Bad-Time Dimitri

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Illustration by Pedro Gomes

When she wasn’t brandishing it despondently, Mom inspected the cordless phone, twisting it against her sternum as if she were performing hara-kiri. Dad was consoling her: “They haven’t disconnected it yet, it’s just out of batteries.”

“Would you cut it out with the dramatics? It was only a waste of money.” I had spent the last half-hour trying to justify what was a reasonable and necessary action: I had canceled their Telecom plan.

For years I had been aiming to get rid of the landline at my parents’ place, and now that I had succeeded, I had no intention of stopping there. The drawers needed to be emptied too. My mom’s bedroom dresser was impossible to open, exploding with old rolled-up bills squeezed together with rubber bands, warrantees for television sets and ovens and microwaves. From the back poured out a mess of flashlights, chipped scissors, little tubes of glue squeezed down to the last drop.

All of it, I wanted to get rid of all of it. Now was the chance to do so, and it wouldn’t come again. The decision had been made: they would move to another apartment, one that was smaller and more manageable. They were over seventy, already too old to take on a move, but also in an age range that calls for a bit of downsizing. On paper, a flawless and sensible reduction — often pushed for and encouraged by the offspring — but much less so when put into practice.

“What a shame, we had such a fine, beautiful number. And so easy to remember by heart. Think how many friends called you at 8077117 when you were still nice,” Mom said.

In her version of events, I had been still nice until I was eighteen, the same way I had been a good girl, an angel, up to seven and a half, melancholy until nine, before there came, of course, the nice interlude, and so on. My biography was punctuated by these sudden about-faces.

“And how many patients called me at 8077! Why did you discontinue it, couldn’t we have brought it with us?” said my dad, who was a doctor.

“I can’t give even an inch with you two, you’d only take advantage of it. Where’s the key to the safe box? It’s not in the hiding place.”

“It’s in the keyhole,” Mom said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“The one to the safe?”

“At least they won’t rip it from the wall or cause any damage. You don’t know what burglars are like — we do.”

“So then where is the jewelry?”

“In various other hiding places.”

“Various…other….Which ones?”

“They’ll come back to me sooner or later.”

“This is a move, not a treasure hunt. You two have been following me around in here like a pair of anxious shadows for weeks. I can’t take it anymore.”

“It’s not easy choosing when you have to downsize, Laura, when you have to go from a large space to a small one — no, it’s not easy,” Dad said. Every time he referenced his new living arrangement, he’d adopt a childlike way of sulking, which, while ridiculous, did make you feel bad for him.

“Do you hear it? Now it’s ringing, it’s come back to life,” Mom said, moving the cordless phone from her sternum.

“Thank goodness. I knew it,” Dad said, relieved.

“I sent the cancellation in every way possible, even by fax, but there’s no use,” I commented in exasperation.

“Answer.” Mom, her arm outstretched, handed me the receiver, as it was still called now and then in that household, especially if the call was urgent.

“No, it’s probably just someone trying to sell something.”

“It’s Dimitri.”

“Are you sure? Did it say his number?”

“You can just tell from the way it’s ringing that it’s him. Go ahead, answer Dimitri,” Dad said.

“You two can talk to him.”

“You can’t really manage. You don’t read the newspaper. He has nothing to talk to you about.”

“He’s not interested in you. He wants Dad. Or, at the very least, me,” my mom added. She seemed proud of that distinction.

For twenty-five years, every day — and for certain periods, multiple times a day — the phone would ring in my parents’ place, and on the other end a voice, disguised in falsetto, would come in: Is it a bad time? It’s me, Dimitri.

For a while, at least at the beginning, I couldn’t figure out if Dimitri was the first or last name of that unsettling vocal apparition. During the first phone call, which I had tried in vain to reconstruct, it seems that Dimitri had told Dad he’d been one of his patients. But Dad wasn’t sure, and every time I’d inquire about this first correspondence, he’d act powerless, like he had been drugged. No point in insisting; he didn’t remember a thing. Maybe, he’d speculate a little later, he had been tired, distractedly watching TV, and Dimitri had treated their past connection as such an obvious given that he didn’t feel like asking anything else — not the first time, and much less so the following times, when Dimitri would pop up every day out of nowhere, with his signature way of sounding distorted and, at the same time, natural. There was no need to explain anything; they were both there for each other, and that was enough. Their conversations always stuck to general topics: they talked about the weather, news stories on politics or crime, and often the discussion would end up fizzling out on kids these days who didn’t know how to follow good examples anymore. Dimitri taught something to someone, maybe middle-school history or geography, but his career was also irregular. Every now and then Mr. Dimitri would occupy the teacher’s desk in a high school, then in a heartbeat he’d be back at a middle school. For a little while, he became a special needs teacher, putting to rest his time giving lessons in prison, in Rebibbia — anyway, his educational employment, for which my parents harbored a deep respect, varied depending on his mood. I would become furious when I’d go to see them and find them in the act, on the phone. They had an unmistakable way of responding to this teacher, Mr. Dimitri: passive and shy.

