In This Issue


Silent Journey

Iz's Story
Doreen Perrine

Fran Walker

Games With Chance
Andi Marquette

Backup Plan
Jess Sandoval

Darby O'Neil

Who's In Charge?

Water Rites
Mary Douglas



Email Us

Claire decided to attend the opening. She would go toward the end, wish her well, then leave. Iz would be surrounded by friends or, at least, admirers. There'd be no time to rehash the past or ask what the blank postcard should have said.

She considered inviting Kristen. But, no, that would be too high school. She hardly knew her. And what if Iz might consider Claire more than a friend? After a year with no word, the notion seemed pathetic. Still, she clung to the hope.

She found a parking spot on the Lower East Side gallery. With her long stride, she stepped down Broadway, her heels tapping the sidewalk. A spring breeze off the East River rustled her hair and checkered skirt.

Claire clutched the postcard in her hand. She flipped it over and noted the gallery's address. She walked down Allen Street to the storefront space. It wasn't as upscale as the uptown gallery where Claire had worked--where she and Iz had met. But what one gallery could contain a dynamic artist like Isabelle Spera?

The room was packed. Did Iz know all these people? Maybe the gallery had brought them in. As far as Claire knew, this was her second trip to New York. Clearly, people were drawn to Iz wherever she went.

Claire braced herself as she stood in the doorway. A slight breeze whisked her neck-length hair. She was tempted to lose herself in the anonymous street. Instead, she peered around the crowded room. This time, she couldn't hear Iz's laugh bouncing off the walls. Maybe she wasn't there. Claire felt both relief and sorrow at the thought.

She made her way to a side table and poured a cup of wine. No matter what, she told herself, I won't be bitter--or spiteful. She still hadn't gotten her period, but more than PMS filled her with tension. She felt self-conscious about her body. Besides bloating, she had put on some weight. That could only be from lonely nights, stuffing her face in front of the tube.

Just then, the crowd seemed to miraculously part. "Clara?" Iz stood in the center of the room.

She'd changed. Slightly heavier, her black hair was disheveled. She had the look of a heavy burden. Her black clothing, slacks and a linen shirt, covered her like a shroud. Had she gone through another breakup? Or maybe she'd gotten back with her callous ex-lover? Claire didn't want to know.

She froze as if suspended in the moment. Should she walk into the room or wait for Iz? How could she reveal her sinking heart? She held out her hand--and waited.

"Scusi." Iz spoke to a man who crossed her path. She walked slowly. Was she limping? Finally, they stood face to face. "Clara!" Iz embraced her, then kissed her cheeks. "You came!"

"Of course." Claire did her best to smile.

Iz pressed her hand. "I didn't know . . ." she looked like she was about to cry, "if you might have moved."

"I sent you my address." Claire stared at her drink.

"Yes, you did." Iz's black eyes, which had once seemed so alert, were still.

"How was your flight?" Claire resorted to small talk.

"My . . . yes, fine."

"And your grandmother? I hope she's well."

Iz trembled, then examined her watch. "This is almost ended," she said. "I must . . . forgive me. I must go."

Claire summoned the strength to speak. "I have to go myself."

"No, please!" Iz clutched her sleeve. "I must talk to you."

Claire could no longer contain her feelings. "Isabelle," she pressed her shoulder, "you never called or wrote. I thought--"

"Ah, Clara!" Iz buried her face in her hands. "Please, just wait here."

Claire let her arms fall to her side. "Here?" She smirked at the floor.

"Right here on this very spot," Iz touched her cheek, "so I don't lose you again." She stepped back into the chatting crowd.

"Still giving me orders," Claire muttered. Did Iz expect her to wait like an obedient child? Her green eyes flashed with anger. I won't, she thought, I'll leave now and never see her again!

But she could only wander around the gallery. She gazed up at Iz's lively paintings. In their vibrant color, she recognized the blue-green hills of Tuscany. The idyllic scenes came back to her like a happy dream. Had it been one short year since her trip to Italy?

She looked over her shoulder. Iz held a cup of red wine in her hand. Barely sipping, she didn't speak much. She just stood bobbing her head in a mechanical way--how unlike the spunky girl Claire had met five years before.

Claire wondered how long she'd be in town. Had she just come to attend the opening? Now that they'd reunited, would Iz be swallowed up in her own life--again? Claire was crushed to think this reconnection would abruptly end. Iz might leave and break her heart--again.

Just then, Iz turned from where she stood beside a talking woman. She gazed at Claire. Her smile was quick and light. However brief, it was the same sweet smile Claire recalled.

