I first met Gina in 1961 at a beach resort outside of Rome when the water was still unpolluted, and the glamorous people of Italy’s Golden Age could be seen showing off their tans. She was heavily pregnant with her first child. She didn’t yet know it would be her daughter Gabriella. She didn’t yet know it would be her only child. She didn’t know the grief it would bring her.
I was there with my first husband who had just published a book with Einaudi and wanted to make contacts at the Fregene book fair. We’d only been in Italy a few weeks and everything was strange to me. I wasn’t much of a traveller then and was still intimidated by black risotto and heavy garlic. I didn’t even dare to drink the water and on hot days,I’d lie in my room with the shutters closed while my husband was at the library. My Italian at that point consisted of “Buon Giorno” and “Ciao.”
The book fair in progress and Gina was just outside one of the booths examining a book. I still remember how she looked, rapt, cigarette in her mouth, while her beautiful husband’s eyes flicked restlessly over the crowd. Before we’d even been introduced, I had noticed Marco’s hungry eyes. Gina smiled and took my hand, greeted me, wind ruffling her short cropped hair. Happiness made her seem almost pretty.
A few years later in 1966, when the Arno overflowed its banks leaving me and my first husband stranded for over a week without coal or fresh water, we fled to Rome with the children. My husband was in a foul mood about his ruined sabbatical, the baby had colic and I was so busy taking care of everyone that I almost missed the date for filing my dissertation. (I was at the stage where I was proud of myself for learning to use the royal “we” and speak in seemingly objective terms about art.)
Marco came over to comfort us (Gina was working at the library that day) and took pictures of me and the children surrounded by flowers in the park next to our pensione. The photos made us look carefree as the birds hopping along the borders. I don’t think I noticed the irony then but I remember thinking Marco’s wife was a lucky woman. She travelled, went to conferences alone. Marco even took care of their daughter Gabriella sometimes on weekends, leaving Gina free to work. I envied her her freedom though I don’t think I would have left my children when they were young, even if I could have, I wasn’t that kind of mother.
Once or twice Gina brought Gabriella to see us but she sucked her thumb and wouldn’t play.
In 1974, when my oldest daughter was nearing adolescence, we were back in Rome. By then I was fluent enough in Italian to translate poetry. Newly aware of the subtle gradations of Gina’s humor, I must have thought I understood her. But I didn’t, anymore than I could have understood the narrative curve of a novel if read a few pages here and there. I’d missed too much. Hadn’t seen the unexpected ways Gina’s life was buckling and shifting.
One night, I listened to my first husband talk to Gina about H.P.Lovecraft’s monsters—the way they ooze after their victims muttering “glub, glub”.
“He likes them because they seem familiar,” she said later when we were alone, “ a bit like relatives. I laughed but she was suddenly serious. “He’s tormented poor man, I’m sorry for him, with all that “shiess” locked-up inside, I know how he feels.” She flicked a long column of ash into a silver tray.
I was surprised that she took it this way. None of my other friends identified with my first husband. If anything, they felt sorry for me being married to a man who, brilliant though he might be, seemed more and more eccentric, a man who jokingly compared me to our dog Jane and who chased his children around the living room, hands twisted into a claw, pretending to be the demon Cthulhu.
A few minutes later, Elsa told me in a rare burst of confidence that Marco was moving away from her.
“He fell in love with me because I was an intellectual, now he hates it,” she said, touching her head as though she were considering excising her wry intelligence. “He’s like poor Beauty imprisoned by the Beast.”
She seemed to have taken in his angry criticisms, seeing them on her face like stains when she looked into the mirror. I tried to tell her I’d done that too, for far too long, but I don’t think she could hear me.
It was on that visit that she told me that sometimes people on the street looked like dogs or pigs. She could actually see their muzzles and snouts. I hoped that she didn’t really mean it; she said it with that ironic smile she had. But she did.
In 1978 when all of Italy was mesmerised by the kidnapping of Moro, Gina’s beautiful husband, took his agate eyes and his golden hair and left her. (Was it just coincidence that Italians called this time the Age of Lead?) Her humour became more mordant, her Turinese accent stronger. She gained some weight and took a lover, a delightful man who worked in the theatre.
I told her I had a new man, too. His name was Eli.
I wanted to show him the Rome I’d come to love with all her quirks and glorious humanity, to have him meet my friends.
