Robb’s Last Tape (Take Five)

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It’s always hard to believe that the happiness you see in others is not yours, can never be yours. In fact, we are so convinced of the fact that everybody deserves to be happy that at times we end up believing that the happiness displayed by others is really ours, that it has been stolen from us, as if happiness is fossil fuel, limited, non-renewable, and accessible only to those who own a certain quantity of capital. Once it’s used, it’s gone. What do they have that I don’t? The kind of emotional jealousy implicit in this way of thinking is a dangerous downward slope, and downward slopes are always dangerous, unless you are a kid, because in the adult world time is always running out. At least, that’s what it feels like when you are nearing the age of thirty, when everything in your life will acquire a sense of urgency and an edge of despair. You’ll think of other people, famous writers who wrote their best by the age of twenty-three, that friend who seems so accomplished, who is earning more money than you, to the point where everything that you have ever done feels insignificant, inconclusive like the papers of the average students in your class. But the most painful aspect on your long list of failures is your inability to find your significant other. And the social pressure behind it is almost suffocating. For instance, every time I go back to my home country the first thing that older people, such as my grandparents and my primary school teacher, ask me is whether I have taken any steps towards building a family. Have you got a girlfriend? No matter what answers I give (marriage is a trap, I don’t need a ring around my finger to make me feel complete, marriage has become an option etc.) they are never satisfactory to them. And I see it in the way they curb their mouths downwards, in the way they try to convince me that there comes a time in life when you can only find personal satisfaction in having a family, in working for the sake of your kids.

That’s the thing, I want to tell them, I know of the fact that my mother abandoned her studies to get married at a very early age (she was barely eighteen when she got married), and I know that she had to burn her dreams, whatever they were, on the pyre of family values. I’m well aware that she hates her current job, and that she employs an inhuman amount of self-control in order to continue doing her job. I’m also well aware of the fact that my father did not have any dreams of that sort because he’s in the habit shitting on every job he’s offered. He got fired from his first job (a crime scene investigator and a policeman), and he got fired from his second job (an agent of the internal revenue service) because of his gambling addiction. My father’s only dream from that point of view was to get his hands on easy money by winning the lottery and by embezzling other people’s money. After running away from the country, my mother following him immediately after, people kept coming to our door to ask for the money that he had allegedly “borrowed” from them. I’m well aware of the fact that my brother and I won’t inherit anything, no properties, no money, and most likely no self-esteem. All of us live on a month to month basis, struggling daily to have less month at the end of our money. All of us dread the months in which we have to pay our car insurance, and we prepare for it psychologically six months ahead.

My father’s pathological gambling has even led to suicide threats on a couple of occasions, to late night visits to the nearest police station, to repeated calls that ended with the voice of the answering machine, and to obscure texts informing us that he was leaving not knowing where, and that we should forget about him and get on with our lives. During the first year I came to Italy to live with my parents and continue my studies I witnessed what I believe to be one of the worst episodes in that tragic saga. My father had been out of work for a while and the money was always low, and we struggled to pay the rent. Before going to Italy my grandparents had given me half of my university tuition so as to help me and my parents. In fact my grandparents were the only ones who helped me most throughout college because my parents were absent both physically and financially. At the time, my mother cleaned the houses of rich people for a living, and my father was in and out of work until he was arrested and imprisoned for embezzling large sums of money (the reason why he left the country in the first place). I distinctly remember the moment he was summoned by the local police department where he was told that he was under arrest and that he was being extradited to be put on trial back home. Somehow, the past has the talent of coming back at you. The tuition money given by my grandparents soon ran out, my father reassuring me every time he asked for money that the full sum and more would be returned. When the time came to actually pay the tuition my mother made a bank loan in her name and paid for it for the next four years. My father made all of us promise that we won’t mention it to my grandparents because bank loans were the one thing they dreaded most, right there next to the end of the world.

Then, a man, whom we knew to be the owner of a nearby bar, kept coming to our house and asking to speak to my father. And my father kept dismissing it saying that the man was in fact willing to give him a job. We believed him, we’ve always believed everything he said. One day, the day after my brother got his monthly stipend, my father went out to buy cigarettes, a chore that on that day took an awful lot of time. In my innocence I imagined he met people on the way and stopped to have a chat. A couple of hours later he came back and told me that he had in fact met some people and had a drink with them. Then he went into my brother’s room somehow without me noticing and told me he was going out again and that he’ll be right back. Hours passed and he did not come back. I knew where my brother kept his money and instantly realized that a large sum of it was missing. At the moment, I dismissed the thought presuming that my brother had taken it with him to work. I kept going out the balcony looking for him, thinking that maybe he was still talking to those people he was in the habit of meeting so often. Later on, my mother called to tell me that my father was not answering his phone after he had sent a text informing her that he left and that he was going to commit suicide because he had taken money from my brother to pay for a debt he was in with the owner of that nearby bar, and that he cannot live with that thought any longer. My mother kept calling him until not even the answering machine cared to answer anymore signaling that he had probably taken the sim card out of his phone.

After more hours passed with no response the three of us decided to go to the police station and file a missing person report. With my mother crying, resembling the bereft madonna from Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, we took the elevator down. And there, in the main hall of the building a boy and a girl, both teenagers, were sitting on the steps giggling and holding hands and kissing. I’ll never know what my brother or my mother were experiencing at the time because I’ve never asked them about it (that’s one episode I believe all of us want to forget), but all I felt was immense jealousy and an irrational rage. There they were, enjoying the happiness that had been taken from me on that day. I’m well aware now, as I probably were when it happened, that it was mere coincidence, but I just couldn’t help thinking that those two teenagers had stolen something from me, and I hated them for, I so fucking hated them. I wanted them out of my sight, I wanted them dead, I wanted to punch them, throw bricks at them.

