A short story from L’Economia Delle Cose, by Elena Varvello
She thought she’d dreamt about him. She was sure it was him. He was walking across snow, a line of trees at his back, a dark, compact mass flattened into the background. There were things, though, that she didn’t quite get. The way that the air was too clear, for example, and the fact that he looked younger. He was walking towards her, leaving fresh footprints in the snow. He just kept walking, and she was afraid he was cold, because all he had on was a shirt. And that was strange too: a shirt, in winter. She’d have liked to have asked him where he was going. She’d have liked to have told him to come home. That’s what she’d have liked.
Sara couldn’t have known what would happen. Not at that point. With her elbow resting on the open door of the fridge, she looked at the things arranged on the shelves and a bit of ice that had formed on the back wall.
She was thinking about dinner: lasagna, a roast, and an almond cake. She’d seen the cake recipe in a magazine. Next to the instructions, there was a photo: the cake’s soft crumb, its spongy, honey-coloured edge, a glaze of white icing. She’d ripped out the page and put it up on the bulletin board next to the fridge with a magnet, among the bills to pay and a balloon-shaped card she’d got from her mother for her last birthday, signed by her—her mother’s round, careful handwriting—and by the man she was going to marry.
She closed the fridge, guiding the door with her foot, and wrote down everything she needed on a piece of paper, from time to time tapping the pencil point against her lips. She was wearing a terrycloth bathrobe over her nightshirt and a pair of thick wool socks, her hair held back with a clip.
She wrote everything down, then poured some coffee into a cup and added a level teaspoon of sugar.
“I’ll bring you your coffee,” she said aloud in the empty kitchen.
Giorgio was still in bed, although he’d already turned on the lamp on the bedside table. Only his head protruded from under the covers: his sharp features, his pale blue eyes, his brown hair starting to go grey. He was a few years older than she was, but the fact that he’d passed forty a while back left him utterly indifferent—she was the one who had a problem with it, who felt time settling into her bones as it passed, into her joints and the muscles of her neck and back. She was the one who counted each new wrinkle.
She sat down on the edge of the bed and gave him the cup.
“It’s not too hot—you can drink it now,” she said, and looked out the window, through the wooden slats of the blinds. It could be night, she thought. The darkness slid over the walls of the house, bringing music with it, scraps of a song sprouting inexplicably out all that silence.
“I’ve got this song going through my head,” she said, “but I can’t remember what it is.”
Giorgio said nothing. He took a deep breath, yawned, and sat up, leaning back against the headboard.
“You’re going to be late,” she said.
He took a sip of coffee and stared at the shape of his feet under the covers.
“I’m not going to work today,” he said, and with his free hand he smoothed his hair, pushing it back. “You call them. Say I don’t feel well. I don’t feel up to it.”
He had a business that assembled and repaired computers. Sometimes she went to give him a hand: book-keeping, invoices to process, things like that.
“Is there something wrong?”
He looked at her, disappointment flickering across his face. “Why does there have to be anything wrong? No. There’s nothing. I just thought it wouldn’t be a problem if I stayed home for once. Is it?”
“No, no, it’s fine, I was just asking. You could have told me yesterday, though, and at least I wouldn’t have set the alarm. We could have got a bit more sleep.”
“I didn’t know yesterday. This is how I feel now. It happens.”
“Okay, okay. It’s no problem, I already said. Drink your coffee, it’s getting cold. I’ll call,” she said, turning back to look outside.
In the dark, a slight wind seemed to be moving the few leaves that were left on the branches, waiting to be swept away.
“By the way, I have to go to shopping. My sister never comes over and I want to make her something nice. Even though I know she just wants to talk about our mother. Hey,” she said, stretching her mouth into a smile, “you could come with me, if you like. We could go together.”
Seeing her like this, with that wide, bright smile, you would say she was happy, as if he had proposed to get the car and go for a ride, as if they were planning a trip after all this time.
