Mastroianni Day

Mastroianni Day [Exp–Adj]: in accordance with the universal lexicon, a day is deemed to be “Mastroianni” (from Marcello, Italian actor, 1924–96) when spent merrily sauntering about in the company of beautiful women, blown along by the whim of circumstance, devoid of any sense of purpose. The classic “Mastroianni Day” requires a three-piece suit, dark sunglasses, and, preferably, a hat. Some lexicographers would also include compulsive self-adulation, the drinking of dry martinis and/or gin and tonics, shallow metaphysical crises, betting on horses, mixing in unfamiliar circles, and attending parties uninvited.

“To our worthless satyr colleagues! Cheers!”

We drink to all precocious fops, book-less writers, record-less musicians, film-less film-makers. Those with whom we quote from nonexistent novels, saunter along riversides, and sit at tables in bars, hardy merrymakers, lords without a penny to their name, swapping days for nights and nights for whatever! We drink to being eternally available to attend pointless vernissages, to being uninvited freeloaders! We toast our futures and our pasts, the intertwined threads of two lives dedicated to the cult of leisure; we toast ourselves and our sudden viral passions: to our carefree and never-ending adolescence.

“To those who’ve moved on!”

“And to those who’ll be back!”

 

We walk along in slow motion, beneath a soundtrack of slick, galloping guitar riffs. We reach Praça do Duomo, where we head up a slope and through a curved archway on the right. My building is the third one along, encrusted in stone and painted green by the creeping ivy. We scale four flights of a spiral staircase and reach my apartment.

We sit down in the living room, among all the clothes and papers left on the sofa. The walls are covered in incoherent phrases written by former coital colleagues, aphorisms of en vogue thinkers like Schoscho, Nini, and Dydy, alongside pornographic drawings scribbled in crayon. Disjointed bookcases hold hundreds of CDs, films, and books in a delicate balancing act—collapse is imminent. There are posters everywhere, even on the ceiling, all of Italian and French films of the Sixties. I pull over the hookah pipe and tell Tomás to hold on to the bowl. I go into the kitchen and come back with two cold beers.

Before we open them, I switch on the VCR: in black and white, a couple run under a bridge. They smile lovingly at one another, he dressed in a dark suit, she wearing eyeliner and a plain dress on a slim body. He’ll be a charming brute. She’ll be Eastern European, will frequent smoky cafés and underground dance halls, greeting everyone by name, from cloakroom attendant to barman, much to the irritation of her companion in his pointy shoes. In other scenes, the woman will tap-dance on a banquet table in the dining room of a palace, and the man will escape winding his way through a traffic jam, or rather speed away in a run-down Chevrolet, revolver on the passenger seat, along a highway beneath a sunset, through a tunnel of ash trees, or rather, he’ll take the elegant hostess of the party by the hand and disappear with her into the garden of a mansion, prompting declarations of love and empty promises, or rather, or rather.

 

I come back from the bedroom dressed in a striped three-piece suit. Tomás bursts out laughing, showing me a face full of gums.

“Who do you think you are, Claudia Cardinale?”

“And why shouldn't I dress well? The truth of the matter, my friend, is that an elegant gentleman such as I can no longer be seen out and about with someone as badly dressed as you.”

“I'm no ponce. And your clothes wouldn't fit me anyway. Because I'm such a hunk and you're so puny!” He starts laughing uncontrollably again, the pathetic fool, dressed in his fraying Bermuda shorts, a free propaganda T-shirt from the local elections, and black flip-flops.

As we leave the flat, me swaggering along in my designer Italian shoes, I grab the Panama hat and sunglasses off the table by the door.

 

After walking back and forth along Boulevard dos Capuchinhos, through its Roman arches and Shinto gates, we go down three sets of steps and emerge in a shopping arcade. We find ourselves in a large room full of clothes on racks, running for miles along the walls. The place is lit up by film-set spotlights and reflectors.

“I want my friend done up like me,” I say to the manager, who has a pair of Jackie Os on her head. The lady clicks her fingers and calls two salesgirls over.

