By Attila Zønn
“For many years after I come to this country, I fear the English language,” Lorenzo said.
“For me it was hard to grasp—the rules of grammar so different from my language: the silent letters, the words that sound the same but mean different things and the strange endings—how can the gh in rough sound like a eff? It should be pronounced ro-oog-huh. Very confusing. So I stay safe; I work with Italians, socialize with Italians, and I felt comfortable in my quartiere, you know, my safe community of Italians.
“It take me three years before I decide I have to change. I was tired of relying on people to translate and to do the simplest things that require English. And also when you rely too much people take advantage of you.
“I must learn to speak English! I say to myself. You know? More than just the swear words.
“But I work very long hours. I did not want to tell my boss I have to leave to go to night classes so I decide to learn from books. I get an Italian-English dictionary. I look up the word in Italian and the English word was right beside, and even how to pronounce it—sort of. It would also have been good to watch television, and connect the words in the dictionary with the words in the shows but I did not have a television. I was renting a room from a Calabrese family and yes, many times they invite me to come down and watch with them, but they were not my family. I would have felt uncomfortable and lonely sitting among them. They were nice but they were strangers.
“I try very hard. I learn a lot of words. But I could never get into a conversation with an English speaker. To speak without thinking. To understand those nuances that every language have.
“This English, it was the most important thing in my life. I wake up thinking of English. I go to bed thinking of English. I have dreams—there was one dream; I was speaking perfect English with the Queen of England.” He laughed. “I don’t remember many dreams but that one has stuck in my mind.
“My biggest problem was I was learning in a vacuum. It does not help if you know the words but cannot practice them. I did not know the grammar. I was putting the adjective behind the noun, like in Italian. You know, it’s like instead of saying the black dog I would say the dog black. I did not know. I try to speak English at my job but everybody look confused and speak back to me in Italian.
“One day my circumstances change. I have to find a new job. Through a friend I get a job training as a machinist with this company. The owner was Italian but his people were mixed.
“I work with this one guy; Eugene. He was an older guy, maybe close to retirement—that’s what I think anyway because he was very wrinkled. I start as his helper. I felt good. I felt strong. This is good I think. I am going to learn a trade! But Eugene was an impatient guy. He try to instruct me on one machine. I did not understand him. He talk too fast. He have an accent. He call me, ‘Buy’. He tell me oranges, I understand potatoes. He tell me to go that way, I nod my head and go the other way. It was like that. I did not understand him but I want to please. I was frustrated, he was frustrated. When he get too frustrated he grab the push broom, give it to me and gesture for me to sweep.
“When I wake up every morning I feel sick because I knew I had to go to this job. One day, Eugene was extra frustrated. There was a lot to do. It was just me and him. As always, we have a misunderstanding of what has to be done. He point to the machine. He talk. I don’t know what he want. I stand there. He grab my ear and pull me toward the machine. I slap his arm away and push him toward the machine. We stare at each other. He hold up his hands. ‘Take it easy. Take it easy,’ he say. ‘Go for break.’ I am hot. I want to punch his face. Who was this guy, this faccia di cazzo, to think he can do this to me? I don’t speak his language, but I am not an idiot. I want to quit. Fuck this place and fuck this country, I think.
“I come back from break, and suddenly Eugene is very patient. He show me everything I have to do, slowly he speak to me. He ask me nice if I understand. And I did! He give me a bunch of tickets—tickets was papers with information on how many pieces I have to cut and what shape. I started to work. He did not tell me that this was my job for the day. I finish everything in two hours. I go back to Eugene. I say, ‘I finish.’ He did not believe me. He check my work, see all the pieces stacked nice. Then he look at me and smile. He look at his watch. ‘No more tickets for today,’ he say, then grab the push broom and give it to me and tell me, ‘Look busy.’ He go to the office and I don’t see him again until the quit buzzer.
“Months go by. My English is much better. I learn to peel his accent off the words and now I understand Eugene very well. I work hard. I think Eugene likes me. I think. We always finish before schedule. I never talk to him more than to discuss what need to be done. I did not sit with him in the lunch room. He always make himself distant. It was—a professional relationship.
“One day, I suppose he was confident in my abilities, that he want to teach me to set up the machines. He take me to the big blue one. This machine do five different things without keep changing the set-up. It was the king of the machines in the shop.
“After he show me the process, he want me to explain it to him. So I tell him. He say, ‘Right.’ I look to my right. Did I miss something? This confuse me. I say to him, ‘I do something wrong?’ ‘No,’ he say. ‘Everything is good so far.’
