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 author’s imagination.
It began again like every morning, when Calvino threw open the curtains. The sunlight forced my eyes from a deep sleep. “Svegliati, wake up,” he said, “it’s time for Act 2.”
I had been dreaming about Bella. She was sitting on a beach looking out at a blue sea and sky, divided by an invisible horizon. But then the colors changed and the moment past, the sun turned red as it sank and Bella disappeared into the horizon, leaving only a darkened sea.
It felt like I had been sleeping for months. I woke but the dream hadn’t ended and I laid there uncertain of where and who I was. I went in to the kitchen where Calvino was at the table, typing intently. “Buongiorno,” he said, “sorry to wake you, but you’ll sleep forever. -un po’ di caffé?”.
He poured a tiny cup of coffee from the moka and we drank them on the balcony. It was fall then but the mornings still reminded me of summer. I felt the caffeine sink its teeth into my brain and watched the changing leaves of the hills on the horizon.
“I was dreaming of Bella,” I said, fighting to hold the details of the dream as my mind grew more self-aware. “She was on a beach, I think”.
“è solo un sogno, it’s just a dream. You haven’t seen her for months but think of her all the time. You need to get her out of your head. Besides- il mare è piena di pesce- the sea is full of fish.”
He was right. I hadn’t seen Bella since the blue night at Soda Pop, months ago. We danced in the color but she left out of the blue, saying there was something she had to go do. The season changed and I did too, but I walked home alone searching for something I knew.
“You are rhyming again, tranquillo, it’s not a poem. And it isn’t a love story either. You must move forward and follow the path that is written before you, otherwise you will be lost.”
That made sense I guess, but it reminded me of something Bella had told me that day on the steps of the basilica. She had called me a character. I didn’t know what she meant, but the idea stuck in my head and I needed her to get it out.
Calvino broke the silence of my thoughts. “oggi, che fai, tu segui? (what are you doing today, do you have class?)” “Sì,” I said, in a thoughtless trance. “Prima mangiamo, poi facciamo tutto il resto” (first let’s eat, then do the rest).
He stood and went inside. I sat there under the blue morning sky, looking out at the red roofs of Bologna. It felt like every morning but that day I noticed the leaves of the trees on the hills of the horizon had changed. Calvino closed his laptop and it felt like the end of the scene.
I was waiting on the street by the classrooms on via Zamboni, watching the changing hours of the school day. The entrance of the hall was packed with the passing period; crowds of students pushed inside while others tried to escape, but most stood outside in groups talking with friends sparking cigarettes.
I stood in the background and waited for the scene to play out. In those days I still let the action come to me, but by then I was getting used to the flow of the story and was less surprised when Rosso approached me.
“Ciao fratello, you look lost, what are you doing here?” he said, in Italian. He wore red under a camouflage coat, in one hand was a stack of paper and with the other he shook my hand like he knew me. I didn’t, but I guess that was the point.
“I am waiting” I said, uncertain of what I was waiting for but feeling like I was in the right place.
He smiled like he knew something I didn’t. “You are in the right place,” he said. “but you must not wait too long. There are students here with the answers you need, but they will not answer what you do not ask. Do not follow the story, chase it.
“You seem to know where you are. Who are you? Where are you from?”
“I am Rosso, of Bologna,” he said, proudly, “I was born from the resistance. My grandparents defeated the fascists and my parents stood against socialists. I was raised on these graffitied streets where we fight for what we believe. Italy is an old man with a forgetful mind, but Bologna is his young heart that beats steady with each generation. If you are waiting for change, you are in the right place.”
“I am only waiting for my lesson to start, but I will take change as it comes to me.”
“Change will always come, but not without a fight. It is our duty as youth to shape the world of the future. If you want, you can join us. Tonight we will have a manifestation against racism here in the piazza. Maybe there you will find what you are searching.”
He handed me a flyer from his stack of paper. In big red letters it read “ANTIRAZZISIMO ANTIFASCISMO: LA LOTTA COMUNISTA”
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I can join,” I said. “I agree with what you stand for, but I am not a communist. I am of gli Stati Uniti, where communism is the enemy. They say it is the opposite of democracy, that the government would take my money and give it to the lazy.”
“You can identify how you want, but we do not have to think the same to stand together against injustice. In America you confuse democracy with capitalism and spread money around the world, calling it freedom. But you do not see that the same capitalism that sustains your wealthy steals the liberty from the poor. It is a system built on inequality and racism. With communism we live together, we work together, we fight together, as people.
That made sense, I guess, but I was not convinced. Years of American Academia had conditioned me to run from the first scare of Red, and I didn’t want to betray my country. I told Rosso I would think about it and he shook my hand again.
“Grazie fratello, I hope to see you later. When you reach the piazza, follow the red.”
I watched him walk up to other students with his flyers. He held his shoulders with purpose and I felt jealous of the confidence he had in his character’s role. I still wasn’t sure what my purpose was, but looking at flyer in my hand, at least he had given me a direction.
The scene at Piazza Verdi that night was the usual colorful chaotic crowd. Old money shuffled out of the opera house dressed in furs hailing Benz’ that sped away from the revelry of a dreadlocked bunch sitting nearby on dirty cardboard clutching beers smoking loud. Students sat outside the bar or in circles on the ground talking over a guitar, calling birra birra to the men on bikes with beer. In the shadows of the corner were dark men promoting product to passerby but the police stayed off to one side by their cars smoking cigarettes. Everyone played their part.
I sat halfway between a player and the audience, unsure of which. There was a cig in my hand by I hadn’t put it there, scanning the crowd for those blue eyes of Bella.
