A remarkable memoir of fathering, winner of the 2001 Strega Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary honor, Born Twice is noted Italian author Guiseppe Pontiggia’s American debut. Sometimes meditative, often humorous, and always probing, Pontiggia’s haunting characters linger and resound long after the book is done.
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The escalators leading to the third floor rise steeply between a set of descending ones, the steps above us disappear into the overhead lights, and a dense crowd circulates slowly below on the receding walkways.
“Do you like it?” I lean forward and ask, my face close to his ear.
“Yes,” he replies, without looking back.
Gripping the rubber handrail with his left hand, he lets his body lean back into my arms, which he can feel are open behind him. I shift my weight forward to support his. When we reach the top, where the metal steps recede into a dark fissure, he loses his balance and stumbles forward.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got you!” I say, reaching out for him.
He doesn’t fall. He positions himself on the carpet just beyond the landing, his legs and feet stiff with tension. He takes a few steps. I look around and wipe my brow with my hand. A woman is staring at us coldly. She’s standing next to a yellow beach umbrella that has been planted in a square of sand meant to simulate a beach scene. I stare back at her. I’m tired of people staring. But then she gasps, her hand goes to her mouth, and I hear a heavy thud. It’s Paolo. He’s fallen on his side. He rolled over onto his back, the way they taught him to do at school, but too late. His face is twisted in pain, the palms of his hands flat on the floor.
“Are you hurt?” I whisper, crouching down beside him.
He shakes his head. I position his feet against mine and pull him up. A small crowd of curious and alarmed onlookers has formed. They retreat to let us by.
“Everything’s fine,” I say.
I help him along for a few steps.
“Do you feel better now?”
I point out a nearby stand covered with palm fronds. It’s surrounded by small tropical plants and set against a blue cardboard backdrop.
“Do you feel like getting something to drink?”
We sit down on benches at a rustic wooden table. A giant plastic shark next to us displays an array of fishing gear in its jaws. I look at its sharp, crooked teeth. I’m exhausted and unhappy.
“Do you want a Coke?” I ask.
I hold his glass for him while he drinks from it. Then we get up to leave.
“Go slowly now. Pay attention,” I say gently.
I watch him walk off, reeling like a drunken sailor. No, like a spastic.
Suddenly he turns and says in that labored way of his, “If you’re embarrassed you don’t have to walk next to me. I’ll be all right.”
Coming into the World
I’m at school when he’s about to be born. I’ve already started teaching my class. The ordinarily grumpy custodian comes into the room with a wide smile on her face. She walks over to the lectern and whispers in my ear.
“Professore, your wife is at the hospital. Her mother called. She asked me to tell you. She said there’s no hurry.”
I look at the class calmly.
“Her water broke,” she adds.
I nod dispassionately. What does that mean? How does water break? Maybe it’s the placenta. I visualize torn membranes and dripping fluids.
“You can cancel class if you want,” she suggests.
“No, I’ll keep going.”
What an idiot. You want to show everyone, yourself above all, just how strong you are. How courageous when faced with danger. Only you’re not the one who’s in danger. I didn’t think about that then. How calm we are when faced with dangers that are not our own.
Above all, show no emotion. Millennia of male-dominated education encapsulated in a millisecond. I look at the class. They must have guessed by now. A girl in the front row overheard a few words the custodian said and turned to tell a friend. I smile. Everything’s under control.
“Let’s go on with the lesson,” I say.
“Breech birth,” the doctor says in the hospital corridor, without looking at me. Fat, beady-eyed, and out of breath, he looks like a large trapped mouse.
“Meaning he’s breech.” He looks up to make sure I don’t understand.
“What complications are there, exactly?”
“It’s hard to say. The greatest danger is anoxia.”
“You mean the baby won’t be able to breathe?”
“Something like that,” he concedes, annoyed. “His heartbeat is regular; there’s no need to intervene yet.”
“What do you mean by intervene?”
“Cesarean section. But your gynecologist doesn’t want to. He’s against them.”
Against them? I can see his face in front of me, larger than lifeâ€”his thinning white hair, an air of fatigue and ruin about him.
“We’d like to avoid a cesarean. Doctors perform them these days at the drop of a hat.”
I listened with an intent expression on my face, but all the while I was thinking not about Franca but of the woman I had met again after so many years, the woman I would be seeing in only a few hours, even as I asked, “Is the baby in any danger?”
“Naturally,” he replied. “How did Leopardi put it? ‘A man comes struggling into the world; /His birth is in the shadow of death.’ But let’s wait on the cesarean. Trust me.”
He looked at me compassionately, with that mask of wisdom that some people acquire when they age but which is actually the final, definitive, and eternal stamp of stupidity. I had expressed my doubts about him, once, to my wife. We were on the escalators at the time.
“Are you sure he’s a good gynecologist?” I had asked.
