Draft Chapter, Nightfall In Verona – copyright 2010 Jenne’ R. Andrews
“Dare I Eat a Peach?” — Prufrock, T.S. Eliot
After my summer southern Italian amore Pepe goes to work, I head out alone to explore the narrow streets of Turin. I carry a small basket with a red- checked napkin in it to cover fruit and bread. I am in a fresh pair of bell-bottom jeans, a pink knit shirt I bought in the market in Reggio. I have brushed my hair and tied it back with one of the now worn elastic twist ties Julia gave me at the beginning of our journey.
The Turinese villas on either side of the cobbled street are ancient, delicate, walls a golden tan stucco over brick. Here and there the stucco has peeled away. Golden and pale pink roses climb sun-bleached trellises. Baskets of red geraniums gleam from the balconies like a flush of hearts in an ongoing card game.
I have not been alone in days. I have been glued to my lover’s side, hearing him say tenderly, each time I have objected to walking at nearly a right angle wherever we have gone, “Va bene; e’ cosi.” “It’s o.k. That’s the way it is..” read, we do it this way, in my country. I stop short of telling him that I am in grueling pain.
He has kissed kissed kissed me every few feet on the street, sometimes grabbing me under the chin, insuring that I will develop a dewlap before I am thirty.
On the bus in Rome, when he did this for the fortieth time– make that the hundredth time in our six weeks together– we had toasted to each other at a bistro with a whole pitcher of cold white wine.
As the bus lurched and swayed to the outskirts of Rome, people slumped over their newspapers at the end of a long day of work, he smiled at me, and grabbed the skin under my chin– the sequence was grab, pinch, bite the lips, clinch, kiss, tongue half way down the throat and a smack on the lips for good measure. Generally speaking I loved these kisses and returned them with abandon when we were alone; this time, I watched my arm and hand shoot up and slap him.
I was horrified. But he had laughed, taking my hand and kissing it, and the other Italians on the bus back to the palazzo where we were visiting his eldest sister had applauded. This was impromptu opera.
Now, distracted by a myriad of such memories, I remember that I have an extra stop to make before I go to the market– to a pharmacy, a farmacia– the c being pronounced like ch, the word spoken with an accent on the next to the last syllable, with a song-like cadence. I have finally run out of birth control. I have squeezed the last sperm-blasting glob of jelly out of the tube of ortho-gynol I brought to Europe at the bottom of my duffel bag into my diaphragm.
Notwithstanding that my amore, on one of the nights of revelry with his family, in a moment in which I took his newborn niece into my arms had looked at me with that “I would love to get you pregnant right now” gleam in his eye, I have diligently tried to protect myself, soothing him when he was pinched by my device during our stratospheric lovemaking.
In the meantime I have run out of patience with peeing into gratings in the street behind listing plywood partitions like a dog squatting in a park. From the moment I got off the plane I have made concessions to how it is in Europe, finding ways to stay clean. I haven’t asked my friends how they do it; despite our traveling together in our vacation-rigged VW bus, some things have remained unspoken.
I am stuck with the practice of casual open-air elimination of urine, and hiking several blocks to a semi- partitioned pooping station requiring a little less flexibility and balance, but I decide to try to find another tube of contraceptive jelly for my diaphragm, and to buy a discreet little douche kit, like we have in the States. Just taking care of me will offset the tension I have born up under over being indelibly American and contemporary in a world embedded in antiquity and things practical but too out in the open for a spoiled American regazza like me.
In order to enter the pharmacy,with its scalloped and rounded awning, “Farmacia” written in large italic on it, I must steel myself for the stares I will get from the men who enter and leave. Men go to the farmacia for their wives. The women may go to the market and to church. The rest of the time it is expected that they will stay indoors, cooking, as in making pasta from scratch, cleaning, suckling, changing and soothing babies, scrubbing the laundry in the sink and hanging it to dry on the balcony, and be ready to succor their husbands in a jackhammer clench far into the night when the bedside lamp is turned off.
I brace myself, and go in. The pharmacy is dark and mysterious. There is no rhyme or reason to where things are. The aisles are narrow and small bottles and boxes with over the counter pills for various ailments in them are piled on top of each other on dusty shelves.
From the back, a young man with black-rimmed glasses and slicked back hair in a white coat approaches. He looks stunned.
Where to start. Sign language is not an option; no rude gestures approximating the act of intercourse to provide a context for my request allowed.
“Ho bisogno contracepcion,” I say: I need contraception, hoping that the word that may exist in some version in Spanish, resonates with the pharmacist.
He looks at me as if I’m the jealousy-crazed ghost in Lucia di Lammermoor, arising from the lake.
I follow him to the back of the store where there are rows of packaged condoms. I don’t trust these where Mr. Sempre Duro– “Always Hard” (his self-mocking nickname for himself, not mine)– is concerned. I attempt to explain that I am looking for jelly for my diaphragm.
Perhaps I said, “I have cockroaches in my kitchen, ” because after a long and thoughtful pause, he hands me a small box, labeled “Tarot Cap.”
In my mind’s eye I am placing little Tarot Cap ant bait “hotels” at the baseboards of my apartment in St. Paul.
