By: Gaither Stewart
‘…..There is the heat of Love, the pulsing rush of Longing, the lover’s whisper, irresistible—magic to make the sanest man go mad.’ (Homer’s ILIAD)
Alessandro Bramante was in love with love. Like other lovers Alessandro was the son of many generations of the sons of Venus. Like many Romans born under signs governed by the goddess of love Alessandro believed he had been sent into life by a unanimous decision of the celestial gods for the purpose of spreading about him earthly love. Married once, twice, now again a single, Alessandro was living his life serenely and creatively, open to the world, his imagination roaming in blissful unrestraint, it seemed in constant accomplishment of his god-given task. The unfolding of his life confirmed his belief that by virtue of his birth under the rule of Venus, the most beautiful planet in the solar system, his life was linked indissolubly to love.
Alessandro was a tall, slim Mediterranean type, of the kind Greeks see and then say, “stessa faccia, stessa razza.” Same face, same race. His hobby was what else but the classical studies of his student days: he continually sought and bought old editions of Latin and Greek classics, shelves of which lined one wall of his bachelor’s apartment. In his reading he strove to grasp the spirit of the ancient world, something elusive that he hoped to someday fully absorb. He searched for the one word, the one thought that explained the essence of things. Between one torrid love affair and the other, he liked nothing better than a quiet evening with Menelaus and Helen and all the heroes and gods of that classical world but at the same time reminding himself that his own life was pretty nice, too.
Unlike some of his friends today, he had never felt he was superfluous. His was a creative life, filled with challenge and variety, above all, a life of passion. Life thrilled him, though sometimes he felt something, a suggestion, a mere suspicion of a hint of confusion and exhaustion and only for an instant he might wonder if he was really fulfilling his life purpose.
Each time Alessandro loved, in his mind’s eye he somehow already glimpsed the end —each time he feared it would eventually again bring pain and sadness and suffering. Nonetheless he accepted his mission even though in more pessimistic moments he permitted himself the thought that loving was not worth the risk and was actually rather stupid. Therefore he promised himself over and over that his real reward was the ecstasy of loving.
All in all he was one of those persons aware that his life in general was passing in peace and love—as dictated by the stars. That is, despite his occasional doubts, he had been serene until the party where he met an old university acquaintance with the beautiful name of Melissa. Once a sloppy and shy, rather overweight student radical in the same politically engaged group in which Alessandro himself had militated, Melissa had not attracted him at all in those action-packed times of their first youth.
Fifteen years since Alessandro first met her, Melissa now wore her blond hair short and curly and sexy, used eye shadow and make-up, dressed in revealing mini-skirts and red high heels, and strands of multicolored necklaces and jarring bracelets that she constantly touched with her long slim hands, while her dark eyes fixed on him a curious, penetrating gaze.
She had married back then, she told Alessandro in her now strange and sensual language, then a year ago she separated from an unloving husband.
“Just as it was meant to be,” she said.
Alessandro recognized her: she was Circe, goddess and enchantress. The moment he saw her, he knew that resistance was useless. In an instant they seemed to meld together in a kind of otherworldly understanding.
“My grotto,” Melissa said later, drawing brave Alessandro inside her apartment on the hill. When her Saint Bernard reared up and licked his face, brave Alessandro caressed the dog. The goddess brought him delicacies to munch and suspiciously fruity nectars to drink and dressed him in a long crimson robe and silken slippers and played African music and sang in an unearthly voice as she moved about so gracefully in her magical preparations. She transported him back to a magic land.
The next morning dawn indeed came early. Quoting his favorite ancient Greek writer Alessandro told himself that dawn had arrived with rose-tipped fingers.
And so it went. For a spring and a summer Melissa fed him magic potions and feasted him on exotic foods and heady drinks and fondled him with her long slim hands. Sometimes, he told Circe she had transformed him into a passion slave; she only laughed her deep, nearly vulgar laugh. Sometimes, when he struggled to free himself; she just opened her arms and engulfed him. Night and day were confused.
He wondered how he could have been so blind to her fifteen years earlier. His friends when they met her also asked how it was possible he had missed her. Alessandro knew the answer all the time—human eyes could never see a goddess who wished to be invisible.
Only in infrequent moments of silence did he think, fleetingly, of returning to his own apartment, of returning to the reason he once knew, to his normal, ordered life. But the thought of losing this magic moment quelled such rebellious ideas. And he ignored the voice that sometimes sang in the night:
“But venom’d was the bread, and mix’d the bowl,
With drugs of force to darken all the soul…”
One fall morning Alessandro woke up, felt the absence of her body near him, and distractedly fixed his eyes on the ceiling in order to dissipate the vertigo that had begun afflicting him. When a movement across the room caught his eye, he lifted his head from his downy pillow and met her eyes. Melissa was sitting in the purple velour-covered chair, gelidly immobile as if in a trance. Her empty eyes were fixed on him.
“Enough!” she said and sighed. He understood her, sat up on the edge of the bed, and picking at his clothes piled on the floor had the thought that for this goddess everything was possible … especially separation.
“You don’t need me any longer,” she said. “Go back to your life and forget this even happened.”
