Bella Fortuna
by Rosanna Chiofalo

Chapter 1 - Unlucky 13

I've never considered myself very lucky. Maybe it has something to do with my being born on Friday the 13th and one day shy of Valentine's Day. For a long time, I've been convinced that my birth date is the reason why I've been so cursed in love. And my being named after the patron saint of love, St. Valentine, when I've had nothing but agita in romance just makes it more painfully ironic. Agita is what Italians call grief of the worst kind. To top it off, my mother is very superstitious and believes in the dreaded malocchio, or evil eye, even though it's 2010. Malocchio is when someone puts a curse on you. And many Italians are fervent believers in the mighty power of the malocchio. But none of that matters anymore since I've finally met "the one."

Thinking about this and how my luck has changed, on this cold Sunday morning, I walk out of church. January in New York City is definitely not one of my favorite months. But as every New Yorker knows, the frigid temps don't stop you. The streets are the quietest on Sunday mornings, my favorite time to be walking through Asto- ria, the Queens neighborhood where I grew up and still live.

The attendance at the eight a.m. Mass at Immaculate Concep- tion is usually low-too early for most people to get up on the weekend. Even though it's a drag to get myself out of bed, I still go through this weekly ritual. It's meditative for me. It's not often one can go somewhere in New York City without running into a crowd so you have to grab your quiet moments when you can. Sunday mornings are when I can hear myself think best. Even though it's just slightly above the freezing mark, I take my time walking home.

The shops that do open on Sundays are slowly coming to life. Several joggers pass me on their way to Astoria Park. Dogs are trot- ting along, immune to the nip in the air.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I love to people-watch, and New York City is a great place to do it. Probably nowhere else in the world will you encounter as many people from different eth- nic, socioeconomic, and religious backgrounds-well, except for at an airport!

The aroma of fresh baked bread from the Italian bakeries reaches my nose. Through the windows, I spy a few old men al- ready sitting at the bakeries' tables, sipping their cappuccinos and reading La Corriere della Sera newspaper. As I step through the doors of Antoniella's Bakery, I spot Paulie Parlatone's S-shaped re- ceding hairline behind his newspaper.

Paulie is known as "the Mayor of 35th Street" or "Il Sindaco" for his meddling in everyone's affairs on my block. He has no idea he'd been christened with this nickname, just as he has no idea that he talks too much. The irony isn't lost on everyone that his last name, "Parlatone," means "big talker" in Italian. Paulie will stop you in the street and grill you to the point where you finally surrender and tell him your personal business just so you can end the conversa- tion more quickly.

The worst is when he shows up at your house unannounced. He often comes to my home right after dinner, asks my mother for a toothpick, and makes himself just as comfortable as if he's sitting in his own house. While he talks to us, he picks his teeth with the toothpick. And no matter how well you hide your dirty laundry, nothing gets past Paulie.

I quickly walk by Paulie's table at Antoniella's, praying not to be noticed.

"Valentina!" I keep walking, pretending I can't hear amid the din in the crowded bakery. Already there's a line of customers, waiting to get their Sunday Danish, croissants, and biscotti. I try to hide behind the Shaquille O'Neal dead ringer who stands in front of me on line. But not even the man's tall figure disguises me. A finger taps me on the shoulder. "Valentina! Didn't you hear me?" "Ohhh, Paulie. I'm sorry. I'm a bit preoccupied, and with the noise in here, I guess I didn't hear you." I give him a faint smile.

"Always thinking! That's been you since you were a little girl. Remember the time you almost hit me while you were riding your bike? You were staring right up at the clouds. I had to whistle to get your attention."

Of course I remember that day. It's true, I did like to daydream a lot as a kid. Sometimes, I wish I had hit him-nothing too seri- ous-just enough to shut him up for even a second.

"Well, enjoy your day, Paulie." I return my attention to the pas- try display case, pretending I still haven't made up my mind as to what I'm ordering.

Paulie doesn't seem to notice or care. "So where are you off to?" "I'm going to the shop." "You're open today? Sposa Rosa's never been open on a Sun- day. Are you losing money?"

I picture myself on my childhood bike, hitting him head on- again and again.

"No, business has actually never been better, especially after the feature Brides magazine did on us a few months ago. I have to fin- ish my wedding dress, and with the store being as busy as it is, the only time I get to work on it is late at night or on Sundays."

"Of course! Of course!" Paulie slaps his forehead. "How could I forget? Our little Valentina is finally getting married. You know I was beginning to get a little worried for you."

Oh, how I wish I were on that bike right now-no, make that a car instead.

"Paulie!" I laugh through gritted teeth. "I'm not the only woman in New York to have waited to get engaged until she was in her thirties!"

"I know. I know. But I just couldn't understand why no one had snagged you sooner. You're such a pretty girl with a good head on your shoulders."

Apparently, Paulie's definition of shoulders is different from mine since his eyes rest on my breasts. I forgot to mention that Paulie is also a perv. He rarely misses a chance to ogle a woman's boobs.

"I was just picky. There aren't enough good men out there." "May I take your order, miss?" The salesgirl saves me. "It was nice talking to you, Paulie. 'Bye!"

I place my order for Palline di Limone biscotti and even throw in a few assorted mini Danish so I can talk to her longer, hoping Paulie will leave me alone.

" 'Bye, Valentina." It works! Paulie walks away. "Hey, Valentina!" He stops, returning to my side. "Have I told you I can't wait to spin you around the dance floor at your wedding? Oh, wait! You're getting married in Venice. That's too far. I won't be there."

Thank you, God, Mary, and all the blessed saints in heaven! I nod sadly, belying my true thoughts of elation. Then I look down into my purse as I search for my wallet. I know I'm being rude, but I don't care. Paulie has been rude toward my family countless times. He finally leaves the bakery, picking up one of the compli- mentary toothpicks on the counter.

I breathe a sigh of relief. Choosing to get married in Venice was the best decision I ever made. I put Paulie as far away from my thoughts as possible, and focus on returning to the meditative, blissful state I was in before I ran into him.

After leaving the bakery, I pass Anthony's Salumeria. My mouth waters as I spot Anthony slicing prosciutto-my favorite Italian cold cut. Unable to resist, I walk into the deli and order half a pound of the salty meat along with a block of sharp provolone.

