Down East 2013 ©
His plane didn’t land until midnight. I found him by the taxicabs, befuddled and somewhat pathetic looking as he fingered a wad of Euros towards an unsympathetic driver. “I am so happy you are coming,” he said, kissing my cheeks and donning a white linen blazer. “Dollars, dollars, they tell me. I don’t have dollars, only some Euros. Otherwise I am sleeping at aeroporto.” Sleeping at aeroporto, I imagined. There’s a thought.
[For the rest of this story, see the August 2008 issue of Down East.]
Along with sunburns and traffic and that northern, vernal kind of paradise, the summers in Maine bring houseguests. Francesco was my first aristocrat. He came from Milan. No one in his family had done an honest day’s work in four generations. I knew him from college, although I hadn’t seen him in nearly a decade. And as if out of nowhere he had appeared in Maine. That night we stood in the kitchen and sort of stared at each other — a petri dish of awkwardness under fluorescent light. I offered him a glass of wine, attempting to seem hospitable. Apparently, at one time I had invited all the misfits I lived with in that sad little dorm room on the dumpier end of campus to come and stay with me. None of us had many friends that semester, and sometimes people say things just to be nice.
“This wine is very oaky. In fact it’s barely drinkable,” he announced, chain smoking his way through a recount of the shortfalls inherent in remote New England travel and helping himself to another glass. “My visa lasts three months.” My jaw dropped. He appeared for a moment to consider the hardships inherent in a land so forbidding that the late night barista at the jetport snack bar couldn’t even make a decent macchiato. “Of course I’ll make other plans for the summer — Capri or Malta maybe.”
I did everything I could for Francesco. I tried to make him happy. I took him to a genuine lobster shack. He ate three of them — more lobsters than I’d ever seen anyone eat. “It’s not a competition,” I said, but he didn’t listen, what with all the cracking shells and squirting lemons, his chin shining in a spackle of drawn butter. Admiring the plate of bashed carcasses he pounded his chest and belched, frightening off a cat that had gathered by his feet. “A bit over greased, they should try cooking with olive oil,” he recommended. I held my breath, deflecting a waft of lobster burp and stopping myself from explaining that he had just voluntarily consumed a half pound of butter. No amount of olive oil would have helped.
After dinner we stopped at a local bar, the charming kind of place that out-of-towners usually go for. “Typical American fun,” he called it, with noted sarcasm. Rather than ask him exactly what he meant, I ordered two more very watery (as I had recently been informed) beers. While I paid for the second round he confided in me, “The economy in Italy, things are not good. Yes, we still have the farm in Tuscany and the villa in Naples, but the apartments in Rome we have been forced to rent out. Otherwise there would be no income.”
“You don’t say,” I remarked, wondering if in order to generate some income he had ever considered getting a job.
The next morning we went sailing. Francesco emerged head to toe in brand new, foul-weather gear. “I don’t think you’ll need all that,” I said, squinting at the reflective patches shining on his chest. “I once sailed from Portofino to Sardinia,” he huffed. “I think I know how to dress for this sort of thing.”
When we climbed into my dinghy he was obviously disappointed, but by then I had given up trying to impress. I paddled out into the bay and raised the sail. Tiny islands cast their colors off the water. A gust of wind tipped the boat to its side and lurched us forward. I handed Francesco the main sheet, noticing only then that his Mediterranean tan had turned a pale yellow and sweat was dripping down his face. “I have to confess to you that I don’t know how to sail,” he cried out. “I bought this gear in Milan last week.” He clutched his starchy jacket. “I cannot take your rope.” And with that he handed me the main sheet and fell to the leeward side of the boat, grasping moldy floorboards as if at any moment he would be swept into a tidal wave. I adjusted the tiller, trimmed the sail, and looked out at the gentle, rippling bay. A harbor seal swam by and smiled at me, right before she disappeared into the icy green water.