by MICHELA VALMORI
She sat on the stoop of her five-story Brooklyn apartment, knitting a blanket for her baby sister as she waited for him to come home from the shop. Could she even call this place an apartment? It was cramped and unbearably hot under the July sun, each room warmer than the next in the long line of rooms that could only be compared to a small train car.
She lived on the top floor with her six siblings and parents, with her aunts, uncles, and cousins just on the floor below. Her entire building was thick with Sicilian dialect and broken English, all coming from the paesani. It made no sense to her – why would we travel across an ocean to a new land just two live amongst the same people they lived with back home? We had made it to the promised land where anything was possible, and yet we were stuck in Sicily. The only difference she could feel was how close they lived to each other and in such conditions – being treated like animals in a country that did not seem to want them.
That’s why Giovanni intrigued her. He wasn’t like all the Sicilians she knew (almost too well by this point). He was soft-spoken, kind, and most importantly, not from Sicily. She knew he was still from Italy – some cittadina in Naples – but it was not Sicily, and it was not this block, so she could daydream about the foreign town that produced such a gentleman. He lived a few streets over in the Napoletani neighborhood but took a long way home just to get a glimpse of her on the steps. He had this enchanting mix of the old country and the new that made her believe that they would not all be stuck in this Sicilian purgatory one day. He had fought in the war for the Americans in North Africa. However, he was still working with all Italians over at the barbershop, creating an American-Italian blend that not many of the other boys could quite grasp.
She must have been staring for a little too long because before she knew it he was standing on her bottom step smiling at her.
“Hi Carmela” he nodded sweetly.
She preferred to be called Camille in a lazy attempt to Americanize, but he was persistent and always called upon her in her given name.
“Giovanni, you know I hate that – call me Camille,” she worked hard to hide the sound of Sicily in her voice, “How would you like it if I started calling you Johnny?”
“Call me whatever you want Carmela, as long as you’re calling for me.” She gave him a look of disdain for the comment while he smirked – knowing she loved his cheesiness.
The two went back and forth like this almost daily, leaving her at the receiving end of much teasing from her sisters, but also scorn from her mother. Carmela hoped that one day she would be marrying Giovanni, but her mother insisted she considers some of the Sicilian boys that lived on her street. The same boys she sat in steerage with on that putrid boat for two weeks across the Atlantic, the same boys who were always dirty and rough, the same boys who she had known her whole life.
Just thinking about spending the rest of her life with one of those boys filled her with anger, and at that moment, she decided to do something about it. “Take me out on Friday to the dance hall,” she announced confidently. It wasn’t a question, and Giovanni knew it. He smiled an affirmation and ran to catch up with the rest of his friends.
Carmela could hardly contain her excitement as she ran up the six flights of stairs. The climb usually wore her down by the third floor, but this, time each step she took was brisker than the last. When she reached the top, she hardly noticed the oppressive heat in the room made more suffocating by the overwhelming stench of garlic. She almost floated through each of the rooms, one right after the other, moving through the maze of furniture, laundry, and children. She was stopped abruptly by her mother’s insistence that Carmela help start getting dinner ready for the entire family. But not even her mother’s nagging could bring her down from the cloud Giovanni’s acceptance had put her on.
“What is going on with you?” her mother asked in her thick Sicilian. Carmela could understand her mother but refused to continue speaking in her native tongue. They were in America, and so she would speak English like all of the other young adults her age; she only slipped back during her bickering matches with her mother.
She was so happy she almost sang it out loud.
“Giovanni Rocca and I are going to the dance hall on Friday.”
“Di Napoli? Why not with one of the Siciliani? They are sweet boys!”
She had explained this many times, and her mother knew it. “Alright, just ask your father when he returns from the shop; it’s about time you found a husband anyway,” her mother conceded. It wasn’t much, but it was all that Carmela needed. She knew her father wouldn’t put up a fight – she was his favorite after her brothers. “Now help me finish the pasta alla norma.”
