USA vs. USA
What happens sometimes – when you’re living in a foreign country, a country where you’re almost one of a kind – is that people want to pair you up with other stray members of your species. There’s another American who lives three towns over, they say. I’ll invite him over. You can chest bump about McDonald’s taking over the world. They think you must be lonely, that the call of your mother tongue will be music to your own ears; that being members of the same clade, you’ll be thrilled to sniff each other’s scent. I’m sure in some cases this is true – certainly, when election time rolls around, I itch and every once in a while, I long for someone to back me up on the virtues of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. When I was a new expat I needed other people like me. But I’ve been gone from home for a long time now. A strange thing happens when you’ve been gone a long time. If you’re like me, you become cat-like. That is to say, you don’t always like seeing other cats.
Now, look. I am a cat. I love being a cat. But the thing is that, even though cats are beautiful and weird and sleek and silly, sometimes cats scratch. They make messes where they’re not supposed to. They throw up on your rug. And they talk really, really, really loud. In short, for all the great cats (like me and like you) out there, there are other cats that give cats a bad name. Especially when they’re out of their natural habitat; they get all wild and crazy, biting people’s ankles, running around in circles, shouting But honey why don’t this restaurant got Supersize?
It’s not their fault. That’s how they’re wired. But I don’t like it if other people associate me with random spraying, thank you very much. Especially when I’ve worked so hard to remember that it goes in the litter box.
So when Flora tells me: You, Mona, and Katarina come to my house Sunday night; my mom’s making a big dinner for my bosses and one of our favorite clients at the hotel. He’s from New York, like you the hair on my back lifts and rustles; hissssss. But then Flora says: He’s been living in Italy on and off since 1975. His name is Ted. And then it becomes a whole other jungle struggle; who’s the fitter feline? Because this happens, too, when you’ve been out of your habitat for a long time. You work hard to fit in. You get proud of yourself. And if you come across another of your species who’s on par with your level of fitness then, well, it becomes who’s assimilated better? Whose language skills are better? Who makes cats look better as a whole? ME. I do. I know I do. Hissssss. Fffft. Fffffft. So, okay, then – bring it on. USA vs USA.
Are you, homeslice?
Katarina, Mona and I arrive at Flora’s house first. Flora’s mother has gone all out; fried rounds of garlic-flecked eggplant, fried zucchini, the celery fritters I adore, chickpeas swimming in broth, roasted peppers, home-brined artichokes, plates loaded with Fondi salami and prosciutto.
Then there are cheeses. There is crusty bread. There are sparkly things to drink. We’re still waiting for Flora’s bosses and Inferior Cat to show up so we can’t have any, but stand around the table chatting. Flora’s mother says: The roast chicken I made will get cold. What time did you tell them to arrive, Flora? And I want to say: It’s Inferior Cat’s fault. I know it is, even though that’s preposterous; if anyone is to be blamed for tardiness, 10 to 1 it’s an Italian. In my heart, I know Inferior Cat is probably the one saying: This is a dinner party. The invitation was for eight-thirty. Unless he truly has assimilated, in which case to him, 8:30 means any time before midnight. The very thought makes my blood run cold.
But then, the stragglers arrive; Signora Aurora, Signor Ilario, and Inferior Cat – oh, pardon me, TED. Ted is fifty-ish, bald, and has bright blue eyes. He cheek kisses. He’s wearing a light-colored short-sleeved button down. He reaches me and Katarina says: This is E from New York. Surprise!
Ted’s eyes narrow. The hair on the back of his neck lifts and rustles.
New York? he says – spits. I came all the way to Fondi to meet someone from New York.
I guess I did, too, I say – hiss. As the Italians watch, we circle each other; tails standing straight up, and I realize that this cat is like me; afeared of other cats in the wild. Years of fighting to prove our worth, years spent trying to prove that we know not to scratch the furniture. He sits farthest away from me, at the head of the table; fine by me! I sit near the other end, next to Flora’s mother.
The meal commences. Clinking of silverware; the gurgle of wine being poured. The artichokes are beautifully sour and the Fondi sausage would ordinarily make me swoon if I weren’t stalking Ted. He speaks only to Katarina; asks her if the Russian men on the tours she guides hit on her, asks her what it’s like leading tour groups. His Italian grammar, I realize, is much better than mine – book-learned, I think with a spiteful smirk, not an autodidact raised by native Italian speakers like me. My accent, use of idioms, and sentence-level fluency are better, so there. I snorkle my Lambrusco; chat with Flora’s mother. She announces to the table:
I made the celery fritters for this little girl here – me – because I know she loves them! Guilty as charged; I try not to be a pig, help myself to only six. What food did you have specially made for you, TED? Oh, that’s right. None. Ted, who’s now talking about New York and makes some comment about at least Canadians have healthcare and I’m forced to snort in agreement; forced to remember that, at times, it’s good to be around people who understand you, so I listen to him a bit more carefully. Ted is soft-spoken. Ted is thoughtful. Ted first came to Italy in 1975 – the year my parents left. He’s not married. He’s originally from Texas.
