On many streets of Venice, people cast shadows only a few, fleeting hours each day. Buildings so close, and ways so narrow, only the highest midday light penetrates its passages, bursting color in the masks and molded crystals displayed in shop windows.
The rest of the time, Venice spends lost in its own shadow, obstruction of the sun producing a sort of prolonged twilight throughout its winding vias, and tinging the lesser-traveled parts of the city in muted blues and grays. Far from dampening its beauty, the indistinct colorscape brings Venice more vibrantly to life, casting its Gothic and Byzantine architecture in matching old light, and indulging the spirits and fervency of life ever on the air.
Sun above as Sabine sat down at the two-top outside the trattoria door, it passed the western buildings as she lingered over lunch. No shadows left to fall, and no footsteps that she heard, she couldn’t say exactly what drew her attention over the top of the tiny white cup she held to the corner of the street, largely untrodden by all but locals, but she did know what held it there.
A woman – it was always a woman – dressed in a pageboy cap and sweater coat that brushed the ankles of light jeans. Dirty blonde hair swinging past her shoulder, it concealed most of the woman’s face as she leaned on the stone wall of one vacant shop, map open in her hands.
Smile flickering to Sabine’s lips, it was a rather common sight – and a not entirely common one – and she hesitated for only an instant before rising from the table, knowing Marco would know she was good for it, even if she didn’t make it back to pay.
Head lifting, the woman’s light eyes met with Sabine’s, and Sabine was halted, for a moment, by the expression of consternation, so pouty, yet so endearing, on the stranger’s face. She could tell from a distance the woman was attractive – it was one of the few things that could lure Sabine away from one of her last moments of respite and good espresso – but, until she could fully see her, Sabine couldn’t tell how attractive she was, or make out any of the details that made her truly noteworthy.
Her eyes, slightly darkened by the premature twilight, were blue and gray and green. Sabine didn’t have to decide which, because, in them, she saw all three, blending in unusual starbursts, soft gray at their centers, giving way to deep blue at the outer rings, green streaks flashing through them, like bolts of lightning in a galactic storm.
“Do I look lost?”
Never appreciating more the likening of one’s eyes to the cosmos, Sabine’s gaze sank to full lips, bottom even thicker than their ample top, down past a narrow chin, and over the crocheted scarf bunched at the stranger’s neck, to where its ends touched the ‘V’ of her buttoned sweater coat.
“Yes, you do.”
It wasn’t the only thing the woman looked, though. Interest pressing, it was much like standing at the base of a mountain. Sabine could tell it was worth the hike, but she had no idea just how magnificent it could be until she got close. Only to find parts of it barricaded off from her, and suffering the instant regret of what she might be missing out on.
“Then, I guess I must be,” the stranger said.
American, like her, Sabine was almost certain. Though, it was difficult to tell in so few words. She had an accent, but it was slight, more a faint inflection than a specific annunciation.
“It happens here. A lot,” Sabine said.
“Yes, I heard that.”
“It’s like the rabbit hole of Italy. You never know what’s coming around the next corner. Might be a canal. Might be a dead-end. It might be Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Do you know how you ended up over here?”
“Well, I thought I was taking a shortcut. Clearly, that was a mistake.”
“Or not.” Cosmic eyes rising, once again, to hers, Sabine took a small, deliberate step. “There aren’t many places in Venice not worth seeing. So, maybe you ended up right where you’re supposed to be. Besides, those maps are awful. I think they print them just to screw with the tourists.”
“I’d believe it.” The stranger’s gaze dipped to the useless guide in her hands.
“Don’t worry.” Another step, and, blocked from the cool wind that whistled, with some frequency, down the narrow street, the air warmed between them. “Until the Queen of Hearts has your head, there’s still time to escape. Do you have your cell phone?”
“Not on me,” the stranger returned. “I left it in my room. I’m trying to stay away from all technology.”
“Lofty goal,” Sabine said.
“Yeah. We’ll see how long it lasts.”
