by Mitsui Matsuri (蜜井茉莉)
Francesco was ten he saw his first dead body, sprawled under the wheels of Dottore Loiacono’s car. He hadn’t meant to make it common knowledge, but the muscle tics on the Gazzetta journalist’s face had grown increasingly pronounced the longer he dwelled on politics. It seemed churlish to continue ruining the day of someone who may well be a perfectly good man to his family, despite being wrong on everything else.
He tried not to be petulant when subsequent interviews brooded over it with morbid relish — an irritation leavened by his horror at genuine sympathy — and, most of all, Francesco slid around the entire truth.
“It must have had a terrible impact on you,” said the besuited man, who leaned forward to look at Francesco in the eye. Studio lights glinted off expensive caps. “To lose your father like that.”
It stopped him beating my mother, Francesco thought. That interview was eight years ago, everything’s on my Wikipedia page; don’t you have other questions?
“I was very young,” he said instead, after the obligatory moment of reflection. “When you’re a child, you just accept it when things happen. Like accidents.”
Even one engineered by the good Dottore, with whom my mother was having an affair. She knew her men, that one, and made only one mistake: my father.
“But you haven’t taken that attitude with you to football, have you?” the interviewer pressed gently.
Francesco grinned. The man was quite good-looking, despite his unfortunate teeth.
“My club would be dead and gone by now if I did. And I would be playing somewhere I wasn’t happy.”
“But your club has never won the Scudetto.”
“Yet.” A laugh. “Some players go where the money and glory are — I go where I am home, and defend it with pride.”
Francesco bought the interviewer a drink later and fucked him at the back of a club, purely on the basis that someone who took that much care with his teeth must have a mouth worth the price. The man was English, though — and, like his country’s football team, had depressingly little to back up his puffery.
Still, it was a little like trying to sing along to Ella Fitzgerald: you knew you’ll never have it that good, but the point — the only point — was that you enjoyed yourself. He hadn’t picked up a man since Alessandro was appointed investigating magistrate, never mind that any blackmailer would look to Hélène first.
Cacia was waiting for him when he opened the door to his flat two days later, her golden eyes studying him with mild disfavour. Beautiful and unimpressed with his soothing excuses, just like the women he’d always appreciated best. She deigned to let him pick her up from the windowsill, though, and to cradle her lithe body in his arms as he walked out of the flat again.
He took the stairs to the fifth floor. Cacia slowly warmed him through his crumpled suit jacket, even purring when he scratched her gently behind an ear.
“Did you miss me?” Francesco murmured. “He doesn’t feed you enough.”
Alessandro opened his door at the second knock, looking mildly ruffled and severely annoyed. His shirt-sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, soap suds trickling down his arms to drip off his long fingers. Francesco leaned closer and squinted — yes, there was more grey in his hair. A pity: Alessandro’s moonstone looks used to drive women wild.
“I’ve come to return your cat,” Francesco said, releasing Cacia into the fanatical orderliness of Alessandro’s flat. “Found her in my place again.”
Alessandro pressed his lips together, eyes flicking to the corridor behind Francesco, and stepped aside.
“Come in. I’ll make coffee.”
The door closed behind them, swinging without sound on oiled hinges.
Twenty years ago, Alessandro came home from Bologna with a law degree and an Aostan wife.
Nine years later — give or take a few weeks — Francesco returned home from the rest of the world, at the age of twenty-five. He brought with him languages enough to order a meal in every continent and a battered, badly-translated copy of the Lotus Sutra. It was entirely hand-written and signed with an unintelligible scrawl, a cipher only Francesco held the key to.
Alessandro had never seen it. Nor had he ever cared to slide his hand along Francesco’s bookcase and pick up the horrifically ugly ceramic bulldog, or the worn paperback of Le Petit Prince with which Francesco taught himself French. These were some of the things they never shared with each other, agreed through a silent accord.
They consummated a steady escalation of flirtation on a stormy evening in Francesco’s second spring in the city’s football club — the very day Alessandro successfully prosecuted Francesco’s former club manager for fraud. In just under a week Francesco’s club was due to play Milan in a do-or-die battle against relegation, a nervous caretaker manager at its helm.
