The following excerpt is from my husband’s soon-to-be published freshman novel, Nineteen.
It’s the story of a Midwestern boy on a physical and psychological journey which takes him from Illinois to New York to Milan to Paris. It’s a first hand look into one of the world’s most misunderstood professions. And it’s a story that just may challenge what you think you know about the modeling world.
I had given up walking with the other enthusiastic models that talked without listening as they made their way from appointment to appointment. I preferred to walk alone. Each appointment was open ended with no specific time to arrive, only a window of time to hand my book to a disinterested stranger. There was no pressure and no one to tell me what to do and how to look. I was on my own and I enjoyed the nothingness of my job for those short weeks. I knew that this life wouldn’t last and felt without knowing that these blank days of spring would change for me as the heat of summer began to bake the sidewalks and buildings. Until I entered the living parts of the city, I was alone and almost invisible, free to breathe in the solitude without guilt as I began to forget the people who had been a part of my life only three weeks ago in a faraway place that faded from memory, leaving me to wonder if I had ever lived anywhere but here.
Kristina greeted me with a smile and a strong hug at the end of each day. We would sit together in the cool shade of the softly lit agency and talk about the day or the girls that she had worked with. She was never too busy to talk to me and I felt whole and happy in those moments. There was warmth without heat between me and Kristina, an older sister who thought nothing of squeezing her younger brother around the waist and talking about any subject that came into her beautiful head.
On a quiet, hot and sunny Wednesday afternoon I found Calvin and Kristina gesturing and talking frantically to a silent and slumped Kenny in the agency. I walked over and waved hello without speaking to everybody and stood at a distance, waiting for them to finish with Kenny so that Kristina could give me the appointments for Thursday.
“Kenny, you cannot take pictures with Fabrizio with those eyes,” Calvin whispered loudly as he took a close look at Kenny’s eyes.
I looked at Kenny and saw the reddest eyes I had ever seen. There was no white, only red with yellow crust at the corner of his right eye. His face was a mask of pain and frustration, his hands clenched into fists in his lap.
Kristina shook her head slowly back and forth with her arms crossed in front of her small hard breasts while hunching up her shoulders as if she were cold.
“Kenny, Kenny,” she repeated softly with the worried face of a mother waiting on the side of the road for her child to return late from school.
“We need to call Fabrizio and tell him,” Calvin said to Kristina as he wiped his sweating face with the palms of his hands.
“But Calvin,” Kristina protested, “This is a very big job. Maybe we can get some medicine for Kenny and he will get better before the job starts tomorrow.”
“What did you do?” Calvin asked as he suddenly turned to face Kenny.
“Nothing!” Kenny lied as he continued to look at the floor, trying to hide his face from Calvin.
I was not a doctor, but I knew that Kenny had a bad, bad case of conjunctivitis, most likely from smoking, drinking, sleeping with dirty girls, and staying out in the nasty, dark clubs that pumped out loud music throughout the night as people danced on the floor and groped each other in the dark corners, hoping to find someone to spend the night with. I rarely saw him at the pensione at night and he always looked bleary and puffy in the morning when I passed him in the hallway. I was not a saint, but I rarely drank, and I never smoked. I was more than a little afraid of the clubs where nothing good ever seemed to happen. I didn’t want to go looking for trouble; it always seemed to find me eventually, anyway.
“Darrilll!” Kristina said suddenly, clapping her hands together loudly.
“Yes!” Calvin said with an equal amount of enthusiasm, “We can send Daryl with Kenny to Rome.”
“No, no, no,” Kenny said with an exaggerated shake of his head, “I’m not losing my ticket to the big time because of this shrub. I’m going to Rome to work with Fabrizio, and I don’t need this loser tagging along.”
“Listen, Kenny,” Calvin said in a buttery- smooth voice, “Daryl is only coming with you in case you are not able to do the job. You can ride together on the train. If your eyes are better, then Daryl will come back to Milan in the morning.”
“Fabrizio wants me to do the job!” Kenny countered angrily like a child having a fit while turning to point at me, “not this guy.”
Calvin picked up the phone from the desk and started to dial with a long index finger. He waited as the phone rang on the other end,
“Hello, Fabrizio?” Calvin said, “We have a problem. Kenny’s eyes are a little red. We are sending another model with him just in case,” he waited and listened before replying.
“Yes, yes. That is the one. From Chicago. He did the shooting with you for Vogue. Okay then. Ciao, Fabrizio.”
Calvin settled the receiver onto the European style phone and turned to face Kenny and me with his hands clasped in front of his mouth, as if in prayer.
