I'm finishing up edits and sending to the proofreader today, so this chapter is still in progress, but here you go!
Chapter Two: Lonely Among Us
With a heavy sigh and tears stinging her eyes, Taryn set the red phone receiver back onto its hook. There was a breeze caused not by wind, but by the hustling train passengers hurrying behind her, their sharp Italian shoes creating a symphony on the marble tile. Somewhere nearby was a small shop selling espresso. It had become much more crowded since her morning’s traumatic start. Taryn should’ve found the smell of pastries and cappuccinos exciting, but she was too shaken up and frustrated to appreciate any of it. Daphne can rot for taking my phone with her.
She’d been in Milan for less than three days and already she hated it. Hiding in the phone booth, she took a deep breath and tried to make another call. But the numbers on the calling card made little sense to her, and the Italian operator even less so. After punching digits and hearing yet another dial tone, she cursed and slammed the phone back into place. Despite the angry clash of it, no one stopped their morning hustle or threw her a glance.
Inside the train station, a woman’s voice repeated parting times and arrival gates in six different languages. The times she spoke English were a balm to Taryn’s heart, a small reminder of home. She wasn’t on an alien planet; she was in Italy, for crissakes. Some part of her was mortified at exactly how American she was.
I should have studied the guidebooks more. But the guidebooks explained basic phrases. There wasn’t a chapter on how to say “Hello, my best friend and secret crush abandoned me in a foreign city and I don’t know what I’m doing.” There was a chapter that said, non mi sento bene. I don’t feel well. It was true, but it didn’t help her accomplish anything but adding flair to the pity party she was throwing herself.
“I just need to call my fucking mother!” Taryn said to no one in particular. Rather, she shouted it, but in the small space of the phone booth she felt isolated. The realization that, at thirty-three years old and in a country others would love to be in, she wanted nothing more than her mother’s sympathy was too much.
“Excuse me,” someone said outside of the booth.
Taryn almost blurted a quite brusque “Occupado!”, aware that it probably wasn’t even proper Italian, when she realized the voice was speaking in English. With an American accent. She turned to the speaker.
Blonde hair cut at chin length framed an angelic face. The woman had a heart-shaped face and rosebud mouth. Her eyes were a startling shade of blue. They were, Taryn realized, locked on her and filled with concern.
“Um, I’m sorry. I’m almost finished, if you need the phone.” Really, she was finished, because after five tries she still hadn’t figured the damned thing out. Once more, with an audience no less, wasn’t going to be the magic number. It just wasn’t that kind of day.
“Oh, no.” The woman smiled. Her teeth were slightly crooked, a cute imperfection that endeared her to Taryn. “I just heard you yelling and you sounded like you needed help.”
Heat stained Taryn’s cheeks. “Sorry. I’m just having a bad day and I can’t get the phones to work with the calling cards.”
“Do you have a cellphone?”
“No,” Taryn admitted. “It’s gone missing.” She gave a wry smile. “My fault for relying so much on technology, right?”
A blonde eyebrow arched, but she didn’t mock Taryn. “But you have calling cards?”
“Yes. Several, and none should be out of minutes. But I can’t make the numbers work and who even uses payphones anymore and I just--”
“Want to call your fucking mother.” It was said gently, with sympathy, and Taryn laughed. It was a real laugh and she was startlingly grateful for the levity.
“Sometimes we just need home, right?”
“Today more than most.”
The woman held out her hand, and Taryn shook it. The grip was firm and her fingers rough. She noticed short, clean fingernails and corded strength along the woman’s forearms. It still made her glance over the outfit--clean, sort of hippie-cute, with cargo pants and a man’s white tank top. She had on a leather thong necklace and a hemp bracelet reminiscent of the ones that were super cool when Taryn had been in high school, over fifteen years ago. There was an enormous pack on the woman’s back. One of those mountain-climbing type backpacks. It had a yoga mat rolled up and hanging at its base. “I’m Holly,” she said. “Where are you trying to call?”
