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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Chapter Twentynine: The Miracle Mile

My world consisted of four square miles, living and breathing in a beautiful part of Los Angeles where classy businesses and residences had the latest and most beautiful things in the world: Wilshire Boulevard's Miracle Mile.

To the south, the world changed. The school I taught in was on Pico, a dividing line between the have and the have not. To the north, Immaculate Heart College on Los Feliz Boulevard, where I was finishing up my graduate work, adjacent to Griffith Park and the Observatory was the school for privileged ladies from rich families; to the west, beaches and the communities of Santa Monica, Westwood, Palisades.

It was a world of home and school almost exclusively.

With Neil's arrival, my world expanded, with each drive we took, each neighborhood, he spoke of his dreams becoming a scientist at Cal Tech and JPL, living up  in the hills, raising a family. His work at IBM was temporary, he said.

We took long rides exploring the city and our past, with each mile going further and further out of Los Angeles. I learned that America was diverse, enormously beautiful in its natural state.
He spoke of trees, rivers, unspoiled mountains and lakes of the Northwest. I told him of churches, statues, fountains, piazzas and long history of Italy.

He missed forests and mountain trails, solitude and sounds of streams.
I missed walks on the piazzas, eating great food, laughter and chatter with family and friends.
We read poetry to each other. We danced, till the wee hours of the morning as our fingertips found each other.

Neal was resolved to get me to pass the driving test and had a foolproof method. His instructions went something like this: “Drive up to the car parked in front and line up; back into your spot by turning sharply with a ¼ turn; begin to straighten up as your front is close to the back of the car in front of you. Voila’ you are now parked!” Every evening after dinner, we jumped in the car and went for a ride starting on Wilshire’s Miracle Mile.

Driving was becoming a testing ground for our new relationship. The only way I could pass that test was to exchange cars with someone, I thought. A big car like my Olds didn’t like being squeezed between two other cars.

On an weekend visit to the Observatory, at the end of March, we parked down at the foot of the place, and hiked up. Half-way, sitting for a break, he looked into my eyes and said: “I want you to have this.” He slipped a ring on my finger, a diamond ring that must have cost him a couple of months’ salary.

We never made it to the Observatory.

By the end of March, I had a driving license and an engagement ring.
The Immaculate Heart College’s brochure was right: Most girls marry within two years of graduation. Those nuns knew something I didn’t.

We married in July, after four long months of engagement and a series of lectures by Father Peachea. At the ceremony, a High Mass courtesy of the priests that taught at Conaty and a full chorus courtesy of the nuns at the same school, all my friends occupied one side of the church. On the other side, just his father, step mother and half sister who received an oral invitation a few weeks before the event and managed to drive down from Washington State in time for the ceremony.

Uncle Ted and his family did not attend. Aunt Adelina, her family, friends and in-laws all attended. Uncle Nick, Adelina’s husband, gave me away. Theresa and her cousin Brahim were our Maid of honor and Best Man. She had arranged for my dress and for a photographer to show up and take pictures of the event. I was dazed and in a dream through the entire ceremony.

We had the reception at the apartment. Simple fare, sandwiches and cake from Sarno.

Many people had contributed to our day, flowers, transportation. Michelle and Pilar had moved back to their families at the end of June, but had returned for the wedding. Everyone blessed the union.

The non-refundable ticket was never used.

End of Part One

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Chapter Twentyeight: An Act of Faith

“Hey guys, we could use a hand here.” Tony conned two young men in the parking area to help with the groceries. She knew them from work, as their white shirts and plastic pocket inserts identified them as IBM people.

They invited us to a movie then and there.  We put away the groceries and piled in the Olds, Michelle taking the wheel, Pilar and me in the front, and Tony in the back with David and Neil. They talked about mutual friends.

At the movies, the boys sat at each end, with a cackle of girls all going to the concession stand and bathroom at different times, rearranging the seating at each re-entry and interrupting the flow of the movie.

It was Michelle who noticed how Neil sought my company after that evening. I had remarked about his shyness and reserve, his engagement in books and songs, his uniform of white shirts, white socks, and thick glasses. I had noticed him before, the only boy who had thanked me for the pizza on the day of the party.

I was learning Bob Dylan’s songs listening to his harmonica.

It was on a week night, a month after we had moved in, the girls working on a big art project that took over the living room; I was correcting papers. We had invited the boys to share my  birthday cake, a rum cake from Sarno Bakery a place known for Italian pastries and Italian Opera.

David left around eight, but Neil was still hanging around at ten. The girls began hinting that they were tired and ready to retire. I picked up the coffee cups and moved them to the kitchen sink. Neil followed me, talking about how he had been writing and trying to get his thoughts out. I said something like, well, one day, they will come to you more clearly.

He mumbled how lost he was in these feelings.

The girls had popped back in the living room in their robes, pushing for the evening to end,  when I said to Neil, walking him to the door: “Neil, see you in the morning!”  He seemed to hesitate at the door for another fifteen minutes. When he finally left, I was frustrated:

“That was strange.” I told the girls.

