Sidebar—The Italian

I don’t ask you why you want to know, you don’t ask me why I want to tell. OK? Not your business.

A friend hear, she tell me, I call you, here you are. Not enough for you? Shut up and be grateful. OK?

So. I live in France then. Not Paris, I want to live in Paris, but Tonio, he says no. Too expensive.

Sure, I’m Italian. I live in France then. I live in Pasadena now. Same thing. That man, he tells me I will like France, he wants to go, I want to go with him. In France, he meets someone he likes better, and he leaves me outside Rouen.

I get a job in a, oh, a taverna……you know, a bar. Waiting tables. Not so good, not too much money. And the war, it makes everything hard for everybody. But what else could I do? France is not so nice if you have no money, no man, no place to live. Now, you need money, you go out, get a job. But then…..not so easy. I don’t sew so good, I don’t cook so good, I don’t like little brats. So.

The Nazis, they get mean when something scares them. So, we know when the Americans are coming because the Nazis push, pull, shout. In the taverna, they don’t drink. They stand, they shout, they take. They like Leonie, the other girl, she had big ones, you know what I mean? So they bother her. Then, I was young, I didn’t eat enough, I was thin. I got these big things later. Ha.

I look like my mama now. She liked the sweet things, the pastries, the bonbons, like I do. When I was in Italia, I didn’t care for candy, for cookies……..I think the craving for sweets started in France. I think I didn’t taste such good things until the spring I worked in the taverna.

We are glad to see the Nazis go. The Americans can not be worse. Jean, the owner, he says not to be friendly with the Americans because the Nazis will be back and then it will be bad for us; but we like them. They are men, they want drink, they want women, but they are not like the Nazis. They pay for their wine. They pay for the other things they want.

We wanted some things, too: food, money, safety. It was easy to decide what to do.

Leonie was popular, Americans like big ones, too. I didn’t care. I got enough work; and someone had to clean the tables.

I will tell you something. I think those Americans thought we were prostitutes. I think so. But we were just hungry. You understand? Well……maybe Leonie could have been a prostitute; she would go upstairs with anything in pants. Or maybe not in pants. Ha.

My Tonio, he spoil me, I wanted only real men then, you understand what I’m saying? I don’t care how much money they have.

That little weasel, his name was Lynch, he try to put his hand on me whenever I go by. I called him, “Schiuma!” And I said, “You do that again, I break this bottle over your head!” But I didn’t dare to do that. I don’t want to lose my job, he knew it.

I wouldn’t go upstairs with him. Leonie would, but he didn’t want her. He wanted me. He bothered me all the time.

So then I thought if I went with him once, maybe he would go away and leave me alone; but he was too…….slimy, like anguilla. The Eel. I couldn’t stand for him to touch me. I thought I could, I tried it, but no.

And he smelled like something. I don’t know what. The other men, they were soldiers, they sweat, so yes, they smelled, too. A woman gets used to that. But Lynch…..he was different.

So. His hands are on my breasts, his breath is in my face, I push him away. I get up and go downstairs, quick, like a cat. I leave him his money, but he is angry, he follows me, I run behind the bar and stay there for a while.

New soldiers march through town that day, new soldiers in the taverna that night. Lots of money to be made, I think maybe one of these soldiers takes me back to America with him. Silly, eh? But I think that, so I leave my shirt open down to there, and I try to wiggle a little more when I walk. And I try to stay away from Lynch.

A young one, at the bar, he don’t want wine, he don’t want beer, he wants something stronger. I know Jean will try to sell him the bad stuff. When Jean isn’t looking, I whisper in the young one’s ear, “That is bad stuff. It will make you sick.”

Yes, even then my English was very good. And my French. I like to talk these different languages. Sometime, I would like to learn Russian. That would be funny, eh?

This boy, he don’t even look at me. Jean pours his drink, and the soldier puts the glass under his nose, he smells it, and then he says, in very bad French, “No good.” Jean looks at me, suspicious. I shrug.

Jean reaches for a different bottle. The young one looks at me then, out of the corner of his eye, and I nod. Small, so Jean don’t see.

