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Gray.  It was all she saw.  Gray like ashes or newspapers left out in the rain.  The color of disrepair.   When she pulled back her curtains and peered outside, she would see people gliding ghostlike through the city.  She suspected these bloodless walkers did not have places to be and were condemned to spend all of eternity commuting.

She craved color.  She missed Florence, that sun drenched city.  She wanted to see flowers instead of the sharp, leafless branches of the trees lining the city streets.  She dreamed of the vibrant red pappa al pomodoro that Paolo used to make for her.  She didn’t think she could stand another day of ramen noodles.

Chicago is good for you, she told herself.  You need to stop living like a gypsy.  Still, she didn’t know a single person in this cold new city, even though someone had once assured her that his cousin’s best friend’s brother would be more than happy to take her under his wing.

Today was rainy and overcast like the sixteen days before it, but it might turn out to be her lucky day.  She had her first interview, and she only wished she could feel something other than the dread that curled in her stomach along with her second cup of coffee.  She pictured her mother, standing tall in an optimistic pant suit, lecturing her on the benefits of a winning attitude.  She wanted to crawl back into bed and stay there until the sun came out.

Isabella, her cat of one week, twirled around her ankles and meowed.  She supposed Bella was telling her to get ready, that she needed a job in order to buy Cat Chow.  She got up and stretched.  A red silk robe covered her body.  Her hair was almost dry.  The wooden floors, though light and warm in color, were cold beneath her bare feet as she walked to the bathroom.

The paleness of her skin always surprised her in the mirror, and she wondered daily if it was just bad lighting.  As she shrouded her lashes with mascara, she thought about going to church after her interview.  It was Ash Wednesday, and she worried her paling faith would soon be gone.  I’ll go, she thought.  She added a touch of pink to her cheeks and lips and twisted her dark blond hair into a secretarial bun.

She made her way to her bedroom and grimaced at the interview attire laid out upon her bed.  A pantsuit, charcoal gray, and a prim blouse the color of a pearl.  “Respectable,” her mother had said upon giving her the blouse.

She threw the blouse on the floor for Bella to nap on.  She pulled a sweater, pink cashmere, out of her second dresser drawer and rubbed it against her cheek.  Someone had once given her roses the exact color of that sweater.  She wondered what he was doing just then, if he’d found another girl, maybe an Italian girl, to replace her.  The new girlfriend would be a beauty, she felt certain.  They would cook together, and the girl, like Paolo, would understand the secrets of tomatoes and basil.

She couldn’t think about that.  She decided she would wear the thin, bright cashmere with her interview suit.  Surely the dull gray would subdue the sweater into respectability.

Half an hour later, she joined the city of black umbrellaed walkers.  Her umbrella was yellow, a rubber ducky bobbing through a flock of crows.  She wished she felt like an individual with her unlikely umbrella, but instead she felt young, like a child who had infiltrated the ranks of the morning commuters.  She felt a desire to fold up her umbrella and hide it beneath her beige trench coat, but she couldn’t risk showing up to her interview with what her mother called the “rain frizzies.”

After fifteen minutes of wrong turns and half accurate directions from strangers, she found herself on the correct street.  She pulled a scrap of paper from her purse and checked the address.  There.  She gulped.  Her interview was to take place in a tall building, gray as a gargoyle.  As she froze in front of the building, a man walked past her, giving her the briefest glance of a high cheekboned face in profile.  For a moment, she thought she recognized him.

It wasn’t him.  Paolo wouldn’t follow you to Chicago, she scolded herself.  She missed the nights they had spent wandering the streets with nothing to do.  She missed the bottles of Chianti they used to drink on his balcony and the times he had let her sketch him at three in the morning when they couldn’t sleep.  Most of all, she missed who she became with him.

It was just as well.  He probably wouldn’t even recognize her now, a pale rain creature, hiding from the world in her little apartment.  The girl he had known had learned to drive a motorcycle in the countryside, had tried every new food that was offered to her, and had gone skinny dipping on the first date.  These days, she couldn’t even muster up the courage to go to a church on Ash Wednesday because she couldn’t decide if she was more frightened to believe in God or to not believe in God.

All the luck she’d ever possessed, she’d left behind.  She folded up the rubber ducky umbrella, wrapped her arms around herself, and turned away from the unlucky gray building and the Paolo Decoy to head home, wherever that was.  The rain increased its intensity, gliding down her face and bare neck, penetrating her clothing to dampen her legs, arms, and torso.  She welcomed it, grateful for its coldness.


Stacy Wennstrom is a senior nonfiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.

© 2006, Stacy Wennstrom

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