Giorgio drank the last bit of coffee, then put the cup on the bedside table and stayed sitting up in bed, in his grey pajamas with their threadbare cuffs. He folded his arms.
“I didn’t remember anyone was coming over,” he said.
Sara tried to keep smiling. It was as if her face were reduced to that. All mouth.
“It’s not anyone. It’s my sister. I never see her. And I told you the other night. What, are you starting to forget things?”
“We never see my family either. It’s just a pain. And no, I haven’t got to that point.”
“Never mind. Let’s not ruin the day, okay? I’m going to buy groceries. You don’t have to come, if you don’t want to. But you might take a look at the bathtub tap, seeing you’re staying home. I heard it dripping last night,” she said. She opened her bathrobe and rubbed a hand above her breasts, along the edge of her nightshirt. Giorgio looked at her and then stared at the wardrobe.
“Fine, I’ll come. There’s nothing worse than talking about the same thing all the time.”
“And the tap?”
“Do we have to talk about it now?” he said. “Besides, I didn’t hear any dripping. Don’t you sleep at night?”
Sara leaned both hands on the bed and stretched her back. There was something strange outside, a shadow among the trees in this foretaste of winter.
“Sometimes I wake up.”
Lately, it had been happening often: she opened her eyes, went to the bathroom without turning the light on, and when she came back to bed she started thinking about her mother, about the fact that she’d tinted her hair a shade of blue, and she’d said she wanted to remarry, as she felt too lonely after the death of her husband. And she thought of the man her mother had decided to marry, someone she’d met at her social club, shorter than her, always decked out in improbably colourful jackets, a champion bocce player, her mother said, and a kind of melancholy closed up her throat, pricked at her tongue, keeping her from falling back to sleep.
“I didn’t remember about your sister,” he said. He stretched out under the covers again and turned on his side.
The parking lot was almost deserted. The sliding doors reflected a handful of cars and a dead tree near the shopping cart area. Giorgio stopped next to it and they both got out.
“You go in. I’ll wait for you here,” he told her, leaning against the hood, his hands in his coat pockets.
A young man came out of the sliding door, carrying a large cardboard box. He was wearing a cap with the name of the supermarket printed on it. Sara watched him walk toward the dumpsters and turned to her husband.
“Why don’t you come in? It’s cold. You can wait for me at the bar and have a coffee,” she said to him, even though she was sure he wasn’t even listening to her. He didn’t like going grocery shopping. He didn’t like supermarkets and those parking lots with their planted borders that nobody ever bothered tending. They’re desolate, he said. He’d said it again even while they were driving there, just before they arrived. Desolate. Nothing but piles of glass and cement, where all you do is buy and buy.
Sara didn’t know what to say when he started in on these kinds of speeches. She didn’t dislike places like this. She felt there was something nice about them, especially on quiet winter mornings, when the mirrored windows reflected the sky and the asphalt looked so clean and shiny. And besides, she felt stupid, hearing him talk this way: it made her worry that, for some reason, he might be right, and she was the one who didn’t get it, who wasn’t smart enough to see past the end of her nose.
“Okay, wait for me here, then. I’ll be quick. But do up your coat,” she said, before she went to get a cart. He was lighting up a cigarette.
She went first to choose her fruit and vegetables, and then went to the meat counter and mentally evaluated which was the best piece: there’d been a time, when she was younger, when she never would have done this. She would have taken any piece, the first that came to hand. There’d been a time when she would have been amused at a woman who concerned herself with such things. Now, though, she kept her shopping list in hand like a compass, as if it were something to hang on to. On dark days, days when she thought there was really nothing important to be done, she had the impression that for women like herself, the world might just keep shrinking down until it was small enough to fit into a shopping list. And then everything would seem to contract, to the point where she couldn’t breathe any more, as if the walls and the ceiling were closing in on her, and she wanted to leave, to walk quickly, her house behind her, shrunken down to a box, closed in on itself like a fist. She was fond of this place, though: she liked the flat, clear neon light, and the music from the loudspeakers, and there were pleasant staff with whom you could talk about the weather, the too-hot summers that went on and on, waves of heat and sun that burned your skin—or the cold that always came early. These were important things too.
