Flunking Out and Overflowing


Sissi ran alone with a canister of pepper spray in her pocket. She’d bought it on eBay from an American vendor, because in Italy those sprays are illegal. She always had it with her, that weapon was almost part of her, like her nails or teeth.

Some days, especially when school got out early, we’d walk home, the two of us with a small group of friends. We’d go down along the Lungotevere trail and stop to talk just past the railway bridge.

On the other side of the river we’d see the fire department’s divers, their red motorboats, the gasometer, and two old cranes folded forward. Dressed in red and orange, the firefighters sometimes said hello, other times got angry—using mopeds on the trail is not allowed.

Sounds echo under the bridge and the river flows faster. We liked to stop there, right where the trail widens and the embankments look like floating beds of violet flowers with yellow hearts. In the spring a mystery gardener even plants primroses.

We never ended up meeting him, but Sissi was so moved by what he did that she convinced us to fix up an old abandoned bench. “Making this place beautiful is our job too.”

Sissi is very lucky: her friends always listen to her. Of course in the end it’s she who takes responsibility, never the others. Anyone can spend a few hours painting a rickety old bench. Everyone with their own good reasons. I, for one, cared about having a place to sit.

And she’s tireless. “What if I painted a mural here?” she said one day, leaving us all a bit shocked.

Like she was decorating her own house.

“What would you do?” one of the kids asked her.

Sissi showed us a drawing that I knew all too well: a woman with spider webs instead of hair.

“Who is she?”

“What do you mean who? It’s Tincaaro, the Queen of the Giants!” she retorted.

The portrait seemed filigreed because of how finely detailed it was, but painting a mural is something else entirely.

“I know how we should do it. My art teacher in middle school taught us how to use a grid. Divide the drawing into many little squares, trace the blown-up lattice on the wall, and reproduce the drawing piece by piece. I can help you if you like,” suggested Stella Ricorsi, who at the time was still her friend.

“I’d rather try to do it by myself.”

In any case, the mural was postponed because there were final interrogations, homework—and Sissi has always been someone who takes school very seriously.

Once vacation began, she couldn’t wait to devote herself to her project. First, she had to buy the materials: primer to make the paint stick, a paintbrush, and spray paints. Then she could finally devote herself to the drawing. Tincaaro was gorgeous, it looked as if she could come alive at any moment. But it took a lot of time to finish, mostly because Sissi wouldn’t let anyone help her.


One afternoon we were all together under the arch, with nothing in particular to do except see how her work was going.

It had been raining for days, a scary amount of water was coming down, it seemed like thousands of people were pouring bucketfuls from the bridge. The river was swelling, almost reaching the edge of the trail, the grass was drenched and the ground so slimy and clay-like it stuck to your shoes.

I smoked in silence, some friends sat on the bench and chatted, and every now and then we’d all glance over at Sissi who was concentrated on painting. She only had finishing touches to the hair left to do at this point, and she improvised dense green spirals that looked like a tangle of branches or the web of a spider.

Then, while it was pouring and we were all calm and relaxed, Stella Ricorsi blurted out: “Who knows what would happen if the river rose all of a sudden. Would we be able to escape?”

I imagined an enormous mass of water coming up and submerging us all. The river wanted to take possession of the city, its buildings, we disappeared under the wave and became like logs dragged along by the current.

“The river could flood,” a man from the Civil Protection Department had said on the news. I don’t know if they always interview the same person, but when whoever it is gives the report he’s always wearing a yellow raincoat and he’s always in the same apocalyptic position: standing on the bridge, and behind him you can see the dark waters and the tops of the trees.

Suddenly I felt scared, as if the river really could overflow, and I instinctively looked for the iron rings along the massive walls. But I knew perfectly well that if the water level rose, it wouldn’t matter that I know how to swim, the current would still take me away.

With these thoughts, I realized Sissi had finally completed the mural, and instead of being happy she was still sulking. Ever since Zia Rosa had fallen and she had to reconcile herself to jogging alone, she barely spoke to me, and each time my eyes caught hers she turned the other way. Deep down it hardly mattered to me, but it had all gone on too long, she needed to give it a rest.

I now regret how things went, it’s that I couldn’t stand Sissi acting like that—she’s my little sister, she can’t decide out of the blue to no longer talk to me. That’s why I decided to make her angry—if she wanted to fight, we had to actually fight.

