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April 15, 2024

The Scammer

By Sydnie Stern

ROMA

“Nothing different, Americano,” he laughs and ignites the pipe with a sharp flicker, surveying me through the gauze of a glassy stare.

His loft seemed to house more glass articles from the last time I’d seen it, they’d multiplied like a colony of cells. Morgante dismissed my observation, and continued launching plumes of smoke into the air, a silent declaration that the atmosphere belonged to him and his pipe.

The lone digit hours of the early morning drew near, like a slow ship cutting through water towards a marina. Delirium and drunkenness interlaced in the cool spell of the night, and revealed the natural, untethered face of Morgante. The paint he ordinarily wore crumbled away, usually as affixed to his being as his resident aural cloud of cologne, so strong like he’d showered himself with the bottle. He was quicker to make jokes, and embrace the ease of the present, though he never directly confessed what was pedaling so feverishly in his head like a giant gear. I could sense it but not identify it, like hearing low voices in another room.

In the daytime, he moved briskly like a sergeant, his interactions with strangers were lean and concise. He never lingered longer than was necessary. Morgante only relented his stern conduct to luxuriate in certain environments, at his favorite jazz clubs, playing chess in a piazza, or in the velvet seats of the cinema. He let off the occasional offhand criticism, condemning the hypocrisy of ever-present marketized religion. Ironically, it coexisted with its polar opposite, those genuine invitations of religious enthusiasts to experience the perennial spirits and saints of Rome.

The communal chess games in Piazza Del Fico, accessible to all takers, no formal invitation required, was his chosen point of recreation. He took me there often, and earlier that evening I’d watched him defeat several players in a row. The square usually crowded up after dark, when the overflow of patrons from the bar trickled into the long, buzzing street, situated between bright windows of bistrots and trattorias.

Some players were elderly, and graying like newspaper. The younger, eager intellectual types arranged the regal chips for war. Morgante faced his adversaries with unwavering conviction. Before the first play, he leaned over the board with a confident and still expression, like he was a jockey bracing himself for his hundredth race.

I hadn’t known him long, a month and some odd weeks. The study abroad program that brought me to Rome would end the second week of June. Time was slowly running out for me, my most valuable resource. I didn’t need to know Morgante any longer than I had to observe a definite distinction. When he was boozed out, he was more relaxed. I welcomed his cathartic, eccentric companionship but he was difficult to read, knotted as stubborn branches in an overgrown forest.

He could be hilarious and quick, whenever he stepped off that intangible ledge he was attached to, perched for disaster like it was rolling indomitably towards the city. That night in his loft, his steel exterior was gone, just like the spirits in his dwindling cup.

The twin to his wardrobe, his furniture was a spectacle of pearl-white and Mediterranean blues, involving the incidental black and gray numbers. It was plain that his clothes and furniture were sowed by one person, the same preferences showed through.

Facing the television was a semi-circle of chaises and by a low glass table, reminding me of a lounge area inside a cruise. The rolling arm sofa, where we drank wine and immersed ourselves in the frames of black-and-white movies, was pleated with as many buttons as there are inside a coat closet, properly upholstered for a duke. The venetian glass chandelier showered the space in luminance, revealing the full magnitude of the apartment’s charm. Tall, dead candles stood atop an Oxford bookcase that was pushed into the corner, like inactive Christmas tree angels crowning the heights.

Decked out with a patio balcony, a shimmery tiled kitchen and floating stairs that ascended to the second floor, his loft was stylish and elaborate. I wouldn’t expect something so deluxe from a young professional, still in the outset of building his career at 24. I assumed that maybe his parents were the prime contributors to his monthly expenses. His accommodations were a bit unrealistic, unbelievable, really, for someone employed as a full-time artisan.

Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants was streaming on a service I found while flipping through the available channels, the majority of which were in Italian. This was expected, given the locale, so I practically celebrated my discovery of the film playing in English.

The liquore made him too merry to protest. In a more sober orientation, he would try to override it, just to prove he was allergic to chick flicks. Instead, Morgante reclined like a dweller on the sunny shores of paradise, and Sisterhood ran its course without a single complaint. His ravenous, near desperate consumption of bourbon, which I’d recommended for its distinctly Americano character, rendered a visceral, almost chemical alteration. Morgante was as mellow as a pool noodle floating down a lazy river, and as aware and in control as one too.

