I gave up on changing my clothes, and stayed in my dusty, wrinkled dark dress. I could barely find the time to change my tampon. Uncle Filippo, with his attentions and his angry outbursts, didn’t leave me alone for a minute. When I said that I had to go to the Vossi sisters’ shop to buy some underwear, he was bewildered, and remained silent for a few seconds. Then he offered to go with me to the bus.
The day was airless, and getting darker, and the bus was crowded. Uncle Filippo appraised the crowd and decided to get on, too, to protect me—he said—from purse-snatchers and hoodlums. By some lucky circumstance a seat became free: I told him to sit down but he refused vigorously. I sat down myself and an exhausting journey began, through a city without colors, choked by the hordes of people. There was a strong odor of ammonia in the bus, and hanging in the air a fine dust that at some point had come in through the open windows. It tickled my nose. My uncle managed to start an argument, first with a man who had not moved aside quickly enough when, to reach the seat that was free, I had asked to get by, and then with a youth who was smoking even though it wasn’t allowed. Both treated him with a menacing scorn that took no account of his seventy years or his stump of an arm. I heard him curse and threaten, while he was pushed by the crowd far from me, toward the center of the bus.
I began to sweat. I was squeezed between two old women who stared straight ahead with an unnatural rigidity. One held her purse tight under her arm; the other pressed hers against her stomach, one hand on the clasp, the thumb in a ring attached to the pull of the zipper. The passengers who were standing leaned over us, breathing on us. Women suffocated between male bodies, panting because of that accidental closeness, irritating even if apparently guiltless. In the crush men used the women to play silent games with themselves. One stared ironically at a dark-haired girl to see if she would lower her gaze. One, with his eyes, caught a sliver of lace between two buttons of a blouse, or harpooned a strap. Others passed the time looking out the window into cars to glimpse an uncovered leg, the play of muscles as a foot pushed brake or clutch, a hand absentmindedly scratching the inside of a thigh. A small thin man, crushed by those behind him, tried to make contact with my knees and sometimes breathed in my hair.
I turned toward the nearest window, in search of air. When as a girl I had made that same trip, by tram, with my mother, the vehicle climbed the hill with a sort of painful braying sound, like a donkey, among old gray buildings, until a strip of the sea appeared on which I imagined the tram would set sail. The panes of glass vibrated in their wooden frames. The floor also vibrated, sending up through my body a pleasant tremor that I let extend to my teeth, relaxing my jaws just slightly to feel how the top teeth jiggled against the bottom.
It was a journey I liked, going up in the tram, and returning in the funicular: the same slow, unfrenzied mechanisms, and just the two of us, my mother and me. Above, attached to the handrail by leather straps, swung massive handles. If you grabbed onto one, the weight of your body made the writing and colored drawings in the metal block above the handles jump, so that with every jerk the letters and images changed. The handles advertised shoe polish, shoes, various goods offered by local shops. If the tram wasn’t crowded, Amalia left some of her brown paper packages on the seat and held me up so I could play with the handles.
But if the tram was crowded, every pleasure was precluded. Then I was possessed by a mania to protect my mother from any contact with men, as I had seen my father do in the same situation. I placed myself like a shield behind her, crucified myself to her legs, my forehead against her buttocks, arms outstretched, one hand tight on the iron support of the seat on the right, the other on that of the left.
It was wasted effort, Amalia’s body couldn’t be contained. Her hips spread across the aisle toward the hips of the men on either side of her; her legs, her stomach swelled toward the knee or shoulder of whoever was sitting in front of her. Or maybe it was the opposite. Maybe it was the men who pasted themselves to her, like flies to the sticky yellowish paper that hung in butcher shops or, loaded with dead insects, dangled over the counters of the salumieri. It was hard to keep the men away with knees or elbows. They caressed my neck lightly and said to my mother: “This pretty little girl’s getting crushed.” Sometimes they wanted to pick me up, but I refused. My mother laughed and said: “Go on, get up.” I resisted, anxiously. I felt that if I yielded they would take her away and I would be left alone with my angry father.
