Soundtrack: Ermal Meta “Umano” (click here to listen)
It was half past ten in the morning when Gaia entered sestiere Dorsoduro. The sun was shining in the cobalt blue sky and enjoying its reflection in the emerald water mirrors. So many colors in this city, so many intricate details. It made her happy. It made her feel alive again. However, this morning Gaia’s mind was occupied with the up-coming Ball of Mirror Shadows she had been now invited to. It both excited and annoyed her all at once. She was excited, because she had always wanted to see the carnival from the inside – to go to one of the fancy dances, see all the masks, feel the atmosphere – but it had always seemed to be one of those things people fantasize about without ever considering a possibility of them coming true. And now she was really going to one of the balls – to the main one of this year’s carnival to be exact – and for some reason it made her antsy. Talk about being careful with what you wish for. This phrase was like her mantra lately. And although Gaia considered the related anxiety attacks ridiculous, she was unable to rid herself of them.
What could I possibly be afraid of? It will be like watching a movie, just not on a screen but all around me. This will be no average 3D movie. It will be a 4D, even 10D experience. Jeez, I’m such a chicken-shit. I yap away all this time about how great it would be to peek through a key-hole at one of these fancy things and now I want to run and hide when the possibility of entering through the open front door presents itself.
These thoughts had to stop. It was useless and stupid to feed her anxiety, she realised that, yet her monster took delight in her panicked thoughts and urged her back into the vicious loop of doubts each time she attempted breaking the cycle. Besides, the ball was almost three weeks away. Plenty of time to search for the long lost courage. Yeah, right…
Even if she hadn’t known how the palazzo hosting Pietro’s studio looked like she would have recognized it easily just by looking at its door knocker which was a masterpiece in its own right – an exquisite brass hand holding a painter’s brush and covered in strange shimmering ornaments that were cut into the skin. Perhaps she would have been surprised if in it’s place there would have been some ordinary piece of metal attached to the massive wooden door serving just the practicality instead of visual aesthetics. Gaia raised the brass hand and knocked two times, on the brass palette no less.
“Do I dare asking who the man you had a meeting with last night was?” Gaia asked, now sitting in a massive and ridiculously plush armchair positioned by the window that took up all of the wall facing a canal on the upper floor of the building. She had found it impossible to rid herself of curiosity about a gentleman Pietro had met with at her cousin Enzo’s restaurant the night before.
“Possibly, the patron of my next exhibition.”
“He seemed strange.”
Gaia had observed the man dressed in a light gray suit that verged on white, the finest quality shoes and wearing an expensive looking watch. He had had an air of inexplicable familiarity about him. Gaia had watched him greeting Pietro as he had approached the table and sat down. There had been something fascinating about both of them. For some reason she hadn’t been able to pinpoint, these two men – who looked as two absolute opposites – had seemed to have something in common, something more than just a business deal. Their movements had seemed equally fluid, their gestures – strangely similar.
And then, just as she had been about to turn her gaze away, the man in the almost white suit had nodded smiling in approval to what Pietro had said and had looked over at her. She hadn’t been able to tell the exact colour of his eyes, but their expression had been a mix of interest, worry and warning. He had studied her for a while, preventing her to turn away as though he was holding her in place with invisible hands. It had felt ridiculous, but she had found herself unable to move as if hypnotised. Gaia still had no idea for how long he had kept her under his spell, but when he had finally turned his gaze away to face Pietro again, she had felt as though she had been thrown back into the restaurant from outer space.
“Why is that?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged casually. “Just got that weird vibe, I guess, but it would seem weird vibes are my jam lately, so never mind.” Gaia had intended telling Pietro about the strange sensation the man’s stare had caused her, but now reconsidered. Why would I accuse an unknown man of hypnotizing me? How do I even know he was doing that? It’s all just in my head.
“By the way he is waiting for this portrait to be finished.”
Gaia raised her eyebrows. “He is?”
Narrowing her eyes she looked at him with ever growing suspicion. “Why? What’s going on?”
