Lilly taught me to let my pantyhose run.
“You let the rip come down from under your skirt to just above the knee. Then you seal it with a drop of nail polish,” she told me. “Draw attention to your legs, guys love that.”
Lilly’s Russian was vulgar. She didn’t sing through her a’s like we did in Moscow and sometimes she wrapped her g’s in a hoarse-sounding ha.
“Odessitka,” Mama said about her when Lilly and her mother moved in across the hall of our Ladispoli apartment complex. “Odessa Jews are not like Moscow Jews,” Mama explained. “Listen to that girl. She sounds like she’s at the market selling fish.”
For almost six months we’d been living in a small town near Rome. Crammed three generations into a one-bedroom flat, we waited—like other Soviet refugees in the late 1980’s—for an American entry visa. When we went to the market, we sold binoculars and Lenin pins, not fish.
Italians passed our stands on their way to enjoy dinner or an afternoon martini. Some walked by after treating their children to a gelato or a carousel ride. They didn’t buy much but seemed entertained.
One night I stretched out on the bed Lilly shared with her mother and watched her draw thick black lines around her eyes. She dug her fingers into her chin-length hair and fluffed the dark ringlets around her head. Her nails scraped against her scalp. She rolled the sleeves of her white knit sweater over her elbows and pulled the tight fabric of her skirt down her thighs. Then she winked at herself in the mirror. I wanted to be her.
“Don’t hang around here dreaming that we’re friends,” she said. “I am a seventeen-year-old woman and you’re a kid. Basically, an egg. So, watch and learn.”
Oh, I learned. To walk as if I kept a secret between my thighs. To keep my neck straight, like it held up a jug of water. To flirt with just about anybody—the more I practiced, the brighter my future looked. I learned to be resourceful, too, which meant cooking on a dirty frying pan to reuse the oil, and combing wheat flour into my hair to give it shine.
“I’m out tonight,” Lilly yelled, informing her mother of her plans.
No reply. Her mother spent her days sitting at the small kitchen table, watching Italian TV and not understanding a word. Lilly was the one responsible for grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning. Each day her mother’s face and body became smaller and the swelling around her feet wider. Everybody said she didn’t have much time left, but I misunderstood, figuring that meant Lilly and her mother would get their visas and fly out soon. That worried me.
“Please,” I begged, “let me go out with you tonight.”
I knew she wouldn’t say yes, but I had to keep trying. It wasn’t clear when a kid like me would morph into a woman like Lilly. What if it had already happened a moment ago? What if I had grown breasts and my hips became wider than my shoulders? What if my hair had lost its redness and the awkward gap between my front teeth had narrowed? What if Lilly turned around from her mirror now and said: “Kat, you’re a woman!”
“I’m meeting the brothers tonight,” she said, referring to the two guys who usually chain-smoked under her window after sundown. They weren’t related but went everywhere together. Each had a budding mustache and chest hair above their sweater necklines. Lilly said she preferred one to the other, but ordered me to be silent on this matter. I guarded the secret with my life.
“Tonight’s not for some little grasshoppers. We’re going to the far out cliffs. Even Reeta isn’t coming.”
Reeta was fifteen and lived across the bridge, near the market square. She got her passage into Lilly’s circle because she supplied Lilly with makeup she stole from her mother. I wished I was brave enough to do something like that. And what Lilly called the far out cliffs was Torre Flavia—the remains of an ancient Roman military tower at the edge of the town. The crumbling ruins separated the coastline from the soft push of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
I had only been out there once, in the daytime, under the blazing sun. We had just arrived from Moscow then, and although it was the middle of October, the heat was brutal. Papa wanted to explore the beach and Mama was happy to oblige.
“Anything to get me away from all the immigrants,” she said.
I remember walking through the sand that day for what seemed like a while. I watched the skyline transform from tall buildings down to small, single family villas and the hills of Italian countryside. Being out there—almost in the wilderness—I felt removed from our small apartment. I felt detached from the swarm of grandparents frying veal kotletki and arguing over who would have been better off—Mama or Papa—had they not married each other.
Lilly gave her mirror one last glance.
“We’re going to climb those cliffs tonight,” she said. “There’s a ledge on the side of the rocks that you can’t see from the beach. Imagine. Kissing there for hours and only the sea and the moon can see you.” She walked out of the room.
I stayed back after she slammed the front door and imagined Lilly in her miniskirt, climbing the ancient tower. There was nothing that girl couldn’t do, I thought.
“Good night, Mari Mikhalna,” I said to Lilly’s mother before going home. She gave me an intense look, like she was thinking hard about something. I thought she might speak, but she only nodded and turned back to the TV screen.
