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Chapter Text

Out of the four nights I slept on the streets this one is by far the coldest. Loud dance music spills from the house onto the porch steps I’m lying on. Every time someone opens the door, the music’s volume goes up. From time to time I see people passing by, leaving and entering the house, some dressed in 9-to-5 clothes, others wearing not more than I do. All are men from the age of 40 and onwards. The looks they give me vary from suspicious to repulsive.

I sit up straight, turn my back to the house and watch Marco’s friends walk the steps without acknowledging my presence. Nights like this have occurred more frequently for the past few weeks. Either Marco wants me to sleep with him or he doesn’t want me to sleep at all. What he’s doing when I’m roaming the streets at night I don’t want to know.

Wrapping my arms around my chest, I try to catch a glimpse of the 37 degrees inside of me. My fingers are frozen to the bone, the rest of my body isn’t in a better state. I have long given up on the thought that Marco leaves the house, welcoming me inside and apologizing for keeping me up for so long. It’s both a blessing and a curse to suddenly hear his voice.

‘You’re scaring away my clients.’

With only his voice he pulls me up. Dizzy from the lack of sleep and food, I try to find a balance in Marco’s shoulder. He stretches out his arms, not to catch me but to turn me around and take a proper look at me.

‘You smell,’ he says, ‘and you look absolutely horrible. What’s so hard about basic hygiene?’

A shade of red creeps upon my cheeks.

‘The pond is frozen,’ I say, eyes lowered.

‘Then go wash yourself elsewhere. I won’t let you sleep in my bed if you can’t maintain yourself.’

Marco inspects me from top to bottom. His eyes stop at my midriff.

‘Show me the bruise,’ he commands.

Slowly I lift up my shirt, exposing the ribs and bones stretching the skin like a scale model of the Himalayas. One of the lower ribs is making an unnatural angle compared to the others. Marco presses his fingers against the bruised skin. I double over in pain.

‘Tut, tut,’ he does, watching me cover the bruise with my hands. ‘Still hurts?’

‘It’s okay,’ I lie.

‘It better be. It’s your own dumb fault after all.’

Was it? The accident is a complete blur to me. One moment I stood in Marco’s living room and what he promised me was just a minute later I woke up holding tight to the coffee table. Out of nowhere I had fainted and whilst trying to redeem myself in front of Marco’s friends I had only made the pain worse by losing grip on the table. I vaguely remember his words floating above me: "so useless he can’t even stand on two legs."

‘You’re right,’ I say, and when his expression softens, I dare to ask him: ‘can I please come with you?’

His eyes narrow, giving away the ‘no’ he’s going to declare in his upcoming rage.

‘You think I can just let you in after you embarrassed me in front of my clients? They think I’m dating a druggie.’ He shakes his head. ‘This is for your own good. If you can’t behave around my house I can’t let you in.’

I lower my head in shame. Marco’s friends must be watching me from behind the window, laughing and snapping pictures of the disgusting little whore Marco calls his boyfriend. What is it about the little whore that makes a high class business man so interested in him? Marco is too good for me and yet here he is, checking whether I’m okay.

‘I get it,’ I say, voice shaking.

‘Good.’

‘What can I do to make you feel better?’

‘Leave.’

The answer doesn’t come as a surprise. Still, I feel the tears burning behind my eyes.

‘Can you please bring me a hoodie?’ I ask. ‘And maybe something to eat? I’m cold.’

I can sense his annoyance when he turns around and enters the house. A few minutes later, when I don’t expect him to come back anymore, he reappears, a worn-out hoodie and pizza box in hand.

Marco sinks his teeth in to the pizza and hands me the crusts. Trying not to be too gluttonous, I wait for him to finish before I take a bite, chewing painfully slow on the dry dough.

‘Greedy boy.’ Marco smiles. ‘Feeling better?’

I nod, keeping the hoodie close to my chest. The fabric smells like him.

‘I have to go back inside.’ Marco bends forward to kiss me on the cheek. ‘Go wash yourself.

Tomorrow we’ll see if you’re ready to sleep with me again.’

Chapter Text

It all started with a toddler falling off his bike.

A blonde boy, not older than four, whose feet got entangled with the pedals. He slipped, fell to his side and became stuck between his bike and the ground. Black dirt covered his face, mixed with drops of blood coming from his nose. I saw it happening at close range. Must be the first to hear him cry for his mother.

However, instead of helping him, I took out my camera and made several pictures.

At first the toddler didn’t see me. The cries for his mother turned into elongated consonants with no beginning nor end. Just when I expected him to throw up his longs, he became aware of my presence. He abandoned his cries and stared at the lens with open mouth.

I shot one last picture and left.

At home I went through the pictures. They weren’t taken with my usual precision and most were too blurry to distinguish the child’s tears from the flash. I must’ve been shaking without knowing so, which could be both a good and bad thing. Shaking is what a normal human would do if they saw a toddler falling off their bike, though I’m pretty sure I was shaking more out of excitement for new material than out of worry.

Printing the best picture to decorate my side of the atelier with, I thought of more situations I could secretly photograph: murders, assaults, suicides. Plans emerged from the brain that wasn’t used to inspiration anymore. If this was the source that could launch my artistic career, I should do it, regardless of the consequences.

Ever since it has become an addiction to look for situations too cruel to be caught on camera.

In the weeks following I figured out which spots and neighborhoods were prone to violence. I shot pictures of AS Roma’s supporters beating up the counterparty’s after losing a match, hid behind a building when an old lady got mugged and spied on two people arguing waiting for the moment one of them would lash out. Overall I witnessed 32 similar situations and didn’t call the police in any of those.

The pictures I’ve shot are too graphic to be displayed in the atelier. Nosebleeds, fingers dislocated, hair pulled out, teeth flying around… Something fascinates me about the idea that, at that moment, I am the one to decide who gets to live or die. It isn’t about having the guts to step in or call the police. For one brief moment, I have the power to either end the fight or leave.

No one has seen the pictures yet, not even Eleni, whom I share the atelier with. Only the picture of the child and the bike is open to the public. I tell everyone it’s staged. Why exactly, I don’t know. Maybe I’m more ashamed of myself than I’d like to admit.

-

‘You’re going out tonight?’ Eleni gestures at the camera around my neck. She stands in front of an easel, pallet with peach colors in hand. Sweat drips from underneath the bandana that holds back her hair. How Eleni gets sweaty from painting I will never understand.

I nod in reply. ‘There’s a party going on at Mercy’s. See if I can get a few puking artists on camera.’

Mercy’s is the café which mostly runs on students from the Faniello Academy, the art school me and Eleni graduated from a few years ago. I made her believe I’m currently working on a project that reflects the night life in Rome. Although I always make sure my lies are covered, Eleni never digs for evidence. The reason we get along so well is because we’re both excellent at minding our own business.

What would she do if I told her the truth? Knowing her, she’d be disappointed, but eventually blame the arts for turning me into an irresponsible coward. Back in Faniello’s we used that excuse so many times its intrinsically linked to our afterschool reality. We smoked weed, self-harmed and fucked around all for the purpose of becoming a better artist.

‘Experience it what makes a human being interesting,’ we took that quote from our headmaster far too serious.

Before leaving, I wish Eleni good luck with her painting. She replies by waving at me with the brush she’s holding.

‘You too.’

Chapter Text

‘The usual? With the receipt?’ Bojana asks when I sit down at the bar. The length of the barstool makes my feet dangle a few centimeters above the ground. Due to the lack of guests in The Aphrodisiac the usually talked through lounge music is audible, making me sleepier with each beat.

As much as I’d love to freshen my mind with a drink I have to shake my head. The tiny amount of money Marco gave me to survive the week with I’ve spent already. Each month he seems to reduce the sum. Whereas I could afford three meals a day and an optional roof over my head only one year ago, I now occasionally skip lunchtime to save money. Combine that with Marco’s tendency to kick me out of the house at night and I’m left with nothing.

Sometimes I save up money and buy a drink solely to show Bojana that Marco provides me with enough to allow myself to. Since cutting back on maintaining me I’ve had no opportunity to buy anything else beside the essentials. If I’m as lucky as to find Bojana having a shift at The Aphrodisiac I can get a drink for free. What’s left of the food at the end of the night she puts in a Tupperware for me to pick up when in need. If possible, I pay her. If not, I ask for one drink or nothing at all. I don’t want to take too much advantage of her kindness.

Bojana frowns. Her cheeks are like a hamster’s at wintertime, but instead of food there are insults hidden inside, most of them addressed to Marco.

‘You want one for free then?’ she asks.

‘No, it’s okay. I’m fine.’

From her pressed together lips I can see how much she wants to tell me what an absolute idiot I am. Instead, she puts a plate with leftover egg rolls in front of me.

‘You need to put on some weight. Those hollow cheeks haunt me in my dreams.’

She bends forward to pinch the skin tightly wrapped around my cheekbones. From the way Marco’s pants are dangerously low down my hips I know I’ve lost weight. Not that I’m surprised. Food has always been a negligible priority to me. I only eat to please Marco. If it weren’t for him, I would’ve stopped eating a long time ago.

It’s not like I need it in the first place. Thanks to my father I learned how to survive days without a bite. My personal record is eight days in a row, when he locked me up as a punishment for losing the key of the front door. For days I drank only water. Afterwards, I felt so dizzy my father had to drag me out of the tiny room near the washing machine, the room he used solely for my punishments and where I couldn’t sit upright anymore by the time I was 13. His cruelty taught me how to not give in to my body’s needs. As long as I can stand the hunger, it’s not a big deal. Besides, the smaller I am, the less space there is to hurt me.

I push aside the thought of my father and smile at Bojana.

‘Really, Ermal,’ Bojana continues, not falling for it, ‘you’re not looking well. Does Marco feed you enough?’

‘Yes.’

‘And have you been sleeping well?’

‘Is this an intervention or what?’

Bojana shakes her head. ‘Just worried. You know how I think about Marco.’

In this part of Rome Marco’s name is a phenomena. With his fortune he has provided shelter for over a thousand immigrants, me included. Until ten years ago “Marco” and “humanitarian” were synonyms. What happened exactly I never understood. Some say he was caught human trafficking, others spoke of corruption, prostitution and drug-dealing. Marco himself denies all of the accusations made towards him. He made mistakes, but I believe he’s not a bad person.

‘He has changed,’ I say. ‘He deserves another chance.’

Bojana doesn’t respond. She taps with her nails on the plate with egg rolls as to grab my attention. After two bites I shove the plate aside. It’s too much.

‘Shall I put them in a Tupperware for you?’ Bojana asks.

I shake my head and jump off the barstool. The sneakers I’m wearing are so worn out that I can feel the floor underneath the sole. Perhaps if I use the fountain on the square nearby to wash myself, Marco will let me in.

‘Marco and I are going out tonight,’ I lie, and when her forehead turns into a frown, I quickly add: ‘He has promised me diner at Crisalide.’

‘Well,’ Bojana says, holding up a Tupperware, ‘if he changes his mind, I’ve food for you here.’

‘Don’t worry, Marco isn’t that bad.’

I smile to reassure her I’m okay. She doesn’t seem to be convinced.

Chapter Text

Mercy’s is located in the northern part of Rome. Though I don’t actually intend to go there, it is on the same route of where I do want to go. Every week I switch between the metro and the twenty minute walk it takes from my apartment to get there. Despite the bitter cold I decide to go on foot.

With my coat buttoned all the way up to my chin and a beanie covering my ears I start walking. To ensure I can use my camera at any given moment I’ve left my gloves at home, causing my fingers to stiffen as soon as I free them from my pockets. Never has the sun tattooed on the back of my left hand smirked at me with so much hatred. I smirk back.

The cold doesn’t keep the party animals from the streets. As I pass the countless of cafés and clubs in the alleys I see the current generation of students celebrating the weekend. Only a few years ago I could easily blend in. I graduated from Faniello’s at 35 while all my classmates were in their early 20’s, except Eleni, who was 29 at the time. After recovering from my addiction I had the strong urge to make something out of my life. That I was the only 30 year old that showed up to Faniello’s auditions boosted this urge.

I could’ve been like them, I thought to myself, but I ruined my first chance and now it’s up to the second chance to decide whether I’m worthy of living. Not everyone gets this chance.

With a series of photographs on which I permanently tattooed the scars of my heroin use in the crook of my arm I eventually got in.

Now that it’s not part of my life anymore I might have a clue of where it all started. Though I don’t like to point fingers, it’s safe to say my parent’s restaurant had something to do with it. Gabbani’s, it is called, a family business that has been handed down from father to son for the past two centuries. Since I happen to be the oldest of the bunch, I was the first to be introduced to the kitchen. Pretty soon it became apparent that I had no talents other than seasoning the potatoes. The moment I touched the stove everything went downhill. I couldn’t focus, which was a result of the ADD I was diagnosed with later in life.

Back then my parents blamed it on my carelessness. For generations the oldest son had taken over the restaurant, so why couldn’t I? What was wrong with Fabrizio, their oldest son, whose hands weren’t blessed with the gift of cooking? All hope was subsequently set on Francesco, my little brother. Once he was old enough to make his debut they shoved me aside.

Francesco is now the owner of Gabbani’s, which has expanded to locations all over Europe. A smart move, considering he is likely to break with the family tradition of handing it down from father to son. Like me, Francesco is bisexual, and by the looks of it he won’t be the one to produce a gifted child. He has a boyfriend and as far as I know neither of them want children.

I often contemplate what would’ve happened if Francesco was my parent’s oldest son instead of me. If there would be a reason for me to escape from reality. Back in the clinic my therapist used to say that, if it weren’t for the restaurant, something else would’ve triggered the addict in me. That’s how addiction works. I’m not sure if I work like that, too. And what sort of situation could possibly make me beg for drugs? Despite the pressure to keep the family tradition intact my childhood was fine. No bullies, no frisky uncles, no strange men who tricked me into their white vans with candy. It has always been me, Fabrizio, the problem.

A few meters under my feet the Tiber calmly flows its way to the Tyrrhenian Sea. On the other side of the bridge I’m standing on the lights of Faniello Square shine brightly. The school itself is often mistaken by tourists for sacred ground due to it originally being a monastery. All around the school hints can be found, including pillars, crosses and mosaic windows. How often we would pretend to be a tour guide and lead them around with made up stories of the building. You see the windows? Designed by Beatrice’ grandnephew. The crossed out O’s in the façade? Removed after World War Two because of its resemblance to the swastika. Sir, please don’t touch that pillar. Boccaccio mentions the curse in Il Decameron. Haven’t read it, I see.

Thinking back, I can’t suppress a smile. None of the stories were the same, only one. The grand final of the tour took place at the fountain in front of the Academy. This, we used to tell them, is where Pope Pontian was named the next Pope. Afterwards, he peed in the fountain to bless all who drink from its water.

Some tourists were as crazy to do so. With the money they threw in we used to buy lunch. What ended the storytelling tradition was a man who suffered from a psychosis which made him take a shit in the fountain, proclaiming he’d become a saint. Seeing how serious it was, nobody dared to do it ever again.

Regardless of the disastrous ending, it is still one of my favorite memories from my time at Faniello’s. The school changed me in a good way. There, I didn’t have to be ashamed of not living up to my parents’ expectation. Instead I was allowed to dive into a whole new world where cooking didn’t matter. Everything was art. From the stories we told the tourists to what I’m doing right now, standing in the middle of the bridge and waiting for Exhibit 33.

Chapter Text

The water has been removed from the fountain in front of the Faniello Academy. I lie down on the wall surrounding the fountain and run my fingers through the empty bowl as if it’s still there. When I had just arrived in Italy I used to climb inside and collect the coins thrown in by tourists. How guilty I felt to take away the wishes that were attached to the money. One day, I promised, I would return and double the amount.

I turn my head to face the building on the other side of the square. ‘Faniello Academy for the arts’, it says on the front, the o’s crossed out. The name triggers a memory of when I first came into contact with Marco.

He was a customer of Serhat, the pimp who tricked me into thinking he could fix me a scholarship at Faniello’s after seeing me perform a song I’d written myself back in Tirana. I was 22 and lived in a room with a mattress and no windows. Five years prior I’d decided to run away from home. My mother had just died and so did the only reason to stay. With little money and even less of a plan I took the train from Fier to Tirana and promised myself to never let anyone touch me the way my father had done.

My life in Tirana wasn’t ideal. The money I gained from performing was barely enough to maintain myself and the room reminded me too much of the one my father used to lock me in, resulting in vivid nightmares about him. With each night I grew more anxious. At one point I was too afraid to go to sleep and face what was left of my father, a projection with hands and words just as powerful as I remembered them.

I had to get away even further before either the nightmares or the lack of sleep drove me to madness. Every opportunity to escape the country I would’ve taken. If Serhat was a drug dealer who needed unfortunate souls to smuggle drugs across Europe I would have done it, too. I couldn’t believe my ears when he offered me the exact opposite: a scholarship at Faniello’s, the most prestigious music school in Italy.

Hadn’t I been over the moon from the idea of becoming a musician, the fact we’d fly from Tirana to Bari should’ve made the pieces fall into place. From there on, it was only a thirty minute drive to Rome, he promised me. I didn’t know much about Italy’s geography other than that it was shaped like a boot. Through the sweet talk I failed to see his true intentions. Only when I had sex with my first customer I realized there was no scholarship. Serhat had taken advantage of my biggest dream to widen his assortment of sex slaves. In this foreign country, surrounded by strangers who were merely interested in sex, I could do nothing else but obey.

The room I slept in was the same one I welcomed guests to. I didn’t see much else than the obsolete furniture and the alley my window looked out on, as I had aroused too much suspicion to be allowed outside by trying to escape several times. Though I wasn’t the only one working for Serhat, I haven’t seen much of the other people living in the house. The spare moments I had permission to be outside of my room, I walked past the signs describing what could be found behind the doors. Mine said: 25-30 y/o curly-haired, skinny, youthful, doesn’t speak Italian, 30 euros per hour.

Cruel as it might be, the sign saved my life.

Marco was nothing like my other customers . In fact, I hadn’t seen no one else like him before. An indigo suit covered a slightly muscled body, paired with shoes that must’ve cost more than everything in the room combined. The stretcher in his earlobe gave his look a rebellious touch, as did the bushy beard and eyebrows. He was easily the most handsome man I had ever seen.

‘Bel raggazo,’ he said to Serhat. To me he spoke in a language in between English and Albanian. It was strange to hear my mother tongue after all those years. From the mispronounced a’s and o’s I could tell he wasn’t a native Albanian, but the mouth it came from was too beautiful to point out the mistakes.

‘Curls,’ he said to me, pointing to his own short cropped hair. ‘I like them. Never seen a full head like yours before. Your description didn’t lie.’

I smiled shyly. Once the door separated us from Serhat, Marco walked up to me.

‘You speak Albanian.’ My voice hid in my throat, silenced by my fascination for him.

‘Don’t be so surprised. It’s not an extinct language.’ Back to English. He produced a laugh that showed his teeth. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Ermal.’

‘I’m Marco.’

Customers never introduced themselves. Only the ones that wanted me to scream their name during the sex. But Marco and I didn’t have sex that day. Until our fifth meeting I wouldn’t even touch him properly. All Marco wanted was to talk. About his business, his divorce, his hobbies. He gave me money in exchange for a sympathetic ear. His ranting eventually turned in to a conversation, with input from my side. Chunks of my childhood were spilled on the blankets of my bed. I told him about my parents and the poor neighborhood I grew up in. He was the first to hear about my father.

‘What happened to you,’ he said one day as we lied next to each other, ‘will never happen again. I promise. You’re coming with me.’

‘How?’

‘You’ll see. We’re leaving, Ermal. You and me.’

The escapade went as planned. The only thing bothering me was my intuition, a vague pain in the bottom of my stomach. From the moment we sneaked out of the house to boarding the plane I felt unsafe. Only Marco’s presence could cheer me up. He didn’t let go of my hand until we arrived in Rome.

He had a house bigger than he could describe. Never in my life had I seen so much rooms I could be locked up in. When I told Marco of this fear, he insisted to remove the locks and offered me the biggest room available, one you could see the Tiber from out of the window. We slept there together, in the same bed, my back pressed against his belly. The nightmares started to fade. With Marco next to me, my father didn’t seem that powerful anymore.

I felt safe, but not for long. My intuition was right. Serhat did know of our plan. And he wanted revenge.

He knew he couldn’t take me back. Like Serhat, Marco had connections. He could bring Serhats business down in the blink of an eye. Serhat couldn’t risk it, so he did something else. Something so cruel, it immediately replaced the nightmares of my father.

He sent his regular customers to rape me.

I straighten my back and wipe away the tears with the sleeves of Marco’s hoodie. The streetlights seem brighter than before, brutally pushing me back to that evening. Of course, I’ve had sex before, it’s what I did and still do. But no customer could compare to the hand covering my mouth, the laughter, the man who unzipped my pants and forced himself inside of me. I opened my mouth to scream, but was muted by another penis mercilessly reaching for the back of my throat. With how many they were I couldn’t count. Four, at least, if not more. They feasted on my body as if I were a pig on a buffet. Every part is edible – the ears, the brains, the eyes. Even the bones.

They dumped me in an alley, clothes ripped off a body that barely functioned to begin with and was now, in this state, completely destroyed. Although fully conscious, I didn’t move until I was found by Bojana, who brought me to Marco.

He had no idea what to do with me. I stayed in bed, but couldn’t sleep. The few times I showed up for diner I refused to eat. Every single touch, was it my own hand or a spoon being forced inside my mouth, made me sick. Months went by without any changes. It sickened me to think that a normal body wouldn’t have made it that far into oblivion, but mine was used to it. It had gone through all stages of physical abuse; self-destruction was just the not-so-grande finale.

I test out my knees before pulling myself up. With a sharp sting the rib lets me know it hasn’t healed yet. My body has become more fragile since leaving it to rot for months. What caused me to get out of bed I’m not sure about. The easiest answer is that my customers grew impatient and Marco needed money. At some point it’s either try or die. Yet again I chose to live, but what for exactly?

Perhaps for Marco. I need to get clean for Marco.

Much more tired than I was before, I start walking in the direction of the Tiber, the only source of water that so far has survived the weather.

Chapter Text

For half an hour the only sign of life is the dance music from a party nearby. An unpleasant wind rises from the river. Unable to stretch my fingers due to the cold, they seem to be permanently wrapped around the camera.

This is my sixth night on the bridge. It was an old classmate with who I spoke first about it. Elhaida is her name, a girl from Albania. In the first two years she never stood out to me. Unlike our other classmates, she had no subject in which she excelled. Her ideas weren’t particularly interesting and the work she made didn’t blew minds. Eleni and I were convinced she’d be kicked out eventually. Little did we know Elhaida had more in store. During the final exhibition of the second year she proved herself worthy by building a replica of our school out of Lego. After she received the highest mark of the class, nobody dared to doubt her ever again.

We bumped into each other at the auditions of Faniello’s a few weeks ago. Both asked to express our opinions on the works of the potential students, we spoke about what we were up to nowadays. Elhaida was given the opportunity to exhibit her work in Denmark. She proudly showed me pictures of the buildings and artworks she had recreated with Lego. Creating might not have been her best subject, but her ability to replicate The Little Mermaid with such precision was downright impressive.

When it was my turn to speak, we were interrupted by a girl Elhaida seemed to know. While catching up with each other, I heard Elhaida mentioning Hersi, a classmate who failed to graduate in the same year as us.

‘Have you heard about Hersi?’ Elhaida said after the girl had left. ‘She has tried to jump off the Martini Bridge. Fortunately there was someone around who saw her climbing over the rail.’

I tried to react concerned. In reality, my emotions weren’t that active anymore. It’s what happens when you witness so much misery.

‘Did she jump?’ I asked.

Elhaida shook her head. ‘She didn’t, but many have.’

I have lived in Rome for most of my life, but the story of the suicide bridge I hadn’t heard before. According to Elhaida, Hersi wasn’t the first and probably not the last, given the reputation the bridge has amongst the suicidal. In the past year 17 suicides have occurred and those are only the fatal cases. God knows how many people have walked over this bridge with the intention to jump.

Though it had been one of the first examples of situations I came up with, I hadn’t managed to encounter a suicide. Perhaps I’d been avoiding those on purpose. The photos in my collection are all of situations in which the physical action plays a big part. A verbal insult won’t work as a picture and so won’t a person going through the stages of wanting to die or not. It can’t be an attempt. For a suicide to be successfully captured on camera, the person has to jump, cut or hang themselves.

I can’t say for sure whether I’ll interfere or not. When I was admitted to the rehabilitation center, I wasn’t necessarily suicidal, but to say I was dying to live and beat my addiction wouldn’t be true either. Taking drugs and committing suicide are somewhat related. They’re both attempts to escape reality. Since I wasn’t allowed to use heroin, dead seemed to be the only option that could provide similar results.

Those thoughts didn’t get the better of me, but what if they do to someone else? Will I interfere as if I hadn’t been there myself? Or will I do like I always do: take a picture and walk away?

As if the answer has been there all the time, I see someone stepping into the lights watching over the riverside. Quickly I bend down and peek through the bars of the railing.

It’s a man.

With my camera pressed between two bars I zoom in on his face. The closer he gets, the more he has to offer. My camera adjusts itself to the man almost naturally. I close one eye to get a better focus. What immediately strikes me is that I’m not certain about his age. He could be anywhere between twenty and forty. His skinny physique seems underdeveloped compared to his facial features, especially combined with the oversized clothes which are probably meant to hide, but emphasize his body instead. A few curls escape from the hoodie he wears over his head.

