by Giò Crisafulli
My eyes opened to tranquility as I awoke and before me saw the light.
“Everything went very well, Mr. Crisafulli,” a female voice said. For a few moments more I remained as consciousness unburdened by physical distraction, a blank enormity containing no preoccupation, a serenity unburdened by thought. Mary then entered the room with a light step in her gait that stopped dead in its tracks in horror at the sight of my face.
She had taken a half day off from work at the investment bank to accompany me to the hospital and then make sure I got home with no trouble. Thus my little sister found herself for the first time in the position of making sure I was okay before she left me to finish her workday. For the next two days in my apartment my nostrils were stuffed beyond capacity with caked blood as I made do, breathing only through my mouth. I looked like what in the States we call blood and guts, evoking within me a perverse fascination at the sight and texture of such repugnance. In the mirror, on my face, it was freakish. I wanted to touch it. I eventually pulled out the dry, black-red chunks clotted together at the orifice, then took out the cloth stuffing that was bunched much further up my nose than I would have imagined, and hovered above the bathroom sink for half an hour until the thin bloody liquid finished running from my nose down the drain.
My doctor prescribed some strong drugs for the pain but I refused to use them. I don’t take anything even for headaches. I’m sure I could have sold my meds. I threw them out instead.
The nasal wall that separates my two nostrils had been crooked since I was born and the interior of the right side of my nose had something Dr. Papamichael described as an enlarged knuckle, both of which had hindered my ability to breathe properly my entire life, and left me with virtually no sense of smell. If I no longer wanted to live with these problems she recommended I act a.s.a.p. because it would only get worse as I age. She broke my nose and put it in place, then carved out a normal open passage on its right side. I now breathe normally for the first time in my life, and food is tastier than ever. So are a lot of things. You wouldn’t recognize any difference from its outside appearance. It was all internal. But when I look in the mirror I can tell it’s just that tiny bit straighter.
The next day I entered Manhattan for the first time since the surgery. Emerging from the subway, rising closer to street level with each step, I was pummeled by the exhaust of automobiles. I could nearly taste the stink of shit, and felt a bewildered enchantment at the smell of incense sold in Union Square. All in one short walk up the stairs. A new world.
I was embarking on one of my usual walks. Such pleasure strolls include the one that takes me from the 59th and Lexington station up 2nd Avenue, left on 71st passed my alma mater, passed the Frick, then right along the park until just before the Metropolitan Museum I make a left into the park itself, pass a wonderful expanse of lawn filled with picnics and children, lovers and readers on their backs or on benches, cross a pedestrian bridge, almost all the way back down until I hit the Mall and stroll down Literary Walk with its sculptures of Irish poets and authors on either side until I finally stop before the statue of William Shakespeare. Every Friday at dusk in the summer months he’s surrounded by crowds of couples, both experienced and blind, dancing Tango. My Italian loved ones chalked up my telling of this to their presumption of my inflated romanticism, until Vittoria herself bore witness and relayed her verification on my behalf. From here, I usually go on across the park to the West Side, where I may then be engaged in any number of continuous pursuits. The entire crew in Italy is aware of my walking tours and, upon visiting, warn each other of the necessity to bring a comfortable pair of shoes for what even they have come to admit is the truest way to see the city, shin splints and all.
One night a few years back, Vittoria and I traveled on foot from her apartment in SoHo to mine in Astoria, Queens. We had slept together for the first time the night before. Our friendship, born in teenage innocence within a small community of church-going neighbors, reached an intimacy of staid maturity through our handwritten letters and emails across an ocean, and every large block of time I spent in her town outside Milan over the last dozen years was punctuated by the ease with which our every meeting seemed the effortless continuation of an ongoing conversation as though no time had passed between its many stops and starts. For the two hours it took us to walk from Houston up 5th Avenue, to 59th Street across the Queensborough Bridge, over the river, through Long Island City and to my apartment, we were alone in the world, making our way through what for us were changing times, an age finally untethered to her community, and in the wake of uncertainty were now baring our souls before a fretted-about aftermath that never actually reared its ugly head. By the time we reached my front door we had embarked on the intense, and what turned out to be, all too brief exploration of ourselves together. She was the last time I ever felt at home with the notion of a “she and I”.
I remember too much, I thought to myself now, snapping out of my incense-induced haze. The quickest way to where I was headed would have been to either stay on the train for one more stop and a shorter walk, or to have transferred from the yellow to the red line and gotten out by 7th Avenue and Christopher. But after getting out at Union Square I walked south down University Place then hung a right on 12th Street so as to walk past the Cinema Village art house theater. Each of its three screens may seem just a little bigger than some people’s home entertainment systems, but on one of those screens I saw a Taiwanese businessman work through the emotional struggles of his family seen through the eyes of three generations of kin in “Yi Yi” by Edward Yang. Just delightful. On another I saw the greatest screen kiss shot in my lifetime after Andy Lau pulls Maggie Cheung into the phone booth in Wong Kar Wai’s “As Tears Go By”. When the end credits rolled I ran out to the box office and bought a ticket for the next screening just to see that kiss again. But what really got me was the sold out screening of Marco Tullio Giordana’s six-hour-long “La Meglio Gioventu’”, which followed the divergent paths of two brothers in Italy over three transformative decades. From the looks of it I was the only Italian speaker in the audience. An entire evening these people spent reading subtitles, and yet at the end they applauded in reverie, a few moved to tears. Not to mention, I love the place’s marquee with the cursive neon lettering.
I then made a left at the corner of 12th Street and 5th Avenue past the Salmagundi Gallery and the First Presbyterian Church, and the next right until I reached my favorite 24-hour French cafe’ that in the summertime serves all you can eat muscles and fries which I like to wash down with cold Chardonnay, and I made a left down 6th Avenue until I reached the IFC Center by 3rd Street. It has the most comfortable seats of any theater in the city and serves a hell of a smooth but strong cup of coffee which I was now sipping in my seat, intoxicated by its rich, warm aroma, and riveted by the first of a British trilogy of crime pictures called “Red Riding”, which on this day was being shown as a triple feature.
Roughly five hours later I walked out of the theater and continued right down the street until I hit Houston, making another right to Film Forum where I saw Jane was working the box office. Here was a girl whose eyes had crossed mine after the umpteenth time she had seen me during an Orson Welles retrospective. She continued to see me several times a week during the month that followed in no particular pattern or time of day, and looked at me with what I of course presumed was the vibe of sexual intrigue. Guys tend to presume much. One night I decided to go to my third screening of Jean Pierre Melville’s Nazi resistance picture “Army of Shadows” just to ask her out, and just before it started I approached her while she smoked a cigarette outside.
“Hi,” I said. Good a start as any. “I know this is out of left field, but I’m seeing the last Melville screening. When I get out at midnight would you care to join me for a drink and desert?”
She looked at me through squinted eyes while maintaining the nonchalance of someone smoking with more important things on her mind. “Where?”
“Right here,” I gestured in a vague direction. “On 12th Street.” 24-hour French cafe’.
“Okay.” she said.
“Great.” I walked away and when I opened the door to go inside I turned back to her. “By the way, I’m Gio’.”
I spent surprisingly little of the running time wondering if later on she would actually show.
“I can’t stay long,” she warned when we entered the café, and indeed she seemed to look at her phone every few moments. I found that unsettling. We eventually sank into a carafe of Beaujolais and a piece of chocolate mousse cake on a plate with two forks. I mostly asked about her: from Cali; in her last year at Tisch. She very much likes working at Film Forum because her coworkers are really cool, and I recalled the ragged copy of “Plato’s Republic” momentarily put down by the guy in a somewhat clean t-shirt who ripped my ticket in half upon entering the screening that night. Each one of those guys looks like he woke up at noon, took one whiff of whatever clothes were laying around before dressing in them, then walked to work. But I thought hey, at least he reads. I guess the red wine or chocolate, or dare I suggest my charm, put her at ease because she stopped looking at that damn phone even when it buzzed again as we settled into some good conversation about their recent premieres and retrospectives, and I mentioned that a subtitle translated quite incorrectly a few lines in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Arabian Nights”, which led to some brief exposition on Italian culture and me making sure to ask about her Korean roots: parents came over in the seventies; doesn’t speak the language much; had a great time during the two visits to relatives. She seemed charmed by me claiming to have two Korean cousins. “Italian names, Korean faces. No one ever believes we’re family.” I asked her how her parents met. I’m always bewildered by those who seem fairly unaware of their own origin stories. She then asked about mine, and had the usual mix of confusion and awe upon hearing how a Roman Catholic priest married a Roman Catholic nun, and I relayed my memories of younger days in the convent just outside the Vatican, being served hot chocolate by the nuns who had taken their vows alongside my mom; of hearing the phone ring in the middle of one night and looking out my bedroom window as my dad ran with dire urgency to the house across the street before it was too late to give last rites to our neighbors’ mortally sick husband and father whose time had come. I realized that Jane had been unaware of the passage of time for a good while when her phone buzzed once more and she reached for it and cursed as if something had been left to burn in the oven. No joke, she had to go.
6th Avenue was nearly empty as we walked together and I pulled out a cigar, and knowing she was a smoker, didn’t bother to ask is she minds. I could swear we passed a couple stations that would have been suitable for her to go into, but upon each one she seemed to make an excuse to say something, like asking me where I live or if I’m coming to a screening tomorrow. “Yeah,” I answered. “I’m going to the ”Hanna and Her Sisters” and ”Everyone Says I Love You” double feature. That’s one of my favorites and no one remembers it.”
“"Everyone Says I Love You?”“
When we finally stopped she was in an ambiguously quiet and lingering mood, and as we stood opposite but close to one another I recognized her desire to be kissed. I leaned forward to her side as if to kiss her cheek, but just rested my lips against the side of her face while wrapping my arm around her waist, and I held her there a brief moment. When I pulled my head back and again made eye contact with her, she looked like every other woman. I leaned forward again and just barely rubbed her nose with my own and she made a motion to kiss me but I pulled back just a tad, and with her on the verge of dismay I went back in and kissed her mouth while pulling her body toward mine. Time and place melted away, and she was surrendering as much as I was. I didn’t want to stop kissing, I never do, but when we did she looked up at me through misty eyes and utter silence. I smiled.
She went in for the kiss this time, and I again savored the delicate weight of her lips pressed to mine, and the wet caresses of our tongues twisting upon each other, and I thought about us getting a cab back to my place. When we again took a breather, she looked up at me, her fingers stroking the back of my head and said, “You taste like chocolate and cigars.” Then we went on kissing on the side of the road like two imbeciles for way longer than is appropriate until with clear determination she stepped back out of my embrace with what I swore was an accusatory look. “I have to go,” she insisted. “I had a lovely time. Bye.” She was briefly embarrassed by having made what I guessed she herself felt was a ridiculous statement, then she turned around and went down the steps into the station. I’m not going down there, I thought to myself, and walked to my own station for the train home. I don’t mind late commutes. I always have a book with me anyway and was looking forward to finishing my current chapter of “The Sun Also Rises” by Hemingway.
