There are the folks who run the pensione across the street, and then there are the folks who work at the restaurants, at the shops on the main drag of the centro. The osteria my new friends run is at the foot of the hill that leads up to the antique city. It’s a small place; dark, candlelit and cozy. Closed on Mondays, and rather dreary this time of year now that the tourists have gone home. The owners cook up home style treats all the same, opening the kitchen to any friends who want to try their hand at whipping up a dish. They take photos of the things they create. Pasta dishes, usually. Pistachio nuts. Ricotta. Anchovies. Olives from a place with a name I’ve long forgotten. Gaeta? Maybe. It’s lovely in Gaeta, anyway, and well worth a mention.
Nero is the cook. Nero can’t keep his clothes on. His pants hang low and reveal 80s-neon boxers with hearts on them and for some reason, he finds it necessary to take off his shirt while closing up each night. A silver horn-shaped pendant gleams around his neck. Ladies’ man, perhaps. Popular in town, anyway. He says: Look. Another SMS from la donna di mistero. This crazy mystery woman has been texting me for weeks and I still don’t know who the cauliflower she is. Look. What should I text back?
He passes the phone around the table. Still flashing on the screen: I know you know what I’m trying to tell you. Don’t pretend anymore. Isn’t love just all a crazy game?
Luigi, a real estate agent with a face straight off a Roman coin, looks at the text and shakes his head. Ah, Nerino. Just ask her who she is.
I’ve asked her a million times, says Nero. She just sends me more turds like this.
Rico – the musician, the cowboy who works at the perfume shop – says: Tell her that love is an adventure; tell her that it is for all of us to discover! Tell her that. See what she has to say about that.
Nero passes the phone to me. Ao, Americana. What do you think?
I look at the message again and shrug. Tell her – I switch to English – I wanna know what love is; I want you to show me. Three blank faces, so back to Italian: Foreigner? Do you guys know Foreigner?
And: Ohhhhhhhh. Is that what the song’s about? I never tried to understand the words. Then, the three of them: Ah waona nao wa laov eeeeez… Ah waona you-a chow-a meeeee….
Yes, I say. That’s about right, I say.
Nero puts the phone back in his pocket; the weight tugs his pants down even further. Pull your pants back up, Nero. You’re running a place of business.
Get her to meet you, says Luigi again. This game is stupid.
Yeah, I say. But tell her to leave her knife at home.
And they look at me again. Knife? What knife?
You know, I say. I mean, she could be crazy. Who does this kind of thing? Be on your guard.
And then they laugh. Silly American! Ah ah ah ah ah ah. Paranoid and afraid. This is Terracina. Nothing bad ever happens here!
They laugh and then they drink wine and then they laugh again. Americans, they say. ‘Everyone’s out to get me!’ You’re all crazy.
I have a cell phone, too – it’s my fourth. I’ve got an American one, a Japanese keitai, an Irish one, and now this one, this little gray clam shell that doesn’t take pictures or go on the web but, really, what did I expect for 35 euros. Am I a spy? Am I SALT? Four phones from four different countries. That’s kind of a pain in the ass.
I get SMS messages once in a while and some calls. Often, I get calls from WIND, the phone company, saying that someone wants to call me collect. I fell for it once; pressed “1” and got only a dial tone. A 40 cent dial tone. Thanks for that, WIND. I no longer fall for those calls, but they happen fairly frequently; maybe once a week. I also sometimes get calls from unknown numbers, or calls from people who hang up when I respond and don’t pick up when I try to call back.
This afternoon, another call from the latter: first, a quick call that ended after one ring, and then a longer call that I picked up. Pronto? Pronto? Dial tone. Fine.
Then, a text:
I’m sorry, I dialed the wrong number. But you have a beautiful voice, you know?
I closed the phone. Odd. I opened the phone again and looked at my log; several calls from that number within the past couple of weeks. Because I want to track this shizz – and because this is Terracina, where nothing bad happens – I save the number in my address book as Uomo di Mistero. Mystery Man. I don’t text back.