Upon retirement from his banking job, my father took his wealth and custom shirts and rented the top floor of an ancient, salmon-colored apartment building on the Piazza San Domenico in Cagliari. His younger brother, Paolo, ran a café on the bottom floor, a business that spilled out from the sidewalk and onto the piazza.
“People talk like they mean it there,” he said when he explained his decision to me. “I need things that feel real. I need anchors.”
I thought it was natural that Dad should return to Sardinia, the island that made him. He always said he missed the olive groves, strong sun, and loud conversation.
I sensed he was waiting for me to talk him out of it, to beg him to stay in New York. The truth was that I wanted him gone. I was in the process of getting to know myself. But you had to fight smart with my father. [End Page 40]
“You’ll love it,” I said, drawing tiny stars on the corner of an envelope. I often found things to do while talking with him on the phone, small acts of self-protection. Weeding the neighbor’s garden. Flossing my teeth. Browsing my grandmother’s six recipes for gnocchi. The less you listened the less you got hurt.
“So you can’t wait for me to leave?” he said. “I knew it.”
“No, Papa. I’m happy for you,” I said, somewhat absently. “Going back home.”
“How’s business?” he asked.
“Steady,” I said, meaning steadily nonexistent. I’d taken the little bit of money my mother left me and invested it in a boutique floral business. I made large-scale plant installations for fashion shows, commercial shoots, corporate launches, high net-worth engagements. A coverlet of two-hundred red roses for the tech entrepreneur caught in an extramarital affair. Pale pink grass for an alt-folk album cover. Business was episodic, even a surprise.
“It’s time you did something extraordinary,” he said.
“Each installation is extraordinary,” I said, offended. I thought of the carpet of Bermuda grass and birds-of-paradise I’d installed in a corporate bank lobby a few months before. The bank was advertising a wellness initiative. The brochure model wore three-inch heels and held an apple out toward the camera; she struck me as some sort of supermarket Eve. I had to leave when I saw her standing in the middle of my installation. She cheapened the art.
After that disappointment, I conceptualized a big, signature project, something unusual and iconic. I purchased an enormous, twelve-foot-high terrarium from Austria and had spent the last two weeks cursing as I attempted to assemble it in my shop.
“Let me review your balance sheet,” Papa said. “Send me a copy.”
“No? Don’t be ridiculous. I’m an expert, and I’m free.”
My father loved Jack Welch, barking into the telephone, and [End Page 41] making deals. He told you what you would do with your life. He told my mother, me, his brother, the woman who cleaned his house. And to reassure myself of my independence, my own strength, I’d spent the last three years steadily defying him. No, I would not take his clothes to the cleaner after Mama died. No, I wouldn’t listen to his thoughts about Berlusconi again. I wouldn’t grow out my hair to soften my face. And I would not give him my outdated balance sheet or visit Cagliari. Not now, anyway.
“My world doesn’t revolve around profit,” I insisted.
“Maybe it should, piccola. Maybe then you’d feel satisfied.”
It was important to my father to win. But I’d come to see that he did not respect people who agreed with him. His love language was war.
Zach, my gently estranged husband, lived with his parents and our old cat Zipper on the Upper West Side. We’d planned to divorce for a while, but neither of us liked paperwork.
A few days a week he would visit the shop to see what I was working on. My atelier—I preferred...