“We all missed you,” he said, “we were always hoping you’d move back.”
“Filippo, you don’t need to try to make me feel better. It was only one summer.”
His face went slightly backwards, as though I’d hit him.
“How are you?” I asked, but he just shrugged.
The insecure light of an early morning coming through the window imprinted in my eyes as the perfume of bougainvillea talked of another summer. Would that I had woken up back then.
“I loved him. All this time,” I said, realising it just then.
“So did we all.”
Why did he do it, you’re his cousin, you must know something! But the hassled look of his skin, the way he sat with his back forward and his knees out, like a child, stopped me from asking. I took his hand and felt the wounds around his nails, and on his wrist was a silver bracelet with a star-shaped pendant.
“You found me,” he said, “like you promised.”
Holding hands in the silence, we watched the sky blush pink and let the damp breeze lick us. My shoulder felt the slight weight of Filippo’s face, my neck tickled by his hair. An instant later, he was sleeping. I stole that time to study him, to notice his smell of soap and fruit pastilles, the way his feet were still rounded and unworn, the thinness of his limbs which had always reminded me of a little bird.
“What happened to you,” I whispered as the sun started becoming ruder, pushing out the fresh air of the tree house. He mumbled something, smiled, and started snoring softly.
For years after we moved away from the house on the tree, I told myself that I would go back there as soon as I could—when I had enough money; when I broke free from my parents. And for one year afterward, I wrote Mirko three letters per week, then two, then one, using up all the scented writing paper I had received for my birthday and then continuing on sheets pulled out of my exercise books and sketch pad. There were drawings in the margins of each letter, and sometimes feathers or sand and shells mixed with glitter glued onto them, sentences stolen from a novel or a poem and I cannot remember what I wrote—what way I used to tell him that where he had been ripped off me there was a jagged gash, and touching with my mind the raw edges of it—feeling that pain—was what awakened me to my aliveness each time I felt like giving in to exhaustion.
My parents laughed at me when I asked them to post the letters (are you in looove with him?), and then they sent one or two—that is what they said—and I got no pocket money until I was a lot older, so the letters were relegated to a drawer, seeking comfort from disuse, solitude, in their closeness; tied together with a red ribbon that had belonged to an Easter egg and smelled of chocolate for a long, long time. Sometimes, as I lay in bed at night, I thought I could hear them whisper, their voices overlapping, my longing for the tree house spiraling out of them like thick smoke. But even I compromised. The bars of my prison rubbed away all the magic dust from my child’s wings, and the tree house fell farther away from my reach. And why would they want to see me again, when years had passed, years that must have enriched them, but had impoverished me. There was a need for me to be out of my folks’ house as soon as I could, so I found work and bowed my head to its thefts—hours, days, months, years, dreams—giving my family the umpteenth proof of my disloyal stupidity when I did not go to college (my brother went all the way to a PhD).
Salvatore came to take all this away. He could be my family; erase the hurt from that move away from Mirko and the tree house by making it all sound like a childhood fantasy; give me worthiness. When the insults came, I accepted them as a result of my failure.
“Put down that book and eat, you nerd.” Will dropped the most enormous punnet of strawberries on the floor beside me. “And by the way, you can use our shower facilities. Before you start to stink. Oh wait, too late.”
“Dick,” I said, dropping The Bell Jar open on its front, grabbing a handful of strawberries and biting each off its hull before I had swallowed the previous one. It felt like sucking on sugar. My stomach, empty since the day before, produced obnoxious noises.
He sat on one of the benches, his jeans ironed, his hair wet from the afternoon shower he must have just taken, smelling like you do when you wash yourself after a day at the beach and make ready to go out. We were both thirty-five, yet I felt as though I was nearly finished while he was just beginning.
“He didn’t call me,” I said.
“Mirko. He made me promise to call him if I felt like ending it. But he didn’t call me.”
“Did you ever give him your new number?”
Will took a strawberry and ate it in dainty bites, rolling it between his thumb and index finger.