Andrea Canobbio; Translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
A DECLINE IN THE BIRTHRATE
Memory is an empty room. Gone are the bookshelves littered with journals, gone are the chairs and table, the paintings, the calendar, and the computer screen filled with words. My father is gone, too, effaced by thousands of identical moments, deleted by the same repetitive gestures day after day, as he sat there tapping the keys.
That’s how he would have remained, an empty man in an empty room, like a cipher, for who knows how long, if Cecilia hadn’t appeared and asked for his help. It was six o’clock on an evening in late March. The pediatricians’ lounge became a stage on which a young woman in a white coat hurried in, alarmed, complaining about not being able to find anyone. Her eight-year-old son had been admitted to the ward a few days earlier and she was looking for a doctor, or at least someone dressed as a doctor, who could persuade him to eat. My father noticed the name of another hospital sewn on the woman’s coat, noticed her red, chapped hands, her unmanicured nails, and the absence of rings. He observed her hands in detail, to the point where he could recall them years later, because he could not look at her face: already in those first moments her eyes disturbed him.
Had the woman stolen the coat or was she wearing it because of some bizarre trend even though she wasn’t a doctor? No, she was describing the situation in very precise terms; she spoke like a physician. The child was undergoing parenteral nutrition; electrolyte balance and renal function were returning. But he had to start eating on his own. He had taken a dislike to the head nurse, and perhaps a man could persuade him: the attending physician the day before had managed to. The boy was fed up with having women around him—his mother, his grandmother, his sister. All he wanted was to be left in peace. Like everybody else, my father thought—the ones who are always hungry, and the ones who are never hungry. All they ask is to be left in peace.
He told Cecilia he’d help her and followed her into the first room on the ward. Not that he had any high hope of success: it wasn’t his specialty, he wasn’t a pediatrician, and he didn’t know how to deal with children. He was sure that a nurse would soon come along to relieve him.
The boy was sitting on the middle bed with his back to the door, his legs dangling. He was wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt over his pajamas and had an open book in his lap, while his meal, semolina porridge and applesauce, had been left on the cart apparently untouched. The full plates told the story: the nurse must have ordered him to eat in the usual commanding tone that so impressed parents, but had no effect at all on children. Not wanting the scene to repeat itself, and not wanting her child to be forced, Cecilia had panicked.
My father paused in the doorway, motioned for her to stay outside, then went in with a distracted air, absently examining the charts at the foot of the beds. A sullen-looking little boy occupied the bed near the door, and a child with a mop of red hair had the one next to the window. A woman, presumably a mother, was sitting in the far corner, knitting. There were still women who knitted, then; you saw them in waiting rooms, in the wards, mysterious and comforting like childhood scars you rediscover on your skin from time to time.
Cecilia’s son was watching the red-haired boy maneuver two dinosaurs on the bed in a noisy, never-ending battle. He looked a lot like his mother; his face was hardly sunken, he didn’t seem emaciated. On the bedside table, next to a bottle of mineral water and a glass, four toy cars rested on a sheet of graph paper on which the diagram of an angled parking lot had been drawn with great precision. My father thought the child must love things that were done just so, that he must love any form of order.
The book in the boy’s lap was called Supercars. My father asked to see it. As he leafed through it, his eye fell on an old Aston Martin. “The car James Bond drove,” he said contentedly. He told a story about a miniature model that they’d brought him from London when he was little, from which the passenger could be ejected by pushing a lever. Meanwhile, he sat down on the bed next to the child. He picked up the spoon and began to stir the steaming porridge, stirring and talking, stirring and talking. This went on for a while, my father describing the gadgetry found in James Bond’s Aston Martin, the bulletproof rear shield, the smoke screen, the machine guns, the tire slashers projecting from the wheel hubs, and the boy listening in silence, not missing a word.
Finally my father said he had to go. Maybe he’d come back tomorrow to tell him about 007’s skirmishes with SPECTRE.
“What’s SPECTRE?” the boy asked.
“Very bad people.”
“Thieves and killers, but James Bond always beats them.”
“Why is it called SPECTRE?”
“To scare people.”
Behind them, the sullen little boy offered another explanation: “Because they’re invisible.” As if it were something obvious and well known.
My father viewed the scene from above, like the eye of a hidden camera hanging from the ceiling. The room captured by the eye’s slow whirl, people and things suspended in space but all of them drawn down to the bottom, where Cecilia’s son had declared cold war on his supper.
