The Widow of Neoneli
For T. & I.
None of this was my idea.
After I got my DUI and it was all over the Internet, my ex-wife told me I had to get out of Los Angeles. It didn’t come at me in a judgmental way, more in a: It’s not healthy for you to be here right now sort of way. She’s the guardian of that. My health. She’s self-appointed, and I let her. Still. Somebody has to.
You don’t need to know this, but you might as well. Me and Anne, we were friends for five years before we fell into a relationship, and friends after we fell out. She’s still my lawyer, still does all my contracts, so my business literally is her business. And the thing that’s the worst about her is that she’s never wrong—not that she can’t be, just that she isn’t.
I mean, she knew things were adding up for me even before I did. She knew that better than anybody. Knew I couldn’t keep going like I was.
I had one more cookbook on a two-book deal that I hadn’t written and was due eleven months ago. She’d negotiated that I pay back some of the advance just to keep the deal alive, so I did, but I didn’t have ideas. I mean, I had ideas, but nothing to tie them around. No unifying concept. I didn’t have time to think of one either. I had to keep the empire ticking.
See, I was driving to five different restaurant sites across L.A. County on a daily basis. Over 200 miles a day. Starting in the morning at 5:30 in Culver City and ending past midnight Downtown. I’d done that for two and a half years. Ever since… well.
Ever since the worst thing that ever happened to me and Anne, will ever happen to me and Anne. She calls it the thing I almost killed myself over, like I still won’t. If we’re both honest, I don’t think either of us knows for sure.
After, Anne went to live with her parents in the South Bay. She quit her corporate law job and took a year off. She did therapy. She spent a few months in a temple in Thailand as a nun. She shaved her head before she went. Donated it to Locks of Love. She tried to let what happened go, found out she couldn’t, and instead is just spending the rest of her life trying to accept it.
Me, I spend the rest of my life with a hole inside me like I’m missing a lung and can’t breathe enough, but still I’m working my ass off. The only way I knew how to deal with it was with eighteen and nineteen-hour days, and I’d come back to a new apartment she found for me, so tired I couldn’t even think. Or feel. If I had a secret for coping, it was doing. Always doing. Never stopping.
When you get big enough as a chef to have investors purchasing properties and doing build-outs for you, you do less cooking and way more supervising, training, and riding new employees till they get the drill right. Since she’s been back, Anne’s seen it. When I’m really on one, she says I’m like the drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket, and that’s how it should be when you got a bunch of people around heat and knives, but it takes it out of you yelling at people to stay safe, much less cook your recipes right.
It can leave you empty if you’re not putting stuff back in, she said. I told her I didn’t want to hear about Thailand again, and I was already empty, so it was cool. I told her I watched movies late at night. I blazed bowls before bed. I was getting by.
We had a fight after that. Not a big one. Not like we used to. We fight fair now. We fight quiet. And slow. And we listen. That’s one thing we’ve learned after. We’re still both sad, and that’s permanent. And the only question that matters from the fight that night was from her: what had I eaten that inspired me lately?
When I didn’t have an answer, she said I needed to find one.
She wasn’t wrong.
So, this was how Neoneli found me: a writer friend had been there. Had done a cultural stay, he said, last year. He talked about this town of 700 people, the 120 vineyards, cellars called cantinas where seemingly every man in the village makes his own wine and it sounded like a good place to disappear for a while. To reset. Maybe.
Over tacos, he put his finger on a paper map and showed me where it was: almost in the direct middle of the island, north of Cagliari. It was in the highlands, about 500 meters up. I had to ask what that was in feet.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Eighteen hundred?”
And five days later, I was in Milan with the writer’s friend, Persivale. The journalist. We were in an old-school Milanese trattoria, the type the city tried to eliminate for being backward twenty years ago, but now everyone’s in love with them again because they’re endangered, and he said to me, “If it’s not rude of me to ask, what is it you hope to gain there?”
When that question came, I wasn’t really focusing on him. I had my fork above my dessert. I was two bites into a halved pear in red wine sauce that looked like a pool of fake blood. Vanilla gelato on top. Cinnamon. It was a lot, but none of it was too much. The wine wasn’t too heavy. There was a shade of weight to it, a little smoky. Maybe it was a cabernet. I didn’t know, but the whole thing worked. And I thought right then, I have to text Anne to tell her I’m eating something inspiring now.
I was jetlagged. I was heavy-headed. But I was staring at it, and I could still feel it sparking something in me.
Persivale must’ve felt the need to keep going, so he said, “Eight thousand years of Mediterranean culture, you know? Sardinia is a country within a country. In some ways, it is still medieval, certainly not like it is in L.A.”
The way he said that last part stuck to me, and I meant to ask him what it meant.
Instead, I ate. I went to sleep.
I got up and got on a plane and now I’m here.
On the island.
And I’m smelling sea salt on the air, and diesel too. When the flight attendant opens the door and it unlocks with a sucking sound, light pours in. A kind more yellow here than home. At least it seems like it.
And I get up and walk down some stairs from an airplane, onto asphalt, like it’s 1959.
I say in an old woman voice that she likes, “Giuanna, is that you?”
She laughs again, harder this time, and squirms away from my grasp. Now it is a game, you see. My daughter is five and still she sleeps with me, not because we must, but because we both want to. We need each other.
She is behind me now. I hear her little steps getting closer on the carpet. I reach out ahead of me.
I say, “Giuanna, I must have a hug from you! It is the only thing that will wake me.”
She does not cover her laugh well, but it does not matter. She jumps onto me, arms around my neck.
I say, “You are reviving me! You are reviving me with your love!”
She likes hearing this. She still believes love is magic, and that it can heal.
Her grandfather feeds Giuanna bread and ricotta and honey for breakfast. She does not want an apple from the fruit bowl. She does not want juice.
She says, “I do not like fruits today. We are not friends.”
And my father and I, we nod as if it is perfectly smart not to be friends with fruit. She looks at us, at me picking at my bread but not eating it, at her grandfather doing the dishes, and uncrosses her arms. A plate clinks on the side of the sink.
Giuanna says, “Maybe I will have three grapes, but only three.”
We nod again as she takes just three from the bowl on the table.
She holds them above her head, as if examining their skins in the light, and then she says to each one, “I am sorry, grape,” before eating it.
* * *
I drop her off at the school gate where the teacher is there to greet them. There is an early-morning voice message on my phone from the comune. Since I am not a secretary for the comune, I ignore it and decide I will listen later in the morning.
I am more like freelance for them. I translate to English. I handle shipping logistics when it is necessary. I have done so since I moved home from Roma last year to manage the Post Italiane, which is just across the street from the comune.
In fact, I have only just unlocked the front door of the post office when one of the Mayor’s aides calls my name and scurries to tell me a guest is coming, a chef from Los Angeles, and that I must translate for him because he does not speak any Italian, maybe not even hello.
This I do not like. It is not good to travel when you know nothing. You must at least know a little something—certainly hello, and please, and thank you, and perhaps, where is the bathroom? No? I think so.
Not having any Italian is very bad. It is lazy. You must at least try.
The Mayor’s aide, her name is Maria, says to me, “Oh, you did not know he was coming? Today, he will be here.”
Maria has a pained look on her face when she speaks to me. She once was good friends with my sister; they were the same year in school. She also dated my cousin briefly and unhappily, so I have seen her pained looks before, but this one is new in the past year. It is a look that suggests she thinks it is important to pity me. I hate this look. It makes my stomach uneasy. Perhaps she thinks she is hiding it. She is not.
I say, “Do you pity me, Maria?”
She makes a noise like I pinched her. She says, “No! I would never. Why would I—?”
She does not finish her sentence. Instead, she looks at her feet.
Signore Sau is down the street, going to the gas station with a red plastic can to get petrol for his tractor. Though he is far away, he sees us, and we see him, so we say ciao to him, and he says ciao back, and waves. It is how it is done in our village.
I say to Maria, “How long will he stay?”
She looks up again. She blinks at me before saying, “I do not know.”
It is never good when people do not know how long they will stay. It means something is wrong with them, that they are running from something, or that they do not have a clear purpose. All are bad.
Maria presses me for an answer of whether or not I will help.
I tell her, “I do not know yet. You have not given me warning. It is not as if I can take off work today, you know.”
Maria nods an unhappy nod. She must tell the Mayor this, and then he will call me, and ask if I will join him for coffee, and then I will say yes, and he will convince me it is good for the village to make a good impression. Also, he will call my father and ask if I can do it. My father will of course say yes. The Mayor can be very persuasive.
