The Strong Man and the Clown
Coffee spits at me from a small paper cup as I walk down the gangway in the airport. “Why does coffee spit?” I ask. My dad, who for as long as I can remember has been jotting down quotes in a thin, beige notebook, says, “Coffee spitting, now that’s a good opener.” “Yeah, and I’m going to use it.” My mom laughs. My father feigns disappointment. We are at the end of a layover in Ohio, on our seventh trip to Italy as a family.
During the layover my mom asks me to put some Icy Hot on her back, so we march to the nearest rest room. She waits for me to pee, standing near the sink where she has uncapped the Icy Hot. It looks like a stick of deodorant. A woman who has just washed her hands seems lost and my mom smiles sweetly, pointing to the paper towel dispenser with her trusty stick of Icy Hot. The woman makes it clear that she doesn’t know what my mother is doing. My mom puts the Icy Hot on the counter and then says to me, “I’m going to pee; watch this,” and I entertain the thought that perhaps this woman thinks my mom is crazy, as I look unrelated to her—a black woman across the bathroom from a small white lady, who is constantly motioning to people with deodorant. When she gets back from using the bathroom, she bends her neck forward and I apply the salve.
“You know what I’m looking forward to?” she asks as we walk back to the gate. “Dinners. Are you writing down everything I’m saying?”
I know what she means because I too was there that night in Assisi when we ate pasta with truffles. I remember the way the food tasted, how we had a sense of discovery in our blood, as though we were scouting out new territory to settle for the strange nation we as a family composed. We visited a friend and I ran through her property, picking young, green apples from her trees. She was black, a dancer, and her house was full of hardwood floors, draping fabric, and mirrors. She lived in what felt to be a forest. It was as though we’d made contact with a resident of a little-known, distant moon.
Once we board the plane, it gets dark. We are surrounded, for a moment, by small monitors on seat backs, each one showing a glowing yellow topographical [End Page 122] map of Ohio and Kentucky and Indiana. Light glances off my parents’ held hands. A cartoon of a plane taking off into a blue-and-white sky plays as our own plane ascends into night.
One of the great tragedies of our early vacations to Italy was the loss of the Pinocchio dolls. My mother fell in love with the smooth red-and-green figures, and several were stolen from our suitcases. So for me, memories of Italy are imbued with the Italian fairy tale. As the story goes, a newly carved Pinocchio leaves home one day, waving sweetly to his father. Neither of them realize how far he must journey before he can come home again.
Pinocchio is the story of a puppet, yes. But it is also the story of a child who turned out differently from what his father had intended.
My mother was disowned by her father around the same time that she started dating my dad. As she tells it, he disowned her because she moved out of the family house to live with friends at a time when Italian girls, even in Detroit, weren’t allowed to leave home without a husband. He died not long after this silence settled between them.
The greatest surge of Italians to move to the United States occurred during the period from 1880 until 1920. Four million Italians immigrated during this time. The poor economy after unification sent many young men away to forge a new life for their families. My mother was not the only daughter of this migration who fell in love with a black man.
In Jungle Fever, Italian American Angie Tucci gets punched and kicked by her father as punishment for her relationship with a black architect named Flipper Purify. He shouts after her, “I’d rather stab myself in the heart with a knife than be the father of a nigger-lover.” The verb whale means “to whip, flagellate, flog, hide, larrup, lash, scourge, stripe, thrash, wear out.” My mother swears that her father didn’t know she was dating a black man. “He would have been upset,” she says, “but I think if he knew Daddy he would have come around.” He was not a bigot, from anyone’s recollection. Any person she brought into the house was to be treated with respect, and my mother’s friends came from all kinds of backgrounds. If there wasn’t enough food, it went to the guest first. She has little memory of him saying anything negative about other ethnic groups. But it was the sixties. In Detroit. There had been that riot.
This story wants to be one of redemption. Of a man who crawls onto a deserted beach filled with anguish and regret. Some Anthony Quinn, breaking his fist on the [End Page 123] sand with sadness over the loss of his daughter. But of course, it falls somewhere short of that. What we know for sure is that in 1922, a twenty-two-year-old with four-inch-tall hair as rugged as a rock cliff gazed out of a porthole in third class on a ship headed for Ellis Island. He wore the tattoo of a naked lady on his arm, which he’d gotten years before when the circus came to town. He may have known that once in America, he would become a boxer. He may have been planning to bury fruit trees in winter, to tie together cut branches coated in zinc in spring to inspire the growth of hybrid fruit. He may have known that he would hunt for dandelions along the edges of his neighbor’s property to use for salads and sautés. But surely he had no clue that the family he was about to start would move back across the Mediterranean with Africa in its blood.
