Once in Boston I stood in an echoing hall under a high, glassed roof watching a little Cambodian girl in traditional clothes, gold jewelry clinking on her slim arms, perform a ritual dance to drum and flute music – solid steps and ethereal gestures. The stark, grieving expression on the girl’s face did not change until the music and the dance ended in a tableau vivant with the girl’s arms curved skyward and her face upturned. She let out a fleeting, embarrassed smile before ducking behind a red velvet curtain.
Afterward, I strolled up and down the steep, brick-paved streets of Beacon Hill behind the gold-domed State House. It was spring, and the cherry trees were in cloud-like blossom. My senses were alert but the deep grief I had felt watching the girl dance persisted in me and made every sensation painful. How could I pretend that I had anything to offer to the world even remotely comparable to the seriousness of that dance?
I walked up and down the narrow wet brick sidewalks of Beacon Hill looking at the trees in blossom and feeling each time I saw a blossoming branch something burst in me, something burst and burst, and each time it burst I was crushed by memory and desire – but memory of what? Desire for what?
I lived in an apartment above the streetcar tracks and I often lay awake in the gray dawns and listened to the first streetcar descending the hill and screeching around the curve on the rusted tracks, and on rain-dense mornings blue sparks flew from the wires overhead and the streetcar took the curve with a series of harsh crackles.
For a full year of that life I cannot recall any image or any sensation but for one muggy afternoon walking along a bank of the Charles River and seeing a cormorant flying wing-heavy low over the dark water then plunging in with a splash and coming out with a fish – shining, writhing, ALIVE – in its beak. I think it was at that moment that I decided to go abroad. To Rome.
I daydreamed of brilliant air and of streams of water from the fountain jets splashing as a thin flowing film of water over the bronze manes of the horses and the naked bronze arms and breasts of women, the bronze black-green with age and the water shining as it streamed over the statues’ nudity –
I sold my furniture and books on the sidewalk. Then I withdrew my slight savings from the bank and bought an Al Italia ticket. My plan was to find a room somewhere in the old part of Rome within the ancient walls and to support myself by writing for English-language newspapers and magazines. Or perhaps I could tutor Italians in conversational English. I had no idea what I was going to do, just as I had no clear idea of Rome. I imagined it as vast and dirty like Manhattan, noisy and colorful and dangerous, yet – yet? It was the vastness and sordissima of Rome that attracted me most. Somehow I had to awaken myself to life.
My first winter in Rome was lonely, as I conserved money and struggled to write well. I recall one day sitting in a caffè in the Trastevere district, openly admiring a young woman seated alone at a table nearby as she compulsively fiddled with her white-blonde hair. She tossed it and smoothed it back and gathered it behind her nape. She had clear intelligent eyes with creases underneath them as if from smiling or laughing often. She wore a dark turtleneck sweater that hid and yet did not hide her breasts. I shut my eyes and no image, no trace of her clung to my mind. But when I opened my eyes there she was again – sly and young, voluptuous, busty, intent on the pages of Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved. She had on a black leather belt cinched tightly at the waist. I half-decided she must be waiting for her boyfriend but I did not want to believe it: I was preparing to ask her a question about Rome, in strained Italian, when sure enough he banged in out of the cold, bringing with him the smell of motorcycle exhaust. His hair was mussed and his ears bright red. He bent over the table to kiss her mouth hard and lingeringly until she blushed like a rose. Then he slouched on the leather-covered bench beside his girlfriend, nuzzling her cheek, and murmured something into her ear. She let out a bell-laugh – ravishing and, for me, tragic.
It took me weeks to forget.
I used to walk to the Campo dei Fiori for my coffee through sun-punished streets ringing with as-if-naked female voices, in a drowsy heat past magenta and earth colored walls, my footsteps clapping on the flagstones. And I remember the weight of the little notebook in the breast pocket of my jacket and the way the cuffs of my shirt itched at the wrists and the sweat cooling on the back of my neck as I stepped out of the rage of sunlight into a water-cold shadow to adjust the keys and change in my trouser pocket or to rest my eyes for a moment from the radiant glare, looking avidly at the broken, urine-colored plaster of a house wall, a leaning bicycle, a clay-potted plant, and at the white banners of laundry suspended high up in the clarifying murk where they might catch the few livid slanting rays of mid-morning.
