Two Lanes to Nowhere
By Chelsea Graham
Elena dreamed she was on a wide road, its surface perfectly smooth. It cut through tall fields of grass without a single bend. There were no apartment buildings, no cars honking. She soared straight forward.
Gianmarco screamed. Elena opened her eyes and stared up at the empty top bunk. She put on the too-small pink slippers she’d been given on her 12th birthday. They were faded now, the letters that once spelled principessa peeled away. She went into the hallway. There was no sound coming from Mamma’s bedroom. Elena didn’t want to know whether or not she was in there. She didn’t want to imagine her with one of the big bellied men with their soft sweaty hands.
Gianmarco was asleep on the brown and yellow couch that had been Nonna’s. He wasn’t screaming anymore, but he ground his teeth. His mouth sounded like there were bones breaking inside it.
He’s like sleeping beauty, she told herself. He just needs someone to wake him up. She shook him over and over. She wanted to say “I love you,” but she said his name instead.
When they were little, Gianmarco would chase her around the living room until Mamma sent them out into the garden. Papà would announce their play fights like a sports match.
“Elena slips the guard of Gianmarco…it seems that the underdog might win today folks!”
Papà would come home from work exhausted and covered in grease, but when she and Gianmarco crawled all over him he would laugh and call them his little monkeys. Mamma would smoke in the kitchen. She looked tired, but the neon polish on her nails was never chipped. Sometimes she would even smile. Mamma had been so proud when Gianmarco first wore his uniform. Elena thought he looked a lot like Papà. That was when he started sleeping on the couch, because Mamma said he was too old to sleep in their room. But not long after he left the top bunk he went away completely.
Gianmarco was still asleep. He bared his teeth like a mean dog.
“Gianmarco,” she whispered, and leaned in to shake him harder.
His body quivered and an arm shot toward her. There was an explosion of hurt in her face, her lips, and she could taste blood, salty iron in her mouth. Gianmarco’s eyes opened. He stared straight at her, his eyes big. He held a cool washcloth on her mouth, telling her he was sorry over and over. She stared at the scar on his arm. She knew the others, the one on his right knuckle from a piece of broken glass, the one on his left temple from a football match. This one was different. It stood out from his arm like a mountain range.
“Did I wake Mamma?” Gianmarco asked.
Elena shook her head and stared at the floor. There was a chip in the blue tiles, and a clump of grey dirt she’d missed sweeping. Two of Gianmarco’s socks were there, limp and abandoned.
She wondered whether he had noticed that Mamma was hardly ever home. She wondered what he would say if he saw the gifts, the brand new microwaves and the expensive purses, the bracelets Mamma took to the guy that bought gold.
Gianmarco didn’t know that she got sent home from school for fighting. After that, Mamma said she could go to school in Cavour, like he had. Elena hoped he would never find out that when Bianca called her a whore’s daughter she had punched her in the face. She did want to tell him that it surprised her how much punching someone hurt her hand. Sometimes Bianca’s words came back to her. But Elena knew what prostitutes looked like. They stood on the street wearing short skirts and clear plastic heels. Her mother worked in a nail salon.
“I’m really sorry, Elena,” Gianmarco said again, and his eyes were so shiny that she hugged him.
At five Elena woke up again to get ready for school. She slipped on the too-small pink slippers and shuffled into the kitchen. She pulled up the blinds to let some light in while she spooned coffee from the package into the moka. While it heated on the stove she went to the bathroom. The lip was swollen. She put on Mamma’s lipstick to cover the crack and made pouty faces at herself. She kissed the mirror, leaving behind a big lipstick shape, then she wiped it clean.
When the coffee was ready, she sat in front of the computer, dipping stale biscuits into her mug. She would sometimes find Gianmarco on the computer when she came back from school. He got up so quickly when she came in it made her feel a suspicious. Maybe he was looking at porn. Finally, she checked the browser history. She just hoped it wasn’t the embarrassing kind she’d heard about, the Japanese ones with tentacles.
But all she found were websites and articles and videos in English about the war. It was like there was finally a window into what he dreamed at night, the things he’d seen. In her mind the war took place in a big expanse of desert, long and golden like the one in Aladdin. But the articles he read were about cities, battles and raids and bombings in markets. There were pictures of broken buildings and burnt up cars, articles about troops building bridges and moving from one place to another.
