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The Punchline

A Tale of Misunderstanding and Being Misunderstood

Stormy Skies Above

Here’s as good as anywhere, you tell me, as you choose a restaurant in Rome to have dinner. It’s an autumn Sunday, and we are in a residential neighborhood, north of the Vatican. It is not a trendy area, but it’s where you once lived with your ex. When we come to Rome, we always gravitate to this nucleus, your anchor. The sky is about to explode in a long-awaited storm, for it has been wickedly dry here for weeks. You have chosen a quiet hole-in-the-wall place, across the street from the apartment you once lived in. “I suppose here’s as good a place as anywhere,” I answer you, and we go inside.

It’s nearly empty, except for two couples eating on the patio. You want to eat outside, but I convince you to eat indoors because I’m afraid of the black clouds above us and the rain that will fall upon us soon. You say hello to the waiter, Armando, who you remember from fifteen years ago when you lived in this area. He greets you warmly and directs us to a table by an open window where we can see the customers eating on the patio. “This table is great,” you say with a bit of sarcasm. “It’s almost the same as if we were sitting outdoors, but of course, we are not.”

The restaurant is stodgy and old-fashioned. You explain that the waiter has worked here since you were a child. He is friendly and aloof at the same time, a habit that I have noticed in many Romans, but my judgment is probably skewed in this regard. I studied Italian in college for two semesters, so I understand about forty percent of an Italian conversation. The other sixty percent is what makes a sentence complete, and where I lose the gist. It’s like listening to a comic and enjoying the build-up to a joke, but not understanding the punchline. That may be why I think Italians are aloof; I don’t get their punchline.

After we review the menus, you call the waiter, but he is busy watching calcio (soccer) on the wide-screen TV in the other room. Eventually, he comes over while there is a commercial break. He tells you that tonight we should have the risotto and sautéed spinach, and some squid for the second course. You agree and ask him to bring you some seltzer water as well. I want to ask for a very, very tall beer to drown out my boredom, but they call it a birra here, and the largest size they have is a media, which means medium. “Una birra spina media,” I say to Armando. You both laugh at my accent.

“You sound like the Pope when you speak Italian,” you say. Like me, the Pope was born in Argentina, so it makes sense that we should sound alike. The way you make fun of my accent reminds me of Mrs. Maligani, my high school French teacher in New Jersey, who once told me, “your accent sounds uncomfortably Spanish when you speak French.” I have news for you, I told her, all your other students in this class have thick, heavy, and uncomfortably American accents.

A woman is sitting on the restaurant patio in front of our window. She is alone at a table, tucked away in a corner. Her hair is colored honey-blonde, which you declare is too youthful for her aging and wrinkled face. She is smoking a cigarette and nursing a drink. She also has a pot of tea. For no particular reason, I assume she’s French.

“I don’t think she’s French,” you tell me, but in my story she will be French.

The waiter brings her a plate of grilled vegetables and a small plate of cheese and prosciutto. “We should have ordered that,” I say to you, but you ignore me because, as usual, you are reading work emails on your cell phone and responding to voice messages. You can type on your phone with one thumb as young people do, and I envy your agility.

When the waiter puts the plate on the French woman’s table, she responds “grazie mille,” and a few other words of Italian that I don’t follow; the punchline. The waiter laughs, and without lifting your eyes from your cell phone, you say to me in English, “She’s not French. She’s Italian.” I don’t care. I already told you that in my story she is French.

I hadn’t noticed her before, but now I see that another woman, round and plump with greying hair artificially colored bright red, is sitting at a table next to Frenchie. The two women are smoking and chatting, but the Redhead is doing most of the talking. The French woman interjects the conversation every few minutes to say “Si,” and “Capisco,” and “Non ci posso credere” (Yes, I understand, I can’t believe it). They both puff profusely after each sentence.

I can understand most of what Redhead is saying. She’s complaining bitterly about her trip to the beach.

“We spent the entire month of August at a house by the sea, in Sabaudia.”

“Lovely!” says the French woman.

“Except it wasn’t lovely,” says Redhead, and proceeds to tell what sounds like a tale of woe. She punctuates her sentences by slamming a fist on the table.

“Non ci posso credere!” says Frenchie (I can't believe it!).

“What can’t she believe?” I ask you, just at the same time as Armando brings our food. We have ordered too much to eat. I know my stomach will feel bloated tonight, as has been happening these last seven days and seven nights that we have spent in Rome, eating and consuming rich food, red wine, and Italian culture that has now seeped into my pours. I'm tired of this trip to Italy. I am ready to leave Rome and go back home, in the green pastures of Pennsylvania, where I can speak American English with my suburban neighbors and make myself perfectly understood. But you don’t feel this way. You love your frequent business trips to your native land; you enjoy being in the city where you were born; you relish walking in your old neighborhood, and resuscitating memories of what life was like when you were married to the ex (the one that still lives across the street from this restaurant). You see the Italy you love; all I see is a cell phone glued to your palm. I want to tell you this.