I worked mornings in the Trastevere caffè. Sometimes, rather than writing a coherent piece of an article or of my novel, I merely jotted down phrases, images that came to me, brief observations. I was happy, sitting at my table with the notebook spread open and a pencil poised above it. The faster I wrote, the faster I thought. Something about the activity of writing soothed me as it strengthened the beam of my attention. And while writing I was aware, in poignant bursts, of voices rising and falling, people sitting at tables, entering or going, waiters carrying trays, the barman wiping glasses dry. Between scribbled paragraphs, I had only to lift my head slightly to take in some fragment of the broad tawdry spectacle of Roman life. The entire rhythm of Roman existence seemed to flood into the caffè, along with that vast sky, scintillating with light even on days of overcast, of which one is always aware anyplace one goes in the Eternal City. I spoke little Italian and understood less but I brimmed full of happiness to hear the clamor of voices and the clatter of coffee spoons. This was a place without a television: a rare oasis in Italian life. The padrone kept his radio turned down low, so the popular songs with their insipid lyrics didn’t dominate the atmosphere but provided a wailing counterpoint to the riot of other sounds.
I did not sit outside under an awning because the price of coffee was higher at those tables half in and half out of the heavy sunlight that melted one’s gelato to an egg cream in a matter of seconds. Tourists seemed content to pay the extra as they chattered knowingly together about Roman life and admired the ample beauties strolling across the square. I tried not to listen to the pronouncements made in French and German and English as I sat in the cooler interior bent double over my notebook, trying to make sentences ring like iron or gleam like brass. Sweat drops plopped from my brow onto the page, blurring the strokes and curls of blue-black ink.
If the morning’s work left me breathless and feeling the glow of possibility, I would sometimes move to one of the outside tables for a lingering half bottle of Corsican wine diluted with splashes of mineral water – and there, like any tourist, I indulged in harsh and despairing daydreams about every shapely woman I saw.
One day in that ringing place, as I bent over my notebook page, a soft voice startled me:
Permesso. What are you writing?
Glancing up sharply I saw a lipsticked mouth, tanned arms, and a thin sheath of a dress blazoning the at-ease nudity within it. Her hair was auburn-tinted in waves as if she had spent too much time at the beaches in glaring hot sunlight with her lewd, modish, bored friends. She was smiling. She had slightly uneven teeth.
Was I writing a short story?
I blinked at her.
No, I said, not short stories precisely, but sketches, anecdotes.
Ah! she cried. From life.
Yes, yes, I said, smiling now, from life.
Our first touch – Iphigenia had a coolly intelligent way of shaking hands – gave me the spark of her brown body and the undercurrent of its longings, causing my pulse to race.
We talked. Her father was a Greek diplomat. She worked at a famous Italian fashion magazine. Today she was having lunch with a good friend. And moments later the said good friend returned from the w.c., tossing her dark hair sideways alluringly as she sat. Her eyes rounded insincerely as the soft-voiced one introduced me as a writer, scrittore. She leaned across the space between our tables to extend her hand, which I shook as if weightless.
Please eat with us, Donatella said, and I shut my notebook and then, with the waiter’s help, picked up the small table at which I’d been sitting and moved it over against theirs. The smirking waiter brought more dishes, a basket of bread, and I ordered a bottle of wine I could ill afford.
We spoke in some English but mostly in excited fragmentary Italian. Donatella did not take part in our conversation except to smooth some of the awkward parts, for she saw that her friend was interested in me and that I, I thrilled to her. Actually, I thrilled to them both.
Roman lunches are long but not eternal. Too soon the beautiful high-spirited pair had to return to work. Iphigenia and I made an appointment for the next day near the Coliseum. Donatella shook my hand and smiled down at me in a way that intimated I ought to consider myself blessed by fortune.
