You never quit smoking.
You give up for a while. Days, months, years. But you never quit completely. Cigarettes are always there, lying in wait. Sometimes they appear in the middle of a dream, even five or ten years after you’ve “quit.”
You feel the touch of the paper on your fingers, you hear the soft, dull, reassuring noise it makes when you tap it on your desk, you feel the touch of the ochre filter on your lips, you hear the scrape of the match and you see the yellow flame with its blue base.
You even feel the kick in your lungs, and you see the smoke spreading over your papers, your books, your cup of coffee.
And then you wake up. And you think a cigarette, just one cigarette, won’t matter very much. You could light one right now, because you always have that emergency packet in your desk drawer, or somewhere else. And then, of course, you tell yourself it doesn’t work like that, that if you light one you’ll light another, and then another, and so on, and so on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Whatever happens, it’s at moments like these that you realize the phrase “to quit smoking” is an abstract concept. The reality is quite different.
And then there are other times, more concrete than dreams. Nightmares, for example.
It had already been a few months since I’d stopped smoking.
I was on my way back from the public prosecutor’s department, where I had been studying the documents relating to a civil action in which I was involved. And I had a bloody great desire to go into a tobacconist’s, buy a packet of strong, sharp-tasting cigarettes-yellow MSs, maybe-and smoke them till my lungs burst.
I’d been hired by the parents of a little girl who’d been the victim of a pedophile. He’d waited outside her school, had called to her, and she’d followed him. They’d both gone into the entrance hall of an old apartment block. The woman caretaker had seen them, and had followed them in. The pervert was rubbing the fly of his trousers against the girl’s face, the girl’s eyes were closed and she wasn’t saying anything.
The caretaker had screamed. The pervert had escaped, raising his collar as he did so. Simple but effective, because the caretaker hadn’t managed to get a good look at his face.
When the girl had been questioned, with the help of a nice lady psychologist, it had emerged that this hadn’t been the first time. Not even the second or third time.
The police had done their job well. They’d identified the pervert, and had photographed him secretly. Outside the council office where he worked-a model employee. The girl had recognized him. She’d pointed at the photograph, her teeth chattering, and then looked away.
When the police had gone to arrest him, they’d found a collection of photos. Photos straight out of a nightmare.
The photos I’d seen that morning, in the file.
I wanted to smash someone’s face. The pervert’s, if I could. Or his lawyer’s. The lawyer had written that “the little girl’s statements are clearly unreliable, the result of morbid fantasies typical of certain individuals at a prepubescent age.” I’d really have liked to smash his face. I’d also have liked to smash the faces of the appeal court judges, who’d put the pedophile under house arrest. According to their ruling, “to avoid the risk of repetition of admittedly serious acts of the kind at issue in this case, restriction of personal freedom in the lesser form of house arrest is sufficient.”
They were right. Technically, they were right. I knew that perfectly well, I was a lawyer. I myself had upheld the same principle many times. For my own clients. Thieves, con men, armed robbers, fraudulent bankrupts. Even a few drug dealers.
But not men who raped children.
Be that as it may, I wanted to smash someone’s face.
Or do anything rather than go back to my office to work.
But I did go to my office, and worked without stopping, not even to eat, until late afternoon. Then I told Maria Teresa I had something urgent to do, and escaped to a bookshop.
I stayed there, browsing, until the shop closed. I was the last to leave. The shutter was already half lowered, and the assistants were all lined up at the cash desk, looking at me in an unfriendly way.
I rang the bell of Margherita’s apartment and waited for her to come and open the door.
I had keys, but almost never used them. She didn’t use hers to my apartment, two floors below, either.
We’d each kept our own apartment, with our own books, posters, CDs, and so on: a mess, in the case of my little apartment. Hers was a penthouse, big, beautiful and tidy. Not obsessively tidy. Tidy like the home of someone who is in perfect control of the situation. Of the two of us, she was the one in control, but that was fine by me.
The only change had been in her apartment. We’d bought a king-size bed, the largest we could find, and had put it in her bedroom. I’d taken over a corner of the wardrobe for myself and had put in a few of my things. One shelf in the bathroom was also mine. And that was it.