For only a few seconds I wonder about the impact upon my future fertility of putting an insecticide in my diaphragm– if this is an insecticide. I try to decipher the label. I catch words alluding to feminine hygiene, something resembling the word “spermacide.” The Tarot Cap Corporation, wherever it is, possibly in China, has evidently expanded its product line. The idea of flying home pregnant with triplets has been unappealing from the beginning; Tarot Cap it is.
Now I must summon all of my courage.
Douche is surely an acceptable word to utter in Europe. It is French and although it is often appropriated and appended to the word “bag” to insult politicians back in the U.S., I hope for the best. I carefully attempt to state that I need to buy douching apparatus– “..cosa feminina per lavare…” something feminine with which to wash…”– my best shot.
Now he looks astounded. He takes his glasses off and wipes them on his coat and puts them back on.
“Signorina,” he says. “Quelli son per gli madri….”
Those things are for mothers.
I hold my ground, folding my arms and looking him right in the eye. How do you know I’m not a mother?
He walks around the corner to another row of jumbled toiletries, and comes back around with a shoe-box sized package with a cellophaned window.
I look in the box.
There is the largest bulb syringe I have ever seen, with the longest and thickest inflexible nozzle imaginable.
Why am I suprised. The sanitary napkins in Italy are the size of saddle blankets because everyone is serially pregnant, either bleeding profusely or great with child. But this thing would flush the uterus of an elephant.
In Calabria, we had gone into a farmacia– that is to say– I had sent Pepe in for tampons. He was gone for over an hour and came out with a huge paper bag, exhausted, saying, “Jenni– in Italia, tamponi non c’e.” We don’t have tampons in Italy.
Inside the bag had been a huge bag of cotton balls and a ten ft. roll of gauze bandaging. At that point, having begun to adapt to life in wholly Catholic country, only a few steps north of living covered in black in Islam, I had rolled my own.
Now my practical side again comes to the fore. This will double as a fire extinguisher if our hot plate catches fire, I think, plunking down my lire, watching him pack up my purchases into yet another plain brown paper bag. I brim with pride at my own courage and resourcefulness.
I go back into the day, heading back up the street to the market that has flowered under the windows of the dorm at the University of Turin where we have been staying in his room for a few days. We will leave in the morning for Verona, and I want to make a last lover’s dinner.
Prostitutes with wild hair and over-lipsticked mouths stand on the corners with miniskirts up past shoreline. A woman appears in one of the balconies over the market, lugging a wicker basket filled to the brim with freshly washed laundry. She strings a clothesline between her shutters.
Then she bursts into song, in a quavery contralto: “Chi non lavore non fare amore…” He who doesn’t work doesn’t make love….
Other women come out onto their balconies with laundry. They laugh and call to each other in the morning sun.
I look down at the long shadow I cast across the cobblestones. Suddenly there is a lump in my throat. Why couldn’t I stay, as he had begged me to? Why couldn’t I let go and trust that we would love on and that I would still write, that I wouldn’t lose myself?
I turn away to the fruit piled high in the bins of the market. I lay my hands on ripe peaches, needing to hold on to something.
Delicious! Also, interesting to hear about gender politics in different countries.
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I hope you’ll pursue getting your memoir published. I enjoyed this a lot.
Your chapter brings back memories of some of the times in Europe one of my sisters and I shared. We learned in Geneva about the need to get a coin before we tried to leave a parking garage, having held up an entire line of honking autos because we lacked the chip. We had to resort to shouting, “We’re Americans”; it was enough to get the gate up and us freed from the garage. We learned throughout France to ask for a room avec douche (“with shower”) and because we were two women traveling alone, we always were given, without our request, a room with a bathroom in the room rather than in the hallway. We also learned to travel while everything was shut so that by the time we arrived somewhere everything would be open, and to buy bread and cheese and fruit for those in-between hours. We learned in Italy why doing laundry takes all day. I wouldn’t have traded the experiences for anything.
Thank you for the chance to remember.
Thanks, Maureen. This is not as emotionally effusive as much of the rest of the memoir, and amazingly, four months after starting the blasted thing, I’m still working away at it. xj
Laurie Hoffsmith said:
Jenne’ I love your writing. I feel like I walked the streets of Verona with you. I am working on a slice of life memoir of the summer I was 17 and hitchhiked across America. I’d love some feedback if you have a chance to check it out.
Hi Laurie– I really appreciate this. I’ve been a bit distracted today over loss of a horse yesterday and putting up a post– but I will certainly visit and comment on your blog tomorrow….xxxxj
Amalia Pistilli Conrad said:
I was annoyed by your writing about Italy, you make it sound all so stereotypical and crass, like a bad Soprano episode, exoticizing the experience and depicting the people as if they were animals in a zoo— both alluring and disgusting.
Such writing about Italy has been a staple of foreign travelers’ accounts and has not much changed in tone since the 17th century.
As for your implication that Italians were dirtier than Americans because you couldn’t find or buy a douche: did you ever notice in your time there that every Italian bathroom has a bidet, a wonderful contraption with which they assure good genital cleanliness and health? It is also useful to wash your feet, and even your bras and undies. Such a contraption has only now started to become popular in America, so who are the cleaner people? I left Italy 25 years ago, and only now have I finally had a bathroom large enough in my new house to be able to have a bidet in it. What a relief! Clean again!
You should read what memoirist and professor Louise De Salvo says about the inherent anti-Italian racism of American culture. Maybe you’ll understand that your depiction of Italians is also implicitly racist, or at best unidimensional and stereotypical.
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