hat Pineider made the most stylish stationary was, she said, common knowledge. She shared it in the event (which she feared) that I’d marry a “truck driver’s daughter.” That way I’d at least know what I missed. I’d also know where to purchase stationary groomed to suit the mauve Hermès portable she’d given me for Christmas. Hermès once made typewriters.
The truck driver’s daughter never appeared — no daughter of any kind, in fact — so I turned the tables on Mother’s Day. She liked American sentimentality. Gifts were expected of me, the me trained in the quivering vicissitudes of propriety.
But what to get her?
She, exigent, once married to an Albanian prince, her first husband. Me, long-haired, casual, flirting with American women from states she’d never heard of: New Hampshire, Maine (“Mayne?” she wrote, circling the “e“), Rhode Island. “And where does it go, the road?” she asked. The girl just smiled. She was a dancer.
Get her the nice paper she likes, said the dancer.
This is how it is with girls from strange states: they know their way around the delicacies of mothers. Yes, I said, yes.
After which the dancer left me for a Roman boy with a hot-cylindered Ducati motorcycle. Ercole is more my type, she told me.
But there was still Mother’s Day.
Then — and maybe still — Pineider worked by reservation only. This astounded me.
Paper, I said, Carta intestata. My mother. Her name: G for Genoa, I for Imola, S for Savona… Yes, said the flustered clerk, he knew the name Gisella. Opera, he said. But had I booked ahead?
Like a ticket? I asked.
No, said the clerk. Paper must be reserved. Prenotato. All was handcrafted. Embossing was delicate. He scowled. I was too obviously American. I expected the instant.
Here, he said, all is the opposite of instant. I remember the phrase and sometimes yearn for it now: The opposite of instant.
I nodded. How long then?
But Mother’s Day was at the end of that week, not in two. La mamma, I pleaded, gesturing at myself. Mia. Madre Mia. I grinned like a sycophantic sphinx.
The clerk was unmoved, or so it seemed. You should think ahead when it comes to your mother, he said. A mother is not a last-minute matter.
I bowed my head. Si.
Italy manufactures flagrant pauses to serve the needs of the upper hand. They permit an apparently disinterested party to save the day. Take the rural mechanic who bolts from his Sunday family picnic to tend to your ruined fan belt — stylish interventions undertaken for their own sake or to assure a debt of affection, or both. The clerk promised the stationary by Friday. I nodded, delighted.
The price was stiff for me — 120,000 lire, half-a-month’s salary — and my unsavory bills, gnarled and damp, troubled the elegant clerk. No one took credit cards nor did I own one. At Pineider, only crisp bills, in 100s not 10s, paid homage to luxury. I was revealed as an obvious pretender, the potential husband of a truck driver’s daughter.
The clerk issued a receipt, and I returned, chastened, on Thursday, this time wearing a tie. He smiled approvingly, wrapped up a handsome yellow box, but said nothing.
On Monday, Mother’s Day, came the great unveiling. She pecked my cheeks and examined the stylish rectangle crowned by a shapely ribbon. Pineidar, she said, peeling away the layers. Beautiful. Yoo-tiful, it sounded like.
But when she lifted the lid her smile quivered microscopically and slid sideways, pricked by something I couldn’t fathom.
Could Road Island girl have been wrong? I thought of her tart parting words, mere pillow-talk away: “You can’t lose what you never had.”
Thank you, said my mother. Lovely. She’d regained her composure. Then came a face-saving pause, to protect me from a blunter force.
You know, she said, that I am a princess?
Ah yes, that: King Zog’s fantasy royalty — hence her first husband’s dubious pedigree. In Zog’s 1920s, Albanian titles were handed out much the way quailing popes once traded cardinal hats for territory and protection.
You were, I snapped. You were a princess.
A princess remains one, she said. Always.
Titles mean nothing, I said.
Here, they do. This is not Road Island. This is not Mayne.
What I remember is slamming my door, the plaster poofing.
At Pineider I explained my error, but brusquely, impatiently, assuming that in the world of the anti-instant any alternation would take a decade. I would be mocked.
That wasn’t what happened: You should have said principessa, chided the clerk, splaying his palms in genuine dismay. Shame on you, to not respect your mother. Come back in a week.
The opposite of instant is the time it takes to understand the foibles of others. And once you do, to ensure the amends are wrapped for a princess, and delivered contritely by hand.