While he was waiting for his gas tank to be filled at one of the many stations found at the beginning of the Cassia road, on the way out of Florence, attorney Adami kept looking at the girl in the blue tank top and jeans, standing on the edge of the road, a little further up. She was quite tall and slim, with loose washed-blond hair, and she had a large backpack at her feet. She must be a foreigner, possibly Nordic, one of those who hitchhike around Europe. But she must have been shy, or otherwise incredibly lazy, because she let cars go past without signaling them to stop. She didn’t signal attorney Adami either, but he, moved by some sort of indulgent concern, stopped his car anyway and, opening the door to invite her in, asked:
Maybe the girl was neither shy nor lazy, but just cautious: she looked at him with a pair of very light eyes, the color of the sea on windless days, and studied him with great seriousness, before deciding to note her consent. She then gathered herself on the seat, as far as possible from him, and seemed to become even smaller, with her tiny face, that, to be honest, seemed also not very expressive, as it is often the case with Nordic women, and her skinny arms, reddened by the sun.
Attorney Adami was no Don Juan, no seducer with little conscience. However, as he was sure he had been one in his youth, he was left with the calm awareness that, in the case of need, he would not lack the charm, nor the experience, needed to win a woman over. Naturally, the idea of using charm and experience with the girl he just picked up didn’t even remotely occur to him, and in fact, with great rectitude, he was thinking mostly of his daughter, and what she would be like when she grew up. This girl seemed to be fourteen or fifteen, she was pretty and delicate. In fact, he would not have minded at all if his daughter, in ten years’ time, would be like this girl, as pretty and delicate, but he would certainly not allow her to travel the world on her own, risking her falling into the hand of some villain. It wasn’t without any personal complacency, relating to his own virtue, that he thought he could be a villain himself if, faced by this very young and seemingly very pure girl, he wasn’t stopped by a sense of responsibility that could even be defined as fatherly.
The attorney was therefore feeling exceptionally well with his conscience, but it was this very sense of his cleanliness and appropriateness that made him feel he would appreciate it if the girl would show more trust, for example, by smiling back at him when he turned to smile at her. But instead, she remained enclosed and contained in her corner, and did not seem to be inclined to show any trust, to the point that it could even appear offensive, in the sense that it was possible to interpret it as an expression of doubt and suspicion that he, at the end of the day, did not deserve.
At San Casciano, at the café that is right at the top of the hill, he stopped for a moment to buy a bag of sweets. Sometimes children are won over this way, with small things, and indeed she finally smiled, when he put sweets in her hand, but immediately afterwards she returned to her corner, only that now she was munching on the sweets. The road was descending from the hills of San Casciano, one turn after the other, and on the trees the cicadas were singing in the air warmed by the sun. The valley ahead was wide, with a multitude of shades of green and yellow and farmhouses scattered on the hills, each with its own tassels of cypresses, and the attorney, who was feeling almost moved by all this beauty, was sorry that the girl from the north was not aware of it, it seemed. “Do you speak English?” he asked.
“Yes”, she replied with great calm.
The attorney gestured vaguely to the valley. “Beautiful Italy”, he said.
The girl confirmed with a nod, to show that she agreed. It wasn’t much to encourage a conversation, but the attorney thought that this was a start and explained to her that he lived in Rome and had a four-year-old daughter called Gisella. He also started to say that he would not mind at all if his daughter, when she grew up, would be like her, but this concept was too complicated for his English and he was soon stuck, and then asked her, in French, if she could speak French and she replied yes, of course. So he started explaining to her, in French, that he lived in Rome and had a four-year-old daughter called Gisella, and that he would not mind at all, etc. etc., but his French also failed him with this difficult concept, even ambiguous, that he could not explain, and she watched him as he struggled with foreign languages, and her face was no longer blank, but impertinent and amused, and in the end she said, in an Italian that was slightly softer than ours, that he could speak Italian to her, if he preferred, because she was a student in a college in Florence and understood Italian very well.
The attorney had the feeling, not entirely unfounded, that the girl was making fun of him, with the issue of foreign languages, and he resented that, not very much, but enough to encourage him to imagine treating her with less consideration than he had done to that point. Indeed, just because of that push, that the hidden resentment gave him, as he approached Poggibonsi, he thought: if that little flirt was a few years older, now, instead of heading for Rome, I would turn right and take her to San Gimignano, which is a place foreigners like and could lead to something. A few years older? Well, to be honest, the age issue was indeed a touchy one. He liked young girls, very young, in fact, but due to his legal profession, he was not the type to compromise himself with a young girl of fifteen, although, if he really looked closely, she was probably easily sixteen or even seventeen. Dear God, what if she was seventeen? With Nordic girls, you never know: they develop late and keep their virginal look even long after they lose their virginity. If she was seventeen, the situation would be different, reversed even. But she could not be that old. At seventeen, a girl, next to a man that, although he is a bit over forty, is certainly not unattractive, does not behave like that, in that disconnected, calm seriousness that the girl was displaying, while still munching on sweets. The attorney concluded that the temptation to turn right, to San Gimignano, a place favored by lovers, was nothing but bizarre fantasy, it was not right to act on such desires in contrast with the penal code, and indeed, when he reached Poggibonsi, he bravely remained on Cassia, and the road, having left the village, was again surrounded by vines and olive trees, with many twists and turns. The attorney was now satisfied, as one who just did what is usually defined as a good act, but, unfortunately, he was not one of those people who achieve perfect satisfaction from exercising virtue, and deep inside, he regretted missing San Gimignano, with that special timeless atmosphere, allowing us release from prejudice in our time. The attorney had no doubt that it was prejudice and stupid moralistic fancy. Who, at the time of Boccaccio, or, say, the Arezzo man — and those were, now we know this for sure, very civil times — who would hold back when facing such an adventure as the one that he had been offered? At the time, much worse used to happen, without anyone expressing any surprise, or causing inconvenience due to this penal code.
“At what time will we reach Rome?” the girl asked unexpectedly.
It was a standard question, maybe the most natural one could ask, under the circumstances, but it was asked just as the attorney, caught by nostalgia of what he could have done had he been born in any period preceding the Counter Reformation, was feeling rather touchy. “Why?” he asked. “Is anyone expecting you?”
She looked at him with an expression that was almost aggressive, funny in her tiny face, and persevered with her questions. “What about you? Don’t you have anyone?”
The attorney felt like laughing. “My daughter”, he replied.
“If there is a daughter, surely she has a mother”, the girl observed. “In Italy there is no divorce”.
Well, why did she care if there was divorce or not? What did she want from him, was she trying to provoke him? As far as she was concerned, he would have been equally separated, a bigamist or even a widower. For a moment, he wanted to make her believe he was, indeed, a widower, but then he preferred to behave like a gentleman. “Yes, I also have a wife”, he answered proudly. And then he added, less proudly, “Unfortunately”.
The girl was quick to react to the last word: “Why unfortunately? All Italians say that.”
This time, the attorney was truly annoyed. “I am not responsible for other Italians”, he retorted dryly. “I am an anarchist, an individualist, I say unfortunately and I mean it. I haven’t been getting along with my wife for years, if I could turn back…” He stopped himself because he was too miserable. A married man can lie like that, and usually he does, only when there is a concrete advantage, that is when there is a need to use emotional arguments to knock down remaining objections of a woman who is about to fall. But there, with that girl, saved, physically, and especially being legally underage, what advantage could there be? He felt malice toward her, as if she was to blame for that small fall of idle hypocrisy, and in a sense, she was, because no one authorized her to be indiscreet and even provocative, and the least one could think of her is that she had a bad education, despite the college.
But he could not remain angry, and on the other hand, could her apparently insolent questions and comments be, after all, the proof of a growing interest in him? Young pubescent girls are particularly susceptible to the charm of men in their forties, he knew it both in theory and in practice, as the daughter of the concierge at his building, a fifteen year old girl, but unlike this one, even somewhat over developed, tended to blush in his presence, get confused and make a thousand faces, in other words, she was showing in many ways her secret crush for him. Of course, this girl was not he concierge’s daughter, yet, in itself, nothing prevented her from falling in love with him, and it would be wonderful, even though, naturally, he would not take advantage of it in any way, not even to stroke her neck and kiss her closed mouthed. He would respect her in any case, even if, for example, at some point she would offer herself to him spontaneously, a possibility that was quite improbable, as the girl, after that indiscreet explosion of interest for his marital status, returned to her corner, where she was again consuming sweets with detached, melancholy seriousness. Could she be hungry? The attorney was pleased with this thought as it detracted him, at least to an extent, from the guilty and equally morbid fantasies that occupied his mind in the last kilometers, and because he was approaching Siena, he decided to offer her a cappuccino and pastries.
He drove to the piazza and parked next to the café across from Palazzo della Signoria. The sun was burning hot and there were people only in the shade, with the exception of tourists who were walking in the heat with their cameras and straw hats they just bought, admiring the monuments. They sat under the café’s canopy, where it felt less hot, and the attorney, despite being behind schedule, was happy to have brought her here, to this magnificent piazza, and looked like he had built it all himself. When the waiter arrived, she ordered a bottle of German beer. “Won’t it be bad for you?” he asked her.
“Bad?” she replied with a shrug, then politely excusing herself and went inside the café. Before she was back, the waiter brought her beer and the coffee ordered by the attorney. He waited for a little while, but then decided to drink his coffee before it became too cold, and she was yet to return. The attorney thought, irritably, how he would not reach Rome at breakfast time, as he had promised his wife, and thought that if it wasn’t for the girl’s backpack in the car, he would have left her there, in Siena, as she deserved. After all, picking her up was just a careless act, nothing good was going to come out of it, it wasn’t at all an exaggeration to say that he regretted it, as it always happens with good acts that are completed without any prospect of profit. But then, when she finally reappeared, everything he was thinking was suddenly erased to give space for something that could also be called enchantment: she had put lipstick on, she put her hair up in a bun on top of her head, and, with her tank top tucked into her jeans, she displayed a thin waist, slim hips and in addition, tenderly, what little breast she had. “Tell me the truth”, he asked her once he was able to talk. “How old are you?”
She took a long sip of her beer, then turned toward him, with eyes shining with malice. “Almost twenty”, she answered.
After Siena, the Cassia road roams around the chalky scenery, going down into the valleys and back up again to the hills on the other side, apparently without much need, like narrow and often complicated turns, which the attorney reached before even realizing it, as he was driving quite nervously. The issue was that the adventure with the girl, that became suddenly possible and even probable, took him by surprise, he was unprepared for it, and in a way it even scared him, for a number of reasons. The first, and biggest question, he wasn’t hiding that from himself, was the following: was it worth cheating on his wife, the mother of his daughter, with a girl he happened to meet and for whom he could not yet have any real, deep affection? Well, to be honest, he had to answer yes, it was worth it, and not so much for the basic comparison between the girl and his wife, which would be extremely ungenerous and also not entirely justified, but for the more general consideration that for a man of forty, even if blessed by more charm than average, it doesn’t happen every day to have a twenty-year-old girl, beautiful, fresh, with breasts barely outlined, but undoubtedly moving, and so unusually blond. When something like this happens to him, usually a man does not let it go, and indeed, the lawyer didn’t intend to let her go, but in some secret fold of his conscience he still feels some vague discomfort about the idea of marital infidelity, and mostly, he attributed this discomfort to the fact that, even though the conquest appeared to be easy, he had no idea where to begin. Naturally, it wasn’t that he was afraid of having a technical deficiency, but that fact was that now, imagining any contact with the girl, even the most simple, made him feel confused, and probably even more inhibited than before, when he thought she was just a young girl. It was as if he was facing a woman he had known as a little girl, and that suddenly appeared all grown up, but not changed enough to allow him to forget her as a child, and in conclusion, he could not let go of the fear and respect towards childish innocence, and he was almost sorry that she grew up, as he was full of guilt, but also full of anger for the guilt that appeared at the most inconvenient moment. It was this confusion of emotions that made him take the turns so badly.
The girl let him drive as he wished for many kilometers, but then, on the climb to Radicofani, the road became dangerous, and she asked: “Why are you driving so fast? Are you in a rush to get to Rome?”
“No. And you?” The lawyer asked, finding it difficult to address her informally.
“I just need to get there before midnight.”
“Why before midnight?”
“At eleven fifty the train for Calabria leaves.”
“Are you going to Calabria?”
“No, with a guy.”
“Someone from your country?”
“No, a guy from Naples. Last year we traveled to Sicily. This year we are going to Calabria. They say it is even more beautiful.”
The lawyer was hurt by that answer more than it was expected, but, as he almost rightly understood when analyzing his own state of mind, it wasn’t jealousy, at least not the usual kind of jealousy, but the regret that he could not put himself in the place of the Neapolitan young man that was going to Calabria with her, he could not even put himself there in his fantasy, because he was married already, and youth for him had gone away, life came upon him with a suffocating weight of responsibility and concerns, not leaving space for love outside the limits of a rushed and enclosed adventure. These were the things, ultimately, more than the years, that marked a man’s decline.
It was with that feeling of self-pity that lawyer Adami, feeling in some way authorized to catch in his garden all the flowers that it was still possible to pick, reached the conclusion that any further hesitation on his part would be out of place, and in other words, that he would be a beast if he let that girl, who dropped on him from the sky, get away.
At Acquapendente, even though there was no need for it, he stopped to refuel, and in the meantime, from a nearby hotel, he called his wife and told her that one of his clients from Florence asked him to negotiate the purchase of a fund, so he would not arrive for breakfast, and maybe not even for lunch, but she should not worry about it, because he would certainly be home by midnight.
Once he removed the main psychological obstacles that stood in the way of his adventure, lawyer Adami found himself facing what bullfighting experts call the moment of truth, when the bullfighter faces the bull face to face, but as he had no doubt as to the balance of power between him and his victim, he felt very calm, and indeed, he was no longer driving dangerously, but with lively and optimistic elegance. The road descended from the heights of Acquapendente to enter that kind of funnel at the bottom of which is Lake Bolsena, and it was approximately one o’clock. The summer sun was tiring everyone and everything, with exception of the cicadas that with unparalleled ardor screeched on every tree. The girl, maybe because of the heat, stayed in her corner where the wind from the window was better, and generally seemed inattentive, in other words, not suspicious or at least indifferent, of what could happen to her before the evening. Nordic women, the lawyer knew just like anyone else, are like that: peaceful, reserved, maybe a bit cold, but at the right time they give themselves with great simplicity, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and actually nothing was ever said to claim that it wasn’t.