A few months earlier, I’d started playing an idiotic prank. People thought, “He’s lost his mind!” I know, but disturbing everyone was irresistible, seeing their faces really cracked me up.

A few months earlier, in fact, after celebrating the Day of Remembrance for the twelfth time in my schooling, I became obsessed with saying “Heil!” to everyone: the phone rang and I’d respond “Heil! Who is it?”; cars honked when I crossed the street out of nowhere, and I’d yell “Heil!”; I’d raise my hand to leave the classroom and ask “Heil! Can I go to the bathroom?” My teachers pretended they hadn’t heard me, they knew it was just one of my stunts, but then one time I yelled a bit too loud and they decided to suspend me.

That afternoon Sissi finished the mural and, having gathered up her spray paints and brushes, she was about to leave without even saying ciao, so, stretching out my hand, I signaled my goodbye—“Heil! Sissi”—my arm at an obtuse angle from my body. Finally she turned around—which was exactly what I’d wanted—her hair as straight as electrical cables, and she was so full of anger that her eyes seemed to nearly pop out of her head. She came closer, furious, “You are the most disgusting being on this planet,” she exploded, “you disappoint me, you never take anything seriously, you hurt the people who love you the most, nothing but shit comes out of your mouth.” And since I was watching her closely, I saw she was, almost imperceptibly, sliding her hand into her pocket with robot rigidity.

She was standing with her neck stretched forward, she looked like a strange bird with a crest, and her voice was so raspy I could hardly make out the words: “I devoted myself heart and soul to helping you in school, and we’re in our third year of high school, not in first grade,” she screamed, squeezing tight the pepper spray in her right hand.

And in that moment, I really don’t know how to explain why, gripped by some form of rage, I kept repeating “Heil!” convulsively and Sissi’s words seemed to me amplified, while the canister came closer and closer to my eyes. She was holding it like a weapon: “You even got yourself suspended . . . In a few days the charts will be posted and you know perfectly well they’ll flunk you again this year.”

It was raining so hard it looked like a curtain of water, Sissi’s neck was swollen with venom and she was yelling, “I hate you!” I wouldn’t stop repeating “Heil!”, laughing hysterically like a hyena, and the gasometer in the distance looked like a whirlwind drawing nearer, it lifted into the air for the final battle.

And because I kept moving like a crazed marionette and our friends were begging me to stop—because I wasn’t at all amusing—I did the worst thing I could do to calm myself, considering the weapon aimed straight at me.

The problem with Sissi is that she doesn’t want to believe we’re different. She’s always been convinced that, since we grew up together, everyone considers us equal. But let’s be real, no one looks at me and Sissi in the same way, people’s eyes see the differences, and it’s not enough that we were both raised on Zia Rosa’s fairytales and my mother’s songs. Being siblings by choice isn’t enough either.

Sissi and I can’t be equal for a whole lot of reasons, but there’s one more important than the others and it’s that I’m black, born from two black parents, while Sissi is white, she has golden curls and grey-green eyes. I’m black, Zia Rosa is outwardly black but she transmitted nothing to her daughter, none of her colors I mean. Sissi’s colors are those of her father, and her grandfather maybe, but they aren’t those of the other grandmother, Zia Rosa’s mother—on her those colors left no trace.

I thought about all of this and in the meantime the ground was getting muddier, Sissi’s mural hadn’t yet dried, the walls under the arch were damp like those of caves, and the spider woman was continuously changing shape.

Sissi didn’t understand, or didn’t want to understand, that brotherly love isn’t enough to make a color, because color is what others see, it’s not what you see, what you feel, and no fairytale, no song, no friendship can change the color that others see. That’s why I can say “Heil!” but Sissi can’t even pronounce it. “Heil!” is not taboo for me, because I myself am the taboo, and it’s my color, here, in this city, along this river, that’s a taboo.

Sissi loved saying: “My curls are kinky like mama’s, they’re like spider webs, that’s why mama says I’m Tincaaro. I run like mama, and we have the build of distance runners.”

And so Sissi and Zia Rosa think they run along the river like gazelles in the savanna.

But this isn’t the savanna—we’re in Rome, this is the Tiber, there is the gasometer, Zia Rosa broke her knee and she may never run with her daughter again.

Sissi has golden curls and grey-green eyes and she pointed the pepper spray canister at my eyes, so I yelled out the taboo word, her taboo, and I was turning to disappear past the curtain of water but she was faster than me and she pressed down to spray. She pressed down one time, maybe two, I reached out my hands to stop her: “Sissi, it’s not a toy!” The rain didn’t wash away the poison and my eyes burned, I couldn’t even stand up anymore and, while I collapsed under the bridge, Sissi disappeared for good behind the curtain of water.