If Eleni were to paint him, she would’ve gotten rid of the hollowed cheeks and bags under his eyes. To me these are the features that are crucial to the whole experience. That’s what he is – an experience. Something is off about him. You can place him in any context and he wouldn’t belong there. Theoretically spoken, his unkempt appearance fits the description of a person ready to jump off the bridge, but I know he won’t. He’s too innocent to even enter the bridge.

I’m pretty sure he could see me if his gaze wasn’t permanently glued to the ground. Walking up to the emergency ladder that leads directly in to the Tiber, he takes off his tiny backpack and gets out a toothbrush.

Then, out of nowhere, he starts undressing himself.

‘For the sake of God,’ I whisper to no one in particular, ‘what the fuck are you doing?’

From under the sweater a prominent ribcage appears. Bending down to untie his shoes, he presses a hand against his lower ribs as if in pain, but continues to reach for his feet anyway. In less than twenty seconds he’s naked from top to bottom and I can’t help but take pictures. Ten, twenty, maybe fifty, until my camera complains that the memory card needs to be emptied.

It’s all in the way he climbs down the ladder, toothbrush between his lips, how the temperature of the water affects the permanent frown on his face. His pale skin that disappears under the surface, little by little, as if he needs permission from his body first. When the water reaches his chest he lets go of the ladder. Neck deep in to the river, he keeps himself up by circularly moving his legs.

He brushes his teeth without tooth paste. I delete a few pictures to capture the moment he climbs up the stairs again, his body begging for warmth. But he doesn’t give in. For five minutes straight he stands there, naked, neither moving nor blinking. When he gets in to his clothes without drying off first, I get why: he has no towel.

I have tissues in my pockets. A perfect excuse would be to offer him some. As soon as the idea comes in I shove it aside. What if he sees the camera and connects the dots? I can’t risk being caught. Not with this gold mine on my memory card.

As he turns away from the river something catches my eye. Something I didn’t notice earlier. Realizing what it is, I let go of the camera and cover my mouth with my hands.

How can I be so blind? The piercing in his eyebrow. The lack of curves in his body. The curls.

It’s him.

It’s Exhibit 13.

Chapter Text

With my clothes heavy and soaked the wind blows mercilessly through me. Shivering, I walk in the direction of Marco’s house, my arms crossed across my chest to keep out the cold that has already found my body. Water drips from my out-of-control curls. I’ve tried to keep them dry by keeping my head up, but underestimated the length. Straightened from the water weight, they touch my collar bones.

I cross Faniello’s Square to the part of Rome popular with the Academy’s students. The line in front of Mercy’s reaches up to The Aphrodisiac. Through the window I see Bojana serving her customers. Quickly and without greeting her I walk past the glass. As much as I’d love to mute the hunger pangs with her egg rolls, I have to leave the lie I told her earlier tonight in place.

I walk in a fast pace to keep myself warm. My clothes stick to my body as the skin of a molting reptile. Where Faniello Steet goes over in Boschetto Street marks the beginning of Emilia, the wealthiest neighborhood of Rome. Only the elite can afford to live here. The houses get bigger along with the distance between them. The average size matches the income of a specialized doctor.

Marco’s house is right next to the Tiber and takes up more space than is actually used. Most of the rooms are empty and the garden could use a trim. The fence surrounding the house is closed. Behind the window I see no movements. Before pressing the button that connects me with the intercom, I check my face in the tiny screen of the Nokia Marco gave me. The bath hasn’t taken away the overly pronounced cheekbones, but at least I don’t smell anymore.

To be sure he hasn’t contacted me earlier, I open the phone’s mailbox only to be greeted by old texts from anonymous phone numbers. Marco uses an app to hide his number, which means I can’t call him back or send him texts. He also has an app to detect activities on the phone, like when a number is being added to the contact list or when someone else calls me. For this reason the contact list is empty. The only name that was once inside was Bojana’s. When Marco found out he was furious. Apparently the messages that are being send from or to my phone go straight to his.

It was an innocent message that caused him to erupt. Whether or not I’d decided to report the rape to the police.

Maybe, was my response.

Confronting me with the answer, Marco’s body language changed from soft-spoken to livid. His eyes darkened, something that would have set off the alarm if he were my father.

Afterwards he carried my beaten-up body to bed. In an attempt to comfort my stomach Marco drew circles on my belly. A bruise formed under his fingertips from the impact of his fists. Roughly caressing the spot, he reminded me of the consequences of involving the police. Why Bojana, someone who stood behind them, couldn’t be trusted.

‘Did they ever offer you their service when your father beat you up?’ he asked, his voice dripping with honey while each word came with a teasing push in my stomach, nothing compared to the punches from earlier that night but enough to wake the little food I’d eaten.

‘Well?’

I was too afraid to respond. Vomit found its way to my mouth.

‘Ermal?’

I gagged.

‘Do you think’ – and he pushed – ‘there are people out there’ – and pushed – ‘who genuinely care for someone’ – and pushed – ‘who lets himself’ – and kept pushing – ‘get raped?’

With Marco towering over me, I had no opportunity to let the vomit flow. My mouth kept filling up even without the pressure on my stomach. Struggling to keep up with the pace I started panicking.

‘Swallow,’ Marco said.

When I refused to, he brought his hands to my face and closed my nose and mouth. What was left of my ability to scream turned in to beastly groans.

‘Where is my seed-swallowing slut?’ He repositioned himself on top of me. I felt his erection straining against his pants. By pushing my arms back with his knees he shut down my entire body. Only my legs escaped his grip, but I suddenly lacked the energy to kick around like I had before.

‘Swallow. You don’t want to die, do you? Swallow and then it’ll be over.’

Eyes closed tightly, I did as he told. When Marco let go of me, I immediately rushed to the bathroom to finish the deed. I’d stay there for two days, lying on an improvised bed made out of dirty towels, too weak to move. Every now and then Marco came to look at me. He didn’t say much, but from the look in his eyes I knew he was sorry.

That’s the difference between Marco and my father. Marco makes up for the mess he causes. When I fell into an almost catatonic state he didn’t leave my side. He admitted that he had been wrong, that he didn’t know how to deal with the rape and would do everything to see me happy again.

My father would never take a second look at the wounds he had inflicted. His temper cannot be compared to Marco’s. Unlike my father, Marco loves me. What he does to express this love may not fit in everyone’s perspective, but I know he means well.

A cracking voice coming from the intercom interrupts my thoughts.

‘What are you doing here?’

I never know if to directly look into the camera or not, so instead I focus on the iron plate that says M. Mengoni.

‘I washed myself.’

‘What?’

‘I’m clean,’ I repeat.

A minute of silence passes. I try my hardest not to think of what will happen if he won’t let me in.

‘And your point is?’

‘Can I sleep here?’

Mumbling in the background. Music being turned on and off.

‘I told you not to come here.’

‘I know,’ I say, ‘but it’s really cold and I’m wet.’

I hear Marco sighing on the other side of the intercom.

‘Wait there,’ he says, ‘I want to see you first.’

Chapter Text

Summer break was just around the corner and Mercy’s got its hands full on the graduates that came to celebrate after the official ceremony. More students stood in the queue outside the bar than there were inside. It was a hot evening and Eleni and I weren’t in the mood to wait for our turn. We decided to move to The Aphrodisiac, a peaceful bar nearby, to get a few drinks, with the intention to return to Mercy’s at a later time.

The Aphrodisiac was used to giving shelter to the students and graduates who didn’t get into Mercy’s. Inside it was almost as busy. Eleni and I joined a group of third-years who happened to know Eleni. One of them I recognized as Cleo, a girl who had been hitting on me for ages. Other than that she was a student who specialized in photography I didn’t know much about her. Spotting the camera around my neck gave Cleo the opportunity to change that. Out of politeness I accepted her attempts to converse.

To understand each other better she changed places with the girl sitting next to me. The small talk that followed wasn’t that interesting. We chatted about the photographers we admired and the exhibitions we’d attended. With every name I mentioned she let out a shriek and said how much she loved this particular work. I noticed how she came closer and closer, entering my comfort zone by putting her hand to my face as she explained the series of pictures she had in mind. I wanted to get away, but Eleni, the only person who would’ve gotten my non-verbal pleas to get me out of this situation, was busy talking to someone else.

Cleo’s fingers had reached the camera, the object that – thank God - blocked my chest.

‘And what are you working on?’ she asked.

The weekend before I had taken pictures of a second-year’s drink getting spiked. Normally I would’ve deleted them the moment I got home, but as I was busy with the deadline for a request I hadn’t found the time to transfer them to my laptop. The pictures were still on the memory card inside the camera.

‘Uh,’ I began, awkwardly searching for an explanation, ‘I, eh, you can’t see them.’

‘Why not?’

‘It’s, eh -’ Trying to come up with an excuse, I decided that I might as well combine it with a way to shrug her off. ‘I’m doing a project on nudity.’

‘O?’

‘Yes,’ I said, and to strengthen the lie I added: ‘my girlfriend wouldn’t want anyone to see her naked. Except me, of course.’

The corner of Cleo’s mouth turned downwards. Her eyes found Eleni across the table we sat at, the only girl who had managed to break through the barrier surrounding me. From her body language I could tell she felt betrayed.

‘I’m going to get some drinks.’ I jumped up from my seat. ‘You want something?’

Cleo shook her head. In a snarky tone she added that last week Saara’s drink had been spiked and that it’d be better not to take anything from strangers.

I decided not to go into it and ordered a beer at the bar. With the drink in hand I fought my way through to crowd to the smoking area outside, a small garden with a shack. Since it was as easy as to go outside through the main entrance to smoke, no one ever came here.

Only when I sat down on the shaky bench I noticed my fastened heartbeat. I put down my drink and lightened up the last cigarette in the pack. Girls were uncharted territory to me. Though I’d came out to my parents as bisexual, all my past relationships had been with men. I was almost sure it wasn’t just a preference. The only thing that kept me from telling my family was Francesco’s current boyfriend. With them unable to get children the generic way, I held the key to produce a son that could take over Gabbani’s. That way I could apologize to my parents for not being the son they expected me to be.

Still shaking, I sucked the last puff out of my cigarette and put it out with my foot. What kept me from going back inside was a scream that was immediately cut off by a voice telling it to quiet down. Muffled screams followed. I couldn’t quite place the other noises, but from the way my legs automatically moved in that direction I knew someone was in danger.

*

It came from the alley behind the shack. With a little help from the drainpipe I could easily get up the roof. Carefully I placed my foot on a protruding stone and lifted myself up using the pipe. On all fours I crawled to the other edge of the roof. From there I could look down on the alley and what I saw wasn’t pretty.

One man kept the victim in place from behind. The victim itself sat on his knees and his hands were tied together by another man. This man, who I’d later name Exhibit 13.1, forced his penis inside the victim’s mouth, causing his screams to fade. The man who stood behind the victim, Exhibit 13.2, was the second one to go inside. He stroked the victim’s butt with his penis before roughly entering the anus. The other men, Exhibit 13.3 and Exhibit 13.4, took pictures while waiting for their turn. It was like a game where two dogs took each side of the toy and pulled until one of them let go.

The men switched positions every few minutes. From the way they passed on the body I knew this was something they had planned out months in advance. Their only form of communication were the drips of cum that ended a session. Another one followed as soon as the position was decided. In case there was no penis to muffle his screams they stuffed the victim’s mouth with a sleeveless shirt. His hands were tied together behind his back and only freed when one of them asked for hand job.

13.3 was clearly the most dominant of the men. When 13.2 was done he took his time to caress the body that he had pushed underneath his own. For the first time I could see the victim’s face. It was only a moment that his eyes met the lens of my camera, but enough to immortalize it in a picture.

Brown curly hair, pierced eyebrow, tears.

He didn’t see me. The pushing and pulling from every side must have blinded his senses. It was sickening and yet I couldn’t turn away. I heard the victim’s jaw scraping over the stones when 13.3 pushed him against the wall and started fucking him from behind. While the others were sated after three turns, 13.3 was the one who kept on going. He ripped the victim’s clothes to pieces and pushed his penis in all possible holes of the body. The deed became less sexual and more sadistic with each position. 13.3 clearly took pleasure from pain. The harder the victim cried, the more aroused he became.

The victim must’ve been far beyond unconsciousness when the men decided that it had been enough. While 13.2 checked if the victim was still breathing, I proceeded to get off the roof, afraid to hear if the answer was ‘no’.

I didn’t go back to Eleni and her friends. Back home I browsed through all news sites of Rome. Not one reported a rape, but I couldn’t find a murder or dead body either. The pictures on my camera were the only evidence that it had happened. It took me weeks before I dared to open the document that I had called ‘Exhibit 13’ on full screen.

It’s been over a year ago and the pictures still frighten me.

Chapter Text

Another ten minutes go by before I get to see Marco. He wears a bathrobe with boxers underneath, which implies that he would’ve been already in bed if I weren’t here to keep him awake. Walking next to him is Dona, the Rottweiler who has lived with him years before I did. When Marco closes the gate with her inside, she pushes her snout through the bars and shows her teeth.

‘Well then,’ Marco says. His voice sounds tired. ‘Body first.’

He checks my hair and nails and touches the piercing in my eyebrow. When he’s done with my teeth I lift up the hoodie for him to inspect the rib. Like earlier this evening, he pushes a finger between the two lower ribs and pinches the little fat left on my stomach. I press my lips together as he does so, trying my best not to scream in pain.

‘Do you buy foods from the list?’ he asks.

I nod. A little while ago we’ve made a list of high-calorie foods that are healthy and low in price. When I’m not with Marco I’m meant to buy those to stop me from losing weight.

‘Do you have the receipts?’

I hand him the purse out of my bag. Marco goes over the small letters on each receipt. From his frown I can tell it’s not enough.

‘What did you eat when you were with me last Tuesday?’

‘Two croissants and a glass of orange juice.’

It takes him an admirable five seconds to add the numbers to the ones already in his head.

‘7215 calories this week. That’s around 1000 calories a day,’ he concludes. ‘A man your age should eat 2000. Make it 2200 with your weight. You’ve been losing again, two kilos at least since the last time I weighed you. Do you know what that means?’

‘I’m sorry,’ I mumble.

‘I’m going to weigh you again. No wonder you’re always cold. You’re skin and bones and that’s because you’re not taking care of your body. You’ll end up in the hospital if you don’t eat. Where’s the rest of the money I gave you anyway?’ He checks the receipts again. ‘I gave you 30. This only adds up to 25.’

‘Homeless shelter,’ I reply.

Marco squints.

‘You’re lying,’ he says. ‘Deen saw you only twice in the homeless shelter this week. There’s still one euro missing.’

As I look down to hide the red color on my cheeks, Marco picks up my backpack and goes over the contents. A bottle of water, the Nokia, a toothbrush, a pack of paracetamol and the purse.

‘You’re hiding something from me. Take off that hoodie.’

I do as I’m told. The cold creeps in to my skin as soon as I give him the hoodie. In the pocket he comes across the thing he has been looking for. Something I had forgotten about.

‘Aha.’ He holds up a small edition of Advanced Italian. Five long months I’ve lied to Marco about the euro I slipped in my back pocket every two weeks, thinking that it would go unnoticed if I behaved like he expects me to. Not every time he pointed out the missing amount. He simply didn’t care or assumed there had been a miscount. Only now that I’m in desperate need for a warm place to stay I have to get caught. Why didn’t I think of it earlier? I should’ve hidden the book somewhere.

‘What is this for?’ Marco asks.

My mouth is dry.

‘Ermal?’ He lifts up my chin, forcing eye contact. ‘Look at me. What is this?’

‘It’s, eh -’ I’m lacking words. ‘I was just thinking… I, eh, I want to -’

‘How many times do I need to tell you? This - ’ Marco points to the book. ‘This is useless. Even if you spoke the language fluently, you don’t have any qualifications to show. And what else do you want to do? Work in a grocery store? That won’t bring you anywhere.’

‘But this won’t either,’ I dare to contradict. ‘I don’t want to have sex with strangers anymore. I want to study and get a proper job. Like you.’

Marco lets go of my face. He doesn’t seem that disappointed, but I know better.

‘Perhaps your marks meant something in Albania, but here they don’t.’ He pauses. ‘This is not a game, Ermal. Money doesn’t grow on trees. We can’t afford education.’

I let out a shaky breath. ‘I understand.’

‘No, you don’t. I give you everything: food, shelter, love. If I hadn’t helped you to escape, you’d still be in that terrible place with Serhat. No one gives a single fuck about you, except me. You should get that by now.’

‘I know, but -’

‘All I ask of you in return is to have sex every once in a while. That’s the only thing.’

Marco bends down to pick up the hoodie, but doesn’t offer it to me.

‘I’m going to be honest with you,’ he says, stuffing the hoodie under his arm. ‘If you can’t live up to my expectations, I can’t be with you. You’re lying to me about money and food and even the tiniest things I ask of you are apparently too much. Do you understand why I let you sleep outside so often? Because you got to earn to be with me.’

I feel my eyes filling up with tears. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I whisper.

‘Tomorrow a customer of mine is coming to Rome. I expect you to be here at three so I can weigh you and you can take a shower.’

‘Please, Marco,’ I beg, ‘it’s so cold outside.’

‘Then you should’ve saved up money for the homeless shelter instead of buying this bullshit.’ Marco offers Dona the book through the bars. Her teeth sink in to the paper, ruining five months of hard work and lying to my boyfriend.

I can no longer suppress the tears. ‘I’m so sorry, I will never lie to you again, I promise.’

But Marco is already on the other side of the fence. When he starts walking towards the house, the despair kicks in. I can’t sleep outside. Not another night.

‘Just one night, please,’ I cry. ‘Please, Marco, it’s so cold. I’ll get sick.’

Marco disappears in the dark. Dona growls at me one more time, then turns around to follow her owner. I start rattling the bars to grab his attention. Part of me knows that, once Marco has made a decision, he won’t change his mind. But it’s cold and without the hoodie it’s even colder and my ribs beg for a comfortable place to sleep.

After a good ten minutes I manage to calm down. Quietly sobbing, I sink down on my knees to put my stuff back in the bag. It was stupid to come here in the first place. Marco’s right – I am ungrateful. After everything that happened I must be happy to have someone like him. Should I be in his position, I wouldn’t accept a lying boyfriend either. Not if I were the one who saved him.

When I throw my backpack over my shoulder I feel a sharp pain spreading from my ribs to my chest. It’s tempting to take the last paracetamol in the package, but I decide the pain is not enough of a burden. With no money until tomorrow I have to stay strong.

Chapter Text

It’s not surprising that I didn’t immediately recognize him. Hair loss has taken away the playfulness of his curls present in Exhibit 13. He has lost about a quarter of his original weight, which wasn’t much to begin with. Every bone in his body is visible. His ribcage stretches the skin like opened drawers with little flesh to hold the ribs in place.

Given that he was already awfully underfed in the earlier photographs, the rape couldn’t have pushed him to that point. Or perhaps it was the final straw in a series of events that led to his weight loss. Was all that he needed to break down a bunch of men with bad intentions.

I pick up the picture from Exhibit 13 in which his face is clearly visible and hold it to the light of the desk lamp. It’s taken the moment 13.3 stood over him. He looks in to the camera with his mouth half opened and eyes that aren’t aware of its surroundings. His collar bones cut through the ripped shirt. What strikes me is that his body appears to be underdeveloped, like puberty didn’t get the chance to interfere. He lacks body hair and his frame seems like it hasn’t changed since his early teens.

Despite the unhealthy changes in his appearance, he still holds a certain charisma not many people have. With a body like that he must be exhausted all the time from simply moving and yet he manages to radiate the gracefulness of a ballerina. Especially in the pictures taken hours ago he seems more determined than his body can handle. Not once did he hesitate to turn around when he walked down the ladder. He knew what he was doing. Everyone else would look insane if they’d bathe in a river during winter, but he didn’t. To this man it appeared to be natural.

I put the photographs next to each other in chronological order. On the last picture he crosses Boschetto Street, an unrecognizable blur in the middle of the street. It was too dark to rightfully capture the moment his curls swung as he looked left and right without expecting traffic.

It took me a moment to realize where he was heading to. While he kept walking in a steady pace, I slowed down. Emilia is where I used to get my drugs. Half of the neighborhood owes its fortune to the drug trafficking in Rome. If I weren’t here to get my daily shot, I’d sell drugs for and to the men behind the windows. It would be a matter of time for me to get recognized, for them to ask how I’m doing nowadays and if I’m still interested in finishing what I’d abandoned so many years ago. I knew that, once that happened, the urge would become unbearable.

The signpost of Emilia lit up like a trigger warning. My art meant the world to me, yet I couldn’t get myself to walk past. It was ironic to say the least. I photographed all the misery in the world but crawled back the second my own sanity was at risk.

Watching Exhibit 13 disappear in the distance, I decided to not take the risk and go home. With the internet and my camera there must be another way to follow him around.

Which brings me here, to the atelier I share with Eleni. It’s 7 in the morning and the damps of my third can of coffee is the only thing keeping me awake. Yawning, I put the pictures of the rape back in the binder with the rest of the Exhibits. The photographs of him in the Tiber, unrecognizable to those who are not familiar with his face, are safe enough to display on the wall.

‘Oh, are you here?’

I turn around to see Eleni standing in the doorway. Since the atelier is only one block away she hasn’t bothered to take off the fox onesie she sleeps in.

‘Yes,’ I say, rushing to the desk to check if all evidence from Exhibit 13 is gone. ‘I got some inspiration that needed to be freed.’

‘All night?’

‘What do you mean?’

Eleni walks to the can of coffee and pours herself a cup.

‘I didn’t hear you come home last night,’ she says. ‘Did you work all night?’

‘I kind of lost track of the time.’

Eleni nods to the pictures on the wall. ‘Can I take a look?’

I step back so she can examine the pictures from closer by. From her face I can tell she is as surprised as I am by the amount of material. Normally I’d only select the best, which leads more often than not to a deleting spree until nothing remains. Twelve is a lot for someone who suffers from perfectionism.

‘What an odd boy,’ Eleni eventually says.

‘Pretty,’ I correct.

‘You call that pretty?’ Eleni points to the picture on which Exhibit 13’s spine is clearly visible, like the dorsal fin of a shark. When I printed the pictures I was shocked to see the body, too, but the shock has faded overnight. The longer you look at him, the more attention you pay to what’s beside his starving body.

‘Have you seen that hair? The face?’ I say, forcing her to take another look. As she does so, I add: ‘he’s not pretty. Not beauty-standard-pretty at least. He’s charismatic. He takes up the frame without – how do you say that – filling it up. ’

Suddenly a smile appears on Eleni’s face.

‘And what is the name of your prey?’

‘What?’

‘I’ve never seen Unimpressed Fabrizio talking with so much passion. Come on, what is his name? Is that where you have been all night? With him?’

‘He is not my boyfriend.’

‘So you’re saying that you went out to take pictures of a naked man without him knowing so?’

I turn red. Eleni covers her mouth with her hands.

‘Fabrizio!’ she exclaims.

‘You would have done the same!’

‘With his permission.’ Eleni shakes her head in disbelief, then sits down on the chair in front of my desk. ‘No wonder you’re always hiding your work. If this is what you do in your free time…’

‘You’re just jealous that I have pictures of a hot man on my wall and you don’t.’

Eleni takes a sip from her coffee. ‘Yes, right. Exactly what I came here for. To see a naked man taking a bath in the Tiber. Who the hell does that anyway?’

‘Why are you here then?’ I ask, leading the conversation away from Exhibit 13 before it comes to her mind that I might have photographed unusual moments more than once.

Eleni puts down her cup. All of a sudden I notice the tension in her lips that make the corners tremble.

‘I think this birthday is going to be her last,’ she says.

For a moment I don’t know what to say. I open my arms and she accepts the invitation, burying her nose in my shoulder.

‘That’s awful to hear,’ I say, and despite my series of people experiencing misery, I mean it. Eleni’s mother has been ill for years now. Breast cancer, stage four when they found out, nothing they could do but wait for death to settle down. No one expected her to live this long after the final judgment. Months turned in to years, in to three years of slow deterioration but no physical signs that the end is near.

Until a few weeks ago I’d almost forgotten about Eleni’s mother. When she was told that the last test had come out negatively Eleni was inconsolable. Those three years had raised her hopes to heights that were unreachable for cancer patients. Living on for longer than expected won’t take away the fact that she’s incurably ill and even though Eleni knew this, it still came as a shock.

‘When are you leaving?’ I ask.

‘Tomorrow. I will stay there until, you know, it happens.’

I wipe the tears from her cheeks with my thumb.

‘It doesn’t have to happen,’ I say.

Eleni shakes her head. ‘This time it’s for real.’

‘Maybe a miracle happens.’

‘I don’t believe in miracles.’

We remain entangled for the next five minutes. I think of something appropriate to say, but the embrace seems to calm her more than words can do.

‘I love you, Fab,’ she eventually says, voice shaken from the tears.

I press a kiss on her forehead. ‘I love you too, El.’

Chapter Text

The following morning I’m woken up by a dog licking the dried tears from my cheeks. For a moment I think it’s Dona, but the wood under my back is too hard to belong to Marco’s bed. Opening my eyes I see a golden retriever jumping up and down the park bench, desperate for my attention. As I sit up straight he puts his paws to my lap. The searing pain in my ribs reveals itself once again. Having extended to my lungs and muscles overnight, the dog’s enthusiasm is too much for my body to handle.