I made it back to Film Forum the next day for that double feature but only saw her briefly from afar until during the intermission she came in to sweep between the seats. She must have seen me, though it was I who approached her in the isle. “Hey, Jane. Last night was fun, huh?”
She looked straight up at me as if she were honest to goodness leveling with me. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have met up with you. I’m seeing someone.”
I just said, “Oh.” That seemed about right, and that was that, and she walked away.
Since then she’s happy to see me when I show up, and once even gave me free tickets without my asking, though she acted strange when mine and Vittoria’s good friend Pina came with me to see the Thai musical western “The Tear of the Black Tiger”. Pina grew up with Vittoria and the rest of our crew and was visiting stateside, sleeping in my bed while I took the sofa. While Jane worked concession and pretended not to notice us waiting on the ticket holders line, in Italian I told Pina about mine and Jane’s brief night out.
“And now she thinks I’m here on a date with you,” I continued. “Look how she’s pretending not to see me.”
“She’s definitely trying not to notice you,” Pina agreed. I walked off the line and approached Jane at the concession counter.
“Hey,” I said, attempting a friendly smile.
“Hey,” she said, attempting a friendly smile.
“Can I have an espresso?”
“Sure.” And she made me an espresso.
And just as I was turning away she said, “Have a good night tonight.”
“She said have a good night tonight,” I told Pina in Italian as soon as I got back to the line.
“Gio’, I’m worried about you,” Pina said as the line started to move. “I read your last post. You’re still writing about Vittoria.”
“That’s a composite character.”
“Composite character. How many women have you swam naked in Vietri Sul Mare with?”
“Two.” Pina had gone skinny dipping with us. I made one last glance across the room at Jane before handing my ticket to Plato’s Republic to be ripped in half.
She now sold me a ticket to “Ran”, the last ever picture by Akira Kurosawa, which is a Japanese version of Shakespeare’s “MacBeth”. After the British triple feature, I was stoked in anticipation of seeing what I knew would be my fourth good picture of the day, and I just stood there for a while, enjoying for the first time ever the smell of freshly-popped popcorn filling the small lobby from behind the concession.
I don’t present my work to you as gossip. Whether it’s been an account of the last moments of my grandmother’s life, my own experience within the shellshock of geopolitical disaster, or encounters with lovers, I’ve always presented what happened. I suppose I’ve offered an added dimension in the form of stylized choices which I’ve made as author. Yes, the things I write are private. Perhaps at their roots, artists are egotistical. That is, they are consumed with the exploration of their own inner depths and the reaching for discovery. Socrates, at least according to Plato because Socrates never wrote anything, believed in intellectual humility; that the discovery of your ignorance is simply the beginning of your philosophical journey. The Roman Catholic saint Tomasso Acquino said the brain without sensory experience is empty; it’s in a state of potentiality regarding intelligible things, but that sensory experience without the intellect isn’t intelligible, and is therefor, blind. Intellect and experience is crucial. So is the new. Another belief of Socrates was that the highest philosophical vision is possible only to one who has the temperament of a lover; a temperament which had served me both well and wrong, as I had too often been more disposed to passion than emotional maturity.
What were earlier human beings doing painting on the walls of caves? They were discovering, creating: legend, religion, cosmology. People frequently assume that because I was a model and actor I must be vain. But there is an extraordinary difference between actor and spectator. Lots of people fantasize of being the hero or lover on a ten-foot screen accompanied by an orchestra, while few understand what acting is; how it’s a process of discovery, understanding, specific choices, being brave enough to be free and vulnerable, of being an instrument of truth, from moment to moment to moment. It’s being extremely private while others watch, which is why I’ve always found acting to be a bit perverted. And yet, the process involved with being a student of the craft, of exploring my emotional and psychological depths as an actor, where what above all saved me during the year following the attack of September 11th. It was my psychotherapy and the incarnation of my authentic internal being within circumstances that were imaginary. Then came the second entire year in the training, in which I learned how to read a stage or screen play and understand both the text and its subtext and figure out what to use from inside my toolbox and how to apply these choices and the resources within this depth of field, again, from moment to moment; the fruits of enormous preparation, and then the ability to let go.
Growing up I felt constantly judged by others, starting with some kid in kindergarten telling me priests and nuns aren’t allowed to have children, my mom then finding me in my bedroom crying out of fear of what that entailed. No one made matters better. From there, teachers actually berated me for coloring outside the lines while I was dumfounded by their lack of vision: every kid was coloring within the lines and with one solid color. Couldn’t they appreciate my choice to move outside those same lines and with every color of crayon in the box? What douchebag alienates a child for that? I became a kid who the bullies could see a mile off meant no harm to anyone which was their invitation to harm me. Later on, in high school just outside of Syracuse, New York, they saw my identification with my Italian roots as their point of entry; our household, and that of our Korean cousins, being just about the only two in the neighborhood in which languages other than English could be heard. For God’s sake, my father speaks Latin. Meanwhile in Italy, while many saw my American identity as the stuff of dreams, others used it as the cornerstone of my alienation. But as my twenties approached, through school, work, and travel, I was making strides, on my own, creating my own sense of identity unbeholden to others.
I was not a kid when I went to bed that September 10th, but I was young. In the morning I awoke to a frantic phone call from Mom. I was sure my brother Franco was uptown at school, but outside his own school hours our younger brother Marco worked for a company that did business at World Trade, and he was in the north tower. I threw on a pair of jeans, and in an hour and a half fueled by pure adrenalin, ran from where I was living on 95th Street and 3rd Avenue toward that distant cloud of smoke penetrating the sky downtown, until I arrived at what remained of the towers. Looking up in utter dismay, I stared as hard as I could so as to be certain that what I was seeing was real. Destruction surrounded me in every direction and the ground beneath my feet was unrecognizable, a beach of pummeled debris that seemed like sand risen higher than street level, cars utterly toasted, and more paper than I’d ever seen in my life was scattered everywhere as if part of the weather. I was disoriented when a male figure ran through the patches of daylight meandering its way back through the fog to put a mask on my face so I could breath and be protected from whatever carcinogens we may have been exposed to, those of us who were not captivated by these images onscreen, but who instead lived this terror of an unknown before our own eyes, and I remember praying that my brother was alive and hoping that I would get out. I never again saw that stranger who appeared from nowhere to put the mask on my face, even as I remained for some time among the ruins with what was left of the teams of first responders who were now, themselves, survivors.
My own personal bearings amidst the thoughts, opinions, and misunderstandings of the entire world following the attack was an insanity that seemed to epitomize the attempted stoicism with which I had faced the alienation I had suffered all too often between the two cultures of my youth. I suppose by now that yes, Italian Americans are as assimilated as you can get, but I’ve too often found that human beings are such that, even if we were all the same ethnicity, color, and religion, our tribal classification of each other could very well come down to, “We’re from this side of the street, you’re from that side.” And let’s face it, growing up I was what most would have called a loser, with nowhere to be and no one to be there with, alone with my pen and paper, my drawings and paintings. Franco, Marco, and Mary had friends, but I was the Boo Radley of the neighborhood. By the end of my teenage years mine and Vittoria’s crew in Italy had changed that. I was used to spending summers with my cousins down south in Sicily, Puglia, and Rome. I loved being with them, but was thrilled when suddenly I mattered to someone outside my family dinner table. After the attack, I again struggled to find a place. But then suddenly, on stage or on set, I found myself within a sacred frame in which I had complete freedom, where no one would judge me if I were evil or weird or different or sexy or nasty or sad or happy, from somewhere else or whatever. The only thing that mattered was my honesty to the work.
When will I no longer think about the attack? I thought to myself as I left Film Forum, and waved bye to Jane. I walked up the block back to 6th Ave., and looking downtown I wondered, When had I ceased to be shocked by the towers’ absence?I got myself home and packed. I had time off on account of the surgery so the next morning I drove with Mary and my brother-in-law Tom to Syracuse for the weekend to visit Mom and Dad.
When we walked in the front door Mom was making espresso for herself, Dad, and her cousin Carmella who were eating fruit and cracking nutshells around the kitchen table. After everyone stopped what they were doing to hug and kiss each of us, Dad sat back down, picked up a knife and said, “Guys, have something to eat.” He picked up an apple, and pressing the knife against it with the side of his forefinger, sliced off a piece which he then slid off the knife and into his mouth. I ripped the end off a loaf of Italian bread, tore out its white center, filled the now empty pocket with lettuce and tomato, poured some olive oil on top, shook a bit of pepper over all of it, and sank my teeth in. Then, seated at the table, drinking coffee, speaking in and out of English and Italian with Mom — who in truth speaks Sicilian, Dad, and Cousin Carm, I found myself in Little Italy. It was a typical scene from my youth.
The only thing missing was Nonna. The Christmas Eve prior, this room had been filled with company. Throughout the night friends and family, the living who presumed to have more tomorrows, wandered away from conversation and good fun one at a time, entering the den to say hi and spend some time with her. The glass I was holding was my third in total, but my first scotch after two white wines which had earlier accompanied my several plates full of buttered crab legs and muscles. I usually drink my scotch neat but this one was filled with ice since, as I do every year, having already attended mass at four and seven pm, I would also be at the midnight, and already having enough weight on my heart and soul, it would not serve to carry the supplemental drudgery of too much alcohol and its stink while being greeted by good Father Finnegan, whose known what a good kid I am since I was eight. Not that it’s an issue. I average one stiff drink a week, and I actually enjoy the drink, mind you. This was an otherwise festive gathering weighted down my Marco’s absence and the condition of our ninety-one-year-old grandmother, for months now lying in bed in the corner with nothing to do but wait to die, who throughout the night floated in and out of sleep. When she saw me now, at least she recognized me.
“Pippenedo,” she called me in her dialect, which, grotesquely and gorgeously epitomized the southern, dark, and tradition-rich place of her Sicilian upbringing. And in Italian she went on, “Why are you so beautiful?”
In Italian I answered, “Because I’m the portrait of your mother.”
“How true,” she replied. “You’re the spitting image of my mother.”
I told her, “I love you, Nonna, too much,” using one of the few English phrases she knew well and usually said to us.
If only we could live with as much devotion for anything as she did for us and for her God. Seated, I spent most of my time simply smiling at her, trying to give dignity to her situation, veneration toward the particular point in life she now found herself in, the same point we will all confront sooner or later, some of us more than once, and other than when I attended the three masses, I did not leave her side the entire night. We are the living. Is it not right for us to honor each other today, every today with which we are blessed? Hours later, I slouched over in my chair, asleep where I sat while in front of me she slept in her bed which was looked down upon by a canvas Dad had painted of Jesus Christ. In the morning I awoke and started to remove my three piece suit and tie as I climbed upstairs to take a shower. As the hot water washed over me I asked myself, Will I, like San Francesco, ever be able to walk naked across the fire with nothing but my faith?
When the espresso was drunk and the fruit and walnuts eaten, Mom took Tom into the garage to show him the new garage door opening system that needed to be assembled as I helped Dad wash the dishes, then walked into that den. The corner where my grandmother’s bed had been was now occupied by a shelf of books. Hanging on the side of our bar was our map of Sicily. From a miniscule point on that map called Spadafora, just outside the city of Messina, the dreams, burdens, and courage of a fisherman and his wife to move forward into the unknown for a family just born, and still to be born, gave birth to the mere possibilities of our every day. A devout couple, at a moment in their lives similar to the age in which we find ourselves now, sailed across an ocean with their two young daughters and little else but the clothes on their backs. They arrived in New York’s harbor on Christmas night, seeing snow fall for the first time in their lives.
