Life at the HOUSE of JOES - or - When it Comes to In-laws, Sometimes Divorce is the Only Way Out - 17

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The morning after the party, daylight streamed into the room a little bit too early given the amount of cheer that everyone had consumed the night before. I opened one eye, squinted, closed it again, then opened both eyes and blinked a few times. I could see small particles of dust dancing in the light streams as they poured through the open, screenless windows bordered in thick-cut stone.

I looked over and realized that Joey must have already gotten up, so I put my face down and sighed heavily into one of the soft, down-filled pillows. That was something I loved about Nicoletta – she adored feather pillows. Around the farmhouse, everywhere you looked were square, overstuffed pillows and chairs, covered in sturdy tapestried material. All the bed linens and tea towels were white cotton and bleached to perfection. Nicoletta wan’t “organic” by American standards – she just appreciated natural fibers and when it came to furnishing her home, avoided any fabrics whose components could not be found in nature.

As I lay face down in my pillow, my nostrils drew in the clean scent of bleachy perfection. I started to doze off again, but was suddenly jerked awake by the cries of Nicky and Bob, who were engaging in some sort of batting practice directly beneath my window. I could feel my head throbbing with each crack of the bat. The sound of barking dogs made me think that Nino the neighbor may be close by - several of Nino's wolfhounds often ran up the dirt path to play with Nicky and Bob. From the sounds outside, it seemed that every time one of the boys hit the ball and ran, the dogs were not far behind, chasing the boys as they ran. I wasn't used to so much animation. As I was deciding whether or not I could ever see myself getting used to such commotion, my thoughts drifted back to last night.

Ziggy, the old gypsy fortuneteller, had given a very mysterious reading. I had asked her if Joey was going to die.

“….he is not going to die. There is no death around him. But one day you will wish he had.”

My mind raced. What had she meant by that? I recalled several incidents over the past years at the House of Joes (my nickname for Joey’s family - it seemed that every male in the household was called “Joe” or some form of “Joseph.”)

Since Joey had been diagnosed with a heart condition – valvular stenosis with secondary cardiomyopathy – Derba and Big Joe, Joey’s mother and father, had acquired the disturbing habit of peering at Joey as if he were going to die. Not as if he would die eventually, but that it would happen at that very moment. Their behavior was made all the more strange because they never outwardly discussed the possibility that he actually could die. Rather, their concerns manifested themselves in other odd behaviors such as moving in a little bit too close when speaking to him and obsessively scanning his face for signs of impending death. Derba’s voice would raise up several whole tones whenever she was nervous, so Joey and I were always aware when she was being extra vigilant – for example, monitoring his food intake during family meals or inspecting his skin for lesions. If Lambchop (Joey’s sister, Ludmilla) was visiting, their anxiety usually escalated. Ludmilla would join in with Derba and Big Joe and the trio would hover over Joey,  tracking his every move.

Derba had come to the conclusion that, because I came from a “broken home” and had not fully experienced a “mother’s love,” I could not possibly appreciate her constant state of worry over Joey. When Joey and I were staying at the House of Joes prior to our trip to Italy, the ongoing tension about Joey’s health had affected me to the point where I found myself reaching over and taking Joey’s pulse in the middle of the night. Once I took a compact mirror and held it an inch from his face to determine if he was still breathing. I was in state of subdued frenzy much of the time, and it was due to the constant vigil that Joey’s family kept over him.

Thank God we were finally out of there!

But what had changed, really? Here were were, in a foreign country, living with my cousin in the middle of nowhere. And last night I had asked old gypsy woman if Joey was going to die! At that moment, I began to doubt everything I was doing and felt very confused.

Suddenly there was a commotion in my room. Nicky, Bob, and three of neighbor Nino’s wolfhounds were rolling around together at the foot of the bed – the boys laughing and squealing, the dogs barking. “Shhhh,” I whispered, holding my hand to my forehead. I sat up, swung my legs over the side of the high, four-poster bed and slipped down to the floor, nearly losing my balance as I collided with one of the wolfhounds.

Holding my arms straight up over my head, I cautiously made my way through the group, who were now whirling across the room like one rotating ball of fur and flesh. I headed towards the kitchen. Joey and Nicoletta were sitting at the table. Joey had both hands around a coffee cup, and Nicoletta was feeding Baby Giovanna – or “Gigi” as the family affectionately called her.