We got to the police department and an officer let us in. The moment she got into the room my mother started crying and telling the officer (luckily the officer was also female) in between breathtaking sobs about my father’s absence and the ominous text (which was in Romanian, so we had to translate it). The officer reassured my mother and told her to calm down and try calling my father just one last time, right there on the spot. My mother complied and dialed the number and, after a few rings, my father replied. My mother’s crying intensified and the next moment she was screaming on the phone and the officer simply watched the scene with the coolness a police officer has to maintain at all times. She couldn’t understand what my mother was saying because at such moments of high emotional intensity she always regressed to that maternal language. And in the end she managed to convince my father to come back. And he did come back that night, after we had gone to sleep. I heard the main door opening and closing.

Similar scenarios occurred over the years, and maybe there had been times when I was so sick and tired of it that I wanted to tell my father go ahead, go and leave us alone. I don’t think I suffered much because of those episodes. I’ve always retreated in my emotional void deep inside me when the emotional load on the outside was too much to bear. But I just couldn’t stand to see my mother suffering because of it. Because, you see, even though it was my father who committed those mistakes in the end it was always my mother who went on her knees to him and beg him to come back. It was as if he was threatening us with suicide so that at the end he would still be the victim. It was as if he was doing it so that we would say don’t do it, we forgive you, just don’t do it. And he was forgiven, every time. Whenever he was in debt because of his gambling addiction he would pull the suicide card, perform the stunt full circle, then wait to be cajoled back with the promise of forgiveness. Once, when my mother accused him of having spent money on gambling, he simply told her so what with the carelessness of a teenager who’s got nothing to lose.

Nowadays, whenever my father doesn’t answer his phone, or whenever he is late from work for more than an hour, all of us look at each other and in each other’s eyes we see the memory of those past moments, their shadows long and oddly-shaped. Every time it happens I immediately log into my parents’ bank account to see whether the money is still there, because I know that even the smallest misappropriation of of family funds can have disastrous effects. We never saved money except when the money was too low to be saved any longer. There are no trust funds, no savings in exotic bank accounts, no properties to be inherited, we don’t even own a house. We are still paying for a car that after three years of use is already showing signs of fatigue and we need to keep investing large sums of money into it to keep using it. There are no monthly payments to my brother’s freshly forged household just for the sake of helping and I know my brother resents it. I can see it in his face and in his occasional nods when we complain about money. And his wife’s parents are of no help either.

My father is also partially handicapped. He has lost his left foot from the knee down after a medical procedure backfired. Attempts to bring the medic to trial for misdiagnosis and malpractice have failed repeatedly. Lawyers have come to the conclusion that his case is not clear and they won’t take on cases that don’t promise large sums of money. My father’s employer was put on trial after he had fired him on the grounds of his disability. The court ruled in my father’s favor but the Italian legal system seems to be taken out of Kafka’s novels. In a country that is not ours we didn’t have the knowledge and the skills to do more about it. A large sum of money was at stake but the employer had transferred all of his belongings in his wife’s name and he is “officially” bankrupt. Since then my father suffered a series of heart strokes and he wears a stent. He cannot exercise because of his prosthetic leg and he is a smoker.

Now, going back to my initial point, besides the emotional support, what else does a man offer his woman? What satisfaction is to be drawn out of a family life so coveted and socially encouraged? Some of you will tell me something along the lines that otherwise I wouldn’t have been born, I wouldn’t be here now writing this, as if my own contribution to this world is so important that it cannot be replicated or equaled in any way. None of us are that valuable. The world won’t end if I stop existing, just as me not having children will not stop the proliferation and well-being of our species. At best, my life can be seen as a series of failed attempts, and don’t you dare give me that shit about the importance of failed attempts, and the fact that the destination is not important. In this context my homosexuality seems like a natural reaction, my movements calcified, my partner, if I’ll ever have one, won’t be able to bear children unless by some sort of medical stunt. I won’t be able to bear children. And I don’t think I want to because what have I got to offer my kid? Emotional hunger? False hopes? What is there worth preserving? I trust it’s high time we stopped perceiving the rapists and the murderers and the child molesters, those who participate in genocide, those who embezzle unfathomable sums of money, our capitalist system, as exceptional occurrences. They are one of us.

I want to tell my primary school teacher that it’s okay to want to be alone nowadays because disaster is just around the corner and that I do not wish anyone to suffer because of me or in my company. And I don’t think this is sad or tragic, it only feels so because for so long we’ve been living on this pile of shit. On the contrary, I believe this is very courageous. But my primary school teacher won’t understand that, she is adamant in her beliefs. These are mere thoughts, right? Happening in the mind, they can be persuaded into transformation. She will think I’m mad if I tell her that, just like Tony Kushner’s Harper Amaty Pitt from Angels in America, I have seen the “souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague” rising into the atmosphere to form “a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired.” She will blame the book. Because look at all those generations behind us, look how happy they were. It’s so easy. It’s so easy to say you don’t need food immediately after a good meal. It’s so easy, if only I could find myself a wife.

One thought on “Robb’s Last Tape (Take Five)

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