And now I’m in Syracuse, New York, I thought, which, although it is the place of my birth and the scene of the majority of my first two decades, curiously never felt quite like home. But the footsteps of another life already lived are everywhere here in the room in which I played spaceship and sports with my brothers. Here I am in the room I ran into at age eleven after the phone call from the hospital, me and my grandmother alone together as she wailed uncontrollably with the hideous agony of a woman who had just seen her life suddenly stolen from her, while my still-innocent heart prayed like never before that the death of my grandfather was not true. It was in that moment that I realized life’s path doesn’t necessarily go the way you hope no matter how much you want it to. For some reason Vittoria now came to mind. How often I find myself absorbed in memory, of people loved and lost, of times that were once infinite and now past.
How often, in other circumstances and environments, have I looked across a room at a woman who I then approach with both self-confidence and humility? I now felt heartache as I looked across the room to Marco as a child smiling in an old family portrait. Will I ever see him again? Forget the women who have come and gone. This breaks my heart.
Back in Dad’s day you’d hear the Church’s hierarchical powers that be forecasting the possibility of one’s embattled soul ending up in Purgatory; that no man’s land between Heaven and Hell, as if it were a true and fundamental notion of Catholic ideology and not a concept created by a writer, Dante Alighieri. Perhaps Marco and I were both there. Along life’s journey I too had found myself lost in darkness, the true path far from view. But I was also the first of my siblings to create a new life. Having considered myself an island, these passed years I have at least had the fortitude to work every day toward earning peace as if it were an art, by the grace that moves the sun and stars, and in the venerable solitude of empty space I am one of those stars too. But Marco is losing the battle. He made it out of the north tower, just barely, which I didn’t find out until I got his message back at my place. He then fled to Italy for the next two years, and although he eventually came back, he didn’t go to our only sister’s wedding. He didn’t go to our grandmother’s funeral. He has estranged himself from us when all we want is to embrace him. When I look at that photo of him from so long ago, there is a void in the center of my being crying to be filled, as if coming to grips with the memory of a child who has died. September 11th did that to me too. I was much older from that day, on. But I ran towards it. I didn’t run away. I stayed, and I’m still here.
My friends have asked me from time to time, why do I write what I write? But I ask: does the nude fail to understand why the painter paints her? Does the protagonist ask why she is filmed by the director? Does the marble ask the sculptor why it is being sculpted? Does the note ask why the musician has played it? Among all I have written, is there not veneration toward all I hold sacred? Whereas I spent my early life as one who searches, I am now becoming one who finds.
I have learned. As Rilke implored in his famous letters, I have learned to love the questions and to live them; I who have yet to start. I have learned patience regarding all that is without resolution. Perhaps I will one day live the answer, but in the meantime, I savor the work of today; the details, the machinations of everyday life, the only life, at the very least for now, that we have, in which truly we have, above all, little else but each other.
One summer day as a teenager, on the beach of Spadafora, between the house in which my mother lived as a girl and the sea that fed her, I held my grandmother’s hand and realized I was the incarnation of her dreams returned to the nest of their conception. Will I be so fortunate? Will I see the seeds I’ve carried in life flourish? What matters is that I have planted them, whether or not I live to see the trees.
Tom got his large tool box out of the SUV, and he and I got started on my parents’ garage door opener. Tom’s been doing this stuff since he was eight years old, tagging along with his dad working construction. Tom has his own construction business now and this is his second nature. Franco and I shoot hoops on the same team in an urban league, I love playing football with my coworkers every other weekend in autumn, and to this day I hit 90-mile-an-hour fastballs in the batting cage every Thursday at 11am from April through September. But I’m an artist. Like Dad, I paint and draw, though I’ve never done anything as impressive as his large canvas of the Sistine Chapel’s centerpiece of Creation which hangs in the living room. I write, of course. It was definitely Tom leading the way with my help during the several hours it took us to finish everything in the garage. Things like that are not my second nature, but I learn. I figure out what I have to do, and I do it. And it was good spending time like this with my brother-in-law.
There had been a three-year period in which I was working as an actor, doing a lot of good theater that wasn’t getting seen by many people, and screen work in mini-series for Japanese television, usually as the love interest of the lead who was always a big star over there. I loved it, but I wasn’t setting the world on fire. I had a great rapport with my Japanese colleagues, but it was not easy. Footage may be out there to be stumbled upon, though that unlucky viewer will not know that I was never permitted to read an entire script or even the entirety of my own pages all at once, instead being emailed the next day’s pages just before I went to bed. I was always speaking my lines in English while my co-stars spoke theirs in Japanese. Not being allowed proper prep and ignorant of context, I often struggled to respond and bring proper behavior to the moment. I loved being on set, and would stick around even when my day was done just to observe everyone at work. I found out, from my own observation and from the mouths of my colleagues, that the Japanese did not have a tradition of acting technique. Many times while preparing a shot, the crew would observe me from afar with great curiosity while I was in the corner, lost in a zone of raw emotion or physical exercise, as they wondered, “Why is Gio’ behaving so weird over there by himself?” Shock and awe would describe the feelings of my co-star when as we’re about to shoot a take of mutual lust I would whisper dirty tidbits in her ear, or prior to a scene of reciprocal adoration I would ask her, “When is your birthday?” then, “What would be the greatest gift anyone could give you?” When she would inevitably ask why I want to know I would tell her, “Because I want to imagine I can give it to you.” Blew her effing mind. The response was sweeter when I secretly ate a piece of chocolate just before a shot of us kissing, hoping the camera would pick up an honest reaction of subtle surprise and deliciousness across her face.
As valuable as my time doing that was, I yearned to focus on my writing which I hoped to then direct. I was farther away than I knew, but I knew I had to start. I sought an overnight job so as to construct the discipline with which to change my life in which I felt everything from my closet to my diet had to evolve. Working such an awkward schedule would force me to be on point. I found myself doing the overnight shift for five years in a boutique hotel tucked away on a side street in SoHo, where I shit you not my title was Overnight Specialist, doing the work of every department from eleven at night to seven-thirty in morning. One of our daytime managers was a twenty-five year old Irish-American bombshell named Dannie who looked up from her computer as I walked into the front office my first night back, a week after the surgery. “Look who’s back,” she said, welcoming me from my time off. “I stayed late just to hear how you’re doing.”
Zeek, the overnight auditor, swiveled around in his chair and jumped to his feet. As I clocked in he took a closer look at my face. “Looks the same, Gio’.”
“I know,” I said. “But believe me, it’s completely different on the inside.”
“So,” Dannie wanted to know, “How is it, being able to smell?”
“Pretty wild,” I said. “The subway’s about as horrible as I imagined.”
“Well,” Zeek said, “I guess I can’t fart any more silent but deadlies in the office.”
A couple hours later, I walked into the kitchen to go over a room service order with the overnight chef, who had his back to me while preparing a previous order from the restaurant, and I walked into the warm redolence of whatever he was already cooking. “That’s amazing!” I said, enthused by the possibilities of what this would turn out to be. He turned around to look me in the eyes, though his were filled with utter confusion. He said nothing, which tormented me. “What is that you’re cooking?!” I demanded to know as the doors of culinary discovery were about to open onto my whetted appetite. His brain froze for an instant as if riding out the possibility that I was fucking with him, then he flatly answered, “Rice.”
At three a.m. I knew Zeek would be running the audit, and as usual he and I were about to indulge in our own dinners in the front office. I held a plastic container of food from home as I walked in on him and a cloud of fragrance from what I thought just might be cooked peas. When Zeek swiveled around on his chair, exposing the large soup bowl in front of him, I saw my hunch was right. I didn’t tell him, but I craved to stand over his dinner and inhale deeply as I felt the air flood my insides with the near taste of the pea soup, almost satisfying my hunger, and for a few moments I just enjoyed the lingering sent, as I prepared to eat my tuna fish salad. I liked what I had brought to eat that night, but I had already smelled it much earlier in my kitchen and it was exactly what I had expected.
An hour later the silence that came with the last of the hotel bar’s patrons leaving the premises signaled the go-ahead for my usual walk-through, and I walked in on Ieda sitting at the bar in her cocktail dress, legs crossed, hand on her wine glass. She looked up and smiled. “Hey,” she said, and I smiled back. Ieda was half Greek and half Ethiopian with mocha skin and the face of a goddess whose portrait you’d expect to find on a mosaic in an ancient Roman ruin. She had enormous breasts that beckoned as if calling you home, and a beautiful round ass on which I would have liked to rest my head as if it were a pillow. When she walked around work in that sexy but classy black dress, I felt like I was the only man alive to bear witness to the most beautiful and exotic bird passing me in the desert.
"Just chilling?” I asked.
I approached her, and as I pulled up a bar stool I struck the delicate balance of appreciating her crossed legs while not making evident the fact that I was doing so. She probably knew it. “How’d the shift treat you?” I asked.
“Same old, same old. How are you?”
She smiled impulsively. “I love to hear you say that.”
“I don’t say it if it’s not true. No faking it ‘til I make it. It’s the real deal.”
“I need more positivity,” she said.
“Times are rough?”
“Aren’t they always?”
“I guess that’s true.” Her vulnerability was barely masked below a surface of general positivity.
“Relationship?” I asked.
“Things have just been going so well with me and this guy these first few months,” she said. “And now…” she trailed off.
“Things are changing?”
“Things are changing. And I think neither of us is sure what the other wants.”
“Are things still going well?” I asked.
“It’s great,” she said. “We’ve developed this connection that’s like our own secret from the rest of the world. I think we’re just anticipating what the other is thinking in terms of where we want this relationship to go.”
I laughed almost silently to myself. “The commitment talk. Have you had it?”
“Sort of. He says he aspires to be married someday, but his work is going so well he needs to be focused on that right now.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “Marriage is one thing. Being committed to seeing where the two of you might go is another.”
“I know,” she assured me. “I just mean that he’s serious about our relationship. Not…” she again trailed off.
“Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am?” I asked. She laughed, then looked shy. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s obviously not like that. It sounds great. Don’t fear it. Embrace it.” She looked up at me with what seemed to be hope. “I feel like I’ve been struck by lightning twice. Those relationships were two of the best things that ever happened to me. But they ran their natural course, which was eventually Splitsville. Not everyone can be The One, right? But I have to wonder, how many times can you win the lottery? I did emerge from each relationship a better person, and looking back on them makes me smile. I’ve been a single guy for a while now, and I enjoy being single. It’s difficult for me to imagine capturing that magic in a bottle again. So I just put my best foot forward, having faith in people, treating them how I’d like to be treated. You two have gotten that far. Don’t try to guess what each other is thinking. Find out.”