The lawyer did not have reason to worry about the girl’s apparent reserve, but was instead thinking of the logistical difficulties of the matter, that could not be neglected, also because the girl was not yet twenty-one, which certainly was a complication. Ruling out a decent hotel, where would it happen: in the country behind a bush, in a wood, in a room of a dubious guest house or on the beach? At this moment, everything was possible, even the beach. Rome was less than 100 kilometers away, so they would reach it around three, and in another hour he could reach Tor San Lorenzo, where a painter friend of his owned a hut on the beach, used for these purposes exactly. The only inconvenience would be not to find the painter at home, because of the key, but other than that, the beach was not only the safest solution, but also the best in absolute terms, and the girl, in a bathing suit, would undoubtedly look stunning, with her long adolescent body, firm and contained. “Do you have your bathing suit?” He asked.
Called back from her distraction, the girl smiled at the question. “Of course I have one. In Calabria I want to go to the beach a lot. I always went to the beach in Sicily, too.”
A little annoyed by this unintentional hint at a past and a future in which he had no part at all, the lawyer replied forcefully, “I’ll also take you to the sea”. And because she was looking at him surprised and vaguely wondering, he explained, “We will get to Rome first, then go to the beach. Do you mind?”
“It would be wonderful,” she smiled with her usual simplicity.
Now the lawyer was imagining the adventure in all its magnificence, and it wasn’t difficult, looking at the girl, to imagine her as she would look in a bathing suit, or even without it, also because the wind that was coming through the window, was pressing on her tank top and was accentuating her breasts, that appeared to be of acceptable size, such as would inspire tenderness and other feelings. And because there is nothing like fantasizing about love for causing impatience to reach the desired conclusion, or at least to receive a reasonable advance, the lawyer started looking at the road for a convenient place to stop.
When the car stopped on the side of the road, where a part of a lake was visible between the oak trees, the girl, instead of looking at the view, hanged her head down as if she was already aware, and allowed him to put his arm around her, pull her close and kiss her on the neck that was left bare now that her hair was tied up. She didn’t resist later, when he lifted her face and started kissing her mouth, but she didn’t take part in any way, leaving him quite unsatisfied at the end of the long kiss, even resentful. On her part, she did not appear to be in a better mood, indeed, she immediately hung her head down, without doing or saying anything.
“Didn’t you like it?” he asked her.
And she asked, “Why did you do it, because you love me?”.
The question, even accounting for the girl’s possible inexperience, was without a doubt inappropriate, and in fact, everyone knows that for a kiss it is not essential to have binding and powerful emotions like love. Now, the lawyer didn’t want to think he had kissed her simply for pleasure or to try and win her, in fact, at the moment, nobody, not even him, could claim that he wasn’t already in love with her, at least a little bit, but talking about love before they even started was a bit too risky. In any case, if pursuing the adventure depended on a little lie, the lawyer was more than willing to say it. “I love you”, he confirmed with as much sincerity as he could show.
“All Italians say that”, the girl replied, without raising her head.
Offended in his effort to be honest, the lawyer was about to retort, when he noticed drops dripping on her trousers, that due to their position and other circumstances, could have only been tears. “Are you crying?” he asked, somewhat stupidly. “What is there to cry about?”
“You are just like the others”, she replied, pulling her nose. “But this is not why I’m crying. I am crying because I am like the others, the foreigners that come to Italy to make love with Italians.” She started crying harder. “I’m not like the others”, she said.
He pulled her to cry on his shoulder, and was stroking her hair, sweetly, then said, “You shouldn’t cry, the two of us are different”, but as much as he tried, he could not think of a reason to complete and explain his statement. However now, and not only because of a sense of satisfied pride, he started to feel that he and the girl were indeed different than other people, he felt that there was something inexpressible creeping into his soul, and that if it wasn’t love, it certainly was similar to it, but this complicated the issue greatly, both because he could not forget he had a wife at home, and because he knew that the sentimental way is not the shortest path to reach certain results, and here there certainly was not time to lose. Maybe a few glasses of Orvieto or Montefiascone wine would be enough to bring the adventure back to the easy and careless tracks that befitted it. “Are you hungry?” he asked the girl who was still crying.
She replied yes with ease, like a child.
“Let’s go then. We will stop at the first restaurant.”
“No, I’d rather get to Rome” she replied.
A little less than an hour later they were sitting, very close to each other, under the canopy of one of the little restaurants along the Cassia road, in the outer suburbs of Rome, and the lawyer could observe how accurate was his prevision that a little wine would be enough to do away with any melancholy. He felt at his best physically and mentally, and as for the girl, she was completely transformed. She was twisting, with amusing incompetence her fettuccine with sauce around the fork, and was laughing, continuously laughing, asking him, “Do you love me? Tell me you love me”, but without expecting any seriousness in his reply, like in a game.
And he swore he loved her, and again he poured her a drink, and she begged him not to, not to make her drink too much, because she loved him and therefore did not want to get drunk, and she pressed herself to him, with her small, warm and slim body, and they were kissing, they could do it because there were no other patrons at that time under the pergola, and the waiter did not mind them, numb with the heat and the hope of a good tip. “What will we do afterwards?” she was asking.
“I’ll take you to the beach, to a place called Tor San Lorenzo. There’s a hut there…”
“Two hearts and a hut”, she interrupted him beautifully, because she already drank a bit too much.
“It’s an outdoors hut”, he explained. “But inside it’s very well arranged. There’s a shower, a small kitchen with a fridge, and there is a big bed, with a flower print blanket…”
“A big bed”, she repeated with disconcerting malice, and he felt all confused, and they went back to kissing. And then, with a damp mouth, dazed by the kiss, she asked, “And the key, do you have the key?”
“No, but I will call my friend…”
“Didn’t you call him already?”
“Yes, but he was sleeping. He will wake at four thirty. I will call him again at four thirty.”
“At four thirty”, she repeated, suddenly melancholic, as if the wait weighed on her, or for who know what reason. “What time is it?”
“Almost four”, she said, becoming even more melancholic, until unpredictably she started laughing and said, “Do you love me? Tell me you love me”.
And he, despite understanding that all this was nothing but a generous game, replied that he loved her, my God, did he love her so much, and while he was saying that, he didn’t understand anymore if he crossed the boundaries of the game, because in fact he felt like he truly loved her, everything about her enchanted him, her youth, her beauty, her freshness, and especially her splendid ability to do the most ill-matched things, deviled chicken and kisses, tears and happiness, the immodesty with which she looked at him when they talked of what they would do in the beach cabin, and the childish innocence that bloomed again in her as soon as she was distracted by something of her own, looking at a cat searching for food, or playing with the remains of the bread on the tablecloth. “What time is it?” she asked.
She asked again for the time six or seven times, before it was finally four thirty, and she laughed less and less, as if her merriment was being suffocated by the impatience of arriving to the beach, but when, when it was finally four thirty, she didn’t want him to make the call anymore. “Wait a little”, she said. “A little longer.”
“But if I wait, he may go out, and then we won’t find the key anymore.”
“Please, a little bit longer”, she kept repeating with painful sadness, it was possible that she found herself in a moment of such acute love that she preferred the rest of the adventure to fall through rather than being away from him at the particular time, and without a doubt it was a beautiful and moving feeling, but the lawyer did not forget the rest of the adventure was what counted most, and that on the other hand, she was the one teasing him with the constant questions about what they would do at the hut, so it was not clear how come she now wanted to hold him back, risking losing out on the best. And all things considered, although he still thought that she was the most extraordinary and amazing girl he ever met, partly because of her unpredictable changes of tone and mood, he was also starting to wonder if it wasn’t better if he had met a less complicated girl.
At four forty five, although she kept begging him to wait a little longer, he did not listen to her and went into the restaurant, where the telephone was.
His painter friend was still asleep, but he asked his housekeeper to wake him, which she did, and the painter, having been woken up in the middle of a muggy afternoon, came to the phone in a bad mood and pique. He began by demanding to know exactly who the girl was. The lawyer could only tell him her name was Inge and she was Swedish, not from Stockholm, but from Lulea, a town near the North Pole, apparently. Then the painter asked him where he found her, and also wanted him to describe her, and the lawyer, despite being annoyed at the wasted time, described her, feeling justifiably complacent, because at the end of the day, she made him look good. He told his friend she was not even twenty yet and was divine, slim, but not too slim, unimaginably blond, and yes, the legs were also perfect and the breasts were this way and that, but suited her, she could not have had different breasts. After describing her well, with all the necessary abundance of details, the painter said he also wanted to come to Tor San Lorenzo, and the lawyer had to work hard to make him understand this was not appropriate, this is a good girl, a college girl, and that if things were not conducted with full discretion, everything may be ruined, and as much as he hated to mention the past, the painter should not forget the many favors he owed him, he even defended him in court a few times without asking for anything in return, and if he didn’t give him the key now, he wasn’t a friend. The painter answered that it was the lawyer himself who was not behaving as a friend should, because true friends share everything, especially girls, but in the end, he was persuaded to give him the key, but he asked him to at least let him see the magnificent Swede, when he came to pick up the key.
The lawyer went back out and didn’t see the girl in her place. Maybe she went to the bathroom to touch up her makeup after eating. In the meantime, he asked for the bill, and while waiting, he sat down, and naturally he kept fantasizing about the girl at the sea and the hut and of what would be the best adventure of his life, but the girl did not return, could it be that she felt unwell in the bathroom, because she truly did drink too much, and that would really be a drag. “Did you see the young lady who was with me?” he asked the waiter who brought him the bill.
With calm, that considering the occasion could even be considered insolent, the waiter gestured toward the road. “She left”, he said.
The lawyer felt his heart contract. Left? Where? And why, more importantly? As the waiter would not be able to answer these questions, the lawyer hurried to the road, or to the car he left parked in the yard, he wasn’t even sure himself, but the waiter held his arm respectfully, “The bill, sir.”
More than right. But it was this trivial request that caused the lawyer his second, and not less painful, contraction of his heart, as he could not find his wallet in the back pocket of his trousers, where he usually kept it, or in any other pocket of his suit. Now, at least to all outward appearances, the wonderful and sole adventure, so longed for and planned, was reduced to a theft, a pickpocketing, something painful and ridiculous at the same time, but as at present he was unable to see the funny aspect, the lawyer was caught by rage.
While he was recklessly driving down the last and quite difficult part of Cassia Vecchia road, on the way to the Ponte Milvio, at the entrance to Rome, lawyer Adami was completely dominated by the desire to strangle the girl, and not only because of the 70,000 or more Lira that he had in his wallet, but for the actual fact that she was so unprecedentedly evil. This powerful impulse was quite natural, not to say legitimate, but he understood that, to act on it, it was first necessary to get the hold of the girl. Now, there were two options: either she stopped a passing car to take her God knows where in the city, or she took the 201 bus that went along the Cassia Vecchia, ending at Ponte Milvio. If lawyer Adami was driving so recklessly down a dangerous road and with many speed limit signs, it was not so much to release the overwhelming storm in his mind, but mostly to try to overtake one of these buses. He succeeded in doing so, and stopped at the terminal, ready to pounce on the girl the moment she appeared. But she didn’t come off that bus or the next one, and the lawyer’s fury, rather than subside, increased, as was his pigheaded determination to find her again, however unreasonable it was. He would look for her all over Rome and at any event, at ten to midnight he would catch her at the train leaving for Calabria, although, coming to think of it, the Calabria story could also be one of the many lies the girl told him, and in fact it was almost absurd that a delinquent of this kind, for whom the skill of stealing was a real profession, would have given him the correct information to help him catch her. No, he could only look for her in Rome, and with this clear purpose the lawyer started the car again and drove into the city of two million inhabitants, hot like an oven at the end of a summer day.
The assumption, in the lawyer’s way of thinking, was not easy, but neither was it so senselessly difficult as it may have appeared to those less expert than him. In fact, the search could be, by following common sense, restricted to ten or a few more places that foreigners visit in Rome. Assuming that criminal was a foreigner, the lawyer thought bitterly, actually, anything was possible, she could even be from Milan or from Venice, but no, Italy does not produce hair so blond or eyes so light, and in conclusion, he was certainly the first Italian victim of a Swedish pickpocket in his own country. She had to be caught, even from the point of view of national pride.
Following a clear plan, the lawyer explored first the area of Castel Sant’Angelo and St. Peter’s Basilica, he then climbed Mount Gianicolo, then went down to the Colosseum and the Imperial Fora and then climbed another hill, the Campidoglio. In every place he stopped to look with a wild-eyed look for a girl in jeans, slim and blond, with the false look of a good girl. From the Campidoglio he went down to Piazza Venezia, and then, progressively discouraged, he drove along many roads and piazzas in the center, now full of cars and of people who came out to enjoy the relatively cool evening. He also drove past the Central Post, which, although it was not a beautiful monument, is one of the places that foreigners visit most. He then returned to a more touristic itinerary, visiting Piazza di Spagna and Piazza del Popolo, until, when the sun was almost down, he thought that the little thief could be on the Pincio terrace, where sunsets are enjoyed, and where a pickpocket can always find some work.
Pincio was so busy it seemed like a fair, it was especially full of girls, but none of them was in jeans, and mainly, none of them was slim and blond and with a sweet face full of childish innocence, so sweet in his memory, that the lawyer found himself missing her sharply, against his will, whoever she was, with her dark soul. He only wondered how come God had allowed such a terrible mixture of physical beauty and moral depravation. And by appealing to God, in some ways he cleared her of at least part of her sins, and he felt that now, if he happened to find her, he would not strangle her or drag her to the first police station, but would simply try to understand why she was so perverse, and once he understood this, he would let her go, maybe even with the sixty or more thousands of Lira. Everything had become bitter for him, in the evening that was so sweetly descending, and not only because of her, as after all, she was just a symbol of the too many things in the world that are wrong, and that one is not quite sure why they are wrong.
