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from the June 2019 issue

The Lost Language of Crane Operators

An anxious college student falls for a blue-collar man in Matteo Bianchi’s short story.
 

La stagione dell’amore viene e va  
all’improvviso, senza accorgerti 
la vivrai, ti sorprenderà.

Love’s season comes and goes
until suddenly you realize
to your surprise, it is your life.
—Franco Battiato

The absurd heat of a May afternoon insinuates itself through my bedroom window to the accompaniment of Electronic’s mongrel mix of guitar and keyboards. I’m studying for my last exam—the last of my university career—and I’m so immersed in the pages of Dynamic Psychology II that I don’t hear the door open. When I finally become aware that my father is standing beside my desk, it’s all I can do not to have a stroke. 

“Don’t you knock?”

“I did knock, but with all this noise . . .” He shoots a look over my shoulders to the stereo speakers beyond. For the record, the volume is at a perfectly acceptable level.

But my dad’s not one to argue. He quickly abandons the subject of the music and comes to the real reason he’s here: “I ran into Valeria in town. She asked me if you want to be a poll worker again this year.”

Valeria works in our town’s Hall of Records. This business of working at the polls is strange. My friends in Milan or Pavia have to sign up on a list months in advance in the hope of being chosen. But there are never enough volunteers in our town, and the municipal clerks search until the very last moment to find willing bodies. They even come to your house to ask whether you would mind serving.

They don’t have to work hard to convince me. The first time I worked the polls, I did it solely for the few bucks I earned, but I had such a good time that I started to enjoy it. Since then, I work at all the elections—national, regional, referendums, whatever comes along.

To be honest, my interest is purely sociological. I adore the position of privileged observer that the microcosm of a polling place offers. I find myself dealing with people who, in most cases, I'd never meet. And if I weren’t here, I’d never have any other chance to speak to them either.

In a certain sense, finding the self-confidence to deal with all these strangers is something I have to force out of myself, but in the end I’m rather pleased with the effort.

I think experiences like working at the polls make me feel more like a true citizen of Lentate. Sometimes, watching the couples or the old people who come in alone to vote, I realize how many of the faces are familiar to me, and the sensation I experience is intense, almost a kind of yearning: the recognition of how deeply I am attached to this town, to this community.

But to get back to my father’s question, the answer is: “Yes.”

***

In our town, voting takes place in a prefab building at the elementary school. Inside the classroom, long tables have been arranged into a horseshoe shape, and the poll workers organize themselves in pairs along the three sides.

In the center, nearly hidden behind the cardboard ballot boxes, sit the precinct director and the secretary.

The precinct director is around forty-five, with a well-clipped beard and tortoiseshell glasses. He’s a kind and formal man who runs through all the rules for the operation of the polling place out loud, as if hoping to acquaint us with his duties and his responsibilities or perhaps, more simply, because the protocol of the situation requires it. He’s a fervent Catholic, and his family seems to be just about his only subject: his wife’s cooking, the computer he’s just bought to help his oldest daughter with her homework, the vacation they’re planning, all the reservations already made, at a hotel in Riccione which, it hardly needs to be said, is a family-run business.

The young man who acts as secretary is one of those monosyllabic professional types. He writes incessantly in the voter registry, carefully copying names and other data into the official records. He has long, soft hair that falls over his forehead, covering his eyes, and though he’s wearing ordinary cotton pants today, I get the impression that he usually goes around in raggedy jeans, which he’s changed for this occasion. He’s an intimidated rebel who leaves every now and then to smoke a cigarette or have a beer in secret.

The other workers include a middle-aged woman and a girl who is working at the polls for the very first time. Her name is Marta, and unlike the secretary, she never shuts up. She’s so worried about making a mistake that she asks questions about literally everything, even about which pen she should use to sign the registry.

And then there is Roberto, who sits next to me. Roberto is slightly younger than I am, and he’s also a student at the University of Pavia. Best of all, he’s gay, though I found that out somewhat by accident: a friend had a brief fling with him. One morning, when I ran into Roberto in the hallway of our department, I invited him to breakfast. While we were waiting for our scalding coffee to cool, we talked. 

To tell the truth, Roberto only said two things: “Word gets around, doesn’t it,” and then, lowering his eyes, “I thought I was the only one in Lentate.” His innocence made me laugh, and I drew him a slightly more realistic picture of the way things stood. From that moment, our relationship was solid—more than friends, in fact, we’re brothers and fellow travelers.

Today, too, as we verify the names of the voters on the precinct lists, we can’t help but exchange conspiratorial glances whenever an especially noteworthy voter comes through the door.

***

It’ll be summer again in a month, but you couldn’t exactly say that this year has flown by. On the contrary. In fact, it’s been glacial, elephantine, exhausting.

And in the meantime, I’ve witnessed a veritable diaspora. Swarms of friends seem to be in motion, finding new places to live, leaving the country. I’m usually the first to say that change is a fundamental condition of human life, but I may be the only one who hasn’t budged an inch. Alberto left his family to move into the city. Marco met an American and fell in love, following him to New York. Claudio, literally overnight, decided that he wanted to go to London (to dance his nights away under the disco balls, to be precise), and then he did exactly that. Chiara, my sister’s best friend, followed an Italian family to Boston to work as their babysitter, but then wound up going to Brazil to get married. I feel like a prime example of small-town inertia.

***

We’ve come up with a plan for organizing ourselves into shifts for dinner. When I get back to the polling place from my break, I tell Marta it’s her turn.

“No, I’m not going to eat now,” she says. “I’m waiting for my boyfriend and I’ll have supper with him after we close up.”

The woman sitting next to her immediately wants to know more.

“Oh, you’re engaged? And what’s his name? Is he from Lentate? Maybe I know him . . .”

And so, without especially wanting to, we all learn that her fiancé’s name is Franco, that he’s thirty-two, that he lives in town, and that he works as a lawyer in Milan.

The marriage question sparks a good twenty minutes of lively discussion. Naturally, she doesn’t miss the chance to interrogate me (“No, I’m not engaged”) and Roberto (“Me, either.”). My answer is honest, but Roberto’s isn’t. He’s been with another student from the university for more than a year, but that’s probably not what the woman meant when she asked.

And then, speak of the Devil, the lawyer himself appears in the door of the polling place.

