tagRomanceLearning Italian - Lesson 11

Learning Italian - Lesson 11


"Ti voglio bene" literally translates "I want well to you." The closest thing to a lexical equivalent in English would be "I wish you well." But "Ti voglio bene" does not mean "I wish you well." That is to say it doesn't carry the same significance.

"I wish you well" is an expression to be used to as an ointment for emotional wounds. Odd, perhaps, that the wound should so often be inflicted and the ointment administered by the same person. Anyway, it conveys a certain finality. It's something we say when a relationship ends, once we have stopped crying and blaming and hurling insults and smashing priceless vases and have accepted the inevitability of parting. Then it's bittersweet and it tells the person to whom we say it that we won't know them anymore, won't call, won't stop by. It says, "I forgive you for whatever it was that brought us to this point, but it's too late now. We have no choice but to move on, and a part of me regrets that this is so." It says, "I want you to be happy even without me." It is not a phrase to be used at the end of a conversation with a stranger in an airport or the end of a long distance call with one's mother. It has no place in business correspondence. Bilingual Italians who are aware that there is a difference between the two expressions often understand this difference to be more of a formal/informal distinction. It isn't.

"Ti voglio bene" harbors no more depth, no more emotional weight than the English "I wish you well." It is no more intimate, no more poignant. But the Italian sentiment marks the beginning or the continuity of a meaningful relationship. It is more than "I care about you." It is a phrase used to express fondness for a sibling or a dear friend. In a romantic scenario, it is a stepping stone between uncertainty and the elusive (certainly more elusive than its English counterpart) "Ti amo."


"It's over."

The words tumbled out into the dark and lay there on the stone steps between us. Grace didn't move, but I felt her draw back in fear. Disgust.

She took a deep breath, and, with presumably less conviction than she intended, said, "It isn't."

We were barefoot and sober at the water's edge in the night. The barche a vela, tethered to their anchors, swayed quietly all around us like so many floating trees. She would board a train the following afternoon, disappear again into the words on screens and pages. So much remained unsaid, and now language somehow suddenly failed to exist.

"Neither of you is happy," I persisted. "If you were, you wouldn't have been unfaithful. She wouldn't have been unfaithful."

"T., it's not that simple." She refused to look at me, gazing instead in the direction of Torno, her jaw set. "She forgave me. I can't just quit after fifteen years."

"Literally half your life."


It wasn't the first time I was questioning her relationship, encouraging her to consider letting go. But in all the times before, I'd acknowledged that I might be projecting, and that, in any case, I couldn't judge properly from our letters alone whether it might be best. After six days spent in her presence, six days witnessing a change in her, I knew. She'd arrived in Italy filled with anxiety, weighing her every word and maintaining a physical distance from me. She'd been so honest in her letters, and that had been a sort of betrayal, but to put her hand in mine or to rest her head on my shoulder would have been unforgivable. And so she hadn't. Still, there'd been a change. Whether it was me alone or me with Claudio or the distance from her real life or simply the Italian sunshine, she had taken to laughing with her whole body and to saying her lover's name aloud. She had begun sleeping on the side of her bed closer to mine.

Now, again, she was speaking and acting as though she expected her girlfriend to happen upon us at any moment. And I was the one weighing my words. I worried that the wrong ones might cause her to shut down completely.

"What if infidelity were a non-issue? What if you were free to-"

"Are you espousing the merits of polyamory?" she scoffed.

"No." I pushed a loose pebble into the water with my toes. "Yes." I refrained from further espousing.

"I'm honestly so happy for you. This works for you and for the other people involved. I see that, and I think it's beautiful." She sighed, frustrated. "It's just not the way I'm wired."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure."

"You do realize that you are capable of loving two women at the same time, right?"

"Three," she said leveling me with a look that left no room for misinterpretation as to who the third might be.

My heart was in my throat. The silence threatened to prevail, and she was surrendering to it. I thought I could save us.

"So," I tried, but the word cracked unnaturally against my teeth and fell hollow. With that one innocuous syllable, the thread, gossamer as it was, snapped, and she turned her gaze again to the east. Ever the fool, I reached for her, tried to stop her from slipping away. My fingertips grazed her shoulder, and she flinched.


