I wish to thank my evil twin vella for taking the time to edit for me. This is my first try at Romance, be gentle with me.
It was another rainy day, the third one in a row to be exact. I decided to brave the downpour and go to the little coffee shop next door for my daily dose of courage. On my way back to the gallery a young man who decided to do an impromptu dance sidetracked me. He was singing while he swayed from side to side and then hopped over a fire hydrant. His female companion tried to stifle a giggle. She hid her embarrassment by covering her face with her hands until he broke away from his Gene Kelly impersonation and grabbed her about the waist. Oblivious of the rain and onlookers they waltzed down the street out of sight leaving the echoes of their laughter behind.
I was still standing there with my hand on the door handle when Lucia, my assistant, opened the door.
"Bella, come inside you're soaked to the skin." She pulled me inside and started to help me peel off my jacket. "What are you staring at so intently?"
"Just a scene from an old memory," I smiled and handed her a cup. "Here's your tea."
She took the cup and my dripping jacket eyeing me suspiciously. "Dare I ask?"
"Nothing to ask about, just a memory from long ago I had buried away and forgotten about."
Lucia walked over to her desk after hanging my jacket, placed her cup down and started to shuffle through the plethora of papers scattered in a controlled chaos. "Here are your messages, a letter from your sister in Italy, a few invitations to some openings...here's the folder you wanted and I've unpacked and set the paintings for the new show against the wall. I figured you would want to sort them yourself."
My dear Lucia, what would I do without her? Her attention for detail was mere compensation for having to put up with my moods. It was her attention to my mental stability and anal retentiveness that made her my personal saint.
I went back to my office and sifted through my messages as I sipped my coffee. No one I really wanted to talk to right now. I flipped through the file on the latest feature artist, a young woman from a small town, very talented and showing much promise. It had a ring of familiarity to it and again the past leeched into my brain. I closed the file and picked up the letter from my sister. The postmark was from Tuscany. My fingers traced along the stamp and I was transported back to a week I spent there almost twenty years ago.
These strolls down memory lane were beginning to be too much; I couldn't concentrate on my work. Tucking the letter in my purse I then turned off my desk lamp and went to find Lucia. She was unpacking some sculptures in the back room.
I poked my head in the door. "Lucia, I'm taking the rest of the day off, can you handle things here?"
She looked at me over her reading glasses and frowned. "Sure. Everything okay?"
"Yea everything is fine. I just need some time alone."
"I'll call you if anything comes up but if not enjoy your time alone." She winked.
"Get your mind out of the gutter it's not that kind of time alone. Ciao Lucia." I said and then left her alone with her work.
I got back to my apartment without drowning. My cat Max looked confused to see me here during the day. I felt like I was intruding on him. A tickle under his chin remedied any concerns he may have had and he went back to his reign over the sofa.
I dropped my keys on the kitchen table, hung my coat over the chair and started the coffee maker. I would need coffee for this. Heading into the bedroom I opened the closet door and dug deep through the bottom until I found it. An old shoebox wound with so much string even Houdini couldn't break free if he was inside. I couldn't remember if I was trying to keep what was inside from getting out or from me getting back inside of it.
I placed the box on my bed and changed into dry warm clothes. It sat there beckoning to me and I could hear her voice calling my name. I picked up the box and went back into the kitchen for my coffee and to face my past again. I rummaged through my junk drawer until I found scissors to cut the string.
I decided to overthrow Max from his sofa kingdom and took a sip of coffee to calm my nerves while I opened the lid. Immediately, I smelled her perfume as it wafted up freely and encircled me. I closed my eyes and remembered how my pillows would smell of it when she wasn't there and how it made me desire to once again kiss her neck.
My hands began to tremble as I picked up the stack of letters written so long ago. I loved the way she wrote my name, Gianna Marsilli in big sweeping letters, her own calligraphy. She shortened it to Gia like my grandmother used to do and I loved it. She hated her own name, she felt Mary Jo was so small town and dull so I called her Zola, which was earthy and more exotic. When I first saw her, I thought that she was like no one I had met before not even in this city.
