The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 6, No. 1


by Martha McPhee

     A fast car on a wide American highway. A free soul from an exotic land of deserts with blood-red canyons and buttes and mesas that scrape the sky, of strip towns with drive-thru-just-about-everything, seedy hotels and lonely phone booths on long lonely roads. A drive-in movie theatre, jazz and alligators in the bayous, the heaving and sighing of semitrailers lined up and sparkling in the night. New York City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas. A wide-aisled supermarket flooded with choice and every little surprise and curiosity you could find therein. McDonald’s, fried chicken, apple pie—simple things he had never tried. Cornfields and wheat fields and soy, migrating loess hills and fields with cows and chickens rolling into more fields with barns and silos and grain elevators and wide-open views the size of Texas. She was all of this for him. Twenty-two years old with a gap between her teeth and blond hair, blue eyes, and the longest, darkest lashes he had ever seen. She was abundance and risk and experimentation—she grew up on a commune, no future, no past—and she had fallen sweetly, deeply, permanently for him. Her name was Beth. Ordinary American name. He pronounced it Bet with his Italian accent that didn’t know that foreign h—Bet, as in to gamble everything—transforming the name (and her) into something different entirely, extraordinary even. Rising from the depths of her she was the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building shooting into the sky like hope. She was America.
     “If I’m America,” she said to him, Cesare Augusto, “then you’re the Roman Empire.” She lay beside him in the soft summer grass of Bosco, his parents’ country house in the hills above Lago Maggiore. She was leaving Italy soon and had been trying to convince him to come to America and he was trying to convince her to stay.
     “Why not just Italy?” he asked, curious about the way of her mind. He liked to explore every inch of her as if he could find in her the answer. There was a lot to excavate; she had the weirdest family he’d ever heard of: a dozen sisters and brothers who weren’t really sisters and brothers, all their various parents, a half sister named Rada who was Indian, a dead mother, a Manhattan-bred grandmother, two stepmothers, one an ex (Preveena, from South India) and one current, both of whom lived with her father on his farm, Claire, in Pennsylvania. Claire was the name of his dead wife. This was just the beginning of the list. The father took in anyone who needed a place to live and they could stay as long as they contributed and as long as they were content. There was a Russian carpenter named Mash who erected the yurts and tepees in the woods where all the various people lived. There was an out-of-work investment banker named Jason who helped with finances and kept them flush with champagne. Beth’s current stepmother’s name was Sissy Three (yes, like the number; Cesare had checked with Beth several times to make sure he’d heard correctly). Six hundred acres smack in the middle of Snyder County Amish country with horses and buggies rolling busily across the rippling hills of orchards. The grandmother (mother of Beth’s mother) claimed she hated Beth’s father’s haven, but couldn’t stay away, driving out there in her long black Lincoln Continental to try and “convert” them to ordinary souls. Them, they came from everywhere and were scholars, scientists, farmers, doctors, seamstresses, cooks, carpenters, musicians—a collective pool of talents and knowledge that flourished to make a better life. Cesare had Beth draw a diagram so that he could understand. He imagined a bunch of barbarians and thus mostly he wanted to save her from all that. Though another part of him, in truth, wondered if he ever went there would he ever leave—an idea that both excited and terrified him and that thus far had kept him away.
     “Italy would be too obvious and I prefer the idea of Rome because you’re Caesar Augustus, emperor of my country.” She held her eyes to the clouds and let her right hand drift the length of her to indicate the borders of her country. Sunlight coming through the trees dappled her skin with golden spots as the wind rustled the leaves. Caesar Augustus Not Exactly, he thought, imagining the four words as a name. He was an ordinary Italian man at twenty-eight, living with his parents, who were desperate for him to finish law school so that some day he could take over his father’s practice, taking the baton and leading the family forward in a journey five hundred years long. But then came Beth like a revelation. Cesare loved how large she could make him, as if through her there really could be more to who he was. He was in love. She was in love. Possibility seemed infinite. “As emperor, I command you to stay,” he said and kissed the lengths of her, beginning at her toes.
     Cesare (Chey-zar-ay) was slender and on the tall side of medium with thick dark hair that he kept short and that receded at his temples. A handsome man with olive skin, an appropriately Roman nose, and an enthusiasm and curiosity in his big brown eyes. He was athletic with a great sense of mischief and play. His English was perfect, better than Beth’s Italian. He’d studied the language in London when he was a teenager and had had an English governess. Ordinary Italian that he was, he came from Varese, capital of socks and shoes—Malerba, Rotelli, Missoni—not far from the Swiss border where Varesini deposited money (all the money they’d made on said socks and shoes) in Credit Suisse border banks, bought cigarettes and chocolate and filled up their cars with gasoline, and then hightailed it back to the beauty and certainty of their prosperous little town. From Cesare’s family’s penthouse apartment, which loomed over the town, you could see the snow-capped peaks of the Alps.
     For five hundred years his family had been lawyers in this town. And for five hundred years his family, the Cellini family, had produced a son and a daughter. The sons were always named after the grandfathers, which allowed them two alternating names: Cesare Augusto and Giovanni Paolo—one Roman, one Catholic, anchoring them quite squarely in the secular/religious duality of the country. For the names of the daughters they were allowed to choose anything: Federica, Livia, Claudia, Isabella, Caterina. Beth thought of the women as the precious jewels of the Cellini line, to be given away—their gift to the world. Cesare’s sister, Caterina, could do almost anything she wanted with her life except be a clown (which was, as it happened, what she wanted to do most with her life). With Cesare’s help, she ran away to clown school in Bern when she was eighteen. He organized admissions to the school and train fares and an apartment rental. He took on her escape as if it were his own and because he loved her, awed by her determination and passion to be a clown, curious to see how far she would get and who she would become. A small part of him wished he’d been born female so that he’d be free to make himself, untethered from the burden of five hundred years.
     Alas, however, her parents learned the news, and Signor Cellini, throwing all law obligations aside, tore off to Bern to save his daughter. He found her wearing a clown costume—red and white polka dots and a big red nose—in a class that taught the art of laughter. The grotesque animation of her laughing face destroyed her beauty. Her luscious curly black hair, a bob above her ears, had been dyed green. “No daughter of mine!” And that was that.


