Home Stories The Train to Modena: Alessandro’s Story by Rozanne Charbonneau

The Train to Modena: Alessandro’s Story by Rozanne Charbonneau

The Train to Modena: Alessandro’s Story by Rozanne Charbonneau

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Summer of 1983

It is June in Rome and my father’s body must be buried fast. The sun blazes above and shows no mercy for the living or the dead.

Just two mornings ago, he poured me coffee and asked me to meet him at his tailor downtown. He wanted to let out one of his summer jackets and then take me to lunch. This has been our end-of-school ritual since I was fifteen. The food at Pochi Intimi was always delicious, but the session at the tailor’s beforehand brought out the masochist in both of us. My father would clench his abdominals in front of the mirror, waiting for the verdict. Could Signor Merani save the jacket by cutting the seams to gain a few centimeters in the waist? Or would this destroy the original craftsmanship and make him look like a badly dressed American? If his trusted clothier leaned towards the latter, my father would nod for me to stand up for the fitting. I would then stretch out my arms like a scarecrow while Signor Merani pinned the cloth to fit my skinny frame. I always valued this time together, but it was clear my father would always tower above me, in more ways than one.

It was ten minutes past noon and I was late. I hung around on the Via Veneto, staring at the trendy clothes in the store window of Brioni’s. Wouldn’t it be less humiliating to buy a new jacket that fit me perfectly? But sulking outside in the heat was passive aggressive, and would not help me to gain stature in his eyes. I turned onto the Via Piemonte and watched my father from the shop window. Signor Merani was trying to button his jacket with utmost diplomacy, but the front would not converge. My father sighed and patted his stomach. Don’t get me wrong, there was no paunch. Just the diffuse broadening of a fifty-year-old body that a military man could not accept.

I entered the shop. It was best to get the fitting over with so we could finally eat. I was starving and happy to devour his lunch as well if he had lost his appetite to contrition.

He turned to me and smiled. “Well, if it isn’t the prodigal son…”

My elders laughed.

I shrugged my shoulders and put my hand out to take the jacket. “Sorry I’m late. Parking was a nightmare.”

My father’s expression changed, as if he had just remembered an important meeting at work. He then clutched at his heart and fell to the floor. If only I could retrieve that extra ten minutes alone with him, that last chance to accept his gift.

My sister Flavia and I take hold of my mother’s arms to lead her into the church of San Giovanni. She has tied a cream and gold scarf around her neck. “Black is chic, but ravages the face,” she always warns us. Her stockings whisper against the lining of her skirt. I have heard this sound countless times as a child when she used to kiss me goodnight before going out with my father. He always waited for her in the strip of light at the door. “Be good, little man, and we will play soccer tomorrow,” he would promise me.

The organ wails and the mourners rise. My mother’s legs go weak and we hold her tighter. The bone in her arm feels no wider than a bird’s. We guide her to the front of the church where she can collapse in the pew.

Padre Francesco spreads out his arms as if to embrace us all, and says, “Signore, Grazie.”

I should hate him for giving thanks in this moment, but the rage does not come. When I confessed to him before my confirmation that I did not believe in God, he showed me compassion.

“Forget the old man in the sky, Alessandro. Live your life and let small miracles come to you.”

My mother has asked me to read Psalm 23 after the sermon. I walk to the pulpit and face the mourners.

“The lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me, uhh… he leadeth me…”

An icy hand grips my heart. Why can’t I read this for my mother? How will I take care of her from now on? Marcello puts his hand on my shoulder and takes the bible from me. I shuffle to my seat in a cloud of shame and he finishes reading the psalm.

My friend has taken care of everything. I hadn’t seen him for a few months since Flavia had broken off her engagement to him. But after the ambulance, he was the first person that I called as I needed his strength and attention to detail during the chaos that would unfold. He notified my father’s colleagues at the ministry, drove down the price of the funeral home, arranged for a headstone, ordered the flowers and catering, and phoned each name that my mother pointed to in her address book.

