Alessandra has been living with me for almost five years, and I’ve never been happier. In the morning, she likes to walk barefoot on my creaking floor, caressing my old bones. I love it. At lunch, she eats in the kitchen, with my curtains closed and light filtering from behind. I always keep her warm. At night, she checks my locks and windows two times, then she goes to bed. She never leaves me.
We rarely have guests. There is – of course – the old postman, and that nice kid from the grocery store, who usually leaves his begs on the doorway and runs away. Alessandra never invites them in. The only person who still bothers us is Carlotta, because she has kept her keys.
This time, she arrives in the late afternoon, when Alessandra is busy with her translation work. I feel the doorbell vibration, infrequent and unwanted. Then Carlotta opens my door, and her hateful child rushes in, ready to touch everything with her dirty little hands. They are both wet, with jackets and hats covered by melted snow.
“Ale, it’s us!” Carlotta screams, and I feel Alessandra’s hurrying steps down my spine.
“Totta,” she says, coming from the kitchen, “potevi avvisarmi –”
“Can’t speak Italian in front of Emily,” Carlotta stops her, “Anthony’s orders, remember?”
Alessandra rolls her eyes, but she hugs the child and offers her a soda, in English. They all move to the kitchen, where I am usually warmer, with my yellow wallpaper and wooden furniture. Yet, I stay cold and diffident.
“How’s your daddy?” Alessandra asks Emily, taking the promised can from the fridge.
The child is rummaging through my drawers, turbulent as always. Her stepmom doesn’t stop her; she’s just sitting on my couch.
“Anthony is still working on that protein quantification project,” Carlotta explains.
I know Alessandra isn’t impressed.
“Are you helping him?”
Carlotta looks down.
“Not this time,” she says. “You know, he really believes I’m good for Emily…”
“I’m sure he does.”
I can sense the sadness in her voice. I don’t like it. I want her to be serene, warm and mine. Carlotta is always upsetting her, as she did when she lived with us.
“You really need to renovate this house,” she comments, as if I wasn’t here, listening.
“It’s so old and dark.”
Years before, when they moved here from Italy for their PhDs, they talked about renovations all the time. They lay together in the only bed, and dreamed about new curtains, new floors and a new heating system. Carlotta’s descriptions were rich and vivid; Alessandra smiled a lot. I felt jealous and neglected, always waiting for them to return from university, pubs or other houses.
Later, something changed. Alessandra began to come back earlier and alone. When she was here, Carlotta spent all her time fighting about Anthony, her work and – of course – me. She knew she couldn’t love Alessandra as I did. When she finally left, I promised myself I would keep Alessandra’s bed warm.
“I like her as she is,” says Alessandra.
Carlotta shakes her head. She doesn’t get us.
“Coffee?” she asks.
Alessandra nods. They make it together, while Emily hops around them. Carlotta fills the mocha with water; Alessandra puts the coffee powder in. They move as one. Then, after their ritual dance, they wait in silence, as the coffee pot does its magic. I’m weak, and worried, watching them smile at each other. Finally, they drink it black, in one shot.
When Carlotta announces she and Emily must leave, I feel full of joy.
“Grazie di essere passata,” says Alessandra on the doorway.
Carlotta caresses her face, then steps outside with Emily by her side. Alessandra observes them from the front window. When she looks down, she finds the child’s hat, wet and real in her hand. Her eyes are strange and full of longing. For a moment, I fear she will run outside in the falling snow, the freezing air filling her lovely lungs. Instead, she comes back to the kitchen table and her translation work, where everything is warm and good.
She would never leave me, my beautiful ghost.
I feel the blood dripping from my nose, while I’m sitting on a stranger’s couch. A black cat is purring on my lap. The music around me is very loud, yet everyone at the party seems to be talking with someone else. I’m sixteen and silent.
“Take this, doll,” says a strange voice behind me.
I turn around and see a twenty-something girl, with a napkin in her hand. She is pale and has a blonde, messy bob. Her blouse is stained with red wine. It seems expensive, nevertheless.
“For the blood,” she states, and I accept her courtesy.
The black cat jumps off and starts rubbing its face on the stranger’s leg.
“I’m Maura,” she adds.
I clean my upper lip, absent-mindedly.
“Seems like you may need some fresh air.”
She speaks as she knows me. For a moment, I almost feel like a real person.
“C’mon, let’s go outside.”
I follow her through clouds of chatting adults. My head is empty. A white man tells a joke about ex-wives and hags, to an audience of not-so-laughing women. A couple dances. Near the kitchen, an old lady scolds two children with their faces covered by chocolate. I feel vortexes of unease in my stomach. My father is nowhere to be seen.
I’m at this party only because he wants me to be part of his magic new world. There are colleagues to meet, his rich wife to please, and strangers to befriend. Still, I would rather be at home with my mum, back in Italy, where we can be alone together.
The girl guides me to the garden, and to another girl, who is smoking a cigarette. She keeps it between her thumb and her forefinger. It’s strange, and oddly glamorous. She is black and wears a cherry red scarf. She acknowledges my presence with an elegant nod.
“I want one,” announces Maura.
The other girl offers her own cigarette, without any hesitation.
Maura inhales deeply.
“You should never, ever smoke,” she says to me.
