I can’t tell them I was there

To my kids.  Driving along the streets of The Bronx, stopped at a light on a busy boulevard, he will say to them, ‘See that building, it was my Junior High!  See the big window, all the way on the right? That was the gym, at least then,picture don’t know about now…’  And then the corner deli comes up, and he’ll say ‘Got some of the best heroes there, that tangy dressing they used, God knows what was in it, but it sure tasted great when I was famished after school…’.  And up there, third floor, was where they all lived with his grandmother until he was four, tiny apartment, he still remembers her sitting there, fiercely knitting a crooked beige scarf he would have to wear, period.

But I can’t.  I can’t tell them I was there.  Because I wasn’t there, on these streets, or in that town ten-fifteen miles away, even in Jersey or Rhode Island, orthe East Coast.  Or the country.  Slowly walking to my Liceo, on Via Libertà, long and uphill, in Portici, Italy, frenzied with traffic and lined with small shops, gas stations, cafés and newsstands, a lifetime away, so far beyond these walls, children of mine, beyond the ‘big pond’, where they speak another language which you don’t really understand.  I can’t say, look, here’s my high school, now a medical facility, but in that yard/now parking lot I didpicture gym sometimes, and all the class photos were taken there.  The Tennis Club, the legendary hangout of my adolescence, there, the entrance on the left, the rusty gate (see the sign?), the dusty red earth of the courts that haven’t changed one bit, the high wall at the end, my shadow still hovers there, quivering under the June moonlight…No, you don’t know about it, because I was there when none of this life existed for me, and now it’s too distant to see.  I can’t take you to the pizzeria where they sold it by the meter, where I pretend-smoked chocolate cigarettes at the table with your aunt and uncle, while our parents chatted – relaxed for once – their reciprocal belligerent inclinations tamed by the local red.  I can’t because it’s before your history, sunk in the well of my long ago, almost an illusion, a faded reality, a backwards path of bitter tears and tender aches. And so I find myself catching my breath (my heart pounding itself to a million bits), when I watch a fictional program on RAI Italia, and the image of the Università Orientale‘s front entrance fills the screen, my fragile emotions stirred and torn and trampled, and I call my kids (urgently!), ‘Come! This is my university in Naples!  I was there!’  Even if you can’t touch it.  They smile and nod.  But do they understand?  My youthful days live on only in my tormented mind, with no connection to the present because it can’t be visualized by anyone else but me.  Accidental pilgrim in the land of fleeting dreams, dragging my burden of pictureagonies that forever will define my nature.  No, I can’t tell them I was there, I can’t point, I can’t – just barely – recognize faces in the crowd, because my faces never grew up.  Hence, I will carry on with my bittersweet load of unshareable memories, always to remain the unwilling secrets of my heart.

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