Arts & Writing Short Fiction

Rotten Roots

The first time Dan told me he would kill himself, he was at the top of a flight of stairs, looking down at me...

The first time Dan told me he would kill himself, he was at the top of a flight of stairs, looking down at me. I was standing at the bottom with my arms outstretched. As if I could save him. The reason behind this madness was that I had spent the night at a birthday party talking to a guy whose name I don’t even remember, while Dan was out in Camden Town with a girl he liked back in high school. When he came back to the university campus he couldn’t find me, and, after thirty-seven calls that I didn’t take because I had accidentally put my phone on silent, he decided to send a message:

If you don’t pick up, I will kill myself.  

Back then, our relationship was still on my terms, because he had never had one, and I felt happier when I was in control. Never would I have thought that in such a short time he could not only re-establish our love story in his own design, but also change the way I saw the world and myself, make me feel worthless.

A relationship between two lovers is like two trees sharing one root. If the root is rotten, both will die.

Villa Giulia, Dan’s family holiday home, has stonework facades, frescoed corridors, creaky old floors and a lucky, lonely pine. As I draw the heavy curtains that suffocate one of the villa’s bedrooms, I look for the pine, dark and brooding. It stands in the middle of the gold and violet hues of the summer evening that colour the sky like crowns around the smooth hilltops of Tuscany. Next to the pine, there is an old barn with a long, flagstone roof and ivy-covered walls. The brightly-lit windows look like eyes in the late sunlight, watching the plain that stretches in front of them and then gradually merges into the sea.

From up here, I can listen to the faint noises of Dan’s family chatting and dining in the fading heat. Like most nights, Dan and I are inside, arguing about nothing. The glass bowls of peach and whipped cream we were eating have been left aside on the nightstand, and the cream melted.

“You’re not listening to me,” I say, staring outside the window.

“I am.” Dan is behind me, pacing the room, occasionally raising his voice to a hysterical whine.

My hands are shaking. I need to be by myself, but he won’t let me. He never does. Sometimes, he even comes in when I hide into the shower, crying under the water so hot that my fingers turn purple.

“I am listening,” he repeats, tugging at the sleeve of my white cotton dress.

I breathe in. I remember the first time Dan brought me to the Villa two years ago: we were driving in the sunset with the windows down, listening to ‘Five Years’ Time’ by Noah and the Whale. Fields of sunflowers were all around us, and the village of Montepulciano, with its cream and brown houses and the old bell tower, was visible in the distance. When we arrived at the Villa, no one was there, so we dived into the swimming pool with our clothes on and swam and played in the water until the sky was filled with stars.

 “We should go back outside,” I say.

“But I am listening!” He hits one bowl, which falls onto the floor and shatters. He stares at the shards and melted cream spreading on the carpet, then at me with wide-open eyes: “What have you done?”

“It’s okay,” I say. “I can call Teresa to clean.”

“No!” he shouts, his cheeks red.

“I’ll clean it then,” I say. As I collect the shards of glass, I cut myself. Blood flows into the lines of my palm, but I tighten my grip and hide it, because it would only make Dan madder. When I have thrown all the shards away in the bathroom bin and dried the carpet with a hairdryer, I wrap my hand with a bandage I take from the nightstand. Dan pretends not to notice.

When we finally walk outside, towards the large table that overlooks the olive grove, Caleb, Dan’s father, and his sisters Catherine and Harper have already finished eating their share of the antipasti.  

“Danny! Here you are!” Catherine says, smiling at Dan and inviting him to sit next to her. Her hair is the colour of wheat and looks soft. She has Dan’s brown, sweet eyes and also walks like him, on the tips of her toes.

On the white-lace tablecloth are arranged plates half-filled with cured meat, slices of buffalo mozzarella, stuffed peppers and olive bread. I fill my plate with ham and bruschetta, while Teresa, the main housekeeper of the Villa, comes into the dining room from the kitchen, a pot filled with pesto pasta in her wrinkled hands. She speaks with a strong accent from Tuscany and cooks the best ragù I’ve ever had. She immediately notices my bandaged hand, as I tuck a wavy strand of hair behind my ear.

