Every Saturday morning my great aunt Giovanna repainted her apartment. I should mention that this process was not a simple repainting of the walls. No, this was an artistic re-imagining of everything: chairs and couches, radiators and beds, shoes and chandeliers. It always began with the sound of Padre Livio’s raspy voice from the Vatican’s Santa Maria radio station, followed by a loud knocking on my door.
“Darling I need to work! You need to get out!” Giovanna would yell, surely waking up all the neighbors, even through the thick nineteenth century walls. Beside her, I could hear the snarling and gasping of Ruby, a black French bulldog whose smushed face and nonstop wheezing walked the line between hideous and charming, “Oh and take this fucking ugly little thing with you!”
I should say that my aunt Giovanna was both a great artist and Roman, a cocktail well suited for madness. A woman with a short body but a big – to say the least – personality. Giovanna was the sixty-nine-year-old embodiment of La Dolce Vita, a fiery ball of passion and affection, of the carefree, and perhaps most importantly, the love for life and that which is beautiful. She came from the old generation of Italian women, a generation that were, for the most part, confined to the kitchen and their husbands. But she was Giovanna, and Giovanna was different. She’d had three husbands, all of whom had been at least twenty years older than her, all of whom she had divorced, and all of whom could now be found in the Sant’agnese cemetery just down the road.
I spent the day at Benaco, a small bar with plastic circular tables run by Giovanni, a man renowned throughout the neighborhood for making the best cappuccino in Rome. I originally became acquainted with Benaco through my mother, who had been a regular there until her eventual journey to the United States in the nineties, and, to this day, she reminisces about it. Perhaps it is for that very reason that she sent me to Giovanna’s for the summer, to bestow upon me the pleasure of drinking Giovanni’s cappuccinos, or perhaps it was to cure my lifeless Californian accent. Either way, that summer would end up teaching me things that my small-town high school back home never could.
It had become somewhat of a pastime of mine to sit in there for hours, staring blankly into a book; not turning a single page as I listened to the world all around me. I listened as Signora Elena complained about her son Franco, who at the age of forty was still living in her house, and I listened as Signor Ernesto rambled on about Italy’s impending political doomsday. Nobody seemed to take notice of me, perhaps my long dark hair and boney Roman nose gave me an air of Italianness. In that way, I was like a spy. It was exhilarating, to fit in somewhere else, to be able to observe with a certain sense of intimacy, of familiarity. It made the world seem uncomplicated, it made the world seem small, and it made the world seem beautiful.
By the time I left Benaco the sun had set, and I figured that Giovanna had most likely finished her rampage. As I arrived at the apartment building, its warm Mediterranean orange had begun to slowly fade in the dying evening light so that it now resembled a bruised orange. Many years later that building would still hold a sense of magic for me, perhaps because it so effortlessly captured the essence of Rome, a city which seemed to embody a never-ending struggle between death and rebirth, decay and beauty. Yet to say the apartment also did not hold a certain magic, would not do it justice.
Upon entering Giovanna’s apartment, one was greeted with a large living room whose ceiling was so high that it seemed like it could have belonged to a Medieval church. It was furnished with antique sofas, the youngest of which came from the 1920s and its pale red threads were singular in that they had for some reason been spared by Giovanna’s paint brush. In that sense, the whole room was like a strange Picasso piece, a mismatch of beautifully aged furniture, bright colors, and the expanse of Giovanna’s imagination.
As the door closed, Giovanna rushed towards me and planted two large kisses on both of my cheeks.
“Darling where have you been?” she asked, acting as if she was somehow surprised over my absence.
“Just at Benaco,” I replied, being careful not to mention the fact that she had thrown me out of my room at eight in the morning.
“Isn’t the man there so lovely? And the cappuccino, so good that it makes your mouth want to cum – doesn’t it darling?”
“Yeah it’s probably one of the best I’ve ever had,” I said, unsure how to react to the prospect of my mouth ejaculating.
“Oh dio. I almost forgot, you have to go downstairs and check your room! I’ve left a surprise for you.”
Needless to say, when I descended the small spiral staircase to my tiny room – so tiny that it was commonly referred to as “il buco” (the hole) – I was greeted by once vibrant green walls that had now been replaced by a sunflower yellow sprinkled with tulips. The radiator now resembled a rainbow and, to put the cherry on top, my once dark suitcase was now lilac blue and embroidered with daisies.
