The move shook up the objects. There were twenty-five-year-old cassette tapes, handwritten letters and pre-pregnancy clothes. And the box marked, “Italia.”
My husband and I had become first-time homeowners and moved many boxes into our condo. Then we cleared out a storage locker that we’d filled three years earlier when I was pregnant and we were renters. We tore through boxes and purged.
I kneeled to see into the box marked, “Italia.” That statue of a clay, Albanian woman churning butter had shifted to the surface. I didn’t have to unwrap her to see her active hands, downturned face or scarred neck.
Thick like a column, she once stood on my bookshelf.
B. had pulled this statue, a gift, fifteen years earlier, from his oversized backpack. She’d travelled with him west through Albania on a bus to Durres, then a ferry across the Adriatic before trains from Bari to Firenze and finally a bus to my apartment.
So many things had been stolen from him on that trip, as with earlier trips. On that particular one, his gold chain was no longer under his red Albanian flag t-shirt when the boat docked.
When he and this statue arrived in Firenze, her neck was broken. He tried to glue the two pieces together, but fragments of fired earth were missing. The jagged scar proved permanent.
B. and I met about a year before the statue. We were both foreigners living and working in Florence, Italy.
I was American.
At first, he was Italian.
It took him months to be Albanian with me. A farmer who moved north to work in a restaurant while studying to drive trucks across Europe. This explained his accent, unrecognizable to me. I thought of traveling in southern Italy and misunderstanding even simple coffee bar transactions with the barista. His friend, who also claimed to be Italian, was dating my American friend. We started as two Americans and two Italians double-dating.
Eventually he told me it was true he had been a farmer and a restaurant worker, but he wasn’t Italian. He was Albanian. I nodded in response; tried not to look away. I tried not to crinkle my eyebrows and give away my confusion. I pretended I knew where Albania was on the map.
I was a white, middle-class American working for an American university in the Renaissance city I had fallen in love with years before as a student. Who was I to disagree with B.’s choices? His lies were meant to protect himself, perhaps even those around him.
B. was encouraged by my reaction. His hand holding mine shook a little, but he kept talking.
With this confession, B. transformed into the Albanian boy who tried to cross the Adriatic in a gommone, an inflatable boat, with his uncle and too many strangers. He didn’t mention who paid whom and how much. He did mention those who died each voyage. We sat on a park bench facing the Arno River, a church behind us. Tourists walked by holding hands, taking picture of the lit Ponte Vecchio.
He revealed that he was the boy who landed on the Italian shore on his third attempt. The boy who hid in the tall grasses with his uncle to stay warm and quiet while wet dogs barked. The boy who knew his mother mourned for him when it took him weeks to call after arriving on that wet shore.
The boy who left the farm where he first worked in Italy because the farmer’s daughter fell in love with him. The boy who couldn’t disrespect the farmer who had taken him in like a son, helped him to sort through the documents necessary to work legally. The boy who left to protect everyone’s honor.
Our story, though, began almost immediately as lovers. We never used that word in any language. I first saw him standing, one leg up against the brick wall, wearing a black leather jacket like the Fonz from Happy Days. He was seemingly a classically tall, dark and handsome Mediterranean cliché.
Set up by mutual friends, our first date was at an almost Halloween themed underground restaurant with coffin shaped tables. The goofiness of the place and our immediate attraction made us giddy. We ordered beers and sat with my knee touching his thigh on the bench. I was on-call for my job and needed to give someone the bar’s phone number since there was no phone reception. When his friend joked that I had another boyfriend, B. was quite serious and said something like, “If she says she has to do that, then she has to do that.” His belief in me made me feel both protected and independent.
After we parted from our friends, we spent the rest of the evening on a bench in a round piazza circled by the occasional taxi or motorino. We talked with words and then our hands when we didn’t understand each other. And then, when the night was the coldest, we kissed. And kissed and kissed. The urgency of that first kiss continued until the morning busses started running.
The following evening, he met me at the supermarket and helped me carry the heavy bags on the bus. He stayed for dinner and through the night. And after that, we spent most evenings and weekends together, as if we always had.
We fell into a routine. There were the water bottles he brought me on his motorino, once he got one, and the dinners I cooked for him. The toothbrush he left in my bathroom and the spot on the table where he left his helmet. And the nights together, as if we were both married and newly discovering each other in that loft space where my matrimoniale-sized bed was.
He later became the man who brought me a broken woman. Every six or twelve months he returned to Albania and then back to Florence, to me, with a gift.