The day I got confirmation I’d been flunked for the second time, Zia Rosa called me. She wanted to speak to me in person. I hadn’t gone to their house in days, I hadn’t seen Sissi since the afternoon with the pepper spray.

The list with the students who failed, who needed to be retested, and who passed was posted in plain sight in front of the secretary’s office. I knew exactly what was written next to my name, but I wanted to see it with my own eyes. Luckily at that moment none of my friends were around.

Flunking out didn’t matter a whole lot to me, to tell the truth, but I had no desire to face my mother, Zia Rosa, and company.

I’d already been at the stop for some time when the 23 came. The bus looked half empty and I went to sit by the central doors. I was still mulling over the word “failed” written in red next to my name, when a disgusting smell of spices and other unknown concoctions reached my nose. I whipped around and saw that it was coming from an enormous pot, wrapped in colorful cloth.

People were keeping their distance, no wonder the seats around me had remained empty—while in front, near the driver, people were packed tight like sardines.

The pot was placed in the area reserved for wheelchairs, in between two women keeping it secured with their calves. The ladies were speaking loudly in their language—I don’t know why they yell so loudly when they speak in their African languages—and they didn’t seem to care about the people glaring at them, or maybe they didn’t even realize.

Unfortunately my eyes caught theirs and the two women smiled at me. Maybe they were thinking: I wonder if our food is similar to the food this boy’s mother cooks; and the people packed like sardines were probably telling themselves: Surely that boy speaks the same language as they do and eats their same food, that’s why he’s able to stand the stench.

I was feeling more and more uncomfortable, the word “failed” imprinted on my brain, and that smell making it hard for me to breathe. There were only a couple stops left, I decided I might as well get off and go by foot. Once outside, I could still smell that stench on me and all the people I passed seemed to be avoiding me.

When Zia Rosa opened the door, her face wasn’t smiling as usual. The entryway was filled with the African busts and amulets she’s so proud of, even though she’d simply bought them in Piazza Vittorio from Senegalese street vendors. There are so many that when you walk in you have to be careful not to trip. And on top of all that, there’s always a censer lit somewhere, burning bark, resin, essential oil—Zia Rosa claims that they perfume the house and cast out evil spirits. The problem is that, after crossing the threshold, you’re immediately enveloped in the haze. We’re always telling her she overdoes it, but she pretends not to hear us.

My head was still spinning so much from the smell of that food that I saw the busts and amulets dancing and I heard the drums beating like in a voodoo rite. Zia Rosa looked like the genie of the lamp, enveloped in smoke as she was, and she stared at me with two unblinking eyes, as if I’d just expressed the strangest wish ever.

I really would’ve liked to ask her to put out the incense and take back all her paraphernalia to the store she’d bought it from, but instead I followed her without uttering a word, tail between my legs, into the kitchen.


I didn’t know how to respond, so, just to say something, I came out with another question. “Where’s Sissi?”

It took her a while to tell me that Sissi had gone out with her friends to avoid seeing me.

Zia Rosa has a petroleum-black mane around a rather small face and she likes to dress in seventies clothing with floral blouses and bell-bottom pants.

What did she have to tell me that was so important? She definitely wanted to give me a talking-to. I’d been flunked for the second time, they’d told me to study, but I always do what I want, and so on. Instead Zia Rosa took the long way around, she began with the dawn of time: the swallow in the river, her no longer running, the pepper spray and . . . .

“Have you ever asked yourself why Sissi is so mad at you?”

“I don’t know, Zia, I haven’t done anything to her!”


“I was only joking, but you know what she’s like when she gets offended.”

“Yes, I can imagine. You’re capable of making even saints lose their patience.”

“I told you, that girl with the pepper spray is a danger to the public. She nearly blinded me, you know.”

“Yeah, I just confiscated it, actually. And what can you tell me about school?” She was about to start a rant even beyond what my mother would subject me to.

“What can I say, Zia, they flunked me.”

“And that’s it? You don’t care?”

“You know, if Sissi’s no longer talking to me because I’ve been flunked, I’ll get mad.”

“All year long she’s been trying to help you with school . . .”

“I get it, but don’t you realize I’m the one who’s most upset?”

