Authors: Anita Hughes
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To my mother
Amelia stood on the balcony of the Hassler Hotel and gazed at the twinkling lights of the Spanish Steps. She could see the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica and the dim outline of the Vatican. She took a deep breath, inhaling exhaust fumes from the endless stream of yellow taxis, and tried to remind herself she was in Rome.
Amelia smoothed the folds of her pink satin Balenciaga evening gown and checked that the borrowed Harry Winston diamond clip still held back her hair. She stroked the white silk gloves and fingered the diamond and sapphire choker around her neck. It was all a fairy tale: the ivory Bentley that picked her up from Rome Airport, the elegant suite at the Hassler with its black-and-white marble floors, the Spanish Steps at her feet and all the places she read about in guidebooks: the Sistine Chapel with its intricate frescoes, the Via Condotti with its string of elegant boutiques, the Colosseum and the Pantheon and the museums with long, flowery names.
Amelia tried to recapture the thrill when the concierge welcomed her with a bouquet of two dozen yellow roses and her own personal butler. She tried to remember the first glimpse of her suite: the silver ice bucket, the gold tray of chocolate truffles and petit fours, the mahogany four-poster bed. But her legs were shaky from jet lag, her head throbbed from too much champagne and not enough food, and her mouth was frozen in a permanent smile.
For the last two hours she stood in the grand ballroom, her large brown eyes coated with thick mascara, her cheeks powdered, her lips painted with pink lipstick, and answered the journalists’ questions.
“How does it feel to go from being a complete unknown to being nominated for a Spirit Award for best supporting actress for your first role to starring in the remake of
? Warner Brothers invested a hundred million dollars in this picture, do you feel the pressure with your name above the title?”
Amelia had tilted her head and answered in the way Sheldon Rose, her producer, taught her.
“Why, Mr. Winters”—squinting so she could read the reporter’s name tag and then waiting so the journalists focused on her white shoulders and creamy skin instead of her words—“when you put the question like that, I don’t feel any pressure at all.”
The room erupted into polite laughter but the questions kept coming.
quoted you as saying ‘Audrey Hepburn is my idol and I can’t imagine ever hearing my name in the same sentence.’ Are you nervous about playing the role that made her famous?”
“Is it true you were premed at USC and Spike Jonze discovered you when you drove a friend to an audition?”
“Are you and Whit breaking up? Does he really wish you’d give up acting and pursue a career in medicine?”
Amelia paused again, longer so that she didn’t say what she was thinking: it’s none of your business how Whit feels, I could never give up acting, we’re madly in love, he bought me these gorgeous teardrop earrings before I left for Rome. Instead, she touched her earrings gently, smoothed the folds of her gown and smiled.
“There’s a reason why they call it one’s ‘private life,’ Mr. Gould”—again reading his name tag, trying to look him in the eye so he wouldn’t fire off some scathing article that she refused to answer personal questions, and finally a slow genuine smile—“because it’s best to keep it private.”
Then more champagne plucked from the trays that floated past carrying crystal champagne flutes and silver goblets filled with plump prawns and slices of melon. She smelled tomato sauce and garlic and longed to sit down to a plate of steaming ravioli and thick bread dipped in olive oil. But her dress was so tight it was almost spray-painted to her hips, and it was impossible to answer questions with a mouth full of pasta, so she guzzled champagne and waited for Sheldon to say, “Thank you all for coming, Miss Tate cherishes each and every one of you, but if she doesn’t get her rest she’ll miss her six
But Sheldon seemed to have disappeared and Macy Smith, editor of
came gunning down the Oriental runner. Amelia remembered her vicious critique of her choice in Oscar dresses and desperately needed some air. She ran out of the ballroom, down one flight of marble stairs and onto the balcony. Now she stood, wishing she had grabbed a puffed pastry or at least a stone wheat cracker, and gazed at the ancient, glittering city.
Amelia had always been fascinated by Rome: the elegant restaurants opposite cramped trattorias, the modern stores flanked by stone arches, the women wearing sleek dresses and smooth pageboys and large gold earrings. She had only been once, on a school chorus trip in the eighth grade, but she loved the creamy fettuccine and sweet gelato and the boys wearing leather jackets and driving Vespas. She remembered standing in the middle of the Via Appia and a boy with curly brown hair driving around her in circles and never wanting to leave.
Now Rome was her home for two glorious months. They were shooting the whole movie on location, at the Trevi Fountain and the Piazza Navona and the Castel Sant’Angelo. Sheldon had given her the Villa Medici suite—the same hotel room where Audrey Hepburn stayed more than fifty years ago. Amelia remembered standing in front of the gilt mirror in the pink marble bathroom and picturing Audrey Hepburn brushing her hair and fixing her lipstick and slipping on a floral dress with a tiny waist and full flared skirt.
