The Girls From Negrar
Arabella braked her bike at the gate to Marisa’s house in San Floriano. When she raised her arm to ring the doorbell she felt drops as light as dew tickle her bare white shoulders. It was a pleasant sensual sensation. But rain at this time of year, she thought, never amounts to much. She looked up into the bright mist. It hung low and still over the Valpolicella, concealing both rain and sunshine. If rain, a brief drizzle. If sunshine, a pale and timid disk behind the humidity. Specialists said the mixture created the perfect microclimate for wine growing in this Eden of the grape. A few more months and the harvest would begin. She looked around her and felt lucky to live in this valley at the foot of the Alps.
She and Marisa, her best friend since elementary school, had giggled when their Italian Prof told them that the meeting in Valpolicella of the cool air descending from the Alps and the rising waves of humidity from the Po Valley to the south was analogous to the diverse origins of the two girls – exotic Arabella with the slanting eyes and blond hair of her German father’s eastern forefathers and Marisa with the olive complexion and dark hair of the Semitic ancestors of her Sicilian father.
But today what did they care about weather and ancestors? They were pretty Valpolesane. They were 19. They had just graduated from high school. They were free and could do anything they liked. Today they would bicycle the few kilometers to the Adige River and then along its banks into Verona, put their bikes in the train’s baggage car, and take the Eurostar Express to Rome.
The two signorine were chatting and laughing and eating sandwiches in the second- class coach, when he leaned over them and grinned. “And where are my two favorite Valpolesane headed? To Bologna?”
The girls looked at each other, smiled secret smiles, and said at the same time, “Roma!”
Since at 33 sandy-haired Professor Bellini seemed like an older man to them despite his youthful appearance, his colorful foulards and osé speech, they didn’t know how to react to his unconcealed interest in them. Besides he was married; he even had a small child. He called Arabella “Alpine Wind.” Marisa was “Southern Heat.” Arabella didn’t mind that he seemed to prefer “Southern Heat.”
“A graduation present from our parents,” Arabella said.
“Well, what a coincidence! We’re traveling together. Your first time there alone?”
Arabella looked at Marisa. They were both reading Professor Bellini’s thoughts. Arabella knew that Marisa was flattered at the older man’s attention. She was that way. Arabella thought it a little frightening. His words and manner with them seemed to imply a certain complicity, as if their going to Rome alone were an invitation to him.
Neither of the girls was a virgin. They let boys play around with them and each had tried sex a few times. Verona was a dangerous area for pretty girls and their parents were protective. Marisa resorted to many ruses to confirm her parent’s conviction that their daughter was a virgin; they hoped to keep her that way until she found the right man. Arabella’s mundane father suspected his daughter fooled around with boys and her mother in serious conferences secretly recommended contraceptives.
“Oh, we know Rome, Prof,” Marisa said, nonchalantly lighting a cigarette. Like Arabella she had been in the capital twice, now years back, with her parents. She had hated being dragged around to see the sights, but she had long dreamed of returning as an adult. Arabella recalled the great pines in the Borghese Gardens, the fountain on the piazza in Trastevere that her father loved, the sea breezes, and how different the moon over Rome was. She loved the way tiny dark streets suddenly opened up onto magical piazzas.
“Why don’t you call me Marco,” their Prof said, sitting down on the arm of Marisa’s aisle seat. “After all you’re graduates now…. You’re women of the world.”
Arabella frowned. She lived in the countryside. She didn’t feel like a woman of the world. Still, she felt a young woman’s excitement at being courted by this older man. And he was not bad at all. They might lead him on a bit, she thought, just for the fun of it. Besides he could show them a different Rome.
“Where are you staying in Rome?” Marco asked, pressing his shoulder against Marisa. “Close to me, I hope.”
“In a hotel in Parioli,” Marisa said. “The manager is a friend of my father’s.” When she mentioned the name of the hotel, Marco’s eyes lit up.