Beth had been gone a year. She lived with an Italian family inVarese and studied economics at the Bocconi in nearby Milan because she was good at math—some time abroad funded by her grandmother after college (also funded by her grandmother). She was determined that Beth lead a “normal” life far from her father’s ideas of “joyful” communal living in which talent was freed to flourish by being liberated from the grip of self-doubt and the pesky details of everyday life.

     “Hogwash,” the grandmother would say to Beth. “Someone has to wash the dishes.” But it did work as far as Beth could tell. If you liked to cook you cooked, if you liked to farm you farmed, if you liked to sew you sewed, if you liked children you taught, etcetera. It was a thriving farm that fed itself, taught itself, paid for itself—a think tank of sorts too, from which some quite clever ideas were emerging about the use of hydrogen for fuel.
     Imagining Claire, Cesare would imagine what talent of his he would have to offer. Certainly not law, and he would ponder what it really was that he loved. During servizio civile, which he did instead of military service because he did not believe in firearms, his job had been to work with paraplegics and spastics and other severely handicapped teenagers. They adored him simply because he was not afraid to tease them, not afraid to carry them about with him with all their complicated equipment, wheelchairs, and breathing tubes, and entertain them with his friends. He had liked that job; it had given him a sense of purpose.
     “At Claire you could be a doctor, or a nurse,” Beth declared.
     “Be reasonable, Bet,” he said with his lovely, rippling Italian accent and he laughed imagining himself as a nurse. He explained that a career as a nurse would humiliate his family, that there was very little he could do that would not humiliate his family and he realized how little she understood. “It’s already been decided for me,” he said.
     “But you can change that,” she said. And with her will, pure American will, the will of a new country that believed irrefutably that the best was still to come, she persisted imagining dozens of other possibilities for Cesare. He loved all sports. He loved to write. He could farm. Her father was a farmer; he loved to create from nothing something, root vegetables hidden beneath the ground like a surprise. Farming was another career that would humiliate Cesare’s family, but he did not tell her that. He did not tell her as well that the gift of having his life decided for him had made him lazy.


