Chapter One: Little Sister
In quella parte del libro de la mia memoria dinanzi a la quale poco si potrebbe leggere, si torva una rubrica la quale dice: Incipit vita nova.
In that part of the book of my memory before which little can be deciphered, there is a rubric that reads: Here the new life begins.
-- DANTE, LA VITA NUOVA
Every summer my family would escape the heat and the crowds of Firenze and move to Livorno where we had an apartment on the uppermost floor of a building on Viale Regina Margarita. Poplars shaded our home there, singing sotto voce in the marine breezes. The scent of pinewood, tamarisk, and lime trees blended with the salt in the air.
It was early in July, nearly noon, when a young man presented himself at the door. In 1897 I was barely seventeen; I was sixteen and counting the days. The poplars shone so brightly that morning they were themselves green suns. Their leaves shivered in the heat and wind, the light in them rippled. The foliage seemed to move in waves so the street became a high sea, a sea not blue like the Ligurian, but verdant.
Only Mamma was home when he knocked. He came with a letter of introduction from Leopoldo Mugnone, the Sicilian conductor and composer who had helped launch my sister Ada's singing career. When the young Enrico Caruso asked Mamma if she could recommend a pensione for him to stay, she felt sorry for him and offered our spare room to this stranger carrying his things in a cardboard suitcase.
That morning Ada was rehearsing at the Goldini, while I was shopping at the farmers' market. Mamma had a craving for artichokes and I had gone to fetch some. I filled a sack with those thorny green roses. The prickles are on the head, surrounding the heart, and the choke is at the center. Roses don't threaten their own beauty; they keep their thorns on the stem. The artichoke is not a mistress, but a wife swathed in a chastity belt. Mother had been planning to stuff and stew the artichokes for dinner, but the tenor's unexpected arrival changed all that.
It must have been stepping out of the brightness of the afternoon and into the cool dimness of the house that made everything seem so dark, so altered. I smelled him before I saw him. His scent was a murky music composed of musk and wood, and yes, also some kitchen smells. It was more than the slick air of his brilliantine and the must of stale clothes that I sensed. It was the odor of cooking oil and of Sicilian olives spiced with garlic and chilies. It was a smell of eating in bed, not the invalid's, but the lover's.
The bag of artichokes dropped out of my hands. The loose heads rolled freely, bloodlessly, as if from the clean execution of the guillotine. I scrambled after them, gathering them up in my skirt.
"Signorina." At the sound of his voice I looked up and it was then I saw him for the first time, the view of his face from below. I was on my knees. He was smiling, and although he had already begun to laugh, from the angle that I saw him his face seemed grave and his eyes were obscured by deep shadows.
"Signorina," he repeated, and when he spoke the syllables resonated as if I were being called to worship by a golden bell. I say worship, but the voice had body, not just spirit. Maybe I had tasted something like it; maybe it was like cream, cream when it is whipped, the volume filled with sweetness. I felt a weakness in my stomach and in my knees. I felt a fluttering in my knickers as if a moth, asleep for sixteen years, had suddenly burst through its cocoon and was beating its wings against my bottom.
"Mamma" was the only word that escaped my lips. It was the voice of a doll you have to shake to make her talk.
I went running into the kitchen, the artichokes bunched up in my skirt, not aware that I was exposing myself. He followed closely. I turned and saw his grin and that his eyes were fixed on the lace of my bloomers. I dropped the artichokes again and that was the end of having them for dinner.
To thank us for our hospitality, the napoletano insisted on taking us all out for dinner. He used the money the theater had advanced to him for lodging. We went to a trattoria nearby, nothing fancy, but where the food was always good.
The young man, Enrico Caruso, seated himself between Ada and me, but his chair was turned towards her and his thin frame angled her way. As soon as he saw Ada he seemed to forget me, and I began to watch as if from offstage, as if from the wings.
We were seated in the patio garden, so Ada was careful to stay in the shade of the awning. The tenor was a thin man, as dark as Ada was fair. His darkness might have affected an air of melancholy, but his eyes, his mouth, were mobile with lines of laughter. Laughter was a kind of light in his face; it shone even in the shade. I watched him watching her and tried to see what drew him to her. What was her allure? At twenty-four, Ada was a woman with a body ripe from having given birth the year before. Her complexion was creamy white, moist and glowing. She wore her hair pinned up at the back and combed away from her pale face, framed and softened by wispy curling tendrils. Her hair was the ashen color of wheat after the fields have been razed. Her eyes were chameleons; at times they were the color of seawater in the shallows where yellow sand makes it look green as a pasture, at other times they were the blue of ocean as on the horizon between sea and sky. Her eyes were green that day. In spite of the Neapolitan's gawking at her, Ada studied the menu as if unaware of his attention. You couldn't see her eyes then, just the eyelids, so finely veined they seemed purple, and the thick dusky lashes.
Mother ordered a simple dish, spaghetti alla marinara, and I chose what she chose, but Ada ordered the most expensive dish on the menu, vitello, stewed in Marsala and served in a cream sauce, and then dessert.