“That’s one of the best hotels in the city. Almost in Villa Borghese. You’re two lucky young women.” Again he stressed the word, donne, as if to say now that they were women they could permit themselves all kinds of adventures. “It’s not far from where I will be staying with a friend. I can drop by often. There are some wonderful discos in the area that make our night spots in Verona look … well, quite provincial.”
“The places we go to in the Valpolicella are pretty good,” Arabella said.
Marisa laughed. “That would be super.”
The two girls followed him with their eyes as he sauntered up the aisle. They smiled at each other when an attractive older woman sitting in a seat near the door facing them stared brazenly at Marco as he approached her. He slowed, and hesitated. Instead he turned, smiled at them, and pressed the button to open the sliding door.
“I sometimes get the idea from the way he looks at people that he’s hiding something,” Arabella said. “He seems rather evil.”
“He’s cute,” Marisa said.
“He prefers you, Southern Heat.”
Bicycling through the park of Villa Borghese near their hotel, the two girls attracted boys like honey draws bees. Boys from the hotel, boys biking or jogging in the park, boys from chic Parioli, boys, boys, boys. Arabella found the boys in Rome different. They were fearless.
“I feel like a celebrity,” she said at lunch in the garden restaurant on their second day.
“Oh, Rome is just wonderful,” Marisa said. “I would give anything to live here.”
“It’s beautiful and the boys are nice,” Arabella said, “A great vacation - but for living I’ll take Valpolicella any time.”
“Sometimes you’re so provincial,” Marisa said. “I’m sick of all those stupid villages like San Floriano. All those small-time people. They dress like hicks. And the way we speak, with that country accent. I hate it. You don’t even drink wine! What do you like about Valpolicella anyway?”
“Oh, just that. People speak like we do. I feel part of them. I know who I am there. I’m I. Not someone else. This is a beautiful vacation but it’s not real.”
“Just ask Marco how he feels about it! He escapes down here every chance he gets.”
“Well, Marisa, he’s from here after all. We’re not.”
Arabella looked toward the rows of pines concealing the Galleria Borghese. She loved those trees even though they were already turning brown as summer advanced. It was her father’s favorite museum. He’d made her promise to go at least once. She knew she would go, alone. Marisa was continually reprimanding her for “gaping like a tourist” at palazzos or churches or monuments. She would never go to a museum.
“You’re not!” Marisa said. “But I feel like I am.”
“Already! Or I soon will be.”
“I dreamed about home last night,” Arabella said. “I was walking along the river. Downtown. The bells in Saint Zeno’s were ringing. I could see the mountains. They were covered with snow. And I heard my father playing a little sonata he’s always playing on the piano. It was a nice feeling.”
“I never dream.”
“Never? Well, maybe you do, you just don’t remember.”
“Who wants to? If I have to dream about home.”
“Funny, since we got here I’ve had the feeling I never really knew you before.”
Marisa had on her shortest shorts, black, and a scant yellow halter. Arabella thought she looked sexy. Too sexy. She tilted her head backwards to feel the breeze blowing through the trees and creating a kind of chiaroscuro over their table partially in the shade. She tried to hum the little Mozart sonata but could never get it right.
“You still don’t,” Marisa said. “And I don’t know you either – I thought I did.”
They had an invitation from two boys about their age to go to a nearby discothèque that evening. They were wearing scant summer dresses. They had made their makeup as exotic as possible. At 10 p.m. there were waiting in the lobby for their dates when Marco arrived.
“Prof … I mean, Marco, what happened to you?” Marisa said, her eyes wide.
“You look like a movie star,” Arabella said.
He was suntanned and his hair was blonder than usual. He was wearing a white Mexican shirt, beige linen slacks and brown sandals. A camera in a smooth brown leather case hung from his shoulder. People in the lobby turned their heads at the trio of beautiful people.
“My God!” he said looking from one to the other. “You two are, you’re … you’re simply gorgeous. You both look like photo models. You don’t look like girls from the provinces.”
