Joyland

San Francisco |

A Tarantella

by Zoë Ferraris

edited by Kara Levy

Massimo was not weak. You could not call him weak. He was tough, mean, and shithouse poor, scrubbing toilets and cooking ragu in a sleazy hostel, but only because his brother owned the place and was doing him a favor. He’d done a ten-year sentence for selling drugs, but now in his poverty and miserable labor, society made him pay for a thousand more crimes they imagined he’d done, would someday do. He’d never had it good. His father, dying, had cursed him; his mother had slashed him with a kitchen knife; and his wife, pregnant, had screwed his best friend in St. Minerva’s confessional. But despite the loss, his whole being crackled with power, tremendous like fire from the black, hot core of the earth.

Every night found him in the kitchen doorway, backlit by a furnace of volcanic activity. None of the tourists dared look at him, at his peppercorn face, his granite body, his homunculus hands knobbed with greasy, inexplicable scars. He had the intense, brutal presence of a watchful tarantula. With two plates of penne stacked on each arm, he stood for a long time, studying the crowd as if deciding who deserved to have food.

There was always a pretty woman or two, and if there wasn’t, he’d settle for whatever looked best. Tourist girls were easy; they were looking for a fling, someone big and manly who would take them to the beach and whisper Italian, je so pazz’ pe’te. They didn’t ask about his past, his family, or his job, and they didn’t stick around. For the few who did, he had ammunition: He was married. He was Catholic. He would never get a divorce. At the height of the season, he had a different woman every night. Even the desperate ones wouldn’t put up with that.

Tonight there was a woman sitting alone, ten times prettier than the others, tall, pale, probably a Swede. She had the kind of presence he thought of as cold and Anglo-Saxon. She was reading a phone book, but she looked up once and saw him there, and he swore, for a second, that a spiderlike awareness spun a thread of understanding between them.

He broke into the crowd, handing off plates and striding up to her table. Never mind introductions; he told her she was going out with him that evening (“I know you want to. I’ll take you to the beach”) because she was so damned gorgeous, so clean-cut and graceful and sheer delicious blond, like a sunbeam in a church. The only way she would ever date a man like him would be at the gunpoint of pheromones.

            “I don’t want to,” she whispered, just as if, he thought, they were an old married couple discussing a movie.

It was the first signal that things were going well.

            “I’ll meet you at ten,” he said, jutting his chin at the youth hostel door. She hadn’t looked up from the phone book where, he guessed, she was searching for an old lover, probably male, middle class, married, and an ass. He said so. “He’s an asshole, you know.”

            She looked up. Her voice was soft. “Oh?”

            “Only an ass would leave a woman like you.” He pursed his lips and blew a disapproving cluck in her direction, a cluck that doubled as a kiss, which was what he liked about the gesture, about all the gestures he’d copied from his father, the ones that suggested a cool sensibility even as they mimicked animal sounds.

 

Ten o’clock came and went. He’d seen her talking to his brother, actually smiling at his brother, and he realized his mistake: Women like that, they get all the attention. So he made her wait, and he watched as she sat pretending not to wait, sat talking to a rowdy group of Germans beneath the big, dumb mural on the common room wall that showed a gaping oyster amid a sea of miniscule, retarded eels.

 He continued serving dinner, which was always the same—penne with meatballs. The stupid tourists always called it pene, and one time he’d actually unzipped his pants, dangled his cock and growled, This is PENE with meatballs. Is this what you want? It was a filthy meal, but they ate it anyway, stuffing their faces, while he schlepped back and forth from dining hall to kitchen, waiting for someone to complain about the lipstick stains on the plastic cups, the moldy mozzarella, or his Glock-muzzle thumb stuck in the sauce at the edge of their plates. They never complained. They were all too proper, a bunch of cowards, and just like every bunch of cowards, they watched him when they thought he wasn’t looking. From the corner of his eye, he saw their pity, and he didn’t give a damn.

At eleven-thirty she got up and left. He went back to the kitchen and watched out the window as she set off, alone, which was brave—or stupid. But it impressed him that she didn’t look back.

 

Ingrid. Her name was Ingrid Wernicke. At least that’s what she’d written in the register. And that’s what he called his wife that night beneath the tattered, sticky quilt. “Inggg…agh!” If she noticed, she didn’t let on. The blanket oppressed him and he threw it off, hated the damn thing. It didn’t shock him anymore that he, Massimo, had once loved this woman so much that he’d actually bought a permanent marker and decorated the big green blanket with a picture of the two of them, holding hands. It made him sick to look at it now.

