Cecilia and Claudio are doctors are the same hospital. They eat lunch together almost every day; they talk, sometimes even share secrets. Each is enmeshed in a complicated, painful relationship that has technically ended but isn't really over: she is newly separated, with two small children; he's stuck in the apartment building where he grew up, where his senile mother, not to mention his ex-wife and her new family, all still live. Cecilia and Claudio are attracted to each other: magnetically, powerfully. But life has taught them to treat that attraction with suspicion.
Then a chance encounter between Claudio and Cecilia's sister, Silvia, shifts the precarious balance of the relationship between the two colleagues. Claudio begins to recognize the damage caused by his wary stance toward everything around him. He has hidden a hunger for life and experience beneath a veneer of apathy, a mask that also conceals a deep well of anguish. And just when Cecilia comes to the realization that she loves Claudio and is ready to commit to a genuine relationship, fate steps in once again. The complicated tale is unraveled by the son born of this love triangle, a man attempting to understand both himself and his past.
In lucid, enchanting prose, supplely rendering into English by Anne Milano Appel, Andrea Canobbio's Three Light-Years sketches a fable of love poisoned by the indecision born of fear, laying bare the dangers of playing it safe when it comes to matters of the heart.
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Andrea Canobbio was born in Turin, Italy, where he currently lives. An editor at the publishing house Einaudi, where he has headed the foreign fiction department since 1995, he is the author of The Natural Disorder of Things (FSG, 2006); two memoirs; and one collection of short stories. Three Light Years won Italy's prestigious Mondello Prize in 2013. Anne Milano Appel, PhD, is an award winning literary translator. Her latest translations from the Italian include Claudio Magris's Blindly, Goliarda Sapienza's The Art of Joy, and Giovanni Arpino's Scent of a Woman. Her work has been awarded the John Florio Prize for Italian Translation (2012) and the 32nd Northern California Book Award for translation in fiction (2013).Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A DECLINE IN THE BIRTHRATE
Memory is an empty room. Gone are the bookshelves littered with journals, gone are the chairs and table, the paintings, the calendar, and the computer screen filled with words. My father is gone, too, effaced by thousands of identical moments, deleted by the same repetitive gestures day after day, as he sat there tapping the keys.
That’s how he would have remained, an empty man in an empty room, like a cipher, for who knows how long, if Cecilia hadn’t appeared and asked for his help. It was six o’clock on an evening in late March. The pediatricians’ lounge became a stage on which a young woman in a white coat hurried in, alarmed, complaining about not being able to find anyone. Her eight-year-old son had been admitted to the ward a few days earlier and she was looking for a doctor, or at least someone dressed as a doctor, who could persuade him to eat. My father noticed the name of another hospital sewn on the woman’s coat, noticed her red, chapped hands, her unmanicured nails, and the absence of rings. He observed her hands in detail, to the point where he could recall them years later, because he could not look at her face: already in those first moments her eyes disturbed him.
Had the woman stolen the coat or was she wearing it because of some bizarre trend even though she wasn’t a doctor? No, she was describing the situation in very precise terms; she spoke like a physician. The child was undergoing parenteral nutrition; electrolyte balance and renal function were returning. But he had to start eating on his own. He had taken a dislike to the head nurse, and perhaps a man could persuade him: the attending physician the day before had managed to. The boy was fed up with having women around him—his mother, his grandmother, his sister. All he wanted was to be left in peace. Like everybody else, my father thought—the ones who are always hungry, and the ones who are never hungry. All they ask is to be left in peace.
He told Cecilia he’d help her and followed her into the first room on the ward. Not that he had any high hope of success: it wasn’t his specialty, he wasn’t a pediatrician, and he didn’t know how to deal with children. He was sure that a nurse would soon come along to relieve him.
The boy was sitting on the middle bed with his back to the door, his legs dangling. He was wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt over his pajamas and had an open book in his lap, while his meal, semolina porridge and applesauce, had been left on the cart apparently untouched. The full plates told the story: the nurse must have ordered him to eat in the usual commanding tone that so impressed parents, but had no effect at all on children. Not wanting the scene to repeat itself, and not wanting her child to be forced, Cecilia had panicked.
My father paused in the doorway, motioned for her to stay outside, then went in with a distracted air, absently examining the charts at the foot of the beds. A sullen-looking little boy occupied the bed near the door, and a child with a mop of red hair had the one next to the window. A woman, presumably a mother, was sitting in the far corner, knitting. There were still women who knitted, then; you saw them in waiting rooms, in the wards, mysterious and comforting like childhood scars you rediscover on your skin from time to time.
Cecilia’s son was watching the red-haired boy maneuver two dinosaurs on the bed in a noisy, never-ending battle. He looked a lot like his mother; his face was hardly sunken, he didn’t seem emaciated. On the bedside table, next to a bottle of mineral water and a glass, four toy cars rested on a sheet of graph paper on which the diagram of an angled parking lot had been drawn with great precision. My father thought the child must love things that were done just so, that he must love any form of order.
