We made small talk at first. How was my mother? Elena asked. What about her husband, Spence? Were they happy? She hoped so.
“She was very much in love with your father,” Elena said.
And there it was-your father.
We were sitting at a high table on a sixth-floor roof deck. The hotel was small and beautiful with a lobby library and wine bar. The place had once been a convent, Elena had told me.
I looked at her now and noticed that her posture was still dancer-straight, her hair still a shiny chestnut, her skin faintly lined but supple. Behind her, the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica glittered a serpentine gray-green as the sun began to disappear.
Neither of us said anything for a moment. I couldn’t read her expression because of the large black sunglasses she wore. They had a silver braid on the side that glinted in the sunlight whenever she turned her head.
“And what about you?” Elena said, skipping over the topic of my dad. “How is your love life?”
Now I was the one who wanted to skip over the question. I raised my left hand, the ring finger conspicuously unadorned. “I was engaged.”
“And now you are not.”
“A lot of reasons.” I suddenly felt tired of explaining my breakup with Sam, or the need to put a neat narrative spin on it.
“It’s hard to explain,” Elena said, as if answering her own question.
“Yes.” I looked at Elena’s hands. They were the only parts of her, really, that gave away her age. She wore a thick gold band on her wedding finger. “And you?” I asked. “How is Maurizio?”
My mother had once encouraged me to call him Uncle Maurizio. He had, after all, married my aunt long ago. But I’d never met him. They hadn’t come to the States for my father’s funeral-I don’t remember hearing the reason why-and when I’d visited Italy during law school, Elena had spoken of him but he’d always been busy.
She looked down at her wedding ring. “Did you know…” Her words died away, as if rethinking them. She sighed. “It’s very italiano to have affairs.”
“I’ve heard that.”
She chuckled. “Yes, I suppose it’s a clich'e by now. And believe me, it’s not something that every Italian gets involved in. There are many people now who don’t, but…”
I felt a sear of pain for her. Whatever Sam and I had been through, even seeing Alyssa at his house, at least he hadn’t cheated when we were together. I had learned a lot about infidelity lately-the different kinds, the different reasons-but it was still the one thing I didn’t think I could tolerate. “It’s part of your culture,” I said.
She nodded. “It is.”
We said nothing else about the subject.
“Do you and Maurizio still live together?” I asked.
“Yes, of course.”
“And is he good to you?” I almost held my breath as I asked the question. It seemed so adult, somehow, to be asking such a personal thing of my aunt.
“He is. In his own way.” She smiled a small smile. “You know, I was a couple years younger than Christopher, your father, and he was always the one who took care of me.”
Elena had apparently decided that we were done chatting, and she was ready to deal with the topic I wanted to talk about.
“Your father was usually very serious,” she said, “but he could be wickedly funny.”
“I remember that,” I said. “He had that way of laughing-”
“And his eyes laughed, too,” Elena finished for me.
“And he always wore glasses, but you could still see the life in his eyes. Always.”
The words the life halted me for a second. I had no idea how to have this conversation, this Is it possible he’s alive? kind of discussion.
And so I just came out with it. “I think I saw him.”
She shook her head fast. “What?” Her tone was incredulous, but I couldn’t see her full expression because of the sunglasses.
“I guess I didn’t see him so much as I heard him.”
“What do you mean?” She kept shaking her head. The braided silver arms of her glasses sparkled with the motion.
I looked away from her, over the rooftops and through the mustard sky to the oxidized green dome of St. Peter’s. “I got into some trouble the other night.” I shrugged, as if shrugging off the details. “Some guys were hassling me, and I ran away from them. They caught up to me, but a man pulled me into a stairwell and got me away from them. He came out of nowhere. And it was black in the stairwell. I couldn’t see a thing.” I turned back to her. “But he said something to me.”
“Well, it wasn’t what he said, exactly. He said, ‘You’re okay now, Boo.’ It was that Boo part. That’s what-”
“What your dad used to call you,” Elena said. “I remember.”
“Right. And no one else calls me that except my mom. So…” I shrugged again.
Elena took off her glasses. Her eyes were deep brown, but there were flecks of green in them and something else. It looked like sympathy. “Did this man say anything else?”
“That was it, really. He told me how to take the stairs. He told me to get going.”
“Did he call you by your name?”
“Did you see his face?”
“No, not really. When the guys were chasing me, he was behind them, but he had a cap on, and he was looking down.”
“Could you tell how old the man was who had this cap on?”
I shook my head.
“Isabel.” Again, she said it in the Italian way-Ee-sabel. She frowned, but her eyes carried some humor. “It wasn’t your father.”
“How do you know that?”
She laughed. “Because your father died many years ago. It was a stressful situation that you were in that night, and you manufactured a response to help get through it.”
“It was stressful.” I got a flash of Michael and Dez across the car from me. Dez saying, C’mere, little girl.
I must have made an expression of distaste or fear, because Elena looked at me with even more sympathy now. “Who were these men that were chasing you? Why were they chasing you?”
“Oh…” I waved my hand. “No one. It was nothing. I was talking to them in order to help a friend out. It’s a long story.”
She smiled. “I don’t like the idea of my sweet niece hanging out with dangerous characters.”
“I usually don’t.” I thought of Theo with his constellation of tattoos. “Well, I’ve been dating-sort of dating-a young guy who looks like he could be dangerous, but he’s actually the sweetest person. And those guys that one night, they were just…” I trailed off. Repeated, “It’s a long story.”
Elena patted me on the hand. She put her sunglasses back on. “How long are you in town, Isabel?”
I told her my trip was open-ended.
“I would like to show you something tomorrow. The gallery where I work.”
“I’d love that.”
“Good. I must go now.”
Elena pulled a small crocodile notebook from her purse then a tiny, gold pen. She uncapped the pen, wrote Palazzo Colonna, a time and an address on a small sheet of paper, then ripped out the paper and handed it to me.
“A domani, cara,” she said. “I will see you tomorrow.”
A bleating sound woke me in the middle of the night. I sat up, looked around, struggled to get my bearings- Italy, Rome, dorm room. Got it. I looked at the small faux wood cabinet that served as a nightstand in the room. My cell phone sat there. It was ringing, I realized. I looked at the screen and recognized that number. Mayburn.
I sat up against the headboard, drew my knees up. “Yes?” I said, sleepily drawing the out the word.
“You were asleep. I know. But you gotta hear this. The Rizzato Brothers? They were from Naples.”
“And originally from some island called Ischia. I know. Is that why you woke me up? You can find that out on Wikipedia.”
“Hold off with the sarcasm, will ya? Did you find out from Wikipedia that the Rizzatos were Camorra?”
“Camorra, the organized crime syndicate?”
“The one that Dez Romano is a part of?”
“Yeah, and you know who else was believed to be Camorra? Dragonetti and Battista.”
I pushed myself up straighter, kicking off the covers from my legs. “The men who killed my grandfather?”
“Right. And I got one more doozy for you. You know who else is Camorra? At least technically.”
Why did I feel right then that the dorm room squeezed in on me, the linoleum floors contracting, the walls shrinking? “Who?” I said, although you could barely hear my voice.
But I heard Mayburn clearly. “You.”