La Vita Elegante

Bringing four young children to Italy may be a mistake, especially if you’re trying to recapture your youth.

Child playing in ball pit

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Ev and I made a mistake bringing the children to Sirrenti for the holiday — they were perhaps too young, and almost immediately we ran into problems.

Problems of humidity and tantrums, of lumpy mattresses and bad dreams. Problems of snacks: in Italy one cannot buy the porpoise-shaped cookies that Charlotte (age 5) loves. Problems of agenda-setting: Gertie (age 8) liked to run along the tideline of the beach, leaving footprints in wet sand and collecting seashells for friends back home. Tom, her twin, detested sand. He preferred to recline by the hotel pool and sip orange-flavored soda from a highball glass. Problems of street dogs: They frightened Gertie, whereas Charlotte, convinced by cartoons that strays were gallant and lovesick, chased after to make friends (Ev scooping her away, in one case, just before she was nipped). Problems of haunted ruins: Lionel (age 11), the eldest, talked incessantly of climbing the precipitous, tree-covered hills above Sirrenti. Lionel had sat in the front seat of the taxi van that transported us from the airport, and the English-speaking driver regaled Lionel with stories of treasures and ghosts in an old Roman ruin somewhere up the slopes. We had problems of sun: too much in the case of Gertie, who burned, and too little in the case of Charlotte, always chilled. Problems of earaches and rashes, of feet kicking one another beneath the table, of rivalries and shifting balances of power. We had problems, frankly, of too many children.

The third evening, we hired a young woman recommended by the concierge to watch a movie with the kids. Ev and I walked along the water at sunset and admired the pink and rose terra-cotta houses that climbed the cliff face. I snapped selfies of us with my phone. Swiping through the results, I tried to imagine these middle-aged people without children.

Against the backdrop of a Romanesque church, we grabbed an outdoor table at an osteria and ordered dinner.

“How did they all turn out so different?” I said. “We raised them without variety.”

Ev sat with her elbows on the table, head in her hands. She looked up when the waiter brought the wine. “I just nodded off,” she said.

“We shouldn’t have done it.”


“I meant kids,” I said, joking. Then thought about it: “Well, Gertie’s okay.”

She sniffed at the cork. “For the record, it was your idea coming here. You wanted to reconnect with our youth.”

I sighed, affecting wistfulness. “If only that were possible.”

Things were good between Ev and me. We weren’t one of those couples who made love like paying a utility bill, something you do to keep the lights on. Still, we’d been together a long time. And with four kids — it’s different. A lifetime ago, when we passed through Sirrenti, we were just out of college, staying in filthy hostels and hitchhiking where the trains wouldn’t take us. Drinking too much, lean no matter what we ate, screwing like farm animals in the middle of the day. Maybe I did want to reconnect with that. Who wouldn’t?

Ev, looking pensive, swirled the wine in her glass.

“What is it?” I said.


“Come on.”

“It’s just — ” she looked pained “ — you could try harder with Tom. You know he’s more sensitive than the others. They handle you better.”

“Handle me?”

“You know what I’m saying.”

I filled my glass.

“You’re not always available,” she went on. “Emotionally, I mean. You’re a bit like your dad.”

“Jesus.” I laughed. “It’s come to that, has it?”

“For the record, I liked your dad.” She smiled. “Let’s try to enjoy ourselves. We’ve only got four more days.”

Sounded like four years. I downed my glass too quickly. Already heartburn threatened. The discomfort must have shown because Ev leaned across the table to squeeze my hand.

“You want to go home early?” she said. “Pay the change fees?”

“On six tickets? That would bankrupt us.” I studied her. “Though you could pick up a second job.”

She laughed. “Oh, sure. I have limitless energy.”

Back in the hotel lobby, we discovered Lionel chatting up the desk clerk, asking about haunted ruins. The clerk, perplexed, scanned an arrangement of brochures.

