Translated by Elizabeth Harris
from Issue 20: Landmarks
When the train slips away, Mario feels he’s leaving this world, the same sensation he has on sleepless nights, when he’s been tossing and turning, and then, exhausted, his thoughts turn away from wanting sleep, and he’s suddenly sleeping. This hard-won sleep’s a dreamless sleep, or to be more precise, it’s a sleep with dreams he can’t remember. To Mario, the dreams you can’t remember are the most important kind—they protect your vital secrets. On those nights when sleep won’t come, not even with television’s boredom or with a little liquor, Mario thinks his body (this same body that spares him from remembering his dreams the following morning) somehow knows there are difficult dreams ahead, dreams that need to be forgotten: and his body’s afraid, and rightly so. This particular moment, right when the train’s leaving, brings on a physical response, a pressure at the temples, a stiff neck. Sometimes he can read or sleep on the train; other times, he gets a headache. Mario doesn’t think these headaches simply develop on their own; there’s always a cause, some specific behavior: too much work, one drink too many, too little sleep. Mario’s convinced he does something automatic that leads to a headache. A headache on the train, and all the way to Rome, means hours constrained to thinking without the hope of sleep or distraction. Of all the things that could happen, Mario can’t imagine anything more painful than this forced company.
Mario’s going to Rome, where he’s been many times before. Rome is a sort of escape-city, where he can go with little fuss and find some relief. Mario’s not a great traveler; since a school trip to Paris, he hasn’t had a real trip, much less a vacation, in fifteen years. But once and a while, every couple of months or so, he’ll take the train on a Saturday or Sunday and head to another city: Verona, Milan, Bologna, Florence, Rome. He’ll leave without a plan or program, and once he gets there, he’s not really sure what to do. He’ll walk around, eat at a few bars, find some stores where he thinks he can hang out a bit without being disturbed or someone trying to sell him something. He prefers bookstores. He works at a bookstore himself (as a deliveryman), so this is an excuse of sorts: he looks around other bookstores to see what they’re like, to learn something. He’d like to work on the floor. He knows all the important bookstores, the ones with a certain reputation. In Florence, he likes Marzocco and Chiari; in Milan, La Remainder’s in the Galleria; in Rome, Tombolini and the rare bookstore in the subway by the Galleria Colonna. Not necessarily beautiful bookstores, but all places where Mario can linger for a time. In August when his store closes, these quick trips of one or two days (or sometimes just an evening) can stretch out to three, four days maybe, never a week. In every city, he has his favorite pensione, usually an awful place, what you find on Via Fiume in Florence, or on the side streets off Via Nazionale in Rome, where you pay little and get even less: old buildings, a pensione on every floor, with stairs that reek, linoleum floors, paper peeling off the walls, a sink in the room. There’s usually a little TV room, twenty-year-old brown vinyl armchairs, torn-up, with yellowing metal feet. Often, there’s a dog. These places don’t cost much, which is the point, and you can easily get a room. In Rome, if it’s not high-season, you can also stay at the nuns’, and there everything’s clean, a crucifix in every room, good caffelatte in the morning.
Today, Mario’s headed to Rome where, perhaps, a woman’s waiting for him. A few days ago, he got a letter from her saying: “I miss you” and “I wish you were here.” But the letter didn’t say: “Please come.” So Mario’s not sure if she asked him to take time off from work and go, as he’s done, or if he should make his presence felt some other way, with a return letter or a small gift by mail (her letter didn’t include a phone number; Mario spent two hours at the Sip phone center, trying to get her number from her address, but it was no use; she could be in a studio-apartment or a rented room, or staying with a friend or relative, who knows): Mario had considered sending her a sprig of rosemary from the bush growing in the courtyard, because rosemary symbolizes remembrance from afar, at least that’s what he read in the symbolism dictionary he dug up in the bookstore a few weeks back; he also considered doing nothing at all, going nowhere, saying nothing, playing dead, not because he wanted her to make the next move (something more explicit, more direct), but really, to annihilate her short letter that seemed to be trying to resuscitate a relationship, which, by now, after such a difficult break-up and so many months of religiously avoiding one another, could only resume, in Mario’s opinion, if both of them very specifically wanted it to resume, and if the stars were right, if they met by chance, for instance, at precisely the right moment, when both he and she, miraculously, found themselves in a state of pure bliss. This isn’t that time, and Mario thinks he’s going to Rome because he wouldn’t know what to say in a letter, except the same things he read in her letter: “I miss you” and “I wish you were here.” They’re nothing, Mario thinks, just words, and “I wish you were here” is something he could say to anyone when he’s home alone at night, like most every night, trying to bring on sleep with some wine and television, but sleep won’t come, and his longings gnaw at him, can’t be satisfied.
