“BOBBY, EVERY Christmas your father and I buy you a nice gift and you return it. So this year before we go shopping, I’m asking you. What do you want for Christmas, exactly?”
I was tempted to answer, “How about the new Zeb Atlas DVD, Mom?” No longer reading my law textbook, I pressed the cell phone against my ear and responded, “My red sweater is getting frayed. I guess I could use a new one, Mom.”
“I don’t like red on you. I’ll get you a green sweater. It will go nicely with your eyes. You’ll be twenty-four in June. Nobody ever caught a husband wearing red clothes, except for Mrs. Klaus, and then look how overweight he was.”
I adjusted the heavy book on my knees and leaned back against the headboard of my narrow dorm room bed. Since fall semester of my third year of law school was over, my roommate had already gone back to Utah to be with his father and three mothers. Normally I would go home for the holidays.
As far back as I can remember, every December twenty-third through the twenty-fifth my mother works herself to exhaustion while forbidding anyone to help her. Since I am not married, I am seated at the kiddie table, where I dodge meatball and manicotti grenades courtesy of my little nieces and nephews. Then the gifts are bestowed with price tags on them so we all know “how many hours your father and I had to work to be able to buy our children such beautiful things.” This is followed by “oohs” and “ahhs” for every gift except the presents from me, which garner comments from my parents and two sisters like, “Oh well, I can wear that for dress-down day at work… if I keep on my coat.” After the extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins arrive for dessert (cannoli grenades at the kiddy table), my mother’s side (the Mascobellos) eat the pastries, and my father’s side (the McGraths) drink the liqueurs, while I sit upstairs in my old bedroom reading law case decisions on the Internet.
This Christmas is going to be different. Throughout my childhood I heard stories about my mother’s now-deceased father who had a first cousin in Capri, Italy. Mom, “too exhausted from taking care of all of you to survive such a journey,” had recently spoken on the phone to her deceased father’s cousin’s daughter-in-law (got that?), and the two women had arranged for me to spend this Christmas with my Italian relatives. This led to my Christmas in Italy with my Italian cousin, Paolo Mascobello. More on that later!
“Don’t worry, Mom.”
“How can I not worry? This is the first time you won’t be with us for Christmas. You’ll be halfway around the world.”
“But you made the plans with your relatives.”
“That’s what I’m worried about. Please don’t embarrass me, Bobby,” Mom said, followed by a maternal sigh. “And do everything they ask you to do.”
“I will, Mom, except I’m not eating octopus.”
“Eat anything they put in front of you! And say ‘Thank you.’”
“And bring extra underwear. For all I know they do their laundry on a rock in the Mediterranean. What? Oh, Dad says to put your money in your underpants in case somebody tries to rob you.”
“What if the robber reaches into my underpants?”
“Hey, don’t talk dirty to me. I’m your mother.”
I glanced at my watch. “Okay, Mom.”
“And don’t spend all the money I sent you in one place.”
“You didn’t need to send me money, Mom.”
“Take it. And don’t tell your sisters. I’m not a bank.”
I closed the book and rose from the bed. “Okay, Mom.”
“And call me the minute you get there.”
I reached for my luggage. “Okay, Mom.”
“And be careful crossing the streets, and don’t forget to bring your coat!”
After promising to be good more times than a criminal facing the parole board, I said “Arrivederci” to Mom and was off to meet my Italian relatives.
On the plane next to a three-hundred-pound snoring woman with apnea, I contorted my lean, strong body (thanks to being a lifeguard every summer) in my miniscule seat and read four law journals over the eight-hour flight. Since the Italians ran the airline, the food was good and plentiful, but the seats would have been a squeeze in a doll house. I am five feet ten inches tall with long arms and legs, frizzy ginger hair, and a long penis. As you can imagine, using the tiny bathroom on the plane was like one of those circus acts, where ten clowns come out of the small car. True to the stories I’d heard about Italian drivers, the plane took off late but arrived early.
At Naples International Airport I whizzed through customs, thanks to years of studying Italian in high school and college and the Italian customs officer, who liked redheads.
Next was a Speed Racer taxi ride from the airport to the boat terminal that would have made a racecar driver nauseated. Then came the three-hour boat ride to the island of Capri’s Marina Grande. Though I had seen pictures of it, the sight of the enormous cliffs sitting majestically on the water literally took my breath away. Tired of looking out of the cappuccino-stained windows, I walked onto the deck of the boat to get a better view. It was fifty degrees in Capri, typical for December, so I whispered a “Thanks” to my mother for reminding me to bring my brown leather jacket.
