Authors: Melody Grace
I pull on a lacy camisole, and button a plain shirt over the top,
then pin my hair back with my favorite jeweled barrette. I smear on
some pink lip gloss and a dab of mascara, then I catch sight of my
reflection in the faded old mirror above the sink: pale skin, big
brown eyes, a mess of auburn hair. I look scared half to death, as if
I’ve never sneaked anywhere in my life.
I catch a breath.
, I order myself.
to do this.
I quietly open the bathroom door and tiptoe out into the bedroom, but
I’m barely three steps into the room when the light snaps on
“And where do you think you’re going, young lady?”
I freeze. Karla is sitting up in bed, her arms folded.
“I ...” I pause, running through a million explanations,
but the truth is, I don’t have one. Nothing I can put into
words, at least. Just a feeling. One of the strongest feelings I’ve
ever known. “Look, I’m sorry,” I start, pleading.
“I know it’s crazy, but I have to go. I don’t
understand it, I just do. Will you help?”
There’s a sickening pause, and then Karla rolls her eyes and
laughs. “Of course we’ll help, won’t we, Ros?”
“Mneugh?” Rosalie murmurs, still sleeping.
Relief floods through me. “Oh, thank you!” I exclaim.
“You’re the best. I swear, I’ll darn your pointe
shoes for like, a month if you cover for me.”
“Make that two months.” Karla pats her bed, so I go sit
beside her. “You look cute, so that’s a start,” She
reaches over to fluff out my hair, and wipe away a smudge of mascara
on my cheek. “Now, where is this party?”
I show her the flyer. “It’s called the Trastevere
district, it’s not far, see?”
Karla takes my phone and programs something into it. “OK,
here’s the address, and here we are. This is a taxi app, you
can just click, and it sends someone to your location. Don’t
accept drinks from anyone, don’t talk to strangers unless
they’re really, really cute, and please be back by midnight.”
I stare at her in amazement. “You think of everything.”
Karla gives me a look. “Not all of us live in a
cotton-wool-padded ballet cell, you know. Some of us have to function
in the real world.”
I feel a sting at her words, but brush it aside. She’s being so
helpful here, and I know, any other roommate would report me to
Mademoiselle the moment I even thought about breaking the rules. With
all of us in such strict competition, dancers will turn on each other
in a heartbeat to get ahead.
“I promise, I’ll be back in time,” I tell her, my
excitement rising again. “See you later!”
“Be safe,” Karla warns me, as I start for the door. “And
I don’t just mean on the streets!”
I silently let myself out of the room and check the hallway.
I creep carefully along and scurry down the stairs, past the empty
common area and deserted lobby. The front door makes a beeping noise
as I let myself out, and for a moment, I freeze in the doorway,
expecting alarms to sound, and Mademoiselle to pounce, and for me to
be shipped off home in disgrace. But there’s nothing but the
whir of the vending machine and a flicker from the broken fluorescent
light overhead, so I close the door behind me with a quiet click.
Outside, the Rome night is warm, with the faint sounds of traffic and
late-night partiers. A group of young Italians pass me on the street,
dressed up and chatting excitedly in words I don’t understand.
I fall in behind them, for a moment feeling like another person
entirely. I don’t know if I’m being crazy, or braver than
ever before. Perhaps they’re the same thing in the end.
I gather all of my courage and set out on the dark, foreign streets.
Towards the party. Towards Raphael.
I walk briskly along the main streets, and soon, I’m at the
edge of the neighborhood marked on the flyer. My heart is still
pounding so fast I think it might burst out of my chest, but the
thrill is from anticipation now, not fear.
Back home in New York, I was always nervous on the streets at night:
there was something cold and dangerous about the city blocks; but
Rome at night is a warm, bright comfort. Golden streetlights
illuminate the cobbled sidewalks, casting shadows on the tiny
courtyards and ancient statues, and every square I pass is noisy with
laughter and voices, people clustered outside the sidewalk cafes,
drinking wine and smoking cigarettes with stylish nonchalance. The
breeze is crisp with the coming fall, but the air is still warm with
the memory of the day’s sun, whispering around my bare legs and
sending shivers down my spine.
