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M.A.B. Lee
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italianspeaker.jpg
Art by Christopher Lee Stine 2010

The Italian Speaker

 

M.A.B. Lee

 

 

          She began the story without explanation or preface.  

 

          “When I was fifteen, I was betrothed to Maximillan. He was twenty-two, wonderfully handsome with soulful brown eyes and chiseled high cheekbones. Women would turn on the street to look at him, and I knew I was lucky. Max was in his final year at university and upon graduation, would join his uncle at the import firm. But we were not to get married until I finished school, and that was more than two years away. Eventually, I knew, we would live in an apartment not far from my parents or his; I would have babies and he would be a businessman. I was a dreamy child and spent untold hours imagining names for the children, draperies for the living room, and the clothes I would wear when Max and I went out. We’d have a cook like Maria who worked for my parents and we’d entertain friends and business associates.” 

 

          She was lying in bed, staring straight up to the high ceiling and I moved close to her so our bodies were touching for their entire lengths. I tried to imagine her as a schoolgirl.

 

          “Even back then it was not the common practice to become engaged so young,” she continued. “But my father preferred the old ways. When the nuns lectured about sins of the flesh, they looked right at me. But Maxmillian and I had only traded chaste kisses and held hands as we walked. The passion I read about in books or saw in movies was still a stranger to me. Max’s kisses roused no heat in me, and I did not long for his touch. I was convinced I was frigid, although I never told anyone about this fear.”

 

          I would have laughed right then at the silliness of this idea, but she looked so serious, I could not.

         

          She went on with her story. “One Saturday evening Max announced we were to visit some friends.”

         

          “ ‘Sebastian?’ I asked, naming one of his student companions.

 

          “ ‘No, someone else. New friends.’ He was excited. 

  

          “ ‘Should I change my clothes?’ I had only dressed for the cinema, which was our regular Saturday night date.  

 

          “ ‘No, no, don’t bother, it won’t matter.’

 

          “ “It was still early and the streets were busy with families out walking, buying ices, sitting in the cafes. Max said little during our walk except to urge me to hurry up.   

 

          “ ‘I don’t want to be late.’ he said.

 

          “We left the main square and walked down towards the river, through the residential districts. The breeze coming up from the river picked through my hair. It smelled of sea salt and diesel and seemed as if it had come from a faraway place. We walked through the yellow pools of light cast by the streetlights. The leaves of the raintrees shivered in the breeze and made lacy shadow patterns on the sidewalk.

         

          “Why was I so sensitive that night, so aware of every feeling?” she asked me but went on, not expecting an answer.   

          “Finally we stopped at a large apartment building with carved cornices and two stone lions flanking the door. The lobby was small, all brass and marble, and the doorman just nodded as Max said, ‘The Rienzas’. I wondered if he knew Max. We went up to the fourth floor in the small elevator.

 

          “I expected people Max’s age, students or maybe a beginning professor. But they were not. She was younger than her husband, by many years, but still older than Max, while he was older than my father. Max introduced us. 

 

          “ ‘This is Louisa and Raul. Louisa comes from Italy, and Raul used to work in the consulate in Milan.’

 

          “Louisa was handsome, with a generous body. Her dark hair was pulled back in a bun which emphasized her high white forehead. She was wearing a red dress, loose and flowing and cut low so the cleft between her breasts was displayed. I felt flat and bony next to her. Raul was thin and tall with salt and pepper hair and a carefully-trimmed moustache. He considered me gravely with his brown eyes and when we shook hands, I noticed he had long fingers and a firm grip.       

 

          “An arched doorway led from the hall into the living room. It was an old elegant apartment with a high plaster ceiling and dark carved wooden trim. The furniture was dark heavy wood and reminded me of my grandmother’s house. The drapes had been pulled back and the windows open to let in the evening breezes.

 

          “On the low table in front of the sofa sat a pot of expresso and a set of cups, and a tray of small pastries. 

 

          “ ‘Please excuse the confusion,’ Louisa said  ‘We are not completely arranged yet.’ 

          “I could only guess that she was referring to some boxes sitting in the corner, and a group of paintings leaning against the wall. Louisa poured the coffee as Raul passed around the tray. 

 

          “ ‘How do you like the city?’ Max asked.

 

          “ ‘We hardly know it yet. We only arrived two weeks ago,’ Louisa said, ‘and we’ve been very busy moving in. I am looking forward to seeing all the wonderful things you told me about.’

 

          “ ‘These two met at the market, did you know that?’ Raul asked me. ‘Over the chilies, or was it the bananas? It doesn’t matter. I am glad Louisa found young friends. I am a bore to her.’

 

          “ ‘No,’ Louisa protested with a laugh, and laid her hand along his cheek for a moment. ‘Tell them about the moving men.’