“You’re right,” she said. “But do I want to be the one to bring up that conversation? I don’t want to be a nag. I think we both try to be as accommodating to the other as possible without pressuring each other.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Have the conversation with him that you’re having with me. This is easy. Even if you found The One, at some point you’re inevitably going to go through real problems. That’s life. Don’t sell yourselves short now. I was once in a relationship where it felt like the entire universe conspired to bring us together, but…” now I was the one that trailed off.
“Now you enjoy being a single guy,” she said.
“Now I enjoy everything. I didn’t always.”
“That’s great,” she said.
“I enjoy waking up. I enjoy cooking. I enjoy the gym. I enjoy the beach.” She smiled wider as I went on. “I enjoy work. I enjoy doing the laundry.”
“That’s a new one,” she said.
“I’m just preparing for lightning to strike again.”
She smiled. Then she almost jumped at me, asking, “How was your surgery!?”, as if dumbstruck that my own issues had slipped her mind.
“A complete success,” I said. “I breath normally now, and I have the olfactory experience of a one-year-old, so I’m discovering new things every day.”
“That is so incredible.” She picked up her wine and took a sip. As the glass left her lips a light flashed behind her eyes that before she even swallowed compelled her to extend her arm, offering the glass to me. "Have some,” she said.
I paused at her gesture before extending my own arm. She leaned toward me and just before she put the glass in my hand I was blindsided by the whiff of something so breathtaking my eyes looked up at her with a force she couldn’t help but notice. I would have sworn the very taste of her skin was lingering before me as if I had walked through a vanishing mist, and in the valiant stoicism written on my face she recognized the arousal for man’s deepest yearning brought forth, as I melted into a puddle on the floor. She wasn’t even wearing perfume. It was just her. What was it? As every woman I had ever been with flashed before me within a single heartbeat, I found no reference to this intoxication which, however fleeting and new, reverberated through me with its pure femininity. Were they all like this? Had I been missing out so long on something so simple, so right? I was nearly overwhelmed by the need to trace over her entire body from head to toe with my lips, to taste her. My chest was consumed by rising warmth and I sank into the full embrace of truth and soul as goose bumps piled on my neck. Her mouth held the faintest notion of an inclination to smile. Did she know what I was feeling?
I raised the glass to my nose and breathed in the allure of its blood-red contents. I smirked. The wine’s bouquet snuck deep into the arousal born within me by the woman no closer than a foot to my right. My eyes rolled up at her. “Go ahead,” she said. I took a sip and it slid down my throat with the cooling caress of satin, consoling my desire as it found its place of rest. I placed the glass back on the bar and felt moved to the contemplation of life’s better fruits.
An hour later the morning houseman Simon came in for the start of his shift, and as he’s done every morning at this time for the last several years, started his day scrubbing the lobby’s carpet with a large carpet cleaning machine. The elevator door opened, and I was struck immediately as I entered the lobby in the midst of his work. “Simon,” I asked, “that odor’s been there every time you clean the carpet?”
“Yes, Gio’,” Simon said. “You know I’ve smelled it so often for so many years I can’t smell it any more, I’m so used to it.”
“That’s a damn clean carpet,” I assured him, and walked away.
The sun was now fully up and the sounds of the neighborhood started to sing. A yellow cab pulled up to drop off an early check-in. I opened the door for the guest and as he drove off, the driver, an Egyptian named Shafeek, yelled through his open side-door window, “Gio’, how’s your nose?” I gave him a single thumb up.
At seven thirty I walked out of the building to head home when a familiar voice shouted out, “Hey, Gio’!” It belonged to Corneliu, another cabby from Romania, smiling as he stuck his head out his window. “Now you can smell all the shit in this stinking city?!” He laughed as he pulled away from the curb.
Every night at that hotel, dressed like James Bond, I was the bellman, answered phones, covered housekeeping, room service, engineering, and security on my shift. The same guy who served you dinner in bed was the one who’d throw your ass out the front door onto the curb if need be, and believe me I’ve done it. My job was everywhere, in every nook and cranny, as well as the front door or office, and the kitchen. I was the shadow you didn’t even see in the corner, the footsteps you never herd approaching, privy to line cooks snorting cocaine while preparing the tuna tartar, a pair of front desk agents getting their freak on in the fire stairwell, movie stars in the midst of affairs hiding under their bed sheets, other guests’ threesomes, and you better believe there were times I was called up to a suite in the middle of the night by women under the pretention of this or that when upon arriving all that was called for was some tender loving care. All I can tell you is I never took any liberties except that once.
That one time I had entered the office a few minutes before the start of my shift and walked past Dannie, seated at a desk in front of a computer. For half a year I had been passionately enchanted by her beyond reason. A month before, I had called out sick while I was actually taking her out to dinner. She must have been a late bloomer because not only was she ravishing, with curves to stop traffic, but she had a personality that made you happy to wake up in the morning. Every guy at the hotel and his brother had asked her out at some point before I got around to it, and every time she had politely told them thanks, but no thanks. During our night out, I had alarmed her, going balls out suggesting she spend the night at my place where I’ll make her breakfast in the morning. She freaked. But it was behind us, and if I’m a leopard that can’t change his spots, perhaps I’d eventually be able to at least use them in a different way. To her credit, she was a champ.
“Hi, Gio’,” she greeted me happily while I clocked in. Hearing her say my name made me feel good.
“You know what I wanted to ask you, Dannie?” I sat right on the desk, facing her. Having entered her space, she tried to not look at me directly. “What color are your eyes?”
“Green?” she responded, still looking down as if she wasn’t sure. I remained completely still, looking at her until she gathered enough calm to look up at me. When her eye met mine I knew I had her, as if I were a boxer who no longer had any doubt, noticing in the most brief and intimate instant the eye of his opponent flinch ever so slightly behind the façade of raw invincibility.
“Yeah,” I said, “Green.”
Dominique, a front desk agent from St. Kitts in the Caribbean, entered the room to go home. “Gio’,” she said. “I saw you smoking that cigar at the barbeque. Very nice.” she had a smile that seemed happy to be in trouble. “What’s your brand?”
“I smoke Zino Platinum, Dominique.”
“Very nice. I’ve sometimes tried Romeo y Julietta.”
“Oh, I’ll try whatever you’re smoking,” I said while I took the radio that I carried during my shift from its charger. And then when Olga, another agent, from Russia, also entered from the front desk ready to leave work, I took from the shelf above Dannie my usual key-card that opens every room in the hotel. I said “Excuse me, Dannie,” and Olga bent over directly under me for who the hell knows why. “Sign me out?” I asked as Olga popped straight up practically into my arms.
“You always have that scent,” Olga said, and suddenly she was embarrassed to find the palm of her hand against my chest. I could get used to it. “That scent of…” she searched for the words.
“A man smoking a cigar and drinking whisky while reading from a leather-bound book?” I asked. She smiled, almost laughed, really, at me having such a rich description already on hand.
“I think Gio’ has the scent of Chai tea,” Dominique said.
“It’s a handmade cologne he bought after his surgery for a deviated septum,” Dannie squeezed in, I would have almost sworn, out of frustration.
Olga took a few steps back, never taking her eyes off me while she turned the knob on the exit a few times to no avail. “It’s okay,” I told her while approaching both her and the door. “Sometimes I scare people. You have to hit the lock button.” Almost pressed against her, I pressed the button on the wall next to the door myself.
“It’s the door,” she insisted.
“It’s the door.” I agreed, as the door, just behind her shoulders, swung away from us, and Olga left. I turned to Dannie only to see her staring at her computer screen trying not to notice me. What a waste, I thought, then left myself. But that’s life.
And so, when thirty minutes into my shift, it was around eleven thirty at night, I saw Dannie facing me from outside the hotel entrance before she went home, I assumed she needed something. But when I approached her she seemed to have nothing to do but stand there. She stared at me with the eyes of a young woman who was at life’s mercy; eyes that had the depth of a house with secrets to share about the family that lives inside; stones that sunk into the sea of my soul like a lost friend who had now been found too late; a look both reassuring and disappointing, full of contradiction. “What is this face?” I asked while the tips of my fingers slid tenderly down her cheek closest to me as if they were sliding down the glass of a window outside a room I would never be able to enter. Her eyes closed as I extended my other hand and with it held her other cheek, and with a patience and passion that said explicitly, “I adore you,” I kissed her where her ear met her neck. My arm hugged her waist, and with my hand rested in the small curve of her back, I pulled her toward me. “Dannie,” I whispered in her ear.
“What?” she asked in a voice that almost, but not quite, surrendered. We shared a silence, and it spoke loudly to us both, until finally I said, “You know what,” in a tone that wore my heartstrings on my sleeve.
Then she left.
Just coming in, was the woman who had been turning every head in the lobby for the last three days. That gorgeous face, the cleavage that somehow wasn’t obvious while also telling you, “Yeah, I’m here. So?” Jeans you’d swear were painted onto her ass; the walk of someone who owns it. And that British accent; that accent that made everything perfect. She had been with us for the premiere of her new motion picture, and every night I’d been sent up to her room to fix her TV or to deliver room service before she went to sleep. There was always a different person with her in the room; her agent, or a gay buddy. Once, while I was in there with them, the buddy asked me, “Where are you from?”
“Syracuse,” I told him. “I live in Queens. But I’m Italian.”
Tonight she seemed strange, emotional, crying even, coming and going through the entrance over the course of the next hour with a female friend who was always ready to hug her as a gesture of support. Finally, upon entering one last time she approached me, her eyes glassed-over with dried tears.
“Can I order a pizza?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll order out, and when it comes I’ll bring it up.”
“You’re the one who brings it up?”
At around two o’clock, I brought the pizza delivery guy up to her room. I was standing against the wall opposite her door when it opened. In a slip and fully-opened bathrobe, she paid, and gave the guy a tip. While he walked away I was about to follow him when she asked, “Want some pizza?” and immediately turned around back into the room while leaving the door wide open. I followed.
“Definitely,” she said. “I can’t eat all this.”
I closed the door behind me.
“I’m sorry,” she continued. “I’ve been terrible.” She had still been crying. “I received terrible news tonight.” She was radiant. Emotional. Teary-eyed. Without makeup. She dropped the pizza box on the bed and sat on the sofa next to it as I stood, leaning against the wall across the bed from her. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “My parents just called from England to tell me my dog died today. He was hit by a car.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I told her. I meant it. “What was his name?”
“Dinky,” she said almost laughing through the tears. Stupid name. Even for a dog.
“How old was he?” I asked.
“I remember when my dog died,” I said. “I was sixteen, and I had him since I was two and a half.”
“What was his name?”
“Beaujolais,” I answered. “Like the wine. And he was a real gentleman. When I took him for a walk the other dogs that passed us would bark, but he always walked with is head up in silence like he had no idea he was a dog too. During the entire last year of his life he had to go out in the middle of the night every night. He always entered my room and, so as not to wake up anyone else asleep in the house, he would walk back and forth under all these jackets I kept hung from the chair at my desk. The noise made by the friction was enough to wake me up but not anyone else. For months after he died I woke up every night, I was so used to talking him out.” She seemed to care. My mind wandered. I looked down and sighed deeply. “I’m going through a month of one disaster after another,” I went on. “My younger brother has hurt us a lot the past two years. I had to kick him out of my apartment because he treated us so terribly. And now I don’t know if or when I’ll see him again. It’s because he’s suffered. Then I suddenly had to move to a new apartment myself on a moment’s notice. I’ve been feeling stressed.” She found me interesting, and an opportunity opened for us to know each other a little.
