“Ok, I don’t know what’s worse,” Katie said as she flipped through her battered Rome guidebook. Apparently, this trip wasn’t as spontaneous as she claimed. “The look on Antonia’s face when we left, or the smell on this train. Seriously, I think someone died. My vote is on the one with the tweed blazer. I mean, it’s freaking August. Who wears a tweed blazer?”
“We’re almost there,” I said as I nudged her shoulder. “Quit complaining, Miss I-want-to-backpack-through-Italy. It’s been like an hour, and you’re already whining.”
“Yeah, yeah, it sounds wonderful 'til you smell it,” Katie said with a wave of her hand. The ride to Rome would take us about two hours by train and only cost eleven euros, which was a total steal considering how expensive gas was here if we had to drive.
“Mhhm. Focus. So, are there any life-changing art places we need to see?”
“I thought we’d just wing it."
“You’re not telling me something,” I said as I tried to get her to look at me. She just pretended to read the super interesting section on how excrement was removed from the streets of Ancient Rome. I stared at her a little longer to make sure she read the little bit about the latrines being flushed into their version of a sewer before she gave up and looked me in the eye.
“Well, I may have sent a text to Uncle Oscar at the train station saying that we were on our way to Rome. He paid for me to have an international plan if I promised to get you to Rome in one piece, but he said he would settle for a maximum of two if he had to.”
“Uncle stealer.” I shook my head. “You really want to shop, don’t you?”
“Is it that obvious? I mean, yeah the history is amazing, but your girl wants Prada shoes, so she can look amazing when she lights four years of her ex’s bullshit gifts on fire.”
“And you have to do it in eight hundred dollar shoes?”
“I feel like it would add to the moment, don’t you?” Katie asked, smiling up at me as she flipped to the shopping section of her book, her finger tapping the Prada store as if internalizing the location.
The rest of the train ride went by in a slow blur, the soft greens of the fields slowly morphing into the urban landscape of Rome. After hopping off at the second station, getting lost in the Piazza Navona, and walking an extra two miles to find the hotel, we walked into the Excella, thanking every lucky star for the invention of air conditioning.
“Buongiorno, kiddo!” Uncle Oscar called the second we walked into the lobby. It was all white marble and shades of gold with high, welcoming arches, and gorgeous floral arrangements all around the lounge area. Katie described it as her version of a neoclassical palace, but that made zero sense to me so I just nodded as we walked over to my uncle, who was dressed in a cream colored suit, a white button down, and loafers.
“Buongiorno,” Katie and I both said in unison as the bellman walked over to take our bags.
“Oh, no, we’re not staying here,” I said, gripping my bag tightly as the gentleman still insisted on taking it. I gave him a look that said “don’t mess with me, I'll fight you” before turning back to my uncle, who looked horrified. One night here would wipe out the rest of my spending money in one fell swipe of my credit card, and I was not having it.
“Yes you are, kiddo. Let the nice man take your bags.” He gestured toward the terrified bellhop to try again and the poor guy hesitated. “Giovanna and I paid for the suite next to ours so we could all spend some quality time together before we head off to her villa in Santorini.”
Katie practically shoved her bag into the bellhop’s hand the second time around before rushing over to Uncle Oscar and pulling him into a hug.
“You’re the best uncle ever!” she said before nodding for me to do the same.
“So it seems,” he said with a laugh before Katie stepped away.
“He’s amazing. Let’s marry into his family.”
We all paused for a moment, the silence giving Katie time to put two and two together.
“Oh, Sophie, I’m so sorry. I was just making a joke. I didn’t mean it.”
“No worries. I'm already over it."
“The room is yours for three days,” Uncle Oscar said, handing over the keys. “You may order room service whenever you like, and do your best not to raid the minibar. The wine there is sub-par at best.”
“Done!” Katie said before I could say he was being too generous.
