As I entered the aircraft the first indication this was an Italian rather than an American flight was a swarthy complexioned attendant passing out copies of Il Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica. Fifteen minutes later that same lovely young woman came down the asile, closing all the overhead compartments. As she passed I caught the scent of her underarm sweat. It was a pungent and surprisingly stimulating odor. Verrrry erotic. Or was it just me? A few moments later a recorded speech over the loudspeakers about the location of the emergency exits and keeping your seatbelts fastened came first in Italian, and then in heavily accented English.
It took about fifteen minutes for the plane to roll from the departure gate to the end of the runway. To me the pause before takeoff was always dramatic, as if staged entirely for effect. Then the roar of the engines rose, and the rapid acceleration pressed me back in the seat. I felt a surge of exhilaration when the aircraft suddenly tilted upward, and we were airborne. I was on my way.
On that long, boring flight I had plenty of time to think about Vittoria and some of the bizarre things that happened in our two year relationship. I remembered how utterly lovely it was in the beginning. The excitement, the anticipation…and the sweetness between the lines of one of her early posts…
I hope you don't think oh boy this girl dosen't understand a word I'm saying. I guess I feel that way because you’re a writer, and I just wish I could be one. Maybe I'm not in your league…Don't you want to be with a woman with a college degree, so that you both could talk about the same things? Or I could look at this picture in a diffrent way. I could be your student, and believe me I would listen to you, I would listen to every word you said, and if I didn't understand something, I would ask questions…
This, I thought, wasn’t a timid little mouse but a woman who went right after what she wanted. And if she wanted me to be her teacher, well, why in hell not?
Vittoria found the courage to drive in from Long Island for our first meeting, at Strawberry Fields, in Central Park, near its West 72nd Street entrance. She told me later that she almost didn’t get out of her car in the parking garage, but then she knew she just had to, as if our coming together was meant to be. I sat on one of a line of benches, waiting, with little expectation that she’d show up, or that there’d be any truth in the description of herself she’d sent in another of her posts: “I’m slim with honey blonde hair and green eyes,” she wrote. “I love to jog, and rollerblade. Oh, and I don’t look or sound Italian at all, that’s what everyone tells me.”
“James?” Vittoria said.
My God, she was gorgeous!
I rose, took her hand. Invited her to sit down. She looked appealingly youthful in a short-sleeved white blouse, khaki shorts, white socks, and pristine white sneakers.
“Hi,” she said.
Her green eyes met mine briefly, then she looked down at her hands clasped in her lap. I saw her as shy, tentative, and hesitant, like a fawn stepping delicately through the ferns of a dappled forest. From that moment I wanted to protect her, nurture her, make her feel safe.
Delightful scents of blossoming shadbush and quince were carried by a light breeze. Tourists took pictures and videos of the famous “Imagine” mosaic, and some of them carefully put down single roses, and bunches of daffodils, and handwritten notes.
“Why are they doing that?” Vittoria asked.
I told her about John Lennon being shot right over there, across the street, at the entrance of The Dakota. And about Yoko getting the city to name that part of the park Strawberry Fields.
“And there’s an Italian connection here,” I said.
“The mosiac is a copy of one unearthed in the ruins of the ancient city of Pompeii.”
“Really?” she said.
“Yes. It was put together in the 1980s by Italian craftsmen. A gift to New York from the city of Naples.”
“Nope. It’s a fact.”
She wanted to know more. I was happy to oblige. Her curiosity was engaging.
“Now please tell me about Italy,” I said.
Vittoria said that every summer she’d go in a large boat from Ischia to Ponza to visit her grandmother, Mafalda. No, she never got seasick because she grew up surrounded by the Mediterranean, was always swimming in it, and they all said she must be a mermaid. Ponza is like a mountain in the middle of the sea, she said, but very beautiful. In the summer there are many tourists from all over the world.
Mafalda was very caring, very giving. When her husband died she was left to raise her daughter and two sons by herself. She had a garden, and lemon and orange trees, so she was able to sell fruit, flowers and vegetables at the market. Also others in the family tried to help.
Visiting her grandmother was so much fun. Vittoria and her friends went swimming every day. They explored the grottos, and also dived down and pried off these clams called patella, and ate them. They were really good. Mafalda would make pastina with cheese, Vittoria’s favorite, and also pane pomodore, which is fresh bread covered with crushed cherry tomatos, olive oil, garlic, basil and a little salt. Uncle Mario would dive with his spear gun and bring back fish, and fellone, which were like large king crabs, very sweet.
“When I was very little one of my uncles asked me if I knew how to swim, and I said no. We were on this big rock, and the ocean was deep, but he threw me off. And that’s how I learned how to swim. And when I went back home to Ischia at the end of the summer, my mother would always say, ‘Who is this child?’ because I would have a nice golden tan and my hair would get really light.”
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
“I love your description of the islands,” I replied
“Now, when you first mentioned Ischia in your email, I immediately recognized it.”
“You’ve been there?”
“No, but I’m familiar with an ancient artifact that archeologists uncovered in a necropolis near the Ischian village of Lacco Ameno…”
It was the famous “Nestor’s Cup,” on which was scratched one of the earliest examples of alphabetical writing, dating to 750 BC, not long after the Euboean Greeks established a settlement on the island they called Pithekoussai, present day Ischia. The inscription, in grandiloquent hexameters with a Homeric ring, was actually a love spell:
I am Nestor’s goodly cup;
Whomsoever drinks of me,
Faircrowned Aphrodite will immediately seize.
“I can see you’re really interested in where I came from,” she said.
“Almost as interested as I am in you!”
