Lowestoft Chronicle | Issue 28
After it happened, the advice came pouring in. All morning, waiting for the plumber to arrive, family and friends called to tell her what to do: take an evening art class; join a book club; go hiking; change your hairstyle; sign up for yoga; redecorate the house. We have your best interest at heart, they insisted, but Stephanie wished they would just be less interested instead.
“Listen,” Stephanie retorted. “I’m the one who’s getting divorced. This is my decision. I made my bed and now I’m going to lie in it.”
The truth was her husband had been the one to lie in bed, only it was someone else’s, a waitress named Jenny from their favorite take-out place. And it wasn’t merely a fling. He had been seeing her, and no doubt sleeping with her, for over a year. Stephanie had found out the hard way. Not from some truthful, soulful, heart-wrenching confession, but by seeing a text on his phone. He had been asleep when it rattled on his bedside table. She picked it up, thinking it might be his mother, or something important at that late hour.
“SugarBear, is the coast clear? Call me, babe. Counting the minutes.”
The text was followed by a number of symbols: red hearts, yellow smiley faces, and puckered lips. At first Jeff, bleary eyed from sleep, tried to deny it, but the evidence was clear: his mother called him Jeffy, his Dad called him Slugger, her sister called him Shit Head, and she, as well as his friends and team mates, called him JT—no one called him SugarBear. Her sister had got it right, no denying that now, either.
Stephanie calmly placed the phone back on the bedside table, put on her robe and slippers, and went downstairs to the closet by the garage, where they stored all their athletic gear: his baseball stuff, wet suits, life vests, paddles, bike helmets. She grabbed one of his bats, the Hank Aaron signature series, and tapping it on her palm like a drum beat, went back upstairs to their bedroom.
“Jesus Christ,” Jeff cried, sitting up, seeing her in the doorway with a bat raised over her head, coming toward him.
“Get the fuck out or I’m going to smash your fucking brains all over your pillow. Or, better yet, maybe I’ll make you eat your phone and you’ll choke on it and die,” she added, grabbing and brandishing the phone in her other hand.
Growing up, Stephanie had never been good at dealing with anger, not even when her mother smashed her thumb in the car door, or when her younger brother got all the attention, or when her dad relocated and she was forced to do her senior year at a high school in the suburbs of Kansas City. But she found it now, like a hidden treasure, like diesel fuel setting her on fire.
It took less than a minute for Jeff to vacate. It turned out that he had already packed his suitcases in the trunk of his car, making her hate him even more.
“I never want to see you again, you fucking bastard,” she yelled as his Ford Escort careened out of the garage, spilling skis, bikes, and the recycling bins onto the driveway. His tires screeched as he raced away. Good, she thought, let all the neighbors know. And then she was sad. They probably already did. She took off her wedding ring and threw it in the yard.
After many bourbons and a sleepless night, Stephanie got up and, not getting any hot water in the shower, went to the basement and discovered the water heater had burst. Everything—storage boxes, the washer and dryer, heater—looked like small islands; pieces of laundry floated on the surface like castaways.
“Shit,” she yelled, throwing up her hands, and went back upstairs, cursing Jeff. This was the last thing she needed. She rummaged around the kitchen, searching drawers where they kept things like phone numbers and appliance warranties, but couldn’t find anything related to plumbing—only the take-out menu, with a phone number penciled in on the back. Ha. That explained all those late nights Jeff volunteered to go pick up their dinner instead of waiting for delivery. No problem, he had said. Right. Big problem.
Stephanie, half-sobbing, half laughing hysterically, called her older sister, Susan, and recounted finding out about Jeff’s betrayal. Her sister had, of course, suspected his infidelity all along, and you didn’t need a Ph.D. from Harvard, either, she added, even though she had one. And after spending a good ten minutes raging about Jeff the Shit Head, another ten minutes chastising Stephanie for sitting on her ass in podunk Trenton and not doing anything about getting her dream job at the Inquirer, or the New York Times, and another ten minutes telling her to stop wasting her time covering baseball, even though it was okay, because even Gertrude Stein loved baseball, Susan said not to worry and gave her the name of the greatest plumber on the planet. Expensive, but great.
“Great,” Stephanie muttered and called the number, surprised to get him on his cell.
“Hello, Mr. Bello? This is Stephanie Talbot, I mean Stephanie Daly.” It was always so confusing. For house stuff and credit cards she used married name, but at work she always used her maiden name. Now, at least, that issue would get cleared up, she thought ironically. Her old name, down the drain, ha ha.