I still resent Flavia for breaking off their long-term engagement this past winter. He had become part of our family and my sister cut him out of our lives with no clear explanation. Sure, there was the story with the married man, but Marcello was prepared to forgive her. Her transgression has deprived me of a brother.

As Marcello continues to read, I stare at my father’s casket, which lies to the right in front of the altar. The profile of his nose looks unusually large and I want to slam it shut before anyone else notices. Besides, who are these people here today? Too many of them will touch his frozen hand, presuming an intimacy with him that they did not have.

We walk out of the church into the sunlight. My father’s underlings in the Air Force stand at attention in two vertical lines before us. They turn towards each other and cross their swords above their heads. Leading my mother through this corridor of respect is the first thing that makes sense to me today. They will not forget my father, nor will they forget me.

The apartment is full of my parent’s friends and relatives. Marcello has made sure that every surface gleams, and that every table groans with food and drink. I notice that Flavia has invited a few of her colleagues from Fontana e Mellora, the advertising agency where she works as a copywriter. Signor Contini, her former boss, is at least wearing clean black jeans and a jacket and tie. The stories my sister used to tell us about his punked out appearance! He holds onto my mother’s hand and offers his condolences.

At the graveside, I noticed that Flavia’s company had sent an enormous wreath of red roses. There was also a smaller one made of yellow broom with Contini’s name on it. She has truly found her place in the world and I can’t help but envy her. I have just turned nineteen, with nothing but a high school diploma from the Scuola Superiore. But certain things never change. Flavia is still rummaging through the kitchen’s pantry, searching for a bottle of unchilled white wine for this man. She medicated him with this broth for three years as his secretary, but now she is a copywriter and no longer works under him.

“You’ll find a bottle of Pigato on the top shelf,” I say, observing her girlish need to please.

“But Mario only drinks the supermarket stuff.”

She has never called him by his first name before.

“Just pour some vinegar in the Pigato. He’ll never know the difference.”

My sister turns to me, defensive. “There’s no need to be flippant, Alessandro. It doesn’t suit you.”

Could they be lovers? She should have at least presented him to us before today. My father would have disapproved of his drinking, that’s for sure. But this Contini character saw something in my sister that none of us had ever bothered to look for. He promoted her and my father would have respected him for that.

The doorbell rings and I walk into the atrium. Who would be showing up so late for a wake? Do they think they can just sail in at their own convenience? I open the door to find Suzanna, Flavia’s friend, standing on the doorstep with her suitcase. That icy hand wraps its fingers around my heart again.

She smiles and steps across the threshold, confident that she is still welcome. “I got here as soon as I could. The train from Paris had the usual delays…”

Her face has grown thinner since last summer and there are dark circles under her eyes. She now has a messy fringe that makes her look like she has just gotten out of bed.

Don’t think about her under your sheets or you will lose it.

She sticks out her hand. “I am sorry, Alessandro. Your father was so good to me…”

I shake her hand and drop it as if she were an acquaintance.

To think that I used to lace my fingers through hers anytime we were alone.

I use my coldest voice. “Flavia did not tell me that you were coming…”

“Is she with the guests?”

“How long do you intend to stay?”

She puts down her suitcase. Her tone is apologetic. “I’m only here to offer her my support. Then I’ll be on my way.”

Suzanna floats through the guests towards Flavia, who opens her arms and embraces her. My sister’s lower lip trembles and she bursts into tears. She is the first of us to cry.

I pick up the suitcase and bring it to my sister’s bedroom and shut the door. She still has two wrought-iron twin beds that have been painted red and the bedspreads are as smooth as virgin snow. Marcello has pulled them taut at the last minute before the guests arrived. He wants Flavia to appear strong, at least until he has shut the door behind the last of them. One day I hope to take care of a wife like this. I sit on my sister’s bed and stare at the one where Suzanna will sleep, and remember my father summoning me to his study.

It was a cool evening in November, and he poured us glasses of Zibibbo, his favorite fortified wine from Sicily. I was surprised when he poured me a second one on a school night.