I was sitting on the couch listening to the punchline of one of Giovanna’s dirty jokes when Amelia came home.
“And then the man asked her ‘Why are you always walking backwards?’ and the girl said to him ‘Because my husband told me that my ass would kill a man.’ So he goes-”
“This city is such a shithole. Everyday some asshole almost runs me over!” Amelia yelled, slamming the two towering oak doors so hard that they sounded like a clap of thunder. Her dramatic entrance didn’t seem to faze Giovanna, who sat cross legged on an eighteenth-century dining chair whose once ebony complexion was now a hot pink.
“I know, I know, all these fucking crazies driving around, what is this world coming to?” Giovanna said, lighting one of her signature cigarettes whose long and slender body bestowed her with a Victorian sense of royalty.
“Ah I see you’ve decided to stop smoking just like you said you would,”
“You are such a deficiente” she replied. I should mention that my aunt Giovanna swore, a lot, enough to make a Sicilian sailor proud. Far and away, her favorite word was “deficiente” (deh-fee-chen-te), which translates into English as moron, idiot, fuckwit, stupid person. But to Giovanna, it was so much more than that, for it was originally a word used to describe a region of France in which the people were famous for having low IQs due to a supposed lack of iodine. And it was for that reason that deficiente was Giovanna’s word of choice. It combined an unquenchable need to lambast the stupidity of those around her while, of course, insulting the French.
Amelia sat down next to me on the couch and grabbed a cigarette from Giovanna’s pack. She was in her late forties and much taller than her mother, with long dark hair that flowed down her caramel Carven coat that gave her an air of elegance that Giovanna lacked. She’d recently moved back in with her mother after returning from Paris, where she had spent the last four years having an affair with a married French doctor, who, after promising to leave his wife and two children for her, booked Amelia a midnight train to Rome and blocked her number. She was bitter now and it was not uncommon for her to lecture me about the terrible nature of men, her loud voice bouncing across the high ceiling of the living room. She made a convincing case. It was always accompanied by Giovanna’s screech from the kitchen, “That fucking French doctor! That deficiente! If I ever get my hands on him, so help me God, I will shove this ladle so far up his ass that he won’t even be able to shit it out the next morning!”
Our nights usually ended in Giovanna’s room. It had become a tradition for us to gather on her gigantic circular bed, one that was so undeniably goofy that it felt like, at any minute, Austin Powers would crawl out of the sheets, bare his awful British teeth and say, “Let’s get groovy bay-bay.” Just next door was a room originally meant for a maid, which had later been converted into a room for Giovanna’s ex-husbands, all of whom had once upon a time resided in a bed not much bigger than my own at eight-years-old. It always made me chuckle to picture them scrunched up in there as Giovanna lounged in her giant monstrosity of a bed.
We always watched old black-and-white Italian movies whose (identical) plots usually consisted of sexual tension between finely dressed men and women smoking long cigarettes. The exception to this rule was if a movie starred the true love of Giovanna’s life, Paul Newman. Giovanna loved Paul Newman so much that she once told me she used to tape a magazine clipping of his face to the bedpost during sex, while demanding that her husband close his eyes. Amelia usually fell asleep ten minutes into the film, her loud snoring mixing in with Ruby’s snarls and persisting throughout the entire night. This was quickly followed by Giovanna, whose head would slowly settle onto her daughter’s boney shoulder, leaving me to finish the film and then retire to my hole down below.
If the average person in Rome saw it as a city of shouts, then Giovanna saw it as a city of whispers. She explained this to me as we slowly walked, arms locked, through the small streets of Quartiere Trieste. “Rome is a city built upon itself. In that way it is like a forest. Each time it has been burned, or sacked, or bombed, those that have remained would climb to the top of the rubble and build again. It is a city built upon its own ashes,” she said. I admired Giovanna, the way she could see life with a certain sense of poetic-ish-ness, and the way she could laugh at a world that to her was so kitsch and so ridiculous. I wish I could have been on the outside looking in, watching the two of us, a tiny old woman and a teenager strolling through the chaos and the ruin and the beauty. It must have been quite a sight. I wondered how Rome could ever change, for how could a city move into the future when its past looked so beautiful?
