by Stephen Grindrod
He places his glass precisely back down on the ring of water formed on the table and straightens his already straight cutlery for the second time this evening. Dinner is at the outside tables at Biffi’s in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the daylight now extinguished above the great glass ceiling.
“I stopped off at the Cova before you finished work,” he says as he slides a neatly wrapped ornate box of chocolates across the table to Sara who, sitting back in her chair, receives the gift with an outstretched arm, quietly expressing her gratitude and how he “shouldn’t have”, before going back to holding her arms taciturnly.
The resplendent cracked mosaic floor of the Galleria reflects the arched iron and glass roof while commuters, shoppers and tourists pass by, fragile travelling coincidences who share the same frail fleeting moment of time and space only for an instant. He adjusts his rolled up sleeves, shuffles in his chair, his legs constantly jigging. This is the final night of his weeklong trip to visit Sara; he never thought that a long-distance relationship could feasibly work but up to now things have been going well. She has shown him some of the sights of the city and he has followed, observed, and even done a little tentative exploring himself during the day while she has been at work.
Sitting under the vaulted arcade, Sara wonders what it would be like if all of the panels above were to shatter and fall right now. She often imagines disaster scenarios: plane crashes every time she flies, gunmen bursting into her classroom and opening fire on her students, terrorist attacks in the city. Would the shards simply shower down, coating her in a frosty rime? Or would they penetrate the skin? Would it kill her or just leave her wounded?
She fingers her glass and wonders how much pressure she would have to apply for the stem to snap. While he drinks his beer she stares at the network of fissures and acne scars like constellations across his face, the cracked skin indented and scabbed in places from years of ignoring his mother’s and other’s pleas to ‘leave your face alone’ in a futile attempt to rid his appearance of all blemishes completely. Sara is not concerned by this; he has a nice appearance. His face isn’t the problem.
Placing his glass down again on the circular pool on the table, he neatens his napkin once more and tidies his hair out of his eyes. “I’ve had a really nice week. It’s a shame about the weather today – it’s been perfect till now. I loved San Siro.”
Their meals arrive, his the fégato alla salvia, hers the carbonara, and the conversation once again lulls; since they sat down their words have been stilted, splintered. As usual, the poorly-constructed sentences tumble from his mouth before reaching the inevitable pause, the moment when he can no longer articulate what he is feeling, or perhaps realises that what he is saying is gibberish. She doesn’t hold it against him; real conversations are hard and these ramblings of his serve only to break the silences caused by her reluctance to engage. The irony is that they both despise small talk. His philosophy is that when two people can sit in silence with one another and not feel awkward, they are truly at ease. But his idea of togetherness has now receded into a shared isolation, all of their discussions now descend into fragments of mundane, trivial pleasantries – two people with nothing more to talk about.
They tuck into their meals and each mouthful that Sara chews, swallows and digests only adds to the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach because she knows what she must do.
Earlier in the day, a low fog had hung over the square where they had met after Sara had clocked off at the academy. They asked about one another’s afternoons in the shade of the endless spires that stretched up to the sky, piercing the firmament above. Statues of the large stone Gothic cathedral loomed over them, solemnly frowning upon the remains of the day. It looked like rain as they lingered in the shadows of the stone buttresses of the soaring Duomo, gleaming anew in the grey light. The piazza was devoid of life, unusual for this time in the evening, perhaps owing to the encroaching gloom.
Sara gazed heavenwards, taking in the resplendent white marble edifice that peered down at her, as if casting judgement with its overwhelming, brooding façade. “It’s beautiful, but it always scares me.” She shuddered, sidestepping closer to him, a fear instilled in her from the first time she entered and in the dim sepulchral light read the black letters inscribed over a Confessional: ‘God hears thee!’
He quietly reassured her but he didn’t really understand her fear. He put his arm around her and she winced slightly. She knew he was fragile too and sometimes projected it on to her, all of which made what she felt she must do so much harder.
The pair ducked down a narrow side street where all the windows were lighted. They passed a shop specialising in leather goods, a cheese store and an antique shop. In the casements of the latter were arranged various trinkets.
“Have you ever heard of kintsugi?” Sara asked, rupturing the silence they had allowed to flourish between them. He said he hadn’t and she pointed at a green vase that bore a web of fractures. “They do it in Japan. It’s a tradition of mending broken pots, putting them back together with lacquer, dusted with gold and silver powder. It creates these intricate, unique patterns that are created through the brokenness. Some of these are quite beautiful.”
He glanced over a blue vase. “It must take a lot of patience to piece all of those tiny fragments back together.”
“It’s supposed to be therapeutic – repairing breakages, fixing something that’s broken.” Sara moved towards a white pitcher that had caught her attention. “I guess it’s a reminder that imperfections are ok. Look at that one – you can hardly see the cracks at all.”
He studied the pitcher, looking closely. To his eyes, there were no visible cracks whatsoever. “Yeah,” he sighed, “but I still know they’re there.”
“Well, everything ends at some point,” she said vacantly, countering his cynicism. “I guess all pots and jugs will get smashed one day. Today, in a hundred years, at the end of time. They’ll all be in tiny little pieces.” This juncture was brought to a close and they left the window, continuing their circuit back towards the main square.
