THE AMERICAN DREAM
“When we saw you, we thought you’d want to know,” Umberto said. They turned, disappearing as quickly as they’d come.
Susan and Paul shook their heads in disbelief. An aching emptiness filled them. A chill ran down their spine. Paralyzed, they stood in the same spot, remembering the day they’d met Umberto and his wife. Vito had introduced them. Though it’d been a year earlier, the encounter of their meeting came back vividly, as though it were a dream they’d just dreamt, a movie they’d just seen.
Paul strode a good ten yards ahead while his wife Susan trudged behind, carrying a beach chair in each hand. By the time she reached him, he’d already spread the blanket on the hot sand and secured it on three corners with a cooler and his sneakers. He dropped the canvas tote he carried, stuffed with towels, books and sunscreen, and began staking a beach umbrella into a deep hole. Susan shook the sandals off her feet and laid them on the fourth corner of the blanket. Then she arranged the chairs side by side under the shade of the umbrella. Almost in unison, they removed their shorts and shirts, folding them neatly inside the tote. Then they sank down in the low chairs, their legs extended, heels half-buried in the sand, staring at the ocean, mesmerized by the rhythmic flow of the waves. They were at Smith Point, a Fire Island beach off Long Island; the year, 1987, late August.
Suddenly, Paul nudged Susan’s arm and broke the silence.
“Look,” he said, pointing to his left. “Doesn’t that umbrella remind you of Italy?”
“Why do you think that?”
“It has clothes hanging from the spokes.”
Susan smiled, recalling their Italy trip the year before. They’d gone to visit her relatives and tour some of Italy’s famous sites. The few times they’d gone to the beach there, they were surprised to discover towels and clothing hanging from the metal spokes of bathers’ umbrellas.
“The spot must belong to an Italian family,” Paul insisted.
“How can you be so sure? No one’s sitting there.”
“We’ll see when they return. I’ll bet anything I’m right.”
The two went for a quick swim. Once back, they dried their arms and legs, and Paul, with a sheepish grin, ceremoniously hung his towel on one of the umbrella spokes. Then he took Susan’s towel and did the same. She chuckled – precisely the response he craved.
Paul loved to make others laugh. He’d grown up in Brooklyn in an Irish clan that constantly told jokes and happy stories. Susan had also spent her early childhood in a large, extended family, where they laughed and sang. Only, her family resided in Italy. But her world shattered when her parents sent her to live with an older aunt and uncle in Brooklyn, where she spent her teen years. When she met Paul, he was a breath of fresh air infused with sunshine.
Now, fifteen years later, married and with two children at friends’ houses for the day, they were enjoying a few hours of relaxation at the beach. Susan reached into the tote, pulled out a book and began to read. Within a few minutes Paul shook her arm, again.
“Do you see that? They’re back. And just look at the sandwiches they’re devouring. Meatballs are my guess. Notice the size of their cooler. I bet it’s filled with fruit, pastries, even wine.”
Susan looked. She saw a man, five feet ten, possibly in his fifties, with a large, round stomach protruding out of a dark blue bathing suit. His black curly hair was topped by a white sailor’s cap much too small for his head. He sat on a brown blanket, relishing a roll filled with something thick. Between bites, he looked up, smiling at the woman sitting in the lawn chair above him. She wore a purple flowered sundress that revealed a plump, well-rounded figure.
“Can you hear what they’re saying? Is it Italian? It’s definitely not English,” Paul goaded.
“I’m not going to eavesdrop,” Susan chided him, leaving him to deal with his restless curiosity. But as her eyes drew away, they landed on an older man and woman walking by, heading directly in front of the brown blanket. Soon the conversation mingled with laughter and grew louder.
“It is Italian they’re speaking,” Paul confirmed proudly, poking her again.
“Yes, but what’s it to us?” Clearly, she wanted no part of it. Her aim was to relax, mind her own business.
“You could go over, tell them you’re Italian, find out what town they’re from. Wouldn’t you like to know? Remember how much you loved speaking the language when we were in Italy.”