A passenger of a flighty, midnight daze, his laughter resounded in the acoustics of his apartment with delighted approval. Like a collector’s shop, the place was blanketed with countless glass innovations. It was an outlying planet, divorced from uninspired, earthly reality.

I’d never seen glassware in such unexpected contortions. Beverage glasses shaped like mushrooms and jellyfish, bordered mirrors with dancing beads of light, prismatic glass vases and smoking pipes occupied every possible cavity. No shelf or topside table space was vacant. The visual stun was something the eyes had to get adjusted to upon exposure. I was still digesting it, during this third visit, overwhelmed by a single medium channeled into a thousand forms. My favorite was the ruby-red, Medieval-looking hourglass pushed between a shelf of books, it glinted with immeasurable allure and novelty.

Every free-standing light fixture wore an embossed glass lampshade, displaying a mix of dragonflies and roses. Taking up the mantle, typically meant for pictures of loved ones, little glass Venus flytraps gathered, varying in detail from simple to intricate. The tallest one towered over the daintiest like a willow tree over a shrub. Clearly, the cluster was born during the same round of trial-and-error. I wondered which one had been the last to touch its mothering fire, at which end of the scale spectrum had he begun.

Morgante, a professional glass artist, lived in his own repository of ice sculptures. It was like a writer with wallpaper covered in the prose of their best-selling novel, a singer listening to their most iconic performances playing on a perpetual loop.

A towering begonia hulked beside the pocket doors. The tendrils curved to give the effect of unfurling, a brilliant touch of realism. It threatened to break out of its motionless coma at any minute, like a sci-fi film, and spiral to life, cultivated beautifully by what could only be an artist's diligence.

Consecutive, elephantine exhalations of smoke corrupted the oxygen circulation, slapping me with a headache. The place smelled like a smoking zone behind a mall, or a row of slot machines at a casino. In the blink of a glass eye, I was heinously dizzy, a kind of subdued vertigo like the one that makes you and gravity strangers after a roller coaster ride.

I said nothing and sank into the couch, like an oyster avoiding the sea’s destructive waves in the sand folds, tentatively holding a hand to my face. I didn’t want to offend him but I also couldn’t stand the tobacco toxins in my face, forcing its attack by grazing my senses, not entering my system. A sensitive head is a curse.

Morgante grinned an unmistakable look of smugness, a fat cloud contained behind his teeth. The “O” he’d released hung in the air like a dreamcatcher. The hole was wide enough that I could watch the last bits of the movie through it.

“You don’t want to be a walking cigarette, Americano?” he traced its precarious edges, and then made it disappear into the abyss all at once with a wave. “You’d fit in with the rest of the city.”

“Then you wouldn’t call me Americano anymore,” I reasoned, sardonically, pulling a woven throw over myself. “I can’t risk that.”

Morgante raised his eyes to the chandelier, his head back and arms outstretched across the sofa top, the pipe lying carelessly in his open palm. I hadn’t noticed the gold filling in the back of his mouth before. It dazzled brightly, like the mystifying red hourglass. I worried for a second that he would drop the fragile pipe on the floor, in his ignorance and inebriation, and cause a splintering fracture—but that meant I would breathe undiluted air for the rest of the night.

I glanced at my own glass on the table. Fashioned to suit a fantastical theme, the mermaid tail was accented with protruding, cerulean colored scales. The Campari he’d chosen for me, a traditional Italian spirit to contrast the bourbon, was sweet to the sip and fast-acting. Only a little was needed to surf the stars. The tail was nearly as full as when he filled it up.

Morgante lurched for the remote, and his graceless, abrupt movement sent the coffee table skating like a puck on ice. The couch caught him like a safety net, he flung backwards in agony, his face twisted and turned gray. I was grateful to be the sober one, at least in comparison between the two of us. Otherwise I might end up with a seared knee and no remote.

“You need anything?” I offered awkwardly, unsure what to do, knowing I wouldn’t be able to find a single helpful thing without directions.

“Upstairs, bandages in the drawers,” Morgante groaned, too incoherent to show bashfulness in his urgency.

