I open my front door after the doorbell rings two or three times, thinking it’s the postman. Instead it’s her. Tall and beautiful, she looks at me with a tight smile on her lips, and asks if she can come in.
I look off in the distance at an undefined spot, because her dark, fixed gaze has the power to make me feel uneasy, even though I’m on my own turf, in my own home, and I shouldn’t feel so uncomfortable.
Luca Bruni left a half-hour ago with a pile of papers under his arm to go to the prosecutor’s office, and I have a cup of coffee in my hands that’s still half full. My hair is uncombed, I’m wearing an old red sweatsuit (I haven’t been to the detective agency in two days because I’ve had a fever), and before her in her fur coat that cinches at the waist and shows off her hips and her perfectly made-up, oval face, I feel slovenly and careless.
As soon as I open the door wider to let her in, Giusy, Luca’s wife twists her lips into a grimace that I don’t know if I should interpret as hostile. Please come in, I say courteously, inviting her into my chaotic kitchen. I point at a chair and say, “There’s a little coffee left over…” (Then in a flash, I think of how when he left, he mouthed the words, “Ti amo,” after giving me a kiss that tasted like orange juice and toothpaste.)
Giusy sits down and lays her hurt eyes on me.
I light a cigarette. Then blowing on a long match, I ask her, “Do you mind?”
“Yes, but this is your house.” She lifts her hands in a gesture of resignation.
I take a drag and I lean my lower back against the oven handle. She looks at the row of wooden kitchen cabinets above the sink, the map of Italy hanging next to the round, orange clock, the refrigerator covered with magnets. I smooth over my knee distractedly as I wait for this woman to insult me or propose some kind of truce. It’s difficult to hide our mutual mistrust.
With a nervous gesture, she tucks her brown hair behind her ears, making her hoop earrings dangle. Then she slowly loosens the beige silk scarf tied around her neck.
“We’ve always addressed each other informally, with the ‘tu,’” she says.
It’s true. In the past, at some of the dinners where she accompanied him, she and I happily talked just enough to realize we didn’t have many topics in common to discuss. Giusy has never approved of the friendship between Luca and me, in part because she’s never pretended to ignore the growing intimacy between us. But perhaps she never imagined he would leave her – moving, at least temporarily, to my house. I force myself to smile at her, but my mouth dries up while I tell her, “Yes, you’re right.”
“I don’t like playing the jealous wife,” she says, trying to be friendly, “and I’m not here to reclaim my property. Things haven’t been good between Luca and me for a long time, but as you know, we have a son, a boy who in a month’s time will be 16 years old and his grades are a disaster – he doesn’t study, he doesn’t do sports, he has few friends and a father who he sees very rarely…”
I avoid telling her that the two of them need to talk about their son on their own; as she takes off her jacket and places it on her knees, I can’t tell if she wants to intimidate me or win me over. Her low-necked shirt, which hangs to one side, leaves one shoulder bare, revealing the lace of her bra. I wonder if she’s trying to create a sense of complicity that we’ve never had and that we’ll never have when she reaches her hand out toward my arm, and lowering her voice, says, “I suppose he told you that I cheated on him, too. It’s not really a secret. But marriage is marriage, you know, and a son is a son.”
I can’t resist feeling morally wrong about the end of their marriage, even if I’m almost certain that it wasn’t my doing. Luca held on for years and always put family first, although sure, heading up the detective squad probably did take him away from his son at times. I realize I don’t even know the name of this boy, and I wring my hands, overcome by a new sadness, which is not knowing a whole lot about the person I think I love.
He’s been living here temporarily for three months, ever since a summer holiday on the island of Elba during which we solidified our romantic rapport. But neither of us spoke about the future, renting a larger apartment or living together. Luca and I are allowing ourselves a teenage-style “here and now” affair, and maybe, as my friend Mel says, we won’t make it long enough to eat the traditional Christmas panettone loaf together. Even though Christmas is luckily still a ways off.
