Cold Comfort

I live a solitary life. It suits me. I know the chemistry and markets for pharmaceuticals. People seek my opinions. I am well paid and do not require the rah-rah and “networking” that comes with overpriced lunches. That’s all right with me.

I had driven from Lake Como on this spring day to Lugano, Switzerland, after staying for a few days in Tremezinna in a little hillside hotel with a restful view of the lake. Lugano, this time of year is sunny and temperate with light that shimmers off the water in light breezes, the air anticipating the summer damp that quickens the palm tree’s reach for the sun. Hard to believe – palm trees in the middle of mountains.

It took some time to reach the town, as several false starts led me down dead-end roads to small alpine villages. Finally, I managed to wind my way over the mountains into Switzerland.

On a bench, in a shaded area next to a path in the Parco Ciani on this Sunday morning, I found a good place to read a copy of the New York Times. Fortunately, the European edition eliminates obituaries and most of style and sports. There were the usual crises, some positive news from Wall Street, and continuing coverage of the never-ending war in the Sudan.

There was no one with me on the bench set back from the path. It afforded a quiet, private view of the water. Then an overweight mother and father, followed by their howling hoard yammering for something or other strolled by. Luckily, they did not stop.

Then a young boy sat down on the far end of my bench. He was about nine or ten, dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt and black pants with shiny oxfords of the same color. Well groomed, with thick black hair and prominent eyebrows, he stared at the lake.

I continued reading, occasionally glancing his way. After a time he stood, stretched, and walked toward the lake and sat down on another bench. This time he turned sideways and scanned the park and walkways. The opinion page engaged me with a story about the U.S. budget deficit which was pinching aid given to third world countries. A light breeze folded the paper over and I snapped it back into place.

 The boy was now gone from the bench nearer the lake. He was sitting on another one farther down the walk, this time scanning the park, using his right hand as a visor to block out light from above. I lowered the paper to my lap and watched him.

Why was he here? He appeared to be well-fed and cared for, but aimless.

The Times went into the trash bin a few feet away and I returned to my perch. The boy was on the move now, passing in front of me on his way to another spot near a playground with swings, seesaws, and a jungle gym. I half expected him to take a seat on one of the see-saws and wait for someone to join him. Instead, he just sat on one of the swings and continued to scan the park.

He looked lonely. All around people walked and talked together, relishing the sun and leisure afforded by time off on a Sunday afternoon. The boy sat there, observing, not apparently involved with anyone or engaged in any enjoyable pursuit. He stood and walked back in my direction and sat down on the other end of my bench. He said nothing.

We watched a large sailboat leave the marina, its sails filling as a gust caught it at the end of the breakwater. He turned toward me and said with hint of an Italian accent, “I like to sail.”

I nodded. Maybe he would just leave.

“You sail?” he inquired.

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“On the Mediterranean and in the Caribbean,” I replied.

“Who did you go with?”

“I go by myself.”

“That must be boring.”

“Not really . . .” I said with some hesitation.

“Ever get lonely?” he inquired.

“Never.”

The boy turned my way, looked at me and said, “I’d be lonely.” He looked back at the lake . . . “Where do you live?”

“Far away.”

“How far away?”

“Across the ocean.”

“Which ocean?” he continued with obvious curiosity.

“You have a lot of questions, don’t you?”

“That’s what my mother says.”

“Where is she? Maybe you should go find her.” Irritated, I wondered where his mother was.

“She’s in our apartamento up there.” He gestured with his head toward the apartments across the Viale Carlo Cattaneo. “She told me to go for a walk.”

“Doesn’t look like you’ve gone for much of a walk.”

“She said she’d meet me here. She’s with Stefano. He’s her boyfriend.”

“You have a father?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. “Never met him.” He stared toward the lake. “I’m getting hungry.”

“Why don’t you go home and get something to eat?”

“I’m supposed to go for a walk. It’s boring. What’s your name?”

“Jerome.”

“My name’s Dino,” he smiled.

“Do you always wander around here?”

 “No. Sometimes I walk farther down the lake to the Swissminiatur Park. My mother buys me a season ticket.”

“What’s a miniatur?” I frowned.

“It’s Switzerland, only really small houses in a little park.”

“Maybe you should go there.”

“I went there yesterday when Stefano came. He doesn’t talk to me. . . I like talking to you.” He stared at the lake.

I was getting hungry. I stood to go. I’d seen a café across the Viale. “Good-bye, Dino.” I walked away. After a few steps I heard a shoe scuffing behind me. I turned.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m following you. My apartemento is across the street. I’m going to sit outside.”

We continued on, came to the Viale and waited for the light to change.

“Do you want something to eat?” I asked.

“Yes. I am hungry.”

We crossed to the café. I ordered a latte and plain croissant, the boy chose a chocolate pastry. We went down the street and sat on a concrete wall facing the avenue. He devoured his pastry before I could take a bite out of my croissant.

“Thank you,” he said

“You were hungry.”

“Yes.”

We watched the traffic passing by.

“Do you like to drive?” he asked.

“Sometimes.”

“We take the train.” He stood. “Mami!”

A tall, elegantly dressed young woman in summer attire wearing sunglasses walked towards us with a casually dressed man in light tan trousers and white dress shirt open at the collar.

 “What are you doing here, Dino?” she asked.

“I am waiting for you, Mother.” She said something in Italian.

“This is my friend, Jerome,” the boy said.

“I met Dino when I was sitting on a bench in the park,” I offered.

She turned to the boy and said abruptly, gesturing with her hand, “Vieni con me.”

Then turning to me she said, “Do you always pick up little boys in parks?”

Stunned, I would not dignify her comment with a response. I stood, gave her my best disdainful look, spun on my heels and started to walk away, thought better of it and returned to where she was standing, bowed and said, “Think what you will madam. It was never my intention to harm or entice. We talked. He is a nice young man. We were hungry. We ate. Good day.” I turned and walked back to the park.

I was offended, usually not given to feeling – of any sort, especially when assaulted by a gratuitous comment. What a waste of time! I went back to the bench, crossed my legs, pulled out my phone and checked messages. They would keep. I retreated to a Google news feed. Nothing there of significance. I put the phone away and looked at the lake, bouncing my leg up and down on my knee.  

Who did this bitch think she was? She booted the kid out of their apartment and expected him to take care of himself while she played? Bah! Enough of this town. I stood and started walking back to my car.

As I crossed a grassy area to the parking lot, I glanced toward the lake. Silhouetted on the path nearer to the lake were the boy, his mother and her paramour. The boy lagged behind a distance. The mother and her friend, had their arms around each other’s waists, her head on his shoulder as they walked.

The boy stopped, turned my direction and gave a small wave. I nodded. He stood still for a moment, turned, and followed his mother and her boyfriend who were now a good half block ahead.

The tone of the day had changed. Instead of a warm, relaxed time in a beautiful setting, the air had become glacial and forbidding. I would return to Bergamo to await my flight to Paris, feeling lost and regretful. For a short time Dino filled a hollow place I didn’t know was there. I shivered–cold comfort.

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