It’s hot. The month of July has brought with it high temperatures and mugginess with the force of a tornado. Blerim and Valon are at home. Blerim, until a week ago, used to spend his days at its school camp. Then, because of the problem with the car’s control unit and how much it costs to repair it, he couldn’t go any more. We don’t have money. And now that they both have to spend an entire summer day at home, they look like two wild animals forced into a cage. They growl at each other, constantly fighting. As I go to break them up, they resume fighting a few minutes later. After a while, I give up and let one of them wear the other down. Although sometimes I feel like they have an endless amount of energy and desire to annoy each other. Valon is always complaining that Blerim won’t let him play with the console. Every time, he comes crying to me and asks me to buy him a joystick. It costs 50 euros, the damn thing.
The only moment of the day they can breathe is after 4pm, when I can finally take them to the park. I have to work during the day. I have to clean wealthy people’s houses every day. From 9 to 11:30 am and then from 2 to 4 pm. Today is Thursday, I have to go to the Brambilla’s. I always take the kids with me, they love that flat. And Mr. Luciano told me that they can use the console. He has two joysticks, so they don’t have to fight, and can play together.
It’s 13:35 already. I finish the dishes in a hurry. While I’m in the kitchen, I yell at the kids to get ready. Blerim replies, shouting, “WE ARE READY”. I quickly dry my hands and with the same frequency of movement I go to my bedroom. I’m behind schedule. We should be on our way by now. The Brambilla’s apartment is about half an hour away from ours. I get dressed as quickly as I can, go back to the kitchen to check if I left any of the burners on, grab my bag and go to call the kids.
They are watching The Simpsons.
“Come on kids!”
“Mom, but the episode isn’t over yet,” Blerim tells me, as he doesn’t take his eyes off the television.
“BLERIM, SHPEJT,” I yell at him. (BLERIM, QUICK)
He realizes that he has to turn off the television immediately. Valon is already in the hallway, he always understands without having to repeat anything to him. We get out, and the heat seems to double. On that stretch of Via Piave there isn’t a thread of shade. We walk for about ten minutes under the scorching sun. I hold Valon’s hand, while Blerim walks in front of us. We proceed in religious silence, as if not to waste the energy that the torrid heat tries to suck out of us at every step we take. The town seems to be in hibernation. Not a soul is heard around. It’s the hottest time of the day, and in fact the smartest thing to do would be to stay indoors. But I have to clean the houses of the Italians, and I don’t have a car licence. But even if I did, even if I could drive, we still couldn’t afford a car. I tell myself that every time I think about it. That it would be useless. That it’s okay.
We arrive at Mr. Luciano’s apartment at 2:05pm. I am late, but less than I thought. In an hour and fifty-five minutes I have to do the kitchen, the living room and the bathroom. At 4 p.m. I have to get the hell out of this place. I can’t stay longer. Either Mr. Luciano or Mrs. Claudia might come home and the last thing they want to find is me cleaning up. The kids immediately go into the living room and start playing. I head to the kitchen, where there are still the leftovers of last night’s dinner. They don’t get tired of doing anything. I imagine them finishing their meal and getting up to go into the living room, enjoying some movies, while they love each other and enjoy this dream life. They are recently married, both over forty years old. He is an insurance agent, she is a university professor. They both work in Milan, spending most of the day there. They bought an apartment outside Milan because they prefer a small, quiet town. They have no children and give me the idea that they never will. All this money, this wealth, who knows who they will leave it to. What a waste of a life without children, I tell myself every time I get into this flat. The most important piece of a family is missing, and yet they seem happy as they are. On the kitchen table there are crumbs of bread, a slice of Bresaola and a bottle of red wine. They don’t even bother to put the wine in the fridge. On the note that they always leave on the table, there is the usual indication: “as usual”.
