I tend to do my crying in the car.
On this starless, moonless night, without a car or a Beatles song to cry to, I spent my last night in Florence, Italy, as anonymous as any other tourist.
An outsider in my motherland.
I stamped my feet on the old bridge, trying to keep warm. Memories of Nick and our last time in Italy filled my head and pained my heart.
The glow of a candle caught my attention. On impulse, I crossed Ponte Vecchio and walked toward the man sitting by the candle, the heels of my boots clicking against the quarry slabs. The stranger didn’t move. He stared at the worn book that lay in front of him on a table covered in red velvet.
Around us, Florence’s underground nighttime economy thrived. Peddlers displayed their wares and called out to the tourists on the walkway. Most of the sellers were African and donned colorful native cottons. The smart ones wore overcoats.
The candle flickered in the wind and cast leaping shadows on the man’s bony face. Thick lashes framed his eyes and a deep furrow crossed his forehead. I stood, intrigued yet hesitant. Cold sneaked down the back of my neck and spine. I pulled the collar of my mohair coat up to my chin. The fuzzy wool chafed my skin.
“What are you selling?” I asked in Italian.
He focused his dark eyes on me. Their intensity reminded me of my friend Ruby’s eyes.
“I am an astrologer.” He returned his attention to his book.
“You are?” I felt silly, not sure why. “Quanto costa?”
“Ten euros.” About $15. A pittance.
He pointed to a stool. I sat, then rested the plastic bag that contained a gift for Ruby against the leg of the table. I pressed down two bills beside his candle.
The astrologer held a pencil over a square sheet of white paper.
“When were you born and where?” He spoke Italian with an unusual accent.
“Where are you from?”
He frowned at my question.
I squirmed on the edge of the stool so much my foot kicked the bag. It fell over, and a corner of the turquoise silk shirt peeked out.
“Madrid.” He doodled, waiting for my information.
Something didn’t feel right. I fought the urge to get up and leave. “December twenty-ninth, 1952,” I said.
“L.A. I mean, Los Angeles, California.”
“Los Ángeles.” He repeated the name as if it were a prayer.
The paper showed a circle divided into segments, like a wagon wheel. He scribbled in one of the sections. My previous charts had been done by computers. I almost wished he had my birthdate. The one I’d given him was Ruby’s.
Tanned fingers held the pencil the way an artist held a brush. He scrawled numbers, consulted his book and transcribed his findings on the wagon wheel.
He sat back, his thin lips stretched in a smile. “You are a Capricorn with Gemini moon, Mercury in Sagittarius. Fascinating.”
That smile. I shivered.
“Happy childhood.” His eyes searched my face. “I see…a sibling. A sister, perhaps?”
Ruby was an only child. “No, I’m afraid not, no sister or brother.”
Did he sense the triumph in my voice, my wanting to prove him wrong? With his fingertips on the table, he leaned back so his face was outside the circle of light. Then he leaned forward again to study the paper.
The gold stud in his right earlobe reflected the gleam of the candle.
How old was he? I couldn’t tell.
“Close bond with your mother. Only child, you say. Still…she could have lost a child…”
“You mean a miscarriage?”
“More like a stillbirth, an abortion, lots of anger, pain…”
By now I regretted my lie. I was tempted to tell him to keep the money and forget the whole thing, but my lips refused to form the words. His voice seemed muffled. I felt disoriented, the way I would after an unexpected kiss.
“Twenty-two degrees Venus conjunct Mars. Very active love life.” He sounded amused.
Was he reading my mind?
“At a young age, fifteen, maybe sixteen…am I correct?”
I remembered Ruby’s smoky voice: “Hell, I gave it away before my sophomore year.”
And my reply: “Ruby, at that age I hadn’t even been kissed.”
“I would say that’s your problem,” she’d said.
I agreed. We laughed and toasted good sex and bad men.
“Correct?” The astrologer urged me on.
“Yes, you’re right.” I pulled my collar a little higher. I felt more bewildered than cold, but didn’t want him to know. “Can you tell all that from a birthdate?”
In the background, someone played a guitar. A violin joined in.