“What was he talking about?” Pilar asked.

“Not a clue!” I declared.
"Was I rude?" I added, still trying to gauge what I did, what he said.
"Nah, he's just smitten with you!" Michelle countered.

The next morning, I expected to see the boys as usual,  having coffee and reading the  paper on the patio we  shared.Neil, I was going to say in the light of day, Neil, what were you talking about last night? Nobody was outside. I didn't see them all week.
On Sunday, on the way to the laundry, as shy as usual he stopped by.“Hi, I just wanted you to have this.” He handed me a small package  and walked off, not waiting for me to open and react.

“Wait! Do you want to take a walk and get donuts?” I said.  He turned around and said he had to get back to work as soon as he got some clean laundry.

Strange, I thought. Nobody works on Sunday.

“Michelle, do you remember what happened Wednesday night?” I asked my roommate as soon as I got back in the apartment.

“Sure, what’s to remember? Hey, what’s that you’re holding?”

I opened the package I had received from Neil: a bottle of perfume, ‘My Sin’.

“He always hangs around, waits to talk to you.” Michelle was excited.

“Why me? I gave him no encouragement.”

“The boy is just interested in you, that’s all. I think the cake did the trick.” She laughed out loud, and Pilar asked what happened.

“I have a problem!” I said.

Michelle was enjoying my discomfort. She continued:  “The last time somebody made himself a fool for me was in junior high. And then my brother reacted like the jerk he was and punched him. How humiliating to have your big brother punch your sweet friend.” She was laughing.

“Michelle, I need your help here. Was there anything I did wrong? Think, remember. Pilar, what do you remember about Wednesday night? I didn’t even wear makeup that evening.”

“What is the big deal? It’s not like he proposed!” Pilar had jumped in.

“I pushed him out of the house.” I said, disconcerted.

Another week went by and I still did not know what Neil had meant to tell me that Wednesday night. I slipped a thank you note under his door and waited for him to respond. I was hoping he was in, and seeing the note, he would then open the door and talk to me.

David opened the door. Neil had gone to a training.

O.K. I thought. This is going to work just fine. He is gone, I will forget that evening and continue as normal. Everything can go back to normal.

Before the week was up a dozen red roses arrived. I found them inside the apartment, on the dinner table when I got back home.  The manager must have let the delivery person in. The sealed note accompanying the roses was burning in my hands.

“Open it. Go on. It must be from Neil. I am sure.” Michelle still had that teasing tone.

“Oh, how sweet.”

“Open, read what it says out loud!”

“You are always on my mind. Neil.” I read the note, but did not trust it; I handed it to Michelle.

“I knew it! Didn’t I tell you? ‘You are always on his mind’. How sweet!” Michelle was turning the note over, looking for more clues.

“What do I do now?”

“Nothing. Just wait.”

I had to think. I had to figure this out. What was it that I felt? I felt curious, flattered, giddy with anticipation, happy that someone would notice me and not Pilar, happy that I was not even trying to catch his attention. But how did it happen? What did happen?

At school, my students were worried about my moods. I overhead them at lunch time while I was making my obligatory supervision rounds.

“She can’t be right. She must have had a bad accident or something. She doubled her assignments for no reason.”

They were right. I had a bad accident all right. I was holding the light on my self, and everything was blinding. I could not make sense of anything. Most of all, I did not need these girls to guess my state of mind. Some more homework might stop their gossip.

I panicked when he called.

“Hi, did you get the flowers?”

“Oh? Yes! Yes!”

“Rosaria, I should have talked to you before I left town. Did David tell you?”

“He told me you had left for a training.”

“He didn’t give you my letter?”

“What letter?”

“I wrote you a letter.”

“Neil, we are going around in circles. I did not get the letter.”

“I get back Friday night around ten. Is it too late? Can you pick me up at the airport? I forgot, you don't drive alone."

“You need to have a back up plan. Michelle doesn’t like driving nights. ”

“Oh!  If you can, come.”

O how I wished I could drive. I needed to talk to Neil without anybody else around. I needed to understand.

David didn’t have the letter. Neil told him to destroy it if he had not delivered to me the very next day. Why? And who plans these things? Was David complicating things?

Michelle and I went to the airport, hoping the plane would be on time. The plane was two hours late. Neil was tired, had been on the plane since early morning and needed a shave. We got home after midnight, having exchanged just a few words.

The next morning, I ran into him. He barely waved at me on his way to catch the bus.

That day at work I made up my mind. What I had craved was a romantic encounter. I did not need this, this hot and cold teeter-totter feeling. Why did he ignore me this morning?  I had work to do and plans for my future. This was just an interlude. The man did not deserve my attention.

That evening, Neil stopped by and asked me for dinner at a local Italian place, right down the street.He began to thank me about the airport ride. He was sorry, he kept saying, for the inconvenience he had caused. Ok. Not a problem.

