After lunch, my grandmother always insisted we go take a nap. I would stretch out on the little bed with my eyes closed and as soon as her breathing slowed, I’d go downstairs and straight out the sea door. There was never anyone around. The road and the beach were empty, and the town seemed to be sleeping too. Occasionally the desolate cry of a seagull echoed across the water, frightening me.
One day, as I was walking toward the beach, I spotted the man with salt-and-pepper hair again: he was sitting on the sand, in the shade, leaning against a boat.
It was the second time I’d run into him, although I’d often seen the tall lady who enjoyed chatting with my grandmother.
“At last,” said the man. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Once again, I had a flash of fear, and perhaps he realized it: he smiled at me and stood up with the energy of a boy. He was muscular, his skin was dark brown and leathery, only his cheekbones were scritchscratched with fine white wrinkles.
“You want to go swimming?” he asked, and kept smiling. I was surprised. I said nothing, and stood there, befuddled, looking at my bare feet, the sand, my hands, the sea, and the sky.
“Your eyes are wandering around like an out-of-town cat. What’s wrong? Don’t you like the idea?” I couldn’t bring myself to answer him or look him in the eye.
Finally the man grew impatient. “I’ve been watching you from a distance over the past few days: you didn’t strike me as such a ciòto—such a donkey. Do you want to go swimming, yes or no?”
I nodded, lowering my head just slightly.
“Then come on,” he ordered.
I followed him into the water cautiously until waves were lapping around my chest.
He began swimming with strong regular strokes. When he noticed I wasn’t following him, he swam back.
“Don’t tell me you can’t swim?!” he laughed.
“Of course I know how to swim! I learned at the Bosco del Canale,” I answered firmly.
“Ah, the young man can talk,” he observed wryly. “Let’s find out right away if you know how to swim.”
He grabbed me by my legs and my neck, and with surprising strength tossed me straight up into the air.
I fell back into the water with a stunning thump. I didn’t even have time to be frightened: the sea swallowed me up with a gulp. I hit bottom with my back and bounced back up to the water’s surface like a soccer ball.
The man picked me up by the armpits and threw me back into the water; as I surfaced, he shoved my head back under. I started gasping, swallowing salt water, but he wouldn’t stop.
Down, he ordered me, get your head down, move your arms and legs, and he laughed maniacally.
Finally, I had a flash of clarity, and I found the strength to start moving my arms and legs.
That’s it, there you go, he shouted, keep your head underwater. But I wriggled away from him like a sardine pursued by a shark. I didn’t trust him anymore, and I was afraid.
I reached shore; I collapsed on the sand.
I was exhausted, my legs were still trembling, and suddenly I felt happy.
The man walked past me, close by, and said, seriously: “I’ll wait for you tomorrow, outside the sea door, same time.” He added: “You have a lot to learn. But go back to your grandmother now. If she wakes up and you aren’t there, she’ll worry.”
I crept soundlessly back into the bedroom.
My grandmother was still sleeping in a corner of the bed, her hair loose on the pillow, whiter and curled up tighter than Spertina.
From the following afternoon on, while the town and my grandmother were sleeping, the man waited outside the sea door and together we went swimming.
At times, between swims, I’d look sidelong at him, trying not to be noticed. But he noticed. “What’s that look? Why don’t you swim, instead of looking at me like a blockhead?” he’d say. Or: “Snap out of it and swim.” He didn’t talk much, and he wasn’t very likable, but as a swimming teacher I thought he was perfect: patient, a perfectionist, and self-confident.
I felt like asking him if he still remembered my father and Spertina, or if he remembered the time we had met at Varchijuso and the secret. But his taciturn nature and, of course, the fear that I’d mistaken him for someone else were more powerful than my curiosity. Who could say, maybe one day he’d talk to me about it of his own accord. In the meantime, I had to learn to swim. I’d make quite an impression with my buddies at the Bosco del Canale.
After a week, I was capable of swimming with my head just breaking the surface of the water, that is, like a dog, as the man told me mockingly; I knew how to float on my back, leap into the water from the rocks, and swim underwater with my eyes open.
In the mornings I submitted to the sand baths without complaints and, when I was finally released from my sand oven, I refrained from engaging in the pointless battles with my grandmother. I knew that the sea would be waiting for me later, in the early afternoon, and I enjoyed the moving, heartbreaking stories my grandmother told, her mysterious melodies, “se këtù jemi një karvel’e huar, se jeta e bukur ësht atjé.” Because we’re just a borrowed loaf of bread, because the good life is over there. Over there in France, I thought. Where, if not there? My grandmother didn’t say. In France, where my father lived.
One day, while I was baking in my tomb of sand, Elisa came to pay us a visit with her girlfriend.
When they saw me buried in the sand, they both burst out laughing and started scratching my nose and shaping my sweaty hair into a roosters comb.
“I see you’re enjoying yourself,” Elisa said mockingly.
“Please, tell Grandma to let me go in the water,” I begged her. Deep inside though, I was secretly laughing.
My grandmother butted in: “Even if the Lord above tells me to let you, you’re not going in the water!”
“I’m sorry, Marco. If Grandma doesn’t want to let you swim, I couldn’t convince her if I had a loaded cannon. I know her too well.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to let you, it’s the doctors,” my grandmother pointed out, raising her voice.
“All right, Grandma, don’t get worked up. I’m going in the water.”
And I saw her run down the beach with her girlfriend and dive into the waves.
When they got back, my grandmother was brushing sand off my shoulders with a towel.
“Here, let me,” Elisa said to her. She took the towel and began to clean me off carefully, not just the shoulders, but the whole body, even picking grains of sand out of my scalp. At last, when she saw that my grandmother was chatting with her new friend, she said softly: “You’re a clever little devil. You whine that Grandma won’t let you go in the water, and then, when she’s taking her afternoon nap, you’re splashing in the water like a fish. You’ve learned to swim better than me.”
I didn’t try to deny it. How could I?
“Who told you?” I asked her.
“A little birdy,” she said, and just before heading back to Hora, she launched a zingatella at me, winking like a sweetheart.
“Ciao,” she said. “Shihemi te Hora, see you back home.”
“Say hi to Mamma, La Piccola, and Spertina,” I said, more out of duty than anything else. I really didn’t miss them at all. My eyes and my mind were focused on the sea, and nothing else.
On the last day of our vacation I was sad and listless.
“Don’t make that faccia ciotìsca—that long donkey face. Next year, you’ll come back, and I’ll teach you to fish,” the man said, and threw me in the water.
I swam for a long time to get the lump out of my throat, but it didn’t work. I dove off the rocks over and over again until I was tired. Then, while I was floating on my back, resting, I looked over at the beach and saw my grandmother. She was running down toward the water, her shoes sinking into the sand, making her way through the blinding wall of sunlight of early afternoon. She was calling my name, and yelling for help, “Help! Help! My boy, Marco, Kristhi jim i bekuar, help!” She was sure I was drowning.
I swam hastily to shore.
My grandmother was panting, her voice was quavering: “You come here right now, you miserable wretch, let me dry you off! What were you doing in the water, eh? You gave me the death-sweats, you crumb-bum! You know you could have drowned?”
I felt like a thief caught red-handed, I didn’t know what to say to her. I finally said: “Grandma, don’t be afraid. You saw it: I’m a good swimmer. He taught me.” And I turned to point at the man with the salt-and-pepper hair.
The beach was empty. Far, far out to sea, a solitary silver head glistened in the light.
From The Homecoming Party. Copyright 2004 by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore. Translation copyright 2009 by Europa Editions. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.