She is definitely feeling better. The worst is behind her.
With her healthy ear, she recognises Lia’s steps on the balcony’s tiles, they are heading to the photinia hedge; then a squeak, water drops, a bumblebee buzzing.
“Are you awake?”Lia’s voice comes from the left of the porch swing.
She opens her eyes then, and she turns to see her. In fact, she can even “look” at her. Better yet, she can look at her and smile, even though she thought that would no longer be possible. Before it all happened, Renata could have boasted of having cried just twice in her life: once when, as a child, she got lost during a trip to the lagoon, and the second time, as a young girl, when her father passed away. A third time came though: when she saw Lia’s bloodied face. And after that, straight after that, all the other times. When she was home.
“I woke up not that long ago,”she replies while swiping at the bumblebee which was hovering above the swing.
Things are different now: a bit more time and things between them will be like before, perhaps even better. Six days after she left the chair of Theoretical Physics to retire, Tito was hospitalised in the long-term care ward and she had to replace her days spent in the classroom, lab and study with those spent in the hospice and the oncology clinic, and just a couple of hours at night, in the kitchen with the TV news in the background.
She would walk to the hospital or take the bus; she didn’t drive. She went out in the heat of summer wearing her crocs and linen trousers, without thinking too much or expecting a lot either.
IN AN INERTIAL FRAME OF REFERENCE, AN OBJECT EITHER REMAINS AT REST OR CONTINUES TO MOVE AT A CONSTANT VELOCITY, UNLESS ACTED UPON BY A FORCE
She had enough time to prepare for widowhood: when Tito died, Renata was already used to living on her own in via San Candido. Once she didn’t have to take care of Tito at the hospital anymore, she had to deal with a sort of inertia she was neither suitable for nor adaptable to. That is how, in harmony with her practical nature, she acknowledged her discomfort and decided to deal with it rationally.
It was September, the right month to post an ad at university: she was renting out part of her house to students, preferably female students, willing to share the lower floor consisting of a bedroom with a bathroom, a small living room and a shared kitchen, no pets allowed and no parties after six.
Lia called the day after to arrange a viewing, she had seen the ad in passing at the library, she was not a student, she said, but a teacher of Latin who had just arrived and was looking for some accommodation. She moved in two days later, bringing just a few things with her and adapting herself to the living areas and their needs gracefully. She would go from one room to the other barefoot, wearing very long dresses which Renata would define as “undulating” to herself.
When she was back home from school, Lia would get changed, let her long ponytail down, appear in the kitchen barefoot, pour some crisps in a bowl and sip a glass of Merlot that she had bought at the supermarket. Renata, who had never wanted bags of crisps in her house and had never understood how one could drink a glass of wine on an empty stomach, looked at that young and sinuous body moving from the chair to the sofa, to a different chair again. She would listen to Lia chatting about what happened in class, she would look at her caressing her long hair with one hand and swinging the half-empty glass in the air with the other. Then she would open the fridge and think about what to cook for dinner while Lia was thinking out loud. Little by little, they started sharing some ingredients and even tried out new recipes.
IF A FORCE IS EXERTED upon a body which is free to move in all horizontal directions, at rest or moving with uniform velocity on a perfectly smooth surface, its speed will change.
Three weeks after Lia arrived, Renata got rid of the old grey tracksuit she wore at home, and bought a burgundy muslin ankle-length dress and replaced her sandals with a pair of green slippers.
Bit by bit, she started telling her about her research in Theoretical Physics and its application on the production of a kind of glass which is suitable for planes, about how much she was missing researching and Physics together with it. Lia talked to her about her husband Giorgio, both of their jobs and the work that kept them apart, but only for one year as she was going to ask for a transfer as soon as possible, at least that was what she was hoping.
Then the accident happened, Renata thinks, swatting the bee which was now on the swing’s armrest.
Five months have passed by since then.
That night, she and Lia were supposed to go out for dinner: no new recipes to try that Sunday night but a nice restaurant which had just opened in the old square.
Lia walked down the corridor with her scarf around her neck, her coat and a blue shoulder bag.
“I want to eat nice food, I will treat you tonight,”Renata said.
They walked the short distance between their place and the restaurant. Renata was wearing her light overcoat and the green felt hat that she kept for special occasions, the one Tito had bought her for Christmas many years before. Lia was wearing her jeans under her coat, her hair was up but was escaping her ribbon, falling down around her ears and scarf.
The air was fresh. They crossed the old square. The impure white of the marble floor, the violets in the flowerbeds, the iron lampposts, the fountain: they look like a drawing, Renata thought. She was holding Lia’s arm under hers and felt happy about being out in town with that tall creature and taking her out for a fancy dinner that she would have been unable to cook.
