In retrospect I realize that my not having a boyfriend for all those years had given me a deep sense of failure. Not just failure, but a feeling of being flawed in some basic human way. I knew I was attractive, but nonetheless felt un-womanly, like I was lacking a basic quality that would cause a man to want to be with me for more than a night or two.
To hear men—in person, in movies, in songs—speak longingly of women made them—us—seem like mysterious creatures possessing qualities I had no sense of or access to. I didn’t know how to be mysterious, and if I ever acted as such it was due solely to the sheer clumsiness of my own chaotic being. My sense of inadequacy was so deeply entrenched I would do almost anything to be given entrée into that world, to be made to feel that, as a woman, I had fulfilled some sort of requirement from a rule book that I’d never laid my hands on but knew must have existed, somewhere. So when, in the first week of being with him, Giovanni asked me to get up from the bed and go get him a glass of water from the kitchen, I did.
Let me back up here. After the Genoa kidnapping highjinx, Giovanni and I settled into what I will ironically describe as domestic tranquility. I say “ironically” because I was neither tranquil nor particularly domestic.
He would go to work every morning at eight-thirty and come home at around eight thirty in the evening while I faced a day of nothing to do and not a soul to talk to. “Relax,” he’d say. “Get some sun on the roof-uh.” Then he would take a few lire out of his wallet and hand them to me. I’m not kidding. Sometimes I was still in bed when he did this, fully completing the picture of me as a tousled-haired Italian concubine a la Fellini or Antonioni.
When I wasn’t watching Peyton Place dubbed in Italian, I spent my days wandering the city, searching for random groups of English-speaking tourists to befriend, so I could process aloud what I had been through. At the end of every recounting, there was the payoff: the prince. My audiences, almost always women, were never disappointed. I never thought once about going home. I didn’t have a clear picture of home. The home I had before coming to Italy was a home dedicated to a life and an art I wasn’t sure I could return to. That home didn’t involve a boyfriend, and I sure as shit wasn’t going back without one.
At around six p.m. I would arrive back at the apartment. The Tuscan humidity made my clothes stick to me, so I’d take a shower after putting away the prosciutto and fresh mozzarella and get ready for Giovanni to come home. That was my reason for being there, the anchor of my wayward tugboat of a life, and I was determined to at least look and smell decent after he got home from a hard day at work.
But my attempt at impersonating a fifties housewife ended there. Not long after he’d walk in the door, after he himself stripped out of his beautiful, buttery gabardine suit and shoved some prosciutto and bread into his mouth, I would start talking to him. Not to—at. I would tell him all the things I couldn’t tell a soul during that endless day spent wandering the streets of this new and alien city. And if there had been other humans I had come into contact with that day, well, I’d tell him about them too. I would talk and talk and talk.
I would talk and he would turn the television on.
And then there was the night when he asked me to go fetch him a glass of water. I remember subconsciously noting that this flew right in the face of what I’d been indoctrinated into in my four years at a women’s college. I remember thinking, why can’t he get it himself? What kind of fucking prince does he think he is? And then I got up off the bed and went into the kitchen and got him his water.
I think I knew something had changed, something in me that would never be the same at least while I was with him and maybe even after I wasn’t. I knew I had handed him any remaining power I had left in a gift-wrapped box and I had done it simply because I wanted to feel and know and experience what everyone else had. A boyfriend.
But not just any boyfriend: a boyfriend named Giovanni who lived and worked in Italy. I wanted to bring him back like a prize-winning catch, and if I had to walk on freezing-cold terra cotta in my bare feet and skivvies to fetch him his water after he worked a twelve-hour day, well fuck it, I would do it.
Did I mention that his plan was to move to New York?
That had been on his mind before he met me but now it was our plan. He folded me into his plan in this way which made me feel wanted and important. He, a lawyer by training, was working for a freight forwarding company that would eventually send him to set up an office in New York. Don’t know what freight forwarding is? No one does. It’s the middlemen who proffer the deal between the importer and the air freight company; and pre-FedEx and UPS and China, it was lucrative business in Italy, where specialty goods like leather, ceramics and clothing were selling big in America.
Should I talk about how we’d go out to dinner with large groups of Italians, and I couldn’t understand a word and in between bites of pasta would glare at my inamorata with rage?
Or how, not three weeks after meeting him I felt him slip away? That once he had me installed in his pad and was as certain of my being there as he was of his mother’s coming by to pick up his laundry, he stopped trying to win my affection? Should I talk about how I was so busy trying to get us back to that morning when his morning breath met my morning breath on that balcony overlooking the Mediterranean that I didn’t make any of my own needs known or, worse yet, didn’t even consider that I had any?
A new Italian me was born. I gained about fifteen pounds of pasta weight after my lover uttered the magical words “I like-uh you better a little round.” I learned how to shop—that is, how to buy one bread in one store, meat in another and arugula in another still—and to cook: basic pasta sauces, mostly, but with a flavor base I was to take with me into every kitchen I inhabited thereafter. I also started using the money I was earning to buy clothes whose wool was so rich I would fondle it when no was looking.
Yes—I was finally earning my own money. About five months into my new life, I started teaching dance and exercise and aerobics in various studios around town. I was actually putting my years of dance training to practical use and, in the process, connecting to a community that was wholeheartedly welcoming me for bringing it this gift. The problem was, the American Balletto had soiled dance for me. I had so firmly and finally closed that chapter that, as much as I was beloved by my students, I was just going through the motions when I taught class. I regret this now deeply. The other facet of that was, I was brought into contact with a cluster of American expats through a dance studio owned by an American. Many of the women I met were also entangled with Italian men – most even more hopelessly than I was.
The day came when we finally made the move that we had been talking about since the night we met. Various events had led up to it, like the weekend we drove from Milan to Monte Carlo with Ivo, his boss, Ivo’s girlfriend and her cat. All I can remember is the smell of cat piss as we pierced through the dense northern Italian fog crammed into Ivo’s Mercedes. Once there, Ivo insisted on all-night gambling, which I found torturous and thus resisted, only to be confronted by an irate Giovanni whose desire to please his boss far outweighed his desire to please his girlfriend.
The train ride to Milan to catch our New York-bound plane was tense. In hindsight, I understand why. Giovanni was popping painfully out of the womb a second time, prematurely experiencing the separation between himself and the world as he knew it. He had spent time in America previously, hence his love for it; but this was on par with an Ellis Island crossing. As he hoisted our suitcases into the train compartment’s luggage rack, we both knew this. And so we fought.
We fought when our cab rolled up to our hotel. When we awakened after a fitful sleep. We fought when we looked for an apartment. He wanted a high-rise on the Upper East Side. I wanted Brooklyn.
I wanted to go back to the life I was leading before I knew what it was like to dance in a G-string. I think, subconsciously I realized I could never go back to it so we settled on the West Village.
The deal was this: I would help him get his business off the ground and then figure out what the fuck to do with my life. I was fine with this because I had no other options. We would wake up in the morning, have coffee and start making cold calls to companies importing Italian goods. We did this all day—with Giovanni monitoring my calls like I was an FBI agent on the line with an informant —until it was dark out, at which point the television would come on, and we’d watch some dumb show Giovanni loved. Did I mention we lived in a one-room apartment with an open sleeping loft overhead? The only privacy to be had was when we went to the bathroom and even that was debatable because Giovanni liked to walk in while I was mid-shit, just because.