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As MacKenzie ran down the marble staircase, and pushed through the heavy wooden door out to the street, her heart lightened. Firenze. Taking a deep breath, she said it aloud, “Firenze.” and breathed in the smell of scooter and motor exhaust with their happy associations.
She had gone only a few yards when, tripping over a dip in the pavement, she fell flat on her face. Stunned, the first thought to surface was the question of whether her right hand was broken. The concrete showed no mercy. Sharp pains in her shoulder, hip, and knee also flared.
Florentines immediately surrounded her, trying to raise her up, talking across each other in frantic Italian. She managed to say in their language, “I’m fine. I’m really fine, I promise.” But she was evidently unconvincing for no one would leave her side. All were trying to get her to her feet.
“Uno momento,” she said, still trying to regain the breath knocked out of her. She wasn’t ready to stand. She didn’t want to put any weight on her right hand pushing up off the sidewalk.
Then a neatly bearded man who appeared to be near her age crouched down to her level and said, “Come, I will help you. Just give me your uninjured hand. I will get you up, just a little bit at a time. We will do it in easy steps.”
Aided by powerful shoulders and arms, he slowly got her to her feet. “Are you able to walk?” the stranger asked.
“Yes, I think so. Very slowly. Thank you so much.” Her hand and knee burned where they had grazed the pavement.
“I will stay with you. Put your arm through my arm, so I can help you. I will take you to Robiglio’s, the little café on the corner so you can sit down.”
Surprised by his sweet solicitude for a strange woman, she said. “Thank you very much. I’m more shook up than I thought.” She clutched at the substantial arm in its black leather jacket.
They made their way slowly to the little pastacceria where her unknown angel seated her at an empty table and asked what she would like to drink. She replied, “A Coca-Cola Light,” and began rummaging in her purse for coins. Coke was expensive over here.
But he waved off her gesture. “No, I will get it.”
Florentines buzzed around her, eating late lunches of appetizing focaccia sandwiches and tiny, delicate pastries. They spoke volubly with their hands and a great deal of passion. The café had the friendly air of a neighborhood establishment where people came to exchange greetings and ideas, as well as an espresso or small meal.
Returning, her guardian angel had a cup of espresso in one hand and her drink in the other. A discerning angel, he had apparently decided to sit with her awhile. He knew she was still shaken.
“I am Roberto. In the city on business today. Your accent is nearly perfect, but I think you are an American?”
“Yes. My name is MacKenzie. I’m an art scholar off to pay homage to the David.”
“You are a professor, perhaps?”
Shaking her head, she realized in an instant this stranger had pointed out her “road not taken.” Next to her family, her greatest passion was Renaissance art. Could she have had both? The University of Dayton was scarcely two miles away from Oakwood. She was qualified to be an ad hoc instructor. But she had immersed herself so thoroughly in the community, she never had time to even inquire after a job in her field. Would things have gone differently if she had?
Maybe it was the pain in her hand—so excruciating she could hardly lift the glass—but bitterness surged up inside her. “No. Nothing but a deserted wife.”
“Ah, so we are to be intimates.” The man had a very nice smile with blinding white teeth against his coffee-colored beard. MacKenzie instantly regretted her confidence. This man was too handsome.
“You have a passion for our David?” he asked.
“It is the most beautiful piece of art in the world.”
He was still smiling as he took her injured hand in his. “May I?” At her nod, he examined it, painfully exploring its small bones with his thumb. “Perhaps you should go to the emergency room first. Your hand, I can tell how it pains you.”
With Kurt’s nightmare tales of socialized medicine in mind, MacKenzie willed her hand to be whole. “I think it will be fine.”
“It is starting to swell.”
She made a fist. “See? It still moves properly. It is fine, just bruised.”
Shrugging his shoulders, he asked, “And why is it you have such a passion for our David?”
“You will laugh at me.”
“I won’t. Go ahead. Confide this passion. You will never see me again.”
“Okay. I’ll get it out. I believe Michelangelo’s emergence as the most splendid sculptor of all time, with virtually no training is a—” she struggled with the Italian.
“Say it in English. I am fluent,” he said, leaning forward on his forearms, his eyes on hers.
She switched to her own language with gratitude. MacKenzie had to make certain she got this exactly right. “It is a mind-stretching miracle.”
He nodded, his face solemn. “Are you aware today it is said, not only was he the greatest artist of the Renaissance, but he pre-figured the Baroque era by at least fifty years?”
“Yes. I did know that.” His English was perfect. Oxbridge perfect. This man must have studied in Britain. With confidence garnered from his impression she was a kind of expert, she continued, her voice firm with a hint of challenge, “I don’t know where you’re coming from, but to me, that is all the evidence I need there is a God who poured creativity into the mind and heart of a willing and faithful man.”
She had never shared this insight of hers with anyone but Kurt. Now she administered it as a sort of test.