They got into the crowded restaurant and a waiter with a goatee sat them near a stained-glass window overlooking the violets in the flowerbeds. Renata wanted to taste the “cacio e pepe spaghetti” with scampi and the amberjack fillet with a pea cream while Lia went for the pine and raisin guinea fowl salad and quail eggs: she hated fish. They ate with good appetite, Renata ordered a bottle of Merlot and a Vernaccia. After they finished the wild berry mousse, the waiter came to their table and took away the two empty bottles. Lia ordered a coffee and Renata asked for the bill.
While she was fixing her hair walking to the till, she realised that the waiter was staring at her and clearing the table at the same time. Renata was facing away from him: she was feeling euphoric and light while she was complementing the lady at the till about the good food, the excellent wine and the refinement of the restaurant. She couldn’t help smiling while talking and putting her wallet back into her coat pocket. She kept smiling while she was opening the door of the restaurant and stumbled upon a curb. Lia took her arm and put it under hers, guiding her along the pavement.
A fresh wind arose, and Renata pulled her collar up. “How about we try out another place?” she asked.
“We’re already drunk,” Lia replied.
“I feel I need something with alcohol to digest. Aren’t you doing up your coat?”
“I’d like to go back home,” she said without answering.
“If I had asked for a glass of amaro from that waiter, believe me, he would have thought I was a drunkard.”
“You don’t look like one.”
“Really?” Renata asked.
“But we’d better go home.”
“There is a place near here, my students used to go there. I’ve heard lots about it but I’ve never been.”
“Is it far?”
“Not really. We’ll get there in ten minutes. It’s behind the cathedral.”
“And where is the cathedral?”
“It’s ten minutes from here,” and she burst out laughing.
Lia sighed. “I don’t want to go home late.”
And so, they started walking there.
It was just past eleven and the streets of the quarter were already ready for the night ahead: the first few binmen, a few couples out, no bikes.
They went into a pub where it was quite hot. They found seats at a chipped-wood table, Renata had a look at the drinks list on a greasy hardcover menu and chose a Caruso while Lia ordered a Martini. “This is on me,” Renata said. Lia looked at her and said: “You really don’t need to.” Then Renata asked for a Daiquiri and for Lia a mineral water. They spent five minutes saying nothing. Renata was observing the place, the debatable paintings, the ‘80s counter, the recessed lights on the ceiling, and while she was humming the background music, Lia was checking her phone.
When they left, the cathedral’s bells were chiming midnight.
“It is really late, Giorgio wanted to chat with me on the phone,” Lia commented, walking fast.
She stopped then. All of a sudden, two men came out of a parked car and stood in front of them. Renata looked at them and got the giggles. The two men stared at them swinging their arms: a non-uniform circular motion on an unequal arc, Renata thought, struggling hard not to laugh.
They were patting each other’s shoulders and managed to prevent their passage by doing so. They noticed that Renata was laughing.
“What are you giggling at, you old fool?” one of them said.
After looking at Lia, the taller guy lifted the edge of her scarf, pushed her face against his, saying something, trying to rip her purse off her shoulder. Lia shouted.
Renata tried to make them out but, right there and then, she couldn’t see them properly. It took her a while to see that one of them was young and had acne and the other one had a beard. As she later told the police, she thought that the one with acne was wearing a denim jacket and had long hair. The tall guy with a beard took something out of his coat with one hand and with the other, was holding on to Lia’s scarf. When he grabbed her neck, Renata saw the knife. What happened after that was very quick.
Lia was on the ground while the young man with acne was shouting something. Then they both ran away past the car, across the street. Renata felt the warmth along her leg, in her trousers, socks, shoes. She heard voices while staring at Lia who was lying on the ground with her face covered in blood. She felt a knot coming up in her throat and burst out crying.
Then the ambulance came, a passer-by called her a taxi, somebody else gave her the blue purse. She was taken to the emergency room.
A facial surgeon shook her hand in a waiting room under a blinking neon light. He explained to her that he could not share information about Lia’s state with her because she wasn’t a family member, but could she take care of informing her relatives? Renata looked for Lia’s phone in the blue purse. While Lia was being brought to the operating room on the ground floor, Renata found her husband’s number. He arrived two hours later plodding along in his green cloak that the recent rain had turned a bit shiny.
Giorgio plumped down on a chair outside the corridor. He was staring at the base of the wall in front of him, locked in the silence of one who is trying to put the pieces of a puzzle which has erupted back together, without knowing where to find them. Renata recognised in him the gentle gaze that the best researchers have, those able to gloss over elements and phenomena with the soft gesture of a hand on velvet and the exact aim of a raptor. He would have been able to find all the pieces of the puzzle.
She saw him undoing his cloak; he was wearing a wrinkly plaid shirt and a fountain pen was emerging from a pocket.
