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Last night I’d decided to watch it in the first place because that’s what I think about when I think about becoming a wife. Betty Draper, lovingly making steak. And I dislike myself for it, really, that this nugget of knowledge has been buried deep into my subconscious: that I am at my most important when I am being useful.
The scene as I remembered it saw Betty, looking beautiful in a minute, precise way, a porcelain figurine of a lady, an absurdly frilly nightgown making her frumpiness hollow, basting steak for Don Draper. Butter frothing in a pan against a kitchen bathed in dusky, cold light. Betty was on a diet, and Don was hungry, and I remembered little else except for the flutter of excitement I felt imagining myself in her place, ladling steak juices with a large spoon for a man, being serviceable and delightfully functional.
When I watched the scene last night on YouTube, I was startled to discover that it was Henry Francis, Betty’s second husband, who secretly made himself a steak in the little hours of the night to escape Betty’s dietary restraints. The shot: a piece of meat, dully brown and crusty, straight on the pan. Betty walks in on Henry and she tests the steak with a tapered finger for doneness; it bounces back, looking dry and tough. Then Henry cuts it primly and feeds one bite to Betty after she gives him some generic advice about whatever conundrum he’s facing. There is so much guilt on Betty’s face: at having served fish to him every day of the week, at leaving him hungry, at wanting a piece of fibrous meat even though she’s not supposed to, at existing as his wife and being entirely too little while wanting too much.
I tried to explain this to Nico but he was tired already, in that twitchy state he gets before he falls asleep; he said, ‘But, Lina, I’m a vegetarian.’
Nico and I don’t like flying for different reasons; my fear is irrational, and his annoyance is entirely rational, but he doesn’t really resent me for it because he’s Nico and Nico is good. Existing in an airport entails too much standing and walking for his bad leg, so we are escorted and carelessly forgotten in dusty corners.
The burly man who takes us to the gate asks Nico how he got hurt, and Nico tells him the truth: skiing accident, a very bad fracture, several surgeries, his knee is shattered, the fractures haven’t set properly yet; he just doesn’t tell him that this happened 15 years ago and what hasn’t set likely never will.
At the gate I buy us a coffee, swirling with artificially thickened oat milk. I tell myself that it’s a treat and to enjoy it, and so I am suddenly incapable of enjoying it – whenever I ask my brain to do something it simply disconnects out of spite. The coffee tastes ashy as it burns my tongue and, after that, everything I eat for the rest of the day will simply be a texture.
During a moment of turbulence, I squeeze my eyes shut and to occupy myself I remind Nico of the topics which will distract my dad, should we need them: we strategise that France is probably the best one by virtue of being the safest if not the most effective. It can send my dad on a nice tidy self-contained rant and spare us all in the crossfire.
“It’ll be fine,” Nico says, but he’s distracted by his own pain. I can tell he’s getting a bit restless, his right leg bouncing uncontrollably. “It went well with my parents,” he says.
It didn’t, I don’t think.
Nico’s parents are called Hugh and Clarissa. They are two desperately impoverished middle-class people whose aspirations have been repeatedly squashed by life and a series of bad investments. They live in a small Edwardian house in rural Yorkshire, and they’ve stopped being able to afford its repairs so one window simply no longer shuts all the way. At age 28, Hugh and Clarissa had a child: Benedict, a pup with mesmerisingly bright blue eyes and a sunny disposition. Hugh and Clarissa never tire to tell what a delightful child he was – so content, so well-disposed towards food, so neat. A child who could hold debates at 14 months and run marathons at 18 months, or whatever, it’s not like I ever listened.
Nicholas, Nico, he followed five years later. He was a small, sour baby who never slept, and Hugh and Clarissa held him accountable for his contrariness from a young age. He was allergic to milk and was raised on non-dairy formula, which is supposedly to blame for his short stature. All he did as a baby, his parents tell as if affronted, was wheeze and throw up. Little Ben had been a conversationalist as a toddler; little Nico was only proficient in vomiting, his small body efficiently pumping out what he was allergic to.
Worst of all, Nico was a whiny child, his need for affection deep-bottomed, its voracity simply incomprehensible to Hugh and Clarissa, whose first-born had been a model of only requiring a modicum of love to thrive. Nico seemed to burn affection like fuel.
“I just couldn’t sleep if someone wasn’t touching me,” Nico told me once. “I would only fall asleep if I was holding mum’s hand. Otherwise, it’s as if they no longer existed, and I got anxious, and I tossed and turned for hours.”
“How old were you?” I asked.
“Eight, nine maybe.”
“I just can’t imagine Clarissa doing that, holding your hand when you fall asleep, every night.”
“Well,” Nico said. “She only did it a few times. Then she stopped. She said I had to learn to sleep without her touch.”
“And did you?”
“No, not really.”
