Translator’s Note: “Uncle Andrea” is one of a dozen or so letters written by actual parents to their actual children and collected in the anthology È Tanto Che Volevo Dirti (“I’ve Wanted to Tell You for So Long”), published in Italy by Giulio Einaudi Editore in 2002. The author, Antonio Calgan (a pseudonym), lived his entire life in Naples. He was seventy when he wrote this letter to his son.
Marco, my beloved son,
After the wonderful party you threw me tonight for my seventieth birthday, I’m not sure why I feel the need to unburden my heart to you, who are a part of me, and to tell you things I’ve kept hidden my entire life. The confession I’m about to make should have come a long time ago. I owed it to my father and, later, to your loving mother, whom I married hoping to bury my true nature once and for all. Hypocrite that I am, I never acknowledged my true self out of cowardice, out of fear of being misunderstood, and, more than anything else, because I thought if they knew what I was, they’d despise me. Now I live with that bitter regret.
Here on the sofa, sitting right next to me, is Andrea, the man of whom you think so highly and whom you have affectionately called “uncle” for all these many years. He had a little too much to drink tonight, and now he has dozed off. He told me it had been a lovely day and that he was feeling quite cheerful. And Andrea is what I want to tell you about, about Andrea and me.
I was seventeen years old and a high school student in 1949 when I met Andrea one beautiful October morning. Though my life was about to change forever, the morning began with my head full of dark thoughts.
The day before had been Sunday. On the weekends, I was used to staying in bed a little longer than usual, luxuriating under the covers. That morning I went to meet my friends. The weather was fine, and we headed to the beach. The whole time we were together, though, my mind was far away.
Out of nowhere I had suddenly been overcome by that desire that sometimes—against my will and without my thinking consciously about it—took over my mind and made me long with all of my being to be with a man. When those moments came, it was as though my entire body were on fire and the fever forced me to think obsessively about one thing only. I had no peace until I’d satisfied that desire. The only good thing was that it didn’t happen often.
Late in the afternoon, I invented some excuse to leave my friends. A ten-minute walk, and I was at Via Toledo. I headed south in the direction of Piazza del Plebiscito and turned off into Galleria Umberto. There used to be several movie theaters along the arcade as well as the famous “café d’arte,” Salone Margherita.
I was aware that other boys were obsessed with meeting girls, but girls for me were just good friends: I could talk to them, take walks or go to the movies together, or dance with them when we were invited to friends’ houses to listen to records, the way young people did in those days. Some of them would flirt with me, telling me I was handsome and had beautiful hair, making it clear that they’d much rather spend time with me than with anyone else. But I kept myself to myself and acted as if it were all a joke. For them, that only made me more mysterious.
Once in a while, when I went to the movie theater in my neighborhood by myself, adult men would approach me, touch me, and let me touch them. It was no big drama. I just told myself, “No one can know about this. Not my parents or even my friends can find out what I really am.”
That evening, I went into one of those movie theaters where I knew it wouldn’t be difficult to find men who were interested in meeting other guys. I found a seat off to one side in the last row. I never had the courage to sit next to anyone else or make the first move. I was shy and terrified, really, so I wouldn’t have dared do anything that might have caused the other person to react badly.
Men started walking back and forth nearby or hovering in the aisle by my row. Most of them were guys I’d never even have given a second look. After a while, one came and sat right next to me. He looked to be fairly attractive, and I tried to see his face better in the half-light of the theater. He was a distinguished-looking gentleman, and I guessed he was about forty.
A few minutes later, he laid his hand on my thigh and began to caress me. I did the same. He asked me my name and then told me he knew a place where we would be more comfortable. I wouldn’t tell him my name, and I made it clear I had no intention of going anywhere with him.
During these encounters, I never did anything intimate with these men, and I didn’t let them go too far with me, either. I kept things superficial—whatever could be done quickly, right there in the theater.
When I left the theater, I always made sure no one followed me. I took a long and circuitous route home, worried that someone might follow me home. I lived in terror that one of those men would tell my father what I’d been doing. I could imagine no worse fate.
The man next to me was getting aroused. He tried to kiss me and put his hands everywhere he could reach. I had to shove him off to get him to stop. Suddenly he put his hand on the back of my neck and started pushing my head down into his lap. I struggled to get free, and I told him I didn’t like doing certain things. He sneered at me and said, “Stop acting like such a princess. Anyone can tell you like cock. Come on. Put your mouth on it,” and he pushed my head down even harder.
I was horrified, but his grip was strong, and I couldn’t get away. I thought I was going to throw up. I pushed against his hand with all my strength and managed to get free. I elbowed him hard in the stomach, cursed, and ran out of the theater.
I started walking toward the public gardens in Piazza Municipio, where there was a fountain. I stopped there and washed my face and hands. I felt filthy. My entire body seemed tainted, and I thought I’d never be clean again.
When I got home, my dad was playing cards with his friends. I barely managed to say hello. My mom saw how pale I was and asked what had happened. I told her I had a headache that was killing me and that all I wanted was to lie down.
In my room, I threw myself on my bed and began to sob bitterly. I cried for how that man had treated me and for the shame I felt. And I even cursed God for having made me different from other boys. I swore to myself that I would never again let someone treat me that way.
In class that Monday morning, I was lost in a fog. More than once my teachers scolded me for not paying attention, and when they called on me, my only answer was a blank stare.
During recess, I heard a commotion coming from the far end of the hallway, where the bathrooms were. I could see guys going in and out, sneering and laughing. I recognized some of them from my class. I went in and saw that they had a younger boy in the middle of a circle, swearing at him, jeering and making filthy jokes. The poor guy was trying to get away, but several others were holding him down while they tried to yank off his pants.