"Good morning, Valentina!" "Hi, Anthony! How are you?"

"Can't complain. I'll be out of here by noon. The Giants are playing so I've got that to look forward to."

Anthony always gives me the first slice of meat to sample even though I know he carries nothing but the freshest products.

"Hmmm! Still the best!"

Anthony smiles. Sometimes, I think he goes through this ritual more for his own sake than mine. He just can't resist hearing his cold cuts praised.

Although I am used to the sights and sounds of the neighbor- hood that has been my home since I was a child, they seem more vi- brant today. The bread at Antoniella's Bakery smells particularly heavenly. The froth threatening to spill over from the patrons' cap- puccinos looks thicker, and the prosciutto at Anthony's is the sweet- est ever. Even my three-carat emerald-cut diamond engagement ring sparkles brighter today.

Yes, it's the start of a new year, and finally I feel like this is going to be my year. After designing and sewing wedding dresses for other lucky brides-to-be for so long, it will now be my turn to shine in the spotlight. In just five months, on June 14th to be precise, I'll be marrying Michael Carello in my favorite city in the world- Venice.

I had secretly admired Michael since I was ten years old. Michael was thirteen, but even though he was three years older than me, he always said hi and tried to make me laugh. Popular at school and in our neighborhood, Michael and his family lived around the block from me, so I often saw him playing football or hockey with his friends on my street.

He has blond hair and blue eyes, defying the dark southern Ital- ian stereotype. He takes after his mother. Iva Carello is beautiful even now that she's in her late fifties and is often told she resembles the deceased Princess Grace of Monaco in her twilight years. His father, Joseph Carello, also poses a striking figure, with intense black eyes and a full head of hair at sixty. He always wears a suit, and on his days off from work, he still wears trousers with a button- down shirt, minus the tie and jacket.

Michael has definitely inherited his parents' sense of style. Even as a kid when he wore jeans or got dirty playing sports, he always looked good. It's hard not to notice Michael. But what really branded my devotion to him was when he had come to my defense at Li's Grocery Store when I was a kid.

I passed Li's Grocery Store every day on my way to school. My mother sometimes bought a few groceries there. It wasn't a real supermarket in the sense that you could get your week's worth of shopping. Mr. Li, a Taiwanese immigrant, owned the store and never had a smile for his patrons. Maybe that, along with its limited stock, was why hardly anyone frequented the store. But Li's did have an aisle full of cool school supplies like pretty binders with flower or fairy patterns, spiral notebooks with sparkly glitter cov- ers, Hello Kitty pencil cases, and my favorite-Strawberry Short- cake erasers that smelled like strawberries, of course.

Every afternoon when I walked home from school for lunch, I would stop by Mr. Li's to eye the stationery I couldn't afford. I al- ways politely greeted Mr. Li, who acknowledged me even if it was just a stern "Hello." So I was shocked when one day he yelled at me as I was leaving the store.

"You! Yes, I talk to you. What you have in pocket?" I froze as if he had a gun cocked right at my head. "I say what in pocket? Take hand out."

I took my hands out of my powder-blue, faux-fur-trimmed coat, holding my palms up to show him they were empty as I whispered, "Nothing."

"You come every day. No buy anyteeng. Why?" "I was just looking."

My heart was beating as fast as my cat Gigi's after my mother had thrown her heavy clog at him for stealing food off our table when we weren't looking.

"Hey! Leave her alone! She didn't take anything!" I hadn't even seen Michael and his best friend, Sal, standing at the register. Utter humiliation washed over me as my face flushed, resembling the color of the half-rotten pomegranates that lay in the boxes at the front of the store.

"She here every day. Hide in back. Teenk I no see. I no idi-uht. She never buy anyteeng. She steal."

Bella Fortuna . 7

"I know her. She would never steal a penny. It's a free country. She can come in here and look without buying anything. Just because she doesn't buy your crummy stuff doesn't mean she's stealing."

Mr. Li frowned and glanced at me again. I lowered my eyes to the floor.

"It's okay, Valentina. Come on, let's get out of here." Michael placed his arm around my shoulders, leading me out. I could feel Mr. Li's gaze burning a hole through the back of my head as if he was trying to read my mind, still questioning if I'd somehow stolen something and had cleverly hidden it.

Once outside, Michael turned to Sal. "Give us a minute. I'll catch up with you in a second." Sal nodded his head and walked toward school.

Michael removed his arm from my shoulder and bent his head lower so his eyes met mine. I stared at the ground, wishing I could shrink to the size of the ants that were crawling around the broken pieces of bread that someone had thrown to the pigeons.

"Are you okay?" I nodded my head. "Thanks," I managed to mutter in a tiny voice.

Michael patted my arm. "Don't feel bad. You hear me? You didn't do anything wrong. You're a good girl, Valentina. Mr. Li's a stingy jerk. He once wouldn't let an old lady who was short a quar- ter walk out of there with a loaf of bread. I gave him the quarter. What a creep."

I just nodded my head again and continued to look down at the cracks in the sidewalk.

"Well, I gotta get back to school. My lunch break is almost over. But if you want, I'll walk you home." I shook my head. "No. That's okay. Thank you." "Don't sweat it!" I turned and began walking home. "Hey, Valentina!" I stopped and looked over my shoulder, still not meeting Michael's worried gaze. "If anyone ever treats you like that again, just tell me. I'll take care of them for you."

I finally managed to smile at him. He winked at me and then turned around, running to catch up with Sal.

That wink was all it took to make me fall completely in love with Michael. After that day, every time I saw Michael he always winked at me after he said hello. It was as if he knew its power. For with that one wink, I felt myself soar high above the sky, dancing in midair with the birds. Now my childhood fantasies of wedding my prince someday were replaced with dreams of marrying Michael.

And that was how my crush on Michael began. But I had to watch helplessly over the years as he dated one girl after another. When I turned fourteen and puberty finally decided to pay me a visit, filling in my flat chest and narrow hips, Michael still seemed to look at me as if I were that ten-year-old kid whom he'd rescued. I'd noticed his friends staring at me a few times when they thought I wasn't looking, but not Michael. Unlike his friends, his gaze always met mine rather than my boobs, which were already a C-cup at that point. But something had changed in how he treated me. He no longer winked at me after he said hello. In fact, he didn't even try to make me laugh, as he'd loved to do when I was younger. I didn't get it.