She was so happy for me; she immediately invited us for dinner. That’s when she made that wonderful pasta with thick plump mussels and clams, and the boiled beef with green sauce. Something she knew was a favourite of mine. She’d gotten a wine from her native province and some special biscotti for dunking. I was touched by how she put herself out for us, how content she seemed. She even lit the big candlesticks in the living room as though it were a major festival instead of just two couples, brand new though we were, talking about politics and books. Gina was in the midst of translating a novella by Balzac, The Girl With The Golden Eyes. Gabriella who had grown to resemble her father in blond beauty, came in just before we left. Gina greeted her solicitously and stroked her hair as if she were a younger child. She told us with her wide smile that Gabriella was living with her now. (She was studying dress-making-- last time it had been art.) She submitted to Gina’s caresses with her usual docility. When Gina called her “pretty kitten, micio,” her voice was so passionate it made me feel as if I were witnessing something I shouldn’t.
In 1981, while a second “economic miracle” was beginning for Italy, Gina decided it was better to be alone than with a man you didn’t love. When I visited this time, I mentioned that I was writing fiction now and several of my Italian stories had been published. (I didn’t tell her that if Eli hadn’t urged me on, been so generous and supportive, I might never have started). “I’ve been writing too”, she said and handed me a sheaf of papers, “stories.” One of them described a woman opening her refrigerator and finding a severed arm. She wasn’t able to get rid of it. It haunted her. The story made my flesh crawl. But Gina wouldn’t talk about anything except how to improve it. I told her to let the woman bury the severed arm in her back yard. Gina grimaced.
She told me that Marco had remarried, someone young and chic, a Professoressa. I felt a little ashamed bringing Eli to her then, it was like flaunting food in front of a starving person. But she welcomed us generous as always.
In 1998, there was another upheaval in Gina’s life. Her mother died in Rome and was laid out in Gina’a apartment wearing all her jewels. Gina refused to be a consumer of anything—of goods or pleasure. She closed all the shutters in her beautiful apartment and became a Cassandra of disappointment. Meanwhile Gabriella designed an exquisite wedding dress for herself. She showed it to us one evening Eli was so enthusiastic—-he’d been a great fan of weddings ever since our marriage twelve years before-- Gabriella kissed him. (He’d had the theory that for the last few years at least Gabriella wanted to leave home but didn’t know how.) After the funeral Gabriella married a man named Marco like her father but nowhere near as charming. Gina suspected the man wasn’t good enough for her daughter.
Three years ago Gabriella invited us over to dinner at her apartment on Via Babuino. She and her new husband, Marco, were cooing like pigeons, like doves. The antipasti appeared on the table effortlessly like eggs from a magician’s hat: tart things, salty things that made us raise our glasses to our mouths, the wine, so red it seemed almost blue, intensely concentrated like life itself. I can’t remember the window. Maybe the shutters were closed. Or open with the curtain fluttering.
Last year Gabriella said she’d like to have dinner with us alone. I thought she looked lovely though Eli said her face was too tense to be beautiful. She had left her husband but she couldn’t explain why. (“She needs someone smarter, more aristocratic, a higher grade of goods.” Gina had told us at dinner the night before. )Anyway, Gabriella didn’t want to talk about the way her husband expected his dinner on the table when he came home, or how he disliked her freakish moods, she wanted to talk about the love of her life. It had been before she married. The man was ten years younger than she, handsome, she couldn’t believe how handsome. But something had gone wrong and he’d left and she’d never seen him again. Now she had gone to live with her father and his wife. They were kind to her. Her father wasn’t well. She thought he needed her. He had a bad heart, he wouldn’t stop smoking though the doctor told him it would kill him. She took him for walks, encouraged him. ] It was fine, she said, always with her soft gentle voice, it was fine but she couldn’t sleep. She had horrible nightmares repeated every night. She told us one of them. Her little cat had become monstrous and had leapt on her clawing her head, sinking its teeth into her face. She struggled tried to push it away but she couldn’t get if off. There was blood, blood everywhere. Afterwards she was afraid to go to sleep. Can’t you take sleeping pills we asked her, feeling inadequate, unable to help, just to say something, to make comfortable noises. They don’t work anymore she said. Mypsychiatrist has told me only to take one of them, not to take more than one. After that I have white nights, “notte bianche.” The Italian words had a sound like running water. But how could she go night after night with no sleep or only an hour of sleep? After we walked her home, I told Eli I was worried about her, worried that she’d hurt herself. The dream especially worried me.
Now, in this year of disasters, we are sitting with Gina at a table balanced crookedly on the cobblestones outside Dithyrambo, a restaurant she loves. We talk about the disasters everywhere, 9/11, the bombs exploding in Israel and India. Because we’re scared we joke about going to the wrong place at the wrong time. I order spigola ,the fish I always have here, and she and Eli order the chicken that is supposed to taste like pork. But the chicken doesn’t taste the way it did last year and Eli calls the waiter and questions him. “Yes, yes,” he says, it is the same. Gina watches Eli with an odd ironical expression on her face.
