I pull on the thigh-high stockings in front of the bedroom closet mirror.
Even with the latex bands, it’s a struggle to get them up with my hairy legs.
The wool tartan miniskirt hugs my thighs—can I move them?—and the zipper pulls a bit but still closes. I hook the bra in front and slide it to the right position.
I pull up the straps.
On top, a white shirt, then a jacket.
Purple is better. This one, she’d just bought it.
It still has the price tag: I hide it in a pocket.
I make myself up, hastily fishing through the cosmetic bag she keeps in the bathroom above the sink: concealer to cover the perennial dark circles, mascara after the eyelash curler, brick-red lipstick—Mother doesn’t like a bright red. Black eyeliner, not too much, otherwise even cleanser won’t take it off. Bronze eyeshadow up to the eyebrows.
I fasten my hair with four black bobby pins like the presenters on Top of the Pops.
I cram my feet into the high-heeled patent leather shoes, they’re square toed, professor-like. Mother is size 37, I’m 39, occasionally 40.
Only half my foot fits, no more.
Quick, before they come back.
Quick, before it’s too late.
I turn the stereo up all the way, who cares if the neighbors hear.
I jump back and forth, bouncing along to the bass of an Annie Lennox song, jumping from one room to the other, the fake terracotta floor a trampoline. I lift my arms towards the ceiling, arch my back: a siren like one of Milo Manara’s sexy creatures. I hold in my stomach as much as I can, squeezing my thighs until everything disappears behind them.
If I go en pointe I’m like Barbie.
Slim calves, bent knees, rubber and iron wire.
There’s only the music.
I remove one item of clothing at a time: I start to undress, never looking away. Spectacle and spectator, I follow my reflection in the mirror—I have to watch it happen.
Striptease, I’m Demi Moore.
I’m my mother, I’m Tina.
Birth name “Concetta,” like her grandmother, but “Tina” to everyone else.
Her body, mine: possession, invasion, I transpose myself onto her. I use her closet secretly for this genetic contraband all the time.
With both hands I lower the bra: men in the audience, I hypnotize you with my little pink nipples.
I lift the skirt higher.
You like that?
I lift it up all the way and hear you scream, ravenous.
Your arms outstretched towards me: I let myself be touched, but only so you can slip your tips under the elastic band of the only thing I’m now still wearing. I model my mother’s G-string for you, the one she keeps hidden in the lowest drawer, buried under the belts, scrunched up until it almost disappears.
I stretch higher, turn my face to the side: does someone want to fuck me?
She had me at eighteen. My father left when I was three, after cheating on her constantly. My maternal grandparents raised me. I was twelve when I moved back in with her on Via Giacinti, near the last stop of line 15, in the house where it all started. Still a hinterland commuter town on the extreme southern outskirts, still public housing. Addicts and dealers, our neighbors scare me.
When I’m home alone, I put on her clothes and climb over to the other side of the fence, I make it happen.
I’m a woman, a singer.
A stripper, little slut.
I stayed with my grandparents because my mother had to work. She wasn’t around so I would imagine her, a magnified projection, a shrine?
Mother body-snatcher, mother heroine.
Phantom, hologram, ghost-mother.
Mythopoeia instead of hugs, make your own mother into a work of art. Every thought comes back to her, a psychic evocation, a séance.
The world is her domain—horsewoman, Valkyrie, conqueror—she goes out into it.
I stay home.
Even today I don’t go out much.
But I’m here in Milan, Mother—you’re still there, you stayed in Rozzano.
Confined body, suburban body. You’re even afraid of taking the metro: underground, where the dead go.
The ideal mother, the regal woman.
Diana, Athena, Joan of Arc.
Batgirl, Storm, Cynthia Rothrock.
At the age of seven, my mother is the commander of my order of Knights.
And so her absent body becomes overextended, hyper-diffused, ubiquitous, omnipotent. Mother is out there in the world, everywhere. At work, with girlfriends, Mommy’s friend. I’m just here on via Verbene with your family, Mother: Grandma, Grandpa, your younger brothers. The daughter of Biagio and Lidia, but in reality, you’re the daughter of Gods, Mamma-Cash, Saint Tina, the keeper of the wallet. I was working for you, you told me, I worked all those hours for you—it’s so difficult to actually ask her for anything.
Out of guilt my mother growls, defends herself by attacking. Instantaneously.
No, you can’t do that.
I said no.
Saturnine Mother, judge and censor: there’s never a reason, a reasoning.
It’s not because we’re poor, we are not always poor: it’s just that the money is not for me.
There’s none for me.
When a family crumbles, priorities are reconsidered.
There’s something else at the top of the list.
To get her to buy me something I have to be feeling sick, really sick, have to be at risk of something, have to alarm her: like after the first time I got blood drawn, because I was crying, she took pity—stop it or you’ll make me cry—a little doll from the hospital newsstand, the only gift I ever received outside the holidays.
Your mother is so beautiful.
She’s so young!