In the first weeks of their romance, every time Beth sawCesare she became light and impatient and it felt as if a box of butterflies were set free in her chest. Now in the grass at Bosco kissing the lengths of her, he wondered if she’d ever leave America permanently for him, or he Italy for her? He wondered if somehow they could merge in their children, a magical combination of stability and freedom. He was romantic that way. Cesare had been in love a few times, but when he met Beth it seemed to him he’d been wrong before and that he never actually had been in love at all. She was a prism, always refracting a new surprise. His other girlfriends knew the path they had to walk and walked it with elegance and style in their fine Italian clothes, believing in the good alliance of Cellini law and Malerba socks. Beth wore jeans and Jack Purcells and always got fashion wrong when she tried.

     “Come see for yourself if the great experiment of America works,” she said.
     “Oh, Bet, I would like to,” he said.
     “Would?” she said. He was, like all Italians, she noted, good at using the conditional tense. The list of things they would like to do was much longer than the list of things they actually did. “Vorrei, vorrei, vorrei,” she said, unafraid to draw attention to herself. It was way past midnight and they were eating watermelon with a group of friends at a farmer’s stand by the side of the road—long picnic tables beneath bright lights and plenty of other people both old and young, slurping up the fruit, spitting out the seeds. Eating watermelon in the middle of the night was one of the many rituals of Cesare’s life that Beth loved. She loved the seeming innocence of all these people gathered over the jolly faces of watermelon, so contrary to what one imagined happened at this time of night. He’d been doing it since he was a child, part of the pattern of his days and years. Classes, siesta, work, study, a stroll down the arcaded Corso Matteotti in the center of town greeting a bounty of friends for an aperitivo before dinner—friends that had existed since childhood. His parents and their parents had played as children too. On weekends they played—big picnics and soccer, windsurfing on the lake. For a week in the winter they took a Settimana Bianca, skiing in the Dolomites, a month in the summer at the beach. The Cellinis spent the month of September in Forno, on the island of Elba. In out. In out. For five hundred years like threading time, stitching up all these lives. Beth saw it clearly, this life in perpetuity, and had a great respect for its sheer endurance like a marathon.
     At the watermelon stand Cesare’s friends watched them; they always watched the couple, wondering how long this affair would last, making private bets on who’d take whom away from what. And of course that was the issue here: not a simple year abroad or a vacation to his girlfriend’s family. In town one night someone spray painted GO HOME AMERICAN. America was ugly and new and powerful, dictating to the world in the guise of spreading freedom. But really most of Cesare’s friends loved Beth and loved things American: Nikes, Levis, Bruce Springsteen. One friend had followed Bruce Springsteen on tour all across America, telling proudly of the speeding tickets he collected on those long endless roads. Cesare cleaned the paint up so that Beth would never know. But she had known. “Non essere triste, Bet,” he’d said tenderly. “It doesn’t mean anything, just jealousy.” That’s what her father always said whenever someone made fun of Claire, whenever anyone pointed out (her grandmother most of all) that in the United States of America there were over fifteen hundred such communal experiments in living and most of them failed. “Because of sex and drugs,” the grandmother would say with her piercing green eyes, her white hair rolled up like a crown.
     “I can already see that the great experiment of America works perfectly,” Cesare said beneath the bright lights of the watermelon stand. Beth lit up like a prize. He wanted to fly away with her right there, rise up from the table in front of his friends to show them she wins.