We had asked Gabriella to join us but she wasn’t feeling well. She’s had an accident, Gina said on the phone. She was vague when I asked her where Gabriella was hurt, “everywhere,” she said, “everywhere”
“You’re old friends” Gina says now when Eli ask her how Gabriella is. ”so I might as well tell you..four months ago she threw herself out a fifth floor window. She just got out of the hospital.”
We gasp. We’re prepared to be annoyed by minor deviations from order but nothing could have prepared us for this. In Bethlehem or Jenin maybe but not right here at the table with us. How awful, how horrible we say. The words are overused these days.
“She didn’t want to live with her father anymore but she couldn’t bring herself to tell him. She saw the window was open,” Gina continues in a flat voice, “and she threw herself out.” I stare at the building opposite, core with faded green shutters, five stories high, six if you count the way the Italians do from the pian terreno. There are open windows though the night is cool, thin white curtains fluttering. But how could she have done it? I can imagine the desperation but not the courage. Did she think she was going to heaven like a suicide bomber? Gina doesn’t dwell on motivation. “Gabriella eats psychiatrists,” she says with desperate irony, “she’s eaten seven of them.” I got the feeling that now Gina felt as if Gabriella were eating her. This wasn’t, as she said bitterly, “the way I’d planned to spend my retirement.”
When Gabriella woke up in the hospital, splayed out on the bed, held white and immobile by casts, apparently she didn’t remember what she’d done.
“She kept trying to figure it out, “ Gina said, “ asking if she’d had an accident. For two months they didn’t tell her then her psychiatrist said. ‘’It was you, you did it to yourself.’”
My first impulse was that they shouldn’t have told her. It must have been so terrible to hear. “ Then how would she come to terms with it Eli asked. “There would always be a blank, a confusion.” Of course he was right.
The curtains must have drawn her attention. The flat rectangle of the window framed an invitation. There was the faint rhythmic swish of gauzy cloth as the curtains passed the sill and took the breeze like sails, bellied out, beckoning. Perhaps she imagined white wings flapping out there like the wings of the gull outside her window, the one who calls every morning to the chicks she is teaching to fly. Maybe it seemed that if she could reach those wings, she’d be safe, soothed against a beating heart. The details of her going couldn’t have been important. She might have scrambled up onto the sill or stepped gracefully like a dancer. Hurried or gone slowly in a dream, her eyes turned inward. It didn’t matter. She was moving towards that pregnant whiteness.
“She tried to ruin herself,” Gina says bitterly, “but she couldn’t. Now she puts make-up on her face and goes out for pizza with her friends.” It turns out that she has admirers. “Even now in her state she is surrounded by young men.” One, an old boyfriend, visited her all the time in the hospital, Gina tells us, “but he comes much less now. He’s scared of me, he thinks I am a witch.” She uses the English word, pronounces it carefully, “witch.” And do you like him, we ask.
“No, I never liked him, very rich, very conceited, arrogant--an aristocrat but a bad character. When she broke up with him I was so happy. When he came snivelling to the door, I told him. “Just this one time act like a man,… then I shut the door in his face.”
I am shocked. This doesn’t sound like the Gina I know, my friend for forty years. She is angry at her daughter for hurting herself. I think she’d like to slap her, spitting out, “That’s for marring what I made,” the way Colette slapped her little daughter when she fell and scraped her face.
“When I saw that man again,” Gina tells us, “I asked him if he’d made a pact with the devil because he looked just the same as he did twenty years ago. I asked him if he dyed his hair. He comes much less now.”
As for Gabriella, Gina says she is fixing up a small apartment for her on the first floor, , “It’s certain she’ll never go up five floors again,” she says and grimaces.
I wish I could press a button and put the film in reverse, drive it backward, make Gabriella move effortlessly down from the window-sill, back to the hardwood floor, back further into the room, to the door, have her look up at the window curtains fluttering and say to herself, I have to change my life, it’s not making me happy. I put my arm around Gina’s shoulder, she leans into it, eyes squeezed shut, unable to bear her own feelings.
In a few days, we see Gabriella and the picture I’ve been trying to construct is blown to pieces. She gives us a different view of the same event. But it’s not the difference say, between a madonna painted by Bellini-- slight and tender-- and a madonna by Tiepollo, a coarse peasant woman, burdened by her poverty. There are no parallels that make sense...instead there are masses of pain, confusion, repetition, contradictions. It’s not a question of form or style. What we’re really comparing here is degrees of pain.
