Only With Thine Eyes
Jose Luis Oseguera
Caro mio ben, credimi almen…
Caro mio ben, credimi almen…
Caro mio ben, credimi almen…
Goddammit! I can’t believe I couldn’t remember this fucking line, Dion Paul thought as he waited for the 22 bus on Via Nicola Tagliaferri to take him to the Piazza del Duomo, about 7 blocks away the Arno River. He was thinking about how he froze on stage the night before in front of all his classmates, professors and an unfortunate audience who had paid up to €50 to hear singing that never came out of his mouth. That damned song was the reason he had spent the last two weeks in Florence. The goal was to become a better singer, not worse.
“Excuse me, sir. Where is this bus going?” a young woman asked him. She looked Latina, from South America. She had a supplicant, vulnerable look Dion had grown accustomed to, not only in Italy, but back home in Los Angeles. He was 6’2, broad-shouldered, and black. Black-black. Dark as night, as his caramel-complexioned mother used to say. Based on the innumerable occasions people recommended the idea, Dion could’ve been any type of athlete he wanted. Football— American and European— basketball or baseball. He was built like a Roman Centurion.
“Uh, yeah,” Dion answered, unaware of what the petite woman had asked in the first place, having been lost in self-loathing reverie. “I’m sorry, what was your question?”
“Oh, it’s okay,” she smiled. Her boyfriend approached them when he noticed that the reconnaissance mission he had sent her on had come across some difficulties. “I just asked where this bus went.” Feeling like a moron, Dion smiled morosely. He usually had an athlete’s smile, full of teeth and confidence. The chompers of a champion. The smile you’d expect to see on a Wheaties cereal box.
“This bus goes to Santa Maria del Fiore, next to Il Duomo and the Baptistery of San Giovanni.”
The young woman laughed in relief. This reaction produced yet another advancement by her boyfriend toward his girl; one not merely triggered by jealousy, but by the thought eating at him: I didn’t know you were into black guys.
“Thanks. Man,” her boyfriend said. The “man” could’ve been replaced by a three-fingered stab-shove, aimed precisely at the cavity formed under the clavicle, outer pectoral muscles, and inner shoulder. Dion was taken aback because before the jealousy came out of his lips, he thought the girl’s boyfriend was actually kind of cute— nice legs, strong jaw, and bad-boy facial hair. A one-night stand, easily, he thought. I wouldn’t even have to be drunk. However, now he wouldn’t get hard even if he agreed to buy him dinner, take him to a movie, and bottom for him.
“No problem, dude,” Dion said, giving him an up and down stare that knocked the boyfriend back a few steps, pulling his girlfriend back with him. Her eyes were once again dressed with a distressed glint, as if saying: I’m sorry for his behavior. It’s not your fault. He gets that way sometimes, but he really is a good guy. Dion nodded acknowledging her sentiment.
Caro mio ben, credimi almen…
The bus blew a dust cloud from the unswept dirt-laced streets. It was 10:23 a.m., still early for most Italians on a Sunday. Dion boarded the bus and paid €1,50 for a 2-hour pass.
“Grazie,” he said. Dion relished every opportunity he had to put in practice the three semesters of Italian he took at the California State University, in Northridge, the same one that was sponsoring his first visit to Europe via a scholarship for minorities. After he took the boarding pass from his hand, the driver’s empty stare— filled with innocuous indifference— sobered the tourist excitement in Dion like a shot of espresso after a night of too much good wine.
“Prego,” the driver said, turning his eyes back to the road with just enough gusto to demonstrate signs of life.
Dion moved down the bus shaft, it was nearly empty as it lazily worked its way through the narrow Florentine streets. With each stop, more and more people boarded. Caro mio ben, credimi almen… Dion couldn’t get that fucking song out of his head. The only thing that managed to distract him was looking at the people surrounding him, staring him down. Damn, am I the first black person you’ve seen? Shit! he mused.
He looked around aimlessly, gazing at everyone trying not to look at anyone in particular. His meandering eyes were drawn and nailed in place when they came across those of a young man. When did this cutie get on? Dion wondered. Was it on Via di Sant’ Jacopino? The guy wasn’t short, but wasn’t tall either. He had shaggy chestnut hair that waved silky as the bus rode over potholes. He had a slender face, high cheekbones and cheeks punctuated by pronounced dimples. His smile reminded Dion of a guy that sat next to him in Latin 101 during freshman year. Aside from helping him with the grammar of Virgil, the guy also took his virginity and swung the door to his closet wide open, leaving Dion broken and alone inside.
The stranger’s smile allowed Dion’s flesh to relive the symptoms of this love-pain, the first time he let a man in deep within him. He suddenly lost his ability to swallow. His breath shortened. His partner’s naked buttocks were all he could think of. How they tightened to a rock-like strength right before he came. The sound of his moaning replaced the civilian ruckus enveloping the entirety of the bus. Looking at the young man once again gave Dion sexual ammunition. His body could have been a well-structured sentence written by Virgil, with just enough meat on it to tell you what it was that it wanted to convey. As a whole, he was grammatically sound. His smile was a poem, lyric and song, all in one.