Totally pervaded by this desolate thought on life and the whole universe, the lawyer got back into his car, drove aimlessly for a while through the alleys of Villa Borghese, sensing the sharp smells of the lime trees like metaphysical bile, seeing even the children playing with dogs on the grass as decaying mortals, and finally, especially in order to escape the disappointment that even nature seemed to give him, he drove to Porta Pinciana and entered Via Veneto, that at the time was shining with lights and signboards, clogged with cars and full of people walking like in a procession along the two sidewalks crowded with coffee shop tables. And it was right there, in the middle of the crowd, between two newsstands, that he, having stopped thinking of her as a natural being, saw her, or rather, noticed a blond head, and from the turmoil of conflicting feelings that caught him all of the sudden, he felt immediately sure it was her. Without thinking twice, he jumped out of the car, pushing through the crowd, progressing like a lunatic until, before even reaching her he realized that her blond head was not hers, the blond did not even remotely resemble hers, but in the meantime he already caused quite a lot of trouble as half of Via Veneto was honking horns and an angry policeman was whistling his whistle like the God Aeolus whistling up a storm at the reckless driver who left his car in the middle of the road during rush hour.
The lawyer complied with the command to move his car to a side road and there, furiously aware of the risk of ending up in prison for verbal assault of a policeman, he prepared to start an argument with the policeman, not so much because he thought he was even slightly in the right, but because this incident, happening at the highest point of a particularly baleful day, truly exceeded the daily amount of bad luck that a man can reasonably tolerate. Therefore, when the policeman began by asking if he wasn’t by any chance crazy, he exploded, shouting that he, a respectable professional, did not allow anyone to doubt his mental stability, and that the policeman needed to learn to respect tax paying citizens, and do his duty, if he cared about it, without making a fuss, because he had no time to lose. The policeman, with that superior smile that only people in a position of power have, did all he could to waste his time as much as possible, and started by asking him to show his documents: his logbook and driver’s license.
The lawyer, who due to his profession had a good understanding of the law, understood that he managed to get himself into big trouble, because he suddenly remembered that his license was in the wallet and he no longer had possession of his wallet. He also could not say his wallet had been stolen between three and four in the afternoon because, aside for the trouble with his wife, once she learned of certain details of the story, his duty would have been to report the theft as soon as possible and without prompting.
The lawyer, after a very quick mental analysis of the situation, reached the conclusion that in order to get out of the situation in the best possible way, he had better put on an act. With a confident gesture, he brought his right hand to the back pocket of his trousers to pull out his wallet, and immediately made an angry face, but mostly confused, as if he was surprised not to find it. Then, with professional ability, he changed his expression slightly, adding a touch of lost look, and in the meantime saying to himself, but loudly enough so the policeman could hear him, “Strange, I can’t find my wallet… A little time ago I had it… I really don’t understand… I hope I didn’t lose it, my license was inside…”.
The policeman sneered in triumph, and it was even possible that he thought he was dealing not with a lawyer but with a car thief. “Try to look for it better”, he said, without even trying to hide the irony in his voice. “Maybe you will find it.”
The lawyer was now trapped in an absurd situation that he caused himself. Dramatically, with growing agitation, he searched all his pockets, sighed and shook his head, even smiled at the policeman, trying desperately to defuse the malevolence, but he continued to say, with an increasingly nasty expression, “Look for it, look for it better”.
Then, the lawyer, feeling like a clown, and worse than a worm, left the car, took off his jackets, showing he was hoping the wallet would miraculously appear from somewhere, and because the policeman still did not seem satisfied, he started looking also inside the car, between the seat and the backrest, and then even under the seat, and there, not even hidden, he found the wallet that he evidently dropped after paying for gas at Acquapendente, and inside there was everything, his license and over seventy thousand Lira.
Hidden behind one of the pillars supporting the roof of platform 7 at Termini Station in Rome, the lawyer saw, at a quarter to midnight, the slim and blond girl arriving, preceded by a porter carrying her large back pack. She got on the train for Reggio Calabria, and almost immediately looked out of the window and remained there for a full five minutes until the train left. Looking melancholic and maybe a little worried, as if she was waiting, but without much hope, for someone to come to say goodbye to her.
The lawyer waited behind the pillar until the train left, then left the station, got into his car and drove home, to his wife and daughter and his destiny, and he was also feeling a little melancholic, but with that right amount of melancholy that every human cannot refuse to carry. Now he knew that the girl was truly wonderful, as he thought she was, and if she escaped in that strange way it was because for her, for her too, that adventure that started almost like a joke, had crossed the boundaries allowed for an adventure and it was not right to complete it, having to remain one of the things that don’t happen, and that therefore remain perfect in a way that things that happened cannot have.
© Giuseppe Berto Estate. All rights reserved. Published by arrangement with The Italian Literary Agency, Milano, Italy.
(From Pyotr Ivanitch To Ivan Petrovitch)
Dear Sir and Most Precious Friend, Ivan Petrovitch,
For the last two days I have been, I may say, in pursuit of you, my friend, having to talk over most urgent business with you, and I cannot come across you anywhere. Yesterday, while we were at Semyon Alexeyitch’s, my wife made a very good joke about you, saying that Tatyana Petrovna and you were a pair of birds always on the wing. You have not been married three months and you already neglect your domestic hearth. We all laughed heartily — from our genuine kindly feeling for you, of course — but, joking apart, my precious friend, you have given me a lot of trouble. Semyon Alexeyitch said to me that you might be going to the ball at the Social Union’s club! Leaving my wife with Semyon Alexeyitch’s good lady, I flew off to the Social Union. It was funny and tragic! Fancy my position! Me at the ball — and alone, without my wife! Ivan Andreyitch meeting me in the porter’s lodge and seeing me alone, at once concluded (the rascal!) that I had a passion for dances, and taking me by the arm, wanted to drag me off by force to a dancing class, saying that it was too crowded at the Social Union, that an ardent spirit had not room to turn, and that his head ached from the patchouli and mignonette. I found neither you, nor Tatyana Petrovna. Ivan Andreyitch vowed and declared that you would be at Woe from Wit, at the Alexandrinsky theatre.
I flew off to the Alexandrinsky theatre: you were not there either. This morning I expected to find you at Tchistoganov’s — no sign of you there. Tchistoganov sent to the Perepalkins’ — the same thing there. In fact, I am quite worn out; you can judge how much trouble I have taken! Now I am writing to you (there is nothing else I can do). My business is by no means a literary one (you understand me?); it would be better to meet face to face, it is extremely necessary to discuss something with you and as quickly as possible, and so I beg you to come to us to-day with Tatyana Petrovna to tea and for a chat in the evening. My Anna Mihalovna will be extremely pleased to see you. You will truly, as they say, oblige me to my dying day. By the way, my precious friend — since I have taken up my pen I’ll go into all I have against you — I have a slight complaint I must make; in fact, I must reproach you, my worthy friend, for an apparently very innocent little trick which you have played at my expense… You are a rascal, a man without conscience. About the middle of last month, you brought into my house an acquaintance of yours, Yevgeny Nikolaitch; you vouched for him by your friendly and, for me, of course, sacred recommendation; I rejoiced at the opportunity of receiving the young man with open arms, and when I did so I put my head in a noose. A noose it hardly is, but it has turned out a pretty business. I have not time now to explain, and indeed it is an awkward thing to do in writing, only a very humble request to you, my malicious friend: could you not somehow very delicately, in passing, drop a hint into the young man’s ear that there are a great many houses in the metropolis besides ours? It’s more than I can stand, my dear fellow! We fall at your feet, as our friend Semyonovitch says. I will tell you all about it when we meet. I don’t mean to say that the young man has sinned against good manners, or is lacking in spiritual qualities, or is not up to the mark in some other way. On the contrary, he is an amiable and pleasant fellow; but wait, we shall meet; meanwhile if you see him, for goodness’ sake whisper a hint to him, my good friend. I would do it myself, but you know what I am, I simply can’t, and that’s all about it. You introduced him. But I will explain myself more fully this evening, anyway. Now good-bye. I remain, etc.
P.S. — My little boy has been ailing for the last week, and gets worse and worse every day; he is cutting his poor little teeth. My wife is nursing him all the time, and is depressed, poor thing. Be sure to come, you will give us real pleasure, my precious friend.
(From Ivan Petrovitch to Pyotr Ivanitch)
Dear Sir, Pyotr Ivanitch!
I got your letter yesterday, I read it and was perplexed. You looked for me, goodness knows where, and I was simply at home. Till ten o’clock I was expecting Ivan Ivanitch Tolokonov. At once on getting your letter I set out with my wife, I went to the expense of taking a cab, and reached your house about half-past six. You were not at home, but we were met by your wife. I waited to see you till half-past ten, I could not stay later. I set off with my wife, went to the expense of a cab again, saw her home, and went on myself to the Perepalkins’, thinking I might meet you there, but again I was out in my reckoning. When I got home I did not sleep all night, I felt uneasy; in the morning I drove round to you three times, at nine, at ten and at eleven; three times I went to the expense of a cab, and again you left me in the lurch.
I read your letter and was amazed. You write about Yevgeny Nikolaitch, beg me to whisper some hint, and do not tell me what about. I commend your caution, but all letters are not alike, and I don’t give documents of importance to my wife for curl-papers. I am puzzled, in fact, to know with what motive you wrote all this to me. However, if it comes to that, why should I meddle in the matter? I don’t poke my nose into other people’s business. You can be not at home to him; I only see that I must have a brief and decisive explanation with you, and, moreover, time is passing. And I am in straits and don’t know what to do if you are going to neglect the terms of our agreement. A journey for nothing; a journey costs something, too, and my wife’s whining for me to get her a velvet mantle of the latest fashion. About Yevgeny Nikolaitch I hasten to mention that when I was at Pavel Semyonovitch Perepalkin’s yesterday I made inquiries without loss of time. He has five hundred serfs in the province of Yaroslav, and he has expectations from his grandmother of an estate of three hundred serfs near Moscow. How much money he has I cannot tell; I think you ought to know that better. I beg you once and for all to appoint a place where I can meet you. You met Ivan Andreyitch yesterday, and you write that he told you that I was at the Alexandrinsky theatre with my wife. I write, that he is a liar, and it shows how little he is to be trusted in such cases, that only the day before yesterday he did his grandmother out of eight hundred roubles. I have the honour to remain, etc.
P.S. — My wife is going to have a baby; she is nervous about it and feels depressed at times. At the theatre they sometimes have fire-arms going off and sham thunderstorms. And so for fear of a shock to my wife’s nerves I do not take her to the theatre. I have no great partiality for the theatre myself.
(From Pyotr Ivanitch to Ivan Petrovitch)
My Precious Friend, Ivan Petrovitch,
I am to blame, to blame, a thousand times to blame, but I hasten to defend myself. Between five and six yesterday, just as we were talking of you with the warmest affection, a messenger from Uncle Stepan Alexeyitch galloped up with the news that my aunt was very bad. Being afraid of alarming my wife, I did not say a word of this to her, but on the pretext of other urgent business I drove off to my aunt’s house. I found her almost dying. Just at five o’clock she had had a stroke, the third she has had in the last two years. Karl Fyodoritch, their family doctor, told us that she might not live through the night. You can judge my position, dearest friend. We were on our legs all night in grief and anxiety. It was not till morning that, utterly exhausted and overcome by moral and physical weakness, I lay down on the sofa; I forgot to tell them to wake me, and only woke at half-past eleven. My aunt was better. I drove home to my wife. She, poor thing, was quite worn out expecting me. I snatched a bite of something, embraced my little boy, reassured my wife and set off to call on you. You were not at home. At your flat I found Yevgeny Nikolaitch. When I got home I took up a pen, and here I am writing to you. Don’t grumble and be cross to me, my true friend. Beat me, chop my guilty head off my shoulders, but don’t deprive me of your affection. From your wife I learned that you will be at the Slavyanovs’ this evening. I will certainly be there. I look forward with the greatest impatience to seeing you.
I remain, etc.
P.S. — We are in perfect despair about our little boy. Karl Fyodoritch prescribes rhubarb. He moans. Yesterday he did not know any one. This morning he did know us, and began lisping papa, mamma, boo… My wife was in tears the whole morning.
(From Ivan Petrovitch to Pyotr Ivanitch)
My Dear Sir, Pyotr Ivanitch!
I am writing to you, in your room, at your bureau; and before taking up my pen, I have been waiting for more than two and a half hours for you. Now allow me to tell you straight out, Pyotr Ivanitch, my frank opinion about this shabby incident. From your last letter I gathered that you were expected at the Slavyanovs’, that you were inviting me to go there; I turned up, I stayed for five hours and there was no sign of you. Why, am I to be made a laughing-stock to people, do you suppose? Excuse me, my dear sir… I came to you this morning, I hoped to find you, not imitating certain deceitful persons who look for people, God knows where, when they can be found at home at any suitably chosen time. There is no sign of you at home. I don’t know what restrains me from telling you now the whole harsh truth. I will only say that I see you seem to be going back on your bargain regarding our agreement. And only now reflecting on the whole affair, I cannot but confess that I am absolutely astounded at the artful workings of your mind. I see clearly now that you have been cherishing your unfriendly design for a long time. This supposition of mine is confirmed by the fact that last week in an almost unpardonable way you took possession of that letter of yours addressed to me, in which you laid down yourself, though rather vaguely and incoherently, the terms of our agreement in regard to a circumstance of which I need not remind you. You are afraid of documents, you destroy them, and you try to make a fool of me. But I won’t allow myself to be made a fool of, for no one has ever considered me one hitherto, and every one has thought well of me in that respect. I am opening my eyes. You try and put me off, confuse me with talk of Yevgeny Nikolaitch, and when with your letter of the seventh of this month, which I am still at a loss to understand, I seek a personal explanation from you, you make humbugging appointments, while you keep out of the way. Surely you do not suppose, sir, that I am not equal to noticing all this? You promised to reward me for my services, of which you are very well aware, in the way of introducing various persons, and at the same time, and I don’t know how you do it, you contrive to borrow money from me in considerable sums without giving a receipt, as happened no longer ago than last week. Now, having got the money, you keep out of the way, and what’s more, you repudiate the service I have done you in regard to Yevgeny Nikolaitch. You are probably reckoning on my speedy departure to Simbirsk, and hoping I may not have time to settle your business. But I assure you solemnly and testify on my word of honour that if it comes to that, I am prepared to spend two more months in Petersburg expressly to carry through my business, to attain my objects, and to get hold of you. For I, too, on occasion know how to get the better of people. In conclusion, I beg to inform you that if you do not give me a satisfactory explanation to-day, first in writing, and then personally face to face, and do not make a fresh statement in your letter of the chief points of the agreement existing between us, and do not explain fully your views in regard to Yevgeny Nikolaitch, I shall be compelled to have recourse to measures that will be highly unpleasant to you, and indeed repugnant to me also.