“This is the second time you’ve gotten yourself flunked, honey. Do you know what failing twice means? It means throwing away two years of your life. And that’s not all. Now you have to switch schools. Have you already thought about what you’ll do next year?”

Her calling me honey was a good sign, she’d softened. On second thought, though, it made me feel even worse. Zia Rosa calls you honey and you feel like shit: thanks so much, I’m sorry I’m an ass and you’re always so understanding and sweet. I’m so sorry I’m not able to complete anything and you go to such lengths to set me back on track. Even my mother would be better than this. At least she yells, she threatens to kick me out, she shakes her belt at me, she chases me with broom in hand. She does something. At least she has some goddamn senseless reaction. She wants to make you pay for it straight away. You have no way out, you settle your bills right away.

On top of everything else, right then I realized that from Sissi’s room, across from the kitchen, came a green light, enough to make me say to myself: “Just watch, she’s been here the entire time, eavesdropping!” But I didn’t have the courage to tell Zia Rosa that her daughter was home and I knew she was hiding that fact from me.

The nausea was coming on strong again, so I asked if I could go to the bathroom, even though it, too, was jam-packed with African shapes covering the walls and curtains.

Seated on the bidet, I saw five round huts spinning around me, and at the foot of the stool in front of me there were two dwarfs with enormous noses. Even my face in the mirror looked like that of an African dwarf inside a frame of shells. I felt paralyzed while everything spun around and slammed into me—the African faces, the huts, the shells, and the horrendous dwarves—everything spun and blurred, and I felt something like a vacuum cleaner in my throat sucking up what was inside me . . . my stomach, my lungs, even my heart.

At some point, Zia Rosa rapped on the door and said: “Come out, I’m making you tea!”

She’d put the water to boil on the stove with a lot of lemon peel and, coming out of the bathroom basically on my hands and knees, I felt like a horrendous dwarf in front of the genie of the lamp. I went to lie down on that enormous zebra-striped piece of furniture that is their couch. I looked at the white stripes, the black ones, and everything seemed to be zebra-striped—the walls, the floor, even the air had turned zebra-striped.


When I got home, after having endured Zia Rosa’s talking-to about failing, my mother was pacing back and forth in the living room, speaking Somali on the phone. I was afraid of her reaction, but I couldn’t stay away forever. I ran to lock myself in the bathroom and, when I finally decided to come back out, my mother had an icy gaze, but different from usual. Strangely enough she wasn’t yelling, she wasn’t threatening, she was just sitting motionless on the couch, staring straight ahead. I wasn’t used to seeing her like that and it made me even more scared, so I began nervously fiddling with the fake lilies, waiting for her to start lecturing me. What was going through her head?

At some point she stood up and didn’t say, as I was expecting, that she’d had enough of me and that she wanted to teach me a lesson but, very calmly, she informed me that I would be spending a month in London with her sister and my cousins. Said like that, it seemed more like a prize than a punishment, but from the tone of her voice I could tell it would be far from fun.

My mother’s younger sister is the only other person in the family, besides her, living in Europe. Mama had been very close to her, “but she was a fool,” mama always says, “instead of continuing her studies, she ran away from home age seventeen to elope with an idiot. I’d warned her.” After the wedding she had left for England with the husband. He’d gone on to be a taxi driver, she a mother.

My parents and I, instead, moved to Rome in December 1990, right before the civil war in Somalia broke out. My maternal grandparents live in Kenya, while all my other aunts and uncles are scattered throughout America. My mother hasn’t seen them since, for the past fifteen years they’ve only talked by phone. It’s not just because of the distance, but because, as mama always says: “If I went to visit all the members of my family I’d have to circle the globe!”

As for my aunt, we’ve gone to visit her a couple times, back when my father was still living with us. It was just me and my mother, he wouldn’t come. I was upset when I found out he’d be staying in Rome, we even tried to convince him. “Maybe we can go see the Tower of London, Big Ben, have a holiday all together,” Mama had proposed.

“It’s all the same outside of Somalia,” was Papa’s response. He seemed sad when he said it. “The only reason to travel is to see your loved ones again. It’s better if just the two of you go to your sister’s.”

At my aunt’s house there was a constant procession of friends and relatives with lots of children. Sometimes we were the ones to go to the neighbors’ houses and it was the same everywhere we went: women chatting and children in front of the television. No one protested if we did nothing but watch cartoons. Not even Mama resisted—she’d walk around the house in slippers and spend the entire day listening to gossip between the kitchen and living room. After a while, though, she’d begin to lose her patience. It was because of certain topics of conversation, I would guess, but I’ve only recently come to understand this.

