Rosalia's Bittersweet Pastry Shop (7 page)

“Wait, Madre. Don't go yet. I want to tell you what happened to me.”
“You remember?”
Rosalia nodded. “I never forgot. It's just that I tried to push it out of my mind. I didn't want to remember what happened to me in that cave.” She closed her eyes tightly as if she was still trying to block the horrible memories.
“You don't need to tell me, my child.”
“I think I must if I ever hope to find peace again.”
Madre Carmela nodded. Sitting down on the edge of the bed, she took Rosalia's hand in hers and held it tightly as she listened to Rosalia recount the nightmare that would forever change her life.
here was a young man who came into my father's tailor shop one day. He needed to have his Sunday dress pants hemmed. I was at the shop that day, helping my father press the clothes that he had finished tailoring. We took turns in my family, helping my father at the shop. My mother and I knew how to sew, so we would help with some of the basic stitching the clothes needed. My brother, Luca, who is nineteen—two years older than me—had been my father's apprentice, but when he turned eighteen, he decided he wanted to become a priest. We had a seminary in one of the neighboring towns, and that was where he went to live and study. So he was not able to help in the shop so much.
“Luca and I were very close from the time we were toddlers. We were always hand-in-hand, skipping and singing. And whenever one of us was done with our chores at home, or even in my father's shop, we would help the other. We were all very close in my family.” Rosalia paused for a moment. Her eyes filled with tears.
“Would you like me to get you a glass of water?” Madre Carmela asked.
“No, that's all right. Thank you. I'm sorry. You must be patient with me. It hurts so much that I have been away from my family for this long, and now that my memory has been coming back, it hurts even more to remember the many good times we shared.”
“You must let those memories sustain you, my child. And you will be with them again soon, so there's no need to feel such despair,” Madre Carmela said softly. Rosalia thought she could hear the good nun forcing back tears.
“As I was saying, we were a very close family. My mother gave birth to another child when I was ten. Cecilia. Mamma and Papà let Luca and me choose the name. I'll never forget the first time I laid eyes on my baby sister. She was born with a full head of black hair, just like mine. She was so sweet, and she only grew sweeter as she became older. Even little Cecilia did her part in Papà's shop by dusting and sweeping. Luca had made a short broom for her.” Rosalia laughed. “Every time we watched her sweep, we giggled. She took her work seriously and was proud to do her part in our family.
“So the day this young man came into my father's shop, I was alone at the counter while Papà went out to buy fabric. My father had taught me how to take measurements and pin clothes so that when he needed to leave the shop as he did that day, I could handle the customers. So this man came in. He looked to be in his early twenties. I found out later he was twenty-three. I asked him to step into the dressing room and try his pants on so that I could pin the hem. He kept staring at me, and at first I thought nothing of it since I had been accustomed to the boys in my village looking at me. But when I was pinning the hem of his pants, I glanced up to ask him if the length that I was taking in for the pants was fine, and he had this strange look in his eyes. Something about it sent shivers down my spine. I had to ask him twice if the hem length was fine before he answered me.
“I was relieved when my father returned to the shop while the man was changing back into his street clothes. I remember when he stepped out of the dressing room, he seemed mad when he saw my father.
“Papà told me I could go back to finishing my pressing. Though I was in the back of the shop, I could hear the young man give my father his name for his receipt. Marco Salerno. He was making small talk with Papà, asking him how long he'd had the shop and if his whole family helped him. My father answered him pleasantly, and I was relieved my father didn't give him my name when he said his daughter helped him as well as my other siblings and mother. Marco then took his receipt and wished Papà a nice day.
“I went to my father's shop three to four times a week, and ever since the day Marco first came to the shop, he would walk by and look into our windows. And whenever Papà stepped out, Marco would come visit me. I could tell he was lurking around outside and waiting for my father to leave. The first time he came to visit me, I politely responded to his questions about how I was and agreed with him about the weather we were having. But I continued doing my work, hoping he would see I was busy and had no time or interest in talking to him. He asked me my name on that first visit. I didn't want to tell him, but I didn't want to be rude either.” Rosalia stopped talking and shook her head. “Sometimes being polite is the most dangerous thing one can do.” Rosalia paused a moment before continuing.
