By: Gaither Stewart
Max and Greta agreed that everyone needs two main dramas in their lives, one in their public life, and the other in their private space. Max said that his public drama as a well-known, politically committed journalist provided him a place where he felt absolutely right, so that he didn’t have to blow his brains out each day because of his endless fuck-ups in his private life. Greta’s public life in an advertising agency gave her personal satisfaction because she believed she injected a certain honesty into a field peopled by professional liars. But she too had misgivings about her private life where it was just one mistake after the other. Both of them considered their lives balancing acts between their complex private lives as opposed to their flawless public personae.
A life-changing disaster had begun on a rainy night in a penthouse studio near Piazza di Spagna. Until past midnight to the pleasant rhythm of the pitter-pattering of an unusually steady rainfall on the wide flagstone terraces lining three sides of the artist’s apartment-studio, Greta Dovidio and her friend, the painter, Maria-Teresa, had chatted about love and unlove and drank moderately; Greta’s fiancé, Massimiliano Pane—or Max—drank less moderately and spoke more animatedly than usual with their mutual Swedish adventuress friend named Ellinor who talked alternatively in Italian, English and Swedish and drank excessively.
There was nothing unusual about Ellinor’s drinking exhibition that evening, but the sultry Swede had just broken up with another tired-out boyfriend and was either grieving or celebrating their separation which, in either case, encouraged her seduction vice as well as the easily seduced Max whom she’d had in her sights that entire calamitous evening and of which he was quite aware. A few drinks and the Swede was unleashed … as was Max.
“Love!” Ellinor sneered—her eyes fixed sexily on Max as was her way. “Who invented the word, Plato? Love is a euphemism. A reason to quaff the stuff in this glass and have all the sex we want. Anything to help us overcome the loneliness that arrives and stays in our lives. Anything that works … or seems to work.”
Greta laughed, watching Max squirm and drink and walk around the room, needlessly checking windows and doors. She knew what was going on in his mind: sex, not love. Sex, not the rain falling on the terrace.
For Greta, tonight’s sequence of events was another sign of Max’s weak character; for Max it was just a regrettable but insignificant episode in their social life. He blamed what happened on the wine and beer and the cold vodka that Greta’s diabolic friend Maria-Teresa had purposely pushed on him and his weak character and the Swedish blond who anyway drank like a sailor on shore-leave in Veracruz and fucked any fuckable male at hand, so to speak.
So it happened that when they drove the drunken nympho home, gallant and drunken Max made the fatal mistake of escorting her to her door while Greta and Maria-Teresa waited in the car. When he bravely kissed her on each cheek in the Italian good-night manner, she in one sudden move yanked him inside her foyer where in a total of about three minutes she and the wine and the beer and the vodka raped him and his weak character in the Swedish good-night manner without even leaving her feet.
Now Massimiliano and Greta were not angels. They had both had meaningless—for them both—escapades on the side, events which became points of j’accuse for each vis-à-vis the other. The battling had begun during their very first year together: as a rule some unidentified and un-agreed upon jealousy was the cause. Jealousy one of the other.
On Max’s disappearance behind the Swede’s front door, a furious Greta had responded in typical Greta manner: she turned the ignition key of the Cinquecento and drove away locked in first gear just as she’d left him locked in the arms of the Swedish lush. At home again she grabbed armloads of his random belongings and again hurled them out the window into the rain. Then she locked and barred their entrance door, put in ear plugs and went to bed. It was not the first time she had abandoned her great love in some distant place in the city sprawl.
So it was that what had happened before happened again. Drunken Max walked the three miles home in the rain, the whole time obsessing about Greta’s recurrent nightmare of her insane grandmother confined in a Fiesole rest home plagued by imaginary buzzards pecking her eyes. Greta’s great terror in fact was being locked in a small room with a flock of dirty black buzzards flapping around her head. He felt certain her hallucinations had delusional significance and thus some bearing on her treatment of him.
From the wet street just under his own bedroom windows, Max’s own craziness erupted as he shouted for Greta to open their fucking door. He was sick of her insane behavior, of her buzzards and her grandmother too. He drinks a bit too much and some Swedish vamp comes on to him, and Greta goes nuts as if those buzzards really existed. Leaves him here in the rain. Locks and bars their door. Besides, he was certain he was coming down with pneumonia. All her fault that he was so tired and hoarse, and coughing and sneezing at the same time. So he yelled louder and louder for Greta to open their fucking door.