My father turned to the other bed. He asked the red-haired boy the names of his two dinosaurs, but the child didn’t know or was too shy to answer. The sullen little boy, more interested in being a know-it-all than pouting, spoke up again: they were a Tyrannosaurus rex and a Diplodocus. His mother, over in the corner, smiled without looking up from her knitting needles.
He’d better go; what did he think he’d accomplish by staying. He started toward the door. To gain a bit of time he asked the sulky boy what music he had downloaded on his iPod. He stuck the earbuds in and began listening to a band called Punkreas at a deafening volume. Cecilia’s son had begun to eat. He didn’t see it with a hidden camera, didn’t perceive it through a sixth sense, and didn’t hear the sound of the spoon clinking on the plate. He saw him reflected in the empty IV bag still hanging on its stand, between the two beds.
He followed the meal, bit by bit, so focused on the small convex image that he managed to tolerate the music’s impact on his eardrums with surprising ease. At the end he removed the earbuds and told the boy that Punkreas was interesting. “Don’t keep the volume too high, though,” he added, perhaps only to make himself credible and reassume the mantle of a boring adult.
He turned and retrieved the cart without looking directly at the child, resisting the temptation to say “that’s a good boy.” When he went out pushing the trophy of empty plates, he found Cecilia beside the door, leaning against the wall. She stared at him with a faint smile and shining eyes. She didn’t say a word, just held an open hand out in front of her as if to stop him from speaking, as if to keep him at a distance.
My father walked to the kitchen with the cart, and when he got back to the hallway Cecilia had already gone inside to the child. The corridor and the ward were sucked into oblivion, devoured by time; rejected, my father went out through the glass door, unable to create any more memories here and resigned to never seeing her again.
* * *
I think back to that chance meeting, the origin of it all, and its fortuitousness. It never ceases to amaze me. What is my father doing in Pediatrics? He’s an internist, but his best friend works in Pediatrics and they have a computer—an old machine, easy to use, regardless of, or maybe thanks to, its grimy plastic and scratched screen—on which he is correcting some proposed new guidelines.
My father often spends time in the department. It’s no accident that Cecilia finds him there. It’s no accident, nor is it fate, there’s no such thing as fate, you shouldn’t believe in destiny, in the existence of a soul mate, in eternal love, or in eternity either. Not because of metaphysical conviction, but out of simple reserve.
Anyway, nothing has happened in his life for ten years, and if something has happened he doesn’t remember it. No rite of initiation, no epiphany led him to that evening. But when Cecilia enters and sees him and asks him for help, a story begins and becomes part of memory. The pale wooden table with the blue Formica top, the yellow credenza from the fifties that somehow ended up in that corner of the hospital, the aluminum chairs and glass-doored cabinets filled with samples of expired medicines, the calendar from the missionary group with a bunch of African children on a green tractor, the naïf paintings with huge red and yellow peppers, the metal carts littered with folders to be filed away—everything suddenly reappears because Cecilia is a spotlight projected on the dark scene, Cecilia is the sun that illuminates the heavenly bodies, Cecilia creates the things around her, gives them substance and color, and she creates my father as well, my father, too, shines with her light.
The astronomical hyperbole is dedicated to him, though he wouldn’t have approved of it, because he never let himself get carried away, almost never; even if he could have read the future and known how that woman would change his life, he would never have compared her to a star. You are a distant flame that shines in the night, you are pure spring water, you are the heart that beats inside things … after all, why not? Because the images are banal? Or because no image can ever be a substitute for reality? Or because real women are infinitely more precious and desirable than ideal women?
Maybe because there’s only one thing worse than a lack of moderation and that’s its verbal expression. So never utter excessive words, never ask excessive questions (Does eternity exist? Does happiness exist?). Never reveal yourself.
* * *
But the next day he went back to visit the child and began chatting with him. The boy’s name was Mattia. He had a large notebook on his knees and he was sketching a parking lot on graph paper. He had drawn an elongated shape with a meandering outline and he was trying to fit as many parking spaces in it as possible: rectangles or parallelograms depending on whether they were straight or angled, whether they were for cars or special spots for motorcycles and bicycles. My father asked him why he liked parking lots so much. Did he have a lot of toy cars to park?
