Villa dei Misteri
My mother, bless her soul, is — as the British say — a pain in the arse. Of course, she means well. However — you see — she is handicapped by a proper heritage traced back to a 'great-great-great' someone arriving in 1620 aboard the Mayflower. A graduate of Vassar '51, she quite naturally, discovered and latched on to dad. Dad: Harvard '50, Oxford D.Litt '55. She reminds me frequently, “Your father was a man of letters.”
I didn't really know dad. He spent long hours in his study, more lecturing and traveling. He died when I was almost 'sweet-sixteen.' There was no choice but to attend a flash (as the Aussie's say) girls' boarding school in Connecticut. At least — after Connecticut — I wasn't forced to go to Britain. That is where mother expected me to meet some nice gentleman. She implored, “Jennifer, you could be discovered by a refined young man and he will take you to Oxford where they speak so adorably.” I thought, no thanks mom, but didn't say it.
A plain-Jane, house-mother at Connecticut Girls' Academy introduced me to Australia. She told me about the Outback, Aboriginals, and (shocking at the time) topless beaches. Mrs Watson, Sydney '79, and her husband taught the classics. Dr Holland Watson, a scholar of antiquity (ANU '70, Yale PhD '81), arranged my senior-trip-abroad, to Tasmania — me not knowing, then, an island-part of Australia.
That is where I lost my virginity. A Visiting Fellow, Almer, had been an Olympics-competition, long-distance runner from Egypt. He had great stamina. Almer was a graduate of American University, PhD '95. American University is in Beirut — I think — maybe Cairo?
He and I jogged mornings. After jogging, much to mother's distress, Almer took me on digs where I learned about archaeology: “How, Jennifer,” mother exclaimed, “are you ever going to meet and marry a doctor or at least an attorney or architect if you spend your time digging for broken jars and looking for the bones of the unfortunate.” She could sound like the arch-typical New York or Miami Jewish mother — someone I recall Woody Allen featured in a movie.
Almer disappeared in Iran with the burka-wife he didn't tell me about. I bet she doesn't, well, run every morning.
Mother never calls me “Jenny.” Nor, as my school friends' do, 'Jen.' She would be horrified by my Australian nickname. I earned it after I made an important discovery on the York Peninsula – 'Bones.' Mother still defines people by their school – Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Stanford, Oxford. At dinner parties, in typical New England style, after she first asks where a person lives, if it is an acceptable address, she asks about their school.
My Hobart '90 and Monash AM '92 do not count for anything. Even Michigan PhD '98 was a disappointing choice: “But Jennifer dear, Ann Arbor sounds like a nice,” as she adds, scornfully “Midwest, small town, but isn't everyone either a bible-basher or a football fanatic?”
Mother's condominium in The City (85th Avenue) comes with a live-in maid; Sally's primary task is to care for the organic-fed and fat, no-mice-for-mom's cat, Pilgrim. When not in New York mother is at the “The Lodge,” or she will say,“At The Lama Estate.” Either way I know it's the resort-drenched Poconos.
Her weekend companion – before and after the crash – is one of those Wall Street brokers, whom she admits is not a man-of-letters, however, as she says, “William Stratin Bellsworthy has retained A-Class equity.” She introduced him, saying, “Jennifer dear, this is William — Amherst'60, Harvard MBA'62, and Yale J.D.'63.” She didn't mention my Hobart or Monash, or even Michigan, saying only, “And here is my lovely Jennifer.”
Mother and William maintain memberships in three University Clubs; conditions of remaining members, as William says, “Are if women are accepted and if they prepare a proper Martini.” Three years before he met mother, William Stratin Bellsworthy resigned from the Fifth Avenue Varsity Club when women were allowed visiting rights. So there is progress.
Mother did hope I might at least meet and marry a professor with the right pedigree. Of course, unmarried coeds attract the attention of professors—and teaching fellows. Yes, I had – after Almer – my share of clandestine events, sometimes on cleared desks or on carpeted floors, and, because dad left me enough money to support myself, I sometimes treated a fellow student or an unmarried professor to a resort. With pancake breasts, it helped if I made the offer.
