MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
I’ve come back for him.
These are the words I wrote down in my notebook when I finally spotted San Giustiniano from the deck of the ferryboat. Just for him. Not for our house, or the island, or my father, or for the view of the mainland when I used to sit alone in the abandoned Norman chapel in the last weeks of our last summer here, wondering why I was the unhappiest person on earth.
I was traveling alone that summer and had started my monthlong trip on the coast by going back to a place where I’d spent all my childhood summers. The trip had been a long-standing wish of mine, and now that I had just graduated, there was no better time to pay a short visit to the island. Our house had burned down years earlier, and after we’d moved to the north, no one in the family was ever keen on revisiting the place, or selling the property, or finding out what had really happened. We simply abandoned it, especially on hearing that, after the fire, the locals had pillaged what they could and laid waste to the rest. Some even held that the fire was no accident. But these were mere speculations, my father said, and there was no way of knowing anything but by going there. So the first thing I promised I’d do on stepping off the ferryboat was to make a right turn, walk down the familiar esplanade, past the imposing Grand Hotel and the guesthouses lining the waterfront, and head straight to our house to see the damage myself. This is what I’d promised my father. He himself had no wish to set foot on the island again. I was a man now, and it was up to me to see what needed to be done.
But perhaps I wasn’t coming back just for Nanni. I was coming back for the boy of twelve I’d been ten years earlier—though I knew I’d find neither one. The boy now was tall and sported a bushy reddish beard, and as for Nanni, he’d disappeared altogether and was never heard from again.
I still remembered the island. I remembered how it looked the last time I’d seen it on our last day, scarcely a week before school started, when my father had taken us to the ferry station and then stood on the dock waving at us as the anchor chain clamored and the boat screeched its way backward while he stayed there motionless, growing smaller and smaller until we were no longer able to see him. As had been his habit each fall, he would stay behind for a week to ten days to make sure the house was locked down properly, the electricity, water, and gas turned off, the furniture protected, and all the local help on the island paid. I am sure he was not displeased to see his mother-in-law and her sister leave on the ferryboat that would take them back to the mainland.
But what I did as soon as I set foot on the ground after the old traghetto clanged and pulled out of the same exact spot a decade later was to turn left instead of right and head straight up the stone-paved path that led to the ancient hilltop town of San Giustiniano Alta. I loved its narrow alleys, sunken gutters, and old lanes, loved the cooling scent of coffee from the roasting mill that seemed to welcome me no differently now than when I ran errands with my mother, or when, after seeing my Greek and Latin tutor that last summer, I would take the long way home every afternoon. Unlike the more modern San Giustiniano Bassa, San Giustiniano Alta always rested in the shade even when it grew unbearably sunny along the marina. In the evenings oftentimes, when the heat and humidity on the seafront became intolerable, I’d go back up with my father for an ice cream at the Caffè dell’Ulivo, where he sat facing me with a glass of wine and chatted with the townspeople. Everyone knew and liked my father and deemed him un uomo molto colto, a very learned man. His hobbling Italian was laced with Spanish words that sought to sound Italian. But everyone understood, and when they couldn’t help but correct and laugh at some of his strangely macaronic words, he was happy to join in the laughter himself. They called him Dottore, and though everyone knew he was not a medical doctor, it was not uncommon for someone to ask him for medical advice, especially since everyone trusted his opinion on health matters more than they did the local pharmacist, who liked to pass for the town physician. Signor Arnaldo, the owner of the caffè, had a chronic cough, the barber suffered from eczema, Professore Sermoneta, my tutor, who frequently ended up in the caffè at night, always feared they’d have to remove his gallbladder one day—everyone confided in my father, including the baker, who liked to show my father the bruises on his arms and shoulders caused by his ill-tempered wife, who, some said, started cheating on him on their very wedding night. Sometimes, my father would even step outside the caffè with someone to dispense an opinion in private, then push aside the beaded curtain and come back in, and return to his seat with both his elbows spread on the table, his emptied glass of wine in the middle, and stare at me, always telling me there was no need to rush with my ice cream, we might still find time to walk up to the abandoned castle if I wished. The castle by night overlooking the faraway lights on the mainland was our favorite spot, and there both of us would sit silent along the ruined ramparts to watch the stars. He called this making memories, for the day when, he’d say. What day? I’d ask, to tease him. For the day you know when. Mother said we were made from the same mold. My thoughts were his thoughts, and his thought my thoughts. Sometimes I feared he might read my mind if he so much as touched me on the shoulder. We were the same person, she said. Gog and Magog, our two Dobermans, loved only my father and me, not my mother or my elder brother, who had stopped spending his summers with us a few years earlier. The dogs turned away from everyone else and growled if you got too close. The townsfolk knew to keep their distance, but the dogs were trained not to bother anyone. We could tie them to the leg of a table outside the Caffè dell’Ulivo, and so long as they could see us, they lay down as meekly as ewes.
On special occasions, rather than head down to the marina after stopping at the castle, my father and I would go back into town, and because we thought alike, we’d stop for another ice cream. “She’ll say I’m spoiling you.” “Another ice cream, another glass of wine,” I’d say. He’d nod, knowing there was no point denying it.
Our nightwalks, as we called them, were our only times alone together. Entire days would go by without him. He was in the habit of going for a swim very early in the morning, then heading for the mainland after breakfast, and coming back in the evening, sometimes late at night on the very last ferry. Even when I was asleep, I loved hearing his footsteps crunching the gravel leading to our house. It meant he was back, and the world was whole again.
My poor final grade in Latin and Greek that spring had put a cruel wedge between my mother and me. My report card had arrived in late May just days before we boarded the ferry to San Giustiniano. The whole boat ride was one loud, unending rant, the reprimands came in buffets, while my father leaned quietly against the railing as though waiting to intervene at the right moment. But there was no stopping her, and the more she yelled, the more she found fault with everything else about me, from the way I sat down to read a book, to my penmanship, to my total inability to give a straight answer whenever anyone asked what I thought about this or that—shifty, always shifty—and, come to think of it, why didn’t I have a single friend in the world, not at school, not at the beach, not anywhere, not interested in anything, or anyone, for the love of God—what was wrong with me, she said as she kept trying to scratch off a drop of dried chocolate ice cream that had dripped on my shirt when I’d gone with my father to buy a cone before boarding the boat. I was convinced that her disapproval had been waiting for who knows how long and needed my botched Latin and Greek exam to burst into the open.
To soothe her, I promised I’d work harder during the summer. Work? Everything about me needed work, she said. There was so much wrath in her voice that day that it verged on palpable contempt, especially when she laced her fury with snarks of irony, finally exploding at my father, “And you wanted to buy him a Pelikan pen!”
My grandmother and her sister, who were with us on the ferry that day, sided with my mother, of course. My father didn’t say a word. He hated both women—the shrew and the übershrew, he called them. He knew that the moment he asked my mother to lower her voice or to temper her reprimands, they’d immediately chime in as well, which would easily push him over the edge and make him blow up at the two, if not all three, of them, at which point they’d quietly let him know they’d rather head straight back to the mainland on the ferry than spend the summer in our house. I’d seen him explode once or twice over the years and could tell he was trying to keep a lid on things and not ruin the trip. He’d simply nod a few times in token agreement when she criticized me for wasting so much time on my stupid stamp collection. But when he finally said something to change the subject and cheer me up a bit, she turned to him and yelled that she wasn’t quite done with me yet. “Some of the passengers are beginning to stare,” he finally said. “Let them stare all they want, I’ll stop when I’m good and ready.” I don’t know why, but it suddenly occurred to me that, while yelling at me so vehemently, she was really venting her pent-up rage against him, though without drawing him into her line of fire. Like the Greek gods who were constantly feuding with one another using mortals as their pawns, she was haranguing me to beat up on him. He must have realized what she was doing, which is why he smiled at me when she wasn’t looking, meaning, Put up with it for now. Tonight, you and I will head out for ice cream and make memories by the castle.
That day, after we landed, my mother desperately tried to make it up to me, speaking to me so sweetly and so amicably that we made peace soon enough. Yet the real damage was not in the cutting words she wished she hadn’t spoken and that I would never forget. The damage was to our love: it had lost its warmth, its spontaneity, and become a willed, conscious, rueful love. She was pleased to see I still loved her; I was pleased to see how readily both she and I were fooled. The two of us were aware of being pleased, which intensified our truce. But we must have sensed that being so easily reassured was nothing more than a dilution of our love. She hugged me more often, and I wanted to be hugged. But I didn’t trust my love, and I could tell, from the way she looked at me when she thought I wasn’t looking, that she didn’t trust it either.
With my father it was different. On our long nightwalks we spoke of everything. Of the great poets, of parents and children and why friction between them was unavoidable, of his father, who had died in a car accident weeks before my birth and whose name I bore, of love, which happens only once in life, and thereafter is never quite spontaneous or impulsive, and finally, as if by miracle, because it didn’t bear on Latin and Greek or on my mother or on the shrew and übershrew, of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, which he’d just discovered that spring and shared with no one but me. My father played Schnabel’s recording every evening, so that Schnabel’s piano resonated throughout the house and became the sound track of that year. I liked the sixth variation, he the nineteenth, but the twentieth was all about mind, and the twenty-third, well, the twenty-third was probably the liveliest, funniest thing Beethoven ever composed, he said. We replayed the twenty-third so often that my mother begged us to stop. So I’d tease her and hum it to her instead, which made my father and me laugh, but not her. On our way into the caffè on those summer nights, we’d simply throw out a number between one and thirty-four, and each would have to say what he thought of that variation, including Diabelli’s theme. Sometimes on our way up to the castle we would sing the words to the twenty-second variation on a theme from Don Giovanni, the words of which he’d taught me long before. But when we reached the top and watched the stars, we’d stand quietly and always agree that the thirty-first variation was the most beautiful of them all.
I was thinking of Beethoven on my way up the alley and of the yelling on the boat. None of it had gone away. I immediately recognized the old pharmacy, the cobbler’s, the locksmith’s, and the barbershop with its two tattered reclining chairs still patched with leather strips that had been stitched in place who knows how long before I came into the world. As I kept climbing uphill that morning and could already spot a slice of the abandoned castle, I began to have a strong presage of the scent of resin wafting toward me before I’d even reached the cabinetmaker’s shop around the bend of vicolo Sant’Eusebio. That feeling hadn’t changed, would never change. His shop, with his home right above it, stood two steps past the lumpish curbstone jutting out of the corner building. The memory of the scent stirred a trace of fear and discomfort that I found as thrilling now as I did then, though I was still unable to name that unsettling inflection of fear, shame, and excitement any better a decade later. Nothing had changed. Perhaps I hadn’t changed. I didn’t know whether I was disappointed or pleased that I hadn’t outgrown any of this. The rolling shutter of the cabinetmaker’s shop was locked down, and though I stood there trying to gather how much was lost since I’d last been there, I found myself unable to string together a single thought. All I could focus on were the rumors we’d been hearing since the burning of the house.
I walked back to the barbershop, and sticking half my body through the beaded curtain, asked one of the two barbers whether he knew what had happened to the ebanista next door.
The bald barber, who was seated on one of the two large chairs in his shop, lowered his newspaper and spoke one word before returning to his reading: “Sparito, vanished.” That said it all.
Did he know where? Or how? Or why? I asked.
The answer was a summary shrug of the shoulders suggesting he didn’t know, couldn’t care less, wasn’t about to tell some twentysomething kid who wandered into his shop asking too many questions.
I thanked the barber, turned around, and proceeded uphill. What surprised me was that Signor Alessi had not greeted or recognized me, though God knows the number of times he’d cut my hair all through my summers here. Perhaps there was no point in saying anything.
It took me a while to realize that no one seemed to recognize me on the island. Obviously I must have changed a great deal since I was twelve, or perhaps my long raincoat, my beard, and the dark-green knapsack fastened to my back gave me an entirely different look from that of the clean-cut boy they all remembered. The grocer, the owners of the two caffès on the tiny piazza by the church, the butcher, and above all the baker, whose scent of freshly baked bread hovered like a benison on the side alley when I left my Latin and Greek tutor in the afternoons and couldn’t have been more famished—no one knew me or gave me a second glance. Even the old one-legged beggar who had lost his limb in a boating accident during the war and was back to his usual spot by the main fountain in the square failed to know who I was when I gave him something. Hadn’t even thanked me, which was truly unlike him. Part of me felt rising contempt for San Giustiniano and its people, while another was not entirely saddened to see I no longer cared for it. Perhaps I had put it behind me and not realized it. Perhaps I was like my parents and my brother in this. No point going back.
On my way downhill, I resolved to reach what I assumed was going to be the hollowed-out base of our house, assess what I could, speak to neighbors who had watched me grow up, and then head out on the evening ferry. I had a mind to drop in on my old tutor but kept putting off the meeting. I still remembered him as a soured, prickly fellow who seldom had a kind word for anyone, least of all his pupils. My father had suggested I book a room in a pension by the harbor in case I wished to stay the night. But I already sensed, just by my hasty amble up and down the old town, that my visit wouldn’t last longer than a couple of hours. The question was where to spend the rest of the day until boarding the ferry back.
And yet I had always loved it here, from the soundless mornings when you woke up to face a clear and quiet sky that hadn’t changed since the Greeks had settled here, to the sound of my father’s footsteps when, contrary to his usual practice on weekdays, he would suddenly come back from the mainland unannounced in the afternoon and something of a feast erupted in our hearts. Not a ruffle, in those days. From my bed, you saw the hills, from the living room the sea, and when the dining room shutters were flung open on cooler days, you could step out on the terrace and take in the valley and beyond the valley the hazy outline of the hills on the mainland across the sea.