“Do you model?” she asked.
“Once upon a time,” I answered.
“I do this.”
“What’s wrong with this?”
She didn’t mean to offend me. “I used to write about politics,” I said, “until American policy both foreign and domestic made me depressed. So I tried to write film criticism.”
“It didn’t stick?”
“Well, there are thirty teams in the NBA,” I explained. “Each one with fifteen guys on their roster. You have a higher probability of playing in the NBA than being one of the hundred, if even that many, who earn their living as film critics.”
“I was a plain-clothes security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art while I trained as an actor at a studio,” I went on. “I eventually worked in the Japanese film industry for a few years. You’re here for the premiere of your new picture, right?”
“Yes,” she answered a bit uncomfortably. “Uh, it was yesterday.”
I mentioned that I had seen the one she was in that came out summer of the year before. “I thought you were good, and that almost every individual part of the picture was interesting, but I felt the entirety of it wasn’t greater than the sum of its parts.” She was refreshed by someone speaking so frankly, yet considerately, regarding her work. She said she wants to start producing more. I told her about my God-awful work in Japanese television. They do tell me the guy who dubs me is the Nicolas Cage of Japan. She found that funny. I explained how I knew the work I was doing wasn’t “Gone With the Wind”, and how I had quit acting to take this job, how I felt there is no time but now, and was now determined to move at least a foot, even if only a foot, in the right direction every day. As fifteen minutes became half an hour, and half an hour became forty-five minutes, and forty-five minutes became an hour, we got the sense that we liked each other and I found myself seated on the corner of the bed, directly in front of her, still on the sofa in that slip and bathrobe left open. Every now and then she crossed her legs just enough to pique my interest. She knew what she was doing. She was in the middle of a sentence, about what I couldn’t tell you, when I suddenly, and without further provocation, got up and sat next to her on the sofa, my hip right up against hers. She stopped talking immediately and looked at me, astonished.
“That was perhaps the sexiest thing I’ve seen a man do in some time.”
“What?” I asked.
“You’re very brave.”
I put my finger tips on her naked thigh and caressed her gently. Without moving her head, her eyes rolled down to what I was doing while I never stopped looking her in the face.
“And now you’re caressing my thigh.”
“I’ll stop when you want me to stop.”
I caressed her leg and discovered she was wearing a thong. I then caressed her face, and tenderly pushed away the hair that covered her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve been crying, and I have snot hanging from my nose, I’m in my grannie’s slip, and you’re this very good-looking and interesting man.” I laughed, which evidently hurt her. She looked at me with sharp eyes before crying once again. “You do this often?” she asked. “You want to fuck? Is that it? You want to fuck?” She had a vulnerability that was hoping ever so much that I wasn’t there simply to smash. Like it were a prayer to the universe that I was in fact the sincere man I seemed to be this past hour we spent together.
”You invited me into your room.” I reminded her tenderly, still caressing her face. “We’re talking. We’re both going through a difficult time. You find me attractive and interesting. I find you attractive and interesting. We’re two people in a hotel, sharing this moment. And I can leave when you tell me to leave.” I kissed her on the cheek.
“I guess this always works for you.” she said, hoping to maintain her dignity. “I’m sure you do very well in this hotel at night.”
I answered with the simple truth. “This has never happened.” She wanted to believe me. After a moment in which neither of us said anything, I stood up with a force. “Get up,” I ordered. She got up. Under her open robe I embraced her. I wanted her to feel her body against mine. I simply held her, slowly shifting our weight from one foot to the other, side to side as if we were dancing slowly in place, her cheek resting on my shoulder. Then she raised her head, buried her face in the side of my neck, and inhaled. She looked up at me with new eyes. “I believe in karma,” I said. “I wouldn’t exploit Dinky’s death.” She almost laughed. I opened her robe completely. I removed it from her shoulders and let it drop to the floor. ”Grannie’s slip, huh?” I went down on my knees in front of her. I put my hands on her feet and then moved them up the entire length of her legs under the slip and just lightly squeezed on her fabulous bare ass. I placed my thumbs under her thong from the back and then ran them along her waist toward her navel and down where they lightly caressed her just outside the nest of creation. I rose to my feet as my hands moved up and I held her entire torso from under the slip and I kissed her passionately on the mouth. Her hand rested on my chest, then slid down passed my belt, touching me between the legs with just her knuckles. ”Oh,” she said with light amusement as if she didn’t know exactly what she’d find there. This became a deeper, graver, “Ohhh,” when she turned her hand over, and with her open palm felt it from outside my trousers.
I pulled down the straps of her slip until her breasts hung in the air. I made her take a step back and fall down on the bed with me on top of her. We never once stopped kissing as she opened my belt, button, and zipper, then slid a hand down my back, below my waist, and held onto my ass as if her life depended on never letting go. She whispered in complete desperation but I couldn’t make it out. She sank more and more under the waves while my hands lightly traced between and across her breasts; my thumb only flirting with the peak of each mound. She searched urgently for something in particular down the front of my exposed torso, and found it quickly. Holding me in her hand, her eyes rolling back, she smiled in anticipation of the pain and began to drown.
Believe me, I was the last person in that hotel to see action. As I saw it, I was there to work, I did my job right with the satisfaction of knowing there was no one but me to do it, and doing so helped me find the beat of my own drum. Every day for years, I had been reading “The Art of Peace”, a collection of brief writings by the great Japanese warrior Morihei Ueshiba, focusing not on the words themselves but rather permeating a living essence of their meaning throughout my very self. I had even referred to it as part of my preparation when I was an actor, using it as a primer to blank my slate before the further prep I had constructed specifically for whatever role I was in. For some time now I had also been meditating, practicing yoga, and weightlifting religiously, leading my body and soul to shape themselves with new energy and purpose. I loved meditating under a tree in Central Park where, focusing solely on my breath, I would eventually drift away from thought, arriving at a vast emptiness in the shared presence of my environment which, no longer bound by my ever-dissipating ego, emerged in the forefront of my perceptions, becoming a landscape of which I was just a part. I would imagine floating upward above the park, then gradually higher above the island, higher still above the city, then higher above the state, above the region, the country, the hemisphere, until my senses were convinced that I was floating just above the Earth with the enormity and breadth of the only home any of us have ever known looking up from beneath me, and, as when dreaming, I felt my central nervous system react to the magnitude of such an emotionally textured experience that it took for physical reality. Right there, with my eyes closed, I would feel so in tune with the heartbeat of creation, I swear I could almost feel the Earth rotate on its axis from where I sat.
I was creating, and being propelled by, a transformed center of gravity within me. I saw my unique work at the hotel as putting my newly-forged self to the task, honing myself with the unforeseen challenges of every day. If I wasn’t kicking open a double-locked door off its hinge into the room of an overdosed guest, I was exerting urgent focus to take care of a flood in the kitchen. If I wasn’t dragging a violent patron of our bar by his lapel down the stairs on his knees and throwing him on his ass in the street, I was getting an A-list celebrity couple their fertility drugs. Our hotel was celebrity heavy, though every now and then we had celebrities only I would recognize.
Zatoichi the blind swordsman is sort of the Japanese 007 in that he’s the main character of Japan’s pre-eminent movie franchise dating back to the sixties with different actors that have each filled the role when his predecessor’s time had expired. For a couple weeks we hosted the newest star to take over the role, and every time I greeted him as he went upstairs for the night, or when I brought him his room service or fixed his television, I was the only one in the building who knew who I was talking to. Finally, one night I was on a knee, fixing his internet hook-up, when I just couldn’t help myself. After I’d showed him all was good as new, I mentioned I was happy to meet the new Zatoichi. He was shocked that I, a Westerner, had ever heard of the character. I then rolled off the names of his predecessors, and now he just had to know what I was all about. I sighed. His eyes widened and followed my hands as they moved to his laptop’s keyboard, where I Googled myself. His jaw dropped as he watched me on screen seducing one of Japan’s most popular actresses while a touching score played over the action. The corner of his mouth rose in half smile before he looked me up at down and I saw the thoughts in his head catching up to his shock, and his limited English didn’t matter. I could read his face, and it was saying, what the hell are you doing here?
It brought to mind one night during my first few months at the hotel when three Japanese guests passed me while I read a book at the concierge desk and stopped after a few yards to turn their heads discreetly back toward me. I looked up, and with bullet-speed they turned away, bowing their heads as if mortified that I caught them looking my way without permission. They quietly goaded each other on until the lone female turned around and approached me. “So sorry,” she said. I looked up, expressionless, at her. “You look like someone,” she said. I looked as if I made no mental register of it. “You look like someone I see in Japanese movie.” I instinctively smiled wide. React to her and ride it out. “Thank you!” I said as if accepting the biggest compliment of my life. She was embarrassed and almost fumbled over the words, “Good night,” as she smiled awkwardly, obviously wanting to bow while the knowledge that doing so isn’t normal behavior for us prevented her from doing so, as she took a few steps back then turned around and made a B-line to her two compatriots as the elevator door opened and they went inside. I turned back to my book.
I never knew what each overnight at the hotel would throw my way. But there were also nights when I watched the tumble weed roll by. I loved these nights as well, because I caught up on my reading. I am seen with a book in hand everywhere I go; on the subway, in my seat waiting for the motion picture to start, at my table when eating out alone or stealing a few pages while my accompanying friend is in the bathroom (on a date, I tend to leave the book at home). At the hotel I spent much time on the job venturing into realms both intimate and extraordinary through literary works such as, among many others, all six volumes of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”, which haunted me as if its author had read the imprint of my soul and recounted my early infatuations and heartaches in a world that, in my younger days, seemed just beyond my reach; “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens, whose poignancy of character development weaved within a plot of profound consequence demonstrated how wonderful a screenwriter Dickens probably would have been; “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, which I found to be an honest portrait of the American DNA come face to face in the mirror with its morality of character, through an almost gothic adventure within a particular time and place; “Cosmos” and “Pale Blue Dot” by Carl Sagan, whose scientific observations of our place within the natural world of astronomy voiced with such a deeply humanistic élan I could not help but feel spiritually embraced by; “Travels With Charlie” by John Steinbeck, which painted a landscape of Americana that opens one’s horizons with a fuller scope of vision achieved through travel and the nuance of colloquial discovery; all five volumes of “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin whose work of fantasy, though utterly made-up, is so historically thorough in its layers upon layers of chronology within its own world, with characters whose journeys are so transformative, my attitude on any given day was often in direct accordance with my feelings regarding the activities on whatever chapter I had set the book down on. Weather the author is alive and well or long gone before I came along, within a book, someone is communicating to me and no one else, within my mind, reverberating in my soul, touching both my cognitive and sentient self.
