First an old record, Italian love songs. Then a worn doll. Next, a tiny argyle sweater. Objects from thirty years ago when Camilla Glass could count all her possessions on one hand, from the days just after her home was destroyed and with it, her entire family. When these objects begin to reappear in Camilla’s life, one by one, all these years later, they loosen something in her that needed to be tight, something that held her together, allowed her to function as a wife and mother. Once the subterfuge behind them is uncovered, all kinds of truths come to light, some devastating, some heartening.
Alert and sly, Timothy’s mother eyed her husband’s gelato spoon, playful, relaxed, leaning closer and closer. In this faraway place, she suddenly became someone Timothy didn’t know at all.
It was Nutella, just on the verge of melting, held high but forgotten on the flat wooden spoon as Dad made room on a concrete bench for an older couple. The wife was bent, helping the old man to turn around and sit, a simple enough task but not for this old man, each step considered yet sloppy, impeded by a tangled apparatus of cane, oxygen tank, and a little brown dog on a leather leash, the only interesting thing about him. People were everywhere and most of them were looking at everything but where they were going. The boy was impatient with the old couple’s slowness when he himself moved with such ease, but at least now he had an excuse not to sit with his parents staring at some fountain, in which embarrassingly—but fascinatingly—naked people wore pigeons for hats, pigeons who pooped on them and nobody washed it off, though you’d think a fountain would wash itself.
But the dog was almost as interesting as the boy’s own gelato—which was different than ice cream. It came in very small plastic cups, and the flavors were strange—fruits and nuts, no gum ball or rainbow, and the chocolate chips weren’t really. They tricked you with tiny spoons that didn’t hold anything to stop you from noticing how small the cups were. They liked tiny things here—tiny cups, spoons, bowls, dogs.
Except for the ice cream cheat, Timothy liked miniature things as well, as he himself was small for his age. And he especially liked that dog. The dog liked the look of his gelato.
Timothy teased the dog with a melting spoonful, scooting closer and closer, hoping his Mom wouldn’t notice and tell him to get up. He had already noted that the piazza, like much of Rome, was cobbled, which had been interesting the first time he saw it a few days ago, but now was unremarkable. So far his goal of collecting interesting European rocks remained largely unfulfilled. His first day was terribly exciting—his parents let him go into some old store that had a cardboard sign in the window that said “rocce”—the one Italian word he learned for the trip—and they bought him an awesome geode. It was like a cave to another world with little rounded stalagmites rising up from the cave floor. He loved holding it and imagining it was a magic city inhabited by tiny people and he was their god. But since then, he had found little of note. Of course, there were interesting materials used in the statues and buildings, but he could hardly chip a specimen off of one of those. And, let’s face it, the alabaster and marble and basalt were the only interesting thing about the endless supply of broken down buildings and statues that a trip to Rome with his parents seemed to entail—which, now that he thought about it, did show signs of daring rock hounds who had come before and boldly helped themselves. Even the ruins, which seemed like an awesome opportunity to collect interesting rocks, turned out to be a bust. For one thing, the ground was completely picked over. And for another, Dad said he’d be thrown in Italian jail if he tried to take any souvenirs.
Timothy held out his spoon to the dog and yanked it away again, blinking and ducking his head at the painful stabs of afternoon sunlight that broke through the figures on the fountain. A pigeon got interested and flapped towards him, causing him to jerk his arm back too far, and he knocked his elbow painfully on a worn cobble. He investigated and found oozes of red brightening a layer of grit, and corresponding tears filled his eyes. He was long accustomed to managing his own wounds, but he preferred comfort when he could get it, so he looked to his mom to assess his chances of receiving any on this occasion.
Last year, when he got sticked in the eye while playing ice hockey on the frozen-over tennis rink at the elementary school, though he was frightened by the amount of blood gushing out of his face, a part of him enjoyed his Mom’s uncharacteristic overreaction. She dropped the soup lid she was holding when his friend Marcus helped him through the back door, and she almost forgot to turn off the stove when they raced off to urgent care. She held him cradled in her lap the whole way to get stitches, even though he was too big for that kind of thing really, and that night, she spoon fed him tomato soup while he lay in bed. He complained, of course, but he loved it. He almost asked for a bedtime story, but he had a little pride.
But the next day, when he fell down the stairs, after his Mom verified that he hadn’t broken a limb, she looked at him lying in a heap at the foot of the stairs rubbing his elbow and seemed almost angry. “You’re fine,” she snapped and walked away. Dad and Hoa were much more sympathetic, but somehow, he never seemed to stop wanting his Mom’s affections, even if he had stopped expecting them.
She did hate to see him bleeding, and he looked to his Mom now to gauge the likelihood of receiving succor, but when he read her face, he stared, his sorrow forgotten. She was playful, focused on Dad, warm, intent—everything she normally was not.
She smiled slyly, her eyes on her husband, who now attempted clumsily to communicate with the old people, who were apparently deaf on top of everything else. Mom leaned in slowly as Timothy watched, admiring the way the sun behind her head lit up the brown strands that curved gently around her face. Timothy felt a familiar pride in his mother’s elegance, the most beautiful woman in the piazza. She looked younger than ever with the smile playing around her lips, leaning gracefully, her own gelato forgotten, pistachio, the worst of all the flavors. No wonder she wanted Dad’s instead.
Timothy wasn’t the only one who noticed his mother. A couple of Italian men behind him nudged each other and called out, “Bella! Bella!” which she didn’t notice, but Timothy did. He liked and didn’t like it when other men noticed his mom. It was fine when they looked and didn’t say anything, but it wasn’t fine when they talked to her. This was okay because she didn’t notice.
Timothy was aware of the men behind him pausing, waiting to see what would happen next as his dad earnestly tried to explain to two wrinkled faces where Boston was. At the last moment, she leaned in, her tongue darted out, and she licked her husband’s spoon.
Startled, Dad looked around, elbows flailing, and then he laughed loudly, a great exhalation of surprise. He dropped his own gelato and reached both arms around his wife, grabbing at her bowl. She laughed, her eyes closed, face into the sun, leaning away. “No, you said it was the worst of the flavors.”
“I know! That’s why you’re trying to take mine! But you can’t have both!” He wrestled her bowl from her extended hand and echoed her pose, only with his long arms, he successfully eluded her reach.
The old couple smiled, watching, calling out sounds that weren’t words. They sounded encouraging, but it wasn’t clear whose side they were on until Dad won and they playfully hissed and flapped their hands in disapproval.
The two men walked on.
Dad took a triumphant bite of pistachio, then frowned. The pigeons crept closer to his Nutella bowl, which had landed on its side but didn’t spill, and Mom crouched to pick it up.
“Ha! That was my plan all along,” Mom said, jumping away with the Nutella and letting him have hers. He ran after her, and when he got to her, he picked her up, and she let him, collapsing onto him like a ballerina confident in her partner’s lift.
Timothy watched it all, more ravenous for this than for gelato, than for the dog. He told himself to pay attention, to remember. He let the dog snatch away his flat wooden spoon; he let the pigeons get his bowl. He made his eyes record this moment to hold on to and replay forever.