Giovanna was adamant that I not mention anything about Amelia’s affair with the French doctor at that night’s dinner. She said, “Don’t mention anything about that deficiente doctor. Poor Mia has had it hard enough already,” followed by an “oh dio why can’t she just find a husband?” Giovanna was fixated on Amelia securing a husband and settling down, seeing this future as Amelia’s only path to finding happiness. This fixation always seemed so strange coming from Giovanna, a woman who seemingly had very little attachment to her husbands and who would often say “God please I am not ready to die yet. The last thing I want is to be up on a cloud with my three ex-husbands and no fucking gin.”
We were joined by Giovanna’s younger sister, Lucrezia, who was currently midway through a descent into deafness and thus found it necessary, even when inches away from someone, to scream at the top of her lungs, letting loose with globs of saliva in the process. Although her screeches and slobber were at times discouraging, they were ultimately not successful in distracting from the tangible art lying before us on the table: beautifully cooked swordfish soaked in lemon juice, handmade gnocchi slathered in pesto genovese and crunchy oven baked bruschetta topped with fresh Roma tomatoes. I, however, was not allowed the opportunity to comment on the deliciousness of the food as anytime I was asked a question by either Lucrezia or Amelia, I was instantly silenced and rebuked by Giovanna.
“Stop talking and eat darling! Look at this poor skinny boy. What will his parents think if I send him back like this?”
“I would be far more worried about his sanity,” Amelia thought aloud.
“What are you talking about you deficiente? I put out the dolce vita. Everybody loves me, they tell me so.”
“You sound like fucking Berlusconi,” said Amelia. She was a journalist and known for her wit, one that would bring laughter accompanied by a wince. She had sharp words, sharp enough to draw blood. The fights between her and her mother were frequent and infamous, and not just within the family, but also to their neighbors who would often complain about the sound of small appliances crashing against the wall.
“I hope you aren’t like this to your mother. Can you see what I have to deal with here?” Giovanna said, turning to face me.
“Well you know I think it’s pretty normal to have fights and everything,” I said. Of course, the fights between Giovanna and Amelia were anything but normal. Whenever I felt one brewing, I had learned to say as little as possible and to try my best to walk the thin line between an earthquake and a hurricane.
“Darling do you think that food on your plate is going to eat itself? If you keep talking I’m going to have to throw it out tomorrow and you know how much I hate to-”
“You asked him a question,” Amelia said while lighting a cigarette, “the poor boy probably wants to see some culture. There isn’t a lot of that in this house.”
“Sei una bora sei! Unlike you, I actually do want to show him some culture, so tomorrow night I’ve planned for us to all go see Mamma Mia at the theatre. Don’t you think he will love that? You should come Lucrezia,” Giovanna said. I remained silent, both out of fear for being reprimanded and because spending a Friday night watching a poorly executed rendition of a kitschy nineties play was not my idea of a good time. Instead, I smiled and nodded my head quietly, happy that a potential fight had blown over.
“How cool! I would love to come!” screeched Lucrezia so loudly that I was scared one of the windows might break. And so the night continued, a diluted haze of screams and laughs and Catholicism. That was life at Giovanna’s apartment,or, as my uncle would later refer to it, “the madhouse.”
The next morning, I was reading in my room when I heard Amelia’s scream. Her voice pulsated through the narrow hallways of the apartment and I knew, for the second time this week, the neighbors would be complaining. Worried, I ran up to her room, which couldn’t have been much larger than my own, and whose meager space was taken up by a large bunk bed from her childhood.
“This fucking dog peed all over my shoes!” Amelia screamed, pointing to a soiled pair of white Jimmy Choo ankle boots.
“I’m sure if you wash them the smell will come out.” I replied, blissfully ignorant of the chemistry behind urination and shoes.
“You can’t just ‘un-wash’ this smell. You’re such a man. You don’t understand anything.”
“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t even like them anyways,” Amelia said. She started to cry and threw the shoes against the wall, cursing as they hit the floor with a thud. I stood there for a while, unsure of whether to hug her, to console her, or to leave, and instead settled on just looking down, watching as the pool of dog urine slowly oozed towards my feet. They were more than shoes to Amelia, they were reminders of a place and a time that were dead now, swept away by a river of false promises and false hopes and false dreams. It was one of those moments, tragic through its lack of decency. There were no black and white photographs, no flashbacks or montages, no crumpled love letters; just a pair of shoes, soaking in piss, and the sound of a dog wheezing in the corner.
