13. The Pallid Little Maiden
I had followed my grandfather’s adventure with all the enthusiasm of a reader of comic books. But in my chapel collections there was nothing between the middle of 1943 and the end of the war. Only, from 1945, the strips I had collected from the liberators. Maybe comics were no longer published during those years or never made it to Solara. Or maybe after September 8 of ’43 I witnessed real events that were so fantastic-what with the partisans, the Black Brigades coming to our house, the arrival of clandestine broadsheets-that they outstripped anything I could have read in comics. Or maybe I felt too old for comics by then, and those were the very years I moved on to spicier fare, such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.
In any case, up until that point, Solara had not given me back anything that was truly and uniquely mine. What I had rediscovered were the things I had read, which countless others had also read. All my archaeology boiled down to this: except for the story of the unbreakable glass and a charming anecdote about my grandfather (but not about me), I had not relived my own childhood so much as that of a generation.
Up until that point, the songs had made the clearest statements. I went into the study to turn the radio back on, selecting songs at random. The first song the radio offered me was another of those lighthearted farces that accompanied the bombardments:
Last night it happened, as I was walking by,
that a crazy young guy
suddenly asked me if I
would join him for a drink, so off we went,
and with a strange accent
he began to tell his tale:
"I know a little lady,
her hair as blond as gold,
and yet my love for her cannot be told…
My grandma used to say
that way back in her day
young lovers talked this way:
I would love to kiss
your hair so long and black,
your rosy lips,
your eyes that all deception lack…
But with my sweet beloved
I can never be so bold,
because her hair’s as blond as gold!"
The second song was definitely older, and more of a tear-jerker-it must have made my mother cry:
Oh pallid little maiden, who lived across the hall on the fifth floor, no night goes by that I don’t dream of Naples, and I left twenty years ago or more.
… My little son
in a yellowed Latin book of mine discovered-can you guess?-a pansy… Why did a teardrop tremble in my eye? Oh who knows, who knows why…
And myself? The comic books in the chapel told me that I had been exposed to revelations of sex-but what about love? Had Paola been the first woman in my life?
It was strange that nothing in the chapel dated from the period between my thirteenth and eighteenth years, for during those five years-that was before the disaster-I still went to the house regularly.
I suddenly recalled having glimpsed three boxes that had not been on the shelves, but up against the altar. I had paid them little mind, caught up as I was in the multihued allure of my collections, but perhaps they were worth a look.
The first box was full of photographs of my childhood. I expected some great revelation, but no. I felt only a powerful, religious emotion. Having seen the photos of my parents in the hospital and the one of my grandfather in his study, I was able to identify them, even at different ages, by their clothes, recognizing them as younger or older depending on the length of my mother’s skirt. That child in the sun hat poking the snail on the rock must have been me; that toddler solemnly holding my hand was Ada; Ada and I were the creatures in white outfits, almost a tailcoat for me, almost a bridal gown for her, on the occasion of a first communion or confirmation; I was the second Balilla Boy on the right, standing in line with my little musket clasped to my chest, one foot forward; and there I was, a little older, standing next to a black American soldier who had a sixty-four-tooth smile, perhaps the first liberator I had met and had myself immortalized with after April 25.
Only one of the photos truly moved me: a snapshot (which had been enlarged, you could tell by the blurriness) showing a little boy leaning slightly forward, embarrassed, as a tiny girl tipped up on little white shoes, put her arms around his neck, and kissed him on the cheek. Mamma or Pap`a must have caught us unawares, as Ada, tired of posing, spontaneously rewarded me with sisterly affection.
I knew the boy was me and the girl was her, and I could not help being affected by the sight, but it was as if I had seen it in a movie, and I was moved as a stranger might be before an artistic representation of brotherly love. The way one is moved by Millet’s An-gelus, Hayez’s The Kiss, or a pre-Raphaelite Ophelia floating upon a blanket of jonquils, water lilies, and asphodels.
Were they really asphodels? How should I know, once again it was the word flexing its muscle, not the image. People say our brains have two hemispheres: the left, which presides over rational relationships and verbal language, and the right, which deals with emotions and the visual universe. Perhaps my right hemisphere was paralyzed. And yet it was not, because there I was dying of consumption in my quest for something or other, and a quest is a passion, not a dish served cold like revenge.
I put away the photos, which only made me nostalgic for the unknown, and took out the second box.