He carried the gift up the hill to the home we shared without saying we did. To the city where we talked every day and woke up together.
I never heard from him when he was in Albania. Maybe his phone didn’t have service there. Someone suggested he must have an Albanian phone chip to replace the Italian one. I somehow knew it was better not to ask. He would tell me about fishing with his father, eating his mother’s meals and working on his future house’s foundation.
He very proudly described the foundation where he would pour cement for his future house. This was in a land where even my voice didn’t exist. His descriptions of living in that future house did not include me.
He was a man with great, calming certainty. Even his posture was firm against the ground, as he stood with his feet slightly wider than hip width apart.
His Italian friends would call us the promessi sposi, the betrothed, after the Italian novel neither of us had read in any language.
When his grandmother died, I bought him a round trip plane ticket home. He hadn’t budgeted for death. It took him two years, but he paid me back, as he had promised.
Together, we took the train north to Bologna. At the security check, he didn’t understand why he had to take off his belt. He kept his head down and followed the terse instructions. I hadn’t thought to describe the expectations to him.
He texted me when he arrived, “I never imagined I’d see my land from above. She is beautiful. Grazie.”
I tried to keep busy with work. We talked again a few weeks after he landed in Bologna.
He wanted me to know about him. B. and I read the Kanun, a set of medieval Albanian laws, in Italian as we sat on the floor in a bookstore. He called each one a legge, leaving out the modifier, “medieval.” He pointed to a page and explained why he might, at a moment’s notice, be called back home to fulfill a violent family vendetta. Why a host is responsible for a traveler until the host’s food is fully digested, which could take days after leaving.
He outlined many familial responsibilities, eyes fixed on the page, but his words were in opposition to his hand on my American thigh.
I turned the words vendetta and violent around in my mind. They didn’t fit and so I pushed them aside.
His mother had heard about me, presumably from one of the many male cousins working in Italy who travelled back to Albania like B. did. Was it the cousin who tied a dishwasher to the back of his truck and drove around the Adriatic Sea to deliver it to his mother? Or was it the cousin who ate my pre-cut lasagna single handedly after losing part of his finger in a work accident?
B.denied me to his mother. She believed him because she did not raise him to lie. He was angry that his friends betrayed him and he was caught betraying his mother.
He told me this story in short sentences. He did not want to discuss it further.
He preserved his honor by denying mine, one he said wouldn’t – couldn’t – exist in his country.
In Florence, I didn’t leave him and he didn’t leave me. But my resolve and heart weakened as I started to pay closer attention his words. He was honest about eventually leaving me and Italy for the home he was building in Albania. I had been valuing his actions – our everyday life and nightly embraces – above all. I had been wrong.
B. told me about his young, female cousin promised to marry a man down the street when they were young.
I never asked, how young? Are you promised to someone?
Two years after a summer wedding in Albania, the cousin’s new husband, who had become a stranger with new experiences in a foreign land, called for her to move to rural Tuscany. They lived in a farmhouse where she cooked with leeks. The husband tended someone else’s land, upon which their rented house stood.
B. would visit her for dinner. He would describe the traditional meals she cooked, never over salting.
I bought leeks at the market and sautéed them in garlic. B. said, “They almost taste like home” before taking a second helping. I started to purchase leeks regularly.
He showed me a picture of the window his cousin looked out of in the kitchen, but not her. She soon became pregnant and he took on the role of an uncle.
I never met these family members who lived only a few kilometers away.
I did meet many of the male cousins, even before he said they were cousins. Remember? He started as a southern Italian. They all did.
Many of them, some teenagers, some in their 20s, lived together in small apartments scattered throughout the city. They worked in restaurants or factories or laid parquet floors.
When B. first told me who he really was, on that park bench, I asked him about his friend dating my American friend. The one who had introduced us.
“Is he Albanian, too?”
“If he says he is Italian, he is Italian. That’s what I know.”
Of course, they were all Albanian. The one my friend dated, the ones who sometimes came by to ask for help finding apartments or jobs or the ones who gave us rides to the beach before B. became a truck driver and could afford a used car. Once he told them that I knew who they were, they started to speak comfortably in their language. The quiet “sh sh sh” sounds sprinkled through their language while Italian words lingered. Their shoulder muscles dropped as they relaxed with me.
I understood them all less, including B., as they became themselves.
I imagined living in Albania, married to B. I would write while looking out over his fields through a large window. One day I told him about it
He said, “don’t imagine Albania. You can’t. My family and the neighbors would always call you la prostituta.”
