Shadow of the Portico

Prologue

Bologna 1578

Giovanni stopped. He wanted to remember everything.

The two towers to his left meant that the Piazza Maggiore was to his right. He blew out his breath in a chilly cloud and nodded. Except there were towers everywhere that shouldn’t be there. For some reason, the extra towers scared the hell out of him, gave him a weak vertigo you can only get standing in the middle of an open, flat street.

His vision blurred without his glasses, but he managed. Nobody here had glasses. Who else lived in blurs and confusion? For that matter, who else was as befuddled as him? Pretty much nobody, he guessed with a chuckle.

A few steps in that unpaved, damp street reminded him again that things weren’t right. The pressed mud roads should have been concrete. The lumpy cobblestones weren’t much better. Even the marble beneath some of the porticoes only made him wish he had arch support insoles.

A man walked into him as he focused on his feet, bouncing off Giovanni and never breaking his conversation with a companion. The man spoke emphatically and gesticulated with abandon.

Okay, some things never change in Italy.

The man’s companion turned and stared at Giovanni, likely never having seen a man so tall. While he had hoped to fit in here, he stood several inches above almost everybody, despite affecting a slouchy lope so it wasn’t as obvious.

He inhaled deeply as he walked, taking in the scents of livestock, mud, unwashed humanity, bread. Another deep breath added garlic, its familiarity comforting. He wanted to smell cars, buses, cigarettes, motorcycles, the things that gave Bologna—his Bologna—their scent. But those things weren’t in this Bologna. Those things belonged to an Industrial Revolution that hadn’t happened yet.

Another pungent scent reminded him that danger lurked in the street where animals had the right of way.

Pay attention. Look around, don’t forget anything.

Two women holding baskets at their hips smiled at him from the portico as he approached. Even wrapped in shawls and loose cloaks, their curves caught his attention, their warm eyes moving over his lithe body, even as his moved over theirs. He flashed a charming smile, and they giggled as he passed nearby.

Just as he felt his ego crest at the women’s admiration, one of them sneezed. And again, right out into the universe. A few tiny droplets sparkled on his sleeve.

Germs. They don’t know about germs.

Giovanni hurried past them with a shudder. He tucked his chin into his cloak, inhaling through its woolen warmth, hoping it might keep his immune system protected.

A horse held by its bridle clopped by as his rider walked next to him. Chickens balked their complaints from a coop on the side of the road. A man grunted as he used a two-handed sander on a piece of wood. Rubbing, then blowing the dust, wiping with a cloth, a close examination, sanding again. Giovanni drifted toward the workshop window and smelled the sawdust. The chickens ruffled their feathers. People’s voices floated from the workshop, from the street, from everywhere, unconcerned about privacy as they were about germs.

Remember everything.

A couple kissed in a doorway, his hand on her waist, hers on his cheek. He was backing away, but her heavy-lidded eyes seemed to pull him back to her, and he indulged in one more kiss. Finally, the man left his lover with a lingering gaze, walking backward and away before turning to go. Giovanni was so close to him, he could hear the man’s sigh.

Giovanni stopped. Now he wanted to forget everything. Forget where and when he was. Forget what he was supposed to be doing. Forget it all and go back home to her. Take her in his arms and love her until the world and all its problems finally gave up and left them alone.

 

Chapter 1

Chicago, Saturday, February 4, 2017

Those who can journey have the ability coursing through their veins. They are born with it. People and things will reach out to them in ways nobody else can understand. It is a communication not of the mind, but of the very soul. Those who journey must contend with Fate when she chooses to wake them. It is never expected, never sought, always deeply disconcerting. The strongest ones are those who believe the unknown, who accept the unexpected. They do not worry about momentary circumstances. They are embraced and swept away by the immediacy and the eternity of life. That is how they transcend time itself.

From The Wisdom of the Journey

Author(s) unknown

 

Giovanni Capello didn’t need to look through the peephole to know what awaited him on his front porch. He could hear the women talking, and they didn’t sound happy.

He opened the door anyway.

Buongiorno!” He noted the steel gray wintry morning clouds as he looked over the heads of his four older sisters. There might have been a metaphor there. Before he could contemplate it, his sisters overwhelmed him, shoved him into his house and down into a chair in the living room.