Right, but this Dimitri — however you were supposed to write his name — who the hell was he? Why did he call? Granting that he actually had been a patient of my dad’s, he no longer seemed to have any need for a doctor. His health was never the point. I could walk into the apartment and immediately pick up the aura of Dimitri, like a special kind of atmosphere. Sometimes I could recognize that timid shyness even on the chairs in the entrance, and I’d run to pick up the phone in the kitchen.

Maria Rosaria, did you see the hailstorm yesterday? Seemed like the end of the world coming down, I heard him say to my mom once. And a piece of that hail fell on my head, it hit me like a stone, it was a revelation: Dimitri had picked his victims out from the phonebook, otherwise how would he have known my mother’s real name? She was Mimì to everyone. Maria Rosaria could only be found on her birth certificate and in the goddamn Telecom contract. But stranger still was the fact that she never asked for an explanation: she pocketed that Maria Rosaria, which she hated, like it was nothing. In response to my own deductions — Dimitri had sniffed them out randomly, he had flipped through the telephone registry and planted a finger, maybe he was dangerous — Mom would shut me down: People who call never go any further than that.

The noble fatalism with which my parents had accepted becoming the subject of a stranger’s fanatic harassment left me speechless, but little by little I also got used to Dimitri. Until the mother appeared.

Mrs. Di (space) Mitri — thanks to dialing the missed calls service, I had discovered that the number persecuting us was listed under the name of an Elsa Di Mitri — had started making a call or two herself, though more rarely, and preferably for major holidays. On New Year’s, especially, she wanted to make sure she thanked my parents for their kindness toward her son. She was right: if I were Mrs. Di Mitri I also would have made the effort to thank them; others would’ve had him reported. Too bad that Mrs. Di Mitri didn’t exist, at least not the one calling us. It was the same little falsetto, but transformed into a raspy, sure voice. It could have even passed for the voice of an old smoker, but it was the same voice, still him on the other end of the line. His more manly and sure side, he let his mother perform that role: He’s crazy, sure, he might very well be crazy. But why are you so harsh? What has he ever done to you? My parents managed to get past even this pitfall: conversing about the weather with Norman Bates didn’t seem so weird to them. And anyway, Dad swore that the mother existed, it was the only thing he had been sure about from the beginning. Actually, sometimes when Dimitri was talking, you could hear his mamma’s voice. Hearing him call that thing mamma, almost affectionately, sent me out of my head, and I’d picture before my eyes this scene with a madman shut up all alone in a spooky interior, moving the phone back and forth with himself as he played all of the parts in a play for my father, who, unfazed, was watching TV.

We had never been like other families. My mom, who used to leave the house with a coat over her pajamas to take me to school, aroused suspicion, and my dad, who bred piranhas in our fishbowls, scared my classmates. That childhood shame still stung, and I felt that Dimitri could only happen to us. He was part of us, one of the family. I started to answer him too. I meant to put him back in his place — we were a little bit bizarre, but he was certifiable, and in some areas these nuances count. I would insult him: Leave us alone, you psychopath. I’ll report you, I don’t give a shit about your students, and what students, anyway? Who do you think’s falling for this? I’ll come by your house and rip your mamma’s wig from your head. I know where you live. But nothing; Dimitri would giggle uncontrollably, as if my insults tickled him. Dad would grab the phone out of my hand and say he was sorry. Dimitri would reply: Your daughter is so dear to me, poor thing, she’s an only child, just like me — an affiliation that inspired in me an unspeakable rage. I was so pissed about the whole Dimitri situation that, in the end, I decided to let it go: if my parents wanted to end up with their throats slashed, chopped up, stuffed in a freezer in lots of little packets, that was their business. I didn’t live in that home; I couldn’t supervise them.

