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Dangling Woman

a novel by Clary Antome

     

            

          

             

    1.

     

    I’ve always liked to think of my hometown Cavonno as my private back yard: during adolescence I would spend most of my days out of the house, either at high-school or in the local cafés and bars or at the river just outside town. I knew every corner, every face. There were only about five thousand of us, anyway. Even the criminals and the cops were your pals (unless they were in the mood for a little row). You could walk in the streets at 3 a.m. (slightly tipsy) without a care in the world. That’s at least how I tend to remember my untroubled youth, before I plunged into the big world – and got lost. It’s not an unusual phenomenon, many people cannot handle the stresses and strains of life away from home. Or so my psychotherapist claims. 

    I haven’t been home for three years straight. Most of the time I hardly even thought of Cavonno, I was so busily focused on my “new life”. And actually happy to have left Italy altogether. My parents and teachers had always said that I would have greater chances abroad: “You’re pretty bright, you shouldn’t waste your talents in this dead-end country”. So once I got my Master’s degree from the University of Milan, off I went to Canada where I had some relatives. The first couple of months I worked sporadically as a waitress at my aunt’s restaurant. After that I enrolled in a postgraduate programme in cultural studies at the University of Toronto. And then, halfway through my clumsy research and writing, everything slowly began to fall apart.

    First came the feeling of utter loneliness. Nothing special, I just realized that there wasn’t a single soul in the world I could talk to. Then, some months later, the crying fits started. Out of the blue. It was quite uncomfortable, I saw no logical reason to be sad, every great intellect has felt misunderstood, I told myself. But even this would have been bearable, if people hadn’t become so disgusting to me. The slightest contact with the outside world drove me mad. I began retreating into my bedroom more and more. Also my flatmate was a nuisance, I did my best to avoid facing her. Fortunately she didn’t care. And finally came the suicidal thoughts, bit by bit. It wasn’t dramatic, I didn’t hold a blade to my wrist or anything. I was simply invaded by the recurrent idea that only death could release me from this senseless discomfort. I wasn’t particularly unhappy. I was just fed-up.

    That’s what I told the psychotherapist in our first meeting: “I’m not disturbed by my apparent desire to die. It’s a sensible philosophical conclusion, when you think of it. You know, the absurdity of existence and all that. Many great thinkers have dealt with this issue. I suspect I’m reaching some form of enlightenment here. All I want is that my head shuts up for a few hours, so that I can catch some sleep”. It sounded very reasonable to me. My shrink was a nice chap, he prescribed some pills. Then we started our proper therapy sessions to get to the core of my suffering, he said.

    Maybe he just wanted to get rid of me after hearing me blabber away about life and death (with a penchant for the latter, I admit). In any case, he strongly advised me to return to my origins. I can’t blame the guy, I was the one who suddenly began reminiscing about my adolescence and all the friends and acquaintances in Cavonno. It turned into a slight obsession: what had happened to everybody else? I didn’t feel the courage to write vacuous e-mails – “Hi, it’s me!” – and what would I tell them about my miserable life anyway? My therapist finally suggested that I take some time off and fly home. Why not? Back to the comfort of my parents’ semi-detached house and my cosy little bedroom with its own balcony. And most importantly, back to the wide countryside where everybody can hang out and watch time go by. Maybe I could begin anew.          

     

    ***

     

    Of course I didn’t tell my mother I’m depressed. These kinds of emotions have no place in our family, everyone’s very upbeat. At least on the surface. But I needed to explain why she suddenly had to pay for therapy sessions, so I claimed I had suffered a mild nervous breakdown because of overwork. Nothing much, I’d be back on my feet in no time. She was quite supportive when I informed her about my plan to spend the summer holidays at home, to really take a rest in my family’s reliable company. “We’re all dying to see you,” mum said on the phone.

    When you’re away from home for a longer period, you tend to forget all the conflicts you used to have with your relatives on a daily basis. I was really looking forward to sitting with mum and dad and my younger brother Giaco in our big kitchen, listening to the latest small town gossip and discussing politics (actually, complaining about the incompetent government, whatever party is in power). It would be just like the old days: mum would prepare some nice dishes with the help of Giaco (he loves chopping) while I would sit in front of the TV in the living-room. Then dad would come home from the office just in time for lunch and we would spend the next hour or so praising mum’s cooking and talking about our day. Afterwards we would walk down our residential neighbourhood with our dog Missy to Passatempo, the small café where we drink an espresso after meals and exchange a few friendly words with the owner. Finally, mum and dad would return home with Missy, and Giaco and I would proceed to the ‘downtown’ cafés – actually just a couple of small streets away – to meet our different friends and spend the afternoon chatting away about… whatever. I honestly don’t remember. But I missed them all. Even people I had hardly known became a source of immense nostalgia.

    I was so sick of the urban chaos of Toronto, anyway. You’re always surrounded by millions of people and cars and neon lights. I was pining for the laid-back rhythm of Cavonno, especially in the summer when the tremendous heat makes it impossible to do anything but sit around in the shade, waiting for sunset. Alternatively, you can bicycle down to the river and spend the afternoon under a big tree, with a book or some friends and a guitar. In the evenings you hop from one bar to another and when you get sick of that you take a walk to the little park in front of the town hall, or you drive with some friends to the surrounding hills and look at the stars. Every so often there is a party – at somebody’s place, or in one of the bars, or in a neighbouring village, or even in some remote clearing in the woods south of Cavonno (for the more illicit gatherings). Finally you just walk or drive home and fall asleep without even bothering to change into your pyjamas. Nobody will nag you till midday. Except maybe Missy. Then the whole cycle starts all over again.

     

    You can’t wish for a better vacation. In fact, these habits can easily drag on indefinitely. Mum had informed me that several of my friends and classmates were actually moving back to their parents in Cavonno after years away at university. They seemed happy to return to the old routine. Why shouldn’t I? After all, I had lived in paradise and never even noticed it. 

     

    ***

     

    The flight from Toronto to Milan via Frankfurt is absolutely packed with Italian families. I am amazed that so many of my compatriots are living in Canada. Of course, I’m more than familiar with Little Italy in Toronto, because that’s where mum’s younger sister Margarita and her husband run their bloody pizzeria. I absolutely hated it. I don’t consider myself an emigrant. These people were basically kicked out of Italy because they couldn’t make a living there – whereas I chose to continue my exciting studies at the University of Toronto, didn’t I? Unlike them, I’m not selling my working power. I’m chasing knowledge. I could have ended up anywhere in the world.

    Most of them speak Italian with accents I can hardly understand. Like the peasants around Cavonno. “Simple people,” my mother would tell me. Hurled out of their villages into the New World, they rush back home for a break whenever they have a chance. Come to think of it, maybe I’m not that different. How depressing.

    The woman next to me, in her fifties, keeps praying to Our Father and Virgin Mary and all the other saints, holding on to her rosary. She wanted to switch seats with me, so that she wouldn’t have to sit at the window. She believes she’s safer, now that she’s squeezed in between me and a young chap (around my age) who keeps ordering whisky and staring into space. Two seats behind me is a couple with a baby that doesn’t stop screaming. “Now, now, there’s no reason to cry,” I mutter to myself, “life is going to get far worse when you grow up.” My therapist says I’m too pessimistic. He thinks this goes way back and it is now seriously interfering with my mental health. I only tried to make a few jokes about the misery of life and all, but he never even smiled. “My job is to help you change your attitude,” he told me. Apparently I haven’t made much progress.

    Of course I ponder about (or do I hope for?) the possibility of a plane crash. At least it would be relatively quick: a few minutes of panic, maybe a pang of intense pain before we all get blown into pieces, and then everything is over. Serenity forever. I just hate the idea that my last moments would have to be spent surrounded by these dreadful people. In any case, for better or for worse, we all land safely (thanks to my neighbour’s even more frantic praying towards the end).

    I’m beginning to wonder if it was such a great idea to return home when everybody else is on vacation. Also Cavonno will be full of emigrants, they’re louder than the usual locals. The cafés will be crowded with them, they will invade our secret spots at the river and litter them with the disgusting leftovers of their family picnics, they will even cause traffic jams on the (usually rather empty) main street.

       

        The first flicker of doubt crosses my mind. What the hell am I doing out here? Why didn’t I just stay in my little room in Toronto?

     

    ***

     

    Mother picks me up at the airport. For a while we chit-chat about the new improvements at the airport, the traffic on the freeway, the hot weather. She informs me that dad and Giaco and Missy are doing “very well” and she herself is “fine”. Then we run out of subjects.

    I’m about to fall into a comfortable slumber when mother asks: “So what happened with Eric, anyway?” I can’t believe she is bringing up this topic. Eric and I have broken up almost a year ago. What’s there to tell? “Nothing happened, mum. We didn’t get along anymore, that’s all.”

     

    Eric Thompson, my big Toronto love. It’s probably my fault that mum is curious about him, I made such a big fuss when I first met him. This was long before my little crisis. I was all happy and optimistic back then. We were introduced by some common acquaintance at a party and I immediately fell for him. He told me he was a film director and had a small firm with a friend. They specialised in shooting music videos. I thought this was so cool, finally I got connected with a creative mind. We would spend hours discussing cultural issues, I imagined. Boy, was I innocent.

    For a 21st century youngster, Eric was pretty well-read, I’ll grant him that. You could have a fairly intellectual conversation with him. He even seemed quite interested in my thesis in the beginning. Maybe we should have remained nice, fairly distant friends. But instead we had to get involved. I moved in with Eric after he evicted his flatmate. We had only known each other for a couple of months, but things seemed to be working out really well – and in any case, I had been looking for a place closer to university.

    Our problems began shortly after that. It’s only when you have to live with a person, day in and day out, that you start noticing how utterly boring they are. At least that was my experience. Eric would spend so many hours watching MTV, it was sickening. He said he was just keeping up with his trade. Not that any of the crappy videos he and his partner shot ever made it to MTV – but he was continually bragging about the latest band they were working with: “These guys are gonna be big pretty soon,” he’d tell me. All the while I surrounded myself with books and tried to figure out what I was supposed to be writing about anyway. I was pretty aimless. Eric soon stopped listening to my theories and complaints about my professor and colleagues.

    After one year together, we got really tired of each other. But our relationship dragged on – mainly because I expected that any minute one of Eric’s rather uninteresting short films would be selected for a festival or a fellowship or whatever, and he would manage to get together enough funds to shoot his first feature film. He already had a script. It was a banal love and crime story. I had tried once to propose some changes in an attempt to make it more enticing, but Eric had accused me of interfering with his art. He was probably right. What did I know about film-making anyway? I didn’t even like most things he watched. No abstraction, no metaphysics, just entertainment. “You’re so pompous,” Eric would tell me.

    Anyway, his short film did eventually get chosen for a minor event in Montreal. He was thrilled, of course. I didn’t even accompany him, I’d had enough of meeting so-called artists trying to rise out of anonymity by producing nonsense. As if there wasn’t enough of that out there already. Still, I hoped that my boyfriend would get a break and then our relationship would improve, too. I even bragged towards my mother on the phone: “Eric has been invited to Montreal and is meeting renowned producers.” And indeed, not everyone was as pessimistic about his art as me, so he was able to find some people interested in working on his project. Hurray for Eric. Shortly afterwards he wrote me an e-mail from Montreal (where he stayed on even after the end of the festival), announcing that he wanted to break up our relationship. He had fallen in love with one of the festival organizers. He gave me one week to move out.

    My therapist suspects that I was more affected by “Eric’s betrayal” than I’m ready to admit. I’m not so sure. I don’t even miss the guy, he was really getting on my nerves. I’m just annoyed that I invested so much of my precious time in this relationship. And his flat was pretty nice.

     

    “But he had no right to kick you out like that,” mother tells me. “He could have let you stay on for another month or so, instead of forcing you to move to aunt Margarita’s. Not that she complained, dear, she was happy to give you a hand again, but it was all so out of the blue, you understand.”

    “It was just bad timing, mum. I’m very grateful for auntie’s support.” I bet that she complained because I refused to work for her and instead I insisted that my parents pay for the room she provided me. It was only for a short time, anyway. “And I’ve told you before, mum. It’s not like Eric owns that flat, he’s just the main tenant.” I’m not sure why this should sound like a consolation.