He lifted his pant leg to show a fresh abrasion, linear and identical to the table’s edge. A race of crimson beads beat down along his shin like road markings. Some of it transferred to his pants, I knew from his emphasis on external perfection that the blemish would madden him later, maybe more so than the wound. I could picture him scrubbing the pants to its thinnest threads sometime tomorrow afternoon, when he was sober. He pointed towards the stairs, showing me where to go, like they were hidden and not in my face.

Morgante's room was the only one with a bed behind the three closed doors in the upstairs compartment, obvious to discern. One was a bathroom, with a long mirror and argyle floor tiles. The other was a pit of utter disarray. My cursory peer inside revealed a dusty, damask rug and full cardboard boxes, all visibly stuffed and spilling onto the floor with papers and folders. Morgante had lived as a tenant at this building for several years, he’d told me. It was troubling that anything should be unpacked. Maybe it was simply an unusual manner of storage, the way some homeowners use their garage for miscellaneous things.

Little tentacles of fabric stuck out from under the closet, as though his wardrobe surpassed holding capacity and put a great strain on the bifolds. Standing in Morgante’s room without him, especially for the first time, seized me with a feeling of uncanniness. I was an agent of intrusion, alien! the white walls vehemently judged me.

His chino style, wrinkle-free pants and gold-buckle belt were laid out on the swivel chair, smartly prepared for the next day. The desk lamp, alarm clock, tooth comb and watches, hair gel, cologne bottles and books were arranged to stage-perfection, like a cast of actors were awaiting their entrance cue to start their scene once the curtains rolled up. A prying prediction, I was sure if I opened those suffocated closet doors, the fabrics would be color-coded and classified seasonally, so meticulous was the organization.

Without photos or keepsakes, I didn’t see how someone could avoid feeling temporary between the barren, lifeless four walls. I’d packed pictures in my carry-on to keep home close during my trip. He’d mentioned some of his city friends in the abstract, they made minor appearances in his anecdotes. Usually, they were nameless, and didn't carry more than ornamental significance. His mementos must be in those cardboard boxes, I couldn't’ reconcile that he simply had none from his entire lifetime.

From the level of refinement, I guessed he’d never looked at a mountain of disheveled belongings and thought, I’ll fix that later. The room belonged to someone deliberate and methodical, he was in complete mastery over his belongings, just like the glass he guides from lumps of material into inventive silhouettes. Even the missile pens appeared minty. Naturally, they were stored in a glass container, modeled after a stone henger’s amorphous, ancient face.

The white eiderdown wore no crinkles, tucked in at every corner on the King-size mahogany frame. It was kind of eerie, everything was washed over in white, the walls matched the bed which matched the ceiling. Somehow, he maintained the impossibly flush plane of down, sleeping under it and restoring it each morning to its perfected state, like a bed on display at IKEA. It was as smooth as a mirror. He could very well be an insomniac, the purplish crescents under his eyes suggested he had been bankrupt of sufficient rest for a while.

This living style probably saved him a lot of time, never having to hurriedly scramble for anything, all was securely in its expected place. That or it drove him lunacy to maintain. He’d shudder if he knew what my room back home looked like, it was closer to that haphazard room of boxes.

Bandages in the drawer… I could see a column of drawers in the desk, the nightstand and the Hambrook dresser. Contrary to the lowermost half of the loft, the lighting scheme of his bedroom was overcast and unforgiving. The blinds were tightly closed like a vault, like they wouldn’t dare let a sliver of external sun into the cave—not that there would’ve been any to save the darkness at this late hour.

I turned on the desk lamp, to avoid opening arbitrary drawers at random in the dark, hoping it would make me feel less like a criminal. I came across stationery, torn envelopes, mechanical pens, boring office things, and a packet contained with a black butterfly clip. The atypical, scrawled letters threw me off. Unequivocally, the official-looking documents, with red notes penned into the margin were not in Italian or English. He’d never mentioned knowing Greek before.

A significant part of the film we’d just watched took place in Santorini. It would’ve been a natural thing to interject into the conversation. In fact, I thought it was odd he hadn’t made any mention of this. He’d kept quiet about his trilingualism, like it was some major secret. I would’ve never known had I not been put into this emergency nurse situation. Whatever. Morgante was too drunk to even stand without injury, so I could let him off for being too far gone to give me his background.