Amelia heard laughter on the street below and heels clicking on the sidewalk. She imagined late-night dinners of spaghetti and red wine and brisk morning walks to the Colosseum. Then she remembered everything she heard about Sheldon Rose: he arrived on the set when the sun came up and didn’t release anyone until nighttime. She thought of the paparazzi who would trail her after hours, hoping to catch her without makeup in sweats and sneakers. Suddenly she had a desperate desire to slip out of the borrowed Balenciaga gown, unstrap the jeweled Prada sandals, and disappear into the street.
She ducked into the hallway and down the staircase. She walked quickly to the back of the hotel, past the sumptuous Imago restaurant and ornate conference rooms and dark, elegant library. She ran through the kitchen door, past the huge granite islands and giant chrome refrigerators and double sinks. She took the back stairs to the basement and searched for a door that would empty into the street.
Amelia blinked in the dark and realized she was in the laundry. She saw massive washing machines and dryers and rows of silver irons. She saw tall lockers and piles of neatly pressed uniforms. She stopped to catch her breath and suddenly had an idea.
She unzipped her gown and carefully folded it into a square. She slipped it into a laundry bag and added her sandals and sequined evening bag. She buttoned the starched black maid’s uniform and tied a white apron around her waist. She covered her hair with a cotton scarf and stored the laundry bag in a locker. She found the back door and ran onto the street.
The night air hit her like an electric current. The air was damp and the clouds hung low over the rooftops. She glanced around to make sure no one was looking and dashed down the Spanish Steps and onto the Piazza di Spagna.
Amelia skipped along the cobblestones like a child released from Sunday school. She pictured Macy Smith waiting to grill her about her wardrobe and wanted to collapse on the sidewalk in a fit of giggles. She smelled espresso and cinnamon and amaretto and longed to sit at a café until her head stopped spinning.
She saw a couple leaving a restaurant; their heads pressed together, the man’s arm looped around the woman’s waist. Suddenly she missed Whit so much, it felt like an invisible weight pressed against her chest. She remembered their last dinner before she left for Rome, at Alembic in the Haight. She flew up from Los Angeles and they had two glorious days in San Francisco.
Whit took a whole day off work and they rode bicycles in Golden Gate Park and visited the Legion of Honor. Amelia gazed at the paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael and shivered. She couldn’t believe in forty-eight hours she would be surrounded by Italian art and architecture.
Amelia remembered sitting across from Whit and holding hands in the candlelight. Whit wore a white collared shirt and a navy blazer and tan twill slacks. His dark hair touched his collar and he smelled of Hugo Boss cologne.
“Do you remember our first date?” he asked, eating a garlic baked potato fry. “We lined up to see
at the campus theater and laughed that an engineering major and a premed student could never sit through a three-hour movie. We’d fall asleep before we finished our first bucket of popcorn.”
Amelia looked at Whit’s clear blue eyes and remembered the first time she saw him. She was camped out in her usual corner of the science and engineering library cramming for a physics exam. Her calculator clattered to the floor and she reached down to pick it up. When she looked up she saw a young man with eyes as clear as a lake. He wore a baseball cap over curly dark hair and had a day’s stubble on his chin.
“Just think,” Whit mused, eating chicken pavé with beet gnocchi, “if you stayed with medicine you’d be finishing your residency at San Francisco General. We’d eat Chinese takeout every night and you’d be living in Gap sweatpants and my Adidas T-shirts. Instead we live in different cities and you own couture gowns by Valentino and Dior.”
Amelia’s stomach clenched and her throat closed up. She remembered when Whit received his first round of funding. It was a year after graduation and they lived in a studio apartment in Santa Monica. Amelia just finished filming
and Whit spent his days trying to secure investors for his electric car company.
“I met with Caufield Perkins.” Whit dropped his briefcase on the coffee table. “They’re ready to write us a check.”
Amelia glanced up from a pile of scripts and saw Whit’s navy suit and white shirt and black leather shoes. She smiled, thinking she still wasn’t used to seeing him in anything except Adidas T-shirts and running shorts.
“They want us to move our operation to San Francisco,” Whit continued, loosening his tie.
“San Francisco?” Amelia raised her eyebrow.
“We looked at an industrial space in Potrero Hill, they want to keep an eye on their investment.” Whit shrugged. “We can rent an apartment on Russian Hill and eat at Italian restaurants in North Beach.”
“I’m an actress.” Amelia bit her lip. “I need to live in Hollywood.”
Whit drummed his fingers on the coffee table. “I thought after this movie you might go back to medicine.”
“Why would you think that?” Amelia asked.
“It was all just a fluke,” Whit mused. “You got it out of your system.”
“I love acting, I don’t want to give it up,” Amelia said slowly.
“We haven’t gotten any other offers,” Whit replied. “This is our one shot, I need to be in San Francisco.”
Amelia pictured a quaint apartment on Russian Hill. She saw sidewalks filled with bougainvillea and corner groceries stocked with gourmet coffees and cheeses. She imagined preparing dinners of spinach salad and stuffed ravioli and sourdough bread. She saw nights spent on the roof-deck, sipping a Kenwood Cabernet and gazing at the twinkling lights of the city.