And then I hear it. Music, just like the other day. The swell of
strings, the low thunder of bass. Surging. Infectious.
Calling to me.
I cross the street and head deeper into the winding alleyways that
crisscross from the main boulevards. Even in the dark, I can see that
this is a hip, young neighborhood. The store windows are all full of
cute vintage clothing, and the bars are packed with scruffy, hot
Italian people in their late teens and twenties. There’s an
energy here, full of life and vivid promise, and it drives me on,
towards the music, into the unknown.
I can hear the party clearly now, voices and laughter in the dark
night. I duck under a curved archway, and suddenly find myself in the
middle of a large courtyard nestled between apartment buildings,
bright with light and activity.
It’s so beautiful, I have to take a breath and look around,
greedily drinking in the scene. Tiny lanterns and twinkling lights
are strung up all around the space: twining through fire escapes and
along the electricity wires overhead, illuminating the old shutters
on the buildings and the flowers spilling off every window ledge.
People are dancing, chatting, sipping wine and greeting each other
happily; a pulsating mass of people, their voices echoing out into
I let the energy wash over me, but now that I’ve arrived, my
self-consciousness flickers back to life.
What am I supposed to do now? I don’t know a single person
More people arrive behind me, and the music rises another level, so I
cautiously edge into the crowd. A whole mix of accents surrounds me:
Italian, what sounds like French, Spanish, even some English too.
It’s a young crowd, impossibly gorgeous, and stylish in that
effortless European way. The girls all wear lipstick, their hair long
and glossy, or cropped, gamine-style. They wear teetering heels with
flowing dresses, or skintight jeans and casual shirts—whatever
it is, they look like they all just strolled in from a Vogue shoot.
I tug on the hem of my denim skirt, feeling way underdressed, and out
of place. Over in the corner, I find a table crammed with bottles:
wine and liquor and all kinds of alcohol. I hunt for a soda, or even
a bottle of water, but I can’t see one anywhere.
Avete po il vino
!” A guy lurches towards me, dark
liquid sloshing from the jug in his hand. I jump back, but not quick
enough: it splashes my shirt, staining the white fabric with drops of
He swears, then starts apologizing in Italian, his words a foreign
“It’s OK,” I protest quickly, backing away. “I’m
“Ah, you’re American.” He brightens immediately,
switching to English. “I’m sorry, I’ve perhaps had
a couple too many. Here, let me fix it.” Over my protests, he
grabs a bottle of white wine and douses my shirt. Now it looks even
worse: sticking to my chest in a large pink stain.
“Really, I’m fine,” I insist helplessly. “It
was an accident.” I quickly strip the shirt off before it soaks
through to my silk camisole underneath.
When I look up, the guy is staring straight at my chest.
I cross my arms uncomfortably over the thin layer of wet silk, and
begin to turn away, but he moves to block my path: lounging against
the wall and penning me in against the table.
“So where are you from?” he asks, flashing me a wide,
“New York,” I answer slowly, looking around for an
“The Big Apple,” he announces. “I was there on
business just the other month.”
I make a noncommittal sound, still trying to figure out how to get
away from this guy. He’s cute, I guess, with a scruffy denim
shirt and stubble, but there’s something about the way he’s
leaning in, invading my space, that sets my nerves on edge.
“It’s such a dirty place,” he continues with a
sneer. “The garbage, just laying out in the streets, all the
homeless people. And no sense of history. If you want a real city,
you have to come to Europe.”
“I have to get back to my friends,” I lie, trying to edge
“Girlfriends?” He brightens. “You American girls,
you like to party, eh?” He winks, so sleazy it makes my skin
crawl, but before I can think of a response, someone reaches past him
and takes my hand.
“There you are,” the calm voice says. “I’ve
been looking for you.”
I look up, and my heart floods with relief. Relief and something
It’s Raphael, looking like a knight in shining armor. Well, a
plain black T-shirt and dark wash jeans, but right now, I couldn’t
be more grateful.
Raphael gives the guy a look, and right away, he backs off.
