Salvatore had gotten me pregnant. Condom broke, or he refused to wear one, can’t even remember now. What I remember is sitting on the edge of the bathtub with my fingers digging into the enamel, doubled over, my toes sucking in the coldness of the tiles, spitting it everywhere inside my body. The pee stick lay beside me like a knife waiting to be used, its two blue lines cat-eyes glaring at me. My failure to protect myself had showed me what a worthless human being I was, but this—failing to protect a defenceless creature from being brought into such a life—this was the culmination of the waste I constituted.
When it slipped between my legs one night, I felt its warmth and thought of how much warmer it would have been cradled in my arms. That was when I collected all the pills that were in the bathroom cabinet, counting them, feeling their shapes with my fingertips as I imagined them expanding inside me, filling out all that was empty. That was when I called Mirko’s old number, and found Will instead.
Back in the tree house, I sat at the window as though on a high swing, imagining ropes that went all the way up the darkening sky, willing the Mistral wind to push me harder and harder until I shot up into one of the constellations Filippo used to paint. Somewhere free from the constant danger of fellow inhabitants.
“He killed himself. Cut his wrists, like you were too clumsy to do properly as a kid. He was good at everything, my brother was. Got it just right. I’m a surgeon, you know. I put people back together for a living, and I couldn’t fucking save him.”
Will had said that at the cemetery, or when we were back at the tree house, I didn’t even know any more.
“Why would someone like him do that? He had everything. He was handsome. He was smart. Everyone liked him. Everyone wanted to be him.” My voice had been querulous, as though by stomping my feet in a tantrum I could undo what he had done.
“Jesus, not even you can be that shallow.”
An owl screamed and I shivered, feeling for an instant as though I was being called to dinner. That had been the most hated part of my days, on that distant summer. I reached for a branch outside the window and squeezed, as I used to do before leaving every evening, to ask the bark to remember me, leaving cells on the jagged edges of its scales, feeling shards of wood becoming embedded in my hand, parts of me. I had asked Will for some time alone and listened to his steps as he descended the ladder towards the house that was now his.
When all I could hear was the soft rustling of leaves in the darkness, I pinched the letter between two fingers and lay it on my lap, illuminating it with what I thought was the same torch we had used to read those horror books. Like a teenager, I cherished his hands having touched the sheet before it came to me. Attracted by the multitude of mosquitoes, bats were performing a dangerous, blind dance, each one of them a black tear in the indigo fabric of the sky. It felt like a betrayal to read it without him, but he was lost, and the finality of it was flailing me alive.
Nothing had been written on Mirko’s side. The page was filled with the shape of his hand, already large at thirteen, each finger imprinted on it with the colour of old blood, each convoluted fingerprint a story about him which I could no longer decypher. I placed my own hand on it, still smaller than his even now that I was an adult, and closing my eyes I wished it could penetrate into my flesh, become part of me just like the tree.
On my side, only a plea, written in my round, childish scrawl with a little globe instead of a dot on top of the ‘i.’
“Wait for me.”
I had written it thinking—hoping—he would cheat and have a peek before I came back.
“Why didn’t you wait? You fucking idiot!” My scream reverberated around the tree and in my head, my tears seeming like such a puny way to grieve someone like him.
A touch awoke me and I started, knowing not where I was, what time or day it might be.
“Sorry. Ssh. It’s just me.” A small man was kneeling beside me, and there was a flannel blanket on my legs and feet. “I didn’t mean to wake you up. It cools down a lot on the tree, at night. Don’t … don’t you remember me?”
“Filippo, Jesus, give me a chance! You just scared the crap out of me.” I sat up, glad now for the comfort of the blanket. There was something startling in the way his face had remained like a porcelain doll’s even through adolescence, through all the years I had missed, and was, at the same time, cracked under and around the eyes, on the forehead. Obeying my gesture he sat, his small hands fidgeting with the shorts of his pyjamas as he pointedly looked at the floor, chewed fingernails surrounded by inflamed flesh.