Tomás was glad the day’s practice was finally over. He was more eager than usual to head home—it was a special day for him and his family. Most of the time he liked joking around with his rugby buddies in the locker room after practice but, truth be known, his heart was never in it. He secretly thought of his teammates as dummies who didn’t know the difference between a daVinci and a Dalí. None of his friends shared his keen interest in their paesani who’d been key players in the Italian renaissance. Not a single one of them cared a whit about art history. None of them knew of Tomás’s unflagging devotion to the painters and sculptors who went before them. No one shared his conviction that, even after hundreds of years, each and every one of the renaissance artists and artisans still had a weighty impact on everyday life in Northern Italy.
Tomás slung his backpack onto his shoulders then looked around the locker room at the rest of the team. Smiling at their horseplay, he realized he was different from them in yet another way. He was much better looking than most of the other boys, and every one of them envied his way with the girls. In their shower room teasing, many of them tried to discover his secret. Playfully splashing soapy water on his taut body, they’d say, “Is that what the girls like about you, Tomás? Is that why they hang around you all the time?” He’d learned silence was the best way to stop their envious put-ons. Anything he said just egged them on. He knew the girls liked him, and some of them did chase after him. He liked the girls, too, and sometimes he enjoyed letting them catch him. Tomás’s mother fretted about that, but his father beamed with pride. “My son, the ladies’ man,” he often bragged to the workers in his masonry shop.
“Ciao, amici. A più tardi,” Tomás yelled as he headed out of the locker room. He hurried home to get dressed for the special family dinner planned for that night. He wanted to look extra spiffy—after all, the party was to celebrate his own fifteenth birthday. It was a special day for the whole family. He was the youngest of them all, and Tomás knew his father would celebrate by giving him half a glass of his best red wine from the casks in the basement. After the birthday toasts he planned to bring up his ambition to go to the university in Bologna and study art history. He wasn’t so sure his father would go for that idea, so he’d decided to approach it when the whole family was celebrating and after they’d all had a little vino.
The family lived in a two story stone house with a terra cotta roof his father had built on the south side of town off Via Cesarea before Tomás was born. Everybody in the neighborhood admired the house, especially the two pine trees Papa had planted in front when he built the house. Both trees were now taller than the house itself—those umbrella pines that make good shade against the western sun. Mama had a little garden in back where she grew most of the vegetables she needed for her kitchen.
Heading for the front door, Tomás grinned at the play of late afternoon light and shadows dancing across the stones of the house—something like a Caravaggio painting. Racing up the stairs two at a time, he smelled sautéing onions and garlic and roasting meat. Mama was at work in the kitchen. He threw open the door to his room then stopped dead in his tracks. The scene he stumbled upon shocked him more than just about anything he’d run across in his young life. Anna, his bratty sixteen year old sister was sitting in the middle of his bed, her legs crossed, skirt up above her knees. His secret box was open on her lap.
Anna cracked a big grin and held up a photo of a nude drawing Michelangelo had done in preparation for sculpting his David. “I found your secret box under the bed, Tomás. What do you do with all these pictures of naked people? Do you play with them, Tomás? Do you play with ’em when nobody’s around? Is that what you do—play with yourself while you play with the naked pictures?”
Had she looked at everything in the box? Those were his dreams, his alone. Had Anna handled his treasures, had she spoiled ’em by her touch? He slapped her hard on the side of her head and yanked the box out of her hands. “Get out of here, Anna. Leave my stuff alone—it’s none of your damn business. Just stay out of my room.”
Anna stood up and put her hand on the side of her head where Tomás had slapped her.. She grinned again and tilted her head to one side. “I saw all of ’em, Tomás. Naked men and naked women. I know what you do with them—you do it at night, don’t you? I’m gonna tell Papa everything I saw in your secret box.”
“Don’t do it, Anna. Don’t tell Papa. If you tell him, it’ll ruin my whole life. He won’t let me go to the university if he discovers my plan—it’s too soon to tell him about it.”
She kept on rubbing the side of her head. “You shouldn’t have slapped me, Tomás. I am gonna tell Papa—I’ll tell him tonight right in the middle of your birthday dinner.” Laughing, she skipped from the room and slammed the door.
