Dinners in the Dark

By Sophie Friis

There was that apple and gorgonzola pizza, thin like a cracker, that my father and I split on our first night in Rome. We left his study-abroad students at the Parthenon and found dinner at the underground Pizzeria da Remo. At our table next to the wood-fire oven he told me he’d always wanted to take me here. That he’d always wanted to take me to a lot of places and split dishes over red wine. This was his third May in Italy and I was supposed to be finishing my freshman year of high school. Instead, I was in this hole in the side of an apartment building eating the best pizza I’d ever had.

All of the students ended up joining us. We discovered that Wes from Charleston was a lightweight who grinned with wine-stained teeth at the mirrored ceiling. My father announced he didn’t have a problem with our drinking as long as everyone made it back to the hotel. There’s a picture of me holding a pizza next to my face and Teddy in the background with her mouth wide open and yelling some backcountry North Carolina-ism. Next to her, redheaded Jack held the owner’s baby. Laura, from Romania, ordered a pizza with squash blossoms fried in the same oil as Kate’s fish. Kate was the pescatarian who didn’t eat carbs. Graham’s pizza, topped with an over-easy egg, smelled like breakfast. Thomas’s pizza had eggplant sliced so thin it was transparent. My father found wine pairings for each of his students. We stayed hours past closing at the bar sipping tiny glasses of grappa that tasted like the inside of a wooden chest.

In Rome, there were mornings when my father and I café-hopped and found fig pastries, petite ham sandwiches, coffee that made you never want to drink anything else, angel wings and sfogliatelle. There wasn’t much room for conversation between dishes and we were okay with this. My father asked about old boyfriends too often and could never seem to remember my best friend’s name or what classes I was taking. But we could eat together. He took all of us to residential plazas with open markets where people perched on their terraces above us like birds on a telephone wire. He gave each of us ten euros and told us to pull together a picnic. I found a cheese so hard and sharp it bit back. Thomas and Kate, who were probably together at the time, brought the bread and wine. Hunter tagged along with them and brought her charisma and drank most of the wine. Others brought carrots, peppers, candied figs, ribbon taffy, dried apricots and creamy white cheese to spread over the porous surface of hard Italian bread. We met up with my father in a children’s park to feast and nap in the damp grass that left imprints on the backs of our thighs.

There was the day we spent at the Coliseum, the bath gardens and the Forum. The hot day Hunter turned the color of a roasted red pepper sauce and we thought her skin would simmer. The day my father made me put sunscreen on, something he used to do to me as a child. There were street performers who levitated outside the Coliseum walls. There was the restaurant that threw us out for being too loud and the other restaurant with porn in the bathrooms. The day my father let us get lost in the Centro Storico, the rich side of Rome. The day he made me stay at the hotel all morning and do algebra homework.

There was the night, our last night in Rome, when my father let me go out to dinner with the students while he met up with some friends—maybe other professors who spent sabbaticals in Paris and weekends in Rome. Or maybe it was the woman from the coffee shop who sometimes gave us free pastries. He had a life and friends in Rome that I wasn’t a part of.

The students and I rounded ourselves up like a flock of sheep and found a cheap place with pasta, pizza and wine by the jug. We sat outside where street vendors tried to sell the girls plastic roses. Once the wine had been passed around the table a few times, we started quizzing each other on our Italian, what little we thought we’d picked up. Jack banged his fists on the table and talked about his family farm in Tennessee. Wes wandered away from us into the middle of the plaza, and stared at the stars. They are so beautiful, man. By the time our food came, I was sleepy and drunk and Kate fed me pasta. Kate was the one who always wanted me to sit on her lap and let her braid my hair. After I’d eaten a satisfactory amount of fettuccine, Kate and a blonde girl named Lauren walked me back to the hotel. The rest of the students made their ways back home in groups of twos and threes. We didn’t have my father to keep the herd together.

My father returned from his night out wearing a fedora that didn’t belong to him. He found me sleeping on the floor of our hotel bathroom where the limestone tiles felt cool on my face. It was four in the morning and I was drunkenly convinced I had threadworms or some other parasite. There were times when I was sick as a child and my father, no matter the ailment, would put cold washcloths on my face and the back of my neck, but that night he stood in the doorway of the bathroom and giggled at me. I didn’t want to think I needed his help anyway.

The next day we caught our train to the Vatican City. We entered the Sistine Chapel and my father gripped my shoulder. He has always been blown away by architecture, by art, by the sheer size and detail of it all and I think this magnificence, the hushed atmosphere and awe was the closest thing my father had ever had to a religion, to practice, to prayer. He came back every year for something like this.

Everything my father knows about art, he learned from my mom, who minored in art history in college. They’d only been divorced two years and this contributed somewhat to our distance, our separate lives. Yet, he relayed everything she’d ever told him about Renaissance art. Your mother said that Raphael used Da Vinci’s face to paint Plato. One could say this trip was an exercise in single parenting, free reign, showing me a part of the world I’d never experienced, something new and foreign and far from taking a group of college kids to a museum. But too, he wanted to show me something that vaguely connected the three of us again.

