My bar, my office, my home away from home. I don’t even remember the first time I went there to write; it’s like a parent or an older sibling , it was just always there. I certainly first noticed it my second day in Terracina because there’s a photo of it in my earliest “Around Town” photo album. I took it because I liked the way the buildings curved around the piazza; liked the bar’s vintage sign: Since 1895. The whole bar is curved, following the lines of the piazza, and it’s one of the few bars in town built before the war, so it’s opulent inside, all burgundy and wood and bronze, with a long mirror facing the till.
The brothers who ran it adopted me, memorizing my “usual” orders – hot tea with a side of lady fingers or hot chocolate in the winter; a warm apple strudel in the mornings for breakfast; a fizzy, writerly glass of prosecco after 4pm. Mmmm, cioccolato caldo con panna, grazie. Ah, che bel bicchiere di prosecco, salute – hic, hic! My first few months in Terracina, I had a stalker, was sexually harassed by my driving instructor, and had men follow me down the street, asking if I’d sleep with them. But then I met Old Man Angelo – the egg-shaped, bearded, foul-mouthed pensioner who buzzed around me each time I sat down to write. One day he bragged that he’d told “everyone” that I was his niece and therefore, under his protection. I don’t know how true that was, but no one ever bothered me again.
Every day, after or before work, whenever I could carve out the time, I sat down at my seat – third from the door. My friends knew where to find me and often passed by to say hi or ask what I was doing that night. To the rest of the town, I became the foreigner with the hat who wrote at Bar Centrale.
I wrote my first novel and countless articles there, working my way up from writing posts for travel blogs to writing for international pubs. People always asked me: how can you concentrate with all this noise? The whirr of the espresso machine, the clinking of spoons. It’s like the ringing of a bell, I always said. And I’m Pavlov’s dog.
I didn’t mind missing aperitivi or dinners out when the lockdowns happened – I’m an introvert; at first, I relished the chance to just stay home. But as the days wore on, I missed my bar. I missed the perfume of the espresso, the surprise drop-ins from my friends. Sure, I still drooled/wrote – cranked out another novel draft, added another dream publication to my freelance portfolio, and was invited to work on a guidebook for a major travel publisher; another dream come true (out March 2022!). But all of this done while slumped on my bed, in sweats I rarely changed out of, a sad mug of green tea with no side of lady fingers served to me by my favorite cheeky barista. I listened to Youtube makeup tutorials through my earbuds; white noise, but not my white noise. I pushed down my longing for the bar – I couldn’t go, that was that. Maybe some day, after 100% effective vaccines, after the deniers started accepting facts. I can’t remember the last time I saw Old Man Angelo, but I did call him during the summer 2020 lockdowns and yelled at him to stay home, stay safe, because he’s old as f*ck. He laughed. I should call him again.
Many of us are vaccinated now. The sun has come out again. We stroll the streets, go out to dinner wherever they have outdoor seating. There’s something called a Green Pass that lets us into bars and restaurants with only other fully vaccinated people. But there are still plenty of negazionisti, and plenty of people who think the vaccine is foolproof and there’s no reason to respect guidelines anymore. The Green Pass is rarely enforced; what did I expect. The sight of a nose hanging out of a mask fills me with rage, as does any jabroney who sees me wearing a mask and laughs, “What’s with the mask?” You know what’s with the mask, jackhole.
It’s still not safe. I know it’s not safe. I walk past the bar with my eyes down, lest I be tempted by the mermaid’s song. They sing each to each. They sing to me.
It’s NaNoWriMo. I’m preparing to start a new novel. I yearn. I long. I need my office, I need the whirr of the machines, the clinking of the spoons, the distracting bellows of my “Uncle” Angelo that remind me to take a break, enjoy the cioccolato caldo. But no bar for me. Bar, denied. Bar. DENIED. No bar for you.
Look, I don’t know what happened today. I was taking a walk through town, and there I was, in front of it again. Sign and awning dangling above me. The door yawning wide. Look away, Eva. Look away. Seriously, what happened? I don’t know. Months and months of pent up longing, months of turning my face away, and today it all built up like a dam, caught, bulged, and burst. I can just go in and say hi, can’t I? I thought. I can drop a masked, 30-second salute. What’s really wrong with that? I hopped from one leg to the other for a few minutes, like a peckish bird. And then I went in.
The bar was empty; the cheeky barista was nowhere in sight. Light glinted off the bottles and the bronze machines; the mahogany bar shined to perfection. I looked at “my” table and felt a longing so intense my fingers curled into balls. I used to joke that one day, when I am famous, they will rope off that table, and add a bronze cast of my asscheeks to the seat. After one and a half years of disuse, the chair may be reverting to its normal shape.
I said hi to the eldest brother, the one who used to bark at Old Man Angelo to leave me alone and let me work. He greeted me listlessly.
Tutto bene? I asked.
Si,’ si’, he said.
I asked for a bottle of water. He said, Go over to the bar. We don’t have bar service anymore.
I went and greeted the youngest brother – the one who always sang my name as soon as he saw me, or called me Eva Herzegová. No singing today. He handed me my water, and I headed back to the till to pay. I passed the eldest brother the euro, he took it.
Well, I said. Have a great day.
I left. He didn’t say goodbye.