Three years ago the fever came over me and never left.
11 January, 2016.
Almost thirty-one years old.
I get home from university; it’s lunchtime, but I’m not hungry.
I don’t feel so good, I think I might be coming down with a fever.
I lie down on the couch, but I can’t focus on my book.
The fever sets in.
It doesn’t go away.
One week, two weeks.
Thirty-eight, thirty-eight point five, then it goes down slightly.
Thirty-seven point four, thirty-seven point three. The fever doesn’t break.
The mercury must be stuck.
I cool it down.
It climbs back up.
Each time I remove the thermometer from my armpit, I hope to see that the fever has subsided. But it never has. The mercury sits at a little over thirty-seven degrees, right on the edge, at the turning point — the boundary between what I was and what I’ve become.
I get home from university and take my temperature. I take it again, and again, I take it incessantly.
My mother calls me. She starts calling every three hours.
So, is that fever still hanging around?
Yes, mamma, it’s still here.
So strange — take your temperature again later.
And again. Never stop taking it.
Soon she’s asking me for an update every two hours.
Paracetamol doesn’t help; my temperature falls briefly, then rises again.
Three days, five, ten.
I go to work even though I don’t feel like it; for the past four years (or is it five?) I’ve been teaching yoga at different gyms across Milan. I enjoyed it at first, but not anymore. I’ve been forced to teach too many classes, at all times of day, all over the city. Health clubs, dance schools, gyms. The quality of the venues varies, but more often than not they’re dumps. Still, teaching has kept me afloat through university. I accept every job, every substitution, even when I really don’t want to.
If I don’t go to work, I won’t get paid. I have to go, fever or no fever.
I’m a freelancer, so I don’t have a contract. No sick leave, no holiday pay. Tomorrow I have an early class, I have to leave the house at seven. I thought I would have been feeling a bit better by now. It’s too late to call in sick. The guy in charge of scheduling classes is new, he’s been laying off a bunch of people. Sucking up to management: calling instructors, threatening them, reducing their hours. In Milan there are now more yoga instructors than there are students — the teacher-training business has really taken off — so, if he wanted to, he could replace any one of us at a moment’s notice.
I sweat so much at night. When I wake up the bed is drenched. A black stain on the blue sheets, in the shape of my sleeping body. A black me-shaped stain.
Even the pillow is soaked with sweat. I wet one side; I turn it over and wet the other side.
I get up and change. I go through three T-shirts a night. This is how it will be from now on: at night, my body dissolves into a pool of water. My body surrenders to this mad fever, which rises and falls according to its own rhythms.
I wake up, take a shower, accidentally fall back to sleep on the couch.
I sweat some more, I wake up, I leave the house just after seven, running late, bathed in sweat.
Milan in January; it must be two degrees. The icy air creeps inside my coat, freezes the sweat on my skin. I want to turn around and go back inside. I brace against the cold, pull up my hood, protecting my head. I walk slowly, enveloped in my layers of fabric and sweat. One foot after the other.
I speed up, then slow back down.
I have to figure out what’s wrong with me.
Street, crossing, then Metro. I need to sit down.
My body stalls. I can’t do this.
I deepen my breaths, breathing right into the bottom of my rib cage — I have to do this.
I make it to the gym, change, join the class. Everyone is waiting for me; I’m at least fifteen minutes late. The class only goes for fifty minutes. No doubt someone has already complained.
I apologise, I admit it, I tell them the truth: I’m not feeling well.
We thought you weren’t going to show up.
I smile. What the fuck do you want from me?
The older women who come to my classes are used to seeing me move easily from one pose to the next. Flexible, strong, like an athlete. What’s wrong with him? What’s happened to him? I apologise at first, but then I stop. What’s the point?
Four days into the fever, my mother starts losing her mind. She heard about a girl — she tells me over the phone — who started out like me, with a mild but persistent fever. One week later she was dead.
Go to the doctor, what are you waiting for? For it to be too late?
She calls me nonstop. When she’s not calling, she’s texting me. If I don’t respond immediately she sends another, then another, dozens and dozens of text messages; she transmits her fear to me through the phone’s electromagnetic field, until her fear is my fear.
Go and see a doctor.
I don’t even have a doctor. I had one, until the end of last year. One of those temporary doctors they assign to you if you’re a student, or if you’re residing somewhere different from where you usually live. After a year the arrangement expires, and I never got around to renewing mine.
My mother is right — I have to do something.
I try getting in touch with a new doctor, one recommended by my friend Gianfranco. He’s young, I think he’s gay. He’s on Facebook and Instagram. He’s into art history — he posts more photos of paintings than anything else. He studies Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture. He posts vegan recipes. I write to him on Messenger.
Hi, can I bother you for a minute?
Of course, no problem at all.
I don’t have a GP at the moment. I’m from outside Milan, but I’ve lived here for a few years now. I haven’t changed my residency details yet. A friend of mine suggested I get in touch with you, for a medical opinion.
I’ve had a fever for several days. It goes up and down, but I don’t have any other symptoms.
Cough, sore throat?
No, everything else is fine.