Ev nodded hello to the clerk and laid a hand on Lionel’s curls. “How did you escape? We posted a guard.”

“It was easy.” He pulled his head away, annoyed. “Anyway, I don’t need a babysitter.”

I examined the brochures. Art exhibits and historical walking tours. A sunset ferry ride with a romantic dinner for two. Lionel, with a sharp intake of breath, pulled a rather cheap-looking brochure from the rack and exclaimed “a funhouse!”

It wasn’t a glossy trifold like the others. It was a hand-drawn, xeroxed advertisement for “The House of Enchantment”; the illustration depicted a looming mansion emblazoned with Egyptian icons. Sphinxes, ankhs, fish-eyed pharaohs. From the portico, a seer with bandaged eyes beckoned the onlooker.

Ev, giving it a dubious glance, said, “No, Lionel, that’s a joke. What about snorkeling? Or look — ” she selected another from the rack “ — we could go to the sea caves.”

But Lionel, his hopes for the Roman ruins dashed, had fastened onto the idea of the funhouse. Ev glanced at me, helpless. Jet lag and too much wine had undermined our defenses.

I took the brochure from Lionel and handed it to the clerk. “Where is this?”

With some consternation, and imperfect English, the clerk indicated the funhouse brochures shouldn’t have been in the rack as they hadn’t been cleared by the tourism board. Someone, probably the funhouse’s purveyor, had slipped them in. He tried to steer us toward approved activities (“the sea caves, like madame said”). But Lionel, sensing his advantage, remained firm. I asked the clerk to write out directions to the funhouse, which he reluctantly did, drawing a map and circling landmarks (“past the marina, signore, past the mercato del pesce, where they sell fish … there on the corner is the old church … turn right, signore, and you will find la casa dell’incanto”).

In the children’s room, the babysitter reclined on the sofa, talking on her phone and leafing through a magazine. The children, all awake, were piled on the floor in a tangle of pillows and pajama’d bodies and candy wrappers, watching a movie. Their bright faces lifted. When Lionel announced that tomorrow we were going to a funhouse, they cheered.


The next afternoon we set off for the House of Enchantment. We’d spent the morning on the beach, had lunch in the hotel, napped. By two, Lionel was eager to get moving, but it took time to rouse the younger kids. Charlotte was cranky. Tom was reading what must have been an extremely interesting book about Vikings. I found Gertie watching a soap opera, La Vita Elegante. The actors spoke Italian, of course, but she didn’t mind. “Everything you need to know,” she said, her chin in her hand, “is in the body language.”

This alarmed me: the two people flirting on screen were clearly about to have sex. I clicked off the TV, earning a dirty look. “Come on,” I said.

The House of Enchantment was walking distance from the hotel. The kids led the way, Lionel navigating by way of the clerk’s map. The pedestrian street that curled along the edge of the bay was busy with sightseers, food carts, tour operators selling tickets, a slip of a girl playing her violin for tips. I slipped my hand into Ev’s. We passed bright shops, restaurants, the osteria where we had dinner. From the crowded marina, the sound of rigging striking aluminum masts sounded like chimes.

Ev and I had saved up all senior year for our Italy trip. When we stepped out of the shadows of the airport in Milan, everything was so vivid and promising it blinded us. For three weeks we survived on loaves of bread and espresso, walked endlessly through galleries and solemn churches, through cramped medieval streets. We stayed out every night, dancing and drinking, sleeping into the afternoon. In Padua, a shop owner chased me down the street after I tried lifting a bottle of wine and made a mess of it. We got away, laughed about it, left the shoplifting to Ev. In Florence, we fell in with a group of backpackers. Two Germans, a girl from Belgium, a Spaniard. I used to have a picture of us in the Piazza della Signoria. We ate cibo di strada wrapped in white paper. All smiles, flashing perfect teeth, grease down our chins. We promised to keep in touch; now I can’t remember their names. We split up. One of the girls headed home, the others were off to Cinque Terra. Ev and I caught a bus to the Amalfi coast, landing briefly, accidentally, in Sirrenti.