I knew that boy. A few times I’d stopped to talk with him. I knew instantly he was different, and so did everyone else. The way he talked and carried himself made it obvious.
As I watched the older boys torment him, the blood rushed to my head. I was still rattled by what had happened the evening before, and I began shouting at the top of my lungs. “Hey, assholes! Knock it off! You’re all real big men, aren’t you, picking on someone weaker than you who can’t fight back. You pieces of shit!”
Evidently, my outburst worked because they stopped. Just then, though, one of the guys from my grade came up to me, laughing. “Why are you defending that faggot bitch?”
He didn’t get any further before I shoved him so hard he fell back through the open door of one of the stalls. I stood over him, shouting into his face. “Go fuck yourself, you prick. Wait until school’s out. I’m going to kick your ass!”
He didn’t say a word because he knew I’d do it. I walked out and headed for class, thinking that no one was ever going to take advantage of me like that.
The last period of the day was my Greek lesson, canceled that day because the teacher was absent. The principal of the school—acting against his better judgment, he made clear—allowed us to leave school an hour early. We charged out of the school building like sheep that had discovered an open gate.
In the sunny courtyard in front of the school, the other students were fooling around and making quite a racket, but I was looking for the guy I’d fought with in the bathroom. I spotted him walking away with a group of friends, and I set off running. When I caught him, I was going to unload all the rage I was carrying in my heart.
In my rush, I didn’t notice a scooter coming along the street behind me. It was one of those new scooters we’d started seeing around, the ones they call a “Vespa.” Focused as I was on trying to get to the guy from school, I must have swerved into the path of the scooter, and the man who was driving and I both ended up sprawled on the street. He wasn’t hurt, but his clothes were torn. As for me, I had skinned both my knees and my right elbow, but not seriously. A small crowd formed around us almost immediately.
I started telling the guy that the whole thing had been my fault, and I assured him that I was fine, only sorry I’d ruined his clothes. He stood there looking at me without saying a word, the hint of a smile on his lips. I sensed he found me curious.
“Still,” he said at last, “you need to come with me. I’ll take you to the emergency room to get someone to look you over. I don’t want this all to turn into some big mess later.”
“What the hell?” I yelled. “I’m not planning on making a mess for you or anybody. I told you I wasn’t hurt, and I’m not going anywhere with you!”
He was taken aback by my outburst, and for a moment he stared at me again. When he finally spoke, it was with sarcasm in his voice.
“Damn, kiddo,” he said, “you’ve got quite a little temper, don’t you? But enough of your tantrums. Come with me, and afterward, whether you like it or not, I’ll take you home.”
Against my better judgment, I let him take me to the emergency room. They disinfected the various scrapes and scratches from my fall and, in the meantime, reassured the scooter driver, who kept asking them whether I’d have scars or if there would be bruises.
After that, we had to go to the police station to make a report, and he told the officer who took his statement that it had all been his fault because he’d been distracted while he was driving.
Once we were outside, I told him goodbye and started to walk away. He grabbed me by the arm and said, “Where do you think you’re going? I told you I was going to take you home.”
He started the scooter. “Just get on,” he said.
I did as I was told, and before we drove off together, he added, “Hold on tight. I don’t want to lose you on the street again.”
I’d never been on a scooter before.
At the time, we lived in a decent neighborhood in Naples in one of those old buildings with a big courtyard in the center and, all along the sides, large spaces that had probably once been used to store carriages. At the very back of the courtyard, in one of those rooms, my father had his cabinetmaker’s shop. We lived above, in a modest apartment on the third floor.
As soon as we entered the courtyard, my father saw me and ran out of his shop, fear in his eyes. “What happened? What did you do?” he shouted at me.
“Nothing, nothing,” the young man said, and before I had a chance to say a word, he told my dad the same story he’d given to the police.
“And you,” my dad said, turning back to me. “Weren’t you supposed to be in school?”
“They let us out an hour early because one of the teachers didn’t come in,” I told him.
The young man started asking my dad questions about his work. He told my father that his profession was an enviable and beautiful one, an art really, adding that he’d been looking for a skilled cabinetmaker because he had some antique furniture that needed to be restored.
He offered my father a cigarette and then held the pack out to the workers in the shop. He spoke to one of them, a guy who was about my age. “Young man,” he said politely, “would you mind going to the café on the corner and bringing us back some coffee?”
I couldn’t help but be struck by his self-assurance. While he chatted with my father, I stood off to one side, where I could observe him more carefully.
I thought he probably hadn’t yet turned thirty. His face was swarthy, handsome, and masculine. From where I stood, I couldn’t quite make out what color his eyes were, but I saw they were keen and alert. He was fairly tall and slender, with broad shoulders. His hairline was receding just slightly, enlarging his forehead, but the rest of his hair was thick. Above his upper lip was a narrow mustache, clipped thin, that made his mouth even more beautiful.
His clothes were elegant: a gray suit that fit him perfectly. You could tell it had been made to order by a tailor who knew what he was doing. The shirt under his jacket was striped with the thinnest alternating white and blue lines. I stood there admiring him. He reminded me of an actor in one of those American films that were so popular at the time. “Damn,” I thought to myself, “He’s a handsome one.”
He was so old-worldly and courteous, and you could tell, by the way he talked and dressed, that he was well-off. When he was about to leave, he pulled a business card from his inside coat pocket and handed it to my father. “Here’s my name and address,” he said. “If you need to reach me for any reason, I’m here. For anything you need.”
