As the days went by, in addition to normal quarantine activities—figuring out how a Zoom meeting works or making appeals to benefit hospitals—I realized that faced with constant news updates on the virus I was beginning to think about things that could not be said. That it would not have been appropriate to say and that would not have found willing ears to listen to them. They weren’t simply opinions regarding the pandemic, but more personal (and at the same time more universal) reflections, wisps of fantasies, sexual drivel. I was aware that anything that might deviate, even just slightly, from the rhetoric of #shelterinplace or similar hashtags would be considered inadmissible, and even rightly so: the tragedy taking place, the horrific number of daily deaths, the specter of a recession at the gates was too grave. So where to express my off center, incorrect, in some ways frightening thoughts? Neither in traditional newspapers—which would have mistaken them for provocation—nor on social networks—where they would have seemed like the neuroses of a recluse. When there is no room to hold the things you think about, well then only one place occurs to you: a space as narrow and immense as certain daring works of Escher, a salvific space, the realm of paradox and experimentation: literature.
The Black Hole Between Us
Luca Ricci, Il nero abisso esistente tra noi – © 2020 La nave di Teseo
Published in agreement with MalaTesta Lit. Ag. Milan
Translation © 2020 Anne Milano Appel
We must love, love madly, without seeing what we love.
Because to see is to know, and to know is to despise.
—Guy de Maupassant*
The virus is besieging the city, but I’ve become attractive.
I spend a lot of time in front of the mirror, contemplating myself wearing the mask. I raise it and lower it, too. To see the difference. If I lower it, my face presents a sight that is all too familiar to me; if I raise it, instead, everything becomes perfect, the scarred part of me is concealed, and only the eyes remain, glacial and still. With the mask covering my face, I’m just a man with blue eyes. And long, flowing ash-blond hair. A man who stands out among other men, who is noticed, has an impact, makes an impression. Thanks to my coloring, the tones so well matched. The best combinations are the most representative, those able to designate archaic types, engraved in everyone’s minds. The Latin type, dark, and the Nordic type, fair. I’m a predictable exemplar of the second type, and that’s why I’m memorable. As a child it was me people more-willingly hugged or gave candy to, and I knew it. Blond, blue eyes, fair complexion, cheeks faintly rosy, as if lightly touched by a paintbrush. You can’t resist a little boy like that and, later on, you can’t help but want a man like that. Now I leave the house and go out much more often than before, despite the government restrictions. I’ve never even printed one self-certification form, who feels like it? Anyhow pharmacies and supermarkets are always open, they’re my excuse to walk around and see the effect I have on the rare passers-by I encounter. I always come across someone running or walking the dog, who—like me—pretends to be going to the pharmacy or the supermarket. Life goes on, all the more so if it’s threatened by death as it is these days. It’s natural to expect it to have such a contrary reaction to death, so the carabinieri on patrol shouldn’t be surprised to see the people who come trickling out one by one claim excuses just to be able to move about. It’s life that through them—through us—is claiming the right to fight and, possibly, win. We all root for life, and though of course the restrictions are also aimed at safeguarding it, preventing the contagion from spreading, those who venture to go out are actually supporting life in a way that is indisputably more instinctive and at the same time profound. After all, we don’t subscribe to life in the abstract, but concretely; life is not an ideology, but a practice. Life is the quicksilver we have in our bodies, it’s the irresistible call that at times can cause us to die, especially if the city is besieged by a virus.
In any case I’m a good-looking man and my attractiveness is heightened by the circumstance of being at ease. Before, I needed an excuse to cover my face. Even in winter, when I could always put a scarf in front of my mouth and arouse as little suspicion as possible, I never felt equal to other people. Now, however, the masks have become a means of mandatory protection, and anyone who goes out without wearing one is frowned upon, considered an irresponsible egotist or an insensitive lunatic. So I enjoy this new confidence of mine, which is psychological even more than aesthetic; covering up has become normal, not covering up aberrant. You don’t have to justify yourself because you cover your face, on the contrary you have to do so if you don’t cover it. It’s perfect for me. I have only one complaint: not being able to pause and savor the now extremely positive, available reactions of the women I meet. There are no cafés, buses or trains where I can sit a while to relish them. They’re passing impressions, I know, looks cast and quickly turned away, so they vanish even before they’re glimpsed; their swiftness exasperates me. A woman and I are walking toward one another, we’re both tired, anxious, stiff-jointed from this period of quarantine, these house arrests imposed without any explicit wrong-doing, yet a glimmer of interest takes hold of us. As we proceed towards each other, we straighten our heads, we try for a more lively pace, and we also improve our expressions, although a considerable part of the face is concealed. And finally the encounter occurs, with the correct social distancing that is somewhat forced, a watered-down version, fewer steps that tend to bring us closer, and in that precise moment something happens in the eyes, an interest exposed by the pupil and the iris and the eyelashes, an ocular physiology quite exact in admitting “Yes, I’d find you desirable,” but by then we must already leave one another, each going our own way, relentlessly walking in opposite directions, each step widening the distance; there is an opposite course to keep to, and I am left with the promise of those eyes in my head, and I can’t let it go, at least not until I meet another woman who looks at me the same way. But everything is closed, you can’t really hope for some place to relax, and even the outdoor spaces remain forsaken, deserted, with negligible human concentrations, the piazzas, the parks, which I come to from time to time and force myself to walk through, all abandoned, the row of benches empty, proper still-lifes. I make do on my own, finding satisfaction in female confirmations as swift as they are volatile. We are terrified, the health authorities’ guidelines designate one and a half meters as the safe distance to maintain between one person and another, with no exception, not even that of desire or, much more influential in my case, of regaining social legitimacy. Zilch. The virus made me attractive again but, just as effectively, prevents me from fully enjoying the consequences of my good looks. I’m tall, still fit, I have an above-average physique. I have the type of body that women, responding to biology and arousal, would immediately desire in a male, only to then betray or sacrifice that first legitimate impulse in the name of things that are at best questionable, such as dependability, fondness, economic well-being.