She decided on a rump roast, and then placed shelled almonds, whipping cream, egg pasta sheets, and a bottle of red wine in the cart. Her sister liked to drink: it was one of the few ways in which she took after their father.
At the cash register, she started arranging the contents of the cart on the conveyor belt. Behind her was a young woman with an armful of milk cartons.
The cashier was a fat woman with bleached blonde hair done up in a braid pinned at the back of her neck, and eyebrows that looked drawn on with a pencil. Sara liked going to her, rather than to one of the others, and having a bit of a chat. She liked her, even though she had a grating voice and an odd manner—brusque, sharp—with people she didn’t care for.
“Bags?” she asked, and Sara shook her head. “You forgot to weigh the apples. Never mind. I’ll ask Rosa. Rosa, would you go weigh these apples for me?” She handed the bag to a girl who looked about fifteen, busy cleaning the conveyor belt at the next register with a paper towel. “Things are fine?”
“Things are fine,” replied Sara.
“By the way, did you hear?” asked the cashier, passing the items in front of the bar code reader. Sara looked at her: she didn’t get what she was referring to. She kept thinking about Giorgio, leaning against the hood in the cold, low morning light, next to the dead tree.
“You know the woman who used to work at the fruit counter? The blonde one. You see she’s not here any more? Well, I don’t want to gossip, but she ran away. And you know who with? With the senior manager, the guy who was always around the cash area checking up on our work. As if we didn’t know how to do our own jobs,” she said, lowering her voice and looking around.
Sara slipped her credit card out of the inner pocket of her wallet and gave it to her. “Really?”
She didn’t know what else to say. She remembered the young woman, not so much her blonde hair as her face: a mixture of impatience and barely contained annoyance; the way she’d purse her lips when customers asked for anything; the speed with which she’d put the bags on the scales, type a number on the keypad, and apply the adhesive label with the palm of her hand. But she didn’t remember ever having seen this man. It was impossible for her to complete the picture, to make them into a couple: next to the woman was a hole, a dark space waiting to be filled.
“And they’re both married. She even has a little boy. She told me that the heart wants what it wants. Right. These things don’t happen if you don’t intend them to.”
“I don’t know. It could happen. Who knows?”
Maybe she should have said something else, or maybe changed the subject, but she simply placed her things in the cart. The cashier gave her her card back, holding it between her fingers like the corpse of a tiny animal, and had her sign the receipt. The woman’s nail polish was worn, thin strips of bare nail showing through the upper edge. She gave off a sense that something inside her had been lost for good, with no hope of getting it back—a kind of wilting, a withering, covered in layers of heavy, hardened makeup—and that the same kind of thing would happen to every woman, and that the only thing to do was to learn to live with it.
“Well, there was a time when this wouldn’t have happened. Anyway. It takes all kinds. There you go. Have a nice day,” she said, looking at something behind Sara’s back.
She said goodbye and started pushing the cart down the corridor that led to the exit. At a certain point she looked back, still pushing, and saw the young woman with the milk cartons; she was smiling, shaking her head. She was sure that she and the cashier were talking about that woman, that they were both laughing at her, finding it all ridiculous and pathetic. A story you’d find in a fotoromanzo, the kind of thing that always happens to other people and ends in tears and shouting and regrets, with mascara running down cheeks and doors getting slammed. Then she looked to her right, at the shops with their display windows, padded bras, cellphones, a rack of newspapers and magazines, a poster with a model holding a perfume bottle in her hands and something written underneath in French. For a moment she saw a reflection beside the girl—a slightly overweight woman with an unfashionable coat, hair that needed a good cut, and a shopping cart full of food—and she barely recognized herself.
When she went out, the air had grown colder. Wind whipped through the parking lot. Giorgio wasn’t there, but the car was open, the keys in the ignition.