On his way out, he patted me on the cheek and said, “So long, kiddo.”
After he’d gone, I had to endure one of my father’s usual lectures, the one about how I was a good-for-nothing. The whole rest of the day I kept thinking about what had happened, and that night, in bed, I was still thinking about that young man. Only now I’d seen the business card he’d given my father, and I knew his name: Andrea.
And that’s how things stood when Andrea turned my life upside down. After the accident with the scooter, Andrea started dropping by the house occasionally to check on me and ask if I needed anything. He talked about himself, his family, the work he did. He told me he was twenty-eight and that he and his older brother owned a jewelry store. He’d been in the Navy during the war, stationed on a ship that escorted convoys between Africa and Greece.
After a while, he became a regular visitor.
He was always so elegant, both in the way he dressed and in his way of carrying himself, and everyone who met him was smitten, including my sisters and my mom. Only my father, in those early weeks, couldn’t stand him. He considered Andrea an “interloper” and said he found him annoying.
Around that time, Andrea started showing up with his scooter and waiting for me when school got out. The first time, I was taken aback to find him there, but pretty soon I couldn’t wait to see him. We’d drive up into the hills above the city, which in those days weren’t covered with buildings the way they are now. If the weather was warm, we’d sometimes sit outside at a café. When we were together like that, he told me all kinds of things about himself. What it had been like during the war and how he felt when it was finally over, about the Greek girls he’d met at Rodi, about his ship being shelled during the crossings. In the evenings and on Sundays, he often took me to the movies, and afterward we’d always go out for pizza. He treated me like I was his little brother. He never did a single thing or touched me in any way that would have let on how he really felt about me.
For me, on the other hand, spending so much time with him had become torture. I’d fallen in love and had attacks of jealousy when I saw him dancing with my sisters’ friends, who flirted with him outrageously. Meanwhile, I’d completely lost interest in school. My grades were going steadily downhill, and more and more frequently I simply skipped class.
Spring 1950 came early. By the first days of April, it already seemed we were deep in summer. One Saturday evening, Andrea told me he was coming to pick me up early the next day so we could go to Pompeii to see the excavations. I’d never been, and I was excited. I barely slept that night, and by six in the morning I was ready to go.
When we were on the freeway, on his scooter, I clung to him and let my imagination run wild. After we’d seen some of the ruins, we sat down in a meadow near a temple to have a sandwich. Andrea slipped off his jacket and leaned back against a wall. He lit a cigarette. I asked him to tell me about a painting we’d come across in one of the ruined houses. The caretaker wouldn’t let me see it because he said it wasn’t for minors.
Andrea described the painting to me, then went back to his cigarette, his eyes drowsy and half-closed. It was very hot. The only sound was the flies buzzing around our heads. I stretched out on the grass at an angle, resting my head on his thigh. He started, but otherwise didn’t move, though I could feel him trembling. My pulse was pounding in my temples, and I guess I was a little bit out of my mind. I closed my eyes and started to touch him. It was as if a dam had broken inside of him. He pulled me into his arms, squeezing me so tightly that he nearly took my breath away. I heard him say, “Are you sure?”
Nineteen fifty was the best year of my adolescence. Andrea, after our trip to Pompeii, wanted me to know everything about him, starting with his own teen years. He told me he’d discovered he was homosexual on the ship he’d gone out on during the war. Before he met me, he’d been seeing some guy, he said, but he’d broken it off a few months after we met.
Andrea seemed crazy with happiness in those days, and he gave me everything I could possibly have wanted. When he found out I was obsessed with opera, he took me to every opening night. When the big theater companies came to town to put on a play, he always got us tickets. He started giving me expensive gifts that I refused most of the time because I didn’t have any idea how I’d explain them to my parents.
He wanted me to tell my father about us. It was a kind of torment every time my father looked at him, he said. He told me over and over that he hadn’t waited to tell his own family about his homosexuality and none of them had stopped loving him. And it would be the same for me, he said. My dad loved me and would understand.
But, my wonderful son, I stubbornly continued to say no. No one could know I was different. In the end, it was Andrea who told my father everything.
During September of that year, my youngest sister had her first communion. I’d had mine during the war, but I’d never been confirmed, so my family decided to include us both in the ceremony. Andrea offered to stand up as my godfather. For the occasion, he gave me a beautiful diamond ring, and he slipped a small gold circle onto his own finger. He told me he’d never take it off.
There was a big party with lots of guests, including Andrea’s parents and his brother and sister-in-law. After lunch, I noticed that Andrea took my father aside and said something to him, and a few minutes later they left together. When they got back, I could see that Dad was pale and seemed exhausted.
From that day onward, I noticed a profound change in my father. He and Andrea became very close, and Andrea said often how much he looked up to my father.
Months passed, then years, and I felt my life growing ever more entwined with Andrea’s. As far as Andrea was concerned, he was completely certain about our relationship. He’d put his whole heart into it, and he made plans for our future like any young man who’s looking forward to his wedding. But he never asked me for promises. I was still young, he said, and the only thing that should be on my mind was enjoying myself. When I was older and more mature and could make a serious decision, and after I’d finished my military service, which was obligatory in those days, we could live together in a house all our own. Inside of me, though, I knew I didn’t see things the way he did. I didn’t think two men could live together like a married couple.
Marco, I know it might be easy to think I was involved with Andrea just because he could offer me a comfortable life. I can tell you honestly that it wasn’t money or possessions that bound me to Andrea. I loved him. Living without him seemed impossible.
