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They are tourists. Of a kind with money. How do I know? Wait…
Not because they are traveling: you can easily find a deal in Spring. You don’t have to be rich. Nothing in them reveals wealth besides one trait I can name but I can’t explain. Here, I am naming it – sophistication.
They are sophisticate though sloppily dressed. What distinguishes sophisticate from authentic casualness is hard to say. Or I’m just being lazy. What defines sophisticated informality is a quota of beauty: I use a numeric concept on purpose. I couldn’t say ‘a tad of beauty, an idea of beauty, a form of beauty’: that wouldn’t apply. Honestly, random traces of beauty appear in straight casualness. They do not depend on the authors, they self-gather due to mere circumstance.
But in case of sophisticate sloppiness beauty must reach an established percent, intentionally gathered to signify: we are tasteful and refined people, mindful of aesthetics though we are also free thinkers. It’s by choice that we don’t follow the rules. We could if we wished, without any problem. But – we beg your pardon – we are above the rules. We do what we please. Still be aware you are not confronted with nobodies. We are ‘some’ bodies in case you had not noticed.
There is nothing strange about casual refinement, especially while travelling. On the road (the plane, even de-lux hotel rooms) simplification is due, at least advisable. Also, bohemian chic has been in fashion for circa two hundred years, first in Europe then everywhere. That’s not what really captures my attention, though my eye has been irresistibly drawn – for sure – by some scattered beauty…
How his hair was braided and tied this morning. The necklace he wears. Her shawl fancily draped over her army blazer.
Still what catches my eye is another banality, seen a hundred of times. Their disparity of race. He is dark skinned, with Native American traits, rasta hair. She is white, fair, middle aged and extremely delicate in complexion. Is it strange? No, just difficult. It is hard to combine diverse backgrounds: even when the disparity is sunken generations away. It has to be the case: these two must belong to a same privileged class, their upbringing must have been similar, they could have attended the same college.
Though she is way older. His teacher? Professor perhaps. The gap in age adds to the sense of unbalance. Is it what I feel?
Exactly. I feel his natural ease, his strong core, the unbroken flow of energy through his limbs and joints. The opened pores of his skin breathing in the scents of autumn, the light of the plaza, the marine breeze. The alertness of his five senses (maybe more than five?) While – cocooned into her shawl, wrapped inside her jacket like into a shell – she constantly guards herself. Her cuteness shows fragility: in her wrists, her hands holding a map (nails broken and gnawed), the square inch of her neck that dares meeting the prickly fresh air.
Her hands hold a map: here’s a hint at the teacher attitude. She’s the one who makes decisions and gives directions: with grace imperceptibly tainted by condescendence. Like a virtuous mother who never loses her cool.
Is she his mom by any chance? If yes the relationship is patently incestuous. She is the lover. Or he is. Are lovers both in charge? Are both lovers lovers? I haven’t figured out.
They are lovers for sure, in the phase still defined ‘in love’. This is one of the journeys they will remember as happy. I guess: for the patronizing tinge I mentioned is so slight, it may still go unnoticed to a superficial listening. Does he hear it? He does but he might not interpret it. He will in the future. How soon is hard to say. It will happen I hope (you can’t tell the weather in September, storms are sudden and violent) when they will have abandoned this square. This town and this country.
There is no tension yet in their exchange. No nagging, not even implied. No resentment at all. There’s goodwill on the contrary and an intentional patience. Very intentional. I detect an overload of patience: I hope it won’t break the boat. I wish them some peaceful navigation. Do I care?
I’m not sure. I empathize with her thin brittle bones. With her shivering limbs in need of a protection he will not provide, since he never experienced a similar want. Never: that far is clear. He enjoys life. She fears and controls.
What do I know? Nothing. That’s why I sense it all.
The two above are clearly underdressed in comparison with the local crowd, indifferently sharing the plaza with the stranger.
September’s first chill gave occasion to the native for a premiere of their winter coats. Leather boots, hats and scarves are showed off with pride: it was time.
Summer is great for sporting a tan and decently kept body parts – in winter one can layer clothes, exposing more items at once. Costly items of course, and well matched for aesthetic sake. Aesthetic triumph.
No, the local crowd doesn’t care for bohemian chic. They take themselves seriously indeed. They follow fashion trends with the enthusiasm of seasoned players. With the authority of who makes the rules or believes he does.