“Ah, there’s my tesora now,” Uncle Oscar said, motioning to a gorgeous brunette with a short, curly bob, bright gray eyes, and a killer white dress that hit her just above the knee. “Ladies, may I introduce my fiancé, Giovanna Donati.”
“Fiancé?” I paused, looking again at his striking companion. “Oh, that’s amazing, Uncle Oscar! Why didn’t I know this?”
“She and I didn’t want to draw too much attention to the wedding. We’re looking to keep it a private affair,” he said before kissing his gorgeous Italian on the cheek.
“Good morning,” she said, her English flawless. “It’s so good to see you both. Your uncle has told me all about you. Especially you, Sophia. He was worried you wouldn’t be able to make the wedding.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I said, smiling over at the two of them. Yeah, sure, it was a bit sad realizing that my mother never would end up marrying Uncle Oscar, but he seemed happy, which is all I ever wanted for him. After so many years of being alone, it looked like he finally found the right woman to settle down with.
“Me either,” Katie said, not caring that she was fishing for an invitation. That was Katie for you.
“Well, the wedding is in two weeks. We didn’t want to wait,” Uncle Oscar said, pulling Giovanna into his side. “And then, we’re off to Paris for the honeymoon.”
“I’m so jealous of you life,” Katie said as they motioned for us to walk outside.
“You’re family now, Katie. It’s your life too,” Uncle Oscar said with a smile.
“Yeah, but you have the world at your feet,” she said, gesturing to the busy streets of Rome.
“It doesn’t always feel that way.” He reached for his fiancé’s hand, the two of us in tow. “But with her, it does.”
Oh my god. If it were any other person, I would have rolled my eyes, but I knew how long Uncle Oscar had waited for something like this and it nearly broke my heart. He finally found his happily ever after.
“So Giovanna,” I said, pulling a drooling Katie away from a shore store window. “How did you both meet?”
Uncle Oscar motioned for us to walk down the Piazza di Spagna, or the Spanish Steps as I remembered them. It seemed like all of Rome was fanning out before us in what Katie reminded me was a classic example of Roman Baroque style. Again, still had no idea what that meant, but it sounded really intelligent so I made sure to keep that in mind when I told my mom about Rome.
“It’s a funny story, really,” she said as we started down the sweeping staircase to the street. “Your uncle visited my shop three years ago, claiming to need a gift for his mother.”
“The one at the retirement home in Boca?” I asked, looking at Uncle Oscar.
He just shrugged. “It was first thing that came to mind.”
“At the time, I was primarily designing shoes, so his request for a pair of patent-leather heels in a size...what was it, darling?”
“Ten,” Uncle Oscar said with a laugh.
“No, no, I think elevens. Anyway, his request for a thousand dollar pair of sky-high heels for his retired mother led to a beautiful dinner in the Piazza Navona and an evening spent wandering the streets.”
“Three years ago?”
Giovanna smiled. “He left a few days later on business and that was the last I saw of your uncle for two years.”
“And you weren’t mad?” Katie asked, not holding back her shocked expression. “I don’t know about you, but two years is a long time to wait.”
“Well, I had my sons to look after and my business,” she said as she reached for Uncle Oscar’s hand. “These things are never as easy as the movies say, but when he returned to my store a few months ago...well, it was like he’d never left.”
“Oh, that’s so sweet,” I said as we walked past the Prada store Katie was always raving about. Not that we could even afford a keychain in there let alone shoes, but she still did her customary arm pull when we walked by.
“It even smelled overpriced and out of my league,” Katie whispered as we stopped in front of a little boutique just at the end of the Via Condotti. It was called La Violetta and was decorated in minimalist style with only one amazing pair of gorgeous purple shoes in the window. “Oh my Jesus, those shoes are my spirit animal.”
Thankfully, Giovanna and Uncle Oscar laughed because I half expected them to back away slowly and run for the nearest hiding place. Katie was in full-shopping mode.
