The first time I saw pepsi being poured into the same glass as red wine, I thought to myself that some religious sacrament must have been obliterated. What’s more, it was done by Leo’s grandfather, Francessco, affectionately called Nono Cico by his grand- and great grandchildren. As the wine aficionado of the family, he had been responsible for running the vineyards and producing the wine for the last five plus decades. Now, he was a weathered and wrinkled old Italian man, who was missing a few teeth and walked with a stoop in his back. For a patriarch, though, he was mild-mannered and soft spoken. In fact, he spent most of the lunches eating the smallest portion he could get away with without the women making a fuss, and filling his glass over and over, half-half, with the red wine and cola mix. Like the shrimp with their long antennae, bodies still intact, googly eyes staring up from the plate as they lay on their bed of pasta, I surmised it must be an acquired taste. One day, he caught me staring and grinned sheepishly at me. He offered me the bottle of cola, which I turned down with a polite smile and slight shake of the head, and he set it down next to his chair before tucking his hands into his armpits, smiling at me again briefly, and turning his head to listen to an anecdote his daughter-in-law was brazenly telling to the world. I still had not grown accustomed to the boisterous expression that every conversation was required to be spoken in. But at least I had stopped wincing every time the person next to me decided to join in.
On a hot July day, at the peak of tourist season, I found Leo’s sister, Elisa, skulking in the shade on the steps that lead down to our apartment. I had been hurriedly on my way to scavenge whatever would be left and sold cheaply at the market, but stopped in my tracks when I saw the tear stains on her cheeks.
“Elisa? Are you alright?” I asked her tentatively. We had spent a few evenings cooking together and watching television after Leo came home from work, but I still didn’t know quite where I stood with her.
I had ventured my question in Italian, but she responded in English. She shrugged and rolled her eyes. “Fine. Just another stupid fight with my stupid boyfriend.” Taking a closer look, she looked more angry than sad.
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that,” I began, trying my best not to act awkwardly. “Would you…like to talk to me about it? Or anything else…” I said, my eyes darting to hers and then away again. She stood up, surprising me.
“That would be nice. Let’s get a bottle of wine from the fridge. It’s hot as hell, and I’m in crisis.”
For the first part of the conversation, we sat in the cool dark of the apartment. We drank, and she told me the premise of the argument in perfect English. “He was supposed to come down here this weekend. He has a car, and he can take holiday from work. Because that’s what all people do in Rome in summer—they get the hell out of there. It’s oppressive, you see.”
What I saw was a beautiful, dark-skinned young woman who probably could have any man in this town, Rome, or Europe if she wanted to.
“Anyway, he decided he is going north, to Milan, to visit his sister and brother.” She raised an eyebrow at me and drank, draining her glass and refilling it. “He drives me completely crazy because he never does what he says he will. Its always about his fucking wishes, and he never seems to consider my feelings. What about what I want?” She was looking at me, and I didn’t know if I should answer, so I just nodded my head. “All my life people have been telling me what to do, where to go, how I should look, what I can wear, blah blah blah. I’m sick of it. Fuck them. Fuck him. For once, I would like to make the decisions.” She stood up. “Come on, I’ll show a place to sit outside. I need a cigarette and more wine.”
I followed her out onto the terrace where she led to me to a shady corner. She climbed onto the low wall, and there we sat. She lit a cigarette.
“Don’t take this wrong way,” I began as she poured us more wine, the cigarette pressed between her lips, “But your family is really intense.”
At this she laughed. “You have no idea.” Her brown eyes met mine. She pulled the cigarette away from her mouth and exhaled. “Then again, you probably do. I can only imagine how we look to you.” Again, she rolled her eyes.
I shrugged. “I’m struggling to fit in, that’s the problem really,” I said.
“Don’t try to fit in,” she said. I looked up at her. She waved a hand. “Not worth it. They’ll take everything you are. If you give them something, they’ll shape you into what they want, not who you want to be.”
“Well, there can’t be much to be done with me, I don’t even really know the language.”
