literally translates to “shot by air.”
refers to the chill that makes you sick, encompassing both the cause
of the illness and the resulting illness itself.
Isabella stirs through the stone walls separating my room and small balcony from her nursery. It is 6:45, 40 minutes later than she was waking up for all of August. The old wooden floor slats creak with Giovanni’s toddler-sized steps. My door creaks open to his small round face. The room is dusted in morning light, making his belly glow as if sunburned.
We had been in the garden all day yesterday, picking basil and checking the tomatoes for the small bites telling of critters snacking throughout the night. The dirt crusted under my fingernail is driving me insane. I never thought I’d have a green thumb, but I realize now I just never tried.
I calculate— Carla should be in the kitchen boiling water for instant coffee right now, meaning she would have fifteen minutes before leaving for her father’s and while I have fifteen more minutes until my day technically must start, I beckon Giovanni into my pinstripe linen sheets. He grasps his fat fingers around the wrought iron bed frame to climb in. He steps on my stomach in his attempt to curl up next to me, the child’s giggle emitting when I wheeze at the impact of his pudgy feet on the logo of the Penn State shirt I sleep in. It’s not a college I attended— the pandemic hit and the idea of anything other than total freedom felt like a prison sentence— but rather a shirt I’ve aimlessly obtained, perhaps at a middle school sleepover or old boyfriend. He rests his right cheek on folded hands and stares at me with brown saucers of baby eyes. While Pennsylvania had the smell of snow and my mother’s meatloaf, nothing could compare to the heavy scent of the vineyards beyond the property line. Chianti holds my boss and her babies and now, my life.
It’s a rare occasion, Gio falling back asleep once he’s up. Usually energy wires through him— it seems almost as if there’s a tungsten bulb burning bright behind his eyes. This morning, however, he’s making soft toddler snores within a few minutes. I grab my phone, opening Instagram and scrolling aimlessly. Something about the influx of content makes my eyes wake up. I’m definitely awake when I stumble upon the most gorgeous y2k floral patterned pink string bikini on a random girl from my high school. I think I remember her from the one season I spent on the volleyball team before I decided bright red chapped forearms weren’t worth the cute uniforms. She was always the one I wished I looked like in the team-issued booty shorts. I spend the next 10 minutes of my free time scouring the internet, only to find a price tag out of reach for a girl who picked a job based on vibes rather than wage. Who knew picking a job without any experience and a country for a green card application based solely on a Timothée Chalamet movie wasn’t what people meant by “financial planning”?
I am sitting by the stone-lined pool in the back garden. For as ramshackle as the house is— wood-burning stoves, peeling wallpaper from Carla’s grandmother, and the stone first floor living room, originally meant for the sheep to spend the night in for fear of predators– the surroundings made up for every missing tile or patch of weeds beginning to grow through the foundation. Rows of grapes spread out in front of me, growing out of the scraggly patches of grass dotted with dandelions. The neighbor, Paolo, walks his rows with the sheepdog that had gone from entirely black to mostly gray in the year I have been with the Leoni’s, much like his owner’s hair as well. As he rounds the corner, he notices me, lifting a hand in greeting. I’m not sure what relationship he is trying to perpetuate, considering we’ve interacted a singular time when his grandson lost a tooth, but I guess old people are lonely. Maybe I’m like a beacon of youth for him or something.
Isa sleeps on her stomach on the blanket next to me while Gio splashes around the pool with Paolo’s visiting grandson. I bask in the afternoon sun and the comfort of this moment. It occurs to me that the abandoned paperback splayed across my stomach would leave a tan line, but I don’t bother to move it. The only people I see daily see me for more than my battered brown sandals bought at the seaside village Carla, the kids, and I vacationed last autumn or a funny tan line across my stomach. My life 12 months prior— working at TCBY next to the FedEx store— feels as distant as shriveled grape vines in the winter seem on a sweltering September day, after a never ending summer. Even the sweat collecting in my collar bones and the chorus of squeaks from Gio’s plastic arm floaties are pleasant.