As more people boarded the bus, the standing room moshed into a narrower and tighter space. Dion and the young man got closer and closer as if destiny’s reigns were wielded by his desire. He found himself face to face, nearly towering over the young man. He smiled at Dion. He in turn softly mouthed Buongiorno as if saying Can you believe how crowded this bus is? The young man released a gust of laughter that smelled of old cigarette and rotten eggs. Dion blushed. Luckily, the young man was none the wiser because according to his uncle Terrance, black folk don’t blush.
The ripeness emanating from the crown of the young man’s head was pungent and intoxicating. It smelled like a freshly-opened box of crayons. The scent released reminded him of lying in bed and inhaling the smell of the aftersex. The more Dion looked at the guy under him, the more he wanted to lick the sweat dripping down the guy’s neck. He could envision his broad nose xylophoning up the side of the man’s protruding ribcage— visible through the wide sleeves of his mustard-colored jersey tank— tickled momentarily by his coarse, auburn armpit hair, stealing a kiss from his neck, right before he made it all the way to his stubble-lined lips.
The thought of his raspy stubble sand-papering his soft, clean-shaved body sent shivers down his spine. Dion wanted the young man to do so all over his muscular back, chest and stomach. To enjoy the rawness wrought by his rabid Tuscan desire hours after it was over.
“Prossima fermata,” the bus’s voice announced. “Santa Maria del Fiore.” The young man burrowed his way through Dion and the other people, and exited the bus. Fuck, Dion thought. Where did he go?
Dion looked around frantically, but nothing. As the bus continued its course, he noticed the young man walking down the street toward Il Duomo. He spied his every move. The way he ungracefully pulled his weathered, holey cargo shorts flashing the small of his slender back exposing his well-traveled back dimples. Dion bit his bottom lip.
And then he vanished into a sea of art seekers.
****Dion got off on a bridge that ran parallel to Ponte Vecchio. He could behold the mercantile madness unfolding and instead headed to a café that was more like a park than a garden. It was shaded by a canopy of tall trees, whose thick trunks were wrapped by slender fingers of ivy slithering down to meet a dirt path upholstered by plushy green grass. Dion ordered a glass of Chianti because the espresso machine looked as though it had been brewing shit rather than coffee. He found a seat outside, opened the 24 Italian Songs & Arias book and began to review the words for “Caro mio ben.” Yes, he would have to go back to the U.S. the next day and probably wouldn’t sing that song in a while, but if he didn’t do this mind-fucking exercise, the thought of not knowing the song would continue to torture him.
He took a pack of cigarettes out of his satchel and lit up. He wasn’t supposed to smoke, because it was bad for your lungs as a singer, but being a baritone, Dion felt that smoking gave his voice a rich, sultry tone.
“Hey, can I have cigarette?” Dion heard someone ask him. Before looking up he already knew that he would say “no.” Not because he only had three cigarettes left, no money to purchase the overpriced ones sold by the dirty old man at the cafe, and no Bar Tabacchi in sight to buy cheaper ones. Ultimately, he would say “no” because he hated smokers who bummed cigarettes. Mostly because he himself never did so. Besides, he subscribed to Uncle Terrance’s Golden Rule of Smoking: Do you remember who taught you how to smoke cigarettes? Then go ask them to also teach you how to buy them.
As Dion looked up with the scathing response cocked and loaded on the tip of his tongue, he was awestruck by the expectant smile greeting him. It was the hot guy from the bus. The realization yelled and echoed in the caverns of his mind.
“So, can I have one?” the young man asked.
“Caro mio— ” Dion blurted. The young man laughed. Dion joined in on the laughter. “I mean, yes. You can have one.” You can have me too, se lo desidera, he thought.
“Prego.” Dion’s mind was impregnated with something he had never felt before. Fear mixed with calm. He was admiring the unceremonious way that the young man held his cigarette, between the tips of his thumb, index and middle fingers. Like holding a blunt or a Cuban.
“I’m Carlo,” he said. “But you can call me ‘Charlot.’ I’m part French.” He sucked in a firm drag, and blew a sharp blade of smoke downward through the narrow opening in his lips.
“Piacere, Charlot,” Dion replied.
“Your name Dion?” Charlot asked after he read it off the music book Dion was studying. He pronounced it as one would in French, dropping the last N and nasalizing the O. Dion smiled. It sent a tickle down his spine and danced like a butterfly underneath his testicles. It was the first time he ever thought his name sounded sexy. Fucking hot, he thought.
They walked to the edge of the café facing the Arno, and smoked their cigarettes. Charlot flipped violently through the pages of music, smirking as if he were reading a dirty magazine.
“This music is like Shakespeare,” Charlot joked. “Nobody speak that way anymore.”
“It’s beautiful,” Dion said, never releasing his eyes from Charlot’s ocular embrace. “It’s romantic. Passionate.”