“No, I want to be a designer,” he said. He showed him other pages with irregular shapes and parking spaces inside them. My father immediately noticed that all the shapes were similar; they could be different attempts to reproduce a real place from memory. Beside each sketch Mattia had noted the number of spaces he had managed to fit in. Every now and then he also drew cars inside the grid, but in profile.
And which plan did he like best? Mattia showed him one. It looked like the outline of a goose, or a round mirror with a handle.
“What is this? Is it a place you know?”
“It’s the park near our house.”
“Why do you want to turn it into a parking lot?”
“For when I get big.”
“But then there will be other children who will want to go and play there.”
Mattia said no, there wouldn’t be any more children, his sister had told him so.
“Not even one?”
Mattia shook his head: “It’s because of something called birthrate, I think, but it’s not really a disease.”
My father ran a hand through his hair and murmured: “The declining birthrate, of course, there won’t be any more children … I’ve heard about it, too.” He’d heard about it and he thought about it continually, as if he were the person primarily responsible for the drop in the number of births. If he were to have a son at that moment, he would be fifty-six years old when the boy entered high school, sixty when he came of age, sixty-five when he got his college degree (unless he specialized in medicine or didn’t finish on time). In fact he might never see him graduate. Certainly he would never see him marry, and he would never know his grandchildren. Because his son would have inherited a certain difficulty when it came to procreating.
He was afraid it was too late.
* * *
The child’s presence gave my father one more reason to visit the ward. At least once a day he’d go and exchange a word or two with him. In school they had given him Pinocchio to read, one of the few books that my father remembered almost scene by scene. Here’s an idea that had always struck him: planting coins to make money grow. But that was something the Cat and the Fox made up, Mattia objected; money didn’t really grow on trees! Of course … still, it would have been wonderful. And waking up one morning with donkey ears? They laughed. They tried to feel if their ears were hairy. They really were! And the bogus funeral with the four coffin-bearing black Rabbits, what a sad sight; and the girl with the azure hair who appears at the window, she was so mysterious … Why did she say she was dead?
“I was always struck by it,” my father said, not noticing how much the boy was struck by that expression.
“Were you struck when he goes to the Field of Wonders?” Mattia asked.
“Yes, it always struck me.”
“And did the donkey’s ears strike you?”
“Oh yes, very much, they always scared me a little.”
“But what was it that struck you the most?”
Each time he would have to recall a new episode of the book that had truly struck him. Until the day came when my father, running out of things to say and not stopping to think, mentioned the pear skins and cores that Pinocchio ate out of desperate hunger. “That really struck me,” he said, and the moment he said it he was mortified. Mattia looked at him, rapt, motionless; my father could already imagine the boy’s outraged mother barging into the room to confront him, to throw him out. Why talk about a stubborn, bratty puppet? As if the child didn’t already feel guilty enough. But by then he couldn’t stop and he went on to explain all the extraordinary nutrients found in the skin and seeds of a pear; he described the strange things that are never eaten even though they’re good for you: skins, rinds, seeds, stems, flowers … Mattia nodded and for the first time said: “Yes, that really struck me, too,” and my father, unable to contain himself, hugged him. The other children in the room were watching them, but Mattia didn’t seem embarrassed.
“I really like canned pears,” he said. “I like the delicious syrup that’s left at the bottom of the can. Pears or peaches, I ate them with my grandfather. Mama says the fresh ones are better.”
“Your mother is right,” my father confirmed.
* * *
He managed to see Cecilia again. At first it never seemed like the right time to strike up a conversation. She would be talking with the pediatricians or sitting on the bed, playing with her son, and my father didn’t have the nerve to approach her. Attributing his own difficulties to others was an old habit: maybe in his heart he knew the truth, but he preferred to think that Cecilia was embarrassed for not having even thanked him.
Bumping into her one evening, he was disturbed by the attraction he felt. Staring at the freckle-dusted triangle of skin revealed by her neckline, he realized he wanted to touch her, right then and there, in the middle of the hall. But the specter of improperly putting his hands on a near stranger made him slip away without raising his eyes (studying the floor, the way he always did). After hugging the son, imagine embarrassing himself by hugging the mother, too.