Francesco had known they would lose. He’d known too that what he’d deliberately stoked between himself and Alessandro would lead to this — the harsh rip of Alessandro’s shirt under his teeth, the shocking burn of Alessandro’s fingers pushing deep, too fast and too rough — the moment he accepted Alessandro’s offer for a lift home.
And he knew, as his heart pressed painfully against his ribs, that some battles were lost more honourably than others. The trick was to count the dead and close the book; and tell yourself it would be better next time, and the time after, for however long it took.
Francesco forced Alessandro’s hips down against the backseat of the car, slowly working Alessandro’s cock into himself. He should’ve been more prepared, Francesco thought, with more than spit and a lubricated condom (made for a woman‘s pleasure, he should’ve just traded in his balls for a coquette’s giggle) found in Alessandro’s wallet.
The windows rattled piteously, slashed with damp streaks where clumsy hands grappled for space. Kisses from Alessandro burned a line down Francesco’s neck to a bleeding bite around his left nipple — but Alessandro shoved a hand against his mouth when he leaned down to return the mark with interest, eyes dark with more than lust.
Alessandro was still anonymous and hungry then, his fingers gouging bruises into Francesco’s thighs. He shoved Francesco back, ignoring the bitten-off snarl, and fucked Francesco with the raw intensity of a man in the midst of catharsis. Alessandro’s eyes were screwed shut, the muscles of his neck and shoulders agonisingly tense under Francesco’s wandering hands.
They’d left the engine running. Mick Jagger’s voice rose from the cassette deck, fighting against the wind to be heard. I can’t get no satisfaction, Jagger sang, and Francesco believed it, stroking himself desperately until a flare of white burst behind his eyes.
“Did you believe the club would be promoted back to Serie A so quickly?”
Francesco smiled, trying to force his words around the breathless knot in his chest. His hands trembled still, dotted with turf and sand. The last match of the season was always the hardest, but he felt he could run for days yet, perhaps even forever.
“We always had faith in our strength — and when it wasn’t enough, that our loyalty to each other will get us through trouble. But we are strong again now, a good team.”
The Dutch journalist narrowed her eyes and tapped a cheap, well-chewed pen against her notepad. Inquisitive. “Was Gronchi’s sacking and conviction — in your opinion — the main causes of the club’s fall? People I’ve talked to said you were too good to be relegated.”
“I want to meet these people of yours. I remember every newspaper saying otherwise two seasons ago.”
Francesco turned to hug Parri, who streaked by clad only in his underpants and incandescent joy. The journalist looked amused and not in the least put off by the interruption, so Francesco mentally shrugged and continued, “It’s unfair to blame one man for the troubles of an entire team, but for the trial to begin in the middle of the season– it was extremely difficult.”
“Hmm. And no further comment?”
He laughed. “Some other time, maybe.”
“Okay.” She raised her eyebrows. “Then: who was the best player this season?”
“Prochazka, of course. He’s a top-class striker, an excellent predator. Bonetti, also — his saves could have been pulled from Heaven itself.”
“You’re too intelligent to be a footballer,” Alessandro had said, three years into their affair. The bed creaked under his shifting weight as he turned over to look at the clock.
“I wasn’t born in England, Carrara.” Francesco shrugged against a mass of bedsheets, drawing patterns on the ceiling with his eyes. “Besides, I’m sleeping with you. That alone disqualifies me from Mensa.”
He closed his eyes and thought of chants roared over the acrid salt of the air, young men with desperate eyes rising to their feet on concrete stands. There too were the high fences around the pitch, through which he’d gripped congratulating or consoling fingers, and Salvatore Bonetti prowling at his back between the sticks — the steadiest presence Francesco had ever had in his life. He loved the feel of the ball bouncing in a perfect arc and enjoyed the peevish glare of a striker neatly dispossessed, and was honoured always at the grip of the captain’s armband around his left arm.
To give all that up? Madness. Better that he should cut off all his limbs, so he would never again feel the sand under his feet and the wind whistling past his ear as he ran — that was what it would be tantamount to, anyway.
Francesco opened his eyes. “By the way, I had sex with Hélène. After your divorce last year.”
“So?” The mattress dipped as Alessandro sat up and swung his feet out of bed. “Whom she takes to her bed is none of my business. Our relationship was over long before we signed the papers.”
