[Published in The Northern Virginia Review, pages 61-73, Volume 27, Spring 2013.]
The Other Side of War
Ashley Mildred’s last day in Italy dawned with a cold northeasterly wind and scudding clouds the color of slate. She stood at the window in her hotel room, gazing at the whitecaps ruffling the Bay of Naples. For Ashley the gray day reflected her remorse. Marcello was dead. And she was stuck, chained to what she had said to him on their last night together, the night before he left for the war in Afghanistan.
By the afternoon, when she approached the lookout on Vomero hill, the sky had cleared. Standing in front of a stone balustrade, she turned up the collar of her overcoat. The wind, tinged with the scent of the sea, stung her cheeks with knife-points of winter.
Against the icy-blue sky, strokes of cirrus clouds littered like fish bones. High in the distance, a jet flew, flying westward, a sharp silvery point reflecting the sunlight, tracing dual lines of condensation.
Ashley withdrew a small object from her coat pocket and held it in the palm of her gloved hand. It was a gift from Marcello, given to her on their last night together. It was a Neapolitan red coral amulet shaped into a horn.
Biting her lips she glanced southward. The sky behind the Sorrento Peninsula hung dark, as if it were raining beyond the mountains. The strip of land stretched like an arm embracing the bay, and beyond its promontory, separated by a narrow span of water, reclined the island of Capri.
Six seasons ago in 2010, her first summer in Italy had opened full of dreams and wonders and promises.
The afternoon luncheon reception hosted by the NATO Joint Forces Command had set a perfect occasion for the introduction of a tall Italian officer. He stood with grace, with poise as if carved by Michelangelo. He held the stem of a glass filled with white wine and gesticulated with his free hand, as if he were a protagonist on a stage, talking to Ashley’s boss. The young Italian wore a black Carabinieri uniform, red stripes on the trousers, sharply tailored, matching his dark southern Italian skin. Ashley couldn’t help walking up to her boss, coming up with some silly pretense, and breaking into their conversation.
“Oh, let me introduce you to my colleague,” Commander Randall Sherwin said to the Italian officer. “This is Lieutenant Ashley Mildred. Just transferred to Italy. She’s a surgeon.”
“How delightful to know you,” the Italian officer said, and extended his hand. “I am Captain Marcello Pasquale.” He took her hand and bowed his head, his brown eyes warming into her gaze.
“Nice meet you,” Ashley said, feeling the softness and gentleness of his hand.
“I was just speaking to Commander Sherwin about our marvelous Campania wine,” he said, and held up the wineglass. “It is Lacryma Christi. It means the tears of Christ. For centuries it was made by monks on the slopes of the volcano Vesuvius.”
Ashley stood captivated, not by the story of the wine he told, but by the man, by his boyish features, by his wavy black hair, by his English spoken with the musical inflection and intonation of Italian. Every time he glanced at her, every time he gazed into her eyes, every time his lips formed a coy smile, as if he were a boy blushing in front of a girl, Ashley felt her heart tickle, as if it were stroked by a feather.
When the party waned they stood together away from the crowd. Then suddenly Marcello held her wrist.
“Where are you taking me?” Ashley asked.
“To a view most spectacular,” he said. He donned his headgear, a Carabinieri hat with an insignia of a flaming grenade. “It is not far from here. I must show it to you.” He led her out of the reception hall.
Ashley followed, feeling a curious squeeze beneath her breasts, which made her chuckle. They walked down the cobblestone street of Via Cimarosa, then through a tall iron gate into the park of Villa Floridiana, then to the back garden of a lemon-colored palazzo, where finally they stood at the stone balustrade of a lookout.
“Guardi,” Marcello said, and spread his arms over the city below and the stretch of sea beyond. “Have you seen anything more wonderful?”
“The world looks like toy. The buildings. The cars. The ships. The people. Everything looks so tiny,” Ashley said, resting her hands on the stone rail. “What is that island over there?”
“That is Capri.”
“I’d love to go there.”
“I will take you there if you wish.” Marcello said, and turned to Ashley. “Do you know what Neapolitans say Capri was before it lay there?”
“What do they say?”
“That it was a beautiful woman.”
“My mother tell me this story when I was a boy right here on this very place. Do you want to hear it?”
“Yes, tell me.”
“If you like.” Marcello leaned his back against the balustrade. “A very long time ago a woman falls in love with a man. The man also falls in love with her. Amore passionate.” He circled his hands in the air. “Love that makes you mad.”
“I hope the story’s not tragic.”