“You need an intervention,” Carla announced, yanking a novel out of his hand.

“You’ll lose my page!” He was still in his pajamas and slippers, shivering without his robe. The four coiffed and made-up women, who must have been awake for hours, stood over him, taking off their coats but not getting comfortable.

“I’ll make coffee,” Gina said. The youngest of Giovanni’s sisters, she never liked confrontation, which made her his favorite sister for at least the next few minutes.

He dropped into a leather chair with a sigh. Angela, the oldest, pulled up a chair beside him and patted his hand. She really was his favorite sister, and her presence was comforting. But her proximity now was due to her wanting to follow the conversation better. Angela was deaf, and she needed to watch as her sisters signed their intervention. She wanted prime seating for the show.

Come to think of it, Gina might have been his favorite sister after all.

“You want to tell us what happened, or do we only need one side of the story?” Laura, sister number three, wasn’t one to mince words.

“I broke up with Elena,” he muttered, slumping and looking at his feet.

“Don’t slouch,” Carla said, giving him a light kick in the leg that prompted him to sit up straight.

Did you start already? I need coffee first, so does he,” Angela said in sign language.

Giovanni pivoted his head around trying to loosen up his neck muscles, and he shook out his messy, dark hair that hung in his face. He was almost alert now, despite the lack of coffee and a sleepless night.

“You broke up with her, or she broke up with you?”

“I broke up with her,” he answered, stretching and not keeping track of who was asking the questions. “But it was more or less mutual. Let’s call it a conscious uncoupling.”

Saccente!” Laura smacked him upside the head, and he yelped. “We’re being serious here, and you’re popping off with the pop culture references. You think you’re Gwyneth Paltrow or something?”

Don’t forget to sign,” Angela signed.

I was busy slapping him,” Laura answered, out loud and signing, looking like she wanted to smack him again. “And I can’t spell Gwyneth. Where’s Gina? She’s good at signing the names.”

“Ah, sit down, Laura, you’re all in a state,” Carla said.

“Well, that coffee smells good, and I can’t have any.”

Carla’s eyes sparkled. “Oh, Vanni, Laura just told us she’s pregnant!”

He smiled. “Oh, hey, that’s fantastic, congratulations!” He rose to hug her.

“No, sit down, I’m mad at you,” she said before he was halfway up.

Watch out for her, she’s grumpy,” Angela signed.

I heard that!” Laura signed back.

Giovanni lowered himself back into his chair. The front door opened and an older woman came into his house to a chorus of Zia! Zietta! Great. Because he wasn’t outnumbered enough, was he?

Aunt Nana entered, coiffed like her nieces, her hands palms up in the air. “Girls, girls, I’m only here to observe.” She sat on the sofa, the sage judge of the proceedings.

“Did you and Elena have a fight?” Carla paced in front of him, emulating the prosecuting attorney.

“No, ma’am,” Giovanni answered, trying to be a reliable witness as Laura muttered impatient curses under her breath at the word ma’am. “It wasn’t working. We have nothing in common. We don’t have the same values. I hate where our lives were going. She’s allergic to the cat.”

“Gabriella is still willing to take the cat,” Carla said, referring to her twelve-year-old daughter.

He sat up taller. “I want to keep her. She’s my cat.”

“You’re ending a four-year engagement over a cat?” Laura asked, incredulous.

“No, I’m ending it for all the other reasons,” he said, matching her tone. “Weren’t you listening?”

“Don’t yell at her, Vanni,” Gina cooed as she brought in a tray of coffee mugs. “She’s pregnant, did you know?” Giovanni nodded, gesturing that Gina should give his cup of coffee to their aunt.

“Elena told us you didn’t take her or her modeling career seriously, and that you wanted to go live the playboy party lifestyle.”

“No,” he said, “she said that because—”

“Didn’t you learn anything from Papà?”

Like how to be a womanizer, drink too much, and follow the wrong crowd? Oh, yes, he learned those lessons well. He put his elbows on his knees and lowered his head into his hands.

“You should go back to Italy now, take over the business,” Gina added, raising her brows optimistically.

“Well, yeah, I need to,” he told her. “That’s another reason I broke it off. I didn’t think I could marry her, and I would have had to if she would come with me to Montevallo.”

“Now you can stay there the whole year,” Gina said.