Marta runs over to give him a hug and then she introduces him to us. Polite as he can be, the lawyer makes the whole circuit, shaking each hand in turn: Nice to meet you, nice to meet you. And then, so as not to interfere with our work, he goes off to sit quietly by himself in a corner. It’s a silly thing to worry about because it’s 9:30 in the evening, and we’re certainly not going to see any more voters tonight. 

I lose myself again in my book, though I get the sense, every time I look up, that the lawyer is staring at me.

Finally, he catches my eye.

“What are you reading?” he asks.

I hold the book out to him. It’s Patty Diphusa by Almodóvar.

“Oh, it’s wonderful. I just finished it myself.”

A light goes off in my head. “You like Almodóvar?”

“Crazy for him. I’ve seen all his films.”

I leave my book on the table and tell the others we’re going outside for a few minutes to talk. My colleagues nod with a certain indifference. They’re already looking forward to making their escape for the evening.

The hallways are crowded with poll workers from the other precincts, all of them bored to tears, smoking and chatting in the hope of hurrying this final, endless half hour to its conclusion.

The lawyer doesn’t look anything like a lawyer. You’d almost be more inclined to say that he worked in a butcher shop: pleasant, agreeable face; blond curls; large hands. Only his serious clothes give the impression that he’s a professional businessman. I don’t own a suit that nice even for going to weddings.

“What else do you like?” I ask him, getting back to the subject of our interrupted conversation.

“What books, do you mean? Wow, all different kinds. Have you read David Leavitt?”

“Yes.”

“Well, him I like a lot. And what else . . .  let me see what else I’ve read lately . . . Aldo Busi, The Swimming Pool LibraryThe Kiss of the Spider Woman, and one by Duras, wait . . . what is it called? Blue Eyes . . . no, something about eyes . . .”

Blue Eyes, Black Hair,” I say, slightly surprised. That’s not a reading list; it’s a queer-studies seminar.

The lawyer smiles.

At this point, I want to be clear about what’s going on. “Am I wrong, or are you trying to tell me something?” I ask.

“You’re not wrong. What are you doing later?”

I shake my head, astounded. “I’m not sure what I’m doing, but I do know what you’re doing. Marta says the two of you are going out to supper tonight.”

“Marta’s tired, she’ll go right to bed. But you and I could go get a drink, have a chance to talk a little more freely.” 

I’m speechless. Through the doorway of the polling place I see Marta waving at us, delighted that her lawyer and I are making friends.

He ignores her. Instead, he nods toward Roberto and whispers in my ear, “I see we’re in good company.”

“And I see that you’re very well informed. Any other revelations, while you’re at it?”

The lawyer nods slyly. “Um-hmm.” 

Completely incredulous, I wait to hear what’s coming next.

“Our good precinct director is that man with the beard and the glasses?”

“The precinct director is married and has two little girls.”

“Right, and every night at six, before he comes home from the office, he goes off to kill a few hours in the airport parking lot.”

“I can’t believe that.”

“I’ve run into him there a bunch of times. If you think I’m wrong, take a look at his face right now. He knows we’re talking about him.”

He’s right. The precinct director is white as a sheet. The moment my eyes meet his, he averts his gaze and starts rubbing his hands together nervously.

“But how in the world do you know all this?”

The lawyer shrugs his shoulders and arranges his face into a noncommittal expression, suggesting that he knows a lot more than he’s telling, that our conversation to this point has been nothing more than a rather skimpy appetizer. 

“We should probably talk about this when things are a little less hectic, hmm?” 

He’s shameless, but I’m curious enough to want to see where the conversation goes. We decide to meet in an hour in the café on the piazza, and then I go back in and take my place. When Roberto catches my eye, I gesture toward the president and announce, “We’ve reached a quorum.”

Roberto bursts out laughing. The president stares at his hands. His dirty hands.

***

As promised, the lawyer is right on time to pick me up at the café. He has an enormous car, just what you’d expect from a businessman who’s doing well for himself. And he doesn’t worry much about maintaining the fiction that we’re going out for a drink: Taking advantage of the darkness, he reaches out and tries to pull me toward him.

“I’ve been looking a long time for a friend like you,” he says.

Politely but firmly, I put his hands back where they belong, and when I speak I am crystal clear: “If what you want is a friend, that’s great. Otherwise, I’m getting out of the car right now.”

He makes a great show of being shocked. “No, no,” he stammers. “What were you thinking? I was just trying to be affectionate.”

“Then you should know that I don’t like people like you. I mean, what about Marta? Why are you misleading her?”

The lawyer gets all serious and stares at the steering wheel. He thought he’d made an easy conquest and instead he wound up getting a tongue-lashing from someone with a community conscience. Because even fags can have a conscience, and it’s high time the lawyer figured that out.

Doing his best to sound convincing, he says, “I’m hardly taking advantage of Marta. I truly do love her, and I intend to marry her.”

“Oh, now I get it. You’re planning to follow in the footsteps of our fine precinct director.”

“That’s not how it is. After we’re married I’ll get my head on straight.”

Oh, for Christ’s sake. I’ve heard this argument a hundred times. Why is it that the repressed ones always have the same predictable repertoire?

“So, did you come out with me because you felt like arguing?” he says.

I shrug my shoulders. “No, I came out with you because I was curious.”

It’s the god’s honest truth. I just wanted to see how far things would go, and now that I’ve determined the answer (all the way to the end; that’s how far), there’s no point in staying.

“If you feel like taking a ride, I’ve got something to show you,” he says.

Out of my mouth comes the word “OK,” though “OK” is not what I feel. I’m tired, and all I really want to do is go home. I have to be back at the polls in the morning and it’ll probably be the middle of the night before we finish up.

The lawyer maneuvers his expensive car toward the beltway. He seems to have calmed down a bit. In fact, he’s making an effort to find neutral ground for conversation—what music do I listen to, where do I like to go dancing, things like that.

A few kilometers later he hits the turn signal and pulls into the travel plaza, but instead of parking in front of the restaurant, he heads for the open lot in the rear.

“Do you know this place?” he asks me.

“I’ve stopped here sometimes to get gas,” I say.

“And you have no idea what goes on here in the back?” I shake my head, no, truly not understanding.

The lawyer stops the car under a roofed area. There are a lot of other cars parked there and all kinds of people are moving back and forth between the parking lot and the small garden that borders it.

“The comings-and-goings here can get pretty crazy,” he informs me. “Especially at night.” 

