By Tom Badyna New Orleans.
WE WERE VISITING one of my new gal’s better friends at her home in the hills above Asolo, a town an hour north of Venice, in the first rise of the Dolomites.
Mavis was a Brit, but Jewish, and had none of that reserve. She was an architect and lightning quick of wit, and quite happy, you could tell, for English speaking guests to get it. She had designed her home, supervised its construction, every detail, every one of which she was proud and expounded on as she gave us the tour. She knew the best of everything, a life all Dolce Gabanna and clean lines, every detail refined.
Her husband was Italian and doctor and a Communist, an Italian Communist, which was a special breed of Communists.
In Italy, everyone is Catholic and the churches are empty. You have to get that to understand Italians, a quarter of whom are Communists, and half of those drive Maseratis and some of those, one at least, go to London and meet a Jewish maven too quick of wit for him to get, and if her Italian wasn’t good, she was taking lessons like private pilates, or ballet, for rich wives taking lessons, lessons, lessons, and never dancing more than a few steps to show you they were taking lessons.
Gafredo’s English was maybe marginally better than her Italian, but he wasn’t taking lessons and didn’t like speaking English, not at home, and grew exasperated at her when he had to, though he was a kindly man, a pediatrician and you could see it. You could see too that he’d seen enough of the rotten luck that befell children and he wasn’t interested in hearing adults talk about their bad luck, since most of it was deserved.
Mavis was dark-haired, hawk-nosed, of middling short height and packed with a layer of sensuous blubber—my type, physically, physiognomically, but she knew the best of everything and lived it there in the hills above Asolo, and she and I bristled, we got too close, and when she went to bed, and Arielle went to bed, and it was Gafredo and I, we sat at his kitchen table and he brought down from atop the cupboards his homemade grappa of which he was very proud.
You’ll be told all self-respecting Italians make their own grappa and are of it proud, and maybe it is so, but I don’t know. With Gafredo, there was ceremony and ritual in the drinking from slender small shot glasses, but they were brief enough that repeating them again and again into the night, in a house in the hills dark but for a small pull-down light over the kitchen table, was okay.
I talked better Italian than ever I had, though it was lousy. Gafredo helped me along, but mostly I spoke English and he was too kindly to bristle at the amount of English being spoken in his house, over grappa, but I could sense it, and neither of us minded the silences that sometimes befell upon us. We had something simpatico, the same sea of melancholy on which floated all our joys, Catholic both, Communist, too, and neither believing in God nor that the workers owning the means of production would do anyone any good.
Four or five nights into our Asolo visit, Arielle and Mavis long in bed, the urge to do something for my gracious host was strong inside me and I told Gafredo that Arielle and I were going back down to Venice for a few last days before going home. Gafredo nodded understanding and smiled, a kindly pediatrician smile, and suggested a restaurant I might enjoy, a fellow Communist’s restaurant. He said to use his name, to tell them that Gafredo sent us.
The restaurant was west of San Marco Piazza, away from the tourists, in the maze of streets in the lee shadow of the Arsenale. Arielle was sure we were lost as the streets turned narrower and narrower. We were in a dark alley like a noir movie, hardly a light, heavy closed doors, shuttered windows. My arms, stretched out all the way, could fingertip span the whole of the alley’s width. We were lost, Arielle was sure, but around a bow in the way, there was the yellow door with a light above it, and when we knocked and it was opened, the door was a portal, Alice in Wonderland, Stargate. We were brought into a bright, low-ceilinged room with dozens of tables crowded with more people, it seemed, than there were seats. We were squeezed inside the door with a standing crowd waiting for tables. An unctuous man, oily and obsequious like the undertaker in The Godfather but more roly-poly, the proprietor and maître d’, had a clip board and pen and asked for our names.
“Gafredo detto di dirti che ci ha inviato,” I said and had to say three times to make myself understood through a thick American accent, bad grammar and the cacophony of two hundred Italians in one bright and low-ceilinged room.
It is a sign of a life well lived—or its exact opposite—that the mention of your name lights up the face of a roly-poly, unctuous man and gets strangers from a foreign land ushered through a home crowd to a table in the back and wine poured and the waiter, bringing menus, is told, “Nessun menu! Questi sono gli amici di Gafredo!”
Plate after plate of all the fish in the lagoon were brought to our table by the proprietor himself cheerful beyond all measure I could make. Wine was poured for us, this wine, that wine, another wine, while the beaming man waited upon our reactions. “Molto buono? Splendido? Eccellente? Meraviglioso? Molto bella? Bellisimo?”
It was a feast I’ve never had, not before, not since. It went on for hours, and the proprietor would not bring the check, nor take un centesimo. He pushed us out the yellow door and into the dark, deserted alley, and Arielle and I made our way towards Piazza San Marco without caring that we might be lost. We were happy in a special way, whatever it was, and in love, too, and walked hip to hip, our arms around each others’ waists. We wobbled wonderfully together, our splaying, playing strides matching one the other’s, and we entered the empty piazza from behind the church, la chiesa, la basilica. Arielle noted the mottle of puddles and said it must have rained. I said it hadn’t, that it was high tide, that Venice was sinking, the seas rising up through the stones and brick. That cast an air of melancholy over our mood, but did not change that we were very happy at this moment and in love. Arielle was a tallish woman, long-legged with curves, genuine womanly curves. She had a wet-dream figure and perfect posture most all the moments of her life. She had an elegance about her and never so splendidamente, meravigliosamente, bellisimamente as when wobbling with wine across an empty piazza, our way lit by silver-lit puddles beneath a moon full of whatever moons get full of. She was as hearing music and making a dance of our way, or march, a procession anyway, she and I drunkenly in sync towards what was music.