The moment had passed.

I'd missed it.

"She's brilliant and beautiful and perfect," she groaned, as if it were physically painful to admit. "She deserves so much better than I've been." I'd uttered nearly identical sentiments about my husband in the past, but I didn't bother to remind her.

"But Grace-"

"I can make it work." She straightened her posture and stretched her pretty legs out in front of her. "I can bury whatever might feel for anyone else. I can wish that I had other lives where I could be happy with other women, but this is my reality, and there can be no one else."

It was preposterous. I couldn't say as much, of course, but the lengths to which she was going to convince herself of something so obviously impossible made me want to scream. It was a mistake. It was suicide. It was what we had been taught all our lives. There could be no one else.

I opened my mouth to rail against the absurdity of it all, but it was no use. "I understand," I told her instead.

We scaled the hillside in silence. We slept in our separate beds.

Earlier, before we'd found our way to the water, she'd caught me talking to a stranger. That is to say, smiling at my cell phone while exchanging mindless, almost ritualistic quips, questions and phrases with someone who'd been inspired by a ten-year-old photograph of me reading a book.

"Claudio?" She asked sleepily. She'd been dozing while we rode the train from Cadorna to Lago Nord. As usual, she sat across from rather than next to me, but she let her legs touch mine.

I shook my head and politely drew the chat to a close so that I could focus on her.

"Leo?" She gave a dramatic little gasp. "Or could it be the elusive Tomaso?"

"No, it could not be the elusive Tomaso." I dropped the phone into my bag. "I'm not ready to deal with the elusive Tomaso." It had been weeks since his announcement that he was returning from Berlin. He'd made inroads since, but we hadn't met. "And Leo is at thirty-six thousand feet."

"So... what's this one's name?"

Sheepishly, I retrieved the phone and relocated the chat. "Valerios."

Grace rolled her eyes.

"He's a surgeon," I went on, "and he's really good-looking. Really good looking." I turned the phone so she could see. She humored me by raising her eyebrows and sticking out her lower lip just a little. "He super liked me," I added with mock vanity.

"Super liked?"


"You're using adjectives to modify verbs now? It's like I don't even know you anymore."

"A really good-looking surgeon," I reiterated.

She smiled. I put the phone away again, followed her gaze toward the jagged mountains in the distance. Through the haze, they were a faded slate blue against the sky. We were passing through the interminable stretches of Brianza.

"When is it enough?"

I didn't really know if the question was meant for me or if she was simply pondering her own situation aloud. I said nothing.

She turned to look at me. When she spoke, the frankness of her German side was laced with the British habit of presenting absolutely everything as a question. "You have three men in your life. Two, I suppose, until you let Tomaso back in. Still, you're... engaging total strangers. Isn't it simply for the thrill you get from falling in love?"

I knew that it wasn't. The anticipation of a first kiss or touch, maybe. The satisfaction that might come from a first conversation. The comfort in knowing that I wasn't the only person in my mid-thirties still trying to figure my life out. I'm not sure I'll ever have enough of any of that.

"I don't know," I admitted. "Sometimes I think I should stop because, between Claudio and Leo..." I was piecing this explanation together as I went along, like a bouquet of wildflowers and self-justification. There were pauses. "I spend a lot of emotional energy - in a good way. I feel like roping someone else in - Not Tomaso - isn't really fair because either I'd take some of that energy away from the other two or... I don't know... I'd simply not give him—a third- as much as I should."


"But then I think, 'What if I hadn't met Claudio?'"

"But you did meet Claudio."

"But what if there is another person out there who might be just as remarkable?"

"That's what I mean. One remarkable man isn't enough? One remarkable man plus a pilot who is equally good at the sheet-rending bit?"

"Leo makes me laugh," I countered. "Claudio inspires me to be creative."

"And Tomaso?"

"Ugh. Tomaso challenged me intellectually." I missed that about him. "Now, he just pisses me off."

"A man to suit your every mood?"

