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So many strange people piled into my head. One by one, I cornered them, questioned them, and wrote their story. All done. Time to leave. But they stayed around, staged a sit-in, forced me to find a place for them in my novel. They're still there, stealing scenes throughout the book. Who behaves like this? Characters. Let me explain.

The first book I ever wrote was nonfiction. I talked with so-called unskilled workers and then I explained to the world all the skills they had, how those skills benefited their employers and how they benefited the people who had them. I explored and revealed a world everybody could see but few bothered to understand, including the people who lived within it. It was a hopeful book—about crummy work being not as bad as we thought, and about the ways it could be even better.

Writing Touch, I talked with people who knew marriages and relationships gone terribly wrong. I learned how some women lived past such calamities. Well, some women and one man named Tony. I learned how they recovered. How some of them went on to help others recover. And how a few of them helped to eliminate the calamities, so fewer would ever have to recover. I think it’s a hopeful book. The calamities are as bad as we thought. Worse. But some women are making them easier to move past, and others fight to make them fewer.

For the first book, I talked to people who sat across from me for an hour. For Touch, I lived among people who settled into my mind, who fought and made love, who ate great food and drank acid wine, and who left a mess I’ll never get clean. Especially since they’re hanging around for another book or two.

All in all, I enjoyed their company. I hope you do, too.

Wishes Unwished.

In school, people chose her to be on their softball team. One of the top choices. She was captain one year in the Police Athletic League. She was on the Prom Committee and it was her idea, “Golden Moments,” that became the theme. Everybody liked it because gold was the school color. She did alright in school, too—once took an AP course.

That was back then. Now it’s only four years later and she’s a failure. Roberto makes unreasonable demands, like the house and the meals should be the same as before Robbie came. Robbie makes unreasonable demands, too, which is okay because he’s only two but it adds to the pressure. Roberto’s mother never criticizes or complains, but every word and gesture is a condescending cover over the unspoken accusation underneath. Even her mother’s overcompensating cheer doesn't help. And when she takes over to get things done her way, she helps even less.

Sometimes she wishes she and Robbie never, you know. And never married. And never had a baby. Sometimes she wishes she’s one person, alone. Herself. Of course, she didn’t really wish any of those things. That wouldn’t be right.

When Nona Passed

The bedroom smelled of alcohol and too many people. More family arrived from Boston and Philly, to edge their shoulders into the room, great grandchildren pulled behind. Rosa came early and stood pressed against the foot of the bed.

Nona lay still, her head on two pillows. Mama and Aunt Alina each held a hand. Nona breathed steadily through her mouth, slight snoring sounds on the inhale, an audible sigh on the exhale. Her eyes were closed, and Rosa didn’t know if she was asleep or aware.

The priest arrived from St. Anthony’s. He led the Lord’s Prayer and read his own blessing from a small black book with different color ribbons hanging off it. With his thumb, he pressed oil into her forehead, moved to a new ribbon and read another prayer. Pulling a different vial out of another pocket, he touched her forehead again. Mama and Aunt Alina held Nona’s hands open so he could touch the oil to her palms. Another ribbon, another prayer, and he turned toward the family.

He raised three fingers of his right hand, and the crowd erupted: “Hail Mary, full of Grace….” On the way out he shook hands with a few of the older men. The women, their attention back on Nona, ignored him once he’d done his job.

In her ninety-five years, Nona had led the death watch for her own parents, her husband, and four of her twelve children, the little ones from measles and flu, the teens from a motorcycle crash and a do-it-yourself miscarriage. Now for the first time Mama held the dying hand.

Nona’s eyes opened for a minute. She looked at Mama and said, in a breathy whisper, “Better…where I am than…where you….”

Mama whispered to her two younger sisters standing alongside, “It’s time.” One after the other they bent over to kiss Nona’s cheek. Aunt Alina pulled Uncle Lou forward to kiss the cheek on her side. Soon it was Rosa’s turn, and her brothers and sisters, and all her cousins. Though the room was packed, people jostled to follow the correct generational order without attempting to make a line. Italians don’t do lines.

