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May 1957

Elisabetta had kept the secret for thirteen years, but it was time to tell her son who his father was. She had been waiting until he was old enough, but she didn’t want to delay any longer. He deserved to know the truth, and she had never been comfortable concealing it from him. The secret had grown harder to keep over time, like a bag of groceries carried the first block, then the second, but by the third must be set down.

She stood at the kitchen sink, finishing her coffee, and the apartment was quiet and still, as her son was out playing soccer. She prepared herself for the conversation, realizing she would have to relive the worst days of her life and even of her country’s history, since her youth had encompassed the ventennio, the twenty years of Mussolini’s rule and a war that had turned Italy topsy‑turvy, during which good had become bad and bad had be‑ come powerful.

Tears filmed Elisabetta’s eyes, but she blinked them away. She hoped she could make her son understand why she hadn’t told him. The revelation would shock him, as he suspected nothing, resembling her so strongly that it was as if his father’s biology expressed itself in his personality, rather than his facial features.

Her gaze strayed to the window over the sink. She eyed a view ingrained in her memory, from Trastevere to Vatican City, a palimpsest unique to Rome, which had been adding to itself since the beginning of Western civilization, layer upon layer of travertine marble, brick arches, medieval turrets with crenellations, and the red‑tiled roofs of houses with façades of amber and ochre. Church domes dotted the timeless scene, interspersed with palm trees, cypresses, and umbrella pines. Soaring above them all was Saint Peter’s Basilica, its iconic dome gilded by the Italian sun.

Elisabetta withdrew from her reverie and set her coffee cup in the sink. Her son would be home any minute. The kitchen filled with the aroma of lasagna, his favorite meal. She had made it because he was going to hear a difficult story, but one he needed to know. One she needed to tell.

She heard the front door open, and he entered the apartment, dropping his soccer ball. She braced herself. “Ciao, amore!”

“Mamma, are we having lasagna?”

“Yes! Come in the kitchen, would you?”



May 1937

Elisabetta made up her mind. Marco Terrizzi would be her first kiss.

She watched him doing bicycle tricks by the river, riding on his back tire, his head thrown back in laughter, his teeth white against his tanned face. His thick, dark hair shone with pomade in the sun, and his legs were knotted with muscles inside the baggy shorts of his uniform. He rode with joy and athleticism, achieving a masculine grace. Marco Terrizzi had sprezzatura, a rare and effortless charm that made him irresistible.

Elisabetta couldn’t take her eyes from him, and neither could the others. They had grown up together, but somewhere along the line, he had gone from boyhood to manhood, from Marco to Marco. That he was terribly handsome there could be no doubt. He had large, walnut‑brown eyes, a strong nose, a square jaw, and a broad neck marked by a prominent Adam’s apple. He was the most popular boy in their class, and everything about him seemed more vivid than everyone else. Even now, the sun drenched him in gold, as if Nature herself gilded him.

Elisabetta wondered what it would be like to kiss him. She guessed it would be exciting, even delicious, like biting into a ripe tomato and letting its juices run down her chin. She had never kissed a boy, though she was already fifteen years old, and at night she practiced kissing on her pillow. Her tabbycat, Rico, with whom she slept, had grown accustomed to her routine, as cats endure the silliness of young girls.

Elisabetta had no idea how to make Marco think of her as more than a friend. She usually achieved what she set her mind to, getting good grades and such, but this was different. She was too blunt to flirt. She lacked feminine wiles. She had been a maschiaccio, a tomboy, when she was little, which was how she had grown close with Marco. She was trying to become more womanly, but she still didn’t wear a brassiere. Her mother said she didn’t need one, but the other girls made fun of her, talking behind their hands.

“Elisabetta, help, I’ll drown!” Marco raced toward the river, and she was about to call to him, but stopped herself. She had read in a female advice column that denying men the attention they craved drove them mad with desire, so she ignored him, while the other girls responded.

“Marco, no!” Livia called back. “Marco, be careful!” Angela gasped.

The boys waited to see if calamity befell Marco, but he cranked the handlebars, veering away from the river’s edge. They laughed and returned to their textbooks, spread out on the grass. They were doing homework, having come from their Balilla meeting, the party’s compulsory youth group. They all wore their uniforms, the boys in their black shirts and gray shorts, and the girls in white muslin shirts and black skirts.