On leaving the old town, I was struck by the blinding spill of light sweeping through the fields, onto the esplanade, down to the glinting sea beyond. I loved the silence. I’d been dreaming of coming back for so long. Everything felt familiar, nothing had changed. And yet everything felt distant, frayed, unreachable, as though something in me were unable to register that all this was real, that so much of it had once belonged to me. The path to our house, including the shortcut I’d “invented” as a boy and wasn’t for anything going to miss taking today, was exactly as I’d left it. I remembered the walk through the deserted scented grove of limes, which they call lumie here, followed by a field of poppies, and finally the quiet, gutted ancient Norman chapel that had more of me in it than any other place in the world, with its huge plinth thrown in among thistles and growth that were as parched now as they’d been then, and as always the dried remnants of wild dog poop and pigeon droppings on its grounds.
What stung me was knowing that our house was no longer there, that all those living in it were gone, that early summer life here was never going to be the same. I felt like a timid ghost who knows his way around town but is no longer wanted or paid attention to. My parents wouldn’t be waiting for me, no one would have set aside goodies for when I’d rush back home famished after swimming. All our rituals were disbanded and void. Summer didn’t belong to me here.
The closer I neared our house, the more I began dreading the sight of what they’d done to it. The thought of the fire and of the looting, the looting especially, was enough to stoke a demon of sorrow, anger, and spite aimed not only at everyone living here but also against ourselves, as though the inability to prevent plunder and vandalism by alleged friends and neighbors sat on our conscience more than on theirs. “Don’t rush to conclusions,” my father had warned, “and above all don’t argue.” This was my father’s way. I cared for none of it. I would gladly have dragged each one to court, rich, poor, orphans, widows, cripples, and war disabled.
And yet, of all the people here, there was only one I wished to see, and he was gone, sparito. I knew this already. So why even bother asking after him? To see how they’d react? To remind myself that I hadn’t invented him? That he’d truly lived here once? That all I had to do was ask about him in the barbershop, and after inquiries were shouted out by so many up and down the narrow, cobbled lanes of San Giustiniano Alta, he would finally turn up just because people had called his name?
Why should he even remember me? He had known me as a twelve-year-old, now I was twenty-two and sported a beard. Yet the years had done nothing to make me forget the rising anxiety that seized me each time I both dreaded and hoped to bump into him at the beach or around town. Wasn’t this what I really hoped to feel as I made my way up to his shop this morning? The fear, the panic, the old tightness in my throat, which only a sob could release and which might erupt of its own if he so much as stared at me longer than I could stand. He stares at you, you get worked up, and all you want is to find a quiet spot to let yourself cry the moment you’re alone, because nothing, not even failing a Latin and Greek exam or getting badly yelled at, could leave you feeling so beaten and undone. I remembered everything. The wanting to cry, especially, and the waiting to see him because the waiting and hoping were unbearable, the wish to hate everything about him because one short glance from him and suddenly you felt totally distraught and couldn’t smile or laugh or find joy in anything.
* * *
I WAS WITH my mother the first time I met him. He did not wait to be introduced but right away, “You’re Paolo,” he said, tousling my hair.
When I gave him a startled look to mean how did he know, his answer was a jaunty “Everyone knows.” Then, seeming to remember, “Maybe from the beach,” he said.
I knew that his name was Giovanni, just as I knew that everyone called him Nanni. I had seen him at the beach, in the outdoor movie theater by the church, and many times around Caffè dell’Ulivo at night. I had to control myself from showing how thrilled I was to discover that the man before whom I could have sworn being a complete nonentity not only knew my name but was actually standing under my own roof.
Unlike him, though, I did not show that I knew him. My mother introduced him to me with a note of irony in her voice, meaning, But surely you do know Signor Giovanni.
I shook my head and even managed to pretend being embarrassed for being rude at not knowing his name.
“But everyone knows Signor Giovanni,” she insisted, as though urging me to find it in me to be polite. But I did not bend.
He gave me his hand. I shook it. He looked younger, and his skin was less dark than I remembered. He was tall, slender, in his late twenties. I’d never seen him up close before. Eyes, lips, cheeks, jaw. It would take me years to know what exactly about each feature had struck me.
On my father’s suggestion, my mother had asked him to come by to restore an antique folding desk and two picture frames dating back to the previous century.
He arrived one morning in June, and contrary to custom, he accepted the lemonade she offered. Everyone else who came to our house—the seamstress, the delivery boys, the upholsterer—always asked for water. It was their way of earning their salary plus the inevitable gratuity by showing they owed us nothing and hadn’t asked for anything more than the glass of water we’d put before them on a scorching summer day.
That morning in our house, because he stood so very close to me, something undefined in his face left me as shaken and flustered as when I was asked once to recite a poem in front of the entire school, teachers, parents, distant relatives, friends of the family, visiting dignitaries, the world. I couldn’t even look at him. I needed to look away. His eyes were too clear. I didn’t know whether I wanted to touch them or swim in them.
As he spoke to my mother and occasionally looked in my direction, as though eager to draw my opinion, I would try to stare back at him. But looking into his eyes was like looking down a steep, craggy cliff leading to a billowing green ocean below—you were pulled in and were told not to fight back but warned not to stare, so that you could never look long enough to know why you kept wanting to stare. His gaze didn’t just scare me. It troubled me, as if in staring into it I’d risk not only offending him but also exposing some sinister, shameful secret about myself that I did not wish to disclose. Even when I tried to return his glance to reassure myself that he wasn’t as threatening as I feared, I still had to look away. He had the most beautiful face I’d ever seen, and I wasn’t brave enough to look at it.
And yet each time he turned his gaze away from my mother to look at me, he was also telling me that although he was much older and could see right through me, he and I could be equals, that he wasn’t judging me, held no scorn, was interested in what I might have to say about the furniture even if I was just standing quietly, trying to hide how thoroughly unworthy I felt.
So I would look away.
Though I couldn’t do that either.
The last thing I wanted was to seem shifty, especially with my mother in the room.
His face was the picture of health, and there was a flush about it, as though he’d just come from swimming. His even-tempered and accommodating smile when it quivered to express his thoughts or his doubts about the desk told me of the very person I wished to be someday. What a pleasure to look at his face and hope to be just like him. If only he could be my friend and teach me things. I had no other concept to draw on.
My mother had meant to show him into the living room, but he had already guessed where it was and had immediately spotted the desk, opened it, and without asking permission hastily proceeded to remove its two slim, squeaky, but unusually long drawers. Before you knew it, he was reaching behind the empty drawer slots and palming his way inside the hump of the bombe-form cylinder desk, groping around until he found the hidden recess, and after some exertion, he fished out a small hidden box with curved corners that matched the design of the rounded desk itself. It caught my mother’s breath. How did he know this box existed? she asked. Great carpenters, usually from the north, possibly French, he said, always liked to show they could create hidden spaces in the most impenetrable spots; the smaller the piece of furniture, the more arcane and ingenious the hiding place. And there was something else he needed to show her, which she most likely also knew nothing about. “What is it, Signor Giovanni?” He lifted the desk a bit and showed her hidden hinges.
“What are they for?” she asked. The desk, he explained, was totally collapsible so that one could carry it elsewhere very easily. But he didn’t want to task the hinges right now because he didn’t trust the condition of the wood. He handed my mother the tiny wooden box.
“But this desk has been in my husband’s family for at least a hundred and fifty years,” she said, “and yet no one had any idea this box existed.”
“Then the Signora will discover either hidden jewels or letters some great-grandparent would rather she knew nothing about,” he said, stifling the quiver of mirth and mischief that I’d seen rippling on his features a few times already that morning and that made me want to learn to smile just like that.
The box was locked.
“I don’t have a key,” she said.
“Mi lasci fare, Signora, allow me,” he said, every word underwritten with both deference and authority. So saying, he removed from his jacket a ring of tiny tools that looked less like awls, gouges, and screwdrivers than a collection of sardine-can openers of all sizes. He then took his eyeglasses from his breast pocket, unfolded both temples, and cautiously slipped the tip of each behind an ear. He reminded me of a boy in kindergarten who had started wearing glasses and was still awkward when putting them on. Then, using his extended middle finger, he pushed the bridge of his glasses ever so delicately over his nose. He might as well have been placing a priceless Cremonese violin under his chin. There was fluency and dexterity in every one of his gestures that stirred not just trust but admiration. What surprised me was his hands. They were neither calloused nor marred by labor or by the products of his trade. The hands of a musician. I wanted to touch his hands, not just because I wanted to see if the pink of his palms was as smooth to the touch as his hands promised, but because, suddenly, I wanted to place my palms under the care of each of his. Unlike his eyes, his hands did not intimidate—instead they welcomed. I wanted his long knuckles and almondine fingernails to slip in between each of my fingers and hold them down in a warm and lasting display of good fellowship, and with this gesture alone repeat the promise that one day, perhaps sooner than I hoped, I too would be a grown man with hands like his, wearing glasses like his, letting a glint of mirth and mischief radiate through my features to tell the world I was an expert at something and a very, very good man.
He saw us watching him trying to pry open the box, and without looking in either my direction or my mother’s, he kept smiling to himself, conscious of our suspense, all the while trying to dispel it without suggesting he was aware of it. He knew what he was doing, had done it many times, he said, all the while staring straight into the keyhole. “Signor Giovanni,” my mother said as he was still fiddling with the lock, trying not to distract him. “Yes, Signora,” he replied without looking up. “You have a beautiful voice.” He was so deeply engrossed with the lock that he didn’t seem to hear her, but seconds later, “Don’t be fooled, Signora, I can’t carry a tune.” “With that voice?” “Everyone laughs when I sing.” “Because they’re jealous.” “Trust me, I can’t even sing ‘Happy Birthday.’” All three of us laughed. There was a moment of silence. Without rushing or forcing things or scratching the bronze inlay area around the old lock, he picked at it some more, then “Eccoci!” he exclaimed, “here we are,” and a few seconds later, as though all that was needed was a bit of persistent, gentle coaxing before even hearing the telltale click of the lock, which had finally yielded, the box opened. I wanted to kiss his hands. What he revealed when he opened it was a gold pocket watch, a pair of gold cuff links, and a fountain pen lying on a lining of thick verdigris felt. On the side of the pen, in gold lettering, was my grandfather’s full name, my name as well.
“Who would have known!” exclaimed my mother. These were her father-in-law’s cuff links bearing his initials and dating back most probably to his student days in Paris. He was very attached to them. She also remembered seeing the vest watch, though long ago. He must have left the three of them there, but when he never came back after the accident, no one even noticed they were gone. “And now they’re suddenly here—but he is not.” My mother seemed deep in thought. “I was very fond of him, and he of me.”
The cabinetmaker bit his lower lip and nodded quietly.
“This is the cruel thing about the dead. They come back in ways that always catch us off guard, don’t they, Signor Giovanni?” Mother said.
“Yes,” he agreed. “Sometimes, just wanting to tell them something that would have mattered to them, or to ask about people and places only they would have known about, reminds us that they’ll never hear us, won’t answer, don’t care. But perhaps it’s much worse for them: maybe they are the ones calling out to us and it is we who can’t listen and don’t seem to care.”
Nanni had obviously known sorrow in his life. You could tell by how solemn and quiet he’d grown within seconds of smiling. I liked him solemn too.
“You’re a philosopher, Signor Giovanni,” said my mother with a docile smile on her face as she held the open box in her hands.
“Not a philosopher, Signora. I lost my mother a few years ago when she tripped down the stairs, and within months I lost my father too. Both were in perfect health. But before I knew it I became an orphan, the boss, and a parent to my younger brother. Still, there is so much I need to ask them, so much I could have learned from my father. All he left behind is barely traces.”
An awkward silence followed. Nanni continued to examine the desk, and after observing the hinges, he said that someone must have worked on this desk before. Which explained why it still had such a strong sheen. “It was probably my grandfather,” he said. My mother was about to give the crown of my grandfather’s watch a few twists to wind it. But the ebanista told her not to. “It might ruin the spring mechanism. Better have someone look at it.”
“The watchmaker?” she asked naïvely.
“The watchmaker is an idiot. Maybe someone on the mainland,” he said.
Did he know of one?
He could bring it to the watchmaker himself the next time he took the ferry across.
She thought for a moment, then said she’d ask my father to take it in.
“Capisco, I understand,” he said, with the retiring gesture of a person seemingly guilty of an infraction he knows he hasn’t committed but is graceful enough to accept the implied suspicion of those who distrust his motives.
I did not like this about my mother. But there was nothing I could say to mend her allegation without drawing further attention to it.
But with this one word, the ebanista said he was happy to have been of help. She was still thinking of the contents of the box and remained silent. Signor Giovanni did not intrude on her silence, and probably not knowing what else to say, he looked around the room for a moment, and finally, coming back to the purpose of his visit, said he would take the desk and restore it to what it must have looked like when it was first built. He recognized the style, he said, but wouldn’t pronounce himself as to its builder yet, as the signature under the desk was smudged with age. What he particularly admired, he said as he lifted the desk over his shoulders, was that the designer seemed to have avoided using nails anywhere other than on the hinges. But he wasn’t sure about this either, he’d let us know. He said he would come back another day to pick up the frames and walked out of our house while the two of us stood at the doorway.
“Here, take it, it’s yours now,” said my mother, handing me the pen, which, as luck would have it, turned out to be a Pelikan. The pen looked exactly like the ones sold in the stationery store outside my school. But I found no joy in the pen. It had come like an afterthought, a chance concession, not a gift, and yet on it was inscribed my name, and this pleased me. As we watched Signor Giovanni leave, she told me a strange tale she had heard from her father-in-law: while writing one day during his time in Paris, he had dropped his pen from his desk, and in his rush to catch it, the nib punctured his skin.
“And?” I asked, not seeing her point.
“It left a small tattoo on the palm of his hand. He was quite proud of it. He liked to tell the story of how it had happened.”
Why had she told me this?
“No reason,” she said. “Maybe because we all wished he had seen you. Your father loved him more than he loved anyone else, I think. In any event, I’m sure he would have wanted you to have his pen. It might help you with the exam coming up.”
Later that fall when I retook my Latin and Greek exam, the pen helped.
