There’s an exact spot on my way home where I open my bag and get my keys out.
Like swimmers when they come to the end of their last lap, stretch an arm out, grab the edge, lift their goggles, turn and look at their time on the scoreboard.
I think about swimmers every day, here, in this same spot, as I rummage in my bag. Hesitating when I should be hurrying, I drag my feet so I can hear my sluggish steps and scream out to the world with the shuffling of my boots that I’ve arrived, but that I don’t want to have arrived.
I stop in front of the door and wish I smoked.
I clasp the keys in my hand and observe them as they rub together noisily. If there were only one of them, I wouldn’t hear a thing.
Nicola is up there waiting for me. We always say, I’m upstairs, come up, though we actually live on the ground floor because I don’t want to be over anybody’s head and I made that clear as soon as we decided to live together.
That you can stack plates but not lives.
Not to mention threehundredandsixtyfive empty exchanges about how time flies faster every year, which floor are you going to, OK, so I’d better get in first.
Maria and Nicola, these are our names, like our grandparents before us and our grandparents’ grandparents before us, for ever and ever amen, in the name of the non-evolution of the species
When I stop torturing the keys, I reach under my scarf and play with a pendant I’ve worn around my neck for almost thirty years, which my archetype Maria gave me. It’s a gold knot, a kind of twenty-four-carat pretzel. Yellow gold. Very yellow. Because family jewels are yellower than others, and heavier, too. In my view. And they don’t make a noise. I stand there listening, but there’s no sound.
Maybe it’s the weight of this necklace that is slowing me down, a few feet from my house, our house.
An ugly building thrown together in haste.
I feel cold. In springtime, in the evenings, though I don’t want to believe it, it’s cold.
My hands are killing me and the time has come to go in. Out of the front door comes a woman I don’t know, but maybe I should know, with a dog. When we moved here, I thought I would bake enough cakes to feed the whole building and end world hunger, that I would take care of our neighbours’ cats and dogs and parrots and goldfish and leave reports on their answering machines when they were away, that I would go around knocking on doors when I ran out of salt.
Instead, I’ve stuffed every summons to a residents’ meeting into the letter box next to mine, labelled Eleonora Marelli. Could she be the woman with the dog?
And whenever I’ve run out of salt, I’ve simply gone to the supermarket. Who runs out of salt, anyway? If I counted the number of packets of salt I’ve bought in my life, I’d maybe get to three. How can you not realise the salt is running out, given the exceptional nature of the event?
Meanwhile, they’re holding the door open for me, the woman and the dog, which means I no longer have an excuse, I have to go in.
Great, no need for key number one.
I look at the letter box. At a glance it looks empty, thank goodness.
I walk down the hall and I hear laughter or, more precisely, I hear Nicola laughing from behind the door of our apartment.
Of his laughs, this actually sounds like the real one. He has two: one that comes out in bursts and makes his shoulders shudder, and a long, high laugh with a kind of hole in the middle, interrupted every now and again by a silent sucking in, like an air pocket.
There it is, I hear it, the hole in his laughter. I love that suspension.
The evening we met, Nicola and I, we were in a bar, what a cliché.
He was gesticulating too much. He was talking too much. He was drinking too little. And I decided to talk to him to interrupt the series of excesses.
‘You’re making me want to throw up.’ ‘Sorry? What was that?’
‘You move too much. You’re like a film with special effects.’ ‘Don’t look at me, then.’
‘… Sorry, do films with special effects make you want to throw up?’
‘Would you like a drink?’ ‘Yeah.’
‘You jumped at that pretty quick.’ ‘Very.’
‘Try this grappa, it’s good.’ ‘Mmm.’
‘So do you always accept drinks from strangers without saying a word?’
‘What am I supposed to say?’
‘Well, didn’t you learn the magic word? G-R-A-…’ ‘… P-P-A.’
And that was when I heard it the first time, that air pocket in the middle of his laugh, like the moment you go over the edge on a roller coaster, when your whole chest is compressed and for a second it feels impossible that it could contain your heart and your lungs and all the things that matter.
I stand a little longer outside the door and I hear another, different, laugh.
Nicola is laughing with someone.
There are people laughing in my house. OK. No, not OK at all.
I’d like to open the door and find someone new, swim up to them, hold out my hand for the first time and say nice to meet you, before gripping onto the edge of their life, like swimmers on their final lap.
Instead, I already know. I already know everything.
I decide to ring the doorbell, good riddance to key number two.
They stop laughing, two sets of steps, restrained but noisy, come my way.
She opens the door. ‘Hello, darling!’ ‘Hi, Mà.’
‘You look tired.’