I like to think I am slender, at least trim, maybe (on a good-hair day) statuesque. 'Bones' is also descriptive. As I am outside most days, I am tanned. With a tan, and reddish, short, fashionably-cut, casual hair, in tight, worn jeans, and minimal makeup, I think I look sexy in a tall, boyish kind of way. Men might think me a lesbian until I gesture or they see me do my willowy walk, with a bit of nonchalant lean, or until they see how I look over a man. I start with what he is wearing on his feet, ending with a look into his soul by his expression and eyes. Sizing a man, so to speak, only takes a second or two; sometimes — if I want to be noticed — there is a second or — when necessary — third glance.
That's for background. Here I am in Pompeii Italy, and I have a major-man-problem to ponder. I am sipping a morning cappuccino outside what my Australian team of 'archaeologists' or 'archeologists' call The dig. Cannot make up my mind on how to spell 'archaeologist' or 'archeologist.' That is the least of my problems.
Our team is measuring and photographing fountains, tombs, and theaters for an exhibition that will tour Australia. We have been on-site for over four months.
Last evening mother called from the Lama Estate. 'Jennifer dear, what do you mean, 'I am seeing someone?' I wrote that in a letter: 'I am seeing someone.' It was probably a mistake to admit that, but – you see – as her only child she has expectations of me marrying.
I want to provide some modest encouragement for a grandchild. After a series of failed – what shall I call them? . . . 'hook-ups' and 'dating' situations, plus a few 'live-withs'. . . I have a modest hope that maybe – unlikely as it is – I found the right man. I say 'unlikely' as the list of 'failures' is getting long, even by the standards of a confirmed, independent-minded, modern woman.
Those knowing my views on marriage and careers look upon me a feminist. It is not obvious, but I do desire some form of permanence. The desire for permanence, deepening since turning thirty-five. Behind the facade, I believe two people can meet and at least like each other well enough to stay together exclusively. I am over my experimenting years — being a loose-woman and the casual hook-ups. The men I have known recently, however, seem — from the decade before I was born — to be into 1960s notions: free love, date-less sex, and noncommittal theories of mutual independence and non-property rights. Even those who say they prefer exclusive love relationships have been dumping me with variations of . . . 'moving too fast' . . . 'being smothered'. . . 'needing personal space' . . . “too much too soon”. . . and more of the same.
Last summer there was the high technology researcher, Kevin (MIT, PhD'85). He invited me, after learning I wasn't seeing anyone, to a wine and cheese showing of the latest from Apple. Our tongues were introduced on our second date and by the third he was fixing pasta by candle-light in his Melbourne flat. He had delicate hands, blond hair, and smiled easily. The linen was clean. I was smitten. After six weeks, he told me he needed 'space.'
Russell, whom I was attracted to because of his personal confidence and indifference to politics, and who also adored foreign films, told me, after popcorn and a New Wave French film in his apartment, that he didn't believe in exclusive relationships as they were a chauvinistic throwback. In my non-attachment twenties, I would thought him my perfect partner. Not now.
There was the former Jesuit (Stanford, PhC '02) who was into Zen. He didn't call me again after I said – at the end of our third meditation – 'I am sorry Phillip, maybe later, but just now I am not ready for more Zen.' With all that meditating, he was plump, bordering on fat, charitably, chubby.
Three days before flying from Perth, via Bangkok, and Rome, then by car to Pompeii, I broke up with an eventually-divorced, tenured professor of literature (Edinburgh PhD '88). Even with two children, mother would have approved of a Milton scholar. As we were washing the dishes the morning after the evening's stay-at-home-candle-lit-dinner, he said, 'Now that I am single, I want to see a lot of other people.' Arthur, of course, meaning women. Arthur did say, I should call him when I returned. He was 'fond' of me. During flight segments over the Middle East and Europe, when not watching the latest from Hollywood, I recalled him as presumptuous and arrogant and he snores.
Of course, I didn't tell mother about the foreign corespondent met on the train, the construction worker with L O V E tattooed on his knuckles, the Irish surfer, the bond trader from Hong Kong, and the 14-year-older, unemployed actor who lives with his mother and didn't get it up, but I did write, 'I am seeing someone.'
I met him at the Villa dei Misteri and I will see him again today at the Villa. He works at the Villa. He is a custodian.
Do I begin by telling mother when Ali gives me one of his wide-eyed, happy grins it makes the heat in my body rise like a thermometer reading fever — a fever so high my ears burn? That my knees — the way they did as a teenager — go weak? That when he opens a door for me, my stomach constricts with desire and my shoulders give a little jerk? That when he holds my fingers in his warm hands, my pulse throbs? That he is a virtuoso at . . . well, I won't go there . . . not with mom.