    “I suppose that whole mess had an impact on your research, it’s no wonder you’re lagging behind,” mother adds. “You probably got under too much pressure. I’ve always told you that you shouldn’t let your personal life interfere with your academic work.”

    As if she knew anything about my work. I’m getting really annoyed by this conversation and tell her I need to have a little nap because of the jetlag. I should have guessed that my mother would become all inquisitive as soon as she got a chance. On the phone she tends to be very diplomatic, so it’s easy to avoid discussing issues that are none of her business. Now she finally has a chance to blurt out all the things left unsaid for years. I had conveniently forgotten this feature of mum’s personality. I already foresee all the uncomfortable topics she will be bringing up in the next few hours and days: my unfinished thesis, my aimless degree, all the money my parents have put in to finance my stay in Toronto, especially since I was unable to renew my scholarship last year.

    My therapist said: “Spending some time with your family will help you recover some trust in yourself.” I wonder what kind of family he had in mind.

     

    ***

     

    I only wake up when my mother is parking in front of our house. Missy is already leaning over the gate and barking hysterically, interrupted only by mum’s stern admonishments – “Missy, shut up!” – which the dog absolutely ignores. They always play this game. Suddenly I’m embarrassed. I don't want to be seen by anyone when I step out of the car. You have no anonymity in this place, as soon as I'm spotted by one of the neighbours the word will spread that Rita Di Luccio, the notary’s daughter, has returned home. They might comment that I look thin and pale and have dark rings under my eyes. Before long they’ll start a rumour that I'm on drugs. Maybe I'm even on the run from the Canadian police. There are no limits to what people can invent if you give them a chance. Well, too late to worry about that. I'm probably just being paranoid. And anyway, who cares about my insignificant existence?

     

    “I have prepared Giaco's old room for you,” mum informs me as we drag my luggage inside. “I can't recall if I’ve told you that your brother decided to move into your bedroom last year, it has so much more light. And he just loves that little balcony, sometimes he can sit there for hours with a magazine! He has also selected some nice new furniture. I'm sure you don't mind, do you? After all, he lives here all year round.”

    “Yes, it's fine,” I reply. I feel an enormous amount of rage. “Maybe I can just stay in the guest room, at least it has a window to the backyard.”

    “Oh, that wouldn't be convenient for your father. He’s turned the guest room into his home office. We hardly have any guests, anyway. They can be put up in Giaco's old room, just like yourself. We’ve installed a bright neon lamp, you won’t even notice the dimness. Plus you’ll have your own TV set. Dad bought a new one for Giaco.”

    “Why didn’t you just enlarge the window, as you always planned?” I ask, with obvious resentment in my voice. I’ve only been with my mother for a few hours and I already can’t stand talking to her.

    “Easier said than done. But let's not get into details now. Obviously, if you ever decide to return home for a longer period, we can introduce all sorts of changes.” Mum remains as friendly as ever. That's one of her assets.

     

    Giaco is sitting in the living room with a comic book. He doesn't get up to hug me or anything. We used to be really good friends when we were kids, at least according to mum’s reminiscences, but for the last decade or so we've kept our distance. He’s only two years younger than me. We don't fight, we just ignore each other. At least Giaco bothers to nod at me in acknowledgement of my presence. “You look the same,” he says and returns to his comic.

    My brother was the one who chose the worst room in the house, anyway. At the time he was thirteen and going through his gloomy period, to put it mildly. He painted the walls black. He showered once a week, at best. He just played video games as soon as he got home from school. Mum and dad were pretty worried about him, but eventually he went back to “normal”, i.e., he joined the local basketball team, got himself a more fashionable haircut and went out for drinking bouts with his pals. He remained a bad model for cleanliness, though. And he continued enjoying his cave-like bedroom (which none of us was allowed to enter, of course).

    Looking at Giaco today you would never guess that he was once a troubled teenager. He likes to wear designer clothes in ridiculous pastel colours that make him look like he’s fifty-something. He puts far too much gel on his hair and he’s always clean-shaven. He listens to preposterously bad music, doesn’t read at all (except for his childish comic books) and considers partying on weekends just about the greatest fun one can get out of life. I notice that he’s gained weight. Probably from mum’s cooking.

    “Don’t you think your brother looks really cute?”, mum asks. We enter his old bedroom. It still stinks of him.

     

    ***

     

    I feel a strong craving for a cigarette, though I haven’t smoked for years. Eric was a bit of a health freak, bless him. He was a strict vegan environmentalist and he convinced me to drop my harmful taste for tobacco and alcohol and meat. Fine by me. We had quite some disagreements, though, when it came to our so-called political convictions. Listening to his endless tirades against the Enemies of Earth got really annoying after a while. And of course, he considered my fatalistic opinions about the futility of fighting for a doomed and not particularly pleasant planet the kind of ideological garbage that alienates people from their civic responsibilities. In the end he didn’t do much for the planet, either. The closest he got to showing his commitment to a cause was his film script: it’s the story of a handsome young environmentalist (and female pendant) who courageously fights a vicious corporation secretly disposing of dangerous chemicals into a big river and main artery of an urban centre. Believe it or not, the hero wins. I can’t wait for the screen version.

    I’m sitting in the living room with my brother, watching some TV talk-show and waiting for dinner. Every now and then Giaco makes some silly remark about the talk-show host’s haircut or a participant’s tie. I notice how little he’s changed in the past years. I had actually imagined that it would be nice to see him again. I promised myself I would take interest in him, ask him about his opinions, attitudes, childhood memories. Now that he’s next to me, I wonder how I could have been so naïve. The last thing I need is to get deeper involved with this dull character. It’s bad enough we have to live under the same roof.

    Then Missy starts barking like mad, so everyone knows that dad is coming. I get up to meet him at the door and feel tremendously embarrassed. I haven’t missed him at all. We exchange two pecks on the cheeks and he tells me: “You look more grown-up.” I wonder if he meant “older”.

     

    Mother has prepared my favourite dish: roasted chicken with onions and cream. The smell brings back a good feeling, but when I look at my plate I feel disgusted and wonder where this dead animal comes from. I suspect it has been raised under the most horrible conditions in some chicken factory, where they pumped it with hormones and antibiotics. Not to speak of the artificial cream and dried onions. Everyone else is munching away and nodding with approval. Nobody ever complains about mum’s cooking. I decide to eat some more salad, which looks a bit more appetizing. Even though I’m sure it all comes from the same big supermarket at the edge of Cavonno.

    Of course mum soon notices that I’m not enthusiastic at all. She asks me if there’s something wrong. I had informed my parents about my vegan conversion, but when mum asked me if I now required special food I decided not to be a party-spoiler and just accept whatever she offered. My family isn’t very much into vegetables, anyway. They wouldn’t go through the trouble of getting some decent biological products or whatever, they’d probably just buy some ready-made deep-frozen stuff. But now I see my mistake. I simply cannot digest this poison anymore. I don’t want to offend my mother, though, so I claim that my stomach is still affected by the long flight. Almost immediately everyone turns sour. “If you don’t like chicken,” mum says in a low voice, “I won’t bother preparing it, either.”

     

    Dad has retired to his home office after a superficial dialogue with me about my health. He wanted to be sure that I’m alright, he said. I explained how frequent these kinds of breakdowns actually are – “it’s called ‘burnout’,” I said, “every second businessman or manager goes through this.” I had no idea if this was accurate, but it didn’t matter. The important thing is to make my family believe that everything is basically under control. Even though they probably suspect I’m going nuts. Why else would one need therapy? Or come home?

    Giaco is preparing to go out, he has turned his stereo to full volume and is fixing his hair in the bathroom. I’m sitting in the living room, looking through today’s newspaper. I hadn’t picked one up in years. “Noise, noise, noise,” I tell myself. I’m bored to death. And more depressed than ever. Not twelve hours have gone by and I can only think of returning to my cosy little den in Toronto. At least there I can barricade myself. What in the world made me decide to join these people again?

    My mother comes in. “Aren’t you going out tonight?”, she asks in an exceedingly friendly tone. We haven’t exchanged another word since our little confrontation over the bloody chicken, which I didn’t touch – so I was forced to eat an extra portion of salad and pasta. “If you hurry, you can get a lift from Giaco.” My stupid brother has to drive downtown, although it’s only a 10 minute walk through neat residential neighbourhoods. You spend more time trying to find a parking space.

    I tell mum I’m too tired and would rather go to bed. The last thing I need right now is to plunge into a senseless chase for pleasure in Cavonno. I don’t want to see anybody, I’m uncomfortable just thinking of entering one of the usual bars and walking over to some acquaintances. Out of the blue. Having to exchange a series of pecks and superficial words. “So what have you been up to, lately?” Smiling at everyone and telling them fables about my exciting life in Canada. Hearing their fables in return.

     

    ***

     

    Before locking myself up in my new dingy and smelly bedroom, I sneak into the attic and look through the boxes where my mother has shoved all my belongings: old tapes and CDs, some magazines and books, letters, photos, notepads… I manage to dig out my old diary, which I left behind when I moved to university in Milan.

    Tucked in bed, I start leafing through the diary. It’s full of embarrassing descriptions of my crushes and conquests and betrayals. I was sixteen when I started it. On the back pages are careful calculations of the amount of calories I ingested during the period of one month – that’s when I tried (unsuccessfully) to lose some weight, because one of the guys I fancied had made jokes about my flabby thighs. Towards the end of the diary there’s some detailed account of my first steady relationship, which lasted almost three years. Back then I was convinced I was going to marry Sergio. We haven’t talked to each other since I moved to Canada.

    The last entry in the diary catches my eye. It was written on the day before I left Cavonno to start my university studies in Milan. Most of it concerns my high expectations about all the exciting people I would meet. The final paragraph reads:

     

    I can hear freedom calling. I’ve been counting the days till my departure. I hate all my stupid so-called friends, and the boring evenings in always the same cafés with always the same conversation topics, and my parents continually nagging me for arriving home at dawn, and my moronic brother threatening to tell on me for smoking joints! I’ve had enough of the provincial gossip and the petty-mindedness. As soon as you look and behave different you’re treated like an aberration! I doubt that I will ever come back. Save perhaps for holidays, because of my bloody family. Out there Sergio and I will finally have the chance to be authentic, we’ll drop all the false connections and social obligations. We will go through life as we please, without unnecessary attachments. Who needs a “home” anyway? Here all relationships are enforced: you put up with your family and friends because you’ve grown up with them, not because you like them. Nobody even bothers to really get to know you. You’re stuck to the role they assign for you, it’s an eternal rerun of the same boring play. I’ve had it. I want to discover the real me!

     

    Of course I returned to Cavonno again and again. Almost every weekend, in fact. Somebody still had to take care of my dirty laundry, after all. And Milan turned out to be a disappointment, too. Not to speak of my promising “liberating” relationship with Sergio.

    One thing surprises me: I have absolutely no memory of this apparent hatred for Cavonno. When I look back at those years of “imprisonment”, I can only recall relaxed moments in the comfortable company of familiar faces. In fact, the latest crying fits I experienced in Toronto, shortly before my shrink advised me to fly home, all circled around my lost happy adolescence. Could it be that I was once unfair in my negative judgements of my home town? Or have I conveniently erased from consciousness all the nerve-racking elements that made me first leave Cavonno and ultimately Italy altogether?

     

    Now that I’m sitting here in this dreadful room, listening to the TV sounds coming from my parents’ bedroom, I begin to understand that 18-year-old’s eagerness to get out of here. I have the niggling impression that I may have fallen into a little trap.

     

    ***

     

    2.

     

     

    Around midday I wake up after an excruciatingly bad night. I tossed and turned for hours, I tried unsuccessfully to read and finally I took a sleeping pill at about 3 a.m.. When I left Toronto I had promised myself that I wouldn’t touch these pills, no matter what. It’s bad enough to be depressed. I don’t want to become an addict on top of that. I had hoped that at least the jet-lag would knock me out for a while, but no such luck. My head feels even more hyperactive than when I began my therapy. Talk about a rollback.

