Spotlight: The Last Cigarette

On September 26, 2009, at about a quarter past one in the morning, while outside, a cloudy night sky was closing in on Padua, he, lying on his king-sized futon next to his profoundly asleep wife, was shaken by a violent cough. Eyes staring into the dark bedroom, he was overcome by the age-old fear of asphyxia. When he started breathing normally again, he got up, stumbled to the bathroom, entered the darkness there, leaned on the sink and started coughing again. When it stopped and he turned on the light, he noticed that the white porcelain, the faucet, and the edge of the toothbrush holder were covered in tiny specks of blood. He stood perfectly still for a second. He could hear his wife moving in their bed, as if she were pulling up the covers, and then becoming still again. He cleaned the sink with some water, dried his hands, wet his forehead, his cheeks and neck. The reflection in the mirror was that of a middle-aged man, balding and terrified; underneath, he could read the caption: lung cancer at the age of forty-two. He had started smoking when he was fourteen and a half, at school, in October, at recess. He got his first cigarette—a Merit—from a friend who would steal the money from his mom to buy them. In a year’s time, he was smoking a pack a day. His wife kept asking him to quit; she made him promise every New Year’s Eve, the minute they raised their champagne glasses. He would have liked to quit, but he couldn’t. He’d try and then start up again almost immediately. Cancer seemed, in his opinion, to be a remote possibility—something that happened to other people, like the lightning that struck shepherds in summer, at random, in the fields, at night. But the blood in the bathroom sink was undeniably his. He ran a hand through his hair. He had never been so close to death. He closed his eyes. His chest ached. He opened his eyes again. He peed, trembling. The kids’ toys were in the tub: a dinosaur, a Hot Wheels, a small-winged Winx. He turned the light off. The silence in the condominium sounded like distant thunder, barely audible. Before returning to the bedroom, he stopped at the door of his kids’ room, taking in that warm darkness full of breaths. In the semi-darkness, he noticed that his son had thrown off his blanket and had wrapped his legs around the enormous stuffed dog they’d bought at Ikea some months earlier. His daughter slept arms spread out, mouth open, eyes closed. What was she, a four year old, dreaming about? A shiver ran down his spine: Those two would soon lose their father, and he, too, would lose them forever. Morning came slowly. At five it was still dark, and was raining heavily; at six the white light of dawn started to filter through the blinds. He got up, went to the kitchen and looked out. Fat yellow leaves floated in enormous puddles that dotted the road; he went back to bed and tried to fall asleep. His neighbor’s alarm clock went off at half past six, and was immediately silenced: an oversight. At seven his wife yawned; at seven-fifteen, she yawned again; then she woke up, one piece at a time. When she opened her eyes, he told her about what had happened that night; she minimized it, or tried to. The children woke up at eight-fifteen and they got in the big bed with them. The little one, in her pink Hello Kitty pajamas, took his face in her tiny hands and kissed his cheek noisily—she did that every Sunday. His boy, who was six, and was particularly proud of his Ben 10 pajamas, was missing one front tooth; his wife tickled him to see his sweet lopsided smile. The warmth, the limpid intimacy that marked their Sunday mornings, like a sort of family ritual, now tugged at his heartstrings. How could he separate himself from his children? How would he find the strength? In the bright light of that autumn morning, he understood that the meaning of life had always escaped him; and that disarming, unbearable thought was a gift that death was awarding him: a reparation of sorts.

But it wasn’t cancer: Death was not pointing a finger at him. Two weeks later, a sixty-or-so-year-old doctor, who looked like he had seen too much pain to still feel pleasure, told him he had nothing: nothing. They had x-rayed him, CAT scanned him, ultrasound scanned him, twice; they’d ordered ten pages of blood tests, urine tests; they’d palpated and examined; they had moved him from one doctor’s table to another, from one doctor to another. Nothing. His cells continued to reproduce normally. The blood that had stained his sink on the night between September 26th and 27th was probably just the consequence of a particularly violent cough. But he had to stop smoking: Everyone said so. He was still young enough to benefit from the immediate suspension of that stupid habit. You won’t be forty forever, said the sixty-year-old physician; don’t forget that. And he, lying almost naked on those cold doctors’ tables, had an overwhelming desire to have grandchildren, to spend Christmas with his grown-up children. He absolutely had to meet their future families. Who would his daughter fall in love with? Would her husband be like him? And his boy, who at six had an almost paternal love for his little sister, and his class mates: What kind of father would he be? He imagined him tall, with a beard that was impossible to imagine now, and a child on his shoulders: They were both smiling and the child was missing a tooth. When he completed all the physicals, and he was finally spared, he promised his wife he would never smoke again. The packet he had bought on the morning of the 26th at the tobacconist’s near his house lay closed in a desk-drawer in his study, like an alternative he had decided against. To him, it was as if death itself were locked in that wooden prison.