“You shall see,” he said, and winked. “Now. This man is a very good man. Has a very good heart. Works very hard. He is very handsome. Unfortunately he has very short temper. Yet worst he is very, very poor. So the woman’s father and mother do not approve. They do not approve of her love for him or of his love for their daughter. So they decide to marry their daughter quickly to an old but a rich man.”
“That’s awful. What does she do?”
“Of course she cannot stop loving the poor but handsome man. She loves him even after she marries the old but rich man. One night she runs away, away from her husband, and she goes to the poor man’s house, where she declares her forever lasting love. Do you know what the poor man did?”
“He took her in his arms and they ran away together and they lived happily ever after.”
“No. The poor man rejects her.”
“He rejects her because he is angry. Because he is jealous. Because he burns with hate. And in his temper he throws her out of his house.” Marcello gazed at Ashley. After a pause he continued, “Now this woman has gone against her father and her mother and against her husband and now the poor man has also turned against her. She had nowhere to go. So she goes to the edge of the sea. She prays to God. Then she throws herself into the water and dies.”
“I told you I don’t like sad stories.”
“The story continues. Like this. God sees everything. Everything that happened to this woman in love. God takes compassion.” Marcello faced the Bay of Naples. He pointed. “Guardi. There she now lies. Beautiful. Everlasting. God turned her into Capri.”
“It’s still too sad.”
“You think this story is sad?”
“It’s terrible. She died because the man’s stupid.”
“Yes, the poor, stupid man—,” Marcello said, his voice fading into the evening. “But the story is not finished.”
“You must finish it.”
“When the poor man learns his woman is dead he realizes the depth of his love. He realizes his mistake. He loses his mind. Thereafter he roams the land as a man gone mad. For years he wanders. He knows not where to go. He knows not what to do.”
“I’m not sure if I’m going to like the ending.”
“But maybe you will like it. The story goes like this. Night and day the man prays to God. He begs the Almighty to help him. He begs Him to release his soul from his pain. After many, many years of wandering, of praying, of suffering, God finally opens His heart to the poor man’s prayers.”
“So what happens next?”
“God releases him from pain.” Marcello pointed. “There. God turned him into Mount Vesuvius.”
In the distance the volcano’s double-camelback shape loomed above the Neapolitan skyline. Its western slope slid down, gently, to merge with the cascading shape of the Sorrento Peninsula, as if the strip of land were the arm of the mountain, the arm reaching to embrace the island of Capri, its hand almost touching the woman of his love.
Ashley stood close to Marcello. In the twilight, the lights of the houses built up on the volcano’s slope glittered like necklaces around a slumbering giant.
Six seasons had swept by since her first visit to the park with Marcello. Now she stood alone, shivering in the cold northeasterly wind, hating herself for not understanding in time the depth of her love.
She gazed at the tiny amulet. “Good-bye Marcello. I must go now,” she whispered, and looked at Capri one last time. She placed the red coral horn back in her coat pocket and turned away from the sea.
She walked along a cobblestone path that wound through the trees. She glanced at her wristwatch. She had an hour before meeting her friend, Karla, at Café Gabriel.
Through the canopy of firs, pines, cypresses, the sunlight trickled. Mottled lights scattered on the pavement. Where the stones were exposed, not covered by fallen oak leaves, the heels of her knee-high boots clicked. She was alone in the park.
How things changed.
Sometimes changes came without warning. Like that morning in September 2011. Just four months ago. Just another weekday for Ashley, but without Marcello, who had gone to the war several weeks past. She had showered and was applying her makeup, getting ready to go to work at the U.S. Navy hospital on Gricignano base, when the phone rang. Just another call. Nothing unusual. But when she picked up the receiver, the voice on the other end was Marcello’s father. He spoke slowly, deliberately, in his broken English. He said Marcello was dead.
How people changed.
Marcello’s mother, who never liked her, who never approved of her son dating an American woman, a doctor, came to her at Marcello’s funeral and cried on her shoulders. How sorry Ashley had felt for the old woman.
The footpath soon opened up to a rising lawn, now sparsely covered by grass, the ground splotched with bare spots of brown.
Two Italian pines grew at the far end of the lawn, their umbrella tops heavy-looking on their long trunks.
Once on a late summer day in 2010, when the sun was warm and the lawn was lush with green, Marcello had spread a beach towel in the broad shades of the umbrella pines. They sat, side by side. From a backpack, Marcello grabbed an aluminum thermal canteen filled with cooled Lacryma Christi. He poured the wine into two plastic cups. He handed one to her. Then glancing around him, he sipped from his cup. “I must be careful,” he said, his voice tinged with his boyish lilt, “for if I am caught drinking alcohol in this park I will be arrested and demoted to private.”