“So, Elisa, the daughter of the Bertonellis, asked me to say hello to you when we had dinner with them last week.”

I sipped my drink.

“She is a pretty girl and very pleasant. I think she would get along with all of us and she even played a good game of poker… ”

I sighed, all too aware of where this conversation was going. Yes, I had thought about asking her out before, but I didn’t have the nerve. The endless calls, the dates, the dinners under my parents’ scrutiny, the passes that she would rebuff to prove that she was a good girl, the blue balls, and then finally, when the game was finally up, what if I couldn’t perform?

“So, what do you say?”

I remained quiet.

My father nodded at my glass, coaxing me to drink up. “Listen, young man. It’s high time you got back in the saddle.”

I left the drink on the table. “What are you implying?”

“We need to talk about last summer.”

I stood up to leave his study. “I should revise my history essay before tomorrow.”

“Not so fast, young man,” his voice warned me.

I sat back down, knowing it was best not do disobey him.

My father leaned over the desk and raised his eyebrow. “Look. Having a beautiful young woman like Suzanna lounging around the house last August would drive any young man to distraction. I came into the kitchen one morning and she was standing on the stool, looking for biscotti in the top cabinet. The light through her nightgown left nothing to the imagination.”

I am shocked by his candor and mumble. “Nothing happened between us. She isn’t my type.”

He shook his head and smiled. “I’ve been so strict, you can’t even savor your conquest.”

But I was the one who felt defeated. The experience still haunts me.

Hi lit up a cigarette, then motioned me to take one and flicked his lighter close to my face. “American women can be overwhelming.”

I inhale and choke on his words. “I didn’t like her.”

He pulled a card out of his desk and handed it to me. I glanced at the telephone number embossed in gold and the silhouette of a woman with whiskers and a tail on it. Shocked, I put the card down on his desk.

“The girls there are clean. Once you gain a bit of experience, you’ll quit ruminating about last summer and then we can all move on.”

He reached into his wallet and placed two bills of one hundred thousand lire on the table. “Don’t let the owner Signora Casella drive up the price. If you tell her you are my son, this money ought to buy you two evenings. Or two girls.”

I looked up at him. If he had winked, I would have punched his face. But his expression was so earnest, I picked up the card but left the money on the table. It was best to use the cash that I earned tutoring the neighbours’ children. If I let him pay, he would be right there in the shadows, instructing me what to put where.

I hurry out of my sister’s bedroom before the past engulfs me. Now is not the time to fall apart. Marcello stands in the atrium, thanking the guests as they leave. I catch sight of my father’s colleague Signor Locatelli at the ministry, and stand close to Marcello. It is important that this man sees me as someone like my friend. Marcello has been doing well in the post that my father helped him to obtain six months ago, and I hope that his reputation will rub off on me.

Signor Locatelli steps forward and I shake his hand. “Thank you for honoring my father today.”

The man looks at me with compassion. Does he have a son at home? Is he imagining him without a father to guide him?

“He was a great man.”

I hold my breath. He mustn’t leave before fulfilling the ministry’s obligation.

“Perhaps we could come and visit your family in three days. Would Wednesday afternoon at 4 PM be convenient?”

I nod, and shake his hand again. “Yes, sir. We look forward to receiving you.”

Senior Locatelli turns to Marcello and murmurs, “I will see you on Monday at the meeting,” then takes his leave.

I nudge Marcello’s elbow. “If I go to work at the ministry, we would see more of each other.”

Marcello smiles, but with little enthusiasm. What is wrong? I wonder.

The next morning, I wake to the sound of the telephone ringing in the atrium. The clock reads 7.30am, and I jump out of bed. My father must be calling from the café at the yacht club. He’ll want to get out on the water before the real heat sets in. Damn! Why didn’t he just shake me instead of leaving me behind? I’d rather he threw cold water all over my face than waste his time.

I stumble to the phone and lift the receiver.

“Papà! I can be in Ostia in thirty minutes.”

The line is silent with his impatience.