Ada led the conversation. "Verdi is divine, but he's old now, his music is getting tired. While this new composer, this Puccini, well, for me, he is a god among gods. His melodies make me throb when I sing them." She stretched out her white neck and touched it as she spoke as if to point to where the arias had pushed her heart into her throat. Ada was generous to this southern young man with her opinions, spreading out the wings of her beauty and her growing reputation. Ada already saw herself as a diva.
"Mugnone praised your beauty and your singing, signora. When the maestro showed me your photo, he wagged his finger at me and warned me not to fall in love with you."
"Do you think it's a good likeness?"
"If I may say so without offense, signora -- it pales. Your complexion requires a portrait artist -- nothing less than an artist will do to capture it."
"And how is that scoundrel? Does he miss me?"
"Miss you? Signora, they all pine for you, from the musicians to the stagehands. They say there is nobody like you! My poor head has been filled with visions of your beauty."
Miss her, I wished that we could miss her a little. What chance would I have with this man when my sister had him enthralled even before he met her?
Caruso took a sip of his wine, as well as a few sips of mineral water, and then continued with his Sicilian story. "Yes, Mugnone is a good and generous man. When the company closed for the season, he knew I needed to keep working and got this summer engagement in Livorno for me. But, let me tell you, I had quite a trial by fire on his stage.
"It's true that I like a little wine, but I never allow myself to get drunk. Our Neapolitan wines are light, like water. I can drink a couple of glasses and I'm refreshed, relaxed, ready to perform. But those Sicilian wines! They're closer to liquor than table wine. By the time I realized this I was drunk, and on my usual two tumblers with dinner.
"Lucia di Lammermoor was the production that night. Luckily the tipsy man knows no fear, but when I went to sing my role as Edgardo, I slurred the lines: 'sorte dalla Scozia' sounded like 'volpe dalla Scozia.' I was jeered off the stage. After that I was ready to quit, to leave Sicily forever. Mugnone brought in another tenor to take my place. But, imagine this, the audience wouldn't accept a substitute, and he had to call me back because they kept shouting for the little drunken singer; they kept calling for me as the 'fox of Scotland.'
When the waiter came round to our table to pour more wine for us, the young tenor placed his hand over his glass and shook his head. With a wide smile, he said, "No, grazie."
Living with my sister was like being blinded by sunlight. Before Ada's brilliance, that dizzy dancing of light on water, I felt dimmed. But I can't say I always minded when the intensity made me, for the sake of so much pleasure, squint. Ada was always the primary light, the dazzling one. The best I could do was to reflect her. Like the day moon, flattened, almost invisible in the depth of blue sky; the white of my face and the white of the fair-weather clouds were the same. My beauty was in harmonizing. Who, what man, would ever notice that? Perhaps someday a poet, dreamily looking up, might spot me. But most men were not poets, so I remained, because of my sister, a seventeen-year-old spinster.
Though Ada was now a married woman and a mother, she had abandoned her family to stay with us in Livorno. Nominally, it was just for the season: "My career demands it," Ada proclaimed. After they had married, Gino, her husband, whom she had met on the operatic stage, gave up his singing to work in the bank. But Ada wasn't prepared to give anything up; she kept performing publicly even when her pregnant belly began to show. One evening, from my seat in the audience, I saw the baby kick during an aria. I'm certain that if there had been a single birth staged among all those deaths in grand opera, my sister might have shown the audience the real thing.
Ada left her son to be the leading lady with the local opera company. When wet nurses can be hired for a few soldini, a woman with a purse needn't be tied down; she could keep her own big breasts firmly tucked inside her corset. If the child wanted his mother, he would have had to go to the opera to catch her dying as Verdi's Violetta or Puccini's Mimì on the stage of the Teatro Goldini. The poor child, his mother was lost to him. It was drama -- it was role-playing that Ada really loved. The role of mamma that was not sung was not for her.
Nobody ever overlooked Ada, least of all the young Neapolitan tenor, Rico, as he urged us to call him. It was closer to his baptismal name, Errico. But "Enrico" sounded more like the name of a star, so he had changed it. Our aspiring star, Rico, became solemn when Ada ("sleepyhead," she called herself!) walked in, all primped and powdered as if even the family dining room were a stage set to showcase her beauty. Ada expected to be looked at; she rarely deigned to look at you. She kept her eyes lowered. They were heavily lidded, obscured by long lashes darkened with castor oil to make them seem even longer. Even as she kissed Papa good morning and sat beside him, her eyes stayed half closed, as if she were still in a dream -- a dream about herself.
Even though Ada hardly glanced Rico's way, as soon as she made her entrance, Signor Napoli's mouth would drop open -- no longer to eat, but to gape. Though he had been joking while tearing thick slices of bread, soaking the crusty chunks in his bowl of steaming coffee and milk, slurping up heaping spoonfuls, the frothy milk forming a white scum on his black mustache, though he had been animated and partaking of the meal while talking to me or Papa, it all stopped then so that he could watch and listen to Ada. Rico would hang on to her every gesture; he seemed to be reading her desperately, as a singer might study an unfamiliar score, a new libretto, hoping for a starring role for himself. But when I spoke of Rico to Ada, she always dismissed him as the "little man, the pipsqueak."
