In elementary school, my friends and I shared Nancy Drew mysteries. By the time we went to high school, we had hidden bodice-rippers and soft porn books in our backpacks, contraband that could have gotten us expelled. Little did I know an Italian Fotoromanzo would fuel my fascination with dark romance. The glossy cover showed a scantily clad woman with big Sophia-Loren hair, heavy eyeliner, wide full mouth, and generous bosom, frowning at a stern man with jet black hair, chiseled cheekbones, and sharp jaw. His physique was athletic. It looked as if the tailor had stitched him into the handmade suit. The fumetto, written in Italian, used speech balloons to depict dialogue between the characters.
My mother took me to visit her sister in Italy. One hot, dry afternoon, we saw her sister, Sofia. We sipped iced expresso in her rustic courtyard. The laundry drying on the line kept us shaded. A chubby-legged toddler sucked on a piece of watermelon while I listened to their recollections.
They grew up in the late 1950s. At the time, the country was still devastated by war. The parents, siblings, and grandmother slept in a one-room home. Flooring on the rafters added sleeping space. Food was scarce, and people got sick from malnutrition.
When the Allies invaded, they brought food and medical supplies. American soldiers charged with Italy’s recovery mingled with villagers. They answered questions about America, the cars, and the food markets, stoking the villagers’ hope for a better future. But for single Italian women, their hope for the future was marriage. Reality slapped them in the face because most men drafted to fight for Mussolini died, disappeared, or went AWOL.
The soldiers’ discards were prized. Some items were currency. Among the spoils were dog-eared copies of the fotonovelas, which drew enthusiastic fans. The thick pamphlets included romance, pulp fiction, and cinema. They contained tons of melodrama, endless plot twists, and trite happy endings fed the gaping hole of escapism. The romance stories addressed unwanted pregnancies, the ‘secret pill,’ and women’s rights to their sexuality within the patriarchal society.
One of those fumettos made its way into her sister’s hands. Though the siblings couldn’t read, they deciphered the stories spending hours discussing the plotlines that included mistaken identities, illegitimate children, murder motivated by jealousy, and forbidden love.
My aunt asked me if I had ever read a fotoromanzo. I shook my head. She lifted the toddler’s sleeping pallet and retrieved a magazine. The cover was slightly tattered: the pages had the look of a well-read porn magazine — faded ink and the corners of the pages turned down one too many times. My mother leafed through it — the nostalgia, irresistible. The magazines had stoked their imaginations and dreams of romance when they were girls.
My aunt gave me the fumetto. That’s how I learned to read Italian. The stories addicted me to the drama of scandals and betrayals. Mom collected them from her friends for me and I devoured them. When I moved away from home, I left them at her house.
When mom had passed away, I went through boxes and old suitcases in her attic, hoping she saved the novellas for me. Laying at the bottom of one of the suitcases, under layers of her vintage, tissue-covered trousseau, lay the magazine my aunt gave me.