I often slept at her place. But not always. Sometimes I felt like watching TV until late-though less and less-and sometimes I wanted to read until late. Sometimes she was the one who wanted to sleep alone, without anyone around. Sometimes one of us went out with friends. Sometimes she left for work and I stayed at home. I never went into her apartment when she was out. I missed her even when she’d only been gone a few hours.
I rang again just as the door opened.
“If you want to fast, you just have to say so. No point in beating about the bush.”
I didn’t want to fast. From inside the apartment came a nice smell of freshly cooked food. I raised my hands to my chest, palms turned outward as a sign of surrender, and squeezed past her to get inside.
“Did I tell you you could come in?”
“I bought you a book.”
She looked at my empty hands, and I took the bookshop bag from the pocket of my winter jacket. Then she closed the door.
“What is it?”
“Constantin Cavafy. A Greek poet. Listen to this. It’s called ‘Ithaca’.”
I opened the white book, sat down on the sofa, and read:
Hope that the way is long, That the summer mornings are many, When you enter at last, with such joy, Ports you are seeing for the first time: May you stop at Phoenician markets And purchase fine goods, Mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony, And sensual perfumes of every kind, As many sensual perfumes as you can, And may you visit many Egyptian cities To learn and learn from their scholars Always keep Ithaca in your mind To arrive there is your destiny. But do not hurry the journey in any way. Better that it should last for years . . .
Margherita took the book out of my hands. Keeping the place with her finger, she looked at the cover-there was no illustration on it, just a poem-passed her finger over the smooth white paper, and read the back page. Then she turned back to the poem I’d been reading and I saw she was moving her lips, silently.
When she’d finished, she looked at me and gave me a quick kiss.
“OK. You can stay and eat. Wash your hands, put a CD on, and lay the table. In that order.”
I washed my hands. I put on Tracy Chapman. I laid the table and poured myself a glass of wine. I still wanted a cigarette but, at least for today, the worst was over.
After dinner, we both felt like going out. We decided to go to a venue that had opened a few months before. A refurbished former factory, where you could eat, drink, read a book or a newspaper, or play a game. Best of all, there was a tiny cinema where they showed old films, one after the other, from midnight till dawn.
You could go there at any hour of the night and you’d always find customers. To me, it was like a kind of outpost where you could escape the normal rhythms of everyday life. Day/work/going out/people. Night/home/rest/solitude.
The cinema in particular was fantastic. My ideal kind of cinema.
There were about fifty seats, you were allowed to talk, you could move around, you could drink. Sometimes, between one film and the next, they served spaghetti, or, just before dawn, caffe latte in big cups without handles, and Nutella croissants.
I didn’t have to be in court the next morning, which meant I could take things a bit easier. Margherita worked the hours she chose. So we got dressed and went out, both in a good mood.
The place was called Magazzini d’Oltremare. We got there just after eleven, and as usual there were people there, even though it was the middle of the week. Many of those sitting at the tables I knew by sight. Pretty much the kind of people you see in particular venues, at particular concerts or parties. Pretty much like me.
I tried to maintain a stance of ironic detachment from the people who went to these places-more or less on the left, more or less intellectual, more or less comfortably off, more or less over thirty and under fifty (actually, there were also a few over fifty-but I continued to go there myself. Just like everyone else.
That night the first film on the programme was House of Games. One of my ten favorite films. A fantastic story, dark and haunting, about psychiatrists and con men.
There was still at least three quarters of an hour to go before the film started. Margherita saw two women friends of hers at a table, she went up to them and said hello, and they asked us to sit down. Margherita’s friends were a couple and were both called Giovanna. They even looked alike. They both dressed in a masculine way, and both moved in a masculine way. It made me wonder who took which role-if indeed there were roles-in the couple. They attended the same martial arts gym as Margherita.
“Are you staying for the film?” Margherita asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” Giovanna said. “Giovanna has to get up early tomorrow.”
“Yes, we’re just going to finish this rum and go,” Giovanna added.
They were ignoring me a bit. I mean they’d both turned to Margherita, were talking just to her, and I could have sworn the way they looked at her wasn’t exactly innocent.
