No, this is not Harlem.
You like spending time on Google Maps, looking at things on the side of the streets. Once, taking big mouse steps along the via Casilina, you thought you had seen a bundle on the left. You had already moved two clicks away when you went back to look for it. Apparently it was just a bush. But you still thought it could be a bundle, there, on the side of the street, near the traffic island on the via Casilina. And you kept thinking about it until you had to go back and check. You knew it made no sense – who knows when those pictures where taken – but something inside you told you to get out and go to that place to check. You used that exact word: check.
This is no Harlem.
You and dad went fishing in a canal of the river Mincio, downstream of the lakes that eat Mantova.
You were standing on the slabs of concrete that fell sheer in the mud, but you liked it. You were little. That day our dad caught a pike: the one and only time. When he looked inside that filthy basket his eyes sparkled. You caught two chubs, but were satisfied anyway. You caught some common rudds together and a lot of those useless fish you used to call clocks – I found out they’re actually pumpkinseed sunfish. Really, they kept coming. You sold everything to a guy with a van on a secondary road. Everything but the pike – dad wanted to take it home and show it to everyone – and the clocks, which taste like mud and nobody would take them. You already knew mum was going to complain, but she would cook them anyway. We were going to have dinner together even that Sunday. Then you took the A22 home, across the fields. The darkness was stippled with the reflection of the guardrail before it turned rusty and gave the highway that typical look – I found it’s called COR-TEN steel. The sky was dark and you could clearly see the stars above the horizon from the windscreen. You two were flashing by on the Alfa, which was everything our father had left after the bankruptcy: an old saloon that smelled of fish, but of a nice blue colour.
The winter cigarettes were burning quickly. – Mum is going to be so happy – dad said. You looked at his profile with concern, intermittently lit up by car lights. The succession of light and shade seemed to swallow and spit him carelessly.
The yellow lights that pierce the night of certain cities have always scared you. Only our father’s hands on the wheel, taking us home at night, kept you floating and made you feel safe in those moments; the attention between his eyes and the white lines on the street. The only time he told me he was proud of me was after a piano exhibition. We had gone back home from the all-purpose hall. I was still wearing the green velvet dress I had decided to wear at the show and I started playing again. The same identical piece as I had done many other times. He had come closer in the summer evening light that was becoming golden and told me: «Bianca, I’m proud of you.» So I had stopped.
No, this is not Harlem, Peter, we’re not in Harlem.
They beat you in the middle of the traffic island on the via Casilina. The one you had seen on Google. And I know why they’ve beaten you even if you’ve never told me.
Outside the chapel of rest the sun was shining as if nothing had happened. It touched every reachable surface, falling on the asphalt of the internal courtyard of the hospital. It’s an ancient hospital of the city centre, the oldest of the city. Old or random – as in this case – people go there to die.
They were all inside, gathered around the open coffin, and if you made an effort for a second you could really imagine nothing had ever happened: things have never changed, our existence devastated.
Mum was standing on the entrance door, looking outside as if there was nothing left to see, at all. Not just in there, but in the whole world.
There was a variety of polite people. No one was making noise as it sometimes happens: no garish laughs to remind us that life goes on, that it flows keen and tenacious under all this. I wished it rained, I just wished it rained, but there was an amazing sun.
Alex was busy fighting with his rucksack zip. I looked at him and thought that he reminds me of some ex boyfriend, but I don’t remember his name. Cape Verdean, perhaps. He was an archaeologist before becoming a doctor, proving that at certain latitudes you can still change your mind. He once told me about his talisman. He kept it on his bedside table. It was a black and white catalogue with descriptions of animal furs, especially birds. A book of lists, of colours. Captions under the dumb grey pictures. Cinzenta, he used to say. They told me the disease you have is extremely rare among human beings. A disease only certain species of rodents transmit. I wonder how you caught it.
Once we got back home, a great part of the procession was already gone and I saw Alex walking cautiously in the living room. It looked as if his shoulders wanted to reach his ear lobes. He’s tall and aquiline, his face looks like that of a bony girl and it becomes wrinkly when he smiles. It’s as if he were smiling with his nostrils, temples, and forehead, not just with his mouth and eyes.
He looks like one of those metropolitan guys, lanky and north European: a hipster, yes. He’s skinny. He must have some source of emotional maintenance other than food. His harsh body is a resentful caption against certain forms of claimed Riviera manliness. People like him.
His blonde hair falls on his eyes, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. He was wearing a t-shirt he might have stolen from a tramp and running shoes with holes on his pinkies – they’re like the shoes dad’s friends used during marathons in the 80s.
«Are you cold?» I asked him, and I went looking for that old jumper you had, the one I’ve stolen from you. The one you wanted back when everyone realised how well it looked on me. We’ve fought over so many things, you and I. Toys, books, clothes. What was in your room and what was in mine. Badly announced space invasions. That jumper had stayed folded in the wardrobe for ages, but it still fit me and I know if you’d wear it now it would fit you just as perfectly. Robe di Kappa, red, right. When our mother sees me passing by holding it she pretends she doesn’t recognise it, but I know she clearly remembers it.
