"I feel like dying.” That’s what I thought the day I left. When I caught the plane, that day just two years ago. I really wanted to end things. There was a thunderstorm, and everyone was tense and frightened. Not me. I was the only one still smiling. That’s right, the best thing that could have happened would have been an ordinary, unremarkable accident. That way, it wouldn’t have been anyone’s fault, I wouldn’t have had to live with the shame, no one would have had to delve into the reasons why ...I remember that the plane lurched and jolted the whole way.
When you’re depressed, when the whole world looks dark, when you have no future, when you have nothing to lose, when...every instant is a burden. Immense. Intolerable. And you heave an endless succession of sighs. All you want to do is get rid of that load. In whatever way necessary. In the simplest way, in the most cowardly fashion, without putting off till tomorrow this thought: She’s not here anymore. She’s gone now.
And so, very simply, you wish that you were gone too. That you could just vanish. Poof. Without complications, without bothering anyone. Without anyone taking the trouble to say: “Oh, did you hear? That’s right, him, that’s who I’m talking about...You won’t believe what happened to him...” Exactly, that guy is going to tell the story of your end on earth, embroidering it with who knows which and how many lurid details, inventing absurdities, as if he’d known you all your life, as if he were the only one who really knew the depth and nature of your problems. How weird ...
And to think that even you never had the time to figure out what they were. And there’s nothing you can do to stop this appalling word-of-mouth legend from spreading. What a pain in the ass. Your memory for all time will be a plaything in the hands of just any old asshole who happens along, and there’s nothing you’ll be able to do about it.
In fact, I wish I could have run into one of those strange wizards that day. They throw a cape over a dove that’s just made its appearance and, poof, suddenly it’s gone. It’s gone, and that’s that. And you leave the theater, delighted with the show. But one thing is certain. You’ll never again wonder what became of that dove.
But that’s not the way things work. We can’t disappear that easily. Time has gone by. Two long years. And now I’m sipping a beer. When I think back to how I longed to be that dove, a smile comes to my face, and I feel slightly ashamed.
“Care for another?”
A flight attendant stands next to his drinks cart, giving me a big smile.
I look out my window. Pink-tinged clouds make way for the plane as it sails through the sky. Those clouds are soft, light, and infinite. There’s a sunset in the distance. The sun sinks with one last wink. I can’t believe it. I’m coming back.
A27. That’s my seat number aboard this flight. Righthand row, just behind the wings, central aisle. A flight attendant smiles at me again as she walks past. A little too close. She leaves a faint trail of perfume; her uniform is perfect. Up and down the airplane’s aisles she goes, with that smile.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seat belts.”
The woman is struggling beside me. And she’s not struggling in silence. “Darn it, I never seem to be able to find the seat belt in these planes.” Observant, with a cheerful smile, her eyes are hidden behind the thick lenses of her eyeglasses.
I help the woman to find it, as she’s literally sitting on top of it. “Here you are, signora, it’s right down here.”
“Thanks, even if I can’t imagine what good it would do. It’s not going to be able to hold us in place.”
“Ah, certainly not, it can’t do that.”
“I mean, after all...I’m just saying, if we crash, it’s not like being in a car.”
“No, not like being in a car, certainly not...Are you nervous?”
“Very nervous, deathly nervous.” She looks at me and appears to regret using that phrase. She seems so worried.
I take a long slurp of my beer while I notice, out of the corner of my eye, that she’s staring at me.
“Please, just tell me something.”
“Exactly what, signora, what do you want me to tell you?”
“Distract me, don’t make me think about what could...”
She grips my hand tightly.
“You’re hurting me.”
“Oh, excuse me.” She loosens her grip, but she doesn’t let go entirely.
I start to tell her some story. Little jumbled flashes from my life, as they occur to me. “All right, do you want to know why I left Rome?”
The woman nods. She can’t seem to talk.
“Well, okay, but it’s a long story ...”I feel as if I’m talking to a friend, with my old friend...“His name was Pollo, okay. Strange name, right? I mean, Chicken, what a name.”
The woman doesn’t seem to know whether to say yes or no.
“Right, so he’s the friend I lost more than two years ago. He was inseparable with his girlfriend, Pallina. She’s just incredible, a great person, bright eyes, always laughing, hilarious, sharp and funny and really witty ...”
She listens in silence, her eyes curious.
Sometimes you feel more comfortable with a person you don’t know at all. It’s easier to talk about yourself. You really open up. Maybe because you don’t care about how they judge you.
“Whereas I was with Babi, who was best friends with Pallina.” I tell this stranger everything. How I met Babi, how I started to laugh, how I fell in love, how I lost her...
You can only see the beauty of a true love after you’ve lost it. I think while I speak, with little pauses every so often.