I stopped and Ev turned to look at me. I’m not sure what it was. The light over the water, maybe, or the mélange of smells: rotting kelp, petrol, cigarettes, the yeasty exhaust of baking bread.

“I remember walking along here with you,” I said to her. “Twenty years ago. God, it just hit me.”


“We had dinner at a little soccer bar.” I looked around. “We had squid risotto. It must have been right along here.” It was all coming back. “The risotto was black as sin. The ink stained our teeth blue.”

She pressed her lips together, thinking.

“Afterward you had an allergic reaction,” I pressed. “You got a rash. It was the squid, or maybe the detergent they used at the hostel. You don’t remember any of that?”

“Oh,” she said. “I remember the rash.”

“That’s what you remember? The rash?”

“Well, it wasn’t yesterday.”


She looked at me. “Oh, you’re disappointed.” She squeezed my hand. “Was it a special night?”

“No, of course not.” And it wasn’t. It’s not like I proposed, or we conceived one of the kids — we were still years from all that. But it had struck me so vividly, so out-of-nowhere: the dark little bar, football pennants, tall pints of lager, our teeth blackened from the squid. Laughing, like proper maniacs.

“You’re really pining for those old times, aren’t you?” She grinned at me. “You want to be young and poor again?”

I shrugged.

“It wasn’t all a romp.”

“No, I know.”

“We got robbed. Remember? We had to call your dad, beg him to wire us money. You hated yourself for that.”

I laughed. “Okay. Forget it.”

She paused to admire some scarves at a stand, and the kids began to draw away. “Go on,” she said. “I’ll catch up.”

I kept an eye out for the soccer bar, peering down side streets, not sure I would recognize it.

Up ahead, the kids squabbled: Tom, tailing too close, had scuffed the back of Lionel’s foot once too often, and Lionel, whirling, chased him off.

Lionel, seeing me, broke off his chase. Tom ran up.

“Lionel’s being a jerk,” he said.

“Well then, don’t talk to Lionel.”

“That’s hardly even the point.”

Down an alley I spotted a place with a striped awning, faded and frayed. It looked vaguely familiar.

“He tried to hit me,” Tom said, tugging my attention back to him.

“Jesus, Tom, then hit him back. Just give me some peace.”

He looked aggrieved, then went away, slumping at the injustice. Gertie, his twin, fell in beside him.

We’re not supposed to have favorites. Failing that, we’re not supposed to have least favorites. Failing that, we’re not supposed to show it. According to Ev, I routinely fail these basic parental tests. Gertie, I generally found, could do no wrong. She was the best parts of Ev, and she got the bit of me that was worth a damn. Lionel was surly, difficult, but athletic, self-sufficient. Charlotte was still young, given to tantrums, but charming, adventurous. But Tom — of all the kids, he was my hangnail. He just had a special talent for getting on my nerves. He was high strung, finicky. He liked to talk in funny voices. He wore capes. His appetite for minutiae baffled me. He spent hours building spaceships and cities out of Legos. Thousands of tiny blocks. The damn things cost a bundle, but they were Tom’s only real creative outlet, according to Ev, so we were constantly mortgaging the other kids’ futures so he could spend the entire weekend building Hogwarts or the goddamn Millenium Falcon. Or whatever.

Ev caught up. “Everything all right?” she said.


I glanced down the alley at the place with the awning. The windows were boarded up. That might have been the bar, but who knows. There was nothing there now.

We paused at a deli to look in the window. On the other side of the glass were baskets of tomatoes, quarter-wheels of cheese, marinated artichokes, tubs of black and green olives. Charlotte gazed, troubled, at a row of salted pink hams. “Those used to be animals,” she informed us.

Ev knelt next to her and pointed to the olives.

