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20/09/2011

Closer

C. D. Rose

The first morning I waited only a few minutes, catching his slight limp and the turn of his shoulders as he leant into the car.  Later, as I stood at the bar, I remembered his deep blue coat and the cut of his suit, conventional but perfectly done.  All that cashmere and silk would have cost more than I made in a year; I wondered if he had his own tailor.

On the second morning I waited in the same place, the large doorway of the palazzo directly across the street, and this time it was his hair I noticed: a rich grey wave, traces of black still visible, a perfectly-clipped moustache.  I didn’t feel tense or nervous as I watched him get into his car.  A precise man, I thought, one who had regular habits, a man who would smell of cologne and cigar smoke, but in a good way.  Not the ashtray smell that clung to my own father.

The next morning I found the circolare up to Parioli half-empty; I’d forgotten it was Saturday.  I shouldn’t have come at the weekend: his routine would be different and I would be more conspicuous.  I untied my hair and loosened the scarf around my neck to look more casual and instead of waiting outside his house sat at the café and read the Corriere.  I was the only woman there, but relaxed into the newspaper when no one took any notice.  From my table on the far edge of the terrace I had to strain to see his building and my eyes were never very good.  It would be possible for him to leave without me seeing, but I wouldn’t risk removing my sunglasses.  I sat there an hour and ordered a second capuccio, but nothing happened.  Only as I was folding away the newspaper and searching for change did I see him.  He walked straight past with a brisk step, almost touching me.  Two girls, expensively dressed and not much younger than myself followed him closely: his daughters, no doubt, and with them a stout woman in a fur coat, the wife.  He turned as one of his daughters called to him, papà, and as he did so he caught my eye, just for a second.  He made no gesture of recognition, but the fact he’d seen me was calming as I waited for the bus home.

The next day I stayed in, hardly moving from the narrow bed in my small flat.  Sunday, as quiet as death outside.  I could think of nothing but seeing him again.  Another week, I told myself: that would be the most I would wait.

The anxiety subsided as Monday took over, dispersed by the intense bustle of a grey February morning.  I was there before nine again, but he didn’t appear at the usual time.  I grew nervous, checked my watch and lit a cigarette.  Fumbling with the packet and the matches I could pretend I was doing something other than loitering.  A cigarette would calm my nerves, too.  It was 9.15 when he finally appeared.  I wondered why: he had overslept, his alarm clock had failed, or his driver had got stuck in traffic.  Perhaps he had a later appointment this morning and could afford to take that extra quarter of an hour over breakfast.  It worried me: he wasn’t a man of such regular habits after all.  I began to doubt myself.  That night I lay awake wondering what to do.

The next morning I arrived much earlier, in time to watch the portiere haul open the main door at seven thirty, then sit himself in his glass-walled cabin with a copy of the Settimana Enigmistica, chewing a pencil while he stared at the puzzles.  Half an hour later a Filipino girl in uniform arrived.

I worried about being there so early.  Even though I could hide in the slowly growing crowd of men off to work and women off to shop, I felt too visible.  I wondered if someone was watching me as well, and someone in turn watching them, the watchers disappearing in an endless chain of observation.  People could already be talking about me.  They would have guessed I was following him: he was the kind of man who attracted women, some of them would be his students, others, his lovers.  I was sure he would have taken lovers.  The large woman bustling out of the building now, his wife no doubt: solid Southern baby-making stock, un’ottima cuoca he would tell his friends, as she regularly stuffed him on his way to a heart attack.  A companion at best, never a lover.

The usual: car just after nine, a quick nod to the driver, then away.  Everything back to normal, and I sighed with relief then went home.  I needn’t have worried: those people were so wrapped up in their own affairs, not the kind of people who noticed things, not even a single slightly shabby woman standing outside an impressive palazzo.  In my abject normality I was an easy person to ignore, after all.

Once home, I lay on the bed in the bare flat and thought about him.  Each morning had taken on the dark thrill of a secret tryst; the thought of meeting filled me with dread and excitement.  That evening, against my better judgement, I went back, hoping to see him return home.  It was easier to hide in the dark; the wealthier streets had more trees and fewer lights but I shivered as I waited, smoking to keep myself warm.  He would be at dinner, I thought, a small trattoria in Trastevere, shaking hands and talking business in a low voice, all gestures, allusions and blue smoke, no reference to anything as vulgar as money.