Signorina!” she says placing the pot on the table and running towards me, “You need antiseptic!”

Teresa has grown affectionate towards me because I always spend time with her in the garden when she is doing the laundry. I love the fresh smell of clothes hanging to dry in the sunlight, when on summer days long dresses and shirts flap in the breeze like the wings of a swan.

“What happened to you, honey?” Catherine asks. She always calls me “dear”, “honey” or “sweetheart” even though I know she doesn’t like me. Dan’s cheeks go red and he kicks my leg under the table. I feel the need to slap his face.

“It’s nothing. I dropped a cup on the floor upstairs and, as I was cleaning, I cut myself.”

“You should’ve told me, signorina! I would have cleaned it,” Teresa says.

“It was my fault Teresa, I took care of it.” I smile at her, while Caleb starts talking about a friend’s photography exhibition at the Tate Modern. Outside, the sky is painted with infinite shades of blue. My hand is throbbing with pain. Dan always studies my reaction to what others say. My eyes linger on his freckles, his dark blonde curls, his sunburnt shoulders. I have learnt that beneath these looks there is someone else, a face of shadows with a mouth open crying for help, dragging all those who answer into its darkness.

Unhappiness is like a virus, spreading through my veins. I conceal it, I lie. When my mum calls, I say that “I’m great,” because if I say I am only “okay” she will become suspicious.

“And how is Dan?” she asks.

“Couldn’t be happier,” I reply.

She adores my boyfriend. She thinks he has a good soul, and I can’t blame her: this is the impression that he makes on everyone. Once, when he was staying at my parents’ place in the countryside around Rome, she combed his curls as if he was her own son. Sometimes I would like to tell her everything, to seek help. But I never do because, for some reason, since I’ve been with Dan, it is as if I had become exactly the person she wanted me to be: sweeter, less cynical, more capable of loving someone tenderly. Which is true, but what is also true is that this sweetness, this love is draining me. No child should ever be exactly what a mother expects.

I spend the days at the Villa thinking about that time I almost broke up with Dan, on a snowy day of December, when he smashed his new IPhone against the wall of my bedroom. He threw himself on the floor and cried for hours. “I can’t,” he repeated like a busted radio. Can’t what? I wanted to ask, but knew the answer: he cannot live without me. I should have left him then, but I picked his phone from the floor and tried to fix the screen instead.

Sometimes, when he is sitting on one of the pale green couches of the living room of the Villa, staring at the endless hills that stretch beyond the horizon, I sit next to him and make some remarks about historical or political events he knows nothing about. I do it on purpose, so I can tell him that I notice he doesn’t read anything, no newspaper, no books, nothing.

“I find it hard to focus,” he replies, a hurt and surprised look on his face. He always looks that way when I say something mean. “I can be mean, I can be fucking terrible, I hate you!” I want to shout, but I just stand up and leave the room.

One morning I walk to the olive grove, the earth dry and silent beneath my feet. I can hear the rattling coming from the kitchen, the laughs of Catherine and Harper, the gardener’s shears polishing the roses around the pool. I think about all the reasons why I haven’t broken up with Dan, even though I have thought about it so many times I have lost count. When I loved him, I often pictured our future together, and it was as clear as the summer sky. Now, the love is gone, he has made sure of that, but the image of that future is etched onto my body like a scar. I stay for a past that does not exist anymore, and for future that will never be.

I take my shoes off and my feet grow dirty against the earth. Somehow, he finds me. His steps make a suffocated sound; his face is dizzy. He tries to kiss me, but I turn my head and stare at my dirty feet. In my mind, I go through the list of things I want to tell him.

But all I manage to say is: “I am not happy.”

“Why?” he asks.

How stupid, how insensitive he can be sometimes.

“Because this relationship is toxic.”

This is an undeniable truth, but he is good at denying undeniable truths.

“I love you. Don’t you love me?” He stares at me like a baby staring at his mother, waiting for a toy.

“Yes, but can’t you see we fight and hurt each other all the time?”

As soon as I pronounce these words, I know I have made a mistake. His face has changed at my “yes”, and he is smiling now. He hasn’t listened to anything that came after. He tries to kiss me again, and this time I give in.