"Well that sounds awful," I said, "but I guess it's something like that."

She sat back. I could tell she wasn't convinced by my logic. Then again, how could she be? She loves women. Women are far more complex creatures, as even most men will admit. A woman can seamlessly combine the scholar, the poet and the clown within herself. She can be both hero and damsel, both the sun and the storm. Maybe one remarkable woman would be enough.

"What's so great about men?" she posed, as if reading my thoughts.

"Their voices," I said simply.

On the day Grace went away, Claudio met us for a gelato. We found a spot in the shade just off the Piazza Cavour, and I listened while the two of them spoke in earnest about the comparable stigmas associated with polyamory and homosexuality, discussing the issue on a social, cultural level and sharing personal experiences. They were connecting; these two people for whom I felt a deep affinity, if not love. In a way it was gratifying to witness.

The bells of the Duomo tolled. We'd lost track of time, and Grace missed the train she had intended to catch. She would be more pressed getting from Saronno to the airport, but it gave us just a little longer. Looking back at the last hour we shared, I'm convinced that every now and then it's well worth missing the trains we intend to catch.

The sun was in the west, and so we cast long shadows on the platform. Binario 3, as fate would have it. Claudio kissed her cheeks and stepped back to give us space enough to whisper without being heard. Truth be told, I don't remember the things we whispered. Probably, thank yous and I'll miss yous and promises to meet again before another six years have passed. She boarded the train, put her bag up on the shelf and blew a kiss through the plexiglass. I didn't want her to see me cry, so when Claudio put his arm around my shoulders, giving me a safe place to fall apart, I turned from her before letting the tears come.

We'd made it halfway to the station entrance when I heard her call my name. It's different the way she pronounces it; different from the name I grew up with, different from the Italian version I've gotten used to. My name in a shape that belongs only to us. I looked back and saw her with one foot on the platform, the other keeping the doors from closing. There was something in her hand. Above us, the lights that warn of the train's imminent departure flashed. Instinctively, I ran toward her. I remember so well this scene in the color of saffron and shadow, the lines in the masonry, the disregard for anyone who might be watching. My mind raced, a thousand certainties and expectations and fears passing through in a matter of seconds. Then, just before we were close enough to touch, she held the thing in her hand toward me; a collection of Hemingway's short stories.

"You've got to sign it," she said. I knew somehow that it wasn't what she meant to say; that my signature wasn't what she wanted, but it was all that she could ask me for, all I could give.

I took it and the pen she had, and, on the first page, beneath the dedication, I wrote down the words that had been echoing in my head for days.

"I love you. I can think of nothing truer to tell you than I love you."

I scrawled my name, closed the cover and handed it back to her. She clung to me, and I sobbed. And then the whistle sounded, and the doors closed between us.

And it was over.

I don't think that I made a spectacle of myself when the train pulled away. I simply watched it go. I was hardly aware of Claudio. I didn't feel it when he took my hand. I didn't feel anything. But from far away it seemed I heard his voice.

"Come with me."

I let him lead me back to his, not far from the station. The tears I held back blurred my vision. I hadn't expected it to hurt so much; saying goodbye. We'd done it before, after all. It wasn't forever. And I knew we would slip back into writing daily or weekly and we'd be as much a part of each other's lives as we had been for the past year or two or six. And now we could reminisce about something other than our weeks in Hamburg. It was a comfort.

But now, without her there, I somehow felt more alone than I had in a very long time.

"You're in love with her," Claudio said. It was a simple statement of fact. He wasn't grinning. He implied nothing by it.

I was sitting, legs akimbo, on the little sofa on the terrace. While I took the glass of water he offered, I shook my head slowly. Being in love with her would have been simple. There had to be another explanation for what I felt.

"She's in love with you," he assured me. "Anyone could see that." He brushed the hair back from my eyes and kissed my forehead. "The two of you are quite... I don't know how to say in English, but it's obvious."

He sat down beside me, and I rested my head on his shoulder. "Can we talk about something else for a minute?" I asked.

He stroked my arm, thinking it over. "Ah, si," he said at last, "The house."