* * *
When Maria leaves, the first thing I do—of course I do it, anyone would do it—I Google the chef on my phone. There are many results, more than I expected.
I am surprised that he seems so famous and wants to come here. He has a cookbook, and many restaurants. One of them is like Italian food, but not. It serves avocado on focaccia. It has Japanese fish on its menu. He cooks fancy meals for Hollywood people. He got caught driving drunk because he crashed his car into a pole. This, I do not like.
I click to the images. He is taller than most people he stands next to. He has tattoos on his arms. He pulls his hair back in a ponytail like Italian soccer players do. It is black hair, thick, but it is annoying. From what I see in the pictures, I think he is a boy not wanting to be a man. I also think that maybe he is showing off, or trying to distract from something wrong with him. Boys do this.
In some of these pictures, it looks like he is trying very hard to smile. I do not like that either. It is a dishonest trait. Already I know I will dislike him, and yet, I am asked to be his voice here.
I think perhaps I can be sick when he arrives, or maybe I can take Giuanna out of school and we go to the beach for a few days. I think anything is better than being here with someone wearing a ponytail and no idea of how long he will stay. You cannot trust people like that to know what they need or when they need it. They float. They waste your time.
It is better to avoid them altogether. This is what I have decided.
“Sorry,” he says, and punctuates it with a shrug.
He knows that word.
His name’s Antonio. He’s got a scar through one eyebrow. The left. He looks early thirties in a black leather jacket that’s cracking at the cuffs, but could just as easily be mid-twenties with a couple hard years on him.
He says, “Caffe?”
He mimes holding an espresso, pinkie in the air, just to make sure I get that he’s asking if I want coffee. It’s my turn to wave it away, just like he did.
His shoulders go up and down again, and I get that he’s someone’s son or nephew or grandson, that he didn’t want to do this chore, but he has to, because someone made him, so here he is. It’s hard not to like that.
“Okay,” he says, and he leads me out into the yellow light of the parking lot, we get in his white Volkswagen Golf, and we drive.
Antonio drives very fast. The guy is allergic to turn signals as he speeds past everything else on the road. It’s whipping by, but even I can see how green the land is, how good the agriculture must be. Plenty of water. Plenty of sun.
We leave the highway and Antonio doesn’t go much slower uphill, on skinny roads. I get used to holding onto the handle above my door and digging my feet into the floor like I have a brake to push. It doesn’t help.
We pass a lake surrounded by high hills. It’s got boats on it. We shoot through villages like I’m keeping Antonio from doing something else he’d much rather be doing, and I’m wondering exactly what that might be when we pull off the road by a white sign that says NEONELI on it in black capital letters.
Underneath it is another sign, a red one, that makes it clear this is a CITTÀ DEL VINO. A City of Wine.
Antonio gets out and has his phone in his hand as he walks over to the sign. It’s obvious he means for me to stand in front of it for some sort of arrival picture.
I walk over. It’s colder than I thought it’d be here. Sixty degrees in the sun. Not like L.A. at all. When Antonio takes the picture, I’ve got my arms crossed, a half-smile on my face and a headache behind it.
The air smells tannic here, dry—like just a hint of earth is in the sky. It’s minerally. It’s the smell of early autumn in Los Angeles, when the fires are in the foothills. I turn and look under the sign to the town, a close collection of tall old houses rising up to a church bell tower that would fit just fine in most Cezanne landscapes, and see some chimneys have smoke coming from them and the smell makes sense.
“Bar,” Antonio says it like there’s no getting out of going there. Like, he’s driving me there, so that’s that.
All I want to do is put my bags down, get settled, maybe shut my eyes for a couple more hours, but I say, “Okay.”
The bar is less than a minute away. We park by an overlook and step up onto a stone landing to see the view. Beneath us is a field getting plowed by a tractor, a road stretching through the green and off to my right like a black stripe some kid couldn’t wait to paint. Beyond that, there are trees. Beyond the trees, more green hills. Beyond them, a cloud bank. It’s definitely something.
“Bruta,” Antonio says as he turns to head for the bar, “molto bruta.”
As soon as we walk in the bar, Antonio abandons me to get a drink, and I have to shake hands with a dozen people, and immediately forget their names. Their hands, I remember those. Workers’ hands. Tradesmen. Farmers. Strong. Honed by doing the same things every day. Just like in any good kitchen. I respect it. I look everybody in the eyes. I try to show them with a look that I’m happy to be here. I don’t know if it works.
When there are no more hands left to shake, I’m left standing too close to the television, slightly dizzy, as a mother polar bear nuzzles two cubs. I take a step back.
“You’re blocking the screen.” The words come in English. The voice is female. And annoyed. “You should move.”
“Sorry,” I say, stepping to my left and turning out of the way. “Sorry.”
She does not respond.
She’s sitting at a nearby table. Shoulder-length, black hair. Green eyes, with a strong chin she keeps up between her and the world to let it know she’s judging it. She has the sort of beauty I feel right in my gut—the scary, I don’t know what to say, but I have to say something to her, kind.
I say, “Are you from here? Where did you learn English?”
She blinks at me, then picks up her coffee. A lungo.
One of the old-timers I shook hands with earlier notices her sitting there and taps her shoulder so she’ll translate. He wants to say something to me so I understand. He’s insistent.
She’s not interested. She’s watching the polar bears. And he lets her wave him away.
I think I heard her name from him as he begged her, though. So, I use it. “Annetta? Is that your name? My name’s Drew.”
I put my hand out. When she doesn’t take it, I put it in my pocket.
Her eyes remain on the screen.
“No,” she says, and her voice is just as firm as when she told me to move, “to you I am Anna. To my father, to people who know me my whole life, I am Annica. You cannot call me this name.”
“Well, my ex-wife is named Anne, so Annica is better for me.” I say it like a joke.
She hits me with a look like I’m trying to steal her purse. “You will not use this name.”
I feel that look in my toes and have to flex them to get it out. Her eyes aren’t just green. They’re also ringed with brown, up and down the iris lines.
“Got it,” I say.
She tilts her head. Like, That’s right, you do got it, and then looks away.
I excuse myself and move to the bar. I let her finish her coffee and watch in peace. I wait until she pays before following her outside, casually, not in a weird way, but with a question.
I say, “What does ‘bruta’ mean?”
“Ugly. Where do you learn this?”
I scratch my head. “Antonio said it about the view.”
I nod toward the overlook. I say, “So, that view is ugly?”
“Yes.” She nods, like, of course it is.
“Because we cannot see ocean today.”
I’m getting a vibe that things are only ever black and white in her world, so I say, “You mean no one will think it’s a good view that day if they can’t see the sea?”
She nods at me, one quick nod, like it’s a fact.
I keep going, “So, if there are any clouds, or mists, or if even there’s a grayness hanging over any of that view, then no? It’s ugly. Bruta. Molto bruta.”
She smiles at me like I’m a child and she’s done explaining things. She makes a move to walk away from me, down the sidewalk to our right.
“So, what you’re trying to tell me is, that in Neoneli, nothing is good without the full perspective—not even beautiful things,” I say it to her back.
I figure she won’t respond, like, she won’t even bother, but she surprises me. She turns and walks back. When she’s two feet away, she squares up, like a dancer.
“Why are you here?” Her lips put the best kind of spin on the ‘h’ in here.
At first, I don’t have words. I’m still tripping out on those lips, but right after she sniffs and smiles a half smile like she’s pretty sure I don’t even know why I’m here, I say, “Because someone recommended it to me.”
“The Los Angeles writer.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“How do you know him?” She’s pointing her chin at me again. Suspicious.
But I’ve already seen that move, so instead of answering with a story about how we met when he was judging a food competition, I send back a question of my own. “Do you ever stop asking questions?”
The chin quivers. First time I’ve seen that.
“I do not,” she says, and she tilts her head back and stares at me, like she’s daring me to have a problem with that, and when she sees I don’t, she turns and goes.
I do not want to pick at the skin surrounding my fingernails outside Giuanna’s school in the afternoon as I wait to collect her, but I do. It is a terrible habit. My mother said so when she was living. It does not make me feel better to pick. Still I do it. I cannot help it. The very large feeling in my stomach is that I walked into a trap without even meaning to do so.
I take my morning coffee where I always take my morning coffee and he is already here! He is standing there, and he is too tall. He has a stupid look on his face. He understands nothing of the conversations about him. He must have taken the early flight from Milano or Roma, and I walk into this. I should have done differently. I should not have had coffee.
