When we feel afraid, we defend ourselves

Chiara Bersani and Marta Montanini

We were born 11 months apart, since then there are two of us. We have built all our views overlapping our thoughts, it’s the only way we know to make sense of the world. The time for synthesis and order will arrive, but it will take a while. For now, this is all we have. To those of us who live near the River Po, since we were young girls we have been told: if the river rises we need to give it space, let it overflow, pressure on the banks must be avoided. Now it’s the same. Giving space to these words is our way to be sure not everything else is lost.

I already know what life is like closed between four walls, and what it means to be out of work.
I know what it feels like when you cannot breathe, when your lips become purple, I know what it means to feel at risk. I look at others and at times I think – did you really think you would never die?

I understand you. We have been reading each other’s thoughts, every day, for a long time. We needed no slowing-down, no waiting and looking. We have always looked after each other. We stay awake.

In this unfathomable present, I am beginning to confuse reality and ghosts again. I go out onto the terrace and for a moment, the sun reminds me that I have a body, that this body is living in the present and everything is real and specific. Then the wind blows and Marina di Massa’s terrace comes to mind, the summers of our childhood, the sofa bed in front of the TV, the landing stage.
I am there, another time and another space.

Now who is going to tell the child Chiara that we are stranded? After all the effort to get a foothold in the world, to open paths in the wild woods, now we are stuck and we may feel frustrated at home longer than healthy people? and when we eventually go out, who knows how many feet will have muddled the way ahead. Will we still have the strength to find our space again?

Feeling your fear so strongly caught me by surprise. I thought you had already negotiated what was negotiable in this world, that is everything. For years, I have watched you open all the doors you wished. One by one. With effort. With anxiety. It had never occurred to me that your masterful self-confidence was a reversible gift. Indeed, it is not. With all the various moves, we have learnt conspiracy and anger. We would jump the slots and break the ranks. We made ourselves other keys. These keys are ours. We will not give them back.

The other day on the phone you said: “It makes me laugh that now a disabled person suddenly becomes an expert on isolation and living with illness. And then this absurd medicalization of quarantine, as if we were all ill because we have to stay at home.”

I thought, when I was ill, lying on the bed or on the sofa, the outside existed because you lived there. My periods of convalescence were regularly interrupted by visits from outside into my room and you, our friends, my brother, Dad and Mum… you were all messengers. You arrived with your red, freckled cheeks, a plat acetate trousers. In my memories, I was always at the end of one of your sprints. You would bring that energy from the outside and then come to where I was and give me some. My heart would then start beating a little faster while yours slowed down. When spring came Mum would bring me the spring flowers, Dad would open the window. In winter my brother would bring in a glass of snow, we made tiny snowmen; we kept them in the freezer.
In this maybe, I could have considered myself an expert: reading the world through other people. Live it with their sweat, the various scents, the pulsations, and the temperature of their hands that jokingly touched my face.

We have always drunk tea on the low table. From the sofa, we traced our maps to explore the world. We exchanged identities. We tuned in our dealing with experiences. We understood that it is complicity that protects us, not shying away. We invited everyone to this table.

I am not an expert in this way of not living in the world. Neither are you. When we call each other, I am in my two-room flat, you in your casa di ringhiera (council house with shared balconies). I am in the area of Piacenza, you in Turin. I only go onto the terrace, you every now and again go to the market, but when you come back you are always sad.

The best of our intuitions: looking for all the possible convergences, slipping inside them. Looking for all the possible supports. Lesson number one of your physiotherapy: be aware of the effort, feel your balance reflected in my joints. Following this: make visits everywhere. Do not be frightened by other people’s pain. Make access easier. Foresee indiscernible movements. Recognize each other.

Why are isolation experts sought after?
Do we imagine that someone other than ourselves who already knows the situation can somehow save us?
And after? Who will remember them?
Who will remember us?

We are obsessed with counting those absent. Maybe because, from a distance, we have always missed each other. We know that being present has a price. You have often said that being present is a privilege. I realize that my presence does not substitute empty places. We don’t trust those who don’t wait. We don’t trust protectors. We don’t answer appeals. We are guiltily attracted by desertions.

This time we ask each other together “Did they really believe they would never die?”
Because otherwise we cannot explain the mighty fear that doesn’t accept being revealed, that hides behind a deformed rationality.
As I lie on my bed, I ask “does it take so little for man to become a cannibal?”

We would never have wanted “us” and “them”

A cannibal is one who tells me “I understand your point of view but if there are no places in intensive care, decisions must be made.”  A cannibal is one who tells me “You must put yourself in the shoes of the doctors who have to choose every day”. A cannibal is one who says “it is not the moment to be an idealist”.
A cannibal is someone who says this to me, pretending not to see my body and what it means.
However, if it had not been understood that there was no metaphor in my discussing the political body, but flesh, muscles and blood, then what was I doing? I really believed I was getting somewhere while instead maybe I was only allowing healthy people to accept me into their world. I was allowing myself to be defined by them, narrated and romanticized by their glances that do not know danger; however, I had not rewritten anything.
I thought a united army would be supporting me when, with a broken voice, I read the guidelines of SIAARTE on the radio, as to how to decide who had right to access in intensive care in the eventuality of there not being enough beds.
Instead, faced with fear, the world has divided itself into smaller parts. There are those who have remained, those who have not even considered the idea of moving, but I continue to look at those who take a side step saying, “you have to understand”.

Instead, now we are counting ourselves.


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