“Taryn. North Carolina. I live in Raleigh.”
“With your mom?”
“No,” Taryn said hurriedly. “She’s just close by, and she helps ground me in emergencies.”
Holly’s sweet lips frowned. She was staring at the bruise on Taryn’s arm. It had been too hot for anything less than a tanktop, and Taryn blushed that the immediate concern on Holly’s face. “Do you need a doctor? Or the police?”
She shook her head. “Not that kind of emergency. I just…It’s a long story.”
“Well,” Holly said, “It’s like...four in the morning or something in Raleigh. Will your mom be awake?”
The time change. Duh. Taryn sucked a breath through her teeth. Even if she’d managed to get the call to go through, her mom wasn’t about to answer a number she didn’t know at four in the morning. I’m an idiot. “No. I forgot about that. I guess I’ll--” but she couldn’t finish the sentence. She’d what? She’d already paid and checked out of the hotel room. After her shower, she couldn’t bear the thought of staying in Italy a minute longer than she needed to. Apparently six years of dreaming for this trip wasn’t enough to keep Italy from sending pretty obvious signals that it wanted her out.
“Do you want breakfast?” Holly smiled again, and while Taryn felt the furthest thing from happy, she returned it. “My train isn’t leaving for another two hours. You seem like you need a listening ear and some kindness.”
“That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me,” Taryn replied. It probably wasn’t true, but in this moment when her whole world felt unstable and unsafe, the words were golden. It occurred to her that racing off with a strange woman wasn’t the best idea, but it was just breakfast and probably close by. Her stomach growled, pushing her to accept the risk. “Okay, if we don’t go too far.”
“Come on,” Holly grabbed her hand, pulling her from the phone booth. Taryn used her free hand to grip the handle of her roller-suitcase, and they were off.
The Milan train station was massive. Its carved columns and reliefs the sort of beauty that Taryn had eagerly hoped to see on this trip. Everything about it screamed “Europe” to her, with a classical elegance that simply didn’t exist back home. Holly, though, wasn’t craning her head and looking at the ceilings or the gorgeously tiled floor designs. She was scouring the street with her eyes. “We’re too close to the station for anything good.”
“There was a coffee place just around the corner, I think, with some pastries.”
Holly tugged more insistently. “The spots near the train stations and airports and museums are made for tourists. Overpriced and often with American comforts instead of the good stuff.”
“Oh.” It was all Taryn could think to say. She felt a mild anxiety forming as they moved away from the train station. It was hard to miss, but she didn’t have it marked on her map. She wanted to know she could get back. Besides, she was still holding on to a sliver of hope that she’d see Daphne, returning and repentant. Fat chance. “So you have a place in mind?” It would be okay so long as Holly was familiar with the area. Taking Taryn to a favorite spot, or something.
“Nope. Just got here! This is my first time in Milan.”
“But you just said your train leaves in two hours!”
“Yeah, just changing trains here. I got in from Barcelona not too long ago.”
There was something appalling to Taryn about the thought of just stopping in Milan for a few hours. Like it was was a rural stopover on a road trip. She and Daphne had seen “The Last Supper” the first day they’d arrived. She’d gushed about it to Daphne, too embarrassed to admit it had been a bit of a disappointment. Time had so ravaged the enormous piece that it was a fraction of the image she’d seen in books. Still, she’d seen it, and that was what was important, right? Who came to Milan and didn’t go see “The Last Supper”?
“Let me look at the menu here,” Holly said, stepping up to a window that hardly looked like a restaurant. It was wedged onto the corner, in a small, tight space. There weren’t tables outside. Taryn had the impression so far that all eateries in Italy had tables outside.
