Matteo watched her weave through the flow of business travelers, her cheeks hallow and skin flushed.
Emily’s dark wavy hair and deep brown eyes, her studied pauses and lengthy gaze remained a mystery to Matteo. She couldn’t be more different then the young women that would come to his café and exchange in giddy conversations over espressos and biscotti. In her quiet intelligence, Emily’s saturnine temperament further intrigued Matteo as she blossomed into adulthood.
He was nervous. It was an odd feeling for a man who mastered sprezzatura long before he reached the age of fifty. When Emily called and said that she was in Rome, he must have tried a dozen suits before deciding on casual attire. Now in his soft jersey shirt, his favorite cashmere blazer, and a new boiled wool overcoat, Matteo felt as anxious as schoolboy.
On most visits to Capri, Emily would hide away in the guest room, listening to music and writing in her stack of journals. The silence between them would go on for days. Everything word he spoke was met with a glance away or an awkward smile. His wife, Alina, dismissed Emily’s behavior as simply being a teenager.
On her last trip to Italy, late at night after Matteo had a terrible argument with Alina, Emily slipped through the door and quietly took a bottle of vinho do Porto. Matteo, busy cleaning the kitchen, glanced over his shoulder as Emily reached poured two glasses of wine. She opened the refrigerator and found ingredients to her liking, then went to the Panini grill. Matteo returned to washing dishes, stopping only when Emily parted the sandwich and gave him a slice. Before he could sit down and eat with her, Emily slipped back out as quickly as she came in.
Matteo looked down at the plate, and noticed rather than the traditional baguette, Emily had used Alina’s challah bread. Curious, he took a bite of the Panini. The challah gave the sandwich less crunch and soaked up the flavor of avocado aioli. He ate the entire sandwich then sipped on the wine. To his liking, the vinho do Porto Emily poured had just the right amount of acidity to balance one’s palate. Had Emily not left for law school the next day, he would have hired her for Café Dolce.
Alas, lost was the sparkle in her brown eyes, the glow of youth, the curve of a smile as Emily departed customs. She walked through the gate looking frightfully frail, despondent, and very much alone.
“Benvenuta a Roma,” Matteo said, reaching for Emily’s carry-on. He kissed her cheeks. “How was your flight?”
“It was all right.” Emily looked down and drew a long breath, not caring to hide the stillness in her voice. “Where’s Alina?”
“She’s waiting for you in the car.” Matteo shifted her carry-on to his other hand. “We were surprised when you called this morning.”
Emily glanced at him, briefly holding his eyes as if wanting to tell him something.
“Emily,” Matteo paused. “Stai bene?”
Excerpt 1 – Dolce – Stai Bene?
by Ellie Bleu
For Matteo, there was something magical about autumn afternoons in Rome. After a brief spell of rain, a golden glow takes over the city, the temperature drops just low enough to bring out cravings of spaghetti alla carbonara, you relax with your loved one next to a crackling fire, and open a welcoming bottle of velvety red wine. It was the perfect time of year to court his wife again.
He had assumed that winning back Alina’s love would be relatively easy. After all, every bit of secrecy had been dissected, every nuance uncovered in the past ten years of their marriage. Alina knew of his short temper and quick judgment of others. Matteo had seen her sick with the flu and held her during every breakdown having to do with the loss of her mother. The insecurities that remain hidden in the early stages of marriage were out in the open. Yet looking at Alina sitting passenger in their new black Fiat texting on her cell, Matteo realized that his hopes of their vacation had already fallen short.
Matteo tapped on the window and Alina nearly jumped out . She tucked her cell in her coat pocket before rolling down the window.
“Emily’s luggage is lost,” Matteo said. “I’ll park the car while the two of you make the claim.”
Alina stepped out of the car and went to Emily, not even once glancing at him. Over the past twenty years, Matteo grew to know when Alina was worried. The unmistakable tilt to her head was the first sign. In the morning, he thought she was simply concerned about Emily’s surprise arrival. But as Matteo caught Alina’s tired glance, he pondered if there was something more.
“You didn’t have to come all the way to the airport,” Emily said to Alina. “I could have taken the train to Napoli.”
“Actually,” Alina bit down on her lip. “What do you think about going with us to Tuscany?”
“On your tenth anniversary?” Emily smirked. “I’ll be okay in Capri.”
Alina sighed. “I rather you come with us. You just got here, and you had a long flight. I don’t want you taking the train at night.”
“I’m twenty-four, not five Lina.” Emily said. “Look, if you planned a trip, then go. I’ll be fine.”
To Matteo’s dismay, Alina insisted, “By the time you get there, you’ll miss the last ferry to Capri. That means you’d have to stay in a hotel in the city.”
“Amore,” Matteo exhaled. “Emily can manage a few days here on her own.”
Matteo reached into his pocket and took out a folded stack of euros. When he offered the bills to Emily, Alina looked as if she wanted to kill him. Thirty minutes later, they found Emily’s luggage and piled into his car.
The sun rose as they followed cypress-lined roads to enchanted Tuscan towns. They passed hill after hill of golden fields. All the while, Alina had her head down, texting on her phone. She had little to say during the drive to Florence. In fact, their first real conversation was at an outdoor pizzeria, three hours into the vacation.
Emily briefly glanced at the menu before setting it down. “Can you order a pizza for me?”
“Which one?” Alina asked.
