Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Europe (excluding the United Kingdom) (02/19/09)
TITLE: Bittersweet Flavors of Italy
By Sara Harricharan
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She was going to crack me. I knew that too. She knew me better. The sun-kissed hair and smile on her face told the truth of a New York girl having found her dreams in beauty of Italy.
“It’s called Acitrezza.” She announced with a sweeping arm across the town view. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
I waited for my brain to catch up to my mouth. The real answer swam below my consciousness, teasingly out of reach, my voice refusing to cooperate.
Archie always wanted to visit Italy. His face hovered before me and any possible answers were reduced to a pathetic shrug.
The midday sun decorated her pixie-face as she squinted, tinted eyebrows arched upwards. Her arm linked securely through mine. “Stick with me, girlfriend.”
Because she was my best friend, I did. My befuddled senses shifted gears as Shelia ducked inside a shop. Her arm left mine as she bee-lined to mountains of candy displays. The small store was filled with all kinds of things packed and stacked everywhere.
Candy appeared to be the dominant product, with other packages in writing I could not decipher. Shelia scooped up handfuls of colorful candies, depositing them on the checkout counter.
Everything blurred until I stumbled out into the streets again, her arm carefully looped through mine.
I turned in time for her to stuff the object through my mouth. A strange herbal sweetness flooded my mouth and I almost gagged at the first swallow, before it slipped down my throat. The second swallow wasn’t half-bad and the taste was the emptiness in my life.
Words failed again, as I grabbed her arm, squeezing harder than necessary. She patted my hand, mumbling in Italian as the scenery blurred.
My senses awoke to recognize the damp smell of a harbor. It triggered memories of my sea-loving husband that I couldn’t push away. The brain fog threatened to settle permanently. Shelia gently pushed me down and I realized, belatedly, she meant for me to sit.
The bench was warm and sagging in the middle. Her hands small and smooth, brushed my cheeks and forehead. My eyes closed as I willed myself to take another precious breath.
“I’m sorry about Archie.” She murmured at last, curving an arm around my shoulders, pulling close. “Sorry I couldn’t make it to the funeral.”
“S’okay.” The first word snuck through my lips.
She dumped the bag on my lap, rifling through it with her free hand before stuffing another candy through my lips.
A laugh threatened to bubble up in my throat.
She rubbed my back. “It only hurts this bad when you really love someone.”
Tears pooled stubbornly in my eyes. I didn’t want to let go. I wanted to hold on tight and keep everything the way it was supposed to be.
“You had me worried.”
I crunched the candy angrily, feeling the bitter taste easing down my throat. “They don’t understand.”
“I know.” She said simply, her hand dipped into the paper bag again. I obediently opened my mouth. My senses were reviving, the sugar helping.
“Anise.” Shelia supplied, reading my expression. “See those rocks over there?”
“Ulysses threw them there when he fought the Cyclops.”
I quite nearly choked for the second time.
She calmly thumped me on the back. “I’ll let you have them for the once-in-a-lifetime price of only nine Euros, shipping and handling included!”
I dared to look at her. The serious expression was on the verge of immediate reform. “I know what you’re doing.” The tattletale whisper escaped.
She turned to me with eyes brimming with more pain than I would ever know. “Good. Is it working?”
I read between the lines to the promise of our friendship spanning across countries and registering only in the very deepest bowels of the heart. I didn’t want to pretend anymore. My head slowly nodded.
She whisked the sack of candy off my lap before squeezing the breath out of me in a hug so tight the pain disappeared as she whispered a prayer in my ear.
We laughed and cried until the sun set.
And together we stuffed ourselves with candy. I crammed a handful inside my mouth, closing my eyes to identify the flavors of my life.
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