Date: 23 February
I know you’d rather I was dead. I’m hardly alive. I don’t expect an answer to this email. This is the only time I’ll write to you. For the past two years I’ve been trying to write to you. I should write a hundred-page letter to try and explain. I would never be able to. And I won’t try to explain myself now.
I’m a fool. I’ve always trusted my instinct but my instinct is a fake, a traitor, delusional. A few years back I made the worst mistake of my life – unrecoverable, insurmountable, inexplicable, unimaginable…I lied to myself for a while – I can be quite good at that sometimes – that I did what my head, my instinct, was telling me to do. Maybe it was the right thing but it screwed up my life, inevitably, forever. I just wanted to tell you that. Because you deserve to know that my life isn’t worth a cent. You deserve to know that every time I sit down to eat, with the utensils in my hand, for a moment I have the sensation of poking an eye out with a knife. I interpret this as a desire for self-punishment.
I hope with all my strength that these words will provoke in you a little smile of satisfaction. I hope that for you I was just a bad dream, not your cross. My other hope is that my life goes by quickly. Maybe then there will be a chance that in the next life I’ll be reincarnated into someone or something better than my current self. Then perhaps I’ll run into you in an airport in Stockholm or Buenos Aires and everything will be different.
Don’t forgive me, don’t answer, don’t be sad. Be happy, have babies, write books like you always wanted, make some mixed tapes, take some pictures. It’s how I love to think of you. And now and then, if you want, remember me.
I heard my name pronounced as no one had in years, like a person might say the name of an exotic species. Rising into a question but mastered – subtle aspiration, short vowels and all – as if it had been breathed in private again and again until it could unravel with startling casualness. No other sound in all of the Spanish Quarter, not a woman screaming bloody cheater or a gun popping with the thrill of vendetta, could have made me to turn away from that murmuring fireplace on such a cold night.
There stood a boy – a man – his mouth tightened like he’d said his bit and now it was my turn. His shirt was tucked in at the waist, rolled up at the arms and strained at the heart, a handy breast pocket barely managing a pack of cigarettes. Nothing like the other guests, who hid their wholesome Italian upbringing under hard-won dreadlocks and threadbare jackets. Despite the hour, their secondhand scent, of patchouli and thrift shops and hashish, still hung in the kitchen, its sweetness fusing with the flat beer and the drying saffron risotto. Clearly, he wasn’t from our tribe of linguists, the Istituto Orientale. Yet he was standing there, a lake still and deep with purpose.
“Here, I made this for you,” he said, fishing something out of his jeans pocket. Definitely a southern Italian accent, if not Neapolitan. I thought I saw his hand quiver as he handed me a cassette tape, in a hand-written case. Per Heddi, it read, beginning with a capital H and ending with an inky splash, the dot on my long-forgotten i.
It was often the spelling of my name that derailed its pronunciation, for then it was easy to take it to its literal extreme, with a melodramatically elongated e and the d duly hardened by consonant doubling, which southern Italians took so very much to heart. That the h was ignored was entirely forgivable: in Naples breathiness was reserved exclusively for laughter. Eee-dd-i. “As in Eddie Murphy?” people would ask and I would simply nod. I didn’t mind as much as I should have. Heddi was before and Eddie was now.
“Music?” I asked and he merely nodded, almost imperceptibly, his knuckles taut over a useless empty beer bottle.
My back was warmed by the erratic dance of the flames and by the oblivious laughter of the friends I affectionately called “the boys,” i ragazzi. That I belonged there too and could turn back towards them at any time made me feel undeniably special. And safe. Downstairs the front door shook with a thud, probably the last of the guests trickling out, and my gift bearer looked jolted by the awareness that the party that had earlier been whirling around him had been sucked into thin air. Abruptly, he shifted his weight from one leg to the other.
I felt that pinch of embarrassment as if it were my own, suddenly wishing I wasn’t always so sober. Unintentionally I found myself mirroring his asymmetry by tilting my head to one side. At least that way I could better see his face, hidden every time he looked down at his shoes – comfortable, practical shoes – by a mane of wavy, dark hair. I could honestly say I’d never seen him before: if we had ever locked eyes I surely would have remembered that intent look. A stranger waiting for my approval.
