Elisabetta made up her mind. Marco Terrizzi would be her first kiss. She watched him doing bicycle tricks by the river, riding on his back tire, his head thrown back in laughter, his teeth white against his tanned face. His thick, dark hair shone with pomade in the sun, and his legs were knotted with muscles inside the baggy shorts of his uniform. He rode with joy and athleticism, achieving a masculine grace. Marco Terrizzi had sprezzatura, a rare and effortless charm that made him irresistible.
Elisabetta couldn't take her eyes from him, and neither could the others. They had grown up together, but somewhere along the line, he had gone from boyhood to manhood, from Marco to Marco. That he was terribly handsome there could be no doubt. He had large, walnut-brown eyes, a strong nose, a square jaw, and a broad neck marked by a prominent Adam's apple. He was the most popular boy in their class, and everything about him seemed more vivid than everyone else. Even now, the sun drenched him in gold, as if Nature herself gilded him.
Elisabetta wondered what it would be like to kiss him. She guessed it would be exciting, even delicious, like biting into a ripe tomato and letting its juices run down her chin. She had never kissed a boy, though she was already fifteen years old, and at night she practiced kissing on her pillow. Her tabbycat, Rico, with whom she slept, had grown accustomed to her routine, as cats endure the silliness of young girls.
Elisabetta had no idea how to make Marco think of her as more than a friend. She usually achieved what she set her mind to, getting good grades and such, but this was different. She was too blunt to flirt. She lacked feminine wiles. She had been a maschiaccio, a tomboy, when she was little, which was how she had grown close with Marco. She was trying to become more womanly, but she still didn't wear a brassiere. Her mother said she didn't need one, but the other girls made fun of her, talking behind their hands.
"Elisabetta, help, I'll drown!" Marco raced toward the river, and she was about to call to him, but stopped herself. She had read in a female advice column that denying men the attention they craved drove them mad with desire, so she ignored him, while the other girls responded.
"Marco, no!" Livia called back.
"Marco, be careful!" Angela gasped.
The boys waited to see if calamity befell Marco, but he cranked the handlebars, veering away from the river's edge. They laughed and returned to their textbooks, spread out on the grass. They were doing homework, having come from their Balilla meeting, the party's compulsory youth group. They all wore their uniforms, the boys in their black shirts and gray shorts, and the girls in white muslin shirts and black skirts.
This quiet spot on the riverbank, just north of the Ponte Palatino, had become a hangout of her classmates after school, though Elisabetta typically sat with Marco or Sandro, apart from the other girls. Somehow she had missed her chance to become their girlfriend, and it was too late now, for they rebuffed her overtures. Perhaps they had judged her as preferring the boys, which wasn't true, and she would have loved to have had a good girlfriend. Whatever the reason, Angela and the other girls kept her at a distance, and she tried not to let it bother her.
"Look, Betta!" Marco called again, using her childhood nickname.
"Use my proper name!" Elisabetta called back, from behind her newspaper. She did prefer her full name, as she hoped to become a journalist someday. She practiced her byline at night, too. By Elisabetta D'Orfeo.
"Elisabetta!" Marco rode over, sliding to a stop on the grass. "Hop on my handlebars. Let's go for a ride."
"No, I'm reading." Elisabetta hid her smile behind the newspaper.
Angela rose, brushing grass from her skirt. "Marco, I'll go, take me!"
"Okay!" Marco extended his hand, Angela clambered onto his handlebars, and the two rode off together.
Elisabetta lowered her newspaper, wondering if the female advice column had been wrong. If she wanted Marco, she would have to attract him another way. She sensed she was pretty enough, now that she had grown into her features, according to her mother. Her large, round eyes were greenish-brown, and her shoulder-length hair was a rich brunette, wavy and abundant. Her nose was strong, but proportional to her prominent cheekbones, and her lips were full. Her problem was her bocca grande, big mouth, which proved a disadvantage when it came to boys, her Latin teacher, and that old bitch at the newsstand.
Elisabetta leaned back on her elbows, breathing in the odors of the Tiber, its water a milky jade with wavelets topped with ivory foam. Swallows skimmed the surface for a drink, cicadas rasped, and dragonflies droned. Pink oleander bushes, umbrella pines, and palm trees lined the riverbank, and the natural oasis was shielded from the hustle-bustle of the city by gray stone walls.
