On Saturday, the rain stopped around noon, as it did for a little bit every day now. Spring was just around the corner. The wind blew hard all afternoon, but by sundown it was just a breeze. Nancy and Joe took a taxi to their dinner meeting with del Piave.
The Ostaria dell’Orso was hidden in a warren of narrow alleys just a few meters from the Lungotevere Marzio on the Tiber River. It had been open since the Middle Ages, and Renaissance artists like Michelangelo were known to have patronized the place. It hasn’t had a face-lift since then either, Joe thought, as he escorted his mother to the door.
The deliberately worn, plain exterior left him unprepared for the luxury inside. Dark silk damask covered the walls. The furniture was hand-carved hardwoods, and thick Persian carpets muffled their footsteps.
The maître d’hôtel showed them to the first room on the right of the entrance hall. The Cavaliere was waiting for them at the bar. He was surprisingly tall, a muscular man in a tailored dark gray suit. His blond hair was going gray at the temples, giving him a distinguished appearance. He gripped Joe’s hand firmly and smiled warmly.
“It really is a pleasure, Joe,” he said in Italian. “I’ve been very impressed by your work, and I’m in your debt for the outcome.” He held out a chair for Nancy as they sat down.
“Thank you, sir.” Joe felt his face heat up. He found such praise embarrassing.
They made small talk over aperitifs. Del Piave came from a long line of entrepreneurs and naval officers. His maternal grandfather had been the last commander of the Vatican Navy in the nineteenth century. He had attended the Naval Academy in Livorno, and served in the 10th MAS, Italy’s underwater special forces during the war. Running a shipping line was a natural line of work for his family.
Dinner was served in the Borgia Room, more than three hours after Joe’s normal dinner time. Joe’s stomach was growling, and he was almost past feeling hungry.
He was not ready for the decor in the Borgia Room. Beneath the yellow glow of a large crystal chandelier were only about a dozen tables for four. The utensils were gold. The ornately decorated plates were rimmed with gold. I think I won’t have pizza, Joe said to himself. The menu had no prices on it.
Dinner lived up to its reputation, though Joe could not remember a minute later what anything was called. The meat was so tender that he did not have to worry about scratching the plate with his knife. After the fruit and cheese, del Piave brought up business.
“Joe, do you think you could translate a book for us?”
“It would depend on the book, sir, and how fast you need it.”
“The text is easier than most of the material in my letters. It’s a presentation book for our holding company. The kind you see on coffee tables. You would tell us how long it will take, and we’ll base the production schedule on that.”
Joe looked at his mother and back at the businessman. He had no idea how to guess how long a job would take. But I can probably figure it out, he thought.
“I guess I can do it,” he said. “Could I see it first?”
Signor del Piave smiled and looked at Nancy. “I knew I would like him, Nancy. He’s a natural — and a careful businessman.” He turned to Joe. “Of course, Joe. I’ll have a copy sent over tomorrow.” He held his hands out, suggesting they rise. “Shall we?”
The meal ended in the traditional way, with espresso coffee in the bar and a walk. They strolled easily downstream along the river. The rain was taking a welcome break. There were other groups of Romans walking in the clean evening air.
Signor del Piave did most of the talking, but he was interesting, so Nancy and Joe enjoyed it. He talked about the changes in his city, about growing up before the Second World War. They compared the evening to walks by other rivers on other evenings: the Seine in Paris, the Thames in London, the Nile in Cairo. They agreed that the Tiber held a special charm this evening. The city lights reflected on its slowing moving water. The lights of the traffic moving steadily in opposite directions on either bank set up a visual rhythm on the water. They paused on a bridge to admire the scene before turning back.
“This has been a delightful evening, Pino,” said Nancy as he held the door to the taxi for her. “Thank you ever so much.” Joe noticed a flash in the sky across the river.
Signor del Piave bowed to take her hand. “It –”
A loud thump shook the night air over the noise of the traffic. They felt the impact of the explosion coming upstream at them. The businessman slammed his hand on the roof loudly, shouting at the cabbie, “Via! Via! Presto!”