It contained holy cards, many of Domenico Savio, a pupil of Don Bosco’s, whose ardent piety the painters revealed by depicting him in creased trousers that sagged beneath his knees, as if he kept them bent all day, lost in prayer. Then a little volume with a black binding and red edges, like a breviary: The Provident Young Man, by Don Bosco himself. An 1847 edition, in rather bad shape-who knows who had passed it down to me. Edifying readings and collections of hymns and prayers. Many of them exalting purity as the highest virtue.
Other pamphlets, too, contained ardent exhortations to purity, invitations to abstain from wicked spectacles, dubious company, and dangerous readings. It seemed that of all the commandments the sixth was the most important, not committing impure acts, and many of the teachings were rather transparently directed against the illicit touching of one’s own body, to the point of advising young readers to lay themselves down at night in a supine fashion, their hands crossed over their chests, so that their bellies would not press into the mattress. Warnings against contact with the opposite sex were rare, as if the likelihood of that were remote, impeded by strict social conventions. The prime enemy, though the word was generally avoided in favor of cautious circumlocutions, was masturbation. One little handbook explained that the only animals that masturbate are fish: it must have been alluding to external insemination; many fishes spill their spermatozoa and their eggs into the water, which then takes care of the fertilization-meaning that those poor creatures were not sinning by spilling their seed in improper vessels. Nothing about apes, for whom onanism is a calling. And silence regarding homosexuality, as if allowing oneself to be touched by a seminarian were no sin.
I also picked up a very worn copy of Don Domenico Pilla’s Little Martyrs. It is the story of two pious youths, a boy and a girl, who suffer the most horrible tortures at the hands of anticlerical, Satan-worshipping Freemasons who, out of hatred for our blessed religion, want to initiate the youths into the joys of sin. But crime does not pay. The sculptor Bruno Cherubini, who had carved the Statue of Sacrilege for the Masons, is wakened at night by the apparition of his partner in debauchery, Volfango Kaufman. After their last orgy, Volfango and Bruno had made a pact: the first to pass on would return to tell the other what awaited in the great beyond.
Thus Volfango emerges postmortem from the mists of Tartarus, wrapped in a shroud, his eyes bulging from his Mephistophelian face. His incandescent flesh glows with a sinister light. The ghost identifies himself and declares: "Hell exists, and I’m there!" And he tells Bruno, "If you want proof, extend your right hand"; the sculptor obeys and the specter lets fall a droplet of sweat that passes through Bruno’s hand from one side to the other, like molten lead.
The dates of the book and the pamphlets, even when given, told me nothing, because I could have read them at any age, and so I was unable to determine whether it was during the last years of the war or after my return to the city that I had gone in for pious practices. Was it a reaction to the war’s events, a way of dealing with the tempests of puberty, or a series of disappointments that had sent me into the welcoming arms of the Church?
The only real scraps of myself were in the third box. On the very top, several issues of Radiocorriere from ’47 and ’48, with certain programs marked and annotated. The handwriting was unquestionably mine, and hence those pages told me what I alone had wanted to hear. The underlined entries, except for a few late-night programs devoted to poetry, were mostly chamber and concert music. They were brief entr’actes between one program and another, early in the morning, in the afternoon, or late in the evening: three etudes, a nocturne, on a good day an entire sonata. Strictly for die-hard fans, scheduled in the off-hours. After the war, then, back in the city, I had eagerly awaited those musical events, slowly becoming an addict, glued to the radio, which I turned down low so as not to disturb the rest of my family. My grandfather had some classical records, but who can say he did not buy them later, precisely to encourage my new passion? Before that, I had noted down like a spy the rare occasions when I could listen to my music, and who knows how angry I felt, going into the kitchen for a long-awaited date and being prevented from listening by shuffling busybodies or nattering salesmen, by women tidying up or rolling out sheets of dough for pasta.
Chopin was the composer I had underlined most emphatically. I carried the box into my grandfather’s study, turning on both the record player and the station panel of my Telefunken, and began my latest quest to the strains of the Sonata in B-flat Minor, opus 35.
Beneath the Radiocorriere were several notebooks from my final three years of high school, ’47 to ’50. I must have had a truly great philosophy teacher, because the better part of what I know on the subject was right there, in my notes. Then there were drawings and cartoons, jokes I had shared with my schoolmates, and our end-of-the-year class pictures, all of us lined up in three or four rows with our teachers in the center. Those faces told me nothing, and I even had trouble recognizing myself and had to proceed mainly by elimination, latching onto the last tufts of Ciuffettino’s quiff.