I looked down at my hands on my Levi’s jeans. Being considered a prostitute seemed too absurd to even be mad about. I thought again about the vendettas and tried to cover the words with other memories.
I read newspaper articles about arranged marriages and studied pictures of the mountains, Communist era bunkers and the faces, young and old.
I read about burrneshas, Albanian women who pledge to living as a man and one of celibacy in order to protect family holdings. In return, these women own property and have the many freedoms typically denied to women. I wanted to know how the Albanians would describe these women, but I did not ask. I did not want to seem as though I were studying him and his people like specimens.
I watched him read driving manuals for his automobile and then truck licenses. He read the want ads. I read fiction and poetry in English. I was already serious about writing poetry when we were together.
He asked me, “Why do you write, when no one reads literature anymore?” I vowed to find a novel that he would enjoy reading.
I bought him books by Ismail Kadare in Italian. He stayed up all night reading those books by an Albanian living in France. Perhaps they were the first novels he’d ever read. He didn’t invite me to read them, although I eventually would, searching for clues to him.
Once over a dinner I’d cooked, he started to laugh. “Did you know some people believe that humans come from animals? They call it ‘evolution.’”
I was quiet. I knew he had very little schooling. I knew his family couldn’t practice Islam during his childhood under Communism. They had taught him some things and completed some ceremonies at great personal and familial risk. There were many things they didn’t have the time or luxury to teach him. Or maybe they wouldn’t have, even if they could have. I had no way of knowing.
I was unprepared to lecture someone, someone so firm in his beliefs, about something so important to who I was. I hadn’t even thought of it as important, until it was questioned.
The muscles in my neck ached as we tried to understand each other better, sometimes giving up.
One evening, after working in a warehouse at a job that I helped him to find, he limped. His back hurt.
He went outside and returned with a brick. He put the brick on my electric stovetop. The slate splintered as it heated. Slivers of rock shot into the air. Once he was convinced the brick was hot enough, he wrapped it in a towel, climbed up to our loft bed and put it against his back before falling asleep.
I boiled water and filled a plastic water bottle. When I brought it to him, he smiled, as if that was a good idea. And then he repositioned the brick and went back to sleep.
After visiting a doctor for his back pain, I went with him to the pharmacy. The pharmacist looked at me and asked where I was from. He knew, because when I asked questions, he could hear my accent. He offered, “Why don’t you find a nice Italian boy? You can do better than this immigrant. A pretty girl like you?”
B. kept his head down without letting go of my hand. He needed the medicine. He did not want me to make a scene.
When he needed a new apartment for him and some cousins, he scoured the want ads. Whenever he called, the Italian heard his accent and said that the place was no longer available. When I called with my American accent, the price was suddenly higher.
Not long after he gave me the statue, he said, “But I can’t stay. We poured the cement foundation at home.” He had been building a house close to his parents’ house. B. repeated the to-do list: exterior walls, ceiling. He’d need water pipes, too.
I filled in the silence from my research: marry the girl from down the road.
Albania promised both a fresh start and a return to his beginning.
That winter I applied to MFA writing programs in America. I explained that this meant I would move to America for two to three years. Would he come with me? He said he had uncles in New York and Toronto. I thought the planned holiday visit would let him see what life would be like if he moved.
Maybe I had already accepted our differences. I was working towards a particular life. But I didn’t want to let go of this one.
I believed we could live either together or in two different places.
Were we already doing both, even while sharing a bed?
We submitted a request for a visitor’s visa to the United States so he could come home with me that Christmas break. The visa paperwork had taken months to gather. A computer print-out listed him as single, Albanian and gave his place of birth. I had the documents to prove who he was in that moment.
We planned the holiday visit, including visiting my great Aunt, in her late nineties, and eating New Yorkese bagels with lox and cream cheese.
The envelope marked, “no,” in two of our three languages was the first ending. There was a hand-written note from the U.S. embassy that said something like: “Do not call, write, knock on the door or otherwise ask about this decision. It is final.”
We knew why. He was in his twenties, a male from the east living in the west with a Muslim name and it was only a few months after 9/11.
An American lawyer had recommended I marry him so he could see my parents’ home in New Jersey. How could I marry someone who had never been to the United States? How could I marry an Albanian if I had never been to Albania?
He told me he wouldn’t have told his mother if he had visited America.