    In spite of my exhaustion and lousy mood, I force myself to get out of bed. Here you can’t hide yourself, anyway. As I walk to the bathroom I notice Giaco, who has also just woken up, coming out of my former room. It’s obvious he’s got a hangover. I’m about to say good morning when he dashes past me to the bathroom, bangs the door in my face and locks himself up. Then he laughs. I’m so shocked by his behaviour, I fear I will have a crying fit. I hadn’t felt this sort of irrational hatred for a long time. In a split second I’m back to my childhood, when I used to hunt Giaco down and pull his hair and bury my nails in his skin until he cried for mum’s help. I’m about to kick the bathroom door when mum shows up and asks me if I’ve slept well. “Like a rock,” I say. Though I probably don’t fool her. I must look like a wreck.

     

    Fifteen minutes later we are all sitting around the kitchen table. To compensate for the unpleasant dinner last evening, mum has prepared a totally vegetarian lunch. It consists of micro-waved cannelloni with spinach and ricotta followed by some leftover roasted potatoes and onions from yesterday’s chicken dish. “If you incidentally find a piece of chicken, just push it to the side of your plate,” mum kindly advises me. This time I do my best to appear pleased and chew with gusto. But I do hint that in Toronto I have acquired a taste for cooking and can easily prepare my own meals, to relieve mum of too much work. “Your brother usually helps me,” she says.

    Then Giaco starts telling us about last night’s “sensational karaoke party” at the local discotheque. One of his friends insisted on singing along every second song to the point where he had to be dragged out of the disco because other clients were complaining. Fortunately my brother’s story is abruptly interrupted when dad switches on the TV to watch the news. While images of burning buildings somewhere in the Middle East are flashing and Missy is whining to get some food from my mother’s plate, I excuse myself to go to the bathroom. Upstairs I swallow a quarter of a sleeping pill. Just to help me get through the day.

     

    For a short while after lunch I have the whole house for myself. I was supposed to walk over to Passatempo with my family to have an espresso, but I insisted that I needed to take a nap. Dad wondered if it was normal to be jet-lagged for so long and mum hoped I would recover by the evening. “You must be dying to meet your friends,” she said. “Of course,” I replied.

    I sure as hell am not going out to meet anyone. Hard as I try, I cannot possibly conceive how I managed to convince myself that I actually wanted to see my old acquaintances. That’s what kept me awake all night: imagining myself in a bar with loud cheesy music, exchanging platitudes with people I don’t particularly like or care about, just in order to pass the time until alcohol and drugs finally knock me out. If that’s all life has to offer, then I’m really not missing out on anything. I’d rather be bored by myself.

     

    I feel like calling my therapist, just to be able to talk to someone. But I wouldn’t really know what to tell him. I don’t even feel particularly bad. He said I should get in touch with him in case of an emergency. I suppose that means shortly before taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Which I would never do in my family home. They would surely find me before I had the chance to slip out of this world and then all hell would break loose. I would end up in one of those awful loony bins where they pump you full with chemicals and force you to watch TV and play monopoly all day before kicking you back into reality.

    Actually I’m pretty pissed off at my therapist. One would think it was his job to figure out that my nostalgia for Cavonno was utter bullshit. Probably a trick of my brain to make me even more miserable. Then again, what did I expect? The guy’s married to a successful lawyer and has three beautiful children with whom he goes hiking in the mountains on weekends. No wonder he’s so enthusiastic about family life. He’s probably convinced he did a great job by sending me back home. I can’t wait until one of his kids turns into a junky.  

     

    ***

     

    In the late afternoon my mother knocks on my door, interrupting my comfortable slumber. “Someone to see you!” she announces in an overly excited tone of voice. Oh, dear. I should have expected this. Of course everybody already knows I’m back. It was inevitable that one of my silly girlfriends would pop by to pull me out of my den. Join the mad masses. You can’t have a moment of peace in this place. Well, no point panicking now. I might as well take it like an adult. Receive her with a smile, chit-chat for a while and then complain about so much work to do for my thesis. Decline any invitation to go out, no time to lose, deadlines to keep and all that. Promise to keep in touch and seal the meeting with a hug. I can handle that. The quarter sleeping pill is still effective.

    As I approach the door I notice that my heart is racing like mad. The visitor is talking to my mother and I recognize the voice: Dario, my ex-classmate and ex-infatuation. There he is, with a big smile on his face and a silly-looking goatee. But by all means, he still looks very attractive. I probably blush as we greet each other with two pecks.

    Once inside my bedroom we both feel awkward and can’t utter a sensible sentence. Come to think of it, I don’t remember ever having had a real conversation with Dario. He was just always around. He sits next to me on the edge of my bed and asks me how long I’ve been back and if I had a nice trip. “Fabulous,” I say. Then we both laugh like teenagers. I’m startled by the shrill sound of my voice. Dario says he just popped by to say hello. And that it’s nice to see me. I want to ask him why he never replied to my e-mails but somehow I find it inappropriate. It was such a long time ago. “So what have you been up to?” I ask instead. He touches his goatee and stares into space. “Oh you know, this and that, did some travelling, hung out, wrote some poetry…” He chuckles in embarrassment. Then he asks me how long I’m staying in Cavonno. “About a month,” I reply. “That’s great,” he says. Then he asks me if I’m going out tonight, and I say “Of course” without even thinking, and we agree to meet at the Pearl, one of the local bars where my schoolmates always hang out, and we exchange mobile phone numbers and two pecks again before he leaves, and I have the impression that his hand rests on my shoulder a wee longer than necessary, which actually makes my heart start racing again, and I notice he’s taller than I remembered, and that he’s still using the same perfume, and I thank him for coming over a bit too profusely, and he says “My pleasure,” and I actually feel a touch of excitement and wonder what the hell is wrong with me as I close my bedroom door.

     

    During all the time I was away in Toronto I never really thought of Dario. Until he wrote to me, that is. I was still happily in love with Eric and one morning there was this e-mail in my mailbox. All the way from Cavonno.

     

    A thousand greetings like hurrying butterflies! I hope you remember me. How is your warm southern soul surviving the currents and counter-currents of the New World? I haven’t heard from you for so long… then again, you haven’t heard from me either, have you? But today I had to tell you something, and why, you may ask, and strange as it may seem because… Well, I just came back from the Pearl and we kind of talked about you, and wondered how you were doing… We were listening to this band called Jincan, do you know them? They’re great… and their album is called “Great”, too… Anyway, I really hope you receive this e-mail and can answer my question, namely how your soul is surviving amidst the fluxes of foreign tongues, ah words, words, ever so fleeting, they remind me of a great new poet, Gianni Pave, do you know him? Anyway, I notice that I am here asking you questions but I haven’t  told you much about me yet, well I’m back on the mother ship after long quests and whirling images from distant ports, some acting in Tunis, jury’s prize at Padova’s  national independent slam poetry festival, film shootings between Amsterdam and Barcelona, encounters with sirens and gnomes in Rome, sunrises by the river, red wine at the Pearl amidst visions of supernovas and the unity of being… And really, everybody wants to know when you are thinking of coming over to see us? Here everything’s the same, always different… I keep a little light for you in the corner of my memory, and I don’t mean this in a sentimental way, no, and to prove it I leave you with a flash of mad sincerity, 3, 2, 1, 0, here we go… I’ve always liked you, especially your breasts and your intelligence, although I could never tell where the body ends and the mind begins, and maybe because of that I always hesitated between using my lips to talk of the sound of the flesh or to kiss its whispering silence… And these are just signs, symbols, which come like this, suddenly, in the middle of the night, and disappear again without warning… Un baccio, D.

     

    Well, it was as close to a love declaration as he ever got. It took me about four readings to figure that out. To be honest, I was kind of happy. Finally Dario had confessed. We really did have a thing for each other. So I wrote him a short e-mail with some small talk about my “busy schedule” at university (which at the time I took seriously!). I told him I’d love to know more about his adventures in Tunis, Amsterdam and Barcelona (just about the only bit of information I could glean from his e-mail). I didn’t mention Eric. Dario never replied. I waited a week and re-sent my e-mail. Still nothing. I guess his signs and symbols had indeed disappeared without warning.

    Of course I was offended. So I turned the whole thing into a joke. I showed Dario’s e-mail to Eric and we laughed at his terrible writing style and silly metaphors. And what’s with the bragging about all the places he’s been to, anyway? In short, I concluded that Dario was an idiot. I for once made sure I switched off that light in the corner of my memory.

     

    Famous last words.

     

    ***

     

    Panic hits me as I am looking through my clothes to find something fitting for my first night out. The thought of walking down the residential neighbourhood on my own, crossing the main street, stepping into the Pearl, looking around for familiar faces, smiling and waving and starting a conversation – all this fills me with an immense anxiety. I cannot be with people. I don’t want to talk to anyone. Five minutes with Dario were difficult enough. How on Earth will I manage to spend hours in the company of several equally boring individuals?

    My therapist thinks I’m developing a mild sociophobia. He advised me to fight my urge to avoid social contact. “People are not your enemies,” he said. I try to remind myself of that as I begin to feel the shortness of breath and the tears welling up in my eyes. By all means, I must avoid this. If I start crying, I won’t be able to control myself and very soon my parents will be banging on my door. Suddenly I realize that I have to go out, whether I like it or not. If I stay here, I will have to explain myself. Putting up with my family might just be worse than dealing with all my acquaintances out there. Come to think of it, that’s what always drove us kids out of the house and into the streets of Cavonno, come rain or shine. None of us could stand being with our parents.

    It takes me about half an hour to recover my composure. I swallow another quarter of a sleeping pill, just to be on the safe side. In the end it’s nothing special. Other people have to go to the factory, concentration camps, war! I just have to go out and have fun.

     

    “You’re going out like that?” Mum asks as I walk through the living room, where she and dad are watching some American sitcom. I can’t see what she means. Black t-shirt, blue jeans, comfy sandals. “It’s none of my business, of course, but really, Rita. I’m sure you’ve got nicer clothes. Don’t you agree, Luca?” My father turns his head away from the screen for a split second, nods at my mother and looks back at the TV. I decide to ignore her. It’s something I learned a long time ago. The best way to get things done around here is to just do them. Never ask for permission. Pay no attention to complaints.

    Just then the phone rings and my father asks me to pick it up. “I’m not at home,” he says. As it turns out, it’s actually for me.

    “How come you didn’t tell me you were back?” It’s Sergio, my ex-boyfriend.

    “I didn’t think of it. How are you?”

    “Are you going out?”

    I hesitate. “Maybe.”

    “I’ll drive over and pick you up.”

    I’m not sure why, but I accept.

     

    Apart from the shorter hair, Sergio hasn’t changed much. I’m honestly glad to see him. After all, I hold no grudge against him. I really loved him for a while, I think. At least until our relationship deteriorated into a huge melodrama. I finally split from him when we were twenty. But the melodrama just carried on. We saw each other almost every day. Sergio insisted that I was the love of his life and he should win me back at all costs. He was still on that trip when I left to Canada. It was with the best intention that I stopped answering his e-mails and phone calls. I wanted him to move on.  

    Sergio hugs me tight as I come out through the gate. It seems a bit uncalled for, but what the heck. For old times’ sake. “Shall we go for a little ride?” he asks. Sure. I’m actually relieved that he came to pick me up. Having someone by my side when I finally enter the Pearl will make me blend in more easily. Maybe that’s why I always let Sergio orbit around me – he kept me safe from the rest of society. And he made me feel so damned important.

    Loud reggae music plays as we drive towards the outskirts of Cavonno and Sergio screams something about a party in a new bar I don’t know yet which is supposed to be so much better than the Pearl. About ten minutes later Sergio parks the car on a hill overlooking our town. There used to be a small forest when I still lived here, but now they’ve cut all the trees to build a residential neighbourhood. So far there are only the concrete skeletons of terraced houses. Sergio tells me that he often comes here before heading downtown. “Remember when we picnicked on this hill?” he asks. I do, and I feel like crying. Sweet youthful innocence. It’s not that I have particularly happy memories, we were already quarrelling on an almost daily basis back then. But the future was still open, there was hope, we made plans under the trees…

    Suddenly Sergio takes hold of my hand and tells me he’s missed me. That pretty much wakes me up from my reverie. I pull my hand away and ask him how he’s been doing, what he’s been up to, all that. I begin wondering if it was such a good idea to get into a car with him. While he rolls a joint, Sergio lets me in on the latest developments in his life.