He resisted. He put on an inevitable ten kilos, which, in part, he lost the next spring when he joined a gym. And even if it wasn’t true, he told everyone he could really taste the flavor of food again. He was less tired in the evening. Every once in a while he really craved one—especially after lunch, while the taste of coffee lingered in his mouth. But he resisted. He thought about his children. Their future. Before going to bed at night, he would go into their room, stand near their beds, and it seemed to him that there was nothing more beautiful than his two children sleeping peacefully: Their fragility was safe under the roof that he and his wife had built, or bought. When at night it thundered, his little girl would slip into the big bed, and cuddle up close to him, because she knew her father was stronger than the storm. On some nights his boy would help him clear the table, carrying the plates one at a time, stumbling between the dining room and the kitchen, as proud as could be. Sometimes, the boy would yell at his sister. Lovingly, tenderly, firmly, he would tell his son not to yell but saw himself in his son’s stance.

After so many years of empty days, he was suddenly happy. Up to now, he had floated on the surface of life; now, finally, he had leapt into the palpitating heart of his existence, fully: Death, which had, for one night, touched his home, his life, had awarded him a new outlook—clearer, deeper, fuller.

The night of September 26, 2010, he and his children were home alone. His wife had gone to a meeting planned by a cousin of his who had just had a baby and, to pass the time or to earn a little extra money, sold products for the home: air fresheners for the bathroom and herbal toothpastes. The children were a little older now: His son had a huge new front tooth in the place of the one he had lost, but was missing the other one; and his daughter had started acting like a pretty little miss. In the morning she would ask her mother to braid her hair. She was in love with a friend in nursery school, or at least she thought she was; and as soon as she got home, she would tell them that she and Luca had slept next to each other after lunch. The teacher said that they often held hands.

They ate. They watched a few cartoons. Then the children asked if they could take a bath, both of them: It was a while since they had taken one together. A few months earlier his wife started saying that they were too big, and that it wasn’t proper. They insisted a bit. In the end, he said yes. He prepared the tub. His little boy went to get the dinosaurs he kept in his room; his little girl scurried under the bed to get two Winx. He turned on the electric heater to warm the bathroom, then, diligently, turned it off, and put it back in the cupboard under the sink. He looked at the toothbrush glass: Had there really been blood on it a year before, or was it just a bad dream? The children got undressed, threw their toys in the tub, and jumped into the warm water. He could still see the lines of their bathing suits. He told them not to squirt water on the floor, and to behave; he winked at his little boy, who smiled. Then he went to get their bathrobes. He passed in front of his study. Was his packet of cigarettes still inside his desk drawer, or had his wife thrown it away? He opened it. It was still there. He lifted the cardboard lid: There was one left. He pulled it out. Exactly a year had passed since that night with the blood, and the panic. In the end, he had won. He was free. Sure of that fact, he wanted to try the thrill of that last cigarette.

He went to the kitchen, turned on the gas burner, leaned his head in and, careful not to burn his hair, lit the cigarette. While he was going out onto the balcony, he looked at the clock on the oven: It was nine thirty-four. He closed the door behind him—he didn’t want the smoke to filter into the house. He leaned his back against the wall, and breathed in deeply. The sky was bright, lit up by the yellow lights of Padua. He could see the Big Dipper up above. In summer, before going to bed, he would go out onto the balcony, sit on the white lawn chair, light a cigarette and look at the stars: Month after month, they moved slowly north. He breathed in again. An airplane flashed through the sky. What if it were to explode right above his house? He imagined the ball of fire lighting up the sky, the deafening crack that would come immediately afterwards, the pieces of aircraft falling to the ground. A huge wing would fall right in the garden in front of his place; and the bodies, the bodies of the passengers … how would they fall? A human downpour. Crashing sounds as they hit the ground. He shivered. What were the chances of an airplane exploding then and there? He waited. The shiny outline disappeared silently. No explosion. Lightning, blood in the sink: The wheel rarely stopped at death in the lottery of life. On the balcony opposite his, a man wearing underwear and an undershirt appeared with a cigarette dangling from his lips and waved from across the garden that separated them. He waved too, drawing a luminous circle with the red tip of his cigarette. Had the neighbor, too, imagined the airplane explode in flight? He looked at the clock in the kitchen: nine thirty-eight. A smoke, therefore, took four minutes. He went back in.