As the taxi burned rubber heading into the street, Joe looked through the reared window. Flashing red and blue lights were looming far behind them. Joe could hear the sirens as they pulled into the traffic headed upstream.
“What was that?” Nancy asked. Her face was pale.
“Car bomb.” Joe said. He was surprised that his own voice was so calm.
“How do you know?”
“I’ve heard it before.” It was out before he could catch himself.
“You what?” Nancy shouted, swinging to face him. Joe told her about the bomb in September. He finished as the taxi pulled up in front of their building. Nancy stopped on the sidewalk and stood there, while Joe paid off the cab. When he turned around, she was shaking, with her arms wrapped around herself.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?” She said, with rage and fear in her voice.
“I don’t know. It didn’t seem worth bringing up.” He felt like moving towards her, but her face terrified him.
Nancy took several deep breaths. She fumbled for her keys as they stood there on the sidewalk. Joe left his hand in his pocket around his keys and let her take her time. He was taking slow breaths himself. The Cavalieri Hilton shed more light on the scene than the street lamp.
“Maybe we’d better go home,” she said, looking a little dazed.
“I thought that’s where we’re going.” He started toward the door.
“I mean back to the States.” Joe stopped. “It’s getting dangerous here,” she said.
“Mom, it’s dangerous everywhere. You just said yourself that you couldn’t take an evening walk like we just did in Washington or New York.”
“Yes, but – ”
“I don’t want to move,” Joe said firmly. “At least not before I have to leave for college.”
Nancy sighed. “I’m scared, Joe. The work and worrying about whether you’re OK while I’m gone, is really wearing me out. And now this.”
“Maybe it’s just the work, Mom. You haven’t had a proper vacation in three years.”
Nancy looked at him for a while, then smiled, though he could see the tears welling in her eyes. “You’re right, son. Let’s take that trip to England as soon as school is out. We’ve talked about it long enough.” But she was deep in thought as she opened the door to the apartment.
“Bye, Mom! See you later.”
Nancy watched Joe’s scooter roll down the street, as she waited for the number 96 bus on the corner. The sun caught his windblown sandy hair, making it look blonder. Her heart skipped a beat for the 60th time since he bought that scooter, but today her motherly sense of worry felt like concrete shoulder pads. It was natural enough to worry about him as he rode off to school alone, but the realization that he was dealing with the terrors of modern life perhaps better than she was filled her with a jumble of emotions.
Her neighbors on the corner and the passengers on the bus did not help matters. All the conversation was about the bombing the night before. A car had exploded outside the Palace of Justice, just across the river from the Ostaria dell’Orso. No one had yet claimed responsibility, so everyone on the bus was an expert, arguing for his or her preferred terrorist group. Nancy sat quietly, breathing slowly to calm herself.
“Buon giorno, signora bella!” Jack Arland’s voice surprised at her as she walked into the café between the bus stop and the door to their office building.
“Good morning, Jack,” she said. “Your accent is getting better; did you know that?”
“Grazie.” Jack beamed.
“But don’t call me bella like that, please. It sounds like a clumsy pickup line.”
Jack saluted and bowed, still smiling. They finished their coffees and walked to the office building. He held the large door for her as they entered the building. Neither spoke in the elevator. The receptionist greeted them both. Jack responded in Italian cheerfully; Nancy nodded, and went straight to her office. As she was hanging up her coat, Jack knocked on the door and stepped in.
“I don’t think that I’ve ever seen you bring a storm cloud to work like that. Is everything okay?”
Nancy’s eyes flared at him. Then she took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Fine. I’m just fine.” She smiled at him. “As for your Italian, at the rate you’re going, we’ll have you translating the Board correspondence before Joe goes to college.”
Jack winked. “I thought I was going to have to fight you for that.”
“No way. When the time comes, I’m pulling seniority on you.” She considered his silhouette against the entrance to her office, then shoved aside the thought. “New jacket?”
“Yes. You’re the first one to notice – or at least, the first one to say anything. But then, the idea is to stop standing out like the new guy on the block, isn’t it?”