Just after standing up, Iphigenia suddenly bent down and, with a hoarse Ciao, kissed my cheek where I had not shaved it very well that morning. The burning aura of her tanned skin and the dry coolness of lips touching under my ear gave me such excitement that I felt my body rise – float, really – up out of the chair. But as Iphigenia reached the glassed doors, which Donatella held open for her, I realized that I was actually still seated, calm and smiling. She slipped on sunglasses without taking her green eyes from mine, turned, and was gone at once, swallowed up by the filth and the heat of a Roman midday.
The following day I waited at an outside table, racked by painful suspense, watching the brilliant streams of water shooting up from a fountain, until I glimpsed Iphigenia approaching across the piazza, almost stumbling in her haste. She had on an even more diaphanous dress than the day before and was clutching a small purse, her arms very bony, her greeting precise – two brushes of our cheeks as I stood – and was smiling in the wide silly way of one about to embark on an amorous escapade. Following a good Roman lunch of artichokes and steak we walked in the Borghese gardens. In the evening we went to Donatella’s flat for which Iphigenia had keys. She clambered up the stairs ahead of me, laughing hard. We were drunk.
We stripped the bed down to sheets and lay on it together. Then Iphigenia was naked–a gold crucifix dangled on its chain on her pale skin.
Do you want this?
Kissing her breasts, I felt the crucifix on my lips, and I took it between my teeth and bit it gently. We both shivered.
We treated each other shyly and carefully at first and the only rough part was at the last, the climax I joined her in, as she gave a great shivering exultant whinny of pleasure and called on the infant Jesus in the lap of the virgin.
How many? she asked, as soon as we were both tucked under the sheet, facing each other.
How many what?
She let out a raucous laugh.
The crucifix hung against the pillow. She was smiling. I shrugged and confessed, None. You.
She gaped at me.
Ah, she said. Va bene. Aren’t you interested in the Italian girls? They’re so alive, so beautiful.
I am only interested in you right now.
She laughed again, her body writhing.
Are you ready to go again?
I lifted the sheet to show her my readiness to go again. Iphigenia abruptly turned over and slid a pillow under her stomach.
Go on go on. Pronto.
I placed myself against her.
Wait, she said. Not there. Down.
Then, digging her nails into my wrists:
Ah. Harder than that.
I woke to sunlight, the mounting clamor of traffic, and the distant crack and splash of water on tiles. Then the faucet squeaked shut and seconds later Iphigenia emerged from the bathroom naked, padding on bare feet into and out of sunlight – a blazing afterimage – while she rubbed her hair dry between folds of a towel.
You are not showering today?
I spent only moments in the shower, soaping my body quickly and squatting to let the hot water rinse it off all at once. At the corner bar we stood in a crowd of working Romans to drink our coffees in haste. She wouldn’t let me walk her to the bus.
No, she said. I must rush.
She rose on her tiptoes to embrace me and we crushed our mouths together.
Poof, you’re stronger than you look.
I became aroused again kissing her mouth. She brushed the backs of her fingers over my beard bristles.
Go shave, you savage.
Will we meet tonight? I asked
She tapped my cheek with her knuckles.
Si, ragazzo mio. Go to the Piazza della Rotonda, in front of the Pantheon. You know it?
She strode off clutching her purse. Even after she had turned a corner I stood listening entranced, until I could no longer hear the staccato footsteps.
I spent the day walking through Rome. At dusk I found Iphigenia seated at a caffè table on the Piazza della Rotonda – arms naked, the gold crucifix aglow in setting sunlight on her smooth pale skin. And with her was Donatella, to whom she had clearly just finished telling everything.
Donatella sometimes spent afternoons with us sitting in caffès and strolling the narrow Roman streets under arcades that ended at the sunlit spray of fountains. When I first saw her she was wearing a mouse-gray velvet dress with thin straps on her bare rounded shoulders, but I soon became accustomed to seeing her in silk pants that fit her narrow buttocks tightly and sleeveless blouses that revealed tufts of light hair at the unshaven armpits and the shadow of blunt nipples in their coin sized aureoles. She carried a green leather bag she’d bought impulsively on a trip to Florence and in it were magazines, tissues, paperback books. Her smug widely smiling mouth spouted obscenities suavely and with great satisfaction and aplomb. She once took off her heels under the metal grated table and I watched her stretch her shapely, slender toes in the speckled light-shadow against the Roman pavement. Donatella and Iphigenia worked together at the offices of the magazine and I imagined they’d shared men.
