1. First Tastes FIRST TASTES
I exited the plane in Rome, jet-lagged with a gaggle of fellow college coeds headed for customs and immigration, my passport in hand. I was twenty years old, and it was my very first time abroad. My exchange program from Wesleyan University to Syracuse University in Florence had begun.
In the terminal, I got my first sounds and smell of an Italian bar. It was teeming with morning patrons downing espresso and eating cornetti. I went up to the pastry case, put my hand on the warm glass, and then pointed like a preverbal child when the barista asked what I wanted. I held up three fingers. Three different cornetti in a bag for the road. One plain, one with cream filling, and one filled with marmalade. I didn’t know yet that a version of this bar existed on every street corner in Italy. That what I had in the bag was as common as ketchup in America or, more to the point, a doughnut. I was just happy in anticipation of the first bite.
Italy had never been in my grand plan. The only grand plan I had at the time was becoming a professional actor after college. I had wanted to be an actor since I remember being conscious. It was the big-picture plan of my life as I could see it, even if I had, as yet, no specific road map as to how to achieve it. It would be a leap. Nor had I planned to leave Wesleyan and its sleepy college town along the Connecticut River, except that I had stumbled into an Art History 101 class at the end of a difficult freshman year. The class was taught by Dr. John Paoletti, a world-renowned Italian Renaissance scholar. On that first day of class, when the lights dimmed in the auditorium and the first slide came up, a Greek frieze from Corinth circa 300 BC, I found myself spellbound. Two semesters of college finally came into focus. Within three weeks, I became an art history major. The next semester I was studying Italian, a requirement to complete my major. By the end of my sophomore year, I had taken up a tepid but steady affair with my Italian TA, Connor.
Connor was a senior and New England blueblood who had family in Italy. After one late-night romp in his bedroom on the top floor of his frat house, I helped him clean up beer cups while he helped me decide to take a semester abroad in Italy.
He assured me it was the only way I could achieve fluency, and I could also take a much-needed break from the confines of small-town Connecticut and still graduate on time. He suggested Florence. He had a sister there, Sloane, who had cast off the idea of an undergraduate degree from Vassar College in favor of life in Italy as an expat. She was a few years older than I was and had a long-term Italian beau, Giovanni, with whom she had gone into business, opening a bar called No Entry. Connor assured me that she would take me under her wing. His instructions were simple: “Find the nearest pay phone when you arrive in Florence and call Sloane—she’ll introduce you around.” Her number was tucked inside my passport when I boarded the Alitalia flight from New York.
The reward of jet lag is a new set of coordinates, a new language, and local delicacies. Italy did not disappoint. Eating my pastries as I looked out the window, on the bus ride from the Rome airport to Florence, I watched the passing cypress trees, hills, and farmhouses. It was like seeing a place for the first time that you felt you had known your whole life. When we finally made it to Florence under the midday summer sun, we stumbled out of the bus near the church of San Lorenzo. By then I realized I couldn’t wait to get away from the bulk of the girls on the exchange program. One transatlantic flight and then a two-hour bus ride was enough.
Unlike them, I wasn’t in Italy to shop and hang out with my sorority sisters. I didn’t have my parents’ credit card in my wallet, and I wasn’t looking for a tryst with an Italian boy and trips to Paris once a month. I had a semester’s worth of modest spending money, and I actually wanted to study art history. There was more I wanted, too, from my three-month stay. It was a yearning I couldn’t put into words yet.
After I gathered my duffel bag from the luggage compartment of the bus, our large group was divided and shuttled off to a series of pensioni near the train station for the first night or two until we would all be assigned and delivered to our Italian host families. The first thing I did after walking up three flights of a narrow stone staircase to my three-person room was put my duffel down and get into line to use the telephone in the main entrance. I did what every other girl did: I called home. Or two homes, actually—first my mom’s and then my dad’s—and assured both of them I had arrived safely. Then I called Sloane.
“Ciao, Tembi!” Her voice rang out as if we had just seen each other a couple of nights before over an aperitivo. “Connor told me about you. I knew you’d call. Where are you?”
“I’m near the station at a hotel.” I didn’t say pensione because I wasn’t sure I’d pronounce the Italian correctly.
“I’m coming to get you,” she said in a smoky New England lilt overlaid with an Italian cadence. I knew in an instant that she was more European than I’d ever be. “Let’s have dinner. I have to be in the city center tonight anyway for work. Pick you up at eight.”
It was sometime after lunch when I hung up the phone, as best as my jet lag could tell. Time enough to nap and then shower and be ready for my first real Italian dinner. When all the other girls began joining up and making plans to explore the area around the hotel, perhaps window-shop and get something to eat, I declined their offers to join them.
“I have a friend who is picking me up later,” I explained. It was the kind of understated brag that didn’t win me any friends.
Sloane whizzed up to the pensione at 8:45 p.m. in an old bluish white Fiat Cinquecento. It was a car I had seen only in I Vitelloni, a movie I had watched in my Italian Neorealism film class. She pulled it up onto the sidewalk, hopped out of the driver’s seat, and came around to throw her arms around me. Apparently, we were long-lost friends who had been dying to get reacquainted. She had curly auburn locks that fell at her tan cleavage, which she managed to somehow have even though she was braless. Her smile was as bold and bright as her pastel Betsey Johnson floral minidress. But it was her infinitely long legs that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. Connor had mentioned that she had been a theater major, and that made perfect sense as she carried herself as though she were stepping onto or off of a stage. Standing next to her I felt like a troll in Gap jeans, V-neck T-shirt, and lace boots, a look that had seemed so cool while walking across the lawn back at Wesleyan.
“Hop in!” she said when she finished hugging me. She opened the door on the passenger side and crawled over the gearshift to take her place behind the wheel. In the process, she threw her fringed leather purse into the back seat, then, on second thought, reached back, put it onto her lap, and pulled out a joint.
“No, thanks.” It looked as though she had already had a few drags. There were lipstick stains on it.
“Later then, there’s time.” She turned the motor. “We’re going to meet my friends near San Casciano first. Dinner at their house. He’s a painter, she does the window dressings for Luisa. Then we’ll all head to the bar.” She took a long drag, then extinguished the joint on the floorboard of the car.
“Put this in back,” she said, handing me her bag. “And yours, too,” she added, lifting my maroon canvas backpack from my lap.
I did as I was told and we set off, summer city wind blowing through the open windows of the car. She drove us through a labyrinth of timeless passageways and narrow cobblestoned streets lit by amber streetlights. I stuck my hand out the window, and Florence moved through my fingers.