“I am just joking, of course.” He laughed. “This is Italy. Everyone drinks wine.”
Ashley loved the sound of his voice, the tone and pitch of his English spiced by the musical quality of the Italian language. Hearing him speak always warmed her heart.
On the grass field in front of them boys chased a soccer ball. Their voices pealed with excitement. When the ball rolled toward where Ashley sat, Marcello sprang onto his feet. He dribbled the ball. Two boys chased him. Marcello laughed and dashed through the maze of attacking boys.
On that warm late summer day, lazying on the beach towel, watching Marcello play with the boys, Ashley realized she was falling in love.
“I would have made a great soccer player,” Marcello said, slumping next to Ashley, his face flushed with perspiration. “I chose a wrong profession.”
“I’m glad you’re not a soccer player,” Ashley said, handing him a handkerchief.
“If you were we wouldn’t have met.”
Marcello gazed at the boys. “One day I will have a son,” he said. “And I will teach my boy how to handle a soccer ball properly.”
“I’m sure you’ll make a great father.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Why not. You’re just like a boy yourself. You’ll make a great playmate.”
“Yes, you are absolutely right. One day I will be my son’s best friend.”
But now in the winter no children played. Ashley walked up to the pines. All was quiet, except for the intermittent rush of wind shaking the treetops.
Ashley removed a glove from her hand. Bending her knees she pressed her palm on the spot where they had sat together. The chill of the ground shot through her skin. She choked, as if a band squeezed her lungs. She struggled for breath. She felt as if awakened from a bad dream.
She quickly slipped the glove back on her hand and fled down the lawn. Back on the path she broke into a fast-footed stride. She had to get out of the park. The urge quickened her pace into a run. Rushing toward the gate, her toe caught an edge of a cobblestone. She tripped. She fell forward.
“Oh, Ashley, Ashley,” she spoke aloud, her hands and knees on the pavement. “Why are you this way?”
In the early spring of 2011, Marcello had introduced her to his parents. They lived on the third floor of an ancient looking palazzo facing Via Chiai in the bustling downtown of Naples, a few minutes walk from the Opera House of San Carlo.
Ashley felt uncomfortable seated next to Marcello, facing his parents, at a large table resting on a huge dense rug in a dining hall with marble floors. A chandelier dimly lit the room. All the furniture were heavy-looking and were constructed of very dark wood. A damp smell of age weighed the air.
A Ukrainian maid served soup with a silver ladle out of a bone china soup tureen. The ladle clinked on the plate in front of Ashley. No one spoke. Ashley felt choked, as if the room lacked oxygen.
When the maid left, Marcello’s father and mother sipped their soup, spoonful at a time, rhythmically, scooping and arcing the warm liquid toward their mouths. Neither of them spoke nor looked at her.
Ashley glanced at Marcello, who kept tapping his hand gently on her thigh. He then said something to his father, in Italian. The father responded with a glance at Ashley.
“Excuse me,” the father said. “My English very bad. No good.”
“That is all right,” Ashley said, enunciating her every word. “I am very sorry I do not speak Italiano. I wish I could.”
The father turned to Marcello and said something more in Italian. When Ashley glanced from the father to Marcello, she caught a glimpse of the mother’s face. The mother was staring at her. The mother quickly averted her gaze. But in that brief moment of eye contact, Ashley glimpsed the truth. She didn’t have to understand Italian or its culture to understand that look on the mother’s face. That look of the mother’s disapproval of her son’s woman.
After the dinner, Ashley whispered to Marcello that she wanted to leave. Marcello stayed for a cup of espresso and then told his parents that they were leaving.
Outside the palazzo, Ashley asked, “Why does your mother hate me?”
“My mother only worries about me,” Marcello said, shrugging and waving his hands, as if there were no truth in her question. “Italian mothers always worry about their boys.”
But Ashley pressed her question, demanding to know why his mother worried about their relationship.
Finally Marcello said, “It is because you are an American. Because you are a naval officer. Because you are a doctor. My mother feels we have no future together. She thinks I will be hurt.”
“I don’t like that at all,” Ashley said, walking faster. “Tell your mother that not everything she sees in American movies is true about American women.”
They walked in silence to Marcello’s car. Marcello drove Ashley to her home in Posillipo. They hardly spoke in the car.