Susan remembered very well. The lilting sound of Italian words bouncing on her ears and flowing across her lips invigorated her, but the memories of her past held pain as well as pleasure. A paradox she could not shake.
“I don’t want to barge in on their privacy,” she insisted.
Paul was unphased. “This is a public beach,” he reminded her. “Everyone is friendly.”
She wished she could be more like Paul, carefree, living life in the present, without the baggage of the past. Yet the past always drew her in.
She sent him a long, knowing look and sighed. She picked up her novel, but, with Paul giving her sideway glances, it was hard to concentrate. From the corner of her eye, she noticed that the Italian man now stood up, his meal apparently over, balanced the miniature cap on his head and headed toward the water. He didn’t walk. He pranced, like a prize stallion trotting down the track, his stomach bulging, rounded as a full moon, swaying back and forth. He entered only as far as his thighs. Having found a comfortable spot to plant his feet, he stopped and waited, daring the waves to knock him over. When a wave neared, he swung his body half-way around, and, with a mirthful smile, pirouetted to the left so that each wave never broke on his stomach, but directly on his back. He repeated the dance a dozen times.
He never missed a pretty girl passing by. His eyes traced her up and down, following her until she was out of sight. Or until another girl came into view. When he’d had enough waves and pretty girls, he returned proudly to his blanket, where his wife welcomed him with a towel and a big smile; a king triumphant from battle.
“Well, what do you say now?” Paul smirked, sensing Susan’s interest.
“He’s quite a character, I must admit. And she seems very warm. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to go say hello.”
They rose from their chairs and walked over.
“Scusa,” Susan began, apologetically. “We couldn’t help hearing you speak Italian. I’m Italian, too. I was born there. We just returned from a trip to Italy a year ago, especially seeing all my relatives.”
“Maria,” he called, with a thick, Italian accent, still looking at Susan. “Isn’t life grand? We left our land years ago, but we’re never without our people. Won’t you sit down?” He made room on the brown blanket before waiting for an answer.
“Thank you, we don’t want to impose,” Susan interjected, still standing.
“What impose? I invite you.” From his tone, there was no question about it. The trip to Italy made Susan aware that when Italians invite you, it’s an honor they bestow. But if you refuse, you insult them.
“Well, just for a few minutes. I don’t want to disturb…”
“You’re not disturbing,” he said patiently, as if he were the teacher and Susan the student not yet grasping the lesson. “You come from Italy, no?” he continued. “Then we have much to talk about. You tell me about your family and how you came to this great country. I tell you about mine and how we find ourselves living in these ‘Stati Uniti.’” He extended his hand. “I start. I am called Vito and my wife is called Maria.”
“Piacere – a pleasure. I’m Susan. This is my husband Paul. He’s not Italian, though,” she laughed nervously, remembering how her aunt and uncle never fully accepted him. They had wanted her to marry, in their words, “her own kind.”
“I’m a ‘wanna-be’ Italian,” Paul explained. “I love Italian food, the country and the people. I can’t get enough, especially the food.”
“That’s good enough for me,” Vito smiled. “Tell us about your trip, Susanna. Maria and I went back to our hometown nine years ago for our twentieth wedding anniversary. It’s time we return. Perhaps, next summer, for our thirtieth, no?” He winked at his wife.
“They want us to bring our grandchildren. You know how Italians treasure children,” she laughed.
“What part of Italy do you come from, Susanna?” Vito asked.
“A small town near Bari.”
“You’re Barese?” Vito cried, incredulous. “I’m Barese! So is Maria! Madonna mia! What good fortune! We are paesans! We come from the same area.” He made the sign of the cross on his face and chest. “So tell me Susanna, what brought you to America?” He was more animated now that they were, somehow, related, even if only by soil.
“Oh, the usual, the American dream,” she said, trying to brush off the question. She didn’t want to go into the specifics: that she’d come alone as a ten-year-old; that she’d left so much family behind to live with an older aunt and uncle in Brooklyn; that the American dream was more for her parents than for her. Her past was complicated, still painful. It was too much to share. After all, they’d just met.
