In last night's second episode of the second season (a little of the old Chuck Woolery "two and two"), we learned more about the Real Children of New Jersey. Most of the things we learned were bad.
Here's a funny thing that happened on Real Housewives last night. The children of Caroline Manzo, our squat and fiery Wheaton terrier, were making sangawiches in the big marble and dark wood kitchen. We had the daughter, Caroline 2: The Revenge, and the two sons, honey-dripping sun god Albie and runty, rattish failure, Failure. They were all just playing cute-mook for the cameras, horsing around with foodstuffs. But then a look of recognition flashed in all their eyes and suddenly things turned serious. They opened a container of deli sliced ham and took positions around the counter. And then, like courtly British battle from years ago, they all drew, aimed, and fired their ham at each other. This continued for some time. There was ham on the floors, ham on the counters, ham sticking luridly to the cabinet doors. And then there was a loud thunder and a rolling of thousands of iron wheels and the boom of seaship destroyers sending their shells barreling into the night. "What. Is. Going. Awn. Heah??????" It was Caroline and her husband, Billy Joel. They'd discovered their children throwing ham at each other. What a strange thing to see. Or was it?
Caroline looked crossly at all of them. "Are you playing the Ham Game?" she barked. Albie nodded, dew drops shaking off of his beautiful spiked hair, shimmering copper light rippling across his chest. "Yeah, we were playing the Ham Game." Caroline shook her head in disappointment. "You know how I feel about the Ham Game." Sensing an opportunity to win some much needed points, the family's sickly and dark and wicked spawn Failure — their petulant King John, their hunch-backed Richard — piped up and said "I told you guys that ma doesn't like the Ham Game." Caroline nodded in assent, though it was if the houseplant had said something she agreed with, she did not recognize that it was the whiny voice of her son, she never would. "I do not like the Ham Game. I like nothing about it. Look at this. What a waste." Failure, feeling stung by his mother's dismissal, said "That's what I was saying. Buy the good ham for eating and the cheap ham for the Ham Game." Like, ha, the Ham Game is such a considered thing that at one point a proposal had been put on the table for the purchasing of Game-relegated ham. "Is that the eating ham?" "No, that's the throwin' ham." "For the Ham Game." "Yes, for the Ham Game."
And then it struck me. I felt a whistling knowledge run up through my soul and I turned to the cat, who was gnawing a paw and looking at me pityingly, and said, "That's it. This whole thing, this whole show, is one big Ham Game!" The cat may have perked up at the word "ham," but otherwise she seemed unimpressed. But it's true, isn't it? Just the throwing of ham around a room. That is this entire show, forever and ever, isn't it? I feel so enlightened. It's all one big Ham Game. That's all it is. Shanti.
So let's talk about other ham. Oh, here's a pile of ham that someone molded into a face and stuck on a praying mantis's body. Its name is now Danielle "Chanteese" Staub and it has two daughters. One daughter is young and buck-toothed, so nobody cares about her. But the otha... Oh the otha. The otha has a square-jawed American WASPish beauty about her. You look at her slightly Nordic features and picture her in a few years, when she loses some of the baby innocence, in light tweed pants and a crisp-collared white shirt striding toward you across a great and convex rolling green lawn, croquet mallet held jauntily, some lime-garnished clear cocktail in a pristine highball glass in the other hand. She'd saunter up and say something game and witty and look at you with a wicked half wink and then turn her tousled blonde head back to the big house, with its sprawling porch and thick-maned dog and the New England summer would be eternal and sad around you and you'd know that she would not be yours for long, that you'd lose her once she got bored, once this kinder Estella went back to the city and disappeared (that was her true gift, it seemed, that she could exist just as comfortably in Newport as she could in Manhattan, that she knew both worlds so well, that she knew they'd always be aching to accommodate her. She would never quite touch the ground, because it was not good enough for her). That's what Danielle's daughter looks like, sort of. She's a little more cherubic, but that's the general picture. That said, she's going into modeling. And she couldn't be happier about it.