The plot of Pinocchio is familiar, in part, because it involves a man being swallowed by a whale. The Book of Jonah tells another version of this story. Jonah is trying to run away from a task that God has given him: to warn the wayward people of Nineveh that their town will be destroyed unless they ask for God’s forgiveness. It is an action plot, in some ways, a divine car chase. Jonah runs from his duty, and God follows him with tempests and whales. It becomes harder to run when Jonah realizes that other lives are at stake.
When the boat he’s boarded gets caught in a storm, Jonah tells a group of mariners, “Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.” In an illustrated version of the King James Bible, there is a rendering of Jonah in the water. He is an old man, gazing to his right. Behind him like a shadow stands the great tail of a whale. It looks as though he is about to be swallowed. But he looks stubborn, willfully ignoring the presence lurking behind and beneath. This image in particular helps convey the moment I am so fascinated by: my mother and her father suspended, chest deep in some story they’ve wandered into, not particularly innocent or guilty of much, but not prepared either to forget or forgive. In this snapshot of time, their relationship is forever about to be swallowed into a dream from which it might never wake.
A whale is a mammal. Synonyms for it include giant, behemoth, leviathan, mammoth, monster. I was a child of the “Save the Whales” generation. To me, the term connotes a universe of gray, blue, and green. The kind of melancholy you’d find in a Miles Davis song or a museum. When I think of the sea creature who swallowed Jonah, or the whale from Pinocchio who swallowed a father and his long lost child, I don’t see an angry monster like Monstro. I wonder about the [End Page 124] whale’s own longings and loneliness. Emotions for which his body becomes a metaphor.
In college, I took a course on Italian neorealism. Scenes from L’Avventura, Roma, Citta Apertà, La Terra Trema, Umberto D, and La Strada mix with my own memories of Italy: sleepily muttered fairy tales and the particular pronunciation of an Italian man singing, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair” as we sat in La Capriciosa in Rome.
Of all the filmmakers, Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini captured my imagination the most. During a subsequent trip to Italy in college, I was reading a book of interviews with Fellini. I finished it one afternoon in the room of a pensione, the sound of Rome traffic floating through the red curtains along with pink light. That vacation was spent seeking Fellini-esque visions in every alley, every fountain, every old man’s iris.
Many of Fellini’s films involve a circus: The Clowns, La Strada, Juliet of the Spirits. If not an outright production with clowns, at least some incarnation of touring eccentrics who visit small towns and, in passing, electrify the imagination. A tightrope walker or strong man.
When I think of the first trips we took to central Italy, where my grandfather grew up, I come up against the scene of us walking down a dirt road toward a fair or circus. Flickers of noise and the tungsten glow of an unseen tent strain at my memory, though this part is my invention. When I recently asked my mother about it, she told me that this wasn’t a circus, it was a fair put on by the Communist Party. “It was funny,” she said. “There was this horrible rock band.”
We drove from Balsorano to Il Castello di L’Aquila listening to The Phantom of the Opera and picked blackberries along the edges of the castle. I spent hours with a frail woman while opening our way through a set of Russian dolls. My ninth birthday was ushered in by a chorus of Italian widows singing “Ave Maria” as they wove through the small, candlelit dining room carrying an ice cream cake from a nearby bar. My diabetic father ate a spoonful, an unusual sacrifice made in the name of celebration. Nobody was a contortionist or a clown, but the laws defining our reality had definitely shifted. The boundary we’d crossed, manned by security guards with machine guns and German shepherds at the Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport was also a spiritual threshold. An answer to our unasked questions: What would have happened if my grandfather hadn’t died? What stories live on the other side of forgiveness? [End Page 125]
One of my favorite Fellini films, La Strada, was filmed, among other places, in L’Aquila. I wonder how far he was from my grandfather’s village when in the early 1950s, Fellini had a cord strung up between two buildings to keep a tightrope walker suspended in the air. I imagine the sounds of laughter and awe hitting the valley walls, echoing like dancing light against the steep hills of Rocca Vecchia.
A whale is like a mountain, a presence to which we have become accustomed. There it looms, quiet in the distance. But at any moment, the shape that was a landscape might start to move, water sluicing off the tail. In elementary school, we took a whale watching field trip. I vaguely recall the sound of people’s voices as the enormous blue creatures jumped up and flipped over in the ocean. To be in the presence of such large bodies was exhilarating.
