To Die of Italy
"Die of love or of loathsome disease," I wrote in my journal. "Die of too much wine or sun or sex. Die of syphilis or suicide or old age. But die in Italy. . ."
It was the Summer of Chernobyl. I sat at a seaside bar, sipping a digestivo, looking out over the water, my fevered reveries interrupted by the occasional loud splutterings of Vespas. I was twenty-three years old and in Italy, alone.
Well, not exactly alone. My Uncle Sergio slept in a hotel room less than three blocks away.
Or maybe he wasn't asleep. Maybe he was already up, standing by the window rubbing his big belly against the sill, his gray features sagging like an old washcloth, searching for signs of me along the sea wall, smel-ing of dead farts, Ben Gay and grappa, tears welling up in his rheumy blue eyes.
"I am thinking," I kept writing, "of the novel I have yet to start, of Italian women in general, of the Lady in the Castle, my second cousin, Bianca, in particular. And of my uncle, who is driving me crazy, and how to get rid of him, the stinking old pervert."
Until the age of nine when my best friend, Lenny Papadopoulos, explained it to me, I didn't even know what a relative was. I had heard the word before, spoken usually in embarrassed whispers. We stood at the corner of Wooster and Keeler, Lenny and I, next to the "spitting pole," which earned its name on frosty winter mornings when, waiting for the school bus, we'd take turns honking and spitting and watching the thick mucus trails work their way down its green shaft. According to Lenny, who spoke from experience, relatives were bizarre and often dangerous strangers encountered at equally bizarre and dangerous and sometimes even bloody events called family reunions, who somehow (and here he was vague) had something to do with oneself.
That day, it so happened, Lenny Papadopoulos was himself bound for such a reunion, and I felt deeply sorry for him. Like any healthy nine-year-old, I preferred to think of myself as a protean entity smuggled in from some far-away planet in another solar system, posing (temporarily) as the child of some extremely unsophisticated humanoids. Parents were embarrassing enough, but relatives? I felt very lucky. My parents were from Italy; my relatives, assuming I had a few, were tucked safely away across a vast and mighty ocean, and might as well have been dead.
So I thought then. But less than a year later, as my father waved goodbye from the pier, my mother and I set sail on an ocean liner across that vast and mighty ocean to the land of relatives.
I remember my first glimpse of Uncle Sergio. He met us on the gritty platform of the train station in Milan. His big head was stubbled, red and raw where it wasn't pale, his eyes small, sunken, wet and blue. He cried, his whole fat body jerking with sobs. He wore brown pants belted high over his belly, with an unmatching brown suit jacket and a gray vest -- everything brown and gray. Aside from the gold chain of his antique pocket watch, the Kodak Instamatic dangling from his neck, and the tears running down his stubbled face, he looked as though he needed dusting.
"Cara mia! Mia sorrella! Mio nipote! Oh, cara mia!"
Because Sergio earned his living as a hotel porter he insisted on carrying all of our bags. He walked with a limp, the bags bumping into him with every step. Once outside the train station he stopped, drew a handkerchief that looked more like a rag from one of his pockets and swept it quickly across his whole face, which dripped sweat. Seeing me watch him, he looked me straight in the eye and, smiling, touched the top button of my shirt. "What's this?" he said, in Italian. I looked down, his finger went up. I thought: this is going to be a long vacation.
Sergio lived in a pensione for poor people. His was a ten-by-ten foot room with a sink and a hot plate. To shower you had to walk all the way around a veranda to the other side of the courtyard, to a small red door that said, W.C. You had to squat.
"How can anyone live like this?" said my mother, who checked us into a hotel immediately.
Three summers later Uncle Sergio came to the United States for the first and last time. I'd just turned twelve, and was in the process of discovering new and delightful aspects of my body. Uncle Sergio's jokes too had grown more sexual. He still did the joke with his finger, only now he touched a different spot on my body. One afternoon we were cutting back shrubs along the driveway when, reaching over to pick up a pair of hedge shears lying between us, he made a grab for my crotch. I cried out; Sergio drew back red faced, indignant. He yelled at me. How, he demanded to know, in the space of two short years, had I managed to become such a sourpuss? "For the love of God!" he said, in Italian.
In a town less than an hour's drive south of Milan, in the valley of the River Trebbia, live other relatives of mine, divided among two villas.