He protected her from other men violently, but whether it was a violence that would destroy only rivals or would be turned against himself, fatally, I never knew. He was an unsatisfied man. Maybe he had not always been, maybe he had become so only when he stopped roaming the neighborhood, getting along by decorating shop counters or carts in exchange for food, and ended up painting, on canvases not yet fixed to frames, landscapes, seascapes, still lifes, exotic lands, and armies of Gypsies. Who knows what destiny he had imagined for himself; he was furious because life didn’t change, because Amalia didn’t believe that it would change, because people didn’t respect him as they should. He repeated constantly, to convince himself and to convince her, that my mother had been very lucky in marrying him. She, so dark, didn’t know what blood she came from. He, however, who was fair and blond, felt in his blood who knows what. Although he stuck in his work unrelentingly to the same colors, the same subjects, the same countryside, and the same sea, he fantasized without restraint about his abilities. We, his daughters, were ashamed of him and believed that he might hurt us as he threatened to hurt anyone who touched our mother. When he was on the tram, too, we were afraid. In particular, he kept an eye on short, dark, curly-haired men, with thick lips. He attributed to that anthropological type a desire to steal Amalia’s body; but perhaps he thought that it was my mother who was attracted by those square, strong, nervous bodies. Once he was certain that a man in the crowd had touched her. In front of everyone he hit her: in front of us. I was painfully astonished. I was sure that he would kill the man, and I didn’t understand why, instead, he had hit her. Even now I didn’t know why he had done it. Maybe to punish her for having felt in the fabric of her dress, on her skin, the warmth of that other body.
With the bus unmoving in the chaos of Via Salvator Rosa, I discovered that I now no longer felt sympathy for the city of Amalia, for the language in which she spoke to me, for the streets that I had walked as a girl, for the people. When at a certain point there appeared a glimpse of the sea (the same that had excited me as a child), it seemed to me purple parchment pasted over a crack in a wall. I knew that I was losing my mother definitively and that it was exactly what I wanted.
The Vossi sisters’ shop was in Piazza Vanvitelli. As a girl I had often stopped in front of the sober windows, their thick panes of glass enclosed in mahogany frames. The entrance had an old door whose upper part was glass, and at the top were incised the three V’s and the date of the shop’s founding, 1948. I didn’t know what was beyond the glass, which was opaque: I had never had either the need to go and see or the money to do so. I had often stopped outside because I especially liked the corner window, where women’s garments had been carelessly placed beneath a painting that I wasn’t able to date, but that was certainly by a skilled artist. Two women, so close and so identical in movement that their profiles were almost superimposed, were running openmouthed, from the right side of the canvas to the left. You couldn’t tell if they were following or being followed. The image seemed to have been cut away from a much larger scene, since only the left legs of the women were visible and their extended arms were severed at the wrists. Even my father, who had some objection or other to every painting that had been made in the course of the centuries, liked it. He invented stupid attributions, pretending to be an expert, as if we all didn’t know that he hadn’t been to any kind of school, that of art he knew little or nothing, that all he could paint, night and day, was his Gypsies. When he was in the mood and disposed to boast more than usual with us, his daughters, he even attributed it to himself.
It was at least twenty years since I had had occasion to go up the hill, to this place near San Martino that I recalled as cool and clean, different from the rest of the city. I was immediately vexed. The piazza seemed to me changed, with its few spindly plane trees, encroached on by the steel bodies of cars, overhung by a scaffolding of yellow-painted iron beams. I recalled that at the center of the piazza of long ago were palm trees that had seemed to me very tall. There was one now, a sickly dwarf, besieged by gray construction barriers. Furthermore, I couldn’t at first glance see the shop. Tailed by my uncle, who was continuing with himself the argument he had been having with the people on the bus, even though it had occurred an hour earlier, I circled the space: dust-filled, noisy, bombarded by horns and pneumatic drills, beneath a cloudy sky that seemed to want to rain and couldn’t. Finally I stopped in front of some wigless female mannequins in underpants and bras, carefully positioned in bold, even vulgar, attitudes. Among mirrors, gilded bits of metal, and fabrics in electric colors, I had difficulty recognizing the three V’s in the arch of the door, the only thing that remained the same. Even the painting I liked was no longer there.
I looked at my watch: it was ten-fifteen. The activity was such that the whole piazza—buildings, gray-violet colonnades, clouds of sounds and dust—seemed a merry-go-round. Uncle Filippo glanced at the display windows and immediately turned away in embarrassment: too many spread legs, too many provocative breasts, inspiring ugly thoughts in him. He said that he would wait for me on the corner: that I should hurry. I said to myself that I hadn’t asked him to come with me, and I went in.