So I started dating, having one miserable relationship after an- other or not having a boyfriend when important occasions arose like a friend's Sweet Sixteen party or my sophomore-year dance. My best friend, Aldo, had gone with me to the dance. I could al- ways count on Aldo when I needed a date. So I'd put on my best poker face and pretended I was having a blast with him when all I could think about was, Why can't I have a boyfriend for longer than two months? Why can't I have a boyfriend here with me instead of my best friend?

Of course, Michael still wound his way into my thoughts, but not as much since he'd left for Cornell University. I only saw him when he came home for breaks. I was beginning to accept the fact that he'd never have any interest in me as anything more than a childhood friend. I was the little sister he never had, nothing more. Yet from time to time, my mind still wandered to him, wondering what he was doing.

"Swaying room as the music starts . . . strangers making the most of the dark." Madonna's "Crazy for You" was playing. I loved this song. I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned around. "Wanna dance?" Michael! "Hey! What are you doing here?" "I heard the music from outside. I couldn't resist coming in and catching up with some old friends and teachers." "They let you in?" "Of course! Why not?" He winked at me. Oh my God! He hadn't winked at me in years. It still had the same bone-melting effect on me.

"Come on. Let's dance." Michael took my hand, leading me to the dance floor. My heart was racing so fast, I was convinced he could see it. He pulled me close to him as we slowly danced to the music. He rested his chin on my shoulder. I swallowed hard. I should probably make some conversation. But all I wanted to do was close my eyes and listen to the words of Madonna's "Crazy for You."

"Isn't this such a great song?" Michael pulled his head back and looked into my eyes, smiling. "You like this song, too?" I asked incredulously. "Yeah, it's one of my all-time eighties favorites, right up there with The Cure's 'Just Like Heaven.' " "Oh my God! I love that song!" "No way!" "Yeah, way!"

We laughed together. He put his chin back on my shoulder. Again, my insecurities were telling me I should make more of an attempt at conversation. Why couldn't I just relax and enjoy this moment? It would probably never happen again.

"So how's Cornell?" I managed to get out. "Stuffy and dull!"

"Oh, come on! I can't believe it's all that dull! I can only imag- ine all the fun you must be having at those parties and all those in- teresting classes. I can't wait to go away to college."

"Really?" "What's so surprising about that? You think I want to stay in Astoria and commute to school? Get real!" "I don't know. I just thought you'd be like the other Italian girls in the neighborhood and stick close to home. Besides, will your parents let you go away for college?" "Probably not, but I don't care. I'm going to do it anyway!"

Michael laughed. "You've got spunk! I like that. You are differ- ent from a lot of the girls around the neighborhood. Promise me you'll stay that way." Michael pulled his face away and stared into my eyes again, waiting for my promise.

I shrugged my shoulders. "Promise me!" His face came closer to mine. My heart started pounding again. "Okay." I blushed and looked away. He was staring at me in the most peculiar way.

"Good!" He winked at me again and pulled me close to him. I could smell his cologne. Drakkar Noir. Every guy wore Drakkar Noir back then. It just occurred to me that Michael wasn't dressed for a dance. After all, he wasn't planning on coming. I didn't care. He was the sexiest guy here tonight. His dark-wash denim jeans and black V-neck sweater made him look like one of those male models I'd seen on the covers of Maxim magazine or GQ.

"So you like The Cure, huh?" "Yeah, they're one of my favorite eighties bands." "I might be able to score some tickets to one of their concerts at the Meadowlands this summer. Would you be interested?" I looked up into Michael's eyes. "You know. For you and a friend." "Oh. Sure. That would be nice." Just as soon as my hopes had soared, they immediately took a nosedive. The song was over. We looked at each other a bit uncertainly. "Thanks for the dance," I said.

"Hey! No sweat. I'll let you know about the tickets when I'm back in town for the summer. They're supposed to go on sale next Monday, but there's someone at school who scalps them. He said he'd hook me up."

"Okay. Sounds good. Thanks." "I'll catch you later. I want to say hi to Mr. C." "Sure. Go ahead." Boy, I sounded lame! Like he needed my permission to leave. Michael smiled and looked at me as if he wanted to say some- thing else. Then he walked away.

I made my way to the refreshments table and asked for a Coke. My mouth felt so dry, and my hands still felt shaky. Part of me was elated that Michael had asked me to dance, but another part was disappointed, too. For a second, I thought he was going to ask me to go to The Cure concert with him.

"Hey, Vee! You guys looked amazing! Give me all the juicy de- tails!" "There are no details to give, Aldo."

I crossed my arms and searched the room for Michael. Mr. C., the American History teacher at St. John's Prep, was talking to Ms. Vicelli, my English Literature teacher. It looked like Mr. C. was flirting with her, touching her shoulder regularly as he talked ani- matedly with his hands. He must be bragging about something. Mr. C. often told the most outlandish stories from his days when he was young, as he liked to put it. I couldn't help feeling he had chosen the wrong career path. He loved attention and should've gone into politics or acting. Ms. Vicelli was pretty with light golden brown hair and highlights that framed just her front bangs. It seemed like every male teacher at St. John's Prep was in love with her. She was one of the nicest teachers at school.

Michael approached them and shook Mr. C.'s hand. Ms. Vicelli gave him a hug. Suddenly, I felt jealous. I knew it was crazy to be jealous of Ms. Vicelli. She was, what? A dozen years older than Michael? But still. I wanted it to be me hugging him, not her.

Aldo broke in on my thoughts. "I saw the way Michael was holding you while you guys danced. And the look on his face! He has the hots for you big-time! Trust your big bro Aldo. He always knows best." "Well, you couldn't be farther from the truth." "Aldo's eyes and instincts have never failed him!"

