The Arsenale by Nancy Caronia

The Arsenale

Nancy Caronia

I gazed on Vito’s scars and watched how they danced in the sunlight and rippled as he emerged from the sea. I imagined I could know him from the marks on his body. I drank from his nakedness in the hopes of understanding my scars better. His were visible for the world to see. I believed mine left no discernible trace.

For the two and one half months I lived on the island of Capri, I ran to the Arsenale each morning so Vito and I could spend time alone. My morning ritual began with Tai Chi and breakfast at my pensíone. Una camomilla, per favore. Un panino formaggio. The pensíone owner believed I was dangerous with my wooden sword stabbing the sun as it rose. His wife found it strange that I did not drink caffé, not even caffé americano. Per me, caffeina é male, I explained in my rudimentary Italian each morning how my body shook if I drank even a cola. She shook her head and brought me a pot of tea that she thought would serve me better in the evening than first thing in the morning.

After breakfast, I packed my writing notebook and my swimsuit before walking quickly through the narrow alleys, jumping onto the cement path of the Via Krupp, smelling the bougainvillea and jasmine, plucking a honeysuckle blossom to suck the juice, touching the cacti, examining a green lizard or two, and checking to see how far the sun had already traveled that morning. I threw myself onto the rock path forged from the feet of sun worshippers going back 2,000 years. I stared at the sea to see if it was a good day for swimming and always, always, I searched for Vito.

The first time I saw Vito, he appeared to me as a real-life Poseidon standing at the edge of the sea, the cave of the Arsenale, a 2,000-year-old Roman naval fortress, at his back. His weathered, compact, and nude body drank in sunbeams. His hair was shoulder-length and sun-bleached, a scruffy beard covered his ruddy face, and he had scars along his arms, legs, back, and cheeks. Although I imagine him sometimes with a trident in his right hand, he was not holding one that day or any of the subsequent days I was in his company. At that time, Vito was 50 years old and proud he didn’t look a day over 40. He exercised every morning, running in place, doing sit-ups, and swimming in the sea. The only way of knowing his age was by close observation of the gray making its first appearance in his beard and the crow’s feet forming around his eyes. He was my cicerone, loving Capri more than any of the natives of the island. Born in Bari, a small town on the east side of the Italian mainland along the Adriatic Sea, he arrived in Capri at 20 years of age and simply stayed. There was an irony to his presence on the island. He resembled the figure of Man in Dieffenbach’s paintings that hung in Capri’s Carthusian monastery. These religious paintings depict man’s struggle with god and nature. I wondered how Dieffenbach felt Vito’s presence fifty years before Vito was even born, since the likeness was not simply reminiscent, but exact. Dieffenbach’s work only enhanced my sense that Vito was a god.

It was common knowledge among Vito’s friends that Vito, though he pretended not to, lived in a smaller cave next to the Arsenale. The Caprese thought he was intellectually slow, but he seemed to like his isolation from the townspeople, except for his chosen compatriots. The cave itself was sparsely furnished with different items carried down the rocky path by the ragazzi pigri or “lazy boys” as Vito and his friends—Peppino, Antonio, Roberto, Pasquale from Naples, and Teó, a retired Belgian-—called themselves. Roberto was the youngest at 38 and Antonio, at 66, was the oldest. There was also a heavy metal door that the lazy boys had somehow fit into the mouth of the cave. It was locked each evening to keep thieves from stealing Vito’s and the other men’s items.

As my infatuation with Vito’s life grew, I teased him that I might stay on Capri and move into the cave. At first, he shrugged his shoulders and gestured that he didn’t think I would be able to survive the nights. As the weeks wore on, I kept up my chant of I’m moving in, and he changed his tone and said, in a dialect I didn’t understand, but could comprehend: it wouldn’t be that difficult because you wouldn’t need much money to live.