The quilt phase had only lasted a month, maybe less, before the pregnancy happened, the shotgun marriage in the sleazy hotel and the honeymoon that ended with the two of them driving through the city, screaming at each other until their necks were blue. He had to stop twice so she could purge all the alcohol, always the alcohol, and even then he pitied her, his pity twisting into a lump of rage.

            Since then it had been nothing but fighting. Their only civil moments occurred in the company of others. Her sister. Her mother. The two of them visiting like social workers. And the weekly visits from his brother, his cock-eyed, pansy, asshole brother who accused him viciously —but always politely—of being stupid.

            “Impulses,” Franco said, shaking his head as if he, Franco, had ever had an impulse, had ever known or felt anything approaching passion. A man who whitened his teeth did not understand passion. He sat on the divan—trousers creased, shirt open wide enough to announce he was mammal—and gazed at the beer bottles on the coffee table, assumed they were his brother’s.

“I saw Fabrizio this morning. You know the Luna is now a Michelin Guide top pick? Five stars. Seven hundred clients a night, top of the season. And he’s never had a wife. Says he doesn’t have time.” He rubbed his watch. “But you get the feeling that even if he did, he wouldn’t let her go to waste.” 

Massimo sat there, reeling from the smell of shit streaming from his brother’s small, tight mouth. The heat flowed off Massimo’s body in waves. It was warping the room, making Franco look less prim and tailored, and more like the patched-up puppet he was, buoyed on the couch by someone’s angry fist stuck up his ass. He wanted to tell his brother that, despite his fine temperament, his vacations in Como, and his pocket of cash, he was nothing but a fucking animal inside, just like Fabrizio and everyone else. And someday they were all going to die.

Massimo said nothing. Saying it would only have made Franco more determined to hold it all in, and that was the problem with Franco. With everyone. No one wanted the truth, but everywhere he looked, all he saw was the truth. The ugly truth. The successful man who only smiled when his brother felt like a loser. A wife who couldn’t quit drinking because she wanted to die, but who blamed it on her husband. The gorgeous blonde who wanted to fuck an ugly brown beast but who would never admit it. Who would admit it? Any of them? No. They were trying to pretend they were something they were not, and that was it: pretension, the night soil of human behavior.

But as Franco rolled on –You know he’s earning sixty million a month…– Massimo’s urges got the better of him.

“Shut the fuck up.”

Franco’s mute indignation pleased him for a while, but once Franco was gone, every dulcet thing the bastard had said came echoing back, gaining momentum until Massimo finally erupted. And the fighting began. His wife shouting about the bills. Screams. A broken clock. A wailing baby. Neighbors pounding on the thin, bare walls.

 

One night after work, he saw Ingrid on the street. It surprised him a little. Most people didn’t stay longer than a night. There must have been a reason. He figured she was stuck here; maybe someone stole her wallet.

He pulled his car to the curb, leaned over, opened the passenger door, and called out: “Hey!” She turned, coolly. He motioned for her to get in, but she only pursed her lips and gave him a cluck.

Scowling, he swept his arm in a wide port-de-bras. “Excuse me, I know you want to get in the car.”

            She stared, unaffected.

“Are you getting in, or not?”

She shot him an exasperated look, but a second later she climbed in the car.

Jesus! He put the car in gear and took off, cutting through the city to the corniche road, not questioning. He stole a sideways glance at her, but she was utterly calm. Nordic, soulless. He wanted to tell her that she was lying to herself if she thought her silence could unnerve a guy like him, but what came out was: “Put on your seat belt,” which she pretended not to hear.

They pulled up to the beach and got out. She still wasn’t talking. It was a full-moon night and he didn’t like it. She would see the mottling where his nose had been broken, see the old needle scars on his neck. But it didn’t matter anyway; she wouldn’t understand. They crossed the parking lot, took off their shoes, and walked down the beach. When they reached the water, they stood for a while. He studied her mouth, the soft apricot fuzz on her cheeks.

“You’re a quiet one,” he said.

She nodded.

“Say something.”

She told him that she used to be an opera singer, but it had ruined her voice. Vocal nodules. She’d had an operation, and her voice was whiskery now.

“You sang opera?” he asked.

She nodded. He had trouble imagining it. She was stiff and remote, too controlled for the dramatic nonsense of opera. But now that she said it, he did catch a hint of melodrama in the way she touched her throat.

