December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Sex & lizards

By |2018-04-22T17:41:08+02:00January 1st, 2007|Memory Lane|
She lay in the rowboat, idling away the afternoons...

n 1960, facchino was my favorite word. When the train huffed to a halt in Naples, scarecrow porters mobbed the windows. Facchino! Facchino! they cried. Facchino! Facchino! I shouted back.

Be quiet, said my father.

As a facchino loaded our suitcases, I probed the ganglia of train bottoms. Trains at rest sizzle like frying pans. They hum and pee and wheeze. The Naples depot, I decided, was possessed by ghouls and rodents and kissing people who snacked on radioactive garlic and morphed into matinee monsters like Atragon or Mothra.

“Do not talk about rats,” said my young Polish mother in French. “They are dirty creatures.”

The admonishment provoked me. I flailed up the platforms pausing only to study the plaques on the electric locomotives, attentive to the construction date, usually 1957 or 1958, which at the time meant the engines were nearly new.

The newness gave me chills. As an only child, I approved of the future. Since the present was filled with bigger and taller competitors, I presumed the future had to be more about me.

Galloping, I kicked over the valise of a muscular peasant woman. Held together by string, it sprang open to reveal white linens and intriguing pointed cups. She howled and grabbed at my short pants. I yelped and fled.

Our arrivals from Rome resembled one another in that they went without a hitch if I behaved long enough to allow our slow migration from the crowded platform to the station entrance where Nino parked the tan Cadillac.

But if facchino-heckling and ganglia-checking intervened, or if bosom cups appeared from nowhere, matters invariably deteriorated. As they did that day. Determined to avenge her wounded valise, the peasant woman heaved into a trot. Her bosom gained on me until I collided with my father.

A dashing man in his early 60s with a starched white shirt and tie, he gripped my shoulders and then waggled his hands in a “mischievous child” motion. As a small crowd gathered, I sobbed. Tears were pardon’s foremost mechanism. The woman reluctantly retreated.

Which is when my father was robbed. Or so he supposed. Or maybe Nino supposed it, spinning the great lubricated wheel (“Power Steering,” read the dashboard script) and pushing the Cadillac south toward Positano. A supernaturally fish-finned convertible four or five times the size of anything in its path, the car’s pedigree was its impossible size. It was its own flagship. My hair flapped in the wind. I was King of Italy. Briefly.

When enraged, my father’s nostrils vaulted into arches. That his wallet and passport had been stolen in Naples — where he preached vigilance — was shameful enough. My wild behavior only exaggerated the woe. Terrified, I cowered on the back seat with my mother. Fishing for sympathy, I asked her the purpose of the woman’s big cups were but she looked away. I then opened my mouth into the wind, hoping it might cleanse me.

“Close your mouth,” said my father.

The road from Naples to Positano is an admonishment to distraction. Equal parts altitude and sea, it teases bravado from vertigo. Though Nino had tamed the cliffs long ago, he spoke only when spoken to. He gestured at laggard Vespas but cursed rarely, his mouth filled with chipped ceramic teeth he chose not to show.

“How is il dottore?” Nino asked my father.

I did not know my father was a doctor but kept still. The expert silence practiced by my parents was non-negotiable.

“All is well,” he replied unconvincingly. “And dottori Bob and Donald?” asked my father.

Bene, bene, said Nino. Tutto bene.

On we streaked toward paradise.

THE VILLA is still there. After Bob’s death in the late-1960s it was bought by Gianfranco Corsi, otherwise known as director Franco Zeffirelli. Now in his 80s, Zeffirelli once entertained Hollywood superstars. This I read without nostalgia. I had no wish to share my memories with Robert De Niro’s.

Donald was Bob’s regular houseguest, a drop-in visitor of sorts. The villa’s three interconnected stucco houses rested on crannied terraces sheltered by palms and bougainvillea. Meals were served on a white-trellised patio of mossy stones. You descended from there to a rocky pier and the warming sea.

