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The Italian Lesson [Installment 4]
Chapter One, continued
When I stepped through the door of Maglia Uno that first time, I felt as though I’d walked inside a multi-faceted jewel. Light streamed through the tall windows from all directions. Ten-foot-high shelves filled with skeins of yarn arranged by type and color wrapped around the walls. Several heavily lacquered pine work tables, scarred with scratches and gouges from inexperienced and impatient knitters dominated the center of the shop. Chairs and couches upholstered with leather and fabrics dyed with deeply saturated colors invited knitters to get comfortable, marvel, chat, and, above all, create. But despite the coziness, there was not a speck of dust floating through the beams of light.
There were six of us in the Tuesday knitting group, including me, Beatrice and Francesca (Isabella didn’t knit). Beatrice had us all working on the same sweater, from patterns she had tailored to each of our skill-levels. The group had welcomed me warmly, but after five weeks, I silently made the decision to quit. Beatrice was an excellent and patient teacher, but I’d fallen far behind everybody else, which I found frustrating; in addition to being out of practice, I also knit very slowly. I’d barely made it past the two-by-two ribbing on the front, while even the slowest of my fellow knitters was well into the body of the sweater.
The main reason I didn’t intend to come back, though, was that I could barely understand a word anybody said. Being part of a group that I couldn’t interact with made me feel more isolated than I had in a long time; I preferred to spend my time at the café. I had resolved that this would be my last day, but planned to leave quietly rather than share the news with everyone. I would text Beatrice later to let her know.
The group had just wrapped for the day, and I was standing at the table packing up, hoping to leave unnoticed, when Francesca approached me. We hadn’t spoken much, mostly because I usually ducked out as quickly as I could. That day, however, she seemed to have anticipated this. “You have the hands of a master knitter,” she said.
“Ah, but not the knitting of a master knitter,” I laughed, stuffing my skeins of yarn into my tote more quickly. “I have the hands of somebody who used to play the piano,” I said without thinking, then quickly held up the small piece of sweater I’d been able to finish, and said quickly, “Yet somehow I still manage to knit like a monkey.”
Because we were speaking Italian and not English, I actually said sciame for “swarm” when I meant scimmia for “monkey,” but she understood. Despite my nervousness around my new acquaintances, Francesca, Beatrice, and Isabella always took my lead, speaking whatever language I used. Based on their looks of studied patience when I spoke Italian, they clearly preferred having conversations with me in English.
“Would you mind staying here for a bit?” Francesca asked unexpectedly.
I looked around and pointed at myself, not sure she meant me.
“I thought it would be a good chance for us to catch up. Beatrice has an appointment in the city and she asked me to look after the shop for the rest of the day. This place is always quiet on Tuesday afternoons, so we’ll have it all to ourselves.”
Principessa stretched in her sleep, whiskers twitching to the rhythm of whatever dream she was having.
I smiled at the memory of Francesca’s thwarting my escape. I had been annoyed but I’d also felt a small tug of melancholy—Francesca, Isabella, and Beatrice shared each other’s lives so easily. I knew part of their implicit trust in each other must have been a function of growing up together in this small, close-knit community—Calabresi had a population of 25,000, fewer people than lived in the building complex in New York City where I grew up. But there was something else, something indefinable about the way they got along with each other—like siblings who had the extraordinarily good fortune to be best friends.
I had had a relationship like that with only one other person in my life and it was gone. Even though I now shared a similar closeness with my three new friends, I still felt the ache of that loss.
I sat up quickly to keep myself from going down that road. Prinicipessa meowed in protest so I gave the scruff of her neck a scratch and shushed her back to sleep. Outside the snow still fell.
Francesca’s out-of-the-blue invitation took me by surprise. I suspected that, much like the rest of the town, she was only interested in how I, an eccentric American, had come to buy the café in an all-cash deal.
“Sure” I said, instead of “Certo.” Francesca took this as an invitation to continue our conversation in English before I could take it back. I was a little hurt by how relieved she seemed.
“Good,” she said. “Here,” she handed me an elaborate decorated needlepoint cushion and waved me into a nearby rocking-chair.
After throwing her nearly-finished sweater onto the adjacent divan, an elegant and ancient-looking piece crafted out of walnut and upholstered with emerald green velvet, she said, “I’ll be right back,” and walked across the shop and into a back room. I thought I heard voices but she emerged alone a minute later with a bottle of Chianti, a waiter’s corkscrew, and two glasses. “I know it’s early,” she said, “but what the hell. If any customers come in, they can have some too.”
She poured us both a glass, the same lush burgundy of bulky merino yarn she was using for her sweater. She put the bottle on a battered oak trunk that served as a coffee table and sat on one end of the divan.
“Salute,” she said as she touched her glass to mine. And then, probably worried that I’d take that as sign to start speaking Italian again, immediately followed up with, “Cheers, as you say.”