‘O, God, I’m sorry.’ A woman rushes towards me with a leash between her manicured nails. By the looks of her outfit – a moss green skirt suit – it must be around nine in the morning.

‘Is okay,’ I say. My throat is so sore that only a low growl comes out.

The woman pulls the dog away from me and attaches the leash to his collar.

‘Are you okay?’ she asks, gesturing to the hand which I press against my lower ribs.

‘Yes. Just stiff from the, eh-’ I knock on the wood to illustrate the situation I’ve been in all night. Her mouth forms an ‘o’ as to indicate she understands. In broken English she wishes me a good day, probably to avoid a conversation. Before she leaves I ask her if she could spare me an euro.

‘Sorry, no,’ she says bluntly.

I watch her until she is out of sight, then follow the same path she took, although in a much slower pace. All around me signs of life start to show. Children cross the streets holding tight to their parent’s hand, cars move like snails behind the garbage truck that takes the same route every single day.
Back in Tirana the smell of trash would’ve been a reason to rush to the closest restaurant and get my hands on the leftovers from the previous night before the garbage collectors could take it. I remember the dumpsters full of food that otherwise would’ve gone to waste if it weren’t for me and the dozens of other people living in poverty. We relied on the restaurants and their customers. Their bad days were a hell for us. When there was not enough food around the poor turned against each other, violently taking away what another had managed to collect.

I did participate in those fights, but not because the hunger forced me to. Instead I was captivated by the idea that, one day, my music would reach further than the bars I performed in. For that to happen I needed to impress the public. An unremarkable boy with a body smaller than a kid’s would never grab their attention, so I reasoned that, with a little more muscle, I was more likely to get into contact with someone who could help me realize my dream.

What I didn’t know back then was that my attempts weren’t likely to succeed. According to Marco’s personal doctor failure to thrive is common with children who have suffered abuse in the past. My father had permanently damaged my physical development. Puberty only hit when I ran away from home, when it was too late for my body to cope with the hormones. I never properly developed the characteristics of a man and I hated it. I hated the lack of facial hair and the scrawny body. I hated that, even though my father wasn’t there anymore to humiliate me, I still woke up every morning from wetting the bed.

How much I cared back then about my looks, so little do I nowadays. As I walk towards the homeless shelter I pass windows from stores and cars in which I see fragments of myself. I’ve never been as small as I am right now, not even when I lived with my father. With every bone sticking out I look like a walking Halloween decoration.

In all fairness I love maintaining this small body. It is built the perfect size to avoid Marco’s beatings. My fragility is a reminder to him that I’m human, too. Would I have been a healthy weight, he wouldn’t be as merciful as he is now. And why reward a body that has been provoking all sorts of abuse? If it won’t do as I say, I will make it myself.

The line for the free food in front of the shelter is longer than my legs can hold me up. My stomach growls by seeing what’s on the menu, but I decide to go for the watery soup only.
Warming my hands on the plastic cup I stroll through the city. Once I find a spot to quietly finish my breakfast I take out my phone. An anonymous phone number appears on the screen.

Paolo will be here at 12 instead of 4. I expect you to be here one hour in advance. Remember not to eat beforehand so the scale can precisely determine your weight. If I find out you have, you better find yourself a place to stay for the night elsewhere. You’ll receive lunch here. I’ve also reduced your weekly allowance to 25 because apparently you can’t handle money. If you pull another stunt like this it’s over. Love, Marco.

‘Shit,’ I mumble, spitting the last sip back into the cup. Reading the message one more time I feel a hint of panic taking over. Marco will never believe I didn’t do it on purpose. I tricked him too many times for him to trust me. Once I tried drinking gallons of water to manipulate my weight, which he counteracted by waiting until I admitted so. Bloated from the water I stood in his bathroom, desperately holding in the extra weight. One of us had to give in and I knew it’d eventually be me. What didn’t help either were Marco’s hands with which he pressed against my belly. In the end, when I couldn’t take it any longer, I confessed to have sabotaged my weight. How he figured out I never got to know, but the beating that followed prevented me from doing it again.

Throwing away the cup I start walking towards the nearest public restroom. I lock the door and get down on my knees. If I don’t get rid of the food in my stomach I will likely end up on the street again and judging from the pain in every corner of my body that might be my breaking point.

At the first attempt nothing aside from guttural sounds comes out. I reposition my finger in my throat and push against my stomach to trigger a reaction. This time I feel the familiar taste of bile rising. Since I haven’t eaten much else the result is pathetic, nothing like what I used to be capable of. Unsatisfied, I try one more time, but the little pool of canned vegetables is all my stomach has to offer.

I flush the toilet and go back outside, where the city has come to life. With only a thin jacket the cold is free to move around and inside my body. I decide to spend the remaining thirty minutes on Faniello’s Square, surrounded by art students entering and leaving the building carrying supplies. Then, when it’s time to meet Marco, I head into Emilia’s direction, my stomach aching as if a swarm of insects has nestled in there.

Chapter Text

It’s 11AM when I finally leave the atelier. My eyes are burning from the lack of sleep and bags start to form underneath. I buy two coffees and a pack of frosted donuts at Eleni’s favorite coffee shop before I return back home, where Eleni has just finished stuffing clothes in to a suitcase. When I enter I immediately notice a difference: the urn that contains Fabrizio Gabbani Senior’s ashes has moved an inch from its original spot on the windowsill.

Another one of the Gabbani’s traditions is that the child who was named after the late relative gets to keep the ashes. The tradition is relatively new given that all members of the previous generations have been buried. Fabrizio Senior was actually the first to be cremated. Before that the person who carried the name of the late relative had to toss soil and rice on the lowering casket as to wish good luck upon the spirit. The change of tradition was never explained to my siblings and cousins, but to me, both are superstitions anyway.

Our family agreed that we would be free to do whatever we wanted with the urns the day we’d turn eighteen. Until then the urns resided on the mantelpiece of our parent’s house, three identical vases with inscriptions in the curve.

As always, it wasn’t me but Francesco who emptied Francesco Gabbani Senior’s urn. On his hip he has a memorial tattoo of which the ink is mixed with the ashes. Since only a small amount is needed, the remainder of the ashes has been released above the Atlantic Ocean.

A couple of years later Francesca took her turn after accidentally knocking over the urn of Auntie Francesca. Despite the fact Francesca was seventeen our parents allowed her to relocate the ashes to the garden our aunt spent most of her time working in. A tiny amount of ash Francesca keeps in a locket around her neck.

I myself never knew what to do with the ashes of Fabrizio Senior. If his ghost were around he’d be disappointed in the lack of interest I take in his remainders. Francesco once prompted to use the ashes to paint or clay something, but since I did not want to link my artistry to my family, I declined. I convinced them I like Fabrizio Senior this way, locked up in an urn that doesn’t match our apartment’s interior.

What only Eleni knows about is that, when my addiction hit rock bottom, I’ve tried to inject Fabrizio Senior’s ashes into my arm. Out of heroin I was capable of anything that would give me the slightest hint I wasn’t a delusional junk born in the wrong family. Fitting in to the Gabbani’s shouldn’t be too hard for someone who carries the genes, but to me it is a task I never managed to complete.

According to my mother the only member that had a personality similar to mine is my grandmother from my father’s side, who passed away when I was a toddler. We shared the same sullen look, the same nervousness around our loud relatives. Sometimes during birthdays, when I crawled under the table to escape the noises, she’d take me outside and enjoy the nature and the silence it came with. If she were truly like me I must’ve been a blessing to her, a reminder that being an outsider wasn’t as bad. My memories of her are vague, but I am certain that with her, I wouldn’t have gone as far as to take and deal drugs.

If only I were named after her, then I’d be ten times easier to decide what to do with her ashes.

Eleni follows my gaze to the windowsill, blushing as she is aware of my habit of keeping everything in the exact same spot.

‘I wanted to see what a dead person looks like,’ she says.

‘You’ve never seen one before?’

‘I don’t have as many family members.’ Eleni points to the bag I’m holding and which I completely forgot about. ‘With Oreo chocolate frosting?’

‘The way you like it.’

We sit down at the table in the kitchen of our apartment. Like always Eleni has piled up plenty of Italian food to take with her to her family in Albania. I have to shove a packet of pasta from my chair before I can properly sit down.

We eat our donuts in silent. Nibbling on the donut, she opens her mouth every now and then as if to say something, but closes it before it can pass her lips. I patiently wait for it to come.

‘I think I have a new project lined up for the upcoming weeks,’ she finally says.

I’m surprised to hear this. Licking the frosting off my fingers I formulate ways in my head on how to carefully question if this is the right time to start a new project.

‘I know what you’re thinking,’ Eleni interrupts. ‘It’s complete madness and I shouldn’t think of it right now, but… I do. I think of it.’

‘Of what?’

‘It’s so weird, but, well, didn’t you experience that, when one of the people around you died, you just get more curious about why people die? Like, where do they go?’

‘Well,’ I start, but Eleni cuts me off.

‘I don’t want answers. I want to explore the questions.’

‘And how you planning on doing that?’

‘If I start rambling bullshit then you must say so, but what if I start documenting my mother’s dead in some way or another. Like drawing or photographing the stages she’s going through. I’ve never seen a dead person, never been to a funeral, and now all of a sudden the person closest to me will leave this life anytime soon. I don’t want that moment to go by. It’s selfish, she’s in pain and if the moment is there she can’t go on any longer, but to me it’s just… It’s confusing.’

On her brown eyes a wet layer appears. This is what the head of Faniello’s warned us for the very moment we had conquered a spot in his coveted Academy: to see the art in everything.

It’s something we often joked about in class: misbehaving in the name of art. Due to the age gap Eleni and I experienced we never fell for the peer pressure that took over our younger classmates. Art gave them opportunities that slowly turned in to excuses. They drank until they couldn’t find their beds, popped pills and slept around under the guise of gathering experience to incorporate in to their art. If art is meant to uncover the soul, they thought, the soul has to be intriguing or else no one will be intrigued.

This attitude can’t live on for long. What my classmates tended to forget is that some things aren’t meant to be documented. Art is not a contest of who can drink the most or has banged the hottest guys. Shoving plastic cups in your vagina and be subsequently taken by an ambulance is not worth proving a feministic point. Art shouldn’t be harmful for neither the audience nor the artist. We need art to make the reality bearable, not the other way around.

In certain cases we need to stay close to reality, otherwise we will end up in denial. But with my 32 Exhibits and a naked man hanging on my wall I’m not the right person to tell Eleni this.

‘I see your eyes judging me,’ Eleni says. ‘I know this isn’t where art is meant for, but I feel like I need to do this.’

‘Do you think your family will agree?’

‘If I’m not mistaken you were the one who photographed a naked man without his permission.’

I laugh carefully, hiding my red face behind my donut. ‘That’s just how I roll.’

Chapter Text

‘You took your time,’ is the first thing Marco says when he opens the gate. It’s pouring and the backpack I held above my head hasn’t helped much. All my belongings are soaked, me included.

Marco steps back as to emphasize the kiss he’d normally greet with. ‘Come in, baby. What took you so long?’

The curls sticking to my forehead and cheeks hide my blush. Marco has brought an umbrella, but his broad shoulders take up so much space that I can’t fit underneath. Not that it really matters, I’m already wet.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say, ‘I was in San Lorenzo.’

Marco hooks his arm through mine. I can’t help but notice the distance he keeps to avoid our bodies touching. With my arms he seems to have less of a problem.

‘All the way there? Why?’

We start crossing the yard. I think of reasons more appropriate to say than the free breakfast at the homeless shelter and the comfortable benches in San Lorenzo Park, but can’t think of any. Fortunately Marco takes over.

‘Paolo won’t stay long,’ he says while opening the front door. ‘He’ll have lunch here, you two do your thing and then he’ll be gone before you know it.’

The temperature in the house is surprisingly pleasant, even with the clothes stuck to my body. Marco takes my jacket and hangs it over a baroque chair in the hallway to dry. The umbrella he drops on the doormat, probably for one of the maids to clean up.

I remember coming here for the first time, a poor prostitute who had seen the dirtiest and moldiest of rooms where the cockroaches crawled from under the floorboards if there was a floor to begin with. What a shock it was to see the complete opposite. No cracks in the walls, no malfunctioning electricity, and that was just the hallway.

The actual house is at least ten times the hallway and worthy to the neighborhood it’s found in. Three generations of a family could live in here and still there would be plenty of space left. It’s ridiculous to think Marco has this all to himself: the bedrooms, the yard, the maids… Every time I come here I discover something new, although it’s not necessarily the size of the house but rather the amount of space Marco doesn’t use. Almost all the rooms are empty. Empty, but clean. In the light that can freely roam around there is no speck to be seen.

In the bathroom on the first floor, the smallest out of the four spread around the house but still bigger than any other bathroom I’ve ever seen, we go over the same ritual as yesterday. Marco inspects my nails and teeth, checks my hair for lice and uses his thumbs to pull down my lower eyelids.

‘Perhaps the doctor has time to draw blood next week,’ he says.

I shiver by the thought of a needle poking through my skin. For someone who has endured a wide variety of pain I have a strange dislike for needles. Compared to the injections I got as a child drawing blood is a lot worse. It’s the density of the blood that tears the skin when entering the needle, the syrup-like liquid that crawls like a caterpillar through the transparent syringe, filling one, two, three identical tubes, one for each test.

‘I know you don’t like it,’ Marco says, ‘but it might be anemia. Your eyelids are pale. Could be from the lack of nutrients.’

He helps me out of my clothes and dries off my body with a towel. The five nights on a park bench have had an exhausting impact that I only start to feel now that I’m allowed to give in. Marco too seems aware, as he uses his gentle voice to give me instructions, a remainder of an era in which there was almost no physical contact between us.

‘Lydia will make us pasta tonight,’ he whispers, replacing the towel around my hips with a tape measure. It’s merely bone, not fat that holds the tape in place, but Marco is too busy focusing on my ribs to notice, the lower ones in particular. The bruising has not faded overnight. Instead of commenting on it, he turns me around and wraps his arms around my waist. His body burns against mine, a cold-blooded animal under a heat lamp.

He continues in the same breathy voice, his lips close to my ear. ‘That’ll do you good. Some proper food to fatten you up a little. Get you to a healthy weight. Get my beautiful Ermal back.’

The last words are not more than a groan in Italian. His fingers follow the outlines of my hipbones in a bumpy ride towards my boxers, entering from behind.

I swallow.

‘Marco.’

‘Hm?’ he does, playing with the label of my boxers.

‘I can’t.’

‘What?’

‘This. I don’t want this.’

Marco’s fingers move to the front and upwards, out of my boxers. ‘Don’t worry, baby. I wasn’t planning on. Just wanted to make sure you didn’t have any extra weight on you. Like the 300 milliliters of vegetable soup from the brand Miro Deen saw you eating earlier this morning when I explicitly told you not to.’

*

Suddenly the soft-spoken voice is gone. Before my brain can register what has happened, I feel a sharp pain rushing through my head, causing me to lose balance. In the process of avoiding another fist I stumble over my feet and bump my head on the sink before hitting the ground. Somewhere a bone cracks, blood drips from a nose, but I’m too disorientated to realize it’s mine.

‘You thought I wouldn’t notice, Ermal?’

I bring my hand to my nose. The fluid that comes out is so hot, it can’t possibly belong to my body.

‘What a foolish thing to do. Thought you’d be smarter than that by now. Turns out you haven’t learned anything from your previous lies.’

There’s so much blood I don’t know from which nostril it comes.

‘Get up.’

I put my blooded hand next to my body and try to get up. When I struggle to, Marco pulls me up by my shoulders and pushes me towards the scale. The model is outdated, one without a LED-screen, and the pointer fails to go beyond 55.

‘Sick.’

Marco puts his chin to my shoulder. The pressure adds another kilogram.

‘You are sick.’

His voice is one breathe away from a whisper.

‘I feel sick looking at you.’

I close my eyes. A tear slips down from underneath my lashes.

‘Go clean yourself up. Lydia will bring you something to eat. Stay in your room until I say so. And if I catch you pity partying around Paolo… ’

Marco pauses. It’s a threatening pause, one that comes between the last words and the execution, and I would’ve covered my ears if that didn’t make him angrier.

‘You’re just sick.’

And with that being said, he leaves.

Chapter Text

The rest of the day I spend in the atelier in the presence of Eleni, whose brush restlessly moves over the canvas without touching it. She asked me permission to borrow Fabrizio Gabbani Senior’s urn along with a black-and-white picture of the man, a weird but vital request I agreed with. Together they stand on a platform in front of Eleni’s canvas.

‘What was he again?’ Eleni asks for the third time.

‘My great uncle.’

‘From which side?’

‘My dad’s. He’s the brother of my grandfather. He died from a rare lung disease.’

Since I’m unable to work on Exhibit 13 with Eleni in the same room, I’ve decided to continue my search for his identity on Facebook. Emilia in Rome results in roughly 2000 profiles of doctors, scientists and lawyers of whom some I recognize from the drug network. The pictures on their page are taken in far-off places only accessible by plane. It angers me to think that my addiction is what funded their vacation.

‘Fabrizio?’

‘Hm?’

‘What rare lung disease?’

I lean back in my chair and turn away from my laptop to face her. ‘I don’t know. Pneumonia?’

‘Pneumonia is not rare.’

‘Then it wasn’t pneumonia.’

Eleni sighs. ‘Family dynamics are weird.’

‘What do you mean?’

She puts her brush in a glass of water. No paint comes off the hairs.

‘I have a small family. I can’t imagine anyone dying in that close community. But for you it seems like…’ She searches for words. ‘You’re with so many, it seems like you could easily miss someone.’

I cup my chin with my hand as to think. Is that true? Is this great uncle or cousin I spoke to twice replaceable by death? Outside of my parents and siblings I’m not close to one particular member of the family. Not like Francesco’s bond with our younger nephews or the friendship between Francesca and our grandmother. The connection they share is special. I never had that, with neither my parents and siblings nor the rest of the Gabbani’s. To me, they’re all loud and outspoken, and if we weren’t forced to celebrate the holidays together I wouldn’t know the difference between any of them. One aunt more or less is not a problem to me.

I’ve been to funerals and cremations before, and while the people around me were in tears by the first note of You raise me up, I never managed to squeeze one proper tear out of my eye. Not even when I tried to imagine Francesco or Eleni lying there. I don’t know if it’s me that can’t pretend, or they who are too good at pretending, but as heartless as it might sound, I’ll not cry if I didn’t have a bond with the person, and at this point I’m not even sure if I’d cry if it were Francesco or Eleni.

‘What crisis is going on inside your head?’ Eleni interrupts my trail of thoughts.

I lick my lips with my tongue as to warm up the words I won’t allow myself to say out loud. I’m not supposed to think like this, let alone share it with the person who I consider to be my closest friend and whose mother is, as we’re speaking, dying from cancer.

‘Nothing special,’ I say.

Eleni start stirring the water with her paint brush. ‘Shouldn’t I have said that about your family?’

‘No, not at all.’ I pause. ‘You might even be right.’

‘I was?’

‘Well,’ I begin, ‘you know my family. I never felt like one of them. If were weren’t bonded through blood there’s a good change I wouldn’t have anything to do with them.’

‘But doesn’t that go for everyone?’ Putting the glass and the paint brush on the platform with Fabrizio Gabbani Senior on it, she takes her coffee from the desk and sits down on the chair next to me. The coffee must be cold by now, but for Eleni only the taste counts, not the temperature.

‘You don’t get to choose your family. I was lucky, you were not. That’s not your fault. Stop blaming yourself for being born in the wrong family.’

‘I don’t blame myself. I just wish it were different.’

‘Yes, but what can you do about it other than choosing who your friends are? You’re a wonderful person, an amazing artist, and you would change that just so you could fit in?’

Eleni puts down her cup. Tears well up in her eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says, ‘I’ve been feeling the desperate need to tell everyone close to me that I love them in case they die.’

‘No need to apologize. Come here.’

Once again she finds my shoulder. With her throat sore from all the sobs she has shed in the past 24 hours she says: ‘I’m so thankful that I have you in my life.’

We remain entangled for minutes, rocking back and forth, her hair tickling my nose. I think of when we first met, two adults who were deemed too old to be in school, both trying to connect with the classmates that were over ten years younger than us. Around us groups started to form, but I preferred to be alone like I’d always been, and when Eleni decided to join me in this loneliness I felt a sort of understanding I’d never heard of before. Being looked upon as the weirdo all my life had gradually made me believe I was one of a kind, but to Eleni nothing about my behavior stood out. She never asked questions. If I hid in the school toilets during lunch because I couldn’t handle the noise in the canteen, she brought a tray of food and stayed with me until the next class started. After our graduation, when we moved in with each other, she’d ask me whether or not I’d join her and her friends for dinner, and if the answer was ‘no’ she never pushed me. To be around someone who genuinely accepts you for who you are is worth more than all the assertiveness training I previously received. Though I sometimes doubt I’m able to feel anything besides fascination for all what’s wrong with this world, I do love Eleni and not only because I owe my entire social life to her.

After a good ten minutes Eleni lets me go. She hasn’t bothered to put make up on, but the remains of the previous day form a trail over her cheeks.

‘I think I’m going back home,’ she says. ‘Finish packing my stuff.’

‘Do you want me to help you?’

She shakes her head. ‘I need some time on my own.’

‘Well, in case you need me…’

‘I know, Fab. The same goes for you.’ She drinks up her coffee and puts on her coat. ‘How about dinner tonight? Crisalide’s? That’ll cheer is up.’

‘Great plan.’ I gesture to the urn. ‘Can you take it home with you? I feel spied on.’

‘Sure.’ Smiling through her tears, she takes the urn and picture under her arm and disappears in the hallway.

Chapter Text

I lie on the bed in the guest room, pinching the bridge of my nose to stop the bleeding. Red stains and dirty tissues make the bed look like a crime scene. I know Marco will freak out once he sees this, but I can’t get myself to take a shower.

Next to the bed, on the nightstand, Lydia has put a plate of sandwiches, which I tore in to pieces and flushed down the toilet after she’d left. To avoid questions I pretended to be asleep when she entered the room. I don’t know if she has heard us, and if so, if she can connect Marco’s outburst to the blood. She’s not stupid. As bad as her English is, violence knows no language.

The whole incident seems surreal to me. So surreal, that I start to doubt whether it has truly happened. Perhaps I just slipped and bumped my nose against the sink. Has Marco seen but not done it. I know how wrong that sounds. From living with my father I’ve been pretty much trained in distinguishing the accidental falls from manmade injuries, and this one is a clear case of the latter.

After ten minutes of staring at the ceiling I get up and observe my nose in the mirror in Marco’s walk-in closet. The bleeding has stopped, but the swelling won’t shrink as fast without an icepack. I let go of the idea to go downstairs and ask for one. Marco has sent me upstairs for a reason. He doesn’t want to see me, and from the person in the mirror staring back, clashing with the suits from Burberry and Armani Marco’s closet is filled with, I get why.

In the back of the closet is a small selection set up for me, mostly hand-me-downs from Marco that are way too big. When I came to live with Marco the first thing we did was purchase an entire wardrobe of designer clothes. It was weird to see myself in shirts that were more expensive than the rent I paid for my room in Albania. From one day to the next I had set foot in another timeline, one in which my past didn’t exist and I had been with Marco all my life. I did my job and Marco did his. In the evening we would come together to have dinner and lay on the couch to watch a movie or simply cuddle until we fell asleep. When he couldn’t have me around he would give me money to sleep elsewhere, mainly in hotels meant for the rich. So what that the hotels became less fancy overtime, or that he called me ‘his little whore’ in front of his friends. So what that, the moment I announced that I planned to audition for Faniello’s, he completely freaked out and took away my guitar. What matters was that I felt safe. So safe, I thought the shortcut through an unlit alley that particular evening wouldn’t cause me any trouble.

Not one pair of pants stays around my middle and the only belt I own I can almost wrap two times around my waist. I go over Marco’s collection, but even if there was a belt that would fit me, I’d be too afraid to borrow it. Sighing, I take the smallest pair of pants I can find and a woolen sweater from which I stuff the underside in the pants. The greasiness of my hair reminds me that I still haven’t showered, but when I want to go to the bathroom, something catches my eye.

Lying there next to the plate on the nightstand, gone completely unnoticed, is my copy of Advanced Italian. Heart pounding fast, I stick my head around the corner to check the hallways. In the far distance I hear Marco and another voice, presumably Paolo’s, talking, laughing, not getting closer or farther away. I get back inside, sit down on the bed and take the book from the nightstand. The cover is slightly damaged due to Dona’s teeth, but the condition is more or less the same as I bought it in.

I’d shout it from the rooftops if I didn’t know about Marco’s ways of working. This is a trick. Marco wants me to find the book so he has a reason to punish me later. Why else would he leave it laying around for everyone to see?

Not knowing what to do, I browse through the book. Living in Italy hasn’t particularly improved my understanding of the language. The first few years I largely spent inside the walls of Serhats house, where we communicated in English. He never taught me more than the basics and neither did Marco. Most of what I can understand I picked up from the streets.

On paper the words don’t carry a voice or dialect. They’re softer, understandable. Without thinking I tear three random pages out of the book, and three more when I realize how easy it is, tricking Marco. If he can do it, I can do it, too.