When I finished my two years of military service, I went back to my usual life. At first, I was a fish out of water, and I wasn’t comfortable anywhere or with anyone. I woke up early every morning but had no idea what to do with myself. The days kept passing, and I felt the life I was leading was more and more of a burden. The fact was that I spent the entire day doing nothing, and I didn’t enjoy living the life of a “kept man” at all. I wanted a job.
When I graduated from high school, my father insisted that I come to work with him in the cabinetmaker’s shop. I didn’t mind helping him, but I’d never had much interest in my dad’s profession. I wanted to do something else, but it was harder finding a job then than it is now. Andrea said I was worrying for nothing. I could always come to work in his store. Or maybe he’d leave his brother in charge of that one, and we could open another store somewhere else and finally start living together. Mule-headed as I was, I wouldn’t agree.
In 1958, our town announced that it was hiring new police officers, and I signed up to take the exam. When I told Andrea, he said I was out of my mind. He got very angry, and he even said, “I really hope they don’t hire you.” But I scored well and was accepted, and so I became a patrolman in our town. Things with me and Andrea stayed the same, even if we saw each other a lot less often because of all the shifts I was taking at work.
In the spring of 1960, one of the men I worked with invited me to his wedding. At the reception, I was introduced to a young woman who was nearly my age. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was elegant and refined and witty. She was one of the bride’s cousins. Her name was Elisa.
We talked for a long time (actually, she talked). I found out she was a kindergarten teacher. She said she loved music, especially opera. Just like me. At a certain point she asked me whether I had a girlfriend, and I told her I hadn’t yet thought about it all that much, and then I asked her the same question. She laughed. “No,” she said, “I still haven’t met the person who makes my heart beat faster.”
By chance, or perhaps by fate, we ran into each other again a few months later. As beat cops, one of the things we did was keep an eye on the little kids as they came and went from their school. I hadn’t remembered the name of the school where Elisa taught, but I happened to be sent to the one where she worked. She recognized me and seemed genuinely pleased to see me. Before I left, she asked if I wanted to come back and meet her at 1:30, when she got off work. When I got back to the station, the first thing I did was make sure I was put permanently on that assignment so I could keep talking to her. We started seeing quite a bit of each other. I told Andrea I’d gotten busy with work, but the truth was that I was spending time with her.
Little by little, the desire to get married and have a family began to grow in me. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that I could make it work. I could be like everyone else. Elisa told me she loved spending time with me, and I began to realize from the way she behaved that she was waiting for me to ask her to marry me.
One Saturday evening, I went to Andrea’s house. He was getting dressed because we had tickets for the theater. I asked him, point-blank, “What would you say if I decided to get married?”
Marco, I’ll tell you word for word what he said. He looked at me, laughing, which sent me into a rage, and he said, “Get married? You? Give me a break.” And then he added, “I’m telling you, sometimes I think you’ve lost your mind!” Still laughing, he went on. “I don’t know how you get certain ideas in your head.”
His face turned serious then, and he gave me a little pinch on the cheek. “Anyway, it’s a joke, right?”
“I’m not joking,” I said. “I’m thinking seriously about building a normal life for myself.”
“A normal life!” he shouted. “What does that mean? That our life together isn’t normal? We’re not normal? What are we then, monsters? Or do you just need to prove to yourself that you can screw a woman? If that’s all it is, no problem. In fact, I’ll even find you one and pay her.”
“That’s not what I want,” I said.
He put his arms around me, his voice suddenly tender. “The whole time I’ve known you,” he said, “I’ve always been afraid that one day you’d get tired of me and leave me for someone else. But now you’ve got this dumbass idea of marriage in your head, and that’s how you’re planning to leave me . . .”
I cut him off. “No, you don’t understand. I’m not thinking of leaving you. I’ve never even considered it.”
He stared at me intently. “You are and you’ve always been my only reason for living,” he said resolutely. “I’ve stood by your side through everything to make sure you were able to do anything you wanted. I’d have done even more if only you had let me. You’re an adult now, and you’re free to make your own decisions. I’m certainly not going to stand in your way. If you really want to get married for the sake of appearances, go right ahead. But if you think I’m going to be shuffled off to the side and sit around waiting for you to feel like seeing me, you’ve made a huge mistake. I won’t have any part of it.”
All I could do was stand there in a daze.
In the days that followed, he never returned to our conversation. Life went back to the way it had always been. But the idea of marrying your mother had become an obsession, a constant hammering inside my head. I went to talk to a priest I knew, and I confessed everything. When I was done, he said that if I honestly felt I had changed and was sure I was ready to take on the responsibilities of a marriage, then I should do it. “But,” he said, “you must make sure to tell her the entire truth first.” Of course, coward that I was, I did nothing of the kind.
I started spending more and more time with Elisa until one day, believing I was in love with her, I asked her to marry me. She accepted joyfully, adding that she couldn’t wait for me to meet her parents. When I made my announcement at home, my poor mother couldn’t believe she was hearing what she’d so long hoped for. I had the sense, though, that my dad was taken aback. Privately, he asked me if I was sure I was ready to get married. When I told him I was, he asked, “Does Andrea know about this?”
The question was so unexpected that I was nearly paralyzed. When I pulled myself together, I said Andrea knew I’d been thinking about it, but not that I’d proposed. I planned to tell him as soon as possible. And then I said, “Why did you ask me that?”
“No reason,” he answered, “It’s just that the two of you are very close.” I could tell he was being evasive.
My dad and I had never exactly been friends. When I was little, we were close, and I remember wanting to follow him everywhere he went. He happily took me to the movies or to the park. As I got older, though, the distance between us grew. I never told him anything personal about myself.