I wanted to believe him. I wanted to believe my feelings for Vito were genuine. Each morning, as I jumped from rock to rock drinking in the beauty of the azure and emerald sea, I noticed the shapes of the cotton ball clouds along the horizon, and held my breath until I spotted him. Vito sat meditating on a rock in the early morning hours, staring out at the Faraglioni, the pyramid-shaped rock formations that sprang from the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea. He told me those rocks gave him internal strength. If I caught him in the middle of his meditation, I approached quietly, not wanting to disturb his solitude, checking to make sure that I was the first person there besides Vito. He’d turn towards me, knowing I was there before he saw me, and our morning ritual began.

Ciao, Nancy.

Ciao, Vito.

We’d smile tentatively, slowly, inquiringly, and the silence of the day would fall around us. The morning was filled with these silences. He’d jump up from the rock he sat on, stretch his naked body to the sun, and run back to the cave to grab cushions for us to lie on. We stared at the sea, at the horizon, at the rocks, at the stray cats that lived with Vito in the Arsenale, anything but each other. Every so often, Vito would click his tongue to the roof of his mouth. I’d turn to him and open my mouth to speak, but no words came. We’d look deeply at each other for a moment and then one of us would exhale and look away.

I sunbathed topless at the Arsenale, losing my American self-consciousness about the corporal self. One morning, I made the decision to sunbathe nude. I was alone with Vito in the morning. I trusted him. I was testing him. I was testing me.

I didn’t trust the rest of the lazy boys in this way. I craved an even, no-line tan, but the lazy boys encouraged me to sunbathe nude and I knew their intentions were purely voyeuristic. I couldn’t do it. They made me uncomfortable; I’d roll my eyes at them, cast my eyes downward, and utter, No. End of discussion. My sense that they were voyeurs caught up with them when I discovered a hidden video camera in the cave. It was used for the purpose of taking videos of any unsuspecting women tourists that the lazy boys befriended. One day, I heard the camera whir above the sounds of the waves outside and turned to see a red light staring at my crotch. I changed into my swimsuit out of camera range, went to the sea, and sat with my legs dangling over the edge of the rocks. I stared at the horizon, wondering what I was going to say to them. The lazy boys gathered in conference above me. Pepino, Roberto, and Antonio huddled together. Vito sat away from them, listening and looking guilty. Roberto, the best speaker of English, finally approached me. Before he could utter a word, I surprised myself and him by spitting out: If I ever see that camera again, Roberto, I’ll smash it on the rocks.

He looked skeptical, but cautious. What do you mean, Nancy?

I know about the camera, Roberto, and I don’t want to see it again.

But, Nancy, in January, when there are not a lot of women, we look at the videos that Pepino takes over the summer. Roberto thought he’d given me a worthy explanation and smiled.

Whoa! You have a collection?

Si, his smile began to fade.

Well, you can’t have my naked butt on video. I don’t want to see it again or, I swear, Roberto, I will smash Pepino’s precious video camera on a rock and no one will ever use it again. Capisci?

He understood. Pepino, too, understood and didn’t like that they were letting a young woman have her way. Vito looked relieved that I hadn’t hit anyone. And me? I sat there shaking, amazed that I’d actually opened my mouth and told them off. Some women might have allowed the lazy boys to tape them; they might have even performed for them, understanding how slow and lonely the winter can be on Capri. Others might have been outraged and left, but these men had become my friends, or so I felt them as my friends in spite of their flirtations and encouragement to sunbathe nude. The betrayal lay in the idea that, ultimately, they saw me as a sexual object worth fooling. I was confused because I wanted, or I thought I wanted, Vito to see me as sexually alluring. There I was, 32 years old and feeling like a schoolgirl. I was a teenager with Vito, something I missed out on growing up on Long Island. A place I ran from as soon as I thought I could safely get away. An island whose beauty I never noticed, only felt my breath stolen from me at every attempt to assert who I was.