Once she’d finished her coffee, she put on her favorite shoes, the Converse Gianmarco got her the Christmas before he left. They were a little small, and starting to fall apart, but she couldn’t go to school in the fake Adidas Mamma bought her.
Gianmarco was sleeping quietly when she went out the door. She walked to the bus stop watching the sun come up. She liked the way the world looked covered in gold. Even Via di Tor Bella Monaca looked pretty, all the weeds illuminated so you couldn’t see the wrappers and plastic bags tangled inside of them.
This early in the morning there weren’t many people at the bus stop. Another kid, older than her, wore a crisp button-up shirt. A woman’s bleached hair was such a bright blond it reflected the sunshine like a fluorescent light. Twenty minutes passed before the 507 roared up. She liked feeling she had the power to stop a bus with just an outstretched arm. A man with red eyes and rumpled clothes stumbled off. His eyes lurched over her and she looked down, as she climbed on.
The bus was almost empty, so she slid into her favorite seat, the one that faced backwards so she could pretend she was anywhere. Paris, Barcelona, Beirut. She got on the metro in Anagnina, switched at Termini. The best part of the day was when she emerged from underground, like coming out of a dark cave to find a brand new world. There was ivy cascading on the buildings, piazzas carved from marble, cobblestone streets, the Coliseum. When they were little, she and Gianmarco would beg Papà to take them to the center to see it. It had seemed a world away.
Some days she hung out before class with Matteo and Francesca, Lucia, Marco and Marcello. They would sit on the wall with their backs to the Coliseum and talk about music or who was going out with whom. She wished Matteo would notice her so badly her stomach hurt. She felt small and boring next to Lucia, with her Doc Martens and the jean jacket she’d covered with patches, Francesca with straight hair dyed red. Sometimes when Matteo took her homework to copy it, his hand would brush hers, and her insides did a little dance.
“I like your makeup,” Francesca said. Elena was glad she didn’t noticed the cracked lower lip.
“She’s learning,” Lucia said, laughing, and her short curls bounced like a girl from a hair ad. “Our sweet baby from Tor Bella. Look, she doesn’t even carry her backpack on both shoulders anymore!”
Lessons were the easiest part of school. Her favorite was English, where she imagined herself hailing a cab in New York City or drinking a pint in London. Signora Messina’s hair was bottle blond, but you could always see the black peering out at the roots. Whenever she left the room Francesca would make fun of her with a fake British accent.
“She wants to be Briiiitish,” Francesca snickered.
“She could at least have the decency to do her eyebrows, too,” Lucia said.
But Elena could understand the desire to be someone else, anywhere else.
After class she got back on the metro. This time she emerged aboveground in Anagnina, the market crowded with batteries and stolen clothes. When the 507 roared up it was packed with people. Old women used their oversized purses like battering rams. Men crowded against her, their bodies big and hard against hers. She folded up small, wrapped her arms tight around her.
The bus dropped her near home, where the spaces were wide open, the roads cracked and pitted, winding into small sad clumps of apartment buildings and parking lots, empty except the plastic bags flopping around like tumbleweeds in a western movie. She passed the pile of shiny black ashes where there had been a burnt out car until they dragged it away. It had looked like the rotting carcass of some enormous animal.
The tall apartment buildings towered over everything. Grandma always called them “that god forsaken graveyard they built next door”. Elena had never known a time that they weren’t there. The only color came from the laundry flapping from hundreds of windows, red shirts against grey cement.
Sometimes she would meet Jessica and Daniela in the park like when she went to school there. They would smoke cigarettes, dodging dog poop and the occasional syringe. Now other girls came too. They wore tennis shoes with wedge heels and shirts that showed their bellies even in winter. More and more there were boys, who would disappear with the girls in couples, hiding behind the trees to make out.
Once she let Tommaso kiss her, even though she thought the designs shaved into the side of his head were pretty stupid. His lips were sticky. She thought she should like it, but all she could feel was his tongue crawling around her mouth as if he was trying to examine her molars. She left as soon as his hand started creeping into her shirt. After that he told everyone she was stuck up, now she was going to school in the city center. It wasn’t that, but it was true that she preferred Matteo, with his shaggy hair and and Vans tennis shoes and tight black jeans.
At home the one-eared black cat that belonged to their elderly neighbor was lounging outside. He watched her with eyes squinted against the sun. Gianmarco was on the couch, staring blankly at the wall. He reminded her of Papà. It was weird they talked about “losing” your job, like it was something that could just disappear, like a glove you misplaced, leaving the other one lonely and purposeless. She sat next to Gianmarco and turned on the TV.