I return her a shy smile, feeling visible again. She is charming, even beautiful. I didn’t see it before, but now it seems very obvious to me.
“You shouldn’t cut your own hair, either,” says the other girl, hinting at Maura’s bob.
“Paula, it’s what I do after a breakup!”
“And that’s why they never grow over your shoulders…”
Maura laughs and gazes at me. “Also, you should never, ever date engineers.”
Paula takes her cigarette back and waves it in the air. “Or lawyers,” she says, “they are never happy.”
They are both beautiful, now I see it. It’s not about their bodies or their stylish clothes. It has something to do with them being themselves, so real and complete. I like it. Most of the time, I feel like a little scribble on a paper.
“I’m happy to be back home,” says Maura.
“Happy…” echoes Paula. She tastes the word gently in her mouth.
I swallow my own saliva. Words come to me in Italian, as they always do. I caress them in my mind, until they’re good and tamed.
“Sometimes I feel happy,” I say, “when I do my homework at my desk, and I look outside the window.”
Now they stare at me with curiosity.
“I like to imagine someone outside, someone who peeks in to see if I’ll join them,” I explain. “This thought makes me very happy.”
Paula smiles at me for the first time.
“That’s not happiness, doll,” says Maura, “that’s waiting for it.”
I nod. She’s not wrong, I really should do something about it. I should scream, or sing. I should cut my own hair. I should date engineers.
“Your nose is bleeding,” says Paula.
Again, I see red drops on my hand. I taste iron in my mouth, and the spell is broken. I search for my napkin in my pockets, but I can’t find it anywhere, no matter how hard I try.
“I should go,” I say.
I leave them in the garden, beautiful and together, as I follow my father’s voice.
The Leaf That Never Was
I miss the time when we could go outside. Nowadays, Emma is always in her bed, talking in past tense. Her room smells of smoke and her pretty dresses sleep on the floor. I brush her hair and listen to her nonsense, dreaming of the summer sky behind her curtains, but I stay inside. I miss the old Emma, though.
“Claudia,” she says, “do you remember my cat?”
She has never had a cat. She is allergic.
“Do you remember?”, she continues, “At noon, I stayed on the porch, waiting for him.”
She has never had a porch. She lives in the city, in an apartment gifted by her parents.
“Then I heard his little bell and went back inside, because I knew he was safe.”
I nod. She spends a lot of time playing with her fantasies. Her mom says it’s okay. I don’t know why her parents won’t pay for a therapist. They say she only needs some time off and her old dear Claudia with her. Yet, she has been in this state since her graduation, which was two months ago. I come here as much as I can, but it isn’t easy, with work, buses and all the rest.
“Bimba, why don’t we eat something?” I ask, leaving her brush on the dresser.
Emma lights up a cigarette.
“I must find that leaf,” she declares, “the one I kept in my purse.”
She inhales the smoke.
“Do you remember it?”
Of course, I don’t remember. There is no leaf: she has been talking about it since her graduation day, a little bay leaf from someone else’s crown. That day, I was with her all the time, with my nervous smile and my cheap shoes. I have never seen that leaf.
“We should cook something ourselves,” I say, “why don’t we move to the kitchen?”
I read a lot of psychology articles online. It’s difficult sometimes, with all those terms and labels. They all say that practical activities should help. Cooking, painting, crocheting. I try to suggest one or two each time I come here.
“I feel so tired, I can’t move”, Emma says, “can you check the yellow purse for me, please?”
I know she will be disappointed, but I pick her purse off the floor anyway. Then, I go and sit on the bed with her. She needs to see it with her own eyes: I only find her keys, two pads, a half-empty pack of cigarettes, her red lipstick. No bay leaves.
Emma raises her eyebrows, confused. “Maybe it’s in the pink one,” she comments, as she does every time. It’s always another beg, another drawer.
She leaves her cigarette in the ashtray.
“Sure,” I say, trying to smile.
She closes her eyes. She’s often sleepy, nowadays. She has the face of a doll.
I feel sick in my stomach.
Everyone thinks she has gone crazy. Yet Emma has always had a beautiful mind, full of stories and ideas. She has always seen farther than everyone else. Even as a little girl, she was magnetic, and fierce.
One day, our classmates were giving me the hardest time, because I didn’t wear designer shoes, being a poor little miracle in a big private school. She came to me with a black marker in her hand and offered me her shiny shoes to sign. Then, she did the same to mine, and smiled. The next day, everyone was asking everyone to sign each other’s shoes.
“We are all ‘de-signers’ now,” she said, giggling.
But I’m not like Emma, I can’t find any quick fix. I don’t know what’s going on inside her head. I often ask myself who or what broke her, what does that leaf mean, why I can’t recall it. I try and try again. I stop when my own head starts to hurt, or when the tears make me blind. I can’t find any solutions, no matter how much I read or do.
However, I’m here.
“I’m cooking some pasta,” I say, “I’ll leave it on the counter for you.”
She mumbles something in return. I check her cigarette in the ashtray, then I turn off the light. I leave the bedroom door half-closed and find my way to the kitchen.
It’s a fine space, with sage green walls and wooden furniture. It smells like lemons, stiff and yellow in my Italian summer memories.
On the kitchen table, there is Emma’s pink purse. It’s magical and familiar at the same time. I don’t open it. A secret part of me will always believe that her bay leaf is there, inside.