Ligurio by Amy O'Neill
The Ligurian Sea is perhaps the only one I have ever been in love with. This is not because he is a source of serenity—because, in fact, he has always made me anxious—and it is not because he is the lovely shade of green that everyone says he is, because I have always thought that he was more of a gray color. The Ligurian Sea—Ligurio—is the first one I have ever been in love with, but perhaps it is unfair to say he is the only one I have ever loved. To say so would make me a liar and a disappointment in my father’s eyes. He could live with one, but certainly not both. I was afraid of the sea for much of my life, without ever having actually known him. There have been myths about Ligurio, about how he has always been there, that have circulated through the doorways and kitchens of this city. People would say that time stops for sailing lovers. But his depth and opacity made him a fright to pursue, to even acknowledge. All I could ever bring myself to do was hang my feet over the dock.
We first met formally when I was just a young man, when my father sent me out before dawn, squeaking down to the dock in rubber coveralls, lubricated with the morning dew that had not yet entirely fallen. The smell of the heavy fog dragged me by the shirt collar, but it mingled with that of fish, so I was not immediately wise to the fact that it was indeed the sea that was spritzing me and the tops of my boots like a woman’s perfume. On this, my first barely-morning out on the water, I decided to come out to my father, but despite my conviction, I was still very much trying to run myself around it. It was not until I was seated and the sky was growing orange and purple over the silence that I realized that the waves lapping against the hull of my father’s boat was meant to be a sonnet for me. The sea, with his tongue of foam, was caressing my arms as I unmoored us—the boat and myself—from the dock and I remember thinking that I had never fallen so quickly and so hard. I hadn’t slept all night, my eyes stuck to the cracks on my ceiling (whether there were six of them or three which all branched away from themselves I couldn’t quite tell in the dark). They dried out but simply wouldn’t close.
I had spent the night before forming the shape of what I wanted to say to my father, scrapping it once I whispered it aloud. Would it be better to tell him while it was still dark? Did he need to know that my mother already knew?
The fact that I never slept meant that I was more than ready to get up when my father rapped his knuckles against my door. He was missing the first finger on his right hand—and now that I think of it, I don’t think he ever told me how that happened—and I liked to guess which hand he used to knock. This guess was mostly based on the level of noise, the echo through to the wrought iron on my windows which could make them ding sometimes. The knock told me whether or not my mother was still asleep down the hall.
She almost always woke up later than he did but still far earlier than I, so that when I would finally make it to breakfast, she would be alone, standing over the kitchen table. She liked to make bread for us and our neighbors as a way of making herself more European. I don’t think anyone minded that she was American because she tried her best not to act like one. She would knead the dough with her elbows, making enormous wells so deep that she would gleefully warn me against falling into them. I thought that it was strange, the way that she kneaded. I didn’t fully understand until she told me one morning to join her. I felt like an amputee, handling the dough with my elbows, and my brain started singing songs about a bread maker who had to make everything with his feet. We used our arms as rolling pins, using less and less of them—elbows then forearms then wrists—until we made pockets in the dough with only our fingers and filled them with olive oil and salt and rosemary. These mornings meant that my father felt all the more like a houseguest to me.
She would tell me stories about him, about how they met, about how he used to be soft.
“He told me on the night of our wedding,” she said to me one yellow morning, “that he would love me as long as the sea will live.” I wanted that for myself.
It was on one of these mornings, wearing sleeves of oil and herbs, that I told my mother this. I didn’t realize that I had said it so softly, maybe still aware of my father despite him being a nautical mile-and-a-half away, until she whispered back, “I love you still.”
Perhaps I should tell him right away that my mother already knew, I thought. But then other complications arose in my mind. Did the order in which I told him—women and men, men and women, past, present, and future—imply a hierarchy? I tasted bile and copper, thinking that he would look me in the eye and say, “I figured.” Perhaps it was the melodrama in me that wanted him to be surprised, or perhaps I didn’t like the idea that he assumed that I was some kind of faggot. I heard him use that word once when I was younger, and it instilled in me a mild fear that I still instinctually dragged around. That fear now had sprouted and grown and set up roots in my stomach, the way that my mother always teased a watermelon seed would if I were to swallow it.
I was the first fisherman out that morning, as my father always was and wanted me to be, and while the sky was colorful, the sun had not even fully breached the horizon yet. I don’t believe that I could have fallen in love with the sky if I had been watching it instead of the sea. I usually did look at the clouds, but they were too far away to greet or to touch and my neck was already stiff. I watched the waves, wondering why I couldn’t see to the floor of the ocean, what there was in the water that kept me from the bottom, and I felt only grief. The Ligurian Sea’s waters were clear, but not so clear that I could ever see more than my own shadow. This was probably a good thing. The whole boat was hot and gelatinous as the sun warped the wood into something that I no longer felt comfortable sitting in. The confession I was planning to make to my father no longer felt true. Or, at least, it did not feel true enough.