* * *
WITHIN A FEW afternoons, Nanni returned to pick up the frames. My father had taken an earlier ferry and was already home by then.
When we heard the doorbell, my father stood up and opened the door himself. Gog and Magog stood up as they always did when he left the room and followed him.
“Stai bene? Are you all right?” he asked as soon as he saw Nanni standing outside.
“Benone, e tu? Well enough, and you?” asked Nanni.
Nanni explained he had come for the frames and could stay only a minute. He patted the dogs on the head.
“How is the elbow?” my father asked.
“Did you do what I told you?”
“I always do—you know that—”
“Yes, but did you do it for thirty seconds each time?
“Show me how.”
Nanni was about to show how he performed the particular extension of the arm that my father had recommended, but seeing me at the door, he blurted out, “Ciao, Paolo,” totally surprised by my presence, as though he’d forgotten I existed or lived here.
He brought down his arm and headed straight for the living room and picked up the two frames leaning against the wall. He managed to exchange a few pleasantries with my mother, who was sitting on the sofa reading a novel. Had she done anything with the watch?
Not yet, unfortunately. She sounded peeved. My mother did not like to be reminded of things she had overlooked.
There was an awkward moment when all four of us stood speechless.
“Did you know that he’s the fastest swimmer in San Giustiniano?” said my father to my mother.
“Ma che cosa stai a dire? What are you saying?” protested Nanni.
Of course I knew that my father liked to swim every morning before coming back home and catching the ferry to the mainland, but I didn’t know that Nanni was a swimmer as well.
“We call him Tarzan.”
“Tarzan, what a pretty name,” said my mother with a dash of irony in her voice, as though she had never heard the word before and was determined not to participate in the inane banter between the small-town cabinetmaker and the world-famous scholar. My father’s camaraderie with Nanni vexed her, I could tell.
“You should hear him imitate Tarzan’s yell.” And turning to Nanni, he said, “Show them.”
“He yells and then he swims. The other day he crossed the bay in four and a half minutes. I do it in eight.”
“When you don’t give up, you mean,” scoffed Nanni. “Actually, ten to eleven is more like it.” Then, feeling the sense of pressure in the room, he did a quick pivot and, informal as ever, said, “Alla prossima, until next time.” My father uttered a compliant “Sì.”
I liked their fellowship and the way they gibed with each other. I had seldom seen my father like this, sprightly, impish, boyish, even. “What do you think of him?” he asked my mother.
“He seems like a nice chap,” she said, almost trying to sound cordially indifferent. There was even a note of suppressed hostility toward the cabinetmaker that might not have been entirely genuine but that was her typical way of dangling her veto on anything or anyone she had not brought into our fold. But then, noticing my father’s exasperated shrug, which was his way of saying she could still have said something nice about the poor fellow, she added that he had the most beautiful eyelashes. “Women notice these things.”
I hadn’t noticed his eyelashes. But then, maybe this is why I was never able to hold his gaze. He had the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen, certainly the only ones I’d ever paid any attention to. “Still, I find him a bit too bold, too forward. He doesn’t really know his place, does he?”
I was sure that what had irked her and why her mood changed as soon as Nanni walked into our house and made a beeline to the frames was that he had used the familiar tu with the man who had hired him.
* * *
A WEEK LATER my mother decided to pay the cabinetmaker a visit. Did I want to go with her? “Why not,” I answered, adding a casual “I wouldn’t mind.” Perhaps she picked up an inflection in the studied nonchalance of my Why not that alerted her to something, because a few minutes later, as though from nowhere, she said she was glad to hear that I was interested in the ordinary things of our planet. What things of our planet? I asked, trying to gauge what she had really inferred from my hasty reply. “Oh, I don’t know—furniture, for example.” I could just picture her adding “friends, people, life,” always a bit arch and suspicious in the way she took in my seemingly offhand remarks. Or perhaps she wasn’t aware of anything, any more than I really was myself, though I felt, and perhaps she felt so as well, that there was something too deliberate in my carefree reply.
But as we ambled to the old town to Signor Giovanni’s shop early that afternoon, I didn’t know why but her cryptic silence reminded me of what she had told me a year or so earlier during a similar walk: I was never to let a man or a grown boy touch me there. I was so thrown off by her remark that it never occurred to me to ask why anyone would want to touch me there in the first place. But that afternoon on our walk up the hill to San Giustiniano Alta, I remembered her warning.
The shop reeked of turpentine. I recognized the smell from art class. But here it spoke to me of quiet afternoons when just a few shops stayed open while everyone else was closed for hours after lunch. The barber, the grocer, the coffee mill, the baker—all closed. Signor Giovanni was quietly carving away at some ornate woodwork with his doors wide open to let out the fumes. He was not surprised to see us, and right away stood up and with his left hand lifted the hem of his apron to wipe the sweat off his brow. He excused himself and disappeared into another room to bring out the desk.
Left alone together on this quiet afternoon, my mother and I felt entirely out of place. I looked around. Too many tools, too much junk, too much wood dust everywhere. On a brick wall, a coarse brown sweater hung on a nail. You could tell it was bristly, but when I reached up to touch it, it felt less like wool than it did something between burlap and male stubble. A look from my mother said Don’t touch.
The desk, when he finally carried it in and stood it on the ground before us, had lost its sheen and looked dulled and blanched, as if it had been skinned alive. “This is work in progress,” he said, to assuage what was clearly a horrified look trying to pass for restrained concern on my mother’s face. He knew what she was thinking and reminded her that in a few weeks she wouldn’t believe how the desk would glow under candlelight, more luminous and translucent than polished marble, he said. To move away from his awkward and perhaps futile attempts to comfort her, I asked Signor Giovanni how he had known about the box. “After a while of doing this, one just knows,” he said, repeating one just knows as though mulling the answer himself, because difficult admissions about hard work and experience gathered over years of exacting labor could be justified only with a sigh. Suddenly he seemed older than his looks, work-weary, muted, even sad. He showed my mother the repairs he was doing on the desk. It was a masterpiece of smoothed and sanded curves, but the legs were grayed out with a protective temporary coat. He touched the exaggeratedly rounded corners of the desk, let his hand rest there, as on the rump of a docile pony. Then he placed a hand on my back as I pretended to peer into the cavity where my grandfather’s box had lain hidden for so long. To prevent him from changing the subject or from removing his hand if my mother was to speak, I kept looking in and stringing one question after the next about the wood, the design, the products he used to remove the layers of grime to bring back to life the shabby object that had always languished in a corner of our house. How did he know when to change from thick sandpaper to thin? When was turpentine bad for wood? What other products did he use, where had he learned all this, why did it take so long? I loved hearing him speak, especially when I pointed at something and he’d lean next to me to explain. My mother was right. I loved his voice, especially when he was so close that he seemed to breathe on me and speak in whispers. He knew so much and yet, when he’d sigh before answering, he sounded so vulnerable and so wary of the unexpected turns things took sometimes. Things didn’t always cooperate, he said. What things? I asked. He seemed amused by this. Then, turning to my mother: “It could be life or it could be a strip of wood that refuses to bend as it should.”
I remembered how upon ending his inspection of the desk the first time in our house, he had tied up and secured the movable parts that might have opened or dropped on the floor and then hoisted the whole thing on one shoulder and walked away with it. He reminded me of Aeneas fleeing Troy balancing his elderly father on his shoulder and holding his young son Ascanius by the hand. I wanted to be Ascanius. I wanted him to be my father, I wanted to leave and walk away with him. I wanted his tiny shop to be our home, grime, wood shavings, dust, turpentine, the lot. The father I had was a wonderful man. But Signor Giovanni would be better, more than a father to me.
When we left, my mother stopped by the baker’s and bought me a small pastry. She bought one for herself as well. We ate them as we walked. Neither of us spoke.
I knew that what I’d felt in the shop was unusual and stealthy, possibly unwholesome. I felt it yet more keenly on the day I decided to take the long way home after seeing my tutor and, while circling through the old town at least twice, ended up knocking at the glass door of his shop. He was giving instructions to his assistant, a boy slightly older than I, who I later found out was his brother Ruggiero.
When he saw me, he gave a quick nod, and all the while greeting me, he continued to wipe oil stains off his hands with a rag, which I later realized was soaked in paint thinner. “I already told your mother that it’s not ready yet,” he said, clearly annoyed by my impromptu visit, which he probably took as a sly, nudging intrusion spurred by my mother’s impatience to see the job done. I was passing by after seeing my tutor, I said, and just wanted to say hello. I could take only hasty peeks at his face.
“Well, well then, hello, come in anyway,” he said, opening up. And suddenly, because of his expansive welcome, I hugged him as I’d hug all my parents’ friends when they visited. The last thing I wanted to be was a boss’s son dropping in on an unsuspecting hireling caught slouching on the job. But I was interrupting, and he was halting everything and setting time aside for me, because I was, there was no hiding it, the boss’s son. I should never have come, I thought, feeling unbearably awkward as he produced a small, rickety wooden chair for me to sit on. I should have gone straight home and helped the gardener prune herbs instead. But he broke my silence. Did I want lemonade? he asked. I did not weigh my answer. I nodded. He stepped over to a very thick, sagging worker’s table littered with tools, lifted a porcelain pitcher whose top was covered with a faded doily, and poured a glass. It’s not cold, he said—meaning not like the lemonade they serve in your house—but it will quench your thirst. He handed me the glass and then stood there and stared like a nurse making sure the patient downed his medicine to the last drop. It smelled not just of strong lemon or of those midsummer afternoons when the heat weighs you down and you’re just seconds away from dropping on your bed and are grateful that someone invented lemonade; it smelled of the turpentine on his hands. I loved that it smelled of his hands. I grew to love the scent of his shop, his little bric-a-brac world made of wood and sagging tables and ragged sweaters and rickety chairs that you could rest on during scorching afternoons when your entire being seemed intoxicated by the tart, sweet, overpowering scent of lime and linseed oil.
A few days after my visit, I decided to drop in on the cabinetmaker a second time, and then a few days later again, each time immediately following my tutorial. Along the way I was so starved that I was in the habit of buying the same pastry as soon as the baker reopened. But thinking twice about it, I decided to purchase two more, one for him and one for his brother. I would wait to eat mine until I sat with him in his dingy shop for five minutes. Had I been slightly older, I would have right away known that I was disturbing him. But I was convinced he was happy to see me and that our friendship had indeed blossomed. He offered me lemonade, pulled up a chair to sit beside me, and talked as he ate the pastry, one adult speaking to another adult. I loved it. He talked about his father and grandfather, who had been cabinetmakers as well. They went back generations, he said, throwing a hand behind his shoulder to mime the passage of time. And was his son going to be a cabinetmaker too? He did not have children, he said. But didn’t he want children? I asked, feeling that this was grown-up talk. Who knows, he mused, he hadn’t found the right wife yet. I wanted to tell him that I would gladly fill in the role of a son and serve as his apprentice every summer and learn everything there was to learn until his son would replace me. “I want to work with you,” I said. He smiled, then stood up and poured himself a glass as well. “Don’t you have friends?” he asked. He might have meant, Don’t people your age have better things to do?
“I don’t have friends here. But I don’t have many at home either.”
So what did I do all day these days?
The beach, reading, the daily homework for my Greek and Latin tutor.
He recited the opening verses of The Aeneid.
“You studied Latin?” I asked, thrilled by the news.
“Poco, hardly, but then I had to abandon it.”
To tease him, I asked him to recite the opening verses again.
He started reciting them but then burst out laughing mid-verse. Which made me laugh as well.
“The things you make me say, Arma virumque cano, really, Paolo!”
He was making fun of himself. I loved when he did this. It drew us closer.
“So why don’t you have friends?” Were we being serious again? He was starting to sound like my mother. Yet I didn’t mind it coming from him.
“I don’t know. I want friends. Maybe not everyone likes me.”
“Maybe you think they don’t. Everyone makes friends.”
“But you’ve made friends here.”
“That’s because I like coming here.”
“Don’t you like people your age?”
I hunched my shoulders. “I don’t know.”
And, as though to punctuate what I was saying to him, I caught myself exhaling something like a mini-sigh, which was the younger version of the weary sigh he himself had emitted when speaking about his years growing up as a cabinetmaker. What I liked was not only having to put my cards on the table and disclosing a very private fact about myself but, for the first time, I had spoken with someone about things I thought troubled me and no one but me. I liked speaking like this.
When my father or my relatives asked why I had no friends, I would find a way to avoid the subject or claim that I had very good friends, but only at school. At school I’d say that I might not have classmates as friends but that I had many friends in San Giustiniano. Yet I had never had a friend with whom I could talk about not having friends. Here it felt so easy that I had to hold myself back from sharing too much for fear of boring him.
“I want to learn everything from you.”
He smiled wistfully. “Wood is impossible to learn quickly.” And so saying, he walked over to a shelf and brought down a longish object wrapped in what looked like a blanket. “This,” he said, cautiously unwrapping the object, “is a very, very old violin.” It had no strings at all. “My grandfather made it. I’ve never built a violin, and I wouldn’t even try, but I know wood, I’ve grown up with wood, and I know what needs to be done to keep the sound alive.” He had me slide my hand on the base of the instrument. “Wood is unforgiving. A painter, even a great painter, can change his mind midway or paint over a serious mistake. But you can’t undo a mistake on wood. You need to understand how wood thinks, how woods speaks, and what each sound it makes means. Wood, like very, very few living things, never dies.”
One might have thought he was Michelangelo speaking about marble.
“So, do you still want to work in my stinking shop?” he finally asked after I said I didn’t care how long it took to learn. More than ever, I wished to say, adding, I want to be with you, I want to be your son, I want to open the shop for you before you arrive and close it after you leave, I want to bring you coffee and warm bread in the morning, squeeze lemons for you, sweep and mop the floor, and, should you ask, forswear my parents, my home, everything. I want to be you.