“Well, I spend a lot of time in Venice. Maybe I can help you get where you want to go.”
It was questionable, perhaps, coming onto a woman in an, arguably, vulnerable position. But Sabine could hardly pass up the opportunity just because the woman was lost either. And she wasn’t lying. She had been in Venice many, many times, and, though its allure still grabbed her each and every visit, and didn’t let go until long after she left, there was nothing in the city she hadn’t already seen. Venice held a familiar sort of appeal for her now. A known beauty. It was comfortable. Always gratifying, but no longer exhilarating. Everything she’d experienced since her arrival, Sabine had experienced before. She had all but given up on finding something truly, newly fascinating.
“So, where do you want to go?”
Pause in the stranger’s response, it was as if the question was loaded. And maybe it was, but only as loaded as she wanted it to be.
“St. Mark’s Square.”
Hardly a surprise, the woman looked almost embarrassed at being so obvious.
“First time in the city?” Sabine asked her.
“First time in Italy,” the stranger said.
“Well, that is the place to start.”
“So, can you get me there?”
“Absolutely.” Sabine made her interest in the task clear. She wouldn’t, after all, want to leave it open to interpretation she was just being nice. While the beautiful stranger may or may not respond to her true motives for walking over there, Sabine did, at least, want them known. “I’m staying over that way anyway, so you’ll actually be walking me back the way I need to go.”
“How sweet am I?” the woman responded, and Sabine couldn’t say she wasn’t extremely curious about that as the stranger commenced a feat she had literally never witnessed, not once, in all of her many visits to Venice. Nor to any other city that attracted tourists by the droves, Sabine realized. She quickly, and without a single mis-fold, returned the tourist shop map to its original rectangular state, dropping it into the multi-patterned slouch bag that swung across her body. Given the thing was designed more like a paper puzzle than a usable reference, the simple deed was far more impressive than it probably should have been.
Or, maybe, Sabine was just looking to be impressed.
“Which way do we go?”
Reaching for her coat pocket when cosmic eyes seized hers again, Sabine found her cell, but managed only to swipe her thumb across its screen before a partially-gloved hand covered hers.
“I thought you said you knew your way around.”
“I do. For the most part. I just want to see where we are.”
“You’re kind of making me lose faith here.”
Losing the woman’s faith not on her agenda, Sabine let the phone slip down in her hand, returning it, with some reluctance, to her pocket. Though she told the truth about her time spent in Venice, that didn’t mean she didn’t exaggerate how well she knew her way from one place to the next. It was Sabine’s belief one could live a hundred years in Venice, and still find herself lost amidst its labyrinthine passageways on occasion. That, and the action required pulling her hand out of the woman’s touch, which lingered, in a cold press of fingertips, on the back of her hand.
“Well, we don’t want that.” Glancing to the buildings that surrounded them, Sabine could tell east from west by which structures had slightly more gleam upon their facades, and, having been in this part of the city several times this trip, she knew most of the landmarks by heart. “I know it’s this way.”
“Sounds like a good first step.”
Trace of a grin on the woman’s lips as she turned to walk beside her, Sabine smiled a near-farcical smile toward a shopkeeper standing outside her store, not sure why being challenged to walk by memory alone in one of the most convoluted cities in the world was putting such satisfaction on her face.
“I’m Sabine, by the way.” Expression nearly tempered, she glanced as the woman tossed dirty blonde hair back over her shoulder.
“Callista,” the woman said, and, to the smallest of measures, they were strangers no more.
“How long are you in Venice?”
“Four days,” Callista said.
“Well, that should give you time to see most everything,” Sabine reasoned. Not to linger maybe, but to see. Venice was, after all, a relatively small city.
It should also give Sabine time.
“I hope to,” Callista declared.
“Then what? After you see everything in Venice? Do you go back home?”
“No. I just got here. After this, I go to Florence and then to Rome.”
“That sounds perfect.”