She opened the trunk as the wind ruffled her hair, placed the groceries in two boxes she’d brought from home, and then put the cart away and came back. She was afraid she was going to have to have an argument about having kept him waiting so long. She didn’t want to fight with him there, in the parking lot, where people could hear them. She didn’t want to fight at all. She didn’t like it when they said things to each other, when they lost their patience and he raised his voice, and besides, it was so hard to come back from it, to go back to being who they were before, and it kept happening more and more often, and the whole thing left her with a bad taste in her mouth and aching muscles and a lot of questions she didn’t have the strength to ask.
There had been good times, even if he never mentioned them, as if he didn’t remember them at all. But maybe it was just that he didn’t feel like talking about them, that was all. Maybe the problem was that everybody had too much on their minds. Of course. That’s the problem.
She couldn’t have imagined the dream she would dream later. Nor could she have imagined the dismay of waking up: the feeling of floating, with nothing to hold on to, in some kind of slippery, deceptive, moss-like substance.
Back then, sitting in the car, waiting for her husband to come back, she was thinking about the supermarket employee and the manager.
For no precise reason, she imagined them on a sun-drenched beach in some far-away island—one of the kind she’d seen in brochures in the travel agencies she’d visit every now and then, just for fun, to look around—stretched out in the shade of a palm tree, drinking something out of glasses garnished with orange slices and mint leaves, and eating shrimp grilled over charcoal, and taking photos, and then returning, in the evening, as the light became tinged with pink and orange, to their room with the big white bed, writing postcards to send to their friends, after they’d showered and hung their swimsuits out to dry. But maybe they wouldn’t write postcards. Maybe they didn’t want anyone to know where they were, and maybe she wept in the night while birdsong from unfamiliar birds drifted in through the open window, birds out beyond the gated grounds of the resort, trills and mating calls sent out among the leaves to attract the females, thinking about her little boy being unable to go to sleep, and he would hold her tight and rub her tanned back, because he knew too that now they were alone in the world, just the two of them, out there lost somewhere. They’d crossed an invisible line; they would never be able to go back, and besides, even if they’d tried to, if they’d tried to erase their running away, the resort, the beach, the fragrant sheets, the torches lit around the pool and along the paths to the sea, they wouldn’t be the same, not after what they’d done.
She shook her head, took a good deep breath, and looked around.
The parking lot was filling up. Women by themselves. Women holding children by the hand, or with children in their carts. An old lady in a silk scarf was walking a dog that kept stopping to sniff the tires on the cars.
She got out, locked the door, and walked around for a while in front of the entrance, then went in, stopped at the bar next to the elevators and ordered a coffee.
The barista had a diamond-like stud in her right nostril. She wore her hair short, like a boy’s, slicked back with gel.
Having drunk the coffee, Sara asked her if by any chance she’s seen a man in a blue coat and a pair of light-coloured jeans; she thought about it, and then said no, I’m sorry, lots of people come by here, I don’t remember a man like that, and she started cleaning the counter with a wet sponge.
“Thanks anyway. If he comes by, tell him I’m outside, next to the car,” she said as she paid.
When she was in front of the sliding door, she let it open and close a couple of times, letting the bursts of cold air hit her face, and then she pulled up the collar of her coat, holding it closed at the neck, and went out. The old lady with the dog was still there, in front of the entrance, sitting on a yellow cement bollard; she’d let her dog off the leash and was giving it biscuits from a box she had in her purse. The ends of her silk scarf fluttered in the wind.
Sara watched as the dog, crouched on the asphalt, got up on its hind legs and caught the biscuit in mid-air, making a good leap for it, like a circus animal. The old lady patted him, then blew her nose in a tissue, dropped it on the ground, and stood up. She walked slowly, her feet encased in a pair of orthopedic ankle boots, her legs apart as if she were afraid that the wind might knock her to the ground. The way she walked reminded her of something—her mother, her thin, downy blue hair, sitting in her little kitchen playing solitaire with a worn pack of cards, and, at the same time, a kind of opaque image of herself, of what she didn’t want to become—and she had to look away.
