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Giselle Arrestini, three days after her forty-ninth birthday, was earnestly considering suicide. Earnestly, as opposed to melodramatically, which is how she generally approached the idea.
Seated at her vanity, the window open to the budding spring, Giselle was counting out pills. Lined up end to end, the tablets were as long as her second longest strand of pearls. With a manicured nail she pushed them – one by one, now higher now lower – so that the means of her much-desired serenity formed an open zipper. She counted. Eleven up and eleven down – Cesare’s favourite bet at the races. And five more than the number of guests who attended her birthday party.
It had been a modest affair, catered at home. Giselle had conscripted her housecleaner’s cousin to help deliver the six-room apartment from its depressed state of dust and dead flowers. A case of champagne and serviceable canapés, together with a splendidly cool spring evening full of music from the bandshell in the gardens outside, had kept the hostess in sturdy spirits for nearly three hours.
Giselle had not sniped the new generation of starlets; had not struggled with sincerity at the door; and only briefly, too briefly, had she succumbed to the melancholy of missed friends – when someone raised a glass to Cesare. Glorious Cesare, who could not be here tonight because of his heartbreak and a winter holed up in Turin with seconal and rum. His farewell note had read: “Forgive and be forgiven and don’t gossip too much.” But of course, they all did. Dear Cesare. Dear dead Cesare.
Funny, thought Giselle, studying the fine lines below her fine eyes, three nights ago it had felt fine to be alive with Cesare dead. After all, they were not lovers or siblings or partners. She had not even seen him in – what, eight months? When they raised a glass to the dead at her own birthday party, Giselle had been filled with fond memories. But tonight… tonight, Signora Arrestini, past her prime, worried that by her fiftieth birthday, she could be lost to the world. She wanted to be remembered well. Perhaps even with gossip.
Seventeen guests, total, by eleven o’clock, so Giselle had kicked off her heels and stood on an ottoman to address her dearest friends, partners in crime, fellow pilgrims through this paradise of pain we call life. Impromptu and heartfelt, her words were just coming to a point of uncustomary joie de vivre, when Giselle was upstaged by a protracted scream from the gardens, sending the party to the balcony in a pack of speculation.
“Is it a baby?”
“Is it a rape?”
“Jesu Maria. It’s bloody awful.”
“The sound of a mortal sin.”
The screams continued, regular and terrifying. In the restive silences between, the guests peered into the thick canopy below and suggested phoning the carabinieri. It was Vincento, that decrepit philistine, who dismissed these concerns. “What you are hearing is the aria of copulating foxes,” he drawled. “That is the blood-curdling cry of vixen, in penetrato, so to speak.”
“Foxes in Resulata!” chided Giselle, incredulous. The noise was diabolical. The stuff of nightmares.
Isabelle Charo gasped. “The poor thing. Do you really mean to tell me…” Vincento, his hair a slick of insincerity and his gold rings flashing (the kind of man Giselle quite abhorred), said something at once lewd and conciliatory. He laid a consoling hand on Isabella’s own.
When the guests had left, Geronimo arrived. He brought apologies and a bottle of Campari. Giselle lay her bare feet in Geronimo’s lap and sighed, thinking of all that was gone.
“What has become of Cinecittà?”
It was a question she frequently asked the ceiling, and sometimes her ex-husband answered. He would say that he, Geronimo, was up to his neck in projects. Projects with international backers. Projects that she, Giselle, consistently, perversely, disdained. And why? Because she insisted that the bombs that had destroyed lights, cameras and soundstages had also destroyed the magic.
“Where is the illusion,” she would ask. “Where is the soft-focus?”
In fact, Giselle Arrestini had made three films since the end of the war, but she did not care for the new style of cinema. She disliked the implication that a woman must be disheveled and wanton to be authentic. She had lived through the war too, for god’s sake. She had seen suffering and had spent three nights in a cell in 1944, but she knew very well that those were not her finest hours. And yet this is what she saw on the screen today: dresses in tatters, hair in curlers, eyes full of tears and dust. Every leading lady who preened before the paparazzi in silks and sapphires could be expected to be brutalized on screen within the hour. Such were the attributes of today’s glamour – a word Giselle found more objectionable, even, than fregna.
“Not a decent film since the war,” she swore. “And now you are offering me roles as a nun, Geronimo. A nun! You give me one good reason I shouldn’t write you off entirely – aside from the fact that there is not a single director in Rome I would work with at this point. Grubby realists. They make me want to slit my throat, Geronimo. And give me one good reason why I should not!”
It was a question for which he always had an answer.
Thirty-five years had passed since Geronimo had discovered Giselle, penniless and pubescent in an influenza ward, and made a shockingly unusual film: six minutes of her dainty feet stirring up a small whirlpool in a sparkling stream. Off screen, the film had stirred up the Church and the Cinema Society.
But who remembered “Fountain’s Surface” today? No one. Not even the director who had married his ingenue when she turned eighteen, fathered her child when she was twenty, buried the child of a twenty-four year old mother and then divorced her, Giselle, when she turned thirty-four. But he continued, even now, to make room for her regret, among the new film projects and new wives.