“You are a very creative individual. You could be an artist, an architect?” He paused. “A dress designer?”
Ruby had been a fashion editor before her accident. “You’re good.”
He didn’t seem to be listening. He grasped the edge of the table with such force the velvet cover slid toward him. The candle tilted. Strands of gray hair peeked out amid the black at his temples.
“Pluto opposing Mars. Venus conjunction.” He shoved his chair back. His hand hit the chart. The paper became airborne then landed in front of me. Craning his neck, he stood, almost hovering over me, anger distorting his features.
“Vattene. Go away.”
He pointed to the bills on the table. “Take your money and go. Now.”
I jumped to my feet, knocking over the stool. I turned to walk away. His hand grabbed my shoulder.
“Take your money. Take this chart. The chart of a dead woman.” He let go of me as if the touch had scorched his fingers.
Angry tears threatened my eyes. I clutched the paper and money against my chest and ran. I ran to the end of the bridge, ignoring the vendors and bystanders. I ran until Ponte Vecchio became a series of blurry lights and dark store windows. A bicycle grazed me; the rider swore.
I leaned against the cold stones of an ancient palace and caught my breath. Unbelievable. I looked at the crumpled paper and the ten euros. Well, Ruby Russell, you got yourself a free chart.
The chart of a dead woman.
I put the money in the inside pocket of my coat. I’d left Ruby’s gift under the astrologer’s table. Too bad. Nothing could make me go back there. I’d get her something else tomorrow, but it was my last night here. My last night in Italy. I quivered from the inside out. I wouldn’t let a lunatic intimidate me.
I marched back to the bridge.
Ponte Vecchio now looked deserted. The few remaining vendors were packing their merchandise. Where was that man?
I reached the center of the bridge. No table, no candle and no astrologer. I looked in all directions, searching for the stranger with Ruby’s eyes.
When I asked one of the peddlers, he shook his head and offered me some knock-off designer sunglasses at a bargain price. Next to him a tall, thin man proudly showed off row after row of Rolexes.
“L’astrologo, era li.” Even after over twenty-five years in the States, my Italian was still good. Plus, I underscored my words with my hands, local style, something that always made Nick smile. “You must have noticed him. He had a candle on the table…”
I didn’t like the way they stared at me. “No,” one after another they told me. They had been selling on the bridge for years, and none knew of any astrologer. Ever.
I touched the crisp paper in my coat pocket. Okay, that was real. I hadn’t imagined the strange astrologer.
I headed back to the hotel with Ruby’s chart.
Exclusive boutiques lined Borgo San Jacobo. The street, with its row of brightly lit windows, gave me comfort, and I welcomed the sight of Hotel Lungarno’s marquee. All I wanted now was to get out of my clothes, take a long, hot shower and forget the disturbing confrontation.
The crystalline sound of the bell brought Primo, the bellman, to the front desk before the door swished closed behind me.
“Signora York. I had hoped to be able to say goodbye.”
More likely he hoped to make sure he collected his tip. No, that wasn’t it. Primo was a dear man, not very smart, but nice. The management kept the bright ones for the day shift. Primo was always willing to help, even when no help was needed. He gave me a big smile, showing his chipped front tooth. A souvenir, he’d told me, from his brief, but glorious boxing career—at least according to him. I had my doubts. Short and skinny, he wasn’t built like a boxer.
“There was a telephone call for you.”
“A phone call?” Oh, no. I wasn’t expecting a phone call. The announcement set my paranoia in motion, and with good reason. The last time I received an unexpected call while out of the States, my life as I knew it ended. Who would call me on my last night away? It had to be an emergency. What else? My American cell phone didn’t work in Europe, so I always gave out the hotel front-desk line for emergencies.
Primo may have sensed my concern, because he attempted to give me his translation of the caller’s conversation. It seemed to involve chocolate? Surely not.
“The name, what was the name of the caller?” I pressed.
“Well…” He scratched his nose. I could see he was trying hard to remember. “Well, it was a signora.”
