The Signora was not done with the day, not by half — she seemed driven by impatience and a hunger to wring as much out of the day as she could, using the disrupting lever of my presence. She told me we were going on a picnic — me, her, and a friend of hers named Francesca, who would be our easygoing chaperone. Francesca was her stalwart, Gabrielle to her Xena if I knew the TV series (I did), who used to keep her from drinking too much, and held her and kept her from killing herself the night of her first miscarriage. Francesca had never married — she led a career in public health that gave her little time for a personal life, and the Signora thought it all but impossible she’d be free that specific afternoon. She wasn’t, but ten minutes later called back to say she’d managed to shake herself loose anyway, never mind who she’d offended, and asked what she needed to bring. In thirty minutes we were in the Signora’s convertible, she and Francesca in the front seats, me squeezed into the back with a hamper of roast chicken and white wine. We flew down the hills. The little green compass indicator below the rear-view mirror, where the Signora met my gaze from time to time, said East.
Francesca seemed ill at ease. She looked to be in her late forties, six or seven years younger than the Signora and me. At first I assumed she resented my presence, and wanted her friend to herself, but the Signora also seemed concerned, as though Francesca’s bad mood were alarmingly out of character. The Signora made some casual remarks about the weather, and the lake to which it seemed we were going, and then probed rather directly about Francesca’s day. Francesca answered curtly and leaned out into the wind, hair snapping behind her. Suddenly I saw James, in his moods. I could see him staring out the window on a car trip, furious at some small disappointment, some detour not taken, some museum left till next time, my father indifferent, my mother frantic to console him. James is an antlion, I might have told my mother. The more you struggle, the quicker you tumble into his trap. And I would retreat into my own world and leave them to sort it out as the telephone poles flew by.
But Francesca wasn’t the Signora’s child, and the Signora had none of my mother’s desperation to please. She calmly let Francesca be herself, and guided the car down the swooping bends. We were in a movie, weren’t we? The Signora needed nothing but Grace Kelly’s fluttering scarf. But really, she needed no such thing. Driving was no white-glove affair for her. She gripped the leather-covered wheel with obvious relish. Her lips were parted, and I could see her teeth set pleasurably against each other as the car surged through the turns like a chariot-team.
Francesca turned to look at me. She seemed to have thrown a white track suit over her work clothes — beet-colored hospital scrubs, with an ID lanyard that showed her unsmiling face in an olive-colored light. “What about you?” she said to me. “Are you having as shitty a day as the rest of us?”
“He’s having a great day,” said the Signora. “He gets to go to the lake with us, after all.”
“After all,” said Francesca. “What could be better. And when we get there, Laura will murder us with a history lesson.” She looked at the Signora.
“Murder you dead,” said the Signora, whose first name I now knew. Her open-mouthed smile suggested she didn’t mind Francesca’s tone at all. Something had changed in her; in the car, with her friend, she was suddenly just Laura. I could see her, with impossible Massimo, at seventeen but at seventeen, he was driving, and she was sitting primly as a doll, perhaps awaiting the moment he would be thrown violently from the car and she could slide into the seat, and take control.
Francesca was still turned toward me, as though I were somehow the way out of whatever mood was gripping her. “So how did it go?” she asked. “The estimable Laura said you were on a detective mission. I wonder if she managed to satisfy your curiosity.”
“You’re not being fair,” said the Signora. “It’s possible he doesn’t know yet.”
“At some point,” said Francesca, “you’re going to have to let him speak for himself.”
“Don’t interrogate my guests,” said the Signora.
“I’m just saying,” said Francesca, and looked at me expectantly.
“No,” I said. “I doubt my curiosity has been satisfied. In five days my brother became so familiar to a group of Italian priests that they never again asked him to sign his name when he came in. But he hated the church his whole life.”
“People change,” said Francesca. “Sometimes beyond recognition. Sometimes, alas, not.”
“So he wasn’t my brother anymore?”
“Yes,” said Francesca with great firmness. “He was still your brother.”
I turned my face away, into the wind.
From the corner of my eye, I could see Francesca seem to lean toward me. She took a deep breath.
“My great friend,” she said, “was my cousin Toni. Antonia. My mother’s sister’s daughter.”
“Oh, not Toni,” murmured the Signora.
“Yes,” said Francesca. “Toni. She was so smart! She grew up in Naples and not the good part of Naples, but she went from scooping up the mussels on those filthy beaches, by those armories Ortese wrote about, into her kiddy sand-bucket, from there to being a marine biologist, of the first order. She found a fossil fish (I mean, still living!) off South Africa. She was an expert on algal tides. She could accurately predict mass death.”
“Is she dead?” I asked, still not looking at her.
“Dead?” said Francesca. “Oh, no. Not at all. We kept in close touch for many years. Neither of us married, and we joked about that. We agreed on why — there was no time! She had her fish to save, I had my patients. She became the leader of an institute, in Messina. She was in the news all the time. She was featured in one of those BBC nature shows, with that man whose voice I so love, even though I don’t know English.”
“Sir David Attenborough,” I said.
