Italian Lessons

Cristina Politano

We are four weeks through a ten-week accelerated course in Italian when we find out that Signorina Clementi does not in fact exist. It is Rodge who stumbles on the obituary, a poor automatic translation, and her photo, unmistakable, on the back of a digital prayer card. The same dark hair, dark eyes, the same distinct crook in the bridge of her nose, but I recognize her for the rosary, a golden crucifix that hangs suspended from the gentle slope of her neck in her faculty photo. It always strikes me as disarmingly coy, the way she balances the cross between her slim olive fingers and their pink-lacquered nails.

Anna Annunziata Clementi. In pace requiescat. But the next morning she is back online checking homework and presenting on the uses of the congiuntivo. That little green dot by her name is alive. It exists. Esiste la luce verde ! I tell myself, e la sua voce. Her voice exists still, that sweet Ligurian melody whose contours I spent the last four weeks committing to heart, whose cadence has lured me down a path shaded by olive trees, to the mouth of the mare tirreneo.

The path to the cave of the Sybil, which some believe served as the inspiration for Virgil's entrance to the underworld. She is clicking through a slideshow. Tall branches of cypress bend along a limestone slope. A rusted iron grating covers the entrance to the mouth of the cave. Do we have any questions? The virtual classroom is silent. Allora, she says, passiamo.

I pan my cursor over the rows of neat curls in her profile photo, as though I might caress them with this crude digital tool. According to her obituary she died in 2019. The notice does not list a cause of death. She is survived by her father, Pasquale, and her mother, Assuntina. A google search returns no viable hits on mom and dad. Mamma e papà.

Remember that Papà means father. But Papa is the pope. An important distinction, don't you agree? She would admonish us on the use of those rare diacritical marks. They are small but important to the word and its meaning.

Thinking of Pasquale, which means Easter. Thinking of everything I know about the pope. A helpful if factually dubious website reports that Assuntina was the 468th most popular baby name in 2023. One in every 102,346 people is named Assuntina. There are approximately 567 people alive with this name.

I commit these facts to memory, not knowing what for. Then I repair to the commons where the comp sci students congregate.

Existence is a tricky term. It is Chan who parses the phenomenology of the digital persona. Naturally, Anna existed at some point. She isn't AI in the pure sense. Think of her as an upload supplemented by an algorithm, he is saying, and he points to some matrix of code on his monitor that baffles me entirely. Her existence is a matter of perspective. One might say she exists much in the same way a database exists. It is alive, because it is dynamic and growing.

Can she see me?

It depends on what you mean. Your input is received by it. By her.

Can she understand me?

The model is processing your input.

Does she know I...? Too painful to confess. Not here, not in the fluorescent-lit public space that stinks of overheated ramen and unwashed towels. But Chan nods, knowingly.

The algorithm may register your attraction to the teacher's persona, yes, Chan allows, all mathematical dispassion. It is useful information. It can be helpful to the lesson, to your acquisition of the material, if it detects a state of admiration in the student.

It can exploit that state of admiration, he adds, to optimize learning.

Exploit? I repeat as he returns to his code.

Admiration? What an awkward, insufficient term.

It isn't just admiration, I want to protest. It is not a question of attraction, infatuation. I am trying to place the words for the strange unsettling mixture of elation and wonder, for the deep conviction in the beneficence of my creator that this woman has evoked in me, but I know that Chan has stopped listening. I am devolving into histrionics. There is no place for knowledge of God in a matrix that has been developed to optimize some university prerogatives. To optimize learning. The acquisition of a dying language, of a language that might as well be dead.

Rodge is in his dorm room, still tuned in to the virtual lesson. I come up behind him and close the screen on his laptop.

How can you go along with this?

With what?

With the woman on the screen. With knowing she's dead.

It's for credits.

But it's wrong.

He pauses for a moment, thoughtful. I guess it's strange, he finally agrees. But I think this is pretty standard. Virtual instructors. The way of the future. He starts rolling a joint.

She isn't virtual. She's dead.

That's what I meant.

Are we even learning Italian? How would we know?

It's Italian. What else would it be?

He's right, it must be Italian. It tracks with everything I know about Italian. The culture. Those words that crept into English through music, fashion, cuisine. All gaping vowels and singsong idiocy. It is a language for children, I always believed, until Anna opened my heart to its poetry. To its beauty. To a way of experiencing the world that transcends all the dreary unknowable diphthongs in English, all these closed-consonant words that shut my mouth and my voice and my heart to the future.

