I once had a boyfriend with whom I planned a big trip during summer. His name was Mike and he worked as a waiter in an upscale restaurant in Venice. Mike had only few days off work and I was broke, so it was going to be a big trip mainly cause it was ours.
We had been saving money for three months, when he decided to spend his share on a boat. I found out one Wednesday morning, as I walked across the bridge that led to his apartment. He was standing next to the canal, waiting for me with a rope in his hand.
“What is this?” I asked.
“It’s a boat.”
“I see that. Why are you keeping it on a leash?”
“It’s my boat.”
“Did you… buy it?” He nodded.
“Well, just now?”
“Actually, bought it two weeks ago. It was parked in a boatyard. I collected it this morning.”
I sighed. I knew he always wanted a boat, but I never thought it would happen this way. This boat was now hurtful. His dark brown eyes firm and uninterested, I was simply not part of this choice: his selfishness brutal, but unconditioned to the point of becoming admirable. He had a very little patience for discussions which he considered trivial, or towards people, words and feelings he didn’t agree with, which he would promptly discard. To me, this resoluteness was unluckily his most magnetic feature.
“When were you going to tell me?” I asked.
“Think about it: we can go out in the lagoon every day, and swim and fish.”
“Yeah right, because I love fishing.”
“You can sunbathe… or read or somethin’. It’s going to make our life easier, I promise! I can drop you and pick you up everywhere now.” His eyes were lit with excitement. “Those leave days I have taken we can camp on the boat, on some island around here.”
“Sleep on this trap. Sounds very safe!”
“Don’t be difficult. You’re going to love it. Wanna go for a ride?”
I looked at the thing. What he called a boat was actually a dirty piece of wood with an engine, and it looked like it could barely stay afloat. Water was not my element and he knew it. A few months earlier we had taken a ferry to the Lido and got surprised by a storm. As the wind was swinging us from left to right, and we were showered at once from the sea and the sky, he told me the story of a similar ferry, twenty years ahead, which was sucked by a current and held underwater for thirty minutes. All passengers had died.
I swore I would never go on water again, crying and cursing, hating him for being able to cause distress so effortlessly. And there I was, about to have a boat on my own. This selfish man, with his timeless charm of a movie star from the fifties, never failed to talk people into what they didn’t want to.
Before I could make up my mind, in his fashion, Mike grabbed my hand and pulled me to his body. He must have been toying with water until then, as he smelled like the Lagoon.
“I’m here with you, if you fall in the canal,” he said. “I’ll catch you, promise.”
I couldn’t help thinking: would he really?
The engine crackled softly as we slid on the silent water wakes. Mike was carrying us effortlessly along the canals, turning right and then left in some passages we could barely seep through. The city looked so different, that we could have been somewhere else: that day Venice revealed a silent and peaceful backside for the few to see, where everlasting buildings stood quiet and serious against the flow of time and tourists, solidly grounded in water and camouflaged under thick layers of green algae.
It felt like watching a documentary. Life unravelled in front of your eyes as a spectacle you couldn’t interact with; it alternated slides of people walking, sitting outside restaurants or drinking aimlessly in squares. Each corner of the city seemed converted into the stage of ordinariness, a playground for frugal yet eternal everyday gestures. Only some characters would turn their heads along our path, chewing, smiling, looking down at us from bridges. I could imagine what they were thinking, staring with envy and admiration, commenting to fellow tourists how venetian we looked.
Owning a boat in Venice was in fact the ultimate proof of your belonging there, the assertion elevating you above the thousands of bodies that dragged themselves through the streets. With a boat you didn’t visit the city, you rode it, hence you owned it. A boat in Venice was a statement, a status symbol, a state of mind.
Soon enough I learned that a boat is no different from a car when it comes to pimping and Mike would spend half his salary to turn it into a stunner. He started by adding external lights, then the internal ones, then a stereo. He tinted it yellow and white and wrote a name on it in white paint, Zioba, that carefully chosen word that’d scream Venetian. When we were getting home, he would give me the keys and stayed longer to lock Zioba for the night. And while he was at it, he would check things here and there, taking his time singing lullabies, while I’d impatiently wait and sigh down at the canal from his bedroom window.
