Chapter Seventeen - Roma, and An Interrogation...
I hardly understood myself
in this place;
the speech was too much like music.
I lost and found myself
in the vague movement
of olive trees.
Then the beautiful, bone-ruining
the fluent dusk
held to our room.
Shadows hid the inconstancy of our hands
while we spoke of the coastal life.
Erratically, we chopped herbs and savored,
setting grain to boil.
The women had asked me earlier, in the fig garden,
if I had seen the ruined legs of Anna--
but I had only seen her in a long dress
dizzy with laughter for her son,
a fat and proud baby
tottering on flagstones.
Now in our sanctuary
old wood is enlivened by light.
We toss winking eggs into feathered flour.
We drink an aperitif together;
dusk tells its relief to our hair.
Rome”, Reunion, Lynx House Press, J.R. Andrews 1983
At daybreak, like Georges Sand while Chopin lay sleeping, I got up, took my journal out of the duffel bag, and sat at a small table near the window.
“No itinerary, no destination,” I wrote-- and yet--again, “ Noi siamo in mezzo camino della nostra vita.....” We are in the middle of the road of our lives....
But I wasn't in the middle, I thought. I was suspended between the woman I had been touching down in Frankfurt and she who was living out a dream at the very toe of the boot of
I had let a fever overtake me and lure me far away from who I thought I was. In less than a week I had become embedded in a southern Italian family; they had appropriated me. I was not only “insieme”—together--with Pepe-- I was involved with them all.
Angela had washed and braided my hair and bleached my underwear, hanging it in the sun off her balcony. When I saw her nurse her newborn daughter, swaddled in a tiny blanket secured with a St. Christopher medal, I yearned for a child as I had never yearned before. Amusing to me was that we all cycled by the waxing and waning of the moon over the ocean I could often see from the palazzo balcony off the parlor.
At the bottom of the duffel bag, the manuscript I brought to
Europe to work on. An unfinished note to my editor. Three weeks left, before I had to get to Frankfurt and return.
In the night I had dreamt again of a small house in a coastal town where Pepe and I lived on, together. We were laughing, happy, sitting at a small table, drinking wine. We were free from all obligation.
Best of all, no fears beset us, no harsh words had yet trumped our trust of each other: in short, we were in
having not yet tasted the fruit of the tree. Eden
I began to write the dream in my journal and then felt a kiss on my neck.
“Andiamo a Roma,” Pepe said. His sister in
Rome had written; he thought we should go, as a way of beginning the journey back to northern . Italy
We packed our things and straightened up the flat, and locked the door.
That night we stayed with the family, Pepe on the floor in the parlor, and I in Santina's room, listening to her breathing.
We were to tear ourselves away again from a life that had become familiar to me, where once more I had begun to spontaneously take root; I felt safe. We were striking out alone together.
The next morning, a lump in my throat, I kissed the entire Candido family good-bye.
“Ciao, Jenni,” each said in turn, buffing me on both cheeks.
“Ciao. Arrivederci. Grazie per tutto—sempre...”
Pepe hugged me tightly as we walked down the stairs to the Fiat, where Franco waited to take us to the train station.
“Che cosa, bella,” he said to me, lifting my face. “Ti piace la famiglia?”
“Si, I said. “I love your family. I will miss them.”
We boarded the train and curled up together near the window.
There was an awkwardness between us as we pulled out of Reggio and the train picked up speed. Pepe was pensive.
I took his hand and he squeezed mine. He had been the one to lead the way, pulling me through moments of doubt as we climbed translucent stairs of vulnerability into our relationship.
He looked crestfallen.
“What is it.”
“Allora, nostra partenza...” Our parting, now...
He was dreading the moment when I had to leave. A surge of tenderness swept through me, eclipsing my fear and exhaustion.
It was my turn.
E Vivere,” I said.
“Si. “ His eyes brightened and he kissed my hair.
We kissed and looked out the window. Pepe pointed out and named the small towns we passed as we came out of the tunnels into the light again.
I wanted to distract both of us, to ask him to talk to me about med school. I wanted us each to plant seeds of hope in the other that we would meet the following summer, that we would write. But I feared intruding anything related to the subject of separation on the eternal present of the train ride. A journey suspends one in time. At one's back, the immediate past. A long way ahead, a new destination. In between, opportunity to deepen our connection.
We kissed. Finally he took my hand and led me to the rear of the car, where a battered, rusty door was swaying against a broom closet of a bathroom.
We arranged our clothes to invite possibility, then inevitability. Each of us braced an arm against the train, cleaving together in the lurching car, to the music of the iron wheels flying along the track.
We drew back, laughing softly at each other, tousling each other's hair. “Brava,” I said.
“Oh, scusi. Bravo.”
We dressed and went back to our seat, where a sedate elderly couple glanced at us and resumed reading magazines.
We dozed together, reunited in body and spirit, and sometime in the night, the faint voice of the conductor called, “Roma, Roma,” waking us.
We stepped off the train with our bags. It was late, but Pepe went to a pay phone, dialing his sister.
We sat on a bench under the trees; Marco, his sister Maria's husband, careened up to the curb in a rusty Fiat nearly identical to the one in Reggio.
