Chapter 10 – Home Sweet Sicily
I was so excited to get home to Sicily. Our last day in Rome I was up early, showering and putting on my new lacy red underwear. I needed it for New Year’s – only in Italy would undergarments be good luck charms. I was hoping to see my lovers that day.
That plan was ruined by a strike. Aunt Kay, Mom and I arrived at the airport expecting a half-hour trip to Sicily. Instead the clerk politely informed us that there were no airplanes. Aunt Kay didn’t take this labor-rights concept very well and got pissed beyond belief. Mom and I decided to take an all-night train since it didn’t look like the strike would end before Christmas. But Kay didn’t do trains, especially all-night ones.
There were no sleeper cars available. Mom and I slept fine on the train, lulled by the repetitive click-clack of the wheels. Aunt Kay was up all night, miserable. She said the two most awful days in her life were when she learned she had breast cancer and staying up all night in an Italian train.
I woke as the train lurched onto the ferry. It had been an ordeal, but I was finally getting back to Sicily. I went up to the deck, turning my back to Calabria to see the lights of Messina and my island’s coast. Maybe a bridge to Sicily would drain away the island’s aloof mystique.
Mom accompanied me to the deck. A guy named Leo proclaimed himself a tour guide and began pointing out points of interest along the Sicilian shoreline. He also made sure to touch my arm each time he invented a tourist site. I wasn’t even back on the island yet, and the men had their hands all over me.
For a month I hadn’t even gotten to flirt. All those five star hotels kept us distant from most people but the waiters and others we met never batted an eye at me, another foreign tourist enjoying the beauty of Italy. Sicily sees fewer tourists, mostly from Germany, and less still from the states (except by the Navy base near Catania). Now the island was oozing horny men the way Etna spits smoke.
After breathing in the moon, sea, stars, and Sicilian air, I drifted back to sleep for a bit. I awoke to catch the sun rising from the hills and sea. We learned that this trip would take even longer than we’d expected, because we needed to wait two more hours for the bus to Piazza Armerina. Since seeing my spasamantes was foremost in my mind, I called my waiter friend, Massimo, and he rushed right over. He was sweet, chatting us up as we ate breakfast in the bus station bar. He must’ve known how to work a family, because Aunt Kay soon whispered to me that I should marry him. It didn’t hurt that he’d told her she didn’t look a day over 35. Massimo even helped lift her heavy floral-patterned bags onto the bus. It was my first time seeing a Sicilian trying to impress the parental units. Odd.
As we approached Piazza Armerina, the landmarks became familiar. Somehow I wasn’t as excited as I’d thought I would be. Aunt Kay was not happy to roll her bags three blocks to the hotel where the Lions had hosted me that summer. It was the only hotel I knew in town, and she found it dirty, not up to her standards. There was such a huge gulf between us and how we traveled. I cringed to imagine her impressions of Rob’s dusty home and fly-filled Girasol.
My great-grandmother, Catarina, had gotten fed up with Papa Nick. She was tired of the abuse, the death threats, and the cheating. She left him and went to live with relatives. But Papa Nick promised to change and managed to sweet talk her into coming back. He did behave better, at least for a while.
I hoped Giovanni might treat me better now, and my first course of action was to march off to his lupo lair. I’d dropped my stuff at the hotel, washed up, and put on new clothes free of train dirt. I found him and Annabella joking around in Italian, and I felt left out. He seemed underwhelmed by my return. Luckily, lots of letters had accumulated for me, so I distracted myself with those. One depressed me. My cousin had just gotten married and sent me photos of the wedding I had missed. She looked so beautiful, so together. She had it all. A nice husband. A stable life.
Annabella left to run errands. I told Giovanni the new rules. After talking with Aunt Kay all month, I had gotten my womanly self-esteem back. Rule One: No glove, no love. Rule Two: No talking about beautiful women in front of me. Rule Three: No more tempting me with baby-making ideas. Giovanni didn’t react well. He just said, “In my country, we have freedom of speech.”
I sighed, exasperated. He didn’t understand how bad he made me feel when he talked about all the beautiful, skinny women in Italy. I wanted to feel special. His handful of other lovers and his insults weren’t helping. When I tried to tell him my needs, he joked around, refusing to take me seriously.
