Grapefruit. I have lost the word for it. Popillo? Popello? No, no. It escapes her, the word, she tries to dig into the layers of memory, a time when she used to know only this language, only this rhythm, this inflection, when she used to know the small of your back, or the ribs that sometimes pushed through your skin, but it fails her, it is always out of reach, hiding behind her second language that is now her first, a senseless language with silent letters: apostle, knot, doubt.
An appointment to meet someone in secret, typically one made by lovers. We were never lovers, but no one will ever as easily cover me in goosebumps.
It was in Paris where I broke my tooth, the lower left second molar, while chewing the bread with the engraved cursive P upon its breast, brought at Poilâne on rue Debelleyme in Le Marais. It was our first trip together as adults. The lines in my face were settling in, laugh lines, I used to laugh then. We had woken up early to walk there in the rain, a slight drizzle, and I was excited by the unevenness of the cobblestone, how I tripped at almost every step, how loud the automobiles sounded when they approached.
The woman at the counter of the boulangerie asked if I wanted the whole loaf or the half, she directed the question to me as if she knew I would pay, as I often do. I was surprised by her immediate knowledge of us, and by the smell of the dough rising just out of sight, which reminded me of my father’s calloused hands, how they could be violent but also subtle. He used them to make gnocchi in our small kitchen.
I did not understand her French, so she made wide shapes with her large palm, and then I understood but could not decide between the two choices, whole, half, you did not make eye contact to help me, so I told her yes, oui, the whole loaf, and made the circular shape with my fingertips. I carried it home, you were upset at the price of the whole loaf, so your hands were free to swing at your sides, it weighed four pounds; the soft rain wet our hair.
The loss of a language is dizzying; there is a blurriness to it, a distinct sorrow you wouldn’t be able to understand. It is swollen like the third echo, or a crumpled piece of paper that can never quite look new again. Despite any attempts to salvage it the creases will remain bumpy and venous underneath any press of blue ink. You only ever used pens with blue ink.
I was aging violently. My hair was surrendering and retreating at the corner of my temples with aggressive speed. The strands of protein remained loyal to whatever position they were left in last, easily folding under the tension of an elastic band, or the shape of a pillow, or the short fingers of someone new; despite its feebleness it remained curly and dark, like the waters of a lake that will never meet, or feed, or drain into another body of water.
I imagine that your hair would have remained intact, more voluminous than mine with a thin outline of grey around the arch of your forehead, it would have touched your neck and shone when the light caught it, like the reflection of light trapped in a mirror, and if you would have moved your wide shoulders and thin neck even for a moment, even just to shrug, or lean your head to the right as you used to do while writing a new recipe or sketching the intricate wings of butterflies, the filaments of your hair would have moved too, swaying constantly, thick and layered like the sea.
But you did not have to worry about this decay, your hair would never become grey around the arch.
HOW TO CONVINCE OTHERS THAT YOU ARE ITALIAN: GNOCCHI
- boil the potatoes until soft, 1 kilogram
- remove the wet skin, peel, dry, wait until cool
- smash the potatoes together into a paste with your palms, move your knuckles, make a mountain of them with a hole in the middle
- put one whole egg in the middle
- introduce the 300 grams of flour, and the one whole egg into the mountain of potatoes
- knead until dough is formed
- roll into long ropes, cut into small pieces (my favourite part)
- use your fingers to flick the small pieces of dough, usually with your thumb, make an indentation, don’t use a fork, it is lazy, leave a fingerprint
- boil until pieces float, remove remove remove
- serve, eat immediately
My father has diabetes, anger, hepatitis C, a potential for lung cancer. Recreational use of herbs and needles, sex in Mykonos, a boy known for his face and his hair, hair as dark as all the colours will allow, a boy from Posillipo, dropping out of the 5th, maybe the 4th grade, working working, never learning, smoking cigarettes masterfully.
My father used to date your mother’s sister, Paola, her name means small. He ran away from home once, twice, took the aliscafo to Ischia, slept on the beach for days, defiled a cemetery. On April 11, 1973 he abandoned the military to go see Elton John perform at the Palasport in Naples, he was 19. He looked like Alain Delon, they told me.
From the Greek: skin. eating.