When we finally arrived at Massimo’s house, a Tuscan villa somewhere near Niccolò Machiavelli’s childhood home, I was fighting carsickness and nerves.
“Does anyone here speak English?”
“A bit, but I’ll translate. Come on.”
With that she turned the knob of the unlocked front door and immediately charged through the house like a tornado that had just touched the ground, following the sound of jazz and chatter that seemed to originate from some far corner of the first floor.
I trailed behind, timid and awestruck by the sights around me. I was convinced that I was walking through what was surely a Merchant Ivory film set. Stone floors, exquisite tapestries, mahogany bookcases. Sloane looked back to grab my hand just before we entered the outdoor terrace, where I could see at least ten to twelve Italians gathered in a smattering of duos and trios. Every conversation seemed intimate and theatrical, all happening behind a scrim of cigarette smoke.
Sloane squeezed my hand and leaned in for a whisper. “I’ll make Massimo show you his art collection before we leave.”
I anxiously tugged at the back of my T-shirt, pulling it over the backside of my jeans. Self-conscious, I was unable to conjure up a response.
“He has a Picasso in his bedroom.” With that she thrust me onto the center of the terrace.
“Eccola, Tembi! Un’amica americana.” Then she gave me a dramatic kiss on the cheek, pivoted, and left me. Were people doing tiny lines of coke off a farmhouse coffee table?
I turned to join the impossibly cosmopolitan and bohemian group clustered in conversation. I knew enough to decline the coke. I never did ask to see the Picasso. Frankly, I didn’t know how, and I wasn’t ready to ask a man I had just met to take me to his bedroom. Still, even through my jet-lagged haze, a self I had never known was beginning to come into focus. The energetic pulse of the evening took over me, and I vowed then and there to welcome the unexpected. This new me would embrace every part of the adventure. I was open, for better or for worse, to whatever might come. Like an egg with its yolk exposed, I was vulnerable but jolly. Sloane would point the way, and I would follow—within reason. I already liked the feel of this new country on my skin, its language taking root in my mouth. And over the course of the night, as I fumbled through my kindergarten Italian, I stopped blushing, growing more and more confident with each conversation. In one day, Italy was already making me easy with myself. My expectations were few. After all, I told myself, I would be here for only a few months. When I looked around the terrace, I couldn’t imagine that any of the people would ever be lifelong friends. Italy was just a quick adventure, a time apart from time. A perfect interlude.
By morning I was back in my three-person room at the pensione, staring at the ceiling and seriously considering pinching myself. The smell of coffee from the breakfast room below rose up through the stone floors. The clatter of cups hitting saucers, spoons clinking against porcelain, plates being stacked, the aroma of coffee and fresh pastries, seduced me. Full of delight, I couldn’t wait to take on another day.
Two months later, Sloane found me scrubbing the toilet in her bar, No Entry. It was in the heart of Florence’s historic center, near Piazza Santa Croce and a stone’s throw from the Arno. As was typical, she had dropped by in the afternoon and found me, scrub brush in hand, Billie Holiday mix tape on the boom box. My friend had by then become my boss, so I was cleaning the place. Despite my early promises of discipline, in six weeks I had blown through a semester’s worth of spending cash. It had disappeared in the form of belts, purses, dinners, and weekend trips to Rome and Stromboli. I was broke but refused to ask my parents for more. As a result, I cleaned toilets at No Entry off the books, before or after my classes.
“We need vodka!” Sloane pronounced, dumping out a bowl of day-old maraschino cherries. Her bar was almost out. In a flash, she decided we should drop everything and head to another bar, MI6, immediately. She was friends with the owner, and they borrowed stock from each other when liquor was running low. It was just a few blocks away and presumably fully stocked with vodka, plus her sure-thing joint connection would be there. The promise of an afternoon hit made her already fast pace that much more brisk. I trailed behind, struggling to keep up with her long-legged stride and drug-induced urgency. I had never liked drugs, but in Florence I was trying to be open to the light stuff. A puff here and there can’t hurt, Tembi. Come on, don’t be such a dork. I imagined Sloane had tried everything, which was exactly what I was thinking about when we rounded the corner of Via dell’Acqua and I collided with a man. “Mi scusi,” I mumbled.
As fate would have it, Sloane knew him. Of course. She knew everyone. She introduced him: Saro.
“Ciao, mi chiamo Tembi. Sì, Tem-BEE,” I said in my best classroom Italian. I sounded stilted, as if I weren’t sure that the words were coming out right. My saving grace was an accent that wasn’t totally embarrassing and the fact that I could say my own name with relative ease.
“Sono Saro. Tu sei americana?” he asked, smiling. He wore a black leather bomber jacket and white pants. In October. His jacket was open, and underneath I could see a white T-shirt with the word DESTINY written in big orange bubble letters across the center of his chest. Its design was a mélange of graffiti complete with random illustrations including a rocket, a slice of pizza, an amoeba, a guitar, a constellation, and the number 8 floating randomly and all topsy-turvy in hues of blue and yellow. It struck me as a cartoon of someone’s unconscious. I hoped not his. And why do Italians wear shirts with random English words emblazoned across them? I turned away, but not before I saw his shoes. They were ankle-high black boots. Instantly I thought of elves.
I looked at him and smiled. “Sì, sto studiando la storia dell’arte.” Bam! I had run out of all of my Italian. So I let Sloane carry on the conversation without me. We were standing in front of Vivoli, which, I had been told, made the best gelato in all of Tuscany. I turned away from Sloane and Saro to get a better look at the crowd spilling in and out. When I turned back, I really took in Saro, all of him. A blind person could see he was handsome. But the way he had kept his eyes on me made me suddenly aware that I wished I had worn a better bra. His gaze was sultry and focused. It made me conscious of my own breath. It made me take note of his brow line and the length of his eyelashes. I had to focus to listen to them talk. I began to gather from the exchange he and Sloane were having that he was leaving work at Acqua al 2, a well-known restaurant popular with locals and tourists less than a block away. He was a chef. He was a sexy black-haired, brown-eyed guy with a beautiful olive complexion in a country full of handsome, black-haired, brown-eyed, olive-skinned men. But this one put my body into a tumult.
For the next few weeks, he made it a point to be at No Entry each evening after he finished work, and we would chat for twenty minutes. Each time he reintroduced himself, which I found endearing. I learned that he had been born in Sicily to farmers and had lived briefly in Buffalo, New York, when his family had relocated there during his teen years. The United States hadn’t agreed with them. They had returned to Sicily and he left home within a year to study translation at the University of Florence and in so doing had broken a bloodline of farmers going back centuries. After two years of studies, he had dropped out and found his way as an apprentice chef. We talked enough for me to know he was attentive, kind, engaged. Often, when we finished our conversations, he said, “Let me take you for dinner.”
