It was early September, the air still balmy, the perfect weather for a Venetian escapade. Caterina and Pascal were sitting in a café across a canal divining their future, in a quiet campo off the beaten track, away from the tourists and the film crowd who had invaded the city for the festival. They sipped their frothy iced cappuccinos, basking in the sun, their eyes fixed on its refractions dotting the greenish canal with specks of glitter. They felt that for once things were beginning to look promising for both of them.
Pascal had just fallen in love with a man in Paris and was going to move there in the fall. His intention was to get a job in a restaurant at first, give himself a little time to learn French well enough so he could find an agent and start acting in French films. This was of course an utterly delusional plan, but Pascal suffered from a very particular kind of blindness: he never took into consideration potential obstacles that might be looming ahead of his designs. It wasn’t clear whether he simply ignored them or had a special technique for dodging them; the fact remained he did find success with most of the crazy schemes he pursued. Whereas Caterina—due to a more pragmatic approach to life or perhaps to a lack of self-confidence—didn’t trust her resources enough and spent much of her time worrying about futile things. Recently she had been worrying quite a lot about Pascal moving out of the apartment they’d shared for almost three years. Not only because she was going to miss him terribly and she’d have to replace him with another roommate (although nobody could replace Pascal), but because she feared that, along with Pascal, the scent of his positive take on life was going to fly out the window and follow him to France, abandoning her.
Then, unexpectedly something miraculous happened.
Only a week earlier, while she was stuck in traffic in Via Nazionale on the 64 bus, Pascal had rung her.
“Cate, you are there! I am looking at your name right now in the paper! No joke!”
She couldn’t scream or jump up, firmly lodged as she was between a large West African woman with a complicated hairdo and a man in a shabby jacket who was exhaling garlic fumes into her nostrils. She managed to wiggle out and get off at the next stop, bought the paper and, standing right in front of the newsstand, flipped through the pages. She skipped the earthquake, the war, the fall of the government, the catastrophic financial page and went straight to Entertainment.
There it was. Her name. She had been nominated.
She had played with the word for a few days. It felt like such a prodigious thing—to be no-mi-na-ta!—something akin to King Arthur touching her forehead with his sword and turning her instantly into a knight. Actually she had been nominated along with another four directors for a minor category— best short film—for the David Awards, the Italian version of the Oscars—like the Césars in France, the BAFTAs in England and whatever it’s called in Spain, all Cinderella versions of the real thing. But, because she’d never been nominated for anything before in her life, this felt like her greatest achievement so far.
Her short was a documentary about a team of synchronized swimmers training for the Olympics. Young girls who composed amazingly intricate patterns in the pool—six-pointed stars, budding flowers, comets and rainbows—but who, once in the locker room, became savagely antagonistic toward one another. The concept was harmony versus disruption, discipline versus unleashed emotions—a sensual, stark portrait of female competition. The short had hardly any dialogue: Caterina had concentrated mostly on the composition of the shots, lighting, angles and a carefully engineered editing. The film was only thirteen minutes long, its budget just fifteen thousand euros, a surprisingly low amount that had been painstakingly put together by herself and her producer, Marco Guattari, a thirty-something energetic film buff and Ritalin addict with amazing focus and determination. Caterina had sold her vintage Beetle for four thousand euros and Marco had managed to borrow the rest from his cousin—an obsessive comics collector—who’d just won quite a crazily vast sum on a TV quiz show, answering a tricky question involving a lesser known Tintin adventure. The idea was to pay the cousin back once they sold the film to a network, but at the moment they didn’t feel pressed to oblige, as the cousin had vanished somewhere in Brazil, where he was apparently spending money left and right without a care in the world.
According to a few seminal bloggers, Caterina’s short had an uncanny quality. Her filming had been described as “stark and illuminating.” Another brief account was nestled in Corriere della Sera, within an article about upcoming filmmakers. “The manner by which Caterina De Maria exhibits the female body in water—in a flowing ballet that alternates between gracefulness and herculean exertion, elegance and cruelty—has an almost Wagnerian quality. Are we meant to think of her swimmers merely as athletes, or as marine monsters? De Maria’s subtle and unusual work here marks a promising debut. Next time we hope to see her name linked to a full-length feature.”
To celebrate the sudden turn their lives had taken, Caterina and Pascal had decided to spend a long weekend in Venice, for a full cultural immersion, combining the Art Biennale and the Venice Film Festival on the Lido, two events that coincided that September and attracted voracious international crowds. They shared a large double bed in a tiny pensione near Le Zattere that, despite its funereal lighting, the musty walls and the yellowing curtains, was outrageously expensive. Just as expensive as the stale prepackaged sandwiches they were forced to live on, sold at every corner to desperate tourists, and as the tickets for the Biennale and for the vaporettos that shuttled them back and forth between Venice and the Lido. But they’d decided to ignore the money issue, since this was a time of celebration. Although they hadn’t succeeded in eliciting a single invitation to any of the star-studded parties held nightly in glamorous and often secret venues, not even for a mere Bellini offered by a film distributor or for one free lunch, they still felt entitled to be there. Caterina’s nomination had upgraded both of them from outsiders to quasi celebrities.