“I don’t know.” Emily stepped away with her phone in hand. “The one with marinara.”
From the corner of his eye, Matteo noticed the troubled way Emily glanced back at him. With her head down, she slipped into the restaurant and disappeared. Matteo pulled out a chair and sat down across from Alina. He reached for her hand and held it in his.
At the table next to them, a woman struggled with her two boys, fighting over an electronic toy. Then a baby in a young man’s arms began to wail. Finally, the man had enough and scolded his sons. Despite the distraction, Matteo couldn’t take his eyes away from his wife.
The truth was, Alina could have chosen any man she wanted. He often questioned why she loved him. After over ten years together, Matteo had noticed his wrinkles stretched further from his eyes. Soon, he’d mistake himself in the mirror for his father. However, Alina became more beautiful with age.
Alina’s eyes met his. “You know, that will be us if we start a family.”
“Think of all the fun we’ll have.”
“And Dolce?” Alina asked. “I won’t have the time to run it.”
“I’ve considered that,” Matteo said. “Maybe it’s time to hire a manager. The café has turned into an established restaurant. We should run it as one.”
Alina’s face reddened. “Are you saying that I’m not running it well?”
“Of course not.” Matteo instantly regretted his words. “Mi amore, wouldn’t it be nice to take some time away from Dolce? You told me yesterday that you wanted to change the menu a bit; add more vegetarian options. I have relatives in Crete that we could visit. Maybe it could serve as our inspiration.”
Alina gave him a coy smile. “You would agree to that?”
Matteo nodded, pulling her closer to him. “Legend has it that Zeus took Europa to the island of Crete. They made love on the beach, and the gods gave them a son, Minos.”
“Is that what you want,” Alina leaned closer, “a son?”
“Of course,” Matteo kissed her lips. “If we had a daughter, I’d have a heart attack every time she went out.”
They kissed, this time, more passionate than the last. At the sight of the waiter, Alina pushed back.
“I’ve been waiting to do that all day,” Matteo smiled.
“I know the trip hasn’t gone as planned,” Alina sighed. “I feel terrible about it. I didn’t know what to do when Emily called me.”
“Don’t worry.” Matteo squeezed her hand. “We can celebrate our anniversary another time.”
The waiter came over, and Alina ordered a marinara pizza. For a moment, Matteo had forgotten that Emily was still with them. Alina asked about Crete and where they would stay. Matteo told her about his fond memories of Balos Bay. Then Emily’s voice broke in.
“I’m still not getting reception,” Emily huffed.
Emily tossed her cell phone on the table and folded her arms. Matteo ignored her, but Alina seemed to be losing her cool. He reached for a decanter filled with burgundy wine and poured Alina a glass, then reached for Emily’s cup.
“Thank you,” Emily smiled.
“Nice try,” Alina pushed the glass aside, and stood.
Emily glanced up. “I’ll just have half a glass.”
“With your motion sickness?” Alina shook her head. “You’ll get sick in the car.”
Matteo reached for Alina’s hand. “Where are you going?”
“I’ll be right back.” Alina pecked his cheek. “I’m going to see what’s taking so long.”
Emily and Matteo sat in silence until the waiter returned with a pizza high on his shoulder. Matteo’s mouth watered when he caught the aroma. The server set the pizza down before warning that the plate was hot. Emily reached out for a slice and immediately jolted back.
“Let me see,” Matteo said, reaching for her hand.
“It hurts,” Emily said. “I would ask for ice, but your country doesn’t seem to know what it even is.”
Matteo shook his head. “Ice makes a burn worse.”
Matteo dipped her red fingers in a glass of water. As Matteo glanced at her puffy eyes, Emily appeared lost and almost afraid.
“Do you feel better?” Matteo asked.
“I’ll survive,” Emily sighed.
Matteo dropped her hand. “Good.”
Emily glanced down at the pizza with a frown. “This isn’t pizza.”
“What do you mean?” Matteo asked, looking down.
The crust formed a traditional cornizone rim, and it had slight tinges of a blackened edge. To Matteo, it was a perfect Neapolitan-style pizza topped with San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, oregano, and fresh olive oil.
“Where are the toppings?” Emily asked.
“You asked for the Marinara.” Matteo took a napkin and folded it around the pizza. “Try a bite.”
Emily reluctantly agreed. With one hand in the water, she grabbed the pizza and ate a small piece.
“What do you taste?” Matteo asked.
Emily shrugged her shoulders. “The dough is good, almost like sourdough bread, but it’s chewy.”
Matteo nodded. “In Italy, we use a tiny amount of yeast in the dough. We let it rise for a few days to allow the flavor to develop.”
“The tomatoes taste stronger,” Emily smiled, “sweeter than the ones we have back home.”
Matteo took a sip of wine. “They grow in the volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius, in a town outside of Napoli where I grew up.”
“It’s good.” Emily took another bite. “With the fresh oregano on top, you don’t even need cheese.”
It surprised him that she even knew the name of herbs. Matteo reached for the decanter and poured Emily a glass of wine.
“Don’t tell your sister. You can’t leave Tuscany without trying Ornellaia.”
Emily grinned as she took a sip. Moments later, Alina returned with a smile on her face and kissed his cheek. For a brief second, Matteo allowed himself to believe that their vacation would turn out okay.
[end of section]
Thank you for reading!