Each time I gave him a noncommittal “Sure, maybe, sometime, of course.”
Saro, in all his ease, openness, and attractiveness, was not the kind of guy I went for—stateside or in Italy. He seemed way too available, way too nice. My kind of attractive was aloof, noncommittal, and definitely hard to catch. After having had multiple on-campus affairs that had gone nowhere fast, I wasn’t looking for anything serious. I needed to focus on school, not men. But that was easier said than done.
In fact, my first hookup in Italy had been with a guy on the island of Stromboli off the coast of Sicily. How could I have been so stupid as to have a one-night stand on a tiny island during the off-season, where the only departing ferry left once every five days? Not my finest hour. I had spent four days hiding from the locals and my new amico, Rocco, who wanted to show me the island’s vulcano just one more time. They had names for girls like me back home in Texas. And stupid wasn’t one of them. The next tryst had been with a person I had nicknamed “Il Diavolo.” He was a rapturous combination of every stereotype of Italian men—sexy, attentive, allergic to monogamy. He worked construction, restoring fifteenth-century palazzi in Florence’s historic center. He was arrogant, aloof, a master of mixed messages, and he didn’t speak a word of English. But again, I wasn’t in it for the conversation. The whole thing had lasted a few weeks, tops. But when he had finished with me I looked like I had seen seven miles of bad road, barefoot in a windstorm. The whole thing was doomed and I knew it, but every time I saw him, somehow I found my way back to his place. He was kryptonite sprinkled on a pizza, my personal weakness.
I had no intention of going out with this chef in the bomber jacket. Despite the fact that every time I saw him, something sparked inside me. I tried to keep him in the friend column—no sex—until one night I couldn’t.
David Bowie was singing “Rebel Rebel” as I had made my way from the bar through the crowd of Florentine bohemians, European PhD students, and recent North African immigrants that had descended on No Entry that night. Secondhand hash and reefer smoke clogged the air, making me feel as though I were starring in a remake of Scared Straight. My eyes burned, and my clothes reeked. When I made it back to my seat, I nursed my third whiskey sour alone and sang, “Rebel rebel, you’ve torn your dress. Rebel rebel, your face is a mess” to no one in particular. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Come outside, I have something for you.” I turned from my cocktail to see Saro standing there. The neon light blaring the bar’s name gave his tufts of jet black hair a crimson halo. Wow, maybe I should have stopped at two drinks.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“One a.m.,” he said. His skin glistened. I wanted to reach out and touch it. Instead I looked down. He still had on checkered chef’s pants and again those curious boots.
“I actually need to get going. I have a morning class at the Uffizi.” I downed the last of my drink and stood up. This time my legs wobbled. It occurred to me that I must seem like the textbook cliché of the American girl in Florence—compulsively shopping, lit up on Chianti, and floating from one Italian beau to the next, all under the guise of studying the Renaissance. Somewhere inside me I admitted that I was missing the point. I had not come to Florence to be a frequent barfly by night and a hungover student by day. I was lucky to be experiencing a veritable European dream of culture, art, and ideas, but I was doing it through a haze of cheap Tennessee whiskey. I felt a headache coming on. Then I took a step toward the exit, tipped forward, and had to brace myself against Saro’s shoulders. That’s when I noticed that his cheeks were flushed and he was slightly out of breath.
“Here, you have a seat. I’m leaving. Take mine.” I am nothing if not polite when buzzed.
“I’m fine,” he said, beginning to unzip his jacket. His neck was flushed. It was the first time I had seen a cluster of hair at his neckline. I wondered what his chest looked like. “I just ran here in the hope that you would not have left.” Did he just say “in the hope”? English never sounded so lyrical. Without a second thought, I reached in for two kisses on his cheeks, my Italian hello and good-bye. But I teetered, and in the process, I propped myself against his shoulder just a moment too long. He smelled of charcoal, olive oil, and garlic. I inhaled deeply. The combination was salty and beguiling. It took me a moment to recover.
“Just come outside, one moment. I want to make you a surprise.” English should always sound like this. I let him take my hand.
He led the way, and the gust of wintry air that greeted me on the other side of the door sobered me instantly. I batted my eyes to buffer against the wind. Suddenly everything seemed harsh and in sharp focus. Shadows were elongated by the amber streetlight above. And there, just outside the door, leaning against the massive stone wall, was a bicycle. It was candy apple red with a basket and bell.
“For you. You said you needed a bike to get around in the city. Better than the bus, no?” With that he handed me the key to the oversized padlock. “It is all I could find in such a short time.”
My mouth fell slightly agape. “No, I can’t take this.” Yet I wanted it so badly that I had to stop from screaming right there on the sidewalk and waking the residents above. No man had ever heard a need of mine in passing and manifested it days later. But then another thought crept in: Nothing comes for free. “Let me pay you for this.” I reached for my purse, a double-stitched tote purchased for a small fortune my first week in Florence. I loved carrying it around town even if it was big enough to contain only a hairbrush, a copy of my passport, one lipstick, and a crinkled Baci Perugina chocolate wrapper with the Oscar Wilde quote “To love oneself is the beginning of a love affair that will last a lifetime.”
“I would take offense to be paid. The bicycle is a gift. Here, take it home.”
If you don’t pay him now, you’ll be paying him later. Shit. “Please let me pay you something. It would be the American thing to do. How about we go Dutch?” The reference was lost on him. “How about I give you thirty thousand lire?” Which was all I had in my wallet. Even drunk, I knew that was only about $18, with the best exchange rate. The offer was paltry and insulting, but I didn’t care. For $18, I figured I could have my peace of mind and a brand-new bike. Then, as if overcome with some sudden attack of high-minded principles, the kind my grandmother in East Texas had taught me to have, I added for emphasis, “I won’t have it any other way.”
“Va bene.” He said it in the casual way Italians concede and dismiss an argument in the same breath. “But at least let me accompany you home. It is late. I have my Vespa, I can ride alongside you to be sure you are safe.”
I felt gushy inside, flush with liquor and excitement. My pant leg caught the pedal as I tried to mount the bike. I was in no position to refuse. The rush of adrenaline and liquor in equal measure told me so.
“You are living with a family near the stadium, no?” This guy had really been paying attention during our chats.
