Fiction--3,500 words SIGNORA PETRONIO by Lucille Bellucci First it was Margarita who started coming home after midnight, then, as if her eighteenth birthday entitled her to fling childhood out the window, Liliana began testing her mother by creeping in later and later.
One morning at two o'clock she walked into their apartment together with Margarita. Their giggles obliged Signora Petronio's ear, straining in her bedroom, with the unmistakable silliness of innocence. Still, she thought. But perhaps not for long. She switched on her bedside lamp and went to stand at her door. The girls froze, caught in the beam of her hunter's headlamp, their pretty faces and limbs conjuring in her breast emotions of pride, worry, wrath. The moment held; then her daughters sailed past her with a hurried kiss on the cheek, one on each side, and went into the room they shared and gently closed their door. Signora Petronio thought of a great many things to say. She would not have said them with all the volume and passion that her husband once had. That was when the girls were small and easily impressed. No disrespect to Paolo, but she suspected they would now merely smile and kiss him on the cheek, one on each side, when he was done. These Roman boys had a power that would have dwarfed any still retained by Paolo. A father had his place, which was not of one in a position to influence nubile daughters. That was the mother’s worry.
To be fair, Margarita and Liliana did not break their curfews often. When they did, Signora Petronio managed most of the time to deliver a rebuke. Tonight their sweetness had disarmed her.
"I could not have been the same when I was young," she said to the shadow at the end of the hallway. "Or was I?" She heard nothing in reply--she never did--but she saw that the shadow nodded in assent. "Yes. I know I felt just as wild, only times were different, then. Girls were not daring, and there was always the matter of staying marriageable. In Sicily, you couldn't even talk to a boy without a chaperone standing next to you or you were ruined." She laughed softly.
The girls in their room could not hear, she was careful about that. "I wonder if Sicily is still laced up in its whalebone corsets? It wasn't such a bad thing. At least you knew where you stood. You couldn't do so many things, but you never dared to think of doing them, anyway. You didn't even know life was being dull." The darker shade of darkness in the corner of the hallway near the door shifted a bit and extended its arms. Oddly, they ended where hands would have begun, as if they had been cut off. It was too sad, she thought, but then people died from all sorts of causes. Signora Petronio inclined her head and bid her friend a pleasant goodnight.
She could not sleep yet.Talking about Sicily aroused an old sadness. When had she realized that marriage to Paolo and the excitement of moving to Rome--imagine, so far north into Italy!--brought not real change but only a different place in which to be what she was meant to be? A Sicilian man ruled, and so Paolo did. Her duty was to obey. They might as well have stayed in Catania; at least her parents and sister would have been company. She sat up. It was best to show one's gratitude, because all bounties had a habit of vanishing before you knew them for what they were. In the hallway once more, she whispered, "And I thank you for your company. You seem always to understand, even if you never say anything to me."
Next day, after the girls got off to work (the cause of all their notions of semi-independence), Signora Petronio went to pay her taxes on their home. A widow's chief source of security was her fully owned apartment. Paolo's hard work as a baker had done this for her. A good man. A man whose profession forced him to come awake by three in the morning and be out in the cold streets to catch the bus to his place of work ten miles to the other side of Rome. He created like a master, Paolo did. The three-tiered pastries called Sant'Onore, the chestnut and hazlenut tortes glazed with a sweet crust, marzipans in the shape of turtles and bees, the fragrant breads stuffed with cheeses and dotted with rosemary or poppy seed. From infancy, the girls had tasted the best in baking, even if they'd had to piece together the bits of broken marzipan to find out what sort of beast it was, because Paolo brought home only bits of everything the owner of the bakery could not sell.