I had only one steady girlfriend before the accident, and she was happy with me. I think she was happy. She told me that I was her beautiful “Nazi,” and although I was never the accommodating type, that is, the kind who always goes all-out to put the other person first, I doggedly monitored her degree of contentment while we were together. I checked the number of her smiles, how often and how she sought physical contact, how and when she phoned me and we saw each other. I didn’t disappoint her in bed, we already knew all the tricks, both she and I, even though we were still minors. I don’t know how she knew them, but even back then I thought that girls were more clued-in than boys; I had learned mine from some porno magazine. I’m virile, that’s the truth, what more can I say? At some point, after being understanding and accepting, generous and receptive, a man has to fill up all the holes, plug them up, and do it well. But after the accident that was no longer enough, clearly. Measurements are of no use if you aren’t loved by anyone, if no one loves you anymore, if your chances of making a woman fall for you are blown away, reduced to zero.
She turns once, then a second time, then a third. This time we’re walking in the same direction, me and this woman, me just behind her. As soon as she can she turns to look at me, I don’t think she wants to be obvious even if it’s completely unnatural for her to turn around and look behind her. Who would she be turning to look at except the man walking right behind her, a few steps away? Is she checking to see if I’m following her? It would seem so. I can’t say when this game of cat and mouse started. I didn’t even really notice when the woman and I ended up on the same sidewalk, though she was farther ahead and I farther back. Strange because at this time there is a neurotic awareness of other human beings, due to having to keep them at a distance: you eye each other warily, you monitor one another, you avoid each other. Distracted walks, the dreamy wandering of the flâneur, are no longer within anyone’s reach. The fourth time she turns her head, I smile at the woman. I think I smiled at her. Clearly my mouth is covered by the mask, fortunately, but I hope she could tell from my eyes, that she was somehow able to discern the smile from the visible part of my face. She too is wearing a mask. I have one that is classified FFP3 with a valve, the kind that is used to avoid being infected; hers instead is a surgical mask, the kind that serve to prevent infecting others. By now we know all about the masks; the media, whatever the vehicles, have duly indoctrinated us, and from their careful analysis I would be considered the selfish type, she instead the altruist. I like the idea, it practically excites me. Anyway, I too am trying to figure out if the woman is smiling at me under the mask or not, if she’s winking at me or not, but I don’t much get it. I can only note that she turns again just a few moments later, for the fifth time, and it seems pointed to me. I turn around as well to check that there is no one else behind me, but as I thought, there’s only me. The streets are not exactly bustling, “nature is reclaiming its spaces,” they say on social media, posting video clips of families of wild boars or ducks cheerfully crossing the street in the pedestrian zones instead of us. The only thing I see is that the street is scattered with luxuriant linden trees, lush with excessive greenery, and that the unpruned branches have reached out towards the windows of the Umbertine style buildings.
Could it be the woman wants me to follow her? It’s a delicious uncertainty that came over me as I tried to observe the way she walked. She might be trying to outdistance me, she might be turning around to let me know I’m bothering her. But no, she isn’t walking too slow or too fast, she’s maintaining just the right pace to let herself be followed. Yes, it looks like she’s guiding me somewhere. Without openly declaring it, she is leading the way to a place she already has in mind, that only she knows. We continue walking a few minutes more, then she stops in front of a door, enters a code on the metal panel (still neither too slow nor too fast), the automatic opener is activated, she goes in. She knows I saw the whole scene because I’m right behind her, and I’m on my way with no rush, taking my time. Now it’s simple, it doesn’t get any simpler. If she wants it, she’ll be waiting in the shadowy coolness of the vestibule, but if she doesn’t want it, I’ll see a deserted stairwell out of the corner of my eye. I take the last steps before turning my head to the left, in the direction of the massive wooden door whose mechanical arm has just begun its reverse path with an ominous groan.
The woman is there, leaning against the wall, her arms behind her back. She’s waiting for me, and has assumed a position of fearful anticipation, as if she were already punishing herself for taking that risk. I slip inside, there’s no one else but us. I approach and our eyes finally look into one another. This moment is important to me. It’s the best moment I can give to a woman, I am aware of it: now her heart will start pounding, now she’ll think that all in all it was worth it. My blue eyes are not afraid of darkness, they stand out. I can see the woman better, too, now that I’ve got her right in front of me. She too is attractive, as I had already guessed, tall, slender, with one of those figures that are killers on Instagram. She has brown hair, with auburn highlights, a long, thick tangle that matches her brown eyes, now half-closed, yearning for me to take the initiative, whatever it may be. Quarantine is hard for everyone, it replaces normal libido with a sharper, more daring frenzy, frustrated and aroused at the same time by abstinence, illicitness, and impossibility. I’m taking this throbbing woman, because we both want the same thing, and the virus suddenly becomes a perverse flame rather than a deterrent, as though we were playing Russian roulette. As soon as I press her to me, she moves away only to drag me to the first floor landing.