I try to figure out what all these people are doing, though the darkness means I can’t make out very much. 

“Let me guess. From inside your car, you see something you like and then you go off behind the bushes to do whatever.”

“Bright boy. I see you’ve figured out how it works.”

Not that it was all that hard. All you needed to do was put two and two together—or maybe twenty and twenty, judging from the size of the crowd.

“Are there always this many people here?”

“Does this seem like a lot to you? Usually there are more.”

We sit there for a while in the darkness of the front seat like we’re watching some kinky Discovery Channel documentary, taking in the strange mating rituals of nocturnal animals. There’s a flurry of cars driving in and driving out, headlights turned off and then turned on again, people walking toward cars and then away from them, only to disappear into the thicket of tree limbs. A series of silhouettes suggests sexual activity we can’t see, that we can only imagine on the other side of the bushes: “the hedgerow creeping o’er and always hiding / The distances, the horizon’s farthest reaches,” as Leopardi put it in his most famous poem.

When he takes me home, the lawyer says, “Well, tonight wasn’t a total waste, right? At least you got to see a place you didn’t even know existed.”

Fine. Let’s leave it at that.

***

Months go by before I think again about the parking lot behind the travel plaza. In the meantime there’s summer to consider, a quick few days at the beach, and then there’s my thesis, which isn’t exactly writing itself.

And then, on one completely unexceptional evening I’m suddenly overtaken by the curious desire to go back and see what’s going on there. I’m heading home from a film I didn’t manage to see, a preview that Alberto and I tried to attend, standing dutifully in line with about eight hundred others. The tickets ran out before we’d made it halfway to the front. We were both a little depressed as we said good night, and that was when I starting thinking that my evening needed a shot in the arm.

I get onto the beltway, hoping I can remember which exit is the one for the travel plaza. The idea of sexual adventure evidently sharpens my memory and, in fact, I hit it on the first try. The parking area is more crowded than the last time—the lawyer was right. Speaking of which, I wonder whether he’ll be here, too. I make a couple of circuits to reconnoiter the parking area, but I don’t recognize his car. 

I stop.

To be perfectly honest, it’s simply too dark here. I see shadows in motion, but I can’t make out faces. Which really bothers me: How do you figure out whether you’re attracted to someone if you can’t even see his face?

Clearly, it wouldn’t hurt if I were in even remotely the right frame of mind. I’d need to make the effort to get out of the car to get a closer look at these unknown creatures, aided by the weak light of the gas station behind us. As long as I stay stuck in the car, I won’t see much. Obviously.

The truth is that it only works to come to a place like this if you’re already horny and raring to go, whereas all I am is bored. There’s no point in trying to pretend to be turned on when you’re not. Might as well forget about it.

I start the car and drive to the other side of the parking lot, in front of the restaurant. I go inside and order a cup of coffee.

The guy behind the counter nods but seems to be in no hurry to get me my coffee, so while I wait, I take a look around.

Nearby are two girls in trashy makeup who look like bag ladies, but maybe they’re just a couple of teenagers out for a night at the disco, maybe even two of those Saturday-night-massacre types just moments away from a drunken collision—that charming urban cautionary tale the TV news commentators can’t stop talking about.

Besides these potential accident victims, there are two men talking to one another in low voices. Two traveling salesmen on their way home from the daily rat race, their jackets rumpled, ties undone, shirt collars open. I’d like to eavesdrop on their conversation, pick up a few shreds of life on the soul-killing bottom rung of the world of marketing, but they’re talking too quietly and the guy behind the counter is making too much noise with the glasses he’s furiously washing, and I give up.

I always feel a little sorry for the guys who work the rest-stop night shift. They’re always alone, and they’ve got enough work for three.

When I asked for my coffee, I was tempted to add something like, “Take your time.” In fact, I’d tried that once and only once. The guy behind the counter gave me a weird look and said, “Are you screwing with me?” Since then, I place my order and otherwise keep my mouth shut.

My coffee’s ready. As I bring the scalding liquid to my mouth, I see—at the far end of the bar, next to the newspaper rack—someone I hadn’t noticed at first: a man of around forty, drinking a beer directly out of the can.

Damn, he’s hot! I think immediately.

The guy is wearing sneakers, jeans, and a gray T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. On his left biceps, a military-type tattoo peeks out. He’s got a few days’ growth of beard and his hair is cut short. Overall, the effect is rather threatening—the neighborhood tough.

Still, the sight of him has me more than a little stirred up. To coin a phrase, “I can resist anything, except criminals.”

Our eyes meet for a few seconds. He sets his beer down on the counter and leaves.

I finish my coffee.

There’s a light breeze cooling the air this late September evening, a whispered promise of the autumn that’s nearly here or an invitation to stay out all night long, a reassurance that there’ll be no more of the obnoxious heat that has, up until a few days ago, made sleep impossible.

The nocturnal landscape of the travel plaza provides a curious view, fascinating in its own way. The headlights of cars as they approach, the station attendant locked away in his bulletproof glass cage, the drivers getting out to fill up at the self-service pumps.

I try to resist, but I can’t help thinking that all the people I see must be on vacation. It’s an idea left over from my childhood: When I was little, I never saw places like this except when my parents were taking me to the mountains for vacation, and since then the two concepts have been joined in my mind.

I walk back toward my Panda only to find that parked alongside is the man with the beer. He’s standing outside his car, leaning against the hood and calmly smoking a cigarette as if he were waiting for someone. In fact, it’s as if he were waiting for me. He doesn’t even give me enough time to get the key into the lock.

“Hi,” he says.

“Hi,” I say back. I barely have the courage to look at him.

“What’s your name?”

I tell him, and then I think immediately: idiot, you could at least have made up a fake name. But it’s already done.

“Alessandro,” he says, holding out his hand. I shake it and look him in the eyes. Close up, he’s that much sexier and that much less reassuring.

“This is your first time here, isn’t it? I haven’t seen you before.”

It’s an absurd comment to make in a place like this. Travel plazas, by their very nature, are places people come to only once, each one so similar to all the others that they blur together, a series of islands you travel over to get back on the right road. They’re stops, not destinations. But he obviously means something else, a reference to a secret geography that few people are allowed to see. He knows I know.

“Yes, it is,” I admit.

“Are you from around here?”

I nod. I tell him the name of my town. “Do you know it?”