As my mind wanders to ways I can pay for the bathing suit begging to be posted, I consider my options. Maybe Paolo needs help around the house? No, that requires too much heavy lifting. Maybe Carla can give me more hours? Yes, that seems like the path of least resistance.
I hear Carla’s Peugeot station wagon rumble up the gravel driveway, kicking up a cloud of dust that obscures the next hill to the North. I hear the engine disengage, the swinging open of the always unlocked door, and Carla shuffle around the house. Even after a day of caring for her ailing father, the enthusiasm with which she greets her children never wanes. But today, Carla doesn’t appear out the farmhouse-style door exiting from the sheep cellar to the back patio as soon as she normally does. I can’t help but hope this counts as billable hours. I hear the weeping of the couch springs as she must’ve settled in upstairs. With all the windows open, the house tells the story of every movement inside.
My attention shifts from Carla to her children as I feel drops hit my leg as the boys scamper out of the pool.
“Bye Luca!” calls Gio, before running to the ancient wrought iron table sitting askew on the nearby patio. He reaches his little arms, motion restricted by the floaties, up to the table for his glass of lemonade abandoned before playtime.
I gather the baby in my arms, content baby sighs and adjustments filling my senses with the softness only these children can. Entering the house with the children in tow, something strikes me as deeply wrong. The house, at this time usually a witness to water beginning to boil and excited chatter outside between mother and child, is a mausoleum. On hearing Isa and Gio stir outside, Carla had gone into her bedroom, where she slept alone excluding the nights Gio chose her bed to crawl into.
On my way to rest Isa in her crib, I see through the ajar door Carla with her head in her hands sobbing.
My face used to be splotchy and never quite settled back to normal. It was chapped and dry by the winter wind and would break out in pustules every time I heard the front door slam with my sister’s arrival.
My face was almost always contorted into a lip-biting, furrowed brow of consternation, whether in a doctor’s waiting room or at my father’s office Christmas party with his coworkers asking for my plans after school. Faces fell and then caught in containment. No plans. Louisa spoke of nursing school with an infectious excitement, while all I spread was hesitation for a follow-up question.
An adolescence of bristling at mention of the future or of sisterhood seemed to exacerbate my feeling that nothing was quite meant for me. No class sparked an incurable joy in me, my parents seemed to be crafted to support my sister, the hives engendered by the idea of a life led in Pennsylvania separated me further from my parents. A vet tech in Harrisburg, a social studies teacher in Pittsburgh— nothing spoke to my soul. My parents grew frustrated with my denial of the passions they suggested and eventually our conversations became increasingly dotted with “Well Nina, when Louisa was your age…” and declarations of her SAT scores and accolades. I wanted the simplicity of knowing what was next in my story without having to make a decision that would exile me from all the rest of the possibilities of what my life could be. Choice terrified me. My figs grew rotten as I decided on the perfect one.
I resented my sister for the ease in which she decided her life’s path and the expectation this set for me, just 18 months behind her in age. I resented my parents for the contentment they felt for her and the concern for me. Most of all, I resented myself for my inability to crave anything.
“Nina, bella,” Carla beckons me as she hears the floorboard beneath me creak. I push her door further open with a soft touch, punctuated by the wail of the iron hinges. The sun has ducked beneath the hills. Through her open window is a pink watercolor sky and the whistling of songbirds.
In the moments it takes her to steady her breath, I scan the room I’ve only been in a handful of times. The purple painted dresser has begun to chip. Topping the bureau sits a ceramic pot of wilting sunflowers and in a small silver frame is a photo of a 35-year-old Carla with newborn Isabella on her chest with Gio looking up adoringly. I silently wonder who took it. For all the warmth and love we share in this home, stories of the childrens’ father are absent and unacknowledged. Carla gives them enough love for a schoolhouse.
“Bella mia, my father has taken a turn.”
“Oh Carla, I’m so sorry,” I say as I step further into the room and sit on the edge of the bed next to Carla, “Is it the same thing that happened last month?”