It did. Sabine wasn’t just saying it. A nearly ideal itinerary for one’s first trip to Italy, it was more than that. Something quirky, and not exactly of the real world, about the woman who walked beside her, Callista seemed to blend into the Venetian backdrop, looking less like a tourist than an old soul. As if she was meant to exist in such grand, vintage places.
“How about you?”
“How about me?” Shaken out of her reverie, Sabine smiled.
“You said you spend a lot of time here. What does that mean? Do you have a place?”
“Not of my own. But I may as well. Two of my closest friends live here, so I come every year.”
“Wow. That’s a perk.”
“It is.” Sabine could hardly disagree.
“I assume you’ve been to other places in Italy, then?”
“I’ve been to all the high points,” Sabine said. “I studied in Rome for a year, but my mother is half Italian, so we made multiple trips when I was a kid. Most of them to the south, though.”
“Do you still have family here?”
“Some. Cousins. In Palermo.”
“Mafia?” Callista didn’t miss a beat.
“That is a horrendous stereotype,” Sabine declared, before a flash of reasonable acceptance broke through her straight face. “Though, not entirely unlikely. As a whole, my family does have a rather entrepreneurial spirit.”
“Oh, is that what we’re calling it?”
Statement carried on a soft wave of laughter, the warmth flickering in Sabine’s chest dripped down her torso. Settling low in her abdomen, it was wholly surprising. She was an old pro at this, chatting up attractive strangers, convincing them she was well worth their time. She didn’t get adolescent thrills when a pretty girl paid attention to her. Not anymore.
“So, if you don’t live here, where’s home?” Callista asked.
“New York.” Taking a second to recover her senses, Sabine rejoined the conversation. “But I grew up in Connecticut. My parents still live there. And you? Where do you live?”
“Yeah, that’s where it is,” Callista said.
“Yeah, why? You don’t think there are people from Savannah?”
“No, it’s just…” Brow furrowing, Sabine tried to pinpoint why the fact came as such surprise. “You have such a weak accent. I mean, it’s there, but it’s not like a southern drawl.”
“Weird,” Callista uttered. “I suppose it must be that dagnabbited contraption you Yankees call a television bringing proper speech to the South.”
“Oh my God. I really did not mean to insult you.” Apparently turning into an adolescent in more ways than one, Sabine felt a blush crawl onto her cheeks.
“You didn’t.” Callista glanced her way with a teasing grin, and, blush deepening, Sabine was immensely grateful for her highly forgiving skin tone that made it difficult to detect. “You know, you have an accent too.”
“Abso-lo-ute-ly. You abso-lo-ute-ly have an accent.”
“I do not say it like that,” Sabine said.
“Okay.” Glancing off with a smirk, Callista wasn’t sarcastic, nor arrogant, nor cruel. She was just mildly amused, and needed no concurrence to be sure of what she’d heard.
“Do I really say it like that?” Sabine asked her.
“You turn British with every ‘u’,” Callista said. “It’s like you’re possessed by Mary Poppins, and she keeps trying to break free.”
“Yeah. No one’s ever told you that?”
“So, does everyone from Connecticut have a British ‘u,’ then?” Callista questioned.
“Not that I’ve ever noticed. Maybe they do.” Lips pursing with uncertainty, Sabine shook her head. “Huh. That’s bizarre.”
“I think it’s nice. I like it,” Callista said, and, glancing her way, Sabine met Callista’s cosmic gaze, smile returning to her face as she realized she wasn’t the only one flirting. Though, it did take her long enough to notice.
“So, did you grow up in Savannah?” Door open, Sabine didn’t want to let it close.
“No.” Eyes trailing away, Callista looked to a couple struggling to choose between the many tempting flavors of gelato that filled the case under a bright green awning. “I grew up in a one-stoplight town in southeast Georgia.”
“What was that like?”