I knew my answer would have made him laugh. So to restrain my fervor, I said, no, I didn’t want to work in his stinking shop. The wording became a source of humor between us.
I dropped by twice a week, then more frequently.
One day, as I was coming with pastries for the three of us, I froze on the spot. My mother was leaving his shop. She was wearing a large straw hat and sunglasses. I spotted her right away and immediately dashed inside the barbershop and kept watch behind the beaded curtain until I saw her pass by on her way down vicolo Sant’Eusebio. She hadn’t seen me. But it gave me a shock and I promised never to walk in on him unless I’d made certain she wasn’t visiting. I was sure that they had spoken about me. But I never asked myself what impulse had driven me to hide from her. Perhaps I didn’t want her to think I idled around town after my tutorial. But I knew this wasn’t the reason.
Nanni was always working whenever I walked in. Sometimes it would be so hot in his shop that he would not be wearing a shirt. My father was right. I had no idea he had an athlete’s frame.
“Che sorpresa, what a surprise, two days in a row!” he said when I decided not to space my visits. “Today I will let you help me.”
So he brought down a large picture frame. Even though I’d been staring at it during my previous visits, it took me a few moments to recognize it was ours. It looked so clean, so new, so bleached of color that it made me think of a tanned man whose naked butt is as white as talcum.
The frame was far from finished, he said. We needed to remove the grime that had accumulated over the years from its carved floral molding and in the ridges at the corners.
“And how does one do this?”
“I’ll show you. Just do as you’re told.”
“And if I don’t?”
“It will be the end of you.”
We smiled at each other.
He bit off a piece of the pastry I had brought and left the rest of it on that day’s newspaper that lay wide open on the sagging table. It had most likely served as a makeshift tablecloth during today’s lunch with his brother.
He handed me a simple gouger the likes of which I’d never seen before and said that I should do exactly what he told me.
He brought two chairs out to the sidewalk where it was cooler and then handed me an apron.
“Because I don’t want you to dirty your clothes.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“Put the apron on.”
I smiled at the mock command. He was smiling too.
After we both sat down with our aprons on facing each other, he let the frame rest on our knees and showed me how to scrape off the impacted grit, but not too aggressively, because I might be removing not just dirt but also the wood underneath it. He said he had already sanded the frame and just this morning treated it with a very weak acid to remove some stains. He also pointed out spots I needed to avoid touching with my gouge because he’d rebuilt some of the damaged or rotten sections of the frame with gesso.
Wouldn’t it have been wiser to use the gesso after the acid, not before? I asked.
He looked at me. “Ma senti quello, listen to this one. Doesn’t think I know what I’m doing. Just do as you’re told.”
He was making fun of me. I liked it.
And so I did all I was asked to do, and for about two hours late that afternoon we sat there on the vicolo, a step away from the gutter that runs down its middle, digging into the frame, clearing the dirt that had caked into its carved crevices. Tomorrow he was going to treat it with clear oil. No stain, just oil. “You’ll see how beautiful wood can be once I’m done with it. A work of art. In a few days I’ll bring it over to let your parents see.”
“I can’t wait to see it, Nanni.”
I wanted to come back on the morrow and work with him, sit face-to-face with him as we’d done today, and occasionally draw closer to him to get a whiff of his underarms, which smelled like mine but much, much stronger. I liked that he wasn’t wearing a shirt, just an apron, with his chest ever so visible. I could look at the rest of him all I wanted now without worrying about his eyes or not being able to hold his gaze. I just didn’t want him to know I was staring.
Neither of us stopped working until it got dark that day. His eyes were tired, the two of us had worked really well, he said. Let me see your hands, he added. Tentatively, I put out my two hands, palms up. He held both my hands and, squinting, inspected them. Did it burn? he asked, wondering if the light coat of acid had touched my hand. “I don’t think so,” I said, almost breathless from knowing that at this very moment my two hands were now resting in both of his, exactly as I’d wished a few weeks before. Maybe here, I said, pointing to two fingers on my left hand, but I knew I was making it up. He held the fingers to the poor light in the shop, inspected them, and said it was nothing, just dirt. Here, use this, he said, producing a rag which he dunked in some paint thinner. I looked at the rag. What was I to do with it, I motioned, as though I had no idea what one did with a rag dunked in paint thinner.
“You scrub the stain off with it, for God’s sake. You patricians are all alike! Here, let me show you.” He took the rag in his right hand and grabbed my two hands in his left hand as a grown-up would do with a child’s, and scrubbed them clean. I loved the smell. From now on I would smell of my friend’s shop, of his world, of his body, of his life.
“Now, go home.”
I rushed downhill and watched the town grow dark after sunset. I was happy. It was the first time that I watched the view without my father, and I loved it both for itself and for being alone so late. It was on one of those early evenings that I discovered my “shortcut” by the abandoned Norman chapel and the lime shrubs. The chapel had no roof, no altar, nothing, just a plinth sitting on wild, abundant yellow growth. Here, I decided, I’d sit every evening and think of Nanni and me.
When I got home, I did not tell my mother where I’d been, nor did she ask. I took off my clothes and washed my hands and my arms with Mother’s scented soap to remove or, at best, cover up the smell of turpentine.
But in case my parents asked, I had already rehearsed an excuse: I’d spent the afternoon with another student I’d met at my tutor’s. No, not bright at all, I’d add, trying to look bored by the subject. The only thing we had in common was failing our Latin and Greek exam. But should they bring up the desk, the frames, the living room, the inhabitants of the island, or Nanni himself, I’d mention something about him that might throw them off the scent. “What was that?” asked my father, when indeed the three of us were having dinner and the conversation drifted to Nanni’s work on the desk. “Has either of you noticed how his hand shakes?” And to push the point, I made light of the tremor by mimicking the way he’d pointed at the keyhole with a trembling forefinger the first time I’d met him. “Maybe he drinks too much coffee or smokes a lot, or just drinks,” added my mother. “Who knows what his sort does.”
“Who, Tarzan? Never,” threw in my father.
“How about alcohol?”
“Of course he drinks, but he is no alcoholic.”
I could easily have told my parents that I’d never seen him drink coffee or touch a cigarette, but they’d ask how I could possibly know, and then I’d have to spill everything. The irony is that Nanni’s hands did not tremble at all; I had made the whole thing up. Perhaps I had spoken about his hands, hoping Mother would have something good to say about him, because when it came to him, I had run out of new things to think about.
* * *
I RETURNED TO his shop two days later, and rather than wait for him to tell me what to do, I placed my books under the table, put on the apron, and helped myself to some lemonade. He asked me to take a good look at the frame we’d cleaned the other day. I saw, once he lifted it from the wall and brought it to the light, that it was a masterpiece. “Nanni!” I gasped.
“It’s not finished,” meaning, no need to get too excited yet.
He was going to add another layer of oil, he said. I thought he’d do it with a brush. He shook his head. If I wanted, he said, I could help. He knew I’d ask for nothing better. He took out a rag, folded it into a thick wad, dunked it in a thick, clear liquid, and proceeded to dab it lightly on the frame and then to daub the wood with long, measured, fluid sweeps. Here, you try, he said, handing me the cloth. But my gestures were too jerky and brusque. “Look at me.” He extended his arm in slow, deliberate, confident motions, putting his whole heart in each sweep no differently and no less devotedly than if he were sliding a long, slow bow across violin strings or washing the back of a wounded soldier lying on a gurney, washing and scrubbing, gently and softly. His hand followed the grain in the wood, and the smell of his shop and of his underarms was, like incense, wholesome and good, because one had to be selfless and unsparing in one’s work, he said, and there was piety in his gesture, and everything about him told you he was honest, humble, and good. We could not oil the wood sitting down. Instead, the two of us stood around the frame, I dabbing then sliding the cloth at one end, as he had shown me, he at the other. When he caught me working too hastily, he asked me to slow down. Con calma, calmly. It was hot in the shop, we sweated. I was happy.
“Let’s let it dry for now,” he said afterward.
He said he would show me how to work on the desk. Meanwhile, I would be the one to work on the box, he said, tutto da solo, all by yourself.
As some point, a fly landed on my face and was crawling on my cheek. It itched and I wanted to scratch the spot, but then in an effort to flick it away I ended up damping my cheek with the rag dunked in linseed oil. Not to worry, he said. He folded another rag, added the slightest drop of thinner on it, brought it to my face, and with one finger pressing under the rag itself, dabbed the spot on my cheek with cautious, tentative, timid taps that told me he was trying not to let the thinner burn. I loved how he touched my face, cared for my face; there was far more friendship and kindness in this man’s tiny gesture than in anyone related to me by blood. I wished it had been his whole palm that had touched my face and had made the burning go away. “Don’t move,” he said as he dabbed the spot again. “I said don’t move.” I didn’t move. I could now feel his breath, he was going to kiss me. He brought his finger to his mouth, put some spit on its tip, and applied it to the spot of my cheek. I would have done anything he asked at that moment. “Just another touch, be patient, it won’t burn,” he had said, and I trusted him, and I liked trusting him, and my mother’s warning didn’t for a second matter to me, because what coursed through my mind at that very moment was that instead of rubbing my cheek with that rag he should have rubbed my cock ever so gently with it, and if it burned, as I knew it would, so be it, so long as I let him hold it in the palm of his hand as he’d done with both my hands the other day. I could feel the burning begin to spread on my cheek and intensify, and it hurt, but I didn’t mind, because he had said it wouldn’t hurt, and I wanted him to know that I trusted him, trusted everything, that I didn’t mind when he dabbed his spit again on my face, because I didn’t mind, didn’t mind, because it was my fault if it burned, not his, not ever his. When he patted my cheek with the palm of his hand, without thinking I leaned into it and let the side of my face rest on it. But I did it discreetly. He didn’t notice.
“Wasn’t so bad now, was it?” he said, tapping my cheek again and smiling. An old pockmarked mirror with multiple tain stains revealed a reddish blotch on my cheek.
“Back to work,” he said.
Nearing sundown, he threw me a rag to clean my hands with. He threw it the way our swimming instructor at school used to fling towels at each of us as soon as we got out of the pool.
There was peace and such longevity in those afternoon hours after my tutorial. Pastry, lemonade, and the small box, which had become my project and mine only, while he looked over my shoulders and kept an eye on my progress. You could keep doing this as his forefathers had done, day in and day out, hour after hour, year after year. We make assumptions about how our lives are being charted without knowing that we’re even making these assumptions—which is the beauty of assumptions: they anchor us without the slightest clue that what we’re doing is trusting that nothing changes. We believe that the street we live on will remain the same and bear its name forever. We believe that our friends will stay our friends, and that those we love we’ll love forever. We trust and, by dint of trusting, forget we trusted.
A few days later, I almost ran into my mother as she was walking down Sant’Eusebio. I immediately ducked into the tiny bookstore, hoping that if she walked in, she’d see me trying to decide what novel to purchase. No sooner had I made certain that she was farther down the street than I headed to Nanni’s. He was busy putting back our desk in its corner. She had dropped in for another one of her spot inspections.
He told me right away to come in. “Oggi non si scherza, no joking today,” he said. I put on my dirty apron as I was in the habit of doing and waited for my orders. But then I saw that the small box, which I’d thought was entirely mine to work on, had been resanded, presumably by his younger brother. Obviously he didn’t like the way I’d primed it and had asked his brother to undo my work. But I was wrong. “Today you’ll watch what I do with the desk. Then you’ll do exactly the same with the box. First we need to find some stain. I like to start with the corner, so you’ll start with a corner too.”
I did everything he asked and copied every move he performed on the desk, using the same products.
I stained and kept staining as he showed me, slowly, smoothly, sedulously. We seldom talked when we worked, although occasionally we’d discuss soccer teams. I don’t think we even thought about anything while working. We just worked. When we were finished for the day, he had me stand facing him, placed a hand on my shoulder, and inspected my face. I was fine. No blotches anywhere. “You worked well.”
“And you too worked well,” I said, sensing that this was something said among workers after a long day’s work.
He nodded. A moment of silence followed. “So, tell me, was my hand shaking today?”
I must have given him the most petrified look while attempting a blank, baffled, uncomprehending stare. I’m sure he noticed.
“Paolo, scherzavo, I was joking,” he said, obviously trying to remedy my shock. I believed him. But the ground had shaken under me.
On my way home, I stopped by the Norman chapel and sat on my plinth and looked out to the sea toward the lights on the mainland as I liked to do just before twilight after work. Except that this time I felt as though I’d been carved open in one of those old anatomical theaters while my heart was still pounding and my lungs still breathing and every organ in my abdomen laid bare to a multitude of snickering young medical students.
I had filched a piece of a damp rag from Nanni’s shop and had snuck it into the paper bag I’d brought from the baker’s that day. I took it out and then unbuttoned and pulled down my shorts. I liked being stripped and exposed, as though this is what I’d been meaning to do for hours. I wanted him to see me naked. With the rag in one hand I dabbed my cock once with it. But feeling nothing save a mild tingling, I dabbed it a second time. Then I began to feel it. It was hot at first, and it thrilled me, because I felt as though something other than my hand was touching me, but then it began to burn, and to burn more and, without relenting, even more. I began to panic, because it hurt, and though part of me wanted it to hurt and liked that it hurt, I feared that the burning might never go away, that my cock would always burn, in my sleep, or when I bathed, or when I sat in our dining room with my parents, or when I dropped into Nanni’s shop. I began to be horrified by what I had done to myself. Perché, ma perché, I groaned out, thinking that this was his voice speaking to me and that if he knew what I’d just done to myself, he would have shown up in this vacant little chapel within seconds and held me in the palm of his hand to make the burning go away. And I thought of his spit, and how the spit had eased the burning, and, because I didn’t know anything else, all I could do was break down and say, Ma che cosa ti sei fatto? What did you do to yourself? And just hearing his voice say these words as I spoke them out loud tightened my throat and made it impossible to breathe until I burst out sobbing. I had never felt so sorry for myself.