The woman is amused and curious, more relaxed now. She’s even let go of my hand. She’s forgotten about the impending airline disaster. She’s taking an interest in my own personal disaster. “So this Babi, have you talked to her since?”
“No. Every so often, I talked to my brother. And now and then, my father.”
“Did you feel lonely in New York?”
I answer with something vague. I can’t bring myself to say it. I felt less lonely than I did in Rome. Then, inevitably, I make a reference to Mamma. I just plunge right in. My mother cheated on my father. I caught her in bed with the guy who lived across the street from us.
The passenger can hardly believe it. The airplane? She doesn’t even remember that she’s riding in an airplane. She asks me a thousand questions. I practically can’t keep up with her. Why on earth do people love to wallow in other people’s misery so much? Spicy topics, forbidden details, obscure acts, salacious sins. Maybe because, when you’re just listening to them, you don’t get dirty.
The woman seems to relish and suffer at every twist and turn of my story. So I tell her everything, and I do so without reluctance. My violent assault on my mamma’s lover, my extended silences at home, the fact that I never told my father or my brother a thing about what happened. And then, the trial. My mother sitting there, right in front of me. She sat in silence. She never had the nerve to admit what she’d done. She could have used her betrayal as a justification for my rage and violence.
The woman stares at me, mouth agape. She understands. Suddenly she turns serious.
So I try to cut the drama. “As Pollo would say, I don’t give a flying fuck about The Bold and the Beautiful!”
Instead of being scandalized, she laughs. “And then what happened?” she asks, itching to hear the next installment.
I explain to her about the reason I went to America, why I wanted to run away and bury myself in a graphics course. “And seeing how easy it is to run into each other, even in a big city ...so much the better to move to a new one entirely. Only new experiences, new places, new people, and most important of all, no memories. A year of the challenge of conversation in English, with the aid of the chance presence of the occasional passing Italian. All of it quite amusing, a reality filled with colors, music, sounds, traffic, parties, and new things.
None of what people talked about to you had anything to do with Babi, none of it could evoke her, bring her back to life. Useless days in an attempt to bring rest to my heart, my stomach, and my head. The total impossibility of retracing my steps, finding myself in the blink of an eye downstairs, looking up at Babi’s apartment, or running into her on the street. No danger of that in New York.
No room in New York for Lucio Battisti and his melancholy music. “And if you hark back in your mind, it’s sufficient just to think that you’re not there, that I’m suffering pointlessly because I know, I know it, I know that you’ll never come back.”
The woman smiles for one last moment. Stah-tuh-thump. A flat, metallic noise. A sharp movement and then the plane lurches ever so slightly.
“Oh my God, what was that?” The woman seizes my right hand.
“It’s the landing gear, don’t worry.”
“What do you mean, don’t worry! Does it have to make so much noise? It sounds like the landing gear fell off...”
Not far away from us, the flight attendant and the other crew members all sit down in the unoccupied seats, as well as a few odd side seats next to the exits. The passenger does her best to distract herself. She lets go of my hand in exchange for one last question. “So why did it end?”
“Because Babi found another boyfriend.”
“She did what? Your girlfriend? After all the things you told me?”
It seems like now she’s enjoying herself, sticking her thumb into my psychic wound. The airplane and the imminent landing procedures have faded into the background. And in fact, now she’s pelting me with questions, right up to the very last moment. Caught up in her excitement, in fact, we’ve exchanged names and moved on to a first-name basis. And she’s not holding back. “Since you broke up with her, have you had sex with any other women? Would you get back together with her? Is forgiveness an option? Have you talked about it with anyone?”
Either the beer is having quite an effect on me or it’s her and her questions that are making my head spin. Or else it’s the pain of that not-yet-forgotten love affair. I’m confused at this point. Utterly bewildered. I can only hear the roar of the spinning jet engines and the backthrust of the landing maneuvers. The woman looks out the window, frightened at the airplane and its wings that seem to brush the ground and wobble indecisively. She seizes my right hand and glances out the window again. Then she slams her head back into her headrest and jams her legs against the footrest with all her might, as if she were trying to use her own feet on the brakes of the plane. She digs her fingernails into the flesh of my hand. With a few gentle bounces, the airplane touches down. Immediately, the plane’s turbine engines go into reverse thrust, and that enormous mass of aluminum and steel shivers crazily, including all its seats and the woman beside me. But she doesn’t surrender. She squints and shudders, taking it all out on my hand.
“This is the captain, ladies and gentlemen. I’m pleased to inform you that we have landed at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. The temperature outside...”
A ragged attempt at a round of applause rises from the back of the plane, dying out almost immediately.
“Well, we made it,” I say.
The woman sighs. “Thank God!”
“Maybe we’ll fly together again someday.”