"Adina, adetta, adetina, adella, adellina ..." Every morning I had to listen to my father's variations on my sister's name, that unending string of endearments. There weren't enough syllables, not enough diminutives, in our language, not nearly enough variety in our phonetics, to express his delight in once again finding his firstborn child at the breakfast table.
"Il sole si siede alla nostra tavola." The sun, the sun was sitting to table with us! Such extravagant phrases, yet my father was not a cavalier in the royal guards, but a civil servant in the national treasury. Still, his eyes were a blue so bright that when they turned to look at you it was like being placed in the limelight.
"Good morning, Papa."
"Good morning, Rina," he would answer. Apparently my name in itself was good enough for me.
For hours I have watched a man stroking a cat with such tenderness when that same man would disdain even to offer the lightest touch to his companion, his so-called lover. How Ada behaved at breakfast reminds me of that. It was on Papa that she lavished all her attention. She spoiled the older man in front of the young one. She catered to Papa's every need, as if he were the child: tucking in the napkin around his neck for him, offering to cool the hot sop of his breakfast, blowing on the spoon, her full lips puckered.
How a daughter indulges her father, how a lover strokes a cat, these are thinly coded signs, easily read. I was barely seventeen, but compared to Rico, I thought myself not the half as naive. At least not when it came to my sister.
"Would you like a little more hot milk in your coffee, Papa, or how about another sweet bun?" Ada coaxed.
Mother had already left for mass. We never saw her first thing in the morning, but we always found evidence of her attention in the table laid out for us with fresh bread and milk. I would make the espresso. My mother was a saint, and I wanted to be like her because I loved her. I was not myself so devout. I couldn't get up at first light to accompany her to church. But there were masses later in the morning on Sundays; I would go with her then. While Mamma practiced her faith daily, praying for hours on her knees, first at mass, then performing her novenas, I was a weekend Catholic.
Mamma wouldn't be back until we had finished eating, and then, even though past satiety, I would sit with her and drink more coffee while she broke her Communion fast. When she was done, we would clear the table together. I was my mother's daughter while Ada was my father's; that's how it worked in our family. My mother loved the Son of God, Gesu Cristo, while my father loved his mistress, Teresa.
Praise had been the right first note to strike with Ada, but Rico kept hitting all the wrong ones. None of us had ever heard him sing before. So when they started rehearsals, and our tenor sang at half voice, Ada feared she was doomed to play with a nobody. She despised him.
"He's no Scottish fox, he's a Neapolitan mouse, a thin-lipped rodent with no voice, with no range!" she complained.
Rico's singing practice was to save his voice for performances before an audience; at rehearsals he didn't use his full powers, but this was not generally known in the company. The impresario kept this secret because it was a privilege he feared that others might demand. How was he ever to judge the readiness of the production if they all decided to follow this Neapolitan's example?
So Ada was not impressed by the southern tenor.
"This, this is what you offer me as a leading man, this, this...tenorino!" She stamped her foot and demanded that he be fired.
"But he sang in Sicily like you! And with great success!" The comparison only infuriated her more.
"Tenorino!" Ada spat out the word as she recounted for me all the details of her argument with the manager. "The napoletano thinks he's a singer, but his breath is too short for bel canto. Send that nobody back to Napoli -- and the slum that spawned him!"
But in spite of her protests, the impresario had insisted on honoring Caruso's contract. There was nothing to be done, so the little tenor became the object of her scorn. That, I suppose, even if it were unwitting, was a stroke of genius on her part. It seems passion has no hotter fire than that fueled by a woman's scorn.
One night when I was half asleep, Ada came into my bedroom and sat on the edge of my bed. And she talked to me then the way she used to, before she married, before she became a signora and that abyss that gapes between married woman and virgin, between knowledge and innocence, opened between us.
"What if we shut down in the middle of the season because of that pipsqueak? My husband will expect me to come home -- he'll read the disastrous reviews and immediately let the wet nurse go! 'Basta,' I can just hear him now, 'for the sake of Lelio, for the sake of our son, even if you care little enough for me, your husband ¿' He is jealous, Rina -- he is jealous of my talent. He quit the stage because the reviews stung him, not because of duty, as he would have the world believe. The critics all lauded my charms, my voice, and on his performance, their silence was deafening. So do you know what he wants now, what he's planning to do? I know he'd like nothing better than to shut me up in that bank vault with him. Is there music in a safe, Rina? What clerks call notes is the rustling and stacking, the sorting of paper money -- to an artist these are just scratching sounds. The kind rats make! I will die, Rina, I will die if I have to go back to such a life!"