In The Year of the Whale, Victor B. Scheffer writes, “From the moment of its birth until its final hour, day and night, [the whale] hears the endless orchestra of life around its massive frame. Silence is an unknown thing.” The whale hears with its body. “It feels the music, too, for water presses firmly on its frame—a smooth, continuous sounding board.”
In the Disney cartoon, Pinocchio’s first adventure is to join Stromboli’s circus. Something about the garish lights and clumsy, sexualized puppets turns the adventure menacing and surreal. He is a boy confronted for the first time with the hollow pleasures of adulthood, and this mounting shadow of evil becomes the driving tension in the story. As an audience, we are not waiting for him to fall in love or conquer a dragon, we are rooting for him to maintain his innocence. Our reprieve comes in the moments when his innocence is what connects him to other people. On stage, for example, he slips up, gets caught in a mess of string, and makes the audience laugh. This gives him honest joy.
In La Strada, Gelsomina is sold to a circus strong man by her extraordinarily poor family. She is an odd little person, with the temperament of a small child and the face, she is told, of an artichoke. During their act, Zampanò and Gelsomina stand facing each other, a shirtless strong man and a painted clown. She surprises herself when she recites her lines and gets the audience to laugh. As it turns out, making people happy is right up her alley.
Zampanò says that sensitive members of the audience might want to look away as he breaks the thick chain wrapped around his body with the muscles in his chest. Gelsomina is the only one in the crowd who seems even remotely ill at ease at the [End Page 126] spectacle. When Zampanò accidentally kills the circus fool, Gelsomina repeats the fact to herself with astonishment, stuck in the moment when she rushed to the injured man’s side. Her wide-eyed innocence in the face of true pain makes her a natural clown.
Once, while walking to a restaurant on my seventeenth birthday, my family saw an old man get hit by a younger man. When his head hit the cement with an audible thud, my mother wiggled forward in outrage. “No!” she called out. She went dangerously close to the aggressor. “Don’t do that to him,” she said, as though she could make a case to have the moment removed from time. It seems sometimes that my mother reacts to violence and cruelty as though they are accidents. Aberrations in human nature, rather than the rule.
When my mom went to visit her father before he died, my grandmother told her not to go too close to the bed. “It’s best not to upset him,” she said. I can’t conjure the expression my mother must have worn, hovering in the corner like a naughty child. Her father left the world that night, in the middle of their grudge.
They had always had a stormy relationship. My aunts and uncles shout with laughter about the way my mother got along with their father when she was a teenager. They were like a Tom and Jerry act, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, a pair of stubborn creatures forever engaged in some kind of face-off. When she was young, every night she knocked over her water glass, and her father fumed with irritation. She refused to eat the roasted fowl for dinner on the day their pet ducks disappeared. When she was sixteen, he got angry with her for breaking curfew. “Kill me! Kill me! You’re going to have to pay for the funeral!” she screamed, tearing at her shirt. “Did I ever tell you about the time I hid in the shower?” she asks. If he ever did find out that she’d had a child with a black man, I imagine it would be further proof to him that his daughter was, by nature, an entity beyond his comprehension or control.
“What were you like as a little girl?” I ask my mother. “Skinny, curious, sensitive. I would get my feelings hurt easily. I always tried to please people. Shy. Talkative.” “What did people say about you?” “I was a little actress. I was very dramatic.”
I’ve noticed, of late, that a lot of comedic actors resemble the star of Fellini’s La Strada, his beloved wife, Giulietta Masina. In Happy-Go-Lucky, for example, Sally Hawkins opens her eyes wide and purses her lips, working with religious zeal to get the people she loves to smile. As a child, I spooned out bowls full of tomato sauce that my mother and grandmother had set to simmering on the stove, then rushed back to the television to watch the way Lucille Ball’s eyes blazed, the way she [End Page 127] opened her arms into a circle as a way of saying “pizza” in Italian, her vaudevillian tendency to march and masquerade. I only realize now that these expressions remind me of my mother. And while this penchant for drama and exaggeration may simply be a way of eliciting chuckles from the studio audience, in all of these women, there lives a quality of compassion. Theirs is an effort to shift the tone of a chaotic world. If only everyone could be happy, they seem to be saying. What if everything was going to be all right?