Mario’s on the train, traveling toward a woman who, for a couple of years, he thought he loved or at least might be able to love sometime in the future; a woman he almost believed, for a few months, those last months, was the cause of all his troubles—not the woman—but the ghost of the woman, who slipped her hands under the covers to touch him while he slept, who appeared to him in a blue Fiat 500 while he was delivering books around town, but then, luckily, it was never her car: only one time it really was her car, but it was empty, parked right outside the bookstore, and Mario, who’d been out making deliveries with his little motorcycle-truck and was about to go inside, had turned around again and gone and hid in a coffee bar two blocks down, where he smoked and had an espresso and waited until the way was clear before returning to the store, even though he risked getting into trouble. No, no one asked for him, the store clerks said, no one had seen the girl, and so on. And they grinned and winked and asked him questions.
Mario defends himself with the idea that he hasn’t done anything yet, that no one knows he’s going to Rome; he even called his mother and told her (to muddy the waters) that he was staying in the mountains for a week, and he told his colleagues the same; he could even call from Rome and say he was taking long walks, that it was beautiful up here in springtime, partly because no one was around, that it was chilly but really nice in the sun—he really felt like dropping everything and moving to a cabin and just spending his days chopping wood. Coming up with a story’s no problem. In Rome, though, Mario can go find this woman, or not. He hasn’t compromised a thing. He can even send her a postcard of Rome, from Rome, and then turn around and go home, as if to say: I came as close as I physically could, but with any real contact, we’d both get burned: you miss me, I miss you, but that can’t be helped; we’ll just have to keep on missing each other. Mario thinks about what might happen if they ran into each other when he got to Rome: he could say he didn’t get her letter, or that he did get it, but he was planning on visiting Rome anyway, for other reasons, or because he was longing for Rome, the city itself.
Mario imagines himself saying: “Just because you’re here doesn’t mean I can’t come. Rome’s not forbidden. You know—I’ve told you before—I think it’s beautiful here: I could almost stay. You know I even tried to find a job and apartment here—we dreamed of living here together.” And no doubt she would answer that this was his dream, not hers: she’d only thought of living with him the one time, the one precise moment, and that time, he was the one who pulled away. And she’d be right, of course, because that’s exactly what happened: they had so many dreams, in those two years, but they were dreaming on their own, and their timing was always off. And he, Mario, never knew what her dreams were; she was like a box sealed shut, each side perfectly smooth: even so, Mario tried again and again to adapt to what he thought her dreams and desires and needs might be; and those times his guesses seemed absolutely inspired, so inspired that he threw himself into action, full of passion and energy, giving it his all, every time, what he thought were her dreams turned out to be his instead, and it might be a matter of minutes or months but the job was already done: another gray layer between two people, thick, like sickening smoke, keeping them apart, playing on their senses, blinding them, turning their voices dull, flat: every effort meaningless, cruel, exhausting.
So I guess, Mario’s thinking on the train, I guess I’ll never learn. I’m only going because I’m missing something, but I don’t know what that something is. I say I miss a woman, but I don’t know who that woman is. I’m like a private investigator in some cut-rate b-movie, tailing someone I’ve never even been able to talk to. We’ve suffered so much, each of us on our own, each of us on account of the other. I’m responsible for so much of her pain, and a thousand voices keep telling me: turn around, turn around. But here I am, on my way, thinking, if she’s staying in a hotel or has a little place, we could sleep together, but if she’s at a convent or with a friend or relatives, it’ll be harder. That I’m having these thoughts at all, that this is what I want, means I should keep my distance. The letter she sent doesn’t mean anything, was just a moment, who knows how much she regretted it after, maybe right after. If she gave in briefly, the time it takes to scribble ten words on a piece of paper and mail it off, I can’t turn her one weak moment into something huge, like this trip. All she did was let me know she misses me, and truthfully I don’t know what she’s missing, what I’ve got, or what she needs in this life or thinks she needs. I don’t even know if she misses me all that much, if it’s me she’s missing or what she’d like from me, if it’s something she really needs or something she can stand. Every time I thought she needed me, I was useless, or too much. Every time I turned away, she needed me, longed for me.
