Authors: Melania G. Mazzucco
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The dark night ends in light.
Aeritalia Macchi Experimental
Afghan National Army
Afghan National Police
Aerei da Trasporto Regionale
explosive ordnance disposal
forward operating base
International Council on Security and Development
improvised explosive device
infantry fighting vehicle
International Security Assistance Force
Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory
Operational Mentor and Liaison Team
public information officer
Provincial Reconstruction Team
posttraumatic stress disorder
Quick Reaction Force
suicide body-borne IED
Task Force Center
Task Force South
troops in contact
tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided
volontario in ferma
Nothing ever happens in this city. There's a frenzy the night that Manuela Paris is to return homeânot even a visit from the pope would have caused such commotion. Everyone wants to see her. It's Christmas Eve. The vendors in the piazza have already broken down their stalls, and the rides are closing, too. The cafÃ©s lower their shutters, the waiters exchanging holiday greetings with the girls at the cash registers as they turn out the lights, one sign after another going dark. Curious onlookers clump together in front of the Parises' apartment building, huddled against the gate that defends a skinny gravel path. They stare at the intersectionâtwo streets at right angles, like a drawing a kid in geometry class would make on graph paper. Except for the Christmas decorationsâarches of colored light suspended between the buildingsâthere's nothing to look at. Ladispoli's not a very picturesque place. The only monuments, to the fallen in World War I, aren't very compelling: from a distance they look like scrap metal left over from some construction site. The best things about the main piazza are the trees and benches. The houses are nothing special, they don't make much of an impression. Even the Art Nouveau villas along the esplanade, built at the turn of the century when a dreamer prince believed he could transform this barren coast, at that time empty, into Rome's preferred elegant seaside resort, are decaying in the salt and sun. The teachers had encouraged the children living on the same street as Manuela Paris's family to hang Italian flags from their balconies. But school has been out for two days now, and only a few of them remembered, or only a few of them own a flag, so there are only three of them. They're all fadedâthe last time they were dragged down from the attic was for the World Cupâand so ragged and lonely that they make for a pretty sad sight; it might have been better not to hang them at all. Worse, the biggest one is on the Paris family balcony, so it's really like there are only two. Two flags on a street with at least fifty buildings and four hundred apartments.
So the cameraman prefers not to film them, to avoid giving the impression that Italian people don't give a damn. Manuela's schoolmatesâwho studied tourism management with her, or say they did, even if they were in a different class and maybe spoke to her only three times in their livesâvie for attention, elbowing to get on camera. But a reporter from the local news is front and center; he is trying hard to explainâin just a few words because the story isn't supposed to run over ninety secondsâthat he's outside Manuela Paris's house with the mayor. Only he has to keep repeating himself because of all the honkingâcars stuck in the traffic jam. The regular correspondent is on vacation so he's filling in: a young guy nobody knows, with rectangular glasses and a blond goatee. There's a pretty good crowd, though, they'll give her a respectable welcome.
But a sharp, nasty drizzle begins to fall, and Manuela Paris is late, and no one knows if she's coming by train from Rome or by car from Fiumicino, no one knows anything, it's cold, it's getting late, and the spontaneous welcome committee dissolves. A woman in a beaver coat leaves a bouquet of roses on the ground beneath the doorbell, but a neighbor throws the roses away, saying they bring bad luck: they look like those sad flowers people place along the side of the road or on lampposts after an accident, and Manuela Paris is hardly dead. Only the mayorâa woman herselfâstays; she really wants to give Manuela a token of the city's appreciation, a little artsy something commissioned from a local sculptor that's supposed to represent the region's traditional product: a golden artichoke. Artichokes have been the pride of Ladispoli since the 1930s, and sometimes it seems as if they're the only thing the forty thousand people who live here care about, even though they're really grown by only a few farms out in the countryside. The rest of Ladispoli's residents work in factories or shops, just like anywhere else. At any rate, the mayor, draped in a tricolor sash, has to present this symbol of indigenous virtue to the illustrious citizen who put Ladispoli on the front page. Because otherwise the city gets talked about only during April, during the artichoke festival. Or if two drunken Bulgarians knife each other in a brawl. Or some retiree drowns on the first Sunday in June. So the mayor stays to deliver the golden artichoke, and to convey the admiration of the entire city council. Majority and opposition may fight each other on everything else, but all agreed when it came to honoring their fellow citizen, a model for young, hardworking Italiansâin short, a hope for the future of our country.