The door opened and the Filipino maid appeared with a yapping terrier in her arm.  She led the dog to the edge of the pavement where it emptied itself, then picked it up again, a look of pure disgust on her face as she went back in.  I wanted to ask what she thought of him.  I wanted to know how this girl felt about the difference between her own life and that of the man whose food she cooked, sheets she changed, socks she washed and whose shit she cleaned from the toilet bowl.

It was eleven before he appeared, climbing rapidly from a cab.  I saw the glint of his key, then the door close behind him.  I stayed on the street, following the sequence of lights going on and off in the first floor apartment until the shutters came down and closed me out.

I tried to take him home with me: in my head I saw nothing other than the soft bounce of his hair, the thick gold ring on his finger, the way he nodded to his driver and casually ignored his wife.  I could smell the supple leather of the briefcase he always carried and hear the shiny squeak of his shoes.  I wanted to get into that apartment, to see what pictures he had on his walls and which books lined his shelves.  I needed to know what he ate for breakfast, how he passed his evenings, how he spoke to his daughters, whether he was a good father or a distant one.  I wanted to open his wardrobe and look at the rows of pressed shirts hanging there, the bland but expensive suits.  How many would there be, all identical?

On the Wednesday he didn’t show at all and I panicked.

I’d arrived, as usual, just before nine and waited nearly half an hour.  Perhaps he had left early this morning, my Monday suspicions confirmed.  I felt everything I’d built fall apart and grew angry with this man I couldn’t rely on.  I walked circuits of the block in frustration, losing count of how many, risking him slipping away without me.  By ten I knew I’d become too obvious so headed for the café.  A cappuccino appeared on the bar without me having to ask.  Too late; I’d become known.  The barman gave me a conspiratorial smile.  You’re here every morning, he said, I’ve seen you.  I said nothing, downed the coffee and left.

I felt so out of place in the cloistered ease of this part of the city, and not just because of my well-worn clothes: though I dressed as smartly as I could, when I watched the women who emerged from the high-arched hallways of the neighbouring buildings, coming down the few marble steps as far as their waiting cars I knew I would never have the casual confidence they exuded.  It wasn’t the jewellery or the furs, nor even the way they wore them, but their attitude of such things being there for them: their inheritance, their right.  I could never have been one of them, whichever path I’d chosen.

Instead of leaving, I spent most of the day walking around the Parioli, wondering if he’d grown up in this neighbourhood, had always lived in that building, or played in Villa Ada as a child.  So different to the abandoned building sites and empty car parks that had been my playground.  I hugged myself as I walked through the park, imagining a conversation, what I would say when.  He had seen me and in a strange way, even if he didn’t know it yet, he was waiting for me.  My stomach churned, my arms trembled.  Surely he knew, surely.

A few years before I’d been in a play.  I didn’t enjoy the experience, finding the other actors too bound up in themselves or over-worried about the political aspects of the show.  Such were the times.  I played an oppressed factory worker and had found her in Rosalba, a quiet and fiercely proud girl who stitched gloves alongside me in a sweatshop behind Termini station.  Without letting on, I watched Rosalba for weeks, imitating her mannerisms and patterns of speech, the way she walked and ate, how she wrinkled her brow and began to stutter when angry.  Again, now, I hid myself to learn about another.  As I walked I tried to take on his faint limp, practiced inclining my head in recognition of his casual nod, ran my fingers across my top lip as though I had a moustache.  By inhabiting his gestures, I could know how he would think or move in any situation, what he would do when I finally approached him.

On the Thursday, a week after I’d first visited, I saw him arrive, not leave.  Back home, at this hour in the morning.  Where had he been?  A night spent playing poker, or out with some other woman?  An over-eager studentessa needing help with her degree thesis, or a whore picked up near the station, more likely.  I tried to quell my anger.  He had been away on business, I told myself, and taken the overnight train back from Milan, anxious to get home early in the morning rather than stay in some anonymous hotel when he could be back with his family, who he loved, after all.