“Yabar,” she’d say to me, “let’s go for a walk, I need some fresh air.”

The other women considered her a bit strange and they had no problem telling her so. They always had an excuse to not leave the house: too much wind, too much rain, too many children. Every so often Mama dragged one of my little cousins along with and she’d watch us from a distance, while we threw ourselves down slides or jumped on the swings. I think she was a bit sad, all alone on that bench. Maybe she missed my father, or she was worried about him. One day she brought us to the pool.

“Are you going to wear a bathing suit?” they asked her, incredulous. The fact is that Mama has always been a free spirit, she went to university, she’s a curious woman. She told me a bunch of times that when she was a girl, in Somalia, things were different, and that the war had turned everyone into prudes.

“My friends and I used to play tennis, we’d go to the movies, we used to swim in the sea, can you believe it?”

Anyway, then something must have happened because Mama no longer wanted to go back to London. She surely had her own good reasons for it, but at the moment I didn’t understand why, after so many years, she’d decided that I had to go and, what’s more, to go on my own.

To be honest, there was an explanation: Mama had told me more than once that, when their children misbehave, Somalis have the bizarre habit of sending them off to some remote relative. But I never would’ve thought that she’d adopt the same system: “Your aunt says you have to spend a bit of time with Somalis to get your head back on straight. Only when you understand where you come from can you learn how to be in the world.”

Looking back, I’m increasingly convinced that Mama also needed space to breathe, to spend a bit of time on her own. It can’t be easy to raise a son by yourself, without a point of reference other than a sister by choice.

Up until the day before, Zia Rosa was the only person I called my aunt, I never mentioned my mother’s sister and my English cousins were nothing but a vague memory. There was a period in which, when they’d call, Mama would pass the phone to me and, if Sissi was around, she’d try saying the English words she’d learned in school: “Hello!”, “How are you?”, “What’s your name?”, and felt very important. She would’ve liked to have some cousins abroad to talk to, too. I’d describe them to her in detail and tell her that soon I would introduce them and they’d become her cousins as well, given that the two of us were siblings.

With time those phone calls became more and more awkward, because we no longer knew one another and there wasn’t anything to say.


The problem is I’ve never liked going to school. I hate studying what the teachers tell me to, spending afternoons doing useless homework: translating super tedious Latin passages, solving math problems, writing essays about ridiculous people that no one will read anyway. Sissi says I’m lazy and that if I used my head and agreed to follow the rules, everything would go just fine. But what are these rules? Besides, I do use my head, but to do the things I like and find interesting, such as reading books and magazines and watching documentaries on the History Channel.

All this drama began after the eighth-grade exams—Mama consulted Zia Rosa and decided to enroll me in the linguistics high school, where Sissi would be going a year later. Who knows why our mothers were convinced they shouldn’t separate us, not even for high school? And why the linguistics high school? “I think it’s a good fit, I can’t see you at a vocational school with all the punk kids, you’re too sensitive!” Sissi commented while paging through the information packet, intrigued.

The whole story about how I was too sensitive for vocational school was made into a state matter. It was all my mother talked about, as soon as I set foot in Zia Rosa’s house it was the single topic of conversation, and even my friends, who had never before spoken to me about school, expressed their point of view. There was a full-fledged firing squad after me, dedicated to the cause of getting me to enroll in the linguistics school. So I started going to that awful school and it was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. The reality is that Mama and Zia Rosa weren’t ready to give up exchanging opinions on our teachers, sitting together at the annual meetings, commenting on the school curriculum—in short, they absolutely did not want to stop breathing down our necks.

But above all it has to do with their connection, how else can I explain it? The way Mama helped Zia Rosa rediscover a part of herself, buried away for so long. She taught her how to cook Somali rice, the names of the ingredients, the meanings of the songs—all that Zia Rosa thought she didn’t know, and yet they resurfaced, bit by bit. They were just hidden away in some deep corner inside her. At the same time, Mama and I had no roots in Rome, no family nearby, no longstanding friendships—connections that Sissi and Zia Rosa had no shortage of. Therefore, by linking together each of them made up for her own deficiencies.

One night when we were still little, Zia Rosa was really craving sambusas—triangular puff pastry wraps filled with meat and vegetables. So many years had passed: when had she last eaten them?