“I’m so sorry! I swear I’ll scrape all the barnacles off the boat at the end of the season.”

He hangs up on me and I grab the address book out of the commode and rifle through the pages. If I knew the club’s number by heart, I could catch him before he walks away in a huff. He rings me back. Oh thank God.

“Papà! I’m coming.”

He does not reply. This is not like him. This is when he usually sighs and tells me that the most successful men in Italy rise at 5am.

“Papà, don’t hang up,” I yell into the emptiness.

The line goes dead a second time and I stare at the empty atrium. A wave of sadness hits my chest and pins me to the wall. My body sinks into the undertow of loss and I begin to sob.

“Don’t leave me,” I repeat, over and over again.

From this day on, I will need to carry him in my heart and hold onto every memory. In the past years, I’ve always tried to stand next to someone else in our family photos. I was so vain I didn’t want to look small compared to his massive frame. Surely my mother’s camera snapped us together on the sly? If she hasn’t, what will I show my children, who will never know him?

The phone rings a third time and I shout into the receiver. “Who is calling?”

A phantom breathes into my ear.

“Prick,” I whisper and slam it down in rage.

Someone clears their throat behind me and I turn around. Suzanna stands in the doorway in her robe. Has she been standing there like a ghoul all along?

“Umm… I think the phone calls might’ve been for me,” she mumbles.

How dare she? Does she think she is privy to everything? The memory of her lying underneath me, with my cum trickling down her leg, is all too raw. “Is that all there is? Is that all there is to sex?” I wondered. But then her eyes asked me the same question.

Slut. I look down and realize that my underpants are loose on my waist from not eating the past few days. She must think I look like a child.

“Call the son of a bitch back. He has no right to disturb my mother. We are in mourning, remember?”

Susanna lowers her head. “You’re right.”

The phone rings again and she grabs the receiver.

“Allo, oui?” she whispers.

I fold my arms and watch her fingers twist the belt of her robe. A male voice blasts a string of questions into her ear. Her French is excellent, but she stammers like a beginner. Who is this man and what does he want from her?

I crack open the door to my mother’s bedroom. She looks so vulnerable sleeping under the bed linen. The business section of the Repubblica newspaper lies next to her Valium on the bedside table. I lie down next to her and listen to her breath. She shouldn’t be speculating on the stock market now in order to make ends meet. It seems like everyone is jumping on this bull market of 1983, but grief and gambling is a lethal cocktail. If I go to work and pull in a salary just like my sister, we ought to be able to maintain our lifestyle. I stretch my arm around her waist. Was my parents’ marriage a happy one? Yes, but it was full of contradictions.

Three years ago, I arrived a day earlier than expected at our holiday home in Agrigento. Two wineglasses stood on the kitchen counter, one of them stained with an orange lipstick that neither my mother nor my sister would ever wear. My father entered the room and gave me a hug. He smelled of sex. When my eyes traveled back to the glasses, he put them in the dishwasher and interrogated me about my final exam, as if I were born yesterday. How could he do this to my mother? I wondered. Was he leaving us? I looked for traces of this floozy upstairs, but found nothing. The next evening our family strolled through the piazza after dinner. A pack of teenage boys was using the C word outside the bar. My father walked straight up to them and spoke in his low, authoritarian voice.

“Don’t use that kind of language in front of my wife again or you will be sorry.”

They nodded and fell quiet. He then placed his arm through my mother’s and she smiled like a queen.

The next morning, I watch my sister and Suzanna through the glass doors on the terrace having breakfast. They don’t need to speak, as they have known each other for so long. Some of Flavia’s friends are so afraid of the awkward pause. They blurt out any inanity that comes into their heads. Suzanna’s face looks less drawn than when she arrived. She pours Flavia some more coffee, then stretches herself out on the reclining chair and raises her dress up to her thighs to take the sun. Marcello is busy watering the plants overhanging the balcony, so far immune to her charms. Slut. What is her game? Is she trying to seduce him like she did me? Can’t my sister see what she is up to? I tap on the glass and motion Flavia to come inside.

