By David McAllister
The other night I discovered something very, very important, though first you should probably know I’ve been having a lot of trouble sleeping lately. I think it’s the lack of light coming in from the street. The lamppost that normally shines through my curtainless window? It’s been out for nearly a month now. Night after night, I open my eyes to find my head already propped up high on the pillow, my gaze naturally coming to rest on that dead bulb across the way, illuminating nothing. It’s so quiet outside it’s like there’s nobody else left in the whole world: it bums me out. Then after a couple times of this opening and closing, opening and closing, I start to get my serious cravings, by which point I know it’s too late, it’s no good anymore. I know I’ll have to get up and get out of bed and go do something about it.
This is how went, the other night: I went down to the kitchen to find him already there, that is my flatmate, with a foot resting on the table—his foot, that is. He is clipping his toenails, cutting them down as far as he can possibly manage. He is so engrossed in the task that he does not notice me standing there, watching him from the threshold, noting the little white crescents strewn about the table and floor like broken shells on a beach. Full disclosure: my flatmate and I do not get along. Exactly how or why is difficult to describe. You could say there are ‘bad vibes’ between us. You could say we lack a ‘good working relationship.’ You could say we aren’t in a ‘good place,’ which I imagine could be any place but this flat we are made to share. Personally I think when you lay down the facts the answer is pretty clear: it’s all his goddamn fault, whatever it is.
That evening I wait and let my flatmate complete his tiny toe, which is the last to be done on the right foot. After he finishes it he leans back and takes it all in, that is the right foot, in its entirety. From where I am standing I cannot see his face but I can tell he is very, very satisfied with his work. He nods slowly, blows on his toes, wiggles them one at a time to get a feel for their new ‘do’. When I sense he is about ready to lower the right foot and prepare the left in its place, I step beyond the threshold and make my solemn entry. I can feel his eyes burning into me as I rummage about the freezer and procure my last Garlic Bread Baguette and throw it, no tray—‘barbecue style’ as I say—straight on the oven shelf.
By the time I have switched the oven on and turned back into the room to look at him, that is my flatmate, the left foot is now in prime position for the next job: knee bent high, heel on a pivot. He is wearing nothing but an old stained vest and a pair of striped boxers. It occurs to me then that what with the angle of his leg that, if it weren’t for the table, it is perhaps more than likely I would be able to see one, if not both, of his testicles. We catch each other’s eye. Neither of us say anything.
I turn back to stare at the oven. The Garlic Bread Baguette takes eight minutes according to the packaging company, but barbecue style demands at least seven more for that additional, chargrilled crunch. I take a deep breath, stretch out my arms and lean against the stove. I turn back into the room. By now my flatmate has lost interest in me and has begun in earnest on the big left toe. Very soon it is clear he is off to a bad start. He is attempting to scrape out a thick piece of sock from out of the corner, which is so embedded he cannot scrape it free with either his clippers or his fingernail. His brow his furrowed, his hands are shaking. Watching his difficulty starts to stress me out and I have to say something.
‘Hello,’ I say, to which I expect his usual, desultory nod, the kind of nod that makes me want to pull my hair and say: whatever it is, you bastard, get over it. But this evening he does not do this. In fact he does something very, very unusual.
I do not know if the dead bulb out there in the street is also having an effect on him. I do not know if it is the intensity of emotion that comes out when one is clipping one’s nails in such a fashion. Whatever, the fact is this: instead of giving me his desultory nod my flatmate stops what he is doing, puts down his clippers and, foot still on the table, makes it damn clear to me that we are going to have a goddamn conversation.
Honestly, I thought. That son of a gun, I thought. That sneaky bastard. He knew he had me then and there. He knew I had no choice but to agree to his insane terms, because to do otherwise would only confirm the enemy that I am in his twisted little head. Also, the baguette wasn’t ready. So I gave him his conversation, but I made sure to let him know I was not at all happy about it. For the most part I let him do his own damn talking.
Well—much to my surprise it turns out my flatmate has no trouble at all with doing his own damn talking. He lets it all hang out all right, lets it air like his goddamn testicles. It’s too late by the time I realise this isn’t a conversation at all but some kind of confessional, that he’s using me for his own ends. And it’s during this little impromptu confessional of his that I discover something very, very important: his name.
His name, that is my flatmate’s name, is Gianfranco, which is an Italian name. He is Italian. I ask him if he can speak the language, to which he says no, he cannot speak Italian, even though he is Italian. I can tell the question has brought up a lot of residual bad feelings. He is third generation, he says. His parents never bothered to teach him, he says, and as a result he feels this huge rift between himself and the rest of his family, who all speak the language fluently. For some of his older relatives, who still live in Italy, living as it were the full Italian life, it is the only language they know. Even Gianfranco’s brother, Marco, who was also not taught the language as a child, has since tackled it head on and succeeded. He, that is Gianfranco, is literally the only one who cannot speak the language of his forebears, which is why he feels such a deep rift between himself and them. That is why he doesn’t see them very often.
I ask Gianfranco what he does for a living. By this point he has resumed with his nail cutting, the little flying crescents punctuating our conversation like sad notes plucked from an angel’s harp.
Gianfranco doesn’t answer my question. Instead he tells me he is having problems with his girlfriend at the moment. I was not aware my flatmate was capable of such a thing, that is having a girlfriend. I can sense he knows this is what I am thinking, for the next thing he tells me is that he hasn’t seen her around for a while now. Since before my time, he says. She likes to be with people, he says, whereas Gianfranco prefers more time alone, to himself. ‘I’m a very lonely person,’ he says. He says this desire to be alone is a byproduct of the isolation he feels towards his family. He says it’s very difficult, you know, consolidating these two opposing forces in his life. He often wonders if it’ll ever be possible to—
By this point I have totally, totally lost track of time. I realise the Garlic Bread Baguette is ready and that I must leave. Manically I run through my head all the possible ways in which I could terminate this grim discussion without damaging further Gianfranco’s already delicate emotional state. I look him dead in the eye and say, cutting him off mid-sentence: I know what you mean, Gianfranco. I know exactly, precisely what you’re getting at.
He slides his foot off the table, incomplete, and looks at me very, very intensely. His look is so intense I feel unable to looking away. It could be said we have ‘something of a moment.’
These days Gianfranco talks to me all the time. When he sees me in the hall there are no more desultory nods, but the glee of a small child. He is always keen to stop for a chat, to tell me something completely mundane about his day, to offer unsolicited advice. I have absolutely no interest in any of this, but it is too late for that. For days on end I have racked my brains and wondered what the hell have I gotten myself into, before I realised what it is: I find I have made myself a friend. That is, a friend named Gianfranco.