Ava Gili (Winner of the Creative Entry Category)
Names and Other Peculiar Feelings
“What are you doing up there, Baby? You’re too young to be out by yourself. You’ll get hurt.” You peer down at your older sister through gnarled branches and green leaves, a pout tugging the sides of your mouth down.
You very much disagree: you just turned six and consider yourself a real giovanotto. Pa wouldn’t have called you a man on your birthday if you weren’t. Just because Daniela is nine years older, she thinks she’s the boss of you. But right now, Daniela’s voice sounds tired, and you figure your hiding spot’s not a secret anymore. Wondering what gave you away, you scamper down the step ladder propped up against the tree’s trunk. Daniela takes your hand and starts pulling you home.
Since your family arrived back in Italy three days ago, you’ve been sneaking off everyday to the field behind your house. Basking in the sweet spring sun, you climb your favourite cacho tree as often as possible. The trees in Canada just aren’t the same. Their trunks and branches are smooth, tall, and almost impossible to climb; there is a distinct lack of the sugar-sweet scent of cachi filling the air; there are no sleepy peeps from the pipistrello nestled into the holes of the trunks. It doesn’t make sense: Ma and Pa said they moved to give you a better life, but as far as you can tell, there’s nothing fun about moving to a cold, empty house in the middle of nowhere.
Daniela tugs you through the gate leading to your back door and calls out a greeting to signora Rossetti taking her smoke break.
“Ciao, Daniela. Ciao, bambino.” She waves, leaning back in her white plastic chair, trying to find relief in the shade. For some reason, she always calls you bambino even though your name is Baby. You glare at her as you pass by, wishing—not for the first time—that the farmacia your family lives beside was actually a gelateria. But then signor Rossetti steps out to join his wife, catching your eyes with a glare that could wither spring blossoms. Heart pounding, you dart up the steps behind Daniela, slamming the door behind you.
One time, you overheard Pa call signor Rossetti tagliagola during one of their usual arguments. You don’t know what cutthroat means exactly, but you assume it’s bad because Pa had stormed off, red faced and muttering about stubborn men and their unrealistic expectations. Sometimes in the night, when you rub your eyes so hard that you see shapes and shadows that aren’t there, you imagine signor Rossetti looming over your bed. If you dive under the covers, he won’t know where your throat is, so you’ll be safe. Besides, you know Pa is in the next room over, and he’ll always be there to protect you. But just in case, you often drift off to sleep with the blanket wrapped around your head.
Ma jumps at the loud bang of the door but continues chopping vegetables so fast her hands blur. She’s in her natural element once again, cooking a big dinner for an even bigger famiglia.
“And where have you been all day, Baby?” Ma accuses and tsks when her eyes finally flick over to you. “You’re filthy.”
“I like being back home,” you shrug casually but stare down Daniela, trying to communicate please please please don’t tell with your mind. Rolling her eyes, Daniela lets out a huff of laughter. She leaves to join in with the lively discussion wafting in from the living room. Its familiar warmth envelopes you like a hug; you can almost feel the house shake with your nonno’s laughter.
“Enjoying yourself means hiding from the responsibilities of your chores, then?” Ma gestures around with the knife. “You know we only have a short time to repair this place before we head back.”
Your pout threatens to return, but to get back in Ma’s good graces, you grab a log from the wood pile to place it in the stove’s hearth. Staring into the flames, you realize your small town of Schio doesn’t have all the fancy appliances that your house in Canada does, but it doesn’t matter. Italy just makes more sense. Passed down through the generations, Pa’s great-grandfather built the home you’ve lived in since you were born: one day, it’ll belong to you. You don’t want to think about leaving it so soon after you just returned.
Ma places a comforting hand on your head and you look up to familiar dark eyes assessing you softly.
“Go wash up before joining everyone. Dinner’s almost ready. And Baby?” Ma plucks a leaf from your tangled brown curls and holds it in front of your face. “The next time you decide to spend an entire day up a fruit tree, the least you could do is bring back some cachi for the rest of us.”
Her tone’s dismissive, but her eyes are crinkled at the edges, and your heart fills with love. You promise her you won’t come back home empty-handed again.
“So, you go by Bobby now?” Giuliano asks off-handedly, most of his attention directed to the task at hand.
“Yup,” you reply, just as distracted, making sure the angle of the water will flow just right. You’re only one storey up, but it still feels precarious to balance on the farmacia’s slightly slanted roof like this. But this prank will be brilliant if you can pull it off.
“That makes sense. I never really thought about it before, but I guess it was weird that everyone just called you Baby.”
You were also surprised to learn that your name wasn’t actually Baby. Everyone calls your sister Daniela because that is her name; why did everyone call you Baby if it wasn’t yours? One day, Pa said you were too old to be called Baby anymore and Bobby sounded similar, so what did you think? It was Pa who suggested it, so of course you liked it.