"Okay, I admit. I thought I was getting a few vibes from him, es- pecially a couple of times when he looked at me extra long." "I knew it!" "Control yourself! There's nothing to it. We talked a little about music, and he's also an eighties music nut like we are." "This is getting better and better. And the man has good taste!" I wanted to smack Aldo. "Well, he told me he might be able to get tickets for The Cure this summer. He asked me if I was interested." "Ahhhhh!!!!" Aldo grabbed my shoulders and shook me back and forth. A few people standing near us looked at him and frowned. "He then added, 'For you and a friend.' " "Oh my God! You have to take me! You have to take me! I'll never talk to you again if you don't." Aldo jumped up and down. Then he suddenly stopped. "Wait. This is not good. I'm so sorry." "I was beginning to wonder how long it would take for your brain to register what I said." "Oh, Vee! I'm so sorry. I'm such an idiot. Here you are thinking Michael is finally going to ask you out on a date, only to have him say he'll get you a pair of tickets to go with someone else, and I'm thinking about myself." "It's okay. I know how much you love Robert Smith. If it were someone else, I wouldn't have forgiven you." I smiled, letting Aldo know we were good. "Vee, I think it's the jail-bait thing. I really do. He's just waiting for you to turn eighteen, and once you do, he's going to ask you out. I'm sure of it." Michael was now eighteen years old compared to my fifteen, hence, the jail-bait issue. "I wish I could share your optimism, Aldo. But I'm too realistic. You're also forgetting that he was dating Danielle Santucci in the fall. She's just seventeen." "But you're different. He respects you. Danielle has no class. Everyone knows she lost her virginity when she was in sixth grade, for crying out loud."

"You don't know if that's true. It's just a rumor! And I can't see Michael dating someone who would have a rep like that." "I'm sure he heard about it and that's exactly why he dated her." "He's not like that, Aldo." "Excuse me, Miss DeLuca. Does Michael have a penis?" I shook my head. "No, he doesn't? You are holding out on me. How long have you been sleeping with him?" "That's not why I'm shaking my head, and you know it." I couldn't help laughing at what he'd said. "Aldo, stop being so sarcastic all the time! You know the closest I've ever gotten to him is this dance we shared tonight." "But you do agree that he is a man?" "This is stupid, Aldo." "Just humor me, for once, please!" "I'm always humoring you. I know where you're going with this. Just because he's a man doesn't mean he thinks like every other man out there." "Vee, you're being naive. I know Michael is a nice guy, but a guy nonetheless. Men can't turn off their sexual needs as easily as women can." "Hey, watch it! That sounds sexist. I thought you were on our side anyway!"

"Of course, I'm always on the woman's side. But as you like to say, 'I'm being realistic.' " Aldo smirked. "I just think you're placing Michael on this high pedestal that no human-man or woman- could ever live up to. He's going to fall off it if you expect so much from him and keep thinking he's perfect."

"I know he's not perfect." "Right." Aldo grabbed a lemon from the cups that were on the refreshment table next to the iced tea. He sucked on the lemon wedge, scrunching up his face. Aldo loved lemons and ate them all the time. One concoction he was especially fond of was cutting a lemon into wedges and then sprinkling lots of salt, olive oil, and vinegar over them.

"Oh, the rush this gives me!" he'd say with a scrunched-up face, reveling in the salty and sour taste of the wedges.

It was a Sicilian dish that I'd seen my mother prepare many times. But after trying it once as a kid, I rinsed my mouth out under the kitchen faucet for almost half an hour to rid myself of the sour taste.

"Enough about Michael." I wanted to change the subject and fast.

"All I was trying to say, Vee, is that he respects you, and that's probably why he won't date you now while you're jail bait. I've seen the way he looks at you, and not just tonight. He's been look- ing at you that way ever since your curves paid you a visit."

"Well, I've never seen him look at me below my eyes." "Of course not. He's too smart. He's not like those blockheads he hangs out with who make it so obvious. Geez! You'd think they were starving or something. I've caught him looking at you when your back was turned, and he thought no one was looking. But I see everything! That's my job. I'm your spy."

I laughed. "Aldo, you're too much!" "I'm just looking out for my girl." "And I love you for it!" I hugged Aldo. "I see what you're trying to do. But you don't have to make me feel better." "Are you implying that I'm lying? You know I'd never do that to you." "No, I'm not saying that. But maybe, like me, you're seeing something you want to see or hope to see because you care about me so much. That's all." "Look, Vee. I would tell you if I thought you were wasting your time chasing this particular tail."

I couldn't help laughing silently. No matter how many times I'd told Aldo that "chasing tail" was what one said when referring to girls, he still insisted on using it for girls who chased guys or even guys who chased guys. Aldo had come out of the closet to his fam- ily last year. And just as I confided in him about Michael, he told me about his crushes and whose "tail" he was chasing at the mo- ment.

"I would totally tell you to look for other 'tail' if I thought Michael wasn't attracted to you. And I'm glad you haven't been sitting around, waiting for when he's ready to ask you out. I can't stand anything more than girls who are loyal to guys who they just have crushes on. They're not boyfriend/girlfriend, for crying out loud! It's insane! Anyway, I really do think there's more to it with Michael."

"We'll see. I'm not holding my breath. I'm not even holding my breath that he'll remember to get me those Cure tickets." "So, who are you going to take if he does give you two tickets?" "Ohhhh, I don't know. I owe my little sister Connie a favor, and she still hasn't even been to a concert. This would be a treat for her."

Aldo was looking down at the floor. "Oh, sure. I bet." I kicked his combat boots. He insisted on wearing nothing but his combats even when he attended formal occasions like this dance or a wedding. At least, he had worn a suit with a super-thin tie, harking back to his favorite era of music, the eighties, and the New Wave bands who had made the look popular. He slicked back his dark brown, shoulder-length hair. Except for his piercing black eyes, he could've passed for U2's Bono from their Joshua Tree album days.

"You know I wouldn't dream of taking anyone else to the con- cert! Why are you even playing this stupid game?" "Yes! You're the best! I knew you wouldn't let me down! Oh my God! We're going to see The Cure! The Cure!" He grabbed my hands and twirled me around.

I was excited about the possibility of seeing The Cure in con- cert, too. But I would've been more thrilled if Michael had asked me to go with him. I looked toward where he'd been standing ear- lier with Mr. C. and Ms. Vicelli, but Michael was no longer talking to them. I searched the room, but couldn't spot him. Maybe he'd left. I felt my heart sink a little that I wouldn't see him again. I was secretly hoping he'd ask me for a second dance.