“Well, that’s me.” He rested his bottle down like he was afraid to break the glass, despite the fact that the kitchen counter was already a frenzy of unwanted bottles, greasy pans, balled-up napkins and mugs stained with wine like old teeth.
“I’m sorry, what was your name?”
“Bruno.” It was a rock of a name, heavy and ancient, and he lifted his eyebrows apologetically.
I thanked him for the tape, somehow not finding it in my throat to repeat his name back. “So you’re leaving?”
“I have to get up early. I’m off to the farm for a few weeks. My family’s farm, in the province of Avellino. I go every Easter. Well, not just Easter, but you know…”
I didn’t know, but I nodded anyway, grateful for the string of phrases. I still held out hope that in those last seconds before his departure – and I would probably never see him again – I could solve the mystery of how he had come to be on such intimate terms with my name and why he’d gone to such trouble to make me something.
“Well, enjoy your farmstay,” I answered. “I mean, your stay at the farm.” Inside, I cringed at my blunder, a crack I didn’t want anyone to see, especially a stranger. The truth was my Italian wasn’t always perfect: it tended to fray at the edges in moments like these, when I was taken by surprise.
A clutter of goodbyes and he was gone. I reclaimed my seat around the fireplace. Flames felt their way boldly, non-negotiably, up broken headboards and chair legs, and I let out a sigh of heartfelt relief. It had been odd standing there, being reminded of what it felt like to be an outsider and lost for words.
“What was that guy’s name again?” asked Luca beside me, tossing a cigarette butt into the fire and slipping a ribbon of smoke from his mouth.
“Bruno, I think.” My mouth tasted just how solid the name was as my hand slid the tape into the pocket of my vintage suede miniskirt. Within seconds the blazing fire swept any trace of uncertainty from my face.
Ah, yes, Davide – Luca sometimes played in his band. Davide, Bruno, whatever. The truth was we didn’t need any others in our circle. We were fine just as we were. I was fine.
Mesmerized by the flames, we let the night deepen into a moonless, hourless limbo. Now and then a chunk of wood caved into the embers, triggering a showy display of sparks and a few oohs and aahs for that little moment of drama. Eventually Luca rummaged through the stack of firewood, but that was just a fancy name for it. Beside it was an acoustic guitar, which Leo’s hairy hand reached for.
“You’re not throwing that in,” said Luca.
“Party’s over, children,” said Leo, propping the guitar on his knee. “Time for your fucking lullaby.”
This was the part I loved the most. Leo’s glasses were golden rings in the firelight as he started strumming a tune vaguely like Pearl Jam’s “Betterman” with those small chunky hands covered in dark fleece, the hands of a garden gnome come to life. Leo’s foul language was just thunder rolling over me and I had the constant urge to hug him. Perhaps it was because he was even smaller than me, or because I knew, as few others did, that his hairy hands were merely a preview to an entire wilderness covering his body. Once he’d asked me to shave his back to deal the final blow to some stubborn crab lice, and he never did have another one-night stand with a French girl. But underneath it all, shorn and new like a spring lamb, Leo possessed handsome and almost refined features that made him look, in a certain light, like my own brother.
At first Leo mumbled a few Anglo-Saxon sounds, but soon enough the dam broke and Italian burst out, with little concern for rhyme or even rhythm. “He had an exam and he did fail / can’t get a high mark now / can’t get a high mark now / Professor Dickhead could see through him / but couldn’t tell he was really a Sanskrit expert / in disguise as a lazy-ass student / he was an expert, an expert, an eeeexpert…”
“That’s a hit song,” said Angelo, one of the other boys. “You know what? Forget your studies. You should start a band.”
“Yeah, maybe I’ll ask Professor Lanciotti if he wants to be the drummer, what do you say?” said Leo. “That way he can beat the shit out of something else besides me.”
“Play us one of those traditional Neapolitan songs instead,” said Luca.