There was a moment – cursory, but Sabine was paying her every possible attention – when Callista’s good humor blinked out completely, before she put on a concealing smile and looked Sabine’s way again. “Like any small town. Boring. Uniform. A lot backward in a lot of ways.”
“They can’t all be like that,” Sabine was certain. Not that she’d had a lot of experience in the subject.
“All the ones I know are,” Callista returned, and Sabine could hardly argue against personal experience. Plus, the subject had dampened the tenor of Callista’s voice considerably.
“So, what do you do in Savannah?” Feeling it going off the rails, Sabine attempted to pull the conversation back into more neutral territory.
“I’m an artist,” Callista said.
“Really.” A good answer, as far as her intrigue was concerned, it made far more sense to Sabine why Callista didn’t seem to quite fit into the world. Society built so rigidly on enterprise and financial success, many of the artists Sabine knew didn’t.
“What kind of art? Are you a painter?”
“That’s typically what sells,” Callista said.
“This must be heaven for you,” Sabine realized. “Italy.”
“I hope so. I went back and forth trying to decide between here and France, but this won out in the end.”
“Why not go to both?” Sabine asked, and, eyes that turned her way slightly bewildered, as if they couldn’t begin to rationalize the question, a weak huff of laughter blew past Callista’s lips.
“It’s not exactly in the budget.”
“Right.” Sabine realized only then it was a stupid question. As spoiled as it sounded, and she knew it sounded spoiled, she forgot sometimes that other people couldn’t simply do as they liked. That was the thing about growing up with money. It was always there to spend. She never learned what it was like to have to make difficult decisions because of it, and it made an ass out of her sometimes.
Like right now.
“What do you do in New York?”
Worried she might have undone all the forward progress they’d made in one thoughtless question, Sabine was relieved when there was no trace of anger, or even irritation, in Callista’s voice.
“I run an events and promotions company,” she said.
“Like weddings and corporate parties?”
“More like music festivals, boxing matches, conventions, that sort of thing.”
“Oh. You’re talking big-league event planning,” Callista uttered.
“I guess you could call it that.”
“And when you say you ‘run’ the company, what does that mean? Are you like the CEO?”
“Just an EO,” Sabine said. “I own the company with two of my friends. We all share the same title.”
“Okay.” Callista’s nod slow and circumspect, her smile looked pinned in place for a second. “So, when you say you run an events and promotions company, you mean your events and promotions company.”
“Yeah. I mean, it is partially mine.” Sabine wasn’t sure why she felt so awkward about the fact at the moment.
“That’s impressive.” Callista sounded sincere as she looked back to the narrow passage ahead. “Do you like it?”
“I like it well enough,” Sabine said. And she did. Most of the time. There were certainly aspects of what she did to like. She was never without something interesting to do. She met more than her share of celebrities. She could get favors from almost anyone in town in exchange for a discount or tickets. Then, there was the financial incentive. Sabine couldn’t forget that.
“Good.” Callista sounded as if she meant that too.
“So, what made you decide on Italy?” Distanced enough from her earlier bungling of the conversation, Sabine was too curious not to circle back to it.
“In France, the art, it’s almost all in museums.” Callista’s voice turned gently melodic as it swept the empty, graying passage. “It’s display art. At least, it is now. Here, the world is the art. It’s everywhere. In the churches, and on the bridges. That’s far more me. Renaissance and Baroque and Neoclassicism aren’t my favorite movements by any means, but I do love the way they live in the world.”
Steps slowing with each word, Sabine puttered to a stop without conscious intent. She knew a lot of art lovers and world travelers, but not once had she heard that particular argument for the Italian art world versus the French.
It was truly, newly fascinating.
“Which way now?”
Enlightened to Callista’s other thoughts – evidently, the thought they should be getting somewhere by now – Sabine realized, with some chagrin, it was a thought she hadn’t had herself in quite some time. Looking to the stucco walls that lined the sides of the passage, she searched for any clues upon them, recognizing nothing. Apparently, Callista was far too much of a distraction to try to do two things at once.