“Looks good.” Nancy picked up the papers in her inbox and held them, waiting for Jack to leave. He was still looking at her with an intensity that did not match his easy smile.
“Thanks. Hear about the bombing last night?”
“Yes. But I really need to get through these papers before the 10 o’clock meeting.”
Jack tipped his fingers to his forehead in a casual salute and went to his own office.
The weekly staff meeting took rather longer than usual to get started. Nancy did not participate in the general speculation about the bomb outside the Palace of Justice. She felt relieved when Moretti finally called the meeting to order. It was a quiet week, so the business took less time than the general conversation that preceded it.
After the meeting, Nancy called Maria Grazia into her office and asked her to close the door.
“Maria Grazia, when was the last time I took a holiday?”
“I could look it up, signora, but I am sure you took one week in June three years ago.” She cocked an eyebrow with a motherly look that clearly indicated it was time to do something about it. Nancy found that ironic, considering how much younger her secretary was than she.
“So long? Time flies when you’re having fun.” Nancy gave Maria Grazia a sheet of notepaper on which she had written down some places in England. “I’m thinking that Joe and I need a vacation. Could you make arrangements for us to be gone for the last two weeks in June?”
The secretary quickly scanned the notes. “No problem, signora. I can do the company paperwork, and make the bookings for you, too. Since you want to go to England, would you like to tack your vacation on the end of the quarterly meeting in London?”
“Excellent idea. Thank you.”
As Maria Grazia left, Jack came in.
“Join me for lunch?”
“Is this social, Jack?”
“Only partially. I get low blood sugar about the middle of the day. Food helps.”
“OK, I guess, but I need to finish the Santorini report to Richmond before I go home today.”
“My report to New York on Santorini is almost done. We can compare notes as part of the agenda.” He held his hands out in a gesture of innocence. “I promise not to carry you away.”
Nancy gave him an eye roll.
“Meet you in reception at 12:30. Do you already know where you want to eat?”
“Table’s already booked. See you at 12:30.”
Nancy sometimes hated his self-assurance, and sometimes she liked his attention. Right now, she wondered what was so important that he needed a meeting outside the office.
Jack’s role in the office did not fit the usual organization chart. Officially the Vice-President for Strategy and Investment, his work seemed mainly liaison between the Italian subsidiary of Smithson and the New York office. The people in New York stayed close to the major Wall Street investors. Although Smithson’s world headquarters was in Richmond, Virginia, the money was in New York. She and Jack had to be sure that there were no surprises or disconnects as they reported to their respective contacts in Richmond and New York. That meant working more closely with him than was normal for two Vice-Presidents. She knew that he also had impressive negotiating skills, but his lack of Italian (or any language but English) blunted that for now.
She liked Jack. Hell, everybody liked Jack, she thought. He was personable, pleasant, trusting, charmingly naïve, and smoking-hot good looking. It wasn’t fair that he was a co-worker. Easy, girl. He’s a sexy bachelor and you’re the mother of a teenager. She was not sure why Jack seemed to put on the charm for her. She enjoyed it and carefully fended it off at the same time.
Two hours later, they were seated outdoors at the Taverna Giulia. To keep things short, Nancy ordered grilled fish and a salad, Jack the penne al pesto. House white wine.
“So, what do you need to discuss?” Nancy asked as they waited for their food.
“You tell me.” Jack looked intently at her. “I can’t help noticing that you’re out of character today.”
Nancy bristled. “How would you know? You only met me in August.”
“People tell me that I’m good at sizing people up quickly. You’re arguably the most consistent, levelheaded person in the office.” He took a sip of wine. “Besides that, I work more closely with you than anyone else; I can’t help noticing details. Something’s bothering you.”
“It has nothing to do with work, Jack. I’d rather not discuss it.”
“Fair enough, but if you haven’t noticed by now, I’d like to there to be more than just work between us.”
“And in case you haven’t noticed by now, I don’t do office romance.” Nancy took a sip of her wine. “No offense, Jack. I like you. Frankly, I wish you didn’t work in the office.”