At dinner, the marinara sauce was too runny and the veal was tasteless.

“They call this veal scaloppine!” I said with a snide.

“You didn’t like it?” Neil looked disappointed.

“This is really bad.” I said, not realizing that he had chosen this place to impress me.

On the way back, he and I  talked.

“You know that I have been trying to tell you how I feel since your birthday.” He started.

“You have not been really clear, have you?” I said, trying to sound normal.

“I can’t stop thinking about you.”

“Neil, what are you saying? This is serious stuff for me to hear.”

“I have never felt this way. This is serious for me too.”

For the next few days, I felt anxious, thrilled, confused, elated and scared. I was  falling for someone I hardly knew.

How could it be?

At school, Sister Mary Joseph noticed my distracted behavior.

“Sister, I am returning to Italy, worst possible time for a romance.”

“Oh Dear! Has romance found you?”

“What do you mean? This boy. I can’t stop thinking about him. I did nothing. He sees me without make up, in sweats. He’s a neighbor, catching me while I cook or clean.”

“Well, what do you like about him?”

“Not his looks. I mean, I thought that one falls for looks, the John Wayne, or Jimmy Dean look. I like his company, his intelligence, his wit…”

“Well, you certainly enjoy a lot about this person.”

“I like him. I miss him when he leaves.”

“The question is, would you give up your family for him? When you can answer that, then you are understanding the commitment necessary for a long life together. And he for you? What will he give up for you? Did you ask yourself that question? Love is an act of faith, a voyage across a future ocean.”

On Valentine’s Day, Neil and I went out to dinner, just the two of us, to The Castaways in the Burbank hills, up above the city. We sat outside, the only couple who braved the cold. With Neil’s jacket over my shoulders, the evening felt easy,  as though we had known each other our entire lives.

The city below winked knowingly.

We were on top of the world.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Chapter Twentyseven: The Relative Factor

Except for Theresa, with whom I remained close all my adult life, everyone else was transitory. Each time I met a college friend at a party or was invited by them to play a friendly tennis match at their country club, I was reminded that my life was transitory.

My aunt in Fresno shared news on the rest of the relatives scattered on two continents.  I had a feeling that my life had been a real illusion. All my letters sent back home spoke of exciting experiences and  opportunities opening up for me, an ideal setting for a lucky girl. The news I sent was a combination of my wishes and my mother's wishes for me, all wrapped up in a tiny bundle of hopeful words. She had had similar difficulties when she lived with Great Uncle Joe, taking care of his needs during his declining years.When he became ill and cantankerous, she had been tempted to return to Italy and give up her hope for  a new life in America.  She missed her youth, family and friends she left behind.

I learned that Great Uncle Joe and his older sister Elena,  the only brother and sister of my grandfather Paolo Rapolla, had arrived in America around the close of the century, fourteen and seventeen respectively, with one suitcase between them. Elena had been sent to America to marry a cousin; and Joe went along to accompany her on the long trip.  Later, he went to California during the Gold Rush where he accumulated a great deal of wealth, and after his wife’s death,  sponsored the immigration of the children of his brother Paolo at the end of World War II.

When Uncle Ted on the famous visit back in Venosa met my teacher and promised to send for me to study in America, his  difficulties with renters and vacancies were just beginning. By the time I arrived in Los Angeles, Ted had married and had re-established the building tenancy, Aunt Elena had returned to New Jersey, and everyone was a bit miffed with each other. Each part of the family was angry at the other for something they should have done.

History was repeating itself, I thought when Aunt Elena called me one Sunday. The conversation was a bit strained.

“My dear, Joe wanted so much to bring you all here.” She started.


“It's not too late. You know I still have some property in L.A. that I could turn over to them; that’s what Joe wanted. I need to make sure I get my apartment back from Ted. My son tells me I have rights. I spent winters in Los Angeles ever the last girl was in college. When Ted returned from Italy, he threw my stuff out. I was ill then; couldn’t do a thing about it.”

“Aunt Elena, I’m on my way back to Italy. I'm sorry I won't be able to see you again. ” I told her, with a strange sadness I had not anticipated.
“I do hope we can meet again.” She said, cheerfully.

And that’s how we left it.
She was resuming a past life.
I was leaving this new life.
She was returning to old grudges.
I wanted distance from the same grudges.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Chapter Twentysix: The Subject Was Beauty

Walking through aisles of assorted products and toiletries, we had come to the department store to look for products that made us look prettier.

“After I marry I will no longer color my hair,” Pilar stated,  “I'll go back to my dark brown, if I can remember what it looked like.”

“What they see is what they’ll get from me!” I retorted, thinking that changing my hair color was just too much trouble. Both Michelle and Pilar did their hair at home, usually the same weekend, making subtle changes each time, too subtle for me to catch. They were persevering with their intentions to get just the right shade.