Across the hall the mood was festive in our apartment, as if we were expecting a guest. Mama spread a white tablecloth over the oval table in what we called The Big Room. We couldn’t call it the living room, since it was where my grandparents slept, but we couldn’t call it the dining room, either. We ate regular meals in the kitchen, huddled over a small table, adhering to a rotating order of who got to sit.
“Rolando’s coming over,” Mama said when I walked in the door. “Cut up some cheese and make coffee, Kat.”
If Rolando was coming over, it meant that more Soviet Jews were arriving in Ladispoli. He helped broker deals through which Italians rented out their seaside apartments to the refugees. Every immigrant family he placed paid him a fee. Rolando took care of all the arrangements for the landlords, and they turned a blind eye to the amount of people he crammed into each space. Papa, who had memorized the necessary parts of the Russian-Italian dictionary, worked for Rolando as an interpreter.
Rolando’s visit also foreshadowed a huge fight between Mama and Papa afterward. His tanned face was wide, with dimples on either side of his big-lipped mouth. His hair was shiny and his eyes smiled even when he didn’t. He looked like a well-fed cat and he drove an Alfa Romeo. Mama was smitten.
When Rolando finally came over that night, he sat with one leg crossed over the other, his feet wrapped into leather monk strap shoes. As he talked business with Papa, he performed each phrase with his entire body. His voice extended through his arms to the tips of his fingers. He finished his sentences by singing the second to last vowel, as if that sound was the only reason he said anything at all.
I sat at the table and listened to the music in his words. Sometimes I looked directly at him and practiced my flirting. When Mama wasn’t looking, I sipped Amaretto out of her glass and spread too much Nutella over slices of whole wheat bread.
“Bene,” Rolando said, after midnight. “What a beautiful evening!”
He thanked Mama and kissed her on both cheeks, causing her to blush through her makeup. Then he threw his blazer over his elbow, wrapped his neck in a silk scarf, and headed for the door.
“Ciao, ciao,” he sang, motioning to us with open arms, like an actor on stage.
After he left, I took my time washing the dishes and wondered if my parents cared that it was long past my bedtime. They kept so few of our usual routines, that our time in Italy seemed like a pause between the way life was and the way life might, one day, come to be. No rules applied. Mama and Papa argued in the bedroom and I could hear their escalating voices over the noise of the running water:
“Ne vidumivaj.” Mama was denying any wrongdoing.
“It’s written all over your face,” I heard Papa say. “And look at your blouse. I can see your nipples.”
They were interrupted by the doorbell, which rang only briefly, as if someone had changed their mind after pressing the button. I turned the faucet off and dried my hands.
“Kat, will you get that?” Mama yelled from the bedroom.
I didn’t see anyone when I opened the door. But I heard a faint hissing sound coming from the floor at my feet. There, I saw Mari Mikhalna lying on her side in a small heap of her own body. She looked up at me with the same intense stare she’d given me earlier in her kitchen. She strained to say something or to express pain. Her face was red.
“Mama,” I called.
But I must have done so quietly, because at first nobody came. I heard my voice somewhere in the back of my head and didn’t know how to bring it toward my mouth. Her face was terrifying and yet it drew me—I couldn’t look away. I felt weakness in my knees, so I leaned on the wall and lowered myself to the floor. Papa and Mama rushed out from their room and my grandparents followed.
I watched them surround Mari Mikhalna, their voices and gestures exaggerated next to the stillness of her body.
“Where is Lilly?” Papa asked, placing his forearm under Mari Mikhalna’s head.
“She needs an ambulance.”
“We don’t have a phone.”
“We can’t let anyone in. What if someone finds out how many of us live here?”
“We should carry her to the clinic. They’ll have a doctor on call.”
“Will they treat a refugee?”
“We need a Russian doctor.”
“It’s a heart attack. By the time we get her there, she’ll be gone.”
Everyone seemed to be speaking at once and I wasn’t sure who was saying what or what they were trying to decide. There was no procedure in place for the unlikely event that an immigrant died in transit. But I didn’t know this at the time. I didn’t even realize that Mari Mikhalna was dying.
“Wait, I know where Lilly is,” I shouted, finding my way up from the floor and feeling around for my shoes with my feet. “I’ll find her.” Bringing Lilly would fix everything, I thought. She would know what to do.
“You’re not going anywhere at this hour,” Mama said.
But Papa looked at me, then at Mari Mikhalna, and then back at me again. I couldn’t believe it, but he said, “Go.”