There was nothing left to do except take a walk around the parking lot. She walked away from the shopping cart area; she even looked between the cars, thinking that he had to be somewhere, and then looked behind them, beyond the dried-up flowerbeds—no more than little heaps of dried twigs—the sidewalk, and the road. She walked as far as the dumpsters, open and overflowing, where the young man had thrown out the box, and then went back, sat down at the wheel, got out the cellphone that she kept in her purse, and tried to call him.
She felt dizzy as she dialed the number. For a moment there was nothing, just a kind of distant hum, electric current along the cables, and she sat there waiting and didn’t end the call when she heard a metallic voice telling her than the phone was switched off: she listened all the way to the end before she hung up, put the key in the ignition and started the motor, then let it warm up and looked out again at the grey expanse of the parking lot. She saw the old lady, already a good way off, walking towards the road, her shuffling feet far apart, with the dog trotting behind her and wagging its tail. She watched them until they both disappeared from her rearview mirror as she pulled out of the parking spot.
At the stop sign, she paused a moment to stare at a billboard for a brand of lingerie, a beautiful, half-naked young woman hanging up there in all that wind. Someone in the car behind her honked. Sara glanced in the rearview mirror and saw a woman at the wheel, and the woman was giving her the finger and moving her lips, as if she had something important to tell her.
She looked both ways before turning onto the boulevard. Then she stepped on the accelerator and just drove.
When she arrived, the wind had died down. The sky was bright metal, the colour of ice; a white light was burning the street, the roofs, the little fenced-in gardens with their skeletons of swings and trees. Under the low sky, beyond the driveway, you could see the hills, and above them, the mountains sprinkled with snow.
She parked in the garage and sat still, her back against the seat, her hands on her knees. She looked at the shelving units that Giorgio had bolted to the walls, the shelves where he’d put the garden tools, the boxes of nails, the coiled-up hose for watering the lawn, old hiking boots, a pair of skis that had belonged to his father, all haphazardly thrown together, clumsily piled up and arranged according to some mysterious order—a strange, planned structure from which she would forever be excluded, like a child spying on adults sitting around a table and talking in low voices about things it doesn’t understand—then she roused herself at the thought of him on the sofa, sitting there smoking a cigarette after he’d taken his shoes off. How long did you stay in there? I got tired of waiting. I went for a walk, and then I noticed I’d walked all the way home and decided to wait for you here. I didn’t realize.
Sara would tell him to never do such a thing again. This time she would be genuinely angry, and she would be right. You tell me first, if this is ever going to happen again, if you decide to walk off. And then her sister would arrive. There was the still-damp tablecloth to hang up to dry by the furnace, and the cake to make. She needed to take the butter out of the fridge and work it into the sugar along with the almonds, whip the egg whites until stiff and add them to the rest of the mixture with a wooden spoon, folding gently, delicately, so that it stayed light. Giorgio would take care of uncorking the bottle of wine; he would taste it before putting it on the table; he would tell her that she could have chosen worse, but he would say it with a smile, as if it were a way of making peace. And finally, after dinner, they would talk about her mother getting married, and her future husband with those dreadful jackets of his, and her sister would say that mom must have lost her marbles, that maybe she thought she was the Blue Fairy. And they would try to figure out how they were supposed to act.
She took the boxes out of the trunk and set them on the ground. Let him come and get them. He could at least do that. He owes it to me, after what he did.
There was nobody in the house. Everything was in order, just as they’d left it when they’d gone out, two hours ago. There was only a kind of stillness, an almost tangible suspension, the feeling that houses have when you return to them after a long trip, when you need to throw open the windows and let in the fresh air. Beat out the carpets. Check that everything’s still okay. The feeling of stopped time that had spread over things like a layer of dust while the owners were elsewhere, inhabiting other spaces, sleeping in other beds.