He does.

“And you?” I ask.

“I’m from Magenta.”

My eyes contract involuntarily, probably because of how turned on I am, but he interprets it differently.

“What’s the matter? Don’t you believe me?”

I flinch slightly. “Of course I believe you.”

“What a face! You think I’m making it up? Hold on a second.”

He slips a hand into the right pocket of his jeans and takes out a leather wallet. He opens it and holds his license out to me.

“No, come on. There’s no need for that. I’ll take your word for it.”

“Go ahead and check,” he orders. “The name, my address, it’s all true.”

I glance at the document and at the evidence it provides. But I look even more intensely at its owner. This man has seriously taken me by surprise. There’s a certain gruffness about him, but at the same time he seems to be doing everything he can to make me trust him.

I hand back his license and say it again: “I believe you.”

We start to talk. I tell him about the lawyer and about how I came to find out about this place. He has a lot more to say than I do, and in a few minutes manages to offer me the condensed version of his entire existence. He tells me that he was married but has been separated for a few years. He has a son who is nearly fifteen. He lived by himself for a while and now he’s back with his mom while he looks around for an apartment to rent.

Life is so strange.

Only a little while ago I’d have been afraid to approach this man, and now here I am listening to the details of his private life.

“Why are you telling me all this?”

He holds me in his gaze, unwavering. He doesn’t answer my question, but he does say, “Look, I’d like to see you again.” And then he adds quickly, as if he were afraid of instant rejection: “How about if we do this. Monday evening I’ll be back here again at the same time. If you feel like it, you know where to find me.”

“Okay.” I turn and get back into my car.

“How old are you?” he asks me through the open window.

“Twenty-six.”

“You seem younger. Do you work?”

“No, I’m still in college. And what do you do?”

“I drive cranes. You know, I load and unload building materials from trucks, move them into the warehouse. It’s a construction firm.”

But I’m not listening to him anymore. I think: a crane operator! Wait until I tell Alberto!

***

Over the next few days I try not to make any more of my encounter with Alessandro than it is. I’m not sure I’ll go back again. In fact, I’ve made plans on Monday evening to hang out with a friend. I tell myself right up until the last moment that I have no real desire to see Alessandro again, as if the erotic fantasies I’ve been having for a week are nothing more than an insignificant blip on my hormonal radar. But the moment I notice that it’s getting close to the time when Alessandro will be at the travel plaza, all my rational barriers crumble. I stand up, set my Coke on the table, and tell Micaela, “Sorry, but I’ve really got to get going.”

“You mean now?”

I give her a quick kiss and hurry out of her apartment, down the stairs, out onto the street, into my car, and finally onto the beltway.

When I land at the travel plaza, Alessandro is already there, a smiling replica of the other night. He’s smoking a cigarette, propped up against the hood of his Lancia. 

“I was afraid you wouldn’t come,” he says.

I spread my arms wide as if to say: And yet, here I am.

“Want to go?” he asks.

I get into his car and let myself be driven.

On the way to meet Alessandro, I’d asked myself what we’d talk about once we were together. In fact, our conversation seems to be stumbling along. He tells me all about his Lancia—when he bought it, how many miles it has on it. He tells me the precise number, but I can’t tell from his tone whether that’s a lot or a little. I don’t understand a damn thing about cars. I nod, vaguely.

I tell him about the university, about what I’m studying, but I’m not really sure he cares all that much about the fact that I’m getting ready for my exams in Dynamic Psychology.

Let’s be frank: We’re two strangers who are pretending to know each other.

And yet: The seductive tone of his voice when he talks to me is more than a little exciting. Every once in a while he drops a word in dialect into the conversation, which gives me enormous pleasure. 

What I’ve discovered is that dialect, for me, is the language of deep feeling. It’s the language my parents use in their moments of greatest emotional engagement: when they’re most affectionate with one another, when they argue. It’s the language they were raised with, the language whose roots lie deep inside them. To tell the truth, I haven’t been aware of this for long. The realization came to me one day when I watched my father cuddle a neighbor’s newborn son. He folded the baby into his arms, whispering small, tender praises in dialect into its ears. As I watched, I felt myself transported back to my own childhood and to the memory of his voice as it transmitted his affection to us, his children. And I understood then and there, not without a certain amount of cultural embarrassment: dialect is one of the languages my heart speaks.

I’m distracted by the direction my thoughts have taken. Alessandro is certainly aware of it because he’s stopped talking. I suddenly realize I have no idea where we are. We’ve been driving for more than half an hour along roads I don’t recognize, passing small, nearly forgotten towns and dark tracts of countryside.

I must be out of my mind. I’m letting some guy I don’t even know drive me to some completely deserted place. He might be a psychopath, a serial killer, about to stop the car and chop me into pieces. Nobody knows I had a date with him tonight, and no one would ever find me.

But the truth is, I’m not the least bit scared. I’m sick of guys who act like gentlemen in public but whores in the bushes. By now I understand: When a person tells you his whole life story simply because he wants to show you he’s sincere or asks to see you in a way that makes clear you’re free to accept or refuse, then he’s someone worth trusting.

“Where are you taking me?” I ask.

“A quiet place I know of.”

“It’s pretty far, huh.”

“No, not at all. We’re practically there.”

We’re practically nowhere. A dirt road narrows and then disappears into a plowed field where the bottom of the river valley flattens out.

Alessandro shuts off the engine, turns, and looks at me.

A moment of utter stillness passes in silence, and then our mouths meet, his tongue finding its way between my lips the moment I open them.

With a single, synchronized movement, my car seat tips back and his body is against mine.

After that, everything happens faster, almost in a kind of frenzy: gym shoes kicked off, his sweatshirt pushed up, my shirt pulling out of my pants, jeans coming down, hands everywhere.

Alessandro makes love tenderly but with genuine hunger. He’s as delicate in his individual movements as he is daring in the way he positions our bodies. I can’t help but enjoy the silent acrobatics we pull off in the tight space of his car. It thrills me to discover parts of his body that I wouldn’t have believed I would touch the very first time we were together. 

Our love takes place in silent exploration.

When I come, I feel the need to draw the moment into myself with the greatest intensity I can manage, because sexual chemistry as overwhelming as this is rare in casual encounters.

When we return to reality, the air between us has changed. We’re relaxed and happy, conscious of the incredible sense of togetherness that only sex can create in such a short time.

