Her mother was fueled by anger and impulse. She began her mission on Friday, and by Sunday, the house was nearly unrecognizable. Gone were the family photos and the old trinkets that Niki’s father had bought her mother. Her father’s favorite pillow, which he always put under his head while watching TV, and his favorite mug were stuffed into a bag. Niki rescued a pot of blooming orchids from the garbage can. Her father had given them to her mother at the end of last year. The clothes her father had left behind were also removed from the closet. Niki’s mother dragged the TV into a different corner of the living room, rolled up the rug in the bedroom, moved the dog into the winter garden, smashed a vase she and her husband had brought home from Istanbul, meticulously swept up the shards from the floor. The purging fit began on Friday afternoon and by Sunday they were up in the attic. Niki helped unobtrusively, and though she did not wholly agree with this cleansing, she nevertheless understood the purpose it served. She was just like her mother. The cleansing type. Anything you didn’t need or was not attached to you, anything that was unreliable: you get rid of it! It was a trait she’d clearly inherited from her mother.
“I haven’t been up in the attic since I was a teenager,” she smiled.
“Then it was about time.”
“What are we looking for?”
“Nothing. We’re tossing out your father’s stuff. Haven’t you noticed yet?”
“Here’s my doll. Little Hanna,” she said, picking up the toy.
She tipped it forward and the baby doll cried. Niki replaced it in the toy crib.
“I’m happy for you, but concentrate on looking for your father’s old boxes instead. He always said he’d unpack them someday. Well, he’s not unpacking them anymore… not in this house, anyway.”
Her mother had used up mountains of tissues already. Her nose was red from all the wiping, but she didn’t look like she was starting to feel better. Niki crouched above the dusty boxes. Chilled, she pulled her coat closed. The old goose-down coat she’d left here years ago when she moved out had come in handy today. Now, she recalled how she’d always enjoyed sitting up here in the attic on hot summer mornings, when the sun blazed through the small skylights, casting a mysterious light on all the attic’s treasures, and how, in the afternoon sunset, everything in the attic seemed luminous with an unusual color. Treasures, shelves, chests, boxes, odds and ends: everything was coated in a fine layer of dust and illuminated by the setting sun. She liked the sweetish smell of the attic. Now that her old room functioned as storage, her childhood all came back to her here, in the attic. In her mind’s eye, she saw the girl of long ago who’d once promised to go out on a date with a boy, and as she and her friend played treasure hunt in the yard, she panicked when she suddenly saw the boy appear on their street… How they’d laughed after they dashed into the house and watched the boy from the window as he hung around outside... They breathed a sigh of relief when he finally left.
“What’s this?” Niki said, opening a box and pulling out a snapshot.
Her mother… what a beautiful woman she’d once been. Like an Italian film star. Black hair, snow white skin, an attractive figure, and a sweet but still somehow erotic smile. A young man stood beside her. He was masculine, but still more a boy than a mature man. He was handsome and tall, a casual smile on his face, gazing at Niki’s mother lovingly.
It took a second glance to realize that the man was not her father.
“Leave it. Just leave it,” Niki’s mother said, trying to pull the whole box away from her. But she suddenly changed her mind and plucked only the black and white photo from between her fingers.
Her gaze softened. Niki noticed a date on the back of the photo: 1976. She hadn’t been born yet. A quick calculation told her that her mother had been eighteen then.
“Who’s that guy? He’s a hunk,” she said in recognition.
“Hmm… an Italian? Where was this taken? And who is he? Why didn’t you ever tell me about him?”
“I’m not required to tell you every detail of my life. You weren’t even been born yet when this was taken.”
“But who is he? Some mysterious, distant relative?”
“No. He’s a…” her mother paused, searching for the right words, smiling faintly. “…a boy from Naples… and the past.”
“Where could he be now? Do you keep contact?” Niki inquired, while attempting to maintain a nonchalant expression.
She and her mother were sitting around in the kitchen having coffee. Niki’s jeans were dirty and her muscles ached from three days of lifting and packing, but suddenly she was very curious about that Italian boy from her mother’s past.
“No? That’s it?”
“You’re not very talkative. I’ll leave you here with Gran then. She’s on her way over right now. Here she comes, across the yard.”
“You can’t do this to me.”
“The two of you can rag on Dad together.”
“If you don’t leave me with her now, I promise to tell you… about Alessandro.”
“Deal,” Niki nodded.
Maybe a pleasant story from the past would take her mind off her own problems and her father’s unexpected desertion. Now she had to worry about keeping her mother’s spirits up. Hopefully, her mother wouldn’t do anything stupid in her state of despair. Niki didn’t want to see Mom crushed and lonely. She had a whole bunch of problems she needed to solve and her parents’ sudden breakup had caught her off guard.