She shut the door and stood listening: she heard water dripping from the bathroom tap, a quiet sound, barely a murmur.
She called him. She waited for his voice to emerge from some corner of the house, and then she called him again, even though at that point she already knew she would get no answer.
“Giorgio,” she said again, without thinking, more softly, more of a whisper than a voice, and it was as if that word slid out over the walls and then turned and came back, his name fading out little by little until it disappeared altogether.
She sat down on the chair without taking her coat off; keeping the handle of her purse clutched in her right hand, she gently rocked the wooden frame back and forth. Her purse brushed against the floor.
She could have called his office, asked if by chance he’d showed up at work, if he’d changed his mind. He could have taken a bus, or a cab; someone could have given him a lift, someone she didn’t even know. Because now it is clear that there are things she doesn’t know. Now she’s sure of this, and it’s as a piece of glass has been stabbed into her flesh, as if the world has suddenly expanded before her eyes, hurting her, forcing her to close them for a moment: entire stretches of ground and roads and houses and doors and rooms behind doors. And life in those rooms. But she does nothing. She simply keeps rocking back and forth. She needs to rest. She needs to catch her breath.
So. Where am I. I am here.
An island. The sunset from the porch of a bungalow, two wicker armchairs. A man is lighting the torches along the pathways. The pool maintenance worker dips a net in the water to clean out the fallen leaves and dead insects floating on the surface, spots of black or dark blue, shiny, iridescent, their wet wings stuck to their bodies. She can hear the sound of the water, stirred by the long pole of the net. The deep sound of the slow movement of water. The dripping sound when he lifts the net to dump its contents on the grass beside the pool, that mixture of things fallen and dead. The shimmering reflection of the torches in the water. The pale blue walls of the pool illuminated by lights on the bottom. The curved, imposing shadow of the palm tree against the fiery sky. The deserted beach.
She stays sitting there while the white light mixes with grey, erases the edges of things, one after the other, all of them, and in the end, her too, taking over the house. She doesn’t think about the passage of time, about the hours, all of them the same, until she hears the doorbell ring. Then she gets up, takes off her coat, smooths her skirt with her hands, and turns on the light.
Outside, in the meantime, it has started to snow.
Born and raised near Turin, where she still lives and works, ELENA VARVELLO is a novelist, poet, and teacher of creative writing. Her debut collection of short stories, L’Economia Delle Cose (2007) won the Premio Bagutta Opera Prima and the Premio Settembrini, and was nominated for Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega. She has since published three novels: La Luce Perfetto del Giorno (2011), La Vita Felice (2016), and Solo un Ragazzo (2020), the latter two of which have been translated into multiple languages. The English translation of La Vita Felice (Can You Hear Me? trans. Alex Valente) made The Times bestseller list and won an English PEN Translates award.
JENNIFER PANEK is an associate professor of early modern drama in the English department at the University of Ottawa; she translates from the Italian for the sheer joy of it. Her translation of Danilo Balestra’s novel Tirati a Sorte (The Luck of the Draw) was published by Atene Edizioni in 2019. The story she translated just before this one couldn’t be more different from it: a laugh-out-loud hilarious excerpt from Sandro Veronesi’s Terre Rare can be found in the Fall 2022 issue of American Chordata.
Retired children’s librarian ALAN BERN is a published/exhibited photographer and the author of three books of poetry. He is cofounder with artist/printer Robert Woods of the press/publisher Lines & Faces. Recent awards include: honorable mention for Littoral Press Poetry Prize (2021); flash fiction finalist for Ekphrastic Sex (2021). Alan photographs, and from his work with Lines & Faces, he combines his photos and words, now a vital part of his daily art practice, photo-haiga. View some recently published photos. It is clear that Alan favors both hybridity and complex collaboration: he performs with dancer/choreographer Lucinda Weaver and with musicians and light artists as PACES: dance & poetry fit to the space and also with musicians from Composing Together. Alan has published three books of poetry.