Allow me to remain, etc.
(From Pyotr Ivanitch to Ivan Petrovitch)
My Dear and Honoured Friend, Ivan Petrovitch!
I was cut to the heart by your letter. I wonder you were not ashamed, my dear but unjust friend, to behave like this to one of your most devoted friends. Why be in such a hurry, and without explaining things fully, wound me with such insulting suspicions? But I hasten to reply to your charges. You did not find me yesterday, Ivan Petrovitch, because I was suddenly and quite unexpectedly called away to a death-bed. My aunt, Yefimya Nikolaevna, passed away yesterday evening at eleven o’clock in the night. By the general consent of the relatives I was selected to make the arrangements for the sad and sorrowful ceremony. I had so much to do that I had not time to see you this morning, nor even to send you a line. I am grieved to the heart at the misunderstanding which has arisen between us. My words about Yevgeny Nikolaitch uttered casually and in jest you have taken in quite a wrong sense, and have ascribed to them a meaning deeply offensive to me. You refer to money and express your anxiety about it. But without wasting words I am ready to satisfy all your claims and demands, though I must remind you that the three hundred and fifty roubles I had from you last week were in accordance with a certain agreement and not by way of a loan. In the latter case there would certainly have been a receipt. I will not condescend to discuss the other points mentioned in your letter. I see that it is a misunderstanding. I see it is your habitual hastiness, hot temper and obstinacy. I know that your goodheartedness and open character will not allow doubts to persist in your heart, and that you will be, in fact, the first to hold out your hand to me. You are mistaken, Ivan Petrovitch, you are greatly mistaken!
Although your letter has deeply wounded me, I should be prepared even to-day to come to you and apologise, but I have been since yesterday in such a rush and flurry that I am utterly exhausted and can scarcely stand on my feet. To complete my troubles, my wife is laid up; I am afraid she is seriously ill. Our little boy, thank God, is better; but I must lay down my pen, I have a mass of things to do and they are urgent. Allow me, my dear friend, to remain, etc.
(From Ivan Petrovitch to Pyotr Ivanitch)
Dear Sir, Pyotr Ivanitch!
I have been waiting for three days, I tried to make a profitable use of them—meanwhile I feel that politeness and good manners are the greatest of ornaments for every one. Since my last letter of the tenth of this month, I have neither by word nor deed reminded you of my existence, partly in order to allow you undisturbed to perform the duty of a Christian in regard to your aunt, partly because I needed the time for certain considerations and investigations in regard to a business you know of. Now I hasten to explain myself to you in the most thoroughgoing and decisive manner.
I frankly confess that on reading your first two letters I seriously supposed that you did not understand what I wanted; that was how it was that I rather sought an interview with you and explanations face to face. I was afraid of writing, and blamed myself for lack of clearness in the expression of my thoughts on paper. You are aware that I have not the advantages of education and good manners, and that I shun a hollow show of gentility because I have learned from bitter experience how misleading appearances often are, and that a snake sometimes lies hidden under flowers. But you understood me; you did not answer me as you should have done because, in the treachery of your heart, you had planned beforehand to be faithless to your word of honour and to the friendly relations existing between us. You have proved this absolutely by your abominable conduct towards me of late, which is fatal to my interests, which I did not expect and which I refused to believe till the present moment. From the very beginning of our acquaintance you captivated me by your clever manners, by the subtlety of your behaviour, your knowledge of affairs and the advantages to be gained by association with you. I imagined that I had found a true friend and well-wisher. Now I recognise clearly that there are many people who under a flattering and brilliant exterior hide venom in their hearts, who use their cleverness to weave snares for their neighbour and for unpardonable deception, and so are afraid of pen and paper, and at the same time use their fine language not for the benefit of their neighbour and their country, but to drug and bewitch the reason of those who have entered into business relations of any sort with them. Your treachery to me, my dear sir, can be clearly seen from what follows.
In the first place, when, in the clear and distinct terms of my letter, I described my position, sir, and at the same time asked you in my first letter what you meant by certain expressions and intentions of yours, principally in regard to Yevgeny Nikolaitch, you tried for the most part to avoid answering, and confounding me by doubts and suspicions, you calmly put the subject aside. Then after treating me in a way which cannot be described by any seemly word, you began writing that you were wounded. Pray, what am I to call that, sir? Then when every minute was precious to me and when you had set me running after you all over the town, you wrote, pretending personal friendship, letters in which, intentionally avoiding all mention of business, you spoke of utterly irrelevant matters; to wit, of the illnesses of your good lady for whom I have, in any case, every respect, and of how your baby had been dosed with rhubarb and was cutting a tooth. All this you alluded to in every letter with a disgusting regularity that was insulting to me. Of course I am prepared to admit that a father’s heart may be torn by the sufferings of his babe, but why make mention of this when something different, far more important and interesting, was needed? I endured it in silence, but now when time has elapsed I think it my duty to explain myself. Finally, treacherously deceiving me several times by making humbugging appointments, you tried, it seems, to make me play the part of a fool and a laughing-stock for you, which I never intend to be. Then after first inviting me and thoroughly deceiving me, you informed me that you were called away to your suffering aunt who had had a stroke, precisely at five o’clock as you stated with shameful exactitude. Luckily for me, sir, in the course of these three days I have succeeded in making inquiries and have learnt from them that your aunt had a stroke on the day before the seventh not long before midnight. From this fact I see that you have made use of sacred family relations in order to deceive persons in no way concerned with them. Finally, in your last letter you mention the death of your relatives as though it had taken place precisely at the time when I was to have visited you to consult about various business matters. But here the vileness of your arts and calculations exceeds all belief, for from trustworthy information which I was able by a lucky chance to obtain just in the nick of time, I have found out that your aunt died twenty-four hours later than the time you so impiously fixed for her decease in your letter. I shall never have done if I enumerate all the signs by which I have discovered your treachery in regard to me. It is sufficient, indeed, for any impartial observer that in every letter you style me, your true friend, and call me all sorts of polite names, which you do, to the best of my belief, for no other object than to put my conscience to sleep.
I have come now to your principal act of deceit and treachery in regard to me, to wit, your continual silence of late in regard to everything concerning our common interests, in regard to your wicked theft of the letter in which you stated, though in language somewhat obscure and not perfectly intelligible to me, our mutual agreements, your barbarous forcible loan of three hundred and fifty roubles which you borrowed from me as your partner without giving any receipt, and finally, your abominable slanders of our common acquaintance, Yevgeny Nikolaitch. I see clearly now that you meant to show me that he was, if you will allow me to say so, like a billy-goat, good for neither milk nor wool, that he was neither one thing nor the other, neither fish nor flesh, which you put down as a vice in him in your letter of the sixth instant. I knew Yevgeny Nikolaitch as a modest and well-behaved young man, whereby he may well attract, gain and deserve respect in society. I know also that every evening for the last fortnight you’ve put into your pocket dozens and sometimes even hundreds of roubles, playing games of chance with Yevgeny Nikolaitch. Now you disavow all this, and not only refuse to compensate me for what I have suffered, but have even appropriated money belonging to me, tempting me by suggestions that I should be partner in the affair, and luring me with various advantages which were to accrue. After having appropriated, in a most illegal way, money of mine and of Yevgeny Nikolaitch’s, you decline to compensate me, resorting for that object to calumny with which you have unjustifiably blackened in my eyes a man whom I, by my efforts and exertions, introduced into your house. While on the contrary, from what I hear from your friends, you are still almost slobbering over him, and give out to the whole world that he is your dearest friend, though there is no one in the world such a fool as not to guess at once what your designs are aiming at and what your friendly relations really mean. I should say that they mean deceit, treachery, forgetfulness of human duties and proprieties, contrary to the law of God and vicious in every way. I take myself as a proof and example. In what way have I offended you and why have you treated me in this godless fashion?
I will end my letter. I have explained myself. Now in conclusion. If, sir, you do not in the shortest possible time after receiving this letter return me in full, first, the three hundred and fifty roubles I gave you, and, secondly, all the sums that should come to me according to your promise, I will have recourse to every possible means to compel you to return it, even to open force, secondly to the protection of the laws, and finally I beg to inform you that I am in possession of facts, which, if they remain in the hands of your humble servant, may ruin and disgrace your name in the eyes of all the world. Allow me to remain, etc.
(From Pyotr Ivanitch to Ivan Petrovitch)
When I received your vulgar and at the same time queer letter, my impulse for the first minute was to tear it into shreds, but I have preserved it as a curiosity. I do, however, sincerely regret our misunderstandings and unpleasant relations. I did not mean to answer you. But I am compelled by necessity. I must in these lines inform you that it would be very unpleasant for me to see you in my house at any time; my wife feels the same: she is in delicate health and the smell of tar upsets her. My wife sends your wife the book, Don Quixote de la Mancha, with her sincere thanks. As for the galoshes you say you left behind here on your last visit, I must regretfully inform you that they are nowhere to be found. They are still being looked for; but if they do not turn up, then I will buy you a new pair.
I have the honour to remain your sincere friend,
On the sixteenth of November, Pyotr Ivanitch received by post two letters addressed to him. Opening the first envelope, he took out a carefully folded note on pale pink paper. The handwriting was his wife’s. It was addressed to Yevgeny Nikolaitch and dated November the second. There was nothing else in the envelope. Pyotr Ivanitch read:
Yesterday was utterly impossible. My husband was at home the whole evening. Be sure to come to-morrow punctually at eleven. At half-past ten my husband is going to Tsarskoe and not coming back till evening. I was in a rage all night. Thank you for sending me the information and the correspondence. What a lot of paper. Did she really write all that? She has style though; many thanks, dear; I see that you love me. Don’t be angry, but, for goodness sake, come to-morrow.
Pyotr Ivanitch tore open the other letter:
I should never have set foot again in your house anyway; you need not have troubled to soil paper about it.
Next week I am going to Simbirsk. Yevgany Nikolaitch remains your precious and beloved friend. I wish you luck, and don’t trouble about the galoshes.
On the seventeenth of November Ivan Petrovitch received by post two letters addressed to him. Opening the first letter, he took out a hasty and carelessly written note. The handwriting was his wife’s; it was addressed to Yevgeny Nikolaitch, and dated August the fourth. There was nothing else in the envelope. Ivan Petrovitch read:
Good-bye, good-bye, Yevgeny Nikolaitch! The Lord reward you for this too. May you be happy, but my lot is bitter, terribly bitter! It is your choice. If it had not been for my aunt I should not have put such trust in you. Do not laugh at me nor at my aunt. To-morrow is our wedding. Aunt is relieved that a good man has been found, and that he will take me without a dowry. I took a good look at him for the first time to-day. He seems good-natured. They are hurrying me. Farewell, farewell…. My darling!! Think of me sometimes; I shall never forget you. Farewell! I sign this last like my first letter, do you remember?
The second letter was as follows:
To-morrow you will receive a new pair of galoshes. It is not my habit to filch from other men’s pockets, and I am not fond of picking up all sorts of rubbish in the streets.
Yevgeny Nikolaitch is going to Simbirsk in a day or two on his grandfather’s business, and he has asked me to find a travelling companion for him; wouldn’t you like to take him with you?
One morning, after a fall of snow.
Yasukichi sat on a chair in the physics teachers’ lounge, watching the flames in the heating stove. The flames licked up yellow one moment, then fell to sooty ruins the next, as if they were breathing: proof of their continued struggle against the cold that filled the room. Yasukichi thought of the interplanetary chill beyond the earth’s atmosphere, and felt something akin to sympathy for the brightly glowing embers.
Yasukichi looked up at the physicist called Miyamoto who had stepped in front of the stove. Hands tucked into his trouser pockets, the bespectacled Miyamoto wore a good-natured smile beneath his thin moustache.
“Mr. Horikawa. Tell me, are you aware that even women are physical objects?”
“I’m aware that they are physical beings.”
“Not beings. Objects. It’s a fact that I’ve recently discovered myself, after no small effort.”
“Mr. Horikawa, you mustn’t take Mr. Miyamoto too seriously.”
This was the other instructor, a physicist called Hasegawa. Yasukichi turned to the desk behind him. Hasegawa riffled through some exam papers as a self-conscious smile made its way up toward his balding forehead.
“Why, the cheek — I know for a fact that my discovery is making you very happy indeed. Mr. Horikawa, are you familiar with the Law of Heat Transfer?”
“Heat transfer? Something to do with moving coal?”
“You literature fellows are quite hopeless!”
Even as he said so, Miyamoto tipped another pailful of coal into the mouth of the stove, which glowed as it reflected the flames.
“When you take two physical objects of differing temperatures, and cause them to come into contact with one another, heat transfers from the object with the higher temperature to the object with the lower temperature until their temperatures become equal.”
“Isn’t that simply common sense?”
“Well, that is what we call the Law of Heat Transfer. Now, say that a woman is an object. Agreed? If a woman is an object, then so – undoubtedly – is a man. In which case, passion must equal heat. If we now cause a man and a woman to come into contact with one another, passion must surely transfer like heat, from the more impassioned man to the less impassioned woman, until her passion equals his. Mr. Hasegawa’s case is a perfect example.”
“Here we go.”
In spite of his words, Hasegawa looked delighted, and made a noise as if he was being tickled.
“Now, call E the quantity of heat that transfers within time T across a surface area S, when – are you following? – H is the temperature, X the distance in the direction of heat transfer, and K the conductivity of the material in question. Now, in Mr. Hasegawa’s case…”
Miyamoto started writing what appeared to be a formula on a small blackboard, but then suddenly turned around and threw aside his piece of chalk, looking quite discouraged.
“It’s no use trying to get a layman like you to appreciate my discovery, Mr. Horikawa. In any case, what matters is that Mr. Hasegawa’s betrothed would appear to be warming up nicely, as per the formula.”
“The world would certainly be a simpler place if such a formula really did exist.”
Yasukichi stretched out his legs, and gazed aimlessly at the snowy view outside the window. The physics instructors’ lounge being at the corner of the first floor of the building, he could easily take in the athletic field, with its sporting apparatus, and beyond that the line of pine trees, and beyond that, the red brick buildings. And the sea, too — the sea was visible between the buildings, sending up indistinct grey waves.