Weeks go by, and every day is the same at the Villa. We wake up late to the smell of coffee and pistachio and cream croissants. The table is always set in the dining room, silver cutlery aligned, a wicker basket full of nut loaves in the centre. Teresa makes me try the jams she makes with apricots and figs.

“You eat so much signorina and you are so skinny!” She laughs, cleaning her hands into her stained apron. Then I hear her talking on the phone with Dan’s family: “Emma is a kind young lady, and you should see her with Danny! She is caring, just like he needs.”

We spend the afternoons at the pool, napping under the sun. I try to read as much as I can and then tell all the stories to Dan: the beautiful descriptions in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the allegory of The Lord of the Flies. When I understand that he doesn’t really listen, I hide in my books again, defeated.

There is a giant room at the end of the barn that Caleb uses as a painting studio. Dan takes me there one evening before dinner. It is dark, and a cloak of smoke lingers in the air.

“Watch your steps,” Dan says.

 I look down and see dozens of clay sculptures spread among square pieces of paper covered in thick paint.

“He creates different compositions with the papers,” Dan explains. “And with the statuettes as well.”

In most of the paintings there is the same sad face, but outlined from different angles. It is Dan’s.

He kisses my neck from behind, and I startle.

“What are you thinking about?” He asks.

“I like this place.”

“I knew you would.” He leans against my back and, today, I don’t want to run. In moments like this, I want nothing but him. He has soft, curly hair. He laughs at my jokes. His fingers are long, his hands warm. He loves me.

When Dan and I met, I was dating an older guy who worked at J.P. Morgan. He was half Greek and half French and always took me to dinner at the fanciest places. “You make me crazy,” he repeated all the time. He had full, soft lips and spoke five languages. One night, as I was waiting for him to pick me up in a black lace dress and heels, he sent me a text. “Still at the office, won’t make it tonight,” it said. Annoyed, I got rid of my heels and went to a flat party on campus, where everyone was too drunk to realise I was overdressed. Dan was there, looking too young to be drinking the gin and tonic he had in his hands, too innocent for the smell of weed that permeated the flat. He looked at me as if I were some kind of angel, fallen there to take care of him.

I kissed him outside the flat, my hands cold, my back against the brick wall. When we went to my room, I put on some piano music and we lay on the floor, distant from each other. He told me that his mother died when he was too little to remember her, and I told him that I was a ballerina. From his gaze, I could tell he wanted me to dance but was too shy to ask.

“Do you want to see?” I asked. He nodded. His smile was pure and confident. He doesn’t know what malice is, I thought, he doesn’t want to control me like any of those older boys. I danced for him and the Greek-French guy was quickly forgotten.

When I leave Villa Giulia and go back to my parents’, I start having sudden, shooting pains in my stomach and I don’t sleep at night: I stare at the ceiling, my heart beating too fast, thinking about all the life that I am wasting. While I am up all night in pain, working on my never-ending essays, I also prepare Dan’s presentations and help him with his exams. And I think that there’s something wrong here, something unfair.

As soon as high fever accompanies the stomach pains my mum takes me to the hospital. The doctor is a chubby man with a severe face who keeps asking questions about my past health and my daily diet. At the end of the visit, he asks my mother if he can speak to me alone. I remain seated, hearing the door closing behind me. He looks for my gaze.

“Emma, some people bottle up their feelings and have them come out as physical pain.”

He waits and, when I don’t say anything, he continues: “You are going through a situation of extreme stress. Is that right?”

I nod, as I stare at a photograph of the doctor and his family framed on the desk. How did I get here? I feel ashamed of myself.

“I think you should see a psychologist,” he says.

Doctor’s appointments, endless tests, panic attacks follow one another. The hospital walls are always too white, the people always too cold. When the doctor tells me that I “might have to go through an operation,” I try to keep calm but then cry in the bathroom of the hospital.