“If you ever wonder if I love you,” she said. “Just think of olives and you’ll know.”

Tom threw her a confused look.

“Green olives are my favorite thing in the world,” she explained. “But when I’m pregnant, they make me so sick. I had to go months without olives for each of you.” She looked at each of the kids in turn. “So, if I went without my favorite thing in the world, just think how much I love you.”

Charlotte, Gertie, and Tom all smiled.

Lionel was unimpressed. “Hey, Dad,” he said with an eye roll. “You better buy Mom some olives. She’s losing her mind.”

I looked at her. “You want some?”

She stood and squeezed my elbow. “Maybe later.”

We passed the shaded fish market — big fans blowing, crabs and mollusks on beds of crushed ice — and into a shabby neighborhood of narrow shops with greasy windows and apartments overhead.

The tourists had thinned out. Laundry fluttered on lines drawn between windows. Charlotte complained of the long walk, so I carried her. The breeze fell off and a stripe of sweat ran down my back.

“Are we lost?” Charlotte said.

“No, we’re almost there.” But I threw a glance backward, fearing we’d missed the turn.

A chain-link fence encircled some kind of dump: decaying row boats and pallets piled high. An old woman passed, selling mussels from a basket. On the other side of the wreckage rose a church spire. Lionel, holding up the map, pointed. “There!”

Following the instructions, we turned up a narrow lane, past the church — just a modest pile of lichen-dark stone — and beheld, finally, the House of Enchantment.

In an empty gravel lot behind the church, the funhouse sat mired in mud and tall weeds. It looked nothing like the mansion in the brochure, of course. Not even close. It was a big block of painted wood — made up of shipping containers, I think, the kind of low-rent thing that could be loaded on flatbeds and trundled from town to town.

My spirits sank. Ev’s eyes met mine. We were each anticipating a revolt. Lionel stood at the head of the pack, staring with a quizzical tilt to his head. Charlotte’s small hand was limp in mine. I looked to Tom, but his eyes were shielded by his sunglasses and his face betrayed nothing. Everyone was quiet. This could go either way. I imagined a circus performer wheeling his unicycle across a tightrope, a small spotlit figure, teetering uncertainly over a vertiginous drop.

It was Gertie, insensitive to the group’s vacillation, who broke the impasse. “The House of Enchantment!” she cried joyfully, and in that moment the energy shifted. Charlotte echoed her sister’s cry, the boys’ faces resolved into easy smiles. The children bounced across the muddy lot, tugging us along.

“Take the lead,” I told Ev. “I’ll bring up the rear. Monitor the stragglers.”

At the entrance a man dressed somewhat improbably as a buccaneer smoked a cigarette and played on his phone. He rose, took our money, and ushered us one by one into the House of Enchantment, his shouts of “benvenuto!” chasing us across the threshold. Gertie, in front of me, turned and gave a frank, excited smile as we stepped into the dark.


We moved single file through a narrow passage that made abrupt, intestinal turns, the way lit by flickering, low-watt bulbs. From crackly speakers a voice boomed: “Benvenuti nella casa dell’incanto!” Up a ladder and down a slide molded into a giant pink tongue. In a passage in which strings of winking lights drew our gazes to the ceiling, the floor gave out beneath me. Frantic, I reached out to grip onto something before I tumbled into a pit. Lionel, hearing my startled cry, turned and laughed. The trap door had only dropped me a couple inches. Overhead, the voice boomed again: “Non scapperai mai!”

We weren’t alone. Jubilant voices bubbled up behind me. A group of teenagers, four of them, slid past us, half-running — “scusi, scusi” — trailing scents of body odor and weed. Charlotte’s voice filtered back to me: “They need a bath.”