Francesca put her glass down and removed the elastic band holding the high ponytail she wore. She shook her head a couple of times and ran her fingers through expertly highlighted, shoulder-length light brown hair.
Before leaning back, she slid off her sleek midnight blue heels and crossed her ankles elegantly. Picking up her sweater, she examined the last few rows she’d knit and sighed heavily. It looked perfect to me, so when she pulled out the knitting needle and began to rip out four rows, I gasped audibly. After she finished, she nonchalantly placed the open stiches back onto the needle, took a long sip of wine and said, “God, I hate knitting.”
An hour later, the wine was gone and so was my awkwardness.
“I wish we’d done this sooner,” I said.
“Ha! Not true.” Before I could say anything, Francesca continued, “It’s ok. I know you didn’t really like me—or us.”
“But I did,” I protested. Yet I blushed.
There was no point in denying it.
“I understand. It’s the three of us—we are always together, like a gang, yes?”
I hesitated and wondered whether I should tell her the other reason I’d never felt comfortable around her.
“It’s not the group,” I began. “I mean, it’s not just the group. That made it hard to get to know you, for sure. It always felt a bit superficial and I’m not good at that. But you, you—you’re so. . .”
I had been staring down at the floor, anxious about being too honest with her. I didn’t want to ruin the tentative breakthrough we’d made.
Francesca tensed up next to me. I glanced at her, and she looked as if she were bracing herself against a blow she wasn’t sure she could withstand.
I unconsciously put my hand on her arm. “Oh, my god, what’s the matter?”
She shook her head, as if snapping herself out of something. “It’s nothing. Nothing.” But the color had drained from her face.
“I was just going to say you’re into all of these things, like makeup and romance novels and shoes and the fucking Bachelor.” I was rushing, stumbling, just wanting to get the words out, not sure if I was making things better or worse. “I mean, you’re such––you’re such a girl.”
For a moment Francesca stayed very still. She looked shocked.
And then she burst out laughing.
It was one of the most beautiful sounds I’d ever heard.
Principessa stretched again and meowed at me sleepily, a hint that she was ready for bed. As I reminisced while gazing from the fire to the slowly falling snow, the town now quiet and dark except for the streetlamps, an idea slowly formed. Ever since I’d moved here, I believed the best course of action, the safest way to proceed, was to keep to myself, share as little as possible, work hard, and live a quiet life until . . . until what? That was the part I hadn’t figured out yet.
All of that began to change when the café became a community and my acquaintances became friends. It had been so long since I’d had either a community or friends that I’d forgotten that I was the kind of person who needed both. More than anything, I was beginning to remember who I used to be, before I lost myself.
When I arrived at the café the next day, my manager Carmela had already brewed the coffee, put out the pastries, and fired up the warming ovens, but there were no customers.
I looked at the clock. It was already 7:15. “Slow morning,” I observed.
She gestured toward the window. “It’s a snow day,” she said.
I arched my eyebrow with mock superiority. As somebody who’d grown up in the Northeastern United States, I had no patience for people who became paralyzed by a couple of inches of snow.
“You’d think this was D.C.,” I muttered to myself.
“Che?” Carmela asked.
“Never mind. But a snow day?”
“I know, I know,” she held up her hands. “This doesn’t happen often so we’re—what’s your word for wimp?”
“Wimp, actually. Yes, you are definitely wimps,” I laughed.
Business picked up over the course of the morning, with our regulars wrapped up against the elements and full of talk about the storm of the century. Someday I’d have to tell them about the blizzard of 1996 that hit when I lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Over two feet of snow had fallen, burying cars and paralyzing the entire city for days.
But I didn’t have time. The idea I’d formed the night before had become a plan which I intended to carry out, and there was someone I needed to meet. Once Lucia, one of our servers, arrived to cover the lunch crowd, full of apologies for being late, her coat covered with snow as if she had slid her way to work, I ran upstairs to get ready.
I decided to start with Danilo. I picked up my phone, opened messages, and pressed the microphone icon.
“It’s Anastasia,” I dictated. “Meet me at 1:00 outside the San Pietro entrance.”
I left it at that. There was no need to elaborate—he had as many questions as I did. I knew he’d show up—assuming, that is, he wasn’t as much of a wimp as everybody else in this town when it came to braving the snow.
I wrapped an old scarf around my neck and put on my warmest coat as well as a pair of dark grey cashmere gloves that Beatrice had knit for me, with ribbed cuffs and delicate cables down the back. I grabbed a hat and, slinging my bag over my shoulder, tiptoed to the door quietly, so as not to disturb Prinicipessa, who lay curled on the chair by the window. I’d almost made it to the stairs when I realized that I’d forgotten my phone. Not the iPhone I’d just used to text Danilo, but a flip phone—that only one other person knew existed.