Bianca, one of a half-dozen second cousins, had just turned twenty-eight, and was beautiful. Her brother, Riccardo, was my age. The Villa Bianca, as I called it, looked like a smallish castle, with a turret and crenellated battlements. It featured a separate picnic house, acres of vineyards, a pool graced by marble statues, and a full-time groundskeeper who lived in his own adjacent cottage. A family of gazelles grazed on the nearby hilltop, with hay stored for them in a red stucco shack. But of all the villa's features the gate was my favorite. A long driveway of white pebbles led from the main road to the villa. At its entrance stood the tall, ornate, cast-iron gate which would open automatically, as if manned by ghosts, whenever I approached.
The Villa Gabbi -- my name for the other villa -- was an altogether different story. Gabbi was the mother of Paola, Stephania and Giovanna -- also my cousins, who were respectively eighteen, seventeen, and sixteen. Gabbi looked like Anna Magnani and made me think of a gypsy. On the stormy evening of my arrival I found her dressed in a yellow raincoat up on the roof, single-handedly spreading huge sheets of thick tarpaper.
In contrast, Gabbi's husband, Franco, was a bony, soft-spoken and timid little man who owned a drafting supply store and wanted little more than to be able to watch television in peace. "Look at me, Peter," he said the night of my arrival after a lengthy supper as all three of his daughters clamored to dress for the discotheque. "I have three children -- all of them girls." He stretched his arms out. "I am Jesus Christ."
The Villa Gabbi also had a gate, but it was small and rusty and left open all the time. There were some grapevines, but no gazelles, no picnic house, no marble statues, no pool, no turret. And the roof leaked. Gabbi insisted I stay there. "You will not like the other place," she said in Italian. "They have a pool, yes, but they have no heart! They have marble statues -- but they will treat you badly! Here is where you belong!" So saying, she put on her raincoat and hurried back on to the roof.
It wasn't long before I realized that my presence had rekindled a feud that had been dormant for many years. In the coming days each of the two villa families broke their backs in an effort to outdo each other for hospitality: more food, more wine, more fun and games. But once I made it known that what I really wanted was some peace and quiet in which to get my novel started, then it became a contest between villas to see which could offer me more of both.
"While it is true," said Gabbi in Italian (none of my cousins, save Bianca, spoke English), "that we have no turret to offer you, what do you need a turret for? Here you have a beautiful room!" (It was true: they had given me a nice clean room all my own). "All yours! And a lovely typewriter--Olivetti! Look" -- She typed the word 'Olivetti.' "You see? And though it is true that my girls come home late at night and they make much noise, we shall put a stop to that! From now on, no more discotheque! We have a writer in the house! A Great American Writer! I shall put up a sign: QUESTO L'AMERICANO! ('This is the American!'); I shall paint it in great letters on the roof! What more can you ask?"
I took the turret.
From my room inside it I had an unobstructed view of the valley, with its green sloping hills and poplar trees, a butter-colored factoria (farmhouse) in the near distance, and the Trebbia River slithering like a green snake through the landscape. At night, with the windows wide open, the wind would rush through making whistling sounds.
Bianca's bedroom was two flights below mine. In the middle of the night, wearing nothing but a towel, I'd tip-toe ever so soundlessly across the game room's icy marble floor, then down two flights of stairs praying for them not to creak, then gently turn the brass handle on her unlocked door. She'd be lying there, stretched out in a sheer robe under her bed's ghostly canopy, the wind blowing her hair every which way.
* * *
Two weeks had passed and Olivetti or no Olivetti I'd gotten nowhere on my novel. Instead I sunbathed and swam in the marble-statued pool and took walks back and forth between the two villas, past the butter-colored factoria where a red dog would run out barking and snarling and I'd curse it in ripe English. In the evenings there would be large gatherings in the picnic house. We would eat hand-rolled gnocci and drink local wine from big green bottles. It stained the tongue purple.
One night, with out bellies full and our tongues stained, Bianca and I decided to go for a walk. Already I was in love with her, or something like that. "You -- you are such a boy," she said in English. "You are not even a boy, you are Peter Pan!" We walked down the dark and unpaved road treacherous with big stones, past the yellow factoria where, mercifully, the red dog slept. The moon was the same yellow as the farmhouse.