     When Beth first met Cesare’s father, Giovanni Paolo, she thought he was the gardener. Cesare had driven her to Bosco not long after he met her in the late spring. The woods were thick with new leaves and fragrant with honeysuckle and lilacs. Giovanni Paolo came from what seemed to be a garden arbor. In his left hand he carried a small rifle and on his right he wore a thick black leather glove. The glove seemed odd to Beth, somehow hard, yet also worn, something a gardener would wear. She imagined it had a mate he’d already taken off. He was a small, old man with a fringe of thin white hair on his otherwise bald scalp and a serious demeanor that made it seem he worked hard. With some trouble he placed the gun beneath his right arm and stuck out his left, ungloved hand for her to shake and said, “Piacere.” He did not look her in the eye or even smile and she assumed this was because the gardener was either tired and shy or rude. The exchange lasted less than a minute before he vanished back into the arbor, so quick Cesare didn’t have a chance to say a word. She noticed that this old man’s shirt had ripped at the shoulder and that beneath his eyes dripped a few small beads of sweat. Then he was gone. “Why does the gardener carry a gun?” she had asked Cesare.
     “You mean my father.” She blushed, mortified, and then just as quickly felt insulted. She pictured him zipping up to Bern with that small gun to save his daughter from the clowns.
     “He doesn’t like me?” she had asked.
     “He’s scared of you,” he said.
     “Of me,” she almost laughed and looked down at herself feeling quite small and young, but also sort of powerful like an army, a country, Cleopatra. Not long after this first meeting the father would ask Cesare, in front of Beth, whatever happened to Laura (of Malerba sock money), a former girlfriend from whom he’d been separated for a long time. Signor Cellini was small and old, but robust. Beth would come to learn that he supported Mussolini (briefly) in his youth and that now he gave impassioned speeches about the ceceding of the North from the South for the Lombard League.
     The gun was for shooting uccellini, small birds, in the bird arbor, which they ate every Sunday for pranzo on top of polenta that Cesare’s mother stirred for an hour. She was a slender, elegant woman with sharp features and big round dark eyes. She peeled all her fruit before eating it, even her grapes, with a small knife and fork designed especially for the task. The skin slipped off like a dress to reveal the glistening, wet body of the fruit. Beth found the skill amazing in its intricacy, like the fine art of carving filigree. She would never peel her fruit; her father had taught her that that’s where the nutrients were, and on their farm they carefully grew produce organically, precisely so that the skin could be eaten. Chefs drove all the way from New York City, Philadelphia, and D.C. and paid big dollars just because of the care with which the produce was grown.
     Signora Cellini, who was always busy with social obligations and some sort of work, had several maids, one from Sri Lanka, one from North Africa, and one from Russia. The Russian was quite old, but had been with the family since the children were small. The Sri Lankan wore a sari at all times and tried to teach Beth and Cesare’s sister Caterina how to put them on, wrapping them in yards and yards—nine to be exact, as in the whole nine yards—of silk. “You’re the luckiest girls alive,” she said to them, holding her life up to theirs. “Freed by your fate.” She was in love with a middle-aged Italian man who still lived with his mother. Because of her brown Sri Lankan coloring the mother forbade the marriage. They married anyway at a small church in Casbeno near the train station. Cesare served as witness and then paid for the banquet he had arranged in the station’s trattoria. Bottles of wine and trains rumbling by with their flurry of passengers and everyone smoking, risotto con funghi porcini and a man playing some romantic music on a guitar. Cesare presided with grace and like a brother because she had had no one else to turn to. Doing these small things for others filled him somewhere like a deep breath. He lifted a glass of champagne to the bride and groom. “To outsmarting fate,” he said with his delicious smile. The train station had been the bride’s choice; she wanted to be able to flee should her husband’s mother try to intervene.


From the lovely Venetian chandelier suspended above theCellini’s dining table an ugly plastic buzzer dangled from a cord that Signora Cellini pressed when she needed service. As well, a button hid beneath the table that she could push discreetly with her foot. “Prego?” the maids would ask when beckoned. Accidentally, they were called when Signora Cellini learned that Beth was not baptized properly. Her father had baptized her when she was three in the indoor swimming pool at her farm. A nervous gesture, the button pushing, and the maids descended, and Signora Cellini crossed her chest and promised Beth that she would help her fix things. “Cara mia, cara mia,” she kept saying. All the commotion scared Beth, who hadn’t quite understood (or couldn’t quite believe). “But what’s wrong?” she asked, pushing her chair back from the table truly stricken as if Cesare’s mother had spotted the Devil emerging from her face. “Mama, please,” Cesare said, standing up to calm his mother with a wide embrace, loving Beth even more for her place in Limbo.