“You need to send Suzanna on her way. We all need time to grieve alone in peace.”

“What’s it to you? Mamma likes having her here, and I do too.”

“I’m tired of all the Frenchman’s calls, and we can’t keep the phone off the hook. Signor Locatelli from the ministry is coming on Wednesday afternoon and Suzanna’s drama will make us all look bad.

My sister looks at me, guilty. “There is no meeting on Wednesday.”

“What? How do you know?” I ask in alarm.

She hesitates before answering. “Because I canceled it.”

“But why? You had no right to do that.”

My sister motions me to sit down on the sofa and clasps her hands. “Listen to me, Alessandro. Last December, Papà made me promise that if he ever left us, I would make sure that you went to university.

“I don’t believe you! He would’ve told me this himself. You just want to play the boss now that he’s gone.”

My sister stands up and paces the floor. “You should be grateful that I’m looking out for you. Sure, the money is tempting, but Papà warned that if you go to work for the ministry without a university degree, they could send you to Libya for years. How would you like to push papers over there in the forty degree heat?

“But this is my decision, not yours.”

“So, the golden boy wants to go to work? I really wished our parents had pushed me to go to university…”

“You didn’t have the grades.”

She clenches her fists. “God damn you. They made sure you didn’t slip through the cracks. They never made me clean up my act in high school because I was just a woman who was going to get married.”

Her voice is so bitter. I never knew that she felt short changed.

“Hey! I’m sorry. But you’re doing great now…”

She stares off into space. “I landed on my feet.”

She is right. We all underestimated her because of her sex. I am still tempted to call Signor Locatelli back and say that there was a misunderstanding, but how can I betray my father?

I stand in the dressing room of my parents with Marcello. My friend sits on a chair and watches me pull suit after suit out of the wardrobe and lay them on the loveseat that my mother has hidden in this cramped space. She likes to sit in here alone when the world closes in.

“Most of his pants should fit you. We can divide up the jackets and ties.”

Marcello shakes his head. “Honestly, Alessandro, you don’t have to do this now.”

“You look good in grey, I look better in blue.”

“There’s plenty of time for this,” he says.

I burrow through the back of the closet. “Honestly, some of this stuff is from the ’70s. I bet you the bellbottoms will be all the rage next spring.”


“Maybe we should start growing our sideburns now.”

I pull my father’s tuxedo off the top rack with a pole and dangle it in front of him.

“Go on, strip. I want to see you in this.”

“I can’t take that. Your father would’ve wanted you to keep it.”

“Humor me.”

He folds his arms and whispers, “No.”

Why can’t he just take it? Doesn’t he see that I want to keep him close?

“Just do it,” I order him.

Marcello obeys and puts on the tuxedo. He looks so handsome I hold my breath. How could my sister let him go?

My voice shakes. “I miss you.”

He wraps his arms around my shoulders and I begin to cry.

“I miss you, too,” he says.

“Can we go sailing soon?”

He pats my back. “Absolutely. I just stayed away to give your sister space. It had nothing to do with you.”

They say that men want to screw anything in sight when there’s a death in the family, and I am no exception. My cock aches on my stomach each morning, begging for life. Flavia the workaholic has gone back to the office early, leaving me with a comatose mother and Suzanna in the house. My days have no structure, as the parents of the children I tutor insist that I take time off to mourn. My sister tells me that my father’s pension and her salary will be enough, but who knows? The cost of living in Libya is nothing, and I could send money home.

“With my connections and a degree in political science, you can go anywhere,” my father always told me.

I can’t bring myself to sign up at the University of Rome and I don’t dare call Signor Locatelli. Instead I pretend to read while I watch Suzanna sunning herself on the terrace through the glass doors. She tries to be the perfect house guest by going to the market, cooking, and preparing a tray for my mother in bed. She always asks me to eat lunch with her, but I refuse. Instead of calling me out for being such a prick, she lowers her head and replies in a wan voice, “Oh, never mind. I’ll leave everything ready for you to heat up later.” I feel mean and small. I’m not treating her any better than the Frenchman, but getting too close to her is trouble. She’ll never make a fool of me again.