He could afford to have irregular hours.  A cattedra in law at the Sapienza meant a salary big enough for a Swiss bank, not to mention the commissions and kickbacks it entailed.  As far as I could tell he only worked a few hours a week, but would complain anyway as he spent his time playing bridge or watching television, up at their holiday home in the mountains or by the sea where he would go hunting for mushrooms or fishing while his brood skied or gathered on the beach.

So much they had, so much, while I had nothing.  A shabby coat, a pair of worn-out shoes, the dirt collected on them.  A meaningless job and a cold flat.  My anger, and my hope.

That afternoon I went to the university and found the times of his infrequent lectures, the days when his office door was nominally open to students.  I watched them, people only a little younger than me, the promise and hope in them as they carried their books to and fro and sat on benches in the early spring sun, smoking cigarettes and laughing.

The next week a pattern emerged.  Armed with his timetable, I began to work out the days he left early, the ones where he would leave mid-morning and those when he would not leave at all.  I was amazed by how our relationship had grown in the space of these few days.  It had been little more than a week since I’d even known of him.  I still had the clipped newspaper photograph in my wallet.  The halftone picture had yellowed quickly and its thick dots scarcely seemed to make up a face unless viewed at arm’s length but on that first morning I had recognised him immediately, his fatherly features already familiar.

By the second Thursday I was confident enough to tell Antonio.  We met as usual in the middle of the crowd by the pizza van in the Villa Borghese.  He told me not to be impatient and that I should wait.

But I couldn’t, and the next day I lengthened my stride across the road to catch him before he got in his car.  He saw me and looked confused a moment.  I wondered if he’d been warned, if he was waiting for me.  I reached into my pocket and pulled out a street map, asking him if he knew Piazza Pitagora.  He paused a second, sighing irritatedly, too important to be dealing with a silly girl, then waved the direction before jumping into the car.

The next time I met Antonio I didn’t tell him what I’d done.  He asked if I still had the picture he’d given me, and when I said I had he told me to get rid of it.  We decided the day, he told me what to expect, and what to do.

A Wednesday at the beginning of March 1977, less than a month since I’d first seen him.  I woke early and dressed without showering.  I put on my long coat, too heavy for the warm early spring, but the only one with pockets deep enough.  I carefully removed bus tickets, receipts and the lint accumulated in the lining.

When I arrived, the same time as every other morning, some workmen had stationed themselves outside the palazzo.  There would be other people watching, I knew, though did not know who or where they were.  The workmen wouldn’t bother him, nothing would.  He would already have been advised to change his schedule regularly, to leave and return at a different time each day and vary his route to work, but I knew a man as arrogant as this would have ignored the warnings.  They were after industrialists and politicians, he would have said, not seeing how he too could be collaborating with the padroni.  He had no guards and no escort, only his arrogance and the dozy portiere to protect him.  I walked along his street for the last time, my hand resting on the warm double-barrelled 7.65 and its silencer in my deep pocket.  All I had to do was hit him in the knee.  At such close range, it was almost too easy.

As he came out I saw that face again, his sneer of boredom, as if impatiently wasting his time.  I emptied myself completely; not scared or worried, I kept on steadily, holding the centre of pavement to block him.  He should have slowed or stopped, but didn’t, moving too quickly, not even noticing me.  He was closer than he should have been before I was ready; I’d misjudged him again.  We bumped into each other, so close I could smell him: a coarse musky scent, not the delicate one I’d expected, coffee still on his breath.  He finally looked up, surprised a second, then recognised me: the girl from the other day, asking directions.  A frown passed across his forehead like a question mark unravelling, a second, less, and then a look of resignation, the question answered, his fate acknowledged.  He opened his mouth, about to say something, but no sound came out.  The range was all wrong but I couldn’t wait, my hand moved swiftly and easefully into my pocket then out again, less than a second, the gun pointing down.  A shot, muffled, so soft.

The angle was all wrong and I’d been far too close.  A shout now, a strangled guttural sound, I couldn’t tell what he was trying to say.  I chided myself: instead of a clean wound the bullet had torn through half of his leg.  A scream shrilled out from somewhere across the street, blood flooded onto the pavement where he fell, so red, so bright.  I put the gun back in my pocket and didn’t meet his eyes even though I could feel them imploring me as I walked past, not yet breaking into a run.

Before I turned the corner, I was already trying to forget his name.

 

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