If the girls ran out of money before the end of the month buying too many products, they could call their parents. I needed to watch every penny I spent.

“Men are total dopes,” Michelle said out loud, “and controlling!”

“You can get them to do anything with the right perfume.” Pilar added.

I was jealous of the girls, their friendship, how they knew so much about each other and could finish each other’s sentences. Except for Theresa and Marla, I really had not confided in too many people.

“They want you to fulfill their every fantasy.” Michelle retorted. “This one time, Rob asked me to go out with my cheerleading outfit, and I would have if it wasn’t prohibited, and he went on how it turned him on, and how it was his fantasy…”

“Wow!” I said, in surprise. Michelle had never revealed that side of hers, though I had gathered that she had been a cheerleader, prom queen, an all American girl. I didn't know this pressure she was talking about.

There was an entire part of life that took place with me on the outside.

Michelle went on: “Couldn’t stand if I kept him waiting, if I talked to anybody else. At first, I was flattered, thinking he really loved me, was concerned about me. Looking back, I really didn’t see it coming.”

“It’s up to the woman to set limits, create the atmosphere.” Pilar said.

“It's just a game we should stop playing, luring men into our cave is ancient history!” I said with a bit of pontification.

“Without romance, men are apes.” Pilar stated with conviction.

“Sure,” I said, “you’d think that way, the way magazines go on and on, how blondes have more fun, that changing hair color can fool even mother nature, that perfume says more about you than anything else.”

Pilar schooled to work in advertising, didn't surprise me with her answer: " I DON'T want to look ugly, ever!"

“We are being manipulated, ladies!” I declared, “we' re told to wear the right clothes, buy the right purse and heels, use the right makeup, the right hair cut. We are being manipulated to think this way, to want to be and appear to want all the same thing.”

“Yeah!” Michelle added, “and me will love us for it.”

“My point! Men are dictating how we act, what we buy, how we serve their needs.” I said.

“It’s a man’s world!” Pilar stated, “They are in charge!The best we can do is get on their good side.”
Even though I was fighting to resist the temptation of spending my hard earned money on vanity items, I couldn't resist the call of beauty and glamour all those products promised.

Looking good to please someone else was more expensive than food.

“You know that there are lots of women right now burning bras, protesting this entire situation.” I reminded my friends, adding, “As long as we go along and buy these products, we have become  accomplices.”

“Yes, but these women would still wear make-up to look pretty. We like looking pretty!” Pilar retorted.

She was right.I too wanted to look pretty and entice men; only, I didn’t like being told how to; I didn’t like to play the game so aggressively.

My mother had worried on a different plane, for her it was  about “fare la bella figura”, doing the right thing, maintaining the right appearance, presenting oneself as a representative of the entire family. Every time you chose to go out of your house, every thing you said and did was designed to maintain that right image. She never went out without fixing her hair a certain way, wearing stockings without runs, a girdle to hide any bulging problems, light talcum powder under arms to retard sweat.

For her make-up was used by loose women and would have been scandalized by the choices I was making. I was returning to her rules and cultural expectations. If I had changed, I could not show it.
All around us, the world was changing.Women were demanding rights. Michelle, Pilar and I were in the middle of a revolution and still went about as though things were the same. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Chapter Twentyfive: Domesticity

My car was having too many tantrums. Each time it broke down, I learned the name of the component that needed replacement or repair, battery, tires, brakes, carburetor. I did not own the car; it owned me. I couldn’t live with or without it. In Los Angeles, a car was as necessary as food, water or oxygen.

I had failed the driving test twice and was now waiting for my third and last try.

Michelle didn’t mind driving, but I minded. It was my car, and I couldn’t go out by myself without breaking the law. She was younger but acted like my big sister. I offered to sell her the car as I was leaving for good, and only my books would travel with me.

We became very careful shoppers as we moved through aisles slowly, comparing brands, adding and subtracting. It was a chore to stick to a pre-determined menu, but it was the only way to stay on budget. We became clever bargain hunters. One whole chicken became dinner on Sunday, tacos on Monday, soup on Tuesday.

We bought day old bread, and house brands. Soups, casseroles and pasta meals kept us full. We learned that leftovers made great lunches, and that eggs filled in anytime we ran out of meat. We ate eggs in omelets, frittatas, souffl├ęs, rolled in tortillas, sandwiched in breads.

By the end of the first month we grew restless and annoyed by small things.

Our first big argument was about toilet paper. We were constantly running out of toilet paper. Well, it was about lots of things, but we only expressed our frustration about toilet paper.

We had two bathrooms, a full one with a bath and shower, and a half one, with a toilet and a sink. Vivian had already pulled out of the food budgeting, buying her own things, milk, cereal, ice cream. She stated firmly that she didn’t spend weekends at the apartment, and should pay less for paper goods. Pretty soon, the girls all began to keep tabs on who used what.