“Uncle Joey said I can run the whole operation splitting my time between there and the States.” He grabbed a blanket from the sofa and returned to the chair. “I think I might do that.”

His sisters talked all at once.

“You’re going to go back and forth?”

“Who’s in charge when you’re here?”

“It’s like you can’t make up your mind.”

“Elena would have been perfect at Montevallo.”

“I think she’s too good for you,” Laura muttered.

“Okay,” he said, looking up, “now you’re getting closer to the truth.”

“Ah!” Laura stood. “I can’t listen to him feel sorry for himself. Oh, I’m so rich and tall and handsome and nobody loves me. Well, forgive me if I don’t feel sorry for you! You have everything and—”

“That’s enough,” Nana said, and the room fell silent. “Vanni has his reasons, and it’s not our place to question them. Let’s give him time to think about things.”

“But Elena—”

“—will be fine,” Nana cut in. “I’m more worried about Vanni.”

Giovanni wasn’t sure what to think about that, but if it got them out of the house sooner, he’d go along with it.

“I don’t get it. What do you have here that you’d have to leave Italy, anyway?”

He groaned. He had a home he loved, a job, a cat—

What about us? He has us,” Angela signed.

And he had them. This was why Angela was his favorite sister. He laid his head on her shoulder and swallowed the lump in his throat.

“Have you eaten?” Nana asked, which was her way of saying I love and support you. “You want me to make you something, omino?”

If anyone else but Nana called him little man, he’d blow a gasket. He was nearly thirty though reminding his sisters of this would set off another maelstrom. “No, grazie,” he said to Nana with a sweet smile. “I’m going to the cafe. I need to go out for a while.” His eyes darted around the room like ghosts might emerge from the walls.

You’re okay?” Angela signed, and he nodded at her, making eye contact and trying to look convincing.

Giovanni’s sisters and aunt took final sips of coffee and collected their coats, looking at each other and sighing. He rose too, telling Gina he would clean up, moving around to embrace the women and kiss everyone’s cheeks. “I’ll get decaf for you, Laur,” he said, hugging her. “I’m happy for you, sorellona.”

Laura held him close. “Make us happy for you, too.”

“I try, veramente.”

She nodded and turned away.

He followed his family as they walked out the front door, thanking them for coming and for their concern, promising to call when things settled. He closed the door behind them and leaned against it, imagining the comments they were making as they walked off his porch. What’s wrong with him? He’ll never grow up. Can’t he do anything right? Poor Elena. He can’t make up his mind about anything . . .

The walls echoed the condemnation. You’re not good enough.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” he said out loud to nobody, and ran upstairs to dress.

*  *  *

The muted light of a cloudy February day lit the long dining room of the cafe. The din of collective conversation made it hard to hear anything specific. Giovanni found the bustle and noise to be a soothing distraction as he hid in the crowd.

He was certainly getting no satisfaction from his phone at this point. An entire mythology played out on social media in the fourteen hours since the breakup, orchestrated by Elena. She posted a heartfelt and regretful announcement on all her accounts that she and Giovanni had mutually decided to part ways. They were growing in new directions, finding new paths, yada yada. He guessed that her sudden eloquence on the matter came from her PR firm where Giovanni himself worked. Traitors.

As expected, people took sides, mostly hers. She was right, they said. Giovanni was a womanizer, selfish, hedonistic, and some other unflattering adjectives.

He noticed the stirrings of a massive headache he hoped to kill with more caffeine, and he waved at a waitress carrying a coffee carafe. He was about to shut down the phone and perhaps throw it out a window when it thudded with a text notification that sounded like a bass guitar riff. That would be a text from Matt, his cousin and Nana’s son, who was probably the only person he could talk to right now who’d be supportive and not annoy the hell out of him.

So, you dumped the hot supermodel.

Yeah.

What the hell were you thinking?

Well, so much for support. He lifted his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose, trying to push away the throbbing that persisted in his head. What was he thinking? Before he could answer, Matt continued.

Mama came home and started making enough ziti for the entire south side and some Cubs fans, too. I knew something was up. And Laura’s pregnant and pissed that your news eclipsed hers.

I didn’t mean to do that. I’ll time these events better in the future.

See that you do. Mama wants you to come for dinner. Expect about 20 lbs of ziti.