“I continue. I tell him the procedure of how to change the die. He say, ‘Right.’ Automatically I look to my right. I don’t understand. ‘Keep going,’ he say. ‘Everything is good.’ I say to him, ‘Mister Eugene—if everything good why you say right when the proper word is correct?’ He look at me like he notice me for the first time. He say, ‘That’s what you say. Right is confirmation.’ It might sound ridiculous now that I did not know that right was not only a direction but also another word for correct, but like I said I was surrounded by Italians and learning English in a vacuum. I had never heard it before.
“‘But Mister Eugene,’ I say. ‘Right is the opposite of Left.’ He smile at me and say, “Oh, my friend, you got a lot to learn.’
“It was—that smile. That fucking smile. It was the smile that an adult gives a child who has said something cute, that sent my heart into the pit of my stomach. That smile that brought on me a great depression. And a cold come over me and I wanted to run off somewhere and cry—cry for everything I did not know. And suddenly I question the reasons why I left my homeland where I had been a whole person, who could speak with great fluidity my wonderful language. And I miss Italy. Mia Italia! With its sparkling summers, warm breezes, the rooster crowing in the morning. The motorbikes, the cars, all racing to the beaches. This all come back to me, and I even miss my crazy mother, my stupid brother and my ugly sisters.
“I take this depression home with me after work, that when I was sitting at the dinner table I could not eat. The lady of the house, she ask me what’s wrong. I say I don’t feel good and I spend that evening in my dark room recalculating my life.
“The next morning was Saturday and I did not come out of my room. The lady of the house knock on my door, she ask if everything is OK. I tell her I’m resting, but I was not resting. I lie on the bed and stare at the walls. The window was open and I hear the shouts of kids playing outside, and I wonder if I was ever going to have that happiness again. And all these memories come to me of shirtless summers, playing soccer with my friends, of the sun warm on my face and tanning my back, of diving for sea urchins, and the whirlpool we always stayed away from —il fosso di Noè—a story told to us of a boy named Noah, who swam too close to the whirlpool and was sucked in, and I felt like No’e, sucked into this terrible dream of a wonderful future in a foreign land.
“Sunday comes and the family I was living with was going to an Italian picnic at the Exhibition. They ask me to come. I don’t want to go. I just want to stay in my room with my depression but they insist, so I think, maybe I could find some distraction at this picnic.
“At the picnic it was the same old shit—lots of people, brass bands playing out of tune, lots of walking, lots of religious overtones. The same old shit and it was hot and tiring. I follow them around with my hands in my pockets thinking of my life.
“In the afternoon we find a picnic table and sit down to eat. But I could not eat. I walked off to sit on a hill that overlooked the Lakeshore.
“I was sitting on the side of the hill looking out onto the lake. There was a shine on the lake. There was some sailboats. Some fast boats. It was a beautiful day! But I could not shake this depression from my soul. Was there no place in this world where I could be happy? I look to my left and I see this girl also sitting on the hill. She’s looking at me. I look away because, you know, it is rude to stare but I’m curious so I look back. Now, she is smiling at me. I stand up. I walk to her. I say, ‘ Excuse me but I notice you was smiling at me.’
“‘Oh yes,’ she say, ‘I like your face.’
“I say, ‘Thank you very much. I like your face too. It is—interesting.’ She laugh. She say, ‘No one ever say that to me before.’ I say, ‘I’m sorry it is the wrong word. My English is not so good.’ She say, ‘That’s okay. My Italiano is not so good. Maybe we can meet halfway?’
“Oh, I like this girl! For me it was love at first sight. David—do you believe in a love at first sight?
“Yes, I’m certain it happens all the time,” I said. “But is it really love or attraction at first sight? I think you have to get to know the person before you can actually love them.”
“I agree. But it was so strange. Suddenly, at that moment, it was like I know her all my life. Her name was Angelica—the perfect name for her— and she became the love of my life. She was born in France, of Italian parents and she come to this country when she was two years old. She have beautiful hair; black, long and straight and she have the straight bangs across her forehead. And her beautiful dark eyes. To me she look like a school girl but she was only three years younger than me. We go everywhere. We do many things. She help me with my English. She tell me, ‘You don’t have to know all the words. Even the people who are born to the language don’t know all the words. You just pick the ones that sound good to you and use them. The more you have conversations with English speakers the more you will learn and if you don’t know a word, ask them, what does this word mean? They will know you are learning and will help you.’ This make so much sense to me. Sometimes David, the obvious is hard to see and when someone shows you, you feel stupid that you did not see. In those days it was so easy to make my life so difficult. But now with Angelica, everything was easy.
“Things got good for me. I become a positive person and with my positivity I learn things more easily. I took risks. I got a better job. I start to make more money. I get a nice apartment and I give her one key. Some days when I come home from work she is there, wearing one of my shirts and nothing else. Oh, it was a wonderful time!