Don’t ever jump straight out, Bob warned. Move to the left always. He led me by the hand to the water’s edge where the gummy waves sucked at a poaching reef. One day, excited from catching a large lizard, I raced to the pier and leapt distractedly into its waiting maw. I cleared it by inches and my heart raced for a week.

In 1960 at Villa Tre Ville there was no radio, no television, no intercourse with the known world. Italian newspapers, fetched by Nino in Positano, arrived in the evening. Foreign papers, on which my father, Bob, and Donald depended, got there a day or two later. But the men had rhetoric in common. They had served together in the Office of Strategic Services and the Office of War Information. They’d been spies, spymasters, and propagandists. My father had written three novels, Donald two. Bob was the most maternal of the group. Nino, whose wife lived in Positano, was his lover. And so, I gather in retrospect, was Donald, at least from time to time. What I knew of life then was confined to the crafts of lizard-hunting and rock leaping, with an occasional side specialty in complaining.

Bob, ice tea in hand, sat on the veranda and bickered with Donald, who wore a bandana and had a neck beard, which he pulled when agitated. My father juiced the conversation with dramatic presagings of Atomic holocaust and De Gaulle’s tendency to self-aggrandize. My mother, who spoke little English, lingered in sunny corners of the villa, reading Maigret detective novels and applying creams to her topless skin in a way that disquieted me inexplicably.

At night, under the timid geckos that congregated on my bedroom ceiling, I’d think of my mother and of the peasant woman at the station, the thumps her bosom made. Once, Nino caught me peering at my mother as she undressed. He yanked me clear and raised his palm, which remained aloft in a kind of startled Fascist salute. But the trembling palm stopped in mid-air. Italians, I suspected, were susceptible to passions I had been trained to dumbly conceal.

I RECALL vividly the word gay. And the word dear.

Fireworks, said Bob, were a gay sight. Prices at a nearby fish restaurant, said my father, were dear.

Donald used the word shit in connection with the taste of prawns, and I first assumed shit was a kind of mollusk. Fuck, another frequent Donaldism, had no meaning at all, though when inspired he applied the word to flies, politicians, hot water, and stray cats. “Fuck those cats!” he roared after lunch. I assumed Donald had directed this order at me, and not knowing what else to do I went in search of the offending cats hoping to bring them back to Donald in some way fucked. The cats got away.

Men, I knew, did not belong with other men, at least not intimately. How I knew or sensed this — with no judgment attached — is obscure even now.

At seven, I had yet to receive any training in the vicissitudes of sex. My mother spoke to me in French, my father in English. My personal life centered on the Tintin comic strip (in French), ocean liner post cards, and images of carnivorous dinosaurs. I wanted to be an aviator and considered females mostly intolerable but useful insofar as they were generally kinder than men. At night, they possessed an allure I had yet to fully identify and blamed on the unfair cajolings of perfume. The idea that I would one day willingly seduce such a perfumed entity would have seemed, at the time, squirm-inducing. Given the choice between a lizard and a woman, I preferred lizards. Parts of them broke off, true, but they never complained.

Bob encouraged my lizard explorations by pointing to underbrush and walls where he thought they resided in abundance. By the shovels, he gestured. He called me Mr. Fits-and-Starts. Fuck that, said Donald. I ignored him. I attacked the shovels and watched the lizards whip away, their tails swishing.

Bob had been right and seemed pleased to have pleased me. Donald grunted. My father napped. Nino went out for the papers, or so he said. The villa’s afternoons dithered. I trapped and freed lizards and swam in the amniotic water.

It was a gay time.

SOMETIMES NINO abducted me from my lizard-hunting among the cactus and took me to town in the Cadillac. I went reluctantly. I knew my true calling. To catch a lizard, you must crouch down and make your palm like a garden trowel. Eventually, the stupid ones waddle forward like obsessive old men. They can’t resist. Breathe softly. If the faster ones hear you they’ll dissolve into green or brown. I explained my tracking philosophy to Nino, who trundled me into the car whisked off. Lizards didn’t interest him.