It took him a bit to understand that the shrieking he heard was his son’s voice: It seemed much older, much more distant—but it was coming from the bathroom down the hall. How long had he been screaming? He was calling out desperately: Papa, Papa, Papa. He ran. He opened the door. His little girl was floating head down near her Winx; a T-rex was looking on from the edge of the tub, white-eyed, paws held out as if praying. She’s not breathing, shrieked his son, she’s not breathing anymore, she’s not breathing, and he cried, mouth open wide, tooth  missing, face exactly like his father’s. And he, holding the wet lifeless body in his arms, thought about the blood in the sink, the airplane falling suddenly, the drawer with his cigarettes, the lightning that in summer struck down the creatures of the earth, at random, like a blind and terrible finger.


L’ultima sigaretta

Il 26 settembre 2009, intorno all’una e un quarto della notte, mentre fuori un cielo pieno di nuvole scure si chiudeva intorno a Padova, lui, disteso sul letto matrimoniale in stile futon, accanto al sonno profondo di sua moglie, fu scosso da un attacco improvviso e violentissimo di tosse: con gli occhi sbarrati sull’oscurità della camera, sperimentò l’antichissimo terrore dell’asfissia. Quando riprese a respirare, si alzò, barcollò fino al bagno, entrò in quel buio, appoggiò le mani ai bordi del lavandino, e riprese a tossire. Quando smise, e accese la luce, vide che la porcellana bianca, il rubinetto, il bordo del bicchiere con i quattro spazzolini, erano ricoperti da minuscole goccioline rosse. Rimase fermo per qualche secondo. Udì sua moglie muoversi nel letto, come se si stesse sistemando le coperte sulle spalle, e tornare immobile. Con un po’ d’acqua pulì il lavandino; si asciugò le mani; si bagnò la fronte, le guance, il collo. Lo specchio davanti gli mostrava l’immagine del volto di un uomo di mezza età, un po’ stempiato e pieno di paura; sotto, scorrevano i sottotitoli: cancro ai polmoni, a quarantadue anni. Aveva iniziato a fumare a quattordici anni e mezzo, a scuola, in ottobre, durante l’intervallo: la prima sigaretta – una Merit – gliela offrì un suo compagno di classe che rubava alla madre i soldi per comprarsele. Nel giro di qualche anno, arrivò a un pacchetto al giorno. Sua moglie insisteva perché smettesse; se lo faceva promettere ogni capodanno, mentre facevano tintinnare i bicchieri pieni di spumante. Lui avrebbe voluto, ma non ci riusciva. Ci provava, ma riprendeva quasi subito. Il cancro tutto sommato gli sembrava un’eventualità piuttosto remota – qualcosa che poteva succedere solo agli altri, come quei fulmini che d’estate colpivano pastori a caso, in campagna, di notte. Ma il sangue sul lavandino del bagno gli apparteneva in modo inequivocabile. Si passò una mano tra i capelli. Non era mai stato così vicino alla morte. Chiuse gli occhi. Il petto gli faceva male. Riaprì gli occhi. Pisciò tremando. Nella vasca da bagno erano rimasti i giocattoli dei bimbi: un dinosauro, una macchina delle Hot Wheels, una piccola Winx con le ali. Spense la luce. Il silenzio del condominio sembrava un rombo lontanissimo, appena percettibile. Prima di tornare in camera, si fermò davanti alla stanza dei bambini, e gettò uno sguardo su quel buio caldo e pieno di respiri: nella penombra, vide che il grande aveva gettato a terra il copriletto e ora stringeva tra le gambe un enorme cane che avevano comprato all’Ikea, qualche mese prima; la piccola teneva le braccia aperte, la bocca spalancata, gli occhi chiusi: cosa stava sognando, quella creatura di quattro anni? Ebbe un brivido profondo lungo la schiena: presto, quei due piccoli avrebbero perso il padre, e lui, avrebbe perso loro per sempre.