When getting the boat though, one thing Mike didn’t think through was its parking. Since he had no legitimate right to a spot in the canal, he believed that if we slept with one eye open, jumped on our bed at every noise and ran to the window armed with attitude, the boat would be fine. Truth is Mike was a guy from the countryside, but an outsider who had arrived in Venice young enough to know how things worked. Young enough to grow up in the very proximity of wealthy young Venetians, kids deserving the best, to find legitimacy in their fellowship and shining of their reflected light. This is why he ended up parking illegally in someone else’s spot, and still refused to consider himself an asshole.
His best friend, Tommy, was one of these kids he met in school. He now owned the restaurant where Mike worked, which meant they were colleagues but Tommy was Mike’s boss. Tommy was the typical Venetian. His eyes blue, his hair blond, his teeth impossibly white. The shiny portrait of wealth. Whenever I was picking up Mike from the restaurant, I liked to stay around for a while, to tease Tommy with my jokes, leaning in when I was laughing and squeezing my eyes just that little. I didn’t care about Tommy at all, it was purely for Mike to see. And he saw it alright.
Tommy liked Mike’s boat and wanted to buy it from him. Every day at work he would remind him of his proposal, every time Mike would decline with a smile. I knew there was line he wouldn’t cross, out of respect for Tommy and out of fear of losing his privileged position. But that boat and me, those were the two things his rich friend could not buy. Mike had the soul of a leader but had to play by someone else’s rule. It was quite painful and tender to see him struggle like that. And it was such a pleasure, to gently rub the knife in his wound.
Mike and I had one of those so-called troubled relationships. It all started on our first date, when I arrived at the meeting place and found him flirting on the phone with another girl. His eyes were sparkling, as he seemed to take joy from me having to hear exactly what he couldn’t bother to clarify: don’t be a fool and think this ’ll be exclusive. And so I did. From that night on, I’d pick up the phone once every five times he called. In return, after he confessed he’d fallen in love few weeks later, he would punish my silence by poisoning my life with uncalled-for jealousy. That was how we worked.
A year later, this boat seemed to represent the essence of us: it was something that he voraciously kept as his, and I let him hold onto it cause I didn’t want him as a whole. What I couldn’t know back then, that sunny morning it appeared in my life, was that the boat would mark the moment that our arrangement would go Titanic.
“Is this necessary?” I asked him on the phone few weeks later, hardly swallowing my anger. He made a short pause. “Look, I told you the landlord has raised the rent. I need someone to help me out, remember? I asked you first, but you didn’t want to live with me.”
“That’s not true.” It partially was. “You know I cannot afford to live in Venice at the moment. Once I’ll graduate I’ll look for a job and we’ll live together.” Truth was, I would have never given him the satisfaction of thinking I was a done deal. “But why living with a girl?”
“Cause she is the first person I could find.”
“Is she pretty?”
He laughed. “Don’t be silly.”
“No one is as pretty as you are.” So she was.
Two weeks later, I was leaving my hometown on the train to Venice. I was tired and sweaty and generally indisposed. Most nights I had dreamed about Mike and the flatmate, holding hands in the kitchen and disappearing in his room, leaving me outside to knock and shout. I felt ashamed of myself, of feeling so vulnerable and needy. But I knew it was the very side effect of the game I played with Mike: ever since we laid eyes on each other, we’d come up with tricks to manipulate and destroy the other, such as the “I want to be with you” statements, a literal threat and not a love declaration. We were looking forward to fight a crusade for emotional authority, and found in each other a challenge who’d comply with our masochistic needs. It was vibrant and exciting but over the time I felt my strength had withered, as he had slowly slipped into the cracks of my insecurity to demolish me from inside, like a moth.