“I have a law degree,” Giusy is saying, “but it’s not easy going back to work at my age. I know Luca will make sure I have everything I need, and in any event, he’s not asked for a separation yet.” I feel as though I’m trying something out, like a costume you rent for Carnival. “I have friends who find themselves in the same situation. All around 50 years old, they’re in shape, they’re smart, attractive, but they are absolutely certain they would have preferred to grow old with their exes instead of winding up alone at this age. Their husbands lost their heads, in typical fashion, over younger women. That’s the way of the world,” she said, laughing without any joy. “You, at least, you’re not young anymore...”
I take one last drag of my cigarette, and then I stub it out on a plate. I wonder if she is beating around the bush because she doesn’t want to tackle the argument straight-on, and if I wouldn’t just prefer her hatred rather than all of these little confidenze.
She looks at me, narrowing her eyes. “Do you know him?” She asks me. “Do you really know him?” She doesn’t give me a chance to respond. “Luca is reserved. He can be icy, when he wants to be. And he won’t ever let what he really thinks leak out. He’s also focused on himself and on work, and in that way, old school. I never thought he would leave me, I would never have thought it was possible for him to fall in love with someone else… I should be happy to be rid of his cold-blooded ways, his pretended neutrality every time I threatened to leave him…” She tilts her head to the side, looking at me. “Do you know what I said to him before he packed up and left? That he’s a caveman when it comes to feelings. Unfortunately that’s exactly what I think.” She frowns. “And now, he’s yours.”
I look at her with a calm but determined expression. “So why are you here? To warn me? What do you expect, Giusy? What are you going to get out of talking to me?”
She flashes a knowing smile. “I could tell you that I’m sure he will come home, and I’d be telling you the truth. You seem like a passionate woman, and Luca knows nothing about passion. Maybe you’ll leave him first, fed up with having someone who’s all sharp edges in your bed. Yes, that comparison fits. You’ll collide, and you’ll hurt yourself.”
I want to tell her that Luca is tender with me, in addition to being passionate, but I’m not going to let myself get dragged into a childish game of taunts.
I refuse to defend him or me, and I think to myself, this woman is gripped by anger, which even though it’s understandable, isn’t about me.
The only thing I know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that I don’t want to be friends with the ex-wife of the man I’ve been making love to for the last three months. I begin tidying up to indicate that the conversation is now over.
She gets up. “He will come home. It’s not a threat, Giorgia, nor am I suggesting you prepare yourself for that. He will come back because he’s been taught to come home. That’s how he’s made. The fact that right now he’s with you, that’s a weakness that makes him uncomfortable even at work. He’s a wall, but a fragile wall, and he’ll crumble. Luca won’t stand for gossip or change. You’re leaving him defenseless, and he doesn’t like feeling that way.”
I’d like to tell her I feel defenseless, too, but I’m not going to give her any information that she can use to set a trap for me, and besides, I’m angry with myself for not being able to respond tit for tat. She moves toward the hallway, with me following barefoot, eyes on the floor. When she reaches the door, she extends her hand to shake mine, but I don’t take it.
“I came to tell you I don’t consider you a rival, that we’re not a war with each other. For as long as this thing lasts, I won’t cause you any trouble.”
What does she expect – that I’m going to thank her?
“But you should know that I won’t consent to a separation, that I will ask for more child support, and that he’ll have to find a way to take care of Mattia. I don’t know if he’s serious about you. Maybe he is. He’s serious about everything,” she laughs sarcastically, as if being serious were a character flaw. After that, she goes for the element of surprise. “Maybe you don’t know that he had someone else. A judge from Piacenza named Gloria. It lasted a month. Oh sure, he said they never went to bed together but came close. Harrumph, I would have preferred he had a good fuck and came back to me satisfied. It would have been more… umano.”
I stare at her as I bite my lip. “Maybe he didn’t want to hurt you, Giusy. Maybe he really believed in your marriage.”
She smiles at me patiently. “A marriage is for life, in good times and bad. Luca and I have always thought the same way about this. Passion has nothing to do with pacts that it’s best not to renege on. Passion is a passing fancy. You can betray your partner but not your part, the part of someone who one day signed a contract and has worked hard to honor it.”
I chuckle out of embarrassment. “You don’t love each other anymore, giusto?”