After a while Gianmarco finally seemed to notice her.
“How was school?” He asked.
She shrugged. “It was ok.”
“You like Cavour?”
She shrugged again. “Did you like it there?”
“It’s better than here,” Gianmarco said “Felt lucky to go to the center, even if it’s a pain sometimes, going that far.”
“Now go study,” he said, and gave her a little push. “I need a brilliant scientist for a sister.”
She couldn’t focus, looked instead at blogs with pictures of girls with tattoos and shaggy haircuts, cool leather jackets and shiny combat boots. Sometimes she’d print one in fading black and white ink and paste it up on the wall beside the postcard of Piccadilly Circus, the picture of her and Gianmarco with their parents on the beach in Ostia, the collection of flyers from concerts she’d never gone to.
She checked the search history to see what Gianmarco had looked at when she wasn’t there. One article had a picture of a small shape, bloody and charred that made her sick when she realized it was a child.
On Sunday morning she woke up feeling lazy, like the one-eared black cat in the sun. She hadn’t heard Gianmarco all night. She went to the kitchen to make coffee, and saw that he was still sitting on the couch in the same clothes as the night before. He looked like he hadn’t moved at all. She brought some coffee to him and sat cross-legged on the couch, slippers falling off her feet. He sat there staring at the wall. He held his cigarette just like Papà did.
“Let’s make Sunday lunch,” she said.
Gianmarco shrugged as if he didn’t much care, but Elena was determined. She remembered the big Sunday lunches they would eat when Grandma was alive, mountains of amatriciana and big plates full of polpettone. She knocked on Mamma’s door. Her mother peered around it, looking annoyed, wearing the black lace nightgown with a hole in it. Her hair was tangled around her face. There was a shape in the bed behind her.
“We’re cooking lunch. Do you want to eat?”
“I’m not giving you any money.”
“It’s fine,” Elena told her. “We’ll use what’s in the fridge.”
“Alright. We’ll eat,” her mother said, and slammed the door.
Elena hunted for ingredients in the refrigerator while Gianmarco watched. There was no pecorino cheese but there was parmigiano. The pasta was the cheap kind that turned to glue in the water, but at least there were some little blue packages with pancetta inside.
The kitchen was too small for two people, so she and Gianmarco kept bumping into one another as they cooked. When the pasta water boiled over Gianmarco smiled, and when they drained it and pieces flew everywhere he threw one at her. It splatted against the floor and they laughed and laughed at the sound.
Elena put on a dress and called Mamma to come for lunch. Gianmarco had set the table like they used to, with real plates instead of plastic ones. He even found an old tablecloth with flowers on it. It smelled a bit like mildew but it was nice anyways.
Mamma came out of her bedroom, followed by a fat man with a few black hairs plastered across the top of his head. He wore a wrinkled black shirt unbuttoned to show a gold chain twined into his grey chest hair. Mamma didn’t introduce him and he didn’t introduce himself. Gianmarco spooned pasta onto the plates without saying anything.
“It’s very good,” the man said with his mouth full. There was sauce on his chin.
“You used the wrong cheese,” Mamma said, and picked the stale bread into pieces. Elena wondered how someone who worked in a nail salon could have fingernails like that, the paint peeling and chipping, the edges broken and torn.
Elena went to get the polpettone, which had crumbled when they tried to cut it. As she came in with the plate the man looked her over slowly, as if there was something he was trying to find on her body. She realized how bare her legs were, how short this dress had become. She set the plate down on the table. The man’s eyes felt like grease on her skin.
“Beautiful women must run in the family,” he said.
Gianmarco got up. His chair fell over with a crash. Mamma screamed. Gianmarco was behind the man with his arms wrapped around his neck. The man’s eyes bulged and his face turned red like a tomato. His fat fingers grabbed at Gianmarco’s arms, but her brother didn’t move, his eyes still and empty.
Elena had seen that anger in movies, read about it in books. This was what happened when men came back from war. They were still killers. She remembered the broken bodies in his articles. She walked over to Gianmarco slowly, and put her hand on his arm. The man’s face was turning purple and his arms dangled like limp spaghetti. Gianmarco seemed to look straight through her, but then his arms relaxed. The man stumbled forward as Gianmarco let go.
“Get out,” he said.