The plumber said he’d get there in an hour or so, after he finished his current job. In the meantime, with her pajamas hiked up and rain boots on, following his instructions, she turned off the main valve. She got dressed, made coffee, and called Beth, her boss at the Times of Trenton, who was very sympathetic. Been there, done that, she said sourly.
“Steph, I’m not usually the one to give advice, but I think you need more than a few days off. I think you need more like a month, or a couple of months.”
Shit, Stephanie fretted. Now, on top of everything else, she was getting fired.
“This could be a blessing in disguise,” Beth continued. “What I mean to say is, what we have here is a whole new ballgame.”
Stephanie, a writer and journalist, appreciated her editor’s use of idioms, but had made a pact with God that if she got the sports desk assignment at the Times she would never use them as a crutch, especially baseball ones. Over the past three years, covering the Trenton Thunder, when she had met Jeff, she encountered lots of opportunities, but had kept her word. It turned out Beth was not firing her. Beth was actually offering her a new assignment.
“Have you ever heard of the Tour D’Italia? Well, it turns out our dear publisher’s son has become a cycling fanatic and will be racing in his first Tour. He wants me to send someone to cover it, and so I thought, why not you?”
Italy? She and Jeff had talked about going on their honeymoon, but his game schedule interfered and they were saving up for the house. At the time, she had not minded much. She spent her day at the stadium, watching and writing about the team, and then, at night, they had had some romantic dinners, followed by sex, which he explained was just like baseball: dinner being the equivalent of the first inning, dessert the seventh inning stretch, and then the wind up into a grand slam ‘round the bases to home plate. At first, his baseball and sex analogy had made her laugh and think that he was cute and funny, though occasionally there was disaster: no score. But after three years of marriage, sex had become more like a straight shot home, without even touching the bases. Now she knew why.
“I guess you are thinking about it?” Beth queried. Stephanie took a deep breath.
“Beth, I appreciate you thinking of me and wanting to help with my, you know, situation, but I know nothing about cycling, let alone professional cycling. Why not send Jim? He’s a biking nut, young, just out of school.” Jim covered local high school sports.
‘Steph, do me a favor,” Beth replied. “For once, don’t be yourself. Look, you’ll be in Italy, for Christ’s sake. You’ll get to be outdoors, meet new people, see new scenery, and feel the history. So stay home today, get your pipes fixed, and think about it.” Beth hung up.
Stephanie stared down into the basement, watched the water lapping on the first step of the stairs like it was a shoreline. Part of her wanted to redial the plumber, tell him not to come, and then go back in the basement and turn the valve back on. She fantasized about letting the water flow, filling up the basement, filling up the first floor, then the second and third until the house washed away down the street.
It took Tony, a nice man with white hair, big shoulders, and a broad chest, wearing a starched green uniform and shiny black boots, about three hours to hook up the pumps, drain the basement, and fix the heater. A temporary fix. She would have to buy a new one. Her kitchen floor was a mess from his boots as he traipsed back and forth from basement to truck.
“Sorry about your floor, Mrs. Talbot,” Tony said, wiping his hands on a towel hanging from his belt. I’m gonna take my tools back out to the truck. Here’s your invoice, I’ll be right back.”
Stephanie looked at the invoice. This is probably how much it costs to go to Italy, she thought bemused. She had never paid the plumbing bill before, and was mildly shocked, but she didn’t say anything. She was glad he had not mentioned all the crap that was still sitting in the driveway from Jeff’s hasty exit.
“Do you take credit cards?” She asked when he returned. He had removed his boots and put on clean, heavy black shoes.
“No, sorry. Checks only,” he said, apologetically, bending down, cleaning the floor with a rag.
Stephanie found her purse and took out her checkbook. She checked the invoice to read the billing name: Bello Plumbing.
“Bello, I’m guessing that’s Italian?” she asked, smiling, thinking, ok, this is funny.
“My grandfather, Giuseppe Bello, was from northern Italy, the Veneto area. They came over in 1890, but I still have lots of family—uncles, cousins—living over there. We go to visit every year. You ever been?” He folded the check and put it in his pocket, behind the plastic pen protector.
Of course you go, she muttered to herself, thinking what she had just paid him. As far as she knew, there were no relatives in her father’s ancestral Ireland. And he, being a department store manager his entire life, had never had enough money to take them much of anywhere, let alone Italy. Kansas being the only exception. That was kind of a foreign country.