“Sing something,” he said.

But she didn’t seem to hear. Instead, she took his arm, her damp, cold fingers probing his scars while she stared into his eyes, never showing pity or faking alarm.

“Needle scars,” she said.

The furnace inside of him bellowed. It threatened to rupture from the trigger of old wounds and the pressure of having to hold it all in. He wanted to scream and vomit. He suddenly imagined gripping her neck, bashing her head in, but the image sutured itself into blackness, like the zipping shut of a body bag, and something amorphous took its place, the beginning of pity for all the miserable years he’d spent without having someone touch him like that, or see the pain in his face without cowering from it.

            He took his hand back. “There’s something—”

“You’re married.”

He shut his mouth.

“Your brother told me,” she said. “But I don’t care.”

He exhaled with indignation. “That’s not what I was going to say.”

“Oh?”

He seized her and kissed her, an assault of a kiss that pushed her back. He caught her and locked her in his arms, tried to consume her, but she was slow, so intractable that he couldn’t control her, couldn’t exhaust what he recognized as fury, and he let her go.

She stood back, looking flushed, but a second later she unbuttoned her shirt. It filled him with dread. This would happen whether he liked it or not, whether he wanted it or not, because the sight of her breasts, smooth and white, was more than he could handle.

He grabbed her and they tumbled, first to their knees, then struggled, ridiculously, to be on top. But he was stronger, more angry. She yanked him down and a wave slammed them both. He jerked up, roaring: “Son of a bitch.” And she came up spluttering, eyes brilliant and wild.

            He stared at her lips, wet and cold and beautifully cut, and he felt such a stab that he cried out. “You can’t really want me!”

            “I know.”

He sat back, exhaled, raised his face to the sky. Her beauty, her bluntness, this whole momentous turning of events seemed to suggest, if only for a moment, that the universe was screwing him. Looking down, he said: “Don’t mess with me, you’ll only get hurt.”

Her touch startled him, her finger on his chest, where his mother’s knife had left a six-inch scar. He snatched her hand, pinned it down, and kissed her again. She gave a soft little moan that slammed him with a riot of bliss.

 

She rented a small apartment on the coast. Every night after work he’d drive straight there, bearing wine or pizza or sfogliatella, whatever he could swing. He skidded his car around the hairpin turns, desperate, disbelieving, because until he saw her face, she was just an illusion. When he arrived, he never said hello, he hated hello, hated all the formalities that opened a distance—thank you, that’s sweet, I’m fine, you’re welcome. He said: “You’re fucking gorgeous. I brought a salami.” She understood. He didn’t have to explain that he recognized gratitude from the way she parted her lips when she opened the door, the way her eyes skimmed his face when she slid into his arms. That’s what he wanted, those mute expressions.

They’d sit on a patio overlooking the sea, a wide patio with a marble balustrade and a ceramic tile mosaic of two octopi. They sat on metal chairs and ate, or drank, and listened to the rustle of bougainvillea, the whisk of lizards scampering on the walls, men whistling on the street, the birdcalls of night.

Because of her voice, she didn’t like to talk, which was fine. He would talk. He had plenty of stories, purgings of memories, all the horrible sins that had been visited on him since he was old enough to understand pain, and even before then, where he suspected some of the worst pains lay. He told her about the privations of childhood, and how he sold his first ounce of cocaine when he was seven so that his family could eat; how by twelve he was full time, pushing a baby pram loaded with heroin around the streets of Naples. By sixteen, an addict; by twenty, in jail. Then ten long years of withdrawal, fatigue, punctuated by ruptures of acid violence, while all around him the sour effluvium of urinals, blood, and angry male sweat soaked into his pores, rotting his senses. The return to freedom was marked by his father’s cancer, his mother’s dementia, and a long, cruel servitude to his brother’s dream of running a hotel that would never be more than a sleazy, wretched, one-night prison. She listened, always listened. He saw interest, wonder, and revolt on her face, but she never said she was sorry or that she felt his pain, never bothered with sympathetic female mewls because, he suspected, they would have broken the spell of his nightmare, and the spell was enchanting, so he let it work. It always ended in sex.

            She waited every night. It seemed she spent her days waiting for him, and when he asked her what she did with her time, she’d shrug. “Went shopping. Ate pizza.” He’d ask about her past, her family, her career, and she’d give quick replies: “I have a brother. I sang Traviata in Berlin.” Then she’d motion to her throat, and he’d understand: She wanted him to talk, to fill the eerie quiet of her convalescence.