The gauze was in the nightstand, bandy and waning on the roll. There was enough for a couple more uses. I found bacitracin, and other pocket-sized tubes with peroxide and petroleum, an assorted first-aid kit. My bracelet latched onto something flashy and silver before I could shut the drawer, it practically dug into my skin until I freed it.

The legs of the kitchen scissors were bent, like they’d been used to cut through something that didn’t agree with it. Like snipped hair on a barbershop floor, little shards of maroon scattered the bottom, where only investigative eyes would discover it under the mundane clobber. The triangles and haphazard shapes were marred by gold etching, conveying a formal tone. Chopped to decimation in the same manner of destruction, some of the pieces were swept into a corner with laminated fragments. Despite the disfigurement, it was obvious they were made from different materials but had formerly belonged to and made up the same form.

There once lived some writing on its surface. It was botched now. Trying to discern a coherent sentence would be like reading a burnt letter from a fireplace, after the flames eviscerated any hope of retribution. The remains bore the semblance of officialized documents. It was not plastic or one-dimensional like a Driver's License, it was something more complicated. The remains had undergone a ruthless ravaging, from vengeful, apprehensive teeth—the scissors. I’d discovered a stack of bones lying next to a wolves’ den.

Against my fingertips, the rubble of cardstock-like maroon, and the waxy sheets of pale blue incited a swift surge of remembrance. I was holding out my passport to the stern gate guard at the airport, the small, feather-light book travelling between our grips.

All momentary confusions departed from my mind, like smoke from a pipe. I’d solved it…What is: passport. Clearly, it hadn’t come from America, where passports are manufactured in political, navy blue. The passport debris was Italian, or had some other, foreign origin… that half of the mystery stalled like broken brakes at a vital entry point.

My morbid intrigue had pushed me too far. Morgante had cut up this passport, and concealed it under unassuming objects in his bedroom like a bomb. The mass of objects stood in as a kind of firewall, intended to mislead anyone on the search. I’d hardly closed the drawer when the door flung open, my heart leapt from my chest like a startled dancer.

Morgante, his pant leg rolled up, shirt collar loosened, was stumbling erratically like one of those drunks outside Bar Del Fico.

“Find them yet,” he said, no trace of a questioning inflection in his voice, his face boiling with nerves and irritation.

He emptied my hands and wrapped the compression around his own leg, unwittingly sitting on the pants and belt he’d laid out for the next day on the swivel chair. Slovenly but successfully, it was a half-decent job, considering his drunken daze. He’d turned into a human bottle of bourbon that night.

The question of what and why persisted in the waters of my thoughts. I shut it up with excuses and clumsy explanations, subduing my alarm. I forced myself to return to the oblivious humor of the night, and not let my alarm appear on my face.

HOME

The sun had withdrawn from its imperial throne, the residual daylight dissolving from the ether like a liquid canopy. In perfect instinctual concert, the evening’s inescapable arms surrounded suburbia and brought it inwards to its chest. A tinge of transitional orchid crystallized, the dusky shadows dusting each tree and car and subject below, seeping inside through the open window. I love New Jersey at this hour.

Any chance I get to go home for the weekend, I welcome gratefully. Nothing costs a dime, the pancakes, the coffee, the grocery-fresh fruits are free. It’s a luxury to sleep in my own room and wear my old clothes without a single disturbance, which are nearly unavoidable on my nocturnal, clamorous college campus. The only downside is that my sister steals my car right out of the driveway. I woke up to a stream of texts, asking if she could use my car, and a few missed phone calls while I was out cold.

As I suspected, my Red Solara was gone! I ran down the stairs immediately to check if she’d gone through with it, and discovered she’d taken my keys off the mirror, despite my unresponsiveness. I suppose she interpreted it as silent consent, since I technically didn't say no. I knew that would be Grace’s 16-year-old argument, one to hold up in court, most definitely.