The crowd filtered out of the gallery. Claire felt a hand on her shoulder.

"Thank you for waiting." Iz's voice was hoarse.

"I didn't stay in your spot." Claire arched a brow.

"It's all right." She twirled her fingers in Claire's hair.

She thought back to when Iz had called her hair "red-like." She hadn't known the English for "auburn."

"Whatever you do is all right," Iz murmured.

Claire eyed her, puzzled. Could she still be charming her like a silly girl? But, no, Iz was hardly silly. In fact, she appeared more serious than Claire had ever known. But then, had she ever known her?

"My car is outside," Claire said, "would you like me to drive you somewhere?"

"Can we get a drink?" Iz waved to a couple calling "Ciao Isabelle!" at the door.

"Sure." Claire forced a smile.

"Somewhere quiet." Iz's shoulders were slumped.

"No, dance clubs?" Claire thought of how they'd danced through the night.

"Not this time."

Their conversation was flat. It feels like a funeral, Claire thought as they walked in silence. They found a bar around the block.

"Nothing exciting going on here." Claire held the door.

Iz staggered over the threshold. Had she drank too much? "I don't care." She walked to a dark table in the corner and took a seat.

Claire followed. "Why are we sitting in the dark?"

"I prefer it." Iz looked down, then spoke after a long pause. "I hope you don't mind." Her words mingled with a thumping juke box.

"It's fine." Claire glanced at the bar. "I'll get our drinks. What--?"

"Nothing . . . anything." Iz spun her head as if deciding on a drink was an impossible task.

"I'll just get a couple of beers." Claire went up to the bar and ordered beer on tap. A husky man grinned eerily at her. She went back to the table with the foaming mugs.

Iz was staring at the wall.

"Why are you so . . . solemn?"

"I . . . I'm sorry, Clara." Her eyes seemed to pierce the shadowy corner. "I am so sorry I never contacted you."

"I did wonder." Claire shrugged. Of course, she played down her emotions. She felt them brewing like an internal storm.

Iz gripped her hands across the table.

Claire was startled by the intensity of her grasp. "Isabelle, what is it?"

Her face was clouded. "I tried . . . I didn't want to involve you . . ." she stammered.

"Involve me in what?"

"Oh, Clara!" She sunk her face in her palms.

Claire broke the heavy silence. "What's wrong?"

"After you left Italy," she began, "my whole world fell apart."

She lifted her head, her eyes whirling. "Why is that?"

"What do you mean? What happened?" Iz told her everything. Her grandmother had died. "And if that wasn't painful enough, my uncle insisted I marry to claim my inheritance."


"My grandmother didn't change her will since I was a child." Iz gazed up like she was speaking to the ceiling. "My inheritance was left in trust to him."

Claire slapped her hand to her mouth.

"Then I . . . it was my fault, I know." She stared at the wall again. "I got into an accident."

"On the motorcycle?"

Iz nodded.

"Are you all right?"

"My leg," she pointed to her right thigh, "they had to pin it up. It's fine now. I can walk. I just . . . I was in the hospital a long time."

"And where was your uncle?"

"We don't speak any more." Iz waved her hands as if to push away the bad memory.

"That's terrible!"

Claire pondered Iz's story as she drove. Could she be making it up? That she was imaginative, there was no doubt. But why would she lie? Maybe she needed a plausible excuse for having blown Claire off. Why would she have contacted her then? Maybe she'd been with her ex all along and just wanted a fling. But wouldn't she have to be a sociopath to be that deceptive? Questions sped like a roller coaster through Claire's head.

They stopped at a traffic light. Iz stared out of the window with a deadpan look. Claire bit her lip guiltily. Why couldn’t she believe Iz? Would she always be filled with nagging doubts? Could she feel that unworthy of Iz’s affection? Another question. Take a number. Claire rolled her eyes at the thought.

"You're staying here?" Claire squinted at a lopsided brownstone. Iz had directed her to the YWCA.

"Yes, you see why I couldn't speak at the opening." Iz faced her. "I need to sell my work."

Claire watched her in the dark. "Did you forget me, Iz?" Her tone was like the plaintive cry of a lone bird.

"Clara, please." She sighed. "I told you that was not possible. Didn't you believe me?"

"I have . . . trouble believing." Claire started to cry. "I know you had a lot going on but . . ."

"I lost everything and . . . and I was too ashamed." Iz buried her head on Claire';s lap. "Look at me," she cried, "I'm destroyed!"