“We go together for one year and a half. I could not see my life without her. She was part of me and when I was alone and waiting for her I could not remember a time when she was not in my life. So I decide to marry her. I get on one knee, I take her hand, I say, ‘ Will you marry me?’ Before I finish she jump all over me and say, ‘ Yes! Yes! Yes!’ My life was set.
“One day, we were going to the movies. I was waiting for her outside Sam The Record Man. She want to see this movie—Young Frankenstein. Have you seen this movie? It is very funny; a little bit silly but very funny. I see it on television the other day for the first time. I wait and I wait. I’m waiting for one hour. Back then there was no cell phones. I have to find a pay phone. I call her house. No they haven’t heard from her. We thought she was with you, they say. I go back to the front of the store and wait. Another hour go by. Now I am getting scared. She is not one to be late. She was always early when she have to be somewhere. I call her house again. No, no, not there. I go back to the front of the record store and I wait one more hour. My heart is jumping in my chest. Finally, I can wait no longer. I go to her house. I don’t care what explanation she have for not showing up. I just want to see her. She was not there. The sun is going down. What do I do? Where do I go? I’m sitting on the couch. I jump up and start screaming, ‘Call the police! Call the police!’ But her family just sit there, like idiots. What was wrong with those people? Now I am freaking everybody. I grab the phone. They grab me. Tell me to calm down. Everything gonna be okay. They gonna call the police. I go outside for a cigarette. My hands are shaking. As I’m standing outside on the porch a police car drives up —oh, that’s quick! I think—but they don’t stop in front of this house, they stop in front of the neighbor’s house. I don’t know what’s going on at the neighbor’s house. I was thinking I should take this opportunity to go tell them that my Angelica was missing. Maybe they would drive me around to look for her. The two cops get out of the car. They walk up to the neighbor’s door and knock. But before she could answer, one of the cops looks over at me and I knew—I knew at that moment that Angelica was dead. The cigarette lose its flavor. My hand was gripping the railing. My knuckles was white and my head was floating on my shoulders. A few minutes later the cops come out of the neighbor’s house with the neighbor. We know her—Signora Brambilla. As she approach she won’t look at me and her face is so long. They walk over to our house they come up the steps and the one cop who looked before, he nods to me and he asks who I am. The neighbor says this was her fiancé. The cop straighten up, he says, ‘There’s been an accident and I regret to inform you that Angelica Rossi is deceased.’ A sudden rage fly up from my gut and I punch the cop in the chest. The other cop grab my arms and pull them behind me. He say in my ear, ‘You gonna regret that.’ And I don’t remember anything else.
“Do you want to know what happened David? Do you want to know what terrible thing happened to my Angelica? She was on the platform at the subway waiting to get on the train. We used to take the subway many times. She have this habit of standing on the edge of the platform. She make me nervous. I tell her, don’t stand so close to the edge. She laugh and joke like she gonna fall in. She always give me a heart attack.
“Some crazy son of a bitch push her in front of the train. Then you know what this son of a bitch did? This murderer? He did not run. He sit down on the floor and wait for the police. This son of a bitch, they put him in a hospital for crazy people. He stay three years. Then they decide he is OK, and let him go to live his life. In my country, this son of a bitch would have to hide the rest of his life. But here, he is free to have a life. He get married, have some kids. In the morning he take the kids to school. He kiss his wife at the door. Everybody look happy. I think one time, what would happen if the wife find out her husband is a crazy son of a bitch killer? Who destroy Angelica’s life and my life? I think many times to walk to his door and say something to his wife.
“Maybe she knows,” I said.
“Then she is worse than him, and they can both burn in hell.
“I did not go to the funeral. Why? What would that have done but increase the pain that now take over my life? I would not see Angelica lying in the coffin. Her body would not be intact. It was a closed casket. Her family were very angry with me. They say I have no respect. But I did have respect. I respect Angelica all the time we were together. What respect can I give her now? She cannot feel it. She’s dead.
“After a couple of weeks I go back to work, but I cannot concentrate. I take a lot of breaks to the washroom where I sit in the stall and cry. I don’t remember what I was doing, but something irritate me one day. I think I was trying to fit something into something else and it wouldn’t fit so I throw the piece across the shop. Robert, the Foreman, see this and come over.
“He say to me, ‘Hey, calm those tits! Where’s this anger coming from? Don’t you like it here?’
“I apologize. I explain to him: my life is not happy right now. My girlfriend died. It’s hard for me to imagine my life without her. He say, ‘Hmm. That’s a sad story. I’m sorry for you. But life goes on. You must keep on living. She is dead. That’s sad. But you must keep on living. Come on.’ We go into the lunch room and he pour a coffee for me. He sit across the table and tell me this story.
When I was your age, many years ago, I had a girlfriend I loved very much. Her name was Jessica. We were joined at the hip and that’s not a good thing. When we went out we wore the same color lumberjack jackets. You know what I mean? We were living as if we were one person, at least she was. I went along because for many years that’s how I was.
