Gentle Readers, I thought I should share with you some of my fiction, as this deals with food and manifold other issues. The narrator is a female psychology professor. Feel free to comment about it, should you choose to slog through these 4000 words.
Minerva—The Case History of a Young Woman Recovering from a Childhood of Abuse
All of the details of this story are perfectly true, to the absolute best of my recollection, and supported by the literal file cabinet full of notes that I have kept on Minerva; but at the same time, they are also fictional up to a point. I originally thought that I should write this like one of Herr Doctor Freud’s case studies, but I eventually thought better. This needed to be a narrative.
I have been Minerva’s therapist for six years now! And I have never seen anything like the transformation she has gone through. Recovery is a process that never really ends, but Minerva is now a happy, and already remarkable, career woman, and is married. I hardly thought any of those possible after I read her case history for the first time.
After all I said about this all being true, I have changed the names and even the fields of academic study to the point where it will be next to impossible to determine her, or my, true identity. I do in fact work at a medium sized university in a medium sized city in a medium sized state in the US South. That means this could have taken place in essentially anywhere in the entire region.
I chose to call this young woman “Minerva” for various reasons. The most striking of these is her love for all things Italian, and her staggering depth of knowledge about the culture. Those will become apparent to anyone who reads her story. The most important is her resemblance, in so many ways, to the mythical Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. Literally no barrier could stop her unending search for knowledge. If she had been a male, her mythical name would have been Prometheus.
Minerva herself has read this manuscript, and she complimented me on my obfuscation concerning our identities. She said she doubted that even she could have solved the puzzle of who she was, or where she came from, after reading this. Fortunately for us all, she was able to solve the puzzle of who she is in reality. If I played my own small role in helping her, and helping others by telling her story, I have done better work than I ever have done up to this point. This is the story of Minerva unchained.
Meeting Minerva for the first time was like discovering a new galaxy on the far edge of the universe. She walked into my office at nine in the morning during the first day of fall classes, under strict instructions from my sort of friend, and her new advisor, Dean Franklin, that she should be on time. In retrospect I believe she was on time down to the actual second when eight o’clock turned to nine o’clock, which became to me the key trait of her personality, accurate and honest as a nuclear clock. The most generous thing most people would have said about her appearance was that she was “striking,” which is a polite way of saying she looked different from just about anyone else. She was gymnast muscular, thin, and pale as a classical statue. On top of that was the most outrageous head of red hair that I had ever seen, which was likely visible from the other side of our galaxy. I was probably fortunate that I had not had time to go through the foot high pile of files that the Dean had sent me concerning her, and so I really had no idea about this young person who would eventually become my semi-adopted daughter. My first impression, when she walked in and smiled at me, was that she shone like the center of that distant new galaxy. I had no idea how true that intuition was to prove to be.
“Buonjiorno,” she said, and waved at me with a semi-circular sweep of her hand. “I’m Dean Franklin’s new ward, Minerva.”
Maybe she thought she was a character from a Victorian novel. I laughed, stood up, and shook her hand. I said, “I’m MaryBeth, Professor of Psychology and Licensed Therapist. Dean Franklin told me you spent the summer in Italy.”
“What a blast,” she said. “Actually, it was Italy and Switzerland. I studied in both places.”
“What did you study?’
“Opera, architecture and physics. I studied in Rome, and then at CERN in Switzerland. That’s the place where they’re building that massive particle accelerator.”
The name sounded vaguely familiar. “Isn’t that the place where they came up with the idea for the internet?”
“Exactly, but technically they invented the World Wide Web. Tim catches all kinds of shit from the other scientists about all the hype he receives because of that. I gave him all sorts of hell about putting those two slashes in every web address. You know, http://. Hyper text transfer protocol, colon, forward slash, forward slash. The two forward slashes are useless, because they don’t signify anything. I hate anything that doesn’t signify. I finally got him to admit to everyone that they were a mistake.”
“Who is Tim?”
“Tim Berners-Lee, who always gets the credit for inventing the Web. I got an email from him last night, telling me to be sure and come back to CERN next summer. Listen to me, ‘I got an email last night from the guy who invented the World Wide Web.’ I must sound like the most stoned student you’ve ever talked to. I have to tell you right now, I don’t use any drugs. Especially prescription drugs. I have a real phobia about those.”
Maybe I should have looked at those files after all. I certainly would as soon as she left. I decided to change the subject. “So how did you get to know Dean Franklin?”
