The guy at the counter deposited a slice of gooey pizza in front of me with a thud. “Enjoy, nothing like the pizza I knew, but it’s the best in L.A.”
“No. ” I said, trying to think of some thing else to say.
“Yeah? Where did you eat better pizza?” I had offended him.
“In Naples!” I said with conviction.
“No WAY. Where ?”
No, I thought, I can’t keep up this conversation. I am not sure what it is he is saying. No way? What does that mean? Go away? Which way?
“O.K.” I said, meaning yes, I ate better pizza in Italy.
“So, where are you from?”
I understood that. “I am from south.” I said carefully, each word spaced out so I could study his face to see if he understood.
“Ma che, anch’io sono da quelle parti!” (Why, I’m from that region!)
“Tu, dall”Italia?” (You, from Italy?)
“Da quando ?” (How long ?)
“Solamente un paio di mesi. Non parlo molto Inglese.” (Just a couple of months. I do not speak much English.)
"Come ti piace Los Angeles?" (How do you like Los Angeles?)
"Tutto `e diverso. Ogni sogno `e del mio paese." ( Everything is different. Every dream is of home."
Then, he was called away. It was the first time in many months that I could tell another soul how it felt to be so far away from everything I loved. I was afraid to even think those thoughts. Wasn't this what I wanted, what my parents wanted for me? How could I be so ungrateful?
I finished my pizza and left.
The next day, I went into that drug store and approached the soda counter. Somebody else was there.
“The boy here. Italian? ”
I blurted something. The girl at the counter smiled and said,
Then, divining my real intentions, she shouted out to another person at the corner of the store.
“Mark, this girl wants to talk to Peter!” A busy man yelled something back.
The girl, still smiling, interpreted, “ I think he works part time”, she said to me with a big smile.
The next day and the next day, and each day for an entire week, I went to the soda counter until I saw Peter again. He saw me coming up to the counter.
“Well, look, la ragazza?”
“Yes,si, sono io. ”( Yes, yes, it’s me.)
He told me that when someone got sick, he filled in. I was disappointed, and he saw that in my face. It was enough, he said. He went to school the rest of the time.
I continued to drop in, buy a soda or a milk-shake. Or just wave at the person behind the counter. Peter saved a space at the counter for me whenever he worked, with a handwritten ‘riservato’.
Two, three times a week after I finished my lessons at the Berlitz School on Wilshire, and before I hopped on the bus for my trip back home, I stopped at that drugstore.
I told myself it was ok to talk to boys. No harm done.
I was not surprised when he remembered my Saint’s day, and offered me a complimentary soda. I did not want him to. It was ok to talk; but receiving gifts meant something else.
“Let me take you out to the movies after I get finished here”, he said.
“I can’t. I am not allowed.”
“I just can’t."
I kept meeting him once a week or so for months. In September, even after I had enrolled at a junior college, I took an extra bus, a long detour to get to that drugstore for a slice of pizza and a conversation in Italian.
Before Christmas, Peter left a corsage on the space he reserved for me. It was an elaborate pin with holiday greenery and silvery objects. I should have refused. How could I explain it at the house? I decided then and there that I couldn't do this anymore. As I started to leave, he blurted, “Wait, you have not given me your number. How do I get in touch with you?”
Someone called him away, and I was off the hook. On the way home, I threw the corsage away.
That Christmas was a balmy 85 degrees. We planned to eat the customary turkey, as we did at Thanksgiving. All holidays felt the same, the same food, the same sunshine. Time was standing still.
The passing seasons were discernable through window displays at department stores. After Christmas, I never went back to that drugstore.
I never told him how he helped me cope with homesickness.