Susan DiPlacido is one of those rare individuals who's as smart, generous and funny as she is talented. As far as I can see, her only fault is that she can't take a compliment, and is going to want to send me a present for saying all this about her. But Susan, sit on your hands and let me finish ...
Susan DiPlacido is a natural storyteller with a gift for merging setting, plot and characters in a way that grabs the reader and doesn't let go. With two books already published and a third sure to make a hit soon enough, it's clear she's going to have a huge career as a novelist. But right now, you're lucky enough to have the chance to read one of her gems for free ...
"Right Hand Diamonds"
By Susan DiPlacido
Her first comment isn't, "Welcome home."
She rakes her sharp gaze over me, halting at my throat as I say, "Hi Auntie." So I put my arms around her frail shoulders to give her a weak hug. She bristles but manages to pat me on the back. But as I pull back, there's no cordial "hello" or "good to see you" greeting. And though her frame is slight and thin, she's still a formidable presence as she stands firm, not stepping aside to welcome me inside.
She purses her lips, immaculately painted with a slightly rosier than flesh-tone as her eyes focus again at my neck. She doesn't comment on my suntan or my hair. Instead her mouth slits open and with her bottom row of teeth showing, still glaring at my neck, she asks, "Is that real?"
I say, "Well, if you can see it, it's not imaginary."
This woman, she is my family.
She is my great aunt. She was my grandmother's sister, and since my nonna's passing she has been the de facto matriarch. Married 60 years to the same man, she keeps him alive through a strict regimen of low-fat sauces, vegetables and lean meats. They never had children of their own, and as the queen of the family, she is afforded the respect, if not affection, that is due to her position.
She takes a step aside and allows me entrance. I hand her the box of pannetone I brought back for her and my uncle. She sets the box at the entryway with a curt, "How thoughtful," and immediately dusts her hands off. Turning her back and walking briskly inside, she says over her shoulder, "I see you ate your share of the local cuisine, dear. I hope you didn't bring back extra for yourself to snack on."
"No," I tell her as I tug on my shirt. "I just thought Uncle Ted would enjoy it."
"Oh that's way too fatty and sugary for him," she says. "Come now, get inside and close the door."
Though they are clean, I slip off my shoes so I don't trample her cream-colored Berber carpet and she leads me to the parlor and directs me to a stiff-backed chair. I say, "Italy was gorgeous, Aunt Marie, you'd have loved it."
"I've been there. I was born there, dear, I know what it's like," she says as she takes a seat on her plush divan.
"But Bellagio," I say, "I've never seen such a gorgeous place."
"Hmph," she clucks as she neatly folds her hands over her knees. "Those northerners, they're so lazy and indulgent."
"Mmm," I just sigh, not sure how to respond, how to proceed. I glance around the meticulous room with its carefully positioned knick-knacks, all of them tight and tiny, a wash of light and airy hues, with Aunt Marie's shock of tight-curled preternaturally black-dyed hair the only contrast, besides me. Feeling as though I'm going to sully the upholstery of the chair, I shift and cross my legs, try to make myself smaller by folding my hands over my knee the same as she does as I straighten my posture in this unforgiving chair.
Auntie says, "Don't you have better things to spend your money on?"
"Oh, um, it wasn't that much, really," I tell her. "I got a good deal on the airfare and I didn't stay on Lake Como the whole time. I went to Milan and the hotel there was less…"
"Not the trip," she says, cutting me off. "The bauble on your neck, dear."
I reach up and finger it lightly, as if to reassure myself, though that makes no sense, considering it's obviously in place because she's noticing it, she's talking about it.
"It wasn't all that much," I say.
It's a lie.
It was a lot. It was an awful lot. And of course I have better things, more important things, to spend my money on. Retirement savings, mortgage payments, Ricky's nest egg, cancer research, health club dues, taxes, Christmas presents, charitable contributions, makeup, condoms, liquor, clothes, car, whatever.
This, this thing around my neck, it's useless. It's frivolous and extravagant. It doesn't do anyone any good.
"Do you really need something like that?" she asks me.
But it's pretty, this thing dangling from my neck. It's sparkly and shiny. When I tried it on, it made me feel special.
"I wanted it," I tell her, dragging my fingers away before they tarnish its shine.
