Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Katharine Strange

Sometimes I turn over in bed, eyes shut tightly against the morning light, and for a moment think I am still in New Jersey. I can almost smell the cat pee and Hamburger Helper. Then I’ll hear Paolo clear his throat—that distinctly male tone, or I’ll hear the faint creak of the ropes strung through our ancient bedframe as he rises from the mattress. Then I’ll open my eyes and smile. This is my life. I’ll fondly trace my fingers up the smooth mahogany bed post. I’ll sink a little deeper into the mattress, feel myself becoming a part of it.
It had been fifteen blissful days. My jetlag was gone and I was sinking into this place, becoming something more than I had been.
Paolo pulled a crisp white dress shirt from the ornate armoire and stood buttoning it as he looked over the piazza. The shutters were open and the sounds of market day floated through our third-floor window. I watched Paolo select his tie from the dozen that he owned, watched him comb pomade into his dark hair and all I could think was this is the way a man is supposed to be. I imagined Paolo’s father rubbing the horsehair brush over his leather shoes with the same short strokes. I could see a line of men behind Paolo: father, grandfather, the great-grandfather who had carved this bed—our bed. The men stretched backwards into eternity.
Paolo examined a scuffmark on the caramel leather of his shoes. The movements of his morning routine were improbably graceful—his light steps, the crook of his arm as he retrieved his suit jacket, the bend of his back as he pecked me on the cheek. “Tranquilla, mi amor,” he murmured. I knew that after he left my side, he would melt seamlessly into the square, disappearing into Andrea’s café for his daily breakfast of espresso and a cigarette.
This is my life. I sighed and laid back against the smooth white pillows. Moving to Italy was the best decision I had ever made.
It wasn’t easy, the transatlantic jump. How many Millennial monoglots who’d flunked out of a communications degree could’ve done it? But what I lack in knowledge, skills, and experience, I make up for with passione. It’s as if I were meant to be Italian.
Paolo and I met at The Grand Mayan at Acapulco where I was vacationing with Mom and Dad. He swam up to my lounge chair and said, “ciao bella.” From that very moment I knew that we had something special, something that couldn’t be pursued from New Jersey. And even when the Peace Corps and the University of Bologna rejected me, I didn’t give up.
I’d met up with my Stacey, my old roommate at NYU, and poured my heart out. The unfairness of it all! Paolo and I were destined to be together, but Paolo had a duty to work at his family’s shoe factory. I couldn’t follow him to Bologna without the necessary documents, including evidence that I could support myself financially without depriving any native-born Italian of work.
Since my premature departure from NYU, I’d looked for a job. Mom had bought me a gray wool dress like Claire Underwood wears in House of Cards for my job interviews, but I hadn’t had an opportunity to wear it yet. With no job, there could be no Paolo. This was some real Romeo and Juliet shit.
Stacey’s brother was working at a start-up, and knew some people who knew some people. She gave me a big hug and promised to text. A week later she said she could put me in touch with Mike Russo, the founder of Esile. Esile is Italian for “thin.”
“He’s gonna want to know ur background with mental health & nutrition,” she texted. I knew what that meant.
Everyone lies on their resumés. Especially men! Did you know that men apply for jobs they aren’t qualified for all the time, but women don’t, because we lack confidence? That wasn’t going to happen to me. I tailored my resumé to what Esile was looking for. I wasn’t a qualified counselor so much as I’d gone to therapy once or twice, and I didn’t so much have a nutrition degree as take vitamins when I remembered to, but I was determined to not let my gender hold me back.
That stuff didn’t come up anyway. Mike Russo himself met me at a Starbucks in Chelsea. He barely glanced at my resumé, only looking me up and down and telling me, “Whatever you’re doing, nutrition-wise, it’s clearly working.”
He kept checking his phone. It was very nice, very large screen. It didn’t beep or buzz, but he occasionally snatched it off the table, groaning and typing furiously. Americans are so focused on screens—this is what I was going to Italy to get away from.
Finally, he looked up and said, “So, you know Stacey? What’s she up to?”