“Good, that’s better. Believe me. And when you do, fake that you don’t.” She drew on her cigarette again. “For the past three summers, I haven’t come back here. Now I remember why.”
“Where did you go? Did you stay in Rome?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No, that would never do. The first summer, I went with a friend to Switzerland and worked in an expensive hotel in Geneva. After that, things became a little more complicated.” She was smirking. “Its really nothing I should be proud of, but it was my best act of rebellion.”
“What happened?” I asked, thoroughly intrigued.
She blew out the last cloud of smoke and stubbed out the cigarette on the cracked tile next to her. “Well, the first thing you need to know is that I’ve always wanted to be an actress. Not like Hollywood or any bullshit like that. Like a theater actress, maybe even an opera singer, though I think it may be a little too late for that. Anyway, my parents, they said that would never do. ‘Actors everywhere are starving and can’t pay their rent’, that’s what they said. A doctor is a respectable profession, and I could come back home and open a practice and take care of all my ailing relatives as they aged.” She shook her head. “That’s fine, if you’re not me. I couldn’t accept this life without putting up a little fight.”
“But aren’t you studying medicine in Rome?” I asked.
She nodded. “Yes, but gynecology. Not general medicine. That is rebellion number one.” She smiled proudly, and I raised my glass to her.
“So, because I was determined to pursue my dream on top of my university studies, I decided to go abroad to make money during tourist season. It started in Switzerland at the hotel, and from there it was France, where I was a cocktail waitress who sold expensive liquor and good cocaine to wealthy men and women who weren’t their wives.” She stopped, waiting for me to react. I kept my face smooth, and she continued. “After that, I spent a summer in Berlin, working for a nightclub. Some nights I bartended, some nights I was a dancer, whatever they needed. I kept the patrons who knew about it supplied with coke, and had sex with more djs than I can remember.” She laughed. “But the money was amazing. And I finally had enough to start taking acting lessons in the evenings when I didn’t have classes. I booked my first gig last fall, and since then, I have been doing small productions here and there, and now I take singing lessons, too.”
“And your parents don’t know?”
“They don’t know a thing. They would of course die if they did. But, I know my mind, and I will always fight for my happiness.”
I nodded, wondering how that must feel. She reached for the package of cigarettes. “Hmm?” she asked, gesturing to me with it. I took one and she held the flame out, lighting the end. We sat in the quiet heat and smoked, a sense of peace in the still and heavy air.
“Your English is perfect, Elisa. I had no idea,” I said after awhile.
She laughed. “Yes, I took English lessons, too. But I can’t let them know that, can I.”
I felt myself smile.
“Does Leo know?”
“Leo knows everything. But Leo knows his own mind, too. He got out of here, too. At least for a time.” She ashed in the brush.
What do you think will happen now that he’s back?” I asked, half-fearful of the answer she might give.
“Nothing. What can happen? He will take over the wine, as is his duty. He will pretend like my mother is in charge, but he pulls the strings really. He’s much smarter than they are. And plus, he has you.”
“What do mean?”
“You’re the woman of his life, Lillya. He would do anything for you now, because you did everything for him.”
I was quiet, letting her words sink over me.
She continued. “He is worried that you do not know what you want. But I think you do. You just have to, you know, bring it to the surface somehow. You are smart. And beautiful. You’ll do it.” She squeezed my arm and smiled.
We finished our cigarettes and the second bottle of wine. By the time it was empty and lying on its side, we were both giggling and talking absolute nonsense.
“Let’s go down to the sea. We can jump in naked and give all the old men a heart attack,” she said, giggling. Instead, we stumbled into the house and I went to the chest of mahogony drawers to fetch two swimsuits. She shamelessly shimmied out of her sheer sundress and out of her gossamer undergarments. I averted my eyes, afraid that she would catch me looking at her shapely body. I tried not to compare myself to her. However, the top of my suit did just enough to cover her breasts, which were at least two sizes bigger than mine. She laughed again. “This looks like what I wore in those German clubs,” she remarked.
A bit more modestly, I changed into my suit, and we left.