Chapter 5 – Paoletto
At the camp, my role was somewhat similar to that of a Quartermaster.
A task and word that makes you think of the army and soldiers, but which is equally applicable to a Scout camp. As Marco had explained, I needed to organize the support for about thirty people, supplying them with what they needed. It was not complicated, although it was very tiring, but it was exactly what I was looking for. I could handle everything using a small part of my brain which left plenty of scope for more or less pleasant thoughts, the tasks only involved me in completing practical things.
Camp life was hard, just like I recalled it. I spent the morning of the first day in the little village which was no more than four houses and a few shops. I planned with the bakery to deliver us bread every morning and talked to the greengrocer who, together with the bread, would send us the fruit for the following days. I did the same with the butcher.
I came back on foot, four kilometers in the sun, loaded with parcels and envelopes. Several times, because of the heat, I stopped to wipe my sweat and curse the moment I had agreed to come to the camp. In those moments, knowing that I had done it for Paoletto, did not console me. But it was a way to joke with myself because I knew that for Paoletto I would have done anything. The proof, I was there! On a dusty road, two kilometers from the camp of thirty incredibly noisy scouts, loaded with packages, sweaty, dirty, and blinded by the sun. I was also quite serene about my future, strongly conscious of myself, of who I was. So aware that I was afraid of it. Yet, I was strangely comfortable. In the sense that what I was feeling frightened me, the idea of waking up from that dream at the end of the camp already unnerved me.
I devoted those first few days to looking after minor cuts, bruises, some colds, taking care of distributing food, and making sure nothing was missing for the camp to work. I wanted to tire myself out, and it was easy enough to do. But there, in the mountains, as the sun set, tiredness became languorous, upsetting, disturbing. To prevent myself from suffering I snuggled up in front of the tent which served as a storeroom. Hugging my legs, I sought out Paoletto with my tired eyes, following his every movement.
Each time I looked at him he seemed more attractive. His body was harmonious, graceful, and agile. I observed him for as long as possible. Until someone would call me because I was needed, and my fantasy ended. He would frequently become aware of my looks and stop and stare at me. Then our eyes would meet, and everything ended with a smile, mine hesitant and scared, his open and happy.
Every day I became more and more convinced that Paoletto was happy to have me near him again. During the preparation for camp, in the days before our departure, we had returned to see each other every night at the Section. But I had understood that our relationship was still far from the confidence we had shared years before. We had changed, grown up. Our paths had crossed again, but we had been apart for too long. We had occupied our lives differently. And before that, I had betrayed him. I could not have hoped it would all have been forgotten. It was reasonable and understandable he felt distrustful towards me. But comprehending and accepting this conclusion made me suffer a lot, despite how obvious and predictable it was.
I noticed how he was very cautious when we talked to each other. Many of our conversations ran aground before they even started, because of the embarrassment we both felt in recalling something from the past. Several exchanges faltered, cut short by the memory of an episode from the past which neither could face through fear of hurting ourselves again. Not yet at least. And this made us uncomfortable.
For my part, those hesitations were inherent in my character. In him I had never recognized anything but the candor of his innocence, the immediacy of his reactions, his absolute transparency and loyalty. But I had left him little more than twelve years old, while he was now fifteen. He had grown, changed, matured and I had found a thoughtful and attentive young man. Paoletto was rightly cautious about getting involved again in a friendship that had been painful and ambiguous for him. I was sure he was well aware of the real nature of my feelings. He was not naive, he had never been naive, that I remembered. I was convinced of this one evening before the camp, during one of those discussions that seem particularly important only when you are a boy.
That night he was talking to someone, but he was looking at me.
“We are who we are although often it is others who make us good or bad! Only sometimes we may influence this a little ourselves. For you, am I as you perceive me or as you want to see me?”
The other boy, disoriented by that question, had not replied, but Paoletto was talking to me. I was sure.
“You all have a picture of me,” he continued, “but what you see is not who I really am. And you don’t know how different I am!”
The boys were discussing a passage from some sacred scripture. It was a meeting of the elders, and I was there only because I was waiting for him to free himself so I would have him to myself. Not that we were planning anything for later. We were going back home together, and in those days that was enough for my happiness and peace.
That night Marco and Tonio, the other leaders, we’re there with the same priest who a few years earlier had remonstrated with me, inveighing upon those other poor souls. Meeting again after all that time, I had not exchanged more than a few words with him. I immediately made it clear that I was there to provide for the sustenance of the camp, and I told him frankly that I knew how to take care of my soul on my own. He let me understand, without stating it clearly, that his god didn’t want to know any more about souls like mine. Not that he was bad, but he had his job to do, and that caused me to loathe him. I must have been even more detestable to him by the mere fact that I had come back to annoy him by interacting with Paoletto. That was my thinking.
The words he said that night trying to refute Paoletto’s ideas did not increase my esteem for him.
“You mustn’t believe that. You are yourself and should be proud of it. But others and above all God judge you for your actions, good and bad! And it is to God that you must be accountable!”
“Oh, come on… I don’t believe that!” Paoletto promptly told him.
He was furious. My thoughts, however, returned to the child I had left behind and to the boy, or rather the man, whom I had found again. Able to defend his ideas, even at the cost of making himself unpopular.
I had drifted away, far away, occupied with my thoughts. The discussion had continued without me and how it reached the point it did, I could not imagine.
“You can’t say that” the priest shouted, “You can’t talk like that, because if you believe that, it means you don’t believe in God!”
This noise jarred me back to reality, and Paoletto who was looking downcast at his shoes. Then he looked up at me and raised an eyebrow. We were accomplices again. I gloated.
Marco tried conciliation whilst some of the others struggled to rationalize Paoletto’s thoughts. Paoletto, seraphic, reiterated that to be totally honest, he had for a long time believed only in his own judgement and perceptions. Not in someone, even God, who could judge them. The meeting ended before it degenerated further. The reckoning was postponed for another time. It was the first time I had listened to Paoletto express his ideas and I was impressed. I should say ecstatic, or in love.
That evening we headed home together. It was something we continued doing very naturally. If the first evening I had fled from all those emotions, the second evening I waited for the meeting to conclude. We hung around a little while with everyone else and then one glance was enough to decide it was time to go home and that we would make our way together. I felt like I had come back to life the moment I saw him again.
Before, there had been darkness and mine had been pitch black. If there had been darkness in his life, I knew nothing about it. I was not ready to ask him, for fear that he would blame me.
“So, do you believe in God?” I asked.
“What has that got to do with it? I asked the question first!”
That was our way of discussing. And that was one of the first times we discussed as equals. Our ages no longer created very much difference in the maturity our thoughts.
“I don’t know,” he said, and returned to look at the tip of his shoes, “You think that I should, don’t you?”
“Well…to be in the Scouts, I think it’s crucial.”
“But do you believe in God?” he insisted.
“No, not anymore, but…”
“Then neither do I!”
“You should not let yourself be influenced by me…” I told him, but he didn’t let me explain. I had lost his attention and we had arrived in front of his house.
It was how we ended many of our discussions in the past. In the most complicated matters, Paoletto would defer to my judgment. Before, I would have said it was because I was more mature, and at that moment he seemed to have done it again, but maybe he was joking.
During the train trip to Piedmont, a long night trip, we did not talk much. The memories between us were always too many.
“Are you thrilled to leave for another camp?” he asked me.
I nodded, unable to say even a word, I felt so emotional. I had a lump in my throat from happiness.
“I hadn’t dared hope for this anymore,” he said, after a while, “You know…the evening I saw you again was the most beautiful of my life.”
“For me too.” I was barely able to say. One more word and I would have burst into tears.
I knew he had so many questions and that he didn’t ask them for the same reason that he had never looked for me in all those years. I also knew that that good reason lost its meaning and importance with every step we took towards each other.
When we would really reconnect, on that special day, there would no longer be a veil of discretion between us. We would talk about everything in depth. He would ask me questions, and I would perhaps give him answers.
One day, in the future.
That night it hadn’t happened yet. It was still too early. Because he was a boy and so, although excited by my presence, he was also very interested in other matters. Mostly, the idea of leaving for his last Scout camp and the first one as Patrol Leader.
He was particularly proud of that.
“The Panthers have always been the best Patrol in the Troop,” he confided in me, as if it were a secret. “Marco was the Patrol Leader, you were too, and now it’s my turn. And we are special, aren’t we?”
“You can say so!” I said, then I closed my eyes.