The book in the boy’s lap was called Supercars. My father asked to see it. As he leafed through it, his eye fell on an old Aston Martin. “The car James Bond drove,” he said contentedly. He told a story about a miniature model that they’d brought him from London when he was little, from which the passenger could be ejected by pushing a lever. Meanwhile, he sat down on the bed next to the child. He picked up the spoon and began to stir the steaming porridge, stirring and talking, stirring and talking. This went on for a while, my father describing the gadgetry found in James Bond’s Aston Martin, the bulletproof rear shield, the smoke screen, the machine guns, the tire slashers projecting from the wheel hubs, and the boy listening in silence, not missing a word.
Finally my father said he had to go. Maybe he’d come back tomorrow to tell him about 007’s skirmishes with SPECTRE.
“What’s SPECTRE?” the boy asked.
“Very bad people.”
“Thieves and killers, but James Bond always beats them.”
“Why is it called SPECTRE?”
“To scare people.”
Behind them, the sullen little boy offered another explanation: “Because they’re invisible.” As if it were something obvious and well known.
My father viewed the scene from above, like the eye of a hidden camera hanging from the ceiling. The room captured by the eye’s slow whirl, people and things suspended in space but all of them drawn down to the bottom, where Cecilia’s son had declared cold war on his supper.
My father turned to the other bed. He asked the red-haired boy the names of his two dinosaurs, but the child didn’t know or was too shy to answer. The sullen little boy, more interested in being a know-it-all than pouting, spoke up again: they were a Tyrannosaurus rex and a Diplodocus. His mother, over in the corner, smiled without looking up from her knitting needles.
He’d better go; what did he think he’d accomplish by staying. He started toward the door. To gain a bit of time he asked the sulky boy what music he had downloaded on his iPod. He stuck the earbuds in and began listening to a band called Punkreas at a deafening volume. Cecilia’s son had begun to eat. He didn’t see it with a hidden camera, didn’t perceive it through a sixth sense, and didn’t hear the sound of the spoon clinking on the plate. He saw him reflected in the empty IV bag still hanging on its stand, between the two beds.
He followed the meal, bit by bit, so focused on the small convex image that he managed to tolerate the music’s impact on his eardrums with surprising ease. At the end he removed the earbuds and told the boy that Punkreas was interesting. “Don’t keep the volume too high, though,” he added, perhaps only to make himself credible and reassume the mantle of a boring adult.
He turned and retrieved the cart without looking directly at the child, resisting the temptation to say “that’s a good boy.” When he went out pushing the trophy of empty plates, he found Cecilia beside the door, leaning against the wall. She stared at him with a faint smile and shining eyes. She didn’t say a word, just held an open hand out in front of her as if to stop him from speaking, as if to keep him at a distance.
My father walked to the kitchen with the cart, and when he got back to the hallway Cecilia had already gone inside to the child. The corridor and the ward were sucked into oblivion, devoured by time; rejected, my father went out through the glass door, unable to create any more memories here and resigned to never seeing her again.
* * *
I think back to that chance meeting, the origin of it all, and its fortuitousness. It never ceases to amaze me. What is my father doing in Pediatrics? He’s an internist, but his best friend works in Pediatrics and they have a computer—an old machine, easy to use, regardless of, or maybe thanks to, its grimy plastic and scratched screen—on which he is correcting some proposed new guidelines.
My father often spends time in the department. It’s no accident that Cecilia finds him there. It’s no accident, nor is it fate, there’s no such thing as fate, you shouldn’t believe in destiny, in the existence of a soul mate, in eternal love, or in eternity either. Not because of metaphysical conviction, but out of simple reserve.
Anyway, nothing has happened in his life for ten years, and if something has happened he doesn’t remember it. No rite of initiation, no epiphany led him to that evening. But when Cecilia enters and sees him and asks him for help, a story begins and becomes part of memory. The pale wooden table with the blue Formica top, the yellow credenza from the fifties that somehow ended up in that corner of the hospital, the aluminum chairs and glass-doored cabinets filled with samples of expired medicines, the calendar from the missionary group with a bunch of African children on a green tractor, the naïf paintings with huge red and yellow peppers, the metal carts littered with folders to be filed away—everything suddenly reappears because Cecilia is a spotlight projected on the dark scene, Cecilia is the sun that illuminates the heavenly bodies, Cecilia creates the things around her, gives them substance and color, and she creates my father as well, my father, too, shines with her light.
The astronomical hyperbole is dedicated to him, though he wouldn’t have approved of it, because he never let himself get carried away, almost never; even if he could have read the future and known how that woman would change his life, he would never have compared her to a star. You are a distant flame that shines in the night, you are pure spring water, you are the heart that beats inside things … after all, why not? Because the images are banal? Or because no image can ever be a substitute for reality? Or because real women are infinitely more precious and desirable than ideal women?