     “Baptizing me himself is as close as he’d let me get to Christianity,” she told Cesare later. Her father liked the ritual, a Catholic by birth who had grown impatient with the contradictions of the Church. Sometimes Cesare would look at Beth and try to imagine her on her farm with her father: who she would be there, who her father would be there, who he would be there? He knew (because Beth talked about him a lot) that Beth’s father, Jackson, was a big man with a big presence—that he liked fun and drama and would loan out his land to groups of people that would stage reenactments of battles from the Revolutionary War. Troops in red coats and blue coats shot off cannons and artillery in his fields as all the people living there sat on the deck, cheering for one side or the other. Her grandmother cheered for England. Jackson always wanted to barter for the loan of the land, get the troops to help him out in return—the way he bartered with the Amish for butchering his livestock. Plenty needed doing at the farm. Beth instead would make the re-enactors pay. It had been her job since childhood to see to it that her father didn’t give away too much. Jackson wrote his daughter twice a week without fail, sending her small things from the farm—a dried soybean, a chicken feather, a red maple leaf in the fall. Sometimes Beth would worry that without her the farm would fall apart.
     Despite the maids, on Sundays Signora Cellini stirred the polenta herself—a hot molten mass of bright yellow mush, stirred and stirred and fussed over. They served it as a first course with either milk or cheese and then as a second course with the uccellini (bones and all). Beth, trying to be polite and proper and to do everything right because she wanted terribly to impress and be something other than a silly (threatening) American who entertained them with stories of her eccentric family, used both milk and cheese. Cesare laughed, then Caterina, then the parents—an endearing lovable laugh that seemed to want to embrace this Silly American. Beth blushed even so, embarrassment welling up from her toes. (On polenta, milk and Parmesan do not go together.) No matter what she did, she seemed to always get everything wrong. On her second-course plate, the tiny creatures lay whole and butter-fried, staring up at her—the eyes now like dulled silver. This was the first time she had ever eaten tiny birds and didn’t know what to do and didn’t want to watch the others or ask. The uccellini were delicious. The bones added texture. No one said a word.
     And the black glove: it was not really a glove. Rather it was a hand. His father had lost his hand as a young man when firecrackers exploded in it. He had been studying to be a doctor, the first of the Giovanni Paolos and Cesare Augustos to study something other than law. After losing the hand, he reverted to law. Beth understood that he was a hard man, hard on his son who was slow with law because his bones knew that they’d been doing this for entirely too long, hard on his daughter for her fancy, silly dreams. But his desire to be a doctor and the loss of his hand would always soften him for Beth simply because it had seemed that he’d once had the desire too to step outside the plan. She had her father send her pumpkin and corn seeds from America so that she could give them to Giovanni Paolo. He spent hours in his garden and those vegetables were exotic here and thus would be a challenge. The seeds brought him a patch of bright-orange pumpkins and a row of Sweet Silver Queen so bizarre and delicious he could not help but fall in love with l’Americanina.


