Mi dispiace tanto

By Gaurav Bhalla

The only two Americans staying at the hotel were holed up in their sea-facing room, even though they were leaving the next day. It was raining. Both were thinking the same thought—wish I was alone. They had come to Italy because their marriage counselor had suggested a vacation. “Get away, may help you get a different perspective, look at each other differently.” With only a day to go, that perspective had yet to materialize; would have to wait for the next vacation, or the intended separation.   

The wife stood at the window looking down on a green table dripping wet. A few hours ago, a cat was crouching under that table, trying to make herself round and small so the rain wouldn’t drench her.

Kelly wanted that cat. She didn’t know why, but she wanted it. She had gone down to get it. The padrone had sent the maid after her with an umbrella so she wouldn’t get wet. But by the time she reached the table, the cat was gone.

Sprawled on the bed, her husband was reading a book. “Still thinking about the cat?”

“I wanted that cat so much. I wish it would come back.”

The husband yawned.

“Forget it. She isn’t coming back,” he said, his words muffled.  

“I wish it would. It couldn’t be any fun being a cat in the rain.”

She looked back to see if her husband was listening. He wasn’t. He was reading.

Kelly left the window and made her way to the dressing table. Something she saw in the mirror made her grimace.

“I’m tired of my short hair. I wish I had long hair that I could pull back and wear in a bun. That would be fun.”

Still sprawled out, the husband stretched.  

Kelly continued, “Fun, fun, fun—I wish I could have more fun. Buy fun clothes. Dance the tango. Eat mangoes. I really wish there was more fun in my life.”

Kelly caught her husband looking at her in the mirror. If he had heard her, he didn’t show it.

“And I want a cat. Now. I want a cat. If I can’t have long hair or any fun, I can at least have a cat. I must have a cat. Now.” 

“Oh, shut up.”  Finally, she had got him to stir.

She left the dressing table and went back to the window. The square was empty. All the cars and people had left. It was still raining.

Everything—the bronze war monument which attracted visitors from all over Italy, the tall palm trees, the green grass and the green benches in the garden, the gravel path—everything glistened in the rain. The brightly colored facades of the hotels looked scrubbed clean. Under the awning of the café across the square, a waiter retreated into the wall to save his cigarette from the rain.

The sea was coming in, frothing as it broke on the shore. Kelly liked the hunger with which the sea consumed the beach. She liked how the beach yielded itself to the sea’s passion. She liked how the sea and the beach lusted for each other. Watching the sea and the beach meld and separate, again and again, was a spiritually erotic experience for Kelly. She thought back to a steamy, hot night, a few days after they’d arrived, when she had shared the experience of the frothy sea with her husband. But he couldn’t relate to either the erotic or the spiritual elements of her experience. For him, it was just ebb and flow; the sea came in, the sea went out. She remembered how she had wanted to punch him. They were on vacation, she was aroused to the point of spilling over, and all he could think of was sating her lust with a sermon. She remembered turning her back on him and pleasuring herself; fingers in, fingers out, her way of saying who needs you. But she didn’t think he got the message.

The rain had thinned to a drizzle. A single light came on in the square. It was getting dark.

Someone knocked at the door.

“Avanti,” Kelly said, and turned to face the door. Her husband turned on his stomach and propped himself on his elbows to see who was knocking.

It was the housekeeping maid. She stood in the doorway, holding a big tortoiseshell cat tight against her body.  

“Excuse me, signora,” she said, “the padrone asked me to bring this for you.”

Kelly grabbed the cat and hugged it.

“For me? A cat? I have a cat, I have a cat,” she chanted, twirling with girlish delight. “I don’t care if I can’t have long hair, I have a cat. I don’t care if I can’t buy new clothes, I have a cat. But I still want to tango, still want to eat mangoes.”

The maid had not seen this girlish side of Kelly; she smiled.

“You should thank him,” her husband suggested.  

“I must thank him … I must,” Kelly said and ran into the hallway.

“But he’s not there, signora.”

“Not there? How can that be? He just sent me this wonderful gift,” she said, stroking her kitty. The cat purred. “I want to thank him.”

“He had to catch a train, signora.”

“A train? But he lives in town.”

“Si, signora. His mother is ill.”

A moroseness sulked across Kelly’s face. “But we’re leaving tomorrow.”

“I will thank the padrone for you,” the maid said, tightening her face.

Kelly patted the maid’s hand and returned to her room. The maid shut the door and left.

“What are you going to call it?” her husband asked without looking up from his book.  

“I don’t know,” Kelly said, without looking at her husband.