‘Which is a kind way of saying I look like shit.’
‘No, apricot, you just look tired. Beautiful and tired.’
She kisses me. She hugs me. I hug her. My mother can’t cook a thing, and yet her neck always smells like fresh bread straight out of the oven, like warm biscuits.
Biscuits. I love that word.
The table is laid for three. For fuck’s sake.
Now she’ll say she just happened to be in the neighbourhood, that Nicola and I work too hard, that my father’s busy, that it’s an impromptu dinner.
And we’ll all pretend that everything’s fine. Except Nicola won’t be pretending because he really doesn’t get it, because, every year without fail, he forgets what fucking day it is today.
Anything you let in, gets to you
Today it’s twenty-five years since I killed my sister.
Nobody has ever said it out loud, but I can hear other
people’s thoughts loud and clear. And the unmanageable ones have a special sound: they make a slow constant rumble like waves crashing against docks, like high heels as you carry on walking, resisting and smiling.
My mother says that it wasn’t my fault.
My mother wears them often, high heels, that is.
That we shouldn’t use paper towels as napkins. Is what she’s saying in the meantime, before I’ve shrugged my jacket off.
Nicola nods, adding yet another ladle of broth to the pan.
That risotto should be eaten on flat plates, not in bowls, she always says. That once she and my father ate a risotto with strawberries and he thought it was disgusting, she says.
They laugh, together. About the fact that fruit should be treated as fruit.
I go to the toilet and sit there for a long time, even after I’m done.
I think about the seasons, the tides, the precession of the equinoxes, the full moon, hibernation, flowers.
And then there’s us, our life marked by a succession of meals. Nothing else.
I look at the toilet paper.
I know Nicola is angry with me because I came in without saying hello to him, which means without kissing him, which means he’s one of those people who cares about form. But the form of what?
And this evening I have a revelation that maybe caring about form means caring about the stencil, the biscuit cutter, the ready-shaped template of how things should be. Meaning, his attention to form is not just a matter of aesthetics. It’s a trail to follow.
It looks like there are still quite a few ladles of broth on the way so I make my way to the living room-studio-bunker, which is my favourite room in the house.
Tomorrow I have two clients before going to my doctor’s appointment, and I’m unprepared across the board. What board, I ask myself?
I turn the computer on and think that nights have a way of being very long. In the meantime, I hear my mother and Nicola confabulate in the kitchen, talking about me as if I can’t hear them. Though they know perfectly well that I know that they know that I can hear them. They’re saying I don’t eat enough, that coffee is not food, that my new haircut suits me, even though I’m still shedding clumps of it, that I earn too little and work too much, that I’m always thinking about others but never about myself, that I should have finished university, and on they go, a repeat performance.
Tonight, too, they’ve run out of tickets.
And we’ve run out of options, I think, and feel like laughing. My laugh has no suspension.
‘It’s ready!’ they shout. ‘Isn’t Pà coming?’ I provoke.
‘Unfortunately he couldn’t, darling.’
No reaction. I’m being a bitch but they never realise.
The steaming plates look wonderful.
Lucky them. If I smoked like they do, I’d be able to fill up dead moments, rather than inflicting physical pain on them.
The risotto looks wonderful because Nicola really cares about form, as we’ve said. And it’s delicious, too, as my mother won’t fail to point out, between ten and twenty times a minute.
What a treasure your boyfriend is, she reminds me. Bare skin is not enough, we should embellish it at any cost, I think, as I start playing with my twenty-four-carat pendant-pretzel again. I don’t have any tattoos, since life takes care of that on its own, what with coming off your bike, an old smallpox vaccination which shows your age, chicken pox blisters you couldn’t resist scratching, sharp corners on bits of furniture, a frying pan that was minding its own business but was still scorching hot.
Not to mention your belly button, the only visible scar produced by a separation.
While the other losses sit there in silence, in front of a steaming hot dish like a smoking gun.
Thirsty sea never rely on how much there is
Nicola is self-made. He paid his own way through university, and then he took out a loan and got himself a pilot’s licence.
Nicola is the kind of person who doesn’t kill spiders but catches them in jars and frees them out of the window.
He’s taller than average, more handsome than average, and even though I’ve never seen him do it, I’m sure he helps old ladies cross the street. That he gets up for them on the bus I have actually witnessed.
Nicola irons cotton handkerchiefs, sews buttons on before they drop off, lifts the toilet seat and then puts it back down again, smiles when he looks at you.
My mother sings the praises of this brilliant man all the time, repeats that he’s perfect, we’re perfect together.
We won each other, as if at an auction.
