Speak, Memory

Sitting at a table in an apartment with two French women and my girlfriend. The halting flow of semi-translated conversations. Jokes about me, about us, fly past me in another language. I try to grasp them as if trying to catch the wind in my hand. I watch the faces, the gestures, the expressions. I look at eyes. I listen to the animated stories with eyes, not ears.

Elsa mimes playing a violin. Now it’s years ago, and I’m sitting at the kitchen table at Nonna’s house in Elizabeth Street. The gaudy, colourful tiles surround me, comforting me on some level. This place is like a second home, in a way no other place has ever felt before or since. Mum is there, next to me at the table. Nonna is behind my mum, at her usual spot at the stove. Maybe she’s making lunch. Maybe lunch is over and she’s cleaning up. Nonno sits in his chair, the one closest to the door to the dining room. Behind him on the wall is the funny photograph of the pig, with the caption “Those who indulge bulge.”

Nonno lights a cigarette and Nonna scolds him. Maybe in Italian or maybe in English. Scolding sounds the same either way. Nonno blows smoke rings, little circles expanding into infinity. Kieran is looking at the smoke rings with a strange look on his little face, his big glasses seeming to magnify it. I watch the smoke in amazement even though I’ve seen this trick before many times.

Everyone’s talking but I don’t know what about. Someone must have been complaining about something, and Nonno stubs out his cigarette in the ashtray and carefully draws an imaginary bow and plays a tune on an imaginary violin. Mum makes the face of a thousand memories, going further back in time then I can imagine possible at that age. Nonna shakes her head and says something. I can taste the smoke lingering in the air.

Now I’m 14 in the hospital seeing him for the last time. So much is happening in my life and I can’t concentrate. This is the first time that I really have no grasp of a situation. Nonna is there fidgeting in the chair next to the bed. She gets up and moves around a lot. Nonno makes several lewd jokes about the nurses and Nonna tells him off half-seriously. The look on her face is hard for me to understand. My brothers and I are all pretty quiet. I guess we always are.

Nonno is wearing striped pyjamas. I think. I remember dark colours, like red and brown. I remember him leaning forward and sitting up in bed, and the gap between the buttons on the pyjama pants showing me a flash of pubic hair. I am acutely aware at this moment that I’ve never seen him or maybe anyone so exposed. I still can’t make sense of anything. I’m shut off inside.

I can feel the sharp bristles of his unshaven cheek as I kiss him goodbye for the last time. At that moment I think to myself that I can’t remember ever having kissed him before and I wonder why. I remember his smell that day more than any other day. For years afterwards I hold on to a jumper of his that Nonna gave me afterward. It was ugly and too big but it smelled like him still. I wore it to bed a lot until one day Mum threw it away. I was very sad that day.

Now I’m in an apartment with two French girls and my girlfriend. I’m quiet but I guess I usually am, especially in this context. Still, perhaps picking up on something, Emma turns to me and asks if I am okay.
I nod.
“I’m okay.”

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