Aldo and I hopped into a cab after the dance was over. I lived within walking distance of school, but Aldo lived on Upper Dit- mars Boulevard and was too tired to walk all the way back home.

The cab let me out at the corner of my street instead of making the turn, saving Aldo some money in cab fare.

" 'Bye, Vee! I'll call you in the morning for brunch." "Forget it, Aldo! It's almost midnight. I'm not waking up before noon!" "That's why it's called brunch! Noon is actually early. Later!" "Whatever!" I stuck my tongue out at him. He stuck his out, too. We both laughed. Aldo waved one last time and rolled up the window as the cab pulled away.

Aldo had a way of making me feel good when I needed it. I knew I hadn't fooled him tonight with my act, and he'd sensed I was blue.

Although my neighborhood was extremely safe and you always saw people walking late at night on Ditmars, I still decided to walk fast in my three-inch pumps. My feet were absolutely throbbing from all the dancing Aldo and I had done. I stopped suddenly. A couple was leaning against the wall of a driveway, making out. I tip- toed past them, trying to get closer while stealing a glance. The light from the street lamp shone on the girl's backside. She was leaning into the boy, whose back was up against the wall. They were kissing. The girl was wearing a super-tight mango-colored cocktail dress, which was bunched up around her waist. The boy's hands were running up and down the back of her exposed thighs. There was something familiar about that dress. I looked away and kept walking when it hit me where I'd seen that dress. Tracy was wear- ing it at the dance! How could I forget? Every guy's head was spin- ning in her direction. Her dress pushed her cleavage way out of its bodice, and every curve in her butt showed. I was afraid the seam on the back was going to burst open.

Though Tracy Santana was my best friend since grade school, we were very different. Unlike me, school didn't come easily for Tracy. She tried very hard and studied, but the best grade her ef- forts produced was a C. Her mother hit her with a belt when she brought home poor grades. She often showed me and our other friends the pink welts that stood out on her paper-white skin. Her super-straight, thick hair was jet black and hung down to her hips.

Tracy's mother was always on her case about cutting her hair short, whereas my mother encouraged me to keep mine long.

With her very fair complexion and raven-colored hair, Tracy re- minded me of Snow White. But instead of having an evil step- mother, Tracy's own mother was the witch. My parents, on the other hand, never laid a hand on me. Sometimes, I felt as if Tracy envied me for my good grades and for having parents who didn't punish me with a belt.

We became best friends when we were in first grade. After that, we spoke every night on the phone, sometimes for as long as two hours. She only called me after her mother left for her night job and after Tracy had prepared dinner for her father and brother. I cringed when I called her house and her mother answered.

Now that we were in high school, the differences only seemed to be growing between us. She had no problem showing off her figure to the point where she might as well have been walking around in her underwear. I didn't mind looking sexy, but I also believed in the old adage, "Leave something to the imagination."

Tracy wasn't as afraid of her mother anymore and seemed to rebel more with each passing day. She flirted heavily with the boys, whereas my shyness prevented me from even talking to the boys unless they approached me first. Tracy was a size zero and wore a super-padded bra to amplify her A-cup breasts. Her green eyes, which stood out in stark contrast to her dark hair, were her best feature. And Tracy used them to full advantage when talking to boys, squinting her gaze to give herself an extra sexy allure. I'd seen the less-confident boys quickly look away when she stared at them, but the more cocky guys stared back, looking completely mesmerized.

Tracy was more outgoing than I was. Her good sense of humor attracted everyone to her, but her lies always caught up with her and would eventually alienate all the friends she'd made. Through- out grade school, she often lied to mutual friends of ours and told them I'd said things about them when I hadn't. I always forgave her. I don't know why, I just did.

A stray cat darted into my line of vision, bringing me back to the present. Who was Tracy kissing? Amazingly, she didn't have a boyfriend at the moment either. It seemed that she went from guy to guy within a day after one relationship ended. It was as if the boys were on a waiting list to date her. Tracy's last boyfriend had broken up with her just three days before the dance. But this time, she bravely chose to go alone. You wouldn't have known it, though, since she'd managed to find a guy to dance with her to almost every song.

My curiosity was getting the better of me. I knew I shouldn't be snooping, but I had to see who was with her. I quietly walked up the front steps of the house whose driveway they were in. I crouched down behind a rosebush, hoping it would be enough to conceal me. Suddenly, the guy spun Tracy around so that her back was now up against the driveway's wall. The light shone on his profile.

Michael!

My hand flew to my mouth as I gasped. Luckily for me, they were too caught up in themselves to have heard me. No! Not my Michael. It was dark. I must not be seeing right. I stood up higher to get a better look. It was definitely Michael. He removed his mouth from Tracy's and began kissing her neck. At this point, I was standing to my full height, forgetting that I wasn't concealed any- more. I just kept staring at Michael. Aldo was right! He was acting just like every other guy would. I felt so stupid. Tears stung my eyes as they spilled down onto my face. I finally glanced over at Tracy, and my heart stopped. Her eyes met mine dead-on. Her lips turned up into the most wicked smile. She then lowered her head and kissed Michael. Her eyes shot open again while she was kissing him, staring right at me. I turned my head away and ran down the steps, not caring if Michael heard me. If he did, he didn't care, since I didn't hear my name and no one was chasing me.

How could she? She knew how I felt about Michael. Besides Aldo, she was the only other person I'd confided in about my crush on Michael. She'd listened to me tell her how I hoped, some day in the future, we'd end up together. She had sympathized with me and even told me, "Don't worry, Vee. He'll be yours someday. He just needs to sow his wild oats before he comes to you."

Apparently, she was helping him sow those oats.

I ran as fast as I could down the block to my house. All I could think of was Tracy's twisted little smile as she stared at me. She looked happy that I'd caught them. She didn't care that she'd just stuck a knife right into my heart. I could feel the pain pressing against my chest. I couldn't stop crying. Why would my best friend do this to me? How could she?