La mattina arrivò lentamente. Alle cinque era ancora buio, e pioveva forte; alle sei la luce bianca dell’alba iniziò ad infilarsi tra le tapparelle: lui si alzò dal letto, andò in cucina, guardò giù: foglie gialle e gonfie galleggiavano nelle enormi pozzanghere che riempivano la strada; tornò a letto, cercando di dormire. La sveglia dei vicini suonò alle sei e mezza, e fu subito spenta: una dimenticanza. Alle sette sua moglie sbadigliò, alle sette e quattro sbadigliò di nuovo, poi, si svegliò, un pezzo alla volta. Quando lei aprì gli occhi, lui le raccontò cos’era successo quella notte; lei minimizzò, o cercò di farlo. I bambini si svegliarono alle otto e un quarto, e si infilarono nel lettone. La piccola, tutta rosa nel suo pigiama di Hello Kitty, gli prese il viso tra le minuscole mani, e gli baciò una guancia con uno schiocco – lo faceva tutte le domeniche. Al grande, che aveva sei anni, e che era particolarmente orgoglioso del suo pigiama di Ben 10, mancava un dente davanti; sua moglie gli fece un po’ di solletico per vedere quel sorriso sbilenco pieno di simpatia. Quelle calde tenerezze, quell’intimità senza ombre che accompagnavano tutte le loro domeniche mattina, come un rito fondativo della famiglia, ora gli straziavano il cuore. Come avrebbe salutato quei bambini? Con quale coraggio? Nella luce vivida di quella mattina autunnale, gli fu chiaro che il senso della vita gli era sempre sfuggito; e quella consapevolezza disarmante e insostenibile era un dono che la morte gli anticipava, come una specie di risarcimento.

Ma non era cancro: la morte non aveva puntato il dito contro di lui. Due settimane dopo quella notte, un dottore sulla sessantina, con lo sguardo di chi aveva visto troppo dolore per poter essere ancora felice, gli disse che non aveva nulla: nulla. Gli avevano fatto i raggi X, una TAC, due ecografie, dieci pagine di esami del sangue, urine, palpazioni, ispezioni – il suo corpo era passato da un lettino all’altro, osservato da medici sempre diversi. Nulla. Le sue cellule continuavano a riprodursi con i ritmi consueti. Il sangue che aveva sporcato il lavandino durante la notte tra il 26 e il 27 settembre probabilmente era la meccanica conseguenza di una tosse particolarmente violenta. Ma doveva smettere di fumare: questo glielo dissero tutti. Era ancora abbastanza giovane perché l’interruzione immediata di quello stupido vizio sortisse qualche effetto. Lei non avrà quarant’anni per tutta la vita, gli disse il medico sessantenne, ci pensi. E a lui, quasi nudo sui lettini gelidi di quei gelidi dottori, venne una grandissima, improvvisa voglia di nipotini, di Natali trascorsi con i suoi figli ormai grandi – voleva assolutamente conoscere le famiglie che avrebbero avuto. Di chi si sarebbe innamorata la piccola? Suo marito sarebbe assomigliato a lui? E il grande, che a sei anni mostrava già un senso quasi paterno verso sua sorella e i suoi compagni di classe, che genitore sarebbe stato? Lo vedeva alto, con una barba che adesso era impossibile immaginare, e un bambino sulle spalle; sorridevano entrambi, e al piccolo, mancava un dente. Quando finì tutte le visite, e fu finalmente graziato, promise a sua moglie che non avrebbe più fumato. Il pacchetto che aveva comprato il 26 mattina, al negozio di tabacchi vicino a casa, rimase chiuso in un cassetto della scrivania nello studio, come un’alternativa alla quale si era detto di no. Gli pareva che in quella prigione di legno fosse rinchiusa la morte.