B. had told me that his family would always see me as a prostitute, no matter what I did. I said I could win them over. Sternly, he responded, “No.”
He reminded me that I was twenty-six, already late in getting married and having children. He told me I should find someone soon. His body started to retract from mine.
“Do you know what it means to love you? To know I will love you after I am married? After I am a father?” His muscular arms were stretched out on my blue couch where I wasn’t sitting next to him.
B. said it was over.
Still, he spent the night and ate my scrambled eggs for breakfast. I spent most of the night sitting on the toilet seat, crying into the phone to my mother in America. At one point, he came into the bathroom. He saw me crying and heard me speaking in English. He nodded before closing the door behind him.
After B. and I broke up, he still came by a few times.
The first time he came back I had Christmas lights around the loft railing. I prepared pork chops with leeks and hoped he’d stay for dinner. And dessert. He did.
Finally, he said, “Basta. Enough.”
He was stronger than I was.
A few weeks later I ran into one of his roommates who asked me, “What did you do to him?”
Six months after our breakup, I moved back to America to start a graduate writing program. Quickly, I bought my ticket back to Florence over the winter break.
When I landed at the small, Florentine airport, I called B. on my old phone.
A day later, B. rang the doorbell where I was staying. I met him at the bottom of the stairs. His coat was buttoned, collar up, and we stood looking at each other. He followed me up the stairs and then we sat across from each other in my friend’s apartment that she lent to me while she was traveling. We were alone.
It took us a few minutes to say more than, “Ciao.” Then, I was suddenly on his lap, his hands on my cheeks. We kissed, eyes softly open. Fresh from a shave and haircut, his neck smooth against my lips. He looked younger than the last time we’d seen each other.
That visit, he invited me inside of his apartment. It was the first time I saw where he lived. It was compact like a boat’s cabin. He stood at this tiny electric stove, sautéing chop meat and garlic and then adding tomatoes. He boiled water for pasta. It was the first meal he had ever prepared for me. We ate dinner at a tiny booth table.
We made love in someone else’s bed since his was too small. There was a mirror alongside the bed and at the same moment, we both looked at it. And burst out laughing with happiness.
But the reunion ended sharply when I read him a poem I had written about our time together. He said, “I am dead to you. Do not write about me.” And then he kissed me tenderly.
I am still working to knot his words and actions together.
After the holiday, I returned to my life in America in which I wrote, studied and moved towards a teaching career. I dated, even if I often dreamed of B.
About five years later, I dreamt B. was pushing a baby carriage down a cobblestone street in Florence. He denied the child was his. He tried to give me a kiss, while keeping one hand on the carriage. I woke up next to my future husband and told him about the dream. He accepted my past as a part of me in a way that I hadn’t. I had learned to place borders around time and places.
We were, oddly, Facebook “friends” and a few days after the dream, he messaged me in an unusual burst.
He wrote in short lines with many exclamation points that he had just become a father! He was married!
His wife must have been nursing or sleeping in the other room. I stopped answering his sentence fragments after congratulating him.
I wanted to protect him this time, say basta.
I even wanted to protect her, as if she and the baby were distant relations.
I was engaged to be married. My fiancé brought me home for the holidays soon after we met, read my poems and cooked with me. He read books he chose and piled books-to-read on his bedside table. We shared a common syntax of verbs, sitcoms and music. He knew about B.; I was sure that B.’s wife didn’t know anything about me.
My fiancé and my words and actions aligned.
And here, today in this new home we share, is a badly mended clay woman still churning butter. And me, a woman with a crooked, even bumpy C-section scar, still untangling the past.
When I packed the statue before leaving Italy for an American MFA program, I believed the past was more linear, more solid. But then there are the leeks piled high like kindling at the farmer’s market. A news article about refugees fleeing on rubber boats. The United States’ ever tightening policy on immigrants and refugees.
In the dusk, I still see a young man smiling at a young woman, holding his hands out to her. The taste of the Chianti wine he brought over and the banana bread she baked.
B.and I have not seen each other for years. We’ve never seen each other in the United States, the country I call home. We’re parents to different children.
I wash my C-section scar in the shower. After, I pull on a t-shirt. I hear my husband and son pulling apart a puzzle to do it again.
Our son hasn’t seen his clay woman, scarred across her throat. She lives in my t-shirt drawer, still wrapped in newspaper.
Chloe Yelena Miller is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She teaches writing at the University of Maryland University College and Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., as well as privately. She blogs at chloeyelenamiller.comand tweets at @ChloeYMiller