The Feast of the Immaculate Conception(Excerpt from Christmas in Naples is a Sport)
Strings of melted cheese were spreading, hanging, and crisscrossing across a table of fourteen people. Cutting into a calzone, mozzarella burst forth onto the plate with bits of spicy, fleshy salami. Wine from a vineyard on Vesuvius was being poured from glass bottles. We cheered for the man — “Saperle!” — “nana-ing” to Libiamo ne’lieti calici from La Traviata with our glasses swinging in the air.
My mother was up for Supreme Court election as a lawyer at twenty-five years old? Justice was—I made a sign—her motivation.
I raised my hand in the air to indicate the step above anger.
“But more angry, like Vesuvius…”
The table deferred to Carmine with owl eyes, positioned in the middle so that everybody could see him while he engaged in a round of charades with me. He was trying to help me find the word in Italian while the entire table was yelling at him, me, and each other. Rage, he said. “Ah.”
It was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” had played on an outdoor speaker as calzones and pizzas exited the pizza oven — steaming — in the garden. Buff hot pockets packed with bufala, fior di latte, scamorza, and provola cheese, and bits of salami and broccolini were flying in — smoky on the nose, as big as your head. Pizzas were in plenty — margheritas and biancas along with ricotta, prosciutto, arugula, mushrooms, grilled onions, and pancetta.
At the end of “My Way,” I came to find out that they had put on the song because Franco and Flora had informed everyone that I had told some Brazilian woman to “get out of my way” at four years old, a phrase that they could understand in English due to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”
I had been met with applause.
I was emotional, to say the least. I wasn’t anticipating my four-year-old would find redemption in “My Way.
“We don’t really know why but something about her mother giving her to another person.
“Isn’t that what you said — get out of my way!”
They wanted me to say it again because it was charming.
“Do you speak, speak to your mother?”
I blinked in shock.
“She gave me away to a…another person!”
The voices came crashing in like waves — not even on her name day? That’s terrible. I was laughing — her name day? I never really spoke to her. I kept saying “never,” to drill the idea home to them, but it didn’t work.
“Never,” I said again.
“She gave me to another person…”
I was opening up cages to blank faces — taking invisible babies out, Carmine wondering why I was opening up a pigeon coup. I was giving this baby away to…Some were smiling like I was cute, waving goodbye along with me. I was reaching with my arm as far from my body as I could, waving my hands away to communicate that she was a stranger. They were dismissive, so what, for the day? Who is this woman? Brazilian?
“My way Brasiliane,” Vico showed me his hands and shrugged.
Pointer fingers around the table, Carmine was putting together the pieces. My mother gave me away to a total stranger one day from Brazil— he held up four fingers to confirm.
“In Brazil or from Brazil?”
The table jovially scraping up the gooey goodness, the Neapolitans could fly in and out of a topic of conversation on a sharp curve to pop back in my face, chomping the endings of words, the flavor of the food intoxicating. Once I tackled these people, a massacre of cheese across plates, to understand the words coming out of my mouth, I had to convince them that I had indeed lived with another family for four years. I had told this story before — you could say that I always came with one that was misunderstood like the Immaculate Conception. It had nothing to do with Jesus!
I slammed my fist on the table, and we erupted in applause.
BRAV, BRAV, the men chimed.
I didn’t want this story, and it didn’t make sense in English let alone Italian. It required describing who my mother was.
Yes, a genius.
“Oh, she was?”
Vico gave me a tense shrug.
“Ancay Francay, ancay Francay,” he said. Also, French, he twanged, as in I could speak French with him if I needed to, but I was insistent on learning Italian as fast as humanly possible. Brutal blues on the table, Vico primarily communicated through the feeling sense. The Neapolitans in particular were extremely attuned in this way. It was stirring, destabilizing, to say the least.
An effervescent, natural red in a thick glass— fruity yet rustic — I was staring at the tiny bubbles popping.
They were all taken aback as my hands flew in the air.
I gave them Dr. J’s clear, blank, expansive eyes.
“Out of this world,” she used to say.
“Blue,” I said.