The man rushed out. The door slammed behind him. Elena locked it shut. Mamma was crying and Gianmarco was screaming.
“How dare you bring your shit here? You want to run around with every married man in the neighborhood, that’s your business. But how can you let them near her?”
Mamma was still crying when Elena went to her bedroom, feeling her own tears rising up bigger than she was. Then Gianmarco came in and wrapped his arms around her.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Was it like this the whole time I was gone?”
Then Mamma was there. “Get the hell out of her room,” she shouted. “She’s a woman now, don’t act like she’s a child.”
Gianmarco crashed out of the room. Mamma followed him. She could hear them shouting in the hallway, Gianmarco’s voice low and angry.
“How else do you think could I pay the damn bills?” Mamma screamed.
There was a crash like something breaking, and then the door slammed. She didn’t remember the last time Gianmarco left and wondered where he would go, what he would do. She buried her head under the pillow and cried.
The next day the man came back. He stood in front of the house with four kids, who cracked their knuckles and shifted their weight around, trying to look grim. They all wore black, like they had planned their outfits.
“Lock the door,” Gianmarco said as he walked out.
Elena crouched behind the window, peeking out. She couldn’t see what was happening, just the shapes of the boys, the fat man speaking at him from far away.
Gianmarco’s voice carried the clearest.
“What do you want?”
Elena wanted to scream, to cry. They want you! She wanted to shout. She wanted to run out there, to save him, but she was too scared.
One of the boys came toward Gianmarco. There was a cracking sound, and the boy was on the ground. Elena could hear him screaming. Another one ran forward and there were more thudding sounds and then all the boys were yelling and running at Gianmarco and they had surrounded him. Elena pulled open the door. She walked down the front steps toward them.
“Look who it is,” the man said. His face was twisted, dark and he looked at her with those eyes that made her feel naked. The boys stopped. Gianmarco was on the ground, surrounded. He got to his feet. There was blood on his face.
Elena walked toward them. The wind blew the thin fabric of her nightgown around her thighs. She wasn’t wearing a bra.
“Nice little sister,” one of the guys said.
“I’d take her if the mom is too busy,” another one said. They all laughed.
Elena came up to Gianmarco. “Come back inside,” she said softly.
The guys laughed harder.
“Guess he’s had enough,” said the man. “Let him go back with his sweet little princess.”
Mamma was inside. Elena could tell she had been watching. She wouldn’t look at either of them, had that look that said it was all Gianmarco’s fault.
“Why the fuck would you leave the house wearing that,” Gianmarco snapped.
It hurt to swallow. Elena pulled down at the hem of her nightgown and stared at the floor.
“Leave her alone,” Mamma said, her voice cold.
Gianmarco started leaving the house again. Sometimes he didn’t come home for days. When he was there he didn’t even watch TV, just sat on the couch. He wasn’t searching anything on the computer anymore. The hole where he punched the wall stayed there like a wound. Every day, Elena looked through the search history to find nothing. Her little window into his world had closed completely. She scanned through blogs half-heartedly, even tried to search for articles about the war. Without the idea that Gianmarco had read them, that they meant something to him, she couldn’t decode them like hidden signs.
In the morning before school she would stare at herself in the mirror trying to find what other people saw. She needed a bigger bra but she was too embarrassed to as Mamma for the money to get one. She wore the baggiest t-shirts she could find but all the jeans she had were tight, exposing her body to the world.
At school they were planning a trip to Berlin. When Lucia and Francesca asked if she was going, she told them she was busy that weekend, but everyone looked away when she said it, an obvious lie. She spent hours online looking at museums and concerts in Berlin.
One day the hole in the hallway was patched over. The fresh plaster stood out like a scar. Gianmarco had on new clothes, his hair cropped short. There was a big bag and Gianmarco’s uniform folded neatly beside him, the boots on the floor. She remembered when they picked him up from the airport the look on his face, emptiness.
“What are you doing?”
“I’ve got to go, little monkey,” Gianmarco said. He hugged her. Elena couldn’t move, couldn’t even lift her arms to hug him back.
She just stood there, even after he’d shut the front door behind him. Outside it was gray, the clouds heavy. On the road in front of the house there was a new burnt out car. Mamma came out of the bedroom.
“The sooner you get used to it the better.”
Her mother wrapped her arms around her. Elena noticed how much taller than her she’d become. Then she lifted her arms and hugged her back.