“But then the literature fellows would be out of a job. How is your latest book selling?”
“Not at all, as usual. It seems heat transfer doesn’t take place between writers and readers. By the way, Mr. Hasegawa; it can’t be long till your wedding?”
“Yes, only a month or so. There are quite a few arrangements that need taking care of before then — it’s a nuisance not being able to get any work done.”
“Too distracted to work, eh?”
“I’m not you, Mr. Miyamoto! For one thing, we need somewhere to live, and I simply can’t find anything for rent. Just last Sunday I walked across most of town searching. But even when you think you’ve managed to find a house, it’s snapped up before you know it.”
“What about over by me? Provided you don’t mind getting the train in every day.”
“You’re a little too far out. I hear there are houses for rent over there, and my wife would prefer it; however — Why, Mr. Horikawa! Isn’t your shoe getting singed?”
It appeared that one of Yasukichi’s shoes had somehow come into contact with the body of the stove, and was giving off a cloud of steam along with the smell of burning leather.
“There you go — that’s heat transfer again.”
Miyamoto, who was polishing his spectacles, peered up myopically toward Yasukichi, grinning.
* * *
Four of five days later – a frosty dull morning.
Yasukichi, trying to catch his train, was hurrying as fast as his legs would carry him past the outskirts of a seaside town. The path was on an embankment about six feet wide, with wheat fields to his right, and train tracks to his left. The deserted fields were replete with a very slight sound which he could only take to be that of someone walking between the rows of wheat; however, it seemed in fact to be the sound of needle ice beneath the ploughed soil, collapsing under its own weight.
Soon enough, the eight o’clock up-bound train passed by on the bank, keeping up its speed, and giving a long toot on its whistle. The down-bound train that Yasukichi needed to catch departed half an hour after this one. He took out his watch. For some reason, it was showing nearly a quarter past eight. He decided his watch must be at fault for the discrepancy. He even thought, with good reason: No fear of missing my train today. The wheat fields along the path gradually gave way to hedges. Yasukichi lit an Asahi cigarette and went on walking, feeling less hurried than before.
The cinder-laid path sloped upward to a level crossing. Yasukichi had come up to it just as usual when he noticed people gathered on either side of the tracks. Some part of him immediately thought: Someone’s been killed. Fortunately, he spotted the butcher’s boy with his laden bicycle propped beside the crossing railings. Still holding his cigarette, Yasukichi tapped the boy on the shoulder from behind.
“Hey, what’s happened?”
“Got run over. Run over, by the last up train.”
The boy spoke quickly. Under his rabbit-fur ear muffs, his features seemed to sparkle with a strange vitality.
“The crossing guard. He was trying to save a schoolkid that was about to get run over. You know the bookshop called Nagai’s, opposite the Hachiman Shrine? Their little girl.”
“The child was all right?”
“Yes, she’s the one crying over there.”
The boy indicated the crowd on the other side of the crossing. Yasukichi saw that there was indeed a young girl, who was being questioned by a constable. Beside him, a man who was evidently the stationmaster’s deputy put in a word from time to time. As for the crossing guard — Yasukichi spotted the corpse under a straw mat, in front of the guard’s hut. He had to admit that it inspired curiosity in him as well as aversion. Even from this distance, he could make out the guard’s shoes peeking out from beneath the screen.
“Those men moved the body.”
Two or three railway men stood under the crossing’s signal post on the near side, surrounding a small bonfire. The fire with its yellow flame emitted neither light nor smoke, and looked all the more chilly for it. One of the men was drying the seat of his knee-length trousers by the fire.
Yasukichi started over the crossing. This close to the station, numerous tracks intersected the crossing. Each time he passed one, he wondered just where it was that the crossing guard had been run over. But it was immediately evident. Blood on one of the rails told of the tragedy that had taken place only a few minutes ago. Almost reflexively, he looked away to the other side of the crossing, but it was no use. The image of the viscous red substance pooled on the coldly gleaming face of the iron had instantly etched itself onto his memory. The blood was even giving off a faint shimmer of vapor from upon the rail.
Some ten minutes later, Yasukichi was pacing on the station platform. His head was filled with the unsettling sight he had just seen. In particular, he vividly recalled the shimmer of vapor rising from the blood. He thought of the notion of heat transfer, which had been discussed only the other day. The life heat contained in the blood was transferring to the rail according to the law that Miyamoto had taught him — cruelly, and without a modicum of error. It made no difference whose life it was; whether that of the crossing guard killed performing his duty or that of a convicted felon, the heat would be transferring just as cruelly. He knew, of course, that these were meaningless thoughts. He tried repeatedly to convince himself that even a dutiful child must drown in water, even a devoted wife must be burned by fire. But the scene he had witnessed had left such a burdensome impression that it did not easily admit such reasoning.
Meanwhile, the people on the platform seemed for all the world contented, oblivious to his state of mind. That, too, upset Yasukichi. In particular, the loud chatter emanating from a group of Navy officers was viscerally offensive. He lit another Asahi, and walked to the end of the platform. From there, the crossing was visible a few hundred yards ahead. The crowds on either side of the crossing seemed to have mostly dissipated. Only the workmen’s bonfire by the signal post waved its yellow flame.
Yasukichi felt something akin to sympathy for that distant fire. But being in sight of the crossing still made him anxious. He turned his back on it, and started back along the platform toward the mass of people. He hadn’t gone ten steps, however, when he realized that he had dropped one of his red leather gloves, which he’d been carrying after taking it off his right hand to light his cigarette. He turned and looked back. The glove lay fallen at the end of the platform, palm side up. Wordlessly, it seemed to be calling to him.
Beneath the dull frosty sky, Yasukichi sensed the heart of the red leather glove as it lay left behind. In that moment, he knew that even this chill world would someday be pierced by the first warm rays of sun.
Here, people are only observed by the eyes of the night watch. The walls of Acre have not yet been completely built. Nor its lighthouse that looks over the sea to the west. The stones are cleansed by the sweat of the builders, scorched by day and then are cooled down at night by the waves of the sea.
The family sleeps, and Laila goes out under the cover of darkness. She shelters in the space between the piles of huge cut stones that are laid out east of the sea and the waves coming from the west. It does not occur to anyone that the night watch has eyes amidst the waves and in the labyrinth of emptiness among the stones.
Their love was forbidden. ‘Azim, a soldier in the guards of Ahmad al-Bushnaqi al-Jazzar, was not allowed to marry, and Laila was the daughter of a wealthy merchant family. They used to meet clandestinely there under the moonlit darkness where Acre met its waves.
“ ‘Azim, look how the sands of the beach delight when the waves break over them.”
“Laila, I will love you all my life. We will sit here, just the two of us, looking at these sands of ours.”
“But the sands of Acre will not be satisfied with one wave breaking over them.”
As dawn broke there came the din of the builders as they shifted the great building blocks day after day to line them up to make the great towering walls. Not one of them realised that the damp patch yet to dry on a stone was ‘Azim’s semen. It was not the only stain on the rocks.
“The eyes of the night watch never sleep,” whispered ‘Azim’s comrade at the barracks into his friend’s ear.
On that morning, 13 October 1784, the din of the builders was unusual. For some minutes it masked the tapping of the chisels, and only shouts were heard.
On the site for the construction of Acre lighthouse, there were only men and one woman. She had been brought to trial for cheating on her husband with a lover from the neighbouring village, who was reputed to be a maker of fine ceramics and an innovative artist. His pieces filled the houses of the wealthy and well-off of Acre. But as for her, nobody could remember her name or family. All that was said was that her husband was a butcher who had been stricken by illness for a long time, that his skin was covered with pustules, and that he had been married to four women before here and had no offspring.
On this morning the two of them were buried alive beneath the lower stones of the lighthouse. Builders’ clay covered their bodies until they suffocated.
The commotion did not die down, but changed just as the tones of music change in a stirring symphony. After the shouts and cries for help, the roaring of the soldiers and the curses of the angry husband came the turn of the chisels and the orders of the soldiers as they tried to get the work going in an orderly way once again.
Life returned to its natural order until the setting of the sun.
‘Azim stuck to the peripheries of the city, leaving the barracks heading westward. Laila would be waiting for him after sunset. If anyone saw him in the darkness he would not be able to avoid suspicion. Indeed his tumultuous thoughts were audible behind the dark sleeping windows. “The eyes of the night watch never sleep” repeated unceasingly in his mind. He suddenly gave a secret smile, “But I know them all. If any of them saw me, would they denounce Laila and me?” He went on smiling and shaking his head, “Impossible, under any circumstances. I know how to conceal myself and protect her from any scandal. I will go to Laila and snatch delight from her after the toils of the day.” That was what went on in the mind of ‘Azim as he made his way to meet Laila.
She was waiting for him. She was sitting on the stone that had been laid out that day, its edges sealed with damp mud. ‘Azim reached her. His desire for her was like a volcano about to erupt. She turned into red-hot lava when she caught sight of him. They embraced, exchanging lascivious kisses as if they were at war, using every part of their mouths as weapons. Wildly, impatiently, they pulled off each other’s clothes. He fondled her breasts with his rough hands. Her trembling hands undid the cord of his trousers searching for his penis. She grabbed it at its base and took it up to her hungry mouth. She loved to savour its heat in her mouth, and relished its gradual swelling, inwardly proud at her ability to make it stand to attention. She looked at it fully erect and said with a chuckle, “There’s no need for the builders to wake up tomorrow. The lighthouse is already lit up.”
There was a crescent moon. Stealthily, it watched over the land. The eyes of the night watch never sleep.
I must go back to the barracks now. Before they notice my absence. He wiped the head of his penis against her breasts. Her mouth was still full, so she nodded her consent. She swallowed her saliva and whatever was with it. “You go first,” she said, “and I’ll follow after a little while.” This was what usually happened so they would not be seen together.
‘Azim went back to his barracks. He slept long and soundly.
On the western shore the waves crashed violently against the sands one after another.
Laila was down on her knees on the cold rough stone; she sucked the cocks of the watchmen one after another.
The spume of the waves drenched the sands.
I was in the process of completing some research on the progress of democratization in Tunisia under the threat of terrorism when a message notification popped up. The message read: “I would like to connect with you in a civilized way, yes civilized, like drinking coffee together, if you know what I mean. A cup of coffee with you would mean the world to me. Sugar cubes touched by you would turn my cup into the Sea of Marmara, which shimmers more brightly since you inscribed your name in its sands. If only you knew that you have the enchantment of the orient in you. O women of the sea of Carthage, the font has run dry and the company of friends has parted.”
I pulled my earpieces out and reread the message, which was dripping with desire. Calling upon what skills I had in Arabic, I returned to Shahrazad’s tales of oriental men, and also recalled my grandmother’s advice and all the ploys and schemes of women, to make my response commensurate with his words.
I tapped away at the keyboard and started composing my reply. But I held off. I had no great longing to drink a cup of coffee with him. Stories about Marmara seas did not tempt me, and I cared little for such romantic notions on the lines of Nizar Qabbani. My sights were set on the vineyard of his bronzed chest, which I would make a cozy bed for the approaching autumn nights that would coincide with his return from Turkey. I wanted a great deal from the lips topped with a light moustache. Yes, I wanted to exhale sighs of love over him. Using the mouse, I moved the cursor over his image to outline in my imagination the taste of his kisses.
I got up from my desk, made a mug of coffee, and with a sigh of relief lit a cigarette to take a break and to show that handsome man sitting at the other end of the Mediterranean some indifference. I knew that was a classic strategy for dealing with men, but I found it useful in cases like this one.
I finished the democracy and terrorism report and left the office for my small apartment. I opened the door, kicked out the neighbour’s stupid cat that, to my annoyance, came in whenever I was out and sat down to make a routine call to my mother, who had been living for a while in Gulf with my big sister. I gave her my daily newscast, full of lies, and which I began by telling her that I had cooked food at home and ended by telling her that I had become a serious woman of thirty-one no longer interested in one-night stands. That always reassured her, plus I said amen to her invocations for me. Then I turned on my computer and took a bite of the sandwich I had bought from the shop at the end of the street.
Messenger pinged. Another message from him: “I hope my words did not offend you. I’m dreaming of that cup of coffee with you.”
I cried out aloud, “Allah, Allah, a gift from God!” I reeled off my reply: “Not at all. I’m honoured to be of interest to a writer of your standing. I’m grateful for your good taste.”
He replied: “No my dear, you deserve better than that. The honour is all mine to engage in dialogue with a woman of your standing.”
I kept the dialogue going, a chorus line of nymphs urging me on. I was amazed by his refinement and his words that went no further than that cup of coffee, the articles he published in the cultural press, and his admiration for my research on democratization in Tunisia. His discourse slipped between the personal and the public, and I went along with everything he said and refrained from comment. I considered inviting him to turn on video so he could see me in my sheer white one-piece and I could pretend to be all coy with him. But he didn’t fall into that trap. He lived and breathed in the medium of language.
Despite his handsome looks, albeit tainted by a rampant look in his eyes, he did not seem very interested in women. I remembered that I had deliberately sat in the Mondial Café with a copy of a magazine that he had an article in, so that I could go and discuss what he had written on literature and revolution. I intended to make it seem that at the Democracy Institute, where I worked, we were aiming to support writers interested in literature and publish free thinking.
My trick worked on him, and he started explaining his creative project. He mentioned the reasons why he had published his recent books, but I don’t remember anything he said because at the time I was in a trance from the scent of his sensuous Parisian perfume. I barely managed to stop my left hand from playing with his soft white hair. I ended the encounter after taking down all his details, even his marital status, parentage, and hobbies. If time had not been so short – he had to leave for a meeting with the director of a publishers – I would have learned what his favourite food was and the size of his underwear.
Since that encounter, I began planning to make him fall for me. That was no easy matter, especially with a respectable man like him who loved reading books and listening to music, and didn’t like drinking alcohol. He didn’t go out to the capital’s bars with his writer and journalist colleagues, a fact that tired me out when I wanted to find out his news.
Nobody knew much about his personal life, but it was stressed that he was a respectable man. That usage of respectable did not make me too happy, because I know the standards of respectability for my society. It’s said with reference to a guy who’s no good at kissing girls and a man who’s never tasted the wine of this country.