“I’m not the fucking Neapolitan.” Leo handed over the guitar with a smile, seemingly aware of his power to churn flattery out of obscenities.
Luca cradled the instrument, his shoulder-length hair falling over his face. “I’m only half.”
“The bottom half, naturally,” said Angelo.
Luca conceded them an off-center laugh, but his eyes were on me. That half-smile was in itself a compliment, for Luca was as selective with his smiles as he was with his words, as if he’d spent his last incarnation seeing all the irony in the world and in this lifetime had moved beyond laughter into some kind of Zen. Although technically he too was one of the boys, I had always thought of him as distinct from the other two: he was simply Luca.
“This one’s for you.”
Hearing the first notes of that old classic, “Tu vo’ fa’ l’americano,” my heart sped up. It was like I’d been caught out – the American incognito. Luca merely strummed the first stanza and was looking my way as though handing me the mike. For an instant I froze, and if I sang from the second verse onward it was only because I realized the others genuinely didn’t know the lyrics. And perhaps I did it for Luca too. To show him that, if nothing else, I could put on an impeccable Neapolitan accent, more guttural even than his. To see if I could make him smile. For his benefit, I crooned comically and gesticulated like a fishmonger. “Tu vo’ fa’ l’americano, ‘mericano, ‘mericano,” I sang, transformed momentarily into one of those poor women guarding the doorway of a musty, one-room vascio, with contraband cigarettes bulging from an apron. The lyrics were peppy but rang with that satire that Neapolitans were so skilled at turning inwards upon themselves since the fall of their city. It was obvious why Luca had chosen the song for me, about a fool trying to play the rich American, all “whisky e soda e rock n’ roll,” when really he’s nothing but a poor Neapolitan. “…ma si nat’ in Italy, sient’ a me, nun ce sta nient da fa’, tu si napulitan...” And for an instant, as I channeled the character through the dialect, I wasn’t an American at all but a vasciaola just playing the part.
The others tapped a foot and chimed in for the choruses. Finally, Luca raked his fingers over the strings. “I can never remember how it’s supposed to end.”
I leaned back in my chair, sweating and heady. There was always a mimic in me – or maybe even a gambler – waiting to burst out. Suddenly I needed some air, and no sooner had the fire popped lethargically than I was already on my feet. “We need bigger pieces of wood. I’ll go up on the roof.”
“I’ll come up with you, Eddie,” said Paola, the only other girl there. “I could use the fresh air.”
Luca and the boys shifted seamlessly into a Rolling Stones song, English rolling much more readily off their tongues than Neapolitan. They sang like drunken sailors, slurring those barbarian diphthongs and consonants clusters, as Paola and I climbed the spiral staircase behind the fireplace. Paola had to duck, her long black hair dipping forward, her combat boots ringing the metal all the way up to the flat rooftop.
“It’s so cold tonight,” I said, my breath fleeting clouds against the black sky.
“Freezing.” Paola hugged herself, then said in her crisp Sardinian accent, “So I guess you know Bruno.” Paola had a way of biting her bottom lip when she was restless.
“Bruno? From tonight?”
“Yeah, Bruno,” she said, the name rolling extraordinarily lightly off her tongue. For an instant it occurred to me – surely a one-in-the-morning type of folly – that we must be talking about two entirely different people. “What do you think of him?”
“I don’t really know him.” I crouched to pick through the loose wood, a dismembered bookshelf, that was lumped against the protective wall of the roof. “Why do you ask?”
“Don’t tell anyone.” Paola sank to the spongy ground as if falling into confession, her face naked like a full moon. Kneeling like that and looking considerably less tall, she reminded me of how young she really was, just in her first year. “We’ve barely exchanged ten words,” she whispered, though only the stars could have heard us. “But there’s just something about him.”
I told her he seemed nice. Simpatico, such a flippant word. Instinctively, I patted my pocket, the cassette bulging rather conspicuously. I wouldn’t say anything about the tape now, when I didn’t even know what was on it.
“I really do like him. Next time I see him, I should go up to him.”
“Sure, why not?” I said, too cheerfully, in reality feeling weighed down by something that felt puzzlingly like guilt. “Absolutely!”