When Marcello pulled up in front of her apartment, Ashley got out and then turned to him. “Perhaps your mother is right,” she said, making sure her voice carried a sting. “I’ll never be the kind of woman you or your family expect me to be.” She slammed the door and strode off.
On that spring night in 2011, as Ashley walked toward her apartment, she had felt something dark and cold and ugly creep into her heart. In retrospect that had been the first sign of all the problems that were to emerge into her relationship with Marcello.
Ashley pushed herself back onto her feet. The palms of her hands, with which she had absorbed the impact of the fall, throbbed with pain. Her gloves were scraped. But otherwise her hands were okay. Her knees hurt. So she checked them. They too were all right.
“You fool,” she said to herself, brushing the bits of dirt off her coat. She then fingered the loosened strands from her pulled-back hair and tucked them in place. After she was done, she closed her eyes and drew in a lung full of air.
From a cypress tree beside her came a faint sound. A birdsong. It came like puffs of air whistling out of a rolled tongue. Why hadn’t she heard it before? She opened her eyes and looked but she couldn’t find the bird. Only its song. She then heard another birdsong coming from a nearby juniper tree. This one rang like jingling suzu bells, those tiny bells with which Japanese women adorned their pursues they tucked between obi and kimono, the bells that Ashley adored and collected when she was stationed in Misawa, Japan, before her transfer to Naples, Italy.
Listening to the sounds, she felt a kindling of warm inside her heart. She closed her eyes again. She felt a strange calmness. She imagined the birdsongs in the dense cold air, the songs showering on her from trees like droplets of icy rain, the songs spattering on the ground, sinking, slowly, into the earth, deep into the ground, deep into the earth.
Deep into the ground . . . Marcello lay in a casket.
“Stop it. You’re a stupid fool.” Ashley thrust her hands into her coat pocket. “Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.” She strode toward the gate. “You stupid fool.”
Leaving the park, she turned right onto Via Cimarosa, a narrow bumpy cobblestone street with cars parked on both sides. A man on a moped blared his horn. He almost ran into her. Ashley yelled at him. She crossed onto a side alley that led her to Via Scarlatti, a broad promenade lined with Italian maples.
There she slowed her pace.
Here men strode with their hands thrust into their jacket or overcoat pockets, and women walked bundled under their hats and heavy coats. They lacked the leisurely vivacity of Neapolitans in warmer weather. The pedestrians flowed with brisk strides, solemn-looking, as if they were late, as if they were running out of time.
Ashley strolled the length of Via Scarlatti, deep in her thoughts. When she realized, she was all the way to Piazza Vanvitelli, where a polizia was waving his red-lollypop-shaped wand at a taxi driver blocking the traffic. Cars blared their horns.
She turned around and walked back down the wide pedestrian street. The maple trees along Via Scarlatti stood tall, stretching up as high as the third floor of the buildings bordering the promenade. Most of their five-toothed leaves had turned brown, clinging to the branches like crinkled old hands. Those that had fallen clustered in windswept corners.
At the corner of Via Luca Giordano, she walked up to a maple tree. This was the spot where Marcello had knelt on the last night they were together. This was the spot where he had done what he thought was the right thing to do. This was the spot where Ashley had rejected him and said things she wished he could take back. She touched the trunk of the maple and traced her fingertips where the bark had peeled.
Taking a deep breath, she straightened her posture, turned around, and walked away from the tree. She had to stay strong. She had to move on. But wherever she looked, whatever she saw, her world had changed. Now everything was stained by her remorse.
Ashley walked up to Café Gabriel.
The open-air seating section in the front of the bar in the winter had been partitioned by Plexiglas. She walked in. The table she wanted was unoccupied. She sat. Nearby a gas heater on a stand radiated warmth on her. She took off her gloves.
A waiter in a black jacket attending an elderly couple at the other end of the café glanced toward her. His face lit up. He stuck his index finger up in the air. Ashley waved at him.
Her hands were cold and numb, as if they were wrapped in surgeon’s elastic gloves. She rubbed her fingers together to put warmth into them. The palms were slightly swollen from her fall. She massaged her hands.
From the café door, a boy walked out, chuckling, following a man, perhaps his father, who walked with broad steps. The boy wore a brown down jacket, puffy-like, a size or two too large. On his head perched a brown knit cap with a white wool ball that bounced as his tiny legs quickened, trying to catch up to his father, his gaze locked on his mitten hands that held a paper-wrapped sweet cornetto pastry.