The driveway felt especially empty, my mother had left hours ago and was sleeping at her boyfriend’s. Grace was a good driver, she’d passed her test on the first try unlike me. She always returned it scratchless, no Starbucks stains or crumbs in the seats. A considerate thief. I wasn’t too irritated about the petty auto crime, more than anything, I felt isolated. I was the only heart beating in the house.

Our mailbox was attached to the house like a jean pocket. Some magazines protruded, my mother’s interior decorating and fitness subscriptions. The fat parcel was surely Grace’s school photos, I remembered from my time at the same school that it was the season. It was addressed to her with Marlton High School stamped on the front, shoved hastily inside. Hopefully the placement hadn't put a dent in the pictures. Curiously, a delicate envelope, the color of ballet slippers, was made out to me.

The return address foxed me, momentarily. Months had gone by since I’d received an envelope from Roma. Looking outwards at the viewer from the top right corner, a robed man’s face was accentuated in deep, chasmic lines, like the contours of a mountain. In his hands was an open book with music notes, effusing an affinity for the arts, as if a Muse had made it. It was a novelty little micro portrait compared to the usual, industrial little postage stamps sold at the office’s glass window for convenience.

My freshman year of college culminated in my first and only ever visit to Rome. Rustlers University offered a comprehensive study abroad program, housing students for two months in a foreign country. Colloquially, RU students refer to it as a “Maymester,” though it spilled a few weeks into early June.

Ristorantes sat on the corners of the cobbled city streets, fronted with English fascias to usher in the tourists. Serving sapid, sparkling liquores and immaculate Italian dishes with every cheese imaginable, the food surpassed anything I’d come by in the States. That transformative season of life that had flown by like a fever-dream. I returned home with a stack of digital photos and postcards to savor the excitement, before the post-travel high wore off, taping them into a scrapbook.

Giulia Camezzo, read the top right corner, someone I’d made fast friends with in a congested crescent of Monti. The rione was an overwhelming sea of white tents and indecipherable shouting. While attempting to buy a set of turquoise rings, I realized I’d phenomenally overshot my ability to speak Italian.

Giulia was examining a carousel of books at the next table, and graciously stepped in as a go-between when I needed a translator. I was about to walk away from the gondola, discouraged from the hitch in communication, but the stranger was willing to clarify for me. Our conversation continued for hours after, getting to know each other over lattes and scouring any boutique with a pretty window display. She lived a few tram stops from the hotel where I and all the RU students were dorming, and thus coordination was convenient.

Much of my free time was spent with her, traipsing between the commercial and historical sectors of the city. Giulia was a Journalism student, a year older than I, and studying at the prestigious Sapienza University. She was fast, full of energy and spoke fluent Italian. She’d learned in a domestic setting from her Italian-born parents, who immigrated to Rhode Island where she’d grown up.

Wearing smart tortoise-shell frames, mary janes and earrings that cascaded like silver vines at the sides of her face, Giulia imparted an instant, unforgettable impression of professionalism. Her inbox was constantly flooded with unedited articles to comb through. She meticulously revised each topic section to quilt together the monthly issue. Giulia aspired to become her university paper’s editor-in-chief after she’d amassed seniority and experience. A handful of afternoons, we did our school work in unison on a park table or in a cafè, her sensei-like concentration shamed me into my own regimen of productivity.

Her melodic invocation of the language enabled us to move through the city without difficulty.

Giulia referred to herself as a “transplant,” though I found her well-adapted and aware in the often chaotic metropolis. Guided by her savvy intel, we reposed in breathtaking oases, as illustrative as the surface of a puzzle box, and surreal heights that set the sprawling, metropolitan terrain far beneath us.

Looming overhead in every direction, marble sculptures watched passersby's vigilantly, no move or utterance going unnoticed. Everything unfolded under their noses. In a low, conspiratorial voice, Giulia joked that the statues are espionage devices.

I’d waited for a response from fall time until February, a decently substantial lull, until I realized there may not be one on its way. We’d kept in touch as pen pals, writing periodically, about once a month for almost a year and a half. I’d given her my home address because the mailroom at campus was always packed, I preferred getting deliveries at home.

I tried Giulia’s cellphone, as it was more convenient than post and my only other contact for her. A robotic voice informed me that the number was out of service, with an artificial chipper. I was hit by dead-ends on dead-ends trying to restore contact with my old friend.