Like other times, neighbors’ windows begin banging open, men and women in various stages of dress and undress and with maddened faces shook their fists and shouted the usual threats of calling the police or the fire department. And shouts of ‘ fanculo stronzo and testa di cazzo’ echoed up and down the narrow Via Calcata.
Between his then muted calls of ‘Greta, Greta, Greta’ and frustrated puppy yelps, Max began gathering his soggy stuff spread over the wet sidewalk just under the bedroom of their second floor apartment, pushing what fit pell-mell into his trusty old suitcase that Greta had thoughtfully provided: shirts and pants, jackets, socks and sneakers, a stray leather belt and a necktie, dirty underwear, stray books and the wet sheets of a manuscript still paper-clipped together, the best article he’d ever written he thought irrationally .
At the acme of his still drunken furor and his desperation and his ache for Greta, other windows of their palazzo continued opening. All the inhabitants knew that theirs was a torrid relationship indeed. Greta and Max were already part of the lore of the wild apartment palazzo at number one of Via Calcata (named after a trendy old township, a borgo, north of the city), a street Greta called Via Calvario (Calvary) because of their suffering there; Max named it Via Calcutta for the same reason.
“All for the sake of love,” Greta said in calmer moments.
“Quiet! Enough you two! Basta!” one lady on the fourth floor yelled even though Greta had not uttered a word.” Oh, God, just listen to that racket. Those two are at it again.”
“And to think that they’re the two most beautiful people in the city,” someone kept insisting.
“They do it all the time,” another shouted for all to hear.
“Then why their endless fighting?” someone asked. “Why don’t they divorce if they can’t live together?”
“God knows what holds those two together?” echoed the answers.
“Love!” responded the ancient philosopher from the top floor and closed quietly his window to them all … like God speaking to mankind, Max thought.
After a long moment of respectful silence from all the windows, the philosopher’s immediate neighbor seconded the old man: “Truly theirs is a great love.”
“I don’t believe they know how great their love is,” a fat man in an undershirt from a fifth floor window door added.
“Love is the most beautiful thing in the world.”
“And the love of two such beautiful people,” the same voice remarked. “And both so successful in life.”
“I’m a marriage counselor,” shouted a shrill vice from the fourth floor, directly below the philosopher. “Let the children come unto me.”
“Are they even married?” a little old third-floor lady asked, whom no one bothered answering
“Love!” the sarcastic divorcée in the fourth floor window repeated like a mantra the philosopher’s conclusion.
“They can’t live apart,” another noted
“Ah, this new generation,” said a saintly voice through a turret from the basement apartment. “No morality at all.”
By now exasperated at all this uproarious interference in his private and most intimate life, Max shouted drunkenly, “Thass the lass straw, and will you juss fuck off, Priest!” To which he quickly added a “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned!”
After the first mention of love, the yelling and the shouting and the cursing and the epithets and the fury and the calls for police had gradually subsided and finally ceased altogether.
Greta, deaf to the uproar outside, didn’t even know the word jealousy but was instead only embarrassed because of Maria-Teresa: what would she think of her lover, Max, fucking that Swedish whore? And Massimiliano, mad and still half- drunk, was humiliated at his situation locked out on the street amidst his wet clothes and the old suitcase … while the soberer he became the more ashamed of his own drunken behavior.
In any case, silence had come to reign over the palazzo in Via Calcata.
All because of love?
A soberer Max found a stray key to the palazzo door and lugged upstairs the now soggy suitcase and assorted wet stuff that he couldn’t cram in, piled it all against his apartment door and again settled on the floor for what remained of the night.
Finally, at five-thirty a.m. he was shaken awake, cracked his eyes and met those of the portiere making his rounds. “The usual, Dottore?” the older man asked in irony and pulled out an enormous key ring and jangled them under Max’s nose.
“Of course,” Max whispered hoarsely, again feeling a cold coming on from his still wet clothes and the cold marble floor. The portiere unlocked his door and with his help Max dragged his stuff into the foyer, waved the good man away and collapsed onto the heavenly living room couch, his last thought lingering that ‘the drinks and the stand-up fuck just wasn’t worth the candle.’
Massimiliano Pane and Greta Dovidio had been living together for three years. Their love affair had been fervent from the start … their separations no less so. Each time Massimiliano was humiliated and rabid; Greta, indignant and miserable. You go your way and I go mine, was their resolution. Distance, loneliness and isolation, the outcome. And reconciliation. Their separations lasted an average of about thirty-six hours.
This time Max slept on the couch also the following night before that morning rejoining her in their boudoir and falling into her open arms. Those two just couldn’t stay apart.