Nor did his wife, Giuseppina, with her meek smile and filmy white complexion she picked up at the local bakery. I was not encouraged to speak to her. She called me tesorino and fed me almond cakes. The ones I couldn’t finish she’d place expertly in a swathe of linen for the return trip.

Nino grew moodier and coarser without the Cadillac, which he parked in a rustic lot. Positano could not cope with cars, let alone the bold Cadillac. He was in turn shy and belligerent. He spoke only in outbursts. He defended himself against conversation with shouts.

Mostly, I trailed him through the market where he bought scented fruits and vegetables for the villa. We’d then walk to the raucous port where he bartered for seafood among the dopily menacing fishermen, his friends, who smelled thickly of bilge and punctures and entrails. They lined up the meatiest of the day’s big squid on the pavement until the dumbstruck flesh darkened and stank. I held my nose and Nino barked out laughter, for once showing his desperate teeth. Driving back, he said nothing.

Nino was also in charge of taking my mother out on the row boat, which Donald affectionately called “the slip.” The slip was big enough for three and my mother enjoyed lolling in the sun while my father stayed on land and argued with the men in makeshift shadows. Rarely, my father accompanied her and I’d watch from the shoreline. They looked like delegates at a summit, seated at opposite ends of a conference table. When my father leaned forward, she tilted back. Once in a while she smiled.

Lizards have no vocal chords. When cornered, they open their mouths to caw but nothing happens. The first lizard I kept I named Giacomino. I opened my cupped palm to free him but he didn’t move. Instead, he bobbed his head. I splayed my hand — I didn’t want to hurt him — but Giacomino continued jiggling and bobbing. The keen pumping of his gills subsided. Maybe he thought he was dead and dreaming.

Men, Bob had told my father, become entangled. Only women fall in love. Fuck that, said Donald. Nino said nothing. My mother was on the slip.

I needed advice about Giacomino. Where to put him? What to feed him? How long before his broken-off tail grew back?

The nearest of the three villas was Bob’s, and I rushed at it with glee — Mr. Fits and Starts — trying not to press too hard on Giacomino who tickled my grasp.

Bob would know. Bob would care.

THE SLOPPY hair on Nino’s arched back startled me enough that I opened my hand and dropped Giacomino. The lizard froze, dazed by the fall, then skittered into the underbrush. Nino heaved awkwardly over Bob at the foot of the bed, his knees knuckled into the matress. Bob was feline, hands and knees flat like paws, moaning on a layer of pillows under the window overlooking the sea. I backed away from the naked men but Nino heard the intruding shuffle and peered over his shoulder. His mouth formed an ominous oval but nothing came out. I ran.

And collided with my father.

He had come for me with good news. Our portiere in Rome had told him that the Naples train station thieves had mailed back his wallet. The money was gone but all the documents had been returned. Gentlemen thieves, said my father.

I burst into tears. I never said why.

We didn’t return to Positano after 1960. My moveable parents shuffled between Paris and Rome before taking me to Washington, D.C., and on to Madrid. Their troubled marriage lasted until 1965, when the distance between them turned literal. My father settled in Washington with me; my mother moved to Rome.

Years later, my father told me about Nino. He quarreled with Bob one day and quit the villa for good. Aging Bob grew inconsolable and took a winter drive in which he swerved the tan Cadillac into another lane, killing himself and a family of four. Of the Positano five, I’m the only one left.

Nearly 50 years later, facchino is rarely used in train stations, or anywhere else. It’s a remnant of more servile times. People try to travel lightly and consider self-sufficiency a virtue. There are fewer porters. Most are called portabagagli, which sounds less raw and menacing. Italy still has dottori by the millions, and most do not practice medicine. Some practice nothing at all.

As for lizards, air and noise pollution have diminished their shambling numbers. You can find them where they feel most at home, in the rural shade or amid foliage in a park. If you pay close attention you might see one on a ledge, scheming. Or clawing a promising rock.

Anywhere out of harm’s way.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.