I found out about her paintings from a friend of a friend who knew her and her family. I inquired about a sample piece and when I did see her work, knew I had to feature her . We only had contact through letters and phone calls and while she sounded charming, I expected a shy naïve girl in a sundress and straw hat. I didn't meet her until the night of her show.
She was late for her own show and I was pissed. Here was my "Meet the Artist" reception and no artist. I was talking to a perspective buyer when Lucia told me that Mary Jo had arrived. I excused myself to my buyer and followed Lucia to meet this woman and tear into her for making me look bad. There I was, ready to give her a verbal assault the likes of which she had never heard but I stopped dead. She was standing there with a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Lucia was there before me and pointed in my direction. I watched as she gave me a side-glance and took a long slow drag from her cigarette. Her eyes never left mine, her fingers held the cigarette between her deep red lips and she slowly exhaled. Her mouth was a perfect O as the smoke floated from her lips. I stood there glued to the spot.
She was dressed in a tailored suit and slacks, navy pinstripe accented by a white shirt, the top few buttons were undone and her hair was slicked back into a bob. She wore no other make up other than the lipstick, she didn't need to. She took her glass of wine in her other hand and reached out to take mine. Her hand was warm and mine seemed suddenly chilled.
"Gianna, it's lovely to finally meet you face to face." Her smile was warm and genuine.
"Yes, it's nice to meet you too." I was suddenly an idiot. Me, the woman who feared nothing and no one was standing there like a high school girl stammering as if the captain of the football team was asking her out.
"I like your gallery and the way you presented my humble little paintings."
"I would hardly call them humble, I would say more fresh and innovative. I like to feature the works of women that define and appreciate the female form." I said then wondering what the hell I really meant by that and how she would interpret that remark.
"I have a great fondness for the female form." She said with a wink. Before we could go further into our conversation a few guests came by to meet her and we didn't speak again until the end of the evening. I found myself seeking her out and every time I looked for her she would be looking at me with a smile. I thought it was crazy that she would look at me so familiarly but there was something about her that drew me closer.
The show went great and as the evening ended it was only Mary Jo, Lucia and I left. Lucia started to clean up and I told her to just go home, it could wait until morning she had done too much already. She bid us goodnight and left.
"I should be on my way too. I want to thank you for giving my art some dignity and for taking a chance on an unknown coal town gal."
"You artists are all alike. You critique yourselves too harshly. I just hung them up to make them easier to see the dignity is in the paintings themselves and in the heart of the artist. You have no idea how good you really are, do you?"
"I don't see myself as good or bad. I merely paint what my passions and moods dictate. I put what is inside of me on the canvas."
"You have a lot of inner turmoil don't you?" I blurted. How stupid was I? "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that."
She lifted the one corner of her mouth and looked away. "You're very perceptive."
This was awkward and I decided to try to regain some sense of decorum. "Hey, I don't' know about you but I could use something to eat and a good cup of coffee. I know a great little place that's open late; would you care to keep me company?"
"I would love to." She smiled widely and I hurried to close up the gallery.
We went to an all night diner, one of those little out of the way greasy spoons that had waitresses with names like Bertha and Vera who called everyone "Hun" and stuck their pens in their upswept hair. It was in the day when you could still smoke at your table and no one rushed you out the door.
We talked easily for hours over club sandwiches, pie and endless cups of coffee. I learned about her family, her town, how she became a painter and how she suffered from severe bouts with depression. Painting, she said, was the only way to release all the emotions and desires she had within her. "I live vicariously through my subjects." She laughed but I could see deep into her gorgeous blue eyes that it was the truth. I wanted to slide over next to her and hold her tightly soothing her and making everything better but I could only reach across the table and take her hand in mine. She didn't move her hand but instead clasped her other hand over mine.
"I've been hogging the conversation, tell me about you. How did you come to have this wonderful gallery?"