This quiet spot on the riverbank, just north of the Ponte Palatino, had become a hangout of her classmates after school, though Elisabetta typically sat with Marco or Sandro, apart from the other girls. Somehow she had missed her chance to become their girlfriend, and it was too late now, for they rebuffed her overtures. Perhaps they had judged her as preferring the boys, which wasn’t true, and she would have loved to have had a good girlfriend. Whatever the reason, Angela and the other girls kept her at a distance, and she tried not to let it bother her.

“Look, Betta!” Marco called again, using her childhood nickname. “Use my proper name!” Elisabetta called back, from behind her newspaper. She did prefer her full name, as she hoped to become a journalist someday. She practiced her byline at night, too. By Elisabetta D’Orfeo.

“Elisabetta!” Marco rode over, sliding to a stop on the grass. “Hop on my handlebars. Let’s go for a ride.”

“No, I’m reading.” Elisabetta hid her smile behind the newspaper. Angela rose, brushing grass from her skirt. “Marco, I’ll go, take me!” “Okay!” Marco extended his hand, Angela clambered onto his handlebars, and the two rode off together.

Elisabetta lowered her newspaper, wondering if the female advice column had been wrong. If she wanted Marco, she would have to attract him another way. She sensed she was pretty enough, now that she had grown into her features, according to her mother. Her large, round eyes were greenish‑brown, and her shoulder‑length hair was a rich brunette, wavy and abundant. Her nose was strong, but proportional to her prominent cheekbones, and her lips were full. Her problem was her bocca grande, big mouth, which proved a disadvantage when it came to boys, her Latin teacher, and that old bitch at the newsstand.

Elisabetta leaned back on her elbows, breathing in the odors of the Tiber, its water a milky jade with wavelets topped with ivory foam. Swallows skimmed the surface for a drink, cicadas rasped, and dragonflies droned. Pink oleander bushes, umbrella pines, and palm trees lined the riverbank, and the natural oasis was shielded from the hustle‑bustle of the city by gray stone walls.

Elisabetta’s gaze found the Ponte Rotto in the middle of the river, a bizarre sight. Centuries ago, the stone bridge had connected the riverbanks, but time had reduced it to only a single arch rising from the water, leading nowhere. Romans called it the broken bridge, but she thought that it was a survivor, standing despite the elements and the Tiber itself, which sent blackish‑green vines up its sides, as if trying to pull it underwater.

Beyond the Ponte Rotto was Tiber Island, the only island in the river, barely large enough to contain the Basilica di San Bartolomeo all’Isola with its faded‑brick belfry, the Church of San Giovanni Calibita, and the hospital, Ospedale Fatebenefratelli, with its rows of green‑shuttered windows. Across from the hospital was Bar GiroSport, which Marco’s family owned and lived above. Elisabetta lived only a few blocks away from him in Trastevere, the bohemian neighborhood that she and her father loved. Unfortunately, her mother had ceased loving anything.

It was then that Elisabetta spotted Sandro Simone striding toward her and the others. Sandro was her other best friend, and Marco’s, too, as the three of them had been a trio since childhood. Sandro walked with his characteristically lanky stride, and his light brown curls blew back from his long, lean face. He was handsome in his own way, his features more refined than Marco’s and his build like a sharpened pencil, slim but strong, the way a wire cable supports a modern bridge.

Ciao, Elisabetta!” Sandro reached her, smiling and taking off his fez. He wiped the sweat from his brow, slid off his backpack, and sat down. His eyes, a brilliant azure color with long eyelashes like awnings, narrowed against the sunlight. His nose was long and aquiline, and his lips finely etched into his face. Sandro lived on the east side of the river in the Jewish quarter, called the Ghetto, and throughout their childhood, Elisabetta, Sandro, and Marco had traveled back and forth on an axis from Trastevere to Tiber Island and the Ghetto, riding bikes, playing soccer, and generally acting as if Rome were their private playground.

Ciao, Sandro.” Elisabetta smiled, happy to see him.

“I stopped to get us a snack. Have one.” Sandro produced a paper bag from his backpack and opened its top, releasing the delicious aroma of supplì, rice croquettes with tomato sauce and mozzarella.