I kept waiting to find the right moment to talk to Andrea, and a few nights later I showed up at his house. When he opened the door, I thought I was seeing a man I didn’t know. His face was distraught, his hair uncombed. He was in his undershirt, and he seemed drunk. The moment he closed the door, he hauled off and slapped me so violently that I thought he’d hit me with a plank of wood. I began bleeding from my mouth, and my head spun. He grabbed me by one arm and twisted it as if he wanted to tear it off. I could smell the alcohol on his breath. I’d never before seen him like that.
“So you’re getting married after all, you son of a bitch! And you’re such a little hypocrite that you didn’t even have the nerve to tell me immediately. I had to find out from someone else!” I stood there silently, gaping at him stupidly.
“Did my father tell you?”
In a fury, he said, “Your father has nothing to do with it! And don’t you dare take this out on him. If I find out you have, I swear I’ll kill you. You are worthless. It’s taken me until now to realize what a huge mistake I made with you. I realize you never really loved me. You were using me just to scratch an itch because you were too much of a coward to look elsewhere for it. Don’t think that getting married is going to erase your homosexuality! You’re a homosexual all the way down to your bones, and you’ll never be able to change that. I’m only sorry you’re going to ruin that poor girl’s life.”
There was a pause, and then he added, his voice contemptuous and hoarse, “Get lost. Get out of my sight. I never want to see you again!”
Crushed, I couldn’t manage to move. With my handkerchief, I tried to stop the blood that was still dripping from my mouth. Suddenly he grabbed my arm again and pushed me toward the door. “I told you to get out!”
When I walked out that door, I was in a pitiful state. I wandered through the deserted streets until nearly dawn. I realized I’d made my decisions too hastily and that I’d been wrong in the way I’d let him find out. I thought about how I’d left him. Things couldn’t end that way between me and Andrea.
He said I’d never really loved him. That wasn’t true. There would never be another living person who could make me feel what I felt for him. I decided I’d let him calm down for a few days and then try to talk to him again. I’d make it right, even if it meant that everyone would know the truth about me. I didn’t go to work the next day, and I called Elisa to tell her I wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be able to see her for a few days.
I started phoning Andrea, but the phone rang and rang, without answer. When I called the jewelry store, his brother answered. I went to the store, but only his brother was there. He told me that Andrea had telephoned a few days earlier to say he was going away for a while but hadn’t said anything more specific than that.
As I was leaving, Andrea’s brother asked me what had happened between the two of us. I said that Andrea had found out I was getting married. He was speechless.
Every attempt I made to talk to Andrea after that came to nothing. Once he was back in town, he refused to see me, and he found every excuse in the book to avoid speaking to me. I thought of him constantly, and I missed him terribly.
Elisa was in love with me, and I took refuge in her, trying to find salvation. We decided to get married in April of 1963.
The day of the wedding, I was standing in front of the church, greeting the guests and waiting for my bride to arrive. In the distance I saw a car pull into the lot, and I immediately recognized the driver: it was Andrea. My heart began to pound, and the first thing that came to mind was “He’s here to make a scene.” But then good sense took over. “No!” I told myself. “That’s not something he’d ever do.”
I walked toward him, my legs shaking. I hadn’t seen him for more than a year, but he hadn’t changed one bit. He was beautiful. I immediately felt those feelings resurface in me, the ones I was convinced I had appeased. He didn’t hug me the way a person would normally do at a wedding. He extended his hand for me to shake, and I took it and held it tightly. His face was tense, and he was clenching his jaws (something he always did when he was keyed up).
“The only reason I’m here is because your father begged me to come. I couldn’t think of a reason to tell him no. Are your parents here yet?”
He was aloof, his voice devoid of the slightest emotion. I walked him to my parents, who were already inside the church. He hugged them one by one, with a special embrace for my father.
Later, when we got to the restaurant, I introduced him to your mother. I’d mentioned him to her a few times, and she was delighted to meet him. Andrea had brought her a gift: a lovely piece of jewelry. He sat near my father the whole evening, and the two of them seemed to have quite a lot to say to each other. A little later, Andrea left without saying goodbye.
Marco, my son, I feel the need to be completely honest with you, and in that spirit I want you to know I was terribly unhappy. I forced myself to seem cheerful, especially when I was with other people, but I never was. I tried to be a good husband to your mother in every way I could imagine and, at first, I think I succeeded. I swore an oath to myself that I would never hurt her. She, at least, deserved to be happy.
In January of 1964, you were born, a blessing from heaven sent just for me. All the love I felt for you was what saved me over and over when I was teetering on the brink of a precipice. After a long period of apparent hibernation, my authentic self began a remorseless campaign to assert itself once more. I could find peace in nothing and no one. I used every ounce of my will trying to suppress the desires that grew more urgent with each day. I needed Andrea. I was sure he was the only one who could help me.
One day I went to find him at his shop. His brother was there alone, and he told me that Andrea had moved away some months earlier. Another of their brothers had passed away, and Andrea had gone to take over the store he’d left behind.
I asked Andrea’s brother why Andrea hadn’t said anything to me about leaving. He told me Andrea wanted it that way and then added, “Don’t go after him. Leave him be. All of this has played havoc with his life, and he’s still suffering.”
“Is he with someone?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. I heard he met a dancer.”
I understood that Andrea had erased me definitively from his life, but I still refused to believe he meant it. I told myself he couldn’t possibly forget all the years we’d spent together. I’d never been able to, so how could he? I was distraught, and my life became a kind of hell.
