For love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave; the coals thereof are coals of fire, which have a most vehement flame.
The Song of Solomon 8:6
1. FATHER AND SON
Lights from the nocturnal city below framed the silhouette in a disquieting pale halo so that the windows of the solitary apartment building at the summit of the hill looked like the portholes of an ocean liner. The image never failed to remind him of Fellini’s majestic Rex sailing past near the Adriatic shore in the night.
He placed the plate of radishes on the coffee table. This evening was like so many others. Even his feelings in this precise moment resembled other identical moments of his life. He shivered as always at his awareness of the mystery of time and place.
The temperature of the twin bottles of Dom Ruinart lying in the refrigerator, cool and composed, waiting patiently, was perfect. Sliced potatoes and two sea bass were ready for the oven. He would warm the apple cobbler during the cheese course—aged Chèvre and a creamy Gorgonzola. Vanilla ice cream would complete the cena perfetta.
His latest fixation, he knew, was contradictory to his life style. In these times it made no sense to even attempt to arrive at the Elect grade. Still, simplicity, charity, purity, a free soul and striving to be a good man were fundamental. Salvation could conceivably arrive through perfection. And even though he agreed that it was also a matter of vanity, how rewarding the thought that he was perhaps the last genuine Cathar in Europe.
He heard the key in the lock, the door opening and the slow footsteps down the corridor of his dreams. It was beginning.
“Buona sera, Andrew!”
The soft voice from the doorway jerked him back to reality. Though he’d begun calling himself Andrew years back, he was still surprised to hear the Anglicized version of his real name, Andrey. He was glad Sergio now used his own key. He’d given it to him a month ago chiefly for the pleasure it gave him when Sergio let himself in. It upgraded their relationship to that of father and son.
The Sicilian asked how he could help.
Andrew-Andrey looked up from the trays of salmon hors-d’oeuvres and nodded.
Buona sera! Buona sera! Actually there was little left to be done. Anyway, whatever Sergio did, he always had to re-do. Well, he could set the table. He might learn to do it properly.
“The usual,” Andrew said, meaning that the dinner was to proceed according to protocol but that Sergio should make some choices on his own.
The younger man pulled down plates from an overhead cabinet and then peered for a moment at the silverware in the drawer. Which would he choose? Andrew nodded in approval when he extracted pieces of the new Scandinavian silver. Just as he’d hoped! Simplicity, transparency, essentialness, cleanness of lines. That’s good taste. Hélas, his adopted sons tended to forget the quality things that make for a good life. Respect for taste and regard for fashion! Rules and order! Disorder, he knew, was the anteroom of chaos. Yet such thoughts made him uneasy. It was still a mystery where his own striving for aesthetic perfection came from. Most certainly not from his disorderly Russian parents. In his heart he sometimes wondered if he knew what good taste was.
“My problem is that in my twenty years at home I never got to know my own father,” Sergio said, picking up the topic of fathers and sons of the week before as Andrew expected he would.
“Maybe we never know our parents,” Andrew said, pouring them each a small glass of white wine and handing one to the younger man. “Especially not our fathers.”
“Sad, no? And mine at least has never known me either, no more than he protected and loved me.”
“Well, Sergio, protecting and loving you doesn’t mean knowing you.”
“It’s a mental thing, Andrew. He’s twisted. He only acts sane.”
“Hah! Sounds like an Oedipus complex!”
“Maybe you’re terrifying to him. Sons usually are … to their fathers. Did you run away from Sicily or from him?”
“I just feel more secure here.”
“Probably because of friends here who care for you.”
“I didn’t have any close friends at all there.”
“You should know by now that men seldom have close friends in life.”
“I wonder why not.”
“There’s something about the male. In his heart betrayal seems to be always only a hairsbreadth away … and mistrust and jealousy too.”
“Still, everyone wants to feel loved.”
“Love’s always the question … and not only between fathers and sons. But maybe our maleness forbids what our hearts want.”
“That above all. And I miss my father’s love.”
“Still, you can’t go through life worrying about things beyond your control … maybe impossible things like where we come from.” Andrew was convinced that in practice everything was predetermined, step by step, adventure by adventure.
“Besides,” he added, “more and more men are afraid of love. Too stingy to show emotions and share themselves. Maybe your father is like that.”
“But I want emotions. And love. Still, I’m afraid of having it, then losing it.”
“Some people think we need violence and intrigue and suffering to be alive.”
“Bah! Sicily, you mean? It’s not only a question of emotions. I mean, what about the biological relationship?”