Alex complimented me on a perfume I wasn’t wearing and I thanked him. He smiled.
Wassup, bro. Wassup. I must have really said that.
You’ve come back from the United Stated because our father has cancer. «He has a few months to live» the doctors say in these cases, you think. Maybe three. You start thinking how units of measurement are deformed, how they suddenly lose clarity, piling up on themselves, suddenly tearing up. I kept telling you these things and the lighter kept falling off your hands. It happens every time you keep looking inside your bag no longer knowing what to look for. It fell and you bent over to pick it up every time, and instead of looking angry you seemed more and more amused.
You made a quick gesture, making a step back and turning. Always the same curve, every time. It looks like a game. And I think it’s just like women act with men: we turn back, we pick them up. Even if it slows us down. But it makes us smile. We care too much about it, even if it has a little, very little, infinitesimal value. We bend over with our hands stretched, almost losing our balance, at the risk of touching something dirty, of feeling dizzy.
You told me that right before the departure, in New York, a group of kids have made a fuss to convince some passengers to swap seats. They couldn’t see Roma landing if they were sitting in the central seats and it was their first time in Italy. But you’ve always liked take-offs, not landings. So you moved.
Alex is your boyfriend. Or he was, I still don’t understand that. The migraine makes me live inside a fishbowl and I start confusing things, letting too much time pass and acting quick, as if I were losing something. They tell me to stay hydrated and I drink, I get distracted by anything and escape the loss of adrenaline. I suddenly smelt your scent on a hand: it was mine, that was my hand. I scratched it on my nose, but it was already gone.
Angela said she has met you in a place near Tor Pigna. You were high, you were sweating out alcohol and people couldn’t get near you. You obviously tried to hug everyone.
I had to sit through this embarrassment: hearing people who don’t understand talk about you like that.
I didn’t say a word and listened to her – there was nothing left for me to do, but nod with my eyes set on a crack on the asphalt: an ear is sprouting to the delight of your allergies.
Angela told me she said hello and that you told her please, don’t say anything to my sister or she’ll kick me out. You danced a bit, talking into your mouths, then she left swallowing saliva butterflies in disgust, looking for air and smog to free herself from the rancid stench you had passed her.
She found you a bit later rubbing yourself against a black woman. Obese, bejewelled, she might not even have been a woman, but never mind.
You nodded and she stretched her fat and sweaty hand towards Angela: «Divina» she said, clearly pronouncing the syllables and stepping forward. Divina: a black and golden mountain with you all over her. «Divina» Angela repeated «Can you believe it?» And started laughing. It’s funny being there, hearing those things, but I think I might have been there as well as in any other place.
I went back home, feeling dizzy not because of the gin, but because of the too many cigarettes.
I looked for the keys before reaching the front door, I didn’t know where I had put them. I rummaged with the tip of my fingers in the bottom of my pocket: there’s no way I’m going to find them when I need them. Again. Key, keyhole, hair. They smelt of smoke. Stairs, another door. I crossed the living room, I didn’t knock on anything: there are always too many obstacles. I let myself fall on the sofa. My nape sunk between the pillows and the duvet: I was lying on my back and I took off my trainers with my feet, toe against heel. Thud. The second one is always the hardest. For it’s tights against shoe. Then I stayed there looking at the white ceiling until my eyes closed. Wassup, bro. Wassup, bro. Wassup, bro. Again.
Your mouth was full of canker sores and you had trouble breathing. Maybe it was because of the walnuts and in that case you expected it. The asthma was all due to grasses. You had a cut on your lip, you compulsively passed your tongue on it. Ever since you came here, you haven’t been able to sleep, but it was not because of the jet lag. It was something worse. You knew everything, but just hadn’t been back for ages. For years.
The book shelves were still as you had left them. They’re the cause for your inability to sleep, the folded things in the wardrobe, the things you’ve managed to live without. Me. Us.
In the car, from the airport home, you told me you had some work to do, but you haven’t done anything. Hoping that it was because of me pleased me. I was glad I got to be a distraction to you, a disturbing element, at least. It was the only way I could show my presence.
The brief visits to dad’s bed didn’t make you sleep. In the shade, quick, awkward, distressing. Just like drifting from the shore – but you should be used to it.
You never sit in the room, you wait standing, not knowing what to do with your weight, impatient. You wish everything would end quickly to get back to your things.
Then there are dreams. They must have got to you too: quick, itchy, tiring.
And he tried to talk with his eyes open, and you knew he couldn’t and every time you thought he could. But he couldn’t. You hoped you’d get to hear that voice every time, not just the tension of the arm clinging onto the hand that grabbed the blankets.