“So I told Marco my name. On his fourth visit, he asked me if I would take a walk with him in the piazza that was a few streets over from the tailor shop. I told him I couldn't leave the shop unattended. He told me it would just be for a few minutes, and probably no one would even come by since it was almost time for midday dinner, and people would be preparing to eat rather than worrying about getting their clothes tailored. But I told him my father trusted me, and I must watch the shop. In an instant, the sweet expression Marco maintained whenever he talked to me changed into the same angry expression he had had when he'd seen my father had returned to the shop that first day he'd come by.
“But he must've noticed the alarmed look on my face, because then he laughed and said, ‘All right, Rosalia. You are a good daughter. How about I come by your house on Saturday, after siesta, and ask your father if you may accompany me to the cinema?'
“ ‘I'm sorry, but my father would not allow it,' I said.
“ ‘Why not? I come from a respectable family, and I am asking him for his permission before taking you out. What harm can there be in going to the cinema?'
“I wanted to tell him that only a moment ago he had had the audacity to ask me to take a walk with him in the piazza while my father was away, but I dared not. He'd shown how quickly his mood could change, and something inside me warned me not to stir his temper.
“So instead I said to him, ‘Marco, it's not you. My father does not wish young men to begin courting me until I am nineteen, and he doesn't approve of the cinema.'
“He asked me, ‘How old are you now?'
“When I told him seventeen, I couldn't help smiling a little, feeling as if I'd won.
“Again, Marco's face flared with anger. He put his hands in his trousers' pockets and began circling the front of the store. I could see he was desperately trying to think of a way around my age.
“Then he said, ‘Maybe if I talked to your father he would have a change of heart?'
“Marco's voice sounded desperate. I didn't want to encourage him. Though I was afraid to be honest with him, I knew I had to, for he was determined to court me.
“So I said, ‘Marco, you seem like a nice boy, but I am also not ready to be courted. I'm sorry.' I kept my gaze lowered as I said this.
“ ‘I am a man,
a boy!' he shouted as he pounded his fist on the counter, causing me to take a quick step back.
“I held my hands up, saying, ‘I did not mean to offend you, Marco. I'm sorry. Please, calm down.'
He shook his head fiercely and said, “‘You are just afraid of your father, Rosalia. I can see that.'
“In my head, I was screaming,
No, I'm afraid of you!
But I refused to let him see just how fearful I was.
“ ‘Don't worry, Rosalia. We will find a way to be together,' he told me before coming around the counter and toward me. I continued backing up, but he firmly placed his hand on my wrist, squeezing so hard that I had no choice but to stop.
“He lowered his face near mine, and I squirmed, turning my head to the side. But he still managed to plant a kiss on my lips. In that moment, my own fury was unleashed and, with my free hand, I struck him across the face. He let go of me and rubbed the cheek I had slapped. I ran to the front of the shop and opened the door, screaming,‘Get out! I never want to see you in here again!'
“I began to relax when he walked toward the door. He was about to step outside, but then hesitated and said, ‘You are not feeling well today. I am not upset with you. I'm sure you will be feeling better the next time I visit.'
“And with that he left. I closed the door and locked it. My body was shaking all over. When my father returned, I told him what had happened. I was terrified of Marco, especially after that day, and I didn't want to be alone at the shop the next time he came by. I also told my father how I'd noticed Marco was spying on us every day, waiting for his chance to come visit me when I was alone in the shop.
“So the next day, my father told me to stay at home. My brother, Luca, was visiting from the seminary. Papà asked Luca to accompany him to the shop. I suspected they were going to warn Marco to stay away from me.
“That evening, when my father and brother came home, Luca told me, ‘Don't worry. That beast will no longer bother you.'
“I breathed a sigh of relief, but I still felt a bit uneasy. Marco had managed to give me a good scare. My parents thought it best for me to stay away from the tailor shop for a few weeks just in case Marco was crazy enough not to heed my father's and brother's threats to stay away from me. This way, he would see I was no longer at the shop.
“I asked Luca one day what he and Papà had said to Marco.
