It was noon when my plane from Amsterdam landed in Rome. I was still feeling nauseous. Unusual for a seasoned traveller like myself. There was a point when I had almost fainted during the flight. In my delirium, I thought I heard the flight attendant say “Just like that other girl. There must be something going around today.”
One of the first people off the flight, I ran to the ladies’ room before our bags were even tossed onto the turnstile, splashed cold water on my face, and tried to make my cell phone work. Anthony would probably be waiting for me in Arrivals already; he was one of the most punctual people I knew.
As I walked back to the turnstile I noticed that several people from my flight had already claimed their bags and were heading out the door. “TIM” appeared on my tiny cell screen. I smiled. This was the fourth trip I had made to Rome since Anthony started studying here, and that message from the phone company had always been the first sign of welcome. Then I saw my case. Unmistakable. White with big red kisses on it. I had bought it here on my last trip in Rome. “Pretty tacky, but at least you’ll never mistake it for anyone else’s!” Anthony had to admit. Tacky yes, but it was my little indulgence. I felt like an Audrey Hepburn character.
I slipped the phone into my coat pocket, picked up the case, ripped the tags off, and hurried to the exit door. Anthony wasn’t there. I scanned all the faces. I started feeling sick again. Pulling my phone out of my pocket, I checked for messages. Nothing from Anthony or anyone. Could he have forgotten? Had he been held up? This just wasn’t like him.
I paced the arrivals lounge for twenty minutes or more, trying unsuccessfully to reach him. I kept getting an automatic voice message that I couldn’t understand. The artificial voice of the phone company had lost its welcoming tone.
I found the airport bus stop and, shivering in the autumn breeze, took my place in line. I rummaged around in the outside pocket of my suitcase for my address book. It wasn’t there! I figured it must have fallen out when the handlers threw the case around, the brutes. Instead, I found some odd pens and a chapstick, none of which were mine. Could anything else go wrong?
The bus pulled up just then, so I decided to get on and head for the center. Surely Anthony would call before I reached the city.
But I was wrong. An hour later I found myself checking into the Hotel Washington near the stazione termini, the same little hotel we had stayed in on our first visit here together, when he was boarding with an old lady who wouldn’t let him have regazze over. I thought it was the most logical place for Anthony to look for me. Nevertheless, I asked the proprietor to help me sift through the phone book to find his address. But it was no use. I couldn’t remember the street name or whose name his shared apartment was listed under.
“Sorry signorina. Canada?” he asked as I handed him my passport. “I have family in Canada! Yes, in Toronto. You from Toronto? Ah, but you are born in Spain, I see. The only alternative to Italy is Spain!”
The nice man had told me all of this, word for word, on my other visit. He obviously didn’t remember me. Could he have had so many Canadian guests just in these last few months? I just smiled and nodded. I couldn’t wait to get under a hot shower and flop onto a bed.
But yet more surprises were in store for me. When I opened my case I found that not only had the outside pocket been looted and my things replaced by someone else’s, but so had the inside! After rifling through for a few minutes, I had to admit the fact that it was actually the wrong case. Who would have thought this tacky, outrageous suitcase could ever have been mistaken for another?
I had been flying all day from Toronto, so I was too tired to think about it. After my shower, I stood debating whether to put on my dirty clothes from the flight, or pick something out from the strange case. I couldn’t do either, so in the end, I slipped between the fresh sheets without anything on, and fell asleep.
It was around four o’clock when I woke up. I had been sleeping for almost two hours. Instinctively, I turned to my cell on the night table. There were no messages. I called reception. No one had called for me there either. Where was Anthony?
I felt cold. Then I remembered the suitcase. I spied a pretty, pink bathrobe peeking out of the case. Well, I thought, maybe the owner wouldn’t mind so much if I just wrapped myself up in it a bit, under the circumstances. A little warmer, I started the Kafkian task of calling the airport to enquire about my case.
The first time they hung up on me, after telling them the case had “kisses” on it.
The next time I got a different person. “How is-ah the suit-ah-cas-ah?” she asked.
“It has big red kisses on it!” I was sure she would hang up on me too, but she politely took my name and cell number and promised to call me if she heard anything. I started to regret ever having bought such a tacky suitcase. Maybe the woman had acted politely just to get me off the phone.
Still wrapped in the mystery woman’s lovely pink bathrobe, I sighed and leant against the head board. What was there to do now? Just wait, I supposed. I couldn’t very well go wandering around a European capital in search of another woman with a red-lipped suitcase!
I tried Anthony again, only to get the same message. Calling home wouldn’t help. My parents didn’t even know about Anthony, even though we were practically engaged, and his family lived somewhere in Vancouver. Should I try to trace them? Oh, it was all too overwhelming.
I looked over at the suitcase again. Looking at it a bit more closely, I realized I should have known it wasn’t mine. I started noticing little marks and dents that gave it its own personality.
