Some years, March is like a welcoming dawn, a morning that follows a terrible night of sleepless isolation. The skies are bright with a blanket of sunshine that grows clearer each day, shaking off the golden tint that curves across the southern horizon ever since the solstice came with its compulsion to bury our widespread depression in arbitrary gifts. This morning, after coffee and another obscenely sugary donut, Monica phoned to apologize. It seems a chilled, gray wind rushed across her windowsill and her bones refused to bend. “I cannot even speak English,” she laughed nervously.
I laughed back at her. “You are such a puppet.”
“A puppet?” she parroted, inquisitive. “What’s this?”
“A muñeca,” I said, “in Spanish. I don’t know Italian. Maybe a marionette?”
Silly tends to translate poorly. Even a native speaker might miss it over the phone. “Never mind,” I told her. “Bad joke.”
“Oh?” I pictured her lips shaped around the vowel. I heard another anxious titter.
I considered telling her to relax, but thought better of it. Most of us merely feel defensive when advised to unwind. Instead I offered to help. “Sounds like I should make you some soup.”
“Ah? Soup?” I detected the sudden change in her posture, sensed the slump fall from her shoulders.
“I make a wicked chicken soup,” I thought to tempt her.
“Ah, no. I don’t eat chicken.”
The cooked bird’s carcass dangled limp and useless over the kitchen trash can in my mind. “You’re vegetarian?”
“No, no,” she confessed. “It’s just, chicken and pork, they don’t agree with me. I don’t know why. They make me sick sometimes they give me nightmares.” She had a rapid-fire way of speaking and ran the two phrases together like that. “I don’t know why,” she added quickly.
“The pig comes after you wanting to rut. It digs its snout inside your belly like it thinks you are a patch of truffles.”
She didn’t understand a word I said. Like a lot of artists I know from Europe, her English was lousy. As artists, they listen only selectively. And Americans never bother to correct their broken grammar. You could never get away with butchering French that way. They would never understand you. Scandinavians and Germans would politely resort to English. Americans, we simply decipher the best we can, as if it was somehow rude to let someone know they spoke poorly, by helping someone you risked exposure as a know-it-all or show-off.
“No,” she said, correctly guessing that she had missed nothing crucial. “They are only crazy nightmares. This is just chicken and pork. It’s for some kind of health thing. But I do eat beef. And of course, a lots of fish.” She laughed again, a kind of huffing laugh that was no longer nervous. “That’s all.” She added a “hmmm,” the sound some people make to emphasize that they will stop talking for the moment.
“No chicken soup, then. I could make vegetables.”
“Yes?” she brightened up, her back unrolling anew. “It’s so cold, though.”
“It’s not so cold,” I told her. “I just went out. It’s warm like yesterday.”
“Really? Because when I open my window, it is so freezing, I just went to go back in my bed. I’m thinking, I cannot go anywhere today. Tomorrow maybe.”
“Where are you?”
“Brooklyn,” she said, rolling the r in a staccato manner that typified her magnificent Italian accent. “On Kent. Four seventy five at South Eleven.”
“I know that building. My friends live there. A black guy, musician. His wife is tall and blond. They have a kid. He’s a teenager now. You’re on the water. That’s why it’s cold.”
“You right,” she agreed. “We’re by the water. So, maybe I take a shower and come. Now?”
I had only just rolled out of bed to talk to her. Suddenly, I felt like I had a lot of things to do. “Well,” I breathed in deeply, and started speaking with that breath held in, “I still need to talk to Primitivo. And I have to work on these propsals.”
“You speak to who?”
“An artist. Primitivo. He’s from Colombia.”
“Ohh... Is his name. I thought you are talking about wine.”
I grinned. “Yes, I need to talk to a bottle of red...”
She had a good laugh, huffing. “I was thinking, ‘this is strange.’”
“I just need me some Primitivo to get my day going.”
She did not think I was funny. I guessed she didn’t understand, even though I also knew that I wasn’t at all funny. “So, six o’clock?” She sounded very excited. Her eagerness made me reach for the brakes. I pictured her tiny frame in the tight black blouse and tight candy red cotton pants she wore when we met, a couple of days earlier. We shared a couple of slices and coffee and a brownie on the corner outside an old brick former nunnery and Catholic school building that housed the art fair where her giant black and white aerial photographs had hung on display. We sat close, and she smiled a lot, and her wiry body gave off an earthy oil and sweat scent I projected onto her bedclothes, my head resting on her naked thighs while we blew smoke at the ceiling in a room lousy with art-related objects.
“Let me see,” I said, me nervous now. “If I can find adequate funds for the proper olitory items, and squeeze free a good block of time, we’re on.”
“Olitorio? You say this in English?” she blurted the question in happy and quick surprise.
“Not really,” I admitted. “It’s not really used for the last hundred years.”
“Ah, I see,” she grew thoughtful. “You’re a funny man.”
“But you never laugh at my jokes.”
“I know,” she said without thinking, then caught herself. “What? No. I mean you are strange... Very intelligent.”
“Bah!” I pooh-poohed. “Not intelligent. Just not especially stupid.”
“Ah! Okay. Is that so?”
“I suppose,” I said, grown weary of the halting tempo of this banter. “But let’s talk later. Okay?”
“Okay. Thank you.”
“Ciao,” she replied, and laughed nervously.