Jessica loved to go to the Bluffs. Back then we swam in the lake. I’d go in with her. It was fun. Something to do on those hot days. One day I dove under, I opened my eyes and a big turd floats across my vision. I jumped from the water and ran for the shore. My skin felt like I’d been swimming in a sewer. She came out, asked me what’s wrong. I told her, There’s shit in that water. Impossible, she said, it must have been a branch. I told her, I know the difference between a turd and a branch. That was a turd. From that day on I never went in the water again. She still wanted to go. When she came out of the water I had to hold my breath because I didn’t want to smell her. The thought of her swimming in that shit made me want to retch. She knew this, so she played a little game, that whenever she came out of the water she demanded a kiss. I did it, just to keep the peace, but it’s not a good thing to be holding your breath when you’re kissing the one you love.
One day, the lake was a little bit rough. I laid the blanket on the beach, she ran for the water straight away. I laid down, closed my eyes and soaked in the sun. I must have dozed off. I woke up and Jessica wasn’t lying beside me. I stood up and looked over the water. I didn’t see her. In between the heaving waves I see some pink. I walked closer. It’s Jessica, lying face down in the water. I jumped in, pulled her out. I didn’t know what to do. She wasn’t conscious. I yelled for help. A crowd ran toward me. From the crowd a man jumped out, pushed me aside and started to give Jessica mouth to mouth. I’ve never felt so helpless. I was thinking: I should have paid attention when they offered CPR at work. The ambulance came. They can’t wake her up. Then I’m at the hospital. The doctor said it doesn’t look very good. She might not survive the night. I never cried so much. Warm tears running down my face. I never was religious but in that moment I asked God to help. I promised him everything. I’ll even go back to Temple, I said. Please. Please. Bring the love of my life back to me, and you know what? A miracle! Jessica lived. Okay, she was a little bit fucked up for a while, but she lived. She gets better and we marry. Then, five years later, I’m getting a beer from the fridge, I turn around and Jessica, the love of my life, sticks a knife in my chest. So the moral of my story is this: Sometimes love is not eternal. Yes, you loved your girl now, but what about in five years? Will the weight of your relationship turn you into enemies? One minute you can’t breath without the person there, next minute you’re sticking knives into each other. So now you must move on.
“You know David, this make a lot of sense to me. I could not see beyond my grief, but Robert show me how. I start to think about my relationship with Angelica—analyze all the moments to see if there was something that, years down the road, might cause us to be enemies. There was some things that annoy me about her. What sticks out is, she love Cheez Whiz. My God, if she could live only on Cheez Whiz she would have. In my apartment I always make sure that I have a jar of Cheez Whiz and one more jar to back it up, and English muffins. She would put a thick smear on toasted English muffins, burnt almost black, and when she eat this stuff she close her eyes like she was in Heaven. My apartment always smell like burnt bread. That was not annoying. Her pleasure in Cheez Whiz and muffins was not annoying. What annoy me was the knife she leave on the counter after she spread the Cheez Whiz. I tell her once, please wipe it and put it in the sink. But no, she never do this. Why seeing this knife with Cheez Whiz and bits of burnt bread bother me? It was because I ask her so many times and she just laugh. I think what bother me was that I ask her to do this for me but she did not give a shit. Another thing that really, really annoy me was, she have this habit of when she was standing beside me, she lean towards me and fall. The first time I catch her. I say, What happened? She say, I want to see if you catch me. Jesus! I tell her, of course I catch you, but I have to be ready. One time she did this, I wasn’t expecting it, and she fall on the ground. Oh, she was so angry. I ask her please, stop this, I love you, is that not enough? I must be vigilant every second with her in case she play this game? OK. Looking back, these were trivial things, but I think from that moment— I loved Angelica but would I always love Angelica? After talking to Robert, it wake up in me a desire to move on. It was as if the sun began to shine and I start to look at girls again, I wink at girls again, I dance with the girls again and eventually I find the woman I married. She became the love of my life. It’s been thirty-five years now since Angelica. I have loved many women but here I am today, unmarried, living with my sister, talking to you but I’m happy.”
“That’s too bad what happened to her,” I said.
“Yes. She did not deserve that,” he said. He sat silent and stared at the empty espresso cup. “Sometimes I think it was my fault she isn’t living now. I mean, if we break down life, and everything that has to happen to make you who you are and put you where you are at this moment. I think, if I had not been at the Exhibition that day, and sat on the hill, and looked around and went to talk to her, she might be alive. I would not have known anything about her, but she would still be alive, because we would not have had a relationship and we would not have been going to the movies and she would not have taken the subway to meet me.”
Copyright©2016 by Attila Zønn
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