The bell rings for the school. Giuanna will be standing up, putting her things away too quickly like she does, and running for her coat. As I imagine her doing this, I know she will flop her hair around because it is her new thing to say her hair is capellini pasta from the angels, and it is important for her to take it for a walk and bounce it up and down. This makes me feel some calm, but always there are anxious feelings underneath until I see her again. Always there is a need to hold her and smell her. This never leaves me.
The skin surrounding my thumbnail is the worst. It is very dry, so it peels. It takes my anger for needing coffee, and for meeting the chef when I did not want to meet the chef. With each piece, I feel shame but do not stop.
I think, this is not surprising that he has an ex-wife! When I heard this, I know everything inside me was right about him. He cannot commit himself to marriage, to ‘until death do us part’ because there is something wrong with him, and because there is something wrong with Los Angeles. It is not traditional. Perhaps there is too much sin. Perhaps this is why he crashes his car.
My father does not often come to help me pick up Giuanna, but today he decides to do so, and I know when I see him walking in the street that it is not about his granddaughter at all that he is coming, it is about me. When he arrives, he stands beside me and not in front of me. He wipes the dirt from his hands on his pants. He looks at my hands and how I put them quickly in my pockets and he knows I have been picking at my nails. Fathers know these things.
There are many things my father wants to say, I think. There is a conversation in his eyes. Already I can tell that the Mayor has spoken to him. Perhaps my father will mention to me that it is important that this chef know about us, because we are a small village. We are a village of old people, where the young grow up and go away to find jobs, like how I went to Roma. If we can impress him, he will speak well of us, and people will want to come. This will be good for Neoneli. It will be good for Sardegna.
However, my father does not say these things. Instead, he says, “So, Signora Allora, what do you think? Will you go to the cantina tonight with me and help him understand?”
Signora Allora, it is a new nickname for me that my father has. It is very much not preferable to Annica. It is because I answer the phone this way. Allora? Many people also do this, but he says with me it is different. He says, with me, it means, And now? Or what now? Or, and what have you done now? He says I am the Now Woman. Perhaps he is right.
It is not a mean nickname. Perhaps it is just a true one.
He also knows that now is all we have, because anything can happen. Anything can break at any moment. Any phone call or tap on the shoulder can bring terrible news with it, and your life can stop. Afterward, you have to live a new life, one you do not want, but you have to, because there is no other way.
We’ve settled into a lull of not saying anything, which is good, actually. He’s looking at the stars. I’m looking at the streetlamp, the yellow orb of it lighting the houses made of rock. The air here is even drier than before. Since it’s nighttime, and it’s cold, nearly everyone’s burning wood. I hear a car far off, not sure which direction. When it fades, it’s just the wind for a while, but then voices start making their way up the street toward us.
It’s four men. One of them is Antonio, and one is his dad. It’s obvious. They have the same jawline. The other two I recognize from the bar earlier, but need to hear their names again, which they oblige with, and I forget instantly. Damn jetlag.
When the garage door opens and Antonio pops a light on in the cavernous darkness, I see something that’s half for storage and half for a cantina. Past a small car is a barrel room with three oak bastards in it lined up little, big, little, and to the right of that room is something like a tiny restaurant where you wouldn’t really expect it. There’s a table covered with a red and white checkered tablecloth. Pots on the walls. Cheeses hanging by hooks from a pipe near the ceiling. It looks like something out of the Prohibition era, an everyday domestic space refashioned for fermenting and drinking.
The first glass I get handed contains a red. I ask what grape in Spanish. I get told it’s a grenache as I’m already taking it down the hatch. It goes down easy, but it’s young. Not round yet. A touch sour. It’ll age. It has some cherry. It’s more fruity than dry but it’s got promise.
Next, we do a white. It’s a vermentino and a good one. After another glass I find out the wine is just an aperitif. There’s food to be had in the house across the street, and the place must be a few hundred years old. Stone everywhere. The floor. The walls. Everywhere but the ceiling.
This is good because I’m fuzzy from the drink and the time change. I don’t have my bearings, and I’m definitely hungry.
Antonio’s mother sets out plates on one of the most beautiful wooden tables I’ve ever seen. It looks like the thing was cut whole from a giant tree trunk. I use Google Translate to ask, and I find it was indeed cut from a giant tree trunk.
I learn that in Sardo, cheese is not formaggio. It is casu. Sausage is sardi. Lonza is loin. Carcofi is artichoke but possibly in Italian. The sardi is remarkable. It’s strong, sure. Maybe a little too strong, but it’s got weight to it. A cleanness. It’s not too oily. The bits of fat in the glimmering red meat are pure white. The artichoke is exceptional. Leftovers from the harvest, from a recent festival, I’m told. Lightly marinated. Only olive oil. Only salt. It’s served harder than most marinated artichoke is in the States, and I can’t get enough of it.
A brief, horrible misunderstanding is had over bread. Cogones, it turns out, is bread in Sardo. I thought my masculinity was being questioned. Instead I was being offered bread, the flat bread that’s king here. The laughter around the table is good after that. It’s real. Even Antonio’s. And I take the thin, brittle bread and stack it with lonza. I eat it after casu to take the oil away. I’ve had five pieces of it by the time she shows up with her father.
He’s a big man. Big wrists. A balding, sunburned head to go with a big, tough smile. He tells me it’s nice to meet me in English, and then Anna says, “That is all he really knows in English. He is happy to use it on you.”
They take chairs. Her father sits loosely at the table, like the other men. Anna sits off to the side with Antonio’s mother, near the fireplace. She sits straight-backed, almost rigid, and accepts a glass of red wine. It’s obvious she doesn’t want to be here. That maybe her father made her come.
She says, “The Mayor wants to know, why are you here?”
“To learn,” I say, “to appreciate what you do so well here.”
She takes a sip of wine and they all stare, waiting. I sniff.
When she sets her glass down and finally translates what I said, they all nod, but it’s not good enough for her.
She presses. “Okay, to learn, but for what purpose? What will you do with this learning?”
I drink some more vermentino that I brought into the house with me to buy myself a moment. It’s warm in here with the fire, and my brain isn’t moving like it should.
“I don’t know,” I say, and I really don’t. “I don’t think there is an authentic Sardinian restaurant in L.A. I’d love to learn some old Sardinian recipes and see what I can do with it.”
“Okay. I understand. You come and take, and you make money, and we get nothing.”
Her father is giving her a look. He might not know what she’s saying, but he knows her tone, and he’s wanting her to soften it.
Someone says something in Italian. Wants her to translate.
She doesn’t. She takes it further. “It is foolish to learn our recipes. They will be terrible without our produce. Our local goods. Perhaps you thought of this.”
This is going bad, quick. I try one last time to steer it back. “I guess I am here, because—I don’t know. I want—”
“You ‘guess’? You ‘don’t know’?” She’s interrupting me, throwing my words back at me as soon as they’re out of my mouth. “Do you do much thinking before you speak, or your whole life do you simply guess? This is a sad way to live.”
“It is,” I say, finding myself agreeing with her.
Agreement. It’s something I do with my ex sometimes just to get her to stop.
But Anna’s eyes are shining at me, reflecting the flames in the fireplace. She crosses her arms at me. And when she does, I know I’m probably not getting out of this without saying something so honest it hurts.
Antonio’s mother stares at the floor. Her husband has his knife out. It’s hanging there above what’s left of the sardi while he looks from me to Anna. The Mayor is looking at me. Mr. Sau is looking at me. Antonio, with a piece of casu in his mouth that he’s not chewing, is looking at me.
“One of the best meals I’ve ever had,” I say, “was in Kyoto. I was jetlagged then, too. It was a rainy night, and I got taken deep into the countryside.”
Everyone looks to her to translate.
She will not, so they turn back to me. I feel the combined weight of their stares.
This whole scenario is crazy. Trying to talk to her—and through her, to an audience—is like playing tennis against someone who is both umpire and opposition at the same fucking time. She controls the court, and the rules, and she’s still trying to beat me.
Worst part is, I have no choice but to play, even though losing is almost guaranteed.
“I’m here,” I say it right to her judging eyes, “because something bad happened, and I guess I didn’t deal with it too well.”
She flinches, then opens her mouth.
But I beat her to the punch. “Actually, I don’t guess. I know I didn’t deal with it at all.”
She closes her mouth. Raises an eyebrow. Her left.
“I closed up shop and put my head down,” I tell her, “but that didn’t help. It found me. The pain. The sadness. Everything ambushed me when I wasn’t looking.”
