We went to the hotel on via Giulia where we’d had the reservation for yesterday and checked in. The lobby there was cool and quiet, just like a former convent should be. While Elena went to the lobby restroom, Maggie got a bellman to take our bags upstairs. Then she drew me over to the small library in the lobby. “Sit,” she said, pointing at a low white couch.
I did, and looked up at her.
Maggie stood in front of me. “Look, I’m just going to tell you what you tell me when I’m about to go on trial.”
“Okay. Good. Hit me.”
She glanced over her shoulder. There was no one near us. “Here’s the thing. You can’t let your mind go crazy and think about all that could happen. You just have to go through it, minute to minute, and make smart choices along the way. Like right now, you can’t let your mind run over the possibilities of why your dad did what he did.” Maggie started pacing. “You can’t be angry about it, do you understand?”
I nodded. God, it was great to have a friend doing your mental prep for you.
“You can’t think about anything other than right now,” Maggie continued. “You can’t let your head run around and around in fifteen different circles. Essentially, don’t be a conspiracy theorist. Just be you in this situation.” She stopped, nodded like, Got it?
“The thing is, I can’t believe it’s me in this situation. I can’t believe this is happening to me.”
She pointed at my face. “You’re doing it. You’re letting your head run around in circles.” She sat on the couch next to me. “Okay, let’s think. What would help you to get your mind around this? To really feel like it’s happening. Right now.”
“Well, I can’t stop thinking about my mom. Did she know?”
Maggie shrugged, then looked at her watch. “She’s up. Call her.”
I nodded. It felt good to have some course of action to take, rather than simply waiting for Elena, reacting to her.
I called my mother’s cell phone. “Izzy!” she said. “I was just going to call you. Happy birthday!”
I’d almost forgotten. “Thanks, Mom.”
“Do you know that I can remember exactly what happened on the day you were born?”
“Really?” I said with a laugh. She told me this story every year.
“It was a beautiful Friday. It had been cold that summer in Michigan, but this was the first real summer day, and so your dad had taken the day off, and he and I were working in the garden. Do you remember the garden we had in Michigan?”
I said I did. My parents both loved gardening, something they’d shared together but never really taught Charlie and me. I told my mom about the wildflowers Maggie gave me and the flower box she was going to put on my roof deck.
“Wonderful!” my mom said. “I’ll help you with it.” She sighed. “Well, I remember that day you were born. I was kneeling next to the tomato plants and staking them. They were just starting to bloom, and I couldn’t wait until they grew and ripened.”
My mother went on, saying how, kneeling there in the Michigan soil, she’d realized that her water had broken, that she was about to have her first child. She’d spent a moment by herself appreciating that, before she called for my father.
She was so happy recounting this story that for the moment I decided not to mention my father. We chatted about Italy, about Maggie being there. My mom told me that she and Spence were supposed to go to a barbecue later at their friend’s house on Astor Street.
After a few more pleasantries and questions about Italy, I asked her, “Do you know how Grandma O died?”
“Oriana? Awful. She died in a car explosion.”
“Why wasn’t I told that when I was younger?”
“Dad told me she had car problems and that she died.”
“Well, that’s true, isn’t it? And you were seven or eight, Isabel. It’s not the kind of thing you tell a young child-that her grandmother has been blown to bits.”
“What caused the explosion?”
“They said that your grandmother had put a propane tank from her barbecue in her trunk the night before, because she was going to have it filled. This was before there were laws about refilling. They said the tank leaked, and when she started the car the next day, it ignited.”
“Grandma O had a barbecue? That doesn’t sound like her. I just remember pastas and bread and those big mushrooms.”
“She was a wonderful cook. I thought it strange about the barbecue, too. I remember asking your father about it at the time. Even the fact that she had carried the tank to the car surprised me. Those tanks are heavy and she was a small woman and getting up there in age.”
“What did Dad say to you?”
“Not much. He was so traumatized. It was a horrible time.”
“And then a month later, he was dead.” Supposedly. Allegedly.
“Yes, and your grandmother’s death took a backseat. Losing your father was just so all consuming.”
Did you know? Did you know he faked his death? This was what I wanted to scream into the phone, but I wasn’t sure I quite believed it, even now, even having spoken to Elena. And I couldn’t upset my mom unnecessarily.
In the background, I heard Spence calling to her. I could see him rushing into the kitchen. “Say hi to Spence for me,” I said. I would ask her later, when I knew for sure, when I understood the whole story.
“Will do, honey. Have a fun birthday, and we’ll celebrate when you get home.”
I hung up the phone and looked at Maggie.
“You didn’t ask her,” she said.
I shook my head. “I couldn’t. Not until I know myself for sure.”
“Okay. I get that. So look at me. Where are you right now?”
“In Rome. About to meet my father. For the first time in almost twenty-two years.” I sat and stared at her. We were both silent.
A family filed into the hotel lobby. They looked jubilant and tired after a day of sightseeing. One of the kids was saying, “Let’s go to the Vatican again tomorrow.” The dad laughed, ruffled his hair.
“I never had that,” I said. “Sightseeing with my father.”
“This is exactly what I’m telling you not to do,” Maggie said. “Do not think about things like that. Do not think about anything except the fact that you are about to meet him. Nothing before this meeting, nothing after. Now, let me ask you again, where are you right now?”
“I’m in a hotel and my best friend is pretending to be Eckhart Tolle.”
Maggie laughed. Then she lost her smile. “Seriously, just be here. Just be sitting here right now.” She looked over my shoulder. “And right now, your aunt is about to come up to us. So just be someone who’s about to walk out onto the streets of Rome.”
I opened my mouth to say something.
She shook her head, “Iz, there’s nothing else you can do right now except walk onto the streets of Rome.” She put her hand on my shoulder. “I’m not going to ask you if you’re okay. You are. I’ll be here when you get back.” She took her phone out of her pocket and pointed to it. “Call me if you need anything.”
“What are you going to do?” I looked at my watch. It was 4:00 p.m. “A lot of museums are open until six. Or you could walk along the Tiber or go see the Coliseum.”
Maggie put her hand on my shoulder once more. “Iz, I know I’m in Rome. And we both know I love this city. But you know what I like best of all.”
“Yep. But if you need anything, I’m up in a minute.”
Maggie looked past me and smiled. “Hi, Elena.” She hugged me. “See you guys later,” she said, as if this were any other day.
I turned to Elena.
“Ready?” Elena said.
My head screamed, No, but a different answer came from somewhere deep within me. I think it was my heart.
And my heart said, “Yes.”