Donatalla’s married lover, Fabrizio, often took her away from Rome and since Iphigenia lived with her family we often used Donatella’s place to make love and to lie in together on the twisted sheet sharing a piece of fruit. One bite me, one bite you. Iphigenia did not want to stay with me in my stark rooms, it was a dirty neighborhood she insisted but it was not too bad for a writer, after all one had to save money.
Donatella’s place was much more modish; it breathed taste, just as the wicked sister breathed smug erotic satisfaction and self-esteem. Even the scanty underpants hanging over the shower-rail seemed to reflect a life of compulsive glamour.
Always before going up to Donatella’s flat we would meet in a caffè and then walk to the Campo dei Fiori market to buy fruit and mineral water and wine. Every time we left, Iphigenia took the befouled sheets home with her to wash.
Alone in the narrow bathroom I examined Donatella’s combs and her pill jars and opened her perfumes and creams and sniffed them. Once, Iphigenia asked me if I liked Donatella, and if I felt any stab of desire in her presence, and I hummed against her flowing, flower-scented hair that I might have felt such a desire once or even twice, and Iphigenia writhed as if in pain under the sheet and bit my shoulder.
You deserved that, she said into the booming Roman dusk. After a few minutes she began breathing more easily and then I felt her hand exploring under the sheet. I shut my eyes. The clamor of traffic seemed to flow right over our sweating bodies.
One evening we strolled past a small theater showing a revival of Tender Killings. We stopped to gaze at the poster: a young, pure Amanda Crespi on a beach at night, holding a pistol over the slumped body of James Mason. After this climactic moment in the film she strips off her clothes and wades out into the sea. Iphigenia clasped her warm hand in mine, intertwining the fingers.
Would you prefer to be with her?
As she was then? Or now?
She slapped my wrist like a child’s. I kissed her wide smile.
Dusk. Yet because of the palazzo’s tree sized windows the great rooms swim with light. Clamor engulfs you as you step over the threshold. Waiters are moving through the crush of people with trays of hors d’oevres held in white-gloved hands.
It was sometime in late summer– I remember yellow plane leaves scattered on the gravel driveway. An evening fete thrown by the fashion magazine.
Iphigenia and Donatella had arrived long since and we many drinks ahead. Iphigenia was eating a strawberry. She pressed a piece of it into my mouth with her tongue as she clasped me in sun-browned arms. Then she held a champagne flute to my lips. It foamed as I drank.
Donatella sat on the arm of the sofa while Iphigenia perched in my lap. People were speaking to me and I missed words at random as Iphigenia traced figure eights on my nape.
Once, I strolled over to the bar and when I returned the two were sitting tight together on the green leather sofa, slim girl-arms clasped sedately about each other – Donatella’s clanking with bracelets. Iphigenia’s auburn head rested on Donatella’s shoulder and the darker one was petting her face lightly, like the face of a statue. And the gauzy window curtains blew in around them.
Even as Signore Vitelli’s voice boomed from a far corner of the room, I had seen him casting us interested glances. He was dark and forbidding, like the older men I had seen in Sicily, and like them he was also beautifully dressed.
We shook hands. His was large and rough. I remembered his name from writing a magazine article on Italian vineyards. He graciously appeared flattered when I told him so.
Smiling with almost fatherly indulgence at Iphigenia and Donatella, sprawled together on the sofa, Signore Vitelli posed the usual polite questions. How long had I been in Italy? Why had I come over from America? Where else had I been besides Rome?
I said that I had not been in Italy long, that I had come over from America to look for new experiences, and that aside from Rome I had only been to Sicily.
He smiled at the mention of Sicily, sharp crow’s feet appearing at the corners of his eyes.
Did you write about Sicilia?
Oh, yes. Every morning and night, in my diary. (Mi diario.)
