One day Bindi, the one in our radical group in Milan we all looked up to, held me back after we were done giving out flyers for the Desaparecidos in Argentina.
The group had started spontaneously after a journalist friend was shot dead. He had pointed his finger at Mafia and public figures involved with drug trafficking. The official inquiry was lax. We spent nights talking about our desire to fight for justice for him and others.
“There’s something I’d like to ask you,” Bindi said that day. “Let’s walk until we are alone.”
Bindi wore thick glasses, was reliable and gentle. He read extensively and lent me books from foreign authors only recently available in translation. They were expensive, with a whiff of vanilla when I turned the pages.
We walked along the Navigli Canals. People faded fast in the thick fog. Soon, we could only hear the sound of their steps. We wondered where street vendors and ice cream carts went in winter. We talked of what happened to dreams upon waking, whether they faded in a special part of the brain or mixed with memories. Memory being what it is, we wondered if this moment, now such a vivid presence in our lives, with time would seem casual, start to fade, or get misplaced in the accumulations of memories. We discussed the verb disappear in Latin: evanescet.
We talked of Virginia Woolf, Hemingway. We tried to guess a secret they did not reveal, and nobody would ever know. Bindi thought that if they didn’t name it, it did not exist, it crystallized and died. I disagreed but did not know the reason.
“Do you think Virginia Woolf cooked?” I asked.
“Well,” he said. “It’s a bit sad somehow, one way or the other.”
“But think. Even a boiled egg she cooked would be so interesting.” I thought of her pleasure at this small surprising thing she had accomplished.
We were now the only people around. There were no flies anymore in this weather, and it came to me how many had died in my lifetime. As a child, I thought that they went away, and reappeared.
“Is it true that you live by yourself now?” Bindi asked.
“Yes.” It was recent. I still imagined my ex-boyfriend making coffee in the kitchen, humming off-key. I thought about Lucretius, who had written in beautiful Latin that everything was made of imperceptible atoms and there were plenty of things we could not see, but we knew they existed, like wind and smells. I was going to argue with Bindi whether I truly lived alone.
But Bindi turned to me sharply.
“Would you host a political refugee for one night? I can only tell you he is from Chile.”
* * * * *
That night an older man in a cheap parka brought the refugee to my house. He was young, pale like from an illness, and stood by the door. The man inspected my small apartment. He asked if I would sleep on the couch and give the bedroom to the guest, as it offered the opportunity to escape over the roofs, if necessary. Before leaving, he made a sharp gesture across his lips, indicating ‘no talking’ to each other and waited to go until we both nodded in assent.
When the Chilean refugee and I remained alone, I saw he was frightened. I was starting to be too. I offered him a bowl of apples, and he took one, then sat on the couch, holding it. I also took an apple.
The refugee and I had no script. We had no language in common. Bindi had said it was perfect for security. We were not supposed to talk anyway. We kept gazing down at the apples in silent amazement. He was young but with thinning hair. He had a jagged scar by one ear. I wanted to make him feel that he was safe here, but I did not know if it was true. We sat in silence. Legs crossed, I looked up and around like at a difficult college test. I became acutely aware of my nocturnal habits, how I loved to talk on the phone, read. They seemed a necessity.
The phone rang. I had been instructed not to respond if this occurred. I did not. The refugee and I remained locked in eye contact. He whispered something in Spanish.
We heard steps outside my door, soft barking. It was probably old Signora Maffi taking back her poodle from his night walk, but I was stupefied with fear. I fantasized of a knock at the door, strangers with guns. They’d crack my skull, blind me with acid. The refugee crossed himself. The steps faded.
The refugee peered out the kitchen window. He went to the bedroom and did the same. He gestured for me to join him. He pointed at the expanse of tile roofs. We could escape over them, he signaled. It looked terrifying. His eyes clung to me, large and frozen. I nodded: good idea.
We sat again. I noticed that his attention went to a pack of cigarettes my boyfriend had left on a shelf. I offered him one, and he took it.
He lit the cigarette, cupping his hands around it. I watched him smoke, his eyes half-closed, head tilted back. His hands started marking a piano tune, delicately at first, then with gusto. When he was done, he opened his eyes. I made coffee. We watched small clouds of smoke rise from the two tiny cups. There was a strangeness to everything.
We started to gesture to each other. It didn’t matter what we tried to communicate and that we could not really understand. It was usually the case between strangers anyway. I think he tried to show me his home, a fugue of rooms and himself pacing in the rooms. His kitchen had a window he opened wide, or he wished to again. There were trees outside. Or something else that seemed to pleasure him. Everything floated at the periphery of our conversation with a luminous evanescence, and we seemed equally satisfied not to let it gain too precise a color, shape. He told me he had been afraid of a river at dark or something else moving fast. I told him how afraid I had been of physical pain as a child and how chronic illness later was nothing. It was a lie, it had been terrible, but midway through the story, it seemed wrong to speak of pain. I told him I could drive and loved it. Also a lie, but heartening to me and so fun to imagine. Invigorated, I showed my mother calling me every day. That she was alive, going up and down buses, doing errands. I lied and lied. He spoke of his family or maybe not. He had an older sister with long hair. It was parted on the side. Or it was a girlfriend. Someone suffered. Or he did. Someone read a letter from him, or he read someone’s letter. He pressed a palm to his chest, reading it over and over, his lips moving. He seemed to memorize the letter, then ripped it.
We went quiet, sitting with our heads leaning back on the couch. Now and then I got up, but this seemed to frighten him. He occasionally dozed off. There had been so many chilly silences with my ex-boyfriend at night. I felt gratitude for the refugee.
He was picked up in the morning by the same man. He left his apple behind, untouched.
A few days later, a woman stopped me in the street to ask directions to the subway. When I told her, she said, “The man you hosted is now safe.” Then walked away.
Sometime later, I had Bindi and a few friends over for a late-night pasta carbonara. Bindi and I cooked. He took his glasses off because of the steam from the pot of boiling water. He told jokes about poor eyesight and how it offered the opportunity for reality to soften. Evanescet. We laughed. Bindi and I looked at each other, and I knew we were thinking of the afternoon along the Navigli Canals and the refugee.
I never told anybody about hosting him. Bindi never mentioned it. Over the years, I cut my hair short. I dyed my hair red. I lost weight. I put it back on. I learned French. I forgot French. I lived with a man who was a chemist and knew exactly what particles were in shampoos, face creams, and toothpaste. They had a Greek or Latin name. We broke up and got together again a few times. When I took trains to distant cities in Europe, I looked at male strangers for scars.
Lucretius had stated that Trees don’t live in the sky, and clouds don’t swim / In the salt seas, and fish don’t leap in wheatfields / Blood isn’t found in wood, nor sap in rocks. / By fixed arrangement, all that lives and grows / Submits to limit and restrictions. But I often see the Chilean refugee sitting on my couch. Both of us are a little older, of course. Smoke rising from a cup of coffee seems surprising; the roofs are an escape from death. It all feels mysterious and terrifying. Simple, too.
Cover Art by Siri Margaret Stensberg