Watching the boy, Ashley tucked her hand into the coat pocket and touched the Neapolitan amulet. When the boy disappeared into the flow of the pedestrians, she retrieved the red coral horn. It was cold in her bare hand. Then she gazed in front of her, at the empty chair.
On that July afternoon in 2011, Marcello had sat facing her. The summer air was tinged with the smell of earth before the coming of rain. She held a glass of Campari soda, with a moon-shaped slice of orange in it, swirling the red liqueur with a tiny straw, clinking the ice, waiting for Marcello to say something more.
“But you are an American naval officer,” Marcello finally said. “You must understand what it means to be a soldier.”
“Of course. I understand that,” Ashley said, her voice charged with harshness that surprised her. She set the glass on the table. “What I don’t understand is why you volunteered.”
“Because it is my duty as a soldier to do so,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “This is your country’s war, is it not? We support your war, do we not?” He stretched his arms, his palms facing upward. “So I do not understand why are must complain.”
“I’m not complaining.”
“My dear, Ashley,” Marcello said, leaning his body slightly over the table and taking her hands into his hands. “You know I love you.” He squeezed her hands. “Everything will be okay. Nothing to worry.”
“It’s easy for you to say.” She withdrew her hands, placed them on her laps.
“Eight months will go presto. You will see.”
“When do you leave?”
“In three weeks.”
“That soon?” Ashley crossed her arms. “What’s going to happen to our relationship?”
“I will do the right thing. I promise.”
“The right thing is for you not to go to Afghanistan.”
“I am a good officer. A splendid soldier. Nothing will happen to me.”
“Of course, nothing will happen to you,” she said. “But what will happen to us?”
How time passed. If only on that July afternoon, six months ago, Ashley had known what waylaid in their future, she would have said or done things differently. Now everything was too late. Things have changed.
She gazed at the empty chair, clutching the amulet.
The waiter in the black jacket jockeyed out of the café door, his white apron ruffling with his strides, an old man, his uniform loosely fitted over his skinny body. He came to her table side. “Buona sera, Signorina Ashley,” he said, and spread his arms. “It is so wonderful to see you again.”
“Hello, Francesco,” Ashley said, standing up. “It’s been too long. It’s so good to see you again.”
Francesco rested his hands lightly on her shoulders and pressed his stubby cheek first against her left cheek, and then against her right, smacking his lips at each contact, making an audible kissing sound. He then pulled his face away, his hands still resting on her shoulders, and gazed into her eyes. “I was very much worried about you,” he said. “But now I see you. Now I can stop worrying.” His eyes narrowed, almost disappearing into the folds of his wrinkles. “Everything okay?”
“Yes, tutto bene,” Ashley replied.
“Please, please, si accomodi.” He gestured with his hand toward the chair.
Francesco stood, his fingers fumbling the pocket of his apron, still gazing at her. His eyes glittered, as if they were welling up with sadness.
“Really, I am okay, Francesco,” Ashley said. “At first I was not okay. I was a big mess. But now I’m okay.”
“Ho capito,” he said, swaying his head gently up and down. “That is good to hear.” After a brief pause he asked, “What may I bring you?”
“I’d like a cup of cappuccino.”
“Si, certo,” he said, but he stood unmoving, his eyes suddenly shaded with a look of uncertainty.
“What is it Francesco?”
“Oh, Signorina Ashley.” He averted his gaze toward his hands that still fumbled his apron. “I know not how to say it properly in English but I must try. I must say it.” He raised his eyes, pressed his withered brown hand against his chest. “From deep in my heart I am very much sad and I am very much sorry about what happened to Marcello.”
“You’ve always been good to us. Thank you for saying it.”
He curved his lips into a sad-looking smile. “Okay,” he said, “cappuccino for Signorina Ashley. Subito.”
After Francesco disappeared through the café door, Ashley placed the amulet on the table. She slid her hand on the pink table cloth, her fingertips lingering on its texture, on the place where Marcello’s arms had rested and where his hands had reached for her hands, the place where she had withdrawn her hands away from his clasp.
Across the street, a gust of wind shook the browned maple leaves clinging to the trees. Some came loose. She followed their fall through the air, the leaves tumbling, sinking, toward the cold flagstone promenade, where they hit the ground and scattered, rustling, as if they were seeking for places to hide.
A North African woman appeared on the street. Her braided hair slinked from behind her woven cap. Her body was tightly wrapped in a bulbous tomato-red down jacket. Her lips puckered. Her eyes stared straight ahead. She pushed a baby carriage pilled high with colorful plastic trinkets for sale. On the ground, dead leaves crinkled, pushed by the wheels of the baby carriage.