I watch her lean back after I say that, like she’s feeling it, and that just gives me momentum. “Since you seem to want to know so badly, I’ve been empty for a long time from trying to deal with that. And trying something new, getting out of my zone, is a good first step for me. I feel that. Even here. I needed to get out of my box, out of my city, to really look at my behaviors, and see how I can, like, move forward now. And learning new things, and challenging myself, that’s really the only way I know how. The only way I’ve ever known.”
I got tears coming to my eyes, but I fight them down. I let a breath out that I didn’t even know I was holding, before saying, “If, you know, that’s all okay with you, Anna. If I pass your little test.”
Just saying that, finding the energy to get it out, I feel exhausted. I feel just—done.
But it worked.
Because the fire’s crackling on beside her as she’s blinking those eyes at me, but they’re different now, not so much loaded up with anger, and it’s like she’s trying to figure out how I turned into this entirely new creature, an actual human being with feelings and problems, right in front of her face. And everybody else has shifted in their chairs and they’re leaning forward and staring at her, anxious for her to tell them what I just said.
I make a small angry noise as I smooth my jacket and turn.
My father is not looking at me, but he knows.
He says, “Do not worry. You will have many opportunities to slap him later.”
He sees I am preoccupied with something, so he lets me be. He walks. I follow.
I did not want to translate what the chef said, because it felt like perhaps he was saying it only to me, and I should not share, because to share it would not be fair to him. This is why I shared a piece of it only. I said that things were very stale for him in Los Angeles and he was having trouble dealing with that, so he decided he needed something new. A ‘change of scenery’ is the English term. I said he admires Italy very much and had wanted to come for some time. This was a lie, because he did not say this. Perhaps it is still true.
Ethically, I think, this was a wrong decision, not to do my best to say everything as he said it, but no oath binds me. I work for no one. I do this for free, of my own good will, and I can say what I see fit. Is it so bad to keep the rest for myself, to decide later how I feel about it? The answer is yes, it is so bad. It is selfish, but it is what I have done.
My father, however, knows I left something out of my Italian version. He knows it was the beginning. He stops to strikes a match and light his pipe. This is his way of giving me some time to tell him.
I say, “He said some bad things happened to him.”
My father nods. He understands bad things more than most men.
I say, “It was vague.”
My father does not ask what I think it is. He just walks, and I follow, down the hill, past the comune. There are no cars about tonight. My aunt is at the door when we get there, ready to go home. My father thanks her for looking after Giuanna and goes in, leaving me with my thoughts. Of these, I have too many. Always there are too many.
I am angry, this I know. Drew did not say goodbye to me, and he should have. Perhaps, I think, he was trying to tell me he did not like my questions, that I asked too many. Perhaps he tried to show me I was rude by being rude back to me, but this is still not the way to behave. Perhaps in Los Angeles people can behave like this, but not in Sardegna.
This, of course, reminds me that he is an outsider who wants to take what he can and go away. This is a very nasty thing to do. It is theft. The people of Neoneli get nothing if he acts this way. Will he invest here? Buy a house? Start a farm? Start a vineyard? Employ people? I do not think so. This idea of someone not from Neoneli doing Neoneli food somewhere else is crazy to me. It will not be authentic. However, the people who eat this food will not know the difference. They will not have been here. They will not know what real is.
I feel my face becoming very red, and I know this is a good time to have my cigarette and pretend the stars are the lamps of aliens who want me to come visit them, as Giuanna says. This does not last very long. Little green people do not interest me. Stars are just stars again too soon, and I am remembering him by the fire.
Tears came to his eyes when he spoke of the bad thing, but he did not cry. I think he is very experienced at burying sad feelings. I know this technique. I am also good at it. Perhaps, I think, we saw it in each other. This was why, perhaps, he told me specifically about this bad thing that happened to him.
What kind of bad thing could it be, anyway? Perhaps it is the divorce, which is very bad indeed. Certainly, I think, it is the divorce. I think perhaps that he caused it by cheating on her. He is famous. He is not entirely ugly. He must have opportunities with women who do not have morals. His ex-wife, this Anne, did not like this. I find myself agreeing with her. I do not like this on her behalf. They fought very much, I am sure, as any woman would. They separated soon after, I think. It is an understandable story, one that must happen every day in the type of world he lives in, with its Hollywood people and parties.
I watch Giuanna’s window, but it is dark. I bring my cigarette to my lips, but I find nothing there, only my empty fingers. I look down, and there it is on the ground by my shoe, finished. I must have put it out without realizing it.
The one thing that surprises me about this Italian countryside is all the cactus. Huge nopales, like something out of the American southwest, or Mexico. This gives me an idea too. Not an idea so much as something to wonder about.
What’s the best way to use that as an ingredient in pasta? Or, maybe use it as an antipasti the same way the artichokes were prepared, I’m thinking. Add that good olive oil. A little sea salt. Serve it slightly harder than usual. I’m wondering what that tastes like when Mr. Sau stops the car by a gate and gets out to open it. This is his land.
I’m sitting in the rattling car and the thing that hits me in a rush of embarrassment is how I should have said goodbye to Anna last night. It was childish not to. I was mad how she pushed me, though. Pushed me almost to talking about what happened, going up to the edge of it, enough to look over, but not fall in.
Still, I should have kept it together. I said I wanted new challenges, and there she was, challenging me, and I acted like an ass. I regret that. The worst part is, I don’t even know if I’ll have a chance to apologize.
This is why it’s good being in the vineyard, because I can get that energy out with my hands. I can work. Mr. Sau has me prune the vines. The small branches. I’m told not to be gentle. Snip quick. Snip the small ones. When they feel pain, they grow. Each time I do it, I tell myself I’m trimming the parts inside myself that need to grow too, that need to be reminded they’re alive. It’s a stupid thing to think, but it keeps me going.
We finish Mr. Sau’s rows, and we walk down to the fields below. These rows belong to others from Neoneli. And then beyond. Other families. He shows me how the soil is unique here. It isn’t black. It’s more like sand.
“Terra di sabbia,” he says, the name of the soil.
He has a fierce pride in it, and just seeing that on his face, I know it must not be easy to grow grapes in this kind of soil, that each successful harvest is a real achievement.
In his brother’s field, he decides to teach me about roots. He cuts into a plant that has two plants growing from it. One is European. He cuts through it. It's dead.
“Seco,” he says.
The other looks okay.
“Americano,” he says.
“Si,” he says. “From America.”
He does the graft, cutting horizontally, and then taps vertically into the cut with a flip-open blade that is thick like a straight razor. He taps this about an inch deep, then two taps more. Then he cuts a new European branch like an arrowhead to insert into the root cut. When it’s in, he ties it. He covers it with soil.
It turns out the grape plant graft is European, but the roots are American. This is because bugs here eat the European roots but they leave the American ones alone. Their difference is actually their strength. It’s the only way to grow wine here. American and European must work together in a basic, elemental way. They must combine. Without this teamwork, there are no grapes in Sardinia.
It is a good day until noon when we close. Of course, I think, why am I afraid to see him? This is my town. It is he who should be afraid to see me. Always this should be true. Perhaps, I think, it is not fear then. It is a feeling in my stomach that says I do not want to have to deal with apologies or explanations, a feeling that says it is better to avoid seeing him and his ponytail. It is safe for me, I think, not to deal with him.
I decide to leave work early and go home. I am the boss, so it is okay. I use my key. The house is quiet. My father is away at work. Giuanna is still in school. I try to read the book I am reading, but it is not to be. I boil hot water for tea, and I then go to the cabinet to find we do not have any tea left. I go to the yard and pluck a lemon from the tree. This is what I squeeze into the hot water with honey. It is fine, but it is not tea.
I try to watch television. On it is a re-run of the pope giving a talk at a football stadium that is full. Where this is, I do not know—Roma, perhaps, or Milano. There is also financial news. There is a soap opera. There is an American movie with Richard Gere looking very young and saying very stupid things to women. I turn this off.
I look to the clock. It is only 12:14. Still there is almost one hour to go until Giuanna will be here, running through the house, deciding she is an astronaut today, or a bug collector. I ache missing her. I need her voice now, right at this moment. I need her face, and I need her questions. I need her distraction.
If she were here, I would not have Googled Drew again. This time, I find on his publisher’s website that his name is short for Andrew, which I like much better. I then dislike myself for liking it better, and I close my phone. I walk away from it. I go outside. I smoke. When one is not enough, I smoke two. I come back. I pick up my phone. I call my brother. He is working, but he answers.
He says, “Pronto.”
My brother, he married a Busachi girl. He lives there with her. It is one town over.
I ask him if there is football practice tonight, and if he will be going. He tells me yes.