“They’re all law offices,” she gasps from under the mask, breathing hard. I don’t give her time to take it off, I trade all the kisses she would have liked to give me for a powerful, satisfying fuck on our feet. I tug the tight jeans down to her knees; as soon as she spreads her legs a little the skimpy panties are already stretched aside. Seconds after her orgasm, I’m already at the door.
The second time is the same as the first, we do it again on the first floor landing of that building. I suppose she lives there or works there, otherwise how would she know the access codes? I don’t really care, I want to pleasure her and make her think that I could be the man of her dreams, I want to hear that she’s in love and I want her to love me, I want her to go so far as to think that this pandemic has been a blessing, the tragic event thanks to which she met the love of her life. After all, why should it go any differently? Again I pull her pants down around her ankles, I barely shove aside the panties. I like that she dresses in a totally ordinary way, like a woman who doesn’t want to allow for any kind of ambiguity, who if anything in fact wants to give the opposite impression, of being indifferent to and above sex. Her clothes are not those of a temptress, and in this fiction all her eroticism explodes. She’s got a wedding band on her finger. When she goes out she wants to reassure her husband, she wants him to know that yes, she needs to get away for a while, but for harmless activities. The chasm between what something seems and what it is can be immeasurable. There’s no one who knows that better than I do.
After she comes, even before her moan of pleasure is swallowed up by the stairwell, maybe because, for one thing, she’s afraid I’ll run off like the other time, the woman asks me to exchange phone numbers.
“That way it will be a lot easier,” she says.
Can you blame her? To find her again I had to spend two days walking and making the rounds.
“Sure, but don’t expect me to take you out to dinner, or to a spa, or to the movies,” I say, laughing.
“Current government decrees don’t allow us recreational activities,” she jokes in a serious voice.
I let her think that’s the case. The pandemic can also be a giant fig leaf to justify any act. Even hiding the truth, which is that I can’t take her out to dinner, or to a spa, or to the movies. That afterwards, if I really did take her, she wouldn’t like it, she’d be frightened, she’d feel revulsion and pity.
I go down the stairs wondering if she’ll start texting me right away, or if she’ll really see the phone as a functional means to arrange meetings, a way to facilitate rather than escalate the relationship. Down in the street, just past the third linden tree, the first message arrives. She’d like to write to me, write to me constantly, but I demur, sometimes I answer and sometimes I don’t, I space out my messages the way people practice distancing out there. And I become obscure about her requests to talk about myself, I only tell what little there is to know, and all in all I’m not lying. I live alone, I’m fortunate enough to be able to work from home. Despite my disinclination, however, she opens up quite a bit, she obviously has a need to. To begin with I find out her name: Luisa. She lives in that building, she’s been married for twelve years and she’s the mother of a nine-year-old son; at the moment they’re all at home, and she calls those walks on which we casually met her walks of “desperation.” I can’t blame her, no kidding. Maybe I don’t kid around much in general. I notice that every now and then during our chats she throws me a hook, to crack a joke or share a funny little incident, but I almost never take the bait. I can’t joke about things, and the reason is rooted in the past. It’s the disfigurement of my mouth that took everything away from me, little by little, loves and friendships; and now by a stroke of luck I can persist in keeping it covered with a mask. I don’t joke because it can’t last between me and this woman. It’s obvious. To maintain its attraction, brutality requires a certain degree of romanticism. After how many fucks on the landing will she ask me for a kiss? And after how many refused kisses will she rip the mask off my face and uncover my deceit? A man who thinks he’s wise but is actually just naive would tell himself “Let her get to know you and she’ll see you for who you really are.” No way, it’s a strategy that I’ve already followed and it only works in Disney films.
In the end I agree to take a walk together, always ready to distance ourselves if a squad car or a carabinieri unit were to appear. After all it’s still spring in Rome, a perennial incitement to live. We meet in Piazza Cavour, me with my selfish FFP3 mask, Luisa with her altruistic blue cloth one. It feels strange to walk side by side rather than one behind the other, and not being able to fuck her right away, not being able to silence all those voices in my head, makes me even more edgy.
“And so we did it,” she says.
“What excuse did you make up?”
“Nothing, they know I need my desperation walks.”
Not having a destination makes me nervous, because it highlights the fact that the purpose of this meeting is us, so I suggest she come with me to the pharmacy.
“What do you need?”
I realize that I’ve done a stupid thing by bringing up the subject, it’s just what she was waiting for.
“You know I’ve never seen you with your face uncovered?” she asks.
I have no idea what to say to that, so I decide the best thing is to just not answer, to keep walking, hoping the question will recede step after step. Since I don’t utter a word, it’s she who again revives the conversation. She confides to me that her son told all his friends that his paternal grandfather died from the virus, when instead he suffered an ordinary heart attack.
“Can you imagine?” she says, astonished.
“He was bragging.”
“But it’s monstrous, bragging about what?”