Her long hair is dyed red, straightened with brush and hair dryer until its waviness becomes sleek. Puffy bangs like Lorella Cuccarini. Her white skin so delicate—every summer the protective measures to prevent sunburn, the monitoring of moles—a light tap is enough to leave a mark.
Her eyes are green, mine are simply brown.
My mother loves shopping, really cares about her look. Her new boyfriend Tindaro takes her (he manages the cleaning company where she works) to the Conbìpel next to the ring road, to Orme and stores in Milan. A black tight dress, eyelashes caked with makeup, a silver heart in the center of her chest.
I’m fourteen years old when, faced with another of my unwanted requests, she finally says it: I’ve made my sacrifices. Sorry, but I’m not giving up a pair of shoes for you now.
Even when it comes to food: I can’t eat her cereal in the morning.
The same goes for all her things: no fusion, no confusion.
Mother-Fence defends her living space, carefully constructs the picket fence between herself and others with her own bare hands. Then she stands guard, ready to shoot.
Even at her son?
I made you and I’ll destroy you.
In Segatini’s painting The Bad Mothers are the ones trapped naked in the tree branches of a snowy heath—they end up wriggling in a frozen purgatory, forever expiating their guilt.
Yet every mother is an inheritance, a task we are entrusted with.
Maternal selfishness is terrifying and endearing, leaving the child to reclaim his due: the real woman behind the childhood ideal.
Every mother carries a promise that endures, even beyond the contingent disposition of facts.
It endures even when it is not maintained.
My mother’s body is the first threshold.
My fetish: her dream-body.
Her fetishes? The rings, necklaces and huge pendants I give her.
The scent of white musk, her manicure kit.
White gold, only the white kind (she hates yellow), she’s from the south—her people are from Mugnano, Napoli, and Aversa, Caserta—from gypsies. White gold, only white gold for my queen. I’m just like you, Mother: nothing but pale sheen, white splendor.
Pure, we’re pure.
My mother doesn’t talk about sex, she’s ashamed.
Tina, Concetta, immaculate conception.
Neither do I, Mother: sex is a sin, if it happens you must do it silently.
Sex is scary, should stay in the dark. Avoid it most of the time—sexual anorexia. Rather get sick, keep it hidden, keep it from becoming a subject of discussion or medical check-ups.
Sex is a secret.
One Sunday afternoon I drive home with my mother and a family friend, Otello, the fiancé of Tindaro’s best friend. He’s tall with a mafioso’s face. He lights his next cigarette with the one still in his mouth. We’d been at the San Siro racetrack—he’s fond of betting, wagers his whole salary that way. Salary? The company’s money. His fianceé has a hotel, he helps her out.
We go inside and they lock themselves up in the living room.
We’re going to watch a bit of TV, they say.
You go sleep over there, Jonny.
I lie in bed for a minute, I can’t sleep, I get up.
I approach very slowly, one foot, then the other, only my toes touch the floor.
I spy through the black plastic keyhole of the living room door.
The TV’s light is intermittent, it takes a few seconds to make something out.
My mother and Otello on the blue sofa that I open at night to sleep on, the sofa-bed I’ve used my whole adolescence (I’ve never had a bedroom). The sand-colored blanket rises and falls, illuminated by the television, the volume a bit too loud.
Up and down, a haunted mountain, a small living mountain rage.
A momentary noise, a sound.
Whenever we go out together Otello always says: your mother is really beautiful.
Mother and dad, Mother and Dino, Mother and Tindaro, Mother and Otello, then Mother and Alessandro. Tough, you’re an armored tank with everyone except for the men you choose. They can do anything to you, take you by the throat and make you pass out.
Bitch, you’re breaking my balls.
No ambulance, there’s no need, I feel fine.
It has only happened twice—only twice, you like to point out.
The first time my sister was two years old, the last she was in middle school.
My mother says: every family has its problems, there are no perfect families.
Many years later, my sister says: Mother had an epileptic attack that day.
My mother’s flesh is not flesh—it’s armor, an empty carapace, a sacrificial body perhaps. We’re only interested in extremities.
My mother’s body, an ontological membrane. I was born male, on the wrong side: her body the esoteric vehicle to another dimension.
Mother, I copy you. Mother, I copied you.
Bent, queer, screwed up.
Faggot, fairy, poof.
An astrologist told me she saw it in the symbolic circle of the zodiac: gender reversals in the natal chart, planets out of place, in fall as they say; feminine planets positioned in masculine signs and vice versa. Moon in Aries, Mars in Cancer, traditional identities compromised, altered: Amazonian women, inept or childish men, all of them emotional. Two-spirited the American Indians say, half and half: was I born to cross over, push boundaries, to be porous?
To show you another possibility, that you can transition from here to there?
The compactness of a wall is a story I have not assimilated.
Even my mother now seems like a butch lesbian: short—almost never in heels—solid, compact, sweatpants, hoodie, platinum blonde buzz-cut, covered in tattoos.
Have we been mutual catalysts?
