part I: chapter 2

Soundtrack: Jack Savoretti “Don’t mind me” (click here to listen)

Gaia was rummaging through the drawers of the massive desk that occupied one of the corners of the room when the doors of the studio flew wide open and a cloud of cold air and annoyance entered the space even before Anna Bianchi did so herself. “Have you ever had a crush on a guy?” She demanded, as the door fell shut behind her with a loud thud, making the bell atop it sleepily jingle in protest. Gaia knew this tone of Anna’s voice – it didn’t require an answer. “The kind of a crush when you literally see the visual embodiment of your perfect man in front of you? You could probably touch him if he took one more step closer and you reached out your hand. And then you want to scream in despair from the top of el paron because you know he will never ever be yours and the despair gets an even stronger hold on you because for him you’re just a face in the crowd, in the fortunate case if the bastard has noticed you at all. Well, I had such a crush. Today. Like an hour ago.”

Gaia snickered. “Who’s the lucky one?”

“One of the guys who tie the vaporetti at the stops and sell tickets to clueless tourists who think that the Alilaguna ones they’ve purchased upon arrival will get them everywhere for the rest of their stay.” Anna took off her coat and placed her tote bag on the shelf next to her chair. “By the way, I went to Murano to collect the beads Marina promised us.” To confirm her statement she took a heavy-looking plastic box from her bag and placed it on the massive desk separating her from Gaia. “And then made a mad dash for the stop and jumped into the empty vaporetto heading for San Marco. And… there he was.” Anna made a dramatic pause.

Gaia knew it was her cue to look up and – preferably – have an interested look on her face. “And?” She hoped her attempt at interested would pass.

“I stared at him. All. The. Way. Almost without blinking. Like a stupidly lovesick puppy. My eyeballs were burning by the time we reached Fondamente Nove.”

Gaia dipped her brush into a pot of paint and snorted, imagining the scene.

“You laugh? Im miserable and she laughs. You have no heart, woman.”

“You’ll get over it.”

“Over him being more interested in a bunch of ancient-looking French tourists and completely ignoring me? Oh no, I wont, sweetheart. He didn’t even bother coming over and checking my ticket. Im offended and I hate him.”

Sure you do. “Perhaps you didn’t look criminal enough to frisk.”

“He didn’t look like a mentalist to know I have a ticket.”

“Then you have no choice but to track him down and demand an explanation and an apology.”

“Or I could still climb that tower and yell my heart out.”

“That will make him notice you, Im sure.”

Anna laughed. “Most certainly.”

The studio was filled to the brim with intricate masks that were hanging both on the walls and from the ceiling, their ribbons brushing against people’s heads in some sort of a blessing, or as a sign of possession, who knew. There were countless racks of costumes for both males and females and those who didn’t give a rat’s bum about such divisions. There were several displays of accessories and hangers holding cloaks, dresses and overcoats. And in the corner of the studio, like a peninsula in an ocean, there was the massive desk crowded in masks in various stages of completion, as well as tools necessary for decorating and creating them. The air smelled of paper, glue, paint and barberry tea Gaia had made just before Anna’s arrival.

“You know, I’m bursting with excitement,” Anna said, taking a cream-colored mask that would cover its wearer’s face completely from the shelf on her right.

“Because… it’s winter?” Gaia teased.

“Ew! No! Why would I get excited about the season of gloom?”

Gaia chuckled. “Right. I keep forgetting your thrill is caused by the two upcoming weeks when the city will officially turn into a looney bin.”

Anna chuckled. “You prefer this place when its deserted, I know.”

“Yes, because I can breathe without the dumb-founded tourist army. They will march the streets again without ever stopping to see and feel the real beauty surrounding them on each step soon enough. And don’t get me started on the selfisti anonimi…” Gaia pulled her lips into a trout pout and showed a victory sign, then shook her head, rolling her eyes.

“That’s how the city gets rid of idiots. She dazzles them with fake glitter, crams them into few narrow thoroughfares to make them feel claustrophobic and believe there’s no other way to get where they’re trying to get to, confuses ten hells out of them with winding calles making them loose sense of direction, spooks them with dark sotoporteghi that lead God only knows where. The idiots take a slew of selfies and tick this place off their lists. Then Venezia adds the infamous stink to make sure the unwanted ones stay away for good. It’s part of the glamour.”

“Said glamour is way too weak.”

“You say so because it doesn’t affect those who truly see her.”

“I say so because it doesn’t keep the intruders and my headache caused by them away. Luckily winter lacks the sweltering heat which seems to attract the tourist army even more, while melting my brain and making me want to evaporate.”

“True.” Anna took a glue gun and started creating swirls on the surface of the mask. “Suppose tourists are covered in some special sort of teflon that makes them heat resistant.”

They both laughed.

After a while Anna said, casually, “I forgot to tell you. Somebody came asking for you yesterday.”