I feel as though I've been catfished. Pesce gatto, she would tell me when we made it to the unit on seafood. Christ was a sailor, I would tell her knowingly, a fisher of souls. Christ stopped at Eboli, I would say, and she would nod and agree with me. But there is no great meaning I can assign to this now. It is the assent of a dead woman processed by a machine.

Do you want to go for a walk? But I decline. I need to be alone.

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita... Climbing the brick steps to the brick buildings on campus, Lombardian Romanesque she told me they were called. I repeat these lines as though they might conjure her. Me ritrovai, the simple past, I can hear this in her lilting English. The soft crackle of static over the bad connection in my dorm room. Those rows of neat curls that dangle like bluebells. Pre-Raphaelite, they call it. Those neat rows of curls that I'd never seen move, come to think of it.

ive never seen her hair move, I am texting Rodge.

her hair doesnt move, Rodge replies, bc shes not real.

is she not real? or is she dead?

y r u being like this? just come back. well get stoned.

I am entering the building, cathedral-like in alternating rows of red and white brick. I am climbing the stairs to the language department. This building was originally a hospital, which is why the corridors are so wide. Stacks of papers and books on wheeled shelving at every door. The nameplate beside each office is blank. In some cases the lettering has been scraped from the windows.

Reorganizing says the secretary at the end of the hallway. Huge overhaul in personnel.

Can you tell me where the language department has been moved? I am trying to be polite but there is an edge to my voice that I cannot control.

I am looking for Anna Annuziata. I say it in Italian first, and then in English for the sake of the secretary. She is backing her rolling chair to the furthest corner of her cubicle.

I can't give you specific details about individual faculty. It isn't in my purview.

Can you tell me if she was here?

Do you mean today?

I mean, ever.

I'm sorry, I can't help you find her, she repeats, a little more gently this time. Try messaging your instructor through the campus portal. CC your advisor, it's the quickest way to get a response.

On my way back down the stairs I pass a security guard who eyes me with suspicion, hand to his receiver. But I am out of the building, into the cool, clean afternoon air. A breeze from the ocean stirs the leaves of the willows that frame the brick path to the office of the registrar. The weeping willows stirring in a light breeze.

Il salice piangente, she would say when we got to the unit on trees. It is so interesting, I would say, that the tree should be crying in your language too! That we should both perceive the tree as lachrymose. People cry for different reasons, she would say. The tree might not be sad.

I have accessed the registrar. It is flagrant deception, I am telling the woman behind the desk.

But you signed off on it, she says, and she points to the one clause in the labyrinthine series of terms I'd signed that prove her point. I had signed off on a virtual instructor, live or asynchronous.

Asynchronous, I say, is a funny way to say dead.

Do you want your money back? We can process a partial refund if you withdraw in the next few days.

I want closure, I say.

This is not my domain. You may want to take your complaint to the dean.

And the office of the dean is a stone's throw away, in dome-capped building whose aura is ambiguously neo-Classical.

The dean is sorry to hear of Anna's passing. He tents his fingers in condolence.

But help me understand this, I am saying. Why would the university hire someone dead?

The dean might as well be shrugging.

It seems that Miss Clementi was a model instructor, he says. She had very consistently positive student evaluations.

How can you use her to teach if she's dead?

She signed away all of the digital content she created at the university as a stipulation of her employment with us.

She signed away her voice? And her face?

As a stipulation of her employment, yes.

But why doesn't the university hire someone alive?

Live instructors come with a host of thorny issues. I'm not simply talking about wages here, or anything strictly pecuniary as you might imagine. Consider the liability that live instructors carry.

The liability?

The gaffes they make. Political or otherwise. Sometimes they breach the limits of decorum. Affairs and what have you. Things get messy. Then the next thing you know, we owe a Title IX complainant a quarter of a million dollars.

So, it is pecuniary.

Not strictly.

Isn't the liability offset by the learning?

Quite the contrary. We have evidence to demonstrate that learning outcomes are improved through these models. We can tailor each lesson to the individual student. We have the forefront of pedagogy at our fingertips.

Pedagogy requires live, human minds.

Pedagogy is a closed system, the same as any other. It can be perfected by a code, just like a chess game can be won. Against a master, even.

No, I am saying, teaching is a dialectic relationship between two people. There is more than just information being exchanged. There must be a real relationship, even if it is adversarial. There has to be an element that is human.

I agree with you, the dean is saying, wholeheartedly even. But consider that your instructor was human. The model is informed by her human elements. Her idiosyncrasies, her imperfections.

These elements that make her human, I am saying, you don't have the right to them.