“I don’t rate that very high. Still, you’re also in competition with your father.”
“Right. As I got older he couldn’t bear seeing me kiss my mother. My own mother! Sicilian jealousy!”
Andrew followed Sergio’s eyes gazing out the big kitchen window over the waves of slate rooftops scaling down the hill of Monte Mario. The Sicilian fingered the gray cashmere scarf he wore year round that lent him an extra touch of elegance. People in the neighborhood often took a second look at him, as if surprised at not having noticed immediately his elegance. His blond hair and blue eyes of distant Norman ancestors were a contradiction to the habitual morose expression on his square pugnacious face.
Sergio must feel more at home here than in his Cefalù on the sea. His refuge was here. Maybe right here on the hill, where without her Andrew too felt increasingly a stranger. Somehow it assuaged his own estrangement that he gave Sergio something fathers cannot—disinterested care. He knew Sergio better than his father did. He saw him as he was and not just what his biological father needed to see. Relationships based on blood were far from secure. The fact that he and Sergio were not father and son had saved their relationship—that is, until what happened, happened.
From the start the Sicilian’s vulnerability had awakened a special tenderness in Andrew’s heart. And envy too. The way he tilted his head when spoken to. The way he remembered every word spoken around him, words that others didn’t hear. Sergio paid equal attention to everyone. When the five of them were together he could follow several conversations at once. Sergio seemed to see each of their lives with different eyes. It was if he saw things from a great height. Cathars were like that. He sometimes wondered if Sergio was not the natural Cathar. Maybe it was Sergio who attracted the other three men who made up their strange male family.
Since Maria Luisa left Andrew had spent his affections on his adopted sons. He loved Calhoun’s innocence and Dmitri’s rootlessness and especially Bertoldo’s sensitivity. And he’d given to each of them as fathers give to sons. But of all his “sons” he loved Sergio most—Sergio, a kind of biblical Joseph in his elegant scarf.
Oh, Andrew knew they took advantage of him as sons do fathers. That saddened him. Yet they needed him, just as they needed each other. It was the interpenetration in each other’s lives that counted. Still, though he was old enough to be their father, it was after all only friendship. True friendship, he’d believed—until the betrayal.
2. FAMILY GATHERING
Sergio set five places, again contemplating the straight modern lines of table and chairs. The soberness of the dining room atmosphere was palpable, balanced and essential, nothing excessive, crowned by the fiery red of Dmitri’s abstract painting hanging on the wall opposite the window. Was this combination the good taste Andrew meant?
The doorbell rang.
Sergio buzzed open the street door five floors below.
Andrew took off his chef’s apron with Galleries Lafayettes written in script across the front, rearranged the place settings and replaced the paper napkins Sergio had chosen with green linen, leaving one paper napkin at Dmitri’s place.
Calhoun’s huge shadow preceded him down the corridor toward the living room. Just back from Africa, the longhaired, outrageously handsome American dressed in a variety of jackets and scarves and bright red gym shoes was carrying a bag of Kents.
Andrew disappeared in the giant’s bear-like embrace.
Dmitri was on the way, Calhoun said of his roommate.
In the same instant the doorbell rang again.
“Where are you coming from now?” Calhoun asked the Russian in Italian when he walked in, grinning at Dmitri’s habitual look of a displaced person. He’d answered the phone from just outside the door.
The painter shrugged.
“I still don’t know if Dmitri lives with me or not,” Calhoun said. “He’s there and he’s not.” The others knew the Russian’s habits. As a rule Dmitri slept wherever he happened to be at the end of the evening.
Andrew poured the champagne and remarked that Bertoldo would be late. “He has a new fiancée … she lives close by, on Via Balduina.”
Now Dmitri opened his cell phone. “Out of the bed, amore mio!” he said. “We’re all here waiting for you.”
“Nomad, our communications center,” Calhoun said. The five of them were in constant communication, texts and e-mails, several times a day, short messages, jokes and jibes, tricks, one-word comments on life, sharing joys and sorrows.
“Ours is a modern family,” Sergio said ironically, “without women.” It was true, he thought, they hardly spoke of women anymore. They were a male club … since Maria Luisa left. But too effete, too bridled, too idyllic to be a real family of father and sons. Real feelings were suppressed. No talk about feelings. Too embarrassing. Chained and bound by good taste. No slammed doors and storming out in a rage. No blood and sweat and tears. There was something unreal about their relationship. It was devoid of genuine warmth and the filial overtones Andrew implied. Sometimes Sergio wondered what the cement was that held them together.
