It’s Sunday morning, the day after Christmas, and the bedside phone wakes me from a deep sleep. I’m still groggy, but I reach out from under the covers to find the receiver and hear Mario’s voice telling me he’ll soon be on his way back.
“Hello, Mario? Is that you, baby?”
“Buongiorno, Rosie. It’s Orazio. Turn on the television, please.”
“What? The television? Why, Orazio? Is something wrong? Has something happened to Mario?”
“Rosie, please turn it on and call me later.”
“Okay, I will. I’ll call you later.”
My heart’s in my throat as I sit up and fish for the remote control on the nightstand. The clock says it’s a little past 8. Way too early the day after Christmas to be calling for no good reason. I’m thinking plane crash. Hijacking. Hostage situation. Something like that. I push the red button on the remote and as the picture comes up on the screen my world collapses around me.
I can’t make out the Italian of the news reporter’s excited voice, but I don’t need to. I see a scene of utter devastation, a beach somewhere, water and debris and beach chairs and trucks and cars strewn helter-skelter all about. But no, not somewhere. Yes, somewhere. Oh no, my god, no, not there. The caption emblazoned in red below the image says “Phuket, Thailandia.” No, no, it can’t be. It can’t.
My hands are shaking so badly once I turn up the volume that I drop the remote onto the bed. I struggle to decipher what the reporter is saying in rapid-fire Italian, and in between whole phrases I don’t understand I make out a couple of words. “Terremoto,” which I figure out is “earthquake.” And “tsunami,” which isn’t Italian at all, but I know what a tsunami is, even if I don’t speak Japanese. And the camera stays trained on that beach, the words at the bottom of the screen not wavering. “Phuket, Thailandia.” I don’t know whether to cry, to scream, to deny what I’m seeing. The reporter says something about “i morti” and “i feriti” and “gli scomparsi,” and I can figure out what those words mean, too. The dead, the injured, the missing.
The scene shifts to another beach, another country – this time it’s Sri Lanka in the title on the screen – and I reach for the phone and speed dial Orazio.
“Orazio, Orazio! Tell me what’s happened. I can’t believe this. I’m out of my mind. Have you heard from Mario?”
“Rosie, I’m sorry, but we have been trying to call Mario ever since we saw this terrible news, and we can’t get through. The calls go directly to voicemail. The towers must be down.”
“He’s all right, isn’t he? Don’t you think he’s all right?”
“We have no way of knowing, Rosie. Of course we all hope he is all right, but from the news reports much of Phuket Island was hit very badly by this tsunami, and there have been many casualties already known.”
“Where did this fucking thing come from? It looks huge on the news. Now they’re talking about other countries, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia.”
“There was a very big earthquake in Indonesia. Maybe more than an 8, perhaps even a 9, or more. And many big aftershocks. This created the tsunami which swept out into the ocean. The worst thing, perhaps, is that it struck Phuket just after 8 in the morning, and Mario and many others may still have been sleeping at that hour.”
“Oh god, Orazio. Oh god. I am so scared. I don’t know what I’ll do if anything happens to him. He is my everything.”
“Yes, I understand. And he is my brother, Rosie. We are all praying. Hopefully we will hear news from him soon. Mamma, and Aurelia, we are all so worried and praying.”
“Do you think he went there, Orazio? He told me he was thinking of going to Phuket. Maybe he didn’t go?”
“I don’t know, Rosie. He told us the same. But you know, when he called yesterday, I believe he said he was there.”
“Oh, god, Orazio. Yes. Will you call me, please, as soon as you hear anything? I’ll call you, of course, if he calls here.”
“Yes, certainly. We all hope he will find a telephone and call and let us know he is all right and safe.”
I stay glued to the television. I can hardly move from the bed. I keep staring at the phone, willing it to ring, willing it to be Mario. But it stays silent. I try calling his number, just on a chance, and my call goes straight to voicemail, too. It’s the worst sound in the world, the sound of voicemail, and also the best since it’s Mario’s own voice giving the greeting.
“Baby, I’m so scared. Please call me and tell me you’re all right. Everyone is so worried about you. Please, baby.”
And then I add words I haven’t said to any man, ever.
“I love you, baby. I love you so much. Please be all right.”
There comes a point where I finally have to get up to pee, which I do quickly, an ear trained on the television in the bedroom, and then throw something on and go downstairs and turn on the TV in the living room. I sit there chewing on some Christmas Eve leftovers, in a trance. And still there are the same horrible scenes, as if things would be any different on one television than on another.
I can’t stand it any more and call Orazio.
“Orazio? Rosie. Have you heard anything? I’m going out of my mind. I called him and got voicemail, too. Why isn’t he calling?”
“No, Rosie. I am sorry, but we have heard nothing more. We have been on the phone to the Italian consulate in Bangkok, and all they can tell us is what we already know. There have been many casualties in Phuket and even more in some other places, and there are many Italian tourists in the area, but they have no names or information to give us now.”
“Are they doing anything else? To track down people?”
“The consulate has dispatched teams to the coast, but all is so chaotic right now. They told us we could call later.”