Walking down the street of her father’s village one afternoon, my mother taps me on the shoulder with animation. “That’s how my father would walk!” she says, pointing to her cousin, Duilio. She hurries forward to walk alongside the man, gathering her hands behind her back and swaying her hips like Charlie Chaplin. She turns her head to wink at me before continuing along. In her comedic disposition lives impossible hope: a mime’s attempt at reckoning with the ghost.
“Where is my home?” Gelsomina asks Zampanò. They are on the beach, miles from her own seaside town. “Over there,” he says, gesturing vaguely off into the distance. There is always, between them, a silent pressure, an invisible wrestling match between their different types of strength, between their quiet, carried burdens.
One year on Christmas, I received two novels by Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again. Knowing my parents, these books were chosen less for their contents and more for their names. On the title page of the latter, my mother wrote, “You can always come home.” This is not particularly surprising. My mother loves me with the blind loyalty of those Italian mothers you see in the movies. I don’t think these characters are exaggerated. What I hear in this inscription about returning home is the converse truth she had to live with: at the mercy of all that silence, all those pent-up explanations, she could not go back.
At a certain point, the rest of the community began to know that my mom was dating my father. “How dare you shop so close to your mother’s house,” a family friend hissed when she saw my mother out for groceries one afternoon. Whether or not my grandfather knew about my father before he died will always remain a question.
Not too long after my parents started dating, my father got a job in Los Angeles. My mother had no idea what to do with her future. She’d lost interest in becoming an occupational therapist because the year she started, the program instituted a [End Page 128] requirement that students dissect a cadaver. She had broken up with a sailor who went off to join the Navy. A friend had invited her to live on the island of Saint Thomas. “You could have been a redhead,” she tells me. And I try to imagine feeling like myself as a white child, or whatever I would have been, running along the beaches of the Caribbean.
Poised at the brink of decision, my twenty-two-year-old mother went with her own mother to Quebec for the World’s Fair. This is the same fair where, in the late nineteenth century, Africans were displayed, and where the Eiffel Tower was first unveiled. The shifting blueprint for a great unknown stood before her as she traversed the streets of the foreign city in winter. Joining my father in Los Angeles would mean building a future for herself, inventing a life entirely from scratch. “Everything was underground,” she says, still astonished at the thought of Montreal’s winter architecture forty years later.
Of all her father’s children, my mother’s journey—her questions, her risk taking—most resembles his own, despite the fact that they seemed completely incapable of understanding one another. She remembers car rides when the two of them, en route to the airport to visit her sister or to a geology field trip, had nothing to say to one another. But they both ended up farther than any of their siblings from the house where they grew up.
Six months after I sat in a beat-up white Nissan in a Detroit U-Haul parking lot with my cousin Travis, looking at Artforum magazine and wondering with him, “How do people go to biennales?” I find myself in Venice, accidentally in time to see the 2011 biennale myself. The first artist I notice when I stroll in is a black American named Rashid Johnson, whose installation includes mirrored bookshelves and multiple copies of Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood. The living room evoked here, in a Venetian arsenal, resembles my own: the Cosby books, the coffee table made of mirrors.
There is a video where girls drag their hands along the sand of the beach. There is a video where a blind Dominican man carries a legless Haitian woman around city streets. There is a wax rendition of a famous sculpture melting. There is a simulacrum of a living room where a collage of projected scenes from a movie acts as a clock. There is a room full of giant, dreamlike stone figures that have been made by an artist for his dead child. A video installation mimics an elevator, provoking a sense of movement and vertigo.
At the elbow of one segment of the show, I walk out into a temporary café. The sky is dark with inky clouds despite the fact that a white-hot sun beats down from [End Page 129] the other direction. It has just rained. Everyone sits on chairs that remind me of white Play-Doh, amid bubble-shaped lamps, under a giant iron pulley. We are on the water; there is a gondola bobbing idly in the Pirates of the Caribbean–colored lagoon. People are drinking wine in plastic cups or espresso in paper cups. A woman with white hair eats ice cream. We are starting to look at each other like art. A sculpture of a giant whale lies in the sand nearby. It is as if we have all entered into the same dream. I can hear the strains of Nino Rota, the delighted chords of whimsy as a woman dreams up a scene while dozing on the beach in a Fellini film: a cluster of children rolling giant wheels, men in white, fragments from the subconscious parading onto the shore, arriving from or embarking upon the body of the ocean.
In Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, Giulietta Masina’s character dreams that a man in a red robe is whispering to her. He asks her to help him drag a rope from the ocean. She looks up to see a boat full of people with strange markings. A black man with a beard stands in profile, holding a sword, and he looks back at the beach toward her. In another dream, a door opens to a room full of people frozen in time. There is a black man, dreadlocked hair held by sticks in what looks to be a Japanese bun, a white woman with white face paint, a short white man in his underwear with his mouth open, women in veils. I wonder how blackness lived inside my grandfather’s subconscious. If one kind of blackness ever held the place of another.
It occurs to me that the World’s Fair and to an extent, the Venice Biennale are visions of the future, attempts to explain the journey out of our current set of troubles and conflicts. There is an enormous amount of reference to war and violence. Each piece is its own version of a map that could guide us from the country of one mind to the country of another.
In order to get the airport shuttle, I ride a vaporetto from the Palanca stop to Piazzale Roma just before four o’clock in the morning. I almost miss the 3:48 am departure, and sit breathing heavily, my backpack taking up most of the seat behind me, its straps bracing my shoulders like two strong hands. Listening to Sketches of Spain for the duration of the ride through the dark makes me feel sure that Miles Davis composed the album in the middle of the night. As we swing around the curves of the Venetian lagoon, I feel as though I am hearing the music for the first time. The confluence of his music with the way the boat moves slowly in that silence gives me a new sense of rootedness in Italy. Jazz seems at times like a form of citizenship: the black man’s passport to Europe. As we edge up against [End Page 130] the adagio, moving exactly along the logic of its liquid phrasing, I stake new claim to the country of my grandfather’s birth.
In Hal Whitehead’s Voyage to the Whales, he writes, “Many have tried to describe the song of the humpback, but it is more than ‘sonorous groans’ or ‘unearthly wails.’ They use the highest notes we can hear, and all in between, to construct an elegant adagio.”
As I watch Pinocchio again, I am struck by how old Geppetto is. He is a white-haired man in a house full of clocks, surrounded by the sound of ticking. When he carves from wood the son he never had, his loneliness is transformed from a vacancy to a solid form. Later on, trapped inside the belly of the whale, he floats in a universe as expansive as the sky: a place where time expands and contracts, where light is not always a reflection of the sun. Here, his solitude magnified, we can see the way his life must have felt on land. This story might not be about the boy at all, but rather about the sad fantasies of a man who, toward the end of his life, has come to question the notion of home if the house is empty.
On our seventh trip to Italy as a family, we traveled from Rome by ship. When we boarded, we came to find that the ship was named Freedom, so my mother sang protest songs and clapped. Some days I would go to the ship’s gym and lie in the sauna to warm up, as I was constantly cold. I had a porthole all to myself, where I could confront the enormity of the ocean alone. This was a preoccupation of mine. It would be a shame, after all, to go to sea without admitting to the scope of it. It was hard to find these moments where I could let the illusion of solidity offered by all-day buffets and talk of postcards dissolve like a haze and stare at the horizon, sense the fathoms below.
In elementary school, we spent quite a bit of time studying whales. For weeks we listened to recordings of whales calling after each other, watched the fictional scientists in The Voyage of the Mimi desalinate seawater while stranded on an island, where they studied the ways whales migrated and fed. More than species names or behavioral patterns, a more subtle lesson stays with me from that curriculum: the ocean is a lonely drift, yes, but it is also a place where sound travels faster than in air. The voice of a whale takes less time to reach a calf. Beneath our ship, I imagined that the vibrations of whale song spread out like sleep between bodies, a moaned note with the same texture as love or heat. One night our ship shook as violently as an airplane flying through a storm. [End Page 131]
One of the excursions for the cruise was to Pompeii. Our tour guide, with an uncanny resemblance to the actor Roberto Benigni, had a kind of fantastic boredom about him. This was evident in his rumpled attire, and in his tired recitation of facts. But he also wore pink, and had a wry smile, which insinuated that perhaps it was not the world that bored him, but the way in which he had to present it to a bus full of tourists who take in entire cities—the city of his birth—in a few hours, from behind panels of glass. He amused me—and also, he kept looking at me. Not with a leer, but with the kind of recognition you might not know the foundations of, but you’d just as soon accept. If you feel kindred, then hey, so do I.