“Ta ta ta ta!” Andrew hummed Beethoven when Bertoldo nicknamed Amore walked in, masked in his habitual red-faced silence. “I spread the notizia,” Andrew said. Bertoldo nodded, taking some radishes. Congratulations! Congratulations! New year, new job, new woman. They tasted the hors-d’oeuvres and toasted with Dom Ruinard. Andrew’s ‘a tavola’ echoed from the kitchen. The fish and potatoes and a vegetable quiche arrived. Calhoun described the music he’d recorded in the villages of the Cameroun for a RAI Five reportage.
Calhoun-Gringo paused to listen to the radio music station on in the other room. “Frères Jacques!” he commented.
“What?” Bertoldo. “The night club, you mean? Or the group?”
“The song,” Gringo said. “Frères Jacques, dormez-vous. Free jazz.”
A few minutes later the theme returned, Frères Jacques, barely perceptible. They sang it.
“What an ear!” Bertoldo-Amour said.
“My job,” Calhoun said.
Andrew watched Dmitri gazing at his painting on the wall. “Do you still like it?” he asked the painter.
“I like it but I sometimes forget I did it.”
“That’s the way it always is,” Sergio said. “You write it and the next day it no longer belongs to you and you can’t imagine you wrote it.”
3. MEN WITHOUT WOMEN
Sergio felt awkward. He stared at Dmitri. The Russian seemed innocent and otherworldly, loved by all, pampered by all. Why is it that life pampers some persons and neglects others? Who is Dmitri underneath his loveable mask? Is he so good? So perfect? What’s his secret? Did he escape too? His father, alone in St. Petersburg. Silent canals. Baltic winds. Does he feel guilty for his mother’s death? Why is he still here? Also for love of Maria Luisa?
“The words, I mean,” Sergio stammered. “The ideas, they disappear.” The unformed idea strikes you like a bolt of lightning … and is gone before you can grasp it. You sit there with your fingers on the keyboard trying to reconstruct what you knew was perfection. But it’s gone. And you can never recapture it.”
He fingered his scarf. Desperation! The poverty of what you put on paper in comparison with the original spark. You nearly had it, the zigzag of an idea. But it’s an elusive dream. The illusion of darkness. You know what it could be. The gap is the problem. The gap between what for the lightning flash of an instant you perceive and what you get down on paper.
After one good book, the Sicilian writer was in crisis. No one knew what it was and he was unrevealing. In recent weeks his morose nature had turned lugubrious, his silences longer, his eyes vacant. He knew they suspected it was a woman. In recent times it had happened to each of them.
Andrew poured a Brunello 2003 to accompany the cheeses. Ostentatiously Dmitri poured himself bubbly San Pellegrino water.
An odd group, Sergio mused. All except athletic Calhoun-Gringo smoked like fiends, but none were drinkers. Once the champagne was finished, they sipped modestly the best of Italy’s wines from Andrew’s cellar.
“We drink even less than Sicilians,” Sergio muttered, gazing at Dmitri.
“And speak like Buddhists,” Dmitri said, staring back belligerently.
“A saintly band, we are,” Calhoun said.
“The missing female presence,” Sergio said, looking toward Andrew.
“Maybe,” Andrew muttered.
“Maybe what?” Dmitri said.
“Maybe their missing presence,” Andrew repeated.
“But we can talk about them,” Calhoun answered.
“Misogyny is rampant here,” Bertoldo murmured, ill at ease in his new love affair the others considered practically incest. She was the best friend of his woman companion of a lifetime, and thirty-nine years old, three years his senior.
“And you, Gringo, no word from the night club woman?” Sergio asked Calhoun to shift talk away from hints of the missing presence of Maria Luisa.
“What night club? She’s a model … and we broke up.” Calhoun had suffered over the dancer during two years of attraction, seduction, betrayals and jealousy. She’d left him for a rich Arab prince, he claimed. They all knew she bore a striking resemblance to his beautiful mother he was half in love with.
“I once knew a dancer at that same club,” Dmitri said. “Big tits! But they’re not so good-looking … just made up and painted well. She was English.”
Sergio didn’t look at Andrew during the female invasion he’d ignited. Maria Luisa had been gone less than a year.
Maria Luisa gone. Calhoun’s model marrying an Arab prince. Bertoldo with his girl friend’s best friend. Dmitri jumping from one affair to another. They’d all had their love affairs. Most went wrong … or were wrong. Not all of them were secret but talk about them was reductive.
