Cristina Rizzuto is the author of poetry collection, The Music Makers (Blaurock Press, 2012). Writing credits include The Florentine; Lantern Magazine; Ottawa Arts Review; Wattpad; Best Ultra Short Poems, an anthology published by the Ontario Poetry Society; Love, Anonymous, an anthology published by CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts); Dragnet Magazine; FEMMELDEHYDE; and CBC Canada Writes. For more information, visit www.crisrizz.com.
Cristina shares an excerpt from her short story The Elegant Complexity of Oranges.
“Did you like Toronto when you first arrived here?”
“Never,” she replies in her broken English, the r trilled. “I like nothing when I come here. The people, the food, the cold, the city…veramente niente.”
Veramente niente. Truly nothing.
“Nothing,” she repeats quietly, looking away.
Her face sags, wrinkles delicately folding into one another. The corners of her mouth curve downwards, two parallel roads that break apart at the chin, splitting into thousands of purple capillary rivers and alleyways, snaking downwards to her neck, her chest, her failing heart.
“I never like it, and I never will. I miss my life, my friends. My house. My Italy.”
My grandmother can’t speak English in the past or future tenses, only present. I wonder for a second if she meant that she missed Italy, or that she still does. If it matters.
I nod after she says this, slowly twirling an overly-ripe orange around in my hands, prodding and caressing its scaly skin, searching for a soft spot to peel into. An unassuming fruit of tricky, elegant complexity, oranges are wrought together by a diaphanous network of gooey, satisfying pulp. If you aren’t careful, you’ll end up tediously tearing out chunks, one at a time, the coarse rind sinking under your fingernails. It’s never the same. But with patience, the whole thing unwraps in one long, elaborate motion, beautifully.
Every Sunday, I visit my grandmother. We drink espresso and eat fresh fruits, soft cheese, hard homemade bread studded with black olives, and hot pickled vegetables soaked in olive oil, everything garnished with sea salt, garlic, cracked pepper, oregano. This is how my nonna Franca’s tiny fifth-floor apartment smells on Sundays, like garlic and oily red peppers. Her tongue clucks in disapproval when I decline the plate of prosciutto that she offers me, reminding her that I’m a vegetarian. Delicately, she lowers a thin, curly slice of pink flesh into her mouth, licking salt and a plump white string of fat from her lips.
“Come, Cristina. We sit outside on the balcony, no? It’s a beautiful day,” she says, approaching the heavy glass sliding door.
“Here, let me help you,” I say, quickly getting up.
“No, no! I do it,” she grunts, swatting my arm away. “Get the cheese.”
She opens the door.
My grandmother’s balcony overlooks rows upon rows of other balconies decorated with makeshift laundry lines, potted flowers, and old Christmas lights. She lives in an apartment building with mostly elderly Italian-Canadians, others whose families have long since grown and left them. It’s not a seniors’ home by definition, but they somehow managed to find each other and make this place their own, in the same way that they made Toronto home after the war.
I excuse myself to go to the bathroom, passing her room on the way. A photograph of her five children adorns the back wall, next to an imposing, heavy wooden rosary. Her bedside table has been fashioned into a makeshift shrine. Tiny dust particles collect on a painting of the Mother Mary in her long blue gown, a golden halo around her head. My grandfather’s young, handsome face flickers in the soft red candlelight, his war medals shining on his chest.
A memory stands out in my mind, fleetingly, of my grandmother calling me into her bedroom one night, as a child, to teach me the words to her song: Ave Maria, piena di grazia, Il Signore è con te…Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.
I still remember the words, even after my eventual falling out with faith.
When I return to the table, she pulls a circular loaf of bread out of a brown paper bag and begins to methodically slice it, her thick, knobbly fingers, tightly strung with about ten heavy gold rings, shaking slightly. A small glass of limoncello, a strong lemon liqueur, sweats in the sun beside a nearly empty pack of Marlboro cigarettes. A single cigarette stub still burns in the ashtray. She picks it up and inhales deeply, closing her eyes. She sucks in her cheeks, until her face looks weirdly skeletal.
“Always I am bored here. Look,” she continues, gesturing to the subdivision of homes nearby. She pokes a cloud with her index finger. “Everything is flat. And all the houses, they are the same. There is no colour, no personality. Who are these houses? Nobody.”
I say nothing for a moment, saddened by this thought, that someone could live for over forty years in a country eternally unhappy, disconnected.
“Tell me about your first few years here.”
“No, no,” she sighs, shaking her head, with a sigh of resignation. “Nothing to say. This is your grandfather, his wish. Back then, what choice do I have? I don’t like to talk about this. Basta.”
It’s easy for my grandmother to talk to me about Italy, to divulge all of her stories. I know how she secretly smoked cigarettes with her girlfriends by Castello Manforte, the night sky broken by the Matese mountains; how she would put on garish red lipstick and dangly earrings and long necklaces once she was out of the house; how she skipped school for a week to play soccer with her friends; how she stole her brother’s motorcycle to go for rides; how she met my grandfather before the war, and fell in love. How she chopped off her long black hair at eighteen years old, telling the hairdresser to make her look “like Sofia Loren”. Her father, my great-grandfather, was so angry that he punished her with laborious yard work, and she had to wear a hat in his presence. Whenever nonna tells this story, at the “like Sofia Loren” part, she slides her hands under her breasts to push them up and down alternately, like a juggling ringmaster, singing and swaying. And while she talks, I feel a strange feeling come over me, this inexplicable sense of nostalgia for a time I have never even known.
Cristina Rizzuto visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Armand Garnet Ruffo, Anuja Varghese, Nora Gold, and guest speaker Marina Ferreira, who will give us tips on “How to Independently Publish your Book Using Kobo Writing Life.”