Panic hits me at night, when I am too tired to be reasonable but too anxious to sleep. I empty my drawers like a madwoman, throwing everything on the floor, then fold each item again carefully when I feel calmer. My mum stays with me all the time but doesn’t understand that Dan’s the cause behind my illness. Every morning she makes me breakfast: bread and jam with a glass of hot almond milk. I stare at the milk and, when she is gone, I pour it into the kitchen sink.

One morning, after months, I leave the bed after yet another sleepless night and I know I am ready to break up with him. He is away, preparing his exams in London, and I am back home. I lock myself into the bathroom while my father is making breakfast downstairs and I stare into the toilet throat. I feel sick. I type Dan’s number and call. He replies straight away.

“Danny,” I say.

He starts talking about his last exam with enthusiasm, and then about the one he is preparing. He doesn’t ask me how I am.

“Will you help me with this exam as well?” His tone of voice is the one he uses every time he asks a favour; no one ever says no.

 “No,” I say.

There is silence between us for a moment.

“But…” his tone becomes whiny.

“We are not going to see each other for a while.”

“You know I am doing my exams.”

“You know I spend most of my time in the hospital.”

He ignores me, he doesn’t understand it’s his fault: “I can’t live without you.”

I could reply: “You can”, as I have done many times before, but he wouldn’t listen to me. I can hear the panic rising in his voice, the fear, the madness that takes hold of him whenever I try to walk away. I can’t help but thinking that he needs me, he is lost without me. After all, the love he has given me does not have any conditions or restraints but only assurances. Only parents can love you like that, because they do not choose you and so they cannot un-choose you. Will I ever find someone else who loves me in this way? I look at the worn out toothbrush on the bathroom sink.

“Goodbye Danny,” I say before hanging up.

Without thinking I grab the toothbrush, throw it into the toilet and flush. When it doesn’t go down, I start having a panic attack. The calls of my parents – “breakfast is ready” – seem far away, the blue towels become shadows. When my father knocks on the door, first hesitantly then insistently, I don’t answer.

When the panic stops, there is silence. I brush my hair and apply some lipstick, covering the cracks on my lips. I open the window until the room is filled with the scents of spring: fresh grass and poppies. I walk down the stairs, my parents are sitting at the kitchen table in silence, their breakfast untouched. I sip some milk from my glass and take a slice of bread; the jam is sticky on my fingers.

“I am going for a walk,” I say. I must look awful: my mother is staring at me with wide-open eyes and my father plays with the tablecloth, almost embarrassed.

“Emma…,” my mother says.

“All I ever wanted to do was to make you proud,” I say quietly.

My mum’s eyes fill with tears.

“All I ever wanted was for you to be happy,” her voice is broken but loud. She can be firm even now.

“I will be happy, I just got lost for a while.”

 I leave the house and walk until the village is far behind me, and the countryside shimmers in the morning light around me. Half-dried puddles, crimson cherries, fences warmed by the sun. Birds leave their nest, their wings sharp against the bluest sky. I end up in a cornfield: the green and yellow stretch for miles forming lines that never meet. I used to come here with my parents to play hide and seek, when I was as tall as my father’s knees. My dad would catch me lying low under the corn and would pretend I was invisible. Then my mum would pick me up from behind and tickle me. I sit on the ground and, for the first time after months, when I close my eyes I am not afraid of myself.

They say that in cases of trees of the same species growing close, when one dies, the other often dies soon afterward, because they are dependent on each other. Dan and me were not considerate in sharing the sunlight, but, somehow, I managed to cut the root that kept us together without falling apart.

Dan will call me many times, on my cellphone, on my mum’s, on my friends’. He will call at my father’s office, he will message me on Facebook and on Instagram. I won’t reply for months. Then, one day, I will be driving in the sunset with someone else, someone who makes me feel happy and light and, when Dan calls, I will answer. He will ask me how I am. I will stare out of the window at the purple light and I will reply: “I am fine.”

About the author

Costanza Casati is a writer and screenwriter. After completing her Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick, she currently works as a freelancer journalist for the Canadian magazine HOLR and as a screenwriter for Erminio Perocco’s feature-length documentary about the 16th century Venetian painter Tintoretto. The first chapter of her historical novel has been published in Manifest: New Writing from Warwick and her short film Sguardi is available on Youtube.

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