None of your stories, Dante said. Their English is a diplomat’s language, perfect in a studied way. They won’t understand what you’re saying.
Like how you hitched across Europe. How you stayed in hostels with Arabs and Swedes. How you spent months on beaches and never ate fish.
I had told him all those things and he had wanted details. Were the hostels segregated by sex? Were the women on the beaches ever topless? Were the fish grilled? Yes, yes, yes.
So of course I told his father, Gianni, and his stepmother, Penelope. What could I say if I didn’t tell them I wandered?
On the street, walking me to my room in the house of an elderly neighbor woman, Dante pulled me into shadows and held my shoulders hard. It’s not a contest, he said. Your insolence versus their good manners.
I thought what really bothered him was that he stumbled in Italian. It was his lost life, his childhood. All Dante could do was demonstrate that he had a separate life. He was born in 1926, I in 1943. Mussolini had kissed him on both cheeks when he won a Latin prize. I could have said anything or nothing, his father would never like me.
The next morning Gianni took out an old Mercedes from the garage below his apartment. With low mileage and impeccable upkeep, it looked new, but was in fact of pre-war vintage. He drove us out of Rome’s suffocating heat to Frascati, a hilltop town, where his wife’s daughter lived with her family. Their house was old with thick walls, and it was cool inside and in the garden beside the kitchen. Behind the house was a small vineyard. The daughter, Geneve, prepared a lunch of yellow tomatoes, olives, bread and cold roast pork, and we ate at a long table in the garden. Then she put her two small children in their bedroom for a nap, and Dante’s parents lay down in another room. Dante and Geneve’s husband went to the piazza while she and I took glasses of sparkling water out to the garden and sat in plastic lawn chairs in deep shade.
She spoke briefly about her history. She was born in Cairo, child of her English mother and a French father. Her parents divorced after the war and her mother married Gianni. He was the Italian consul. Geneve married a Frenchman, and ultimately they settled here.
I tallied languages in my head and blurted out, French, Italian, English—and Arabic, too?
She laughed. And my nanny was Greek.
What language do you dream in?
She closed her eyes and pressed her fists against her temples a moment, then said her dreams did not have words.
She turned the questions back on me. What did I hope for in my life?
I talked about going back to school, about finding something I would like to do.
That’s good, she said, because you can’t marry Dante. He’s damaged. His father sent him and his mother to America, and of course it was right, they were lucky to go, but then Gianni started a whole new life here without him. Even before he met my mother.
I said, he told me his name was Don. I didn’t know for a long time that he had come from Italy. It used to amuse him that once I learned his true name was Dante, I called him only that.
The army, university, law school, Geneve said. He was shaped by America. But of course you remain your childhood self, too, deep inside. Sometimes I feel I am an Egyptian living in the wrong skin.
A small dog came from around the side of the house and lay down at Geneve’s feet. It tucked its chin across her toes.
When he married, we were all curious to meet her. He said so little about her, only that he would come that next spring. By then they were already apart, divorcing. When he came, none of us mentioned his marriage.
I reached down to pat the dog’s head, to hide my surprise. I had asked Dante about his past, and he had said, I have always liked women.
Think about what’s best for you, Geneve said. Displaced people are trouble. It will all come to you. You’re so young.
I had no opportunity to speak to Dante until we were back in Rome and he was walking me again to the house where I slept. I asked him about the wife, and he said, she was a way of life. I saw right away I wouldn’t like it.
What way? Why didn’t you know before you married her!
She deceived me. I deceived myself. It was a mistake. She went back to her old life easily.
And what about me? Am I a way of life?
He laughed. My little beatnik, he said. My father is beside himself, can’t you tell? We don’t fool him for one minute.
How are we trying to fool him? Why would we want to?
He didn’t answer.
We are so obvious, Dante. Each of us with our own reasons. I wasn’t thinking ahead with this trip. I just wanted you to get a nicer apartment while I was gone. You didn’t, did you? And you won’t?
I like my apartment.
I don’t mean that and you know it. I mean, you won’t ever marry me.
He put his arms around me, his hot breath on my face. He had been in Rome a little more than 48 hours and here we were again. He said, tomorrow we’ll get a hotel for the day with a big bed and room service. We won’t come for lunch.
Go to hell, I said.
In my room, on my chaste bed, flat on my back wearing only my panties in the godawful heat, I remembered that I had packed everything I owned in a small trunk in Dante’s apartment. I had pushed it against the wall in the bedroom, under a long table that served as my desk. That was how much room I took in his life, it would be easy to leave it.
I had left three hundred dollars in twenties under my clothes, more than I had when I moved in.