The roast chicken comes out and it’s perfect; marinated in vinegar and wine and rosemary. And then Flora’s mother brings out a steaming pot of trippa alla romana – Roman-style tripe. Katarina immediately shrinks in her chair – Don’t worry, Rina says Flora’s mother, you don’t have to eat it – and I regard it curiously. I ate a lot of organ meat in Japan and loved it, but tripe was my least favorite; always generously left behind for me on the yakitori grill by the boys. I cast a glance at Ted.
Oh boy, he says, tripe.
Oh boy! I say. Roman-style tripe! Delicious!
It’s ladled onto our dishes; hot and covered in a velvety red sauce. I see the bumps on the pale white entrails but try not to.
Mm mm mmm, say Ted and I. Tripe is the best!
And I eat it. And it is absolutely, utterly divine. What can I tell you? Flora’s mother is a voodoo worker. Whereas all the barbecued tripe I ate in Japan was tough and tasteless, this tripe is tender, like veal, blanketed by a rich, spicy tomato sauce flecked with rings of pepperoncino. It’s incredible. There is no mouth orgasm to fake. I love this tripe. But just as I’m about to say so:
I love this tripe, says Ted.
I love it, too, I say. It’s the best tripe I’ve ever had. Just melts in your mouth.
I’m having seconds, says Ted. And he’s got me there, because even though I love this tripe, I’ve been cramming celery fritters and Fondi salami and roast chicken and chick peas into my face so by now, I’m so full I’m ready to pop. Ted, on the other hand, is built like a tanker; he’s like two of me, he can kill and eat more mice even if my Italian accent is better and I grew up listening to Lucio Battisti and i Pooh, damn him! I put down my fork, forced to concede defeat.
But then there’s more food. Pears, tiny yellow “tears of gold” plums, and gold-and-red cherries that look and taste more like small apricots on stems. It’s at about this point – weakened by sheer piggishness – that I pull in my claws, ask across the table: Ted, where do you live now?
New York, he says. Turtle Bay.
Get out, I say. My brother lives in Turtle Bay.
Oh, he says.
I used to live, well, all over, I guess, I say. The Village. Chinatown. Spanish Harlem. I lived on 10th and A. I also had a rent-stabilized apartment overlooking Washington Square Park.
And you left? he asks gently.
Well… I say, because that’s a whole other story – of writers’ block and Japan and eviction notices. The Italians are watching us intently, lobbing back and forth in a language that isn’t ours. Do they think we’ll start purring, talking cat-talk? Start nuzzling and batting yarn balls around the dining room together? Maybe I could go for a yarn ball session; New York did just legalize gay marriage after all. But not with this cat. Even if part of me wants to yell: Let’s cut the shit, homeboy. This is stupid. Let’s get real and show these peeps what American-English dialect sounds like. We’re speaking Italian in Italy in front of Italians because neither of us will leave the kitty basket. Because neither of us wants to gut a mouse in public. Because we’ve just worked too hard.
Near midnight, and everyone’s going home; we all walk out to our cars and Ted takes care not to walk too close to me for fear I’ll start rolling around in the dirt. Cheek kisses. Thank you so much; the dinner was exquisite, Flora. And then it’s Ted’s and my turn to cheek kiss.
Nice to meet you, I say in my better-pronounced, more natural Italian.
Nice to meet you, too, he says in his better-studied Italian.
And maybe, if we’d met back home, if we’d discovered randomly that we’ve spent a lot of time in Italy, living in the same province, that we both speak Italian, with no one to impress, nothing to prove, we could be friends. We could reminisce about the grapes of the region, the Tyrrhenian Sea, the way Italians park like lunatics, how many times we’ve lost at a game of Let’s Screw the Foreigner. But we’re not home. We’re here in Italy; him, bearing the scars of almost 40 years of being misunderstood and me, the daughter of Italian immigrants, never quite sure where I belonged. So kisses on the cheek under a sky full of stars. Arrivederci. Arrivederci. And we go our separate ways. Two cats pissing in the night.