“He’s the best,” she had replied.
He’s coming toward me with small hurried steps, rocking from side to side like a penguin.
“Don’t worry,” he says, which is the best way to make someone do precisely that. “You’ve got to be patient.”
“But why isn’t he born yet?”
“He’s a big baby,” he says with a sigh. “He doesn’t want to come into the world.” Then, with a wink and a smile, he adds, “Maybe he has a point.”
I want to grab him by the shoulders and shake the hell out of him, but I can’t bring myself to be hostile to the one person I suddenly perceive as my most feared enemy.
“Oh, thank goodness you’re here, Dr. Merini!” my mother-in-law exclaims, rushing up to greet him, taking both his hands in hers. “Everything will be all right, won’t it, Doctor?”
“But of course, Signora! It’s just more complicated than usual. Let’s give nature a chance.”
“Just what I needed to hear!” she says, clasping his hands in hers. She’s elegant, melodramatic, and arrogant. Always on the verge of a breakdown. Always seeking out anxieties to flaunt and fears to have quelled. “So long as nothing happens to my little girl!”
“Or to the baby,” my own mother adds coldly, joining the group. She has been following the conversation from her post by the window, glancing over occasionally to remind us of her presence. Her face has assumed the stony gaze that used to frighten me as a child. “Let’s not forget he’s the one being born.”
“Well, hello! I didn’t know you were here!” my mother-in-law says, addressing her in the tone she reserves for unwelcome guests. “The baby, of course! Both of them, obviously!”
“You’re the ones who ruled out a cesarean, after all,” my mother says.
My mother-in-law turns sharply toward her. “What on earth are you saying? We didn’t rule out anything. We’d just like to avoid an operation, if possible. And who is this you, anyway?”
“You and your daughter, with your theories on natural childbirth,” my mother replies. Then she points at me. “Him too. It might look like he’s listening, but who really knows what’s going on in that head of his?”
“Why do you always have to be so sinister?” I ask, trying to hurt her.
I succeed. The insult seems to have hit home. She goes back to the window in a state of furious isolation. She was an amateur actress in her youth and has never forgotten it. Neither have I.
I remember isolated events, like movie stills, that I can’t quite piece together.
The nun, walking out of the birthing room at the end of the corridor, passing me by, pretending not to see me. I catch up with her.
“What’s going on in there?”
“Ask your doctor,” she says.
Dr. Merini, ever more bewildered, saying, “I never thought it would come to this.” Seeing an idiot in distress is far more disturbing than seeing a blissful one.
“What do you mean you never thought?” I ask, finally grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him, doing what I ought to have done twelve hours ago. Twelve whole hours have gone by and there’s been no delivery, just excruciating agony. “What the hell is going on in there?”
“We’re going to use forceps,” he announces, extricating himself from my grasp.
“Why not a cesarean?”
“It’s too late. The baby is already crowning.”
Me, making my way to the hospital chapel through a haze of colored lights, kneeling down to pray, feeling like an actor reluctantly playing his part. What am I doing here? This is not my role.
But it is. The comedy is over; the tragedy is about to begin. You’ve been through tough times before and now you’re finally being called to account. You knew it would come to this. Be strong, you’re dealing with God. Don’t see her for a month. No, that’s too long: three weeks. You shut your eyes. It’s not only the doctors’ fault, it’s your fault too. What on earth could you have been thinking? Never see her again. No, that’s not what’s being asked of you. Anyway, you’d be unhappy and that would just make things worse for everyone.
You hear a silent voice in your head. Yes. It’s as if someone’s head were nodding. Yes, you don’t deserve it, but this is how it is. You cross yourself and murmur your thanks.
I can’t remember now who mentioned that the baby didn’t cry right away. What does that mean? Is it serious? Yes, very serious. He was cyanotic. I remember one word: catatonic. The surgeon said it on his way out. The only question you want to ask is the one they don’t want to hear: What are the consequences? It’s too early to tell. Maybe nothing. Take care of your wife.
She’s lying in bed, staring out the window, pale, exhausted, troubled, and silent. Drops of rain slither down the glass. I take her limp hand in mine.
“You were amazing.”
She shakes her head.
“Don’t worry, everything will be all right.”
She doesn’t reply.
She tries to speak but her voice is hoarse. I lean down. My cheek brushes against her cold damp forehead.
“Have you seen the baby?” she asks.
“Go see him.”
Whoever mentioned the joys of childbirth?
I’ll never forget that tiny purple face. I’ll never forget that fixed half-smile or his cone-shaped head. The image of a Mesopotamian divinity comes to mind. He’s frightening and homely at the same time. The nurse approaches with him in her arms.
“We’re going to place him in the incubator now,” she says.
“But his head!”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” she replies, leaning over the bed to show him to his mother.
From the Hardcover edition.