We rode through the streets of Florence that night in silent unison. We passed Michelangelo’s David and Donatello’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, and the play of shadows danced across his face. A nocturnal bike ride through the center of Florence on a foggy morning with an Italian chef at my side. I had not expected as much as this from my semester abroad. But maybe somewhere deep down inside I had hoped for it. I wanted to pinch myself. But I didn’t need to. This was too good to be real. Saro was too good to be true. This puff of Italian romance would implode in a moment. I knew it would. I didn’t trust what came easy. I certainly didn’t trust love or me at love.
As we turned onto Viale Alessandro Volta, the boulevard that would take me to my host family’s home, I got scared. I was falling for him.
“I can take it on my own from here. Thanks for the bike. See you around.” With that I rode off as fast as my flushed legs would pedal, without so much as waving good-bye. I dared not look behind me to take one last look at Saro. I could fuck up a good thing even in the most romantic city on Earth.
For the next month I left No Entry long before his restaurant closed and thereby avoided reliving the awkwardness I had created between us the night of the bike. I also dropped the curtain on the third and final act of my operatic drama with the stonemason Il Diavolo. He had dumped me for another American girl, with long black hair and her father’s credit card. I wrote term papers on the Medicis’ artistic rift with Pope Leo X and moved into my own apartment with two other women—one American, one Canadian, and one very impish Italian DJ who slept with the Canadian. All the while, I felt exhilarated, lost, charmed, but somewhat vexed by my new life in Florence.
One week into the new year, on a bright winter day, I bumped into Saro on the street again. When I saw his face, a light went on inside me. I had finally surrendered to the fact that I couldn’t come at love from a defensive position—what I wouldn’t do, what rules I would have to follow. None of that had worked for me. I suspected I had to be open, as spontaneous and brave and intuitive as the woman who had chosen to come to Italy in the first place. Something inside me said, You’re in the most romantic place on Earth, if not now, when? Go for love. Without a moment’s hesitation, I threw my arms around him, American style, and asked, “Do you want to go out?” His face was warm and open. I noticed the slight curl of his lips for the first time. He had been hiding in plain sight.
“Sì, of course, I am off tomorrow.” It was effortless with him. “My friend is editing a film at a studio near the duomo. You like film and acting, no? Do you want to stop by the editing room and then have lunch?”
Had I also mentioned that I dreamed of one day becoming an actress?
“Yes, I do. Acting is also a part of my studies back in the States.”
“I will meet you at Piazza del Duomo tomorrow morning. Eleven o’clock?” With that he released the brake on his Vespa, and I stood in perfect stillness as I watched his figure recede into the crowd as he headed across the Ponte Vecchio.
The next day, snow fell in Florence for the first time in more than a decade. I parked my spit-polished crimson bicycle at the edge of Piazza del Duomo, retrieved my backpack from its wicker basket, and made my way to the cathedral steps. That morning Florence was in a state of wonderment and scurry. Children, enchanted with the large sloppy flakes, stuck out their tongues to the sky as their parents drifted into and out of coffee bars, murmuring in disbelief at the snow. Florentines donned helmets to shelter them from the gentle flurries as their mopeds left tracks on cobblestoned streets. Even the buses took extra time to load and unload passengers, and the street vendors had all taken cover.
On the steps of the duomo, I positioned myself in front of Ghiberti’s voluminous bronze cathedral doors and waited for Saro. Behind me the cast relief figures from the Old Testament appeared all the more stoic and timeless as the snow grazed their frozen forms. Then I watched as the snow fell further and melted away as it landed on my scuffed boots, the chill of the marble steps beneath me penetrating the soles of my feet. I felt barefoot. The clock struck 11:00 a.m. My date was late.
By 11:15 a.m., my hat and coat were soaking wet. Of course I had taken our meeting time as an exact thing. Had Italy taught me nothing? Punctuality was only relatively important, time was always approximate. I reached into my bag to see if I had anything to eat. I looked across the piazza to the people seated inside sipping cappuccino and pounding back espresso. I began to wonder if this date would end like the less than perfect romances I had had since arriving in Italy months earlier. Just the thought made me want to get onto my bike and head back to my tiny new apartment in Piazza del Carmine.
Twenty minutes was more than even I could bear in the cold—picture postcard or not. I didn’t have classes that day, but I did have a shred of common sense. The last thing I needed was to catch pneumonia while waiting for someone who clearly wasn’t coming. So I pulled my coat tighter and tried desperately to remember where I had misplaced the gloves my grandmother in East Texas had sent. I brought my fingertips to my mouth and gave a hearty blow to warm them up. Then I took the duomo steps, two at a time, back toward my bicycle. What kind of guy gives you a bike and then stands you up for a first date?
Blinking snow from my eyes, wondering what on earth could have happened, I pedaled my way back across the Arno to my apartment.
An hour later, I looked out the window of the penthouse apartment in Piazza del Carmine. It was too late for breakfast, the only type of food we kept in the house, and I was too worried to go out for lunch. I wanted to wait for Saro’s call. I knew it would come. I would have bet my life on it. I felt as though I knew him. Well, I didn’t really know him, but I knew his heart. Surely something serious must have happened for him to have stood me up.
Then I heard a ringing. I slid across the marble floor at breakneck speed to be the first to grab the communal phone that hung on a pillar in the center of the living room.
“Mi dispiace. Sorry. I am sorry.” Saro’s voice was sped up, urgent.
“I overslept.” Then, in rapid fire, “Robert Plant came to the restaurant last night. I made dinner for him and the band after his show. They didn’t leave until two in the morning. I got home at three. I am sorry. Would you care to meet me again in the center? We can still have lunch, no?”
“I have a class in an hour and a half. I don’t think so,” I lied. I wasn’t exactly sure why, except that the idea of going back out into the cold didn’t appeal. Maybe I wanted him to come to me.
“I will take you to your class, and then I will wait for you.”
“That’s not necessary.” I now regretted my earlier lie. Hadn’t I played hard to get enough with this guy?
“Then come to the restaurant tonight. I will make you dinner.” Before I could respond, his voice broke with sincerity. “Please, come. Invite a friend, if you please. It would be my pleasure.” Then he paused. “I think we could be something great.”
No one had ever said anything like that to me. Those two words, “something great,” jolted through me like a lightning bolt. He conjured a vision of an us and greatness so effortlessly that it suddenly seemed as right as butter on bread. I was taken aback by his boldness, his certainty. He was inviting me into a vision for my own future that until that moment, I didn’t even know I wanted. But as the words registered, I understood that there was no going back. Of course, yes, I wanted something great, and maybe, with him, I could have it.
“Va bene,” I said, quietly exhilarated that my destiny with greatness might just begin with a good meal.