Now we talk about private things, about failed love affairs, about choices we’ve made in life. Alessandro seems to be enjoying the third degree I’m subjecting him to: questions about his marriage and about how he came to make such radical changes in his life. He answers me with the genuineness of a man who has figured out a way to survive life’s earthquakes with his self-awareness intact.

Back at where I’ve left my car, though, he’s the one to ask the final question: “So when do you think I might catch your next appearance?”

“Thursday?” I blurt out. The truth is, I don’t have anything to do tomorrow or the next day either, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to see each other again so soon. Even a casual fling has a timing that needs to be respected.

We settle on that and kiss each other good-bye. 

When I get back to the house it’s the middle of the night, but I run into my mother in the kitchen. I watch her as I drink a glass of water before turning in, and I wonder what it’s like for straight guys, on their way home from having sex, when they see their parents again. Do they feel embarrassed? Are they ashamed? Or, on the other hand, does a sense of their own sexual vitality leave them drunk, ecstatic with the omnipotence of being young and alive?

As for me, as I slip under the covers I stubbornly force myself to suppress the annoying sensation that dogs me in situations like this one: The unbearable feeling that I’ve betrayed someone.

The life of a homosexual man in a small town is made up of minor dramas, an ongoing soap opera of doubt: Should I say it or shouldn’t I? Like a surveyor without a compass, he lives in a permanent state of uncertainly regarding the borders between individual freedom and respect for others. Where does his own right to live as he pleases begin and when must he recognize the need to respect those who are close to him?

And when “those people” are his own parents, the surveyor risks losing his mind entirely. In the end, he’s hemmed in on all four sides. Every step is risky, and he lives with the sensation—terrifying—that his own happiness is a weapon that might go off at any moment, scorching everyone around him.

***

Marco comes back to Italy today for a couple of weeks.

I go to pick him up at the airport and find him in fine form, radiating with conjugal, made-in-the-USA happiness. I let him pour out all the details of his new life—his job, his apartment on the twenty-third floor, the New York gay scene, and above all else: Richard, Richard, Richard. In the midst of this river of information, he pauses to insert a question: “And you?” But he doesn’t stop long enough to give me a chance to answer. He’s too full of his news to be interrupted. He’s absolutely got to tell me everything instantly.

It’s only when the question “And you?” comes back around again for real that I blurt out: “I met someone.”

“Noooo! And you haven’t said anything about it? Tell me everything!?”

I tell him about Alessandro and how it happened. Marco is overjoyed, but I hardly think the simple fact that I’ve met someone is worth that much excitement.

“I’m so happy you’ve got a boyfriend,” he says.

“But he’s not my boyfriend,” I explain. “We’re just going out.”

Let’s try to be realistic.

OK. So Alex is honest. OK, so he’s very sweet. But that’s really all anyone can say at this point. Sometimes it’s still difficult to find common ground for a simple conversation.

We’re too different. Way too different.

OK, too, that he’s drop-dead handsome and that he makes me see stars in bed.

But we’re too different. Really, we are.

“Some guy named Alessandro called for you,” my mother says when I get back to the house. And then immediately: “Who is he?”

That’s strange. She never wants to know anything about my friends. She’s used to getting phone calls from people she’s never heard of.

“A friend of mine, why?”

“I don’t know. He had such a strange voice. I mean, it sounded sort of . . .”

I know what she’s trying to say. Alessandro has a deep voice, like a grown-up man’s. Certainly nothing like the voices of my friends from town, my classmates from the university, or the guys I meet at the disco. It’s the voice of a man fifteen years older than me.

I look at her, waiting for her to finish the sentence.

“. . . rough,” she says finally.

Now she’s the one looking at me. She’s asking herself what I’m doing with a man whose voice is rough. I shrug my shoulders and go into my room to resurvey my perimeters.

***

I still haven’t finished settling my debt with the university in Pavia. I have to graduate, and I’ve only got a week left to turn in my thesis.

I have an appointment with my thesis director at his office, but he hasn’t arrived. Four other people are also waiting to see their professors—four girls, it hardly needs to be said. Who knows why so few guys major in psychology.

As I leaf through my notes, I deliberately listen in on their conversation: Scenes from real life.

“No, listen to what happened to a friend of mine. So, her boyfriend was supposed to leave for the military and she really didn’t want him to go. So finally she decided to let herself get pregnant. She pretended she was still taking the pill, and when he found out that she was expecting, guess what! He left for the military anyway and now he doesn’t even want to marry her!”

“What a bastard!” The girls are unanimous in their opinion. “Men never want to accept their responsibilities.”

I watch them through lowered eyelids, not believing they’re serious. These are the psychologists of tomorrow. Poor patients, poor public health service, poor everyone.

They look back at me with a certain measure of contempt, as if they had spotted a man who refused to accept his responsibilities, I suppose.

When my professor arrives, I leave the girls to their righteous frenzy and, nearly relieved, slip through the door of his office. I’ve been waiting for hours and I don’t feel like wasting time with pleasantries. I get right to the point of my visit: “So, Professor, have you read my thesis?”

He observes me through the thick lenses of his glasses. “What did you say your name was?”

Of course he doesn’t remember my name. “It’s the thesis on images of childhood in advertising. Have you read it?”

“Ah, that one. No, actually, I haven’t.”

“What do you mean? I’ve only got a week left and I still don’t have your review!”

“Listen, if I had to read all the theses they give me to read, I’d never leave the house. But there’s no need to worry. I’ll be sure to look it over before your defense. When did you say that was?”

All the way home on the train I’m furious. As the date gets closer, the tension has gotten harder to ignore: I can’t sleep much, I’m anxious, I’ve lost the ability to concentrate on even the smallest thing. The idea that my director has practically ignored my thesis is giving me heart palpitations. I’d happily murder him. Or turn him in to the department, which would have about the same impact on my professional career.

In the afternoon I try to reorganize my notes and my thinking, but it’s all but impossible. The phone rings. On automatic pilot, I reach out and pick up the receiver, though my mind is elsewhere.

“Hello?”

Alex’s voice shakes me out of my torpor like a sudden gust of wind.

“Oh, it’s you. Hi.”

“What’s wrong?” I have to admit that he already knows me that well. All he needs is a “Hi” to recognize something isn’t right. In the background I hear metallic sounds and a confusion of voices. He’s calling me from work.

