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the empty

The fat girl as they call her, came to school with a hypodermic needle in her backpack. It may have been to defend herself, it may have been to instigate something. She comes from a broken home and this is her second or third school. E steers clear of her, and the bullies she tangles with. It was never understood  - how things began, who threw the first insult, the first punch, the first grabbed book but the end is a chronic cycle of violence. At one point, the girl's mother got the police involved and this was seen as offensive, a step too far. The police did not resolve anything so it was all just a lot of saber rattling. That is the most common sound here. The empty threat.

Last week, there was a sobrani, sort of a cross between a parent-teacher conference and a school meeting. I was busy, so E went by herself and took notes. Five minutes in she messaged me, that I was wise not to be there. Nothing about this girl was going to be resolved.
"Boys will be boys" was all …

agrodolce and the king of the corn

I stood in the street the night before, staring though the windows as tables full of locals forked pasta into their mouths bodies leaning low over the bowls. A man came out, asking if we wanted to go in. I did not have the words to tell him we had already eaten somewhere else, so just stood breathing in the heady perfume of fresh sardines and olive oil, of semolina bread and eggplant and told him it smelled wonderful. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say "of course" and went back inside.

But now we are here, and his wild curly hair jumps around as he brings us to a table. His blue eyes are dancing as he smooths the tablecloth out a little. A notepad is yanked from his back pocket with a flourish. I try to ask him for the menu and he shakes his head.
"What you want?" He asks in broken English.
We stare at each other. N forces a little smile.
"Antipasti?" He asks.
I nod.
"Zucchero?" He asks.
It takes me a moment to remember this is pumpkin. My face lights up when I do.
He nods, scribbles.
"Caponata?" He asks.
I nod quickly.
N wants pasta. I ask him what kind they have.
"With fish." He says, not saying more.
She rolls her eyes at me.
"With meat." He adds.
I order one of both, and we agree to share them.

A woman with a mahogany tan sits alone. She is polishing off the caponata and the pumpkin, sipping cold white wine in between forkfuls. A young man brings her a plate of grilled fish. She nods. They know each other.

An old couple is being seated to our other side. She is half-dressed up in a bright outfit. He has red hair, a giant hoary beard that whips around his face.

Our pumpkin comes out and it is intense, an agrodolce, the sweet and sour chunks jumping around in our mouths. The caponata is chopped large, no tiny pieces, no smooth paste. The curly haired man is all bouncing nerves, and brings a third plate to us, fresh sardines stuffed with bread crumbs.
"Typical Sicilian." He says, leaving the plate at the corner of the table.
The meat is almost sweet, the breadcrumbs dense and wet. N can only eat part of one. I feel like there is something to be proved to the blue eyed man, so that he will offer us more than pasta next time. A plate comes out for the old couple, a bowl of tiny clams. We would have ordered that if he told us about it. I slurp on the wine, working my way through the dishes. N is already full, I can tell she is not going to make it past a few bites of pasta.

The pumpkin is cold and silky and we decide it is the best of the three. I mop the plate with a twist of bread, hoping the mans sees this. All at once out pasta comes, and it is solid but the appetizers were better. A family trickles in, a curly haired little boy is passed around as everyone in the place knows him and must give him a kiss on the cheek. They order dishes from memory, the man's notepad flying around as wine is already being poured for them. The boy chews on a heel of bread, and begins arranging some small toys on the chairs around him.

"Is ok?" The man asks us as he passes.
"Si." I say, drawing the word out as long as I can.
N is done, working her way through the bowl to make it look like she ate almost everything. I am forcing the food down at this point, waiting for the wine to help make room. I pretend I need to go to the bathroom, just to walk a little bit. I wander into the back, spying the kitchen. It is spotless. A giant man stands in front of the stove, wider than he is round. In the bathroom I splash water on my face, feeling the sunburn that is there on my entire body.

My skin feels like a tight shirt.



A string of old and young men slug up and down the beach, each with a special song they shout with coolers strapped to their shoulders.
"Aqua, biera, coca!" One calls out, twice then pausing.
The next balances a big plastic bowl of fresh coconuts that have been split in half. 
"Coco bello! Coco." He croons. "Coco bello! Coco."
His face is sunken in, only a handful of teeth across the front of his mouth. 

N asks me to put lotion on her back. She is drinking in the sun. I am looking for shade, adjusting my chair as the sun climbs tall in the sky. The water is an intense, pale blue and warm as a bath.
"Da King of da corn." One young man calls out, with a second set of hands to help him pull the metal drum around the chairs. The rest he says is a sort of made-up song, about women's names and if I am correct, about how they all love to eat corn because they are so beautiful and the corn is so beautiful. He shouts spontaneous verses, the rhymes rolling out as people turn on their stomachs.

Out in the water, I watch fathers with tiny children dipping their feet into the tiny waves that approach. The babies are laughing, toes flicking around as they get wet. I think of E waiting for me in Moscow, making elaborate makeshift houses for her dolls, lining up their shoes in rows, folding over scraps of cloth as beds, stacking little bits of paper to be some magazines. She saw the ocean when she was one and two, when I walked along the edge on the way home or to avoid going home. She was usually sleeping. E has no memory of this of course, just what I tell her. 



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