Adults finished their good-byes kisses—time for the children to come forward. A few older ones stepped up. Others had to be coaxed. Little ones weren’t tall enough to bend over and graze a cheek, so their papas lifted them up. Some would not look at Nona. They wriggled and turned around to reach for their mamas. Parents petted and soothed the reluctant ones. No hurry. They’d be ready by the next time, or maybe the time after that.

Nona’s eyelids fluttered. She said, with more strength than the last words. "When I…. Sh…some respect. Go.” Her eyelids fell shut and her mouth pursed. She breathed, but no longer tried to talk.

Rosa struggled to understand what she said. When she passed, of course they’d leave. Why was that respect?

The breaths continued as before, one long in-and-out followed by another. Nona no longer made any other movements. She did not speak again. The younger children were released. A couple young mothers slipped downstairs to make them pasta. More of Rosa’s cousins arrived, from Buffalo and Pittsburgh. Grateful they weren’t too late, they kissed Nona’s cheeks and asked what happened so far. The mysterious “respect…go” request was the main news. And the priest had come.

Nona took a breath like all the others, then didn’t take the next one. Rosa only noticed what happened because Nona’s face turned dead white. Mama and Aunt Alina placed Nona’s hands together on her stomach. Mama wrapped Nona’s Rosary beads loosely around the two hands.

Silence no longer necessary, the noise level rose as people told Nona stories. The family had spread across the northeastern U.S., but she had kept them together. After her funeral, would the whole family ever again come home as one?

The smell of excrement and urine filled the still-packed room. Nona had passed and nobody had gone. One request she made, one respect she asked, and her family didn’t….

The Second Kitchen

What do you do if everybody in the family is coming to your house to celebrate your Mama’s 70th birthday? You’ll have to cook multiple dishes for upwards of fifty people.

First, you accept the offers from your daughters and sisters to come and help. But do you have enough oven and refrigerator space for all that food? Storage room for all those plates? Yes, you do. Because you have a second kitchen in your cellar. ’Mericans who live among Italians call that second downstairs kitchen an “Italian kitchen.”

An old stove somebody in the family no longer needed. A refrigerator bought used from a neighbor. A sink unit, metal sink and counter over 6-8 feet of metal cabinets. Maybe some upper cabinets. Storage shelves for sure, for all the extra dishes, the serving trays and pasta bowls, the miscellaneous jugs and pitchers. All the appliances set next to each other. Nothing installed, really, except the plumbing for the sink. Every Italian family has a relative who can plumb a sink.

Probably nobody will work in this kitchen except for the weeks when tomatoes have to be picked and made into sauce to be canned or frozen. The rest of the year, women work in the main kitchen upstairs, occasionally sending a daughter down to take something from the refrigerator, check the baked ziti in the oven, stir the vat of trippa simmering for hours on the stove.

As generations pass, families get smaller, and even Italian mamas don’t cook everything from scratch anymore, the second kitchen dwindles. Maybe the laundry tub serves as the sink. Maybe the counter goes away. But the storage shelves, the extra stove, the refrigerator-freezer—they’re not going anywhere. The space is not so uniquely Italian if it’s not a full second kitchen—lots of people have an extra refrigerator and stove, a storage cabinet full of dishes—but they don’t call those things a kitchen like old Italians do.

Kidnapped

I was kidnapped At 5:00 am on December 26th, 2016. A small army of men burst through my front door, shouting questions, demanding to know where I was, though I sat in plain view. They stabbed me--once, twice, I don't know how many times--and trussed me so I could not move. Satisfied, they carried me away from the quiet home where I'd so long lived and took me to their white world of probes and wires and loud machines.

I'd been in their world before, and I feared it because it left me weak and hurt and without control. Their stabs stung, of course, but so did the metal probe they inserted into my groin, pretending not to notice that they'd exposed my genital area for all to see. Tied again, I cried out but I could not escape. Worried, I guess, that my tight bonds were insufficient, they shouted at me not to move.