“Thank you, Primo. Good night.” Wonderful. Just wonderful. I’d have been a thousand times better off not learning anyone called. Might as well go up to my room and phone everyone I knew. I wouldn’t get any sleep. Not until I found out who called and why.
I walked from the tiny lobby to the hall and pushed the button for the elevator. Voices and the clinking of glasses came from the downstairs bar. For a minute, I was tempted to take the lift down and try to forget about the phone call. No. Better go to my room. I’d had enough thrills for one night.
I stepped into the elevator.
Primo came toward me. “Signora, signora, mi ricordo. I remember. Rubee. Rubee was the name.”
I felt for the astrologer’s euros in my pocket, pulled out the crinkled bills and handed them to Primo. He bowed to me for the third time. I was grateful when the door slid shut.
Ruby had called again. We’d spoken only a few days ago. I smiled. A phone call from the dead woman. Oh, Ruby, great timing. Then again, I wasn’t surprised. She was the only person I knew who would call me halfway around the world just to chat. I kept telling her she needed to find a job or a cause.
I tried phoning her back using the room phone. All international circuits were busy, and I was oh so tired. Maybe she wanted me to bring back some Swiss chocolate? That I could do, since I was flying home tomorrow. Whatever else she wanted to tell me would have to wait.
The shower felt so wonderful. I lingered under the hot water. Afterward I felt much better. I turned on the television to CNN. Results from the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics, another car bombing in Baghdad…I clicked it off. My coat lay where I’d thrown it on the bed. I didn’t want to carry it on the plane. I would pack it and wear a suit instead. Nick had always done the packing for us. I always unpacked. This was my second visit to Florence since his death four years ago.
Time healed? I missed him more every day.
I fell asleep thinking about my son. Kyle promised to pick me up at LAX.
A knock on the bedroom door woke me.
“Un momento. I’m coming.” I threw the robe over my shoulders and flung the door open.
The young man smiled. “Good morning, Mrs. York. Your breakfast.”
He placed the tray on the table by the window, removed the white linen covering the plate and opened the roll-up shutters to let the daylight in. “I hope you’ve enjoyed your stay.”
I tipped him. “Can you send for my luggage in about forty-five minutes?”
“Of course. I will also arrange for your transport to the train station.”
As usual, the simple breakfast was just what I wanted. Hot coffee with those baseball-sized rolls so common in Italy. I couldn’t wait to bite into their golden crust. I wouldn’t have time to look at the newspaper, but I could take it with me to read on the train to Milan.
Steam rose from the delicate porcelain cup. I tore a roll in half, munched on it and went to the window to look at the Arno, one of the many charms that kept me coming back to Hotel Lungarno. The views pleased me, as did, of course, the endearing memories that embraced my heart every moment I spent here. Nick and I always requested this room when we visited Florence. It had become a tradition. Cuddling in the old-fashioned high bed. Waking to the voice of coaches calling the strokes to the rowers practicing on the water. All the windows faced the river, and by stretching my neck I could see Ponte Vecchio. That was one sight I wasn’t anxious to see today, although I would feed the fish.
Every morning I opened the window and dropped crumbled bread into the water. Soon, hundreds of fish of all shapes and sizes jumped and fought for the morsels. Other guests did it too. No doubt the reason for the extra rolls. One morning, when Nick was still with me, I leaned out to take a picture of the fish feeding and noticed one of the kitchen staff sitting on the ledge of a lower window—fishing. I was so angry I threatened to throw the camera at him. He disappeared inside. I didn’t catch him doing it again. Nick laughed so hard he had tears in his eyes. He took my picture by the window. This window.
I opened the single pane of glass. A smoky smell lingered in the freezing air and drifted into the room. Dozens of chimneys dotted the red-tiled roofs. Even the clouds had the tinge of sooted snow. Winter in Florence. I pulled my robe tight against the chilled air and dispensed the small pieces of bread to the hungry mouths below. The last breakfast I would serve them until next year. I leaned out to see if they were nibbling.
Beneath my window, a billowing piece of turquoise fabric floated atop the gray waters. I leaned even further out to catch a better look.
It couldn’t be. My heart raced. Ruby’s shirt? I closed the window without looking back.