I never thought it I was that interesting myself, but telling her seemed so different. She was seriously interested and seemed to hang on my every word. I told her how my family came over from Italy when I was a little girl and how we settled in the city. My parents opened a small ristorante where my sister and brothers helped out.
I told her about how I met my first real boyfriend and how we broke up because my parents didn't like him; he wasn't Italian, which was a big no-no. He went to a different college and it wasn't until after we both graduated that we met up again. We reconnected and eventually became lovers of art and of each other. It's how we came to start the gallery, through our love of art and wanting to have somewhere to showcase up and coming artists.
It wasn't long after that I had found him giving an art major some 'private' lessons. I eventually convinced him to sign over his half of the
Gallery. It was difficult at first, not many wanted to deal with a woman alone but I persevered and became successful. Lucia had started for me as an intern and would eventually become my right hand.
"It doesn't surprise me that you've made a success of your business. Having dealt with you I can see how dedicated you are." She said.
"Dealt with me, huh? I'll take that as a compliment." I laughed.
"It was your accent. I had no idea what you were saying so I just agreed to everything." She winked and then lit a cigarette.
"I didn't realize I was so unintelligible?"
"I'm teasing. You speak perfect English for a foreigner."
"Your sense of humor is as unconventional as your artwork."
"I've been called a lot of things before but I like unconventional best." She laughed. "So what part of Italy are you from, I can't trace your accent?"
"Tuscany. I still have family there; my uncle owns a small vineyard."
"It must be lovely. I've always wanted to go to Italy." She sighed.
"Then I will have to take you there someday." I blurted. I don't know why I said it but something really did want me to take her there away from her own life.
She sat back and looked at me for a moment. Her eyes seemed almost pleading and then she smiled slightly. "I may just hold you to that."
I miss her face.
I shuffled through the box to find a picture. Fond memories assaulted me instantly when I found my favorite picture of her, taken on that week in Tuscany. Again, I was lost to reverie...bittersweet memories.
We stayed at my uncle's villa while he was on business in Roma. It was set on a hillside overlooking the vineyards and pastures.
Our morning ritual was to have coffee out on the small patio warming ourselves in the early morning sun and taking in the beautiful scenery that surrounded us.
Mary Jo woke early one particular day, deciding to let me sleep in while she made the coffee. While it was brewing she went outside to have a cigarette. I woke up early out of habit and found her sitting out on the wall. She was still dressed in her oversized nightshirt with her sleeves rolled up and her feet bare. Her hair was naturally curly and tousled and the slight breeze would lift the curls like unseen fingers. She had her knees drawn up to her chest, one arm wrapped around them while the other hung out, her cigarette dangling between her long fingers. It was the look on her face that compelled me to grab my ever-present camera. She had such a peaceful look one that I had never seen before and would never see again.
The click of the shutter broke the spell and I was regretting that I had disturbed the moment. I just leaned against the doorway and smiled.
She looked over at me and raised one eyebrow. "Am I going to have to hide that camera from you?"
"The view was too beautiful to not capture for posterity."
She smiled and held out her hand beckoning me to her. I put the camera down and she flicked away her cigarette so she could wrap both arms around my waist. I wrapped my arms around her shoulders and kissed the top of her head.
"Buona Mattina il mio Zola."
She kissed the space between my breasts, "Good morning to you, my love." She purred and rested her head against my chest. "I can hear your heart beating."
"It beats for you, my love." I lifted her chin and kissed her. I could taste the cigarette she had just finished mixed with the slight mint of toothpaste. I miss that taste. The slight smell of her perfume mingled with sleep melded with the earthy smells of newly tilled soil carried on the gentle breeze. I miss that smell.
I closed my eyes and let the tears fall landing in a soft thud on the glass of the frame. It was time for me to heal this wound that I left opened all these years. I had avoided these memories for too long, unable to bear the pain. She was gone and she wasn't coming back, that much I knew but I could never fully release myself from her.