As we walked, Bianca leaned her head on my shoulder. She was ubriaco -- drunk. She told me all about the man she loved, a young count named Roberto who lived in the castle down the street. I smiled. "You cannot understand," she said. "You are an American. Americans do not have these problems." I couldn't have agreed more.
She leaned in closer. I could smell her hair: it smelled of the night before. She explained to me that in Italy things had not changed in over five-hundred years. "Here," she explained, "women are all slaves. You cannot fall in love. If you fall in love, then you are lost. Confess your love for a man, he will laugh at you. I want so to tell Roberto that I am in love with him. But if I do I will seal my fate. He will think that I am a whore." She pronounced it whoor.
I listened to her but not really. I was distracted. In a few days I was to accompany my uncle Sergio on a weekend excursion to Chiavari, on the sea. I didn't want to go. I wanted to stay here, with my cousins, with Bianca and my novel. My heart cringed with resentment. We had arrived near the rusty and always opened gate of the Villa Gabbi. I stroked Bianca's hair. An owl hooted in a nearby tree and the river, bloated with recent rain, rushed. The stars were clear.
"My cousins, they all look up to me," said Bianca looking toward the burning lights of the Villa Gabbi, where at this hour, no doubt, the three girls would be getting ready for the discotheque. "They think my life is perfect. If only they knew how lonesome I am." She sighed.
I looked in her eyes. She was beyond me. No doubt about it.
"You are so lucky to be an American," said Bianca. "In America it is easy to be in love." She hiccupped.
* * *
"Two days," my cousin Riccardo warned me the day before I was to leave for Chiavari via Milan. "That is the maximum time limit," he noted, referring to the time I would be spending with my uncle. "After that you risk permanent brain damage." We both laughed.
I wondered if Sergio would still be the same, with his Kodak Instamatic and his arthritic legs. Was it possible? Could time have stood that still? Would he touch the top button of my shirt -- or some other part of me -- and say, "What's this?"
"He cares so much for you," my mother's voice traveled through a telephone line across the vast and mighty ocean. "And besides, he has so little to look forward to: a pension that barely keeps him alive -- and that horrible little room! Please," she pleaded. "Just two days. It will mean so much to him."
The next day, Saturday, Riccardo drove me to Milan. It was a hot day. By mid-morning the temperature had already reached ninety. We were to meet my uncle on a street corner near to his favorite restaurant. He was late. We waited close to an hour, and I was about to say, "Oh, well," when Riccardo said, "Look at him there!" I turned and there was Sergio, looking almost exactly as he looked ten years before. Aside from a walking stick and a bigger belly, nothing had changed. He still wore an unmatched, three-piece suit; the antique gold watch chain still hung from his vest pocket; the Kodak Instamatic still dangled from his neck; his face still had that raw, red, unshaven look; and his small blue eyes were still wet with tears -- as if he'd never stopped crying. "For the love of God!" he said in Italian. "How big you have grown!" He threw his arms around me. He still smelled the same, too. A combination of grappa and smelly old man.
He took me and Riccardo to lunch. At his favorite restaurant he guzzled glass after glass of red wine diluted with mineral water, covered his portion of the table cloth with crumbs, slurped his minestra and once farted so loudly that everyone within a radius of ten meters turned their heads, prompting him to excuse himself even more loudly, and then to explain to those at the closest table, who were in the middle of their meal, that he suffered from a rare and complex bowel disease -- which he took some pains to elucidate -- and was, he added regretfully, therefore unable to prevent certain bodily occurrences.
Riccardo laughed hysterically.
"It's easy for you to laugh," I said. "You don't have to spend the weekend with him!" Which made him laugh all the harder.
As our waitress bent over to wipe the table Sergio pointed with his fork to her breasts, noting their size and softness and asking me would I not like to rest my head there and take a nap?
"For godsake, uncle, quit embarrassing me!"
"Uncle? Uncle? What is this 'uncle' nonsense? Do I have such a big stick up my ass? Call me Sergio, for the love of God! And have some more wine! Here -- put some mineral water in it! What's the matter, you don't like mineral water? It does the heart good. Makes you fart, too!"
Riccardo was in stitches. Through the meal, even with his mouth full, Uncle Sergio never stopped talking -- except to suck on his teeth.