While she was complaining about Gino, all I could think of was Rico. "His speaking voice is an angel's -- it scales upward, it soars; it has the softness of wings, not like feathers, but like what's underneath them, like the down -- how could he possibly sing badly?"
What? Who? Gino? Parli di Gino?"
"No, not Botti, not your husband -- I mean Rico."
"You can't be serious! Rico? Do you mean Caruso, the tenor who sings as southern flies buzz? All wind, and precious little of it too. Ah, you like him -- that little Neapolitan nobody. You like him so much you have no sympathy for your sister!"
"He likes you!"
"What do I care if the man likes me? What's his smile to me when my singing career is at stake? If the company has to shut down because of him -- because of his failure -- we will all be tarred from the same pot. There may be no next role -- no next contract!" She started to weep then. "What is my life worth if I can't sing?"
I could think of no words to comfort my sister. Opera was Ada's passion, her lifeblood. She lived for the many small deaths of the stage. In opera, you could count on the soprano's cough to turn out to be consumptive. Somebody always has to die onstage, die or marry; that's the only difference between a comedy and a tragedy as far as the world knows.
She calmed herself, her tone shifting from sorrow to anger again. "Rina, since you like this man so much, va bene, then marry him! And make him get a job in a bank. Do me, yourself, and bel canto a big favor -- make him withdraw from my La Traviata at once!"
Without my friends, summers were lonely in Livorno. But like any student not fully dedicated to her studies, I found it a relief to get away from the textbooks. Though I loved poetry, subjects like mathematics, Latin, and Greek bored me. That year I had completed intermediate level at school, and the relief would be permanent unless I continued with music studies as my father urged me to. I enjoyed music, but I didn't have the discipline or the desire for a career in it. Music was the zabaione, the sweet and frothy dessert in life's feast. The first and primary course was always the family; a husband and children was what I planned for. I had had enough of studying. I wanted suitors, and now that I'd found one in Rico, I dreamed of nothing else.
My father was on assignment a lot for the national treasury and traveled all over the country. He had seen the world and had picked up progressive ideas. He believed that daughters should be as cultivated, as accomplished, as sons. He didn't want us stuck in Old Country ways -- my mother's ways. For Mother, the Church was the savior, but for Father, it was a big part of the problem. Ada was the model he held up to me, the rising star of opera. But what I envied was her husband, her child, not her career.
Mother was the one from a once-wealthy family. She inherited property, the palazzo in Firenze, and a bit of money, but we had to rely on Father's salary to live. It was my mother who first taught me to play the piano, as her mother had taught her. I still remember the touch of Mamma's hands guiding my small ones on the keys, so patient with my many blunders. If I loved music, it was because of her hands; I could not touch piano keys without remembering the warmth of them cupped over mine. Music might have been as abstract as mathematics to me if it had not been for my mother's piano lessons.
I had watched and listened as she taught Ada before me, Ada who hardly ever made a blunder. But Mother later turned away from music to religion. Anything that distracted from God and from family had become a sin. I don't know when or why this change in her occurred. Did she blame herself for Ada's neglect of family for a singing career? Mother complained that opera was not pure music because it was sullied by the stage and shameful stories. But that hadn't deterred Ada. And what scandalized Mamma made Papa proud.
That summer in livorno everyone in the household had a position except me. I was the daughter-in-waiting and what I was waiting for was a husband. And now he had a name: Enrico Caruso. Rico and Ada would be at the theater nearly every day, Father had his business affairs, and Mother her prayers, so I would have been bored beyond redemption except that I was in love and those hours alone were filled with my fantasies.
From our apartment it was a short walk to the waterfront. Mornings I would climb the old fortress and look at the blue-green water, the Ligurian Sea where the English Romantic poet had drowned. From the lookout, I could watch the fishermen struggling with their nets. Then I would wander on the beach for hours, picking up shells to listen for the verses trapped inside. I'd take my shoes off and let the foam of the waves lick my feet, then suck at my toes as the water withdrew again. What would a man's mouth, a man's tongue, feel like? Would it be rough as a cat's? Cold like the surf's?
I spent every morning on the beach, but I whiled away afternoons in the apartment and out of the sun. Then I occupied myself with indoor games: I was a girl, playing house, and I used to pretend Rico and I were already married. Didn't I send out his clothes to be laundered; didn't I place the folded garments neatly into his dresser; didn't I touch even his underthings?
When nobody was home I would go into his bedroom, not by stealth, but by what I imagined as marital duty. His bed was always made, military style. The bedspread was not pulled over the pillows, but tucked under them. I touched the pillowcase. The linen was cool, not, as I had hoped, still warm from his sleeping head. Taking the pillow to my nose and sniffing the cloth, I caught whiffs of the lanolin of his hair oil.
On the nightstand, there was a photograph, its face turned towards the bed, as if placed there to watch over the sleeper. It was a death portrait of a woman. The eyes were like his, black and round, dark yet luminous, though the look in hers seemed as melancholy as his was merry. A prayer card, the image of the Madonna of Pompeii, frayed at its edges, was tucked into a corner of the frame.