At a certain point, Giovanna asked Margherita if she had decided to enroll with them in the parachute course.
What parachute course?
“I’m thinking about it. I’d really like to. It’s something I’ve been wanting to try for years. But I’m not sure I’ve got the time.”
I managed to cut into the conversation. “Sorry, what’s all this about a parachute course?”
“Oh, a friend of Giovanna’s teaches parachuting. He keeps asking them to join his course. You can get a license, you know. They’ve asked me too.”
They’ve asked you because they want to fuck you. The lesbian licence, that’s what they want you to take. That’s it-the flying lesbian license.
I didn’t say that. Obviously. We men of the left don’t say things like that, though we might think them. Besides, the two Giovannas looked as if they could easily have ripped my balls off and played pinball with them for a lot less.
I kept quiet, while they talked about their parachute course and how great it would be, how it didn’t really take up much time-two hours a week, divided between theory and physical preparation-and the fact that you could get a license after just three jumps.
I felt like making a few acid comments, about how a parachute license was an essential accessory for a young urban professional woman at the start of the new millennium. And how great it was that you could get that licence after just three jumps. Think of it, guys, just three jumps.
I kept quiet, which was just as well. Because having the courage to throw myself out a plane, into the empty sky, without being afraid, was one of my most secret, most forbidden dreams. A dream I’d never had the courage to reveal to anyone, and which I knew perfectly well I’d never have the courage to realize once I’d passed forty.
A dream that lay deep in my childhood fears and fantasies and was still there to remind me that time was passing. And that there were many other things-large and small-that I’d have liked to do and had never found the courage to do. That I would never find the courage to do.
They managed to convince her that she could find the time to do the course. They agreed to meet two days later at the premises of the parachute club, where they would all enroll together, with a discount, thanks to the friend of the two Giovannas.
“I’m going to see the film,” I said. “It’s starting in a few minutes. But don’t worry, you can stay and talk.” My tone was dignified.
“No, no. I’m coming too. They’re leaving.”
The two Giovannas nodded. One of them knocked back what was left in her glass, like a real tough guy. They said good-bye to us-well, to Margherita, really-and left.
When we entered the little screening room, the lights were already out and the film was starting. Before abandoning myself to David Mamet’s dark, surreal atmosphere, I thought, just for a second, how much I’d like to throw myself into the empty sky, from a plane or somewhere else very high up.
Into the empty sky. Without being afraid.
“Do you want to know where I got the money, Avvocato?”
I didn’t want to know where Signor Filippo Abbrescia, known as Pupuccio il Nero, had got the money. He was an old client of mine, and his trade was defrauding insurance companies-although whenever he was questioned by the judges, he gave his occupation as bricklayer.
The following day, his case-he was accused of criminal conspiracy and fraud-was due to be heard in the court of appeal. He’d come to pay, and I had no desire to know where he’d got the money he was about to give me. He told me all the same.
“Avvocato, I hit the jackpot. On the Bari lottery. First time in my life.”
He had a curious expression on his face, Pupuccio il Nero. I told myself he looked like someone who’d spent all his life making money by stealing and now couldn’t believe he’d actually won something. I told myself that, like so many others, he’d become a thief and a con man because of a lack of opportunity. I told myself that I was losing my grip and becoming an incorrigible bleeding heart.
So I called Maria Teresa and gave her the money he’d placed on the desk. Then Pupuccio and I talked about what was going to happen the following day.
We had two alternatives, I told him. One was to plead the appeal. At his first trial, he’d been sentenced to four years-not a lot, I thought, for all the cons he’d pulled-and I could try to get him acquitted, but if they decided to uphold the sentence, he’d go straight back inside. The other alternative was to plea bargain with the assistant public prosecutor. Assistant public prosecutors-and even appeal court judges-usually like plea bargaining. Things go nice and quickly, the hearing is over by mid-morning, and everyone goes happily home, or wherever it is they want to go.
To tell the truth, even lawyers like plea-bargaining in the appeal court. Things go nice and quickly, and everyone goes happily back to their offices, or wherever it is they want to go. But I didn’t say that to Pupuccio.
“And if we plea bargain, how long will I get, Avvocato?”