The mayor waits under an umbrella with Manuela's sister. Everyone's stunned to see them together, because there's always been a lot of gossip about Vanessa Paris, for all sorts of reasons, and at any rate, the mayor never would have said a word to her if she weren't Manuela's sister. With her platinum blond bob, asymmetrical bangs, green eye shadow, false eyelashes, and bold fuchsia lipstick, Vanessa snags herself an interview with the TV reporter. She's remarkably self-assured, as if she'd been giving interviews all her life. “My sister's totally normal,” she says, her cat eyes staring straight into the camera, into the viewers' eyes, “she hates pretentiousness and would never want people to think of her as a hero, or a victimâshe was just doing her job, like when a bricklayer falls off scaffolding, or a factory worker gets splashed by acid. She chose that life, she knew the risks, and she didn't let the difficulties get to her, that's why I think it makes sense to talk about Manuela Paris, because young Italian women today aren't all bimbos with no brains or values who only think about money, they're also people like my sister, who have dreams and ideals, and the courage to try and fulfill them.” The reporter asks for her number as soon as the sound engineer turns off the mike.
Vanessa Paris will be a big hit when the story airs the next day, because she's still a knockout even though she's over thirty. Prettier than her sister, who dresses like a truck driver and never wears makeup, at least that's what everyone says, but then again, they haven't seen her since she went away, and she was just a little squirt back then, maybe she's changed.
Little by little the houses light up, Christmas trees twinkle behind curtains, and the smell of fish wafts from kitchens. It's strange to see the place so full of life. Usually Ladispoli empties out in the morning, when people leave for work, like a hotel at the end of the summer. For seven months, until the beach clubs open again, all you see are children, old people, and out-of-work foreigners. Manuela Paris's house is the last one on the street, opposite the Bellavista Hotel, on the esplanade.
is a pretty pretentious word for that narrow strip of street that runs between the two drainage canals that define the city center and is besieged from behind by huge buildings that loom over the older villas, as if preparing to crush them. The walls and beach huts obstruct the view, so you only get glimpses of the sea. You can hear it, though. In Ladispoli the sea roars. Open sea, slapped by the wind, always rough. People who have traveled say it's like the ocean. Don't get the wrong impression, thoughâthe place has a certain charm, even if it never did become the hoped-for elegant beach town. To Manuela it had always seemed perfect, and she wouldn't have wanted to be born anywhere else. But whenâit's already after eightâshe finally gets out of the car, she looks around disoriented; she doesn't seem all that happy to be back.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“We're proud to have you here with us again,” the mayor says simply, shaking her hand. Her constituents wouldn't appreciate a lot of pomp, which they're all strongly opposed to. That's why she avoided a ceremony in city hall, agreeing instead to this intimate, informal encounter: hers is a tightrope walker's existence. Manuela doesn't mind, thoughâin fact, she had begged her mother not to tell anyone she was coming. Instead, to her dismay, she has become a celebrity, and has to endure the ceremony of the golden artichoke and the city pennant. The reporter already used up all his questions on Vanessa, so he merely asks her what she's feeling. “It's good to be home, but I can't wait to go back, there's so much to do over there,” Manuela says. Few words, spoken quickly, eyes lowered, not even a hint of a smile. She's always been gruff with people she doesn't know. She hugs her mother. Manuela is a head taller than she is, and Cinzia Colella, minute and shriveled, disappears inside her daughter's big green jacket. “When are you going to let your hair grow back?” she asks, running her hand across her daughter's forehead. She doesn't say “I missed you so much,” or anything like that. Just that unfortunate question, which in truth implies another: Do you have to have another operation on your head? Nothing remains of her daughter's long black hair, which used to shine like an Indian's. It's really short now, a crew cut, like a man's. Her chocolate-colored eyes seem too big for her naked face. Her mother hadn't been able to contain herself, because for her, a woman without hair isn't a woman: she's a lunatic from the asylum, a prisoner of war, or terminally ill. Then the chaos starts. Neighbors and relatives, filled with pride, clasp her hand and vie for her attention, a kiss on the cheek, a pat on the back, even her cousins Claudio and Pietro are there, with their kids, and Uncle Vincenzo, the one with the mustache and a hardware store behind Piazza della Vittoriaâthey all want to kiss her, and her uncle's and cousins' wives don't want to be left out, even though they're not sure Manuela recognizes them, and everyone forgets her mother's instructionsâshe had begged them to avoid mentioning what had happenedâand, adopting sympathetic expressions appropriate to the circumstances, they ask, how are you, how are you, and she answers distractedly, almost irritated, fine, fine, I'm better now.