“My goodness, I am not used to this kind of weather. I don’t know how you drive in it. What’s the secret?”
I was motoring at a snail’s pace en route to a yoga school in Bristol with my customer in the shotgun seat. Luciana hailed from Key West, a municipality not exactly known for its wintry climes. We were caught up in one of those Vermont snow squalls that, though short lived, blow with blizzard ferocity. Route 116 was a mess.
“I’ll tell you,” I replied, “but don’t be blabbing it to everyone, ’cause it really is a secret. OK, here it is: Slow down.”
That elicited a chuckle from Luciana. She was a slim and attractive middle-aged woman with short hair midway between black and gray. The way she wore it, with bangs swept over her forehead and across one eye, reminded me of the teen sensation Justin Bieber. “Slow down?” she asked incredulously. “It’s as simple as that?”
“Yup,” I said, “and don’t you know it took me about 20 years to figure that out. Hey, at least we don’t have to contend with hurricanes. You folks down in the Keys, it seems you’re always having to evacuate your homes. That’s gotta be a major hassle.”
“It’s like anything else — you learn to live with it,” she said. “I have my own rule of thumb: Category 3 or less, I ride it out; category 4 or 5, and I’m out of there.”
“Did you grow up in Florida? I think I detect a slight accent.”
“No, I’m not a native Floridian. I’m from northern Italy, the town of Cortina. I moved to Key West in the ’70s.”
“I spent a couple of days in Key West once. To tell you the truth, the place struck me as kind of, well — debauched.” I paused, giggling. “I think that’s the first time in my life I ever used that word. I must sound like an old biddy.”
Luciana laughed and said, “No, I know what you mean. But the town suits me. It’s very relaxed and laid back, with a lot of interesting, creative people.”
“How’d you end up there? That’s got to be a story.”
“It is a story. When I was 19, traveling through Spain, I met and fell in love with an American boy. He asked me to come back with him to Florida. My parents were dead set against it, but I told them I’d probably stay just a few months. It’s now been over 30 years.”
“How’d the love affair work out?”
“Well, we did get married, but eventually divorced. We do have a beautiful daughter together.”
“So, what have you done for work in the States? You were so young when you got here. Are you teaching yoga?”
“I am, but that’s relatively recent. For years, I worked in the hospitality business — restaurants, hotels. Growing up, my family owned a couple of pensioni — this is something like a B&B — so this work came easily for me. Eventually, I went back to school and became a counselor. The yoga practice I’m now studying combines the yoga and the counseling. It’s quite remarkable.”
For a while we drove along in silence, absorbed in the twinkling, white-coated landscape. Something about the falling snow and warm cab created a sense of intimacy. After all these years, it still startles me how quickly human beings can connect with each other. I think, in our hearts and minds, we remain cavemen and cavewomen, huddled together in a circle around the campfire, eager to share our stories, our hopes and dreams.
“Luciana, I gotta say — you’re a good-looking woman. You must have found love again in your life.”
“Well, well,” she said, smiling sweetly. “I am remarried, and that’s even a better story than the first. I am now reunited with my childhood sweetheart — the boy I dated from ages 15 to 18. Paolo is five years older than me, so back then my parents were quite concerned, I’ll tell you.”
“How did you come to hook up again?”
“In 1998, I received an email from Paolo in Italy, completely out of the blue. He was so sweet, writing something like, ‘I hope I’m not intruding, but I just wanted to know how your life was going.’ That started up a two-year letter-writing relationship — I mean real letters, not emails — in which we spoke of everything in our lives. He had become a journalist and a teacher, but his real passion was painting. And we had both recently lost our fathers … Anyway, my mother became ill, and I booked a trip back to Cortina. This would be the first time Paolo and I saw one another in nearly 30 years.”
“What was it like, that moment?”
“We decided to meet in Venice, on the Ponte di Rialto — the Rialto Bridge. That morning in the hotel with my 16-year-old daughter, trying on one outfit after another … I can tell you, I was the teenager in that room! I got to the bridge, and Paolo was nowhere to be seen. It was more than 10 minutes past our meeting time, and, just as my heart began to sink, I turned and there he was, standing right next to me! He had gotten there early and had been watching me from afar.”
I could hear Luciana take a deep breath and softly exhale. When I glanced over, she was back on the Ponte di Rialto.
“All of the letter writing,” she continued quietly, “reached its fulfillment in that moment when our eyes met again, after all those long years. And now we’re married and living together in Key West. Paolo is teaching some classes, and he’s painting again.”
“Luciana,” I said, “that story of yours is a movie waiting to be filmed. I mean it — that is some epic stuff.”
Maybe it’s because of Christmas, or the turning of another year, but Luciana’s love story captivated me. That evening, I Googled images of the Rialto Bridge, and it’s exactly as you would imagine — a 16th-century, early baroque masterpiece. I’ve been a romantic since I was kid, and it’s only getting worse as 2010 melts into 2011.
“Hackie” is a biweekly column. To reach Jernigan Pontiac, email firstname.lastname@example.org.