Francesco rolled to his side to face Alessandro, winding the sheets around himself. “There’s still Sofia.”
“Don’t sound so scandalised. Sofia’s maintenance is a legal obligation. As for the rest– I send her presents every year and I will be at her wedding mass. What more could Hélène ask for?”
Alessandro’s voice took on a hard, ugly edge. “I detest this country’s obsession with families.”
It was horrifying, Francesco thought, how starved he was for Alessandro even as he watched the ugly Hyde inside surface — how beautiful Alessandro was, with his sharp eyes and a mouth Francesco wanted to sink into. It made Francesco’s stomach churn, how his body could curve around Alessandro’s without thought or plan, while another part of him raged to punch Alessandro in the face.
That’s not a bad idea.
Alessandro reeled from the punch with an instinctive bark of outrage, hands flying to his face as he tumbled to the floor.
“So you know,” Francesco began, wiping away the blood from his knuckles, “Sofia wants to be a scientist — a biochemist. I think she prefers girls, too, but that shouldn’t be problem with you.”
Alessandro’s eyes glared at Francesco over his fingers, pressed tightly against his swelling nose.
“You’re a hypocrite, Guerrazzi.”
He was trying not to laugh, truly, but the French presenter’s crush on Bonetti was so obvious it was a wonder the man hadn’t climbed onto Bonetti’s lap to be petted. Francesco relaxed into a boneless sprawl in his seat, a marvelous concoction of chrome and leather, and cheerfully ignored Bonetti’s glare.
“You’ve played in the same club for…?”
“This is our seventh year together,” Francesco said. “Bonetti was already there when I arrived — he’d just been made first-choice goalie.”
“And as soon as I saw Guerrazzi, I knew he was trouble. For the other team, most of the time.”
Bonetti was fighting to suppress a wide smile, so Francesco flicked a gracious eyebrow his way and spared him the trouble of speaking.
“I had a backline to marshall for his sake! We never had trouble communicating, Bonetti and I, but the others weren’t used to him yet.”
“Marino was a great goalkeeper,” Bonetti said, spreading his hands, “but we are very different. He was very calm, very expansive — a little like Guerrazzi. I shout, I berate defenders not on their game, I like to be in charge of my territory.”
“How did you two become friends?” The presenter’s gaze swung between them.
“I don’t know! Ask Bonetti.”
“Guerrazzi was always a hard worker–”
“–and I defer to the two years he has over me, like a good boy–”
“–and I like players who work to prove themselves every season. Guerrazzi is the kind who thinks that his best season is always the next one.”
“He was very irritated when the others started coming to him with questions about me, though.”
“Of course! Gossip, sometimes, like those pictures of him with that divorcee– don’t laugh, I had the worst time. And they were forever asking me what this strange man meant by dharma and that Arab he’s always quoting–”
“Khalil Gibran, Bonetti. You have a shelf full of taxonomy books, that’s even stranger.”
“Taxonomy?” Their host looked piqued.
“I like order,” Bonetti said. “God made the universe so everything has its place.”
“He labels everything,” Francesco interjected with a smile. “Not literally, of course. But Bonetti’s mind is like a library catalogue.”
“I’m practical, more of an engineer. My mother’s family has always been shipbuilders — it’s in my blood. Guerrazzi… he’s the philosopher.”
Francesco laughed. “If we lived in the age of the Medici family, I would be dreaming up tactics and improbable weapons — Bonetti would be the one to bring them to life.”
The presenter’s fawn-like eyes were entranced. “How did you two stay friends, with so many differences?”
“Our differences are just the skin we wear.” Francesco tilted his head towards Bonetti, ever so slightly. “On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur, l’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”
“I wanted you to be the first to hear.” Bonetti leaned over the café table, lowering his voice. “I’m retiring at the end of the season.”
“You’re only thirty-five now. Thirty-six by then.” The tips of Francesco’s fingers smeared ink across a small item in La Stampa, announcing Alessandro’s appointment as investigating magistrate. “That’s not old.”
“I’m no Oliver Kahn.” Bonetti’s smile was a touch self-depreciating, strange and out of place on the patrician cast of his face. “And you, I can see terrorising strikers for years.”