Amelia insisted that I go on a walk with her.
We strolled through the loud streets of the city and I watched her scowl at every car horn; it felt as if she could break at any one of them. After a while she sat down on a concrete stairwell next to the local high school, a jagged rectangular block built by Mussolini’s engineers during the war.
“How do you deal with my mother?” Amelia asked, lighting a cigarette.
“She’s a handful sometimes but I can’t think of anybody quite like her.”
“I guess she does have that going for her.”
“I think you need to leave though.”
“Even you see that. God look at me, forty years old, more than halfway through my life and I’m still living with my mother and still sleeping in the same bed from when I was twelve years old.”
She had tried to leave before. In the many fights between them she almost always threatened it. A couple of times she had even made it as far as the door, slamming it behind her as Giovanna continued to yell after her. I never understood why she always came back. Perhaps it was because she felt bad about leaving her poor old mother alone, or perhaps it was because she, just like the rest of us, was caught in the silky strands of Giovanna’s web, of Rome’s web.
“God, I wish she would just strangle that ugly dog,” she continued. I wasn’t sure if she was joking.
“She’s worried about you,” I blurted out, regretting each word as it passed through my lips.
“Yes, I know. She’s worried I’m going to kill myself.” She took a long drag of smoke and exhaled. I watched silently as it twirled and danced in the dry summer air, “She thinks I’m depressed because I don’t have a husband.”
“No. I really couldn’t care less about having husband anymore. I’ve always wanted a child though. Yeah, I’ve always wanted a child.”
“You could still adopt one, couldn’t you?”
She smiled a sad smile and tossed her hands through my hair, “I was like you once. I was younger. I was stupider. I thought love was for everyone.”
“Have you seen him since all of this?” I asked.
“No. But if I did I would-” she made a motion of a fist punching up what I assumed was an imaginary anus and then twisting it inside, enjoying the fantasy for a beat. We both laughed for a while and then the conversation moved onto movies and politics and our shared lack of excitement for the play that night. But even as our words moved on, our minds remained, and I couldn’t help but notice the torn anti-immigrant posters, cigarette butts, and used condoms which surrounded us. For the first time I felt like I could see the city through Amelia’s eyes, a city paralyzed by apathy, a city obsessed with self-destruction, a city doomed to repeat itself. Unlike Giovanna, Amelia didn’t see Rome as a mirror of beauty. No, rather she saw it as a reflection of life, and I think I was starting to as well. Perhaps that’s what it meant to grow up, to watch helplessly as the marble and the Jimmy Choo boots are slowly buried in cigarette butts and dog piss.
Giovanna loved Mamma Mia. This particular rendition had been performed completely in Italian (even the songs had been translated) and was subject to a particularly Roman dash of flamboyancy. After the third encore and complementary ABBA song, the actors finally strutted off stage and Giovanna, a large smile plastered to her face, leapt to her feet and yelled, “How brilliant! It was so gay!” Her sister Lucrezia apparently loved it as well, adding that she hadn’t heard a word of dialogue in the entire two-and-a-half-hour play. As for me, I was just happy to have sat next to Amelia, who simply laughed as uncontrollable yawns escaped my mouth.
When we returned home Lucrezia insisted on making dinner and – to Amelia’s pained sigh – on bringing her own personal ABBA CD for “inspiration.” As we settled on the couch, Ruby came bounding and snarling towards Giovanna, droplets of drool spilling onto the nineteenth century rug.
“So fucking ugly you’re beautiful! That’s what you are!Bellissima!” Giovanna said, pulling back the crumpled skin around Ruby’s mouth to reveal a row of surprisingly white teeth.
“Darling, did you like the play?” Giovanna asked, jamming two cigarettes in her mouth, lighting them and then handing one to Amelia.
“Yes, very much,” I lied.
“I knew it! You know, darling, you are something special, so much better than all the fucking degenerate men these days. Like that French doctor-”
“Mom, can we not talk about this while your sister is here?”