With a slightly guilty feeling I crept across the bed towards it, sprawling out, with my head and arms dangling over the edge where the open case lay. It was neatly packed, just like mine. I pulled out some blouses. Pretty. Maybe a bit too feminine, something I would love to wear, but just didn’t dare to in the unisex fashion world of Canadian academia. Business casual was the norm there. Intrigued, I dug a bit deeper. There was lingerie, not luxurious, but nice. Some smart jeans, a skirt, no brand names, but not cheap either, and two beautiful black evening dresses.
I wondered what her business in Rome was.
I imagined her disappointment when she went through my wardrobe! This lady had class.
Overcome by temptation, I tried on one of the evening gowns. It was a bit snug on me. She was a size 8, and I had recently graduated to size ten thanks to pizza and takeout. Or should I say she was a 38, as it was clear she was European, and upon closer inspection of the dress labels, most probably Spanish.
This discovery sent a pang through me. I am half-Spanish. My mother had gone to Spain to study and married my father, a madrileño. But shortly after I was born they were both in a terrible car crash and my father was killed instantly. After my mother recovered, she took me back to Canada with her. I remember nothing but for some well-meaning letters and presents from my Spanish grandparents in the early years, before my mother remarried and we lost contact with them completely.
I often wondered what my life would have been like if my father hadn’t died. In fact, for some reason, I had been thinking about that a lot on the flight from Amsterdam that morning. Part of the reason I had felt so queasy. Longing for a memory that had never been.
Her underwear was neatly folded in one corner of the case. Pretty, little bras and a number of lacy panties and thongs. Anthony had tried to get me to wear a thong once, but I felt ridiculous. Then I remembered that I had packed it. You know, just in case. It made me feel sick again to think of a stranger rifling through my things like this, so I closed the case.
I wondered how old she was. Was she a student or did she have a fascnitating job? Did she have a lover? Had she come here to Rome to be with him, like me?
My cell phone rang. Anthony? I grabbed it. “Hello … uh … pronto?”
“Signorina Jessie Hanes?” It was the woman from the airport. A Spanish woman had called with a similar complaint. “The other signorina has given me her number so you can reach her.”
An hour later I spotted her next to my suitcase in a café inside the stazione termini. The phone conversation had been awkward. She started in her accented English “You can know me by my suitcase …” and we both broke out in nervous giggles.
Her name disturbed me as well. She said she was Maria Gonzalez. My name is Jessie Hanes. But Jessie is not short for Jessica. It is my anglisized short form for Maria Jesus, a name which would never have worked in Canada. And Gonzalez was my father’s last name. When Dr. Hanes married my mother, he officially adopted me. But then again, both Maria and Gonzalez are extremely common Spanish names.
There was a moment when I didn’t know if we should just exchange cases and be done with it, or hang around and have coffee together. Curiosity won. We sat down.
I was fascinated by her appearance. Her hair was bobbed and dyed red, while I wear my dark brown hair in a long braid. But otherwise, her features were very similar to mine. Her skin was more tanned, her glasses different, but I couldn’t help but notice how incredibly similar we were.
I noticed she was thinner than me, and her clothes were more tight-fitting, the way the Italian girls wore them, but we were exactly the same height. She seemed to be more or less my age.
But there was something more disconcertingly familiar about her. Like when you are walking down the street and you catch yourself reflected in a shop window, and suddenly you straighten up as if you sense you are being spied on.
She was uncomfortable too. It was hard for us to make eye contact, so when the waiter brought our coffees, we both broke out into senseless chatter about how frustrating our experiences had been since we arrived. We talked about our mutual suitcase mishap, how neither of us had been able to reach the people we were here to see, and how nobody we telephoned or spoke to seemed to recognize us. What was happening?
We were laughing nervously over thesee things when she broke the mood to say, “My mother was Canadian.”
I now I felt compelled to add “My father was Spanish.”
She was suddenly serious and, playing with her empty coffee cup, she added “I’ve often wondered what my life would have been like if she hadn’t died.”
“Oh yes, I know what you mean …”
“In fact I was thinking about that a lot this morning when I boarded the plane in Amsterdam.”
“Really? So was I.”
“I think I have a bit of an idea now.”
She looked me straight in the eye. “I would wear baggy t-shirts, and very little make-up. I would be an art history teacher and have a fiancé studying in Rome.”
“I would speak Spanish,” I responded, “and wear high heels, and thongs.” We both smirked a bit at this, appreciating the comic relief. “And you would wear jeans and blazers to your classes.”
“You would be an architect,” she continued. “And move to Amsterdam to find work. And always wonder why your mother’s family never answered your letters.”
“Didn’t they?” I asked, not really surprised.
“My mother died in a car crash in Madrid …”
“My father died in a car crash in Madrid …”
“On April 4th …”
I finished the sentence for her, “1987.”
We stared at each other, fully comprehending now.
I could see my mounting fear reflected in her face, our eyes round and terrified.
Then she whispered, “What are we going to do now?”
Anita Haas has published three books on film, as well as poems, articles and stories in both English and Spanish. Most recently, her work has appeared in Literary Brushstrokes, Falling Star magazine, and Songs of Eretz poetry Review.
© 2014 Anita Haas