He was the writer Mohammed Aziz, a man with an aristocratic heritage, refined, and elegant, and well known in cultural circles for his calm temperament and politeness, his love of reading books and refusal to join in drinking sessions, and his signing himself: A man exhausted by his Arabism. Although he was in his forties, Aziz had no little respect for those younger than him. He had been involved with a Palestinian poet. Then, after the last Gaza Intifada, they broke up. Since her, his heart had not skipped a beat for any woman.
My heart, on the other hand, was like a public housing project, expansive enough for all the men around, provided they were handsome and butch, irrespective of their nationality and affiliations. I was an internationalist when it came to passion. A defender of pluralism when it came to love as much as I defended it when it came to the Tunisian political scene.
The absence of his Palestinian girlfriend made him very sad and very supportive of her cause. We’ve forgotten about Palestine since the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions, possibly because we saw victory in our own sons: in Bouazizi we saw Muhammad Durra, Samir Kuntar, and all those heroes from the Arab east whom we loved. Despite that, Mohammed Aziz carried on wearing his kufiyah, ever faithful to Hanzala.
I wrote to him: “ ‘Because I love violently and expect to be loved violently back, today I am going to kill you with love.’ I dedicate Jaafar Majed’s poem The Enchantress to you.”
He replied with the speed of someone in wait for a woman’s yearning: “I fear the enchantment of Carthaginian sirens. Go easy on my heart, you naughty girl.”
I laughed, but wrote, with real yearning: “May God strengthen the heart present before me like the rhythm of prayers being chanted. Yours truly.”
I finished my literary phrases, inspired by someone’s blog post, shut down my computer, and slept. Yes, I slept and dreamed of a shameless prince charming, cynical even about my swooning and getting lost in his eyes.
I woke up a little worn out from my late night of chat and verbal hide-and-seek with Mohammed Aziz. I sat in the L’Univers Café to drink coffee and smoke a cigarette. I invited one of my nation’s miserable poets over to drink coffee and smoke a few cigarettes with me to elicit whatever information I could about Mohammed Aziz, who seemed to have got inside my head. I tried to speak about him and his excessive commitment to Arab causes, in spite of the terrible things happening in our own country. The poet gave a shrug and said, “You don’t know that Mohammed Aziz studied in Damascus and was a militant with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It’s rumoured that he was in the armed wing and had a relationship with a PFLP poet.”
I exhaled the cigarette smoke. Talk about resistance and militant female comrades was well known to me. All left-wing Tunisians who studied in Damascus or Beirut or Iraq would come back to us as heroes and authorities on leftist, Islamic, pan-Arab, nationalist, and even separatist thought. A few words in an eastern dialect and praise for the taste of arrack, made someone the centre of attention. Mohammed Aziz was one of that sort: Tunisians who had lived under eastern skies, those who claimed a lineage from the tribes of Adnan and Taghlib, and whose grandfathers were of Ottoman descent and whose mothers were from Saguia el-Hamra.
Having his eastern leanings confirmed inspired a certain patriotic feeling in me, along with a tinge of possessiveness towards the men of this country, whom on my blog I normally described in the vilest terms and mostly accused of being effete and lacking real manhood. But now I felt a burning sense of injustice when I saw Mohammed Aziz publishing love poems to the women of Syria and the women of Iraq, while overlooking the women of Carthage, Numidia, and the alleyways of the old city like me.
I spent the whole day thinking of strategies and techniques to make him fall for me. It had become an issue of national pride for me, almost chauvinist. I made a bet with myself: either I made him fall for me or I wasn’t the high priestess of the Majiri tribe.
I thought about waiting for his return the following week and tricking him by inviting him to a kofta place for some renowned Tunisian food with the taste of the alleyways of the old city. But the fire burning inside me since the day at the café did not allow me to make the arrangements for dinner. I had to rush to his Facebook page to find he had written what mattered to me: “I’m thinking how will I deal with the treasures of my beloved?”
I pressed the chat button and wrote without any Arabic allusions: “Kiss them and mourn in her arms. The heavens will be grateful for your effort.”
He answered in a flash: “I had no idea you had such a dangerous poetic sensibility.”
“Your presence is more dangerous, Mr Mohammed Aziz,” I replied.
“More dangerous for whom?”
“More dangerous for the women of this country. More dangerous for the women of Tunisia who weep when their prince charmings leave for the east. Don’t you know that the women of Tunisia bear the wombs and clay of this land?”
He stopped chatting. Perhaps my last sentence was like a random bombardment of his soul. I had gone way too far to start brushing the dust off the memories of that Palestinian woman who still lingered in his almond-shaped eyes and attractive chest. God, please let me sleep in his arms in the cold winter of Tunisia. I slept with my computer on, so that I might wake to a love letter from him. But to my disappointment, he said nothing, but posted on Facebook things that crushed me: “When one of my female friends wrote to me, ‘Don’t you know that the women of Tunisia bear the wombs and clay of this land?’ I understood why the poet Kamel Bouajila said ‘Tunisian women are beautiful in word and deed. They are Tunisia’s refuge when she yearns. God bless the daughters of the priestess.’”
Comments from his friends about his praise for the women of Tunisia multiplied in the dialects of Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt. I devoured what was written and smiled. I put on the song, Barsha, Barsha, ya mudallal, 1 and danced until my body ran with sweat. I went into the bathroom to put a stop to the dancing with warm water. It was an invigorating day. I started it by giving an amorous smile to the director of the centre, whose name I can’t endure saying and whose hateful screwed-up face I can’t endure seeing when he asks me to produce a report or set up a workshop on the constitution and human rights. Workshops, seminars, and reports that I write to satisfy our followers and in line with the inclinations of funders. I write like waiters at a café: presenting what’s ordered.
The skills in flattery I had acquired through my work with civil society organizations made me a dab hand when it came to dealing with men, particularly those special cases like Mohammed Aziz. It was enough to lend an attentive ear and show plenty of interest for you to win his affection and trust. I suspect that the world is well aware that in our countries, we don’t want to listen but desire only to talk.
A week went by, during which Mohammed Aziz told me the date and time of his return to Tunisia and asked me to meet him at the Carthage Airport café, shortly after his arrival. I said yes. The generosity of my spirit correlates with the good looks of the man arriving, and our writer dripped machismo from the palms of his hands to the soles of his feet, which were dressed in a classic black shoe of Italian crafting.
I sat in the airport café and ordered a black coffee without sugar. I lit my second cigarette and suddenly felt a tap on my shoulder as a sign to turn round. Another hand, drenched in perfume, embraced me. He kissed my cheek and I pretended to be taken by surprise, leaping from my seat to hide how I had melted at his embrace. I started chatting and asking questions about his trip as a means to distract my bold tongue from inviting him back to my place.
He talked about his trip, the books he had bought in Turkey, and his Syrian comrade whom he had met in secret, away from Erdogan’s spies. He also mentioned Syrian women’s resistance to Daesh, and I thought, “God granted us a respite from Palestinian women, so he sets his sights on Syrians. Will I have to wait for a war to break out in Tunisia to make him satisfied? My God, what’s it about?”
We finished our coffees and he invited me for dinner at a Damascene restaurant that had recently opened in El Manar. I made my acceptance conditional on changing the restaurant for one in the old Medina of Tunis. I got what I wanted.
We met at the walls of the Medina to make our way to the restaurant which was lost in alleyways lit by dim streetlights. I took his left arm and started singing Tunisian melodies full of suggestion and flirtation. He commented on my voice, which he liked, and I continued singing while giving explanations of the lyrics, none of which he understood.
We arrived at the restaurant and he expressed his approval of the place. Then he expatiated in praise of my extensive knowledge of Tunisian women’s songs, as if he were discovering them like a tourist exploring a foreign country. I steered the conversation towards the history of resistance on the part of Tunisian women, the stories of el-falaqa 2, Mount Bargou 3, Kheil Salim 4, and the sabayhia 5, and accounts of women who took up arms. He commented by referring to the Free Officers revolution and Ahmed Orabi. He certainly knew the history of Gamal Abdel Nasser in detail, while quite lacking knowledge of el-Daghbaji 6. He couldn’t even understand a rural Tunisian accent, and I had to explain to him the meaning of poems and names, even the name of my tribe with its ancient Amazigh roots, as old as the oleanders and the flow of the Medjerda River.
“You’re drowning in being Tunisian.”
“No, you’re the orientalist who lost his bearings and became so enmeshed in the east that you don’t even understand our Tunisian dialect, let alone my mountain tongue.”
My answer didn’t go down well and the tenor of his conversation changed. I, however, redirected the conversation when I spotted Hamouda el-Naknouk 7, the Tunisian guitarist, sitting behind Mohammed Aziz. Even though I hated him because he acted like a prostitute, I was obliged to mention his name to stop the atmosphere from becoming any more fraught. “Aziz, have you seen who’s sitting behind you? It’s Hamouda. He’s just re-recorded My Heart is Set on an Arab Little Girl.
A spectrum of happiness danced in his eyes and he got up to say hello to the effete Hamouda, leaving me alone at the table. Hamouda leaped from his seat straight into Mohammed Aziz’s arms and showered him with kisses. He rested his head on my prince charming’s shoulder to inhale his perfume. Then I saw him invite him to join him and his friends. At that point, Mohammed Aziz gave me a sign to join them. I grabbed my bag and headed over before the anger rose in me.
“I’m sorry, I’m feeling tired and would like to go home.”
Mohammed Aziz replied, “No worries. I’ll take you back home with Hamouda.”
“Are you intending to continue your evening with him?” I retorted.
No one answered me, and I don’t think my oriental prince charming heard the question in the first place. I left the restaurant and walked defeated behind Hamouda el-Naknouk, who had tucked Mohammed Aziz’s arm under his.
It’s a rough summer morning in Misiones, with all the sun, heat and tranquility that the season can provide. Mother Nature, open to the skies, seems proud of herself.
Like the sun, the heat, and the tranquil atmosphere, the father opens his heart to nature.
“Be careful, little one.” He says to his son, summarizing in one phrase all of the observations of what could go wrong, and his son understanding perfectly.
“Yes, papa.” Responds the young child, while picking up the shotgun and filling his shirt pockets with cartridges, buttoning them closed carefully.
“Come back at lunchtime.” The father adds.
“Yes, papa.” The boy repeats.
He balances the shotgun in his hand, smiles at his father, kisses him on the head and leaves.
His father follows him a bit with his eyes and goes back to his daily chores, gleaming with joy over his young one.
He knows that his son, taught from the youngest age proper habit and precaution when dealing in danger, can handle a firearm and hunt whatever he wishes. Even though he is very tall for his age, he’s only thirteen. And judging by his pure blue eyes, still sparkling with infantile joy, he looks even younger.
The father doesn’t even have to raise his head from his chores to follow his son’s path: already across the reddened path and walking upright to the forest past the opening in the grass field.
In order to hunt in the forest—a game hunt—one needs more patience than his young son can muster. After crossing the island of trees, the boy will follow the line of cactuses towards the marshland, looking for doves, toucans, or any kind of heron, like those that his friend Juan had discovered a few days back.
Now alone, the father smirks recalling the passion for hunting that young children share. At times they would hunt a yacu-toro or—if lucky— a surucua and return triumphant. Juan to his ranch with his nine millimeter firearm that had been given to him, and his son to the plateau with his huge, sixteen caliber, white powder, four lock Saint-Etienne shotgun.
The father had been the same. At thirteen he would have given his life for a shotgun. His son, at the same age, now had one—; and his father smiled.
Nevertheless, it is not easy for a widowed father, who without any other faith or hope in life other than his son, to educate his son like he had been taught, free in his limited range of knowledge, confident in his tiny feet and hands since four years old, conscious of the immensity of certain dangers and the scarcity of his own strengths.
This father had fought hard against what he sees as his own selfishness. It’s so easy for a child to miscalculate, put a foot in an empty hole and one loses a son.
Danger can always linger for a man despite his age; but the threat diminished since at an early age he learned to count on nothing besides his own abilities.
This is how the father had raised his son. And to achieve it he had to resist not only his heart, but his moral torments as well; because this father, of weak stomach and poor eyesight, has for some time suffered from hallucinations.
He has seen, in painfully clear visions, memories of a happiness that should have remained in the void where he has locked himself. The image of his own son has not escaped his torment. He had once seen him rolling, covered in blood, from hammering a parabellum bullet in the vice in his workshop; he had felt this despite that his son was only polishing his belt buckle.
Horrible things…But today, with the burning summer day full of live, the love of which his son seems to have inherited, the father feels happy, calm and sure of the future.
In that moment, not far off, he hears a loud boom.
“The Saint Etienne” the father thinks recognizing the detonation. Two fewer doves in the forest.
Without paying any more attention to the menial event, the man distracts himself with his work.
The sun, already very high, continues to rise. Wherever one looks—rocks, earth, trees—, the air, congested like an oven, vibrates with heat. A deep humming sound fills the entire body and saturates the atmosphere for as far as the eyes can see, a time that harnesses all tropical life.
The father takes a look at his wristwatch: twelve. And lifts his eyes out over the forest.
His son should already be back. In the mutual trust that the two give to one another—the father of silvery sideburns and the child of thirteen—there were never any lies. When his son said, “yes, papa”, he did what he was told. He said he would be back before twelve, and the father had smiled watching him leave.
But he hasn’t come back.
The father returns to his chores, struggling to concentrate on his work. It’s so easy, so easy to lose track of time when inside the forest, sitting a bit on the ground while resting motionless.
Suddenly, the midday sun, the tropical humming, and the beating of father’s heart stop in rhythm at the thought: his son, motionless…
Time has passed; twelve thirty. The father leaves his workshop, and resting his hand on the metal bench, the explosion of a parabellum bullet rushes from the depth of his memory, and instantly, for the first time in the last three hours, realizes that he has not heard a sound after the blast if the Saint-Etienne. He has not heard gravel stirring under familiar steps. His son hasn’t returned, and nature stands guard at the edge of the forest, awaiting him.
Oh, how the calm character and young confidence of the boy’s education is not enough to scare away the fatal ghost that the hallucinating father sees rising from the edge of the forest. Distraction, forgetfulness, fortuitous tardiness: none of these minute motives that could have delayed the arrival of his son could fit into the father’s heart.
A shot, he had heard one single shot, and a long time ago at that. Since then the father has not heard a single noise, has not seen a single bird, not a single person has walked through the opening in the grass field to announce that at the wire fence…a great disaster.
