Aunt Louisa’s small, red brick home resides on a five hundred foot cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in the small seaside town of Monte di Procida in southern Italy. As a child, I would step out onto her blazing hot, red-tiled balcony, which tickled the bottom of my feet as I tiptoed to the shaded right side to see the breathtaking view. Looking directly straight out from the balcony, I could see jewel-blue water that glistened from the rays of the Mediterranean sun; I could hear seagulls screeching, the waves splashing against the jet-black sea rocks and children giggling on the beach of Acqua Morta, which translates to “The Sea of the Dead”. Looking down from the balcony, I could see the cobblestone stairs that led to Aunt Louisa’s vineyard, which flourished down the verdant cliff in her backyard.
Here is where my 18-year-old cousin Ciro plunged to his death. Ciro, who was eight years older than me, would always take me to pick juicy purple grapes in Aunt Louisa’s vineyard. One time in particular, before we headed down the stairs, Aunt Louisa poked her head and fragile, thin shoulders through the tinted green glass door. She opened her chocolate-colored eyes wide and said, in a stern tone, “Do NOT go past the blue gate!”
I trusted Ciro as he firmly held my tiny hands while we walked down the fifty steps, covered in dirt and broken tree branches, to reach the thriving vineyard. I looked up at Ciro, as he ran his fingers through his amber locks. They glistened in the sun like gold. The corners of his Bambi eyes crinkled as he smiled at me. He had emerald green eyes, with Mediterranean Sea blue creeping around the edges. We arrived at the vineyard, and, in the distance, I could see the eroded sky-blue gate Aunt Louisa ordered us not to pass. The gate, covered in spongy green moss and faded orange rust, blocked the entrance to the edge of the cliff. I remember Ciro tell me, in a soft voice, “Ana, come grab my hand. I don’t want you near the gate.”
Ciro spent most of his youth working to achieve perfection by studying hour upon hour to obtain and maintain a 4.0 average. Ciro was a remarkably ambitious and determined teenager, but he was also a perfectionist who suffered when he performed poorly. His ambition and determination allowed him to gain admission into a prestigious college in Italy — Bocconi University. When Ciro received his acceptance, he was not relieved; instead, he felt, even more, the pressure to prove to the town that he was worthy of a prestigious college education. After his acceptance, he had told Aunt Louisa, “Everyone is going to laugh in the face of my acceptance if I don’t get a job with a high salary.”
The town of Monte di Procida has just over 300 residents; therefore, everybody knows each other. Consequently, everybody knows every detail about each other’s life. Word spread quickly; everyone was amazed about Ciro’s acceptance into Bocconi. I remember there was a day, shortly after his acceptance, when we walked down the narrow street where Rosaria, his neighbor, was outside watering her daffodils by her red-orange stoop. She placed her melon-pink watering can on the stoop and threw her dark brown fishtail braid behind her bony shoulders. She ran to Ciro, pursed her lips, and powerfully kissed his freckled cheek.
“Congratulazioni, Ciro! You are going to have the best time in Milan! These are going to be the best three years of your life,” she excitedly said.
Ciro hated to be the center of attention. His cheeks flushed, he awkwardly giggled, and softly responded, “Grazie, Rosaria.”
Bocconi is in the metropolitan city of Milan, a five-hour train ride from Monte di Procida. Milan is the fashion capital of Italy, but unlike Monte di Procida, it is unwelcoming and grey. Unlike the slow-paced culture of southern Italy, Milan is fast-paced. The residents are always on the go, rushing to work in the streets, which makes it quite impersonal. Bocconi, in particular, is full of high-achieving and talented students that were all at the top of their classes in high school; Ciro was a small fish in a big sea of gifted students. He moved into his single bedroom dorm on the fourteenth floor. The dorm room, surrounded by plain white walls, had a slight sheen from the sunlight the small squared window that faced a courtyard provided. Perhaps the sharp contrast of the plain white walls in his room to his colorful past led to his gradual depression. Regardless, Ciro began his undergraduate experience with high hopes for his future endeavors. “I can’t wait to have a fresh start,” he had exclaimed to Aunt Louisa when he first entered the dorm.
I video-chatted with Ciro after he had finished his midterms, and I curiously asked, “Ciro, how is Milan?” He sat at his desk while the plain white walls crept in the background and nearly matched the pale shade of his face. Now that I reflect on my time video-chatting with Ciro, I realize that he seemed so lost as he stared into space. He was drowning in his inescapable thoughts, screaming for help on the inside while trying to find a piece of his broken puzzle. He resembled a skeleton; his face was whiter than bone, and his collarbone protruded from his skin. I could see the weight he was carrying on his bony shoulders as they began to tremble. In a toneless voice that matched his colorless skin, he softly said, “I am going to go take a nap. I’ll see you soon, Ana.”