The phone rang. I took the opportunity to leave without saying goodbye. The air was cold. At least I got a warm welcome home from Carlo when I visited the jewelry shop. He seemed truly glad to see me back. Maybe I wasn’t as much of a pest in his household as I had feared. He said the kids had really missed me.
Breakfast was at Fier’s again, and then we descended on Artilio’s for lunch. I was supposed to babysit for Mick and Veronika while they performed in Cefalu, but when we passed Girasol, Mick said it was off. He growled that he’d probably never work with Veronika again. We shrugged and headed on.
After a satisfying meal and contorted gossip at Artilio’s, I took Fier to see what I had done at Oscar’s. He hadn’t seen the place before, and he joked that I now knew more about the countryside than he did. Feeling good, I agreed to head into town with him although a light drizzle had begun. I liked the idea of sitting in a bar, drinking coffee, feeling warm, watching the rain, and doing some writing like an urban sophisticate. Plus, Carol was supposed to be back this weekend.
Back at the hotel I found Rob waiting for me. I gave him the biggest kiss that lobby had ever seen. We talked and talked about what we had done in the past month. I told him he had to see Rome, Florence, and Venice before we left Italy.
He was sweet enough to wait upstairs in my room, enjoying the shower I’m sure, as Aunt Kay, Mom, and I dined with the Lion’s Club. They held their banquets in that hotel all summer, and now it was time for a Christmas dinner. It was nice to see the Lion’s Club families again. I was the only foreigner left from the summer exchange, and they felt proud that I had chosen to stay in their city. I was amazed as they handed out ceramic gifts to everyone attending, even us. I thought such generosity was only for summer tourists.
After dinner, I brought Rob some leftovers. We addressed our other hunger by making out as Mom slept in the next bed. I was so happy to cuddle with him. I knew now I wanted him and only him.
In the morning, Aunt Kay had had enough of the hotel. The bathroom was too dirty, and there was no TV or room service. Maybe the Lions had only seen the banquet hall and not the rooms, so I asked around and learned there was another hotel just outside of town. That made her feel a little better, even if she had to re-arrange their lobby furniture to make it more appealing. She had an interior designer’s eye for feng-shui.
Rob helped us move into the new hotel, and then he walked with us to the old quarter and the cathedral. We had done this tourist routine several times in Piazza, first when we arrived, then with Nikki, and now for what would be the last time.
That night we visited the town’s nativity scene. It was just a makeshift barn, waiting for a Mary and Joseph. One of the organizers heard us speaking English and asked us how long we’d be in town. We told him we’d be there until May. Then he asked if I would play Mary and Rob would be Joseph. I was in shock – me a virgin? The virgin? Here in Sicily where I’d had the biggest sexual awakening in my life? I said sure.
The organizer, Armando, was a sweet fellow who lived across the street from the crèche. He brought us home where his young wife took our measurements to make our outfits. Apparently none of the Sicilians wanted to do the re-enactments. Armando was so relieved to find someone that he treated us all to drinks at the bar on the corner.
Mom got drunk, and Kay escorted her back to the hotel. Rob and I decided to spend the night alone in his country pad. The walk was chilly, but we stayed close to keep warm.
Fier said he needed to see a priest at the cathedral, which I thought was odd since he was Jewish. But I tagged along, on my way to find Carol. It turned out Fier was asking the priest for alms allocated for the poor. Fier’s mission failed, and on top of that the priest thought I was Fier’s girlfriend. Lovely. Well, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about being molested by priests around here.
I joined Fier at Bar Charlotte. He scanned the newspaper with a scowl. “Ah ha!” He jabbed the newspaper with a bony finger almost poking a hole through it. The article confirmed what he’d told me: a world crisis was brewing. It involved organized crime, international arms dealers, and the Pope. Maybe Fier was looking for anything to incriminate that stingy old priest and the Church. He counseled that if I had any money, I should buy gold. I tried not to smile as I nodded at him in grave seriousness.
I made my escape from him and headed over to Carol’s hotel. I saw her coming down the stairs into the lobby. She was a transcendent vision to me, radiating her usual energy, her curves accentuated by a tight pink Roman sweater.