 

          “ ‘Brigands, all of them,’ Raul began. ‘Late with the delivery, then wanting to charge extra. When they unpacked the two Miros, they leaned them up against the side of the truck, while they brought the heavy furniture in. So there they were, displayed like the wares of a street vendor. Louisa ran down to rescue the two paintings and someone walking by asked how much she wanted for them. Imagine, a Miro sold on the street!’  

 

          “I laughed politely although I was not exactly sure what a ‘Miro’ was. Max and Louisa began to discuss Italy—foods they preferred, towns they both knew, the merits of different beaches.   At fifteen, my travels had been confined to annual trips to the seashore with my family, so I listened with interest. When I looked over, Raul appeared to be asleep. I was embarrassed for him, but Louisa just smiled.

 

          “ ‘Please excuse poor Raul. The moving has been such a strain on him. Now Anna, may I borrow Max for a moment?  There are some heavy things that must be removed from the packing cases, too heavy for Raul, although he will not admit it.  Would you mind very much keeping him company? It will be embarrassing for him if he should wake up alone.’ She watched me for a response.

 

“When I said ‘No, I don’t mind,’ she smiled and I felt like I had said the right thing. She and Max disappeared down the hallway. When I turned back to Raul, he was staring at me.

 

          “ ‘Are we alone?’ he asked.

 

          “ ‘They went to unpack some things.’

 

          “ ‘Oh yes,’ Raul said. ‘Louisa always seems to need a younger man.’

 

          “ ‘Do you speak Italian?’ I asked, just for something to say.

 

          “ ‘Yes, I do,’ he answered. He sat forward in his chair, and I was on the end of the sofa so we were quite close. He looked at me intently and then he said, ‘You must be a virgin, you are so young.’

 

          “I didn’t know what to say. ‘I’m fifteen,’ I said finally, ignoring the question. ‘Max and I are going to be married when I finish school.’

 

          “ ‘Yes, I know,’ he said. 

 

          “There was a pause, then he reached out and pinched the nipple of my left breast. I was shamed and embarrassed and hung my head, not looking at him. But I felt a thick warmth course through my body and my bones felt soft.

 

“I realized I wanted him to do it again.

          “ ‘Only a virgin can blush so,’ he said with a laugh. Then he stood up and walked to the paintings stacked along the wall.  ‘Come over here and let me show you this painting.’ He motioned me to stand in front of him.

 

            “ ‘This is by Bellini, an Italian painter,’ Raul began. 

 

“I looked at the painting. It was a landscape: dark, tall trees, and one spot of sunlight where a shepherd stood. I could feel Raul's breath as he spoke, and the heat from his body close behind mine. He reached around and cupped my breast in his hand as he continued to speak. But I heard nothing. I stood rigid, hot, feeling faint, as his hand caressed my breast. He stepped closer to me and I felt the hardness of him.   

 

          “My mind was frozen and my body yearned for something I could not identify. When we heard Louisa and Max coming back, he stepped away from me and calmly returned to his chair.

   

          “ ‘I was just telling Anna about my paintings,’ Raul said.  ‘I suppose I was boring her.’

 

          “ ‘No, of course not.’ I could barely speak. I was sure Max or Louisa would be able to tell what happened, certainly it must have shown on my face. But neither of them seemed to notice.

 

“There was a moment of silence, then Max said, ‘Well, we must be going.’

 

          “We said our goodnights and left.

 

          “In the elevator Max said, ‘Louisa offered to teach me Italian.  It could be very useful in business. We will meet once a week.’ Then he quickly added, ‘But not Saturday. You and I will still have our Saturday nights.’

          “When I didn’t reply, he asked, ‘Did you enjoy yourself?  Louisa liked you, she told me so. Did you like our new friends?’

 

          “ ‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘I had a good time.’

 

          “That night I lay naked in my narrow bed with the window open and let the night breeze stir across my body. I lived over and over the feel of Raul’s hand on my breast. I could not explain what I felt, and I couldn’t forget it, either. 

 

“So then my daydreams of married life began to include men who called while Cook was out shopping and the baby was down for his nap. They never had faces, just hands, long-fingered hands that reached for my breasts and made my bones melt.

 

          “But now they have a face, don’t they?” she said, turning to look at me. “Your face.” 

 

          “So did Max learn Italian?” I asked, with a laugh.   

         

          “Laugh if you like, but I was young, and didn’t understand how men were. Yes, Max learned Italian, and many other languages since. But what do I care?  Now it’s time for you to leave. Inez will be back from shopping soon and little Maximillan will be waking from his nap.”   

 

 

 

 

 

M.A.B. Lee has chased a variety of careers, including educator, consultant, and public servant, but recently gave up the 9 to 5 life.  She now spends much of her time writing fiction. Her story, “Murder Makes a Difference,” appeared in the Fall 2009 Issue of Mysterical-E,

<http://www.mystericale.com/index.php?issue=093&body=file&file=difference.htm> and another will be in a forthcoming issue of Pine Tree Mysteries <http://www.pinetreemysteries.com/

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