My heart pulsed hard through my veins and then fixed itself steady in my chest as I ran parallel to the beach, along Via Roma. Wind shook the leafy tops of the palm trees and cold sweat formed at my temples. I didn’t know how much time had passed, but I had to have been running for a while. I tried to estimate how much longer it would be before I could turn left and cut to the beach. I both dreaded and longed to see the edge of town—wary of how hard it would be to run through the sand, yet knowing that I’d be that much closer to the cliffs and to Lilly.
I made the turn and after a few blocks the line of the sea formed in the distance. It was a narrow, deserted street with a few lonely villas to either side of me, their shutters closed tight. I began to feel my legs ache at the shins. My body was heavy and there was tightness under my ribs that made it difficult to breathe.
Just then I noticed something familiar a few blocks ahead, and when I was certain what it was, I began to laugh a crazy, loud laugh. I stumbled and fell to one knee, scraping my skin through the fabric of my pants. The neon red of the Alfa Romeo, parked on the right side of the street, became visible in the darkness. I could hear the faint melody of Lambada playing on the car radio. It’s Rolando, I thought, help was within reach. I saw his profile in the open window as I approached the car from behind. His expression was unusual—relaxed, almost joyful.
“Andiamo, Rolando,” I called over the music. I needed him to drive me along the beach to find Lilly. “Spiaggia, rapido,” I said.
When he looked up I noticed that his body was moving, as if he might have been dancing. But the movements were too jerky, too fast for the beat of the music. And a strange sound was coming from somewhere below, near the steering wheel—a kind of rhythmic scrubbing.
“Rolando,” I said, as I looked down to see him rub something large above his pants. It was a body part that I didn’t immediately recognize and he seemed to be ripping it from the place where it was hinged. He growled.
I stumbled back, feeling my bladder loosen and warm urine trickling down my thighs. I began to run. Slow at first but then gaining speed, letting my elbows swing and cut through the air at my sides. Something told me I’d witnessed what I shouldn’t have, and I was scared of the consequences. If he went after me, I wondered, could I outrun his car?
But perhaps he never followed me. Soon I felt the cold sand under my feet and the sound of my breath was drowned by the hush of the waves. I threw my shoes off a few meters apart. They were two small marks belonging to me—of me—along that foreign coast. I stopped feeling my body. I could run like this all the way to America, I thought.
The tower looked deserted when I finally reached it, but I could hear voices coming from the depth of the ancient stone. I lowered to my knees and tried to slow my breathing. The wind was blowing the smell of seaweed and cigarettes into my nostrils.
The voices seized and for a moment I wondered if I had imagined hearing them in the first place.
I heard one of the brothers swear.
“Come down, Lilly, I have something. Something to tell you.” I couldn’t just say it, not while she was up there. I needed to pass it to her hand to hand.
There was movement against the stone. Stifled giggles. Hushed bits of conversation. I sat back and let myself sink into the sand.
One of the brothers was the first to appear. He climbed with his hips open and knees bent, facing the wall of the tower. His movements were precise and slow as he felt for each protruding stone to hold on to. His cheek was pressed against the stone with tenderness, as if he were slow dancing. When his entire body became visible from the beach, I realized that he was part of a human chain. He clasped his brother’s hand behind Lilly’s back, the two of them pressing her to the wall so that she couldn’t fall. Their bodies were tense, as if a formation of soldiers with rifles stood behind them and Lilly’s white sweater was the moving target.
When they descended low enough, one of the brothers jumped and Lilly climbed off the wall and into his hands. The water was up to his calves as he carried her toward dry sand.
Lilly helped me up and looked at me. Her eyes were wild and there was lipstick smudged over her face.
“Your Mama,” I said.
“What?” she backed away.
I described it as best I could and gestured back in the direction of the town, tugging at her sleeve.
“How long did it take you to find me?” she asked, after a long pause. Her voice was brittle.
“I don’t know. An hour. Two.” As I answered, Lilly’s shoulders sank. “Let’s run back.” I was surprised at how childish my words suddenly sounded.
One of the brothers took out a pack of cigarettes and lit one for Lilly. Then he offered one to me and I said no. Lilly began to walk in the right direction. To a stranger, she would have looked like she was just strolling along the beach. She took a drag and held her breath.
“She might still be okay,” I said.
When a small cloud of smoke came out from between her lips, Lilly stopped, cleared her throat, and handed me the cigarette. She folded her arms over her chest and watched me, her eyes narrowed.
“Don’t keep it in your mouth,” she said. “Breathe it in, like you’ve just come up from under the water. Relax, or you’ll start to cough.”
I exhaled and caught a glimpse of Lilly’s approval. Then she motioned for us to start heading back. We shared this cigarette among the four of us and when it was over, we lit another. Lilly could walk faster, but she stayed by my side, silent, until we reached my shoes at the edge of town. The brothers followed a few steps behind.