As a result of my affection for this particular month, my novel Ask Me if I'm Happy takes place primarily during two consecutive Februaries. So, I thought I'd share some small excerpts showing how the cold is represented in the story.
So now, please allow me to present to you:
Thirteen Chilly Excerpts from Ask Me if I'm Happy
Earlier, after exchanging most of her euros for American dollars, she’d used the rest to buy a train ticket from the machine inside the station, and then a magazine at the Valentine-infested newsstand outside. Now she was obliged to forgo any additional purchases. Though as time dragged on, the station’s offerings became more tempting. A shift in the wind nudged the steam of her nearest neighbor’s tiny cup of espresso her way, bringing with it the warm, rich scent.
Maybe just a hot chocolate? Or a caffè macchiato?
Another passenger’s watch beeped but Emily kept her focus out on the tracks, refusing to read the station clock.
Stamping her feet, she carefully rubbed her numbed, raw hands to warm them. Fingers aching down deep, she pictured her sheepskin-lined gloves, cozy, warm and forgotten on the kitchen table back at the apartment.
Yet another scatterbrained moment and here I am, paying for it.
Finally she stood up and scuffed to and fro, never straying far from the bench and her suitcase.
“Sei disattenta,” Jacopo’s voice chided inside her head. “You’re careless to do something like that, but that’s just exactly what you always do, isn’t it?”
With a small mental jerk she drew her thoughts back to the present.
Stop worrying about Jacopo. Right now.
The cold air seeped through her coat and she rubbed her arms uselessly. The coat itself seemed to have stiffened in the frosty air, the sleeves bunching and folding between her fingers.
Closing her eyes, she blew into her hands and reconsidered buying a hot drink from the vending machine nearby. All at once, her fellow travelers began shuffling toward the yellow line. Emily opened her eyes to find them leaning forward as one to peer toward the approaching lights.
Her heart leapt skittishly even as she pushed the expression off her face and felt the blush creep up from her collar to tint her cheeks.
The broken window fell open with a soft thump and the banging and rattling of the train’s progress drowned out the soft hum of conversation around her. A steady, chilling wind blew inside the carriage. Several passengers grumbled their disapproval and tugged their scarves and coats more tightly around themselves, but none made an effort to close the window.
After a moment or two, the man stood and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose with an air of determination. Emily observed even more openly this time as he returned to the broken window, shoved it upward and stuffed the wedge of paper between the Plexiglas and the frame once more.
When he turned, he saw her watching and his smile lit up his face again. His eyes met hers fully and she looked away, her cheeks tingling as she turned to the window and the countryside emerging in the growing daylight beyond it.
In spite of herself, her eyes shifted to follow him yet again when he stepped away from the row with the broken window.
His hair had been tousled by the wind, and upon settling back in his seat he ran one hand cautiously over it, taming any wild, out-of-place waves. His dark eyes behind the oval frames of his glasses flicked in her direction before he turned toward his own window. She thought it was clear that he was trying not to be obvious about watching her.
Icy cold filled her stomach while her skin flushed hot, the perspiration along her neck chilling in the winter air. She wanted to undo her ponytail and flail her hair around to cool and warm herself at the same time, but her hands remained still.
He held her arms in a light but firm grasp as he lowered his head to meet her eyes with his own.
“Emilia, stai bene?” he asked, a hint of startled urgency in his voice. “Are you okay?”
A nod was all she could manage at first, her head still reeling. “Sì, sì... I’m okay.” She raised one shaking hand to her forehead to wipe away the sheen of perspiration there. “I suppose it’s just been a very long day already.” Meeting his eyes, she added, “I didn’t sleep well last night. I never do before a big trip.”
Davide raised one hand to press his fingers to her cheek, as though checking her temperature. Her heart clenched at such a tender gesture from a virtual stranger, but she didn’t move away.
“But do you need to rest? Something more to eat, perhaps, or to drink?”
The cold air prickled at her cheeks, a good sign that her blush at his gentle attention was warming her skin from within.
“A little more than two hours.” Also scanning the sky, Davide fussed with his scarf. “It’s getting colder.”
“It smells like snow.”
“You noticed that, too?” Closing his eyes, he breathed deeply through his nose, held his breath and then exhaled. “Did you notice the other smells?”
“What other smells?” she asked, sniffing the cold air and feeling it chill the back of her throat. It should have been invigorating but the large meal was already making her groggy.
“Shut your eyes and try.”
“Just try it.”
Closing her eyes, Emily took in the air. The brittle, icy scent of snow was still there but other scents were, too: charcoal from a pizza oven, bread baking, the dusty aroma of concrete and stone and a savory smell she couldn’t pinpoint, something more elusive than the rest.