4. MARIA LUISA
Sergio blushed. Mara Luisa! Crazy Maria Luisa. Almost contemptuously she’d erupted into his life. By chance! One afternoon over a year ago he saw her sitting with a man in a cafè on Piazza della Repubblica. Inside the window their hands and legs were locked, their heads together. In an instant he’d grasped the nature of the threads linking them. He could interpret their words breathed from mouth to mouth, soundless through the glass window. He perceived their smells of passion and desire. If he’d only turned away! But Dmitri turned and saw him outside. He’d joined them.
Maria Luisa had been unhappy among Andrew’s former Russian friends. For her bourgeois family they were still immigrants. She didn’t understand them. When Russians came, she went to bed … or out. But now, here she was, inside the plate window, locked in Dmitri’s arms. The only Russian left in the world. No, he would never penetrate the mind of woman.
It was hard to interpret. Dmitri was no woman chaser. He would never have initiated anything with Maria Luisa. Women came to him. He was the eternally seduced. But Sergio had noted her attraction to the Russian before she left Andrew, her occasional touch on his arm or hand. It was her growing desire. Sergio imagined Dmitri’s attempt at resistance to the wife of the man nearly his father.
Oh, Maria Luisa knew the art of seduction. It was instinct. Hers was an infallible intuition of the fault through which she insinuated her desire to him. The very smell of her desire augmented Dmitri’s pulsations and dissolved his resistance, his reason and willpower, his control over himself. Her desire evoked his disorderly nature.
Long before that fatal day standing outside the café looking in, Sergio had felt his own growing desire for Maria Luisa. He hadn’t understood. Now he knew it was predestined. There was nothing to stop it.
Strange that the others hadn’t seen it coming on. Or did they? Andrew’s relationship with Maria Luisa was on the rocks. They didn’t discuss it and Andrew didn’t broadcast it but they all knew. Andrew too had his little flings, discreetly, never serious. Playgirls, out for kicks. Andrew cared for Maria Luisa. But their love was gone. They all knew of her wild streak—everyone it seemed except Andrew. She was one to travel the Amazon or the Congo, take safaris, climb in the Himalayas, discovery vacations and magic moments in dangerous places. A rebel, Maria Luisa. She didn’t care about five-star hotels. She detested Andrew’s food rituals. La cena perfetta was not her thing. She ranted against Italian cuisine and what it stands for, the same Italian bourgeoisie she came from. She preferred McDonalds, she shouted, just to irritate Andrew.
But at the dinners once for six Maria Luisa ate the food he prepared with relish, and developed a tiny belly making her delicious body even more sexy. Night club dancers and old girl friends couldn’t compete with her delicious belly, her desires … and her insuperable sang-froid.
When Dmitri signaled him to join them in the café, Sergio didn’t hesitate. Maria Luisa showed no surprise. Maria Luisa, the smell of rain and humidity hovering around her, and her smile, as innocent and beguiling as it was crooked and seductive. She put her hand on his. And he wanted her too.
Neither Maria Luisa nor Dmitri had any idea of doing wrong. Nor did Andrew. Sergio did. What are people supposed to do in the face of such events? Was Andrew blind? Do we ever know what is happening? Basically, Sergio surmised, they were an amoral trio. All three seemed to do whatever led to their own pleasure. He envied them that quality—the capability of living life free of doubt and guilt.
Illogically Sergio followed her lead and then paid for every moment of the pleasure of making love with Maria Luisa.
5. SEDUCTION AND DESIRE
Atmosphere. Apple cake from the oven, ice cream on top, a drop of Brunello. Gringo reciting “m-i-crooked letter crooked letter-i-crooked letter crooked letter-i-humpback humpback-i,” and stumbling over the translation into Italian , “gobba, gobba …” Free jazz interpretation of Sunny in the other room. Andrew opening a bottle of Principe Pallavicini Cabernet Sauvignon. Dmitri in another world dating his napkin sketch. Sergio pocketing it. In the living room, a round of the Lazio rosso. Bertoldo this time drinking in quick short gulps. Dmitri removed from the others in the Empire chair near the fireplace. Calhoun occupying the center of the main couch.
Sunk in the corner of a divan Sergio looked up at Andrew standing in the middle of the room, the wine bottle in his hands, a pensive expression on his face. At this point in their serate it was Andrew’s habit to introduce a subject of conversation—travel to exotic places, changing Europe, globalization. Last week something had changed. The subject had been the impossibility of knowing parents. This time feelings were at play.
Andrew raised his glass and proposed a toast—“to the women we’ve had … or wanted.”