But Dimitri, like anyone enjoying complete impunity, ended up making a mistake. Tired of their little chats — and after twenty years of weather bulletins, I could relate for once — he started simply “giving us a ring.” He’d give a single ring, and immediately hang up, then after fifteen minutes another ring, and then another, all day and all night. He let fly telephone rings in our home like bullets. They really seemed like shots in search of a target. I might have preferred them to his voice, but my parents didn’t. For a few weeks they pretended to go through the motions: Dad inquired whether Dimitri’s phone happened to be broken, or if he had accidentally activated some automatic calling service — in short, he tried to communicate, nicely, that his new vice was not appreciated. Dimitri apologized, and in all sincerity confessed, I can’t help it. His voice was still the same, distorted, but during this phase he had assumed a whiny child’s tone. In fact, my dad would say to him, Let me speak to Mamma. And his response: No, please, I won’t do it again.

Maybe it was time to forget about Mamma and call the police; I suggested as much, and it gave me some satisfaction to see my parents finally nervous. But how, they replied, what could the police do? They have much bigger things to worry about, the police. They were the ones who had to make him stop, only the two of them could do it. The threat of telling his mother soon translated into action. During a few sleepy afternoons and sleepless nights studded with ringing, Dad grabbed the phone and called the Di Mitri household: …Doctor, I know, forgive him, I even punished him, but my son’s having a hard time, a terrible time, please, you’re a doctor, help me. Disarmed by this pleading, Dad recommended to Dimitri — sometimes via his mom, sometimes directly — that he take sedatives, sleeping pills, painkillers. He even went to the trouble of prescribing them for him; he wanted to go give him a medical visit. But Dimitri refused, and faced with the idea of receiving a visit, he stopped ringing for a while. Then he started again, and for a couple of years the three of them were always at loggerheads. At home it was a constant slamming of the phone in the other’s face, a pulling of the plug from the wall and secretly plugging it back in, like in the thick of some conspiracy, as subtle as it was obtuse. Once I even heard my mom tell Dimitri that he was an asshole. He wasn’t crazy; he was an asshole, like a friend who has disappointed you.

“I’m not answering him,” I said to my mom, who still had her arm outstretched.

“When we go, he’ll be all alone.”

“He has the old bag in a wig to keep him company.”

“You’re so stupid when you act like that.” Then Mom pushed the talk button. Thrown off by this resolute and assertive move, I grabbed the phone. Immediately I heard: “Bad time?”

“Yes, and you know it.”

“Laura, is that you? How nice to hear you.”

It seemed like there was something different from his usual voice, it sounded a little clearer, lighter. It sounded younger.

“Dad went out, Mom’s in the bathroom, and I have tons to do.”

“Did you see on TV? What a disaster with that airplane, so many people dead at the bottom of the sea.”

“Right, so many people dead,” I said, and I saw my dad nodding. Finally I understood: whatever he said, that’s how you needed to treat Dimitri, with distracted acquiescence.

“But ending up underwater isn’t so bad, little by little those nice madrepores grow on you, fish make their den in your eyes.”

“Goodbye, my cell’s ringing,” I lied, because that deep-sea metamorphosis was pulling me in. I had to avoid staying to listen to him and falling into his trap forever.

“Can I call back tomorrow?”

“Hope not, I canceled the phone plan.”

Dimitri hung up immediately.

“Hello…Hello? Hello!” I couldn’t believe what he had just done. It wasn’t like him; Dimitri always took his leave with endless ceremony, even when he got called an asshole by Mom or a psycho by me. I was surprised by my own concern over whether I’d hurt him.

“Well, what happened?” Dad asked me.

“We got cut off.”

“Do you think they cut it right now? As he was talking?”

“Maybe,” I said to my mom. It seemed both possible and terrifying, witnessing in real time that death which I had sent for myself.

Dimitri disappeared for the next few days, but the landline still worked; I had tested it. There were many conclusive moments in those hours of silence: Mom remembered all of the hiding spots, and Dad helped me throw out, in several tall garbage bags, what felt like gallons of bills, warrantees, old prescription pads, even planners from 1988 on which I had drawn flowers with a ballpoint pen. I wouldn’t be moved by my doodles, those things happen. I pitilessly called over a couple who looked homeless. The woman was dragging a shopping cart, and the man was poking through the bins with a knitting needle. I handed them a hairdryer, broken blenders, a few remote controls. “They can make some money at the dump. You did a good thing helping them. They’re all great kids, the ones you see around with knitting needles,” my mom commented. Dad pointed out to her: “It’s not a knitting needle. It’s a hook made from an antenna.”