What I told Ieda was the truth. I find pleasure in almost all I do. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy waking up to read Sports Illustrated online with my cup of tea in the warm months or cup of coffee in the cold ones; reading the box scores of the day before and the wonderfully written think pieces by the talented writers on staff. After getting kick-started afresh with my shower, I savor the time and care with which, with a proper brush, I lather my shaving cream in its bowl before painting over my face with it, then working on myself with a steel razor, just as Franco and I used to watch our grandfather do in his bathroom when we were children. Then I open my closet, which more than one woman choosing to spend the night has described as sexy as hell. I believe firmly that the price paid in money may very well reflect the quality of the clothes but never the value of the man. It is the man who makes the suit, not the other way around. Though I take no longer than the time required to put one leg in and then the other, then put on and button my shirt, tie my tie, I do dress myself as if I give a damn because I do. I feel a rush of accomplishment while cleaning my apartment because it’s where I live and an untidy living spice is most likely a symptom of an untidy life. Slim as I am, I actually gained 25 pounds of muscle pushing myself physically in the gym and approaching food with rejuvenated vigor, cooking meals with purpose, understanding that my only body is also my temple, and feeling satisfaction from the love with which I cook for others. Having never been competitive, I see my time alone in the batting cage during the baseball season and my games with Franco during our winter basketball league as exercises in peace. I do not experience the pitch and the ball and the bat and my swing as individual parts in a moment of adversarial physicality, but rather as equal parts of the same whole in a shared motion within time. I do not see the game on the court as us against them, but rather an opportunity for my teammates and I, these many moving parts to find cohesion, each revolving around a shared core: cosmos as opposed to chaos. I love a bright day, and find rain in Manhattan romantic. As for the quest for happiness, I guess I figure you’re either happy or you’re not.
Lent is my favorite time of year. For years I’ve used those forty days of Catholic soul searching after Carnivale, in anticipation of Easter, to be fuller of peace, more friendly, more spiritual, more affectionate. I’ve tried to train my heart every day, to hone my spirit, to be in communion with the mechanical nature of the universe, with the movement of the universe. I know, as every biologist knows, that I and a tree are made of the same stuff. I know, as every astronomer knows, that I am made literally of the stuff of the stars, and that I, together with this Earth, and this solar system, are natural, breathing parts of the same landscape. By now, I’ve seen enough, lived enough to see creation, whether artistic or self-transformative, as not a separate cerebral activity, but rather the nature of my every day. I’m no longer the open wound I once was. Who am I not to be happy?
I was enjoying the evening, seated in a cigar lounge. It was a place where you can have a good smoke and a stiff drink, watch the game, socialize with friends. But I’m seated alone, smoking my Zino Platinum, drinking a scotch neat, while I read the New York Times — the actual newspaper with subtle bits of ink rubbing off on my finger tips — when my phone buzzed. I picked it up to find a text from Vittoria: “Gio’, I’m getting married. I can’t wait for us all to be together again.” I was shocked, then realized I had no reason to be. This is what eventually happens. I had my chance. This was how the cards fell. I knew there was no way I would not be there. I knew this day would come. Who was I not to be happy?
It seemed like just yesterday. The daughter of a family friend in a town of five thousand people outside Milan took me knowing I’d meet other kids our age. I entered the youth center full of fear of the unknown, full of the passionate desire to live, surrounded by this bunch of kids who stared at me as if I were an animal in a zoo. I remember particularly their wide eyes while they asked me questions, astonished that this American is here; that this New Yorker is here. I returned every day that summer. Each morning I helped with the really young kids as sort of a camp counselor, then played basketball with the guys, then spent dinner at a friend’s house, returning to the youth center at night which served as the only social space available and where we were now all changed into our teenage version of evening wear. From then on, over the years, upon returning every summer and even some winters, different families in town took me in, having me over for dinner or to spend the night. In college the opportunity to model presented itself and I took it, using it as my ticket to go to Milan and be with my friends. I was a terrible model. I would skip castings to play basketball, or just be anywhere Vittoria might be. She lived by the railroad tracks, and it was often we would sit outside the tiny station, talking and sharing small bits of ourselves before heading home in different directions for bed. I lived for those nights. It all became the usual rotation during my years as a young adult: spend the year at a job, spend the summer with the crew in Italy. I went from being a novelty that knocked everyone off their feet, to becoming a part of their lives, and I cherished this as if it were the first cup of water after traveling the width of a continent on foot.
I was an actor when Vittoria come to the states on a working visa for the Italian Mission at the United Nations. She was the first of our crew to be here, and being with her on American soil shook me to the core. I was ecstatic. I took the sofa while she slept in my bed for a month before I helped her find her own place. I took her on tours around the boroughs. We got all the requisite sights out of the way and I regularly took her to my favorite hidden gems. She said she was dying to try Starbucks.
Waiting in line, she was thrilled with the buildup of anticipation at finally tasting this quintessential American brand. Her turn to order finally came. “A double with whipped cream,” she said, proudly pulling out her best English, and I was shocked to hear that language come out of her mouth. “No problem,” the girl behind the register said, “but next time say doppio con panna” in the worst Italian Vittoria and I had ever heard. “I’m not sure why,” I whispered in Vittoria’s ear, “but they like our language in here, horrendous as it sounds coming from their mouths.” She was still stupefied at having her English rebuffed. We walked outside and she held up her cup and smiled wide while admiring its logo. “You know,” I said, “she used to have breasts, but Americans found it too risqué’”. She looked at me as if I couldn’t be serious. But we were just delaying what she assumed was imminent satisfaction, and wasting no more time, she kicked back a long sip. My eyes widened as she started to heave. She kept it down but looked like she ate a spoonful of shit. “I told you how it would be,” I gloated. “Take the picture,” she said as she held the cup up, logo out, disgusted by not being able to get the taste out of her mouth. I took the picture and she threw the cup into the nearest trash can. She did however very much enjoy her first dinner of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and she made us go back again the next week. Another evening, she stared at her Chinese take-out, wondering if she would summon the courage to give it a shot. She ended up thinking it was alright.
Victoria’s Secret was also on her list, and even though we had walked by a few, it was a couple weeks before we actually made it inside of one. I hid my enjoyment of accompanying her there during the half hour or so we walked around, browsing the racks. She picked up a few items and stretched them out a bit in her hands. Her face looked up at me with utter disappointment that looked almost as if she had been insulted. “This is not quality to brag about,” she said. Then she looked at the tag. “Made in China?”
“As you’ve already seen here,” I said, “you’re often being sold the idea of a brand, regardless of its origins or quality. Ecco il segreto di Vittoria.” That’s Victoria’s secret.
She was initially excited by her temporary job at the U.N. which eventually gave way to the malaise of doing more intern-type office work than having the opportunity to roll up her sleeves and get under the hood. Meanwhile, having her around on this side of the ocean was my dream come true. Waking up in the morning. Waiting to use the bathroom. Grocery shopping. Walking the streets. Riding the subway. Having someone to come back to. She and I together. Living our own lives. We were no longer kids eating ice cream at the youth center, though just like in those days, she was bored to death by what became her now usual routine while I was thrilled by my new reality of actually having her in my life. When I met her after work one night at a bar, she was complaining to me about the mundane slog at her job like anyone might on any given evening, when I looked at her looking down at her drink, and still astonished at seeing the girl I knew at fifteen years old form a routine here in this country, I thought, Woman, who are you?
Even though I’ve done a Japanese music video and even spent a year performing a few numbers in a show I choreographed myself, and have always loved dancing in the club, it actually embarrasses me. Acting, poetry, painting, writing, whether a poem or a screenplay, all embarrass me. But it’s all truth and soul. When you have sex, wouldn’t you likely be embarrassed in front of others? You’re extremely vulnerable, but extremely true. You’re reaching cosmology. It’s that splitting of the atom.
One year, my girlfriend at the time, Marisol, had taken me home to the Philippines where I’d swear I was the first white man her village had ever seen, and I also played in a basketball tournament on the same team as her cousins. The following year I took her to Italy where she met my cousins, and most of the crew, including Vittoria and her boyfriend Davide. By the time Vittoria was working at the U.N., and I was acting, Marisol and I had been broken up for a year and Vittoria’s and Davide’s relationship was rocky. Shortly after I helped Vittoria find a large SoHo apartment with three other Italian women, Davide made the trip from Italy to visit for a week. His second night, I had the two of them over for dinner at my place. I could see he was taking the place in, imagining me and her cohabitating, and though he was comfortable enough, his mind only naturally wandered through the possibilities. Davide’s a good guy, and at least acted happy to be there, though exactly where he and Vittoria stood was clearly at the forefront of his mind at all times. Later in the week the three of us went out to dinner, and although everyone got on just fine, I felt an unspoken tension between them. I wanted to leave and allow the two of them time alone. Something unresolved clearly hung over the table.
The day she got back from seeing him off at the airport, she came over and went straight through my front door to my sofa where she almost leaped forward, landing in a near fetal position. I walked over and took a knee in front of her. She cried, but as proud as ever, was trying to conceal it from me. I put my hand on her shoulder in an effort to embrace her and be there for my friend. She and Davide had mutually decided to take a break. She then sat up and embraced me fully. What a way for the poor guy to fly back across the ocean.
I adore the process of knowing a woman. I adore friendship. The seeing and acknowledgement of an other’s soul. And the moments in which I’m with a woman, particularly for the first time, and we know that yes, this will happen; that choice to extend ourselves and reach out to one another, to travel this path, to reach that point, hit that spot. It’s that splitting of the atom. Not two weeks after Davide left, I was over Vittoria’s place for a party; I have no recollection of what the occasion was. The festivities had long-since winded down, and her roommates gone to bed when she and I were alone in the living room, sitting beside each other on the sofa, each holding a glass of wine.
“I’m proud of you,” I told her in Italian.
“Proud of what?” she asked.
“That you’re embarking on your journey instead of just thinking about it.”
“What a journey. My visa may get renewed, but when the new one expires, I’ll definitely have to go back.” She paused and searched her mind for what she then wanted to say. “Back to what?”
I almost laughed and shook my head. “Remember that first night I showed up at the youth center?” I asked. Her face lit up as if it may as well have happened just yesterday for her too. “The small crowd of girls gathered around me while Selena was the ring leader asking me all the questions while everyone stared at me, mouths wide open, as if they had thought New Yorkers were just a myth.” Vittoria smiled, her face aglow with the remembrance of a beautiful youth. “You were right in front,” I said, “staring up at me with those eyes .”
I pointed right at her face and said, “Those right there. But you never said a word.”
“I was shy.”
“I was terrified.”
“Of what?” she asked.
“Good question.” I looked down, lost in that night from so long ago. “It became the summer of my life.”
Her face glazed over with fondness for a precious time, long since passed. “That summer,” she said, shaking her head, “was the summer of all our lives.”
“And now we’re here,” I said.
She was purposefully silent, and drank some of her wine. “I know what you mean by terrified,” she eventually got to saying. “I’ve barely even used any English here. I’m thrilled, but scared. Milan is one thing, but here…” she shook her head in dismay. “I can’t believe how you got along with all of us, all alone in a town and region you didn’t know at all, at that age, with all those strangers. And now we’re here.”
I suppose it’s often in the hidden recesses of the mind, when a man and woman are alone on a night like this, though how much one heeds it is another matter entirely, and then again perhaps it’s just me. It descended upon us as if it suddenly appeared from hiding, instantaneously loading the moment with the weight of possibility and desire. She looked at me with the recognition of having read my thoughts and trying not to make evident that she had done so. I stared directly back at her. Our entire relationship changed in that instant, and the room was now filled with the inevitable.