“If that was all it took to end a marriage, no one would be married anymore.” Her smile is stamped out in her sudden haste to descend the stairs, and I have a strong desire to slam the door behind her.
I pick up the phone thinking I’ll call Luca and tell him about his wife’s little visit but then I change my mind. Two days ago, a woman from Crevalcore who had filed police reports against her ex-husband for stalking three times was found with a knife plunged directly into her heart while she was picking out a carton of ice cream in the frozen food section of the superette. She’d turned to the polizia for help, and I imagine she was told the same old story, that they would have to catch him in the act, with a knife an inch from one of the chambers of her heart, to be able to act. I know all too well that Luca never forgives himself when he isn’t in time to stop something like this; I know his cold rage, the burdens that he carries without railing against the deficiencies of the government and the laws. He’s a passionate and careful policeman, he has his personal crusades, and he’s never self-indulgent. He doesn’t tolerate anything slipping through the cracks, and he’s tough on his “boys,” who generally admire him in a way that’s almost pathological.
Luca isn’t attractive. He has sharp, non-linear features, and he’s not tall but well-proportioned, and he has eyes of the color of sulfur that don’t allow evasion. Last night he told me, “A single blow punctured her heart. One clean, lethal blow.”
He told me that two police out in cruisers had arrived on the scene, they’d called the dispatch center, then the detective squad. The man, charged with homicide, was taken away with his hands still bloody, and apparently he was laughing.
I’ve known Luca for 10 years, and I know how he works. He’s not someone who takes on blame, but rather responsibility. Blame you can atone for, he says, but responsibility you can’t delegate to anyone else.
A year ago, he was able to nail a railway police agent who had killed his girlfriend with his service revolver. The man had disappeared into thin air; his cell phone wasn’t even transmitting a signal. Maybe he’d gotten rid of it.
A colleague made sexist remarks about the crime that Luca didn’t appreciate. It wasn’t the first time that in cases involving sexual violence or murder he’d heard a policeman say, “She was looking for it.” But this time he reacted by spitting an inch away from the agent’s heavy boots. They’d then found this guy from the railway police in the middle of the night, seated in a half-deserted terminal at Marconi Airport, with a ticket to Barcelona in his hand. All they had to do was log onto the Web on his computer and look through the Web sites he had bookmarked. It wasn’t hard. When they found him, he was on his way to getting drunk, and he sobbed like a child, repeatedly saying he was ruined, an inch from insanity, and that they had to take care of him, that he loved his girlfriend and other bullshit like that.
In that moment, Luca could only think of a white bloodied sheet, the stiff corpse of a 20-year-old woman on the pavement, and the injustice of her death, which was infinitely greater than the justice of an arrest.
Giusy was right about one thing: Luca doesn’t analyze his feelings. He feels the way he does or he doesn’t. I’ve never seen him shove a suspect or insult one. Luca only wants to do his job. He doesn’t hide behind the bureaucracy that can keep cases stalled or the lack of a budget or staff. His investigative style is obsessive, as Dürrenmatt, the Swiss dramatist, might have said. He gets under people’s skin, slowly exasperating them with irritating, relentless monotony until they give up. Luca keeps going like a steamroller. He doesn’t have preconceived notions, and he isn’t easily influenced by others.
I’ve seen him pull out the most angelic smiles before delinquents of the worst kind, but rather than investigate their interior lives and judge them, he looks for proof to nail the guilty people, and he does it with a Manichean streak, a black-and-white duality, which protects him from obstacles like doubts or nuances. For Luca, in life as in work, a seat is beautiful if it’s comfortable, and a killer who is guilty has no excuses, not even if he had a difficult childhood. This morning, watching him struggle to check his frustration over a death that perhaps could have been avoided, I put a Paolo Conte disk in the CD player, choosing the track Fuga all’inglese, which made him smile.
I imagine right now he’s focusing the stray bullets he has for eyes on the man who left two children orphaned and motherless, the umpteenth man who responded to the end of a love affair with the cowardly act of murder. No, I’m not going to bother him with any silliness about a wife going to visit her husband’s lover. Because that’s what I am: a lover.