“I don’t really know him that well. I was handed off to him. I get that a lot.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“No one really knows what to do with me, except for John. That’s John Berger, the famous attorney here in town, but you know that. You’re a good friend of his. John knows exactly what I should do, and what keeps me going. What happened is, my family handed me off to my grandmother Audrey, who is wonderful, and she handed me off to her friend John when I moved up here last spring, before I went to Europe. John hands me off to people who he knows can help me. He told Dean Franklin to send me to you. You have quite a reputation. I can tell from your office that it’s all true, the things everybody says about you.”
“Thank you, Minerva. I’m glad you like it.”
“It’s so orderly. I hope you can make my mind like this room. Oh, I have to tell you, I got handed off to my local police precinct a couple of days ago. They’ve practically adopted me too. The women there think I’m some kind of hero. All I did was break that one cop’s nose. He was a really big redneck, too. Not bad for a skinny seventeen year old girl.”
“I didn’t hear anything about you getting arrested from the Dean.”
“I wasn’t arrested. I volunteered to go down to the precinct to apologize to that big cop, though. Now some of this is just hearsay, so I’ll tell you what I know, and what I was told happened. Some of this is in my file already. One of the many things I have been diagnosed with is night terrors and incubus attacks—you know, a sleep disorder. I scream at night, while I’m asleep, and can’t remember any of it the next day. I had an attack the night I got back from Italy. The cops thought someone was trying to kill me, and they broke in to my apartment to save me. This big redneck guy tried to wake me up, and I broke his nose with a palm heel strike. That’s when you hit someone with the heel of your palm. At least that’s what Cleo told me.”
“Who is Cleo?”
“The police woman I found sitting on my couch. The morning after I got back from Italy, I woke up and saw that my bedroom was a mess. I thought it was just another incubus attack, so I got up and took a shower. I finished, put on my robe, and put my hair up in a towel, and then I put on my pink fluffy bunny slippers. They have ears and everything. Grandmother bought them for me as a gag gift, but I really like them. They’re so cheesy. So I walk into my main room—my apartment is only four rooms, but it’s free, because my grandmother owns the building. Then sure enough, Cleo is sitting there on my couch, in her police uniform. She had made some coffee, and was having a cup and a doughnut. I know that’s a cliche, but I love doughnuts, and went to Krispy Kreme first thing as soon as I got back from Italy. They were the only things in my fridge, except for some milk, blueberries, and some butter. And she was reading a magazine. I just told her hello.”
Dean Franklin was getting a congratulatory phone call as soon as this interview ended. Minerva knew the guy who invented the internet, and also a local cop named Cleo, who was into coffee and doughnuts. I was going to spend all day, and possibly, all night, with her files. But right now I was in the middle of some coffee and doughnuts.
“So what did Cleo say?”
“She asked me if I wanted some coffee, and a doughnut. I said yes, poured myself some coffee and grabbed a doughnut, and asked her if she would like any blueberry pancakes. She said, ‘Honey, I loves me some blueberry pancakes.’ So I whipped us up a batch. And I had some maple syrup in the cabinet. Then we sat and ate our pancakes, and talked.”
“How were the pancakes?”
“Delicious. I just needed some honey to sweeten them a little more. I make a mean pancake.”
“So how did she get into your apartment?”
“She and the big redneck guy broke my door down. The police fixed it back after we had our pancakes. Cleo stayed behind to look after me, after they took Jed to the hospital.”
“Jed is Cleo’s partner. She told him not to wake me, because her sister has night terrors too. He grabbed me and shook me anyway. Big mistake. Cleo said, ‘Baby, you need to get a job catching cobras by hand or something. Your hand came up and knocked his nose so far up in his head, that the doctors are going to need a map to find it. Whack! Jed never even saw it coming. First thing I knew, he was lying on the floor on his back, looking for his nose with both hands all around his face.’ That’s why I went and apologized to him.”
Through some miracle I managed not to laugh. “How did Jed take the apology?”
“Well, I guess he had to take it well considering the whole place was filming it all with their phones. He’s a good foot taller than I am, and I guess it was a little embarrassing to get whacked like that by someone my size. The doctor had done a pretty good job pulling his nose back out of his skull, though that part of his face was all blue and all bruised. He was typing his report at his desk when I walked in to the office. At least he didn’t run away from me when he saw me. I’ve had that happen before.”
“So what did you say?”
“I said, ‘Hi Jed, I’m Minerva. I’m sorry I broke your nose like that, but I don’t know what I’m doing when I’m asleep. Can I kiss it and make it feel better?’ He said no. I can’t really blame him. Do you mind if I look around your office some? I really like this place.”
“Be my guest.” She really had some intellectual curiosity, which was becoming ever more of a rarity with students.
As soon as she came around to look out my window, she saw something she liked behind my desk. “Oh my god,” she said, “Where did you get that big bag? I have to send one of those to Italy. I know two guys in Maremma who would love one. That’s in Tuscany.”