Acqua al 2 was packed that night, people milling outside the front door, braving the cold and hoping for a table. I waited at the crowd’s edge, looking for my two exchange student friends Caroline and Lindsey. I had followed Saro’s suggestion and invited them, partly because I didn’t want to dine alone and partly because I was curious to see what Caroline and Lindsey thought of Saro.
Lindsey, a lanky lacrosse jock from Mount Holyoke with a coif of red kinky curls that she called her “Irish ’fro,” was the first to arrive. “Que pasa, chica?” Her Italian was choppy and spoken with a nagging stutter, so she had a habit of using her other default foreign language, Spanish, to get by. It sounded equally distorted and hopelessly Anglo, but she seemed comforted that at least she was speaking a foreign language. “Caroline will probably be late—she’s walking from the other side of Boboli Gardens. You know she’s afraid to take the bus at night.”
Of course, how could I forget? Caroline was a devout Southern Methodist who prayed every time she crossed the threshold of Italian public transportation. She had nearly been speaking in tongues on the three-hour speed boat ride we had had to take to get from the mainland to Stromboli. Of course she would be late.
“Let’s go!” I said, turning toward the glow that came from inside the restaurant.
Once in the narrow entrance, I made my way up to the hostess. Saro had told me to ask for her, Lucia. “Mi scusi.” She looked up, took one glance at me, and sprang from behind her station at the end of the dessert bar. The smile on her face resembled that of a cat, after eating the canary.
“Sei la Tembi, no? Vieni. Come.” Then she cupped my face in her hands and kissed me twice on the cheeks. Apparently I needed no introduction. In a flash she grabbed me by one hand and led me into the heart of the dining room. Lindsey bounced along behind me.
Lucia went before me in skintight Levi’s 501s, a tanned bottle blonde with Roman features, a smoky voice, and an infectious laugh. As owner and hostess, she orchestrated the front house of Acqua al 2 the way an opera singer commands center stage. With her firmly gripping my hand, we arrived in the heart of the dining room and she announced boldly, “È lei!—It’s her!” Then she pivoted on a dime, grabbed my face again, and said, “Saro make a table for you. You understand my English, no? I go get wine from the cellar, la cantina.” She pointed to a narrow set of cobblestoned stairs at the end of the dining room and promptly gave me another kiss. In a flash she was gone, leaving me in the center of the restaurant. It was like being back at the villa that first night in Florence. I had been put center stage with no idea as to what exactly to do next.
Standing there in the main room, I could see why foreigners flocked to Acqua al 2. Its sampling menu and undeniable Italian hospitality were just the beginning. Booths wrapped the circumference of the intimate candlelit dining room filled with communal butcher-block tables. It was the kind of place where upcoming Italian movie stars, indie musicians, leftist politicians, and veterans of the stage dined alongside tourists. Diners conversed over mouthwatering platters while bottles of wine—Montepulciano and Chianti Classico, lush Tignanello, and slender bottles of pale, fizzy Moscato—flew by at lightning speed. The scene was at once convivial, bibulous, and pure theater. Acqua al 2’s trademark paper placemats on each table had been designed by a well-known cartoonist. On them was an illustration of a waiter serving a steaming plate of pasta to lovers seated on a baroque proscenium stage. Above the curtain, the caption read, Love born in the theater will always continue. The place was 1,200 square feet of Florentine charm packed into frescoed walls, vaulted ceilings, and fifteenth-century arches.
From my place at center stage, I could see Saro moving like a wizard behind a scrim of sizzling heat, orchestrating the clamorous clanging of pots; setting the pace and unfurling magic onto plates from Acqua al 2’s narrow, searingly hot kitchen. At first glance, the kitchen looked like Aladdin’s cave. There was Saro in a white T-shirt, floor-length apron, white clogs, and red bandanna with James Brown hollering out, “This is a man’s world” from a boom box in the background. Saro caught my eye, smiled, and signaled that he would be out later to say hello.
“I think she has slept with him.” Caroline had finally arrived, and Lindsey was getting her up to speed moments later while we settled into our corner table downstairs in the cantina.
“It’s none of our business.” But I knew Caroline thought Saro was every bit her business. She was a southern belle from SMU who wrote daily love letters to her high school sweetheart and donned gingham just for the hell of it. All indications were that she thought I was a man-hungry trollop who had yet to find Christ. I was sure she had been praying for my salvation from the moment we had landed on Stromboli and Rocco had laid me down on volcanic sand. But I also suspected she was the kind of girl who could spot the “boyfriend type” from a mile away. Given my track record in Florence, her opinion was worth putting up with evocations of Our Lord and Savior in even the most mundane conversations.
“No, I haven’t,” I insisted. They seemed dubious.
“Do we get a menu?” Lindsey asked as she saw a waiter bring an armful of platters to a nearby table.
Before I could answer, Lucia was tableside, opening a bottle of white wine. “Cominciate col vino bianco.” As quickly as she poured, she was gone again. When she reappeared, she was carrying a single platter of what looked to be green risotto. The aroma reached my senses before my eyes could process what I was looking at. It smelled earthy, creamy, and woodsy with a hint of mint.
“Risotto con sugo verde is first. Saro will to make you samples of the menu. Tutto menu. All of it.” I loved the way Lucia doubled down on verbs to make a point. The platter hit the table with a gentle bounce. “This is the first. Buon appetito.” With that she disappeared like a hostessing Merlin into the stone walls. The spell was cast, and I hadn’t even taken the first bite.
I brought my fork up to my mouth and dived into what can only be described as epicurean heaven on a plate. Nothing in my repertoire of rice had prepared me for this. Each grain was soft yet firm at its core, melting delicately like textured velvet in my mouth.
“Okay, this is way good,” Lindsey spoke first through a mouthful. “How do you know this guy again?”
“He’s my bicycle thief, remember?” It was the nickname I had given Saro as homage to my favorite film of Italian Neorealism. It was also a reference to Florence’s black-market bike trade. I had come to learn that my shiny red bike with a basket and a bell—the gift that had turned the page in my friendship with Saro—was, in fact, probably stolen goods. Saro had bought it on the cheap the way everyone bought bikes in Florence. He had warned me to be sure to lock it. He also told me if it turned up missing he would search the city to find it. Then he would buy it back again.
“I think you should really consider spending time with this man, even if he did steal a bike,” Caroline said, staring into the platter before scooping up the last remaining grains of risotto.
“He didn’t steal a bike! He bought the bike.”
“How do you know?” Lindsey asked with a wink. She was forever suggesting that Italian men had a predilection for danger. The idea of it thrilled her.
