That afternoon, when I managed to escape a lunchtime torture of boiled beef and mushy carrots which would not dematerialise no matter how hard I wished for it, Mirko intercepted me on my way to the tree house and gestured for me to follow him. He was wearing a backpack and his usual tennis shorts after his idol, Boris Becker, and a creased T-shirt—which I envied when I looked at my own ironed-to-death-by-mother clothes. We went around the backs of our houses as I did not have permission to leave the garden without an adult, and it did not matter to me where we were going. The sky was so tall, so far away; the streets so deserted in the vicious afternoon heat, that I felt as though we were walking through a post-atomic world of which we were the only survivors. If back then, at age eleven, I had told an adult that the moment he took my hand was the happiest of my life, they would have laughed in condescension. So, I wonder what they would do if I, an old woman of eighty-one, told them now.
We walked behind the primary school, its windows empty, and across the arid field where my brother had got a tick in his leg the summer before. Wisps of yellow-grey grass between clusters of pebbles and discarded bags of crisps and wrappers threatened me with the same destiny (I had thought he was going to die of it), and I walked lifting my knees really high and placing each foot down for only an instant. Used to being taunted, I looked at Mirko out of the corner of my eye but, if he saw it, he said nothing. On the other side of the field was the church, where every Wednesday and Sunday we got told how awful we were, and beyond it the complex where kids did summer-camp activities when they weren’t taken to the beach. There was an ugly cement tunnel that lead to the pool and always smelled like pee, and there Mirko stopped and pointed at one of the many sentences written onto the wall. I laughed, but then I saw the look Mirko gave me and the screwdriver in his hand.
“Too many people around for me to do it this morning,” he said, then scratched at the wall until not one letter was visible. When he was finished, he stepped away from the mound of fine rubble he had produced and, with a marker, drew a crude spider on the wall. “It’s not one of Filippo’s originals,” he said, “but it’ll do.”
We walked back in silence, separated by what he knew I’d read. Under the tree, as the slanting sunrays tinged the sky between the branches of the most beautiful, saddest jasmine glow, I asked him.
“Is Will really a faggot?”
“But it said … do you think he really tried to kiss Patrizio?”
“That’s his own business. But there’s no name-calling in the tree house.”
“He called me a weirdo just this morning.”
“Yeah,” said Mirko, hands in his pockets, kicking a rock with his runners as he squinted toward his house. “So...you want to be like him?”
The truth is that you’re born with something written inside, like a fortune cookie. The truth is that, even if my folks had loved each other; even if my mother hadn’t made me afraid of everything and my father and brother hadn’t given me detailed lessons about my worthlessness, I still would have been in pain, living like a shell-less tortoise surrounded by nettles. Already, as a child, I was hurt by the impossibility of performing magic or owning the little black pig that featured in my favourite Japanese cartoon. I grieved when my father was disappointed in my being a scared creature, when my brother called me stupid.
“How come you never asked?” I said to Mirko one morning when we were alone in the tree house, laying my forearms tender-side-up on my thighs so he could see of what I spoke.
“You might not want me to.”
“It was silence I wanted,” I said, looking toward my house and the school behind it and the church behind that. “Silence, in my head. They said I was looking for attention.”
He took his forefinger along the scars, and I was surprised when they did not disappear.
“If you get like that again, promise you’ll call me,” he said.