It’s a pretty good gig, really. I don’t have to set an alarm. I just get up when I feel like it and work maybe two or three hours a day, checking on clients via computer or app. Then I have time to stroll the market hall or take my Italian lessons or go shopping or whatever.
Eventually I pulled myself out of bed. I padded into the kitchen in my nightie and spent several minutes flipping through the immense instruction booklet on Paolo’s espresso machine, which had a small, poorly-translated section in English. I ground the beans, filled the cap thing, measured the water and double-checked the correct sequence. The result was bitter and thick, but I slugged it down anyway. The alternative—trekking down to the café—felt too vulnerable before coffee.
I downed the bitter sludge, rinsed my mouth out with some water, and sat down at our 300-year old kitchen table. I pulled out my MacBook. I scrolled my Facebook feed for a few minutes before finally opening my Esile inbox.
Daily motivational message from Jeff, our manager. I skimmed it. “You’re making a difference EVERY day!!! 😊”
I had a dozen clients. I was required to send them three messages a week, but got graded by the Esile app for sending more messages, or more “personalized” messages, which means some algorithm scans my responses for differences between what I’m saying from client to client. Better grades = more clients and more bonuses.
I clicked on my oldest message: Calvin Z. His avatar showed a be-jowled man with and a few scant strands of reddish-brown hair. I scrolled up. Last week’s goal was to bring his own lunch to work. I checked in with him briefly and he responded that he did pretty well until Friday, which was someone’s birthday. He ate 5 pieces of Costco sheet cake, “it was the kind with the cream cheese filling—that’s my favorite.”
“How did that make you feel?” I typed. A red frowny face popped up on my screen. When my mouse hovered over it, the frowny said, “you used this phrase 27 times this week! Remember PERSONALIZATION makes our clients feel special!”
“When you stuffed your jowls with cream cheese frosting, did you feel a sense of deep and abiding shame?” I typed. The red frowny disappeared.
I rolled my eyes and deleted the message. Tapping my fingers on my chin, I noticed that my silver nail polish was chipped. My thoughts wandered to the Turkish day spa down the street. I try to look good for Paolo, plus the pampering is good for my stress levels.
“Calvin Z, how do you feel about your last week’s goal of packing a lunch?” I typed. Yellow emoji, straight line mouth.
I skimmed his reply: ashamed, nauseous, guilty, hopeless, etc.
“What’s your new goal for next week?” I asked.
I responded to a few more client messages and got a notification that two of my clients have canceled their subscription. Jeff included a note: “Can you reach out to these 2? Maybe share something with them about your personal journey? Remember PERSONALIZATION and CONNECTION are what makes the difference!!! 😊 YOU are SAVING LIVES!!!”
I’ve never met Jeff, but he seems like an idiot. I haven’t met any of my “coworkers” actually, except for Mike Russo. I sit in my kitchen in Bologna while they are who knows where—NYC? Boston? Silicon Valley? As long as my PayPal account is regularly topped up I guess it doesn’t matter.
I decided to log off early, the rest of the clients could wait. I really wanted to get my nails redone before Italian lessons. Today’s homework was the names of clothes and they all sound so exotic—Blusa, Veste, Calzamaglia. “Cal-zuh-MAL-yee-uh,” I whispered to the mirror as I slipped on my coat.
After two weeks here, I can ask for directions, I can ask how much something costs, and I can order in a restaurant. My dad told me that the key to learning a foreign language is immersing yourself. “Don’t speak English at all if you can help it,” he said. My parents were thrilled with my plan to move here with Paolo, they thought it was a great opportunity and although they don’t really understand start-ups and apps, they thought that was a great idea, too. They seemed kind of relieved, actually.
What I can’t do, in Italian, is understand people. The other day I turned a corner on my way to visit Paolo at the factory and saw two men shouting and shoving each other. I took out my phone, ready to dial 112 if needed, or at least to record it for Facebook live, but then they burst into laughter and embraced.