“Nothing, bella,” Pietro smiled. “I’m just attempting to finish my finest portrait.”
“But why does he care about my portrait?”
“Art patrons are a weird bunch – who knows what makes them tick.”
“That’s creepy, by the way. Exceedingly so. And you are avoiding my question,” Gaia said, observing the studio’s interior from the comfort of the armchair while Pietro was creating his magic on the canvas in front of him. “For weeks, as a matter of fact. It’s irritating.”
“Why would you – of all people – waste your time and talent painting a portrait of someone like me?”
He glanced at her over the top edge of his canvas but didn’t respond.
“You want to know what really bewilders me?” he finally broke the silence when about quarter of an hour had passed and Gaia had decided he would never answer.
“The phenomenon that is you not realizing what effect you have on people. Why is that, I wonder?”
“What special effect could I possibly have, huh? I’m perfectly happy being part of the crowd, thank you very much.”
Pietro grinned. “A rainbow could go hiding in the blue sky and have just as much success at being invisible as you have trying to blend into the crowd.”
“Im too damaged by monsters to be a rainbow.”
Nod of affirmation.
“Oh there is a vast array of them to choose from. A true hall of fame. However, there is one I have a particularly tight relationship with. This one loves torturing me in public, sadistic beast. It grabs me by the throat before we are about to head out – holding hands no less, like two besties – and snarls in my face, his talons digging into my skin: “You are worthless. Burn that into your skull. You are worthless because you are not pretty. If you are not pretty, what is left? Ugly. You are ugly and repulsive and thus you are worthless. Only the beautiful ones are worthy of happiness. You shall be invisible when we go out. Always. And don’t you even think of trying to cross or defy me. Don’t.” And I don’t. Ever.
“And then we head out and the scene is set for the miserable spectacle that plays out every single time.
“We walk down the streets. I’m enjoying the surroundings. The monster doesn’t care. Buildings, canals and bridges don’t threaten it because they have no mind of their own. They don’t try to show me how wrong the monster might be. Its lie-truth is safe.” Gaia smiled, wishing she had the turtleneck collar of her woolen jumper to hide behind instead of the emerald silk blouse Pietro had asked her to wear for the sitting that was falling off her shoulder.
“And then someone approaches – just some passer by – and monsters eyes light up with the cold, dangerous light of suspicion. The grip of its claws tightens on my hand. I shudder at the sensation. The monster leans close to me, way too close for comfort. Its burning black eyes are on the one who walks down the street towards us. Watching, always watching. It’s only a passer by, a total stranger, but the monster doesn’t care. It never takes risks. After all this passer by is a man. And any man is a potential danger. “Don’t you even think of looking at him or making eye contact.” Monster’s sandpaper voice is grating my mind and his breath is burning my ear. “You are ugly. You are repulsive. He will not like the sight that is you. Nobody likes ones like you. Even the one who supposedly loved you bailed on you without as much as good bye. Doesn’t it prove my point, huh? Look DOWN!”
“Monster’s breath burns my brain, its words are like poison, and I obey. Just to make it stop. Just to make it shut up. And the monster revels in its victories over me. In every single one of them. It keeps them as trophies on a mantle, wears them proudly like bloody badges of honor.”
A moment of silence passed between them. Then another. And several more. Gaia felt stunned. The words had just flowed and she had been unable to stop this flood. She had never ever told these things to anyone. This was the part of her that was supposed to be locked away behind seven hundred locks. She had made sure of that. But now all the locks had seemingly melted away, vanished. There was nothing protecting her from these words and they flew out like enraged birds made delirious by the long-awaited freedom.
“However – and here I quote my favourite band – don’t save me ‘cause I don’t care.” Gaia grinned and grabbed an apple from the bowl standing on the table next to the armchair. “Anna thinks I don’t believe in love anymore.” She said, as casually as she could master, biting into the apple.
“Is she right?”