* * *
My brother plays for the local team. It is very small, only five players per side instead of eleven. We have our own field in Neoneli. It is very new. It even has changing rooms, a special artificial turf, and floodlights. Busachi have one as well, but ours is nicer. My brother gets some grief for playing for Neoneli instead, but he was born here, and raised here, and so there is only teasing, not real fuss.
In Roma, Giuanna’s father would watch the football with her. He indoctrinated her into liking it. I still use this word with her. Indoctrinate. She thinks her mother is crazy. She also drags her mother to see her uncle play, even if it is only practice.
We get there some minutes late. Giuanna could not find her jacket. She did not remember she had hidden it under her bed for reasons unknown to anyone, even her. We sit on a small blanket on the concrete steps. Always, she sits on my lap. She leans forward. She bounces during good plays. She screams sometimes if her uncle scores.
Tonight, however, she is wondering, “Who is this man, Mama?”
This man, with the tattoos, with the ponytail, and wearing very expensive shoes, is the chef from Los Angeles. He is running around on the Neoneli field, with the Neoneli players, and looking as if he is not a bad player. He does not know the language, but he is shouting at players. He encourages them. He claps.
I say, “He is a visitor.”
She says, “From America?”
I do not need to tell her she is correct. She knows. She has heard talk at school.
She says, “He is very good, you know?”
She turns in my lap to see my face, to see if I agree.
I say, “Okay, if you think so.”
I do not say to her that the way he plays football, you can tell what type of man he is. He does not like to dribble with his head down. He likes to pass very much. He likes to include his teammates. He is unselfish. This is unexpected, not just for me, but also for my brother.
They are on the same team. On one particular attack, Andrew plays a very skillful pass to my brother in front of the goal, where he scores very quickly. My daughter jumps up from my knees and howls, like a wolf, or perhaps like some other animal imitating a wolf.
I am focused on my brother’s face, on his reaction. As he turns toward Andrew to thank him for the pass, he wears a look on his face of being very much impressed, of showing how he did not know Americans could play calcio like this. My brother likes very few things, very few people, and this look on his face, of respect perhaps, of admiration for Andrew, makes my stomach hurt again, but in a new way this time, a way I like less than before. It is like a knife in me, opening something deep down.
During the process, ricotta starts rising up like bits of broken iceberg while Mario puts his arms elbow-deep in the warm liquid. He’s teasing the cheese up from the bottom of the large pot. These chunks of cheese get scooped into a white plastic basket that’s set on a wooden plank across the pot, and he presses them as they come in. Mario stacks and squeezes. Stacks and squeezes. Building layers of cheese. It’s strong work. As he squeezes, liquid leaks back into the pot below through a series of vertical slots in the basket.
I make a note. The technique is possible in Los Angeles, but where to get the fresh milk in a local area? Bakersfield? A problem for another time.
When Mario has done two pots, he strains milk back into two new pots. To make sure nothing is missed. Nothing is wasted. The strainer catches its weight in cheese and then some. As he prepares to make cottage cheese, he calls to his cousin. The cousin dials a phone number and holds the phone close to Mario’s ear so he won’t have to get it dirty with his hands.
He is calling Anna because she speaks English. Mario called her at the beginning, before he started. Maybe one hour ago. She said she’d be here in ten minutes. My ears buzzed when I first heard it and my cheeks got hot from something other than the flame under the cheese pot, but that’s faded. She hasn’t come. I guess I don’t blame her. I mean, I don’t.
The rhythm in making cottage cheese is to stir with a long wooden spoon, one with a flat head, in the shape of a half-flower, with large petals, like a kid's drawing. Stir starting at the center. Draw a petal. Go back to center. Petal. Go back to center. Repeat until you’ve drawn an invisible flower on three-quarters of the surface, not the whole thing. After a few flowers, out comes the cheese knife.
Mario cuts the surface with it, as it rounds and fluffs and cheese hardens. When the under-boil starts, turn off the heat. I watch as the oil separates. It is a light green, like the best of olive oils. After, scoop into baskets. Mario fills four baskets using a large metal spoon, one with a sieve bowl. He does four more, then five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine.
Anna never comes.
I told my father not to show the chef how to make ricotta. He does it anyway. He is very stubborn. Also, he says to me before he goes that the chef could learn it anywhere, and it is important for him to learn it here, from someone who does it the right way. I cannot argue with this, but I want to. It is my father’s pride in being honest, and in being good at what he does. He is a good man, and I cannot tell him not to be. I want to, but I should not.
Our dinner table is being covered with Giuanna’s purple snow and I am wishing my life was not my life. I am wishing things were the same again, like they were in Roma. This is a useless wish. It is a wish I want to outgrow, but I learn every day how wishes cannot be outgrown because they are inside you. I know now how the only way to deal with such wishes is to get new wishes. Replacement wishes, I think. New wishes to cover up old wishes that can never be real again. Thinking this sends me to sadness, and Giuanna is too aware of her mother. She looks up at me, and asks what is wrong. I must be a liar to her then, and tell her nothing is wrong. Mama is only thinking.
I am thinking how I am a bad wife, even with a dead husband, to think of another man. I am thinking of how it is too soon to feel these feelings. I am thinking of how I am a terrible person and disloyal. I am thinking perhaps some people do not deserve replacement wishes. I am thinking of how I am one of them.
A high-pitched squeal greets me. “Americano!”
I get a little wobbly when I see the owner of the voice. She’s a perfect little version of Anna. Same bright eyes. Pigtails. She’s standing at a large round table, staring at me, bobbing her head side to side, and cutting the air with scissors. When I smile at her, she squeals again.
It’s a nice house with high ceilings, white walls, and lots of wood: a floor, a staircase without a railing, thick doorframes. Anna is standing in one of them, with a look on her face like she’s about to kick me out.
She crosses the room and says to me in English, “Why are you here?”
Her tone is angry. I can tell this is an intrusion, and I’m about to say something when she turns to her father as he walks to the kitchen and maybe asks the same thing in Italian. Her face flushes red when she hears what her father has to say, but she still turns back to me and wants to hear what I have to say for myself.
“Explain,” she says. Her hands are on her hips.
“I offered to cook lunch for your family to thank your father for showing me how to make ricotta.”
“No,” she says. “I do not think so. You should go.”
“Are you hungry?”
“No,” Anna says, but the heat in her tone is gone. She is distracted by the little Anna beside me now, grabbing at my hand, trying to pull me to the table.
When she looks back up at me, I say, “I’m sorry I didn’t say goodbye the other night. It was childish. You just asked so many questions and I wasn’t really feeling one hundred percent with the jetlag and everything. It just got to be too much and I didn’t handle it well. That’s why I’m hoping that making some food for your family makes up for that too.”
She blinks at me, her eyelashes fast fluttering like the last thing she expected was to be apologized to, and it has short-circuited her somehow.
I’m about to ask where the kitchen is when I see her father pop his head into the living room, look at me, and nod me back. On the way there, I let Anna’s daughter drag me to a table full of purple snowflakes, and little purple accordions of people standing side by side and holding hands. When I finally make it to the kitchen, I have a snowflake hat and a snowflake bracelet. She didn’t mind tearing the middle out of one so it would fit over my hand.
Of course, she is the most wonderful. Obviously, I think so. I am her mother. I cannot think otherwise. Yet, this is not a fair thing to say to me. Americans always like the world too fast. Their country is too young. They do not understand themselves. They do not yet have enough walls for their hearts.
Andrew sees my Giuanna only on a good day. He does not know her nightmares, her refusals to sleep after them, or her crying that can last one hour or more. He does not know her quiet days when she will not say what is wrong, but what is wrong is that she misses her father and her brother, and there are no words for this. There is only helplessness, and I have learned the only thing to do is to say that Mama feels helpless, and we must feel helpless together. Some days this works. Other days, it does not. I tell stories about her father. Some days this works. Other days, she is angry and shouts at me that I am mean because I am making her miss him more. Andrew does not know her on these days. He only knows her for two minutes. He only knows her to smile, and not to say no. Of course, he thinks she is wonderful and not broken, already carrying more pain than she understands!
We follow him into the kitchen, Giuanna and me. He has a small black bag with him. Many knives sit within it. They are fancy. They are the best. My daughter knows better than to touch them. This is because she has not been raised by wolves.
My father has given him permission to be here. This, we will discuss later. He sits at the small round kitchen table and pretends to read the paper. He looks at his granddaughter over the top of it. He watches her watching as flour gets folded on the marble. It is flour and it is water, and this is normal, but then fresh basil disappears under a knife and becomes the smallest confetti I have ever seen, and then it is added to the flour and I must object.