“Wonderful,” Mama said, “we have all the ingredients, I’ll teach you how to make them right now!” Zia Rosa seemed like a little girl again, she was so happy. They let us stay up while they busied themselves in the kitchen, even though it was already late. Sissi and I watched a cartoon, stretched out on my sofa bed. Mama had lent Zia Rosa one of her old diracs, a threadbare tunic she wore in the house. They listened to music, kneaded, laughed like lunatics. The hot and crispy sambusas were our midnight snack. I think it’s still our favorite food, at least mine and Sissi’s.

Anyway, to get back to school, let’s just say I managed to pass the first two years of high school. “By some miracle,” Sissi always says. Maybe she’s right, but why does she have to keep repeating it?

The third year, instead, not surprisingly, they flunked me: the subjects had gotten harder and even my favorite teacher, the one for Italian, had gotten tired of interrogating me only on topics of my choice. It was time for me to start studying as one should. The problem wasn’t that I had to repeat the year, but that I’d end up in class with Sissi, who, besides being good at all the subjects, acts like a little know-it-all and always thinks she has to save people.

It was unbelievable: the whole year she did nothing but nag me—at school, at home, and that’s not all . . . She was a snitch, too, reporting everything I did to our mothers, so much so that in the last few months, given that the risk of getting flunked a second time was growing more and more concrete, they forced me to study with her every afternoon.

Sissi is too disciplined. Every day she follows the same strict and extremely boring routine: she comes home from school, eats lunch with her mother, studies from four to six, goes running on alternating afternoons, and twice a week she has piano lessons, which also take up a lot of time.

When she’s about to start studying she takes some sesame sweets from the pantry and keeps them next to her. In our houses, there’s always a pack of them somewhere. Up until recently sisins were hard to find in Italy, now they’re being sold everywhere. They remind my mother of when she was young, she always tells us about the girl her age who, in front of their elementary school, had a glass jar full of sisin balls and sold them for a few kumi each. That’s what our mothers are like, they always have a story to tell. I love their stories, but sometimes they become counter-productive: Sissi will ruin her teeth with all those sisins.

The problem with school is that it makes you hate even those things you used to be interested in. Then when there’s also Sissi in the mix, staring at me and remarking: “You’re such a slacker. I started my homework two hours ago, not like you and your waiting-till-the-last-minute,” even that small desire to study I once had disappears completely. One time I was sick of pretending to review, so I stood up and said: “I’m done! I’m going for a walk.” Sissi isn’t one for half measures, that girl takes things way too seriously. She yanked me back by the arm, yelling: “You’re not going anywhere!” “What’re you gonna do about it? I’m a free spirit,” I countered, freeing myself from her grasp, “It’s written in my DNA, I’m programmed to ride horseback through the savanna, to graze camels and drink their milk. My life was supposed to be that of the nomads: I would’ve gone off for a stroll with my camels without disturbing anyone, and drunk tea under the acacia tree with my comrades. It’s not my fault that wars and financial reasons took me far from my natural habitat.” Sissi pinched me in response, but she couldn’t manage to stay serious either. Unfortunately, she’d gotten it into her head that with her help I would pass, and not even Zia Rosa was able to discourage her: “It all depends on Yabar, you know, you can’t keep at him so much.”

“Don’t you start now too!” Sissi would respond, and went right back to monitoring me like a drillmaster. My little sister truly has a calling for impossible missions, and I love her for it, but how is this my fault? I tried and didn’t succeed, I’m so sorry I let her down.

The balance was completely upset when Stella Ricorsi began studying with us as well. Sissi is too attached to her mother to have a best friend, but she got along well with Stella Ricorsi at the time, they were desk mates and they shared suggestions and secrets. Plus, when it comes to studying, those two think alike.

Stella Ricorsi is the type of girl who goes around on winter nights with the Salvation Army handing out blankets and warm meals to hobos, she’s one of those noble beings devoted to good and justice. She made me feel calm, her certainties reassured me, surely no one had ever told her the story about the crocodiles.

One afternoon I was reading a novel that had been assigned as homework. It was an old book with a hard blue cover that my favorite teacher had checked out from the library. The main character of the story is named Alessio and he always has a carnation in his buttonhole. He’s fond of it because his sweetheart gave it to him. One day he has a conversation with his best friend who insists on the fact that becoming a man means following the same routine day in and day out. A simple reflection, but it filled me with a deep sadness. If that’s the way things were, I, certainly, would never become a man. Then, though, I thought that maybe with Stella Ricorsi I wouldn’t mind doing the same things every day: waking up in the morning, drinking coffee together, going to work, returning home to tell each other about our days accompanied by a nice glass of wine.