As the sun crawled toward the middle of the blue and then past it, Ligurio filled up with diamonds that disappeared when I tried to touch them. I wished I could have been the one to give them to him. Surely, he is already in love with the sky which matched him and gave him things to wear. I ignored my father who was not even present, under the pretense that one must be silent to catch anything worth eating. My stomach was gurgling for hours before I reached the shore. Standing in the foam, I splashed my face and my arms and my chest, all now tanned and dried like animal hide from the heat of the day. I kissed my palms, still dripping as I scraped salt from my eyebrows. I wanted to hold his hand, but I wasn’t sure I could. Instead, I told him that I would see him tomorrow. When my feet touched sand, it was still morning.
I walked home with my arms full. Nets dragged behind me and wrapped themselves around my ankles and toes. My father waited for me on the front porch, drinking something warm out of a bowl. He avoided looking me in the eye before I was close enough to be spoken to because until then, there was really no point. I helped him fill baskets and then his cart with fish, all almost as full as usual. This was likely a disappointment to him, but he said nothing. I knew he would be quiet because he always was, and in this moment, I was resolved. But to break that silence, slippery like wedding china, felt as wrong as I did. As quickly as I arrived, he left, saying nothing, and avoiding the whites of my eyes. The only thing he communicated to me was “goodbye,” and maybe a “thanks, I guess” with a hard, four-fingered hand on my shoulder, and a bowl emptied of coffee except for the ring around the bottom. I left my shoes in the sun and went inside to greet my mother.
I stood with her at the counter and let her comb my hair with her fingers. She baked while I read my books and offered her breads deep inhales and compliments. My father was away for most of the day at the market and I wanted to be gone when he got back. So I went back to Ligurio.
He looked much different in the evening than he did at dawn, greyer than ever and with nothing to reflect until I put my hand an inch away from his skin. I saw myself in him, unlike the way I did in the mirror, but entirely like the way my father did: formless and selfish. Every other wave reached up to meet my palm, so I knew he felt differently than my father did. I sat on the shore and the rocks were uncomfortable underneath my legs, but I forgot as quickly as I began speaking with him. I asked him if he was already in love with the sky. He said that he was not. So this time, I reached for his hand and asked him to come with me. He did. I too, was now green and grey and as a part of him as a fish would be. Looking through him, I saw all the things that he kept alive.
The Ligurian Sea is not the only one I have ever been in love with. There were others before him, but I’m not sure, looking back, that I could really call that love, especially now that my shoes were so wet. When I was younger I had an abundance to give, and I was braver too and so, when I fell in love, I would want them to meet my parents, expecting little but hopeful nonetheless. I thought about them, but only briefly, as Ligurio twisted around me, soaking the shoulders of my shirt and the hips of my pants, but still keeping me warm.
I met Passato in a dark, almost empty bar on a wet night some years ago. Rain fell in twirling ribbons and made the doorway slick. I had seen him around many times before, sometimes at that same bar, a couple of times at the market, once, I think, at the cemetery when I was visiting my grandfather’s grave. This was the first time we had exchanged words, though. I have heard that darkness makes people more emboldened. He sat next to me and said that he felt like he knew me in a past life. He asked me questions about where I grew up, what time did I wake up when I was a teenager, what day was the worst of my life. His questions felt prying but in a way that I liked. I did my best to answer them, though. He loved history—archaeology, paleontology, anthropology—and he preferred sunrise to sunset. We spent many of each together before I suggested he meet my family. When I brought him home, my mother had set out a meal that her mother taught her how to prepare when she was my age, that she hadn’t made for at least a decade. She said she felt a certain sense of nostalgia that evening for some reason. I introduced him to my father as my friend and Passato got him telling old stories in a matter of minutes over full plates and stubs of candles, but when he took my hand at the table and kissed my cheek, my father’s knuckles grew white around his fork. Ten minutes later, Passato left without dessert. Mama tried to convince him otherwise but my father, red-faced and spitting, insisted that I end things. I think Passato reminded him of someone he used to know. Or, Passato reminded him that I am not what he wanted.
The next day, I sat with Passato on the lip of a fountain, whose tiles were bluer than the flower that he had put in my shirt pocket, which, looking at it, did not tell me that I loved him, or him me. Rather, it said that he reminded me of something that felt comfortable. But it was not perfect because I felt slimy. I told Passato that I couldn’t see a future with him, and I said it in my father’s voice.
Ligurio stopped to admire every puddle and ask me if there were fish inside. In most of them, there were not, but in one, there was a worm, waterlogged and pale, floating limply next to a fly that sat lonely on a leaf. It looked to me altogether too much like a burial at sea but I pointed to it and he rose to high tide, gleeful that there were things that he had never met that lived in a part of him. Now was likely not the time to tell him that I disliked children and was not as in awe as he was by the concept of new life. It was too soon and the wrong moment. There were clouds in the morning sky and he told me that they came from him and he from them. He showed me the gardens which his rains watered and the wells which he filled from the ground. I was very impressed and told him so.