She shakes her head, wiping away a tear with a swipe of her index finger. In all the time I’ve been tending to her children while she tends to her ailing father, I’ve never seen her shed a tear over his condition.
“This time it is different,” she says, the crying making her accented English stick in her throat. “The doctors say he will not last the week.” She begins to cry harder and I place a hand on her shoulder.
“I’m happy to work through the weekend and night if you need to stay with him. Please do whatever you need to, Carla.”
“Grazie tesora, for now, please just handle feeding my babies. I need to breathe. I’ll be walking the hills.”
“Of course,” I responded. In the silence that accompanies preemptive grief, we stand and exit the room. I enter the kitchen and hear the back door shut behind her.
The evening passes in gurgles from the children and heavy thoughts rotating through my thoughts. Carla hasn’t returned by the time I go to bed, Gio and Isa bathed and fast asleep already. While a portion of my anxiety is, of course, reserved for Carla and her father (although old people always seem to be taking turns for the worse and then bouncing back, right?), the forefront of my consciousness sticks to excitement for the financial bonus accompanying extra work. Well, as much work as laying by an Italian pool requires.
I must have dozed off eventually, as I begin to stir 5 minutes past 6:00 when I hear the Peugeot roll down the driveway. After half an hour of attempting to convince myself to go back to sleep and five minutes of attempting to make our weak wifi load a “Self-Guided Identity Affirming Meditation” video, I throw one leg over the edge of the bed, toes first into the scratchy jute rug.
My body is tense with dread. I am playing a game of chutes and ladders, only one dice roll away from being sent back to the bottom of the board, with no clue what my purpose or passion are, back to paralyzing parental disappointment and the juxtaposition borne out of having two daughters.
The day passes with building blocks and espresso, as they always do. A late afternoon by the pool turns into a rare early evening in front of the Italian cartoons on one of our four channels. The children watch through a dust-caked screen, untouched since the thunderstorm that lasted nearly a week early this summer. Hearing the squawks of the cartoon hummingbird flit across the screen conjures the smell of the rain on the hot stones of the patio, overlapping with the wafting scent of ricotta as I layer lasagna sheets into a metal pan seasoned with years of oregano and thyme.
The driveway remains empty throughout splashes in the clawfoot tub and the burns of hot dish water as I clean the kitchen. I feel a grasping hold of preemptive nostalgia, distance from the present moment gripping me in fear for the potential loss of this life.
Gio and Isabella are tucked into their wooden-frame toddler bed and crib, respectively, and as I settle into the worn leather of the couch with a glass of wine and my similarly leather-bound journal, the front door opens. Carla’s silhouette is lined by the brightness of the night sky, stars twinkling despite the hollow feeling I immediately get.
I wake up the next morning with a knot in my stomach similar to the one I got after eating half a tray of tiramisu Carla made for my birthday last March, the melted “22” candles still in the dish. This time, its genesis is far from the warmth of the celebration that night. A sinking realization hits when someone else’s grief becomes the center of your own life for reasons other than the grief itself. Carla’s sentence staccatoed in tears last night left me with a sleepless night and while I feel guilty for the selfishness of my thoughts, I also am at a loss for what to do once I realize Carla only posted on AuPair.com because she couldn’t care for her children and be her father’s full time caregiver simultaneously. In all the time I’ve been here, I’ve considered only how they fit into my life. Carla will need help while she plans the funeral, while she cleans out his house and sells his acres, but after that? And more importantly, did I manifest his death? What does that mean for me cosmically?
I feel sixteen again and that grief consumes me more than the other. The needling voice I haven’t felt since Pennsylvania, “what will you do next?,” which usually accompanies my lips chewed to the point of bleeding or ripped cuticles, begins to chatter and I feel nauseous with the familiarity. I only met him once, months ago, when he was well enough for a birthday visit. I feel awful saying it, but his death makes more of an impact on me than our sole interaction.
