Paris had been exciting, but there’d been the nagging threat of dwindling finances. The unhappy face of my booking girl and the disappointed tone of Francoise, the agency owner, told me that perhaps it would be best if I try Milan.
I’d gone right away. Milan had plenty of paintings. I wasn’t just another photographer’s model. I was an artist. Or I would be one day.
Milan was better. The booking people there were almost gay as they informed me I’d completely run out of lire.
“But what shall I do?” I gaped stupidly at the booking girl.
“Enh,” she shrugged, “you might try America.” She returned to her phone.
I wasn’t going home. My brother was dead and I wasn’t going home.
“Hold on a minute,” I said. “What about the money due me from those last three jobs?”
“There was a bill from the New York office,” she said. “You had a thousand Sed Cards made up.”
“No,” I said, “the agency did that. I never ordered them.”
She gave me the now familiar shrug. “Look. You can’t work unless you have Sed Cards, photographic calling cards. How can clients book you if they don’t know who you are? Someone has to pay.”
I was dismissed. It was only by chance that I ran into a German agent in the agency waiting room. She grabbed hold of my portfolio, crossed her booted legs, flipped through and looked hard at the pages.
“You’ll work in Germany.” She frowned knowingly. “They’ll like you there.”
I could hardly believe this after months of barely scraping by, the endless rejections because I was simply too short, but I didn’t say a word. There had been the odd job here or there; lawn furniture circulars for the Italian Sunday supplement, but never the full day rate. Of course I still imagined it was romantic to be poor in Europe, with the certainty of happy endings to sustain me.
Hadn’t my father marched across the continent in army boots, crept into villages to deploy bombs, and then returned home intact? He’d led a charmed life. So would I. I straightened my posture to give the appearance of added height. I was not beautiful, but my teeth were white and my smile captivating. Once the shots were developed, mine was the face you were drawn to. The camera loved me. And I had that one other precious commodity: nerve.
The German agent offered me an airplane ticket, scribbled out her agency’s address and one of a magazine she thought would book me.
I went back to the apartment on via Gardone and told my roommates I’d be leaving. They made the appropriate expressions of dismay but I could tell they were relieved. They were kindhearted students. Each one had proudly taken me to sketch his favorite vista or painting throughout Milan. It had been fun to have an American model to stay but, porco! who would have known such a skinny thing could eat so much?
To celebrate, we would go to Luna Park. This was an amusement park on the outskirts of Milan. We went, driving past the roadside puttanas and their fires. I couldn’t believe it when my friends told me they were whores. I’d never seen anything so beautiful. I stuck my camera out the window and snapped their pictures, knowing I would want to try to re-create the scene on canvas.
We had a fine time at Luna Park. I knew I’d overstayed my welcome. But my roomates had been so happy with me at first. “Foto modella. Click Click,” they would say. I’d met them through Massimo, a university student who had modeled with me for the cover of Panorama, a sort of Italian Time magazine. I’d been sitting in the studio bathroom weeping when he’d walked in on me. So I’d told him about my brother and he brought me back home with him. He and his friends convinced me to give up my expensive, ballroom-sized hotel room and come live with them. I’d screamed in my sleep at the hotel the night before that, and had awakened the other guests. I was happy to go live with Massimo and his friends. They were communists, but this, I realized later, was in name only. It was that or fascist. At the time, all Milanese university students were communists—the way even self-serving hedonists from America like myself were considered hippies.
I slept on a cot in a room beside the kitchen. There were always people there, studying or getting drunk. One night they took me to a demonstration. “Take care,” Angelo warned me severely. “The fascists have lead bars in their gloves. If they hit you, they can kill you.” But it hadn’t been a bad demonstration. The fascists seemed trustworthy and the communists alarmingly well dressed. We’d maneuvered down antiquated passageways to a white and wood-beamed restaurant where Angelo played his guitar and they’d watched me, disapprovingly, eat cheese. “No,” they’d protested, “not-a like that.” They’d pushed away my fork, drizzled the chalky stuff with thick green olive oil, fastidiously crushed oregano, salt, pepper, and rosemary. Then I was permitted to continue.
At Luna Park that last night, we spent a lot of time in the bumper cars. Relieved of the necessity to translate, we laughed uproariously. We returned to the apartment and went to bed. I woke up before dawn and packed my things. Only then I realized my purse was missing.
“Porco,” Massimo declared. “It’s gypsies that run that place. You’ll never see your money again.”
“No, I’ve got to.” I sank onto the kitchen chair. “My passport was in there. My ticket.”
“Forget it.” Angelo came up behind him, rubbing his long lashes. “Gypsies! Gypsies steal for a living.”
They saw the anguish on my face, weighed it against the emptiness of the refrigerator. “I’ll-a tell you what,” Massimo decided. “We’ll drive out to the aeroporto.” He shrugged. “Maybe by then, some-a-body turn it in.”
He wanted to be rid of me. I didn’t mind. I wanted to go. We piled into the macchina. On the way to the aeroporto we passed Luna Park. The fog went this way and that in ghostly scarves. Deserted, the Ferris wheel spun. Baroque wrought iron gates stood alone without a fence in the empty field, without a road, just this elegant entrance to nowhere. Massimo, on a whim, turned in. We jostled and lurched up the dust and gravel to the far-off circle of caravans huddled behind red and yellow rides. You could see the rust in the morning light, hear the garish hinges creak forlornly without any music. Thugs in black leather skulked about. We asked around but no one knew anything. They didn’t speak English. They didn’t even speak Italian. They were in fact Romanians. One fellow kicked the tent ties again and again. He wore shrimp-colored nylon socks. I went up to him. “Listen,” I said, my shoes sinking in the mud, my shoulders giving in, “I know you can’t help us but maybe you know someone who can. I’ve lost everything here last night. My passport. My purse. Please. Can’t you help us?”