Mario shifts in his seat, trying to get comfortable. He tries lying down, since the seat beside him’s empty, but the pressure on his temples grows unbearable; there’s a roaring in his head of too much blood. His neck is stiff and there’s no measure that can change this; the muscles in his neck have all grown deaf, unresponsive, from the strain: this deafness is spreading to his shoulder blades, his lower back. If he sits up straight and rests his head against the seat, he can feel all the vibrations of the train that seem to be converging at the center of his brain, almost a tugging, like his brain is hooked, and the fisherman is pulling, tugging.
Trying to escape his headache, Mario starts thinking of some of their happier or at least more bearable times, hoping to find some comfort, gain some courage. Or else trick himself, he thinks. It was maybe a year ago, late June or early July, when he followed her up to the roof-top terrace of her building. It was evening, dark already; she’d done some laundry and had to hang her clothes to dry. The air was cool up there, fragrant. That morning, there’d been a drizzling rain that washed the city clean. The terrace was five floors up, fairly high for that neighborhood. You could smell the trees. Mario hadn’t been on a roof terrace or seen the city from above in years. At ground level, the city’s a terrible thing: all you see is the street ahead and the street behind. Mario, making his deliveries, had learned the city well, but when he imagined the city as a whole, it was never from above; it was just a set of routes from point to point, like tunnels. Or else if he thought about the topographic map he kept in his motorcycle-truck, it was a drawn-up, abstract idea. But from the terrace, the city and all the good smells, the lights coming from the homes (from the kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, televisions, and with the lights of the bicycles and scooters—there didn’t seem to be any cars), the softened noises of the cool evening, the dark mysterious specks of trees—all of this—made the city seem like something human. And so this terrace wasn’t just a flat, square space: it had that interesting form of things not bound by aesthetics: asymmetrical; on the one side, a canopy for hanging laundry in the rain; chimney stacks; a narrow walkway for access to some prefab sheds, added later, as an attic space; absurd stairways here and there; rain gutters; various corners and low walls: a perfect place for hide-and-seek, for making yourself a little burrow, for secret places, hideouts. In their secret places, children collect rare things, marvelous things, things that are theirs alone, and private: in their secret places, children hide their heart, knowing, if the place is truly secret, no matter what occurs, they can always retrieve their heart, touch it, feel it beating, caress it, tell it stories, cry with it, love it. These were Mario’s thoughts while he explored the terrace, and then he joined her under the canopy where she’d finished hanging her wash: and there, to the fresh smell of laundry soap and softener, he hugged her and told her how he felt, and he started telling her about when he was a boy living in a house in a small town by the sea and their terrace that seemed enormous, where they stored old things: a pile of wooden fruit crates, plastic tubs, old green curtains once used to shade the terrace from the summer sun. Mario and his brother made a kind of pathway of the crates out there, setting them on their sides and then draping the curtains over top, creating a dark maze they’d crawl through, searching, hunting each other. The black and white tiles were warm from the sun; it was hot in there, and the heavy curtains smelled damp and dusty, a little moldy. In those tunnels, Mario was an animal, alert to his animal enemy, to his brother’s every move, and he was frightened, he’d been caught and killed a hundred times, and a hundred times he’d caught and joyfully slaughtered his brother. Mario spoke of all this, not stopping, almost in a daze, while she listened to him, their arms around each other, thighs touching, chests apart, looking at each other, rocking slightly. Then they were quiet, then Mario hurried away, practically fleeing, terrified. And this, Mario is thinking on the train, this was probably our finest moment, this memory that’s mainly a memory of loss and pain.
Suddenly Mario can’t stand being on the train another minute. He gets up, goes out to the corridor, heads to the bathroom, paces back and forth, smokes a cigarette. His headache’s bad; he tries splashing some water on his forehead, but the water he pumps into the sink with the foot pedal isn’t warm or cold and provides no comfort whatsoever. He knows why he always travels by train: because there’s no stopping a train once it leaves—you reach your destination no matter what; because when a trip takes five hours, those five hours have to go by, and nothing else can happen. You’re outside the world, in a separate world where time goes by in a different way and, above all, where it’s not dangerous. For Mario, a Sunday at home with nothing to do is painful. In those few square meters where he lives, everything is hostile. He has two small rooms, a closet-sized kitchen, a bathroom. When he moved in, he tried making the place tolerable, paying close attention to the furniture he chose, taking more than a year to finish, because he wanted his deepest, most profound feelings, the ones he was barely aware of, to guide him in his choices. Even so, there are days when it feels like the table, couch, bed quilt, and rug all want to hate him. And on these days, he takes a train and goes.