I got to my house. My mother was probably waiting up for me. I searched frantically in my purse for a tissue. Not finding one, I wiped my eyes with the back of my hands. I unlocked the door. There was a box of tissues on the foyer table. Pulling a few out, I patted my eyes. My reflection stared back at me in the hallway mir- ror. Pools of mascara swirled around my red eyes.

"Valentina! Tu sei?" "Si, Ma." I ran into the bathroom down the hall, just as my mother en- tered the hallway. "Sta bene?" Behind the bathroom door, the tears started racing down my face again. I knew if I answered right away, she'd hear the sobs. "Valentina? You okay?" I flushed the toilet, trying to buy some more time. I quickly swallowed and turned on the sink. "Yeah, Ma. I'm okay. Just had to use the bathroom really bad." "You have a good time?"

Ugghhhh!!! No matter how many times I told my mother I couldn't hear her well while I was in the bathroom with the water running, she always continued to have a conversation with me.

"Yeah, it was nice. I'll tell you about it in the morning. I'm going to get ready for bed. I'm really tired. Did Baba go to sleep al- ready?"

"Si, si. He knew you were in good hands with Aldo. I did, too, but you know me. I still worry when one of you girls is out late. Ahhh! Va bene. Buona notte, fighita!"

Fighita had been my mother's endearment for me since I was a kid. It meant "dear one" or "sweet one." I started crying even more.

I washed my face with cold water. Making sure my mother really had gone up to bed, I listened behind the bathroom door. Deathly still. I cracked the door open an inch. Only the nightlight was on near the stairs leading to our bedrooms. I took the stairs two at a time, which was hard to do in my snug dress, though not as snug as that tramp's who was kissing the love of my life. As I passed my parents' bedroom, light streamed from underneath their door. I could hear Ma's low whispers as she prayed. Pausing for a moment behind her door, I tried to hear what she was praying about but was unable to. I began to raise my hand to knock but dropped my hand back to my side and tiptoed to my room. No matter how much I wanted her to help me feel better, I just couldn't bear to see the hurt in her eyes when she'd see how pained I was. Besides, she didn't know about my feelings for Michael.

I took off my dress. When I had put it on earlier in the night, I was so proud of it. My mother had made it for me. It was a deep emerald green with black tulle and lace trim throughout the dress. It had a square neckline with a V-cut in the center, giving a tiny peek to my cleavage. I had worn one of my minimizer bras out of fear of showing off too much cleavage.

When my sister Rita saw me, she said, "What a shame to hide those magnificent tits!" I scowled at her. You'd think she was years older than me and more experienced, the way she talked.

Before taking off my dress, I stared at myself in the full-length mirror that hung on my closet door and remembered how earlier in the night I'd wished that somehow Michael could've seen me in it. My wish was granted when he showed up at the dance. But my hopes that the sight of me in this dress was all it would take to con- vince him I wasn't a little girl anymore were crushed-first with his mention of getting the concert tickets for a friend and me, and then seeing him making out with my girlfriend, who was quickly becom- ing the town tramp.

I threw the dress onto the floor. Stupid! How stupid could I have been? Aldo had nailed it exactly when he said that I saw Michael as this perfect guy and above the lousy frat-boy behavior his peers often exhibited. What did I know about him anyway? Not much. I was basing my knowledge of Michael's worth just from that day he'd saved me at Li's Grocery Store. I was still that same kid looking up to her idol, who could do no wrong in her eyes.

I sank into bed with a heavy weariness. Pulling the sheets close to my chin, I promised myself that night I would forget Michael Carello once and for all. But keeping that promise would prove to be much more difficult than I ever could've imagined. For over the summer, my world was about to shatter. And Michael would prove to be my knight in shining armor once again.

The snow that is now falling shakes me back to the present. I fight back the memories from that summer and take a deep breath of cold air, letting it cleanse my lungs and spirits. I quicken my steps along Ditmars Boulevard.

New York City is having a record amount of snowfall this win- ter. We've had three major snowstorms already, and it's only mid- January. February often packs the biggest wallop of the season where the cold and snow are involved.

The pink sign of Sposa Rosa soon comes into view as I round the corner of Ditmars and 38th Street. I can still feel that thorn pricking my side whenever I look at the shop's name. Leave it to my mother to choose "pink bride" as the name of the bridal boutique that she'd opened ten years ago. I still remember the battle I had with my mother as if it were yesterday.

"But, Ma, hardly any bride wears pink unless you've been mar- ried five times, and even then some people still prefer to wear white!"

"Basta, Valentina! The name is going to be Sposa Rosa, and that's that. It's memorable. It rhymes. And it's different. When I die, you can call it "Always White" or some other unoriginal, bor- ing name. But right now this is Olivia DeLuca's shop, so the name stays. Finito!"

My sisters Rita and Connie giggled in the background. They knew Ma was teasing my traditional tastes. When we were kids, Rita had nicknamed me "Plain Jane." I guess I couldn't blame her. I ate my pancakes without maple syrup and my hot dogs and burg- ers without ketchup or mustard. I liked more classic styles when it came to my clothes. But that didn't mean I always chose to be conservative. My mother and sisters were in for a shock later today when I would unveil my wedding dress to them.

Sposa Rosa was famous for copying couture designer dresses but offering the dresses at a significantly reduced rate. As I was telling Paulie Parlatone, Brides magazine recently did a story on our-I mean, Ma's boutique. Although the shop was in Ma's name, we all thought of it as ours, and we knew it would be our mother's legacy to us after she died. Anyway, the article in Brides mentioned the store's custom of featuring a different couture designer dress every month. Brides had also paid us the highest compliment by stating, "Attention to detail is flawless, and the dresses are made so well that even the designer might not be able to tell which is the original and which is the knockoff."

Ever since the article was published, more customers were swinging through Sposa Rosa's doors. We were all thrilled even though we were exhausted by the time Sunday rolled around.

With fewer than six months to go until my wedding, I'd been fretting over completing my dress. After all, everyone knows the dress is the most important detail of the wedding. With the shop being so busy, it was hard to devote more time to my dress and overall wedding planning. My family helped any way they could, but I admit it, I was guilty of wanting to micromanage my wedding.