Preceded by the teenagers’ rowdy laughter, we passed through beaded curtains that sounded like rain as we passed into a circular room with a red-and-white spiral painted on the floor. Here two of the teenagers scuffled: a red-faced boy in a bowler hat wrestled a brawny youth with a pigeon-toed foot. The others, both girls, egged them on. The four of them seemed like a vision of our long-lost backpacker comrades, or perhaps a portent of our own kids in a few years. Lionel stood extra straight, self-consciously watching the teenagers, particularly a girl with heavy eyeliner and a band T-shirt.

The room started to spin, slowly at first, then accelerating, breaking up the fight and tossing us all against padded walls. I ended up next to Ev, and she threaded her fingers with mine. With some effort — the centrifugal force pinning my head against the wall — I turned to check on Charlotte, who was being very brave, her body splayed sacrificially against the wall.

The room stopped spinning, and we staggered unsteadily through an exit and into a maze of purple curtains. We lost the teenagers, thankfully, and found ourselves crawling through a long low passage, lined on either side with trousered mannequin legs and feet in dusty shoes. After a moment, I grasped the conceit: We were beneath a table set for dinner, crawling between the feet of revelers. I caught up to Gertie. She was staring at a shoeless foot that had no toes, just rounded plastic. “It’s all right,” I told her. “Let’s go.” Ev seemed very far ahead, a tiny figure. Reaching the end of the passage, she opened a door onto a light and crawled through. One by one, the children followed.

From the other side of the door came shouts, joyous cries, Ev’s laugh. I pushed through and tumbled into a pit of bright, candy-colored plastic balls. Ev, having waded across to the other end, gave me a small wave.

Lionel hurled balls at Tom, who fake-laughed and tried to play along. But after getting pegged in the forehead, he howled in rage and returned fire as quickly as he could snatch up colored missiles, which Lionel easily dodged.

Amid the motley pool, I spotted a mass of dark curls just cresting the surface. I waded forward and, hooking Charlotte under the arms, helped her surface and ford to the other side.

We climbed out onto a landing. Tom shot Lionel dark looks and with his palm he covered a spot above his eye where he’d been struck.

“Let’s see it,” I said, pulling Tom’s hand away. The spot was maybe a bit pink. “You’ll live.” To Lionel: “Settle down, okay?”

Tom looked at me, infuriated. “I could have lost an eye,” he said, voice raised. “You never do anything.” Ev, bent and talking with Charlotte, looked our away. “You just let Lionel do what he wants.”

I felt a flash of impatience. “Come on, Tom.” Over the kids’ heads, Ev shot me a warning look, which I ignored. “No one likes a whiner.”

Tom, radiating defiance, said nothing. Gertie took his hand and he allowed himself to be led away. I caught the expression on Ev’s face. “What?” I said. Pursing her lips, she took Charlotte’s hand and followed the twins. Lionel and I trailed after.

Beyond, in a dark room, we stumbled into unseen furniture, stuffed chairs, a low table. The lights came on, revealing a sitting room filled with a parliament of glass-eyed dolls and stuffed animals leaking fluff. From a gaudily framed portrait, the gaze of a tight-lipped matron shifted as we moved and followed us out — into a copse of fake Christmas trees heavy with ornaments and a cloying, artificial scent. The branches pulled at my clothes or, brushing my neck, made me twitch away. Floorboards lifted and fell like piano keys, tilting us off balance. I stumbled and turned, found myself inches from a mechanical fortune teller, her eyes covered with bandages. I pulled away, startled. “Jesus!” With jerking, articulated movements, she spoke, perhaps offering to read my fortune, but then, slowing mid-sentence, she slumped forward, went dark.

We proceeded into a series of identical, shrinking rooms, each smaller than the next, creating the illusion that we were getting bigger, becoming giants. By the end we had to crawl — even Charlotte crouched — until we passed through a miniature door with a tiny brass knob.