“Don’t be too sure. The bastards get younger and faster every year.”
“False modesty, very macho.”
“Take a swim with me, Tore. I promise you, the drowning will be quick.”
Bonetti laughed, deep and golden-hued. His gaze was cast over the Moletto shoreline, where hopeful surfers took a chance on the winter sea. Francesco watched the spiderweb lines at corners of Bonetti’s eyes, and allowed himself a quiet moment of grief.
The end of the season came with summer and tearful farewells, and a rueful smile from Bonetti’s anointed successor, the young man from Firenze who had good cause to be grateful for Bonetti’s timely departure. If the early days of Bonetti’s retirement were marred by the match-fixing scandal, he showed no sign of it when Francesco appeared with tickets to Berlin for the World Cup final — only grinned widely and wrapped Francesco in an affectionate hug.
He wasn’t, though, nearly as cheerful a few days and another country later. The Saturday before the final found them in Prenzlauerberg, thanks to the sheaf of print-outs (the text of which included, ominously, repeated use of the word “alternative”) Francesco refused to allow Bonetti to read.
“What’s this?” Bonetti stabbed at the multi-textured mass on his plate. “And where in God’s kingdom are we?”
“We’re in a street called Kastanienallee and your food is not poisonous,” Francesco said placidly. “It’s vegan.”
Bonetti chewed on a small bite and frowned. “It’s insipid.”
“Go watch the blondes and enjoy yourself, while I charm our surly waiter with my German and ask for cheese. If they attempt to kill us, head for the U-Bahn Eberswalder.”
“This, Franco, is why no one else wants to sit with you on the team bus. Gesu, what strange place will you drag me to next?”
“Stop blaspheming, you’ll shock your dear nonna.” Francesco smiled and moved the sprouts around on his lentil-walnut burger. “And you know I’m always home in the end.”
“Sometimes I think that with you, it’s like a drug habit.”
“Never mind, just a flight of fancy you’ve infected me with.” Bonetti sighed and bravely soldiered on with his summer vegetable medley. “I’m making this prediction for the final: we will win, tomorrow.”
“You’re very certain.”
Bonetti shrugged. “They have something to prove and pride to restore. So does the French, in a way, but we’ve built a machine that can’t be stopped.”
And as they stumbled away from the Olympiastadion the next night, deliriously ecstatic, Francesco remembered Bonetti’s words and giggled helplessly — in fits and starts, muffled against Bonetti’s shoulder.
“You’re mad!” Bonetti shouted over the babble around them.
It was a gross exaggeration: the shine in Bonetti’s eyes owed far more to much raw emotion than alcohol, for all that he’d been remarkably susceptible to scandalously-clad promoters in the beer tents. Bonetti laughed and cuffed him gently, the hand sliding down to curve around the side of Francesco’s face and pulling him closer.
Dawn was beginning to tint the city skies when they finally made it to their hotel room, shedding bits of streamers as they fell in a heap on Bonetti’s bed. Francesco tried to toe off his shoes without scratching the leather, eyed the mess stuck to the soles, groaned, and gave up.
“I’ve gone deaf from the fireworks,” Bonetti moaned, flinging his arms across his face. “I’m too old for this, let me go to my grave in peace.”
“That’s not what it looked like when you danced with every Italian in Charlottenburg.”
“‘s patriotic.” Bonetti sighed, muscles slackening with impending sleep. “Whazzatime…”
Francesco waited for Bonetti’s soft snores, then painfully pushed himself to his elbows. Their clothes were a wreck — God, do they make shirts in this cut anymore? — and Alessandro would probably set fire to any shoes of his that were in the same condition as theirs. Bonetti, at least, had the foresight and nationalistic fervour to wear an Azzurri t-shirt.
He wiped his cheek and stared at his hand. Not much of the painted tricolour left to clean, and there seemed to be a trace of lipstick mixed with it. Francesco decided to recollect the gaps in his memory later — whoever she was, he was sure she was beautiful.
Francesco fell back onto the bed and stretched, horrified to hear his own bones creaking. He was aging too, becoming old and twisted inside. Where the boundless vistas of time and earth once filled him with exultation, he had started to look for the solace of signposts.