I look at the clock, it is 2:10 PM. I haven’t started yet, and I’m already tired. It’s too hot this time of year and the more I go on, the more I get the feeling that I won’t be able to keep cleaning so many places. I’ll have to leave some, but we need the money. It’s never enough. I close my eyes, clench my fists, take a deep breath, and try to push through. Ever since I stepped into the kitchen, I’ve had the feeling that the room smells like Bresaola. That slice, left there since last night, has filled the room with its aroma. I stare at it for an infinite amount of time. The amount of seconds my eyes remain on it is directly proportional to the increased desire to eat it. I shouldn’t, I keep telling myself. But nobody will notice it, I convince myself. Finally, I take it and with a quick gesture, caused by the fear that someone might see me, I kick it into my mouth. I chew brazenly. If someone were watching me, they would think that I haven’t eaten in days. I look like a wolf that has just managed to kill its prey, and after the effort of the chase finally manages to take its first bite. It’s damn good. As I chew it, and deep in my heart I hope that for some strange reason the slice can reproduce between my teeth and last forever, I realize the poor quality of food that we can afford every day. I eat the last piece of the slice and feel like I am reborn. I hear the children laughing with delight, I can sense that they are having fun, and this gives me the strength to start cleaning up.
I take the bottle of wine and I put it in the fridge. With the rag, I pull away the crumbs. I pick up the pace and continue like this, for an hour and fifty minutes. Without ever taking a break, not even to go to the bathroom. We need money, I tell myself. And then, in less than a month, we’re going to Kosovo. The children are thrilled. All they do is ask how many days are left. You seem happier this time of year, too. You’re looking forward to seeing your parents, and I’m looking forward to seeing Mom. I miss her. Every time summer comes around, I realize how much of a year it is without seeing a parent. Too long a time, exhausting. This should not be legal. During our last call, Mom said something that made me smile.
“If only there was a little camera in these phones, if only we could see each other when we talk.”
“Turn it off, we have to go, kids.”
“No mom, we have to finish the last game,” Blerim retorted, while Valon had already taken his hands off the joystick.
“BLERIM, TE LUTEM,” he forces me to raise my voice. (BLERIM, PLEASE)
“You’re taking us to the park, though.”
“Of course I’ll do. Come on, let’s go.”
Blerim’s elementary school park is only about ten minutes from the Brambilla’s apartment. The children walk ahead of me, holding hands and continuing to laugh. It moves me to see them so close. At a certain point, they stop and turn in sync towards me. They look at me smiling and signal me with their hand to approach quickly.
“Hajde mam,” Blerim says to me as he continues to hold Valon’s hand. (Come mam)
I walk up to them smiling, dropping to my knees as I feel like it’s Valon who wants to speak for both of them.
“Go ahead, ask him,” Blerim encourages him.
“Mom, when are we going to live in a house like Mr. Luciano’s too?”
It’s like a syringe piercing my heart. It goes in one side and comes out the other. I feel my knees buckle and I rest my hands on their shoulders to keep from falling. It’s not the request that hurts, but the smile and hope I see in their eyes. They really think something like this is possible. In their naivety, they are convinced that one day we could actually afford such an apartment. I tuck my head between theirs, squeeze their shoulders and move them toward me. I do this to hide my face and the tears that wet my eyes. I try to figure out when to open my mouth and speak, without them realizing I’m sobbing. I keep waiting, aware that the time isn’t right yet.
“When Mom?” Valon asks again.
“Soon rrushi i jem, soon,” I manage to tell him, stopping the tears for a couple of seconds and feeling like the worst mother on the face of the earth. We stay in that position for a few more minutes, while I stop crying and keep stroking their backs, and they hold me tight. Then I get up, and the physical pain adds to the emotional one. I feel the twinges in my back, the muscles in my calves hardening, and a weight that rests on my shoulders and tries to crush me into the ground.
We arrive at the park, the kids run to the swings. I see Luana sitting on the bench behind the swings and join her. She has not been doing well lately. She tells me how her fights with her husband have increased, how he comes home late at night. Many times he is drunk. She doesn’t tell me, but I’m convinced he also puts his hands on her.
“Hi Luana,” I greet her and immediately notice a different light in her eyes.
“Hi honey, how are you?” she asks me. I still don’t understand why she calls me that and not by my name, but I don’t feel like asking her, I feel ashamed. It must be a habit of Italian women, calling each other that way.