“Are you thinking of going?” Tony asked, getting ready to leave. “If you are, that’s good. Italy is nothing like anything you’ve ever seen. And the food! Mamma mia. Do you like Italian food?” Stephanie could see that Tony was getting very excited, his speech picking up speed. “If you go,” he continued, his eyebrows dancing up and down, tapping his chest with a knowing finger. “Trust me, you’ll never want to come back.”
“Well,” Stephanie paused, wondering if she should confide in someone she didn’t know, but he seemed very eager and genuinely interested.
“I may be going for work. It won’t be a vacation. To cover the Tour D’Italia. You know it?”
Tony looked at her strangely, like she was speaking a foreign language, but then he brightened. “Oh, you mean the Giro. The Giro D’Italia! Of course, it is the most famous bike race in the world!”
Beth must have gotten it wrong, Stephanie thought. Now she was feeling even more doubtful about the assignment, especially if her boss couldn’t even get the name right. Stephanie looked down at her shoes.
“I don’t know anything about cycling. Baseball has always been my thing. You know, I wanted to be Roger Angell. My husband, Jeff, plays in the Minors, you know, the Thunder.”
Tony cut her off. “Your husband is Jeff Talbot? The one who blew the Trenton High School Championship because he didn’t hit the bases in the last inning on a grand slam?”
Stephanie stared at her shoes again, nodding, painfully acknowledging the truth. If Tony only knew.
“Look, I know this is coming out of left field,” he continued as Stephanie cringed, “but if you need to learn about cycling, I think I can help you. Some of the kids are here visiting, about to head back to Venice. I call them kids, but they are your age, you know, young people,” he smiled, adding. “Italians are practically born on bikes.”
“I’m not exactly a young person,” she stammered. “I got married later than most girls. I was pretty focused on my career and sports journalism—for the most part, a man’s field—so I had to work pretty hard. I didn’t go out much. I was always working,” she added sheepishly, wondering why she was confessing all this to Tony who had now, it seemed, transformed from plumber to therapist. He grabbed the cell phone on his belt and dialed.
“Marco? Ciao. Uncle Tony. Senti, listen, I know you were making a special dinner tonight. Would it be all right if I brought a guest? She wants to ask you all about the Giro.” Stephanie heard a bright voice on the other line.
“Si, si. I’d like to tell her what you are making.” Tony started to write on the back of the invoice. “Arancini. Uh huh. Tortellini in Brodo. Fritto Misto. Contorni. Dolce. Got it. See you soon. Ciao, Ciao.” Well, at least she knew ciao, but had no clue what else Tony had said.
“Here,” he said, taking one of several pens in his pocket. He scribbled an address and phone number next to the menu. “Come over at 7:00, okay? Marco is cooking for us, a going away present. He said he didn’t mind one more. Especially a bella signorina,” Tony said, winking. “With your fair complexion and blue eyes, you could easily pass for a pretty Northern Italian miss.”
Stephanie felt her cheeks go red.
“Listen, it’s okay. I see the mess in the driveway, you’re not wearing a ring, and it’s always the husbands who call the plumbers,” he explained, this time transforming himself from therapist to sleuth.
Oh God. Stephanie worried, what else could he see? That she should never have married Jeff? That she was glad they had never had any children? That she hated the house? That she wasn’t even sure she really liked baseball that much anyway? Tony must have sensed her discomfort because he changed the subject back to his invitation and the dinner.
“You are in for a real treat. Arancini is fried rice balls filled with cheese, tortellini are these delicate little pastas stuffed with a mixture of chicken and veal. Fritto misto is a very traditional Venetian dish, fried seafood, and then he’s making some kind of dessert. Something sweet, a dolce.” Tony rubbed his stomach, stressing the last word, which sounded like, dolchay.
Pizza she adored, and everything he described sounded delicious, but she frowned. It all seemed a bit much, Tony, his family, the food. She felt like one of the pieces of laundry in the basement, floating, alone.
“Please,” he said, putting a hand on her arm like a soft apology. “Besides, you will like him, Marco. He’s quite a character, and he said he’d be happy to tell you about the Giro.”
“All right,” she sighed, relenting. Maybe she could pick up some good information to help her decide about the assignment. Besides, where was she going to go tonight, anyway?
“Va bene,” he said, heading for the door.
“Pardon?” Stephanie asked, holding the kitchen door open.
“Va bene. It means all right. OK. Very good. Consider that your first Italian lesson,” he said, waving.
Stephanie laughed out loud, a real laugh, a big tickling feeling on the inside.
“Va bene,” she repeated, awkwardly, but the words felt good in her mouth, like something sweet, like dolce.