On IM Francesca asked me to call her. She was seeking information, and I suppose reassurance as well. But she wasn’t trying very hard to be friendly.
“My dad still thinks you know where she is,” Francesca said.
“I don’t know any more than you do,” I said. “And why is he making you a go-between?”
“Because he knows you won’t talk to him.”
“Oh? I think it’s more like he doesn’t want to talk to me, because that would be acknowledging that I exist.”
“What do you have against him?”
“Not much. Except this is the man who put his daughter in an Italian monastery to keep her away from her lover, remember? Better to lock her up than allow her to continue to be an adulteress. In your family appearances are everything, aren’t they?”
“He did what he thought was right.”
“Yes, and look what happened. She escaped with the help of a Milan fashion photographer. And then almost got killed in a taxi accident. Amnesia. Lucky for her it wasn’t permanent. And so on.”
“My dad doesn’t have your phone number, nor do I.”
“So you checked?”
“Yes. We found out your Manhattan telephone was disconnected.”
“But you have my e-mail address and IM screen name. I leave the computer online most of the time, so you never have a problem contacting me.”
“Why are you keeping where you live a secret?”
“Because I don’t want your brother-in-law coming here screaming and pounding on my door.”
“You don’t know about that incident?”
“Why don’t you ask Giancarlo?”
After a moment’s pause, she said: “Tell me, Mr. James Stephens, what does Vittoria see in you?”
“Look, I don’t want to continue this unpleasantness. I told you all I know. So goodbye.”
“Wait. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
Francesca said maybe I could give her some ideas on how to track Vittoria down. I replied that she could check the hospital. Vittoria might have showed up for her surgery after all, and is now recovering.
“Wouldn’t that be a nice surprise?”
“Yes, it would,” she said.
“Or you could call the doctor and ask him to notify you if she shows up.”
“That’s a great idea. Thanks.”
“Did she take a suitcase when she left?”
“No, Giancarlo looked in her closet. He said just a backpack was missing.”
“Did she take her laptop?”
“No. It’s here. I can log onto her screen name, and I check it every day.”
“Is she answering her mail?”
“No. Lots of people are asking her why she isn’t talking anymore.”
* * *
That backpack of hers. Black nylon, with plenty of zippered pockets. I imagined her two weeks ago, head spinning with the thought of being adopted. Stuffing those pockets with what she’d need for an escape to who-knows-where. Then going out, largely unaware of what the world is really like. She’s been protected all her life in that extended family of hers. She trusts too much. I always tried to tell her to be more careful, but she brushed it off.
Her internet friends. Men. And the experience with…what was his name? Robert. She told me she had been corresponding quite a while with the guy. He was a poet, a well-educated and intelligent man. Very sweet, very nice.
“Great,” I said.
“What’s wrong with having friends?” She asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Besides,” she said. “Robert is gay.”
Finally she shared with me what happened with this Robert fellow. But only after I agreed that I would NOT get angry.
“Yes, I promise.”
“Okay, so finally Robert said that we had so much in common, it was as if we were sisters. And that made sense, you know? Him being gay and all. And he said it would be nice if we were to meet, face-to-face. Just coffee, some afternoon. And I thought why not?”
“So you actually met him?”
“In Central Park.”
“You said you wouldn’t get mad.”
“I’m not mad. So what happened?”
“Nothing. We had a very nice talk at the Boat Basin. On a bench. You know that place don’t you?”
“Anyway, he said later he enjoyed that so much and why not do it again? Lunch.”
“Well, we were in a taxi. And…”
“He grabs me, shoves his hand in my shirt, and kisses me. I was shocked.”
“Surprise! He’s not gay after all.”
“When was this?”
“About two weeks ago. You said that you wouldn’t get mad.”
“I’m not mad. Just deeply concerned. Do you have any idea how lucky you were? He might have been a psychopath. You ought to know better. You don’t ever meet people you encounter on the internet. Anybody will tell you that.”
“I guess you’re right.”
The look on her face told me that she didn’t quite believe it. It was her nature to be trusting, open, willing to believe the best in people.