That first time I lay naked, Vito was napping. My body tingled with the sensation of danger. When Vito awakened, I pretended to doze off, to make believe nothing had changed, but I knew in my heart I had offered something that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be received. Too many times in my youth, my body was taken without permission, and now I was freely offering something I still wasn’t positive I wanted to give.

I felt Vito’s gaze that morning, and then I heard him sigh and turn away. I turned to him and watched his back breathing. I examined closely the twining scar that ran along his side to the top of his buttock. I ran my fingertips over it without touching Vito’s skin. I felt the shape of that scar, through the distance, how deep it ran and wanted to crawl inside it.

This morning, as with most every morning, the lazy boys’ arrival broke the spell Vito and I were under. We two became hyper-animated. I spoke in my broken Italian to the other men, pointing my conversation towards Antonio, the oldest of the bunch. Vito talked non-stop in dialect to everyone and no one, cursing up a storm. As the mornings slid lazily into afternoons, the change was noted in the position of the sun and the shadows on the rocks. After a lunch of tuna, fresh tomato, and basil sandwiches, made with care by Pasquale, like kindergarten children, we napped. Vito and I rested our legs on the rocks and observed the clouds as we’d drift in and out of sleep, telling each other what we saw: Santa Claus. A bunny. Leninnot John, the Beatle, but the Russian revolutionary. The other men watched our dance in fascination and with a bit of envy. When they attempted to discover what was going on between us, Vito shut down conversation with a look or his “I am an honorable man” speech.

About a week after I sunbathed nude, but two weeks before I was to leave the island, I arrived late and found all the men gathered near the water, speaking rapidly in dialect. An event was taking place, but I wasn’t in on it. For the first time since my arrival, they barely took in my presence. Roberto was laughing with Antonio. Teó, Pasquale, Pepino, Renato, and others I didn’t know, were gathered like women waiting to help a friend through childbirth.

Suddenly, Vito bounded forward over the rocks. He was wearing a short lime-green and black spandex set of trunks and carried a small knife. With a goofy-eyed grin, he yelled ciao, Nancy, and dove into the sea. The men clapped their hands, their mouths open in delight. Vito emerged about 100-feet out and then disappeared. He came up for air and dove a few times until Pepino screamed, Ecco lo! Ecco lo! The men were shouting to each other, slapping each other on the back. What’s going on? I yelled, but no one paid attention. I noticed, as Vito emerged from the sea, he had something in his hands because the knife was in his mouth. He looked like an underwater Tarzan.

I sat near the ladder made especially by these men to help tourists and older people in and out of the water. The natives rarely used it, but Vito surprised me by climbing up it. He’d placed an octopus on his head like a hat. Two of the tentacles were above his lips like a handlebar mustache. I screamed: oh god, that’s disgusting! Vito put his face close to mine and garbled nonsensically. Roberto turned towards me with a scowl: It’s beautiful! Men must eat, no? I screamed again, trying to move away from Vito while he danced a wild tarantula, the octopus on his head still, and the men singing along. When the dance was done, he threw the octopus on the rocks. He smashed it again and again, a white foam spewing from the grey blob. I shouted: you’re hurting it. Roberto turned to me: Nancy, it’s already dead. Vito killed it in the ocean with the knife. Vito looked at me and said in English: it’s to make the meat tender. All the men took their turn smashing it onto the rocks. It was the first time I felt like an invader to the lazy boys’ summer rituals.

Later that day, Vito cooked the octopus over the fireplace in the smallest of the caves that the men had outfitted as a kitchen. The stray cats hovered nearby, hoping to get some of the treat. He stated, casually, in Italian, not dialect, that if I wanted to stay for supper, I could. His look was hopeful. All the men became silent, waiting for my reply. I was ungracious and shook my head no. His face registered disappointment.