On the other side we stood, dusted off our knees. It was a hall of mirrors. Reflections stretching off into forever. Where I’d had four kids, now I beheld thousands — a children’s crusade, the little ones walking uncertainly forward, their arms outstretched, unsure where they stopped and the worlds reflected in the glass began. I saw myself: a paunchy, middle-aged man, staring back, surrounded by thousands of his own milling children, and looking just as lost. Like someone barely holding on, who’s just trying to get through this, whatever this was, and back to his real life.


Magically, we came to the end: around a bend in the hall of mirrors, light streamed through an open door. The children pointed and cheered. “We made it,” I said, hearing the relief in my voice. I felt off-balance, ravenously hungry. Like I’d escaped death. I wanted to feast, to celebrate. Drink wine, sleep badly, wake up with a cottony hangover. I approached Ev and took her hand as the kids brushed past, toward the exit. She counted heads, then looked at me evenly: “We’re short one.”

“You’re joking.” I let go of her hand and counted: Lionel, Gertie, Charlotte. “Oh, damn it.”

I turned, shouted Tom’s name through cupped hands. Nothing.

“He gave me the slip,” I said.

She cocked her head. “But you were bringing up the rear, you said. Watching for stragglers.”

“I know, I know. Father of the year.” I heard the exhaustion in my voice. “I’ll find him.”

“If it’s such a chore, I’ll do it.”

“Come on.”

“He could be lost, you know. Or hurt.”

“Ev, he’s fine. I’ll find him. Promise.” I was about to turn, but something in her look stopped me.

“This whole trip was your idea,” she said, sounding sad, “and you’ve just been — ” she hitched up one shoulder in a shrug “ — just elsewhere. Yearning.” I glanced at the kids, clustered at the exit. At least Gertie and Lionel pretended not to listen. Charlotte stared unabashed, antennae up. Behind them, the doorway framed the bright, muddy lot, the dilapidated church, and, beyond, the flat water of the bay. Ev took a step closer and lowered her voice. “This is where we’ve landed, you know, there isn’t anything else. There’s just this, just” — she gestured around — “us.” Around me, in the hollow-faced glass, a middle-aged man was reflected from every unflattering angle. She looked up at me. “You know that, right?”

I worked my way back through the House of Enchantment. Leaving the hall of mirrors behind, I crawled through the small door into the series of expanding rooms till the ceiling was high enough I could stand. Past the limp mechanical fortune teller, who offered no prophecies, her battery dead. In the grove of Christmas trees, I looked under the boughs and called for Tom. Through garishly lit chambers, past rouged dolls and stern portraits, through darkness. I emerged, blinking, into the high-wattage glare of the lights over the ball pit.

There, something caught my attention: a slight rise, the balls hilled up on one side. Tom, I realized. Burrowed in, hiding.

I was on the verge of hollering at him — jig’s up, Tom, let’s go — but I checked myself, let out a breath. If Tom needed a timeout, I, of all people, should be able to sympathize. And I thought about what Ev said, about our paths narrowing, converging — somehow to a ball pit in the House of Enchantment — and my irritation drained away, ebbing down through my body, out my feet. I sat on the edge of the ball pit and waited.

After a time, Tom surfaced. Balls rustled away. His small, dark-eyed face resembled a brave otter’s.

“Tom.” I cleared my throat. “I’m sorry.”

A skeptical crease formed between his eyebrows.

“I’m sorry for Lionel, for losing my temper — ” I was searching for the right thing to say “ — for being in my head all week.”

Tom, unconvinced, looked like he might sink back into the ball pit, disappear.

“Look,” I said. “I’ve been an ass.”

That resonated. Tom nodded and stood, his shoulders surfacing.

“Are you okay?” I said.

He cleared his throat. “I think you owe me weregild.”

I blinked. “I owe you what?”

“Weregild. Blood money. To make things right.”

“Where did you — ” I shook my head. “Sure. What would make it right?”

He chewed his lip, thinking, then shrugged in a way that almost perfectly mirrored his mother.

“Well.” I thought about it. “You can pick the activity tomorrow morning. Anything you want to do.”