He laughed. Then, after a brief pause, his voice deepening, Signore Vitelli asked me if I would like the opportunity to speak with his ex-wife – the actress Amanda Crespi.
Shocked, I must have stared at him for a few moments before responding:
Certo. I would be – (I sought the word) overjoyed. Grazie.
He waved a hand.
Leave me your address in Rome. I will write to her.
What a grandiose perfection of coincidence. When had Amanda Crespi not loomed brilliantly in my heart, in my imagination?
Dazed, I was unable to think of any more profound way to express thanks than to simply say, in English:
Signore Vitelli then told me that his ex-wife was now staying alone in Venice, at the Hotel Gritti Palace. His voice betrayed more than a trace of wistfulness, especially in the way he paused on the word alone.
Do you know it?
I shook my head. He smiled.
Of course I had never stayed at the Hotel Gritti Palace. I had not even been yet to Venice.
I began raving then. I said that I had seen all of Amanda Crespi’s movies. (Lie.) I named half a dozen, including Rome, Next Spring and Torro Torro. I went on to say how I admired his ex-wife for her angry, passionate devotion to the Palestinian cause, and also for appearing on television to oppose the murderous fiasco of the Gulf War. Then I realized how drunk I was and stopped talking suddenly. Roberto was still smiling, but now his face looked pained, sad and – one might as well say it – old.
Iphigenia rubbed my arm.
We staggered leaning on each other through the labyrinthine streets. Iphigenia stopped once to retch against the side of a fountain in an empty piazza. Finally we made it to Donatella’s flat – Donatella having left the cocktail party hours before, to meet Fabrizio.
Up the lurching staircase. We did not bother to turn on a light. Iphigenia simply stepped out of her dress, leaving it crumpled, and slid into the bed. Trembling with excitement, I undressed quickly and joined her under the sheet.
I slipped into her before our mouths even met. She was searing hot. Her breath was pure alcohol.
My mind flashed. I saw in blinding fragments Amanda Crespi’s long legs, smooth arms, elegant breasts, dark hair, almond-shaped eyes, smiling lips –
I shivered and pulled away to gaze down at Iphigenia’s nakedness: the splendid girlish hips, the small breasts blued by a faint ray of light from the open window. She was panting, almost on the verge of orgasm.
Ti amo, she whispered.
That September Iphigenia left Rome for a holiday with her family. Alone, I wandered day after day through the sensual riot of Trastevere– sweat-blinded, all my senses concentrated into a fierce lethargy.
I could still taste Iphigenia on my lips and feel her fingers on my body. If I shut my eyes, I still saw that brazen, childlike smile.
Ever since the cocktail party I had banished any thought that I might actually interview Amanda Crespi in Venice. There had been no letter or phone call from Roberto Vitelli. He had put me to some obscure test, and clearly I had failed.
One evening, slowing my steps, I strolled past the small theater outside which Iphigenia and I had stopped to study the poster for Tender Killings. My stomach gave a leap of disappointment when I saw it was gone.
Then, on a brilliant mid-day in the Campo dei Fiori, as I stood gazing at a bunch of brilliant yellow-green grapes suspended from a market-woman’s coarse fingers like the promise of Paradise, I felt a light touch on my elbow, I inhaled a familiar and intoxicating fragrance, and turning I saw Donatella, who offered me her olive cheek to kiss. On impulse, I kissed her dark-lipsticked mouth. I felt her shiver as our dry lips brushed.
We walked arm in arm to a caffè and took a table half out of the glare of sunlight, and I ordered Corsican wine and a bottle of minerale. Donatella, with grieving slow movements that for me only enhanced her usual glamour, rummaged in the green leather shoulder bag for cigarettes, found one, and lit it. She then sat back in the metal chair and gazed at me from under mockingly lowered eyelids as she smoked.
Pouring out wine, I remarked that this was the first time we had ever been by ourselves. Donatella smiled majestically, shutting her eyes. She blew cigarette smoke straight upwards. Then she asked, the voice heavy as if wrenched from deep in her chest,
Do you love her?