"How is your mother -- my darling, beautiful sister! The flower of my heart! When I am alone, I think of her and I am happy! I have thousands of photographs -- all of my sister and my nipote and your father, my American family! And the dog! What is the dog's name? Pal! How is my little Pal?"
"Pal is dead."
"What a shame. Such a lovely dog -- it makes me cry! Come closer: why do you sit so far away, you mischievous devil, you bandit, you! Give your uncle a kiss!"
"Cut it out!"
"You're right, you're much too big for that now. What muscles you have, for the love of God! May I squeeze them? Oh, I forgot: you don't like to be touched. My nipote -- the Greek god! Do you know about the Greeks?"
Riccardo buckled over with laughter.
That night, I slept in Sergio's tiny apartment, on the floor next to his trundle bed. It was the same ten-by-ten foot room, but now it seemed even smaller. Under his bed he kept porno magazines -- stacks of them, along with photo albums brimming with Kodak Instamatic snapshots taken during his trip to America a decade ago: our house, our garden, my mother, my father, me, Pal, my mother's car, my father's car, and Lenny Papadopoulos, who once, a long, long time ago, explained to me, or tried to, what a relative was.
"He is so fucking lonely and alone," I wrote in my journal the following evening. "Even with me he talks to himself -- or to any stranger coming down the street. This morning, as we walked to the train station, he must have stopped at least a half dozen people -- magazine vendors, bartender, taxi drivers, hotel clerks, merchants, prostitutes. He introduced me to every one of them saying, 'Good morning, may I present to you to my American nephew!' I swear none of them had any idea who he was."
According to my mother, who should know, Sergio once looked like Paul Newman. Tall, thin, with a head of tight blond curls, zooming around town in a Lambretta and a white suit. . . Now he kept his dentures in a jar and rubbed arthritic joints with grappa every night. In the hotel room in Chiavari his snoring and farting kept me wide awake. I put wet wads of toilet paper in my ears; I buried my face in my pillow. I switched on the bedside lamp and wrote in my journal. "He is pitiful and disgusting," I wrote, "and when he finally drinks himself to death on vino rosso and mineral water it will be an act of mercy." I was not feeling charitable.
With the lamp still burning I fell asleep, only to be awakened by a loud, smacking sound accompanied by my uncle's heavy breathing.
I got up, dressed and packed my bag in the dark, and closed the door gently behind me.
The next train for Milan left at nine-thirty. It was not even eight o'clock. Having checked my bag at the station I walked along the sea wall, imagining myself to be as insubstantial as fog, shadowed by vague feelings of remorse and uncertainty. No doubt Uncle Sergio was up by then, aware of my absence, already stinking of grappa. Someday, I thought, I'll be as old, as decrepit. As alone.
The sea wall came to an abrupt end in a heap of jagged concrete forms. I stood there, watching the waves tear themselves to bits. In the near distance boats bobbed like orange rinds. I envisioned a gigantic sign spanning the horizon. The Search for Romance Ends Here.
At a quarter to nine I returned to the station where, having claimed my bag, I stood in line for a ticket. Uncle Sergio was there, with his suitcase and his walking stick, his eyes swollen and red from crying.
"Forgive me, nipote! I am a wretched old man. Go on -- give me a slap, I deserve it!"
A loudspeaker announced the arrival of the train. I inched forward in the ticket line.
"I've already bought them!" said Sergio, waving two tickets in the air.
Uncle Sergio insisted on "escorting" me back to my cousins. At every station along the way he would jump up from his seat yelling, "Piacenza! Piacenza! Siamo arrivate!" ("Piacenza! Piacenza! We have arrived!"), causing other passengers to leap from their sound sleep, grab their bags and rush to the door.
The passengers said, "Cosa credi che stai facendo?" ("What do you think you're doing?")
Uncle Sergio said, "Voleve solo aiutare!" ("I was only trying to help!")
I hung my head in shame.
Neither the Villa Gabbi nor the Villa Bianca wanted anything to do with Uncle Sergio. Like a hot potato, they handed him back and forth saying, "But you would be so much more comfortable there."
For his part Sergio didn't seem to mind. He made himself at home in both villas. Where no one invited him, he invited himself. Otherwise he would go off into a corner and cry, until finally he would get his way. We called him "the beast and the burden."
