He has a week-long beard, and this is a bad sign. He usually doesn’t let it grow a millimeter longer than usual, and after a round of chemo he always welcomes you standing, because he doesn’t like to look fragile. He managed, until today. He managed so well that when the doctors said, “He has ten days left, twenty at best”, nobody could believe them.
“You must really trim that, my friend”, I say when I enter the room. His parents asked me to convince him. He will feel better if he does, they think. And if I know him well, I’d say they’re right.
“It’s really the last thing on my mind”, he says, trying not to seem harsh. It is a pact between us, something which never needed to be said, but always effective in the last weeks: I keep trying to be funny, like this wasn’t the last room in which we’ll meet. And if I’ve stept into a bad moment, he doesn’t blame me for that.
“It’s not for you, it’s for the clinic”, I insist. “They’re getting bad reviews on Tripadvisor...”
That draws a smile from him. And that smile, thanks to Filippo, almost burst into an open laugh. Nobody in the world is asvaluable as Filippo, especially in these days: he is the gatekeeper of this hospital room. The one who decides who is coming in and who is leaving, the one who reads the small signs of impatience in his brother when a visit lasts too long, when a colleague is boring Federico for hours, after bringing a box of chocolates that he can’t eat.
Today we are the only ones allowed to stay: the intestinal blockage got worse. Federico had asked for a private moment with the doctors, one hour later he summoned us up, and he said: “From now on, I won’t be able to drink. So this evening I want to have a last toast. The doctor said this would be a stupid thing to do, and strongly advised against it”.
“So?”, Filippo asked.
“So the doctor will have to deal with it. I want to drink a last glass of wine with you guys. And this is not negotiable”.
With his amazing ability to deal with life one instant at a time, one centimeter at a time, forged and refined by fifteen years of rugby, Filippo said: “Ok, I’m going to talk with the blonde”.
The Blonde is an Italian doctor who works here in London. She’s blatantly in love with Federico and she’s our best ally within the walls of the Harley Street Clinic.
The Blonde says that this is doable. Worse case scenario is Federico throwing up, she says. But if he feels nauseous, she adds, we can call her: she’ll come come right away and suck up the wine from his stomach with a probe.
We watch her while she leaves the room, then we turn towards Federico.
“Come on, you fucked her”, Filippo says.
Federico shakes his head. He is aware she has a crush on him, and deep down I think he’s flattered. Of course we both know that he’s never cheated on his wife, in twenty years, but we make fun of him a little more.
“Ok. So you trim your beard and I buy the wine”, I offer at last. “Not that I really care about how long you wanna grow your facial hair, but Valentina is coming tomorrow, so I need your razor to trim mine, and your mother doesn’t let me borrow it if you don’t use it first...”
“And how are things with Valentina?”, he asks.
“I don’t know. They are... long distance, very small portions. It is all too thin, I told you. I don’t think that would ever be enough for me”.
“However”, he says, “she’s the perfect match for you. You are passionate, impulsive, but in truth you need a woman like that, who gives you a little practical sense. Plus, you can’t always act like a sprinter. Love is never the 100 meters dash. The one which lasts for a lifetime is a marathon. Like a long hike in the mountains: there are moments in which you feel you’re done, you can’t move your legs anymore, but you push, you push another ten minutes, then another twenty, pulling out energies you didn’t know you had. And when you reach the top of the mountain you say fuck, all these efforts I made, they were worthwhile, and you can enjoy a view, scenery you never saw before. You have to learn the slow pace, the constant stride. Trust me, she is the one, don’t lose her”.
This is one of the things we like most: sport metaphors for any kind of debate. And this is one of the things I like most in Federico: in every situation he’s in, whatever happens to him, there is always a part of his brain and heart dedicated to the people he loves, always a part that worries about them, giving advice.
I nod my head, saying I surrender: he won. For years, the strong foothold of his mathematical thinking has been a vital beacon for my eighteenth century romantic Sturm und Drang.
I come back an hour later, with a bottle of Amarone: “It’s not our Amarone, this is from another vineyard, but this is the best I could find”.
“It’s not important”, Federico says. “Besides, much of the taste will be lost on me, with all the drugs. Plus you know, I’m not one of those who can say: a bouquet of roses, almonds and citrus fruit, or: I detect a note of red fruits harvested by virgin hands on a full moon night“.
Filippo glowers disapprovingly: “Well, if that’s the case, I will not drink with you, you uneducated prick”. Federico smiles. He trimmed his beard while I was away, and now he’s ten years younger, he’s thirty-nine again, and even if he’s restrained in a bed, with a drip pouring painkillers into his arm, he’s handsome, much more than me and Filippo. The female nurses compete to come to his bedside. There are four menand three women in this ward, and we rarely see male nurses: the girls switch shifts so they can stay with him.
“After all”, says Federico,“wine is sort of a social stuff for me. I like the taste, of course, the feeling on the palate, but most of all I like the idea of drinking it together. In the end, my perfect night has always been to just sit with a couple of friends, slightly tipsy, and talk about the world. There is nothing that tops that. Well, except maybe eating a burger with my kids...”