“You should not, because your throat is still beautiful,” he had answered.
Giselle held a single pill between her thumb and finger. It was, she thought, a very attractive pill – clearly intended for a woman like Giselle: small, round, loaded with a potency that could only be suspected until fully consumed. She placed it under her tongue. Sweet like pale pink. Hard like bleached bone. She liked the sensation of it there. A tiny pebble that would cripple if not attended.
A glance at the clock: nearly seven o’clock. One thing that was as true at age forty-nine as at age twenty-nine and thirty-nine: there was no rushing La Arrestini. And so, after earnestly considering the potential of the fatal dose of codeine arrayed before her, Giselle decided that what she deserved was a last supper.
She slipped out of her robe and into an emerald green sheath. She put on lipstick, her darkest shade, and a spritz of perfume. A silk wrap around her shoulders, Signora Arrestini left her apartment in twilight. She descended five floors to the street, the lift passing through the piano lesson of the fourth floor; a volley of resentment on the third; and, on both the second and first floors, the radio broadcasting political speeches.
In the foyer, the massive street door was open, spilling a slash of blue light across the floor. The bells from the two churches at either end of Via Resulata were ringing. Giselle hailed a taxi and directed: “Piazza Graziole. Casa Bianca.”
Complimenting her hair, her dress, the moon and the stars, Beppe the head-waiter led Signora Arrestini to her table. He poured out the Chianti and assured the signora that the veal was as tender as butter. Giselle ordered risotto and fastened her eyes on the handsome young sub-waiter. She held him with the same regard with which she had counted out capsules of codeine. She raised one finger. The boy tucked the phallus of his pepper-grinder under his arm and made his way towards her.
His eyes were red, and she was taken aback. She imagined him, a man in all but years, crying in the back alley. His mother dying. His girl pregnant. And then she imagined him on set, directed by one of the invading foreigner prospectors who mined for gold-dust in Rome’s ruined reality.
“The table is unstable, you see,” she said gently.
The speed with which a matchbook appeared in his hands; the agility with which he bent to the floor, searching for the gap making the table list; the sudden exposure of a wrist, raw from an earlier fumble of minestrone – all these things made Giselle breathless, certain that young man knew what it was she wanted fixing.
Instead, he stood and tested the table’s position. “Will that do, Signora?”
It would do, she told him. She did not want him any longer. That was the problem. She didn’t want anything. She longed for nothing and no one, so the sub-waiter bowed and retreated.
Beppe brought soup.
“And the birthday, Signora?” he asked as he placed the plate before her. “I hope you passed a pleasant evening?”
“I had unexpected guests,” she said, pouring more wine. “Foxes, serenading us from the courtyard.”
“You don’t say!” exclaimed Beppe. “My mother, rest her soul, would tell you it is an auspicious guest, the fox.”
“Your mother was clearly no chicken,” said Giselle. “I must tell you – they were…” she lifted her eyebrows. “And I have never heard the like.”
“Ahhh the renard. He is passionate then, is he?” Beppe was all winks.
“He is not,” clarified Giselle. “He’s a bloody brute, I should say.”
She lit a cigarette and surveyed the room, half-full. In the corner opposite, two men ate in silence, lifting their heads in turn to wipe lips, palpate wine glasses, coy birds at a shallow pool. Homosexuals, thought Giselle. It made her tender, their easy, see-sawing regard for one another. She was sure it was a rare interlude; they more often took turns throwing things at each other and saying cruel things that were only half true.
Beppe brought risotto. The boy brought his pepper mill. Giselle drank a third glass of wine and wished she had brought a pill. Her shoulders were flushed but her knees were cold, and she felt only half-content with her weariness.
Now Beppe led a woman across the restaurant who, in turn, led a child not more than five years old. Giselle saw the woman’s plain face, the ragazzo’s bare knees, and all of the diners watching. There was a boldness in the curious sight. The way the woman carried her head, as if the child were a suitor and she disdained the whispers: “much, much younger than her.”
Beppe seated the woman at the table next to Giselle and arranged the child, a boy with long curls, on the too-large chair. “Perhaps you know Signora Arrestini,” he said to the woman, who was removing her hat with its half-veil. “She honours us with her presence quite regularly.”
The woman acknowledged the introduction with a nod.
“The veal tonight is particularly fine,” Beppe concluded, backing away.
Giselle reached for her cigarettes. The little boy was almost directly across from her. His eyes were large, but unseeing. The open eyes of the half-asleep.
“Long day?” she said, neither to the boy nor his mother.
“I don’t often take him to restaurants,” said the woman. “But our train was delayed. There was nothing for it.”
“The train to….”
“You will be late getting in.”
The boy’s eyes widened with the sudden flame of her lighter. She pushed the shiny lighter across the table and nodded permission. He lifted his gaze to his mother, but she was studying the menu. Tentatively he inched his hand to the shiny thing.
“It was not the way I intended,” said the woman. “Sometimes, plans…”
“Always, plans,” agreed Giselle.