You thank Armando for bringing our dinner, and you dive right into the risotto and spinach. Intermittently, between bites, you explain that Redhead is complaining about her husband. He booked a house at the beach for a month, but he didn’t look into the furnishings. When she arrived at the beach house, Redhead realized it was not properly stocked, and they would need plates, silverware, electric fans, linens, and more.

“I’m going back to Rome to fetch these things,” she told her husband. “And if we don’t have it in our house, we will buy new here, regardless of the cost. Serves you right for renting a place for the month without checking.” Her fist pounds the table.

Non ci posso credere,” says Frenchie.

We have finished our risotto and spinach, and Armando has brought our second course of squid. I’m not hungry, so you eat alone while I look around the restaurant and nurse my birra media. Armando continues to watch the calcio game playing in the next room. It must be half-time or game-over (I'm not sure which), and the camera has now left the soccer field and is showing the players in the locker room. They are half-naked, walking around in their very wet towels. By American standards, they are showing too much skin and too much hirsuteness to be plastered on a wide screen. So different from our values. In many ways, the Italians seem more relaxed than the Americans. Men kiss and hug each other often and unabashedly in public. At the same time, Italians are more repressed than us, and I don’t dare walk the streets of Rome holding your hand.

You don’t see the screen and the excess display of skin because your back is against the TV. You are busy eating your squid with one hand while fiddling with your cell phone with the other. I’m still eavesdropping on the two women.

Ti dico che the girl we hired to take care of the kids was a disaster,” says Redhead to Frenchie.

Non ci posso credere,” replies Frenchie

“I had to let her go after two days. Per fortuna, I found a local woman to help out with the cleaning and cooking, so I had time to take care of the kids by myself. Dopotutto, once I furnished the house properly and hired help, I was happy at the beach house and I wanted Alessandro to extend the rental for another two weeks.”

Sì, naturalmente," says Frenchie, while shaking her head in disapproval and repeating the name “Alessandro” with a sound of disgust “Tsk, tsk, tsk.”

I’m guessing Alessandro is Redhead’s husband. Then Redhead says a few many things that I don’t quite follow, but they must be very interesting because Frenchie keeps responding, “Non ci posse credere,” as she takes very long drags of her cigarette.

I ask you to explain what Redhead is saying. You tell me that Alessandro, Redhead's husband, is the owner of this restaurant and that when Redhead asked to stay at the beach for two more weeks, he said “no” in no uncertain terms because he wanted her to come back to Rome and help run the restaurant.

“Did you know she was the owner’s wife?” I ask you.

You tell me that Redhead looked vaguely familiar and that you thought she was Alessandro’s wife when you first spotted her tonight, but it didn’t seem important to share this information with me. You continue to eat your squid and play with your cell phone and emails.

The Redhead is still telling tales of her husband, shaking her hands and gasping in horror and anger for dramatic emphasis. After a long list of complaints against Alessandro, she gets to a punchline that I think I understand.

“I can’t lie to you,” says Redhead to Frenchie. “In the end, I told Alessandro, ti amerò .

Then some other Italian words that sounded like: I will love you. Like a scream or an explosion of sound in my hollowness, in silence and in secret, risking and forgetting, though not perfect, I will love you; as if it were not allowed; as if no one knew why. I will love, because this is how I choose to define myself.

Then she slams her fist on the table.

The first time you and I planned to come to Italy was shortly after our wedding. We took the train from our home in the Pennsylvania mountains to New York City, where we would first spend two nights, and then fly to Rome. When we arrived at the hotel in New York, we drank a lot of champagne and looked at 5th Avenue from our hotel balcony. You kissed me and, for no reason, you asked me if I had my passport with me. I said “of course I do,” except that when I tried to find it in my luggage, I couldn’t find it. You laughed about it, and you didn’t make me feel ridiculous. The next morning, we went back to Pennsylvania, and we searched our house from top to bottom, but we couldn’t find the passport. You canceled the honeymoon, and we wasted a lot of money as a result. I thought you would want to leave me because of this incident, but you laughed at my insecurity and you said that, if anything, the canceled honeymoon would make a memorable story someday. “Don’t worry,” you assured me. “It will continue to be a habit, my love for you, regardless of what you do.”

The passport showed up three months later, inside the pocket of a carry-on bag that I had decided not to take with me to Europe at the very last minute.

Before, in the adolescence of our relationship, you were attentive to my insecurities; now you seem distanced. I wonder how and when the silent cellphone treatment began. As we eat dinner, I hear the tick-tack-ticking of your cellphone keypad as you furiously respond to your emails. I want to tell you that the sound of your typing reminds me of the final exam of my high school typing class. We used a typewriter that had no symbols on the keyboard, as we were supposed to know what letter each key represented by correctly placing our fingers on the keyboard. Foolishly, I had placed my hands in the wrong starting position, and at the end of the exam, when I looked at my typed paper I saw nothing but gibberish. I pleaded with Mrs. Maligani, who served both as our French teacher and our typing instructor. I explained my mistake and asked her to let me to take the exam again. She said no, and reminded me that in real life there are no do-overs.