When I hear his voice calling my name I hastily stuff the pages in the back pockets of my pants and put the book back on the nightstand.

‘Hey babe,’ Marco says when entering the room. Following him is a man whose age I estimate around 40. His face is flat, except his nose, which sticks out like a mountain in the middle of a valley.

Marco walks up to me and wraps his arms around my shoulders. Whenever a customer comes to visit he gets possessive, as if he wants to show them that they can touch, but never own me.

‘This is Paolo.’ Marco encourages me to shake hands with the man in the doorway. When I offer him my hand, he doesn’t move.

‘What is this?’ Paolo asks.

‘What do you mean?’

‘This… thing.’ Paolo slaps away my hand so he has full access to my body. I shiver as he pulls up my sweater and examines the bones sticking out.

‘I’m not paying for this,’ he says abruptly.

‘Why not?’ Marco asks. His friendly tone has started to weaken.

‘This looks nothing like the pictures you sent me. If I wanted to fuck a skeleton I’d go to the graveyard and get one for free.’ Paulo’s hand slips in the back of my boxers, searching for something to hold. When he fails to find anything, his hand turns in the other direction, towards my spine.

‘Where did you even get this one? Auschwitz?’ Paolo laughs hard about his own joke. His hands have found my hair, which he drapes around his fingers. I can sense Marco’s jealousy. He hates it when he sees someone else playing with my hair.

‘You either pay or leave,’ he hisses.

‘I’m not paying the full price for this. At this point I won’t even give you half.’

‘You’re not getting any discount if that’s what you think.’

Paolo lets go of my hair and pushes me away. ‘This isn’t worth the full 100.’

100? I press my lips together. 30 is the price he demands from my customers, and 50 if unusual activities are involved. We haven’t discussed an increase in price. Thinking about it, it’d be easy for him to decide this himself, because I never get to see the money. It’s Marco who receives the money, in advance of the service or afterwards.

Would he be sneaky enough to do that? I watch him out of the corner of my eye, heatedly discussing the issue in German. He wouldn’t speak in a language I don’t understand if he didn’t have to hide something from me.

And he has beaten me up once again. Boyfriends aren’t supposed to do that.

Paolo and Marco seem to have come to an agreement. Somewhere I hope that Paolo is too disgusted by me that he’ll leave empty-handed, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

‘I’ll see you in an hour, baby.’ Marco pulls me towards him and presses a kiss on my forehead, not mentioning the greasy curls his mouth comes in to contact with.

He then hands me over to Paolo, whose grip is tight. Holding me like I’m a child that is taught how to walk, he whispers: ‘We’re going to have some fun together, big boy.’

Chapter Text

Around eight Eleni and I leave the apartment for dinner at Crisalide, where Eleni has booked a table for two. The hallway is an obstacle course with all the suitcases and bags we have to climb over. Finally outside, Eleni locks the door and wraps her hand over mine. During our trip to the area behind our former university, she doesn’t let go of my hand for one second.

The very moment we step inside Crisalide we’re greeted by Calin, who maneuvers us to the outer corner of the restaurant, away from all the noise. The table we get is heavily decorated with flowers and candles. Like everyone in our circle of friends, Calin is convinced that we are a couple, and since couples eat for half the price in Crisalide, we play this game along.

I never considered Eleni my girlfriend. She means more to me than the average person, more than all of my family combined, but I don’t acknowledge any feelings other than platonic affection. Nevertheless do I understand how easy it is to fall in love with Eleni. She’s a breathtaking woman in the prime of life. It never fails to amuse me how much attention she receives and ignores at the same time by simply walking down the street.

Calin brings us a carafe of wine, which he divides between two glasses. We toast to nothing in particular.

‘Do you have plans to invite anyone over when I’m gone?’ Eleni asks. Captured by the light of the flame her skin reminds me of the vibrating colors in Rothko’s paintings.

‘Who are you thinking of?’ I answer jokingly. Aside from Eleni and my siblings I don’t have many people who I’d voluntarily spent time with. Thinking of it, I don’t have many friends to begin with.

Eleni doesn’t laugh. ‘I’m serious, Biz. What if I’m gone for months? I’m not going to let you languish in that apartment.’

‘That’s sweet, but I’ll be fine on my own.’

‘This is not about a week. It could take months, and knowing you, you could easily stay inside in that period of time and not speak to anyone.’

‘Are you saying that you’re keeping me sane?’ I frown. ‘That’s a little arrogant, isn’t it?’

Eleni sighs. ‘Please, don’t test me right now. I know I’m being pushy, but it’s for your own good. There’s 39 years of proof that, once you’re being alone for too long, you get bad ideas.’

‘What are you afraid of?’

‘Isn’t that clear?’ Eleni shifts on her seat. The strap of her bra shows from under the sleeve of her top, but she doesn’t seem to notice. ‘Losing my mother to a terminal illness is one thing. Losing you to something that could be prevented, that’s another story.’

I put down my glass of wine to reach for her hands over the table. Tiny as they are, they disappear in to mine.

‘I know this is not the time to do anything stupid,’ I say, and I’m surprised myself about how much I stand behind it. ‘You must enjoy the time your mother’s still here, not spend it worrying about me. I’m fine. Have been clean for years. The only thing that can possibly happen is that I get food poisoning from my own cooking skills.’

‘Maybe you’re right.’ Eleni pauses, pulling the strap of her bra back in place. ‘But I’d feel better if you just call your brother or sister to come over. Just to be sure.’

‘Are you afraid I’ll be doing something stupid?’

‘Well, you come from far.’

Our intimate moment is interrupted by Calin’s boisterous voice.

‘I’m sorry, lovebirds, but I’m afraid I have to disturb your intense hand-holding session.’

Eleni and I pull back our hands to make place for the food. We’ve ordered the same food as always: ricotta gnocchi with spinach and gorgonzola, with bread on the side.

‘And this one’s on the house,’ Calin says, proudly revealing a bottle of wine.

‘You shouldn’t have,’ Eleni says.

Calin pops the cork and refills our glasses. ‘Nonsense.’ He turns to me and my glass. ‘What do you think, Fabrizio? Good moment to propose to this beautiful lady?’

‘I don’t have the ring with me.’

I see Eleni grinning behind her glass, which Calin interprets as a flattered smile. She fuels this by saying: ‘We already have a honeymoon in mind, so who knows.’

‘A honeymoon?’ Calins eyes are twinkling. ‘Bora Bora? Las Vegas? What will it be?’

‘If we’ve made the final decision, you’re the first one to know.’

Calins smile widens. ‘You know my place is always available.’

‘Thanks, Calin,’ Eleni says, hiding her laughter behind a napkin.

As soon as he’s gone, I dare to open my mouth again. ‘You seriously think he believes us?’

‘He wouldn’t be the first one.’ Eleni pokes her fork in the ricotta. ‘When I spoke my grandmother over the phone, she asked if my boyfriend was coming with me to Albania. She meant you.’

‘O?’

‘It’s such a weird thing,’ Eleni continues, ‘that my mom’s not going to see me getting married.’

‘Would she have wanted that?’

‘Which mother doesn’t? It’s traditional happiness, but I bet she’d be relieved to know I won’t end up alone.’

Traditional happiness is a term Eleni and I have come up with ourselves. It stands for everything in life that is supposed to create infinite joy, but is, in fact, nothing more than an addition to what society thinks is good for you. Marriage is part of the main three traditions, alongside getting children and moving in with a loved one. Deviating from these three means that, in the eyes of many, you can’t reach infinite happiness. Alternatives aren’t accepted. Eleni and I can live together as friends for the remainder of our years, but this is said to not provide the same happiness as having a partner.

Eleni and I both deal with the expectations of traditional happiness. When the time comes for one of us to find love, we’re forced to split. You can’t live with a friend if you have a partner, not forever. As if friendships fade and relationships last forever.

Knowing that this what’s going through her head, too, I decide not to respond.

Chapter Text

Paolo’s on top of me, keeping my body in place by sitting on my upper legs and ramming his fist in and out of my ass without lube, nails scraping as though he hasn’t cut them in years. My jaw is sore from all the clenching I’ve been doing to stop myself from screaming out in pain. Tears stroll down my cheeks, wetting the pillow I buried my nose in.

He has been doing this for the past ten minutes, in an irregular pattern, which leaves no opportunity to prepare for the terror. To distract myself I count the bars of the bed I’m holding tight to, over and over again. Fifteen, sometimes sixteen when Paolo acts so violent I make a miscalculation.

‘That’s my little whore,’ Paolo moans in my ear. ‘Now I get why Marco wants you to be as small as you are. You’re absolutely stunning when you’re helpless.’

Not a clear word comes out of my mouth, only groans. I want to tell him that it’s not Marco’s fault, that it’s really just me who has a troubled relationship with food. This is the way I built my body, I want to say, and Marco never intended it to be like this. That he despises the inhumane form it has adopted over the years. I know he won’t listen, but in my head he does, and calms me down with sorry’s and kisses all over my body.

The real Paolo is far from this image. I obey to his command to lie on my back and spread my legs. Our gazes meet, I see drips of sweat holding on to his stubbly chin. He climbs up to my chest with his penis aiming for my mouth. It slips inside like the first time I ate salmon. I try to keep the precious memory away from Paolo, but since my mind has been looking for distraction to hold on to, I have no other choice.

My father had left the house for unknown number of days. On top of the usual pain from his beatings I’d caught the measles and was bedbound for a week. My mom had decided to stay home until I felt better. She too had a black eye and a dislocated shoulder, and a bump started to form in the place where her caved in belly had been. She sat me down on her lap and let me listen to what life sounded like when it was still in the making. I pressed my ear against her belly, but didn’t hear anything but hunger pangs.

My mom promised me that I’d hear it soon enough, the noises that my little brother or sister would make. While cooking salmon, which I still don’t know where she had gotten it and if it was even legal in communistic Albania, she described how intuitively silent I’d been as a baby. I barely cried and when I did, I seemed to know when to shut down.

‘You had so much hair already,’ she said, messing with my hair. She had placed me on top of the counter to keep an eye on the salmon as she herself cleaned the vegetables.

‘Did it tickle?’ I asked.

‘What?’

‘When you gave birth to me.’

She said it didn’t, ‘or maybe it did, but was the happiness at that moment stronger.’

When dinner was ready she gave me the biggest part of the salmon. We ate in silence. Though I couldn’t have been older than six I knew why my mom would cringe in fear by hearing the smallest of sounds, because I would, too. Sometimes his absence would grind at us more than the actual beatings. It was exhausting to carry the pain he inflicted on us, but more of a burden to tiptoe around knowing that, once we took a step in the wrong direction, he’d lash out.

Yet the moments I was alone with my mom were the happiest I remember. We were a family, my mother, the unborn baby and me, living in the difficult circumstances the Albanian government had forced upon us, without a father that made the situation even more unbearable.

‘Ermal!’

It’s not my mom who calls me to announce that there’s not going to be a baby, nor my father adding that, if he knew what kind of mistake I’d become, he would’ve gotten rid of me the same way all my unborn brothers and sisters had died.

I blink my eyes and see Paolo’s face hanging over me. The hand with which he cups my chin is sticky from his semen. I know it’s his because I haven’t been able to come for at least a year, and mine doesn’t smell as unnatural.

‘Did you zoom out, baby?’ he asks in a low voice.

I turn red and admit: ‘A little.’

Paolo grins. In the back of his mouth I discover a golden tooth.

‘Marco’s very lucky to have such a wonderful little boy to call his boyfriend,’ he says, wiping his hand off on my hair. ‘I don’t understand how he keeps himself cool around you. I’d feel horny all day if you were mine.’

The hand follows the outline of my cheekbones. ‘What a shame there’s barely anything left of that beautiful face,’ Paolo continues. ‘If you were mine I’d never let you starve.’

He bows his head to kiss me. His tongue grabs onto mine like a fisherman reeling in the fish, except I don’t struggle. In fact, I don’t do anything.

‘Come on,’ Paolo mumbles in between the kisses, ‘I’m paying for this.’

In an attempt to energize myself I think of Marco. I think of his fingers unbuttoning my shirt, leaving a trace of kisses on every piece of skin he gets his hands on. Then, when I’m naked except for my boxers, he takes my left hand and starts sucking on the ring finger as if his mouth is the ring he once gave me but is now too big to fit around.

‘Yes,’ Paolo moans, ‘that’s it. That’s my dirty little whore.’

The voice of Paolo interrupts my imagination. Before he can complain we hear Marco knocking on the door, announcing that his time is up.

‘Well then,’ Paulo sighs, climbing off the bed. ‘It was a pleasure.’

I don’t respond, exhausted. Closing my eyes, not minding the sweat and semen, I wait until he has left, until the warmth of Marco’s voice is there to tuck me in, telling me how well I’ve done.

‘Come Erms,’ he whispers, and it’s the same whisper with which he lured me on to the scales earlier that day, but nicer, nothing underneath.

To be sure it’s not a dream I open one eye. Marco towers over me the same way Paolo did, but his scent is familiar to me, softer.

‘I made you a nice warm bath.’

‘Hm.’

‘Ermal.’ He shakes my shoulder. ‘Come. You need a bath.’

‘I want to sleep.’

‘I know, baby. You can sleep afterwards.’

When I don’t respond I feel an arm creeping under my neck and knees. Lifting me up he showers my face in kisses, I can smell his perfume and shaving cream, and I smile, because this is the Marco that I fell for, the one that’d carry me to the bathroom himself should I not listen.

‘A nice warm bath,‘ I hear him saying, ‘only for us.‘

Chapter Text

Later that evening I’m in the bathroom of the restaurant, picking the spinach between my teeth with my nail. The heavy lighting soaks my face in a glowing shade of orange. With every pore and wrinkle exposed I see myself from a side I prefer to hide, the reason why the lighting in our bathroom is not as bright.

My skin is the same color as a latte that’s been on the table for too long. Bits of skin show from under the tattoos on my arms, roughly thirty pieces in total, lines disturbed by the muscles I developed from the hours in the gym. For the son of two chefs I’m surprisingly fit, but so are my siblings, whose only activity consists of yoga and running around in a restaurant. We’re all blessed with a fast metabolism. That’s what my mom used to say.

I wouldn’t mind this body if it weren’t for the bobbly scars in the curve of my elbow. When auditioning for Faniello’s I made a video of myself permanently tattooing the needle marks on my skin. Mika, a graduate of Faniello’s and my longtime tattooist, wasn’t fond of the idea. At first she refused to give me advice, but since half of the money she makes comes from my wallet, she had no other choice.

Mika told me the texture of the human skin is similar to that of an orange. After she’d corrected the tattoo on my upper arm I went to the market place and bought five kilograms of oranges, which I surrounded myself with for the next two weeks. With a camera I ensured that the whole process was being documented. It hadn’t come to my mind that I should’ve peeled the orange, so the moment I dipped the needle in to the ink and stuck it in to the first orange, I was sprayed with juice.

The judges of Faniello’s called the footage ‘of comedic quality’, but were generally intrigued by the concentration with which I covered the peels in dots. Especially the final was what hit them, the three minute clip where I showed my face for the first time and switched from the orange peels to my arm. Though the judges couldn’t say much about my chances of receiving an acceptance letter, I knew from their faces that I was a serious contender in the race. And I was right: two weeks later, around the time I’d been officially clean for over half a year, I found the good news on the doormat.

I roll down my sleeves and correct the collar of my shirt in the mirror. I know there are less fortunate 39-year-old’s, who’re balding or going gray, have double the amount of wrinkles, but still, growing old is one of my biggest fears. I’ve spent the wasted part of my life fighting, either for or against something, without knowing what it was exactly that I wanted to achieve. If there was anything to gain at all.

‘Hey.’

I look up, disturbed. In the mirror I see a man closing the bathroom stall behind him. His lips are practically non-existent, which is a feature I vaguely recognize from someone I can’t put my finger on. He must know me, too, otherwise he wouldn’t be staring at me while washing his hands.

‘Hey,’ I respond, doubting whether or not I’ve seen him before.

His gaze lowers to my arms as if to look for something.

‘Fabrizio Moro,’ he says.

He can’t know me from the illegal circuit. The name he calls me is what gives it away. Would he be a drug user or dealer like me, he’d go for the name I’d picked to distinguish my addiction from myself: Fabrizio Mobrici.

‘Do we know each other?’ I ask.

The man closes the tap. When he can’t find a towel, he wipes his hands off on his pants.

‘You studied visual arts on Faniello’s. You were one year ahead of me.’

I try to remember the graduates that came after me. It shouldn’t be too hard, with a maximal number of twenty students who are accepted each year, but I can’t place his face anywhere. At least not in the graduates from visual arts.

‘You’re from the conservatory,’ I recall, ‘you played the piano during Eleni’s dance performance.’

Somewhere in the third year we had to do something we’d never done before. It was one of the typical assignments given by Malena, who taught us Art Research. During this subject we were demanded to work outside of our area of expertise, photography in my case and painting in Eleni’s. The one rule was to never work within this field, and if you did, you wouldn’t pass.

The goal was not to exceed in this particular art, but to accept that we were allowed to fail. By stepping on to unfamiliar ground failure was easier to both embrace and accomplish. While I tried to master the guitar, Eleni had chosen to create a dance routine, which she turned out to be surprisingly good in. So good, Malena almost gave her a F for ‘not trying out something new’. It was the pianist of the guiding band who had seen her struggling to get a hang of the dance and convinced Malena that this was Eleni’s first performance, the same man who’s standing in front of me.

As if he has seen me reliving the memory, he says: ‘Raphael. I asked Eleni out afterwards, but I see now why she said no.’

‘We’re not a couple,’ I say bluntly.

Raphael ignores this. ‘I saw her in the restaurant. Her mother’s pretty sick.’

‘I know.’

‘She said she won’t be able to join the project I’m currently starting up until she’s back, but that’ll be too late.’

I’m too annoyed to ask him what kind of project. In fact, I’m so annoyed by his previous comment about me and Eleni that my hand is approaching the bathroom door’s latch.

‘You might be interested in it,’ Raphael says. ‘It’s about the human body. We’re going to try to combine dance, art and music to come to a performance. Perhaps you want to join?’

‘Instead of Eleni?’ I ask.

‘Well, she was my first choice, but since you two are basically two peas in a pod, I think you’d be a great addition to the team.’

I frown. ‘Two peas in a pod?’

‘We have a website.’ Raphael searches his pockets and hands me a business card. Sunstroke Project, it says in a font dangerously close to Comic Sans.

‘If you’re interested you can always call.’ He points to the phone number on the card. ‘I look forward to hear from you.’

And with that he’s gone. I stare from the door he disappeared behind to the business card between my fingers, astonished.

‘What the fuck,’ I even mumble.

Chapter Text

Marco goes in first. The bath tub is big enough to allow us to sit next to each other, but he opens his legs for me to sit in between. Holding tight to his hands I climb in to the tub and settle down on the spot he has reserved for me. The lavender-smelling foam makes way for my body when I lean into Marco’s, careful not to smother his face with my curls.

The bathroom on the second floor has a built-in sauna and is directly connected to a balcony that watches over the Tiber. Above the balcony door is a mosaic window through which colored light shines and spreads out on the black-and-white marble floor like a rug. Marco comes here more often than I do, to enjoy the sight or use the sauna. It’s one of the many rooms he prefers to keep to himself and is locked when he’s not in there. I feel honored to be one of the few people allowed inside, although the times can be count on one hand.

Lying down in the tub, Marco places his hands on my shoulders and starts kneading the tensed muscles with a pleasant aggression. I let out a sound somewhere in between a moan and a sigh.

‘You’ve done well, baby,’ Marco whispers in my ear. His fingers run over my ribs, skipping the bruised like a loose step on the stairs.

‘Hm-hm,’ I do, to let him know I’ve heard him.

‘Did you eat the sandwich?’

‘What sandwich?’

‘The one Lydia left on your nightstand, silly.’ He pokes my waist. ‘Michael said it too last time he was here, that you’re not looking well. You should listen to your body more often.’

‘I’m never hungry.’

‘I know, but this body’s not making the money it used to make,’ Marco says, and suspiciously quickly adds: ‘I’m worried, baby. That’s all.’

We remain silent for a while. I hesitate to ask the question that’s burning on my lips, but since Marco seems more soft-spoken than he usually is, I might not get another chance.

I take a deep breath, close my eyes and ask: ‘Have you always charged 100 euros?’

Behind me I feel Marco switch position so his chin fits in to the curve of my collar bone. I can’t tell if it’s meant to be intimidating. The unpredictability causes a hint of fear going from one end of my body to the other, and for one sole second I’m afraid to be confronted with the sink once again.

‘I don’t want you to worry about the finances,’ that’s what Marco replies while taking my hand and stroking the coves between the knuckles. ‘I was afraid you’d worry if you’ve heard I’d increased the price.’

‘Is there a reason to worry?’

‘No baby, I’ll fix it, I promise.’

He shoves my hair behind my ears and covers my neck in soft kisses, moaning as he finds my overly exposed veins to suck on. I let him, too tired to complain. Only when his hand crawls further and further down my chest my body involuntarily tightens. On his way to his penis he picks up my hand, ignoring my response completely.

‘Marco,’ I mutter under my increasing breath.

He responds with another moan.

‘Come on, Ermal. We haven’t done anything in weeks.’

His hand has no plans to turn around. When mine touches his erect penis, my fingers cramp in to a fist almost automatically.

‘What’s wrong?’ Marco asks, not bothering to hide his annoyance. ‘You’re fucking others all the time, why don’t you want me?’

My throat is dry. ‘I, I’m not - ’ But he won’t let me speak.

‘The only thing you literally have to do is moving it up and down, nothing too hard.’ Marco peels my fingers out of the fist and repositions them around his penis. With his own hand wrapped around mine he sets an example, expecting me to continue when he pulls away.

Yet I can’t, and I pinch instead, causing Marco to cry out in pain and push me forward. Water flows over the edge as I prevent myself from bumping against the tap. The words he throws at me are in Italian, words I’ve heard many times, but haven’t figured out the meaning of.

‘One fucking hand job,’ Marco yells as he swings one leg over the edge. ‘But, no, the whore refuses to show affection towards his own boyfriend.’

‘Marco, please,’ I try, tears burning in my eyes.

‘Marco, please,’ he imitates in a hysterical voice, ‘please, don’t, Marco, what if my dumb head starts producing flashbacks again?’

Hot tears stream down my cheeks. The images flash in front of my face, a variety of customers as well as pieces I remember from that terrible evening. Through all that I see Marco climbing out of the tub. I bend over to grab his hand.

‘I’ll do what you want, okay? Please, don’t go away,’ I hear myself begging. Marco looks at me, then to the towel he has in his other hand, and finally back to me.

‘One chance,’ he snarls, throwing his towel back on the rack.

I make room for him so he can sit across from me. His annoyance is visible in the tiny ripples that flow from his side to mine, even when my fingers have reached his penis. I think of a beat to rely the pace on, a song or a melody, but nothing stays in my head for longer than five seconds.

‘Come on,’ Marco says, ‘a little more dedication.’

His lack of erection isn’t helping much to the situation. It’s a dead fish I’m trying to reanimate, at least that’s what I guess it would feel like.

‘Is this it?’ Marco says, ‘is this what I came back in for?’

‘No,’ I say with trembling voice. ‘You have to take part.’

‘By doing what? I can masturbate with more passion.’

Once again he pushes me away. We share a look from our side of the bath tub, his full of hatred. I think of the opportunities he has. He could smash my skull with the showerhead or wrap the towel around my neck. He could lock me out on the balcony without clothes and let me freeze to death, depending on what his anger is up to. What doesn’t cross my mind is that it’s all around us and closer than I can imagine.

He wraps his hands around my neck and pushes my face under water. The unexpected turn causes my mouth to fill up instantly. Struggling with whatever muscle isn’t blocked by Marco’s weight I try to push him off of me, but Marco is stronger, and only when he pulls me by my hair out of the water I’m able to breathe again.

‘Open your mouth,’ Marco commands.

‘Mar - ’ The sentence is cut off as I face the water again, mouth opened. I finally get what he is aiming for – his penis – and, though my mind is a mess, I reason that, if I give him what he wants, he’ll stop.

So I start sucking, my heart rapidly beating as my lungs consume what’s left of the air. There’s no need to move – Marco does it for me, roughly pushing and pulling my head under the water. Pain enters from all directions, from the roots of my hair to the back of my throat, and I can’t do anything but let it happen.

And for how long? A minute? Two? How long can a human survive without oxygen? I remember high school, chemistry, sitting in front of a desk and a teacher asking for the density of water, the melting point, twenty-nine eyes on me and Ermal can you tell me why do you have a black eye, what have you done this time?

Then Marco pulls me up.

I can’t hold back the fluid that comes with the coughing, as though my lungs leave my body through my mouth. Shrieking, Marco climbs out of the tub to avoid being showered in my vomit. It’s the only emotion he shows - a short, penetrating pitch that goes beyond blood and bones.

What happens next I’m not sure of. Perhaps Marco throws a towel at my face and demands me to come downstairs in thirty minutes. There are clothes waiting on the bed, but first clean yourself properly, take a shower, I don’t care, stop making a spectacle of yourself.

Which I do. When he’s gone, I lower myself in to the water, the now cold water mixed with body fluids, and stare at the ceiling, the ceiling on which an early sunset is displayed like the colors of the mosaic window, numb, completely numb.