“Mine is the unusual,” he sighed. His face took on a faraway expression, as if he’d retreated to another place. “Maria and I loved each other, but her father decided to take his whole family to America. I didn’t want to go. The waiting list on the quota was long and I made a good living as a barber. Could I pass that up and leave my job, my family, my country? No!” He swung his head from side to side.
“But after she left, my heart broke.” His voice cracked. He cupped his chest, as if to hold the pieces from falling. “I wrote to her, proposed marriage, and she came back to Italy to marry me. You should have seen how happy my town was! People chanted in the streets. ‘Did you hear about Vito? He finally married his sweetheart. Surely he’ll go to America with her.’ But Maria returned to America alone. I had to wait two years for my Visa,” he explained, shaking two fingers high in the air.
“You must have missed Maria terribly,” Paul said.
“Mamma mia, I was a married man living the single life!” From the passion in his voice, it wasn’t only Maria he missed, but also what Italian men refer to as “the exercise of their marital duties toward their wife.”
“When you finally came, everything turned out fine, yes?” Susan said, hoping his migration had proved a smoother transition than hers.
“No, Susanna. I didn’t like America at first. I had no job. I didn’t know the language and I had a wife to support. In Italy I had built a reputation, but here… I couldn’t even pass the written test to be a barber because I couldn’t read English. So many days I wished I’d never set foot on American soil. We lived in Brooklyn with Maria’s parents until I learned the language and finally got a job in a barbershop. The owner tried to pay me less because I’d come from the other side. He thought I wouldn’t know the difference. But I watched. I learned. I saved. Finally I had enough money to buy a shop of my own in New York City. Imagine! The capital of the world! I started to make a lot of money. We bought our own house in Bay Ridge and we were able to send some money back to my family in Italy.”
“When the unisex craze came, it threatened to put barber shops out of existence,” Vito continued. “I would have lost everything if it wasn’t for this.” He banged the side of his head with his knuckles. “I said to myself, ‘If the whole world wants to go unisex, I’ll go unisex.’ I remodeled my shop, made it glamorous and opened it up to women. Then, I charged higher prices,” he smiled.
“I told all my workers, ‘Do you want to work for yourself or for me? Do you want to get paid by the hour or get a percentage of the business?’ In other words, did they want to be my partners or my employees? We could get rich together or I’d get rich alone. They were smart! They chose to get rich with me.” Leaning closer, he whispered, “It’s the secret of my success.”
Susan was fascinated. She would have loved to hear more, but didn’t want to outstay her welcome. She rose.
“I’m so glad to have met you and Maria. I wish you much happiness and I do hope you go to Italy for your thirtieth anniversary.”
Paul stood as well, impressed with Vito’s tenacity. He extended his hand. “It’s a pleasure to have met you.”
Vito took both their hands and held them for some time before releasing his grip.
“You mustn’t leave so soon,” he said. “It’s our twenty-ninth anniversary today. Come and have a glass of wine with us back at our house. It’s right here in Shirley, just five minutes away.”
Paul looked at Susan, who, in turn, looked at Maria.
“Thank you. We’re honored,” Susan said. “But we wouldn’t dream of intruding on your anniversary. I’m sure you’d prefer spending it by yourselves or with your family.”
“No, no, our children are in Brooklyn. We would love to have you,” Maria said.
“Just one drink,” Vito urged, “to wish us good luck, from one paesan to another.”
Put this way, Susan couldn’t refuse. They went back to their blanket to pack up. Maria and Vito did the same. In their respective cars, Paul followed as Vito led the way over the bridge. At the first intersection, Vito made a left, and after driving a minute or two longer, he pulled into a very wide driveway, motioning Paul to park beside him.
The house was nothing like Susan or Paul expected. A contemporary design with a great deal of glass and light filtering in, it had a wide veranda filled with clay pots of white chrysanthemums and red geraniums around the entrance, effusing a sweet perfume.
“It’s air-conditioned!” Susan exclaimed after walking in, feeling her skin refreshed. She was amazed with the interior, which opened into a Great Room.