I had always imagined that, inside, the Vossi sisters’ shop was dim, and inhabited by three genteel old ladies, wearing long dresses and thick strands of pearls, their hair gathered in chignons held by old-fashioned hairpins. Instead I found bright lights, loud customers, mannequins in satin nightgowns, camisoles in many colors, silk stockings, counters and tables that overloaded the place with goods, heavily made-up young salesgirls, all wearing tight pistachio-colored uniforms with the three V’s embroidered on the chest.
“Is this the Vossi sisters’ shop?” I asked one of them, the one who looked the nicest, perhaps uneasy in her uniform.
“Yes. May I help you?”
“Could I speak with one of the Miss Vossis?”
The girl looked at me, bewildered.
“They’re not here anymore,” she said.
“Are they dead?”
“No, I don’t think so. They’ve retired.”
“Did they give up the shop?”
“They were getting on, they sold everything. There’s new management now, but the label is the same. Are you an old customer?”
“My mother was,” I said. And I slowly began to take from the plastic bag that I had brought with me the nightgown, the two dresses, the five pairs of underpants that had been found in Amalia’s suitcase, spreading out everything on the counter. “I think she bought them all here.”
The girl looked with expert eyes.
“The things, yes, they’re ours,” she said with a questioning air. I saw that she was trying to guess my mother’s age based on how old I seemed to be.
“She’ll be sixty-three in July,” I said. Then it occurred to me to lie: “They weren’t for her. They were gifts for me, for my birthday. I was forty-five on May 23rd.”
“You look at least fifteen years younger,” the girl said, trying to do her job.
In an engaging tone, I explained: “The things are beautiful, and I like them. Only, this dress binds a little and the underpants are tight.”
“Do you want to exchange them? I’d need the receipt.”
“I don’t have the receipt. But they were bought here. Don’t you remember my mother?”
“I don’t know. So many people come here.”
I glanced at the people the salesgirl had alluded to: women who talked loudly in a dialect marked by a forced cheer, who laughed noisily, flaunted expensive jewelry, came out of the fitting rooms in bra and underpants or in tiny gold or silver leopard print bathing suits, displayed abundant flesh striped by stretch marks and dented by cellulite, gazed at pubis and buttocks, pushed their breasts up with cupped hands, ignored the saleswomen, and, in those poses, turned to a man who was a kind of floorwalker, well dressed and tanned, installed there purposely to channel the flow of money and cast threatening glances at the ineffectual saleswomen.
It wasn’t the clientele I had imagined. They seemed women whose men had got rich suddenly and easily, hurling them into a provisional luxury that they were compelled to enjoy, and whose subculture was like a damp crowded basement, with semi-porn comic strips, with obscenities used as refrains. They were women forced into a city-prison, corrupted first by poverty and now by money, without interruption. Seeing them and hearing them, I realized that I was getting nervous. They behaved with that man the way my father imagined women behaved, the way he imagined his wife behaved as soon as he turned his back, the way Amalia, too, perhaps, had for her whole life dreamed of behaving: a woman of the world who bends over without having to place two fingers at the center of her neckline, crosses her legs without worrying about her skirt, laughs coarsely, covers herself with costly objects, her whole body brimming with indiscriminate sexual offerings, ready to joust face to face with men in the arena of the obscene.
I made an uncontrollable grimace of annoyance. I said: “She’s the same height as I am, with only a little white in her hair. But she wears it in an old-fashioned style, no one does it like that anymore. She came with a man of about seventy, but pleasant, slender, with thick white hair. A handsome couple, to look at. You ought to remember them, they bought all these things.”
The salesgirl shook her head, she didn’t remember.
“So many people come here,” she said. Then she glanced at the floorwalker, worried about the time she was wasting, and suggested to me: “Try them on. They look just your size. If the dress is tight . . . ”
“I’d like to speak to that man . . . ” I ventured.
The salesgirl pushed me toward a fitting room, anxious about that barely articulated request.
“If the underpants don’t fit, take another pair . . . we’ll give you a discount,” she offered. And I found myself in a fitting room that was all tall mirrors.
I sighed, and wearily took off the funeral dress. I had less and less tolerance for the frenetic chatter of the customers, which in the dressing room seemed not muffled but, rather, amplified. After a moment of hesitation I also took off the underpants of my mother’s that I had put on the night before and changed into the lace ones that I had found in her bag. They were exactly my size. Puzzled, I ran a finger along a rip in the side that Amalia had probably made putting them on and then pulled over my head the rust-colored dress. It came to about two inches above my knees and the neck was too wide. But in fact it wasn’t too tight; rather, it slid over my tense and muscular thinness and softened it. I came out of the fitting room tugging the dress on one side, staring at one calf and saying aloud: “Look, you can see, the dress is tight here on the side . . . and it’s too short.”
