In the beginning, it was almost too easy to be Sophia, as though a valuable package with no return address had been mistakenly delivered to Shelly. She had the same full lips, sloe eyes, and perfect breasts like round loaves of rustic sourdough. In heels and a wrap dress, she was Sophia, first at stag parties, then car shows, and finally at a long string of Italian-American street fairs. It was much more lucrative to be Sophia, who sold an irresistible cocktail of modern sex appeal and old world charm, than to be Shelly, who was math-challenged and from a dying Midwestern town. Over time, Shelly memorized Sophia’s life story like a real actress learning her character. She watched hours of videos, staring intently at Sophia in ripped dress or bra and panties, crying or laughing hysterically, embraced by a series of leading men. She copied Sophia’s singsong English, ripe to bursting with Chianti and the Coliseum. “I begin each day with the espresso and the sit-ups,” Shelly said in her heavy accent, practicing on bemused flight attendants and desk clerks, waiters and cabbies. “Carlo, he is the love of my life, a lion among pussycats,” she’d murmur as a challenge to the impersonators of Elvis and Sinatra. Shelly’s own soulmate was the spitting image of Cary Grant. The two would rendezvous in Vegas each spring after performing in MGM’s Parade of Classic Stars. In baroque hotel rooms, Troy would moan “Sophia” over and over as he climaxed, and Shelly would respond with “Cary, cara mia!” Booked at resorts and themed weddings, Shelly was always in demand, even asked by her high-school classmates to remain in character for their 40th reunion. “Bellissima!” she had shouted as each woman entered the Olive Garden, and because the sound was so welcome, indeed, so beautiful, they’d believed her. Like a happy storyline in a film, though, it couldn’t last. By her 60s, Shelly was betrayed by time and sun damage from too many Princess Cruise line gigs, while the real, older Sophia was supported by gravity and genetics, her gigantic smile glinting from posters for “Grumpier Old Men.” Eventually, Shelly went back to working county fairs, favoring floppy hats and over-sized sunglasses as she tiredly repeated, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” Some days she felt so old, more Shelly than Sophia, like a bright star finally burning out after centuries of nights. Then one day she got the call to come to Rome, Georgia, for a flash mob celebrating Sophia’s 80th birthday. That morning, the sun bore down on a football stadium of Sophias, women in all shapes and sizes, in fake eyelashes and curled wigs, their freckled cleavage spilling out of Target blouses, some spritzed with Sophia’s signature perfume for good measure. As Shelly moved among them, they parted, one Sophia even touching her sleeve in reverence. “It’s her,” they whispered. “It’s Sophia.” “Buongiorno,” Shelly called to them. “Buongiorno,” the Sophias parroted back. At noon, Shelly led the crowd in the birthday song, blew out the candles on an enormous rum cake. Looking out at a sea of adoring Sophias, Shelly felt like her old self again, the best Sophia out there, the whole package — blessed by Venus, kissed by fortune.
Lynn Mundell’s work has appeared in Literary Orphans, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Counterexample Poetics, Eunoia Review, Blink Ink, and elsewhere. She lives in Northern California, where she co-edits 100 Word Story.
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