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The Italian Lesson [Installment 11]
Chapter Two, Conclusion
Instead of using the café door, I went through the street entrance to my apartment right next to it. I felt like I was on autopilot, kicking off my espadrilles, pulling on my boots, and sliding my phone into my back pocket in quick succession. I checked the kitchen clock before running back downstairs.
It was almost 8:50. Beatrice and Isabella had long since closed their shops for the day. Isabella was undoubtedly asleep and there was no guarantee Beatrice would even be home. Because of the holiday, Francesca was keeping the bookstore open until 9:00, so that’s where I headed, running through the streets as if they weren’t slick with ice and snow.
I stopped at the entrance before going in; I wanted to make sure there were no customers inside. Francesca sat behind the register working on her laptop. Nobody else was there, so I assumed she was done for the night, which was confirmed when I tried the door and found it locked. I took a deep breath and knocked twice.
When Francesca saw me, she closed the computer and walked to the door quickly.
“What on earth are you doing?” she asked as she stepped back to let me in, closing the door against a sharp wind.
I didn’t say anything right away. I wasn’t sure I could say anything.
I remained silent and she steered me over to a group of armchairs arranged in a semi-circle in front of the fireplace. It wasn’t until I felt the heat of the flames reach me (of course, the fire was lit) that I realized how cold I was. I’d forgotten to put on my coat—and my scarf, hat, and gloves.
“Are you ok?” she said slowly with a raised voice, as if she were worried I might not be able to hear her.
I nodded slowly. She took a blanket off the chair next to me and wrapped it around my shoulders. She left for a minute and came back with a steaming cup of mulled cider which she always had on hand during the holidays.
She sat down next to me, took my hand, and said, “Anastasia, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
I was suddenly so drained of energy, I actually felt like I had challenged a ghost to a duel and couldn’t yet be sure if I’d won, but Francesca wouldn’t understand what I was talking about if I told her that.
I clutched the warm mug in my hands and shivered. “Francesca,” I said, finally looking at her, “I think I have a date.”
“Prada,” Francesca said simply.
“That’s your answer for everything,” Beatrice countered.
Francesca shrugged and widened her eyes as if to say, “Am I wrong?”
“Isn’t Prada a bit much for a first date anyway?” Beatrice wondered.
“Do you have any Prada?” Isabella asked me.
I shook my head.
Isabella turned to Francesca, “She doesn’t have enough time to go into the city,” she said, always the pragmatist.
It was almost as if I weren’t there. As late as it was, Francesca had called an emergency meeting, which is why Beatrice and Isabella were now sitting with us in the bookstore arguing about how to “handle my situation.” I felt overwhelmed by my impulsive invitation to Matteo and found it comforting to have them take over.
“We can make time,” Francesca insisted.
“Why don’t we find out what she already has before going overboard,” Isabella said.
When I thought of the contents of my closet I panicked. “Maybe I should cancel,” I said suddenly.
“No!” Francesca said, with a bit more intensity than perhaps she intended. “I mean, it’s just a date.”
This was a pretty weak argument coming from the woman who had spent the last thirty minutes talking about my manicure, hairstyle, and makeup and who was just getting started on my choice of dress (it had the potential to be a very late night) and who knew as well as anyone else that I hadn’t even been within a million light years of anything resembling a date since at least since spring of 2020.
“Go,” Beatrice said. “You shouldn’t be alone.” Before I could object, she continued, “I’m just saying you need to start somewhere and, from what I can tell, Matteo is a pretty safe bet.”
“That’s romantic,” Francesca said, rolling her eyes.
“At least we know who he is,” Beatrice pointed out. “Carmela’s sister used to work with him, Isabella’s company supplies the winery, and, if it goes badly, he doesn’t live in town so you would never have to see him again.”
“Also not romantic, Beatrice,” Francesca said.
Isabella stood up and stretched her arms over her head. “I agree. I mean about Matteo’s being a safe bet. And, I have to go to sleep.” She gave me a quick hug. “We’ll talk tomorrow. And you do not have to wear Prada.”
She gave Francesca a warning look as she left, indicating that she should back off. And then, in the least Isabella gesture I’d ever seen, she blew me a kiss.
When I got home, I went straight to bed. Francesca and Beatrice agreed to come over to my apartment the next morning to help me figure out if there was anything in my closet I could wear. I think they also had an ulterior motive. I had noticed them exchanging worried glances while discussing how to plan for my date—not because I was woefully unprepared, but because they had never seen me so rattled. They had never seen me rattled at all.
I’d just turned off the light and was attempting to fall asleep when Francesca called to check on me. “Try box breathing,” she told me—seriously!—when I mentioned I felt too wired to sleep. She explained what box breathing was and, after we hung up, I rearranged my pillows and sat up straight. I then inhaled through my nose for four beats, held my breath for four beats, exhaled through my mouth for four beats, held my breath for four beats. Simple enough. After a few minutes, I did feel more relaxed. But I really wished I had a Xanax.