“He’s looking for notoriety.”
“Are you pulling my leg?”
“No, I’m not pulling your leg. What has he usually been doing since the quarantine started?”
“He puts on his magic shows in his room. He prepares them and then he charges us for admission.”
“See? I bet if he had the chance, he’d start uploading some shows to YouTube.”
“He’s a child, he absorbs the mood of the times, like a sponge.”
I try to clarify the concept. For me this virus has become a kind of Diva, the acclaim has gone to its head. Everyone talks about it twenty-four hours a day, and the public health department even airs a daily news briefing in its honor. Luisa laughs, she thinks I was trying to be funny, but instead I’m dead serious. Her son’s behavior would confirm that. It wasn’t simply bragging, but the desire to be part of a grand performance, to be part of the show, even if in the most unfortunate role, that of the victim’s grandson. To be in amongst the virologists, the epidemiologists who appear on the TV talk shows every night and go at each other’s throat; and also amongst the doctors and nurses, our new heroes on the “front line,” as the newspapers hasten to remind us every blessed day.
We arrive at the nearest pharmacy where you enter one at a time, so I go in alone. I actually buy a five-pack of FFP3 masks and some hand sanitizer gel. We go back realizing that it’s gotten late, there won’t be time for our quickie, which means that our relationship has changed, it’s normalizing. This thought makes me sad and the sadness makes me stiff. I can only manage to stammer a few words, it’s like pulling teeth for Luisa to drag them out of me. Luckily she talks enough for two, she does it spontaneously, it comes naturally to her. And this tendency combined with her enthusiasm keeps her from seeing our ill-fated asymmetry.
That same evening, after putting her husband and young son to bed, I imagine, she hurries to write to me, and the chat immediately takes an erotic, morbid turn, consisting of confidences that, as usual, are one way. Luisa talks and I read her words, occasionally intervening or commenting passively. She tells me that my description of the virus as a Diva made a strong impression on her. She starts writing me a rather concocted fantasy, mixing it with pieces of her life. She feels a kind of attraction to the virus, it’s as if she were inexplicably seduced by it. She thinks of contagion as something devastating, like a kind of sexual violence. And she’s convinced that the sex between us was consumed in the heat of running the risk of transmitting the virus. Although highly unlikely, at least according to regional statistics, the idea that one of us two can infect the other excites her like mad. I reflect that there is no difference between her and her son, between what she fantasizes about and what her son does. But I don’t write that to her, I keep the observation to myself. Naturally, I’m amazed that she doesn’t realize it on her own, but in the end this analytical inability of hers, the narrow vision she displays on certain issues regarding her conscience, fills me with tenderness.
Is Luisa falling in love? I’d say so, unquestionably. And once I’ve determined that, I make up my mind not to see her again, that it’s time to end it. Making her fall in love was the maximum point I could achieve, I’m well aware of it, I can’t take it any further.
I’ve retreated into my insensitivity, the result of long practice, lengthy conditioning. I haven’t answered Luisa’s messages for days. I see them stream by frantically on the screen, I read them but I leave them unanswered. What can you say about a man who behaves this way? That he must have his reasons, good or bad; human actions are basically simple enough to interpret, they are based on binary decisions. In the end, fed up with her constant demands for explanations, I scribble a poem and text it to her.
Kisses are not infinitely vast
and lovers know it, disenchanted,
they are always granted
as though in a tempest
that no, does not rest,
until it dries up, sated,
nostalgia for the thunder, fated,
does not last.
It’s cruel, I know, because we never kissed. On the other hand, the kiss, the mouth, are the Pillars of Hercules of my relationships, the limit beyond which one cannot go, the unattainable aspiration. Over time I have learned to despise kisses. I disparage them, since I can’t give any. But maybe I wouldn’t give them even if I could, not any more. A kiss is the ultimate sign of love, but in some ways it’s humping. Forget the romance and also the dopamine, focus on the mechanical action, the lips adhere, press together, until they begin to shove their way in. These are humps, more or less graceful, gentle, or explosive. Once you have really understood it, it’s impossible to return to the earlier idea of the kiss as a pledge, inspiration, ascension. Close your eyes, sigh, think of moonlight, try them all, resort to any stratagem you like, but it’s humping, you are only responding to an ancient urge that reminds you of a simple and terrible thing: we are beasts disguised as men. Every kiss is a genteel aggression, a timid equivocation, a sweet violence. And it will all get worse, I know that all too well.
The shrieking of swallows and ambulance sirens marks the hours. On TV, a group of VIPs is invited to discuss the pandemic.
