Chapter Sixteen: Wherein the Poet Barters with Time…
“There was the cresting of all into one summer moment and then a bursting forth of stars over open water that glittered like rain on fire and then died as spent fire into the dark, so that the sea itself was the cache of memory and to recover one’s own soul one must return one day, to that same sea.
Parting to lie eyes to eyes in stillness, there were tears, promises, declarations and assuagements, things astounding and unforgettable.”
The Poet’s Journal, 1973.
At the end of Act I of Madama Butterfly the moon rises behind two lovers, where there are two voices, Pinkerton singing his desire, cajoling Butterfly, and Butterfly yielding.
That moment is forever caught in time in the duet “Bimba dagli Occhi,” a passage that has transported the listener into a more than willing suspension of disbelief for over a century.
In real life one steps off the stage and goes off alone with a dilemma. How to know joy and oneness, but remain whole and true unto oneself?
This was not only a timeless question but an American writer’s conundrum, a young feminist’s pensive question to herself, journaling by moonlight, her lover sleeping.
We dozed and then morning light filtered through the curtains; dust sifted in the air and I heard the Calabrian canaries begin to sing. The sun quivered on the sea and the sea turned toward it and then below the casement, voices, the waking of the community.
We kissed and bathed and kissed and dressed, stepping out into the day. We walked to the nearest trattoria for espresso.
Angela's new baby would be baptized today, in the same church where everyone in the family had been lowered to the font, soothed by the rhythms of the Latin liturgy. There would be a moving high mass.
We strolled until noon, and then went into the dark, exquisite Renaissance chapel. Angela and her husband Silvio brought her tiny baby in, swaddled and draped in heirloom lace.
Pepe and I stood together, our shoulders touching gently while the infant’s forehead was assuaged by a cupful of water, the priest marking her forehead.
Suddenly it occurred to me that we were standing together in a church, side by side, reading from our Missals, witnesses to the beginning of a beautiful but inevitable indoctrination into Catholicism.
Then, unbidden and unwelcome, I imagined our return to the church for another reason, another occasion. Panic swept through me: I saw myself in a wedding gown hand-sewn by Pepe’s sisters.
That this fantasy assailed me now obliterated the baptism. How could I do this to myself, imagine that we were headed in such a direction. We were of the moment. No one had said, except perhaps rhetorically, I thought, anything about forever, or about marriage.
I ordered these thoughts back into the sediment of my consciousness where they belonged.
But back in the shadows of the church, where we watched the service, the candles on the altar flickering, I felt Pepe take and squeeze my hand, so that I caught my breath.
After the baptism we returned to the market. I had said to Pepe that I wanted to buy a pair of red shoes, “scarpi rossi.”
“Perche,” he had asked, looking tense.
“Piu troppo caro,” he then said.-- Too expensive.
I couldn’t explain that red Italian shoes had been on my mind and that I thought I would feel even more alive when I wore them.
I resolved that I would barter for them as I had seen others do, and we went into a shop along the
Lido. I saw a pair that I liked. I wanted that spirited color beneath my skirt, my toenails bright red.
Overly confident in my mastery of Italian, I haggled with the shop owner until he relented, emerging into the day with my package. I could sense that Pepe was angry at himself that he couldn't buy me all of
“Lasce mi pagare,” I had said. You have paid for everything. He had refused, shelling out what I believed to be about six dollars in lire. My father had written saying he would send money in a few days and I resolved to buy our train tickets for our impending journey north.
We walked on, back to the family’s palazzo. Well into our third day together, our ritual was now in place; to love, wake, adventure and return to the family. What might have been a burden to the family was a joy to me; there was never a dull moment. Someone might be in a bad mood, grumpily making meatballs, swearing, and someone else, singing. There was no television, only a radio from which plaintive songs wound their way through the parlor into the dining room and kitchen.
There was also no escaping "Il mio piccolo grande amore," the pop song du jour, “My Little Big Love”, teenage voices in their dissonance against a canned orchestration.
Mama had not missed my love of opera, and as we congregated again in the palazzo, she turned off the radio and on an ancient record player, she began to play a recording of the great tenor Nicolai Gedda singing the folk songs of Rachmaninoff. I could not get her to tell me how she had come by this album.
We sat together rapt in the twilight while Carmelo made dinner, this time in celebration of the baptism.
She took my hand, looking at me quizzically, watching me as I watched Pepe come in from the market with more wine.
“Di’ mi di tu madre,” she said.
I felt a surge of adrenaline. I wondered what Pepe had said. “My mother is sick. She suffers, and we take care of her. She loves my father. He is also sick; he can't breathe.” I looked at her. She was hanging on every word, but my Italian failed me—I had no words to tell the history of my mother’s being taken away to a mental hospital in the desert when I was five, how I became the family hero, holding us all together. But she looked at me with such discernment that tears rose to my eyes. She reached for me.
As she was comforting me, Pepe came in. He sat down with us and we all held each other. Papa was notably absent, staying in his room, staring out the window. I had not realized how lonely, even surrounded by everyone, Mama might be, perhaps hungry to talk with her guest about intimate things.
We went in to dinner, pulling our chairs back.
Someone turned up the radio. Pensive moments fled into the corners like shadows. We lost ourselves in talk, in the meal, the rise and fall of Italian voices arguing politics and telling one another the day's gossip-- that someone's son had been arrested for murder, that someone's teenage daughter was pregnant.
Va Bene. Again it came to me that if there were a way to catch this moment, Anna's beautiful profile, Mama's serene face as she presided over dinner, Santina squirming in her high chair, the baby asleep in her bassinette near the sideboard, I could make it part of me, never to lose it or have it slip away.
Meanwhile, I was the unforgettable moment in time for Pepe. He seldom took his eyes off me. He held my hand under the table, caressing my fingers.
Dessert was brought to the table…it was a rich torte and the family again waited for me to try it.
All eyes on me, I plundered my slice of it—whipped cream, figs and peaches in syrup, lady-fingers soaked in Cointreau.
I had seen the family abandon etiquette at dinner, and when I had whipped cream on my fingers, I simply sucked it off and raised my glass to everyone. This earned me yet another storm of laughter and a round of bravissima’s.
On this, our fourth night in Reggio, the moon rode high over the sea.
We sat on a bench together for an hour, talking of nothing and everything, before we returned to the palazzo.
Now, there was nothing more natural, more delicious, than to step out of our clothes, pulling down the sheet, to hold each other.
Pepe kissed and caressed me everywhere, preparing me even as I prepared him with my hands, making of his body ripe, hot fruit that would burst, and sate.
Nothing existed except our need and pleasure, the ascension of rapture and the moment of release, almond milk spilling over the rim of the cup.
Chapter Seventeen will go up tomorrow-- you can access previous chapters with the links on the sidebar or click on the blog archive. email@example.com