Venice, of course, was playing its subliminal part, its time-honored postcard soul contributing to lift Pascal and Caterina beyond the realm of reality. The minute they stepped off the train onto the vaporetto at Piazzale Roma, they agreed—as absolutely everyone else does the minute they step off the train—that Venice was incredible, so incredible that one forgot it did exist and had a life of its own outside films and novels. The transition from the train ride in a stuffy second-class compartment to Venice sliding past in its algaeish green and gilded glory was so fast that all the clichés inevitably crystallized within that first nautical ride: there it was, a dissolute and dissolving city built on water, impervious to passing centuries, moldy and decaying, its canals strewn with gondolas and paddling gondoliers, where slow barges carried loads of wood, boxes of fruit and vegetables or stacks of furniture piled up high as they had for centuries, its skyline of palazzi and bridges identical to Canaletto’s and Turner’s paintings. A place where nobody could escape the cheap fantasy of one day renting an attic overlooking the Grand Canal to do something artistic, like writing a novel or beginning to paint at last.
Pascal and Caterina had spent the first day strolling through the Art Biennale in the Giardini. They went from pavilion to pavilion following an orderly geographical sequence: France, Italy, England, then Germany and Scandinavia (Pascal had method, nothing was random under his direction). He was in a state of overexcitement, determined to gorge himself on as much art as he could in one go. He believed in expanding his knowledge with the hunger of a connoisseur constantly searching for yet another enriching item to add to his collection. Pascal believed in knowledge per se, as if the sheer act of recognizing an artist, his or her particular style, and therefore being able to cast him or her in the correct mental file, would contribute to bringing more order to the universe. He flew through the large pavilions in a state of ecstasy, naming different artists Caterina had never heard of, pointing out the differences between their old works and the new ones (derivative!
fresh!), rushing her to see abstruse videos she didn’t really understand (staggering! so modern!), avoiding some installations like the plague (jejune! pathetic!), forcing her to sit for fifteen minutes in silence in front of an inexplicable sculpture (breathtaking!).
After a few hours Caterina began to experience a sense of overload, the first symptoms of art fatigue. The works started blurring together and her receptors weakened, like batteries dying out. She was jealous of the way Pascal seemed to be impressed by each work like photographic paper in a bath of acid. For long minutes at a time, she studied the elusive installations, longing to be fed the same nutrient, but she felt nothing other than a sense of being excluded. All she could think of was resting her aching feet and having a slice of pizza. Pascal gestured for her to follow through a small door and they entered a cubicle. The space was bathed in a lavender light. It wasn’t clear what the medium was: swaths of color that weren’t a painting as in a Rothko or Flavin’s fluorescent tubes, but pure diffused light coming from above, as if the artist had managed to take a portion of the desert sky at dawn, and pour it into the cubicle through the ceiling. There were two other visitors sitting on the bench right in the middle of the room, completely silent and inebriated. They had clearly been in there having their own mystical experience for some time and they looked at Caterina and Pascal with scarcely repressed resentment, as squatters trespassing on their land. Caterina whispered an apology and sat quietly on the floor. She let herself drown in the pale blue mist that filled the room like a vapor. Soon she felt mesmerized by its nothingness, its lack of complication. A cloud of peace—that was maybe the idea. Pascal stood behind her, silent and impenetrable, but Caterina could tell he too was moved. Moved by what? she then asked herself. Was it the absence of structure, of subject; was it just its mystery? She knew better not to say anything. Nothing annoyed Pascal more than other people compelled to ask the meaning of contemporary artworks.
The next day Caterina and Pascal were patiently waiting in line at the cashier in a crowded café outside the Palazzo del Cinema after the midmorning screening. This was the busiest time of the day, when everyone’s blood sugar level was at its lowest and people were ready to pay up to nine euros for the crappy panini with congealed cheese that looked like melted plastic. They’d just seen a three-and-a-half-hour-long documentary about an aging rock star from the seventies, who had retired from the stage at the peak of his career, vanishing somewhere at the feet of the Himalayas searching for answers and then retreating to an island off the coast of Spain.
While Pascal was waiting to order their sandwiches, Caterina felt an undertow of despair envelop her for no apparent reason. She tried to shake it off, but the feeling clung to her like a spiderweb. It definitely had something to do with the documentary they’d just seen. She kept thinking of the mega rocker’s last interview. It was a time when he already knew he had cancer and only a few months to live. He was speaking directly into the camera, staring straight at the audience with a bold expression, seated on a stool in the middle of his vast, beautiful Spanish garden under the shade of a tall walnut tree. Right behind him soft clumps of different grasses lay beneath a bamboo grove, their silvery and purple plumes dangling in the breeze. Here and there dots of bright color—anemones, daffodils, alliums—glinted among the flickering grasses so that the wild, open feeling of the garden suggested it had grown spontaneously, as if designed by nature itself. The man called it “my last and everlasting oeuvre,” which he had created in the last twenty years of his life. He had explained how looking after it had made him as deliriously happy as all the music he’d written over thirty years. It was a continuation of the same creative impulse, the only difference being that it hadn’t made him any richer. Here he had laughed.
“If anything, the money only kept pouring out. I guess that is karmically fair, isn’t it?” he asked, staring into the camera with his deep-set eyes.
One could see why just by looking at the magnificent landscape behind him: his garden brimmed with life just as his music had. Caterina felt a terrible sorrow for the man’s death, for his absence—the world needed more enlightened people like him—and sorry for herself, for getting older, for being mortal, for all the music she still wanted to hear, the books she intended to read, the places she had meant to visit, the things she had promised herself she’d learn one day (the history of Egypt, French, raku pottery, sign language, violin) and probably never would because time was beginning to feel like a fast express train that no longer stopped at all the stations.