Gaia shrugged. “Perhaps.” Suddenly the taste of the apple turned from sweet to bitter in her mouth, almost making her gag. “I guess I have turned into a cynic. At least a part of me has. A very major part of me.” How did our conversation turn into this?
“How long ago did it happen?”
She took another bite from the apple. The taste was back to normal. Mind playing its goddamn games again. “About three years ago, but don’t you dare analyze me for I fit into the standard perfectly.”
Pietro glanced at her, amused. “What standard would that be?”
“One set by psychologists. Or so Im told.”
“Ah, the con artists.”
“Yup.” The apple was shamelessly tasty. “Stop it.” Gaia chuckled as she suddenly realised he had been looking at her for some time without turning his gaze away.
“What?” Pietro smiled.
“Don’t look at me like that.” She made herself more comfortable in the huge armchair.
At times Gaia thought he watched her, observed her as though trying to make up his mind on something.
“How am I looking at you?” Teasing notes played in his voice as he inclined his head to one side, his eyes never leaving her for a moment.
“As if there’s something incredibly special about me.”
“Of course, there is. More than you realize. Besides… as I told you, bella, I must finish this portrait and every nuance is important.”
“Right. I tend to forget your official excuse.”
He smiled, shaking his head. “I might start believing Anna is right about you.”
“I’ve never said she isn’t. Im damaged in my head, I know that, so I don’t mind people stating whats true.”
“What did he do to you?” The question was simple and direct.
Gaia looked at the half-eaten apple in her hand. Suddenly it seemed the perfect answer to this question – what had been done to her? “This.” She said, raising her hand and showing Pietro the fruit. “He took a taste of me and then threw me to the wayside like a half-eaten fruit that for some reason was not to his liking anymore and he didn’t explain his motives because you don’t explain to the trash why you throw it away.” Gaia put the apple carefully on one of the wide armrests.
“If I was your brother, I would have gone and had a certain kind of talk with him and you wouldn’t have been able to prevent that.”
Gaia smiled. “You’re sweet.” She stretched her arms in front of her. “Anyway, I’ve learned a few things from this experience. One of them being that lover’s promises are a thing so not worthy of trust. They are like mirages or dreams. They don’t last long. Or they become demons in the deceived one’s soul. He didn’t keep his promise that he will always be with me, but then again that was to be expected of someone who never did. Most of the time, anyway. A thing of the past it is now. And still it hurts. With the dull ache of an old wound that has visually healed, leaving a scar as the ever present reminder of itself long after the pain is gone.”
Pietro looked at her, thoughtful. Then he smiled, yet remained silent.
“You know, since that time I hate silence. Did you know that there’s a brotherhood of silences? I despise the disregarding one of them, the arrogant one. It’s the most awful assassin for it’s clumsy as a novice butcher and yet precise as the most skilled of snipers. It rips you apart, slowly, enjoying each moment, with a mask of compassion on its face which, however, cannot really hide the sneer of sadistic delight on the bastard’s lips.
“And the dreadful part is that you don’t even realize its sword is falling on you each day, again and again, in a monotonous rhythm, chopping you up. And this one can go on for years, never letting up, relentless creep.
“You lie there, worn out by the onslaught, scattered around, dead, but still pretentious enough to think you’re somehow alive.
“And then it hits you, the realization that you’re a walking zombie that falls apart at each step. You try to pick up those fucking pieces of yours, but it’s as useless as collecting dust in a hurricane. What’s more, you lose all dignity and self-respect in the process without realizing it’s happening.
“And then you scream. At least that’s what you convince yourself you’re doing, while in fact it’s just the last gasp of misery that stumbles across your dry lips and falls flat on its face in the gravel.
“There is, however, a kind one among the brotherhood of silences. The one that puts your misery out in a blink. The one that uses an exquisite misericordia instead of a brutal wide sword. Its fast, its sharp and you don’t even notice when everything’s done. I like that one. It makes you forget. Instantly.”
Gaia put the half-eaten apple aside, stood and crossed the room. “I want to see what you’re doing there. May I?”