the grotto

Day spa in an Italian cave, anyone? It sounded good to me when on a trip to Italy my powerhouse, budget-be-damned world-traveling girlfriend planned an outing to a remote day spa, carved into a cave with underground springs, spa treatments and gourmet restaurant. We really couldn’t afford it, but like I said—budget be damned, libera me, Domine!

We refer to Rosemary as the social dictator (social dick for short) and as she was the only one who could jab out any decent Italian, she navigated us there on the bus-train-to taxi route, chatting animatedly to our many helpful direction-givers and cab drivers. The last stretch was a cab ride and our social dictator sat up front engaging in what seemed to be a pretty emphatic conversation. Later she shared with us her recollection of the conversation, coming to realize why the cab driver had kept repeating “NO! Se muerte, MUERTE!” each time she responded. It turns out he had shared with her his grief over his freshly dead wife, to which she misunderstood and kept responding with “How wonderful! How wonderful!”

I’m not really all that adventurous, I like to know what’s coming. But when I do adventure, I prefer not to do it alone. So normally I would have been inclined to join my girlfriends in their choice of a spa treatment, but this time my curiosity tempted me, and while they chose something safe like a massage and spring bath, I bravely selected the “Hydro Treatment.” I reasoned that with the underground spring water, this would be the thing! I watched my girlfriends vanish behind a curtain while I waited alone. Soon a matronly woman greeted me and led me away. Or should I say astray? Though I did not understand much Italian it was plain what to do when I was instructed to strip off my clothes, and as I stood there naked and alone I wondered what would come next. Agnus Dei libera me! Libera me!

The matron in the stiff white nurse-looking uniform escorted me to a large shower room and motioned for me to stand against the wall. I was doing my best to act like all this was quite natural and tried to overcome my shyness, standing there nude and alone, as another “nurse-lady” came into the room. Excited shouting took place as I meekly stood stripped down, sort of crouching against the wall. Minutes passed like Chinese water torture as I wondered what the hell we were doing. When would I get the lovely, warm and healing hydro therapy treatment? Nurse #2 switched on a machine. The roar of the motor bounced off the walls adding a deafening hum to the atmosphere. Me still standing there in all my Glory. Pointing and animated shouting came next as I stood there exposed and trying with all my might not to look as timid and embarrassed as I felt. This was supposed to be enjoyable. Matron-lady unwound what looked to be like a fire hose and pointed it at me. I was suddenly blasted with bursts of water which knocked me against the wall. Calamitatis et miseriae! Calamitatis et miseriae?

After the initial shock and sinking into the wall to brace against the next inevitable blast, I painfully realized this is what I had paid for. I could either run for my life or be graceful about the whole thing and go along with being pummeled against the wall by what I suspected was no Italian, but a Nazi. Too shy to act like this was the humiliating experience that it was, and not wanting to act like “an ugly American,” my acting skills kicked in. Libera me, Domine, libera me!

My strategy was to obligingly endure the blows. I demonstrated this new-found technique by rotating my body this way and that so they could more properly pelt my body with their Italian Fire Hose. Lamb of God, when would this be over? More shouts and points as I was directed to turn around so that my naked butt would be in their faces.  As I stood with my face against the wall, my ass shining, I felt like a victim being lined up against a wall for execution. After what seemed like forever (Mary Mother of God, would it never end?), the backside pelting stopped. The switch was turned off and the loud generator sound that had accompanied my experience stopped. The women shouted, all-smiles, apparently directing me to the next room. I departed this hydro-theatre of hell wondering “Agnus of God, what next?” I gathered my crumpled body together and sauntered as nonchalantly as I could, pretending like this was all so normal to me, as if to convey as best I could:  “Oh-what a lovely treatment I have had today!”  Oh, calamitatis et miseriae. Calamitatis et Miseriae!

Mary, Jesus or one of the saints, if not God himself had apparently heard my prayers because the next room was just a place to gather towels and go into the underground chamber to float around in the cave’s spring. Lord knows I needed a cave to hide in after that calamity. As I floated around and tried to absorb the shocking definition of “hydro-treatment,” my two friends came drifting in with relaxed smiles and peaceful auras. “How was your hydro treatment?” they asked. I thought for a minute on how to respond, how to shape my words. Then replied, “Have you read Dante”s Inferno?”

the sonny & cher show

this work is still in progress…

Its funny how when you’re a kid, what giants adults seem to be. I never stopped to wonder if I ever had any childhood heroes, but I have to confess now, I did have two. The pair that would leave a life-long etching on my inner windshield were a crazy couple named John and Margaret.

This was back when Dad had bought the apartment building in Dallas. This new world of being the only kid, and more importantly the landlord’s kid, in a 24-unit complex presented new adventures for a ten year old like me. I was about to learn the art of how to endlessly annoy helpless neighbors, push the limits of intrusion, and how best to be, well, just plain annoying. I saw the occupants as potential family members to help build an empire from the lonely but loving life me and Dad had. My mother’s death when I was 7 took with it the meaningful sense of family for me. So I guess I was on a mission.

One day this skinny, seedy looking guy moved in a couple of doors down. I watched this guy carefully. One sunny day his beautiful Mexican girlfriend appeared with her 2-year old daughter who looked like a porcelain doll. I was ready to make my first move. It started with incessant door knocking. Lucky for me they were kid friendly. Well, at least Margaret was, and besides they probably didn’t have the nerve to turn away the landlord’s daughter. The skinny guy’s name was John and although he had greasy hair and seemed nervous, I almost immediately discovered his Bostonian sense of humor and generous spirit. In short, they put up with me. Soon I wasn’t knocking anymore and when the door wasn’t locked, I just walked right in. I became a regular playmate to 2-year old Shannon who I dragged around on my back or hips, adopting her as my own personal baby doll.