After a couple of weeks they ran into each other at a café. My father was eating a plate of boiled vegetables, sitting at a table behind a column, the place where he had lunch every day, where he could keep an eye on the entrance without being seen. She appeared all of a sudden, nearly falling over him, as if she thought the chair would be empty, and burst out laughing. Later she would confess to him that she, too, always sat at out-of-the-way tables, she, too, preferred to be out of sight, but that day my father thought she was laughing at him: she was a young woman making fun of an antisocial, somewhat awkward man hiding behind a column. A young woman, beautiful and bursting with vitality. Surprised by seeing her suddenly materialize before him, surprised to see her laugh for the first time, not out of nervousness or to be polite but heartily and impulsively, my father was finally obliged—was finally permitted—to look at her. Obliged and permitted, he did not lower his eyes for a full two minutes. When he was able to face the world and look it in the eyes, for a moment it was like a miracle: his gaze saw through people and things, and the part of him that was hardest to bear was released, and he felt lighter.
Cecilia Re is thirty-four years old and the first thing you notice about her is the wavy brown hair that she keeps short, trying to restrain it in a stunted ponytail at the nape of her neck, until after a while the wisps come loose—first the strands over her eyes, then those twined behind her ears. Her eyes are light brown and big and almost always alarmed or darkened by a frown, so that when she relaxes and lets herself go she seems to light up with joy. With certain expressions her face seems childlike: beneath the adult woman you can still see the little girl she once was. As a child she wanted to become a champion swimmer, she spent hours in the pool (hence the habit of wearing her hair short), but she left that behind fifteen years ago.
She apologized, laughing, saying that he’d startled her, she hadn’t expected that … What, what hadn’t she expected? As if my father weren’t the most predictable man in the world. Was that what she meant, she hadn’t expected that he would surprise her?
She hadn’t expected the table to be occupied. Her purse had slipped off her shoulder; she had a roasted-pepper-and-anchovy sandwich in one hand and a glass of orangeade in the other. She set the glass down on the table and adjusted the bag on her shoulder. The smile, the laugh, were disappearing—how to make them linger? How to trigger them again? My father found the right moment to get a word in between the choppy phrases and invited her to sit down.
They started out talking about the boy, who was better and getting stronger. Cecilia was happy because that morning she’d caught him eating cookies on the sly. He’d made a small slit in the package so you couldn’t tell it had been opened. He was a clever child. My father said it was nice to see her smile. “Yes,” she said, “I think things will only get better now. And I never thanked you for that evening, you were really good with—” Her voice died in her throat.
To change the subject, my father confessed that at first he thought she worked at another hospital, then he discovered that she had recently started working in the ER. Cecilia told him that she didn’t have a spare coat and occasionally used her old ones. My father knew one of the chief surgeons in the hospital where she’d done her residency; he’d been his professor twenty years earlier. They smiled, imitating some of the man’s pompous expressions; he was the first extra to appear in the film of their conversations, the first excuse to talk and be together and joke.
They discussed various places to eat during the lunch break, which was not a real break for her, because she had six-hour shifts and usually ate around two. With surprising presence of mind, my father pretended that this was his routine as well, and in a way it was true because he kept to it unfailingly for the next two years. They remarked on the outrageous parking situation around the hospital, went over the most convenient transportation options for getting to work, and described the neighborhoods where they lived.
Cecilia lived behind a large church dedicated to Our Lady, built in the late nineteenth century as an absurd replica of a famous monument of ancient Rome. The windows of her house overlooked the circular piazza in whose center the monstrosity rose. You get used to anything.
“You get used to anything, it’s true,” my father agreed.
And before he realized what he was doing, he found himself telling her, with a naturalness that was unthinkable for him, about the bizarre living situation he’d been in for the past ten years. My father was not yet my father; he was a divorced man with no children (a man who thought of himself as a man with no children, destined to remain so, to end his life without children, secretly anguished by this seemingly inevitable fate, even though he didn’t believe in fate). He lived on the fifth floor of a building that housed his elderly mother, who lived on the second floor, and his ex-wife, Giulia, who lived on the third floor with her new husband and six-year-old son. Giulia loved her mother-in-law as a daughter would, perhaps even more so, and when she separated from my father after just three years, amicably, with no regrets, in perfect friendship, she had rented an apartment in the same building. She’d gone on living there with her new husband as well. Thanks to a short-circuiting of imaginary family relationships, Giulia’s son called my father “uncle” and called my grandmother Marta, “nonna.” (I did not yet exist to challenge and reclaim that title.)
