Italian Kisses

By: Lucy Lambert

Chapter 1

As soon as I arrived at the party, I wanted to leave. I smiled politely at the slick-haired doorman as he waved me in with one white-gloved hand contrasting so sharply with his olive-skinned face. The skirt of my red dress swished around my legs while I shuffled in.

At the same time, a cool ball of anxiety started somewhere in the area of my lungs and began rising up through my chest and throat like some slow, agonizing elevator.

I hadn’t been this far away from the university since... I tried to think of such a time, frowning while a waiter conveying a tray of champagne flutes weaved around me.

Two months, I thought. It had been two months since I’d done more than go from my flat to the campus and from the campus to my flat.

You’ve fallen into a rut, came an admonishing voice. My voice.

An older man wearing a tuxedo jacket on his shoulders and a severe-faced Italian matriarch on his arm cleared his throat behind me.

“Pardon me,” I said, stepping out of the way. I’d been standing just a few steps from the doorway, apparently unable to keep myself from sliding back into said rut and drifting away in a daydream.

The man smiled at my use of English and led the severe-faced woman down through the front foyer in which we stood. As he passed, I found I could see myself in the reflection cast by his shiny head, which was lined with the white horseshoe of his remaining hair.

Just go inside, I thought, mentally prodding myself. He’s in there, waiting. But then again, maybe he was why I didn’t want to go inside.

He, you ask? One of my professors of art history at the Sapienza University here in Rome. Giuseppe Aretino. My escort by night and my teacher by day. Or at least that’s how he’d like to style himself.

I wonder if he knew I was seriously considering leaving Rome.

Stuck in a rut, I thought again. And apparently in more ways than one. From the large set of ornate doors that, by their iconography, appeared to have originated sometime in the 16th Century, the sound of a string quartet wafted to my spot.

I couldn’t recognize the particular piece, but then again, my interest lay more in art than in classical music.

There was also the soft murmur of dozens of conversations. Dozens of people. Dozens of strangers. And one particular black-haired (which he always kept slicked back with shiny oil) Italian professor with the power to make or break my grades this semester.

I looked down at the floor, the action of bending my neck forward like that jamming the elevator car of anxiety somewhere just below my larynx. The floor was marble, so perfectly polished and smooth I could easily make out the individuals ringlets of my hair as they shifted on my bare shoulders.

A head of curly blonde hair in a sea of shaggy black (in the case of younger Italians) or thinning grey-white (in the case of older Italians).

Professor Aretino... Giuseppe, as he always asked me to call him, liked to call me Golden Girl (Ragazza D’oro in Italiono) because of my hair. It had been cute at first, almost endearingly so when I made a Betty White joke about it and he didn’t get it, but now it grated on me.

In fact, I almost left right then and there, an angry pressure building behind my eyes while I stared down at the floor that looked like it might have been preserved since Antiquity but had probably been installed by one of Mussolini’s cronies back in the 1930s in an attempt to return Rome to some of its former Imperial splendor (God, even at times like that I couldn’t get my head out of the textbooks).

I even turned toward the door, which happened to open at the same time, sending a burst of sweet-smelling evening air into that glossy marble foyer.

I couldn’t leave, I knew then. If I left without putting in some sort of token appearance with Dr. Aretino, he’d corner me after our next lecture and he’d flail his arms about in that animated Italian way and I’d be roped into attending another function at another time.

That was it, I realized. I could put in my appearance and then go catch a taxi back to my flat and start looking into flights back to the States.

That thought really twisted in my stomach, the pressure forcing that elevator car jammed in my throat up another few inches. If I left now, my grades would be incomplete. In essence, thousands of dollars wasted. Thousands of dollars I’d promised not to waste.

I guess it goes to show that nothing turns out like you expect. Not even Rome. The place that wasn’t built in a day. All the roads may have lead here, but maybe an airplane could take me away.

So I swallowed against the cold lump and turned back. Rather, I turned my face right back into an expensive suit. I got a whiff of tastefully expensive cologne and a sense of hard muscle beneath the tailored jacket before rebounding.

“Oh!” I said, my reflexes making me stumble back, my shoes unable to find purchase on that slick marble floor. A cold, hard marble floor that definitely wasn’t going to be kind to my behind. My teeth clicked together and my eyes squeezed shut in anticipation of the jarring pain about to shoot up my spine.

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