I thought I was crying because of the pain or because I was starting to panic. But I knew that there was another reason, though I couldn’t fathom the reason or why it had brought me to tears. There was sorrow in the chapel and in my heart and across the water toward the mainland and more sorrow in my body, because I didn’t know my body and the very simple thing I needed at the moment. And I thought of the years ahead of me and knew that this was never going to go away, that even if the burning subsided and wore itself off, I would never live down the shame or ever forgive myself or him for making me do this. I would sit on this very same spot in the years to come and remember that never in my life had I known the sort of loneliness that you can actually touch on your body. I threw the rag on the ground and before entering the house made sure to wash my hand, arms, and knees, using the gardener’s faucet and his dirty bar of soap.
* * *
AFTER MY TUTORIAL a few days later, I went to his shop and for the first time found the door shut. When I knocked, all I heard was the glass panels rattling against the old wooden door. He was never not there, I thought, so he had to be inside. I began to pull the bell. Its hollow chime told me that it was pointless to insist, but I pulled and made more noise, heedless of what those in the vicinity might say, totally persuaded that he’d materialize at some point. It was Alessi, the barber, who finally stepped out of his shop, and standing on the lane, he shouted, “Can’t you see no one’s there?” I was angry, crushed, humiliated. I could still hear the tinnitus of the bell in my head as I stomped down the cobbled lane on my way home. Why had he let me down, why had I trusted, why had I even gone there in the first place? I had no idea what had happened to him, or where he was, or why he wouldn’t open the door. I should never have allowed myself to take his friendship for granted—what friendship?
I fell prey to the same paralyzing sense of panic I had known earlier that year on parents’ day at school when I knew that my teachers’ report was not going to go over well. I should never have trusted him so blindly. He wasn’t my friend, was never going to be. I should have known, should have found friends my age.
To make matters worse, it started to rain, the water pelting my head as I saw the lights of our home in the distance and knew that by the time I reached our porch, I would be soaking. No Norman chapel today. Serves me right. I must never trust anyone, won’t ever seek anyone out again, never. I had only one friend on this planet, my father, and even then, I wouldn’t know what to tell him. Tell him what? That I felt totally awkward, that I was hurt, that I wished to hate Nanni, that we should never hire him again, that Nanni was no better than the ruffians who hung outside Caffè dell’Ulivo at night and talked dirty or made obscene sounds when a woman passed by?
But before pushing open our door all the way, I spotted our cylinder desk sitting in the entrance and next to it the two picture frames leaning half wrapped against the wall. Then I heard Nanni’s voice. I was in heaven. He was standing with my mother, trying to help her find an appropriate spot for the desk. They had turned on the lights, which made it seem far later in the day than it actually was. He was discussing the damage done to furniture by sunlight, which is why, he said, she should keep the desk away from the large balcony window. She listened, quietly and softly caressing the wood as though she needed to touch it to believe it but also feared she’d disturb it. I too was startled by the desk’s brilliance. What made me happier yet was the thought that while I was pulling his bell ever so feverishly that afternoon, all he was doing was standing in our living room talking to my parents, showing off his work.
I told them that I was running upstairs to change, took everything off, left all my wet clothes on the floor, and came right downstairs in my bathrobe and stood in the doorway, thinking, I worship this man.
“I also took the liberty of using a new product on the bronze to bring out its gloss,” he explained. He had never told me that he’d done this. My mother said she hadn’t noticed the bronze, but, yes, he was right, even the bronze keyholes he had tinkered with that very first time had acquired an unmistakable gloss. He explained how he had replaced the keyhole on one of the drawers, because at some point, who knows when, someone had replaced it with one that did not match the design, which meant he had to replace the key as well. “Probably my crazy great-uncle Federico,” he said. Then he described the design on the keyhole on the desk and pointed at its quatrefoil pattern. I saw his hands as I’d seen them the first time weeks earlier in this very room. They hadn’t changed. Even with sandpaper and who knows how many years of resin, paint thinner, lacquer, and acid, they were kind and ever so smooth to the touch, as I’d felt when he helped remove the stain from my cheek, when he rubbed my hair with his palm when I said I didn’t need an apron, when he held both my hands in one of his and began to clean them. I remembered his bare chest under the apron.
Then my mother asked, “And the small box?”
“The small box,” repeated Nanni, suddenly taking his time. “That’s a real gem.” He removed the drawers as he’d done that first day, but this time the drawers slipped out smoothly, without friction or sound. He reached into the desk and pulled out the box. I hadn’t seen it in days and had no idea it would look so finished, so radiant.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he asked.
“You’re a miracle worker.”
She inspected the key and the lock. I had never seen either the new key or the new lock before, because while I was working on the box in the shop, Nanni had already removed the lock.
My mother couldn’t help herself and complimented him again. He made a nodding gesture that was meant both to acknowledge yet play down her compliment. He lifted his face and looked over in my direction and cast something that might almost have been the flicker of a complicit smile, and then looked down at the box he held in his hand before setting it upon the refurbished desk, saying nothing. It meant, Let it be our secret.
So we had a secret.
But the real secret was not that I had gone to see him almost every afternoon but that he sensed I didn’t want my parents to know. This was the secret.
It never occurred to me to wonder why he hadn’t brought up my visits, or why he hadn’t acknowledged my role in polishing the box.
I nursed that secret all through my Latin homework that evening. An hour or so later, I went downstairs again, thinking that Nanni had already left, and was surprised to see that he was still there, helping my parents put the two paintings back into their frames. I kept hoping he’d speak to me. But he didn’t. When I walked out to get some water in the kitchen, I could hear him explaining to my parents precisely what he had done to the frames. Then my father, who always managed to make people want to confide in him, asked him what other work awaited him in the shop. There was a moment’s silence. Nanni said he wished to move his shop to the mainland, because though he’d inherited the craft and the shop and the apartment above the shop, he wanted to be more than a cabinetmaker. He was a creator, he said, he was an artist, not just a falegname, a carpenter.
I liked the way he had spoken these last words. They came like the admission of something irreducibly truthful. He was speaking with the most guileless humility and something verging on apology, as though asking for my father’s blessing and friendship. “I am speaking to you as to a father,” he finally said. Why had I never opened up to Nanni as truthfully as he was doing now with my father? Would I ever be able to tell him what I’d done to myself in the chapel while hoping he’d pass by to rescue me? Not in ten years, not in a lifetime. And yet I wanted to, and the thought of telling him aroused me.
Nanni was telling my father that there was also the matter of his younger brother. “I promised my father that I would take care of my brother and set him up in business here. So I have to wait until he grows up. But my dream was always to become a journeyman, a compagnon, as they still have in France, to travel and learn from others. Instead, I worked with my father and grandfather, and that served me well enough—still, I need to go away.”
What I loved seeing was the ease with which he spoke to my father, as so many others did in San Giustiniano. I had never confided in anyone this way, not even my father. What it also told me was that this way of baring one’s soul with people was itself the very essence of friendship, which was something I knew nothing about and was precisely what I craved from Nanni, except that I wanted it with his face, from his hands, his smell. Perhaps I wasn’t capable of such trust or of eliciting it in others. Besides, I was just a kid, and I knew it. Did others even think about friendship as much as I did, or did they simply trust you and become your friend naturally? What had ever come naturally to me?
“But why leave San Giustiniano?” asked my mother.
“I can’t go on here. I’ve grown up here. I know everyone. Plus, there’s so much talk in this town. I want to get away.”
I was so intrigued by this person whom I was hearing for the first time that I stood on the threshold of the living room without walking in, fearing that the least step would interrupt the conversation. I wanted him to keep talking. Why didn’t he speak like this when he was with me? He was drinking something with my parents and was sitting in an armchair leaning forward toward my father, both elbows resting on his thighs, as though he hadn’t finished his admission and was still imploring my parents’ leave to hear him out. When he put down his glass, I had the impression that he was just about to reach out and clasp one of my father’s hands. “I am the last person to give advice,” my father finally said. “Besides, who knows of what value my words are, Nanni. But if you really must go away, maybe Europe is not the place. There’s Canada, for instance. Or New Zealand, Australia, and America, of course. But the world is filled with crooks and hooligans.”
“Oh, crooks and hooligans there are plenty around us, more than you know. It’s not because you don’t see them knocking at your door that they’re not here,” he said, eying my father. Then, turning to my mother: “Things are not easy for me here, Signora.”
“For a moment I was sure he was going to ask us for a loan,” said my mother after Nanni had left. “He’s just the type to.”
“But he didn’t. He would never.”
“He will the next time he comes around—you watch. They’re all the same, these people.”
Many people used to come to visit in the evening only to end up trying to borrow funds at the end of their visit. By then I’d usually be asked to leave the room. But I loved to overhear the labored blandishments preceding their request.
Here nothing of the sort was happening.
“Stay in Europe, Nanni, stay here,” said my mother. “You have no idea what taking the first ferry of the year does to me when I cross the water and leave the world behind and finally walk along the esplanade and make out the scent of the fishing boats along the marina. This is heaven.”
Why was my mother saying this, when none of us could forget that our first ride on the ferry this summer had been an unmitigated hell?
“I have some friends at the Canadian embassy who might be able to help,” said my father.
“My husband and I disagree. Which isn’t surprising. You belong here, Signor Giovanni.” But to show there was no significant rift in our household, she moved toward my father’s armchair and sat on its armrest, placing her hand on his shoulder. It suggested warmth, youth, and solidarity, even if her gesture struck me as a touch mannered and too demonstrative for the occasion. It must have seemed so to my father as well, because he simply sat there, rigid, uneasy, letting my mother do the talking, allowing her hand to rest there until she’d tire. “Ironically,” she said, smiling, “we too may be thinking of moving, especially for Paolo’s schooling.”
Nanni turned and looked at me. “Yes, especially for Paolo.”
The way he spoke these words broke my heart. Yet anything having to do with my school could easily devolve into talk about my Latin and Greek exam, my tutor, and ultimately my visits. I panicked. He must have read my mind and stayed clear of the subject.
“We do everything for our children, Nanni. But then one day they leave us and we lose them,” said my father. It was coming out of nowhere.
“I’m not going to leave you,” I said.
My father mused a moment. “I know, I know,” he finally replied. But I could read him well enough to sense he did not believe what I’d just said, for what he really meant with that pensive inflection in his voice was, You may not want to leave now, but one day you will. He looked at Nanni as though to draw a nodding agreement from him, when suddenly, as happened almost every evening, the lights went out. We waited all of us in the dark. My father lit the three long tapers standing on the candle holder on the living room piano and approached the desk in the middle of the room. He wanted to see it in a different light. It looked more stunning by candlelight. It belonged in a museum. “You are an artist,” said my father as soon we saw the cylinder beam like the most polished Stradivarius. “Anzi, a great artist,” my mother added. I was so happy that I wished we’d stay all four of us in this room forever under the intimate, spare glow of the candles. I wanted it to be dark again. I wanted to hug him in the dark.
When the lights came on, Nanni looked at his watch. “Perhaps it’s time I should get back,” he said.
My father walked him to the door while my mother stayed in the living room staring at the desk. I was sure my father had stepped aside to pay Nanni’s fee, which is why I didn’t accompany him. As my father did with everyone, he walked Nanni to the end of the garden, opened the gate for him, and then stood there, courteous as ever, watching his guest make his way back toward the marina. Nanni turned back and waved a second time. No one had extinguished the candles yet. It made me think he was still in the room with us.
“A great talent, but a strange one, this Nanni, a bit creepy, if you ask me, don’t you think?” asked my mother once my father shut our main door behind him.
“Yes, very talented.” He didn’t care to sit in judgment.
“Still, something very louche about him. Can you imagine in what seedy digs he must live? What I think he should do is find a nice girl and settle down in San Giustiniano. This is where he belongs.”
“Maybe,” said my father, “but he’s too complicated to settle down with one of those beefy, unshorn town girls. He’s too polished and too handsome for them. He belongs in the great wide world, in Paris, Rome, London, not a fishing hamlet.”
My father’s admiration, unlike mine, was devoid of equivocation. I envied the absence of smokescreens and double-talk in what he’d said. Nothing stealthy or dissimulated about voicing one’s admiration for another man. Indeed, his praise of Nanni was so unhindered that it made me realize I had never said nor would ever be able to say anything of the sort. I’d have made up something crass about him or pointed to a birth defect here, a tremor there, if only to censor anything that betrayed what I felt each time I found the courage to look in his eyes.
That night, in midsleep, I thought of something I’d overheard my mother say and hadn’t wanted to focus on until I could devote myself entirely to it. I thought—or was it dreamt?—of what she called his seedy living quarters above his shop. I knew there was a stairway leading upstairs, but I had never seen where he lived, how he lived. I wanted to see his room, his things, his shoes, his clothes, touch his bed, his bathrobe, his towel. What if, instead of going to school one winter morning, I took the ferry from the mainland and dropped in on him? Would he put me up, help me dry my feet if it rained that day, lend me something to wear until my clothes were dry? I’d work with him, have lunch with him, and take a long nap on his bed in that ratty brown sweater of his that felt of him and smelled of him and spoke of him in the coarse, sacred tongue of things.
* * *
WHAT I FAILED to realize after he had brought the refurbished frames and desk is that I no longer had a reason to visit him in the afternoon. As I drank my usual lemonade in his shop the next day and asked if there was anything else for me to do, he shook his head and said we were done with the work on my parents’ furniture. He looked awkward, tense. Part of me felt he was struggling to find the right words. “With your parents’ desk finished, maybe it’s time you stopped being a manual laborer,” he said, finally landing on the right words with the right inflection of both humor and apology to soften the blow. His brother Ruggiero was busy sandpapering a drawer, but even though he wasn’t turning around, I could tell he wasn’t missing a syllable.
“So I’ve been allowed here so long as I worked for my parents?” I was so shocked by what he’d just said that I couldn’t phrase my disappointment more delicately.
