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Cape Fear Voices/The Teen Scene

Cape Fear Voices/The Teen Scene

Cape Fear Voices/The Teen Scene

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The Italian Pastry Chef

Giovanni Marcini loved two things most in life: baking and beautiful women. Back in the day, when he was still one of the most celebrated pastry chefs in Naples, he would stand behind his sparkling glass showcase each morning, waiting for the entrance of the city’s wealthiest women. Like a proud father, he would point out the array of delectable handmade sweets and, turning on his charm, make each feel as though he had baked a particular confectionery just for them.

”Senora Bernardo,” he might begin, “you look particularly ravishing today. I have just the treat to match your lovely figure.” Then he might offer her one of his chocolate twists, a sugar-coated croissant stuffed with vanilla custard and mini chocolate chips. Or he would wink at Senorita Romano, the fashionable daughter of the mayor, and add a few extra biscotti to her order.

Giovanni’s late wife, Maria, had tolerated these flirtations, as it was the way of most Italian men, and they helped to boost sales. More sales meant she would have more money for a new dress or a pretty picture for their humble abode. Despite being mere tradesfolk, the Marcinis liked to hobnob with high society. But with Maria now gone and the bakery sold, his circle of acquaintances had gotten much smaller. He had to come up with his own amusements.

“Ah, Maria, God bless your soul,” thought Giovanni as he shuffled around their small kitchen armed with a pound of sweet cream butter. “Forgive my indiscretions in your absence, but you know how I long for the company of a pretty face.” Donning his pleated white toque, each fold representing a pastry technique he had long ago mastered, the retired baker began rolling out the pastry dough and lining up his various fillings. Once the sweets were in the oven or cooling on a rack, he took out the lemon tablecloth they had used for entertaining during the hot summer months and pressed it with an iron. Arthritis ate at his joints, but he wanted everything perfect. She would soon be here.

Whenever Giovanni had his lady friends over for afternoon coffee, he aspired to match their aesthetic allure with just the right delicacy. The coy Lisa preferred the flakey cornetto filled with jam, cream, or custard. She would give him that flirty sidewards glance and mysterious smile when the sweet filling hit her tongue. Adele, always wrapped in a bright mosaic of gold and black, preferred the Sachertorte, a chocolate cake with apricot compote bringing back memories of her Austrian homeland. Then there was Venus, that immodest muse who left little to the imagination. She tended to gravitate toward the decadent Tiramisu or maybe his silky panna cotta served in a scallop shell.

Once Giovanni had invited them all over together, thinking it would triple the fun. But their ages and styles were too different, and it did not go well. So now he enjoyed their company one by one. Recently, however, he had discovered another woman, a Madame Gautreau of French Creole background. A stunning beauty, she had married a French banker twice her age, but there were rumors she had had many other love affairs. If so, why wouldn’t she spend an afternoon with him? Still, it had surprised him when she accepted his invitation.

Giovanni waited impatiently for her arrival. He knew women like her kept men waiting, but he paced nevertheless. Finally, at 4:25, Madame Gautreau arrived in a black satin dress with jeweled straps, white gloves, and a faint whiff of lavender powder on her neck. Her pale flesh stood out against the dark material, and while nothing was revealed, the old man’s imagination filled in the blanks. Giovanni could see that Madame Gautreau used her feminine wiles to advance socially and drive men crazy. She was both clever and dangerous.

Guiding the woman to a small room off the kitchen, Giovanni propped her gently against an empty chair. She didn’t say much at first and even appeared a little bored, so he quickly poured her an espresso, left the sugar and a dainty spoon, and rushed off to get his confections. He had wrestled all afternoon with what specialty might reflect her background and exquisite taste before settling on an array o f colorful biscotti, with macarons as the centerpiece. The sweet meringue-like cookie was quintessentially French, but he knew that Catherine de Medici from Italy had introduced it when she married Henry II of France. Voila! A perfect blend of their respective cultures.

Unfortunately, the afternoon didn’t live up to Giovanni’s expectations. Even when he complimented the Madame’s perfect complexion and fine bone structure, she merely gave a short, mirthless laugh. Nibbling politely at the cookies, she never even met his eyes. Indeed, all he could see was her severe, aristocratic profile. Perhaps, he thought sadly, the panettone with dried fruit would have gone over better. Deflated, Giovanni realized he was out of his league. Never again, he decided. He placed an X next to her name in his journal.

Escorting her out, Giovanni made a mental note to stick with those he knew best. Rome, Florence, Milan, Venice–they were everywhere, and people came from around the world to gaze at their extraordinary beauty. He removed his toque, dusted off some flecks of flour, and placed it on a pedestal. Biting into a cannolo, he broke into a devilish smile as a portion of the sweet, cheesy filling oozed out of its crispy shell and onto his chin.

 

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About the Contributor
Janet Stiegler
Janet Stiegler, Contributing Writer

Born and raised on Long Island, New York, I attended college at SUNY Albany, where I focused on foreign languages and studied abroad twice (Germany and the then Soviet Union). I met my husband, Paul, in Albany’s Russian program, and we eventually made our way to the Washington D.C. area to work as analysts for the CIA. Over 32 years, we held a series of analytic, managerial, and senior staff jobs while raising two children in Vienna, Virginia. Both attended Virginia Tech (Go Hokies!) and are now well launched into their careers.

The CIA drummed into me the need to write clearly and succinctly since our audience—U.S. policymakers, diplomats, and other decision makers—had busy schedules. Bottom Line Up Front followed by well-supported evidence and credible sourcing. However, it did not leave much room for creativity, which has made writing for Cape Fear Voices (CFV) so gratifying. My writing circle inspires me, and CFV provides a safe place to test literary ideas. One of my ambitions is to write a creative nonfiction story about my maternal grandfather, who immigrated to this country before WWII.

Since moving to Brunswick Forest seven years ago, I’ve also pursued several educational passions--tutoring at the Cape Fear Literacy Council, supporting Cape Fear River Watch’s youth education programs, and helping host online OLLI classes. Three years ago, I joined the Women’s Impact Network, whose philanthropic outreach seeks to benefit our local community. My husband and I have also done a fair amount of international (Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Nova Scotia) and domestic (Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Florida) travel. And last spring, as most travel ground to a halt, we adopted a year-old rescue—Brianna—a proven antidote to the COVID blues.

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    Doug EnsleyJun 15, 2024 at 10:11 am

    I love the descriptions of the three women and the big reveal from the photo gallery at the end. Very well done!

    Reply