This morning of the kissing in the summer grass, Beth had satin a chair while Giovanni Paolo gardened, keeping him company. Signora Cellini hung up some laundry on the line—it was as if they played at being peasants when they were in the country—and spied on her husband and Beth as he told her that Cesare had failed two more exams and that that was not good at all. He was telling her this, she understood, because he assumed that she was the reason for Cesare’s continued distraction. And if there were good reason for the distraction (say, marriage) then he would abide as long as she helped Cesare get back on track. He plucked at weeds and snapped branches awkwardly with his left hand, using the gloved hand to steady himself. She wondered what his stub looked like. She wished she could ask him about his dashed dream. She remembered the little Amish kids stealing apples from the Gala trees at home. How they held the apples in their hands, turning them over and over like a discovery before they bit into them and ran away. “Cesare doesn’t like law,” she said, boldly. Big American bigmouthed gaff, but she would not be afraid of this man and she knew that was the only way to make him love her. “What?” he asked, looking up from his job in the dirt to meet her eye. “He needs a break,” she said softly. A professor from college shot to mind, standing in front of a blackboard explaining Kierkegaard’s Repetition and the need to change experience through a rotation—read the play from the middle backwards, finish the end of a book before reading the beginning. She remembered that “Kierkegaard” meant “churchyard” and that the professor had said the philosopher’s most famous words were “You must change your life.” And what was she doing in Italy after all? She wanted to explain all this to Giovanni Paolo, but didn’t of course because she was just twenty-two and didn’t understand it all that well herself. She helped him weed for a while and he told her how best to get them at the roots and he told her that nature hated gardens—that it did not like to be controlled. Balancing on his right hand, he plunged the fingers of his left deep into the earth and pulled free a huge clump of roots and held it up like a triumph. His garden was nearly weedless, straight, clean rows aligned like soldiers. Then for a bit they did not speak and then they did and he told her that they’d never had an American in the family or a foreigner of any kind, for that matter, and in that way he welcomed her. She felt warm and eager to please him though she understood somewhere that her triumph did not involve her roots and she wondered if she really had the will to leave America. From the garden, you looked down through forests to the lake, which spread out like a small white-capped sea on which billowed many pretty sails.

     For five hundred years as well the Cellini family owned this house in woods thick with maple and ash and some pine. A stucco house with an enormous fireplace on which all the cooking (polenta and uccellini) had once been done. Each room had French doors leading to a small patio. A porch extended from the kitchen to a trellised walk dripping wisteria in the spring. Azaleas and rhododendron thrived against a hill that rose to the winter cottage (where the bird arbor was) and in May, when they flowered, the hill turned vibrant with all their various colors. Every year the Cellinis had a big party to celebrate the flowering of the azalee—women in white gowns with gloves rising past their elbows, men in fine dark linen suits. The party had occurred for centuries, of course. In the living room, on the wall, they had a rare fresco of the guardian angel painted by the Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, who was somehow related to them.
     Five hundred years, she thought, from the Renaissance to here. An epic journey, a colossal amount of time, slippery like an iceberg, that she was trying to scale, to fathom and understand. Great empires had risen and fallen, America had been discovered, Bernini had been born, leaving a trail of sculptures in his wake that made one weep. If a hundred years holds four generations, then five hundred years holds twenty. Twenty generations of Giovanni Paolos and Cesare Augustos with a fine Federica on their arm—into and out of great gardens and porticos and churches and palazzi, into and out of peace and Garibaldi’s unification, and more wars and peace again to here: the late twentieth century with all its fancy spaceships to the moon and a young American girl with the potential to destroy it all.
     Each one of them had been a living breathing vibrant kissable Cesare with hopes of his own. She saw them all marching intrepidly across time. Through the repetition of this life, it was to Beth as if this family had somehow figured out immortality. Her mother had died in a car crash in Turkey when Beth was a baby and her father had renounced conventional life in order to live the dream he had pondered with his wife when they pondered the heights of their future. There was not a day that he did not think of her or speak of her to Beth. Her mother, Claire, was the land, all six hundred acres of it, that her father worked and enjoyed and thus her father would never leave. Was this five-hundred-year-old Cellini family the pondered heights of one person’s dream? She felt wicked for telling Giovanni Paolo that Cesare did not like law.


“By my estimation you’re approximately the tenth Cesare Augusto,” Beth said, turning to face him. It was dusk now and the late-summer air cooled. Paths of violet streaked across the sky. The sounds of dinner being made inside the house could be heard. On a far away road a car honked and church bells rang for evening mass. The air filled with the musky smell of summer mushrooms, wet and soft in the diminishing light. He studied her, reading that something entirely too big was going on inside her head. “What little miseries are you concocting in there?” he asked.

