(photo via La Vecchia Signora)
in Rule of Thirds, Francesca goes to Istanbul a second time to watch boyfriend Paolo Romaldo’s Champions League soccer match against Turkish side Fenerbahce. today, Juventus (Paolo’s team) visit Istanbul to play Galatasaray for a spot in the group stage of Champions League play. FORZA JUVE!
on my last trip to Turin, I went to Juventus Stadium to see Paolo’s team take on Udinese. our seats at the edge of the field provided a Francesca-like view of the action (and the players–yum).
it’s during a Juventus – Udinese match in Rule of Thirds when a sports commentator calls Paolo Romaldo “the maestro of the midfield.” Francesca already knows he’s the maestro of her midfield…
Paolo had gotten off to only a fair start–a couple of crosses into the Fenerbahce box, but only one that looked dangerous, that Chicetti was almost able to turn into a goal, had it not been for a swift punch from the Turkish keeper. Her attention was so focused on the screen that she hardly realized anything going on around her, and almost screamed when someone tapped her on the shoulder.
“I’m sorry, I startled you,” the man said as she whipped around to look at him. It was the Turk.
“Selim!” The impossible was happening. Her jaw dropped as she stared at him bug-eyed, disbelieving. “I’m sorry,” she stammered, “I was just trying so hard to follow. How did you–” she began asking confusedly.
“I saw you from my box,” he said, pointing to one of the luxury boxes several rows above her. He had sat down behind her and was leaning forward, close to her face, so close she could feel his breath on her ear. “I keep a suite here to entertain clients. But I’m more curious about what you’re doing here.”
“My boyfriend is playing for Juventus,” she replied.
“Which one is he,” the Turk asked, smiling.
“Number four, Romaldo.”
“Ah, Romaldo!” The Turk exclaimed. “He’s fantastic. Now I know why he’s playing so well this year,” he said, nudging her.
On the way back to the Velvet, she debated what to do next. She could wait for Paolo up in the room, or she could have a drink in the bar. Though she would love to wrap herself in a bathrobe and sit in front of the fire, she felt like it would be a waste to come all the way to England, dressed as nicely as she was, and not at least give Paolo the chance to see her. She settled on the bar.
Babe, I’m waiting for you in the bar. She sent him a text.
Be there soon. The entirety of his reply. It was hard to tell over text, but he didn’t seem to be in the best of moods. She ordered a Fernet and Coke, and the bartender looked at her like she was an alien.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Milano,” she replied. “You do have Fernet-Branca, don’t you?”
He turned to the wall of bottles behind him. “Sure you don’t want a cosmo?” he asked hopefully, squinting at the shelves.
“She’s looking for Fernet, mate,” a voice said from behind her. A man in a tweed blazer, printed button-down shirt and jeans. “Second shelf, third bottle from the left,” he directed the bartender.
Francesca turned to the man. “Thank you,” she said.
“Probably his first night,” the man replied, slightly under his breath. “Poor bloke.”
The bartender set Francesca’s drink on the marble bar in front of her.
“Add it to mine,” the tweed blazer man said.
“No, it’s fine,” Francesca protested. “I’m meeting someone.”
The tweed blazer man looked around. “Not yet you aren’t,” he replied. He extended his hand. “Gavin,” he said. “Call me Gav.”
“Waiting for your boyfriend?” She nodded. “Rude of him to keep you waiting,” Gavin said.
“He’s on his way,” she answered.
Gavin leaned in. He wasn’t unattractive, she thought, he was sort of handsome in that English way, kind of a mix of Jude Law and Jamie Oliver. “You sure of that?” he asked her.
She considered telling him, if she actually thought it would turn him off enough to leave. But he was the type to see a fancy football-playing boyfriend, absent as he was, as a challenge. He wouldn’t leave her alone. It would just cause more trouble.
She swirled her drink, clinking the ice cubes against the sides of the tall glass. “I’m certain,” she replied.
