Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Summer of Nadia Comanici

This morning, on our way to the tea house for breakfast, my mom said, "Oh! Guess who emailed me the other day? Lulie Morelli*!"

"Lulie! I remember her! And Bianca! And...what was her name...the oldest one?"


"Right, Gabriella. Gabi. What happened to her, anyway?"

"Heroin. She died. And Susan died last year. A stroke, I think, or maybe a heart attack." Susan was the mom, my mom's friend from an exchange program back in high school, a New England WASP who married an Italian exporter and went on to live a life of glamorous transatlanticism, while my mom married a nice Jewish guy from the Bronx and settled in the suburbs.

I was afraid to ask about Bianca, the one who was my age, but I did anyway.

"She was addicted too," my mom said, "But she's alive. She's getting clean, she's in treatment."

"And Lulie?" Lulie was the youngest. That Bicentennial summer, she'd been six or seven years old, a small elfin presence, slipping in and out of rooms, hovering on the sidelines as Bianca and I walked chalk-line balance beams over and over in the driveway of their rented place in Montauk, the week we visited them there.

"Lulie's a rock. She's great. She's doing well, she's a nurse, she has three kids, they live in London, but you know how that family always was, she's always travelling-- to Italy to see her family, to the States to see her husband's family. I saw her last year when I went to knitting camp in England."

It's been a weekend of reminiscences, this time in Victoria. The other night, I regaled the Mermaid Girl with stories of growing up in the far-off 1970's (Computers were the size of a whole room! Our TV had a dial, and you had to go over and turn it to change the channel! Everyone got very excited about the Bicentennial!) But I'd forgotten all about the Morellis. They were so different from everything else in my universe, like people in a story, a fairy tale, even, that it's hard to fit them in with the rest of my memories-- the ones about walking to school, and marching in the Fourth of July Parade, and playing ping-pong in New York with my dad.

They lived in Italy, mostly, and had Italian names. But their mother, Susan, was American, so they spoke English like regular kids. And they seemed sort of regular, at least they did that summer. At least the two younger ones did. Well, mostly regular. Maybe a little different. I couldn't put my finger on it. Something about the lilt in their voices, the graceful way they carried themselves, the casualness with which Bianca tossed off a litany of their travels back and forth to England, America, back to Italy.

Even their family was different. My parents were divorced, spoke civilly of and to one another, and I lived with my mother and visited my father, in what was, by 1976, becoming as normal a way of life as any for a kid my age. Susan and her husband, Francesco, were married, but if I ever met Francesco I don't remember it; he was always on a business trip. And they fought. I don't remember how I knew this, but I knew.

Gabi was fifteen that summer, and far apart from the rest of us. She had her own room which we rarely entered; I remember it as swathed with scarves, dark, messy, intriguing. Once I think I saw her reach into a drawer or closet or behind a shelf, pull out a bottle of whiskey-- or maybe gin?--and take a swig. (Though what was I doing there, in her room? More likely it was Bianca who showed me the bottle, both of us sneaking in while Gabi was out.)

Another time it was Susan who ushered us in to Gabi's room while she was gone, my mom and me and maybe even my brother. "Listen to this," she said. "This is great." She dropped a record onto Gabi's player and set the needle down, and I listened, sitting on the edge of Gabi's bed like a student in a classroom, looking at the scarves and the posters and the scattered necklaces and the shadows cast from the window as Lou Reed sang "Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side...hey, sugar, take a walk on the wild side, and the colored girls sing do, de do, de do, do do do do, de do, de do..."

I didn't understand most of it, except for the chorus. That was clear to me. Gabi was on the wild side, already, anyone could see, even me, unworldly and willfully naive as I was, young as I was in some ways even for ten.

Bianca, the middle sister, was the one I was friends with, mostly. I don't think I noticed at the time, but in the one blurry photo of her I have I can see that even then she was beautiful, with smouldering dark eyes and dark hair. "Like Sophia Loren," my mom remembered this morning. She was the one I made up stories with, played games with--though we were always being reminded to include my little brother and her little sister--and my chief companion in that summer's Olympic dreams.

I don't remember us talking about the unutterable strangeness of her family, the mystery of Gabi. I didn't know what to say, didn't want to seem nosy or rude, and I don't think they seemed strange to her. I think we played with dolls, though she was probably getting old for it. I know we lived the Olympics that week, the week of Nadia Comanici's perfect 10s in gymnastics. At night we watched the competitions on the country-house television; in the daytime we put on our bathing suits, not to swim, but to pretend they were leotards and be Nadia Comanici, only fourteen years old and world-famous, impossibly lithe and flexible. Montauk is near the water, and we must have gone swimming that week, but I don't remember it; only setting one bare foot in front of the other in the driveway, endlessly balancing.