“Is that it?” she answered. “I suppose. What an odd name, I doubt I could even pronounce it. It sounds Greek more than English. But what do I know. I never learned another language than Italian. That seemed like plenty. I wasn’t going to heal the whole world, was I? I could be content with just keeping Italy’s blood pumping, you know? These girls I went to school with, enough was never enough. They always wanted more, wanted to study fashion, go to Florence, then Milan, Switzerland, Paris, New York. Moscow! How is it that a girl born in Italy couldn’t be satisfied except by something she was going to find in Moscow? If you have to go that far to find it, it’s something that can’t be found. They seemed filled with emptiness to me, and emptiness that just made them hungrier and hungrier the more they tried to fill it.”
“You’re envious, though,” said the Signora.
“Who wouldn’t be?” said Francesca. “The attention they attracted to themselves. And me living alone and cooking for myself in this not very amazing apartment. I have twenty published papers to my name. No one in Tuscany knows more about pneumothorax.”
“That’s right,” said the Signora. “If I get my chest crushed, I’m coming to you.”
“Damn right,” said Francesca. “I will put you back together, girl.”
“Well,” said the Signora. “If only.”
“If only,” said Francesca, sighing again. “No one put Toni back together, that’s for sure. No one saw she was broken. And listen to me, I doubt myself. She’s happy, it seems.”
“You haven’t told what happened to her,” I said.
“That’s because I don’t know how to describe it. Growing up, she was reasonable and kind. And a feminist. She had to be, to succeed as a woman in science! She made dozens of trips across the Mediterranean — Cape Town, Madagascar, the Maghreb. Never had a bad thing to say about the people who lived there. But seven or eight years ago, something changed. She began writing opinion pieces that had nothing to do with science, though she used her position at the institute to promote her views. First she wrote a nostalgic piece about how she missed the lira, the old currency. Then it was something about how much she hated running into gypsies — Roma — in Naples. How dirty they were. How we should count them, and have a registry. For their own safety, of course. How maybe they could be sent back to their homeland, never mind that many of them are citizens. Then it was immigration from Africa that was a problem. She approved of blocking that migrant ship, that almost capsized trying to get to Spain. But the last straw, for me, was when she said the virus was created by the EU. We were being buried, at the Policlinico, working around the clock, getting sick and dying ourselves, and she’s tweeting lunatic theories about how the virus was manufactured in Brussels. She’s a fucking scientist! I called her and screamed at her, and all she said to me was ‘you can’t prove it’s not true.’” Right, I can’t. Because this is not how logic works. As she knows very well. I told her I was done with her. She said I was arrogant and narrow-minded and hung up.”
“So she lost her mind,” said the Signora.
“I don’t know!” said Francesca. “See, part of me doesn’t think she believes it. Any of it! I think, honestly, she just wanted attention. She was tired of being an obscure scientist. Before too long, she was on TV and the internet, all done up, being interviewed very seriously. My God, she looked beautiful. What a celebrity. And soon enough she got the invite to come to Rome, too, and advise that lunatic government. Like they have any use for science. Writing shit about the Roma was the price of admission, apparently.”
She fell silent, arms crossed tightly. Then she turned to me.
“Your brother,” she said. “Did he make a lot of money?”
“Not much,” I said. “We don’t pay historians terribly well.”
“You do computers,” she said. “You must be rolling in money. Wasn’t he jealous?”
The thought had never occurred to me.
“You know,” I said, “James never blamed anyone else for anything, once he grew up. When he was younger, yes. Envious of everything. But something happened. He began to take things on himself. More than I thought he should, really. Not that I ever told him so. His wife, Marguerite, couldn’t get pregnant. For a while, I think he blamed himself. A close friend and colleague died in England, of liver failure that a doctor didn’t catch. James felt like he should have noticed his friend looking yellow — on a video link! He said it was reasonable — that someone had diagnosed a newscaster with thyroid cancer just by a slight bulge in her neck during a TV segment. So he blamed himself for things. And I suppose he just put up with people. His department chair was an ass. But as Marguerite explained it to me, James just shrugged it off. I guess, by the time he was grown up, other people didn’t bother him much.”
“Well, that’s a good trick, said Francesca. “If you can manage it. Sometimes I think the world is driven by envy.”
We drove on in silence for a while. A church’s bell-tower rose into view.
“She was a star,” said Francesca. “And in her star-phase she inspired people, she really did. But maybe she didn’t know it. Or it wasn’t enough.” She turned toward the driver. “Just like you, Laura. You’re a star.” Her voice was wistful now.
“Oh, I am not,” said the Signora, obviously pleased through and through. “Really. What does that even mean.”
“It means that no one owns you,” said Francesca. “You’ve earned the right to be left alone. No, that’s wrong, you shouldn’t have had to earn it. But you won it. You fucking won it. That’s what it means. What a definition, eh. In my twenties and thirties I was so hungry for connection. I had what seemed like dozens of dear, dear friends. Even during med school. So many parties, good parties, where you came away feeling hopeful about yourself and the world! That all faded, though, I can’t even say how.”
“The way everything fades,” said the Signora. “One day at a time.”