Note: what follows is a work of fiction. While the characters in the story -including I, Pier, the narrator- are inspired by real life, their existence remains limited to the confines of the story.
When it started she was on the steps by the piazza, rolling a cigarette. I don’t smoke but she did and I wanted to seem cool so I asked if I could roll one too. She laughed at my unpracticed American fingers struggling with the thin paper and gave me her cig instead, rolling another with blue fingernails that flashed a lighter under my nose. I felt the nicotine sink its teeth into my brain. Dizzy, I saw her face for the first time.
Her eyes matched the daytime and her hair was like night; the blue skies watched me curiously through thin grey smoke like she knew something I didn’t. I looked up at the basilica, nervously dragging my lungs through the tobacco muck. I knew that smoking was bad for my health but now that the story is over, I wish I’d known back then that she would be too.
Back then I was a lost player on a new stage and the story had yet to unfold. Back then it was summer and there was hardly a plot; I was a flat character on the steps of the basilica. Back then there was nothing but suspended anticipation and her pondering blue eyes that I fell into like I was chasing a white rabbit.
Her name was not Bella. But when she told me who she was I said, “no, sei bella”, which is not the best line but back then my game was limited like my vocabulary. The compliment hit but she brushed it aside with an exasperated eye roll; she knew she was beautiful but she didn’t care.
She called me Pier, which was not my name either, but she shrugged and told me that at one point we’re all given a name but our identity we must find on our own. That made sense I guess but the name Pier made me think of Pasolini and how they left him dead on the beach with broken testicles and mouthful of sand. I should’ve seen her foreshadowing but back then I was less attuned to the literary forces working constantly around me.
We talked for the length of a cigarette; she sidestepped from Italian to English with an accent that curved her words like she was speaking in cursive. She was twenty-one like me but was casually cultured in a way that made me feel younger. Her character was certainly endowed with more depth than mine and I felt jealous of her backstory. She was cool.
She came from the island of Sicily. Born in a lemon grove in the mountains beyond Palermo, she grew up with the horizon spread all around her but stuck in a small village with the traditional closed-mindedness so when she was old enough she escaped to Bologna to study art. She asked what I studied.
“filosofia” I said, without thinking, not certain that was the right answer. “Davvero”, she said, with an amused smile, “you must question every question, but do you have any answers?” “Good question,” I said, “ask me and see.”
She tapped the cig with the blue tips of her fingers and flicked it away, curling white smoke through red lips as she looked out at the Friday afternoon crowd of Piazza Maggiore, then up at the half-marbled face of Basilica San Petronio. “Do you believe in God?”, she asked deviously.
“I was raised a Catholic and I like to believe in things so yes, I do. Do you?”
“I do…” she started, “but I think She’s dead and black”, and she burst out laughing in a loud cackle that turned heads in the piazza. The audience probably thought I said something funny but no, it was just her laughing at her own joke.
She stopped laughing, took a breath, and was serious again, eyes burning blue. She looked profoundly at me and said almost in a whisper, “ascoltami, do you ever feel trapped in a story? What if we don’t really exist and are only characters being used to tell something about who we and where we came from?”
I had never considered that but back then I couldn’t think about anything other than the curves of her face, so I said, “I’m pretty sure I’m real, but I don’t know about you.”
She rolled her eyes and sighed. “I think you’re wrong, and to prove it to you, I’m leaving. My friends are over there.”
“Wait, how does that prove anything? Do you have a number? We should get a caffè sometime!”
She stood and turned, blocking the setting sun. “If we are really in a story then we’ll meet again, you can have my number then. That will be my proof.”
She left me with two kisses saying, “ciao bello, ci vediamo” and stepped from the stairs like she was exiting stage. I dropped the cig still burning to the ground and took a breath of fresh air. I watched crowd close around her like a curtain and it felt like the end of the scene.
The next scene opened when I closed my door behind me. I was back at my apartment on the other side of the city and the sun was almost set beyond the doors to the balcony, where my roommate, Calvino sat facing the blue glow of the computer screen, typing intently.
I sat down at the table across from him. He looked up for the first time in what seemed like a while, realizing it was almost dark. His eyes were sunken and red, his dark Napoletano beard was unshaven and he was wearing the same shirt as yesterday. He spoke English italicized with a heavy accent but preferred Italian. “Ciao fra” he said, “Come stai, tutto posto?”
“I did nothing today but wander; but I think I met my wife on the steps of the basilica.”
He laughed, “così hai detto ieri, come si chiama oggi?” (“you said that yesterday, what’s her name today?”)
“Bella? That is not a real name. She’s not what you think.”
“Your name isn’t real you just stole it from Italo, and you don’t even know her!”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Pier.”
“What did you call me?”
“Pier. That’s your name”
“Since forever, what do you mean? He was still typing as he talked.
I didn’t have the answer, I was thinking about something Bella had said to me.
“What are you writing?” I asked.