When she went upstairs, the first thing she did was turn on the television to see if Paolo’s game was still on. It was over, so she watched RAI Sports to get the recap. It was a channel she’d never even known existed, but as she watched, she started to hear names and phrases familiar to her from listening to Paolo. There had been several games that evening, and she had to watch reports from Rome and Naples before getting to the Juventus match. They had played Udinese and the sportscasters insisted on making their report as suspenseful as possible when recounting the highlights. Juventus had scored first but Udinese was quick to return attack, and the game was tied at the half. At the start of the second half Juventus subbed in Arancetti, their powerful young striker, and waited anxiously to see if the 20-year old could score a goal and justify his incredible salary. Arancetti did score, and his goal came off a set piece from none other than (and here the sportscaster paused for effect) Paolo Romaldo, the maestro of the midfield, sailing a gorgeous free kick into the box for Arancetti to head past the goalkeeper. Francesca cheered as she watched it on the television. She reached for her phone and sent him a message.
Congratulations, baby! Looks like you saved the day! xxxxxx.
Two minutes later, her phone rang.
“Is this the maestro of the midfield?” she answered.
He laughed. She could hear all sorts of background noise–music, talking. “I’ll be the maestro of your midfield,” he replied.
She groaned. “Where are you?”
“Some bar in Udine. We’re staying here tonight and flying back tomorrow morning. What were you doing tonight?”
“I had dinner with my brother and his wife.” She conveniently neglected to mention Bruno. “They started talking about football and I was so tempted to tell them about you.”
“Why wouldn’t you?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Why wouldn’t you tell them about me?”
“It didn’t seem appropriate. What could I have said? ‘Oh, football. I have sex occasionally with a football player.'”
“That’s not how you would really describe it, is it?” he asked.
“Why, what would you say?” She realized she wanted very badly to know his answer.
“I’d say I’m dating a beautiful woman named Francesca.”
“Say it,” she said. “Say it to your teammates and everyone in the bar.”
“I’M DATING A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN NAMED FRANCESCA,” she heard him yell over the noise of the bar. “Did you hear that?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she laughed. “Yes. All right, the next time it comes up, I’m going to tell my brother I’m dating a brilliant football player named Paolo Romaldo.”
“Just your brother?”
“Anyone who asks. Anyone at all,” she answered.
“Good,” he said. “I’ve got to go. I’ll be thinking about you, Cesca.”
“Ciao, Paolo. Sleep well.”
She ended the call and stared at her phone for a moment, trying to make sure she had understood what he’d said. “I’m dating a beautiful woman named Francesca” rang in her ears. He cared. He really cared. Right? Now she really needed Timo. She picked up her phone to dial him, then thought better of it. Timo had made it abundantly clear he was tired of hearing about Paolo. Maybe it was time to come clean to Cristina.
photo via Sferra
“I like your bedroom,” he said afterwards, looking around approvingly.
“You haven’t explained why you couldn’t go out to a restaurant,” she said.
He smiled. “Because we couldn’t do what we just did in a restaurant. Certainly not now, with your broken arm.”
She smacked him with a pillow. “Seriously.”
“Seriously?” He turned and kissed her breast. “I was meeting with Inter.”
“It’s a football team here.”
“I know that,” she said. “But I thought you were under contract to Juventus.”
“I am,” he answered. “And the contract is shitty and I signed it when I was twenty so I really didn’t know any better, but Inter seem to think I can fight my way out of it if I’m willing to move.”
“You mean they’ll help you break the contract as long as you sign on with them.”
“You understand completely.” He kissed her skin again.
“Do you want to play for Inter?” she asked.
“They’re making me an offer that’s hard to refuse. And I wouldn’t mind living in Milano rather than Torino.” Her heart soared. “I could get used to your cooking.”
“How long has this been going on?” she asked him.
“Honestly? Juve knows I’m underpaid–” she looked at him incredulously “–comparatively. So they’ve been throwing me a bonus every year to keep me happy. They got me cheap. And they’ve got the upper hand because I signed the contract. I know I could do better somewhere else–financially, at least. And Inter’s a winning team. The only time they ever lose is to us.”