“Do you know how to get to the train station Kenny?” Calvin asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” Kenny replied impatiently, “this is total bullshit,” he spat out as he grabbed his backpack and rushed out of the agency.
Calvin ignored his comment and said to me, “You need to follow Kenny to the train station. You need to take the express train to Rome. Fabrizio or his assistant Pasquale will meet you at the train station in Rome. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I answered, “can I have some money for the train?”
“Don’t you have any money?”
“Okay,” he replied reluctantly, “ here is one hundred thousand lire. We will take it off of your account.”
“Of course, Calvin. Thank you,” I said as I turned and ran down the marble steps to the street.
Kenny was walking to the corner where the tram stops and I ran to catch up with him.
“Kenny, wait up,” I said as he began to jog to keep ahead of me.
He flipped me the bird without looking back.
We arrived at a large stone building with enormous statues with soot stained faces on either side of a large entrance with a roof held up by gigantic fluted columns that seemed to be carved from a single piece of stone. The statue faces puked out a greenish water from their open mouths into a pool filled with cigarette butts and paper wrappers floating around the surface of the water.
Kenny stood in line for the tickets and I walked up to him and said, “Calvin wants us to take the express train to Rome.”
“Fuck Calvin,” Kenny said in response.
“Hey Kenny, can we just cut the crap?” I asked. I was beginning to get tired of his everybody is picking on me bullshit.
“What the fuck does that mean?” he answered , turning around to face me.
“Let’s just get to Rome and see what happens. I’m sure Fabrizio will find a way to make this work for you.”
Kenny stared silently ahead.
The train was an open windowed passenger train with filthy floors and grimy windows. The air smelled of unwashed bodies, stale bread, urine and spilled wine. The people on the train did not look like the nicely dressed men and women I had noticed walking hurriedly in the train station; they looked like farmers and laborers with gnarled fingers and stooped backs. Kenny searched the sleeping berths for an open bed, but they were all taken. He settled into a seat at the end of the car and began to smoke as he stared blankly out the window. I stood in the narrow aisle near the pull down seats and tried to keep from blocking the steady stream of passengers that walked through the car as the train slowly jerked itself into motion.
The train sat very low to the ground, more like a car than a train. I looked out the dust-covered windows as the scenery changed from tan and red brick buildings with small windows to open fields with randomly placed dirt roads. All of the men and women that walked by or sat were built low to the ground with stubby fingered hands that looked as if they had never played the piano well. I watched two old men dressed in layers of dusty clothes worn thin at the elbows and cuffs and a very old woman in a shapeless gray dress with an apron that sat upon her full lap. They were talking and gesturing to each other, flashing easy smiles with discolored and missing teeth whenever they spoke.
They laughed easily and seemed to touch each other on the knee or shoulder for emphasis when they spoke. They passed around a green glass bottle wrapped in colorful string with a flat topped cork that one of the men held in his hand while taking long slugs from the bottle. One of the men with a full face furrowed with rows of deep wrinkles from years of sun motioned for me to come closer. I silently walked towards the small group and he smiled and began to speak to me in Italian. I shook my head to indicate that I did not understand and he said as his small eyes brightened, “Ahhh. Americano, no?”
I nodded my head and he offered me the bottle of wine. I held my hand up and said, “No grazie,” with a smile meant to show that I was not trying to offend.
He smiled broadly and said something quickly to the others that I didn’t understand and gave me a salute with his right hand.
“Bottilia” he said to me while pointing at the bottle, “Vino,” he said slowly as he swirled the wine around.
I nodded and smiled back and said slowly with as much accent as I could manage “Bottilia. Vino”
They all clapped their hands together and said, “Bravo, bravo.”
I looked around to see where Kenny was and saw him squatting down with his back pressed against the side of the train. He held a cigarette between his right thumb and index finger and had his other arm pressed against the wall to keep him from falling over as the train bucked and swayed down the tracks. He stopped smoking and dropped his lit cigarette on the floor before standing up to grind it into the grooved rubber mat.
“Hey,” he said to me as I walked towards him. His skin looked pale and sickly in the harsh fluorescent light of the train. There were scars that came from acne on his cheeks and down his neck that I hadn’t noticed during our shoot last week. His eyes looked very red and the infection had turned his right eyelid puffy, looking like a black eye that happened to be red.
“How’s my eyes look?” he said with a desperate, pleading look plastered on his face.
I looked closely to see what I could easily have seen from ten feet away and answered with a serious expression to accompany my serious words.