When I entered the flat my boyfriend and the girl were sitting in the kitchen, smoking and chatting. Mike came to greet and kiss me, and I went to the bedroom to drop my luggage on the floor. The atmosphere in the apartment had subtly changed. I stood there, in the dark bedroom, and listened to her voice echoing through the corridor, saturating the air. I reached for my feelings to give me a push: I didn’t want to go to the kitchen and see her. I didn’t want to introduce myself and pretend to be nice. I wanted her to not exist, to disappear from this house. It was something I had never felt, a new and terrible feeling. Worsened by the fact that Mike had not called me, nor checked on me, nor worried that I might have left. I realized it was time for me to force myself to the kitchen, or I would have been otherwise forgotten. I stepped in and joined the table, walking right into a vibrant burst of laughter. As Mike didn’t hint at introducing her to me, I had to introduce myself to her.
“Hi” I said.
“Hi, I’m Anna” she said, polite and cold. Her handshake was weak, her hands tiny and soft. She was wearing a big campus sweater, but one could imagine the lean body underneath it. She had short black hair and big green eyes, the eyes of a cat – the most treacherous of cats.
We sat there and chatted for a while, joking on how the heat drove tourists crazy. Anna laughed every time Mike opened his mouth, acknowledging my presence but never addressing m e in the conversation. She had a very sweet smile, but a laughed in a way that suggested composure and restraint. There was something she wouldn’t let out, a big black hole she wouldn’t want anyone to see. Oh Anna, how basic. She had just let me know what she was hiding, her eyes smearing that look of naivety she was trying to sell. She was the girl who pretended to be dumb in order to get everything she needed, the stabbing-your-back-with-a-smile kind of type. Right away I knew what she wanted. Probably Mike did too.
“She doesn’t like me” I later said to Mike, in his bedroom. “That’s not true. She was nice to you.”
“You call that nice? I don’t trust her.”
“What do you mean? You don’t even know her!” “Well, do you?”
“You are being paranoid.”
“I don’t think so. She likes you and she’ll make our life hell.”
“You are behaving crazy. Let it go, jealousy doesn’t suit you at all.”
“She is pretty.”
“Yeah whatever. This is probably why she got hired at the counter.”
“Wait, what? Does she work with you?”
“Yeah, since about a week. This is why I gave her my extra room until she finds something better. It is very convenient for both of us: we go to work together and she helps me pay the fuel for the trip.”
“What about our trip?”
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about it. I’m not sure we can make it anymore.”
I stared at my bare feet hanging from the bed. Had I looked at him in that moment, I would have probably turned to stone.
“I’m gonna go for a shower.”
“Maybe it’s better. I’ll be here, reading a bit” he said lying on his bed.
I took a long shower to cool down, in the hope that my feelings would be shoved down the drain too. As I got dressed, I kept hearing chuckles from the living room. Mike and Anna were sitting in the kitchen, smoking and sharing tales on their colleagues, leaning onto each other in a way that looked flirtatious. My head was hot and heavy; my stomach twisted. I wondered if he knew that I could hear them, if he felt I was listening.
Mike had achieved the impossible: he had made me jealous. Although he would never admit it, this girl was my punishment for not moving in with him. One of the last pillars of emotional resistance had collapsed, revealing an overwhelming sense of fear, disgust and anger.
“Dress up! We are going out for drinks” he told me, once he joined me in his bedroom. “Who’s going out for drinks?”
“Some colleagues. We’re meeting in Campo San Giacomo for a starter.”
I hated his colleagues. They were those kind of people who formed groups in which is impossible to fit.
“I am tired. I’ll wait for you at home” I said. What I really meant was for him to lay down with me, hug me and say he would not leave the house, ever again.
“Sure. I won’t be late, it’s just one drink.” He briefly kissed my forehead and left.