The day of the hunter was the first time I recognized how lonely Vito was. I had been focused only on my desire. That afternoon, I lay near the sea and looked back at Vito, who sat at a table by his cave. He wore a blue t-shirt and had a dirty towel wrapped around his torso. The men had all scattered—they had families and jobs to return to. This occurrence was normal: I stayed with Vito until sunset. Vito had no family and I was a tourist. That late afternoon, I noticed as his arms hung at his sides and his head was bent forward to his chest, how fragile he was. I knew in that moment I had the power to hurt him. I recognized that he didn’t have anything figured out any more than I did. I wanted to be more careful, but I didn’t know how. I wanted the fantasy not the reality, but the reality had come crashing in anyway.

I must have fallen asleep because, when I woke up, the sun was low on the horizon, and Vito was standing above me. He stared for a long time before he spit out: I am not strónzo. I didn’t know the exact meaning of the word, but I knew it had to do with me acting one way, but wanting another. I answered him with silence. He said: I am a man. Lo so, I answered. Lo so, Vito.

He bounded back to his home and entered the cave. He emerged fully clothed. I shifted to a flat rock that fit my body perfectly and waited for Vito to finish his metamorphosis from Poseidon, the god of the sea, to Vito, the island’s homeless eccentric. While I waited, I watched the night fishermen light their lamps and head out for the open sea. Fall arrived on Capri in the sunsets. Pink and orange streaks through clouds outlined in a baby blue.

Vito walked slowly from the cave in his white pants and white and red stripped button-down cotton shirt, his sneakers and socks in one hand. At the end of this day, like each day, we fell back into our silence, the quiet intimacy of people who know one another. He stood staring at the sea. Finally, he looked at me: Andiamo. Together, as always, we walked to the civilization of the small town where he dropped me off close to, but not at, my pensíone.

Normally, once we arrived on the Via Krupp, Vito became talkative. It was as if that much movement on our parts, along with the setting of the sun, needed words to fill the empty spaces and lengthening shadows. He told me the names of the plants, where the Naples boys hid their drug needles and, sometimes, my favorite times, he sang to me. He imitated Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin perfectly, but mostly he sang Neapolitan love songs that I didn’t understand, but knew deep in my cell structure.

That early evening, the evening when I rejected Vito’s dinner invitation, we stopped halfway up the Via Krupp and waited for the sunset to completely hide itself behind Monte Solaro. The air was beginning to chill in this late fall evening and our faces were in shadow when Vito whispered under his breath. I took a step towards him, the closest we’d ever been, asking him to repeat what he’d said. Our cheeks brushed close without touching, our lips exhaled breath onto each other’s ears. My heart beat fast as I smelled the salt of the sea on him; he really was a sea creature, not human. His eyes penetrated mine in the darkness and then he took a step away, tilted his head, and said nothing. We stood like that for a minute, and he broke the silence by shaking his head as if to say: Nothing, I didn’t say anything.  He dug his hands deep into his pockets as he motioned with his shoulder for me to follow. We walked silently the rest of the way.

When we arrived near my pensíone, he took a step towards me, his hands still in his pockets. Ciao, Nancy.

Ciao, Vito. Ci vediamo.

Si, Nancy. A domaini.

We parted for the evening as we always had, as if day and night put us on opposite ends of the world, without another word.

Vito is past seventy now, and I have heard from a friend that his memory is not so good and his health is failing him. He still lives in the cave on a precipice overlooking the sea. I want to remember his way with the Dean Martin songbook and his jokes I never understood. I want to remember the man who taught me the power of meditation. I want to remember the only man on Capri who would save tourists when they tried to swim in the sea during a storm. Most especially, I want to remember Vito as the man who refused to take advantage of a not so young woman when she behaved like the young girl she still believed she was.

About the Author

Nancy Caronia is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of Rhode Island. Her creative work has been anthologized in The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture, Don’t Tell Mama! The Penguin Book of Italian American Writing, and Coloring Book: An Eclectic Anthology of Multicultural Writers. She and Edvige Giunta have a forthcoming co-edited collection: Personal Effects: Essays on Culture, Teaching, and Memoir in the Work of Louise DeSalvo.