Suddenly, the sound of something rasping near her cheek made her jump, even as she identified the scent. Opening her eyes, she found Davide rubbing a twig of rosemary between his fingers, grinning mischievously.
Emily saw it all as if through a haze. Davide spoke louder and faster but she was only half-listening.
It’s too hard to believe that there are men who reject women like that. I mean, isn’t that the standard here? It’s certainly what Jacopo wanted – repeatedly, from the look of things.
How was it possible that the mere thought of Jacopo could stir her emotions so easily? She was trembling now, most certainly not from the cold. Her face warmed with her own anger and she wondered how Davide hadn’t noticed. Was he really so oblivious?
Disappointed, she found herself resigned to boarding the train for Milan and resuming her trip. A sour hint of dread remained while she feigned interest in Davide’s monologue.
He looked at his watch and sighed, his breath misting in the frosty air. A glance was enough to tell that the hotel shuttle bus had already come and gone—just a few moments ago, in all likelihood—and they’d have to wait for the next one.
“It looks like we’ve missed it.” He paused to consult the schedule that hung on the wall. “The next one won’t be here for at least forty-five minutes.”
“Oh, well. That’s okay.” Emily peered around him to read the board for herself. “Why don’t we wait inside? It’s awfully cold out here.”
“Good idea. I think the bar is still open. Perhaps we could have a coffee while we wait?”
Her smile seemed more tired than before but nonetheless sincere. “All right. That sounds good.”
Though the initial rush of travelers had thinned out, Davide still kept her hand in his as they walked back up the stairs to the main floor and the coffee shop there. He liked how her hand felt, warm and small, fitting neatly in his own.
The corridor was freezing cold, untouched by the heat of the radiators in the flats. The front door was propped open by a rather large man, himself bundled up against the February cold in a puffy coat and a skullcap which made his head seem absurdly small.
“Signor Magnani?” the man asked, his voice surprisingly soft in the quiet of the main lobby.
“Sì, sì, sono io.” Davide crossed to him and took the pen the man offered, signed the slip on the clipboard and handed them back. The man slid the suitcase toward Davide, spared a brief glimpse at his slippered feet and gave him half a smile.
“Buongiorno, Signore,” he said, already turning to go and pulling the door closed behind him.
Davide waved distractedly in his direction and bent to grasp the suitcase handle. The shuffle of feet behind him got his attention and he turned to find Mr. Montanari eyeing him suspiciously.
“Going somewhere?” the old man asked.
“No,” Davide said, working to keep his sudden annoyance out of his voice.
He sidestepped around his neighbor, dragging the suitcase along, the wheels leaving wet, gray tracks as he went.
“Watch that, Magnani! They don’t come to clean the floors again until Tuesday.”
Davide arched one eyebrow and then shook his head, deliberately stepping closer to the old man and continuing to drag the suitcase behind him. “Mi dispiace, Signore, but it’s too heavy to lift.”
“Va bene, ma –” Montanari cut short his blossoming tirade, nostrils flaring. He regarded Davide’s slippered feet with a scowl of profound distaste which contorted his wrinkled features, then huffed again. Without another word, he stumped away toward the door, his cane making rubbery thuds on the tiles as he went.
Stifling laughter, Davide crossed to the stairs and started up, the suitcase much lighter than he’d expected.
No doubt about it: he did it so it would take forever. I know how Jacopo takes his time eating.
A fresh gust of wind swept around her, lifting her hair and toying with her scarf while she waited for a taxi to arrive. She had plenty of time to get the notaio’s offices, but her impatience built with every second.
I just want to get this over with. Is it too much to ask?
A white station wagon with a “Taxi” sign on the roof pulled up alongside her. She checked the station to reassure herself she wasn’t poaching someone’s ride.
“Vai in centro?” she asked when he rolled the window down.
“Sì, certo…” he said, waving her inside, and she slipped into the backseat, grateful for the warm interior as she gave him the address in the city center.
“I have an appointment in an hour,” he said and raised one hand to stay her protest. “As I said, I’ve reserved you a room, so if you would wait for me –”
“I have other ways to spend my time, thanks. I’m not going to sit around while you’re doing business anymore.” She spun the word as hard as possible, filling it with every lurid inference she could manage.
Amazingly, he looked chagrined.
“Emily, I’m supposed to appraise some properties for the bank, here in the center. It’ll take a couple of hours at most, but I can’t—I won’t let you leave without talking to me.”
“You don’t have a choice.” She turned and began walking toward the station, ignoring the wind which numbed her face as she went. The winter sunset cast deep red shades along the street, darkening fast.
