Ida Gamatti

The beautiful images of the desert in the "English Patient" looked
alive, bathed in the wonderful colors of the sunset. I had seen those
colors; I had lived in Tripoli.

It started when I was six years old. My father had decided to move the family to Lybia, and so there we were
in Tripoli in 1936. Mussolini wanted to show that the new Roman
civilization would absorb Lybia into Italy. Il Duce wanted Tripoli to be
an elitist city, at the avant-guarde in architecture, agriculture, and
education. Tripoli was the White City, as the buildings were all washed
in white. We lived in the building of the Banco di Roma, across from the
government building.The architecture in the city was a mixture of
Arabic and Romanesque. Porticos protected people from the sun during their
walks. I still remember the shops under the porticos of my building. The
North corner was all occupied by the majesty of the bank. Moving West,
there was a shoe shop, a bookshop, a barbershop, and the last one was the
deli shop or "salumeria."Life was easy; my father was a doctor well-paid by the Italian government and able to maintain a productive private
practice in pediatrics. He was making good money and was a content man.
The only problem he created for himself was the sense that his children
did not measure up to Il Duce's expectations. He wanted his children to
be cultured, articulate, well versed in music, elegant, and
self-confident.At that time, he had six children; three girls and
three boys. I followed the three girls; I was the first male in the
family. I was told that my arrival was greeted with a great deal of pride
and joy. Finally, my father could show that, "he had blood in his veins."
He had been bothered by previous remarks after the second daughter, "you
must have water in your veins." A son was a son; daughters were
girls.The first four children were close in age, being born in rapid
succession; the other ones were spread out as if my parents needed some
perspective in order to decide to have more progeny.I felt that after
having had me they did not want more children. But mistakes were made, I
thought. On the other hand, I remember my father wanting to have another
child to meet the requirements of "la famiglia numerosa." To be
considered a large family with tax breaks and bonuses, the number of
children had to be seven. Thus, when my sister Flora was born, it was not
a mistake, but a good investment. When later on, my youngest brother was
born, I did not have a way of explaining it. I decided that my father was
getting senile. My father invested in his first four children the
enthusiasms and ambitions which were to dissipate later on for the last
four. He wanted to give the best to them. He ordered books by the hundreds,
and the four children dutifully read and enjoyed them. They discussed
among themselves the plots, characters, settings, endings; each of the
children had their favorites. A piano teacher would come home
everyday. Unfortunately, I was dismissed after a few weeks in which I
seemed to make progress. I remember la signorina praising my fingers
which could spread beautifully over the keys. I think that I offended
her, when, "innocently" I asked her if she could have children and
laughed at her embarrassment. She said to my father that I was not
learning and it was not worthwhile for her to continue giving me piano
lessons. For the first time I was excluded from activities which, until
then, had been shared by the first four. My father was angry at me and it
was then that he started calling me "moron." Around that time,
while dining, my father started talking about Ida Gamatti. She was one of
his patients. He described her as adorable, verbal, secure, filled with the social graces we were lacking. "Shirley Temple", in Tripoli.