My father couldn’t complain about the situation. He’d lived in that building for forty years, as a child, a young bachelor, a husband, and a divorcé; it was his home. It’s your choice, you have to decide whether to keep it all together or divide things up, money, ID card, driver’s license, credit card, ATM card, you can carry a wallet, a planner, a briefcase and spread out the risk, keeping it all together is riskier, if you lose your wallet you lose everything, but it’s an apparent risk, because you actually pay more attention and focus your attention and vigilance on one single object. But over time he’d begun to feel uncomfortable there among them, as if he were the real intruder. “It’s become difficult to have a private life,” he said, smiling, even as he realized, in telling the story to a practical stranger, that there was nothing very funny about it.
Cecilia listened to him, serious and attentive. Her eyes were her secret weapon; with those eyes she could conquer anyone willing to let himself be conquered. Eyes that waited, watchful and concerned, never evasive, following you to a diagnosis. They went back to talking about her, about the neighborhood where she lived, along the river, which, the church notwithstanding, was a lovely area. Perhaps my father expected Cecilia to immediately tell him all about her life as he just had. But time was up and she said she had to go, she was already late. My father’s eyes, orphaned by Cecilia’s as she turned away, followed her to the doorway of the café, then slid over the empty orangeade glass, the half-eaten plate of boiled vegetables; he stared at the abandoned chair in front of him. He hadn’t felt so alone in a long time.
* * *
Beguiled, struck, captivated not only by the mother, but also by the child. Each captivating in different ways and for different though related reasons; clearly related, even to someone as dense in the area of family relations as he. Not that he had never heard of eating disorders in children, but he hadn’t seen a specific case. He wasn’t even sure it was an unusual case. And why should he have known more about it? He dealt almost exclusively with old people. Antonio, his pediatrician friend, would have been able to cite similar cases, but the topic had never come up. Antonio had two sons who ate like pigs, Omasum and Abomasum he called them. “You’re costing me a fortune!” he said to them, pleased and proud. Pride in a child who eats eagerly. As if the child were endorsing his parents. My father knew nothing about that. He didn’t even remember what it had been like to eat when he was eight years old. He remembered his mother’s words, though: “to enjoy a healthy appetite.”
He had a memory, incorrectly set in adolescence: his mother, Marta, distracted by something, worried or depressed for some reason, had stopped cooking, had stopped doing the grocery shopping. Incorrectly assigned to the period following his father’s death in order to explain the behavior, and because something like that had happened after his father’s death as well. He remembered a time of grim hunger, or thought he remembered it. He’d buy himself huge slices of pizza from the bakery before going home from school and eat them sitting on a bench with a classmate. But it hadn’t lasted, and perhaps it wasn’t a period of time but an episode or two, transformed by resentment into a recurring incident. He was familiar with those memories and continually tried to put them into perspective because they seemed improbable. What could his mother have done to him that was so terrible?
He thought about the child. Viberti was more and more drawn to foods that were white and bland. Ricotta, boiled fish, vegetable broths. He wanted to know what it was the child saw on his plate. He sat at the kitchen table with a packet of prosciutto in front of him and tried to imagine disgust or indifference. He rolled the ham into small cylinders and ate three or four slices plain, without bread. Or he cooked himself the kind of tasteless dishes the child must have had to eat in his first few days at the hospital; semolina porridge, thin soup with stelline pasta, applesauce. Circling around in the bowl, the spoon sketched a tangle of lines in the porridge which disappeared immediately and sank into the depths like a probe. It was possible to make the same whorl, but with more distinct lines, appear by dipping a piece of bread in a pool of olive oil, at the center of a blue plate.
* * *
He was tempted to buy the child a present, and one day he went into a toy store near his apartment. The toy shops from his childhood no longer existed; this one was a kind of warehouse where the merchandise was displayed like in a supermarket—long shelves and long aisles, a place where someone like my father was bound to be bewildered, worried as he was that someone might spot him. He had no children; he had no grandchildren; he was an impostor. After wandering around for twenty minutes he gave in and asked a salesclerk if they had any toy garages. The clerk led him to a garage that my father examined in detail for half an hour, reading all the labels on the box, then bought out of desperation. He knew that wasn’t the garage he was looking for, the garage he had been given when he was eight years old: that one was much more carefully made and more detailed, much more realistic. As soon as he got home he realized that the “3+” on the box meant that the model was suitable for children over three, and therefore probably meant for children no older than four or five. The rounded shapes and strictly primary colors should have made him suspect as much. Now the fact that it was intended for children much younger than Mattia seemed so crystal clear and glaringly obvious to him that he wondered how he could have made such a mistake. An elderly person like his mother could have bought that garage. He never considered taking it back and exchanging it. He tossed the box in a corner and tried to forget it existed.
