Slave one summer

The men were lithe, dark-eyed and curly-haired, stepped out
of a Roman mosaic, the women massive, with sea-green medusa hair
and soup-stained bosoms. An ancient, noble family used for centuries,
in their palazzo high above the Bay of Naples, to owning servants,
this new one a lost girl, spewed out from education
with no notion of who to be, still shaken by the death of a father
I didn’t love enough.
Yelled at for not understanding, you learn a language fast: sporco,
dirty, presto, hurry, you, now, no! No doubt about the no: no free time
except grudgingly on Sundays, no breakfast not even a cup of coffee
before washing dirty nappies, no sleep with a little one wailing all night
and who could blame him, plucked from his mother’s breast to be dumped
on this girl with a bottle and no clue. You learn fast, too, about babies,
even more about myself, all the love, patience and nurturance
I never knew were inside me.
And Napoli, encircling vision of grandeur, with its secrets,
poverty and crumbling art and the blue, blue bay to be seen from
every ivy-shaded window of the ducal mansion? Truly, I was too tired
to pay attention. Life narrowed to slow-motion endurance of routine,
the fog of longing for rest, grateful for the baby nodding off
or for a good meal – and meals, prepared by Lola the malevolent,
were huge: the sweating beef and luminous tomatoes, pasta piled
and steaming above sticky kitchen oilcloth.
So I grew a belly for the first time, watched it with growing dismay
but continued eating, even when the fat tubes hot with angry chillies
grew cold before I was allowed a moment to fall to. And once or twice,
on Sundays off, quick, groping sex in the woods or in the back of his car
with a man who looked a little like my dad, succumbing half-ashamed,
this too a way to feel my body, briefly know myself as less diminished,
more than foreign skivvy.
Now like a far-off dream, that season of cavernous apartments,
harpy voices and cowed failure to tell the dreaded duchess vaffanculo!
Only a tiny taste of servitude, never destined to last more than
a few months, but it left scars and, familiar to women everywhere
who care for other people’s babies, a bittersweet remembered love.
Forty years later I spell out the long, absurdly grandiose family names
and there he is – my bambino’s middle-aged face
on the Internet.


In response to Luisa A. Igloria: Help.

Vaffanculo = fuck off in Italian

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