Took those Baby Blues for a walk on a beautiful and sunny day. Accompanied by this scene dress exhibiting a building from the old world. Bella Italia indeed!
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.
All my life I have been searching; searching for that spark, that intrinsic motivation that drives me, compels me to be. Through the years, its never been a what or a something that has moved me, it has always been a who. One night, after we had been sampling the previous year’s selection of reds, Leo pointed this out to me. “You have to know it somewhere inside of you, Lille. There is a qua within you that makes it happen. Maybe you just need to discover it; search yourself until you find it, and when you do, never let it go.” I sipped the wine carefully and tucked his words away in some foreground of my mind. I didn’t know what to say. He was right, he knew he was right. I knew it too, and therefore, there was nothing left to say about it.
I sat by the seaside the next day, watching the waves toss themselves over the pebbles of the rocky shore and felt more like one of those stones being washed about and dragged back and forth rather than the steadfast waves guiding the direction of it all. I squinted my eyes to look past what was directly before me in order to see the afternoon yachters mooring off to the side of the cliffs in the distance. I wondered what it would be like to be an anchor; to know your path and hold fast to it. The anchors would root down into the sand or the boulders of the sea floor and wouldn’t budge until they were pulled up and away, compelled to sail along to a new destination.
I pealed off the gossamer sundress that Leo had bought me the previous week and, in my bra and underwear, stood up from the comforting heat of the grey rock to wade into the warm embrace of the Mediterranean. I lay on my back as the water lapped over my stomach and legs. Arms outstretched, hair floating in all directions away from me, I thought, “I am the last ship; without moorings and without a course to lead me to a destination. What am I going to do?” Folding my body in half, I sank down until my lower back met the sandy bottom with a gentle bump. My fingers dug into the sand and pebbles and I tried to hold on as the bubbles escaped from my lips and nose. It was useless, of course; for the sand slipped through my fingers, and the pebbles were not enough to keep me down. Moments later, I floated to the surface, blinking away the sunlight and saltwater.
The dress clung to the water droplets that slipped down my body as I walked up the path back to the city. Moments later, they would be an effervescent memory. There was nobody around, of course; everyone in their right mind was sleeping the afternoon away, following the prescribed norms of southern Italian culture. Not me. I was the fish out of water.
When I came back to the house, Sonia, Leo’s mother, was sleeping on the white couch where I usually did my afternoon reading. Her mouth was slightly agape, one hand rested behind her head, and the other was laid over her minimally round, middle-aged stomach. It was amazing to me just how peaceful she looked when her matriarchal prowess was tucked away into the sub-conscious. Just hours before, she had been commanding me around the kitchen in her usual mix of Italian and English. She had become flustered because I didn’t understand that she wanted me to serve the mozzarella in the clear glass bowl rather than the usual green one. Her English abilities had failed her, and she had just shaken her head at me, voicing her displeasure in fluent Italian. Leo had tried to gently chide her, also in Italian, because he knew that those moments were ones of excrutiating embarassment for me. She had turned to him, gesturing to me with her ever moving hands, demanding some answer that he had not been able to give her. He had simply raised his hands in surrender, shook his head, and exited the kitchen. And I took the salad and the mozzarella in its correct bowl and had slipped silently from the room. His father, already seated at the table reading a novel, smiled up at me and squeezed my arm gently. Damiano knew what ailed me. He never said a word, but his eyes were always kind and empathetic, and I had to turn away to keep from tearing up in front of him. I also knew that he never spoke to his son about anything other than the business, family, and how to produce your greatest life’s work.
That night, when Leo came in from the vineyards, I was sitting at the table, a book open before me, and a half-eaten sandwich lay abandoned on the plate to my right. He was singing, so it must have been a productive day. He popped his head around the door jamb of the kitchen. “Ciao, carina, bueno serra. How are you?” he asked, smiling. I looked up, acknowledging his presence. “Ah, you’ve eaten already, bene,” he added, glancing at my sore attempt at a meal. His brow furrowed and he came over to me, hands on his hips. “Hey, what is it? Hm? Di mi, carina.”
What should I tell him? I knew he was exhausted, and frankly, so was I. Exhausted by life itself. “It’s nothing. Would you like something to eat?” I asked. He had already begun munching the sandwich remnant. He waved the hand that wasn’t guiding the sandwich to his face. “No, don’t trouble yourself. It’s alright.” He finished the sandwich, wiped the oil from his fingers, and with one last furtive glance at me, went back into the kitchen. He came back with two glasses and a bottle of wine.
“In vino veritas,” he said, opening the bottle and pouring us two generous glasses. “Now, tell me: what’s troubling you?” He was relaxed, his body positioned openly toward me. He wanted to hear.
“What can I tell you, Leo? I’m struggling with this, like I have been since we arrived here,” I replied, focusing on an imperfection in the wood of the table.
“Why are you struggling? Are you unhappy?” He was looking at me, waiting for me to make eye contact. I didn’t.
“I don’t know that its a matter of happiness, really. I just feel lost, unmoored. Like the last ship in open waters.”
“What can I do?”
I looked at him. He was quite serious.
“I don’t know.”