Aunt Nana cooked when there were issues in the family. It’s a wonder they didn’t each weigh three hundred pounds. He responded to Matt. Sure. Tell her thank you.

You going to bring a date?

Very funny.

Matt wasn’t very funny at all, but he was masterful at saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. What? I predict you’ll stay single for about 15 minutes.

Like that, for instance. Giovanni decided a rude response was in order. See you tonight, stronzo.

Clutch my pearls, such language!

He set aside his phone and picked up a menu. He had a rock in the pit of his stomach, but it was the thing to do, order lunch. It was what was expected of him. He put down the menu. Nope, not ordering.  It was lame, but it was something. He would take control of his life one missed meal and broken engagement at a time.

He looked around him—there’s nothing like an old school cafe in Chicago for people-watching. For Giovanni, it was like getting lost in a good book. It beat sitting alone in his empty house. He usually enjoyed his quiet solitude at home because he had so little of it. Today, it only brought all his ghosts out to play.

A couple beside him ignored each other and stared at their phones. It reminded him of Elena, how he teased her about looking down at her phone so much, and one day she wouldn’t be able to raise her head. She would grunt, “Heh,” her polite laugh, and not look up.

“See?” he’d say, “It’s happening already!”

She didn’t get it.

At another table, two older women laughed and leaned in close in the throes of magnificent gossip. A mouth-covering conspiratorial laugh was punctuated with, “He did NOT!” and more laughter and nodding. Apparently, he did so.

He bit back a chuckle and glanced at the table in front of his. A girl used sign language to the busboy, saying, “. . . no place to go. Please!”

The busboy nodded toward the front where a grumpy boss stood sentry. The café was full, and the girl had nothing in front of her but a laptop, books, and an empty cup of coffee.

He looked at his full cup of coffee and back at the girl. A damsel in distress. A hearing-impaired damsel, no less. Too young to be a temptation. Good. That was the last thing he needed today. He stood and cleared his throat.

“Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing . . . overseeing?” He used sign language to ask her, “Do you need a place to work?” The busboy shook his head, but the girl’s eyes were huge. She reminded him of a starving orphan in a Depression-era movie, pressed against the window of a café full of people eating. Rather a bad analogy since that’s more or less what she was. Giovanni waved off the busboy. “It’s all right, I can use the company.” It was truer than he’d want the general public to know. Nonetheless, he flashed them both a winning smile.

The girl didn’t hesitate. She piled up all her stuff in one mountainous stack. Giovanni rose and helped her move her things, settling her at his table. She looked up at him with a small, tired grin.

Thanks,” she signed, her hand moving in a downward arc from her chin. “I’m— not— deaf,” she said with a thick stuttering hesitation in front of each word.

“Oh.” He processed it. The girl used sign language because she had a speech impediment. “Well, it’s nice to meet you. I’m . . .” He hesitated, not wanting to throw a long Italian name at her and have the poor girl stumble over it for the next ten minutes. “I’m John.”

“Sarah,” she said clearly.

Are you hungry?” He caught himself signing a C down his chest and pointing at her. He stopped with an embarrassed grin and cleared his throat. “Sorry, habit. Hungry?”

She sighed and flitted a glance at the empty coffee cup she’d brought over from the other table. He couldn’t get two sips of coffee down before the waitress refilled his, but hers sat bone dry. Sarah bit her lip and furrowed her brow, then shrugged noncommittally.

He wasn’t sure what to do. “I was thinking of getting lunch,” he lied, appreciating that not ordering lunch was a victory a few moments ago. “What’s good here?” He already knew, but was trying to make conversation and perhaps figure what this girl might eat so he wouldn’t feel guilty under the scrutiny of those huge, weary eyes.

Soup,” Sarah signed after a moment. “French onion, amazing.” The sign for amazing looked like she was raising the roof, and Giovanni couldn’t help but smile.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had it.” He found it on the menu. Onions, broth, a crouton, cheese. It didn’t sound especially roof-raising to him. “Do you want any?”

Sarah shook her head.

“Do you want anything?”

She shook her head with a frown and went back to work.

So, it was like that, was it? He got his waitress’s attention to put in an order. “I’ll have a chicken Caesar salad and . . . some French onion soup.”

“Cup or a bowl?”

