Walking briskly along the Italian cobblestoned street, Valentina knew she would see the top of the Tower if she just looked up. She knew how it would look from this very street corner by heart, sticking out over the tops of the other buildings at a slight tilt, the white marble standing stark against the bright blue sky. She also knew it would remind her of all the walks she had taken down this street with her father many years ago. For that reason, she kept her eyes on the ground.
She crossed the road and pushed through a dingy, half-broken swinging door into a badly air-conditioned convenience store. The heat outside made the air in the store thick and heavy. Flies buzzed around soft fruit and two large whirring fans made groaning noises in opposite corners. The man behind the counter, with his thick black mustache and small spectacles half down his nose, grinned when he looked up and saw her walking in.
“Valentina!” He shouted over the noise of the fans. He threw his hands in the air like all the Italians she knew as he rambled out compliments and greetings to her in his rapid speech. She leaned over the counter and kissed both his cheeks.
“Alberto,” she said and she could feel herself smiling as she said his name with easy familiarity. “How are you? You look great.”
That wasn’t entirely true. He looked like he had shrunk considerably; his whole body hunched over. Her dad would have been 60 this year so she had to assume Alberto wasn’t far behind. They fell into easy conversation, exchanging stories and laughing at old memories. Valentina bought a sparkling water and a pack of gum just like her father always did and Alberto tried to make her take it for free, just as he always had.
Valentina felt comfortable here in this tiny store in the middle of Pisa. Alberto had owned it for longer than she had been alive and was friends with her father for even longer than that. Valentina grew up in a neighboring Tuscan village, around 30 minutes by train from Pisa. Once a month, without fail, her father would take the train into Pisa, stop by Alberto’s before heading to the steps in front of the Tower. He could sit there for hours. Sometimes he would bring a sketchbook, other times nothing at all. She started tagging along when she was only eight but hadn’t been back since his death 6 years ago. For her father the Tower represented something, though she had never been sure what exactly. He used to say it was a landmark that brought people together.
“Are you married, bella? In love?” She rolled her eyes at his question.
“No. No love for me Alberto.” She didn’t mention the fact that her boyfriend of nearly five years had broken up with her last week, prompting her to finally make this journey back to Pisa in the first place.
“Ah well, you see my nephew just divorced – he’s young …”
“Alberto,” She interrupted a story she hadn’t been listening to. “Listen, it’s so lovely to see you, but I should head on.” She indicated her head in the direction of the tower and he nodded knowingly.
“Of course, of course. You come back before you leave though!” She agreed to stop by again and headed out the door on her way.
Valentina wandered past the street vendors, pushing half-broken watches and other shabby items in her face. She followed the lines of tourists, posed with one hand in the air and finally, she looked up.
It was laughably leaning, she had always thought. Leaning so far to one side, that as a child, she was certain it was just going to fall over. She walked across to the steps and took a seat, holding a hand to the sun to shade her view. She never thought it to be a beautiful landmark like her father did, but she was intrigued by the Tower, by its story and all the stories she had because of it. She waited so long to visit, scared of how the Tower would look to her now without him and nervous how she would feel standing in front of it alone but now here it was, standing directly in front of her like nothing had actually changed at all.
A bump to her elbow shook her from her thoughts.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to come in so fast.” A man, probably around his late twenties with dark hair and a boyish face, sat abruptly next to her. “You seemed lost in your thoughts and I was just wondering what you could possibly be thinking about at The Leaning Tower of Pisa.”
He was definitely American. Valentina stared at him, at a loss for words.
“Hi, I’m Alex,” He finally said, sticking a hand out to shake.
“Tina,” She replied slowly, grabbing his hand and giving it a small shake. “I was just thinking about how funny this Tower is actually.”
He threw his head back with laughter. “You know what Tina? I thought that exact same thing. This Tower is funny. Have you had lunch yet?”