Five hours later I was lying on his bed, my eyes wide open. He had not called or sent any message trying to get me to join them. Myriads of thoughts, images and phrases were cluttering my head, mixed in a sordid rage I was dying to let out once he got back. Then the sound of an engine resonated through the canal, approaching slowly. I sneaked to the window.
There came the boat: Mike had his arm around Anna’s shoulders, her head was resting on his chest. I looked at them for a brief moment. When he entered the room, I was miraculously sound asleep.
The following morning, as I walked in the kitchen to get coffee, I found Anna sitting at the table. She was reading a biography about Canova and eating a peach. What a pretentious bitch, who reads about a boring painter and eats fruit first thing in the morning?
Sadly, in that moment I wished I did.
“Morning” I said. Anna lifted her eyes to greet me with a frugal blink while I walked past her. As I moved around the kitchen I gladly noticed that, beside a bunch of peaches in the fruit basket, there was no evident sign of her in the house. That was my house after all, even though I wasn’t living there. It was me who had found it few months earlier, a faded advertisement on a noticeboard someplace nearby. Mike and I had gone to view it the day after, looked at each other, and thought we were going to be very happy there. A week later, when I helped him moving in, we made love inside the bathtub I was scrubbing, yellow plastic gloves and bubbles and all.
“Do you want to go to the market with me, to get some fresh veggies? We can cook something for dinner” I asked her. I didn’t want to hang out with her, but I was hoping to test the feeling she gave me the night before.
“I can’t, thank you. I have to do things this afternoon” Anna replied. She didn’t raise her head any more, staring at her book, uninterested in getting involved. It was clear she had no intention in talking to me, and her honesty offended more than plain rudeness. People who don’t talk to people in these situations are petty, cause they openly deny cooperation out of mere competition. She could feel my judgmental eyes on her, sitting stiff and proud. She knew she was wrong. She knew more about us than I did. She probably knew everything. As I stood against the counter staring at Anna, Mike came in the kitchen yawning. “Morning y’all.”
“Have you made coffee?” he came and kissed me.
“Yep. I’ll fix you a cup.”
Mike sat down at the table.
“What you reading? Biography of Canova. Cool! You know about his grave in the Frari Church? It is the one church just few minutes away from here.”
“Of course!” squealed Anna, “I’m actually reading about his artistic beginnings in Venice. He is the reason why I moved to Venice myself and took art history as a major.”
“I’m free this afternoon. Shall we go and check out the church?” asked Mike.
“That would be great! We could go for a boat ride afterwards, and get the sunset out in the open before going to work” she said. She seemed to love the boat. “Were you not busy this afternoon?” I asked her.
“Yes, but it’s not important,” she smiled. “I can actually postpone.”
The day was hot and humid, hoards of tourists were crowding the streets; it was the perfect day to get out in the Lagoon and start a fight. Mike was driving way past the speed limit, his sunglasses skewed on his red nose, his lips peacefully set on a lit cigarette burning twice as fast in the whirlwind. Him and I, stranded on the boat.
It was few weeks Anna had moved in, her books and clothes and cigarettes were all over the apartment. It was the first time I was coming back to Venice after meeting her, and the distance between Mike and myself had grown unbearable. We had a major fight few days earlier, when I received a phone call from a friend staying in Venice reporting that she saw Mike on the boat kissing a brunette. Mike had denied the kiss, but not the brunette. None of us had mentioned our trip anymore. Nobody ever would. Mike stopped the boat next to an abandoned island. Its desolation was crushing, and I was too.
“So is this what you bought it for?” I asked Mike.
“Is this the reason why you bought this piece of shit.” I tapped my foot on the boat. “To carry girls around?”
Mike laughed. “It definitely comes in handy.”
“Fuck you. You have them get fresh air in their face, so that they can’t smell your stink?”
“Ha-ha. How charming.”
“I’m serious. Just admit it, and I’ll be gone.” “Admit what?”
“You are doing this to hurt me, aren’t you?” Mike stared at the lagoon with a smirk.