There was a bar I knew of that was for men like me and Andrea. One night, I went. I often worked afternoon shifts and got off late in the evening. I used to tell your mom that I had to work and expected to be back very late. I started hanging out at that bar. I never approached anyone. I always let someone else take the initiative. It wasn’t hard to meet people. Other men my age would approach me and sometimes even guys who were a lot younger. Some of them did it for pleasure, others for money. I wasn’t looking for any kind of relationship. When I got back home, though, I often found your poor mother waiting up for me. I couldn’t look her in the eye, nor could I bear her affectionate gaze. I felt like the most despicable of men, and in those moments I didn’t even have the courage to hold you in my arms. I was afraid I would make you dirty. I spent a sleepless night, crying and tormenting myself with Andrea’s name.
I was well aware that I was tumbling off a cliff and that I’d never be able to climb back up again. I prayed to God with all my strength to give me the power to stop. I’m sorry to tell you that the despair I felt was so great, I even tried to kill myself. Luckily, I realized that suicide would have put an end to my suffering but would have caused enormous pain to all of you. I became convinced that the only way I’d ever find peace was to dedicate myself to you completely. Little by little, I started to come around. When I wasn’t working, I spent all my time with you and your mom, whom I loved very much. I tried to give her all the warmth and affection I could, knowing that the love she had every right to expect from me was something I could never give her. That kind of love I’ve given to only one person in my entire life.
As you got older, I took you more often to visit your grandparents. On Sundays and holidays, we often went to supper at their house. I loved you heart and soul. When I sat with you on my knee, I noticed Dad, absorbed in his thoughts, staring at me without a word. I should have asked him why he was looking at me that way. At the time, I didn’t understand, though I do now.
February of 1967 was bitterly cold. Dad, who hadn’t been well for quite some time, got worse. I wanted to stay as close to him as I could, and I continued to notice that he would stare at me intensely from time to time, as if he were expecting something.
If I asked him how he was feeling, he’d say, “It’s nothing. I just can’t wait until this month is gone.”
But he was the one to go instead. Before he took his last breath, he whispered, “When it’s over, be sure to tell Andrea.”
My dear Marco, you were hardly more than three at the time.
When Dad died, I telephoned Raffaele, Andrea’s brother. He came by that same night to say he’d spoken to Andrea and that he’d be there the next morning. When he arrived, Andrea immediately asked if he could see Dad’s body, and he stayed with him for a long time. When he came out, he said hello to my mother and sisters. He looked at me and pulled me into his arms, bursting into uncontrollable tears. I took him into my old bedroom, where he collapsed onto the bed. There, with his head in his hands, he vented all his anguish, sobbing as though his lungs would burst.
I’d never before seen him cry like that. He’d always been so strong, and his emotions had never gotten the better of him. Seeing him so shattered, I felt enormous tenderness and affection, and I understood that his sudden, painful outburst was the release of all the pain and all the bitterness he’d been carrying inside him for years.
I didn’t say a word, only watched him cry in silence. I put one arm around his shoulders and, when he seemed calmer, went to make him some coffee. When I came back, he’d pulled himself together and looked just like he always did. He leaned out the window and lit a cigarette, his gaze fixed on the far distance.
After a few seconds, he said, still not looking at me, “I know you have a son. He must be big by now.”
“Yes, he’ll be four on his next birthday. Would you like to see him?”
“Later. Before I go.”
“Tell me what’s going on in your life these days,” I said shyly.
“I didn’t come to talk about me,” he said. He hadn’t moved from the window and still stood there, refusing to look at me. He smoked one cigarette after another. As I sat on the bed, staring at his back as if it were a movie screen, I saw our entire life together.
All at once, without turning to face me, he said with some strain in his voice, “Your father knew all about us.”
I felt my heart stop. “What are you saying?” I croaked. He came and sat next to me. There was disappointment in his voice, but not acrimony.
“Your father knew! He wasn’t a stupid man. He figured it out almost from the beginning. How could he not, given how I behaved around you and all the things I did for you? I simply corroborated what he already knew. I told him the day of your confirmation. Knowing me and the way I saw things, did you really believe I’d never tell him anything? Sitting at his table, feeling him looking at me . . . I felt so ashamed. And that’s why I told him the whole story. Even though he’d had his suspicions, it was still a blow, but he was grateful to me. He appreciated my loyalty, but he made me promise never to say anything to you. He said it had to be up to you whether you wanted to talk to him about it. Your father always loved you, and it hurt him to the core that you never trusted him enough. He always cared for me and thought highly of me. How could you not have understood he’d have felt the same for you, his own son?”
I felt myself turn to stone. “Does my mother know?” I asked.
He flashed with sudden anger. “So the only thing you’re worried about is whether other people know your grand secret. Still. I don’t actually know, if that’s what you care about. But given what an intelligent woman she is, I would imagine she’s guessed as well.”
“Why are you telling me this now?”
“Your father is gone. There’s no use keeping silent about it anymore.”
After the funeral, when Andrea was leaving, I asked him if I could visit him from time to time. He told me no, there was no point.
After Dad died, Mom wanted us to come live with her. She said the house was too big and too empty and that she felt lonely. She certainly didn’t need any help. In fact, she’s the one who would have been taking care of us. She was exceptionally strong. When she was eighty, she still did the shopping by herself, cooked, and did all the housework. Your mother was very special to her, and the two of them were great friends.
Ever the practical one, my mother said that coming to live with her meant we could save on rent and all the other expenses of running a house. The last thing she said was, “When you’ve got a child to raise, there’s never enough money.”