Resistette. Mise su l’inevitabile decina di chili, che però in parte perse in primavera iscrivendosi in palestra. Anche se non era vero, diceva a tutti che aveva ripreso a sentire il gusto del cibo. La sera era meno stanco. Ogni tanto gli veniva una voglia feroce di fumarsene una – specialmente dopo pranzo, quando la bocca sapeva di caffè. Ma resistette. Pensava ai suoi figli. Al loro futuro. Prima di andare a dormire, si fermava in camera loro, accanto ai loro lettini, e gli pareva che non esistesse nulla di più bello di quelle creature che dormivano serene: quelle fragilità trovavano riparo sotto il tetto che lui e sua moglie avevano costruito, o comprato. Quando la notte tuonava, la piccola si infilava nel lettone, e si stringeva a lui, perché sapeva che il papà era più forte del temporale. Certe sere il grande lo aiutava a sparecchiare; portava due piatti alla volta, barcollando tra il salotto e la cucina, pieno di orgoglio. A volte, sgridava sua sorella, con affetto, tenerezza, fermezza: lui gli diceva di non farlo, ma si riconosceva in quei gesti.

Dopo tanti anni di giornate vuote, era improvvisamente diventato felice. Fino ad allora, aveva galleggiato sulla superficie della vita; adesso, finalmente si era tuffato nel cuore palpitante della sua esistenza, fino in fondo: la morte che per una notte aveva lambito la sua casa, la sua vita, gli aveva regalato uno sguardo nuovo – più lucido, più profondo, più vivo.

La sera del 26 settembre del 2010, lui e i suoi figli rimasero a casa da soli. Sua moglie era andata a una riunione organizzata dalla cugina del marito: da poco aveva avuto un figlio e, per passare il tempo o per integrare lo stipendio, vendeva detersivi per la casa, profumi per il bagno, dentifrici alle erbe. Per cena, prepararono tortellini. I bimbi nel frattempo erano un po’ cresciuti – il grande aveva sostituito il dente che aveva perso con un nuovo incisivo sproporzionato, ma aveva perso l’altro; la piccola aveva iniziato da qualche mese ad avere atteggiamenti leziosi, da femminuccia. La mattina chiedeva alla mamma di farle le treccine. Si era innamorata di un suo compagno all’asilo, o così le sembrava: dopo pranzo, raccontava quando tornava a casa, lei e Luca dormivano in due lettini vicini. La maestra disse che spesso si tenevano per mano.

Mangiarono. Guardarono un po’ di cartoni. Poi i bambini gli chiesero se potevano fare il bagnetto, loro due: era molto che non lo facevano insieme. Sua moglie, da qualche mese, aveva iniziato ad essere contraria, le sembrava che non avessero più l’età, che non fosse bello. Insistettero un po’. Alla fine, lui disse di sì.

Preparò la vasca. Il grande prese alcuni dinosauri che teneva in camera e li portò in bagno; la piccola raccolse due Winx da sotto il letto. Accese una stufetta per scaldare l’aria, poi diligentemente, la spense, e la ripose nel mobile sotto il lavandino. Guardò il bicchiere degli spazzolini: c’era stato davvero del sangue, lì sopra, un anno prima, o era stato solo un brutto sogno? I bambini si spogliarono, gettarono i loro giochi nell’acqua, si infilarono in quel tepore bagnato. Avevano ancora il segno chiaro del costume. Lui si raccomandò di non fare schizzi sul pavimento, e di comportarsi bene; strizzò l’occhio al grande, che sorrise. Poi uscì a prendere gli accappatoi. Passò davanti allo studio. Dentro al cassetto della scrivania, c’era ancora il pacchetto di sigarette, o sua moglie lo aveva buttato via? Lo aprì. C’era. Sollevò il piccolo coperchio di cartone: ne era rimasta una. La tirò fuori. Era passato un anno esatto da quella notte di sangue, e spavento. Alla fine, aveva vinto lui. Era libero. Fu per questa sicurezza che volle provare l’ebbrezza dell’ultima sigaretta.