It is to be another long day in the hot Italian sun, in this land of eternal disorder — in this land I adore. I seek evidence to sustain a contention: the Villa served the same purpose as 'moon camps' among the tribes of North America as well as, perhaps, among the Aboriginals of Australia — a place detached where a woman is exclusively among women once a month.
As I ponder my man-and-mother problem, the always happy-go-lucky Max has brought me a second cloudy cappuccino, the mild so thick it holds its form. When he places the cup and saucer before me, he says, proudly, mixing English and Italian as usual, 'No chocolato, docttor-essa, extra sugor.' I give the usual grateful smile, and reply, 'Grazie, signori Maxi.' He seems to like I add an vowel to his name.
Sipping caffeine and munching a sugar-laced donut I watch over-weight, and stocky, Mimi – strange name for a man – showing severe-looking, brunet Juletta his latest tattoo. I doubt she cares but looks appreciatively as she twists his arm making comments about each bird, cat, dog, and military symbol.
Despite the decline in the value of the U.S. dollar, American tourists arrive by the bus load, a few by train. Max is pacing back and forth on the road, working his way through the arriving tourists; he is asking who parked the sporty red Fiat in the bus zone. Franko – lieutenant with the Carabinieri – threatens to have it towed, that is, as soon as he finishes the morning edition of La Repubblica and has a second lively espresso, the beans ground on location.
All gesturing and talking at once, the dozen or so regulars at the train station's outside cafe, are chewing breakfast pizzas, sipping coffees, licking pistachio gelatos, and throwing down espressos from pre-heated ceramic cups.
In a short time I will shoulder my camera, briefcase, notebooks, site charts, pens, pencils, compass, magnifying glass, lunch and water, but first I want to see if Franko will have the Fiat towed. As I wait, I see Max is now admiring Mimi's tattoo. Juletta answers her cell phone. With cloud-scrapping hand gestures, in a loud, undulating voice, she makes one point after another, then another and another. Someday—maybe twenty years—this scene will appear at La Scala.
I am distracted from watching operatic Juletta as I see all the men's eyes follow a passing woman. She is tallish, thirty-ish, strolling under a wide-brimmed, fashionably floppy black hat, and black blouse. She is moving away from the train station. Her gait is lazy, contemptuous, exuding the glamorous air of you-will-look-at-me but I-will-not-look-at-you. I stare too. Besides bra-less, what has caught our collective attention is the short, flared, black skirt that, probably knowingly, lifts to reveals a black thong. A Ferragamo shoulder bag, hanging from her right shoulder, raises then lowers the skirt with each long stride. Old opera in a culture where pleasure and beauty are worshiped.
After that distraction passes, I see the Carabinieri's Franko stroll onto the street. The red Fiat speeds off. Then two motorcyclists, thinking to leave their machines at the bus stop, depart hastily as Franko, first lowering his head slightly, then with a click of thumb raises his cap half a millimeter; he glances; the wrong-doers flee. I watch him every morning. I sigh. With his knee-high, black, polished leather boots, red-striped, blue uniform and regal bearing, even when not emerging like Nero from his Alpha Romeo, such a powerful man, no doubt, is warmly greeted at the end of each day by a voluptuous and grateful wife and joyful, healthy children.
Yesterday I watched Franko taking Max's arm in his. Both mens' heads are lowered as they passed near my table; they conferred in subdued tones, like brothers might at a mother's funeral. I have come to appreciate the soft side of Italian men.
There are fewer Americans now, but a bus load of camera-toting Japanese tourists arrives. I follow them to the Porta Marina. Before I flash my archeologists' pass, I see their tour-leader, unusual for the Japanese — he being short and stout — distributing maps of the two or so square miles of ruins. The stout guide, wisely, has an umbrella under his left arm: there are clouds on the western horizon. As none of the Italian guides speak the language, the Japanese arrive with their own.
Handsome Carlos is at the turn-stiles. I appreciate the way he compliments me with his eyes. No doubt he knows our green-eye-tones match. Italians look into your eyes; same as the other Mediterranean people do. They are not like the north Europeans who, perhaps, consider looking directly into your eyes an invasion of privacy. I am trying to be Mediterranean.