From the funiculare (cable car) I marveled at the stunning views of the island below and Mt. Vesuvius in the distance.
At the Piazzetta (main plaza) I boarded an island bus that zoomed around harrowing, tight corners like a car in a fun house.
After a long walk up a steep hill surrounded by boulders, I finally reached the intertwining gold leaves on the front gate of the Villa di Mascobello. It was a large white stone villa with a terra cotta orange roof and matching shutters. With suitcase in hand I approached the orange double doors, feeling like Kunta Kinte at the start of his familial journey.
I released the large brass knocker in the shape of an M and was greeted by a young woman in a flowery housedress. After I introduced myself, Lucia led me through orange and blue marble columns past an entranceway of white marble to a double-story sitting room with views from its many windows of the island and the Mediterranean Sea. Overstuffed sofas, love seats, and chairs flanked three tiled fireplaces stationed around the luxurious room. Lucia told me (in Italian) the mistress of the house would be down to greet me shortly. I thanked my Italian teacher in high school, who had drummed the language into my brain.
I expected Lucia’s boss to be an overweight, scowling woman wearing a long black dress with rosary beads dangling from her weather-beaten hands. I also assumed, like Lucia, she would speak to me in Italian. So I was quite surprised when an attractive middle-aged woman with auburn hair, wearing a stylish blue dress with matching shoes and a silver necklace, dismissed Lucia with my suitcase, kissed both of my cheeks, and said in perfect English, “Bobby, I am Caterina Mascobello. It is a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for visiting us. Did you have a nice trip?”
“Yes, thank you, Mrs. Mascobello.”
She smiled. “Please call me Mama. Everyone does.”
I liked her right away. “Thank you, Mama.”
“What did you do on the long plane ride?”
“I read four law journals.”
She laughed like a young girl. “I hope we can find more amusing things for you to do while you are here.”
“Thank you.” I tried to remember my family lineage. “According to my mother, you are my grandfather’s cousin’s daughter-in-law. Did I get that right?”
“All that matters is you are family.” She hugged me. “I so enjoyed speaking with your mother on the phone. Is she well?”
“Probably not, until I call to report I’m here alive and well.”
“Then you must do so immediately.”
As we started to leave the room, I admired the enormous, beautifully decorated (in gold) Christmas tree in the corner of the room. “What a beautiful tree.”
“Thank you, Bobby. Paolo says he is going to decorate it every year, but the task seems to fall to Lucia.”
“Is Paolo your husband?”
Caterina laughed again. “Paolo is my son. You will meet him and the rest of the family at lunch in the dining room at 1:00 p.m.”
Back in the hallway, Caterina pointed up the wide marble staircase. “You will find a phone in the hallway. Your bedroom is the third on your left. By now Lucia will have unpacked your things. Take a nap, and I will see you at lunch.”
Feeling like Little Orphan Annie at Daddy Warbucks’s mansion, I said, “Thank you… for everything, Mama.”
She pinched my cheek; then she was off.
At the top of the stairs, I picked up the ivory phone and called my mother. I wasn’t surprised when she answered after only one ring.
“So you made it there alive?”
“I’m alive. Caterina’s very nice.”
“Is she thinner than me?”
“Are you calling your mother fat?”
“No, but she’s thinner.”
“Is the villa gorgeous?”
I glanced at the elaborate gold mirrors and sconces displayed on the hallway walls. “Yes.”
“Are you being polite to everyone?”
“I’ll meet everyone at lunch.” I looked at the heavy wooden doors with their ornate molding. “Now I’m headed to my room to unpack.”
“What? Oh, your father says not to talk to anybody outside of the family so you don’t get kidnapped.”
My jet lag kicked in, and my eyes started to close. “Bye, Mom. Give Dad my love.”
After swearing on my dead grandfather’s grave that I would behave at the Mascobello’s villa like a visiting prince at Buckingham Palace, I agreed to call my mother the next day. After I finally hung up the phone, I walked down the wide, long marble hallway, counting doors to my bedroom.
Upon entering my room, I noticed Lucia had unpacked my things into a large mahogany wardrobe out of C. S. Lewis. Exhausted from my trip, I stripped off my clothes, leaped onto the gigantic, canopied four-poster bed, and slept until I felt a firm nudge on my shoulder. As I opened my still jet-lagged eyes, I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or awake. Standing next to my bed was the most gorgeous man I had ever seen. About my height and age, his wavy chestnut hair framed piercing sapphire eyes, a straight nose, and full red lips. Wearing a skintight button-down red shirt, black pants, and black loafers, he gave Michelangelo’s David a run for his florin. To say his body was strong was like saying the Catholic Church had a little wealth and power. His taut, perfectly shaped muscles sprouted additional muscles of even greater magnitude. Bulging shoulders led to mountainous pectoral muscles, a narrow waist and hips, and a prominent lump between his sculpted thighs. His skin was olive colored and so smooth it appeared as if he had no veins in his body.