Mixed in with the school notebooks was another, which began with the date 1948, but the handwriting gradually changed as I turned the pages, so perhaps it contained texts from the subsequent three years as well. They were poems.
Poems so bad they could have been no one’s but mine. Teenage acne. I think everyone writes poems when they are sixteen; it is a phase in the passage from adolescence to adulthood. I do not remember where I read that there are two kinds of poets: the good poets, who at a certain point destroy their bad poems and go off to run guns in Africa, and the bad poets, who publish theirs and keep writing more until they die.
Perhaps that is not really how things go, but my poems were bad. Not dreadful or repulsive, which might suggest some genius provocateur, but pathetically obvious. Was it worth it to come back to Solara to discover that I was a hack? But at least I could be proud of one thing: I had sealed away those abortions in a box, in a chapel with a walled-up door, and had dedicated myself to collecting other people’s books. I must have been, at eighteen, admirably lucid, critically incorruptible.
But although I had buried them, I had in fact kept them, so I must have retained some attachment to those poems, even after the acne had passed. As records. Some people who rid themselves of a tapeworm save the head in an alcohol solution and others do likewise with stones removed from their gall bladders.
The first poems were sketches, fleeting revelations in the face of nature’s charms, the sort every budding poet writes: winter mornings that hinted amid the frost at a sly desire for April, jumbles of lyrical reticence about the mysterious color of an August evening, many (too many) moons, and only one moment of humility:
Tell me, moon in the sky, what do you do?
I go about my life,
my dull, colorless life,
because I am a heap
of earth, and lifeless valleys,
and tedious extinct
By God, perhaps I had not been such a fool after all. Or maybe I had just discovered the Futurists, who wanted to kill off moonlight. But right after that I read a few verses about Chopin, his music and his unhappy life. Think about it, at sixteen no one writes poems about Bach, who lost it only on the day his wife died, telling the vultures, when they asked him what he wanted in the way of obsequies, to ask her. Chopin seems made to order for bringing sixteen-year-olds to tears: his departure from Warsaw with Constantia’s ribbon over his heart, death looming at the Valldemossa monastery. Only when you get older do you realize he wrote some good music, before that you just cry.
The next poems were about memory. With milk still on my lips, I was already worrying about gathering remembrances that had barely had any time to fade. One poem declared:
I build myself memories. I stretch life into this mirage. With every passing moment, with every instant, I gently turn a page with my unsteady hand. And memory is that wave that ripples the waters briefly and disappears.
Very short lines, no doubt I learned that from the Hermetics.
A lot of poems about hourglasses, which spin time into a thin filament and deposit it into the intense granaries of memory, a hymn to Orpheus (!) in which I warned him that you cannot enter twice / the kingdom of remembrance / and hope to find unspoiled / the unexpected freshness / of the first theft. Advice to myself: I should not have wasted / a single moment… Marvelous, all it took was one overflowing artery and I wasted everything. To Africa, to Africa, to run guns.
In addition to the rest of my lyric offal, I was writing love poems. So, I was in love. Or was I rather, as often happens at that age, in love with love? In any case I wrote about a "she," however impalpable:
Creature contained within that transient mystery that keeps you far from me, perhaps you were born merely to live these verses, yet you do not know it.
Troubadouric enough, and with hindsight equally chauvinist. Why would she have been born merely to live my poor verses? If she did not exist, I was a monogamous pasha turning the fair sex into flesh for my imaginary harem, and that can only be called masturbation, even if one ejaculates with a quill pen. But what if the Contained Creature was real and truly had not known? Then I was a dunce, but who was she?
I saw no images before me, just words, and I felt no mysterious flame, if only because Queen Loana had disappointed me. But I felt something, to the point of being able to anticipate certain lines as I gradually went on reading: one day you will disappear / and perhaps it was a dream. A poetic figment never disappears, you write it down to make it eternal. If I feared she might melt away, it was because the poem was a poor stand-in for something that I had been unable to approach. Incautiously I built / upon the transient sands of moments spent / in the presence of a face, simply a face. / But I do not know if I regret the instant / in which you damned me to construct a world. I was constructing a world for myself, but in order to welcome someone else.
Indeed, I read a description that was too detailed to have referred to a fictional creation:
As she passed blithely by through the May air,
her hair in a new style,
a student standing near me
(older, taller, and blond)
said grinning to his friends
that the adhesive bandage on his neck
covered a syphiloma.