The rock star, his beautiful garden, his lovely songs, the pale blue room at the Biennale and the stark, pristine feeling it inspired, the Turner brume over the Venetian canals in the evening—it all came tumbling back like an ache. Caterina was surprised to realize that all the beauty she’d been exposed to in the last forty-eight hours had piled up inside her and had turned itself into a burden that now was weighing on her chest. Something began to give deep inside, like a building crumbling in slow motion, folding gently onto itself. Pascal had almost reached the cashier.
“Do you want prosciutto and Brie or tomatoes and mozzarella?” he asked her.
“Prosciutto and Brie, thank you. Oh, and a Diet Coke.”
True beauty eluded her and made her feel lonelier because she knew she would never be able to access it or grasp its fabric. It wasn’t something one could either pull apart like a doll, or study its components and reproduce. You couldn’t just learn it. The dying man had always had this gift and he had been able to pass it on to others, in different forms, throughout his life. This was probably why—though he had only a few months left to live—he was able to stare straight into the camera. He had given all that he had taken, his accounts were even.
Pascal placed the rubbery sandwich in front of her, tightly sealed in its plastic wrap.
“My gluten-free regime has gone out the window.” He sighed as he bit into his sandwich. “I feel so bloated already.”
Her short film was a laughable attempt at creating something poetic. She had been nominated, but what did it mean? Wasn’t it all a farce? A mediocre, worthless farce?
Right there and then, as her heart sank even deeper, her gaze landed on a handsome face. A young man holding a glass of Champagne standing at the counter next to a couple of interesting-looking women who spoke Italian with a heavy French accent smiled at her. Thick dark hair tied in a short ponytail, impeccable gray suit over a black T-shirt, round glasses with a thick frame. A studied Johnny Depp look. He excused himself, moved away from the women and maneuvered through the crowd toward her.
“Hey!” she waved joyfully. She had no idea who he was, though she had a feeling she ought to.
“Congratulations. I’m really happy you made it with the nominees.”
“Thank you, thank you so much. Yeah, that was a big surprise…,” she said shyly, her brain still in a blank.
“I just wanted to say that I loved your short and that I voted for you.”
“Oh my God! Did you? I’m so…,” she gasped, wishing his name would pop up any second, so she could relax. Was he on the jury panel for the awards? His face was vaguely familiar; she frantically scrolled an invisible contact list but nothing showed.
“God, thank you so much. Wow. Really. I mean…what can I say? That’s so generous of you.”
The handsome man smiled, leaned a tiny bit closer and Caterina was enveloped in an expensive aroma of leather, cedar, musk.
“You have an unusual eye. Your short reminded me of Jane Campion’s early films.”
“Oh my God! That’s like…Jane Campion?…She’s my favorite director ever. That’s the biggest compliment. Thank you so, so much.”
She could feel Pascal staring at her with reproach. Surely he meant to flag that something in her demeanor was bothering him. She had a feeling it must be the way she kept wriggling and squealing. She was aware of doing something funny with her feet, pointing them inward and twisting her ankles, an annoying reflex that came up whenever she was anxious.
“I’d love to talk to you about something. Which hotel are you staying at?” the man asked.
“Hmm…we are staying at the…at the…” She turned to Pascal for help but he signaled a nearly imperceptible no with his head.
An ascending cymbal ringtone floated between her and the man. He took out the phone from his pocket and glanced at the display.
“Sorry, I have to take this. I’ll tell you what, just give me a call at the office when you come back, that’ll be easier….It was really lovely to see you, Caterina.”
He turned around and walked toward the exit.
Pascal shook his head, frowning.
“Why do you start every phrase with Oh my God? You sound like a twelve-year-old. You’ve got to stop doing that. It’s really bad.”
“Who is he?” she asked.
“Are you kidding? Giovanni Balti.”
“Oh my God!”
“You see? It’s like a tic. And stop acting like you are an impostor. It’s so irritating. He voted for you because you are good at what you do.”
“I was confused, I kept thinking who the hell is this guy? I just couldn’t concentrate. Balti? I wish I had remembered. I had no idea he was so attractive.”
Balti’s aroma had made her dizzy. The reflective, elusive, desirable producer so many people she knew, including herself, dreamed of working with. Somehow, in that crowded café, among the tinkling sounds of cups and spoons and the hissing of the espresso machine, she felt a gentle shift take place under her feet. It was a physical sensation, like the harbinger of a fault running horizontally, severing her from the life she had been living till then. Caterina felt a combination of panic and exhilaration.
Yes, her new life must be waiting just around the corner from that crowded café, ready for her to slip into it. There was nothing to fear, all major changes tend to come in a flash, unannounced—like floods and fires.
So there they were the following day, their last in Venice, divining their future over iced cappuccinos, basking in the tepid September sun. The waiter brought the check on a plate.
“Fifteen euros,” noted Pascal, arching an eyebrow.
“I’ll get this,” she said, feeling famous and beautiful again. She picked up the check and left a five-euro tip. She stood up, triumphant.
“What shall we do now? No more art, please. I’d say we’ve seen enough,” she said, excavating some authority over Pascal from the depths of her soul.
“Fine. Let’s go try on some clothes, then,” Pascal suggested.
Pascal loved fashion in the same way he loved art. He thought of clothes as beautiful objects to be looked at, sampled, felt, experienced. Designer shops to him were the equals of galleries. One should walk in and try on whatever one wanted, just to enjoy the tactile experience.