Considering the solitude inherent in my vocation, a solitude which I methodically developed before ending up in Luca’s arms, I’d say ‘lover’ is a label that doesn’t displease me. Rather, I hate myself because to tell the truth, the only thing I’d like to ask him on the phone is, “How come you’ve never mentioned this Gloria?” But Gloria, the judge from Piacenza, can wait.
After a shower and another coffee, I walk to the agency. On the way, I make my way through a sort of Chinatown, a neighborhood that’s actually called Corticella, where I walk among Bologna natives who’ll get angry over anything and the indefinable, almost humble politeness of Xin who works in a bar on Via Ferrarese and who one day explained to me that his name means “reliable.” I have a cream cornetto wrapped up for me while he happily shows me a rotating lamp with pictures of little characters on it, which he bought at Ikea for his daughter who turns 8 today. The few customers in the bar are all Chinese, including one drowsy, overweight man sitting in a chair and another man, younger, who’s standing in front of a slot machine. Outside two other customers are seated at a table next to a bicycle rack, and they’re deep in conversation, talking in that fast, cartoon-like tongue of theirs.
In this residential neighborhood, it’s hard to find a restaurant that doesn’t serve steamed dumplings. I pass the display windows of a large clothing shop, and I wonder how many basements here harbor Chinese women, who sew these cheap clothes night and day.
When I enter the third-floor apartment that’s been the headquarters for the Cantini Detective Agency for 15 years – Cantini as in me and my father, a former marshal in the carabinieri now retired – Genzianella, my young assistant, barely bothers to look up at me.
She’s in her little alcove, at the computer, surrounded by court filings arranged in a row. She’s dressed once again today like someone from the 1970s: a checked mini-skirt with large red and brown squares, and a high-necked sweater that clings to her ample chest. Gen, as I call her, has the air of someone who’s off-kilter, and she is. Ash-blonde hair pulled back in a felt hairband, thick stretch nylon socks that expose her round, red knees, she has the childlike look of someone who can marvel over just about anything.
She’s not 30 yet, and she hasn’t had what one would call “a life,” but she’s managed to wring the wisdom of an octogenarian from the few experiences she has had so far.
She likes eating and drinking well and in abundance, thanks in part to the home cooking of her mother, her grandmother and her aunts with whom she lives in a large country house in San Giorgio di Piano. She’s a rabid reader of thrillers, and she’s only had one boyfriend. He was enough for her to decide the entire male gender is a lying, unfaithful bunch.
This massive, tall girl, seemingly outgoing and old-fashioned, eases my workload with surprising whimsy and zeal. In an era in which young people – whether they’ve gone to university or not – are jumping ship to look for their fortunes outside of Italy, she flushes violently just hearing people talking about moving to London, as if just mentioning it is enough to make her uncomfortable.
She has a sacred bond with her family, even if she’s an atheist and a Comunista, like her grandfather and great-grandfather, both dead now for a while. She’d never abandon her downhome, protective extended family to follow some fleeting fancy. She’d never have brodo that wasn’t produced by using her hens. She’d never give up Saturday evenings dedicated to playing card games like briscola or 3-7. She’d never give up her old VCR that still works for a DVD player, and she’d never speak Italian to her grandmother who only speaks a dialect. Basically, she’d never do without the rugged older relatives who surround her, with their sayings, their healthy principles, their yawns in front of the TV, or the summer evenings spent in the yard being eaten alive by mosquitoes though no one complains, the scrambled eggs for breakfast and the proud indifference toward the pharmacy in town, or the home remedies doled out to the family’s livestock instead of seeking a veterinarian’s treatment.
Genzianella is someone who honors her roots each day, as if she were a servicewoman on a mission, tilling in her own garden, who would never betray it for a swing through downtown Bologna much less a relocation to London or Paris.
Her fearless peers, who go abroad for waitressing jobs or other jobs that pay better than the ones here, fill her with compassion.
If she did what they did, she would die of homesickness, the same brutal nostalgia she felt for her old Nokia cell when I made the mistake of giving her a Smartphone. If she lived in a big city, she would feel the pressure and sooner or later, she’d have a mental breakdown. She wouldn’t be able to tolerate other people’s anxiety, she says, or the constant haste, or the competition, the conversations conducted via cell phone with ear pieces, the MacBooks arrayed on sticky tables at McDonald’s, sunsets hidden behind 30-story buildings, the ID badges adorning even the aprons of the guy at the deli counter, the snack machines, the plastic taste of the coffee that comes from automatic machines, the pre-prepared foods packed in Styrofoam containers, the dogs with muzzles, the romantic rendez-vous in saunas and gyms, the automatic sliding doors of retailers, the constant sound of traffic, the garishness of the shopping centers. Not to mention the crooked psychologists who are worse than astrologers, the fake martyrs of the economic crisis who snatch panettone loaves at Christmas time and the desperate stabs at youth by the people who don’t know how to fade gracefully.
She needs open space, fields and sky, she says, the smell of her grandmother’s moth-eaten fur, the dazzling play of light on the low houses, the old-fashioned gestures of courtesy, neighbors who help you shovel snow, cemeteries without embellishments, the echo of rain falling on the fields, the proud Luddite credo that doesn’t trust modern times. She is a beauty queen without a crown in a tiny world that doesn’t tolerate whims, drafts, kowtowing, smoke in your eyes, real or fake Rolexes, hours spent in the weight room, dishwashers that whir, career-minded go-getters or bad manners. That’s Gen’s vision of the world, in broad strokes, and I can add that I’ve seen her cringe in a restaurant bathroom when I grabbed a paper towel from the dispenser to dry my hands.
“What are you doing, Gen?” I ask her, as I open a bill that’s come in the mail.
She doesn’t stop typing. “What you asked me to do yesterday,” she replies briskly. Then she puffs out her chubby cheeks and exhales, sighing a quick gust of breath. “I’m creating a Facebook page for the agency. Now I need to invite people to ‘like us’.”
“Okay, start with your friends,” I say from the hall.
“I don’t have any friends,” she says calmly.
I open the door of my office where the window has been left wide open since the day before yesterday. But the odor of smoke hasn’t gone away. It’s an ancient odor that lingers. I close the window so I don’t jeopardize my health, although it’s a rather mild day toward the end of September. I cough twice and then I hear Genzianella’s voice from the other room, “Are you okay? Do you want some aspirin?”
“No, my fever has already passed.”
I turn on my computer. With her tongue pressed against the inside of her cheek, Genzianella steps across the threshold of my door and places a folder on my desk.
“Are you sure we’ll find new clients on Facebook?”
I know that asking her to take care of the agency’s Facebook page has been a bit tough for her, and she only did so after my former partner, Lucio Spasimo, explained it all to her with the patience of a saint. Given Genzianella’s complete lack of technological prowess, I’d feared she would bring along an old Olivetti typewriter when she first started working at the agency.
“Everything helps,” I say, stretching my arms out. “Even Facebook.”
“Yesterday when you were out, three women came by.” She clears her throat. “One of their close friends is getting married, and they want to give her a gift.”
I don’t see how this involves me. “So?”
“They are convinced that the groom is a no-good cheater. And for a wedding gift, they want to give her a photo album of his indiscretions so it will open up her eyes. And they don’t care how much it costs.”
“Nice friends,” I chuckle.
As usual, she doesn’t get my irony.
“I agree. I gather he hit on all three of them and naturally they told her but the poverina had already bought the wedding favors, and the white dress, and the rings, and booked the reception hall, etc.”
I flop down on my swivel chair and look out the window. “If I follow, Gen, this gift would need to be given before the couple gets to the church, no?”
“They’re getting married at City Hall, but the idea is the same.”
“Okay, so instead of the set of silver candles, these three friends want to give their pal another surprise, although it’s not really a surprise since she knows about her fiancé’s adventures.”
“It’s a bit strange but whatever.”
She bends over to open the folder and show me the information she gathered from the three of them. “Take a look yourself, boss,” she says, as she walks toward the door. “I could give you a hand, if you’d like,” she says, standing in the doorway.
Curious, I look at her. “In what way?”
