This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,—
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!
Saturday January 10
Some people understand with their brain. Some people understand with their heart. Some people are capable of understanding with both. Today I met a woman who understands with her left big toe.
It’s been hard living without you since you died. And, with the children grown and living in cities far away, this apartment is way too big for me. Everywhere I look, I see our lives together and I feel as though every memory is saying, “Go away. We don’t want you anymore.” So this morning I bought a newspaper and started looking through the ads for a room to rent or an apartment to share with one or two women my age.
I called an ad and met with a woman this afternoon to talk with her and look at the room. The apartment is a little rundown but it’s okay, really. There’s nothing seriously wrong with it; it just looks a little tired. In fact, it looks the way I feel. I think I need something brighter and cheerier.
The woman’s name is Illaria. She looks like she’s in her thirties but she looks like she’s in her sixties. I don’t know whether you know what I mean. It’s just that she’s obviously young but she has an old look about her, like a new dress that was left in the sun and the color faded.
I think I read that in a novel somewhere but it fits and I can’t think of anything better.
She’s short and dumpy. Even her hair is short and dumpy. She was wearing a sweater that was shapeless and too long, and pants that went down to just above her ankles, white socks and clumpy black shoes with laces.
“She’s got a nice smile,” the Virgin Mary whispered. 1
But the Virgin Mary is always looking for something positive. That’s just part of her job.
After we looked at the room and the rest of the apartment, which includes three bedrooms and an ‘empty’ room which was intended as a living room but Illaria uses it as a storage room, and she talked and talked and talked, we sat at her kitchen table with coffee. She said she made American coffee just for me, but it wasn’t American coffee. It was just that way of preparing Italian coffee (which is really Arabic coffee; let’s not start that argument again), adding as much milk as coffee and lots of sugar. It was okay but I really prefer espresso and I’m not as American as she thinks I am.
As soon as we sat down, she started with the personal questions and observations.
“How old are you?” she asked, just like that.
“I’m fifty-eight,” I said.
“That’s good,” she said. “I’m glad to find out you’re not young. I
prefer older women. Young people make too much noise, with all their friends over all the time and the music.”
That’s just the sounds of life, I thought. I remember Laura and Mario, with all their squeaky talking and all their friends. The apartment was always full of young people. Italian kids have such sweet smiles and, although I’m sure there are rude Italian young people somewhere, I’ve never met any of them. They were always so respectful. It was a pleasure to cook for them. How they ate so much and stayed so skinny, I’ll never know.
I wanted to ask her how old she is but I didn’t have the nerve. “How long have you lived in this apartment?” I asked instead. “About a year. Has your hair always been so long?”
“Yes. I like long hair. I wish it were longer but down to my waist is as long as it gets.”
It was cold today so I had my hair loose to keep my neck warm. I had it held back from my face with those two little barrettes that I found at the outdoor morning market that day I dragged you there to find a sweater for you. When I found a sweater, it fit you per- fectly but you said you hated it. I made you buy it anyway and it ended up becoming your favorite sweater. It’s still in the closet. I like to look at it every once in a while. Do you remember that? I’ll bet you don’t. Men never remember anything important, especially if it has to do with a woman knowing them better than they do.
“If you like long hair, you should cut it,” Illaria said.
“Cutting your hair makes it grow faster.”
That’s one I’ve heard so often, both here and in the States. I don’t know why people think that. It doesn’t make any sense at all. “Cutting your hair doesn’t make it grow faster.”
“Yes, it does. Everyone knows that.”
In the meantime we were sipping our coffee and examining each other. I think she approved of me but, even though she’s young enough to be my daughter, I think she was thinking she would have to teach me about life.
“No, it just seems that way,” I said. “I read somewhere that hair generally grows about an inch every three months. So, if you’ve got hair that’s about fifteen inches long, after three months, it’s only one-fifteenth longer and it’s hard to tell that it grew. But if your hair is only one inch all around your head, after three months, the length has doubled.”
Illaria smiled a very patient smile and nodded.
“Exactly. With long hair, it’s only one-fifteenth longer while with the short hair the length doubles. That’s because cutting your hair makes it grow faster.”
“But it’s not growing any faster. In both cases, it’s just growing one inch in three months. It just looks like it’s growing faster.”
“That’s just my point. If it looks like it’s growing faster that means you can see that it’s growing faster. And if you can see that it’s growing faster, that means it’s growing faster, no? It’s only logical.”
When I left the apartment I told her I had a couple of other places to see and so I wanted to think about it a little more and I’d call her in a couple of weeks. She said that was fine.
When I got home I called ten ads about a room. I never realized how many people rent rooms in apartments. I should have thought about that, since this is what we call in the States a university town. Since they’re not too big on campuses here, and many young people attend universities in cities far from their hometowns, they have to rent rooms which their parents pay for.
Every time I called an ad, almost the first thing they wanted to know is how old I am. When I told them, they said, no, sorry, we want only young people, university students or employed people.
Maybe I should put my own ad in the paper saying I want to find and share an apartment with one or two women my age.
Laura called this afternoon. The first thing she wanted to know is why my phone was busy all the time. So I told her I was looking for a room.
“Looking for a room! Why are you looking for a room when you have such a nice apartment?”
“I just don’t need so much space,” I said.