When I finally ring the buzzer of “The Cat’s Meow”, I don’t know if I am seeking my father or Suzanna. Signora Casella opens the door and wraps her arms around me.

“By poor dear boy!” she says and leads me into the salon.

The usual girls are lounging around on the couches. I look them over and they flash me a transactional smile.

“I so wanted to send a wreath, but it wouldn’t have been correct…”

“Who was my father’s favorite?” I ask her.

She looks at me, shocked. “Signor Alessandro, this will not do.”

“But I need to know.”

She pours us both a glass of prosecco and clinks my glass.

“You mustn’t try and lay down with a ghost. It isn’t healthy.”

She puts down her drink and I notice the orange lipstick on the rim. The lights are dim and I can’t make out the exact shade. Could she be the woman my father entertained three years ago in Agrigento? She is always so friendly to me.

“I don’t want anyone tonight but you.”

Signora Casella steps back and scans the girls. “Don’t be impertinent. Nina is free until ten o’clock. I know you like Nina.”

I touch her arm, desperate. “Please, I just want to talk.”

She sighs and leads me into her back office.

“You know I don’t take customers,” she says, lighting a cigarette. “If you weren’t in mourning, I would have the guards throw you out on your ear.”

“Did you ever visit my father in Agrigento?”

She shakes her head and looks me in the eye. “No. Why are you tormenting yourself with these questions?”

It is clear that she is telling the truth. She sits on the sofa and motions me to put my head in her lap. I take her hand and glide it through my hair. Her breasts above me stick out of her body like a table top for cakes.

“I have a daughter. If only she would date a nice man like you.”

This is more comforting than screwing tonight. I couldn’t bear the emptiness.

The usual suspects inch though the streets of Trastevere. Tourists gawp at the menus outside the restaurants, suburbanites line up outside the clubs. For all of Rome’s past glory and beauty, we are a provincial city. The top music acts like the Stones and Bowie will deign to play in Milan, but not here. We’re stuck, happy to don gladiator suits at the Coliseum while the North rakes in the real cash. I turn onto a dark side street for air. The streetlights are dim and my shoe hits the root of a tree that has burst out of the concrete. What the hell? An old lady could break a hip because of the mayor’s neglect. The city’s coffers are empty and the decadence will only get worse. I cut onto the Via Anicia to make my way towards my car. The door of the gay club Dante’s Inferno swings open and four men step out to chat. I pause in the shadows. What do I do? Shall I walk past them and pretend I don’t feel their eyes boring into my backside, or do I cross the street like a homophobe?

“So where do we go now? To another club or back to yours?” the voice of Marcello asks the other men.

Oh my God. I lean up against the wall and hold my breath. The friend that I worship like an older brother is a homosexual. It never occurred to me during all the time that I have known him. Now I understand why my sister called off their engagement. Poor Flavia. The entire family treated her like a pariah for months after they broke up and look who she was trying to protect the whole time! My father would have taken this badly, especially after he helped his future son-in law secure his job at the ministry. And poor Marcello. Each day he has to pretend he is someone else at work. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” is the ministry’s policy. Unless you are a hairdresser, it is best to keep this secret in any office setting. What a lousy way to live. But this is Marcello’s business. He is still my friend and I won’t say anything until he is ready to tell me. Marcello and his companions walk up the street and I exhale. At the end of the day, my sister deserves more credit for her loyalty.

The next evening, I place my university registration documents in front of Flavia at the kitchen table.

“You’re doing the right thing,” she says with a smile.

“Thanks for putting some sense into my head. I don’t think I’m cut out for Libya.”

She laughs and pours me a glass of wine. “Papà said the desert out there was the armpit of the world.”

The more I shun Suzanna, the more I want her. I try to distract myself by visiting my mother in her bedroom. As usual the newspaper is scattered all over the bed and she is talking with her stockbroker on the phone. She cuts the conversation short, hangs up and smiles. I walk over and kiss her cheek. She is still pale, but she has washed her hair.