Every night, when we go to bed, I open my arms and let Nico slot into me so that all parts of us touch, and I hold him very tight.
It feels impossible that we were in our flat in Manchester this morning; that we woke up when the sky was a bruised purple and Nico nuzzled his face in my neck, and then we fucked slowly, gently, sleepily, our sweat trapped by the duvet. That we are the same people, only now we walk the long corridors of Fiumicino, and the large signs speak the language of my childhood. I can’t keep all the shapes my life has taken, however briefly, straight in my head.
We carry all our luggage and get into a taxi and cross the city of Rome in a series of brisk turns and breaks before I manage to appear, bedraggled and tense, at the threshold of my childhood home.
The smell of soffritto hangs heavily in the atrium, trapped between the walls of polished brown stone. My mother opens the front door, a little flustered, and she hugs me. She smells lovely, a wholesome mix of face cream and fried celery.
“Come in, come in,” she says in her stilted English. And then, to Nico, “Ben, how are you?”
We drag our suitcases inside and pretend we didn’t hear her deliberate mistake; Nico’s face is straight though he’s just been confused with his brother, whom he looks nothing alike.
Nico has a shower and a nap, and my mother makes me tea in the kitchen. She puts a small metal pot on the blue fire of the hob, filled with water from the tap. Tea in Italy is an exercise in patience. It boils slowly, slowly, fine bubbles like champagne.
“So I made a sauce with salsiccia, and I was thinking, gnocchi for dinner?” my mother says.
“Ma, Nico’s a vegetarian.”
The pot on the hob, engulfed by flames, whistles slightly.
I am sitting down at the table but she’s simply incapable of joining me; she whirrs around the kitchen, stopping to polish a rogue fork, filling the jug of water, tidying the coffee bag; it’s a frantic dance around me. Occasionally, she places small offerings on a chipped plate and slides them in front of me: pieces of dried sausage, soft olive bread torn from a loaf. By now the water has boiled and my mother pours it into a shallow, large cup. She cuts a slice of lemon for my cup, then cuts a second one and sucks it dry.
“I’m not making two things for dinner,” my mother huffs, sitting down for a bare second and then bouncing back upright.
“Then we can all just have gnocchi with tomato sauce,” I say.
“It’s just inconvenient, Lina. I’ve made the sauce already.”
“Ma, Nico’s been vegetarian all along.”
My mother’s hands are made of steel, so she can pick up the small pot which just held boiling water and empty what couldn’t fit into my cup.
She sighs heavily and says, “You know, sometimes when you come home, I hope it’ll be with Ben this time. Such a nice boy.”
I take a long sip of tea. I can barely taste it from my earlier burn. “You are so horrible. That’s an awful thing to say about my boyfriend.”
My mother’s gaze snaps to me, flinty and caring at the same time. “Which one?”
Back to Hugh and Clarissa, middle-class and middlesome. As their two children grew, they inevitably ended up putting most of their hopes on Ben. A tall, charmingly lanky, blue-eyed lad who liked maths and piled up social currency. Ben went to a very good university and slid into a graduate scheme for a consultancy firm and whatever, he won prizes for sports, et cetera, again, I never listened back then.
There is a lot Hugh and Clarissa forget about Ben: chiefly, he’s always suspected himself superior to other people and sneered at others’ grammatical mistakes or failures of appreciation of the proportions of fractions. (Once, I got a little confused and said that a third of a whole was smaller than a fourth; he laughed at me cruelly for days).
But he was a solid son, one who did things that sons were supposed to do: climb trees, climb romantic partners, climb the property ladder. And Nico, the younger brother, he could never join in, couldn’t play football and didn’t even pretend he enjoyed watching it. And he was shy, and still that need vibrating in him, so needy, always looking for a comforting touch when he had a bad day, calling Hugh and Clarissa when he was at university asking them why things were so hard for him, displaying his vulnerability so outwardly it was painful to look at him.
So, they looked at Ben instead. And Ben had girlfriends, of course he did, but they were just flashes of pretty faces encountered by chance, until this one girl with dark eyes and hairy forearms, this girl whose name was Lina, this girl who was me.
I liked Ben enough. I didn’t love him; I could never love someone so whole. The psychology of my inability to fall in love with those who display no vulnerability is uncomfortable, but here it is – I will only fall in love when I can be the glue holding someone together. I can only be happy if I can fuss and nourish. It’s not selflessness but a perverse need to tuck in and stir honey into tea. It’s shameful, and it’s who I am.
The first time I went to Hugh and Clarissa’s house, they led me into their front room, three knackered sofas and peeling wallpaper, and Nico was there, making himself small and reading a book with watery eyes.
“Nicky,” Ben said, horrified. “You’re not… are you? Are you crying at a book?”
Clarissa came in carrying opaque glasses of white wine.
“Fuck off,” Nico said, but softly, with no hardness in his tone, as if he enjoyed being teased.