“Fine, thanks. A little tired. A lot work today. Are you okay?” I answer her mechanically. I still scan the words with some awe. After a day like this, I have the feeling that the Italian words – which I try to learn every day by listening to the television and the children talking to each other – vanish from my memory, dissolve in the air, evaporate. So I have to look for them, chase them, capture them, bring them back to me and try to make sense of them, putting them in the right order.
“I feel better, I have news for you.”
“How nice. Tell me!”
“I’ve decided to divorce my husband. I think it’s the best thing for me. I can’t go on like this any more…”
My attention remains anchored on that sentence. Luana keeps talking, moves her body towards me, and I assume she is telling me everything that happened. I don’t follow her any more though, I can’t. My brain is stuck on that initial sentence, on that verb. To divorce. My vision blurs, my attention vanishes completely, the only thing I can pick up is the relief in Luana’s eyes.
“But how did you get divorced?
How do you think that’s the best decision for you?
Why did you do it?” I want to ask her, but I keep looking at her eyes, at least to show her that I’m listening. She proceeds uninterrupted. I slowly manage to bring my attention back to what she is telling me. I realize that I have been silent for too long. I don’t want to imagine what kind of expression I have. So I abruptly interrupt her, look her straight in the eye and tell her I understand. That it couldn’t have been easy. She continues her story, but out of the corner of my eye I notice that Valon has fallen, and I immediately move towards him. I already know that he’s not hurt, because as I move in his direction, he’s already up, and he’s not even crying. I use this alibi to detach myself from Luana. I don’t want to hear her talk any more today. I reach Valon, check his wound, from which some blood is coming out. I take a wet wash cloth from my pocket and wipe off the dirt that has stuck to the skin.
“Don’t worry mom, it doesn’t hurt,” he tells me as he tries to pull away from me as quickly as possible and go back to playing with his friends. I let him go without saying anything.
“Everything’s fine. Just a bit of blood,” I tell Luana, as soon as I get back to her. She continues to tell me about her decision, repeats all the events that led her to make that choice. I am still lost in my thoughts, in the doubts that her divorce is putting in my marriage. What if one day we get divorced, too? I wonder, as I try to look into her eyes to show her some semblance of my interest. A shiver of fear runs down my spine. No, we don’t do those things. We are not like that, we are not like them. I repeat myself, convinced and proud. We don’t ruin the family in this way. Besides, what reason would we have to get divorced? I look at the kids, they are playing hide-and-seek. Blerim is counting, while Valon is hiding behind a tree with one of his friends.
The time passes faster than expected, and fortunately it’s already time to go home. I say bye to Luana and her children, Luca and Ada. We head home and I hold both Valon and Blerim by the hand. Those doubts haven’t left my head yet, that damned verb – divorce – keeps turning in my skull, exactly like a mosquito. It causes me the same annoyance, as I try to chase it away and after a few seconds I still feel its buzzing. I shake the children’s hands. Valon reciprocates the squeeze, as if he’s just waiting for this. Blerim, on the other hand, disengages and picks up the pace.
We arrive at the home. I tell the children to take a shower, make it quick, because you’ll be there soon, and I’ll start preparing dinner. I make pasta for the children, while for you, I heat up the gullash I made for lunch. I know you prefer it reheated, that’s why I always make it when you’re at work, so it’s perfect for dinner. That’s what I had heard your mom saying the first time I saw you eating it at your parents’ place. You were back from your usual endless day at the pazar. You’d gone out early in the morning to sell some peaches, but the excruciating heat had spoiled half of them, and you’d sold very few of the other half. Not only that, but you came home empty-handed, dry, tired, destroyed. I didn’t understand how your mother could think of reheating a dish she had prepared for lunch. But I could see the happiness in your eyes, when you sat down at the table and your mother came towards you holding the heated Gullash.
“Qe djali i jem, qysh t’pelqen tyje,” she said to you. (Here is my son, as you like it).