And farther on a yellow jacket appeared, like a vision of the Angel of the Sixth Trumpet. The girl existed, and I could never have invented the syphiloma sleazeball. And what of this one, among the last in the love section?
An evening just like this, three days before Christmas,
I was deciphering love
for the first time.
An evening just like this,
the snow crushed flat along the avenues,
and I was making noise beneath a window
hoping to be seen by a certain someone
and thinking that sufficed
to place myself in the upper ranks of men.
So many seasons now
have changed the cells and tissues of my body
that I may not persist even in memory.
Only you, only you,
gone off to who knows where (where have you gone?),
as I still find you in the muscle of
and with the same amazement as three days
To this Contained Creature, who was clearly real, I had devoted my three most formative years. Then (where have you gone?) I lost her. And perhaps during the period when I lost my parents and grandfather and was moving to Turin, I decided to put that behind me, as the final two poems suggest. Though they had been slipped into the notebook, they were not handwritten but typed. I doubt we used typewriters in high school. So these final two poetic efforts must have dated from the beginning of my college years. Strange to find them here, since everyone told me I stopped coming to Solara at the very beginning of that period. But perhaps after my grandfather’s death, as my aunt and uncle were settling everything, I had come back to the chapel, to put a final seal on memories I was renouncing, and had left these two pages as a kind of testament and farewell. They sound like a farewell, as if I were settling my accounts, with my poetry and my soft adulteries alike, by leaving everything behind.
The first began:
Oh the pale dames of Renoir
The balcony ladies of Manet
The outdoor tables on the boulevards
And the white parasol in the landau
Faded with the last cattleya
at Bergotte’s final breath…
Let’s look each other in the eyes: Odette de Crecy Was a great whore.
The second was entitled "The Partisans." It was all that remained of my memories from ’43 until the end of the war:
Talino, Gino, Ras, Lupetto, Sciabola
may you come down together some spring day
singing the wind is whistling the storm is howling
for how I long to have them back, those summers
of sudden rifle shots up high in the hills
breaking the silence of the midday sun
of afternoons spent waiting,
of news that made the rounds in quiet voices:
the Decima retreats, the Badogliani
are coming down tomorrow, the roadblock’s gone,
the road to Orbegno is impassable,
they’re carrying the wounded off in gigs,
I saw them going by the Oratorio,
Sergeant Garrani locked himself inside
the City Hall…
Then suddenly the dreadful racket,
the hellish noise, the tapping on the wall
of the house, a voice in the alley…
And the night, silence and occasional shots,
from San Martino, and the final sweeps…
I’d like to dream about those endless summers
that fed on certainty like blood,
about those days in which
Talino, Ras and Gino may have looked
into the face of truth.
But I cannot, for there remains
my own roadblock
on the road to the Gorge.
And so I close the notebook
of memory. By now they’re gone,
the clear nights in which
the Partisan in the woods
watched the little birds so they wouldn’t sing,
so Sleeping Beauty could remain asleep.
These verses remained a puzzle. Evidently I had experienced a period that seemed heroic to me, at least as long as I saw others as the protagonists. While trying to settle all the inquiries into my childhood and adolescence, I had tried, on the threshold of adulthood, to call back certain moments of exaltation and certainty. But I was blocked (the last roadblock of that war fought outside my door) and I had surrendered in the face of-what? Something I could not or would not call back to mind, something that had to do with the Gorge. The Gorge, once again. Had I seen the hellcats there and had that encounter taught me that I must blot out everything? Or, since I was by then aware that I had lost the Contained Creature, had I turned other days, and the Gorge, into an allegory of that loss-thus explaining why I was putting away everything I had been, up to that moment, in the chapel’s inviolable coffer?
Nothing else remained, at least not at Solara. I could only infer that after that renunciation, I had decided to devote myself, already a student, to old books, to turn my attention to someone else’s past, one that would not have anything to do with me.
But who was that Creature who, fleeing, had convinced me to file away both my high school years and my time at Solara? Had I, too, had my pallid little maiden, a sweet girl who lived across the hall on the fifth floor? If that was the case, it was just another song and nothing more, a song everyone has sung at one time or another.
The only person who might have known anything about it was Gianni. If you fall in love, and for the first time, you at least confide in your desk mate.