“It’s a lovely Chardonnay,” Clarissa said, gesturing for me to sit down. Only then did Nico look up at me; only then did I see how big, how unguarded his eyes were. He smiled and left the room, mumbling about something he had to do in the garden.
“Stop teasing your brother,” Clarissa admonished Ben.
“Nico’s too soft,” Ben said. “He needs to grow a thicker skin.”
Clarissa sighed again, agreeing that feeling things deeply was an inconvenience she didn’t wish to be burdened with, either.
For dinner, Clarissa made a roast chicken, failing to burnish the skin properly so it was an elastic, gelatinous mess. Afterwards, Ben vented about his brother. Everything he said made me like Nico more. “He’s just, you know, is the term sissy offensive?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, but he’s just so fucking… odd. Like, do you know when we were boys, he must have been nine or ten, he forced my mum to sleep next to his bed to hold her hand. That’s not normal, is it? And then obviously he broke his leg and he was upset, which, fair, but he never found a bloody hobby, I get that he can’t do rugby or football, but all he does is read and paint.”
“Those are hobbies,” I said.
Ben was pacing in his childhood bedroom. “Last month he had this painting at an exhibition, I think it was his mate’s show, anyways he called me and asked if I’d go and see it, and Man City were playing at home? And I told him, mate, Man City are playing at home, and he was all sulky, like, ‘it’d be nice if you could make it, just this once.’ I told him, I have an actual life.”
“Is he good?” I asked. “His art.”
“Never seen it,” Ben admitted.
“What is it, what kind?”
He shrugged. “Honestly, no clue.”
“What did you think the first time you saw me?” I ask Nico as we get ready for dinner. We’re in my childhood bedroom, two separate beds pushed against the walls; the patterned light filtering through the shutters cleaves the room. He’s sitting on the bed, posture still stiff from the trip, rolling his ankle. I’m changing out of my heavy tracksuit bottoms into a pair of fresh jeans.
“You know this already,” he says. His hair is all mussed from his nap.
“But I like it,” I pout. “I like hearing you tell it.”
He shifts to sit straighter. “I thought, god, but she’s pretty.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
“And then I thought, she deserves better than Ben.”
“A little mean,” I laugh.
“Mean thoughts were all I had back then,” he reminds me, smiling his quiet, disarming smile. “Small ones, though. Only small ones.”
I don’t think Ben was a bad brother; he simply wasn’t much of one.
“You okay, Nico-Nico?” I ask him now. I button up my jeans and sit next to him, and immediately he latches onto me, seizing my hand and bringing it to his lap.
“I’m all right,” he says.
“You sure you want to do this? Your mum just called me Ben. Not sure it bodes well for our announcement.”
I nod. “No, I think we should tell them. Just get it over with.”
The fractured light shifts and falls on my bare foot, regular ovals of brighter skin. Nico says, tentative, “Once we tell them there’s no going back.”
I grab his chin in my fingers and hold it like something precious. “There is absolutely no going back anyway, you idiot.”
He closes his eyes at my touch, leaning into it in a way that is disproportionate to the size of the contact; when his eyes reopen, they are so beautiful they threaten my own sanity: dark and deep, lined with eyelashes prettily curling at their ends, wells of eyes. My father often asks me why, why Nico, what do I see in him exactly?
But all I want to say is, how can they not see how beautiful he is? His body, slim and fine-boned, like something made with care, his gorgeous eyes, and this odd purity he has to him, his soul clear like spring water, this buzzing gentleness, how he craves warmth so much that warmth naturally flows in his direction – how can they not look at him and want to swallow him?
My mother may not admit it, but I know she loves Nico because, like me, she can sense the current of affection and how freely Nico allows it to flow to himself. I can tell she loves him because in front of us there are plates steaming with gnocchi in tomato sauce and not a single crumb of meat in them; she hasn’t even tried to push cheese his way, remembering he’s allergic to dairy without the need for my prompt.
“Eat, eat,” she tells him brusquely. “You’re too… ah… skinny. Skin and bone.”
He’s not really, he’s just lithe, but he smiles gratefully and takes a second helping of gnocchi.
My father instead sits very still, watches us as if to get the measure of what’s happening. Where my mother’s skills sit entirely within her emotional intelligence and her unwillingness to put it into use, my father is sharp and clever.
“Did you say you had some news?” he asks.
I hadn’t. “Well, actually.” I clear my throat. In Italian, I say, “Nico’s asked me to marry him.”
A thick silence.
“What’d you say to him?” my mother asks.
“Obviously, I said yes.”
My father explodes in a rambling monologue about the responsibilities of life and my young age, though he’s normally fond of reminding me I’m almost 30. He asks me why, exactly, I even care for the institution of marriage when it’s so archaic; hadn’t I said at 17 that there was no point to it? His rant is a cacophony of expletives, syllables dropping left and right, falling prey to his warm Roman cadence.