Are you urinating normally? Normal bowel movements?
Can you come in tomorrow morning? I can make time to see you, even though you’re not my patient.
If we need to, I might send you to the local health department afterwards. I’ll be at the clinic between 10 and 12:30. Come in, we can have a chat and see if we can’t send you home with some peace of mind.
Mamma and I are alone when they come to scare us.
I’m one and a half; we’ve been living in the one-bedroom apartment at 10 Hyacinth Street for just a few months.
We’re home alone because papà is at work.
At around four in the morning, mamma wakes up. There are noises, banging sounds. It’s been raining since last night. Mamma thinks: it must be the rain, or a branch in the wind.
But no, it’s not the rain, or the wind.
Mamma gets up, goes to the kitchen, where the sound is coming from.
I’m still asleep in the cot next to papà and mamma’s bed. You didn’t notice a thing. Bee mobile hanging over my head, little zoo of stuffed animals sitting quietly, everything in its place. You didn’t notice a thing — cover it up, minimise; our life, your life, is a perfectly normal life.
The shutters on the glass doors that open out to the kitchen balcony are rolled down; whenever papà leaves he shuts and locks them, for security. Mamma doesn’t turn on the kitchen light; she doesn’t have to. The streetlamp in front of the apartment we were allocated a few months ago by the city council — on the second of eight floors, the first door to the right when you come up the stairs — illuminates the facade of our building, and our balcony.
In the light from the Hyacinth Street streetlamp mamma can see a pair of hands reaching underneath the shutter, trying to force it open. The hands pull upwards, but the harder they pull, the harder the locks jam the shutter into place.
Mamma feels her legs buckle.
Dear god, I beg you, please make the locks hold.
Give me time to call someone.
My mother is in the kitchen doorway, watching the shutter that’s about to give.
The hands persist, they refuse to quit — they have a mission to complete. They pull fiercely against the shutter that is meant to protect us. The hands are hairy, a man’s hands. The hands of the man who is trying to break into our house. Nails edged with black dirt, calloused fingers straining: the hands of an ogre, a criminal, a rapist?
Mamma flicks the switch beside the door; the kitchen fills with light, but the man doesn’t go away. He’s not scared of being seen. If he’s not a burglar, then what does he want from us?
One of the locks fails and goes flying. It hits the glass door. The man seems encouraged by the sound of the impact. He shakes the shutter even harder.
Help, mamma, what do we do?
Mamma realises the man isn’t going to leave. Ready for anything, nothing to lose.
She turns, reaches for the telephone in the hallway. She calls her father-in-law, nonno Pier, who lives nearby.
Why don’t you escape, mamma? Why don’t you run and ask the neighbours for help?
Mamma is afraid there might be someone on the stairs; she’s afraid the man on the balcony hasn’t come alone. How many of them are there? A gang? An army? There’s no hope for the two of us: a nineteen-year-old girl and her eighteen-month-old baby. Trapped in the tiny home the council gave to us as though we were grown-ups, as though we were adults. What have we done? Why have you come for us?
Mamma dials quickly — my grandparents’ number.
She knows it by heart.
Signor Pierluigi, can you hear me?
It’s Tina. Signor Pierluigi, please come to the apartment, someone’s trying to break in.
Nonna Nuccia calls papà. Nonno Pier throws his shoes on and runs downstairs. He cuts through the parking garage and courtyard, crosses the few streets that separate us. Azalea Street, Begonia Street, Narcissus Street, Rhododendron Street. Nonno sprints to our house as fast as he can, he is coming to save us.
While nonno is still on his way, the man on the balcony gives up and flees.
Did he hear mamma making the phone call?
Nonno arrives, then papà.
My father — twenty-two years old — has already figured out what’s happened. He heads straight for Carmelo’s apartment, on the ground floor.
Do whatever the hell you want with your life, but don’t you dare fuck with my family.
Papà is confident: he tells mamma nobody was actually trying to break into the apartment. They just wanted to scare us. They wanted us to know who’s in charge. Carmelo is the resident mob boss of Hyacinth Street — he and his people carry weapons, run a black market. They knocked out all the interior walls in the basement of our building to use it as a warehouse for stolen goods. Our basement doesn’t belong to us; along with the basements of just about every other building in the street, it belongs to the petty criminals of Rozzano.
People complain, but nobody does anything.
You try standing up to those thugs …
One of these days I’ll report them to the carabinieri — the promise is made constantly, unanimously. People complain about the basements and all the rest of it, but things can only change if someone dies. And when they do change, it’s not always for the better. A new order is simply established, a new hierarchy. A new mob boss comes along.
It’s still drizzling outside. When nonno and papà arrive, they roll up the kitchen shutter and find the man’s footprints. The balcony has no tiles; while he’s saving up the money to fix it, papà has laid a sheet of plastic over the bare cement.
The man left his muddy footprints on the plastic.
He almost broke in once, he can easily try again. Mamma knows this; she says it to my father.
Roberto, I refuse to stay here alone. What is this awful place they’ve made us live in?
Tina, calm down, I’ll figure it out.
Everything’s going to be fine. I promise.