"That's old music. Most Italians don't listen to it," Charlot said. "Maybe, mia nonna." Charlot's mannerisms were terse and imposing. It made Dion feel uneasy in a sexual way. He imagined Charlot being that way during sex. “Fuck, even Italians don’t speak Italian anymore.”
As their cigarettes reached their filtered end, Dion realized that their conversation, and its continuation, hinged on him having more of them. He knew that Charlot had no money for cigarettes, based on the way he was gently moaning after each drag, holding the smoke in his scruffy, olive-toned cheeks, and exhaling large puffs of it with yet another moan. He took a final drag and flicked the butt into the Arno’s shitty-smelling breeze, and onto the body of water that inspired Michelangelo.
“Can I drink some wine?” Charlot asked.
“Yeah, sure.” Charlot had drunk more than was polite when bumming a swig of wine before Dion had finished his response. But he didn’t care. Maybe if I can get him a little buzzed, he’ll lean over and kiss me, he fantasized.
“Thanks, bro.” He wiped the burgundy mustache of his lips with a single swipe of his thin forearm.
Dion only had one cigarette rattling inside the crushed, bright orange Pall Mall cigarette box. The young man grabbed his hand with force, and pried the flattened, shrink-wrapped contained out of it. At first, Dion was appalled by Charlot's aggressiveness. He took out the lone cigarette, place the camel-colored filter on his fleshy lips, struck the spin-wheel on the lighter, and began to puff the cigarette alight.
Dion wanted to say, What the fuck is your problem man? Is this how you repay someone you bum a fucking cigarette from? However, he was afraid. Not of Charlot's wiry, yet muscular physique, or his wry gesture. He was afraid that if he said anything to upset him, he would stop looking at him that way.
Charlot released a long, cloud of white smoke as if a gun had gone off in his mouth, and in one seamless motion, like a magician twirling a wand, pointed the filter toward Dion.
"Your turn. No?" he said. Dion was eager to taste his lips, if only by proxy. Even just half a kiss would've sufficed. Dion felt touched. All of his feelings of negativity fizzled into the breeze as the genie of smoke that Charlot released. He took the nicotine conduit from the young man's fingers, his touch felt hotter than the ash avalanching from the cigarette's summit onto the top of his hand.
"Guh-grazie," Dion mumbled, nearly fumbling the last cigarette into the depths of the Arno, to sink to the bottom along with his heart.
As he placed the butt between his lips, he never once stopped looking at Charlot. The tip of his tongue made contact with the filter’s cottony center. The taste of wine laced in it swirled sharply on the corners of his mandible. Of the smell that first grazed his nose when their masculine bodies where shoved together in the bus that hot summer day. He released a low hum. He closed his eyes, and took a deep, prolonged drag that filled the entirety of his mouth. He wanted to release the smoke, but was afraid that if he did so, this moment would eventually end and Charlot would disappear. Right when he was about to exhale, he felt Charlot’s hand on his head. Dion knew it was his hand because he had already imagined what it would be like to be touched by it. How his long fingers would look like cleaving onto his scalp.
“I like your hair. It’s weird.” Dion knew what he meant. He knew that it was offensive and a little racist. But based on how good it felt to have Charlot’s hand get lost in the curled lock-forest as he ran his long, rugged fingers through it, he didn’t care. He hoped Charlot got lost in his hair the same way he got lost in his eyes. “I never touched black hair before. It’s nice.” He was gentle in his unscrupulous and intrepid exploration.
Just as Dion began to let himself go, Charlot yanked his hand out of his hair as if out of his head, leaving a hole in him.
"Okay," Charlot said. "Thank so much for the cigarette. Vi auguro una buona giornata. Ciao bello." Dion choked on the smoke in his mouth and partially swallowed its yellowish-gray empty taste. As he inhaled the river breeze, he saw the young man walking briskly toward a beautiful young woman. In America, she could've been a model or some old guy's expensive sugar baby. They embraced and kissed for what felt like an eternity. Charlot looked back at Dion and waved one last time. He waved back. The lovely couple walked away, and got smaller and smaller as they disappeared into a busy Sunday crowd. The cigarette in his fingers had a single drag left. Charlot’s drag. The knot in his throat and the convulsion he almost had made the rest of the cigarette less appetizing, so he flicked the rest of it into the Arno.
Charlot may have been straight, but based on the amount of joy with which he smiled, the magnetism with which he glanced, the willingness with which he tasted his saliva, and the sensuousness with which he massaged his hair told Dion otherwise. Back home in Crenshaw, he thought, you don’t do that to other dudes unless you want to hook up or get your ass kicked. Either way, you’re giving up that ass.
Dion closed his eyes and instantly saw Charlot's smile. The one that haunted him upon first sight. He licked his chapped lips.
They tasted of the Arno breeze. They tasted of him.
Jose Luis Oseguera: "I am an LA-based writer of poetry, short fiction and literary nonfiction. The theme in my writing revolves around the city of LA. I use the city's people and places, and their complex interactions as inspiration to tell the stories that often go untold.
"My work has been featured in the journals Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Sky Island Journal, Jelly Bucket and Authorship by The National Writers Association."