Paola breathed out hard as if preparing for a sprint. A breeze made the strands of hair around her face go suddenly weightless like black algae in the sea.
“Don’t worry, Paola. I bet you could have any guy you wanted from the whole Orientale.”
“No, you could.” I loved Paola’s grin, a sweet doodle of a crescent that shone with uncomplicated delight. She offered to help, grabbing a broken plank and letting out a brrrr.
“You’re cold,” I said. “Take those and I’ll finish up here.”
As Paola’s head sank back into the orange glow of the apartment, I abandoned the wood to the ground and leaned with my elbows up against the wall, the only barrier preventing a seven-story freefall to the street. “Tonight…” I found myself whispering to myself in English, but I was unable to finish my own sentence.
The wind pressed the fishy smell of the gulf against my face, with a backtaste of petrol – an unmistakable scent. Below me, the city shimmered its way down to the water, strings of yellow streetlights beaded here and there with the pearly glow of kitchens. Naples never really slept. There was something inexplicably sorrowful about those fluorescent lights that so cheaply and unforgivingly lit families slapping the kitchen table in god knows what argument or joke or secret in the core of the night. But, like a moth, I was drawn to those white lights. If I could, I would drift in as an invisible guest. I would sit there without making a sound, trying to piece together their narratives.
A foghorn bleated. I couldn’t tell which of the many ships it could have come from, vessels invisible but for their connect-the-dot lights, suspended in the utter blackness of the bay. It was a rare clear night, and without a moon I couldn’t even see the volcano. The only trace of it were the homes etching their way up the sides to where they were swallowed by the dark summit. Vesuvius hadn’t uttered a word in half a century, but I stared at it through the curtain of the night and tried to imagine what it might look like breathing fire as in so many of those eighteenth-century oil paintings. I stared so hard that I almost believed I could will it back to life with my eyes.
I barely noticed that my hands had turned to cool marble as I vainly tried to inhale all the smells and sights of my stinking, startling, unforgettable Naples. It was a city I adored as a lover would, with a passion too great to keep hold of, like water seeping through my hands, and with a terrible sadness – but one I could never put my finger on. I’d given myself over to the city, maybe even betraying myself to do so, and yet even after all these years it still held me at a distance.
I let out a hard sigh, a surrender. “See Naples and die,” they say. I whispered these words to myself in my best Neapolitan and gathered the wood back up before heading downstairs to clean up the mess.
Date: 28 February
I don’t know what to say. I’ve been waiting to hear from you for three years. Has it been that long? It must be: I’ve planted two summer gardens. Tomatoes have ripened, the plants have shriveled up and been replanted again the next year. Time softens all things, makes waiting bearable. So bearable in fact that I’d stopped waiting. Or maybe I simply forgot what I was waiting for.
I’m older now but maybe not any wiser. I still don’t understand why you did what you did. Time hasn’t brought me any insight, but it has slowly eroded my curiosity.
My cat’s on my knee, she’s digging her claws in. She’s grey and her name’s Minky. I rescued her from an animal shelter, so in some ways I saved her life. But I think it’s more accurate to say that she saved mine. Her full name is actually half Italian, Minky Finucchi (from finocchio), but this is not something anybody here needs to know.
You were always a dog person. Do you remember that dog that we found at Cumae? Or rather he found us. He had those sad eyes and that beautiful rust-colored coat. Rusty, we called him. He was our dog for the day, and he followed us faithfully around the ruins, under the trees, knowing we had nothing to feed him, asking nothing in return. Only an animal could be so pure.
I can hardly believe I even remember the name Rusty. I’ve worked hard at forgetting everything to do with you. A kind of self-induced amnesia, which has been quite successful. I’ve forgotten things I never thought I would. Your voice. The taste of chestnuts. How your sun pendant felt between my fingers.
What happened does sometimes feel like a bad dream, like something I’ll wake up from, something that eventually will end. But overall now life is good: I have a great job and my new friends only know as much about me and my past as I’d like them to know.
