A Wish Gained; a Gift Lost
I want it back. Give it back. Please: just make it come back. The fifty cent piece spun in the water, flashing back the burnished July sun before plunging. And then it was lost in the golden-silvery sea littering the iridescent basin of Fontana Di Trevi. Wish made, Max wanted to contemplate more; to pray to some power in which he didn’t believe. But the relentless push of scantily-clad tourists made lingering impossible. He had no choice but to move on.
But where to go next? A master of aimless meandering, Massimiliano Di Stelle traversed the cobbled Roman streets. The strength of the sun drove him to the shade: shadows on the periphery of streets, cast by terracotta buildings with green shutters, offered momentary respite from the bite of the sun on the back of his neck. And as he skirted the streets, increasingly restless, Max grew more frustrated. Would the magic of the fontana work for him? After all, if anything could bring it back, that something would surely be this: here – now – in the roar and bustle of this ancient capital.
But he had been in Rome for seven months now. And it hadn’t come back. Not yet. Moreover, there had not been the instant connection with Italy which the younger, teenage, Max had always assumed would occur if he lived there one day. Max felt out of place. Yet that was something he was used to - being the outsider; the imposter; the perpetual onlooker. Born in the States to the richest family of Italian immigrants, and raised in a private English boarding school, Massimiliano had never felt he belonged anywhere. Even his accent was a strange hybrid of Anglo-American, and his Italian cursed by an American twang.
In the past, Max had channelled this unpleasant, permanently hermitic, mode of existence into art. Painting offered him a way of unleashing unspoken angst. The unspoken angst of a spoilt rich kid whose privilege – far from offering opportunities, as most would think – left him feeling imprisoned. His father wanted him to take over; to don a designer suit and attend endless meetings around the globe. But an eighteen-year-old Max announced that he was going to become a painter, making his parents choke over their linguini. They had dismissed the idea. But he had persisted. And since Massimiliano was an only child, and too much of a darling to be cut off, here he was: twenty-two years old, in Rome, living off a trust fund – and searching for an unidentified something.
He had been moderately successful as an artist. The infamous surname helped. His father was the CEO and founder of the renowned Café Di Stelle empire. A few of his paintings had sold back in New York, through some or other family connection. And whilst Max acknowledged that, in order to ‘make it’, he had to inevitably capitalise on nepotism, he had at the very least felt that his paintings were worthy of praise; that they were good – whatever ‘good’ meant when it came to describing art.
But a year ago, something terrible happened. His lifelong gift ran dry and shrivelled up. All inspiration evaporated, and his ability finally abandoned him. The quality of his paintings increasingly decreased until he was painting complete shit. His former art teacher couldn’t help. Nor could his sycophantic girlfriend. Nothing could. Without further ado he broke up with the over-tanned and underweight Annabelle. And then he booked a one-way ticket to Rome, leaving an unapologetic voicemail for his parents. And now he was renting an obscenely opulent flat in Trastevere. And yet – despite all these steps – his gift of painting had yet to return.
Every day Max made an excursion to Fontana di Trevi. Every day he wished for this gift to return. And every day he was disappointed. He would wake at noon and breakfast on macchiato and cigarettes; he would make his little pilgrimage at 2pm, hoping that the oppressive heat would deter the tourists (which it never did); he would toss his coin and make his wish; he would return to the decadent flat, pick up an expensive paint brush, and stare at the canvas. He would put down the brush and the canvas would remain blank. He would call one of his scoundrel friends, and finally get high as a kite on a balcony overlooking the sun set over a miscellany of spires and domes.
This day was no exception. He returned and left the canvas blank. He called a bunch of friends. By 11pm, they were all drunk. By 3am, the apartment had become a mindless carnival and he watched as they wreaked havoc in various stupors. He had to escape.
Before long, Massimiliano found himself in front of the Fontana Di Trevi once again. For the first time he’d ever seen, the three-road junction was nearly empty. He should’ve come at this early, ungodly hour sooner. The usual roar of voices was replaced by the gush of water. But the area wasn’t completely empty. A couple of late-night stragglers staggered along. Max ignored their slurred questions. He sat on the fountain’s edge.
Across the water, he saw someone else doing the same: a red-haired, milk-skinned young woman, gazing into the water. One of her legs was propped up, and a dainty arm draped across it. She was breath-taking. Not beautiful exactly, but otherworldly. As if she’d stepped out of a Botticelli painting. Her magnetism drew Massimiliano; he edged around the fountain edge until he was less than one metre away.
“Did you make a wish?”
She didn’t jump. Instead, she slowly shifted her piercing gaze from the waters to Max’s face, and raised an eyebrow.
“Did you?” Her accent was English.
“I make a wish every day.” Max approached slowly and cautiously – as if she were a cat. “But obviously I can’t tell you.”
“And you? Did you make a wish?”
“I suppose I can’t tell you either. It seems we are at an impasse. Perhaps you should leave.”
“Do you want me to?”
“Would I have suggested it if I didn’t?”
“Do you always answer a question with a question?”
“That depends. Do you?”
“If I say yes will you let me stay?”
She relinquished a grudging half smile.
“It’s a free country. I can’t make you leave.”
Max leaned against the stone beside her. He pulled out a cigarette pack, offering one to her. She shook her head. If she doesn’t smoke, neither will I, he thought, returning the one half-way to his lips to his pocket, unlit.
