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L'amica crudele

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If I could have chosen the time I came back to, I would of course have taken Tina's little hand and not let her out of my sight as long as I lived. This is not a question, this of course is not for debate. If that time were forbidden to me, I would have gone to find my younger self and shaken her until she forgot Nino, but I have my doubts about her: I have a feeling she would insist that saga play out as it would.

But such things do not matter, because I did not have the choice. I was, as always, too slow to understand, and wished like a child to go back to when things were simpler. I felt my neck jerk back, and gasped –

A whiff of smoke, a pair of low-heeled shoes, a corpse, an empty wedding dress.

Somehow I knew that it was March 12, Lila's wedding day. It was this self-assurance that convinced me it was really a dream, even though I had never dreamed of this day with Lila before.

I entered her room calmly, and caught sight of my own reflection in the mirror: my taut, youthful, skin, my slim, hard body. Unthinking, I ran my hand from breast to flank, to feel the difference youth made. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lila's dark eyes flash, and she sent her mother out of the room.

She asked me, "Do you think I'm making a mistake?"

I remembered this conversation, and thought, stupidly, that the game of the dream was to repeat it exactly: to test my memory for my books. I see now that I disappointed her. Finally she said, "Come on, help me, otherwise I'll be late."

The first time, I was struck dumb by the newness of her nudity, but even with the benefit of knowledge, I could not fully dismiss my embarrassment. My desire for her body, pure, unsullied by Stefano's cruel hands, leaked out of me. This time I could not control myself as well as I had before. My eyes raked greedily over her, the washcloth in my hands lingered at her proud breasts, her long, elegant legs. I felt virginal with her; when it came time to clean the more secret, hidden parts of her body I was ashamed, I swept over them quickly, I reasoned that Stefano would not take the time to care.

Finally it was time to put the wedding dress on her, and the shoes. She looked at herself in the mirror, lifting the dress slightly. I had an idea that she was supposed to say something about her shoes, but she didn't. She turned to me with a sudden expression of fear, and I remembered that this was not a dream, that someone whose face was murky in my mind had offered me the chance to go back, and this was where they had chosen to send me, and moreover I could see that Lila knew it too, and that I had failed her again, and she said, "What's going to happen to me, Lenù?" and I felt my neck snap back.


March 12th, outside Lila's house. This time I was smarter, I knew what I was doing. I was grateful for a second chance. I was going to rescue Lila, and Tina; I would save all of us, all of our lives.

I marched into Lila's room with a little more arrogance than I had generally displayed at sixteen. Nunzia raised an eyebrow, but when Lila sent her out she went without a fuss.

Lila asked me, "Do you think I'm making a mistake?"

I said, "Yes, Lila."

Her head snapped towards me.

I went on. "Lila, you cannot get married. You must come back to school. The teacher was right, and we have been wrong, and –"

Lila was shaking her head, violently.

"Lila, listen to me."

"I will not," she said, sharply. "My brilliant friend, the best of all of us, and still you are a fool. Get out."

I was shocked. The tongue was coiled in my mouth. I was so sure that answering the question differently was the key. But Lila was already standing, in her underpants and bra, shoving me out of the room. And I thought I could talk to Nunzia, and convince her to convince Lila to let me back in, but as soon as my foot backed outside the doorway, I felt my familiar whiplash, and.

Lila asked me, "Do you think I'm making a mistake?"

I tried to be more gentle about telling her not to marry Stefano, but still she would not hear it.

Lila asked me, "Do you think I'm making a mistake?"

I was significantly less gentle with my advice. "Why ask the question, you stupid bitch," I said, erupting, "if you don't want my answer?" And this time when she shoved me out the door she was crying, even though she had said so many things much worse to me.

Lila asked me, "Do you think I'm making a mistake?"
I was tired of this place. I didn't know what I was supposed to do, and somehow I missed my older, softer body. I forgot what to do with this new one; I couldn't do much with it, stuck as I was in Lila's room on her wedding day.

I said, "I don't know, Lila," and walked out of her room myself, thinking I could break it and go back to my own time or remake my life from sixteen up, but even as I made the final step I knew I would be coming back.

March 12, Lila's wedding day. I walked in thinking if I was really stuck here, I would do exactly what I felt like doing. I strode into Lila's room, and this time when I caught her eye in the mirror I stared straight back. Foolish hubris to think I could match her stare; soon my eyes watered, and I had to look down.

