It is time to learn my native tongue.
The Kitty Kat cat food account I work on as a young ad executive allows me little time for language classes. I devise a plan for a live-in teacher and post an ad on a UCLA kiosk for an Italian roommate. It is answered. Standing at the door of my Los Angeles condo is a modest young man around five-foot, six inches tall. His body is stout, his face full and swart, his nose classically Roman. His dark hair streams over his ears mullet-style. He’s dressed in khakis with a forest-green sweater draped over his shoulders. He introduces himself as Franco Fusco, a humanities major from Rome.
After I help him situate his belongings in the upstairs bedroom, we sit on the balcony, watch 747s on their approach to LAX, drink Mexican beer and get acquainted. There is a sour odor about him. I suspect that he does not use deodorant. He explains that his lineage can be traced back to ancient Rome.
“I’m bummed,” I tell him as he sips his beer. “My parents are from Italy, yet they never taught me the language.”
“It is no good,” he says in a nasal voice.
We speak only in Italian; our conversation is limited. I stand before the bathroom mirror, open my mouth, place my tongue behind my teeth and practice rolling my “Rs.”
Rrrragazzo. Rrrrrrrrragazza. Rrrrrrrrrrragazzi.
I introduce Franco to my hope-to-be, live-in girlfriend, a spunky Asian line producer with long, paintbrush-black hair, cat-eye glasses, and an exquisitely placed beauty mark. She is delicious in her cuffed jeans and taut lime sweater. Franco traces the topography of her breasts before their eyes meet.
“Hi,” she says. “I’m Stephanie.”
“Piacere, bellissima,” he says, kissing her cheeks.
After Stephanie retreats to the bathroom, he turns to me, swivels his hands in the shape of an hourglass, and cracks a sly smile.
“Mama, mama! Che corpo da favola! What a bod,” he says with his hands together in prayer. “She is Giapponese, no?”
“No.” I say. “Chinese.” When she returns, Stephanie opens a bottle of California Pinot Grigio. Franco cringes when it hits his lips. He goes on about the superiority of Italian wine, punctuating his comments with a code of hand gestures.
Later, we go to a sushi restaurant and eat tuna poki and baby octopus. He orders chicken Teriyaki.
“Non mi piace il pecse crudo,” he says, explaining his disdain for raw fish. He then fumbles his chopsticks into Stephanie’s lap.
Franco fixes us prosciutto and provolone panini grilled and crushed thin in a toaster press. I speak Italian, butchering it miserably while we play mah jong under the dim, 1960’s style globe lamp hanging over the kitchen table. Sitar music plays on the hi-fi. Franco quarters a persimmon with a paring knife, winks at Stephanie, and prattles on about his homeland.
“Roma,” he says, “It is bad with smog and traffic. You will like it.” After a wide yawn, he slaps a mah jong tile on the table, bids us goodnight, and heads off for bed.
“Maybe it’s me,” Stephanie says, “but I think he’s in love with my tits.”
“No,” I say. “It’s your ass.”
I am vacuuming the living room. Stephanie is parked on the sofa sipping black tapioca balls through the straw of her mango tea. She is reading Zen and the Art of Shotgun Technique. She lifts her legs and waits as I vacuum the channel between the couch and coffee table. Franco stiffens. He pulls me aside and bites his fist.
“Amico,” he says sotto voce. “This job is for the woman.”
Stephanie and I take Franco to Club Protozoa: a subterranean chamber lit in pinks and blues. Sex toys and Barbie dolls hang from the ceiling. The crowd pulsates on the floor to House music as we dance. Franco’s movements are mechanical and out of sync. His body odor swells. As the beat picks up, his legs snap to the ceiling in an awkward Moulin Rouge can-can. He accidentally kicks Stephanie in the stomach.
“It wasn’t his fault,” I say.
Franco greets Stephanie at the door with an apology, a European kiss-kiss on each cheek and a long, tight embrace. She wrinkles her nose. His body odor forces her back.
“What a hug whore,” she says after he leaves.
“It’s the Italian way,” I say.
Franco and I run into Clifford Binks from condo 6C in the parking garage. He is an effete, pear-shaped man in his mid-forties with a penchant for wearing Bermuda shorts and black knee-high socks. He is the homeowner’s association president.
