She was an old man's whore who didn't speak a lick of English. It was clear that I had woken her up, but even with her hair a mess, no makeup, and her eyes puffy from not enough sleep or too much drink the night before, she was beautiful. Beautiful, young and tall, at least half a hand taller than me, which wasn't intimidating for a reason I've never been able to nail down.
The alleyway into the Venice apartment building was narrow, gray, and mostly shadowed in the light of that autumn morning. If this had been America, nobody would have opened the sturdy wooden door to an outsider banging on it. Especially a cold, hungry, and hungover one wanting to get inside with the pitiful breakfast I had managed to scrounge up. But she did, and not by a timid crack, but all the way like she was about to confront my screaming mess, tell me to shut up and go away. Then she recognized me as a fellow tenant, having passed me on the spiral staircase that wrapped itself around the central elevator shaft, leaving no room for mistaken identity when you squeezed by others.
I gestured in an attempt to get across that I had forgotten my keys in what I hoped was something of a universal language. She just motioned me in, twirling her hand at the end of her wrist and waggling her head, understanding enough and not caring about the details, twittering away in friendly, dense, and completely indecipherable Italian. The elevator was used mostly for baggage and, like all things Venetian, was too cramped and slow for the American in me, so I thanked her a few times and started up the stairs to the third floor. To my surprise and discomfort, she followed me.
The stone stairs echoed our footsteps and her stream of Italian as we walked up. I responded to the latter with a more extensive and bumbling explanation of having left my keys in the apartment I was renting with my wife. I used the word 'wife' defensively, which usually worked to scare off women that I found myself attracted to. Cheryl was going about the business of dying and had chosen to do so in Venice. And in that lonely cold box that was Venice in autumn, with its ancient stone buildings, dirty canals and rainclouds, I didn't want to complicate things with an extramarital affair. I hadn't made it through nine years of marriage to break her heart at the end.
When we reached my door I didn't have any choice but to bang on it and yell for Cheryl as the inner door, like its outside counterpart, locked automatically when it closed. As I shouted, hoping she would have the strength that morning to answer, my blonde companion hovered behind me, tittering quietly to herself, obviously amused at my percussional entry dance. I had half forgotten she was there, wondering what contingency plan I had if Cheryl didn't wake. Could I climb to the roof and get in through the balcony?
Almost completely hairless now, gaunt and pale, but with much of her beauty untouched, wrapped in a pearl colored sarong, Cheryl answered the door. She was as bleary-eyed as my escort, halfway through a sentence telling me to stop making so much noise when she noticed the other woman. Her surprise didn't chase all of the sleep away, but she smiled, looking past while speaking to me, “Who's your friend?”
I 'oh'ed and 'uhm'ed for a second, not sure how to explain bringing home a local girl. The girl in question used the moment to step forward and extend her hand to Cheryl as if she were introducing herself for a job interview – perfect posture, eyes bright, arm straight. Another stream of Italian came out, out of which I caught that her name was Sophie. Cheryl smiled, took Sophie's hand, and quickly, politely, and in perfect Italian introduced me and her. For what must have been the fiftieth time I kicked myself for letting my wife convince me to come to the one place where it seemed like I was the only one who didn't speak the language.
To my surprise, Cheryl invited her in. She had very little energy these days, spending most of it on the couch, so the generous social gesture took me aback. But Sophie strolled right in, seemingly pleased with the invitation. We commenced a nickel tour, starting with the largest room (the living room) and proceeded vertically through the ever shrinking rooms, ending with the smallest, the roof garden. To call it a garden was an insult to my mother's. Hers was expansive and held a variety of plants while this one would barely cover a postage stamp, really just a deck with potted plants. But it was tall enough to overlook the stacked and jutting roofs of Venice.
Cheryl sat down at the table in the center of the deck, putting her elbow on the wooden, warped surface, tilting her head into her stick-like hand, giving both of us a weary smile. Sophie walked the perimeter of the garden, spouting what sounded like very positive, enthusiastic things as she gazed out over the city. I think at some point she may have said, “You can even see the ocean,” but I can't be sure. I was trying not to care that it was nice to have someone around with that much energy. She only stopped when she turned back to face us and realized Cheryl was asleep.
With a sympathetic coo, Sophie walked over and bent to examine her, then turned to me with questioning eyes. Not knowing how to explain 'cancer' and 'terminal' I could only shrug. I didn't see the point in sharing the darkness we had brought with us, but it was clear that Sophie had some idea of what was happening when she placed a gentle hand on Cheryl's cheek. The ability to feel for others was something that they shared in common.
I eventually announced that the visit was over the only way I could. I picked up Cheryl (my knees buckled for the millionth time at feeling her reduced weight) and walking down the stairs to set her on the couch in the living room. Sophie followed, quiet as a child sneaking downstairs on Christmas Eve, but without all that pesky joy.
When I finished laying her out on the couch and Cheryl hadn't woke up, Sophie made quiet questioning noises, which I dismissed with hand gestures as I watched my wife. But then Cheryl blinked awake and made what sounded like an apology. Sophie smiled and waved, like people do to babies behind the glass at maternity wards, and turned to leave. This time I looked towards her and, despite all of the guilt in my dirty little soul, I couldn't help but watch her go. Her beauty had set me back before, but now that she was leaving, I assumed forever, I could take a moment and drink it in. With her facing away from me and my wife behind me, I did so without fear of reproach and only my own conscious to hassle me.
Cheryl said, “She seems nice. We should invite her over sometime.”
“She doesn't speak English.” I said absently as I watched Sophie disappear over the threshold of the last home my wife would ever know.
“Maybe I could teach her,” Cheryl said.
I watched her hips swing out the door.