“You helped a great deal,” he replied, deflecting my question, “and you did a fabulous job, they even said so in your home.”
The startled look on my face must have screamed that he should not have told my mother about me. So it had never been our secret.
I tried not to show how totally rattled I felt. What shocked me even more was not just that my mother had known about my visits to the shop, but that she had decided not to breathe a word of them to me. Her silence suddenly cast a cloud on my visits and confirmed that there was always a troubling and furtive character to what I’d been doing in his shop that justified her silence. Earlier, I had thought of asking my parents to have Nanni come over and look at our dining room table and its chairs, as these too looked so old and beaten that they clearly needed restoring. But now my mother would probably see through this and know that it was only a ploy for me to continue visiting his shop.
When I got home, not a word, not a look, nothing. At dinner, I looked over to my father. He too was inscrutably quiet. Something was bound to come out. It was just a question of when.
But the more days that passed with neither one mentioning my visits, the more difficult it became to even speak his name at home. When my mother did speak it once, while asking me to help her move the desk from one corner of the living room to the other—because we still couldn’t find a spot for it—I pretended I hadn’t heard it. But I caught my entire body shaking. Say his name and I froze. Say “Nanni” and all the bulwarks I’d put around this one word suddenly came crashing down. Say his name in the winter when we were back in the city, and I would suddenly feel a thousand pinpricks tickling the crown of my head. I loved his name. It meant far, far more to me than it did to anyone else. No one would understand, much less explain why it filled me with stealthy pleasure, with anguish and shame.
On one of my last afternoons before leaving San Giustiniano, after my tutorial I dropped by Nanni’s shop. He was there, shirtless, working with Ruggiero on a large drawer that was squatting on its hind side on the cobbled alley. I envied him the peace, the heat, the work, the ancient, timeless ritual of it all. And then, as if something were being torn out of my lungs and needed to be said, I finally found a moment when he was alone to tell him. “I’ve never had friends, you’ve been my only friend,” I said, speaking these words without even realizing I had said them. What I’d meant to say was, I was your friend, I wish you’d stayed mine. Instead we hugged as we always did, except that he said, “Scusa il sudore, pardon the sweat.” But that was exactly what I wanted on my face.
I wouldn’t tell my parents about this. They wouldn’t understand. No one would.
The closest I got to understand anything came much later that winter when I walked into our kitchen and made out the scent of turpentine wafting from the open door of one of the adjoining kitchens in the building. Our neighbors were having their kitchen painted. Suddenly, without thinking, I was on that cobblestone lane in San Giustiniano, headed uphill in the scorching late-July afternoon heat, the shoemaker, the locksmith, the barber, every step marked by what the presage of that scent promised once I’d passed the giant cornerstone where the alley took a turn farther uphill toward the caffè and then up to the castle. The turpentine, I realized that day, was the cover, the cloaking device. What I really wanted was his sweat, his smile, the way he’d speak to me, and the smell of his underarms under exertion on those sweltering summer days. And then, in our kitchen and to my undying shame, I remembered what had occurred between us exactly a day after the episode with turpentine in the Norman chapel.
We were going to work on the frames again. We had brought two chairs out in the alley and sat facing each other with the wooden frame placed on all four of our knees, both of us with our tools on the pavement—the large gouge, the smaller gouge, the tiny awls for digging into the florid patterns to remove the encrusted dirt. Sometimes, when he made an effort with his arm, his knee would bump mine and stay in place until he released the pressure on his hand and began working on another spot on the frame. At first, I’d pull back my knee, but soon I learned to keep mine in place and never pulled back. Sometimes our knees stayed so close you’d think they were like twins who’d grown up together and were happy only when they touched. Once, my knee touched his and made a point of pressing against it. His withdrew. So, to punish him and demean him in my mind, I began to think of him naked under his apron, and I liked thinking of him naked. I knew it was wrong, even cruel, but I couldn’t stop myself, I liked looking at his crotch.
While nursing these disturbing images, I suddenly caught him staring at me. Had he watched my eyes roaming all over his body when he stood up? Was he going to be upset that I had stared?
He had stopped speaking. I began to wonder why. Then I saw him still staring at me. And his eyes were so beautiful and, as it hit me for the first time, so thoroughly green, that I had to look at them some more. My impulse had always been to look away to avoid his eyes, but they held me, and I wanted to be held by them, for they were ordering me not to turn away this time, for this was why adults stared each other in the eye: you looked straight back and there was no running away for cover, because you were invited to stare too, because it was no longer a breach of any kind, it was a breach not to stare—which is when I realized that what I’d been craving all this time was his eyes, not his hands, not his voice, not his knees, or even his friendship, just his eyes, for I wanted his eyes to rest forever on me the way they were doing just now, because I loved the way they hovered over my face and eventually landed on my eyes like the hand of a holy man who is about to touch your eyelids, your forehead, your whole face, because his eyes kept swearing I was the dearest thing in the world, because there was piety, grace, and beneficence in his gaze that favored me with its beauty and told me there was no less piety, beauty, and grace in mine. And this, on one of my last afternoons in his shop and in that distant part of the globe, was a wellspring of happiness, hope, and friendship. He had looked at me with sorrow because I was leaving soon. I was his friend. There was nothing more to want. But something broke the moment he said, “You shouldn’t stare at people like this.”
His words cut me. All at once our delicate exchange of glances was out in the open and dashed to pieces, exposed by the very person who should never have been so thoroughly aware of it.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re old enough to know,” he chided. “Or aren’t you?”
Something cold, curt, almost ill-tempered in this short snub couldn’t begin to chime with the grace and tenderness of a moment earlier. Had I made the whole thing up?
I immediately averted my eyes and kept looking away, as if to prove him wrong and to show that something to my left had caught my attention and had nothing to do with him. But I had begun to shake. I had violated something. But what? All I knew was that he had put me in my place—and in the process left me feeling totally numbed. Never had I been scolded without anger in someone’s voice, or felt so easily unraveled by words that were neither hostile nor harsh, which was why they hurt so much—because he might have meant them kindly, because I knew he was right, because he could see right through me, and I disliked this so much yet liked it so much. I had hoped to cross a line while staring and get away with it without his knowing or calling me on it. This was worse than being scolded by a schoolteacher, or caught lying or stealing, worse than when I’d made an obscene gesture at a fruit vendor only to see the old man turn to me and say, Svergognato, shameless. Nanni might as well have said Svergognato. He had seen who I was, construed every filthy bend in my heart and read my foulest thoughts—he knew, knew everything, knew what I’d been looking at the moment he had stood up to fetch sandpaper, knew what I was doing when I touched his knee. I felt so trounced by the implied reprimand in his quiet words that I was about to ask him please not to tell my parents.
“Did I offend you, Nanni?” I finally had the courage to ask, perhaps as a way of allaying his reaction. Unable to stand the sudden chill between us, I asked, “Are you angry with me?” I could tell my voice was failing. He too could tell.
He nodded ever so slightly five or six times, pensive as I’d never seen him before. Then he gave me a patronizing smile.
“Sta’ buono, Paolo, e va’ a casa, behave, Paolo, and go home. I’ll see you in a few days,” he said.
But there was still that dark, unwavering glare in his eyes, as though he was holding something back. “But I don’t want to leave yet,” I mumbled, before even thinking, already resigned to leave, which is why I drew closer for the usual goodbye hug.
“Devi, you must.”
He said it without the slightest rebuke in his voice, like a dismissal that could easily be mistaken for a plea. He was stepping back from me.
I didn’t understand what devi meant that day. But thinking back now to that one word and to the way he’d spoken it, I must have sensed somewhere that this was the first time in my life that someone had treated me not as the child I still was or as a child who’d stayed out playing with friends one evening without letting his parents know he’d be late for supper, but as someone who on that very hour had strayed from being just a boy to becoming a desirable young man, who had tempted, maybe even threatened, someone quite older. On that day, without knowing the first thing, I’d been let into someone’s life as surely as I’d drawn him into mine. It took years to suspect he had struggled.
I had seen my father bid my brother farewell a year earlier at the train station, and the two had hugged before my father released himself from his son’s embrace and asked him to just go now, for both our sakes.
I didn’t hug Nanni again. I walked out of his shop, already planning my return in a day or so. After that, perhaps I might come back in the winter sometime. But I was also aware—and it came to me for the first time as I was heading back home that evening—that this, however unreal and unthinkable, might be my last time in his shop.
For the next few years, what that devi meant kept changing like the colors on a mood stone. Sometimes it was like a slap and a warning; sometimes like the shrug of a friend who chooses to overlook a slip and pretends to forget; and sometimes, it burned through me like muted, imperiled consent. Go away is what one said to the devil, when the devil is already in us, and what he meant with that look in his eyes as he watched me walk away was, If you don’t leave now, I won’t fight you.
On leaving his shop that day, I couldn’t have been more furious. I stomped along my shortcut, stopped at the Norman chapel, sat on the plinth to look out to the sea toward the mainland, but couldn’t gather my thoughts. All I was aware of was that I’d been chastised and then dismissed. I was livid. Because I knew he was right. He knew me more than I knew myself, and there was nowhere to hide from his words. Behave, Paolo, and go home. And as I was sitting there, I don’t know what seized me, but I tore off all my clothes, removed my sandals, even, and sat naked inside the chapel, trying to imagine that Nanni had told me to undress and stay naked until he’d come. And I sat there on the chipped limestone and saw us talking together, both naked, and I could tell he was going to touch me, but instead he looked down on my body and, smiling, started to spit on my thighs, my groin, my erection, and on my chest, as if to put out a fire, and I loved how I had come up with the idea of his saliva dripping on my body, because it told me that after doing this to me there was no way he wouldn’t come by now. I waited forever, aroused and naked, hoping he’d come, because he had to. I didn’t know what else to do.
It was nighttime when I got home. In the mirror before bathing, I looked awful, but no one asked why I was home so late, or what had happened to make me look so gaunt and disheveled. But I knew that day that if I was ever going to come back as an adult to the island it would be to build my home in that chapel. It had seen me suffer and cry as I’d never wept before. I knew every one of its exposed stones, every inch, every weed, every crawling lizard, down to the feel of the chipped stones and pebbles under my bare feet. I belonged here the way I belonged to this planet and its people, but on one condition: alone, always alone.
And as I stood inside the abandoned chapel that I had sworn someday to rebuild and make my home, I also knew then that if I had to wait ten years to see Nanni again, I would rather die now. Take me now, I asked, just take me now. I didn’t have such a decade in me. But what I also began to sense after sundown that evening, as I’d already sensed on the evening I stood burning in my nakedness in this old sanctuary, was the certainty that I was lying, that I would indeed be willing to wait and still wait, as those who stop their lives to expiate forgotten crimes are told to wait, because their true punishment is no longer to know whether they’re actually waiting for pardon and grace, or whether what they’ve waited for has long been granted unbeknownst to them, and that they’d lived out the term of their life without ever holding what was theirs to have and theirs alone. This was my first encounter with time. I became a person that evening, and I had him to thank. And blame.
* * *
NOW, ON THAT same shortcut years later, past the Norman chapel and the lime grove, I had the feeling that I should never have come. I had come for nothing. All that remained of our house was the blackened stump of what seemed a far, far smaller house than I remembered. For a moment I thought that someone had tampered with the layout, but the walls told me that this indeed had been the size of our house. The windows, the doors, the roof, all gone, and as I stepped into what had once been our living room, I thought of those Gothic abbeys that are completely hollow and all that stands between heaven and earth is a gutted hull and grass in the middle. But there was no grass here. Just metal scraps everywhere, peeling shreds of what I forgot had been the dark lime-green wallpaper in our living room, and in the middle a dead cat teeming with maggots. This was the carcass of our house. All I could think of was the silverware. Silverware doesn’t burn, doesn’t melt. Some of it bore my grandfather’s initials, and therefore mine as well. Where was the silverware? They’d most likely say it disappeared with the house. Everything disappeared. Sparito. That one word was supposed to explain everything, because what else could one say about honor and friendship and loyalty, except that time undoes them all, erases debts, forgives plunder, overlooks larceny and betrayal? Civilization would never be jump-started here unless all was whitewashed and forgotten. My room was upstairs—but of upstairs not even a trace. Something in me had died here. The night the lights went out and I wished to be held in the dark, not a trace of that either. The day he walked out with the desk and I thought of Aeneas and how I wanted to be his son. The evening I stood on the threshold to our living room and thought why can’t I be him instead of me. The evening I sat naked before God and couldn’t even begin to know what I wanted. So much had happened since that last summer—schools, lovers, my mother’s death, more travels, and above all the loss of people I didn’t even know I had yet to meet and love but then lost track of and never saw again.
Looking around me, I began to suspect that many of the locals were observing me survey the grounds but that none would come out to say hello. The more I thought of them, the more I lingered over what had once been our home. I was touching and groping its debris, less to see if I recognized anything than to show those spying from behind their lace curtains that I had every claim to what I was doing. And yet as I continued wishing to prove that I belonged here and that what I was touching was mine, I was growing uncomfortable, sensing that I should perhaps avoid picking things up for fear anyone might mistake me for a thief. All I needed now was to be arrested for trespassing in my own home.
Suddenly it hit me that what I’d lost was not only our house but also the right to think it would be mine someday. I owned nothing here. I remembered my grandfather’s pen. Should I even bother to look for it, or had it melted too?
A stray dog who had been watching me from a distance finally nuzzled up to me. I did not know him, nor did he know me. But we shared one thing—we belonged to no one here. From where I now stood, rebuilding seemed so pointless. I never wanted to come back here. The mere thought of rebuilding and of hiring architects, builders, masons, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters, and of walking up and down the glistening empty lanes past sundown in the rainy winter months here horrified me.