He pays for the whole bottle. This don’t make Jean happy, but he can’t say anything, he has the money in his hand. The boy reaches behind the counter and gets himself a glass.

“You want some?” he asks me.

I shake my head. “You will drink the whole bottle?”

“Nah,” he says. “This is so I don’t get gypped in the next town.”

“Gypped?” I didn’t know that word then.

“You know---cheated. With the bad stuff.” He poured a little, and sipped it. Made a face. “This is the good stuff?”

Many soldiers are boys, they try always to be men, but they are not. Yet. This one, he drinks like a man. No gulping, no coughing. He don’t pretend to be grown-up. He sips, he puts his glass down.

Leonie, she sees me talking with him instead of carrying wine. She is not my friend, she cares for nothing except the francs. And to go upstairs. She sees him drink, she sees his bottle, and she thinks, I would like to have him, I will take him away from her…….

Jean tells me to carry wine to another table. Leonie puts her arm around the young one’s waist. I see this from across the room. She smiles, she laughs, she shoves her big ones against him. He shakes his head, he picks up his drink. Leonie will not leave him alone. I think Jean is helping her, he finds many things for me to do. I find out later Leonie shoves her big ones against Jean as well, in his bed at night.

Lynch watches me.

Leonie rubs the young one, she kisses his ear, she works hard. She begins to wonder about him, I can see it, then he holds her face and kisses her hard. The other soldiers, they shout and laugh, they tell him to do it good. She holds his hand, leads him upstairs……I take his bottle and put it away for him so Jean don’t steal it.

No, why should I care if he is having Leonie? I notice him before, yes, but Leonie wants him, and that’s ok. I don’t mind cleaning tables, carrying wine.

I expect so young a man downstairs again in fifteen minutes. To laugh, and brag. Twenty minutes go by, then thirty…….then I lose count. This makes me wonder. So I am looking for him when he comes back down the stairs.

No laughter. He looks like he has smelled a bad smell, like that Leonie is a bad taste in his mouth. I get his bottle for him. This time he does not use a glass, he drinks from the bottle, a big swallow.

I think, he couldn’t do it. He looks healthy, he is big and strong, no reason he can’t, but I think he didn’t do it, and he worries now that Leonie will speak of it.

Leonie follows him in a few minutes. When she comes to the bar, I ask her, “Couldn’t he do it?”

“You’re crazy,” she says. “Of course he could do it.” She smiles. “He had a good time.”

“He don’t look like he had a good time.”

She shrugged. “He paid. What else do you want?”

I had enough to do. I didn’t need to think about this soldier’s face. He sits with the other soldiers. After the big drink, he goes back to sipping. He drinks, yes, but he don’t get drunk, not like the other men.

I work downstairs. I don’t go upstairs unless I want to, and this night, I don’t want to. Leonie don’t care, she likes to work upstairs. So she does.

Lynch sits at a table in a corner, and watches me.

It gets late, the soldiers drink slower, some of them leave, some of them fall asleep, I am not so busy. I stand by the young one’s table and I ask him, “Do you want something to eat?”

He shakes his head. He is not having a good time. I pull a chair next to him and say, “That Leonie, she is like a bitch dog.”

“Yeah.” He is watching a cricket crawling across the table. It stops when it gets to a little puddle of wine, I think it drinks the wine.

“Did she tell you no?”

He looks at me now. Looks in my face, sees me. “No. I paid her. She didn’t say no.”

“You didn’t like her.”

Again, he don’t look at me. He watches the cricket. “She was fine.” He takes a sip. “So you don’t need to ask me. I’m not paying for another one tonight.” He turns away from me, talks to the man sitting next to him.

This boy, he makes me mad. I hit him on the back of the head with my towel. “You should have waited. You should have asked me. Like the liquor. But no, you know everything. So. You go ahead, you will get gypped in the next town, too.”

He thinks this is funny, he smiles at me. “I didn’t get gypped. She worked hard.”

“You didn’t like it. Don’t lie to me.”

He stops smiling. Shrugs. “I guess not. What do you care?”