Mother, however, for as long as I can remember, repeats, “Jennifer, do remember, you are mostly clean-living and industrious Dutch.” That is, after reminding me, “Jennifer dear, most of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower sailed from England's Plymouth, but they fled religious persecution from Holland.” Maybe – as men and women of the Netherlands are now the tallest Europeans (all that milk and cheese?) – that is why I am tall and lean.
After our eyes meet, always politely, Carlo says, with gusto, 'Prego, Dottore signora. Buon giorno.' Then – almost like Franko – with thumb, adding forefinger, he tips his hat in a way to say, 'Please also notice my broad smile, charmed profile, and brilliant teeth.'
Nodding my head, I answer, as always, 'Buon giorno, signori Carlo.' He is so very Italian: confident and, at the same time, attention-seeking.
To conduct my archaeological research, it is necessary to invest in well-ordered habits: the numbered notebooks, pencils sharpened daily, three photographs of each find, measurements in millimeters . . .. Yet I admire the tumult, unpredictable, frequently dismaying Italian repertoire of behaviors that nevertheless has moved the nation of pleasure seekers to have one of the higher disposable incomes in the world. And — same as my adopted Australia — Italy is a fresh-air society.
Italians appreciate the out-of-doors. They literally parade themselves down streets. Lovers, teens, and families, are, whether an evening passeggiata, or lunchtime stroll, always providing a continuous show. That is how it is I begin sharing in the life of a custodian — at an out-of-doors concert.
Our team of archaeologists, as a gesture of appreciation for our volunteer work in Pompeii, where funding is never enough, were invited to an evening of Beethoven, Ravel and Chopin in the outdoor gardens of the Villa Rufolo overlooking the sea on the Sorrento Peninsula in the small town of Ravello. It was a Sunday. The sun already low on the horizon.
Unfortunately, traveling in two cars, we got lost negotiating the many roads crisscrossing the peninsula. We had been in Amalfi passing the afternoon with pizza and beer watching a Medieval-era competition of rowers from Pisa, Venice and Genoa. Arriving late, we were ushered to seats near the rear of the audience.
With the sea as background, the setting is breathtaking: in the foreground, situated under a palm tree, within a lite, thirteenth century arch, providing superb acoustics, Beethoven's Sonata op 22 is concluding. I am re-adjusting my chair, getting comfortable. I am glad to be tall enough to see over the elderly couple seated in front of me. Three violinists – two women and a man – enter from the right. They take the three seats arranged in front of the grand piano.
As the musicians tune their instruments, I look closely at the handsomely-dressed man. He is re-positioning his chair and tuning the violin. Mint-white shirt sleeves flash from his perfectly-tailored black suit, black socks and – no doubt, name-brand shoes. Because he leans forward and because of the angle he holds his head, chin clinching the violin to his shoulder, and because of the shade, I am unable to see his face. He is not an older musician, the long-haired types, as I might have expected. He is rather younger than the women, who are beyond forty. He seems vaguely familiar. Maybe he played at the recital held cliff-side at the Convent of Santa Rosa that first week? Maybe he was with the orchestra in Naples and I was introduced to him at the reception following the Verdi Festival the previous year?
As the sentimental sounds of Ravel wash over the audience, I close my eyes, listening. I dismiss further thoughts of the violinists. I think of my research.
A new man asks for my credentials. Since the first week, the regular staff, seated in the small, wooden building behind the entrance, merely look up and wave me in. Because the closest entrance to the Villa of Mysteries is along a narrow, side road, far from The Digs' main gates and its primary attractions, custodians have little to do. They usually pass time playing cards.
This man is asking for 'documento.' He is not only unknown to me, but I guess, since his uniform looked new and freshly ironed, the officious custodian is a new employee. I am annoyed by his insistence. I dig into my bag, cluttered as it is, and find the plastic-encased authorization to come and go as I wish. He examines it with care, turning it in his hands, checking the signatures and dates. I feel I am suspected of being a mafia-recruited thief, maybe a terrorist.
That done, I enter into that day's primary task: search for evidence of Cupids and moons among the decorative frescoes and tiles in the Villa's more three dozen rooms and corridors.
The Villa has aroused great interest and there are multiple interpretations of its history — all debated by men. The only agreement among them about this site – outside the walls of Pompeii – is that it is among the more magnificent of its type. The evidences tells that it was initially constructed two centuries B.C., reconstructed over the centuries and was under re-construction when buried by ash in 79 A.D. I – as a woman – am attempting (as I already mentioned) to establish the probability the villa served as a resting and ritual place among women during their monthly periods — same as was definitely true of the detached camps among Ojibwa Americans in Wisconsin. True also — I contend — of the Aboriginal people of Australia.