The habit or compulsion of eating, biting, enjoying one’s own skin, most commonly the long fingers. They were often waiting near your lips in preparation, your long fingers always floating below the nose. In one of the photos where your back does not face the camera, one can see your hairline, the pupils, the curved bridge of your nose, hands hands hands, a birthmark and the one finger between your lips as if amputated, the long neck.
I watched you grab all of the skin you could, speaking between bites, so many mouthfuls of it, gulping. Teeth gnawing, lips twisted to the left or to the right. The inside of your lips, your cheeks, marked with missing skin, raw, you ran your tongue against it often, and from the outside it moved like a small wave. Cuticles always marked with red.
In my head, I count in Italian.
As a child you became obsessed with the anatomy of butterflies, like Vladimir Nabokov, you would study the intricacies of their wings, their, dotted redorange patterns, the elbows and curves of their genitalia – lamella: liplike element; corpus bursa: component of genital duct; aedeagus: the penis. It had never before occurred to me, until you mentioned the word that summer on the corner of our island and the Tyrrhenian Sea, the island of all our childhood summers, that butterflies had genitalia. We were eight and nine then, and that word (sticky with shame even now) didn’t seem to fit within my idea of butterflies; they were only beautiful to me if seen from afar.
You loved them up close though, fastened within your palm, the tips of their wings trembling against your hand.
I did not share this fascination in small creatures that came from eggs, and in fact suffered a sort of fear of insects and moths and flies, and their inability to be polite as they approached, their persistent whispering as they found my ears. I slept with many pillows over my head, but at night they would always locate the outer folds of cartilage, the inner rim, the canal. I could not sleep again until some flat surface was pressed hard against their wings.
High Blood Pressure
My mother: born in Harlem, molested, in love with dance, but never with the body that made the movements, leaves Julliard, climbs away from the city, across oceans because she loves salt, with anxiety, and low self-esteem, but falling for the broken, angry boy with the face and the dark hair. Success, the inevitable loss of success, and then all the regret, bowls of it, so she prays for a cure and gets it: deterioration and forgetfulness.
Fear of bellybuttons.
You hated them, and the sounds of dry cotton being manipulated, cotton swabs in ears, or tissues in noses, anyone who touched your bellybutton with cotton. It is a dry sound, fibrous, chewy, can you hear it? It is a sound people ignore.
A man I used to live with left his clipped nails in the corner of the bedroom, on the wooden floor, a greyish white, the lunula – moon-like pieces, sharp, they used to cover his fingers. I have a scratch on my right hand. He often scratched me under the covers as he moved in his sleep. The keratin bent at the touch, cells pushing out, constant growth, growing, averaging 0.1 mm per day, nails grow faster for young men during the summer, I did not know this until you told me, he scratched me with his right hand, the nails always grow faster on this hand, he was right-handed.
He would not bite his nails for fear of germs and faeces, so he clipped them. They sit here near me where he left them.
We kissed in my room, behind the bed that year you discovered the Lepidoptera and their wings, we were playing hide and go seek alone, but we played it wrong, we both hid together, so there was no seeking. Our parents’ voices were stifled in the background, we could hear the notes of their forced laughter, high pitched. I remember the synthetic colour of toys spread everywhere on the porcelain tiles and the sun leaning against the large window and the coldness of your hands against my face as you held it in place.
I’ve told all of the people I’ve touched since to place their hands on my cheeks if they wanted to, not like that, like this, yes, here, just so.
Benign Congenital Irregularities
The side of her left hand had a birthmark, like the algae sticking to our delicate ankles, a pattern I watched often as she spoke or laughed, she used to laugh then.
It was your cousin Valter that pointed out the differences in our skin tones, the excess of melanin, our hair which absorbed water differently, how you had a shorter torso, a flat behind, my hair was wilder, he said, untamable. Valter, his name means ruler of the army.
I had never noticed this before he mentioned it. We were on a blue boat when he mentioned it, he whispered it in my ear.
The jellyfish poisoned me that day, stinging my left inner thigh, they do not need a respiratory system, some cannot detect images, only light, so they know up from down, they are beautiful if seen up close, their skin is thin, thin-skinned, soft, mesoglea, they use muscles to contract and expand, the most efficient of swimmers, but they are gelatinous, some people die, the human skin swells, with their busy arms they poisoned me. Someone’s urine was used to stop the burning, maybe Valter’s, it is medically unadvised.