“Let me show you around,” Maria said. She led Paul and Susan through an expansive master bedroom with a large bath, replete with hot tub and bidet, two other fairly-sized bedrooms, a balcony hanging from the cathedral ceiling, two other baths, and a combination kitchen-dining room with every appliance imaginable. The Great Room was richly furnished with thick, white carpeting, a white Italian leather couch, matchings chairs, a shiny, black coffee table and two matching end-tables with lamps that didn’t need to be lit as the sun streamed through the three skylights above. Everything was impeccably clean and Hamptons white. Paul and Susan couldn’t stop gaping.
“It’s a smart house,” Vito joined in. “I can control the heat or the air-conditioning from any location before I get here. I had the house built to my specifications. Then I hired an interior decorator to finish the inside,” he explained. Just then Maria walked in balancing a silver tray with four glasses in one hand and a bottle of Asti Spumante in the other. Vito took the tray from her and gently placed it on the coffee table. Then he popped open the bottle, poured the wine into four glasses and offered it to everyone.
“To your health and happiness,” Paul said, raising his glass.
“Cent’anni!” Susan joined in. “May you live to one hundred!”
They clinked glasses and sipped their drinks, which were perfectly chilled and bubbly. Then they sat, Paul and Susan on the soft leather couch, Maria and Vito on the two armchairs opposite them. An hour flew by as they shared warm memories of Italy.
“Where do you keep the memories of the homeland?” Vito asked Susan. She hesitated. She had yet to find a comfortable place for them in her heart.
“I keep mine in a drawer with letters and photos of family and friends,” he announced. “I look at them from time to time, leaving my heart free to live.”
Not sure what he meant by this revelation, she looked down at her hands. She noticed the time on her wristwatch. She motioned to Paul and they put down their empty glasses.
“Thank you so much for inviting us to share your anniversary and enjoy your lovely home. We must go pick up our children from their friends’ houses,” Paul said.
Vito led them to the door slowly, frowning, almost blocking their exit.
“Let’s make a date,” he said, suddenly perking up. “Come to the beach on Monday. When it’s time to go home, you come back here and we have dinner together.”
“Yes,” Maria joined in. “That would please us very much. And bring the children. I have many games for them to play with. I keep them for when my grandchildren visit.”
Surprisingly, Susan found herself wanting to accept. She looked at Paul. His expression was one of total freedom on her part.
“But only if we can bring something. Dessert or wine?” she inquired.
“Bring a bottle of Fontana Candida Frascati, the wine of Rome. It’s my favorite,” Vito instructed.
On the way home, Susan pondered the whole experience of meeting Vito and Maria. She felt strangely elated, as if she’d reunited with a part of herself. But the next day, she began to have doubts. How could they go to someone’s house for dinner when they’d only met for a short hour? Tomorrow, would Vito and Maria regret their generous offer made perhaps under the influence of champagne? Apart from their Italian roots, they were total strangers. Did their meeting really happen or did Susan dream it under the heat of the sun? And what if it rained on Monday? They’d made no provisions for that, nor had they exchanged phone numbers in case one fell ill or an emergency arose. How would they contact each other if their plans to meet backfired? The whole encounter seemed bizarre. It made no sense.
But the weather cooperated. Monday turned out to be another hot, sunny day, as though it knew and approved of their plans. When Paul and Susan arrived at the beach, Vito and Maria were already there. They were joined by the same couple who had stopped by the last time. Vito made the introductions.
“Susan, Paul, this is Umberto and Triestina. They come from Calabria, just west of our region.” The couple smiled and the four shook hands. Once more Susan was asked how she found herself in America and they, in turn, shared their stories.
“Umberto also runs a hair-cutting salon in Manhattan,” Vito announced, as though it were the most natural occupation for any man to have.
“Mine is in on Park Avenue, near the Waldorf Astoria,” Umberto added, smugly, with a strong Italian accent. He wanted Susan to know that he had succeeded in attaining the American dream as much as Vito had. Perhaps more.