I couldn't help myself; I had to snoop around while I had the chance. I looked for letters, for a journal, for any form of writing that might open what was in his heart to me. In the drawer of the nightstand there was a note from his brother in the army, asking for money. Rico had doodled in the margin a scene from an opera where the singing was performed by thousand-lire bills, except for a smaller one, which, in spite of being marked as a mere fifty lire, filled the biggest balloon with its voice. In the wastebasket I saw a scrunched-up piece of paper. I took it out and smoothed it down to read. The script of the letter was smeared, but my fear of a romantic rival made me struggle to read every word.
I'll send money as soon as I can. You don't have to remind me every time you write that you are sacrificing yourself for me in the army. Better you than me, because what good is a tenor as a soldier? You know I have no talent for such things. I only have one talent and that's to sing. One day I'll make it all worth your while. Be careful with that gun, it has a hair trigger. I almost shot my foot off cleaning it one time.
Your loving brother,
That summer was the time I remember our family as happiest. Even Mamma, whose increasing religious devotion was turning her into a dour woman, her soft full lips constantly pressed into a thin and disapproving line, even she softened again and opened herself to giggling with me in the kitchen. She was teaching me to cook and I was her curious, eager student. As I worked I thought of him, my future husband, the one I dreamed of, Rico, our Neapolitan tenor. Making pasta, I would get flour in my hair and eyes from handling the dough. Rolling out sheets of it and then cutting it into squares, I would spoon the filling of ricotta, spinach, and egg onto the layers, and then fold the pasta into the shape of babies' bottoms, pinching and sealing the tortellini. To me they looked like babies' bottoms, but the legend was that a cook had a vision of Venus and created tortellini in the shape of her navel.
I was pleasing my mother by my new interest in domestic tasks. This assured her that I had not been corrupted like Ada by love of opera. Mamma feared that she might have raised both her daughters as prima donnas.
Though life itself that summer seemed occasion enough for celebration, we marked every day as if it were some saint's holiday, and each meal we prepared as a feast. We all liked to eat, but none of us had the appetite of our young guest.
"I'm hungry tonight; I think I'm hungry for all the nights I've been hungry. Even though I am stuffed, it's as if I'm still empty inside; it's as if there's a hole in my stomach. Maybe this hole is the hole that the music pushes through."
"Surely you needn't fear hunger again. When Mugnone recommends you that means success in this country." Mamma refilled his bowl.
Rico capped his mountain of pasta with cheese.
"È cosi buono." He was a thin man, "thin as an anchovy" he said of himself, yet he tucked into such a big second helping.
"Only the fat he will store from our meals will keep this tenorino from starving to death on his talents!" Ada hissed in my ear.
I left the table to help Mamma serve the espresso and dessert. When I returned, carrying the sputtering coffee pot, I saw a kind of comic pantomime: Rico's head was turned towards Ada, Ada's was turned towards Papa, while Papa concentrated on the bits of meat still clinging to the bone of his pork chop, gnawing at it as if he had been infected with the younger man's appetite.
For dessert Mamma had made a special dish in Rico's honor. It was a cake laced with Marsala and crowned with custard and fruit called zuppa inglese that, in spite of the English in its name, was invented in Naples.
First, I poured the coffee for Rico; he was our guest. The delight with which he responded to every gesture of courtesy touched me. Then I poured the next cup for Mamma, but she passed the cup immediately to Papa. Then I took his empty cup and tried again to serve her. This she passed to Ada, who did not refuse it. Again I took one of the two remaining empty cups and filled it. That one I set firmly before my mother.
"Per piacere, Mamma, prendi questa tassa." I am the only one Mamma will not defer to. I'm used to the dregs from the bottom of the pot, the gritty taste of grounds, bitter, but also sweet when spoonfuls of sugar are added. Sugar is the cure, a little sugar or a lot, to cut the harshness of the leavings. When will we be first, Mamma, when will women like us be first? In heaven -- that's what she believed.
None of this really bothered me then, as I said this was the time I remember as happiest, the season when to Ada -- indeed, to the world -- Rico was a nobody, while to me he was music itself. He was birdsong -- he was flowers -- if flowers can be used to describe a man. Only they could approach the textures in a voice that was somehow both airy and densely rich. Think of orchids, think of night bloomers opening only for the moon, such beauty unfurling in mystery and darkness. Think of ferns -- though delicate as fans, in tropical rain forests they grow as mighty as trees.
I was in love for the first and last time in my life. And the only language of love I knew was the language of poetry written by men to describe women. Is there any other? The rose may be Dante's, but the fern, the fern is mine. I hope it is mine.
Restless, at night I would accidentally touch myself while dreaming of him. The first time was an accident. It must have been my ignorance of men that made me imagine his skin as an extension of my own, as smooth, and the belly round and hairless, my fingers lingered in a territory both familiar and strange.