By the end of the second month Tony had moved out; I had the room to myself and had to absorb her portion of the rent. I worried about what else could go wrong. I was going to miss Tony, not just for her contribution to the finances of the place, but because she made friends easily, especially around the complex. It had been her idea to throw an open house party to meet neighbors.

She had a knack for making everyone feel welcome. Out of the blue, she’d start a conversation with someone at the pool,  and the next day new people would show up looking for her.

All the fun we were going to have when we lived on our own never materialized. We spent nights working on school projects; weekends shopping and cleaning. We took breaks by walking to the donut shop down the street, or playing ping pong on the patio.

The car was parked permanently, waiting for a windfall to get it fixed. We were back to taking the bus everywhere.  We were counting days till June,  when each of us could return to the known comforts of home life. I had learned all I could learn about the American way of life.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Chapter Twentyfour: Speaking Funny

Learning new words had to be learned consciously, as one learns to swim late in life, afraid to drown, breathing in a new medium, timing the opening and closing of the mouth to each breath. This new skin I was growing did not stretch fast enough to cover my needs. At times I needed artificial fins to aid my stiff body in these cold waters.

Speaking was so laborious that it impaired thinking. Words had  to be  selected in advance, adjusted, shaped like a piece of bubble gum before  being pushed out of the mouth to form that special  bubble.

I felt that I was the subject of a painting still in its infancy, still unformed and incoherent.  I wanted to be something big and important; I felt impatient, and no longer hopeful.

Every time I met new people, I had a panic attack, a strange feeling that I was inadequately prepared to be in their presence; I didn't belong there.

I was a fake.

At school, as I delivered a lesson, the specific vocabulary necessary for the interaction had to be precise, accurate, easy to pronounce, and easy to spell out. My life depended on the words I chose. I was preoccupied with words.

My life was framed by how I talked. Everything about me was defined this way.

“She can’t know anything; she can’t speak right. What accent is that?” I heard the chatter in halls, at malls, at stores, everywhere I went. People stared and changed subject whenever I entered a conversation. I was an expert in literature and syntax. I knew how to fix sentences and paragraphs. I knew the world’s greatest literature.

But I couldn’t fix how I talked, or how people perceived me.

Theresa and I spoke often about words, accent, construction of sentences. She arrived in the States at an earlier age than I and had more opportunities to interact with regular folks in the family business; appropriate slangs and special expressions came with the territory. She didn’t have to stand in front of a class of rowdy teens and demand attention “speaking funny”.

Her future did not depend on being understood.

I was the foreign teacher, the foreign girl at the apartment, the foreign student in graduate classes, trapped.

When I contacted the Italian Consulate to obtain information about teaching in Italy, they put me on hold for thirty minutes, during which, I watched an entire television show; and when the phone finally went dead before I could talk to anyone, I took it as a sign. My own government hanging up on me couldn’t be good.

Then, Aunt Adele, my mother’s sister, sounding tired and hurried, called from Fresno. I asked her if I could visit for the weekend.

She met me with her carload of kids at the Greyhound Station, late at night, everyone hungry and tired. I squeezed in the back seat, apologetic. JoAnn, the teen cousin, informed me that I could sleep in her bed since she was spending the night at a friend’s. We stopped at a burger joint and shared burgers and fries between conversations with everyone.

“Aunt Elena is moving back to California.” JoAnn said.
"Are you moving in with us?" Carla asked.
"Can you come to my baseball game?" Donny chimed in.

After answering the simple questions, I remembered the Aunt Elena JoAnn spoke about.

“I spent an afternoon with her. She asked me to give her a pedicure. Frankly, I thought it was a bit strange, an unusual request to make of someone she had never met.”

Aunt Adele filled in the details: "She used to live at Ted’s apartment. She is returning to California and you might want to live together, share expenses and all. Anyway, she is coming at the end of the month and needs an apartment rented and transportation from the airport."

“How could she ask this of me? She doesn’t know anything about me! Besides, I could have returned to Italy.

“I told her you were doing well, graduating after just four years!"

“I had a tough time.”

“You’re too hard on yourself. Look at you, you got a job, and a working visa.”

“I make four hundred a month and no medical. A couple of bad molars during Christmas vacation cost me my entire check. I’m broke again.”

“Well, another reason to live with a relative who can be there for you. Everyone has to make some adjustments. We’re having trouble too.”

“My car is giving me trouble and I can’t put more money into it. I can’t pick her up, nor find her an apartment. I’m practically broke.” What I wanted to say was, no way, no-how, this moving back with relatives was not going to happen. I like my new freedom.

Aunt Adele went on about Aunt Elena.“She was nice to us, me and Ted. "
JoAnn jumped in with her own question: "So, how is the school you teach in? Is it strict?"

“Yeah,  every thing you say can be held against you.” I said. My fifteen year old cousin had been quite a help to me the summers I visited. She and I became close. It was she who pointed out that I spoke funny. When I asked for help, she jumped right in, showing me how to break my speech pattern with a couple of slang expressions.

