Myra Monroe lived just a few miles away, and, on Mondays and Fridays, she gave me a ride to school. Her sports car was a high school graduation gift. She looked as though she came off of a photo shoot every time she stopped to pick me up.
She wore the same blond bob and red pouty lips as the real Marilyn Monroe. Her car, her clothes, the whole package, including the mohair sweater, the perfume, all came from studying Marilyn's pictures in gossip columns.
We met in French class, where I had become an assistant. That is, I took French II because it would be an easy subject to take, but the teacher realized after our first class that I was way more advanced than the rest of the class, and instead of sending me to French III , she suggested I remain and help others. She offered to help me with my English. I was in heaven.
During our rides, Myra and I went over our homework. I enjoyed reading French out loud; she appreciated the extra help. It was a fair exchange.
She worked part time for the airline industry, and looked forward to graduating and joining the airline full time as a stewardess, traveling the world and meet interesting people. She was dating a pilot from Italy and when she found out I was Italian, she became a quick friend.
“What's it like in Italy?” She asked.
“What do you want to know?”
“Are all the boys as cute as Sergio? ”
“You mean handsome and flirty? Yes!"
"All of them?”
So, I told her, not knowing how she would react and how she would interpret the revelation. Telling people about your people was tricky. Uncle’s wife had asked me a simple question when I first arrived. “So, does Ted speak good Italian?"
“He speaks our dialect.” I said, meaning he did not speak like my teacher, Mr. Fioretti.
Accent, vocabulary, intonation, construction, all these factors revealed your social and economic status. In small towns, people spoke their native dialect that sounded very little like the Italian we were learning in school. Proper Italian was a studied language, complex and tricky. By comparison, English was easy.
"So, he's really a peasant, right?" Aunt seemed to cherish that bit of information. She looked interested in our history. So, I went on, telling her that we were all from peasant stock, in some ways. We had land and worked that land for our livelihood, like millions of other people I had known in poor areas of Italy. I emphasized to her that we had suffered tremendously as a country, as a family. She seemed to know very little about the home town of her husband. I told her how difficult it had been for me to obtain my visa as a student because we needed to prove that we were well to do, with enough assets. We had to search our property titles and discover what had been our ancestry, even abandoned land and abandoned businesses.
She asked: "Ted told me you are all related to a baron."
That comment told me that Uncle had embellished our history.
"Sure. Everybody is related to some baron or count."
Whenever she got angry she would throw insults based on that bit of background that seemed innocent enough. I never knew how Uncle Ted had represented himself when he courted her; but, I could guess that he must have constructed a bit of fantasy for her.
I tried to explain what courtship meant to Italians when Myra told me she and the pilot were dating.
“In Italy, boys are encouraged to be charming and romantic. They embellish the truth about their feelings to please girls. The game they play is one of elaborate courtship. It is a game; and we are not supposed to take it literally.”
“All girls get entrapped, if they are not careful. Boys all lie."
"They can't help themselves! It's a national problem!"
I was guessing that she was disappointed by this information, thinking that her beau might not be sincere. I had to soften the blow right away, I thought.
"You know, I am kidding. Most guys are charming and sincere." I saw relief in her eyes.
How can she be so gullible, I thought. It didn't make sense. I was reading Hemingway, plain, simple words, simple construction, sentiments clearly put forth. Myra must trust everything she hears because that's the way she is. She would say what she feels, not what somebody expects to hear.
I had told her Italian boys were not to be trusted. I truly believed that.
My brother and his friends pretended to like certain girls, courting them with notes, trinkets and exquisite compliments, sending little sisters to put in a good word for them. Boys and girls could not speak to each other directly after they reached a certain age, so little brothers and sisters acted as go-between.
Sometimes we initiated a relationship where no relationship existed. I liked my friend’s brother, but he was not interested yet in courting girls. We told him that a girl was interested, had asked about him. At first, he was just annoyed; then, with time, he began to ask about this so-called beauty that we had bugged him about. Since no real girl existed, we strung along this fantasy for him. When it was time to meet, the girl was suddenly sent away to live with some relatives miles from home.
On the way to school, one morning, Myra told me her pilot was ten years older than she.
“Do your parents approve?”
“Mom says I have to grow up a bit, have a career before I marry. She says that’s what she missed most of all. Not having a life of her own before she became a wife and a mother. We need our economic independence should something happen.”
“What could happen?”
“Silly, she means should the marriage break up. A woman who has worked can be independent, earn her own money.”
“Myra, is your mother divorced?”
“ She is remarried. I have a stepfather.”
“ Are you not Catholic?”
“Irish Catholic, my dear. Nuns, priests, and poets are in our genes.”
“Well? How is that possible?”
“Do you mean, is she still going to church and communion? Well, yes, she still goes to church but skips communion.”
“Myra, how does your mother feel about you dating a non Irish?”
“Didn’t I tell you? Nobody here is pure anything, all mongrels. Momma says that as long as the man doesn’t drink more than you do, and has a good job, he’s fine. Are you dating?”
“No!!! Not allowed. Not in Italy either; both my uncle and my dad are in the Middle Ages, afraid that girls will be taken advantage of.”
“That’s cruel. Just like the church insisting the 'The Pill' is evil. Primitive thinking, if you ask me. Don’t you miss not having boy friends?”
“There are other things I miss more”.
“What? What could be more important than boys?”
“My family. If I could, I’d go home right now.”
"Don't you like America?"
"I never thought I'd miss home the way I do. Sure, I like America. It's wonderful and generous. But..."
Myra said nothing.
I was now deep with thoughts that if expressed would definitely be misunderstood: I would go back right away if I could. I felt out of place. The dream of America was too much like a nightmare. But I couldn't write my folks and tell them how hard it was to stay positive. I lived with people who resented my presence. I could do nothing right in their eyes. I could never explain. Nobody could know.What I needed to do was show my gratitude and appreciation.
"Myrna, everything here is so much better!" I said with enthusiasm.
Myrna looked happy.
"Oh, I knew you must be homesick or something." She said, showing no interest in what I had been trying to tell her all along.
"Myrna, "I wanted to tell her, " everyone thinks America is so beautiful and rich. It is quite ugly, quite blind to what is happening in society. Look at my situation. I don't even have a room of my own here. I was better off where I came from. I was free to walk out of my house, say what I thought, eat what I liked. Here, in this paradise, I study in a closet, and I eat what is served. I do all the chores and I'm resented if anything is done differently. "
Instead, I said, " I'm lucky to be here. Here, I can be anything I want." Myrna was happy with that answer.