En route to the coffee shop this Sunday morning, I was about as cross as I ever get. My 12-year-old car had been making a noise so ominous that I’d been forced to hoof it through the rain, and my cute umbrella was nowhere to be found. To make matters worse I was uncharacteristically nursing a hangover, which not only made coffee essential but the walk to fetch it pure misery.
Suffice it to say I’d not had the greatest Saturday night. It’d been the stuff of which Cathy Comics, rather than French movies, were made, and my hangover stemmed as much from the company I’d kept as from anything I’d actually imbibed.
So it was a morning when no one would’ve dared claim I was looking my best. Puffy-eyed and sallow, I was wearing the same matronly blue dress I’ve worn nearly every morning this summer—in my defense, dresses with pockets are very hard to come by—and my unbrushed hair stank of other people’s cigarettes and bad perfume. Nonetheless, as I passed the local pasticcera, one of the Italian fellows loitering under its awning looked me up and down, let out a low wolf whistle, and winked. Instantly I felt a million times better.
I’ve never been offended by that kind of male attention, never thought it compromised any of my deeply felt feminist principles. True, I don’t dig hustles or the you-like-what-I-like-so-I-like-you narcissism that passes for modern courtship. But a guy who just puts it out there without telegraphing his desire as a threat? Fuggedaboutit. That’s old-school Brooklyn in the very best way. More to the point, that’s Italian men.
To be clear, I don’t mean “Italian-American” men. I am referring to the men who were born in Italy rather than the ones who have an Italian grandmother. I am referring to the men who bolt espressos rather than Dunkin’ Doughnut coffees to keep their hearts beating. I am referring to the men who mostly speak in grunts, hisses, and explicit hand gestures.
I had one of those boyfriends. He was tall and broad-shouldered with long, ropy arms, old-soul eyes, and tanned, rosy skin. I met him not far from the Long Island beach house my friends and I rented one summer. He was working construction as a literal WOP—that old derogatory acronym for an Italian guy without papers—and when I walked by his site he whistled through his teeth. I looked up to find him nodding his head. “Principessa,” he said. Or at least that’s what I thought he said. I was distracted by his slow, sexy grin.
Despite myself, I grinned back.
Within a few weeks, he moved out of the shack where the construction company had stowed him and set up residence in my bed, much to my housemates’ chagrin. I didn’t care; I was in a constant state of bliss. Our days went like this: He’d rise at dawn and work two hours before waking me with the crossword puzzle, a macchiato he’d prepared, and an erection. Then he’d return to the site, leaving me to write all day in post-coital glory. I’d knock off around 4, and run three miles to the beach where he’d meet me after work with wine, bread, and an erection. After we put our clothes back on—New York’s nudity laws were very loosely enforced that summer—he’d drive his company’s beatup truck to the grocery store, where he’d sniff cheeses, tap melons, and haggle with butchers. (I didn’t know you could do that in American grocery stores.) Then, unshowered, he’d cook our entire household such an excellent dinner of antipasti, pasta, and meat that he defused everyone’s objections to our noisy goings-on. Mostly. Afterward he’d take me to bed with more wine, our books (he read the same volume of Primo Levi all summer), and an erection.
It was a great summer.
We ate like kings; we swam like fish; we rolled in the wide green fields of Eastern Long Island. I wrote reams and reams; he saved money. We both grew browner and fitter. My modestly sized breasts even swelled. I chalked it up to all the mozzarella he was feeding me but he shook his head. “Italian sausage,” he said and pointed a lit cigarette at his crotch. When I burst out laughing, he shook his head again, closed his eyes, and audibly exhaled smoke through what he referred to as his “important nose.” The logic of his argument, however economically articulated, was undeniable.
“But don’t you mind that he barely speaks English?” everyone asked me. “Eh,” I’d answer. “We both speak a little Spanish and, you know. Talking is so overrated…”
I’d trail off while they’d look at each other. Usually I was the chattiest person in any room.
“I get it,” my friend H said one day after watching him throw me over his shoulder. “He’s tall and furry and stinky. He forages. He grunts. He’s naked most of the time. He’s strong. He’s not a man. He’s a creature.”
From then on, that’s how we all referred to him: The Creature. Even he called himself that, which somehow made him even more creaturely.
It might not have been a match made in heaven but we never fought. At most, he’d click his tongue if he found my behavior vulgar, or suck his teeth if I left a terrible mess. (The irony that the Creature was more domesticated than me was not lost on either of us.) Once when I caught him acting especially Italian with a cute redhead at the deli, he crawled across our entire kitchen floor with a rose dangling between his teeth to soothe my pique. We never, like, processed our ire, though. We didn’t have to. He was that much of a charmer.
At summer’s end he made his way back to Bologna and, no doubt, to a nice Italian girl who’d actually cook for him from time to time. I moved on to the kind of new-millennium heartbreakers I’m only now learning to avoid. But to this day The Creature and I remain on unusually good terms for former lovers. It makes sense: We never pretended we were anything we weren’t. More to the point, we never really talked.
I haven’t dated any Italian men since, though they occupy a sweet spot in my heart. I even moved to one of Brooklyn’s most Italian neighborhoods—the sort with pork and pasta stores on every block, hydrants painted in Italian flag colors, and guys who appreciate Fellini blondes like myself. For from the Creature I learned a nod will suffice where most will squander a sentence, a hand gesture can sear worse than paragraphs of invective, and a well-placed whistle will establish that, even on the most sadsack of Sunday mornings, you still got it, kid.