On a Sunday Afternoon in Italy

by Sayantani Dasgupta

Shower. Pack your laptop, your writing notebook. Don’t forget sunglasses. Nor the handkerchief. They’ll embolden you to leave the air-conditioned soothe of your one-bedroom apartment. The neighbors next door and on the floors above and below you—offices all—are quiet today. Tomorrow, they’ll be back—the long lines, the jumbled scooters at the entrance, the steps thudding up and down the stone stairs.

Walk in the direction of your favorite café. Bypass your favorite cathedral, whose doors, you notice, are shut. Favorite because all those afternoons, once you’re done with teaching, but loathe to return to the apartment you share with your roommate Netflix, you kill an hour here, so you may have respite from the unforgiving, mid-June sun of central Italy. Inside, the incense reminds you of its twin that Ma burns at the altar in her bedroom in New Delhi. But what you most enjoy inside the cathedral is the stone floor and the high ceiling, and standing between them, an impressive display of murals, candles, and statues.

Today, the cathedral’s doors are closed, possibly, because of service. Any moment now, they will swing open, and families upon families will peal down the stairs. Caught in the middle, you might get a few stares. You don’t look like them, you are by yourself, and with no companion or child in sight. As they stream past you, it might feel like you are trapped inside a movie scene. You know, the one where you stand still, but the crowd swirls around you, speeded up five times, like something straight out of Charlie Chaplin’s imagination.

You will think of your husband then, asleep on the American West Coast, his body more toward your side of the bed than his, his right arm industriously doing the work of a pillow, his mouth slightly open, and the phone on the side table, charging, charging, set to its loudest possible volume to catch the first ring of your newest complaint. You will think of your parents too, halfway on the other side of the world, in equally hot New Delhi, seated perhaps in that very moment, across from each other at the dining table, sipping on the first of their two cups of afternoon tea.

You are at the turn that will lead to your favorite café, when the restaurant catches your eye. Today, it’s not just the potted flowers—purple, red, and fuchsia—set against the tenth century stone wall and catching the sun just so. It’s the smells. You aren’t sure what is what. Cured meats, perhaps? Or, maybe roasted tomatoes and grilled eggplants, gleaming in olive oil, their smells mashed together, like the tourists pressed into the Colosseum last Saturday.

You know the scene inside the restaurant even though in your one month in Italy thus far, you have never set foot inside this particular establishment. But you have been to similar restaurants, that too on Sundays. You have sat alone, of course, and you have watched grandparents feeding grandchildren, brothers clapping each other’s backs, women laughing in between bites, and in spite of the delicious spread in front of you, you have felt extraordinarily sorry for yourself.

No, you won’t let that happen to you today. You ignore the restaurant, and you turn the corner to your favorite café. It’s your favorite because it bears the word “Happiness” in its name. Because while the manager speaks no English, and you speak no Italian, she knows what you do for a living, and calls you “Professora.” Because she points to items, new to you, items that are sweet or savory, that live inside her glass cases, and that she insists you try.

The patata pizza doesn’t care if you are new to Italy or to this café. It simply does its job. It sails from the glass case onto a plate, then into the microwave, and finally arrives at your stylish, tripod-table. The mandolin-sliced golden potatoes nudge each other like batting inside a quilt, tied together by threads of onion and rosemary, weighed down in place by coarse salt. So, you too lean over to do your job. You grab a slice, and take a bite. You lean back into your chair, and close your eyes. In that fulfilling microsecond, you think of no one but yourself.

Sayantani Dasgupta (@sayan10e), born in Calcutta and raised in New Delhi, is the author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, and the In-Between—a finalist for the Foreword Indies Book of the Year Awards for Adult Nonfiction—and the chapbook The House of Nails: Memories of a New Delhi Childhood. Her essays and stories have appeared in the RumpusHunger Mountain, the Bellingham Review, the Southern Humanities Review, the Hindu, and others. She is an assistant professor of creative writing in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and has also taught in India, Italy, and Mexico.

* This essay originally appeared in Sweet Literary #13.1 (2020).

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