    “Even if you don’t like it, you’re always present in my life,” he says. “Of course I know that the same doesn’t apply to you… Anyway, I wanted so much to fall in love again and finally it’s happened. Fortunately she feels the same way about me… It’s strange, Camilla’s just 17 and still at school. She doesn’t want to go to university, she doesn’t really have any plans… apart from having babies as soon as possible. She’s very caring and sweet, but what I really like is that she’s beautiful in every way and seems to be the one… You know, capable of loving only one man for the rest of her life… I’ve always believed in these things, in spite of the difficulties I had with you. I never gave up on romance… And the way everything’s happened – it’s so… pure, it keeps me from forgetting my old dreams…”

    I tell Sergio I’m very happy to know that things are working out for him. He lights the joint and the smell of marijuana invades my nostrils. I haven’t smoked for years, but now that I sit here I am tempted to take a few puffs. It’s probably not worse than the bloody pills I’m swallowing. “Where’s Camilla now?” I ask him.

    “She’s spending some time with her relatives near Rimini. Anyway, I didn’t say things were easy, so you don’t need to be all happy for me already. You see, soon after our relationship started she was asking me about you!”

    “I can’t see anything wrong with that,” I reassure him.

    “Yeah, well, the thing is, I didn’t have to bring you up or anything, it was other people here in Cavonno who talked about you and me as the ideal couple.”

    “Really?” I ask in a high-pitched tone. I find that hard to believe. We were so obviously miserable, our most dramatic fights took place in public, we continually made fools of ourselves. But Sergio ignores my irony.

    “Some people even told her that they thought you and I had married or something… So she got the idea that you and I had been the perfect match and there was no way she could compete with you… And then she became really jealous, I mean she had violent fits and everything, she’s so insecure, you know… In fact, I’m wondering how I’m going to have the courage to tell her that you’ve returned from Canada and I’ve gone out with you… It will hurt her so much… She’s continually calling me to check if I still love her… I switched off my mobile phone before picking you up, she’s probably already wondering what’s wrong…”

    That’s when it hits me. I’m back in the melodrama. In fact, I may have arrived just in time for the climax.

    “Wanna puff?” Sergio asks.

    I decline and suggest that we head back downtown. I feel even more nervous than before I left the house. Sergio isn’t too happy about the interruption of the conversation, though. He complains that we haven’t talked for so long and need to catch up and it’s so boring at the Pearl, what do I want to do there anyway, we can just as well hang out here until the party and chat some more, he didn’t even get a chance to ask me about my life, it’s as if I didn’t want to open up with him. “Sure, I’ll tell you about my life,” I promise. “But later. Now I need a drink.” It’s one of my old tactics with Sergio. Always agree. Keep a friendly atmosphere. Avoid touchy subjects. Do anything to prevent him from flying into a passion. In order to distract him I ask him about the new bar. This works pretty well when he’s high. Which is mostly the case. He starts the car and the reggae returns in full force. “It’s a great place, you’ll see!” Sergio screams.

     

    ***

     

    The Pearl, named after Janis Joplin. We’re a bit of 60s buffs around here, don’t ask me why. Just about every second youngster runs around in hippie outfits. I used to be one of them. We’ve tried to re-enact the Summer of Love and stretch it indefinitely. It has worked almost as well as the original concept: lots of drugs, more talk of sex than the actual act, endless speculations about astrological signs and auras and transcendence, no more brain damage than your average citizen. And somebody sprayed “Jesus was a Freak”, framed by a marijuana leaf, on the church walls. There was a big run to get your photo in front of the graffiti before the town authorities cleaned it off.

    As we climb up the stairs to the first floor where the bar is, we dive into ever louder music. I wonder how anybody can talk in this environment. Come to think of it, I’m kind of relieved. The place is not particularly full, there are maybe some 20 people, and I recognize most of them. Dario isn’t here yet. I don’t really know what to do next, so I just follow Sergio. We sit at the bar, underneath a big flat TV screen tuned on to a muted CNN, the sound of drum and bass music blaring from huge overhead loudspeakers. Apart from the TV and a few red and purple bulbs, the place is dark. Freddie, the barman and owner, comes over and shakes hands with Sergio. “Everything cool?” he asks. He’s one of the main marijuana and acid dealers in Cavonno. Then he turns to me, breaks into a wide grin. Two of his upper front teeth are missing. Rumour has it that he was a heroin addict for years. He’s in his forties. “Welcome home, kid,” he says. I do my best to smile back. “Anything you need, just let me know.”

    Staring at the TV, Sergio starts saying something about a terrorist attack on UN headquarters, but before I can react somebody calls my name and I turn around and there’s Marta, one of my schoolmates, holding a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other and moving to the sound of the music. We greet each other with great enthusiasm, which is what we’ve done for years. Even though we used to be rivals at school, competing for the best grades and bullshit like that. Of course I secretly envied her. She was Dario’s girlfriend back then. I never could figure out what he saw in her. She pulls a bar stool and sits next to me. The small talk begins. Marta asks me how I’ve been doing, I say “Great”, I ask her how she’s been doing, she says “Fantastic” and then she tells me about her teaching job at a technical school not far from Cavonno. Only it turns out she doesn’t really work there anymore, the contract was terminated in July, and now she’s looking for something similar, maybe more to the South, it would be nice to move around a bit, but what’s really great is that she got lots of teaching experience, and she worked a bit with handicapped kids, too, and her curriculum vitae looks very good, that’s what her career advisor said. Marta keeps pulling up her bra to better expose her cleavage underneath a tight red top. And anyway, she doesn’t have any sort of attachments, she’s been single for over a year now, her boyfriend, the IT specialist from Bologna, remember (I don’t), well, he went over to Australia and the long-distance was just too much stress, she’s had one or the other affair, nothing serious, though she is kind of involved with an older man now, a human resources manager, it’s nice and all, but she’s not so serious about him, she just wants to have some fun. “Know what I mean?” she asks and laughs. I nod and order a beer.

    Sergio has joined a group of people at the other end of the bar, as far as I can see he’s still talking about the UN. In the meantime Marta runs out of exciting stories, so she asks “Well, what about you?” Here we go. I switch on my automatic pilot. Oh, everything’s going quite well, can’t complain, am so busy with my dissertation, Toronto is a very exciting city, so much cultural variety, and the people are kind once you get to know them, hard-working and optimistic, politically conscious, blah-blah-blah, it gets a bit cold in the Winter, though. I obviously bore her to death, so she shifts back to herself and her new boyfriend.

    More people arrive. Lots of pecks and smiles. But everything keeps moving, I have difficulties focusing. People switch conversation topics in a flash, one second they’re telling me about their father’s pancreatic cancer, the next they’re asking me if Canadian TV is playing reruns of “Sex and the City”. Joints are passed around. I kindly refuse them. The music is giving me a headache. Dario is nowhere to be seen, and I can’t figure out why this bothers me. Sergio is on the balcony talking on the mobile phone, I presume it’s his girlfriend. He gesticulates a lot, as if he was having a row.

    Finally Peppe comes in, spots me at the bar and walks over to greet me. “Where the hell have you been, we thought you were dead by now! I’m meeting Raffi downstairs in, like, two seconds, we’re driving to the river, wanna come along?”

     

    ***

     

    Raffi used to be my brother’s classmate. Occasionally he’d come over to our place to do an assignment and we would chat for five minutes. He was the opposite of Giaco, really. You couldn’t see it in the beginning, but around the age of sixteen he began transforming into a true freak: long curly hair, ripped-up bell-bottoms, self-made tie-dyes, blood-shot eyes, a permanent grin, the whole shebang. He made intelligent jokes. He was familiar with Jim Morrison’s poetry way before me.

    By the time I split from Sergio, Raffi and I had become good friends. We were all part of the same scene, anyway. Cavonno’s misfit wannabes. But unlike Sergio’s tendency to monopolize conversations with weird theories about UFOs and increasing paranoid fits, Raffi was the cool laid-back type who thought life was this tremendous trip. You should try everything at least once. Look into the abyss. That sort of stuff. We’d smoke our joints and philosophise endlessly about… well, life… I suppose.

    And with Raffi came Peppe, the closest I got to befriending a criminal. Peppe was the true outsider. Born to an Italian father and a Somali mother, he and his siblings were the only kind of black people in Cavonno (actually, they’re light brown, but that didn’t seem to matter much). So they were treated as weirdoes. They lived in the only neighbourhood for the socially disadvantaged. Peppe’s older sister married a Swiss-Italian night-club owner and moved to Lugano, his older brother joined the army and is now stationed in Afghanistan, his other sister works in a car factory in Germany. Peppe himself became a junky and occasional petty dealer in Cavonno. You could always count on him to track somebody down when you desperately needed some marijuana. He was funny because he didn’t seem to care about anything. And he gave an exciting edge to my connection with Raffi.

     

    Walking out of the Pearl with Peppe, I suddenly feel elated. The old trio, together again. Isn’t this what I’ve missed all along? The safe companionship of people who’ve accompanied me through all kinds of enriching experiences and stood by me when I was down in the dumps, who never passed harsh judgements on me, whose idea of fun was sitting around with a joint somewhere far away from the crowd, talking until the wee hours of the night? Why did I ever stop communicating with them? I can’t figure it out.

    “Ah, Rita, Rita, I notice some wrinkles around your eyes, don’t try to hide them now, that arctic climate isn’t good for you,” Peppe says and puts his arm around my shoulder. “But you must tell us everything, no secrets, OK, we want all the dirty details of your life. Man, you must really hate Cavonno, why else would you have stayed over there for so long… Can’t blame you, though, it’s a major fuck-up, this place. I myself am going to split soon. Got this project running in Paris, a cool guy I met, you don’t know him, well, he owns a studio there, produces hip-hop and shit like that, I showed him some of my latest stuff and he says there’s definitely potential, but I’ve got to get my ass over there first. So I’m saving some money for the trip, in a couple of months I’ll be a superstar, you’ll see!” He laughs. 

    I want to tell Peppe that I don’t hate Cavonno at all, in fact it’s much nicer than Toronto. But he’s switched to singing one of his new rap songs – “Pay attention to the refrain!” – which is as bad as anything he has ever composed. No originality, easy rhymes, no underlying message, one or the other obscenity. Of course his story about the Paris producer was bullshit, Peppe always brags about great schemes but factually he never leaves Cavonno. Except when he spent 4 months in jail, somewhere near Milan. He’s rapping so loudly that people walking by turn to look. I feel a bit embarrassed – in fact, I’m not even supposed to be seen with Peppe. Like most parents, also mine always made a huge fuss about my friendship with “that lousy, no-good junky”. In order to shut them up, the kids met Peppe furtively in bars where no adult goes, or in the various dark corners where people gather to smoke a joint. He’s our ghost.

    Peppe’s mobile phone rings once and he says “Let’s go”. Raffi is waiting in his father’s van further down the road, engine on, very loud trance music. There are only two seats up front next to the driver, I take the middle and we’re off. The car smells intensely of marijuana, I wonder what Raffi’s father makes of it. I’m also a bit surprised by the choice of music, it isn’t Raffi’s style at all. But I can’t really ask anything because of the loud beats and Peppe is screaming something about some cheap CDs he wanted to buy from some guy, but now he’s nowhere to be found. My head feels about to burst. Raffi lights a joint and passes it to me. Without the slightest hesitation I take a long puff and almost choke. The effect is immediate. I’m back on the magical mystery tour, no more pain, no more worries. Already outside town, Raffi seems to be driving at a tremendous speed, but I might be hallucinating. It takes about fifteen minutes to get to the unpaved road leading down to the river. I feel as if only two minutes have passed.