“Now would be the time to go,” I said.
Her eyes shifted from me to nothing in particular, as she drummed up the courage to say something. Her eyes rolled back to mine. “I’m going to bed now. You can sleep with me in my bed if you want.”
“I had the thought in mind,” I confessed. “But I wasn’t stalling to provoke an invitation.”
“I know, I know,” she quickly took pains to assure me. “But I’m saying. You can sleep there. With me. If you want.” I almost responded when she then added, “But nothing’s going to happen.”
I laughed with a force. “Wow,” I said, astonished but with good cheer. I looked down. “What an offer I can’t refuse.” She became embarrassed and shy, but set on going through with it anyway. I lifted my head up in a swift motion and smiled. “Thank you,” I said. “I’d like that.”
Moments later we were in her bedroom. “I don’t have to be on set until ten a.m.,” I told her.
“Will you need a lot of time to get ready?” she asked.
“I’ll be shooting one scene all day, seated in a car. I have only three lines, and I’m all prepared.”
“But still you’ll have to wake up early,” she insisted, sounding like a mother taking the proper precautions for the well-being of a child.
As I removed my suit jacket, she seemed to be making motions as to prepare the bed though I was confused as to what preparation it possibly could have needed. I hung my jacket on a chair, then removed my shoes. I suppose she did not know how I was looking at her, while she made fuss to seem like she was doing something. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her curves; but they were the curves of her ears, her neck. I walked over to her. I obviously wanted to say something, but words did not suffice, and whatever I would have said was understood by us both. We kissed as if we had been wanting to from the very beginning.
We were suddenly naked, our bodies embraced as we kissed with urgency, rolling around on her bed. Somewhere beneath the overflowing of my desire for her and her body, sat the disturbing nuisance of conscience telling me, You know this girl. Her mother’s face flashed before me with a look of, How could you? But any sense of guilt vanished when I saw Vittoria’s face flushed with the radiance found only within a woman in ecstasy. She bit down on my shoulder. “I want you,” she whispered in my ear, and I now have no recollection as to whether she said it in Italian or English. She kissed, then bit, my chest. Our foreplay broke through an uncharted territory whose excitement mounted with every frantic nibble of the lip or taste of the neck as her skin all over aroused a desperation within me to live now or never at all. I spread her legs wide and looked at her. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I bent down and pushed my face against it, kissing her every contour and crevice. Soon my face was drenched in an absolute mess. She stroked the back of my head as my tongue massaged her where it mattered to her most. She was feeling her own breasts by the handful, eyes closed, when I sat up and wiped my face with the side of my arm. We kissed before changing position, and she rolled on top of me as I laid down on my back. “Fuck me, Gio’,” she practically begged in a whisper let out from her deepest inhibitions, “please.” I sat up just enough to hold her by the hips and I kissed her navel, and she sank down with me sliding into her as I fell back. She spent a while bouncing up and down before eventually sitting down all the way, holding onto my shoulders as she rode me almost chin to chin. But her being on top just would not do. I sat up and grabbed her, turning the both of us over, and reversed the position in which we were fucking, and I was now the one thrusting, with my hand wrapped around her throat as if to squeeze. She was shocked at my insinuation of violence but ignited by the thrill of it as she looked at me, her mouth open, her eyes conveying a desire to both kill me and give herself completely to whatever I wanted to do with her. I lifted her up, turned her around up on her knees, and pulled both her arms up over her head. I made her press her palms to the wall, and I entered her from behind. As I reached her spot, again and again, her cries blurred the distinction between woman violated and woman delivered. She reached back and gripped a chunk of my hair. Eventually I pulled out and turned her around, placing her face down on the bed. Her backside arched up and I couldn’t help but sink my teeth ever so briefly into the side of her ass, and she cried out in shock but turned around urgently to kiss me, embracing me with the intention of never again removing her mouth from mine. She fell back with me on top of her, and briefly bent one of her legs, knee up, before wrapping the entire leg around my back as I penetrated her the old fashioned way, tears running down her cheeks as she held my face in her hands, and we kissed until she eventually began to scream through clenched teeth, biting down on my lip so hard I was sure she would draw blood. When she stopped, I withdrew as she struggled to regain her breath and swallow her tears. I leaned over her, and she again held my face with both hands as we kissed. Then she smacked both of her palms against my chest and pushed until I landed on my back. She tenderly kissed the entire length of my torso and I was driven wild by the feathered touch of the tips of her hair bobbing up and down against my body as she made her way down, continuing to kiss me everywhere before putting me in her mouth with the utmost desire to please.
In the morning we woke up on our sides, her back nuzzled close into my chest, my arm wrapped over her. I have no idea how long she had been awake, but it wasn’t until I was that she got up. I watched her walk naked across the room to her closet, where she took out a bathrobe. I rolled onto my back, and breathed in deeply. The summer of 2001 Vittoria was the first person I saw as I left the baggage claim at Malpensa airport. I walked through the exit in my white suit and black dress shirt, and she was there, waiting for me. We both smiled immediately. I dropped the two bags I was carrying and hugged her forever. She had grown. She drove us to her family’s house where we spent a couple hours alone. She had initially told me I would stay with her for a week but now something had come up and I would be staying with our mutual best friend, Matteo instead. Matteo would later inform me that it was her father’s doing. He likes me just fine, but he feared people would talk once they got wind that she and I were sleeping in the same house. Small town. Everyone knows what’s going on. I wished for as much time as possible with her before her family would show up, though when they did we had a wonderful lunch together. In the meantime, I savored the moment as I sat at her kitchen table and she came back in from changing into short shorts and flip flops. While she prepared a light snack for us, I noticed how much her body had changed. She was more woman now, even in her face. That year she was turning nineteen and this got me thinking to when she was fifteen and I was seventeen; when she was seventeen and I nineteen. I sat, looking at her back to me, her shorts that just barely covered her ass, her legs, and I was looking at her hips and as she turned around and approached me with two mall plates of food, I couldn’t look away from her smile. Her mature smile. I knew that I was looking at a woman. And I felt like a little boy.
Well, Sir, I now thought about her dad. What about this? I was lying on my back, hugging a pillow when I said, “I have to run home and then to set.” She was sitting on her chair, wearing her bathrobe, legs pulled toward her with arms wrapped around the knees, looking at me with eyes that were both hopeful and scared. I got up and dressed myself in silence. She stood up as I walked to her, now dressed, with my tie loose around my neck. I kissed her with a peck on the mouth. Then I opened her robe and walked her backwards until her back was against the wall. I lifted her arms up and above her head held both her hands in one of mine, as I kissed her neck, then her shoulders, then her breasts, kneeling down to kiss her stomach. I stood back up, and though she was enjoying it, her eyes opened to look back at me with the same hope and fear as before. “When I leave the set I’ll call you and we’ll meet up tonight,” I said. I don’t remember if she said anything, but she smiled and I was relieved to see she was happy.
I see motion pictures, and every work of art, in a similar way in which I see relationships and friendship. I already know very well who I am. I’m here to discover you. I’m here to receive what you have to offer as yourself. I’m not here to determine your worth according to my conditions. When I watch a picture, I’m not there for an escape, I’m there to be engaged. I hope that I will eventually find a wife or a partner for life, to be able to sustain that journey that without doubt will become the usual and the daily. I hope we will always be able to rejuvenate ourselves, to rediscover the new.
Vittoria is fantastic. We spent the next five months as a couple. Of course, there was the rush of being in a new relationship, but we had a history, a shared journey of friendship that covered adolescent territory far outdating this new discovery of our adult selves together. Our lives were opening within this newly-formed shared space, and on top of that, I think we were titillated by the fact that our affair was happening unbeknownst to anyone in her town.
We were fooling around on my sofa when in Italian I told her, “You’re sexy for four reasons.”
“Oh yeah?” she said in English. “And what are they?”
We continued kissing, and I pulled back a moment. “Your eyes and smile,” I said again in Italian as I went back in to kiss her. “Before knowing you, that’s what you see.”
“Does that count as one or two?” she asked, again in English.
“Just one,” I said, still in Italian, and kissed her again. “Then your Italian accent when speaking English.”
“Really?” she asked disappointed.
“Oh, yeah,” I assured her. “It drives me wild.” I kissed her. “And it’s brand new.” I briefly pulled back again, in Italian telling her, “Your intelligence and culture, which you then discover.” I buried my nose into her neck. “And last but certainly not least,” I said as my open hand felt her upper thigh, “your curves.”
“These curves,” I insisted as I squeezed her thigh.
“Okay, ass man.”
Some of our favorite days were spent at a hidden jewel of a beach at the southern tip of the Rockaway peninsula called Fort Tilden, which was almost always empty but for someone a quarter mile in one direction and someone else a quarter mile in the other. There was forestation right up to the sand dunes, and you wouldn’t have the slightest idea you were in a city.
“I can’t believe this is New York,” Vittoria said, lying topless on her towel next to me. I got up and took off my swim trunks before walking into the water, whose waves were breaking on the nearby rocks. I love swimming and usually stay in the water for half an hour at a time, exalted by the rush of challenging the force of the waves with the will of my body, and at some point, without fail, I always find myself taking a breather, treading water as I look up at the sky and say aloud, “Thank you, God.”
I walked back onto shore with my heart pounding and knelt down to scoop up two handfuls of beach. I marveled at the tiny specimens of life crawling through the sands I held in my palms. What a universe. Vittoria then passed behind me and said, “You sure are having a lot of fun.” I turned and saw her walking into the ocean, nude. I threw the sand down, and followed her back in.
Seated at the cigar lounge, I smiled. We had a lot of fun together. We appreciated each other a lot. But she eventually had to go back. This week a man asked her to marry her and she said yes.
After spending half a year together, not long before her flight back to Italy we faced the facts. “I can only stay if I marry an American,” she said.
“I’m also a citizen of Italy,” I said. “I can move there.”
“And do what?” she asked.
“Anything. At worst, Pina’s family will let me stay with them, at least until I find work.”
“Don’t you see?” she said. “You love that place because it’s where you met us. But we’re all leaving. My future isn’t in a small town.“
My future is wherever you are. But I didn’t say it. Why didn’t I say it?
“I love that town,” I said, “because its people love me back.”
“They certainly do,” she said. “They certainly do.”
But you? I didn’t have to say it. She read my expression, walked up to me, held my face in her hands and kissed me. The love was there in that kiss, but the fire was gone.
“We can get married,” I said.
“No, Gio’. Maybe Americans get married on a whim after six months, but we can’t do that. You know that.”
I decided to have faith. But at some point after she got back to Italy, she and Davide got back
together. Who cares about the how or why? He was there. Faith can be a gift. But faith without action is pointless. I should have done something. But what? I was starting a shoot, contract already singed, beginning production the next week. I saw not a future of us married, nor of us in Italy, but in the luxury of being able to stay as we had been, here, for the time being; to have time; time to ride this for all its worth; to see how we feel after seeing this through; time to get past this as an excursion and live it as life as normal; see where the chips fall. It seemed the chips had been tossed without us, and we were now scrambling to beat them before they landed. Were we betrayed by time or by our lack of vision? It would be romantic to say I should have fought. It’s only right for people to fight for their relationship, together. I had the alienating feeling I’d be fighting alone.