Glancing up at your cousin that you haven’t seen in a couple of years, you realize you forgot to miss him. Canada isn’t quite so bad as it used to be; you’ve made new friends to make up for the lack of family. But you’re back in Italy now, if only for two weeks, and that’s all that matters. Giuliano’s tongue is sticking out in concentration as he makes one last final adjustment, and you can’t hold back your grin.
“What do you think?” he asks. Both of you lean back carefully to admire your work.
Unlike the houses in Canada, all the roofs in Schio are made from undulating red clay tegole. If you find the right tiles that line up just so and reposition the gutters like that, all you have to do is wait for the next time it rains. The famacia’s customers will be greeted by a gushing stream of water directly over the front door. You’re hoping it will stop people from going in, but if you’re really lucky, maybe the torrent will even hit an unsuspecting Rossetti. Judging from the dark clouds rolling overhead in the heavy summer air, it looks like you won’t have to wait long for your thunderstorm.
“I think we’re done here, mio cugino. Let’s get lost before somebody sees us.”
As you scramble down—hanging from your arms off the side of the roof, feet dangling above the ground—you make eye contact with Rossetti through the window. He shouts something you can’t hear, but can very well guess, and starts running towards the farmacia’s entrance.
“We gotta go!” you shout to Giuliano, adrenaline whooshing through your ears. You hit the ground hard and feel a twinge shoot up your leg, but then you’re running as fast as you can, gulping in oxygen that escapes as laughter. You echo Giuliano’s shouts of triumph as the first fat splatterings of raindrops hit your face.
“Piantagrane!” Rossetti roars, shaking his fist at you but giving up the chase. “What were you troublemakers doing on my roof!”
Eyes glinting with mischievous glee, you turn around to make a rude gesture at Rossetti while still jogging backwards. You take the insult as a compliment: you like to imagine yourself as planting seeds of trouble.
Serves the old man right, thinking he can bluster up a storm at your pa, all for letting the house go into slight disrepair. He deserves to be taught a lesson; everyone knows that your family visits as much as money allows, saving up between the years to afford it. Clearly your old home won’t always be in perfect condition. Now the farmacia won’t be either.
Panting, you wave goodbye to Giuliano, knowing you’ll see him tonight at your zia’s family dinner. Without thinking about it, your feet steer you towards your favourite cacho tree and with a jolt, you realize you haven’t had some in years. What a good excuse an armful of cachi will be when Ma is mad that you’ve returned home soaking wet from the now-steady downpour. Perhaps you’ll even find some cool bugs to set loose in the farmacia later.
“Porco diavolo, Bobby,” Ma swears and gestures with her broom, “go outside or something, I don’t care. I’m trying to get ready for tonight, and I’m tired of you moping around.”
“It’s Adriano and you know that,” you cut right back, chest deflating. Adriano was the name of Pa’s nonno, a captain in the Regio Esercito. You never met the man, but your chest puffs out and your shoulders straighten every time someone calls you by your namesake. Ma reverts back to Bobby in arguments just to get on your nerves, you’re sure of it. What’s the point of naming your son if you refuse to call him by his birth name?
When you went by Bobby, one of your teachers insisted on calling you Robert. Back then, you didn’t have the words to correct him, so you would say nothing and stew silently. You bet your great-grandfather never felt the need to defend himself—his identity. You don’t like to think about who first called you Bobby and how your nickname made you feel like a stranger in your own skin. It doesn’t matter because now you finally have a proper name. Just like everyone else.
“Whatever happened to the days when you were happy to be back, hm?” Ma shakes her head, turning away from the living room to continue sweeping in the kitchen.
“I grew up,” you mutter under your breath. You heave yourself off the threadbare sofa, rolling your eyes as you grab your jacket. The gesture reminds you of Daniela and with a pang, you realize you miss her. Much to your loudly protested disappointment, Daniela decided to stay back in Canada with her husband. Trying not to be jealous, you wish Pa would have listened to your pleading to let you stay home too, where you could be hanging out with your friends instead of wasting time in this archaic house.
The door hinges squeal as you step outside, and you wrap your jacket tighter around yourself, the cool autumnal wind of evening already nipping at your fingers. Next door, Rossetti is stationed in his familiar white plastic chair, taking a smoke break. He squints his eyes at you in suspicion, and you glare right back, but even you can feel the stares’ lack of heat. With his greying beard and stained lab coat, it’s hard to picture him as the man who lurked in the shadows of your imagination as a child. You have better things to do now than planting seeds of trouble in an old man’s life.
Once you’re past the back gate, you pause, realizing you have nowhere to go. You lost touch with your Italian friends years back and besides, there’s nothing to do in this little obsolete town. You begin walking down the newly cemented sidewalk behind the house, unfocused eyes trailing along the hazy blue horizon line of the Dolomite mountains in the distance.
