When I first met Cristina, my father’s Italian girlfriend, she worked at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization headquarters in Rome. Dad worked there too, calculating budgets for international relief projects. Cristina worked in personnel and interacted with people from all over the world desperate for a chance at a coveted UN gig.
This required a great deal of self-control because Cristina is a committed xenophobe. She kept her racist asides to herself during the work day.
She’d let it rip at home, though. If there were construction-like noises that woke her on Saturday morning, she was certain that “the Albanians” were to blame, even though she never saw who was hammering away in a distant palazzo. She whined about immigrants and the way their souvenir-peddling interrupted her restaurant dinners. She hated that “dirty gypsies” — their “fleas” sullied Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, the neighborhood where she and my father lived.
“Ci sono regole” — there are rules, she muttered.
“She’s a fucking fascist!” I announced one year. It was Christmastime. I was 21 and full of self-righteousness, finally bold enough to confront her.
But no one cared. Everyone already knew Cristina was a fascist.
The night of my outburst, family gathered at Dad’s apartment for a Christmas Eve feast. The meal ended with toasts.
“Il Duce!” Cristina’s uncle cheered.
Cristina raised her glass, as did most of her relatives. Dad kept his eyes fixed on the white tablecloth, stained with red wine by people too rich to care.
The next morning, Dad and I went for a walk.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
Along the shores of the Tiber, I picked up the pace to keep up with my Dad’s long strides.
“Because of the way you’ve raised me, I’d never be with someone like her,” I told him.
“I know, Katherine," he said. "But it’s not that easy.”
It was easy to understand that Cristina came first.
The first time we met her, Dad was nervous — not about whether we’d like her, but whether she’d like us.
“Don’t you girls have any decent clothes?" he had asked. "What does your mother do with all the money I send her?”
My mother was back in Michigan. Our parents’ custody arrangement required my sisters and me to spend summers and holidays in Italy with Dad.
My 12-year-old sister, Lorna, was going through a tomboy phase characterized by sullen stares and dogged commitment to denim. Alessandra, age 8, had dressed herself in a matching T-shirt and shorts. The outfit’s green paisley pattern was accented by pink swirls.
“Alessandra, you look like you’re wearing a carpet,” Dad hissed.
I was 14. Dad didn’t talk about what I was wearing, but blamed me for my sisters’ inadequacies.
“So, what’s she like?” we asked Dad on the way to the restaurant where we’d join Cristina, her twin sister Marta, and their mother Gigliola (gee-lee-oh-lah) for dinner.
“Cristina’s very short and has lots and lots of shoes,” Dad said, smiling to himself.
Dad had been living in Italy for about 10 years. After my mother left, taking their three kids with her, he had time to spare. He learned Italian history. He could conjugate in archaic versions of the past tense. But he remained awkward. It takes him a few extra seconds to get his words out, and when he finally speaks, he’s too loud. He’s also very tall. When he met Cristina, he looked a bit like Superman-era Christopher Reeve, and his looks often masked his gracelessness.
Dad sat me next to Cristina. She told elaborate jokes, and her English was perfect, idioms and all. I thought she was sort of pretty, in a well-maintained way. She had shoulder-length hair she parted down the middle and wide brown eyes. I liked her that first night.
Cristina wore tailored pants and fitted earth-toned sweaters she’d layer over crisp white blouses. No sultriness, just style. She’d zip around rush hour traffic on her tiny white Vespa, cutting off huge Alfa Romeos. If a man cut in front of her at the cafe where she took her morning coffee, she wouldn’t stand for it.
Under different circumstances, Cristina and I might have been friends. But we would never be friends.
Cristina would never warm to David’s daughters. We were intruders, like the unwelcome foreigners crowding her out of her Roman neighborhood. Refugees still reach Italy, exchanging their country’s horrors for cities full of people like Cristina, who make them feel less than welcome. Cristina can’t stop them. Instead, she set up borders outside her apartment, keeping three daughters out of their father’s life.
When we stood to double-kiss goodbye at the end of the first night’s meal, Cristina said I made her feel short. Height was an obsession. Every pair of Cristina’s shoes had heels — even her flip-flops. When describing a tall woman who intimidated her, Cristina would misquote When Harry Met Sally.