“Yes, but despite your prestigious location, your profits are half of mine because you have employees and I have partners,” Vito retorted.
The muscles on Umberto’s face tightened. “Ah, Vito, we all have our own way of doing business.”
“That much I grant you,” Vito replied, looking away, as though through an invisible boundary. Susan sensed an ongoing competitiveness between the two. Not so with Maria and Triestina, who chatted amicably in the background, laughing at each other’s words.
“Well, we must get back,” Umberto said. “Say good-bye, Triestina.”
Before walking away, he turned to Susan and Paul. “It was a pleasure to meet you. Perhaps, we meet again.”
After an hour of sun and water, Maria and Vito began to pack up as did Paul and Susan. They had not brought the children. Once more, they had chosen their friends’ pool rather than the hot beach. Susan was glad. She didn’t want them bringing in extra sand from their feet or inside their bathing suits into Maria’s beautiful home.
When they entered, Susan felt like she was perched on a white cloud, dazzled with sunlight and space. With the bottle of Frascati that Paul had handed him, Vito led the two through the dining room and outside the kitchen door, where a large vegetable garden revealed rows of pole beans and a dozen or more tomato plants, all bearing fruit. Carefully interspersed were other plants, such as eggplant, peppers and herbs. The most plentiful was basil, which, according to Vito, Maria used in much of her cooking. She nodded to confirm.
“Tonight I’m going to make Vito’s favorite summer dish – Pasta Primavera. It has vodka, mozzarella, tomatoes and lots of basil in it. Do you like basil?” she asked.
Who doesn’t like basil? She and Paul loved basil.
“What can I do to help?” Susan offered. Maria gave her a basket of plum tomatoes to wash and dice for the sauce.
“We make everything fresh, just minutes off the vine or plant, then to the plate and into our mouths,” Maria explained.
Susan watched Maria’s movements and mentally jotted down the recipe in her head. Soon the kitchen filled with the succulent scent of Italian cooking, while Paul and Vito barbecued veal sausages on the back patio.
“We have to stay away from pork and shrimp because of Maria,” Vito said loud enough for Susan to hear. “The doctor found she has high blood pressure and a high cholesterol reading. Me? I have no problems.” He pounded his fist against his chest, demonstrating his strength.
Along with fresh Romano beans served lukewarm in vinegar and oil, arugula salad, Italian bread and the wine that Susan and Paul had brought, the meal turned out to be a feast. Sitting down at table in the comfort of air-conditioning, they talked and laughed and continued sharing more memorable moments of Italy.
“I noticed how much you enjoy the ocean, especially when a well-endowed woman in a bikini parades by,” Paul teased Vito. “It’s a wonder Maria doesn’t mind.”
“Why should she mind? It is God’s creation I admire, like the flowers on this table. As long as I don’t touch, I’m giving honor to God and my wife,” he said earnestly with a deep look of appreciation. When the meal ended, everyone was overcome with warm satisfaction as much from the conversation as from the strong espresso doused with anisette liquore.
Soon it was time to say goodbye. At the door, Vito whispered, “Do you hear that? That’s the roar of the ocean. We can hear it from here.” He said it proudly, as if the ocean belonged to him alone, and he lent it out for others to enjoy. Susan listened. The sounds of the waves breaking and receding, though faint, were definitely audible. They promised to meet again at the beach the following weekend.
On the way home, Susan’s mind whirred. It was clear to her that the four of them were forever bound by ocean and country.
“How stupid of me not to have invited them to dinner at our house,” Susan chided herself. “If only I had their phone number. I’d call them as soon as we arrive home.”
“We’ll invite them next time we see them at the beach,” Paul said. He never liked to see his wife distraught.
The following week the weather was not as compliant. The sun hid behind dark clouds, which poured heavy rains all across Long Island for days. When the deluge finally ended, a cold front took its place. It lasted two weeks. The thought of going to the beach was the last thing on people’s minds. Summer ended abruptly.
