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Painted Red

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Here’s a sneak peak of the Prologue for my upcoming book, Painted Red

My mother was the first woman in Florence in the early 50s to own a car. She was eighteen when she left her family in her own wheels and traveled to Switzerland to take up a new profession in smuggling cigarettes across the border. To this day I don’t know how she managed to purchase a vehicle of her own, or what kind of car it was, but I like to think of her returning to Italy in a sleek sports car, a Porsche, perhaps, and certainly a convertible, her wild red hair disheveled by the wind, the sun smacking against her bold smile, people stopping to stare at this goddamn audacious woman.

This is what I think of—the freedom and joy and pride she must have felt at such a young age—when my stepfather Domenico calls at two in the morning in the winter of 2005 to tell me she’s dying. Ciao, darling, he says, his voice scratchy, spent, swollen with grief. You must come.
Thousands of miles away, across a country, across a sea, my mother is in a hospital bed, shriveled and shrunken. The room: sterile and cold; the hallways: desolate; her fingers: nicotine-stained; her nails: shimmering with red polish; her once ravishing beauty now entirely vanished. She is not crying. Only waiting.

Soon, I will tie a robe around my waist and creep through my quiet house to my kitchen, where I will brew a pot of coffee thick enough to shake myself from dreams. I will book a one-way ticket to Milan, pack a meager bag, kiss my husband Greg goodbye. I will stand in the doorway of my daughter Isabella’s bedroom and listen to her sleep. I will walk from room to room, note the spray of apricot roses in a glass vase near photos of my travels: Kenya, Bali, Mexico, Greece. Note the figurine of an elephant on the mantel of our fireplace, its trunk raised in triumph, in glee. Note the oil paintings I’ve collected along my way to here. Here. In this yellow Easter Egg of a home, with its quiet warmth, its view of ancient, glorious redwoods.

Here, I will think of the fortune I’ve found. Close my eyes, murmur a prayer of gratitude. But it is here that I will also think of my past, as a stranded bird in Pavia.

I am in a cracked bathroom. There are worms in my panties, and all I can hear is the howl of madness.

I am in a bed with my mother, stirring her sober as she trembles against me, caught in the stickiness of too many drinks, too many drugs, too few winning hands at the poker table in the back of a lowbrow bar.

I am on a hillside in Il Penice, sunk below shadows of pines, fallen bark under my feet. I look out across the expanse of dark green at the countryside ahead, finding nothing in the distance. It is a desolation so bleak I have to retreat towards the trunks of the regal trees, place my hand on my sternum, feel my flesh and the blood running beneath it to realize that I am, in fact, still alive.

I will step away from these memories soon. I will forget to bring clothes warm enough for Northern Italy’s harsh winters and shiver my way down the long, narrow boulevard to the hospital. I will calm Domenico, who hasn’t slept since my mother was admitted. Shhh, I will say as he leans against me, his forehead moist, his heart beating riotously against mine. Everything will be all right, I will add, although we both know this is not true. I will walk into my mother’s hospital room, reach for her pulse. I will take her in my arms and she’ll feel like a bag of bones. I will hold on to her and never let go.

But for now, in the gauzy aftermath of sleep and shock, of memories cast like nets into unseen waters, there is my mother, driving down I Lungarni. The radio is on and my mother is headed nowhere and everywhere and she’s singing and singing like she has all the time in the world. She sings until her voice is hoarse, her head arched back, her neck smooth and flawless, her mouth wide open, carrying a melody that will haunt those around her for years.