The same problem crops up when I have to ask someone something. I’ll carefully pull a sentence from my phrase book, and then the other person will rattle off an answer so quickly that I can’t distinguish where one word ends and another begins. Then I have to say, “Scusa, il mi-o i-tal-i-ano non è molt-o di-o. Parl-e ingl-e-se?” Most of the people under thirty do speak English, thankfully. It’s just the old people who give you dirty looks.
At the Turkish day spa, I can mostly point and gesture. This silver nail polish, here are my eyebrows, which need to be threaded. They are not Italian there, anyway. Their name tags read “Francesca” and “Annalisa” but I suspect their real names are a pile of Turkish consonants. If we had a common language, we could chat as they serviced me, commiserating on what it’s like to be expats here in Bologna. But we don’t, so I scroll my phone while they hover around me, chatting about things I can’t understand.
A message popped up on my Esile app. New client, Kathleen M. I had to wait for my nails to dry, so I copied and pasted her a quick welcome message and asked her to think about her “big why” which is Esile slang for the reason you want to lose weight.
“I really need to lose this weight. Last night, my husband told me he isn’t attracted to me anymore. I guess I can’t blame him, I’ve gained over one hundred pounds since we got together. I’m worried he’s going to leave me. I just want to feel good about myself again.”
“Wanting to feel good about yourself is a great reason to lose weight.” I typed. “What’s your goal weight?” I swiped away a red frowny and sent it anyway. It was time for “Francesca” to tackle my eyebrows and it was impossible to read when my eyes were watering.
Italian lessons are taught in this funny little storefront a few blocks from the spa. It’s basically a conference room next to a real estate office. I walked up a few stone steps, past the empty receptionist’s desk, and into the classroom. Signora Bellavia, a plump woman with a faint mustache was chatting with a Chinese girl, who was using an electronic translator to little effect. Signora pointed at the girl’s backpack and then drew three little circles on the board, nodding “Si?” The Chinese girl stared at the three little circles, her lips moving silently.
We are a class of six. I generally glom onto a British girl, Sofie. We aren’t supposed to speak English in class, but Sofie doesn’t care. Her boyfriend is an Italian banker. At all costs I avoid the Fin, who is the weirdest guy I have ever met.
Signora wrote “Mangiare” on the board and then listed off pasta and a few other things I recognized as food. We dutifully copied everything into our notebooks, occasionally diving for our Italian-whatever dictionaries and to shrug at each other. Sometimes Sofie will just say the English translation out loud and Signora will roll her eyes and reprimand us.
I’d forgotten to silence my phone before class. Signora snapped her fingers at me as it began to chime. “Scusa, scusa,” I apologized. When she turned back toward the board, I checked it. I had to make sure it wasn’t a message from Paolo. After all, it could be an emergency.
It was just Kathleen, my new client. “I honestly don’t know what my goal weight should be. When I got married to Rick I weighed 160 lbs. In high school I weighed 125. Now I’m probably over 200…I’m too scared to step on the scale and find out.”
That wouldn’t work at all. We had to get her starting weight for the program to work. I was about to respond when another message popped up, and another shortly after that.
“If I want to save my marriage I probably need to lose 50 lbs. That is such a big number that it takes my breath away.
“I don’t want to be alone. I’m 43, fat, and I’m the assistant manager of a Pretzel Store at the Towne East Square Mall. If Rick leaves me, who would want me?
“Probably a pervert. Would I marry a pervert…? Maybe?
“I’m just rambling now, but you’re probably a bot, so I guess it doesn’t matter.
“It’s not like Rick’s not fat, too. I think we got fat together. But it’s different for men, isn’t it? He’s so funny and so interesting and when he goes to Comic Con, pretty little things love to talk to him about Firefly.
“There’s one girl in particular, Krista. She just loves Rick. She wears this cosplay costume called ‘Lolita.’ That’s its actual name. Like, did anyone READ that book?!? Rick sure as shit hasn’t.”
“Hi Kathleen, it’s important that we get an accurate starting weight for you. Don’t be afraid of the scale!” I responded.
The sound of chair legs scraping the carpet caught my attention. Signora must have asked everyone to pair off. I shot a glance at Sofie, but she was chatting with a Spanish girl. The weird Finnish guy slid his chair toward me.
