Translated from the Italian by Scott Belluz
I got the socks he likes.
Blue, long, Scottish thread, carefully chosen after considering all the pairs on display in the men’s section, a small corner which is rarely frequented except by women choosing underwear for their husbands and children. They are faster, already know what they want or they don’t care; after all they’re only socks. But not me. When I don’t find the right ones, Marcello gets irritated, The liturgy is lacking, he says.
‘Just this?’ asks the salesgirl.
‘Did you want a bag? We only have these paper ones. They’re a bit big…’
‘No need, thanks.’
I take the receipt, walking away with the socks over my wrist like a peddler. I slip into the dressing room, lean on the stool, and with nervous gestures I tear off the cardboard sleeve, then take off my shoes and white ankle socks—Marcello loathes them. I pull on the socks I’ve just bought all the way up to my knees. The fine weave flawlessly envelops my calves. I tug on them a bit, letting the elastic snap against my skin. Perfect. The small hotel Marcello has chosen is hidden in an old corner building. No sign. I recognise it by the name on the intercom: Hotel Piper. A blonde woman pops her head out of a balcony on the third floor where the rooms are. Her eyes widen.
‘Hello. May I help you?’ she asks professionally.
‘A double for a pit stop, if possible.’ The formula always works. Still, I grit my teeth.
‘How many hours?’
‘No more than two, I should think.’
‘Number 24,’ she says holding out the keys.
The hallway carpet is clean but still releases a stale odour.
I message Marcello, I’m here. The room is in good condition, no damp spots or squalid wallpaper. There’s a closet with a mirror—he’ll like that—a stool and a small desk. There’s nothing transgressive about our encounters now, they’re very predictable. He talks about the ritual of it, but to me it just seems like a waste of time: indulging someone else’s tastes instead of my own. He can’t name his obsessions so he shrouds them with tricks. Don’t call it a fetish, that’s offensive. Take off everything except you know what, I read on my cellphone. I pull down the blinds and turn on the bedside lamp. I undress in the halo of light cast across the bed, careful not to displace the socks when I pull off my pants. I touch them, they’re warm. Marcello’s not a guy who likes used underwear, old shoes or bare feet. He’s a perfectionist, or maybe just a hypocrite. I count to ten: if he doesn’t come, I’ll get dressed and go. But then I can hear his footsteps coming down the hallway. They stop outside the door. I, too, stop and wait, one foot rubbing the bed absently like the tail of a feline.
He drops me off halfway. His daughter has rehearsals for the end-of-year school play and it’s not far from here to the motorway.
‘That was nice,’ Marcello blurts out as I get out of his car. The time when our already messed-up lives were governed by respect is long over. Everything used to be a continuous apology; I was willing to comply with any new request and he never dumped the frustrations of his life onto me. We let it all out in our clandestine meetings. But for some time now, Marcello hasn’t held back and has even let his wife’s name slip a couple of times.
Disclosure is disrespectful, I say to myself as I cross via Salvator Rosa. It’s hell here in the afternoon, like some parody of a capital city in South-East Asia: scooters darting like fish, Ape cars, burning-hot buses; a bedlam of smog, shouts, and engines. I cut off a scooter and land on the sidewalk with a wooden jump. At least my apartment is on the top floor of a dead-end street and has double-glazed windows. City life is divided between the hellish streets and the refuge of my room. I don’t bring dirt in from outside, if anything I get rid of it immediately in the entrance; then Marianna does the laundry.
She came in this afternoon actually. After two days of holidays, there was a mountain of things to iron. She came into the kitchen wielding the board and drove me and the kids into the living room. And even after looking around in here, they still wore the dejected expression that all high-school students forced into private lessons have. They have to translate ten sentences from Latin into Italian. We’re still on the second one. Puffs of steam come from the kitchen. Marianna is ironing the last of the shirts, then she’ll take them into my father’s room and hang them among the smell of utmost intimacy in his closet. We hired her a few months ago. She’s tall, blonde, Macedonian. Stern-faced, you’d never guess she goes around cleaning houses. As a maid, she’s perfect. She comes twice a week to tidy-up, air things out and, you know, to keep me and my father from suffocating to death in garbage and dust. But I’m not at all convinced by her absolute discretion which, combined with her efficient work, actually fuels all kinds of suspicions in me. I often find myself imagining a big scene, maybe I’ll discover that she’s stolen something and can finally kick her out. This is nonsense but since my father has taken to driving her home in the evening, I can’t repress the most obvious speculation: one’s a widow, the other a spinster; it’s not hard to imagine that something might blossom between them during these car journeys. He can do whatever he wants, I tell myself, even if the irritating transition from the formal to the informal ‘You’ was unjustified; but I won’t allow it with Marianna. It’s already too much that she’s putting my dirty underwear in the washing machine. Meanwhile, the kids are flipping skeptically through the pages of the dictionary, iPhones vibrating nonstop.
