|(In Italy, fake flowers, usually silk)
The path of my twenty-nine-year marriage was lined with flowers. Flowers of all varieties, all colors, in vases, in baskets, and in long skinny boxes, wrapped in cellophane, sheathed in tissue, tied with ribbons, and garnished with bows. Flowers for every occasion, for every holiday, or just for Saturday. An over-sized bouquet of flowers from a corner flower shop in Rome marked the point where my marriage withered up and died.
Flowers are part of the wedding planner’s dream package, carefully selected for color, beauty of bloom, and significance—the result, I suspect, of collusion between florist and over-zealous event planners. White and red roses together signify unity—appropriately connubial and bliss-promising—whereas what bride in her right mind would carry those shameless marigolds denoting the vulgar-minded. Along the way to adulthood, we’re somehow conditioned to attach meanings, lofty, romantic meanings, to the flowers in our lives.
I chose Stephanotis, for reasons long forgotten if ever known at all, to carry down the aisle. I never thought to ponder the individual significance of any of the blooms given to me through the years. Instead I settled on a generic meaning for “the countless bouquets my husband was always showing up with. My God, look how much he loves me. These flowers don’t say “I’m sorry” or “please” or “forgive me.” These flowers mean devotion and forever. These flowers say “I love you.”
It was impossible not to anticipate his coming in the door nearly every Saturday afternoon after a round of golf with a smile and an armful of carefully selected irises, daffodils, gladiolas, and often, long-stemmed roses. These weekly presentations were paltry compared with those delivered to my door for holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. My neighbors, friends, family, all those witnesses to this over-blown expression of love, devotion, and happiness enviously concurred that I was a very lucky woman indeed. Most of all, our florist was thrilled beyond measure. All in all, my marriage outlasted two floral delivery men.
My vases were never empty, but something deep inside of me was. Somewhere around the year of our sixteenth anniversary, I began to recognize an emptiness, a hollow feeling that showed up now and again but always vaporized with the appearance of the next bunch of sweetheart roses. Nothing is perfect now, is it? I would say to myself. No one has everything. How much do I want out of life anyway? The man adores me. He’s a great father, a generous son-in-law, good friend and respected business man —and just look at those magnificent perky petals! Flowers mean love; flowers mean the giver values the givee above all else. Flowers mean all is well.
All was not well. How I came to know this beyond a doubt is another tale, but by one summer in Rome I was beginning to discover the significance of the endless flow of flowers that ran through the course of my marriage.
Flowers were one thing, but my enduring love affair with Rome, which took root on our first family trip to Italy in 1992, was quite another. Six years later, it had blossomed like one of Georgia O’Keefe’s giant floral paintings. I’ll never forget that one July day being blatantly seduced just hours after our jet-lag-weary family of four trudged off the plane at Leonardo Da Vinci airport, checked into our hotel, and, newly revived, took to the streets of the Eternal City.
Turning the corner off the busily trafficked Via del Rinascimento into Piazza Navona, a rush of sensations came flooding in from every side. A tangle of languages streaming from tourists and Romans parading through the square, the weaving of sounds—Air on a G String from a violin, theme from The Godfather on the accordion, squawking seagulls sailing overhead, and cooing Roman pigeons nipping at focaccia crumbs at the foot of Bernini’s grandiose sculpture of the Four Rivers—a symphonic dissonant chorus that was somehow melodious.
Adding to that was the incomparable Roman mid-day light dancing off 17th-century buildings, like fireflies that had escaped from the night. It was an irresistible magical force—and it was coming right at me. The Romans call this sensation a colpo di fulmine, literally a lightning strike, that moment when you fall hopelessly in love. Rome can do that to you. I had fallen in love with a city.
It was early in my love affair. I had yet to learn about St. Agnes, the early Christian martyr and patron saint of chastity. Refusing to renounce her faith and submit to an unwanted marriage, Agnes was arrested by Roman soldiers, dragged naked through Piazza Navona ,and ultimately beheaded. Neither had I experienced the wonders of a Roman artichoke fried to crispy perfection. Nor did I see the degree of rot beneath the lustrous veneer of my marriage.
For now, Rome had so much to give. I was intrigued by two-thousand-year-old stones under my feet—stones once bearing the weight of chariots along the Appian Way. I was awed by Caravaggio’s three paintings of St. Matthew, cloistered inside the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, a testament to the genius of the bad boy of the Renaissance art world. I was stunned by the Pantheon, this ancient monument of all gods, standing majestically whole since 125 A.D. But perhaps most of all, I developed an instant obsession with Roman food, la cucina Romana, a cuisine fusing artistry and alchemy with what the gods have harvested for the season. Carciofi alla Giudia, artichokes served like golden chrysanthemums on a plate in March; fave beans and chunks of young pecorino in May; ravioli con fiori di zucca (zucchini blossoms) in June.
All it took was one dinner in a Roman restaurant for me to know that when it came to food in Italy, I was as green as a freshly plucked summer zucchini. I had grown up with two sets of Italian immigrant grandparents and had eaten in countless “authentic” Italian restaurants across the United States, but this was something completely different, something alien to that. No spaghetti and meatballs, no shrimp scampi, no chicken parm on the menu. Whatever I was being served here was like nothing I had ever tasted before.
And so for four days, my husband, our two daughters, and I experienced as many of the wonders of Rome as possible before continuing on to Florence and Venice—completing the golden triangle for first timers to Italy. I loved every moment of it.
For each of the next six years, we set off on another edition of summer in Italy, family-style—up and down and crisscrossing the peninsula, taking in what seemed like a country of infinites. The infinite variety of landscapes and coastlines, of accents, of art and architecture, and a food culture that shape-shifted with each new place we visited. The infinite sense of possibility. We explored Bologna, Sicily, Positano, Perugia, and many lesser-known towns, but at the beginning or end of each trip, we always included Rome. Nothing disappointed, but Rome reigned.
The jolt of energy I first felt in 1992 intensified with each new trip, infusing excitement and passion into those empty spaces I had been carrying around for years. When the time came to go back home, I didn’t want that feeling to end. My need to sustain the exhilaration was over-whelming. The only way I could do that was in my kitchen where I became fixated on creating the recipes and ways of eating I had found in Italy, especially in Rome. And as soon as possible after each trip, I would begin plotting out an itinerary for the following summer.
But no matter how hard I tried or how much effort I put into our travel plans or my menus, when I was back home and away from Italy, I felt flattened, closed up, like a crocus in the night. I knew I was sliding into new territory which made me feel strangely guilty and disloyal to my family, to my orderly and blandly predictable life. I was building up secrets of the heart. I would soon discover that my husband had secrets too, profound secrets that would rip that heart to pieces.
The itinerary for 1997 included Milan, Lago di Garda, Orvieto, and at the end, two weeks in a rented apartment in Rome. Finally, I was about to have a real Roman kitchen of my own, even for a short time.
Once we’d arrived and settled into our temporary home in the Monti area of Rome—the refrigerator and the pantry were full, the girls had plugged their CD player into the electrical adapter, and I was assembling all the ingredients for our first home-cooked dinner—when my husband walked through the door with three dozen artfully arranged, gloriously formed, exquisitely colored flowers. He didn’t know yet that I knew what I knew. Nor could he see what I could see—that these magnificent flowers he was handing to me were made of silk.
He seemed embarrassed when he realized his mistake. But I mumbled a comment about the air in Rome interfering with the senses and stuck them in the large frosted glass vase on the center of the wooden dining table. Reassured that I was perfectly happy with my fiori finti, he went into the living room, turned on CNN International, and stretched out on the sofa while I retreated to my temporary Roman kitchen to prepare dinner.
It had taken me several years until I could turn out an acceptable rendition of penne all’amatriciana, my favorite Roman pasta dish. And now here I was with the proper and qualified ingredients purchased at a Roman market, to be cooked in my Roman kitchen. I wasn’t going to let anything spoil the moment.
I chopped the guanciale into small cubes before tossing them into the hot pan with the glistening olive oil. The diced onions and a small peperoncino went in next. Keeping the fire up high, I stirred to prevent burning before adding a little white wine to de-glaze. When the alcohol had simmered down, in went the tomatoes and salt. Now was not the time. The signora at the small local market next to the flower stand promised that by the middle of next week the blazing yellow and orange zucchini blossoms, fiori di zucca would be abundantly available. Perfect for stuffing with mozzarella and anchovies.
With the sauce nearly complete, I finished grating the requisite amount of pecorino romana that would top the dish and then threw the penne into the pot of rapidly boiling water. Through the steam I could make out the tallest of the silk flowers through the opening into the dining room. At that distance they did look real. But I knew they lacked roots. My fiori finti were beautiful to behold, carefully designed, and like my marriage, static in their artificial perfection, signifying deception. Now was definitely not the time.
The time did arrive several months and many discoveries later, at a time of my choosing.
Several years later, long after I had cleared out my stash of glass flower containers, long after my ex-husband and I had gone our separate ways but still lived in the same area code, I was in the fruit and veggie department of a local grocery store when I looked up and saw my him in the floral and plant section. There I was holding a shiny purple eggplant and there he was about 10 feet away clutching a bouquet of bright yellow roses which he abruptly dropped back into the holder the moment he saw me. We were stuck! It was that moment when two people who may not want to confront each other simultaneously lock eyes and it’s too late for either to slink away to the seafood department. After the battlefield of our divorce, we had settled on an amiable peace accord for the sake of our children and being politely cordial required some conversation, even if on my part, that meant controlling pugilistic urges. I held on to my eggplant as he walked over empty-handed to the vegetables. “It’s good see you.” “Yes, nice to see you too.” And not much else before we each turned around and went to our separate aisles.
As I was checking out, I saw him lingering in cereal which gave me the feeling that he was waiting for me to leave the store before high-tailing it back to yellow roses. It was, after all, Saturday afternoon, and he was, after all, in his golf clothes.
Throughout my marriage, for every one of those 29 flower-filled years, no matter the variety, no matter the color, not one of those petals, not one of those sprawling bouquets signified truth, fidelity, or honesty. The most authentic of all were the synthetic silk blooms presented to me in Rome that last year, unapologetically honest in their artifice.