But beside the young salesgirl now was the man, who appeared to be in his forties, with a black mustache, at least eight inches taller than I, broad in the shoulders and chest. Both his features and his body were inflated, threatening; only his gaze was not unpleasant but lively, familiar. He said, in a television Italian, but without kindness, without even a hint of the willing compliance that he showed with the other customers, in fact visibly striving to be formal with me: “It looks very good on you, it’s not at all too tight. That’s the style.”
“It’s precisely the style that I’m not sure about. My mother chose it without me . . . ”
“She made a good choice. Keep your dress and enjoy it.”
I stared at him for a second, in silence. I felt that I wanted to do something either to him or to myself. I glanced at the other customers. I pulled the dress up over my hips and turned toward one of the mirrors.
“Look at the underpants,” I pointed to the mirror, “they’re tight on me.”
The man changed neither his expression nor his tone.
“Madam, I don’t know what to tell you, you don’t even have the receipt,” he said.
I saw myself in the mirror, my legs thin and bare: I pulled down the dress, uneasy. I picked up the old dress and the underpants, put everything in the bag, and searched at the bottom for the plastic case with Amalia’s identification card.
“You ought to remember my mother,” I tried again, pulling out the document and opening it right in front of him.
The man gave a quick look and seemed to lose patience. He switched to dialect.
“My dear lady, we can’t waste time here,” he said, and gave back the document.
“I’m only asking you . . . ”
“Merchandise that’s been sold can’t be exchanged.”
“I’m only asking you . . . ”
He advanced to a light touch on the shoulder.
“Are you playing games? Did you come to play games?”
“Don’t touch me . . . ”
“No, you really are joking . . . go on, take your things and your document. Who sent you? What do you want? Tell whoever sent you to come and get the refund personally. Then we’ll see! In fact, here’s my card: Antonio Polledro, name, address, and telephone number. You’ll find me here or at home. All right?”
It was a tone that I knew very well. Immediately afterward he would begin to push me harder and then to strike me, without regard to whether I was a man or a woman. I tore the document from his hand with calculated disdain, and to discover what had so unnerved him I looked at the photograph of my mother. The long, baroquely sculpted hair on her forehead and around her face had been carefully scraped away. The white that emerged around her head had been changed with a pencil to a nebulous gray. With the same pencil someone had slightly hardened the features of her face. The woman in the photograph wasn’t Amalia: it was me.
I went out into the street carrying my things. I realized that I still had the identity card in my hand, and I put it back in the plastic case, automatically sticking Polledro’s card in with it. I slipped everything into my purse and looked around in a daze, glad that Uncle Filippo really had waited for me at the corner.
I immediately regretted it. His eyes widened and his mouth gaped, revealing his few long, nicotine-stained teeth. He was astonished, but astonishment was quickly turning into antagonism. I couldn’t immediately understand why. Then I realized that it was the dress I was wearing. I made an effort to smile at him, certainly to calm him down but also to get rid of the impression that I had lost control of my face, that I had a face that had been adapted from Amalia’s.
“Does it look bad?” I asked.
“No,” he said sulkily, clearly lying.
“We buried your mother yesterday,” he complained in a voice that was too loud.
I thought of revealing, just to annoy him, that the dress was actually Amalia’s but foresaw in time that it was I who would be annoyed: he would surely start railing against his sister again.
“I was depressed and I wanted to give myself a present.”
“You women get depressed too easily,” he burst out, suddenly forgetting, with that “too easily,” what he had just reminded me of: that we had a short time ago buried my mother and I had good reason to be depressed.
On the other hand I wasn’t really depressed. I felt, rather, as if I had left myself somewhere and was no longer able to find myself: I was worn out, that is, by movements that were too quick and barely coordinated, by the urgency of one who is searching everywhere and has no time to waste. I thought that a cup of chamomile would do me good and I pushed Uncle Filippo into the first bar we came to in Via Scarlatti, while he began to talk about his wife, who was always sad: stern, hardworking, careful, methodical, but sad. But the close space of the bar had the effect of a cotton ball in my mouth. The intense smell of coffee and the loud voices of the customers and barmen drove me back toward the door, while my uncle was shouting, with his hand in the inside pocket of his jacket, “I’ll pay!” I sat down at a table on the sidewalk, amid the squeal of brakes, an odor of imminent rain and of gas, overcrowded buses moving at a walk, people hurrying by and bumping against the table. “I’ll pay,” Uncle Filippo repeated in a lower voice, even though we hadn’t ordered and I doubted that a waiter would ever appear. Then he settled onto the chair and began to praise himself. “I have always been the energetic type. No money? No money. No arm? No arm. No women? No women. What’s essential is the mouth and the legs: to speak when you want and to go where you want. Am I right or not?”