Marianna emerges from the kitchen with a bunch of shirts on her index finger. My new socks are in the palm of her hand, folded and tucked one inside the other.
‘I’ll be right back, guys. Hurry up, there’s only twenty minutes left and you’re only halfway there.’
I get up and with the kind of confident swagger that I can only indulge in my own house, and plant myself in front of Marianna.
‘Excuse me,’ I say scolding her, ‘those are not the doctor’s socks. If you don’t mind.’ I make my way into the room.
I open the drawer and pull out my pair of socks. I show them to her, waving them in front of her face. Turning my back to her, I go and put them in my drawer.
I’m thirty years old and, without a euro in sight, I’m left to wander around the city giving Latin lessons in people’s homes. I work at the university, but only as a meaningless research assistant, so for the moment a stipend is out of the question. A wart has formed under my toe on account of all this walking back and forth on Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The podiatrist said it will take a month of treatment to get rid of it. Marcello’s car is waiting for me a stone’s throw from the clinic. He’s poorly parked, as if ready to escape an armed robbery.
‘My wife found one of your messages. She thinks I’ve got another woman,’ he says as a greeting.
‘So, tell her she’s wrong. Which is actually the truth.’
Marcello hesitates, hands on the steering wheel. They’re smooth and beautiful, like the wedding band on his ring finger.
‘Where are we going?’
‘To my work. There’s no one there now. It’s probably best to avoid hotels from now on.’
Marcello’s office is on the top floor of a majestic palazzo in the old town. On the way up the stairs, we pass health centres, cultural associations, private dwellings and offices. His is stuffy. The large windows—from this height you can probably see the whole city—are locked. The neon light doesn’t help. There is great attention to detail: the armchairs, the lamp and the bookcase look like expensive design pieces. Meanwhile, Marcello frees up space on the desk, placing folders and files on the floor. He could have at least passionately swept them away.
‘I don’t like it here,’ I say, looking around. Marcello comes up behind me. He takes off my jacket and sits me on a chair as if I were a marionette. He starts undoing my shoe. He’s already stopped looking me in the eye.
I pull my foot away.
‘Wait,’ I say.
‘What is it?’
‘You probably shouldn’t.’
He’s not used to being interrupted. Astonishment turns into annoyance.
‘My right toe is bandaged. It’s best not to move it.’
Marcello lifts the foot up, as if weighing it. He wants to evaluate the defective joint.
He doesn’t ask what’s wrong, doesn’t want to ruin the fantasy. He lets the foot drop and stands.
‘You could have told me before,’ he grumbles. He turns away to tidy the papers he’d scattered around.
‘Perhaps its better if we don’t see each other again until you’re better.’
Empty rooms have always made me feel dizzy. Can a person grow weary of me just because of a wart? I wouldn’t be surprised. But I don’t like being treated like a whore, and now that I perceive the completely marginal role I play in his life, I feel an abyss opening beneath my feet, as if I’m invisible to myself and others, so I swiftly cling to his ankle, obediently loosening the laces of his bespoke shoes.
I have to wrap a plastic bag around my foot when I take a shower. It’s annoying but I’m getting used to it. My father wants to have a look at it. He laughs when I tell him about the podiatrist. ‘They used to be called chiropodists, had barely finished the third grade.’ He handily removes the dressing, skeptical. I don’t object: I’ve come to trust his opinion over others’.
‘Yes, it’s a big one,’ he comments, addressing my foot.
‘How did I get infected?’ I ask, curious.
‘They’re of viral origin. Showers, changing rooms, pools… it depends where you hang out.’
Allusiveness is about all he can manage with me. Otherwise, he treats me like one of his peers, a drinking buddy, never a moment of intimacy—not even to check whether the first hairs had sprouted under my armpits at the age of 12. One summer, two years ago, I was admitted to the hospital. I’d been losing weight, often vomiting, and had an inextinguishable fever. A few tests sufficed: hepatitis A. I stayed in the hospital for a week. My father hadn’t practiced there for years but he was still well-known enough to get me a single room with a window. When he came to visit, he never looked at me. He made sure the room was in order and complained to the nurses as if it were his clinic. He’d examine my drip, then give me a quick nod before leaving. There had been an enthusiastic resident looking after me. He had a solicitousness that eluded the other doctors, along with the intentions of a man who wants to change things. He’d come in and out of my room as he pleased. And that’s how he met my father.