“Later? It’s already night there, Orazio. This can’t be good. I know if Mario could he would telephone us. I know he would. He’s so thoughtful that way.”
“Of course you are right, Rosie. But all we can do is wait and hope and pray.”
None of this calms me, and if I’m not hysterical it’s only because I’ve grown increasingly numb as the day wore on.
The daylight grows thinner and thinner, I see mist forming out on the lake, it makes me think how lovely it would be to stand with Mario along the dusky shore, holding each other as we watch the mist gather, as we’d done so many times. And I know it’s full night in Phuket now and probably the dark is thick with the cries and the smell of the dead and the dying and the injured. I picture Mario, my beloved baby, my bambino, my life, my love, there lying alone and unknown on the sand or in a plastic bag or maybe even washed out to sea with the deadly wave as it receded from shore. And I cry. It’s all I can do, other than shake and hold myself in my arms, wishing they were his arms. I cry, at last.
The phone shakes me out of my tortured thoughts and I rush to it, hoping above hope it might be Mario. But again, it’s Orazio.
“Rosie, we have some news from the consulate, but it’s not good. They have some names of survivors, and also of the dead, but Mario’s name is not among either. So we know nothing more now than we knew this morning. I am sorry.”
“At least he’s not listed as dead, Orazio. That’s good news, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know, Rosie. They said there are many they may never know what happened. Many people were washed out to sea. And there are many bodies that it may take weeks to know who they are, if no one comes to claim them. They will do tests to see if they might identify some.”
“I’ll go there, Orazio. I’ll go to Thailand and see if I can find him. And if it’s the worst – oh, god, how I hope it is not – at least I can identify him so we’ll know.”
“Rosie, no. One of the family can go. But for now, let’s remain hopeful. He may show up at our door, for all we know.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen. Not any more. Orazio, I feel so guilty. Like I should have been more insistent he not go now. He promised we’d spend Christmas together. Or maybe if I went with him we would have done something else. I feel awful, Orazio. Awful, so awful.”
“Rosie, this is not your fault. It is no one’s fault. It is an act of God. We don’t know, none of us know, when He will call us home. We all pray this is not the time for caro Mario, but if it was his time, he was a good man and led a good life. God will look after him.”
“I wish I had your faith, Orazio. But I don’t. And I’d much rather see him here, now, alive, than think about him dead in some bag or eaten by sharks out in the sea. Or whatever. And maybe he’s in a hospital. Maybe he needs someone to help him.”
“Rosie, we can ‘maybe’ forever. Get some rest and if we hear anything you will be first to know. I promise you, cara.”
Rest. How can I rest, not knowing what has happened to my baby, my dear baby, my heart, my Mario? The television drones on, and now they’re on their fifth or sixth re-showing of scenes from earlier in the day. That’s one thing about TV, and forget the 24-hour news cycle. Once it’s night and nothing more is known they always revert to running footage from earlier in the day, as if it were current right now. But it’s not.
Day has faded into night, and with it my hope. I go up and put on the little nightie Mario had gotten for me. He said if I had to wear anything, he liked to see me in that, in that little wispy blue thing – blue, his favorite color – and see my details and curves through it. I fall asleep wearing it on the sofa, the TV now just background noise. I’ve given up expecting to learn anything from it. Whatever news I get will come by telephone. I’m sure of that, though the phone has grown so silent.
When I awake night is fading back into day. A second day, and no more news. The scenes on the TV have changed now to another day in Thailand, and on Phuket.
It looks like the day after a disaster, and still I don’t know everything they’re saying, but I can tell they are reciting numbers of dead and injured. Most are local Thai people, some are Italians, and there are people from many other countries, including some Americans. There are interviews with survivors, adults, and children. People are crying, it seems they are pleading to know where their loved ones are. I should be among them, there crying, asking where my Mario is, and not sitting here on his sofa, wearing his favorite nightie, in his house, his beloved lake outside the window.
Orazio calls me later in the day, and he still has no word. All he can say is things don’t look good, and they’re praying for Mario. As if praying will bring him back from wherever he is. I ask to speak with Mamma, to give her my condolences, even though I know she won’t understand me. But she listens, and she repeats “Grazie, grazie, mia piccolina,” about ten times, and I can hear the sadness in her voice, and then muffled tears as she hands the phone back to Orazio.
By nightfall, the second nightfall, I’ve given up my hope. I’m sure he’s gone, he’s never coming back. I’ve lost my Mario. I sob inconsolably into his sofa, what was his sofa, until I finally fall into a tortured sleep. And the next day I move all the food, the Christmas meal I’d prepared, from the refrigerator into the freezer. All the things not already there and frozen, maybe never to be eaten. Or eaten, after time has passed and it’s known he’s gone, as a memorial. I don’t have the heart to look in Mario’s closet for those special gifts he said he’d gotten me. The only gift I want is him, back home, alive.