Tomás makes a motion to turn and leave.

“What’s the point in all this, Pedro?” he asks, before muttering “Cazzo!" with unexpected gusto.

I reply:

“It’s like life.”

“It's like what goes on inside a woman's head!”

“It's like Buñuel, Éluard . . . Jorge Ben!”

Or rather:

“It’s not supposed to have a point, Tomás.”

Assisted by two redheaded ponytailed nymphs, both of them squeezed into tweed tailleurs and tiny red heels, my friend, in something of a trance, is taken away to be clothed, like an inpatient at a hospital. The salesgirls ignore their special customer's privacy and repeatedly open the door to the changing booth, hoping to catch a glimpse of Tomás' previously undervalued nudity.

I sit, legs crossed, on a chaise longue and watch everything happen with a stupid smile on my face. I think of lighting a cigar and smoking it right there, but then I remember I don’t smoke cigars. I scrunch up my eyes and make an “L” in front of my face with thumb and index finger, studying a camera shot that will never exist.

I'll write platitudes: “I'm living a fictional illusion that is not only autobiographical but cinematographic: I recount my own life to myself (the bar, my flat, this boutique) and I live the life I'm recounting, and I see my life in 16:9, with a crystal clear conscience that I am the 'youngster' Pedro Cassavas walking down the street and turning the corner to enter this fishbowl lit up in neon lights, then seeing, in a reverse angle shot in sepia, my friend (a key character in this biopic) Tomás Anselmo, being dressed by two dolled-up ladies. And who knows if one day they won't be surprised to see my face in the paper, and one will nudge the other and whisper 'that face looks familiar, hasn't he been in the shop?' and after that they'll know my name: 'Pedro Cassavas,' written like that, in inverted commas, like some legendary figure, a globetrotter, an adventurer, a...”

But the truth is I have no such ambition.

(“He has the tact of a diplomat!”)

I'm not readying myself for anything.

(“A government subsidy to live in Paris!”)

And I've never had the pleasure of executing a plan.

While inhabiting this byzantine consciousness, I become Tomás without knowing if what he’s doing is real: there's a silent pause between my timing and the timing of the extras, an abyss of action.

I'm alone in the world, separate from the others, sitting at the end of the room and watching what never happened (my own participation included), watching scenes that have already been filmed and edited.

 

A bald old man sits at a table picking at the entrails of a lobster. He's dressed in a white fur coat and won't stop staring at us.

“You boys seem a bit young to be wearing those clothes. What are you, a pair of gigolos?”

“No way!”

Tomás is too quick to answer: I'd have tried to find out what the old man was getting at first, what his story was.

“And what are you? A numbers runner?”

The old man reacts to my provocation with a comic smile.

“I wish. I’m a writer. But not from your era, no sir! I’m from another time, when writing a book was something quite miraculous. But these days . . . ” He licks his lips. “My name’s Esgar Mxyzptlk. You might even have heard of me.”

Of course we’d heard of the miserable wretch. He launches into a long speech about his thirty-year career, millions of books sold all around the world. He's in town because he's been invited to give a talk at a literary festival, which according to him is “a contradiction in terms”; “a circus of conceit”; “a retail trap”; “a sales convention.”

“I’m so busy being a writer that I’ve no time to write.”

“A lovely oxymoron, Mr. Mxyzptlk.”

“I’ve been translated into twelve languages.”

“I didn’t know there were twelve languages.”

 

Pedro Cassavas stands up with some difficulty and sees that Tomás, Verônica, and the lovely Maria are in the far corner of the room, dancing together. Tomás Anselmo kisses one, then the other, then the two girls kiss, and so on and so forth until all three have the same breath.

It’s midnight, still early, the night but young. A queue of hundreds of faceless men and women snakes along the wet pavement outside. Pedro walks briskly against the flow, never looking back, ignoring those who call out to him, people he knows, not offering so much as a ciao to the flirts and the usual hangers-on.

A taxi waits on the corner.

“Drive.”