The one confection her husband did not bring home, refusing to do so on principle, was the pastry noted for its two peaks of whipped cream topped by cherries. This creation was commissioned by the bakery owner, who was infatuated with the leading cinema actress of the time, Gina Lollobrigida. The man's behavior was disgusting, Paolo told his wife many times. Not caring if Paolo walked into the back room where he was having one of his fits, he would hold a Lollobrigida in each hand and lap with his tongue at the creamy peaks, daubing his nose, his chin, his cheeks, even his eyebrows and ears, all the while moaning Gina, Gina, Gina, ama mi! Bacia mi! TOCCA mi! During these recountings, Paolo's brawny baker's body, mimicking his employer's frenzies with the mashed sweets, became an eloquence of comic genius.
Maria Petronio dared not laugh; Paolo's least intention was to amuse her. She might laugh with him, which occurred seldom, but not if he might perceive that she was laughing at him.
It was tiresome standing in line to pay her taxes, to pay anything. The Banco Commerciale in her neighborhood was one of the hundreds of modern boxes that had sprung up on the outskirts of Rome. Everything was glass and concrete. Some were already crumbling from bad workmanship. Whenever it rained, the concrete dust on the streets was laid like false earth, except that it did not smell like earth. When she and Paolo had taken possession of their new apartment, the Via Tuscolana was at the end of the world, far from the Rome in which everyone who mattered lived and moved. Paolo would have been astonished to see that the city had marched right through Via Tuscolana, headed south and still going. The residents and merchants in her neighborhood liked to joke that they were now bona fide citizens of Rome, as if their street were part of the old sectors with their grand palazzi and fabled fountains into which the tourists threw money. They laughed even harder at the notion that they might be lumped in with the Italians who walked with an assurance that possessed the pavement beneath their feet. These were the people talked about in the newspapers, who flew in airplanes to other important cities; these people who drove through the Via Tuscolana in their big Lancias and crimson Ferraris as fast as possible, to go elsewhere.
Having paid the taxes which were not high but high enough on her widow's pension, she stopped at the tobacconist's to purchase two quarter-kilo packages of salt. Stock what it may, the local supermarket could not infringe upon the government's sole right to sell salt. Then she purchased six pastries at a bakery near the streetcar stop and waited patiently for one to come along.
Her friend Aida was Roman-born and, unlike Signora Petronio, had in her life been a salaried employee. A series of jobs as cashier had landed her behind the register in the bakery where Paolo worked. Her apartment was in the old quarter of San Giovanni, in a building that was ancient before she was born. The newer Petronio home had nothing in its favor, either; its chipped stucco facade was beginning to look as if it had been shelled in the world war.
She offered the box of pastries to Aida and one of her two packages of salt, for her friend lived at some inconvenient distance from a tobacco shop. They kissed cheeks, Signora Petronio saying, "Terrible messes, these baked things. They have no taste or any personality, but none of them do, nowadays." Aida smiled. "I do thank you though, Maria, because they remind us how good pastries used to be." She went to fetch the coffee, and Signora Petronio sat down for an afternoon's visit.
By the time Aida returned, she had assembled her yarn and crochet hook and already had worked one row around the rim of her latest creation, a doily that was to be a gift for someone, she did not yet know who. The work of her hands adorned Aida's living room with antimacassars, lampshade dust covers, place mats, and several picture-frame covers. Her triumph was the pine-green, six-foot-long crocheted curtains at Aida’s windows. That labor had taken her a year to complete. It was not her room, but she had made it almost so. They talked about the taxes Signora Petronio had paid. Poor Aida had no widow's income but a miserable pension from the government in return for the taxes withheld from her paychecks. Her small apartment was partly subsidized by a fund for the indigent. Indigent! Paolo had not allowed this to happen to his wife. Let Aida's son Francesco look exactly like Paolo, let his brows grow as black as his father's, let even his basso profundo voice dig furrows inside your head as Paolo's did; the fact that Paolo did his duty to his legitimate family, keeping them shod, fed, and sheltered waved like a banner of conquest in Signora Petronio's soul. But the knowledge had hurt.
At first sight of the boy, she had known. She could not help wondering, nevertheless, about certain puzzles that she was never going to have answered by Aida. Had he loved Aida? Had she loved him? How--between the hours of three in the morning and three in the afternoon, when he staggered home floury and exhausted to his wife--had he and Aida found time for their assignations? Had these trysts occurred in the bakery, behind the ovens, while their employer was elsewhere ravishing his two Lollobrigidas?