It was a game they’d played before and there were rules that had been established. Pascal had mastered the technique to the point of perfection. Caterina had watched him walk with a confident stride into Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton and Hermès on the Via Condotti in Rome and ask for a jacket, a pair of trousers, a coat. Salesmen flocked because of his confidence and good looks, certain he must be a celebrity. The way he went straight to the rack, testing the fabric, shaking his head—at times even grimacing—as if nothing truly convinced him, was admirable. He would then ask for something more formal, with less of this and more of that. Money clearly wasn’t the issue, he was careful never to ask the price.
Once, at Gucci, he had tried a black evening coat lined in wolf fur. He looked fabulous and impossibly dramatic. The salesmen surrounded him while he studied himself in the mirror showing the usual dissatisfaction. Caterina had kept quietly in the background (she was always nervous whenever they played the game) but that once, taken by a sudden inspiration, she felt confident enough herself and had stepped in closer.
“This would be perfect for the St. Petersburg concert,” she had said out loud, looking straight at him through the mirror with an amused expression. She expected a sign of recognition or gratitude from Pascal for her brilliant idea (an orchestra conductor, of course! Who else would need a wolf-lined evening coat?). Instead he had glanced at her with an icy frown—as if to say, “That was ruinous, why did you have to do that”—and immediately took the coat off.
“I don’t like anything in this shop,” he declared and dropped the coat in the hands of a young man with a perfectly shaped goatee and a diamond earring.
For her part Caterina never possessed the guts to look sufficiently dissatisfied with the clothes so that she and Pascal could leave a shop making the salespeople feel inadequate and not the other way round. So, whenever it was her turn to try on something, Pascal would have to support the act by playing the irritable costume designer, the fussy buyer, the purist. He knew exactly when it was time to end the game and had his own exit strategy figured out. He would look at each dress with an air of exasperation that bordered on disdain, to show how unimpressed he was to begin with. If he felt the salesgirls were getting in any way pushy by praising the dress too much, or saying how becoming it looked on Caterina, how it perfectly fit her svelte figure, he would stare thoughtfully at her reflection in the mirror, incline his head to the side, tapping his chin with a finger, and say nothing for what felt like a long time. Then he’d turn away.
“Sorry, darling, but it just isn’t you. And I’m afraid we are running late for our next appointment.”
Caterina would have to change back into her clothes and he would lead her outside the shop in a rush, as if they’d wasted another hour of their precious time.
“Your turn,” Pascal said, stopping in front of the window of the Chanel boutique in a corner right behind Piazza San Marco.
Caterina laughed. Sure, why not. On a day like this even she could brave Chanel. To her it spoke of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, of the impossible dream of the penniless but eternally chic girl.
The shop was empty. Thick carpet, soft lighting. Sweetly scented. Pascal had sunk onto a white armchair and leaned back like a director before an audition he doesn’t believe in. Someone had brought him an espresso in a tiny porcelain cup with pebbles of brown sugar in a silver bowl. Two salesgirls in shiny ballet pumps and little black dresses with golden chains, hair tied back in chignons, presented themselves. How could they help?
“We are looking for evening wear. Something soft, chiffony. It has to be luscious and light,” Pascal said in his husky voice.
“Of course, sir. Black?”
“Yes, but not just. Surprise me!” He winked at them.
The salesgirls beamed, enraptured. They loved a whiff of petulance, it was so Chanel. They scuttled off.
The dressing room was like a private boudoir, with enough space for lounging and even taking a nap on the velvety couch if one felt like it. Soon it filled up with organza, feathers, sequins. Clouds of silk and tulle, in black, peach, cream, azure and jade green, hung on the walls. Caterina slipped out of her skinny jeans and T-shirt. She stood in front of the mirror in her bra and panties, slackened from too many harsh detergents, and looked at her pale, unmade face, her red tousled hair pinched on the tip of her head with a plastic hairclip. She regretted not having done her face up a bit that morning, and wished she’d remember to always have at least her Rouge Noir lipstick handy.
One of the girls in black knocked lightly at the door and slid inside, holding two boxes. She pulled out two different pairs of shoes from the crinkly paper. A shiny black patent leather sandal with a five-inch heel and a powdery pink one with a grosgrain bow on the tip.
“This one for the black and the other for the pastel colors.”
Caterina nodded and took the shoes, one pair in each hand. They were truly exquisite objects.
“These are the sandals from our cruise collection,” the girl said with a solemn expression.
“Please, let me help you with the dress. Shall we start with black?” suggested the other one.
Getting inside the first dress was like diving through a shimmering substance, each molecule of the fabric caressing her skin. She felt fresh, exuberant, feminine. Her skin flushed.
The two girls in black zipped her up, fastened hooks and buttons, fluffed the fabric, tucked the silk, slid her unpedicured feet into the shiny shoes and sent her out with moans of approval. Each time she wobbled out in front of Pascal (sprawled on the candid armchair, now munching a tiny buttery croissant), she attempted to do an ironic pirouette and in doing so caught a fleeting reflection of herself in the multiple mirrors.
Each time Pascal would stare at her for a few seconds without moving a muscle. The two girls in black would be waiting for the verdict, holding their breath. Pascal invariably shook his head slowly, smiling at them with a hint of disappointment.
“Shall we see something else, please?”
Once the black dresses came to an end, Pascal asked to see the pastels, letting transpire that despite the fact that his faith in the cruise collection was beginning to fade, he was still willing to give the Chanel girls another chance. He glanced at the time on his watch, to suggest that he and Caterina didn’t have all day.
The girls helped her out of a gorgeous pleated chiffon affair, and into a lacy, vaporous pale yellow, shortly followed by a light blue, then pink,
then peach, then white variations of the same ethereal idea. Pascal, sipping a glass of sparkling San Pellegrino, remained inscrutable.