I remembered that Lila had to send Nunzia out, but the first thing Lila said was a question, she wanted to know if I thought she was making a mistake. I turned around and saw that her mother was already gone; I had missed her dismissal, or perhaps this time she hadn't been in the room at all. Already my original memory was starting to fade. Had Nunzia ever been here, or was she too busy downstairs, knowing I would wash and clothe her daughter?

"Lenù," Lila said sharply, and I realized I hadn't answered her question.

"Come on," I said, "I'll help you, otherwise you'll be late."

This time, I let the washcloth circle on her belly for a long moment. She turned to me, a little confused, I thought. I leaned toward her, hesitated, and then kissed her for a long slow moment. She stumbled in the tub, moving closer, putting her arms around my neck. Something about her wet hands on my neck frightened me, and I broke the kiss, stepping out of her reach. She was staring at me, something lost and ghastly in her eyes, and again I had to look away.

"We need to get your wedding dress on," I said, my voice lower than I was used to, "You're going to be late."

Something occurred to me that had not previously: Lila wasn't in any danger of being late for her wedding day. She hadn't been when she originally asked me, when we truly were sixteen, and she wasn't each subsequent time.

She had hours to get ready. She had asked me to help her because she wanted me to help her.

I assumed she'd asked me for my help because she liked that last inch of superiority she could wring over me. I still wasn't sure if she realized we were in a loop at the beginning, or if she only found out at the end. She never said anything, and neither did I.

I told her rudely that she could wash herself, and I stood in the corner to watch her as the washcloth roamed over her body.

"You have plenty of time," I said, watching her struggle to fasten the buttons on her wedding dress. And she did; she had all the time I had, she had all the time in the world.

"Please come and help me," she said, looking upset. Hard-boiled Lila, asking to be washed. And I remembered how little she'd asked for, all the years we'd known each other. And I remembered she was almost crying when I told her to leave Stefano, and – was that my tough Lila, crying over a man? Over me?

I helped her, and was particularly tender with her, and I could not understand why she would not be consoled; I had done much worse to her, after all, over the years that had passed.

"What's going to happen to me, Lenù?" she asked, frightened, because she already knew.

I came back, and decided that this time I had to be even kinder, to make up for my behavior earlier, so I kissed her forehead, her cheek, the tip of her nose, and then I fastened her wedding dress for her, and she looked infuriated but amused.

How easy she was to read at sixteen! And still, still I was not quite brave enough.

I washed her in the tub, and the washcloth was right – at the bottom of her stomach, slipping towards her sex almost involuntarily, and finally she let out a sigh and pulled me towards her, her hot lips on mine. I dropped the cloth, and then my hand was there, in her folds, rubbing her nub, and could I? – but yes, I could, she was my very own, I knew her like I knew my own mind, I could give her as much pleasure as I could give myself, and her red mouth was open against mine, and she was rutting against my hand, whispering, oh, oh, oh, and of course I already knew that the first orgasm out of that lovely, perfect body was not Stefano's doing, but now I knew it wasn't Nino's either, it was mine, mine, mine, all mine, Lila Lila Lila.

I half-carried her out of that tub to the mirror; I toweled her down and kissed her pretty white shoulders as I buttoned the wedding dress I'd chosen for her, and when she said mournfully, "What's going to happen to me, Lenù?" it broke my heart.

I did the same thing again, but kissed her mouth before she could ask what was going to happen to her.

It didn't matter. My neck snapped back, and I went back to the beginning.

Again.

And again.

And again.

This time, when I led her out of the tub, I brought her to the bed, instead of the mirror, and knelt before her. I had only a vague idea of how this could work, but I had a peculiar courage this time, in spades.

But when I leaned to kiss her, she pulled me up, roughly, by the ears, and flipped us, so she was on top of me, and her hand was instead on me, and she was angry, she was furious.

"I wanted you, I loved you," she hissed at me, thumb circling my clit. I couldn't seem to catch my breath. "You wrote about me being sullied by Stefano; even if you wanted me afterwards you wouldn't have me. So here we are, and you have me exactly as you want me, before any man touched me."

And suddenly I remembered – it had been Lila, Lila and the dolls, Lila who had sent me back, only I couldn't choose when I came back to, and of course I couldn't have saved Tina, Lila didn't know where Tina was. I gasped, and I said, "Lila" and I tried to tell her I loved her no matter who had touched her, that I had written our histories poorly, that I was sorry, Lila Lila Lila come back to me Lila, but then my head snapped back.

And I woke up thrashing in my bed, and my body was fatter, more crumpled, and the sheets were wet, and Lila was gone gone gone gone gone.