“Nothing . . .”

“Things not going well at school?”

I love this about him, that he calls the university “school” and my exams “tests,” and that my somewhat random class schedule surprises him. (“How come you didn’t go to school today?” he asked, the first few times, amazed to find me studying at home.)

“They’re terrible,” I say.

He’s quiet for a few seconds. Then he says, “Look, I’m going to hop on the motorcycle and come over.”

I’d like to tell him that there’s no need for all that, but he’s already hung up.

A half hour later he’s ringing my doorbell.

“Come down and I’ll take you out for a ride!”

Go out now? With all the studying I still need to do? This is completely irresponsible, I tell myself as I pull on my helmet.

Enough already. I need to put an end to the self-torment. What I ought to do is focus on how fast we’re going on the turns, on the trees that whiz by as we pass, on the roar of the motor, on the reassuring warmth of the body I have wrapped in my arms.

Alex takes me to the banks of the Ticino. He stops near a gravel beach and we sit down on the expanse of white stones, completely deserted for kilometers. It’s the beginning of October and the air is chilly, but I barely notice. I’m still reeling with surprise. With one simple gesture Alessandro has turned the day into a vacation. I’m suddenly aware of the mystery that lies at the heart of our relationship.

For years, I believed that a relationship between two people was based on mutual interests, on the books they’d both read, on trips they’d planned together, and it’s only now that I understand: Love is a much more concrete concept. It’s a person who takes you away for two hours and transports you to another universe. It doesn’t matter whether that universe is a ride on his motorcycle, an isolated beach, or in his arms.

I’m in love.

How in god’s name has it taken me so long to figure it out?

Alex gets up and takes me by the hand. I cling to him as we stroll through the woods. We talk about little things, and every once in a while he says something silly to make me laugh. When he leans casually against the trunk of a tree, the urge becomes too great to resist. I put my arms around him and he answers with a kiss. We take turns pulling each other’s clothes off, his lips never leaving mine. In a few moments we’re half-nude and making love in a sea of green.

The world around us is silent and far away, a respectful planet that has finally found its proper orbit.

I quit studying and I stop reorganizing my notes.

At night, I’m sleeping great.

The day of my thesis defense seems like one big joke. Worse than that: a farce. Professors talking about a document they’ve never read. Assistant professors who keep checking their fingernails while I make my presentation.

I call Alex from the snack bar at the university.

“I got 110 out of 110, but not honors,” I tell him.

“I’ll make sure you get your honors tonight,” he says.

I burst out laughing, so loud they probably hear me in the Dean’s office.

***

At this point, what’s going on between me and Alex becomes official. We start going out as a couple to movies, discos, parties. My friends react with frank amazement. Most of them can’t imagine how two people so completely different can be together, but I would have guessed they’d take it that way.

Alberto, as usual, needs weeks to get up the courage to have a conversation with Alex. He’s so shy and reserved with new people that he sometimes makes me irritable. I practically have to push him into Alex’s lap before he makes up his mind to speak. When they finally get to know each other, though, Alberto gives me his cautious endorsement.

Massimiliano, on the other hand, is crazy about Alex practically from the moment they meet. If there’s anyone capable of appreciating Alessandro, he’s the one. Deep down, Massimiliano has always been an ardent supporter of culturally mixed couples, and it was he who came up with the now-famous dictum: “Who gives a damn if he doesn’t know poetry. I’m poetic enough for two people!”

They meet each other one evening at a party and spend the whole time chatting like old friends. Every time I look in their direction, Massimiliano makes a great show of sending cinematic glances my way, his eyes sparkling dramatically. The minute Alex goes off to get a beer, Massimiliano catches up with me and whispers, “Honey, if he had one more muscle, they’d arrest you for bigamy,” a play on that old joke from a Marilyn Monroe film. 

Claudio and Marco are still out of the country, and I’ll have to wait until they get back to hear their comments.

My sister is the only one left.

***

There’s just one place where young people in Lentate go that even dimly resembles a real bar, a kind of a diner with small Formica tables, posters of postmodern art on the walls, video games, one of those machines that checks your biorhythms, and an enormous TV screen tuned to European MTV via satellite. 

Alex and I come here a lot when we don’t feel like driving all the way into Milan.

On this particular evening, I’ve even convinced my sister to come so I can finally introduce her to my boyfriend.

Winning Caterina over, I think, is going to be the biggest hurdle.

I can barely imagine two people less alike. As much as Alessandro is spontaneous and free-spirited, she’s intellectual and reserved.

My sister is the kind of person who saves all year long so she can go to London for the summer to study English, and what’s lovely is that she really does go to study English. The other students who end up in England couldn’t care less about studying the language; they’re thinking about their vacations. But not her. She goes to the library, to the theater, to stores where the only thing they sell is tea. And then she comes back home sounding better than Helena Bonham Carter in a Merchant Ivory film. What else does she have to learn, I wonder each time she leaves. But she’s always been that way, meticulous to the letter. All you have to do is set one foot in her room. It’s not the room of a twenty-year-old. It’s a museum dedicated to film: black-and-white posters with the faces of virtually unknown actors, original advertisements for French films, scrapbooks and little boxes where she saves every single ticket of every single movie she has ever seen. And then there are the books that cover her shelves, lined up one against the other according to a rigid and maniacal system that manages to take into account the authors’ nationalities, the colors on the jacket, and the size of the book. My sister does with books what Mondrian did with color, only with greater attention to detail.

Clearly, the idea of such a person meeting a crane operator who speaks in dialect and doesn’t drink anything but beer has me a bit agitated. At best, I’m expecting some friction.

And now C and I are sitting face to face. The entrance to the bar is behind me so that I can’t see who’s coming through the door, but she can. Alessandro should show up at any minute.

Caterina keeps her eyes glued to the door and every now and then she says, “I bet that’s him!” I turn a hundred and eighty degrees to catch the entrance of a random guy wearing a windbreaker or some bank teller in street clothes. No, we’re not even in the ballpark, not by a long shot.

At some point I see her narrow her eyes and she exclaims, “Don’t tell me it’s that guy!” From the way she says it and the expression on her face, it’s clear I don’t even need to turn around: It’s him.