It was getting late; the girls in black had lost some of their initial composure. A film of sweat shone on their upper lips and their immaculate hairdos were beginning to lose structure.
The last dress was simpler than all the others, less constructed, sleeveless and knee-length, but the color was a shade of azure green so perfect it almost didn’t exist in nature. Maybe an alpine lake reflecting the woods on a pale morning would come close. Tiny feathers in the same delicate shade floated at the hem and trimmed the collar, giving it a sense of lightness. Caterina walked out once more on the powdery pink heels, in a more assured stride, and again she looked at the multiple images of herself in the mirrors. The aquamarine shade of the dress enhanced her copper hair and the whiteness of her skin. Pascal stared at her and this time his silence had a different quality. She remained still, a hand bent backward resting on her hip, as she’d seen models on the catwalk do. The girls in black were right behind her, hopeful.
“That’s stunning,” Pascal said.
His words filled the carpeted space. The girls in black sighed.
Yes, the dress was stupendo, meraviglioso, elegantissimo.
Caterina glanced at Pascal, a quizzical look on her face. He stood up and moved toward her.
“No, I really mean it. It looks fantastic on you. You should get it.”
The girls in black were already chirping behind her. Of course, of course, they too agreed this was the best dress of all, the color, the shape, tutto assolutamente perfetto.
“How much is it?” Pascal asked, with the authoritative tone a man uses when he has finally made up his mind.
Caterina had shot out of the boutique like a bullet, after an excruciating five minutes attempting to extricate herself from the enthusiasm of the girls in black. Pascal hadn’t offered any help. He had let her deal with them, keeping two steps behind, while she blabbered the usual excuse (I have to think about it) and headed for the door. Outside the light of the afternoon had turned into a golden yellow, the shadows of the buildings had stretched to the edge of the canal.
“You broke the rules! Why did you do that?” she said, burning with shame.
“Because I do think you should buy it.”
“Are you out of your mind? It’s three thousand four hundred euros!”
“It’s the least expensive of all. The black ones all cost around ten. Some even fifteen.”
“So what? I can’t spend that much anyway.”
“It’s an investment.”
“I don’t need that kind of investment.”
“You do. You sure do, my dear.”
Pascal turned around and started to walk away, leaving her behind. He did this to annoy her. She sprang behind him.
“Oh yeah? And how many times would I wear it? Once, twice tops, in my entire life!”
Pascal stopped in his tracks and swiveled toward her.
“You have just been nominated for a David Award. An award that will be nationally televised. I happen to know exactly what’s hanging in your closet, Cate. And I know you have absolutely nothing to wear, other than rags.”
“I already thought about that and I will borrow a dress from my friend Tina.”
“You are twenty-nine and you still live like a student. It’s pathetic.”
“I can’t afford to spend that much money on a dress. It’s fucking crazy!” she exploded.
“That’s exactly what I mean. This is the kind of attitude that reflects on every aspect of your life. Your film is going to win, I know it for a fact. And you are going to step up on that stage in someone else’s dress, a dress that won’t fit you right, in a pair of ugly shoes, and you will look just like another charmless, scruffy independent filmmaker. Fine, if that’s who you think you are.”
Caterina turned white with indignation and shock. This didn’t deter Pascal, who went on.
“You keep thinking anything you achieve is by fluke, by God’s gift or by some random benevolence? That you don’t deserve the attention, that you are an impostor in a world you don’t belong to? Great. Then keep on behaving like this and people will start believing it too. Their excitement about you will taper off, they will see you as less talented, less interesting, less special, because this is exactly what you project. Sorry.”
He made a move to cross the street but Caterina grabbed him by the arm.
“What people? Who are you talking about exactly?”
“I don’t know. People.”
“You mean a producer, like Balti?”
“Possibly.” He put on his dark glasses. “Forget about it. Let’s just go, okay?”
Whatever energy they’d just been floating on a few minutes earlier was gone. She had pierced the balloon with a pin and it had popped.
“What would you like to do now? You want to go back to the Lido and watch another film?” she asked.
“I’m starving. I need something to eat.” Pascal looked the other way.
She hated to have disappointed him. Suddenly she knew their time together in Venice had peaked inside Chanel, and that from now on things would go downhill. The rest of the adventure would turn into endless bickering over the tiniest choices.
She reached up and slid his dark glasses off his nose with the tip of her fingers so she could see his eyes.
“You know it would be complete madness, don’t you?”
“Not at all. It means raising the stakes. It’s about feeling good about yourself and stepping up.” Pascal slid his glasses back against his brow.
Caterina took a deep breath. There were moments in life that were like thresholds. Caterina distinctly felt that she was crossing one right there, outside that beautifully designed shop window that spelled elegance and charm.
“Let’s go back inside then.”
The transaction took less than fifteen minutes. As they reentered the empty store they were met by such a show of gratitude from the girls in black that Caterina was instantly persuaded she had done the right thing. She and Pascal were made to sit down while one of the girls disappeared to retrieve the green gown in the dressing room while the other served them another espresso in their exquisite porcelain cups.
“How about the shoes, madam?” she asked “They looked so right with the dress….”
Pascal and Caterina exchanged a glance. He shut his eyelids and nodded imperceptibly. It was too late to turn back, and besides, six hundred and fifty euros sounded like a pretty good deal compared to the dress. Any three-digit number would have, at that point.