Grazie!” Elisabetta picked up a supplì and took a bite. The breading was light, the tomato sauce perfectly salty, and the mozzarella hot enough to melt on her tongue.

“Where’s Marco? I brought some for him, too.”

“Off with Angela.”

“Too bad.” Sandro chewed a supplì and glanced at her newspaper. “What are you reading?”

“Nothing.” Elisabetta used to love reading the newspaper, but her favorite columnists were gone, and she suspected they had been fired. Benito Mussolini and the Fascists had been in power for fifteen years, and censorship had become the order of the day. “All the articles are the same, about how great the government is, or they reproduce ridiculous posters like this one.”

“Let me see.” Sandro wiped his hands on a napkin.

“Here.” Elisabetta showed him a picture of an Italian peasant woman in traditional dress, holding babies in each arm. She read him the caption. “‘The ideal Fascist woman is to bear children, knit, and sew, while men work or go to war.’ It’s propaganda, not news, and anyway, not all women are the same.”

“Of course they aren’t. The newspaper isn’t always right.”

“No, it’s not.” Elisabetta thought of the female advice column. Marco and Angela still weren’t back.

“Don’t let it bother you.”

“But it does.” Elisabetta disagreed with the Fascists, though she didn’t discuss it with anyone other than Sandro and Marco. Those who spoke against the government could be arrested and sent into confino, exile, far from their homes. Informers abounded in Rome, even in Trastevere, and though Elisabetta’s family wasn’t committed to any particular political party, as artists they were congenitally leftist.

“You don’t like being told what to do.”

“Who does? Do you?”

“No, but I don’t take it so much to heart as you.” Sandro leaned over. “Guess what, I have amazing news. I was accepted to an internship with Professor Levi‑Civita at La Sapienza.”

Davvero?” Elisabetta asked, astonished. “You, a high school student? At the university?”

“Yes, it will be an independent study.” Sandro beamed with pride. “Congratulations!” Elisabetta felt delighted for him. He was a mathematical prodigy, and his preternatural talent had been plain since primary school, so she shouldn’t have been surprised that he would be at La Sapienza, the city campus of the University of Rome. “And this professor is the one you always talk about, right? Levi‑Civita?”

“Yes, and I can’t wait to meet him. He’s one of the greatest mathematicians of our time. He developed tensor calculus, which Einstein used in his theory of relativity. In fact, he just got back from seeing him in America.”

“How wonderful. How did this come about, anyway? For you?” “Professoressa Longhi recommended me, and I’ve been waiting to hear. I just stopped by the hospital to tell my mother.”

“She must be so proud.” Elisabetta admired Sandro’s mother, who was one of the few female doctors she had ever heard of, an obstetrician at Ospedale Fatebenefratelli.

“She was, but she was surprised I hadn’t told her I was being considered.”

“I am, too. Why didn’t you tell us?” Elisabetta meant her and Marco.

“I didn’t want you to know if I failed.”

“Oh, Sandro.” Elisabetta felt a rush of affection for him. “You never fail, and Levi‑Civita is lucky to have you. You’ll be a famous mathematician someday.”

Sandro grinned. “And you’ll be a famous journalist.”

“Ha!” Elisabetta didn’t know what Marco would become, but dismissed the thought.

“How can you read in the sunlight?” Sandro squinted at her newspaper. “It’s so bright.”

“It is, I know.”

“Allow me.” Sandro slid the newspaper page from her hand and stood up. “No, give me that back.” Elisabetta rose, reaching, but Sandro turned away, doing something with the newspaper. “It’s only the obituaries.”

“I like the obituaries.” Elisabetta always read the obituaries, as each one was a wonderful life story, except for the endings.

Ecco.” Sandro held out a hat of folded newspaper, then popped it on her head. “This will keep the sun from your eyes.”

Grazie.” Elisabetta smiled, delighted, and all of a sudden, Sandro kissed her. She found herself kissing him back, tasting warm tomato sauce on his lips until he pulled away, smiling down at her, with a new shine in his eyes that confused her. She had just decided that Marco would be her first kiss.

“Sandro, why did you do that?” Elisabetta glanced around, wondering if the others had seen. Her classmates were bent over their homework, and though Marco was approaching with Angela on his handlebars, he was too far away.

Sandro grinned. “Isn’t it obvious why?”

“But you never kissed me before.”