They came from down the street by the classrooms where I’d waited earlier; a wave of people swept into the piazza shouting in unison dressed with red flags led by a white sheet that read Chi non si schiera è complice (who doesn’t take a stand is complicit) Odia il razzismo (hate racsism).
They stopped in the middle of the square chanting odia il razzismo and the tension in the piazza shifted. The Polizia and Carabinieri put out their cigarettes and the students rose from the ground. Some joined the protest others moved to the audience, but the crowd grew bigger.
I spotted Rosso at the front of the march by the white sheet, leading the chats. He bent down and struck a lighter, then burst into red light. The flare in his hand spewed smoke as he waved it above him, tinting the front of the opera house with blinding red. The cops moved a little closer.
Someone pushed past me as she ran towards the light. I felt the urge to run inside but lingered on the edges, until the girl that had bumped me turned back to face me. She wore black boots and a red leather jacket, her hair shone dark as night. I could tell by her confidence;
It was Bella.
She smiled at me then disappeared into the red smoke, a déjà vu of my dream that morning. I chased her into the mob but was blocked from the center. I pushed my way through the ghostly red figures chanting words I didn’t know, feeling like I’d fell into the wrong story.
Eventually the red flare burned down and so did the chanting. The crowd began to disperse into the night, the students sat down and the cops resumed driving slowly by the men in the shadows. I reached the other side of the crowd and she was sitting there waiting, smiling at me through thin grey smoke like she was expecting me not to expect her.
“Ciao Pier,” said Bella, with two kisses I felt in my ear. “Stai sveglio? Tutto ciò che vedi non è sempre come è. La nostra percezione è una fantasia che coincide con la realtà.
I froze with a blank look. I hadn’t understood anything she said. We were sitting again on the steps and couldn’t tell if it was a memory or a dream or real. My heart was jumping in my chest but I couldn’t form words in Italian. She laughed only slightly, “we can speak English too.”
“We can do both,” I said. “Sto ancora imparando (I’m still learning).”
“You have a lot to learn, don’t worry, I will help you. It takes time to learn who you are.”
She lit the half-cigarette with red fingernails, blowing smoke through red lips. We looked out at the piazza crowded with all types of people talking smoking laughing drinking shouting together.
“It is strange to see something like this,” I said. “In America you can’t drink a beer on the sidewalk, but the cops are sitting over there not doing anything! Is this freedom?”
She shrugged, “some people call it freedom, some people call in anarchy. I don’t see a difference. Do you feel free?” she asked with an enticing smile, locking me in her blue gaze.
I thought about it. After a while I said yes, but I wasn’t sure.
“That first time we met,” I said, “you asked me if I ever felt trapped in a story… if I felt like a character.”
“Well, do you?”
She burst out laughing in the same cackle I had stuck in my head, “you need to ask better questions than that if you want learn on your own. But in reality we are all characters in this story; our paths cross when they are supposed to and we have no say to where they take us, but the story must continue.”
That didn’t make sense to me at the time, but she said it with such conviction that I nodded in agreement, thinking about something Calvino had told me that morning.
The protest was over, but as the piazza transitioned to nightlife a scent of resistance still hung in the air with the flare smoke. I saw Rosso walking by and called out to him. Noticing me, he smiled, noticing Bella, he winked.
“Ciao bello,” he shouted with purpose, “chase the story!”
It seemed like Bella hadn’t noticed. She put out the cigarette and stood up into the night. “Allora, andiamo? (now, we go?)” she said,
“Where are you going?”
“Further into the story. It has only just begun. Are you coming?
She looked at me with those blue eyes and I knew I didn’t have a choice.
I chased her from the darkness of night into the hues of the morning. She knew every dim-lit dancefloor in Bologna, greeted every bartender like a friend. I smiled and nodded and she pulled me along. The story shattered into shards of a scene that I remember now like after a dream.
A crowded concert in a café, Bella cleared us space. Broken bottles by the basilica, Bella breathing blasphemy. An old man spinning vinyl funk in a graffitied basement party, Bella dodging the colors, drawing on a cig. I lost her in the discoteca and found her in the street by the bongo drummers, politicking a grey-haired grunge. It was cold outside but inside was warm like amaro; she took it straight and I was a chaser she didn’t need: sweet like rosé, lingering from my lips like a sip of grappa. An empty party, 5am; we played foosball but I was the little man on the stick, she spun me head over heels but I never scored a point. I don’t remember falling asleep, but I guess you never do.
I woke to the Italian countryside blured green through the window of the train. Bella sat across from me, smiling like she accepted me to accept her, “stai sveglio, are you awake? We are almost there.” “Where?”
She waited a moment and the countryside slowed as the train pulled into the station of Verona.
There was no sense of time. I woke but the night hadn’t ended yet the sun shone down on us as we wandered a colorful maze of narrow streets paved in marble. We were lost in Verona’s walls and there was no world outside. My phone was dead and I chased Bella’s tireless ponderings through the day. She played a good Juliet, so I feigned my best Romeo. As the sun set and the colors grew brighter, so did the light in her eyes. She watched nervously as the sun fell from the sky, suddenly turning to me. “It’s not a love story,” she said, “you should know that”
That’s all she said and I didn’t know what to say, even then I didn’t understand who I was. I was too tired to see. I stared into the dying day, wondering how many hours I had been awake. I must’ve fallen asleep right there, staring into the sun, because it began again like every morning, when Calvino through open the curtains. Sunlight. Morning. “Svegliati, wake up,” he said, “it’s time for Act 3.”
I had been dreaming about Bella.