Chapter Text

When I return to our table a damping cup of coffee I cannot remember I’ve ordered is waiting at my side. The dishes have been taken away and the candle is almost out of wax. A small flame peeks over the edge of the holder. It waves at me when I sit down.

‘I thought you’d like one after dinner,’ Eleni says, gesturing to the cup. ‘No sugar, only milk.’

‘Thanks.’ I take a sip. Eleni has ordered one for herself, too, but from the eyes she firmly shuts after each sip I can tell it’s not just coffee.

‘Wodka?’ I ask.

‘Whiskey. I need to stay awake.’

Eleni’s plane will depart at six in the morning. I’ll be accompanying her as far as the gates will allow me. If I could – or rather, if Eleni wanted me to – I’d go with her, be there physically when her mother dies, but I know that’s not how she’d express her sorrow. It was more of a formality to ask her where she wanted me to be. We both reject the idea that grief is a feeling you share with your relatives, and I can only imagine her going to the stables of the family farm and hugging the animals one by one, even the pig with one eye that has bitten her when she was a little girl.

‘It’s 10 past 10,’ I say, ‘do you want to stay here? Or go home?’

‘I actually wanted to ask you what Raphael had to say.’ Eleni holds up the exact same business card as Raphael gave me. ‘I said you were in the toilets. Didn’t realize he’d go after you instantly after I’ve told him I’ll be in Albania for the following weeks.’

My lips produce a grimace. With a voice that doesn’t sound anything like Raphael I imitate: ‘Eleni was my first choice, but since you’re the closest to her, I might have a chance to fuck her by inviting you.’

‘He sounded genuinely interested in your work,’ Eleni says defensively. ‘He remembered your third year’s semester performance.’

‘The one with the knives?’ I ask, but we both know it’s a superfluous question. Of course it’s the one with the knives.

During the winter of my third year of Faniello’s I started to suffer from intrusive thoughts. One in particular was always echoing through my head: cut yourself. Wherever I went, if there were sharp objects or not, it steadily kept repeating itself to the point I didn’t know whether it was me talking or a supreme being.

The thoughts were something relatively new, but had everything to do with my addictive nature, that I was used to seeing evolve over the years. Though I knew heroin was rather the strongest form this nature manifested itself in, not taking that particular substance felt like I’d beaten the whole philosophy behind it. Deep down I knew I was still sensitive to addiction, may it be with drugs or with button-up shirts. And that urge is a hell to ignore.

In fact, I reasoned that I’d be better off by acting upon it. As long as it wasn’t heroin there was nothing to worry about. That I’ve had periods in which I was so afraid of getting sick that a bottle of disinfectant wouldn’t last a day in my possession, or weeks I barely left the house because of paranoia I took for granted. The alarm bells simply weren’t loud enough. I didn’t recognize the intrusive thought as a threat. And when an artist doesn’t recognize their mental instability as a mental instability, they will turn it in to art.

So two days before we had to turn in or perform our final assignment I set aside my original idea and ordered a set of knives off the internet. With those I installed myself in a small room for the entire day. Only one at the time was allowed to go inside. I demanded the visitor to sit in front of me and choose a knife from the selection on the ground between us.

The questions I started with were innocent: what knife they used to chop tomatoes and at what state a razor had to be in before they’d replace it. After five minutes of small talk the questions became more morbid. Whether they had ever thought of cutting themselves and what knife they’d use. Would they take one from this selection? And if I gave them the opportunity, would they hurt me? I’d roll up my sleeves to show them the skin I could offer. This is all yours, I won’t tell anyone, it’s fine. And I’d start begging if they could – no, they had to, they had no choice.

Most of the visitors would leave the room devastated. Some didn’t even make it until the end. Willpower there was plenty, but none of the visitors was brave enough to actually do it.

I don’t remember Raphael visiting the performance, but to be honest, that whole day is a blur to me. What I do remember is that Francesco was there at some point. Eleni, who I hadn’t told about my last-minute change of subject and could impossibly know that the performance wasn’t meant for my family, had invited him. I was so surprised to see him I couldn’t spontaneously come up with something else.

So I did what I’d done before, asked the same questions and begged him to release the knife on me. He had chosen the sharpest one, straight from the slaughter it must’ve came, but he didn’t move an inch. Only when the performance was over he dared to get up. Afterwards I’ve heard from Eleni that he had demanded Malena to cease the performance, as he was sure that I was slowly becoming insane. I couldn’t blame him. Actually, wouldn’t it be for Francesco’s despair I would’ve never reached out for another therapist, because being ignored by your own brother over an art project is the worst thing there is.

‘Fabrizio?’ From far I hear Eleni’s voice. I look up from the knives and past Francesco’s helplessness to see her smile. ‘Are you okay? Did I trigger anything?’

‘No, no, no,’ I say quickly, ‘I’m fine. What did Raphael say to you?’

‘Well, he did ask me if we were a thing,’ she says, ‘but when he told me about his project he said they get funded by Faniello’s. You know what that means?’

‘Free coffee?’ I joke.

‘Faniello’s pays like a sugar daddy,’ Eleni says, ‘it’s free cash. All you gotta do is turn in some of your morbid photographs and there’s your holiday.’

‘They want to make a performance. They’re not gonna fall for something recycled.’

‘Then come up with something new.’ Eleni shoves aside her cup of coffee to take my hands. ‘This is not just to pay the bills. I want you to be busy when I’m gone.’

I sigh. ‘For the hundredth time: it won’t get out of control again. I’m fine. You’ve seen me. I’m as sane as it can be.’

‘Correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s a man hanging on your wall and for the past two days all you’ve done is staring at it and looking him up on Facebook.’

‘I see where this is going,’ I admit, ‘but it’s just a…’

‘An obsession. Like you had with knives and germs and button-up shirts and -’

‘Okay, okay,’ I hastily interrupt, ‘I get it. You’re afraid I will do something stupid.’

‘No, Fab, that’s not it.’ She presses her lips together as if to think. ‘What I’m afraid of is that you won’t recognize the signs and that there’s no one to point them out.’

A familiar feeling strikes me. It’s what you feel when you know someone cares so much for you that they preventively worry, because they seem to know you better than you think. Until I met Eleni I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to feel it, but now that I do, I wish I didn’t have to.

Because I know she’s right. And though she hasn’t seen it with her own two eyes – the addiction in its strongest, most cruel form – she knows how it can take full possession over me if there’s no one around to push it back.

‘I’m not going to fight over it five hours before I leave,’ Eleni says, tightly pinching my hands, ‘but I do want you to promise something.’

‘What?’ My voice is small.

‘That, if you come across him, you will turn around.’

A lump forms in my throat. I think of Exhibit 13 and the shapes he has shown himself in: a boy brutally attacked in an alley and the shadow of his former self, washing his unearthly body in an ice cold river. States a body should not be in, photographed without knowing so.

I swallow the lump and say, more to the man on the pictures than to Eleni: ‘I promise.’

Chapter Text

It’s Lydia who comes to announce diner’s ready. I’m still in the bathroom on the second floor, dressed in the same clothes Paolo ripped off my body, trying to wash the traces of tears off my face. To announce her entry she knocks on the door. I do my best to sound as neutral as possible.

‘Yes?’

I unlock the door and Lydia pops her head around the corner. She’s a woman in her mid-twenties and the only remaining of the four maids that originally worked for Marco. Two had to leave because of a massive cutback in staff and the other one, Lindita, was kicked out by Marco.

Lindita was homesick girl from Tirana who was happy to find a fellow Albanian in me. Finding out about our shared heritage, Marco forbade us to speak Albanian in the house, afraid to be gossiped about but not being able to understand. It was a tiny mistake that caused Lindita to be fired on the spot, the English word for chicken she didn’t memorize and asked me to translate out of Albanian. Hearing this, not even a proper conversation, made Marco furious. He sent her away and ignored my pleas to overthink his decision.

It might’ve been the first time he acted violent towards me, when I summed up why it was stupid to fire her. He punched me in the face and called me a dirty immigrant who could’ve prevent the firing if he wasn’t so goddamn stubborn. Initially I thought it was the rape that gotten him off track, but looking back, it could’ve been in him all the time. Maybe it was in him all the time.

Lydia is not at all talkative, and not because she doesn’t speak English. She communicates mostly in smiles; greetings, demands, answers, all caught in the corners of her mouth. Her voice is only a formal contribution.

‘Dinner ready,’ she says. ‘Marco in cucina.

Grazie,’ I respond. My voice is raw from the water. ‘I’m coming.’

‘Much dinner.’ Lydia smiles. ‘Good for you.’

She opens the door and waits for me to come with her.

‘I’m, uh,’ I begin, ‘I’m coming. Just a second.’

Lydia tilts her head. Her cheeks turn red. ‘Non capisco.’

I search my head for the little Italian I’ve picked up here and there, but there’s no way I’m able to tell her I’ll be there when I’ve recovered from being kept under water by my own boyfriend.

So I check my face one last time in the mirror and follow her downstairs, to the kitchen, where Marco is seated behind a large plate of pasta. An equally as large plate stands on the side of the table I’m expected to sit. It’s nauseating to look at and becomes even more nauseating when I sit down.

‘Lydia,’ Marco commands, keeping his eyes focused on me, ‘il vino, per favore.

I haven’t had alcohol in months, and the glasses brought by Lydia seem way to big.

Château d'Yquem?’ Marco asks, still not taking his eyes off me.

Lydia nods.

‘An excellent wine. Often described as the pearl under the sweet wines. La bottiglia, dear?’

Lydia disappears in to the kitchen and comes back with a bottle that seems gold due to the color of the substance. Marco sits back and inspects the label.

‘Unctuous and mouth-filling,’ he murmurs, and something I can’t understand. Then he puts the bottle between us and raises his glass. I do the same.

Buon appetito,’ he says, a smile on his face.

The moment Lydia leaves us alone the smile turns in to a smirk that opens and closes after every bite. With hawk eyes he watches me slowly rearranging the contents of the plate. The pasta at one side, the meat at the other and the vegetables in between.

‘You’re food is getting cold,’ Marco says as I start to split the tomatoes from the pesto. ‘Quit fooling around and eat.’

Under the guidance of his growing annoyance I bring a forkful of pasta to my mouth, chewing, swallowing. All the organs that the pasta comes across along the way cringe from the sudden presence of food. My stomach tightens and I flush away the forming lump in my throat with a sip of wine. As soon as I put down the glass Marco tops off.

‘I really don’t want more,’ I say carefully.

Marco squints. ‘Do you remember what the scale said this morning?’

I don’t dare to look him in the eyes.

‘Ermal? Do you remember?’

‘Yes,’ I mumble.

‘How much?’

’53.’

’53 what? 53 men, 53 cows?’

I feel the blood rising to my cheeks. ’53 kilograms.’

‘And do you think that’s enough? Ermal?’

‘No.’

‘Do you get a kick out of this, Ermal? To be so disgustingly skinny that all your customers run away from you?’

‘No.’

‘Well then. Eat.’

I try to do as he tells me, to just eat, to ignore the desire to be small and untouchable, but it’s hard to explain it to someone else when you don’t get it yourself, and even harder to pretend it isn’t there, watching me ever since that one night behind The Aphrodisiac.

‘Ermal?’

I blink twice to clear my sight. Through the glass I hold to my lips I see Marco staring at me.

‘Eat faster,’ he says, ‘Lydia’s coming with the second plate.’

My heart skips a beat. ‘Second plate?’

‘Yes. We have over 7000 calories to catch up with. If you can’t do it yourself in one week, we’ll do it together in one night.’

The thought only makes me dizzy. Last time Lydia served me a second plate Marco put the leftovers in the blender to make it easier for me to consume, and during dinner in Crisalide a few weeks ago he threatened to order another plate for each bite I didn’t swallow. Knowing what he is up to is just as frightening as all the food I’m expected to eat.

Despite the fact my father is in no way similar to Marco, I can’t help but compare his ways to the times my father locked me up in the tiny space near the laundry room, switching between starving and stuffing me, beating me up and ignoring me. I remember how he made me eat the cockroaches that crawled out of the cupboards and that he used to threaten with the room if I didn’t obey.

But they have different motives, I tell myself. Marco cares for me.

Footsteps approach from out of the kitchen.

‘That must be Lydia,’ Marco says. The grin on his face has expanded to his ears.

Chapter Text

It’s not a plate but an entire pan Lydia puts on the table. Before she can offer me the ladle, Marco snatches it out of her hands, saying something I hope is an order to invite Rome’s hobo’s over for dinner, since the mountain of pasta is proverbially enough to feed an orphanage.

The snarky ‘grazie’ that leaves Marco’s mouth scares Lydia back in to the kitchen. On her way out she puts a hand on my shoulder, squeezing encouragingly, a short and simple gesture that might indicate she knows what Marco is up to, but I don’t believe she truly realizes what’ll happen when she’s gone.

‘Don’t worry, she makes her own dinner,’ Marco says as I follow Lydia with my eyes. ‘You don’t have to share this with anyone.’

I look at the plate I just finished, down to the last crumble, and to the pan, from which the content can fill at least four of those plates.

‘Marco,’ I say softly, putting a hand to my stomach. ‘I’m full.’

For a minute it remains silent. The eyes under the permanently frowning eyebrows are forcing me to look back. His jawline vibrates, the only movement in his face, and when he finally speaks it’s as if he’s afraid to fully open his mouth.

‘You are full,’ he says, ‘when I say you are.’

He walks up to my side of the table, casually untying the tie he wears.

‘And as you can’t obey,’ he continues, fingers moving faster than my brain can register, ‘I will help you a little.’

With the tie in his hands he sits down on the chair next to mine.

‘So what are we going to do, Ermal?’

Eyes focused on the tie he wraps and unwraps around his hands, I bring out the one word he wants to hear: ‘Eat.’

‘What a good boy.’ He pulls his chair in my direction, so close, our knees touch. ‘Show me.’

Slowly I bend forward and pick up the ladle.

‘Out of the pan,’ Marco commands.

‘What?’

Marco pushes me back in to my chair and picks up the pan, which he puts in my lap. Then he hands me my fork.

‘If Lydia has followed my recipe,’ he says, ‘we’re talking 3000 calories here.’

He pats on the side of the pan as if it’s an old friend he greets and returns to his spot next to mine.

‘Now I want to see you eat. And if you stop -’ he waves with the tie ‘- you will meet the consequences.’

‘Marco -’ I try, but he shakes his head.

‘Eat,’ is all he says.

So I do. I load my fork full of pasta, take a bite and swallow. The already shaking pile in my stomach responds by sending bile up to my mouth. I try to push it away with another bite and a sip of wine. It doesn’t help much.

‘Can I get some water?’ I carefully ask.

‘Haven’t you had enough already when I pushed you under?’

I don’t know what to respond. If I’m even allowed to respond. With Marco you never know. Every step can either be taken in the right or wrong direction. There’s no in between, no grey zone. I’m a child that is taught how to eat and he is the parent who decides the price I’ll pay for not meeting up to his expectations. Because I know I won’t. My stomach has reached its limits. The bites I take now are guaranteed of a place in the toilet bowl, and it won’t be on purpose.

‘Come on,’ Marco says as it takes me four bites to get the same piece of penne behind my teeth, waving the tie. ‘You’re not even halfway through.’

‘I can’t -’ I notice how out of breath I am from simply eating. ‘I can’t finish. I’m full.’

‘What’d I tell you before? I decide when you are full, and you’re not yet.’

‘But Marco -’ Tears start to form in my eyes. ‘It’s - too much. I already ate one plate.’

‘Ah. Poor boy. He ate one big plate.’ He mimics my expression by pushing his lips forward, pouting. ‘Does the poor boy want some help from the tie?’

I try to blink away the tears. ‘No.’

‘Then eat.’

I press my lips together and shake my head.

‘You don’t want to?’ Marco asks.

I shake my head again.

‘I’m so full, please, Marco,’ I whisper in a voice barely audible.

But Marco doesn’t care. In a matter of seconds he’s sitting on the spot where the pan had been, pushing my hands together behind the seat back and wrapping the tie around my wrists. It hurts, but so does my stomach and the rib that comes in to contact with Marco’s thigh, and my spinning head doesn’t know on which pain to focus first.

I only figure out his plan when he holds the pan to my lips and demands me to open up. Tomato sauce starts to leak from the corners of my mouth on to my sweater, but I keep pressing my lips together until they’ve turned white.

‘Ermal,’ Marco says, ‘if you don’t open your mouth now, I will open it myself. Do you understand?’

I know what that means. The image of the vomit-swallowing is as fresh as the incident in the bath tub, though there must be two years between them. Two years of fists against my face, of bleeding noses, of bruised ribs, burning marks and broken bones, of being locked outside in the freezing cold, but most of all: of being punished.

‘Good,’ Marco smirks as I open my mouth. ‘There’s my good boy. I knew you could do it.’

I can’t swallow. A sticky ball of pasta and sauce seems to be stuck in my throat and cause the protesting sounds that come out to be muffled. I move away my head from the pan. In the short moment I’m able to speak I beg: ‘I can’t, please, stop it.’

‘Stop it? But we’ve barely started!’ I manage to swallow before Marco puts the pan to my lips again. ‘We still have dessert to finish, and this bottle of wine…’

I can’t hold in the tears anymore. They follow the path of the sauce down my chin and onto my shirt.

‘Don’t cry now, honey,’ Marco says, ‘we’re almost finished. In fact…’ He pushes the pan in to an angle that makes the pasta go down faster. ‘We might be done in a minute. If you keep swallowing like the little slut you are…’

Chewing is hard with the little time between each load. The last pieces of penne I swallow fully. Under the pressure of all the food I don’t dare to move, in case it all comes out and I’ll be pushed face-deep in to my own vomit by Marco.

‘Good. That’s my boy. Now drink.’ He puts away the pan and replaces it with the bottle of wine. I’m not sure if it goes down automatically or I unconsciously swallow, but by the time it’s empty I can’t make head nor tail out of Marco’s words. The only thing I’m able to understand is that he wants me to go to the bathroom for a shower.

‘And when you’re done,’ he says, leading my shaking knees to the stairs, ‘you may go to sleep.’

Chapter Text

It has been a few hours since I put Eleni on the plane to Albania. I stayed by her side until the last call and to see her disappear in to the crowd, the memorable jeopardy leggings becoming one with the mass, I felt that familiar loneliness taking over I’ve known so well since my childhood. Eleni is the first and only person I’ve ever been close to. To see her go for so long, even if I know she’ll come back eventually, it numbs me as well as it makes me emotional.

How am I supposed to survive without her? All the other times she left more than a few days I knew the exact date and time she’d be back. Now I have no idea. It could be months. Months without Eleni; it sounds like the title of a cheap horror movie.

I push the blankets from my body and climb out of bed. From the bare sunlight coming from outside it must be around twelve. I haven’t slept, only fought against the blankets while planning out activities for myself. Knowing me so well, Eleni has done this, too: entering the kitchen I spot a list on the fridge of people I can call. While I make myself a cup of coffee, I go over the names.

Francesco
Francesca
Mika (but please, think before you take another tattoo!)
Your parents
Annalisa

I don’t have many people I consider friends. When I was a teenager, my parents pushed me into organizing a party for my birthday. With the date nearing, they kept on reminding me to send invites, to choose a theme and decorate the restaurant, but I refused, partly because I had no one who’d willingly come to freaky Fabrizio’s party. After I exploded in the middle of the restaurant they finally shut up. At least my mother did. My father, on the other hand, had enough of my lack of social skills and embarrassed me in front of their guests.

‘If you want to sit under the table so badly,’ my father said, the drinks shaking on the tray he was carrying, the layer of foam on the beers almost dissolved, ‘go on then, Fabrizio, but don’t you dare to cry and blame us.’

I wouldn’t call my parents voluntarily, but neither would I call the other names on the list. Taking a sip off my coffee, I think of what I could talk about with Francesco and Francesca. They’re the easiest to approach. Not that I’m particularly close to them, but at least they try to understand me.

As I usually do before I make a phone call, I write a script of what I can ask and answer to the questions they’ll probably ask themselves. Besides the good old ‘how are you?’, I add questions about Francesca’s studies and Francesco’s restaurant, up until I’m confident the conversation will last more than fifteen minutes.

Francesca doesn’t pick up her phone. After trying two times more, I switch to the list of questions for Francesco and call his number.

‘Restaurant Gabbani’s.’

Hearing that name I have to swallow twice before I can speak.

‘Hey, it’s me, Fabrizio. Am I catching you at a bad time?’

‘Oh, hey, Fab!’ Francesco greets. ‘I’m currently helping a friend moving in. Tonight’s gonna be very busy in the restaurant, we’re having a few coaches over from water polo teams in the region. But I still have time.’

I hear someone huffing on the other end of the line.

‘Who’s that?’ asks a voice I don’t recognize.

‘It’s Fabrizio, my brother. Sal, no, let me help you carry that -’ Francesco’s voice becomes more distant over the course of the sentence, then it returns, loud and clear. ‘Fab, do you have a minute?’

‘I can call you back later, if you want. It’s not urgent.’

‘No, that’s okay. I’m in for a break anyway. Wait a second.’

I pick up the pen and start coloring in the closed gaps of the vowels on the list. Then, when all a’s, e’s and o’s are filled, I draw the face of Exhibit 13 from memory. The bone structure of the face I highlight by holding my pen almost down to the paper, each line adding up to the thinness of his body nowadays. I draw curls out of C-shapes, one eye hiding behind a lock to avoid the problem of having to create two that look nothing alike. Thin lips are curled into a smile, something I don’t remember him doing on any of the pictures, and above the one visible eye the piercing shows on a bone rather than an eyebrow.

‘Fab?’ From a far distance I hear Francesco’s voice.

I grab my phone, which I’ve unconsciously put down while drawing. ‘Yes?’

‘I’m back. Salvador was trying to lift a couch up the stairs on his own. The elevator is stuck on the fifth floor and I have a feeling that it may take Sir Lord Ginoble a while before he considers it a problem.’

Francesco lives a fifteen hour car ride from Rome, in a town too big to be a village but too small to be called a city. To start a restaurant over there was a move thought out by his ex-boyfriend, probably to be closer to each other without losing sight of his loss-making night club. Up until one year ago they lived together in the apartment next to the club. Francesco now hires a room in a villa owned by a man all the residents call Sir Lord Ginoble behind his back.

I never understood why Francesco moved all the way to the north. Part of me wants to believe it had nothing to do with Francesco’s ex-boyfriend. In my wild theories, he’s just as easily pressured by our parents as I am, and wanted to escape before they could correct all that was wrong with the restaurant he now runs. Begrudged it might sound, but to find an imperfection in someone you were compared with in his advantage all of your childhood tastes like a sweet victory.

‘Who are you helping?’ I ask. ‘Your new neighbor?’

‘Yes, he’ll be living in the apartment across from me. He moved in here to open a bar with Douwe. You remember Douwe?’

‘Iveta’s boyfriend?’

‘Yes, him. The official opening is next week.’

‘Invite him,’ I hear what I assume is Salvador’s voice.

‘Hereby you’re invited,’ Francesco repeats. ‘If you want to come, you’re welcome. I haven’t seen or heard anything from you since Christmas. Is everything all right?’

I look at the list next to the drawing. To the question ‘how are you?’ I’ve answered ‘I’m fine’.

‘I’m fine,’ I say.

‘Really?’

I feel a wave of annoyance coming up. Typically Francesco to ask for a second confirmation. As if he will ever truly understand my struggles.

‘I’m not calling you because I have a panic attack or something,’ I say, and to add even more salt: ‘Eleni is in Albania for an indefinite period and she wanted me to call you. Not that I’m lonely. I’m super fine.’

‘Fab, calm down, man, I didn’t mean to imply anything,’ Francesco says. From the silence between his words I can tell he tries to be careful. ‘Why is Eleni in Albania?’

‘Maybe because she has family in Albania.’

‘Why are you so agitated all of a sudden? Did I do anything wrong?’

‘I’m just annoyed because you’re always asking questions you know the answers to.’

‘O.’ If a voice could frown, Francesco’s would right now. ‘I just wanted to know if there was a special reason she went back to Albania.’

‘Her mom’s dying.’

Another ‘o’. And a silence.

‘That must be horrible for her,’ Francesco says, ‘and for you. If you want to come here, that’s not a problem, I can arrange a bed for you.’

‘Maybe,’ I say, but we both know I won’t.

Chapter Text

My stomach remains upset all night long. I lie in Marco’s bed, curled up and afraid to move in case the food decides to gasp for air, dressed in a pair of pajamas I’m not sure I’m allowed to wear. The sweater with the sauce stains all over I tried to wash with the soap in Marco’s bathroom. As I expected, it didn’t work, and only turned the red stains into a pale orange. I left it there, hoping Lydia will take it to the laundry room. The last time I went to the toilet the sweater was still hanging over the sink.

I have removed the pages from Advanced Italian from my pockets and put in the backpack with the rest of my stuff. It’s not a safe place, with Marco going over the contents whenever I’m leaving or returning, but I can’t get myself to hide it elsewhere. It’d be an understatement to say I don’t care anymore. All I want is to sleep and forget about today, yet the thoughts keep me awake.

What happened to Marco? Did I turn him into the person he is now? Was it in him all along, but did my presence activate it like it did to my father? What am I doing wrong? Can I change?