* * *
They fell into the habit of eating together three or four times a week. At first, being unable or unwilling to ask about the specific times of her shifts, my father would arrive at the café around a quarter to two. If Cecilia was working the afternoon shift, she would already be there munching a sandwich; if she was coming off the morning shift, she would arrive half an hour later. They never stayed more than twenty minutes, sitting at the table behind the column. Regularity was important, eating at regular hours, even just a bite, but unhurriedly, chatting about relaxing topics. Maybe Cecilia simply had to get used to wanting a connection again, friendship or something more, accepting it a little more each day, just as her son was getting used to eating again. And my father’s situation, though his divorce went back more than ten years, wasn’t all that different.
Incredible that the woman came back day after day to the same café knowing that he, too, would be there. He’d heard from Antonio that Cecilia was separated or practically divorced, or maybe actually divorced. The news hadn’t surprised him, in fact he’d mumbled, “Yes, I know,” all the while aware that he hadn’t known it at all, no one could have told him. He reflected on the lie for an entire evening, and the next day, when he saw Cecilia again, he wondered what could have heightened his scant intuitive capacities. He wasn’t good at reading people, particularly their feelings; he specifically couldn’t tell if they were married or engaged or committed in some way. Maybe intuition had nothing to do with it, maybe it was only wishful thinking. She simply had to be free. She was free. Actually, now that he knew for sure, he didn’t feel any better. Now came the difficult part, his homeopathic plan to make her fall in love with him.
And he liked her more and more. He liked it when she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, how it revealed that small, perfect pink conch. He liked it when they were eating and she touched her lips with two fingers, searching for a nonexistent crumb or indicating that she couldn’t speak at that moment, her mouth was full. He liked the way her eyes widened an instant before she laughed. She had a mole in the hollow at the base of her neck. She had a very lovely neck. She had a green spot in the iris of her right eye (did she know?).
* * *
They talked a lot about work. My father complained about having to spend a lot of his time chasing after his patients’ children, who were always and forever trying to put off the day of their elderly parent’s discharge. Daughters who hadn’t slept for weeks because their nonagenarian mothers cried out for help all night had them hospitalized for dubious bronchial asthmas and then claimed they couldn’t take them back home and couldn’t afford caregivers to look after them (sisters or brothers refused to contribute to the cost of assistance because the sibling in question lived in the parent’s house without paying rent). The greater the number of children and grandchildren, the greater the likelihood that no one wanted to take care of the elderly family member. At the other extreme, an unmarried son, an only child, living with his parent was dependable—until he became a threat: this was around the time my father had been accused of negligence by a seventy-two-year-old man following the death of his ninety-seven-year-old mother. Dear Doctor, the son had written in very large letters that slanted precariously forward, as though the words were about to drop off the right edge of the paper at any moment, you killed my mother. I will never forget the grief you caused me. When I admitted my mother to the hospital I placed her in your hands and you did not take care of her. My mother entered the hospital to die and for this I will never forgive you. And on and on for four pages. His six hours a week in the endocrinology outpatient clinic were an oasis of peace.
Cecilia described the strangest, most convoluted cases, both dramatic and comical; in the ER, anything could happen. There was a lot of boredom, a lot of drug addicts and drunks; but also, on the one hand, the inexhaustible list of howlers and absurdities made up by patients and their families, and on the other, the act of challenging death, that, too, never-ending. My father asked questions; he liked to hear her laugh and talk, not just because of the passion apparent in her stories, but because they showed her competence. Each time, he was amazed by the accuracy of her diagnoses, and by how sound and sensible her treatments were. He thought that sooner or later, at least once in a lifetime, a doctor like him (diligent, caring, mediocre) was bound to meet a true natural talent. There was no envy, it was pure admiration. Maybe he was deluding himself about his role in Cecilia’s bravura, deluding himself about being the first to discover it. The only resource he could claim, experience, could be measured by age; it was less mysterious than talent, but more bitter, because to a great extent you earned it by making mistakes.