With magnifying glass, I am examining the fresco-painting of a woman thought to symbolize Spring in Triclinium Five — the Dining Room of Mysteries. Glancing left, I see the new custodian entering. Still annoyed by his insistence to show my credentials, I ignore him. He stands patiently as I make notes. Five, maybe ten minutes pass. When done, I slip the notes into my briefcase, turn, and, in my best Italian, ask, sarcastically, “And what can I do for you?”
When he answers in perfect English, and American-spoken English at that, I am astonished. After learning from the other guards – the truth so out of proportion, but so Italian – dottore is a famous scientist, he told me he came to apologize. Adding, in Italian, touchingly, he is sorry to imped my work, “Scusa dottore. Dispiacente mi.” Not knowing I understand, he repeats in English, “I am sorry and I am displeased with myself.”
I can hardly contain a laugh, but, acting dignified, answer, “Niente problemo.”
He – breaking the ice – smiles at my crude Italian.
I acknowledge the moment, saying — my tone more friendly: “Everything is just fine.” After another moment, asking, “How is it you speak such good English?”
“I was assigned to the American's Ramstein Air force Base near Frankfort,” pausing, before adding, “When I was in the Italian Army,” then with pride, saying, “as an Alpino.” Pausing again, awkwardly adding, “Excuse me, I am Ali - Ali Vecellio.”
After he gave me his name and I gave him mine, I begin looking him over. His facial features are rugged with a square jaw, prominent cheek bones, high forehead, partially hidden by an overhang of wavy black hair. His ears, far from delicate, are rather large and stick out, but again the wavy hair softens the effect. The eyes are striking, wide and large, pale blue under thin eyebrows, and eyelashes that many women might like to have, long and fine.
I don't know what he means by “an Alpino” but assume it is a military rank of some kind. This new custodian, perhaps habitually, stands at attention. I see he has broad shoulders, squared under a muscular neck. The torso narrows nicely down to perfectly polished boots. So military. Yet, I sense a softer, sensitive side as his blue eyes, the eyes of a dreamer, soulful, look into mine.
Graciously, as he departs, his hand is offered. As our fingers touch I feel a momentary charge. Hmmmmm.
I learn later, he was a Captain in the special Mountain Division of the Army. They are the Alpino, a word taken from Alpine. Their brown hats, pinned up on one side, are like those of the Australian Diggers, but with a long feather. He has been a skiing instructor, until his left foot is crushed by a run-away military vehicle. As a skier he can no longer lead his men into battle, so his military career ends at age 38. When weary, he walks with a slight limp.
Same as his father, and same as grandfathers for generations, he was (still is) a proud Alpino. A grandfather, who served in Ethiopia and who admired an American boxer, suggested his Arabic name, Ali. He joined the Alpine Mountain Division when he was 18 years old. Accepting a discharge with honors along with a military-service pension, he now turns his attention to a second love: archeologia (no 'a' before 'e'). What better place than to be a custodian-guard at Pompeii?
When not guarding the site, he is photographing and cataloging faces among the marble carvings, frescoes and tiles. That is how we eventually became lovers: when I asked if he would show me his collection of photographs. I say, 'eventually' as the first times I invited him to my hotel suite, he declined. Both times saying, “It is better I not.” Adding, “Prego, scusa me.”
I didn't probe, ask why not, but later learned my handsome Alpine Captain was not over the death of Genevra. Married for less than a year, her car – two winters earlier – slipped off an Alpine road. She and their unborn child were lost. His heart, he said, since meeting me was filled, aver paura (with fear). When I delved into his fear, I learned he believed it perhaps a bad omen (cattivo augurio) about 'Jennifer' and 'Genevra.' I suggested maybe buono augurio. When I looked (I had to ask.) at the first picture of Genevra, her smiling, flowing reddish hair, wearing hemp, hippie-chick dungarees, I wished her to be the sister I never had. I cried. He cried. I loved her. A matter the heart's complexity of passion and empathy. I didn't know why. I still do not.
Before we became lovers I was already smitten. My romantic feelings started the evening he “rescued” me. I had been....
Story is finished -- draft, of course -- email me if want more: