We have just finished a dinner of crispy bacon and asparagus risotto. Sofia and Virginia are sitting across the table from each other, chatting and laughing about quarantine memes. I look at the dusk and the Leyland cypresses behind our house dripping with beads of mist, and say, “I’m going to take a walk.”
“Yeah, let’s play on the slide!” Luke calls to Mark and Diana, as he runs out the back door, and then comes back almost immediately saying,“It’s too wet,” tossing his coat on the ground.
“You guys can come with me,” I say. It won’t be the meditative walk I had imagined, but they need nature and fresh air too. They are already on the front walk with winter coats and shoes on when I say, “You have to agree you won’t fight.”
Yeah, yeah, they grunt as they toss back and forth Luke’s new black and blue basketball. It is the only one of three that has arrived. After we saw people shooting hoops and playing tennis at the park, I thought basketballs might cheer them up.
Luke and Diana take turns bouncing the new ball and Mark, 11, walks beside me so close that I ask him, “Can I hold your hand?” His expression, a mix of embarrassment and disgust, seems to say, “How could you ask me that in public?”
Cherry blossom petals cling to the sidewalks like confetti after a storm has broken up an outdoor party. “I wonder why Italy has more smells,” Mark says. “Like the ocean, the flowers, the food.”
For a flash I see all of us walking along the curve of Mondello Bay at dusk with Mark’s Italian grandfather, aunt, uncle and cousin. Kids play tag while adults in bathing suits play cards and eat dinner on tables set in the sand. Across the street, restaurants and gelaterias with outdoor tables bubble and sing with people, tanned and dressed up, talking and laughing.
Sicily August 2019, and I am flooded with gratitude for that trip, rare and expensive, as if it were the best thing we ever did. A paradise that I will never be able to get back to.
“Maybe we noticed scents more because it was all so new,” I said, remembering the fuchsia bougainvillea cascading over crumbling walls, stands selling fried risotto balls stuffed with ragu, and the ever-present sweet sting of sea droplets tumbling in the hot air.
The entrance to the beach, where we used to stop for gelato, is now patrolled by carabinieri, cordoned off and deserted as if warships were arriving. Enrico’s Italian family are by themselves, in apartments around Milan — grandparents separated from grandchildren, grown children separated from parents. Knowing that when they come out, the world will be forever changed.
“There are plenty of smells here,” I tell Mark, even as I too have become dulled to the place where I live, as if it were some cardboard map that I traverse to get from one point to the next. “I smell the rain right now, for example, when it touches the cement, the earth.”
Mark agrees, and I think about how at this time in our normal life, we would have been spinning in a frenetic routine. It’s Tuesday night around 7, and Diana and I would have just gotten home from her swim lesson. Mark and Luke, who would have walked home on their own from swim team practice, would be playing or fighting, bags of wet swimsuits strewn on the floor along with backpacks, coats, and tennis shoes. Maybe Sofia would still be at rehearsal, Virginia blasting trap music from the portable speaker, and it would be my turn to make a quick dinner, spend 30 minutes of one-on-one time with whoever’s turn it was, and make sure everyone was bathed and in bed by 8:30, ready to wake up for school the next day.
There is a softness now, in this life. A softness that lets me be permeated with sadness. Like mist filling the night.
At the empty park, the kids take turns shooting hoops, and then play with tennis balls abandoned along the edges of the court, so soaked with rain they must be flushed of germs. The balls make tiny splashes when the kids throw them against the cinderblock wall, and they make waves when rolling away, like little motor boats.
It’s almost dark when we begin the walk home. They start fighting over who gets the ball. I get that sick feeling in my stomach, and the stress starts rising again. I try to remember the principle of acceptance.
They are fighting, I say to myself, as they shove each other, sulk and hang back, hurl insults and bicker.
Acceptance doesn’t seem to be working until one moment, when I see them as children again, not fellow humans obstructing my peace.
Luke, so strong-willed and disrupting, yet only nine years old. Half my size, his frame so slight, under his red hooded Land’s End coat.
His brother Mark, on the crest of adolescence, in between a child and a teen, not sure of who he is.
And Diana, who stops like a figure in an A. A. Milne storybook, to look up at a magnolia.
In the dark, the street lamps light up the grass in a nearby yard, and every blade looks like a spindle of green glass, transparent and shimmering.
At the busy intersection, empty of cars that normally pile up, the stoplights spill neon red toward us on the wet blacktop. Then the light turns green, but nothing changes, except for the color on the shiny black streets.
‘Sometimes,’ said Pooh, ‘the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.’A.A. Milne