But the fact is that we do. We possess the legal right to them. Much like a publishing house retains the rights to an author's work, post-mortem. The dean is smilingly at me patiently. He is pulling up my academic record. I see that your passion for Miss Clementi's course is not reflected by your grade. What if we could guarantee you an A for this semester? Would that make you feel a little less...dismayed?

I walk out in disgust. Haggling over my grade for bits of my dignity as though I weren't losing pieces of my soul to this slow awakening to her non-existence.

I meet Sara at the student center. She is kind, and she wants to be understanding. I think that your feelings are valid, she is saying but her eyes slant sadly, the corners pinch in pity.

You think I'm a silly child.

I think it is a great testament to your capacity for love, the fact that you fell so deeply for a photo.

And a voice, I remind her.

That too, she says. The voice can be such a powerful impetus for desire.

Il desiderio, I say. Il colpo di fulmine. Like two Sicilian peasants locking eyes on a path through the hills. The course of their lives forever altered.

I love that scene from the Godfather, Sara says.

She is so beautiful, I am saying, so smart, momentarily forgetting how gauche it is to vaunt the virtues of one woman to another. But Sara is not insecure. She touches my arm maternally.

You are like Dante pursuing Beatrice into the afterlife, she says, one of the last great romantics, in the tradition of Shelley or Byron.

But I know I am pathetic and a fool.

I am no great champion of the humanities. I fell into a state of limerence with a robot and in the torment of a passion that could never hope to be anything but unrequited, I sought someone or something to blame for the way my emotions could be so easily manipulated.

I am back in the commons. Chan is joined by Trent and Rodge, swilling cheap vodka cut with cheaper orange juice to ease the burn.

I could swear that we had conversations. She called me by my name.

Dude your name is like so common.

How did she know to correct my pronunciation?

Algorithm. All Anglophones mispronounce the same words.

But what if I hadn't?

But you did.

But, it wasn't inevitable.

But it was predictable.

I was good at Italian. I was good at pronouncing it.

So, keep it up.

Not now, not like this.

Why do you care so much? You learned the basics, didn't you? You feel like you got your money's worth. The credit hours.

Just take what you learned and move on.

You aren't the first person to learn a language from AI. Millions of people play DuoLingo every day.

It is not just a question of vocabulary, grammar. We spoke at length about literary exegesis. I gave her my interpretation of Promessi Sposi. She engaged with me on it. She gave me her own take, a passage from her master's thesis.

Your literary is not so unique and sophisticated as you think.

She is programmed to recite passages from her master's thesis, Trent says. All women are. Wry grins all around. We need this casual misogyny to ease the pain of unrequited love.

I turn to Chan in a state of desperation, flailing for a hope, for a cause.

Isn't there a chance that she might...become human again? Like that she could somehow gain sentience?

You mean like the singularity? Chan chuckles.

You watch too many movies, says Rodge. But Chan is addressing the question in earnest.

The university doesn't have the capacity on their servers, to host the kind of bandwidth that anything approaching the singularity would require.

Maybe in twenty years, he adds, thoughtful. But by then her code will be obsolete.

You won't feel this way in twenty years, says Rodge.

You won't feel this way in twenty minutes, says Trent, if you head downstairs and redirect some of your hopeless romanticism to that All-American skirt on the first floor.

But I know, I feel intuitively that twenty years is not long enough to snuff out this ardor. To make me forget. That twenty years is the blink of an eye in the course of the eternity that Anna has opened up to me. I will feel this way for the rest of my life.

There are two different ways to express that you love someone in Italian. Ti voglio bene and ti amo. The latter conveys a passionate, romantic love. The former, a deeply felt affection for a partner, friend, or family member. I have assimilated this knowledge, intellectually, into my brain. But it pains me to consider that I will never truly learn the difference between these expressions. That I will never utter one or the other extemporaneously, in a moment of pure unadulterated emotion when my feelings and my ability to express those feelings converge.

Worse, I will never learn the juncture where the two expressions meet. Where true love blends with familiarity. Where that molten, amorous passion hardens into a fondness that can carry two people, contented, beyond this life into the hereafter. The hope and promise of that love that I read in the pixilation in Anna Annunziata's eyes. How can I learn the distinction if I cannot use the latter to express what deep pains are stirring at the base of my soul when I think of Anna Annuziata Clementi, and her voice, carried like an echo from the cave to the underworld, reaching from death just to teach me Italian.

Photograph by Michael Howarth (2023)

Cristina Politano

Cristina Politano is a writer from New Jersey. Her essays can be found at Return.Life, Minor Literatures, and on

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