Distracted and without a machete, the father sets out. He cuts through the grass field, enters into the forest, follows the line of cactus without finding the slightest trace of his son.
Nature continues to stand still. And when the father had gone over all of the familiar hunting paths and had explored the marshlands in vain, he knew with certainty that each step forward would bring him, relentlessly and brutally, to the body of his son.
He could only blame himself, poor thing. There was only the cold reality, terrible and consuming: his son had died crossing a…
But where, in what field? There are so many fences, and the forest is so, so, muddy. God, so muddy. If one is not careful crossing the fences with the shotgun in their hand…
The father’s shout is stifled. He saw something rise into the air, oh, no, no it’s not his son…He turns to one direction, then the other, then the other.
Nothing could be gained by seeing the complexion of the man’s skin and the anguish in his eyes. The father still hasn’t called out to his son. Even though his heart yearns to shout, his mouth remains shut. He knows well that the simple act of pronouncing his name, calling out to him loudly, would be a confession of his death.
“Chiquito” he let out quickly. And if the voice of a principled was capable of crying, we would cover our ears with compassion from the anguish in his voice.
No one nor nothing responded. Down the sun-reddened paths, the father, who has aged ten years by now, went searching for his newly-dead son.
“Hijito mio!”…”Chiquito mio”…he clamored to his son in diminutives that rose from the depths of his soul.
Once before, in the throngs of happiness and peace, this father suffered the hallucination of his son rolling on the ground, his head opened by a chrome nickel bullet. Now, in every shadowed corner of the forest, he sees sparkling wires, and at the base of a post, with the discharged shotgun as his side, he sees his son.
Even the forces that bring a father to hallucinate the most awful of nightmares have their limits. The father feels his senses leaving him when he quickly sees his son stepping out from a side path.
From fifty meters, it was enough for the boy of thirteen to see his father’s expression, without a machete and in the forest, to make him hurry his steps with his eyes wet.
“Son” the man murmured. Exhausted, the man drops himself into the bright white sand, his hands clasped around his son’s legs.
The young one, with his legs hugged tightly, stands up, and understanding the pain of his father, caresses his head slowly.
More time has passed. It’s already close to three. Now together, father and son undertake the walk back to the house.
“Why didn’t you use the sun to keep track of time?” The father says first.
“I did, papa…but when I was headed back I saw the garzas that Juan caught and went after them.
“What you put me through, son!”
“pia pia” the boy murmurs back.
After a long silence, the father asks,
“And the garzas, did you kill any?”
Considering everything, a minute detail. Under the red hot sky, passing through the grass field, the man returns to his house with his son, on whose shoulders, almost even with his father’s, he carries the joyful arm of his father. He returns covered in sweat, and even broken in body and spirit, smiles with joy…..
Yet he smiles a hallucinated happiness…For this father walks alone. He has encountered no one, his arm supported by nothing but air. Because behind him, at the foot of a post and with his legs raised, tangled in barbed-wire, his loved son lies face down to the sun, dead since ten that morning.
*This translation is taken from: quirogatranslated.
She’s getting naked. Something either very bad or very good is happening. Happening to me. Whatever it is, my parents can’t find out. I’m at a friend’s house. Nothing strange there. But my new friend, half gringa, half local, is taking off her uniform, her sports bra, her thong, her shoes. She leaves on her socks, short ones, with a little pink ball at the heel. She’s naked, her back to me, staring at her closet.
It’s awkward and dazzling. Painful. My head down like an ashamed dog, an ugly, short-legged dog, I try to look the same as I did a moment before, when we were both dressed, when that image, the one of her body, hadn’t exploded like a thousand fireworks in my brain. Diana Ward-Espinoza. Sixteen years old. A meter eighty tall. Star player on the volleyball team at her school in the United States. Radioactive green cat eyes. The bright white smile of the people from up there.
Diana, pronounced Dayana in gringo, talks and talks, always, nonstop, mixing English and Spanish or making up a third language, very funny, making me squeal with laughter. With her, I laugh as if there were nothing wrong at my house, as if my dad loved me like a dad. I laugh as if I weren’t me, but a girl who sleeps peacefully. I laugh as if brutality didn’t exist.
She repeats the words the teachers say like tongue twisters and never gets them right. Maybe it’s because of this, because they think she’s dumb, or because she lives in a little apartment and not in a majestic house, or because her mom is the English teacher at the school and so she doesn’t pay tuition or because she jogs through the neighborhood in tiny shorts, blue with a white line that makes a V on her thighs. Because of all that, or for some other obscure hierarchical logic of the popular girls, no groups have accepted her. She’s blonde, white, she has green eyes, her tiny nose is dotted with golden freckles, but no group has accepted her.
They haven’t accepted me either, but with me, it’s the same as always: fat, dark, glasses, hairy, ugly, strange.
One day our last names are paired up in computer class. One right next to the other. That’s everything. I learn that BFF means Best Friends Forever.
Then we’re best friends forever. Then she invites me to her house to study. Then I tell my mom I’m going to spend the night at Diana’s. Then we’re in her tiny room and she’s naked. She turns around to cover her cream-colored body with a denim dress. She turns on music. She dances. Behind her, the gigantic American flag on her wall.
Covered in a fine white fuzz, her skin has the appearance, the delicacy, of a peach. She talks about boys, she likes my brother, about the exam we have the next day, philosophy, about the teacher, he’s funny, but what the fuck is being? About how she’s never going to understand things like I do, about how I’m the smartest person she’s ever met and about how she, okay, let’s be honest, she’s good at sports.
She stops in front of the mirror, less than a meter away from me, on her bed, pretending to be absorbed in the philosophy textbook. If I wanted to, and I do, I could reach out my index finger and touch her hipbones, sliding down to where her pubic hair starts, I’ve never seen golden pubes, and find out if what glimmers there is wetness.
She ties up her ringlets, like Mary had a little lamb, she paints her lips with a gloss that smells like bubble gum and she criticizes her hair, her ears, a pimple I say I can’t see. But I can’t look at her and she notices and she complains: you’re not even looking at me, stop studying, you already understand what being is.
She grabs my chin and raises my head to make me look at her. I smell the bubble gum on her lips. I hear my heart beating. I stop breathing.
“See this pimple? Here? Do you see it?”
My tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. I swallow sand. I nod.
We have lunch with her brother Mitch, her twin, who is so handsome that my jaw falls open when I have to talk to him. He’s had football practice. He takes off his sweaty shirt and doesn’t put on a new one. We eat alone, like a family of three. Diana sets the table, I pour the Coca-Cola, and Mitch mixes the pasta with sauce and heats it in a pot.
I suppose that their parents, both of them, are working. I know that Miss Diana, her mom, my English teacher, has another job in the afternoon at a language school. I don’t know anything about the dad. I don’t ask. I never ask about dads. They tell me that Miss Diana leaves food for them in the morning, that she isn’t a good cook. It’s horrible. We cover our plates in Kraft parmesan cheese and we laugh hysterically.
Mitch has an exam too, but he doesn’t want to study. In the dining room, which is also the living room, there are photos on the walls. Mitch and Diana, little, dressed as sunflowers. Miss Diana, thin and young, in front of a house with a mailbox. A black dog, Kiddo, next to a baby, Mitch. The kids at Christmas, surrounded by presents. Miss Diana pregnant. Diana, in white, at her First Communion.
There’s something sad in these photos, it’s in the lighting, typical of gringo photos from the seventies: maybe too many pastel colors, maybe the distance, maybe everything that isn’t pictured. I feel a sadness that doesn’t belong to me. Mine is there, but this is a different one. This life—the sunflower children, the beautiful baby beside the black dog, everything that looks so perfect—isn’t going to turn out so well. No. Despite their blond heads, their athletic bodies, their pink cheeks and their bright eyes, it’s not going to turn out so well.
There’s something desperate, somber, about Diana, about Mitch, about me, about this little apartment where three teenagers are sitting on the floor listening to music.
We play records: The Mamas & The Papas, The Doors, Fleetwood Mac, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Moody Blues, Van Morrison, Joan Baez.
Diana tells me how her parents went to Woodstock and she pulls out a photo album where, finally, there’s a picture of her father. Mr. Mitchell Ward: red mustache, long hair tied with a headband. Ultra gringo, as big and beautiful as his kids, looking at a girl, Miss Diana, almost unrecognizable so smiling, so natural.
Then, behind that page, there’s another photo that makes us all go silent: the dad, dressed as a soldier: Lieutenant Mitchell Ward.
He went to Vietnam.
The two of them, Diana and Mitch, say the words at the same time, like a single person with a voice that is both masculine and feminine.
He went to Vietnam.
He went to Nam.
The shadow reemerges, that suffocating lack of light, a silence like an angry sea. The three of us hug our knees and look at the record player. The Doors play, we like them. We sing a little and Diana translates: People are strange when you’re a stranger / faces are ugly when you’re alone. Mitch puts on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and during the song “Madame George” I lie down across Diana’s legs. Mitch rests his head on my stomach. We play with each other’s hair.
No one studies that afternoon. We listen to Mr. Mitchell Ward’s music, we take turns changing the records and putting them carefully back into their plastic sleeves, into their album covers and into their spots on the shelf. The movement is slow and sacramental. I imagine that the kids hadn’t been able to say goodbye to their father and that this, lying on the floor and listening to his beloved records, is the prettiest goodbye in the world. And I’m part of it and my heart bursts.
When “Mr. Tambourine Man” comes on Diana cries. I feel for her hand and I kiss it with a love so intense that I feel like it’s going to kill me. She bends down, she rocks me, she finds my mouth and just like that, listening to Bob Dylan, and through tears, I give, I am given, my first kiss.
Mitch watches us. He sits up, he leans over, he kisses me and he kisses his sister. The three of us kiss desperately, like orphans, like castaways. Hungry puppies licking up the last drops of milk in the universe. The harmonica plays Hey Mr. Tambourine Man play a song for me. We sit in the twilight. This is happening. There’s nothing more important in the world.
We are the world.
We’re almost naked when, from the other side of the door, Miss Diana rummages in her purse, looks for her key, rings the bell, calls to her kids in English.
Diana and I run to her room. Mitch goes into the bathroom. We’ve grabbed all our clothes, but the record is still playing. Miss Diana, brutally, removes the needle and the apartment goes silent. When she opens the bedroom door, Diana and I are pretending to study. Mitch comes out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, with his hair wet. No one admits to having put the record on. Their father’s record. The records of Lieutenant Ward, who was in Nam.
Shouting in English. Miss Diana is very red and looks like she’s about to cry or to burst into a thousand pieces. I hear words I don’t understand and others that I do know the meaning of, words like fucking and fuck and records and father. The kids deny everything and she walks over to Diana. Her hand is open, she’s about to hit her, and I, desperate with love, shout for Miss to stop, that it was me, I put the record on. She doesn’t know what to do or say. Her hand is frozen in the air like the Statue of Liberty without a torch and she remembers that she’s my teacher and that I’ve seen her do something she shouldn’t have done, something that stays within the walls of houses, something parents do to their kids when no one is looking.
She leaves without a word.
Diana looks at me. I look at her. I want to hug her, to kiss her, to take her away from there.
She pulls back her hair and says:
“We’d better start studying for philosophy.”
We stay up all night studying or pretending to study. She, who doesn’t understand any of it, falls asleep in the early morning and I, in the dim light, study her. She looks like Ophelia, from the painting, and also like She-Ra, He-Man’s sister. I pull off the covers to look at her whole body: I wish I were so tiny I could crawl through her half-open lips and live inside her forever. Even the chipped nail polish on her toenails moves me, it excites me, it captivates me. I’d kiss her every pore.
I’m no longer me.
I fall asleep. I dream that Diana is being chased by some black dogs, that she asks me for help and I can’t do anything. I hear screams, a man’s screams. Even with my eyes open I still hear them. I want to get up, but Diana hugs me tightly and whispers: It’s okay. It’s okay.
Daylight arrives with its sounds. Clinking dishes, cleaning up, and, finally, the door slamming behind the mother. Diana gets dressed without showing me her body, but as I’m putting on my uniform she turns around, lowers the zipper a little, and writes on my back with the tip of her finger then zips me back up. She smiles. I wear an I love you on my back.
I tell Diana that I have to go to the bathroom. She tells me that I’ll have to wait to go at school. That’s impossible. I got my period in the night, I need to pee, my stomach is upset. I can’t wait.
I have to go.
The apartment has two bathrooms. One, for guests, is in the living room, and the other is through the master bedroom, behind the door that’s always closed. Mitch is in the front bathroom and Diana says that her brother takes a long time and I’m too embarrassed to ask him to hurry up. I can’t do it, much less after yesterday, I can still feel Mitch Ward’s lips on my loser neck and my loser belly. I’d rip off my hand before I knocked on that door.
But I can’t wait any longer, I’m cold, I break out in a cold sweat, I have goosebumps. My legs feel weak.
I have to go.
Diana insists: I should go at school, that I can’t use her parents’ bathroom, that even she isn’t allowed in there, but I know I won’t make it, that I’ll shit my pants on the way to school and the uniform is white and I’ll die.
It’s urgent. I can’t wait any more. I’m not well.
I have to go.
She pulls me out of the house. Let’s go, there are bathrooms at school, we’ll be there in just a minute. My forehead is drenched in sweat. It’s about to happen, I’m going to shit myself. I tell her that I forgot my book and I go back into the house. I press my legs together, god, help me. The only thing I can think about is getting to a bathroom to keep from shitting myself, so that Diana and Mitch won’t see me stained with my own excrement. I have to get to a bathroom or I’ll die. If I shit myself I’ll never love or be loved again.
I open the door to the master bedroom. Inside it looks like an aquarium filled with thick water, embalming fluid. Threads of dust float in the air and there’s a smell that’s stifling, itchy. Sour and sweet and rotten, tear gas, a thousand cigarettes, urine, lemons, bleach, raw meat, milk, hydrogen peroxide, blood. A smell that does not come from an empty room, from a master bedroom.
I’m about to soil my underwear, this is the only thing that gives me courage, the only reason I take another step into that smell that’s now like a living creature violently slapping me. Another step. Another. Now I’m feeling nauseated, now it smells like when there’s a dead animal on the side of the road, but I’m already tangled in the guts of that animal, inside it.