Vito and Maria must have packed their bags and returned to Bay Ridge, Susan thought. The best she could do was hope for a warm week-end in fall, when their new friends might chance to visit their beach house. But the warm weekend Susan wished for never materialized. Winter was soon upon them.
When spring finally showed its face, Susan’s thoughts rested on seeing Vito and Maria. They frequented the beach in June and July, looking across the sand for the familiar brown blanket, the umbrella with clothes hung over the spokes. They walked along the shoreline, hoping to spot a pirouetting man with a round stomach. They even followed pretty girls for a glimpse of his undersized sailor cap. But to no avail. There were no signs of Vito and Maria.
“Could they have sold their house?” Susan asked.
“I doubt it. They loved their smart house too much. They’re probably in Italy,” Paul said, suddenly remembering the trip they spoke about for their thirtieth wedding anniversary.
“You’re right,” Susan brightened. “It must be where they are.” She pictured them mingling with relatives and friends, Vito impressing everyone with stories of his wealth and success. Or maybe they were someplace else, like Hawaii or the Caribbean, celebrating life, Vito-style.
With these happy thoughts, Susan and Paul relaxed, imagining their friends having fun other than at Smith Point this summer. They decided to enjoy each day as it came, as Vito would have done, without worrying about what may or may not have been.
And now they were met by Umberto and Triestina, running up to them. Susan was overjoyed. Perhaps they would know Vito and Maria’s whereabouts. From them, she could get the address or phone number to invite them to dinner.
“We finally found you,” Umberto said, out of breath.
“We’re so glad to see you,” Paul smiled. “Have you heard from Vito and Maria? We’ve looked for them for weeks without success. They’re in Italy, right?”
“I only wish.” Triestina’s voice was sad, her eyes downcast.
“Oh no, is Maria sick?” Susan asked.
“It was Vito who got sick. The doctor said it was cancer. Pancreatic cancer. He was immediately admitted to the hospital. It was Easter. Ten days later, he died.”
“We thought you’d want to know,” Umberto had said. “We thought you’d want to know,” The words kept ringing in their ears.
“They weren’t in Italy, then,” Susan said, stating the obvious. “I can’t believe it. Not Vito. He was so full of life!”
“Maria won’t come to the beach alone. He was so protective of her,” added Paul.
Of course she wouldn’t. The ocean held too many memories. Yet Susan longed to comfort Maria, hold her and cry with her.
Eventually, the two gathered their strength and began to walk back silently toward their blanket. They passed a group of teenagers jumping with delight as a wave threatened to overtake them. Young children constructed castles and forts by the wet sand, undaunted by the constant stream of water that demolished their moat-building efforts. Susan and Paul were oblivious to the world around them.
Reaching their sand chairs, they sat, staring vacantly at the ocean. Vito had entered their lives in such a vibrant and festive way, and now… now he was gone.
Time should stand still at such moments.
“Why didn’t you fight, Vito?” a voice inside Susan finally shouted. “Why did you give up so soon, after only ten days?” She looked up at the sky, half-expecting an answer. Only a sea-gull flew by against the roar of the ocean.
Immersed in their grief for what must have been close to an hour, Susan and Paul struggled with how to comfort Maria, how to comfort themselves.
“We must call her. Send her a card. Offer our condolences,” Susan said.
“You forget. We have no phone number or address.”
“We know where their beach house is. Let’s stop by on our way home. If Maria is there, we can give her a hug. Tell her we’re sorry.”
With their grief having a direction, Susan was more at peace. They pulled up Vito’s driveway, but found it empty. The windows were shut tight, the shades lowered, too. They knocked, but there was no answer. Susan looked for a mailbox, but none was to be found. Sadly, they drove away.
Once home Susan decided to send a sympathy card anyway. She didn’t have their surname, but had the house number and street address. Somehow could it get to Maria?
The card came back a week later, unopened. Susan had expected it, prepared herself for it, in fact. She took the card and placed it against her chest, letting it touch her heart. Then she walked toward her dining room hutch, opened one of the drawers and dropped it in, as Vito would have done, leaving her heart free to live.
Rose Dunphy is a writer and originally from Puglia, Italy.