She stroked his head. “I need to be able to play Serie A and Champions League and national team games, so I need to sign to a team that will allow me all those things. And I need to make my money now–I’m not going to be able to play like this forever.”
“So what are your options?”
“In Italy? Really only a handful of teams–Juve, Inter, Milan, sometimes Fiorentina, sometimes Lazio–play at that level and have the kind of payroll to bring me on. Outside of Italy, there are more options but it’s harder to begin the conversation.” He sighed.
“Poor baby,” Francesca laughed. “So many millions of Euros, so many decisions.”
“You don’t know what it’s like,” he said, propping himself up on his elbows. “We had no money. We lived in an apartment above the barbershop and I shared a bedroom with my sister. I started playing football because I had no other choice–I would have been paving roads or mopping floors.”
“But you’re not,” she said.
“Not now, no. You’ve got your safety net–you’ve got Mario and your brothers. I am that safety net for my family. My kid sister, she’s going to university now because of me.”
Francesca bent down to kiss him, long and full. “You’re a good man, Paolo Romaldo. Don’t let anyone say you aren’t.”
photo via kickette.com
Francesca moved to her desk, where she started up her Mac and began to look at a day of email she’d skimmed over on her phone. Contractual stuff she’d forward to Timo, requests for permission to reprint, gossipy missives from her friends. She stared at the screen for a moment before clicking on Google and typing in “Paolo Romaldo.” Instinctively, habitually, she looked at the image results first: action shots of him on the field in his black and white uniform, a couple of what she’d categorize as “lifestyle” shots, pictures of him in regular clothes, posing, a few photos from the 2006 World Cup, wearing a medal. Several photos in front of different step-and-repeat screens at events, a different woman on his arm at each one. The girls were invariably tall, blonde, and beautiful. If she had to guess, Francesca would say they were models. Maybe former models.
She clicked over to the “everything” results. First up, his official biography on the Juventus roster. She read it line by line. Born in the south of Italy, in the football system since grade school and officially recruited out of secondary school to under-17 and then under-19 teams. Played his first professional ball at Napoli and then traded to Juventus in a multi-million Euro deal that, if she was understanding it properly, secured his place on the team for seven years. The curious part of his biography was the section titled “Hobbies”: opera, languages, and motorsports. Opera? His taste in music was awful. She wondered, briefly, if there were just a bunch of nouns thrown in a hat and each player had to choose three. No mention of his family, no mention of his status, no mention of any extracurricular activities beyond opera, languages, and motorsports. But that was just the official biography.
Unofficially, she found a lot more details. From the websites of magazines she regularly tried to avoid, she found conclusive evidence that he had been linked to a top runway model, a girl she knew from the shows. She also found that he recently negotiated a contract extension that would, when finalized, net him over $30 million Euro for the next five years. She found a lot of youtube videos of a goal from Euro 2010 that had seemed impossible and sent Italy into the semi-finals. She found even more videos of Champions League footage, mostly dramatic goals but occasionally just brilliant passing plays. She watched them with the sound muted. He moved sinuously, confidently, the same way he’d moved the night before. Like he knew exactly what he was doing. Paparazzi reports of sightings in Anacapri, San Remo, and Cinque Terre, each time with some different, brand-name girl. Francesca grew bored and googled herself. The results looked like her portfolio: a listing of all her shoots, campaigns, and spreads, biggest names first: Vogue Paris SS 2011 runway recap, Marni FW 2011 campaign, Fendi Jewelry, and on and on. She skimmed the first five pages and found nothing remotely personal. Good. The last thing she wanted on the internet was a running commentary on her social life.
She paged back to the image results for Romaldo. A few dozen photos in, she found the D&G underwear shot. She downloaded it to her computer and popped it into Photoshop, then zoomed in on the handsome man at the back of the photo. Even though it was five years old, he still looked exactly the same. Chiseled pects and abs, tan, muscled legs and arms, and that unmistakable bulge. Feeling her pulse quicken, Francesca looked around guiltily for Timo, who was at his desk, wearing his headset and having an intense conversation on Skype. Safe. She turned her attention back to her massive monitor and the image of Romaldo. If she closed her eyes, she could feel her fingers on his skin, tracing its contours and hardness, and she remembered the weight of his body on hers, the warmth and the pressing and the sweat and then fullness. It seemed like it hadn’t been real.