HOW TO CONVINCE OTHERS THAT YOU ARE ITALIAN (PART 2): LINGUINE/SPAGHETTI ALLE VONGOLE
- place clams in a pan, with no water, a dry drowning, 1 kilogram for 4 people
- wait until they open, but no, don’t add salt, clams still have the sea in them
- take them out of the shells, or keep them inside, if you want
- throw them in the pan with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, red pepper, parsley, 7 cherry tomatoes, white wine
- put a handful, or 320 grams of pasta in boiling water, (linguine or spaghetti only)
- place pasta gently into the pan with the clams
- stir together
- add some cooked pasta water, it is full of amido, starch, it will make it creamier
- serve, eat immediately, otherwise it should be thrown away
The word comes to her abruptly, almost violently, like the light and the sheep and the fields through the window of the train on our way to Paris, Pompelmo.
‘Lucia Rosa flew into the rocks,’ you whispered it in my ear. The ideas that fascinated you were always more violent than mine, we were older now. Our parents were gone, out to dinner again, so we roamed the streets of Ponza alone holding hands. We were too old to hold hands. You were taller than me by four inches. You stared at my elbow, it is always a darker shade than my arm, as you repeated it again, ‘Lucia Rosa flew.’
Your eyes were not ideal for your small face, protruding, almost interrupting the curved nose and thin mouth, the smooth cream forehead. I remember your eyes most of all, I could draw them now if I had a pencil. Even when you slept you kept your eyes opened, the whites of them always showing. It scared me that you never closed them. I remember your eyes most of all as you spoke of Lucia Rosa, the 18th century girl who was not afraid to jump into the sea.
You would imagine her looking down sensing the warmth of a breeze, bending her knees falling falling, feeling the coldness of the water, then sharpness of the rocks, maybe hitting her head first, or otherwise breaking the bones in her ankles and toes, her shin her heel, tibia fibula patella femur tarsus metatarsus; swallowing salt, vocal cords sealing the airway, lungs not filling with water, but no air coming in, a dry drowning; after six minutes the brain will die, her body stuck between the rocks for days, rotting.
Some say she was spurned by her lover, others say she was forced to marry someone she did not love. We decided she must have loved a woman, that was it, and her parents would not have liked that.
There is a beach named after her on our island, Spiaggia Lucia Rosa, Lucia, her name means graceful light. We go there to watch the water moving toward us while we sit in the sand, we will carry the sand home with us, it will feel grainy under the sheets before we fall asleep.
Harlem, NY November 22, 1963.
My grandfather was shot in the lower back, towards his left side on a narrow street. When my mother told me the story one day, the day she realised she would die very soon, she said it had been 47°, and the leaves were all on the ground like stickers, wet from rain the day before. She imagined him crumpled, his hat not quite covering his head, exposed skin on his neck, his long legs folded naturally, as if he needed to take a small rest. It reminded her of the Andrew Wyeth painting Christina’s World, the girl in the pink dress, leaning with her back to us, looking up at the horizon.
She asked her mother softly, ‘Why are you crying without the sound of it coming out?’
She answered, ‘We will age now, and never remember how young we used to be.’
He never moved his long, heavy legs again without his hands lifting them, guiding them into the position he wanted like black chess pieces.
I like to watch myself cry in a mirror, a window, any reflective surface really.
Torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament
a body when it is hung on the bed
breasts swimming towards the arms
the arms down at our side
armpits with forgotten hair
ribs showing, they are arched bone
we usually never see them, though I think of them sometimes
but there are only three visible lines on each side
they curve and wrap around us connecting to the spine, the sternum
there are ribs that float, did you know that?
and then the knees of course
we take them for granted, the largest joint
cartilage fluid meniscus
they remain together, always touching
thighs and cheeks squished on the sheets
flattening, coming out on the sides,
and always the six lines of ribs.
I never understood how two people could fall in love, I used to think it was impossible.
We left Naples in a rush, so I did not say goodbye.
