They were, though I didn't know it, figments of first love. I took them, naked and expressionless, off the assembly line, dressed them, painted their faces, made conversation, answered for them. Mexicans say they're "muy ilusionado" when they're expecting a baby. I was every minute giving birth to another smudge of a thing, a faint trace of an actual existing being all done up in bows of my making.
My doll collection of bitty loves have had to work hard, over the years and in tandem, to amount to anything when lined up side by side that you might dignify as a first love. I had to work hard for them, because they mumbled, you see. Did they speak grippingly of Dante, or of large Maremma sheepdogs that had trudged day and night across snowy slopes to be reunited with a mate? No. Perhaps I was like my grandmother, who after a lifetime in Alexandria and propelled one-way to the swampy foggy north of Italy, yearned for okra in a land of peas. But unlike her, I could turn anything into anything, including peas into okra.
I fell in love with an uncle at the age of five because he seemed to be having a good time elsewhere, unlike my grandmother who was always having a terrible time with us, berating Nasser any time he had the misfortune of coming up in the news, embroidering dazzling cushions, and scowling as she did so. Someone tied that uncle's cherries in clusters of two and three with invisible black thread so he wouldn't have to pick them up one at a time, which, as anyone then living in Milan might have told you, he was in too much of a rush to do. He whizzed about, up, down and across Italy, to France and Turkey, dipping yachts and flats and pieds-á-terre and bulky mansions in a shade of oyster-shell, concealing cupboards and drawers and cabinets so that things that weren't in the minimalist modernist next-to-nothingness he aspired to might be expunged. I got over him when I met my first communist, who was always rushing into, or out of a CHI-chi, as he pronounced the two syllables in Italian that stood for "convegno comunista" or something like that. He wrote to me in turquoise ink and the letters lasted a long time because I coudn't make out half the words: they were swallowed up in dancing globs of turquoise. I made more of them, invariably – kept them in a pocket of the scratchy grey boarding-school uniform in Florence, next to some bit of Allen Ginsberg I was translating for a printed-in-every-direction literary magazine called Pianeta fresco. My second communist (they were rife) had a big black beard and a big black motorcycle. I had one scary ride, in the permitted twice-yearly leave from the dungeon, along a winding Florentine road flanked by stone walls, some scratchy kisses, and the thought of those too I rationed and stretched and watered down till even the most ilusionada of ilusionadas would have banged the shutters to and called it a day.
I'd like to skip the Latin beast with webbed fingers. And the poet with a mouse up his nose when he read his poems to me. Even I could do little there.
A dashing architect's mother thought I must have a wooden leg since I wore long black dresses I bought at the flea market. I studied and gawked at the Polaroid of a dark-haired well-suited stranger I'd only met once. I stared at the wall without a door that mooning over a homosexual so resembles – they are good dolls since they talk back and make you tea but touch your bare back only by mistake. L'amour platonique, my mother said, "est plat et pas très tonique".