"Nonsense." Claire wiped her eyes on her palm. Then she squeezed Iz's shoulder. "Get your things. You're coming home with me."

"I can't . . ."

"Can't what?"

"Can't burden you with this."

"Stop being silly." Claire fluttered her long lashes. "I'm not going to tell you twice!"

Iz half-smiled. "You are still so . . . feisty."

"Mmm, don't make me come in there and get you." Claire wagged her finger at Iz.

If anything, they were friends. Hadn't Iz declared it when they'd parted at the airport. Whatever Iz's feelings--romantic or not--Claire would honor that.

"Dear Clara!" Iz threw her arms around her neck. "You are too kind."

Claire longed to kiss her, but she just stroked her head. "Go get your luggage." She gently nudged her.

Iz shook her head. "I cannot go with you."

Claire's heart sank. "Why?"

Was Iz afraid to be near her? Was she that repulsive?

"You must forgive me." Iz's words grew faint. " . . . once more."

Claire blinked back her tears. "We're still friends, aren't we?"

"Si! Of course, Clara." Iz hugged her. "You cannot know how . . ." She waved her hands like she was shooing an insect. "Aah, my English has gotten so badly!"

"Well," Claire said, "I can help you as a friend. You don't need to feel . . . obliged."

Iz brushed her hand over Claire's cheek. "But I am obliged to you," she whispered. "You, who brought so much to my life." She kissed Claire's hand.

Claire pressed her hands to her eyelids. She wouldn't cry again. "So why won't you come with me?" she asked. "I'll sleep on the couch . . . if you like." She was all but throwing herself at the woman.

Iz took Claire's chin in her hand. "My grandmother was right about one thing. Es bella, Clara. You are beautiful. But this," she swept her arm toward the building, "this is too shameful. I cannot come to you like this."

Claire squinted at Iz's silhouette in the street light. Claire recalled her as a twenty-year-old. She had once stood under a street lamp like she was in a spotlight.

"Hey," Claire's voice softened, "everyone falls on bad times, Iz. Believe me, my life . . ." Should she share her own struggle with a year of unemployment?

"Yes, and this is my . . . cross to bear." Iz shrugged.

"So now you're Jesus Christ?" Claire raised her brows.

Iz laughed. "Yes," she blew Claire a kiss, "and as soon as I resurrect, I will come for you." She stepped from the car into the street.

Claire sighed as she watched Iz climb the steps. Her heart pounding, she ran after her. Then she stopped and turned. She hadn't locked the car. The keys were dangling in the ignition. She didn't care. "Iz!" she called.

Iz turned at the door.

"What will you do?" Claire opened her bag. "I must give you something." She rummaged for her wallet. She felt like her controlling mother doling out money to keep her children in check.

Iz thrust out her hand like a stop sign. "I cannot accept your charity!"

"Think of it as my paying you back for--"


"My trip. I stayed in your home."

"My grandmother's home." The grief was all over Iz's pained expression.

"Well, the gas then for your motorcycle--"

"Clara, please." Iz reached out to her. "It's all right. I have some money. It won't be easy, but I'm not on the street." Her stark hair glistened beneath the door lamp.

"Here then." Claire scribbled her number on the back of a business card for someone--she'd forgotten who--and handed it to Iz. "If you need anything . . ." Claire stopped herself from making another offer.

"Listen, " she leaned toward Iz, "I understand enough Italian to know your name, 'Spera,' means hope." Claire could make out her thin smile.

Iz took the business card. "I will call you, Clara." She gripped her shoulder. "I promise." She glanced down the steps. "But I understand enough about your city to know you shouldn't leave your car like that." She smiled one last time, then vanished behind the door.

Who needed charity here? Claire wondered. She’d all but thrown herself at Iz. She walked down to her car. This was hardly charity. Hadn’t people done much more for love?

Claire had waited a year since she'd come back from Italy. But the next two weeks of waiting to hear from Iz were unbearable. Beyond that, her savings were almost depleted.

She called her father. "I might take you up on that job offer at the bank."

She wasn't having any luck with want ads and online listings. She hadn't researched much outside of arts administration--the only field she was interested in. She needed something, if only for the time being. Still, a job was the last thing on her mind.

"Of course," her father said, "I would say, I'll speak to the manager, but since I am the manager . . ."

"A little nepotism never hurt anyone," Claire teased. "Seriously. Thanks, Dad." She wasn't expecting anything exciting. "I'm not . . . very focused these days," she had to admit.

"I know. You're distracted."

"Yes." She felt the usual heartache. What if Iz never called? What if she left without a word? Claire's doubts never seemed to end.