The Moody Blues or Three Dog Night would be vibrating out of their stereo and my friend Charlie and I would go over just to hang around. I’m sure we were practically gawking and trying to soak in some of their “coolness.” Margaret’s black hair swung down to her hips and John’s goatee and bell bottoms ensured to us they were perfectly hip. Velvet black light posters decorated their walls and one poster was a real point of contention between me and Charlie. The poster said something like, “Pull your head out” with the neon outline of a human form bent 360 into their back end. Charlie and I competed, pretending each of us “knew what it meant.” Neither John nor Margaret would reveal its “inner meaning” except for a smug grin.

It wasn’t long before Margaret moved in. By then I had sharpened my freeloading skills and even my Dad would occasionally stop in and visit. Margaret had another daughter and son who were living in McKinney with her mother, so a lot of weekends, I’d accompany Margaret to McKinney. Margaret’s mom lived in the ethnic part of town, where Margaret had grown up. Her house was a little more upscale because of its full bathroom, as opposed to her father and grandmother’s house across the way which still used an outhouse! Mind you, this was 1970. I was totally fascinated by their family and I completely idolized Margaret. I followed her around like a puppy. I remember meeting Margaret’s blind grandmother, who spoke only Spanish. I felt very complimented that her grandmother said she could actually “see” me because I was a “gueda”—her failing eyes were able to catch the shine of my blond hair.

One of the first times I remember all the kids coming for a visit, I tagged along with them to the State Fair. They probably did invite me, but even if they didn’t, I’m sure I would have just quietly slipped into their car hoping they wouldn’t notice. With their little family starting up, I just wanted to be in a real family too. John took in the kids like his own from the start. He hefted little Maxie on his hip and carefully showed him all the carney games at the Fair.

Cathy, even at that age which I’d say was about 4 or 5, looked like an Egyptian Goddess with her bronze skin, almond eyes, and thick black fan of hair. Shannon was the gueda of the three, but she was just as resilient as the other two with her pierced ears and light brown locks of hair to her waist.

I guess their budding family was struggling financially, but John found a better job and started to make his rent payments in a more regular fashion. My Dad being the pushover he was could never kick anyone out and it’s a good thing, because John began to be one of my Dad’s best and only friends. Dad used to advise John to “make a decent woman out of Margaret,” but unbeknownst to Dad, John had proposed more than once. It was Margaret who wasn’t giving in.

Eventually they moved into a 2-bedroom unit, so that Cathy and Maxie could come live with them. Dad agreed to re-decorate the apartment and asked Margaret to pick out what she wanted. I think Dad was a little shocked when neon orange shag carpet was selected completed by a swervy purple and black designed wall paper for the dining room, but a deal was a deal. For me, it was ultra cool. Once they got settled in the new place, I was basically a permanent fixture. Just sitting there in front of the TV with the other kids I pretended it was my family, that they were my brother and sisters, with a mom and a dad. My Dad had to come over on weeknights and visit for at least an hour with them before he could pry me away. On Sunday’s it was home and a shower after The Sonny & Cher Show. On the weekends, I just never left. They let us kids stay up just as late as we wanted on Friday and Saturday nights. First 11 o’clock wrestling, followed by old movies like The Mummy, or The Fly. Maxie and I would be the last to fall asleep and when the other kids had fallen over like drooped daisies, we’d be hustled into bed as John or Margaret carried the kids to their beds. I would always sleep in my clothes, which I thought was by far the most liberating experience I had had to date. And I never showered over the weekends. I was allowed to be full kid, and I was a tom boy, through and through.

On one occasion, for some horrid reason, I had to wear a dress. It took Margaret a concentrated time of coaxing before she got me in that thing. By this time Ricardo, John’s childhood friend from Boston had moved in, and he and the other guys dealt me a steady stream of teasing. Margaret had to go around and threaten all the guys that they better not say a word when I came out wearing a dress. They were all pretty scared of Margaret when she meant business, so they didn’t breathe a word as I lurked out self-consciously, flat chest, stick legs and all, in a dress…bleh!

Margaret never really “mothered” me in a bigger sense, she had three kids already and after all, we were probably only ten years apart! But she did have a great influence on me. I was her constant companion and errand girl, and I was loyal to her completely. She helped me improve upon the pigeon Spanish I had learned in El Paso by talking to me in her own version, and she taught me a few dishes she had been taught by her mother. My first tortillas looked like airplanes, she said, but after a time, I was able to roll out decent rounds which she flung into a hot skillet. She taught me to make enchiladas, Spanish rice and showed me how to use a mocahette, which I still use today.

I idolized John and Margaret. For me, they were Sonny and Cher. John, with his medium build, brunette mustache, and theatrical sense of humor; and glib, cool Margaret with her mane of black hair swinging down her back.

This was a happy time for me and Dad. He respected Margaret immensely and began to think of her as a daughter. Dad and John played Scrabble almost every night and John was probably closer to my Dad than my own brothers were. I think my Dad took a lot of pride in their special relationship. They sparred at who was the best at Jumble but even then I knew that was just a cover for their great affection for each other. Secretly I think my Dad was exceedingly proud of John and how he was shaping his life. Soon, they invited Vera, the building spinster, to be their fourth in regular games of Bridge. This was the best sense of family I had ever had, since my mom had died.

But the security of a my own Sonny & Cher and a whole apartment building full of people to make up for the fact that all there really was, was just me and Dad, would come to an end. As he had done several times since mom died, for some awful reason, Dad announced we were moving again. And the era of the Europa Apartments was gone forever. So this is how heroes are made in the mind of a child, steeped in the heart until the day I die. Viva la Sonny & Cher!

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