She tilted her glossy head to one side. Her eyes stayed shut, the dark lids pulsating.
I stammered for words. Even with her eyes shut, Donatella seemed very alert, listening to every inflection of my voice.
I said that I adored Iphigenia, I found her boundlessly gratifying, I exulted in her smooth, round, supple body, her sunbrowned skin tasting of wildflowers; that every moment with Iphigenia was pure joy. But – amore? No, I could not say so with absolute confidence.
She exhaled a stream of smoke.
Do you know that I saw you first, writing in your little notebook, I pointed you out to her, and that since Iphigenia never makes decisions strictly for herself or leaps into adventures without hard prompting from a friend, that in truth I gave you to her, and also her to you?
Blinking with my amazement, I asked,
What of Fabrizio?
She slumped her shoulders.
Let’s go, she said. It is too hot here.
She shrugged, picking up her bag. Her hair had been clipped short and shaven in the back, and as she bent down it swung aside and I glimpsed the bare, forlorn, marble-white nape of her neck.
To the Villa Borghese.
We strolled, so close together as to bump each other at elbows and hips, through scalding hot light and water-cold shadows from Trasvetere onto a bridge spanning the green-brown, summer-stagnant Tiber. We then climbed aboard a municipal bus and, holding each other against the leaps and jolts, my shirt sticking to me with sweat, rode out to the Villa Borghese Park, where we disembarked and made our way through a crowd of religious tourists and dignified Senegalese men selling trinkets and Gucci knock-offs, into filtered light and rich pine-shadows alive with the cooing of doves, brown pine needles sinking with obscene softness underfoot.
Donatella said nothing during the bus-ride but now she began to talk in disjointed sentences, some incomprehensible, of her lover Fabrizio, who on their most recent outing to the campagna had announced that he wished to reunite with his scandalized wife and morose teenaged children.
Ah. Mi dispiace. And what did you say to him?
A swift, bitter shrug.
Nothing. What could I say to that?
I stroked the backs of my fingers on her smooth cheek. Donatella smiled, turning her head to kiss the knuckles. The same rough impulse seized us both. I shoved her against the trunk of a pine tree and as she moaned and twisted I slipped my hand into her blouse, rubbing the palm over a breast, the skin rich and cool and forbidden, and she groaned and licked my cheek and bit my earlobe in a bacchante’s frenzy. Then I broke away from the writhing embrace and stepped back, my arms falling as if transformed to granite. I could not meet Donatella’s eyes. She sank to the ground to retrieve her bag but after slinging it on her shoulder she remained crouched, suddenly-gaunt hands covering her face. I lifted her up by the elbows.
Mi dispiace – I said.
She pressed her open mouth to my mouth with such longing fervor that everything else sunk away and vanished, like water poured into sand.
We lay in a struck-down tangle. Martyred. I thought of the fresco I had seen in Sicily, of a brown hare dangling by its hind legs. There is ecstasy in death.
Donatella was holding me gently, breathing in as I breathed out. We were stuck together by sweat.
If you got me pregnant, she murmured – clear voiced, long pause – I’ll kill you.
We had a week before Iphigenia was to return to Rome. A bright new postcard arrived every few days. These showed white villages, fishing boats with men tossing out nets into the sea, and ultramarine water.
Ti amo, one read. Do you remember that night?
Another, in English: I miss you.
We took a train to Florence, where we were caught one afternoon in an ecstasy of rain near the Ponte Vecchio. Soaked like gypsies, our hair dripping and plastered flat, we took refuge in a bar where, as the rain poured and pounded, we drank wine and watched traffic lights make shimmering acrylic streaks on the sidewalk and stone buildings.
Donatella said that I should buy something gold for Iphigenia.
She already has a crucifix. Maybe a ring?
As soon as the downpour ended we went to the hotel room and, our bodies emerging blazing hot from the wet clothes, made love for two hours. Then Donatella left me dozing and returned after an hour with a shopping bag.
I unwrapped it warily. My throat felt hard and tight. A leather jacket, soft as lambskin.
She was gazing steadily at me, her face aglow. She shut her sad miraculous eyes as I kissed them.