Francesca Ghiberti leaned forward into her tripod to keep the heels of her four-inch Manolo Blahnik booties from sinking into the turf of Stadio dell’ Alpi.
“A little to the left,” she called, gesturing with her left hand to the models in front of her camera. The girls, all young, all pretty, wore designer sportswear and high-heeled wedge sneakers and shuffled confusedly, first to their right then to their left while Francesca snapped photos. A man in a training uniform ran out onto the field, then another, then about twenty-five of them, in a jagged formation, jogged onto midfield and right in between her camera and the models. Two assistants unleashed a mesh bag of soccer balls and the field became a chaotic fractal of players and balls.
“Really?” Francesca yelled, at no one in particular. “Timo–” she called to her assistant. “How long are we supposed to be here?”
A boy-man wearing neon yellow Air Jordans, Y-3 track pants, and a D&G singlet with a screenprint of Kim Basinger ran up to her, iPhone in hand. “We should have it for another hour,” he said breathlessly.
Timo had moved to Milan from a tiny town in Liguria, which he left as the only openly gay graduate of the local secondary school to attend art school. Francesca hired him as an intern and begged him to stay on after he’d finished school, which conveniently coincided with her becoming renowned enough to need an assistant, and to be able to pay one, too.
“Hey!” she waved at the football players, moving out from behind her tripod. “Hey, what are you doing? I’m trying to shoot here!” She staggered a bit as she tried to keep from losing her heels to the turf.
“Whoa, easy, signorina. You don’t want to twist your ankle.”
Francesca felt a hand balancing her back and turned to face the voice behind her.
“I have a scheduled shoot here. I need to finish it and you’re in my way.”
“Pardone, signorina.” With an exaggerated gesture, the uniformed player apologized.
“I’m supposed to have another hour here,” she said, scrolling through a list of emails on her phone to find the confirmation.
“We always start at two on Thursdays,” the man said. Francesca looked up from her phone at him and suddenly wished she’d done so sooner. Long hair pushed back in a headband, the way that football players do, dark brown and shiny. Equally dark, playful eyes. And though he was only a little taller than her nearly six feet, he had a body like a god. Muscular from his football playing and tan from days in the sun, he exuded sensuality from every pore of his body. Maybe this wasn’t so bad, she considered. The models were flirting with the players, who were posing ridiculously, hands on hips and chins cocked up, aping the girls. She ran to the camera and started shooting again.
“You can stay,” she called over to the handsome man. “We’ll be done soon. This is good.”
“I don’t understand,” he said, smiling. “First we have to go, now we can stay.”
“It’s ok. We’ll finish soon. I like these shots–they’re different. Do you have an agent? Someone we can contact to get permission to use images of the team? TImo–” she called her assistant over again. “Timo, find someone to give us permission to use the team in the photos.” He scurried off again.
“Let me take you for a drink to make up for it,” the handsome man said. “Tonight.”
Despite her protests that her hair was fine, Timo had scheduled Tonio for 4pm on Wednesday. The hairdresser set up in the alcove of the studio they reserved for models, with its makeup chair and mirror, and he set Francesca’s hair in juice can rollers and then dismissed her for the next hour, during which he trimmed, styled, and restyled Timo’s cropped cut. Francesca sat at her computer and laughed. When Timo was reasonably satisfied he popped a bottle of prosecco and the three of them drank while Tonio unrolled Francesca’s long dark tresses. Tonio sprayed and teased, and when Francesca caught a glimpse in the mirror, she looked like an Italian film actress: volume at the crown, thick barrel waves over her shoulders, big sexy hair.
“Perfect!” Timo effused.
Francesca wasn’t convinced. “I’m not going to Cannes,” she said.
