The Enemy in Disguise
The Enemy in Disguise
Sara was raised in a picturesque New England college town. This is a place where stores sell lots of postcards in the Fall when the leaves are changing and the mountains are a collage of golds and reds and greens. You can probably imagine it: too many coffee shops for the population, all filled with mismatched chairs probably sourced from a few dozen grandmothers. There are four distinct seasons, quaint book shops, and clothing stores dedicated to keeping people clad for hiking but calling it fashion. And there are liberals, lots and lots of liberals. Not fast-paced New York liberals or laid-back California liberals. These are hard-core, picket-marching, demonstration-holding, lying in the town square on a 24-hour hunger strike to protest the war that is taking place somewhere out in that misogynistic, non-mask wearing, LGBQ- hating, the non-MSNBC-watching world out there.
This is a place where one’s politics are simply assumed, a place where the local radio hosts a segment with both a rabbi and a reverend to debate hot topics but the two simply agree on everything. This is a place where lipstick is considered strange. This is a place with a grand total number of zero gendered restrooms.
It is no surprise that Sara was raised to be a strong, independent Woman (with a capital W and sometimes spelled “wommon” because one must take the man out of the identity). And just to prove she was worthy of the Feminist Badge she enrolled in an all-female college, because, what better way to fight the patriarchy than to avoid it altogether?
Taking into account her upbringing, education, and background it was quite a shock, not only to Sara’s friends and family but to Sara herself, that she left her job, her independence, and moved across the world to Italy for a man. An Italian Man.
Sara was determined to stay busy and autonomous in her new role as a dependent, unemployed woman living in a city without a Rachel-Maddow-looking feminist anywhere in sight. And trust her, she had looked.
Sara’s fiancé, Luca, was a genuinely great human. Yes, he ticked all the boxes on the ‘How to spot the enemy checklist’ given to her as a child: Italian male, check. Straight, white, lawyer, check. Successful? Ok, yes. This confused Sara. He was quite the opposite. He worked with women, supported women, and cried seven times when she showed him Bette Midler in Beaches. Sara would stare at him while he slept like a baby in their sweet apartment in Rome, looking for the Devil somewhere in his face, but it was nowhere to be found. And Luca loved his wife’s need for independence.
He knew that the move to Italy was a big deal for Sara. He knew that she needed to feel empowered and useful. He also knew that there was no way that she could get a job on the books anywhere in his home country without a Visa or a wedding ring or years of bureaucracy and waiting. So he came up with a plan.
At dinner, over a dish of pasta with chicken and broccoli that Sara had most definitely lifted from a memory of the Olive Garden he said,, “You will find a job soon, people would be so lucky to hire you, you’ll see. In the meantime, I need your help. They are finishing the work on our house-” Sara heard the “we,” in that sentence, she was no dummy. He continues, “ I cannot be there during the day. Instead of me hiring someone, can you be the project manager? I cannot tell you how important this is, I really wouldn’t trust anyone but you to do it. Will you take the job?” Sara gazed at Luca adoringly.
“Also, you are the most beautiful chef but Italians do not put chicken on pasta. Ever. We do not do it. It is almost a sin. But-” he raised his eyebrows, his eyes twinkled, and he took another bite, “it is very good.” Sara smiled.
“But do not do it in front of my mother. Chicken on pasta… I have never…” Sara shrugged and made a mental note to do a little research on Italian cooking since the country seemed to value the stove on the same level as the crucifix. But this was a good offer. Luca had started the apartment renovation before her move and it had truly turned into a mess. And he was right, it was a job that needed to be done by someone smart and patient and competent and Sara was all of those things.
Over the next five months, Sara stumbled her way through her broken Italian trying to direct the workers and offer a helping hand in the process. Rome was a hot and congested city, and doing construction work in that type of heat was dirty, rigorous, and sweaty.
Every morning Sara would wake up before the sun and put on her uniform for a hard day's work, a pair of yoga pants, and a old tee shirt. By the end of the day, Sara would be soaked, sticky, and covered in paint. She took her new job as a value-add seriously and had no fear helping plaster, place tile, and install cabinets. For a brief moment, she considered a career in construction. She tried to communicate this to the guys on the job site but must have inadvertently said something inappropriate because they all turned red and didn’t talk to her for the rest of the day.
Despite all this, she felt fantastic. She wanted to hop back on her career path but until the opportunity arose, spending her days helping on the construction was so fulfilling. Sara felt strong, in control, and free. At night she studied DIY videos on Youtube and built gorgeous, custom, raised flower beds for her terrazza.