We offer to take Gabriella out for dinner though we’re both afraid we won’t be able to give the right response when we see her shattered. But she looks nowhere near as bad as we’d imagined. Yes, She’s on crutches, but her slim legs in black tights seem almost not to need them anymore for support. She has a brace holding her upper body rigid and a spongy pink collar around her neck.
“It looks horrible,” she apologises as we kiss her cheeks once on each side. Not polite feathery air kisses but real ones, to let her know we’re here with her.
“It doesn’t look so bad. “ I say.
She gives me a wry smile. “Please don’t tell me fairy stories.” Her voice is still sweet and soft but there is a new quality of firmness. Her face is unmarked. Only her hair which had been thick and wavy, the colour of honey seems dingy. I think It must be a chore to wash. Gina had clipped it back haphazardly with a blue plastic barrette.
It’s a warm Spring night. Young men and women cluster in groups talking avidly, arms draped on each other’s shoulders, eating ice-cream, answering cell phones. We walk beside Gabriella, one on either side along the cobbles, afraid she’ll catch her crutch in a pothole or be grazed by the motorinos which dart past us. If she falls, rigid as she is, it would be a disaster. The short blocks seem to take forever. When we finally arrive at the pizza place, waiters rush with the sweet solicitude of Italians to find her the steadiest outdoor table, to take her crutches and help her sit. One, a handsome man with black curly hair, asks her what happened. “An accident,” she says with no self-consciousness, tells him the things that were broken--shoulder, thigh, pelvis, ribs, her spinal cord almost severed. I am amazed at how well she carries it off. How normal it seems.
“You look different,” I say when we’ve ordered pizza with funghi porchini, “stronger.” She smiles. I’m not saying this just to cheer her, she really does look like a new person. She’s calmer, her brown eyes look steadily into mine. Her face is quiet, no more twitches.
“I am different,” she agrees, “cooler.”
“You have more distance,” Eli says pleased. He has always believed in moving back. “You can see things in perspective.” Later he tells me she doesn’t look like an ageing little girl any more. More like a woman of thirty-eight.
“I’m cooler, “ she repeats in English and it sounds like cruel. “I am crueller. I was never an aggressive person, but now, I’ve learned to defend myself.”
My first thought is a boyfriend. “Who from?” I ask.
“My mother,” she says and pauses while we absorb the shock--“This is just between us?” she asks. We nod. “Of course.”
She starts elliptically by asking us if we’d seen the bandage on her mother’s leg. I had noticed something white when Gina handed Gabriella over to us at the door of the elevator, but I was distracted, helping Gabriella with her crutches.
“Yesterday, Mama fell down and hurt herself quite badly.”
“I’m sorry.” I murmur, “I should have asked.”
Gabriella shakes her head, that isn’t the response she wants. “I predicted she would have an accident,” she says, “It was only a question of when.”
We stare at her bewildered. What is going on?
“This isn’t the first time. After three months in the hospital, the week after I got out Mama was kneeling down tying my shoes and she toppled over backwards and hit her head. Can you imagine what would have happened to me if she had knocked herself out? ”
She is speaking very fast in Italian and I’m afraid I am missing something. “ I don’t understand,” I say.
“Drunk.” Gabriella says impatiently, “She was soused. She starts drinking at eight in the morning. One day she even came in drunk to visit me in the hospital. It was shameful-- una vergonia.” She waits for this to sink in. I run over in my mind our recent evening with Gina. I hadn’t noticed anything. Sure she seemed tired, tended to shut her eyes from time to time like a dozing cat but…. Suddenly I remember that after Gina’s mother died, she fell getting up from a chair and sprained her leg. She told everyone her leg had gone to sleep. It seemed odd. I’d wondered how she couldn’t have noticed it tingling. She had spent so many months caring for her dying mother, Poor lady, I’d thought then that maybe this was the only way she could get someone to care for her.
Gabriella seemed less angry about the drinking than about the lies Gina told.
“She told everyone in the ward what an idyllic marriage she had had with my father. That they got along so well, that it was an amicable divorce. If it was so amicable why’d they get divorced?” Her voice is still sweet though she is clearly very angry. “I know much more than they think,” she says, struggling to cut her pizza with her damaged right arm, “he treated my mother like merde.”
I don’t quite get what is making her so angry. But then I wouldn’t. After all I stayed with a sadistic husband for twenty years telling myself stories.
“Maybe she was just putting on a good face for people?” I suggest, knowing it was more than that. That she had to tell herself stories to stay alive.
“She lives on another planet.” Gabriella says, wearily.
“Have you tried to talk to her about it?” I ask remembering the way my ex-husband had lived behind his barricades. How in a strange way it was comfortable not to be able to negotiate or ask for compromises, just to surrender my will. Making sure to keep my voice sweet and low.