Why are you special, Paoletto? I wanted to ask, but I only smiled at him. I loved him so much. He was very special to me, more than anyone in the world. But I had to sublimate that feeling, the despair, the torments, the unhappiness. Then there was that promise I had made to George, my French roommate. We had kept in contact. He had accompanied me, as close as it is possible to be by letter, during all my father’s illness, till the end and beyond. He had never stopped asking me about Paoletto.
When I told him I had seen Paoletto again and I would be going to camp with him, he was very enthusiastic about that. He was waiting to hear from me. He wanted Paoletto to write him a couple of lines. Just to get to know him, to see and evaluate his handwriting. One of George’s obsessions in those years was graphology, he analyzed all my writing, interpreting my moods, which in that year had often been stormy. Sometimes he had replied to me with his predictions about how things would evolve. He was often so precise in his descriptions that I had come to believe in graphology too. Obviously, the letter in which I told him about the camp and that I had seen Paoletto again had been analyzed more thoroughly than the others. With predictable results of euphoria for the present and a fear for the future.
But everything was still so vague. At times I was inside that old shell in which the same dramatic pain was stirring. The desire to cancel myself out draining me completely. At other times I was in good spirits, absolutely delighted. These were the moments when Paoletto was with me and I could look at him.
That night, when Paoletto fell asleep, as a boy happy and undisturbed, he lay his head on my shoulder and I allowed my eyes to close. Lulled by the movement of the train, I cried silently to myself. Only a few tears, so as not to lose the habit. Then came the blessing of sleep and I dozed wrapped in Paoletto’s unique scent.
In the first days of camp Paoletto, like all the others, was busy constructing tables, camp kitchens, and stools. Everything that would serve us in those two weeks was built using wooden posts and cord, but no nails! I ended up helping too, although I didn’t really feel like it. The axe and saw were the two tools which one needed to know how to use, otherwise they could be dangerous. I was always frightened for my fingers, but I managed not to injure myself.
On the afternoon of the fourth day of camp, just before sunset, the tournament of a sport only practiced by scouts, a remote relative of rugby, began. The Panthers were playing in the first game. I was at the edge of the field, crouching, watching fascinated as the boys chased each other to collect the ball and get it across the goal line. What enchanted me was how much vigor they still had after the hellish day they had spent. They were boys and I was not much older than they were, but my tiredness was different. I would need more time before I could return to enjoy the high spirits due at my age. I was eighteen and the last three years I had practically flushed down the toilet. An abused beginning full of self-pity and regret.
I was about to indulge in my usual exercise of self-compassion, a miraculous expedient to console myself, but I took instead to following Paoletto’s movements. I admired the grace of his motion and he immediately caused me to forget my tiredness and depression, however they had arrived. I knew it was I who made him much more beautiful to my eyes than he really was. He was definitely an attractive boy, but not more so than others. It was my love that turned him into a god.
I closed my eyes and dreamed of touching his agile body, and this immediately brought me back to a much more material dimension. I began day dreaming, describing in my mind what lay hidden beneath his white shorts, dirty with mud, and underneath the slightly torn shirt that covered his now nicely shaped chest. Such dreams were forbidden. The kind of visions which had been at the origin of my troubles.
I saw him stretching out to reach an opponent who was running in front of him. I understood, before it happened, that he was going to get hurt. He lost his balance and fell. He tried getting up, but collapsed to the ground, holding his thigh. The other players promptly surrounded him, and I came running over.
When I was near, he looked at me with frightened eyes. It was clear his leg was hurting a lot as he was holding it with both hands, bent over himself to contain the pain. He was in a lot of pain. I stroked his head, trying to comfort him. Slowly he took his hands off his leg and tried to extend it, gritting his teeth. He was gripping his thigh. Maybe he had pulled a muscle or perhaps worse, tore a ligament. I poured some cold water over where it seemed to hurt most, and this appeared to offer him relief. We all helped him to the edge of the playing field and there we were left alone.
“Perhaps you pulled a muscle! It can hurt a lot, but only for a while. The pain should ease off.” I told him, hoping that I was right.
I tried to gently massage his leg, but I saw he was in pain, so stopped. I bandaged him with a towel soaked in cold water, but it still hurt him a lot.
“We need to see a doctor,” I said, “I wouldn’t want to do something to you that will make it worse.”
Not very far away there was a restaurant, and we asked the owner if he would drive us into the village in his car. As I had feared, the doctor diagnosed a sprain and told us he would need two to three days of absolute rest, without moving a single step. He also prescribed an ointment to apply several times a day and injections.
“If you want, you can come here and I will take care of the injections, even outside clinic hours. Don’t worry about disturbing me.”
“Thank you, Doctor, but I know how to perform injections,” I said.
“Do you study medicine?”
“Not yet I just got my high school diploma.”
I turned to look at Paoletto and it was at that moment I made the decision that I would become a doctor.
“But I think I will study medicine at University.”
It was a decision that was in the air. If my mother had had the will and the ability to discuss it with me, we would have reached a decision together. As things were, I hadn’t talked about it with anyone yet. But the choice was there, and I had to make it quickly. And so, I did, under the proud gaze of Paoletto who with his innate sensitivity had followed almost all my reasoning. Even that which I had not told myself.
“And how did you learn to give injections?” inquired the doctor, somewhat intrigued. “Did you take a course in nursing?”
“No, it was because of my father. He was a doctor too, and he taught me.”
“Oh… I see!”
“When he fell ill with cancer we needed someone at home who could administer injections at any time of the day. He thought it best he show me because he didn’t trust my mother’s hand.” I looked at him and then I added, with a hint of naughtiness, “He diagnosed the disease himself.”
The doctor smiled and gave me an affectionate pat on the shoulder. At that moment I asked myself if it was pity or admiration. But he was simply uncomfortable, like all people to whom I happened to tell how I had lost my father. I too was embarrassed to tell the story, but I was also convinced that only by telling everyone would I eventually be free from that nightmare.
We bought the medicine and went back to the camp, prevailing on the kindness of our improvised driver.
Then the question of how to accommodate Paoletto’s restricted movement arose. For a few days I would become his nurse and had the perfect excuse not to leave him alone, even at night. It was a dream and my private demon suggested I might perhaps even touch him.
Marco immediately agreed that I should move into the Panthers’ tent, at least for that first night, since Paoletto might have a fever and would certainly need help. We placed him carefully in his cot which we had moved outside, next to the tent. From there he could easily call for help, and as he reminded us, give orders to prepare dinner. He still had his responsibilities as Patrol Leader and did not intend to let everyone down. The doctor had already administered an injection and explained to me how to apply the ointment so as not to hurt him.
As I walked away, still keeping him in sight, he called me almost immediately. He had to pee.
“I’ve been holding it in,” he moaned, apologetically, “but now I can’t take it anymore. I can’t get up, can I?”
The doctor had been firm, he mustn’t move a single step for at least forty-eight hours, and we didn’t have the device that allows you to pee without getting out of bed. I hadn’t thought about buying it at the pharmacy.
“I’ll help you. Lean on me.”
When was the last time? How much had I suffered since then? How many times had I approached death? The idea and longing that he might hug me again had unconsciously driven me away. And now it was happening. A contact, a touch, a hesitant contact. I placed my hand on his side and supported him to lift himself, while he leant all his weight on the other leg.
“Place your arm over my shoulders,” I said, and it seemed like I was dreaming. It was as if he was really hugging me. “Let’s go towards that tree. Can you make it?”
He nodded and hopped forward holding on to me. We made it as far as the edge of the clearing and I realized he was hesitating. He looked at me. It was almost dark. Time had vanished with everything that had happened. I imagined he was blushing, embarrassed by my presence.
“Should I leave you?”
“No! Wait, I might fall!” he murmured, then added, unexpectedly, “I’m not embarrassed… I don’t think so. It’s… I really don’t know. I don’t have the urge anymore!”
“Lean back against me and wait. It will come back…” I didn’t know what to say, I was also a little ill at ease.
I saw him close his eyes, as if to concentrate.
“When I have to do something difficult,” he said, with his eyes still closed, “I think of my mother. She is the one who helps me.”
That was a confidence I knew, something he had shared in the past. That he was telling me this again meant there was still something left between us. I hoped so.
“When I try to imagine her, however, I can’t see her,” he explained to me, “I can only imagine how she would be. I feel like those who are blind from birth and are forced to imagine a world, real things, invent what colors look like. That’s how it is with my mother. You don’t remember her either, do you? You’ve never seen her, have you?”
I shook my head. “No,” I whispered.