Every day after their two-hour lunch, Luca’s parents would stop by to check in. No one asked them to do this. No one even gave them a key but, because of the construction, the door was never locked. They would ride up the tiny elevator the size of a coffin dressed as if they were on their way to church, which they might have been. Sara wasn’t sure. She worked hard, very, very hard on her Italian but she was still learning to keep up with the speed at which Luca’s parents spoke and often felt like she was missing some critical pieces of information.
She would hear the elevator bell and then the click-click-click of the mother’s block-heeled shoes and know that her daily visitors had arrived. Sara would walk them through the apartment, pointing out the progress and issues of the day, and, always specifically, the work she had done with her own two hands. Sara thought that she had a nice relationship with her soon-to-be in-laws. Why else would they come to visit her with such regularity?
They communicated through broken speech, hand gestures, and anything else that would help get their thoughts across to one another. Her mother-in-law would always smile and stare at her. This made Sara feel good, really good. She interpreted the woman’s wide eyes and focused gaze as a person who was awe-struck and in shock at Sara’s hard work. Here she was, a young woman in a new country, working hard at learning the language, mastering the cuisine, and now covered in sawdust and grout, getting her hands quite literally dirty in her new life.
Luca’s mother would look Sara up and down, say something in Italian to her husband, and then give Sara a big smile. One night, in bed, after dinner without any chicken on the pasta, Sara turned to her boyfriend.
“I think your mom is really impressed with me. I don’t think she expected this American girl to come here and literally work the apartment with her own two hands. It’s kind of fun when she pops by, it actually makes me feel really good.”
Luca smiled at his girlfriend over his nightly reading of Aristotle. She’d just articulated exactly how he felt about her. His mother, his very Italian mother, was another story. But nothing was going to steal his joy at how perfect the moment felt.
“Oh yes, I think she is taken aback by you.”
The next day was just like any other, Sara woke up, put on her uniform, and started to get ready for the workers to show up. The remodel finally looked more like a home and less like a construction site. It required just a few more touches and Sara would have successfully completed the project.
That afternoon, as always, Sara heard the elevator ding and the click-click-click of the leather, t-strapped shoes when Luca’s parents stopped by after lunch. Sara was on her hands and knees with baking soda and a brush, scrubbing some paint that had dripped onto the brand-new wood flooring.
“Ciao, buonasera.” Luca’s mother had that smile on her face but her eyes were different, determined. Sara got to her feet, wiping the sweat from her brow, momentarily self-conscious that her hippie, American deodorant might not have been formulated for this specific occasion.
“Sara,” she said as she snapped her fingers, emphatically gesturing to a seat at the dining room table.
“Sara, viene qui, seduta, doppiamo parlare,”
Sara smiled, got up from the floor, and sat across from her soon-to-be mother-in-law at the table. When Sara sat down she could see the look change on her mother-in-law's face. She had an unflinching look projecting that she wanted to make absolutely sure that whatever she had to say was understood.
“Sara,” she began for the third time. But then she stopped. She looked around the apartment, at her husband who had busied himself with inspecting the new crown molding, and then allowed her eyes to rest on her eldest son’s fiancé.
She cleared her throat and her face transformed into one that meant business. She spoke slowly, clearly, and LOUDLY.
“When a man’ pause ‘goes to work every day,” she paused emphatically, making sure that Sara understood exactly what she was saying, “-to make money-” Paaaauuuusssseeeeeeee… ‘“it is not nice to find his woman always in PAJAMAS!” PAUSE. “DIRTY PAJAMAS.”
Sara froze. She continued,
“‘A man, must find his woman clean and dressed.”
Sara was mortified… she looked into the eyes of the woman across from her. Did she hear her correctly? Sara thought for a second and smirked. All the years of training in the liberal bubble fighting the patriarchy, cheering for the independent, empowered woman, she had always visualized the enemy as the straight, white guy in a suit. It had never occurred to her that patriarchal oppression could have come in any other form. Yet here it was, wearing a yellow polyester dress and purple lacquered fingernails. This was the Trojan Horse she was not expecting. She imagined the women in her hometown protesting in front of the courthouse with signs painted with her future mother-in-law’s face and couldn’t help it- the laughter escaped right out of her paint-splattered lips.
This otherwise sweet, plump, Nonna, was having none of this reaction. She pressed her lips together, narrowed her eyes, and stood up abruptly from the table,
“Alberto!” she called to her husband, snapping her fingers. He spun on his heel to attention as if she were his drill sergeant during his military service all those decades ago. He ambled to her side and took her arm as she marched the two of them out of the apartment, stopping just once to look over her shoulder and throw still-chuckling Sara a nasty look.
As Sara watched them go, poor Alberto following his wife at her heels, without any kind of say in where they were going or when, Sara decided right then and there to expand her view on feminism. And she didn’t change out of her yoga pants and old t shirt for dinner. But, she also didn’t put chicken on the pasta.