“Why don’t you come up here and live with us? We could put the boys in one room together and you’d have your own room.”
“I don’t know. I’m too tired to make such a big move. I’m still resting up from the last big move I made.”
“The last big move you made!” I could hear her laughing and I could even see the expression on her face. “That was what? Forty years ago, when you married Daddy?”
“Thirty-nine. And I still remember how complicated it was, all those offices, all those pieces of paper. It’s just a good thing I didn’t have to bring furniture with me. I just left everything in my bedroom in your grandparents’ house.”
“I know; it’s still there. But this time there won’t be so many pieces of paper, just a change of residenza, which you’ll have to do even if you stay in the same city.”
“But there’s all the furniture.”
“You’ll have to do something with the furniture even if you move into a room in the same city, no? It’s not really less complicated if you stay in the same city. In fact, if you think about it, it’ll be less complicated if you move in with us.”
I love Laura, but sometimes she gets on my nerves.
“It’s complicated enough,” I said. “My life is here.”
I wasn’t lying to Laura. The reason I gave her for not wanting to move all the way to Milan was the truth. But there’s another reason that I didn’t mention. I don’t want to live alone anymore but I don’t want to live with people I care about. It hurts too much when they leave.
About twenty minutes later Mario called. I knew he would because I knew that Laura would call him and tell him everything.
“Why don’t you come up here with us? Mirella would love to have you here. You know how nervous she’s been since she found out she’s pregnant, with all her family still in Sicily. We could make good use of you when the baby’s born.”
“Genoa is just as far from here as Milan is.”
“No, it’s not. I checked it out. Milan is 411.27 kilometers away and Genoa is 338.29 kilometers away. That’s a difference of 72.98 kilometers. That’s straight-line distance.”
I had to laugh. Apparently, he thinks I know what straight-line distance means. I love these two kids so much.
“You and your precise numbers,” I said. “This explains…”
“…why I became an accountant. Will you at least think about it?” So I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve been thinking mostly that I don’t want to move so far away.
I don’t know how Grace did it or even why. She told me why a hundred times but I still don’t understand. Grace is ten years older than I am and, as soon as she retired, she went back to New Jersey to live with her sister, even though it meant she would lose her pension from Italy.
I don’t know how to sign this letter. Take care of yourself? See you soon? Rest in peace?
I always thought that the best part of life is sharing a meal with people you love and the saddest thing is to eat alone. I just now decided that the best part of life is laughing with people you love and the saddest thing is to laugh alone.
All my love, Alice
Alice put her notebook away and took a shower. Then she took a tour of her apartment. It was a beautiful apartment, just the kind of place you’d expect a middle-aged, middle class lady to live in. Everything was either new or in very good shape, dark wood, lots of sun through all the windows, a big balcony in the front and a little balcony in the back.
When she had first arrived in Italy and she and Massimo looked at apartments, the first thing she noticed was that there were never any fire escapes. She mentioned it to the rental agent, saying she wanted an apartment with a fire escape. He muttered something about how fire escapes are so ugly. She kept insisting that she wanted a fire escape until Massimo said that he could buy, or make himself, a ladder with two heavy chains and wooden slats for steps. He’d put hooks at one end and he’d roll it up and put it in a canvas bag and they could keep it on one of the balconies. One of the reasons they took this apartment was that the big balcony was on the side of the apartment opposite the door and that’s where they kept their homemade fire escape.
Suddenly, Alice decided not to sell the apartment. She’d rent it, furniture and all.
Rose Romano is an Italian-American poet, novelist, essayist, and editor. She founded and edited the journal la bella figura, which promoted the work of Italian-Americans. After a brief but successful run, she folded the journal when she decided to live in Italy. Before leaving the United States, she edited an anthology of poems that had appeared in the journal. She is the author of several novels and volumes of poetry, and her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies.
Romano was born in Brooklyn. She began writing novels at the age of eight and poetry at the age of 14. As the grandchild of immigrants from Naples and Sicily, she often writes on Italian-American themes, and on the intersection of Italian-American and sexual identities.
Her first two books, Vendetta (1992) and The Wop Factor (1994), have been widely used in women’s literature and multicultural studies courses. As the editor of malafemmina press, she has published chapbooks by a number of Italian-American women poets, including Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Maria Fama, Carmela Delia Lanza, Rina Ferrarelli, and Lenore Baeli Wang. In 1988, as Italian-American literature experienced something of a “renaissance,” Romano reasoned that perhaps Italian Americans had finally become “American enough that we can afford to be Italian.”Through her poetry and editing, Romano became a key figure in the newly developing field of Italian-American lesbian and feminist writing. She has published two novels, You’ll never have me like you want me (2016) and Beyond the Leash (2017), and a book of poetry, Neither Seen nor Heard (2016).
- Vendetta San Francisco, Calif.: Malafemmina Press, 1992; La Bella Figura 1988-1992: A Choice Malafemmina Press, 1993; The Wop Factor Malafemmina Press, 1994; Neither Seen Nor Heard Malafemmina Press, 201;You’ll Never Have Me Like You Want Me Malafemmina Press, 2016;
- Beyond the Leash Malafemmina Press (2017).
He first Italian novel In braccio alla mamma, Malafemmina Press, was published in 2019.