“I imagine you might be a descendant of those sophisticated Euobeans, who knew how to use spells to get what they wanted.”
“Who knows?” she said smiling. “Maybe I am.”
We were silent for a few moments.
“Tell me about the books you like to read,” she said.
I ran off a long list, then described my boyhood habit of spending all my free time at the Bellmont Avenue Public Library.
“In that quiet place I found a better, more beautiful world,” I said.
She nodded. “I know exactly what you mean.”
“It’s a lot more than just running away,” I said. “Reading gives us a better understanding of language, and that in turn makes the pretty things we encounter more vivid.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“See the moving shadows on the walkway and on the mosaic?”
“Yes, I do.”
“ ‘…through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins…’”
“Oh, that’s so nice! Did you just make that up?”
“I wish. It’s from my hero, James Joyce.”
We strolled over toward Belverdere Castle. I put my hand, protectively, on her shoulder and felt her warmth. I caught a glimpse of the gentle swell of her breasts in the opening of her blouse. She was lovely, every part of her. She’d just have to be mine. And soon, I thought.
Vittoria studied the plaque on the rough, dark rock of the castle.
“Belvedere is Italian for lookout,” she said.
“I didn’t know that,” I said.
* * *
Three weeks later she came to my apartment and we offically became lovers.
One of Dante’s contemporaries, Guido Guinizelli, said, “Al cor gentil ripara sempre amore,” Love always finds shelter in the gentle heart. From our first encounter in each other’s arms Vittoria and I always felt great calm and peacefulness. It seemed that being together was the only way we’d ever experience it. In her embrace my natural cynicism evaporated. She was the sweetest, most guileless woman I’d ever known.
We settled into a comfortable routine. She’d come into the city two, three times a week. Sometimes she’d drive in or else take the train, or I’d go out and pick her up, and we’d go to the shore.
Our get-together on a Friday afternoon in mid-November 1997 started out calmly, with no hint of what was to come. I fixed her lunch. It was my own special recipe—a couple cans of Pepperidge Farm clam chowder, to which I added a cup and a half of fresh baby clams from the fish market, and a half pint of heavy cream. Her favorite.
Afterward we snuggled on the couch and listened to some Chopin nocturnes. She’d wanted to put on her MTV, but it was my turn to choose the music.
“Do you ever write about me?”
I laughed. “Of course I do.”
“The things we do together, the stories you tell me.”
“I want to see it.”
“I never let anyone read my journal.”
She smiled. “For me you will make an exception.”
“Oh, you think so?”
We continued the playful argument until I finally I relented and went to the computer and called up my entry of the day before yesterday. She sat on my lap, and read. Then scrolled down to read more.
“I can’t believe it.”
“You’ve put down every single thing we said and did the other day!”
I didn’t know it at the time, but a seed had been planted in that fertile mind of hers. I couldn’t have imagined all the improbable events that eventually blossomed from it.
In any event, an hour later the craziness commenced. We were awakened by a furious pounding on the front door. Annoyed, I put on my robe. Through the peephole I saw a stocky balding man who very closely resembled the actor Stanley Tucci. I opened the door.
“Are you James Stephens?” the man asked, eyes glaring.
“Yes. What can I do for you?”
“I want my wife. Right NOW.”
Carl took a step toward me. I raised my hand. “Whoa!” I commanded.
He stopped. My mind raced. I knew I couldn’t let him into the apartment.
“Get lost,” I heard myself saying.
Then I slammed the door, turned the deadbolt. Carl resumed his pounding.
“If you don’t come out right now, Ro,” he shouted, “things are going to get really ugly! I mean it.”
Carl continued like this for a while and, hearing no response, he suddenly changed his tactics. “Please, Ro!” he said, voice breaking. “Don’t do this to me! I’ve always loved you, and you know it. Please, honey. Come home with me. We can work this out.”
Vittoria and I stood at the door, transfixed. I wondered what Carl meant by “Ro.” I learned later it was a diminutive of Vittoria’s middle name, Rosa.
Then came the voice of my neighbor down the hall.
“Hey!” he yelled. “I just called nine-one-one!”
We heard Carl’s rapid footsteps, the opening and closing of the elevator doors, then silence.
Vittoria dressed quickly. She looked more grim and determined than afraid. “What are you going to do?” I asked.
“I’ve got to go home and face this,” she said.
I told her maybe it would be better to stay with me for a while.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I can handle him.”
“Are you sure?”
I embraced her. “Call me, okay?”
“Yes, I will.”
When she got home, Carl was still all worked up. He paced back and forth in the kitchen. He shouted. He kicked the plastic trash container into the dining room. He told her she had to get rid of that James guy. Vittoria replied that was none of his business. Carl said that she’d better be careful, because something could happen to that boyfriend of hers. She replied that he didn’t have the guts.
That’s when Carl lost it. He seized her by her throat, and slammed her against the kitchen wall. She stared right back into his eyes.
“What are you going to do,” she said. “Kill me?”
Carl clenched his teeth, growled, then released his tight grip on her neck. He put on his coat, went out the front door, and drove off. He was gone three days.
Vittoria was afraid to come to my apartment, so we met at a diner in Long Island. She didn’t want anything to eat, just coffee.
“So what now?” I asked.
“I guess that’s up to you,” she said.
“What about Carl? What is he saying?”
I shook my head. “What in hell is wrong with him?”
“What do you mean?”
“If I were in his shoes I’d give you an ultimatum. Either me or him. You can’t have both.”
“You don’t understand Italians,” she said quietly.
“No? Tony Soprano would never tolerate his wife being with another man.”
“That TV show is a lot of BS,” she replied. “Whenever it comes on we all laugh.”
* * *