“Because he told me so.” My irritation was thinly veiled because now I was focused on Caroline eating the last creamy cluster of risotto. When she finished, she licked her lips in a way that was self-satisfying and, dare I say, sexual. Her blue eyes closed slightly, and she uttered a full-bodied Uummm. She looked like a sinner at a tent revival who had just been saved by the laying on of hands. It was clear that Saro’s risotto was her culinary come-to-Jesus moment. After eating it, she had the glow of a new convert. I half expected a hallelujah to follow.
“Is it wrong to ask for more?” she asked sheepishly.
“Maybe you could ask Lucia to make you your very own plate?” For me, last bites are cardinal. Sharing Saro’s risotto with her was suddenly making me possessive. She was devouring that last morsel of my possibly soon-to-be chef boyfriend’s exquisite creation without the slightest act of contrition.
Lucia returned again and again, with heaping plates of strozzapreti with braised red radicchio in a mascarpone sauce; fusilli in a fire-roasted bell pepper sauce; gnocchi with gorgonzola in a white martini reduction with shaved aged parmigiano. I began to see that Saro was speaking directly to me, each dish an edible love letter: succulent, bold. By the third and fourth courses, I accepted that this chef who wore elf boots was making love to me, and we hadn’t even so much as kissed.
By the end of the dinner, I was in rapture, satiated, giddy, light-headed with the possibility that Saro was boyfriend material. I briefly considered a cigarette, though I had never smoked in my life.
Caroline and Lindsey got up to leave sometime around 11:00 p.m. Lucia called them a cab because Caroline was in no position to walk all the way back home and Lindsey, well, Lindsey was ripped from three shots of dessert wine. As she left Acqua al 2, she made it a point to say good-bye to everyone in the restaurant, waving enthusiastically. “Adiós, muchachas. I love tiramisù,” she added as she nearly tripped at the base of the stairs. “I’ll be back, amigos.” With that she and Caroline fled into the night, leaving me alone in the cantina.
Within moments, Lucia plopped herself next to me with another bottle of vin santo and that feline smile. I knew something was up. “Sei americana, no?” Florentines always suspected I might be Brazilian or Ethiopian. It sometimes seemed a little bit of a letdown when I said I was just a suburban black girl from Texas. Not this time.
“Texas! Cowboys! Dallas!” Lucia said. Quickly I realized she didn’t mean the city, she meant the 1980s TV show, with JR. It was still in syndication in Italy. “I love JR and Beautiful.” Beautiful, I had learned, was the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. I had never seen it, but apparently most Italians had and often asked who was dating whom on the show. So for a moment I thought I had been cornered for a primer on American pop culture. But then Lucia inched ever so close to me and asked, “You like Saro, no?” It was more a statement than a question.
“Sì, mi piace Saro,” I said in my best formal Italian. She wasn’t buying it.
She leaned in closer. I could see the liner on her lips and smell a pack of Marlboros. “Sul serio, no?” Serio means “serious.” Even after a bottle of Chianti and sips of vin santo I knew that. She wanted answers. But before I could utter a word, she charged at me.
“È bello, no? Beautiful. Saro is beautiful.” She cupped my face and made her final plea. “È un amico del cuore. Trattalo bene. È unico.—He’s my close friend. Treat him well. He’s one of a kind.” Then she was gone, the sashaying back pockets of her Levi’s the lasting image.
I stood up, tingling with a kind of excitement I hadn’t ever felt, and began to make my way upstairs to the main dining room. The crowd had thinned some. It was now mostly Florentine locals dining in duos, but it was still lively. The grainy but wispy jazz vocals of Paolo Conte came through the speakers, the dessert case was nearly empty save a single portion of tiramisù. I blushed when I passed the kitchen to say good night.
Saro smiled. “Did you enjoy it? I wanted to make you something that pleased.”
“Yes.” He made me feel as though I could walk barefoot on hot coals.
“Tonight has been busy, I could not come down to say hello.” He was unguarded, his ease alluring. “I’ll come by your school tomorrow.”
“Sì.” Monosyllabic responses were all I could summon up. Then Saro reached out and gave me a kiss on the cheek. His skin was dewy, sheened with olive oil and perspiration. Our cheeks made a little suction sound when he pulled away, an audible marker that we had indeed touched. I was hoping we could leave it at that. One kiss was delightful. Two kisses just might do me in. He had already filled me with his food, his creativity. Now having to take him in the flesh—his eyes, nose, mouth, and gentle brow—made me rock back slightly on my heels. But no. He wasn’t done with me yet. He reached for the second cheek and whispered in my ear, “I am happy to do this again and again. Just tell me when.”
I tumbled out onto Via dell’Acqua just after midnight, hypnotized by his skin, his food, how his hand had met the small of my back when we had said good-bye. I took the long route home, riding alongside the Arno River, always my favorite place to ride at night when the city was asleep. I rode across the Ponte Vecchio and stopped to look into the still waters of the river below. The bridge was lit in amber, and the waters reflected the night hues that shone from streetlamps and a smattering of windows.
As I left the Ponte Vecchio toward home, I rode past the corner of Borgo San Frediano and Piazza del Carmine, and I looked up at the church across from my apartment. It boasts a fresco believed to be the first known work of the teenage Michelangelo. Firsts are no small things, firsts hold the beginning of something great. I suspected I had just fallen for a bicycle thief chef: and as clichéd as it might sound, it was love at first bite.
Love, as a lasting thing, was a concept that was elusive to me. My parents separated when I was seven, divorced by the time I was eight. My mother remarried when I was nine, my father when I was twelve. While I was in Florence, my mother was divorcing again after nearly twelve years with my stepfather. Throughout my childhood, I had lived in five different houses over the course of ten years. This parent’s house versus that parent’s house. Mom’s second house, Dad’s place as a new divorcé or the one he had as a newly remarried man with a child on the way. When my college friends talked about “going home,” they often referred to a specific place with a bedroom in which they had lost their first tooth or first sneaked a boy inside. That version of home was foreign to me. I didn’t have a fixed place to which I could attach memories. Sure, there had been houses, homes even, but they came with emotional caveats. I had had a kind of bifurcated childhood, trying to fit into whatever configuration of my parents’ life was presently in formation. It was common to my generation of baby boomers’ children. My parents, Sherra and Gene, were no different.
They had met as young university students thrust headlong into the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and ’70s and the Pan-African Liberation Movement, which we had grown up calling “The Movement.” My parents were desperate to reshape the United States into a more just and equal place. They married at the ages of twenty and twenty-two. They didn’t know themselves, and it’s safe to say they didn’t deeply know each other. I assume they liked the promise of each other. He was a student activist; she was the dean’s-list beauty who stood front row when he spoke on campus. They were idealists remaking the world.