“This person isn’t your roommate?” he says in a persnickety voice. “You know the rules about sublets, don’t you?”
“Yes, Clifford,” I say. Clifford slides his high broad ass into the driver’s seat of his dented yellow Volvo. A fuzzy Day-Glow orange cat hangs off the rear view mirror. He does a laborious six-point turn out of his parking space and rolls out to the street.
“Lui e’ un idiota,” I tell Franco. “Ignore him.”
Franco lands a part-time job at Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
“No Italian tonight, John Wayne,” I tell him. “You’re an honorary American now.”
We celebrate. The twelve-pack of Budweiser flattens our brains. We stagger through a crowded family amusement center, past a line of squawking video games and pimple-faced teens to the go-carts. We speed pell-mell around the track, hooting until management calls security and gives us the boot.
My language immersion strategy proves fruitful. I take Stephanie to Cucina D’Napoli. The old Florentine waiter, a convivial man with three wiry hairs left on his head, takes our order. I snap the menu shut. Romantic syllables flow from my mouth like a great aria. I request the calimari fritti, two orders of Spaghetti Milanese, and a bottle of Chianti. Fifteen minutes later the waiter returns with a chicken salad, two orders of Veal Scaloppini, a Brandy Alexander and a Coke. I ask if the food is for another table.
“No,” he says, “This is what you ordered.”
“Did I pronounce everything correctly?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, “And your accent e’ perfetto!”
It’s the weekend. Franco rides his Vespa up Highway 101 to spend the weekend with a cousin in Santa Barbara. Stephanie and I have the place to ourselves. I speak to her in Italian, stringing miscellaneous words together — Latin mumbo jumbo. La lingua dell’amore nonetheless is like warm music and sends her into liquid sex heaven. We thrash in bed doing the jizzy jing jang and then after, we nap.
I awake floating on sappy love endorphins and slide my surfboard onto the bed next to her. I bounce on it naked and recite Bukowski poetry by rote. She giggles and tosses a snowdome of Cincinnati at my face, her dark feline eyes sparkling with mischief. Blood spits from my nose. I pounce on top of her. The copulation resumes unabated, torrid machine gun sex. Afterward, we eat Denver omelets in bed as I page through Japanese racing magazines with a wad of toilet paper wedged in my nose.
Monday morning: I hear a crash in the kitchen. The Battle Star Gallactica collector’s coffee mug Stephanie gave me as a birthday gift is in shards on the tile floor. The rest of my dinnerware is stacked on the counter in random piles.
“Franco?” I say, “Che fai?”
“Mi spiace, I’m sorry,” he says, and carefully replaces the shelves with red Samian ware and hand-blown glass vessels circa 49 AD. Though he’s been gone only a few days, he appears to have lost weight.
I am on my hands and knees with my ear to the floor searching for my pet gecko “Z-rod” when Franco enters the room. I immediately notice his leather string sandals. I rise to my feet. Franco is leaner than the day before, muscular almost. His hair is cut Caesar style. He has donned a brown linen tunic, which is belted at the waste. His voice is hefty.
“The rent,” he says, handing me a goatskin sack. It is filled with ancient Roman coins forged with portraits of Tiberius, Ceasar Augustus, and Claudius I.
“Grazie, amico,” I tell him. “But a check would suffice.”
Franco lies across the living room sofa in his tunic. He is the picture of late-empire apathy as he plucks olives, cheese, and assorted cold meats off a hand-beaten brass platter stamped with floral relief. He is watching the Oakland Raiders football game on TV. He sips from a blown-glass chalice of red wine and offers commentary.
“Uomini Americani play like women,” he says.
There is a gap in my schedule so I take Franco to the beach. The ocean is an endless spread of inviting blue. The sun is nuclear white, the sand hot beneath our feet. We hustle to the surf line, leaving footprints in the sea foam. Franco is trim. His contoured abs emerge above the waistline of his loin cloth. He smacks his lips and ogles young girls in bikinis. I tell him about a distant uncle, a famous cheese maker in Padova, Italy.
“Come si chiama?” Franco asks.
“Si, di Padova.”
