Mario’s father was waiting for us at the airport. After a flurry of welcomes and introductions, we settled into the car and headed for Mario’s childhood home. It was my first time in Sicily, but with the late hour of our arrival, it was too dark to see my surroundings. I would have to wait until the next day to catch a glimpse of the land that Mario loved so much.
The entire family (including uncles, aunts and cousins) was waiting to greet us. As we were ushered in, I tried to keep all the names and faces straight. A late dinner had been prepared in honor of our arrival and we were quickly seated as the family settled into the communication mode that Italians know best: food.
Mario’s family was very warm and welcoming and I could tell that they were happy to have us both there. It was going to be a quick trip – less than 48 hours – but I hoped that it would be a pleasant one. I was looking forward to seeing Mario in his hometown, hoping that I would gain even more insights into the man that I had come to love so fiercely. I was hoping also that this trip would serve to help pull Mario out of his current withdrawn state and that we would be able to get our communication back to its normal level.
At least that was the hope.
The next day was much of the same. As I tried to get to know Mario’s family, Mario retreated into his own world. No amount of questioning would pull him out. I tried to be patient, but my frustration was growing by the hour. What had caused this complete shutdown? It was so unlike the Mario I had come to know and love. I was completely bewildered.
To make matters worse, we were in Sicily. Where they speak Sicilian. Though most people on the island can speak “normal” Italian, the norm is to converse in their native dialect. A dialect that, to me, is completely incomprehensible.
I hadn’t worried too much going down. I mean, I had translated for Mario all the time when he was in America. I knew that it was important for Mario for me to meet his family so I was sure that he would help me out.
But that was before silent Mario took over.
As the day continued, and Mario and his family visited, I felt consistently left on the outside. Even when I would remind Mario that I couldn’t understand what people were saying, he only gave a half-hearted effort to translate. Furstration turned to anger as Mario’s withdrawal, already baffling, seemed to turn into complete apathy about me and my feelings. Not wanting to fight in front of his family, I tried ot put on a brave face, but it seemed like everything was crumbling around me.
The only thing that gave me hope was that, throughout the day, there were moments were the old Mario seemed to break through. Whether during our excursion to explore the nearby windmills, making dinner or roasting chestnuts in the yard, I would catch glimpses of the kind, caring and considerate Mario that I loved. The moments were brief however, and were quickly followed by a wall slamming down. A wall that I was desperate to penetrate.
After the last chestnut was roasted, Mario and I excused ourselves to go back in the house. Claiming to be tired, he headed into his room and lied down on the bed. I wanted so desperately to talk to him, but I could no longer gauge his moods or his desires. Did he want me to stay? Was that my signal to depart for my own room?
Finally, in a small voice, I asked if he wanted me to stay. Mario barely moved, giving a noncommittal shrug while facing the opposite wall. Taking a deep breath, I moved in closer, determined to find a way to get him talking.
But nothing worked. All he said was that he didn’t know what was wrong. That something was off, but that he couldn’t explain it. And silence. Lots and lots of silence. Finally, in a fit of frustration, I reminded him that a relationship only works when both sides are putting in effort. I loved him. I wanted to marry him. And I was willing to fight with everything that was in me to make this relationship work.
The question was, was he?