“Signorina Ashley,” Francesco said.
When she turned, she saw Francesco standing beside her, balancing a silver tray on his upturned palm. He set a cup of cappuccino on the table. “Here it is,” he said.
Ashley reached into her coat pocket for her purse.
Francesco shook his head. “No. Please. No. I take care of it,” he said. “You stay here as long as you wish. Or you come inside if you get cold. If you wish I bring you another cup later. Or some food, if you wish.”
“Grazie, Francesco,” she said, gazing at his old, withered, smiling face. “I leave Napoli tomorrow. I came to say good-bye.”
Francesco’s lips parted, as if to draw a breath of air, and his eyes widened out of the furrows of his wrinkled face. He sighed. “It is perhaps best for you to do so, Signorina,” he finally said. He touched his lips with his fingers and stood without saying anything more. Then he broke his silence. “If you need anything else, just call me.” He turned and pointed at the door. “I will be there if you need me.”
Ashley sipped the bittersweet coffee, feeling the liquid slide down into her, warming her. She glanced at Francesco standing by the door. He was looking at her. He nodded, with a smile.
Marcello had once told her he had known Francesco for as long as he could remember, ever since he was a school boy, ever since his father and mother would take him to Café Gabriel for some gelato while they took their daily evening walks.
Ashley wondered if Francesco would be all right. He seemed to have grown much older since she had first met him six seasons ago. Bracing the warm cup in her hands, she turned her gaze back at the pedestrians.
A Roma boy walked by. He wore a coarse sweater over a loose-fitting pants whose bottom edges were frayed, hanging over his beat-up sneakers. The gypsy boy dragged his feet, moving against the flow of people, his left arm stretched in front, his hand formed into a cup-like shape. Mumbling words Ashley could not understand, the boy darted his eyes at the faces of the oncoming people, the people who parted round him like a river round a boulder.
Ashley set the cup on the saucer. She fingered the amulet. Everything she saw was like seeing through a cracked lens of a camera, a lens that only registered distortions. Her world was stained, tarnished by her remorse. She didn’t want to look at her world anymore.
For a long time she stared at the amulet, feeling the chill of the metal chair rising through her buttocks, feeling the chill of the stones beneath her feet leaking up through the leather soles of her boots.
She thought about what Marcello had said at the café table, that he will do the right thing. She thought about how she had responded when he tried to do what he believed was the right thing to do.
Someone tapped on the Plexiglas partition. Karla grinned from the street side.
Ashley raised her hand and tried to smile, but only her lips moved into a tight upward arc.
Karla walked around to the front and came into the open-air section of the café. “Oh, I am so late,” she said, pulling off her gloves. “The traffic on the tanzentiale was terrible.” She unwrapped a muffler off her neck. “And the parking. Oh, my gosh, it’s just simply crazy. I’m parked like ten minutes walk from here.” She sat across the table. “So how have you been, Ashley? How did your pack-out go?”
“I’ve been fine,” Ashley answered. “I moved into a hotel on Tuesday.”
“Sorry I couldn’t be there at your apartment to help you with the move.”
“That’s okay. I don’t have very much anyway.”
Francesco walked up to the table.
“I’ll have a glass of Irish coffee,” Karla told him. When Francesco left, Karla faced Ashley. “So you’re finally leaving Italy. How do you feel?”
“Right, of course. What time’s your flight tomorrow?”
“It leaves at eight in the morning.”
“I guess we won’t be partying tonight.” After a pause Karla asked, “When do you report to your new duty?”
“I check in at Bethesda on Monday.”
“I meant your deployment.”
“That’s in March.”
“You’re a brave one, Ashley,” Karla said. “Are you taking any leave before you deploy?”
“No. No leave. Work is all that keeps me going now. Plus with what people had done for me to get me this assignment I must stay focused on the mission.”
“I’m still surprised how your command bent over backwards to get you this transfer, and so quickly.”
“I have to thank Commander Sherwin for all that.”
“You’ve got a great boss, you know.”
“But I still don’t get it.” Karla crossed her arms. “What made you volunteer for Afghanistan?”
“I suppose I didn’t want to be on the safer side anymore. I want to see the other side. The real side of the war.”
Francesco brought a glass of Irish coffee on a saucer. He set the drink and a tiny spoon in front of Karla. When Karla tried to pay, he shook his head. “Today, I take care of it,” he said, and left the table side.
“Wow, that’s nice,” Karla said. “Why did he do that?”
“He knows Marcello.”