It’s good to hear from you. It’s good to hear you say you’re sorry. Or have I put words in your mouth?
I knew it was Luca coming down the hallway well before his voice broke through the Bulgarian folk songs and the humming rain. It was the smell of his tobacco that gave him away. As I sat with my glottology textbook open on the bed, I could see the smoke drift through my open door and hover before me like a wish.
For as long as I’d known him, Luca Falcone had always smoked those hand-rolled cigarettes. He was puffing on one the first time I met him, leaning against the stained stone outside that café across from my department, his fame having preceded him. Holding something very alcoholic and wearing those out-of-fashion leather pants, Luca looked like he was posing for a rock album cover, like he owned the place. He was already in his third or fourth year and even then he was weathered for his age, as if he’d traveled through the desert to get to that bar and that bourbon, that impermanent place.
That moment marked the beginning of my university life as it was now, for miraculously Luca slipped me into his inner circle: the rasta and hemp crowd of Urdu- and Swahili-speaking alternativi from the Department of Eastern Studies and African Languages, whose remote Italian origins – southern regions and even islands like Puglia, Basilicata, Sicily, Sardinia – branded them as outsiders too. Among them, my foreignness was not a circus trick but merely an individual trademark. If I now had a place in Naples where I could fit in, sometimes even blend in, I owed it all to Luca.
Luca stepped into the room. “The movie’s starting,” he said in that lilting accent of his native Varese, in the Lakes region. Then he kissed my forehead, a hard kiss like he was farewelling me at the train station, accompanied by a comforting “mmm” from the depths. Up close, he smelled of lavender soap.
Then just before leaving, he lingered in the doorway to look at me, as he sometimes did, with an unwavering, thousand-year-old gaze that could burn a hole through me. With that look, as long and entranced as a stare, Luca seemed to be trying to tell me something, and I could only hope in my wildest fantasies that that something was deep friendship of a kind never seen before on this earth. I knew that it was ridiculous, and that I was no exception: everybody wanted a piece of Luca Falcone, of his nameless magic, his unknowable wisdom.
It was times like this that a person could miss home. A rainy Sunday afternoon. All the marketplaces were packed up, the shops closed, the shiny cobblestones prickled with raindrops. Everyone was at home around the table with their families: after a marathon meal there would be only room for a coffee, and alright, one last pastry. After that, those firmly tucked beds would become dented with elbows and knees. L’ora di pranzo, the siesta, the lost hours of the day. Sunday siesta was the only time when people felt sorry for me. Poor stray, so far from home.
I must have looked the part too, staring as I was at the now empty doorway from my creaky bed, surrounded by well-smudged dictionaries in English, Spanish, Bulgarian and Russian, and an old Minolta. Beads of rain slithered down my window in that dilapidated palace, nothing but a crumbling tower in a maze of streets, a ghetto that was a dark birthmark on Naples, a port city in a forgotten corner of the Mediterranean.
“Why in the world did you leave America for Naples?” My classmates at the Department of Western Languages would often corner me, possibly the only foreign student in the entire university – at least I’d never met another – and stand too close even for Italians, like I had something that could rub off on them. In reality, theirs was not a question at all: those girls, with their pregnant Invicta backpacks recycled from their final year at a linguistic high school in the neighboring provinces, were begging me for a justification as to why any of us were there.
The truth was that I’d actually been in or around Naples longer than most of those girls. To prove it, I had a diploma from a local liceo linguistico, the parchment that had gotten me into the Orientale to begin with. The admissions lady had narrowed her eyes, unsure what to do with me. I wasn’t Italian, but I couldn’t be not Italian either. When she thumped my admission form with four glorious official stamps, she turned me into a university student like the rest.
I thanked her profusely. But the one I really had to thank in the first place was the curiously named International Christian Youth Exchange, which had spun a bottle and landed me in the country of Italy, in the province of Naples, in the town of Castellammare di Stabia, on Via Caccavale number 6, at the kitchen table of a rebel divorcée who told me to call her Mamma Rita. After that, I became convinced that nothing in this world is random. I was just sixteen and two days old.
