I wanted to share a little bit here… My books are “Love Letters to Books.” They allude to a lot of classic literature, including tons of Jane Austen, because I feel those books create a common language and still speak to us today. A Portrait of Emily Price found its inspiration from a variety of sources – Shakespeare, Joyce, Austen, Lewis and Italian art to name a few. Here is an excerpt that calls out Jane Austen’s Emma and puts it into context for young Emily Price. I thought it might be a nice way to spend a few minutes on a Wednesday among some Austen-loving friends.
I walked up the short path to the school. It was a low building and I entered at ground level, but I could see the hill drop away behind it. I suspected it was built into the hill like Anne’s castle and that its floors extended many levels down. It took a few minutes of wandering the bright and fully decorated hallways before I found Francesca’s classroom.
“Hey.” I knocked on the doorjamb. “Are you busy?”
“Just finishing up. What are you doing here?” She was sitting on a tiny chair filling white plastic bins with crayons, tiny scissors and other supplies.
“I came to see if I could help and show you something I thought the kids might enjoy next week.” I propped a white canvas against her desk and dug through my tackle box for a bottle of my gentlest varnish remover. I didn’t need to be too careful, so I soaked a cotton ball and dabbed it against the white. Red burst through at my first touch.
“You painted over a painting?”
“I thought they might think it fun to discover a painting rather than make one.”
“They will.” Francesca leaned against her desk and smiled. “You remind me of Joseph. He used to get excited by stuff like that too. Even as a kid, I remember him repairing things, uncovering things. He used to help out at the church a lot and even worked at a small gallery here in Greve, touching up damaged pieces.”
“He doesn’t come home much, does he?”
“It’s been a several years now. Papa went over a few years ago to visit, probably five now; Mama didn’t go.” She shook her head. “Papa didn’t invite me, but I don’t know that I would’ve gone if he had. I’m tired of chasing my brother.”
“I got the impression something happened.” I heard my line hit the water before I could stop it. I shook my head. “It’s none of my business.”
“It kind of is now, isn’t it?” Francesca quirked a smile, one side of her mouth completely separate of the other. “And if you can find out what it was, you’re a better than detective than I am, because I’ve asked. Papa says Joseph chose to leave, but prays he’ll find his way home. Mama won’t discuss it at all. And if Ben knows, he’s never said. He and Joseph were really close once, but that’s gone too.”
“I’m sorry.” I understood fractured families and glue we dabbed on to try to repair them. It never stuck, never held fast. “Families are complicated. My dad was furious that I got married.”
“Why?” Francesca barked.
I wanted to hug her. Loyalty spread through every aspect of her being. She clearly couldn’t understand why anyone would be upset about their daughter marrying her brother.
I laughed. “It had nothing to do with Ben. I don’t think it even bothered him that he hadn’t met Ben. It had to do with me being impulsive, rash and dropping the ball with my sister, shirking responsibilities…. As I said families are complicated.”
Francesca nodded, but didn’t ask any more questions.
I gestured to the white canvas. “The varnish remover is a specialized soap, completely safe. The kids can use it themselves if you think they’d like to do this. I could bring several small canvases.”
“They’ll love it. Do you want to come present to them?” At my eager nod, she walked to her desk and flipped open a calendar. “Camp starts tomorrow, then we’ve got Sunday off, but I’ve got nothing special planned before lunch on Monday.”
“Perfect. I don’t even have a calendar to check. I’m wide open.” I picked up the painting and propped it beside the table.
“Ben’s busy right now, isn’t he? I messed up at Coccocino. Noemi should have been in charge, but Mama forced me and, it being my family’s place, no one had the guts to tell me what I didn’t know. And I knew nothing.”
“He is, but I can’t help either. Actually, I’m doing the opposite. The bandage on Ben’s hand? I did that by sharpening all his knives. I had no idea that some knives only had one sharpened edge.”
“See? Who knew?” Whether she knew or not about the knives or not, she got my humor, played along and made me at home with a single questions. I almost hugged her for it.
My biggest struggle with Italy was not the language. Ben was right, most people spoke English and I understood enough Italian to misinterpret almost every conversation. But nuance, humor, sarcasm, reversals — all that was lost. Everything was heavy and literal and lonely. Even Ben couldn’t help me. I was alone. I’d even called Amy a couple times, just to spar.