The youngest of six children, Tomás grew up in a close knit family in
on the Adriatic coast of northern . Much loved by his boisterous
family, he was totally supported in everything he undertook as a boy. His
mother, born in Barcelona, had given Tomás the name of her own Spanish
grandfather and she had spoiled him rotten from earliest childhood. After
coming to Italy as a new bride, she threw herself wholeheartedly into the
language and customs of her new
husband’s country and, over the years, she became the archetypal Italian mama. Italy
Mama had cried a year earlier when fourteen year old Tomás, her bambino, announced at a family dinner that he had won a spot on his school’s rugby team. “Too rough—those big boys,” Mama had said. She’d rolled her eyes and pulled her rosary from the pocket of her apron to finger the beads, but his father had beamed from ear to ear—“My son, the athlete.”
Tomás did well on the team. He soon developed a tight muscular body that equaled any of the big boys Mama was so worried about. He threw himself into the team’s practice sessions and their games, but his heart was never in the sport. He liked art and Italian art history. Those were the things he wanted to learn more about—the things he wanted to become his life. He was eager to explore those interests, eager to understand the lasting beauty his antenati had created.
Tomás didn’t worry much about being the only boy in his school with that kind of attraction to art history. Just a normal part of life, as far as he was concerned. He longed to reach the right age for university, longed for was a chance to explore the techniques of the world’s great artists. After all, many of the artists he admired had been Italian—why not him? Why couldn’t he do what they did? He had the same dark hair and eyes, the same swarthy good looks they’d had, and the same Italian heritage—so why not?
While waiting to reach university age Tomás collected photographs of the art works he admired most of all: painting and sculptures by daVinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio. He kept them hidden under his bed in a secret wooden box along with a few other boyhood treasures: a piece of kite string, three special marbles, a spinning top, a charcoal drawing he’d done of the family house, things like that. Lying in bed at night, he felt a furtive thrill just knowing those photos were near. One of his older brothers shared his bedroom and sometimes, when he was out for the evening, Tomás opened the box and looked at the photos, touched them, admired them while waiting for his future to begin.
He had never revealed his dreams about art and Italian artists to the family or anybody else. He’d dropped a few hints about it with Mama once or twice when they were alone, but he was afraid to tell Papa—Papa’d never let him go to university if he knew what he wanted to study, if he knew about his secret yearning. He’d always said Tomás had a good eye for design and should become a master stone mason like himself. Why did he need the university? He could learn everything he needed as an apprentice in the masonry shop. What Papa didn’t know was that his own visits with the nine-year old Tomás to study the ancient mosaics in
’s churches were the thing that first
triggered the young boy’s interest in Italian art. Ravenna
Now Tomás’s head was spinning. His run-in with Anna threatened to ruin the birthday celebration. What could he do? How could he keep Anna from telling Papa about his secret box? All that worry made him sweaty and he decided to take another shower. Standing naked in the spray, hot water streaming over his head, he stewed over all of it. How could he shut Anna up? How could he keep her quiet, at least until he was a little older, a little closer to being ready for university? Shower finished, he pulled a towel around his waist and headed back to the bedroom. His older brother, Michael, was there, changing shirts for the birthday dinner.
Michael grabbed at the towel and grinned. “Hey there, little bro. What’s up under that towel?”
“Cut it out, Michael.” Tomás put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Listen, I need your help with a problem. A really big problem.”
Michael hugged him and tousled his wet hair. “What’s wrong, kid? Girlfriend kick you out?”
“No, nothing like that. I’ve got a problem with Anna?”
“Anna? What’d she do now?
“She’s a snoop, Michael. A total jerk and a damn busybody. She discovered something about me, and she’s gonna tell Papa. He won’t let me go to university if she tells him what she found out. How can I stop her, Michael? How can I keep her from telling Papa?”
“Whoa, Tomásito…what are you talking about? Tell me what Anna found.”
Tomás told him the whole story, his interest in Italian artists, his hope for a career in painting and art history, the things he kept in the secret box under his bed, everything.
“Okay,” Michael said. “I knew about your box, but I didn’t know what you had in it—didn’t make a damn bit of difference to me. You really like that stuff, don’t you?”
“It’s my life, Michael. I have to study those things when I go to university—I have to do it.”
“Maybe I can help you, little bro…maybe I can help you.” Michael sat on his bed and pulled Tomás down to sit beside him. “I think I know something you can tell Anna, something that’ll make her keep quiet about your secret box and your plans for university.”
Tomás jumped to his feet and tightened the towel about his waist. “What is it, Michael? Tell me what you know”
“Well…you’ve heard about Anna’s boyfriend, Alfredo, haven’t you?”
“Sure, I know about Fredo. What about him?”
Michael grinned. “One night last month, real late one night, I went to Anna’s room to get a book she’d borrowed from me. I thought she was at the cinema…but she wasn’t. Anna and Alfredo were on her bed together, both of ‘em naked as a pair of swans.”