That piqued Arabella. She was still irritated at Marisa’s remark at lunch about her provincialism. “Everybody has to come from somewhere,” she said, as much to Marisa as to Marco. “I would bet that everybody in this hotel comes from the provinces too.”
At that moment the two boys they had met in the park the afternoon before sauntered in as if they owned the hotel, laughing loudly and slapping at each other. Marisa’s date, Gianni, was wearing jeans, a chic blue work-shirt and a bright tie. Somewhat shorter than his friend, he was wearing elevated shoes. Sergio had on jeans torn precisely at the knee, a v-necked T-shirt hanging to his thighs, and cloth shoes.
There were no introductions. Marco had a bemused expression on his face. Marisa looked pleased at the confrontation. Arabella was embarrassed. They looked so young. She looked at Marco and blushed inwardly at the thought that she had let the boy touch her the evening before in the dark of the garden and that he had come on her skirt. She suspected that Marisa had gone all the way with Gianni. But neither had wanted to talk about what happened.
The discothèque was already packed. The five of them were sprawled on a thick vinyl covered divan. Arabella was irritated that she kept sliding down. Finally she took a straight chair from a nearby table.
“Arabella!” said Marisa with a frown.
“Who can sit normally on that slippery thing?”
The two boys were still miffed that Marisa had insisted that Marco join them. Marco smiled smugly and never addressed a word to either of them. Arabella felt a little sorry for their discomfort, although she knew they just wanted to impress them and then go someplace and screw.
“What’s it like living in Rome?” she asked the two youths just to put them at ease. “We’re from the provinces, you know.” She smiled at Marisa and Marco. Marco grinned. Marisa frowned. Arabella knew her friend disapproved of most everything she said or did in Rome. What a little snob! she thought.
“Boh! Rome? Why, it’s home. That’s all,” Sergio said in a thick Rome accent. “Can’t imagine living anywhere else. I guess everyone wants to live here too. Boh!”
“Is that all?” Arabella’s father spoke of Rome as a woman. A rather slovenly woman, he said. She instead thought of Rome as an old family jewel. A priceless jewel. You take it out of its case at certain intervals, on special occasions. You turn it over and look at it from various angles. You admire it and caress it and then put it back in its case again. Like a jewel it had no smell, no taste of its own. It just glittered and beckoned and demanded your admiration. That was enough.
“What d’ya mean, is that all?” the boy said.
Arabella turned away, embarrassed for him. Strange, she thought, these Rome boys suddenly seem so … so backward. So provincial. When they asked where she was from, she’d said, “Negrar.” “Where’s that?” Sergio had said. “Valpolicella!” Arabella said. “Valpolicella! That’s the name of a wine!” “Valpolicella is the beautiful valley north of Verona that grows wine,” she said. “That’s where I’m from.”
Marco and Marisa went to the dance floor. The two boys looked at each other puzzled. Arabella excused herself to go to the restroom. When she returned, she hesitated when she saw Marco and Marisa engaged in a passionate kiss, half reclining on the slippery divan. The boys had disappeared. She laughed, embarrassed, and took a sip of the warm orange juice while Marisa disengaged herself.
“Let’s go for a walk in Villa Borghese,” Marco said. “There’s a full moon tonight. You two lead lucky lives! You’re really getting a big dose of Rome in a very short time.” Arabella studied his expression. There was something in his eyes and it was not mirth - and the way his lips curved upwards at the corners. He reminded her of someone from literature. She couldn’t place him but she knew he was evil. Well, maybe not evil, but anyway mean. He had sensed that Marisa was his kind. Certainly he knew Arabella was the enemy. His enemy, and Marisa’s too.
Why was it, Arabella wondered, that everyone seemed changed? Different from the persons she had known for years. Marisa, she knew, would charge it was just her anti-Rome prejudice raising its head.
Arabella was a puzzle to her friends. Maybe because she spoke the German of her father. Or because she was so good in literature and loved poetry and classical music. In school she was neither popular nor unpopular. They laughed when she showed her total ignorance of math and science. But she didn’t care. She felt like a solitary woman as she went around looking at flowers and trees and the moon and the Adige River and the mountains and Valpolicella.