Hugging the cat, she returned to the spot where she was standing when the maid had knocked on the door. More lights had come on in the square, but they were dim, making the square look darker and more distant. Lights were also on in the room, she wished they weren’t.

Kelly stroked her kitty and thought of the padrone. She liked him. She liked the way he made her feel important. When it was raining, he had sent the maid with an umbrella so she wouldn’t get wet. When the cat in the rain was gone before she could reach her, he sent the maid again, this time with a European Shorthair so she wouldn’t feel sad and empty.

She liked that he was older, she knew he was wiser. His old heavy face, his big hands, reminded her of her father when she was little, made her feel secure.

Thinking of the padrone, Kelly went down. The lobby was dark, his office was empty. She hugged her kitty and imagined him standing behind his desk, greeting her. He was a very tall man who stooped when speaking with others as a gesture of courtesy. Seeing him, even if only in her mind, made her happy. She hoped he would magically emerge from the darkness so she could thank him, but he didn’t.

She thought of going back to her room but decided against it. Instead, she stepped out in the courtyard into the lavender-scented night air. The thought of leaving without thanking him troubled her. Made her feel small. Inadequate. And she didn’t like feeling small, didn’t like feeling inadequate. She went back inside and wrote him a note on a letterhead bearing the Padrone’s name.

Mio caro padrone, I wanted to thank you so much before leaving. But you are not here. I wanted a cat; you gifted me one. I will never forget your kindness. Grazie. Grazie. Grazie. I will call you. Con tanto amore, Kelly.

Her husband woke up when Kelly entered the room. “Stop making a racket, come to bed.”

But Kelly didn’t want to come to bed. Stroking and cuddling her kitty, she alternated between reclining on the couch and looking out of the window. She barely slept that night. Not even a catnap. But her kitty did, enjoy a few catnaps. After one of those catnaps, the cat wriggled free and jumped on the floor. Kelly wanted her back, but the cat wanted to roam. She circled the couch, then walked toward the window and leaped on the window ledge. Kelly marveled at her kitty’s grace. If only she could be as graceful ice-skating. She rose from the couch and joined the kitty at the window.

The kitty moved away from Kelly. She didn’t want to be held.

The sky was getting brighter. One by one, the lights in the square went off. Kelly thought of the day ahead. They were booked on the 9 a.m. train to Rome, and from there on the 14:40 Pan Am flight to New York.

Her chest tightened at the thought of leaving. She wanted to stay longer but had failed to think of even a single way of extending her holiday (Kelly liked holiday better than vacation; more romantic). Still, she was glad she tried.

The alarm on the bedside table rang. It was 5:30. Her husband rolled over, turned it off, and continued sleeping. Kelly decided to pack and get into her travel clothes. She liked wearing loose-fitting shirts and pants while traveling. The cat followed her into the bathroom while she was showering and returned to the window ledge when she came out to dress.

Kelly’s stomach gurgled as she buttoned her shirt. She liked to eat early on days she traveled. Since the kitchen didn’t open until eight, she had placed a special order the previous night for breakfast at seven—American-style French toast, crispy bacon, and cappuccino. Her husband didn’t eat breakfast; he started his day with several cups of black coffee. 

As she moved to the window ledge to cradle her kitty and head down to the cafe, she noticed a man entering the garden carrying a bag, an easel, and a small folding stool.

An artist? So early? Kelly was surprised. Artists usually rolled in later in the day.

She watched him as he made his way to a bench with its back to the rising sun. He set his easel directly in front of him, his palette of colors, brushes, and sketch pens within easy reach to his left. Next, he opened the folding stool and placed it to the right of his easel.

Kelly wondered what he was going to paint.

The artist bent down and unzipped the bag. A small dog jumped out. It was a Maltese. Kelly knew the breed. Her best friend had a dog just like the one running circles around the bench.

The artist tapped the stool with a wooden ruler. The Maltese jumped onto the stool and smacked its lips in anticipation. The man rewarded him with a biscuit, which the dog devoured. The artist tapped the stool again. The well-mannered Maltese sat up erect and held his pose.

Oh my God, he’s going to paint the Maltese.

Ignoring the gurgle in her stomach, which had now grown to a growl, Kelly scooped up her kitty in her arms and ran down the stairs, through the lobby, and into the garden. Startled at seeing a woman holding a cat running toward them, the Maltese began barking and jumped into his master’s lap, knocking the artist’s mug of brushes and pencils off its perch.

The artist was furious. Kelly apologized profusely. “Please forgive me. I can explain. I’m here for a very important reason.”