When he was younger, he frequently asked me that, but I couldn’t recall her. Once he even asked my mother and she described her to him because she had met her. Paoletto hugged my mother and thanked her, then he hugged me too. Remembering those moments, I felt like crying. In those months I often cried without worrying too much about why I did.
“Now, however, you only have to pee…” I said resolutely, “and it’s not a difficult thing. If the urge has gone, it doesn’t matter. Let’s go back. We’ll try later,” I suggested, to distract him.
I thought about how much he was still a boy who had seen his camp ruined by an accident. It was his first camp as Patrol Leader, something he had certainly dreamed of over the last five years. And now he was stuck in his cot and to take a piss he had to be accompanied by another guy. The same guy who was his friend, but also someone about whom he could tell some, not so good, stories.
“That’s not it!” he said, in a subdued tone that wasn’t like him.
“So, what’s wrong?”
I caressed his shoulders.
“I’m sorry to talk about this… perhaps you wouldn’t even want to…”.
“Wouldn’t want to what?”
“This closeness to me!”
“I don’t want you to do anything you might feel sorry for. Anything that makes you uncomfortable. You don’t need to!”
“I’m doing this because you need someone to help you” I said, sternly. “I would do it for anyone.” Then more softly I added. “But with you it’s different. Our friendship used to be special. You remember?”
He narrowed his eyes and looked away beyond the trees.
“It’s not like it was then,” he said, in an adult voice. A tone which he was perhaps using for the first time. “But it could be a new friendship. Will you tell me about yourself?”
Saying those last words, he had used his somewhat childish and petulant tone. That same tone he used when he wanted me to give him something and I didn’t want to please him. I recognized it with a shudder. I couldn’t resist him when he spoke like that.
“Just piss! We’ll discuss all that another time.” I said, resolutely.
I would have loved to have told him everything, there and then, while he was perched on one leg and I was holding him, hugging him. To have whispered to him the truth and have finally asked his forgiveness.
“OK…well…” He turned his head and smiled at me. It seemed he was a little calmer. “Now I’m going to try. But don’t look at me! Ok?”
He detached himself from me, still standing on one leg. He tinkered with the pants of his jumpsuit, but almost lost his balance. I moved to support him. Without saying anything he pulled out his cock. Finally, he peed, while I closed my eyes. I was ashamed of my thoughts and my body, which regardless of my embarrassment had reacted as I had feared.
I trembled at the idea that Paoletto would guess, read the truth in my face, or simply look at the front of my pants. And I did the thing he had asked me not to do, I half-opened my eyes and looked. I enjoyed that image, holding my breath, fearing a sigh would undo the innocence of that moment. It was just his penis held in his hand, but for me it was everything I had run away from in desperation, and now I was seeing it again.
The same scene, so shamefully exciting, repeated itself again before going to sleep, then the night passed quietly. He complained a little but got a good night’s sleep. I, on the other hand, almost didn’t sleep a wink, for fear he would need me.
At the alarm call, while everyone was running outside to do gymnastics, warming up to start the day, the two of us stayed in the tent. The others went to wash.
That morning I had to gently apply the ointment to his thigh and had to give his first injection. Trembling, I helped him lower his pants, and while massaging the top of his leg I tried to joke.
“In a while I’ll have to go over all my poor knowledge of how to administer injections. Do you by any chance know how to fill the syringe? And which way I should insert the needle?”
I was trying to be funny, but I could barely speak, my throat was dry. My voice must have seemed amusing to him because he smiled at me. He knew I was joking, but he still looked a little scared.
“End of the first part! Turn over!”
He got onto his stomach and I massaged the back of his thigh. I handled him with a kind of sensuality that was restrained by my responsibility as a nurse.
“Do you want the injection now, or after breakfast?”
“Better on a full stomach,” he said.
I noticed he wasn’t joking anymore, his voice sounded worried.
“You can turn around if you want, I’m done. I’ll help you put your pants back on. Then I’ll get you up and take you to wash yourself!”
He didn’t move. He stayed with his face pressed against the pillow and his eyes closed. I was knelt beside him. He didn’t turn around. I brushed my hand through his hair. When I did this he moved and shivered.
“Paoletto, do you want to go back to sleep?”
I didn’t understand why he was doing this, he had seemed quite awake before. He didn’t answer.
“Don’t you feel well?”
“I can’t turn around,” he said, with a little voice.
I caressed him again.
“Why? What’s the matter with you?”
“It’s nothing, but don’t look at me. Please, close your eyes!”
I closed them and to convince him of my commitment I put my hands over my face. I heard him move. He got quickly into his sleeping bag.
“Now you can open them again.”
“Is everything all right?”
“Yes. It’s just that I got… excited,” he explained, and blushed, like I had never seen him do before.
“My hands are miraculous,” I said, smiling and desperately trying to defuse the situation. “Or is it just an expression of adolescent exuberance?”
And that’s all he said. I was grateful that I caught him laughing. It left me thinking that something which wasn’t supposed to be, that couldn’t be, maybe it was.
Years ago, after meeting him, when our friendship was so important to both of us, but before I made it what it had become, I often dreamed he was my brother, my little brother. He felt the same way towards me. His had always been an absolutely pure and innocent affection.
Now that I was lucky enough to be able to caress him again, I wanted to show him that the affection we felt for each other had remained unchanged. We really were friends, just friends, and nothing need be changed. I had suffered and I had atoned with my suffering. Those were my intentions, but I came out of the tent trying to hide my erection. At that moment I wanted to die, to castrate myself, to flee.
I have always liked wallowing in thoughts like those, basking in pain, in the doubts of my own existence. It was strangely delightful to contemplate dying knowing full well I would do nothing to really kill myself. It was one of the beneficial aspects of having struck the bottom of despair and having somehow recovered from it. Still longing for imminent death, looking around to carefully choose which tree to hang yourself from. To discover a suitable one and at the same time tell myself there was no hurry to end my life. The tree next to that one was better and would soon be taller, I could wait for it to grow. And that day was no exception, the world smiled at me, telling me to postpone the execution. It was not urgent to carry out the death penalty which I had sentenced myself to. Marco called me, and I forgot all about doing it.
After breakfast, when he had finished directing the construction of the table and field kitchen for his Patrol, having managed to injure a finger with a saw, Paoletto called me. We had agreed he would when he felt ready, and now finally, he seemed to be ready.
“Give me that injection. It’s now or never!” He said, with the expression of someone who has made up their mind to undergo a difficult surgery. Then he smiled at me, encouraging me and also maybe, himself. I took him into the tent and helped him to lie down.
“Frightened?” I asked.
“Not at all,” he lied, I could tell.
Then he stared at me.
“I feel like dying. The last time it was Uncle Giulio who did this, and he had wanted to tie me to the bed. Now I can’t even cry. But do you really know how to do it?” he asked, if not frightened, worried.
“I know you’re frightened, but don’t worry! I really know how to do it. You can cry if you want!”
“I’m sorry about your father,” he said next.
I didn’t answer him immediately, and he spoke again.
“I know what happened, but…I couldn’t… I didn’t go to the funeral. Nor did I come to see you afterwards because I didn’t want you… I didn’t know if you’d want to see me. I thought that you would be grieving. And seeing me…and… I’m sorry!”
I focused on the injection. I tried in vain to break the vial, but I couldn’t do it, because my hands were trembling. If he had come to the funeral, it would have caused trouble. I was already upset but seeing him would have been too much for me.
“It’s in the past,” I told him, and suddenly I knew I was going to cry.
“With Grandma Luigia we never spoke about it. The subject of orphans was forbidden in my house. You know that don’t you? And you too, arguing about you, is still… barred!”
I was able to blink back the tears. Thinking about Grandma Luigia helped me, perhaps the worst was over.
“Well…now I am an orphan myself,” I said. “Maybe, you can help me since you are such an expert yourself?”
“How are you? How…are you, now?”
“I’ll share a confidence with you,” I said, kneeling beside him, “I believe that participating in this camp, coming here with the Scouts, has helped me.”
“Can I do something for you?” he asked, hopefully.
This touched me deeply, and it also helped to chase away the melancholy. I was so happy to be there with Paoletto.
“Rehabilitate me with your grandmother.”
“She hates you!”
“I imagine she does!”
“It will be a little difficult. You’ve made too much trouble. I didn’t tell her that you would be at the camp either. If she knew that she wouldn’t have let me come. Uncle Giulio, on the other hand, knows all about it and has no problem with you. With Grandma, I will try, and we will succeed, you’ll see!”
I had made a lot of trouble. Grandma Luigia was right.
“Okay, now shut up and let me give you this damned injection!”
I finally managed to break the vial. I had calmed down.
