Translated from the Italian by Johanna Bishop
ritornare indietro tra le cose punto per punto sbriciolarne il lato terrestre Bartolo Cattafi
He’s standing motionless at the window, turned away. Waiting. On the tall side; thin. Hair getting long in back. When the door of the room opens, he spins to face it. With a Renaissance pallor, of powdered nacre and mother-of-pearl. Between the ears of a faun. He’s left his glasses on the nightstand, his gaze is questioning. A vagueness that’s absolute, unrelieved. He seems to be alone, in the room. No noises from the bathroom. The synthetic bedspread looks unperturbed.
She closes the door behind her and takes a few hesitant steps forward. Everything is as it should be—tidy. But she stays. Takes it in again. The table with water marks, cigarette burns. The triumphal headboard reflected in the mirrored wardrobe. The translucent Chinese carpet. Her hands are on her sturdy hips, where her apron is tighter, straining the buttons. A strand of grey-streaked hair has escaped the mass gathered at the nape of her neck. And she’s watching him. He’s coming toward her, polite and frightened. Wafting his own fragrance. He’s asking her something insistently. In a language, two languages. She doesn’t understand. He’s upset. He’s trying to explain, showing her paperwork with stamps, signatures. She doesn’t understand and takes her hands off her hips, shifting her weight on her dark legs, her clogs.
He’s getting more and more agitated, irritated. He tries making a call, but his cell phone must be dead, or has no signal. From the bedside phone he gets no answer. He makes as if to leave, putting his glasses back on. Goes to the door, grabs the handle. But then he thinks better of it. He takes his glasses off again and sits down to clean them with the corner of the bedspread. The whole time he keeps talking. Without much conviction, now. He’s telling her something, his tone is confessional. Hunched over, head down. He’s dispirited, can’t look at her, disappointed. She doesn’t know how to help. She sits down beside him.
I’ve got less than ten minutes to make up the room. Second floor at the end of the hall, on the right. Unless I misunderstood. Languages have never been my strong suit, to be honest. But that’s not mandatory. I’m educated, went to university and beyond. And my own was enough for me. One at a time is enough. I’m good at plenty of other things. Fast, too. At eating. Working. They know that, they always make me run up at the last minute. I’m quick. And quiet. No point in struggling to communicate in this place. Just clean fast and that speaks for itself. I’m methodical. What floor was it again? Methodical, yes, you have to be. Because at first it can be daunting. You don’t know where to start. The guests don’t give a damn, they leave an unholy mess. How can they make such a mess just fucking? When people are fucking, they should be busy fucking. Where do they find the time to empty the minibar, move the furniture, stop up the toilet, flood the shower, take down the curtains, blow the lightbulbs. In an hour or so. While fucking. Because in this place they pay by the hour. Day rooms, that’s the specialty. Whereas they pay me by the month. A pittance, but I need it too badly. I moved to this country just to survive, a question of basic necessities. I can’t afford to be picky. For now, that’s how I exist. I materialize only when the hour-long couples are done. Quietly. Then disappear. For now, I make do with that. Maybe the rest will come along. Maybe another language even. The hallway on the right or the left? It must be somewhere. My method also helps save on emotions. When I go in, I try to focus on being efficient, without getting distracted by details. Because I’m vulnerable to details. The ruined stocking amid the sheets, the magazine with a page ripped out. I risk getting blindsided. By tenderness. And when that strikes my mind starts to stray. And then it all goes to hell. I get lyrical and think things I’m ashamed of later. Do things. My method is to plunge in headlong, go straight to the windows. To get rid of the smell. In an hour or so these folks also manage to retrace the entire olfactory history of evolution. Sweat, tartar, feet, stomach acid, tears, ass, ammonia, menthol, tropical roll-on deodorant, energizing shower gel, fluorescent wisteria douche. You have to open the windows right away and hope for a cosmic wind. And quickly strip the bed in the meantime. Empty, toss, fluff. Clean and disinfect. First the room and then the bath. Straighten and tidy. Make it look decent. The guests don’t have high standards. They just want cheap intimacy for whatever time they have. Not enough for a house, or an overnight hotel. And maybe, in any case, they perform best in sporadic bursts. Just like me. They’re most excited by the countdown. The room at the end, that was it. This one? It was the hallway on the second floor, right? I’ve got to hurry.
They sit there, next to each other, until he gets tired of talking. And when he tries to put his clean glasses back on the nightstand, she takes his hand. It’s small, listlessly delicate. She holds it a little in hers, so inert, then unfolds it, opening his fingers one by one. And then slides it down the neck of her apron, under her bra. His head jerks up, he wants to retrieve the glasses that have fallen on the bedspread. He’s feeling for them with his free hand. But she seizes that one, too. Calmly, the way she would a frightened little beast. And slowly, patiently, slides it into her bosom, on the other side. Now they’re very close. At the mercy of eyes, of breath. He clenches his jaw, resists, but doesn’t pull back his hands. He gives in to the warmth, the soft breathing. His eyes are no longer lowered. She brushes them closed, since she has both hands free. She caresses his eyelids. For a long time, running her fingertips back and forth. And his badly shaven cheeks. Long, narrow ears. It’s hard to restrain her mouth, she has to swallow, gulp back all the kisses she could. But it’s too soon, she wants to go on feeling him, let the caresses go on. His neck, the vein that can be glimpsed running through it, pulsing. His thin shoulders, as far as she can reach under his jacket, his shirt yet to be unbuttoned. He’s tired, very tired, and she keeps caressing him. Lets the shadows grow, grow stronger. Along with the desire.