I don’t think we are like good wine
that correctly inclined we will age well over time
I think, rather, we are like alcohol and coffee cream in a
badly mixed liquor
Little by little your flavour will separate from mine
‘Anna, shall I pour you some more wine?’ ‘You’re always so attentive, Nicola.’
It’s no use. My mother just can’t bring herself to say Yes or No.
‘Are you planning on doing anything for Easter?’ says Nicola, who force-feeds silence with words.
‘Some friends of ours are going to Marseilles, you know? Maybe Peppe and I will go with them, since we’ve never been. It’s perfect, you know. They’re going by car and there are two free places, so I can avoid flying this time, too.’
‘How many times do I have to tell you, Anna, flying is much safer than driving.’
‘Never enough times, dear Nicola! If I can avoid planes, I happily will. Anyway, Marseilles is lovely, they say, and these friends are experts because—’
‘Who are they?’ I interrupt, my mouth full. ‘Roberta and Franco.’
‘Ah, and they are…?’
‘Friends from buraco club, mine and Papà’s. Alessia’s parents. You remember Alessia, right? She was at middle school with you, in another class. You went on a school trip together once. You’re the same age, you see?’
‘No, I don’t.’ I swallow. ‘So, are you going on holiday with them or not?’
‘Papà doesn’t mind the idea.’
It’s pointless. She just can’t do it.
Maybe she has a problem with monosyllables.
My father is like a stone, my mother washes around him.
Her name could only have been Anna, which is the same both ways round.
I think Marseilles is perfect for her: soap and rats. My mother doesn’t expose herself.
She doesn’t yell and she doesn’t whisper, she talks.
She doesn’t despair and she doesn’t leap for joy, she weaves through the middle.
She has never told Nicola to use the familiar tu with her, but she insists he calls her Anna because if he called her Signora it would make her feel old, and because he’s family.
She never goes out on a limb, my mother. She simply is.
I don’t know whether we are born blank and little by little we colour ourselves in, or whether we come into this world painted in brilliant hues and then we become different shades of grey, but I do know for sure that my mother is pearl, pewter, slate and lead.
One evening many years ago, I was doing my homework on the kitchen table.
I was in my first year of primary school, and I’d taken over the room with pens, pencils, felt tips, glue, highlighters, scissors, exercise books, doing my best as usual to occupy all the available space. I’d worn my hairband so often it was loose, and it kept slipping down over my eyes. So I held my blue pen in one hand, and my hairband in the other.
That’s the first photo I remember my mother taking of me, with her eyes.
This is what she does. Every now and again, she looks at things so intensely that she holds them in her head, immobilises them in her thoughts. I’ve known about this private album of hers for years.
We’ve never had very many real photos. Hanging on the walls of my parents’ house there are mostly film posters and framed cross-stitch samplers.
When my mother takes a picture with her eyes, her face turns greyer, more slate and lead than usual.
Hers is a face that laughs and cries at the same time, that has no direction, like her name.
And so I think that maybe we are born blank. And we forge our path with dashes of bright colour.
But every now and again, an experience is thrown at us that darkens the colours, deepens the layers of grey. Then, when we’re ready, we try and lighten them again.
I think my mother must have layered so many dark shades of grey that she was unable to find a bucket of whitewash big enough to repaint herself. She ended up pearl, pewter, slate and lead.
And when, with her flashing eyes, she takes a picture of the world, I can see it.
I can see heaviness stifling joy. I can see light buoying sadness.
‘Well, I think it’ll do you good to go,’ I say to her.
She scrunches up her nose, narrowing her eyes slightly. Which means she’s happy I’ve said it but sad that we won’t be having Easter together.
‘So, darling, have you remembered who Alessia is?’
‘No, Mà. I haven’t.’
Men and women live together
bubble bath for two Men and women marry
a child for two But they go around the world
Everyone’s plates are empty now. The glasses aren’t, though.
We’ll have to wait.
‘Anna, unfortunately we don’t have much else in the house. If I’d known you were coming, I’d have made dessert. I have this new recipe with almonds that’s the best. A colleague shared it with me. There’s hardly any sugar in it and…’
When people start talking about recipes, I put my ears on flight mode. Boring.
There’s always a moment during dinner when someone around the table starts reciting a recipe.
The redundancy of talking about food while you’re eating is something I’ll never understand.
Every time, I imagine these ladies, these Nicolas, these aunts and uncles, these grandmothers in aprons, standing up in the middle of the meal, climbing onto a chair and reciting, like kids with a Christmas poem.
Except those kids are prompted by others and, thank God, sometimes they are too embarrassed to go through with it and run to their bedrooms. A nice way of refusing to be performing monkeys and telling adults to piss off.