Until now, unexpectedly. I smoothed the letter on my bed, pressing out the travel-worn fissures. I remembered how Giulia wrote the date first, as if it verified the following message’s contents, definitely a holdover from her journalistic training.

September 30th, 2004

Caro Kimberly, It’s been a while! I hope you are loving life back in America, and also missing Italy a little here and there.

I want to tell you first that I miss you and I would have called. I had your American number saved in my old phone. I misplaced it in a cab the same week I moved to Bracciano! It was basically untraceable, I didn't realize it was gone for about a half hour. The driver drove off with it, unknowingly. My replacement phone was brand-new, and I had nothing saved from the old one.

Hard to believe I was dealt this luck but my mind was on other things. I moved on my own with no assistance and my hands were full, lots of landlord papers to sign. Bracciano costs me a bit of a commute to campus, but it’s tolerable considering the difference in rent. Other SU students live further and still manage.

I was hired as a contributing writer with a newspaper last April and I worked at their office all summer. As long as I turn in three articles a month for the Roma Gazelle, I can finish both senior year and maintain my position.

Giulia was the most qualified person to achieve such an accolade and responsibility and in her field. She didn’t close her laptop until there were no words left in her for the day.

One of my first projects is reinstating old text and photograph formats. In the archives, the graphics are so much more artistic and fresh. It was actually my idea, some small design renovations could elevate the aesthetic of the articles. So I started from ‘04 and went backwards. I would not miss a single potential point of inspiration.

Very much in accordance with Giulia’s doctrine of creation—overlook nothing. To her, the world is built from microscopic agents of inspiration, not atoms.

We have sister publications in Europe’s major cities; Paris, Madrid, Athens, you can name the rest if you look at the stars on a map. I really wondered if I was seeing things. If I remember it right you called that guy ‘Morgante.’ In Italy there are probably five or six Morgante families for every district. I sat in confusion until I remembered where I’d heard the name.

I considered asking for your phone number and waiting for a response so we could really talk, but I couldn’t do that and keep this to myself. If you were still here I’d run to you immediately!

My chest had become as tight as a corset. Timidly, I pressed onwards, awaiting the bombshell embedded in the unassuming, pastel pink stationery.

I don’t know for certain that this means anything. Actually, I don’t know if it's even the same guy. There is a very likely chance it’s nothing except a coincidence. Whatever it is, it's bothering me. I can’t get it out of my head. Search up the following: Athenian Gazelle, Elladio Morgante, Aegean sea, November 2003. You can use the settings to translate it into English.

That was indeed his full government name. I typed feverishly, flying over the keys like the alleged article would disappear and become untraceable from the Internet forever, if I didn’t find it with urgency. The Italian sentences disappeared from the screen as I adjusted the controls, replaced by recognizable language. Before me was the reason Giulia had written to me so abruptly, out of the blue, like fireworks scattering across the sky on a quiet night.

Honeymoon Couple Dead in Port Rafina Boat Crash, pronounced the shuddering, emboldened title.

November 11th, ATHENS - Elladio Morgante, 33 was driving a 9-meter fishing boat at around 7 P.M. Sunday when it collided with a larger 20-meter vessel, resulting in engine failure and capsizing. Elladio’s body was found in an overnight search by rescue divers, ejected from the overturned fishing boat on impact. His wife, Caterina Morgante, 31, was found in the cabin by the Greek Coast Guard. Both were declared dead on arrival.

A Rafina Police Department report identified the vacationing couple as residents of Naples, Italy. The Morgantes had arrived in Athens for their honeymoon last month. Discovered about twenty feet from the wreckage were broken dinner plates, a box of chocolates and flowers.

No injuries were reported from the passengers on the larger vessel. Port Rafino Police said there was no criminality involved, confirming it was an accident caused by an unexpected turn of one of the boats.

“A tragedy,” commented Chief of Police Christos Florakis.

Got that right. The wooden AP style drained all emotion from the story, the presentation of facts sterile and enumerative like a menu. Pictured underneath details of the accident was a shiny-eyed blond, her hair and dress bodice adorned with ivory flowers. The entwined lovers reminded me of swans, though it was haunting to look at their beaming, optimistic faces alongside the grim context. Her groom’s arms encircled her, reciprocating her resplendence, with an ease like he’d held her this way a million nights.

