“And you’re sure we should do this?” I asked as we stood at the gate of Ari’s family villa, right off the Via Parataio. It hadn’t taken us long to get here from Nonna’s, maybe three hours to Florence if you didn’t count that we got lost finding the right public transit bus to Fiesole. All in all, I counted it as a successful adventure. But now that we were here, I was starting to wish it took longer or that I’d at least prepared what I was going to say.
“Well, I’m not turning back now, so I’ll just tell her my name is Sophie because I refuse to do all of that again on an empty stomach,” Katie said, readjusting her duffel strap before nodding toward the sloped driveway.
“And what’re we going to say? Hi, we’re the American girls your son chased halfway around L.A. when we got piss drunk. Mind cooking and showing us embarrassing baby pictures so we feel better about ourselves? Yeah, that’s normal.”
“Would you stop worrying?” Katie whispered as we approached the front of the house, our feet planting in the gravel drive the second we realized how breathtaking everything was. The villa was straight out of a postcard, with its white-stucco walls, terra-cotta roof, and a panoramic view of the mountains that seemed to seclude the property in an abundance of greenery. “You know. On second thought, let’s double check that we have the right...”
“Sophia? Katie?” a very Italian voice called, sending my heart into a mild panic attack. A petite woman, maybe a few years older than my mom came running over, her arms out stretched as if we were her long lost relatives finally home after a long journey. “Oh, you really came. I’m so glad you did.”
Not wanting to be rude, I air kissed her and accepted the hug. Katie, however, wasn’t hiding her shell-shocked face as she looked from the house, to Ari’s mother, and then back to the road as if we’d all walked through some portal to an alternate dimension where I was meeting Ari’s parents as his girlfriend and not...well, whatever I was. Was there a title for someone who hopped on the first plane out of the country to avoid a date?
“You too, you too,” she said, waving Katie over for a big hug. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
“You have?” we both asked in unison, which made Mrs. Bellisario smile even more.
“Yes, of course. My Ari told me all about your adventures in the Los Angeles.”
Katie mouthed “the Los Angeles” while holding her hand over her heart before following Ari’s mother inside.
For some reason, being here was different than I expected, but in no way did I think it’d look exactly like Ari’s home in Bel Air. From the aged hardwood floors to the paintings on the wall, it was like stepping back in time, and I felt the air leave my lungs when I realized how important his family and his home must be to him. He really was something else.
“Earth to Sophie,” Katie said, waving her hand in front of my face.
“What?” I asked, blinking past the memory. “Sorry. This...your home is very beautiful, Mrs. Bellisario.”
“Please call me Antonia,” she said, smiling as she looked toward a family portrait on the wall. “Would you like something to eat? I may have a few things I can scrounge up before siesta.”
“Actually,” Katie said, forcing a yawn. “Would you mind if I lay down for a little? Travel takes so much out of me.”
I shot her a look that said I knew what she was doing and not to touch anything fragile as Antonia told her where our room would be. As soon as Katie made it to the steps, Antonia reached for my hand and pulled me to the kitchen. Unlike Ari’s, hers was a little older, with wooden counters and a vintage stove and fridge.
“So you’ve been visiting your family?” Antonia asked as she set out two glasses for wine and a plate of meat and cheese on the table outside, the mountains creating a beautiful backdrop to our conversation.
“Yes. My family owns a vineyard in Siena, so I’ve been meeting relatives I never even realized existed. It’s been...” I paused for a moment. How did I sum up everything in one word? It was so much more than words.
Antonia reached for my hand, her green eyes reminding me of one very good reason why I was so nervous to be here. She knew Ari better than anyone. She would know what I did.
“It’s ok, Sophia. You don’t need to mind your words around me. If you’re happy, then be happy. My son knows how important family is.” She paused, making a face. “Or he should. He doesn’t always listen to his mama.”
For some reason, I felt my whole body relax as if a weight was pulled from my shoulders. Everything felt like it was going to get better.
“So he told you about me?” I asked, my voice a little softer than I was used to. “I can’t imagine what he’d say.”
Antonia pursed her lips, smiling as she looked off toward the house and then at me.
“He said you were both good friends, but perhaps I read more into his words than he expected. I know my boy.” She shook her head as if remembering something. “He’s never wanted me to meet his friends before.”
“I don’t suppose many of them end up going to Italy,” I said, trying to play off how kind she was being, but Antonia shook her head profusely.
“My Ari is very private about his personal life. He tells me very little, but he was sure you would visit.”
“I have to admit, I almost didn’t. If Katie weren’t here, I don’t think I would have come alone,” I said, looking toward the window where I thought our room would be. Of course, Katie was there giving me a thumbs up before rushing off to snoop. I really worried for her.
“She has spirit, that one. A little too curious for her own good, but I left out a few of Ari’s baby photos incase she wanders,” Antonia said before taking a swig of wine as if to say she expected all of this.
“She means well,” I said, letting myself laugh. Maybe Ari really was waiting for me to find myself. Maybe he really did like me and he was using his mother to test the water.
“So when will you go back?”
Ah hah! So she is fishing for information.
“I’m not sure.” I set down my wine glass, trying to find the right answer. “I have a job offer at a place I’ve always dreamed of, but I don’t if that's what I want now. I wasn't happy as an intern, and I don't know if I should settle for unhappy anymore.”
