4. Vita la Dolce
As Claudia sat on the bench and looked up into the sky, she thought about her relationship with Dr. Kent. At first she was intimidated by his long, convoluted ideas. But then, slowly, she saw him getting nervous. It was as if he was more frightened of her than she was of him. So instead of stepping back, she stepped forward. He got more nervous and started to stutter. He even got English words mixed up. He seemed relieved when she did the talking.
Several weeks into the term, she asked if he wanted to have a drink at Vita La Dolce, a small café behind the university. She mentioned that she might want to do graduate work in Canada.
He was so nervous she could almost hear his adam’s apple click each time he sipped his Campari. She couldn’t tell if he was serious or not, but all of a sudden he suggested that she might be able to get a scholarship to do a Master’s degree at his university. He joked awkwardly that she wouldn't be the first Italian to move to Toronto. He said that with her command of the language and her diverse interests, she'd be a shoe-in.
She looked puzzled. A shoe in? Ah, you mean, I will get my shoe in the door? She loved talking in English. It was so strange, so unmusical. Most of the time it sounded tough and business-like, yet then it would slide into some mellifluous cadence. After three or four drinks, she started calling him by his first name, Clark.
Dr. Kent also helped her understand her father, Volpaccio. She invited him for dinner, and he saw for himself what she was up against. Volpaccio brandished his fork like a lighting rod. Strands of spaghetti would slip between the iron prongs like the twisted bodies of the tormented in Hell. He banged his fist on the table and shouted Infidels! Atheists! at the middle managers who hovered, like ghostly accountants, on the peach-coloured wall of their dining room. Helping himself liberally to the bottle of red wine (his only liberal act, Clark noted) he counted out all ten commandments, as if he were coming down from the mountain with a handful of stone tablets. Volpaccio then listed each of the seven deadly sins, pausing lovingly over Pride, the Demon Angel that fell headlong to his doom. This, he said, was the head of his boss, Grillo Parlante, falling from his soft leather desk into the crushing circles of his lathe.
Volpaccio elaborated on the seven deadly sins of Grillo Parlante and his Blue Fairy management team. How they pretended to be angels and yet how they lied and manipulated! Dr. Kent couldn’t hear what Volpaccio said about gluttony, however, amid the gurgles and gulps of his beloved Nero d'Avola. Volpaccio didn't pretend to be perfect, however; he admitted that he was a devil in his own way. Siamo tutti peccatori, he muttered, maudlin, into his partridge fricasée, garnished with melancholy and sweet paradise grapes. But if he was a poor devil, the rump at the end of his pitchfork would be that of the even greater devil, Grillo Parlante. Even in the afterlife, he sat behind his desk and ordered everybody about. He would get his, sooner or later.
Dr. Kent counselled Claudia not to begrudge her father his drink or his visions of vengeance. How else could he forget the boredom of his work days? How else could he get up each morning at 6:30 AM to spend eight hours on the lathes of Blue Fairy Toys, a subsidiary of Geppetto Corp., itself dedicated to the production of walking, talking, lying puppets? Without his rosary and his Saint Francis, Volpaccio would have blown up the factory decades ago.
Claudia just wished that she could talk to her father for two minutes without trying to suggest in one way or another that his point of view wasn't necessarily right because all the others were wrong.
It's as useless, Clark told her, over a sparkling glass of prosecco in a dark corner of Vita la Dolce, as prying Americans from their guns, as getting them to amend their sacred Second Amendment.
Sitting on the bench in the Giardino Inglese, Claudia accepted that is wasn’t necessarily a bad thing that her father felt so proud. Clark was right: Who doesn’t have pride? The philosopher who moralizes about the insignificance of our lives will still be proud of his argument. The astronomer who sees how small we are still marvels at the nihilistic depth of his sight. We all find consolation in our versions of meaning. Clark was right: it may even be our pride that keeps us going.
Just as Claudia arrived at this magnanimous feeling toward her father, she saw Clark walking toward the two bronze figures in the fountain. He had a preoccupied air, as if he had just happened to stumble on this tiny planet. He was in fact thinking about Claudia. Her bright eyes and her luminous skin. He also knew exactly where he was going.
As he pretended to stumble upon her sitting there, he let out a clumsy Oh, que bello surpressa!
He was hoping to sit next to her, but on the other side of the bench was a man with all sorts of wires and meters spilling over the bench and onto the ground. The man kept looking at Claudia, jerking his head left and right. Claudia turned her back to the man and made room for the professor next to her on the bench. Clark, davvero, che sorpresa meravigliosa! Come sit down next to me.