I'll also be the first to acknowledge that I can be guilty of a few Bridezilla moments, but my temper tantrums have been mild com- pared to some of Sposa Rosa's clients. From witnessing so many monsters, I made a promise to myself a long time ago that I would never resort to being one when it was my turn to get married. It's been annoying having to put Sposa Rosa's clients' dresses before my own, especially when it's for a Bridezilla. But this is my career and passion; it comes with the territory. Whenever I remember how lucky I am to have the skills to be able to design and sew my own wedding dress-the dress of my dreams that no one else will have-my frustration lifts. And today, I would finally have my first fitting!

I decided to model my wedding dress after one of our featured dresses of the month from last spring. It was an Amy Michelson de- sign that sported a lace bodice and halter neckline. One of my favorite features of the dress was its plunging back. A champagne-colored sash wrapped around the waist and tied into a loose bow just above my derriere. But I put my own mark on the gown by adding pearl beads to the lace-covered bodice. Another twist was the detachable organza skirt that gave the appearance of a full ball gown skirt, but once removed, the dress was transformed into a body-hugging, sexy sheath with a daring shorter hem that fell just below the knee. The shorter front hem of the dress was visible even when the detachable organza skirt was attached to the gown. But no one would be able to detect there were two separate pieces. The skirt of the dress was bare and did not feature any of the lace or beading that was on the bodice.

The suspense of showing the dress to my mother and sisters was giving me heart palpitations. I just couldn't wait to see their faces. They knew I had chosen the Amy Michelson design, but they had no idea I'd altered it. Although beautiful in its original, more sim- ple design, the Amy Michelson dress was now a bold gown that screamed, "Look at me!" I didn't want a dress that so many others would have. I wanted my own unique dress.

The thought of the dress makes me even more anxious to get to the shop. Arriving finally at Sposa Rosa, I unlock the doors and turn on the lights. Even after being in business for ten years, I am still in awe every time I walk in. Ask any girl, and she'll tell you there's something magical about a bridal boutique. It all starts with the glittering, beautiful dresses in the storefront window, which catch your eye and lure you to step inside. Then there's the excite- ment in the air when customers are trying on their dresses, and teary-eyed family and friends are looking at the bride-to-be as if she's the Madonna. Okay, I know that's a stretch for our times, but you know what I mean.

The marble floors, imported straight from Italy, shine immacu- lately. My mother mops them every night before we lock the store. The walls are shades of celestial blue and creamy eggshell. Sketches of our bridal designs hang on the walls, along with black-and-white photographs of brides, some of whom have bought their dresses over the years at Sposa Rosa.

My youngest sister, Connie, always makes sure to light scented candles when she arrives in the morning. "Ambience is key to sell- ing," is one of her favorite quotes. Connie is a New Age guru. She does yoga every morning at the crack of dawn, meditates before she goes to bed every night, and has recently become vegetarian-a fact that drives Ma absolutely insane since she can't understand how anyone would give up her ragu, bracciole on skewers, or her fa- mous sausage and peppers.

Connie had fought with us over adding bubbling fountains with rocks. But she was right. Several clients commented how much they liked them and how they added to the Zen-like atmosphere of the shop. Connie had downloaded her favorite New Age tunes onto a CD to play at Sposa Rosa. Of course, the irony didn't escape any of us that we were aiming for serenity in a place that was fraught with loads of tension!

My job can be very rewarding, especially when I see the light flash in a customer's eyes that this dress is "the one." Almost al- ways, the girls look to me as if to say, "How did you know?" Of course, it makes me feel special. And we're all good at being able to tell which is the right dress for most of our clients. My mother and sisters have begun recently taking bets on how long it'll take them to find the dress that the brides will say is "the one." Of course, my mother with her seasoned skills beats us all. But last week, one of my clients chose the first design I'd sketched. She didn't even want to look at the samples of dresses we'd created for other brides in the past or our portfolio. She wanted a custom dress that did not look like any of the other designers' dresses that were currently on the market. A bride being satisfied with the first sketch we design never happens!

My mother was miffed about it. I'm sure she was scared I would usurp her place. Connie comes third at finding the right gown for clients. Rita takes being last in stride, saying, "What's important is that I find the right dress for our client even if it takes a little longer. After all, we don't want them walking out of here without leaving a deposit."

Making my way to the back of the store, I place my cold cuts in the refrigerator we keep in the kitchen where we take our lunches and breaks. I leave the boxes with the Danish and biscotti on the square wooden table, which has been passed down the generations dating back to my great-grandmother. Then, I walk over to the alterations room. Taking the muslin off a mannequin, I stare at my dream come true-my perfect wedding dress. Tears come into my eyes. I still can't believe that after ten years of making gowns for other brides-to-be, I'm finally the lucky girl.

With the wedding date fast approaching, I'm also anxious to finish the dress because I've been neglecting Michael. But after today, I can relax a bit and see Michael twice a week and the entire weekend, just as we'd been doing before I began working on my dress. Of course, Michael has been understanding, especially since he's had to work late himself.

To make it up to me, Michael surprised me last night by taking me to Water's Edge, a four-star restaurant in Long Island City with stunning views of Manhattan. Ever since I'd first heard of Water's Edge in high school, I had fantasized about going there with some- one special. As we dined and watched the lights around New York City go on one by one, I couldn't help thinking how serene the whole night was. There was never any doubt in my mind of Michael's love as he continually looked into my eyes.

"How do you do it?" "Do what?" "How do you always manage to look like a star? No matter what you're wearing-a dress or jeans-there's a certain glamour about you." I could feel my cheeks warming up. "Oh, Michael. You're too good to me."

Michael took my hand in his and stroked it. "It's true, Vee. And you know what makes you more beautiful? You don't even know it. That's why I love you so much." "I love you, too, Michael." After dinner, Michael had a limo waiting for us outside. We crossed the 59th Street Bridge into Manhattan and went to a heli- port, where we took a helicopter for a spectacular aerial view of the Big Apple at night. It was the most romantic night.

Buzz! Buzzzzzz! I'm jolted from my thoughts by the sound of Sposa Rosa's buzzer, signaling a customer. What's the matter with me today? I can't stop daydreaming. "Valentina!" My mother! I spring into action, quickly draping the muslin over my gown. "I'll be right out, Ma!"