In the ospedale, a stench of lye makes me dizzy. Nuns are bustling in the long hallway burdened with armfuls of linen and trays of medications. The loudest sound is the squeak of rubber-coated wheels. Iphigenia glances at me as I step into the room, grimaces and looks away. She is seated on a child-sized visitor’s chair, clutching her purse.
Donatella’s head rolls on the pillow with painful slowness. She is wearing a turban – no, her forehead is wound tight in bleached bandages. Her lips are dry and cracked and as if about to bleed. I go to her and take the hand that she lifts from the sheet.
Mi amore, she says.
I do not glance at Iphigenia. Donatella’s eyes are shining. Then I hear the child’s chair creak and the door swinging open, shut.
That evening as the strong light wanes, Fabrizio appears suddenly at Donatella’s bedside. He is much as I would have imagined, perhaps a little shorter. In a dark suit, unshaven, he bends to kiss her. They whisper together. A nurse touches my arm; I go out.
Finally he emerges, long-faced with tiredness. I have been pacing, one hundred steps down the hallway then back. He takes my elbow, and in a hoarsened voice says, Come.
Across from the ospedale there is a clean caffè with few patrons. We stand close together at the zinc bar. Fabrizio orders for both of us and puts a glass of red wine in my hand. We drink our glasses down in unison, a long swallow. We have another glass each before he tells me, in a voice devoid of self-pity or overt drama, the details of Donatella’s suicide attempt.
She drank grappa, took pills to sleep, then walked through the streets of Trastevere in the small, grim hours before light dawns in the vast sky over Rome, and then she threw herself without ceremony, without even a cry, from a bridge into the Tiber. And it was only Fate, in the form of a pair of young carabinieri who saw a girl walking on the bridge then heard the shocking splash and stripped off their white belts and boots to hurl themselves after her –
A sad smile. He drinks.
Donatella’s head must have bumped an embankment, for she was bleeding and comatose when they brought her into the ospedale.
He shrugs, his lips tight.
There is one more thing, he says: She was pregnant. She lost the baby. No, please do not be shocked. I know it was mine. A son.
Outside, he claps my shoulders and promises to return tomorrow, then climbs into a sports car parked at an angle to the curb and roars off, saluting with his free arm.
I go back to the room and sit for a few hours watching Donatella as she sleeps before the nuns banish me with stern whispers. In the late morning Fabrizio is standing outside Donatella’s room. We embrace, hard.
When a nurse bustles from Donatella’s room I glimpse three older women in stiff black clothing, like crows, gathered around the bed where she lies with her bandaged head propped on pillows. My heart constricts, but before I can utter a cry of protest Fabrizio puts an arm on my shoulders and tells me that this is Donatella’s family, her mother and aunts.
They will take her back to Apulia to recover her strength. You know Apulia?
I shake my head.
Apulia, he repeats, with an acid edge. Please.
He motions, and I follow him down the stairs to the street.
Once again his car is parked outside the caffè. We drink a glass of wine each in melancholy silence, our eyelids lowered. Then he puts down his empty glass and embraces me, kissing both cheeks.
Buona fortuna, he says.
I watch as he walks quickly outside and leaps into his car – the motor throbs, the exhaust pipe spews a sooty puff of smoke, and he roars away from the curb with a wrench of the steering wheel. Gone.
Iphigenia did not return the calls I made to the magazine’s office. When I called the family house, Iphigenia’s mother merely insisted in a tired voice that their daughter was out. Would I like to leave my phone number?
Once at dusk I thought I heard Iphigenia calling up from the clamorous street, but when I pushed open the shutters and leaned out the window I saw that it was merely a woman calling in her reluctant child, whose Italian name had sounded for a moment painfully like mine.
Not long after Donatella’s black-garbed mother and aunts took her by train back to Apulia, I received a brief letter postmarked Firenze, jotted onto blue stationary embossed with the Vitelli family crest:
I have written to my ex-wife, Amanda Crespi. She agrees to an interview in Venice. I will insist on paying your expenses. But I would first like to speak to you in person.