She met me with a big smile, kiss, and hug.
“Rob! You survived being all alone out in the country!” Then in a lower voice and with a theatrical grimace, she added, “Mom and Aunt Kay are driving me CRAZY!!!”
We laughed until Carol’s aunt, Kay, and mother, Marilyn, came down as well. They greeted me warmly. I had known Marilyn, in Maryland, for several years. The first time she’d met me, I had been crashed on Carol’s floor along with some other friends. My long blond hair was on the pillow, and she assumed I was Carol’s friend Ami. But when she saw my manly legs, she knew something was amiss. From then on, Marilyn called me “Hairy Ami.” I took it in stride.
Marilyn was a stereotypical outgoing Italian-American mother, raised in Brooklyn and still with a trace of that abrasive accent. We appreciated each other’s storytelling and sense of humor. Her tourist garb of designer holiday sweats made me smile.
Carol introduced me to the more elegantly dressed Kay, who I enjoyed calling “Aunt Kay” just as Carol did. She had been living in Las Vegas and working in real estate and reiki energy massage. Kay had several ex-husbands but no kids, and she enjoyed spending her money on the finer things. She didn’t hesitate to tell us the intimate details of her recent facelift, while Marilyn rolled her eyes. The sisters didn’t get along that smoothly. Carol seemed to have reached the end of her rope from mediating between the two of them, as well as between them and the Italians.
We caught up with a Christmas procession, ending at a nativity scene near the canali. I was speechless when Carol signed us up to play Mary and Joseph! Not that my protests could possibly have overridden her enthusiasm. After the crèche organizer thanked us with drinks, Carol was ready for a respite from the family.
Rob and I headed out of town under the gaze of the moon.
“I’ve been thinking a lot on my trip,” I began.
“Oh, is that all you did?”
“You’re so cute.”
I kissed him. “But seriously, Giovanni has become boring. I just want to be with you. I mean a relationship has to grow or die. There’s no growth with Giovanni. But with you … I’ve always liked you. But I just have to take it one day at a time.”
“No matter what happens, Carol, I’ll always be attracted to you. All I know is that I’m so happy when I’m with you. You’re so special to me. I just feel like crying for joy being with you right now. I don’t know. I love you.”
I almost cried tears of joy myself. I couldn’t believe he’d told me he loved me. He had never said it before. We had barely gotten together before we left for Europe, and I’d told myself I had to make him say it. I had been in love with him since I was 18. This was a dream come true. I looked up from our embrace and saw the whole of Piazza Armerina lit up below us. It was a beautiful sight at a beautiful moment.
On our moonlit stroll, I felt a surge of feelings for Carol. I stopped and kissed her, then buried my face in her long hair. I told her how much she meant to me, that I respected her courage in life and loved creating this adventure in Sicily together. She seemed pleased, if a little wary.
At Girasol we found Fier house sitting. Mick had convinced Veronika to perform in Cefalu after all, and they had been looking for me so they could ask me to babysit. I hoped they weren’t too mad.
We had a nice chat with Fier, but he burst our bubble a bit. He said the crèche group had been asking everyone in town to be the holy couple, but we were the only suckers who’d agreed to it. Carol said, “Maybe that’s why the crèche is right across from that big hotel, so they can pounce on gullible foreigners every year.” She was still looking forward to the performance. We thanked Fier for the tea and news and headed on. I had followed Carol to Sicily, and now she was following me to my little hovel in the hills.
My euphoria was short-lived, however. When I returned Carol to the hotel the next day, I saw Marinella in the lobby. My grunge-girl Doc Martens crush from a bus trip to Catania of few weeks ago was alone, and Carol had gone upstairs. I froze. The moment of opportunity passed, as a couple of slicked-back local guys showed up promptly to monopolize her. Carol returned to herd me along on our errands. I gave Marinella a meek wave as we left the hotel, and she returned a beautiful smile. I found the strength, finally, to seize the moment and say something. I told Carol I’d catch up with her in a minute. She looked at me for a moment, eyebrows raised, before she left.