"She's in town, isn't she?" Had her father read her mind?

"Grapevine leaks?" Claire smirked. Her brother must have told him and Lloyd about Iz's opening.

"Like wildfire!" He laughed. "Are you okay?"

She had never discussed her romantic life with her father. What the hell? Maybe she should vent her frustration. "I don't know. I may not hear from her again. Or maybe, we're just friends. Who knows?"

"You know, Claire," her father said, "relationships take time. There's a process involved."

"I'll be in my grave by the time that process takes place." Claire rolled her eyes.

"Please!" He tssked. "You're still young."

"Not that young." Her thirty-first birthday had just past. "You have someone." Although they sometimes bickered, her father and Lloyd were a solid couple. "I feel like I'm going to wind up old and bitter . . . like Mother." She sobbed into the receiver.

"Perish the thought!" Her father gasped.

"At least you're not defending her."

How unlike Mother he is, Claire thought. Of course, his being gay had something to do with that. But did her parents have anything in common? No wonder they'd divorced when Claire was a little girl.

"My grandfather had an odd but interesting saying." Her father's steady voice was calming. "'Life doesn't come in a plastic bottle.'"

Claire creased her brow. "What does that mean?"

"My grandfather was kind of grumpy; good-hearted, but I think," he paused, "modern life distressed him. He was in the grocery store when he came out with that line. He picked up a bottle of shampoo. I thought it was a goofy statement when I was a kid. Now, I see it clearly. We have instant everything, food, money, romance at our fingertips."

Claire took a tissue from the night table and dried her cheeks. What was her father getting at?

"Valuable things are worth waiting for," he said. "And you, my dear, are a treasure!"

Claire smiled. Her father's encouragement lifted her spirits. Where her mother picked apart her every choice, his concern was obvious. With cutting remarks, her mother had stirred Claire's doubts of finding a lasting love; her father, on the other hand, offered her hope.

Just then, she heard a rustling on the other end of the line. "Dad?" She pressed the cell phone to her ear.

"Give me that phone!" Lloyd was shouting.

"I am having a private conversation with my dau--"

"Listen to me, princess." Lloyd had wrestled the phone from her father.

"Lloyd!" Her father was yelling in the background. There was more rustling. Claire couldn't help but laugh. Her father and Lloyd reminded her of vaudeville comedians.

"I was listening to this whole conversation," Lloyd said.

She heard her father';s voice. "It's called eavesdropping."

"With good cause!" Lloyd called away from the receiver. "I certainly agree with this business about you're being ';a treasure.'"

"Thank you, Lloyd." Claire was cheering up.

"But enough of this relationship process bullshit!" He huffed. "Do you love her?"

"Yes," Claire murmured.

"Of course, you do." His tone softened. "You're nuts about her, aren't you, love?"

"I am." She couldn't argue the point?

"Then," his pitch rose, "get your ass in gear and go after that girl already!"

"You're living in a tenement." She looked around the studio apartment.

"Yes, but the culture is close." Iz shrugged. "I mean, they are foreign here like me."

Claire had taken the subway. She didn't know Spanish Harlem or where she should park her car. She handed Iz the flowers she'd bought at a deli in Brooklyn.

"Grazie!" Iz took them and arched a brow. "I see you are still a gentleman."

Claire blushed, then rapped her shoulder. "Women buy flowers."

"Sure, Clara." Iz seemed happy to see her. "And you defy stereotypes." She ran her finger around Claire';s mouth.

Claire closed her eyes. Iz's touch brought up a fierce longing.

Iz went into the narrow kitchen where she took a glass from the dish drain.

Claire sat in a stiff chair. "They're a housewarming gift."

"Mmm?" Iz turned from the sink.

"For your new place." Claire jerked her chin at the flowers.

"Ah, yes." Iz filled the glass and set it on the counter. She unwrapped the waxy paper from the flowers.

"Too long for that glass," Claire said. The stems stuck over its rim.

"I think I have . . . a knife somewhere." Iz rummaged through a utensil drawer. "They have all these stores here. I got so much for very little."

“Ninety nine cents stores.” Claire suppressed a laugh.

Observant as ever, Iz turned from the drawer. "You think this is funny?"

"I'm sorry." Claire looked down. She hadn't meant to embarrass her.

"It's all right." Iz tilted her head to peer at Claire. "But I want to know what's funny."

Claire pursed her lips. "It's nothing." She examined the peeling linoleum between her shoes.