I know I’m a lucky son of a bitch. I humbly collect my winnings and I’m not complaining. But in my heart, yeah, there’s a hit of pain. And here I am, smoking a flavorful cigar, drinking a strong whisky, not as habit, but as pleasure, delighted by reading something that is both informative and well-written. I enjoy myself with self-confidence as a man and the sweet pain of a lover who has loved and who has lost.
In this small town that no other American even knows exists, I feel like I’m coming home. And for the first time, in a surreal experience, outside this church, waiting for the bride to come, I am not the only American here. There’s that couple I discover are Vittoria’s and Davide’s neighbors in California. Yes, she finally made it back but to the opposite coast where Davide now works for a tech start up, and she’s climbing up the corporate ladder, all in English. There’s that family, the father of which I discover used this occasion of his Italian coworker’s wedding as a vacation abroad for the entire family. It’s at this occasion that for the first time I’m not the only freak in this show. But the funny thing, the thing that the people of this small town will never appreciate, is that these Americans, when they see my appearance, and above all when they hear me speak, assume that I am from the same small town as the rest of them, that I am one of these people from this place.
In a room full of Italians on one side and Americans on the other, I am alone.
Vittoria’s relatives had come up from Naples for the wedding, and in the days before the wedding I found myself with them in the car, acting as their guide around town. Whenever we passed places of note I told them who lives in this particular house, the time me and that man’s son climbed to the top of Sacro Monte, something historical of this place or that, pointing out the seminary where I relaxed in profound conversation of the soul with the priest who unfortunately passed away of old age last year, and endless other stories. After we passed a group of people who waved and yelled to our car, “Ciao, Gio’!” Vittoria’s uncle asked from the back seat, “Gio’, how long have you lived here?” And I have to tell him, “I don’t live here.”
But have I not lived here?
Vittoria’s grandmother is a work of art, and at the wedding when I see her say to the Americans in a loud voice, “io, Nonna,” that is Me, Grandma, I almost faint in recognition of endless memories of my grandmother speaking like this in America.
The ceremony was surprisingly unpainful. But when the priest asked Vittoria and Davide for their “I do”s, Matteo, standing next to me, whispered in my ear, “Gio’, are you okay?” and I truthfully answered yes without hesitation.
It was a nice dinner. I was just about the only one who went stag, but I carried my own in table conversation. It was a good opportunity for us all to catch up, and someone even provoked me to do a scene from “Much Ado About Nothing” in Italian, which I was only too eager to do. Since outside the church, Vittoria’s mom, then her cousin Ilaria, and for God sake, finally Davide, each at several points had looked at me with eyes that too obviously said, I know your secrets. I wonder if they feared I was going to either cry or be in a rage. But everyone was behaved well enough, and Vittoria’s mom, who had known me for so long, never hesitated to treat me as wonderfully as she always had. Though I almost laughed out loud when Vittoria and Davide made the rounds of tables during desert to greet their guests, and just after speaking with me, I reached out fast to tap Vittoria’s arm and Davide almost got whiplash turning to catch just exactly what that action would entail. I was only asking if it’s true the soccer star Ronaldinho had lived at this villa.
Later that evening at the reception I talk with Alessandro, Vittoria’s younger brother. I remember when he was a little boy. Now he’s my height and all grown up. With pleasure, he introduces his buddy to me. They’re happy to see me again. His friend, grown and by now also a man, tells me how over a decade ago he and his friends came every day to the youth center just to watch me play basketball and to see me do things on the court that they had never seen. In those days, people were playing volleyball on the courts, and of course calcio on the fields. A few just dabbled with the basketball to pass the time, but when I, having grown up on hoops, showed up that first summer, I kick-started a craze. Back then Vittoria was one of the girls lined up on the side of the court who had come just to watch me. Like an animal in a zoo, but I loved it. Those days when I played there every day. And hearing Alessandro’s friend tell of how he and the other younger kids came to watch makes me feel honored. Old, but honored.
The entire time at the reception, the lions and I ran around together. That is, me, Matteo, Giordano, and Aldo. There is no other word for them. Lions. The guys who, from behind the swell of lovesick small-town girls, emerged to find out for themselves that this guy is alright. The ones who brought me to the rock concert with a hundred thousand other spectators twelve years ago in the middle of Piazza del Duomo. The ones who with me, as teenagers, chased girls around the youth center, and whose families throughout all the years since, have opened their homes to me at the drop of hat, with whose parents I also grew up eating with around their dinner tables. The group in which we mutually found refuge after a breakup with a girl or the death of a loved-one. The guys who for months after September 11th checked-in on me from an ocean away to hear that I was alright or listen if I wasn’t. And the guys who, one by one, throughout our adulthood, have visited me in New York, fulfilling a dream of seeing both the U.S. and the place where Gio’ lives. We had been so young. It’s never as good as when it’s all ahead of you, and though many may be jaded, I believe it’s still ahead of me. Here we are now, still lions, but lions all the wiser. And I see the beautiful bride across the garden. The lucky groom. The Americans having a blast in this new experience in the language of which they don’t understand a damn. Now this bride and groom live in my home country. What a world.
The lot of us didn’t hesitate to drink a glass of wine or Prosecco at every possibility of a toast, to the bride and groom, just to the bride, just to the groom, to old friends, to just Matteo, to just Giordano, to just Aldo, to me, and so we became the group running around the reception drunk with camaraderie. For me the point of no return was when I placed my glass down on the table and it shattered in my hand. We lost ourselves dancing like no one was watching, and I hope people didn’t hold that against us. Vittoria glowed as she looked out at her best friends gathered here because of her.
The guys were huddled over me in the bathroom as I did push-ups and they counted off. “Twenty-eight! Twenty-nine! Thirty!” they yelled as I then got bored and sore and jumped back to my feet as they almost fell over, howling with laughter. I walked out and slung my suit jacket over my back as Vittoria stood in front of me, clearly waiting for me and no one else. I smiled wide.
“Hi,” she said in English.
I walked to her and looked into her eyes, unable to stop smiling. She looked at me as no other woman ever had, and smiled back. The guys ran by and implored me to join them outside. I followed them, then stopped and turned around. “Vittoria!” I said. She turned back to me. In Italian I said, “Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” she said, looking like she had more to say. But her smile said it all.
I was playing soccer with the guys on the lawn outside when a woman I don’t know approached me. “You’re in movies, right?” she asked me in Italian.
“I suppose you could say that I was,” I answered. Then she actually named the titles of some pictures I did. I no longer remember much of the conversation, just that I didn’t have a particular desire to discuss it with her in that moment. But I was shocked.
Vittoria and Davide had said there was a pool and for us to bring our swimsuits. I have no recollection of getting out of my three piece suit and tie and into my trunks, but I do remember cannonballing into the pool wearing them. I also have no recollection of getting changed out of those swim trunks and back into my three piece, shirt buttoned to the top and tie in perfect order, but somehow I did; I woke up the next day at Matteo’s house wearing it.
That marriage, and that celebration, were a blessing. She told me with one look that she does in fact know how proud I am of her. I have always believed that she was born a lady. That’s the thing that above all I have always admired about her. Even when we were young imbeciles, I looked at her and I thought, “That’s something I have to learn.” Bellissimo. Here are our lives. Together. And I suppose I’m still the freak in this show. But what a show.
My surgery was fairly simple, but I must admit that it didn’t seem random when the hospital called to ask me, “Mr. Crisafulli, we need to know what religion you are.”
“I’m a Roman Catholic Buddhist,” I said. Good luck trying to figure that one out.
There was a pause before the voice in the phone responded, ”Okay. And do you have a will?”
So the morning of my surgery, I was seated in only my underwear under this ridiculous smock, and on my fingerI spun the equally ridiculous cap that I’d soon have to put on my head, when a young and beautiful nurse looks me in the eyes with a smile while passing by me and Mary.
“So,” I continued telling my sister seated in the corner, “that’s where you’ll find the notebook with all the passwords for my bank accounts, email, etc.”
“You can’t think like that,” she told me.
The young, beautiful nurse passed us again and again looked me in the eye with a smile. “I’m not thinking like that,” I assured my sister. “But you never know, and I’m covering my bases. I’m donating all my organs.”
“Jeez,” Mary said, uncomfortable with the topic.
“Well if the hospital asked me about all this in detail then it must be worth going over, right?”
“Fine,” she said.
I smiled as the young and beautiful nurse approached us with clipboard in hand. She took a pen from her pocket, ready to write something down, and said to me,“Mr. Crisafulli, I need to ask you a few ques —“
“Mr. Crisafulli,” I interrupted her, “is my dad. I’m Gio’.”
Mary rolled her eyes.
I extended my hand to the nurse who laughed, smiling wide, before extending her own hand, which I now held. “And what’s your name?” I asked.
Eventually, it was time to get on with it. I got up to follow the nurse. My sister and I hugged each other.
“Love you, Mary.”
“Love you, Gio’.”
I had to put on that absurd cap while the nurse and I took an elevator up. I again met my surgeon, Dr. Papamichael. I then met my anesthesiologist, Dr. Tanenbaum. Dr. Papamichael discussed everything with me one last time. Now that there was an IV drip attached to my arm, another, older nurse helped me walk to the room where it’ll happen. “You have a beautiful nose,” this older nurse said to me, “Have you had a nose job?”
“No,” I answered, incredulous. “I’m here for the nose job, so to speak.” Having heard her accent, I looked her in the face, then down at her name tag. “You’re from the Philippines?” I asked.
“You know,” I said, “I once spent the most beautiful day in the Philippines on a beach that was on a lake in the center of an extinct volcano.” My eyes must have looked beyond the room, to the horizon, because I was once again on that beach, whose subtle waves on that occasion had bathed me in the comfort and awe of paradise. I looked back at the nurse. “I even ate balot.”
“You ate it?” she asked, now incredulous herself. “I don’t even eat balot. You’re very brave.”
When we arrived at the bed where I’d be lying during the operation, I took the old nurse’s hand, lowered my head, and pulled her hand up until her knuckles touched my forehead as I knew was Philippine custom when encountering an elder. “Salamat po’,” I told her.
“Wallaang anoman,” she responded with a smile.
Dr. Papamichael stood in the corner now wearing a mask, and asked me to lie down. I did so, and looked up at the bright light above me. Dr. Tanenbaum approached me from the side. I smiled. The proof is in the life lived.
“Voglio bene alla mia famiglia. Voglio bene ai miei amici. Voglio bene al mio creatore,” I said quietly while seeing nothing but the light above.
“Are you praying?” I heard Dr. Papamichael ask me, though unable to see her, as if she were simply a voice that only I heard, speaking to me, but where, I have no idea.
“No,” I tell her. “It’s Italian.”
“Yeah? What does it mean?”
“I love my family. I love my friends. I love my creator.”
I heard her voice say, “Beautiful”, in a tender tone of peace, as my eyes then closed.