My father and I asked the tour guide to hold the bus for a moment while my mother used the bathroom, and we stood chatting with him in the sun as the bus of tourists idled. “What did you do before this?” my father asked. “I a-was a teacher.” “What age?” “Teenagers.” The cell phones and the flirting and the ignoring just about ruined his soul. But he had to make a living, so he got involved with the tourist trade. “What did you do before that?” my father asked. “I went-a to school.” “What did you study?” I chimed in. “Jean Cocteau. A French writer.” This was perhaps the most interesting fact I’d heard all day. “I just saw one of his films back home,” I said. “Yes,” our guide smiled. “He made films as well.” I could have sworn he felt proud of me in that moment, as though I were the only student in his class of tourists who’d been paying attention.
Back on the bus I replay scenes from Testament of Orpheus in my head as we mount a hill, verging closer to Pompeii. Cocteau’s black-and-white reel of images plays against the color of the world outside: backward flowing water and disappearing angels superimposed against the blue ocean, small European cars, and tall buildings. The magic of Cocteau hums for the driver, perhaps, beneath the humdrum of this silly institution, this cheap but lucrative stand-in for true curiosity.
After wandering through the ruins, staring into the empty baths, trying to put life back into the petrified bodies killed by Mount Vesuvius and preserved by her cooled lava, after studying the walls of the ancient brothel with its “instructive” tableau, we prepare to reboard the bus. We are early this time, and chat again with our driver. “You are a-lucky to have two women,” he tells my father. “And you? Do you have two women in your life?” my mom asks. “Since one month. My daughter is just born.” He turns to me, without wryness or mystery, and gazes straight into my eyes. “She looks a-like you. This is why I am so often looking at you. My wife, she is from Colombia.” He turns to my father and points to him. “She has a-skin like yours.” They named their daughter after a John Coltrane song. [End Page 132]
Cocteau says that beauty is always the result of an accident. Somewhere inside me, the fist of fear that I’ve always held, clasped in the notion that my grandfather wouldn’t have wanted to know me, begins to loosen. Our family’s strange little unit has been tucked and rooted more firmly in the soil of something irrefutably Italian—amid bodies more ancient, even, than the one in my grandfather’s grave.
A homeless Senegalese painter named Joseph once told me something odd. We were standing in Paris, in the cave of his temporary studio—a nook between buildings tucked away from traffic where his paintings were leaned and stacked. I wanted to buy something from him, but he refused to speak to me straight. He was drunk, and spoke in mystic fragments. He said, “Before he died, your grandfather cried my name.”
Both of my grandfathers had reason enough to do this. My paternal grandfather was named Joseph, and my mother’s father had a Joseph for an eldest son. This moment gave me reason to consider the scene of both grandfathers on their deathbeds. What could have been said in the absence of a listener? On his deathbed, Fellini cried for Giulietta.
A whale is a lurking presence. An indication of the depth that the surface of a story cannot afford to utter. And yet there is the notion of these underwater moans. The way the truth blooms somewhere, in a last breath or underwater. Victor B. Scheffer imagines the sonic history of a whale: “Today he hears another sound like an interstellar cry. It starts as an eerie moan without dimension, formless, leaving the little calf frozen. From whence the cry? It never comes again. Perhaps a creature from the deep as yet unknown to man? Perhaps an ordinary animal, far beyond its normal haunts? Perhaps a silent creature forced to break its silence by some agonizing pain?” I’ve had occasion to wonder whether emotions, the ones that come on strong and strange with little provocation, are rippling out from the past or latitudinally, the fog of shame or longing or laughter floating around the atmosphere, catching in us briefly like ancestral whispering.
Once upon a time, my grandmother, father, mother, and I got off a train in a small Italian town. We visited the small room, a cellar really, where my grandfather had lived with all his siblings. Our cousins fed us strawberry wine. Olive trees waved in the wind like green ash. “My father had hands as hard as rocks,” my mother remembers, “from all that work.” So did Minicucci, his best friend from [End Page 133] childhood, whom we went to see during the course of our visit. Scientists cannot calculate how long it takes for a father’s wish for redemption to travel across the threshold of death to reach the waiting heart of his child. But when the rock-hard hands of a short, surrogate Italian slammed up against my father’s head, it was for the purpose of drawing him closer. He gave my father a kiss on each cheek and welcomed him inside. [End Page 134]
Aisha Sabatini Sloan was born in California. She earned an MA in Cultural Studies and Studio Art from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona. After teaching English composition in Tucson for several years, she lives in Los Angeles, and is training to become a yoga instructor. Her collection of essays, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White, will be published by the University of Iowa Press this spring.