Chapter One: March 2009
I feel gray, gray as the paint peeling from the walls of Rome’s Fiumicino Airport as I approach the luggage carousel. My bag drops onto the belt; it’s moving quickly. I stretch to reach its blue teal handle, try to yank it free from two black bags which squeeze it like bread on a ham sandwich. It slips from my grip and I watch helplessly as it begins its circular trip away from me. But, unlike my relationship, I know it will come back eventually.
I’ve been gone for three months—three months in the States, three months without Diego. A week earlier we’d argued. A trivial matter, but the effects linger like the bitter aftertaste of Italian coffee. He hasn’t called in a week and his silence puzzles me.
A sea of people awaits me as I walk through the exit in a jet-lagged fog. I long to see that familiar impish smile, it’s how I can spot him from anywhere, but it doesn’t help this time. Diego stands near the back dressed in workday attire—gray pants pleated in the front, navy blue jacket, maroon pinstripe tie. His hair, the hair I love to run my hands through, grazes the collar of his blue shirt in long untamed waves. My eyes slowly move up his face, stopping at his eyes. They should sparkle, but they don’t, they are cold black stones. His brows furrow, his lips tense. He’s so thin, and I cringe. I’ve been gone for too long.
Our bodies embrace, but his hug is empty, mechanical. His lips graze mine—they are devoid of passion.
‘Barbara?’ What happened to ‘amore?’ Why can’t he look me in the eyes?
“Are you still angry?”, I ask rhetorically.
Diego looks down at his feet, pulling with him an invisible shroud of silence. He takes my bags, always the gentleman, and we walk to the elevator. The doors open, then shut. I want to speak, but uncertainty mutes me. We’re saved from a lonely ride up by two Italian men gesturing animatedly. The shorter one speaks.
“I don’t know why the escalators never work. Every time I come home, I hope God will perform a miracle and things will improve, but it never happens.”
Diego simmers, then erupts. “You’re attacking my country. How can you insult the place I love? If you don’t like living here, you should move somewhere else.”
The taller man shrugs his shoulders. “Hey, we love this country as much as you do, but you have to admit there are a lot of things that don’t work like they should.” Thankfully the elevator door isn’t one of them,and we exit to the parking garage.
Not that Diego has never lost his temper, but it takes a lot. Like the time I called his daughter a spoiled brat when she wouldn’t turn over the car keys. “You will never talk to my daughter that way!” he screamed, and I knew I’d made a mistake.
Diego retreats once more behind his wall of silence. We’re on the highway now, heading home, and I want to understand.
“Are you OK?”, I ask, immediately regretting the stupidity of my question.
What I want to say is “Why in the hell are you acting this way? So what if I got upset because you didn’t answer the phone when we were supposed to talk? That’s no reason to treat me like this.”
Instead I probe my brain, searching for answers. How could a simple argument trigger such icy coldness? There must be more. Is there something he hasn’t told me? Maybe he received another bill for back taxes—maybe I inadvertently offended him in my last e-mail. It wouldn’t be the first time. When I get home, I’ll go back and read it.
I glance over to the driver’s seat and I see tears—slow, lonely drops drift down to the corner of Diego’s mouth, linger for a few seconds before trailing down his chin. I reach over and gently stroke his hair. He pushes my hand away. “I’ve been like this for days,” he answers, voice flat-lining…and slowly, tear by tear, I understand. For years he’s taken care of everyone but himself—for years we’ve warned him. That invisible line that separates stress from overload has been breached in an instant and something inside has broken.
For the next three days Diego wakes unfailingly at six in the morning and drives to the office. He returns after dark, greeting me halfheartedly—a child forced into politeness. One day at work has sucked the life from his system. Like a tire without air, he cannot continue. He eats in silence, then shuffles off to bed.
Humans, like cats, are creatures of habit. No matter the circumstance we cling to our routines as though they will protect us from life’s pitfalls. The weekend is here, and Diego and I do what we’ve always done—run errands. His shoes need re-soling, our cupboards are bare. Today in the car, he rests his hand on my knee for just a moment the way he used to, and for the first time since I’ve been back I hope. He pulls away and I notice.
“Your ring. You’re not wearing it. Why did you take it off?”
I pause, wait for an excuse—it slipped off because he lost weight—he left it in the bathroom this morning—any excuse will do. There is nothing, only that dead silence that has become all too familiar. The silver and opal ring I gave him a year earlier has vanished into a black hole along with my self-control.
“In your mind our relationship is over, isn’t it? If you honestly feel that way, why don’t you just leave? I can’t understand why you want to be with someone you don’t love.”
Diego stares at the road; his eyes darken.
“Say something. Don’t just sit there.” Tears stream down my face as we pull into the parking lot of the shoe repair store. Before the car stops I’m halfway out the door. My feet hit the pavement with a thud as I struggle to keep my balance. I stride down the sidewalk like I have a purpose,but I don’t. I want only to leave, to escape from this man and the pain he’s inflicting. I sense Diego’s presence behind me.
“I won’t leave without you. Please come with me.” His words are empty. They mean nothing. I want to punish him, the way he has punished me, but I can’t. How can I hurt someone who no longer feels?
I reach down to the finger of my left hand, rip off my matching silver and opal ring. I watch it fly over the ornate metal gate of a villa into a patch of high grass. Immediately I regret what I’ve done, but there’s no way to undo it. The gate is locked, and no one is home.
There is no more “us.” There is Diego, a man who has lost his way, unable to escape the pain that surrounds him, and there is me, a woman unable to cope, trying to assemble the pieces of a life that no longer makes sense. My world is shattered, as it was that fateful night ten years earlier as I sat on the couch of my small island home.