“I don’t care,” I say and I walk away. And I swing my hips just in case he’s watching me, so he will see I don’t care, and he will wish he’d taken me upstairs instead of the bitch dog.

No, you don’t understand. I don’t want to go upstairs with him. I only want him to want it.

Don’t talk to me about Lynch. He was a pig. Why would I want him to want me? Is not the same at all.

So. I clean the empty tables, I put away the glasses. The boy sits. Lynch watches me. Leonie works. Jean scratches himself. He is a pig, too.

Lynch gets up from his chair. He comes to me and grabs my arm. He’s drunk. He says, “Now, bitch. I got your number now.” And he heads for the stairs, he pulls me with him.

I decide not to go. So I don’t. I pull and yank, he has my arm like this, you see? He grabs with both hands, I kick him. He gets my hair, I sit down. He drags me, I grab the post at the bottom of the stairs, and I scream. This is bad. Screaming will bring attention, policia, more soldiers maybe. Jean shouts, he tells me to shut up, to go upstairs.

I grab the pig’s shirt and I am the one who pulls now. I will beat his head against the floor if I get the chance. I am looking in his face when I see the devil. In his eyes, the devil. No, is true! Staring back at me, the fire, the evil. I scream louder.

He begins to beat me. He’s not trying to get me up the stairs now, he wants to beat me, kick me, punch me. He knows I have seen him. Maybe he will kill me.

I know what you’re thinking. You think I am silly to let him beat me. I work upstairs. I’m no virgin. Why does a woman like me make such a fuss? Why don’t I just do it, and get it over with?

Is because I decide. If I decide I want to go upstairs, yes, then I go. But I decide no. Nobody makes me do what they want if I decide no. Even the bitch dog, she goes upstairs only if she wants to. You see? I say no, I mean no. So, now, I will never go upstairs with this slimy eel. Never. If he takes out a knife and stabs me, still I won’t go.

Somebody yells. I look around, the young man walks up beside me, he hits Lynch in the face with a bottle that don’t break. Lynch lets me go. He growls, like an animal, and he says, “This ain’t your fight, kid.”

I don’t want to be between them. I crawl toward the wall.

The kid says, “She don’t wanna go. There’s gotta be plenty a’ whores around here, go find one that wants to.”

But Lynch, he wants what he wants. And he tries to punch the young one, he swings and swings, but he is drunk, and the kid isn’t. I watch this boy hit him many times and then Lynch falls down.

I hear jeeps. The soldiers are talking about mps. The young one says, “Shit, I gotta get outta here. They’ll throw me in the brig this time,” while I get up off the floor.

I take his hand. “Come. Come with me. I will hide you.” I pull him, he comes with me, there is a little room in the back, it was for smugglers, now it is for me. He is strong, he pulls the wooden boxes in front of the little door, and we shut it, and then we are alone in the dark.

Don’t look at me like that. I know what you think. You think I was grateful that he saved me, and so I let him under my skirt. Ha. That’s what you think, isn’t it? You think he wanted under my skirt, even though I was skinny and my nose was too big. In your book, yes, you want that to happen. If you were making it up, that is what would happen. I will wait to see if you tell the truth, or if you write just a story.

I just want to know. I am curious. He intrigues me. I want to know what his face means. Why he don’t like the bitch-dog with the big ones. How a boy like he is knows when a woman is working hard.

It is a very small room. We can hear the footsteps outside the door, then the voices of the soldier’s mps. We sit on the floor and we are quiet.

When the footsteps go away, he starts to get up. I whisper, “No, not yet, they will come back.” I don’t think he wants to stay, but he don’t want to say so, he is polite.

There is a little light coming in through the cracks in the boards, a little light coming in around the door that the mps can’t see, and I can see his face. He has that look again, that bad-taste look.

So I say, “You don’t have to worry. I don’t want to put my hand in your pants. And if you touch me, little boy, I will scream and the mps will come for you.”

He laughs. Not loud, just with his face.

Do you know him? What I call him, little boy, that’s funny because he is big, you understand? So he laughs.

