By Domenic Cregan
We were at the table sipping espresso, and picking at biscotti and strawberries, while the dishes sat undisturbed in the sink. The door to the family room was open. You were passed out drooling on the couch, but Mickey Mouse Clubhouse was coming in through loud and clear. Mom and Nonna sat engaged in something of a debate. The rapid fire, talk-over-the-other style of conversation has been a staple in our apartment since I was young enough not to care.
Around the time I was clumsily dropped into puberty, I started to sustain the ideal that this was no way to pass the post-dinner hours preceding bed, and I longed for the placidity of my friends’ homes. But now, I’m actually pretty entertained, and having learned a bit of Italian, it’s sort of a game I have to try and follow along. In all fairness though, even if they spoke in plain English, I’m not sure I’d be able to completely comprehend these, let’s call them, “exchanges.” The topic was, unsurprisingly, our father. I saw Mom going through the familiar decline of rage to resignation, while in silence I forked my strawberries, which were syrupy for having been cut two days before and left in the fridge.
If it were a few years prior, I’d have an outburst about how this conversation is as futile as speculating if the Apocalypse will fall on a Monday or Tuesday, but I was too entrenched in the volley to give a shit about wasting time. Besides, neither of them watched sports, or kept up with “current events,” so what else were they going to talk about? As time passed, Nonna’s words grew thick with disgust, and the tone with which Mom responded was increasingly guttural, as if the ghost of our father slowly wrapped his sickly white fingers around her throat.
I intervened, and reminded them you were asleep in the other room. They both agreed simultaneously that I was right. Even that became a contest—who thought I was right more? It’s kind of funny how people can agree on the conclusion—Mom’s boyfriend was, and remains to be, an immeasurably large asshole—and yet routinely make war over the premises. I’ve gathered there’s no question for them as to our father’s moral character (or where they hope in their hottest rage he spends eternity) but I haven’t yet ascertained as to what is then being debated. Perhaps by the time you read this, everything will become illuminated. I for one find it more than possible they’re speaking in synonyms, not realizing it.
Regardless, your sleep-drooling cheeks in the other room kept them from rolling that rock up the hill for the rest of the night. Mom’s sperm donor was sufficiently cursed to Satan’s asshole, and so the conversation turned naturally to Nonna’s life before America. She began to share stories, Mom reminding her to tell certain ones. And, of course, I was taken on another thrilling Tarzan ride through the family tree, as if I haven’t been hearing about Zio Vincenzo’s four kids since George W was in office. Your whatever-relation cousin Federico has been living in these espresso conversations rent-free my entire life, but that night, they told me the story of Nonna’s second cousin Rosa. I’d never heard it before. It’s one I’m going to share with you, though I couldn’t if asked say why.
Rosa was born to Alberto and Mafalda in their tiny village in central Italy. She was the youngest of four, born ten years after her older sister. Rosina, they called her. Little Rosa. Her birth was bathed in instant celebrity, and everything she did was to the delight of her gaggle of admirers, consisting of parents, cousins, neighbors, and the like. She was bounced on knees and taught to sing, bringing joy to all, but especially to her otherwise tired father, who saw her as God’s special gift for serving in and surviving the war.
This worship brought with it a certain baggage, and as Rosina grew up, eager to ditch her suffix, she was met with resistance at every turn from those seeking to hold onto the early elation of a new baby. She was fiercely independent though, and despite beaming at the routine adoration tossed her way, she accepted it exclusively on her terms. The pressure of being praised as perfect proved to be a scratchy sweater that Rosa sought to yank off nightly. This created a conflict at home.
She married the first man who showed enough obsession with himself to not constantly fawn over her. His name was Tommasso. He was a brutish man, who wore his black hair slicked back severely. Rosa’s father was repulsed at Tommasso’s lack of idolatry for his daughter. Pearls to swine. They married. Tommasso took his wife to live in Argentina.
In a new land, he dutifully pumped her with two children, Giovanna and Alberto. There was not a strong desire to procreate on Tommasso’s part, but it was what you did; more of giving into nature, and social norms, than making a measured decision. Rosa loved her children, and did her best as a mother. But she grew pregnant a third time, and Tommasso did not want a third child. He told her to get it taken care of. One sunny Tuesday afternoon she walked to a yellow apartment for the procedure, where she died. When her father came to the funeral, Tommasso crudely gestured to Rosa’s body like a butcher motioning to his meat, and said “There’s your daughter.”
Mom translated most of this, with Nonna nodding at me to show it’s true. Tommasso was an animal. A very crude man. That’s the takeaway they wanted for me. There was a brief silence at the completion of the story, where I looked into my strawberries, and Nonna stared at the table. Then Mom reminded her of another cousin, and they were off again.
I said I was tired, and then walked into the family room, picked you up, and carried you to our room. I laid you down on your bed, then walked to mine, and took off my pants, and shirt, and socks, which I left on the floor. I opened the sheets, but did not cover myself with them, and scrolled through my phone until I fell asleep.