In this passage from Paolo Giordano’s new novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, our hero, Mattia, and heroine, Alice, connect for the first time.
Mattia became aware of Alice’s presence when she rested a hand on the table: the tension broke and a thin layer of liquid spilled over the rim and settled around the base in a dark ring.
He instinctively looked up and met her gaze.
“How’s it going?” she asked.
Mattia nodded. “Fine,” he said.
“Do you like the party?”
“Music this loud gives me a headache.”
Alice waited for Mattia to say something. She looked at him and it seemed to her that he wasn’t breathing. His eyes were meek and pain-stricken. Like the first time, she suddenly wanted to draw those eyes toward her, to take Mattia’s head in her hands and tell him everything would be okay.
“Will you come into the other room with me?” she ventured.
Mattia looked at the floor, as if he had been waiting for those very words.
“Okay,” he said.
Alice headed down the hall and he followed a short distance behind. Mattia, as always, kept his head down and looked in front of him. He noticed that Alice’s right leg bent gracefully at the knee, like every other leg in the world, and her foot brushed the floor without a sound. Her left leg, on the other hand, remained stiff. To push it forward she had to make it do a little arc outward. For a fraction of a second her pelvis was unbalanced, as if she were about to topple sideways. At last her left foot touched the ground as well, heavily, like a crutch.
Mattia concentrated on that gyroscopic rhythm, and without realizing it he synchronized his steps with hers.
When they got to Viola’s room, Alice sidled up next to him and, with a daring that startled even her, closed the door. They were standing, he on the rug and she just off it.
Why doesn’t he say anything? Alice wondered. For a moment she wanted to drop the whole thing, to open the door again and leave, to breathe normally.
But what would I tell Viola? she thought.
“It’s better in here, isn’t it?” she said.
“Yeah,” Mattia agreed, nodding. His arms dangled at his sides like a ventriloquist’s dummy. With his right index finger he was folding a short, hard bit of skin that stuck out from beside his thumbnail. It was almost like piercing himself with a needle and the sting distracted him for a moment from the charged air in the room.
Alice sat on Viola’s bed, balancing on the edge. The mattress didn’t dip beneath her weight. She looked around, searching for something.
“Why don’t you sit down here?” she asked Mattia at last.
He obeyed, sitting down carefully, about a foot away from her. The music in the living room sounded like the heavy, panting breath of the walls. Alice noticed Mattia’s hands, clenched into fists.
“Is your hand better?” she asked.
“Nearly,” he said.
“How did you do it?”
“I cut myself. In the biology lab. By accident.”
“Can I see?”
Mattia tightened his fists still further. Then he slowly opened his left hand. A furrow, light in shade and perfectly straight, cut it diagonally.
Around it, Alice made out scars that were shorter and paler, almost white. They filled the whole of his palm, intersecting like the branches of a leafless tree seen against the light.
“I’ve got one too, you know,” she said.
Mattia clenched his fist again and trapped his hand between his legs, as if to hide it. Alice stood up, lifted her sweatshirt slightly, and unbuttoned her jeans. He was seized by panic. He turned his eyes to the floor, but still managed to see Alice’s hands folding back the edge of her trousers, revealing a piece of white gauze framed by Scotch tape and, just below it, the top of a pair of pale gray underpants.
Alice lowered the elastic band a couple of inches and Mattia held his breath.
“Look,” she said.
A long scar ran along her protruding pelvis bone. It was thick and in relief, and wider than Mattia’s. The marks from the stitches, which intersected it perpendicularly and at regular intervals, made it look like the kind of scar children draw on their faces when they dress up as pirates.
Mattia couldn’t think what to say. Alice buttoned up her jeans and tucked her undershirt inside them. Then she sat down again, a little closer to him.
The silence was almost unbearable for both of them, the empty space between their faces overflowing with expectation and embarrassment.
“Do you like your new school?” Alice asked, for the sake of saying something.
“They say you’re a genius.”
Mattia sucked in his cheeks and bit into them till he felt the metallic taste of blood filling his mouth.
“Do you really like studying?”
“It’s the only thing I know how to do,” he said shortly. He wanted to tell her that he liked studying because you can do it alone, because all the things you study are already dead, cold, and chewed over. He wanted to tell her that the pages of the schoolbooks were all the same temperature, that they left you time to choose, that they never hurt you and you couldn’t hurt them either. But he said nothing.
“And do you like me?” Alice went for it. Her voice came out rather shrilly and her face exploded with heat.
“I don’t know,” Mattia answered hastily, looking at the floor.
“I don’t know,” he insisted. “I haven’t thought about it.”
“You don’t need to think about it.”
“If I don’t think, I can’t understand anything.”
“I like you,” said Alice. “A bit. I think.”
He nodded. He played at contracting and relaxing his retina, to make the geometric design of the carpet go in and out of focus.
“Do you want to kiss me?” Alice asked. She wasn’t ashamed, but as she said it her empty stomach curled with terror that he might say no.
Mattia didn’t move for a few seconds. Then he shook his head, slowly, still staring at the swirls in the carpet.
With a nervous impulse, Alice brought her hands to her hips and measured the circumference of her waist.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said quickly, in a different voice. “Please don’t tell anyone,” she added.
You’re an idiot, she thought. Worse than a girl in kindergarten.
She stood up. Suddenly Viola’s room seemed like a strange, hostile place. She felt herself becoming intoxicated by all the colors on the walls, the desk covered with makeup, the toe shoes hanging from
the closet door, like a pair of severed feet, the big photo of Viola at the beach, lying on the sand looking beautiful, the cassettes stacked haphazardly beside the stereo, and the clothes piled up on the armchair.
“Let’s go back,” she said.
Mattia got up from the bed. He looked at her for a moment, apologetically, it seemed to her. She opened the door, letting the music flood the room. She walked partway down the hall alone. Then she thought of Viola’s face. She turned around, took Mattia’s stiff hand without asking his permission, and together they walked into the noisy living room.
The others were the first to notice what Alice and Mattia would come to understand only many years later. They walked into the room holding hands. They weren’t smiling and were looking in opposite directions, but it was as if their bodies flowed smoothly into each other’s, through their arms and fingers.
The marked contrast between Alice’s light-colored hair, which framed the excessively pale skin of her face, and Mattia’s dark hair, tousled forward to hide his black eyes, was erased by the slender arc that linked them. There was a shared space between their bodies, the confines of which were not well delineated, from which nothing seemed to be missing and in which the air seemed motionless, undisturbed.
Alice walked a step ahead of him and Mattia’s slight drag balanced her cadence, erasing the imperfections of her faulty leg. He let himself be carried forward, his feet making not the slightest sound on the tiles. His scars were hidden and safe in her hand.
They stopped on the threshold of the kitchen, a little away from the cluster of girls and Denis. They tried to work out what was happening. They had a dreamy air about them, as if they had come from some distant place that only they knew.
From: The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. Translation copyright © Shaun Whiteside, 2009. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Group (Canada), a Division of Pearson Canada Inc.