We sat in quietly for a few minutes filling the plastic boxes and I, finally, felt at ease.
“What’d you think of the hunt?” Francesca broke the silence.
“I loved it. Something about it made me feel a part of this land and your family like I hadn’t before.” I quirked a small smile. “Sitting here comes a close second.”
“I’m glad… I won’t be able to go for a couple weeks because camps run on the weekends too, but Ben can take you back up to hunt. Or wait and I promise, you, me and Natale will go my first free Saturday.”
“Deal.” I moved on to another box. “Alessandro’s a handsome guy.” I was back to fishing.
Francesca slid me a glance. “What did Ben say?”
“Nothing, I promise. In fact, when I asked him about you two, he very clearly told me keep away.”
Francesca blushed a beautiful rose color. It was warm against the black of her hair. A blush on me was more of a blotchy oil-mixed-with-water-affair, a discordant clash of color. I envied the whole cream and roses look.
“You can report back that there’s nothing to tell.” Francesca dropped her voice.
“I’m not reporting anything to Ben. I’ve already treaded on dangerous ground asking. But… I’m not so sure. I saw the way he looked at you. He watches you and guys don’t do that with friends or sisters of friends.”
My mind drifted back to Mike and the way he once looked at me. I’d been Francesca’s age when we were engaged and I could almost… I couldn’t actually. As I fished through the past, I realized that such a look had never passed between us. Sitting there I felt as if I’d lost something and it hurt more than it should because I should have always recognized its absence. I felt my pulse pick up with some imagined insult when the image morphed and expanded and Ben came into focus.
Even yesterday morning when he’d been annoyed… He had looked at me like nothing could or would change his love. Even never consciously noting it before, I recognized it now. There was a look. It was special and it needed to be savored, protected, cherished.
I rested there a minute and the giddiness of discovery passed as a flutter guilt wafted in. I was not protecting it now — Ben had asked me not to interfere.
I didn’t retreat. “I think if Alessandro thought one day that he couldn’t look at you like that — he’d miss it.”
“What do you mean?” Francesca’s hands stilled.
“You can’t miss what always in front of you.”
She lifted both brows. “You remind me of Emma.”
“A character in a book. A matchmaker.” Francesca sat back in the tiny chair, tipping it onto its back legs. “Mama isn’t demonstrative, instructive, I guess, and Papa… You know him. He’s a storyteller. If he can’t put it into a story, he’ll give a book and hope you learn it from there. He’s not very direct.”
I thought back to all the books Lucio was stacking next to my chair. I’d been sure there was a plan.
Francesca continued. “Anyway, Emma’s a matchmaker. Papa made me read her story when I was about ten to teach me humility, at least that’s what Papa said I was to learn. Then before I could go on a date, at sixteen by the way, he made me read Vanity Fair. That was supposed to teach me about hypocrisy of humans, the games we play and ways we use each other. Open my eyes and all that. But I haven’t dated anyone… I’ve been in love with Alessandro for fifteen years.”
“Maybe you need a plan.”
“It isn’t that I haven’t been trying to come up with one, you know. Do you think it’s fun waiting on the side lines hoping you’ll get noticed?”
“I know it isn’t.”
“Did Ben keep you waiting?”
I barked out a quick laugh. “Two weeks from meet to marry? No. Ben was the dream that swept me off the sidelines. He sees something in me I still don’t see and I pray everyday he won’t realize he imagined it all along.”
“What do you see in him?”
“In Ben…” I too leaned back in the chair. “ He’s someone bright and true and cares about all the right things that I can’t even see. The world is better with him near and the idea of him leaving was like the thought of losing an arm or a leg, or some part of me I wasn’t sure I could live without.”
“I’ve never heard love described that way, but it makes sense. That’s how I feel, even about Alessandro’s friendship. To risk that feels foolish.”
“I get that.” I dropped a pair scissors into the last box. “But you’re still on the sidelines.”
If you’d like to read more… Please check out A Portrait of Emily Price. As of yesterday, she’s out there! … Katherine