He went on kicking his tent tie.
I gave up. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
But he stopped my companions, signaling them to go with him. I followed them. We went up to a yellow caravan surrounded by the others. He banged a secret, backhanded knock on the door. A smooth-skinned, heavy-armed woman opened. Her hair was shoe polish black and parted white in the middle sharp as a scar. Her cheeks hung in soft wabblebags. I think the fellow was her son. He talked. Massimo talked. Angelo talked.
I stood behind them looking at the sacred hearts on velvet, the plastic white lace doilies. There was tea on an electric ring. The woman kept looking at me, searching my eyes. She pushed the others out of the way and brought me into her caravan. It was warm and smelled of sleep. I don’t know why I wasn’t frightened. She sat down at her table. It was a hideaway table, the kind that could be snapped up against the wall in a hurry. A manila envelope lay there. I looked at it. Then I gaped at it. My name was on this envelope: Claire Breslinsky, care of the American embassy. I sank onto an electric radiator. She dumped the insides of the envelope onto the table. My plane tickets slid out. My passport. There was no money. But there’d been little to begin with.
My friends at the door let up a shout.
It’s so long since this happened, but I recall it as though it were this morning. I can see her face, her intent eyes. I can feel the rigid strips of heat seeping through my damp clothes. Nobody speaks badly about gypsies around me.
Massimo, Angelo, Beppe, and Guido drove me speedily away to the airport.
“What did she say to you?” I pressed Massimo. “You were talking for a long time.”
“The usual rot. You are going to meet a handsome stranger and go on a very long journey.”
“Well, I’m on that.” I grinned.
Massimo frowned. He looked away. “No. She meant something else. A ‘special’ journey, she kept saying—like a necklace—no. Like a string of beads.” He let it go.
But I couldn’t help feeling that he was holding something back. That there was something he wasn’t telling me. I said so.
He pressed his lips together as if he was coming to a decision and then he let go, saying, “I dunno. She said that if you were a tree, it would be the pistachio tree.” He shrugged. “Whatever that means. But she said you are ‘protected.’” He downshifted. “She was queen, you know. Queen of the gypsies.”
I digested this pronouncement with a thrill.
“She also said you go in and out of trouble,” he frowned, not liking my delight, “like a teabag. And,” he added ominously, “that you will be in great danger on this journey.” He said “journey” demeaningly, the way you would say “cockamamie scheme.”
But he couldn’t take away my joy. Her words were like winning a prize. I’d never won a prize. Everything I had I’d clawed through disapproval to get. I opened the passport and looked at me. I thought of my brother. If a gypsy queen said I was protected, I thought, it might be so. I began—testing the waters like a reprieved fish thrown back in—to breathe.
“Bunch of crazy people,” Massimo muttered about gypsies in general.
I defended her. “She was sending me my passport.”
Angelo said, “They stole a chicken from my nonna’s yard.”
“Of course,” Guido said. “They’re thieves.”
“But they brought back the bones,” Angelo pointed out. “Buried them in the yard.”
“Enriches the soil,” Beppe said.
We were silent.
“A circle,” Angelo summed up. He was the poet.
Nobody cried when we said good-bye. I thought one of them would slip me some money when I went through the gate but nobody did. Well, I hadn’t slept with any of them. I imagined this had something to do with it.
“Look.” Massimo held me back by the crook of my arm. “Germany is famous for murdering innocence.” He stopped, glanced over his shoulder. “Just, ah, never change, okay?”
“Okay,” I lied into his dark, kindhearted eyes. A lump formed in my throat as they shuffled, trench-coated, away.
I put my straw hat on and adjusted it with a fearsome-looking hat pin. It was a wide-brim straw, soft and floppy, a preposterously romantic bridesmaid’s hat, saved from my sister Carmela’s wedding. One slender brown ribbon circled the crown and streamed twice down the center of my narrow back.
I stood at the boarding gate and could not imagine why everyone was looking at me. In my long straight hair, bell bottoms, and jeans jacket ensemble, my wide-brimmed hat, I’d just beat the hippie look across the Atlantic. The Brownie camera hanging from my shoulder might have been cheap, but I so loved looking through that lens and capturing moments to draw later on. It didn’t matter to me that it was unprofessional.
A well-heeled, conservative-looking couple, sun drenched and merry, hurried up to the gate. They hadn’t checked their baggage and were laden with suitcases and baskets of duty-free bottles. I just happened to turn and knocked the man’s ticket to the ground. We both knelt at once.
And that was when I saw him. I looked into the liveliest, handsomest pair of green eyes I’d ever seen. Inside me I heard, “This is the one!” We stared at each other for a captivated moment, then, shaking ourselves back to normal, stood. The woman clicked her tongue in annoyance and harrumphed the both of them away.
I’m a Catholic schoolgirl at heart, and anything attached at the other end gets no attention from me. But while we waited for the Alitalia flight to call us on board, in a crowd of a hundred or so people, I felt myself being watched. You know how it is. Suddenly you look up as though someone has called your name. I turned. It was him. He was scrutinizing me. I looked again into the eyes of destiny. Still, he was part of a couple. I snapped my head away.
When I landed in Munich, it was 1972. I wasn’t yet twenty. I had only the airplane ticket and those two crisply written addresses. Imagine, I remember thinking, going to Germany on purpose! Oh, I knew a lot about Germany, all right—all from black-and-white World War II movies. The Germans, I was about to find out, had seen none of them.
Copyright © 2006 by Mary Anne Kelly. All rights reserved.