Carmela stood over the sauce and tried to concentrate. It wasn’t as good as she remembered her grandmother making it back in Sicily, but her mother had to make do with the ingredients available in Brooklyn. The sauce reminded her of the old country, but as her mind trailed toward Giovanni and their date, she couldn’t help but think of how much better off they were in America. If they hadn’t come, she would not have gone to school for as long as she did, her father would not be making so much money, and she would not have met Giovanni. When she was married, she would move to a new apartment with fewer people and more space and save money to send her children to college. She would not be stuck starving on a farm for the rest of her life as they did in Sicily.
After dinner, her cousin Francesca, who was engaged to the grocer’s son (the only tolerable Siciliano in all of Brooklyn), brought up some dresses for Carmela to try on for Friday. She tried them all until she slipped into a fitting blue dress that highlighted the deep olive in her skin and the brown in her eyes. As she looked in the mirror, she was taken aback by how Italian she looked. She thought the Brooklyn weather had lightened her skin, but the July sun brought out her sharp features and deep skin tone. She was worried she would stick out from the American girls at the dance hall, with their fair skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. But Francesca insisted that the dress looked beautiful, hugging her at all the right places – Giovanni would only have eyes for her.
On Friday afternoon, Francesca spent hours doing Carmela’s hair using her mother’s rolling pin as a makeshift curler. They stole some of her aunt’s powder and patted a little bit of rouge on her lips. Finally, after a lecture from her mother on how ladies should act around men, Carmela headed down the stairs to meet Giovanni. She had run down many times to meet him, but this time was different, this time, she did not have to silence her footsteps so nobody would hear her sneaking out, and he didn’t have to wait for a block away to make sure nobody saw him on her block. He was standing, landing in his nicest brown slacks and suspenders. When he saw her at the bottom of the stairs, he took off his cap and smiled. He was not a man of many words; the look on his face said more than he needed to. Anyone could tell that this man was in love.
When they arrived at the dance hall, Carmela’s previous fears of sticking out only worsened. The only people there who looked like them were Calabresi at a table waiting for their girls to turn up. The dress that had made her feel so beautiful suddenly felt like a rag compared to the American dancing girls, her skin felt darker, and her accent seemed thicker. She felt different. She had dreamed of dancing all night with Giovanni, but she could not bring herself to do so next to all of the Americans. Giovanni could tell that Carmela was uneasy and immediately knew why. He too felt different, but he had fought as an American, worked like an American, and spoke like an American. They deserved to be here just as much as any of the others out there dancing. “Carmela, we are Americans, no matter what they may think,” he reassured her. They approached the dance floor cautiously and stayed on the outer edge. Giovanni may have felt fully American, but Carmela knew that she was not there yet. But she was here, and she would not waste her time with Giovanni, so they danced and talked and laughed on the outskirts on their own.
Although the night was not full as she imagined, she felt a warmness in her heart as they walked home holding hands. As they approached her building, he teased her for her awkward dance moves. She was laughing so hard she hardly noticed when he leaned in and kissed her. Overwhelmed and at a loss, for words, she smiled and thanked him and ran up to her apartment.
Early the next morning she heard her father’s voice down the hall coming from the kitchen. He was talking to someone but it was not like normal, with his booming Sicilian tone, but instead, he was quiet, speaking purposefully in the little English he knew. Then she heard Giovanni’s sweet voice talking to her father – each of their native languages were similar but not enough to understand each other – he was speaking in English and then trying to translate to single words of Sicilian he had picked up from Carmela. They could only be talking about one thing, and it made Carmela’s heart jump when she realized.
Once he left the apartment, she ran out to the kitchen, where her father told her to go downstairs to get some bread from the store for lunch. As she reached the stoop, she looked down to see Giovanni on a single knee with a box in hand. He smiled brightly when he saw her and slowly opened the box.
“When my mother left Naples, my grandmother gave her the engagement ring my grandfather gave her to keep to remember the old country. And now my mother has given it to me to start a new life here in America. I am going to open my own barbershop and get a better apartment and save up for visiting our Italy, and some nicer clothes. I can only imagine that life with you. So, Carmela Lazara, will you marry me?” His bright eyes looked up at her, hopeful.
As she nodded, she repeated ‘yes’ seemingly a thousand times. All she could imagine is this new life that she would have: this new life with Giovanni, this new life in America.
(On the cover: illustration by Massimo Carulli)
You can read it in italian by clicking here