Gabi was a mystery, and Bianca an intriguingly matter-of-fact playmate, but Lulie was a little sprite, a clown, good-natured and mostly unruffled, except for the one time she cried when we beat her at Parcheesi. One night in the kitchen, my mom shoved the cat out of the way (how did they bring their cat here from Italy?) and called it "catso," meaning just to make a nickname for "cat." But Susan gasped in shock and then laughed and laughed, after explaining sputteringly to us what "catso" meant in Italian. "It means...well..penis. But it's the worst-- the most crude--you'd never, ever say it in polite company-- and you just went and--oh!" and she was off again. "Catso!" she laughed. And Lulie, echoing her, chirped up "catso! Catso, catso, catso!" her face so wry and mischievous that her mom, and all of us, doubled over again in helpless laughter.

One night the grownups, Susan and my mom, went out for dinner or maybe a movie, leaving Gabi in charge. We had dinner, and then something happened--maybe just a movement in the trees outside, maybe someone coming to visit who shouldn't have--and Gabi called the police. I remember feeling vaguely nauseous as they checked the house, asking us what happened--not just Gabi but me and Bianca, too, as the little kids sat silent and edgy. They were supposed to be in bed already, but no one had remembered to make them lie down. Everything felt upside-down, untethered.

I wish I could remember what happened that night, why Gabi called the police. My imagination, knowing what happened later--the heroin, the running away, Susan's frantic searches for good rehab programs for teenagers--puts Gabi in the middle of it somehow. After all, wasn't she already drinking, at fifteen? Maybe some of her friends came by when they weren't supposed to, maybe they had drugs or wanted drugs, maybe she panicked. But maybe she was just an anxious teenager, only a year older than the tiny gymnast on TV, feeling responsible for us younger kids, worried about the dangers of the world outside our door.

Gabi's beyond asking now, and so is her mother. My own mom can't remember what happened, though she's right down the hall as I type. I haven't seen Bianca, who was my friend, since we were eleven or twelve, though she's out there in the world, still my age, still living an unfathomably different life, but maybe one that is--who knows?--just the same in some ways, as we were just the same in some ways thirty years ago.

Lulie might know; my mom is in touch with her, and I could be too, if I wanted to. But she was so young that summer; I'm amazed she remembers us at all, though my mom says she does. It's hard for me to understand that she's a grownup, like me, with a job and kids, living a regular life in the regular world. Her family was so otherworldly, and I knew them so long ago, that it feels like they all might as well have existed only in a dream I had.

All I can remember is how I sat on the living-room couch that night, the cool sea air wafting in through the open door, and focused my eyes on the the cover of the latest Cricket magazine, lying closed on the round wicker-and-glass coffee table. It was an underwater scene, laughing baby mermaids with pearl necklaces swimming smilingly across the green sea of the page. I'd finished the issue already, and now felt as if I were looking at it from underwater, myself, or from the wrong end of a telescope, so far away was the girl who had read those stories and contest entries and cartoons. That girl didn't know what I knew: that the wild side could blow into the house with the wind, nothing between me and it.

*I've changed all the names and some identifying details about this family.


Anonymous Arwen said...

Wow. That is beautiful narrative. I forgot you aren't Anne Tyler.

11:39 PM  
Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

Laughing at Arwen's comment so much that I'm afraid I'll forget to tell you how beautiful this piece is.

My sister was a competitive gymnast, so the summer of Nadia Comaneci is indelibly etched on my mind, too. We had a balance beam in the basement, and little leotards that we wore all summer. Though the Italians in our lives were the prosaic townie sort -- our neighborhood was Little Italy, after all.

6:57 AM  
Blogger susan said...

The captcha for me is some long string of letters that somehow seems appropriate for a story that takes place on a long-ago summer; it reminds me of some of the fake incantation words my friends and I used to make up: aqiqwpimi.

It's funny to look back on this story, now that I--and you--have kids of our own. What scary in-between-places will they have to navigate?

And I'm drawn back to some vivid memories of that summer, too, sitting on my parents' plastic-covered sofa watching the olympics (on the dial! tv, black and white, too.)

6:52 PM  
Blogger KMH said...

beautifully written.

9:14 PM  
Blogger Kate R said...

lovely portrait of a family of women.

4:27 AM  
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