     “My roots aren’t very deep,” she said.
     “They’re wide,” he said. “very, very, very.”
     “It doesn’t make it easier for me to give up everything,” she said. She knew that she was going home.
     “I know,” he said.
     “Your father thinks I’m a weed,” she said.
     “A powerful weed,” he said, trying to lighten her mood, which was his way—to put off the big things until later with all the potential of the conditional tense which he knew she did not like.
     “This is real,” she said. “Don’t be lazy.” She wanted to cry but didn’t. Her nose stung, a hundred small bubbles bursting beneath the ridge. He lay still looking into the early evening sky. A thin moon shined against the indigo blue. He thought of his paraplegics, trapped in their chairs—of how he loved to let them roll fast down gentle hills, their sloppy smiles becoming shrieks of delight.
     “What happened before five hundred years ago?” she said, reading the sky too as if it held the answer.
     “I suppose some boy had his own name,” Cesare said. Cesare’s family with all its laws and time and its well-grooved path was like slipping into the cool sheets of a well-made bed on a tired night. She closed her eyes, feeling his fingers at her hips, on her back, tracing the arc of her spine. Surrendering can be so comfortable.
     “I’m going home,” she said.
     “Don’t be dramatic,” he said.
     “I can’t compete with five hundred years.”
     “I want to marry you,” he said, pulling her to his chest. He imagined America, the pull of it, and her strange little world at Claire.
     “Then know the rest of me,” she said, almost as a dare—as if his ability to come to Claire would be enough.
     “Doesn’t your father ever want to leave?” he asked, as if that were a key.
     “Doesn’t your father ever want to leave?” she responded.


     Cesare first met Beth on the train traveling from Varese to Milan on a dangerously foggy spring day—a fog of the Lombardy kind, suspended over the entire plain, stretching from the Alps to the Dolomites, so dense it would seem you could cut it, so dense it made the whole world dark. Zero visibility and highway pileups involving dozens upon dozens of cars and dead, a fatal combination of warm earth and cold air and a plain of land that created stillness. He was headed to the university to take an exam he knew that he would fail and he knew that failing the exam would make his mother anxious and his father mad. He would fail the exam because he hadn’t studied. He hadn’t studied because he wasn’t interested. In front of him was an impenetrable wall that he could not see his way around. He kept failing the exams, one after the next and it seemed he was going nowhere though his direction was very clear. All he needed to do in life was follow the well-trod path. If he did, in one sense, he would be free from the burden of want and desire and longing and ambition, of having to make one’s self. He would be made already, a jump start on life, a position of prominence and power in a gorgeous little town nestled into the foothills of the Alps, surrounded by emerald lakes. But the simple duty of studying law he could not do and thus he became a humiliation to his parents; his father thought that he was stupid.
     On the highways, flooded with floodlights like a football stadium, as if that light could penetrate the fog’s invisibility, two of his friends had died. His two friends had not been able to carry forward anything. He looked through the window to see if he could see through the fog. Instead he saw the reflection of a woman sitting down next to him. She wore blue jeans and a pink sweater that made her blond hair more blond and her blue eyes more blue. On her feet she wore sneakers. He gathered she was foreign, guessed she was American, and wondered what she was doing on this local train. She smiled. He smiled. She began to flirt, looking downward in a slight gesture that suggested both vulnerability and abandon. In response to something silly that he said about the nebulous nebbia, she laughed exquisitely. Her face fractured into a hundred shades of light. And he wondered, If silly wordplay can release her so entirely, what will love do?
     Instead of going to their universities she took him on a picnic of wine and panini on top of the Duomo, and they drank a little too much in the middle of the day. They were alone up there. Who would bother climbing all those stairs for a view of fog instead of Alps? A fog so thick they couldn’t see their own hands, so that they couldn’t see each other even if only a few feet separated them. They played hide-and-seek, emerging and reemerging, swimming through the fog, sneaking up from behind to scare each other, thrilling with anticipation—those gorgeous moments before the soft lips of a first kiss, when curiosity and expectation combine. The known versus the unknown, old empires versus new. When the details of the who of who you are are not yet revealed. She poured the wine generously into the plastic cups and took him on a tour of the ferocious gargoyles showing him her favorite faces—teeth and fangs, designed to keep away the Devil. Then she disappeared again. Each time she disappeared he worried that the fog would swallow her, would suck her back into the void that existed before he met her. He tried to convince himself that he was not concerned. He had been raised to be tough and stoic. He tried to convince himself that it would make no difference if she vanished as quietly as she had appeared.
     That night he telephoned his parents and told them the exam had gone well, that he would stay in Milan to celebrate, and for three straight days he disappeared with Beth until, waking up on the fourth, he understood for certain that she was the other half of his life. And he understood for the first time the meaning of ambition.