“I honestly have no idea.” She didn’t bother to lie. Having walked down a number of streets over the past few minutes, without crossing a single canal, they had to have taken a very wrong turn at some point. Or several. Indeed, Sabine couldn’t be entirely sure they hadn’t walked the same rectangle a dozen times. It wasn’t like she was paying attention to anything but Callista. Reaching, once again, for her cell, she just had to accept her effort to impress this beautiful, beguiling stranger had come to an abrupt, rather lackluster, end.
Hand on her wrist as she swiped the screen again, Sabine looked up as Callista came closer and the fabric of Callista’s sweater coat brushed her leg.
“I literally have no idea where we are right now,” Sabine was forced to confess. “And I have been lost in Venice before. You don’t just find your way. This place isn’t a maze. It’s a riddle.”
“I love riddles,” Callista said.
“Don’t you want to get to Saint Mark’s Square before dark?”
“So, let’s get there. If we just keep walking, we have to find something you recognize eventually, right?”
“Don’t count on it,” Sabine warned.
“I’ll take my chances.” Gaze lingering, along with her touch, Callista at last shrugged and turned back down the passage.
Given the opportunity to cheat a glance at her cell without getting caught, Sabine’s thumb hovered above the screen, before she dropped the device back into her pocket, choosing to embrace Callista’s hopeful mentality. If they just kept pressing forward, eyes open and thoughts on where they wanted to go, eventually they would have to find their way.
Famous last thoughts.
Feet aching, back starting to feel the hours of aimless wandering too, Sabine had to face the fact that, every time she walked these winding streets, she was a little older than the last, and poor decisions made in her youth were going to take a real toll in the later years of her life. There was only so much juicing and yoga could undo.
A dozen times, she thought they were headed the right direction, only to end up somewhere entirely off-course. They even had to stop for panini and gelato when dinnertime came and went, and, when the sun finally faded, with the moon not set to rise for several more hours, there was nothing with which to orient themselves but the poorly-marked street names and landmarks, which had already proven insufficient to the cause.
“Honestly, you should let me use my cell.” Turning to Callista when she gave up and conceded the situation hopeless, Sabine was distracted, for a moment, by the soft candle-like glow that fell over Callista from the streetlights as she looked through the window of a closed bakery, and recognized, inwardly, that was the problem. All day, she had been so caught up by Callista, she was scarcely aware of the turns they took. She didn’t even notice they were getting more and more lost until they were already somewhere less traveled and unfamiliar to both of them. “Or, I could get us a water taxi. If we can find our way to a canal. I’m sure you can tell, but a lot of this city becomes completely unnavigable in the dark. I know it won’t be the same, but St. Mark’s is even more beautiful at night. I can still get you there.”
“I’m sure that you can.” Callista was exceedingly gracious, given Sabine had given her absolutely no indication of her ability to do that thus far. “But, to be honest, I’m getting kind of tired. I thought I was going to be able to beat this whole jet lag thing, but apparently not.”
“No. Are you serious?” Sabine felt instantly like a jerk. “I wasted your entire first day here?”
“I would hardly call it wasted.”
Response not what she was expecting, nor one she could hope to expect, it eased the very real guilt weighing on Sabine at the moment, and a small smile of relief flicked across her face in response to Callista’s smile.
“Like you said, there’s not a lot of Venice not worth seeing. And I feel like you really did show me most of the city. Just not the parts I intended to see. It was like my own personal off-the-beaten-path tour.”
Laughter breaking past her lips, Sabine was just grateful for the clemency. Though, she still felt bad. Like really, really bad.
“Where’s your hotel? You should let me get you back there, at least.”
“On the other side of the water.”
“You’re staying in Giudecca?”
Right. The mainland side. Of course, Callista was staying on the mainland side. She already said she was on a budget, and the Venetian islands weren’t exactly known for their budget-friendliness. “Did you take the train in?”
“I did,” Callista said.
“Well, I can get you back to the station.”