My mother touches my arm in confidence. “Collistar Cosmetics is planning to buy Pupa, the makeup brand for younger women. I’ve just bought fifty shares.”

“How do you know that?”

“It’s not official yet, but Collistar has already asked Flavia and Senior Contini to meet with the people at Pupa…”

“Mamma, this is dangerous speculation!”

Her eyes glitter, intoxicated with the rush.

“Maybe, but it isn’t insider trading.”

“I don’t know what Papà would think of this.”

She picks up his picture and kisses it. “He was always too cautious. I have increased our portfolio by six per cent in the last two weeks.”

I stare at her, perplexed. She has always had a head for business, but this game could go terribly wrong. My professor of economics always warned us that the days of blind optimism will soon be over.

My mother takes out a cigarette and lights it. “I want you to invite some nice girls over to the house. Both you and Marcello should enjoy yourselves this summer.”

I am careful how I answer. “Flavia may not like it if I try to set him up.”

She waves her hand. “That ship has sailed. It is time for Marcello to move on.”

The phone begins to ring and I grab my mother’s hand. “Don’t answer it. Suzanna’s Frenchman always calls before lunch.”

My mother tidies her newspapers. “Such a passionate man. Suzanna should invite him here.”


“We could put them in the guestroom. I truly wouldn’t mind.”

“But I mind.”

My mother slits her eyes like a sphinx. I wonder whether my father told her about Suzanna and me. He promised that he wouldn’t tell anyone, but I get the feeling that she knows. How many times did I hear them confiding to each other, “So and so swore me to secrecy, but spouses don’t really count, do they?”

“Well, invite some other friend. I want the house filled with young people. It’s all I ask.”

Suzanna stares at the ringing phone in the atrium. Her fingers grip the sides of my favorite sundress of hers, the white one with the pattern of green ferns swishing along the hem. She doesn’t want the bastard.

I pick up the phone and address him in French. “Go fuck yourself.”

Suzanna’s face is hard to read, but her fingers let go of her dress. I clasp her face in my hand and kiss her lips. Her mouth opens and I touch the dip of her sternum. Is this where to find all the people that you ever lost? I pull the telephone cord out of the wall and lead Susanna into my bedroom and lock the door. Do we really have another chance? She feels like last summer, but I need to make amends.

“I’m sorry for being such an ass…”

“And I’m sorry I left without saying goodbye.”

“It was all my fault,” I say, easing her onto my bed.

She touches my lips and kisses my hair, just like old times. Neither of us wants to take this too fast. We’re both afraid of ruining the moment in time. I finally reach for the zipper on the back of her dress, but she motions me to pull off her panties. She parts her legs a little and reaches for my belt. Why is she so shy? I want to feel her soft skin on mine. I reach for the back of her dress again, but she gently pushes me away and stands up to close the blackout curtains. Why is she acting like a blushing bride? I coax her out of her dress and begin to caress her on the bed. The moment I lean my weight onto her stomach, her body tenses. What now? Ever so gently, she pushes me away and onto my back. She then straddles my hips and takes hold of my cock. Enough. If she insists on having her way with me like a man, I at least deserve to watch. I reach back and flick on the switch of my bedside lamp and gasp in awe. A rainbow of blue, purple, green and yellow bruises grace Suzanna’s stomach and hips.

“Oh…” I whisper.

Suzanna’s face clouds over in shame and my cock goes limp.

“How dare you?” she asks, then reaches for her dress.

I have no choice but to put on my clothes as well. Before she can unlock my door, I grab her hand.

“This isn’t you, Susanna.”

Her eyes grow dark. “What do you know?”

The son of a bitch took great care not to bruise her arms or face.

“You’re a smart and beautiful girl. This kind of thing doesn’t happen to people like us.”

She laughs, bitter. “People like you!”

“Does your mother know he’s hurting you? She needs to know.”

“We don’t speak. She cut me off because I didn’t tell her I won a scholarship in December. My stepfather thinks I lied in order to get more money out of them for my living expenses.