I went back to looking through the box reading old letters and looking at all the pictures of times and places we spent together. Seeing her smile again warmed my heart. I looked at old greeting cards and postcards remembering the private jokes we shared. I kept ticket stubs and playbills from every movie, concert, museum and play we had seen together. It almost felt silly keeping these little bits of paper that had meaning to me only but they were pieces of my life.
My coffee was lukewarm like my life now. The spontaneity was replaced by random bits of order that eventually grew over me like vines. I was anchored in a safe place and buried myself in my work. She would be so pissed off at me right now. She hated any form of routine saying it made her feel stagnant.
The second time I met her was when she came to the gallery on a whim. I was surprised but pleased to see her.
"Mary Jo what are you doing here?" I asked as I hugged her hello.
"Let's go to Central Park. It's a beautiful day, too beautiful to sit inside and shuffle through papers and boxes."
"Hold on, you drove all this way to go to the park?" I was floored.
"Yes I did since last time I was here we didn't get to go and I want to go now."
She was right about that, the last time she was here after we left the diner she went back to her hotel and I went home. I told her the next time she came to the city we would go wherever she wanted to go. I just didn't expect her to show up out of the blue but that's the way she was, impetuous. The funny thing about it was that she was rubbing off on me and at times we were like giggling schoolgirls. She challenged me to look for all the delights that life had to offer no matter how big or how small.
We spent a wonderful day in the park just walking and talking. It had been so long since I had last been there and being with her made me recall the days when I was younger and would visit there with my family. We went the zoo and watched the children take in the delights of the animals there. She told me about her niece Rosalie whom she adored.
"If I were to have a daughter she would be just like Rosie. I don't foresee children in my future so I give what I can to her, not just gifts but what I've learned. She's brilliant Gia, not school wise but in her way of seeing the world. One day she's going to be a writer and a great one at that. I'll have to bring her here to meet you and see this wonderful city. I don't want her to stagnate in that town becoming a wife and a mother without sampling the world and what it has to offer."
"I wish I had an aunt like you when I was growing up." I laughed. "I bet she thinks the world of you."
"I think the world of her. I want her to be happy but I fear that is something she's inherited from me." She quickly added, "Along with my sense of humor and appetite. I'm hungry, how about you?"
Avoiding subjects or disguising them in something humorous was her way of dealing with things. It upset me at first but then I came to know it was her nature and when she was ready to let me in she would tell me what was on her mind. I decided not to press the issue and suggested we go to my family's restaurant, my treat being that she gave me a wonderful afternoon.
We took a cab to Little Italy and went into the ristorante. My family took to her immediately and my mother insisted she have a second helping of her homemade lasagna. Mama felt she was too thin but Mama thought everyone was too thin and made it her life mission to feed the world one customer at a time.
We had a few glasses of wine and I told her stories of life in an Italian family and working in the family business. My father taught her a few words in Italian, mainly to have an excuse to flirt with her.
It was getting late and I insisted she should come and spend the night at my apartment. I didn't want her to have that long drive back alone in the dark. She politely declined but when my mother insisted and bribed her with some pastries to take home with us she relented.
My apartment wasn't too far away. I couldn't imagine leaving the neighborhood plus the rent was cheaper and my mother's cooking was always close by when I didn't feel like cooking for myself. When we finally arrived at my place, I poured us a glass of wine and we sat down on the couch.
"You spend a lot of time at work don't you?" she asked
"What makes you say that?"
"Your apartment isn't lived in. you haven't surrounded yourself with things that make it a living space." She tucked her feet up under her glancing around. "For a gallery owner not to have art on her walls and the only statuary to be religious icons isn't conducive to expanding your creative spirit."
I looked around and noticed she was right. "I guess you maybe right. I don't dare move the statue of the Blessed Virgin because my mother put it there and before you say a word, yes. I am afraid of my mother even at this age. Plus it isn't worth arguing over."
"The scourge of growing up Catholic; I know it well." She laughed. "We are first destined to be brides of Christ and then brides of lesser men. Giving our virginal selves over, and then dedicating our lives to our mates and family with shiny happy faces and clean floors. Bullshit."