“I never kissed anybody before.”

Elisabetta felt touched. “So why me? Why now?”

Sandro laughed. “Who asks such questions? Only you!”

“But I thought we were just friends.”

“Are we? I—” Sandro started to say, but Marco interrupted them, shouting from a distance.

Ciao, Sandro!”

Ciao, Marco!” Sandro called back, waving.

Elisabetta blinked, and the moment between her and Sandro vanished, so quickly that she wondered if it had happened at all.



May 1937

Marco pedaled home from the river on the Lungotevere dei Pierleoni, the wide boulevard that ran along its east side. The sun had dipped behind the trees, shooting burnished rays through the city, which had come to boisterous life as the workday ended. Cars honked, drivers cursed, and exhaust fogged the air. The sidewalks thronged with people, and businessmen hustled to catch trams.

Marco accelerated, preoccupied with Elisabetta. He was in love with her, but she treated him as a pal, the way she always did. She hadn’t even cared when he had taken Angela on his bike. He felt stumped, which never happened to him with girls. He could have his pick, but he wanted Elisabetta. She was beautiful, which was reason enough alone, but he loved her passion, her strength, her fire. She had thoughts about everything, and though her intelligence was superior, she treated him as if he were equally intelligent. Marco would stop at nothing to win her over. He was love’s captive.

He flashed on seeing Sandro by the river today, standing oddly close to her, as if they had been having a great discussion or even sharing a secret. Anxiety gnawed at Marco, and he experienced a flicker of envy at the bond that Sandro and Elisabetta shared, for they were always talking about books or the like. But Marco knew that Sandro and Elisabetta were only friends, and Sandro had no female experience whatsoever.

Marco turned onto the Ponte Fabricio, his tires bobbling on the worn travertine. The footbridge was the oldest in Rome, walled on both sides — and since it connected to Tiber Island, it was essentially the street on which he lived. He dodged businessmen and veered smoothly around a cat that darted in front of him. He reached the top of the gentle span and saw that his father, Beppe, wasn’t standing outside his family’s bar, Bar GiroSport, as he usually did. It meant that Marco was late to dinner.

He sped to the foot of the bridge, passed the bar, and steered around to its side entrance on Piazza San Bartolomeo all’Isola. He jumped off his bicycle, slid it into the rack, then flew inside the crowded bar. He scooted upstairs, dropped his backpack, and entered a kitchen so small that one pot of boiling water could fill it with steam. On the wall hung framed photos of his father in the Giro d’Italia and a calendar featuring Learco Guerra, the great Italian bicycle racer. A small shelf held a framed photo of Pope Pius XI, a crucifix of dried palm, and a plaster statue of the Virgin. Marco’s mother worshipped Christ; his father worshipped cycling.
Ciao, everyone!” Marco kissed his two older brothers, Emedio and Aldo, then his father, as they were sitting down at the table.

“Marco!” Emedio smiled, looking like a younger version of their father. Both had curly, dark brown hair, a prominent forehead, and thick brows over coal‑dark eyes, wide‑set above broad noses and flat mouths. Marco’s father still had the muscular build of a professional cyclist, his skin perennially tanned and his upper lip scarred from a wolf attack in the mountainous farming region of Abruzzo, where he had grown up. The story was that Marco’s father, only ten years old at the time, had been watching the family’s sheep when the wolf had struck, but the boy had wrestled the animal to the ground, then chased it away. No one who knew Beppe Terrizzi doubted the veracity of the story.

Ehi, fratello.” Aldo smiled in his tight‑lipped way, self‑conscious due to his teeth, which were crooked in front. He took after the Castelicchi side, with a quieter temperament, eyes set close together, and a characteristic cleft in the chin. Aldo was the shortest of the Terrizzi sons, but he loved cycling and still had on his sweaty white jersey and bike shorts. If their mother wished he would change for dinner, she would never say so. Everyone knew who ran the household, and it wasn’t her.

“Mamma, that looks delicious. Brava.” Marco kissed her as she was ladling pomodoro sauce with whitish chunks of crabmeat onto a platter of spaghetti for the first course. Bright orangey claws stuck through the red‑ dish pulp, their pincers jagged, and the uniquely fishy tomato aroma made him salivate.