Looking each of them in the eyes he refilled the glasses, replaced the bottle, sat down in his usual place at the end of the coffee table and began:
“Did any of you ever think of keeping a desire diary? To describe temptation, attraction, seduction … and jealousy too. I mean a record of the flash of desire you feel when you pass an attractive woman on the street and you wonder if fate will ever bring you together with her again. Or a record of the lingering desire of one evening with a certain woman. Or the lasting but unfulfilled desire of years … or of a lifetime. The desire for the body of one specific woman. Or the memory of the body of a woman that remains long after the memory of the person has dissipated. The special unnameable characteristic of every body, possessed or unpossessed. The response, real or imagined, of each body to the call of another … and the vacuum and the jealousy when you lose her.”
The others stared at him, embarrassed and uneasy.
Sergio blushed—for love of Maria Luisa. Strong feelings were truly disconcerting. He, the spy, knew what Andrew was thinking—Andrew didn’t accept that love was dead. If love means desire and passion and possession and jealousy and pain or at the end even relaxation into comfort and habit and security, then no, it was most certainly not dead. Not for Andrew. It was just that since Maria Luisa left, he’d found that love was different than he once thought it was—Sergio believed Andrew must find it more savage on one hand, and more demanding. After all she’d never wanted children and in the end left him for a twenty-one year old student.
“When there is real desire, the desire that lasts for a lifetime,” Andrew continued, “something besides physical beauty strikes you. It’s the contrast of a sensual body whose call and scent you perceive with the bland person the woman seems. You hear a tone. It’s your intuition. You hear the summons her body emits. Is her summons true? At first you have to interpret. For you’re always afraid of rejection. Her words tell you not to worry. Still, you wait. You have to be sure of the mutual sexual attraction before the seduction can begin. Reciprocity is fundamental. For if the reciprocal attraction is not there, seduction is one-sided and doomed to failure. Seduction is always mutual. And then, what kind of desire can it be if seduction is absent? One night, and basta? But that’s not real desire. That’s only need for orgasm. Masturbation accomplishes the same.
“And what about this? This is a point that intrigues me—you don’t have to like the woman to feel attraction and desire. She doesn’t have to like you. Her sensuality captivates you but all the rest maybe disgusts you—her hilarity, her caprices, her calculating spirit, her haughtiness, her awareness of her beauty, her flaunting it. Yet sensuality—hers, or the meeting of hers with yours—has you in its grip. Repulsion might dampen initial attraction but it doesn’t cancel desire. Think about it, friends, the woman you’ve wanted but disliked heartily.”
Increasingly uneasy, Sergio examined the expressions of the others. Andrew was speaking of Maria Luisa. Sergio was conscious that he’d never felt his observer status so powerfully. What do others do in the face of such events? How can we ever know what is going on inside another? How are we to react and feel?
Gringo sat back on the couch, a dark look on his face. Bertoldo smiled to himself, his face red and pleased. Dmitri looked up at Andrew for an instant, then to Sergio, and went back to his napkin sketch.
Sergio’s guilt rose from his guts, cutting his breath. Did Andrew know? Was this his cunning? Was he asking for confessions? Was he asking them all for confessions? What could he say?
Andrew continued: “For example, there was a certain Dorothy. I was living on Via Giulia soon after I moved here from New York. I only remember her first name. She was my best friend’s woman friend. I didn’t like her cynicism, her wildness, her lack of warmth and the softness I need in women. But God, how I wanted her! And how I felt guilty for my desire. She would come to our apartment dressed to torment me, her breasts half exposed, a short skirt, crossing and uncrossing her legs showing most of her thigh, then all of her and half the time she didn’t wear underclothes. Hers was a promise of pleasure. In the end she gave me a little fellatio from time to time when James was absent but we never found the occasion for more. The thing I remember of her today was that she was pure desire.”
“Can you really desire and dislike a woman at the same time?” Calhoun asked. “Okay, love’s not necessary but you should at least like her.”
“Oh, I think you can both dislike here and desire her,” Andrew said. “Most definitely. You can look at a woman and even tell yourself why you dislike her. You can list the characteristics you don’t like and even the reasons why you shouldn’t want her. You want to drop the idea of her. You turn away. But then you go back to her. Though you want it you don’t even like her luscious well-fed body, her sharp laughter, her worldly behavior. Then she turns and grins at you knowingly, puts a finger in her mouth and sucks it, and you feel your erection beginning. You know she instinctively wants to use her body to give you pleasure. You don’t desire her but your body does. Your desires and her person are two different species. Neither controls the other. Where does this perverse desire come from? A strange attraction is being woven, invisible threads linking you. The reality is that desire is incomprehensible. Suddenly you feel it, you know it, your autonomous bodies are on the same wavelength. In rhythm. They feel each other, they reach for each other, and there is nothing, nothing at all, you can do to stop it.”
