The First Chapter (an excerpt)
The lights had been dimmed in the salone, where a small crowd of Americans ranging between seventeen and eighteen had camped out on the floor with fleece blankets and hypoallergenic pillows from home. A Room with a View played on the school’s new flat screen TV, mounted on the grand piano, an out of tune Steinway which no one ever used. Meanwhile, the Americans yawned, sent text messages, and conducted taste test trials of Italian potato chips against their only locally available American counterpart: the Pringle. In fact, one of the students had become so fond of these chips that she had composed an ode to them and posted it on her Facebook page:
“Dear G-d, thank you so much for the Pringle
Because we can find them everywhere in Rome
With weird Italian food like tripe or deep-fried artichokes, we do not have to mingle
When I open a can, it smells like home.”
As the film neared its end, a young man in the audience, slim, curly-headed, noticeably handsome, tiptoed through the dark to take refuge in the dining hall next door. He was followed by a woman roughly twenty years older than he. When they were safely outside, the young man declared: “Aunt Jess, can’t we go somewhere fun? I’m dying to get out of here!”
The trouble was Aunt Jess didn’t know anywhere fun, or even what “somewhere fun” meant to a seventeen-year-old. “But you promised me tiramisu,” she said, trying to sound as if she had a sense of humor.
“And you’ll get it,” he sighed. “Trust me. That’s the one thing we’re always sure of getting around here.”
This was Henry Jankelowitz, whom his aunt had recalled with some affection as a plain, pensive adolescent with an unfortunate and awkward tendency to blurt out his thoughts in public. That tendency had not changed, though Jessica was unnerved to see how much his looks had improved in the intervening years. His skin was clear and smooth, his hair dappled with gold streaks, his body toned thanks to a job caddying at a country club, his eyes a glistening honey brown. She could easily see him on the cover of a teen magazine.
“So, you’re not having fun here?” she said cautiously, feeling that even though she had nothing to do with it, his lack of entertainment was her fault.
“Oh, I love Rome,” he said quickly. “But they hardly ever let us out of this beautiful villa to see it. I guess I would go on my own, but I don’t know my way around yet, and my Italian’s rotten. And the other kids on the program…” He sighed. “I’ve got nothing in common with any of them. I don’t get it. It’s a study abroad program in Italy. I mean, wouldn’t you think even one other of these guys would be gay?”
“You worked so hard to come here,” she said, hoping she sounded sympathetic. “Give it a chance.”
“Aunt Jess, couldn’t I ditch this place and come stay with you?”
Jessica, who was having trouble remembering that she was Aunt Jessica, tried not betray her alarm. She suspected she ought to say something reassuring, but what? She was a failure as a member of the family, as a member of anything for that matter, and she knew it. This was their second meeting since Henry’s arrival in Italy four days earlier, a fact that Jessica noted with some measure of embarrassment, though not enough to invite him to share her home, her sacred refuge from the world.