“Let me look at you a little bit. Where should I hit?” I tried to joke.
Paoletto turned over and I helped him to pull down his pants.
I only touched him just enough to give him the injection, but I still got excited. I didn’t want to, because reacting like that seemed to me to insult the trust that he had placed in me. He was waiting for me to take care of him, not for me to abuse him, even if it was only with my eyes.
I disinfected the spot slowly with a trembling hand and managed to do what I had to. I did it well and he felt no pain. I had done the same many times with my father, even when his muscles had atrophied, and I had to struggle to get the needle in. Paoletto had firm buttocks and it would have been easy had that sight done nothing but distract me.
I helped him to cover himself and there was a look that passed between us which I didn’t understand. Could he have read my thoughts? I grew scared and without saying a word left the tent, telling myself that nothing had happened.
What could I tell him if he asked me any questions? Could I tell him I would have liked to bury my face in his embrace? Drown in the tenderness his body and his spirit evoked in me? I couldn’t, so I tried to escape.
I had to give him at least five more injections and it was likely to become increasingly difficult to control myself.
In the afternoon I helped him move again. This time it was harder for both of us.
“I have to go to the toilet… it’s not for peeing,” he told me, and the distress showed on his face. “I can’t take this anymore. I am sorry!”
“If you tell me one more time that you are sorry, I will get really angry! Have I made myself clear?”
“Ok! Ok! Ok!”
We walked together again, hopping and hugging, this time going farther away. We had to solve one important problem quickly, because he wouldn’t be able to squat over the latrines which had been dug (1). We needed a place that would work somehow and that was also a bit sheltered. I spotted what I thought should be ideal, two smooth rounded boulders next to each other with a small gap in between. I helped him to sit across the stones. Of course, I wanted to help him, but at the same time, I was afraid of being intrusive. I did it anyway, so as to get away from him and leave him alone. But he called me back.
“Stay with me, please! If you want to?”
I went back towards him and made him lean against me while he was struggling to get rid of his clothes. Once again, my body had that same shameful reaction I had had that morning when giving him the injection. While I was helping him at a moment that must have been very embarrassing for him, I could not get his nakedness out of my mind. My thoughts were drawing me, with an annoying yet exciting intent, to what I didn’t want to look at directly, but which was right in front of me. No matter how hard I tried, closing my eyes, thinking about something else, it didn’t work.
So as not to put any weight on the damaged leg, Paoletto rested his other foot on the ground and held on to me. As soon as he was finished, he put his clothes back on and tried getting up on his own. This time he managed to maintain his balance, having learned how to position himself. He hopped across the bumpy ground, but he risked twisting the only good foot he could use for the moment, so to my immense joy he came back and grabbed a hold of me.
“You are the best nurse I have ever had.”
“I am strict. Be warned. For example, I think it’s time you washed and changed. When are you going to do it?”
“I hadn’t thought about it myself. Are you saying I stink?”
“A little bit! Well…not too much.”
He looked a little unhappy.
“But how can we do it?”
“It’s cold now. But tomorrow, around noon, we can try going to the stream. We will tell Marco what we have to do, so he doesn’t let anyone come down and disturb us. What do you think?”
After a quiet night. Two injections which I administered with the same state of mind as the first one. A lot of hobbling around with him far and wide, so he could carry out an infinite series of tasks that he didn’t want to give up and to which I ended up submitting myself. It was late morning when we went down to the stream which ran right behind the campsite. It was almost noon and the air felt warm. We chose a corner sheltered from the wind and anybody who might pass by. But the rest of the troop were all busy and it was not likely anyone would come past.
Paoletto sat on the shore, leaning against a protruding rock. He took off his shoes, his socks and then his pants. He kept his briefs and vest on and started washing his feet. I was standing in front of him, watching. The naturalness with which he undressed in front of me was not an exhibition.
At that moment I realized I admired everything about him. I tried to think of something I disliked in him, to discover anything. His physical appearance or his attitude, what he did. Was it possible, I asked myself, there was nothing I disliked? Not just a bit, some little questionable thing? I knew I would never find anything because I loved him.
I had found him grown up, and I immediately realized I wanted him. His body attracted me. But at that moment, while he was undressing in front of me, on the bank of that stream, I felt a feeling manifest itself. I had never felt anything like that before, certainly not when I was taking drugs. Or in Amsterdam because I hadn’t had the time. Nor when I went back to my ordinary life because I was too ashamed to be who I was to think about falling in love. Even with Marco it hadn’t happened that one of us thought about the other passionately. He would have been too scared of it, and I would not have understood it, because then I was still too young.
On the bank of that stream, I realized I loved Paoletto and it was a complicated love, one I also found difficult to understand. I wanted to caress him, to touch his skin. Even to possess him and let myself be possessed by him. But above all, to feel loved, to spend every moment of our lives with each other, to arrange our future together. In those minutes spent contemplating my lover sitting almost naked on the bank of an alpine stream, I imagined a thousand strange unrealizable projects for the two of us.
It was the first time this had happened. That’s when time dilated, the horizon became more distant and my end, the death that I wanted to procure for myself, moved away.
“Will you help me?” I heard him say out loud. He had already asked me, without me hearing him. I was so far away lost in my thoughts “You were staring at me, but you stopped speaking.”
“I’m sorry… I was thinking of something else” I said, coming closer so that he could put his arm around my neck as usual.
He got to his feet awkwardly, and we took a few steps towards the center of the stream, but he lost his balance and we fell into the water together. The icy bath woke me up completely. We burst out laughing. Paoletto began tickling me, without even trying to get out of the water. I was fully clothed and resigned myself to the soaking. I did everything to try to make him stay still, and grabbed him close to me, caressing him.
Our movements in that ambiguous and confused situation excited me. Paoletto was almost naked and I, at least for a while, could hold him where I wanted. Almost anywhere, although avoiding certain places and paying attention not to press on his leg. He didn’t care about what I was doing, his focus was entirely on tickling me, while I tried to immobilize him. We stopped struggling only when we were exhausted, but we didn’t stop laughing or looking at each other. We were an impressive sight, completely soaked, water dripping from the few clothes we were wearing.
“How long has it been since I tickled you, Zucchini?”
“Three years, Giuggiola.”
We called each other by our secret nicknames. I was Zucchini because of a horrible light green T-shirt that my mother once forced me to wear. Paoletto had seen it and came out with that expression. He, in turn, was Giuggiola, my jujube. He was Giuggiola for me, as an affectionate nickname. I called him that because he liked to chew candied fruit, and also because it annoyed him. When I wanted to make fun of him, or I wanted a bit of action, all I had to do was move my lips to mimic chewing or say that word and he would jump on me. We used those nicknames only if we were alone because they were a secret between us, a secret we wanted to keep.
“Did you miss that?”
“More than you can imagine!” I replied, seriously, and my heart leapt.
“Not as much as I felt it, you, asshole!” and he gave me a push, which made me end up back in the water. Then he looked at me with a somewhat grim air.
He was standing there on one leg in the middle of the stream.
“Do you still think I have to wash?” he asked.
“Of course! And with soap, if you don’t mind,” I told him, while I was trying to get myself up and out of the water.
“All right!” He said and got busy.
He was occupied with removing the dirt from under his toenails when he said:
“Promise me you won’t disappear again?”
“Because you like me as a babysitter, or what?” I tried to joke.
“Nothing…just… I thought you were my friend, but you left. I thought you were really my friend. Now I would like to know if I can trust you. Promise me that you won’t disappear again.”
I knew he was happy to have found me again and this made me happy but listening to him filled me with regret. If I had had the courage to grow up with him in the last three years, I would have avoided at least some of my bad experiences. Maybe even the unavoidable ones would have been less hard. I was aware of all this and also understood that this boy was much more mature and aware than I was at his age. He would never take drugs, and above all he would never run away, as I had done to avoid facing my nightmares. If our roles had been reversed he wouldn’t have needed to escape. I was acutely aware of that.
“What kind of a person are you?” he asked.
He expected me to promise not to leave again. Perhaps he had not yet understood why I had escaped. Nobody really knew about it. Only Marco had sensed it. To resume relations with Paoletto, however, forced me to confess the truth to him. I had to do it, and I would have done it, but not right away. If I had told him then, maybe he would have pushed me away. Knowing that I was a homosexual would certainly have made him suffer. Perhaps he would not have chased me away but kept me at a distance. I, on the other hand, intensely desired to live those days close to him. The peace and happiness he was giving me were a food that I had never tasted and that I would never find again after losing him.
I could tell him everything at the end of the camp, but at that very moment I was missing the courage.