I talked with your mother about it, and she was hesitant at first. She didn’t want to be a burden in your grandmother’s house. I kept telling her how much easier life would be there, and she finally agreed. And so, all those years later, I returned to the house where I was born and where I’d lived the best moments of my life.
Your mother, dear Marco, was already having problems with her heart. She’d noticed the first symptoms not long after you were born. When I realized how bad her condition had gotten, I knew she couldn’t afford to go on exhausting herself, and I talked her into giving up her job at the school.
One morning, Andrea’s brother had to go down to the police station to pay a traffic ticket. I went along to keep him company, and afterward we stopped for a cup of coffee. We chatted about nothing much. I kept wanting to ask him about Andrea, but I didn’t dare. And then, just before we were about to say our goodbyes, I managed to get the question out.
“Why don’t you go visit him?” he asked. “He’d be happy to see you.”
As soon as I entered Andrea’s store, I saw him behind the counter, showing some jewelry to a customer. He looked up when he heard the door open and stood there frozen, holding the object he’d been showing in midair. Without losing his composure, he asked, “What are you doing here?”
“Nothing special,” I said. “I was just taking a walk.” As I looked around, I realized I hadn’t been in that store since I was eighteen or nineteen.
After the woman left, Andrea told his salesclerk that he was stepping out for a few minutes. The moment we were outside, he started: “Why did you come? What do you want?”
“I just wanted to talk. Can we go somewhere a little quieter?” He took me to his house, just a short walk from the store.
As soon as we were inside, I said the words I’d come to say. “I miss you,” I told him. “Come back to me.”
He gave me a strange look and tapped one finger against my temple. “You must be crazy,” he said. “How can you ask me something like that? Now! After the mess you made of things. Do you even realize what you’re asking?”
“I do realize,” I said. “And I think we can make it work. I don’t believe you think there’s nothing left of all those years we spent together.”
He didn’t respond right away. He lit a cigarette, and I realized he was tense. All of a sudden, he exploded like a hurricane.
“In my head, I’ve told you to go to hell a thousand times for what you did!” he said. “And a thousand times, I’ve cursed myself for not being able to forget you! All these years, you’ve been like a red-hot poker in my brain.”
He sat at the kitchen table and took his head between his hands. After a while, he seemed to come back to himself, and he took me to lunch at a restaurant by the ocean. When we were seated, he asked about my mother, about Elisa, about you. He wanted to know everything about you. I took his hand in mine and held it tightly. I could see he was still wearing the thin gold band that he’d slipped onto his own finger the day of my confirmation, and I ran my finger over it.
“That,” he said with a grimace. “I’ve never had the nerve to take it off. What an ass I am.”
“No, no you’re not,” I said, squeezing his hand. “You’re the most honest, faithful person I’ve ever met. I’m the one who never deserved to know you.”
He walked me back to my Cinquecento. Before I drove off, I asked him, “Will I see you again?”
He looked at me a long time. “I don’t think so,” he said, “at least not now.”
I started the car, and he said, a smile on his face, “Be careful on the drive home.”
More than six months passed. One Sunday morning, I took you to the park. We almost always went when I was off work. While you played with the other children, I stretched out on the grass to read the newspaper. Every once in a while, I’d look up to keep an eye on what you and the other kids were doing. Suddenly I noticed that a man had stopped near the edge of the playground. He had his back to me, so I couldn’t get a good look at him. I thought he must be the father of one of the other kids, but he just stood there, watching you all. When he turned in my direction, I realized it was Andrea, and I began to shake.
He shook my hand and said he’d called the house, and my mother had told him I’d taken the baby to the park. He stared at me, an intensity in his eyes, and asked, “How am I supposed to behave around you? I’ve done everything I could think of to forget you, but I haven’t been able to get you off my mind since you came to visit. And so here I am. You tell me what I need to do.”
“Nothing,” I answered. “You don’t need to do anything. Just stay here close to me.”
He nodded. “But let’s figure out a way to make sure nobody gets hurt. Especially not him.” He nodded toward the group of children on the playground. “Which one is he?” he asked.
I called you, and you, little Marco, you ran right over to us. Andrea bent down and wrapped you warmly in his arms. He let go and stepped back a bit so he could get a better look.
“What a handsome boy,” he exclaimed. “I’d never have imagined you’d have gotten so big!”
“Dad, who’s this?” you asked with a sidelong look at Andrea.
“I’m one of your father’s oldest friends,” he said. “Or maybe it would be better to say I’m like his older brother.”
“So you’re my uncle?”
“Exactly, exactly,” Andrea laughed, hugging you close to him once more. Over his shoulder he said to me, “It’s so strange hearing someone call you ‘Dad.’”
I asked him to stay for lunch at our house. On the way he wanted to stop to buy flowers for your mother and mine. When my mother opened the door and saw him, she threw her arms around him, crying tears of joy.
Marco, I could stop here, but I want to make sure you understand the role Andrea has played in your life. After that Sunday, he started coming to our house again, but not exactly the way he had so many years before. A lot had changed. He came on the weekends and stayed at his old house, and he was with us for every lunch, every supper. Whenever he planned to stay for more than a few days, we all went out together on one grand adventure or another.
Just as he’d won over my family before, he captured your mother’s heart with his kindnesses and his gallantry. He was affectionate and attentive with you from the day he met you. As you got older, I realized he was showering you with the same attention he’d directed toward me when I was a boy. He couldn’t stop buying you gifts. When you wanted us to buy you something, your mother and I would say no because we didn’t want you to grow up learning you could always get your way, and I remember you’d immediately say, “I’ll call Uncle Andrea, then. He’ll get it for me.”