Looking worried, they conferred among themselves. They needed a more powerful probe, a more specialized level of probe operator. Still tied, probes inserted and wires attached, they trucked me 3.5 hours to the nearest big city. Still wired and tied and newly drugged, I experienced everything again--the probe, the groin, the genital area.

Finally left alone, I lay watching my heart beat, my lungs breathe, my blood pressure occasionally announced from a huffing strap fastened round my arm. My spouse came in, pretended cheerfulness attempting to cover the worry. I was still an object instead of a person, so I didn't hear the news except second-hand. Though my heart was worse off than it was before they carried me away, it hadn't died, so In a few days I could go home.

That's why you had no post to read last week.

 

Sex and Violence

I know this will be hard for many readers to believe, but until today I never realized I’d written a book about sex and violence. Writing various versions of the book over two years, preparing it for sale, then marketing it for five weeks, I thought I wrote a book about domestic violence and recovery. To me, the heart of the book was and is about recovery from abuse, as an individual, as a larger family and community, and as a grassroots group of women.

But much of domestic abuse is sexual in nature—either actual sexual abuse (which can be a euphemism for rape) such as Tony’s mother and sister experienced, or physical violence in the midst of sexual activity, which is what Rosa experienced. Some domestic violence is just violence, like when Joey beat Rosa or her brother Pete beat Paola, but most of the time sex is lurking nearby. Tessa’s abuse in the high school hallway was sexual, and so was Carmella’s, and Pilar’s, and even Sister Mary’s. So the book has a lot of sex in it, in addition to the violence. I always knew that.

Then there’s the nothing-to-do-with-violence sex. Rosa’s plot progression is she gets divorced, gets horny, and never gets a man again until the book’s last ten pages, when she gets him good, and at length. As Rosa tells us several times, horny and alone do not mean sexually inactive. Tony’s tongue is on display in Chapter One, and he deploys it every time a strong, straight woman makes herself available. Or a tavern woman, strong or not.

Jojo and Lee leave one scene because they’d talked long enough about naked women and they suddenly had other priorities. Though she barely restrains herself, Mama desperately wants to disclose whatever she did before she met Papa that makes her an authority on bisexuality.

So I wrote a book about sex and violence and failed to market it that way. What a fool. Now that we know, when your friends ask what the book’s about, the answer is, “sex and violence.”

Let's Eat

I looked it up. The World Health Organization says the U.S. is the 19th fattest country in the world, because 34% of Americans are medically obese. Italy is the 88th fattest, with 21% of Italians medically obese.

Each day, Italians eat colazione (breakfast), merenda (snack), pranzo (dinner, the main meal of the day), another merenda, and cena (supper). Americans traditionally eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Increasingly, they eat extra snacks like the Italians, though many now skip breakfast.

A full Italian dinner, usually eaten only on special occasions, has the following courses. 1) Aperitivo, a small wine or liqueur with olives, nuts, or crackers. 2) Antipasto, cold sliced meats, vegetables, finger sandwiches. 3) Primo, which means the first course because the little ones before this don’t count, pasta. 4) Secondo, the main course of meat or fish with cooked vegetables. 5) Contorno, a separate vegetable side dish, served alongside the secondo. 6) Insalata, a course of leafy green salad with oil and vinegar. 7) Formaggi e frutta, an arrangement of sliced cheeses and sliced fruit or grapes. 8) Dolce, dessert, usually quite sweet. 9) Caffè, a quick, hot shot of expresso. 10. Digestivo, an Amaro, Grappa, or the like—herbal liqueurs to aid digestion of all those previous courses. An ordinary daily noon meal will usually leave out a few of the smaller courses, lessening the time to eat but not many of the calories.

There’s an old saying, “It’s not how much you eat. It’s what you eat.” I guess so.

Where Are the Good Men?

 Touch featured three men: Joey DiFalco who beat Rosa; Lou Bates who almost killed her; and Tony. We heard about Rosa’s oldest brother Pete, who fathered Tessa and her older brother and hit Paola until she left.

So, aside from Tony, aren’t there any good men?