I said ciao. Marinella was with her boyfriend, but she was still friendly. I was thrilled to catch up with her for a couple of minutes, and then we parted awkwardly. I kicked myself for not taking the opportunity to give her the traditional two-cheeked kiss. Well, at least I’d said something. Maybe I’d run into her again, without the dude around. I started feeling twinges of guilt about the amorous things I’d said to Carol the night before. Could I ever be satisfied with “settling down” with one woman? Would I have to give up on my Mick Jagger dreams?
As I’d feared, Carol started in again with somber talk about our relationship. She put it this way: when guys hit on her, should she say she had a ragazzo, a boyfriend? My blunt answer was, “why?” She was silent. Then she angrily burst out that she felt used. I thought about calling her a hypocrite. In a letter from her recent trip, she’d swor she was going to stop thinking about babies and marriage and stop scaring guys off with all that talk. I guess that didn’t apply to me.
“You know, it’ll be easier for me to find a guy than for you to find a girl.” She played on my fears.” We’ve had too many ups and downs, I’m tired of it. This could be our last chance to stay together.”
It reminded me of the year before when we were dating in Minnesota. She said if I didn’t come to Europe with her, I might lose her. So I came, but I lost her to Giovanni anyway! I didn’t know what to think anymore. But as much as I tormented myself, it seemed that all these starts and stops in our relationship, over the years, just didn’t bother me as much as they did her. Did that mean she wasn’t as important to me as I was to her? If I told her that honestly that I just felt like we should be friends, would I be making the biggest mistake of my life? I couldn’t decide if I was just commitment-phobic or really not in love with her. It was awful. I tried to envision how I would feel someday if she ended up marrying someone else and having his kids.
Fortunately, we were soon distracted from these painful thoughts. Carol had engaged us in the arduous task of shepherding her family to see my humble country abode.
We should have hired a cab.
The elders were fine, on the uphill hike, for the first few kilometers. The obstacle course of dirt roads, barbed wire, and rock climbing soon became too much for Aunt Kay. We somehow made it to Rob’s, but she refused to walk back. She hadn’t approved of the dirt floor or the marijuana plants when we stopped in at Girasol. And she thought Rob needed some serious lessons in housekeeping. I just thought it was great that he served us salad and pasta.
Aunt Kay refused to use Rob’s hole in the ground. He brought her over to Helmut’s so she could use a real toilet. He gloated at having the only one in the community.
Rob drove the matriarchs of my family back to the hotel, borrowing Hilda’s car. We didn’t tell them it was his first time actually driving in Italy. I stayed in his cabin-like house, making sure the fire didn’t die. But in a metaphoric way it already had. I had been shocked, that morning, to find out that after all his proclamations of love, Rob wanted to keep the status quo. He was just getting into the idea of playing the field. I told him I was tired of it. He sighed that, once again, we were out of sync.
When he got back we didn’t really resolve anything, and we just went to bed. I wanted to cry. I felt stupid for ruining everything I’d had, just for a superficial playboy like Giovanni. I felt like a slut since everyone wanted me for sex but not as a girlfriend.
The next morning, I took the long walk back to town alone. It gave me more time to think, and I was able to regain some mental balance after this rollercoaster. I realized I hadn’t necessarily ruined everything by sleeping with Giovanni. Rob just had a deathly fear of commitment, and deep down I had always known that. I’d have to let him be free, as he had been gracious enough to do for me over the past few months.
Carol got up, dressed, and left without a word. That wasn’t a good sign. The air in my house was thick with tension. I made a fire to keep out the physical chill. I lay in bed most of the day. It was dark and rainy out, a good excuse to stay home and sulk. worried that a life fooling around with lots of women might not compensate for the love of one. Would I end up old and bitter like Giovanni, as Carol had predicted?
The next afternoon Hilda told me she had seen Carol in town and Carol wanted to talk. I felt hopeful. On the way to town, riding with Hilda, I sang Christmas carols with Georg and Pia. They had learned “Jingle Bells” at school, and they howled with laughter when I taught them the “Batman Smells” version.
With Christmas approaching, the Virgin Mary was busy. Every night found her strolling around a new part of town. Her statue was carried at the center of processions, often accompanied by a band and culminating in fireworks. I was busy, too, pacing around with my racing thoughts about Rob and me. Would our destiny of true love ever be realized?
