Discover more from Backstory Serial
The Italian Lesson [Installment 5]
Chapter One, continued
Calabresi, like many medieval hill towns, was ringed by a fortifying wall complete with turrets. Arched entryways with massive oak and iron doors that had long ago been affixed to the wall and rendered useless against siege, appeared at regular intervals. Porta San Pietro, where I planned to meet Danilo, was about twenty minutes from my café. The quickest way there was to walk through the Piazza Centrale, the heart of town.
The snow had stopped, but dark grey clouds still threatened so there were very few people in the streets; it almost felt like I had the whole town to myself. This didn’t happen often. With the exception of August, when nearly every Italian went on vacation, Calabresi was crowded with tourists year-round. Despite not having a spectacular cathedral or a world-class museum, a small monastery not far from the Piazza had been designed by a famous Renaissance architect. Plus, there were enough paintings and frescos by Renaissance masters scattered throughout the town’s palaces and churches to make it a destination: Calabresi was close enough to Florence to have benefitted from the extensive patronage of the Medicis. And then there was the light—especially in late summer and early autumn—that had painters and art students flocking to Calabresi twelve months a year.
I glanced at my phone; I had plenty of time to kill before my meeting and stopped at a small café where I ordered a Marocchino, a combination of espresso, hot chocolate, and milk foam poured into a cup dusted with cocoa powder and then sprinkled with cocoa powder or drizzled with chocolate syrup—in other words, liquid paradise. The bartender poured me a glass of water, and, as I stood at the counter waiting for my drink, I thought more about the plan that had fallen into place last night.
In the end it came down to whom I could trust, how far I could trust them, and what to do about the one person I definitely did not trust—the guy I was about to meet.
A niche was carved into the massive sandstone blocks of the wall on either side of every archway. Marble statues once stood watch but had been removed decades ago—either because they were damaged beyond repair or because they’d been deemed worthy of preservation in a museum. I had hoped to get there before Danilo, but he had already tucked himself into the niche to the right of the San Pietro archway.
When he saw me, he jumped off the plinth where the statue of some long-dead Roman general or Renaissance philosopher once stood.
“Why the hell did we have to meet here?” Danilo complained. He looked frozen like a statue himself and flapped his arms and stomped his feet to get his circulation flowing. His hat, complete with earflaps, was crooked, and he looked a bit like a child having a temper tantrum.
“I don’t really like being seen with you,” I said coolly.
He squinted at me and swallowed hard. “The feeling is mutual.”
In the warmer months, the grounds outside the walls are the site of picnics, festivals, and open-air markets. Crude steps lead to the top of the ramparts, which had been turned into a promenade. With its views of the hills in the distance and neighboring vineyards, this was one of the most popular spots for painters to set up their easels. There were also plenty of benches for tired tourists to rest their feet. “Before we start fighting, can we at least sit down?” I asked, motioning to the nearest one.
“There’s snow on it. Besides, it’s too cold to sit.”
I looked at the thin layer of snow on the bench and rolled my eyes.
“Well, then, instead of fighting or sitting why don’t we get right to it—why have you been following me?’
He looked embarrassed—and then incensed.
“I have not been following you.”
“Danilo, I’ve seen you more in the last four weeks than in the six months before that. Even Francesca has noticed. She asked me if something’s going on.”
His body stiffened and he clenched his fists.
“There’s something about you,” he began.
I cut him off, “So I keep hearing.” Though my friends were mostly respectful of my unwillingness to share details about my past, even they took jabs at me sometimes. During dinner at Isabella’s apartment a few weeks earlier, Beatrice wondered aloud if I was a spy. She hadn’t meant anything by it, but I left soon after and avoided them for a few days, which probably did nothing to set to rest any of their lingering suspicions about me.
“I mean,” he stammered, “there’s something not right about the whole situation.”
“No kidding. Have you not been paying attention the last two years? Nothing’s right about anything.” In the moment, that felt true. I wanted to move on with my life but kept being reminded of the circumstances that had led to my being in Calabresi in the first place and how the excitement of my first trip abroad had turned into a nightmare of uncertainty and terror.
We had all been through versions of the same thing during the pandemic, but I was alone in a foreign country, separated from my friends. And I had lost my parents. In the midst of all of that, I’d chosen, whether out of bravery or fear I couldn’t say, to take a blind leap without knowing if I had the strength—or guile—to pull it off. Up until now, I had been annoyed by Danilo; now it felt as if he expected me to justify myself to him and it infuriated me.
“You know as well as anyone that I did the best I could in an almost impossible situation.” I’d raised my voice and Danilo took a step back. “In fact, I’ve told you more than you have any right to know. I have no idea what more you want from me. And I don’t care,” I continued before he could interrupt me. “The last ten years have been a nightmare. For everybody, yes, but I think even you would agree I’ve done more than my fair share of losing.”
Danilo suddenly looked like he had won the lottery, “Ten years, is it? That’s a very long time.”
“Two years, not ten. The two years since I came to Italy.”
Had I said ten years? Damn it. Damn him.
Not for the first time, I wished I could rid myself of Danilo. I’m not typically the kind of woman who goes around wanting to knock off every man she comes across. But there was something a little bit off about him: he stood too close when he spoke to you, he was formal and overfamiliar at the same time—he had a tendency to touch women in a way that he (presumably) meant to be courtly but always felt a little inappropriate. He was a vain man, keeping his almost black hair slicked back and his large mustache groomed to perfection. And he always thought the attraction was mutual—I’d found that out the hard way. I’d come to think that’s why we were here: It wasn’t mutual at all.