Michael and Scottie stood out from the moment they strolled down the gangplank of the sleek ocean liner that carried them and their possessions to Italy. They seemed to have stepped right out of an advertisement for Betty Crocker, Wonder Bread or capitalism itself. He was twenty-four, handsome, always in a nicely cut suit, camera around his neck. She, barely twenty, was a knockout. Blond, pretty, quick to laugh, always in an elegant hat and pearl choker. She had what the Italians call raffinatezza, a word that covers everything that is the opposite of vulgar—a quality Italians deeply aspired to, while at the same time remaining powerless to resist anything gilded, mirrored, shiny or bejeweled. This spring the papers were full of the marriage of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, and it was as if Siena’s own version of the royal couple had arrived. Even though there were other Americans coming and going in Siena, those two would become the Americans. Gli americani. Both of them so young, healthy, wealthy and in love. They seemed so free. That was how they seemed.
They were arriving in Siena as part of a wave of missionaries bringing the American way of life to what they were certain would be a grateful populace.
Michael felt like he’d won the lottery. This beautiful creature had agreed to marry him and come on a foreign adventure. A Vassar girl, from a good family out in California! Him just a boy from the Bronx! And the best part was, she wasn’t that smart. Because that’s what Michael wanted. What he needed. Someone who wasn’t too curious. Someone who would mistake his version of things for the truth.
The Italians would take them at face value, see only what they were meant to see. As a culture the Italians valued furbizia—slyness— more than honesty, but they would not expect to find it in Americans, who were generally seen as genial idiots ripe for the plucking. It was only natural for Michael and Scottie to make assumptions about each other, too. They had known each other just a short time, and no courtship is entirely honest. It was convenient for Michael that Scottie had been taught that asking questions—as long as they were not too personal, or impertinent—rather than offering opinions made a man feel like he was being listened to, and supported. She had been taught that a woman likes to feel beautiful, and a man likes to feel superior.
That was what she had been taught.
That was what he believed she had learned.
The Fairlane leapt over potholes that threatened to eat the smaller Italian cars.
“You know, this road’s been here since Julius Caesar’s time,” said Michael.
“Tell me about Caesar,” said Scottie. “Would he get along with Eisenhower, you think?”
He stretched his arm along the seatback and tickled her neck, as if she were a small dog. “Well, they could sure swap ideas about building highways,” said Michael, who enjoyed retreating into his- tory when the present felt too threatening, which was much of the time. Behind the movie-star-handsome dark brows, strong, masculine nose and square chin, he was a nervous fellow, still the school- boy who had compensated for his social insecurity by doing well in school. The classroom, in fact, was the only place he had ever felt at home. “Caesar had his legions lay these stones by hand to a depth of four feet, which is deeper than Ike’s crews are building the new interstates.” Michael had told her that within a few years, Americans would be able to drive from the Atlantic to the Pacific without waiting at a single stoplight. Michael had told her that the Italians were using some of the billion dollars that America had given them to rebuild after the war for high-speed roads here, too. Michael had told her a lot of things. She hoped there wasn’t going to be a quiz. The classroom was the last place Scottie ever felt comfortable. Letters and words on a page were a jumbled code she struggled to decipher. No one had ever told her that she had dyslexia. Her teachers assumed she was stupid, and so did she, unable to see that her ability to adapt to almost any situation with good humor was a greater asset than any PhD.
“A new highway’s going to come right through here. It’ll put this place on the map. No more donkey carts,” he said as he swerved around one.
“I love the donkeys.” She waved to the lop-eared donkey and the woman leading it, who glared at her and made a gesture. Michael didn’t see it, so Scottie said, “What does this mean?” and Michael looked at her, a little shocked, and laughed nervously.
“Where did you see that?” he asked. “Is it rude?”
“Very. I wouldn’t do that again.”
She laughed, and he laughed with her. Neither of them would ever sink so low as to make rude gestures!
The car rat-a-tatted over the old basalt stones underneath its mighty wheels. The green fields they passed were dotted with red poppies. Scottie spotted distant villas tucked into greenery, her eye drawn to the occasional gray or pair of bays grazing in an olive grove.
“Nice,” she said. “Not thoroughbreds, but well put together, though.” She looked over at Michael. “We should go riding some- time.” She pictured them galloping along side by side over these lovely green hills. That was what she would do if her best friend, Leona, were here with her. She and Leona always had fun together. Couldn’t marriage be like that?
As they came around a curve, Siena suddenly appeared above them, a walled fortress city perched on a leafy green hilltop, terraces of tan brick and stone buildings with dark red terra-cotta roofs underneath an immense cupola, and the black and white Cheshire cat stripes of the Duomo’s prickly bell tower jutting up into a clear blue sky.
“I think you’re going to like it here,” Michael said. “Siena’s a very interesting place. It was on an ancient religious route, so it became wealthy, cultured and powerful, thanks to all those foreigners and their money passing through. The world’s first bank was born here—Monte dei Paschi di Siena, in 1472. Before Columbus even set sail!”
“You know everything,” she teased.
“You’ll like this,” he said. “The stripes symbolize the black and white horses of the legendary founders of the city, Senius and his brother Aschius.”
Michael did not mind that Scottie was obsessed with horses. He had no intention of ever trusting his own life to a thousand-pound animal with a brain the size of a walnut. But it was a charming, aristocratic quality in her. An expensive habit for sure, but she came with enough money to support it.
“It looks so old, like something from a fairy tale.”
Yes, he thought, childlike. She’s childlike. He saw that as a good thing. It made him even fonder of her. She needed to be taken care of. “I don’t want to pry,” he said. “But it may be difficult to manage your money from overseas. Did you make arrangements with your bank? It can be complicated, and I’m happy to help.”
Scottie blushed and turned wide blue eyes on him. “I don’t have any money,” she said. She blinked, and there was an awkward moment of silence. “Did you think I did?”
CHRISTINA LYNCH’s picaresque journey includes chapters in Chicago and at Harvard, where she was an editor on the Harvard Lampoon. She was the Milan correspondent for W magazine and Women’s Wear Daily, and disappeared for four years in Tuscany. In L.A. she was on the writing staff of Unhappily Ever After; Encore, Encore; The Dead Zone and Wildfire. She now lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. She is the co-author of two novels under the pen name Magnus Flyte. She teaches at College of the Sequoias. The Italian Party is her debut novel under her own name.
Adapted from The Italian Party, by Christina Lynch, Copyright © 2018 by Christina Lynch. With the permission of the publisher, St. Martin’s Press.