“She can’t hear shit!” And almost as if Lucrezia had in fact heard us, the radio blazed to life with Dancing Queen, accompanied by her own shrieking cover of the song. It was clear that the madhouse was once again opening its doors.
“Youuu can daaansee, you cannnn yivvvee, having da time of your liffe.”
Amelia plugged her ears.
“Can you stop that? The poor woman will probably be dead in two years,” Giovanna said before turning to me and whining, in an attempted whisper, “I swear I’ll outlive all of these morons.”
“Maybe you’ll outlive me too.” Amelia said.
“Why do you do this?”
“Always make these little remarks?”
“Haavvinnng da time of your life!”
“It’s called a joke, mother.”
“I don’t like them. That deficiente doctor must have rubbed off on you.”
“What did you say?”
“Be dat girl. Watch dat scene!”
“It’s called a joke, daughter.”
I stared at the two of them silently.
“Frida night and da lights are lo…”
“Well darling let’s talk about you. Have you talked to your father recently? Do tell him we miss him,” Giovanna said, turning to me.
“The ‘French doctor’ did not rub off on me. His name is Louis by the way, seeing as you never bothered to ask.”
“‘Louis’? By God, that’s the most French name I’ve ever heard. How could you end up with someone named Louis?”
“Because he was kind and he loved me?”
“Anabody could be dat guyya”
“Amelia you are smarter than this. How could you have been so stupid?”
Amelia stared at her mother, squashing her cigarette into a napkin.
“Mia, be careful with that cigare-” I warned.
“For fucks sake, Mia, can you just make an old woman happy and find a husband?”
“You’ra into da mood for danse…”
“Well, I’m not like you, mother. At twenty years old I wasn’t into men who were already having gloved hands stuck up their assholes.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you? I’m your mother!”
“What the fuck is wrong with you? Exactly, you are my mother!”
“Young anda sweet, only saventeen!”
“Can you turn off that fucking music?” Amelia screamed. Judging from Lucrezia’s continued singing, the words fell on deaf ears. Literally. Exasperated, Amelia quickly stood up from the couch and knocked over a bottle of wine on the coffee table, it fell to the floor with a large crash. She watched silently as the red liquid oozed outward like blood from a wound. It looked almost like the dog’s pee.
“You ara da dansing queen!”
“Now look at what you’ve done!” Giovanna shouted.
“I don’t know why I’m staying here with you. I swear to fucking God tomorrow morning I will be out of this house!” And with that, Amelia stalked out of the room, leaving Giovanna to stare silently at the cracked pieces of glass on the floor. After a while one of the neighbors knocked on the door and Giovanna hobbled over cursing, “These deficiente neighbors, here I am just an old woman trying to live in peace and quiet and these morons are always knocking on my door.” I took that as my cue to get out. I would eventually fall asleep to the sound of arguing and ABBA.
I heard Paul Newman’s voice the next morning. Cautiously, I crept towards the open door of Giovanna’s room, being careful not to alert the sleeping Ruby. I saw them there together, Amelia and Giovanna, sleeping on that monstrosity of a bed. Their breathing created a melody with the sound of gunshots emanating from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; the TV must have been running all night. I was surprised to see them there – it seemed like Amelia would really leave this time – but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Should she have left? Maybe. No, definitely. But that was the power that Giovanna had, the charm of La Dolce Vita. In fact, she was La Dolce Vita.She had become those three words and those three words had become her. People didn’t want to leave her, they wished they could be like her, because she was one of those rare people that one meets just once in their life that somehow manages to care so little, and yet so much. For life at the madhouse was like life in Rome, everything burning down and then being built again, upon itself, moving endlessly in circles, never really changing. It was tragic. And when I finally left Rome, my world would forever be entangled within that Caesaresque sense of tragedy, in all its heartbreak and humor and beauty.
Later that day the splintered shards of the broken wine bottle were gathered by Giovanna and in the following weeks would eventually be transformed into an art piece, a collection of stained glass littered with roses titled: X&X. Amelia’s urine-soaked boots would not receive such an elegant funeral and were instead simply thrown in the trash, rather ironically spending their final hours in the same bag as the discarded cigarettes and Ruby’s collected droppings.
Saturday would be coming soon, and so the screams, the bladed words, the lies, the truth; they too, like the apartment, would be painted over by the sound ofSanta Maria and the colors of Giovanna’s paint brush.