I listened to the same old back-and-forths from my parents. Their incontestable way of looking at the world had always been a kind of background noise which passed the time: maybe, with the downsizing, there was the risk that they’d change. But it had to be done, and I didn’t let nostalgia get the better of me in advance. Just one extraneous thought tainted this fairly normal mix of held-back emotion and desire to clear out everything: Dimitri had vanished, he had stopped calling. It wasn’t easy to admit, but I was waiting for just one ring, one pestering sign of life.

* * *

There the name was, on the buzzer: Di – space – Mitri. After twenty-five years, I was there, standing in front of an austere building in Rome’s Trieste neighborhood.

“Who are you looking for?” the super asked, coming out from behind his booth.

“Di Mitri.”

“There’s no point wasting your time buzzing, you won’t get an answer.”

“Is anyone in now?”

“I think so. Who are you?”

“A family friend.”

He looked at me, somewhat suspiciously. He didn’t know who I was, but I didn’t seem dangerous: “Go up and see if someone opens. You might get an answer if Di Mitri’s bored — it happens. Had to go through two burglaries, because of boredom.”

“Which floor?”

“The top. Could you leave me your license, please?”

“I’m not a thief,” I snapped back.

“Then why are you scared of giving me your license?”

“I don’t drive.”

“Medical card?”

I gave him my passport — I had a bad habit of carrying it around everywhere — as if entering that space amounted to crossing a border.

The sound of some wheezy doorbells distresses me, and the one to the Di Mitri home was the wheeziest I had ever heard. I knocked a couple of times at the door.

“It’s me, it’s Laura,” I said. I didn’t hear any movement on the other side, but the silence of a spy holding his breath.

“Go ahead, open it. See? I’m not afraid of you, let me in.”

I heard something rubbery, a tiny pop, maybe lips smacking.

“Do you want to talk like this? I can hear you, do you hear me, Dimitri?”

“Yes, I hear you, dear.”

It was the mother’s voice. So he had decided to be her.

“Ma’am, is your son home?” I was complying for the first time with the rules imposed on me.

“No. Stefano’s not here,” she said. Stefano was his name, but I had needed to go all the way there to find this out.

“Could you open at least a crack?”

The metallic jangling of a bunch of keys caught me unprepared. I took a step back. Those three turns in the lock felt eternal. The elevator was still at the floor; it was one of those waxed, dark ones, with a seat. I opened the shutter. If things got ugly, I was ready to escape.

“I’m sorry…” I stammered, confused. I was speechless, because Mamma was there, she existed: a woman, not even that old, elegant and soberly dressed. Where was the wig? The heavy make-up? All the fetishes of the dressed-up maniac?

“Do you want to come in or not, dear? Changed your mind? It’s not too late.”

I followed her into a home that was as reassuring as one could imagine — tidy, full of books, bright, and painted shades of green. There was the aroma of bergamot tea. She had me sit on a beige, recently reupholstered cotton sofa. Even the curtains drooped fresh on the floor. I noticed all of those signs of renewal because I had spent weeks in a home that was falling apart, choking from the dust, throwing my exhausted body on caved-in seats while desperately stroking worn, velvet cushions. In comparison to Mrs. Di Mitri, we were pathetic.

“So, what in the world brings you here?” she just came out with it, and she was actually waiting for an answer, too, one that was not so immediate at the moment.

“Why…to know…why your family has been calling us all of these years,” I said, staring stupidly at the points of my shoes.

“Because your father helped us a great deal.”

“How? Will you tell me, please? I don’t know, and neither does he.”

One night in 1979, Dad was on-call in the hospital. Being on-call was rough then; you’d constantly get derelicts armed with knives who wanted to empty out the cabinets where they kept the methadone. The emergency room could be a scary place. Dad would lie down on a cot and sleep in small, interrupted spurts, the way people used to sleep in those bunks in night trains. Around two o’clock, the head nurse came into the room and told him: “Doctor, there’s a crazy person who says he has a drill in his head.” “An addict?” my father asked. “No, this one’s just crazy, and his mother is with him.” Mrs. Di Mitri, who was standing behind the nurse, said: “Please see him, come, hurry.”

