A short story by Annalisa Mastronardi

“Ladies and gentlemen, as we start our descent, please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position. Make sure your seat belt is securely fastened and all carry-on luggage is stowed underneath the seat in front of you or in the overhead bins. Thank you.”

I laid on my lap the copy of The Second Sex my roommate had given to me before leaving. Landing had always been my favourite part of flying since my first flight to Spain at the age of eleven. That sensation your stomach was coming up to your throat whenever the aircraft lost altitude gave me a feeling of dizziness, as if I stopped breathing for a while. It was something I found scary and exciting all at once. When the wheels finally touched the runway, that was the real highlight of the flight. Precise. Expected and yet a surprise at the same time. Just like a punch in the gut. From the back of the plane, some passengers began to shyly applaud. They were followed by the passengers in the middle, until everybody, including me, ended up clapping. Embarrassed, I smirked at the young couple who were sitting next to me. After the engines were shut down, each of us stood up and put on our jackets. I took my luggage from the overhead locker, got in line behind the other passengers and got off the plane.

It was my first time coming home after living abroad for three months. I was dying to hug my family. I had soon come to realise that it wasn’t easy for any of us living so far away from one another. I picked up the pace, passed the baggage claim area and, when I came to the arrival hall, saw my father. Standing near a group of men in suits bearing unpronounceable names, he looked around distractively.     

“Dad!” I shouted.

He saw me. I rushed to him and held him tight.

“Look at you! My little girl,” he whispered in my ear.

When I finally let go of him, he avoided eye contact.

“How was the flight?” he asked.

“Good, da. I’m tired.”

“Come on, let’s go home.”

Home. A word which was once so familiar and fully defined, appeared to me deprived of any meaning at that moment. Where was my home?

My father was trudging before me, the rucksack in one hand and the other pushing the luggage trolley. From time to time, he stopped, caught his breath and moved on again. Observing him, I realised that something I had long believed to be true was actually nonsense. For several years I had convinced myself I would never have a child. I thought that children, good or bad that they might be, were the fruit of a fortuitous combination of chance and chromosomes over which you didn’t have any power.

“Shit. The chances of giving birth to children who are assholes are extremely high,” I once said to Pierre, my boyfriend. “Why take that risk?”

He didn’t agree. He was a guy who was reared in a traditional household and would never share such an unorthodox vision. Certain ideas were aberrant to him. And yet, looking at my father at that very moment, with his grey hair and his uncoordinated stride, I realised how sorely mistaken I was. The risk wasn’t to give birth to asshole children. The real risk was to be a terrible parent. And my parents did their very best not to be like that, after all. Sure, they weren’t perfect but much of who and what I now was I owed to them. Their example provided me with a good model to follow but also showed me mistakes I knew I needed to avoid replicating. The mistakes of others teach you as much as the ones you make yourself. This, I came to realise, was particularly true when it came to your parents.

In the car, my father was talking about a friend of his, a victim of a case of administrative injustice. From what I understood, the man was going back and forth between lawyers and judges to get his pension back after it was drastically reduced because of an internal management mistake.

“For God’s sake, you can’t even enjoy your deserved retirement in peace. Oh, such things don’t happen abroad, I bet. What kind of country are we living in?”  

“The world is the same wherever you go, da,” I said.

I gazed at my city slipping away fast from behind the window while jazz played on the radio. It was funny how we could inadvertently get so used to things that we either didn’t notice them anymore or came to despise them. All that seemed miserable in my eyes for years now suddenly revealed a fascination that gripped me. We get used to everything in equal measure, beauty and squalor and all that lies in between.

At home, my mother had baked sea bream and potatoes for everyone. She welcomed me with a radiant smile. She wasn’t a lovey-dovey person but was happy to have me there once again. I could see that.

Pierre was also there, sitting on the sofa. I lightly kissed him on the lips and we hugged each other. I had missed him. However much I had tried to fiercely wave the banner of female independence, during those months of adjusting to a new life abroad I felt caught in the atrocious grip of loneliness. Isn’t that the price you pay when you choose to leave your country? I had no idea what would happen to us, whether after my internship I would remain abroad or, instead, go back home. “Who knows?” was my answer each time someone asked me.

I was grateful to Pierre who, despite his initial aversion, respected my choice to leave. No matter how many things had been said about love, I knew for sure it was first of all about freedom. He entered on tiptoe into my life and with loving patience bent down with me to pick up from the ground the pieces of a life which had been crumbling for some time. One at a time we put back together the tiles of the years I spent desperately searching for an identity. For a long time I tried to be what others expected from me: a good girl, a reliable  friend, a top student, even if  I could never be an obedient daughter. Unable to gain my parents’ approval, I sought validation from others and made my parents my enemies. But people are impossible to please and perfection is a utopia, so I soon ended up unhappy. Over the years, however, I learnt to give due weight to things and, finally, comprehended that what truly mattered was family. Friends and loves came and went but family, for better or worse, would always be there for me. Pierre, a persevering teacher, had taught me this. He helped me to restore a healthy relationship with my parents based on communication and the capacity to apologise when necessary. “You need to strive to be more flexible and look at reality from different angles,” he often said to me. Couldn’t argue with that. At times, life is far more complex than it looks.