At the piazza’s far end, in black shadows, there were a dozen Italian friends enjoying the night and wine and each other and making music, glissando song and soft guitar. Arielle was dressed. She dressed with style and sometimes perfection and this night was perfettamente and had had me go to Barney’s before we’d left for Italy and spend two grand, so I was dressed, too. It matters to Italians. They have a phrase for it, bella figura. You go out like on to a stage. For them it’s manners and respect and their country and through one of its more famous piazzas Arielle and I were well-dressed and wobbling hip to hip such that the Italian friends stopped to watch and then applaud. Arielle was tall and long-legged and, though Jewish, blonde, and Italians are about blondes the same as some Jewish men for whom Arielle was a double fantasy, Jewish in her blood, a shiksa in her looks.
We stopped to chat with the group, eight men, two women, who had applauded us, though we couldn’t chat in Italian, nor they in English, not much more than to tell us in Italian—they knew no English at all, not that they would admit to—that the sight of us across the piazza was beauty itself and when one sees it, one applauds. One does so in Italy.
One does so in Italy.
We went on to our hotel on the Grand Canal, the Monaco, where we had a third-floor room with twelve-foot windows draped in sheers and through which moved the September air. We made love.
When you dance, the woman’s hand on the man’s shoulder pushes against him, as his on her back pulls her close. It’s that tension that allows the man to lead her through steps naturally, unregimented, some improvised, with grace and flair.
We made love like that, like a waltz and tango and long crescendo across the piazza of us, and if Italians had been watching, they’d have, no doubt about it, applauded.
And afterwards, Arielle slept, and I didn’t. She slept like a dream. She might have been Yale and Oxford and egghead fellowships, trust funds, noblesse oblige, beautiful and deft with the strings of life, but not when asleep. Asleep she spoke six languages foreign to herself. Asleep she was the loveliest of all the actresses in the world, but did not know the play, what was next, how it ended. That was up to me, when she slept. She slept in the comfort of her trust in me with fear of the same at the periphery of her dreams. I rose from our bed and went to the windows and stood outside the sheers blowing and looked across the Grand Canal upon the lights of San Giorgio Maggiore, its famous church and tower and theater, all their lights on the long gentle ripples of the water a predawn purple, and the beauty of the scene I was witnessing, whatever you think of man, overwhelmed me.
Tears do not often come to my eyes, I’m telling you, but they did that night. They came two streams that flowed braiding rivulets down my cheeks. What the fuck was a mope of bricklayer from Toledo, Ohio doing in a room like this, with a woman like her, witnessing beauty I had never imagined real?
Most every day of my life I wake up like the John Fogerty song “Centerfield.”
I wake up and something inside is singing:
beat the drum and hold the phone,
the sun came out today.
We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field,
just a-roundin’ third, headed for home,
it’s a brown-eyed handsome man.
Anyone can understand the way I feel.
Oh, put me in, Coach,
I’m ready to play,
Put me in, Coach,
I’m ready to play,
look at me,
I can be,
I woke up before Arielle and figured I had a good hour at least, maybe two, and hurried down the marble stairs and got a to-go of their Monaco café supremo and a bag of their pastries and caught a traghetto, one of the quick gondola ferries across the Grand Canal. I found my way again to a section of one of the small canals that had been dammed off and drained and down in which men were working.
I had stumbled across the site a day or two before, on one of my wanders, but Arielle had had no interest in watching men work, and we didn’t stay but for me to show her how Venice was built, stone on wood pilings, something against what everything a mason learns.
I had my coffee and studied on what the men were doing and tried to make eye contact and maybe they’d let me climb down the wide wooden ladder they had nailed together out of one-by planking. But they never, none of them, looked my way. I wanted to be in the muck, with tools in my hand. I’d had daydreaming fantasies about this, since discovering them the day or two before, that they’d let me down and I would show them something, or they would show me something. It wouldn’t matter which, so long as something useful happened. I’d fantasized about sitting with them on their break and making them laugh in Italian best I could. I’d brought the pastries for them, but they never looked my way, not until, about an hour in, they took their break, sat on overturned buckets in the mud and muck. One of them looked my way, and my thing was to hold up the bag of pastries like an offering question, bait, but the bag, both sides, had on ii, in big gold letters, Hotel Monaco, and I was in Valentino duds, and it wouldn’t have been right. It would have been, to them, condescending. I knew that, no matter how tasty the goodies, and stood and left the bag on the bench, for the pigeons or whomever, and pointed at their work and applauded.
* * *
Tom Badyna is an American Novelist who ‘started out’ in Toledo Ohio. Badyna has tirelessly crossed America, turning his hand to whatever task befall him, while pursuing the craft of fiction, and living a life that brought him within a hairs breath of his subject, a life that did his subject justice. Currently he lives in New Orleans, where he works laying bricks, his first novel is ‘Flick’.