I had never seen someone so excited about a bag before. “That’s my market tote. It was made in Minnesota. I got it to go to the farmer’s market, but now I use it every day. All my things fit in it.”
Minerva practically had her nose down in the bag, and was fiddling around with everything in it. Then she went to her purse, and pulled out a very fancy, but small, tape measure. She showed it to me. “This is very precise. It was made in Germany. I need exact measurements in both imperial and metric units. Those always signify,” she said.
A repeated word, signify. I already had something to work with. I asked, “Do you need something to write down the measurements on?”
“No, I just memorize everything. It’s easier that way. I’m buying four of these bags. I’m sending two to Maremma, one to my grandmother, and I’m keeping one for myself. I need to learn about the local markets here. Italians love their local markets. They even have Agritourismo there.”
“Agricultural tourism? That sounds great, eating your way across a country. Is that how you ended up in that part of Tuscany?”
“Hardly any international tourists go to Maremma. That’s why it’s so special. My voice coach was from this little village there called Scansano, and after a couple of lessons, he and his wife invited me to go there for the weekend, to meet his family. His twin uncles would have adopted me, and I went to see them every weekend I was there, after that first trip. I got handed off to them after I taught their three dogs how to guard their chickens. The uncles were seriously impressed. They had worked as shepherds when they were younger.”
“So you know how to teach dogs to guard chickens.”
“It was easy with Dante, Leo, and Michael. They’re Maremma sheepdogs. That breed has been guarding animals for at least two centuries, probably longer. They may have even been developed by the Etruscans.”
I had to laugh at the names of the dogs. “An Italian dog is named Michael?”
“My grandmother thought he was named after Michael Corleone, but that’s Siciliano. Those dogs are strictly Toscano. Michael the sheepdog is named after Michelangelo.” She gestured like a character from The Godfather when she said Siciliano.
God, she was witty. I hoped the Dean could send me another like her, but I doubted such a person existed. “I guess that means Leo is named after Leonardo. That’s an artistic pack of hounds there in Maremma.”
“Exactly. Leo is named after Leonardo. As a reward for training their dogs, the two uncles taught me how to cook Tuscan food. Talk about old school! They had to cook for themselves when they were shepherds. They even make their own Pecorino Toscano, which is a sheep milk’s cheese. And their own bread and sausages. I learned all those skills. And after the shepherding work dried up, they worked at the best vineyard near Scansano, making Morellino di Scansano wine, which is famous. They taught me about all the best Tuscan wines, also. I have a couple of cases in my apartment, and more on the way.”
“So your education was all around this summer. When did you find time to sleep?”
“I hardly ever sleep, which is one of my main problems, which we should work on. When I do, I scream my head off with some regularity. One reason I drink so much wine is it helps me go to sleep.” She had finished with her measurements of the bag, taken a look out the window, and then sat back down.
“Aren’t you a little young to be drinking wine?”
“Not in Italy. Sixteen is the legal drinking age, but I can’t buy wine legally until I’m eighteen. How strange is that. I could drink it there, but I couldn’t buy it. John told me you love good wine. So I have a surprise for you. He absolutely dared me to do this today.”
She reached inside the giant leather purse she had, which was easily half as big as my market tote, and pulled out something wrapped in parchment paper, and a piece of flat bread. Then she said, “Would you like to try a piece of the twin’s homemade cheese, with some Tuscan flat bread I made? I smuggled the cheese through customs.”
It would have been impossible to say no. “Good thing they didn’t have a cheese sniffing dog at the airport, or you may not have made it here today,” I said. “Let’s eat. Manga, manga.”
She laughed, whipped out the fanciest Swiss Army knife I had ever seen, tore off some bread, and sliced some cheese on top of it. She handed it to me, got some for herself, and said, “I should tell you the sheep’s milk was not pasteurized.”
Here was a trust building opportunity. “How old were these guys, and how long have they made this?”
“Sixty nine, so they have made this for fifty years at least.”
“I’ll risk it then.” I took a bite. It was unlike any cheese I had ever eaten. Mild, and sweet, and with something undefinable. Kind of like my young patient.
Minerva swallowed her bite, and said, “I can tell you like it. The twins told me that I was tasting the smell of the pastures of Maremma.”
They were exactly right, I suppose. Smell and taste together. I took another bite.
“One of the twins told me he could tell which of the actual pastures the sheep came from, just by eating this,” she said. “After he said it twice, his brother said, ‘You can barely tell this cheese from the stuff that comes out of a sheep’s butt hole’. Only he didn’t say stuff, or butt hole.”
“At the very least,” I said, “I can tell the difference between this cheese and sheep shit.”
