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The Italian Lesson [Installment 2]
“Ci vediamo, amici!”
“Close enough! A domani, ragazze,” Beatrice laughed over her shoulder as she and Isabella slipped out of the café together.
I turned back to Francesca. “What did I get wrong?”
“It’s nothing, Anastasia. Don’t worry,” she said, placing her hand on my arm. “It will come. Don’t think about it too much. You’ll just make it harder.”
I had been in Italy for two years, the last of them in Calabresi, a small hill town a few kilometers east of Florence. Even so, my Italian was a work in progress and I still mixed up words and mangled sentences. I’d spent the first year in lockdown in a country I was visiting for the first time; so that year doesn’t count—at least I didn’t think it did. But getting it right mattered to me. A person can get by in Italy speaking only English, but I wanted to do more than get by.
Francesca turned away to look out at the falling snow, her straight brow, aquiline nose, and strong jaw silhouetted against the amber glow of the gas street lamps outside. She turned to me, leaned forward, and whispered, “Did you see him today?”
“Can we get back to the lesson, please?”
I’d been reading aloud from an Italian young adult novel Francesca had brought from the bookstore she owned. “No! Abbiamo finito! We’re done” she said, reaching over and slamming it shut. “Tell me.”
She laughed, amused by the ridiculous American nickname I used whenever I felt flustered or annoyed. There was another hour to go before closing, but the snow, only a light dusting, had sent people home earlier than usual, and the café was almost empty. Still, Francesca looked around to make sure nobody was near enough to overhear us. She nudged my chair with the toe of her sleek black patent leather slingback and said, “Seriously. Dimmi. Tell me.”
“If you’re talking about Danilo, no, I did not see him today. Much more importantly, how can you possibly wear those things around here?” I pointed to her shoes. Calabresi, a town of steep stairways, narrow roads, and the aforementioned cobblestones, was not conducive to high heels, but Francesca managed somehow.
“Oh, cara, I’ve been practicing my whole life. But stop changing the subject! I know there are some things you don’t want to talk about, but you should know by now that you can trust me. . .”
I cut her off with a warning glance. The first time Francesca questioned my trust in her I felt guilty because there were certain details of my past that I needed to keep to myself. This time felt like a provocation.
Realizing she’d crossed a line, Francesca raised both hands. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That wasn’t fair. But unfortunately, I’ve known Danilo Scarpia my whole life and I cannot understand why he’s so interested in you.”
I looked back at her again, this time with a wry smile. She blushed and stammered, “I didn’t mean it that way. Any man would be interested in you. I mean, almost but, well, Danilo—"
“Scellarato!” What a scoundrel, I said in response, realizing immediately that I’d handed Francesca a reason to keep prying.
Instead, she paused, arched a perfectly shaped eyebrow, and pulled the book towards her. “Maybe we should get back to your lesson,” she said. “You curse like you’re a character in a Mozart opera.”
By the time the café closed and Francesca had gone home, I was much more proficient at swearing in Italian. Carmela, my manager, had finished up in the kitchen. There was nothing left to do but lock the cash register and turn off the lights. I stood behind the counter and marveled at the coziness of the coffee shop in the winter twilight, with its exposed brick walls, brass and copper fixtures, and well-worn couches and armchairs scattered among the tables.
A small apartment one flight above the café had been included in the price of the building I’d purchased a little over a year ago, which made my commute as simple as climbing the back stairs.
Although darkness had settled and the town was hushed by the snow, it was still early. But I had no plans. I wasn’t hungry enough to bother with dinner, so I made a small fire and poured myself a glass of a local Montepulciano. My tabby cat, Principessa, a gift from Francesca, made room for me on the armchair next to the window and fell asleep almost as soon as I sat down next to her.
This was my favorite time of day. I loved my employees, my customers, and especially my new friends, but I was still not entirely comfortable around people, partly because I could never be myself, not really. So much of what they thought they knew about me was a lie or, at least, not the whole truth.
I sipped my wine as the snow slowly covered the cobblestones and watched as passers-by struggled up the hill trying not to slip. This part of Tuscany didn’t get much snow and, having spent most of my life in New York, Boston, and the Midwest, I realized I missed it. I missed very little else. I had never felt as at peace anywhere as I did in Calabresi, even though I could never completely let my guard down.
The idea that Francesca still thought Danilo was up to something–or that his interest was somehow nefarious—tugged at me. In the twelve months since he first showed me the café and apartment—and after an awkward misunderstanding that had left some hard feelings on his part if not on mine—he had steered clear of me. Or so I thought. Still, I wasn’t really worried about him. I thought Danilo was harmless, if odd. But if there was a problem, if he was a problem, I would keep it to myself—and I would take care of it.
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