And by "she" I don't mean the daughter. I mean Danielle. Ohhhhh Danielle is just tickled as a bed bug (because she is a bed bug) about the whole thing. Model Daughter had some meetings with IMG and took some photos and started to put together her lookbook and ended up on the cover of The Daily. Danielle watched this all with a strange giddiness — there was a rueful blue to her laugh, a charcoal sadness to her smile — and insisted that she'd be there every step of the way. Not because Model Daughter had asked for that, but because Danielle loves the fashion industry, knows the fashion industry. She used to be a model too, mostly for boat shows and Emirati business meetings, but still. She knows it. She loves it. She wants back into it. Oh, ha ha! Did she say that last part? Oops! Little slip there! No, no. No worries. She's just there to support her daughter, that's all. Thaaat's allllllll. Oh but what's that, Gilles Bensimon? You want to take Danielle's picture toooo? Oh goodness, Danielle gasped. Oh goodness, how silly, oh she wasn't ready, oh puhleeze, and then she went up on the photo dais and MODEL LOOK. Her transformation from blushing, grinning supportive mom to pout-lipped, Serious Magerious modelwoman was hysterically and tragically quick. There's that Kristen Wiig skit about "Ohh don't make me sing..."? It was basically that, except way way more heartbreaking.
So after that happened and Model Daughter got on the cover of The Daily, Danielle decided to have a luncheon to celebrate her daughter's success that, you know, her daughter wasn't invited to. Oh mercy no. It was just for Danielle, to celebrate her daughter with her closest friends, people she ran into at gas stations and wrote pen pal prison letters to and found with a trembling sausagey finger in the phonebook. She threw her daughter aside, ham into the crisper, until she'd need her again. For now it was about Danielle and Danielle's daughter's success. At the luncheon all of the hobos she'd hired to be friends were there, as was that wicked Jersey Joan Allen from last week. They all gabbed and finally Danielle showed the magazine cover, gave some toasts, and then quickly showed the girls that SHE TOO was in the magazine, obviously because she's on the Housewives. "Yay me!" she declared, throwing her hammy arms up toward the ceiling, the other ladies shaking their heads in cold pity.
Speaking of terrible stage moms and insufferable hams, let's turn our gaze upon Teresa de' Medici and her adorable daughter, Sopressata. Man, Teresa was throwing that ham around everywhere, wunt she? See the olive oil gorgon is convinced, convinced, that little Pinocchia is a star, a big bright shining star. She's a model, a singer, a actress (I say "a actress" because it's how it's said on the show), a dansuh, and everything else you can be in the entuhtainin' ahts. Why Teresa possesses this belief is really unclear, and when asked about it — "Teresa, why do you think Camorra has what it takes?" — Teresa just blinks dumbly at the camera and says "I mean look at huh. What's not to love?" So it's very sad and the poor girl clearly has no idea what the hell is going on, other than that whenever she acts like a diva and sticks out her butt, her mom claps and hugs her. And kids like claps and hugs! Those are two things that kids really like. So little Prosciutta performs. Little Prosciutta is tap dancing as fast as she can.
The big thing for her this week was that Elle magazine was looking for some child runway models for some Fashion Week show. Teresa figured her little star would be perfect for it. Because, again, look at huh. So they went to the PR company that was putting the thing together and were met by a sad-eyed PR lady and she spoke to the line-fed child about why she wants to model and then asked her to walk. Now, wee Puglia has done quite a bit of pageant shows, so she knows that walk. That walk, though, is not a fashion walk. Teresa doesn't know the difference — Teresa doesn't know much about much — so she just nodded and grinned as Puttanesca put her hands on her hips and did a woeful strut and at the turn-and-pivot stuck out her butt like a grimy auto shop pinup girl. The PR lady's eyes widened in terror but she quickly collected herself and said "Great, uh, that's great," and suddenly wished she'd chosen a different profession. This was too much, this was too awful. What a thing, what a terrible thing this was, this strange strutting child, this spaghetti-brained mother with flashbulbs in her eyes. "We'll, uh, we'll call you." Teresa beamed.