A week or so later, on a crystal-clear sunny November day they were walking to the supermarket around the corner, when Max stopped, his head turned toward the skies. “Take a look at that, Greta. Guarda! A good luck sign, for sure. It’s like we’re lying in a field of white and yellow flowers on a warm August day and watching flocks of birds flying northwards to their mysterious destinations while we speak fearlessly of our present as accomplished, no longer a hurdle to be overcome. We know where we’re going, together.”
As each year happened the sky over the city was covered with hundreds of thousands of gyrating birds, dark masses, swelling and shrinking, inhaling and exhaling like breathing lungs. The formation was a foreboding of their attack on the city to come. Starling scouts rocketed earthwards in search of landing places in the stone city. It was the winter migration of millions of European starlings who love the relatively mild winter weather of Rome for one of their temporary sojourns. They come for days, maybe weeks, sometimes months. And they love the cement of the city itself, the stone embankments along the river where Greta would never go. They were all buzzards for her. They come in early winter, stay a while, and then magically depart as suddenly as they appear, leaving behind only their shadows against the skies and their evil white excrement indelible in the late winter sunshine.
Observing the arrival of the starlings, Greta had the thought that also the life of successful families was marked by regular recurrences and repetition like that of the migratory birds. Birthdays and marriages and the birth of children proceeded according to fixed codes. Other families were instead de-centered, each member skewing off in diverse directions, devoid of an axis to hold things together. ‘But what do Max and I have? No core. Nothing to which to belong … besides our love. But that is only a shadow, not a tangible object to hold onto … nothing like a child for example. Maybe a sacrament like marriage would serve us well.
Well, maybe!’ she added superstitiously to herself.
“Yes, Max, you are right in so many things. Finally we’re getting used to each other’s quirks and weaknesses.”
“Right, my love. Like I worry less today about your conviction of the dangers of the full moon and your fears of the buzzards in the trees along the river.”
“Now Max, don’t exaggerate. Some things are too much. I still can’t accept your assurances of your soberness when you can hardly walk across the room without falling into the arms of some wanton Scandinavian.”
“Well, er, Greta, you know too that things are not always what they seem.”
“Now what the fuck does that mean, as the drunken Swedish whore would say? Maybe not always, Max. But sometimes, they are exactly what they seem.”
“Yes, but … Hey, Greta, watch! Let’s just watch this performance in the heavens … just for us. Maybe they’re celebrating our marriage.”
A few days after the Swedish mishap the happy couple, hand-in-hand, Greta dancing around but never letting go Massimiliano’s hand ran into the priest walking down Via Calcata, his arms full of groceries, the necks of wine bottles showing from one sack.
“Well,” said the frocked one, “the happy children, Massimiliano and Greta, the love and joy and suffering of our whole palazzo. How good to see you like this in the glory of God’s smile.”
“Thank you, Father,” Max said, always respectful to men of the cloth, of whose words he didn’t believe even a comma and convinced that God never smiled.. “You are too kind to two of God’s stray children! We have decided to follow God’s command: we’re getting married.”
So it was that a short while later, the whole palazzo population joined the couple’s friends, relatives and co-workers for their civil wedding in the City Hall Red Room on the Capitoline Hill that looked to Max and Greta suspiciously like a church. But what they fuck! Even the Swedish sexy seductress cried and dried her tears on Maria-Teresa’s shoulder.
‘My vision is now clear,’ Max thought as the merry group of the people of the Via Calcata palazzo walked down the Capitoline hill as if from Calvary itself for a wedding lunch in a Piazza Navona ristorante, ‘Or my sight is at least less blurred … now that it’s over. Where, I ask, was our waywardness? Oh, fucking Christ—so sorry, Father!—the blindness of the self-righteous who think marriage licenses change anything. Do I feel different since the Mayor’s representative said ‘I pronounce you Massimiliano Pane and you, Greta Dovidio, man and wife? No, I do not. Marriage is just not enough. It will never be enough. Greta and I must keep in mind that marriage is more often than not just another wall to separate lovers and destroy love, as the sixth-floor philosopher so wisely said. It is not a bridge as the third floor marriage counselor and basement priest claim. Marriage is too often a wall, not a bridge. But then, what about love? Where does love go when it departs in a time in which feelings dwindle? To the same places the starlings fly in the spring? Or maybe it’s as Ellinor says, love doesn’t even exist. It’s a mere euphemism. That’s the horrible reality of most marriages. That’s why one of our first acts as a married couple must be to file for a divorce.’