“Where to?”

“Anywhere. Just drive.”

“You got money mate?”

“Yes I've got money. No I'm not your mate.”

“Something happened?”

“I just want to be alone.”

“A taxi's hardly the best place for that.”

“I'll pay you double, mate, if you just drive and keep your mouth shut.”

The car travels in a straight line, for twenty-seven minutes of screen silence.

“Mate, if I drive any further we'll have left the city.”

“OK then, stop. I'll get out here.”

“But we're in the middle of nowhere! It's dangerous . . . for someone like you mate.”

Pedro Cassavas ignores the advice of his taxi-driver mate and gets out on the side of a highway at the city limits.

 

Two stewardesses and a red carpet draw him toward the Snàporatz, an underground restaurant housed inside a disused train station. He looks in at the diners, leaning over Chinese crockery as they sit huddled in wooden carriages that date back to the death throes of the nineteenth century.

As he walks down the staircase leading into the former gare, he hears bells peal, doors slam, a general murmuring.

“Welcome, Sir. This way, Sir.”

They all bow before Pedro Cassavas, who sits down, hungrily orders a beef escalope, Tomás Anselmo's favorite, and devours as much as he can as fast as he can, in three and a half forkfuls. Before he can ask the waiter to put his leftovers in a doggy bag, an old man dressed in white enters the room.

 

Pedro takes the straw out and drains his gin and tonic in one gulp.

He’s ready to unburden himself:

“What do you want, Mr. Mxyzptlk? I've had a hard day. I could do without you making it any harder.”

Mxyzptlk replies eloquently:

“I'm here because it's my duty. I finish up here! I exist for this very moment. It’s the apex of my existence. As soon as you leave the Snàporatz, I will disappear. Let me tell you a secret, Pedro: the only things that exist are those that you see.”

He pauses for a sip of water, then carries on with his epiphany:

“For a long time, astronomers were unable to understand why night is dark. If we consider space to be infinite and uniformly full of stars, there would be a star everywhere we looked, making the sky shine day and night. However, they say night is dark because the universe has finite time, and that the speed of light is finite too: the light of the most distant stars doesn't have time to reach mankind on earth. The stars outside earth's range don't shine in the sky . . . The truth, Pedro, is that they don't exist. Because the only things that exist are those you can see. Night is dark because Pedro Cassavas can't see all the stars. Because they are born and die within you. Because the universe was born and will die, as soon as you close your eyes and never open them again. Pedro Cassavas, you are the only thing that exists. We are mere characters. Or rather: we are you, but you are not us.”

Mr. Mxyzptlk stands up, struggling to get his belly out from under the table, his bulky body merging into his reflection in the mirror, then vanishes in an instant. Pedro Cassavas asks for the bill (and has to pay for Mxyzptlk too, the old man having left without even touching his food), and then, feeling somewhat uneasy, goes out onto the street.

What Pedro isn't aware of is that the moment he steps out of the Snàporatz, its carriages, chairs, tables, tablecloths, mirrors, waiters, stewardesses, and customers are all plunged into a black hole. As our hero walks along the city streets, in the pale light of a lazy dawn, shopping arcades, glass houses, mirrored salons, marble balconies, sleepy squares, theaters, churches, and newly-painted lampposts explode behind him. Hills, slopes, archways, staircases, casinos, hotels, sailing boats, mosques, beaches, and revolving restaurants are sucked into a void. Stately homes, underground dance halls, apartments, rooms, beds, wardrobes, and chests of drawers. Fading photos and blank pieces of paper inside drawers. Train lines, gangways, oval libraries, and marble banisters on spiral staircases. His life's footprints, actions, and episodes. Tomás, Verônica, and the lovely Maria, and all his memories, past and future, and all the people he once met and recalled, and everyone he ever knew, and so on until the end.

When we finish reading this story about this person, we too will disappear.

Until the day Pedro Cassavas looks at us once more.

From O Dia Mastroianni. Copyright João Paulo Cuenca. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Jethro Soutar. All rights reserved.