“Well, I think we can try and get it down to two and a half years. It won’t be easy, because the public prosecutor is a tough nut, but we can try.”
I was lying. I knew the assistant public prosecutor who’d be in court the next day. He’d plea bargain down to two months if it meant he could get away quickly and not have to do a fucking thing. He wasn’t what you’d call a hard worker. But I couldn’t say that to Pupuccio il Nero, or people like him.
The way it works, in cases like this, is as follows. I say the public prosecutor is a tough nut. I say I could try plea-bargaining but it won’t be easy and I can’t guarantee anything. I mention a sentence I think I can get with plea-bargaining, a sentence that’s quite a bit higher than the one I’m sure I’ll actually be able to get. Then I plea bargain down to the sentence I’ve been thinking of from the start, confirm my reputation as a reliable lawyer who’s really on the ball, and collect the rest of the fee.
“Two and a half years? Is it worth plea-bargaining, Avvocato? We might as well go through with the trial.”
“Of course we can try,” I said in a calm, even tone. “But if they uphold the four-year sentence, you go back inside. As long as you know that.”
A professional pause, before I went on.
“Below three years, there’s the possibility of probation. Think about it.”
His turn to pause.
“All right, Avvocato, but try to get me less than two and a half years. It’s not as if I killed anyone. Two or three cons is all I did.”
I was pretty sure he’d done at least two hundred, even though the carabinieri had only discovered about fifteen. He was also part of a conspiracy involved in fraud on an industrial scale, and there were plenty of other things on his criminal record. But I didn’t see the point of splitting hairs with Signor Filippo Abbrescia.
“All right, Pupuccio. Now you just have to sign the special proxy, and you won’t need to attend the hearing tomorrow.” That way I’m not forced to play-act in court, I thought, and the public prosecutor and I can get it all out of the way quickly.
“All right, Avvocato, but please, let’s try to get the minimum.”
“Don’t worry, Pupuccio. Come into the office tomorrow, and I’ll tell you how things worked out. And when you see my secretary, get the invoice.”
He was already on his feet, but was still in front of the desk. “Avvocato?”
“Avvocato, why bother with an invoice? You’ll only have to pay taxes on the money. Is it worth it? I remember when I first started coming to you, you didn’t bother with invoices.”
I sat there, looking him up and down. It was true. For many years most of the money I’d earned had been undeclared. Then, when I’d gone through a lot of changes in my life, I’d started to feel ashamed about that. It wasn’t that I’d thought clearly about it. It’s just that I was afraid of swindling the tax authorities, and so-nearly always, and according to my own estimate of how much it was right to give to the tax people, in order to do my duty-I started issuing bills and paid a whole lot of money in taxes. I was one of the four or five richest lawyers in Bari. If you went by my declaration of income.
I couldn’t tell Signor Filippo Abbrescia, known as Pupuccio il Nero, these things. He wouldn’t have understood. On the contrary, he’d have thought I was a bit crazy and changed lawyers. Which I didn’t want. He was a good client, a good man, all things considered, and he always paid on time.
“Customs and Excise, Pupuccio, Customs and Excise. They’re all over us lawyers at this time of year. We have to be careful. They hang around outside our offices, and when they see a client coming out, they check if he has a bill. If he doesn’t, they come into the office and start an audit. And I end up out of a job. I prefer not to run the risk.”
Pupuccio seemed relieved. I was a bit of a coward, but I was only paying taxes to avoid worse problems. He wouldn’t have done the same, but he could understand it.
He gave me a kind of military salute, lifting his hand to an imaginary visor. Bye, Avvocato. Bye, Pupuccio.
Then he turned and went out.
When at least a minute had passed and I was sure he was out of the office, I said out loud, “I’m an idiot. OK, so I’m an idiot. Is there any law against it? No, so I’ll be as much of an idiot as I like.”
Then I laid my head against the back of my chair and stayed like that, looking up at some vague point on the ceiling.
I don’t know how long I stayed like that. Then the phone rang.
FromA Walk in the Dark, forthcoming in October 2006 by Bitter Lemon Press. Copyright © 2006 by Bitter Lemon Press. All rights reserved.