“A beautiful woman should never have to eat alone,” purred the Italian man, his long fingers spread out against the surface of my table so close they nearly singed my skin. He paused here for a moment, his eyes lasers burning right through me.
My breath quickened; I might be melting under this stare.
Finally he took a long breath in, patted my table twice and departed for a more divine locale. With his bronzed skin and black-fire eyes, he could have Mercury.
At least, this is what I imagine he said to me. He could have said, “This table is reserved,” or, “That book sucks, you should not be reading it.” There’s no way to be sure; I don’t speak Italian.
“American?” asked a harsh voice attached to a squirrely man whose head leaned in too close to me. He was eying the cover of my book.
“Me, too,” he needlessly informed, scraping a chair across the stone walkway and seating himself at my table, “Are you waiting for someone?”
I had the look of someone who wasn’t. “No.”
He spoke in a rapid-fire-monotone that was impossible to follow; his words were a sloppy car crash. “Wow. Really? You’re here by yourself? Doesn’t that bother you, being here alone? Isn’t it weird being in another country and not having anyone to talk to? Why are you by yourself?”
I lowered my book cautiously, leaving one finger tucked inside to mark my place: the unmistakable signal that this was not to be a long conversation. “It doesn’t bother me, I travel alone quite frequently. I actually came here with a friend, but he’s gone home now and I’m staying on.”
“Wow. That would be so hard, being alone in a foreign country.”
I shrugged and flashed my teeth at him, more snarl than smile. “I like to be alone. I work alone.”
“Man. I couldn’t do that. I’m here with my brothers and their wives but they went somewhere for the day so I’m here now but they’ll be back tomorrow and then we’re going to Saint Mark’s Square. I want to see the church. I’ve heard it’s beautiful.”
“It’s tacky. I think Mark Twain described it as a big beetle-bug with its legs sticking up in the air. But you should definitely go see it.”
“Beautiful. So, what brings you to Italy?”
The waiter drifted by with an extra glass and poured this man a drink out of my bottle of Pinot Grigio. He was camping, right here at my table, squatting on my meal, drinking from my wine. Who was this man?
“I’m a travel writer,” I mumbled, practically snatching the bottle from the waiter and pouring my own glass so tippy-top full that I had to siphon a bit off before I could raise it to my lips.
“Cool. That’s cool.” He took a sip of his wine—my wine—made a face like a baboon and coughed all over the table. “What is this? This isn’t very good. What are you drinking? I thought they made good wine here. You know, what I like? White Zinfandel.”
This was neither the time nor the place to educate him about the complex bouquet that is a proper old-vine zin and the sugar juice that is its pink counterpart. Do not say it. “That’s not wine, that’s juice.”
“Really good stuff.” He drank again, scrunched up his nose again and coughed out my wine again.
“Antipasti,” announced the waiter, lowering the tray of baby Adriatic sole to the table and placing a small white plate in front of each of us.
“Wow. That looks amazing. The food here is really good. Do you mind?” He didn’t wait on a response; he just dove in, headfirst.
I wished the water were shallower.
“So, you’re a writer?”
“And you write about travel.”
“Would I have heard of you?”
With tiny fish spilling out the sides of his mouth, he cocked his head, scrutinizing me diagonally as if I might be more famous askew. He asked, “What’s your name?”
“Baron like with kings and stuff?”
“Uh, no.” It was a common enough question; I couldn’t blame him for asking. “It’s spelled B-E-R-A-N and it’s Czech for ram, like a male sheep.”
“Huh. Czech. Are you Czech?”
Is that a real question? “Yes.”
“What’s that, like, Russian?”
I stopped mid bite, stuck in place with a tiny spectacularly seasoned fish halfway off my fork and into my mouth. I examined him, this madman whose brothers and sisters-in-law had abandoned him here at my dinner table. When he manifested no sign of jesting, I brought the fish the rest of the way into my mouth and chewed carefully before answering, “No, it’s Czech.”
“But, that’s like, Russia.”
“No. It’s its own country. It’s called the Czech Republic.”
“But that’s Russia.”
“It was occupied by Russia for a while, but it’s its own country.”
He shook his head at me like I was fooling him and stole the last of my fish. “My family’s from Germany and Ireland and Scotland and England and Wales.”
I refilled my wine.
The rice had been dyed black with cuttlefish ink, a black that would stick to your tongue and the backs of your teeth for the rest of the day. It was the kind of thing that was cute shared with a best friend or a lover and horrible shared with a complete stranger who’d just told me my origins were imaginary.
“How can you drink that wine?” he asked at last, his teeth already black.
“It’s one of my favorites.”
“It’s not very good. This is awesome though. How do they make it black?”
He stopped eating. “Ink?”
“Like from a pen?”
“No, from a cuttlefish.”
“It’s from a fish? That’s disgusting.” Using the full length of his arm, he slid the bowl slowly away from him, frowning horribly at the rice.
I ate on, hoping with enough fish ink on my breath I might be granted a similar disgust. Maybe he would push himself away from my table in that same long, smooth motion.
He watched me eat for a few minutes, which I did quite cheerfully, taking long drags of my horrible wine between bites.
“So, when did you get here?”
“Last Thursday.” I signaled to the waiter to bring me another bottle and slid my book back and forth across the table impatiently.
“Wow. So you were here on Sunday. Cool. How was Saint Mark’s?”
“It looked like a beetle-bug.” Was I in a time warp?
“No,” he chided, wagging a pretentious finger at me, “How was the service?”
“The church service, silly. How was church? I’m really looking forward to going tomorrow.”
“I have no idea.”
“You didn’t go to church?”
“Seriously? Are you seriously asking me that? I’m not Christian.”
By then the main course had arrived: whole fish grilled a stunning caramel color, heads intact, little fish lips puckering up. My friend stopped staring at their faces and turned his full attention to me; it was the first time. As he soaked in the abominable truth about me, his eyes bulged and his lips parted slightly in his best impersonation of my dinner.
The question was almost too horrible to ask. “Then what are you?”
“My own thing; mostly Buddhist, I guess.” I may as well have told him I was a space alien or Bigfoot.
I used the silence to pluck an eye out of one of my fish and popped it into my mouth.
He choked on the air. “Have you heard of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?”
I shook my head, not because I hadn’t, but because I was having trouble believing that this was a real conversation.
“You’re going to Hell, you know.”
“I’m going to Bali.”
My wine arrived. I plucked the cork out with my teeth and sucked the booze right out of the bottle, barely a human being.
At least he left me to enjoy my tiramisu in peace.