Maybe because there’s only one thing worse than a lack of moderation and that’s its verbal expression. So never utter excessive words, never ask excessive questions (Does eternity exist? Does happiness exist?). Never reveal yourself.
* * *
But the next day he went back to visit the child and began chatting with him. The boy’s name was Mattia. He had a large notebook on his knees and he was sketching a parking lot on graph paper. He had drawn an elongated shape with a meandering outline and he was trying to fit as many parking spaces in it as possible: rectangles or parallelograms depending on whether they were straight or angled, whether they were for cars or special spots for motorcycles and bicycles. My father asked him why he liked parking lots so much. Did he have a lot of toy cars to park?
“No, I want to be a designer,” he said. He showed him other pages with irregular shapes and parking spaces inside them. My father immediately noticed that all the shapes were similar; they could be different attempts to reproduce a real place from memory. Beside each sketch Mattia had noted the number of spaces he had managed to fit in. Every now and then he also drew cars inside the grid, but in profile.
And which plan did he like best? Mattia showed him one. It looked like the outline of a goose, or a round mirror with a handle.
“What is this? Is it a place you know?”
“It’s the park near our house.”
“Why do you want to turn it into a parking lot?”
“For when I get big.”
“But then there will be other children who will want to go and play there.”
Mattia said no, there wouldn’t be any more children, his sister had told him so.
“Not even one?”
Mattia shook his head: “It’s because of something called birthrate, I think, but it’s not really a disease.”
My father ran a hand through his hair and murmured: “The declining birthrate, of course, there won’t be any more children … I’ve heard about it, too.” He’d heard about it and he thought about it continually, as if he were the person primarily responsible for the drop in the number of births. If he were to have a son at that moment, he would be fifty-six years old when the boy entered high school, sixty when he came of age, sixty-five when he got his college degree (unless he specialized in medicine or didn’t finish on time). In fact he might never see him graduate. Certainly he would never see him marry, and he would never know his grandchildren. Because his son would have inherited a certain difficulty when it came to procreating.
He was afraid it was too late.
* * *
The child’s presence gave my father one more reason to visit the ward. At least once a day he’d go and exchange a word or two with him. In school they had given him Pinocchio to read, one of the few books that my father remembered almost scene by scene. Here’s an idea that had always struck him: planting coins to make money grow. But that was something the Cat and the Fox made up, Mattia objected; money didn’t really grow on trees! Of course … still, it would have been wonderful. And waking up one morning with donkey ears? They laughed. They tried to feel if their ears were hairy. They really were! And the bogus funeral with the four coffin-bearing black Rabbits, what a sad sight; and the girl with the azure hair who appears at the window, she was so mysterious … Why did she say she was dead?
“I was always struck by it,” my father said, not noticing how much the boy was struck by that expression.
“Were you struck when he goes to the Field of Wonders?” Mattia asked.
“Yes, it always struck me.”
“And did the donkey’s ears strike you?”
“Oh yes, very much, they always scared me a little.”
“But what was it that struck you the most?”
Each time he would have to recall a new episode of the book that had truly struck him. Until the day came when my father, running out of things to say and not stopping to think, mentioned the pear skins and cores that Pinocchio ate out of desperate hunger. “That really struck me,” he said, and the moment he said it he was mortified. Mattia looked at him, rapt, motionless; my father could already imagine the boy’s outraged mother barging into the room to confront him, to throw him out. Why talk about a stubborn, bratty puppet? As if the child didn’t already feel guilty enough. But by then he couldn’t stop and he went on to explain all the extraordinary nutrients found in the skin and seeds of a pear; he described the strange things that are never eaten even though they’re good for you: skins, rinds, seeds, stems, flowers … Mattia nodded and for the first time said: “Yes, that really struck me, too,” and my father, unable to contain himself, hugged him. The other children in the room were watching them, but Mattia didn’t seem embarrassed.
“I really like canned pears,” he said. “I like the delicious syrup that’s left at the bottom of the can. Pears or peaches, I ate them with my grandfather. Mama says the fresh ones are better.”
“Your mother is right,” my father confirmed.
* * *
He managed to see Cecilia again. At first it never seemed like the right time to strike up a conversation. She would be talking with the pediatricians or sitting on the bed, playing with her son, and my father didn’t have the nerve to approach her. Attributing his own difficulties to others was an old habit: maybe in his heart he knew the truth, but he preferred to think that Cecilia was embarrassed for not having even thanked him.
Bumping into her one evening, he was disturbed by the attraction he felt. Staring at the freckle-dusted triangle of skin revealed by her neckline, he realized he wanted to touch her, right then and there, in the middle of the hall. But the specter of improp...
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