He glanced at the starving orphan martyr across from him. “A bowl. And can you bring a bread basket, too? And iced tea.” He made sure Sarah wasn’t watching and gestured “two” for the teas.

“You got it.”

“There. That should buy us some WiFi time.”

She nodded, but didn’t look up from her laptop, her face tight.

Giovanni picked up his phone again, closed the tabs to all those depressing social media sites, and covertly checked out this Sarah girl. She read, then thought, typed, shook her head, and circled through her mental exercises. She was young, maybe twenty, tops. She wore an oversized heather gray hoodie, no makeup, and had a mass of blonde frizzy curls exploding from a ponytail on top of her head. Her most striking feature were those big, sad, blue eyes. They weren’t the same color as the sky outside, sub-zero winter blue. They were more like the summer sky blue. A day at the beach blue. “A bushy-bushy blonde hairdo, surfin’ USA” blue.

She caught him staring at her and he coughed. “Sorry, I was just thinking about the Beach Boys.” She raised a brow, and he hid behind his phone. Now he had “Surfin’ USA” rolling around in his head, a perfect mental soundtrack for February in Chicago.

Lunch soon arrived. The French onion soup had a thick, comforting blanket of cheese over it and he figured that must have been the appeal. He pushed the cheese over and tasted the broth. “Mm, you’re right,” he said, “it’s not bad.”

She was gazing at the fresh-baked bread and rolls.

“Okay, listen,” he said to her. “I can’t eat all this. The soup is fine, but I’d rather have my salad. Can I give this to you?”

She sighed and shook her head.

“Will you at least eat the bread? I have to go easy on the carbs,” he said, patting his flat belly.

She acquiesced, whispered thanks, and took a roll. Giovanni noticed her face alter when she bit into the bread. Her eyes closed, and she sighed in a decidedly sensual manner. She didn’t appear quite so young when she did that.

“Here, have the soup.”

Sipping the soup from her spoon, Sarah closed her eyes again and moaned.

Giovanni bit back an embarrassed chuckle, leaned in and whispered, “Must be good.”

She startled, wide-eyed. “I’m— sorry,” she said, choking down the bread. “I haven’t eaten— since— yester—day morning. Oh, this is— so . . .”

“What’s the matter? Why haven’t you been eating?”

She stopped chewing and glanced at him with guilty eyes like he caught her doing something wrong, then put down her spoon.

“No, no,” he said, “please, I’m sorry. Eat, enjoy it, okay? Eat, please. Mangia!” He dug into his salad with an encouraging smile.

She ate, hunger trumping shame, going back to her emotive savoring.

The universe had to be laughing at him. He was seeking deeper meaning in life, abandoning shallow hedonism, cleansing his soul and ridding his life of complications, especially female complications. Yet here he was, sitting in front of a barely legal undergrad as she made love to her French onion soup. Yep. He was a cosmic riot.

“Feel better?” he asked her.

She nodded. “Mm-hm.” She seemed to loosen up, relaxing, even smiling a little.

“You’re working on a term paper?”

She sat up straighter. “My— disser—tation defense is— Monday.”

“Oh. You’re a graduate student?”

“I’m— finishing my— PhD.”

Okay, she must have been older than he thought. A dissertation defense. He felt sorry for her if her doctorate depended on her ability to talk her way through much of anything.

“How can I help?” He flashed the magnanimous smile again.

She raised a dubious brow. “Are you a— historian?”

“No, but I like history.”

“Oo-what do— you— do?”

“I work in advertising.”

“Hm,” she said, dismissing him. “You— have al—ready— been helpful. Thank— you.”

“My pleasure,” he said with a disarming smile. “And by the way, I have a masters in sociology from the same campus where you’ve been studying history. I might not be completely useless.” He gave his eyebrows a flick.

“I— never— said—”

“Yeah, your face did.” He waved his hand waving a circle in front of him. “You’re kind of a light read.”

Sarah opened her mouth in an abashed, insulted expression, then narrowed her eyes. “So oo-what is— my face— saying— now?” She opened a book with a thud and read. With her head down, all he saw was a fright of curls on top of her head.

“I can’t read your face, but your ponytail is telling me to leave you alone.”

She sighed. “I’m— really grate—ful to— you. But please, if I— can— finish these— last few ques—tions?”