Mother was elsewhere, Mother the paradigm of desire.
Separate the real woman from the mother you dreamed of having, a psychologist at the family therapy center in Porta Venezia told me last year, the one where I only had to pay thirty dollars per session (after four initial freebies) because they were with a senior student and not an experienced therapist.
You forgive her for everything.
Really look at her, open your eyes, see her for what she is.
Does she hate her? Does my psychologist hate my mother?
She says she manipulates me, keeps me within kicking distance so she can get antidepressant adrenaline from the anxiety I arouse in her. It’s true, I’m not objective. My mother, my father: double standards. Even in the novel I wrote.
I don’t have a father, a mother—I have a totem.
Fire or ice?
The sacred body of the Virgin Tina, bruised, half ruined: my mother’s body first disfigured by me, then thirty years of forced labor. She was covered in stretch marks after her pregnancy, then came the disc protrusions, the hernias, the endless operations on her wrists and hands, the physiotherapy, the bones that began to crumble like dry bread, the fifty-year-old fingers that have lost their strength.
She has to ask for help to open bottles and cans.
My mother is young but her body is already old.
Too much work, not everyone lives a life suited to their cellular make-up.
There are those who lose the use of their legs, but my mother the use of her hands?
My mother’s body—I’m not sure what it smells or tastes like.
It might taste like chamomile to me: like the tea I drank at home alone every time she was sick and they took her away on the stretcher. The steel teapot, my trembling body. Renal colic, tachycardia, hiatal hernia: they were always discovered later; at the time the pain was nameless, pain without a name.
And then one day: Mother has a lump in her breast.
At university, I can’t think about anything else while waiting for the biopsy results. I can’t see anything else. Mother in the bathroom vomiting after chemo: she becomes a long, thin, weighty rag that others carry around the house. An empty bag, emptied out. Suspended, in need of support. They’ll carry her to vomit.
Others will carry her—I’ll watch.
I’ll keep my position in the family ecosystem.
Mother’s body, a map on which to mark the constellations of metastases.
It’s too late, she’s full of it.
A short-lived colony, to be consumed quickly.
The mother who dies, the thing that can’t happen.
Every child’s nightmare.
Fluoroantimonic acid poured into the heart.
Make sure you take care of your sister.
But no, the tumor’s benign: the mother who lives.
Who still shines from afar.
My mother’s body is a prehistoric mystery, a comet star: invisible, I see it everywhere.
Mother, Father: this is why I write, maybe this is why I write.
Why wasn’t there the time—or the desire?—to live together.
To be people in a story with real relationships.
My parents: fictional hypotheses, foreign bodies in the vault of the imagination.
Myself, the Wild Boy of Aveyron, The Jungle Book—variations on a theme.
I was raised by my characters.
My experience of translating this text was akin to a fever dream: vivid and unsettling, yet somehow a necessary part of my own healing process. Could I possibly render a voice so tender, so bold? Could I re-create the alchemy of gritty urban poetry and indelible, oneiric imagery in Jonathan Bazzi’s prose?
I chose to accept the challenge, to find new poetry through translation. Once I overcame the urge to sanitize, to soft-pedal, the words began to rattle on the page as they do in the original Italian. Bazzi’s sentences both affirm and deny; translating them brought to mind Billie Holiday’s voice when she sings “Hush now, don’t explain,” her delivery simultaneously maternal and bitter. With scalpel-like precision, the author dissects a queer being’s lifelong obsession with their mother’s body, the personal paradigm of desire. “Really look at her, open your eyes, see her for what she is,” their therapist suggests at one point. Good advice, it seemed to me.
Throughout the text, powerful metaphors stitch the Mother Wound shut so that healing can begin: “Yet every mother is an inheritance, a task we are entrusted with.” Translation is also a kind of inheritance—a task I’m grateful to be entrusted with.
Jonathan Bazzi was born in Milan in 1985. Raised in Rozzano, on the extreme southern outskirts of the city, he graduated in Philosophy with a thesis on symbolic theology in the work of Edith Stein and is passionate about the female literary tradition and gender issues. In 2015, he began collaborating with various newspapers and magazines by publishing articles, short stories, and personal essays. His debut novel Febbre (Fever) was named Book of the Year by Fahrenheit, won the Bagutta First Novel Prize and was one of six finalists for the 2020 Strega Prize. He currently collaborates with Sette del Corriere della Sera and the newspaper Domani. His new novel, Corpi minori (Minor Bodies), was published by Mondadori in February 2022.
Of Italian descent, Canadian literary translator Scott Belluz is driven to provide English readers with opportunities to encounter vital and emerging Italian voices. His work has been published in journals such as The Italian Review, The Stinging Fly, Your Impossible Voice, and Mayday Magazine. He is currently collaborating with the Pirandello Society of America on their ‘Stories for a Year’ project. Scott holds a Master’s Degree in vocal performance from The Royal Academy of Music (London) and is a devoted interpreter of Italian baroque repertoire and contemporary opera.