“You like them?” Giavanna asked as she nodded toward the shoes.
“Like would be an understatement,” Katie said as she practically fangirled over them. “Purple is my post-breakup color and those shoes. Those will be my Josh-is-missing-out shoes.”
“Then they’re yours,” she said as she pulled open the front door and stepped inside.
“My what?” Katie asked as she looked toward me.
“This is Giovanna’s store,” Uncle Oscar said as he held the front door open for us. “She’s been dying to bring you girls here ever since I mentioned you two, so be nice and play along. She wants to take you to see next year’s spring collection.”
“So these sons of hers...”
I shook my head and pushed Katie inside the store before she embarrassed us even more.
“What? It’s not a crazy thought.”
“Mhmm,” I said as I looked around the all-white store with chocolate-colored hardwood floors, stark white walls, two plush white couches, and a wall covered in cubbies harboring this season’s shoe selection.
“The clothing line is toward the back, but we’re known for our patent leather shoe,” Giovanna said, a girl in a white shirt, tight white jeans, and a pair of purple flats following close behind her. “Katie, this is my associate, Vera. She’ll bring you whatever you’d like.”
“You’re too kind,” I said to Giovanna as Katie rushed off to the shoes in the window, presumably talking her ear off about the breakup and how amazing those shoes would undoubtedly make her feel.
“Oscar mentioned the breakup before you arrived. If a pair of shoes can mend a heart, those would be the ones,” she said as she reached for my hand. “Now, come. I want to show you the new collection.”
I looked back to Uncle Oscar, who was patiently lounging on one of the couches as Katie modeled the shoes for him, and to his credit, he seemed to be happy. A little tired, but happy. I made a mental note to ask later how retirement was going.
“We decided that this collection was going to be more whimsical compared to our previous ones, but I think we’ve really outdone ourselves this time. Are you ready?” Giovanna asked as we walked downstairs and into the studio.
“Yes!” I said as I tried not to squeal the second the gauzy purple curtains were thrown back. “Oh my god, Giovanna, this is amazing.”
The collection was a variety of purple hues, mainly pale lavenders for spring. The dresses were all clean cuts and lines, accenting the mannequins’ waists and billowing out in varied lengths depending on the formality of its purpose.
“These are some of my son’s designs,” she said, motioning toward the wall, which held three floor-length evening gowns, all of which looked incredibly expensive. And purple. “The one on the far left was designed for a princess of Spain and the middle one is the centerpiece of the collection when we showcase in Milan.”
“Wow,” I said as I walked toward a different dress in the collection. A wedding dress. “Is that yours?”
“Shh, we can’t tell him it’s down here or else he’ll sneak a peak,” she said before excusing herself for a moment. Someone was calling her from the store.
I looked over the simple wedding gown with its Queen Ann neckline, A-line cut, and gorgeous veil. What? I watched Say Yes to the Dress. I knew a designer wedding dress when I saw one.
“What are you doing down here?” a voice asked the second I started looking through the rack of clothes closest to the shoes. I turned to see the spitting image of Giovanna only in male form and many years younger.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I’m a friend of Giovanna. She just stepped upstairs to speak to someone.”
Her son was handsome with his dark coifed hair, simple white dress shirt that was tailored to his thin frame, and cream colored pants that pulled the ensemble together in that casual-by-professional way. He gave me a questioning look before offering his hand.
“Luciano Donati.” I smiled and shook it, trying not to seem overwhelmed that I was meeting a high-class designer.
“Sophia Penn. Your designs are beautiful. Your mother was just showing me the collection, but I have to say your evening gowns are my favorite so far.”
“You like them?” he said, his face revealing a small smile. “I have a few designs I’m working on that perhaps you’d also want to see.”
I followed him past the collection and into a sketching studio covered in photographs of La Violetta’s past gowns, framed sketches, and a few photographs of flowers and purple things for inspiration. “I apologize if my English isn’t as good as my mother’s, but I’ll do my best.”