"So it is real, then," she nods. "You kids. You want everything without having to earn it. A diamond, dear, is a symbol of love. Not a vanity piece."
My cheeks go hot, and I pin my gaze on her hand, the one primly folded on top of the other, resting on her knee. On her ring finger, on her right hand, is a sparkly rock. It's my nonna's engagement ring.
I can't hold my tongue, but I measure my words carefully. Nodding at the ring, saying, "Then what exactly is that symbolizing?"
This woman, my great aunt, she is not to be trifled with.
Her eyes flash and her lips go narrow as she hisses, "It's a remembrance of my sister. And I told you to never mention it again."
I'm a rotten niece. I'm rotten because I'm pleased that it upset her. I'm rotten because I know she's so defensive because she knows she's wrong.
My grandmother was plump and lush in her body, and she was soft and sweet in her soul. After my mom died, my nonna helped my dad take care of us. She made us rigatoni every Sunday and when she was getting older she took me aside and told me stories as she opened up her photo albums and jewelry box and showed me pictures of my grandfather and the ring he gave her when he proposed. Holding the ring, Nonna told me, "I want your brother Ricky to have this when I'm gone."
And I asked, "Why Ricky?" I wasn't mad and I didn't feel slighted. I just wondered why him instead of my older brother Gianni, since he was closer to marrying age anyhow. Or me, I guess, cause I was a girl. Ricky was just a little kid.
And she said, "Gianni has your mother's ring. And you, someday a man will fall for you the way your grandfather did for me. The way your father did for your mother. And then you'll have your own. But Ricardo, he's just a bambino. He needs to remember his family. He needs it the most."
That was my grandmother. That used to be my family.
My grandmother knew her sister could be prickly, but she wouldn't like me causing dissent or ill-will, even if Auntie is wearing what was meant to be my brother's ring. My face flushes again, I drop my eyes and apologize. Backpedaling, "I didn't mean it like that, Aunt Marie. I just meant that it doesn't have to be about a romance, that's all."
"No, but it's a token of love," she says. "If you bought it yourself, that devalues the whole idea."
I don't bother to tell her that the intent, or lack thereof, sure didn't cut me a price break -- the value is still pretty damn high according to Tiffany & Co. I just finger it again. It's a one carat round solitaire pink diamond. It's a contrast to the three stone white diamond ring I wear on my right hand. And the white bracelet I have. I haven't taken the necklace off yet.
I bought the three stone ring after Jack broke my heart by cheating on me. I got the bracelet after Vince told me it wasn't me, it was him – and then he got engaged and subsequently married six months later to another woman. The necklace, this necklace that Aunt Marie's riled up about, the one I can't stop touching, I just got it a couple days ago in Milan. His name was Romeo, this guy who inspired this new luxury purchase.
I met him on the beach in Bellagio outside the Villa Serbelloni. It was magic hour, that luscious time of day between sunset and dusk. That twilight time that lingers briefly, where a divine light glows with soft edges and misty rapture. The Italian Alps framed the background as he strode out of the azure lake, water skimming off his taut muscles, dripping from the ringlets of his shaggy dark hair.
I knew he was trouble right away.
He dropped to his knees in front of me. In a Milanese dialect he said, "Bella regazza. Sempre sarò triste se con me Lei non avete pranzo."
This guy, Romeo, that's what he said to me.
In English, that roughly translates to: "Pretty lady. I'll be unhappy forever if you won't have dinner with me."
And in my American, 30-year-old, single-girl jaded dialect, it translates like this: "Nice tits. Wanna fuck?"
At that moment, I felt lucky that genetically I got Nonna's plump curves instead of my aunt's trim efficiency.
Oh, Romeo. Yes, they actually have guys in Italy named Romeo.
I didn't go there to meet a man. But what the hell, I was on vacation, he was charming. I went to dinner with him. Halfway through the meal, as his mouth poured impromptu poetry, extravagantly laced with glowing compliments to weaken me, I told him the deal straight up. I said, "Romeo, you're very handsome. You're very sweet. But this isn't necessary, you don't have to sweet talk me. I'll sleep with you anyhow. I'd prefer it if we kept it honest like that."
He frowned and said, "You Americanas. You've all forgotten romance. I say these things not to have sex with you. I say them for they are true."
