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Text Rocco Novi

Where do I start? From a chubby little boy with a few issues, but cocky too. I was good at volleyball, and could show off on the beach. I was good, I was obedient. I tried to work hard at school and to be friendly and nice in a way that made me stand out. Or should I start from my relationship with my mother?

My mum – a splendid sorceress. An enchantress who made potions in my imagination. I don’t believe I ever grew out of my Oedipus complex. I was twelve years old when my dad left home; and my brother, who was much older than me, also left to study in London. Neither of them ever came back except for Christmas or the odd birthday. When I got back from school, I got dinner ready for Mum for when she got home from work. My mum had a crazy life story. Her love life, her prison work with under eighteens. She knew the artists of every period. She said that if she had been born a man, she would have become a pilot. We used to stage chases and races at the traffic lights. On Sunday in the deserted supermarket car parks, we’d make the tyres squeal on the tarmac.

Or will I start from when I met Beatrice at eighteen? Bea is the mother of my three kids, the best they could have. I met her at a party. We went out on a date the next day and the next again – and so on until it was a given that we would spend every evening together. I fell in love… perhaps, yes. I de nitely loved her a lot and I still love her. From a good family, with strict morals, Catholic. e rst evening I was invited to dinner at Beatrice’s parents’ house, I was o ered fruit at the end of the meal. I saw her father take a peach and peel it with a knife and fork. I chose a banana. Lombardy, Venice, Nice, the lake. Every evening we made love in the car parked out of sight in some street or other. en we went to buy brioches. We spent our university years studying in the library together. Bea helped me revise for the exams. We had nearly nished our degrees and I was organizing our trip to Australia – we planned to be away for six months, maybe a year.

My mum phoned. “I’m in hospital, I had an accident, I’ve broken my femur. I went home worried, I got a bag and some crutches. I saw her in Accident and Emergency lying on a trolley. She smiled at me. “What’s wrong, Mum?” – “I was distracted for a moment, the car in front braked.”– Mum… – “I didn’t see it…” – “Mum, what’s wrong?” – e doctor arrived. He signed to me that we needed to talk. How old are you? – I’m twentytwo today. He gave me the diagnosis, bone secondaries, the femur to rebuild, 18-24 months at the most. “I still have to get some money back, I’ve postponed my departure for Australia…” – “Listen you silly boy, if you don’t leave on the 1st of July, I’m not going to go into hospital. You have to get on with your life. I’ve had mine. If you think you’re going to stay here to clean my backside instead of living your life, you better think again. Get your damned rucksack packed and get out of here. I’ll be here when you get back.”

On 21st July, Bea and I were in Bombay on our way to Australia. They signed us up to play extras in a Bollywood film – a couple having a co ee in a bar. “I don’t know … I don’t remember, I didn’t notice. It must be more than three weeks. I argued with the taxi-driver in Bombay and I threatened him. In Singapore we found a chemist’s that had tests. Bea went to the bathroom. “Where the hell are the instructions for this test?” We went for a walk. We bought a camera and I also wanted a video camera to lm my daughter’s rst steps. What’ll we do, Bea? – “this is our trip, we’ve been organizing it for years. Now there are going to be three of us.” We went back home for the birth of our child. My mum was better. She had stopped taking morphine and had started driving again. She had kept her word.

The second pregnancy wasn’t so simple. Beatrice got toxoplasmosis around the time she conceived. It was highly probable that the foetus would be infected and everyone advised us to have an abortion. We couldn’t do it. How could we have lived without knowing whether the baby was ok? My mum wanted to persuade Bea to have an abortion. She did her best – but the outcome was terrible. Relations between my mum and Bea became very strained and I was unable to intervene. I sat there on the rug looking at the oor and listening to Beatrice go on about my mother. e baby cried for her milk.

I began to take my mum to San Ra aele Hospital every day and Beatrice once a fortnight to Pavia to the centre for prenatal illnesses. At San Ra aele they told me my mum wouldn’t make it to October when the baby was due. In Pavia they told me it was di cult to know, but this was a good sign because if something had happened, then it would have meant that the foetus had been infected. e doctor admitted my mother to hospital and told me that she would not be coming home. It was September. My mum insisted that she wanted to see her grandchild and she wanted some treatment. She had it, it prolonged the agony. She died in May when the baby was six months old and we knew that our child had escaped the most serious defects. Her last advice was to learn how to say No. ere was a conversation that we should have had, but we never did have it.

Beatrice became pregnant a third time. We weren’t the slightest bit nervous at the gynaecologist’s. We wandered round the surgery with nonchalance. e third child was a boy. A er his birth I went in to hospital for a vasectomy. en I realized that that wasn’t the problem and that the operation was pointless. I remember that message so well: Do you want a blow job? – Why not?, I replied. He added: I like feet. Feet? I thought what sort of a pervert is this. When I met him, he looked at me in disbelief. Roberto said that I was better looking than in the photos I had sent him. He massaged my feet and he licked them. I liked that, but I got bored and moved on. I liked everything about him. I liked his big nose, his high forehead, I liked the tattoo he had on his chest, I liked the way he moved and how he touched me. I liked his short hair and my hand on his head. I liked seeing him during love-making, listening to him breathing. I continued to meet guys I met in chat rooms. It became a sort of drug, the feeling of pleasure and control. I met men older than me and I enjoyed seeing that I had power over them. I went into the chat room to see if Roberto had written to me and while I waited for him to reply, I wrote to other guys.

“Was it a good night? I haven’t slept.” I didn’t have to reply, I didn’t have to. Filippo, Roberto’s partner, was on the phone in a jealous rage. I should have ignored him. “Why are you telling me this?” – “You know, it’s your fault I’ve spent two nights in the car.” – “I’m sorry, I really am.” – “You be careful.” I didn’t reply. Was it a threat? I wasn’t afraid of him.