And yet my life started here and stopped here one summer long ago, in this house, which no longer exists, in this decade, which slipped away so fast, with this never love that altered everything but went nowhere. You made me who I am today, Nanni. Wherever I go, everyone I see and crave is ultimately measured by the glow of your light. If my life were a boat, you were the one who stepped on board, turned on its running lights, and was never heard from again. All this might as well be in my head, and in my head it stays. But I’ve lived and loved by your light alone. In a bus, on a busy street, in class, in a crowded concert hall, once or twice a year, whether for a man or a woman, my heart still jolts when I spot your look-alike. We love only once in our lives, my father had said, sometimes too early, sometimes too late; the other times are always a touch deliberate.
* * *
A FEW YEARS earlier a classmate in college had shown me an article about San Giustiniano and asked if this was the same San Giustiniano I’d mentioned once. I wasn’t sure, I said. Even when I looked at the picture of the bay I continued to say I wasn’t sure—as if something in me no longer wanted to believe that the place could still exist without me there. It was the first and only time I’d ever seen a picture of the island in print. The article didn’t refer to anyone in particular, just to a significant police presence in this little-known fishing community in Italy. There had been no murders, the article said, but there were a few incidents involving the Mob where groups of young men were rounded up, stripped, questioned, beaten, and later released. The article spoke of local mobsters. I had an image of naked young men covering their genitals with both hands; it was the only other time in my life when I’d allowed myself to imagine Nanni standing stark naked. It felt like a taboo. All I imagined was Nanni trying to comfort his panicked younger brother. This was all hearsay, I figured, but until that very day in school, with the magazine in my hand showing an ancient stock photograph of the marina of San Giustiniano, I’d seldom allowed myself to linger on the thought of him without clothes. Something like deference and simple decency toward the young man whom I venerated and who had stepped into our living room and confided in my parents with such unguarded candor had always stood in the way. But the magazine stirred images I could no longer suppress. What was even more disturbing was that the article made a veiled suggestion of vile acts committed by the carabinieri. I read in these vile acts what had long been on my mind. I knew I was feeling a lingering, insidious joy in thinking of what the police could have done to him, as though their crime had freed my imagination and allowed it to roam into secret chambers I had so cautiously locked and lost the keys to. Had I stayed in San Giustiniano, I might have been one of these young men standing naked next to him.
I lingered awhile longer, then decided to move toward a house adjoining ours. My father had heard that the other houses had suffered no damage and stayed intact despite their proximity to the fire. I knocked at the door, but no one was home. I walked behind the house and knocked at the back door in case they hadn’t heard my knock at the front door. But no one answered there either. I waited, then knocked once more. Someone must be home, I thought, because the garden hose was running. “C’è nessuno? Is anyone there?” I cried out. I heard one door bang shut inside. Someone was coming to open. But then I heard another door shut. I could even hear the patter of hasty footsteps. They weren’t coming to the door, they were scrambling to the other side of the house. Possibly children who were warned never to open the door to strangers. Or children playing a prank. Or just people avoiding strangers.
I had no better luck with the house next to that one.
On my way to try the fourth and last house along our stretch, I eventually ran into someone I thought I recognized because of his limp: it was our old gardener. He, it turned out, now owned a house much farther down on the same road. Had he seen me first, he would probably have skittered away like everyone else. He remembered my father, he said. He remembered my older brother and my mother—and with great affection, he added. He remembered the two Dobermans that accompanied my father wherever he went. I don’t think the gardener remembered me at all. I told him that my brother had settled elsewhere but that we all missed San Giustiniano still. I lied, perhaps to make conversation, or to draw him out, or just to show we bore no hard feelings for the locals. My father was aging and was sad he couldn’t come in the summer. I understand him, said the gardener. And your mother? È mancata, I said, she’s no longer with us.
“There was a huge fire,” he said after a while. “Everyone came to see, but the flames ate everything. The firemen arrived from the adjoining town and were a band of incompetent sciagurati, wretches. They expected the fire to wait for them, but by the time they came everything was already up in smoke. The conflagration was brutal and so fast.”
He kept quiet for a moment.
“So you came to see.”
“So I came to see,” I echoed. “It’s always so quiet and so peaceful,” I said, trying to show I had come with no agenda whatsoever. But then, after chatting mostly about nothing, I was not able to hold back. “Was anything salvaged—anything?”
“Purtroppo, no, unfortunately, no. It hurts me to say it. Yours was the most beautiful house—and all that lovely furniture. I remember it well. At least you weren’t here to witness what we all saw. Indimenticabile, unforgettable.”
There was a touch of high drama in his narrative. He must have sensed it too. “And now look at this cat,” he said in an attempt to change the subject and bring things down to a lower key. “I’ll have to go and find something to wrap it in and bury it now.”
“Tell me about Nanni.”
“Nanni the carpenter?”
As if there were another.
“Quello è stato veramente sfortunato, now, he was truly unlucky. The police suspected him, since he knew the house. They suspected his brother as well.”
“Why?” I asked, looking up at the scenery and the surrounding trees and affecting fatigue and nonchalant admiration verging on apathy so as not to show I was actually grilling him.
“Why, why. Is there ever a why? Everyone knew he came to restore the furniture. He was always restoring this, repairing that. Your father trusted him.”
“And what do you think?’
“The only one who had a key to the house was Nanni. Even I didn’t have a key. So it was natural to suspect him, but they arrested a whole group of them, not because of the fire but because some robbers used the house for smuggling and hoarding stolen goods. The carabinieri beat everyone. Then they had them strip and continued to search and beat them. So one sick officer came up with a twisted idea, singled out two young men and I don’t have to tell you what this officer wanted the two of them to do. I was there and witnessed everything. Nanni refused. He said he couldn’t. ‘Why?’ yelled the officer, slapping him twice in the face and then with his belt. ‘Because he is my brother.’ I heard those very words from his mouth and it broke my heart, because everyone knew that the two were inseparable, especially after their parents died. But then another officer stepped in and let the younger brother go. The poor boy opened the gate as fast as he could and dashed off naked, crying Nanni’s name as he ran out into the night. They beat Nanni more, of course. There was going to be an inquest, but Ruggiero was a smart lad. He packed all he could, stole into the office where Nanni was being kept that night, and the two ran away.”
“He and his brother hid in the hills for a few days, then at night they took a boat and rowed to the mainland. And from there, Canada, Australia, South America, chissà dove, who knows where.”
Again I looked around the scene where our old house stood.
“So who really burned the house?”
“Who’ll ever know. Many had their eyes on the house. But why would anyone burn it? Maybe an accident. Or it could be the Mob.”
“And Nanni? Do you think he had anything to do with it?”
“Not Nanni. Your father was like a father to him. We all knew that the house was stocked with contraband that year, but no one dared to say anything. Nanni, however, was the easiest one to blame. The police knew it was the Mob, but they blamed him.”
The gardener squatted down to pick up the cat, and with the dead animal in one arm, he hugged me with the other.
We were on the point of saying goodbye when I asked him one last question. “Why are people avoiding me?”
He chuckled. “Because they’re afraid you’ve come to repossess the land. Everyone has an eye on abandoned land these days.”
I smiled. “Are you eyeing abandoned land these days?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t be human if I weren’t.”
Then, to test his reaction, I told him we were probably going to rebuild the house. Part of me was almost ready to swear I wasn’t lying.
“So I will be your gardener again.”
“So you will be our gardener again.”
He gave me another hug, and without thinking, I caught myself embracing him as well.
I never wanted to see his face again. He knew, as I knew, that he had no intention of being a gardener. One day I’ll come back and find he owns all the adjoining properties, including ours.
* * *
ON MY WAY back to the harbor, I crossed the tiny piazza and decided to knock at the small door that opened to the mayor’s one-room office. There, an old lady who had pulled open her desk drawer and was busy rummaging for something in its rickety, cluttered space, told me that her son wasn’t in the office. “Come back tomorrow” was her peremptory reply when I asked when he’d be back. But I was leaving this afternoon, I said, and then introduced myself. She interrupted whatever she was doing in her drawer, seemed to recognize the family name, and gradually remembered that our villa had burned down. Years ago, wasn’t it? she asked. Then, suddenly, she was cordial, deferential, almost diffident. In a year or so we were going to rebuild, I said, not so much to convey a fait accompli or to project a sense of ownership and authority but more to test her reaction. She couldn’t have looked more disappointed. “Mi dica allora, so tell me,” she said, already anticipating worse news. There was nothing to say. I just wanted the mayor to know we were going to hire builders from the mainland. I knew she would have preferred local workers. There was spite in my heart, and I liked watching discontent limn itself on her features. “Please tell your son that I came by today.” And as I opened the door, I pivoted and performed what I hoped was one of those accomplished inspectors’ by the way exit lines seen in so many movies: Did she happen to know how one could reach Giovanni, the cabinetmaker?
The old lady thought for a moment. No, she didn’t. “Quello è sparito tempo fa! He disappeared long ago.” “Any idea where?” She hunched her shoulders. “Perhaps your father knows.” Why would my father know? I asked. But she didn’t hear me or pretended not to and was back rifling through her wide-open desk drawer. Finally, with a barely concealed dismissive glance, she said, “Good luck finding workers.”
I headed out into the blazing sun, where I looked for a caffè. I wanted to sit somewhere and jot down thoughts about my return visit. I thought of seeking my Norman chapel, but I’d already seen it on my way to our grounds and, strangely, it hadn’t spoken to me.
Nothing spoke to me. Even jotting a few thoughts in my notebook failed to mean anything. I wanted something and could not begin to know what it was. The last thing I’d written was I’ve come back for him. And that was hours ago. I closed my notebook and looked around. I was seeing the place for the first time. I was seeing it for the last time. The caffè faced the harbor, with a view of the town uphill, while fishermen were at work with their cordage and nets. At this hour of the morning, I was the only customer. None of the umbrellas had been opened yet, and I knew that sitting under direct sunlight would inevitably give me a headache. So after finishing my coffee I decided to walk back up into town and amble about in the shade. I remembered where the bookseller was and hoped to drop by and buy something to while away the time until the ferry docked. But I also thought I should visit my old tutor and get this personal errand out of the way.
I had forgotten absolutely nothing and was able to find his building right away. At the entrance, by the portico, sat the same lopsided, dilapidated mailboxes I had seen a decade before. His name was written in large capitals that betrayed an old man’s tremor as well as his determined will to proclaim his name. He had written each letter three times, once in purple, twice in blue, on square math paper that had been folded over to fit in the name slot. Prof. Sermoneta. Interno 34. I hadn’t forgotten that either.
After climbing the spiral stairway, I stopped on the fourth floor and rang his doorbell. I felt nothing. From behind the door, I could hear the clumsy chink of dishes and silverware, then the slow shuffle of feet, and a tremulous, ill-tempered, jerky hand opening the locks on the door. The same three locks, and as always the same struggle to remember which lock went which way, which invariably put him in a foul mood before even opening his door to you. This also made you want to crawl in and apologize for troubling him to teach you Latin and Greek.
He was wearing slippers, as usual. Chi è? he asked with the door still shut. But before I could make up my mind how to let him know who I was, he had already flung the door open, almost with a rage. “Ah, sei tu? Oh, it’s you?” he said on seeing me. “So come in.” I stepped inside. The place smelled as it always did: of camphor for his joints and of Tuscan mini-cigars, which had always made my clothes stink. “I was just washing some dishes, come in, come in,” he said impatiently as he led me straight into the kitchen. “And give me a hand, will you.” He handed me a towel and a teacup, which were immediately followed by a saucer and a plate. “Dry them well.” This too hadn’t changed. You became his apprentice, his disciple, his servant. “So you’ve come for a lesson?” I stared at him in disbelief. Did he really remember me, or was he just trying to hide that he had absolutely no idea?
“No, no lessons for today,” I said, almost catching myself saying it the way one might turn down a strong dose of grappa on an empty stomach for breakfast.
“Why not? A bit of Latin never hurt,” he insisted. We might as well have been arguing about grappa. “Have you studied?”
These were strange questions. He hadn’t seen me in a decade and he was picking up a conversation from scarcely the other day.
“Why haven’t you studied? Are you not well?” he asked.
“I’ve been quite well,” I said, changing my mind about telling him what I’d studied in college, how, despite failing my Latin and Greek exam ten years earlier, I had majored in classical literature. I was even going to allege that it was because of him that I had developed a fondness for Greek literature. For all he knew, it seemed, I was just late for class again and, as usual, had been playing marbles with the local boys before coming upstairs for my tutorial.
“Allora nothing, really. My father asked me to say hello,” I lied. I was not going to mention my mother.
“And promise to say hello back. Promise?”
“Do you still read one canto a day?” I asked, trying to break the strain in our conversation, only to realize I had given it a further torsion.
“A canto a day it still is.”
“And do you still teach?”
“And do I still eat?” he snapped back, parodying my question.
He looked at me as if I was meant to provide an answer to his question. But in this strange conversation, I had nothing to add. I had not expected such erratic small talk.
“Of course I teach,” he went on, seeing I had failed to supply an answer in the allotted time. “Not as much as before. I need to sleep more, but I have some very gifted students.”
“Like me?” I asked, trying to liven the conversation with a dash of irony.
“If it pleases you to think so, why not. Like you.”
As he was lighting his cigar I couldn’t help but ask, “Do you remember me?”
“Do I remember you? Of course I remember you. What kind of a question is that?”
“Because I remember everything,” I added, swiftly trying to cover up my tracks by throwing in the first thing that came to mind.
“And why shouldn’t you remember everything? I’m not going to ask you to decline words today. But don’t tempt me.”
I’d been expecting an expression of utter surprise at the door, even an embrace and a warm welcome once we sat down in his musty old study, not this sputter of jolts and darts.
“These have not been easy times, let me tell you.”
“How so? You ask the most fatuous questions. Everyone is getting wealthy these days, thievery everywhere, except for teachers, to say nothing of penniless tutors in their late seventies. Difficult enough not to afford a new winter coat. Need to hear more? No.”
“Plus there are other issues.”
“Other issues? What other issues?”
“Called old age. May the good Lord spare you that craggy abyss.”