Franco stops suddenly. The sun rakes across his face in hard shadows. Waves slap his ankles. Then, as if he’s holding in a secret pleasure, his eyes widen in excitement.
“Lo conosco, I know him,” Franco says, beaming. He explains that his third cousin from his uncle Geatano’s second marriage is married to Salvatore’s youngest daughter. Could it be? What are the chances? Yes! We are tied by blood.
I break into a broad grin and throw my arms open.
“Cugino!” I say and embrace Franco, slapping his back and kissing him in the manly affectionate way only European men can do.
Stephanie and I get wasted on Canadian beer, hop in her Miata and visit Cyber Circus, a virtual hyper-reality arcade situated in a Manhattan Beach strip mall. I’ve developed a strong kinship with my peculiar Italian countryman, yet Stephanie bitches about him the entire way over.
We lie next to each other in black vinyl recliners, our bodies naked beneath bathrobes, our heads strapped with bulky sensory helmets. Nearly fifty diodes are attached to our skin near vital organs and nerve clusters. Tinny computer ditties sprinkle down from ceiling speakers. Stephanie chooses to skip weightless through the dusty-red Martian landscape. I choose the virtual Marianas Trench. I’m at the ink-black depth of 21,000 feet face-to-face with a phosphorescent-green fish with spiky teeth and opalescent eyes. The diode sensors kick in big-time and my head feels as if it will implode from the pressure. This is when Stephanie yells out to me.
“Franco is a pig and he smells like an ass. Why do you defend him?”
“How about a third barnyard reference?” I shout back.
“Okay.” she yells. “He’s a misogynist too.”
“Oh, I get it. You’re still pissed about the Gallactica coffee mug?”
“No,” she says. “Okay — yeah, I’m pissed.”
“Point taken,” I say. “But can you cut him some slack?”
While I’m at work, Franco rips open the condo walls with a sledgehammer and crowbar. He tears out the copper plumbing and constructs an elaborate system of mini aqueducts out of PVC pipe, which weaves through the apartment collecting rainwater from the roof.
Franco invites a dozen of his friends over for dinner: an eclectic toga crew of male college students, an English lit professor, four sisters from Delta Gamma sorority, a homeless man, and a street hooker he served at the Krispy Kreme. They consume volumes of red wine and feast on wild boar and foul smelling cheeses until their stomachs bloat. Overcome with slumber, they sprawl on the living room floor like scattered corpses on a battlefield. The snoring is loud and ugly. Upon awakening, they stick raven feathers down each other’s throats until the last guest vomits into a slipware bowl. They wipe their mouths and pat their brows with the tail end of their togas and resume the meal.
The party carries over to the following evening. I come up the walkway to catch Clifford Binks peeping into my living room window. He is crouched forward with his broad ass hiked in the air.
“Binks!” I say. He snaps bolt upright and lets out a girlish scream. His face crinkles.
“You, you...I mean really,” he says all huffy-puff and scurries off to his condo.
There is muffled groaning behind my front door. I open it. The partygoers are engaged in various stages of molten Vesuvius bang-bang. A fleshy carpet of tits and tails writhes like a single pink organism on the living room floor. Togas are piled high on an end table. A Greek musical trio consisting of a pan flute, kithara and harp, play a bouncy tune in the kitchen lending a convivial mood to the action. Franco, slathered in extra virgin olive oil, pops his head up from the pink and breaks into a jubilant smile.
“Viene, viene,” he says, beckoning me with his hand as if to say, come in, the water is dandy.
“Grazie, no,” I say. There is a big presentation to the Kitty Kat client in the morning and it’s best I get some rest. I retire to my bedroom.
Franco sits at the kitchen table in his tunic and hones the blade of a catapult spear with an oilstone. His face is now sculpted like a Roman statue. He fumes as he recalls his commute. Cutting through traffic on the 10 freeway, a cowboy in a huge Stetson sandwiched Franco between his pickup truck and a decrepit Toyota Corolla packed with collapsed produce boxes.
“You really can’t be traveling the LA freeways on a Vespa,” I tell him. “E’ molto pericoloso.”
“You are right, amico,” he says. "It is not safe. You are a good friend.”