“It just seems like a rush decision,” he says to Nico, or rather, he says a combination of English words that all sort of mean the same but ring wrong, so I translate for him. By this point, Nico is looking so ill that I suspect he may change his mind about marrying me.
“I hope for the love of God that you haven’t got any other brothers,” my mother says to Nico.
He replies, “Is this wine French?”
I dated Ben for a year. My parents liked him enough. They said he looked like Prince William, like Harry Kane. It didn’t matter too much, though, because we were young after all, so it was unlikely to stick.
And stick it didn’t, because every time I went round to their draughty house and Nico was there, I was so drawn to him that I forgot which brother I was supposed to look at adoringly.
Once, me and Ben and Nico sat in the dining room after a large Easter meal, patting our bellies and savouring the discomfort of fullness when Ben got up and decided he’d go and watch TV in the front room. “Don’t bore her to death,” he told Nico with a wink. I didn’t move and neither did Nico, and the moment felt very oddly charged.
“Your art,” I asked him. “You never said what you do. Is it oil colours, or…?”
“Oh,” he said, the tips of his ears going a little red. “It’s watercolours. I do these sort of… ghost landscapes. Like, haunted houses or forests, and the colours are very rich, and the outline of people, but more transparent, more blurry.”
I smiled. “Sounds creepy.”
“Have you got any here?”
He shook his head. “No, they’re all at home.”
And he was so pretty, looking delicate and fragile like the figurine of a man, with his watercolours of ghosts, this perfect boy who always sat on the outside of things, and something inside me seemed to slot into place.
“Your brother,” I told him, “is a little shit.”
Nico laughed uncomfortably.
“No,” I said. “I’m being quite serious.”
“Ben’s a good guy,” Nico said, his expression unreadable.
“Okay,” I said, because I did not want to offend him. “But I think I’m breaking up with him soon.”
“Oh?” He wasn’t looking at me, fixated on the last crumbs of meringue on his plate.
“And I just want you to know, like, if we don’t see each other again. I think you’re lovely, and you’re interesting, and Ben doesn’t get it, of course.”
His eyes trailed mine, now, wide and dark and still bearing his whole soul. “Ben doesn’t get it, but you do?”
“Yeah.” I smiled.
“But it’s easy to say, isn’t it, given that you won’t ever see me again.”
I struggled to retain control of my smile. I’d only had a couple of glasses of wine and a small measure of syrupy port, but I felt suddenly light-headed. “Nico,” I said.
“Can I see you again, actually?”
I could not begin to describe the way his face shifted into and out of hopefulness. “Are you taking the piss?”
“Ask me out, Nico,” I said. “If you want. Not next week, maybe wait a month or two, and then ask me out, okay?”
He could only nod wordlessly.
After dinner, my father pours us a measure of grappa, medicinal and pure, and we knock it back. He has now stopped trying to convince me not to get married, and is attempting to convince himself it’s a good idea.
“I suppose you two are happy together, and you have stable jobs,” he tells me, in Italian. Nico sits on a different sofa, sipping grappa and looking into the distance.
“Yes,” I say.
“I just… why, Lina? Why isn’t it enough to be together, why something so permanent?”
And how do I tell him: it’s because I have a hard time opening boxes. Any box, I struggle to figure out where to pull, what to break, my nails become brittle if I try and lift the adhesive label. I am hopeless in the face of cereal boxes and the knotted ribbon adorning presents. And Nico, he will come to my rescue every time. He just looks at the box carefully, identifies its folds and structure, and with a pencil he’ll break the tension of Sellotape; jars too, if I can’t open them, he will insert the thin blade of a knife between neck and lid and know exactly where to pull and lift.
How do I explain to my father that without Nico I’m not even sure I could feed myself – that he’s that essential?
My mother comes in with a tray of pastries, small little baubles of choux with pastel pink glazes covering the tops. She places a hand on Nico’s shoulder, startling him.
“No milk,” she says, gesturing to the tray. “I went to a special place. No milk.”
He smiles feebly, takes a pastry.
“Well, Nicholas, congratulations,” my father says. Which is what Hugh and Clarissa said, too, only they did not explode in shouts beforehand. Clarissa said, “I guess you really wanted to be part of our family, eh?”
My mother says, “Eat, Nico. No milk.”
Later, we each get into our single beds, narrow but snug, and within a heartbeat I am moving to slide into Nico’s bed. He’s only wearing a grey t-shirt and boxers, both soft and properly looked after because he’s a careful person. He’s feverishly warm.
“Thank you,” he says.
I turn on my side so his front is flush with my back. He presses a kiss to my neck, and then he shuffles to get even closer to me, until all of him touches all of me, and he loops his arm around me, and I hold on very tight.