A car pulled up behind me. It was Rob’s pal, the cute leather jacket guy from the grocery store. I jumped in with him and his friends, and he drove out to the country. They were going to feed some horses, but I never saw any horses.
Instead we drove out of town about a mile, they stopped on a lonely dusty road crowded with olive trees. His friend walked down the road, supposedly to fed the beasts while leather jacket guy said something about making a cigarette. I had a feeling he meant a joint. I was right. I sat in the car and watched him roll and pack the marijuana into a spinelli. We passed it around, but I couldn’t take much, I kept coughing.
On the drive back, I was unusually quiet. If I tried to speak Italian while high, it came out mutilated. Back in Piazza they offered me a drink at the bar where the ménage a trois woman worked. He knew her too, and I wondered just how well. I wondered why she had told Giovanni I wasn’t her type. Was I too big boned for her bony body to bone?
I sat on a stool, and leather guy patted my inner calf for a moment. Every time he leaned in close or touched me, I wondered if he liked me. I should have known. I’m an American girl known for unorthodox behavior — of course I interest him! After we left the bar, we drove around listening to ‘60s music, blues, funk, and Dire Straits, of all things. The Italians kept saying Italian music sucked, and they preferred classic rock to the Euro pop the teenagers liked. I was quiet and happy, just listening and looking at the sunset darkening the green hills.
We drove all the way to Enna, capital of the province, where, for some reason, Scottish bag pipers were playing Christmas carols. Aside from the Virgin processions, there were few decorations or other signs of Christmas. Unlike in America, I didn’t see the overzealous push to buy and be happy. We had only seen one Santa Claus, and that was in Rome. He was skinny, looked depressed, and smoked a cigarette.
As we returned to the car, someone started lighting a firework right in front of us. I stopped so I wouldn’t get burned. My suitor bumped into me, and I liked the way he grabbed my waist as he braced himself. We drove back quietly. He asked what I was going to do – eat? I wasn’t hungry. He shrugged and said he had to feed his dog, and he brought me to the hotel. We could do something later. Of course there’s nothing to do later in Piazza Armerina, except …
Parked outside the hotel, he said only people who have “ragazzas” have something to do. I knew what he meant. I took the chance to ask if he had a girlfriend, and he said no, but he could always find someone to “pasare il tempo.” “Andare a letto,” go to bed, he clarified. I didn’t respond. All the men here were so open about their love lives. Or, more accurately, their sex lives. They seemed to get laid a lot but have no girlfriends. Maybe Giovanni wasn’t so abnormal after all.
I wasn’t impressed with his “you’re not hungry, and there’s nothing else to do, so goodbye.” I left his car, flabbergasted. I didn’t have much time to think, because Mom and Aunt Kay spied me and said I was urgently needed at the nativity scene. A virgin crisis.
The mayor was giving a speech. I was astonished when he pointed me out in the crowd and called me up on the stage.
“This is our Virgin Mary for tomorrow.” He waved me over to the microphone. I was terrified. Me talk? In marijuana- butchered Italian? To all these devout people who, ironically, saw me as the embodiment of the wholesome Virgin?
I squeaked out a speech about loving Piazza Armerina and being honored to be their virgin for Christmas Eve.
“I’ve never been Mary before, because we don’t have such a beautiful “festa” in the US.”
The crowd clapped enthusiastically. Buoyed by this response, I was ready to talk forever. But either my Italian was terrible, they noticed I was high, or they feared I’d take too much time away from the politicians. The dignitaries ushered me off, with thanks, and grabbed back the mic.
I couldn’t believe I was a stoned, slutty Mary! They needed a better screening policy.
Christmas Eve finally cast its reddening glow on the Piazza hills. Armando, from the crèche committee, picked us up at the hotel, and Rob and I put on our costumes at his apartment. Armando and his wife were old fashioned Sicilians. They’d met when she was thirteen and he eighteen and married as soon as possible.