In the park Marco walked between them. He put one arm through Arabella’s, the other around Marisa’s waist. From time to time he kissed Arabella’s hair and then kissed Marisa in the mouth. “I’m lucky too,” he said. “I have the two loveliest women in Rome.”
The full moon was huge straight up over the pines. The clouds seemed white and were racing over the trees dancing in the west wind. Arabella saw the fountain ahead and guided them toward it. She knew the other moon was waiting there. Pale white streams spouted out of the center of the fountain and fell back softly on the crowded water creating concentric circles that collapsed weakly against the walls before its waters started the trip backwards to be recycled again and again.
Marisa, she noticed, was looking toward the lights of the city near Via Veneto. Then Marco began kissing her.
Arabella walked along the low rim of the fountain. She felt the tickle of water on her bare arm. Above her there were worlds of light and shadows. In the night, under the moon, under the white sparkling streams and circles of water ever in movement, she looked down and saw it - the moon reflected on the agitated waters was also a moon in movement. The moon and the water rippled and danced and laughed up at her. She saw herself as the same young girl as before, gazing at the moon, which had never been touched by man. She had never been in love. She never swooned in nostalgia for some lost love. Yet, she wanted someone to come along to work and strive for her, and win her. If she felt solitary, she admitted that she wanted “something” greater than life. She felt like a heroine and thought that she was very romantic.
From the minibar in their living room Arabella took a can of fruit juice, poured it into a glass, and went out on the terrace. She didn’t feel tired. She sat facing the pine trees and the Galleria Borghese. The chaise lounge was comfortable. She heard the bedroom door close. She was content and relieved. As the moon sank and shrank and the wind became a soothing breeze her eyes closed and she drifted off into her dreams.
They are in Bologna. The whole dance class. They are performing at a school. The dance group is compact. The music is loud. The spectators are shouting and clapping. And, yes, yes, it is Marisa. She is dancing alone in front of the group. She is completely naked. And there is Marco down below. He is waving a baton. She and the others of her dance group stop dancing. But Marco keeps waving his baton and Marisa dances faster and faster and the spectators shout and clap for more. Brava! Brava! Bis! Bis!
“Arabella, Arabella, wake up.” Marisa was standing above her. The first thing Arabella saw was that she had nothing on under her T-shirt. “You’re out here alone. Marco says why don’t you come in the bedroom too. He wants to make some photos of us.”
The bed was empty. The covers were pulled down, the pillows fluffed. The sheets were light green. Overhead lights illuminated the bed like a stage. Like in her dream. Then she saw Marco. He was stretched out on a couch to the right, facing the bed. He was wearing only shorts. He was fiddling with his camera.
Arabella looked from the bed to Marisa and Marco. She was bewildered. For a moment she felt she would like to kill them both.
“I’ll be right back,” she said with a smile. She went to the desk in the living room, took out her new mini camera with the panoramic lens and, after adjusting it, took off her dress. She had on only brief panties.
She returned to the bedroom. Marisa was on the bed, her shirt up to her waist, her legs spread, and smiling up at Marco now nude standing over her, his camera pointed. Arabella lifted her camera and zeroed in the whole bedroom scene. One, two, three, four shots in brief sequence.
While Marisa and Marco watched, she went to the closet, took out her small cloth bag, picked up here and there pieces of her clothing, gathered her toilet articles in the bathroom, and passed near the other two, a big smile on her face. She was leaving but she felt it was Marisa who was departing. They were separating once and for all. She closed the bedroom door. In the living room, she put on her dress and closed her bag.
As an afterthought, she opened the bedroom door and announced, “I’ll get the early morning train home. It was a wonderful vacation. Oh, by the way, Marisa, Prof, I’ll send you the pictures.”
© 2001 Gaither Stewart
Gaither Stewart is a writer and journalist who lives in Rome. His articles and fiction have appeared in many international publications. Two of his e-books are available from Southern Cross Review. See E-book Library