Fiction / Carlo Massimo
:: Matera ::
Francesco Mastrangelo names his clothes and they’re all women’s names: he’s married to them, I’ve finally decided. When he first engaged me I could iron and fix buttons and raise wine stains but he gave me an education: hopsack in summer, cashmere in winter, prince of Wales, tab collars and cutaways, pochettes and gilets. I could cook him what I like; nothing happened to dirty the house, although I scrubbed the floors like I hated them. No one in Matera dresses like Francesco Mastrangelo. No man in Matera is as beautiful as him.
My mother (who knew his mother) says he came back from Milano, or from London, after a divorce, which may or may not be true because I haven’t asked him about it. He was born here. He is 41 and I don’t know quite what he does, except that it weighs heavily on him; he is constantly on the phone, speaking English, shouting at people and rubbing his forehead. He is slim and dark like the prince in one of the English movies from the ’80s, with curly hair and a rectangular face and seven or eight pairs of glasses. He’s famous around Matera. He looks about 30. Technically, I suppose, he’s single.
My sister asked if he was a frocio but he’s not: first because of that whole story with the divorce; also because I know he appreciates beautiful women. I would see him at night sometimes watching TV, and Michelle Hunziker or someone would appear and he’d roll his eyes and shake his head. Sometimes he’d ask my opinion.
Very pretty, I’d say, very pretty, and he believed me because you can trust an ugly woman’s opinion on these matters. Sometimes I could barely answer, I felt so strangled.
Belén Rodríguez is his favorite. If he were a woman he’d be her, dark, tall.
Anyway I know why my sister asked what she asked, because apart from work his whole life is those suits, those jackets, the trips to the tailor, shouting through bluetooth at the dry cleaner, the rows and rows of neckties, hundreds stacks of shoes. I polished the shoes. It’s disgusting to admit this but I enjoyed handling them. Occasionally he’d let me slip them off his feet when he got home; I couldn’t offer this too often, as I reminded myself.
In the morning, in his bathrobe, he’d say, Lay out Angelica for me, and the navy cashmere tie, the Drake’s. And I’d go find Angelica, color of rust, and brush it off and find a blue shirt to pair with it.
Or, Chiara, is Michelle back from the cleaners? Michelle is double-breasted, raw white, unusual for winter.
Once, after I’d cleaned up his supper and gone home to my own—it was a little before midnight—my mother said she’d seen my employer on the street. He has a look about him, she said.
He looks like a married man. Occupied but not preoccupied. Do you know what I mean? Like your father used to look. You very rarely see young single boys like that with that married sort of look.
My sister said, Let Chiara say what she wants, I still think he’s a frocio.
Shut up, I said, you wouldn’t know. I couldn’t admit that I knew what she meant: the sleekness, the soft step, the discreet cologne, the carefully paired glasses. More than that the air of total contentment, the unconcern with others, the haughtiness, the beauty. He wasn’t quite a man. He was more like a male cat, purring in his unlined suits, slinking along the rooftops with his tail up and his balls between his legs. Women like him and are afraid of him because he is more woman than they are; men pretend to admire him because he is rich and a native son. Watch their eyes as he passes, though: they hate him. He is less than them and more than them, more elegant, more imperious, more powerful, impregnable.
There is one exception: when he undresses. What a transformation: the first time I saw him undressed after work, watching TV on the couch. He’d left Denise on the foot of the bed, crumpled and gray; when I came down to clean up his dirty plates I saw him for this first time in his undershirt and AC Milan shorts and slippers. He looked up at me, tired and bashful. He smiled with half of his mouth, like what can I say? He was fatter than he looked, with strong arms.
The spaghetti was excellent, he said. How rarely he acknowledged my cooking.
Thank you, I said. And I swear his voice was deeper when he was undressed than it was dressed. He got up and scratched his back, indiscreetly, and digging in the refrigerator for a bottle of beer he shuffled off to bed. The sight of him undressed like that was too much for me, and I waited on the sofa to hear him shut the door before I unbuttoned and buried myself in the cushion still warm from his back.
Getting up I saw myself in the mirror, my shirt up, skinny with a squashy stomach like I’d given birth, and my big nose. He would be disgusted by my stomach. He would be disgusted by my rolls and my flat chest and my baggy eyes and my big nose like a sheep’s. My dull eyes and my dialect and my dullness. I had long been sitting like a hen on an egg on the unlikely hope that he’d see me: a nice girl if not very pretty, not sophisticated but here for him every day, not young but still younger than him.
When I let myself in the next morning at six I felt myself charged with energy. I felt like I was driving fast, driving his curvy blue Porsche that he’d had shipped special to Matera. He came out in his bathrobe as the coffee came up, his hair already immaculate and his face tired and annoyed and magnificent. There was no more beautiful man in the world. I felt like the air was leaking out of my lungs.
Madonna, but I slept like shit, he said.
I handed him coffee, sweetened to his taste. This will fix you, I said, and he smiled.
Thank you. Thank God there’s you, eh?