I declared that I was returning to Italy, and there was no way I could pick up Aunt Elena at the airport or arrange for her apartment. Aunt Adele had tears in her eyes when she spoke back:“I’m sorry things didn’t turn out the way you anticipated. When I think about it, we should have offered you a place here.”

Yeah, I thought. You should have, but then when Uncle Ted  was stranded in Italy you blamed each other. Both of you can keep a whole lot of resentment, and I'm tired. This was my turn to get it all out in the open.  I waited until late in the evening before it came out:

“We should have come as a family. My Mom and Dad and brothers. What I have now is half a life.” I said, changing the subject, “My parents are still alive. They always thought their destiny was here, reunited with both you and Uncle Ted.”

“You wouldn’t understand. Did you think Ted and his wife were harsh with you? You have no idea the life we had in your house. Your father was terrible. Then, I came here, everyone thinking I was in heaven. Your family couldn’t understand my life with Uncle Jo. You’ll never know how hard my life was.”

“I guess everything is complicated.” I murmured. I was not learning  anything new. Uncle Ted had hurled complaints about how my father had treated him. I was sick of it.

“I can’t talk you out of this decision?” Aunt Adele asked.

“I want to feel at home. " I said firmly and gave her a hug on my way to JoAnn's room.I was not patient or hopeful anymore. I was angry and defeated.

Whatever was going to happen depended on me doing something.

(pictured above: my brother Luigi, living in Italy, the artist in the family)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Chapter Twentythree: In and out of the water

The sun was brilliant, temperatures in the 80’s, and  everyone who came to the open house/swimming party sported something new: Marla had a new bathing suit; Theresa was dropped off in a new Cadillac, and even Sister Mary Joseph had a new semi-habit she had designed herself for these non-convent events, arriving by taxi with a beautiful bouquet of expensive flowers. A dozen other people, acquaintances, school mates and people from  the complex, all looked new and exotic in and out of the water.

I hadn’t seen Theresa in months.
"And the Cadillac? I asked.

“My cousin Brahim, a UCLA PHD candidate, has moved in to help us after Uncle's passing. It's his car. Neat, ugh?”

“Oh? How long is he staying with you guys?”

“Until he’s finished, I guess.”

“When did your uncle...?”

“Last fall. I called your house and they told me you had left and had no idea where to...”

“I wanted to call you.”

“I thought you disappeared completely; went back to Italy. When you called about this party, I wanted so much to ignore you the way you ignored me. How could you just disappear?”

“I had a real tough time in the last couple of months. If it had not been for my obligation at Conaty, I would have.... If I knew how, that is.Yes, if I had know how to kill myself, I would have done it." By the time I finished those sentences, I was tearing, remembering the fights, the accusations, the feeling of being trapped and choking.

“I told you, you could have moved in with us. My aunt would have had no objections.”

“Yeah. I know.” I hugged her, and it felt great having her back with me. She had been my best friend for all those years.

“So, now, what’s the plan?” She said, calmly.

“I’m going back in June. I just paid my last installment to St. Anthony.”

“What is that?”

“The society that is arranging the trip. The ticket is a real bargain. What do you say you buy a ticket and join me for a few weeks? It'll be fun. You'll love my family."

“Not a chance. My aunt needs me now more than ever. Besides...”


“I met someone at the funeral. My aunt and  his mother have been friends forever. Anyhow, the families had been estranged for years until the funeral.  Now, we are seeing them all the time; we are even going to Disneyland together.”

People kept coming in and out of the pool,  some would start dancing, most of them found their way to our table  where we were distributing freshly-baked pizza and cold cokes. Nobody bothered to say thanks or ask how the pizza was made.

“I’m glad you liked it.” I remarked to no one in particular.  People  rushed back to their companions before meeting my eyes. 

“Did you use a kit?” The voice belonged to a skinny tall boy sitting in a corner. I had not noticed him,  but he had been playing a harmonica a few feet away.

“A kit? I don't know about any kit? I used plain flour, water, oil, yeast and salt for the bread. The toppings are easy too.

“You ought to go in business! This is very good!" He remarked.

“You think so?”

“You ought to start charging. We could use this kind of pizza at our office party or  here, at our get-together.”

“Oh? ”

“We  have monthly pot-lucks,  people furnish snacks and beer.  It would be great to have this wonderful pizza."

"I shall think about it."I said, satisfied that somebody had finally thanked the cook. 

Even when it became cool and dark, people continued to pick up pizza.  When I ran out of ingredients, we went indoors and collapsed to watch a movie on television.   Later, I offered to drive Sister and Theresa back to their places, and started talking about the movie, one thing leading to another, how people went to bed without any guilt or thought of what they were doing. Sister interrupted.

“I hope you and your friends know about birth control.” She declared,casually.

I knew too little to formulate the simplest question. I was uncomfortable, but it didn’t stop her from continuing on the same vein.