The mood darkens for a while. This is one of those moments in which the night can take a crushing turn, but Filippo is able to overcome it, handing us the glasses.
We clink them, then Filippo tilts his glass slightly, mocking the gestures of a sommelier. He sniffs at the wine, like a truffle pig. Finally, he takes a sip.
“So, what says the expert?”, Federico asks.
“Powerful, elegant to the nose, characterized by a scent of cherry in alcohol and prunes, together with a hint of incense. It is no less majestic to the palate, with a bouquet of sour cherry and blueberries”.
“All that stuff in that glass?”
“I just read it on the Internet”, Filippo says. On a day of grace and with the tailwinds in my favour, I could have maybe guessed the blueberries on my own”.
Federico laughs, then violent coughing turns him serious.
He breathes deeply, then reaches for hisglass. He brings it to his lips, he takes a sip. Slowly, cautiously.
We look at him, almost holding our breath, leaning out from our chairs.
“So?”, we ask, simultaneously. Which, in our intentions, means we want to know if he feels nauseous, if he feels ill, if we have to call the doctor. Instead, he takes it as an invite to comment on the wine.
“The truth? A slightly tingling liquid, sour from chemotherapeutic agents, with a hint of rotten green lizard, which a mixture of seven different painkillers makes far more sapid. Whatever that means”.
“Oh, I’m sorry”, I say, as if somehow that could depend on the bottle I picked. “In that case...”
“In that case: down the hatch!”
Federico chugs the wine in one gulp. We follow his orders, emptying our glasses. Then we bang them on the nightstand, as if we were doing shots. Filippo pours some more wine, but Federico puts his hand over his glass: “Not for me, I’m okay. But let there be no mistake: you cannot leave until the bottle is empty. And since in half an hour my body will start to ache everywhere, if you don’t hurry and drink it all, I will hold you responsible for the pain and start mistreating you”.
“That seems to me an unacceptable threat”, I say.
“Let’s call it legitimate psychological pressure”.
“Ok, let’s agree on psychological pressure”, I concur, raising my glass. I gulp down a large swig, and I don’t know if it’s the power of suggestion, but this time I can feel both the blueberries and the prunes. I’m about to confess that, opening myself upto ridicule, when Federico throws us off balance:
“You know what really soothes me about not having to die in Italy?”
“That I’m not forced to share this room with an agonizing Christ. You know, having him on the cross, hanged fifty centimeters over my head, weighing his suffering against mine”.
The machine that regulates the drip flow emits a small beep. Filippo gets up, pushes a button, then sits down, inviting Federico to go on.
“It’s not about the symbol, okay? It’s the culture of that symbol: in Italy you suffer, and that’s kind of okay, because Our Lord suffered too, etcetera etcetera. Here, the first thing the doctors tell you is: you shouldn’t suffer. And they do everything they can to ease your pain”.
“Tell that theory to Giulio”, Filippo says, smiling. “He’ll write a thirty-page pamphlet about it”.
“Then there’s no risk, since we haven’t seen much of him in the last year”.
I said that, even if I never wanted to. I don’t know how it came out.
Federico doesn’t seem to be upset: “Francesco, you don’t have to be mad at him”.
“How could I not be?”
“I heard he wanted to come visit”, says Filippo, “but while he was buying the ticket he read that story about the long beard on Tripadvisor and gave up”.
Federico looks at us, amused: “You two are really pissed, aren’t you?”
I wait for Filippo to say something, but he just shakes his head. So I have to speak for both of us: “Yes, deeply”.
“I’m not”, Federico says. “I swear. I’ve come to the conclusion that some people just can’t deal with illness, and death, and I don’t resent Giulio for that. We have been friends all our lives, if he’s not here it means that it’s impossible for him. And I’m not angry for that. Besides, I feel sorry for him, because I know he thinks about it, and if I know him, I bet he wrote me an impressive number of twenty-page e-mails he didn’t send”.
“Try sixty pages”, I say. “He has to explain everything, starting with the Big Bang”. Federico smiles.
“Yesterday two friends came to visit. A couple, people I’ve known for fifteen years, people I love almost as I love you and Giulio. I would have preferred they’dstayed in Rome, believe me. They sat there, in the corner, in silence, tears in their eyes, the whole time. Hours and hours, without saying a word. I was about to shout at them: hey, you guys, I’m not dead yet, spare it for the funeral! But then I kept my mouth shut, I didn’t want to humiliate them. But I don’t need visits like that. I need people like you, and Bianca, and Mario, people who now and then manage to do the small miracle of letting me forget where I am, what I’m waiting for. So, if Giulio doesn’t feel comfortable about visiting me, it's far better if he stays home”.
Filippo raises his glass and makes a toast: “To Giulio, then, as long as he complieswith this enlightened restraining order”.
“Did he at least call you?”, I ask, because in the anger-management rankings I’m still far, far behind the De Vita brothers.
Federico shrugs: “He called me once, while I was undergoing chemo. Cristina spoke to him. He never called back. Do you hear from him? How is he? Did he get engaged?”