Partly to get away from Sergio and his antics, Riccardo and I spent a day horseback riding. We drove to the stable in Riccardo's Renault with the gearshift sticking out of the dashboard. Once there, Riccardo ordered one Inglese and one Americano, assuming that I, being from the States, preferred to ride Western. We sauntered up steep, muddy trails, trotted down paved roads, cantered through fields. We were galloping through an apple orchard when I lost my balance and found myself hanging from one stirrup over the side. Unable to get the horse to stop, I let myself fall, which at that speed and angle didn't exactly feel like an act of volition. I fell head-first and heard my bones crack against the red earth.
Riccardo sidled up beside me. "I'm all right, I'm all right," I said, wiping a wedge of red clay off my riding helmet. "Non c'e paura." I was dazed; my head spun. "I'm fine, fine." I got back on my horse.
On the way home the nebbia (fog) was so thick Riccardo had to put the wipers on. Bianca met us at the gate. Her face looked white. She told us to get out of our clothes -- instantly! -- and come quickly into the house. Inside a dozen or more people, including Uncle Sergio, were gathered in the parlor in front of the television set, where an anchorperson spoke so swiftly I could barely understand a word. They showed an aerial photograph of a steaming tower, and men in strange white suits. Gradually I understood. A nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, had blown up. It had taken several days for the news, along with a dense cloud of radioactive fallout, to reach Northern Italy. Some experts claimed the radiation was one-hundred times normal levels. Others insisted the amounts were negligible, like having a dozen chest x-rays. "Non c'e paura," one expert kept saying. Still, fresh milk was banned, as were all fruits and vegetables. And babies were to be kept indoors.
That evening, in the picnic house, we ate pasta, played card games, and -- having concluded that we had about ten years left to live -- got very drunk. We played a game called sette domandi, consisting of seven questions, each of which was filled in to make up a story: Who is he? Who is she? What are they doing? Where are they doing it? What does he say? What does she say? What do the people say? In almost every instance "he" turned out to be my Uncle Sergio.
That same night a party was held at the castle of the count who lived down the road. Alone with Roberto, having fortified her courage with a great deal of local wine, Bianca attested to the full measure of her undying love. I found her at dawn, sprawled among grapevines, her lovely white dress edged with vomit.
"I am so disgusting," she said as I helped her to her feet. "I am so disgusting -- and so are you."
"Why -- why am I disgusting?" I asked.
"You are disgusting because you are my cousin and I hate you."
"I'm your second cousin," I corrected her.
"Yes," said Bianca. "And I am your second cousin, too. We are both second cousins. We are second cousins and we are both disgusting."
I held her. We stood in the middle of the road.
"Go on, go back to America!" she said.
"Because you are an American, and all Americans are disgusting!"
"You're full of shit," I said, then I bent my head down and tried to kiss her. She smelled of vomit. She jumped away.
"O dio! What time is it? I have to make breakfast! O -- la miseria!" She ran down the road.
In the days that followed various scientific findings relating to the accident at Chernobyl were released. According to one study, as many as twelve-thousand people were likely to die of cancer as a result of radiation. The majority of the victims would be people who were in Germany and parts of northern Italy during the days immediately following the blast.
Bianca dipped her big toe in the pool but decided it was too cool to swim. Having decided also that the sun was too hot, she turned her chair into the shade. It was never Bianca's way to be satisfied.
"Peter, help me," she said, like a child, sipping a pompelmo (grapefruit soda), her dark eyes hidden under even darker sunglasses. "I cannot go on living like this. I am a prisoner here. I live the life of a dog."
"So leave," I suggested. "Pack your things, get in a car and drive away."
"What's so funny?"
"I can't drive!" she said, laughing.
"You are not serious! You are Peter Pan! In two days you will go home! You don't know anything!"
Five weeks in Italy, and no novel. Who to blame more, Uncle Sergio or Bianca? Or only myself? It made no difference. In a few years I would be dead. We would all be dead.
My cousins took me to the airport. At the security check the officer in charge found a last-minute surprise parting-gift from my uncle: a porno magazine spread open in my suitcase, displaying an erection the size of a sequoia as it penetrated the cloud forest of a woman's vagina.
I said, "Non e mio!" ("It's not mine!")
Bianca said, "Sporcaccione!" ("You horrible pig!")
The people said, "Cento di questi giorni!" ("Many happy returns!")
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