“Oh . . . I’m sorry.”
“Let’s talk about something else.”
“Okay. What do you want to do before dinner?”
“I’d like to walk around Via Toledo and Via Chiaia, if that’s okay with you.”
“Sounds good. I can use some window shopping.” Karla stirred her Irish coffee.
“It’d be nice to walk around a bit, you know, for the last time.”
Karla sipped her drink and then set it on the saucer. “But first I’ve got to go to the lady’s room. I forget how badly I had to go.” She stood up. “I’ll be right back.”
Karla walked into the café, past Francesco, who was leaning against the entrance, his arms folded, gazing at Ashley. He smiled and nodded when their gaze met.
Ashley picked up the Neapolitan amulet.
Her last night with Marcello had come five months ago. On a hot and humid night in early August, she sat facing him at D’Angelo, a restaurant perched on the Vomero hill. Beside her was an open window that overlooked the Bay of Naples. In the distant water Capri glittered, in the darkness. A breeze, warm and balmy, flickered the candle on the table, the warm light gleaming on the bottle of Lacryma Christi. With Marcello’s departure to Afghanistan on the following morning, Ashley found herself drawn into a mood of strained emotions.
She hardly drank the wine nor ate the food nor spoke to Marcello. A strange feeling twisted inside her, making her cold and cruel and constrained. She didn’t know why she felt that way. She didn’t know why she acted that way. All she knew was that she couldn’t control herself, even when Marcello was leaving tomorrow for the war.
After dinner, they strolled along Via Scarlatti. Hundreds of tiny lights lit up the promenade, the night full of people, old and young, out on their summer night walks.
When they came to the corner of Via Luca Giordano, Marcello suddenly knelt beside a maple tree. With one knee on the ground, his gaze on Ashley, he reached into his blazer pocket.
Ashley felt her heart squeeze when she saw a small object in the palm of his hand.
“Just as American men do in the movies,” Marcello said, opening the small jewelry case, revealing a diamond ring. “My lovely Ashley. Will you marry me?”
“Oh, please,” Ashley said. “Don’t do this to me. Not now.”
Marcello’s lips tightened, hard straight sharp lines across his face. He kept his gaze on her, as if he were waiting for her to say something more. When Ashley didn’t say anything more, he dropped his gaze. “I thought this was the right thing to do.”
“Oh, please,” Ashley said. “I need more time. Please get up. You’re embarrassing me.”
Marcello got up on his feet. He then shrugged, as if he were pretending nothing was wrong, but Ashley gleaned that his eyes were full of hurt. He put the ring box back in his pocket and leaned against the maple tree. “I understand,” he said, and lifted his his face, his hand in his pocket, and looked at Ashley. “I understand.”
“Oh, Marcello. You don’t understand a thing. I can’t accept an engagement ring. Not now. Just because you’re going to the war.”
“Let us forget about it,” he said. “Forget all that I just did.”
“How can I forget. It’s too late. I’m sorry. But I can’t accept it. I’m sorry. I can’t. Not now.”
“But do you not love me?”
His question struck her, like a blow that momentarily stole her breath. A clawing sensation rushed from her stomach. She felt restless. She opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came to her.
“You do not not love me,” Marcello said. “Why do you not love me?”
“It has nothing to do with love,” she finally said, almost yelling, and the words that finally came out shocked her. She crossed her arms, as if to hold on to herself, to restrain herself, but it was too late. She let the words rush out of her. “You don’t understand at all. You say you do. But you don’t. You don’t understand. Nothing. Not at all. Not what I want. Not how I feel. Nothing. You have no idea how I feel.”
Marcello walked up to her. He let his hand out of his pocket. “How do you feel?” He touched her arm.
“It’s not just how I feel,” she said, shaking his hand off, stepping away from him. “It’s about us. You don’t understand.” She glanced around her. “Do we have to stay here?”
“Let us walk some more.”
They walked in silence down Via Scarlatti.
“What is it about us?” Marcello finally asked. “What do you mean about us?”
“Us? Well, for one thing I’m an American. A naval officer. A doctor. I just can’t throw my career away and become your wife. Impossible. And you. You’re an Italian military officer. You have your career. Are you just going to quit your job and follow me?”
“Oh, Marcello,” Ashley said. “This is no time for your joke.”
“Maybe I am not joking.”
Marcello raised his hands. “Okay, ho capito. I shall stop. No more. Basta. I shall ask no more.”
They walked in silence.
Suddenly Marcello stopped.
“What’s wrong now?” Ashley asked.