I could do no more than nod.
“You nodded. Why, because you know so much about old age?”
“Your father?” He breathed deeply. “Your father was a genius.”
“My father, a genius?”
“A genius, and don’t disrespect! He knew more than any doctor both here and on the mainland. But he also saw where things were headed here so he decided to move. Not all of us were as prévoyant,” he said, using French to prove he was still in possession of his marbles. “But as a result, this town was left without a single man who had read a book, any book. Except for the pharmacist—and what does the poor clueless soul know about aches and gallstones and enlarged prostates?”
As a joke, I was going to recommend our barber Signor Alessi but held myself back. Still, the comic thought brought a smile to my lips that I couldn’t quite contain.
“This is no laughing matter. You’ve always been a bit of a blockhead, Paolo, haven’t you?”
This was the first time he had used my name. So he did know who I was.
“Explain,” I asked.
“Only a blockhead would need to have things spelled out. To see a real doctor I have to catch the ferry, and a ferry ride in midwinter is no funny business. I see no reason for smiling.”
Was this the lost world I had come looking for—all bile inside his small apartment and rank looting outside? No wonder Nanni couldn’t wait to get out of this medieval gutter that had once been home to pirates and Saracens.
“So your father is well?” he said.
“My father is well.”
“I am happy for you.” As always, bitterness and humanity, like kindness dipped in venom. All I wanted was to get as far away from him as I could. I told him about my visit to what had once been our villa.
“The house did not catch fire. They burned it down, the animals. Everyone came to see. I came to see.” He made a huge gesture with his arms and hands to imitate the conflagration. “They blamed a young cabinetmaker. But everyone knows he had caught the bandits using your parents’ house as a storage space for their loot. Our lovely police were in on it too, I am sure. They arrested him, beat him, then they burned the house.”
“Because everyone in this wretched little town has larceny and treachery seared into his soul, from the mayor to the police down to the hooligans who load and unload their booty in front of our very noses every day.”
A long silence ensued.
“Let’s go for a walk. Otherwise I get drowsy and I don’t want to nap yet. And buy me coffee, because the way things are going with my pension and my measly income these days…”
* * *
PROFESSOR SERMONETA DECIDED to walk me to the town’s caffè. It took him forever to get down the stairs. “When is your ferry leaving?”
“This afternoon,” I said.
“So we have time.” Then, changing registers: “They even tried to blame your father.”
We were walking the narrow lanes together. I had never walked with my tutor anywhere before. He was not a friendly sort, and though my parents told me that his sternness was his way of keeping pupils in tow, I’d always felt that he had singled me out for the sort of abusive treatment one reserves for unruly terriers. I had heard he had a far gentler side to him, but I had no sense of how to bring it out.
He was holding his cane and focusing on each step down the cobbled lane, perhaps his way of avoiding the subject.
I soon began to realize we couldn’t have been headed anywhere but toward vicolo Sant’Eusebio. When we reached the locked-up shop, I found myself struggling not to tell him that I used to come here after our tutorial and that here, as far as I knew, life had started for me.
“I heard the cabinetmaker is gone,” I said after a moment of silence.
“Did you know him?” he asked.
Did I know him! I wanted to say. I was in love with him. Still am. It’s why I’m here. “I knew him,” I finally said.
“We all knew him. I can’t say I knew him well, but at night, in the caffè, after a few glasses, he’d always begin singing with that voice of his.”
“Lovely voice. Always the same aria, though, from Don Giovanni. He didn’t know any other. You know the one,
Notte e giorno faticar
per chi nulla sa gradir;
mangiar male e mal dormir …
“I forget the rest but he’d sing the whole aria.”
I knew the aria all too well and supplied the missing words. My father used to sing it too, I said, the twenty-second variation. Sermoneta laughed.
“But then one night he disappeared,” continued my tutor. “He’s never coming back, you know. I heard rumors he may be in Canada.”
“Why in Canada?”
“I don’t know, Paolo, I don’t know.” He sounded irritated. I could almost swear he was about to call me a blockhead again.
We left Sant’Eusebio and headed farther up toward the caffè within sight of the castle. “Do you still remember the caffè?” he asked.
“How could I forget? I used to come here with my father at night.” Sermoneta remembered; he’d seen us there many times. He parted the curtain and peeked inside. It was dark and empty at this time of the day. But the beefy proprietor was there, as always wiping the counter.
“Salve, Professore,” he said as soon as he saw us step inside.
“Salve,” replied my tutor. We ordered two coffees.
“Subito,” said the proprietor.
“Recognize this young man?” asked my tutor.
The caffè proprietor squinted his eyes and took a good look at me. “No, should I?”
“The doctor’s son.”
The corpulent proprietor mused a moment. “I remember the doctor. I also remember those frightful dogs.” He mimicked a shudder with his neck. Then turning to me, “How is your father?”
“He is well,” I said.
“Ah, your father, what a good man, beloved and missed by everyone here, un vero nobiluomo, a true nobleman. And what a shame about the house.” Then, with a wry smile settling on his features and with his palm chopping the air three or four times to ape the gesture of a man about to administer a light spanking to a child, “Tuo padre, però, your father, however … un po’ briccone era, was a bit of rascal.” He let the sentence trail without finishing his thought, which made me think he’d been simply jesting with me.
He leaned over on the marble countertop, indicating that he was about to lower his voice to a whisper, even though the place was empty. But then he changed his mind. “Acqua passata, water under the bridge,” he said, “acqua passata.” Pulling himself away from the counter and slowly straightening his back with a bit of a grimace, he said, “This town unfortunately is all chiacchiere, all gossip, and I always tell myself, Arnaldo, look the other way, look the other way and never spread rumors about the lives of others, even if the rumors are true. I’m saying this man-to-man, because I think you’re a grown-up now and understand these things.”
But unable to contain himself, the owner turned to my tutor and, almost on the point of snickering, as though the two were sharing an old private joke, he extended both his index fingers and rubbed them together, an ancient gesture suggesting collusion, secrecy, and slop.
“Acqua passata, Arnaldo,” repeated my tutor.
* * *
AS I WALKED my tutor back to his apartment, already sensing that in all likelihood I would never see him again, I began to realize that none of this was really news to me, that perhaps, without having the facts, without suspecting, I had always known, known without knowing. I probably already knew when, for years, my mother, brother, grandmother, great-aunt, and I were so expeditiously shipped off the island at the end of every summer, while my father stayed behind to lock up and arrange everything for the following year. Everyone on the island knew the house.
The caffè proprietor’s gesture said it all. “Early in the morning when they went swimming,” he had said, “then every night in the caffè, and during the winter months too, in case you thought winters were out of the question.”
“How long?” I’d asked, still trying to pretend I wasn’t the slightest bit shaken by what they were telling me. I was assuming a season, a few months.
“Nanni’s parents were very much alive at the time. So he must have been, what, eighteen, nineteen? Why do you think Nanni kept crossing over to the mainland at least twice a month during the winter months? To buy paint thinner?”
Now that I thought of it, it would have taken half a day to close the house every fall, not a whole week to ten days as was my father’s custom every year. No wonder, then, that without knowing exactly why, my mother, heeding an ageless instinct, eventually grew to dislike Nanni and found him so sinister and unsavory. I thought that she, like me, was exaggerating her hostility the better to disguise that she liked him and that, by calling attention to his shortcomings and overstating his flaws, she was asking us to disagree with her, and by disagreeing, speak of qualities she did not have the courage to name herself. I had always thought that it was she who had leaked what I’d said about the tremor in his hands. Small wonder Nanni knew his way about our house. He had most likely examined the desk long, long before he came to discuss the job with my mother. The way he pranced into the living room as though he owned the place, knew there’d be a hidden box inside the desk, addressed my father as his pal, and had even gotten the dogs to like him, plus the whole banter between them about swimming across the bay—all such dead giveaways. And those nightwalks with my father—he, like me, craving to run into Nanni and hoping that by extending our walks and making up excuses to delay heading back home, we might in the end run into him at the caffè. I was like a lover who is suddenly able to cobble together facts and realizes he’s been cheated on for weeks, months, or even years on end.
But I was not jealous. I was happy. And happy not just for them. I saw that, even at such an early age, I had zeroed in on the right person and read the truth about me and about him as well. I wanted him, and he would have wanted me, not when I was twelve, but later. I even drew pleasure in thinking that my passion was inherited, that it was passed on, and therefore fated. Fate always leaves a mark, and those of us who are truly lucky know the signs and how to read them. He would have taught me everything, and most likely given me everything. Instead, years after, I sought out the wrong people, learned from the wrong teachers, took from those who had less to give and almost nothing I wanted. As I walked after dropping off my tutor in the early afternoon, I imagined the two of them on the very evening after our departure, having a quick meal together in the kitchen. A feast on leftovers. By then my father would have sent away all the help, and he and Nanni would be alone in the house, possibly listening to Beethoven as they sat on the veranda without candles or kerosene lamps, to avoid mosquitoes and prying eyes. Their days, their hours were numbered, and they knew it. San Giustiniano would not stand them much longer. Surely there’d been signs, threats, who knows.
I pictured them sitting face-to-face over dinner with a glass of wine each, my father spreading his elbows on the table as he did with me to watch the young man drink from his glass. After the meal, Nanni says, “I’ll clear the dishes,” and knowing my father, he gets up and says, “No, let me. You sit.”
It was at moments such as these, at the beach in the morning or in the caffè at night, that my father would discover I’d worked on the frames and the small box. “The boy works well.” “I am so happy he’s taken an interest,” says my father. “He does. Every day. But I have to tell you, I think he has a crush on me.” The man sitting with his elbows outstretched, watching the young man sip his wine, would not be shocked, nor would he mind hearing this. He might even be a touch amused—like father, like son, he says. “He’s been courting me for weeks,” says Nanni, “and the strange thing is that he probably has no idea. I don’t think he knows anything.”
Nanni stands up now and helps my father with the dishes. “One day he’s bound to find out,” Nanni says.
“With someone like you, Nanni, just like you.”
Nanni was right about one thing. I knew nothing at all.
But had I not eventually learned about the ways of physical love through gossip, hearsay, and foul words, God only knows what I would have invented once seized by the urge to touch another human being.
* * *
I MISSED THE ferry and had an hour and a half to kill before the next one. I’d go up to the castle, I thought, and later tell my father that I’d made memories the way we had pledged to do years before. But instead I walked up vicolo Sant’Eusebio and stopped there for the last time, not sure what I was doing or why, yet sensing that he would have wanted me to do just that, because he would have done it for me, or for my father, it didn’t matter whom. Nothing had changed. I remembered the baker and began heading his way, remembered the bruises on his arms that had made my father and me laugh, and then, as if it were the sound track to this whole place, I remembered Beethoven’s thirty-first variation. Where was Nanni now? I bought two pastries. One for me, one …
Part of me wanted to keep walking around town at this hour of the afternoon and pretend that eventually I’d find the shop open. I had forgotten nothing; this could easily have been ten years ago. My mother was still alive, I hadn’t met Chloe, hadn’t met Raúl, and, for that brief spell one winter during senior year in college, hadn’t run into a chemistry student, whose name I never bothered to ask and whose voice I can’t even recall because we’d hardly ever spoken on the nights we sought each other’s bodies in the dark.
But there was no time, and I could already hear the traghetto sounding its horn. With any luck, tomorrow I’d be in Rome.
Would I have the courage to speak to my father about Nanni—and not only about his Nanni but also about mine?
What I wanted was to spot my father sitting at a small table at his favorite caffè, arrive late as he always complained I did, and before ordering anything, take a seat and say to him, “I think he’s alive.”
“The man you and I loved. He lives in Canada.”
And then it hit me for the first time in my life. My father must have always known what had happened to Nanni, and that if I’d wanted to know, all I needed was to ask him. A blockhead indeed, I thought, almost laughing at my old tutor’s word.
But my father never spoke to me about Nanni. Nor did I broach the subject with him. I never found out what Nanni ended up doing for a living, or what kind of life he led, married, unmarried, partnered or not. But I do know that letters arrived from Canada. I saw an envelope with Canadian stamps lying on Father’s dining table once when I dropped in to see him. But when I came back from the kitchen after making a sandwich, the envelope had disappeared. He didn’t want me to know they corresponded. But I was happy they did.
Years later, while emptying my parents’ home, I found a small sealed package the size of a shoe box addressed to my father. Judging from the postmark, it must have lain there for three years among so many things that had piled up after his death. “Sciusciù,” read the note when I unwrapped and opened the package, “I kept this after you left San Giustiniano. I told you I was sending it back. Please accept it and don’t argue. I’ve known love only once in my life, and it was you.”
I had heard the name Sciusciù used once but had completely failed to pay attention. Nanni had muttered it before leaving our house, probably on the evening when he came to deliver the desk. It was a French word that my father had picked up during his student days in France and used as an endearment with everyone: chouchou. They must have used it with each other.
I replied two years later. “Dear Nanni,” I wrote. “We received your package about five years ago. But it is only now that I’m writing to you. I don’t know why it took so long to write back. My father died six years ago. We never spoke about you. But I knew. Perhaps you never knew this, but I was more like my father with you than you suspected. Or perhaps you knew. Yes, I’m sure you knew. You’ve been with me all my life.”
I didn’t expect a reply.
An envelope arrived a few weeks later. “Maybe you’ll like this picture. I had it copied and wanted you to have it.”
In the picture Nanni and my father are standing in bathing suits with the sea behind them. Nanni’s right arm is resting on my father’s shoulders, while his other hand is holding my father’s left shoulder. My father, his arms crossed, is smiling broadly, and so is Nanni, both trim and athletic. Only then did I realize that though my father was at least twenty years older than Nanni, in the picture they look so much alike that they could be brothers. I had never thought of my father as a handsome man, and yet, in this new light, he was more than just handsome. It had taken me years to see how much alike the two of them were.
Copyright © 2017 by André Aciman