A pained expression flashed over his face. “Weregild isn’t an activity,” he explained. “It’s an exchange of resources.”

If I was about to point out that our entire relationship was based on a one-way exchange of resources, I bit my tongue. “How about room service?” I ventured. “You can get whatever you want.”

With some reservation, he said, “Okay.”


“Yes. That should do it.”

It wasn’t exactly the Dayton Accords, but I felt a weight lift. I stood, felt myself smile. He waded toward me and climbed out.

I extended my arms, inviting him for a hug.

But rather than surrender to an embrace, he leaned down to pick something — a string, a piece of lint — from his pantleg. “What you said, about you being in your head.”

My arms dropped. “Yeah?”

“Why do you only get like that with me?”

I couldn’t, in the moment, summon a response, and in that silence he seemed to infer all the things a mediocre dad might think and feel. He gave a tired little nod and turned — saying over his shoulder, “Mom’s probably worried” — and headed toward the exit.

“Tom,” I said to his back, “I am sorry.” And I reached out to place my hand on his shoulder, wanting to make my presence felt, to establish some physical link that could bridge the energy that had sprung up between us, but as I reached for him, he’d already drawn away and my hand fell on empty air.


It was a long walk back to the hotel. Tom hovered on the edge of the group, resistant to my wife’s and Gertie’s attempts to draw him out. Eventually they gave up. No one spoke. The sun sat low and red over the bay. The fishing boats were coming in. Lionel fell into step beside Tom, saying nothing for a while. But as we walked along the water, Lionel touched his brother lightly on the shoulder and pointed out toward the quay, where a hapless fisherman was caught in his own nets. I didn’t catch Lionel’s joke, but the grievances separating the two of them seemed to evaporate. Tom covered his mouth with his hand and he shook with laughter.

Back at the hotel, we piled onto the sofa in the kids’ room. They took care of everything. Tom and Lionel, acting as our waiters, circulated room service menus and wrote down everyone’s orders on small pads of paper. Gertie, taking up the TV remote, searched for something to watch. Charlotte retrieved blankets and pillows for a floor party. Lionel was being very solicitous of Tom — handing him the hotel phone and inviting him to place the order with the kitchen. Seated next to Ev on the sofa, I found her hand. After a moment she squeezed back and threw me a quick smile.

The food arrived on carts, on big trays, which we arrayed on the coffee table. Gertie found a show for us: La Vita Elegante, of course, which apparently airs at all hours. Strangely no one protested. The TV became a window into the glamorous, dangerous lives of people in a Tuscan villa. Secrets abounded. There was a plot to murder an old man — or perhaps to plan a birthday surprise. We weren’t sure. A witch lived in the attic and navigated the house via secret passages, delivering messages to a girl who may have been her granddaughter. Or perhaps the girl was being blackmailed. Then, confusingly, we were no longer at the villa, but at a horse ranch, maybe somewhere south. Maybe Sicily. Our hero was an earnest but foolish-looking young man who was heir to the estate, or an imposter. Or perhaps he was training to be a trick rider in the circus. Or all three. The significance was opaque, which was better. We could supply our own meaning.

Ev ate idly from one of the kid’s plates — then spat something out, jumped to her feet, and darted into the bathroom. The kids, hypnotized by the show, by the antics of the young hero, hardly noticed. From the other side of the door came the faint sound of Ev’s dry heaves. I closed my eyes, counted to five, then leaned over, inspecting her plate, and discovered the half-chewed remains of a green olive.

When Ev reappeared in the doorway, our eyes met over the children’s heads. She stared at me, lips parted, dazed. I gestured for her and she rejoined me on the sofa. I pulled her close. We could just sit with this, let it sink in. There was no rush. On the TV the young man was thrown by a spirited horse. We all laughed.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. Fine story about a family that has real complexity but also feels on the whole loving. Loved the subtle way he works green olives into the end of the story and what that means.


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