On Tuesdays the opera house was closed -- no performances, no rehearsals. I planned a picnic, wanting only Rico to come, but I had to invite my sister as well. At first Ada had said yes, but then she backed out at the last moment. I was glad that didn't stop my fun because my mother seemed to think of Rico as family, and did not insist on a chaperone. And as for my father, as I have said, he was an educated man with progressive ideas. Ada and I were treated like sons insofar as Father allowed us the kind of freedom that was scandalous to neighbors, but mostly envied by my friends at school.
With a basket filled with good things to eat, bread and pecorino cheese, fruit and a bottle of red wine, we set out for the countryside on bicycles. Rico balanced the basket on the handlebars of his bike, a rusty old thing he had fished out of the garbage somewhere.
We kept a leisurely pace. Under different circumstances I might have welcomed a race, the flush, the exhilaration of speed, on the road and in the blood, the heart mistaking itself for a prisoner, knocking forcefully in the chest, that sealed chamber without a door, but in Rico's presence I wanted to stay fresh, sweet. My greatest fear that day was not the road, not its dust, nor the stray stones that might play hazard with my wheels, but my menstrual flow, the mess and smell of it. Though I had doubled the rags I was wearing, I felt its flow in hot gushes. I feared to find the back of my skirt, the bicycle seat, red, wet, and sticky with my shame.
In the meteorological records for Tuscany, there is perhaps no note on the perfection of that morning. Let me record it here for posterity. Although it was only a little after ten in the morning, the cicadas were already shrilling the high heat. The sun was a lemon on fire; there was a citrus sharpness, something refreshing in its heat.
The road we took ran parallel to the shore. There were fields ripening red, openly bleeding with poppies by the roadside. There were hills rising to the east, dense with dark pinewoods. Wind blew briskly from the sea and added a salty sting to the air. As we pedaled along we could see the seascape, bands of bright blue through clearings in the woods to the west. It was good to feel the sea breeze on my face. It was like the caress of a fan, and I was a woman who lowered hers and exposed her lips, naked and burning.
We found a spot secluded from the main road where we could see the shore and the water, the blue of the Ligurian Sea merging with azure at the horizon. It was seamless -- sky and sea formed one continuous sphere as in some prehistoric time, before God separated the elements. From where we sat there was no evidence of man, of modern time; not a sail could be seen. The water was flat and shining; it might have been fathoms deep, or merely knee-deep. There was little surf. All I could make out was some white foam along the shore like a border of ecru lace on a woman's shirt. It seemed that we had stepped onto a pristine planet, into a garden there. We might have been Eve and Adam.
We laid out our picnic lunch near the entrance to a grove of oaks. Rico sat with his back braced against the trunk of one of the trees. He picked up acorns lying around the camp and shot them randomly into the woods. While he rested, I laid out the food on a cloth, checkered red and white.
We drank wine directly from the bottle. That seemed to me our first kiss, when he drank, tilting the bottle back high, as if it were empty, not full, then passed it over to me and I drank. I put it to my lips, the glass mouth where his lips had just been, and while I lingered, he started to eat. Breaking a large chunk off the loaf of bread, Rico held up the piece to heaven as if it were a sacramental offering. Then he sniffed the moist center. He buried his face in the hunk before he tore off a morsel with his teeth.
"Bread too has its music." He placed the remainder of the loaf against my ear. "Listen, Rina, can you hear it? The slapping of hands, the slow way that yeast makes melody, it rises in the dough and into a symphony. Listen to the overture. It's in the air -- it's captured in the pockets of air in the bread. Here are the stanzas of song; here too is the silence -- when the singer stops."
I strained to hear the mysterious music he described, but I heard nothing, only the rustling sound my hair made as the loaf brushed against it. But when I pressed the bread harder against my ear I made out something like the sea you hear in a shell, but throbbing.
The next kiss was different. All the wine had been drunk, the food mostly devoured. I can still feel that kiss, the real one. I can still taste it on my lips when I try to lick dryness away and I sample my own blood, the sweet salt of it. The first kiss was not what I had imagined, not like what I practiced in bed on my own hand, after whispering, "Rico, Rico, ti amo." That hand was small and plump, smooth and coolly moist from applying cold cream. That was a child's gesture; that was a child's hand.
A couple of crows, perched in a nearby tree, seemed to run a conversation parallel to ours. They spoke only as we spoke, they paused to listen as we listened.
"Vieni qua...vieni caaaw caaaw." My hair was long and woven into a single thick braid, tied at the back. Rico grabbed my braid and pulled me gently towards him as one tugs a shy and reluctant puppy by a leash. Imagine his breath and my breath forming one single deep breathing, his face and my face so close we bump noses.
Then he whispered something, something I couldn't make out; I heard instead flapping sounds as the birds above shook out their wings.
"Rina...Rina...signo...rina..." It seemed he sang my name, the tenor I had yet to hear sing. But his speaking voice was more interesting to me than any song.
"Rina ¿ Rina ¿ signo ¿ rina ¿" He played with my name again, followed by some words I couldn't make out, and then he sharply nipped at my ear.