“Mama said you should come down for lunch.”
Covering my rapidly growing erection with my thigh, I responded in a daze, “Who are you?”
He spoke perfect English. “I am Paolo.”
Next to Paolo, even with a swimmer’s body, I felt incredibly white and skinny. “Hello, Paolo. I’m Bobby. I think we’re related.” As I rose to get dressed, Paolo seemed to check out my body, or was that wishful thinking?
“Your grandfather and my grandfather were cousins.”
Doing the math quickly, I said, “So that makes us third cousins?”
“I guess it does.” He shook my hand. It felt warm and comforting. “We look nothing alike.”
I laughed at the understatement. “No.”
“Is this your first time in Italy?”
“Do you like it here?”
“Do you answer every question with ‘yes’ or ‘no’?”
“No.” I felt like a teenager at his first dance.
Paolo shrugged his massive shoulders. “You better get down to the dining room. Mama doesn’t like to hold lunch.”
Once dressed in a light blue sweater and dark blue pants, I said, “I don’t know how to get to the dining room.”
He smiled. “Follow me.”
Lunch in the dining room was like an Italian wedding at a catering hall back in Philly. We sat around an enormous oak table under a multitiered crystal chandelier, surrounded by french doors leading to a roomy balcony overlooking a vast garden full of statues, fountains, and lemon trees. The orange walls were adorned with gold-framed pictures of various saints and Italian celebrities.
The table was laden with huge ceramic platters filled with antipasti, garlic bread dipped in olive oil, gnocchi in pesto sauce, Caesar salad, pasta marinara, veal piccata, chicken cacciatore, cod in olive oil and garlic, stuffed calamari, eggplant, and broccoli rabe. Two large sterling silver carafes were full to the brim with red and white wine.
After Paolo and I joined the others, Mama introduced me to everyone sitting at the table, starting at the head and moving clockwise. Everyone, including Mama, spoke in Italian.
“Bobby, may I present Luciano Mascobello, your grandfather’s cousin. Please call him Nonno. Next is Luciano’s wife, Franca. She is Nonna. Luciano’s son and my husband, Guiseppe, is Papa. Our daughter Francesca, Francesca’s boyfriend Bruno, and our son Paolo.”
The men, except for Paolo and me, wore dark suits. Nonna was dressed in a black housedress. Mama wore a pretty red dress with pearls, and Francesca sported an attractive beige business suit that matched her bleached blonde hair.
Everyone smiled and welcomed me to their home. I tried not to be rude to the others, but sitting next to Paolo, I found it difficult to take my eyes off him.
An enormous German shepherd raced into the room and planted his drooling face in my lap. Mama smiled and said, “This is Pino.”
“Pino seems to have made a new friend,” Francesca said, followed by a giggle in my direction.
After I let out a sneeze, Mama said, “I hope you aren’t allergic to Pino.”
Nonna responded with a wave of her wrinkled hand. “How can you be allergic to Pino, Bobby? He likes you.”
After filling his tall crystal glass with wine, Nonno reached for the antipasti platter, and his wife slapped his hand. “Say grace first, Nonno!”
Raising his gaze to the chandelier, Nonno said rapidly, “Father, heaven, grace, bless, let’s eat,” then dove into the food.
Nonna tucked a stray gray hair back into her bun. “Such a rushed grace so near Christmas, the day Jesus was born to start the Roman Catholic religion!”
Ignoring his wife, Nonno filled his plate. “I never thought I would see the day when my dead cousin Sergio’s grandson would come to my home.” He wiped a tear from his eye. “I thank God I lived to see it.”
Nonna added, “I will ask the priest to do a special blessing over you, Bobby.”
Paolo whispered to his sister, “I bet the priest would like to do a lot of things over him.”
Paolo and Francesca shared a laugh. I blushed.
Between spearing large bites of food, Papa waved his sterling silver fork. “What does your father do in the States, Bobby? Like most Americans, he must be rich.”
Stifling a laugh, I responded, “My father manages the largest department store in Philadelphia. My mother is a bookkeeper. We’re what Americans call middle class.”
As he licked olive oil from his fingers, Papa explained, “Nonno is retired, so I head the family business now. We own a wind and solar power company. Francesca is my second in command.”