Some days ago I had not wanted Gianni to clear away the fog of my memories with the calm light of his own, but on this point I could call upon nothing but his memory.
It was already evening when I phoned him, and we talked for several hours. I began in a roundabout way, talking about Chopin, and I learned that in those days the radio really had been our only source for the great music for which we were developing a passion. In the city, it was not until our fifth and final year of high school that a friends-of-music society had been formed: from time to time it offered a violin or piano concert, a trio at most, and in our class there were only four of us who went, almost furtively, because the other rascals, though not yet eighteen, were always trying to get into the brothel, and they looked at us as if we were light in the loafers. Okay, we had shared some thrills, I could risk it. "In the third year of high school, did I start thinking about a girl?"
"So you’ve forgotten about that too, then. Every cloud has a silver lining. Why should you care, so much time has passed… Come on, Yambo, think of your health."
"Don’t be an ass, I’ve discovered certain things here that intrigue me. I have to know."
He seemed to hesitate, then lifted the lid off his memories, growing quite animated, as if he had been the one in love. And indeed that was nearly the case, because (so he told me) up to that time he had remained immune to love’s torments, and my confidences intoxicated him as if the affair had been his own.
"And besides, she really was the most beautiful girl in her class. You had high standards, you did. You fell in love, yes, but only with the most beautiful girl."
"Alors, moi, j’aime qui?… Mais cela va de soi! / J’aime-mais c’est forc'e-la plus belle qui soit!"
"I don’t know, it came to me. But tell me about her. What was her name?"
"Lila, Lila Saba."
Nice name. I let it melt in my mouth like honey. "Lila. Nice. And so, how did it happen?"
"In the third year of high school, we were still pimply boys in knickerbockers. The girls our age, sixteen or so, were already women, and they wouldn’t even look at us. They would rather flirt with the college students who came to wait for them by the gate. You saw her once and were smitten. A Dante and Beatrice kind of thing, and I’m not just saying that, because that was the year they made us study La Vita Nuova and clear cool sweet waters, and those were the only things you learned by heart, because they were about you. In short, you were thunderstruck. You spent a week walking around in a daze with a lump in your throat, not touching food, to the point where your parents thought you were ill. Then you wanted to find out what her name was, but you didn’t dare ask around for fear that everyone would notice how you felt. Fortunately Ninetta Foppa was in your class, a nice, squirrel-faced girl who lived near you, and you had played together since you were kids. So when you ran into her on the stairs, after chatting about other things, you asked her the name of the girl you had seen her with the day before. Then at least you knew her name."
"I’m telling you, you turned into a zombie. And since you were quite religious at that time, you went to see your spiritual director, Don Renato, one of those priests who rode around on a moped wearing a beret, who everyone said was broad-minded. He even allowed you to read the books in the Index, since it was important to exercise one’s critical faculties. I wouldn’t have had the guts to go tell something like that to a priest, but you just had to tell someone. You know, you were like that guy in the joke who gets shipwrecked on a desert island, alone with the most beautiful and famous actress in the world, and the inevitable happens, but the guy still isn’t happy and can’t be content until he persuades her to dress up as a man and to draw on a mustache with charred cork, and then he takes her by the arm and says, ‘Gustavo, you’ll never guess who I laid’…"
"Don’t be vulgar, this is a serious matter for me. What did Don Renato say?"
"What do you expect a priest to say, even a broad-minded one? That your feeling was noble and beautiful and natural, but that you shouldn’t spoil it by transforming it into a physical relationship, because it was important to remain pure until marriage, and therefore you should keep it secret in the depths of your heart."
"And you, like a pea-brain, you kept it secret in the depths of your heart. In my opinion, it was partly because you had an insane fear of approaching her. But the depths of your heart weren’t enough, so you came and told me everything, and I even had to be your accomplice."
"Why, if I never approached her?"
"The situation was that you lived right behind the school. When you got out all you had to do was turn the corner and you were home. The girls, one of the principal’s rules, were let out after the boys. So there was no way you could ever see her, unless you planted yourself like dumb-ass in front of the high school steps. Basically, both us and the girls had to cross the grounds, which let out into a square, Largo Minghetti, and from there we all went our separate ways. She lived right on Largo Minghetti. So you would come out, pretend to accompany me to the edge of the grounds, all the while waiting for the girls to come out, then you would go back and pass her as she was coming down the stairs with her friends. You would pass her, look at her, and that’s it. Every damn day."