“If I committed not to run away, would you make me a promise?” I asked.
“If one day I say or do something that troubles you, makes you uncomfortable, anything, however small, if that were to happen, you must promise me… you will ask me to get away from you!”
“Do you really believe something like that could happen?” He was surprised.
“It’s possible… you don’t know anything about who I have become. So, are you willing to promise that? Ultimately, everything will always depend on you!”
“I accept. I promise!”
“And then I, too, promise not to run away!”
He held out his hands to me, and I aided him to get up, but as he got up, he grabbed me. He held me in a hold that was also a hug and, as strong as he was, he prevented me from breathing.
“And you are my prisoner!”
It was true at that moment, in those days, but I also hoped it was forever.
I wonder if he noted how my heart was pumping. I had indeed become his prisoner, but not quite as he intended. I had placed myself in his hands. He was apparently engaging in some kind of game with his new found friend. We had even sworn to stay together forever, and our promise was like an eternal pact of friendship. If only I had not been that sort of prodigal son, returned from hell, without very much hope.
I took his promise to heart and made my pledge to him.
That same afternoon the doctor came to visit us. He examined Paoletto and found him much improved, so much so that he was capable of taking a few steps. This made my little boy almost independent. I no longer had to accompany him everywhere. It depressed me a little, but the relief of seeing him heal so quickly swept away the melancholy. I also went back to sleeping in the leaders tent, leaving the Panther Patrol to its not-so-silent life.
The cutting of that kind of umbilical cord that had united us for three days, gave me terrible nightmares that first night, but also gave space to some other thought, no less disturbing.
What would become of me after the camp?
Before I saw Paoletto again, my idea was to select a University in some faraway city, perhaps in Vienna, where I could live another life, if that were possible. This time trying to avoid drugs, as I had vowed to do for my father. I was also absolutely certain I would convince my mother to follow me.
But now everything had suddenly changed. I was always aware of that tender love I held for Paoletto, but I never imagined he would welcome me back as he was doing now. It was as if he had opened his arms to show how much he still loved me, despite everything. Having promised not to abandon him, this presented me with an agonizing dilemma. I could no longer escape the city to study somewhere far away. I had to continue my studies, but by staying put, which meant I would never break free from the impotence that was killing me. Most likely Paoletto would not be able to give me what I was looking for, nor would he understand my need to be free from my commitment. I would drown in the chaste hug of his friendship that perhaps would never be enough to save me.
This was the nightmare of that dreadful night.
In my life I had made another promise, just as demanding. I had made it to my father. He had asked me to continue studying despite his illness. To make my mother rest, to force her to do so, I spent my nights next to him. Staying to sleep at the hospital, but in the morning I still had to attend school. Often he could not stop moaning and woke me up during the night. One of those times, he clasped my hand. I thought he needed a pain relief injection. I nodded to him that I had understood and went to prepare the syringe. When I came back, he took my arm again and I felt his unexpectedly powerful grip on my wrist.
“You must promise me that you will continue to study, even after I am gone.”
His was a murmur, little more than a whisper, because the tumor had devastated his throat. I was the only one, along with my mother, who understood that kind of muttering and I understood his words fine.
“Go to University,” he said, “I would have supported you if I could. I would have done better than I have done until now. I don’t want to influence your choice, decide for yourself what you want to study, get advice, but go to University. Don’t ever, at any time, hide your problems from yourself or abandon your studies and your life. Do you understand? Promise me!”
His own death, which, as a doctor, he had foreseen precisely, did not make me miss more than a few days of school. For three months, I witnessed his nightly agony, because the night time hours were the worst, I went to school every morning, leaving my mother to attend to him during the day. The day of his death and the day of his funeral were the only school days I missed because of him. With his illness and death, he had hauled me off drugs and in some way offered me a reason to live. It was like playing his life against mine. I won, he lost. Sadly.
In the days leading up to his death, I had often wondered if I would really continue studying with the same commitment. Or, after he died, not having to tell anyone about my promise anymore, I would let everything go to hell, including myself. He died in March, and I continued studying in desperation. Reading books, trying to understand, distracted me from the most frightening thoughts, those of my father and mother’s suffering, and above all prevented me from thinking about my loneliness.
Once the construction of the campsite equipment was completed, usually by the sixth day of camp, it was planned to go on an excursion. This first excursion was generally very tiring. It was always some inaccessible place difficult to get to, at the summit of a steep climb. That was the tradition, after the first four or five tiring days building the camp, to undertake a strenuous expedition.
Paoletto, although his leg had improved, could not manage that effort, so he had to stay at the camp. Marco proposed that I keep him company. We would be alone the whole day. Maybe Marco discerned something. Not because I had told him anything, but because he had imagined it. I never knew if he knew something about what had happened that day on the mountain, many years before.
For the whole evening I wondered whether or not his decision that I keep Paoletto company was dictated by his understanding. In short, maybe he wanted to give us the opportunity to explain things to each other, once and for all. I ended up convincing myself of his good faith, even if a doubt, which I still have today, remained to arouse my curiosity. Marco, having understood everything about me and perhaps even about Paoletto, wanted in some way to help us. Pushing us into each other’s arms like a matchmaker.
Those doubts did not help me when we went to sleep in the tent. When I was able to fall asleep, it was my dreams that worried me. From the moment I got back close to Paoletto, I had a kind of hallucination of what it would have meant for me to touch him. To touch his body, no longer immature, but not yet adult.
Part of the nightmare was that he might reject me. But what really terrified me was that Paoletto, knowing me so well would too easily accept my fantasies and go along with whatever I wanted so as not to disappoint me.
I was well aware I had reached the end of the track. I understood my life was about to undergo a change, perhaps a solution. In my pessimism, I was certain that in one way or another it would lead to my ruin. His refusal would be insupportable. It had become evident that continuing to live without him, renouncing him, would be impossible for me, as it always had been.
I knew it. I had understood that much from seeing him again. I had denied it to myself, but I had agreed to return to the Scouts, because I was well aware of who I would find there. Marco’s plan, if he had a plan, was not even that well thought out. He relied only on my vulnerability and therefore on the complicity that I would not have denied him. And now I was in a maze, a trap without any way out. Were I to live with Paoletto and thereby force him into homosexuality, I would have to admit I had suffered needlessly and that I had failed. I would have come to think my father had died for nothing. This was not very rational, because the tumor that had struck him was not a punishment. And then there was my mother who would have suffered again and for always from all this. At night, these thoughts became nightmares, because it was the darkness that made them scary.
In that woodland the silence was total and the noises, with no wind, were inexplicable. That night I became once again afraid. I felt the same terrible sense of repulsion towards myself that I had felt three years earlier. I looked back to see myself as the real ruin of Paoletto and my family. If I had not found myself in a tent in the middle of a wood, far away from everything, with friendly people who I might have frightened with my actions, maybe I would have sought something, anything, to give me peace.
If I didn’t move, it was because Marco was occupying the first place in front of the exit from the tent. He had unconsciously blocked it and I would have woken him up had I tried to go out. That boy was watching over me even while I was sleeping. It was that thought, a sort of oxymoron of reasoning, that shook me violently, leading me back to reality. But even if I had gone out, would I have really run away? To look for something that would give me relief in some way, and would I have found it in the middle of the Alps?
I knew my stability was still fragile, much more delicate than I wanted to admit. A year and a half I had been away from drugs. Those months of intermission were nothing compared to the failure of my life.
Paoletto tied me to that cot with the thought of his disappointment and also that of Marco when they would find me missing in the morning.
I fell asleep, waking up when Marco was already getting up to give the wake-up call. I hadn’t run away, but my mouth had a bitter taste in it, as if I had been smoking all night long. It was something I had done sometimes, and it had been horrible having to return to the world and realize I was still alive. That morning, however, I was gratified to be alive, because the first person I saw coming out of the tent was Paoletto, who being unable to run as yet, hopped across to greet me. His movements still cautious, but at least he could walk.
With him there with me, how could I think about dying or drugging myself again? I considered how stupid I had been that night. How many silly thoughts you could conjure in the dark and absolute silence.
I waited impatiently for us to be alone. He was everything to me. When everyone finally left, the problem arose of how to occupy our time. He suggested we collect some firewood for the evening. As soon as we had put together enough, another idea came to him.
“What if we explore the stream? We could follow it to the waterfall…”
“It’s fine by me, but do you feel up to it?”
Slowly we followed the stream that flowed near the field. After half an hour’s walk, we arrived at a tiny pool which had formed in a depression in the ground. The water was not stagnant, because a small waterfall cascaded from a spur of rock. It refreshed the air in a delightful way making a pleasant sound.