At least during the inbetween of Carla’s grief and the resumption of normal life, I still have a job, and at that, a job that provides me a purpose. I change diapers, I stir muesli, and I contemplate where I will be a month from now, a year from now… who I will be. A sequence of hot Italian moons and hazy mornings of dew that evaporate almost immediately pass in a daze. Five days after my world fell apart like the first cannoli shell always does— flakes of bronze hitting the popping oil coating the cast iron pot— I dress Gio and Isa in their best black. We march down the tan silt road, Isa on my hip and Gio’s right hand in my left to the crumbling stone chapel bordering the far edge of the neighbor’s sprawling rows of vines. Dust kicks up with our steps. It’s been dry, cracking. All the neighbors fear for the fertility of the land.
Prayers pass, pulpits fill. And on the following Saturday, the conversation I dread comes to fruition. I’m washing now-dried oats off my hands when I hear a creak in the piece of wood covering the threshold of the kitchen. Carla clears her throat as I scrub harder, wanting to erase the moment that I know comes next. I hear the squeak of the old wooden chair against the floor slats as Carla must be placing her hands on the back of the chair, steeling herself.
“Bella mia, it’s time we talk about what comes next.”
I nod. The water is hotter now, scalding my hands.
Carla continues, “Now that my father is gone, I do not need the help.”
Worst fears confirmed. Visions of Louisa, maniacal laughter. Emptiness. Retail therapy on my nonexistent salary. The apparition of this death of my future punctures when Carla continues, “Nina? Do you hear me? I can give you two weeks more, but I am afraid that is all I can manage.”
“Yes Carla, I understand.” Nodding hollowly, I recede into my room. Thoughtless, I pull the Costco brand dark gray suitcase out from under my bed. Its utilitarianism and bland representation of American consumerism is in stark contrast to the softness of the room, rich in personality, although not my own. I pull down a series of T-shirts (none of which represent any bands I’ve ever listened to), a button-down from Louisa’s laundry mixed up in mine years ago, a checkered mini dress I’ve yet to wear, and a pair of wool sneakers I bought off an Instagram ad. A red Target-brand 2-for-$7 thong is in my hand when I have an idea.
In the most casual of pajama bottoms and push-up bra, I creep into the hallway. The door hinges betray my motion and from down the hall, I see Carla pick her head up from the arm of the sofa she lies on.
I enter the living room, my footsteps and the hum of Italian local news combining into a soundtrack for what I hope will be an inciting incident. I linger in the doorway, unsure of how to proceed, when Carla solves the problem for me.
“Nina, do you need something?”
I swallow. Now’s my chance.
“Hi, no, I just figured you might need some cheering up.” I say as I fidget, tucking my hands inside the bottom of my shirt, pulling down ever so slightly.
“Grazie, you are sweet. I am okay.”
I sit down next to where she lies on the couch, leaning every so slightly with the hopes of my shirt gaping.
“You think I’m sweet?” I bat my eyelashes.
Carla seems confused, unsure of what to say to that. I seize my moment to make clear my intentions and place a hand on her leg. I’m slowly running it up her thigh when she stops me, standing up.
“Goodnight, Nina.” She looks at me pointedly. While we’re only 15 years apart in age, I feel like I was just chastised by a teacher or my mother. Fuck. Back to the drawing board.
With Carla now home all day, my presence as a caretaker is moot. I spend the day alternating between shame and amusement at my attempt from the previous night. I stomach a cup of coffee, but that’s all the play-pretend I can do in a gorgeous Tuscan villa. By noon, I’ve read the first five pages of at least six books and doodled spidery eyelashes framing a too-circular eye over and over on the back of the post-it listing potential flights. By 1:00, I’ve resigned myself to an afternoon of laying by the pool and contemplating side hustles. And by 2:00, I’m bored to tears, staring at the rare clouds that ebb in the sky. My eyes drift shut not in exhaustion, but in the fatigue that accompanies monotony.
At the feeling of immediate shade, my life eyelid drifts lazily open. What I see causes me to sit up on my elbows and rip off Carla’s sunglasses I nabbed from the entryway bureau.