Eight years after Ciro’s death, I asked Aunt Louisa to recall Ciro’s time at Bocconi and the conversations she had had with him. While at Bocconi, Ciro had experienced feelings of sadness and loss of interest in academia. He received a D on his first mathematics exam. He had called his mom, Aunt Louisa, and cried into the phone, “I am not good enough. What is happening to me?” Ciro sat alone every night in his small dorm room and called Aunt Louisa.
“You don’t understand how badly I want to jump out the window right now,” he had said in a quavering voice one night.
Aunt Louisa let out a sigh and responded, “Ciro, this is just a phase; it is normal to feel this way. You are experiencing something new.”
Ciro replied, in a trembling voice that struggled to form words, “It is not normal to feel this way. Please don’t tell anyone how I am feeling.”
When Ciro came home after the end of the semester to celebrate Christmas, I sat with him on the black leather couch in Aunt Louisa’s small living room. To the left of us was the Christmas tree, enveloped with gleaming gold lights. The sweet smell of fresh tomato salsa and minty basil sauntered into the room from the kitchen down the hall. Rosaria, Ciro’s neighbor, was wearing a black knitted sweater, and her mousy brown hair was tied up in a messy bun. As she walked down the narrow hallway to the right of the couch, Ciro forced a smile, hoping to hide his depressed state. He appeared to dread the questions and remarks that others would make. He viewed others’ comments more as judgments than expressions of concern or care.
Louisa looked wide-eyed at Ciro and took a step back. She shouted, “Ciro, I barely recognized you!”
Ciro looked like a walking corpse; he was extremely skinny, and his cheekbones protruded from his snow-white face. He had purple rings under his emerald green eyes that no longer gleamed as they did before he left for Milan; Ciro looked empty.
Rosaria asked, “I heard you decided to take some time off of school. How come?” Chiro’s freckled cheeks turned tomato red, and his eyes brimmed with tears.
“He is lazy; he doesn’t want to put up with the stress of school,” Aunt Louisa yelled from the kitchen.
Later that evening, Ciro came out from his room wearing a puffy black North Face jacket and a grey beanie. “I am going to go for a walk,” he told his mother.
“Be back in thirty minutes! The spaghetti will be ready then,” Aunt Louisa replied.
“Okay, Mom. I love you,” Ciro exclaimed before slamming the front wooden door shut.
Twenty minutes after Ciro slammed the front door shut, the phone rang in the kitchen; it was the police department. Aunt Louisa picked up the phone and frantically asked, “Is Ciro okay?” Rosaria and I were sitting on the black leather couch when we heard Aunt Louisa yell in confusion, “What? That can’t be Ciro. We are having dinner in ten minutes, and he said he would be here! He just went for a walk.” Then we heard Aunt Louisa scream in agony. Rosaria and I ran down the end of the narrow hall to reach the kitchen, and when we turned to the right, we saw Aunt Louisa laying stomach down, her fists clenched, as she punched the wooden floor. Her heart-rending sobs echoed throughout the empty hallways of her red brick home. Rosaria tightly wrapped her arms around Aunt Louisa’s trembling shoulders, and frantically yelled, “Louisa, che successo? Louisa, what happened?” That night, Ciro passed the blue gate and jumped to his death from the edge of the cliff in his backyard. In one second, he was there, and in the next second, he was gone. I was ten years old at the time.
The stigma of mental illness became apparent to me when I had a conversation in a salon in Naples, eight years after Ciro’s death. I sat in a bright, red leather barber chair while my hairdresser, Tilda, straightened a thick strand of my golden hair. She looked at me with her deep-set brown eyes through the squared mirror, and curiously asked, “What do you plan to study in New York?”
I answered, “I am going to be studying psychology.”
She immediately stopped straightening my hair, slightly opened her mouth and stared at me wide-eyed. She crossed her skinny arms, looked transfixed, and asked, “Aren’t you scared to work with i pazzi?” Pazzi, in English, translates to lunatics.
In a calm tone, I answered, “No, I am not afraid to work with what you call crazy people because I know that these people, like Ciro, are not crazy — just sick. Depression is a flaw in chemistry, not in character.”