“He said, ‘I told him I would break his legs if he came near you again, and Papà said he would make sure no one in town would ever hire him for any work.'
“I asked Luca how he could've threatened to hurt Marco since he was studying to be a priest.
“He said, ‘I know I sinned, but I went crazy thinking of how he made advances toward you when you were all alone. Besides, he needed to realize that we were serious.'
“Luca had always been my greatest defender. When we were children, a few boys and girls were teasing me because I was the shortest one in class. One day, Luca heard the kids teasing me. They had formed a ring around me and were taking turns pushing me so hard that I fell each time. Luca ran over and yelled at them and told them if he heard them make fun of me or lay a hand on me again, they would be sorry.
“So a few weeks went by and all seemed fine. I hadn't seen Marco, and my father told me he had not noticed him skulking around outside the shop. We thought he'd understood that he was never to show his face again. I told Papà I could go back and help him, but he would only allow it if my mother or Luca were with me. He still regretted leaving me alone that afternoon in the shop when Marco kissed me.
“One morning, I was hanging laundry to dry in our yard. My mother and father were at the shop, and they had taken my little sister, Cecilia, with them. When I was left alone in the house, I would turn up the radio very high and sing along to the music while I did my chores.”
Rosalia stopped talking as she squeezed her eyes shut. Tears still managed to stream down her face.
“If this is too much for you, Rosalia, we can stop for today.” Madre Carmela spoke in a gentle tone.
Rosalia opened her eyes. “No, I need to get it all out now.”

Va bene.
All right. Go on when you are ready.” Madre Carmela waited patiently.
“Carla Boni's song ‘Mambo Italiano' was on the radio. Oh! How I loved that song! Luca and I would always dance to it, making Cecilia laugh. Even Mamma and Papà would join in sometimes. So I was singing that song as I was hanging sheets I had just laundered. I was so wrapped up in the song that I didn't notice the shadow on the other side of the sheet. And then without warning, Marco pulled the sheet off the clothesline and was standing before me with the most malicious smile. I almost screamed from the fright he gave me.
“I asked him, ‘What are you doing here, Marco? How . . . how did you find out where I live?' My heart was pounding so hard against my chest. I don't know how I even managed to get those words out.
“He smiled as he said, ‘I followed your father home one night.' He actually looked quite proud of himself.
Sei pazzo!
' I yelled.
“He calmly said, ‘I am not crazy, Rosalia. Please don't ever say that again. I'm sorry if I scared you, but surely you must see this was the only way for me to find you. Why haven't you been at the shop? It wasn't because of me, was it?'
“I told him, ‘My father and brother warned you to keep your distance from me. You should leave before they come home. They will be back any minute now.'
“Naturally, I was lying. Luca was back at the seminary, and Papà and Mamma would be at the shop until our midday meal, which we always had at one o'clock. It was only ten in the morning. Worse, I suspected Marco knew that my father wouldn't be back until later since he had continued to spy on us and had even followed my father home. But I was desperate, and I hoped that the insane part of Marco would perhaps believe my lie.
“He didn't seem to be deterred and said, ‘That's all right, Rosalia. I will wait for your parents. I realize now I handled matters the wrong way that afternoon I last saw you. I should have come to your home first and spoken to your father. Look, I even brought something for you and your mother.'
“Marco lifted a small box from a
“I looked away and picked up the sheet Marco had tossed to the ground. I threw it over the clothesline and began smoothing out the wrinkles from it. I was about to place a clothespin on one corner of the sheet when Marco's hand closed over mine.
“ ‘You are working too hard here. Your hands are dry. I could give you a better life, Rosalia—an easier one. You haven't even looked inside the box. Have you ever had pastries like these before? '
“I couldn't resist stealing a sidelong glance at the box that he now held open. The box was filled to the rim with the most beautiful cookies I had ever seen. A few were shaped like flowers; others were shaped like fish, and a few were oval shaped, but I wasn't sure what these last ones were supposed to be. Each of the cookies had a slit cut into it, and contained a filling. I was so in awe of the cookies that I forgot about the sheet I was hanging and that Marco's hand was still on mine.

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