In our costumes, Rob looked exactly like Joseph. But I looked like a nun. We went outside and past the eagerly waiting crowd. I became nervous. I didn’t see any familiar faces except for Mom and Aunt Kay, who were snapping away with their cameras. We went across the street and met the third member of our party, the donkey. I had to get onto him side saddle. The shiny fabric of the costume was slippery, and I kept sliding off the animal’s back. I was terrified I’d tumble into the street and get hit by a car. I grabbed onto Armando and held his shoulders in a death grip. I started laughing from fear, nervousness, and the ridiculousness of the whole thing. It was not a holy entrance. But at least, this time, I wasn’t high.
Luckily the donkey ride was soon over. Mother Mary herself must have intervened, because they actually stopped traffic as we crossed the street. I managed not to fall as I dismounted, and I took a seat in the barn looking as virginal and saintly as possible. I placed my hand on the stuffed Jesus doll in the hay and tried to get comfortable on the wobbly stool they provided. Using my theatrical skills, I summoned up Mary, feeling close to her since I was probably the only Jewish foreign woman in this town.
I heard funny noises and turned around to see the donkey and a cow eating hay. I held back my laughter so all the townspeople could take pictures. I’m not sure if anyone was praying to me. That would have been too much. I was no virgin to be worshipped. Though I might fit as the patron saint of crazy travel plans.
Rob stood next to me, looking strong and wise. The band played and fireworks went off, scaring our donkey, who almost kicked a hole in the barn and bolted. This whole show really could have been thought through better. They were only able to get drug-addled foreign actors, the fabric was too slippery, and the donkey was easily spooked. But these were Italians, planning was not in their blood. Maybe they trusted that their faith would somehow carry them through, as it had for centuries.
It started to rain, so the show wrapped up early. We greeted people and scarfed down the cookies they handed out. I asked Armando’s wife to bring Mom and Aunt Kay back to the hotel, since they were old and tired. Rob and I stood in the drizzle, waiting to see if we could scam a Christmas Eve meal. Everyone seemed to think their in-laws would kill them if they brought us home. What was so wrong with bringing the holy couple home for a visit?
We walked the town looking for an open bar. No luck. We saw Giovanni’s lights on, so I thought we could at least hang out there. I rang and talked to him through the intercom.
“Buon Natale. Can we come up?”
“I’ll be right down.”
“We can come up.”
“Stay there. I’ll be right down.”
That was suspicious. He came right down as he’d promised.
“Hey Giovanni. Can we come up for awhile? It’s Christmas Eve.”
“No. I have some friends coming over.”
“But we have nowhere to go.”
“These are special friends, stupida.”
I just turned around coldly and said “ciao.“
I wished I had said “vai fongulo,” fuck off. I couldn’t believe he was fucking some woman on Christmas Eve – maybe even more than one – when he had sworn to me that it’s the one day a year when he hangs out with his family. I was livid and hurt. Rob wouldn’t even take me back. I hated my life and how I’d absolutely messed everything up.
Christmas Eve didn’t feel promising. Carol had wanted me to meet her at the hotel in the morning. But it was drizzling out, and I didn’t feel like a wet slog to town for more drama. I ate a leisurely breakfast with Fier, slowly building motivation to go. On the way, I poked my head in at Hilda’s to wish them a buon natale. Helmut’s wife, Lea, was there.
Lea wanted me to return the saw I had borrowed and she made a semi-playful gesture as if to strangle me. She said she’d stop by and get it herself, which would have saved me time. But my place was such a mess I wasn’t even sure she could find it. So I headed home to get it, and to tidy up a bit in case anybody did look in. I finally made it out of Valle Perfetta and stopped in at Girasol. Drying laundry was hanging everywhere, and I peeked through the sheets to wish them a Merry Christmas. It was a full house, with Mick, Veronika, Sabine, Hans, and some friends all getting ready for a performance trip. I excused myself from the chaos as quickly as I could and headed on. I managed to get to the hotel by noon and opened presents with Carol’s family. They had gotten me extra tea cups, oven mitts, and a pan and broom. I did need all those things but felt insulted that they found shortcomings in my house. But I knew it was true.
After lunch, Carol’s leather jacket friend showed up to take them to the Roman mosaics. Carol off-handedly mentioned he had taken her on a lovely trip to Enna the day before. She was trying to make me jealous. But she let me take a nap on her comfy hotel bed while they were out, so I wasn’t too grumpy.