A gentleman with a face like a turtle and wearing a waistcoat says: “Being solitary doesn’t necessarily mean being isolated. Our homes, like Leopardi’s famous hedge, can be the limitation that allows us to rediscover the knack of imagination. Remember the childhood days spent in your room daydreaming? Daydreaming is almost more important than dreaming with our eyes closed, precisely because it trains our imagination: the ability to reshuffle reality in the most unexpected or creative ways, to arrive at new discoveries about ourselves.” Another, sporting a Moroccan shirt, nods ostentatiously and interjects: “My life changed very little after the restrictions dictated by the virus: I stayed home even before, and I saw very few people. To normal people, those with an expanded social life, I can say that I have always and only experienced true loneliness in groups.” The one who looks like a little girl, with a pair of red-framed glasses, speaks up: “We are used to bridging physical distance with virtuality, but being on social media is like being in a crowd, and the crowd, Baudelaire once said, risks destroying individuality. So my advice is to choose a more intimate, elite circle for sharing a post or a tweet or photo. For example, there’s nothing that can bridge the distance as much as reading the same book with someone who is far away.” Finally, a provocative woman intervenes: “The new distances upset the yields deriving from our existential position, as in the film Dead Poets Society when the professor has his students take turns standing on his desk to look at the world—the class, the blackboard, the desks, the chairs, the wastebasket—from that unfamiliar perspective. In these quarantine days we are able to reconsider things outside of the daily routine that hid them from us, things we took for granted in a life that was always the same.”
I only find out at the end of the broadcast that the first speaker was an educator, the second a writer, the third an influencer and the fourth a soubrette. On the news they talk about the task forces set up by the government. It’s all ominously comical. It’s as if the government, faced with a grave emergency, had decided to appoint another government, this time made up of competent experts. I get a kick out of speculating about cockeyed future developments. The task forces proliferate and are appointed for just about everything. Not only to manage the crisis, which in itself is complex and encompasses many strategic areas, from health to transport, from work to sport, but also merely to repair a broken pipe or drain a pot of pasta. In this rush to the experts, task forces are created for cities and neighborhoods and even apartment buildings, if not staircase landings. A new dictatorship of competence is declared, making it possible to witness scenes in which a husband asks his wife if it’s going to rain and his wife, looking at the cloudy sky, replies: “It might, but better not count on it, let’s wait for the scientific evidence.” Everyone becomes an expert, with an exponential growth of committees capable of competing with the virus. Despite all this, the nation’s emergency is not alleviated, and so they decide to play one last card. Out of sixty million Italians they find one who confesses that he knows nothing about the emergency and all the rest. A press conference in full regalia is immediately called and the Prime Minister himself tells him: “You have just been appointed head of the task force of incompetents, let’s see if you at least can figure this out for us.”
Several days have passed since the caustic little doggerel I sent to Luisa, and which she must correctly have interpreted as jerking her around. I’m walking along, the fresh, crisp air capable of evoking the fragrances of spring in all their particulars. We should throw away the masks and inhale our fill of jasmine. Even one of the doormen who sticks his nose out on the street says so: “A couple of months without humanity underfoot and the world is reborn.”
Suddenly a car pulls up alongside me, one of those SUVs used by families for Sunday outings before the shutdown. For a moment I even picture it, the little family that deludes itself and maybe convinces itself that it is happy, the husband a little listless at the wheel, the smiling woman beside him changing the stations on the radio and adjusting the air conditioning, the little boy in back who won’t stop shrieking, maybe a dog trying to lean out the window.
Inside the car, Luisa gestures for me to get in. I have no choice, I step off the curb, go around the car and open the passenger door.
“Is this an ambush?” I ask, not at all obliging.
“You’re being ridiculous, right? I saw you and I stopped.”
“Where are you going?”
“Nowhere, my husband said that if I didn’t run the engine, it wouldn’t start anymore.”
I chuckle scornfully. “It’s one of your little walks of desperation, only on four wheels.”
“In a way that’s exactly what it is.”
I’d like to put an end to this, I can’t think of anything else to say. If this was supposed to be a brief hello determined by a chance encounter I might as well wrap it up. But Luisa has no intention of letting me go so soon.
“You can take the mask off in the car,” she tells me.
I shake my head no.
So she pulls hers off, suddenly, as if wanting to set an example for me. “You don’t need it in the car.”
Just as she has never seen my mouth, I had never seen hers until now. The lips are full and a little cracked, no attempt to glamorize them. A quarantine mouth, somewhat neglected, trying to survive the isolation like all the other mouths, it’s quivering, waiting for a kiss. No point being a hypocrite, seeing her lips move has a certain effect on me, but I have to react, I have to defend myself.
“We’re creatures of habit, taking it off every now and then is harder than wearing it all the time,” I toss out, without the slightest conviction.
“You’re a bastard,” she tells me, hurt by an attitude that must seem not only incomprehensible to her, but gratuitously insolent.
“You didn’t write to me anymore,” she states, in an accusatory tone.
“That’s not correct, you didn’t write anymore.”
“After that poem…”
I don’t say anything, my hand is on the door handle, I’m ready to hop out as soon as the situation allows.
“So you write poetry?” she resumes, now almost playful. “I finally know something about you?”
“It’s not much to know.”
“If you won’t tell me anything, it’s not my fault.”
“It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just how it went.”
“A couple of fucks and then nothing more, is that always how it is for you?”
“We also took a walk.”
“Oh, sorry, I imagine that was a huge concession for you.”
We’re already caught up in an argument typical of an old married couple, maybe Luisa can’t even fight with her husband anymore and misses that. I can’t take anymore of it, I open the door and bail out of the car. I don’t turn around, but a few seconds later I hear the engine start up, the tires squealing on the asphalt.