We were supposed to create a dialogue about what we needed to buy at the market. I tried to focus on writing the dialogue as he peppered me with random non-vocabulary words. I could guess from his leers that they were slang for something disgusting. Meanwhile, I could feel my phone vibrating in my Italian leather satchel next to my feet. With each buzz I grew increasingly anxious.
As soon as the Finn and I had finished embarrassing ourselves with our mistake-ridden grocery dialogue, I rushed out of the classroom. I leaned against the real estate office’s stone façade and took out my phone. “WHAT?!?!?!” I wanted to type, “WHAT could possibly be SO IMPORTANT, KATHLEEN?!” but I could only read and respond. Respond with PERSONALIZATION and CONNECTION.
“I did it. I got naked and weighed myself. 237.5 lbs exactly.
“I looked at my body in the mirror and all I can see is fat.
“Which is what everyone sees when they look at me. The other passengers on an airplane, or the person next to me at the movie theater. When I eat a salad or try to exercise people think ‘good fat person’ and when I eat a pretzel or drink a beer, they think ‘well, that’s why she’s fat.’
“When I go to the doctor, he only sees fat. I tell him about my pains and he just tells me it would all get better if I stopped eating so much.
“My own employees make fun of me. They’re mostly skinny, greasy-faced teens who think they’ll never be this fat. I bet they think I have no feelings.
“Do you know what that’s like, Coach Jenny W? Do you have bot problems like my fat problems? Are you programmed for empathy?”
“Hi Kathleen, I’m not a bot. I’m a person living in Bologna, which is in Italy. My name really is Jenny W—Jenny Wackoviac. I’m actually off to the market to buy something for dinner for my boyfriend and me.” There. Personalization. Connection. A fucking green smiley face.
“I didn’t realize. Wackoviac, that must’ve been a fun name on the playground.”
I rolled my eyes and turned off my phone before shoving it into my satchel. Kathleen certainly wouldn’t keep incessantly messaging now that she knew I was a living, breathing human with things to do.
The street was filling with people. Men in tailored suits, women in silky blusas all wearing calzimaglia. Children rushed homeward in crisp school uniforms clutching flakey pastries. The sounds seemed to crescendo around me, the clicking of shoes, the squeaking wheels of the granny carts pulled by Nonnas, the bouncing and bubbling language, even the sound of people patting each other on the back or kissing on both cheeks.
I ducked down a narrow alley. Overhead women pegged out laundry on lines, and even that was ridiculously picturesque, not a graying sock or a ratty pair of period panties in sight. I snapped a photo for my Insta. I’ve gained 1600 new followers in the last two weeks. Bologna is just more beautiful than New Jersey could ever be.
The old bald man who runs my favorite produce stall was in a hurry. He didn’t pause to jovially correct my Italian, and he put my tomatoes at the bottom of my bag, virtually guaranteeing they’d be squished. I frowned as I schlepped my produce, fresh mozzarella, and a hunk of veal back toward our apartment.
I sighed as I closed the door behind me, grateful for this island of quiet. I threw down my satchel by the door and kicked off my shoes. I grabbed my MacBook and turned on “Big Bang Theory” for background noise as I cooked. Caprese salad, I’d decided. It was easy but still good. I sliced the tomatoes as I chuckled at Sheldon. You forget how nice it is to be able to understand jokes.
Paolo arrived home. He kissed me on the cheek, “You look like a real Italian woman with your apron.” He smiled. “But we go to eat by my mother tonight.”
“But I’m cooking, mi amor,” I gestured to the hunk of veal, still in its butcher paper.
“We can take the salad with us, Mama will not be upset.” He wagged his finger.
I carefully placed the slices of mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil into a glass Tupperware. “How do I say ‘can I help in the kitchen?’” I asked Paolo. The caprese salad slid around in their dish as we walked the three blocks to Paolo’s parents’ house, by the time we arrived they had transformed into a soggy, wilted mess. I smiled apologetically at Paolo’s mother and stuttered “Posso au-i-ta cucinare?” But between Mama, Nonna, and Paolo’s sister, Bianca, the kitchen was already full.