Rosa’s papa is a mason and family man. Her sister Aggie is married to the man with the vasectomy, Al Casella, a building inspector for the City. Aggie and her six kids, including the budding star on Tony’s basketball team and the youngest boy who might have been Rosa’s, are all Casellas. Mama’s third of seven kids is Rosa’s brother Dino, a mason like his father. He is the father of the third basket-ball playing DeAngelo girl. After Rosa, there are two younger brothers and her baby sister. More about them some other day.

After leaving Pete, Paola married Dom Tucci. He is the adoptive father of Tessa and her brother. Dom and his brother operate Tucci Brothers used car lot. Since his son graduated high school, he has worked in the family business. Tessa’s memorable full name is Tessa Tucci.

Papa DeAngelo, Dino, Al, and Dom all meet the neighborhood’s standard to be called men of respect. They are husbands and fathers, earn a steady income, don’t drink or gamble it away, and provide for their families. They lead wholesome, boring lives, and we've therefore heard little about them.

Rita Esposito

The girls’ basketball coach before Tony, Rita chose to cut back her after-school hours as she returned from maternity leave. Told that, Tony said of course she did. She had a baby now. The Athletic Director started to explain that some mothers chose to work as they always had. He gave up in the face of Tony’s implacable assumption that any woman would put family over work. The issue had come up before as Tony struggled to understand how his wife Lucia could be both a police officer and a mother. She believed she could do both, so he followed her lead.

Esposito, by the way, is the most common surname in southern Italy. The name says much about the economy and culture of the region whose residents fled in such numbers to the United States. It means, “exposed,” as in left outside. Esposito was the name given to babies whose family names were unknown because they had been left at the doors of churches and orphanages. Local culture assumed these babies resulted from “immoral” pregnancies, but extreme poverty probably played an important role. The area’s economy concentrated all its wealth in the hands of the biggest landowners.

 

The Foreign-looking Words in Touch Are Not Italian

Aside from Sr. Mary’s occasional Irish and Karl and Birgit’s occasional Danish, everybody else in the book speaks Italian-American. Technically, it’s what scholars call a “pidgin” language, created in the United States. Uneducated immigrants who spoke no formal Italian used it to communicate across the many ancient languages of southern Italy. It’s greatest influence was the language of Naples, the source of so many immigrants. The word for “go to hell” in Italian-American is vafanabola. (Go to Naples.).

 Italian nouns generally end in a vowel. Many Italian-American nouns don’t bother with the last syllable: guaglion’ (young man) or pizz’ (pizza) or Marron (Madonna). When dropping the last syllable leaves a short one-syllable word, a (the) is often put on the front: azit (ziti, a pasta shape), atripp (tripe), and apizz, (pizza). When I was young, pizza meant something you bought from Dominos or Pizza Hut; apizz meant the real thing.

Sister Mary

A little woman, she holds down her wispy gray hair with a white sweat band, a silver cross pinned over her right ear. She wears baggy black pants and a gray hoodie. Wooden beads loop down from under the hoodie and tuck into her bulging pants pocket. The loop sways and clacks with every scurried step.

She says in Touch, “I haven’t been raped or abused since I was 16,” the year she entered religious life. 22 years after that in 1959, with the permission of her order, she opened Saint Rita’s shelter for abused women and their children, named after the patron saint of abuse victims.

By the close of Touch in 2008, she has managed this 30-woman center, a converted warehouse, for 49 years. Almost three thousand women have graduated, as she calls it, from her shelter. Hundreds of graduates work as volunteers, from the center’s emergency drivers to its lawyers and accountants.

Maybe in the next book, Traffic, there should be one heck of a party, when St. Rita’s turns 50—and Sister Mary turns 88.

Solitude? Not in this Neighborhood

What’s Touch like? Take Paolo Giordano’s brilliant The Solitude of Prime Numbers with its lonely young man and woman. Surround the two with his large cast of memorable characters, move them from Italy to a Little Italy neighborhood in New York City, add humor to his melancholy second half and substitute triumph for his trailed-off ending. E voilà! Casey Costra’s Touch.