Franco trades in his Vespa for a late model Chariot complete with four white stallions, ABS brakes, ivory leather trim, European sport suspension, cruise control, and a nine-speaker sound system. He purchases the extended warranty. He takes it up Pacific Coast Highway for a workout. Ocean mist ticks against his face. Horse manes slap in the wind. He snaps the reigns and opens it up. The tachometer redlines. The final act from the opera Cavalleria Rusticana booms over the stereo and dissipates into the ocean air. Cars passing along side him are flipped off the highway as the steel sabers that extend from the axles spin and shred their tires. A trail of twisted metal is strewn in his path.
Clifford Binks is out on his patio standing on a Snoopy step stool. He is hanging a potted-plant, which overflows from a macramé sling. I walk by.
“You’re in violation of the sublet code 417, mister,” He snips. “Your friend has to go.”
“Vaffanculo,” I say, masking the phrase with a smile. He waddles off the stool complaining that large piles of horseshit are scattered on the garage floor, hay bales are stacked ceiling high, and the odor has slithered into his condo and settled there. Moreover, the chariot takes up more than its allotted parking space.
Stephanie and I sit at a cafe table at Starbucks. We sip Grande Cappuccinos, nibble on biscotti, and lick foam off each other’s lips. She is the perfect woman:
(A) She is a mamboriffic in bed.
(B) She can whip through a tax return without a calculator.
(C) She is an ace with a 9mm Glock.
We decide to move in together but with an ultimatum: “Him or me,” she says. Franco must leave.
Franco scowls when I break the news. He heaves an iron trident at my 200 watt, vacuum tube hi-fi. It detonates in a spray of white-hot sparks and trips the circuit breaker. He is an angry black cutout in the dark. He lights a torch of papyrus reeds. The living room flickers with a cave-like glow.
“I teach you la lingua dell’amore,” he howls, “And you repay me with the scorn of a woman!” He spits at my feet, mounts his chariot and rides to the Krispy Kreme where he serves hot glazed donuts at the drive-through window until 2:00am.
There is a knock at our front door. Franco is on the sofa in an armor breastplate and shin guards watching reruns of “Beverly Hills 90210 and twisting a string of leather tight around his fist. He’s stoic. Taller and beefier. I plead with him to open the door. He sneers.
“Per favore,” I say.
He rises begrudgingly, walks over and opens it. Dressed in a high school cheerleader’s uniform is a tawdry twenty-something blond with gargantuan breasts.
“I have a message for a Seen-yo-ray Fuss-co.” she says in a throaty contralto. I slip her two, crisp hundred-dollar bills.
Franco and I are back on speaking terms.
Clifford Binks beats his fist on my front door. He is not happy. The catapult that Franco fashioned out of recycled lumber and bungee cords and sits on our balcony is an eyesore, he says. He is armed with a phonebook-size copy of the HOA by-laws. He flips the book open to page 472, section 3C, points to clause 12e and reads aloud.
“It states here clearly: laundry, barbecues, auto parts, and other such items are to be restricted to the garage storage area or the interior of the home. The catapult has to go.”
“Bah!” Franco says. “America and your so-called freedom.” He dismisses Binks with a wave of his hand. Binks leaves in a huff.
The twenty-seven coat, onyx-blue paint job on Franco’s chariot has been keyed. The scratch is long and deep into the primer. Franco suspects Clifford Binks. He snatches Bink’s hairless Siamese cat off the fence by its hind leg, climbs the stairs to the balcony and launches it from the catapult. It travels nearly four hundred yards and lands on Sepulveda Boulevard during late afternoon rush hour where it is squashed under the grinding tire of a late model Range Rover driven by a Hollywood has-been.
Clifford Binks brings suit.
At 10:23 am, Franco is arrested on charges of feline murder and thrown in the county jail. His cousin from Santa Barbara posts bail. Later that night, Binks is found pinned to the kitchen wall of his condo with an iron javelin skewered through his chest. Before Binks gurgles his last breath, Franco exacts his attorney’s whereabouts.
He hops in his chariot, dressed in chainmail and a gladiator helmet, and travels to the California Pizza Kitchen in Marina Del Rey. Upon his arrival, he confronts Bink’s lawyer and a colleague as they dine on Thai chicken pizza and a fine Napa Valley Chardonnay.