With each word Sergio squirmed. They were all aimed at him. A precise reconstruction of his irresistible desire in the café that day at Piazza della Repubblica when she took his hand in hers and pressed her leg against his. He doubted this Dorothy even existed.
But there was Andrew’s love for Maria Luisa.
6. GRINGO AND THE MISSIONARY POSITION
“Once back in the States a close friend of mine separated from his wife. Or she from him. Her name was, uh, Laura. For some bizarre reason he wanted me to date her, together with him and another woman. Laura was tall and blond and sexy. The first night we drove around in his car and before I even tried anything she and I were kissing in the back seat and he was yelling from the front, ‘I saw that! Stop it!’ As if she still belonged to him. She giggled and slid down in the seat, trying to stay out of his rear mirror view. We kept kissing and I ran my hand up her dress and hand fucked her while he yelled and tried to watch us. Yet it was understood that it was all about fucking. We were there for that. There was no seduction. No getting her or me hot. It was pleasure but not desire. Less than desire. It was hormones at work. Nature. Our two bodies were there for use. Soon I was fucking Laura at my flat. He pretended to be jealous and wanted me to talk about it. What did we do? Did she come? How many times? Where? In what position? Laura would come to my apartment. We would do it in the car or in the park. Uh, one funny thing: the thing I remember most about lovemaking with Laura is that she was the only woman I ever knew who could only come missionary style. She would do anything first but what she wanted most was to get on her back, with her head lower than her body and come and come. I still see her like the first time, stretched out on her back, her head jammed down against the car door and her legs up in the air. For her life was about being fucked. It was not about conquest, though there was a certain touch of debauchery in the way she did it. It was about coming. Since you forget the coming two minutes later, it was never enough and repetition was necessary. But,” Calhoun paused, smoothed down his long hair, and added, “I didn’t like or dislike her. I was indifferent.”
“For Christ’s sake!” Sergio said and groaned to himself. Gringo had made up the story! Invented Laura or at least her position … for love of Maria Luisa! The thing was that wanton Maria Luisa always wanted to be penetrated just that way. Missionary style.
Dmitri looked at Gringo. He had understood, too. “Sounds Russian,” he said off-handedly. “I knew someone like that in my time.”
“Of course that’s not real lovemaking,” Bertoldo said and blushed deeply. He too knew!
Andrew looked at his hands, smiled to himself and didn’t comment.
7. BERTOLDO AND THE WOMAN ON AN ESCALATOR
“There was a woman I wanted intensely but for a very few hours,” Bertoldo began. “But when I finally had her, it finished. I was on the up escalator at the Piazza di Spagna station, looking at the legs of a fashionably dressed woman a few steps higher. We rose into pouring rain. A crowd was waiting for the light to cross the piazza. I stood beside her and opened my umbrella. She turned toward me, her face blank. I offered her to share my umbrella. She didn’t even smile. I walked beside her across the piazza, holding the umbrella over her. We walked down the street toward Piazza del Popolo. I asked her where she wanted to go, that I would take her. She smiled. I told her I was going to a party. Would she come too? She smiled again and went with me.
“It was an elegant apartment on a high floor. We took off our shoes and jackets and stood near the radiators to dry and looked down at the rain on the sprawling square and drank the hostess’s drinks. Her husband, the woman told me, was away on business. She wanted adventure. Afterwards I took her home with me. We had nothing to say to each other. So we went to bed. But she was nervous and I did the lovemaking. She lay passively on her back and from time to time came. When she left it was as if incomplete. I told her to come back when she wanted to but hoped she didn’t. The next morning my door buzzer sounded. I was still in bed. I knew. She undressed and came to me, full of fire. I want you now, she said. But I was nervous, made love only once, half-heartedly.”
“Is that all?” Dmitri began.
“What else could there be?” Bertoldo said. “I never saw her again. No, I didn’t like her at all.”