Here there be dragons, there be where you know who you are. And, he admitted to himself, he’d felt more than a little resentment against Bonetti for uprooting one of the surest signposts in his life.
He rolled to his side, reaching over to move Bonetti’s arms to a more comfortable position. Francesco touched Bonetti’s cheek, feather-light — here was where Bonetti once fractured a cheekbone in a collision with a Lazio player. Bonetti was shaking with fury when they led him off the field for treatment, and he’d ripped into the substitute after the match for letting in “a soft shot any Serie D keeper could’ve saved.”
They’d gone off for a walk down the Terrazza Mascagni after Bonetti was discharged from hospital, with Bonetti scowling fiercely under the white bandage stuck to his face. Francesco was still young enough then to tap-dance his way across the diamond-shaped tiles, picking black and white tiles at random, until Bonetti yelled at him for dancing in a way mathematically devoid of aesthetics.
Francesco’s fingers traced the line of Bonetti’s nose, his brows, his jawline, the curls where his hair was growing out. Francesco pressed his lips together and breathed out, slowly.
Perhaps a younger Francesco would have taken a chance and stolen a kiss. Most likely not: he’d always known that violations of trust were unforgivable, even when committed where no one would ever know.
He closed his eyes and tried to listen for Bonetti’s heartbeat. “My mother killed my father, and I love you. I wanted you to be the first to hear.”
“… Some players go where the money and glory are — I go where I am home, and defend it with pride.”
“What made you decide, then, that this season was going to be your last?”
“I stopped believing I can be better next season.” Francesco folded his hands in his lap. “It is time to go, I feel, when you don’t have that kind of drive any longer.”
Only a few people were out on the Terrazza Mascagni this early in the morning, walking their dogs or having a quiet stroll, but Alessandro checked for any potential danger out of habit. He wouldn’t normally agree to this ridiculous rigamole — their affair had long settled into undemanding embers — but Francesco’s message on his mobile phone sounded singularly peculiar, even for someone of Francesco’s eccentric nature.
He found Francesco at one of the graffitti-stained benches, playing a game of Jacks with a little ragged boy. Coins caught the light as they flipped in the air, tinkling brightly when they fell onto concrete instead of outstretched hands.
Francesco looked up at his approach and smiled, then handed the coins to the boy — who whooped with delight and ran off with his ill-gotten gains. Alessandro eyed Francesco up and down, noting the rumpled suit, the jacket tossed carelessly to the side.
“You shouldn’t encourage those sorts, you know,” Alessandro said, sparing a glare at the boy’s rapidly receding back.
Francesco gave him a look he recognised as half-exasperated, half-amused. “He’s saving up to buy a football jersey.”
“Well, that explains everything. You’re irredeemably sentimental.” At Francesco’s rapidly climbing eyebrows, Alessandro switched tactics. “I take it the farewell went well.”
“There was a lot of crying,” Francesco mused. “I’ve never seen David cry before — he was always the stoic one.”
Alessandro let out a breath and sat next to Francesco. “I don’t understand why you asked to meet me here.”
“There is a café I like very much here, and we should have its excellent coffee together before I–”
“Before you what?”
“Before I leave. I’ll be going away for a long time, Alessandro.”
“This is… quite sudden.”
“I’ve been thinking for a long time. Months.” The curve of Francesco’s lips held a hint of mischievous elusiveness, the kind that once immediately attracted Alessandro to him. “From the day I made up my mind to retire.”
You could have just knocked on my door and told me all this, Alessandro wanted to say, but refrained. “What will you do?”
“Bonetti wants to sail around the Mediterranean. Communing with the blood of his ancestors, I think, but of course he would never put it so colourfully.”
“Francesco, you don’t know anything about sailing.”
“So you assume.” Francesco grinned, waving off Alessandro’s skepticism with a flourish. “Besides, I’m there to make sure he gets into as much trouble as possible.”
Alessandro sighed, already imagining the calls for legal intervention. “You never change.”
A soft laugh answered his words, the sound tapering off into a smiling silence, something hopeful fluttering underneath. Something new. Francesco’s eyes were shockingly blue, as true and endless as the sky above the Ligurian Sea.
A trick of the light, Alessandro told himself.