I heat the Gullash using the lowest possible flame, excited, hoping to be able to cause the same happiness in you that your mother was able to. I hear the children have finished and a few minutes later the bell rings. I immediately run to open the front door of the building, and then the door of the flat. I hear your heavy footsteps approaching the three floors of stairs. I try to sense your tiredness by calculating how long it takes you to get upstairs. You’re slower than usual, I gasp in awe. What if something happened to you? Maybe you hurt yourself at work? My heartbeats increase in intensity. It takes you forever to get to the front door. You look up from your phone, you look at me for a few seconds, your expression doesn’t change.
“Grua,” you greet me. (Wife)
“A je lodh Afrim?”, I ask, worried that something has happened to you. (Are you tired Afrim?)
“Jo, jo. Nuk pat shum pun sot,” you say to me while moving toward the door. (No, no. There wasn’t that much work today)
“A je mir?”, I ask you to make sure that you are really okay. (Are you okay?)
You look at me crookedly and don’t answer, not understanding why I asked. Then I tell you that I’m going to get your clothes, to take a shower, that dinner is almost ready.
I run to the room to get your clothes and immediately take them to the bathroom. You are standing and still looking at your phone.
“Qe teshat,” I say and hang them behind the door for you. (Here are the clothes)
I hear the children laughing in their room, meanwhile the water in the pot boils and I throw the pasta. The bell rings again, it’s Albina. She climbs the stairs in the blink of an eye. I immediately understand that her first English lesson must have gone well. The only one in the class to have been chosen for this extracurricular course. The teachers told me she has a talent for languages. My flower, my favorite rose. I wait for her with the door open, dressed in all the pride a mother can muster. She runs up to me with an endless smile.
“Hajde qika e jem”, I don’t have time to ask her, that she is already telling me everything. (Come my daughter)
She continues to speak at an inordinate speed and tone. I try to take the backpack off her shoulders, but it’s a challenge, because she keeps telling me to wait and stop for a second, that she has to tell me another detail of her day.
You finish your shower and come into the kitchen.
“Buka osht gati,” I say, even though you didn’t ask, afraid that you might think you have to wait a long time. (Dinner, it’s ready).
You sit down and start changing the channels on the television. I hear you huffing as I get the kids’ pasta sauce warmed up.
“These kids don’t even know how to ask their father if he’s tired,” you spit out of your mouth, as coldly as you can, staring at me as I heat the sauce.
I feel your gaze on me, even though I turn my back on you. I leave the sauce and walk towards the children. Albina is with the kids, and together with Valon are watching Blerim playing PlayStation.
“Daddy has arrived, did you hear him? Come and ask him if he’s tired. HURRY UP.”
Valon and Albina immediately leave the room.
“But you work too mom, he never asks if you’re tired,” Blerim tells me as he continues to stare at the TV. I pretend I didn’t hear him, even though I want to hug him tightly.
“Come Blerim, dinner is ready.”
The children sit down at the table. Albina is still excited about her first English lesson. You watch the news with a disinterested attitude. You have your phone beside your cutlery and seem to be waiting for a text or call. I wait for you to ask Albina how her day went, she too seems to be waiting for just that, but you say nothing. Maybe you forgot, I tell myself, trying to come up with an excuse. I pour the Gullash onto the plate and hand it to you.
“Gullash, qysh t’pelqen tyje,” I tell you, waiting for a reaction. (Gullash, the way you like it).
The only thing you do is raise your arms from the table so that I can put the plate down. You start eating without waiting for me to have served the children, without waiting for me to have sat down, too. The voice of the journalist, along with the clatter of cutlery, are the background to this silent dinner. I see the smiles still on the children’s faces, you’re eating the Gullash, and I have a feeling you’re enjoying it. All this is heartening. I tell myself that it’s just a day like this, that I shouldn’t give too much importance to certain things. That I’m just more tired than usual, and luckily the vacations are approaching. We’ll go to Kosovo, and I’ll see you smile for real. That smile full of life and joy that made me fall in love with you, that smile I haven’t seen for so long. And who knows, maybe the children are right to believe. Maybe we’ll make it, too, to have a house like Mr. Luciano’s, to live a life like that of the Italians. Maybe it’s not too late yet.