Elisabetta's gaze found the Ponte Rotto in the middle of the river, a bizarre sight. Centuries ago, the stone bridge had connected the riverbanks, but time had reduced it to only a single arch rising from the water, leading nowhere. Romans called it the broken bridge, but she thought that it was a survivor, standing despite the elements and the Tiber itself, which sent blackish-green vines up its sides, as if trying to pull it underwater.
Beyond the Ponte Rotto was Tiber Island, the only island in the river, barely large enough to contain the Basilica di San Bartolomeo all'Isola with its faded-brick belfry, the Church of San Giovanni Calibita, and the hospital, Ospedale Fatebenefratelli, with its rows of green-shuttered windows. Across from the hospital was Bar GiroSport, which Marco's family owned and lived above. Elisabetta lived only a few blocks away from him in Trastevere, the bohemian neighborhood that she and her father loved. Unfortunately, her mother had ceased loving anything.
It was then that Elisabetta spotted Sandro Simone striding toward her and the others. Sandro was her other best friend, and Marco's, too, as the three of them had been a trio since childhood. Sandro walked with his characteristically lanky stride, and his light brown curls blew back from his long, lean face. He was handsome in his own way, his features more refined than Marco's and his build like a sharpened pencil, slim but strong, the way a wire cable supports a modern bridge.
"Ciao, Elisabetta!" Sandro reached her, smiling and taking off his fez. He wiped the sweat from his brow, slid off his backpack, and sat down. His eyes, a brilliant azure color with long eyelashes like awnings, narrowed against the sunlight. His nose was long and aquiline, and his lips finely etched into his face. Sandro lived on the east side of the river in the Jewish quarter, called the Ghetto, and throughout their childhood, Elisabetta, Sandro, and Marco had traveled back and forth on an axis from Trastevere to Tiber Island and the Ghetto, riding bikes, playing football, and generally acting as if Rome were their private playground.
"Ciao, Sandro." Elisabetta smiled, happy to see him.
"I stopped to get us a snack. Have one." Sandro produced a paper bag from his backpack and opened its top, releasing the delicious aroma of suppl“, rice croquettes with tomato sauce and mozzarella.
"Grazie!" Elisabetta picked up a suppl“ and took a bite. The breading was light, the tomato sauce perfectly salty, and the mozzarella hot enough to melt on her tongue.
"Where's Marco? I brought some for him, too."
"Off with Angela."
"Too bad." Sandro chewed a suppl“ and glanced at her newspaper. "What are you reading?"
"Nothing." Elisabetta used to love reading the newspaper, but her favorite columnists were gone, and she suspected they had been fired. Benito Mussolini and the Fascists had been in power for fifteen years, and censorship had become the order of the day. "All the articles are the same, about how great the government is, or they reproduce ridiculous posters like this one."
"Let me see." Sandro wiped his hands on a napkin.
"Here." Elisabetta showed him a picture of an Italian peasant woman in traditional dress, holding babies in each arm. She read him the caption. "'The ideal Fascist woman is to bear children, knit, and sew, while men work or go to war.' It's propaganda, not news, and anyway, not all women are the same."
"Of course they aren't. The newspaper isn't always right."
"No, it's not." Elisabetta thought of the female advice column. Marco and Angela still weren't back.
"Don't let it bother you."
"But it does." Elisabetta disagreed with the Fascists, though she didn't discuss it with anyone other than Sandro and Marco. Those who spoke against the government could be arrested and sent into confino, exile, far from their homes. Informers abounded in Rome, even in Trastevere, and though Elisabetta's family wasn't committed to any particular political party, as artists they were congenitally leftist.
"You don't like being told what to do."
"Who does? Do you?"
"No, but I don't take it so much to heart as you." Sandro leaned over. "Guess what, I have amazing news. I was accepted to an internship with Professor Levi-Civita at La Sapienza."
"Davvero?" Elisabetta asked, astonished. "You, a high school student? At the university?"
"Yes, it will be an independent study." Sandro beamed with pride.
"Congratulations!" Elisabetta felt delighted for him. He was a mathematical prodigy, and his preternatural talent had been plain since primary school, so she shouldn't have been surprised that he would be at La Sapienza, the city campus of the University of Rome. "And this professor is the one you always talk about, right? Levi-Civita?"
"Yes, and I can't wait to meet him. He's one of the greatest mathematicians of our time. He developed tensor calculus, which Einstein used in his theory of relativity. In fact, he just got back from seeing him in America."
"How wonderful. How did this come about, anyway? For you?"