“I agree. Although, Michelangelo is said to have been quite temperamental. But about the God question, you must understand I am no longer a Catholic—I don’t believe in a terrifying vengeful God or a Jesus Christ who will look at me with disdain for my sins. Tell me about your God.”
“The only thing I know is that He is there. I don’t pretend to understand Him,” MacKenzie said. “To be truthful, the closest I have ever come to God was in the presence of the David.”
She sensed the bustling café around them, loud with laughter and discussion, and wondered at her confession of her private thoughts. Then she remembered. This is Italy. In the normal way of things, people talked earnestly about life and art over espresso.
Roberto leaned back in his chair, leaving only his fingertips on the table.
“I have a theory,” he said. “I, like you, have a hunger to understand the Divine Being who blesses me with my own talent, and with moments like this. Do you think maybe it is necessary to understand love in order to understand God?”
“Maybe,” she answered carefully. “But I hope not, because I sure don’t understand love.” Dare she tell this stranger her fears? The real reason she was so anxious to be in the presence of Michelangelo’s greatest work? With an odd desperation, she wanted to. Italians were capable of such selflessness and natural agape she thought she might. She would never see him again, and yet his words might help her find the direction she needed.
Leaning forward, she fixed him with her eyes. “I think—” MacKenzie hesitated, but found courage in his kind eyes—hazel with flecks of gold. “I must tell you right now I feel love is the greatest mystery of all. I have avoided thinking about it in all the six months since my husband left me. I’ve tried to switch off the current.” Unable to face pitying eyes, she cast hers down and began tracing the rim of her glass with her finger. “In my mind, if I was ever certain about anything, it was that Kurt loved me.”
She looked up. The stranger, Roberto, said nothing, just keeping his eyes focused on hers, so she continued. “Before he became so involved in his medical practice, I was his world. Our relationship was romantic, physical, intellectual, and even spiritual in its way.” She stopped fidgeting and looked up to find his eyes still intent on her, but not pitying. “When he left without a single word in the middle of our ordinary life, I felt hoaxed—cheated and frightened. The universe had gone crazy and no one was in control.” Her voice broke as tears welled in her eyes. “If Kurt didn’t love me, then I am prepared to swear there is no such thing as love. And if there is no such thing as love, how could there be a God? And if there is no God, there is only a black void—that existential one.”
Still Roberto remained silent. Implicit was an invitation to continue. “I guess for fear of failing, I just flipped the switch on my feelings, and became an automaton. I am counting on this visit to revive me. I am hoping to find love again in Italy. Not eros, but possibly agape and philia.”
“You will have a hard time with that unless you can let go of your anger, Cara,” he said gently, taking her uninjured hand in his and running his thumb in soothing circles over the back of it.
“How do I do that? How do I reconcile the idea that a husband who seemed to love me has chosen to leave me, and our two children, and his medical practice, for a ?”
“I believe men sometimes have these mid-life bumps in the road when they have to reassess, to take stock, as you call it. For you, Tuscany will put things into perspective. That is the gift of Florence to the world. Perspective. God’s hand is here. Miracles happen here.”
“I know artistic miracles do, but real-life miracles? Other people may be able to live with no governing purpose, but I am not one of them.”
He released her hand, and his brow furrowed in a thoughtful expression. “Maybe I shall tell you of my journey. My wife, Juliet, whom I loved more than anyone or anything in this world, died two years ago of a cancer she could have survived were it not for the blighted Italian health care system. She had to wait a year for treatment. She died the week before her name came up on the list. Anger?” His eyes became brilliant with sparks. “I know about anger. I hated this crazed government. I sold my business, put my affairs in order, and retired to a remote corner of Tuscany where I planned to put an end to my life.”
MacKenzie was mildly shocked. Even in his anger, this man seemed far too calm for the anxious, destructive emotion required for suicide. Her instinct about him had been wrong. Wanting to know more, she asked, “So. Why are you still alive?”
The hazel eyes softened. “You may not understand this. I was soothed and fed by beauty all around me. By the rhythm of the seasons. By dogs and cats and the man who sold baguettes in the corner bakery.” Perhaps sensing she was unconvinced, he said, “How can I explain it? Beauty was like a soft, warm quilt on a frigid night. My love of my new surroundings not only healed me, but turned me into an artist.” He sat back in his chair, once again relaxed. “The hidden artist who had never gotten out because he was never needed in a life of joy. I feel you have a hidden artist behind that pain and anger, and, if you let it, Tuscany will reveal it to you.”
“I can’t even raise children properly,” she said.
He took her hand again. His touch was comforting, not sensual.
“Children, I’m afraid, are foreign territory for me. I know only from the personal experience of being a child that a parent can’t sculpt them. They are God’s work of art, not ours.”