The sound of Jacopo’s footfalls caught up to her in no time. “Don’t do this, Emily, please.” He grasped her arm and pulled her to a halt. “It’s not safe to walk to the station at night. At least let me take you, or something.”
“What happened to not letting me leave?”
Jacopo shook his head, his complexion ruddy in the late afternoon light. “I have no right to ask this of you.”
“No, you don’t.”
If Emily called, he could be home in roughly half an hour. Less, perhaps, depending on where he was. Enough time had passed, however, for him to think this was unlikely.
To be fair, he had received a call the night before. She’d rung from a hotel in Rovigo, telling him she would be in Bologna in the morning. With considerable reluctance, he thought, she’d told him about Jacopo’s last-minute kiss, and her refusal.
He wished this information did more for his spirits.
Emily had also said there was more to tell him, but it would be best to talk in person, in the morning.
Now the morning was nearly over and no calls had come. He’d only brought his phone because he hoped to hear from her—normally, he ran without it, hating the distraction. The bouncing in his pocket made him wonder whether he’d felt the vibration of an incoming call. After checking five times in fifteen minutes, he resolved to hold off until he’d covered a quarter of the ring road.
After an hour he completed the circuit, slowing his pace as he entered his street. As he cooled down his clothes clung to him, the brisk winter air prickling at the perspiration on his face and in his hair. By the time he arrived at his building, he felt as though he’d stepped out from a sauna and into the snow.
His breath misted around his face while he fumbled out his keys and unlocked the portone, then went inside to collect his mail. For what seemed like the first time in ages, Mr. Montanari wasn’t there to complain about Davide’s mail being in the wrong box. He was tempted—albeit briefly—to leave some of his junk mail in the old man’s cubby.
The marble-tiled floor was absolutely freezing. With a quick, almost silent hiss of surprise, Emily stepped back onto the carpet that surrounded the bed. Davide chuckled again, sitting up to grab his slippers off the floor and offer them to her.
“No, I can’t. You’ll need them.”
“Okay.” He got out of bed, apparently free of any modest impulses of his own, and crossed to the bureau along the wall. It was hard not to watch him, not to observe the way the light caressed him and settled into soft shadows which accented the muscles of his legs and the lines of his back. A soft shimmer centered itself in her and negated the chill she’d gotten from the floor.
They stood at a distance from the sidewalk in a recessed doorway beneath the porticos, yet the feeling of exposure persisted, as though they were in the middle of a piazza. The sound of passing footsteps echoed, twanging off the concrete-and-plaster of the archway over their heads and the wooden door at their shoulders. The frosty air he tasted between kisses was slightly metallic, sharp and mixed with a hint of snow. There were no distinct thoughts in his head, only the recollection of their kisses from before in his office and a silent plea for more of her than he could legally ask in public like this.
As though of its own volition, his hand sought a gap in her coat, seeking the warmth of her skin against his own, if only for a moment.
Davide quickly withdrew his hand and straightened up as best he could with Emily’s arms still wound around his neck. Together, they turned toward the speaker and found a number of students looking on, several with expressions of surprise on their faces, some self-conscious grins scattered throughout the group. One in particular stood out and Davide was compelled to address him directly since he’d been the one to speak.
She said nothing. He moved away from the door and put his back to it. She stepped quietly past him to open it and step out into the corridor. Cold air crept into his flat, icy fingers slipping around him before the door closed, the soft click of the latch cutting them off.
He became aware of the photo in its frame, still in his hand. With a disgusted sound, he threw it back into the living room, the gesture followed by a tinkle of broken glass.
The echo of Emily’s footsteps on the stairs had scarcely faded before he snatched his keys out of the basket. The door slammed shut behind him as he raced down the stairs, intent on catching her before she could leave the relative warmth of the lobby.
No such luck. He reached the last step and rushed around the corner to the empty lobby. A sharp, frigid wind blew along the street as he saw her walking away huddled against the cold. No matter what she’d said to him, no matter how much it might have hurt, his heart went out to the small, lonely woman making her way along the street.
He jogged after her, doing his best to ignore the chill, his footfalls clapping noisily first along the rough paving of the street and then the marble floors of the portico.
And there you are, thirteen examples of frosty scenes in Ask Me if I'm Happy.
I hope you've enjoyed this glimpse into the world my characters inhabit in that particular tale.
I hope I didn't give too much away, but I also hope I've enticed you into reading more of their story.
I also hope I didn't get you too chilled.
In case I did, with a little luck...
This might warm you up! (Or, at least, give you a giggle.)