“You are signore Bitterman, no?” Franco asks.
“Yes,” Bitterman says. Franco lunges a catapult spear through Bitterman’s throat. The crowd gasps. Bitterman’s colleague faints face-first into his pizza. Franco scans the restaurant for dramatic effect and leaps into his chariot, snaps the reigns, and rides into the diamond-filled night.
Back at the condo he recounts the story, all of Rome’s purple arrogance on his face. I advise him to seek counsel.
He hires Johnny Cochran.
Franco is arraigned on charges of homicide. Out of respect for the court, he wears a freshly laundered Toga (medium starch). Cochran, smart in his custom-tailored gabardine suit and French cuffs, gesticulates before the judge as he lays out a deft insanity defense.
The trial is a media circus. Franco’s face is plastered on supermarket tabloids. The country takes sides. Franco is not impressed with the hotshot attorney. He fires him. Stephanie moves in.
Stephanie kneads the tension from my lower back by dancing on it to a Brazilian samba beat.
“Cheer up,” she says, with a look of encouragement. “How about a kelp and guava smoothie?”
With all her sweet-talk, I am still despondent. Franco has been gone so long my Italian deteriorates into a garble of round disparate syllables. I resort to foreign language tapes and mimic the happy female voice hissing over my old, portable cassette player.
“Vorrei una tazza di cafe?” the woman says.
“Si,” I reply, “Vorlei up-pa terra da coffeeee.”
It is no use.
Back in the courtroom, Franco fashions his own defense. He finagles a meeting in chambers. Franco sits across from the judge, tells him that his uncle is a bigwig in the Roman Senate, and then winks. The judge’s eyes sizzle with contempt. Franco grins, draws a manila envelope from underneath his toga, and passes it to him. It contains photos of his family’s sprawling villa in the soul of the Tuscan countryside and a deed for the property. Franco is acquitted.
Footnote: The Hollywood has-been revives his career in all the hoopla and is signed to three-picture deal.
Franco returns to the condo to collect his belongings. He is now eight feet tall and looks like a comic book action hero. His muscles are twisted steel cable, his face worthy of a god. He calls himself Celadus the Thracian. He consumes two gallons of wine at dinner, a whole roasted turkey, five jars of olives, and a wheel of Parmesan cheese. Stephanie sits across from him in a stupor. Her elbows are planted on the kitchen table, her face cradled in her hands. Though I can’t explain it, she has the same star-rapt look on her face as the time that handsome boxer, Ray “Cha Cha” Montoya pulled up next to us in his Ferrari at the intersection of Santa Monica and 5th. True, Franco taught me la lingua dell’amore; that much I owe him. But even someone as patient as me must draw the line.
“I leave for Chicago in the morning,” I tell him. “You have three days to get your stuff together. Be gone when I get back.”
The Kitty Kat client fires me. I head home. I’m caught in a foul weather maze of connecting flights. Perche, perche? Why, why I ask. Not because of the account, but because my bowels are betrayed by the in-flight lasagna—food of my people. I race through concourses and familiarize myself with the men’s room in four different cities. Dejected and dehydrated, I seek comfort in Stephanie’s voice. I call her. She speaks to me in cold biting quips.
Exhausted, I return from my business trip. I plunk my bags at the front door and open it. Franco is in the living room, bare-chested. He is wearing a belted loincloth, metal shin guards and thick leather wristbands. His gladiator helmet nearly scraps the ceiling. Stephanie is tucked behind his colossal forearm.
“I’m leaving you.” She says, gazing upon her new lover. She slides the tip of her finger down his meaty pec and spins girlish love circles around his nipple. A huge male tiger is fighting the taut chain Franco is holding, slicing the air in front of it with its claws. It lets out a roar that rattles the walls. Franco grunts.
“You are but a teet on the cow of the Italian language.”
“Oh, yeah?” I say.
I am taken aback by the comment. Speechless almost. I stare hard at Franco and then without groping, and in the most perfect Italian, my voice splays across the room with dazzling operatic splendor.
“Dai l’addio al tuo deposito! Kiss your security deposit goodbye, ” I say, just before Franco loosens his grip and the mighty cat lunges forward.