The Writer

Stefano Zangrando
The Writer
It all started with a book, her last novel. “Please read it” my neighbour, Pia, had said to me, who was a friend and admirer of this writer whom I had neither met nor read: every time I saw her photograph in the papers or on television, she seemed too beautiful to be as talented as they claimed. Chauvinist thinking on my part, probably. But what was certainly true was that this time even Pia seemed uncertain, perplexed and she begged me: “Read it and tell me what you think.”

It was an unusual request. Pia had often spoken to me about the writer, but until that day she had never invited me to read her work. I had always believed that her admiration for her betrayed a kind of platonic love, a repressed homosexuality and that the writer’s work was therefore something she kept her for herself. And yet this time she was asking my opinion, her neighbour, the teacher. So I went to the bookshop and I bought the novel.

I read it with growing agitation. It was, without a doubt, the work of an extraordinary talent, of a real writer, and yet something in that novel eluded me. The whole story centred around sexual assault, but the book offered no kind of moral judgement on the act, on the contrary, it revealed only a disillusioned perspective on the world it was judging. And a capacity, astounding for an author barely thirty years old, to inhabit characters which were mature, seasoned and about whom it was impossible to say whether they were more cynical or authentic. And yet something continued to elude me. It was a snub, a snatching away of understanding. The reflection of a shadow. I didn’t know what to say to Pia.

A few weeks later, at the end of May, Pia knocked at my door. She knew that at the end of the school year I would disappear for a month, I would leave my house in the city and make for the mountains, far away from everything.

Her writer friend was looking for a place to rent here in the city. “She can’t stand the coast in the summer,” Pia told me from the stairway and she asked me if I would sublet my three-bedroom apartment to the writer for a few weeks. “Of course,” I replied a little too quickly, “I’d just have to meet her to hand over the keys.” It didn’t occur to me, then in front of Pia, that I could have given her the keys to pass on. Pia must have sensed something because she didn’t offer herself as a go-between.

We met the three of us on the first day of August at a restaurant near my apartment. In the previous days I had exchanged a few emails with the writer and her responses had always been laconic, with measured punctuation and syntax that left no space for emotion.

But the attractive, slightly washed out-looking young woman before me, in whose presence I felt the need to exhibit a forced brilliance, was far from stony. Rather her face, those beautiful features under that short brown hair, betrayed a listlessness that risked tipping over into defensiveness, into irascibility. Yet the writer laughed, laughed heartily, in a manner which somehow suited that studied nonchalance of hers.

I left her the keys, filled with a desire for her to occupy my space, to fill it, and that last night I slept at Petra’s. The next morning, bright and early, I left for the mountains.

When I returned to the city, the writer had already been gone for some days. Pia gave me back the keys, and when I entered my house, a new smell greeted me. For a moment I hoped it was hers, the writer’s own scent, but it was only the detergent she had used to do a final clean of the house, different from the one I usually used. Apart from that sugary smell and an envelope on the table with the money we had agreed for the rent, there was no trace of her.

That same day, it was the first of September, I called the school secretary and announced that a month from now we could expect a visit from the writer. Then I wrote an email to the latter and invited her to present the book, said that she could stay with me, offered her a paltry fee, which was all that the secretary would permit me, and hoped she would accept. She did.

I went to collect her from the station early in the afternoon. Her hair was even shorter than last time and her clothes were black, androgynous, and emphasised the slenderness of her frame.

I passed on greetings from Pia, who was working an afternoon shift that day. She might join us after dinner, I told the writer, and I took her straight to school.

The visit was just ok: the writer read, narrated, explained her work, but the pupils struggled to understand her. One pupil whispered to me that she found the writer “complicated”, another, who should have been in the class above but had been forced to repeat the year, called her “a snob” and one of my colleagues declared her “too sophisticated”.

In the end the writer signed a copy for one of my colleagues, not the one who hadn’t liked her, another, a science teacher a year from retirement.

After the talk I suggested we stop by mine so she could drop off her bag and her personal belongings, but the writer couldn’t be persuaded. We went straight to a bar, had an aperitif, then we went to a trattoria, I stood her dinner, and we drank some more. When we finally got to mine I got out a bottle of rum. We sat the kitchen table and drank. Pia didn’t put in an appearance.

We talked the whole evening and into the night, growing steadily less lucid, and the more we talked, the more depressed I became. I was a balding schoolteacher almost fifty years old, what the hell was I thinking? But above all, the writer could talk of nothing but writing, writers, publishing houses, translations, reviews, prizes. I humoured her, tried to take an interest in what she was saying, but in reality I was dazed by her appearance, by that shatterproof beauty that not even the alcohol could dampen. It was going to consume me, I could feel it, I asked her some questions but could find no route into a more intimate subject matter. The writer remained impenetrable. She remained merely a writer.

When I offered her my double bed, suggesting I spend the night on the sofa, the writer refused. She would prefer it, she said, if she slept on the sofa.
The day after, despite not having lessons, I woke early, made myself a coffee, sat at the kitchen table and switched on my laptop.

The writer awoke an hour later. I heard her open the door of the room and soon she appeared before me in her pyjamas. We said good morning, and as soon as I lifted my gaze, though I wanted to be discreet, my eyes fell on her bottom half: at her pelvis, beneath the hem of her shirt, the soft, elastic cotton of her lightly-coloured pyjama bottoms hugged her thighs and the flatness of her groin. And also, as I saw when the writer turned away to make herself a coffee, her perfect buttocks, the narrow line of her hips.

I turned my attention back to the screen. Shortly after, the writer retired to the bathroom to perform her first ablutions, I suspected.

At that moment there was a knock on the door, and I heard Pia’s cheerful voice on the landing.

Translation by Rosanna Forte
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