“Enough!” Alessandro agreed, resisting the temptation to grasp her beautiful legs and to beg her not to break the spell.
From one day to the next, they separated. The enchantment was over. No Venus. No Circe. No magic charms and potions. At the door they shook hands.
In a daze Alessandro staggered back down the Aventine Hill in an uncertain gait, irresolute and vacillating, from time to time muttering to himself senselessly. But by the time he reached the pyramid, the giddiness had passed and his head had cleared, and he accepted that that too was part of the spell. Melissa had prepared it all, from beginning to end.
In his new lucidity he saw his Testaccio district with discerning eyes. It seemed he was returning home after release from a distant prison. He told himself Melissa had bewitched his body but not his heart. He was not unhappy to be free.
Alessandro’s third-floor apartment facing the Tiber River was unlike the apartments of other well-off Rome bachelors-lovers—its deep couches, thick carpets and exotic lamps contained a strain of Melissa’s magic. Days, when he was off to the studios, Melissa had transformed his apartment, too. Now, mornings and evenings, high above the riverbank, he liked to gaze up the silent sweep of the Tiber, straining to see around the big bend. He could just see the tip of Tiberina Island.
Invigorated and renewed, Alessandro gradually returned to the real world. Melissa had given him new impetus. New programming, new technologies, new relationships resulted. People began telling him he looked younger. He felt a new existential joy. Though it was again fall and the rains would soon arrive, he felt he was entering the burgeoning springtime of a new life. Only when he drove along the avenue at the foot of her hill did a shadow pass before his eyes and he might miss magic Melissa who seemed to have again returned to the mists shrouding the mythical Aventine.
On a Friday in early spring he got home shortly after noon to prepare for a weekend in Ischia with a new lady conquest. It was rush hour. Women of his building were returning from shopping, men from work, and children from school. No sooner had he closed his apartment door than his buzzer sounded. A male voice on the intercom announced a registered letter. He should come downstairs and sign for it.
Without a second thought he ran down the stairs, opened the massive oaken entrance door … and was promptly assailed by a torrent of blows, fists, elbows and feet. His ears ringing, his eyes closed, his legs collapsing under him, he felt his front teeth crack and ivory and blood fill his mouth. Lying in the foetal position on the cold marble floor, heavy shoes crashing into his ribs, his groin, his neck, he saw as in a dream a red face above him and heard himself yelling in his dream, Aiuto! Aiuto!… in the same moment his collarbone popped.
A distant siren howled. Female voices sounded from far off. The fury of the blows ceased. Later, he became aware of the white and green, heavenly white, earthly green, of people in white, masked in green. Nurses whispered senseless nothings to him in the Fatebenefratelli Hospital on Tiberina Island. And while he was wondering about the spinning world he was in, he saw again the face framed above him—a thick red face, with splotches of the white of the eyes and the black of the beard and hair … and he knew.
He knew his assailant. It was her husband, Giangiacomo. Or he was once her husband. Giangiacomo too had been in their university crowd. Weird even then, everyone said. A violent man of action, the first one on the barricades against anyone in uniform. Alessandro reconstructed how in her more earthy moments Melissa had recounted that she’d been married, yes, but had separated a year ago. She claimed she was a single.
Bent forward with a hand holding his lower stomach, Alessandro limped around his apartment trying to grasp life. Giangiacomo! Giangiacomo! He peered out his window toward Tiberina Island as if for salvation. Again and again he returned to the bathroom mirror to examine his shattered front teeth through swollen lips and hanging jaw.
His phone rang like a midday siren.
“I’m coming back to kill you!” the voice shouted. “You stole my wife, you figlio di puttana. If you dare denounce me to the police I’ll kill you if it’s the last thing I ever do.”
“I know you,” Alessandro whispered in a thin voice deformed by his missing teeth, “Io so chi sei. I know who you are. I’ve already filed charges. You’re going to jail … and I’m suing you for what you did to my teeth,” he hissed, aware that ch sounds were issuing through his cracked lips like c.
“And I’ll denounce you too. You whored after my wife and promised her God knows what. And you caused me to break my hand.”
“And you humiliated me in front of my neighbors.”
A few minutes later, the phone rang again.
Melissa: “Don’t do it, Alessandro. I beg you. I will pay your dentist bills if you will drop the charges. Or better, Giangiacomo will do the work for free.”
“Giangiacomo! Work free! That mad man is a fucking dentist? He’s as crazy as you are. You and your magic grotto.”
“I’m afraid, Alessandro. Afraid for you. He says he’ll kill you. I think he will.”
“The police will stake out my apartment. If he even comes near here they’ll arrest him on the spot.”
Then again, Giangiacomo on the phone: “Watch your step, figlio di troia. Every day, every night, I’ll be there. When you go to work, I’ll be following. On your way home, I’ll be two steps behind. When you’re least expecting it, I will kill you. I’m coming to kill you, the man who stole my wife.”
“She told me she was separated … you were divorcing … she was single.” But he had been so eager to be deceived. Had God created him this way, so gullible to any fraud just to have a moment of magic? Or was it just her nature to go to any lengths to give pleasure? He admitted that she was hardly different from him who would resort to any ruse to make his prey fall in love.