“Oh, no. Your English is perfect.”
Again, he gave me a surprised look, betraying a youthful innocence.
“Thank you.” Luciano nodded his head over toward a long wooden sketching table covered in drafts of gowns and fabric swatches. “The one I’m working on is for the summer collection. It will be light and airy, but it will still give the feel of being covered in something luxurious.”
“Seriously, that sounds amazing. How long have you been designing?”
“Not long. It was my boyfriend who encouraged me to try. He always said I had an eye for color, and I’m an architect, not an artist. But one day, I snuck down into the studio and found my mother’s old sketches. I redrew a few of them, practicing over and over again. I never stopped."
"So your mom hired you?"
"It took some convincing but she reminded me that it was better to risk what I could do for what I love to do."
“She sounds amazing,” I said as I picked up one of the sketches. The dress was provocative and downright sexy, with its deep-V neckline and hip-to-floor length slit, but it didn’t seem to match the rest of the collection, which is why I think it ended up in the discard pile.
“She is,” he said as he escorted me back. “I’m happy she found someone who realizes it.”
“Ah, there you are!” Giovanna exclaimed with a very happy Katie right behind her.
“LOOK!” she shouted as she strode toward me. “Giovanna said I should have been a model.” And honestly, with the way she was working those bold purple heels, she looked the part. “Can I wear them forever?”
“You look amazing, but no. You'll have blisters for days,” I said as I watched her expression change from look-at-me to look-at-him. And by him, I meant the Italian designer by my side.
“Katie, this is my son Luciano,” Giovanna said, gesturing toward us. "Luciano, Katie."
I watched as he physically stiffened as if scared of what she would say or do next. Maybe Giovanna warned him ahead of time.
“Hi!” she said with a wave as I walked to her side. “Single?”
“Boyfriend,” I said softly before she made an ass of all of us.
“Should have known,” she said as she looked around at the collection.
“So did you find anything you like?” Giovanna asked as she went through a rack of tea length dresses to her right.
“Everything is amazing. If I could afford it, I’d buy it all,” I said as I looked over at the wedding dress one more time. It was a reminder that in a few weeks, Uncle Oscar would be the happiest man on Earth, and the thought made me smile. Giovanna seemed like his perfect match.
“You girls should pick something out to wear to the wedding,” she said casually, as if this weren’t her prized secret collection worth thousands of dollars.
“We can’t,” Katie said, surprising the heck out of me. “You’ve already been more than generous.”
Giovanna just smiled and waved her hand. “We’ve already sent the designs to be made, so these will never get worn. It would be no trouble.”
“Are you sure?” I asked as my eyes met the most beautiful dress I had even seen. It was sleeveless Grecian gown in pale lavender with an almost scandalous v-neckline and a hem that would hit me just to the knee. I was beginning to understand how someone could fall in love with a dress.
“I know I should say no, but I’m dying to try that dress on,” I said as she followed the direction I was looking.
“You too, Katie. Find something you’d like to wear.” Giovanna swiped the hanger from the rack and walked me back toward the changing area I presumed was for the actual models.
“Done!” I heard her shout before I walked behind a curtain. “Luke, mind helping a girl out. I need to look ah-mazing.”
The rest of Katie’s conversation got cut off as Giovanna helped me into the gown so that she could see what would need to be altered.
“It’s a perfect fit,” she exclaimed the moment the dress fell over my curves. “Do you like it?” Giovanna smiled at me through the mirror, but I was a bit lost for words. It had been a long time since I felt this beautiful. “No, no, don’t cry. Here.” She held out a tissue so I could blot my eyes.
“It’s beautiful, Giovanna,” I said as I stepped off the pedestal and hugged her. “You know I’m not really his niece, right? You don’t have to do all this.”