"When are you going to let your sisters and me see that dress- the wedding day? You girls are all so secretive nowadays. I remem- ber in my day a daughter shared everything with her mother."

I've heard this lecture countless times. Having grown up poor in Sicily during World War II, Ma doesn't understand the concept of privacy. Her feelings are instantly hurt if she discovers that one of the DeLuca girls has been keeping something from her. Rita had hidden the fact that she had a boyfriend when she was thirteen.

One day, Ma was sitting on a bench in Astoria Park, taking in the view of the magnificent Manhattan skyline as the sun set over the East River. She noticed a very young boy and girl standing by the water and hugging. When the girl turned around and kissed the boy full on the lips, Ma dropped the vanilla ice cream cone she'd just bought from Mister Softee right on her lap.

"Rita!" she screamed. "Che stai facendo? Disgraziata! Disgrazi- ata!"

Of course, there was no need for Ma to ask Rita what she was doing. It was plain to everyone at the park. She kept cursing at Rita until she caught up to her. Rita hadn't even heard Ma until she was about five feet away from her. Ma grabbed Rita by the arm and pulled her away. But she stopped after taking two steps and turned around, looking menacingly at the boy Rita was with.

"You come near my daughter again, I kill you!" And then she made the famous Italian gesture of moving her hand across her throat as if she were slicing it.

On the way home, after Ma lectured Rita about being too young to have a boyfriend and her famous, "What if the neighbors had seen you?" line, which was uttered on a weekly basis to one of us, she said, "How could you have not told me you had a boyfriend? I'm your mother. You don't keep secrets from your mother."

Rita blurted, "Because I knew you'd act like the crazy lady I just saw in the park." "Crazy lady, huh? I show you crazy lady. You can't go out with your friends for a year."

Then there was the time Connie got a tattoo of a small angel on her lower back. That was only a year ago, and though Connie was in her twenties and shouldn't have been afraid of my mother's dis- approval, she was. The only time she exposed her tattoo was when she was out with friends. And if the whole family was at the beach together, she wore a one-piece bathing suit instead of her usual teeny string bikinis to hide the tattoo from Ma. But the secret only lasted six months.

Connie had fainted while she was steaming a wedding dress on what was the hottest day in July last year. Our air conditioner was on the fritz and though we had fans blowing until the repairman could come, the heat was stifling. Connie fell face forward, knock- ing down the enormous tulle ball gown she was steaming. The dress's super-poofy skirt seemed to swallow whole Connie's petite figure. At least she had a good buffer to cushion her fall. Her shirt had ridden up her back, and she was wearing low-waisted jeans. When Ma ran over to help her, she immediately saw the tattoo. At first she thought it was a bug on Connie, especially since she'd left her reading glasses on the sewing machine. She swatted at it. But when it didn't move, she took a step back to get a better view and spotted the little angel.

"Disgraziata!" She then turned to me. "Did you know about this?" My face colored, but I ignored her. "Ma, we have to revive Connie."

We hoisted her up into a chair. Rita ran to the kitchen for vinegar. Connie came to after getting a whiff of the vinegar. Ma barely gave her time to recuperate from her fainting spell as she tore into her.

"What does the Bible say about marking the body? Eh? Eh? How many times I tell you and your sisters tattoos are not for ladies. Only puttanas have tattoos!" Connie was too disoriented to try and lie. "You saw my angel?"

"Si, si. I saw your angel. Stupida! Stupida! You ruin yourself. What boy is going to want to marry you someday? Eh?" I tried to defend poor Connie. "Ma, everyone has tattoos now. They're not just for whores and men. Haven't you noticed all the tattoo shops opening on Ditmars and Steinway Street? Even movie stars get them now."

"Movie stars, they're one step away from puttanas! On Monday, I make an appointment to have that tattoo removed from you." "But, Ma, I'm not a kid anymore! I'm in my twenties, for crying out loud! You can't make me do something I don't want to do!" Connie was screaming at the top of her lungs. "If you don't get that tattoo removed, I am taking your name off the will." "Go ahead! I don't care!" The two of them went at it for another fifteen minutes. Then Connie stormed out of the shop. "Secrets. That's all you girls know how to do. What about you, Valentina? What are you hiding from me?" "Nothing." I lowered my head.

Ma stared at me for what felt like an hour. Then she let out a long sigh and walked away, whispering to herself in Sicilian and shaking her head.

"Valentina! What is taking you so long to come out?" My mother's voice snaps me back to the present. I make my way to the front of the store and kiss her on the cheek.

"I have good news, Ma." "Oh no! You're not pregnant already, are you? With just a few months to go before the wedding that would be the death of me!" "I said good news, Ma. Why do you always have to think the worst?" "I just like to be prepared for the worst so that when it happens I'm not so shocked." "Gloom and doom . . . gloom and doom. I should start calling you that!" "Don't be smart with your mother! Remember, I . . ." ". . . know best. I've heard that since forever." I roll my eyes. "So what's your good news?"

"I'll wait until Rita and Connie get here." "Oh, now you're going to make your mother wait. I'm your mother. You can tell me first. They'll understand."

I bite back a retort. She's right. She does deserve priority. Ma has been my number one fan and my best friend. True, sometimes we get into horrible arguments. But no one can take the place of my mother.

"Okay. I'll tell you. But let's keep it a secret between you and me. I wouldn't want to hurt my sisters' feelings." Ma smiles. "Si, si. Now, out with it." "I finished the dress, and I'm ready to show it." "What are you waiting for? Let me see it!" "I can't. I know you'll start crying once you see it, and then Rita and Connie will know something's up." "Ahhhh!!! You are the death of me. Okay, okay. I'll be patient. They should be getting here soon anyway. I'll go make some espresso." She pats my cheek as she walks by. "Have I ever told you . . ." ". . . I'm a good daughter. Yes, Ma, you have. You're a . . ." ". . . wonderful mama. I know, fighita. I know."

She winks at me and begins singing her favorite song, "Maledetta Primavera," which means "Cursed Spring." Even her choice in music and movies leans toward the cruel twists of fate life can have. But that's Olivia DeLuca, and I learned a long time ago Ma is set in her ways.