I say, “This is not how it is done.”
Giuanna watches me. She has become shy again. I can feel her trying to memorize the movements of my mouth as I speak English. She wants this power. She wants it right now so that she can ask the Americano many questions.
He says, “This is how I do it.”
I say, “Why do you do this?”
He tells me that he learned about this technique in Tokyo, Japan, in a place called Asakusa specifically. A chef there makes many different kinds of buckwheat noodles. Soba, it is called. This chef, he goes to the fields. He harvests the wheat himself. He uses an ancient stone grinder in his kitchen to create the flour. He mixes this flour with various other ingredients, like shiso, which is a kind of Japanese mint, and also sesame seeds.
I say, “It will be bad. It will ruin the consistency. It is like adding too much water.”
He does not reply to this. Instead, he makes noodles with a knife. I have never seen such a technique before. They are long and thin, like spaghetti, but not quite. Perhaps they are bucatini.
Finally, Giuanna asks what he’s making, so I must ask also.
He says, “Carbonara.”
Her face lights up to hear him use an Italian word.
I scoff. I feel my father’s eyes on me.
I say, “Already you have ruined something perfect. Carbonara should only have pancetta, eggs, and parmesan. Nothing else.”
He asks me if I am certain. I tell him I am always certain.
The noodles hang, dry for some minutes, and then go into the boiling water. After a few moments, the room smells of basil. Giuanna tells me this from her position on the floor at my feet and points to her nose. She laughs. Andrew prepares a pan next. First is olive oil, which is fine, but then he puts chopped garlic and some chili flakes into the hot oil before putting in pancetta to brown. This is too much for me.
I say, “This is what happens when you let an American cook.”
He says, “You gave me grief about authenticity before, and you were right to. But let me tell you something.”
He gently turns the square chunks of pancetta in the pan.
He says, “In L.A., there are more kitchen workers with Mexican or Latin American backgrounds than just about anywhere but their home countries. I’ve seen them cook Korean food, Italian food, Chinese food. Everything. Their technique is perfect. You’d never know who was cooking sometimes, unless you got back to the kitchen.”
I must interrupt. I say, “It’s about more than technique. There is no soul in it if you are not from that place.”
He laughs. He says, “Even if I agreed with you, which I don’t, I’d say this: maybe it is a new soul.”
This is a very silly thing to say. It is the kind of California thinking that is very stupid, but they think it is very deep. A new soul? This, I had never considered. Perhaps that is because there is no such thing. Souls are only created by God.
The noodles are in the pan, and I stand to watch him add the eggs, and then parmesan. This is the most important moment, and I am sad to see that he does it perfectly. The eggs do not become tiny clumps. They dissolve. They give the ugly, green-speckled noodles a perfect shine. My feeling afterward is complicated.
I like it, and do not like it, at the same time.
She’s blushing now. She’s picking at the hem of her t-shirt. It’s some of the best pasta she’s ever had, and it’s killing her that an American cooked it in her house.
Her father’s saying nothing, but he seems impressed in his quiet way. The daughter chatters away in Italian and somehow still manages to eat all of it. I can’t catch any of what she’s saying. Even if I knew the language, it’d be too fast. But she’s happy. And she’s saying so, which is probably making it worse for her mother. You don’t need to understand the words to know that.
Anna eats half the food on her plate before saying anything, and she opens her mouth like she is about to say something to me, but she’s telling her daughter to go wash her hands instead, and when the little girl comes back, she’s holding a soccer ball. Her mother tells her no, to go play outside by herself, I think, because the little girl stalks off and a few moments later, the door slams.
I say, “What’s her name? Is it Joanna? I thought I heard you say—”
Anna changes the subject. “It is your thought that you would cook this in Los Angeles?”
She means the pasta she’s trying so hard not to like. I give her a look to let her know I know what she’s doing, but I go along with it.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe. It depends on the ingredients.”
“The ingredients are pure Neoneli. You cannot bring our soil back with you, or our air, or our water, or our hands.”
“Then I will have to make do with what I can find.”
She makes a face at me. “What is ‘make do’?”
“Making the best of a situation. Coming up with a solution somehow.”
I’m about to say, I guess, but I stop myself. I know how she feels about guessing. So, instead, I say, “Yes. Absolutely.”
“You would say what you did with these noodles was improvisation?”
“Yes, because I took a Japanese soba technique and applied it to wheat pasta. I think that’s what L.A. is about in so many ways. Combining things. Making hybrids. Trying to find the best of everything and make it into something new, together.”
I’m smiling when I say it, but I can see she’s not with me. Her face is darkening. She’s shutting down.
“Perhaps some things should just stay where they are,” she says.
And it’s not clear to me if she means the customs and food of her land, or if she means me not coming here, or if she means herself not going anywhere. Or all of them at once.
Always, I said he was being too loud for the children, but they never complained. Always, I said that the announcer could not hear him and it was useless to talk back to the television. It did not matter. He did what he wished, and Giuanna loved every moment of it. Little Giuseppe did too.
In the evening, I am coming home from an early dinner at my aunt’s house, my father’s sister’s. My father and I, and Giuanna, we are walking the main road into town when the sky is the color between purple and black. We pass in front of a cantina with an open cellar door. There is only a thin rectangle of light, but I can see through, and Andrew is there, holding a glass of red wine. He does not see me.
My face goes hot, and I am very glad for the dark when I see that Signora Cardia is standing not far from the door. She is, how do you say? Lingering? Yes, I think she is lingering, outside the light of a street lamp, smoking her cigarette. She is waiting.
Signora Cardia grew up in Neoneli, but she took her husband’s name, a man from the south of Sardegna. He is not a bad man. On the whole, I would say he is very good, but he is not from Neoneli. She was rebellious to go to Cagliari and work in a bar when she was younger. I have always liked this about her.
When we stop to say good night, Signora Cardia tells me she wants to meet the Americano tonight.
I say, “No, no. We are on our way home. I am very tired.”
She will not have a no. I am young. I am not allowed to be tired. Signora Cardia has crushed her cigarette under her foot, and with her smoking hand she has a hold of my arm and is pulling. She wants me to invite him to her kitchen for an apperitivo, and to try her husband’s wine. She cannot say this in English. She needs me to, and this is happening while Giuanna has taken my other arm as well, and she, too, is pulling.
I think being between generations is just like this, being pulled by two people from either arm, one old and one young, not always in the same direction. It is not a pleasant feeling, and I do not want to go, but I have no choice. Signora Cardia, in particular, she is an older woman, and also we are related. She is my mother’s blood cousin. Here, we respect our elders, even if they happen to be family.
* * *We sit at Signora Cardia’s kitchen table. It is myself, and her, her husband, and Andrew. We have eaten almonds. We have eaten olives. We have eaten prosciutto. We have taken some vermentino. We have spoken about pleasant things, like farming and hunting. My father has taken Giuanna home, and he has told me not to worry, but I still do. The kitchen window is open, only enough to let a breeze in, and I know Signore Cardia put these windows in with his own hands.
Things are fine until Andrew asks about the tattoo the Signora has over her heart. A small part of it can be seen in the open neckline of her blouse. At first, I do not want to translate, but Signora Cardia is insistent. I drink more vermentino.
And then I tell her. Her eyes widen, and she motions for me to tell the story of how her son killed himself, but I cannot. I point to the picture on the wall behind her, where there is a young man with black hair. He was a good young man, her Giovanni.
I say, “Her son, it is for him. He passed away.”
Andrew winces as if I had hit him, and afterward, he sits up very straight. Again, he has the look he had from before, as if he is on the edge of tears. He looks at Signora Cardia a long time, before looking to the Signore, and then back. It is as if they are having a silent conversation, one where he is saying he knows what this feeling feels like. This is when my stomach decides to make knots. It becomes tighter with each breath until he speaks.
He says, “My daughter, too.”
His voice shakes. He is fighting feelings as he says his daughter was just a baby, very young, when she died in her sleep. He found her. He found her there in the crib. She wasn’t breathing. She had expired. He found her like that.
My hands, they go to my neck when he says this. I cannot help it. It is reflex, a gesture of protection. My ears ring. I am in shock, I think.
The Cardias stare at me to speak, so I must take three deep breaths for this new information, and finish my vermentino before saying only that his daughter passed away very young, and the Cardias, they nod so heavily.
The Signora takes a moment to go to the sink and pour some water for Andrew. She touches his shoulder when she sets the glass down in front of him. It is a family gesture. It is not one for outsiders, and yet, she has used it. She points to me.
She says, “This one, you know, she has had more pain than both of us.”