I knew better. I knew the lavish compliments weren't sincere, they were just a means to an end. But even though I have that hard, wise shell outside, inside I'm still soft and sweet. And stupid.
Inside, there's still that glimmer of hope.
So I asked him to stop but he poured the wine, saying all the right things. Saying all the wrong things. Saying things to make my head spin and face flush, kissing me to make my heart flutter, going slow with his hands and making my pulse race.
Repetition works, and it wasn't long before that glimmer sparked and I started to feel the shine of possibility, though I was careful to keep my mouth shut.
When he leaned over me and growled in my ear, "A woman like you, cara mia, I could die for you," I knew better. I didn't ask it aloud, but still I had a fleeting thought: Yes, Romeo, but could you live with me?
And I thought briefly, maybe, someday, he could be my family.
Romeo, Romeo, I'd have slept with you anyhow, Romeo. But I've since figured out that Italian men don't court the same as American men.
But they leave the same as American men.
That translates this way: Romeo dogged me a couple days later. No note, no arrivederci, no nothing. I saw him frolicking on the beach later that afternoon with a new, thin girl. I waved to him and he turned away and whispered something in her ear.
That's what he did, that guy, Romeo.
This is what I, the 30-year old jaded American girl, did. I got what I needed at the local farmacia, and when I spied Romeo and his bony blonde having dinner that night, I tromped right over. I didn't take a seat. I just stood there and pulled the package of lice shampoo out of the box and set it on the table next to him. I raised my voice an octave to sound sweet and innocent. To sound stupid. And I said, "Oh, Romeo, I know you're probably still mad at me for, well, you know." I mimed a scratching motion in front of my crotch. "But here, I got you this. The guy at the store said it would take care of the crabs right away." I smiled and cheerfully chirped, "I feel all better already!"
Romeo glared at me. The blonde, she stared, mouth agape. She leaned away from him. I said, "Oh, sorry. Guess you're gonna need some of this too."
It was worth making myself look like an ass to so effectively cock-block the player. Self-satisfied, I skipped up to my room. But the satisfaction was short lived. Even if I didn't take it very classy, the fact remained, I'd still been dumped. Again.
So I moved on to Milan, feeling foolish and forlorn. Feeling twice the fool for feeling forlorn because I knew better anyhow. Window shopping, the necklace caught my eye. A solitaire in a simple setting. Pink, playful and romantic, glinting with girlish romance. But tough too. Harder than a rock, virtually indestructible. I didn't trust the salesman when he told me how lovely it was on me. I trusted how it made me feel. Besides, it wasn't really useless. Someday, maybe Ricky could get the setting changed and use it as an engagement ring when he decides to start his own family.
But for now, it's for me. Sometimes, I need a little something sparkly on the outside to reflect that rapidly diminishing glimmer on the inside. Maybe, a little glitter will catch someone's eye and they'll stick around long enough to notice I can shine.
I don't tell my Aunt Marie any of this. She's still staring at me, expecting an explanation, a defense. Her lips, they're pursed.
I stay silent as I look back at her. I don't reach up to touch the stone, I can already feel it, resting gently at the base of my throat. I know it's there.
My uncle shuffles through the room, winking at me, saying, "Welcome home! Did you have a nice time?" He takes a seat on the on the soft divan next to my aunt. He says, "Scootch over, Dovey." That's what he calls her, Dovey. Short for Lovey Dovey. I know, if they weren't so old it'd make me nauseous.
Auntie answers for me, telling him, "She did plenty of shopping, that's for sure. Look at her neck, Theodore. Gracious."
He squints and smiles, pats his wife's knee. "Oh Marie," he chuckles and moves his hand up, covers her hand. Her right hand with my nonna's diamond on it. He pats her hand and says, "She's got a good job, it's nice to have a souvenir from a trip."
Auntie sniffs, but she just can't let it go. "A souvenir, yes. But that's extravagant." She pins me in her gaze again. Saying, "It's useless. It doesn't mean anything! Really dear, a single girl like you. Do you really need something like that?"
My face flushes, again. But I don't break her stare. I say, "I think single girls need something like this the most."
* * *
This story first appeared in Fifteen Project
If you like this story, please order Susan's steamy love-sex-gambling novel, 24/7, or her fun, fabulous romance, Trattoria. To learn more about Susan, visit her website at susandiplacido.com.