Leo knows his mind until his mother comes into view. Then, he only pretends he’s standing on principle. I watched these interactions with a certain level of bemusement, but mostly I wondered at him in utter confusion. For being one of the most confident, decided men I had ever met, Mama Sonia made quick work of him. Because if she wanted him to have more sauce on his pasta, the ladle would hover over his dish, they would banter for a few seconds, and then the contents would be spread over the plate, and that would be that. Not that I had any room to criticize; I let her do whatever she wanted with my food and otherwise. I already knew I was no match for her strong will and fiery spirit, so I did not ever choose to put up any resistance. Leo, though, did resist as if to further give her what she wanted, as if that was an integral part of the interaction. Somewhere in all of this, the myth (or was it?) of Italian men being mama’s boys sprang to the front of my mind. Even if it was true, though, what was I going to do about it? She was a constant figure in our lives now. We weren’t a million miles away on the coast of the Pacific Northwest; we were on the southern mediterranean coast of the Italian peninsula. These two were juxtapositions; like the smooth squid and the spiny urchins that the sun-weathered men fished from the sea and laid side by side at the market. Nevertheless, I would have to reconcile with the fact that he was no longer exactly the same man I had met and come to know in Portland.
My acceptance of this fact happened slowly. But, I learned quickly that nothing is accomplished or happens rapidly in the small seaside towns of southern Italy. The heat mixed with the heavy sea salted air does something to the brain, making it lackadaisical until around ten in the evening. Suddenly, at that time, front doors begin to open, restaurants fill up, and the piazzas are boasting plenty of life.
One night in August, a few months after we had arrived, there was a festival for one of the many patron saints. Seemingly the whole town followed the procession of the statue, walking behind the wheeled cart through the streets and down to the quay. Being a devout Catholic was to stand on ceremony; more strongly felt was the presence of Grappa and homemade spirits than the blessing of some pertinent yet stoic saint.
Southern Italians Live for The Night; that’s what I decided to name my memoir, should I ever establish the gumption to write one. For me, being out late was like discovering a whole new universe that I hadn’t actually ever realized existed to such a caliber. I had never been a late-night venturer. I much preferred quiet evenings at home to a long night of bar hopping or anything resembling an outing that dare cross into the wee hours of the next morning. Sleep and I shared a symbiotic relationship, and that was one partnership I was perfectly satisfied with. Of course, along came Leo with his tendencies to throw dinner parties where the meal itself lasted four hours at minimum, and a night out would easily lead to making friends with the owner of whatever restaurant or bar we found ourselves in, who then allowed us to stay for another round or two in the spirit of great conversation.
In the beginning, like in every new relationship, I was energized enough by my interest in and pursuit of the man himself. After awhile, though, my yawns became more and more indiscreet until I began limiting myself to the number of outings I partook in. Leo, God bless him, found no fault in that; he would go with friends and they would do exactly what they had always done while I stayed home in the company of a book or some other form of media.
But not here. My reclusive evening tendencies simply wouldn’t fly; if one wanted to have any manner of social life at all in southern Italy, one did not stay at home every evening. The afternoon nap was just as necessary to sleep off the effects of an indulgent meal as it was to stave off any unwanted tiredness come nighttime. Nights were for perusing the streets and enjoying society on display. Shops were open late. It was the inverse of the rest of the world, but that was the Mediterranean way.
So, when Leo pulled me up from the couch, wearing a fresh shirt and a pair of cotton pants, I went into the bathroom to freshen my face, add a little color to my lips, and then out we headed. Sometimes we would be in the company of some members of his impossibly large family, and sometimes we would stroll along, hand in hand or arm in arm, just the two of us. In those moments, a little drunk on whatever we had had a few glasses of, I knew that, as long as I could feel his body next to mine, I could make it here.