    Raffi parks underneath a tree at our favourite spot, you can see the moon and the stars and hear the owls and the crickets… I try to keep my balance as I walk towards the river. Only it seems that I’m walking much longer than usual. Suddenly I feel lost. I’m standing on some rocks and can hear bubbling water but there’s nothing to be seen. “Where’s our river?” I yell.

     

    Peppe and I are sitting on what used to be the river bank, he’s rolling a joint and telling me about the dam that was built only last year, some 50 km up north. That’s where all the water is stored now. We’re left with a tiny brook, just enough to wet your toes. There are still a few deeper patches here and there, about the size of a Jacuzzi. But you can forget about swimming. Raffi has stayed behind in the van, talking on the mobile phone. When he finally joins us, he’s in a pretty lousy mood. “Stupid Sonia took some acid on her own and is freaking out,” he says as he sits down on the ground. “She wants me to come over right away.” That’s Raffi’s girlfriend.

    We’re silent for a while, listening to the faint bubbling. Raffi’s phone rings again but he doesn’t pick it up. He wants to smoke a joint before we leave. To switch subjects he asks me what made me return to Cavonno. “I thought you were fed-up with the lot of us.”

    Did I ever say that?

    For some reason I again feel a tremendous urge to cry. I’m not sad or anything, I just don’t know what to tell Raffi and Peppe. I can’t figure out why I left. Nor can I recall what I’ve been doing for the past three years. Did I ever have a master plan? Did I really believe that things were better out there? And did I, for that matter, really think that coming back here, to this dried-out river, would solve my existential dilemmas? The marijuana has only made my head more restless, I can’t concentrate. I don’t even know how long I’ve been silent. Suddenly I start talking the usual bullshit about my doctoral thesis, and how much better it is to get an academic degree abroad, because of all the employment opportunities and so on. I sound like my mother.

    “Hey, I watched a Canadian film on TV, the other day,” Raffi says, interrupting me. “I think it was Canadian… Maybe American, I don’t know. It was very cool, did you catch it, Peppe?” Peppe shrugs. “It was pretty late, I didn’t really watch it from the beginning… Anyway, it was about these three friends, see, guys in their thirties, and they all have families and boring jobs and shit like that, and then one of them finds a dead woman in his car trunk, and next to it is this briefcase filled with money, man. So he tells his pals about it before going to the cops, and they decide to just, you know, bury the body somewhere in the woods and split the money! Only the guy, the one who owned the car where the corpse was found, well, he thinks he’s entitled to a greater share, because it was his car and all, and…” At this point Peppe interferes, as it turns out that he has also seen the film. “Yeah,” he says, “I really dug it, especially that scene where the bad guys, you know the Colombian killers, or wherever they came from, when they catch one of the friends and cut out his tongue! Man, that was vicious!” There’s a moment of silence and then Peppe adds: “I think it was an American film, though, probably in Alaska or whatever. What do Canadians have to do with Colombians, huh? Right, Rita?”

    I’m so perplexed by their talk, I can’t really say anything. I look at the joint I’m holding between my fingers and decide to pass it on. My headache returns in full force.

    When we get back to the car and the dreadful trance music resumes, I ask Raffi: “Whatever happened to Morrison?” He doesn’t answer, so I presume I didn’t talk loud enough and wonder if I should bother repeating the question. “I hear he’s living incognito in the Seychelles,” Raffi finally says.

     

    ***

     

    Before rushing over to meet Sonia, in one of the villages outside Cavonno, Raffi drops Peppe and me exactly at the spot where he picked us up. As I close the door of the van, he asks: “Why don’t you come along tomorrow afternoon for a dip in the river? I know a nice spot. You’ll see.” I agree. Though I’m not so sure, anymore.

    Peppe and I go back to the Pearl. I’m beginning to feel very tired, I can hardly keep my eyes open as we walk up the stairs. Before we even get in, we bump into Dario and a bunch of other people. They’re all on their way to the party at Wow, the new bar Sergio told me about. Peppe doesn’t want to go there, though. “It’s such a lousy place, Rita, believe me! These guys are idiots if they can’t see that! I’ve been there, like, three times, and it was boring, boring, boring. Plus you have to pay a fee to get in, imagine that!” A little strife takes place right there on the staircase, about whether Wow is as bad as Peppe claims, and some people agree that it’s not such a special place, just because it’s new, doesn’t make it better. But since there’s a party tonight, everybody agrees that we should still go and Peppe should come along and stop making such a fuss. “We’ll smoke a joint on our way.” Unlike the Pearl, in Wow you’re not allowed to take drugs openly. “And the bathroom is really tiny,” a girl complains.

    One of youth’s favourite joint-smoking spots in Cavonno is this nice secluded place just behind the old people’s home, with two large trees providing the necessary darkness. It’s kind of a dead-end road only leading to a couple of small houses. So there’s hardly anybody passing. And you can always flee quickly if there’s trouble, with a few steps you’re back on the main street, walking along nonchalantly, minding your own business. We’ve been coming here for years and nobody seems to care much about keeping a low profile, anymore. Tonight, for example, there’s an excited discussion about whether or not it is fair for bars to charge an entry fee. The group has sort of split into two factions and it seems that the winner will be the one who talks the loudest. Dario looks at me a few times and smiles. I have no idea what to make of that.

    The new bar is located in a very narrow alley not very far from the city hall, about five minutes’ walk from the Pearl. Just next to it is a Chinese shop. “You can buy the cheapest recordable DVDs, there,” someone informs me. Immediately after entering Wow I regret my decision to come. The place is pretty packed, the music is a perplexing mixture of commercial trash and alternative rock, and I can see my brother in the distance, kissing some girl. A couple of guys are walking around with digital cameras, and whatever they capture is instantly played back on a big screen just behind the tiny dance floor. This seems to be the main attraction: people grin at the camera, show their piercings, wiggle their bums – and stare at the screen to see themselves. I decide I have to split. Just before walking out, I see Sergio on the big screen, lying on a bench at the back of the bar. He appears to be asleep.

     

    ***

     

    Walking back home turns out to be quite relieving. In fact, I recall that this was always my favourite part of the night. The streets are empty except for the occasional cat, dog or rat. It’s absolutely quiet, there’s a nice cool summer breeze. You’re all alone with your thoughts. I decide to take a small detour and look around a bit. I pass a brand new block, apparently the tallest in town, it has a butcher shop on the ground floor with this neon-lit window displaying a couple of dead lambs. I stare at their glassy eyes and wonder what that last moment was like, before they got slaughtered. I pass Il Mercatone, the first supermarket that ever opened in Cavonno, about fifteen years ago, where my brother and I once watched Peppe stealing two bottles of whisky and getting away with it. There’s a publicity poster glued to the entrance door: “Knowing how to buy is knowing how to live.” I pass the house where my guitar teacher used to live and work, until he had to close his business and return to his parents’ place in Sicily because of some unpaid debts. He had a husky in the front yard who was always on a very short chain and never barked. I pass the only shopping centre in town, a miserable little building with a few barely surviving businesses. Somewhere in there, leaning against the shop window of a recently closed-down boutique, Sergio and I kissed for the first time, way back when we were seventeen. Right after kissing him, I told him I wasn’t really interested in a relationship. He said “Don’t fear love”. I pass the town’s courthouse, where we’d often smoke joints in the back, until they built the new police station just around the corner. That’s where I once told Sergio I had been kind of flirting with another guy and Sergio threatened to kill himself if I ever left him. I pass the corner where my father and I were once intercepted by two little gipsy beggars and I gave them some change, and my father admonished me for supporting that kind of “parasitical living”. He told me “If you want to do something charitable, join an official aid organization”. I pass the restaurant where my schoolmates and I celebrated our last day at high-school. We had so much alcohol that several people ended up vomiting in some corner on the street, and one guy went into a coma.

    I arrive at a small playground not far from my home. I sit on the swing as I’ve often done and gently rock myself back and forth. A few days before I left for Toronto, three years ago, I also sat here and dreamed of the exciting things ahead of me. But nothing much really happened. It was the same over there: all the confused people, all the miserable lives, all the frustrated hopes and unrealistic expectations… And everyone trying by all means to deny that they feel shitty.

     

    ***

     

    3.

     

     

    I dreamed that my parents’ house in Cavonno was surrounded by skyscrapers, many of them still in construction. The army was marching in and a general was telling people to stay indoors. I rushed to the living-room where my parents were sitting and tried to explain that something terrible was happening outside and we should split. My mother told me not to bother them while they watched the Wimbledon Tennis Championship finals on TV. I woke up when a tank crashed through our front gate.

    Well, I must have slept.

    My mother is vacuuming just outside my bedroom door, which means it’s Sunday. I can hear her scolding Missy, who loves to chase and bark at the vacuum-cleaner. Missy’s almost seven years old but she never seems to outgrow her puppy phase. She was adopted when my little brother Giaco joined me in Milan to attend university. My parents were afraid of getting lonely, I suppose. This turned out to be an unnecessary fear, as Giaco actually spent more time in Cavonno than in Milan. Eventually he ditched his civil engineering degree, because it was “so boring”. He switched to landscape architecture, which was supposedly more creative, but he also got dissatisfied with that. Two years ago he moved permanently back to Cavonno. Now he’s taking a long-distance accounting course.

    Sometimes I think my brother is wiser than me. He caught a glimpse of the outside world and decided not to bother with it. He seems as satisfied with his routine as Missy is with her puppy-role.

     

    I finally unpack my suitcase, which is half filled with books. I actually plan to start working on my thesis again, just to have something to do. If nothing else, I can pretend to be really busy whenever my family gets on my nerves.

    My parents were pretty proud when I started my Ph.D. – the first member of the family to get that far! Never mind that my degree is practically useless and none of my relatives actually understand or even show the slightest interest in my studies. So long as I collect my high-sounding titles, everything is hunky-dory. I should consider myself lucky, really. Other people at my age are forced to get a job. I just have to read and write nonsense.

    Take my Master’s thesis, conspicuously placed on the shelf just above the TV set in the living room. Anyone who comes over eventually has to listen to my mother bragging about it. “Have I shown you Rita’s book? It’s all in English, you know. She was only 23 when it got published.” And then she’ll hand them this one-copy print specially ordered by my parents, leather-bound and all. It sure looks like a book. The English bit is quite cunning, I’ll grant you that. Most Italians can’t speak a foreign language, so naturally they’re impressed as they leaf through it. Gender and Transgression in Early British Romantic Poetry, by Rita Di Luccio. 184 pages of pure academic balderdash and not a single original thought. Quite an achievement, when you think of it.

    Yes, those were the days. I could plunge without hesitation into the most abstruse texts by renowned critics and come out with formulations such as “The phallocentrism of the language tends to re-enact the Oedipal crux, emphasized within the impulsive ejaculations of the creative act” to interpret a poem about the sunrise in the woods. Of course I knew that was utter bullshit, but it was pretty easy to play the game. At least until I got sick of it. And stupidly convinced myself I could write about something relevant, for a change. Look at me now. I don’t even know if anything is relevant anymore.

     

    When I enrolled at Toronto University for my Ph.D., I really believed I had finally reached the mythical Ivory Tower. I couldn’t wait to climb all the way up. It wasn’t the prospect of a “career” that appealed to me – I was strictly after Wisdom. Nothing excited me more than books. The concrete world wasn’t half as interesting as abstractions. I considered myself an intellectual, born to mull over the facts of life, solve its riddles, shine a light on the stony path towards truth and all that.

    Or so I told myself. In retrospective, I think this was just an early sign of my increasing inability to connect with other people. They bored me so much, I had to seek refuge in books. I wanted to achieve Wisdom because I hoped it would offer me some consolation. And of course I thought the Ivory Tower was full of fascinating academics, on similar quests as mine. No more small talk, just pure intellectual masturbation of the highest level, day in and day out!

    Guess what, I was wrong. 

    ***

     

    At lunch it’s my turn to entertain my family. I dutifully answer mum’s question “Did you have fun last night?” by telling all the latest gossip about my schoolmates. I carefully select the details, focusing on everyone’s failures: how Marta is desperately looking for a teaching job all over the country, but there’s just too much competition; how Paolo is barely scrapping by as a travelling sales representative for a publishing company specialized in school textbooks; how Michaela doesn’t earn enough money giving private English lessons, so she’s moved back in with her parents; how Tonino has still not managed to finish his degree and has taken a part-time job selling popcorn to moviegoers in a shopping mall in Milan.

