Threshold - IV
It was too much to be offered "anything." My parents would have given their children their last breath, but they would not have said "take anything." "Anything" was not in the language of our family.
While my mother was in the hospital, the family looking after us took my brother and me to a make-it-yourself ceramics store on the airbase. Getting to make something at an arts-and-crafts store would have been an exceptional treat.
There was an entire wall of ceramic molds to choose from. The mother told us we could pick any one we wanted. There were flowers and animals and instruments and people, and the higher you went on the shelves, the larger and more extravagant the choices became.
My brother and I knew we should pick one of the smaller ones towards the bottom, but our host family was deeply generous and must have sensed our reservation. So, they told us to pick whichever one you want. We were polite in these situations, over-trained to be “good” in this regard, admonished to select modestly. There was an element of good breeding in it, but there was also a whiff of the undeserving, of shame — in the same way that my mother sat us in the back row at church even when spaces were available further up. But now this new family said take and insisted that anything we wanted to pick was okay.
It was almost too much to be offered “anything.” My parents would have given their children their last breath, but they would not have given us “anything.” This was not in our family’s language or how we expressed generosity, but the root-level hunger for “anything” lives in every child, desire satisfied without friction or boundaries. Take anything.
I considered my choices behind the counter. A painted mold of a fat man sat pleasantly, criss-cross on the left-hand part of the wall, near the top. His hands rested in his lap. He was smiling. He was interesting and different, vaguely familiar. He sat on what looked like a pile of bubbles. I wanted him and, just as quickly, none of the others.
When I pointed to him, I saw from the mother’s expression that I’d made a mistake. I’d stumbled into something, but I didn’t know what exactly, and the mother was too honorable to retract her promise. I’d crossed some taboo line, and this only intensified my attachment. Getting the fat man ceramic was like moving towards the front of the church.
But there was more to it.
I wanted him because he held some secret power the adults recognized but hid from children, and for that reason needed to be understood or felt. The seated man was different in the same way the faces on the cover of my Good News Bible were different. They opened a connection outside of my family, something mysterious and intimate, taboo. My life is a search for the tug of these connections, whether through love, art, substances or faith. I have always wanted the beautiful secrets. I still want the beautiful secrets. They are rope in the sea.
There was an effort to redirect me to a larger ceramic, but I’d found what I wanted, and I was set on it.
“No, he’s the one I like,” I said. I remember my disobedience, the tiniest checkmate on her generosity. I knew what I wanted, and it was on the shelf towards the top. The little, seated man was my “anything.”
I had found my Buddha.
A few days later, we returned for the molds after they were poured. My mother’s health had improved. She was going to be discharged from the hospital the following day, but she would be driven home separately. My brother and I would return to Bergamo before her. Our host family would drive us home, and our downstairs neighbors would keep an eye on us from there.
On our way off of the airbase we stopped by the pottery store to pick up our ceramics. They retrieved my Buddha from a row of shelves where they kept the freshly molded pottery. When he was handed to me, it struck me how light he was for such a large, solid-looking figure, and unlike the painted Buddha on the display shelf he was a flat, ashen grey.
I set him in the backseat rear window for the ride home. My brother had his piece of pottery, too. His was less extravagant, a small boot maybe. My brother, the oldest child, spoke the family language fluently and was rewarded for it. The two of us were cautioned to be careful with our clay molds because they were delicate, and their walls weren’t much thicker than the chocolate in an Easter bunny.
On the ride home, I pulled him down from time to time and studied him, rotated him. I could put my finger into the sharp circular hole that drained the liquid clay out of the bottom and see the hairline lip where the two halves of the mold sealed together. Somebody explained we would have to sand these down before we did the painting.
It was overcast when we got to Bergamo. Our hosts parked in front of our door on the cobblestones of 9 Via Porta Dipinta, around the corner from the funiculare station, and we got out and thanked the family for letting us stay at their house. One of the adults in the front said “be careful with those,” referring to the pottery.
We made our way up the great winding stairwell of our apartment building to the third floor. There was a second door that led out over an internal courtyard and then a walkway to the door of our apartment.
It was grey and cold. The day felt heavy like a Sunday afternoon before a school day. It must have been January. We would check in with the neighbors downstairs. The Cobbs. Michael and Mary Lou. They were the loveliest people in all of Italy that year. They were our Bergamo angels, a godsend. We lived in their bright, sunny kitchen. They held the three of us together.
But Chris and I still spent a lot of time alone looking after each other, just the two of us together, brothers, if you really, really know what that means, and Chris got our hidden key out from under the doormat, and he opened the door into the empty apartment, and as I stepped over the threshold into the apartment I dropped it.
It shattered into a million pieces.
I went berserk.
I screamed at my brother in a rage for reasons I cannot fathom, and he ran away from me somewhere off to the right, retreating to a safe perimeter. I heard him telling me to calm down. The explosion had blown clay bits across the doorstep and into the foyer. For a moment, I calmed down enough to sweep the Buddha into a pan and take the pieces inside because I decided, impossibly, that I was going to fix it.
I was going to fix it. I was going to fix it. I was going to fix it.
The tears filled my eyes so deeply that I couldn’t see the pieces in front of my own face as I tried assembling them back together. Before long I recognized the sheer futility of it. It was gone.
I wept for that Buddha like something had died. The neighbors, the Italian girl across the way, the Cobbs, all of them, they must have heard the sobbing. The twin pressures of desire and sadness exploded into a burst of irretrievable loss.
Eventually, I settled down, and my brother appeared in the bedroom doorway to console me.
The light in the room felt grey. I was standing at a dresser by the window.
I have never again grieved over an object like that.
The full serialized text here:
Feel something. Twice a week