Marcello reached into this pocket and took out a key chain and from it he unlatched a tiny horn of red coral. He held it out for Ashley.
“What is this?”
“Please. You take this. It is a Neapolitan talisman. It will protect you in my absence. It will protect you until I come back to you. When I come back we start all over. I love you, Ashley. Please. Please take this. I will feel better if you take this from me,” Marcello had said five months ago, on that hot and humid summer night. on that night before he left for the war.
Someone touched her shoulder. “You okay?” Karla asked.
“Oh. Why? Don’t I look okay?”
“I have to say you looked strange, just starring at that thing, that thing in your hand. Like you were possessed. Worried me.” Karla sat. “Anyway what’s that thing in your hand?”
“It’s a Neapolitan amulet.” Ashley held it up for Karla. “It protects me from harm. From all the evil spells.”
“That’s just what I need,” Karla said, and sipped her drink. “You wouldn’t believe what I have to put up at work. Bunch of crazies and weirdoes. I need one for protection. Where can I buy one?”
“You’re suppose to be given the charm by someone,” Ashley said. “The power is gone if you buy it.”
“Are you going to give me that?”
Ashley looked at the red coral horn. “This one’s not for you,” she said. “One day someone will give you the right one, just for you. But this one . . . I don’t know. I don’t know what I should do with it.”
Karla glanced at her watch. “We should get going,” she said, and finished her drink.
Ashley got up and walked toward Francesco. She hugged him and kissed him on his cheeks. “Promise me, Francesco, that you’ll take of yourself.”
“Thank you. I will. And thank you for coming to see me, Signorina Ashley,” the old waiter said. “I wish you the best in your future journeys.”
“I will always remember you, Francesco.”
When Ashley and Karla left the café, Francesco came out onto the street. When Ashley turned around, she saw him still standing in the distance, still looking at her. She waved to him one last time.
They walked up to the Amedeo funicular station. Beside the entrance sat a man with a dog. The man was slumped on piece of cardboard, his legs crossed, his back leaning against the wall. His dog lay beside him, its muzzle resting on its paws, its eyes closed.
When Ashley walked by him, she noticed that beside the man was a satchel and against it laid a hand written sign in Italian. The man’s eyes were tracking the passersby, flitting from one face to another face, the faces of pedestrians that went in and out of the station. Everyone ignored him. It was as if he didn’t exist. In front of him was a tin plate in which some coins were scattered.
“You go on ahead,” Ashley said to Karla.
“Where’re you going? What’re you doing?”
Ashley stood facing the man. The dog opened its eyes, sad-and-tired-looking. The man tapped the dog on its head. “Are you hungry?” Ashley asked.
The man spoke back in Neapolitan, his voice harsh, grating through his windpipe.
“I’m sorry. Non capisco Italiano. Sono Americana.”
The man smiled, parting his lips wide, revealing a mouth studded with few blackened teeth. “Ah, Americana. Bellissima,” he said, looking at Ashley with his dull unfocused eyes.
“What are you doing?” Karla called out, standing inside the station building. “Let’s go, Ashley. Come on.”
Ashley held her coat tail and squatted. “Buona sera,” she said.
“Buona sera,” the man replied.
Ashley opened her purse, reached for a 20 euro bill, then changed her mind, and pulled out a 100 euro bill. “Prego,” she said, and handed the money.
Narrowing his eyes the man hesitated. He stared at the bill. He then slowly reached for it, took it, and rubbed his fingers on it. He then held the bill up in his scraggy hands, up against the light of the day, as if to inspect its watermark. “Mamma mia,” he said, his eyes widening, his eyes peering at the money. “Grazie, Signorina.”
Out of her coat pocket Ashley brought out the tiny red coral horn. She looked at it briefly, her upper teeth biting her lower lip. “Per lei,” she said, and thrust the charm toward the man.
The man leaned his torso backward, eyes staring at the charm, then, slowly, he leaned forward, looked up at Ashley’s face, his eyes full of questions, and then took the coral horn, gently, out of her hand. He mumbled something in Neapolitan, his eyes scanning between the Neapolitan amulet in one hand and the 100 euro bill in the other. “Mamma mia.”
“Buona fortuna,” Ashley said, and stood up.
A gust of wind shook a maple tree in front of the station. The browned leaves on the branches made rustling sounds, like whispering words. The patch of sky squeezed between the building tops was littered with sweeping gray clouds.
“Come on,” Karla called out.
“I’m ready,” Ashley said. “I’m coming.”
*** The End ***