The two men were almost facing each other.
Pietro hated the foreigner with his haughty air, his goat-like beard, his bald head, and his blushing face. He had a theory that the red faces of the English came from Protestant guilt. Without the comforts of the priest's wooden box, self-recriminations built up in the Protestant body, putting pressure on the nerves and veins, until Northerners began to look like Anglican preachers and pirates. It was only a matter of time before they made everyone confess and walk the plank.
Claudia's complexion, on the other hand, had benefited from the exorcising powers of the priest. Her forehead was smooth, unruffled, pure, beatified. She didn’t have a care in the world. Her skin was olive, golden or tawny, depending on the light in which he saw it. Although Pietro couldn't have know this, her father once compared her luminous skin to the glowing amaro he drank after dinner, to help his spirit come to terms with a large plate of spaghetti carbonara, two lamb chops, three glasses of red wine, a plate of roast potatoes with onions, a mixed salad, and a castle of tiramisu.
Looking at his adversary, Pietro could tell that it wouldn’t be difficult to find a tourist like this at a loss for words. This one was obviously bottled up with unspoken frustrations — things he thought but couldn't do. Things he couldn't do, but couldn't stop thinking about.
The foreigner spoke Italian in a staccato manner, grasping awkwardly, scratching at the air for the right thing to say. To Pietro's surprise, however, the alien’s voice was transfigured the instant he switched to English. All of a sudden, he spoke like the over-rated Shakespeare, the one who had plagiarized all of his elegance from Dante.
It bothered Pietro to think that English could sound this good. He preferred to think of the language that was poisoning their country as some bastardized version of German. The image of Hitler barking from his podium came to mind. It then infuriated him to see that the blonde angel followed the foreigner into the same hellish Angleschluss of vocables. She went from warbling in a dove's voice to cawing like a crow. Her perfect mouth, once a soft pink bud, miniature of the Blessed Rose, now seemed like the blowhole of a trumpet, one a demon might use to summon forth the coarsest of blasphemies.
To Dr. Kent, Claudia's inflection was like the music of the spheres, emanating in contrapuntal auras outward from her sunlit hair, which he took the liberty of telling her was like gold to airy thinness beat.
True, this music was even more melodic when she spoke in Italian, but then again when she spoke in English there were certain advantages. If Dr. Kent had to spell out these advantages, he'd say that Germanic languages sounded better when inflected by Italian or French, whereas Latin-based languages sounded worse when inflected by English or German. He'd use a hypnotic voice to explain this, so that the eyes of his listener would glaze over and he would feel less guilty about the real reason: it made him master of the situation. And while she searched for the right thing to say, he drank in his fill of her olive skin and queen-sized breasts.
Her eyes literally sparkled. He would give his left ventricle to touch that skin. He didn’t dare look below her lips for more than a second at a time — so petite and slender-waisted, and with such breasts, with their nipples clearly visible in the cool spray of the fountain.
He thought to himself, By the dark order of Hecate I will make my intentions clear to this girl. It was no use beating around the bush: they had to start the paperwork. In any case, she wasn't an idiot. When the course was over, it would only be days till she escaped his clutches and went off with some handsome Italian man half his age. He dug to the depths of his throat for the right earnest register, and recited the speech he had worked on all morning: I would be honoured to accommodate you in my large home. It has a wonderful garden. It is gorgeous in the early morning. You would be my most honoured guest, at least until you finish your Master’s degree and find suitable employment.
Pietro couldn’t stand it any longer. He blurted out in fractured English, Howa dara yoo! Yoo com’een aura contry anda yoo zee deeza bayootful womanandayoo takadvantages eena air. Yoo zeetta down, breking da zeelenzyo eena deez belleesseema jardeena, pretendinga tobea elping air!
Dr. Kent had to stifle his laughter at this clumsy attempt at moral superiority. Italian men descended like wolves on any blonde women, without prejudice, from the edges of Lake Como to the jetties of Brindisi. Hadn’t this same lunatic been ogling Claudia himself, and making her seasick with his gyrating head? He asked the man calmly in English: So why then have you been staring at her for the last ten minutes?
Pietro couldn’t answer that. Or, rather, he felt that he could answer, but the girl was so obviously impressed by everything the professor said that anything Pietro said would be used against him. And yet, he really had to saying something. Something about Dante and the Blessed Rose and trumpets and the licentious evil of the English race. But even if he argued like Aristotle, he would still sound like an idiot. Yet he had to say something now or forever hold his peace.
And yet he sat there like a stone, at a complete loss for words.
Next story: Proust in the Morning