It was always stillness that gave me motion sickness, so the ride in our small car that day deceived me, it also comforted me like the navy blue boat out on the water, near Ponza. I knew there were leaves outside of the glass, it was fall. But they blurred together with the speed of the car and the smell of rain: a greenish blue and a brownish white, a decisive black telephone line divided them in half. Sky, telephone line, brown poles, leaves, rain. They followed us to Fiumicino.
Men’s voices talked on the radio, I heard no women. Traces of bitten fingernails lingered in my teeth, Kinder chocolate fingerprints and crumbs of omitted words clung to the cloth seats. My sister was silent.
The details of the countryside became lost in the kilometers per hour. I could see my mother’s thick short hair from behind her, the back of her neck, her right ear, her glasses hooked around it. Her shoulders were raised, there was tension in her neck. She never turned her head as she drove.
In the ’90s, in Europe, seatbelts in the backseat were only recommended so I lay down easily. The warmth of my sister’s leg whispered in my ear. When my eyelashes finally met my cheekbones I dreamt of you, and the pistachio ice cream that always ran down my wrists.
I always remember that ride away from Naples was the day I forgot how to whistle. I’m not sure if this memory is real, my whistling is mediocre now. I do know that the last distinct recollection I have from that morning other than the small car, and the men on the radio who didn’t hire any women, and the longest drive, and my mother’s neck, was seeing the white comforter on the ground, the butterfly net you left behind on the floor, our dead skin cells on the furniture, our beds unmade.
Papa’ staying behind, crying.
Vocal Cord Nodules
I often feared falling on my chin from a horse and getting cancer in my jaw, though I’ve never ridden one. Also kidnapping, slipping and hitting temples on dull objects, smoke inhalation, carbon monoxide poisoning, dying quietly, in my sleep most of all. You were only afraid of falling, drowning.
Ribs Breaking from the Kicks of Unborn Children
I found a letter once, it was as soft as cotton, thin, marked with blue ink, it insisted on being read. In Italian, he wrote. Come back across the salt you love. Ritorna da me. I know she went back, because I was born, a couple of years later. In the winter, on a Sunday.
On the second bite my tooth cracked hard and loud in my ears, the pain second only to the loudness of the crunch, the violence of the split. Only this second molar on the left side succumbed to the force of the stoneground wheat flour and the water and the salt and the golden crust, only the second, as I no longer had the third molar or the wisdom tooth, it was an empty space, the tooth already removed and made blank years earlier in a white room, white and cold and fluorescent, by an American dentist who did not listen when I told him he was pushing too hard with his gloved, plastic fingers.
The sound of the enamel, the calcium phosphate crashing in on itself and mingling with the hard pieces of sourdough and blood shocked me. It reminded me of the thunder outside the large windows that night when we decided not to look at each other, but to sleep close together anyway in the full size bed with the flannel sheets in Naples, that time I used your body mostly for warmth and nothing more.
After I left for America, in 1996, we saw each other again only three times – first in Paris when we took the train and walked in the rain to buy bread, and I read your journal in the dark while you slept; then in New York, ten years later when you came to visit with your boyfriend and stayed in the apartment made of glass near Wall Street. You made me spaghetti alla carbonara with pancetta and eggs and black pepper and pasta e fagioli with so much garlic; you forced me to eat both, one right after the other. Whichever I ate second was colder, it had been sitting out on the counter. Your boyfriend watched us as you watched me eat with a fork, you knew I hated spoons, it did not occur to me at the time that I was the only one eating. I ate them one right after the other.
And then again once more, yes, that last time in Ponza, much later, when the changes in our bodies, and our faces came as a pleasant surprise to us both, we giggled when we first saw. We couldn’t stop giggling.
I never knew how to catch the ground nuts and milk and egg yolks and sugar and air with my tongue before they melted, so they would land as neat as bracelets around my brown skin. No number of thin paper napkins could help this. Your hands or arms or cheeks were never as sticky as mine. But I accepted the mess, I sometimes looked forward to it, knowing I would have to carry it home with me, as we did with the sand, before reluctantly washing it off.
I usually ate gelato to the sound of shoes clicking against the cobblestone, in rhythm with it. The smell of coffee and cigarette smoke was always present when I ate it, even in the park, even near my bench. As soon as someone threw one cigarette away there would be someone else immediately behind them with the next one casually waiting between their fingertips, the thumb of the opposite hand ready to flick against the spark wheel. Second hand smoke. I quite enjoyed the combination of pistachio ice cream and coffee and cigarettes.