That evening, when the Catholic group picked us up to star in the nativity scene, there wasn’t enough room in the car. Aunt Kay accepted one fellow’s offer to sit on his lap, despite our advice to take a cab. Once we were underway, naturally, he started groping her. “How do you say stop?!” she asked. Carol and I were horrified, though it was amusingly predictable. But from a religious group!
We got outfitted at Armando’s family’s apartment. They spray-painted a Santa beard gold to match my hair. They did this indoors and didn’t seem bothered by the fumes, but I was suffocating. I debated whether it would be rude to ask them to open a window. I decided to suck it up and suck in fumes. I tried to convince myself I’d get a buzz instead of brain damage.
Then we had another long wait that only Sicilians could orchestrate. We didn’t really know these people and tried to find things to talk about. They showed us their wedding album, filled with more people we’d never met. In desperation, they mentioned that they were distant cousins of a shepherd we might know.
No one even treated us to dinner. Things didn’t improve when we headed, by default, to Giovanni’s. After he rebuffed us due to “family obligations,” Carol walked away in silence. That was never a good sign from the Babbling Brook. When I’d watched Schindler’s List with her, back in Minnesota, her deep disgust at the Holocaust had turned to deep frustration with our relationship. It was the same now. She was sure Giovanni had another woman stashed up there. Carol took us into a random hotel, where she ran into the women’s bathroom and cried for almost an hour. What was I supposed to do? Wait for her in the lobby? Go in to comfort her? Crap. I passed the time in the lounge and the lobby, watching crowds of happy, well-dressed people come and go.
When Carol finally emerged, her face red and wet, we continued our silent walk. We stopped near the park where, in the hopeful sunny days of August, she had first told me about her affair with Giovanni. We stopped at a railing overlooking the old section of town. The colored Christmas lights hanging from balconies throughout town were entrancing. I wanted to lose myself in their beauty, and I let my mind drift away with the cheery Christmas music wafting from nearby apartments. But I couldn’t escape our harsh reality. I tried to talk, but only idiocies come out. Stupid, trite, predictable, cowardly rationalizations and excuses. Carol still didn’t speak. We stood there for what seemed like hours. I prepared myself to see the light of sunrise glowing over the hills. I wondered if I could keep my feet from freezing by wiggling my toes inside the icebox of my steel-toed boots.
After an eternity, Carol suggested we head to the cathedral. It was almost midnight, but there were still plenty of seats. People held candles, and I jealously watched the flames dance and wished I could use one to defrost my feet.
In the fall, I’d felt like a dork for wearing long underwear in the Mediterranean, but now I was saying prayers of gratitude. When the mass started and we sat down, I took my feet out of my boots and put my gloves on them. I didn’t care what anyone thought. I survived the mass, partly because there were many cute girls to look at. But I felt I should ask Carol to be my girlfriend, my ragazza, if it really meant that much to her. I felt bad that Giovanni was being such a dick to her, and I wanted her to be happy. Besides, girls are only interested in you when you already have a girlfriend. And Carol has expressed interest in a threesome. I wasn’t quite sure it was the right decision, but I had to do something. We could work out the details later.
As I walked to Midnight Mass, I intermittently burst into tears. I hated myself for ruining everything with Rob to be with someone as self-centered as Giovanni. I was pissed at Sicily for deserting me on Christmas Eve and depressed that the crèche show was a let-down. And it was raining. Not a cheery Christmas.
Rob asked what was wrong, and I couldn’t express it. I finally calmed down, and we sat on a bench. I sobbed quietly. He put his arms around me. When we started walking again, I just came right out and said it.
“If you want to play the field, and feel as awful as I do now, well, go ahead.”
I started blubbering again. I stopped and looked over a railing at a house playing Christmas music. I was jealous of those happy families together for the holiday. I cried, off and on, and we talked.
“I read somewhere that if you love someone it’s like they have power over you,” Rob admitted. “I’m scared of you.”
That made me cry more. I knew I was awful for the way I had treated him. I managed to squeak out, “So you’re saying you don’t want me back?”