“Oh, I hope so. It was a real pleasure to speak with you. But are all those stories you told me really true?”
“As true as the fact that you held my hand.” I hold up my right hand and show her the fingernail marks she left.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t think twice.”
The occasional cell phone starts ringing. Nearly everyone stands up to open the overhead bins, pulling down shopping bags full of gifts brought back from America, collections of items that are all more-or-less useless, ready to file up the aisle and reach the exit as quickly as possible. After the hours of sitting, immobilized, in the airplane, where you’re forced to consider the balance of all the years of your life that have passed thus far, we return to the hasty rush of not thinking, fake thinking, the race to the last finish line.
“Thanks, buonasera.” Flight attendants say goodbye at the airplane door. Then I head down the steps.
Warm wind. September. Sunset, it’s just eight thirty in the evening. Right on time. It’s nice to walk again after an eight-hour flight. We all climb aboard the shuttle bus. I look around at the other passengers aboard. A few Chinese travelers, a big, heavyset American, a young man who hasn’t once stopped listening to one of those Samsung digital audio players that I’d seen all over New York. Two girlfriends on holiday together who are no longer speaking, perhaps thoroughly sick of their extended cohabitation. A happy, loving couple. They laugh, constantly chatting about matters of only minor interest. I envy them or, really, I just enjoy watching them.
My traveling companion, the woman who now knows everything about my life, walks over to me. She smiles as if to say, Well, we made it, didn’t we?
I nod. I almost regret having told her so much. Then I relax as I realize that I’ll never see her again.
Passport check. Here and there German shepherds on short leashes pace nervously back and forth, in search of a modicum of cocaine or grass. Frustrated dogs on endless rounds look up at us with kind eyes, probably exhausted from the relentless training to which they’re subjected.
An immigration officer distractedly glances at my passport. Then he focuses in. He skips a page. Then he turns back and gazes more carefully. My heartbeat accelerates slightly. But then, nothing. I’m of no interest to him. He hands me back the passport, I shut it, and I put it back in my backpack.
I go to the luggage carousel. And then I walk out of the airport, a free man, back in Rome. I spent two years in New York, and it feels as if I left just yesterday.
I walk briskly toward the exit. I cross paths with people dragging their luggage, a guy running breathless to reach an airplane that he may be about to miss. On the other side of the partitions, relatives await someone who doesn’t seem to be arriving. Beautiful young women, still bronzed from the summer, stand waiting for their sweethearts.
“Taxi, do you need a taxi?” A fake taxi driver comes hurrying toward me, pretending to be the real deal: “I’ll give you a low price to the city.” I say nothing. He realizes I’m not a good prospect and turns away.
I look around. Nothing. No one. How stupid. But of course. What else did I expect? Who am I looking for? Is this why you came back? Then you haven’t understood a thing. I feel like laughing, and I feel like an idiot.
“He should have landed by now...”
Concealed behind a pillar, she speaks to herself under her breath. Maybe it’s just to cover the pounding of her heart, which is actually racing at two thousand miles a minute. Then she gathers her nerve. A deep breath, and then she emerges from behind the pillar. “There he is. I knew it, I knew it!” She practically jumps up and down, though both feet remain firmly planted on the floor.
“I can’t believe it... Step. I knew it, I knew it, I was sure he was returning today. I just can’t believe it. Mamma mia, no doubt about it, he’s lost so much weight. Still, he’s smiling. Yes, it seems as if he’s doing well. Can he be happy? Maybe he had a good time living abroad. Too good of a time.
“What’s the matter with me? I let myself get swallowed up by jealousy. After all, what right do I have? None. Well? Look at what a mess I am. Seriously, I’m just a wreck, a complete wreck. I mean, I’m just too happy. Too happy. He’s back, I can’t believe it. Oh my God, he’s looking this way!”
She quickly dodges back around, hiding behind the column. A sigh. She shuts her eyes, squeezing them tight. She leans back, her head resting against the cold white marble, hands splayed against the column. Silence. A deep breath. Exhale. Inhale...Exhale...
She opens her eyes again. At that very instant a tourist walks by, glancing at her in bafflement. She tries to put on a smile in order to reassure him that all is perfectly normal. But it’s not. No doubt about it.
“Oh, crap, he spotted me. I can tell. Oh, God, Step saw me. I’m sure of it.”
She sticks her head out again. No one’s there. Step went by as if he hadn’t seen a thing.
“Oh, of course, what an idiot I am. And after all, what if he had?”
Here I am, back again. I’m home. I walk toward the exit. The glass doors slide open, and I emerge onto the sidewalk. Right at the taxi stand. But at that exact moment, I have a strange sensation. I feel as if someone’s watching me. I whip around. Nothing. No one. There’s nothing worse than thinking you’re going to see something ...and nothing’s there.