When she slipped out her cell, it was indicative of how truly tired Callista was, or how little faith she had left in Sabine’s navigational abilities, that she didn’t try to stop her again.
“Are we anywhere close?” Callista asked.
Small grimace tugging her face, Sabine almost didn’t have the heart to tell her. “I would ask if you meant to the train station or St. Mark’s, but, honestly, we’re about equidistant from both of them. On a plus note, we actually did make it to the other side of the city somehow. So, you were right, you did see most of Venice.”
Callista laughing in response, she was, apparently, more amused by than bitter about the fact, and Sabine’s guilt flared again.
“It’s almost a mile. Do you want me to see if I can find us a water taxi?”
“No. It’s fine. I can walk it,” Callista said.
“All right. I’ll walk with you. But, this time, we’ll use a little technological guidance.”
“No, that’s silly.” Callista’s head shook as Sabine brandished her cell in the air. “I know you have to be tired too. I don’t want you walking out of your way.”
“I’m the one who got you lost,” Sabine said.
“I’m the one who let you.”
Thought not occurring to her, not until the soft admission put it into her head, it sent a warm, consoling vibration through Sabine as she glanced up into cosmic eyes. “How will you find your way?” Not ready for the night to end, she searched for a reason it shouldn’t, no matter how many more miles she had to walk to make it last. “You can’t use that map.”
Turning away from her, Callista headed to the via’s end, and Sabine followed, wondering what Callista thought she might see that could possibly show her the way.
“Mi scusi, Signore. Buona notte.” Older man walking past, with a ring of keys suggesting he was the owner of one of the neighborhood’s recently-shuttered shops, Callista went up to him. “Dov’e il treno, per favore?” Where is the train, please?
The old shopkeeper rattling off the answer in Italian, he gave Callista the first few turns to take, suggesting she stop to ask again along the convoluted route, and Callista could keep up with the rapid-fire response enough to nod along.
“Grazie. Arrivederci,” she said when the man finished.
“Buona notte.” The man continued on his way, and Callista rotated back to Sabine with a slight, almost apologetic smile.
“You speak Italian.”
“Enough,” Callista said.
“Why on Earth would you let me lead you all over creation, if you could have just asked the way?”
Or she could have, Sabine realized. Because she too spoke Italian. More and better than Callista, if Callista’s pronunciation and the look of rapt attention on her face as the old man provided her direction were any indications. Cell phone or no, Sabine could have asked how to get to St. Mark’s at any time. Why didn’t the thought even occur to her?
“I’ve got plenty of time,” Callista said. “St. Mark’s Square will still be here tomorrow. I didn’t know if you would be or not.”
Gratification curving her lips, Sabine could finally, privately, acknowledge that was her reasoning too, selfish as it might have been. She knew she had Callista for as long as it took to get to where they were going. She didn’t know what would happen once they were there. With that in mind, Sabine could no longer say, with any real certainty, how many of the wrong turns they had taken were actual wrong turns, and how many of them were subconsciously intentional.
“Well, now you have to let me buy you dinner tomorrow,” she said. “I have to do something to assuage my guilt.”
“What time?” Callista asked.
“Around eight?” Sabine suggested.
“Eight, it is. Should we meet in front of St. Mark’s?”
“If you think I can find my way there.”
“I trust that you can,” Callista said, and the five syllables tickled down Sabine’s spine.
When Callista didn’t turn and go right away, Sabine hoped there might be more to the goodbye. Though, she didn’t expect it, and could never say she was disappointed with the way her night turned out.
“Goodnight,” Callista murmured at last.
Watching her turn and walk away, it felt better than anticipated. Because it felt impermanent. Even if they hadn’t made plans, Sabine knew she would see Callista again. The way one knew she would wake up the next morning. It felt like a given. And it made it painless, pleasant even, to watch Callista move down the narrow passage, dipping in and out of the streetlights, until she made it to the first turn the old man told her to take and vanished into the night.