On my way to Michigan, I’ll stop in New York to see my college roommate, Linda. She emailed me, “Glamorous women like us go to the theater at night.” Linda dresses in Armani, visits the gym daily and has been botoxed and face-lifted. By now she looks like my daughter. As for me, I see designer clothing the way I see museum pieces: things to be admired, not possessed. I haven’t been inside a gym in years and have sunk into the back pack, orthopedic shoes category. In clothing, I adhere fanatically to the middle-aged ideal of “coverage.”
Can I aspire to glamour?
Last week I bought a linen dress for New York luncheons with Linda. Unfortunately, while I modeled it for my stylish daughter, it rumpled and sagged into an old potato sack. She gave it a bocciato, thumbs down, in glamour. This morning I’m wearing it to shop for a better one. I am dogged by a professionally bubbly saleswoman who anticipates selling big to an American. She turns up behind every clothes rack. She breezes in and out of my dressing room, swamping me with insincere compliments and more things to try on. To top it off, she calls me giovanile, youthful. This is a word I never even heard until my 50th birthday. It really means menopausal. In spite of this lapse, she seems to admire my being American. In her company I feel like the personification of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I disappoint us both by buying only a discounted shawl.
On the way home, I stop at an international phone center to buy a €5 card that allows me to chat 300 minutes with my sister in Michigan. I juggle the back pack and shopping bag as I enter. I blink and wait for my photo sensitive bifocals to clear. The store is a long corridor lined with glass phone booths. I always buy the pre-paid cards here. There’s none of the antipathy I’ve encountered elsewhere.
This store is run by a young couple, genuinely friendly and helpful. The pay booth is in back. The petite, round-faced wife greets me with a big smile. My guess is that they’re from Ecuador like the pan flute players at my neighborhood street market. Some day I’d like to ask them where they’re from and how they’re getting on in Italy. Do they have friends? Do they have children? Do they get home now and then? Do they get homesick? They seem in their early twenties, like my own children who do not work in a foreign country but live at home and go to university here in Milan.
I tell her I need to call gli Stati Uniti. She knows. She has already pulled my card from the stack. At the words Stati Uniti, I hear disgruntled murmuring from two North African men standing near the door. They could be Libyan, Egyptian, or Tunisian and they speak a raucous, guttural language. But the word Americani is delivered loudly and clearly in Italian. It’s the tone of voice that does it. I feel the hair on my neck stand on end. They hate me.
As they go out, the proprietor shakes his shoulders, hands raised. “Mi dispiace,” sorry, he says.
When I open the door to leave, the two men are still there, blocking the threshold. I can’t get out.
Now I make a mistake. I say “Scusate,” even though I cannot pronounce the Italian “u.” I should have said, “Pardon.” I can do the “a” and the “o,” but the “u” gives me away as American every time. They shift positions. They are men in their thirties, one of them my height, one taller, non-athletic but not exactly fat. They wear baggy trousers and odd, lace up shoes with rows of slitted air vents. I avoid looking at their faces. I wish my eyes weren’t blue. As I move past them, I hear a sharp “Ts” sound and feel something damp on my leg. It doesn’t register until I’ve rounded the corner and noticed the dark brown spot on my skirt. I’ve been spit at.
My first thought is to wonder why brown? Were they chewing tobacco? My second thought is to go back and scream, vergogna! — shame on you. My third thought is to go back and argue that, although in theory, citizens are responsible for the actions of a democratically elected government, I didn’t vote for these guys and whatever they may be doing in your country, it’s not my fault. I don’t do any of these things. I hurry home and hope they don’t live around here and won’t recognize me if they see me again.
The spot comes out with detergent.
— Nancy Feyen’s column appears monthly.