Something wet squishes underneath your foot and you scoff in disgust. As you scrape your shoes on the ground trying to wipe off the amber juice, you notice more cachi interspersed with yellow leaves discarded on the concrete. You feel like the tree overhead is vaguely familiar, but you can’t tear your eyes away from the rotting fruit: black spots seeping through wilting orange until decay overcomes it completely. Lip curling, you abruptly turn on your heel back towards the house. You ignore the pipistrello that have begun swooping, their merry pips and black bodies melting into the rapidly cooling twilight. The house is dark and quiet when you approach, like it has returned to its typical condition prematurely.
“Set the table, would you?” Ma snaps the moment you enter, adding a softer, “Adriano,” after a second’s hesitation. “They’ll be here soon. You know how your zio always shows up early when food is involved.”
She doesn’t look up from slicing the cachi she retrieves from a paper bag in preparation for the family dinner tonight. Despite your lack of enthusiasm, she was adamant about carrying out the tradition, even if she had to buy them from the mercato to do it. You say nothing as you reach past her for the plates and cutlery, but your chest feels slightly lighter than before.
You wince at the familiar rough voice, turning around in the market to wave weakly at the approaching figure. You saw signor Rossetti earlier when you first headed into town and promptly ducked into a shop to avoid the promise of an awkward conversation. It’s the same reason you didn’t tell anyone you were back in Italy for a visit. But it’s too late now that he’s spotted you. He hobbles over quickly with his hand in the air—some things never change—but in greeting instead of anger.
“Adriano! How are you? I hardly recognize you, it has been so long since you have visited.”
“I’m all right. And it’s actually just Adrian now,” you add. Something squirms in your stomach whenever you hear the Italian pronunciation of your name. “I had it changed legally right before university.”
“Congratulazioni.” Signore Rossetti inclines his head, eyebrows drawn together like he doesn’t quite understand. You stifle your exasperation, eyes momentarily flitting up to the dull grey of the ceiling.
“How are you, signore?”
“Oh, bene, bene, you know how it is.”
You nod slowly, not knowing at all how it is.
“Is signora Rossetti with you?” You glance around for her, anxiously. She always knew how to keep a dying conversation alive, and you are hoping to escape her talent.
“Ah, Maria passed away a few years back, I am afraid,” he says, the wrinkles on his face deepening.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Sì. Of course, that was before I lost the farmacia. I could not keep up without her in my old age. Have you seen the mostruosità that bought me out?”
You nod, nose scrunching up. The ice cream parlour was the first thing you noticed upon arriving at the house alone, the electronic aperto sign blinking red and blue, matching the interior decor. It was so surreal seeing your childhood wish granted that you went in immediately, suitcase and all.
“The ice cream is nothing special.”
“Ah, a waste of your euros is more like it. None of the authentic smoothness and creaminess of real gelato.American through and through. Disgustoso.”
The conversation pauses, an auditory confirmation of the pointlessness of this exchange. Signore Rossetti tugs on his beard, inadvertently pulling his frown down even further.
“You are here with your pa, then, to fix up the house?”
“I have to go,” you lie stiffly, already turning around for the market’s exit. “It was good to see you, signore.”
“Tanti auguri, Adrian,” he calls in a puzzled tone. The syllables sound harsh in his accent, but it doesn’t matter because they hit your back, your legs already striding to get away as fast as possible.
Outside, the crisp winter air intermingles with your sudden spike of grief; it was only when you couldn’t see Pa anymore that you realized how little you did see him in the first place.
You take a deep breath. But you can do this one thing for him. You might be overwhelmed by your university courses, but someone needed to check on the old house in the wake of his death, and the responsibility fell to you. Not Ma, who, in her old age, refuses to step foot on a plane. Not Daniela, who is too busy raising her beautiful children alone.
So caught up in your own thoughts, you don’t realize you forgot to buy cachi until you’re unlatching the back gate to the house. You swear softly; you meant to carry on the tradition even if no one was here to share it with you.
Looking back at the path you would have to traverse once again, a memory unwittingly overlays the sight. In your double vision, the expansive field that was once yours to explore—carpeted with green grass, speckled with fruit-bearing trees—overtakes the wet-gray barren parking lot it is now. In a second, you experience hours of carefree glee and wonder that only a child can possess.
With misty eyes, you look up at your old home, slowly walking towards it. The thick walls of whitewashed stone and mortar made to last peer down at you. It is a peculiar feeling, you now know, to miss a place that is right in front of you.
Although Adrian is the name you gave yourself, loneliness is interwoven between the letters. You miss the pride inspired by Adriano. Your fingers itch for trouble at the mention of Bobby. You long for the simple days of Baby. You wish for something you can’t express in words.
With a deep sigh, you open the frail door and step into an empty house.