Backtracking steps on a foot-printed map

To the man who showed me the way to become who I am
(and to the girl who asks the right questions)

What about all those rings and bracelets you wear? Curiously enough, that was the first time I realised my rings and bracelets do have stories to tell, and that people might wonder what those stories are. It happened on one evening in that hectic summer of 2017, when a newborn, a new job and an international relocation had to fit together somehow. I was then having drinks with some of those who would soon be my new colleagues in my new hometown. It was a pleasant evening in Munich. The pizza was good, as was the beer (which was also cheap compared to Sweden). I was enjoying the company, the chatter, and the exchange of opinions on work matters; an extinguished cigar stub lingering between my fingers. She dropped the question just like that, out of the blue, from the corner of the table opposite mine.

*

I was 6 or 7 years old when I again met the man who almost got lost in the foggy years in which I was barely more than a toddler. I remember his height, his darker skin and hair, so different from those of my mother. The smell of cigar blending with that of cologne. He came over on a mild summer evening, all the way from across the ocean. From the large terrace of my father’s attic, the late sunset, Rome, and the hills beyond, the breeze from the sea blowing away the lingering heat of the day. He would make me fly, lifting me up in the air, rapidly. Later I would pay attention to the framed picture in my parents’ living room, containing a still of the very same, bearded, man lifting up the very same child. Only difference its dating to a time when the child was barely a couple of months old. Over my grandmothers’ place, the black and white picture of a yet younger man in his late teens, cleanshaven, open shirt and a hat from beneath the brim of which appeared the face of a woman with long curly hair.

*

I won’t deny it took me a bit out of surprise. Being ourselves is easy. It requires no particular thought. It most of the time is an effortless activity and we usually pay very little mind to it. The hard job is left with others, who are trying to figure out who the individual they’re chatting away with is. This does not mean that we know who we are. Most often, we have no clue ourselves. We take ourselves for granted; we act as we’ve always have, we wear our favourite clothes, we speak our mind, we wear our rings and bracelets, often without ever wondering why we do all these things we do. Others, on the contrary, see us for what we really are: a complicated puzzle that needs deciphering (if needed or wanted). So when she asked about all those rings and bracelets, she started rummaging through the inner depths of my past in search for those mosaic tiles explaining those tiny yet very visible pieces of me (a sight that is not exactly common in my professional environment). Needless to say, I followed suit, rummaging through my memories in search for clues myself.

*

No, not like that. First make a loop, twist it and then pass the tip right through. A hook, a large one, tight between his lips on one side of his mouth, the tip almost touching a short beard with just a hint of white on the chin. Sitting, rigging poles and lines on the shady shores of some Pennsylvania lake, when just short of my early teens it was my turn to visit, from time to time, on the other side of the ocean. A bottle of beer in his hand, held like that, tight between his thumb and middle finger, the first finger resting on the bottle’s neck, the ring finger and the little one resting idly, curved downward against the bottle. An amused smile telling me I got it wrong again. Some five years earlier, we were walking along the shallow rivers of the Argentinian pampas, him teaching me how to cast. A small rod and a line holding a rusty piece of metal, the wind battering my green windbreaker and pushing the line further than I would have been able to cast it. Now, it was time for the knots.

*

Making our way backwards following the threads of our lives easily gets us lost among all the twists and turns we have walked or rushed through, willingly or accidentally. It is along those twists and turns that we collect the bits and pieces of what make us who we are. Even getting the directions right, and correctly identifying the keystones and pivotal points around which our lives took on a new bend, hardly assures we’ll manage to figure out exactly which pieces were collected along which turn.

*

The short, sharp blasts of the pellet gun were sectioning the quiet expanse of the afternoon. Our elbows resting on the back of the wooden bench, dragged all the way there for the purpose, or on the mat of pine needles. Cool wafts of air and a musty smell from the open garage door on the backside by the bend in the driveway, below the house. Periodically, longer stretches of silence marked the time in which we’d switch position, reload, or put the tin cans back in place on the short wall opposite, or on the large boulder further away. The cicadas taking back control of the warm silence. He would keep his cigarette on the side of his mouth, tight between his lips, aim, and sure as night and day the coca-cola cap would disappear from its stand. Seven years later, while I was visiting over the summer, he would bring me with him to shoot his guns on a shooting range deep in the forest. On one occasion, he would show me the picture of a young beardless man in a military uniform, holding a rifle. The ring on his thumb, back then as again later, resting steel against steel on the stock of the gun.

*

Good question, anyway. The short answer is easy. That’s my wedding band, that one I bought in Ireland, this one in Bretagne, this one is a unique piece. That one in your hand my wife made herself as a present for my birthday. And so on. But I doubt that’s what she was after; nor was I at that point. The big problem was that I had no idea myself why I was wearing all those rings in the first place. Simply, wearing them was natural and thoughtless. I liked wearing them, and I still do like them and wear them. But why I liked them, that was a mystery to me back then.

*

wed

An older man, shorter than I recalled and somewhat rounder, was standing next to me on my wedding day. The white in his beard had outgrown the chin and invaded the cheeks. Thirteen years since my last time with him tying hooks and lines in Pennsylvania. Nineteen, from the time I learned how to cast in Argentina, and twenty from the time I shot for the first time. Twenty-two, from that evening on my father’s terrace, and twenty-six from the moment enclosed in that old picture frame. His rings were still there, as by then were mine, and I’m sure that had we beers in our hands, he’d still be holding his in that very same way so much resembling my own. You braided your hair. He’d done the same. A lopsided smile, the hook being replaced by a half smoked cigar.

*

Some times memories hide under your skin. They fade away, far from view, but remain ever present, coming back unsolicited, wanted or unwanted, welcome or not. Other times, instead, they are written on your skin, defining what and who you’ll become, markers of your past for the world to decipher. These are memories you can always go back to and read over and over again. It doesn’t always happen consciously or willingly. You sometimes adhere to those memories without realising that you are, let alone why: maybe out of habit, lack of alternatives, or simply because they blend with an unconsciously lingering childhood feeling telling you that is the coolest man on earth. But whether you realise it or you don’t, all the big and small events, the main plots as well as the tiny details linger in your voice and in what you say, on your clothes, in your tastes, habits, passions. They are script for you to follow in the course of your life. A map to guide your way among all those twists and turns you will walk or rush through in reaching for all that, big and small, important or futile, defines the very essence of being you.

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