Stella Ricorsi began joining me too often out on the balcony to smoke and, since Sissi complained that we always made excuses to take a break, we decided to meet up on our own time on Tiber Island.


We sat down in the sun, where the rapids interrupt the river’s slow flow. There’s a spot where the difference in level is a bit more apparent and you can see plastic bottles and branches bouncing on the water to later be reabsorbed by the current. The biggest branches caught our attention because, when watching the rapids upstream, they looked like the arms of a man being dragged by the current. When, instead, you saw a ruffle on the surface of the water, it meant there was a submerged branch or that it surfaced just slightly and bisected the current.

In front of us was the old “Broken” bridge. They call it that because it no longer connects the banks, but seems to appear magically in the middle of the river, a solitary arch supported by two small islands of land. They say it’s the oldest bridge in Rome and that over the centuries popes and noblewomen have committed themselves to rebuilding it, though always defeated by floods and adverse fate. It has stayed there to house the seagulls, who apparently love it and make their nests in it.

I would’ve liked to go onto the Broken bridge with Stella, maybe we could’ve built a hideaway with eggshell lime, spent the night stretched out under the stars, and watched the things happening around us from there, without anyone bothering us.

That afternoon Stella Ricorsi was wearing a polka dot skirt, a pair of red ballet flats, and, because she was cold, I took my sweatshirt off to wrap around her and pull her close to me. She had orange nail polish and each nail was decorated with a tiny white daisy. Stella Ricorsi has a mouth like a flower petal, big brown eyes, and thick black hair that makes her skin look even whiter than it is. We held each other tight while looking at our toes and we were both clearly embarrassed. I wanted to kiss her, but I didn’t have the courage.

After about half an hour of clinging to each other like that, maybe disappointed I wasn’t making a move, Stella Ricorsi broke the magic by starting to talk about school. She said that if things went badly for me this year, too, she’d be very sad, because being flunked out of the same year two times means changing schools, and she said I should ask myself why my grades were so disastrous. That maybe it was time to reflect and find something I liked to do.

I was still stunned by her scent and by the tension caused by the desire and fear to kiss her when, I don’t even know how, she began telling me about an acting class she’d been going to for a while. She was sure I’d love it. “I’m going this afternoon, why don’t you join me?” I couldn’t care less about the acting class, but seeing as I wanted to stay with her I decided to go. I don’t know if she’d already had it in her mind to bring me there, but it made me uneasy in any case, so, once we’d crossed Garibaldi bridge, I stopped at the watermelon kiosk to get myself a beer.

I hadn’t even taken the first sip when Stella Ricorsi said: “Isn’t it a bit too early to start drinking?”

Then, to distract her, I told her: “Do you know that right over there, on Tiber Island, they used to hold a watermelon carnival in ancient times? The best moment was when the watermelons were thrown into the river and the kids competed to catch them.”

And, all cheerful, Stella Ricorsi commented: “How do you know so many things?”

Cantiere, the community center where the class was held, is near the tram 8 stop. A big purple bougainvillea climbs the front of the building, almost completely covering it.

Stella was a bit embarrassed about going inside while I was still drinking and she told me: “Maybe it’s better if you finish the beer outside.” This made me even more nervous, but I’d already agreed to go with so I had to listen to her.

The acting teacher had some really red lipstick on and when she smiled all the wrinkles around her lips were so pronounced they made her look like an accordion.

As soon as she saw us she came up to Stella Ricorsi and, after whispering something in her ear that I couldn’t make out, turned to me full of enthusiasm and exclaimed: “Finally we meet!”

This phrase, which on its own could even seem sweet, was the clear proof that Stella Ricorsi already had it in mind to snare me.

Out of nervousness I replied: “Truthfully, theater has never interested me!” and Stella said: “I told you, he’s always like this.”

Meanwhile the picture was becoming clearer to me: among the students there were some with almond-shaped eyes, some with curly hair, some with dark skin, and there was even a gypsy—in other words they were all “different,” everyone but Stella Ricorsi.

I felt a bit dizzy from the beer and realized that those kids weren’t like me, they were different but seemed happy about it. The teacher urged me: “This isn’t just an acting class, I’d say it’s an exploration of identity, of memory, it’s important to draw lessons from personal baggage and learn how to share them with others.”