“Not bad, not bad. Have you put any medicine on them?”
“No,” he said defensively, “Just some Visine.”
I knew it would take days for his eyes to clear, maybe even weeks. He gave me a tight-lipped smile as he tried to hide from me what could not be hidden. He looked at the floor at his feet.
The train stopped every few minutes and never seemed to get up to speed. I realized after a long two hours of this that we had gotten on the wrong train; this train was definitely not an express. After three hours of people loading on with boxes tied up with twine and live chickens held upside down by their legs, I resigned myself to the fact that the trip would probably take all night. I started to look for a place to sit down. I left Kenny alone and began to walk from car to car in search of an open space. There was not a single seat on the train. I returned back and found Kenny pacing up and down the aisle nervously while puffing on another cigarette.
He approached me fast as I walked through the door and asked frantically, “What are we going to do?”
“This train is a fucking local,” he spat out.
No shit. Mr. Genius of all things Italian, I thought to myself. I calculated that at our current rate we would get to Rome first thing in the morning, around seven.
“Try to get some rest,” I offered uselessly, trying anything to calm Kenny down.
“Yeah, right,” he said before hurriedly sucking in more smoke from his cigarette. “What are we going to do? Sleep on the fucking floor?” he asked with a look of contempt.
“Don’t know,” I replied quietly as I began to think about what he just said. That could work, I could sleep on the floor under the jump-seats. It would be a little dusty, but it was worth a try. I was feeling as if I had nothing to lose. Finding a spot to sleep on a crappy local train was not the biggest problem I had ever faced.
My dad had made sure that I had a memory full of dramatic crap to draw from whenever I would face a very bad situation; nothing and no one could be as scary as my dad. When I was too young to know how to swim well, he would take me to the local pool and hold me under the water while he laughed as I struggled beneath the surface. When I was lifted above the water I would scan that sides of the pool for an adult who could help me. I would look to the other adults who were swimming or the lifeguards who sat up high on their stands to see if any of them would have the courage to come to my rescue. I always determined in my young mind that they wouldn’t risk going up against my dad in order to keep me from being drowned without reason and seemingly without end. I struggled to suppress the fear that overwhelmed my body as my mind tried to keep me from struggling against the impossible strength of my dad’s grip on my thin arms, knowing that to struggle would only serve to anger my dad, which would increase
the time between breaths, making the entire process last much longer. My mom never went to the pool with us during family swim and my older brother went off to swim while I was struggling to survive by surrendering. This became a standard part of my summers for four years. Each time that the warmth of summer followed the rain and mud of spring, I would silently dread the time at the public pool with Dad.
Finding a way to spend time away from Dad became a full time job for me. The understanding that I was safest when I was alone, even at the age of seven, stays with me still. Finding a place to rest on a local train in a foreign country where I did not speak the language and had no chance of getting any help from the locals seemed to be a relaxing evening to me in comparison to parts of my childhood.
A cold wave of empathy washed over me as I thought about the nightmare that Kenny was living through as his hopes of a big break with Fabrizio flew away like a balloon that a child loses hold of, watching helplessly as the balloon drifts and rises into the sky until it suddenly disappears from sight, as if it were never there in the first place. In a few short hours, Kenny had turned from a cocky Southie into a child hoping and praying that reality was a dream and dreams were reality. He was a far cry from the model that flipped me off a few hours earlier as he stormed out of the agency.
I looked down at the filthy floor and tried to reconcile in my mind that I would be sleeping there for the next six or seven hours. The only space that was not occupied was beneath the jump seats that lined the narrow aisle. I bent down to survey the amount of space under the passengers’ legs and decided that it was worth a try. I took off my backpack, pulled out my blue LL Bean pocket anorak, and put it on, pulling the hood over my head and pulling the drawstring tight until only my eyes and mouth were exposed. I put on my sunglasses to protect my eyes from the dirt that puffed up from the floor as the passengers tromped by in their rawhide laced work boots. I placed the front of my backpack on my chest and wrapped the straps a few times around my fore-arms to keep my pack from being stolen while I slept.
I did my best to communicate my desire to sleep on the floor beneath the seats with a combination of English and an exaggerated form of mime motions, trying to get them to understand that I wanted to crawl under their legs to sleep on the floor. They all looked at me as if I were a leprous lunatic, with wide eyed expressions that indicated their disbelief and resistance to my seemingly insane request. The five people who needed to move so that I could squeeze beneath the seats eventually complied and allowed me to get under their seats as I smiled graciously while offering a slew of grazies in return for their cooperation. I lay down, stretched out my legs and folded my arms across my chest. I felt like a corpse in a coffin, but except for the sickening smell of the sticky floor and the bumping of the train axles beneath me, I was quite comfortable. In less than five minutes I had fallen asleep.