* * *
One day Cecilia arrived at the café and said she wasn’t hungry; she needed to talk and felt like walking, did my father want to keep her company? They went out and he asked her what had happened, because it was clear that something had happened, something had upset her. Cecilia said she had just laid out a patient. “I laid him out” meant “he died in my hands,” a common expression among doctors, though a bit brutal, and one which perhaps implied an admission of guilt, even if no one was to blame. Coming from someone else, my father wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but “I laid him out” sounded strange and moving coming from her. Not that he didn’t lay out patients, frequently, constantly, one after another: it seemed to be his specialty.
A suspected recidivous ulcer had arrived in the emergency room. But the patient had intense chest pain, was pale and sweaty, and had a reading of 180 in one arm and 80 in the other. So Cecilia had sent him to have a CT scan, because she was thinking about the aorta. The man, a very tall, thin, elderly fellow with a bewildered look, was left lying on the stretcher until they came to take him. They had exchanged a few words. He was in pain and he was thirsty. “I’m dying of thirst” he kept saying. He remembered a fountain where he used to go to get water as a child, in the countryside, and he remembered the water was so cold that when he filled the bottle the glass fogged up. Ten minutes later they called her from Radiology: he had died while they were scanning him. “But I just sent him to you,” she told the radiologist. She didn’t think he would go so fast.
She was afraid she’d never forget that image, his final memory, the bottle fogged up by the icy water. My father listened in silence. He was ashamed of having once told her that he couldn’t stand his patients’ relatives, that until people got sick they didn’t learn anything from life. He’d said his department was full of unstable or inattentive relatives who expected the doctors to work miracles or perform some kind of undetectable euthanasia before the holidays. He told her that the living didn’t want to see dead bodies anymore, that rather than cure people, hospitals served to cover up death. He was ashamed of having told her that the old people in his care were treated like broken appliances. He was ashamed to have spoken only about the most grotesque side of his work, as if the rest didn’t exist. He’d left out all that was noble, left out himself as a doctor; by leaving himself out of the picture, except as a victim of the relatives’ stupidity, he’d meant to leave out illness and death. Was this, too, something he’d done out of reserve? He sensed that with her he would learn to be less reserved.
* * *
One evening in early May my father came out of the locker room on the ground floor. In the corridor he passed an elderly woman, out of breath, barefoot, carrying her shoes, one shoe in each hand. Two nurses had stopped to look at her, but her eyes were focused straight ahead and she wasn’t paying attention to what was going on around her. The large windows that overlooked the inner courtyard were open; it had just stopped raining and the air was awash with that hospital smell, usually imperceptible, now intensified by the dampness: a mixture of disinfectant, scented ammonia, and kitchen odors. In the courtyard was a parking area scattered with saplings with reddish leaves, the cars parked regularly between the tree trunks as if this, instead of white lines, were the natural system of marking the spaces, as if this had been planned from the beginning.
It looked like one of Mattia’s sketches, but blurry, badly drawn. And in the drawing, vibrant and unexpected, was Cecilia. Standing beside a Scénic, rummaging in her bag for the key. How had she managed to get in? To park inside? A privilege granted only to a few and never to the younger doctors—the woman definitely had hidden resources. To get a better look at her, to see what she was up to, my father had to lean over and peer through the new foliage of a tree. He didn’t want to expose himself too much because he’d noticed some people who’d stopped to talk on the other side of the courtyard. He didn’t want them to see him spying on a colleague, but he couldn’t tear himself away from the window. The people in the distance were mere shadows at the edge of his field of vision, but cautiousness and fear made them loom larger. Cecilia meanwhile activated the remote door opener, but the smart key fell to the ground, landing in a puddle. Leaning over even farther, my father saw that the cause of Cecilia’s difficulty was the couple of packages she was juggling in addition to her handbag. To free herself from the packages she set them on the roof of the car, then picked up the key and dried it off with a tissue. At that point, as if inspired by a spirit and will of its own, the key dropped a second time, into the same puddle.
She didn’t pick it up right away. She leaned against the Scénic and stared at it. And my father stared at her staring at the key. The ground floor was about five feet above the level of the courtyard, and from where he stood he could see her quite well. He tried to read the expression on her face. He couldn’t make it out. There was a trace of sadness in her eyes, but also something that simply didn’t make sense: tenderness, affection. Toward the key that had fallen? Toward herself? She didn’t seem like the type of person to feel sorry for herself, nor someone who would take an incident like that as a sign of bad luck. He would have liked to see a face like that every morning when he opened his eyes (my father thought for the first time). No, that wasn’t right. Not a face like that—that face. Sudden, overwhelming desire: he wanted to leap down from the windowsill—swoop down like an angel in an ex-voto—and wheel around her, glide down to grasp her and snatch her away, save her from an impending danger. What had come over him? Were a pair of tender, somewhat mournful eyes all it took for him to start having visions? Of all the faces in his life, why that one? As if the others had paled and dulled. Why such joy, such hope? It made no sense, any more than feeling sorry for an object made of plastic and metal that keeps falling.