Stella Ricorsi looked at the ground. Maybe she was ashamed of me, maybe of herself, maybe of the teacher: “This is a workshop, you should think of it as your second home. I believe in all of you, in your potential, that’s why I fought hard to find a free space. You don’t have to pay anything to be here.”

I didn’t want to do a free acting class and the beer was going to my head, Stella Ricorsi was trying to smile at me and her eyes looked like the little daisies she had on her nails and they made me think of the boy with the carnation in his buttonhole and of drinking coffee together every morning, maybe I had to be patient if I wanted to become a man.

Then Stella Ricorsi grabbed me by the hand and we sat down with the others in a circle. The group had already met many times, they always began by reading an excerpt from the Odyssey, and the theme of that day was the return.

After listening to the story of Ulysses’ return to Ithaca, which almost everyone already knew, the teacher asked us to say what the word “return” meant to us and if it brought to mind any event, any story that we wanted to share with the others.

A boy stood up first, he was my age more or less, and began telling us about how his parents were building a restaurant in the place they’d been born, in Sal in the Cape Verde archipelago, and how they’d re-establish themselves there as soon as it was completed. They thought the island would’ve stayed the same as when they’d left it, but things were always changing and every time they went back they were shocked and disappointed. The boy had just finished talking when the teacher, giving me a telling look, asked if there was a part of Ulysses’ return that I’d liked and if I wanted to recount or represent it in my own way.

I felt full of anger because I figured that no one would’ve cared about my response if I weren’t black. I did, though, have a favorite part: Ulysses going back home dressed as a beggar, the suitors treating him badly because they still don’t know who he is, not until he takes his disguise off and kills them all.

So I stood up and, while staging the scene of Antinous insulting Ulysses, still dressed as a beggar, and flinging a stool at him, I grabbed a chair and threw it up in the air to show the suitors that I wasn’t any old beggar, but Ulysses himself, returned to Ithaca.

The kids got scared because I’d hit one of them by accident and almost split his lip. The teacher ran to tend to him, and Stella Ricorsi rushed over to me, all choked up: “Why’d you do that?” Her mascara was staining her cheeks because of the tears, and everyone was making me feel both sorry and angry at the same time: the different kids, Stella Ricorsi, the acting teacher. That’s why I ran away, because I don’t like feeling sympathy, and it’s not my fault they got scared, it’s not like I’d asked them to invite me to their acting class.

Stella Ricorsi followed me down Viale Trastevere, crying, and I wasn’t even capable of telling her that I’d dreamt of doing the same things with her every day. Who knows, maybe if she’d known . . . but by then I no longer wanted it, at that moment I only wanted to be Ulysses killing the suitors.

Sissi never heard about the acting class, because Stella Ricorsi never came back to do homework with us, and anyway there wasn’t much time left until the end of the year—before long the swallow would drown in the river and Zia Rosa would break her knee.

In the red carnation novel I’d underlined the word “overflow”. It said something like “friendship means overflowing onto someone”, so I asked myself whether Sissi and I overflowed onto each other, like the river, when it overflows and covers the trail with water and mud.


Ubah Cristina Ali Farah

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah was born in Verona, Italy, to a Somali father and an Italian mother. She grew up in Mogadishu but fled to Europe at the outbreak of the civil war at the age of eighteen. She is a writer, an oral historian and performer, and a teacher. She has published stories and poems in several anthologies, and in 2006 she won the Lingua Madre National Literary Prize. Her novel Madre piccola (2007) was awarded a Vittorini Prize and has been translated into English with the title Little Mother (Indiana University Press, 2011). Il comandante del fiume was published by 66thand2nd in 2014.

Hope Campbell Gustafson

Hope Campbell Gustafson has an MFA from the Literary Translation Workshop at The University of Iowa and a BA from Wesleyan University. Her translations can be found in AsymptoteThe Brooklyn Rail, EuropeNowNashville Review, and Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations (Comma Press/Deep Vellum), as well as in the freshly published Islands--New Islands (Fontanella Press). She was a 2018 resident at the Art Omi Translation Lab with writer Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, and she received a 2019 PEN/Heim grant for her translation of Ali Farah’s novel. A Minneapolis native, she currently resides in Brooklyn.

Copyright (c) 66thand2nd, 2014. English translation copyright (c) Hope Campbell Gustafson, 2019.