Giovanni mimed zipping his lips and then raised his glass of tea, but couldn’t put the straw in his mouth because he zipped it up. Sarah rolled her eyes at his juvenile attempt at humor, but went back to work with half a grin on her face. When the waitress returned to clear the table, Sarah swiped two more rolls without even looking up.

*  *  *

Twenty-five minutes and a tea refill later, Sarah finally looked up from her work. “Y-you’re still— here.”

“So are you,” he said, relieved to be pulled away from his phone and the evolving drama of his publicized breakup. “Interested in playing Twenty Questions?”

“All— right.” She handed him her research notes.

“No, not about history. You need a break from that. No, about you. And me too, we’ll take turns. Then about history if you want. I have no place to be.” He felt rather hollow admitting that.

She shrugged and nodded.

“Great! How old are you?” he asked, launching right into it.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “T-twenty-five.”

Giovanni started asking another question.

“Oo-wait! My— turn. How old are— you?”

“Are you just going to repeat all my questions?”

“No answering— questions oo-with a— question.”

Touché. I’ll be thirty this summer.”

“H-how do— you— feel about— turning thirty?”

“It’s not your turn. How are you twenty-five and about to get your PhD?”

She gave him a sheepish look. “No— life?”

He chuckled. “I don’t know, I think studying is a pretty good life. I wish I had more time to do it.”

Sarah raised her brows and her expression brightened. “Ever— consider— getting a— PhD?”

“Hm, maybe, eventually. I don’t have much incentive other than making people call me Dr. Capello. Has a nice ring to it, though, huh? Dr. Capello,” he said with a far-off dreamy gaze.

She chuckled and nodded.

“What will you do with your PhD?” he asked

She crinkled her nose. “F-frame it?”

“Not what I mean,” he said with a sing-songy voice.

Sarah cleared her throat. “I’m— trying— to— be a pro—fessor.”

She narrowed her look at him, probably waiting for him announce that professors speak for a living. How often had she been told what she couldn’t do?

“That’s cool,” he said. “Your turn.”

“You— don’t think I— can.”

“That’s a statement, not a question.”

“Fine,” she said, tossing her ponytail back and raising her chin. “D-do you?”

“I don’t know. I’ve seen people overcome a lot. So, let me ask you, how do you think it’ll work? Do you have a plan?” He hoped he hadn’t overstepped himself, but she brightened again, and he enjoyed making this shy girl open up.

“Yes. I— have some i—deas, if some—one oo-will give— me a— chance.”

He nodded, imagining the possibility. “You know, I think someone will. I have a good feeling about you.”

Sarah looked out the window and whispered, “Thanks.” The sunshine lit a shy smile and soft blush in her cheeks.

“Your turn,” he said.

“Are you— married?” she blurted, then cringed.

He frowned and answered with a terse “no.” It might have been an amusing question, given their strong reactions to it. That was one of those sociological Zen moments he would have loved to investigate. Just not today.

“Would it help you at all if you had a sign language interpreter with you when you do your defense?”

Sarah paused, her eyes wide, considering the possibility.

“I mean,” he continued, “you’re able to speak. We’ve been chatting up a storm here. But during the more difficult times, would it help to have an interpreter so you could switch to using sign? Theoretically, you know.”

She nodded. “It— might. Do you— know some—one?”

He looked out the window and blew out his breath with a huff.

“Oh!” she said laughing. “Really, you’d— do that?”

“Sure. You said Monday, right?” He pulled out his phone and began swiping. “You’d be done by, say, 2:00, eh?”

She nodded eagerly. “I— might be able— to get compen—sation for you. I’ll— call Disa—bility Support . . .”

He shook his head. “Doing something nice for someone instead of worrying about my own idiot self is compensation enough. Trust me.”

“Oo-wow! I— can’t— thank you— enough.”

“You’re welcome. So next question. Why are you not eating three square meals a day?”

She looked down at her hands. “I’m out of— money and I— hate going— home.”

He nodded. The situation required a follow-up question, so he cheated. “Thirty looks good on paper but I feel like I have no clue what’s going on in my own life.” Sarah looked back at him as his eyes lost their focus and his confident smile faltered. “Thirty scares the hell out of me, no lie.” He met her gaze again. “Okay, so what’s wrong at home?”