He sighed. “Lillya, you’re alone a lot, I recognize that. And I wish I could be with you more. But this is our life now. We wanted this life, you agreed to this life. Isn’t there something that you can find for yourself?”
“How, Leo? I don’t speak Italian well enough, your mother points that out daily. Your family still treats me like a stranger—“
“My family is waiting for you to feel like you are part of them. They are ready to have you any time you are ready to have them.” He lowered the volume of his voice. “This is all in your head, carina. Nobody wishes you anything else other than to feel at home here.”
“Your mother wishes you had left me in Portland.”
“She wishes no such thing. Such nonsense.”
I rolled my eyes. “I don’t use the right dishes, I don’t understand her ways, I can’t cook, I don’t sleep in the afternoons, my Italian incompetency is an abomination. I offend her, and she’s always around, so there is never a time where I feel like something I do might be right. And you don’t see it because she is your mother and she is in charge, without question.” My eyes were blazing as I looked at him. He sat back in his chair.
“My mother loves you as if you were her own daughter. She gets upset with herself for failing at her part of the communication—”
“Bullshit she does.”
“Let me finish. She was saying that, if only she could recall her English a little faster, she would be able to make the most beautiful lunch with you. Those were her words today.”
I shook my head and looked away. He leaned forward in his chair.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Lille. What do you want? You don’t know. Do you want me to marry you? Would that make you feel like you belong then? Do you want to be my wife? Italian by marriage, eh. Hm?” Again, he was serious.
“I don’t need you to marry me, Leo.”
“It’s not a matter of need, carina, it is a matter of what you want. Find that, and you will find peace.”
With that, he got up, took his glass and went outside, pulling the newspaper from under my magazine on the coffee table on his way.
Moments later, I joined him. He put the paper down.
I took a deep breath. “I don’t have a family that supports me like you do. Never have,” I said quietly. “You are right about me, you know. I have no idea what I want, or what moves me. I don’t think I’ve ever known.”
My family history was a story quite on its own. My parents were older when they conceived me, and my mother often told me that she had considered “a quick procedure” to take care of the “situation”. She was a career woman partnered with a man who loved work as much as she did. She doubted heavily that there was room for me in their lives. But, my father wanted me more than anything else, and as soon as they found out they were having a daughter, he refused to let her speak of anything but their future as a trio. That was the first step down a long path of resentment for my mother.
The second came with my name. Lillya. An uncommon, if not unheard of, girl’s name. My father loved the name ever since he had read it a novel about the Russian revolution. He loved history. My mother, on the other hand, was one of those Americans who thought history had no business being taken seriously in modern times. Much to her chagrin, the nurse scribbled down Lillya on my birth certificate, and they left it at that. No second name to mitigate the first. Instead, she chose to remind me at every opportunity that I was the greatest battle she ever lost. And she did lose. She lost my father, who died of heart disease when I was five. And she lost me slowly thereafter.
I tried to love her. She was my mother, after all. But the wounds she inflicted with her cruel words never had the chance to heal. Even after I had moved out of her house, had accomplished years of higher education, had been successful in every job I had ever set out to take, she still never saw me as anything but the embodiment of the worst possible situation. When Leo had met me, my father’s sister had taken me in and given me shelter from the last devastating meeting I had with my mother. We hadn’t spoken since.
“Lille,” he said, bringing me back to the present, “my family is your family. Whatever you decide to do, we are all behind you, amore.” He gave my hands an affectionate squeeze. “I need to see that sparkle in your eyes. I haven’t seen that since the first time I took you down to the seaside. But I know it’s there, in here—“ He placed his hand on my sternum, “—somewhere. Let it out, carina, and you will be at home anywhere you go.” He kissed my forehead and I reveled in the fact that he loved me enough to put up with the confused, lost, head case that I was. If only I could change all of that.
But I could. And I would.
When he came home the next night, I was covered in flour but had managed to make homemade ravioli with the help and patience of his sister, who spoke more English than she cared to let on in front of the rest of her family. I had also ventured down to the morning market to pick up some bread, fresh fish, and a few in-season vegetables that I sauteed in plenty of butter. I was, admittedly, somewhat drunk, but my spirits were higher than they had been in days, weeks even, and when he hugged me I knew that he was both surprised and happy to have found me using my time productively. And it felt good. Very good.
After dinner, I switched on the radio, and I practiced my Italian by singing to the lyrics I was sure of while Leo and I washed up the dishes. Ever the entertainer, he joined in, making up the words as he went and causing me to laugh until my full stomach began to hurt. After that, we made love on the couch after a shot of Limoncello, and went to bed.
Again I lay awake with my thoughts. Maybe if I spent less time at the harbor, alone and contemplating my failures, I would be able to immerse myself in something that could ignite my soul again. The question was: had it ever been ignited previously? I couldn’t say.
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.
As I write, “The Last Ship”, these are the kinds of images I have in my mind as I walk with my characters through the fictional southern Italian town. Actually, though, the setting of the story is based on a town in the province of Salerno called Agropoli. I spent time there visiting the extended family of some friends from Rome. So, many of the situations that Lilya finds herself in are similar to things I experienced while taking part in their family operations. The story is to be continued, so stay tuned! And I welcome feedback on the beginning, especially relating to the imagery of the setting. Cheers! And happy reading!