Friday, June 26, 2009


In Venice, they asked me to join them at their table. She ordered. Fernet-Branca. I had never heard of that Italian spirit. The waiter brought the liquid in a slender glass, thick, black with a tinge of green. A digestive, she said. I caught a whiff of pine.

She was tiny, ethereal, with exquisite clothes and wire-rimmed spectacles. Spiky black hair. He was not her physical counterpart -- gruff, ill-fitting suit on his bulky body. Earth bound. He could not take his eyes off her.

I asked about the Fernet-Branca. She warned me -- I wasn't likely to care for the taste.

Even though the spirit is made in Italy, it was not always available. So she carried a small bottle with her. At night after the conference meetings, she would pull the container from her bag and pour the thick liquid into a dainty glass at the hotel table, canal-side outside the hotel. Sip. Stare into the languid night of Venice, which had been cleared of tourists for the meetings. Her long brown cigarette glowing red near her cheek.

She filled me in on the Fernet-Branca. It was the only topic I heard her talk much about. The full list of ingredients supposedly has never been divulged. But some are known -- myrrh, chamomile, cardamon, aloe and saffron.

The drink was "all natural" because of the herbs and spices, she said. The spirit was developed as a health elixir, purported to be a tonic for all manner of illnesses back when.

As we sat, he continued to work. He chased delegation members after hours for extra stories, quotes, anything. It was the only way to do his particular job, he said. In between, he tried to check in with her, the delicate beauty he had seemed so unlikely to find.

He did not keep her.

One night, I heard later, he woke up deep in the night to find her in a compromising position with a man they had been keeping company with that evening. He threw her out. A scant few years later, he died suddenly, far too early, far from home.

She was wrong about me. Visiting Italy for the first time, engulfed in the magic of Venice, I loved the taste of Fernet-Branca.

I'm not much of a drinker now. Wedding toasts, maybe, a taste on New Year's Eve if the champagne is really good. But I do keep a bottle of Fernet-Branca, in the back of a tiny cabinet.

Once in a great while, the mood strikes. I pull out the bottle. I pour a small amount into a tiny crystal liquer glass, the only one left unbroken from my first marriage. I take it to the porch and sit. And like her, I stare into the night. I pull the scent of pine into my nostrils. Sip. And I remember.