Lucia had been idly reading a book on race and America by a prominent Nigerian author when she flipped to the end of the book and found an Italian man—a Renaissance man to boot—responsible for the typeface used to print the book. She wondered about this, the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie transcribed in the typeface of colonialism, and the joy she had felt in finding a compatriot turned sour in her mouth like white wine gone off. Was typeface something authors even considered? The font of their book? She supposed it was the publisher’s prerogative. Her old roommate Mathilde had done an internship. Unpaid, at Random House. Mathilde had said the bigger houses didn’t even let you choose your own cover—they led you to the illusion of choice, showing you three book jackets that the marketing team had thought up. But really, they were all iterations of the same thing. For a mystery suspense about a psychotic killer, three dust jackets of a man in a straitjacket—one he was standing, one sitting down, and one with his head chopped off—not literally, but visually by the top of the cover: the invisible frame of the book being the empty space of the real world.
But she was getting distracted. She tried to read some more, but—that typeface. Distractions were the problem with white American allies, she thought. But she could think this, being Italian, a colonialist, but a small colonialist. And then she laughed at her pretension, her sudden willingness to ignore Italy’s own issues with racism and immigration. If she didn’t laugh, what else could she do?
Her bark of a laugh startled her cat, who jumped off the arm of her chair and ran mewing across the small studio to hide under the bed. Her cat, a rescue foster, became irritated by the slightest things. Lucia stood and stretched too. She made herself a coffee on the stove and wondered how Mathilde’s new roommate, her replacement, was fitting in. She had not liked Mathilde much, but still she wondered in a somewhat pleasant way how she was doing.
Once Mathilde had accused her of not having any Black friends, and she had defended herself, listing the names of the two boys, one adopted, one a son of immigrants, who lived in her Italian hometown. Laughing with derision, Mathilde had claimed that was the point, that she could enumerate the Black friends she had at all. Lucia had not understood this game. But what was she to do? Italy was so homogenous. The history of racism in Italy, until seventy years ago, had been of the Northerners against the Southerners, who were quite problematically called the Africans of Italy.
She had attended college and now graduate school in the States, but she still felt friendless in America. The only people she really was comfortable around were other Italians. She was becoming morose. Enough. She finished her coffee and put out the food for the cat. She pulled on a jean jacket and grabbed her keys to go for a walk.
Later, she was happy she had gone out and had found the new bar in her neighborhood. But she began her walk in a foul mood, thinking she would never understand Americans, or never fit in, or never know what the right response ought to be. Even when she nearly bumped into an old lady on the street, her instinct was to apologize in Italian first, then she stuttered her way into English.
The lady glared her down. “These people,” she muttered.
Lucia wanted to know who these people were this time. She had met one friend in an Italian literature class in college, an Italian American, who was forever evaluating the immigrant experience in the US. The friend would say such ridiculous things as “My nonno says it was worse to be Italian than to be Black,” as though it were the truth. As though the Italian immigrant experience, certainly difficult, could be compared to the horrific legacy of slavery and systemic racism of America.
Lucia shook her head. She was walking quickly, angry, as this memory stuck in her head. She paused under an awning only because it began to rain, and her mother had trained in her soul to never get her head wet.
The awning she had stopped under happened, it turned out, to be Beatrice’s bar. It was a Tuesday morning. A strange time of day for a bar to be open—well, what Americans considered to be a bar, not the cafes of her Italy. When she peeked in, to her surprise, the interior looked transported from the bar in her hometown—a proper Italian bar, with espresso machine glinting, in the middle of Manhattan. Lucia held her breath as though it were a mirage, a soap bubble that might pop if she moved. And then she smelled the coffee.
Tuesday at eleven was a slow time—too early and too late—so Beatrice had been doing inventory when Lucia walked in. She recognized the cadence of an Italian accent rising and falling, calling out a, “Hello, is anyone there?”
Beatrice stood up quickly, too quickly, and smacked her head on the bar. Next thing she knew, the Italian voice was behind the bar, holding a cloth full of ice, a miracle worker, a saint. They spoke hesitantly in Italian as though testing the waters to see if the other were truly Italian, really here in the flesh.
Their union began with blood, they would say later. But that touch, the caring touch Lucia had extended from the start, would never leave her fingers. Beatrice was lucky. But she didn’t know all that on Tuesday at eleven in the morning.
They spoke precious, uninterrupted Italian. Bea was happy, relaxed. It was like a scene from Fellini. At fifteen minutes past, another woman walked into the bar, a blonde, who ordered a coffee.
“An espresso?” Beatrice asked.
“I’m guessing you don’t have instant,” she said with a laugh.
Lucia and Beatrice stared at her, horrified.
“I’ll have a cappuccino,” she assured her audience.
Beatrice glanced at her watch. Still before noon. The time for cappuccini was morning, no later than eleven. But she nodded and turned to the machine.
“That’s a lovely accent,” she heard Lucia saying. “Is it Australian?”
“South African,” the blonde woman replied. “And you, Italian, right?”
“Si,” Lucia replied, slipping up again.
Beatrice put down the cappuccino with a biscotto and a small shot glass of sparkling water. “I thought—” she blushed.
“Yes?” the woman stirred sugar into the cappuccino.
“I thought Africans were all Black?” Bea asked.
Lucia laughed in embarrassment.
The woman turned red. “South Africa,” she repeated.
Lucia explained, sottovoce, in Italian, “Sai, Mandela, il sistema dell'apartheid…” she trailed off.
Beatrice turned even more red. “I’m sorry, I apologize. I completely lost my head.”
The woman sipped her coffee, glanced at her watch.
Beatrice said, brightly, “So you are a migrant as well!”
The woman looked up, raised an eyebrow.
“Er, an immigrant,” Lucia corrected her.
Bea remembered again that here in America immigrant, immigrata, wasn’t a bad word. Here in America, migrant, migrante, meant something else.
The woman nodded.
The rain was really falling now. The woman asked for the bill.
It was after Bea thought the white woman couldn’t be from Africa that Lucia thought of her old friend Marco, who spoke dialect better than her. Lucia had immigrant parents, parents who spoke an embarrassing southern dialect in their northern town, parents who hadn’t even finished middle school. Marco was adopted, and for years growing up, Lucia had envied him for his northern parents and for the attention he got as a Black child who spoke dialect.
She remembered her envy now with embarrassment. Such a funny thing to be envious of. And then thinking of her mother at home, making endless homemade pasta just because it made her happy to see her children happy, filled her not with her usual rage at the wasted potential of her mother’s life, but with a strong homesickness that washed over her like nausea. She asked Bea for a glass of water, for some dry toast.
When the woman, the white woman from South Africa left, Lucia was relieved. She wanted Bea to herself. But they had whiled away the afternoon. As happy hour began and more people walked in, the spell of before broke. Lucia paid, quickly leaving her American number on the check and walking out into the rain.
When Bea called, they talked about their confusion between immigration and migration, and it became their recurring, private joke. When Bea picked her up for their first date, she texted she was migrating uptown. She brought a can of instant coffee. When Lucia made coffee the next morning, she joked she had actually used it. When they broke up, Lucia threw the can in the trash, and she started reading Americanah again. This time, she was determined to get it right.