“Who?” Gaia – struggling with an exceptionally stubborn piece of ribbon which appeared to have an aversion towards being glued to the paint-covered surface of the mask – sounded as enthusiastic and curious as if she had been informed of a missed bill delivery.

“A rather charming guy.” Smile was lingering both in Anna’s voice and in the corners of her mouth. “Said his name is Sebastiano.” The smile became a permanent feature colored by mischief on her face the moment she heard Gaia coughing.

That explained so much about the previous night. “Why…” Gaia was struggling to tame the sudden fit of choking on air. “Why would he be looking for me?”

“That’s for you to know and for me to only guess.” Anna’s voice was richly drenched in amusement at Gaia’s reaction.

Gaia mumbled something under her nose before adding, “I’ve no idea why he came here.” She shrugged, hoping it looked nonchalant. There was no need for Anna to know about their encounter. It wasn’t a date. Wasn’t.

“Maybe you have caught his eye during your nightly wanders.”

“Yes, and he certainly is clairvoyant to know where I work without ever asking me.” Yet Gaia knew Sebastiano would not need to be clairvoyant to know this. All he had to do was ask Vincenzo.

“Gondoliers tend to know everything, or so they think. Comes with the job, I suppose. Perhaps he has accomplices, informants. Or he has been stalking you ever since he first laid eyes on you.”

Although Anna was joking, her words made Gaia shiver. The idea of being stalked was decidedly sinister, even in theory. Pressing a semi-precious stone with its sticky side onto the mask’s forehead, Gaia asked, “Why would anyone waste their time stalking me? Ridiculous.”

“One reason comes to mind. Love.”

“Right,” Gaia smirked and took a sip from her mug of tea. “I forgot that you see romance everywhere.”

“And you ignore it at a point blank range.” Anna sounded ever so slightly exasperated. “Don’t you dream of a Prince Charming to come and sweep you off your feet?”

Gaia shook her head. “Nope.”

“Why not?”

“Because I met one of them once. And he did do the infamous sweeping off the feet.” The taste of the memory turned bitter in Gaia’s mouth. “I let myself believe that he was real. He had to be, I reasoned, for he was made of flesh and bone and blood. And then he was there no more. He vanished, like a mirage. Evaporated like a cloud of smoke. He built me a glass castle glamoured in tender warmth of his hands and sweetness of his kisses only to melt into the cold and arrogant fog of silence. And I was alone. Abandoned in my glass cage, scared to break its fragile walls, with no explanation from the one who once claimed I will never be alone.” Gaia’s lips formed into what could be called a smile, but her eyes remained cold. “That is why I do not dream of charming princes – their kind excels at sweeping off the feet, but then they disappear like mist upon the first touch of dawn, leaving despair, helplessness and ruined glass castles in their wake.”

“Just because you encountered one rotten egg, doesn’t mean that all of them are like that.”

“Perhaps, yet I prefer to be princeless.”

“What was he like?”

Gaia didn’t respond.

“Im sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

“That’s all right,” Gaia made a dismissive gesture. “I guess some part of me will always want him back no matter how many stars explode in the Universe because I am hopeless like that.” She smiled. “Sometimes I see this one dream when I call him again, knowing there will be no answer, as usual, but then, suddenly, his voice appears on the line. My heart freezes in surprise. It’s like some long lost but essential moment of time stops on the other side of the planet and, when everything sets back in motion again a split micro moment later, I feel the pull. Im being pulled back to him by some invisible rope. His voice…” Soft, sad laughter shook Gaia’s shoulders for a moment and she shook her head. “I still remember it so vividly. Hell, I remember each gesture of his, each one of his smiles that were making my heart stop in its tracks. I remember the tenderness of his hands that were always…”

Gaia left the words hanging in mid-air between her and Anna. She had been so certain of having had let go, but it was obviously and irritatingly far from truth. “I want to rip these memories from my senses because they cut me like serrated knives.” She let silence spread its wings in the mask filled space. “In that dream of mine there are always excuses – and obscenely unbelievable ones at that – why he vanished from my life like a ghost. The last time, for example, it was due to some course he had to attend in the farthest place on Earth imaginable. And even though I hear the logic’s screams – is he not aware of the fact that things like phones and emails are in use for a long time? – I believe him. I fucking believe every single word that comes out of his mouth. My heart, which is still hopeless when it comes to him, accepts his goddamn excuses, even in dreams.” Gaia sighed. “That is so irritating. But there is a good thing also,” she smiled. “Lately my supposed Prince Charming is becoming cold when he speaks to me in this dream, he becomes indifferent. The warmth of affection for me is gone from his voice. It hurts me, and I wake up on a pillow drenched in tears, but it gives me hope that maybe some day time won’t stop on the other side of the planet any more and I will not be pulled back to him.”

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