    For each of my tragic accounts mum has a success story of her own to tell: “Remember Felipe, who used to live down the street before his family moved to that new neighbourhood close to the cemetery? Well, I ran into him the other day and he’s doing superb! He’s got a job on an oil rig in Norway and he’s earning loads of money. He drives an Audi A5! And Vincenzo, the son of Signore Amadeo from the grocery shop, he’s got a biology degree but couldn’t find a job in his field, so he took a training course in stress-management and now travels to universities doing seminars. And Teresa, she was also in your class, wasn’t she? I hear that she’s teaching English to kindergartners in the Netherlands, she’s got a Dutch boyfriend and they’re getting married soon. You people with language skills have to move around, I’ve always told you that, Rita. There are plenty of job offers out there, you just have to look.”

    Mother has obviously won this debate. She goes on to criticize the Italian government for having squandered the country’s opportunities – whatever that’s supposed to mean – and then she tells me “You’re much better off in Canada.” I try to explain that also in North-America there are many young people with college degrees who just don’t manage to get a job, and maybe this is a global probl... “No, you’re wrong Rita,” my father intervenes, “the Americans are doing far better than us, they’re more creative, more upbeat, they know how to steer themselves out of a crisis. Whereas our economy is in a shambles, the European Union representatives can’t agree on anything, and all the money is channelled to the brand new member states from the East, they’re lagging so much behind and it’s beginning to affect all of us.” A discussion ensues between my parents and my brother on whether it is appropriate to accept “second-rate countries” into the EU, instead of focusing on keeping a competitive international level. I remain silent for the rest of the meal.

     

    This time I accompany my family and Missy to Passatempo. The owner, Luigi, asks how everything is going in Toronto. He tells me that his nephew, whom I don’t know, has just moved to New York to work in a “big hotel”. I have no idea what relevance this has to my situation, so I just nod. The TV screen hanging above the entrance door is playing the latest top-40 national music hits, right now a half-naked woman is screeching “Amore, perché” over and over again. Then Luigi and my dad start discussing the big football match coming up this evening – I gather that each of them is supporting a different team. My father gets really emotional about it, his voice rises and the people at the surrounding tables nod or shake their heads, depending on their team loyalties. Every now and then my brother also participates, reinforcing everything my father says with apparent data he’s gathered from the newspapers: “Of course everybody knows that Morgiani won’t play, his knee injury is barely healed, it would be foolish to let him take the field. And without Morgiani, you guys don’t stand a chance!” Mother and I distract ourselves by patting Missy, who’s sitting just next to my chair. I make a mental note never to come to Passatempo again.  

    A kid, about seven years old, comes to greet my mother with two pecks. That’s one of her pupils. Mum asks him if he’s already done all the assignments she gave them for the summer vacation and the kid says “Almost”, staring at his feet. She tells him in a most motherly tone: “Now don’t you go slackening just because you don’t have to go to school every morning. Next year we’re going to work hard, so you better prepare yourself now! You’re old enough to take some responsibility.” Then the kid’s mother comes into Passatempo and exchanges a few words with my parents about the weather. When she and the kid have moved to the other end of the café, mum whispers to me “Francesco is really sweet but he’s impossible in class! I think he suffers from hyperactivity. I’ve told his mother to take him to a doctor but she refuses. She’s damaging him more than she thinks!” We get up to leave.

    On our way back home Missy sets the pace, pulling my father with all might, half-chocking on her leash, while dad yells at her to slow down and to stop picking up rubbish from the street. Mum shares with me her impression of this “new generation” of primary school kids. “Oh, they’re much brighter than your generation, much brighter! I don’t mean that you were stupid or anything, but I remember it was really difficult to get you kids to do anything, you had so little enthusiasm for learning. You reacted to homework as if it was a punishment. I had to put so much effort to keep you kids motivated, it really drained me!” My mother was my primary school teacher. Something tells me she’s not talking about my generation at all. She’s complaining solely about me. “Whereas these kids,” she goes on, “they’re already little global players, I tell you! They all know what they want to be when they grow up, they’re interested in other languages and cultures. The city hall has just approved a Chinese teaching programme for primary schools, we’re beginning this September, lots of kids have enrolled. See, that’s what I mean, they’re grabbing opportunities where they see them. They don’t expect to have their future handed to them on a silver platter.”

    The conversation is getting on my nerves. What does my mother know about the future? She can’t even interpret the present! I start gnawing at my fingernails, a little technique I developed years ago to suppress sudden outbursts of rage. “Stop that, Rita, it’s disgusting,” my mother says.

     

    ***

     

    In the afternoon Raffi picks me up in his father’s van and we’re off to the river. He drives past our usual spot until we reach some big rocks I hadn’t even noticed before. Just behind the rocks a small pool has formed, it is wide enough to swim two breaststrokes in each direction and deep enough to cover us with water up to our chest. “Voilá,” Raffi says. We sit next to the pool while he roles a joint. “It’s still a secret place,” he tells me, “so don’t go around bragging about it. Most people actually drive in the opposite direction, there are a few pools like this, but none as nice, believe me. I recently discovered it with Sonia, we were looking for a well-concealed place to smoke some heroin. She was the one who insisted on checking out these rocks. What can I say, she’s got an instinct.” I’m surprised to hear that Raffi is still doing heroin. The last time we spoke, shortly before I left to Canada, he claimed that he was fed-up with all these drugs. “Do you still get a kick out of heroin?” I ask. Raffi thinks about it for a while. “Sometimes it’s just better than being sober,” he says.

    Raffi actually apologizes for having been so unfriendly last night, he was in a bad mood because of Sonia. She’s doing fine, it was no biggie, she behaved like a child, that’s all, and what was he supposed to do, he couldn’t just let her have a bad trip on her own, that would have made matters worse. He says he’s missed me. I say I’ve missed him too. Although I’m not sure if I have. Did I even think about Raffi all these years? I wrote to him once or twice in the beginning, but he never replied. To be honest, I was kind of relieved. At the time I wanted as little contact with Cavonno as possible. It was nothing to be proud of. I thought I could do better.

    I ask Raffi what he’s been up to lately, did he ever finish his information technology degree, did he find a nice job… “Are you kidding me?” Raffi says, as he lights the joint. “I had to do this so-called training to receive my diploma. For six months I worked in the service centre of a website provider. I had to answer e-mails and phone calls of clients complaining about all sorts of problems. Most of the time there was nothing wrong with the programs, these people were just ignorant, so I had to explain everything step by step… Major drag. But I finished my fucking degree, didn’t I? Swell. Then I started looking for a job, and guess what, all I found were more training programmes of the kind I had just absolved. That stuff kills you! So I didn’t really do much for a while. I hung out between Milan and Cavonno. I took an occasional private project like designing a website for my uncle’s restaurant or helping some friends who wanted this special website to promote their band, none of that prefabricated MySpace shit…”

    Raffi passes me the joint, but I decline. So he just goes on. “Anyway, of course my father freaked out, he called me a lazy fucker and all that, you know how temperamental he gets. He refused to go on paying the rent for my apartment in Milan. We had some serious rows for a couple of months.” Raffi’s voice begins to mellow down as the marijuana takes effect. “Then there was also Sonia, who wasn’t getting ahead with her biology degree and was so tired of hanging out in Bologna… Her flatmates were major assholes… Well, to make a long story short: about six months ago, my father convinced me to become a partner in his plumbing business, equal rights and all that stuff. I take care of the accounting and occasionally do some installations, particularly central heating systems. Plus I’ve created a cool website. The business is going well, it’s a bore but I do my best to establish my own working hours… And Sonia has dropped her degree and is starting something new, maybe arts. She’s a great painter, you know? So we’re both living with our parents again, which is a real drag, but it’s just a temporary arrangement. We’re going to leave soon.”

    I ask him where they are planning to go. “Oh, we don’t have any fixed plans or anything,” Raffi says, “we want to get away from here, that’s for sure. Maybe we’ll go to India… Or Cuba, that would be cool.” He seems to fall into a sort of daydream, staring into space.

    “But what are you going to do there?” I ask.

    Raffi looks at me as if I had said something absurd. “Why do we have to do anything? Why can’t we just live?”

    I’m about to point out the obvious, that they will have to somehow pay for “just living”. But then it hits me that Raffi and Sonia are not seriously considering moving to any of those countries, it’s just a little fantasy they’ve created, probably during their many high moments. “Maybe we can join some NGO, just for the ride,” Raffi says.

     

    We interrupt the conversation to go for a dip. We’re silent for the most part, except when we exchange impressions about the coolness of the water and the little insects we spot on the surface or crawling up a rock. Watching Raffi floating on his back, I remember how jealous I became when he first told me about Sonia. We had a pretty intense platonic relationship for years, and I had often fantasized about becoming his lover. We spent so much time together anyway, it would have been a small and probably quite pleasant step. I’ve always liked Raffi’s looks. But something kept me from getting further involved with him.

    For a moment I’m tempted to broach the issue, who knows if I’ll have another chance to be alone with him. Then again, I probably wouldn’t be able to express myself properly. What do I expect from Raffi, anyway?

     

    When we’re out of the water again, lying in the sun, Raffi asks me what my dissertation is about. “Contemporary culture,” I reply. That’s usually where conversations concerning my dissertation end – it sounds so boring that nobody is really interested in hearing more details. Which is kind of relieving. But Raffi doesn’t drop the issue. “What’s the title?” he asks.

    Ah yes, the title. “Grand Illusions: Contemporary Culture as Collective Self-Deception.” Raffi seems puzzled, so I try my best to explain. How I’m suggesting that all the great ideals of our society are just distractions to keep us from realizing what an utterly miserable existence we all lead. Democracy, affluence, justice, protest, revolution, emancipation, individualism, love, fun, pleasure – none of these concepts deliver what they promise. So all our efforts are channelled into reducing the dissonance between our upside-down convictions and the real world. But the more we try to deny reality, the more miserable we get. Only we can’t admit this, so we create yet more uplifting ideals to perpetuate our illusions. That is basically the function of popular culture, the media, politics, even most intellectuals. Which means we’re kind of living in a shared hallucination – like the people of Emerald City in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, who believe that they live in a green city because they wear green spectacles all the time...

    “So what do you propose, instead?” Raffi asks.

    “Propose? Oh no, I’m not proposing anything. That’s kind of a vicious circle, you know. Whenever someone comes up with a few good suggestions to face reality, somebody else turns them into another grand illusion. Think of Marx. Or Freud.” I notice I’m very excited, as if I had smoked marijuana. It’s been ages since I’ve had the opportunity to discuss my dissertation. That’s what you need friends for, I tell myself, to get feedback and inspiration. All the stuff you can’t expect from academia. “I’m not really looking for a solution,” I continue. “That’s also a typical trick of modern ideology, to make us believe that we can actually influence events. I’m just trying to get to the root of our permanent discomfort.”

    Raffi sits up, starts rolling another joint. “Yeah, whatever,” he says. “Sounds to me like you’re blowing things way out of proportion… I don’t know about you, my friend, but I don’t feel any discomfort.”  

     

    On our drive back to Cavonno we listen to The Doors, just like in the old days. “Is Morrison also part of your grand conspiracy?” Raffi asks sarcastically. I stare out of the window and don’t say anything. It would be impossible to explain what I mean. I’m embarrassed by my own naivety. How could I have imagined that anybody would agree with my loony ideas? What proof do I have, anyway? If everyone believes in the same thing, how can it be an illusion? It’s obvious I’m the deluded fool around here. No wonder I cannot get ahead with my work. It’s a dead end.