“Your mother is like that, too. We are a family that doesn’t get discouraged. When she was little, she was constantly hurting herself but she never cried: our mother had taught us to blow on the hurt and say: it will pass. Even when she grew up and went to work and she’d prick herself with a needle, she kept this habit of saying: it will pass. Once, the sewing-machine needle pierced the nail of her index finger, came out the other side, went up and in again, three or four times. Well, she stopped the pedal, then started it up, but just enough so she could get the needle out, bandaged the finger, and went back to work. I never saw her sad.”
That was all I heard. It seemed to me that I was sinking up to my neck into the window behind me. Even the red wall of the Upim across the street seemed freshly painted, the color just squeezed from the tube. I let the sounds of Via Scarlatti get louder, until they covered his voice. I saw his lips moving, in profile, soundless; they seemed made of rubber, manipulated by two fingers inside. He was seventy and had no reason to be satisfied with himself, but he tried to be, and perhaps he really was when he started off on that ceaseless chatter which was rapidly uttered by the almost imperceptible movements of his lips. For a moment I thought with horror of males and females as living organisms, and I imagined the work of a burin polishing us like ivory, reducing us until we were without holes and without excrescences, all identical and without identity, with no play of somatic features, no weighting of small differences.
My mother’s wounded finger, pierced by the needle before she was ten, was more familiar to me than my own fingers precisely because of that detail. It was purple, and the nail appeared to sink into the crescent. For a long time I’d wanted to lick it and suck it, more than her nipples. Maybe she had even let me when I was still very small. On the pad of the finger there was a white scar: the wound had become infected, it had had to be lanced. In it I could smell the odor of her old Singer, which had the shape of an elegant animal, half dog half cat, and the odor of the cracked leather cord that transmitted the action of the pedal from the big wheel to the small one, the needle that went up and down from the animal’s muzzle, the thread that ran through its nostrils and ears, the spool that rotated on the pivot fixed to its back. I could smell the oil that was used to grease it, the black paste of oil mixed with dust that I scratched away with a nail and secretly ate. I intended to make a hole in my finger, too, to make her see that it was risky to deny me what I didn’t have.
There were too many of the infinite, minuscule differences that made her unreachable, and all together turned her into a being desired in the outside world at least as much as I desired her. There had been a time when I imagined biting off that distinctive finger, because I couldn’t find the courage to offer mine to the mouth of the Singer. Anything in her that had not been conceded to me I wanted to eliminate from her body. Thus nothing more would be lost or dispersed far from me, because finally everything had been lost already.
Now that she was dead, someone had scraped away her hair and had disfigured her face to fit my body. In later years, out of hatred, out of fear, it happened that I wanted to eliminate every root I had in her, even the deepest: her gestures, the inflections of her voice, her way of taking a glass or drinking from a cup, her method of putting on a skirt, as if it were a dress, the arrangement of the objects in her kitchen, in her drawers, how she did her most intimate washing, her taste in food, her dislikes, her enthusiasms, and the language, the city, the rhythms of her breath. All of it remade, so that I could become me and detach myself from her.
On the other hand I hadn’t wanted or been able to root anyone in me. Soon I would lose even the possibility of having children. No human being would ever detach itself from me with the anguish with which I had detached myself from her, only because I had never been able to attach myself to her definitively. There would not be anyone more or less between me and another aspect of myself. I would remain me until the end, unhappy, discontent with what I had furtively taken from the body of Amalia. Little, too little, the booty I had managed to seize, tearing it from her blood, her belly, and the measure of her breath, to hide in my body, in the capricious matter of the brain. Insufficient. What an ingenuous and careless sort of makeup, to try to call “I” this forced flight from a woman’s body, although I had carried away from it less than nothing! I was no I. And I was confused: I didn’t know if what I had been discovering and telling myself, ever since she ceased to exist and couldn’t refute it, horrified me or gave me pleasure.
From L’amore molesto (Rome: Edizioni e/o, 1992). Copyright © 1992 by Elena Ferrante. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright © 2005 by Ann Goldstein. All rights reserved.