"Come on, Clara." Iz seemed less burdened than when they'd met at the gallery. Still, Claire knew--grieving the grandmother that had raised her must be intense.

"Don't force me to make you tell me." Iz waved a knife at her.

"You went to a ninety nine cents store to decorate your apartment." Claire started to giggle, then covered her mouth.

"Oh, I see." Iz jiggled with laughter. "Wait!" She dropped the knife in the sink, then went into the other room. She returned with a vase. It was covered with shiny, star-like patterns. "Just look at this."

Claire covered her face with her palms. She couldn't speak for laughing.

Iz held up the gaudy vase. "Is this not incredible?"

"No." Tears of laughter formed in Claire's eyes. "It's awful!"

"Now you listen to me, Miss Clara." Iz grinned. "This," she pointed to the vase, "was no ninety-nine cents--"

"Plus tax."

"Oh, I'm going to hit you!" Iz shook the vase. "This extraordinary piece o--"

"Crap!" Claire was doubled over in the chair.

Iz held her belly with her free hand. "This one costs three dollars."

Claire lifted her head. "You got ripped off!"

They broke into a fit of laughter.

Claire widened her eyes. "Iz, why don't you put the flowers in that?"

Iz glanced at the flowers. "Ah, yes," she said. "It makes good sense, no? You are so practical, Clara."

Claire rolled her eyes as Iz went to the sink. Was her leg dragging?

"I know it's all hideous. But I had to have something here." She smirked. "I mean, here I am."

"You're making the best of things." Claire nodded. She looked at the blank wall above the table. "I see you didn't buy any art at that store."

“Aye, Madonna!” Iz slapped her hand to her forehead. “God forbid!”

Claire giggled.

"I don't know." Iz brought the vase to the table. "When you think of my . . ."


A look of sadness flashed in her eyes. "My home . . ."

Claire stood and hugged her. "I know Iz. I mean, I can't know . . ." The words stuck like glue in her mouth. She recalled how affectionate Iz and her doting Nona had been.

"It's the past, Clara." Iz blinked against her shoulder. "I must move ahead now."

"You will." Claire held her at arms length. "But the life you had with your grandmother will always be a part of you."

She sighed.

"Iz," Claire gazed in her eyes. "I see you're getting settled here, but . . ."

"I don't know what else to do now." She arranged the flowers in the vase.

"And your teaching assistant job in Rome?" Claire gazed up from the chair.

"Ah!" She huffed with disgust. "I lost that, too. I was in the hospital so long. They had to get someone else."

Claire reached for her hand. "You know our economy hasn't been great since 9/11. I've been looking for work myself."

"You have nothing yet?"

"I have something." Claire thought of the dreary banking job she'd have to accept. "But it's not what I want. I just have to . . . survive."

"I can understand." Iz nodded. "This gallery. They liked my work."

"Well, that's something." Claire smiled.

"I sold three paintings." Her voice perked up.

"Really? That's good." Claire patted her shoulder. She wondered how one show in a downtown gallery could have brought Iz here--to stay. "I'm sorry to say things are dismal in the arts now. Worse than most fields." She'd heard a number of galleries had folded; arts teachers had been cut from schools. It wasn't a pretty picture.

"Mmm, but maybe no worse than Italy." She set the flowers on the table between them.

"Iz," Claire leaned toward her, "are you staying?"

She dropped into the other chair. "I don't know Clara. For a little while, at least."

"Did you lose everything?" Claire couldn't have broached the subject the night of the opening. The moment had been too raw. Now, she felt able to voice some--if not all--of her questions.

"Not quite everything. I paid for my trip and this apartment. A lot though . . ." She covered her face. "My home is gone! My grandmother . . . How could she have done this?" She shook her head in her palms. "She knew what my uncle's wife is like. She all but gave that creature my inheritance!"

"Isabelle," Claire gasped, "don't you dare blame your grandmother!" Then she added in a calm tone, "You know she adored you."

"But Clara . . . how could she not change her will?" She spun her head.

Claire rubbed her arm. "You were still a child to her. You said so yourself. How could she imagine they'd do such a vicious thing?"

"Yes, you're right." She gripped Claire's hand. "Thank you for helping me see that. You see what a state I'm in. I am too confused by my emotions."

I know the feeling, Claire thought of her anguish over Iz.

As hard as the thought of losing her again was, Claire had to encourage her. She sat down and held Iz's hand across the table. "You should go back and fight for what's yours."

"My uncle is a lawyer, Clara." Iz gripped her forehead. "How can I fight that?"

"Even lawyers need to abide by the law."