I failed the typing class, but I went on to being a literature major in college and grad school, where I had to type hundreds of papers analyzing novels. I love literature and fiction, just as you do. Do you remember that we met in a book club, where we read George Eliot’s Middlemarch? Do you remember that back then, even though we barely knew each other, we exchanged ideas as if we were old companions? We talked for hours, discussing the nature of marriage, idealism, self-interest, religion, and hypocrisy, all as seen by Eliot in her Victorian study of provincial life. Our conversations seemed like air flying over air, like a wind and a gust, strong and gentle. Our bond formed slowly, without schedule or planning, just letting us be. In the end, we both hated Middlemarch, but we left the book club as lovers.

Ruffled Feathers

Ten years later, here we are in Rome where I seem to be an appendage to your business trip. We no longer seem to talk, rather, we mark the silence side by side. I never imagined I would be in this role. I am not Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, a vibrant woman unafraid of asserting herself; rather, I’m the ignored spouse in a made-for-TV movie. At least those TV characters always have immaculate clothing and freshly washed hair. I’ve been living out of a suitcase and a small hotel room for the last seven days and, frankly, I'm starting to smell. It stinks to be a tourist in a foreign land, where I don’t speak the language. I can’t help but remember that in Middlemarch, Dorothea and her husband experienced the first tensions in their marriage on a trip to Rome, when Dorothea found out through the lack of conversation that her husband had no interest in involving her in his life. Is this us, now?

“I warned you that this would be a business trip for me,” you say when I challenge your cellphone texting.

“Fine,” I answer you insincerely, and I think how much you remind me of Dorothea’s husband.

Armando, the waiter, takes away our plates, and on his recommendation, we order Amaro Lucano as an after-dinner drink. The amaro tastes sweet, slightly like root beer with a bit of earthy bitterness. I taste hints of citrus peel and caramel. Then it becomes less bitter, with allspice and herbal notes. Bitterness comes back on the finish in an herbal way. The flavors and tastes remind me of our own bitter-sweetness.

I ask you, “Tomaso, what’s your schedule tomorrow?”

You tell me that “it will be hell as usual,” with your many meetings, so I will be on my own most of the day.

“Thanks for informing me,” I say sarcastically, but you don’t hear me or you chose to ignore it.

You ask the waiter to bring you il conto, but he is not allowed to ring up the bill; the owner's wife has to do it. Redhead gets out of her patio chair and comes inside to tally up our total. For the first time, I realize she is wearing a cast on her foot.

After we pay and we leave the restaurant, I ask you if you know how the Redhead hurt her foot. “It was at the beach house,” you explain. You overheard her telling Frenchie that she tripped on a pile of books that someone carelessly placed on the staircase. She fell roughly down the steps and twisted her ankle like a soft noodle. The cast keeps it straight so that it can heel. After the injury, Redhead didn’t mind so much ending her vacation, returning to Rome and attending to the restaurant.

Non ci posso credere!” I say in badly accented Italian. “Poor Redhead, that beach vacation was hell, with a nanny that disappeared on week one, and a broken ankle on week four. Vacations suck.”

“Richie,” you say to me. “You missed the punchline. Redhead thought the Nanny was being provocatively chummy with the husband. Nanny was scantily clad most of the time, and Alessandro’s eyes were bulging all the time, so Redhead asked the Nanny to leave the house. The husband was furious, and they fought about it for weeks. Redhead is not sure who put the books on the staircase that caused her fall. She thinks it may have been Alessandro.”

As we walk from the restaurant to the hotel, I think of that time ten years ago, shortly after we had met in New York. I was fascinated by your Italian ways, your sophistication, and your fascination with everything new. On your suggestion, on Christmas eve, we visited the stores in midtown, to see the Christmas displays. I thought it was a corny and childish idea, but you convinced me it would be fun. You were right. The Bloomingdales Christmas windows were edgy and festive. The Cartier Building, with its façade wrapped in a giant bow, was elegant. Saks Fifth Avenue was magical, with its light show that left us with our mouths wide open. The Macy’s department store was decorated from top to bottom with decorations on every floor that made me scream, “yes Tomaso, you are right, there is a Christmas!"

I remember that as we were going up the Macy’s escalator, you reached out to hold my hand, and, for the first time in our relationship, you said to me, "Richie, I think I love you.” We held hands all night long.

As we turn to enter our hotel in Rome, around the block from the restaurant, the clouds finally open and poor. And though I think about your cellphone silence and the ex-spouse across the street, I also think of the wind upon the wind when we met, and I think that I will still love you as if it were not allowed, as if no one knew why, because thus I define myself. I grab you by the hand, gently, in a supplicating manner, and I say to you, “Tomaso, I need you to hear my punchline.”

Studying Our Relationship

Ernesto Beckford

October 7, 2022

(c) Ernesto Beckford 2022

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