Turned out that she got it, probably because Elle couldn't pass up the PR. But oh how I wish they wouldn't encourage all of this. Oh how I wish they wouldn't. When Teresa told her husband, Bulldog, he shrugged his shoulders and said "The fuck is Fashion Week?" When Teresa told Stracciatella, the child let out a piercing fake movie-kid shriek and did a pitiful sexy dance on her bed and somewhere the PR lady, let's call her Michelle, sat on the edge of her bed and cried softly, holding her phone, trying to work up the courage to dial a number.
Whup! Whamp! Fwip! More ham is being thrown. Let's find the source. Ah yes, here it is. Jacqueline. Oh poor befuddled Jacqueline. With her planter box head stuffed with bushy geranium hair. Jacqueline is constantly being undermined. When she has lunch with Caroline and Teresa, they berate her for not thinking Danielle a completely wretched person. Jacqueline is kind and gentle and does not want to write off Danielle completely, but this does not stand with the other two viscous snakes. No, they demand that she agree with them. She whimpers. Her husband says she can't see Danielle anymore. She whimpers. And then her daughter, that Picasso-faced girl who's an odd mixture of gangly and bulbous, will not listen to Jacqueline when she begs her not to drink at clubs and get in cars with drunk people. She's only 18 after all and she's just not ready for all of that. But the girl will not listen. She won't even answer her mother. She just sighs and huffs and says "Mo-ooommmmmm," as if her mother doesn't know. As if her mother doesn't know about making mistakes when one is young, doesn't know about happy teenage minutes turned to eighteen-year-long problems. Look in the mirror, child. Jacqueline knows. She knows all too well.
But there's not much defeated old Jacqui can do, she ceded her agency long ago, so she just let the girl be rude and grumpy. She went to a baby clothes store to shop for Teresa's baby and had a little chat with Dina. Dina — the best there is, the only truly sane one — said "Have you tried hitting her?" And she didn't mean like beat the girl. Just give her a swat. Swift, Italian parent justice. Jacqueline mooed a billowy sigh and said "No... I created this monster." And Dina smiled at her with empathy and you wish that Dina would tell all the other girls how things should go, how things are done. But Dina doesn't do much these days, does she? Maybe she doesn't like being on the show anymore. She seems far too collected for it anyway.
Hopefully Jacqueline will figure it out. Family stuff can be hard to figure out, but sometimes it happens. Just look at the situation at Ham Throwington Manor, where Caroline 2 is dating one of Albie's friends and all Albie wants to do is throw a huge piece of ham in his face. Caroline 2's boyfriend, Bobby Baccala, came over to pick her up for a date and Albie's pre-crag Redford face fell into a frown and he shook his head and Bobby B. said "You wanna tawk in the kitchen?" So the boys went to go sort their stuff out while Caroline and her sequel sat on the couch and just accepted the role of women, of waiting for men to decide things, of figuring that boys have their own code that is more urgent and primal than their own. And so it's gone for years and years.
In the kitchen, Albie strode in on his tawny legs to find Failure alone, throwing ham at himself. "Oh God, get outta here," he said with revulsion. Failure shuffled out and up to his room, where he plots and plots and plots. The sun rises but the sun also sets and becomes dark obscuring night. That would be his chance. That would be his turn. For now, Albie had reign of the kitchen and he and Bobby B. sorted it out. Albie just wasn't comfortable with the whole thing, because guys "are scumbags," and he wants to protect his sister. Bobby B. shrugged his shoulders and said "I would never do nothin', because I have respect." What a strange hierarchy the whole thing is, isn't it? You can tell that the Manzo clan is held in higher esteem than the Baccala bunch. That's just the way things are. So Albie told Bobby to be careful but gave the couple his reluctant blessing. Bobby kissed Albie's ring and it was like pine forests and salt and something regal — a wind made by eagles' wings — all at once. He swooned slightly — suddenly he knew what all the high school girls had been clamoring for all those years, something like safety and danger, sex and success, the warm thrill of winning. He was flustered for a moment, but gathered himself and went to take Caroline 2 out on the date. They sat in the car on the way to the restaurant in silence. Caroline 2 turned to him and said "What are you thinking about?" Bobby stuttered, "No one. I'm not thinking about anyo— Nothing. You look nice is all."