Caterina had made a few calls before reentering the shop, in order to avoid going into the red. There was a small check she was expecting from her producer, and a bit of credit she could juggle with the bank, plus her sister—bedazzled at the prospect of a real Chanel coming into the family—agreed to lend Caterina some money that she could pay back in installments. There was a moment of panic when Caterina’s card was denied, since the total amount was way beyond its limit. Pascal came to the rescue, offering his own credit card as added support, so that between the two of them the payment could go through. They waited for the slip to buzz out of the machine, and smiled to each other with relief.
Caterina realized she was sweating profusely, adrenaline shooting through her bloodstream as if she had just robbed a bank. She had to sit down, dizzy with excitement and fatigue, while the girls wrapped and hung the dress inside a black zippered bag with the white Chanel logo, and folded it inside another giant paper bag tied with a black silk ribbon.
The ride back to their musty pensione was enveloped in a daze, as though Caterina were coming down from a powerful drug, its energy now reduced to a softness that turned every muscle to mush. The people seated next to them on the vaporetto—a mix of tourists laden with bags and cameras, old Venetian ladies in housedresses and slippers, young mothers coming home from the supermarket—all appeared to be staring with timorous awe at the gigantic shopping bag with the two Cs entwined.
It was getting dark. Caterina turned to Pascal, who also appeared to be exhausted by all the emotions they’d gone through in the last hour.
“I hate that you are leaving me,” she whispered in his ear.
The Chanel dress, safely stowed on the train rack and then in the trunk of a taxi, made it all the way to the dreary neighborhood of Ostiense, where Caterina and Pascal lived in a two-bedroom flat above an electronics store and a cheap hairdresser.
As Caterina unzipped the bag, the silk organza unruffled itself, billowing like a flower in bloom. Gingerly she took the dress out and laid it on the bed. She held it for a moment, incredulous. She still couldn’t quite believe this ethereal, otherworldly thing belonged to her now. It looked so foreign, in its feathery splendor and exquisite details—the minuscule mother of pearl buttons, the silk lining, the bias cut—sprawled over the frayed bedspread, next to the old couch, the threadbare rug, the cluttered desk, the tangle of electrical cords on the floor. She felt bad for having kidnapped it from the plush environs where it had lived till then. Surely a dress like that had never lived in such a dingy place.
There was only one solution for the dress to fit in with the rest of her life, and that was to upgrade its surroundings. Out with the plastic hairclips, the worn-out shoes. Out with the slackening underwear, the faded T-shirts, the ugly knickknacks, the dusty magazines piled on the floor, the Ikea rug. In with fresh flowers, room fragrance, a cleaner desk, a new expensive matte foundation.
As a precaution, she kept the dress well zipped up in its bag, so that it wouldn’t be contaminated by the lifeless clothes hanging next to it.
She made a few phone calls.
“Hey, you want to hear something crazy? I bought a Chanel dress!”
Her girlfriends flocked to the apartment, bewildered, as though she had bought a Matisse. Each time someone came for a showing, Caterina unzipped the bag slowly, letting some tiny feathers flutter out first, delaying its full revelation, like a stripper teasing the audience before unfastening her bra.
Not everyone knew what cruise collection meant, so she had to explain—being the haute couture expert now—that it was a mid-season collection that came between winter and spring. In the old days it meant exactly that: a line designed for wealthy customers going on cruises in warmer climates who needed extravagant clothes for their encounters on the deck. Think dancing in the ballroom of the Queen Mary. The cruise aspect made the dress even more romantic to her and her friends. Caterina associated it with Scott and Zelda, although she wasn’t quite sure if the Fitzgeralds had ever taken a cruise in their lives.
Invariably her girlfriends begged her to model the dress for them; they too wanted to get a reverberation of its glamour. Wobbling on the powdery pink sandals, strolling up and down the bedroom, which lacked the softness of the lampshades inside Chanel’s boutique, Caterina believed she looked amazing, despite the merciless light of the low consumption bulb.
Two days before the awards ceremony, while Caterina was washing her hair in the sink, the phone rang. A nasal voice announced herself as someone’s assistant who was in charge of the event.
Caterina felt a thrill go down her spine, managed to grab a towel and wrap it around her dripping hair, while the woman was saying something about arrangements for a pickup in a limo. She struggled to find a piece of paper and a pen to jot down the details. The thought of the limo, the image of her waxed and bronzed legs stepping out of it in her powdery pink high heels, occupied her mind for a handful of seconds, obliterating what the woman was saying.
“…pick you up at eleven fifteen, so we’ll make sure you’ll get to the theater by noon. Do you think that will give you enough time?”
“Yes, sure. Forty-five minutes will be plenty.”
She was about to add “It’s not like I live in the jungle” when her brain did a quick rewind.
“What do you mean noon? Why noon?”
“I’m sorry, I forgot to tell you this year we’ll be running on a different schedule. The ceremony takes place at noon.”
“We changed it to daytime this year. It won’t make any difference, really.”
Caterina tightened her grip on the phone.
“No difference? Well…you mean…Is it no longer black tie?”
“No, it’s a daytime event,” the woman said gaily, “so no worries on that score, it’ll be a much more relaxed dress code.”
There was a pause.
“Hello? Are you there?” the woman said.
“Yes, yes, I’m here.”
“I said you don’t have to worry about getting all dressed up,” the woman reassured her. “The ceremony this year won’t even be televised.”
“Budget cuts. It’ll be a smaller affair. But we think it’ll be a much warmer ceremony without the TV presenter, the cameras getting in the way and all the tension that comes with a live event.”