Mama added proudly, “Paolo works in the warehouse.”
Laughing and throwing a piece of bread at Paolo, Francesca said, “When Paolo works.”
Paolo threw the bread back at his sister. “Mama arranged for me to be off this week.”
“Mama arranges for you to be off many weeks.” Francesca turned to her mother. “While Papa and I run the company, Paolo draws pictures in his room.”
“It gets me away from my tyrant boss,” Paolo responded.
Francesca stuck her tongue out at her brother, and he crossed his eyes at her.
“Enough, you two,” Mama said with a raised eyebrow.
After tasting the mouthwatering food, I gave the dog a handful of veal, and he ate it in a corner of the room.
Obviously proud of his legacy, Papa ran a hand through his thick black hair. “This entire villa, and much of our country, is run by clean energy. You see, Bobby, solar and wind energy keep our families… and our environment safe.” Looking over at Bruno’s full plate, Papa added, “I hope one day Bruno will come to work for the company.”
Francesca glared at her father. “Bruno has a job, Papa.”
“Working for the mob,” Papa grumbled.
“Bruno does not work for the mob, Papa! He’s a salesman for a liquor company.”
Undaunted, Papa said, “Where he persuades store owners to sell his products.”
Francesca said defensively, “Papa, Bruno doesn’t bribe or strong-arm anybody.”
Bruno added with a wink at me, “Except for that one guy we shot in the restaurant.”
Revealing a straight pure white smile, Paolo seemed to enjoy his family’s antics.
Not wanting to be left out of the discussion, Nonna held up her St. Mary ceramic napkin holder. “I made this in church.” She addressed her family. “When I die I want every one of you to look at this, think of me, and cry.”
Paolo and Francesca laughed openly.
Changing the subject, Mama said, “Bobby is in law school.”
“That’s a wonderful field, Bobby,” Papa said, helping himself to more chicken. “The lawyer for our company makes a fortune.”
“We have a lawyer working for our liquor company. He got us out of a lot of tough—”
Francesca’s elbow stifled Bruno’s remark.
Speaking with my mouth full of delicious food, I said, “I brought my books along with me so I don’t miss any study time.”
Mama said, “Why don’t you show Bobby around the island, Paolo?”
“I have plans to go to the gym, then meet some people for drinks,” Paolo responded with a glance at his watch.
Mama displayed her Italian tenacity. “You can do that anytime, Paolo. Bobby will only be here for a week. Your sister can’t do it since she has to work.”
Nonna took a second helping of pasta. “You go out too much with your friends, Paolo. You should settle down and get married.”
Teasing her, Paolo replied, “Maybe I will move in with one of my friends, Nonna.”
With a hand to her heart, Nonna replied, “A boy should leave home in the hands of his wife or in a coffin!”
Not wanting to impose, I said, “Mama, Paolo doesn’t have to—”
“It’s all settled, Bobby. Paolo will be your guide,” Mama said, wiping her mouth with her silk napkin.
“When does the tour start?” Paolo asked, his mouth full of smirk.
Mama replied, “How about after lunch?”
Paolo pushed away his plate and glared at his mother. “Your wish is my command.”
After eating more food than I thought possible and receiving kisses on my cheeks from each of my Italian relatives (except Paolo), I excused myself and went upstairs to my room. Smiling at the antics of my quaint Italian relatives, I realized it was time to get to my studies, so I gathered my law books from my suitcase, then headed back downstairs.
I found an empty powder-blue sitting room and sat on a high-backed chair next to a blue-tiled fireplace, then opened my books on my lap. After a few minutes had passed, I looked up and found Paolo leaning on the fireplace mantel. He was wearing a stylish purple shirt and gray pants—both skintight.
“Why are you studying?” he asked in English.
The books slipped and hit the orange-and blue-tiled floor as I replied. “I take my bar exams this summer.”
He turned up his full upper lip. “It is December.”
“There’s a lot to study.”
Paolo sat on the window seat and looked out over the stunning landscape. “Did you not hear Mama at lunch? I am your designated tour guide.”
I rested the books on a sturdy end table. “You don’t have to do that. Go out with your friends.”
The rays of sun from the window made his sapphire eyes glisten. “Mama does not take no for an answer.”
Looking at the dancing flames in the fireplace, I said, “I’m fine here. Thank you anyway, Paolo.”
He shrugged his huge shoulders and started to leave. Halting at the doorway, he said, “Why did you come to Capri?”
“To spend Christmas with my Italian relatives.”
Paolo pointed to himself, smiled, then held out his hand to me.