It is true that I was sitting opposite my father, but, certainly, he used to look
at me with intensity as if his words were directed particularly at me.
He used to say, "When I ask her, 'What is your name?' she answers with no
hesitancy, looking into my eyes, 'Ida Gamatti!'" My father would
continue, "She conveys to me, in this simple interaction, the quality
that I would like you to aspire to and achieve." And as often as everyday, we had to listen to, "What is your name?" "Ida Gamatti!" The eyes of my father would brighten, his voice would imitate her voice and
accent (she was from Bologna). He would look at me with some contempt in
his face and make me feel like a real moron.Who was this Ida
Gamatti? How could she have seduced my father to such an extent that he
would turn against his children, especially me who was supposed to be
the heir of whatever of significance that existed in the family. How
could he do that? OK, she was beautiful and smart, wearing nice clean
clothes and moving around as if she were dancing. Her voice must be
music; and so what? I counted too! OK, I could be rough, stupid and
shy, lacking the elegant touch, with a cracking voice, no good in
music, eating too much----but after all, I was his first son, the one
who validated him as a man with blood in his veins. What the heck was
happening? Oh, how much I hated Ida Gamatti! During the days I would
think of her, making fun of her, undressing her, spanking her, peeing on
her, putting my finger in her little ass, stuffing food in her
cherry-lipped mouth, making her fat and ugly. She had become my obsession.
In my private moments, I would practice her accent in spite of a
nauseating feeling emerging from inside and making me sick and tired. I
had to develop a style to be noticed and praised by my father. I had to
do it. One afternoon,my father asked me to accompany him to the
barber shop; we both needed a haircut and my mother wanted to make sure
that I was going to get one. She told father to take me along. The
barber was working on my father; I was sitting along the opposite wall
waiting for my turn. I could see my father in the mirror facing him.
Suddenly, I saw his face illuminated by a wide smile. He jumped out of
the chair with the towel around his neck. Quickly he moved out of the
shop. Astonished, I saw the barber looking out with the scissors in his
hands. He was smiling too. I looked out just when my father was
reentering the shop, holding a little girl by the hand. Who was she? The
face looked stupid, betraying her discomfort. My father continued to smile
at her. He took a coin from his pocket and held it in his raised hand.
He asked, "What is your name?" While stretching her arm to reach the
coin she answered, "Ida Gamatti." She failed to get the coin; my father
was laughing benevolently. He lowered his arm and again asked, "What is
your name?" "Ida Gamatti" she answered triumphantly as she secured the
coin in her hands. My father bent down to kiss her on the cheek; she
rushed happy to her mother waiting outside.Before sitting, my father
looked at me with a look on his face that said, "Do you see how good she
is?" I looked at him, my face expressing puzzlement, disappointment,
anger, hurt, indignation, and contempt. That little monkey had been the
source of my despair. I felt relieved. How could my father dare to compare
us with her? I could not understand or forgive him. I continued to look at
my father in the mirror, my face conveying my feelings with intensity,
which got to him. He became serious and uncomfortable. My look had
penetrated him and probably made him feel like a fool.In the evening,
my father invited me to join him and my mother at a movie. He took us to
the new movie house--the Miramar. It was in the open, with the section
close to the screen having director chairs gathered around small tables. A waiter
brought us pastry and lemonade.I was still angry at my father, barely
touching the pastry in spite of his encouragements, "Try this, it is very
good." "Not now, thank you." Without realizing, I was impersonating the
sophisticated person of my recent fantasies. My attention was on the
singing of Diana Durbin, who was more fun than Shirley Temple. Poor
Shirley, she had been contaminated by my associating her with Ida
Gamatti.The following evening, I went out with my father and mother.
A horse carriage took us along the coast. My father allowed me to sit by
the driver, who gave me the reins. I drove the horse with no excitement,
feeling that I was doing a favor to the grownups.The barber shop look
was still on my face whenever I would gaze upon my father.For a week,
I was the companion of my parents in their evening activities.Their
friends started commenting about me. "He's a little gentleman," the
ladies would say when I greeted them with the appropriate bow. I would
hear a lady saying to my mother, "He is so handsome, look at those
bedroom eyes." Compliments about me abounded and, yet, I continued to give
the look to my father who seemed to be appreciative of all of us and did
not mention Ida Gamatti anymore.My sisters had noticed the attentions
of my father toward me.They were happy for me, and made me feel that I
was lucky having my father finally discover how talented I was.They
made me feel that I had a good thing going for me, and that I should
enjoy the attentions of my father. I started to feel happy about my
fortunes, and the prestige bestowed upon me. I started to smile at my
father, and soon I developed an eager, greedy look toward him. My look was
telling him "Please, take me out with you tonight. Please, let's have
fun together. Please, please."That look brought about my demise. As we
were dining, my father looked at me and slowly said, "moron!" I knew that
he had regained his balance; I was finished.


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