I sipped sparkling water in the doorway as the women finished bringing the food to the table: penne in tomato sauce, a whole white fish, fennel salad, plus cannoli for dessert. My caprese salad had disappeared into the garbage, I suspect.
“Mangia, mangia,” Mama insisted, trying to offer me thirds.
“You have to take more food, it’s how we show love,” Paolo responded.
I told him I was stuffed, and retreated to the bathroom. Even there, I could hear the family’s boisterous, incomprehensible chatter. I sat on the edge of the ancient clawfoot tub and turned on my phone.
“Wow. Italy. That must be great, huh? I can just picture you there, like ‘Under the Tuscan Sun.’ How romantic.
“This might be strange, but I feel like I know you, Coach Jenny W. There’s no one else around that I really talk to. Do you know what that’s like?
“I just go to work and come home and feed my macaw and me and Rick eat dinner and watch TV. Isn’t that pathetic?
“It’s too hard to go places or do things or meet people when you’re this heavy.
“You’ll never have this problem, because you’re young and thin and you live in Italy. But for me, I feel like my life is half over and I’ve never done anything, because I’m scared.
“All of my life I’ve been hiding.”
The light was fading outside the bathroom window, the sky alight with orange and pink. On the corner, the produce man packed up a crate of oranges, the fancy kind with little green leaves on their stems. It was a shot worth a hundred likes or more, but I didn’t even care.
“My parents divorced when I was 4. My mom remarried, this creep named Roger.
“Once I hit puberty, everyone noticed me. Especially men. Especially Roger. It was terrifying. I guess that’s when I started binging.
“I just wanted to hide. I guess I did too good of a job.”
The last message was from over an hour ago. I ran my hands through my hair. There’s no one else around that I really talk to. Do you know what that’s like?
The shadows grew deeper on the cracked white tiles. Down the hall, a peal of laughter burbled up from the dining room.
“I do know what that’s like,” I typed to Kathleen.
I pictured her, sitting on a frayed sofa in a house that smelled like cat pee, crying into a TV tray of Hamburger Helper in front of The Big Bang Theory, her only companion a teal macaw which sat on her shoulder, head bobbing and repeating “bazinga, bazinga, bazinga,” endlessly.
I had the urge to pour it all out to her then. What my life actually was, apart from Instagram. The confusion that went beyond not knowing Italian. The secret I never told anyone: that I knew I should be happy, but somehow wasn’t. And the fear that if I couldn’t be happy here, perhaps I could never be happy at all. If she responds, I told myself, I’ll tell her everything.
But she didn’t. Probably the time difference. Is that how it works? I can never remember.
I scrolled through my Instagram for a few minutes. I liked a few photos. Then I headed back out to face Paolo’s family. He squeezed my hand under the table and tried to translate for me, but generally the words flew around too fast.
It was difficult to sleep that night. The old bed creaked. I counted Paolo’s snores for a time. I tried to meditate on the great round moon out my window. After an hour or so, I reached for my phone, some small part of me wanted to see a new message from Kathleen. But there was nothing.
In the weeks that followed, there were no new messages. I went so far as to email Jeff to check on her. “Kathleen M is up-to-date on her payments 😊,” he responded.
Had something happened to her? I imagined that Rick had murdered her with an axe for life insurance money so that he could leave with his misguided Lolita. I imagined that her obnoxious teenage employees had locked her in the refrigerator and forgotten about her. I could see her turning blue, icicles forming on her eyebrows.
Perhaps she’d simply given up. Maybe Kathleen had resigned herself to a life alone with her macaw and her television.
I stuck it out in Bologna for a few more months after that. One foggy morning, I bought myself a one-way ticket to Newark. Paolo was histrionic when he found out, yelling, “Jenny, how you do this to me?!” But by then, this so-very-Italian display had lost all its charm. I waited in front of our old stone building for my taxi, watching the Nonnas and the cherubic children as I perched atop my enormous suitcase. When the driver pulled up, I directed him to the airport in perfect Italian.

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