She is the only one in the class who speaks Italian better than me. I close my eyes to listen to her conjugate verbs in the present conditional, porterei, porteresti, porterebbe, porteremmo, portereste, porterebbero. She talks with a real accent and rolls the words around in her mouth like things to be savored.
I would like to carry forever the images of her Roman cheekbones, the arches of her feet peeking from blue flats, the stems of her glasses as they disappear into clouds of hair.
I would like to kiss her, chastely, so I could write a poem about it later.
II. I sit next to her today and make her laugh three times in fifty minutes. The smoky sound of it is like hearing old church bells in a country I have never seen.
Sometimes I wonder if she has ever wanted to touch another girl between the tidal swoops of the collarbones, right at the base of the neck, the way I would like to touch her
(the way I would like her to touch me).
Listening to those rasps of laughter make me think she might understand someone like me,
someone whose first instinct is to lie rather than to tell the truth.
III. The teacher pairs us together to practice for the oral exam. She tells us to talk about i nostri progenitori, our ancestors, and le nostre hereditá, our heritage.
Lilia says in her word-perfect Italian that she is from the soft, wet plains of the Veneto, where she still visits her grandmother sometimes; that she is half Italian (she touches her dark hair) and half Swedish (her hands tease at the skin around her blue eyes); that she grew up in England and in America.
She wants to know if I, too, am Italian.
I say, yes, yes of course, I am from Lombardy. On my mother’s side.
A great-grandmother came through Ellis Island, I tell her.
(This is an invention. Most of my family has rooted itself in the Delaware riverland for ten generations, and before that they sweated and drank in tiny French towns whose names became their surnames and eventually mine, too.)
I imagine us living five hundred years ago, in Venice, where her ancestors came from: that dreamed-up, melting city. We are ladies who spend our days in houses across the canal from one another, sitting by the windows and watching each other’s reflections in the dirty water,
until we realize that we have fallen in and drowned in each other like Narcissus in the pool.
IV. It rains, the first sudden spring thunderstorm, during the final exam. The flickering of fluorescent lights and the rivers of water down windowpanes make the lecture room into a Mediterranean grotto: slick, indistinct, full of long-haired naiads conjugating verbs in the subjunctive.
I keep one eye on the soggy pages of my exam (Mi piace che tu vada in Francia, I write, spero che ti diverta) and another on Lilia. She has worn a long dress and brought no umbrella. Rain dampens the hem of that dress, coats her bare shoulders, runs together in the beds of her nails.
Buona fortuna, I told her before we began, and she flicked a droplet of water at me.
She finishes in half an hour exactly: the first to lay down her pen. I will be the second, so I have time. I watch her leave. She slides the papers into the teacher’s hands as if they were a gift.
When she opens the door, her dress drags against the floor, following her like a school of fish.
This is the last image I have of her.