Dad was able to understand that that barefoot kid, twitchy with nervous tics, aphasic and almost impossible to approach, really did have a drill in his head; it was no hallucination.

“He was fantastic at distinguishing what was real from what was false, something a doctor needs to know how to do. An aneurysm: he immediately diagnosed it from his stiff neck. He saw him just in time,” she said.

“But it was 1979, and the two of you didn’t start calling us until much later. Why so much later, what happened in the middle?” I asked, looking around for any traces of Dimitri. I was sure that he was there, older, but still barefoot, holed up some place. In the back of the living room was a small, arched door, which I was staring at like it was a person.

“Many years passed, some bad, some good. Stefano went in waves, he graduated, he even taught, he did some substituting at a private school. He seemed stable. But then he got worse, rapidly so; he was going from one clinic to the next. On December 15, 1990, he died: cardiac arrest. That’s what the doctor at the clinic said, but he wasn’t good like your dad — what does cardiac arrest mean? That’s what happens all the time, to everyone: the heart stops, and the person dies. It’s not a thorough medical report, it’s a trivial observation. The only thing they cared about was sedating him, and I let them do it.”

“Whose voice was it then? Who called us?”

Confronted with such a shabby end, for which she felt partly responsible, Mrs. Di Mitri kept thinking back to that young on-call doctor who had been able to distinguish between the real and the false, and she developed a desire to thank him, to talk to him, even just to tell him that Stefano was no longer with us. She remembered his name, but didn’t find him in the phonebook. And so she called the hospital and they gave her a number, that 8077117 which was listed under a woman named Maria Rosaria Savini. Awkwardly, without getting her hopes up, she called.

“He picked up, but he caught me off guard: Your father didn’t remember anything about us, nothing from that night. It was obvious, but he kept pretending: Of course, your son, how could I forget? Di Mitri. How is he then? He’s doing well? Almost as a joke, I responded sarcastically: He’s great. Wait one second, I’ll put him on. And he said: Let me switch phones. I can’t hear too well with this one.”

Dad gave her the time to slip into her fantasy. It was extremely useful for her to pretend, but Mrs. Di Mitri didn’t know it until that moment.

“I just fell into it out of inertia, you know when you’re dragged into something through circumstance? Let’s see if he can tell, I thought, let’s see how long it lasts. But, from the first instant, playing that role gave me a sense of comfort, it felt like Stefano was still alive, the same crazy Stefano. Don’t look at me like that.”

“I don’t know how I’m looking at you.”

“A lot of people turn to a medium, but why, when you can do it yourself? And it works.”

After she had started faking, the voice began to come out on its own. And then, if you have someone there to listen — someone who doesn’t care a thing about believing it but does believe — it’s further confirmation.

“You need to put in the work yourself for them to come back. Forget the medium,” she said, picking a piece of lint from her skirt and studying it disapprovingly, the disapproval she showed for everything out of place. This woman, I thought, will always be the mamma of a crazy barefoot kid with nervous tics.

“But,” she went on, “at a certain point, Stefano’s voice didn’t feel the same as before, only at times. So, I would start to call, but then I’d hang up. Then I’d try again. I’m sorry I bothered you so much.”

“Everything is so tidy in your home. I like tidy people,” I said.

“If you like it, you can come back whenever you feel like it.”

* * *

As soon as I walked through the door, Mom nervously came toward me in the hallway: “Why were you there?”

“How did you know?”

“Dimitri called.”

“Dimitri isn’t the one calling. It’s his mother.”

“It was him, he let us hear your voice while you were talking to her.”

“That’s not possible, when did he call?”

“Must have been an hour ago, maybe more.”

“Dimitri died in 1990.”

“Dead or alive, it was him.”

I picked up the phone, and the voice was already there waiting for me. This time it was unequivocally different: limpid, listening to it you felt like you could see it flowing by. “It’s Stefano,” the voice said, “I’m all bloated. When you cut the line, a little water leaked out of my stomach, but not all of it. It’s the drugs, they give them to me until I could explode.”

I hung up. I could no longer make out my parents’ words; I saw their lips moving in silence. The water was muffling my hearing: I heard it in the pipes, it hissed in the radiator, covered by damp laundry. I didn’t know where I was anymore, if it was our home or if for twenty-five years we had been obliviously moving inside the bloated body of Dimitri. Buried alive, underwater.