I’m dizzy. I grab onto something and that something is a table and that table has a lamp on it which falls and breaks to pieces on the floor. Then, springing up from the bed, with the speed and force of a wave, a lump knocks me to the ground. I can’t see. The light is weak, sickly. I don’t know what’s on top of me. Some shapeless, terrifying thing has fallen on top of me. It’s on my chest and I can’t move. I try to scream but no sound comes out.
It has a head, it’s a monster. Its face, with angry yellow teeth, is stuck to mine. It smells like carrion. It mutters things I don’t understand, makes animal noises, grunts, snorts, it drools on me. It paws at my neck and squeezes and I see in those red eyes that it’s going to kill me, that it hates me and I’m going to die. I’m going to die.
Please, I say inside my head, please.
Then Diana comes to the door, Diana She-Ra, He-Man’s sister, my savior, comes to the door and shouts something I can’t understand and the beast that’s strangling me raises its head toward her and lets go of me.
I start to scream, I vomit, I piss myself and empty my bowels, there, on the carpet.
The light that comes in through the open door lets me see what was on top of me, killing me. Lying on the floor, it looks like a panting pillow.
She approaches it. She doesn’t even look at me. She picks him up and I see stumps waving just below his thighs and under his left elbow. Diana tucks him in bed like some atrocious child, who in reality is an emaciated, bald man, with bulging eyes and waxy skin. His right arm, the veins of his right arm, are covered in scabs and red wounds. She rocks him and comforts him and kisses his forehead, as he cries and they both repeat over and over I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.
I stand up as best I can. Mitch is in the door, looking at me hatefully. I go out into the living room, I dial the number to my house. My dad answers. I hang up the phone.
I walk to my grandma’s house. There, I lie, I tell her I’m sick, that I couldn’t hold it, that I shit my pants at school. Yes, that’s what happened. As I shower, I cry so hard my chest hurts.
Philosophy is the last exam of our last year of high school. My mom writes an excuse for my absence so I can retake the test another day. I get the highest score. I find out that Diana won’t be graduating with us, she didn’t show up for the exam. They say she’s going back to the United States.
I call her. She doesn’t answer my calls.
I wait by the telephone. She doesn’t call.
I never hear anything else about her. Until recently. I open my Facebook page and find a message from a former high school classmate:
“Hello, I’m sorry to give you this news, but, did you know that Diana Ward was killed in an attack in Afghanistan? She and her wife were in the U.S. Army. I wanted to let you know because I remember that you were good friends. How sad, isn’t it?”
Hadiya would visit us with her mother. On sunny days, we did our homework together under the grapevine; in winter, we did it by the stove. Her books were often torn: she didn’t like books or school. I held back my anger and reasoned it didn’t mean there was anything wrong with her. She was such a beauty, white as milk, her eyes pools of honey. Her beautiful plaits were fit for a man to hang himself with, or be led to the gardens of eternity by. Beautiful girls have no need for school; they themselves are knowledge, culture, and poetry. They are the prize.
I reproached her for being careless with her books. Unlike me with my tiny pot of glue that dried out as soon as I opened it, her father had a bucket full of glue always exposed to the air. Ever since I discovered the miracle of white glue, I was drawn to her damaged books, repairing and binding them to heal their wounds. While I repaired her textbooks and notebooks, I reveled in the clean smell of the glue and the film it formed as it dried on my forefinger. I would peel it off happily, as day peeled off the skin of night.
In the neighborhood, I was known as the book repairer. Fathers sent me their copies of the Quran, and I reacquainted the leaves separated by the fingers of time. I learned how to sew the spines of the books. I even repaired the leather-hard covers of the Qurans from the mosque, although the worshipers warned me that they were endowments. Nevertheless, I kept repairing them in secret.
Hadiya and I were neighbors and we shared a long narrow alleyway, only wide enough for two people to walk, holding hands across the edges of a stone gutter—it was the only alleyway of its kind in the entire town.
Our front door faced Hadiya’s, which had a brass latch plated with a design in zinc. Along the middle of the alleyway ran an open culvert that collected the rain and made it stream over a Sakia wheel—her father was a carpenter. Hadiya liked rivers and making boats, while I liked binding books and making bird traps. In other words, she loved tearing and I loved pasting. Her paper boats were always well crafted, while mine listed, capsized, and sunk.
My mom asked Hadiya’s mother for Hadiya’s hand for me as, one winter, we clustered around the stove roasting chestnuts and smelling the aroma of roasting orange peel. Hadiya’s mother agreed, and Hadiya smiled her consent. I assured my bride that she was free to tear up her books because I’d repair them all when we got married. But something unexpected happened. As if by magic, Hadiya grew up. And treacherously behind my back, she got engaged again. Beautiful girls get engaged in a flash, plucked from the bunch like the first ripe grapes of summer.
When my mom reminded Hadiya’s mother that Hadiya was engaged to me, Hadiya’s mom disagreed, saying that I was Hadiya’s milk brother and forbidden to her. My mom argued it depended on how often the suckling took place; two feedings did not make her forbidden. But Hadiya’s mom claimed she had fed me to satiety for an entire year. If only I had stayed unfed. If only we hadn’t grown up, the little lambs hadn’t grown up. I believe that my mom lied about the number of feedings. Defeated, she knew her son, who played with marbles and chased birds with traps and worms, couldn’t outpace Hadiya in the race to grow up, even if he drank rivers of milk and honey.
I wasn’t too upset; I was still her brother. And what could be better than the striking Hadiya, who turned overnight into a mighty fine woman like her mother Hawa, being my sister? I admitted defeat. I only had two options available, a victorious lover or a defeated brother.
But Hadiya changed. All I wished for was that she would say hello back. On the narrow lane, it was as if a butterfly passed alongside when she was going to school and I was coming home—boys had school in the morning, girls in the afternoon. I would say hello and she wouldn’t respond. She just kept going as if a ghost had gone by! Perhaps I had gotten thinner and she couldn’t see me, or her fiancé ordered her to cut me. She became a butterfly, while I stayed stuck to the ground with white glue like the cover of a book. Wherever I went, I carried the glue pot. I wanted to paste clouds to the sky, street to street, north to south. The butterfly flew far away to countries where enormous boats traversed majestic rivers.
Hadiya left school, and her marriage was celebrated in a magnificent wedding ceremony that felt like a funeral. Her marriage contract was the only paper that I doubted I would restore if I found it torn. I asked my dad to open a door onto the street at the front of the house instead of onto the narrow lane that depressed me, lined as it was with the debris of sunken paper boats. In its gutter, I buried my bundle of precious memories. I became a disobedient child and deserved the Lord’s anger. I refused to visit, even during Feasts, my second mom’s house, Hadiya’s mom, who had made me replete me with poisonous feedings.
My mother tried to comfort me when I removed the film of white glue from my wounded finger. She said, “Oh, my son, son of my flesh, apple of my eye, you will grow up and repair all the books in the world. Then you will get married to one a thousand times more beautiful than her. I will bring up my grandsons and marry them to fair wives.”
I no longer saw Hadiya everywhere. I didn’t have her photo, although I wished I had kept one of her torn books. Her handwriting was messy; dots hovered like bees around the inconsistent letters. Still, I had loved it and it had intoxicated me. I used to ask her to write my name in honey on my books and on the walls. She signed them as if she were a film star, her handwriting an old master painting.
The river in our town dried up. The winds buffeted my paper ships as they lay wrecked on the shores. My wealth of hellish colored marbles got lost in the oceans. My memories stuck together with glue until they were completely erased. I had stitched together thousands of pages using the white glue. I had caught hundreds of birds and then freed them again in hope of good news, but I never found anyone more beautiful than Hadiya; my heart remained torn to pieces, its yellow pages have strewn everywhere like autumn leaves. I waited for Hadiya to repair the cover of my heart and its lost pages just like I had repaired her books and paper.
She forgot her brother who once shared her mom’s milk and the glue flowing from my mom’s breast. She also forgot her lover, who travelled with her across the seas, for them to live on desert islands and shepherd flocks of gazelles, elephants and tame dinosaurs with beaks; her lover, who, like a tobacco addict, still carried a pot of glue with him wherever he went, in an effort to bear the pains of his broken heart. With the glue of his pure-white soul that had been torn apart thousands of times, he mended thousands of books; books of love, philosophy, religion, and the world, science and poetry; books in Arabic and those translated from the languages of jinn, man and bird. Between their lines, behind the shadow of the words, under the rubble of numbers, he searched for her ghost and the scent of orange peel diffusing like perfume over the hell of longing.
He’s confused. Too shy. His sister died of leukemia when he was thirteen. He’s not over his wife yet. He’s intimidated by your sarcastic sense of humor. You’re smarter than he is and he can’t handle it. He’s lost. He doesn’t know what he wants. He’s never had a long-term relationship. He’s young. He works too hard. He’s brilliant, contemplative, needs to learn that it’s okay to be vulnerable. Immature. Terrified. He needs to grow out of his Peter Pan syndrome. But you know what? She really hurt him.
Remember when he pushed your hair out of your face and tucked it behind your ear just like in the movies? And worked hard to make the perfect tuna casserole, sweat gleaming from his forehead under your kitchen light. He admired the dew on the spider webs and knew his fauna well. That one time, he said something so funny you almost peed your pants. Remember when you studied together at the Café Gourmet and you pretended to read The Color Purple and he was so beautiful, looking down at his book, his hand resting on his cheek, writing in the crooked left-handed way of his. He admired your Bettie Page poster.
He says your name before he comes. He’s affectionate after. You both love Woody Allen films, making fun of stupid movies, sushi, Indian food. You agree you’re not sure what happens when you die, but the two of you verge on hopeful atheism. He said you are the sexiest woman he’d ever met. He did the dishes without you asking. He’s not bad in bed. If only he would read something besides Nietzsche or Jack Kerouac.
He’s in medical, dental, law, graduate school, trying to finish his dissertation on Chaucer. He can’t leave Maggie, his golden retriever, overnight. He once had major surgery. He doesn’t realize he’s homosexual. They moved around a lot when he was a kid. His mother was a bitch, cold, too protective, insane, unsteady, emotionally abusive, demanding, a martyr. His father made him play football when he didn’t want to. He’s an only child.
He taught you how to identify a deciduous tree, appreciate the artist Lempicka, comprehend Aristotelian philosophy, admire alternative country music, pick a good avocado, appreciate vintage Spiderman comic books.
His parents divorced and he still blames himself. His parents have been married for thirty-five years and he’s afraid he’ll settle for a love less bright or some shit. He’s an Orthodox Jew. He’s moving to New York in three months. He has a yet-to-be diagnosed personality disorder.
He would never hit you. He’s a feminist, a vegetarian, a fallen Catholic, a poet, a canoe-maker, a yogi. He said, You’re the smartest person I’ve ever met. He bought you a beautiful red dress and took you out to dinner and then fucked you over a chair. He knows how to talk to babies. You look prettier without make-up, he said. His life—it’s too complicated right now.
You shouldn’t have slept with him the first night. You shouldn’t have waited. You confessed too much. You didn’t tell him how you really feel. You shouldn’t have said that thing.
It’s not him; it’s you.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Aimee LaBrie from Wonderful Girl
The autumn felt more like summer than the summer had. I was wearing my blue silk dress, and I had the little Pekinese they’d given me for my birthday when I arrived at my boyfriend’s house. I remember that day clearly.
“Jealousy rules the world,” said Mrs. Yapura, thinking I didn’t want to marry Romirio out of jealousy. “My son sleeps only with the cat.”
I didn’t want to marry Romirio, or hadn’t decided whether I wanted to marry him, for other reasons. Sometimes the words people say are changed by the intonation of the voice with which they say them. It seems like I’m getting off topic, but there’s an explanation. The voice of Romirio, my boyfriend, was repulsive to me. Every word he uttered, even if said with the utmost respect for me, although he hadn’t touched so much as a toe of my foot, sounded obscene. I couldn’t love him. I felt bad about this, not so much for him as for his mother, who was generous and kind. The only negative trait she was known for was jealousy, but she was old now and had even lost that. And should we believe the rumors? People said that she had got married very young to a man who soon betrayed her with another woman. Once she began to suspect, she spent a month without sleep trying to uncover the adultery. When she did, it was like a knife wound to the heart. She didn’t say anything, but that very night, as her husband slept beside her, she threw herself at his throat and tried to strangle him. The mother of the victim came to save him; if it hadn’t been for her he would have died.
My courtship with Romirio had gone on too long. “What’s a voice,” I thought. “It’s not an insolent, groping hand, it’s not a repulsive mouth trying to kiss me, it’s not that obscene and protuberant sex I so fear, it’s nothing physical like buttocks or hot like a belly.” Nevertheless, Romirio’s voice was much more disagreeable to me than any of those things. How could I bear living alongside a man who broadcasted that voice to whoever would listen? That visceral, lewd, scatological voice. But who would dare say to their boyfriend, “Your voice displeases me, it repulses me, it scandalizes me. It’s like the word lust in the catechism of my childhood”?
Our wedding was put off indefinitely without any obvious reason.
Romirio visited me every afternoon. Rarely did I go to his dark house, because his mother, who was sick, went to bed early. But I very much liked their little garden, full of shadows, and Lamberti, Romirio’s reddish-gray cat. There was not a more timid couple in the neighborhood. We might have kissed at most once during the summer of that year. Did we hold hands? Not a chance. Embrace? Slow dancing was out of fashion. This unusual behavior sparked a suspicion that we’d never marry.
That day I took the Pekinese they’d given me to Romirio’s house. Romirio picked him up to pet him. Poor Romirio, he loved animals so much. We were sitting in the living-room as usual, when Lamberti’s fur stood on end, and with a spitting sound he ran away knocking over a flowerpot. Mrs. Yapura called me the next day crying. That night, as always, Romirio had slept with Lamberti in his bed, but in the middle of the night the cat went into a frenzy and clawed Romirio’s throat. The mother went running in when she heard his screams. She managed to pull the cat from her son’s throat and she strangled it with a belt. They say nothing is more terrible than a frenzied cat. It isn’t hard to believe. I hate them. The incident left Romirio without a voice, and the doctors that looked after him said he wouldn’t ever recover it.
“You won’t marry Romirio,” his mother said crying. “I had good reason for telling my son not to sleep with that cat!”
“I will marry him,” I responded.
From that day forward I loved Romirio.