My mother has always looked at me like a crooked painting. She doesn’t mean to, we just aren’t into the same things. For one, she’s a little image-obsessed and I’ve never been into fashion. Also, I’m gay and the way my mom charms men has been one of the strongest weapons in her arsenal. The fact that I never wanted to do the same was unthinkable.
After college, I moved to Venice and worked as a cocktail waitress/dishwasher. Traveling allowed me to discover a resourcefulness that I didn’t know I had and, for the first time in my life, I was thriving. After a few months, my mom came to visit. She asked me to organize a budget trip for the two of us to Florence and Rome. It would be the first trip we’d taken since my dad died a few years before. My dad and I had shared a language that my mom and I didn’t have, and I knew we would be forced to deal with each other without our usual escape routes.
I had only been in Venice for a few months when my mom arrived. I was learning Italian from the kitchen at work, which gave me a limited (and admittedly crass) vocabulary. All my mom heard was the singsong nature of my Italian.
“You’re fluent, Melinda,” she said proudly. “That’s all there is to it. I’m just excited to have an interpreter!”
Our hotel in Florence brought the first of many realizations that we did not share the same definition of budget travel. The taxi stopped on a funky side street a few blocks outside of the city center where two men stood smoking cigarettes in white tank tops, leaning against the wall outside.
“We’re not staying here,” said mom, as she looked at the dingy building and the dingy men.
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s dirty,” she said from the taxi.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “We have a reservation.” I began to make my way to the entrance as one of the guys flicked his cigarette out and walked over to help with the bags.
Mom made me ask to see the room before we checked in. It didn’t bother me that the plaster walls were droopy, that there were five twin beds with mismatched sheets, or that the window wouldn’t close (to which the guy said, “Birds don’t fly in since we got the cat”). I thanked him and said I’d meet him at the front desk.
“The toilet is on the other side of the shower,” mom said, coming out of our bathroom. “You have to walk through the shower to get to the toilet.” Clearly appalled, I watched her eyes settle on a cigarette burn in one of the comforters.
“Okay, this is what we’re gonna do,” she said, drawing up a game plan. “Tell them I had a heart attack recently and the stairs are too much. I’ll fake shortness of breath. Tell them I might faint.”
“But I don’t know the word for ‘faint’ in Italian,” I said. It didn’t matter, my mom was already out the door.
“Pardon me, sir?” I approached the man at reception who warily looked up at me.
“My mother has…the weak heart. She is not able to walk up stairs.”
“She doesn’t like it?” he asked
“Oh, she does!” I reassured him, leaning hard on my limited Italian. “But if she has to climb she will not have air and then…she will sleep…accidentally.”
I started to ask about the deposit but was interrupted by the sound of my mother’s voice. She was going downstairs, gesturing to her chest. “Bad heart! I’m sorry. Sorry, everyone! Bad heart!”
The host looked at me and then back at her.
“I won’t charge you,” he said. “Good luck.”
We found a hotel close to the Palazzo Vecchio and my mom immediately wanted to go shopping. She insisted on buying me pastel linen clothes. I refused a scratchy, pink, linen blouse. To an outsider, I might’ve looked spoiled but I knew my mom thought that if she could just tip the frame, maybe the whole painting would finally look straight. She bought the pink blouse, saying it was for herself, but that night she laid it out for me to wear for dinner. I refused.
“Pardon me for wanting you to look beautiful,” she said. “I just don’t get it. You’ve lost weight. Men look at you, you know.”
“Ugh. I don’t care,” I said, irked.
“It’s just…you’ll never be prettier than you are right now,” she said, wistfully. “I wish someone had told me that.”
We took off for Rome the next day. There was a handsome older man sitting across from us on the train, hauling a trunk filled with books.
“Do you speak English?” my mom asked the stranger.
“No. Me despiace.”
“My husband loved to read. He died a few years ago. Melin…tell him…please?”
“My father likes to read,” I said. “He dead.” Italian past tense was a weakness of mine.
“Oh, I’m sorry for your loss,” the man said, explaining that he was going to see his dying mother at a hospital in Rome.
“Just kill me, Melinda,” my mom said. “No hospital. Smother me or poison me or something, I don’t care.”
“So, I’ll be a murderer?” I asked.
“It’s not murder if I ask you to do it.”
“I’ll just tell the jury about this conversation. I’ll probably get 20 years.”
The man must’ve understood some of our exchange. “What did she say?”
“She asks me to kill her if she’s too sick.”
He gasped. “Is she ill?”
I looked at mom gazing at us, waiting for me to tell her what he’d asked. “Yes. She is. In the brain.”
There was a note of surprise from the concierge in Rome when we arrived. “Mother and daughter?” he asked with furrowed brows.
“I thought you were reserving for man and wife.”
“What’s he saying?” mom asked. I explained. “That’s funny. Why would he think that?”
“I dunno. Sometimes Italian is harder over the phone,” I said.
He showed us to our room. “Good God,” I heard her say.
I turned to see that the walls were covered with erotic paintings. Some had a BDSM theme while others were just very intricate portrayals of intense lovemaking. An ornate king-sized bed was in the middle.
“Damn,” I turned back but he was gone.
“It’s okay, Melin. Don’t worry.”
I took a shower. When I came out, mom gestured to the wall where towels hung over the sex pictures.
“Look, I fixed it!”
“I wanted to be helpful so I asked housekeeping and voila…” As she pointed to her handiwork, one of the towels slipped off to reveal a couple in the 69 position. “Well, I almost fixed it,” she said. “Look at them go.”
She spent the day shopping while I saw the Roman Forum and the Borghese Gardens. We met up in our honeymoon suite in the late afternoon and went to dinner. Afterward, we sat in Piazza Navona and had ice cream.
“Your dad always said he’d take me here. But I’m glad I got to come with you,” she said.
A couple of days later, we met the boat to the Venice airport. I was sad to see her go. We both fumbled around, searching for the words to explain ourselves. For a while, we tried hard to force our language on each other but instead, she just hugged me and told me she loved me.
“I know you think I’m silly and that I don’t understand you. I don’t…a lot of the time. We are so very different,” she explained. “But I admire your strength. You’ll get it one day, how hard it is to let go.”
That was the first thing she said that I really understood. “I love you,” I said.
“I know.” She smiled.
Then, she touched her own luggage—for the first time since she arrived in Italy, I might add—barely pushing it towards the boatman before he grabbed it.
“Do you speak English?” I heard her say as he helped her aboard.
I turned to go back down the crooked alleyway, nearly tripping over a paper bag she’d left behind. I grabbed it, ready to call after her when I felt the edge of the crisp, pink, linen blouse inside.
“Son of a bitch,” I muttered to myself.
“YOU’RE A SPRING! WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT!” I heard my mom shout as the boat puttered slowly away towards fog curling over the water.