As a result of their countercultural endeavors, my parents both had files with the FBI. My father had been jailed for inciting a riot. My mother had organized labor from within at a factory job while holding her position on the dean’s list at the University of Houston. I spent late nights with them at the African Liberation Support Committee, the former nuns’ residences of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Houston’s Third Ward. They typed leaflets while smoking cigarettes. The Staples Singers played on an LP in the background. My dad traveled with Stokely Carmichael, the former Black Panther, to Tanzania and Zaire to try to teach revolutionists on the Mother Continent the same resistance techniques they were using to take down the Man in America. It was a heady time, one that could easily subvert a marriage. And it did.
My name, Tembekile, was given to me by none other than Miriam Makeba, who at the time was married to Stokely. Makeba was the exiled South African folk singer known as Mamma Africa. She was also public enemy number one for the South African government. She sang about freedom, advancing an anti-apartheid agenda from Paris to Japan to New York City. By the time I was old enough to understand who she was, I began to spend hours wondering about this woman, this hero, this person who had chosen a name for me before I had even taken my first breath.
But it was learning about her in the fourth grade that made me first understand what it meant to be exiled. To be cast out of home. To have no home. I was not exiled, for sure, but as a kid I didn’t always feel rooted. At times I even fantasized about making a home with Miriam Makeba. I saw her as the godmother my atheist parents hadn’t given me. In my childish fantasy, she and I could be two exiled people, flung around the globe.
By the time my parents had turned thirty, the Movement was dissolving, and the Reagan Era was on the horizon. They, along with many of their generation, took a step back from the picket lines and began to figure out how to make a living in a United States that wasn’t all that willing to change. By now Sherra and Gene had two children—my sister Attica was born three years after me—whom they took along with them as they each, in their own way, began to reconfigure their own idea of family. They were already redoing adulthood in their formative years, already parents, already having experienced lost dreams.
Now in Italy, barely twenty years old, I was trying to decipher what made people come together and stay together forever. The idea that Saro had suggested, that a pairing could yield something great and lasting, was beautiful but untested. Still, when he said it, it felt real and possible. Even though I had extended my stay and I was set to return to America in a few months, Saro floated the idea that we could spend the summer together, that he’d come visit me at Wesleyan. One occasion after we had made love, he told me, “People eat all over the world. I can be a chef anywhere. You can only act in Los Angeles or New York. I will be at your side.”
I was willing to take a risk with him. There was something so utterly confident in his vision of our future. He was unwavering. He saw what he saw, and his every action inducted me into that vision. And I felt safe. Safe to open my heart, to be vulnerable. Safe enough to take a risk on something no one in my family had seen coming—a potential long-distance relationship with an Italian man twelve years older, without a college degree, who was banking on “cooking” as the means of supporting our future together. It was improbable, romantic, idealistic, unprecedented. The journey I was willing to take had no guidelines or examples I could look to in either my own life or the lives of my parents. His parents, from the little he had told me, had been married his whole life and lived in the town where they were born. Saro and I would be making our own way. There was no one with whom we could compare ourselves, no one to whom we could turn to for the ins and outs of long-distance, bicultural, bilingual, biracial love. That was scary, but it was also freeing. As though for the first time in my life, I was making a brave, bold decision of the heart that felt expansive, intuitive, a wish from my soul.
My family, on the other hand, had reservations. When I told my father during one of our weekly Sunday conversations from Florence that I was seeing a man, the mere mention of it when I was so far away from home, so young, set off his parenting alarm. To make matters worse, I was talking about staying in Italy even longer than the stay I had already extended. I told him I might not come home for the summer. Or if I did, I would work briefly at his law firm to make just enough money to buy a plane ticket back to Italy. That was all he needed to hear. He and my stepmother, Aubrey, booked the first ticket they could get to Europe. They left my three young brothers at home with Aubrey’s mom, the youngest of whom was barely a year old and whom I had met only twice. They boarded a plane to Switzerland, the cheapest my dad could find. Then they rented a car and drove across the Italian border, then south into Tuscany, and finally to Florence. He told me he wanted to see how I was doing, visit his daughter in Italy, and treat Aubrey to a brief vacation. What he didn’t tell me, but what I sensed, was that he had every intention of looking a certain Italian man in the eye. He had every intention of telling him to step the hell back, if needed.
Dad arrived in Florence in full Texas regalia, complete with cowboy hat, denim pants, and alligator boots. His jacket was suede, and I’ll be damned if there wasn’t some fringe on it. The sight of him coming down Via Calzaiuoli and filling Piazza della Signoria with his presence was enough to make me adore him just a bit more and also wonder what the hell I had set into motion. That he was going to meet Saro was nonnegotiable. In fact, he had casually suggested that Saro and I join him and Aubrey for a drink in “downtown Florence.” So Saro was set to meet us shortly after I linked up with my family. I was quite nervous, afraid that Saro would be so intimidated by my father that he wouldn’t say a word or, worse yet, would try too hard.
Instead he arrived on time and at ease.
“Nice to meet you both.” Saro shook my father’s hand and gave Aubrey a hug. “I was thinking we should have dinner together tonight. I’ve made arrangements at my restaurant.”
He was setting the tone for hospitality and transparency, things I knew my dad greatly respected.
But it was Aubrey who could see Saro’s love on view in plain sight. Later, after a walk through Florence, an afternoon of window browsing, and then dinner, she told my dad, “And don’t even think about objecting to their age difference. You and I are also twelve years apart. It’s plain as day how he feels, you do not have to worry about this.” She shot down any lingering doubt, assuaging my father’s concerns. Aubrey was Saro’s ambassador into my clan.
My mother would be a tougher sell. She was coming off her second divorce and had bounced herself into a new relationship with a man whom, ironically, she had met while visiting me in Florence. He was Senegalese, a diplomat’s son, Muslim, educated at the Sorbonne. He was the antithesis of my stepfather, the Mexican American, self-claimed entrepreneur, Armani suit–loving man with whom she had spent the last twelve years of her life. That marriage had gone up in a bonfire of lies, questionable business decisions, suspicions of infidelity, and other accusations I caught wind of. By the time I had left for Florence, the marriage had been coming off the wheels. My mother hadn’t talked much about it, or maybe I hadn’t let her talk much about it. Their separation was exhausting. My stepfather had been hard to feel attached to despite the fact that I had spent half of my childhood under the same roof. He was dodgy by nature, and it didn’t help that he liked to tease me for sport.