    Of course, my dissertation advisor put it more eloquently. He said: “The problem with your project, Ms Di Luccio, is that half your arguments are nothing new, and the other half are pure speculation. It’s all very nice to formulate daring hypotheses, we do encourage original thinking here, but you need some heavy theoretical backing. Many of the authors you’re relying on have been at least partially discredited. If you want to use them, you need to build a damned good defence, and I just don’t see it happening. Maybe if you concentrate on a really relevant theme, such as the recent transformations in western public discourse due to the internet, or the emancipation of second-generation Muslim immigrant women, you can achieve more satisfactory results. There are a lot of exciting research possibilities, if you’re smart enough to grab them.”

    This was about a year ago. The guy was probably trying to do me a favour. But I didn’t feel like picking up any of his themes. I wanted to draw the big picture, not dwell on superficial details. I already had an outline for my thesis, each chapter concerning one of the “grand illusions”, showing their fallaciousness, and pointing to the reality they tried to deny. Of course, the more concepts I questioned, the more contradictions I unravelled. In the end, I felt that reality itself had to be redefined! Until I got paralysed by my own questions. That’s what I got for seeking Wisdom.

     

    When he drops me off in front of my parents’ house, Raffi says “You look tired.”

    “Yeah, I’ve been working too much,” I tell him.

    “Maybe you should switch your head off for a while,” he says. I have the impression that we’ve had this discussion before. In fact, this was one of Raffi’s frequent complaints: that I thought too much, I didn’t know how to let myself go, I produced all sorts of “pseudo-rational walls” around me, I distrusted emotions, I relied too heavily on books instead of experiencing life.

    “I guess thinking is a bit like heroin,” I say. “I don’t really want to do it, but it’s the only consolation I know.”

    Raffi laughs. He starts driving off but suddenly brakes and yells to me from his open window: “You know, I’ll grant you that Marx may have come up with some good points, cause the Cubans are Marxists and they’re really cool. But Freud… the guy was just a pervert, everybody knows that.”

     

    ***

     

    My mobile phone has been switched off all day and only now, in the evening, I notice several messages from Sergio. The first one, sent around 4 a.m., says: “Where the hell are you? I thought you were coming to the Party! Saw you with Peppe, don’t know why you hang out with that idiot.” The second was sent at 1 p.m., probably when Sergio got up: “Why is your phone always switched off? Please call me. Let’s get together this afternoon.” Then another one around 3 p.m.: “Rita, is this really your number? Why don’t you reply? Are you angry at me or something?” At 4 p.m.: “Called your home number, your mother said you’re out with Raffi. Hope you’re having a swell time with that junkie. Obviously you didn’t learn anything in Canada.” And finally, just a few minutes ago: “Rita, everything’s cool, really. I’m not angry at you. I’m not going to get on your nerves. I just want to chat a bit with an old friend.” I sit on my bed and debate whether I should reply at all.

    The afternoon with Raffi hasn’t cheered me up particularly. I feel like getting under my blanket and crying myself to sleep. Which is really not an appealing program for the evening. “The best way to fight your crying fits,” my shrink said, “is to find a distraction. If you feel like crying, get up and do something, try out a new cooking recipe, clean the bathroom, go jogging, go to the movies. Whatever you want. Even switching rooms or looking out of the window might be enough. You have to understand that your need to cry is purely irrational. If you give in to it, you just perpetuate your suffering.” In order to prove his point, he told me about a rare disease that makes human males practice an extreme form of self-flagellation – biting their fingers to the bone, punching themselves, banging their head against a wall, over and over, until they bleed to death… In order to remain alive, these poor creatures are literally tied up to a specially upholstered wheelchair. Only under supervision they can occasionally move their hands, for example to feed themselves. The thing is, these boys or men (if they live that long) are supposed to be very sweet and peaceful – they have no conscious intention of hurting themselves. “It’s as if they had an enemy within,” my therapist explained. And when their “enemy” decides to strike, only one thing helps: their caretakers must try to divert their attention. “Sometimes just turning the wheelchair in another direction will do” That simple. One less punch for the self-destructive mutants, one more day of life.

    But what kind of life?

    It’s typical that my therapist couldn’t come up with an interesting suggestion to distract myself. I actually wonder if I’d rather give in to my crying fit than cooking or going to the movies. Maybe I’m happier with my enemy within.

    Before making the transition to self-flagellation, though, I decide to try his little trick. Only I don’t know what to do in this house, apart from sitting in my gloomy room. I can’t bear socializing with my family. I don’t want to put up with another of my mother’s sermons or listen to my father and brother bragging or complaining about the football match. So Sergio comes in quite handy. As usual. I write to him: “What about going out for dinner? Any restaurant. As soon as possible.” Not one minute passes and he replies: “Great idea! I know just the place. Pick you up in half an hour.”

     

    Sergio and I drive to a new Chinese restaurant, the first and only in Cavonno. It opened about six months ago not far from our high-school. In order to attract the kids away from the school cafeteria, the restaurant offers special 5 € lunches. Sergio tells me they’re quite successful. “Sometimes the kids have to queue outside!” Things are about to change, though, as the Cavonno high-school is introducing a new electronic identification and tracking system next year, to keep students from leaving and non-students from entering the school premises unnoticed. The tracking system works via a special ID card, which not only opens the automatic gates, but also registers their class attendance and grades. Plus it can be used instead of money to purchase food and other stuff at school. “Most kids want to boycott the whole thing, although teachers and parents are pretty determined.” I’m kind of happy for the new generation – at least they have something concrete to fight against.

    Tonight we’re the only guests at the Chinese. Sergio selects a table in the back, just next to an aquarium where a few unhealthy looking exotic fishes float around and occasionally seem to stare at us. I kindly ask the waiter to put the music a bit down, due to my “throbbing headache”. Sergio recommends the sweet-and-sour pork. I wonder if he really believes that the canned food from this particular Chinese restaurant can be all that different from others. He frowns when I tell him I’ve become a vegetarian, as if this was an unhealthy habit picked up abroad. But he decides to share a totally vegetarian meal with me, just to show how unprejudiced he is. I’m glad to notice that he’s in a good mood. I decide not to mention his messages at all.

    Sergio tells me that he had a huge fight with his girlfriend yesterday, but now everything is fine again. He has explained to her that we are strictly good friends. I nod in approval. Sergio has even left his mobile phone on and has conspicuously placed it on the table next to him. But before long he is complaining about his new relationship.

    “It’s not that I don’t appreciate it. God knows how miserable I was before Camilla showed up… Especially after you and I broke up, you know, this was the worst time of my life. I don’t think I ever fully recovered. So of course I was amazed when I fell in love again. I thought I would never experience such emotions!… Anyway, the only problem is, I got used to a certain standard with you, and I fear that this relationship won’t live up to it.”

    “You’ve got to give it some time,” I say. “Plus it’s nice to have some variation. That’s what life is all about.” I’m amazed at my capacity to produce so many clichés in a row.

    “Yes, yes, I know that. I’m patient. But you were always pretty rational and calm, whereas Camilla is more the emotional type. With you I could talk, I mean really talk about everything, I never had to explain myself much, it was as if you instinctively understood me. Not so with Camilla. Sometimes it gets difficult to talk to her. That’s what gets on my nerves. I try to explain something and she won’t make the tiniest effort to follow my line of reasoning. When I point this out to her, she’ll start crying and accusing me of not caring about her feelings…”

    “As far as I remember,” I interrupt, “I used to cry all the time.”

    “No you didn’t. You may have shed a tear every now and then, but it was always justified. I really did mistreat you. I was a bastard. No wonder you left me,” Sergio says.

    “I didn’t leave you because you were a bastard. It was just time to move on.” Another cliché. Still, it seems more suitable than trying to explain to Sergio that I broke our relationship off because I was so fed-up – not only with him, but also with myself, my unfulfilled hopes, my senseless life…

    “No, it was my fault,” Sergio insists. “If I had treated you with more respect, we would still be together. But at least I learned my lesson. That’s why I’m being extra-nice to Camilla, I’ve given her my heart and soul.”

    Sergio’s mobile phone rings and he picks it up immediately. For the next ten minutes he chats with Camilla, who has already been informed that her boyfriend is having dinner with me. She sends me regards, and I greet her back. The rest of the phone conversation seems to consist of love declarations. Sergio says “no, I love you more,” then smiles at something Camilla says, and replies, “well, my love is the size of the Everest!” And so on. He also complains about the dinner, regretting that he didn’t order the sweet-and-sour pork.

    Once Sergio hangs up, I switch to more concrete themes, to avoid spending another hour discussing his love for Camilla. I want to know what he’s been doing since he finished his degree. Sergio graduated in psychology at the university of Milan the same year I left to Canada. He specialized in deviant behaviour – which I’ve always found sort of funny, since that branch deals mostly with drug addiction and, well, just about everyone we knew, including ourselves, were addicted to one or several drugs. Sergio thought it might be a nice way to get free tickets to special parties and festivals where lots of drugs are normally consumed. He would pretend to do case studies.

    “Well, I’m on vacation now,” Sergio tells me. “But I’m working in Milan, in that support centre for addicts that we used to pass by on our way downtown, remember? I’m really fed-up with it, though. Sometimes I think I should have studied something else, maybe literature, like you… Or history, that would have been even better…”

    “But you got hired in your field, isn’t that nice?”

    “As if! You know what I do all day? I distribute methadone pills to registered junkies coming by every day to get their fix – plus I interview newcomers who want to get clean or stay clean. I have to give these people counselling, tell them how they should organize their lives. Most of them don’t have a life! Man, they’re so fucked up.” Sergio shakes his head. “That’s why I don’t like to see you hanging out with junkies like Raffi and Peppe. Those guys are on a self-destructive trip. I really wouldn’t want you to end up like that.”

    “You know I’ve never even touched heroin,” I say.

    “Sometimes being around such people is enough to damage you. Trust me, I’m experienced. You should hang out with my crowd, instead. Sure, we smoke joints and occasionally do some LSD, but we’re not junkies!”

    “We’re all junkies in one way or another,” I mutter.

    But Sergio doesn’t seem to hear me. He goes on to criticize heroin and cocaine, because “they close your chakras” – whereas marijuana and psychedelics are famous for their chakra-opening qualities. I wonder if he also talks to his patients like this. Then he explains in great detail the importance of chakras to keep one’s emotional balance: “The seven principal chakras reflect how the unified consciousness of humanity, in other words, the soul, is divided to manage different aspects of earthly life. That’s why the chakras are placed at differing levels in your body, marking the transition from physical to spiritual: the lower chakra is concerned with matter, and the top chakra, on your forehead, is concerned with pure consciousness. To really open that chakra, also known as the third eye, you need a lot of spiritual strength… Anyway, the important thing is that an energetic imbalance between the chakras produces an almost continuous feeling of dissatisfaction. For example, when the contact between the heart and the head chakras is closed, people become anxious and confused. You need to make sure that the energy is distributed evenly between the head and the heart, to be able to truly contact your senses and touch real feelings.”

    I nod patiently but don’t really pay attention to what he is saying. I realize that much of our relationship was based on this dynamic: Sergio would talk endlessly about the most obscure issues, and my mind would just wander off in another direction. On the surface, though, it seemed as if I was listening very carefully, because I was so sensitive to Sergio’s body language. When he moved his hands more frantically or raised his voice, that was my cue to say “Right, yes, I see”. No wonder he considers me such an ideal companion.

     

    Towards the end of our meal, and after two more phone chats with Camilla, Sergio complains that we still haven’t talked about my love life. So I tell him that I have a wonderful boyfriend, Eric, who’s a filmmaker. We’ve been living together for a couple of years now and are “very happy”. Sergio doesn’t seem to be interested in expanding on this topic at all. Though he does inform me that he has never heard of a good Canadian film. “I don’t think Canadians are very creative,” he says. I don’t bother to disagree. For all I know, he might be right. Then Sergio switches to my dissertation: “What are you writing about?”

    The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” I reply.

    “The book or the film?”

    “Both. And the musical.”

    “Isn’t there also a cartoon version?”

    “Sure” I say, though I have no idea. “The cartoon version, too.”

    “I remember watching the film several times when I was a kid,” Sergio says. “I really liked it. Especially the Scarecrow, who thought he was stupid and wanted to get a brain from the Wizard of Oz, only it turned out that he was already pretty smart, he just didn’t know it… See, his head and heart chakras weren’t communicating. But when the Scarecrow finally understood how smart he was, he became ruler of Emerald City! So I guess it’s an inspirational tale, isn’t it? Cause it teaches you to have faith in yourself.”