"Professoressa Longhi recommended me, and I've been waiting to hear. I just stopped by the hospital to tell my mother."
"She must be so proud." Elisabetta admired Sandro's mother, who was one of the few female doctors she had ever heard of, an obstetrician at Ospedale Fatebenefratelli.
"She was, but she was surprised I hadn't told her I was being considered."
"I am, too. Why didn't you tell us?" Elisabetta meant her and Marco.
"I didn't want you to know if I failed."
"Oh, Sandro." Elisabetta felt a rush of affection for him. "You never fail, and Levi-Civita is lucky to have you. You'll be a famous mathematician someday."
Sandro grinned. "And you'll be a famous journalist."
"Ha!" Elisabetta didn't know what Marco would become, but dismissed the thought.
"How can you read in the sunlight?" Sandro squinted at her newspaper. "It's so bright."
"It is, I know."
"Allow me." Sandro slid the newspaper page from her hand and stood up.
"No, give me that back." Elisabetta rose, reaching, but Sandro turned away, doing something with the newspaper.
"It's only the obituaries."
"I like the obituaries." Elisabetta always read the obituaries, as each one was a wonderful life story, except for the endings.
"Ecco." Sandro held out a hat of folded newspaper, then popped it on her head. "This will keep the sun from your eyes."
"Grazie." Elisabetta smiled, delighted, and all of a sudden, Sandro kissed her. She found herself kissing him back, tasting warm tomato sauce on his lips until he pulled away, smiling down at her, with a new shine in his eyes that confused her. She had just decided that Marco would be her first kiss.
"Sandro, why did you do that?" Elisabetta glanced around, wondering if the others had seen. Her classmates were bent over their homework, and though Marco was approaching with Angela on his handlebars, he was too far away.
Sandro grinned. "Isn't it obvious why?"
"But you never kissed me before."
"I never kissed anybody before."
Elisabetta felt touched. "So why me? Why now?"
Sandro laughed. "Who asks such questions? Only you!"
"But I thought we were just friends."
"Are we? I-" Sandro started to say, but Marco interrupted them, shouting from a distance.
"Ciao, Marco!" Sandro called back, waving.
Elisabetta blinked, and the moment between her and Sandro vanished, so quickly that she wondered if it had happened at all.
Marco pedaled home from the river on the Lungotevere dei Pierleoni, the wide boulevard that ran along its east side. The sun had dipped behind the trees, shooting burnished rays through the city, which had come to boisterous life as the workday ended. Cars honked, drivers cursed, and exhaust fogged the air. The sidewalks thronged with people, and businessmen hustled to catch trams.
Marco accelerated, preoccupied with Elisabetta. He was in love with her, but she treated him as a pal, the way she always did. She hadn't even cared when he had taken Angela on his bike. He felt stumped, which never happened to him with girls. He could have his pick, but he wanted Elisabetta. She was beautiful, which was reason enough alone, but he loved her passion, her strength, her fire. She had thoughts about everything, and though her intelligence was superior, she treated him as if he were equally intelligent. Marco would stop at nothing to win her over. He was love's captive.
He flashed on seeing Sandro by the river today, standing oddly close to her, as if they had been having a great discussion or even sharing a secret. Anxiety gnawed at Marco, and he experienced a flicker of envy at the bond that Sandro and Elisabetta shared, for they were always talking about books or the like. But Marco knew that Sandro and Elisabetta were only friends, and Sandro had no female experience whatsoever.
Marco turned onto the Ponte Fabricio, his tires bobbling on the worn travertine. The footbridge was the oldest in Rome, walled on both sides-and since it connected to Tiber Island, it was essentially the street on which he lived. He dodged businessmen and veered smoothly around a cat that darted in front of him. He reached the top of the gentle span and saw that his father, Beppe, wasn't standing outside his family's bar, Bar GiroSport, as he usually did. It meant that Marco was late to dinner.
He sped to the foot of the bridge, passed the bar, and steered around to its side entrance on Piazza San Bartolomeo all'Isola. He jumped off his bicycle, slid it into the rack, then flew inside the crowded bar. He scooted upstairs, dropped his backpack, and entered a kitchen so small that one pot of boiling water could fill it with steam. On the wall hung framed photos of his father in the Giro d'Italia and a calendar featuring Learco Guerra, the great Italian bicycle racer. A small shelf held a framed photo of Pope Pius XI, a crucifix of dried palm, and a plaster statue of the Virgin. Marco's mother worshipped Christ; his father worshipped cycling.