As soon as her divorce was complete, my mother had been more than happy to hop onto a plane and come visit. It was Christmas break, and I had never spent a Christmas away from home. As much as I loved Florence, I hadn’t yet started dating Saro, and I was terribly homesick.
As she and I sipped cappuccinos and sampled pastries in a café across from the Boboli gardens, out of nowhere she began a quiet but very determined inquiry into why I was studying in Italy at all. To her way of thinking, I was the child of activists, people who had instilled in me a sense of cultural pride and political awareness. I had been raised to sympathize with the challenges facing people of color across the African diaspora. Why, then, had I come to Italy, the heart of European culture, to study abroad? Why was I not in Kenya, like the daughter of her friend Mary from her former Movement days? Mary’s daughter was on a Fulbright and teaching Kenyan children English as part of her studies at Wellesley. Why was I not more like Mary’s daughter? And why in God’s name was I continuing to hook up with “white boys”? She wanted something more for me. And she took her time telling me so as we sat eating and drinking.
“But, Mom, I’m an art history major. My graduation requirement includes being proficient in either French, German, or Italian. Studying in Kenya—”
She jumped in before I could continue. “It’s about the bigger-picture life choices you are making. By being here you are virtually excluding yourself from the possibility of being with someone who is nonwhite.” Her Afrocentrism came with conditions, and at that moment those conditions included black first, second, and always.
“I don’t know what to say. I like being here, and I am not excluding anyone or anything.”
“Yes, you are. By virtue of where you are, you are excluding.”
It was a conversation from which there was no out. I would never win. I was the daughter of a black activist who was suggesting I had sold out. Pass me another slice of pizza, please. I knew she was having her say.
Once I began dating Saro, if my parents talked about it with each other, they spared me the details. Ultimately, when it came to affairs of the heart, each of them was wise and intuitive enough to keep a distance. They were willing to say their piece and then let their children either sink or fly when it came to love. No matter what opinions they might have had, at the end of the day, I believe they wanted me to be happy. And if it was a chef from Italy who made me happy, they were willing to support that. If nothing else, they had raised a daughter who knew how to follow her convictions and was also learning how to follow her heart. Somewhere, deep down inside, they might have even celebrated my bravery. The odds against our love were so improbable, so steep, but they had taught me to fight for what mattered.
By March, I was still renting a room in the penthouse apartment in Piazza del Carmine. One night I was waiting for Saro to get off work, and I sat up most of the night talking to a new American roommate, Cristina, from San Francisco who had filled me with stories like a tumbler of whiskey. By the time we adjourned, it was after midnight. My plan was to lie down just for a few minutes, rest, and wait for Saro to arrive in the piazza below sometime just after 1:00 a.m. It had been four months since he had bought me the bike and we had shared the ride across the Arno. We had a routine at this point that when he finished work at Acqua al 2, he left Florence’s center and rode across the river to Piazza del Carmine to wait outside my apartment. He would stand across the street from my building and wait for me to come to the front window. Upon seeing him, I would buzz him in. He couldn’t ring the bell because of one of my roommates, whom Cristina and I jokingly called “The Den Madame” but who was, in fact, a Canadian trust fund transplant whose name was on the lease on the rooms we sublet. She was famous for discontinuing the tenancy of any girl who took up with bothersome boyfriends. Ringing the bell after 10:00 p.m. qualified as bothersome.
When I awoke three hours later in a Chianti-induced sweat and full of panic, it was 3:30 a.m. I had gone so far and deep into sleep after my roomie’s tales of woe that I had lost sense of time and place. I sat upright in my tiny twin bed and immediately realized that something was desperately wrong. I sprang from my bed and nearly broke my neck running along the marble floor through the corridor to the front windows of the apartment, thinking I know he won’t be there. I’ve missed him.
When I got to the window, flushed with anxious nerves, the first thing I saw was that it was pouring rain. Shit! Really? Could this be any worse? As I peered out into the night and looked down, there he was. My Saro. His coat was drawn tight, his hair was a wet, soaking mess. He was looking up at the window of our apartment.
One look at Saro, and something new about him came into crystalline focus. This man, this chef, was showing me who he was deep down, the persistence of his character, his unflinching willingness. He had declared his love, he had laid out his vision, but now he was making that love an action. Standing in the rain, it was as if he were drawing a line in the sand. On one side of it, he showed me the kind of love I could have in my life with a man who was undeterred in his commitment, unafraid, clear about what he wanted—someone determined above all else to stand for love no matter what, no matter how. No matter.
On the other side of that line was another life. It was the one I had been leading before taking up with Saro, one rife with middling commitments and ambivalent relationships. The line was as clear and as black and white as any frame out of Neorealism. There was my new lover, a man kept waiting, standing in the rain past the point where it would have been understandable to leave. He was a man in love with me down to the bone. To wait for someone in this way, in this circumstance, was an extraordinary act of faith and love. But more still, it was the act of a man who was persistent, whose character was unshakable.
When I went downstairs to let him in, the first thing he did was wet me with kisses. As I helped him take off his jacket, the first thing he said was “I’m glad you woke up.”
Before coming to Italy, my father and I had gone jogging one day in his Houston neighborhood and he had given me a piece of sage advice. I might have shared my suspicion that my mother’s marriage was moving toward a swift and decisive end. I had just spent the summer working in his law office, where I often fell asleep during lunch. I was bored in the way that a college student is who returns home and hasn’t a clue as to what she should do next.
He sensed I needed to know something about relationships that had, until that moment, been unclear to me. “Tembi, there are many people in this world that you can love,” he said between breaths.
“Okay, Dad, c’mon.” I was uncomfortable with the sudden intimacy.
“Now, let me finish.”
I didn’t want to show it, but he had my attention.
“There are many people, maybe even thousands, that you can love. But there are few people,” he continued, his words measured, “maybe only one or two on the planet, that you can love and live with in peace. The peace part is the key.”
He stopped short in his 1987 Bar Association T-shirt and looked me square in the eye. I hoped like hell he wasn’t going to ask me specifics about my love life. My dad was telling me something—the kind of stuff I usually overheard him say only when he shot the breeze with his friends over a glass of bourbon and local barbecue. It felt true. In relationships, real partnerships, the love is only as good as the friendship.
What I didn’t know was that loving someone long term, in that “peace” that I so desperately longed for, would also mean loving parts of them that remained unseen. As much as Saro’s heart was an open book, there was a mystery in him. My familial love was given, steady, open, even when out of sight. When he spoke of his origins, his family (which was rarely), there was a trace of pain, something unsettled, an air of disappointment I couldn’t quite identify. It was a part of his life that hadn’t yet been fully revealed to me. It would be soon enough.