    “Yes, that’s right,” I reply. “But I’m focusing more on those green spectacles the inhabitants of Emerald City get to wear.”

    “I think it would be cool to have green spectacles,” Sergio says and looks at the fish in the aquarium.

     

    ***

     

    Back downtown, we walk over to Sottomondo, the local amusement arcade where Sergio is meeting some kid who’s supposed to be selling good marijuana. “Normally I get my stuff in Milan, but I ran out of it and just need a bit to get me through this week,” he explains. Sottomondo is a pretty big place in the basement of one of the buildings along the main road. You descend a staircase and land in the centre of the arcade – to the right is the bar with a few tables and to the left is a mini-bowling alley. The rest of the place is filled with videogame machines and several pool tables. One of the most striking features of the arcade are the wall paintings, a weird mixture of schlock and transcendence. You’ve got a black-clad bearded biker and his half-naked female pendant, dashing towards some mountains – that’s the image on the wall behind the mini bowling-alley. Then there are a bunch of comic-book figures like superheroes and Donald Duck and other creatures I can’t really identify, interspersed with spiralling flowers that look like they’ve been drawn by some freak on acid, elves and faeries, plus a big ying-yang symbol. And on the way to the toilets, just next to the bar, you will find an anatomically correct painting of a human heart connected to a dizzying amount of cold metallic pipes that don’t really lead anywhere but sort of feed each other. Looking carefully you will notice that one of the pipes is leaking tiny drops of blood. The author of this particular painting, known to everyone as Fly, died of an overdose about five years ago, so the wall has become a local treasure.     

    You’re not supposed to frequent Sottomondo if you’re below the age of 16, but the place is always filled with under-aged kids. It is still playing the same cheap techno music I was forced to listen to when I used to come here with Sergio, who was totally addicted to two videogames: one where you got to steer a whole football team playing the World Cup, and another with a pink plastic gun used to shoot human and non-human targets on the screen. I would stand next to him and just watch. I could never really share his enthusiasm. But while Sergio concentrated on his games, I could chat around with other people. Back then I didn’t know what else to do with myself, anyway.

    We head directly for the bar, to get ourselves an espresso and greet Don Roberto, the fat owner, who runs the place with the help of his equally fat daughter and her five-year-old kid. Don Roberto and a couple of guests are staring at a blaring TV screen. There’s a special report about the previous day’s terrorist attack on UN officials in Sudan, where also two Italian “civilians” got blown up. They were engineers for some European construction firm and had only recently arrived in the country. The sobbing mother of one of the engineers tells the camera that her son just wanted to do a good job abroad. This is followed by images of debris and broken glass and blood on some dusty street. Finally a UN official says “We will not be deterred in our efforts to help the Sudanese people.” Don Roberto shakes his head and complains that “the whole fucking world has gone crazy.” I can’t really tell if he’s criticizing the terrorists or the UN.

    I spot Peppe and Raffi playing pool. Sonia is sitting on a bar stool next to the pool table, watching the game, so I walk over to greet her. She looks bored to death, but I’m not sure if my judgement is correct. I can’t really say that I know Sonia at all, we’ve never exchanged more than a few banalities. This time it’s no different. She tells me a bit about her plans to enrol at an arts school, perhaps in Florence or even Rome, and I talk about all the work for my doctoral thesis. Even though I have the suspicion that Raffi has already made his jokes about my ridiculous attempts to pass off as a radical intellectual.

    From a distance Sergio beckons me to join him. He has moved to what is known as the “Dealers’ Corner” – a spot behind the staircase that cannot be seen from the bar, where Don Roberto stands most of the time. Of course Don Robert knows very well that everyone assembles here to do some illegal trading, so he has recently installed a surveillance camera. But the kids don’t seem to care at all. Just as I am joining Sergio, his dealer is waving at the camera and saying “Look, mummy, I’m on TV!”. That’s Johnny, a 17-year-old good-looking blond kid dressed like a hip-hopper, who speaks really fast and can’t stand still. Of course I know him, he’s the son of the local ophthalmologist and was also my mother’s pupil. In fact, he was the best in his class. My mother thought he was a little genius. “That boy’s made for success,” she said.

    Anyway, Johnny is just explaining to his audience – consisting of Sergio, myself, and Johnny’s girlfriend – that Don Roberto can’t really do anything against the dealers, because he’s got his own illicit activities going on in a little room you can only access from the bar. That’s where people meet to play poker. “And they bet a lot of money, believe me! Which, of course, is illegal. That’s the real ‘Dealers’ Corner’, man! So Don Roberto knows he has to keep his mouth shut, otherwise we’ll squeal on him… Plus that cheap camera doesn’t really capture anything. For all he knows, I could be just handing you some chewing gum. It’s all show, the poor old fat thinks he can scare us.” Then Johnny tells us about the undercover cops who occasionally pop by Sottomondo, hoping to catch some dealers in action. “These guys, they come in here dressed like movie delinquents and start asking where they can buy some stuff… As if we were born yesterday! I mean, come on, this isn’t really New York… If a fucking stranger comes looking for dealers, you can be damned sure that he gets spotted way before he can make out who’s who in here. Sometimes I wonder what kind of world these cops live in, really. It’s pathetic.” Johnny’s girlfriend laughs and nods.

    Johnny goes on telling us about his drugs-related adventures – occasionally interrupted to kiss his girlfriend, or to let Sergio chip in with half a sentence, or to greet several people walking by. His stories are always funny, as if he was a cartoon character: dodging authorities, scorning adults (especially his parents), and getting high. They sound totally fabricated, probably the result of too many films. I stop listening after a while and instead I just watch him hopping around, gesticulating and laughing. I realize that I sort of envy Johnny. There’s a certain innocence in him, as if life really were just a funny game. He seems quite protected in his little bubble, bouncing between school and the arcade and home, without a worry in the world. I wonder how long he can keep this up until reality kicks him in the butt.

         

    Because the Pearl and Wow are closed on Sundays, Don Roberto’s arcade gets especially packed. Sergio and I have left Johnny to entertain other clients and we’ve occupied a table in the corner, just next to a videogame machine that keeps playing the same very loud, very annoying car-chase tune. Soon we are joined by Dario and two girls I don’t know very well. They chit-chat about last night’s party for a while, until Dario, who is sitting next to me, starts telling me about the new Cultural Association in Cavonno, of which he and the two girls are founding members. Sergio is also participating, as an associate. And they’re always looking for “new members, supporters, friends, visitors, whatever”. I gather that Dario has mainly occupied himself with the Association ever since he moved back to Cavonno.

    The association is organizing a big cultural event in a fortnight which will include a flea market, a book fair, a photo exhibition, film screenings, open-air theatre, street acrobatics. The theme is “Our Home and Our Environment”. Most performers are locals, the photos concern exclusively our region, all the books and films are Italian. “We want to boost the self-confidence of the Cavonnese,” Dario explains, “because especially the younger kids seem to be losing touch with their origins. They live here all their lives without even appreciating it, they’re more concerned with American culture and all that trash.” I’m rather puzzled by Dario’s self-righteous criticism of today’s youngsters, as if we had ever been a model of local pride. I can’t remember having felt any particular connection to Cavonno as a geographical and historical place. I just lived here and dreamed of all the nicer places I could go to. Still, I agree to participate in the association’s meeting tomorrow evening – although I’m not sure why I should bother at all. Is it only an excuse to be around Dario, a desperate attempt to find something that might unite us?

    “That’s great,” Dario says, “we could really use an outsider’s perspective.” Then he laughs somewhat awkwardly. “Of course I didn’t mean that you’re an outsider, you’re one of us… But you can bring in some of your experiences from abroad, we want our association to reach out beyond Cavonno, too.” At this point Sergio disagrees, claiming that the aim isn’t to sell Cavonno like another cheap tourist attraction to bored, fat, rich Americans. In fact, he says, the association should be bold enough to defend an anti-American stance, since “those bastards are ruining the planet and taking everyone down with them”. And that includes the Canadians, too, Sergio says. A discussion ensues on whether it is correct for members, associates, visitors and whatever to publicly state political views. One of the girls, called Laura, vehemently opposes Sergio, she doesn’t have anything against the Americans or any other nation on the planet – “we should be striving for global communion, not separatism!” Dario tries to adopt a diplomatic position, saying that the association should be able to embrace both opinions. Everybody gets really excited and raises their voices, which finally manage to drown out the music from the videogame machine. From where I’m sitting, I get a good view of Fly’s heart. I start counting the pipes.

    After a while the group gets bored by all the commotion. Dario challenges Sergio to a videogame football match – the loser has to roll a joint afterwards. The two girls and I are kindly invited to watch. Laura and Dario seem to exchange a few flirting glances and when he gets up, she follows him closely. It doesn’t bother me, I’m rather embarrassed, actually. I decide to stay behind at the table with the other girl, whose name is Georgia. She’s in her early twenties and is studying journalism in Bologna. She tells me about her plans to work on television, hosting serious political debates. Georgia thinks that people aren’t really aware of the possibilities of democracy. “Especially the young nowadays are so apathetic, they let the government get away with anything.” So she hopes to raise people’s consciousness in the future. She asks me if I have ever voted in an election and I say “No”. “See, that’s exactly the kind of attitude that needs to be changed,” Georgia says, “otherwise we’ll endanger the whole democratic system. And you wouldn’t want to live in a dictatorship, would you?” I nod silently. The techno version of “It’s a Wonderful World” starts playing and Georgia hums along. I get up and leave.

     

    ***

     

    Time to kill, that’s all life comes down to. Now that I’m back in Cavonno, I realize I’ve never done anything but hanging out, waiting for something to happen. Expecting other people to distract me from my own feelings of utter boredom and uselessness. It worked relatively well, I can’t complain. Every day I repeated the same routine of going out, getting high, talking about nothing, getting tired, going to bed. I just don’t understand why this is not enough now. Why every minute is so painfully long.

    Outside Sottomondo is a concrete arcade, it’s cosily dark at this time. Usually there are several kids hanging out and smoking, but at the moment it’s empty. I lean against the wall and watch the cars and people passing on the main street. It all looks so neat, as if everyone had a clear aim and purpose. Even if they’re just going round in circles.

    And voilá, my inner enemy, the crying fit, finally catches up with me. I can feel it building up already. Yes, that would be just the thing, to break down in the centre of Cavonno, for all people to see my self-inflicted misery. I start walking really fast, steering myself towards the old train station, way over at the southern edge of town.

     

    Once I’m past the downtown cafés and bars and restaurants and the municipal park, I actually start feeling better. There’s nobody in the street but me. I slow down to look at the partially dilapidated houses and businesses lined up in a dull fashion along what was once a lively cobblestone road with a neat pavement in the middle separating two broad lanes, plus rows of trees and benches. That was before the train station closed, in the early nineties. Now there’s a new bus terminal at the centre with several good bus connections to all the big cities.

    Down here nothing much is happening anymore. Except occasionally at the station itself, of course, which has been re-appropriated by the kids, the junkies and one or the other bum. The place is dark and quiet, ideal for the kind of secret activities favoured by these groups. You can sit on the edge of the platform and watch the moon and the stars. You can even follow the overgrown rail in either direction, if you don’t mind getting a bit entangled in the weeds. On the outer walls of the station are old, washed-out posters of Cavonno showing the municipal hall, the church, the river. There’s also a picture of the municipal hospital, a very modern-looking building from the eighties, with an inscription reading “The Future is in Cavonno!” The deterioration of the posters gives the images a strange appeal, as if they were from a very distant past. There’s a faint smell of urine coming from the public toilets. And shards of glass here and there.

    Alone at the station, I jump down from the platform, cross the rails and walk over to a big empty open workshop where they once kept all kinds of machinery connected to the railway. I sit down at the entrance, look up at the sky and then in both directions. Finally I start crying. It feels good.

      

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      Copyright © 2010 Clary Antome. All Rights Reserved.

     

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