“Naked? What were they doing?”
Michael laughed. “You figure it out, little man. Alfredo was on top of her—his butt was bouncing up and down in the air.”
“Oh my god…they were…did you see everything?” Tomás adjusted the front of his towel.
“I didn’t see much. Alfredo jumped up right after I opened the door and ran around the room like a crazy man—he tried to cover himself up with his hands while he grabbed at his clothes. He finally jumped right out of the window carryin’ his clothes and ran naked across the yard.”
“What did Anna say?”
“Nothin’. She just pulled up the covers. She cried like a baby and begged me not to tell Papa.”
“Damn, Mama would kick her out of the house if she knew about it. Did you promise not to tell?”
“Naw, I didn’t promise anything. I just laughed and told her to put on some clothes. I picked up my book and left her bawling in the bed.”
Both boys pulled on freshly ironed white shirts Mama had left on hangers for them. Both of them added neckties. The birthday dinner was a strained affair for Tomás. Anna squinted at him a few times, then rolled her eyes toward Papa. After a while Mama touched his arm and said, “What’s wrong, Tomás? You’re acting nervous as a gatto.” She tousled his dark hair and kissed him on the forehead. “Fifteen is a good age—you’re almost a man now, but you’re still my baby boy.”
Mama had made her special Sunday gravy for the pasta—tagliatelle she’d made that morning. After the pasta they had roasted sausage with asparagus from the garden and, like always, the meal included fresh baked bread, hot from the oven, for dipping in olive oil. Anna kept her devilish threat alive throughout the dinner, glancing from Tomás to Papa and back again at every opportunity. Michael saw what she was doing and gave Tomás’s leg a squeeze under the table.
Finally, Papa finished eating and Mama cleared the table. Tomás knew she’d bring in the birthday cake next, and it would be something extra special. He knew Papa would pour him a special treat for his birthday, half a glass of the Sangiovese he aged in the basement. Maybe he’d get lucky, maybe he’d make it through dinner without Anna making trouble.
But his luck didn’t hold for long. Anna pushed back from the table and shot Tomás a knowing glance then walked toward Papa’s chair at the end of the table. “Can I talk to you in the front room for a minute, Papa. I want to tell you something special about Tomás—something for his birthday.”
Tomás’s heart sank. Was life about to end on his fifteenth birthday? No, not if he could help it. He jumped to his feet, took Anna by the arm, and pushed her toward the front room. “Before you talk to Papa, Anna, I need to tell you something.”
Once out of the dining room, he held her by both shoulders and spoke close to her face. “Michael told me, Anna. He told me about your late night get-together with Alfredo.”
Anna looked stunned. Her expression was blank. Her shoulders sagged.
“You know what I’m talking about, Anna. Last month, you and Alfredo…in your bedroom. If you tell Papa about my art pictures, I’ll tell him all about you and Alfredo in the bed. Michael told me everything…every single detail. He told me about Fredo jumping naked out of the window and all that….”
Anna fumed. The pupils of her brown eyes grew bigger. She grabbed her brother’s waist and looked right into his face. “Please don’t tell Papa, Tomás. If you keep quiet, I’ll keep quiet. I promise I will. I won’t say a word.”
Tomás kissed his sister on the forehead. “Deal.” The two of them smiled and returned to the birthday celebration as if nothing had happened. Papa said, “What is it you wanted to tell me, Anna?”
“Oh, it’s nothing Papa. Alfredo told me Tomás scored the winning goal in last week’s game—that’s all.”
“That’s great news, Tomás. Good job. I told your mother you’d make us proud with the rugby team.”
Tomás had scored another winning goal that night, a goal against Anna. His knowledge of her clandestine meetings with Alfredo ensured she’d keep quiet about his box of treasures—keep quiet about his interest in studying art and art history at university. At least keep quiet until he was ready to talk to Papa about it.
Mama signaled Michael to dim the dining room lights as she waltzed into the room with a huge birthday cake sporting fifteen blazing candles. Beaming with pride, she sat her creation down in front of Tomás. “For you, my baby boy, I made a cassata with three colors of gelato like the flag of Italy. Happy birthday!”
The whole family applauded and sang Happy Birthday while Tomás blew out the candles and sliced the frozen cake to serve them all. Even Anna perked up and joined in the good wishes. She threw him a kiss. Tomás grinned and looked all around the table at each member of his family, basking in the pure joy of their love. Plenty of time to talk to Papa about university—not tonight, sometime later when he could figure out how to get him in just the right mood before bringing it up—maybe at the masonry shop or something like that.
Copyright ©, 2013, George Beddingfield