“The car will be downstairs at eleven fifteen, then. Congratulations again, Ms. De Maria, we will see you there.”
Caterina hung up but didn’t move from the chair.
That year, due to the disastrous financial situation of the Italian economy, was in fact the only year in its history when the David Awards ceremony was downgraded to daytime, an untelevised, wholly unglamorous affair. Because of this, the nominees for major categories, used as they were to receiving their awards in tuxedos and evening gowns, were incensed. In return for the affront, none of them dressed as if they gave a hoot at all. Men showed up in crumpled linen jackets and sneakers, women in unassuming dresses and flats. It was a kind of “fuck you and your pathetic award ceremony” attitude that people had as they walked up onto that stage. In the absence of a camera nobody bothered to make a speech, to smile, or to thank his or her producer or mother. Even the statuettes looked like trinkets that year.
Caterina’s short did indeed end up winning for her category. She was one of the very few who didn’t restrain her enthusiasm. She held her statuette up high, like she had seen actresses do at the Oscars, smiling to an imaginary audience, in her friend Tina’s flowery dress and a pair of old platform espadrilles.
Pascal sat in the sparse audience (less than half the usual guests had attended given the inconvenient time and the lack of a red carpet) and he took several pictures with his phone of Caterina holding her statuette (the next day, when Pascal and Caterina Googled her name linked to the David Awards ceremony and found no images, they realized that his were the only existing shots of that glorious instant).
Once it was all over, the nominees and the press were offered a cocktail backstage—another sad ordeal of tiny plastic containers filled with microscopic sushi and cucumber mousse—but everyone dashed off in a hurry. Balti was one of the first to leave. Caterina saw him wave a hand in her direction from the other end of the room, but she wasn’t certain it was meant for her. She waved hers back, just in case, and watched him disappear, arm in arm with yet another interesting woman who looked both brainy and sexy. After their encounter in Venice she hadn’t yet summoned the guts to call him, and at that very moment she decided she wasn’t going to.
After a boozy late lunch with Pascal, Caterina came home and opened the closet. She unzipped the Chanel bag for the umpteenth time and looked at the dress. Despite everything, there it was: still hers. She quietly closed the door. One day she would wear it. She knew she would. Now she needed to work hard, to make that day happen. She refused to think of that day in Venice as a missed opportunity or, even worse, as the biggest shopping mistake of her life.
The following year, thanks to a clever financial maneuver, some funds for the arts flowed back into the budget and the awards ceremony resumed its original grandeur, along with the live TV show. The prior year’s austerity had been a hitch, a single interruption in its long history, and soon everyone forgot that it had ever happened.
In the years that followed Caterina managed to shoot one more short film about a community of Sikhs tending cattle near Bologna, and tried to get her first long feature off the ground, but she never succeeded.
In the course of the following years potential occasions for wearing the Chanel became fewer and fewer. It was either too warm for summer, or too green for winter. There had been a couple of weddings but the dress always looked too dazzling for a simple civil ceremony or a reception in a country restaurant. There had been a few film premieres, the opening of a play or of an exhibition in a museum, but none of the people who went to these events would wear anything as shockingly elegant, so each time she opted for a more comfortable outfit. With time she got so used to the Chanel bag hanging in the closet that it became just another thing living in there, so familiar that it had become invisible. It became part of the furniture, and with the furniture it followed her to another apartment when her new boyfriend, Riccardo, asked her to move in, and on to another one when, three years later, he asked her to marry him. For a moment she considered wearing the dress at her own wedding.
Her sister and her friend Tina had studied the ensemble of dress and shoes while she modeled them once again in the bedroom.
“It looks a bit funny. I am not sure why,” her sister had said, tentatively.
“Maybe a bit tight on your hips?” Tina had suggested.
“And anyway, you should wear something brand-new the day of your wedding. What the hell, right?”
Caterina hurried out of the dress self-consciously. It was true she had gained a bit of weight, especially around her midline, but at the time she didn’t know yet that she was pregnant with the twins.
Whenever she checked the dress—more and more rarely now after the twins were born—she noticed how the feathers had lost their softness and had become brittle, how the fabric had lost some of its luster. She began to think of the Chanel as an old virgin—untouched but no longer fresh. Every time she zipped up the bag, it felt as though she were laying it back in its coffin.
It took a while before one day, sitting in her kitchen and feeling particularly depressed, she rang Pascal in Paris and told him she felt like a total failure. In the meantime, shortly after he’d moved in with his lover in the Marais, he had been cast for a minor role in a successful TV series as an Italian maître d’, and that had been the beginning of a steady career as an actor. She told him she couldn’t think of herself as a filmmaker anymore, but just as a mother of two.
“You are not a failure,” Pascal said while munching on something. “Maybe you are not meant to make another film. That’s all.”
It felt like a shock and a liberation at the same time to be hearing this.
“Wow, I feel like I just received a punch in the jaw,” she said, uncertain as to whether she should agree with him and accept this truth or try to fight it a little longer.
“It’s not the end of the world, you know, there are other things in life you can do.”
“What are you eating?”
“Fromage and crackers. I think you’d be brilliant at a million other things.”
“Darling, I’m not a tarot reader. All I’m saying is that if in all these years you haven’t been able to make another film as impressive as your first, then maybe you should move on.”
Pascal could always be brutal, but wasn’t that exactly the reason she had called him?
“I still have the goddamned Chanel!” she cried. “I feel guilty every time I look at it.”
“Why guilty? Just wear it.”
“Where to? I doubt I’ll be asked to go anywhere that formal ever again.”