‘I’m going to kill you,’ the lethal words echoed.
“He insisted we try it again,” Melissa said. She was no longer mysterious. No longer Circe. No enchantments. No magic potions and crimson robes. “I had to give him another chance.”
Once more Alessandro’s life was unreal. Signs and omens and auguries and foreboding occupied his life. He slinked about town, one eye over his shoulder. He thought of wearing the disguises he’d been famous for as a child. He stayed home at night. One morning as he was locking his car in his reserved place at the TV station in Parioli, he noted with trepidation the motorcycle at the curb nearby. The cyclist was immobile. Eyes and beard stared from under a red and black crash helmet. Alessandro stared back. The cyclist slowly raised an arm with a hand encased in plaster and shook it slowly like a club. Alessandro stared transfixed as the Martian turned the heavy cycle slowly, slowly, and glided toward Piazza Ungheria.
In the next weeks it happened over and over again. One day the killer was waiting in the same place, mounted on the same Yamaha. Another day he waited in a luxury Mercedes. Sometimes he came on cold mornings when Alessandro arrived at work. Other times when he went out for lunch. Or Alessandro would look down from his apartment windows and hallucinate that the Yamaha was transformed into the Harley-Davidson revving down below or that the Mercedes had become the Jaguar parked along the Lungotevere riverfront. And he knew. Another evening, another telephone call. Only heavy breathing at the other end. But Alessandro knew. He always knew. He was out there. His life was in danger. The man was mad.
Alessandro’s whole world had become total ambivalence. The pedantic methodical plodding legal process proceeded on parallel rails to the unrelenting non-stop quotidian terror inhabiting him.
‘What are new teeth and a victorious lawsuit in comparison with my life?’ he asked himself. ‘But what is life without justice? Without recompense? And without love,’ he added. For where was his star now? Where was his Venus? His star seemed to have retreated to the outer edges of the firmament.
‘A bitter victory,’ Alessandro thought. Awarded fifteen thousand euros damages, his dental bills were five thousand, jaw wiring three thousand. ‘Seven thousand euros profit,’ he thought ironically.
Not only for the loss of his teeth and his damaged jaw and his offended dignity but also his star had been ripped away from him together with the aphrodisiac of Circe’s magic potions and crimson robes and silken slippers and African music. For the first time in his life Alessandro felt tired. The fatigue of life weighed heavy on his shoulders, creeping down his legs, and also infecting his mind.
Evenings, he took to staring at the heavens in search of his lost planet of love. He was suffering. He came to see the ambivalence of his empty life.
What was it echoing in the distance upstream—the rustling of troubled waters? The sound of a riverboat horn? Ambulances racing up the Lungotevere toward Fratebenefratelli Hospital? The silence from Trastevere across the river mingled with Testaccio’s nocturnal clamor? Whatever the sounds, his interior longing for something unknown held full sway over him.
And again, as each time he suffered over the absence of love, he turned to his music. Sitting near the window, his newly polished cello between his knees, he whispered, ‘Oh Venus! Come back, come back.’
Shrove Tuesday was suddenly there before star-sick Alessandro even realized it was carnival season. The Rome winter had been exceptionally cold but the sunshine that day contained also the first intimation of spring. Here and there white, yellow and pink mimosas bloomed. His people, journalists, news announcers and technicians, organized their annual costume party in a downtown hotel.
“No!” he answered to their entreaties. “No parties this year for me!” He wouldn’t show his anguish and his loneliness. With his sensitive teeth, his wired jaw, his fallen star, he was in no mood for Mardi Gras.
“This is your time,” his secretary said. “Enough of this Ulysses story! Enough! When the moon turns over, Alessandro, the past disappears.”
Alessandro went to the party dressed as Cupid, listlessly nude, sluggishly loveless. He was carrying a child’s bow and arrow. People glanced at his bow and arrow, then at him, and turned away. The band played American and Neapolitan music while untrammeled, nearly naked people danced, laughed and fondled each other on the floor, their very merriment increasing his feelings of alienation.
Alessandro talked little and stuck to the walls of the ballroom, ‘as Venus does to the sun,’ he whispered to himself. He could only dance the waltz and there would be no waltzing tonight. With a lost look in his eyes and from time to time flexing his bow, he wandered into the bar and immediately stopped in his tracks.
He felt first the dim recognition. Then a flash of light. For there she was! Another Circe! Like Melissa at home she was dressed in a crimson gown and wearing black silken slippers.
Just as Cupid does in Cranach’s Venus, he pointed his arrow toward the floor, murmured light-headedly, ‘Here we go again,’ and sat down beside her. His passion was about to return.
Alessandro’s glance met hers and he felt magic’s power descend on him. Yet, yet he remained disenchanted. He waited. Nothing. He was aware that he no longer felt fear of a new adventure. No fear of this new Circe, or of a potential maddened husband. It was a revelation. A new sense of freedom surged through him. For in that moment as she reached her hands toward him, he believed he had finally understood that Eros was after all Cupid’s bosom companion.
Alessandro inhaled her exotic perfumes and sighed. Again, real life was about to begin.