It took three months for his stories to begin looping back on themselves, and he realized that there could be an end to the stories—either an end, or an endless recycling—and when, in the mornings, he looked at her sleeping, satisfied face, he felt the urge to shake her, wake her, tell her to say something because he was about to turn into a fucking bore. He’d spilled his soul, told her every damned thing, and now he was empty.

 In the evenings, he lost the urge to talk. He wasn’t sure if he really lost the urge, or if he was censoring himself. He suspected there were things going on in him now, Herculean stirrings that he’d somehow suppressed, and the deeper they went, the quieter they became, so that he was left with an uneasy pressure.

It was in those moments that she unfolded for him. He’d catch a smile, for no reason, and he ask her why. She’d say: Because you’re flicking the wineglass like you always do. She began to talk, a few words at a time. “I’m so sick of salami!” And: “Let’s catch a lizard.” Sometimes her voice excited him so much that his whole body tightened, spasmed, and erupted, which left him feeling high, and he wondered if it was a heroin flashback, a ghost in his blood. Despite his better judgment, he began to think of her. At work scrubbing toilets and cooking ragu, he let the memory of her wash over him, that quiet desire.

 

One morning, he heard her singing in the shower. It was startling at first, the sudden burst of sound, but he went to the bathroom door and listened. He heard a high soprano, a squealy opera song. Good Christ, it was as if she’d never had an operation, or only had one to improve her sound. It was a gorgeous voice, and it filled him with dread. When the singing ended and the water stopped, he saw a stranger emerge from the shower, pink and radiant, smiling with joy.

            “Beautiful,” he said. He meant it, he did, but a little bling went off in his head, because he really wanted to tell her not to sing anymore, that she was going to ruin her voice singing like that, and that he hated the thought of anyone hearing that voice. But he kept his mouth shut, because he knew it would hurt her, and because he knew that if he said a stupid thing like that, she’d pack up and leave. With a voice like that, she could do what she liked.

 

That night, he took a Greek girl to the beach. She was brunette and pretty and she didn’t speak a damn word of Italian. She lay beneath him while he pounded into her, shoving and humping, but it wasn’t any good. Five minutes into it, he lost his erection and couldn’t even squeeze out a fake. He just didn’t have it in him anymore. He rolled away and lay on his back and felt like stabbing himself. A knife, his mother’s knife, right in the chest.

It was always the same. Every time something got under his skin, it began to kill him. He should be used to it by now. But he just couldn’t get over the idea of Ingrid killing him. She wasn’t meant to hurt him; she’d sprung, perfect, into his life.

“We’re done,” he said.

The girl sat up. He began to feel queasy, as if Ingrid had been watching. He stood up quickly and pulled on his pants, his shirt, and his shoes. The girl stared at him thoughtfully, still trying to arouse him, and he wanted to vomit but he held it down and stumbled back to the car. He heard her calling his name as he pulled out of the parking lot and sped away.

 

There was, he thought, a deep, rotten heart at the center of the universe. The Devil, he imagined, was this rotten heart, and it was embedded right in the very center of God. It was everywhere: the beach, the sky, the hills and the houses, his car, his job, his brother and wife and now even his mistress, his goddamned Ingrid.

They were standing on the sidewalk, watching the parade. She wanted to see it, so he’d brought her even though he hated Carnival, hated the creepiness of masks, hated the people swarming around him—friends, even family—though you could never tell because they stared at you gleefully with their cut-out eyes, waiting for you to recognize them, delighted that you couldn’t, while you stared stupidly, chilled by the grotesquerie of gold-painted skin and lingam noses and frozen smiles. He never understood why this was fun, and he wanted to say: “This is stupid,” but what he said was: “Are you having fun?”

She nodded, curling deeper in his arms. He was standing behind her, his favorite position because he could feel her against his chest, the changes in her breathing that indicated deep, secret tides. She didn’t like to raise her voice above the crowd, but leaning forward, he could listen, feel her breath on his ear.

            She said: “I love you.”

            Something happened inside him that he recognized as shock, and his thoughts began to squirm, a thousand flopping objects drawn together by a net. I love you. It was something you said when you no longer felt it, precisely because you no longer felt it. Enchanted words that were supposed to cast a spell but which were really admissions of defeat.

“Don’t say that,” he said, then, peering at her face: “You know what you’re saying?”