A nurse approached him and told him his wife was about to come out of the operating room and he could go and see her on the ground floor. Renata followed him and introduced herself to him. Once in front of the operating room’s automatic door, he looked at her, held her hand and then hid his face.
Lia came out of surgery on a bed from which an IV was hanging, her face wrapped up in bandages.
She had another surgery six hours later; there were concerns that the bacterial infection could spread. The surgeon approached him again and said he hoped that would be enough.
It was enough.
Renata saw her friend again two days later in the single room on the ward. She had lost her left ear and was striving to smile.
Giorgio stayed at Renata’s, in his wife’s room. During the following week, he was coming and going to and from the hospital. Renata started to think that he was avoiding her on purpose, leaving and coming back at odd times.
She tried to observe the situation closely: she perceived the way he would greet her avoiding eye contact, asking her or telling her anything related to Lia.
She soon became convinced that he was mad at her because he considered her responsible for the aggression. Renata would hide away in her room, or in the bathroom, and burst into tears.
One night, having heard him coming back from the hospital, she stopped him and offered to make dinner for him. He accepted the offer and Renata discovered a man who would always thank her, say “excuse me” and gently close the door holding the handle. They chatted about university and research. He was a linguist, the chair of the German Philology department and he oversaw a research project between Milan and Volda, in Norway.
When he had to leave, he asked Renata if she could take care of Lia.
For her part, Lia was responding well to the treatment and would obediently stick to the doctors’ orders. She was released quickly. She was always very polite, and to the two colleagues that had visited her once she was back home, she said that Renata had been brave and quick, that she had been and still was essential. Renata had prepared tea and a lemon tart, the only thing she could get right. One of the two colleagues, a small woman that reminded Renata of a turtle, complained all the time about her back and neck pain which prevented her from climbing the stairs to the classroom, carrying the weight of books. The other one, a young lady with dark eyes and hair, came in holding a helmet in her hand which she left on the kitchen floor. She immediately seemed bored by her colleague talking. Renata listened and smiled without talking: she was afraid of annoying Lia, who might have thought she was intrusive. She observed how she was chatting with the two women and felt excluded. Like a foreign element. She understood she was right when she realised that, throughout the whole visit, Lia had never talked to her.
That night, she locked herself in the bathroom and cried for twenty minutes.
While the police investigations were taking place, Lia was getting better and Renata’s state of health was getting worse.
She started having panic attacks, anxiety and headaches. She would cry every day, struggled to sleep at night and, when she did manage to sleep, had nightmares.
Little by little, Lia started to move around the house without feeling dizzy and her prior appearance returned almost completely, she would just let her hair down the sides of her face so as to hide the stump sticking out of the plasters. She never stopped thanking her for her help and patience. She would stand up and walk barefoot around the sofa to show her that she had recovered by then, and it was thanks to the time she had devoted to her.
The better Lia was feeling, the worse she was getting.
She kept receiving visits from Lia’s two colleagues who would bring bunches of flowers and sweets. She would sit at the table with them, a foreign body with proper motion, and she would quietly listen to them talking.
She started suffering from sleepwalking. She happened to wake up abruptly and find herself in the middle of the living room or in the bathroom, in front of the bathtub. When she went back to sleep, she would dream of blades cutting through her arms, shoulders, neck and then her ears, from which black blood would spout.
She became convinced that Lia secretly hated her because of that night’s aggression. The kindness, the gratitude, they were just a mask to hide her real feelings.
Little by little, she started taking care of Lia less and less. She started studying her own movements, arrange the words to use in their conversations, planning their moments together. She started going downstairs to Lia’s room less frequently and avoiding the kitchen when she was there.
She imagined blades hidden in between the sofa’s cushions, the sheets, in the drawer where the tablecloth was, among the oven gloves in the kitchen, sharp blades with no handle, pointing upwards, so that she would have inevitably been cut. Every time she opened a drawer or sat on the sofa, she would move everything with her fingertips.
One morning they bumped into each other in front of the cooker and she calculated how many steps Lia was from the drawer with knives and how much time it would take her to get to the door. While she was doing the maths, Lia sat on the small sofa and, bringing her knees to her chest, she started singing.
It was a warning.
The next time she wouldn’t have been so unprepared, exposed to emotionality.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction
Almost a month had gone by. If she was to take stock, their relationship had become quite strong, almost inevitable. Lia personally takes care of medications, prepares meals and keeps an eye on the house.
Thanks to Lia’s assistance, Renata is recovering quite quickly. While she watches her moving around barefoot on the balcony, turning off the water for the hose and collecting the photinia’s wet leaves in the soil, Renata thinks that she will soon be able to forget the acute pain and the dark red blood in the sink after she chopped her right ear off.