“It can be heartbreaking,” she said with a shrug. “My husband, god rest his soul, was a businessman. Worked too much, said very little. It was hard for him to see what he was working for in the end.”
“But he had you.” I thought of the vows printed next to her bed back in California.
“Yes, but it was a burden we all were forced to share, even my Ares.”
“Oh,” I said, smiling. “I didn’t realize Ari was a nickname.”
“The mercurial war god.” Antonia gave a secretive smile. “Do you know why we named him this?”
I shook my head.
“His father and I were traveling out in Athens, by the Temple of Ares, for our honeymoon when he gave a swift kick to my belly, one so hard I...”
The sound of a phone ringing made my heart stop as Antonia paused, looking over toward the kitchen before excusing herself. She smiled over at me before turning away, the her dress fluttering as she paced back and forth.
As I waited, I wondered what life must have been like here or wherever their first home had been. I hadn’t asked what Ari’s father had done, but I know it was significant enough to give him a trust fund. And this house was something else. It had to be expensive. It was like living in a kingdom above the world.
“Sophie,” Antonia said before waving me over, and fear struck my heart two fold. There was only one possible reason for me talking to someone on that phone, and it had my hands shaking as I stood. Did he have psychic powers? How the heck did he know I was here? What would I even say? Hi, so I’m still not coming back but hope you are having a good life. Yeah, that’s one for the grandkids.
“She’s right here, polpetto.” Antonia held out the phone as I forced a smile while she went to go get the dishes.
“Sophie?” Ari’s voice was like a sledgehammer to any armor I had left, and I felt my body sigh when I realized he was still a possibility.
“I see you’re learning Italian fast,” Ari said, laughing softly. God, his laugh was unbearably addictive.
“I am.” I smiled as Antonia pointed to the phone and gave a thumbs up. My god, she was the cutest.
“I’m glad you visited. My mother gets so lonely there. She begged me for that big house, and now all she wants are grandchildren to fill it,” he said, before coughing. “I mean. You know, when I meet someone and date them for an appropriate amount of time.”
“It’s ok, Ari. I get it,” I said, laughing as Antonia pointed to herself. Guess this was it. “Hey, I think your mom wants to talk, but it was good hearing from you. I...”
The word sorry lingered on my tongue for a second, but I couldn’t say it. I wasn’t sorry.
My heart stopped for a second. Was this where he says he missed me and that he was waiting for me to get back so we could give us a second try?
“I just wanted you to know before you hear from anyone else...”
Oh god, no. Is he seriously right now? This was fine. Everything was fine. Damn him, he was mercurial.
“You’re back with Naomi, aren’t you?”
“She’s going through a lot right now, and she needs me.”
“Here you go,” I said, handing the phone to Antonia, who looked like she was going to wring her son’s neck. “He’s all yours.”
“Why don’t you head upstairs?” Antonia said, covering the end of the receiver. “Dinner will be at seven.”
I don’t know how I functioned so well walking up the wooden stairs or down the hall lined with pictures of Ari as a boy. I really don’t know how I was breathing with the way my heart collapsed in my chest, but I made it to Katie before the tears came.
“Oh honey, no.” She pushed the bedroom door closed before holding me to her chest, my body falling into hers. I needed a hug. A really long hug.
“He’s back with Naomi.”
“Then he’s a...”
“He’s nothing. He did what any person would do. People get back with their exs all the time,” I said, stepping away. Katie’s bag was on the bed closest to the door, so I flopped on the twin bed by the window, watching as the trees billowed in the wind. This was his home, and I was nothing to him. Why did I even bother? “Apparently she needs him. I guess that’s what really matters to him.”
“I know, sweetie. Sometimes these things don’t always work out the way we think they should. He's not your person.”
"I don’t get it. I don't get him," I said as I resisted the ugly cry waiting in my chest. I would not cry over him.
“Maybe you should just sleep it off,” Katie said as she sat beside me, rubbing my shoulder. “It helps.”
I nodded and turned away, curling up on my side and looking out the window. My heart hurt more this time, but it only showed me that life wasn’t worth trying to plan. Sometimes things weren’t meant to be.
“I come with peace offerings,” Antonia said, holding a plate of homemade cookies.
Katie and I sat up, blinking past the sleep in our eyes before looking at Ari’s mother as she walked in, sitting on the edge of my bed. She had changed into a floral yellow sundress, and I couldn’t see past the uncanny resemblance between her and her son.
“Oh, you didn’t need to make us anything,” I said, praying I could keep it together.
“My son is a fool and here, we apologize with food.” She held the tray out without asking if I was hungry, so it looked like I was having a cookie. “I don’t know who this Naomi is, but I don’t like her. He should be with you.”
“Amen,” Katie said, before I laughed. Who would have thought his mother was going to side with us? “She a class-A...er bad person with a...”
Antonia looked a little puzzled before Katie shoved a whole cookie in her mouth as if to say she gave up.
“She’s trying not to curse,” I said with a shrug.
“I see. Well then I’m sure I agree with your sentiment. I hope you will both feel welcome staying here regardless of Ari’s actions. He is very stressed with his new work. I hope he will come visit to clear his head.”
“He’s not really to blame,” I said, frowning. “I was the one who left, not him.”
“But family is important.” She squeezed my hand. “If he cannot see this, then neither of you is ready to love.”
I frowned. I wanted her to have some sage Italian advice about what to do, but there it was. He wasn’t ready to be in a relationship with me either.