“Oo-wait. I— didn’t ask . . .” She paused when she realized she had asked him about turning thirty about ten questions ago.

“Keep up, Sarah,” he said with a teasing laugh.

She smiled, but grew serious again with a sigh. “H-home is a— futon in the— living— room and my— roommate has— people over.” She made a shuddering motion. “Oo-what would— your— dissertation— topic— be?”

“I don’t know, the role of sociological research in advertising, blah blah,” he said with a dismissive gesture. “What’s wrong at home?”

Sarah shook her head, but he held her stare. She sighed. “They’re oo-weird, creepy emo—hippies. And then—” She looked like she’d give more details, but shook her head.

“And then what?”

“That’s a-nother— question.”

“Not really, but I won’t push the issue.” He took a sip of tea and looked at his phone. “What time do you need me on Monday?”

She looked away from him, pausing, and then blurted out all at once, “They’re— messing around all— over the apart—ment. Even— right there on— my— futon. I oo-walk in on— them all the— time. They oo-want me to— join them.” She shook her head and reached for her dissertation notes. “I should— get— back to oo-work.”

Giovanni blew out a breath, feeling both protective indignation for her and shame about his own reprobate lifestyle. “Do you feel safe there?” he asked, concern in his quiet question.

“No, but oo-what— can I— do?”

“You could go someplace else.”

“Oo-where?”

“Do you need someplace to go?”

Sarah chuckled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Are you— thinking of— rescuing— me or some—thing?”

“Sure, something like that.”

“Oo-why?”

Why indeed? He needed to focus on taking control of his life, or gaining the respect of his family. Not getting distracted by yet another girl.

“That was two questions in a row,” he continued, ignoring his own good advice. “What can I do to make sure you’re safe?” She didn’t respond. “You’re not safe at home. Do you feel safe with me?”

He realized the question was rather forward, but she looked like she was considering it. For some reason he needed her to be safe. She seemed so vulnerable, but she must have been a survivor to advance this far in her studies with no apparent support.

“Hey, here’s an idea.” He took out his business card and gave it to her. “This is me.” She examined it while he took out his driver’s license. “Also me.”

“Are you— John or— Gio—vanni?”

“Giovanni. I go by John professionally because people who know my real name call me Gio. Or Mario, or Luigi, or they want me to make-a spaghetti,” he said, slipping into a deep Italian accent. “I hate that. It’s not funny.”

“No, it’s— not,” she said, laughing. “Giovanni Raphael Capello, Junior.” She spoke his name, slow and deliberate and without a stutter, as the ghost of a smile lingered on her lips.

He cleared his throat when he caught himself fixated on her lips. “You can call me John or Vanni, whatever’s easier. And what’s your name? Sarah what?”

“MacGregor.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sarah MacGregor, the semi-homeless, soon-to-be history professor.”

“And you, Vanni, the— misplaced— scholarly ad-exec.”

He reached out his hand to shake, and she took it.

Something happened. Some sort of zap. A big zap. It was as if time stopped. He was overwhelmed by a sensation, an awareness he could only describe as significance. A less cynical man would call it fate. As though that incidental touch was when his life changed forever, no turning back.

She pulled her hand away, her eyes wide. Did she feel it too?

“I think I shocked you,” he said, laughing nervously. “Sorry about that. Kind of a Zeus shock there, huh?” But was that all it was, static electricity? Granted, that was common in the winter when sparks flew from one’s fingers all the time. He was reasonably certain it wasn’t that.

He had to know. Locking eyes with her, he reached for her hand. “Try again?”

She gave him her hand.

After the initial surge, it was like everything in the room faded away, except her touch. Her thumb caressed his, and Giovanni longed to feel her hand touching his knowing it would always be so.

Sarah let him go. They had touched for, what, maybe five seconds? Five seconds of wondering what the hell he was doing, who the hell this girl was, why the hell he was so affected by her touch.

“You have— nice— hands, Vanni.” She breathed deep and stared at his long fingers. “You should— play the— piano.”

What did she say? He had to bring himself back to polite conversation mode. “No, I play the guitar.”

“Oh,” she said, smiling. It was a lovely smile. Perhaps the loveliest he’d ever seen.

So much for taking control of his life.

 

 

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