“Yes, I know, my dear. You’re more like his daughter,” she said as she hugged me back. “He loves you very much, which means I hope that someday you and I will be just as close. You mean a great deal to him, Sophia. More than you know. For the longest time, he spoke of you so often I wondered if I should be jealous, but then I found out about your father and how he stepped in to fill the void. I want to be there for you too.”
“Thank you,” I whispered, trying to pull myself together. For a while, it felt like I had no family at all, and now, it was steadily growing by the day. “He’s lucky to have found you.”
“Ok, not to brag, but this dress makes me look like I’m a lady,” Katie said, pushing past the curtain. “Oh! I’m sorry. I’m ruining something. Ah, uh, bye.” Katie threw back the curtain but it snagged at the top, so she couldn’t quite shut it.
“No, no, it’s ok. We were just having a heart to heart. Come here,” I said, pointing to the pedestal. “Let’s see this dress.”
Katie walked over the to carpeted block, heels and all, turning so that we could see the violet hued gown with a sweetheart neckline that hugged her chest until it flared prettily around her waist, just hitting her an inch above the knee.
“See,” Katie said with another twirl. “These shoes plus this dress. Muah.” She made that Italian kiss gesture as she looked over her reflection. “Ok, so now how do I get Josh to see me looking this great? Because he needs to know that I’m doing better than he is in this breakup.”
“Giovanna, would you mind if we borrowed your son for a moment?” I asked as Katie and I gave one another that look that said we were reading each other’s minds.
“You’ll have to ask him. Luciano?”
Her son walked in a moment later, and we filled him in on the plan.
“The one who broke your heart?” he asked, looking to Katie for confirmation.
“Then a rooftop picture looking out over Rome with a male Italian friend would make him jealous, yes?”
“One mind. I swear,” she said gesturing between them like they had established some mental connection in the last half hour.
Giovanna excused herself, while the rest of us took the elevator all the way to the roof.
“Over here,” he said, as we followed him toward a spot that overlooked the Piazza di Spagna and the Trinitá dei Monti.
“Oooo, he’s going to be so jealous,” I said as I used Katie’s phone to take a few pictures, one even including a chaste kiss to her cheek as she looked like she was living her best life. Granted, she was probably thinking about her shoes and he was thinking about his boyfriend, but no one we knew would know.
“One of you both too, yes?” he asked as they stepped away from each other. “It will be more convincing because everyone knows you’re in Rome together.”
“Yes, please,” we shouted before striking atrociously tacky poses in our new dresses because today we were Italian models on a photo shoot on the roof of Rome and being in another country wasn’t suddenly going to make us start doing that shoulder-hugging pose everyone else did. We even threw in a little Charlie’s Angels for fun.
“Ok, that should be good,” Katie shouted as we walked back toward the elevator. “I’m going to post these casually, saying something simple but amazing in Italian.” She looked over at Luciano. “Your help is much appreciated on that one, Luke.”
He took her phone and typed something for her to use.
“It says, Rome is everything I need. I suspect he will understand the double meaning, yes?”
“Perfect. It's perfect.” Katie added a filter and some hashtags for good measure before sending it out into the world. “New shoes and revenge photos. It doesn't get better than this.”
“So you like the dresses?” Giovanna asked as we walked back into the studio. There was a gown cover over the wedding dress, meaning the Uncle Oscar was wandering around here along with her.
“She should get shoes too, tesora,” Uncle Oscar said as he picked up a simple pair of deep purple heels with a slightly lighter shade on the soles. Simple, but elegant.
“Of course,” she said as she walked into the storeroom for the size. “8, yes?” I looked down at my bare feet, impressed that she was spot on with my size.
“Wow,” I said, the moment I slipped the shoes on. The leather was buttery soft and even just taking a few steps I felt the difference in how they made my feet feel compared to my other heels. “I love them.”
“Then they’re yours!” Giovanna said as she clapped her hands together.
“Ok, so how do I ask if the other son is gay?” Katie whispered the moment everyone was out of earshot.