I put the pillow over my greasy curls as to mute the endless questions. Tears stick to my lashes. What I’m certain of is that Marco is not the problem. If he were, then why has this pattern been lasting for the past 34 years? First it was my father, then came Serhat and his thousands of customers, and now Marco.

No, not Marco, I tell myself. I can’t add Marco to that list. Marco saved me. He’s not abusive. He’s just teaching me a lesson. If he were abusive, he wouldn’t have helped me escape and take me in. Marco loves me. This is his way of showing me.

‘Ermali?’

The door creaks. Footsteps follow the light that falls from the hallway into the room. From under the pillow I can see Marco crouching down next to my side of the bed. Closing my eyes, I try to control my breathing, making it seem as if I’m asleep.

‘Are you awake, Ermal?’

I stay silent.

‘Ermali, baby, don’t be mad. I did this for you.’

I hear him walking to the other side of the bed. Without undressing first, he puts up the covers and lies down next to me, wrapping his arms around my belly and shifting me towards him. I flinch as his hand goes over my ribs, but Marco doesn’t notice.

‘I love you so much, Ermal,’ he whispers, his mouth close to my ear, ‘but you should be more careful with your body. You were so beautiful before. Where did that all go?’

I feel the tears burning behind my eyes. If I weren’t playing asleep, I would’ve told him not to berate himself for what I did. It was me who should’ve been more careful and less stubborn, not him.

All the new resolutions to express my love and gratitude towards Marco disappear once I feel his hand peeling the pajama bottoms and underwear down my legs. I can’t control my breathing anymore. It changes from a faked calmness to an uneven pace in a matter of seconds.

‘I did something for you earlier this day,’ he whispers, ‘now you have to do something for me.’
Without awaiting my answer, he goes inside, moving his pelvis back and forth. Millimeters become centimeters and the deeper he reaches, the more pain there is.

‘Good boy,’ Marco moans, ‘there is the good boy I know.’

I don’t pretend anymore, groan as if that will change his mind. I know so well that it’s the sound he demands to hear – pleasure, even if it’s forced – and still, I can’t get myself to ask him to stop. There’s already so much tension between us, it’d kill the softness with which he approached me before. With which I hope he’ll approach me for the days coming.

When he comes, it’s without a sound. I feel the sticky material dripping down my butt cheeks onto the mattress. He doesn’t bother to clean it up. Just turns his back to me like he always does afterwards, but this time I can hear him say something.

‘If only you were always this obedient.’

That’s what he says.

-

Marco gives me the opportunity to catch up on my sleep long after the sun has risen. I remain in bed until five, awake but with random intervals of unconsciousness. Only when Marco’s voice thunders through the room I fully wake up. That, and the wet bottoms of my pajamas.

‘Get out now.’

Marco stands in the doorway with my backpack. The pages, is the first thing that comes to mind.

‘Look, Marco, I can explain -’ I start, but he doesn’t let me finish.

‘My parents will be here in half an hour. You need to leave.’

‘Your parents?’ I ask.

‘Yes, my parents.’ Marco sounds annoyed. ‘You look awful, so it’s better if we plan that meeting for somewhere in the future, when you don’t look half-starved. So you have to leave now.’

He enters the walk-in closet and comes back with a bunch of clothes from my section. Standing next to the bed, I look down to the wet area around my crotch. Marco sees it, too.

‘You’ve chosen the perfect time to wet your fucking pants,’ Marco snaps, throwing the clothes in my face. ‘Come on, hurry up. We don’t have time to clean up your little problem.’

I look to the jeans and back to Marco.

‘Do you want me to-’

‘Yes, I want you to get dressed. I don’t care if you’re wet down there or not, that’s not my fucking problem.’

While I hear him walking up and down the hallway, I maneuver myself into the clothes Marco has picked out for me. There is no underwear in the pile, meaning I have to walk around with the wet one I slept in. The jeans aren’t as tight, the waistband floats around my middle, which today is an advantage as it won’t get into contact with my wet underwear.

‘Are you done?’ Marco sticks his head around the corner, just when I finish tying the worn-out sneakers I always wear.

‘Yes.’

‘Good.’ Marco gives me my backpack. ‘I don’t have cash right now, so I’ll call the shelter that they’ll receive the money later.’

‘What about food? Don’t I get money for that?’

Marco raises an eyebrow. ‘Lydia packed you a sandwich. If you’re so good at starving yourself, you can go without for a day.’

Together we walk to the backdoor of the house, the stickiness of the urine scraping between my thighs with each step.

‘I’ll see you in a day,’ Marco says, pressing a kiss on my cheek. He turns the key in the hole of the backdoor and almost pushes me into the freezing cold.

‘What time tomorrow?’ I ask just before he closes the door.

‘I’ll text you.’

And he goes back inside, gesturing to the emergency door in the fence surrounding the house. I walk into its direction, but when I’m sure he’s gone, I turn around and run to the shack next to the house. The shack itself is locked, yet hiding behind I can follow the arrival of Marco’s parents without them knowing.

Would I have been a minute later, they’d have noticed me. Marco’s mother is a woman in her sixties with long hair that either relies on extensions, dye or both. Though I’ve seen her on pictures around the house, the vibe she carries is much more arrogant than I can remember.

Marco’s father is not much better. Arm wrapped around his wife’s shoulder, he pushes her forward in a pace her high-heeled feet can’t keep up with. Both in appearance and manners I recognize Marco, but with none of the sympathy Marco can radiate if he wants to.

I move an few centimeters to the left to see Marco standing in the doorway, waiting to greet his parents with handshakes and the polite kiss I’ve seen him giving to special guests before.

But it’s not just Marco.

My stomach turns as I see Marco and Lydia holding hands, Marco’s father pressing a kiss on the back of Lydia’s other hand. I see mouths move and the corners curl into smiles, a hug between mother and son, and in all these movements there is not a hint of hesitation, not a frown or a word that’s out of place.

He’s cheating.

I shake my head in disbelief. It’s even worse.

He’s so ashamed of me, he’d rather ask the maid to play the role of his partner.

Chapter Text

Later that day Francesca calls back. I’ve just set up the easel and spread out the colors on my palette, ready to be mixed. Annoyed by the timing, I sigh, and only pick up the second time the phone rings.

‘Yo Faber,’ Francesca says with her usual cheery voice. ‘How you doing?’

I walk to the desk in the corner of the atelier, where I’ve worked all day to perfect the sketches I’ve made of Exhibit 13. Between the sheets of paper I find the list of things I can talk about with Francesca.

‘I’m fine,’ I read from the list, ‘how are you?’

‘Fine, as always. Did you call for a reason? Or just to chat?’

‘Just to chat,’ I answer, and in an attempt to brush her off: ‘but it’s okay if you’re busy. Are you at school?’

‘Yes, but I’m on my break. I just finished a test.’

Francesca’s choice to study psychology has always bothered me. You’d expect someone with a penchant for head-shrinking they’d attend the family therapy sessions the rehabilitation clinic organized, but Francesca didn’t show up once. Dedicating her career to people with similar conditions without coming to the sessions of her actual brother feels like a punch in the face. I know I shouldn’t blame her. After all she was just a teenager. But regardless of my rational thoughts there’s an uncontrollable anger from my side. Why them but not me? Why is she so invested in the mind of others but not her own brother’s? If it were Francesco, you bet she’d be there.

I try to set the negative thoughts aside for the positive ones I was showered in during my time in the clinic. The sentences carry a sort of robotic undertone when I repeat them in my head: it is not my fault. I’m a worthy human-being. Francesca just didn’t know how to cope with an addicted brother.

As if I didn’t go through an internal crisis, I ask Francesca what the test was about.

‘Oh, nothing interesting,’ she says. ‘What are you up to?’

‘Not much.’ I start arranging the drawings of Exhibit 13 on my desk, from the sketches to a fully detailed close-up of his face. Against my every principle I have taken the advantage of Eleni’s absence to print out bigger versions of the pictures shot during the rape. It’s both fascinating and shocking to have his fragile body in a size closer to reality laying on my desk. As if he’s with me, following every move I make.

‘So there’s not really a reason you called?’ Francesca asks.

For some reason I she Francesca has spoken to Francesco after our phone call earlier today. Has Francesco called her with the message that their third brother is going mad again. He is a burden to us all, but try talk to him anyway.

‘No, I’m just curious how you are. Can’t I be?’

I bend over the desk to open the window. In the current weather everything seems miserable. Even the frozen pond the atelier looks out on doesn’t add up to the view.

‘You can,’ Francesca says, ‘but I’m just not really used to it. Normally you only call when you need something.’

I take a cigarette out of the package on my desk and shield the tip with my hand from the wind while lighting it. Together with the smoke I exhale I say: ‘That’s not true.’

‘I thought you’d stopped smoking?’

‘How do you know I’m smoking?’

‘I heard you opening the window.’

I shake the ashes off the tip of my cigarette. ‘I could’ve opened the window for other reasons.’

‘If the weather is the same in Rome as it is here, it’s probably not to enjoy the sun.’

Despite my bad mood I let out a light chuckle. ‘Well, I guess I’ve been caught.’

‘You could say that,’ Francesca laughs. ‘But why, Fab? I thought it went so well.’

‘Just a little stress,’ I say as I close the window halfway down my cigarette. Now that Eleni is not here to complain, I might as well smoke inside.

‘Stress? About what?’

‘Some projects. Nothing big.’ I empty a pencil case to collect in the ashes. A charcoal crayon rolls out and over the drawing of Exhibit 13. Cursing, I shove the charcoal aside, but the damage is already done: a black stripe runs from his lips to his left collar bone.

‘Fab, what’s going on?’ Francesca asks.

‘Nothing,’ I say while I run to the toilet to get some toilet paper, pushing out my cigarette in the improvised tray as I come back.

‘Are you sure? Fabrizio?’

‘I need to hang up now. Bye.’

I don’t wait for her answer, practically throw the phone on the desk. As I expected, the toilet paper only removes the darkest part. A greyish line remains, covering the diamond-shaped chin I worked so hard on.

My phone starts to ring. It’s Francesca again, probably worried about the mental condition of her brother. I put my phone on silent and flip it over so I can’t see the screen light up. Then, I sit down at the desk, burying my face in my hands.

Of course Eleni isn’t here. She’d know how to remove charcoal from paper. She’s the actual artist in this atelier, not me. I haven’t drawn since graduating from Faniello’s – for a reason. There’s no resemblance between Exhibit 13 and the sketches I’ve made. Why am I even this upset? I didn’t spill charcoal on Eleni’s masterpieces. That’d be an actual shame. This is just my work, Fabrizio Gabbani’s uninspired, talentless work.

I feel my heart beating in my chest, my mouth bone-dry as a low growl comes out. Violently getting up from my chair, hands shaking, I start tearing up the sketches, in so many pieces that there is no way anyone could recognize a human in the scraps of paper. A salty taste enters my mouth from the tears that stream down my cheeks. Struggling to find my breath I start coughing. Saliva lands on the sketches I could save from my raging hands, among them the drawing of Exhibit 13 I ruined with charcoal. As if to tease, he watches me with the determined look in his eyes, the one that made his encounter with the Tiber so natural.

I reach for my phone. Francesca has called three times and left a message on Whats app, asking if I’m okay. I ignore it and search for Eleni’s number. Before I can press ‘call’ a possible scenario knocks on my door, of her hearing the anger in my voice. She’ll asks if I’m okay, and since it’s Eleni, I’ll be too weak to say yes. I’d have to explain to her that I freaked out over my lack of artistic talent. That I don’t know how to remove charcoal from paper and instead of looking it up on the internet, tore up the drawings like the uncontrollable addict that I am.

Do I really want that? To leave her all concerned with no possibility to check on me, so soon after she left? I know Eleni. She’s liable to reach out for all the help she can get from this distance. She might call Francesco or Francesca, maybe even my parents, to check on me, stay with me until my rage is over.

It happened before. She was in Albania for the summer, a few years back. I called her, not even panicking, manically proclaiming there was blood gushing from the cuts in my arms. Since Annalisa, Eleni’s former roommate, lives the closest to me, it was her who Eleni decided to call, no matter how hard I begged her not to.

In less than ten minutes she stood at my door. The cuts weren’t even that deep, I hadn’t aimed for my wrists, but Eleni insisted that Annalisa would stay at my place for the remainder of her break. When she returned, two days early, she’d check my arms at any given moment.

I’ve never felt more guilty. Not only did I ruin her break, but I also made her overly concerned for no reason. I’d never kill myself. I don’t have the guts.

No, I can’t call Eleni. I have to do this on my own.

Slowly I get up from my chair, the scraps of paper moving around my feet. I take my coat from the rack, close the door of the atelier behind me without bothering to lock it and start walking.

Chapter Text

He’s so ashamed of me, he’d rather ask the maid to play the role of his partner.

I have no other choice than to walk all the way to the homeless shelter in San Lorenzo, since I don’t dare to take the metro without a ticket. It’d normally take me half an hour to get there, but with the pain in my ribs and the urine sticking to my thighs I have to sit down every few minutes to rest. As I wait for the pain to fade, I watch the people purposely avoiding me, afraid to be asked for an euro for the night.

I can’t blame them. The man I come across in the windows of cars and stores is an unpleasant sight. Even my curly hair has lost its charm, dangling in front of my face like autumn leafs, dead and ready to fall. No wonder Marco is losing interest in me. No wonder he’d rather ask the maid to play the role of his partner. I’m repulsive.

After a ten minute break I dare to get up and walk the final meters to the shelter. The pain in my rib has become unbearable and leaves me dragging my feet rather than walking.

Dinner has just been served. Behind the windows of the community center next to the shelter I see the people sitting at long tables, chatting and eating while keeping their belongings close in case someone decides to benefit from their inattention. Though I recognize the habit, I don’t like to think I’m one of them. I have a home. Sometimes I just can’t stay there.

I can’t stay there because he’d rather let the maid play the role of his partner.

Deen is not sitting at his usual spot behind the desk. Two minutes after ringing the bell he appears, smiling broadly as he sees me.

‘Ah, Ermal, what a surprise on this fine Wednesday evening,’ he says, the sarcasm dripping from his voice. ‘What can I do for you? Are you coming to wet our beds again?’

Deen is a good friend of Marco. Before he ran out of money, Marco would occasionally donate money to the shelter. Thanks to him there are a fair amount of beds and showers and can the shelter offer two meals a day. The one thing missing is central heating. Two months ago it broke, just when the cold season was about to arrive. Deen hasn’t bothered to call anyone to fix it. Since he’s in charge, the circumstances haven’t been as pleasant inside the shelter.

I always try to avoid Deen. It happened more than once that he inappropriately touched me or offered an alternative in exchange for a free night in the shelter. I know what causes it. Friends of Marco who are aware of my job do it quite often. Like a doctor would be the first to step in when someone suffers a heart attack in public, they think prostitution is a 24/7 job. They touch my butt or start to rub my thighs without permission, assuming I must like it.

The thing is that I can’t say no. I owe Marco my life. If his friends and customers want to touch me, I have to give in. I don’t have much else to offer but my service. Cruel as it might sound, it’s the part of Marco I’ve learned to understand over the years. I have to earn his love.

I have to, because otherwise he’ll ask the maid to play the role of his partner.

‘I don’t have any cash right now,’ I explain to Deen, ignoring his last comment, ‘but Marco will pay you as soon as possible. He has called you.’

‘Marco, Marco, Marco Mengoni,’ Deen chirps as he opens the map on the desk. Going over today’s date, he frowns. ‘No Marco Mengoni.’

I look over the desk, but Deen shuts the map right under my nose.

‘He’d call to say he’ll pay later,’ I say.

‘And you think I believe that?’

‘Please,’ I say, the despair in my voice growing, ‘maybe he’ll call later, but he’ll call. You know him.’

A grimace appears on Deens face. ‘I think you’re lying.’

‘I’m not lying. Marco said he would call you. He will call you.’

‘Is that so?’ Deen cups his chin as to think. ‘Well, as long as he doesn’t, I’m afraid the answer remains no.’

‘But I have to sleep somewhere!’ My voice is shaky from the tears I try to swallow. ‘Please, I’m in pain and it’s cold outside. Marco will call, I promise you. Please, just let me in.’

‘At better times I’d offer you the alternative,’ Deen says, his eyes scanning me from top to bottom, ‘but honestly, I don’t want you anywhere near me if you smell like that.’

‘Then let me at least take a shower,’ I beg. ‘Just a shower. Five minutes and I’m gone.’

‘Am I speaking Chinese?’ Deen bends over the desk so our eyes are only centimeters apart. ‘No means no.’

‘But he will call! He said he would!’

‘If you’re so sure he’ll call, why don’t you call him yourself for confirmation?’ Deen nods to my backpack. ‘I’ve seen your phone before.’

‘I - I don’t have his number.’

‘You don’t have the phone number of your own boyfriend?’ Deen shakes his head in disbelief. ‘You’re lying through your teeth.’

‘But it’s true!’ I exclaim. ‘He always calls me with an anonymous number! I can show you!’

Deen doesn’t let me take off my backpack. He gets up from his chair behind the desk and grabs my shoulders. Since he’s a foot taller than me, my attempts to escape his grip remain unsuccessful.

‘And if you come back tonight,’ Deen says, dragging me outside, ‘you’re not welcome anymore, with or without money.’

With one last push I’m outside and in the cold again.

Outside. Cold. Again.

Because Marco wouldn’t let me stay.

I wipe away the tears that have start to form in my eyes. Has Marco forgotten about me? I try to memorize his words when he sent me away, but my head seems to be filled with cotton balls. He’d call Deen, that’s for sure. But did he? Or is Deen lying?

It has to be Deen. My hands start to cramp up into fists. Why? Why can’t he just let me in? At other times it was never a problem when Marco paid afterwards, then why is it now?

As I take my first step in the direction of San Lorenzo Park, the only remaining opportunity I’m familiar with, I’m reminded of the wet piece of clothing behind my thighs. I can’t sleep if it remains there. I’ve had infections in the past due to my carelessness and Marco can’t afford another expensive course of antibiotics.

The one option left is the pond I bathe in during summers. I’m not sure if it has defrosted yet, but judging from the now constantly lingering pain in my ribs, I don’t have a choice.

Chapter Text

What bothers me about Rome is that almost every inch has fallen victim to my memory. No spot remains clean, every street or square has a story. Rome is big, but so is my brain capacity. During my walk I pass the homes of old classmates, the corner where I bought my first weed and the playground Francesco and I used to take Francesca to when she was still a toddler. I pass Baglioni Street with its streetlights where we used to wrap gum around and the stoner benches in San Lorenzo Park, the ones that are now taken over by the homeless. I cross Cinquetti Avenue and its detached houses with large front yards, too idyllic to be in the middle of a city as big as Rome, skipping the streets that lead to the less fortunate neighborhoods.

I’ve tried moving out of Rome. At my first attempt to escape I was 18. I’d just finished high school and used the excuse to study elsewhere to get away from my parents. I was the first to make the drastic decision to leave Rome. The Gabbani’s aren’t adventurous types. For decades they have lived in Rome, with here and there an uncle or cousin that moved away but never too far.

I chose the university of Milan, philosophy. It took me one semester to figure out I wasn’t interested in philosophy, and another to drop out. In February I returned to my parents with my tail tucked between my legs, ashamed of the choice I made they’d warned was the wrong one. My parents were right. Even if I didn’t identify with the family name, I remained a Gabbani. And all Gabbani’s belong in Rome.

From there on it went downhill. I traveled from job to job, from kitchen to storage room, but not one employer would respect my shortcomings. I wasn’t fast enough, friendly enough, concentrated enough. Even at Gabbani’s they were constantly breathing down my back. It was the last job I took before I got caught up in the drug-dealing business. Washing the dishes in the restaurant of my parents while my little brother was being prepared to take over the family business – it was a metaphor for the little faith my parents had left in me. Every day for three years I woke up sick to my stomach, loathing the job and the people around me. I had no friends, no education and no will to live. Combine all that and the answer is drugs.

22 I must’ve been when I discovered weed, a fairly innocent drug compared to heroin, but a venomous introduction to the circuit I’ve gotten myself in to in the years following. Drugs made me feel nothing like myself. Under the influence of weed I was giggly and confident, while speed gave me the boost to make new friends with whom I could party. I quit my job at Gabbani’s, made up the lie that I finally found an university course I was interested in and leeched off my savings to fund my new addiction. When all that money was spent a friend – Kurt was his name - suggested I could sell the pills he produced at home. Aside from the money I made and the pills I was allowed to use for my own consumption, there was the massive advantage of all the festivals, concerts and parties Kurt paid the entrance fee of. All I had to do was charm a few teenagers into buying the stash he gave me. Of course I did all this under influence of drugs, because without I was an useless introvert who was too shy to even say hello to a customer.

My drug use started to expand to my daily live. I’d sit at home and reproduce the feelings of the night before with my own stash. Heroin was my clear favorite. It made me feel numb and euphoric at the same time. With a little heroin in my veins I didn’t need food, shelter or sleep. It was a cheap yet dangerous lifestyle. I convinced myself that I could stop anytime I wanted to. The problem was that I didn’t want to, that I saw no reason to stop, and so I built up a physical dependence to heroin.

This went on for years. I barely saw my family and the friends I had were as addicted as I was. All the symptoms that I suffered, like memory loss and depression between two shots, I ignored. By the time I was 30 I knew it was only a matter of time before my body shut down. Only Francesco knew of my regular drug use, which made it hard to ask for help. But in the end I did, and though I often feel like it wasn’t worth it, I know that the life I’m living right now is much better than the life back then.

Heading back home I feel more relaxed. The cold is now the reason that my hands are shaking, not the panic I’ve managed to suppress, and my heartbeat is back to normal. I reach in my pockets for a smoke, but only find a lighter, the bill of last night’s dinner in Crisalide and my keys. With the latter I open the door of the atelier.

I turn on the lights and go to the back window to grab my cigarettes. Considering my fragile mood I ignore the torn drawings on my desk and look out of the window while lighting a cigarette. It has gotten dark outside, with little light to help me distinguish the trees from the pond behind the atelier. It’s only when my eyes are used to the dark that I see someone entering the ice.

‘How stupid can you be,’ I mumble. This is Rome, not Russia. It’s dangerous to enter thin ice. I consider opening the window and shout at him, but by the time my hand is on the handle I notice something.

It’s the way this person moves. He enters the ice with no fear, no intention to draw back. The gracefulness of a ballerina. As if he never left my sight.

I blink twice, shake my head, but he is still there. Farther away but still on the ice. I can identify the curls now, the skinny body you can crush with your hands if you squeeze hard enough.

He’s up to something and I know what it is. I’ve seen it before.

I leave the house with a blanket and no camera.

Chapter Text

The ice groans under my bare feet. The skin on my inner thighs is red and bumpy from walking around with the urinated boxers between my legs. I’m naked from my toes up to my waist, only Marco’s sweater provides me shelter from the cold wind that rages over the frozen water. With each step I take the feeling in my body fades. When I’ve reached the spot I’ve been walking towards, I can barely separate my limps from the rest of my body.

The hole in the ice is a square meter, with sharp edges I try my best not to come into contact with as I crouch down and test the temperature of the water. I don’t feel anything. No cold, no warmth, just the fluid slipping through my fingers. All of my senses seem to have numbed by the weather. I can’t hear anything but the blood boiling in my head, can see only the dark water and smell the urine.

Considering how much my health has decreased since neglecting my body, entering the water is not a good idea. I’ve done it before, recently even, but it’s different in an ice hole. This is dangerous. This is what mothers warn you for when it first starts to snow.

‘The ice isn’t as thick as it is at first glance,’ she told me that time she’d gotten me ice skates. ‘You can easily fall though the ice. You have to wait until it’s colder.’

I was eleven and my muscles were burning from last week’s imprisonment in the small space near the laundry room. My teacher had contacted my parents about the lack of interest I showed in my classmates. I was shy and didn’t participate in the games they came up with. During breaks I was on my own a lot, invisible to the rest, hiding in the bushes and quietly singing the songs I’d heard on the radio.

‘You should encourage him more to take classmates home,’ I overheard my teacher telling my mom. ‘Maybe a sports club will help. Football, hockey, name it.’

My parents didn’t have the money to afford a membership. If we were lucky we could buy clothes to replace the ones that had gotten short and tight on me. For someone who was starved regularly and locked up at least an hour a week I sure did grow, much to my father’s displeasure. Each time my mom begged for money for clothes she had to face the consequences. It should be considered a wonder that my father allowed her to buy ice skates. I can’t think of the punches she had to endure to get them without feeling guilty.

‘So you can skate with your friends,’ she said while handing me the skates, an alternative for the membership she didn’t have the money for. It was still September and they were clearly worn before, but I couldn’t be happier. Every day I’d sit at the window, waiting for the weather to turn, and when it finally started to snow my mom warned me that the ice wasn’t thick enough yet.

‘Wait a few days,’ she’d said, ‘it’ll get colder.’

It did. Out of the window I could see the first children enter the ice. The excitement grew as I pointed it out to my mom and she allowed me to get out my skates. But sitting there on top of the kitchen table, my mom pushing the skates over my heels with all power she could bring up, there was no way they’d fit. My feet had grown again, and they’d keep on growing, even though my body lacked the fuel to create those centimeters.

I try to think of my mom when I enter the water. Not the mom that had to comfort me after my father threw the skates at my head or the mom I found at the bottom of the stairs, clutching her belly, but the mom that’d let me listen to the baby’s kicking and that’d hug me to sleep if I suffered from nightmares.