Thickened by their tailored wools and velvets, someone going as far as a fur collar (a bit pushed in September, then why not)… shining in their polished footwear and accessories, the natives take on a weight that’s not of their own.
Such consistency truly eludes them. You can tell if you dare meeting their eyes. Nothing there but a mere reflection of terse skies and marble facades.
In the bar, dark with boiserie but sparkling with mirrors, couples bid their time (what else would you do on a morning like this? Late summery, bright with sun, freshened by a winter preview)… It is nice to abide in this cozy interior, still enjoying the street parade by the windows. Sipping either bubbly champagne (as an aperitif) or a cappuccino (the ultimate multitasking beverage).
While I wait for my rendezvous to arrive I’m enthralled by a gorgeous girl in her thirties. She animatedly chats with an older person I can’t actually see. From my vintage point she could be rehearsing a role in front of a mirror or a movie camera… If replies come from her partner they are minimal. Just discrete interjections, inaudible from where I am.
Not that it would matter. I don’t hear what the girl says either. I don’t try: I suspect understanding will spoil the charm of her stunning face. Such a classical beauty, I mean ancient. A large mouth: no need for lipstick. Almond eyes: no need for eyeliner. Perfect skin tone and eyebrows, smile, laughter.
Some folks are born with every detail in place, seams invisible.
Only favor the un-made-up marvel allowed to her shine is a string of pearls, striking on her black dress. Simplicity is the essence of class they say. When you can afford it without becoming unnoticeable. She can.
They also say it isn’t hard to tell true pearls from fake ones. True ones aren’t exactly regular. That is not the case for their owner… she is faultless.
There is also, they say, something in a true pearl’s light – inimitable. I’m trying to detect it. In vain. It must be there though. Those pearls must be an heirloom dating from generations ago. Where’s the light?
Does their owner possess it? She logically should. But the shine of windows and mirrors blurs it.
There’s a row of small tables across the room, a third row is even farther from the street. This café is organized like a train, certainly to allow the highest number of customers. Useless anxiety, judging by the cost of espresso (half an inch in a microscopic cup).
Customers happily bunch up with their tiny cups around snow-white-sized tables. I should say dwarf-sized but Snow White will do. We understand which tale we are in. They might be a bit embarrassed – customers – fitting not just their butts but their freshly-out-of-camphor coats over miniature chairs, piling Gucci or Armani purses underneath… The rule is first arrived first spread. The others will oblige. Anyway nobody gets old inside the café. They are not here because there’s nowhere to go.
This is only a pause.
In row number three I notice (how could I not: my date didn’t show up, faithful to the local custom of lateness. Actually I realize such custom must originate out of courtesy… to allow the waiting side of the meeting with the leisure of studying the crowd. That is always pleasant – sometimes fruitful. Not in my case alas, I’m a stranger. Crowd scanning is useful only for the insider. Still I can get the pleasure for free…)
I notice another mixed couple. Mixed races I mean. Somehow still a rarity here. This pair shows the counter part of the one I watched outside. She is the one young and fierce, exploding with healthy vitality. A black model – no one else could wear those amazing clothes as she does. Professionally: with an elegance and class deepening beyond a natural gift. Though I’m sure she was endowed with the natural gift as well. Her companion, at least thirty year older, is positively ugly. You would think such contrast wouldn’t occur if not in the movies.
It does in reality. Wrinkled, withered, small, the man wears a dark suit, a tie and a whitish crew cut. They talk animatedly. Smiles are all over them. They don’t drink coffee of course but an aperitif.
Do they talk business? Probably. Does he have the money? She does too. She doesn’t need it from him. Does he provide her money? No. They have barely met: all lies in the future between them. Is there any future? This is what they are considering. He is drooling at the idea, barely containing his hopes. She is weighing the pros and cons as fast as she can.
Expectation around them makes the air sparkle. Play does too: it’s exciting to see adults intent at games. Many have lost such taste, only indulging in repetition.
Those two haven’t turned yet all of their cards face up. But they have peeked… there’s something jaded about it. Something stiff, like the air in this café, now that I notice. Now that I try to breathe, still waiting for my date’s upcoming apologies.
There’s something smothering, faded, passé, in the couple’s playing style. You only see it from outside though. At least two rows apart.
About Toti O'Brien
Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Litro NY, The Harpoon Review, Synesthesia, Aji, Adanna among many other journals and anthologies. She has contributed for a decade to various Italian magazines.