She seemed embarrassed in a dignified way, but she didn’t reply. He squeezed her harder, unconsciously harder, while his thoughts continued flopping: Her lips no longer parted when she met him at the door. He thought about the shower, her voice, his tears. What was worse, far worse, was that he recognized changes in himself. He was flat, and sad, and sometimes when he was listening to the radio, he found himself wanting to cry.

“Come away with me,” he said. “Let’s go somewhere.” She didn’t reply. He stopped breathing for a moment.

            “Where?” she asked.

            “Anywhere. Rome.”

Someone blew a clown horn, an ear-splitting squeeee, and a marching band made its way around the corner, blaring a loud, eerie tarantella. A whole troupe of women came dancing behind them, their peasant dresses spotted with plastic tarantulas, their stomping and screeching mocking the death throes of the poisonous bites.

 One of the women came up holding a dozen plastic masks with freakish foreheads and ugly rump chins. Paper sequined masks with glittering cheeks, ribbon streamers, green lips. The woman handed one to Ingrid, and she put it on. She turned to Massimo, all monstrous yellow cheeks with a long, pointed nose. He couldn’t help it; he cringed.

“Take one,” she said. He shook his head, but she kept insisting: “For me. Come on, I want to see you.”

Reluctantly, he accepted the mask, tried not to look at the face before putting it on. The world collapsed to the size of two eyeholes. He turned toward her, showing her the mask, but if she liked it or not, he couldn’t tell; her own face was hidden by the papier-mâché. He stripped off the mask and handed it back to her, disgusted, full of loathing.

Later, after they bought chestnuts and went back to the car, she said, “I can’t go away with you.” He tried to read her expression but couldn’t. “I’ve been away too long,” she said. “I have to get back. And so do you.”

            Back to what? he almost blurted, but caught himself. Her look was motherly, firm. It seemed to say: You know it’s true. But he didn’t know, and he resented the look. He wanted to tell her that she was full of shit, or maybe she’d always been full of shit, but he didn’t have the strength right then. He felt empty, dull.

They climbed into the car and went back to her apartment, where he left her looking forlorn, holding an ugly yellow mask in her hand. She didn’t say good-bye, and he was grateful for that.

 

Her train left at noon. At first he offered her a ride to the station, but then he changed his mind. He wasn’t going to be her taxi service. He’d see her off at her apartment, but he wouldn’t say good-bye, because he hated the word and besides, he just wanted it over.

            “Don’t write,” he said. “I can’t read anyway.”

            She didn’t reply. He rounded his car and opened the door, pausing to wave, a single chop in the air. “See you later.”

He saw that she was crying. Maybe she recognized how stupid she was, how dumb she’d been to come here, fall in love, if that’s what it was, and then get up and leave.

He climbed into the car and drove off, not looking back, not even glancing in the mirror in case she was running after the car. He drove along the coastal road, ripped around hairpin turns in his mind, not sure where to go, what to think, what to feel. But it happened quickly, with exquisite pain, like a grinder in his belly catching his liver, his stomach, his spleen, churning, churning in a sickening spool. His whole life reeled around him, a swirling story of coldness and cruelty, rage, and despair, and he wanted to die. 

He reached a stoplight and spun around, turned back down the coastal road and drove it recklessly, passing a bus and two sedans. When he reached her apartment, she was still on the patio, sitting on her suitcase with tears drying on her puffy face. He screeched to a halt and leapt out of the car so wildly that he nearly knocked off the door. He swung around the car, arm in the air, screaming: “I just want you to know, I don’t love you! I never loved you!” He could feel his neck threatening to explode. He pointed at her: “And you never loved me, either!”

Something clamped in his throat. Her face was blank. She stood up, came closer, but didn’t say a word, didn’t seem to have one.

“Jesus, say something!”

“I love you.”

He reeled, grabbed his ears. “Goddammit!”

“I’m sorry, I do.” She picked up her suitcase and turned to the taxi that had pulled up behind him. After glancing at him one more time, she left.

“Fuck!” he screamed. He kicked the car, then kicked it again. He stared at the road, at the bougainvillea wilting in the heat.

Something vital, his essence, seemed to be draining so that he couldn’t remember why he’d been crazy enough to come back here. All he could think of was the way she’d looked when she got in the car, the grief in her eyes. He felt an odd pang when he thought of that look, felt the flow of something much deadlier than morphine pouring through his veins. For a brief, sour moment he saw himself as she must have seen him, a poisoned madman, stomping and screaming, hastening death.