That evening the barrage of messages resumes, Luisa just can’t contain herself. My guess is that it had cost her a hell of an effort to disappear for a few days, given all the vehemence she now displays. At one point she writes: “You seem like someone who’s suffered, that’s why I like you.” I instinctively move away from the phone, trying to distance myself from that message. I’ve suffered, true, but I’m not suffering anymore now. Luisa’s statement is therefore a half-truth. I don’t need her condescension nor her nursing me like a Florence Nightingale. I knew too many like that, who then backed away, they couldn’t take it, they got discouraged. Enough to make me say no thanks, I don’t need help from anyone anymore. Even a caress can be hurtful, if given the wrong way. I don’t want to talk about my accident, I don’t want to talk about it ever again. I could send her a picture of a painting by Alberto Burri—one from his Combustion series, depicting red plastic riddled with holes and melted by heat, distorted by the scorching—and then disappear forever. But I don’t want to give her any further pretext to show up again. I don’t answer her, not even once, ever, despite her repeated insistence.
As the days go by, the chains of the restrictions seem to slacken, there are more and more people around, and even the police seem more permissive and inattentive, willing to turn a blind eye to a dubious self-certification, a small group of runners cutting across a piazza or a reasonable knot of smokers in front of an office. Life, in order to exist, is willing to die: it is an unfailing law and also quite obvious, and no decree can ever touch it. I continue to work from home, the hours stagnate in the room, an aerosol of time is formed, the periods are distorted, the intervals expand. When the sun finally sinks and casts the first shadows on the wall, a pseudo-religious gratitude rises from my chest, one day less, thank you Lord of Zero**, now let me enjoy a nice plate of pasta pomodoro, see to it that I cook it right, that the bottled sauce is still good, the grated Parmesan not too stale, yesterday’s bread still edible, and the tablecloth still passable, Almighty Zero.
It happens while I’m fiddling around in the kitchen, in the ambiguous hour between day and evening. The doorbell rings and as I make my way down the hallway, I have a strange presentiment, as if I knew very well who it might be. I peer through the peephole and in fact it’s Luisa. The facial features are slightly deformed, but there’s no doubt that it’s her.
“What do you want?” I say.
“Won’t you open the door?”
“It’s not a good time.”
“Do you mind telling me what I did to you except comply with your instincts?”
“If anything I complied with yours.”
“You followed me.”
“You wanted me to follow you, you made me follow you.”
“Next you’ll say I forced you?”
We take a breath, both of us. When all’s said and done, the reason we’re having this fight is clear to me: the more I don’t want her, the more she wants me.
“I bet you keep that mask on even at home,” she tells me.
It’s not true, I don’t have it on. I touch my rough lips, running my finger over the dried scars, and feel an ache rise up, always the same.
“It could be,” I tell her.
“If you’re done with the insults, I’d rather go cook.”
“Let me in and I’ll cook for you.”
“Yes, I’ll cook and you can watch me.”
What can make an intelligent person want to go two blocks away and replicate the exact same life she’s escaping from, the one where she’d like to hit “pause”? Of course, there’s always the faulty illusion of “with you it would be different.”
“Are you really going to leave me standing out here?” she says, seeing as I don’t pick up on her proposal to cook for me. “It’s not funny anymore.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be funny, it was never funny.”
She curses and I hear her go back down the stairs.
Luisa is back after a few days, again at the same time, most likely that hour of day allows her more freedom from her family obligations. This time she’s a little less hostile, in fact she seems almost resigned, she knows I probably won’t open the door.
“I write to you and you don’t answer me, I ring your doorbell and you won’t open,” she says.
“That’s a good summary.”
She bursts out laughing. “Do you want to know what I miss about you?”
“Let’s hear it.”
“Your blue eyes. I miss you because you’re gorgeous.”
I waver. She touched on a sore point. As much as we try to be indifferent, we remain human, soft, weak, corruptible. I feel like opening the door, throwing it wide open to her. But first I’d have to put on the mask, start the same old mysterious rigmarole.
“Don’t you too think there must be a reason why we’re both in this absurd situation now?” she asks.
“Not necessarily, we’re both in this absurd situation now because you showed up at my house out of the blue.”
“I don’t agree, we’re both in this absurd situation now because one day a few weeks ago we ended up walking along the same sidewalk.”
“Are you asking me if I believe in fate?”
“I love fate.”
“You believe in it or you love it?”
“Does it make a difference?”
“I’d say it does. In the first instance you’re convinced that it exists, in the second you hope that it exists.”
“Sometimes you scare me, you know?”
“You have no soul.”
I think she’s dead wrong, the part I lack isn’t at all spiritual and it’s incomparably more essential. I wish I were lacking a soul, I’m missing half my face!
“It’s because of my blue eyes,” I say. “One of my exes called me her beautiful Nazi.”
“So then, the fact that we were walking on the same sidewalk that day is therefore a coincidence? An accident?”
“I’d say that’s a correct statement, although I don’t blame anyone who believes in fate, I know it’s nice to feel lulled.”
“Lulled? What does that have to do with anything?”
“It’s comforting to think that everything corresponds to a grander design.”
She doesn’t answer, apparently thinking about it.
I take an almost paternalistic approach. “Let me tell you a story. Well before all this—before the lockdown and the restrictions, before the squabbling among the virologists and the intensive care units set up overnight thanks to the donations of robbed taxpayers, before phase one and phase two—I left a book under the seat of my motorbike. I remembered it after I had already turned the key in the lock. Well, it was a book I’d wanted to thumb through right away, I’d bought it purposely, so I headed back downstairs and out the door, went to the bike and got it.”