"And I was satisfied."
"Oh no you weren’t. Then you began to get up to all kinds of mischief. You got involved with charity drives so the principal would let you go from class to class selling tickets of some kind, and in her class you would somehow contrive to spend an extra half-minute at her desk, perhaps trying to find the right change. You managed to bring on a toothache, because your parents’ dentist was also on Largo Minghetti and his windows faced the balcony of her house. You would complain of terrible pains, and the dentist wouldn’t know what else to do, so just to be safe he’d start drilling. You got yourself drilled a bunch of times for nothing, but you would arrive a half-hour early so you could stay in the waiting room and peep out the window at her balcony. Of course, did she ever come out-not once. One evening it was snowing and a group of us went to the cinema, also on Largo Minghetti, and you started a snowball fight and started screaming like a wild man, we thought you were drunk. You were hoping she would hear the ruckus and come to the window, and just think what a fine figure you’d have cut. Some old hag came to the window instead, shouted that she was calling the police. And then, your stroke of genius. You organized the revue, the extravaganza, the high school’s big show. You risked failing your exams that year because you were thinking of nothing but the revue, the script, the musical numbers, the stage design. And finally the great occasion: three shows so that the entire school, families included, could come to the main hall and see the greatest show on earth. She came two nights in a row. The pi`ece de r'esistance was Signora Marini. Signora Marini was the natural sciences teacher, skinny as a rail, flat as a board, kept her hair in a bun and always wore big tortoiseshell glasses and a black smock. You were as skinny as she was, and it was easy for you to dress up as her. In profile, you were her spitting image. As soon as you walked out on stage, they started clapping like Caruso never heard. Now, during class Signora Marini was always taking cough drops out of her handbag and she’d slide them from one cheek to the other for half an hour. When you opened your handbag, you pretended to put a lozenge in your mouth and then you stuck your tongue in your cheek, well, let me tell you, it brought the house down, a single roar that lasted a good five minutes. With a flick of your tongue you had hundreds of people in spasms. You had become a star. But it was clear that what excited you was that she was there and had seen you."
"Didn’t I think at that point that I could make a move?"
"Sure, and your promise to Don Renato?"
"So except when I was selling her tickets, I never spoke to her?"
"A few times. For instance, they used to take the whole school to Asti to see Alfieri’s tragedies, the matinee was just for us, and four of us managed to commandeer a box. You looked for her in the other boxes and in the orchestra, and you saw that she had ended up in overflow seating in the back, where she couldn’t see anything. So during the intermission you contrived to cross her path, said hi, asked her if she liked the play, and when she lamented that she couldn’t see very well, you told her that we had a lovely box with one seat still empty, if she wanted to join us. She did, and she watched the remaining acts leaning forward, while you sat behind her on one of those little sofas. You couldn’t see the stage anymore, but you stared at the back of her neck for two hours. Almost an orgasm."
"And then she thanked you and rejoined her friends. You had been nice and she was thanking you. As I said, they were already women, they didn’t give a crap about us."
"Even though I had been the star of the big show at school?"
"Right, and do you think women fell in love with Jerry Lewis? They thought he was clever, and that’s it."
Okay, Gianni was telling me the banal story of a high school romance. But it was in telling me the rest of the story that he helped me understand something. I had spent my third year of high school in a state of delirium. Then summer vacation came, and I suffered like a dog because I did not know where she was. When she returned in the fall, I continued my silent rituals of adoration (and meanwhile, as I now knew and Gianni did not, I continued to write my poems). It was like being with her day by day, and by night, too, I would guess.
But in the middle of our second year Lila Saba vanished. She left the school and, as I later learned from Ninetta Foppa, the city too, with her whole family. It was a murky affair, even Ninetta knew little about it, just scraps of gossip. Her father was in some trouble, fraudulent bankruptcy or something. He had left everything in the lawyers’ hands, and while waiting for things to get straightened out had taken a job overseas-and things never got straightened out, because the family never came back.
No one knew where they had fetched up, some said Argentina, some Brazil. South America, in a period when for us Lugano was the ultima Thule. Gianni made an effort: it seemed that Lila’s best friend was a certain Sandrina, but this Sandrina, out of loyalty, was not talking. We were sure she was in correspondence with Lila, but she was a tomb-and after all, who were we that she should tell us anything.
I spent the year and a half before graduation constantly on edge- and sad-I was a mess. I thought only about Lila Saba, and where she might be.