Then we hear Lynch. He yells, he shouts, there is fighting, he says it was all the young one’s fault, he says a name. Then Leonie says---this is hard to believe, but Leonie says, “He’s crazy. It was Maria. Maybe he don’t want to say it was a woman who beat him up.”

First I think, she is not so bad after all, I should not have called her a bitch dog, but then I think she says that to get him in trouble because Lynch don’t want to go upstairs with her, not because she likes me or the young one. This is what I believe.

The other soldiers, they are saying they don’t know. They weren’t looking. One says he was outside taking a piss, one was upstairs, one was asleep… understand? Lynch screams she is a liar, he will kill her, he says, they are all liars, he will kill everyone. There is a thump—and Lynch is quiet. The mps drag him outside.

The young one next to me sits quietly. He turns his face to me and says, “I’ll wait a little longer, just to make sure, OK?” And there is something in his voice that pulls at me now. I can’t tell you why. “You don’t have to stay,” he says. “Thanks for hiding me.”

He’s right, I could leave him and go out. I think of him sitting in the dark behind the wall by himself until he can go back without getting in trouble. I think too much about it, I know, but it makes me sad then. Maybe it is because I drank too much wine myself while I worked. Maybe it is because he asks me for nothing. A man who asks nothing, especially a young one, is a rare thing.

Why should I stay with him? He don’t even want me to. I’m curious, but that’s all. He is nothing to me. Still…..I would be sad to leave him here alone.

“I will stay,” I say. “I will let the bitch dog sweep the floor.”

He laughs again, and leans his head back against the wall.

Later, I wake up, we are curled together like kittens in a basket, lying on the floor. The moonlight shines through the cracks in the roof. We both have slept, and how can we do that? In this little room, on the floor with a stranger?

He snores, I realize that’s what woke me up, and I put my hand over his mouth. Not because Jean will hear him, Jean is probably snoring himself, but because me, I don’t like snoring. And because I want to touch his mouth.

He is young, but he is big. A big man, with big hands, and big shoulders. I think, maybe he’s not so much younger than me. I feel old sometimes, back then, so many soldiers are just boys, German or Italian or American or French, they are boys just leaving their mamas, to come to war and get killed.

I can tell when he wakes up. He don’t push my hand away from his mouth, but he asks, “What?” silently. I feel his breath on my fingers as he says it.

I know what I see in him. I know it now.

I take my fingers away from his mouth. He is surprised when I put my own lips there instead, he does nothing for a moment. Is OK, I just want to try it, I just want to taste him, I dip my tongue just inside his lips, touch his teeth. He don’t grab me, he don’t tell me lies, he don’t go crazy with passion. He is still. I like that.

I curl closer to him, put my arms around him and go to sleep again.

When I wake up the next time, his mouth is on the back of my neck, his arms are around my waist, he squeezes me, pushes himself against my backside, just a little. Not to tell me what he wants, but to offer. Is a different thing.

I think of this now, and I think, he would have brought me back to America with him. He would have, if I had asked him. But I didn’t ask him; I get here by myself, I don’t owe nobody nothing. Is better that way.

You want to ask me some questions, I know you do. I can see it in your face, you want to know. You want me to tell you what and when and how. Don’t you? Ha. But is it your business? No.

I tell you this, the men I took upstairs to make money to buy bread, I don’t remember their names. I don’t remember their faces. This boy, I remember. I remember the name Lynch shouted, and when I see it in the paper here, I remember the boy I knew in France. The one who didn’t ask me for nothing.

From him, I don’t get bread. From him, I get dolcezza. You understand? Don’t shake your head, you know it. Between us, the sweetness. He don’t care about my big nose, he don’t care if my underwear got holes. He don’t care if I tell him no. Is just dolcezza. What you want to know about, maybe yes, maybe no, it don’t matter. Is all the same.

Dolcezza. What matters after that?

Eh, you ask too many questions. Idiota. If you don’t understand, how can I tell you? Go away.

But if you see him……tell him Maria remembers. Maria remembers.

Maybe you will give him a kiss for me. You would like that, wouldn’t you? Ha.

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