“And your point is?”
“It made me reflect. Do you really think that this moment of my life was useful to something or someone? Do you seriously think it had a broader meaning than what it was, which is a huge pain in the ass?”
She laughs and I don’t. And this laughter that is never synchronous is perhaps the most accurate and merciless picture of what we could have been together and fortunately won’t be.
“I’m going to cook, it’s time,” I tell her, but maybe she’s already gone.
Luisa doesn’t come back again. Meanwhile, a new phase has begun, a rather chaotic one, in which we have to “live with the virus.” Interregional travel is forbidden, but you are allowed to venture more than two hundred meters from your home, and you can go and visit relatives, if you really have the urge to. Fortunately, masks are considered increasingly important, virtually essential, in countering the virus. Now those who don’t wear one are looked upon disapprovingly, as if they were plague-spreaders, seriously irresponsible individuals. So I stroll along boldly, showing off my beautiful ice-blue eyes, as the streets timidly fill with people again, and in this wholly exceptional situation I can almost feel like one of the crowd, though superior.
You can also order takeout food, so one night when I get a yen for pizza, I don’t think twice, I put on a jacket and go out. Luisa is there in line, the prescribed meter and a half away from me. She spots me, we say hello with no apparent awkwardness, apart from the masks. Besides us, there’s another poor devil; soon it’s his turn and his attention is focused entirely on picking up and paying for his order. Luisa and I start talking, we joke about the fact that we’d be a really unhappy couple, because we can’t even agree on pizzas: I get mine with mushrooms, she marinara. As we chat at a distance, I keep looking at her. She seems thinner, worn out, like someone who’s gone through a long trial. Maybe it’s the quarantine effect, and seen from the outside, we’re all like this, a little sickly, unsteady on our feet, haggard.
Then suddenly her eyes no longer follow the verbal repartee, they change, and become dark.
“You don’t believe in anything, I think I realize that,” she says. “So it would be pointless to ask if you believe in love.”
“You can be insightful when you want.”
“I do however, I believe in it,” she counters right away, as if she weren’t interested in my answer, but only in a chance to confirm her thinking. “It ends for those who have never loved each other, that is, for most people. For those who really love each other, it never ends.”
She falls silent, a little pompous, proud of what she’s just said. As if she’d taught me a philosophical lesson, chided my selfish cynicism, my arid lucidity. Isn’t she sick and tired of this story by now? The poor guy in front of us has just picked up his cartons of pizza, and as we both move a few steps forward, I get nasty.
“I believe in something, too,” I hiss. “You want to know what I believe in?”
She doesn’t say yes or no, so as not to give me the satisfaction. By now it’s a competition to see who can be the most hateful.
“I believe in one thing only, just one, sure you don’t want to know what it is?” I persist, relentless.
She’s dying to know, but she pretends she’s not interested, or at least that she doesn’t know and wants to make up her mind. In the end, however, she imperceptibly but clearly nods her head. I take a step back because after saying what I’m about to say it will be impossible to stand diligently in line waiting for a pizza, and I probably won’t even feel like it anymore.
“I believe in the black hole that exists between us.”
Is it possible to kill a relationship with a single sentence? Are words that powerful? I don’t know, and yet I don’t get anything anymore, not one text, not one visit. I don’t even run into Luisa by accident anymore—maybe she would call it a terrible fatalness. I’m sorry, as I’ve been sorry other times for other Luisas. I am a champion of remorse, unfortunately, it’s an area where I am unrivaled. Meanwhile the curves of contagion flatten slowly, the Diva dies hard, although I’ve noted a widespread disinterest in the numbers and statistics and tables relating to it; people need novelty, even when it comes to misfortunes and catastrophes. Right now, for instance, a tsunami or an earthquake would attract a much bigger audience. Or if a nuclear power plant were to blow up, let’s say. Or if the head of some government declared war on someone. Even a nice coup. Though just a simple crime story would do, a nice serial killer who goes after prostitutes, or a particularly heinous case of femicide. We’ve had it with the eager little fever that transmitted the virus to us, this whole thing has been on television for too many days in a row. And media overexposure can be more lethal than the heat.
I pass my time jacking off. For that matter, it’s always been one of my chief activities, even before the shutdown. I don’t see what there is to do that’s more interesting. And it’s the best sex on the block that you can find. Who can understand you and accept you better than yourself? Who knows all your weaknesses like the back of his hand and never judges you? Who can always give you what you like, what you want, what you need, without wanting anything in return (one reason being that by giving it to you he is also giving it to himself)? No misunderstandings, no miscommunications, no pre- or post- orgasm paranoia, no sense of inadequacy or guilt, no showing off, no dumb-ass questions like “Am I hurting you?”, “Should we try another position?”, “Harder, slower?”, no instructions do this to me, do that to me, no inhibitions, no expectations or frustrations, no unspoken rancor or repressed fantasies, no withdrawal or unanticipated recoupling, no unrequested love or affection, no unforeseen occurrence of any kind for any reason (pain, joy, melancholy, whatever).
