Single diners always seem to eat a half hour earlier than everyone else. Maybe it’s our fear of being noticed by the crowd, I don’t know. But Osterio Pucci (no relation to the Florentine Puccis) is close to my B&B and the food is v. good. On this particular night, two singles arrive at the same time. (Me and a man.) We’re seated at adjacent tables. There is awkwardness, at first. Mostly his, I think.
He is Italian, mid thirties with tiny feet (all Italian men have tiny feet). He is wearing jeans and a football jacket. Everything about him== his slouching posture, his quiet voice, even the too tidy part in his short hair suggests timidity and a longing to be invisible. I imagine that he has either abandoned his mother for the evening or killed her. Or perhaps, she’s just out playing bridge. In any case, he skips the antipasto and the pasta and orders veal with a side of french potatoes. I have no desire to talk and I’m not really uncomfortable, either. But I sense that he’s ill at ease. So I smile. I order taglieni with olio and pepe followed by chicken with artichokes. It’s a listless, uninspired order but I’m not a local. The owner doesn’t come to my table as he does to others to create a menu that is entirely off menu. (And probably much, much fresher.)
I refuse to read when I’m alone in restaurants. Ditto for playing with cellphones. (Did she say, cellphone? Yes, she did.) It smacks of surrender. So I look around and focus on the music. For some reason, in every restaurant from Milan to Rimini and Rome, they’re playing a cover version of Barry White. His greatest hits. What the fuck? I mean, listening to a man I’m sure is thin, white, and Italian sing about sex like an extremely, large, dead American black man seems absurd. But hey, why not. I love Barry White.
As I wait for my pasta (and the man next to me wipes his fork, over and over again, with his napkin and I wonder if he did the same thing with the weapon he used to murder his mother) I also remember the last time I heard Barry White. It was at my husband’s 50th birthday. For years, he’d begged me to indulge him in his craving for karaoke. And finally as a surprise, I succumbed. I sang, or spoke throatily, the words to Can’t get enough of you, Babe. Can’t get enough of you, babe in front of his friends. Now here I am, miles away from that moment, tapping my foot and mouthing the words to myself.
The man next to me fidgets and I touch the ring on my finger. I’m reminded how thin it is. The thinnest gold ring Tiffany makes. Alas! Even the thinnest ring can feel heavy, at times. 32 years together is a triumph. And being rarely, if ever, apart, is almost inconceivable. But it can also exhaust the imagination. And love without imagination becomes hard work. I don’t want my husband to have to work any harder than he already does. I also believe that part of what keeps all relationships truly alive is a mutual interest, no, a passion, in one another’s stories. When that interest, that passion, in those stories fades, so does love. I needed a new story.
Cut to a last supper in Milan (not as in the painting)
Dinner with a friend of a very old friend. We’d met (long distance) earlier in the year when I translated a piece that he’d written about his house from Italian into English. (The house is a riot of vibrant color, of stripes, squares, and polka dots.) What I loved about the piece were his souvenirs, his memories of travel and moving, constantly moving from one city and country to another. I had no idea then that he had been crippled by polio as a child; that he was unable to walk without steel crutches or a wheelchair.
I know that I feel totally comfortable from the moment he invites me to take a seat across from him at the edge of his desk and we (or I) begin to talk. He listens, greedily, to every detail of my journey. He is emphatically curious, asking questions, pouring wine. I am seduced by his energy, by his interest. Time flies, as they say. The strawberries and pineapple are cleared and he pushes himself back from the table.
Come, I want to show you something, he says, wheeling off in a rush towards the back of the apartment. I wonder, as I struggle to keep up, who invented that phrase, confined to a wheelchair. Because nothing seems to have ever confined this man, least of all his wheelchair. And there on the charcoal grey walls of his bedroom is a mural, a modern fresco.
It’s the story of my life, he laughs. Go ahead, look.
And I do. It’s marvelous, almost hallucinatory in its exaggerated, loose limbed lines, lines that speed along across the space as if done in a single breath without stopping.
You see, it starts in the hospital when I was a boy, he says, pointing to a figure in bed, wearing a pair of huge, black framed glasses. Then I am at school, he says, moving closer to the wall. It is university and Germany. I was crazy about Germany.
I hear him mention Hong Kong, China, Rome. But it doesn’t seem to matter if I miss what he’s saying, the words, I mean. Because the sketches, the pictures, express all of the joy, the humor, the exuberance of this man; a man who may appear to be crippled, paralyzed, but who has never stopped moving. Of all the frescos I’ve seen all over Italy in churches and cathedrals and museums, this is the one that touches me most. Because this is the story of a man who has loved his life.
More to come.