Iz smirked. "I would lose the little I have left on legal fees--and think of the time. I have to make a new life for myself . . . somehow."

"You can . . . you will."

They were silent. Claire shifted her chair and massaged Iz's hunched back. Claire wondered again. Was she being codependent? Maybe she should be in a twelve-step program. So much of her life seemed to revolve around solving other people's crises. Somehow, in Iz's case, she didn't mind.

"You have a visa?" Claire didn't want to probe too much, but she had to wonder again? What could Iz be running from?

"For ninety days. After that, I must decide. Do I get an extension or no?" Iz took a deep breath. "Are you hungry?" She changed the subject.

"We can go out to eat . . . if you like."

"No, no, I can cook something. Did I not say I would?" She had.

"Either way."

"Yes? No?" Iz bulged her eyes.

Claire grinned. "Yes. Thank you."

"Certo! Of course." Her smile seemed to flow through Claire like a soothing stream. What wouldn't I do for that smile? she thought.

"You know, I'm an okay cook." Iz flipped up her thumb.

"I'm not." Claire watched as Iz reached into an overhead cabinet.

Iz took a thin pot out of the stove. She ran water into it, then clanked it on the back burner. "Ah, matches!" She snapped her fingers, then went into the other room.

Claire fought an urge to run after her. They'd been apart so long she could barely control herself. She pressed her eyelids shut. "Just calm down," she murmured.

She opened her eyes. Her mouth dropped. A small, dark creature poked its head out of the cabinet. It was waving its antennae at her. She clutched her churning stomach.

Iz came back with a box of matches. "Clara?"

Claire fell back on the vinyl cushion of the chair. Iz squatted beside her, watching her face. "Are you not well?"

"I . . . I . . ." Claire jumped to her feet. "Let's eat out!"

"But why?" Iz took her hand. "You're my guest. Look, I already started--"

Claire thrust her finger at the cabinet as if a gruesome phantom had appeared.

Iz swerved. "Clara?" She grimaced. "Did you see a bug?"

Claire shuddered. Iz looked away. Was she grinning?

Claire scratched her arms. The thought of roaches and their spindly limbs filled her with horror. She clenched her fists. "Can't you kill it?"

"It's a problem." Iz patted her on the back.

Claire twitched.

"Clara, honestly!" Iz gaped.

"You won't kill it?"

"It's not like . . . killing a dragon."

Claire narrowed her eyes. "Did you just call me a princess?" Only Lloyd had ever teased her like that.

"I'm sorry!" Iz fluttered her hands. "But, Clara, it's only a little bug--"

"I won't eat near it." She reached for her bag beneath the table.

"You can't leave me for this!" Iz laughed into her hand.

Claire crossed her arms. "Are you finished?"

"Si, si." Iz nodded. "It's just . . . with everything that's happened, I've been rethinking my life."


"I'm thinking of becoming a Buddhist."

"Oh, well . . . that's nice." Claire squinted at the cabinet. Thankfully, the roach had crawled off. "But what does that have to do with . . . bugs?"

"Every creature on this planet has some purpose."

"Whoever said that never met my mother."

Iz smiled. "Clara," she arched her black eyebrows, "Buddhists don't kill--anything."

"Are you a Buddhist yet?"

"No!" Iz laughed out loud.

"Well, then . . ." Claire placed her hands on her hips.

"Listen, Bella," Iz led her back to the chair, "relax, ah?"

"All right." Claire inhaled in an effort to calm herself. "I'll try."

Iz went to the counter. "I have a good wine." She turned, holding up a dark bottle. "No ninety-nine cents wine for you!"

Claire smiled.

Iz asked her to spend the night. She shrugged sadly. "I understand if you're not . . . interested anymore. I'm not so attractive these days."

"You're gorgeous, sweetie," Claire said.

True, Iz had changed since they'd last met in Rome. She was somehow less girlish. But her manner was as charming as ever. Hadn't her charm attracted Claire like a magnet?

"Hey, I'm no kid either." Claire lifted a strand of her bangs. "I think I noticed some gray the other day." She recalled her mother's brusque comment that she "wasn't getting any younger."

"No, you did not!" Iz tssked. "You're as perfect as ever." She kissed Claire's hands in turns. "Now stay with me, mmm?"

"Can we go to my place?" Claire wrinkled her nose.

"Please, Bella," Iz lifted her hands, "it's late and we're already here." She walked backwards, leading Claire toward the bed. "Stay." Her voice was soft.

How could Claire resist? "All right." She stopped. "But if a bug crawls on me I'm going to scream bloody murder!"