‘We’ll get him back to you in two days,’ he explained.
The Chief of Staff showed up then, greeting my father affectionately. They spoke softly, a casual yet concentrated chat between specialists.
‘We’re dealing with a widespread outbreak. It seems to have originated from a festival… in Belgium,’ the resident said.
The Chief of Staff took a step back. My father looked amusedly at the resident, then at me as if seeking support for his own theory: ‘Didn’t Germano tell you he ate some bad seafood?’
My father and I are never home. He stays late at his surgery while I spend my days at the library. I decided to devote myself ungrudgingly to Professor Perotti’s national conference and so my time is spent scanning through boring annotations in order to complete the critical edition of a text by a Neapolitan Petrarchist who is the great pride of our department. Paying one’s dues is crucial, my father reiterates. Meanwhile, all my friends have euphorically crossed the Alps for their research, and are getting married and having kids, while I’m here waiting on library employees who fan themselves with my loan forms. I give them the evil eye. In the Royal Palace, freshmen, researchers and even some employees parade flippantly, exchanging impetuous glances as though music from a grand ball still echoes through the rooms here. When exiting, the royal gardens are the perfect epilogue for those who can no longer keep up the chase. This is how I met Marcello. We locked eyes under the palace portico. I saw his wedding ring immediately yet he persisted, leaving no room for doubt. When I took the path between the flower beds, the hunt began: I walked away furtively searching while he caught up and maintained an appropriate distance. We remained in the shadowy gardens, neither of us opting to get lost in the crowded square beyond the gates. Under the bronze horses I surrendered first, turning around to greet him. He asked me if I wanted a coffee as the sludge from the machine was disgusting. He offered, he was kind and cheeky: ‘Just because I’m married it doesn’t mean I have to act like a nutjob,’ he explained, ‘I have a wife and a daughter. By the time I came to think about men, it was too late.’ He was very clear. We signed a kind of contract.
Women, he told me, had already trapped him by the age of eleven and it was only much later, while travelling alone, that he found the courage to enter a bar.
‘Does your wife know?’
‘It’s none of her business. It’s personal.’
‘Where were you?’ I ask my father.
‘I took Marianna home.’
‘Why? It’s not even raining.’
‘I met her on the street, I was in the car. It doesn’t take long to get to Ponti Rossi. You’re not eating?’
I shake my head. He turns on the dishwasher. He opens the cabinet and pulls out a bottle of homemade cherry liquor. He brings a glass to the armchair where I’m re-reading a student’s thesis for the professor and plants himself in front of me.
‘How’s your foot?’
‘Good, it’s responding to treatment. The wart came out of its skin and the podiatrist is now gradually shaving it off.’
I’m about to give in to the spark of filial love kindled by my father’s concern for my health, when he begins: ‘Germa, I have to tell you something.’
He looks me right in the eye, no hesitation. The last time he spoke to me like this was to tell me about my mother.
‘Sometimes when I leave the surgery, I entertain myself at the bar with a lady. We drink a coffee, sometimes prosecco.’ He swallows his last sip of liquor.
‘I wanted to tell you myself because I didn’t want you to hear it some other way.’
He pats me on the knee as if to say, well, that’s done, and walks off.
I stay in that chair all night, staring at the walls. When I fall asleep, I dream that I’m swimming backstroke for hours, eyes fixed on the sky’s enormous vault. Like a condemned man, I swim tirelessly, propelled only by my fear of seeing the bottom.
The podiatrist determines that the wart has now disappeared. No more dressings or scent of antiseptic. I write Marcello immediately: No office. Come to me. Marcello enters the apartment circumspectly, like a real estate agent writing up an estimate. He’s amazed at the cleanliness of the place. He browses the books in my room. He wants to see all the foolish and costly critical editions. Meanwhile, I remove my shoes and lie on the bed.
‘Your room looks austere,’ he comments, flattening one of my book’s pages. ‘It looks like my office. Zero personality.’
‘At least there’s a bed here,’ I point out. Then I stretch my legs, hook them around his, and pull him towards me.
Marcello laughs but pulls back.
‘Where’s the loo?’
‘The room next door.’
It’s the first time I’ve brought someone home; there’s an intimacy I’ve never known in a hotel room. I hope he notices. I’m still in bed when I hear someone shuffling slowly down the hall. I pull myself up, listening. Someone knocks on the bathroom door. ‘May I?’ Marianna’s nasal voice asks. The bathroom door opens and Marcello comes out. He’s loosened his tie, there’s fear in his eyes. He immediately tries to rectify things: ‘Excuse me. I didn’t mean to disturb you, but your son can be persistent.’