When we would meet, Roby and I had such a strong desire to make love. “Rocco, do you know what I’ve always wanted? To have a guy stronger than me who would fuck me senseless, who wouldn’t give a damn if I said he was hurting me. It’s a pity you wouldn’t be able to…” I was more than able. I looked at his face while I was inside him and he looked at me. He liked it but he looked frightened, perhaps he regretted what he had just said. e more I looked at him, the more he excited me. I got up o the bed. ere was blood on me and on the sheets – they would have to be washed.

I was very embarrassed and wished I could just not be there. What’s up?Filippo was the rst to speak. He told me about Roby’s past and the fact that he wasn’t just seeing me. I was perfectly aware of this. Knowing Roby, I knew that he wouldn’t wait until Saturday to have sex. He had missed his mark. Is there anything else? – “Roby’s HIV positive.” e voices from the neighbouring tables blended into a single noise. Filippo’s outline became blurred. I could feel sweat forming on my forehead. A er two years with Roberto, it took Filippo to tell me that Roby was HIV positive. He told me in a bar. I was sitting with a chocolate mu n in Corso Lodi. I also got a ticket that day.

I started to go for tests – different hospitals every week. The first ones were negative and they made me feel better. Roberto had been HIV positive for more than eight years and he wasn’t having any treatment. I was afraid for Bea, for the kids. The worst day wasn’t that day in the bar; it was the days after that when I had to manage my anxiety on my own. I looked up stuff on the Internet and I looked for contagion percentages – but that’s not how it was. I wasn’t angry with him, only with myself – and it’s a waste of time trying to say just how angry I was.

A month later I pretended that I had managed to access his electronic notes; I told him that I knew. He said that he had wanted to tell me but that he had been afraid to… And other similar stuff. He said that I could talk to his virologist. I replied that I hoped I’d be able to do without his virologist for the rest of my life. I looked at him: he was wearing a grey coat, he was slumped with his head down and his shoulders rounded. In a low voice, so that the people next to me couldn’t hear me, I said goodbye: Ciao, Roby.

In March I went for the last blood test. It was raining, the streets were like rivers. If the results were positive, they would phone me by this evening. I went home and tried to distract myself. I looked at the telephone every thirty seconds. The most difficult hours were between 3 and 5: two endless hours. I had had a cough and a sore throat. They were the first symptoms of seroconversion and the test would confirm this. I thought about how I would tell Beatrice who would have to go for a test. I was crying and sweating. My dad phoned me. I jumped. I told him I couldn’t talk, that I’d phone him later. It got to 5 o’clock, then 6, then 7. I was safe. I didn’t have HIV.

That evening, when Bea got home, I put the kids to bed and then I sat on the bed. I told her the whole story. I sobbed and cried. I could read her expression. There was compassion in Bea, there was anger, there was consternation. “You were my life and I was living it. That life is over now. It was worth living it. I need to see you happy in your new life before you leave here. I need to know that even in your new life you will find it rewarding to support your children and that you will also want to be closer to me. Before you go, let’s redraw our relationship. We are no longer a couple but we will be two parents prepared to bring up our children. I’ll still need you and you’ll need me. Don’t go now. Stay, hug me and continue to protect me as you always have done and tried to do.”

“You can’t imagine how much better I feel.” “Me too, I feel better. Let’s always tell each other everything, ok?” “Ok.” The first part of our lives was thus offcially laid to rest and we were gathering our strength for what was to come. The days that followed were not so easy. Bea’s mood was in a constant state of flux: from calm to despair, from peace of mind to dejection.
I felt grateful to him. If it hadn’t been for him… One Saturday morning I was in a bar, not in Corso Lodi, but in the suburbs, near Sesto. Filippo got there just after me. I looked at him. He was smiling and the laughter lines made him look nice. We had a cappuccino and a mu n, we didn’t say much. “Do you want to come up and see my place? – “Yes.” I went up with him. It was summer again. The screwdriver, Allen key and spanner were lying there for the bolts to put together a new purchase of some furniture. Filippo took off his sweat-soaked T-shirt. He kissed me. I was well aware that to him I was a curiosity that he had to satisfy. I knew that he wanted to understand what had taken Roberto away from him. We kissed and just as I had done with Roberto, I started to rub my body against his. We became aroused and I did with Filippo exactly what I used to do with Roberto. “You’re right, not even the virus wants me.” Roberto answered me immediately. “Can we meet up again then?” – “Yes, Roby. Yes.” The cat, the aquarium, the music – it was all just as before at his place, apart from us. We made love, this time taking all the necessary precautions, but it wasn’t so good any more. I was still in love with him, but I couldn’t get over what I had been through. We went away for a weekend. We threw ourselves into paragliding; we rented a dinghy and went rafting. Laughter, races, games, shared moments – but I didn’t want that. Our relationship was a constant battle. I was looking for the key to this power struggle, even physical. After two days together a disagreement ended in a fist fight. I was ashamed. I didn’t hear from him again. He wrote to me for a while. I didn’t reply. He stopped writing to me. I don’t know how this will pan out. I am here now, looking out of the window. It is raining. The sound of the rain hypnotizes me and marks the imperceptible passage of time. I look at the rain-soaked windows and see my rejection. My image in the glass is blurred, washed out, my features blurred by the vertical rivulets of rain. On the nearby table are the drawings the children gave me before going to bed. They are colourful drawings of ghost catchers, exotic castles, witch’s clothes, dragons and fairies, and good warriors with dangerous powerful weapons, animals and landscapes – of Mummy and Daddy holding hands.

Ph. Robert Mapplethorpe

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