Iz's eyes widened. "Now I'm frightened."

Claire sat on the mattress and looked around. Opposite the bed, was an open suitcase filled with crumpled clothes. Other than the thin mattress and one broken-legged chair, there was no furniture.

"Shh." Iz stood over Claire, pushing her hair behind her ears. "Don't think of anything bad now." She leaned over and kissed her.

Her kiss was as warm as Claire remembered. "I could say the same to you." She couldn't bring herself to meet Iz's steady gaze.

"How sweet of you to think of me."

"You thought of me." Claire opened her arms.

Iz knelt and fell against her chest. She sighed as if she was releasing a deep ache.

They stripped to their underwear, then clung to each other in the dark. Iz stroked Claire's face and arms. Claire peered into her big, sad eyes. She could feel her grief. Although Iz didn't cry, it was clear--she needed to be held.

Street light filtered through the blinds. The traffic noise seemed endless. Cars honked, a nearby elevated subway rattled, and an ambulance screeched by. It was quiet for a while, then a garbage truck roared below the window. Do you live on an interstate highway, Claire wanted to ask, but held her tongue. Soon, she felt as if there was no sound as they lay, side by side.

Iz covered them with a sheet. They snuggled in a tight embrace. Finally, their eyes closed.

"I did think of you . . ." Her breath tickled Claire's ear.

"What happened to your leg?" Claire shrieked.

She squinted in the streaming day light. The sheet was twisted on the end of the mattress. Iz had rolled over in her sleep. There was a thick, reddish scar along her right thigh.

"Hmm?" Iz lifted her head and turned. The scar extended down the length of her thigh.

"Mmm." Iz grit her teeth. "That looks bad, eh?"

"Isabelle!" Claire gasped.

"My accident, Clara." She leaned against the wall and yawned. "I told you about it in that bar. Remember?"

"Yes but . . ." Claire gripped her forehead. "You told me it was fine." She shifted across the mattress to Iz's side.

Iz blinked. "It is . . . now." She stretched her arm across Claire's shoulders.

Claire met her eyes. "It's much worse than I imagined."

"Yes, well, this modern technology, you know." Iz half-shrugged. "They do some amazing things."

"You had surgery." She stated the obvious.

"Yes, those doctors in Rome," Iz rubbed Claire's scalp, "they operated through the night to save this leg. It';s a miracle I can walk."

"What a nightmare!"

Iz took Claire's hand. "When I opened my eyes, they asked if I wished to contact my family." Her face grew angry. "';All my family is dead!' I told them."

"How did this happen?" She remembered that Nona had scolded Iz about her driving. Claire knew rapido meant fast. She wasn't about to lecture Iz. From the sight of the bulging scar, she had paid for her lousy driving.

"It was after my grandmother's funeral. Her body was not cold in the ground." Iz's stare was blank. "We were in the kitchen. My aunt was shouting at me while my uncle just stood like a statue."

"In Fiesole?"

Iz went on as if she hadn't heard. "She said I had hidden behind my grandmother's," she paused, "something like protection for too long. It was time for me to become responsible." Iz narrowed her eyes. "Then my uncle said, ';You are twenty-five now. Until you marry your inheritance will remain in trust.'"

Claire couldn't envision them shouting in Nona's cheerful kitchen.

"'Marry a man!' my aunt screamed in my face." Iz's face bristled as she spoke. "'I'll never marry a man! That I promise!' Then that bitch said, 'You disgrace your family.' I looked at my uncle. He just stood with his head down. Even he wouldn't say a thing like that!" Iz nearly spat the words. "It's you who disgrace me!" Iz flicked her hand from under her chin.

"What does that mean?" Claire asked.

"Nothing nice. It means I throw you up."

Claire bit her lower lip.

"'How can I disgrace my family?' I shouted back." Iz shook her fist at the wall. "'My grandmother's dying words were that she knew I loved women. It was all right so long as I was happy.'"

"Did she really say that?" Claire beamed.

"Mmm." Iz smiled affectionately. "My sweet Nona. She said people didn't see why she loved her cats so much. 'Never mind what people think,' she shook her chubby finger at me. 'It's love just the same!'"

"Sure it is," Claire agreed.

"Naturally, they couldn't spare the time to be there when she died." Iz raised her brows. "My aunt accused me of lying. 'Your grandmother was deeply religious. She would never say the way you live is all right!'" Her nostrils flared. "I told them, 'Perhaps my grandmother believed that the heart of religion is love.'"

"What did they say to that?"