To others, she was fun and he was funny. They had met five years earlier through their respective circles of friends overlapping, both hailing from the same hometown but from slightly different parts of the Venn diagram. Alcohol fuelled the early years of their friendship, concrete evidence captured in the days when people took a separate camera and phone with them on a night out. Yet throughout the drunken dazes and hazy hungover Sundays, they found that they could always rely on one another. They slipped into a co-dependency, no matter what else was going on around them, and each was the other’s back-up plan: they agreed one night that if they were both still single by the time they were thirty, they would marry one another. Such a half-hearted commitment should have been the first indication of trouble, but there were other telling signs long before that. Sara was very rarely unattached, usually in a different relationship every few months as she meandered her way through a myriad of semi-interesting men that she knew would never be long-term, while he was a hopeless romantic and an unsuccessful one at that, naively believing in true love, the idea of the one, often falling in love with the idea of a person rather than the person themselves as real life played out an alternate moving picture from the scenes he rehearsed and directed in his head. And then, shortly before last Christmas, she was drunk on a night where he had offered to drive and, having given her a lift home, she leaned in to kiss him outside of her house. She had almost aborted the move but saw it through. In bed that night they had professed how for a couple of years the spark had been there only for circumstances to keep them apart – mainly the fact that he lived in England while she taught English in Italy. However, before she returned south following the holiday season, for ten days they were inseparable, glued together and impossible to prise apart.
Her friends had often talked about how the two of them would get together eventually, when the planets finally aligned, the pieces falling into place. Turns out, God had other plans. His friends had been less encouraging, mainly because they fancied a crack at Sara themselves. Some had succeeded, and a part of him had always been cautious, doubtful of the relationship because of this. If she was the one, could he get over the fact that she had been with so many other people compared to him? She was so much more experienced than he was, but he tried to ignore his own ignorance and immaturity. Unaware of these insecurities, that he struggled to get over basic facts of life, Sara had taken control of the experiment, advancing friendship to relationship. This week however had resembled a snapshot of what the ensuing years might be like: two tired actors passively playing the same parts for too long, typecast. She increasingly felt that she had just conformed to the role that others had expected of her. She knew he wasn’t like the others, bragging about conquests and carving notches on bedposts. Love wasn’t a thunderbolt in this instance – it had been crafted over time through friendship, familiarity and reliability. He represented comfort, loyalty and stability; a friendly face – someone to settle down with following years on a carousel of men who were hopelessly wrong for her. But that’s what it felt like: settling. As the week wore on, Sara had gradually found herself in a state of perpetual ennui.
“Are you ok?” He had asked her this question around fourteen times a day this week and each time was like a hammer blow to her skull. She was never sure what reaction he wanted other than an affirmative response. Even when things were going well and nothing was wrong, she could be sure he would still ask her that same question. Maybe he was being paranoid, looking for reassurance because he had doubts too. Perhaps he was in pursuit of perfection, trying to control her. It could just be that he was being nice, caring. He was, however, deluded if after this week he still thought that things were OK between them. Subtlety was not her forte.
This time he asked, as they traversed back into the misty piazza towards the effervescent windows of the Galleria, she just swallowed and nodded in response, unable to verbalise her lies anymore.
Adjusting her legs, she accidentally kicks the table, knocking the cutlery slightly askew, marginally out of line. She apologises and he once again arranges all of his pieces into position. The tables around them have begun to empty and the Galleria is now quiet for the evening.
“It’s a good job there was a break in the weather this afternoon. I mean, it was still grey but at least the sky didn’t crack open and pour down like this morning.” Overhead it is black and there is no telling what the heavens are concocting now. “Lucky, I guess.”
“I think we should stop seeing each other.”
Her voice is louder, more confident than she thought it would be. The sentence lingers in the air, untouched for several seconds, a frozen lake. The air grows heavy, as though the surface is about to break but she feels as though she has already plunged underwater; all sound seems distant and faraway, distorted.
His silence, like the surface of a pond, compels her to continue: “I think we should go back to being friends.” She knows that he will not take this well and she knows that he will not realise how hard this is for her to do because she really does care about him. She knows that she will be cast as the villain.
“But I thought things were fine” he manages to say, his voice on the edge of catastrophe.
“Look, I am genuinely really sorry that it’s turned out this way” she starts. “I really didn’t think it was going to be like this. I’ve been thinking this all week and the reason I haven’t said anything until now is because I didn’t want it to be over so easily. I kept expecting myself to snap out of it, but this week, living in each other’s pockets, it’s not what I want.” She knows that this response will not placate him; she cannot give him the definite answers he needs. “I really don’t want to hurt you, but I just think things were nicer between us when we were friends.”
The ice cracks beneath him; the pain is etched on his face. “We were never friends. There’s no going back. There was always something between us. We were never ‘just’ friends.”
Not knowing where to look, he reaches for his water glass and, in his haste, knocks it over. The fall doesn’t seem as though it would be enough to break it, but it does; a large, sharp shard like a shark’s tooth lies separated from the rest. He cusses and clumsily tries to clear the spillage, cutting his thumb in the process. A small crimson bulb begins to swell.
“I have a plaster – here, have my napkin. It’s clean.” She calmly takes his hand and gently wraps his thumb in the linen serviette, applying pressure firmly but tenderly. With her other hand, she finds a plaster in her bag. A waiter appears and wipes their table, removes the fragments. She surveys the damage, his hand still in hers – the cut is smaller than it first appeared. Once the bleeding has stemmed she fixes the plaster over the cut. He thanks her. They finish their drinks in silence, split the bill, gather their jackets and leave the Galleria.
He endures the awkward humiliation of collecting his belongings from her apartment before catching the bus to the airport in Bergamo. Before leaving, he stands in her doorway and tries to think of what he can say to make her change her mind. He knows this moment is crucial, but his words fail him. Deep down, he knows the game is up.
“I’m glad that we tried” she says through a cracked voice.
He reluctantly gives a watery smile and kisses her on the cheek and leaves. The door closes. She exhales.