We whirled through the night to the outskirts of
, to a nondescript, more modern villa. Rome
I pined quietly for antiquity. Pepe had promised we would take the bus into
the next day. Rome
We stepped into an aromatic darkness with low lamps on antique tables. Maria, a tall, beautiful woman, emerged from the back of the palazzo.
“Piacere,” she said to me, as we were introduced.
We had an aperitif together-- again, latte di mandorla, the milk of the almond, that I had determined to have made me take leave of my senses and undergo a hormonal surge. But we would sleep in separate rooms out of respect for the strong Catholic etiquette of the family.
After a wakeful night, I woke once again amazed to realize that I was in
Italy, this time in . I dressed and went into the kitchen. I looked out into a garden, where Pepe and Marco sat smoking cigarettes, sipping espresso. Rome
Maria came into the kitchen in a long, neatly pressed grey dress. Unlike the other women in the family she was tall and slender. She had the family radiant smile; as we had left Scylla, Franco had said, “Mi padre e’ chiamato l'sorrisa eterna di Calabria...”-- My father is known as the eternal smile of
I had met Salvatore the Senior at dinner, and giving me the once over, he had grinned in that alluring broadness.
“Io facio pasta oggi,” Maria said-- I'm making pasta today--, inviting me to see what she was assembling on the wooden table at the center of kitchen. Everything was laid out to make linguini from scratch; for years I had wanted to do this, tried it and failed, and I wanted to help.
She directed me to break open eggs, and to measure out farina, the rich flour most commonly used to make pasta, into a pottery bowl.
Into the farina nested with the eggs she liberally added thick virgin olive oil. Then she gathered everything up into her fingers, working it all into a glistening dough. She covered the dough with a damp cloth and made us espresso on the gas range.
We sat together at the table.
She fastened her luminous brown eyes, carefully kohl-lined, their lashes long, upon me.
“Jenni. Ti amai Pepe?” Do you love my brother?
Somehow, I had sensed this question coming, some kind of moment of reckoning on the part of the family. I sipped my coffee, returning her gaze. I had seen how much Pepe was beloved to his sisters, how they watched me, and monitored us together at dinner.
“Yes, I love him,” I said. “I love him very much.”
It was not enough to use the verb “amare,” I had learned. I needed to convey the passionate nature of our relationship and reassure his family by variations on the phrase “Ti voglio tanto bene,” that depending on the circumstances could mean I like you, or I have a burning passion for you for all of eternity.
I did my best. I told her what I loved about Pepe: his gentleness, his humor and sensitivity at all times to me. I tried to explain how American women assume that Italian men, Latin men in general, speak of love but in reality view women as objects of desire. I said that Pepe was an exception.
She leaned forward and took my hand.
“Dunque, perche ritornerai a
?” Then why are you returning to America . America
She was hoisting me on my own petard, the question I had asked and asked myself, trying to delve below the obvious reasons.
This was an intimate moment between women, and I took a chance.
“We are still nearly strangers...this is new.” I struggled to find a way to speak that would make sense to both of us. “Perhaps I am afraid, so far from home, another culture.... Then, “Mi 'spero vincere la mia paura.” I hope to conquer this fear.
There it was, as palpable a truth as one of the golden apples in a blue bowl on the table before us, as anything that had come to me in my journaling and musing since I had stepped into Pepe's arms.
Maria looked at me thoughtfully. I speculated that in her mind and heart, love transcended all else, the raison d’être for all things.
At that moment the phone rang. She excused herself.
I took a basket and went out into the garden where I had seen ripe tomatoes. I picked them for the sauce I knew we would set simmering while we rolled out the pasta, cutting it into ribbons, hanging it on a wooden rack in the window. From the depths of the house I heard “O Mio Bambino Caro..” the aria from Gianni Schicci playing, a young woman's plea to her father not to restrict her love.
I noticed a ripe fig tree in the corner of the garden. I felt one of the figs; it was warm, ready to burst. I picked it, and broke it open, consuming it.
Someone was standing behind me. Someone slipped a hand over my eyes, and turned me toward him, and drank from my mouth, and I turned to him, concealing the fracture line within my heart.
Maria came out and called to her children to help set a long table under the trees. We all sat down to spoon rich sauce over the beautiful creamy yellow strands of pasta al dente. The wine flowed. Pepe and I held hands and after dinner, walked in the garden, laughing and kissing.
As the sun set over
, Maria called from the house that Anna was on the phone. Rome
“Brava,” Pepe said to her, smiling and handing the phone to me.
Anna had gone into labor shortly after we left, and delivered a son.
I took the phone.
“Brava, Anna. Come stai...” How are you.
“Si...bene” she said faintly.
I turned to go to the inner rooms of the palazzo to bathe and rest; Pepe and Marco talked politics in the kitchen while Maria put things away.
She came to me and we went into the parlor.
“Lui ti ama tanto bene.” He adores you.
“Lascere quelli amore...Permit this,” she said. Open your heart.
“Si,” I said, in the faint way Anna had, in labor with someone about to surrender, who would cancel her trip home and give herself to love, and to a life in