In summer or for Christmas, Easter, or the other holidays, Andrea liked us all to stay together with him at his house, which was quite large. During those times, you often spent the day with him at the store until closing time, even when you were very young. You must have asked him a thousand questions: how much did the watches cost and how did they work, what were the different kinds of gemstones and what were they worth? You found it all fascinating. Meanwhile, Andrea was delighted by you, and he let you do a lot of things on your own. He certainly kept a close eye on you, and he’d correct you when something wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. He used to tell me, a little wistfully, “We should teach him everything I wish I could have taught you all those years ago.” In fact, it was Andrea who later suggested, when you were old enough, that you join the professional jewelers’ association. He said you’d been bitten by the “shopkeeper’s bug.”
I often think of something that happened in Andrea’s store when you were around seventeen or so. A young British girl came into the shop and asked to see a bracelet that was in the window. You stepped in front of Andrea and opened the display case before he could. You took out the bracelet and put it around her wrist, and then you started getting cocky. You asked her, in English, whether she’d let you take her out that evening. Andrea looked at me and winked, observing the scene with great amusement.
After the young woman had gone, without buying the bracelet, Andrea took you aside. In solemn tones, he said, “Now listen here, youngster. When you’re in the store, you have to be serious about what you’re doing. I saw how you behaved with that young lady. I even understood what you asked her.”
“I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong,” you said, suddenly sulky.
“I know that,” Andrea said, “but listen to me. When you’re in business for yourself, you have to be professional and courteous at all times, otherwise people won’t bother with you, and the shop will get a bad reputation. I didn’t mean to scold you. I just wanted to give you some advice, that’s all.”
“I’m sorry,” you said. “It won’t happen again.”
And meanwhile, you kept growing. You turned into a handsome young man and fell in with a lovely group of friends. Every evening you were out looking to meet girls, and your mother was constantly worried. Andrea reassured her. “Let him go,” he’d say. “He spends the whole day in the store, and then he wants to spend the evening doing what boys his age do. He’s not getting into any trouble.”
Andrea started giving you a weekly “paycheck” for your help at the store. He said it was important for you to feel useful, and anyway he felt more at ease knowing you were there when he wasn’t. Later, he heard you say you wanted a scooter, and he was determined to buy you one. Your mother didn’t want to hear a word about scooters. She said they were too dangerous. But Andrea, in his usual way, managed to wear her down. You were a responsible boy, he told her, and you had a good head on your shoulders.
I remember the day we all went to the dealership. You immediately spotted a beautiful scooter. From the way you kept circling it, Andrea could tell it had caught your eye. “Yes,” he said casually, “I like that one, too. Let’s get it.” You threw your arms around him.
“But try not to get into trouble, kiddo,” he went on. “Don’t make me regret buying it for you.” And then he burst into uproarious laughter, remembering how, when I was young, he’d called me “kiddo,” too.
After you’d graduated and finished your military service, we were all at lunch together one day, and you announced your plan to move permanently to the town where Andrea lived. You turned to him and said, “Uncle, would you help me find a small shop where I can set up my own business?”
You told him all your plans and asked what he thought, and, while you talked, I watched Andrea. He sat with his eyes half-closed, listening intently. When you’d finished, he laughed and said, “I see what this is about. You want to be my competition.”
“I’ll never be good enough to be your competition,” you said, “and anyway, I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“I know, I know,” Andrea laughed. He put his arm around your shoulders and said, “My lovely boy, you don’t need my help to find a shop. You’ve already got the one you’re dreaming of. I’ve watched you over the years, and I’ve realized you’re cut out for this kind of work. I did what I could to make sure you learned the craft from top to bottom.”
As I remember it, you were fairly bouncing in your seat as he spoke. You’d turned beet red, and you kept protesting, saying you’d never be able to accept such a thing. Andrea didn’t pay any attention, but at the end he said, “OK, then I’ll give it to you to manage. We’ll see how you get on, and then we’ll talk again.”
When we were alone again, I admit that I tried to talk him out of it. It was too much, I told him, he wasn’t thinking clearly. All he said was, “Let me do this for him. In part, I’m making an old dream come true: creating for him something that I’d wanted to create for you all those years back.”
Marco, my son, you don’t need me to remind you about everything that happened after that. I want you to know that I tried to be a good father and to do my duty to you as a parent. I’m happy about how that turned out, because you’re honest, and you don’t judge other people. You’ve been my friend in a way I was never able to be with my own father, and that’s why I wanted you to know my story—the whole story.
I suppose I’ve learned never to believe those people who say they were one day able to change their homosexuality and live a “normal” life. Homosexuality isn’t an illness you can be cured of, and it’s not a bad habit you can overcome. It’s a necessary condition of one’s existence. Nature itself has made you what you are.
Still, I so regret keeping the truth from your mother. I take some comfort from knowing, in my heart of hearts, that she never wanted for anything. I gave her as much love as I could, and I was always by her side, especially after she began to get ill. When she died in 1991, I felt an enormous emptiness inside and all around me. Andrea asked us to move in with him, in part because he wanted to be closer to you. I didn’t accept because the house was so full of memories and I couldn’t stand to leave them behind. So, instead, he came to live here.
You know how we pass our time. We take a lot of little trips together. He says he still feels young, and his eighty-two years don’t slow him down at all. He drives the car as if he were a teenager. But you know all this.
Tonight, after everyone had gone home, Andrea was in a festive mood. He asked me to join him in a toast. What he said was, “I’ve lived through a lot of heartbreak and suffering, but I think it must have been worth it to have what I have now.”
With all my love and affection to my most special boy,