Then, Gianni said, I seemed to forget about it completely when I went off to college; between my freshman year and the time I finished my degree I had two girlfriends, and after that I met Paola. Lila should have remained a nice adolescent memory, the sort everyone has. Instead, I had looked for her the rest of my life. I even thought of going to South America, hoping to meet her on the streets of, who knows, Tierra del Fuego or Pernambuco. In a moment of weakness I had confessed to Gianni that in every woman I had an affair with I was always looking for Lila’s face. I wanted to see her again at least once before I died, no matter how she had turned out. You would spoil your memories, Gianni would say. That did not matter, I was unable to leave that account unsettled.
"You spent your life looking for Lila Saba. I used to say it was just an excuse to meet other women. I didn’t take you very seriously. I realized it was serious only in April."
"What happened in April?"
"Yambo, that’s what I don’t want to tell you, because that’s what I told you a few days before your incident. I’m not saying there was any direct connection, but just to be on the safe side let’s drop it, besides, I don’t think it’s a big deal…"
"No, now you have to tell me everything, otherwise my blood pressure will go up. Spit it out."
"Well, I went back home at the beginning of April, to take flowers to the cemetery, as I sometimes do, and because I felt a little nostalgic for our old city. Nothing has changed since we left it, so it makes me feel young to go back. While there I ran into Sandrina, like us she’s pushing sixty, but she hasn’t really changed much. We went for a coffee and talked about the old days. We talked and talked, and I asked her about Lila Saba. Didn’t you know, she said-and how the hell could I have known?-didn’t you know Lila died right after we graduated? Don’t ask how or why, she said, I sent letters to her in Brazil, and her mother sent them back and told me what had happened, imagine, the poor thing, dead at eighteen. And that was it. Basically, even for Sandrina it was ancient history."
For forty years I had been all worked up over a ghost. I had made a clean break with my past at the beginning of college; of all my memories, hers was the only one I had been unable to put behind me, and without knowing it I had been spinning my wheels in a tomb. How poetic. And excruciating.
"But what was Lila Saba like?" I asked, persisting. "At least tell me what she was like."
"What do you want me to say? She was pretty, I liked her, too, and when I’d tell you that you’d act all proud, the way a man gets when someone tells him what a pretty wife he has. She had blond hair almost down to her waist, a face somewhere between angelic and devilish, and when she laughed you could see her two front teeth…"
"There must be some photograph of her around, our class photos!"
"Yambo, the high school, our old high school, burned down in the sixties, walls, desks, files, and all. There’s a new one now, it’s hideous."
"Her friends, Sandrina, someone must have photos…"
"Could be, I’ll check if you want, though I’m not really sure how to go about asking. Beyond that, what can you do? Not even Sandrina after nearly fifty years remembers what city she moved to, said it had some weird name, wasn’t one of the famous ones like Rio-you want to lick your finger and go through every Brazilian phone book looking for Sabas? You might find a thousand. Or maybe the father changed his name when they fled. And say you go there, who will you find? Her parents must be dead, too, by now, or else addlebrained, as they would no doubt be past ninety. You’re going to say, Excuse me I was just passing by and I’d like to see a photo of your daughter Lila?"
"Come on, why keep chasing after these fantasies? Let the dead bury their dead. You don’t even know what cemetery her headstone’s in. And besides, her name wasn’t even Lila."
"What was her name?"
"Oops, I should have shut up. Sandrina mentioned it to me in April, and I told you right away because it was such an odd coincidence, but I immediately saw that the news hit you harder than it should have. Much too hard, if I may say, because it truly is only a coincidence. But fine, I’ll spit this out too. Lila was a nickname for Sibilla."
A profile I had seen in a French magazine when I was a child, a face I encountered on the school stairs as a boy, and then other faces that perhaps all had some common thread, Paola, Vanna, the pretty Dutchwoman, and so on, all the way to Sibilla, the living one, who is getting married soon, and so I will lose her too. A relay race across the years, a quest for something that had ceased to exist even before I had stopped writing my poems.
I am alone, leaning in the fog
against an avenue’s trunk…
And nothing in my heart
except your memory,
pallid and colossal
and lost in the cold lights and far away
from every place among the trees.
This is beautiful because it is not mine. A colossal but pallid memory. Among all the treasures of Solara, not a single photo of Lila Saba. Gianni can call her face to mind as if it were yesterday and I-the only one with the right-cannot.