“Hey,” I said, rubbing my eyes and heading toward the stove to put on the kettle.

“Bon giorno!” Nicoletta said in a sing-song voice. Gigi was busy with a slice of banana, squishing it between her tiny chubby fingers. Joey looked up from his coffee and smiled at me.

When I saw Joey’s face I blanched. His eyes looked a little bit hollow and there were dark circles around them. He looked as if he had lost a bit of weight. The expression on his face had a faraway look to it, as if his mind was not completely there.

I’d seen this look once before – the day before Joey was taken to hospital after a severe cardiac episode.

My heart immediately filled with a million emotions. I was worried. Had Joey and I made a huge mistake by coming back to Italy? Perhaps his parents were right – he was going to die any minute. I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. If he did die, family would surely blame me. I mean, I was the singularly-focused maniac who had forced Joey to uproot himself and leave the country – at least, that’s how Derba and Big Joe saw it.

I knew that this what they thought because Derba said so during one of the myriad “mudroom chats” she initiated with Joey before we left the first time.

“You know, Joey,” she said in her shrill chirping tone. “Kitty is several years older than you are and her biological clock is ticking. She’s looking for a younger man so she can have children. Watch out – don’t let her take over your life!”

Of course, Joey said nothing in reply. He never did. It was one of the biggest wedges between us.

I smiled weakly back at Joey and walked over to the table to give Gigi a pat on the head. I leaned over and kissed Nicoletta once on each cheek. I was just about to call Joey aside to ask him how he was feeling when the door burst open and Cyril and Nino entered loudly, followed by four muddy wolfhounds. Several of Nino’s wolfhound pack had been playing with Nick and Bob in the other room. Upon hearing the arrival of their colleagues, the five of them came bounding into the kitchen, with Nicky and Bob in close pursuit. (I had counted just three when they jumped on my bed – where had these two additional dogs come from?) The boys ran over to Cyril and hugged him around the waist. Now there were 

Cyril smiled broadly and ambled over to kiss Baby Gigi.

“Why are the dogs so filthy?” Nicoletta asked the men in Italian, holding the baby up for Cyril to take from her. She stood up and started waving her arms at the dogs. One of them stopped in the middle of the kitchen floor and started rapidly shaking himself, starting at his head and quickly rippling along to the end of his tail. Tiny droplets of muddy water flew in every direction.

“Vattene cani! Get out, dogs!” Nicolette cried, trying to herd them back outside with wild gestures. I thought to myself, Wow,Nicoletta, this is worlds apart from that fluffy white bed I just climbed out of!

“Nino and I were down at the river fishing,” Cyril called after her, making a goofy face to the delight of Giovanna. Turning to Nino he said, “La mostri! Show her!”

Dusting off her hands, Nicoletta walked back into the kitchen. Nino proudly held up two braces of full of trout, a brace in each hand. He was grinning from ear to ear. I thought I saw something flash in his toothy smile - a glimpse of gold, perhaps? That was odd, I had never noticed that Nino had a gold tooth.

Nicky and Bob were jumping up and down, their voices pleading, “We want to go fishing! We want to go fishing!” Cyril told them not to worry - that soon Papa would take us all fishing at the river. We’ll have a picnic, he said. He and Nino had simply decided on the spur of the moment to walk to the river and see if they could catch something for our supper tonight.

Then Cyril walked over and handed the baby to me.

“Here you go, Kitty,” he chuckled and winked at me. “You’ll be needing to know how to do this one day in the future, you know.”

I rolled my eyes and remembered what Derba had said. The irony was that, at that moment, I could easily think of ten things I would rather do that have children. I could barely take care of myself at the moment. And now, Joey was getting sicker. At least he looked as if he was. I really needed to talk with him. Not that it would reveal much. He tended to minimize his symptoms, even during an acute episode.

“Come on, Joey,” Cyril boomed. “Let’s go disembowel these fellows. Andiamo!” As Joey was pretty much up for anything, he immediately fell in behind Cyril and Nino. Nicky, Bob scampered after them; the dogs running ahead of the group. The sound of barking got fainter and fainter. They must be walking down to Nino’s to clean the fish.

The throbbing in head was coming back. For now, my conversation with Joey would have to wait.

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