Against the distant planes of emerald, the grassy countryside carrying on endlessly in the foreground, their strong figures registered like a royal couple. United as a single force in that eternal field, lit to lens-perfection in the delicate sun glare, the Morgantes looked like they were made to live a plentiful life.

This Elladio had a much rounder countenance than the one I’d feared would face me from the screen. Settled into his cheeks were apostrophe-shaped dimples, a feature that didn’t belong to the one I had in mind. He was missing the freckles that dappled Elladio’s face like cinnamon on toasted bread. Plainly, the two were not the same, not even remotely similar. It was like trying to pin similarities between a pufferfish and a stingray.

Like Giulia said, another Elladio Morgante may very well occur in any region of Italy, living a separate, unconnected existence. She’d never met him. Giulia had no reference to gauge a match to this other “Morgante,” who had met his dismal fate in the wrangles of the Aegean Sea. I’d deliberately kept him separate from my friendships. Frankly, I didn’t know him well enough to weld him in with my circle, which would've been a permanent, undoable move. He was a wild card.

The boat accident happened the autumn before I’d flown to Italy. With unmarred, youthful skin, Morgante from Rome was unmistakably still in the threshold of his 20s. The age difference alone would’ve shut down my doubts, were there no photographs of the late couple shown. He was living in an entirely different zip code, separated by national borders at the time that the fishing boat went wayward, when the euphoric honeymoon was splintered to shells like a tea set made of glass.

The enigma had stumbled into the cellar of my most inconsequential memories. I couldn’t place precise details about him, all that remains is the smoky impression he left me sitting with. He achieved being both vague and boastful simultaneously, like a film noir mobster that refuses to give himself away to a detective’s iron catechizing.

He’d emerged from a crowd at a disco and without hesitation introduced himself with the tact of a diplomat. Even under the blaring music, I noticed his unusual diction, mangled like a roll of wire run through a dryer cycle. His syntax was saturated with harsh notes, less vibrato was audible in his speech than other locals. Whether he was still in the rudimentary stages of conversational English, or brought up in a region where the dialect is spiced differently, it wasn't important. I was as drawn to his eccentricity and mystique as I was to the city.

Among the people I became accustomed to seeing in Rome, he was relatively nondescript. A would-be standout in America, perhaps, but Morgante coalesced with his surroundings, a mere zephyr within the ephemeral gust of beauty and intensity that forms the crux of Italian culture.

He spoke in sweeping expressions, using his hands dramatically, and lowered his voice if he suspected someone was eavesdropping, like their silent judgements would infringe on his divulgence of unapologetic opinions. Framing his face like a spandrel, his lush brows arched over a pair of inky eyes, dark like the bottom of a glass of roast. He wore a fat gold watch that suited his golden complexion, the kind I’d have to visit the tanning salon to obtain. Morgante wasn’t, per se, the most ravishing in all of Rome, at least not conventionally. Yet, in his best moment, his presence made you beckon to a halt, wanting in on whatever secret he was withholding.

Like a fish twisting itself through a forest of spiky coral, he was artfully evasive in conversation. When I asked if he was from Rome, he feigned like he misheard me. Somehow, his hearing was compromised, seated directly across from each other, joined only by a soft cello instrumental and the dispersed chatter of neighboring patrons. Shrouded in palls of ambiguity, he responded that his job was in Rome. After every non-answer, he’d sort of spin my words back to me, suddenly gripped in an attentive silence. I was the one who ended up answering my own questions.

I didn’t take it personally, maybe he was distrustful or wary of Americans. Or foreigners overall. Most of the time, we discussed immediate matters, like when to meet outside the ever-astir venues to beat the lines, and ways to get there from my hotel using the tram. His favorite musicians came up often, many of them from the States. Somehow this subject would lead him to detail the disparities between America and Europe. I ignored arrogant digs in the moment, sparing myself a needless debate, and later related his rants to Giulia and my roommates. They found the character of a man highly entertaining.