I left all my concerns behind me at the camp. Unconsciously I decided to live that day regardless of any nagging doubts or concerns I might still have. This choice was perhaps the first sign of a new maturity that had emerged in my life. I didn’t consider either abandoning drugs, nor my behavior before and after the death of my father as anything other than acting out of necessity.
My behavior at that time was in reaction to the imminent death of my father and a need to calm the turmoil in my life. It was both practical and respectable, but not at all heroic. Although, I liked to dress the time I spent in a quasi-monastic retreat as heroic it was, when I considered it clearly, simply a passage of seasons, neither noble nor memorable.
The season of my self-destruction had ended in failure. I had not died with my first heroin injection, nor from the violence I had allowed to be inflicted on me. The pain and humiliation I had suffered, the heroin I had taken, this did not have the effect I had hoped for. The revelation of my father’s illness proved to be a perfectly timely and emotional reason which served to close that depressing season, only to open a new one, another journey.
At the camp, returning next to Paoletto, I hoped that a new season would open. A new maturity would perhaps allow me to distinguish between good and evil. As long as I chose not only for myself, but also for him, because, like so many previous times, he had entrusted himself to me.
The idea of swimming came to both of us and we did not hesitate for a moment to undress and run to the shore. I went first into the water. Splashing through the freezing cold, a shocking contrast compared to the warmth in the air. When he approached the water’s edge, I was already accustomed to the temperature. I began showering water on him, making him shiver and move away.
We had undressed together. He had been a little slower, because of his leg. When I stood alone in only my underwear, I turned quickly towards the water. Having Paoletto undressing next to me had made me excited. It was so as to hide my erection that I ran so quickly into the water and forced myself into the chilling cold.
Usually it took me ages to go into the water, testing it several times, only to determine it was far too cold. My friends would make fun of my reticence and ridicule me. That was the only time I can remember charging and diving into the water, it was definitely the coldest water that I ever experienced.
Standing on the edge of the pool, Paoletto cautiously evaluated the temperature, dipping his toe in the water. It was then I drenched him.
“No!” he shouted, with a leap, trying to get away, while I splashed with more force. “It’s cold! Let me go into the water first. It’s not fair. I’ve never sprayed you.”
That was true. He had always been the only one who had resisted the temptation to throw water over me, during my tentative approaches. And he refrained because he loved me, I thought.
“Come on, jump in,” I said, in a condescending tone, but as soon as he got closer, I started splashing him again.
This disloyalty forced him to enter the cold water, and he came after me, trying to take revenge and push me underwater. We struggled, swallowing several mouthfuls of water, grabbing each other wherever we could, slipping on the slimy bottom of the pool. After a while we were exhausted, more than simply from fatigue, from laughing too much. Only then did I realize that, despite the cold water, I was still excited. I raised my eyes to meet his, then I looked at his groin and realized he was in the same state. His white cotton pants, soaking wet, didn’t conceal anything.
We registered the same thing at the same time. We blushed and turned around swimming in opposite directions, almost as if we were too scared to look at each other. We walked away until we each reached opposite sides of the pool. We were only a few meters apart, but far enough not to have to look at each other. We splashed at each other a little, without getting closer. While our cocks, fortunately, had calmed down, no doubt due to the scare we had experienced, and had returned to normal.
We came out of the water trembling and exchanged similar cautious looks. Paoletto staring at me exactly as I looked at him. Eyes fixed on the same place. I lay on my stomach on the soft grass that grew along the shore. We were both out of breath, but not through exhaustion. It was the emotion and also the fear. He followed me and did as I did. I couldn’t think of anything that could get us out of that situation. We were too wet to get dressed. Nor could I in any way cover up and hide my embarrassment from my reaction that was already coming back to assault me. I gathered myself into myself, squeezing my knees with my arms. I took on the pose of that painting by Flandrin (2) which had so influenced me as a boy.
It was a moment when I regretted putting myself in such a compromising situation. With Paoletto next to me, whom I dared not look at, through fear that this precarious situation might irreparably damage our rekindled friendship. It was he who rescued us both, looking the other way as he tried controlling his breathing.
“It would be nice if we could get some sleep,” he said, casually, as he eyed me. “Only until we are dry. What do you say?”
“Yes, all right!” I replied, heaving a sigh of relief.
I lay back down on my stomach and pretended to doze, because I could not sleep lying next to his almost naked body, the thought of which I could not get out of my mind. The more I tried not to, the more I thought about him. I didn’t sleep, but only managed to rest motionless and not to turn around, which in itself required a superhuman effort.
I sensed him moving from time to time, but I kept still and made no response. I finally heard his breathing become regular and I realized that he was asleep. I got up slowly, avoiding looking at him, I stretched out my hand to get my pants. I quickly pulled them on over my wet underpants and covered my cock, which was still hard as a rock. I went back to the edge of the pool and threw stones for at least a quarter of an hour. I forced myself not to think about anything other than bouncing those flat pebbles off the surface of the water. That kind of self-censorship was effective and lasted until I felt Paoletto’s hand caress my shoulder.
“Boss, Little Limping Panther is terribly hungry!”
He had put on his clothes and looked at me smiling contentedly. For now my secret was safe and so was my love. So many untold truths were safe for the moment. I could lament silently for a little while longer. Was this the change I anticipated? The new season of my life? Was it all to be reduced to a silent suffering?
We ate the sandwiches and fruit we had brought with us. Paoletto was hungry and that food barely managed to satisfy his appetite. I pretended to be, maybe I really was. However, the thought that my life was going to experience another long ordeal, this time made of waiting and silent suffering, took away all my enthusiasm.
In those few days I had been close to him, but we had never been completely alone. Although we had often found ourselves in a special intimacy, that situation had never lasted long enough for us to speak seriously. What he was about to ask me had been suspended between us ever since he saw me a couple of months before. I was afraid of the questions he was going to ask, because I didn’t want to lie to him as I had always done with everyone. I wanted to tell the truth for once, but I already knew I would not, because I did not yet have the courage to do so. I was so afraid of losing him once more, and if I did so, it would have been a condemnation without appeal.
We lay on the grass next to each other looking at the sky through the treetops. And if before we might have napped in the early afternoon sun, now I was more than awake and so was he. There was a silence between us until he spoke.
“Why did you disappear?” he asked, “Why didn’t you want to see me anymore?”
Three years earlier it had been enough for me to walk away, so I didn’t have to explain anything to him. If he had looked for me, he was too young to ever find me in those places where I had hidden myself. In time he must have convinced himself to leave me alone. Now he was no longer a twelve-year-old boy. There was a young man in front of me, very self-aware, and I didn’t know what to say to him.
“Even that evening you ran away. Didn’t you?”
I nodded. I instantly understood what evening he was talking about. It was the evening, before that night, before that morning!
“You saw me, and you ran away. You didn’t even look at me. You didn’t see that I had grown up. I already had a little stubble, you know. But to you I was just a little boy. I was a pain in the ass, and you didn’t want to waste your time with me. I could have helped you.”
“There were things I didn’t want you to see,” I said, when I finally managed to speak, “but it’s true what you say, when I noticed you, I ran away. I am sorry.”
“Are you sorry? Is that all? I followed you, I shouted after you. I fell!”
“I didn’t come looking for you…you of all people. I was nervous about seeing you. I was there for something else, but I changed my mind…”
“Really? Why didn’t you speak to me? What were you doing standing in front of my house?”
“I didn’t want to encounter you and when you showed up I lacked the courage to do anything else.”
” You can’t tell lies!”
“Ok… But above all, I didn’t want to talk to you. I… I just wanted to see your house again!”
“I don’t understand!”
“If I explained it to you, you would still not understand me. Don’t ask me that, please.”
He looked away. I could see that he was angry. I recognized the approach of one of his rantings. His rants though rare, because he seldom lost his temper even as a child, were famous among his friends. When Paoletto got upset his rages were almost pyrotechnical and very spectacular.
“All right” he said, rather than shouting at me, as he was certainly about to do.
He was granting me another truce, and I loved him as good and tolerant as he was. He kept quiet for a while to consider, then he spoke once more.
“It is in the past now! Don’t worry about it. It’s over!”
After all I had done to him, he was still trying to appease me. To hear him almost made me weep with emotion.
“Do you know I have often thought about you over the years?” he said, after a little while. “And every time, I was terrified the same thing would happen to me. I might have disappeared, abandoned the Scouts and all of my friends? Just like you…”
“It could never have happened to you. No way! That’s not possible!”