The crows cawed; it seemed they knew me too.
Our faces were so close that when I tried to look at Rico my eyes crossed. I saw a double image; I saw the two faces of my lover, but I didn't know how to read either one of them. So I closed my eyes and it was then he kissed me again, his mouth pressed very hard against mine this time. So forcefully, it was closer to a punch than a caress. His mouth opened wide and it seemed he might swallow the entire lower half of my face. Then his tongue pushed its way between my puckered lips. As if a snake had entered my mouth, not one of our stringy Italian vipers, but some Amazonian monster as thick as my arm, as if to kiss meant to eat -- or to be eaten. I had to push him away to get my breath back. And he let me.
"What was that -- what you did?"
"That was a lover's kiss, Rina, piccolina." He crooked his little finger in a come-hither gesture. "Vieni qui...nobody will see."
The crows echoed our words, but perhaps it is arrogant, if all too human, to think so; they may have had matters of their own to discuss that day. Though I hesitated briefly, I found myself too soon falling into his arms, my lips parted. When his tongue traced the inside of my mouth the feeling I had always attributed to the divine during Communion, that sublime tingling I sensed when peeling back the Sacred Host from where it clung to the roof of my mouth, I felt then with him -- that ecstasy and awe.
The thrusting motion of his tongue threatened to push through into my very brain -- into the seat of all pleasure. But it was a sensation so intense it might have been pain. It seemed I was stepping out of myself and into a zone of transformation, of metamorphosis, to inhabit a new body. As in the myths, I expected my arms to become laurel, my belly to turn into a bird's nest.
But my legs were still just my legs when Rico touched them. His hand was in my skirt, his fingers had pushed my bloomers up, and he was stroking the inside of my thigh. It might have been virtue or it might have been the thought of the sodden, smelly rags between my legs that gave me the strength to push him away.
"No, Rico, please, no. You must speak to Papa first. I love you, but...you know I -- until we're betrothed -- until we're married we can't do more than kissing."Love, I said the word so easily, I said it without realizing that it is not the first thing that a man wants to hear from a woman. The crows cawed along with my stuttering little speech.
I was taught that sex must be sacred not to be a sin. It had been almost a scandal when Ada married; the neighbors counted the months to the birth of her son and counted short. Mamma did extra penance as if it were her fault. So, it seemed the right thing to do that day, to make Rico wait for my body.
"You know I have no money now. I cannot speak to your father until I make a debut at La Scala, until I make my career. But after my success there, when my future will be assured, I will beg him for your sweet hand. Come, picina, another kiss. If you love me as you say you do, you won't deny me."
"If you love me," he said, and there was no doubt of that, I loved him. He would ask for my hand after he succeeded in Milan. Soon, his success would surely be soon.
When he kissed me the third time I learned more about my mouth, how the lover runs his tongue over your teeth, then slips again into the arched cathedral dome of the mouth. You cannot pray unless you go inside.
Without my mother's novenas I might have been lost that day as his hand went up my skirt again, this time to my waist, to pull my bloomers down. When he paused at my hips, this gave me the moment I needed to come to my senses. I pushed him away again, and I jumped to my feet. Some instinct told me not to run. To straighten my bloomers, I had to reach under my skirt. Rico watched me the whole time -- I dared not guess what he was thinking as I struggled to adjust my underwear without lifting my skirt.
Then I made myself busy packing up the remains of our picnic. I took what was left of the bread, broke it into bits, and threw them onto the ground for the crows. Slowly they spiraled down to us and had their own picnic with our leftovers.
"Don't be mad. Let me carry the basket, Rina." When he spoke I was relieved. I expected him to be the angry one. "Ascolti, Rina, picina. It's lack of money, not lack of love, that keeps me from marrying you."
"But...I can wait. Oh, I will wait for you, Rico! I love you with all my heart. If the Madonna would give me a second heart, a simple pump, I would tear this one right out of my chest and give it to you. It stays in my breast because I do not want to die, because I do not ever want to be parted from you. You must know -- you must believe me -- I would do anything for you!" I imagined love to be like Dante's love for Beatrice, that passion and purity were one, scripted in longing and celestial distances.
And it was true that I would have done anything for him, even though, that afternoon, I wouldn't perform the act I knew then only as a mortal sin. I withheld my body. It was only my body, not my heart. But what's a heart without a body? Something sacred, like the scapular with the image of Christ's heart, bleeding with its crown of thorns, imprinted on felt. My mother told me to wear it around my neck, under my shirt, and if I were really devout, to sleep with it on. You don't offer such a thing to a lover.
I believed he would marry me. I thought that by my promising to wait for him, he would wait for me too.
As I raved to Mamma about what a wonderful man Rico was, so warm, so kind, so full of spirit, a simpatico, one who, even though he had very little money, was open and generous with all, one who would share his last crumb with a bird just for singing in the meadow, she stopped me with a raised finger:
"Attenzione, Rina, è veramente simpatico e gentile -- but you must remember that he is still a man."