“A screenplay that started today. It is writing itself.”
“What’s it about?
“When it’s finished you will know, he said mysteriously, it’s good for the story to have element of dramatic irony.”
“addesso, che dici, hai fame? Stasera, cucino io, ti va bene la pasta? (Now, what’s up, you hungry? Tonight, I’ll cook, pasta sound good?)”. He stood and closed his laptop; the blue glow of the screen shrank from the night and quiet darkness took a breath before the applause of crickets.
The lights came up quick behind me and my blurry mind as I was walking down a tight alleyway, taking a shortcut to the center from somewhere I don’t remember. I clung the wall and the car passed me. I followed the echo of my footsteps, I was going to meet someone I didn’t know.
I reached the two towers and sat down to wait for the scene to play out. I looked up at the pair of medieval brick towers, Bologna’s most famous landmarks. One was tall and straight, the other short and leaning. There was a metaphor there somewhere but I couldn’t see it yet, I was lost in the depths of the night sky, thinking about Bella’s hair. I came back to earth when I was greeted by a voice.
“My friend, my friend,” he said, “how are you, my friend?”
In one hand he had clutched a bouquet of blue roses, with the other he shook my hand and sat down beside me. I didn’t know him, but I suppose that was the point.
“I’m good, how are you?” I said.
He looked surprised by my English and he asked me where I was from.
“Gli Stati Uniti” I said.
At this point we were still shaking hands, and he pulled me closer and touched his heart.
“It is an honor,” he said, “I love America, I want to go someday to work. In Italy there is no work and I don’t speak the language. Italians have no respect for foreigners”
I thought this was strange because as an American foreigner I’m shown a lot of respect, but I suppose the reason for that was black and white. “Where are you from?” I asked.
“l’Africa,” he said proudly, “Kenya”. He sat straight as he spoke. He had dreadlocks tucked neatly into a backwards Yankees snapback and a string of blue beads hanging from his neck. I gave him a lighter and he lit the cigarette from his pocket. It smelled brown like the green they sell on the street but when he asked me if I needed any, I told him I just needed answers.
“You will not find answers if you do not ask questions,” he told me “But my answers are limited. I know only what I’ve seen and I’ve seen only what I’ve been shown. It is this way for everyone. Do not fight the story, follow it.”
“You seem wise. What is your name?”, I asked.
“Moses”, he said, which seemed like a fitting, almost symbolic name.
“Nice to meet you Moses, I’m… Pier” I said, surprised. Moses looked at me strangely then bust out laughing in a cackle I’d heard before. His body shook but the sound didn’t match his low voice, it was Bella’s laughter. Her presence hung over me like the night sky. I felt it falling.
Moses gathered himself and the blue roses and again shook my hand. “Goodbye my friend, good luck” he said with a smile, like he knew something I didn’t. I watched him go and he walked up to some girls and offered them a flower. They said no, I guess, because he walked away, still with his head held high.
I looked up at the towers standing silently in the darkness, my thoughts a soliloquy in the night.
Later I was walking home on via San Vitale. It was 3am but a Bologna 3am is like midnight everywhere else, the streets still crowded with loud mobs of people talking and smoking in front of shuttered bars, drinking bottles of beer sold by men on bikes looking over their shoulder for Carabinieri disguised in street clothes. I had to take a leak so I followed my bodily impulses to the closest bar I knew that was still open, Soda Pop.
The bouncer of Soda Pop was a black silhouette blocking the blue light from below in the basement bar, but he let me in when I lied that my girlfriend was inside.
Soda Pop was like it always is: crowded and sweaty, blasting the same ten reggaeton songs filled with foreign students spilling overpriced beer on themselves. It’s far from my favorite place, but it’s handy when I gotta go.
The bathroom was dirty and covered in graffiti but was bathed in deep blue. The mirror was shattered and I looked into my reflection broken in pieces, unable to get a full image of myself. I felt strange. Suddenly the blue light intensified. I couldn’t bear it any longer; I had to find the source.
I left the bathroom and went into the stuffy dance floor, drawn like a mosquito to a lamp in the back of the room. I pushed my way through, passing some Spanish girls who eyed me like the Sirens, but I was an angry Cyclops, blinded by blue.
In the far corner there was a blue shadow that at first I thought I’d imagined. She was dancing wildly, her black hair bounced by the bass of the speakers that rattled my heart in its cage. She turned towards me, then stopped. It was so bright I had to put my hand up like watching the sunset. Eventually my eyes adjusted and there she was before me.
It was Bella.
She didn’t look surprised to see me, just rolled those blue eyes and smiled, greeting me with two kisses. “I told you you were wrong” she whispered with her cursive tongue, but back then I couldn’t think about anything other than her breath on my ear and I couldn’t remember what she’d told me. We went into the blue and for that moment it felt like a happy ending.
Back then I didn’t realize that it was only the end of Act 1.