Alessandro gives me a cuff on the neck by way of a greeting and he sits down. He shakes my sister’s hand. “I’m Alex,” and she introduces herself. The only one who finds himself with absolutely nothing to say is me, appalled as I am by Alex’s new look. He’s shaved his head down to the skull, and he’s wearing a green, quasi-military bomber jacket. I can only think of one word to describe him, and that’s “hoodlum.”

He’s going to do more than surprise my sister, he’s going to send her into a coma.

And yet: Look at the two of them, cooing like a couple of pigeons. Oh, I’m so happy to meet you, my brother has told me so much about you, what’ll you have, a beer, then I’ll have a beer, too, thanks.

A beer? My sister is about to have a beer with this quasi skinhead who is supposed to be my boyfriend?

I can already see myself trying to explain this to my friends. No one’s going to believe me. Not one single person.

***

Tonight, the Bar Jean Genet in Milan is featuring neither boy strippers nor a recital by one of the TV dancers from the Domenica In variety show, but rather (imagine such a thing!) a political meeting. Nando Dalla Chiesa, the man who may well be the city’s next mayor, has agreed to a meeting with gay voters.

The idea that political candidates have started to consider the gay population a force to be reckoned with cheers me up considerably and makes me think that even our small country may be taking its first steps toward real political and cultural evolution.

The room where the meeting is taking place is very crowded. The usual faces are there, but there’s also a bunch of people I’ve never laid eyes on before—and I don’t mean just at the Jean Genet but not anywhere else either. Obviously, politics have managed to reach even those who consider themselves somewhat outside the usual gay circuit. That’s got to be good.

It’s a very lively evening. With a candor that is almost touching, the mustachioed Dalla Chiesa starts out by admitting his ignorance on the subject, but then, with sincerity and genuine engagement, he faces the audience’s questions (and a not inconsiderable number of outright challenges). If he’s elected, he promises solemnly, the city will co-sponsor the gay film festival, something that has, up until now, always been denied, and he promises to work toward legalizing same-sex unions.

The meeting’s climax comes when a young man grabs the microphone and proposes an historic exchange: “I’ll give you my vote if on June 28th you’ll come out and march with the rest of us on Gay Pride Day.” Dalla Chiesa laughs and takes the man’s hand. It’s a deal.

After a long wait, I feel happy politically. For the first time, it seems to me that the things we’ve been asking for may have found a receptive ear.

Satisfied, I look around me, searching in the eyes of those nearby for some confirmation of my enthusiasm, but I find little optimism. Years of empty promises have made us cautious, and that won’t be easily conquered. I can understand. What I can’t understand is the idiocy of the younger people here, turning up their noses and giggling like runway models. 

There’s a perfect example at the next table. Four young guys wearing Dolce & Gabbana T-shirts, their hair smeared with gel, carrying on a conversation I’d expect only from people whose brains had leaked out their ears.

“He’s just another clone with a mustache, and I’m not voting for one of them. There’s already way too many running around.”

“I’m going to vote for Fini. He’s a right-winger, but he’s so handsome.”

“Except that he’s not running for mayor.”

“OK, well then I’ll vote for the Northern League. At least it’s a new party.” 

I listen to them, dismayed and furious. I feel rage piling up on top of me like whipped cream on a sundae. I’d like to stand up and smack all four of them, but then I’m struck with a flash of sociological marketing genius. I go over to where the little group is still in the middle of their discussions and I say, “Did you guys know he’s the brother of the host of Forum?”

They look at me in consternation. “The girl who does that courtroom show on Channel 5?”

“Exactly!”

The four lunatics turn back to have another look at the candidate, observing him now with new eyes, as if, by a simple act of family osmosis, the glamour of television fame had descended over him like a halo.

“Well, he should have said something!”

At this point, it’s time to leave. The meeting is winding down but, above all, I don’t especially want to hear their final word on the subject. Even if my little trick managed to deliver four votes to the candidate, I don’t want to be held responsible for it. 

I wouldn’t wish four votes like those on anyone.

Italy. Long may she wave.

***

Alex and I decide to go away for a few days. Doesn’t matter where—just an excuse to take a mini-vacation, which we’ve never done together. So we jump on his motorcycle and head for the lake district.

Traveling on a motorcycle brings a special exhilaration with it, particularly when you’re doing it for the first time, as I am. We move from one small town to the next with no specific plan. We stop for an aperitif, to eat some pizza, to dip our feet into the lake. Well into the evening we choose a motel and go inside to make love. And then we fall asleep almost immediately.

I wake up in the middle of the night and, after pointlessly tossing and turning for a while, I go out onto the tiny balcony to get some air. I lean against the railing and let my gaze take in the entire panorama: the silhouette of the mountains cutting irregular shapes into the deep, electric blue of the sky, the lights shimmering on the lake, the ripples reflected in the motel’s swimming pool. It would be a scene straight out of a David Leavitt novel, if only the name of the town weren’t Prunelle della Val Brembana. But my life has always been more real than the books I read.

I turn and look back into our room.

Alessandro is deeply asleep. He’s pushed the sheets off and is lying on his side, completely nude. For a few moments I study the curves of his body, the perfect musculature of his back and his arms, the torso rising and falling as he breathes, his hibernating sex, his thin legs.

As I watch him sleep, I try to call up memories of the significant moments in our relationship, and yet all that comes to mind are a series of disconnected flashbacks, empty of meaning.

I see the two of us making love in Alberto’s bed one day when he was away and had left me the keys. I remember that Alex was turned on, but also distracted—and it was only after I insisted that he tell me what was wrong that he admitted, almost shamefaced, that he had gotten stupidly excited by the sight of our reflections in the wide mirror on the bedroom wall.

Or I remember the afternoon when, as we left my house, we shouted “See ya later!” in unison as the door closed behind us. I looked at him and asked, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but did you just shout “See ya later!” to my mother.

“You’re not wrong.”

“Since when have you and she been on such friendly terms?”

“Since now.”

And that was that.

Scenes like that.

I ask myself, maybe for the first time, whether I really want to spend my life with a man like him. Whether he’s the one I want, whether I really want to share my life with anyone. I get no answer, and I start to feel the cold moving in against my shoulders, urging me back to bed. As if he’d been awake all along and waiting to welcome me in, Alex folds me against his chest. The only clear thought I manage to have is this: Perhaps I’m not ready yet to plan out my entire future, but right now these are the arms I need around me.

***

Almost without my being aware of it, it’s time for another birthday.