And who’s to say that I didn’t cause him to finally see me in that moment? He had never said anything similar to me before. It wasn’t impossible that the charge I felt had passed into him like electricity. I felt different. In my imagination I saw myself catching a cat in a box, the cat screaming and shaking its head, twisting against my hands, claws scraping the pavement.
The new suit from D’Amato is ready upstairs, he said, would you take it out for me and find me a tie while I shave?
I walked behind him, watching his shoulders sway under his robe. He went into the bathroom and shut the door. I unzipped the garment bag and extracted a suit in charcoal mohair, with a fine blue line. In the mirror I held it up against my face: it was a beautiful color, elegant, understated. At first glance it was solid; you couldn’t see the energy in this pattern unless you really looked. The color made my hair look prettier than it was, and my complexion.
Hand me the trousers, would you?
His soft brown hand, with long fingers, emerged from the cracked bathroom door. I handed him the trousers and a pair of braces, and he emerged in a white shirt with a French placket, fresh and handsome in a cloud of scent.
The fit is perfect, he said, —for once.
This suit doesn’t have a name yet, I asked, does it?
No, you’re right. I suppose it doesn’t.
Might I suggest one? I don’t mean to overstep—
He laughed. Which name did you have in mind, then?
What about Chiara?
He said nothing. It was like my words were still hanging in the air, like the smoke from a snuffed candle, and we were looking at them disappear.
No, he finally said, I don’t think it’s quite the case. And looking at the tie I’d brought out for him he dropped it gently on the bed and went into the closet to pick out a new one.
At the front door, with the keys to his little Porsche in his hand and sunglasses on his face like an actor, he said, I won’t be back for dinner this morning. If tonight you could prepare some veal—I’ve had a desire for it all week.
That was all. I nodded and he turned softly and glided down the stairs. He looked relieved to be dressed and gone.
The energy I felt that morning was still with me, buzzing relentlessly. No cat for me, I thought, and laughed like an idiot. The shock of my failure had left me feeling silly and empty, the way you feel after a car accident. I laughed while I scrubbed the kitchen floor in my bare feet and dusted the venetians. I mopped and sat down cross-legged to polish his shoes, scrubbing hard to scrub the idiotic desire to laugh from my system. I finished just before noon; having no dinner to prepare, I looked for something to do until 2.
In the bathroom, among the glass bottles like church spires and a thousand movie screens, I saw his razor. It was folded into its wooden handle, like my father used to use; three more sat against the back wall of the cabinet, like a hunter’s gun locker. How strange it looked in the stained light of all his scents, his summer and winter perfumes, his aftershaves, a maze of gold and silver: Armani, 4711, Acqua di Parma, Acqua di Genova, Guerlain, Dunhill, Tom Ford. The razor looked like a farmer’s tool, like a pruning hook, nicked and dull with water spots in the wood. It was ancient. Up close I could see where a thumb had worn the wood down, right at the top.
I slipped the razor into my jeans pocket and sprayed the mirror down to clean it.
Two days later he asked me where the razor was. I said I didn’t know; I’d taken it home and laid it in my nightstand, the same nightstand I’d hidden my diaries in as a little girl. It looked as alien in the pink and lilac drawer as it had in his cabinet, hard and deadly beside a card from my first communion and some old lira coins. Francesco Mastrangelo said something to himself, annoyed, but never mentioned it again. Months later, when he was dismissing me, he never once mentioned the razor. He didn’t give any reason at all. But surely I’d done something to deserve it; who knows if it wasn’t that.
From the writer
:: Account ::
This work is a few different strands of thought woven together. I wanted to write about people I know in Italy, especially my neighbors, who have lives beyond the stereotypes of rural and small-town Southerners. (I am not from Matera and I have no relations there.) Elena Ferrante leads the way in this enterprise, so in a way this is an homage to her.
More importantly “Matera” is a meditation on gender. Gender in the Mediterranean is its own complex … thing, and in Anglo-Saxon countries neither the gender radicals nor the conservatives have any kind of language to describe it. Archaic lives inhabit modern bodies, mine no less than my neighbors or my characters: the kouros of Kroisos, the bronzes of Riace, the lady of Knossos, the Venus of Willendorf. I want to reach them through my work.
In these matters I look to Freud, Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz, and of course Camille Paglia. And Stendhal, Isak Dinesen, St. Augustine, the movies of Lina Wertmuller, the comics of Milo Manara and Hugo Pratt, and, if it’s not too obnoxious to say, Dante’s Vita Nova.
Other artistic models include Conrad, Cavafy, Hemingway, Quasimodo, Rilke, Lorca, Lispector, Naipaul, and Heaney. Obviously not at the same time. Obviously without much resemblance to the originals.
Carlo Massimo is a poet and journalist based in Washington, DC. His essays have appeared in Newsweek, the Times of London, the Wilson Quarterly, L’Italo-Americano, and elsewhere. His fiction and poetry have run in Barzakh, Bitter Oleander, Off the Coast, and Piccioletta Barca.