“I could stalk this guy, take some photos, pretend to hit on him.”
Ever since Genzianella came to work for me, she’s never left the office for work. She answers the phone, files paperwork and the like. She has actually helped me solve some cases, mainly by her accidental, though very valuable, intuition. Nonetheless, stalking someone is hard, not to mention that the last thing I can imagine is her flirting with someone.
But I don’t want to offend her or give her a talking-to. Lighting a cigarette, I stall for time.
“I’ll call this woman Marilù Bergamini,” I say, reading a name from the folder, “and maybe you can set up an appointment.” I remove an air freshener hanging from a table lamp on my desk and say, “This isn’t working.”
“Given how much you smoke, I’d say no. Now that you’re sick, you should try to cut down.”
“Then I’d totally lose my voice.”
She doesn’t understand but keeps going. “Oh, one more thing. I ordered some of what they call mechanical repellers.”
“Maybe you haven’t realized it but the window sills attract pigeons. I’m not crazy about pigeons. They live on average five years, and each year they produce 12 eggs. In other words, they reproduce at the speed of light. More than anything else, it’s a hygiene issue. Pigeons carry more than 40 diseases, including salmonellosis, ornithosis, chlamydiosis, histoplasmosis, and…”
I cut her off firmly with a wave of my hand. “So we’re going to kill these poor little doves, Gen?”
“No, no, boss, I read in a magazine that these repellers have stainless steel tips that don’t hurt the birds. You know, if my grandmother were involved, all she would have to do is shout at them once out in the country and there wouldn’t be another pigeon within a mile but here in the city, everything is so disorderly here and especially…”
She stops talking.
“Especially what? I ask, with feigned calm.
She lets out a big sigh. “They coo, boss. They coo all day. It’s so annoying.”
I walk through the streets, sweating through the jacket I’ve wrapped myself in out of fear of a relapse. I wonder if these little seasonal ills are part of the price I have to pay for the vulnerability Giusy mentioned this morning.
I’ve always believed love lowers your immune system’s defenses, and to tell the truth, I’m not one to use the word love easily. But without a doubt, what I feel for Luca is something that resembles love, and the weeks we spent at Capoliveri, cocooned excitedly and naturally in our own bubble, have brought new anxieties and uncertainties.
The recklessness of youth, that thrilling and stubborn audacity, isn’t something you can relive. But the memory of the night in August in his Opel, with the seats leaned back all the way and the rain beating hard on the windshield, reminded me of the times when I was young, an era where you’re always looking for places to hide, and I would hole up with a friend in a blue R4 at the top of a hill, smoking joints, zippers undone, in the reassuring darkness of the smoky car, afraid of being discovered. It was that same sense of freedom that I felt with Luca last summer, riding the time machine by the sea on that rustic island, with a storm outside and him and me safely inside, laughing and making love.
I don’t know what’s going to happen between us in the future; I can’t predict. I don’t know if our impossible personalities will know how to handle everyday life, and especially living together.
I take a seat in a bar and order a panino al prosciutto and a coke. The sun beats down through the bar windows, and people pass by with grocery bags full of food. It’s a Thursday like any other, and this is a city where I don’t know if our lives are still better than those of people living in other cities. People who move to Bologna from somewhere else fall in love with it and often don’t ever leave. It’s a city that wraps people up in a kind of harmless indolence as if it were a jealous matron, and won’t release you, won’t let you go. But it’s not immune from a creeping tension that makes people beep their horns, that nurtures swearing and discouragements, that makes us rude and walled off from each other. The changing times, someone has said, have emptied cities of public libraries but not restaurants. Food has become our only placebo, and we’re stuffing ourselves and stockpiling liqueur that help us digest it all.
Shopping centers are closing, and in their place pharmacies and gold-buying operations are sprouting like mushrooms. There’s the air of a ceasefire, as if we’ve been emptied out into a sad limbo, waiting to see if things will change on their own.
I look at the blank faces of the people passing me by, and there’s a sense of otherness. Everyone seems to be proudly minding his own business. No one’s looking at his neighbor’s grass anymore, maybe because everyone knows it’s not actually greener.