“Now I know why I feel like I have known you for so long. I have drunk you, bathed in you, eaten that which you have grown,” I said, situating myself nearer to him, almost tripping over my own feet and his. My hair dripped into my eyes and down my face and when the droplets hit the ground, he left them there to be evaporated, eventually to return to him. I wanted that for myself. The fact is that I have known him for as long as I have been aware of him and even before that.
I remained single for many months after Passato, not even wanting to look at anyone else, fearing both my father’s wrath and, secondarily, the quality of my own judgement. Church, solitude, and special spiced teas blessed by monks were forced upon me, interrupted only by outings with the daughters of my father’s friends. I felt especially bad because in other circumstances, I’m sure I would have enjoyed myself. It stung more that I was never even given the chance to explain that this was the case. These women were beautiful and smart and had big plans and I had actually fancied a few of them. In those months, I took initiative and began to ask out women on my own, and eventually my father was convinced that I was converted. Conversations were good, and I shared goodnight kisses with a few. I did like them and I wanted to, but I couldn’t help but compare. Our affairs usually lasted only one or two dates. I would never tell them so, but I secretly resented all of them. Though I never brought any of them home, my father was sure that I had a dozen women in my back pocket. We never spoke about Passato and we were both glad about that, I’m sure. On one particularly morose outing, I decided that I could never tell him the truth about myself. He would rather I be miserable. I thought, I would too.
I met Presente on my birthday. He saw that I was weighed down by things that had happened and that I had done and encouraged me to live in the moment. He was incredibly spontaneous and took me on long car rides with him, getting us lost more often than not. Surprises were among his favorite things. Speaking with him, listening to him talk, felt like riding a unicycle on a winding downhill road. I forgot all about Passato and left his memory where it belonged. Despite all the fun that we had together, Presente’s moods could turn sour very quickly. He was volatile in a way that sometimes scared me, though he excused it with his claim that it was just because he was so passionate.
On one particularly foggy day, a storm felt imminent. He wanted to go on a trip but I didn’t care to drive in that weather. We were sitting silently together, which we almost never did unless we were on our way to do something spectacular and the excitement was gripping us both so that we had nothing to say. But we were not going anywhere yet. He had run out of spontaneous things to suggest that we hadn’t already done.
“Let’s get married,” he whispered, treating it like the secret that I knew it should be.
“We can’t, my family would never approve.”
“I’ve never even met them. I want to, but we don’t need them.”
“I do,” I said, still sure—not entirely, but enough—that my father must know something about hell that I didn’t quite understand.
“I love you,” Presente replied.
“Perhaps today, but you may not tomorrow.” With that, he became angry and left. My father always did the same thing. The clouds broke that afternoon and made a lake out of the pothole at the bottom of our driveway. I never saw Presente again and I attribute this to his enormous pride. If I was as in love with him as I thought that I was, I would have gone after him. I think that when we were together, he just made me into someone that I could stomach. I’m not sure I can call that love.
Ligurio and I washed up on my front porch as the sun screwed itself into the center of the sky. I could smell bread baking through the open window, which meant that my mother was home. The light on in the hallway meant that my father was with her. The scent of olive oil mixed with that of brine and mingled peacefully. I wanted to take this as a good sign.
I met Futura very shortly after Presente left me and when I told her so, she encouraged me to look ahead. She loved horoscopes and tarot cards and she always carried an empty purse with her.
“I never know what I might need, so I never take anything with me,” she said when I asked. I pretended like I understood her completely.
“We should go to Nepal,” she would say. “We should go to Chile, we should go to Alaska, we should go to Australia.” She began to hum in her tolerable way. Her eyes became dinner plates as she said “We should go to the beach. I want to swim in the sea.”
I loved these ideas and I liked that she planned. She was very consistent. But she could never land on only one. In the calendar that we shared, we had every trip and every outing pinned down to paper, but the days never arrived. So when she said that she wanted to meet my parents, I wasn’t altogether filled up with dread, though it did set up a comfortable seat in the pit of my stomach. Time moved slowly with her but I felt that she was always just out of my reach. I was never even certain that I was the only one that she was with. On one night that the moon wouldn’t come out, I told her that I loved the idea of her but that her reality made me feel anxious and unprepared. She agreed that now might not have been our time, but she was sure that she would see me again. I was less certain.
“May I say something before I go?” she asked.
I hoped for something worthwhile, perhaps even ethereal, and I agreed, but knew that doing either was foolish.
“You will find your forever soon."
“Will I tell my father about them?” I wanted to know if I would ever be brave.
“That is up to you.”
This was the kind of answer that she always gave me. It was then that I was sure that I never loved Futura. It was good with her, but I think that I wanted to prove to myself that I could love a woman without feeling like it was somehow my father’s idea. The more I tried to make that true, the more like a lie it felt.
I hesitated to open the door. Looking at him I saw, now that the sun was down, that the stars in him were like diamonds. I knew that if Ligurio had less patience, less respect for me, he could just seep himself under the door and flood my home, filling the cracks in my ceiling and the little holes in the floor where the mice hide. His doing that would certainly have taken the heavy air out of the room. We all could just float.