Andò in cucina, accese la fiamma azzurra del fornello, chinò la testa facendo attenzione ai capelli, e si accese la sigaretta. Mentre usciva in terrazza, guardò l’orologio sopra il forno: segnava le 21 e 34. Si chiuse la porta dietro – non voleva che il fumo entrasse in casa. Si appoggiò con la schiena al muro, e aspirò forte. Il cielo era chiaro, illuminato dalle luci gialle di Padova. In alto, si intravedeva la costellazione dell’Orsa Maggiore. D’estate, prima di andare a dormire, andava in terrazza, si sedeva su una sdraio di plastica bianca, si accendeva una sigaretta, e guardava le stelle: mese dopo mese, si spostavano tutte insieme verso nord. Aspirò ancora. Nel cielo, il luccichio di un aereo. E se fosse esploso in volo, proprio mentre passava là sopra? Immaginò la palla di fuoco illuminare il cielo, il boato assordante che sarebbe arrivato dopo qualche secondo, i pezzi della carlinga che cadevano giù. Un’ala immensa si sarebbe piantata nel giardino davanti casa; e i corpi… come sarebbero scesi, i corpi dei passeggeri? Una pioggia umana. Il tonfo quando arrivavano a terra. Rabbrividì. Quante possibilità c’erano che quell’aereo esplodesse in quel preciso istante? Aspettò qualche secondo. La sagoma luccicante si allontanò in silenzio. Nessuna esplosione. Il fulmine, il sangue sul lavandino: la morte esce raramente, nella ruota della vita. Nella terrazza della casa davanti comparve un uomo in mutande e canottiera, che teneva una sigaretta in bocca; con la mano fece il gesto del saluto, da una parte all’altra del giardino; lui ricambiò, disegnando un cerchio luminoso con la brace rossa della sua sigaretta. Aveva visto anche lui, l’aereo esplodere in volo? Buttò un’occhiata all’orologio della cucina: 21.38. Una fumata, dunque, durava quattro minuti. Rientrò.

Non capì subito che la voce che sentiva urlare era quella di suo figlio: sembrava molto più adulta, molto più lontana – e invece veniva dal bagno, in fondo al corridoio. Da quanto gridava? Lo chiamava disperato: papà, papà, papà. Corse. Aprì la porta. La piccola galleggiava immobile accanto alle sue Winx; un TRex la guardava dal bordo della vasca, gli occhi bianchi, le zampe davanti come in preghiera. Non respira, gridava il grande, non respira più, non respira, e piangeva, con la bocca spalancata, con il dente che gli mancava, con il viso uguale a quello di suo padre. E lui,  con il corpo bagnato e inerme tra le braccia, pensò al sangue sul lavandino, all’aereo che cadeva all’improvviso, al cassetto delle sue sigarette; al fulmine che d’estate colpiva le creature della terra, a caso, come un dito cieco e terribile.

Translator’s Note

I always translate using two columns, in parallel. I set my author—in this case, Paolo Zardi—on the left-hand side, and trudge along down the right, stumbling, falling, picking myself up again. His words are there on the left guiding me; his words in my voice are on the right. I try to listen to him carefully, but it isn’t always easy. Sometimes, he gets ahead of me. His text rushes forward, while mine lags behind. And not just because his has already been beautifully created. Sometimes it’s a matter of strokes. Length. Space.

I hate it when the parallel text isn’t parallel at all because one language needs more words to say the same exact thing or perhaps not exactly the same thing. (Nuance.) So I adjust the margins, making the texts run parallel again. And the words walk hand in hand for a bit, until one of the two languages falls behind, and I start playing with the margins again. I do this while flipping pages, jotting down notes, rummaging through the thesaurus.

I like it when I find exactly the right word, and the original is reflected in it. I like it when my column is finally complete, and the two versions can stand next to each other. And I like to hope the author’s words are reflected but never distorted.

Matilda - Translator - Photo_ResizedPaolo Zardi published his very first short story in the anthology Giovani Cosmetici. Since then he has published two collections of short stories: Antropometria [Anthropometry] and Il Giorno Che Diventammo Umani [The Day We Became Human], two novellas: Il Signor Bovary [Mr. Bovary] and Il Principe Piccolo [The Tiny Prince], and two novels: La Felicità Esiste [Happiness Exists] and XXI Secolo [XXI Century], finalist in the 2015 Italian Strega Prize. He was the editor of the anthology L’amore ai Tempi dell’ Apocalisse [Love in the Age of the Apocalypse] and has published short stories in numerous reviews and anthologies. He blogs at  



Matilda - Photo_ResizedMatilda Colarossi is a freelance translator and teacher. Born in Italy, raised in Canada, and adopted by the city of Florence in her adult years, she loves to read, write, translate, and teach. She blogs at