“When we were newlyweds, the rhythm would not have worked for us. At the clinic, wives came in wanting to know what to do to avoid getting pregnant. They refused to discuss it with their priests or husbands. I had no qualms telling them about how to practice birth control.”


“Sex is just another function of our bodies that gives us pleasure. That intimacy allows another life to be formed. Your doctor should be able to guide you. Ultimately, though, you have to make these decisions.”

I thought being a doctor had changed her a great deal. Her knowledge had rubbed her religion off a bit. And it didn’t seem that convent life was re-establishing a good balance, either.

“Sister, why students are so eager to use make-up and lipstick the  minute they leave school? I see them as they wait for their bus,  rolling up  their skirts, dabbing lipsticks on.”
 I knew the answer, but I wanted to hear Sister's explanation.

“In Mexico, at fifteen, a girl is ready to be presented to the world, to be free to flirt, to attract males. Most countries have some sort of coming out ceremony. If we want our women to wait, they need to understand the power of their bodies, to understand the many chemicals that impact their senses. It’s a comfort for parents to know that their children are kept in a protected environment as long as possible. Parents want to make all decisions when in fact, to grow independent and successful with decisions, we need to feel the consequences.”

When I dropped Theresa off and she invited me  in to meet her cousin, I told her I was way too tired. Maybe I should have visited a while.  I didn't want to offend her again.

We stayed in touch, talked often on the phone, about how lives were changing, how each of us had to absorb so many new things.

“We will always feel a little bit guilty. We were raised catholic! Anything we desire feels immoral.” Theresa  knew how to be reassuring.

I wondered if all Christians felt as we did. Maybe the rest of Christianity evolved, like the Protestants, the other religions, but our branch of Christianity seemed stuck. Stubborn. Uneasy with anything new.

One day, we might have a good laugh at all the guilt we covered ourselves with.

One day, we'll feel comfortable in and out of the water.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Chapter Twentytwo: On My Own!

The Apartment

The girls and I discussed the possibility of getting our own place. If we split the expenses four ways, for seventy dollars a month, we’d have a two-bedrooms-two baths furnished apartment, a community pool, access to laundry, and coffee shops and grocery stores within walking distance.

The idea of having our own kitchen made me feel giddy. I could taste the pasta, the meats and pizza made to order. Nobody else showed the same enthusiasm.

Pilar was anxious to have a big living room where she could spread her art projects and take her time finishing them. Michelle talked about taking long swims after hours.Tony looked forward to coming and going on her own sweet time, she had said. Having that fourth person, we could get out of the convent and taste a bigger slice of America before I returned to Italy.

Michelle wanted to talk to her Mom. Either that, or she had to ask her brother for an advance since her room and board was paid directly to the convent. So, we packed ourselves in the Oldsmobile and drove the sixty miles to San Bernardino.

Her mother had questions about the kind of people we would be neighbors with, the contract. We told her that Tony and I, the only people employed, would be signing the contract; so, if Michelle didn’t like the arrangements, she had no obligation to remain there.It sounded so easy when I said that. But, if any one of us pulled away, we could no longer afford the place. And going back to the convent was out of the question.

Michelle’s father liked the idea immediately: “Mother”, he addressed his wife, “Elle will need to fend for herself. She is not going to be a nun. She needs to spread her wings and start flying.”

I could not have said it any better myself. What were we afraid of anyway? The more you put something off the worst it is. Like going to the dentist. By the time I made an appointment, he had to yank out two molars, leaving me unconscious for hours. Preventive care was not on my budget.

We talked and arranged things during our Christmas vacation.
We moved on New Year’s Day.

Michelle and Pilar took one room, and Tony and I the other. Within a week, Tony announced that she wasn’t participating in our meal planning because she wanted to leave her options open. No problem.

I took charge of planning and executing the grocery budget. They gave me an idea of what they wanted to eat and we went shopping on Saturdays. Tony tended to disappear during the weekend, visiting friends and family, and we soon got into a routine.

It sounded easy. Two pasta meals, one with, one without meat. Two chickens, one oven fried, one bbq’d. Two soups, one with the carcasses of chicken. One with the leftover vegetables of the week. And a roast, ham or brisket, big enough for the Sunday meal and for lunch sandwiches. We also included fruit or ice cream for dessert; milk and cereal for breakfasts, and peanut butter and jam for late night snacks. It was a twenty- dollars budget per week. If we wanted something extra, we had to purchase it ourselves. Cleaning and household products were carefully rationed as well.

I volunteered to cook and asked the rest of them to coordinate the clean up. Except for Tony, who had one excuse after the other why she shouldn’t have to do anything since she hardly spent any time there, the rest of us got along great.

