“The Other Side of War” (page 2 of 5)
She walked along a cobblestone path that wound through the trees. She glanced at her wristwatch. She had an hour before meeting her friend, Karla, at Café Gabriel.
Through the canopy of firs, pines, cypresses, the sunlight trickled. Mottled lights scattered on the pavement. Where the stones were exposed, not covered by fallen oak leaves, the heels of her knee-high boots clicked. She was alone in the park.
How things changed.
Sometimes changes came without warning. Like that morning in September 2011. Just four months ago. Just another weekday for Ashley, but without Marcello, who had gone to the war several weeks past. She had showered and was applying her makeup, getting ready to go to work at the U.S. Navy hospital on Gricignano base, when the phone rang. Just another call. Nothing unusual. But when she picked up the receiver, the voice on the other end was Marcello’s father. He spoke slowly, deliberately, in his broken English. He said Marcello was dead.
How people changed.
Marcello’s mother, who never liked her, who never approved of her son dating an American woman, a doctor, came to her at Marcello’s funeral and cried on her shoulders. How sorry Ashley had felt for the old woman.
The footpath soon opened up to a rising lawn, now sparsely covered by grass, the ground splotched with bare spots of brown.
Two Italian pines grew at the far end of the lawn, their umbrella tops heavy-looking on their long trunks.
Once on a late summer day in 2010, when the sun was warm and the lawn was lush with green, Marcello had spread a beach towel in the broad shades of the umbrella pines. They sat, side by side. From a backpack, Marcello grabbed an aluminum thermal canteen filled with cooled Lacryma Christi. He poured the wine into two plastic cups. He handed one to her. Then glancing around him, he sipped from his cup. “I must be careful,” he said, his voice tinged with his boyish lilt, “for if I am caught drinking alcohol in this park I will be arrested and demoted to private.”
“I am just joking, of course.” He laughed. “This is Italy. Everyone drinks wine.”
Ashley loved the sound of his voice, the tone and pitch of his English spiced by the musical quality of the Italian language. Hearing him speak always warmed her heart.
On the grass field in front of them boys chased a soccer ball. Their voices pealed with excitement. When the ball rolled toward where Ashley sat, Marcello sprang onto his feet. He dribbled the ball. Two boys chased him. Marcello laughed and dashed through the maze of attacking boys.
On that warm late summer day, lazying on the beach towel, watching Marcello play with the boys, Ashley realized she was falling in love.
“I would have made a great soccer player,” Marcello said, slumping next to Ashley, his face flushed with perspiration. “I chose a wrong profession.”
“I’m glad you’re not a soccer player,” Ashley said, handing him a handkerchief.
“If you were we wouldn’t have met.”
Marcello gazed at the boys. “One day I will have a son,” he said. “And I will teach my boy how to handle a soccer ball properly.”
“I’m sure you’ll make a great father.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Why not. You’re just like a boy yourself. You’ll make a great playmate.”
“Yes, you are absolutely right. One day I will be my son’s best friend.”
But now in the winter no children played. Ashley walked up to the pines. All was quiet, except for the intermittent rush of wind shaking the treetops.
Ashley removed a glove from her hand. Bending her knees she pressed her palm on the spot where they had sat together. The chill of the ground shot through her skin. She choked, as if a band squeezed her lungs. She struggled for breath. She felt as if awakened from a bad dream.
She quickly slipped the glove back on her hand and fled down the lawn. Back on the path she broke into a fast-footed stride. She had to get out of the park. The urge quickened her pace into a run. Rushing toward the gate, her toe caught an edge of a cobblestone. She tripped. She fell forward.
“Oh, Ashley, Ashley,” she spoke aloud, her hands and knees on the pavement. “Why are you this way?”
In the early spring of 2011, Marcello had introduced her to his parents. They lived on the third floor of an ancient looking palazzo facing Via Chiai in the bustling downtown of Naples, a few minutes walk from the Opera House of San Carlo.
Ashley felt uncomfortable seated next to Marcello, facing his parents, at a large table resting on a huge dense rug in a dining hall with marble floors. A chandelier dimly lit the room. All the furniture were heavy-looking and were constructed of very dark wood. A damp smell of age weighed the air.
A Ukrainian maid served soup with a silver ladle out of a bone china soup tureen. The ladle clinked on the plate in front of Ashley. No one spoke. Ashley felt choked, as if the room lacked oxygen.
When the maid left, Marcello’s father and mother sipped their soup, spoonful at a time, rhythmically, scooping and arcing the warm liquid toward their mouths. Neither of them spoke nor looked at her.
Ashley glanced at Marcello, who kept tapping his hand gently on her thigh. He then said something to his father, in Italian. The father responded with a glance at Ashley.
“Excuse me,” the father said. “My English very bad. No good.”
“That is all right,” Ashley said, enunciating her every word. “I am very sorry I do not speak Italiano. I wish I could.”
The father turned to Marcello and said something more in Italian. When Ashley glanced from the father to Marcello, she caught a glimpse of the mother’s face. The mother was staring at her. The mother quickly averted her gaze. But in that brief moment of eye contact, Ashley glimpsed the truth. She didn’t have to understand Italian or its culture to understand that look on the mother’s face. That look of the mother’s disapproval of her son’s woman.
After the dinner, Ashley whispered to Marcello that she wanted to leave. Marcello stayed for a cup of espresso and then told his parents that they were leaving.
Outside the palazzo, Ashley asked, “Why does your mother hate me?”
“My mother only worries about me,” Marcello said, shrugging and waving his hands, as if there were no truth in her question. “Italian mothers always worry about their boys.”
But Ashley pressed her question, demanding to know why his mother worried about their relationship.
Finally Marcello said, “It is because you are an American. Because you are a naval officer. Because you are a doctor. My mother feels we have no future together. She thinks I will be hurt.”
“I don’t like that at all,” Ashley said, walking faster. “Tell your mother that not everything she sees in American movies is true about American women.”
They walked in silence to Marcello’s car. Marcello drove Ashley to her home in Posillipo. They hardly spoke in the car.
When Marcello pulled up in front of her apartment, Ashley got out and then turned to him. “Perhaps your mother is right,” she said, making sure her voice carried a sting. “I’ll never be the kind of woman you or your family expect me to be.” She slammed the door and strode off.
On that spring night in 2011, as Ashley walked toward her apartment, she had felt something dark and cold and ugly creep into her heart. In retrospect that had been the first sign of all the problems that were to emerge into her relationship with Marcello.