(NOTE: The following is a tale of a certain man-sperience I had while living in a small town in southern Italy. Names have been changed, facts have not.)
“Watching Armageddon… and crying :( :( :( !!”
Tommaso sent me this text the morning after I met him. Having moved from New York—the world’s capital of textual duplicity—to a town in southern Italy, I was initially refreshed by his total lack of game. But instincts are hard to shake. I got out of bed and paced around my room. I made pasta. I nibbled on a wedge of Parmesan cheese. What’s his angle? I thought. Three frowny faces…ironic or sincere? Before I could commit to more nervous speculation, my phone lit up.
“What are you doing now???”
The night before, my friend Andrea introduced me to Tommaso, who wanted to practice his English. Andrea lurked slyly away, and Tommaso and I discussed Berlusconi, Italy’s educational system, the mafia, and white wine. An hour later, Andrea popped back in between us.
“Would you like to get cigarettes with my friend?” He gestured to Tommaso, with whom I was mid-conversation.
Amused by this clunky and transparent wing-manning, I finished my beer and turned to Tommaso. “Si, andiamo.”
Exiting any public establishment in Italy can take several minutes, usually hours. As Tommaso and I were leaving the bar, my friend leaned towards me and winked. “Brava, Maria.”
“Brava, Maria,” another echoed, and clapped. “He’s a nice guy. Good work.”
Tommaso and Andrea exchanged parting whispers, and I followed Tommaso to his (father’s) car. We drove a few blocks down the road to the vending machine that sold cigarettes. I waited in the car as Tommaso bought his cigarettes, and he offered to drive me back to the old, crumbling part of town where I lived. He walked me down the narrow, cobble-stoned streets to my door. We sat on the stoop, my knee touching his.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked.
“Do you like Italian boys?”
“The ones who don’t wax their eyebrows.”
“Do you like me?”
“You’re not so bad.”
Encouraged, he leaned in for a kiss. We made out against my door, then against the other side of my door, then on my bed.
I asked him if he had condoms.
“This is a small village,” he said. “If I went to the pharmacy to buy condoms, everyone would know. I’m very timid.”
“This is a small village,” I said. “If I went to the pharmacy to buy condoms—as a foreign woman—everyone would not only know, but shun me forever as a whore or a witch. This is a rural town. People legitimately own pitchforks and torches.”
I sent Tommaso home, where his mother was surely waiting for him, wondering where he was.
There is no healthy Italian hook-up culture.
Here’s another bold statement I’m only able to support by anecdotal experience: Italian men lack game, causing them to overcompensate with cartoonish forwardness or, typically, to shy away from contact entirely, staring at women but never striking up conversation. The very courageous, moderately respectful ones might approach you and ask questions to your boobs, like, “Where are you from?” or “Do you know Obama?” But that’s pretty much the extent of it.
A healthy Italian hook-up culture is further impeded by the reality that men aged twenty to thirty five typically live at home. Yet for men in their late thirties who have yet to start lives independent of their mothers’, the level of confidence can be striking.
One afternoon, I was relaxing at a bar with my friend Mario, a 70-year-old retired sports coach. A man in his late 40’s, also named Mario, entered the bar, wearing a purple polo with the collar pulled up and his thinning hair pulled up, too, with cheap hair gel. The older Mario introduced me, and the younger, but by no means young, Mario began asking me questions, before pleasantries or even names were exchanged. “Are you alone?” “Where do you live?” “What are you doing tonight?” Are you single?”
These men always ask if I’m single, as if that’s the only barrier between us being together.
One waiter at a Naples pizzeria asked me if I had a boyfriend even before I ordered my pizza, which I found completely unfair.
“No,” I said.
“Uhhh…I’m really independent?”
“Same! I’m really independent, too!”
Sometimes, this lack of smoothness is charming. In New York, where I lived for a year prior to moving to Italy, men pride themselves on concealing all interest, or doling out just enough to coax you into sleeping with them. Texts are cryptic. Even when they’re not, you must read them as cryptic. I’ll never be able to return to the era of not analyzing each word and punctuation mark in texts—because, tragically, once one person plays the game, everyone must play the game. A good analogy here might be steroids and baseball. Something about a level playing field.
And as I’ve always struggled to be coy or elusive or dismissive, the game never got easier for me. I failed the New York dating scene, hard, because I couldn’t stop caring, even about men I didn’t care about. Yeah, I’ve sent more than one Facebook message after 3 am.
That afternoon, my phone lit up again. It was Tommaso. “Are you going out tonight?” I realized I hadn’t responded to his initial Armageddon text. Look at me, I thought. Accidentally playing it cool.
“Yeah, I think so,” I texted back.
Five seconds later, he responded with “:) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :).”
I have the power. I thought, gleefully. As a rule, whoever texts a series of repeating emoticons relinquishes all power.
That night we met up at the bar. He was wearing sweats and drinking an iced tea. Clearly, he knew he’d be getting some—he hadn’t even bothered to not wear pajamas. I downed a few glasses of white wine, and we eventually walked back to my place. No one pretended to need cigarettes.
After we had sex, he immediately began dressing himself. “I’m so tired,” he said, and scurried on home. I lay on my bed, naked, flipping through an old New Yorker. I made myself some frozen French fries on the stove.
The following day was text-free. That night at the bar, I saw Tommaso out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look at him—to say hi—but he turned away immediately. An hour later, I approached the group he was huddled in, and said, “Hey, how’s it going?”
“Good, good,” he said, to the ground. He took a nervous sip of his drink. Bored by the unoriginality of sleeping with someone who can’t look at you the next day, I rejoined my girlfriends, who decided to teach me some of the town’s dialect.
“Qualquequerà,” Chiara said, “Can either mean an orange slice or a good-for-nothing man, depending on the context.” I tried to imagine a situation in which the context left the word’s meaning ambiguous. I came up with, “A qualquequerà isn’t enough for me, which could be followed by, depending on the intended meaning of qualquequerà, “I want the whole orange, not just a slice” or, “I want a whole man, God damnit.”
It occurred to me that my problem with men wasn’t a New York problem or an Italy problem. It wasn’t an issue of game, or lack of game, an issue of ironic texts or sincere texts. It was an asshole issue. I needed to change my narrative, the narrative I’d constructed to make sense of my frustrating dealings with men. What I really needed was to eliminate narratives all together.
I looked at Tommaso, who was recreationally throwing rocks at a bush. “Qualquaquerà,” I said. And then I laughed.