His words came as a heavy blow. In shutting out the whole question of God and love, she had had no option but to try to control the universe herself. She had to be in control if no one else was. Hadn’t she smothered her suddenly fatherless children with expectations? Her expectations? Jess, you should aim for Julliard, nothing less. Josh, how will you take State this year if you don’t practice your running more?
What hubris. I have turned into my parents. It’s a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare. Can I turn things around?
She needed to see the David. Now. Michelangelo was the only connection she had ever felt to a Higher Power, and she needed guidance.
“You’ve been so kind and lovely, and so Italian, Roberto. Grazie mille, from the bottom of my heart. You’ve opened a door. Now I must go through it alone. But I will never forget you.” Her emotions were so fervent, she suddenly felt ridiculous. Who did she think she was? Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca?
He smiled broadly and rose from the table, saying, “Wait just a moment.”
Going to the register to pay, he moved out of her sight. Every one of her injuries began to throb. Could she even make it to the Academie?
When Roberto returned, he handed her a ten Euro note and a large bar of her favorite dark chocolate. “The money is for a taxi. I just called for one to meet you on the corner. It is a short distance, but you are in no shape to walk.”
“Thank you. You are unbelievably kind. I hadn’t even thought of a taxi. And the chocolate?”
“You are beautiful as a Madonna, but far too skinny. You must remember to feed the inner woman. I’m convinced our cuisine is the secret to the Italian’s loving heart.”
Bending down, he kissed her on both cheeks. “Let Florence and Tuscany do their job. Find the artist inside you. Ciao, MacKenzie bella.”
“Ciao, Roberto. I have never met with such kindness.”
As she watched her new friend leave the cafe, MacKenzie knew his simple action had changed her. The chip on her shoulder was gone, at least for the time being. And his kindness to a stranger had temporarily wiped away the bitterness caused by Kurt’s defection. The whimsical universe had dealt her a tender mercy today. And part of her was very aware it was a very good thing she wouldn’t be seeing the handsome Roberto again.
Thanks for posting an interesting excerpt for all to read. I found it a little longer than expected and needing tightening up in places. Also I started to notice things I might have missed on a first read. I thought to run down the marble stairs was courting trouble but to do so without a real reason was a bad mistake. The reader immediately forms an impression that events have been contrived to make up the plot. This is an impression that can be corrected very easily. What is the inner conflict that makes Mackenzie run? Perhaps skipping down the stairs is a little less active and if the reader learns she might miss a bus, etc then the skipping has a reason. The building: was it a museum or private house? Time of day is another consideration as the reader assumes it might be evening or getting dark, dark enough to trip.
But back treading a few words she stands in the street exhaling first time. Then exhaling a second time. Somewhere inbetween she has spoken albeit to herself. Might be better if she gasped her spoken word out and then inhaled the petrol fumes in the street. It might read better that way.
Mackenzie trips and suddenly she is surrounded by many Italians. Then Whoosh! In the next instant or so she is left to the mercy of a stranger. That piece of action is without depth and doesn't reflect the nature of the street. Why not have her helped to her feet by the Italians who notice she has stains on her hands and help clean her up with tissues. But the character(Roberto)stands and watches. Only when she makes her initial recovery and ask where her handbag /purse is so she can call a taxi,etc does he step forward. Perhaps he has been concealing her purse by standing on it to stop it being stolen. But as it reads it is first a 'buzz' of Italians and then only one(Roberto) which makes the reader think of luck or chance and it doesn't seem apt for it to happen in such a way. And so it goes on. A similar kind of set up, things falling into place far too much. The stretching of time , the cryptic thoughts detract from the simplicity of the scene. In a situation of injury or stress it asks the question of how the scene ought to progress. Why does Roberto explain why he happened to be there when he was? The reader gets the impression it is for the reader's benefit only. Is that a reasonable conclusion. What if Roberto simply called a taxi and she left not knowing he enjoyed art, what he liked to drink, what his marital status was,etc. Obviously to continue the story it is important to lay down leads early on. That is simple enough and using the rules of thriller writing. But apply the rule to romance and it is even better. Roberto might have let slip that he visited ZZZ on that day of the week. Would she want to meet him again to thank him? But would it not be better if he stole some of her thunder and met her when she was going about her art studies. Perhaps he picked up her sketch pad and saw her address in the city.
I feel the above scene has been extended too much. Too much has been crammed in. Softly , softly catch a monkey. Tease the reader. Illustrate but don't explain so much.Work what we know about the character into the plot. Roberto in leathers. Can it be he might have parked his moped or motorbike in the same street? Oh my! She saw the numberplate. And she remembered it. I guess then thing might be looking up for an American girl in Florence. Thanks for allowing us to read what you've written.
I've a publisher who is looking for authors of romantic fiction. Drop me a line if you need a contact name etc. If you are already published consider Kindle or e-books. It is another outlet.
Cleveland W. Gibson