The child was beautiful. The mother was not. They were eating together on a Saturday night in a strange town, and Giselle was touched. The woman ordered pasta and the veal. The child rubbed his eyes once more and asked in an angelic voice if they would sleep on the train. The woman cut the veal chop and placed small pieces on his plate. He ate them as quickly as they appeared.
“He has a fine appetite.”
“Such a creature.”
The boy paused his chewing. He knew they talked about him and after a moment, he split into a smile, dropping food from his lips.
“What will happen when he is older, I am sure I don’t know,” continued his mother as she spooned pasta onto his plate. “Perhaps I will apprentice him to a butcher.”
Giselle nodded indulgently. “And yet he’s a tyke. Not a bruiser at all.” She reached across the table and squeezed the boy on his forearm. He wrested it from her and scrambled to his knees to reach for the glass of milk.
“He’s insatiable,” replied his mother. There was a note of outrage now in her voice. “It’s his father. An American. You never saw the like. They have different blood, you see. Undiluted by the want of not having. Blood that was never starved makes them hungry all the time.”
Giselle knew this story.“A soldier,” she guessed.
The grappa burned in her throat. Giselle turned in her seat to get a full look at this woman who would call her child’s father a rapist in his small presence. The boy had milk running down his chin. “I will kill him before he becomes such a man,” the woman hissed as she leaned forward and wiped his chin.
Signora Arrestini finished her coffee in silence and motioned to Beppe. The boy was restless now, sliding from his seat, playing with his pasta. It occurred to her that his father was not a uniformed Yank at all, but one of those Dolce Vita opportunists. She had had a troublesome evening with one of them herself. A producer, he had called himself, and she had let herself be wooed. The trouble came when he offered her an opportunity she could not refuse. Did not refuse. She couldn’t have imagined the hunger she had felt then.
Beppe brought the bill and she paid, leaving a handsome tip.
“Buonanotte,” she said, rising. “And safe travels.”
Giselle Arrestini was halfway across the room when she turned back. She pulled from her bag a stack of lire that she had withdrawn from the bank earlier that and placed it on the table of the woman from Padua. Twenty thousand lire. Worthless to her, on her last night on earth.
“For your next dinner,” she said.
Confusion, anger, then discomfort crossed the woman’s face and Giselle hated all of these reactions. “Please, take it,” she said. She laid a hand on the boy’s curly head and felt a surge of bitterness: that an angel should be a bastard, in fact and in the making. “I, for one, take pleasure in feeding physical needs.”
Signora Arrestini bid a loud adieu as she left Casa Bianca. Behind her, she felt Beppe’s ignorance of the finality of her exit. She felt the woman from Padua’s acknowledgement that her trauma, her glamour, her realism, had all failed to move la signora, a survivor who had had enough.
Outside, the sky seemed higher than usual, the stars further away and more plentiful. Giselle walked all the way home, not once indulging in the fantasy that cameras, surreptitious and bold, followed her swaying hips. She longed to be still. Her longing to be quiet was the burn of a peaceful poison.
She arrived at the building on Via Resulata where she had lived since ’44 – less promising times. She took the stairs up to the flat where she did not want to be, but where she must go in order to be somewhere else. The apartment was dark, and she left it that way. She poured herself a drink from the kitchen and crept on bare feet to the bedroom. In the mirror of her vanity, she was ghostly and more beautiful than she had been in the despairing twilight. She admired herself, congratulated herself with a pearl held daintily between her teeth. She swallowed it. Chased it with alcohol. She could do as she pleased. The night was devoid of drama.
Until the scream of a fox shattered the stillness.
Giselle froze. She felt every woman in the darkness freeze. The street outside was a tremor of stillness waiting to be shattered again. “Jesu,” she whispered when the second and then the third howl, excruciating and abominable, pierced the park. “Maria vergine,” she thought as she hurried to the balcony and peered into the sound of violence and pain. Had she experienced such a thing? Should she experience such a thing?
On and on – the ragged cry of an alien but familiar expression.
The next morning, the groundsman of Resulata Gardens made an unusual call to his superior.
“Dead all right. Handsome fellow. First made himself known about a week ago, and from the sound of it he wasn’t alone. No sign of the female, though. Just this playboy, still warm, and looks like maybe he found a midnight snack in some housewife’s mixing bowl nearby.”
At the same time, Giselle Arrestini was stepping up to the pharmacist’s counter. Her hair was in a turban and her fine eyes were hidden behind dark glasses, though the sunshine was wan. She handed over the prescription, tucked her tablets in her purse and calculated. It would be another three weeks before she, once again, had enough.
On her way home, she stopped in Carlotta’s articoli and bought a new mixing bowl.
About the author:
Elizabeth Kiem‘s novels are about spies, dancers, circus carnies and runts. She’s new to short fiction, but is digging it – both as a reader and a writer. Elizabeth has lived in Alaska, Virginia, Moscow and NYC and calls London home for now.
About Elizabeth Kiem
Elizabeth Kiem's novels are about spies, dancers, circus carnies and runts. She's new to short fiction, but is digging it - both as a reader and a writer. Elizabeth has lived in Alaska, Virginia, Moscow and NYC and calls London home for now.