“Mike, just admit it. You are deliberately trying to hurt me.” “Not everything is about you, you know that?”
“Sure, so you’re just an asshole to everyone.”
“Ha-ha. Come here baby, give me a kiss” Mike stretched his arms towards me, mimicking baby talk.
“Tell me the fucking truth! For once, you liar.”
“Do you really want to hear the truth?”
He made a brief pause. “I don’t love you anymore.”
I froze to take that in. It was funny. Was I supposed to find myself aloof and light and ticklish?
“Can we please enjoy the afternoon now?” he asked.
“Sure! I want to leave.”
“No-one is stopping you. Swim! You can swim back to shore.”
“Did you sleep with Anna?”
Mike stared at the water. “Did you sleep with her?”
“What difference does it make now?”
I closed my eyes, and a feeling of despise mounted in my throat. “You are disgusting. Take me back!”
“I don’t think so. Don’t ruin my afternoon, I have to go to work in few hours” he said, pulling a joint out of a bag under his seat.
“I don’t care! You should rather enjoy these hours with one of your girls.”
“You are right, I should.”
I leaned forward and slapped him in the face. And as he sat there, watching me in shock, it dawned on me that Mike was right. This didn’t feel like love at all. It was greasy and upsetting and morbid. I was nauseous. He put the joint in his mouth, caressing the slapped cheek.
“Can you please not smoke, please?” I asked. My voice sounded desperate and nervous, I hated its pitching sound. I never liked annoying girls, and becoming one of them felt the lowest of the low. It was unclear to me why I couldn’t stand him smoking weed that day, as he had been doing it since I met him, we had been doing it together. It had actually been that rare moment in our relationship in which our brains ceased fire, all of our resentment set aside, and we could just be together, self-disclosing. This time was different though, it was quite the contrary.
Piercing my eyes and without a blink, he slowly raised the fire to the tip of the joint and lit it up. He went on smoking, silently inhaling and exhaling, and stared at me with no expression. Then and there, looking at those empty eyes, I knew his heart had also emptied.
A distant buzz arose in between our silence. It was the sound of an engine and a familiar boat materialized from behind the island. Peculiar how Venice never allows you to meet people when you’d like to, but it becomes a very tiny island when you don’t want to bump into them. “Tommy!” I jumped on my feet, waving so wildly that the boat vacillated.
“What the fuck you doin’”? whispered Mike. “Sit down and behave. You’ll have us in the water.”
I turned my head and looked down at him. So worried and self-conscious all of a sudden, he looked like he had shrunk. “That won’t be necessary. I don’t love you either, you know?” Tommy had approached fast. His white teeth dazzled in the orange sunset light. “Look who’s here! My future boat.”
“Dream on, Tommy” smiled Mike. “How you doing?” asked Tommy.
“We good. Chilling.” Mike raised the joint and smiled.
“I hear you!” Tommy raised a beer in one hand, and a joint in the other. “Do you want to join us for the sunset?”
“I was actually on my way back to the city. I’ve got to drop something at home and get changed.”
“Oh great!” I said. “I’m actually late for something on land. Can I get a lift?” “Sure. Jump on board.”
“Wait!” said Mike, “if you can wait a minute I’ll take you back.” “No I can’t. It’s already too late.”
“Alright Mike, heard the lady?” Tommy moved his boat next to ours. “See you later at work! Eight sharp man!”
“Sure” whispered Mike, exhaling.
As I jumped onto Tommy’s boat. I didn’t turn to look at Mike’s face. I could feel it. There was one last thing to do to Us, and the entire universe knew.
Alexandra Lasky (Italy, 1987 – ), unpublished short story
Alexandra Lasky is a public relations and marketing consultant living in Windhoek, Namibia. Following her academic background in Literature, and later in Communications and Marketing, she specializes in processes of cultural production, artistic communication and marketing for the arts. Her strong appreciation of literature and a concrete lack of long term memory drive her interest in creating stories that focus on anthropology, history and aesthetics.