After so many years, she still did not know Francesco's last name. Had Aida, an unmarried woman, given him her own surname, or was it Paolo's on the birth certificate? Most of all, she wished she knew if Aida had made Paolo happy. Had Aida given him the adventure that made his hard life livable? She suspected this was a truth. For this she loved Aida, and for the same reason could not forgive her. She, the wife, had lived a life as flat as a fallen cake. Not a single impulse had been indulged. Her dreams stayed trapped in her pillow. While her husband enjoyed his frolicking, Signora Petronio had argued with the butcher over the price of osso buco or made do, with apologies to Paolo, with horse meat. He would have gladly eaten horse fodder, she realized. He had his secret.
How strange to envy someone as pitiable as Aida, she thought, as she listened to her talking about Francesco's high marks at school. Aida's dark eyes were the finest feature she owned; the rest of her was shapeless, but had not always been so. Signora Petronio had tried hard to keep her figure. She had it to this day, and her hair kept its pretty curling shape despite its coarsening grayness.
"My friend says that mathematics is the most important subject a young man should take," she said. "With a good background in mathematics he can go into the best professions. My friend became an engineer."
"You friend is an engineer?" Aida said in surprise. "I thought he was an accountant."
"He is both. But since it is his own business he has to manage everything and has had to give up the engineering side of it. He says he would give anything to go back to plain engineering."
"I can understand that," said Aida. She did not at all, of course. It was obvious that she was bewildered.
Signora Petronio held up the doily; her hands had not stopped working except to take coffee. "Do you like this? I thought it would look very nice on the arm of your sofa, the side you lean against when you watch television. The fabric will wear away from so much rubbing if you don't protect it."
"There already is a doily there."
"But you have to wash it sometime, don't you? You will need a replacement when you do. You need replacements for all the things I made for you. I will make them in nice colors, mostly beige, so they will go with everything."
"Oh, Maria." Aida's head was turned away from her. The two words could have meant either pleasure or resignation.
Later, at about one in the morning, Signora Petronio said in the hallway of her home, "I hated lying to Aida, but maybe it wasn't a lie. You can be anything I want you to be, who is to say? I have always thought Aida has been insincere where Francesco was concerned. Why can't she ever come out and say he is Paolo's son? Am I supposed to go on the rest of my life pretending I don't know it?"
The shape darker than the darkness surrounding it stirred. Was there an up-and-down motion at the top? It didn't matter. She knew she had a friend, someone other than Aida. She could not remember the year this one had appeared to her, only that it was not long after Paolo had died. Two friends in a lifetime. What a pathetic achievement. Careful not to make the slightest noise, she picked up the chair she always used for her nightly chats and carried it back to her room. She went to bed and dreamed of quiet streets and a green park in Catania.
In her dreams, the town where she grew up remained always the same: the single-storied school that she attended until she reached the age of thirteen; the three-storied building from which she graduated at seventeen. Both structures had been battered in the war; some of the classrooms barely had standing walls. She knew Catania had since rebuilt, though the government saved the best materials for its famous museums--which she had never visited. But the park...the park nourished her soul. In that green place in Sicily a spark of romance had leaped into life and had kept her company while she struggled to be a good wife. At least, later, there was love for her children. How she hated to see them grow up and stop needing her!
How grown up was made clear when Margarita brought home a young man to meet her, the first time she had ever done this. He was typically Roman, which meant his people had come here perhaps two generations back. She had yet to hear of anyone whose ancestors had not originated as Piemontesi, Toscani, Abruzzesi, Umbri, Campanesi, Calabresi, Pugliesi, Siciliani...
"Mamma," said Margarita. She had a light voice; the inflections of impatience made it more girlish, her sweet, tender Margarita. "Rodrigo just asked if his mother could call on you." ...his black leather coat was terrible, Signora Petronio thought. It made him look so tough, though he was really a handsome boy. No, not a boy. He had a high-boned nose that made him look haughty and very sure of himself.