According to the tradition we’ve established, I send my parents out for dinner and for an evening at the movies so that we can have the house to ourselves for the usual, enormous crowd.

The presence of so many people who’ve come together for the purpose of celebrating my aging process is disorienting. I want to talk to everyone, properly greet all the friends I see only once a year, catch up on all the events of their lives that have taken place in my absence. But I have to respond to the intercom, to the telephone, to my guests’ requests: we’re out of wine, where’s the coffee, there are only three bottles of gin—what the hell kind of party is this? In the end, I spend the evening like a schizophrenic merry-go-round: five seconds with this person, five seconds with the next.

My sister and Chiara are helping me pass out hors d’oeuvres and cake while Betty is making the rounds of the rooms with a video camera. That’s her birthday gift—renting the camera equipment and creating a video scrapbook of the party. She plants herself in a strategic location near the front door and interviews the guests as they arrive.

Even the most unwilling are caught off guard and end up answering Betty’s questions before they manage to slink off to join the party. Then there are the others. The minute they realize they’re being filmed, they pose like matinée idols and scream, “Ta da!” feigning a blaze of trumpets and the roar of a delirious crowd. (No need to say whom I mean, right Claudio?)

A few at a time, everyone shows up.

Alberto is the first, accompanied by Roberto, his new roommate, and by Massimiliano, dressed to the nines in a blue shirt and a tie, looking every bit the fine, upstanding young man that he most certainly is not.

Next appear Maurizio and Marciano, a brand-new couple and, in keeping with the way these things tend to go, still in that phase of wistful looks, hand-holding, stolen kisses, and little hugs, which go on for the entire party.

Jammed into a single car, Riccardo, Cecilia, Paola, and Paolina arrive from Pavia, a regular troupe of friends from the psychology department whom I haven’t seen for . . . six months? A year? Big hugs and the excitement of prodigal children returned home at last.

And then—everything in due time, right?—a bunch of other people arrive at once, all acting like divas trying to dodge the TV cameras, incognito stars outrunning the paparazzi.

The Saccingo trio is unquestionably the most theatrical. They’ve assembled a look like something out of a French film from the 1940s—the two girls are wearing, respectively, a striped T-shirt à la Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim and a black femme fatale dress, while Saccingo himself—the one who has given the group his name—has a hat on his head that’s pure Jean Gabin. Recently they’ve been on a Mano Negra kick and for the last month have been following the French band from concert to concert throughout Italy. They even met Oscar, the band’s lead singer, and they can’t talk about anything else. Their ancient Citroen has been rebaptized “The ManoMobile.” They’re comic-book characters come to life, and they know it.

Nearly hidden behind an enormous bunch of roses, the faces of Monica and Thomas peek out. She’s five months pregnant and her belly is really starting to show. The women immediately surround her to ask how she’s doing and to carry on the kinds of conversations that women only have with other women. Thomas, a handsome hunk of a man, especially tonight with the way his blue sweater brings out his eyes, tries at first to participate in the discussion, but then he decides it’s wiser to extract himself and go get something to drink. Over the course of the evening, virtually every one of my gay friends asks me, “What about that blond German guy?” and I have to disappoint them. “It’s pointless. He’s married to my cousin. Happily.” Sighing, they put on a brave face and go over to Monica to ask her when the baby’s due. I can’t tell if they’re trying to be thoughtful or if they’ve just decided to pin their hopes on the next generation. 

The last to arrive, of course, are Dario and Piero. As they’re getting out of their identical coats, they say, “I guess we might be a little late . . .” Of coooourse not! How could anyone imagine such a thing?

And with their arrival, the portrait is complete.

***

Even with all the windows flung open, it’s still hot with so many people in the house.

Chiara, sitting on my bed, lifts the edge of her skirt to cool herself off. She’s just gotten back from Brazil, leaving her husband behind, apparently for good.

Claudio is in Italy, too, but only briefly. He’s on his way back to London the day after tomorrow. He eyes Chiara as she fans herself and then he asks, “What are you doing? Airing the place out before you rent it?”

She lets out a sharp shriek of laughter and declares: “I’m back on the circuit, sweetie. I want to make sure no one has any doubts about what he’s getting.”

“Fabulous!” he observes. “We deserve another gin and tonic,” and he goes off to pour them a drink.

Betty, who tirelessly continues filming with her video camera, suggests that it might be time to open the gifts. “While there’s still someone sober,” she adds.

She’s right. Better get it done sooner rather than later.

The opening of the gifts is the centerpiece of the evening. We gather in one of the rooms and an assistant, chosen at random from among the guests, hands me the packages. Each gift is greeted with an “Ohhh!” of admiration along with a variety of vulgar comments and slightly hysterical shouting. The ritual could drag on for another half an hour: everyone wants to leaf through the books, try on the sweaters, listen to the CDs, read the cards. The escalating curiosity threatens to evolve into ungovernable chaos.

Thank you, thank you, and thank you a thousand times over for the catalog from The Andy Warhol Museum, for the ceramic statue of the Holy Virgin, for the unauthorized biography of Barbie, for the New Order CD, for the Oxford Dictionary of Saints and Martyrs, for the plastic tie, for the book of Fernando Pessoa’s poems, for the poster of that bare-chested bricklayer, for the Pierre&Gilles T-shirt. It’s phenomenal, all of it. And now . . .

I’ve left Alex’s gift for last. It’s wrapped in thin paper and feels like a small box. Could it be a pen? I ask myself as I open it. No. It’s a pair of eyeglasses in a clear plastic frame, vaguely psychedelic in design. I don’t understand. Why would he give me eyeglasses? There’s a card with an explanation: “If you’re with someone like me, you must be half-blind.” 

No, really, but this . . .

I raise my eyes to meet his. He smiles and blows me a kiss.

I feel myself starting to choke up.

The people around me are getting impatient. “So what is it? Let us see! Read the card!” but I find myself nearly paralyzed.

I wish I could find something to say by way of an explanation or at least that I could manage to look at my friends directly, but my eyes are starting to mist over and I’m seeing through a kaleidoscope of love and affection, the details of individual faces lost in a confusion of color. 

My god. I’m happy.
 

"The Lost Language of Crane Operators" first published in Generations of Love by Matteo B. Bianchi. © 2016 by Fandango.  By arrangement with MalaTesta Literary Agency, Milan. Translation © 2019 by Wendell Ricketts. All rights reserved.

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