Grown-up recipe reciters, however, do it on their own.
Grown-up recipe reciters are never embarrassed.
Force of habit is the greatest weakness
To tell the truth, though, this compound word game in my head is the imaginary chair I stand on, from which I recite my thoughts when I need to disengage (what a good word) from my existence. I really love words that contain other words, when they are simultaneously the same but new.
At primary school, my teacher told us that the Dolomite Alps used to be a seabed. And I don’t think I ever recovered from that knowledge.
The sea turning into a mountain.
And if the sea can turn into a mountain, what’s the point of starting a sentence with the words: ‘I’m someone who…’? There’s never anyone who surprises you with a nice, ‘I’m this and that and an infinite range of other possibilities.’
I really don’t know what I am. You try describing yourselves with only three adjectives, if you dare, dear HR people with your ready-made job interviews.
Rain and bows are two different things, but together they form something new, like man and drill, or dog and fish.
But this chair is mine and mine only, in my own head, and I try not to bore anyone else when I climb up on it.
‘… bake it for twenty minutes at 180 degrees and ta-da.’ ‘Yum, that sounds delicious. Next time, maybe. Today I brought dessert, though… something Maria goes mad over. Wait, I hid it in the hall cupboard!’
There you go, my mother is unbeatable in this area. She never forgets. Ever.
There it is on the horizon, in her hands, perfect in its shimmering wrapper, like a butterfly, a bit of blue, a patch of fuchsia, a touch of every colour: Her Majesty the Easter Egg.
Dark chocolate 75%. Contains a luxury surprise.
‘You’re welcome, apricot.’ Snap.
She takes one of her pictures with her eyes, my mother does, while the egg changes hands from hers to mine.
And I hear the snap. So loud that my instinct is to make a face, to ruin the image for her.
‘I thought I’d bring it to you today, you know… so that if Papà and I do go to France in the end… Well, I don’t know if you want to open it now or if you’d prefer to wait until Sunday.’
‘I’ll wait until Sunday.’ ‘OK.’
Nicola is uninterested, and starts clearing the table because, when it comes to chocolate, he and I are different.
From a certain age onwards, sugar in coffee and milk chocolate should be outlawed. He disputes this, saying that I don’t appreciate life’s pleasures, and I answer that he may be right but if it were me making the laws, he’d know what bitterness was.
I yawn in a slightly exaggerated fashion and my mother, the pewter, slate and lead wave, says, as she gulps down the last of her wine, ‘Well, it’s getting late. So, dears, if Peppe and I go away, we’ll catch you next week, OK? Maybe Tuesday.’
‘Oh, OK then. Happy Easter.’
‘Happy Easter, Anna, goodnight,’ says Nicola, holding her scarf.
‘… say hi to Pà, OK?’ ‘OK.’
And she turns on her heels and closes the door.
It’s over. Once again.
We wash up to Sybille Baier singing ‘Tonight’. This song wrecks me and Nicola knows it, that’s why he puts it on while we’re doing the dishes. That way, I concentrate on the anguish in her voice and, in comparison, washing up is a walk in the park.
Every evening we go through the same hackneyed script: we should really get a dishwasher (I like that word), but no, really, it’s fine as things are, though it is pretty boring, OK then, let’s buy one, right, I’ll look online, OK, you look, but maybe it’s a waste of money, though time is worth far more than a thousand euros and a two-year guarantee, don’t you think? Yes, so let’s look. And of course, we never do.
‘Don’t you think you’re too old to get an Easter egg?’
Dear Nicola, do I really have to start explaining to you about the Dolomites and the sea, about possible lives inside one life, about words that contain other words, about all the things in the world that unexpectedly contain something else, about Russian dolls, closed curtains, oysters, about how I always feel, today more than ever?
But I prefer not to get up onto that chair in front of you. I take my thoughts back into their room.
And with my feet in my stripy slippers firmly planted on the kitchen rug, and a pair of yellow rubber gloves on my hands, I decide to give you an explanation which is false but much more logical according to your criteria of what is logical.
‘Of course I am. But it makes my mother happy.’
Force of habit is my force of gravity
Erica Mou studied Literature, Publishing and Journalism at the Un iversity of Bari. She is a singer-songwriter with numerous international awards. Thirsty Sea, winner of the Readers Award of the Lungano Literary Festival 2020, is her debut novel, out 17 May with Heloise Press. Twitter: @ericamou
Clarissa Botsford has translated numerous authors from Italian, including Elvira Dones, Viola Ardone, Alessandro Baricco, Concita De Gregorio, Sacha Naspini and Lia Levi. She is also a musician and a humanist celebrant. Twitter: @Botsford_cla