It was sunny when I awoke to the commotion of the passengers exiting the train. The cool of morning pushed in through the open windows. It felt good on my face as I rubbed my puffy eyes with my knuckles, trying to speed up the waking process. All of the passengers were getting to their feet. A small group of wrinkled peasant women with dark clothes and sturdy, bowed legs spoke with wildly animated gestures to a slim conductor that stood with his hands on his hips. They all pointed at me as I struggled to get out from under the seats and stand up in the narrow aisle, my right knee was almost completely locked in the straight position. I looked up at the scarecrow conductor from my bed and struggled to untie my backpack from my forearms while I scooted sideways on my butt to get out from under the seats.
He started to yell, “al-ey, al-ey!” to me in a loud, shrill voice while adopting a stern look that pulled at all sides of his face. He motioned impatiently with both hands for me to get up from the floor while he continued to screech at me in Italian. I had figured out that sleeping on the floor was probably against the rules and the slim conductor wanted to either scare me or levy some stupid punishment that involved holding my passport and shaking me down for fifty thousand lire. He wore a blue suit with a small fabric covered cardboard hat on his head. He looked at me with disdain as he rained down a string of nasty sounding Italian words that I could not fully understand. I turned my backpack around and slung it over my right shoulder as I slowly stood up in the narrow aisle without talking, but keeping my eyes focused on him as I returned his stare without speaking. He watched me stand up and seemed to abruptly stop talking as he realized that I was much bigger than he was.
I held my hands out with my palms facing him and said slowly in English, “Okay, now what Sergio Valenti?”
He shook his head as if someone had slapped him hard across the face and turned to walk out of the car, either rethinking if it was worth it to continue yelling at me or searching for some beefy reinforcements for simply sleeping under the seats. I stumbled towards the exit, still more asleep than awake and tried once more to rub the sleep from my eyes. I slowly walked out the door and onto the brick and concrete platform. I scanned the crowd on the platform for Kenny and found him hunched over and leaning against the corner of the brick building with his arms crossed tight across his chest. He looked nervous; flicking his fingers up and down, as if playing an imaginary piano. I walked over and quietly stood next to him with my arms limp at my sides and waited.
A stumpy man with an ill- fitting black suit coat, too tight pants and thick, black rimmed glasses held up a brown piece of cardboard with the word Kenny written on it in pencil
I nudged Kenny gently with my elbow and said, “I think that guy is our ride,” as I pointed to stumpy holding the cardboard sign.
“Oh yeah,” Kenny replied without looking. He looked like he was going to vomit on my shoes at any moment.
Stumpy led us across the narrow parking lot to a white van and we both climbed in the back. After a short ride in the small van with no windows and tiny seats without padding, we arrived at a small building with a red canopy and flowers growing from large clay pots that were placed on each side of the steps that led into the building. Fabrizio stood at the top of the Hotel steps like an army general with his arms crossed on his barrel chest, his sleeves rolled up to the elbow to expose his hairy forearms. He slowly walked down to meet us as we stepped out from the van. He ignored me and went straight to Kenny.
“Let me look at your eyes my young friend,” he said with a paternal look of skepticism mixed with sympathy.
Kenny reluctantly slid his dark sunglasses down his nose and then off his face. Fabrizio looked closely into his eyes and sighed loudly while shaking his head from side to side. He said something to the short driver in Italian and the driver nodded.
He turned back to Kenny and said in a voice devoid of emotion, “Kenny, you must go back to Milano. Ciao, andiamo.”
Kenny really looked like he was about to vomit as all the remaining blood drained from his face.
“But Fabrizio, can’t I do some photos with sunglasses or something? C’mon! Please, Fabrizio?” Kenny pleaded with a twisted expression of pain stretched across his pale face that pinched his eyes until they were almost closed.
Fabrizio shook his head quietly and rubbed the back of his neck, turned to me, and said without emotion; “Okay, Mr. Chicago. Get your things into your room and meet us in the lobby in thirty minutes.”
I looked over to Kenny and extended my right hand, preparing to say I am sorry and all that feel good crap, but Kenny wouldn’t have any of it and he hissed out quietly through clenched teeth for my ears only, “Fuck you, asshole. You fucking suck.!”
I turned to walk away and took the steps two at a time into the lobby. I didn’t turn back to watch Kenny leave.