Signora Cardia looks to me to translate.
I frown at her. I will not.
She waves a hand at me to go on, to tell him.
I am very clear in Italiano that I do not want to tell him anything about me, and certainly not this thing she speaks of.
She shakes her head. She is not having it. This is the phrase in English? Not putting up with it? Perhaps it is the same. Regardless, she is my mother’s cousin, and she is showing me the same look my dead mother would make at me right now, the look where she will not take my refusal as an acceptable answer. It is a look that makes hairs on my neck stand up, and make me think my mother is looking at me from her eyes. For some moments, she does not look away.
This, I find very painful. It is so painful that I do what she says.
I say, “She says I have had more pain, though.”
He leans forward. His chair creaks.
He says, “What?”
I say, “She says I have lost a son, too, and also a husband.”
I cannot look up. It would be too much to see his face right now. The weight of confessing to him, something he should not know, sickens me. My blood has drained away. I feel like paper. I feel the wind could take me away if it wanted. It could rip me.
He says, “I saw photos, in your father’s living room. I wasn’t sure. I thought—”
I say, “I am sorry. I must go.”
I stand. I am not paper now. I am brick. I am heavy, but I walk out without shutting the door behind me. I walk as if I am falling down each time I move forward, but always I catch myself.
I am angry with every step of this walk home. He does not chase after me, and this is good. I do not want to be tied to him with this shared thing we have! I do not want to know his story. I do not want to understand him. I do not want to empathize. I do not want to think that his car crash makes sense now.
Many times without Giuanna in the car, I have sat behind a wheel and thought about running into a wall. It is a terrible sin to imagine such things. Still, I have often thought about destroying myself. I do not want to know how his crash was, or how it ruined his marriage. I do not want to think.
At home, I climb into my bed, and my Giuanna is there, already asleep. I curl my body around hers. I shape myself to her, to hold her. Perhaps I hold too tightly, because she wakes, and when she does, Giuanna doesn’t want to be held anymore. She says she is too hot as she squirms from me, and it is the one thing I cannot take. My own child, my only child, pulling away from me. I must tell myself she is too young. She cannot help it.
She is not able to go back to sleep, so she sits on her knees on the floor nearby, watching me. She plucks at the edge of a rug with her fingers. I wonder how I must look to her. I try to send her to her old bedroom. She does not want to go. I tell her it is so Signora Allora can cry.
She stands. She does not move. I feel her thinking in the dark.
She says, “How many tears? So that I can know when to come back?”
I tell her I do not know. I tell her it might be all the tears. I can see a hardness in the outline of her shoulders, and her neck straightens. In this pose, she looks older than she is.
She says, “It is okay, Mama. You can cry with me here then.”
She sits on the bed next to me, close enough for me to smell the bath soap in her hair, and she takes my hand in both of hers.
She says, “I am old enough now to hold your hand now and let you know you are not alone.”
Before, I thought many things had broken me, the arguing with in-laws about where to bury my husband and son, the funerals, the insurance paperwork and settlement, a piece of mail addressed to Mario that came forwarded to Neoneli from our old address five months after he died, the looks of pity from people who know, but all of this is so tiny compared to my daughter, in the dark, being strong for me when I cannot.
When I’m alone in my room and thinking about it afterward, I’m trying to figure out what the chances are for people who have all the same kinds of pain in common to be in the same room together when it isn’t for therapy or something else on purpose. It feels crazy. It feels like too much of a coincidence. I sleep on it. I wake up. And I still have the feeling that I’m meant to be here. I was meant to meet these people. People that can actually understand what I’ve been through.
The next morning, Mr. Sau takes me to the cemetery. At the gate, there’s a warning about trespassing and how everything is monitored. But it isn’t locked, and we walk right in. I wonder if this is part of Neoneli, part of Sardinia. Tall walls. Gates that look locked until you’re actually standing in front of them. Maybe they’re meant to keep out people from a distance, but never those that take the time to get up close.
Mr. Sau guides me through the rows to the new part of the cemetery, one with a rectangular mausoleum with a grid of graves. He points to two right next to each other that have framed photographs anchored to the stone. All of them have photographs, but these two are the ones we’re looking for. One is a man in his early forties, and the other is a little boy. It’s obvious. The little boy looks like Anna. He has her chin. Her nose.
I’m told it must have been a very difficult negotiation. Anna wanted them buried in Neoneli. Her husband’s people wanted him in Abruzzo. But both agreed the son and the father should not be separated, and the mother, she needed them near her. This is how they came to be buried here. I’d heard of destination weddings before, but never destination funerals. That’s what it was, though. The husband’s family got on a plane and came with Anna and the bodies to Cagliari. She and Joanna rode in a hearse from the airport. The family followed in rented vans. I want to tell Mr. Sau that it’s the saddest and most amazing thing I’ve ever heard at the same time. But I don’t. I keep it in.
For the rest of the week, I don’t see her. I don’t go by the house. I think about visiting her at work, but I don’t. I see her father once briefly at the bar. We have a beer together, but don’t say anything. We watch the news. Most mornings, I go back to the vineyards. I go to the well outside of town to get water for Mr. Sau. I hack some cactus. I remove the needles from the large paddles with tweezers. I experiment with them. Boiled. Lightly fried. Marinated. At night, I go to cantinas. Every night a different one. I go to the town library when it’s open. I sit and read a book on Sardinian murals that’s mostly pictures but the text is in Italian and in English. I go to the Plaza Italia. I count how wide it is with my steps. Seventeen. I visit Parco Della Rimbrancia. I count trees. I practice with the soccer team again, but there are no spectators. I learn how to make some Sardinian foods. Fregula istuvada. Fae cun Pezza de Procu. Truta de Sorucotu. One afternoon, we do some hunting, and then, because we’re successful, butchering. Mr. Sau roasts a little boar for the Mayor, and the Mayor’s fiancé, and Mr. Sau’s sister, all come over and eat with us, but Anna isn’t there. That’s when I know I need to write to her.
And what sticks with me most through the whole week is walking out of the cemetery, still thinking on how I’ve never been anywhere on earth where they put pictures in stone frames and mortar them to graves. I know it’s something I’ll carry with me. And I’m thinking about how it’s an honor to be remembered like that, and maybe how it’s more than a cemetery somehow, maybe it’s also a yearbook at the same time, when Mr. Sau shuts the gate behind us, and he points off in the distance, to a little forest of trees.
With some help, I figure out that they’re cork trees. It’s the largest export of the region. They grow and harvest an incredible amount here. It’s easy to see the product of this all over town, stacks in cantinas. Buckets of them. Waiting.
Mr. Sau talks into my phone so it will translate.
Maybe, the screen says when he’s done, it is like a metaphor. It tells you about us as people. Neoneli people. Sardinian people. We stop things up. We keep things as they were. We keep things locked tight. We are the best in the world for this thing.
If that’s true, I remember thinking, then how do I open up a person?
She has flowers. She says she bought too many, and I must help her place them at the cemetery. We go, and we place half at her son’s grave, but when we get to my Mario’s, and my Giuseppe’s, flowers are already there. I remember how I had to sit down on the grass because my breath was thin. The Signora, she is old, but she helped me to my feet. When we go again on Thursday afternoon, there are different flowers, and a look on Signora Cardia’s face that she is hiding how much she is pleased.
On Saturday after school, the television has Aladdin on it because Giuanna has put it there, and I am sighing. This is, I think, the three hundredth time it is in on my television. Giuanna does not care. She feasts on my sighs. Her mother’s sighs make her very happy indeed. If her mother is sighing at her choices, she thinks, she is doing something right. I am thinking this is not good for the future, and about how I must combat this in her with a bold campaign of tickles, a merciless campaign, when the doorbell chimes.
Giuanna runs to the door and opens it before being told she can. Outside, standing in the sun, is something that makes my stomach decide to play a jumping game inside me.
It is Andrew, now with short hair, but he is not alone. He stands there outside with Signore Sau, Signore Sau’s sister, and Signore Sau’s large cousin, who is also my cousin by marriage, and who also owns the pizzeria. Behind them is Signore and Signora Cardia. I am told they have come from her teaching him to make fregula pasta. This is perhaps a lie, I think, but do not say so. They want to know if I would like to come with them and make bread.
