A Not So Hollow Heart

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Lorenzo used to watch me sleep; I always thought it was a sign of love. Then it dawned on me that I was just prettier that way. I have freckles, like a connect-the-dots game where you make a picture, but in my case I remain invisible. My mother was thoughtful or lazy enough not to rent out my room, so I still live with her, even if she lives alone. I was about to graduate with a degree in biology, I was taking my last five classes.

I was always sleepy and I was calm and well mannered, with a heart that beat too fast and legs that moved too slow.

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My mouth was often dry; other times it refused to speak. Sometimes, at night, my pupils were too big or too small in the mirror. It was all too easy for me to match shivers to memories. My own memories, or those my mother had infected me with. Memories of Lorenzo who broke up with me via text message or of Aunt Lidia who left this world, swallowed up by water, her pockets filled with stones.

Both these abandonments occurred on beautiful days in late April, in almost summery settings, with yellow sunlight and buzzing insects, with a neon-blue sky and agave plants striking coquettish poses. Lidia, on the other hand, left the world without a word sixteen years before I was born. Having a single body forced me to coexist with all my experiences, to keep them hot in my brain, stitched to my nerves. They were always ready to visit mayhem on the happy moments I spent with Lorenzo. It would be an instant, the popping of a balloon during a party. My mother would step past me in stiletto heels, Lorenzo would help me to my feet.

On the morning of January 30, , the day of my twenty-third birthday, coming out of my comparative anatomy class, I found Lorenzo waiting for me in his car. Her hair was so thin that all the weirdness of the human skull was fully visible; silence reigned except for the muttering of the air conditioner. Then it was our turn. In March the first one vanished. In March , three more. They were found a few yards away, their throats ripped open by dogs. Then two more, and two more after that, impaled on the spikes of the gate on Piazza Roma.

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The last swan was the loveliest of them all, I still remember it. I was fourteen years old when it would sail around the empty basin, not looking for anyone. It would stop in the centre. In May it was found with its throat cut. The swans were replaced with large black ducks, raggedy and slow-witted, and then by depressing bronze herons. The basin is full of dry leaves, and gangs of thuggish girls hang around it and beat up other girls in front of anyone who cares to watch. People break off their walks and stand around, smiles yawning like genitalia, they set their glittering shopping bags down on the ground: first shopping, then a fistfight, then a pizza followed by a limoncello.

Even the carabinieri, concealed at the corner behind long ficus leaves chipped with black, always stop to watch with feverish eyes. Sitting on the rim of the Fountain of the Swans I gradually tried to catch my breath. Not even Sleeping Beauty knows how short a distance it is from chronic fatigue to eternal sleep. I got decent grades on my exams and I let the days pass just as they were, without the audacity to fill them with events and meaning: I imagined them as so many brown-edged holes left by a cigarette in a white sheet. My mother existed: she was the realest thing there was.

Instead I woke up at seven fifteen in the morning in a pool of piss and sweat. This happened sometimes. I was a plant in its sopping-wet dirt.

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A plant, though not a sunflower, which has the healthy instinct to turn toward the light. I was a plant that never moves and takes in sunshine and water until the time comes to fold humbly in on itself and die. My mother walked into the room wearing an iron-grey slip with a cigarette in her mouth. Her legs were glistening with moisturising cream.

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My mother went out at nine in the morning to take pictures of a row of withered trees on Corso Italia. She was wearing a rust-coloured silk dress, black vinyl wedge shoes, and a heavy necklace of rough-cut stones. Framed in light-blue plastic, the photograph would remain there for the two years that followed my death, until Aunt Clara took it down, leaving in its place a testamentary square of wall that was a brighter shade of white.

Aunt Clara was the pretty sister, my mother the depressed one. The eldest sister was named Lidia but she had drowned in the Cassibile River, taking all her adjectives with her. My mother was the one who once found herself in the street late at night, standing in front of the dumpster, barefoot and wet-cheeked, so my grandmother had to go down and get her. All three of us taken together were a perfect hydraulic system of trauma.

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The morning of July 23 I put on my favourite dress, the red sleeveless one. Looking in the mirror I felt like Jessica Rabbit, but every impulse of self-respect I might have had was a round-trip ticket: after a couple of seconds outbound, I returned straight home to the nuisance of being myself. I pulled my dark purple lipstick out of my makeup case, but it had melted in the heat: as soon as I opened it the creamy mass broke into two soft, greasy sections and the top part fell into the sink.

I tried to use the broken stump that was still attached to the base but it was too short. So I dabbed my fingertip into the gooey mess in the sink and smeared it onto my lips.

I succeeded in applying it, to an extent. I picked up the eyeliner, but it too was melted; I drew rings around my eyes similar to the bruise you get when someone punches you.

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The bald lawyer who lives on the fifth floor was walking ahead of me and he held the street door open with a smile. As soon as I drew close to the slit of the half-open door, the muggy air and the sunlight and a slow scent of sunbaked flowers inundated my face. The muggy air and the sunlight and the flowers still had meaning, and I was tempted to press it to my heart, but I did not.

Catania in the summer: scalding, oozing, an open wound. Constant car horns, mangy dogs, people squinting and sandals made of eco leather.

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Humid, unbreathable air. The heat was a dumpster full of smells, old beer and urine, gasoline, deodorants going past, and the aforementioned flowers: red and purple blooms at the corner of the sidewalk, clutching the shrouds of their already-dried petals.

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I crossed the street and somebody nearly ran me over: a guy wearing a white Lacoste polo shirt and Ray-Bans leaned out the window and yelled at me to go fuck myself. His girlfriend had her feet up on the dashboard and was applying pink polish to her toenails. At the supermarket across the street I bought red plastic plates, red forks, red party cups, a bottle of cheap spumante, a frozen paella, and a bag of single-blade disposable razors. There was a two-for-one sale, but I thought one death would be enough for me. At the right-hand corner was an old wine stain.

I lit a white candle at the center of the table. I filled the bathtub upstairs. I placed the razor next to the tub.

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  4. The first to arrive was Gaia; she had a fashionable new asymmetrical haircut and a freshly ironed pink blouse. She did a lot of smiling. Then Flavia got there.