The pilot notifies us that we’ll be arriving in three hours, and I commence work on my right index fingernail. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the gentleman on the aisle seat opposite mine looking on with an expression of disgust mixed with pity. I can only imagine how the sight of a grown woman so voraciously indulging in this oral habit must look, but I don’t give a damn. I still have five fingers to go.
Twelve years ago, I arrived in Bologna, Italy for the first time. I was twenty-two years old, fresh out of college, and ready to conquer the world, starting with Italy. My parents had spoken of Bologna for as long as I could remember. They had spent a good portion of their early-married years in the historic university town, capital of the central northern region of Emilia-Romagna, and had, in fact, named both my sister and me in honor of the hilly, Italian province. I, Emilia (better known as Millie), was conceived in the damp, Etruscan-inspired city but born in Miami while my younger sister, Romina, came along two years later to complete the homage. Her nickname is Romy, leading others to assume that she was named for the famed Roman capital of Italy, but those dear to the Gossett family know better.
As for my world conquest, 1994 was unfortunately the beginning and the end because I never made it beyond Italy. But many would agree that conquering Italy and the Italians is a noteworthy feat. The only problem is that nobody can really conquer Italian men, except for the mamma, who has already accomplished that before an Italian boy is even old enough to flirt with a girl. So when a naively bold American girl crosses the Atlantic Ocean and succumbs to the Italian boy’s charms, she is blindsided before she even knows what hit her.
Ah, the mamma. When I met Regina Buonsignore di Mazzini, I hadn’t yet mastered enough Italian to realize that her given name, Regina Buonsignore, translated to “Queen of the Good Man.” Had the case been otherwise, I would have at least been forewarned of her power over her son when I fell in love with him. Carlo was indeed a good man when he was twenty-three years old, but Regina had not yet exhibited the full force of her powers. That would have to wait until Carlo chose another woman to love. And that is where I enter the story.
It was lunchtime on the day after Carlo and I had consummated our relationship when I met the mamma for the first time. Regina Buonsignore was an attractive woman who had barely entered her fifties. Her light brown hair rested neatly on her square shoulders, and her hazel eyes were exactly the same as Carlo’s. I found it amazing that the same eyes could convey such different messages when seen as the windows of two different souls, and I wondered what had happened to Regina that had hardened such beautiful eyes.
Her gaze burned me as Carlo and I entered the apartment. Although we had showered since our lovemaking, the scent of the moment still lingered, and the glow of new love was more evident than ever. It is for that reason (and the undeniable fact that Carlo had not slept at home the previous night) that I believe Regina received me into her home with such open hostility.
“Mamma, this is Emilia.” He introduced me by my formal and – let’s not forget – Italian name. I was sure this was done in an attempt to win Mamma over and forego emphasizing my American nationality. But it wasn’t until she opened her mouth to speak that I realized what Carlo was really trying to overshadow.
“Yes, the Jew.”
Not even a word of welcome and it was already out there. From that moment on, no matter what hint of kindness she might ever display, I would forever and always be the Jew. And then, when I thought Carlo was about to gallantly jump to my defense, I heard him say something even worse.
“She’s only half-Jewish, Mamma. Her father was raised Catholic.”
There are moments in life when true courage offers itself up on a silver platter for you to take a bite of, and it is that decision to either grab a helping or politely decline that reveals a person’s strength of character. As I stood in Regina’s kitchen and listened to my lover denounce my Judaism, I saw the server approaching me with the platter of courage. I felt my posture weaken as I secretly shook my head, watched the server do an about face, and walk away from me, carrying the platter full of my courage and my character. My eyes welled up with tears, though I’m still not sure if they were tears of shame, disappointment, or both.
“What is she doing?” The mamma threw out an open hand in exasperation. “Your girl meets me for the first time and cries? Am I so bad?”
I ran out of the kitchen and towards the bathroom, whose open door welcomed me much more sincerely than Carlo’s mamma had. I closed the door behind me and sobbed as I listened to Carlo shout at his mamma. He said lots of things in Italian that I did not understand. She simply responded with that repetitive click of the tongue. “Tsk, tsk, tsk.”
Carlo eventually coaxed me out of the bathroom. He firmly took me by the hand and led me out of the deadly quiet apartment and onto the noisy comfort of the street below. We walked in silence down his street and turned into a small piazza. Once out in the open, he released his grip on my hand and pulled me toward him for a hug.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
I said nothing, letting myself get lost in the comfort of his chest and the warmth of his arms. It was at that moment when I realized how similar the emotions of love and hate can be. In both cases, you care so much about the other person’s well-being. On the one hand, you want nothing more than to please and comfort. On the other lies the driving desire to see your lover’s hard downfall.
Carlo and I met in a church. (And here comes the woulda, coulda, shoulda.) If the writing on the walls had been in English, I might have been able to read between the lines and find my fortune carved out for me right there in that small, beautiful chapel. I would have understood that the church would come to represent everything that was different about Carlo and me, and I could have escaped before he ever saw me and let the church come between us, leading to our demise. I could have turned around and pushed my way through the solid wooden doors and let the early autumn daylight awaken my senses with a crisp wind. But I didn’t do that. Instead, I stayed inside the Church of Santo Stefano and allowed my senses to remain suppressed by the heavy scent of incense that burned too sweetly, inviting me to light a candle.
I think I’ll remember that moment as long as I live, because even then, I felt guilty for what I was doing…silently reciting the blessing over the Sabbath candles as I lit the amber votive and then shielded my eyes with both my hands. That’s the traditional way to light the Sabbath candles, and it also helped me avoid staring blankly at the large painting of the Virgin Mary that hung above the small altar. I was never a very religious person, but the sanctity of the church and the soft glow of the candlelight inspired me to pay my respects. After all, it was Saturday morning, Shabbat, and I thought God would understand. Whether Catholic, Jewish, or a little bit of both, as was my case, acknowledging the presence of God when in His home was the right thing to do. Did it matter that everyone else who prayed there sent their prayers through His Son or the Blessed Virgin? I was going directly to the source, and I thought God would appreciate my efforts to find Him in that Catholic town. At the time, I actually interpreted the moments that followed my blessing as proof of God’s appreciation. I believed He was sending me a gift in the form of Carlo Mazzini. Unfortunately, I had grossly mistaken a punishment for a present.
I had just finished my prayer and was letting my hands down when I realized that someone was standing next to me. Carlo was standing so close that my left shoulder brushed his right jacket sleeve when I flinched in surprise.
“Did I interrupt a private moment?” He asked in Italian as he smiled wryly.
“As if you didn’t know,” I responded in my best sarcastic tone…in English.
Carlo was disarmingly attractive and a good head taller than I was. His skin was the color of creamed coffee, and his hazel eyes were speckled with gold. His lean frame carried his Armani-like attire with elegance, and his chocolate-colored hair was just long enough to rest lightly on the collar of his caramel leather jacket. Despite my efforts to sound annoyed and confident, I was intimidated. Perhaps sensing my discomfort, Carlo dropped the smile and assumed the apologetic stance.
“Please forgive me,” he responded in near-perfect English. “I was inappropriate and rude.”
I nodded once in acknowledgment.
“I am Carlo. Could I please buy the beautiful American a cappuccino on this chilly morning?”
How could I resist?
Yes, I hear you. The words would have been No, grazie. But I’ve always been a sucker for charm (still am), and instead of pronouncing that two-letter word that begins with “N”, I feigned modesty at being called beautiful, smiled coyly, and said, “That would be a nice way to say you’re sorry.”