Extended family

Beata watches Luisa fussing with cups and spoons, sugar, napkins, tablecloth water glasses. She marvels at her cousin’s concentration on the minutiae of coffeemaking; feels the brandy numbing her head and arms; is relieved to surrender this moment of her life to this cousin who seems to know so clearly what to do and how to do it.

‘You know, Matteo is going to be really angry about Federico hitting you’ says Luisa, opening a packet of cream-filled wafers. ‘It’s so shameful, I’m not even sure I should tell him’, she adds, as she arranges the biscuits on a pretty plate.

Beata’s brow tightens and she stares at Luisa speaking. This was unexpected and feels uncomfortable. Is Luisa ashamed of her? Is she at fault? She speaks tentatively: ‘Well, I thought it might be good for Fede to hear that other people… other men, disapprove … of his behavior.’

After a pause, Beata finds more confidence: ‘I’m afraid Luisa; I don’t know how this is going to end; sometimes I feel sure he’s going to kill me… and I’m so worried for the boys. He might…’

Luisa cuts in sharply before Beata can finish: ‘I’ll tell you how it’s going to end: You’re going to go home and tell him to get smart and stop being a cretin!’ She has the no-nonsense tone of authority. ‘He’s got so much to lose. How does he think he’ll get on in this land if you leave him and take the children? He’ll be ostracized by everyone in our community.’ She softens again. ‘Now, lets have this coffee and some food and we’ll think about more cheerful things.’ Luisa turns off the gas and lifts the lid off the stovetop espresso pot, stirring the brew with a teaspoon.

Beata senses she is not getting through to Luisa and tries another explanation: ‘Luisa, I’m so exhausted all the time. I work so hard at being perfect, so he won’t have any reason to worry, or fight, but I never know… I can never anticipate when the next attack is going to come, or how … His latest is that I’m having it off with the boss!’

‘Which boss?’ asks Luisa, turning out her hands.

‘At the factory. Im not interested in anyone else!, exclaims Beata. ‘Fede’s got no idea. The boss only cares about how many pieces I finish. He’s a married man. And he’s a nervous wreck, always going on about increasing costs and competition. He’s too anxious to concern himself with anything other than work.’ She snorts at the ridiculousness of the idea. ‘And anyway, if he was going to give someone the eye, it would hardly be me. Look at me: all skin and bone, and haggard from exhaustion and anxiety…’

‘You’re still beautiful, Beata… so Federico’s jealous’.

‘Oh sure, Im really beautiful. Especially with this black eye, right?’ Both women snort a stifled laugh and Luisa continues: ‘And you both work so hard and don’t spend much time together. I know, because it’s the same with me and Matteo. We don’t get to spend much time together and at the end of our day, after all the work, we just fall into bed exhausted.’

‘It’s not the same Luisa!, protests Beata. ‘Yes, were both tired but Fede’s imaginings are those of a madman. You should hear what he calls me… in front of the boys! Look, I haven’t said anything about this before, but this is not new. He was like this in Italy too. He slapped me on our wedding night! And for what? A ridiculous story he made up in his head about a small wedding gift from his uncle.’

Luisa tisks: ‘I didn’t know’.

Beata breathes through her tight throat, ignoring the tears spilling over her eyes: ‘And he seems to hate me at those moments. I’m ashamed to repeat his words. It feels like he wants to taunt and provoke me on purpose…. so that the argument can escalate…so that we both behave like animals…. It’s like he wants me to disappear….’ Beata tries to say more but sobs instead.

‘Oh God!’, exclaims Luisa, ‘I told you we should talk about something more cheerful… Come on’, she pours the coffee for Beata, ‘drink your coffee. Look, Matteo won’t be home for a few hours yet. You can have a sleep on the couch here, after lunch. Im sure you’ll feel better on a full stomach and a rest, and you’ll still have time to pick up the children from school.’

Beata seems to submit completely to her cousin’s instructions as she retreats into her quiet place. She hears Luisa’s voice from a distance, talking about her work that afternoon. Beata registers a word here and there: ‘orders, customer, Matteo, Fitzroy, dinner’. She adds sugar to her coffee and takes a sip. She rubs her tears into her face. It feels too hard to explain to Luisa. It’s sapping her energy. It’s not Luisa’s problem. What did she expect? That Luisa would say ‘this is unacceptable; this has to stop; we’ll make this stop; you need to leave; you can stay with us?’ Did she think Luisa would be outraged, would take her under her wing, with her boys and help her to make a life far away from Federico? Maybe Federico is right and she is mentally deficient…. Beata looks at Luisa, who is handling a large cooking pot and filling it with water. There is a packet of pasta on the table where the biscuits had been before. Beata does not feel hungry but she knows she will eat and rest and meet the boys at school. And they will walk home together. Her mind is blank on what will happen after that, but she feels grateful for her beautiful, precious children.

***

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