She ate it greedily, anxiously. It seemed her father always took her there, never her mother. Maybe that is why her wrists were never smooth, clean. Her father gave her freedom she did not deserve. His hair was black then, as dark as all the colours will allow. His nose was the same as hers, with the hook at the end of it. Women came up to him as she ate, he made them laugh.
Single Gene Inheritance
I did not have my mother’s long fingers, long toes, or the arches of her feet, her turn out, only the deep voice of my father, my father uses this voice to laugh, to yell in dialect: managgia ‘a marina. I have his nose, his thick hands, his feet, a taste of his selfishness and, she realises now, nothing of her mother, nothing at all. Certainly not her kindness.
I have flown many times over the Atlantic Ocean. While others watch movies, I follow the map on the screen in front of me, the plane shifting by centimeters, turning its nose upward, but we are moving at such a high speed that the image seems cartoonish, incorrect, flat. Outside of the scratched glass the cars make right turns, they move their headlights, the lights lights, the homes, tiny homes, the people are there beneath us, no one is fascinated by planes anymore, no one looks up anymore. Then the clouds, sheets of them. I always choose the window, I want to see out. You preferred middle seats, aisles.
I never respected your severe panic of flying, of falling. At any slight move, rattle, sound, shift in direction, you would tighten every muscle, your eyes would close, there was always such tension in your neck. You brought important items with you every time you flew, just in case you crashed, stones, seashells, jewellery, hard objects so someone might find them and identify your remains. Relatives and friends would then gather in an average hotel near the crash site, with two stars, maybe three, a place with beige sheets. They would need to get on a plane to get there too, they would wait around between briefings to be told how their person was really dead, how body parts may be hard to locate, fragments really, little pieces of bone, teeth, hard objects, how the metal was bent or rusting or lost. I do not think anyone would know to call me, to tell me, ‘rush to the two star, or three star hotel.’ We’ve never flown together.
The grapefruit was never my favourite fruit, I ate it mostly because you liked it. You ate it whole, the sour juice drying and sticking to everything you touched.
When I wrote my letters to you I would not talk about my ex-husband, how he clipped his nails sitting on the floor of every room, never sweeping them away, instead I would explain in detail how I missed sitting and spinning on the metal of the red roundabout, red and cold and rusted, dizzying. I wrote about how we were often lying in needles of grass for handfuls of minutes, remember? So much land and grass and dirt (I could smell it on my clothes when I came home, a sharp green smell, my knees marked with it.) Acres of land, and how we would pull the light purple petals of a flower I can no longer name, and suck the sugar, the nectar out of it, and finally throw them aside emptied. Or about Spiaggia Lucia Rosa, the pieces of weathered sea glass we collected from the sand, it is broken glass first, beer bottles tumbled in small waves until the edges become smooth. You never replied, even when I wrote.
The hate of sound, the sound of one’s own voice.
I heard it once, my voice, when it echoed in a phone call, you were on the other line, it was thin, disappointing. We usually hear our voices with the vibrations of ear drums, vocal cords, airways, sound waves moving, always lower and richer than they are to others. That day you called me with the worst news, I heard my own voice.
Ilaria waits until it lands, feeding on a flower. She is tall for her age, her hips push forward as she walks, her breasts are slight. She approaches it slowly, delicately from behind, the net is so long the end curves underneath her, dragging itself between her feet and the grass and the flowers and the weeds. Ilaria, her name means cheerful, merry, she sweeps the net over it quickly, bringing her arm from beneath her, her fingers close together, heavy and contracted like Martha Graham; and then just as quickly it is over, the butterfly flutters in its trap, the long end of the net has already been flipped over the handle, it is ensnared.
I never found the part of the tooth that chipped in the hotel room we shared on rue Greneta in Paris, it fell to my hand only for a second when I ran to the small bathroom, the floor was wet with humidity, I almost slipped. The piece was so white and smooth it felt like something valuable in the crease of my palm, then it was gone, dropped in a corner of the floor, amongst the confusion and the humidity and I searched, but I could not find it.