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What drives me mad is that I can't remember anything about the very beginning, about how we met. Did a formal presentation take place, a handshake? Or was did we just just start talking casually from our respective desks? I can't remember anymore, and there are no records of our meeting. Maybe there was no such specific occasion. It probably was an imperceptible acquisition: a name repeated daily during roll call at school became part of my knowledge and only afterwards Stefano became associated with a face, a voice, gestures.
There Must Have Been A Mistake : Matteo B. Bianchi
Schoolmates. That's what we were in the beginning. Nothing more than that. I can clearly remember his first message, though. A tourist postcard, written in that superficial postcard style and mood, but expressing friendship, nonetheless.

He was the only one to write to me that summer, the summer between the first and second year of high school. I remember I thought I would find at least one friend waiting for me at school. To tell the truth, I like to think I began falling in love with him the very moment I read his shy, polite "Greetings from ...".

When he was drafted for service eight years later -- which was actually just a few seconds ago -- I was there with him. We were out on the street waiting for a friend when we saw a guy riding a bike, a guy Stefano knew. They waved at each other and the guy said: "See you on the 30th." I guessed there must be an exam that day. But Stefano looked surprised and asked: "Are you sure?" He stopped, climbed off his bike, approached us. "I went to the Recruiting Office yesterday," he answered. Only then did I realize what they were talking about and, for a moment, I shivered with fear. I even leaned against the wall.

After a while, which seemed an eternity to me, the guy made up his mind to get on his bike and pedaled away, leaving us alone and face to face. At last.

Stefano pretended to smile at the news. "I'm happy to leave".

He was lying.

"Do you mean I'd have to travel to see you?" I asked, and he shrugged, saying "Obviously", as if it were. But nothing has ever been obvious between the two of us.

There were other journeys, other departures. I still remember the enthusiasm we felt on our first trip together. A casual lie told at home and off we went. We were sixteen.

Bellaggio. Lake Como. He chose this place because he'd spent a holiday there as a child and dreamt of returning to it. To me, where we went was of no importance. Any place would do. It was our first trip alone, and that was enough for me. After so much insistence on my part, Stefano finally consented to it. His hestitation had more to do with coming up with the courage to do it than anything else.

We reached Bellaggio in the early afternoon. We had booked a room in a hotel we'd picked out of a brochure. It was on a narrow lane not far from the lake. It was cheap because its rooms lacked a view of the lake, but, otherwise, it was ideally located -- downtown, but tucked away from the main boulevards at the same time. A hotel for lovers, I pondered.

Bellaggio at sunset looks like a 3-D postcard. Orange reflections on the water, people strolling along the shore, teenagers on skates, a handful of boats. During the trip on the bus, Stefano looked strained and silent; sitting on a bench by the edge of the lake, he was transfigured by this flight from the world, shining with complicity.

We went for a walk to look at the shops, buy a couple of postcards, hang around. We were enjoying a sudden feeling of being at peace with the entire world, a feeling that only a holiday by a lake can convey.

At night, in our small room with twin beds, close but separated by a table, we talked for hours. Then I tempted fate and climbed into his bed.

"What are you doing? Stop it!" he screamed.

I tried to make fun of it. "Beware of your virtue."

"I'm the one to say 'Beware'. And it's not a piece of advice, it's a warning. Beware, or I'll really lose my temper. Get back to your own bed!"

I snorted and obeyed.

Stefano turned off the light by clicking a button on the wall. "Goodnight."

I didn't say a word. A silence, pregnant with anger, hung over the room. "You know how difficult this is for me," he said. "The mere fact of being here means a lot to me. But my head is still a mess".

"I'm aware of it," I said.

He kept his silence for a moment, doubting that he should go on. "I love you. I swear it."

I really needed so little to be happy with him. I've always needed so little. We were in love with each other. Even if we were in love in different ways. I was sure about my nature. He was only sure he loved me. Together we looked for a compromise.

With a feeling somewhere between tenderness and narcissism, I enjoy imagining him in the Army, wondering about the times when he might have come to think of me by accident. I imagine he'd remember me when he wore the scarf I gave him. I thought that he would have been embarrassed when his comrades boasted about girlfriends. I even get clear pictures of Stefano walking through the streets of Rome, looking at shop windows, as anxious and careless as anyone trying to kill time. He would stop in front of a bookshop, huge and filled with books, and his face would brighten with surprise. He would see a book a friend of mine has written, a book I proofread. The book will be released by the time he starts to walk through Rome in uniform; discovering it in a shop window and thinking about me would be like a spontaneous recall, as if the window dresser has put up my photograph and signature with a sign that reads "think about me". The sign would be invisible to those peering over my Stefano's shoulders; the book covers would bear no special message for them.

I try to imagine his departure as well. He would take the train because trains and train stations communicate a true sense of parting. A car, an independent means of transport, allows for extensions, delays. Trains are binding: they only give you time to embrace a person and separate for good. I imagine the scene at the platform: Stefano would be carrying his rucksack, I would be holding his suitcase. The sense of parting would shadow our movements, it would stress them.

I can see our conversation easily: the usual stuff, write-to-me, call-me, some stupid jokes fished out from our common memory, almost the whole of it. Then it would be time to go. Our gestures would become more excited, we would go on making small talk until the train arrived. I imagine our fond embraces, his more distant, mine more intense, then Stefano would take the suitcase from my hands and he would board the train. He would reappear through a window only a few seconds later, to wave his last goodbye. And the train would set off. And at that moment I would take him by surprise with an unpredictable farewell: a salute. I would raise my hand to my forehead and click my heels. I am sure Stefano would laugh and say "You shit", the way people usually say I love you.

Before he leaves for Rome, we take our last holiday together. We end up at the same place of our first, brave trip: the lake, Bellaggio. This time, night has fallen when we arrive, a late November night. The lake is as black as a pool of oil and it reflects a cold halo of lamplight.

Looking for a restaurant, we walk through streets of closed and darkened shops until we find a pizzeria still open. We enter a room with neatly laid out tables and a lady welcomes us. "Take a place wherever you like" she says, as friendly and reassuring as if the season were still in high swing. We are her only customers. Our table is in a corner of the room, to the right of the entrance, as if we want to prevent our voices from scattering across the large, empty room. From a table in the opposite corner, the cook and his wife are silently staring at us. Later, we have coffee in a small pub that seems to be waiting for us. Here we must whisper, because the place is quite small and demands more discretion. The man at the bar stares at the counter absent-mindedly, resigned to having two customers around at closing time. We look out the window at the few people who walk by in a hurry. We can't make out their faces, they are nothing more than outlines floating by outside. We couldn't have chosen a sadder scene for our goodbye. It's as if this lake reflected our story, bright in times of hope, gloomy in this moment of farewell. We do nothing but think that these empty tables, these deserted streets and fleeing shadows represent the loneliness we are going to face in a few days.

At the hotel, the girl at the reception desk looks at us, surprised at seeing two guys asking for this particular reservation. She tries to find an excuse: "There must have been a mistake. We reserved a room for you with just one bed".

Stefano shakes his head. "It makes no difference", he says.

I smile at her, because it does.

Translated from Italian by Micaela Nobile with help from Trebor Healey


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