‘She’s not my mother.’ I chime in from the doorway. ‘She’s the cleaning lady.’
They both look at me.
‘Pardon me,’ Marcello pulls back, though he’s no longer afraid. Marianna enters the bathroom and sets down her broom and rags. I stand there feeling a sense of omnipotence. Marcello, hiding in the corner, looks at me inquisitively.
‘What do we do?’ he whispers. He seems amused.
‘We wait,’ I signal with my hand.
Marianna exits the bathroom, takes her umbrella and leaves without saying goodbye.
Sometimes I feel like she’s playing along. When she sees me hanging around the house after lunch, she knows it’s because I’m waiting for Marcello. Then she approaches, and like a herald she announces: ‘Your father won’t be back before six.’ She walks out of the bathroom at six on the dot; her new coat and earrings completely cloaking the odour of bleach she carries around, and she leaves. Sometimes my father goes out of town for a few days. Marianna doesn’t come when he’s gone, or has already rearranged her shifts. I don’t complain: I have the house all to myself.
Can you make it by five? No one’s here.
Ever since I suggested that we use my room, Marcello and I have found a certain equilibrium. We linger in bed talking: sometimes he falls asleep against my legs for a few minutes. When I see how relaxed his facial features are, like a child’s, I’m surprised by a moment of clarity: he and I, despite everything, are not meant to be together.
Trouble with Eleonora.
He has a wife and a daughter, and I make no demands: it’s not in my nature. I am merely the counterpoint of a series of bad decisions. But even when I step aside, I can’t deny that our relationship feels real.
Come over to my place.
Let’s say at 4:00?
Are you coming?
Marcello comes over all right, and with clear ideas. He winks at me like I’m his nephew. I try to draw him into my room; immediately I lift up my pants to show him the socks, but he says no. He has come to tell me in person. It’s better if we don’t see each other anymore. There are days when I can’t breathe. Work, Eleonora, the child. It was nice, I had fun, but I’m married, he solemnly repeats.
‘Yes, but you can’t deny my existence.’
‘No, I told you. I had fun. Maybe we’ll catch up later.’
Just then Marianna emerges from a corner of the living room, carrying some ironed shirts.
Marcello opens the door and leaves. ‘Goodbye, Ma’am.’ He smiles as if nothing has happened.
I close the door and buckle against the wall, my throat closing, a lump in my chest. Marianna just stands there watching me. Then hanging the shirts on the doorknob, she reaches her arm towards my shoulder.
If he has something to tell me, my father prefers to do it at the most unthinkable moments.
We’re in the elevator when he says: ‘That friend of yours, he’s not coming over anymore?’
I ensconce myself in a corner of the narrow lift.
‘It’s a shame. No one comes to our house anymore. If it weren’t for Marianna…’
We reach the ground floor. I extend my arm towards the door but don’t open it. We remain immobile for a few seconds. In this position, my father barely reaches my shoulder. He’s lost more hair from the centre of his head.
‘And what would you know about it?’ I ask.
He places his hand on my wrist. Looking me straight in the eye, he says: ‘Germa, it’s true that you and I have made different choices, but I’ve never considered you foolish.’ At sixty-nine years old, my father still boasts a cunning and unshakable certainty which is, apparently, a genetic trait. I want to ask him if being smarter than everyone else makes him feel useful, but instead I say: ‘Have a good day.’
‘Can I give you a lift?’ he tries again. But I’m not fooled. What will he tell me next? That he wants to marry the woman?
‘No, I need some air.’
I enter the university with great strides, jacket over my arm, my hand a visor against the blinding light, overwhelmed by some new euphoria, as if I’ve completed a space journey, light-years away from my life’s most recent episodes. The conference begins today. Over three days, thirteen experts will dust off their speeches on the philology of printed texts, whereas I have been allotted a mere ten minutes in the late afternoon where I’ll speak to an empty lecture hall. There are other researchers attending the conference like me. I know them by their linen jackets, their casual beards and their obedient gaze as if waiting for a new research grant. Among these, a friendly face. We exchange a quick, knowing glance across the lecture hall, though we haven’t yet met in person. The first speech has started. We all sit down. As soon as I can, I look to my right and he smiles eagerly. I jump up at the first coffee break. He’s already sitting on the balcony rolling a cigarette. His pant legs are hitched up. He’s wearing ankle socks, just like me.