“What do you know about it? How can you say that?”
His eyes were glistening, perhaps he was moved. He looked around, then he looked at the pool where the sunlight reflected off the water. Paoletto concentrated on that light, while I was contemplating him.
He was beautiful. His skin was golden, his profile classic, his hair still wet, lightened by the sun. That light, that grazed his shoulder, his cheek, until his eyes shone. Or was it my imagination that gave him that halo?
“Did you know that I often cried for you? When you disappeared and even afterwards. For a few days I didn’t eat. Grandma Luigia did not know what to do and Uncle Giulio called a doctor, a pediatrician, for a consultation.”
“Really, were you not speaking?” I thought about how much that extraordinary woman must have worried. And also, Uncle Giulio who doted on him. And he loved me too.
“I only said I had lost the most important thing in my life. I said those precise words ‘the most important thing in my life’. I didn’t say anything else.”
He repeated those words slowly whilst looking at me. And it was me he was talking about. I knew it
“They couldn’t get anything else out of me,” he said again.
“I was twelve years old” he continued, without paying attention to me. “Nobody believed me capable of assuming such an attitude, of having such precise ideas. Uncle Giulio tried making fun of me. Grandma Luigia however, seemed to have understood. She asked me many times questions about you. I did not say anything to her either. I stayed two days without eating at all. I drank only water, then the hunger came back. I almost forgot about you. You were my special friend and I traded you for a sandwich!” he said, smiling a bit sourly.
I had never fantasized about a moment like this, nor had I ever thought that talking about it could hurt me so much. Imagining his suffering, it was tantamount to living it. Once again I was a coward and went back to lying to him.
“I left because everything we did seemed useless, futile. I no longer enjoyed myself. And I no longer believed in God, how could I remain in the scouts?”
“Please, don’t lie to me! I have already told you, you cannot tell lies!” he said, in a disconsolate manner.
I was still afraid that he would get angry. I would have preferred him to do so, but by now he didn’t believe what I was telling him. He knew that it wasn’t true.
“There is one more reason why I left,” I told him on impulse, before I had time to regret it, “but I don’t feel like talking about it. Not yet.”
Not now, my love. I cannot. Curiously enough, I thought of my French friend at that moment, how he would have disapproved of my behavior.
“Was it something that had to do with me,” he insisted.
“No!” I lied.
“Another lie!” Again that feeling of impotence and defeat in his voice.
“I don’t want to talk about it! I cannot, not yet!” I shouted.
By then I was desperate. How could I avoid telling him if he insisted? I was asking too much of him. To have faith in me without giving him an explanation. It was too much.
“Then why did you come back?” he insisted.
“Because my father died. Because I don’t do drugs anymore. Because I needed to be amongst friends. Because my life had become too sad. And, anyway, I don’t think I’m staying…”
“You promised not to disappear again.”
“Paoletto, I don’t think the Scouts need me.” This time he did not interrupt me. I kept talking. “But you and I will still be friends. I promised you that I won’t go away.”
“What if I need you?”
“Why should you? What do you think I could give you?”
He did not answer and did not look at me. His gaze was fixed on a distant spot, among the trees, in the woods.
“Paoletto, I… I am no longer your Patrol Leader,” I insisted.
I had to tell him how little I was worth. How badly his trust had been misplaced, and I tried doing it with a certain honesty.
He clasped my hand and held it.
“I took drugs,” I said. “I stole money from my parents to buy drugs. I did other bad things. Much uglier than you can imagine. My father made me stop, but I never thanked him, and do you know why? He died before I could.”
Paoletto was still holding my hand and I would have done anything to keep him holding it.
“When he was about to die,” I went on, “and he would have wanted me next to him, I was studying. That’s all I did. I spent every night with him. I would sit by his bed, watching over him. I would inject him with a sedative, but when I realized he wanted to talk to me, I would pretend to sleep. I would sit in the dark with my eyes closed. He was lying next to me, numbed by drugs. What did he ever want to tell me? I allowed him to talk to me a few times. But I never thanked him for saving me. And do you know why? Because I hadn’t forgiven him for having given birth to me!”
Maybe I was crying. I realized I had glossy eyes and then I was crying. My cheeks were wet with tears. He let go of my hand and I covered my face with my hands. I was ashamed he saw me like that, but maybe it was good. Perhaps he would understand how little I was worth.
But he kept quiet, lying on his side. His body still kept tempting me. And that thought, once again, as well as upsetting my life, came to excite me, provided another boost to my emotions. I felt the sadness enveloping and suffocating me, the desperation of being unable to control myself. I strained myself even more in an effort not to burst out sobbing.
He approached me to caress my shoulder, and his touch made me shudder.
“I don’t care about what you did,” he said, softly. “I would have liked to suffer with you, but I wasn’t there. Now I just want us to remain friends. I don’t want you to leave again. Remember you promised me!”
“I know, I will always be your prisoner. I remain your prisoner.”
For a moment I dreamed that behind his insistence there was a feeling similar to the one I was trying to escape. I dreamed of being close to him all my life. But it was only a moment. I immediately understood that what I had done once, I was preparing to do again. There was no place, for me next to him. There could not be. To stay close to him without upsetting him or violating his innocence was impossible. I would not have resisted, because even at a moment like that, I was excited. How could I hope to resist him, without undermining him?
“You promised me…” I heard him repeat.
I reinvented my future. Then and there, I imagined what I would do after the end of the camp. I would go as far away as possible to attend University. I would convince my mother to follow me and leave the city. We would never come back. Maybe I would see him again, but there would be no more opportunities to be together.
In the end, he would have to resign himself to my departure and this time there would be no crying, because my betrayal would be evident and definitive.
But just as I was thinking these thoughts, planning my turnaround, he stroked my shoulder. Paoletto took my hand, held it between his, and then caressed it against his cheek. I felt his smooth skin warm under my fingertips. My hands trembled. Then he let me go and went back to lying down. He perched his head on one extended arm and kept staring at me.
I observed him with my heart in my mouth from the emotion. Time stood still. He had a serenity with which he encompassed me, and I stayed there watching him. He closed his eyes and seemed to fall asleep. I closed mine too. Even the forest was silent.
When we looked at each other again, I read something in his eyes. I don’t know what my eyes were saying, but his filled me with joy and despair.
I decided I would wait a few more days, before telling him the truth. Before revealing that I intended to leave for good. I still wanted to enjoy a little more of his affection. I needed it, and I was so selfish, I would use him again, then leave. Soon it would be time to set out on the road.
We returned to the camp very slowly, stopping frequently, because his leg was painful. We walked together, hugging each other, he held my arm over his shoulders for most of the way. I adapted to his body, to support him and touch him. I didn’t think of anything other than the warmth that contact transmitted.
We chatted about the Scouts, his Patrol, the camp. He described his plans for next year when he would become a Rover. With every word he said, with his enthusiasm for the future, I understood his life would not to be shattered by my presence. Not by the proposals I would be tempted to make to him, nor what I would certainly do to him, staying close with him. I was now so certain that if I wanted I could lure him into my arms, at that exact moment. A nod and he would have been mine in every sense, there in the woods, while the afternoon sun made everything redder. But I loved him too much, for it to happen. The suffering was mine alone.
Had we spoken, I would have confided in him, and perhaps we would have stayed friends. I would have explained everything to him. Perhaps he already knew and was prepared to sacrifice himself for me, but I would not let him. I had to face my life alone and let myself be overwhelmed by it. Without dragging him into those places where he would never have ventured had he not met me. His future was for him alone.
We arrived back at the camp. Our brief excursion ended and with it my dream. I had had Paoletto to myself, alone with me. A whole day just for us. What else could I expect from life? I could have died at that moment and I would have been happy to die.
I attended to him for a while, but my baby was now weaned and almost healed, even though he had to use his injured leg with caution. Our life in common was reduced to a few chats. My lost looks were behind him and it was his happy smiles, when he found me staring at him, that remained. He was as happy that I was there at least as much as I was to be near him. He was content, of that I am certain, and no thought or regret would ever take that certainty from me.
The last night of the camp tradition dictated that a series of rituals take place. Despite my new fervor, I still considered this rather uninteresting and more suited for those who had the age and imagination to clothe them with ideals. That time was gone for me and nothing, not even Paoletto’s enthusiasm, would make it come back.
I took part in that last campfire anyway. It was a memorable occasion to be remembered for the whole of the following year. For Paoletto it was the last evening before he moved on to the Rovers. As it was significant for him it ended up becoming important for me too, despite my feigned indifference.