I look to my father, but he looks away from me. He studies his boot laces and decides one needs to be retied. It makes sense to me now why he teased me until I took a shower earlier, after breakfast, and why he suggested perhaps I put on a light sweater when he let the fire go out early, and then he asked Giuanna if she would like to brush my hair, and she did, because he knew about this plan, and he did not want me surprised or uncomfortable like last time. He is a good man, my father, but already he is putting on his hat and coat like a troublemaker, and then he is helping his granddaughter into her shoes as she shouts for bread, to know about bread, and to make bread, and to carry bread to all the village, because she is a very dramatic child, and very loud, but also generous. My daughter, she is my beautiful burden. My mother called me this when I was young and also when I was a teenager, mostly to joke, but not always. Now, my punishment is that I have the same daughter.
Giuanna is perhaps acting out how I feel inside with her bouncing, but because no one can know this, I make them wait. I go upstairs. I check my face in the mirror. I change my jeans for no good reason. I consider choosing different socks, but do not. Downstairs, before I go out the door, I stare at my Mario and our Giuseppe. They stare back at me. We spend some moments like this, and I am the first to blink.
I lock the door behind me as Giuanna screams her pleasure down into the valley, and to the farthest trees. Andrew does not say anything. Instead, he has an envelope he holds out to me, and I think how this is very odd, the mail mistress getting a letter when she is not working. When I do not take it right away, Signore Sau asks if I would like it, to read for later. He tells me that it is about Andrew’s daughter and what happened to her. He has the face of a sad father when he says to me that Andrew has never written anything down about her before, but these, on paper, are the circumstances, and how they felt to him. He will only share them with me, and also with Signora Cardia and her husband, who has a copy of the same letter, because we know what it is like to feel such things and we are the first and only people to read it.
I feel itching at the sides of my eyes, but I do not give in to them. This letter, I take from him and put in my front left jeans pocket. I will read it later. I must. Though it feels warm in my pocket, and I do not know if it is from his holding it in his hand, or from my anxiety to read it, but not to read it. To know, but not to know.
Signore Sau’s cousin opens his pizzeria for us. It is his oven that we will use to make this bread. When it is already heated when we get there, I am beginning to understand the extent of the plot and planning that has been done to get me here. I understand it even better when Signore Sau has everyone sit at a table, even my Giuanna. It is only Andrew and me in the kitchen, where he is putting on an apron.
I say, “You want me to show you how to make our flat bread?”
He says, “No.”
He hands me an apron as well. That is when I see there are already ingredients set up on the counter where the pizza ingredients normally sit. There is flour and water. He has already prepared something that he calls a starter in a small bowl. I think perhaps it is a fermentation from how it is smelling.
I say, “I do not want this bread.”
He says, “Sourdough.”
I say, “Yes. I do not want dough that is sour.”
He says, “You’ve never tried it?”
I tell him, never in my life, and I do not want to. He tells me I will bake it. Actually, he tells me we will make it, and that he will show me how to bake this special American bread. I do not tell him we have sour bread in Europa, too. Americans, they think they invent everything.
My stomach is jumping sideways within me now, and it feels very heavy, almost like it is the clapper and I am the bell. It is trying to ring me, but it mostly makes me feel sick, and dizzy, too. I do not want to be here. This does not feel fair. This does not feel natural. I am being pushed.
At the moment I think this, it is like I am calling the main pusher to my side, and Giuanna appears, like one of her genies. She smiles. In her eyes, I see how she wants to make this sour bread. Her face is so innocent and curious that I cannot say no, and she knows I cannot say no, and later, I will have to find out how to destroy this power of hers. Tickling, I think, might not be enough to do so. I also think it is an underhanded thing my father has done, not telling me about such an extravagant plan meant to trap me.
The good news, if there is good news, is that Andrew and I will not be discussing sad things. He has decided that cooking will be our language instead. Today, it is not English or Italian. It is the language of hands and of mixing. This, Giuanna understands without needing to be told. Already she has washed her hands and is drying them on my apron. Andrew smiles at her as he measures ingredients out for me.
I say, “You have cut your ponytail.”
He says, “I’m trying to let go of some things. I don’t know if it will work, but I’ll try.”
The flour is easy. It is the water that is hard. It is hard because Andrew refuses to call it water. He calls it grief instead.
He says, “How many cups of grief is it?”
I do not like this.
I feel heat in my face, and anger in my heart. I feel I have been tricked, and I do not like being tricked. This feeling makes me look for knives, but none are close at hand. They have all been put away, so I must put the sharpness in my voice.
I say, “What do you mean?”
He says, “You know what grief is.”
Giuanna makes everything worse. She puts a hand on my leg.
The itches around my eyes are now in my eyes. Through a blur, I glare at Andrew, but he will not leave me alone. He is not afraid of my tears. He does not act as if I am a wounded thing. His voice stays the same. It is very even. This, of course, makes me angrier, very much.
He says, “How many?”
I close my eyes. The only breathing I can do is through my nose. I feel tears go down my cheeks, and I want them to climb back up. I do not want to show this side of me. I do not want to be seen, but also, I want him to go away.
Very quietly I say, “All the cups.”
He says, “No.”
I am on the edge of breaking something. Perhaps it will be the glass of the front door as I slam it behind me, or his neck, or my hand on a wall.
He says, “A recipe is still a recipe. How many cups?”
I do not want to play this game. I would walk away if Giuanna were not in my way, one foot on my foot now, trying to be taller.
I say, “Three cups.”
He says, “Okay.”
He has me pour the water into the measuring cup. He wants me to say it is my grief, that these are the tears I have cried, but I make it clear to him that I have drawn lines. I can only go so far. The most I do is think it. I hold the container when it is full. I stare at the clear liquid inside. I tell myself they are not my tears, but perhaps they are cousins. They are related somehow. I pour it into the flour afterward.
Together, we knead the dough. I start. I squeeze and push. I turn it over until my wrists hurt. Andrew then offers Giuanna a chance. She thinks it is fantastic fun to punch the dough, to plunge flat palms onto it, to slap it. Andrew lets her. He tells me to tell her to do what she feels. This is perhaps a mistake, because she elbows the lump of dough after that. I decide she does not need to watch wrestling any more, but there is something very moving about the face she makes as she does it. Her serious eyes hold me very still within myself. She is trying very hard to destroy her mother’s grief with her bare hands, and perhaps her own grief as well. It is a complicated feeling I have at that moment. I am very proud of her. Also, I want to sob watching her. I do not, thankfully.
When she is done, Andrew shapes the dough and puts it into the oven. I have convinced myself it will be a bitter, difficult, awful thing. It will not be something worth eating. At the table, salad has arrived from the air, as has prosciutto, and cheese. All that is missing, it seems, is bread.
After it has rested, Andrew asks me to cut it. He hands me a knife. I do not want to, but I surrender. Steam rises as I do so. It smells almost of beer, and it is halfway through the loaf, that I feel as if I know what he is doing, or, at least, what he is trying to tell me. My pain can be cut smaller, and shared, among all of us. Perhaps, I think, this was his plan all along. That shared pain is lighter somehow, that shared weight is easier to carry. It is very clever trick he has played, and I want very much to disagree with the results, but this has logic to it, even if I do not like it, or agree with it, or even believe in it. Perhaps the worst part is I feel lighter in my body, as if some part of me has been chiseled away. This makes me sad, as if I am losing a piece of Mario and Giuseppe somehow, not something that is holding me back.
This is why I convince myself everyone at the table will hate this American bread. This, I decide, will be my sign that I am right to feel how I feel. I am disappointed when no one thinks the bread is bitter, or even sour, and no one makes a bad face, not even Giuanna, who will not stop holding my hand. Everyone thanks me for making it.
Andrew holds the bread basket to me. The table watches as I decide whether or not to take a piece, but I do, out of courtesy. I must let go of Giuanna’s hand to take the crust off, as I always do, and I roll the soft white middle into a ball with my fingers. Before I take a small bite, I take Giuanna’s hand again, which has been resting on the table, waiting for me.
She watches as I test the bread against the roof of my mouth. The texture is good. It has sourness to it, but not too much sourness, which is surprising. It is warm, and pleasant, and as I chew I must consider something. I do not want to, but it is only fair.
Grief, if I can call it so, is not the only ingredient in this bread. That is a fact. There are other things. Of course, there is good Sardegna flour. There is the starter that an American made. These things have been combined with something I was made to give, and there has been labor. Also, there has been heat. It has risen. It has become something like earth and a cloud at the same time.
In this way, it is a new thing now. It is transformed.
I do not like the thought that occurs to me next. It is a small thing, but irritating, and also very worrying. It is the thought that I might be transformed, too, if only I care to try. I dismiss this thought, but it returns to me twice through the meal, and also at the end.
Each time, I push it from me, but, how to say, it insists. Yes. I think perhaps this is the best word in English.