Later that afternoon a car pulls up outside the house. I rush to throw on a robe since I’m still going around only partly dressed, too shell-shocked to worry about clothes, even with the chill of winter. It’s Orazio and Aurelia. I watch from an upstairs window as they get out of the car. They look somber, too somber to be bringing me good news. I go downstairs to answer their knock and let them in. I hug them, first Orazio and then Aurelia, and they hug me back. It’s all I can do to contain my tears. Orazio is the one who speaks, finally.
“Rosie, we are very sorry, but we have no more news. The consulate does not have Mario’s name on its lists, so we don’t know what has become of him. He is now listed among the missing. This is as troubling to us as we know it is to you. But we think it is time we all begin to expect the worst.”
I don’t know what to say. I know Orazio is right. I’m already at that point, past it even, the point of expecting, knowing, the worst. I look between him and Aurelia. She, too, is somber, she has a hard time looking into my eyes, and then she repeats Orazio’s sentiments.
“He is our brother, Rosie, but we fear now we must make peace with this terrible thing. And you must, too. Nothing would make us happier than to tell you Mario is coming back to us. But we would be deceiving ourselves, and you, if we do. While we are here we will pick up something of Mario’s, perhaps his toothbrush or something that he will have touched and used, and I will take it with me tomorrow to Thailand, to give it to the consulate in Bangkok so they might be able in time to identify his body, if I cannot find him there among the unknowns.”
There is no quarter for my tortured spirit. I’ve lost my everything. My heart and my soul. And what now? What, after all this, now? Orazio fills that in for me, at least part of it, with what he says next.
“Rosie, we know what Mario meant to you. And what you meant to him. He told us if anything ever happened to him to be sure you are looked after. I don’t think he was foretelling the future, but it seems that time has come.”
“What does that mean, Orazio?”
“We will look for more news in the coming week. But if we don’t get positive news, if the news is bad, or there is no news, this house belongs to the family and we will have to ask you to leave as we sort through his possessions and decide their disposition. We’re very sorry about this, but in keeping with Mario’s wishes you will be taken care of and funds will be provided to you to relocate wherever you choose to. Whether it is back to Paris, or to America. Wherever it is you decide. Please try to understand. We do not mean to be cruel.”
I’m shocked, though not surprised, to hear Orazio’s words. I never was part of the family, not yet, and now never will be. I don’t care about the money. I’ve got enough of my own, my freedom fund, not that I feel very free any more, but it’s just like Mario to think of me like that. No one ever has before him, and I’m too touched to get pissy about this. I know I have no right to, anyway. They’ve been as good to me as any family might be, even at this sad time and with their own loss.
“Of course,” Aurelia picks up Orazio’s words, “if Mario suddenly reappears, this will not apply. We are very unhappy to have to tell you this, Rosie, but we hope you will understand. And of course we will give you time to collect yourself.”
“Yes, yes, of course I understand. How can I object? And the money doesn’t matter to me. It’s only Mario that matters. Only he matters to me. I can’t believe he’s gone. He was my everything. My world. You know that, don’t you?”
I can’t stop the tears that follow. Orazio and Aurelia don’t know what to do, so they just stand, looking at the floor, the floor just inside the front door where they stand, as their brother’s teenage girlfriend cries her eyes out. I feel like an idiot. I mean, after all, this is their brother I’m crying over, but I don’t care. I’ll be an idiot. I just can’t help myself.
New Year’s comes and goes, and no one has the heart for the new year, much less any celebration. Aurelia has nothing to report from Phuket, she has not found Mario, and all she tells us is how devastated the island, once such a happy touristy place, looks, how there are so many bodies to look at, how sad the survivors look. I don’t even watch New Year’s festivities on the tube. I just want my Mario back.
When the week has passed and no more news is forthcoming Orazio picks me up on the following Tuesday morning and takes me into Como. By then the television has moved on to other news, other events, and the tsunami and Phuket and the dead and the missing fade away with the news cycle. Aurelia’s calls are down to one a day now, saying only that she has not yet found Mario.
“I am very sorry about our request to have you leave Mario’s house,” Orazio explains to me in the car. “It was Aurelia who insisted on this. In her own way, she felt it would be easier for you to leave now than to wait for some future date, with false hope that Mario would ever return to us.”
“What can I say, Orazio? I have no right to stay, and without Mario there is no reason, either. So I understand. For once I really felt it was right to be somewhere, to be with Mario, he was so special, but now, I have nothing but memories in the house. Memories, and the ghost of my Mario.”
Orazio takes me to a local bank where we go in together and he withdraws five thousand euros from a family account and gives it to me, in cash. I know he is carrying out Mario’s instructions, probably specific even to the amount, but I’m still too heartbroken to say anything, not even grazie, as I stare at the envelope with the money in my hands and the gray marble floor of the bank. My thanks, if I could express them, would go to Mario, if to anyone, so I don’t feel badly about my sullenness. I think Orazio understands.
We’re silent, the two of us, all the way back to Mario’s house, which is now again the family house, and I know the time has come and I need to decide my next move. This plan, the plan which held such promise for me, is at an end, and once more I’m left trying to figure out where I go from here, what my next, my new, plan will be. My bags are already packed, I just have the things left out that I’ll need for the next day or two, and that’s that.