A lot of wood was burned on that fire, all that had been used to build tables, benches, and the kitchens. All day long we had dismantled the camp and as far as possible all traces of our passage had been covered. After the winter that clearing would return to the way it was before we arrived. Since it was the last gathering, around that fire many promises were made, personal proposals, some to share with everyone, others to keep for themselves. It was the most important evening of the whole camp, but only for those who experienced it with the enchanted eyes of innocence. We sang and played. There was a lot of emotion because it was our last night together and tomorrow everything would be over. We had had too much fun to want to leave without getting excited and exuberant, one last time. I too became swept up in that atmosphere.
Every night in the camp the campfire had been lit. Every night the silence of the forest had been broken by song and laughter, by our cheerfulness and then the silence which fell with tiredness. In the end, the final song was performed, always the same one, during which we all joined hands. Paoletto always made sure to be close to me in that moment, to clasp my hand. Then we had to make a prayer that I mumbled, being unable to believe the words I was saying and that were sang, quite fervently.
That memorable evening, after all the customs had been respected, only one last engagement, a last effort, remained. It was part of our tradition that the eldest scouts waited for dawn around the final bonfire, holding sentinel over its dying embers. It could get very cold, which it usually did. It was like a rite of passage that no one would give up because it was their last time, there would never be another night like this.
I knew Paoletto wanted me by his side for that last night, to greet the glow of dawn when it illuminated the sky. He didn’t ask me to stay, not in words, but I didn’t doubt he wanted me there, so I laid my sleeping bag next to his. It was already very cold, and we sealed ourselves inside, leaving only a thin gap to breathe and look into each other’s eyes.
“Are you sleepy?” I asked him.
He shook his head, he wouldn’t sleep at all. That night was his last night as a boy and the first as a man. Perhaps it wasn’t like that, perhaps it was how it had happened to me, I had definitely lost my mind on a night like that, but the line between adolescence and maturity was not so clear or so easy to cross.
“Do you want to sleep?”
“No!” I reassured him. I would have stayed with him to clasp his hand. Metaphorically, because the air was freezing cold.
I settled down better using a depression in the ground to rest my tired and exhausted body from the long day we had spent. How I didn’t fall asleep, I don’t know, but I was mentally lucid, at least, though physically exhausted. It must have been the same for him.
There were others who like us stayed around the fire and were chatting. Some had succumbed to tiredness and were already asleep.
“I missed you, you know?” he said, after a while.
“I missed you too, and you don’t know how much!” I said, before I was able to stop myself, because this was dangerous talk.
“Tell me something…only something that doesn’t hurt. Tell me a little bit of what you think I should know.”
From the fire came a glow that illuminated us. Our faces like red stains against the dark of the sleeping bags and the black of the night.
“I have missed you. Really missed you. I would like to tell you everything, because I would like you to know, but it still hurts me, and it hurts me even more to remember!”
He shuffled closer to me, pulled out his arm and caressed me on my cheek. His hand was warm. My face icy cold. An absurd desire to have him with me in my sleeping bag caught me. I wanted him, but only to warm me up with the heat of his body and to thaw him because he must also have been cold.
“Tell me what you are thinking about.”
He took me a bit by surprise.
“Nothing important,” I babbled, “I’m just cold!”
“Liar… I don’t believe it. You made a face… Come on, tell me what you were thinking! I beg you!”
“That you must be cold and that I would like to warm you up!”
“Do you want to know what I was thinking?”
“That it would be marvelous if the two of us were alone here tonight. I could enter your sleeping bag and we wouldn’t have to explain anything to anyone.”
“Yes…it’s too cold,” he said, with a peaceful smile.
I approached him moving my sleeping bag until I could feel his body next to mine. That’s all I could do, and he looked at me contentedly.
“Over the years,” he told me, “wherever I went I thought how nice it would be to be with you in each of those places. Everywhere I fantasized that you were with me. And you were never there. You were never near me. I never came after you, but I always knew where you were!”
I jumped. He was bewildering me.
He smiled at my surprise.
“I kept on following you…”
“How did you do that? Who told you where I was, what I was doing?”
“Sometimes it was Marco, but I had to push him. He was terribly reluctant even to name you. I asked other people about you, too. And then I saw you on the street several times. We don’t live far away. It was easy to casually meet you.”
“Did Marco tell you about me? What did he tell you?”
“Nothing… a few things. He always said that you were well and that you didn’t miss anything. He always made me promise that I would never go looking for you. That you had to decide when and how to come back to us. If you wanted to come back to us! He said I had to respect your decision. Even if it made me feel bad and sad! It was then I cried… when Marco told me that.”
Mentally I sent Marco all the excuses I could. No matter how badly I thought of him.
“And what else do you know?”
God, please don’t let him know everything, I thought. I feared the gates of hell were opening wide for me again.
“Once he told me that you didn’t wash frequently and that you stank a little,” I laughed and imagined that Paoletto would never do that, “he told me that you dressed in rags and smoked grass. You forced your mother to give you money, but then she had to stop, because your father forbade it. Then you started stealing from your house. And at school they promoted you because your father bought the favor.”
So, he knew almost everything.
“What else do you know?” I insisted.
“That’s all, I don’t know anything more. But when you returned, let’s say, to normal…”
He gathered himself, as if in defense of the cold. I saw him shiver. I approached him again, and our heads were almost in contact. His voice was a whisper, and I enjoyed the warmth of his breath on my face. He took a deep breath to gain courage.
“When you returned to normal, it was the most terrible time for me. I was glad you had stopped doing drugs and that you went back to school. I was proud of you when I heard how much you had done in such a short time, the work of a whole school year. It was then I believed. I expected that you would return to us, to me. I waited for you every night, but you never came. I would have gone looking for you, but I promised Marco I wouldn’t, and then I realized you didn’t want to see me. I had to wait for a long time. It was terrible. I could watch you in the street, from a distance. You never noticed me because you were always walking with your head down. And then I heard about your father. And I cried for him, for your mother and for you. Especially for you!”
His lips were a few inches from mine. I saw them trembling as if he were about to cry.
“Don’t go away, Roby. I beg you!”
“I promised you!”
“I know, but I am afraid. Don’t abandon me alone anymore.”
Around us there was an absolute quiet. We were presumably the last people awake near the fire that was being consumed, throwing sparks into the air, whose noise was the only sound we could hear.
“I am cold,” he said, “and all this silence scares me!”
I pulled out my arms and drew him to me. I squeezed him. The air was really very cold.
“I knew that you would come back,” he murmured, “but I am so afraid that you will leave again!”
“I’m not leaving, I swear to you! I’m not leaving, don’t worry!”
I cuddled him. If someone had seen us, it would have been difficult to explain what we were doing, but I didn’t care. It was the right time to do that.
“I don’t know why…but I believe that without you I could no longer live,” he said.
“Why do you say that?” I was frightened by what I was hearing.
“Yes, it’s right!” he insisted stubbornly. But he was sleepy. The day had been tiring, and midnight had long passed.
“All right. It’s as you say. I know it. I believe you, but let’s sleep now.”
And I kissed him on the forehead.
“And you? Why weren’t you looking for me?”
“Let’s sleep. I will speak to you about it. I will tell you everything. Ok? But not now. Now I don’t want to!”
“Do you promise that you will tell me everything?”
“And that you won’t leave? That you won’t leave me again? Swear to me!”
“Paoletto, I swear that we will decide about our future together. I promise it on my father.” I regretted having said that, I would never have imagined I could say that. “Paoletto, my future doesn’t exist, but I’ll give it to you anyway.”
He looked at me as if he didn’t understand and I thought it had to be like that. Then he surprised me, as he had always done.
“You won’t regret it,” he told me, with conviction, “you should have done it sooner!”
God, how right he was!
“Shall we sleep?”
“All right let’s sleep. When I wake up tomorrow, I know that I will find you here, but afterwards?”
“I have sworn it to you. Is my word worth so little?”
“No. I believe you, even if I am afraid!”
We fell asleep hugging each other, and if no one saw us in the morning, if our honor was saved, it was because shortly afterwards the cold woke me up. I put my arms back in my sleeping bag, but before going back to sleep I kissed him on the lips. I kissed him once and then again, until it got too cold to feel my own lips. Forgetting that someone might discover my secret or that he could wake up.
I kissed him, because that would be the only real kiss, I would ever give him.
(1) At the time, the latrines were holes dug into the ground in secluded corners. At the end of the camp, the hole was covered. Needless to say, an accident to one leg with the inability to bend makes the use of this type of latrine very difficult.