“How come you’re here?” The sky was beginning to lighten. “I will pre-empt your responding question – Why am I here – and answer first. Because I can’t sleep. And now it’s your turn.”
“Can’t sleep? I suppose that has nothing to do with what you’re on?”
“And you still managed to turn it into a question. Yes it does have something to do with what I’m ‘on’. Perhaps it takes one to know one.”
“On the contrary. I’ve never taken anything in my life.” Her tone was dry in a typically British way, making it nearly impossible to determine whether or not it contained sarcasm.
“My name’s Massimiliano. But I prefer Max. What’s yours?”
“Sylvia.” Her smile was dazzling but her handshake weak.
“You still haven’t said why you’re here at this hour, Sylvia.”
“I prefer it at this time.”
“Sure. I’m a night owl. I don’t need something to stay up. Unlike you it seems. I need something to go down.”
“My whole life. But sometimes it works in my favour. Every city is more beautiful at night.”
“… And more dangerous.”
“All the more thrilling.”
“You’re really something.”
“Thank you, I suppose. Better than being really nothing.” Sylvia elegantly hopped down from her sitting position. She was small and dainty – ethereal and fairy-like. “Speaking of danger… Being approached by a stranger in the early hours of the morning doesn’t inspire confidence. I think I’ll take my leave.”
“Wait Sylvia.” Max couldn’t let her leave. But he couldn’t make her stay either. She began walking. “Please, at least give me your number?”
“Persistent, aren’t you?” She continued walking. But then she halted abruptly, turning to look at him shrewdly. “I tell you what, Massimiliano who’s high on something. If you take a dip in the Trevi Fountain, and bring me back one of its wish-coins, then I’ll grant your wish.”
Instilled with the arrogance a privileged upbringing entails, Massimiliano didn’t hesitate. He ran and hopped over the fountain edge, and after fishing about brought her back a fifty-cent piece. He held it out before him eagerly. She didn’t take it. Instead she gave something back: a quick kiss.
“Do you know the real reason I’m here?”
"Why?” he asked breathlessly.
“It’s not at all as mysterious as you think… My hostel is disgusting. They were doing the drains outside. It stunk. I had to get out.”
“Well, come back with me. Just to sleep, I mean. That is… What I’m trying to say is…”
“No funny business.”
“None at all.”
“Ok Marcello. You have a deal.”
“Err…. Max. My name’s Max.”
“Yes I know.”
The sky was getting lighter. Its hue was a bright purple by the time Max put his key into the grand oak door. The girl looked at him curiously. But she said nothing. The lift brought them to the top floor. The remnants of a rave greeted them. And the rest of his friends were all passed out now; on the sofa, on the floor, on the spare beds.
“Charming… And you’re staying here?”
“What do you do, exactly, Max?”
“I’m a painter.”
“How intriguing. A successful one it seems. What’s your surname? Will I have heard of you?”
“Um… maybe? Di Stelle.”
“Di Stelle? As in Café di Stelle?”
He smiled apologetically. Sylvia raised her eyebrows.
“Well I guess that explains it…”
“The… I don’t know how to describe it… the sense of entitlement. You must be an awful painter?”
“Ouch. What makes you say that?”
“Because an artist has to have experienced hardship… suffering. Pain.”
“You think I haven’t experienced pain?”
“No pony for your thirteenth birthday?”
“Well, it was my sixteenth actually… I’m kidding! Listen, why don’t we get some sleep? We can discuss my ‘suffering’ in the morning. Right now, it’s my head that’s suffering.”
He showed her to one of the eight bedrooms - one which didn't have a drunken inhabitant. She slipped between the silk duvet, and immediately closed her eyes.
“Goodnight Sylvia,” Max murmured, overcome by a tenderness he’d never experienced before.
But in the morning, the bed was made, and Sylvia was gone. The others were stirring. A disheartened Max could smell the coffee brewing in the Bialetti. He asked the others if any of them had seen the red-haired lady leaving. And whether she had left any parting message. Yes, Amelia had seen her. No, she hadn’t left a message.
“Where did you meet her?”
“Sylvia? At the Fontana di Trevi.”
“Sylvia at the Fontana di Trevi? Massi. I think she was teasing.”
“Ma dai, Massi!” Amelia put her hands together, as if praying, and shook them towards Massimiliano: an Italian gesture, in this instance expressing incredulity. “It’s a classic! Fellini?” Max continued to look blank. “La Dolce Vita?!”
“Amelia, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
“The movie! You know, Marcello getting Sylvia – in the Fontana di Trevi?”
“Did you say Marcello?”
Massimiliano didn’t go to the Trevi Fountain that day. With a now-empty flat, he sat on the bed in which ‘Sylvia’ had been sleeping. Letting out a deep sigh, he laid back: putting his head on the pillow, and slipping his hand beneath it. There was a crumpled piece of paper there.
Max. I’m not going to wake you. This is goodbye, I guess. The truth is this could never go anywhere anyway. I’m an inverted snob, you see. Thank you for letting me stay – and for fetching the coin from the fountain. It was very romantic.
P.S. I’m sorry I was rude. I’m sure you’re a great painter.
P.P.S. My real name is April.
Later that afternoon, Massimiliano picked up his brush and began to paint. His skill had returned. And so his wish had been granted. But perhaps he had lost that unidentified something for which he’d been looking. And that something was far more precious.