“You might as well be. Consider this your big break, missy. You can’t show up looking like an indigent.”
“You sound like my mother. And I’m hardly an indigent, I don’t think.”
Tonio chimed in. “You two are like an old married couple.”
“Chop chop,” Timo hovered. “Time to change.”
“I’m not changing,” Francesca retorted. She was wearing long skinny jeans and a black cashmere sweater. Her leather jacket hung over the back of her desk chair.
“That’s what you think,” Timo said. “Tonio, she obviously needs to change.”
“Obviously,” Tonio replied.
“There’s nothing sexy about that sweater, and those jeans say I don’t care enough to do anything I wouldn’t normally do.”
“It’s a football game. It’s outside. It is a casual sporting event.”
“It is the most important night of your life,” Timo said, walking towards her with a garment bag. “I took the liberty of styling an outfit for you.”
Francesca groaned audibly.
Timo unzipped the garment bag with a grand flourish and set a shopping bag with a shoebox on her desk.
“Oh no,” Francesca protested. “No way. I am not wearing a pleated skirt to a football game. Absolutely not.”
“I wouldn’t have picked it as my first choice either,” Timo explained, “but then I thought of your legs, and I thought about the efficiency of a skirt versus a pair of pants or jeans, and the pleats are so chic, and you’ll look amazing. Just try it on.”
“It’s going to be cold tonight.”
“I do kind of like the blouse.” The skirt was from Prada and the blouse was Moschino and while the whole look was a little cute compared to how Francesca normally dressed, Timo had balanced the sweetness with a brutal pair of Giuseppe Zanotti heels and overall, though she would look a little overdressed for a football game, she wouldn’t look entirely ridiculous.
She emerged from the studio’s dressing room and surveyed herself in the full-length mirror.
“Gorgeous!” Timo cried. “You are so getting laid tonight. Time to go before you change your mind.”
“I’ll drive,” Francesca offered, but Timo had a plan for that, too.
“We both drive. I need to be able to get myself home. Obviously.”
When they arrived at the stadium and presented their tickets at the gate, they were ushered up to a private reception area with food and drinks. Francesca looked around at the businessmen in their suits and their wives in stylish dresses and felt less self-conscious, while Timo scurried around surveying the scene. Ten minutes before kickoff, an usher came to each of the guests to escort them to their seats.
“Signorina Ghiberti?” The usher asked.
“Yes,” Francesca smiled.
“For you,” he said, and handed her an envelope. She slipped it into her bag and corralled TImo, then followed the usher.
“Aren’t you going to open that envelope?” Timo hissed.
“Not now,” she whispered.
As they had thought, their seats were at midfield, three rows up. Francesca glanced quickly at the fans to her left and right and determined there were probably no deranged stalkers, just football fans. On the field, kids wearing uniforms were unfurling a banner and kicking a ball around in some sort of exhibition. She reached in her bag and pulled out the envelope the usher had given her.
A page of notepaper.
Scribbly handwriting that started out trying to be neat and lapsed quickly into near-illegibility.
Meet me in the lounge at the Armani Hotel. I’ll be there by 2230h. Look straight ahead.
She looked up from the note and straight onto the field. Standing on the midfield line, looking directly and exclusively at her, Paolo Romaldo, #4, smiled and waved.
She smiled back and lifted her hand.
“Madonna,” Timo said.
Several rows behind them, a bunch of girls waved and screamed in the general direction of center field and through their squealing, Francesca heard the bits of their conversation that included Romaldo’s name.
“Do you think he was really waving at us?” Timo asked her.
Francesca handed him the note. “Guess so,” he said, scanning it.
The game itself was a blur, partly because Francesca had a limited understanding of the rules of the game, despite having grown up with two brothers playing, partly because Timo didn’t stop talking the entire time, even making friends with the people sitting around them, and partly, no, mostly because she couldn’t stop imagining what was going to happen later that night. From what she could gather, the two teams were well-matched and the game was highly defensive; neither team scored in the first half and it resembled a chess match more than a football game.