
“Now that would be a tragedy.”
“Yes, it would.” Clelia laughed again; right now the dog was licking her face. “So, Tony.” Clelia adjusted her bra strap and straightened her sweater. “Here’s the thing. I’ve written a novel. I’ve brought you a copy. It’s here on this USB key.” She tucked it into his pocket.
“Ah,” said Tony, putting his glasses back on. Now his eyes looked like two startled blue fish swimming in two glass orbs. “You don’t have to zip up your jacket, do you? You’re not cold? I can turn on the motor if you’re cold.”
“I am cold,” said Clelia, zipping herself firmly. “And after you’ve read it, we can come back and have more coffee. And discuss revision. But make sure you get a manicure first.”
“Yes. Of course. That would be very nice,” said Tony, swallowing. “Superb.”
“You don’t sound like you mean it.”
“I don’t want to get your hopes up.”
“What?” said Clelia.
“You’re a very nice girl,” said Tony. “I don’t want to string you along.”
“String me along?”
“You’re the nicest girl I’ve met in a very long time. The most attractive. And the smartest too. No one ever got the Romance of Ruins before. Therefore, I’m going to come clean. I want you to like me for who I am, not for what you think I can do.”
“I don’t have connections at Mondadori.”
“I was retired from that establishment twelve years ago. Anyone I knew is long gone.”
“You were kicked out? But I thought you knew … you said you were friends with ….”
“And earlier? At the Corriere?”
“The same story, I’m afraid. I did typesetting first and then moved over to logistics. Delivery vehicles and the like. I screwed up toward the end, and unfortunately was let go.”
“This is shocking. I looked you up on the internet.”
“You couldn’t have done a very thorough search.”
Clelia frowned. She really hadn’t. She’d seen he belonged to the Order of Italian Journalists, but that was it. She’d basically taken his word for everything he’d claimed. She supposed it was because she had been so eager to take the easy route to discovery that she hadn’t done her homework or listened to her instincts.
“I’m not a real writer. It’s more of a hobby.”
“I believed you.”
“That was naïve,” Tony said.
“It was stupid. I should have known better,” Clelia said. It wasn’t entirely her fault, though, was it? Maybe she’d just been too trusting. “I’d get out and walk, but I don’t want to destroy my boots over you. Drive us home.”
As the car retraced the route back to her apartment building, the rain subsided and Tony turned the wipers off. The wind had picked up and the sky was clearing. Clelia unclasped her bracelet and slipped it into her purse. She wasn’t really BITCHIN. It was an act she had put on after abuse, first from Uncle Vito and second from Rodolfo. No. Clelia now knew this about herself: she was trusting, ambitious, and dammit, a survivor too. She buried her nose in Scamp’s neck and inhaled dog shampoo and puppy sweat. The dog twisted in her arms and licked her face.
Likewise, she figured, Tony was not a total creep. He had doctored the facts and led her on. But he had also come clean. It took nerve to admit he’d been sent out to pasture. He had presented her with an elegant coffee party. He was someone who desired warmth just like she was someone who lusted after success. In their own ways, they were the embodiments of what had happened to them. Although affected by history, weathered by it, neither had succumbed. They were both ruins in that exotic, mysterious sense, evidence one could withstand storms, yet live on.
She swiped her finger over her phone to re-read the lines she’d seen earlier from Webster’s the Duchess of Malfi when looking up the museum show:
“I do love these ancient ruins: We never tread upon them but we set Our foot upon some reverend history.”
From their correspondence, she’d seen that Tony knew a thing or two about writing; working near the greats had clearly rubbed off. Perhaps they might appreciate each other after all, like those tourists of yesteryear who reveled in the art, architecture and artifice they found while roaming the Continent.
She fished Tony’s old silver flask out of the glove compartment. She shook it. There was still coffee inside. She opened it and took a swig.
“I like how it’s rich like blackberries and hot chocolate,” she said. “Summer and winter in one delicious sip.”
“Oh?” said Tony. His eyebrows floated hopefully over his lenses like fluffy cumulus clouds whizzing along on a warming, windy day.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was selected from entries submitted to our Creative Challenge Series #8: Word Salad, which required that the words bolded in the text must be included. Read other Creative Challenge winners. To find out how to participate, go to Creative Challenges.