Saturday, March 17, 2012

Now that feels much better

There are parts of my unpublished autobiographical manuscript, Lost in the Spanish Quarter, which I’ve never been happy with. I think that’s normal in a 474-page encyclopedia like mine. All of those less-than-perfect passages are those where, for purely practical reasons, I was forced to fictionalize just a tad. I’m as bad a fiction writer as I am a liar. But finally yesterday, in a daylong writing marathon, I was able to fix them – or at least patch them up. And in one case, I was able to replace fiction with fact: that is, that time when my boyfriend traveled back to his hometown, leaving me to spend Christmas Eve at our Naples apartment all alone, I actually spent the entire festivity on the bathroom floor vomiting. Now that feels much better.

How does it make you feel?

Excerpt from Chapter 34 (p.222-224) of Lost in the Spanish Quarter, revised

Christmas. What was Christmas anyway, once the magic of childhood is removed from it? Without the popcorn and cranberry streamers hugging the tree and the homemade maple syrup Santa cookies, without the tofu cheesecake and It’s a Wonderful Life on Channel 5? In that sense, she was thousands of miles and light years away from Christmas anyway. What was left was a mere shell, a meaningless tradition that could easily be broken, as easy as drinking a cappuccino after midday.

What she didn’t need was pity. When Marlene had called out on her way out the door, “I will save some Panettone for you,” with those big unmistakably sympathetic eyes, Rebecca had sent her off with a brisk, “Now you stay warm on the motorcycle,” tightening the colorful scarf around Marlene’s neck. Marlene, full of pity for her!

She had never wanted to go to the farm for Christmas anyway. It would have been a tortuous way of making a point, of proving something to others. It would have felt like an artificial form of staking her claim, like jamming a flag into the surface of the moon when she’d much rather have been back on earth.

So when up from the dungeon rose the alluring sound of forks clinking on plate after plate and the lean smell of fried eel, Rebecca focused on Christmas Eve being just like any other night. Which of course it was. She opened the box with the new antiviral she was willing to try for her now ballooning coldsore, swallowing down the few two pills. She pulled the gas heater closer to the desk, warming her hands and browsing through her notes from Bonfantini’s recent lectures, which were just as mysterious as last year’s. Then she organized her index cards into viable sections and could begin to see her thesis take shape.

She lingered on one card where she’d scribbled a quote from a book: “The third person is historically the weakest form…[undergoing] a fierce decline.”

He, she, it, they. All of them were destined, not just in Italian but in many languages, to evolve, become simplified or even drop away. The Chinese didn’t distinguish between ‘he’ and ‘she’. English speakers were more and more inclined to opt for the sexless ‘they’ instead of the burdensome ‘he or she’.

And yet, what the quote failed to acknowledge was that the third person was indeed the most powerful of all. By adopting the words ‘she’ or ‘they’, a speaker was instantly and authoritatively saying this person is ‘the other’ – not ‘I’ or ‘we but someone unlike them, someone foreign to their tight-knit community…like edda.

Edda, she, the third person. Edda, So deliberately chosen, not a grammatical necessity but a choice. She’s too skinny, his mother had said. Edda, considerably more frigid than Voi, the southern Italian variety of the formal ‘you’. Edda, much like a woman’s first name, an old widow from a tiny village all dressed in black. Edda, so foreign and hard to pronounce, with its double ‘d’ so tight that it sounded almost like an ‘r’. Edda, erda, era. No, she couldn’t quite reproduce it with her tongue. It was one of those unreachable, mountainous sounds of the dialect…

There, it had happened again. Her mind had strayed to Vallesaccarda, to Elio’s mother, although it was the last place she now would have wanted to be. But now, as his mother’s pronoun lay naked and dissected before her, she was struck by a clarity even sharper than the cold objectivity of semiotics.

Had she really thought that Grazia was simply going to welcome her into their home for a good Catholic family meal? Rebecca tried to imagine the scene – Elio’s mother’s arms outstretched, her rib cage lifting like a bird about to take off, her kerchief fluttering, her lips bowing into a “Merry Christmas, my dear.”

Rebecca’s laughter echoed in the empty apartment. It was, indeed, an implausible and even tacky scene. A bad B movie. As if on cue, a wave of nausea thrust its way up her throat. But it could have been just the medicine.

Yes, it had been uncouth of Grazia not to invite her son’s girlfriend for Christmas, but there was something refreshingly honest about her rejection. His mother didn’t like her, that was crystal clear. But Rebecca didn’t like her either. Let’s not pretend anymore, she thought to herself, let’s not waste time with niceties. The truth was she and Grazia were never going to get along.

The nausea again: it was not imagined. To be on the safe side, she climbed the stairs towards the bathroom. She barely made it to the toilet bowl in time. There must have been something in the pills she was allergic to. Or had she taken them incorrectly? She drank sink water from her cupped hands and sank onto the tiles, trembling but relieved.

Grazia was delusional, though, if she thought Rebecca’s absence from the farm meant that she had gone for good. If she thought Rebecca would just give up on her son and fly back to America on a big beast called an airplane. That was never going to happen.

Again she had to lean over the toilet bowl, releasing nothing but the water she had drunk. Her throat burned, her stomach grumbled. There was nothing left to lose.

Surely it was a pitiful scene, her vomiting her guts out all alone in a cold bathroom on Christmas Eve. But instead of self-commiseration, a survival instinct kicked in. She felt emptied and new. Invincible. She knew in every trembling pore of her body that what she and Elio had was unbreakable, a bond stronger than blood and bones, a force greater than the two of them combined and mightier certainly than any other third person.

As if the universe were confirming their connection, in that moment the phone rang. It was Elio, overfed, under-rested and pierced with guilt at what he called his ‘weakness’. No, she replied, he hadn’t been weak. He had been right all along. His battle was hers and they were going to fight it together.

“It’s hell here without you, baby,” he said in an aching, almost desperate, voice. His words only made her resolve stronger.


  1. Re-writing can be a beast, can't it? you said, if you have those little irritating bits that still worry you months later...most likely they just need to either go or be changed! SO...from that standpoint, it feels better in the long run.

    It all takes so LONG, though! You change one thing here andyou have to go down here and change that and up there to change this...oy, vey. BUT it feels good. Right. And that's what enables me to carry on!

  2. You're so right, Gretchen, it's refreshing but long. Now that I've gotten another taste for it, it's all I could do to keep myself from trimming and rewriting all over the place. It's basically a never-ending process, isn't it? Happy revision to you too!