“I tried to talk to her about it once after I came home from the hospital. But its no good. She doesn’t listen or else she berates me. She told me I used to drink more than she does--and it’s true I had a problem, my friends had problems but” --she pauses and takes a sip of her water—she didn’t take wine—“at least she could drink in the evenings, not come in drunk like that, not fall and fracture her leg when I still can’t tie my shoes. I know she hates being cooped up with me, I know that.” I wince. I don’t want to think that my friend has been so unable to cope. We all have failures with our children, failures of love but we like to think that in a pinch we could rally.
Unhappily I remember Gina saying that the irony was she had never wanted children, and now she was having to spend her retirement, the quiet she’d won for herself, caring for her daughter, spend all her money fixing up yet another apartment for her. I was uncomfortable when she’d said that but they were just feelings, they didn’t mean she wasn’t doing the right thing. And children judge us so harshly.
“So now I only talk to her about what we’re eating for lunch.” Gabriella says, “I try to burden her as little as possible. I stay in my room. I read. When I was in the hospital a friend brought me Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. I felt I was like Hans Castorp. It saved my life.” She looks up as a motorscooter whizzes by with a girl tightly clasping a boy around the waist, no helmet, hair streaming behind her.
“I was lucky I didn’t land on my head,” she says looking at the girl. My mind wasn’t damaged, I remember the past perfectly.” Two street musicians, a father and his small son, began to play beside us. The child handled his miniature accordion with what seemed like real joy. Gabriella sighed. ‘I can’t remember anything about throwing myself out, about my fall—the fall itself.” She paused and without wanting to, I pictured bodies dropping through space and felt sick.
“I was lucky. The first hospital I went to had something wrong with their equipment so they sent me to another, much better one” I remember Gina telling us she’d been at a concert listening to Mahler. When she got home she heard the phone ringing. “They operated very well..they stitched the punctures in my spleen, my liver was damaged--but that’s all right, it grows again--put a titanium plate in my pelvis, pins in my shoulder and thigh. I wasn’t in a coma when I came to the hospital but for the first weeks they put me into a forced coma-- they had to because of the pain but it did something to my short term memory. I’ve forgotten the English I knew and I’ve forgotten how to use my computer which is difficult for my work at the Encyclopaedia. But anyone who has been through an experience like mine…. Well, it has to change things. Small things which used to bother me don’t anymore. Being with so many seriously injured people, people with missing limbs who were crippled for life, that had to have an effect on me. My mother won’t let me talk about it or she repeats something her friend said about a famous poet who did the same thing, a genius. But what difference does it make if he was a genius? Dead is dead.”
This remark about genius sounds so much like something my own brilliant suicidal mother would have said that I shiver. But good for Gabriella-- she is fighting back.
Gabriella suddenly looks very tired.
“The main thing,” she says, “is that I have to get strong, get my health back as soon as possible and live independently. ”
That’s it, I think. It’s what, torn by love and rage, she could never do before.
“While I was helpless in the hospital Mama went to my old apartment and rummaged through my things.” She said furiously. (Gina had mentioned this to us in an aside that Gabriella’s drawers were a mess, that she’d need a housekeeper when she moved. ) Angry heat seems to radiate from Gabriella’s forehead.
My pastel vision of her leap, all clouds and wings was way off. I
“ I can’t talk to her, Gabriella says, “and what would I say? I don’t want, don’t want to humiliate her...”
But of course she does, she’s suffered too much not to...
She wants to strip her naked of her pretences and march her down narrow alleys in front of her friends and family to the central square for questioning, make her admit her guilt. But maybe she’s learned through her own suffering that would only lead to another cycle of guilt and recrimination.
I hope that when she’s done it, made a space for herself that’s really hers even if Gina has provided it along with the cleaning lady to keep it tidy, maybe she’ll be able to forgive her mother her weaknesses and see her love. Because having seen them together over the years, having seen them touch and caress each other I’m sure that’s there too...
We walk back under the white moon. I hold Eli’s hand and wonder for a moment about Marco and where he fits in. When I asked Gabriella if he could help her, she’d said no, that he had his own problems. Wouldn’t it be nice if people were like puzzles and when you fit together all the pieces they’d suddenly come clear. Eli’s hand is warm. I feel the answering pressure of his fingers just that fragile pressure, the flesh and the mysterious blood beating under its skin and I think that tomorrow I’ll call Gina and ask her about her foot, buy her some sweet wine the kind she brought me. I can already imagine the relief in her voice.
Causes Brenda Webster Supports
Doctors Without Borders
The Nature Conservancy
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