Never once did the boys ask me about where I was from, and I loved them all the more for it. Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia Beach, the outskirts of Boston, the tiny town of Athens, Ohio – did it really matter? My own childhood memories of place were knotted and webbed like macramé: I was from everywhere, and from nowhere. I was the perfect canvas onto which my classmates could project their fantasies of teleportation to a galaxy far far away – and who was I to shatter their dreams? Yet if only they could have imagined the pain all those American suburbs caused me. It would have been an unthinkable concept for an Italian: coming from the provinces was such a historical and deeply ingrained humiliation. But mine was a modern shame.
Deep down I knew that the reason I couldn’t handle standing so close to those girls in my department was because I was just like them. Worse than them. I was even more easily star-dazed and when I wandered through my adopted city, which even with all its blemishes seemed so grand, I learned to tame the awe on my face. Perhaps I even envied them. Home for them was such a geographic certainty, a rock. Colle Alto in the province of Benevento. Period.
The word itself puzzled me. Home. To me, that meant my mom’s brown-rice pudding and her shiatsu foot rubs, my dad’s chicken-fried steak and his I Ching hexagrams, my stepmom’s dream analysis, my brother plucking his bass. The cats. But to everyone else, home began with a place, a dot on the map – a simple reference point that was so small but that contained, it seemed, everything. People appeared to take it for granted, as if it were just like any other basic human emotion – happy, sad, angry, home – and yet their eyes lit up when they said the word. Casa. Like an autistic, I struggled to grasp that extraplanetary concept but in the end I couldn’t really feel it. I resorted to logical analysis to get my head around it.
What I did know, from all my years in Naples, was that this dot called home had to be something you could smell, hear, see and taste. Every day I found shards of it: in the woody smell of Felce Azzurra shower gel, in crusty bread moistened by buffalo-milk mozzarella, in the potted geraniums dripping over the balconies after a good watering, in the clamor the shutters made as the shops rolled open again after the siesta.
“It’s starting!” Angelo’s voice, another piece of home. I put on my slippers and scuttled down the hallway towards Luca’s bedroom.
The boys and I had a fun little game, which would start with a request for a cold beer and usually ended with a cup of hot tea.
“Ah, c’mon, gorgeous,” pleaded Leo that afternoon lying starfish on Luca’s bed. “If I don’t inject more alcohol into my bloodstream, I’ll never get rid of this bastard hangover.”
“Listen, boys,” I said, putting on my sternest voice, in no way meant for Luca. “You have class tomorrow, bright and early.” For a moment, there was only the faint smell of marijuana and the crash of rainwater missing the gutter and freefalling six floors to the street below. Angelo moaned. “Not much longer now,” I said. “Just one more week before the break. Sugar or honey?”
With that, I won their laughter and their surrender, knowing full well that what those two really craved on a wet Sunday afternoon was not a drink at all but rather a bit of mothering.
On my way to the kitchen, I paused in front of Angelo’s open door, catching a peek at his black and white cowhide rug. How many times the two of us had lain on that rug, sipping green tea from Japanese teacups while he learned to read kanji and I Cyrillic. Of all three boys, it was Angelo that I frittered away most of my time with.
I climbed the staircase, which had lost its railing, swerving at the top to avoid the crack on the floor – just in case there was some truth to that childhood superstition. The fracture started at the fireplace in the kitchen, just half a meter out from the wall, and shot through to the end of the living room, dissecting the tiles to where they met the terrace. I wondered, as brazen as that crack was, why I hadn’t noticed it when I’d moved in with the boys. It was probably because the place was so wildly distracting on a purely aesthetic level, with all its fireplaces, faded frescoes and chipped bas-reliefs peeping out of in the shadows.
I carried back beer mugs of tea along with a pack of butter cookies. The TV screen lit up Luca’s Arabic calligraphy, of a stark beauty that was unintimidated by the stained wallpaper beneath. The bed sagged in the middle under our weight.
“You’re right as usual, Eddie. This really hits the spot,” said Leo, sitting up and cupping his glass with those wooly hands.