Meanwhile, my father uncorked a bottle of white wine and proposed a toast.

“To the future,” the four of us said in unison, clinking our glasses.

It was a pleasant evening. I entertained the three of them with accounts about the months I had spent away from home. We laughed and ate to fullness.

“I’m stuffed,” my mother said.

“Don’t even think about it,” I objected. “You guys must try the shortbread I brought.”

My mother had always wrongly thought herself a weak woman. Fifteen years earlier, she had welcomed her parents into our house. Since that day, my folks ceded their own bedroom to my grandparents and moved into the living room, giving up the intimacy of their own bed. Our life suddenly changed, reversing the domestic balance and messing up the rhythm of our days. We set our daily timetable to fit in with my grandparents’ medication intake. My father spent his mornings on the phone, waiting for an operator to schedule a medical examination.

The house was spacious but the situation turned out to be uncomfortable. The confined space provoked in me a claustrophobic unease. It was during my secondary school years and I needed silence to focus on my studies. Impossible with two old people with bad hearing.

“Why can’t we be like any other family?” I sometimes shouted at my parents. “I’m fed up with all this.”

As well as looking after two old people, they also had to cope with my hysterical adolescence. I was becoming a real pain. I acknowledged that. However, things changed over time. My siblings, one by one, left the house to start a family. My grandfather Frank got prostate cancer which soon metastasised, taking him away from us within a few weeks. My grandmother was the only one left with us: Esther, another strong woman in my family. She had dedicated her whole life to us. She worked night and day and never complained. Generosity and sense of duty had always distinguished her. Like her husband, she too soon fell ill. Several strokes and, finally, dementia forced her into bed. My parents were still taking care of her; every day they spoon-fed her and changed her incontinence pads.

“We get up with her shit and go to bed with her shit,” my mother told me one day on the phone.

“Well, a great shitty day, I’d say,” I had replied to her.

Jesus, I would never be that patient. Would I do the same for them? I can’t say.

“How is grandma?” I asked at the table.

“How do you think she is, Julia?” my mother said. “Now she’s sleeping but she does nothing but rant and rave in meaningless claptrap.”

We ate the shortbread and drank our tea. I wasn’t in the mood to stay up any longer and decided to call it a night. I said goodbye to Pierre and decided to visit my grandmother. Now she was staying in the bedroom which once belonged to my siblings. I slowly opened the door, letting the external light slightly illuminate the room. Laying my head against the wall, I stared at her immobile body in the dark. That woman, once unstoppable, was now lying defenceless in a bed. At that moment one of the fifty-seven sentences from classical antiquity Montaigne had engraved upon the ceiling beams in his library came to my mind. When I was in college, I had attended a course on French Renaissance literature. Whoever thinks himself a great man the merest chance occurrence will blot out completely. Maybe it was exactly like that. I closed the door, trying not to make any noise. What was man other than a twig coming down at the first breath of wind?

I went to the bathroom. The vision of my own face reflected in the mirror looked more and more like the image of the woman who had always populated my childhood reveries. I smiled at it, then I let the water run and washed my face. When I was finally in my bedroom, I put on a pair of my old pyjamas, the red one with teddy bears and little hearts. It was pleasant to lie down in my old bed. It smelled of cleanliness and certainties. In some ways, I had never left that room. Nothing had changed much: the posters on the walls, my collection of neorealist movies, the bottle of wine with fake flowers in it, the picture of my smiling paternal grandmother who held me when I was a baby.

Before turning the light off, I searched for an old email on my phone. My internship colleague Maddie asked me who I’d like to be in my next life. It could be someone famous or not, she had said. It was a silly game we were playing some weeks earlier: a series of questions sent back and forth, the purpose of which was to get to know each other better. I remembered I had never replied to that question. “I’ll let you know” was my only answer. Just that. I began typing quickly: “Sorry for not getting back to you sooner, Maddie. You asked me who I wanted to be in my next life…” I hesitated for a while. “Myself.” I paused again. “I want to be myself in my next life.” I continued to type. “Maddie, do you still want to play?” Send.

Annalisa Mastronardi viene da Roma. Ha ricevuto una Laurea Triennale in Lingue e Culture Straniere a Roma Tre nel 2016 e completato la Laurea Magistrale in Letterature e Traduzione Interculturale nel 2018. Dal 2019 vive a Dublino dove sta svolgendo un dottorato sulle eredità Joyciane nella narrativa contemporanea femminile irlandese presso la Dublin City University. Le sue precedenti pubblicazioni sono apparse su HeadStuffWriting.ie contemporaryirishlit.wordpress.com.

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