“Like the sky without…”
With two fingers scanning his eyes, Carmine was confirmed in the skies with the table that my mother’s personality was like this. In some senses, their inability to readily believe my story thrust me on a roller coaster ride trying to communicate how extreme was. Why don’t you call your mother?
Elbows were on the table. I crumbled a napkin.
“Rage but the form of joy…”
Angela said that my father had sent a picture when I was born, tucking the strands of her cute cut, adorable. Her dark eyes were like leaves, and her regard and her pout were an unstoppable combination.
I asked — “really?”
She nodded with an expansive, penetrating gaze, mentioning that my mother was a beautiful woman. I appreciated her validation because I saw it as an element in her malady, but it was an odd claim to make, no?
“Elegant in her attire,” Angela continued, looking at my outfit.
She turned her cheek.
No matter the occasion, my mother was dressed for the photoshoot, the red-carpet event, or the cameras, except she wasn’t really in these situations. She wore ballgowns to church, and her make-up was always professionally done. I was her “doll” as an eyewitness would attest. Or, “mini-me.”
They were laughing.
“Her clothes,” Carmine’s owl eyes were going side-to-side.
“She wore a white…fur coat.”
Yes, her signature was a full-length white mink coat.
“Bread,” I took a good whiff.
“Fresh — K,” I said “fresh” in a Neapolitan accent. They corrected me. The table rose their voices in volume with me. It was confirmed amongst the Assembly that I wanted to speak Neapolitan.
I had her smile, I showed it to them. Si, si, I said, it was hers. I heard her every time it cracked. She could have been in a toothpaste commercial, and I wasn’t trying to imply that I had a dazzler, but I could say that about her. Yes, Angela remembered the photograph.
I clapped like a monkey with cymbals as she did. A woman whose performance was so high, so dramatic, so overcome; bending on her knees with love and exhilarating excitement, the outlandishness of her character ripped people into states of laughter through me.
“What did she do?”
Franco took the lead with his testimony since my father mostly spoke to him. With a deep, sincere brow, my father hardly uttered a word about my mother or much of anything.
Past the Cubist painting, the bathroom beside us, we went as a group to the stone stairs with a tight turn towards the bedrooms. Angela hit the light in a rustling of comments about the task.
I tapped my chest.
“Reflexive,” Carmine was swinging his pelvis, arms crossed.
“Herself,” he was dry towards the crowd.
“A therapist of taxes…”
“A priest of taxes, si!”
I couldn’t translate this, but she called herself a tax minister, in an article. Si, si, articles, I drew them in swirls up the steps with my finger — they led the way to the doctor’s office. They discussed the meaning of my hand gestures between them.
“The Mother Teresa of the…”
I turned to Carmine.
“The thing you pay the govern…”
We were off.
“The Mother Teresa of the industry of this.”
“And this was in print?”
Angela’s wide eyes plus Flora’s stern expression were priceless.
I was standing, watching this family, in a stairwell covered in family photographs.
“Articles were written about her…marketing,” I said in an Italian accent.
“Very good,” I rubbed my fingers.
“Mama,” I made sure to address the men.
“Had the cash…”
I dropped my bitterness.
“My favorite article.”
I outlined it at the top of the stairs, indicating that it led into her office.
“Neiman Marcus,” I said with an Italian accent.
Angela was cracking up.
“Isn’t it a store, Maria?”
In an emerald green suit, strands of pearls, and a black briefcase; shiny, Dr. J had that perfect smile flying off her face, her pose, like a breeze. A patent black heel tipped behind her, her black polka pantyhose was sheer. Her prodigal pianist hand gingerly touched the chrome railing of the department store, one of her hot spots. Gazing at a family picture, they didn’t understand. Neither did I.
I directed the line back to more questions.
They wanted to know more, and I was buzzing by what I said. It was like throwing open a door, wild winds threatening the whole foundation. Huh huh, everything was fine. Volcanic folk; intensity wasn’t a big deal to them. I was just expressing myself. What’s wrong? Well, nothing. I was skating on slippery territory.
*I’m sharing scenes from previous drafts as there are many. Thank you for reading.