Minerva laughed, “Maybe calling sheep shit on somebody is a shepherd’s way of calling bullshit on somebody,” she said. “But this food just makes me thirsty. Let’s have a drink.” She reached back into her cavern of a purse again, and pulled out a small glass flask, and a couple of glasses not much bigger than shot glasses. She poured us each a glass of what was obviously red wine. She said, “The twins made this as well. It’s their version of Morellino di Scansano. John insisted that I bring you some.” She poured the wine, handed me a glass, and said, “Salute.”
I didn’t normally drink wine at nine in the morning, but I could make an exception in this case, even if I was breaking every campus rule in the book. The wine turned out to be every bit as good as the cheese. After I downed the glass in one drink, I said, “No wonder you went to Scansano every weekend. Did the twins have any other talents?”
I caught her in the middle of a another bite of cheese. She finally said, “More even than baking Tuscan bread, their big thing is making pasta. They’re launching their own war on Big Pasta. You know, the stuff that comes in a box. They say pasta in a box is destroying Italian culture. The tote bags are for them to use in their contraband unstamped egg business. It’s more than a little illegal, but they have God, justice, and the Mediterranean diet on their side—at least that’s what they say. And their side just tastes much better anyway,” she said, and poured us another shot of wine.
Admittedly, the last thing I was expecting on the first day of classes was to walk into a Slow Food documentary, narrated by a seventeen year old who was sent to me as being in urgent need of therapy. But I had to know about this unstamped egg bootlegging thing before we got down to the therapy business. ”What’s an unstamped egg, and why is it illegal?”
“It started with the EU,” she said, “And it ruined local egg production and pasta making. Every egg in the EU has to go through a processor, and be inspected and stamped, and most villages and towns in Italy don’t have egg processors. I didn’t see the connection until the twins proved it to me. They knew I was the most skeptical person in the world after the first weekend I met them. So they set up an experiment with a blind tasting for me.”
I had to at least make some attempt at progress, so I asked the obvious question. “Why are you so skeptical about everything?”
“Because everything my family taught me for fifteen years turned out to be sheep shit. Except for my grandmother, of course. She’s as bad a skeptic as I am, but I wasn’t allowed to spend much time with her, until I moved in with her a couple of years ago. The twins took me into their famiglia almost immediately. I love the way Italians value famiglia so much, and sharing good food is the center of it. Let me tell you about the experiment.”
“Be my guest.”
“Both of the twins made the same fresh pasta dish, Tortelli alla Maremmana, which is a ravioli type thing, and then made me choose the best one. They were both excellent, but one had the same thing this cheese has-the smell of the Tuscan earth, maybe. I chose that one, and the twins were so pleased they broke out their favorite wine that they had made, and we all had a drink. Then they told me the secret to the best pasta. It was the local, unstamped, bootleg eggs, that were used to make it. They had the flavor of the woods around Scansano, where their chickens foraged.”
“So that’s when you began your life of crime?”
“I’ve done more than just smuggle cheese and bootleg eggs. You’ll find out about that when you read my many files. Please don’t be discouraged by them. So many head shrinkers have given up on me already. I don’t want to sound like an asshole, but most of them dumped me because I’m smarter than them. But I’m getting a little tired of being handed off.”
I didn’t even consider that as a possibility, My normal procedure was to just talk for this first hour, and so I had her talk more about Italy. It was was so diverting that I lost track of time, until she said, “But damn, I have a class across campus at ten. I better go, because it’s really not in my character to be late. The Dean says I have to come back here at nine tomorrow. I scheduled my eight classes around that time slot.”
“Eight? Isn’t that a lot?”
“I wanted to take ten or eleven, but the Dean wouldn’t let me. I’ll probably be bored, with so little to do. But at least I get to talk to you. You sure know your stuff MaryBeth. All the psychiatrists I’ve talked to were not at all interested in food, or Italy. You can keep the rest of the cheese, and the bread. I’ll clean up the glasses.” She grabbed the glasses and threw them back into her purse. “Bye, and thank you so much,” she said. “See you tomorrow exactly at nine.” She made the same semi-circular wave as she left my office.
I treated myself to some more bread and cheese, and thought about how enjoyable it was going to be talking with her all semester. As a diversion, I decided to look into her file. I flipped the top file open, and the Dean, thoughtfully, I considered, had provided a one page executive summary for me. After two sentences I considered stopping reading it. This charming young woman, and incredible intellect, had spent fifteen years of childhood in a literal hell. No wonder she screamed at night, while she slept. I was going to have to be her Dante, and help her explore and understand the levels of the hell she had been through. And I was going to be damned to a hell of my own making if I couldn’t help her.