Then she was gone and then he was here, standing in animmigration line at John F. Kennedy International Airport, listening to a recorded voice repeat “Welcome to the United States of America” with pride—distinctly and sweetly American. At Malpensa Airport in Milan no voice said “Benevento in Italia.” He thought of Beth as a little girl pledging allegiance to the flag in her school at Claire, right hand pressed to her heart. She had explained that children all across America pledged allegiance to the flag each morning. He saw all those many teachers training love of country to immigrants from everywhere. In Italy national and civic pride was not taught; rather, it flowed with one’s blood since they were and had always been Italian—so much so, people had a hard time leaving their own towns, a defining characteristic that even had a name: campanilismo, love of one’s bell tower.

     He noticed small differences like truths: the people most of all. Hundreds of other tourists and immigrants were having their visas checked, a thick pulsing energy of arrival. They were here at last, with impatient smiles on their faces, in the thick frozen lines, and they came from all over the world. Even in the line for American citizens—fast moving and enviable—the faces came from all over the world. No distinguishing them from us, the melting pot clearly visible, and he saw the beauty of anonymity—the past of who you are quietly erased if you chose. All these lives stood on the threshold of the hope for something more.
     The customs official checking his bags was a big happy man with thick hands that sifted through Cesare’s neatly folded clothes, packed by his mother’s maids the night before as his mother ran around nervously going over lists of what Cesare might need—aspirin, shampoo, socks—as if they might not have these simple things over there. “You’re coming back?” his mother repeated while his father sat quietly in an armchair reading the paper, flipping the pages with the black glove of his missing hand and said just once before dismissing the idea all together, “Non dire stupidaggini
     Waiting for the official to finish with his bags, Cesare tried on different expressions like clothes, understanding that he was free to make himself; he was not known here. He was not a student of law; he was not the son of a prominent family from a rich Italian town. He could become whomever he liked. His slate was clean. The not knowing was what he adored—a culture of multiplying possibilities. He was giddy, rolling fast down that gentle hill. He could make his own little world even. The old rules would become absurd and lose their grip: campanilismo and Five Hundred Years. He looked down at his legs and wilted just a little, embarrassed by the creases in his jeans, pressed by one of his mother’s maids; he wanted to be tough; he wanted, absurdly (and he laughed at himself), to be a cowboy—thin Italian man with his dark Italian hair and his long Roman nose. Even to feel this, if only for a moment, like the anticipation of that first kiss.
     The happy official plucked out Christmas presents wrapped for Beth. Cesare was afraid the man would open them, but he only asked what was inside. The inspector drank an enormous coffee, twenty times the size of an espresso. More, more. The land of dizzyingly big skies. “You’re spoiling someone,” the man said with a big grin and then carefully returned the presents to the bags. “I’m the last obstacle between the two of you,” he added with an overfamiliarity Cesare noted as another small American truth. “Free to go,” he said and pointed to the sliding doors of the main terminal. They opened and closed like a mouth, revealing as they did an abundance of twinkling Christmas lights, Santas collecting alms, and another sea of expectant people on which Beth floated like a raft. Free to go, like a ticket to anywhere.