She knew she had lost Margarita. "I am not feeling well," she said. Her head throbbed in sympathy with the pain in her chest. She'd felt these episodes of breathlessness before, but never this bad.
When she woke up, she was lying in her bed, with Margarita holding her hand. There followed days of handholding with one or the other child. She continued to forbid them to take her to the clinic. In her district of the Ministero di Salute Pubblica, a sick person had to take a number in order to see a stranger. The unknown doctor would look at her tongue, take her blood pressure, give her some pills. They would or would not help. The medicine she really needed was to be young again, back in Catania, where she should have captured that spark and made it flame into a real life. She despaired of the semblance of a one she had lived.
She no longer had the strength to carry her chair out to the hallway, so she sat on the floor to have her visits with her friend. Aida came to see her twice. When Liliana told her, with some fearfulness for her mother's condition, that she had become engaged, Signora Petronio closed her eyes and said she hoped she would be very happy. "Both of you. Be happy and well." How could she tell them the things she wished she had done in her life? A woman found herself, one way or another, shackled by her own intentions for good or bad. In any case, her girls had been born and raised in modern Rome. They would make their own way with more spirit than she ever had. "I will make you lovely things for your homes. A large bedspread for each of you girls. Would you like nice bolsters to go with them?" She opened her eyes in time to see the girls grimace at each other. The seeing was the worst pain she had ever felt, worse than childbirth.
When the girls left her room, she got up and, breathing shallowly as she moved, plucked every crocheted article from its place in her room. She had a large bundle under her arm when she was through. It needed setting fire to, but she was helpless to do that and had to leave it all in a heap on the floor.
The heat of the sun over Catania warmed her and somehow did not oppress her breathing. In Rome the summers always wearied her and went straight down to her ankles, which sometimes lapped over the tops of her shoes. Moreover, in Rome she had never sat on a park bench under the leafy branches of a handsome chestnut tree, with nothing to do but enjoy the day. The parklands of the Villa Borghese in Rome had been two hours distant by streetcar from the Via Tuscolana; she would no more have taken the trip than picnic on the dusty sidewalk outside her apartment building. It was very fine to lean back on her bench and watch children at play under a lemon tree, and later to retire and nap in the shuttered peace of her rented room.
Tomorrow she could expect her monthly check from Margarita and she would go and deposit it in the bank. Often there would be letters enclosed with it from both girls. Margarita amused her with her raptures over married life. Maria Petronio did not point out to her that few young couples in Italy were able to afford the rent on a two-bedroom apartment, and thus avert the early disaster of moving in with their in-laws. Liliana, at her tender age, did not quite count as an in-law, especially when she contributed a share of the rent.
Gently, she did remind Margarita once or twice that all her good luck was due to the labors of her father.
She sensed a presence, and opened her eyes. "Roberto," she said, with pleasure. In this park where as a girl she had spoken timidly with him, he was not even a shadow or an outline, but here she knew his name. It was here she had fallen in love, and before she could find someone to introduce them properly, in the Sicilian way, he had gone to war. She had admired his uniformed torso, with its leather crossbelt, his narrow waist. How handsome he was! “My name is Roberto,” he’d said. “May we meet here again? My sister…” His rueful smile expressed the rest. He would bring her with him the next time they met. Looking up at him as though at the sun, she had assented. He smiled, once, and she was entranced. She was to remember for the rest of her life his dark, crisp features, his manly hands at which she hardly dared look, his brilliant eyes.
“I always wondered if you felt the same way toward me. But it really doesn’t matter, does it? You and I are here, together again.”
The children playing under the lemon tree nudged each other, their giggles trilling like birdsong scented with lemon blossoms. “The crazy lady is talking in the air again!”
Signora Petronio smiled at them. She dug into her big purse for candies and held them out and was in an instant surrounded by laughing, jostling children. ###