Dad was always cold, and yet it was summer outside. It was boiling hot.
It was July outside while cancer dissolved that hole he had in his throat and everything faded dying and didn’t become clay nor dust, it only became a bed and sweat and waking up alone, abandoned on the empty mattress. Hard, good for your back, swollen and stranger, short of breath, child. And you wanted mum, right? You would have liked to call her and wait for her to come with a glass of fresh water. Just like when – before I became an insomniac and you started filing your teeth – you slept on the bunk bed at the seaside. Before everything fell to pieces. When I was still able to explain these things to myself.
It was just mum, dad, Alex and I, around the kitchen table. You had left right after dinner. We slowly shelled some peanuts and drank chinotto. Each one of us spends time differently in certain situations. I must have answered someone abruptly without realising it while thinking of all this: Alex looked at me and my brain immediately made some space and there was a world inside it and void. Suddenly it all seemed too much and I ran to my room.
I leaned against the doorpost in the darkness until I heard your familiar voice out of the blue, giving me a start. I’d guess the way you keep your lips even if I couldn’t see you and perhaps that’s the nice part, the necessary and sufficient cause, everything that makes us siblings.
«Do you want to hear a story?»
«But you must pay attention…»
«Ok» I said «but go on and tell it…»
You got up against the wall. It was cold. You pointed your elbows in the pillow; your nape created a small shady halo against the blue wall.
«The story…» you immediately stopped, «you have to imagine it well otherwise it’s nothing.» You continued «You know that dad has all those old books…»
«And that he liked writing on the first page the year and place where he read them.»
«Yes, I once lost one.»
«Well, take Il fu Mattia Pascal, for example. On a yellowed page, a faded pen writing says “Paola/Recanati/1966”» You paused to see if I had processed the information. Then you went on «I know them all by heart» you proudly told me and waited for my reaction, but I didn’t answer. So you went on.
«He was in the kitchen after I had told him about Alex. He started fighting with mum. I heard him say…»
«They say lots of things when they fight.» I interrupted him.
«Wait. He was leafing through a book when I heard him say: we read it twenty-seven years ago. And then he also said: we loved each other» and you said it with him.
Then you casually ended: «This is where the story ends. I was in the corridor and I went out.»
«Okay, but your story isn’t actually a story.»
«That’s why you had to pay attention.»
«Why did you left?»
«Because he hadn’t realised I was there.»
«Fortunately mum was there when he got sick.»
«Do you think he was talking about her?» you said as if looking for certainties I couldn’t give you.
«Perhaps. Didn’t you see which book he was reading?»
«No» and then you decided to change the subject «I wonder how those two have managed to stay together…Mum has always been crazy.»
«As a hatter.»
«As a trail of perfume.»
«Yes, maybe that’s it.»
«When it’s gone you wonder if it’s really over.» I nodded.
«I’ll let you sleep now.»
«Yes, goodnight, Bianca.»
The light was off and I went out, closing the door behind me. Getting under the blanket, in the cold bed, I asked myself: what is going to happen to our family? Are we still a family after all? What will be my last words to our father, what will I do without him? I think I’ll never ask anyone these questions, they’re bound to remain unanswered for they can’t be asked.
Tomorrow I’ll wake up and everything will start all over again, just like before, in that unsettling and normal strangeness. It was your turn that time.
I started getting warm under the blanket. A feeble warmth surrounded me until I fell asleep unawares.
I found a message in the voicemail, they’ve called me a couple of times from home.
«Mum wanted to talk to you» our father said «but she’s in bed now.»
«Is everything all right?» I asked him, but he had already hung up.
It was our last conversation.
No, we’re not in Harlem, Alex. But maybe we can go buy something for dinner. The ice and the sea have already melted and we’re going a long distance in the dark, in one direction. Our direction, even if we don’t know that. I haven’t even worn my scarf when you asked me if I was coming. I just ran there. And we’re not talking about anything, memories, films. We don’t miss anything and we miss everything. Let me carry the bags, please. We go shopping as if we had always known each other, moving separately among the shelves and looking for our heads and our hands and that smell you have behind your ear – the hours of work haven’t made it fade away.
I had a father once, a brother, a mother, I had them all and they’re still there. Under the ice, perhaps, together with the black elk and the goodbyes at the airport where no one stops and people leave again with the feeling they’ll see each other at other times and in other now familiar places. And my eyes close on this plane, in this moment when you’re just a code, a computer habit, an absence between the shoulder blades sharpened in a shoe shop. Walking along tram lines, from Piazza del popolo to Parco della musica, to everything Roman topography wants to evoke; to the bottom of what it wants to show us, until you become a dot on the track, until you go back, near home, until you convince yourself you got lost when you’re actually arrived. I had a father and a brother once, yes, and it was a phone home.
Even though we’re not in Harlem.
No, we’re not in Harlem.
But it’s as if we were.
Lucia Brandoli Bousquet