“I’m not talking romance. I’m talking friendship.”
Nancy arched her eyebrows and gave a small laugh. “Now that sounds like a pickup line.”
Jack grinned. “I guess it does.” His expression leveled out. “Still, I wish that I had someone that I could confide in. Someone I could trust.”
“Is there something bothering you, Jack?”
“As a matter of fact, there is. I’ve wanted to ask you for some time now, how have you managed to live here in Rome for so long? Every week since Christmas, I ask myself if this job is worth it. I feel like packing it in and going home.”
“That’s a surprise.”
“It’s my dark secret. I’m not the happy-go-lucky guy everyone thinks I am.”
“It’s also perfectly normal, Jack.” Nancy smiled at his surprised look. “Ever heard of culture shock?” Jack shook his head. “It’s the disorientation that happens when you leave your hometown or home country. It’s particularly serious if you go to a place where you don’t speak the language. The symptoms can range from mild homesickness to clinical depression. It hits really hard somewhere between three to six months after arriving.”
“Did you go through this?”
“I moved around a lot as a child, so I never established a ‘home culture’, but every time we moved, I would find myself missing the last place a lot during the first year.”
“Is there a cure?”
“Learning the language and having something interesting to do are probably the best antidotes. You naturally see the good things in people, so you’ll probably learn to appreciate Italy faster than most Americans.”
“I hope so. Thanks.”
They both fell silent while the waiter brought their food.
“Buon appetito,” said Nancy.
“Grazie. Altrettanto,” Jack replied with a smile. Thank you, same to you.
After a few mouthfuls, Jack asked, “Don’t you ever want to go back to Richmond?”
Nancy put down her fork and looked away for a long while.
“Yes.” She picked up her fork and stabbed some salad.
Jack let the silence hang, waiting for her to fill it. She looked up and met his eyes.
“Every day,” she said finally. “But I can’t yet, and it’s not as if I don’t like it here.”
“What keeps you here? After what you’ve done with Smithson Italia, you could write your ticket to the head office.”
“Personal reasons, Jack.” She looked at him for a long time. Inside, she was desperate to unload her fears. Why are his eyes that color? I can’t get enough of them.
“Joe?” he asked.
Nancy blinked, then nodded.
“He has to finish high school,” she said. “Maybe after he leaves for college, there won’t be as much to hold me here.”
“There are good high schools in Richmond.”
“Sure, some of the best. But you don’t know how disruptive it is to be moved as a teenager. Rome is Joe’s hometown. I can’t change that now.”
Jack thought about that for a moment. Then he made the connection.
“Let me guess. The bombings aren’t just yesterday’s news for you.”
Nancy smiled, but there was fear in her eyes. “Damn you, Jack Arland. I wasn’t going to talk about it.” She took another sip and put down the glass rather hard. “You’re right. The bombings are scaring the hell out of me. What’s worse is that Joe is taking it better than I am. Last night, we were down by the river when the bomb went off. Joe recognized it, and I didn’t. It turns out he was one block away from the bomb in September on via Bissolati. Then our maid’s brother was one of those killed in the Quinsana bombing in Milano. I’m scared, for myself and for Joe. I wonder just how important keeping him in one place for high school is compared to the danger.”
Jack reached out and put a hand over hers. She closed her fingers tightly around his thumb.
“What does Joe say?” he asked.
“That it isn’t any safer anywhere else.”
“And he’s right, dammit. But that doesn’t make me feel any better. It’s a mother thing. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Why not? I had a mother.”
“You’re making fun of me.” Nancy pulled her hand back.
“No, I’m not. Last time I saw my mother, my parents were waving goodbye as I was leaving on the troop train. I’ll never forget the fear in her eyes. My father was all wistful pride, but my mother was scared shitless. I see that face still in my dreams – or nightmares.”
“I’m sorry.” Nancy reached back for his hand. Jack squeezed it.
“Not your fault.” They sat like that for a while longer, then Jack looked at his watch. He waved for the bill.
“I promised not to carry you off. We have our Santorini reports to finish.”
(to be continued)