“Hey man, sorry to muscle in.” The guy winks. “I
get it.” He adds something in Italian, and Raphael’s
expression darkens. He replies in a clipped tone, and wipes the smile
off the guy’s face. I’m relieved when the guy turns and
disappears into the crowd.
“What was that about?” I ask curiously, still thrilled
from the touch of Raphael’s hand on mine. His T-shirt hugs his
body, and I can see the muscles defined in his arms.
“Don’t worry,” Raphael replies. He turns back to
me, his dark eyes full of concern. “Are you all right? Was he
“No. I mean, yes,” I correct myself, already blushing
under the intensity of his gaze. “But I’m fine.”
Raphael pauses, and suddenly the enormity of what I’ve done
comes rushing in. I showed up here at this foreign party in a strange
city, just because some guy handed me a flyer on the street. Does he
think I’m crazy and desperate to be here?
“Where are your friends?” Raphael looks around, and I
realize he overheard my lie.
“I didn’t...” I pause, embarrassed. “I came
alone, I just wanted him to think...”
There’s an unbearably long silence.
I pray that
the ground will open and swallow me up. He has to think I’m
“I’m glad.” Raphael’s voice is quiet and when
I look up again, there’s a heart-stopping smile curling the
edge of his perfect lips. “I hoped you’d come.”
I forget how to speak. I open my mouth, but no words come out. My
brain is too busy screaming with joy.
I hoped you’d come.
“Can I get you a drink?” Raphael doesn’t seem to
notice my brain freeze. “Beer, wine maybe?”
“A soda would be great,” I murmur, hoping he doesn’t
think I’m a kid. The truth is, I’ve never drunk more than
a sip of wine at one of Mom’s dinner parties, or a sickly sweet
cocktail out with the other girls sometimes. With early nights and
practice first thing in the morning, a hangover was never worth the
Now, I wish I could sound more adult: order a mixed drink, and sip it
like all the other glamorous girls here tonight. But Raphael just
nods, checking the table. “No soda here, let’s try
inside,” he suggests, nodding towards one of the open doors
leading off the courtyard.
I follow him through the crowd, now even louder and more raucous.
Raphael places a hand on the small of my back, guiding me beside him.
It’s only a light gesture, barely pressing against my camisole,
but I feel the touch like a tidal wave, crashing through my body,
leaving me breathless and reeling on the shore.
I want his hands everywhere.
“So what brings you to Rome?” Raphael asks, leading me
inside. People are clustered here too, hanging out in the rooms that
we pass. He glances back at me. “Are you a student?”
I pause. “Something like that,” I reply.
It’s a white lie, I know, but I’ve found out the hard way
that people have all kinds of preconceptions about ballet dancers:
that we’re stuck up and prissy,
who don’t know how to have fun. Maybe some of the stereotypes
are true, but tonight, I can’t help desperately hoping that I
can be more than just a ballerina for a few short, sweet hours. That
with Raphael, I can be someone different: exciting, worldly, the
daredevil risk-taker I could never be back home in New York.
“We just got here last week,” I add, moving on from my
fib. “Today was my first chance to get out and see the city.”
“And what do you think of it?” Raphael ducks through a
doorway at the end of the hall, and I find myself in a tiny, crammed
kitchen. Every wall is covered with open shelves, jars and saucepans,
and a huge old range takes up half the room. Raphael goes to open the
refrigerator in the corner while I look around, not sure where to
“I love it here,” I answer honestly. “It’s
the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. It almost feels too
beautiful,” I add, trying to explain the spell the city has
already cast on me. “Like everywhere I look, there’s too
much to take in. The buildings, the little squares, even the light
here has something magical about it...”
I trail off, embarrassed to be gushing so much, not cool and removed
like Lucia, and all the other effortless Italian girls.
Raphael turns back to me, and I feel a rush of relief when I see he’s
smiling in agreement. “There’s no place like it,”
“Have you traveled much?” I ask. “Your English is
amazing.” I blush. “I can barely string a sentence
together in Italian.
Uno espresso per favore,
” I mimic,