“Thin. Pretty. Big tits. Your basic nightmare,” is the classic Nora Ephron line.
Cristina’s version: “Tall. Thin. Big tits. Your basic nightmare.”
How did three tall American girls fit in to Cristina’s classification system?
We certainly didn’t fit into her lifestyle. Cristina’s favorite hobby was wine drinking. By 5:30 p.m., she was firmly planted at a table outside the bar directly beneath her apartment’s bedroom window. She’d consume three or four glasses of Grüner while sizing up the passersby strolling down cobblestoned Via della Scala. The wine guzzling regulars included a bearded American lout who dated waitresses at least 20 years his junior. Cristina’s ex-boyfriend made frequent appearances; he still lived with his parents. My Dad was there too, but always on the periphery, hands folded into his lap. His three daughters’ presence barely registered. While our friends back in Michigan were at summer camp, my sisters and I sat outside a bar, munching on peanuts and potato chips, willing it to be dinnertime already.
Cristina’s eyes would light up whenever someone walked by with a dog. She’d reach out, hungry for the animal’s attention. Cristina had a different reaction to children. Occasionally, a member of the wine-drinking gang would procreate. Though not expressly exiled from the evening ritual, new parents learned to stay away. Babies made Cristina recoil.
So why was Cristina dating a man with three children?
When we met her, Cristina still lived with Marta and Gigliola and their live-in maid. Gigliola’s sister Donatella is married to a man known formally as Principe Mario Chigi, and is an actual prince. Pope Alexander VII was a Chigi. Prince Mario and Donatella live in a castle outside of Rome, Castel Fusano. Tapestries line the castle’s many sitting rooms. Out back, a circle-shaped pool is filled with saltwater.
As kids, we spent Christmas Day at Castel Fusano. My sisters and I would find a quiet corner in which to bide the time. After four or five hours had passed, we’d track Dad down and beg him to take us home. But we couldn’t depart until Cristina was ready.
As the years passed, we grew accustomed to the way Cristina liked things. When my sisters and I came to visit, two of us had to sleep on the living room couch’s pullout out bed. This was extremely disruptive to Cristina’s living-room carpet exercise routine. On her hands and knees, she’d kick the air behind her over and over again, a move she learned from a Claudia Schiffer workout tape.
Cristina did not like to be mistaken for our mother. We’d enter shops with Cristina and Dad, and store clerks would ask Cristina if they could show her anything for “vostre figlie,” your daughters.
Cristina would adjust her mouth into a tight smile that almost disguised how disgusted she was by the suggestion.
“Sono sue figlie,” they’re his daughters, she explained.
When they decided to live together, Dad and Cristina moved into a beautiful two-bedroom apartment with marble floors and high ceilings, located on the second story of a 15th-century building steps from Santa Maria in Trastevere.
Cristina did not like having young guests. She often returned to her mother’s place for the duration of our stay. Before we left for Michigan, we were required to cram all evidence of our existence back into our suitcases. I was scolded for trying to leave a pair of flip-flops behind.
On the nights Cristina did stay over, she’d ask to speak to Dad in private. We could still hear.
“David,” Cristina murmured, “the toilet is disgusting after they use it, tell them to clean it!”
Dad would sigh, exit the room Cristina was in, and deliver her message.
“Girls, if you use the bathroom, you need to clean the toilet after you use it. And light a match,” Dad paraphrased.
Our sins multiplied.
“David, my shampoo is almost gone!” Cristina whispered loudly.
“Girls, that shampoo is not for you. Use the other kind.”
“David, the living room!”
“Girls, stop acting like pigs.”
By way of explanation, Dad told us that Cristina “is bad at sharing.”
We didn’t need to be told.
Cristina and Dad finally married in 2010, right before my Dad retired. In their wedding day photo, Dad is beaming. Cristina is stone-faced.
“Well, you know, for the benefits,” Cristina explained. She’d consented after a great deal of pressure so that my Dad, who’d recently suffered a pulmonary embolism, could stay on her healthcare plan.
Lorna, Alessandra and I weren’t invited to the wedding. We found out about the marriage after it happened, via email.