The air was ripe with the sugary smell of cappuccino as the Japanese girls posed for their impromptu portraits. We were secreted away at a late night Italian café in the glowing city of Florence. My friend and I had connected with these girls here the way travelers do.
We began swapping stories and discovering connections (one bubbly young girl was set to start at the University of Hawaii in the fall). They discovered that my friend and I were art students and begged us to draw their portraits. We pulled out our drawing pads and complied while they returned the favor by handcrafting us a flock of tiny, colorful origami cranes.
Our revelry drew the attention of a distinguished looking, elderly Italian gentleman in a porkpie hat who had been reading a newspaper over an aromatically pungent cup of tea nearby. He chatted with us in his melodic Italian accent, admired our drawings and shared a bit about his life – a career as a lawyer in Florence – and travels abroad.
It was a perfect night – an intercultural experience that enlivened every sense. When my friend and I finally trekked across the moonlit cobblestones back to our hotel in the wee hours of the morning, I had no idea there was anything amiss.
Two days later I was tucking into my breakfast when the hotel proprietor tapped me on the shoulder.
“Mi scusi signorina, your parents are on the phone.”
I was slightly concerned. My parents and I had been emailing but it was too expensive to call. Had something bad happened?
I followed him to the office and picked up the receiver.
“Hello?” I spoke, hesitantly.
A deep, thickly accented voice answered, “Is this Andrea?”
“Yes,” I replied, feeling confused.
“This is Giovanni, the lawyer. We met at the café, do you remember? I would like to meet you.”
Shocked and confused, I asked, “Why do you want to meet me?”
“To talk,” he replied.
The proprietor had overheard and was waving his hands to get my attention. I locked eyes with him and he shook his head, no, emphatically. “Just hang up,” he mouthed silently.
I hesitated, then said, “Um, no thank you. Goodbye,” and hung up the phone over the caller’s protests.
“I am so sorry, Miss,” The proprietor said. “He said he was your father. I should have recognized his voice.”
“It’s fine … but what was wrong and why would you recognize his voice?” I asked, perplexed.
He hesitated, “Well, this man has been calling quite often over the last few days and … and asking for you.”
I stared at him, confusion etched into my expression.
“He always says that it’s urgent that he speak with you, but declines to leave a message. When I pressed him to tell me why he was calling, he became hostile.” He sighed and sat down at the desk, “Have you met and spoken with any men lately? Anyone that would know your name and where you’re staying?”
“I remember him but I don’t really know him,” I contested. My mind flashed back to the distinguished old gentleman in the coffee shop. “And I did tell him my name but I didn’t tell him where I was staying.”
“Allora, he probably just followed you here,” the owner gestured out the window.
I’d seen enough Dateline to know that a man following a girl through darkened streets without her knowledge probably wasn’t a good sign. My panic showed.
“Do not let it spoil your trip cara mia,” the proprietor smiled consolingly. Then he added, “but please do not leave the hotel alone, or even with only one other person. Stay in the group. I will tell the staff to be looking for this man, what does he look like?”
“He’s older, maybe 65, with gray hair and a short beard,” I replied timidly.
“He’s that old?” The owner seemed taken aback. He made a note on a nearby pad of paper.
“I’ve heard,” I felt a bit awkward relaying this to my kindly host, “that Italian men can be a bit aggressive in their pursuit of women. So maybe this is just that?”
He laughed, which relieved some of the tension I’d felt voicing it out loud. Then, he sighed, “Yes, that was true. Unfortunately for you, it really is in the past now. Twenty years ago Italian men would follow a girl down the street, whistling and such, but not like this. This is different.”
“Do you think he might really just have something to talk to me about?” I questioned hopefully, racking my brain for some possible reason.
Maybe he was the lawyer of an old Italian heiress who had no living descendants and who had lost track of her extended family when they migrated to America and he thought I was the missing heir?
Maybe he was so enamored with my quick sketches, he wanted to offer me a spot in his gallery … the one that he had failed to mention?
Maybe he was going to kidnap me and keep me locked in his cellar … farming my hair to weave into his sweaters?
Somehow, this last fantastical option seemed most likely.
“It is doubtful,” the proprietor responded sympathetically. “I think it far more likely that he has developed a bit of an unhealthy obsession with you. That is my belief. I think it may not be safe for you to be near him.”
My professor happened to walk into the room at that moment. The owner beckoned him over to us and explained everything. He was clearly alarmed, which panicked me even further, as it was the first real expression I had ever seen on the otherwise sedate man.
As I turned, sulkily, to leave, the proprietor put his hand on my shoulder, “Do not worry, it will be fine. When he calls again I will handle it. We can call the authorities. He will leave you alone.”
I hoped he was right.
As it turned out, Giovanni did call again, just a half hour later … and a half hour after that … and a half hour after that. The owner told him in emphatic Italian to stop calling and leave the girl alone but it did no good. If anything, it only made the man more determined.
I ventured out with the group that day to Santa Spirito, Santa Maria Carmine and Santa Maria Novella. Although I was on high alert, I detected no sign of him. But upon returning to the hotel, I discovered that he had been standing outside waiting, on and off, all day. He returned again, shortly thereafter. There he remained, well into the late hours of the night, standing calmly under a dim street lamp, smoking his pipe and tapping a newspaper methodically against one leg.