8. ANDREW AND ORGAN GRINDERS
“There was a girl in a museum,” Andrew began again. “One morning I went to the art museum in Via Barberini. It was nearly empty. My steps echoed through the museum. I began hearing a matching echo. When I stopped, it stopped. Gradually we neared each other. Finally I saw her standing in the middle of an exhibition hall. We were alone except for the portraits. She was blond and young. She turned toward me and without thinking I began kissing her. She kissed back. For a long time we stood in the center of the empty gallery, kissing and pressing our bodies together. She was an American exchange student, with a family in Bologna, young enough to be my daughter. We walked through the city. There was a festival on the streets, accordions everywhere. Lots of laughing and drinking. From one bar to the next, everybody drinking grappa. Soon we were both drunk. She kept speaking with other people, familiarly. She hung onto me but leaned to her companions too. I was alone, except for her. We went back to her hotel. She kissed and fondled but she never gave in, never undressed. She did everything else but would never be penetrated. Her companions phoned. And we went back to the bars and the grappa. I wasn’t used to all that grappa. We stayed near the music and drank. Her companions passed by again and again. She would go away and then return. She was frivolous and dishonest. I called her Nicoletta. We went back to bed. By then real desire was fading. I began hating her and just wanted to win. She went out and then returned. I kept sipping the grappa. She never seemed to be drunk, just playful. I felt the age difference. I felt old. She was a girl. I was a fool. I wanted to beat her up. I didn’t know how to retreat honorably. I wanted an armistice. But I was falling asleep. There was a knock on the door. I have to go, she said. Nothing was decided. My last thought before I must have passed out was that I had suffered a humiliating defeat … and I felt guilty … for love of Maria Luisa.”
9. DMITRI, ADA AND OLGA
“I had a unique experience with two wonderful women while I was working in Moscow,” Dmitri began, still doodling on a napkin. “I didn’t dislike them but the truth was they loved each other more than me. An old girlfriend from St. Petersburg, Ada, was working in a government ministry. She worked on a night shift and we met each morning after she got off. Then there was Olga, also from St. Petersburg whom I’d met at the University. She came to Moscow to spend time with me in the capital and we met late each afternoon in her hotel.
“Beautiful and complex, Ada was itching to marry someone and return home. We’d had our fling in St. Petersburg and she didn’t really trust me for anything more than the erotic because she knew I wanted to go abroad. She had no illusions and didn’t like to surrender to her physical desires. Still, I knew what turned her on: back massage. She could never resist my offer to massage her, after ten minutes of which she turned over and opened herself to me. This went on for several days but as her desires were more and more satisfied, the massage business had less effect.
“Meanwhile, afternoons and night, I was with Olga. She spoke a lot about love just to appease her conscience, but all she wanted was sex. Olga was her body. Few persons I’ve known were so completely their bodies. Sometimes I arrived at her room and she was still in bed, surrounded by trays and beer bottles on the floor, waiting. She was the exact opposite of Ada: she didn’t have marriage in mind and needed no coaxing. But after a few days of making love with Ada mornings and Olga evenings, I was the one who needed stimulation.
“By chance one day I mentioned to Olga that Ada was living here and that I had seen her. Under her questioning I admitted we’d been making love, mornings, before I came to the hotel. I feared, or maybe hoped, that would send her packing back to Petersburg. But nothing of the sort! She wanted details. My descriptions turned her on more. As we made love she probed me for more and more details and descriptions and imitated Ada and asked who was best. After all the talking about the comparisons and the sensation that Ada was in bed with us, I too was turned on.
“The next morning after Ada and I’d had breakfast and it was time to go back to bed—I’d only been up a couple hours—neither of us showed much desire, though I knew we both desired the desire. When I mentioned Olga’s arrival, Ada said, ‘Oh, and have you been fucking her too?’ Unsure whether to boast of it or admit it under pressure, I said that I’d seen her a few times. It came out that I’d just come from her and that yes, we’d made love. I was surprised when Ada’s eyes lit up. How many times? she wanted to know. What did we do? What did Olga like best? When I said ‘everything’, Ada was as excited as Olga had been. She wanted to know all. As I began telling her details and especially the part about my describing to Olga making love with her, Ada, she drew me to the bedroom. ‘Call me Olga,’ she began saying. ‘Call me Olga. I am Olga. Oh yes, I am Olga. I wish you were her.’
“I understood that I could have them together—in the hotel or at Ada’s. But I realized also that a ménage à trois would lessen the impact of the illusion, the illusion of the image, of their imitating each other, of their togetherness through me. We three belonged together … but at a distance. And I was a medium. When I was with Ada, I conjured Olga. When with Olga, I conjured Ada. And they conjured each other. For two weeks I kept up the rhythm, until I had to leave. I never saw either of them again. I had them both but in reality I never had either—they had each other.”