Across the courtyard, meanwhile, the small group of people had gone their separate ways, and a man and child had emerged from the glass door of the building opposite. They walked slowly, approaching the parking lot. My father was afraid they might see him if they looked up, but he couldn’t make himself budge. Cecilia’s eyes, staring down at the key, were now desperate. It was strange that someone so competent and self-confident would get so disheartened over something so trivial. He thought of calling to her—to say hello, to shake her out of her reverie, to prevent strangers from catching her in that moment of despair. He, too, felt paralyzed by the fallen key. When he was a boy, soon after his father’s death or shortly before, coming out of his room in his pajamas one Sunday morning, he found himself in the doorway of the kitchen. His mother, sitting at the table with a cup of coffee in front of her, hadn’t heard him approach. She was staring blankly, her right hand gripping her left wrist. And he didn’t know whether to leave or stay, whether to go in and pretend he hadn’t noticed or hug her, comfort her, if she needed to be comforted. What had he decided to do, in the end? Impossible to remember. But he remembered the floor being cold underneath his bare feet.
As they came closer, the boy holding hands with the adult looked more and more like Mattia. He must have recently been discharged. He hadn’t had time to say goodbye and already he missed him. They walked firmly toward the Scénic, and my father desperately tried to identify the man leading the child as a pediatrician, but with every step that became more and more unlikely. He was tall and rather good-looking despite an angular face and a big nose.
How does the face of a teenager turn into the face of a man? It doesn’t. Time was, people became adults, and you could tell. Now we’re born with more or less adult faces and we keep them our whole lives, because life isn’t as draining as it used to be. So you had aging children, like Cecilia, graying young men, like my father, and mature adults, who at forty reached the age suited to their features.
How could he have been so naïve. As if a person suddenly disappeared just like that from someone’s life. He didn’t disappear. As if inertia didn’t govern everyone’s relationships. It did.
In the space of a few seconds, Cecilia looked up, saw her son and husband (or ex-husband), picked up the key, and opened the car door. She greeted them, kissing her son on the head and the man on the mouth, grabbing the back of his neck and pulling him to her, laughing. The sadness of a moment ago seemed to have left no trace. The man walked to the other side of the car and opened the passenger door so the child could climb in. Last of all, Cecilia retrieved the packages from the roof of the car. They got in, closed the doors, and the Scénic pulled out.
My father stayed there awhile looking out at the deserted courtyard, undecided whether to focus his acute, intense jealousy on the child or on the mother. He’d always thought he was incapable of reading people and he was right. But it was more than that. It was as if everything around him lacked a dash of imagination.
* * *
So then: at the beginning, an empty room like a stage; in the middle of it, a man hidden behind a column, observing the world; finally, a window. The idea is more or less the same. Sitting in the audience, he watched. Hidden, looking out, he watched.
Looking out at the world was my father’s preference. His name was Claudio Viberti, but everyone in the hospital just called him Viberti, and over the years he, too, came to think of himself by that name, as if it were his first name.
Writing is what the son prefers, the son who in those days didn’t exist and so had no name yet. No one can keep me from it, there is no present that is of greater interest to me than that distant past that I did not experience, about which I know almost nothing, and which I continue to imagine, fabricating other people’s memories.
Copyright © 2013 by Andrea Canobbio
Translation copyright © 2014 by Anne Milano AppelAndrea Canobbio was born in Turin, Italy, where he currently lives. An editor at the publishing house Einaudi, where he has headed the foreign fiction department since 1995, he is the author of The Natural Disorder of Things (FSG, 2006); two memoirs; and one collection of short stories. Three Light Years won Italy’s prestigious Mondello Prize in 2013. Anne Milano Appel, PhD, is an award winning literary translator. Her latest translations from the Italian include Claudio Magris’s Blindly, Goliarda Sapienza’s The Art of Joy, and Giovanni Arpino’s Scent of a Woman. Her work has been awarded the John Florio Prize for Italian Translation (2012) and the 32nd Northern California Book Award for translation in fiction (2013).