“Caterina. You should wear it to the supermarket and have fun with it.”
“That’s ridiculous and you know it.”
“You are making too much of it. It’s just a dress, it’s not a coronation mantle.”
Caterina thought of herself wearing the Chanel through the aisles of the Esselunga supermarket, or when going to pick up the twins at kindergarten. Of wearing it nonstop till it became a uniform, so that people would begin to think of her as the woman in the green dress. She would be considered an eccentric, of course, though by wearing the dress to death out of sheer willpower, she would not only extract from it every euro it had cost her, but also exhaust its fibers till it would have to simply give out and die of consumption, lose its feathers, become more humane, turn into a lifeless threadbare rag and no longer intimidate her. She would win by humbling it. It was an idea, a way of looking at the dilemma.
But she knew she didn’t have the guts to engage in that kind of battle.
In her forties, working as a freelance editor for TV commercials, Caterina spent most of her time inside a darkroom off Via Cavour, cutting three-minute ads for luxury cars or perfumes. She had made peace with what she had become: she wasn’t an artist but an artisan of sorts. There was no dormant Jane Campion inside her, there had been no misunderstood talent and there was nobody to blame. The twins had turned into bright, witty little boys with remarkable imaginations, well behaved and fun to be with; she and Riccardo were still good together and their marriage still felt like a safe place to be. In that, at least, she had been successful. The statuette she had won for her short now served as a doorstop and as a joke in the family.
One day, across from her office, right next door to the Pasticceria Paradisi, she saw that a stylish young woman had opened a vintage clothing store. Caterina browsed through the racks during her lunch break. The labels were all quite exclusive and prices were high.
“I have a vintage Chanel,” she found herself saying. “Would you be interested?”
The woman raised her head from the book she was reading.
“Of course. As long as it’s in good condition.”
“It’s perfect. It’s never been worn.”
The woman seemed skeptical.
“Bring it and I’ll give you an evaluation,” she said, lowering her eyes to her book again.
Caterina rang Pascal in Paris—he was about to direct his first play—and told him that she was finally getting rid of the Chanel. He replied without hesitation, saying it was blasphemy to sell it to a secondhand store.
“I need the money. It’s not a hand-me-down, it’s a very exclusive vintage store right across from the studio in Via del Boschetto. I’m tired of keeping this corpse in my closet.”
“Whatever,” Pascal said. He was busy, or perhaps tired of the game, which by now was more than ten years old.
“It’s gorgeous,” the stylish young woman from the vintage store said as Caterina freed the dress from its body bag. “Is it yours?”
“Yes. I bought it almost a dozen years ago. It’s from the cruise collection.”
The woman brushed the fabric with her fingertips and delicately fluffed up the feathers.
“May I ask you why it’s never been worn?”
“Oh…it’s a long story. Actually that’s not true, it’s quite a simple story. Every time I tried it on it never looked right.”
The woman smiled. She had beautiful black hair piled up high on top of her head and wore a dark red lipstick that contrasted with her very white skin.
“I can hardly believe it didn’t look right on you. You have such a nice figure.”
“And the dress is a masterpiece.”
“You think you can sell it?”
“Of course. It’ll sell like that.” She snapped her fingers.
“And how much do you think we could…”
“I can get more than a thousand for sure, but I’ll have to check online. Probably it’ll be the most expensive item in the store. If I had the money I would buy it from you for myself,” she said with a hint of regret, gazing at the gown with longing.
“I have clients who will fight to have it. Costume designers, maybe a couple of actresses…”
She caressed it again and under her delicate touch the fabric rustled as though it were coming back to life.
“Are you really sure you want to part with this?” the young woman asked. “I feel a bit bad selling it. You might regret it afterward.”
“No. Thank you. But I don’t think so. Really. I kind of want to get rid of it. Actually I’ve been wanting to for years.”
The woman was silent for a few seconds.
“Do me a favor. Just try it on one last time. Please.”
When Caterina came out of the dressing room sheathed in the alpine lake cloud, the woman just stared at her and said nothing. She then brought her thin hands to her face, like a stunned child.
“What?” said Caterina.
“I beg you. Don’t make the mistake. Keep it. You can always sell it later on.”
“When? On my deathbed?”
The woman laughed.
“No, seriously. I won’t take it unless you wear it at least once. It would be— it would really be unethical of me. It looks too good on you, trust me.”
Caterina looked at herself in the mirror. She knew what the dress looked like on her—she had lost count of how many times she had tried it on— but now she saw something different.
“Please,” whispered the woman, behind her now. “I know clothes. You keep this one.”
“I can’t believe it. This thing just won’t let go of me,” Caterina said out loud, and sank onto a chair in front of the mirror. The dress had never looked so good. As if it didn’t want to leave her.
She took it back under the livid light of the metropolitana, holding it in her arms like a child. She felt a special tenderness now, similar to the joy someone experiences having just rescued something that seemed forever lost. She had been on the verge of making a terrible mistake by disowning the dress as something she didn’t need, or worse—something she didn’t deserve and never would. How could she not have seen it? The dress was a talisman—her own talisman—the gift that she must always treasure, like the gold dust that she feared would fly out the window and follow Pascal all the way to Paris.
She resurfaced into the sunshine at the Garbatella stop and straightened her back, walking briskly toward her street. She clutched the dress bag closer to her body, feeling the glorious softness of the fabric inside, the faint crackling of feathers under her fingertips. Perhaps she just needed to remind herself more often how that gold was still floating above her head, its minuscule particles visible only when pierced by a certain light.