“So what happened to them do you think?” Sergio asked.
“They went back to St. Petersburg. I heard they got together,” Dmitri said laconically. “And in all the years since I’ve always wanted them again. It was pure desire.”
“So you played God,” Sergio said softly.
10.SERGIO AND LOVE CONQUEST
“It was late morning, the week before Easter,” Sergio began, his hands playing nervously on his knees, not liking the exercise at all. This was not his kind of game. He always said Sicilians were different. “I saw Dominique in the window of a travel office near Piazza Navona. Her hands on the keyboard of her computer were long and slim. She sat erect at a desk, her legs bent backwards under her chair. A Nordic type, long hair, high cheekbones, in a yellow jacket. She was beautiful but her hands fascinated me. My first thought was her hands on me. In that same instant she turned toward me no more than a meter away. It seems I’m always seeing women through windows. Through the soundproof window a current passed between us. I think in that instant we seduced each other … or I should say that the mutual seduction began. I walked in and asked her to go to Marrakech with me—I could hardly believe I did it. She smiled and said everything there was booked. I asked her to go to lunch instead. Immediately she gathered her things, took her phone, lifted a leg high and adjusted a bright red high-heeled pump and stood up. She was as tall as I.
“She strode beside me toward the Campo de Fiori, her long steps matching mine, her hip touching mine, her eyes most of the time in mine. From time to time she pressed her body erotically against me, her eyes still fixed in mine, her hands running up and down the ends of my scarf. At the restaurant we got a window table. She put a fiery hand on my thigh. I didn’t understand. Why me? Everyone on the street, in the restaurant, gaped at her. Every male in her atmosphere wanted her. So why me? My bewilderment deadened my desire. It couldn’t be real, I thought. This wasn’t happening. This was one of those dreams where you’re always victorious. Where you’re supreme, overcoming inhibitions and fears. Yet her eyes boring in mine, her body touching mine, her hand moving up my thigh, all belied my realism. I could either accept and play the part I began or I could make a fool of myself.
“The waitress I knew smiled down at us encouragingly as she served us. We drank the wine but hardly touched the food as she told me about her life as a single in the city—the temptations, her university evening courses, her failed marriage, her love for independence. Her love for love.
“So why me? I asked. She said it was because of my scarf.”
Calhoun snickered. Andrew smiled to himself. Dmitri didn’t react. Bertold blushed.
“But I told her that I was afraid … afraid of love. She said that all the men in her life were too stingy to love. To share themselves. She said men believe love is excessive. Unnecessary and superceded by they don’t know what. But she was useless without love.
“She told me I would have to make her love me in order to have her. This was not a case of sexual conquest. It had to be a love conquest. I would have to make her fall in love with me first. I had to seduce her both body and soul.
“The thing is I agreed with her. In that she was a very modern woman. So am I modern. I don’t enjoy sex without love. After all we’re not unfeeling clones.”
11. THE PHOTOGRAPH
Dmitri looked up from his sketch and snickered. Calhoun sat rigid and stared vaguely out the window toward Monte Mario. Bertoldo blushed and examined his nails.
After a long silence Andrew stood up again, red wine in one hand, a cigarette in the other and spoke softly:
“Love conquest! Making a woman fall in love with you just for the sexual conquest is of course pure egoism. Calculatingly seducing both her body and her soul. For the lover-conqueror sex is not enough. He has to steal her love too. Foolishly you might believe love is expendable … or dead. But love, my friends, is neither expendable nor dead.
“But there was another point I wanted to raise: what about the sexual adventure you want to forget, that you wish had never happened, that each time you think of it, you wonder how you could have been so stupid and egotistical and had so little self control. Where pain is not involved but disgust. Like the disgust and the nausea you would feel after seducing a friend’s wife.”
Sergio stared in stunned muteness at Andrew standing over him, now holding the nearly empty bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon by the neck and staring at Dmitri. Silence crashed around them. Sergio turned his eyes toward the great window. Outside a thin rain fluttered white under the street lamps. The Fellinian nocturnal Rex accelerated in the night.
Unthinking, Sergio stood up too. He reached into a back pocket and removed a transparent plastic cover and stood it upright against a glass on the coffee table. Maria Luisa stared out at them.
Calhoun, his face deathly white, took out his wallet and extracted an identical plastic and placed it on the table.
Bertoldo, his hand quivering, took her photograph out of his jacket pocket and dropped it on the table.
Dmitri signed his napkin sketch and placed it alongside the others. Then he stood up, raised his glass and proposed a toast: “For love of María Luisa”.