I’m waist-deep into the water, the image of my mom fresh in my mind, and then it happens.

I lose grip of the ice.

I go under, unprepared, causing my mouth to fill up with water. It’s Marco’s hands pushing me under all over again, except his hands are replaced by the ice. Panic blasts through my body like a bullet fired from a gun. My arms and legs are useless, paralyzed due to the cold, I can only draw the same circles with my legs that cause me to bump my head against the same ice, and I’m going to die.

God, I’m going to die.

I close my eyes. Drowning must be peaceful I’ve heard, like a silent film in black and white. This isn’t peaceful. A force turns my lungs inside out. My body hasn’t accepted its faith yet and bangs against the ice. All the power that I should be using to pray to a God I don’t believe in is wasted in attempts to save myself.

Maybe it’s not peaceful because I’m not actually drowning.

Maybe something is pulling me out of the water.

-

He’s lighter than the weights I lift in the gym and gasps for air in such a violent manner that I’m afraid he’ll cough up his lungs. The water comes up without me having to push it out of his lungs. Along with heavy breaths and tears it leaves his small body.

‘Good, good,’ I mumble as I wrap him in the blanket, holding him like a baby against my chest. ‘Let it out.’

As I assume that all is out I ask him if he can walk. He shakes his head.

‘Okay, then I’ll carry you.’

‘Mia borsa.’

His voice is raspy from the water. I follow the finger he weakly raises. There, under a tree, lie a backpack and a pile of clothes.

‘I’ll get those for you, okay? When I’ve brought you to my house.’

He shakes his head. Tears start to form in his eyes.

‘Adesso. Cose importanti.’

As I can’t bear to see him more upset than he already is, I take the risk to crouch down with my arms full of a body that’s too weak to walk on its own. He helps me by grabbing his stuff and pulling it tightly against his chest.

While walking home, I think of something to comfort him with. Something that’ll stop the tears that relentlessly stream down his cheeks.

‘I have a bath at home,’ I say. ‘I’ll help you take one so you don’t get hypothermia. First I dry you off, and then we’ll wait until your body has adjusted to the temperature in my house, and then I’ll put you in the tub. I live with a friend – she’s not at home right now – but she has oils and stuff, you can choose one if you want, but maybe you just want to warm up and then go to sleep. It’s up to you.’

It’s a ten minute walk to my apartment, but when we get home, it feels like I’ve told him the entire story of my life. I tell him we have oils and soap that smell like lavender and coconut, that there’s a huge pile to choose from.

‘If you want to,’ I tell him, turning the key to open the front door, ‘we can put in two, or you can take two baths, it doesn’t matter.’

I carry him to the bathroom, where I open the tap and do exactly what I told him. Now that he’s exposed to the light I truly see how damaged his body is. All over his skin scars and marks can be found, some recent, some from a long time ago, but not an inch has remained unharmed. Helping him to get out of his wet clothes, I discover a cracked rib and bones visibly sticking out as if they want to break out. Though I try my hardest not to look, my eyes are automatically drawn towards his genitals and the sore area between his legs.

‘Have you – have you maybe ever been tested on STD's?’ I quickly ask as I see him looking.

He opens his mouth, but no words come out.

‘It’s fine,’ I say, ‘ignore what I said.’

Regarding the several injuries on his skin I decide to leave the soap and oils out of the water, as they are known to stop the healing process, and help him climb in the tub.

‘Try to relax a little,’ I say, bending over the edge to tie his hair in a bun. His forehead is hot. ‘I’ll stay here, so it’s okay if you close your eyes, I’ll wake you.’

He nods. All of the previously seen determination is gone. There is a small boy in my bath tub, a child stupid enough to enter thin ice. I should be angry. I should inform him about the risks and dangers.

You could have died, I want to say. If I didn’t spot you, you would’ve died.

But I don’t. I can’t. Instead, I remain at his side. I wait until the bath has warmed up his body and then help him out.

‘Hold on to me,’ I say, wrapping the towel around his shoulders. ‘It doesn’t matter if I get a little wet. Don’t worry.’

He does as I tell him, practically hugs me as I carefully avoid the most recent injuries while drying him off.

‘I have a friend,’ I say, placing my arms under his knees to lift him up, ‘she must have some PJ’s that come close to your size. I’ll get those for you.’

I drop him off in my room and go to Eleni’s to find a pair, a blue one that says Choose happiness on the chest. Coming back, I find him lying on his side, his legs dangling over the edge of the bed.

‘You have to stay warm,’ I say, ‘just hold onto me again.’

He obeys by pushing himself up and letting me slip the shirt over his body. After I’ve helped him in a pair of boxer shorts that Francesco has never picked up and the bottom of the PJ’s, I pull up the blankets and tuck him in.

‘Go to sleep,’ I say, ‘you’ll feel better afterwards.’

He closes his eyes. Maybe because I told him, maybe because he’s exhausted, but either way it’s a sight that makes me fight the urge to crawl next to him and press a kiss on his forehead.

Chapter Text

I was twelve years old when my mother gave birth to Francesca. She was born two months prematurely with the umbilical cord tightly wrapped around her neck. When Francesco and I were finally allowed inside the hospital room there was a little creature resting on my mother’s chest. She introduced this creature to us as Francesca, our sister, but since the doctors were careful with deciding if she was as healthy as the tests came out, my mother didn’t give us permission to touch her, in case we were carrying around diseases that’d creep into her stunted immune system.

With Exhibit 13 it’s the same. It’s been a few hours since I took him home and the last time I touched him was when I tucked him in. All of a sudden my own room isn’t private territory anymore. There is a boy in my bed whose temperature has been rising for the past few hours, whose body I’ve seen and photographed before, and all I can do is watch him growing worse by the second.

Around eleven I decide to put his clothes in the laundry machine and take a look in his backpack. Inside I find an old Nokia, a toothbrush, a package of paracetamols with only one left, a sandwich, a purse, a bottle of water and a few pages ripped out of what seems to be an Italian grammar book.

I get out the phone and stare at it for a while. The screen isn’t locked. I have access to all the features without having to type in a password. Hesitating, I click on ‘messages’, the only source that might hold information about the boy.

In his inbox I find messages dating back to April 2013. All of them are sent from an anonymous phone number. I scroll back to the one that hasn’t been opened yet. Is it violating privacy if I have no other choice? I look at the boy sleeping in my bed, his curls resting like a crown on my pillow. As if he’d answer.

I need a new photo of you for Michael. If thinspiration sold as much as porn I surely would’ve gotten a goldmine, but now you not only sicken me, but also your customers. Eat something before you come here. I expect you tomorrow at 15:00. Love, Marco.

I frown. His customers? A photo? The first thing that comes to my mind is that he’s either a model or a porn actor. But as my curiousness wins it from my first intention to respect his privacy, I find out that the word ‘customer’ means exactly what it stands for.

A customer from Milan will come over this Friday. He loves dirty little whores so this time you can skip the shower. Don’t forget to eat. Love, Marco.

A whore? He? I look at the little boy in my bed. Would there be men who get a thrill out of his fragileness? Aren’t they afraid he’ll break? It doesn’t seem like a job for him, especially not after the rape. Or was that an intentional thing? A sum of money that’d be given to him if he’d agree to participate?

No, he was raped. He was raped and I’m disgusting for thinking my name could be cleared so easily. This is the boy whose pictures I’ve taken two times before stepping in. I owe him the world and possibly more.

The name ‘Marco’ remains a mystery to me. The more recent the message, the meaner he seems to become. Closer to April 2013 the messages are accompanied by hearts and kisses, but overtime those are replaced by cold words and demands, calling the boy ‘a slut’ and ‘too ugly to be fucked’, awful things that do not fit the body that has landed on my bed.

Everything seems to point to a pimp. One that wasn’t as demanding in the first place and even seemed to love the boy, but surely someone the boy highly depends on. Maybe there’s a debt that needs to be paid off – the debt of coming to Italy for example, which is a possibility due to the pages of Italian grammar in his backpack and the fact that all the messages are in English – maybe the pimp means more to him than the messages suggest in the first place. That last theory gains strength when the boy calls his name.

‘Marco?’

A small voice escapes from under the blankets. I put the phone back in the backpack and rush over to the bed. A pair of glassy eyes watch me kneeling down next to him.

‘Dov’e Marco?’ The words barely pass his dry lips.

‘I’ll get you something to drink.’ I get up, but a hand tugging my sleeve keeps me from walking away.

‘Dov’e Marco?’ he repeats.

‘You need to drink some water,’ I say, ignoring the question. ‘I’ll be back in a second.’

I leave the room to go to the kitchen, where I fill a glass with water and find an oral thermometer in the medical kit. Returning to my room, I see he has fallen asleep again, and decide to measure his temperature only.

While I wait for the numbers to settle, I go through the messages on his phone once again, writing down what strikes me in my own phone. Almost all end with Marco’s name and judging from the language used in those without a signature, he’s the biggest contributor to the boy’s inbox. Only of one I’m sure it’s not Marco’s. It was sent on June 23th, 2013 from an actual phone number, which I save in the notes of my phone.

Hey Ermal, Bojana here. How are you doing?

I stare at the name the message starts with. Ermal. It’s a name I’ve seen come by in plenty of the messages, but now that there’s not a snarky undertone in this particular message, it’s easier to accept Exhibit 13 has a name.

‘Ermal,’ I say out loud.

The boy responds with a groan. I walk over to the bed and get the thermometer out of his mouth. 40,2, it says.

‘You should’ve never gone out,’ I say, stroking his hair as if to straighten the curls. Even the skin on his skull is hot. ‘You can stay here until you feel better, Ermal.’

With another groan he rolls to his side. I let go of his hair, the fear to either infect him or be infected by him vaguely present in the back of my head, and put his phone back in his backpack.

Chapter Text

I’ve spent the majority of the next day by his side with a laptop to keep myself busy. Both Eleni and Francesca have called a few times, but in the presence of Ermal I didn’t dare to speak to them, afraid they’d notice something in my voice. I’ve never been great in keeping secrets, and especially Eleni is great in detecting them.

Throughout the day Ermal woke up a few times. The first time I fed him spoons of chicken soup, which seeped down his chin onto Elenis pajamas. The pieces of chicken he couldn’t keep in either. I told him he had to at least drink water, to prevent his body from becoming dehydrated, to which he responded by opening his mouth, not to say anything but to accept the glass of water that had been standing on the nightstand in case he’d wake up.

The second time it was me who woke him, after discovering he’d wet my bed. While I helped him bathing and get dressed in another of Elenis pajamas, he asked me if I was a friend of Marco. I said yes. It seemed to calm him. He fell asleep on Elenis bed as I brought the sheets of my bed to the washing machine. I let him stay there.

Late in the afternoon the mumbling started. I’d initially thought he had regained consciousness, but that wasn’t the case. The mumbling didn’t make sense. Or maybe it did, but was my knowledge of the Albanian language not big enough.

I presumed the language was Albanian because there were a few words I recognized, specifically one that I’ve heard from Elenis phone calls with her mom: mami. Ermal kept on repeating it in his sleep. It’d make sense – the messages in English, the Italian grammar, the chaotic structure of his sentences. All does add up to the theory I have in mind: that he’s an Albanian immigrant who was promised a bright future in Italy, but ended up as a prostitute instead.

The mumbling did not end until around midnight, when heart-wrenching cries took over. I sat by his bed and tried to calm him by stroking his back and speaking in the tone I use for animals only.

‘Ssh,’ I did, lifting up the blankets to put my childhood bear, Lou, next to him, in the frail hope it’d stop the crying.

Ermal opened his eyes and our glances briefly met. I saw the fever in his eyes, the layer of sweat on his forehead that made the curls stick to his skin, and I knew the words that came out of his mouth were just delirious rambling from the way it barely passed his lips. His voice was strained due to all the coughing and crying, I could almost hear the effort he had to undergo, but still I didn’t speak Albanian, and only understood chunks of words, things Eleni had translated for me that time I joined her on her trip to Fier.

‘Go back to sleep,’ I interrupted him, ‘you need it.’

He fell silent. His arms had found Lou and pressed her against his chest. From so close by I noticed the skins on his dry lips. I knew it was a sign of dehydration, but there was no way I could make him drink more than two sips of water, let alone make him eat.

‘Maybe I should call a doctor,’ I said to no one in particular.

He stared past me. Then one clear sentence came out, in English.

‘I don’t want to go back home.’

It sounded as if, for a moment, the fever had dropped and he was fully conscious. He even seemed to wait for a response.

‘You don’t have to go back,’ I said, ‘you can stay here as long as you want.’

He looked at me, and only this time he seemed to register me as a person and not the transparent force that had pulled him out of a pond.

‘Thank you,’ were the last words before he fell asleep again.

-

For two days the fever surpasses 40 degrees. The moments on which he temporarily regains consciousness I use to help him take a bath and let him drink. Food seems to be an issue. The soup and eggs I offer he refuses by demonstratively keeping his mouth shut and looking away.

At least he didn’t lose his determination, I think as I throw away another plate of scrambled eggs. If dehydration won’t shut down his body, malnourishment will.

It’s the fourth day and Ermal has received tons of messages, presumably all from Marco’s hand. Not an hour goes by without a phone call from an anonymous number. I’ve considered answering, explaining the situation to this man that Ermal probably owes most of his misery to, but I couldn’t find the words. Phone calls in general are hard to me, what am I supposed to say to a pimp?

Hello, it’s me, Fabrizio Gabbani, I pulled your boy out of a frozen pond and am now nursing him until he gets better.

It’s ridiculous anyway. I should’ve called the police or an ambulance, but instead I’m making sketches and pictures of him, without his permission. Every line I put on paper pushes me farther away from the confrontation. As long as he remains this ill, I can do what I want with him, and that’s horrible.

Firing the nub of my umpteenth cigarette out of the window, I get up from my seat at the kitchen table and return to my spot next to my bed. Only when I’ve already sat down I notice the empty bed and the smell of urine coming from the bedclothes.

I find him in the bathroom, holding onto the sink to not lose balance. In the mirror above the sink the peaky face stares back at me, curls sticking to his overly pronounced cheekbones. A red colors creeps upon his face, out-of-place on the pale skin I’ve grown used to.

‘I – I’m sorry,’ he stutters, ‘I will clean it up.’

‘No, it’s okay, I’ll do it.’

‘Really, I’m so sorry, it’ll not happen again, if you give me the sheets -’

‘It’s okay,’ I repeat, ‘it’s nothing.’

The determination in his eyes tells me that I’m talking to him and not to the delirious entity that has been living in his body for the past days.

‘You don’t have to be ashamed,’ I say, ‘it’s just a little incident. It happens to the best.’

‘Does it?’

I shrug. ‘Even if it didn’t, I don’t see the problem.’

Ermal looks down. The color in his face has disappeared yet again, and just in time I’ve spread my arms to catch him.

‘You shouldn’t have gotten out of bed,’ I say, pushing him upwards and offering him my shoulder. ‘Let’s get rid of those pajamas and get you back to bed.’

He nods weakly. Leaning on my shoulder, he undoes the pajamas and boxers, dumps them in the laundry basket and cleans the space between his thighs with the towel I hand him.

‘Can you walk?’ I ask when he’s done.

He nods, but letting of my shoulder, he collapses again, right into my arms. With his genitals exposed and his mind fully conscious of my presence, I have nowhere else to look than into his eyes, as staring past him would be too obvious. Ermal smiles back. A moustache of sweat has formed on his upper lip. Only from this close you can see the little hairs of his eyebrows, too blond to be noticed in regular light.

‘Can I lift you up?’ I ask.

‘Why are you asking? You’ve done it before.’

I’m surprised to hear this.

‘So you do remember?’

‘Vaguely.’

I put one arm under his knees, the other under his butt, and pressing him against my chest for extra support, I carry him to Elenis room. In there, I pick out another pair of pajamas and boxers while he waits on the bed, looking around the room as if he sees it for the first time.

‘Is she your girlfriend?’ he asks, pointing to the picture hanging above the bed. It’s a picture of me and Eleni when we graduated from Faniello’s. We’re standing in front of the building, dressed in suit and dress, showing off the certificates. It wasn’t exactly the best picture taken on that day, but Eleni found it hilarious that, if you look closely, Francesco and Guy can be seen in the background, arguing.

‘She’s actually just a friend,’ I say.

I offer him a new pair of pajamas. The top he manages to get over his head on his own, but for the boxers and bottoms he needs my help.

‘You need to drink more water,’ I say as I pull the covers over him, ‘you’re on the verge of dehydration. I can tell from your lips.’

Ermal touches his lips as if I just told him they’ve turned orange.

‘It hurts,’ he says, ‘my lungs and my throat.’

I put a hand on his forehead.

‘At least your temperature has dropped a little,’ I say, ‘but still, if you don’t drink, it’ll take longer for your body to heal.’

I hand him the glass of water from the nightstand. He drinks with a hurt look upon his face.

‘Thanks,’ he says as he hands me the empty glass. ‘For everything.’

I smile. ‘It’s okay.’

‘If I can do something in return -’

‘Sleep.’

‘But -’

‘We’ll discuss that another time, okay?’

Ermal nods, then closes his eyes, only to open them a fraction of a second later.

‘I’m Ermal, by the way,’ he says.

‘I’m Fabrizio.’

Chapter Text

‘Ermal?’

The blanket is wet, but this time it’s not urine. The penetrant stench of sweat fills my nostrils when I shake his shoulder. He groans in response, muffled by the head deeply buried into the pillow.

I sit down next to the bed and run my fingers through the curls that overshadow his face. His forehead isn’t as hot as it used to be, but still the fever hasn’t dropped completely. I reposition my hand to his shoulder and shake once again. This time I make contact with the brown eyes underneath the hair.

I turn to the nightstand, surprised to see that the glass I was about to hand him is empty.

‘Were you awake this night?’ I ask.

‘All that water woke me up.’ Ermal pushes himself up, causing Lou to fall out of the sheets. I bend forward to pick her up. Ermal accepts her into his arms.

‘You look better than yesterday,’ I say. ‘Are you feeling better too?’

He shrugs. ‘A little. It hurts here.’ He rubs his chest. ‘Didn’t I wake you with my coughing?’

I shake my head. ‘I slept on the couch. Eleni’s bed is hard as a rock.’

‘Is that the girl you live with? Eleni?’ Ermal looks around the room as if he expects I have as many pictures on the wall as Eleni. There are none. I don’t have many people I’d like to put in a list and hang above my bed.

‘Yes,’ I say.

‘And she’s not here?’

‘No, she’s not here. She went to visit her family a few days ago. They live in Albania.’

A light goes on in Ermals eyes when hearing about their shared heritage. ‘I’m from there too.’

‘What a coincidence,’ I say, as if I haven’t heard him mumbling in his native language before. ‘Have you just moved?’

‘No, I’ve been here for a while. Twelve years I believe.’

‘That’s a lot.’

Ermal looks away. Maybe it’s his overall fragility that makes the look on his face appear hurt, maybe he is hurt, but in both ways he doesn’t seem comfortable talking about it. I quickly switch to another subject.

‘I made some food,’ I say, ‘it’s in the kitchen. I can get it for you, or you can try and come with me.’

Although I don’t expect him to be able to, he moves to the side of the bed and slowly gets up. In full length we’re almost the same height, only his curls make him appear slightly taller.

‘Here,’ I say to break the eye contact, handing him my bathrobe. ‘I’ve turned up the heating in the house, but the radiator in the kitchen has its own will.’

Ermal puts his arms in the sleeves and ties a knot in the waistband. He follows me to the kitchen, where I’ve put the salad Eleni prepared before she left in two bowls on each side of the table.

‘Take a seat,’ I say, invitingly gesturing to the chair Eleni usually sits in. ‘The salad is a few days old, but I promise it tastes just as good when it did on the first day.’

Ermal lets out a shy laugh and sits down.

‘It’s just lettuce, arugula, tomatoes -’ I go through the bowl with my fork. ‘-A little bit of egg, chicken, and some avocado I believe. It’s a light meal. Eleni always eats it before she goes to the gym.’

Ermal picks up his fork and pokes the lettuce. It takes a while before he brings the fork to his mouth. As if it’s hot iron he’s chewing on his expression changes.

‘You don’t like it?’ I ask.

He shakes his head and points to his throat.

‘I can call a doctor to check on you,’ I say, ‘just in case it’s more than a virus.’

Ermal looks past me.

‘I don’t think Marco would want to pay for that,’ he says.

‘Why not?’

Ermal raises an eyebrow.

‘You know him. He doesn’t like to spend money on, well, things he doesn’t find important.’

I clear my throat, warming up for the confession that I only know Marco through the texts he has send, but no words come out, making Ermal raise another eyebrow.

‘I’m actually not a friend of Marco,’ I admit, ‘I just said that because I didn’t want to upset you. I don’t know who Marco is.’

For a few seconds it remains silent. Then Ermal repeats what I said.

‘You don’t know who Marco is.’

I shake my head.

‘So Marco doesn’t know where I am.’

‘I’m sure he’ll understand if you explain the situation,’ I say, pulling the kind of innocent face from someone who hasn’t cleared out his entire inbox.

It doesn’t help. His movements become faster as he gets up from his seat and starts walking, making it a fair two meters before he trips over his own weak body. I rush over to him and lead him back to the chair.

Tears have appeared in both his eyes and voice. ‘I need to tell him -’

He doesn’t get past the first half of his sentence, as a horrible cough catches up and makes him bend over in pain. I wait for a moment of silence before handing him a glass of water.

‘Thanks,’ he says, voice strained, ‘but I should really -’

His second attempt is a weak shadow of the first, he doesn’t even get properly off the chair. Discouraged by his strength and my strict face, he sits down again.

‘Do you remember what happened?’ I ask.

Ermals eyes dart around the room. Suddenly the feverish expression is back.

‘You helped me,’ he answers.

Instead of lecturing him about the dangers of entering thin ice, I decide to play into a different approach, less cautionary than the one I originally planned.

‘Yes, I pulled you out of a gap in the ice,’ I say, ‘and I don’t know what your intentions were, but it’s dangerous and you shouldn’t do it again.’

‘Do you think he suspects anything?’ Ermal asks, and in his eyes I can see the fever rise.

‘Suspects what?’

‘That I’m here.’

‘He’ll understand,’ I say. ‘You needed your rest, and you still do. Shall I help you get back to bed?’

‘Bed,’ he repeats, which I take as a yes.

I lead him to Eleni’s bedroom, where fresh sheets have been lying since yesterday. The walk to the kitchen and back has exhausted him to the point I even have to lift up the blankets for him. With the bathrobe still on I tuck him in. The fever has returned, accompanied by the delirious confusion that’ll no doubt fill another night with mumbling.

‘If you need to the toilet,’ I say, ‘just call my name and I’ll come to help you. You know my name, right?’

Ermal blinks a few times.

‘Fabrizio,’ he says. His voice sounds as far away as his gaze.

Chapter Text

‘This one’s called Ermal.’

The man showing up in my doorway is on the small side. He wears a dark blue suit from which the pant legs are too long, picking up the dirt from the floor. What’s left of his hair is combed to one side.

I’m lying in my bed. The blankets haven’t been cleaned in weeks and the smell of urine dominates in my room. My muscles are sore from last night’s customers and I can barely move without feeling pain, may it be in my arms, legs or head.

‘He is a stubborn one,’ Serhat tells the man. His sales pitch hasn’t changed in the three years that I’m here. I’m still the stubborn Albanian immigrant that masters both the slow and soft fuck as well as the dirty and rough. It’s the only Italian sentence I can say out loud without struggling.

This time the pitch is in English. Serhat demands me to get up from the bed and I slowly take off my clothes until I’m only wearing boxers. I’m not as skinny as I’ll be in a few years. My bones aren’t sticking out and my curls lively dance around my head. When I smile, the corners of my mouth have fat to push upwards. Not that I have many reasons to smile.

‘Turn around,’ the man says.

I do as I’m told and his fingers follow the path down my spine. My back was my father’s favorite spot. Scars seem to hold the skin together, ash-colored from the time I spend indoors. The first time I was exposed to a full-length mirror I was shocked to see the damage my father had done. There were bumps and marks like fossils of a time long gone, the childhood I want to forget so deeply but can’t. I can’t turn my back to something that’s printed on my back itself.

‘Do you like him?’ Serhat asks. ‘If you want to, you can try him out. I won’t charge you the usual.’

‘Try out?’ I frown. ‘What’s this about?’

The man steps in before Serhat can express his annoyance. Under his carefully maintained beard I discover a smile.

‘I’m looking for a personal slave,’ the man explains, ‘and you might be what I’m looking for. What’s the price, Serhat?’

‘I make over 200 a day from just him,’ Serhat says, ‘so your offer has got to be good.’

The man runs his finger over my shoulder all the way to my boxers.

‘May I?’ he asks Serhat.

Serhat nods. The man peels the boxers off my ass and observes what’s underneath. A frown appears on his face.

‘It’s rather small,’ he says disapprovingly.

‘That’s what they all say,’ Serhat says, ‘but when it comes to life, you’ll be surprised what it can do.’

The man shakes his head. ‘It’s a turn-off for me. Let me see the next one.’

He’s already standing in the hallway when it passes my lips.

‘As if you’re going to find someone who wants to be your slave.’

Both the man and Serhat turn to me. Lines appear around the eyes of the man.

‘Can you say that again?’ he asks.