There was the day trip to Pompeii where we saw casings of people frozen in volcanic ash, pumice and other ingredients found in body scrubs. I’d only ever seen elementary school history textbooks, illustrations of people interrupted from cooking dinner or going to the bathroom, people grabbing what they could and running. Stone buildings, bath houses, brothels with penises etched into the walls, and ancient sewer systems. There was a gelato bar and a cafe. We went to the pizzeria where scenes from Eat, Pray, Love were filmed and I ate a pizza the size of a tire that sat in my stomach the entire train ride to Sora—the small town where we would spend the rest of our time abroad on a farm.

Antonello met us in the driveway of his farm with one hand on his hip and the other holding a bullhorn he would use to communicate with us for the entirety of our stay. Sora sat in the bottom of a bucket made of mountains and the farm was a crack in the side with crops spilling out into open fields that grew our food.

On the farm, there was wine at every meal, salads drenched in olive oil, and bread to mop everything up. The mushrooms grew in the shed with the broken down Lamborghini tractor and pigs. There were jugs of wine buried under the porch for the coming winter. On the farm we used our hands. We worked with our hands, cooked with our hands, fed with our hands.

There were day-trips to the cheese factory, the winery, the top of a waterfall, a pasta making class and the villa where a woman made us pizza. There was the truffle hunting trip where an old man picked up a group of us in his Kia with three miniature mutts in the trunk. We worked on the farm where another old man named Guiseppe gave us bamboo sticks and told us to build trellises for his tomatoes. He had the uncanny ability to communicate with us without an ounce of English.

There were family dinners every night after dark with Antonello and his Belgian wife and their three young blonde children who only spoke Dutch—a language Antonello did not speak. You ate what was served on your plate. After the sun had set, you couldn’t tell if there was wine or water in front of you, or if the baby next to you was upset or laughing.

There were nights sitting around the campfire with a guitar and nights when we stayed at the Irish pubs so late the taxis no longer ran. Those nights my father left our shared room unlocked and made sure there wasn’t blocking the pathway to my bed. Those nights we would stumble back from downtown Sora through marshy fields with wild dogs tailing us.

One night at dinner Hunter drank too much wine and when my father stopped passing the carafe to her slumped body at the end of the table, this streak of anger spiked in her. She stood up, screaming at my father that she wasn’t even drunk. Kate tried to make her sit down but Hunter struggled out of her grip and stormed out of the dining room. Things like this made my father uncomfortable. He didn’t like disciplinary action as a father or as a professor. He didn’t do anything when he found me drunk on our hotel floor in Rome, and he didn’t do anything about Hunter. He told me later that Hunter probably had a drinking problem—there were other incidences like this on her student file. At the time, I knew I was also drinking in excess, like Hunter, and I wondered if my father noticed, or simply chose not to.

 

Two days before we were to leave, I woke a little after dawn to noises outside. Antonello had slaughtered a lamb. The body was strung up in the shed with the mushrooms and the tractor. I had missed it. I asked my dad why he hadn’t woken me up and he told me he didn’t want to me to see the screaming struggle and I thought about Hunter again. The time she didn’t come out of her room for the rest of the night and none of us wanted to go get her—especially my father.

I was angry at my dad for trying to protect me from something I thought to be so pure. It was an integral part in understand life on the farm and its circular nature. But I watched Jack, skilled with the skinning knife, peel sheets of skin off the animal. Lauren pulled out the heart and the liver and put them in a bucket for the cook. Antonello skinned the head and handed it to me. I held it in my hands like some artifact I’d found digging in the desert. Something that, a short time ago, had lived. Antonello took the skull back and cracked it open to get to the brain. Graham hacked at a rack of ribs, using a tree stump for a butcher block. Antonello said the body must be still for at least a day to allow the rigor mortus to release. And I thought back to the people of Pompeii and what was left over from life. My father hadn’t hidden me from their bodies—a different kind of rigor mortus. He was sculpting my experience in Italy by highlighting the beautiful, the ornate and the painted and hiding the indisputable death.

We ate our last meal on the farm came and we ate in the dark, as usual. The truffle hunter’s nephew came and played the accordion with us and we danced. The cook put liver and shoulder meat on the same platter, so that night was a guessing game as to what you were putting in your mouth. If something crumbled like bad feta cheese in your mouth, it was lamb liver. And if it was tough like a leather shoe, it was the shoulder. We cut our gums on the not-so-skillfully butchered ribs. My father triumphantly ate the lamb’s brain, a toast to him as our leader and guide—not a professor or a father. For many years, he would recall this group of students as his favorite. No one put away as much food as you guys did, he would say. He let me be lumped in with the students, a part of the group. My father and I did not become closer in Italy. Instead we saw glimpses of each other outside the roles of father and daughter, glimpses of what we would become. I would go home with my father where we didn’t share a bathroom or a suitcase or a table every day. But once we saw a man with a bullhorn at a baseball game. I’m sure we both remembered Antonello, the lamb, and the touch of limestone to forehead like some kind of religion we once shared.

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Sophie Friis lives and works in Greenville, South Carolina. Her work has been published in riverbabble, The Yellow Chair Review and Litmus. She’s never found a romper she likes.