He took too long to answer that, and it was getting near midnight. I thought the only thing left to do was pray. So I walked silently to the duomo, cathedral. I didn’t care if he followed. We found a seat next to a soldier. There were lots of young people, mostly couples. I guess this was their excuse to get away from their families and be with friends and lovers. The mass was boring and didn’t include much prayer. But I snuck in some silent ones. Tears still welled up in my eyes from time to time.
I managed to walk out without having to talk to anyone I knew. As Rob followed me down the hill, he said, “I also read somewhere that it’s good for couples to go to religious services together. It strengthens their relationship.” Enough with the analytic research, Rob. What do you FEEL?
Then he stopped and said, “I don’t deserve to be with you. But won’t you take me back?”
“I don’t deserve you, Rob.”
When I realized he was serious, that he really wanted to get back together, I gave him a huge hug. I was instantly cured of my crying jag. I was happy. I told Rob stories of what a jerk Giovanni was, and how glad I was to be rid of him. Giovanni’s priorities were so twisted, his advice to me had been to a) stop smiling so much, because it would give me wrinkles, and b) start smoking, because it would help me lose weight! We laughed and kissed and held hands under the Christmas lights overhanging the streets.
One thing the priest had said, in his sermon, was that this was a time of rebirth. That’s exactly what I hoped would happen. Now we were reborn. We were a dedicated, monogamous couple. The rest of our days in Sicily looked sunny. As far as I was concerned, we’d be together forever. The Christmas Eve soap opera was over.
In the morning we were still cuddling, at the hotel, when it was time to get up for Christmas dinner at Carlo’s. One of Carlo’s best friends picked us up and whisked us over to his country house where his wife had already cooked the traditional baccla, fish. His parents and children were there too, and Ulla and Carlo would soon meet us with their family.
When Aunt Kay and Mom got out of the car, they saw a donkey and both yelled out “burro!” I calmly explained that in Italian, “burro” doesn’t mean donkey like in Spanish. They had just screamed “butter!” We laughed and our host joined in, even though he had no idea what we were laughing at. He was always jovial. He and Carlo were old friends, and they’d once teased me that all the men liked me. They pretended that, due to the force of my presence, men were simply driven to take their clothes off around me.
We ate and drank prodigiously. One of my favorite dishes was a spiral of sausages with fennel or finnochio seeds. I praised them, and Carlo’s pal delighted in describing how he had instructed the butcher how to make them just so. It was always a special treat to eat with Carlo and his friends, as they weren’t vegetarian like most of the hippie community.
The kids were loving the walkman that Aunt Kay had given them. They shared a headset and danced around, singing. Kay had brought gifts for the dogs and cats too. These special treats from America were unheard of in Sicily, where the pets ate table scraps but otherwise fended for themselves outdoors.
Carol was worn out from food, wine, and translation, and asked to take a nap in one of the bedrooms. Carol’s mom embarrassed Aunt Kay with her drunkenness, and then passed out on the couch watching Hook with the kids. As the dubbed Dustin Hoffman snarled a hateful, “Io ODIO Peter Pan!!”, Kay and I left Marilyn snoring and followed our jovial host out for a tour of his land. As when she had toughed it out to reach my house in the country, Aunt Kay impressed me with her agility descending grassy trails to the small “river” – which was more like a stream – amongst the bleating goats.
When everyone had arisen from their holiday comas that evening, Carlo’s buddy loaded us up for a swerving ride back to town. We thanked everyone, bid them buon natale again, and drove off happily as the children waved. As he dropped us off, he playfully slapped my face and made up for it with a double-cheeked kiss. I had a fantastic time and really felt embraced by Italy. I was ready to collapse in a soft hotel bed, but Carol had other ideas. Overwhelmed by dealing with her family, she wanted to brave the hour-long walk to my cold, dark house.
I talked her out of it.
After another blissful night of hotel living, Marilyn, Kay, and Carol were off again. They were headed for the sights of Sicily. Carol and Aunt Kay gave me big hugs, but Marilyn didn’t. She disturbed me by seeming rather somber. I scanned my memory to see what I might have done to upset her. Was her paying for the theater ticket the last straw? I remembered that she had also given me some art and stationary supplies. I’d assumed they were gifts, but she had left the price tags on them – maybe she had expected me to pay for them? It would be a bit awkward to bring it up now. I waved goodbye as the cab whisked them away.