I don’t even hesitate.

‘As if you’re going to find someone,’ I repeat, emphasizing every word, ‘who wants to be your slave.’

‘That’s Ermal,’ Serhat says, letting out a nervous laugh to downplay the situation, ‘cheeky as always. Ignore him.’

But the man remains in place, staring at me with his head tilt to one side.

‘Maybe I want to try out this one.’

‘This one has a name,’ I say.

The man looks at Serhat.

‘Give me ten minutes,’ he says, ‘and I will shut him up.’

-

I wake up with a pressure on my lungs that makes me unable to breathe for a solid five seconds. Gasping for air, the images of Serhats place blur my vision. I see myself and tons of men that found their way to my bed every day, the sex they demanded and the condoms that went to waste once they figured out they could do whatever they wanted with me without facing any consequences.

There were men like the man in my dream. They’d show up with a bag of cash that’d make euro symbols in Serhats eyes appear, asking us sex slaves to line up in the basement of the building to compare us and try us out. They’d undress me, touch my body and judge my capabilities. I saw boys like me come and go, but I was never sold. I was too stubborn, too small, too unpredictable. When they did show interest in me, the offer came nowhere near the money Serhat made from my services. I was nothing more than a toy that’d cough up coins if you pressed its belly. Along with my determination to escape I lost my will to live, and I was ready to destroy myself the moment I got my hands on something sharp, until Marco came.

The same Marco has called me over 200 times since I was sent away almost a week ago, and the missed calls are still stacking up. Even though his last messages radiate an air of desperateness, I don’t dare to pick up. I tell myself it’s a physical thing. In my current state I won’t be able to explain what’s wrong, especially not with a voice like this. He’ll be drawing conclusions the moment he hears me breathe, and I won’t be capable enough to assure him I haven’t done anything wrong.

Well, except that I didn’t answer his calls, or his messages.

I put my phone back in my backpack and stumble to the kitchen of Fabrizios apartment, where I find him hunched over a piece of paper, drawing. The agility with which he moves his dominant hand almost makes the drawing itself pointless: it is a beautiful view in itself to see someone handling a pencil as precisely as Fabrizio does.

Careful not to disturb his focus, I take place at the other end of the table. A tattooed arm forms a wall between me and the drawing. On the amber-colored skin I discover a pocket watch, a rose, a sun and a bird. When I bow slightly in his direction to see what more there is, he promptly stops and looks me right in the eye.

‘I’m so, so sorry,’ I stutter as I feel my cheeks turn red, ‘I wasn’t watching you or anything, I just got curious and I -’

Fabrizio says nothing, just stretches out his arm over the table.

‘That’s my first one,’ he says, pointing to the bird. ‘I got it when I was 19. I was in university and I ate dry bread for three weeks so I could afford it. And this one -’ his fingers moves upwards, to the rosebud, ‘- I hate it when people ask you what your tattoo means, so I chose something a lot of people have.’

‘Rebellious,’ I say.

Fabrizio grins and rolls over his arm.

‘Our family crest,’ he continues, pointing to the wolf on his bicep, ‘is a red deer. I always found it stupid that we had one, because, well, it’s just stupid. So I made my own.’

‘Wolves eat red deer,’ I say.

‘You’re the first to notice that.’

To hide my blush I turn my focus back to his arm. In the curve of his elbow I notice a swarm of dots.

‘What’s that?’ I ask.

Fabrizio looks at the dots as if he’s never seen them before.

‘Scars,’ he says, suddenly uninterested in explaining his tattoos to me. He gets up from his chair, turns around the paper and walks to the fridge.

‘Have you slept well?’ he asks, returning with the same salad he offered me yesterday. My stomach responds with a 180 degrees turn, making me feel sick.

‘I did,’ I say, pushing aside the salad. Fabrizio pushes it back under my nose.

‘You should eat. You haven’t eaten in forever.’

He offers me a fork.

‘I’m not hungry,’ I say.

‘You don’t have to be hungry,’ Fabrizio says, ‘you just gotta eat.’

I take the fork, albeit hesitantly, and prick in a piece of lettuce.

‘What were you drawing?’ I ask to shift the attention.

‘Oh, eh -’ The corners of his mouth go up. ‘You.’

Fabrizio seems to be as surprised by the answer as I am. From the overall picture I got from watching this man, I never expected him to be this quirky. But he is, and it somehow matches his tough-guy-appearance.

‘Can I see it?’ I shove aside the salad bowl to make place for the paper. Fabrizio shakes his head.

‘First a few bites,’ he says.

I frown in disbelief, a protest is balancing on the tip of my tongue, but the look that Fabrizio gives me tells me there is no way to negotiate.

So I eat. Not much, but enough to make Fabrizio turn around the paper.

It’s a close-up of my face. My eyes are closed and my nose buried deep in the fur of Fabrizio’s teddy bear. The curls roam freely around my face, much fuller than they are, and fill the paper up to the last white spot.

‘I was thinking of using chalk to add some colors,’ Fabrizio says, ‘red and orange, maybe. To create that expressionistic vibe.’

‘It’s lovely,’ I say. ‘I mean, not me, but the drawing. You’re talented.’

Fabrizio doesn’t physically blush, but in his smile I detect a certain shyness.

‘I hope you don’t mind,’ he says, ‘that I used you as a model.’

‘Not at all.’

‘You’d be a good one.’

I almost choke on the tomato I just put in my mouth.

‘You’re kidding?’

‘No.’ Fabrizio puts a finger on the endless curls he has drawn. ‘You have a charisma not many people have. Not the lady-attracting kind of charisma, but it’s different, I don’t know what it is, but it works.’

Now it’s my turn to blush. I don’t know what to say.

‘You can have it when I’m done,’ Fabrizio continues, ‘and then you can see it for yourself.’

He smiles. I smile back, then lower my eyes as the interaction lasts too long for my liking.

‘Thanks, by the way,’ I say, ‘for everything. I don’t think I would’ve survived if you weren’t around.’

‘You really did bring yourself into danger,’ Fabrizio says, and for some odd reason I think this speech is what he has been waiting for all this time. ‘What were you even doing there? You could’ve killed yourself -’

Fabrizio covers his hands with his mouth in shock.

‘Were you killing yourself?’

‘No!’ I say, way too fast, and again, much softer this time: ‘No, I wasn’t killing myself.’

‘Then what were you doing there?’

The genuine concern from Fabrizio’s side is what makes this situation so hard. I can’t tell him about the homeless shelter I was sent to after I saw my boyfriend introducing Lydia to his parents, about Deen and the countless of times I had to wash myself in natural waters. It’s not that big of a deal anyway. Once I’m back to normal, Marco will not even think of hurting me ever again.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Fabrizio says, ‘I just want you to know that, if there’s something going on, you’re always welcome here.’

I press together my lips. A lump forms in my throat. Not counting Bojana, I haven’t had a friend since Eugent back in high school. With Marco it is hard to maintain contacts, as he doesn’t allow me to have phone numbers or go out if it isn’t for a customer, and in the years that I wasn’t locked up I was either too shy or focused on surviving to make a friend.

In one way it feels good to have someone else than just Marco around me, but on the other hand it is Marco whose response I’m most afraid of. All the attempts I’ve done so far to keep in contact with someone have been hindered by him. He doesn’t want me to meet the wrong people and fall back into the circuit that Serhat forced me into. At least that’s what he tells me.

But I know Fabrizio has no bad intentions. He saved me.

Chapter Text

I haven’t spoken to Annalisa in a while. Ever since the cutting incident I’ve tried to avoid her at all costs, ashamed that she has to see me at my lowest. Every time Eleni invites her over I either hide in my room or pretend not to be home at all. Things are awkward between us, but right now she’s my only hope.

Writing down exactly what I want to say to her over the phone I hear Ermal playing the guitar in the living room. Excited like a child in a toy store he was when he discovered I own a guitar. We made the deal that, if he’d eat a proper meal, he’d be allowed to play. It took him some time to finish, but in the end he did, and like a proud parent I handed him the instrument. He has been enjoying himself since, humming old Italian songs to the sound of the slightly off-tuned guitar.

Before I press “call” I take a few deep breaths and go over the script once again. What I’m most afraid of is surprisingly not facing someone I’d rather not face, but the fact that Annalisa will definitely inform Eleni about the stranger I’ve taken in. I can already picture how that’ll go: Annalisa describing the boy she presumes is my new boyfriend as a small, curly-haired boy and Eleni concluding it’s the boy on the photographs that she has explicitly told me not to go after, which will be followed by her hopping on the first plane to Italy to lecture me about the similarities between Ermal and all the other things I’ve been obsessed with. Knowing Eleni, she won’t accept any of my explanations, if she even gives me the chance to explain myself, and that’s why I made up a little white lie to keep her out of this.

‘Hey Fabrizio,’ Annalisa greets on the other end of the phone.

When Ermal told me that his GP was a private doctor he’d rather not contact for reasons unknown, Annalisa, a qualified doctor and good friend of Eleni, was the first alternative to come to my mind. I’m not sure she’d offer her service to a stranger. If not, I can always offer her more money.

‘Hey Anna,’ I say, ‘are you free tonight?’

It is silent on the other end of the phone.

‘Eh, yes,’ I hear her hesitating. ‘Why?’

‘I have a friend over,’ I start explaining, ‘he’s travelling around Europe and he doesn’t really have a doctor here, but now he has fallen ill. I wonder if you could, maybe, take a look at him?’

‘What are the symptoms?’

‘A little bit like the flu, but I just want to be sure it’s nothing serious.’

I peek through the doorway connecting the kitchen with the living room. Ermal sits on the couch, legs crossed, my guitar on his lap. With surgical precision his fingers move up and down the neck of the guitar, almost as if he’s dissecting the strings.

‘I can come around,’ Annalisa says, ‘but if there’s something serious going on, I can’t really do anything except refer you to the hospital.’

A disproportioned child, learning how to play the guitar and succeeding like he was born with a pick between his fingers. I can’t help but find Ermal endearing.

‘We will,’ I say to Annalisa, turning my back to the living room. ‘Thank you so much.’

‘No problem.’

‘By the way,’ I quickly add, ‘can you maybe not tell Eleni about him? We’re kind of dating and I want to tell it to her myself. Well, if we become a thing.’

‘Oh!’ Annalisas voice goes up an octave. ‘That’s amazing, Fab. And of course I won’t say anything.’

I hold the phone a few centimeters away from my mouth to breathe a sigh of relief.

‘Thanks,’ I say, ‘you’re the best.’

-

When I return to the living room Ermal has stopped playing. The guitar sits on his lap, its size contrasting with the small body underneath.

‘Why did you say that?’ he asks as I sit down in the chair across from him.

‘Say what?’

‘That we’re dating.’

I feel my cheeks turn red. ‘Eleni is… She’s always concerned about me. If she knows I let in a stranger she’ll definitely go mad.’

‘Sounds like she cares about you.’

‘She does.’

Ermal smiles at me. A lost curl dangles in front of his eyes. He puts it away behind his ear.

‘You didn’t have to do this,’ he says. ‘Call the doctor and stuff.’

‘It’s just to be sure that you’re not suffering from a serious illness.’

‘I’m feeling better already.’

‘Ermal,’ I say, and I try to sound strict, ‘it really isn’t a problem. I’m sure your boyfriend would have done the same.’

Ermal looks down.

‘Or wouldn’t he?’ I ask.

He shrugs.

‘I’ve always had health problems,’ he says, still facing the floor. ‘If we had to warn the doctor for every little freckle, we’d sit in his office all day.’

‘Your boyfriend sounds very -’

I can’t come up with the right word. Fortunately Ermal knows what I’m aiming for.

‘Marco’s a business man,’ he says. ‘No-nonsense, that’s how he is.’

‘Still, you were in a critical condition during the first days.’

‘Then why didn’t you call an ambulance?’

It’s a question I didn’t expect to come out of his mouth, the same mouth that gasped for air when I pulled the body out of the water. How can he be this fierce when there’s barely any power in him?

‘I’m sorry,’ Ermal says when he sees my confused expression. ‘I didn’t mean to – you’ve done great.’

‘You asked me not to. To call an ambulance,’ I lie.

‘Did I?’

I feel bad for playing with his mind, but I have no other choice.

‘You don’t remember?’ I ask.

‘No…’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ I say. ‘As long as you’re feeling better.’

‘I am feeling better,’ he says. ‘Much better.’

Chapter Text

‘Have you always been this weight?’ is the first thing Annalisa asks when I take off my shirt. We’re in the living room of Fabrizio’s apartment while Fabrizio waits in the kitchen. He has warned me that Annalisa can be straightforward and meddlesome. I didn’t know what he meant with that combination until Annalisa opened her mouth.

‘I have a fast metabolism,’ I lie. ‘My doctor says it’s fine as long as I don’t get under 60 kilograms.’

‘And you’re not under that?’ Annalisa asks, frowning.

I shake my head. From the growing frown on her forehead I can tell she doesn’t believe me, but she doesn’t go into further detail. Not like Marco’s doctor does. He always has a laundry list of questions ready: what I’m eating, whether I skip meals or not or if I throw up afterwards. I never tell him the truth, mainly because I don’t see the problem in being the weight that I am. Aside from the various of names Marco calls me when he sees me naked – bag of bones being the most insulting one – I see no reason to change. I experience more or less the same health problems as I always did, so why should the fact I’m losing pound after pound have anything to do with it?

‘And this?’ Annalisa asks, pressing lightly on the lower rib area. The color has faded to a lighter blue, but still hurts when I move.

I flinch in pain. ‘I fell,’ I murmur.

‘How?’

‘Against a table.’ And I did a backflip, I add in my head, annoyed.

‘It doesn’t seem broken,’ Annalisa says, ‘but it’s definitely bruised.’

As to strengthen her conclusion she pushes in and around the blue area. If that’s not enough already her hand reaches up to my chest.

‘May I?’ she asks, pointing to the stethoscope she has brought.

I nod. Annalisa plugs in the ear tips and listens to my lungs. It doesn’t take her long to draw a conclusion from the noise and the questions she asks me.

‘Pneumonia. I’ll prescribe you some antibiotics for it. If they don’t start working in three days, you contact me again, okay? And for this -’ her fingers find the blue spot on my ribs again, ‘some medical tape will do.’

‘Okay.’

From her questioning face I can tell she wants to add something. With a frown I invite her to speak up.

‘Is he nice to you?’ Annalisa asks, keeping her voice down. ‘Fabrizio?’

‘Well, yes,’ I say. ‘Why?’

‘He doesn’t… He doesn’t do things to you that you aren’t okay with?’

‘Like?’

Annalisa gestures to the bruise. ‘If he did that, you can tell me. Your secret is safe with me. I know how Fabrizio can be.’

‘What? No -’ I repeatedly shake my head, though the latter catches my attention. ‘What do you mean? How can he be?’

‘O. You haven’t -’ To avoid looking me in the eyes she gets up to pack her stuff. It makes me even more suspicious.

‘How can he be?’ I ask again.

‘Just…’ Annalisa opens her bag, shifting through her stuff as if to expect the right words are in there. ‘Intensely destructive.’

‘Intensely destructive?’

‘Yes. Like -’ She finally looks up. ‘He has these habits.’

‘Habits?’

Annalisa sighs. It’s clear she didn’t intend to go here. ‘He was an addict. Heroin. For years. Didn’t he tell you that?’

‘No…’

‘Ah.’ Annalisa pauses. ‘I’m not saying that Fabrizio’s a threat, absolutely not, but it’s not a secret that addicts tend to hold a certain anger than can turn to physical aggressiveness if not treated. And I know from Eleni that Fabrizio hasn’t had any help in years, so I thought…’

‘That Fabrizio did this to me,’ I finish her sentence.

‘Yes.’ Annalisa is visibly relieved that I solved her riddle.

‘Well.’ I scratch my neck. ‘He didn’t. He’s been amazing, actually.’

Finally a smile breaks through the stiff expression Annalisa has been holding the moment she stepped in this room. ‘Good to hear. Fabrizio deserves a little bit of happiness after all he’s been through.’

I don’t know why, but the blood start to stream rapidly into the veins in my cheeks when I think of Fabrizio’s smile. Yes, I agree with Annalisa. Someone like Fabrizio deserves happiness, though a lot more than a little bit. He deserves the world.

‘I’ll ask Fabrizio if he’ll get the antibiotics and tape for you,’ Annalisa says, buttoning up her coat. ‘If there’s something, if you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact me. Fabrizio has my number.’

‘Thank you.’ I shake her hand and walk her to the front door, where Fabrizio is waiting for her, leaning against the doorway, arms hanging next to his body. It might be because Annalisa told me, but the scars in the curve of his elbow seem a lot more visible now that I know their meaning.

‘Thanks for coming so quickly,’ Fabrizio says to her.

‘No problem.’ Annalisa hands him the sheet of paper with the prescriptions. ‘Can I have a quick word with you?’

‘Sure.’ Fabrizio folds his arms over his chest.

‘In private,’ Annalisa emphasizes, side-eyeing me.

Shrugging, I walk out of the hallway, closing the door behind me. However, my curiousness wins it from my manners, and I stay still to listen.

‘No wonder that boy’s so sick. I’d be too if my doctor said 60 kilograms is enough,’ I hear Annalisa complain.

Fabrizio responds surprisingly calm. Nothing demonstrates that he’s as deep down this lie as I am. ‘We’re just doing what the doctor says.’

‘If Eleni’s back, I’ll make sure she’ll cook him whatever nutrients he lacks.’

‘Are you saying I don’t?’

‘Fabrizio, no offence, but if I had to eat your food, I’d rather starve.’

‘Oh, well. Thanks.’ There’s a hint of hurt in his voice. I make a mental note to tell him how much I appreciate his food, even though Annalisa is right; last night’s lasagna tasted like scorched rubber.

‘And let him rest,’ Annalisa adds, ‘he needs it.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

To avoid conflict I let them finish their conversation in peace and sit down on the couch. By the time Fabrizio is back I’ve switched to a lying position.

‘I’m going to the pharmacy to get your prescription,’ Fabrizio says, stuffing his arms into the sleeves of his leather jacket. ‘You need any more?’

‘Nah.’

‘Okay.’

‘But I did like your lasagna.’

A wide grin appears on Fabrizios face.

‘Liar,’ he says, but I know he’s joking.

Chapter Text

‘How does this even work?’

The used pieces of tape are piling up on the table. Fabrizio is standing next to me with the roll, holding up the pictured example of the person applying the tape on a woman’s body. Due to Fabrizio’s clumsiness, at least one meter of tape has gone to waste. It either wrinkled after he cut it off or he applied it on the wrong rib. I can’t reach that far down my back, but at this rate I would’ve probably came up with an idea already of how to apply the tape myself.

‘Okay,’ Fabrizio says, ‘I think I got it this time. Hold up your shirt for me. It’s this one, right?’

He points to a place on my body I can’t see.

‘If it’s blue, you’re good,’ I say dryly.

‘It’s not blue anymore.’

I feel a light pressure just above my waist.

‘Does that hurt?’ Fabrizio asks.

Clenching my teeth, I shake my head.

‘That was number one. Here comes number two.’

The second and third pieces are supposed to be applied vertically over the first piece. It seems to go well until I hear Fabrizio curse under his breath.

‘What’s wrong?’ I ask.

‘It wrinkled.’

Turning my neck, I can only see part of the tape.

‘That’s okay,’ I say. ‘Nobody will see it.’

‘I can see it.’

‘Not if I have my shirt over it.’

Fabrizio chuckles and puts the final piece of tape on its place next to the second one.

‘You’re done.’ He hands me my shirt. ‘I hope that didn’t hurt too much.’

‘It didn’t hurt at all.’ I pull my shirt over my neck. It smells like Fabrizio’s fabric softener, just like the rest of the clothes I was wearing on the night he pulled me out of the pond. Fabrizio washed them. Throughout the week I have worn mostly Eleni’s sweaters and sweatpants, but now that I am ready to go back to Marco, I figured it would be better to show as less traces of Fabrizio being involved in my disappearance as possible. That means wearing the same clothes and acting as if I’ve been with a female friend all this time.

I know Marco won’t believe me. He’ll probably investigate my excuse until he finds a hole to pull the entire story out of me. Nevertheless it’s better than telling him I’ve been saved out of a freezing pond by a man who has nursed me in the days I was too weak to do anything.

‘Are you sure you’re feeling well enough?’ Fabrizio asks as I start collecting my stuff. ‘You know, if you want, you can stay here for another couple of days.’

‘I know, but I have a boyfriend at home who will be very happy to see me.’

‘How did he react? When you called him?’

‘He’s thankful that you found me,’ I lie. I haven’t called Marco. I haven’t even send him a message to let him know that I’m safe.

‘Well, if I were you, I’d stay in bed for a few more days.’ Fabrizio shoves aside a handful of curls to feel my forehead. ‘The fever’s still there. The offer remains. I can drive you to your boyfriend’s house, too. Where does he live?’

‘Not far from here.’ The metro that stops closest to Emilia still requires you to walk for half an hour. The offer is tempting, but I know Marco won’t appreciate to see his partner turning up with another man. And what could I say to Fabrizio? You can’t stop right in front of the house, Marco will beat you up if you do so.

‘Really,’ I say to reassure him, ‘I’m feeling a hundred times better.’

Fabrizio visibly hesitates. ‘Let me at least drive you there. I’d feel a lot more confident if I know you’ll arrive at your boyfriend’s place without any trouble.’

‘Trouble? Like what?’

‘I don’t know. You starting to feel sick again halfway through. I don’t know where you have to be, but I have to go to Boschetto Street to get some art supplies, so if you want, I can drop you off there.’

‘You don’t really know when to stop, do you?’

I press my lips together. A familiar fear floats up to the surface, the one I feel once Marco’s face changes and I know I’ve said too much, been too much of a smartass. But all Fabrizio does is laughing. The stubs on his chin seem to vibrate as he does so.

‘Says the man who’s too stubborn to accept a ride,’ he says, the corners of his mouth stuck in a grin.

‘Well, if it is so important to you…’ The fear I felt only moments ago falls off of me like a weight. ‘Thanks for taking care of me,’ I say to hide my relief. ‘If there is something I can do in return…’

I see Fabrizio thinking. No, hesitating. As if there is something he’s considering, but too afraid to ask.

‘You know,’ Fabrizio begins, ‘you’d be a very good model.’

I raise an eyebrow. ‘I’m sorry, a what?’

‘A model.’ Under Fabrizio’s beard a red color arises, that colors in his cheeks. ‘Look, if you don’t want to do it, it’s fine.’

‘No, no,’ I say quickly. ‘I’m just curious why you’d think I am. I mean, you drew me, but that’s – you can change a lot about a drawing. It doesn’t have to look like the person.’

‘That’s why I want to photograph you. Because I want the outcome to look like you.’

As Fabrizio sees me blushing, he goes for a different approach.

‘Okay, stay here, I’ll get my camera.’

He walks back into the living room. Waiting for him to return, I think of all the names Marco has called me that were directed towards my appearance. In the early stages of our relationship he’d complain about the scars on my back and the lack of eyebrows. He’d point out how large my nose is and how tiny my eyes are. ‘Ugly’ and ‘disgusting’ were words that passed by almost every day. They still do sometimes, but ever since my drastic weight loss Marco seems to have given up on educating me on self-care. Back in the day it used to be different. If I didn’t dress according to his standards, he’d sigh and sent me back upstairs, where he’d pull together an outfit and force the clothes onto my body as if I were a toddler. There has always been a certain aggressiveness to Marco regarding the way we look. Wherever we went, if it was in the middle of the night or at the start of the day, Marco would never let an opportunity go by to look good. He spends an enormous amount of his time in his home-built gym and the clothes in his walk-in closet cover a good three-third of his possessions. Marco likes to have control over whatever he lays his hands on, including me. I’ve always let him do so.

I know Marco calls me names to motivate me to change things around, but I’ve never considered myself anything more than average. It’s weird to hear you’re a worthy model from someone whose job it is to reflect upon the world and the people living in it with a sharp eye. Does he really mean it? Or is it only because he pities me?

My train of thoughts is interrupted by a blinding white light. I blink a few times. Close to my face is the lens of the camera Fabrizio’s holding.

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ he apologizes, ‘I didn’t know the flash was on.’

‘Do you always make pictures of people when they’re not looking?’

Fabrizio lowers the camera, feeling caught, but then he laughs.

‘I just saw the perfect angle… Look.’

He shows me the picture he’s taken. I’m staring in the distance, no clue of what is happening around me, with the blank expression that Marco calls ‘uninterested’. The light falls precisely upon my face, showing the pores and hairs on my chin. My nose sticks out and one eye seems bigger than the other. I can’t imagine this is what Fabrizio means, but judging from his face, he finds it fantastic.

‘You see,’ Fabrizio says, putting a finger on the tiny screen of the camera. ‘You have an effortless charisma. This angle looks good on nobody, except on you.’

‘Well, I feel flattered,’ I say, blushing. ‘But I don’t know if it is… If I can do it.’

‘We can always try a few shots. If it doesn’t work or you don’t feel good about it, you don’t have to continue. It’s your choice.’

I look at the picture one more time. Marco won’t be happy to see me modeling for something that aren’t pictures to persuade his customers. In fact, he’d explode if he even caught someone staring at me for too long.

But he doesn’t have to know. If he can live a life outside of our relationship, so can I.

‘Well,’ I say, shrugging, ‘it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.’