She rolled her eyes. "They had a very confused look. It was too philosophical for them."

Claire tried not to laugh.

"'You don't think sensibly, Isabella!' Now my uncle was shouting. 'How can you go on living in this childish way?' That was enough. Her screaming at me was one thing--she's not my blood. But for my uncle to say . . ." She dropped her head to her chest.

Claire wiped the tear streaming down Iz's cheek with her fingertip.

Iz took a breath. "Then I ran out of the house and got on my motorcycle. It was hardly raining when I left. By the time I got outside Rome it was pouring hard. But I couldn't stop." She turned with an innocent look. "You saw what a careful driver I am."

"Huh?" Claire's mouth dropped. She had clutched Iz's waist in fear on their motorcycle ride from Venice.

"All right--not so careful. I'm Italian, no?" Iz half-smiled. "Still, I would never drive at that speed in a storm."

"Why did you?" Claire asked.

"That night I was just . . . crazy in my head." Her face grew solemn. "I didn't care. I only knew I had to run . . . escape." She nuzzled her cheek on Claire's shoulder.

"Where did you go?" Claire raked her fingers through Iz's hair.

"I spun around, then crashed on the roadside. I flew off my motorcycle and landed against a gate. There was sharp metal . . ." She covered her ears. "I can still hear that shredding sound in my head!"

"Ugh!" Claire covered her mouth.

"I didn't realize that awful noise was coming from my body. Then nothing!" Iz clapped her hands. "I woke up in the hospital."

Claire buried her head in Iz's lap. "I had no idea!" she cried out. "You were completely alone--if only I'd known!" She flushed to think she'd imagined Iz had forgotten her.

"Clara, I was never alone." Iz's eyes lit like the sunlight through the blinds, "I have amazing friends."

"Yes," Claire ran her index finger around Iz's upturned mouth, "I'm not the only one who can't resist you, am I?"

Iz grinned, then rose and stretched. "It's a long story, there's more . . ."

"Tell me whatever you want." Claire rolled over.

"Mmm . . ." Iz jerked her thumb toward the kitchen. "But first coffee!"

Claire could hear her bustling in the kitchen. It was certainly plausible, she thought. The scar was proof enough. If anything, Iz could weave an intriguing tale.

Still, it wasn't clear why she hadn't been in touch in all that time. Her doubts resurfaced.

Iz came back with two cups. "Black, okay? I can go for milk and sugar if you like."

"No, that's fine." Claire took the cup. She didn't like her coffee black. But it was early and she wasn't about to ask Iz to dress.

They sat on the mattress sipping. Her head resting on the wall, Iz stared at the ceiling.

"So what happened after that?" Claire asked. Then she paused. "If you want to tell me . . ."

"There's nothing much to tell." Iz held the steaming cup to her lips. "Three friends and I went up and cleared out the house. We worked for three days."

"Three friends in three days." Claire touched Iz's face as if the solid feel would bolster the reality--she was actually here. "Sounds like a movie."

"A very bad one." Iz snickered. "We were exhausted and we stunk! My grandmother had years of shit in that basement. Finally, a truck came and took it all away. My friends left. I lived in the empty house until the buyers came. They seemed more interested in the garden."

"It was something." Claire thought of the blossoming yard overlooking Florence. Weren't Iz's paintings at the gallery reminiscent of the lush view?

Iz nodded with a sad look. "That mad woman, my aunt, threw all my grandmother's papers away. My address book was in there. No telephone. Then, like an angel from heaven, your letter arrived. I had your address!" Her face brightened. "I begged the gallery to give me another show. When I told them about my accident, they said it was all right."

"That was some good news then." Claire sipped lightly on the strong coffee.

"I no longer had my motorcycle, of course." Iz went on. "And my uncle sold Nona's crazy car."

Claire chuckled to think of Iz's grandmother driving her antiquated car.

"Anyway, I had to go back to the hospital in Rome for this." She tapped her thigh. "The pain was severe and I didn't have a moment--not one--to get international postage. But," she wagged her finger, "I told that gallery to be sure and send you a postcard!"

Claire looked away. It was an extraordinary story, for sure. But then, she had to ask herself, was there anything ordinary about Iz?

"And so, Miss Clara," Iz squeezed her tightly, "here we are!"

Claire turned and kissed her lips. Then she ran her fingers through Iz's thick, unkempt hair. "Do you need a haircut?" she asked.

Iz shrugged and smiled. "I could use one, eh?"

"We'll talk to Lloyd," Claire laughed, "he knows a lot of hairdressers."

(c) 2008 Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company