Wanting to see what Holly was looking for, Taryn moved close to stare at the piece of paper taped onto the glass. As she neared, she caught a whiff of Holly. The woman smelled like sweat and pine, a pungent but sweet mix that reminded her of home. She wished she was better at knowing the difference between “crunchy” and “lesbian,” because Holly sent both signals.
The menu was entirely in Italian. There wasn’t a single thing that Taryn understood beyond espresso and cappuccino. It must have met whatever criteria Holly was looking for, though, because she nodded. “This is the one. Let’s eat.”
Taryn wanted to protest, but Holly was already through the door. It was heavy and oak, and Taryn struggled to wheel her suitcase in. For a moment, she was jealous of the ease of the backpack Holly hauled around. Then again, that looked like a lot to carry.
“Buongiorno!” Holly called out. A waiter appeared and, seeing the two of them, simply pointed to a table. Holly threw her bag into a chair, sat down, and said, “Grazie.”
Taryn tucked her suitcase under another table, hoping it was out of the way. There were two elderly men at the bar in the place, sipping coffee from small cups, with cigarettes tucked behind their ears. A woman was behind the bar, cleaning the silver espresso machines and speaking in rapid Italian to the men, who occasionally laughed at what she said.
The waiter came over. “Welcome,” he said, in heavily accented English. “What would you like?”
“Come sta?” Holly asked, not even glancing at her menu. Taryn wasn’t sure what kind of drink she was ordering.
The waiter’s shoulders relaxed. “Bene, grazie. Parla l’italiano?”
Holly giggled. “Sto imparando l'italiano.”
“You are doing well,” he said. “But let’s speak in English for your companion.” His gentled look passed over to Taryn, and she realized he was aware that she didn’t understand a lick of what they were saying. Probably her wide eyes and yokel-like bafflement. She cringed but attempted to smile.
“I’ll have a cappuccino, please.”
“Me, too,” Holly said. “And then whatever breakfast bread you recommend. Surprise us!”
He nodded and left. Taryn floundered with the entire ordeal. “You don’t want to know what you’re getting?”
“I figure he knows Italian food better than I do.”
There wasn’t a decent rebuttal. Taryn let it go, or tried to, at least. This woman was being kind to her, and even if she didn’t understand her traveling and ordering methods, they were only together for a short time. Then she could call her mother, arrange a flight home, and be bitter for the rest of her life that her dream trip to Italy and plans for romance had been ruined three days in.
When their coffees and plates arrived, Holly clapped. “Pizza bianca!” Taryn stared, incredulous.
“That’s just focaccia.”
“It’s delicious is what it is,” Holly said. “This bread is dreamy. All bread is dreamy. I’m a carboholic for sure!” As if to prove a point, she tore off a hunk and dipped it into the foam of her cappuccino, then shoved the entire chunk into her mouth. Holly’s eyes shut and she hummed.
Taryn couldn’t help but feel a little more relaxed. Holly’s enthusiasm, while bordering on absurd, was the kind of joy that she’d hoped to feel herself on this vacation. Following suit, she tore, dipped, and tasted.
“I know, right?” Holly tore another chunk, but she took a smaller bite from it. “So why are you trying to call home so early on this amazing summer’s day?”
Taryn chewed, trying not to let her anxiety sour the bread in her mouth. “The short version is this is my dream vacation and my friend who came along deserted me this morning and someone tried to steal my purse. My love affair with this country is officially over. So I’m going to fly home.”
Holly took a long sip of her coffee, never looking away from Taryn. The clear blue of her eyes was as disorienting as it was striking. It felt as if the strange woman could see straight through her, and Taryn was worried about what Holly discovered inside of her.
“That’s going to need another cappuccino and some clarification, I think.” She left Taryn, going to the counter to order again. Taryn let her fingers drift along the edge of the heavy white china, the milk foam clinging to the tips. What was she doing here? Time was of the essence if she was going to figure out how to get home before dark.
As Holly sat down and prompted her for more, she discovered the answer: Apparently she was going to bare her soul before tucking tail and running home.