"But, Mamma, I could hardly forget that!"
"Allora..." She shook her head, closed her eyes.
"And Papa, isn't he a man?" I quickly interjected. With that I thought I had won.
"È vero." Drawing her lips into a fine line with the truth of it, she refused to say anything more.
I had yet to hear Rico sing, unless you count his humming early in the morning something from Verdi as he made his way to the toilet on the roof. I was excited when he sent us all tickets for his first performance in La Traviata. Ada always expected us to get them for ourselves. I had seen Ada perform many times; our father was perhaps her most devoted fan. I was bored with that. Each opening night would find us all in front-row seats to add to, if not actually lead, the applause. That night I wasn't at the opera for her. I was there praying for Rico's success so that soon, all the sooner, we might marry and live happily together.
At the theater we were seated in a reserved box. I sat in the middle, separating my mother and father. Father had rolled his copy of the program and, like me, was surveying the audience, dressed in their silks and jewels, seated in the gallery below us. Mother sat quietly, the program held flat between her palms like a Sunday missal, the words so familiar she no longer needed to read them. In the summer heat, the hall exuded scents: tobacco, perfume, and sweltering skin.
The curtains rose to a drama in which my sister and Rico played the parts of lovers. Misterioso, love was mysterious; croce e delizia al cor, love was pain, delicious pain. Of that I was easily persuaded, I knew from the tightness in my chest as I listened to Rico sing, the sharply intense pleasure of it. If I loved his speaking voice as much as I loved music, still I was not prepared for the thrill of his singing. And the mouth with which he sang, the tongue that I had tasted, were tasted anew in rhapsodic song.
I was swept away by the pathos of the drama. Ada and Rico, the principals in the production, were my intimates, but onstage they were larger than life. In the third act of La Traviata, when all the violins vibrated with the sound of yearning, Ada's Violetta turned to Rico's Alfredo and sang to him with her dying breath. I think it might have been then that my sister began to die too as she fell deeply in love with her leading man. I think that now, though at the time I only thought that it was very fine acting on her part. Tears welled up in my eyes.
"Without his full voice, he was like a flower without a scent." It seemed even my sister was reduced to flower imagery to describe him. "But when he sang for performance, it was round and rich, it was caramel in its sweetness, liquid in its texture. As it soared as a bird soars, it also had depth, like clear spring water rising from a well -- bubbling up from the cavernous darkness, yet filled with air and light. I felt his voice enter me; it made me shudder; it filled me to the brim -- to the brim."
It was apparent that Ada had forgotten her husband some time ago. But that she would turn her attention to my fiancé, when she herself had ordered me to marry the tenorino, felt like a betrayal.
The reviews were very good and they favored Ada. Il Trovatore described her as "an artist to her very soul...She infuses all the sentiment, grace, perfumed, sweet melancholy that the delicate creature requires!" Even the very few who doubted Ada's singing ability acknowledged that she was a remarkable actress.
As for Rico, he was not yet the Caruso; his performance was cited in the Gazzetta Livornese as deserving praise, "a voice and method that have become very good." Nobody was obviously complaining; in spite of Ada's fears about her tenorino, the show would go on. So in the beginning, although she overshadowed him, Rico proved himself good enough to sing with her. He had begun to create roles, but he had not yet created himself.
Ada wanted Rico to get the part of Rodolfo in Giacomo Puccini's new opera, La Bohème. She already had the role of Mimì. This was an opera that, in spite of the hissing on opening night and the bad reviews that followed, was playing to packed houses all over Italy, and its word-of-mouth success was already moving quickly all over the world. To keep Rico singing by her side, Ada had to approach the manager again. And there she was, stamping her foot at him, the same scene with a twist -- this time she insisted on keeping the Neapolitan as her leading man.
"I tell you, Signora Botti, it's beyond my control! Ricordi keeps an iron-fisted hold to the rights to all Puccini compositions. He will not allow just anyone -- particularly not an unknown tenor under contract to a rival house -- to sing the operas he publishes. The Neapolitan would have to get permission, a signature from Puccini himself, for Ricordi to agree to it."
Rico also approached the manager and begged for the role. Just for the opportunity to prove his worth, our tenor foolishly offered to sing for free. The man raised his eyebrows at that; he slowly shook his head, shrugged, and spread out his hands, palms up, in a gesture of helplessness. Then he repeated that Rico must get Puccini's written permission.
It was Ada's idea that Rico make the short trip to Torre del Lago where Puccini lived and audition for the composer. Every morning, for two weeks, she coached him in the role. If her husband was expecting her home during the break in the season, he was disappointed. Did he think she was hard-hearted, neglecting their baby son? Or did he write it off as the egotism of the artist, as her obsession? It was egotism, yes, the artistic kind, but vanity too, the female kind. She wasn't prepared to leave her new conquest behind. Love is a glove; love is a gauntlet. It had been thrown down, and it had been picked up.
Copyright © 2005 by Mary Di Michele