Venetian Tangle

- a Christmas romance -

Beate Boeker

He came to me on the evening of December 1st. Of course, at that moment I didn’t know that he was dead – I only learned that later. You have to know that I’m not into supernatural stuff. I manage a supermarket on the outskirts of Hamburg in the rainy North of Germany, and that’s as super as it gets in my life.

Nevertheless, he was there. Not that I could see him, oh no, but it was such a strong presence; something I’ve never experienced before. I could almost smell his aftershave just like ten years ago, during my early and impressionable twenties. If Guido had had one fault, it was his tendency to use too much aftershave, but I chalked that up to his being Italian.

Otherwise, he was perfect – or so I thought in the beginning. I could still remember our first meeting in Venice as if it was yesterday . . . the sun beat down on my head on this hot July day as I crossed the bridge, coming from the Calle Bande Castello. The water in the canal shimmered like glass and emanated an odd smell, but a slight wind managed to dispel it. My handbag had left red marks on my shoulder because it was so heavy from all the souvenirs I had bought – beautiful postcards with gold embossing from the stationery store Il Papiro, a blue and white striped shirt like the ones the gondoliere wore, necklaces made out of glass beads for me and my two best friends – and a big bottle of sparkling water to keep me from dehydrating in the baking city. I decided to turn left at the end of the bridge and to sit on the steps that led down to the canal to rest for a while. However, as I turned, I overlooked a glob of melting ice-cream someone had lost, and before I knew what was happening, my leg slipped as if my foot had been placed onto a skate. My handbag went flying, and with my arms flailing, I went down, only to be rescued at the last moment by a pair of strong arms which grabbed me and lifted me up until I stood on my feet again.

I stared into the face of a handsome man my age. He looked at me with his dark brown eyes, and I looked at him, and at that instant, something went zing.

“Are you all right?” His voice was like a caress. He spoke English, but that didn’t surprise me – with my coloring, nobody would take me for an Italian.

“I’m fine.” I cleared my throat. “Sorry. That was a stupid thing to do.” I gestured at the glob of ice-cream on the floor. “I should have seen that.”

He looked at the ice-cream, then he looked at me again, with a sort of stunned expression and said, “Talking about ice-cream. Would you like some?”

I looked into his eyes and got lost there, but somehow, I managed to nod.

He picked up my handbag and gave it to me, then he took my arm, lightly, and off we went, beyond the church and across the piazza to a little store that sold home made ice-cream.

I can’t remember anymore what flavor I chose that day. Everything that wasn’t directly linked to Guido was a haze, then as it was now. We spent every free minute of the next years together, and I even started to learn Italian so I could impress his mother (which didn’t get me anywhere, but at that time, I still had hopes).

We went out for two years, and then I realized that we weren’t meant for each other. He was too settled, too staid, too conservative. Other people’s opinions counted more than his own. His mother told him what to do, and he did it. No discussion. He never dreamed of doing anything revolutionary.

Not that I’m a revolutionary, either. In fact, my life is rather tame when you look at it from the outside. But I have a bit of a wild streak in me, a fierce longing for independence, and I felt choked by the life he wanted to lead. He had his career mapped out for him – work in the family hotel in Venice; get married in the church where his mother got married; be buried in the cemetery where his father was buried.

I know, I know, it all sounded wildly romantic, living in Venice, with a hot-blooded Italian and managing a charming four star hotel together. But after the initial rosy romance had vanished, I realized that Guido reminded me of dry polenta, and I’m not into polenta even if it’s well done. So we separated, and though I felt sad to lose his friendship, I have to say that I also felt released. I was no longer hampered by his constant qualms and misgivings and representations, and even more surprising, I didn’t miss his presence in my life. I still had fun with my Italian lessons though, so I continued my studies and became fairly fluent as the years passed.

Truth be told, I had hardly thought of Guido these last years. We had stayed in touch after the initial resentment on his side had settled. Twice a year, for our birthdays, we sent each other e-mails, and that was it. After the death of his mother two years ago, he managed the hotel together with his older brother, which was difficult, to say the least. Apparently that brother was a flighty number who wanted to put all their hard earned money into crazy schemes, and Guido had to rein him in all the time. Not that Guido had put it into words like that, but from a line here and a line there, I gathered that the relationship was rocky. That was all I knew about his life.

But in spite of all that distance between us, he was here tonight. Right with me, in my apartment, suddenly, inexplicably. I couldn’t stop thinking of him. It felt as if he was trying to tell me something, trying to get across an important message, and it freaked me out. Why was Guido crowding back into my life? Why tonight?

Finally, I couldn’t ignore my instincts any longer. I pulled out my laptop and decided to send him an e-mail.

Then I hesitated, my hands hovering over the keyboard. I looked up and could almost see him sitting in front of me like he had done so often, leaning back in his chair, his left ankle resting on his knee, a glass of his favorite red wine, the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano in his hand. He was swirling the red liquid gently, so it clung to the sides of the glass and slid down in slow drops. I saw him saluting me, then sniffing the wine, closing his eyes, with that appreciative smile on his lips that was so typically Guido.

I shook myself. Gosh, this was scary. Should I tell him that he felt so close tonight? But no. He might misinterpret my mail, might even think it was an invitation to something, when in fact, it wasn’t. Even I didn’t know what it was. I shook my head, not able to understand myself. It took me ages to compose the right words, and in the end, the result was rather bland: “Thinking of you this night. How are you?” I was not happy with this masterpiece of communication, but in the end, I sent it off like that.

He didn’t reply.

I waited with pent up breath, but no answer came. That wasn’t like him at all. Guido was punctilious, correct, eager to do the right thing. And the right thing to do when you receive an e-mail is to send an answer. The reply may not say much, in fact, it may be a conventional lie, but reply he would.

I got increasingly anxious. That strong sense of his presence had vanished by the next morning, but the memory stayed with me . . . as if he had pressed a shape into my soul, and it had settled there, much like a footprint settles when you put it into concrete before it dries.

Five days later — it was a Sunday, and I had time to spare — I pulled out my laptop again and called up the website of his hotel, the Palazzo di Ventura. I will never forget that moment, not if I live to be a hundred years old: My cup of tea next to me, spiraling a little white plume into the air, the scented Christmas candle flickering on my desk, the pattering of the rain on the window, the cozy feel of my favorite fleece jumper on my skin, and the bald words at the top of the page of the hotel: “On December 6th, the restaurant of the Palazzo di Ventura Hotel will be closed due to the funeral rites for the owner Guido di Ventura, who died an unexpected death on December 1st.”

My breath caught in my lungs.

I sat frozen while icy fingers trailed down my spine.

Guido was dead.

Guido was dead?

I couldn’t believe it.