“Of course, with six or seven women”.
“Give or take. He’s sick”.
There is a long silence, long enough for Filippo and me to hold our breath, waiting for the word “sick” to land on the floor without causing damage.
“Well, sick, come on”, Federico says. “You do have a girlfriend too, don’t you?”
“So, would you go to Cristiano Ronaldo and say: I scored a goal, you scored thirty-eight, so you are sick?”
We laugh. Slowly, at first, then loud, louder, so much that we have to put down our glasses to avoid spilling a lot of wine. And for a moment we’re not three friends saying goodbye in a hospital room, for a moment we’re still the Three Musketeers, and who cares about that pusillanimous fourth, we have the whole future ahead of us, thousands of bottles to drink together, this wonderful friendship nobody will ever take away from us.
Federico lays his head on the pillow, and lets go a satisfied sigh. “Come closer”, he says. We draw the chairs towards his bed.
“What are you going to tell my children about me?”, he asks abruptly, and this is like when the airplane lands while you were sleeping, and in the beginning you can’t grasp where you are, what is happening, who all those people around youare, and you have to bounce back quickly, and forceyourself into the present.
My head is empty, or maybe too full, so it’s a relief when I discover that Filippo knows exactly what to say, like he had it all thought through.
“I’ll tell them about that time we fought, when we were kids. That time we fought while we were playing Subbuteo. I don’t remember why, but I remember slapping you. Like I was trying to assert: I’m the older brother, so I’m the strongest. You looked me in the eye, with rage. A rage I hadn’t seen in you before. Then you turned over the writing desk. There was dad’s paperknife on it, and I didn’t manage to stop you. I wasn’t quick enough. You jumped towards it, and while I was thinking what is he doing, is he crazy, you passed by the paperknife, and you took the Rubik’s cube, the one I had been unsuccessfully trying to solve for the last two months. You solved it in twelve seconds, and then you handed it to me, without a single word“.
I let go a highpitched laugh, monosyllabic, that sounds like “AH!”, while Filippo adds seriously: “I would have preferred the paperknife”.
“Did you really do that?”, I ask. Federico seems to be immersed in that memory. Now he has the same look he had when he was a kid, the look he must have had during that scene. Not the raging one, but the other one, the stare he put on when he turned his back on Filippo, enjoying his revenge.
He shows the palms of his hands, apologizing: “I’m afraid I did. And you, what will you tell?”
I try to speak, but I feel short of breath. The fact is that in this last month me and Filippo too, we feel like some Rubik’s cube with all its faces messed up badly. Every night, when we leave the clinic, we try to put all the colours in the right places, but there is no way of feeling normal again.
I drink some wine to buy a little time, trying to stop a teardrop that doesn’t want to stay put.
“I will tell them that you trimmed your beard for me, today, that you tried to teach me patience. And I will tell them that you’re the only person I know in the whole world who, if offered a chance to come back in time and change some things, would do everything exactly like he did, over and over again, without any remorse”.
Federico stays silent for a few seconds. Then he nods. He reaches for our hands, he holds them.
“These are two very nice things. Thanks”.
Despite all my efforts, I do have watery eyes and I don’t know how long I can hold back the tears. Federico notices that. He looks at the bottle on the nightstand: a third of the wine is left, more or less.
“Should we finish it?”, he asks, grabbing his glass.
“Are you sure?”
“No”, he answers, smiling. “But I will ask to be sedated in a while, so...”
When the female nurse injects the liquid from the second syringe, the glasses and the bottle are already empty. Federico’s eyes start to show the effects of sedation, and prepare to surrender to chemical sleep.
“Are you sure you don’t want us to stay?”, Filippo asks.
“No, Fili. I keep the night for myself, you know. It was a wonderful evening, I needed it”.
We’re almost out the door when Filippo stops and goes back inside.
“Fuck it, listen, if this sounds bad we’ll blame the Amarone, but I really have to tell you this and I never know when to do it: we are so proud of you”.
Federico openshis eyes: “What do you mean, proud? Proud of what?”
“Proud of how you... of how you are dealing with all this. I mean, you’re not... you’re never sad”.
“Sad?” Federico smiles, as if he was surprised. Surprised that he needed to explain something so obvious to us:
“There is no time to be sad”.
No one needs to say a word, but as we leave the room both Filippo and I feel something happen. We don’t exactly know what. Maybe we give credit to the wine, because it is a kind of little euphoria.
It is only later, down the road, while we’re waiting for the cab which will separate us until the next morning, that we realize what it was: once again, with that mysterious skill of his, Federico took all our scattered pieces, our faces ravaged by pain, and in a few seconds put everything back in place, red with red, white with white, blue with blue.
With all our colours in the right places, we let a cab run by, then a second. We don’t want to goback home. We want to stay together a little bit more, talk about our friendship, about Federico.
Filippo puts a hand on my shoulder.
“May I ask you something important?”
“Do you think we will find a decent red wine in an English pub?"
Changing the meaning of the most important word
Changing the meaning of the most important word