I’d missed the opening scenes, but then again it was a movie we’d already watched several times – a New Zealand film called Una volta erano guerrieri, whose ungrammatical English title, Once Were Warriors, frankly confused me. Again we watched as Maori men gave each other black eyes in parking lots, bars and on lawns, hurling curses in proper Italian with a northern cadence. That’s all New Zealand was to us: a nocturnal world of dubbed thugs. In the spastic light of the television, with the rain purring and our legs like pick-up sticks across the bed, Leo cursed under his breath, Luca smoked in impenetrable silence, and Angelo passed me his half-eaten cookie, gesturing to me to finish it. That’s the way it was with the boys.
After a while Angelo whispered, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to travel to New Zealand one day?”
“Sure, blondie, and get beat up by a gang of Maori,” replied Leo.
“It can’t be all that dangerous,” said Angelo, his nose-ring catching splinters of light in the semi-darkness.
“Yeah, better a black eye from the Maori than a knee-capping from the Mafia.”
Angelo frowned and, defiantly pulling a blanket up his chest, turned back to the movie. I felt for him. Being a male and Sicilian, he could rarely get away with that earnest optimism that came so natural to him. I mean, his name was Angelo. To top it off, he was as grey-blonde as a Dane, making him stick out from the crowd maybe even more than me, and he was almost suspiciously pale – and not just on his face. He too had once asked me to be his impromptu nurse. With an excruciatingly stiff neck, Angelo had maneuvered face down onto that cow rug and pulled down his pants; quickly, before I lost the nerve, I jabbed that syringe into his right buttock, as smooth and milky as a scoop of vanilla gelato.
“Whatever,” was Angelo’s only comeback now.
Luca’s voice emerged from the shadows. “I’ll be in New Zealand in ten years. Riding a Harley around the coast.” I believed him: he’d ridden a camel around Algeria and god knows what else. Another night scene plunged the room into darkness, but Luca’s Arabic pendant, carved out of what looked like bone, shone like it was reflecting light from some unknown source.
On a whim, I invited them all to join me on one of my day trips, this time to the Church of Maria Santissima del Carmine, over the Easter break. But I knew it wouldn’t sound exotic in the least, just as I knew Luca wouldn’t come.
Angelo mumbled that he didn’t do churches, but Leo took off his glasses to face me. “Wait. Isn’t that the church with all the dead bodies in it?”
“It’s supposed to have skulls in it,” I said. “Under the church.”
Again Luca spoke, and whenever he did everyone stopped to listen. “It’s also known as the Fontanelle Cemetery. There’s a cult in connection with the place that began in the seventeenth century.”
A bit of hope flared up. Maybe this once Luca would come along, now that he had finished all his exams. But he said nothing more and began rolling a new cigarette. Of course, he had band practice to do or perhaps even some research for his thesis.
Leo said, “No way in hell I can come. My presence has been kindly requested on the farm by His Highness my father to till and sow until my back splits in two. After that maybe my bones will join you in the church. But thanks anyway, gorgeous.” Then he slipped his glasses back in place and turned again to the urban Maori grunting in their fine Italian.
No matter. I was used to exploring on my own anyway. I’d roamed all of Naples’ castles and markets, the seediest streets and as close to the port as anyone dared to go. I’d tiptoed through the steaming Solfatara crater at Pozzuoli and taken the ferry to Capri and Procida, and the train down the Sorrento Peninsula countless times. Not to mention Sardinia, Umbria, Kiev, Sofia, even Vienna, sometimes with my family but more often on my own. I knew I was lucky. Lucky that there was a healthy lira-dollar exchange rate and that I was so adept at convincing my mom on the phone that traveling solo to Istanbul was an incredibly safe, if not highly recommended, thing for a young woman to do. Lucky that I wasn’t like Leo, who, on top of all his Sanskrit exams and meetings at the Communist Student Union, had to slave away on his family’s farm at the end of every term.
Easter on the family farm. I sat up with a jolt. Bruno. I hadn’t even looked at the tape since he’d given it to me the night before. I had a habit of doing that, setting aside letters and packages from home, sometimes for days on end, savoring the anticipation of opening them. Or maybe I’d just wanted to forget all about it, after Paola’s confession. But now I was beset by a sense of urgency. Where had I put it?
