The day after, I did not go straight back up to the tree house after my shower. I tiptoed toward the closed door at which I had glanced every time I had been in the house, and placed my hand on it as though that wood, cut such a long time before, tortured into a rectangular shape and whitened with viscous paint, could still pass on to me the wisdom of the tree of which it had been a part. What should I do? I asked it, but it was silent. It was dead. I turned the knob and pushed the door, just a little, enough to see colours through the crack, to smell cleaning spray and dust and the long lack of life from which its air suffered. I knew that when Mirko was there it must have smelled of Big Babol, of sawdust and sweat and of his skin, which had a scent that I will never forget. Not something that can be described; an ache that never really left me, like a phantom limb. I had inhaled it secretly on that walk to the tunnel; on the evenings spent dangling our legs out of the tree-house window, when the Mistral, still gentle on its first day, would pick it up like drops of rain and offer it to me with invisible, cupped hands.
The door creaked when I pushed more and I stood still waiting for Will’s mocking, for his anger; for Filippo’s wounded eyes. A poster with the lyrics of Linkin Park’s ‘My December,’ a base guitar with a broken string, the tickets for a long-ago cinema showing of The Crow tacked onto a wall above a couple of tennis trophies submitted themselves to me with one warning: this was a shrine, the untouched room of a young man who had left home for a new job, perhaps, for the girl Will had thought wasn’t enough for him; for adventures that would end too soon. Ours was an unrelationship, a scam made up of all the things that we’d never done together.
My fingers grazed the dusty spines of rows of Mickey Mouse magazines and Ranma ½ manga; pulled at the curled-in corners of a handful of photographs sellotaped to the corner of a shelf, where I searched for myself despite knowing the three of us had never brought a camera up the tree.
The drawers beside the low bed were empty but for a couple of scurrying earwigs and a size-L jumper with a hole under an armpit. Sitting on the wooden floor, I closed my eyes and brought it to my nose, but Mirko was no longer there. The bed sheets were clean, if dusty; the desk around the old-fashioned, bulky PC had been wiped clean.
“I wish there were something left of him,” I said, with my eyes closed. “Anything.”
The door creaked and footsteps padded over the threshold. Will walked over and sat on the floor beside me, his back against the bed, his right leg all but touching my left. It was the closest we had ever been to each other.
"Marta, Marta," he sighed, looking up at the light fixture, a white paper globe lined with dust the early afternoon sunrays were turning into silver. "Always presuming you’re the only one to grieve him. Sometimes I dream that I saved him, held on to him so hard he had to stay. But all I have of him, beside memories, is our shared genetics." He turned to look at me over his shoulder, his rueful smile an invitation.
Between Will and me it happened only that one time, and we never told anyone. With my eyes closed I saw Mirko’s shoulders materialise, their outlines moulded by the particles of dust that danced above his bed. I felt, with my hands, the curve of his back; with my skin the shape of the man I had never really got to know. When a tear fell on my forehead, it smelled of him.
It happened only once, but it was enough, as though my body had been waiting all those years to seize on the tiniest fragment of Mirko’s essence, discarding everything else.
My son’s eyes are not green; they’re amber. And when I look at him, even now in my old age, I believe that somehow, though he could not stay, Mirko came back for me.