Ciao.” His mother smiled up at him, her small, light brown eyes warm. Steam billowed from the sink, curling the dark tendrils that had escaped her long braid, and she had a flat nose, a broad smile, and the honest, open face of a country girl. Marco’s parents were contadini, of peasant families, and they had grown up in houses shared with goats and chickens. They had married and moved to Rome, where his father had parlayed his cycling celebrity into Bar GiroSport. The café was frequented by hospital employees, locals, and cycling fans, called tifosi, for they were as crazy as those afflicted with typhus.

“Just sit, son.” His father motioned from at the head of the table.

“Here, boys.” His mother set the platter of spaghetti near Marco’s father, served him first, then the rest. They prayed over the meal, and everyone ate quickly except for Marco, who savored every bite while his father quizzed Aldo about his training times. Emedio stayed out of the line of fire, having escaped a cycling career by entering the priesthood. Marco could never make such a sacrifice, as he had a duty to the female population. And someday, to Elisabetta.

His mother turned to Emedio, who worked at the Office of the Holy See. “What news? Anything?”

“Did you hear about the German encyclical on Palm Sunday?” “No, what is it?”

“Mit Brennender Sorge. It means ‘With Burning Anxiety’ in German. The Pope issued an encyclical that was distributed to almost thirty thousand German churches, a direct message to German Catholics.” Emedio leaned over. “Cardinal Pacelli assisted in its composition, but I tell you that confidentially.”

His mother drew her index finger across her lips like a zipper, and her eyes twinkled. To her, Vatican gossip was the best gossip.

“The encyclical was read by German parish priests to their congregations, with no prior notice to anyone. Can you imagine, all those churches, and no one let it slip out? It was printed and distributed in complete secrecy.”

“Why in secrecy?” His mother frowned. “It’s the word of Our Holy Father.”

“It was reiterating his teaching that German Catholics should follow God, not Hitler. As a result, Hitler sent the Gestapo to arrest those who had printed and distributed the encyclical.”

“How terrible!”

His father shot Emedio a look. “No politics at the table.”

Emedio fell silent, and their mother pursed her lips. His father was a Fascist of the First Hour, meaning he had joined in 1919, even before the March on Rome in 1922, when the King appointed Mussolini to be Prime Minister. Traditional by nature, his father believed that the party would be good for small business owners, as well as bring law and order to Italy.

His father cleared his throat. “Now, as I was saying, this will be a significant year for the Giro, and I know who will win the pink jersey. I predict Bartali will repeat his victory.”

Aldo nodded. “I agree, though I’m putting a side bet on Bini. And Olmo, who was so fast in the Milan–San Remo.”

“No, wrong.” His father sipped some wine. “The Milan–San Remo is child’s play. And Del Cancia won, anyway. You’ll lose your money, Aldo.” “No matter who wins, he shouldn’t wear the pink jersey. Think of it. Pink?” Aldo chuckled, and Marco had heard this before. Mussolini had declared that pink was an effeminate color, confusing Fascists and tifosi alike.

His father scoffed. “The color of the jersey isn’t the point. The achievement is all. Right, Marco?”

“Yes, Papa.”

“Marco, you know, I was at the window tonight, watching you when you turned onto the bridge. You were late for dinner.”

“I’m sorry, Papa.”

“That’s not my point.” His father rested his bulky forearms on the table, his gaze newly intense. “You rode very well. You held your line. You even picked up speed. You surprised me.”

Marco didn’t interrupt, feeling a knot in his stomach.

“I saw what happened with the cat, too. It ran into your path, but you didn’t lose a split second. It’s time for you to train in earnest. Imagine what you can do with my regimen, son. You could wear the maglia rosa someday. You could win the Giro, the premier race in all of Italy. You could take your place in cycling history.”

“Papa, I’m not that good,” Marco said, since it was the last thing he wanted.

“I think you can be. It’s in your blood.”

Aldo frowned. “Papa, what about me? I’m training hard.”

Their father turned to Aldo. “I’ve told you, you’re not building the muscle you should. You’re not getting any faster. You must not be working hard enough.”

“I’m trying.”

“Keep at it, then. Prove me wrong. Two are better than one, anyway. You can train together.” His father’s head swiveled back to Marco. “Son, tonight you begin. Understand?”

“Yes, Papa,” Marco answered, having no choice in the matter.

by by Lisa Scottoline