“Hey, where are you going?” Angelo called out behind me. “This is the part where Nig gets initiated into the gang!”
My suede skirt had not forgotten last night: it still smelled like a bonfire and was holding onto the fragile little package I’d entrusted it with. In good lighting I could now see that the neatly written song list was framed by cartoonish drawings of ladybugs and fish in rust-colored ink – a detail of such playfulness, such kindness and such undeniable intimacy as to make my head spin in confusion. I placed the cassette into the tape deck and sat on the edge of my bed. The first song was Aretha’s Franklin’s “Son of a Preacher Man.” He must have found out that I was American. I listened to my native tongue, a familiar sound from another world. Billy Ray was a preacher’s son and when his daddy would visit he’d come along…
I sighed. My love life up to now had been one big, clumsy mistake.
In Castellammare di Stabia I met Franco, a son of the local Camorra. On the streets they called him, ironically, Franco l’americano. At the time it felt a lot like love. Or a movie about love, with scenes of gripping his waist on the back of a Vespa through his ghostly neighborhood, which over the centuries had taken one too many punches from earthquakes and landslides. Listening to the story of how his friend had been shot dead by a rival gang. Watching his mother in her vascio wail with chronic pain in legs as swollen as tree trunks. Holding Franco as he cried in my arms, rocking each other in his friend’s abandoned apartment deprived even of electricity. I was sixteen and a few more than two days, and I wanted to save him. One day, without an explanation, he broke it off. The ending was unsurprising, even desirable. After that, those adolescent sunsets over the sea became even more beautiful and raw, like blood oranges.
Cesare was an error in judgment I paid dearly for. In hindsight, I could have guessed his brilliance and eccentricity were the early signs of schizophrenia. But at the time, I was enamored with how enamored he was with me, his searing gaze, his crooked teeth. He was disheveled, possibly even ugly, but he possessed a confidence I’d never basked in before and wrote terse, incomprehensible poetry of dazzling intellectuality. Cesare quickly betrayed sparks of obsession and I was horrified to learn he’d given me the cheap, useless gift of his virginity. Long after he left the university to be hospitalized back in his southern hometown of Catanzaro, he continued to send me packages – even to my dad’s house in D.C. – containing self-published volumes of love poems or top-secret instructions for building a bomb. The experience only exaggerated my tendency to leave packages unopened, and to balloon with cold sores in times of stress.
Kissing Angelo had been a necessary experiment, given our closeness. But it tasted like incest and our mouths came apart rather quickly on their own. Now that we’d gotten that out of the way, we could even wrestle on that cowhide without reserve.
And then there was Luca. Sometimes I couldn’t help wanting to know if that mouth tasted of raw tobacco, or something altogether different. Late one night while watching a movie on his bed we’d drifted into sleep, and he tangled himself around me. I woke up. Luca’s torso was up against mine, rising and falling in a faraway, untroubled rhythm that seemed extraordinary in itself. The movie had ended and the night now engulfing the room throbbed with a startling quiet. All I could hear in Luca’s oneiric hold was his wispy breath: I myself could barely breathe. Paralyzed with pleasure and fear, I lay there with my face against his neck, his pendant pressing its cryptic script onto my skin, feigning sleep so that I wouldn’t have to go back to my bed. Perspiring in my wool sweater and jeans, I lay awake next to him as the entire night ticked away in synch with the flashing green of his digital clock. Finally, the sunrise released me to go make coffee, which we drank in apologetic silence. Now and then I’d catch his eye and that ancient gaze seemed to be telling me, Not now, not me…
He’d come ‘n tell me everything is alright, he’d kiss ‘n tell me everything is alright…Dropping back into my pillow, I followed every word in the song, as if the lyrics were a personal message. In them was an excitement, and an unmistakable sensuality, that I’d never noticed, though I’d heard the song my entire childhood. I wondered if Bruno could fully understand them, if he was aware that he’d given me a love song.