On the first day, and for our first meal, I purchased a standing rib roast. Now, I had not experienced the pleasure of a standing prime rib roast. Michelle had suggested it. I asked the butcher to tell me how to cook such a big piece of meat. When he asked how many people were coming to dinner, he confused me. I told him, just the four girls. Oh? I thought you had invited some special guests! This will set you back $20 dollars. What? Twenty dollars for one piece of meat? Look, he said, this is prime. You will have to do nothing. Nothing. Salt and pepper, in a preheated oven, fifteen minutes per pound, half a pound per person. It cooks itself.

“Oh! Then what else?”

“You mean what else to cook with it?”

“Yes. What wine would you suggest?”

“Oh. Wine. Now that’s for another department. Go over to…”

By the time I left Gelson’s, with the roast, the baked potatoes, the asparagus , the wine, the torte, I had spent the entire month’s budget on one meal.

When the girls and I sat down to savor the meal, with a small glass of Chianti, we felt rich and special. The girls were impressed. They didn’t ask, nor did I tell them that this meal was not on our budget. I was happy to absorb that cost.

This was a new beginning in my American Life.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Chapter Twentyone: Around the Bend and other detours....

On a Saturday afternoon, driving to the beach, we talked about being  on our own. We had moved to the convent just over a month, and each of us found something to complain about. 

Pilar had hinted that living  with her aunt in Mexico before transferring to Los Angeles had been a real struggle;  Michelle with her brother and his wife in the hills of Hollywood had to escape too much music and excitement. Tony was game for anything, she said, as long as it was away from her parents.

“Oh, what does that mean? You don't get along with them?” I said.
"Yeah. Things always look simple and easy. Living with relatives is so complicated." Pilar said. Tony said that she just wanted to be independent.

I couldn't tell about my uncle, but I thought of a childhood friend, Gianna, the first girl I knew who didn’t live at home with her mom and dad. Telling about her was as close as I came to confessing my guilt and dilemma.

When Gianna appeared in the middle of the year, in the third grade and the teacher sat her by me in the first row, and she told me that she lived in The Castle,  in a hidden complex that included elaborate gardens and underground chambers I couldn't believe her story.

“Are you an orphan?” I had asked her.

“No. I have a mother and father. Auntie and Uncle give me everything I want, my own room, lots of toys, all new clothes, everything. I'm treated like a princess."

I became envious of her good luck. When our teacher assigned a book to read, Gianna told me that she had a copy of the same book at home, more books than anybody, she bragged.

I wrangled an invitation to her house, convinced that she was exaggerating. When I told my mother that I was walking to The Castle to visit a new friend, she was skeptical. She had never seen anyone living there. It’s just a warehouse, a kind of museum, she had said. But, she didn’t dissuade me.

At the door, a young lady who introduced herself as the maid made me sit down, unlace my shoes and slip into flip flops. She pointed out that the main residence was on the second storey. Everything downstairs were service rooms. Gianna met me upstairs, also wearing funny slippers, and proceeded to show me her room and other parts of the house. The book room was the biggest room in the house. To touch some books, we needed to wear special gloves.

In the garden, flowers and trees had come from all parts of the world. An entire room, bigger than my house, was dedicated to plant propagation and plant care. A full time gardener lived on the premises, somewhere in the service area of the first floor which was not shown me.

Gianna’s chores and activities were written down on a chalk board in the kitchen, with notes for the maid, for the gardener, notes about notes, piano lessons, art lessons. Every activity was blocked in.

“When can you play outside with us?”

“ It’s not scheduled. Outside time is tennis with Auntie, and boccie with Uncle.”

“Do you ride a bicycle?”

“On Saturday, we have bicycle rides to the Pineta, and a picnic afterwards.”

“When do you play?”

She looked confused.

“When do you hang out with friends?”

“I can invite friends for an hour on Friday after school. Like today!”

"So, you have never met and played on the streets, different games with different people, riding  bikes everywhere, play pretend.”

“I have lots of studying to do, not just school work. My uncle is tutoring me for the Liceo Scientifico in Rome, my future studies. I’ll enter university and become a doctor. ”

“How do you know what future God has destined for you?”

She laughed. “Oh, that’s not how it works. I must obey my Aunt's and Uncle's decisions. Mother would not have it any other way."

Gianna never complained. I didn’t find out how much she missed her own mother and father until she entered a poem contest. She won. Her poem told her agony, her imprisonment, her sense of guilt for feeling so lonely and homesick.

What she wanted most of all, was to go back to her own family.

Michelle then asked me outright, “Rosey, what about you? You’re going back home because you’re homesick, right?”

“Yeah! I have not seen my family for over four years.”

Pilar joined in, “I felt the same way. I went back to Spain after the first year. Then, I got tired of the same old life. I had changed; they hadn’t. They wanted me to be the same little girl I was when I left. I couldn’t adapt. So, I packed my bags, and here I am. See? You don’t know how it will be when you get back home.”

“It’s time to return.” I said, warmed by the thought of returning to my loved ones.

“We all have to leave home someday!” Michelle smiled and I smiled back. We had stories to tell each other, all right. I was guessing the girls and I were going to be great friends.