Just when it’s all decided, approved, the doubts kick in. The panic. They say that at this point about seventy percent change their minds. A considerable percentage. And you can see why. It’s much worse than DIY suicide. You’re not acting instinctively, in a fit of despair. The leap into the void, the handful of pills. Here you’re delegating it to someone else, to professionals. They’ll handle it. It’s “assisted”, according to the contract. Of course, you have to drink the lethal cocktail yourself, so they don’t get their hands dirty. But that doesn’t make much difference. Not all aspiring suicides are accepted. They only used to look at applications from the terminally ill, death already had to be a given. Now they’re more compassionate, they even take people like me. Who have never had strategies for living. Who aren’t capable of them, who were defeated from the start. And who at some point stop trying. Mono-bi-tri-quadripolar, exponential. Multipathic, with a collapsed energy grid. And often, as a result, addictaholics, concentric destroyers of their own potential. The panel of experts has decided that in my case, too, death can be considered inevitable. It’s out there waiting for me and they can give me a painless ride to the appointment. They’ll see to serving me the fatal glass. For a tidy sum, of course. But shouldn’t that be true for everyone? Aren’t we all on the list, sooner or later? Shouldn’t it be enough to admit that you can’t wait any longer? But instead the procedure requires formal certification. The dead person’s death sentence. Plus, a wire transfer. Which I took care of right away, as an extra disincentive to second thoughts. In the end, they mailed me the verdict along with the date set for my execution, and directions to the appointed place. I’d met with them once before, for some routine questions at an anonymous international airport. To see whether my application could be considered. But now I’m here, in their country, in their city. I’m going to meet the death that I’ve asked them to summon. My last day is about to end by proxy. In a biodegradable plastic cup proffered by one of the few associations in the world that deals in bespoke death, and lends assistance. I’m terrified, it’s trite but I have to admit it. And I’ve been going in circles for at least an hour now; I can’t get my bearings. They told me right off that the clinic they usually work out of no longer exists, that it was closed down by government order after repeated ideological clashes. Of course, the thing they’re selling is a hot potato, it has to be handled with finesse. A place devoted to that alone would stand out too much, inspire dismay. Better to hide it, dissimulate. Better to take a cue from death itself and pretend to be something else. So, they’ve been forced to switch over to smaller, more anonymous facilities. On the inside nothing has changed. There are still the doctors, nurses. But it’s less conspicuous. Of course, the new locations are harder to find. The information they gave made it seem easy enough. Name and address clearly shown. Directions by public transportation. But at the crucial juncture I’m totally flummoxed. And I can’t even ask for help, here on the edge of town there’s nobody out and about. And what would I ask, anyway? I think maybe I’ve walked by this place already, I don’t know. I’ll double-check. A little seedy, but this might be it. No one in the lobby. Just a rack to pick up the keys, leaving your ID in the cubby. There’s only one key left. I take it off the hook, then put it back. Take it off, put it back. It’s true I have all the paperwork with me. And I’ve already paid. Everything else must be up in the room. What use would a traditional receptionist be, at this stage? I take the key one last time. Deducing the floor from the number, I slowly climb the stairs. Soon enough all of this will be over. Here we are, the numbers go up on the left. So, it’s to the right. Even, odd. Down there, it must be the one at the end. I knock. No answer. I’m a little early, after all. I open the door a crack, look inside. Try going in. They must be on their way. I close it behind me and go to the window. I don’t want to look around me. Just outside. I feel like I’m struggling for air as my final afternoon comes to an end. Check my watch. Still a few minutes early. I take off my glasses and set them on the bedside table. I go back to the window. The room faces north, looking out on a blurry courtyard. They must be almost here.
She caresses him. And as she caresses him, she moves her mouth to his twisted mouth. Fingers on his thighs, knees slightly parted. She licks his pale lips, just barely. Then pushes her way in, tongue seeking his tongue. Her fingers undo things, down there, and burrow in. Until he responds, and his hands. They graze and grab, now, moving from her breasts, her nipples, straight down her belly, further down. They’re small, and so warm. Persistent, persisting. More.
And she slides down between his feet, between his legs. Leaving him all her hair in exchange, her head to embrace. After a while she comes back up, and they hold each other close in the middle of that sea of nylon. Over and under the facade of clothing. Which melts away. So, she can find his delicate skin again, the fragrance she smelled as she came in. She lets him do what he wants, now, giving herself over with all defenses down. Yielding everything to the collaborative hands that she nurtured at her breast. That she recognizes within every hidden need, as they surprise her. At her mouth, her mouths. He’s grown everywhere, alive now, demanding. There’s nothing keeping them apart now. Fabric, gestures. A silence gone amiss. They’re together, deep down. Deeper down. As if happy, for the meantime.