The artist glared at Kelly, and waved her off, Vamoso.

“Please, signor, please. A quick portrait of my kitty and me and I’ll leave. I must thank the kind man who gifted me this cat, and since I can’t thank him in person, I would like to thank him with a portrait of my kitty and me.”

“OK, come tomorrow,” the artist snapped, strutting his best spaghetti western imitation.

“Tomorrow? No, today.”


“Today. Our train leaves at 9, we’re leaving the hotel by 8:30.”



The artist looked at Kelly as if she was kooky. “Even God can’t paint you a portrait before 8:30,” he snarled, tapping his watch.

“You’re right. God can’t but you can,” Kelly shot back, unfazed. “I’ll pay you double.”

Kelly had a history of playing the money card on international trips; it had served her well. She hoped it would today too.

“Ah, double money,” the artist said, looking at his well-worn shoes and patched clothes. “I wish I could say I’m not for sale, but I am.” Looking at Kelly with hapless honesty, he held up three fingers.  

“Triple?” Kelly asked.

The artist nodded.

“OK, three times it is.”

The artist set to work. First, he gave his dog another biscuit and put him back in the bag. Next, he seated Kelly and her kitty on the stool. But the cat wouldn’t sit still. She didn’t want to be held. She was curious about in the Maltese in the bag, whose barking was peeling the duvets off those still lazing past waking time in bed, in the apartment buildings and hotels around the square. The artist gave up, pulled out his Polaroid from his bag and took three quick photos of the cat. He took Kelly’s photo too, all the while mumbling and complaining, and pointing to his unoccupied stool.  

“Want to name the portrait?”

“Si, signor. Kelly and Sophia.”

“I’ll see you in the lobby at 8:15.”

“You’re a godsend, signor,” Kelly said, and hugged the artist.

“Don’t expect a da Vinci,” the artist said, waving Kelly and her kitty away.  

“I know you’ll do your best,” Kelly said and jogged back to the hotel. The growl in her stomach had become embarrassingly loud.  

The artist reached the lobby five minutes before the promised time. Kelly was waiting. He held the painting up to sunlight and said, “It’s not a da Vinci, but …”

“You’re right, signor. It’s not a da Vinci. But da Vinci would have been pleased.” Kelly clapped heartily to express her gratification. The portrait had heart, had soul—had connected with her heart and soul—more than what she had hoped for.

She handed the artist an envelope. “Triple.”

The artist accepted the envelope and saluted Kelly with it.

Then she gave him two carry-out bags from the hotel’s restaurant and said with a flourish worthy of a British butler, “Breakfast for the signor and his Maltese.”

The artist bowed and said, “You are very generous, signora.” Then he winked and held up his right hand, fingers and thumb flared. “Next time I’ll charge more.” 

Kelly laughed.

Buon viaggio.” The artist waved and left.

Kelly had the portrait. All she needed now was a note.

P.S. Padrone, I hope you like the portrait of the kitty and me. I like it a lot.

Since I couldn’t thank you in person, I had to find another way. I named the kitty Sophia, after my favorite Italian actress, Sophia Loren. Grazie.

She gave the portrait and the note to the housekeeping maid, who promised to give it to the padrone the minute he returned.

After reaching New York, Kelly called the padrone on the Monday he was scheduled to return. But the padrone wasn’t back yet, he had extended his stay by a week; his mother needed additional medical attention.

A week later, Kelly called again. The padrone was expecting her call, but he was not at his desk. He was resolving a guest complaint. Kelly recalled the gravitas that covered the tall padrone’s heavy face when he handled guests’ complaints. She felt her cheeks flush as she remembered the lenity with which he had settled her complaints.

Thirty minutes later, the padrone called back.

“Padrone, is it you? Is it really you?”

“Si, signora, it is me. Thank you so much for the painting. Bellissima. How did you know Sophia Loren was my favorite actress?”

“I knew, I just knew.”

Mi dispiace, Signora, I …”

“No, no, padrone, it is I who am sorry.” Kelly cut the padrone short. “Mi dispiace tanto. I’m so sorry, padrone.”

“Why, signora? What happened, why so sorry?”

“You gifted me a cat. She’s sitting here in my lap, makes me so happy, makes me feel so important. But I’m so ashamed, so embarrassed.”

“Why, signora? Why so ashamed, why so embarrassed?”

“Because … mio caro signor … I like you so much … but I don’t even know your name.”

Winners of the 2023 !Short Story Contest! will be announced tomorrow.

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