"Oh, right. The house. What house?"

He was beaming. He held me at arm's length so that he could see my reaction. "Valeria thought about a little house here in Como in the garden of a small villa."

"A house in a garden of a villa?" There were too many pretty words in succession. My mind couldn't arrange them in such a way as to create a visual.

He just continued beaming. "I told her about your house in the village and that you like sort of weird, cozy places with a lot of stairs. She reminded me about this house where a friend of hers lived some years ago. It's quite small, but it has a view on the lake and on the city."

"That sounds ridiculous."

"You'll like it," he said. "I was there a couple of times for parties. It's your style."

"Do you know if it's available?"

"Valeria asked her friend the phone number of the owner. We talk to her this week. If it's free, we go have a look." He repositioned himself so that I was resting against him again. "Now you're smiling," he noted.

"Where did you come from?"

"Eh, not so far from here."

As we sat there in silence, I dared to wonder where I'd be without him, how difficult the past few months, to say nothing of that very afternoon, might have been were he not by my side. I didn't mention this because I knew he would have shushed me. He wasn't in it for the gratitude.

"What time is dinner with your brother?" I asked at length.

He checked the time. "Soon," he sighed. "Soon I have to kick you out."

"I'll kick myself out, thank you very much."

"If you kick yourself out now, I can drive you," he offered.


We were at the stoplight in Tavernola when he broached the subject of Grace again. "Why does she stay with this girl?"

"Because it's all she knows," I said, "or, maybe more who she is. After 15 years."

He took on a deeply worried expression. I'd come to recognize this as a sign that he had something profound to say and wasn't sure if he could do it in English. I rested my hand on top of his and waited.

"It's a waste," he began. "Love is our most precious resource and we shouldn't waste it." He gave us both a moment to absorb this sentiment. I think perhaps the phrasing surprised him as much as it did me. "Why can't she be with you? She loves you. You love her. It doesn't make any sense that you should stop because of this other girl."

"Maybe not." I tried to take her side. "If it's the way she chooses to live or if it's just the way she's wired-"

"Eh, then she's wired to be miserable."

"I agree with you there, but it's not up to me or you."

"You could have been with her."

"You seem more upset than I am about the fact that I wasn't."

"Because why not?"

"Because I am not going to be the reason she leaves the woman she's been with for her entire adult life. Because I know what she's been through and I'm not going to put her through it again." I thought of the long letters detailing her transgressions and her guilt. "Anyway, she wants more than I can give her. Not from me, but from some woman. Yeah, I want to be with her, but not in a committed, one and only, you-belong-to-me-and-I-belong-to-you sort of way. She wants to belong to someone."

He shook his head. "This is an archaic... senseless... I don't understand," he muttered.

I squeezed his hand. He wants so badly to make people see the world, to see love and friendship the way that he does, but people are not all as easily convinced as I had been. I felt for him. I wasn't ready to join in his crusade, but that night beside the water with Grace I'd begun to comprehend what it was he was trying to achieve. Maybe the day would come.

Past Cernobbio, the traffic dissipated and the roar of the wind made conversation difficult. I heard the faint familiar chords of a song on the radio, and turned it way up loud. Joni Mitchell. "All I Want." For better or worse, I sang along at the top of my lungs. And as the words, words I'd sung a hundred times before, poured out in a slightly rusty falsetto, they took on a meaning altogether stultifying.

...looking for the key to set me free.

Oh, the jealousy, the greed is here unraveling

It's the unraveling

And it undoes all the joy that could be.

"This is us!" I laughed. "This song is us!"

Claudio had shown me admiration before. Rather, he'd shown my body admiration. For the first time, on that ride home, he regarded me with unspoken esteem for having a talent I could (legally) demonstrate in public settings. I kept on, my hand out the window in the wind as we passed along a stretch of road where the lake was visible and sparkling.

...I wanna knit you sweater

I wanna write you a love letter

I wanna make you feel better

I wanna make you feel free...

I failed to hit the high note, but even that I did with gusto.

"I like it," he said simply.

"Joni Mitchell is amazing."

"I mean I like the way you sing it."

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