And I’m just touching myself when I hear the doorbell ring. It never rings, there’s no reason in the world for it to ring, clearly. I get the usual presentiment, although this time I find it less certain, less clear. The pizza scene was a pinnacle from which you can hardly return, I’m aware of it, so who the hell is trying to pay me a visit? I look through the peephole and see the unfamiliar face of a man who looks a little lost.
“Who is it?” I ask.
“Luisa’s husband,” he says.
I narrow my eyes, not this, no, this I really wasn’t expecting. In a split second I try to review all the possibilities that could have brought him here, to the doorstep of his wife’s brief, accidental lover. Assuming his wife, Luisa, told him the story with a modicum of objectivity, for what it was, that is, a meeting born under the sign of chance and not fate.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“Nothing, she sent me here.”
I instinctively relax, because I eliminate the bloodiest prospects, a scene, an act of reprisal. I realize that this man, in doing what he is doing, isn’t driven by any kind of passion.
“Luisa told me everything, she’s having a hard time, she’s not well,” he continues, in a faint voice.
She’s not well?”
“She’s not herself anymore, she’s stopped living. At first I thought it was the effects of the quarantine, we’re all a little more irritable, nervous. Then she collapsed, and she told me about you.”
“I only saw her on two occasions, I assure you,” I take pains to say, stupidly.
“Look I know everything, she told me that for you it meant nothing.”
“So then Luisa fell in love. It’s humiliating to come and tell you this in person. To stand here on your landing, with my feet on your doormat, and tell you that my wife lost her head over you.”
All this catches me tremendously off guard. This man, the things he’s saying, the way he says them. The hoarse voice, his sighs between sentences. I’ve found another paradigm of despair, not as great, but certain.
“What can I do about it?” I ask.
“To begin with, you could let me in, if you don’t mind.”
I remain silent. There’s no way I’m letting him in. I’ve never let anyone in here except the guy who reads the gas meter or the one who services the boiler.
“Look, the situation isn’t easy for me,” her husband says again. “If you’d do me a favor and open the door, maybe we can talk to each other better, take it slow.”
“I’m sorry, and also uncomfortable, believe me.”
“You’re uncomfortable, imagine how I feel.”
He’s completely in the right and I’m completely at fault. But instead of spurring me to act, this confirmation makes me go on standing in front of the door in a daze. I’d only have to turn the knob, during the day I don’t even lock the door.
“Did you or didn’t you understand what I told you? It’s about my wife, Luisa, she’s not well, she won’t eat anymore, she doesn’t want to live anymore, she cries for you, do you understand me?” he says.
Luisa what the fuck did you do, what the fuck did you get us into? Just a few weeks ago you let yourself be followed, boldly, aware of everything. Diabolically, you waited for me in the shadows of the vestibule, master of the situation, you knew where to lead me, how to make me take you. And after that? What did that blue-eyed devil with the mask perpetually covering his face ever do to you? That villainous superhero, that beautiful Nazi? Was feeling rejected all it took to make you lose your head? Obstinately rejected, it’s true, with no appeal, in the end almost cruelly. But does it take so little to fall in love? Is human nature so abject that it only wants that which rejects it? Or do you talk about love because you can’t talk about anything else, you can’t give another name to your emptiness whose resonance you made me feel so acutely?
“She won’t eat, she cries?” I ask, though by now I get it.
“Yes, she asked me to forgive her, she wanted to tell our son everything too, but I stopped her. I sent her to her mother, because she couldn’t stay with us anymore. It’s as if she’s lost her senses. All she asked me was to come here and see you.”
At this point I owe him an explanation, I suppose. I never wear the mask at home, of course. So it won’t even take too many words. I take a breath, and open the door.
*From “Un cas de divorce” in Guy de Maupassant, L’inutile Beauté, Paris, 1890.**Lord of Zero: something the author uses to replace Almighty God–meant in the sense of Nothing, Emptiness
Luca Ricci was born in Pisa in 1974 and lives in Rome. He has written short stories and novels. L’amore e altre forme d’odio (Einaudi, 2006; later La nave di Teseo, 2020) won the Premio Chiara. His novels Gli autunnali and Gli estivi, published by La nave di Teseo, are the first two volumes of a quadrilogy. He writes for the cultural pages of Corriere della Sera and Il Messaggero and the advice column of IL Magazine (issued with Il Sole 24 ORE). He teaches writing courses at Scuola Holden. His works have been translated into many languages.
Anne Milano Appel has translated works by a number of leading Italian authors—Claudio Magris, Paolo Giordano, Paolo Maurensig, Antonio Scurati, Luce d’Eramo, Giuseppe Catozzella, Primo Levi, Roberto Saviano, Antonio Tabucchi, Goliarda Sapienza, Giovanni Arpino to name a few—for a variety of publishers in the US and UK. Her awards include the Italian Prose in Translation Award, the John Florio Prize for Italian translation, and the Northern California Book Award for translation. Translating professionally since 1996, she is a former library administrator, and has a doctorate in romance languages and literature.
Veronica Winters, MFA, is a contemporary Russian-American artist, art instructor, and book author who is nationally recognized for her art instruction books The Colored Pencil Manual and How to Color Like an Artist by Dover Publications. Veronica’s art and writing has been published in numerous magazines and art books, including Strokes of Genius, Leisure Painter, COLORED PENCIL Magazine, The Guide Artists, American Art Collector, and the International Artist. Veronica continues to create art in her Naples, Florida studio.