Rather particular and clean-minded about fashion, he wore striped button downs and expensive linen pants, usually held up with thick leather belts. Only his black dress shoes showed roughness from wear. Sauntering all over the city caused them to lose their sheen and color just slightly around the shank. His gold figaro chain and enamel sunglasses were blindingly effulgent, like they’d been polished with sun rays. His look would be considered extravagant in Jersey, where people have laid back attitudes towards everyday wear. In Rome, he was just another young professional, showing out under the blistering European sun.

I’d never given him my American number—he didn’t ask. I didn’t force it. We enjoyed a couple films, leisurely ambling around the city, and blurry nights of dancing. He’d invited me to his apartment a few times, and that was all I got of Morgante. My ego was gently bruised at his indifference, his nonchalance, but the feeling faded overnight. I didn’t have any authentic attachment to him. That painful wire in the chest had never formed, the one that sends the unfortunate receiver into a frosty lake of grief upon severance, leaving you suffocating in waves of feeling.

Morgante hardly even constitutes a sentence in a synopsis of my life. Perhaps a footnote that tired eyes could overlook and retain the main substance in full capacity. I’d shrugged it off like a disappointing test grade and resumed enjoying what remained of my summery, brief semester.

No criminality, I reread the article a few times for my own consolation. A quote was included from the owner of the larger boat, a 64-year-old resident of Port Rafina, expressing his sorrow for the strangers. Living with that behind you must feel like a constant crucifixion of the soul. That would mark me forever like a surgery scar, despite the investigators’ resolute classification as an accident.

Another image showed the Morgantes reclining under an umbrella, holding hands in their slatted beach chairs. It came from a universe that had nothing in common with the one where the sea could turn heartless, the wretched bridge that would eventually connect the two hadn't been built yet. They were enveloped in tranquility and love, I wished they’d forever stayed on the sands, and never ventured further into the waters.

I assured myself, through a strenuous exertion of mental effort, that the tragedy was unrelated to the finely-combed, self-starter I’d shared gelato and kisses with a year and a half ago. A coincidence, Giulia’s words echoed in the amphitheater of my mind.

The struggle between this new knowledge and a dormant intuition that suddenly surfaced was paralyzing. I felt unsettled, waxy like a statue’s head in a glass museum case. The temperament was streaked by a lurid suspicion, clawing my attention like a starving cat at the door. It was entirely rational that someone could share the name and hold no relations, though I couldn’t accept that explanation as easily as I wanted to.

Attempting to shrug off the coldness that had taken me as prisoner, I comforted myself with the absence of hard evidence. It was like trying to wring freezing water out of my hair with the nozzle still running. I invested every word in the article with trust, and was relieved to find it caused me no confusion or complications. It wasn’t the event, which was real, or the newspaper’s account of it that deceived me. Someone had successfully sold me a lie.

I was flooded with flashbacks of those puzzling discoveries. The Greek he’d never mentioned knowing. The overflowing boxes, as full as pirate trunks. The pulverized pieces concealed in a low drawer. His offbeat accent. Getting to know him was impossible, I was always talking to him through frosted glass. Nothing he’d given me was concrete enough to fill the potholes in my perception of him, but somehow, this information had turned them over.

A foreboding discomposure enclosed me like shrinking walls. I was sweating, my head swirling with questions. Whatever page I’d accidentally ripped out and exposed myself to, I wanted to attach it back in its place, and toss it behind me like a bottle out the window. Or better yet, cut it up like a passport, into a thousand incorrigible fragments.

“Nothing different, Americano,” he always denied my observations, like he was talking to a sanatorium patient that amused him. The veil had lifted, gently, I was face to face with reality now. Like an archaeologist, I’d unearthed the final bone to consummate an incomplete skeleton.

I wondered how many people he’d conned, if living off his dishonorable fortunes was worth the paranoia I misinterpreted as a perpetual state of natural, innocent anxiety. He was a talented artist, not just in glass but with people. If I ever saw him again, I’d ask him what his name back at home in Greece was, before he stole a new one from someone who couldn’t bring him to court for it.








Article © Sydnie Stern. All rights reserved.
Published on 2024-04-01
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
Anonymous
04/03/2024
09:39:06 AM
The story really came to life. I felt like I was there. What an incredibly vivid and compelling tale - I wanted more. A next chapter. Bravo
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