Other things happened this episode, but not too much. Danielle was asked about little San Gimignana's model prospects and Danielle shook her thorax with laughter and said "Her-uh? Look at huh. She's four feet tawl." Well, yes, Danielle. Because she's seven years old. (But ohhhh how it must kill Teresa to hear of Model Daughter's success, huh? Kind of delightful to think about.) What else? Danielle found out from Jacqueline that they can't hang out anymore, and that was sad to watch. Dina was kind about the bug queen, saying that she feels bad for Danielle's divorce-related poverty and that she is genuinely happy for Model Daughter, which just further proves that Dina is a good broad. Oh, and Teresa had a fun little chat with the girls about her pregnancy-swollen downtown pasta shell, if you catch my meaning. This forced us to think about ham in a whole new context and, for a long long time, we cried tears of bile and puke.
So that was how these hams were thrown, this week anyway. Jacqueline was tossed further into her cage, meant to sit there quietly while others dictate her life. Not just her husband, not just her friends, but also her daughter. Her dim, precarious daughter. Her daughter who may someday disappear into the abstract and where will that leave Jacqueline? Whimpering still and helpless, having swatted weakly at the wicked world only to be thrown back, held down, told to be quiet. I hope she breaks out.
I hope Caroline never succeeds in her vicious campaign to end the Ham Game. The Ham Game is of vital importance to society. Well, to that society. To that society the Ham Game is like art and music and dance and prose. It is the root, the pride of their culture. They are following a long and noble tradition by hurling that ham, and if Caroline stops it... Well, I just don't know if they can survive.
I hope Teresa gets everything she's asking for. I hope Teresa gets a daughter who becomes burnt out at twelve, who has turned hard and sullen by fourteen, who escapes on the back of a motorcycle at sixteen, who passes by Jacqueline's daughter in some hazy club at eighteen, who finally recovers at twenty-two, who wakes up one morning and realizes that it was not her fault, the failure and the disappointing. I hope she reads this book and feels understood. I hope she calls her mother one day while walking across the Piazza del Campo and tells her that she forgives her, that she is happy, that she has olives in the yard, that the tomatoes are ripe this year and that, maybe soon, Teresa can come visit.
I hope Danielle doesn't lean too hard herself. I hope Model Daughter has all the success she wants, as long as it's her that wants it. I hope she doesn't let herself become ham. Make the bad things the ham, Model! Take it and toss it, forget it and move on. Models can't really be around ham anyway. It's just not allowed. It's just not. So go on, have fun. Years later, look up Gia when you are in Milan, have lunch and reflect.
And I hope that Michelle, lost PR lady, makes that phone call. That she dials the numbers and waits through agonizing rings and then finally her sister picks up, her sister Karen in Allentown. "Keeks," she'll say. "It's Michelle. Your sister Michelle." And the voice on the other end will falter for a second but then she'll say "Oh my gosh how are you?" Michelle will well up a bit, let out a strange little moan. "Ohhhhhh. You know. I don't know. I don't know. Work is..." There will be a pause and then she will ask, genuinely curious maybe for the first time in her life, "How are the kids? I hope they're all right." She will hear her sister sigh on the other end. She will wait for an answer. "Oh, they're fine. You know. They're doing just fine."
And for a moment, for Michelle, the world will be good again.