“HELLO?” I shriek in reaction to the silhouette and faint details of an old man I can make out in the bright sunlight. The stark contrast in lighting blends my vision into a watercolor.
He clears his throat, a globule of spittle landing on my collarbone, “Quanta costa?”
While I recognize the words he’s used, the order and tone of voice don’t seem to match up to my understanding of the Italian language.
“Um, cosa?” I stutter through the Italian for “what?”
“How much?” he asks in a thick accent, voice grained with age. Now that my eyes have adjusted to the light and his face has come into focus, I recognize my visiter as Paolo. He must be about 75. Hair rings the bottom half of his head. I presume the top reflects the sun like a piece of tin foil on the patio table, but I can’t see from my half-naked lounging position on the floor.
“You, tesora,” he says as he gestures at me with his knobbly hands. I bet if I pitched the skin on the back of his hand it would take at least a full 10 Mississippis to fall back into place.
I stand up, anger filling my body at the accusation he has presented.
“Oh my god, what the actual fuck! I am NOT a hooker.” I hold my towel in front of my body and shuffle inside, settling my back against the splintered back door and knowing he probably understood about 40% of what I just said. As long as he got “NOT” and “hooker,” I think I’m good. I sink down to the floor, thinking.
It’s 8pm. I’m already in bed. Showered, exfoliated, shaved, bathroom reorganized, and laptop open to SkyScanner. I can’t go back to Pennsylvania. Well, unless I want a one-way ticket back to a constant interrogation into my lifelong pursuits (or lack thereof) and the icky feeling that accompanies that. Ticket to Barcelona, $180. Ticket to Oslo, $450. On a soon-to-be unemployed person’s budget, I get a wave of indigestion. I’ve never even had the itch to travel the world. I like butter noodles and Kung Pao chicken (the kind with MSG), but now the idea of bumming around Amsterdam or Nice sounds a lot more appealing than strip mall “Help Wanted!” positions that I just don’t have the drive to apply for. The TikTok I found (or rather, it found me) of Bruges, Belgium lingers in the periphery of my consciousness, begging for more screen time. Tickets there must be even more expensive than to major cities.
I flop backward and stare at the plaster ceiling. I’ve tried not to let myself think about it in the past few hours, but now that the initial shock of Paolo’s proposition has worn off, I find myself contemplating his question. I have sex, I like sex, I haven’t had sex in a while, I’d like to have sex. I know it’s different when you get paid for it, but he seems nice enough. Yeah, the only times we’ve spoken he’s looked straight down my shirt, but if this is a means to an end and I have the means to his end, would it be the worst thing in the world?
The only other option is asking my parents for help, which comes with enough strings attached to weave an afghan perfectly sized for the tan La-Z-Boy sectional, reruns of Friends, and verbal accostings that wait for me in my childhood home. An unfamiliar surge of agency– opinion– courses through me. I almost feel vindictive— my parents always wish I was more like my sister, more demanding of my own success. I abstractly wonder what they’d think about me selling sex right about now and dismiss the thought before it can have any real emotional repercussions.
Old people get up early, right? That’s my thought process as I plan to wake up at the crack of dawn to proposition my propositioner.
Old people creak when they move. That’s the primary thought I have as I walk across the vineyard toward Carla’s property. I hold the wedges I chose for my morning expedition slung over my shoulder. I reach out with my other hand, fingers crazing the fat purple grapes that hang from the edge of the vines. The sun hangs low in the sky, canted over the landscape. The stillness of the morning seems to mirror my thoughts. I really have no inner verdict on my morning, on the time I spent feeding Paolo’s own grapes to him (that was his idea) or slowly pulling the string tying my bikini top together (that was my idea). I feel fine. Fine really is the perfect word, especially with a wad of cash tucked into the side string of my fuschia bikini bottoms.
Julia Neus is a third-year Radio, Television & Film major pursuing minors in Cross-Genre Creative Writing and English Literature. When she’s not writing, you can find her on Lake Michigan practicing with the Northwestern University Sailing Team.