“Well, did you?”

Her cheeks go pink. “Paris isn’t cheap! Besides, I wanted to wait until I actually had the money in my hands. These things can fall through at the drop of a hat.

Her parents have always been harsh. I bet the Frenchman has put her up to this stunt, too.

I unlock my door and she heads towards her own bedroom.

“Hey! Let me make you lunch.”

She hesitates, then follows me into the kitchen.

I watch Suzanna dip a piece of bread into her plate and bring the last traces of sauce to her lips. Suddenly, she seems younger than me and I think back to my father’s remark, “American women can be overwhelming.” Now she reminds me of The Little Match Girl with no place to go.

The doorbell rings and I press the intercom.

“Who is it?” I ask.

“Go fuck yourself,” the Frenchman’s voice crackles into my ear.

“He’s downstairs!” I whisper to Suzanna.

She grabs my arm and shakes her head.

“What’s his name?”


I burst out laughing from nerves. “You can’t be serious.”

It is time to play hardball. “Susanna is no longer in Rome, César. She left here this morning. I suggest that you leave the premises immediately.”

“Don’t lie to me. Tell Suzanna to come downstairs within the next five minutes. If she does not obey, I will burn all of her books.”

I turn to Suzanna and try not to giggle. “What kind of macho talk is this?”

Her lip quivers and she reaches for the lock on the front door.

I grab hold of her arm. “Are you crazy?”

“He’s already burnt my clothes and I need my books.”

She tries to unbolt the door again and I pull her back into the atrium. “He burnt all of your pretty dresses?”

Suzanna nods. “My whole vintage collection went up in smoke.”

“You’re not an honest woman, Suzanna. You have three minutes left,” the madman’s voice warns her once again.

“We need to negotiate,” I say and pull Suzanna with me to the front terrace.

A man with streaked blonde hair and a tight T-shirt opens his suitcase on the sidewalk in front of our building. Suzanna gasps as he pulls out a blowtorch and ignites it.

“Un, deux, trois,” he screams and picks up a book with the other hand.

I motion for Suzanna to not move. “Keep him talking. Keep him distracted…”

Thank God my father anticipated all disasters. I hurry out of the front door of our building with his fire extinguisher in a shopping bag. I keep my head bowed and pretend to mind my own business. César throws the burning book into the suitcase and a cloud of smoke billows into the air. Pedestrians begin to gather and shout. Defiant, César points the blowtorch at his audience. I creep up behind him and blast a bolt of foam into the suitcase. César turns around and I aim at his face. He stumbles and I tackle him to the ground. His body is a livewire of rage and I don’t know how long I can hold him. He spits up at my face. What an animal. For once, two policemen show up when they are needed, and pull us apart. An old man bears witness to César’s pyromania and the crowd confirms the story. One of the policemen clenches handcuffs around his wrists and leads him away. The last witnesses clap as I zip up the suitcase. What a day. The cops will most likely keep him overnight, then drive him to the French border when they have enough low lives to fill the back of a van.

Suzanna kneels beside me as I open up the suitcase in the atrium. She grabs the book that César torched as a warning and sighs.

“Of course, he had to burn ‘The Second Sex’ first.”

She rummages through the foam and ashes and pulls out a book which is intact.

“But he didn’t get my ‘Ham on Rye’ by Bukowski.”

She opens it to the front page and begins to cry. “See? He even signed it for me at the Shakespeare Company. ‘To the loveliest girl on the Left Bank. Too bad I’m past my prime.'”

She continues to search through the suitcase.

Oh Suzanna! How did you get so lost? Yes, you’re lovely, but you’re not the girl for me. Maybe you’ll go back to your tormentor, or maybe you’ll find another thug here. But who am I to judge? We all deserve a second chance.

I lay my hand over hers in the wreckage.

“Don’t go back to Paris, Suzanna. You belong with us.”

My childhood friend wipes her cheek and smiles. “You are so good to me, Alessandro. But I need to find my way home.”


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