My restless dreams were a newsreel of dark headlines. “American student abducted in Florence” and “Body of Missing American Found in Arno River.” Also, “Heiress to Famous Fortune Finally Identified … and Sold into Sex Trade.”
Still, I awoke the next morning with a renewed sense of hope. Surely this guy would lose interest soon. How long could he keep this up, after all? He would have to burn out at some point. I got ready for the day and trooped out of the hotel with my classmates. I scanned the road for any signs of my stalker, but saw none and breathed a sigh of relief. The day passed in a blur. I soon forgot all about my problem, focusing instead on all the beauty that surrounded me.
That night, the front desk attendant told me that Giovanni had continued to call throughout the day, every 20 minutes on average. He had told her that it was urgent that we speak – a matter of life and death! He had peppered her with all kinds of questions about me. He wanted to know where I was from, what group I was with, when we were checking out and where we would be going. She had told him (untruthfully) that she didn’t know where we were from or where we were going, but that we’d be checking out in two weeks.
I was puzzled. Hadn’t she been instructed not to tell him anything? Why had she said two weeks when we were checking out in two days? If she was going to say anything, why not just say that we were already gone???
I asked her this.
“Because,” she explained, “he could have easily seen that it wasn’t true and become even more agitated. But, if he is expecting you to be here for two more weeks, he will not be expecting you to leave so much sooner. I am hoping you will be able to sneak out of the city without his notice. I want him to think that he has much time remaining. I do not want him to panic and do anything drastic.” She smiled, comfortingly.
I didn’t want that either.
The next night, the group decided to go clubbing. I had decided not to go but then changed my mind at the urging of my friends. Besides, I would be with a large group. We checked the window first, ensuring the street was clear, before venturing out into the night.
The night’s silence was broken almost immediately.
“Andrea, please! I must speak with you! It is urgent!” Giovanni had stepped out of the shadows and was walking briskly toward me.
Two of my larger, male friends stepped in front of him, using their bodies as a barricade, while the rest of the group pulled me forward.
My friend, Alexis, matched my stride, “That was the guy?”
“Yeah,” I mumbled, trying to stave off the tears of panic and embarrassment welling up in my eyes. Why was I so afraid? He hadn’t done anything yet … But the waiting … waiting to see if he would … and what it would be when he did … that was terrifying.
“I saw him today,” she said, panting to keep up. “A bunch of times. He was at the first church and the museum at least. I would have said something, but going to all those tourist spots, I figured it was probably just a coincidence.”
A few blocks later, my friends who had stepped up to divert him caught up, confident that they had scared him off.
I wasn’t so sure.
The next day, I stayed close to the group. The calls didn’t stop and he was probably still following me everywhere, but I only had one day left to go. We were leaving in the morning.
We had originally planned to wake up, eat breakfast, pack and leave Florence around noon. Due to my little predicament, however, our professor had decided that it would be best to make a quick exit as early as possible. I was embarrassed that we had to change the schedule for the entire group, all because of me. I would have balked at this change in plans, but he made it clear that I had no choice. Besides, as much as I didn’t want to inconvenience the group, I also didn’t want to be abducted or attacked.
We departed at 4:00 a.m. the next morning. The entirety of our group slipped quietly out of the hotel, walked silently down the windy cobblestone roads and boarded our transport away from Florence, all in the pitch black of night. I never saw Giovanni again.
Was the danger real? The hotelier and his employees seemed to think so. My professor thought so. It certainly felt real – an almost animalistic threat. But was it? After all, nothing actually happened.
In that way, it was just that … nothing.
Just like everything else.
Everything else that had happened over the past year, from my confession to my court to my prolonged probation, was nothing too. I hadn’t been assaulted or kidnapped or even kicked out of school.
Nothing really happened.
So why did this, just like all that had come before, feel like something?
Perhaps because what happened to me, while not physically concrete, was measurable nonetheless. Sure, it could have been much, much worse. Things almost always can be. But it was not nothing and believing that it was only bestowed upon the aggressors cover and excuse. Whether they were local or abroad, insane or shielded in institutional power, chasing my body or caging my soul, it was real and it mattered.
What’s more – it happened all the time. Every day in every way, shrouded under cover of the not-quite-terminal, to women and girls just like me. A million different jabs, silent attacks and fear-based manipulations. And many were much, much worse.
Just like I needed help – from my friends who protected me, the kindly hotelier who kept me safe and the professor who secreted me away under cover of night – they would need help too. And I wasn’t going to do anybody one damn bit of good by staying quiet and saying, “It was nothing.”
It was an impactful experience. It gave physical form to the feelings I’d struggled with throughout the previous year – exposure, vulnerability, fear, disempowerment. Being manipulated on the outside felt strangely akin to being manipulated on the inside.
I wish now that I wouldn’t have let my fear and the fear of others master me. I never found out why he followed me. Not really. I wish that I would have. I wish I would have stood up, confronted him and defended myself. But I wasn’t ready to do that yet. And yet this experience, among many, brought me ever closer to the point when I would be.
This is the latest installment in my story. If you haven’t yet read the previous entries, click here to start at the beginning. Then continue to read each post in numerical order.