The time when I went closest to it after that first attempt was twenty-four years later, not because of Salvatore, but because I had let him happen to me. Him, and mediocrity, and long, looked-for unhappiness, grey and narrow like that swimming-pool tunnel. That was when I gathered all the pills I could find, for I had grown cowardly since childhood. Everything had come to look like it had been washed too many times, at too-high temperatures. Absurdly, I remembered my promise. I didn’t want to make a phone call; I wanted to go to sleep. But the tree house and his face—they were the only things that retained true colours. I laughed and cried composing his childhood home phone number on my mobile: they would have moved by then; he would have forgotten. A voice answered that wasn’t his, and yet I knew it.
“May I speak to Mirko Usai, please?”
“He’s not here. Marta. Is it the promise?”
“Will, where is he?”
“Just get your ass back here.”
What we did most days was the sort of stuff you forget growing up. If you do grow up, that is. We spent a whole day whacking pine nuts open with rocks and sticking them through the tight neck of a bottle, then just before our mothers called us home we ate them in handfuls, and the taste of them—earth and resin and the life of a tree that had trickled into each one of them—preserved in me the feeling of that day, the pale moon growing starker as the afternoon turned into evening, white-winged butterflies kissing the oak leaves above our heads, the scent of the sea wafting in from the gulf, marrying that of the bougainvillea that graced the gates of our gardens with purple and fuchsia flowers, their petals as wrinkled and precious as scrolls.
On other days we played at being Indiana Jones, dodging invisible dangers we would name aloud so the others could see them too—darts! bullets! rocks rolling down to squash us!—or brought up picnics of sliced bread with mayo, biscuits and too-ripe bananas that collapsed in our hands. Filippo ate like the little bird he resembled, but the three of us would probably have roasted one of the pigeons that cooed on the branches had we been able to catch it. We exchanged footballers’ stickers for our albums—the World Cup would come to Italy the following summer, and we were going to watch it on Mirko and Will’s father’s tiny portable TV in the tree house—and played marbles on the uneven floor that did with our throws what it wanted, causing fights. We were sentinels, guarding the tree with the one available sling at hand, stones and acorns as ammunition; we were captains of a ship, and I used to climb to the highest point before the branches became so thin only birds could balance on them, and look far, far away for land. On those three months of summer, my house was the tree house; my family three boys who had never before talked to me. I had taken to visualising myself as an older girl and then a woman, still climbing on the tree house, Mirko waiting up there for me. And then, two weeks before school was due to start again, my mother told me we were moving to another town.
Geography is pitiless when you are a child who is powerless to travel where she wants. Her world is medieval, a frayed map of places she can reach by walking, a flat, pre-Copernicus world with, at the centre, her parents: cruel sun deities.
“You’re ruining my life!’ I screamed. They laughed, used the word ‘melodramatic’, yet I was not allowed to lock the bathroom door or go up the tree house before the others. On the day before we left, as I sat hugging my legs and mentally unpacking again all of the cardboard boxes piled in our living room, Mirko sat beside me in silence and took my hand. He hadn’t done that since the day he had shown me what those boys had written about Will, but this time it was different, it was goodbye. He was strong, the strongest boy I had ever met, yet not enough to hold me there. My eyes felt like the marbles with which we played, bulging and glassy with tears, and dead.
“I want to die,” I said, though it was a lie. I wanted to live. I wanted to live on the tree.
He turned to me with a small smile, and I looked at the way the sunrays gilted his brown hair and turned his eyes to gold, the dancing sketches made by the oak leaves on his roughening cheeks, engraving them painfully into my memory so I could take them away with me. I did it so well that now, though I’m an old woman, I can still see him before me, with the tan lines a longer-sleeved T-shirt had left on his arms, his features and muscles hardening into those of a man, hands and feet that had hurried forward overtaking his age. I would not see him grow into them.
“Remember your promise,” he said. From the pocket of his beloved tennis shorts he extracted a folded-up sheet of paper and a pen. “I wrote something for you on one side. You do the same for me on the other. We’re not allowed to read what the other wrote, though. Not now. We’ll do it when we meet in the tree house again.”