September 7th, 2002

The Struggle of the Sexes

La ‘Ndrezzata

“Is this what you had in mind?” I handed the photograph to The Professor.
“Ah, yes. Exactly,” he said. “You had no trouble finding it in Buonopane?”
“No, it was where you said it was.”
“Did you feel uncomfortable being in the village where your Vittoria grew up? I almost hesitated to ask you to take the picture for me.”
“No, not any more uncomfortable than I’ve been the past several weeks.”
The Professor pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. “I must at least reimburse you for film and processing, bus fare…”
“Absolutely not,” I said.
“But you should not work for nothing.”
“It’s not work, you know. Besides, don’t you always allow me to shamelessly pick your brain?”
“Yes. And I do go on, don’t I?”
“You do, and I welcome it. So this, I suppose, is not merely an old folk dance. There is vastly more to it.”
“Of course. How could it be otherwise?”
“So let’s have it, then.”

La ‘Ndrezzata has been performed in the village of Buonopane for centuries, The Professor explained, and is often thought to have Greek origins because of the character of the dancers’ garments. But it well might be a residue of a dance of Arcadian fishermen.

“Because there isn’t much of an overt warlike content,” he said, “it could be a more cultural and symbolic expression. What do you suppose that expression might be?”
“I have no clue.”
“One scholar suggests the struggle of the sexes.”
“It always comes down to men against women, doesn’t it?”
“Indeed. But it might also be a Faun vs. Nymph thing. A mythological struggle dear to the Greeks, particularly the Arcadians. It might have come with the transmigration of various Greek populations, including the Pelasgians. As you may know, their Etruscan branch went northwards in Italy, and the Hellenic branch settled here in the Neapolitan archipelago. But whatever its origin, this ritual is ancient.”

I studied the photo. “So it’s not all men. Women are part of it.”
“Yes. A nineteenth-century Neapolitan poet named Sgruttendio wrote that the females participating in La ‘Ndrezzata were recruited from the ranks of dancers, who had great jumping ability. Women leaping high in the air in the midst of men is seen as the fusing of the nuptial and the competitive.”
The Professor laughed. “Never mind. It’s a rather arcane concept. In any event, the dancers are armed with stout clubs about 40 centimeters long, which they hold in their right hand, and wood swords about a meter long, held in the other. They arrange themselves in two concentric circles that rotate in the same direction, the females inside, the males in the outer circle. The dance is performed to the tune of a clarinet and tambourine. The clacking of the wooden swords and clubs emphasize the music’s rhythm.”
“Well, that seems pretty clearly a battle.”
“Yes. It has that appearance. In the third section of the dance, a man hits his club against the sword of his female partner, and she strikes back. Then they hit each other with their swords, and sing a song that includes this stanza:

Sfacciata petintosa
ce lo dico a mammita,
sfacciata petintosa
ce ho dico a mammita....

Impudent pretentious
I’ll tell your mom,
impudent pretentious
I’ll tell your mom…

“And then later in the dance:

Quanno me cocco ‘a sera
M’bbracce a stu cuscine
e quann’é ‘a matine
sempe penzanno a te,
sempe penzanne a te....

When I go to sleep at night
I hug this pillow,
and when the morning arrives
I’m always thinking of you,
I’m always thinking of you.

“The song goes on at length,” The Professor said. “Those are just a couple of the stanzas that I thought you might find particularly interesting.”

* * *

When I got back to my villa Vittoria’s screen name appeared on my AOL IM box.
I quickly typed: “Greetings!”
After three seconds the sound of a door slamming came from my computer’s speakers.
It had to have been Vittoria, and not her sister using her AOL account. Who else would do such a thing? Face burning, I waited a few minutes in case she got accidentally logged off. But she did not reappear. The log-off was deliberate.

How incredibly rude, I thought. Inconsiderate.

Why, I wondered, do I tolerate this outrageous and wholly childish behavior? What would SHE do were I to pull the same thing on her? Why, she’d be so stung and furious that she’d do something radical. Like, uh, disappear for a month. And I’d think, Christ, what a surprise.

I came close to kicking the wastebasket across the room, but thought better of it. Instead I went to the refrigerator. I ate the apple torts and cannoli that Sylvia had pressed upon me during my last visit to her villa. All that gooey sweetness made me thirsty, so I drank about a half litre of milk.

* * *

This morning on the crowded bus to Ischia Porto I saw a child in a perambulator. Her hair was a lovely yellow gold, and she was asleep, with a dummy in her little mouth. I looked up at the baby’s mother, whose hair was also blonde. Just then another passenger blocking my view moved toward the exit, and I saw a girl who almost certainly was another of the mother’s daughters, the baby’s older sister. She was, I estimated, not more than 12 or 13. Her skin was flawless, smooth, and luminous. Her eyes were crystalline blue; her hair was as pale as the baby’s, neatly done up in braids.

I shook my head. In this trio of blondes there was absolutely no question of paternity, of origin. They all were exactly alike.

The mother leaned close, whispered in her daughter’s ear. The girl smiled, then laughed, revealing even white teeth. My God. Such flawless, luminous skin, and such a perfect smile. She wore a low-cut short-sleeved silk thing that conformed to her small breasts. The little bumps of her nipples were precious. And she seemed so sweet and untroubled.

But that vision of sweetness on the bus to Ischia Porto did not move me off the dime. No, there was only one thing on my mind.

Vittoria knows, goddamnit, what her slamming the door in my face does to me. She also knows that I can’t imagine what she and the rest of them get out of never talking openly about their problems. It’s a trait that runs in her family. And it’s odd, isn’t it? I thought she inherited it directly from Giovanni, the grand master, the maestro of extended punishing silences. But we all now know, don’t we, that he’s not her biological father. So where did she get it?

I guess I ought to look into the biography of one Maria Marrella, eh?

Well, I mused, at least this door slamming is evidence that Vitoria is still alive. As to her mental state, I can only speculate. I hope she isn’t sinking into depression, or worse.

But wait. This isn’t exactly new. Even before the adoption thing came up she’d get acute, debilitating attacks of PMS. And she’d even warn me: “You don’t want to be around me right now, James. I might say something you don’t want to hear.”

Maybe the door slamming was her way of doing me a favor.

Well, all right. She won’t talk now. So forget about her calling. Not today. Not tomorrow. Maybe next week. If I’m lucky.

It’s a stupid question, but I can’t help asking myself: Why is it that I can not stay angry at her for long, no matter what she does? One outrageous thing after another, it seems to never stop. But always, in the end, it’s the same. Since I met her it always comes down to this:

When I go to sleep at night
I hug this pillow,
and when the morning arrives
I’m always thinking of you,
I’m always thinking of you.