Mario can’t stand his thoughts any longer, would like to erase them all. He decides, desperately, that his thoughts don’t exist: all he wants is to make love to a woman, and this woman he’s traveling toward is the only one available. He hasn’t seen anyone for months, he’s been shut-up at home and hasn’t tried in any way to fill the hole that’s stayed with him, if anything he’s made the hole deeper, wider: it takes up the entire apartment now, the city, everything he knows. He can’t come up with one thought that’s not inside this enormous hole and trembling with the cold. Mario’s shivering; he huddles in his seat, knees wedged against the armrest, hands between his legs, feet on the heating grate; he pulls his coat over him like a blanket. The cold cuts at his neck. His hands ache, are frozen. It was seven in the morning when he left, and the day looked promising, like it might be clear, as clear as a mid-April day can be, from one spring rain to the next. The train window is wet with rain; at times, with the train going in and out of the tunnels, he sees gray sky and the bare, yellow Apennines. Bologna’s past; his last chance to end this trip is Florence, they’ll reach Florence in an hour, another hour of painful thoughts.
This train’s deserted, Mario thinks. It doesn’t even feel like a real train. Earlier in the corridor, he hadn’t seen anyone in the other compartments; only two compartments had their curtains drawn, so maybe someone was sleeping inside, the train was coming from Vienna, so maybe some German kids. The conductor had gone by, had suddenly, miraculously, been standing in front of him. Mario, all his muscles tight, mouth frozen, couldn’t even say hello, just held out his ticket without a word, took it back. Before Florence, another would come by, another between Florence and Rome. Mario listens to the train, tries to fill his head with the sound, to sway along to it. This steady sound is more like countless distant sounds, all of them different, unrelated, unable to come together with any order or rhythm. The tunnels are scary; out the window he sees a wavering white line along the wall, going up and down, up and down, too quickly, too long, his eyes are dancing.
After a very long tunnel, the train emerges into sunshine, into a small valley where the rain seems to have just ended, the air’s so clear, the grass so bright. Mario steps out into the corridor again. A flock of sheep goes by. Two more tunnels, very short, then a long curve down, and you can see the plain to the far, far horizon. Mario looks out, squints his eyes at the sudden light. From one of the curtained-off compartments, a boy emerges, huge, German no doubt, with his scraggly blond hair and beard, a red T-shirt, some kind of bandanna around his neck, purplish-gray sweat pants, a black plastic fanny pack, huge dirty blue and white sneakers. The boy stretches, looks out the window, arches, kneads his lower back. He heads for the bathroom, and Mario, leaning against the window to let him through, can smell him: he smells of sleep, sweat, travel. Mario watches the boy—his wide back—moving toward the bathroom, the boy seems wobbly, his legs unsteady with sleep and the rocking train as it rounds one curve, then another, rushing down to the plain. His wide back, his narrow waist, his agile legs though still a little numb. A girl steps out from the compartment; she has on a yellow T-shirt and red shorts, and she’s very pale, a little chubby, with heavy, bulging breasts, her reddish hair pulled back in a ponytail. She slides down the window and shutting her eyes, sticks her face out, cold air flooding the corridor. Mario starts to shiver, but the cold air feels good; it smells of grass and rain. The girl pulls the window halfway closed, leans against the opposite wall, and lights a cigarette. She has straight hips, heavy thighs.
Mario retreats back to his own compartment; he tries skimming the newspapers he bought at the station before he left. Any paper will do. His fingers are stained with ink; his fingers smell, burn slightly; he goes to wash his hands and hopes he won’t run into anyone. He doesn’t run into anyone. He sets the newspapers aside, watches the Tuscan landscape going by, feels nothing, falls asleep. When he wakes up, Florence is already behind him, and he didn’t even notice. His left leg’s gone to sleep. He tries to think but can’t—his thoughts have gone to pieces—if he hadn’t fallen asleep, he’d have gotten off, walked around Florence, or taken the next train home—it’s sleep that trapped him, trapped him while he was trying to escape his thoughts, thoughts he should have just accepted and endured. Mario hates that he’s so weak—he shouldn’t have started on this trip at all, and he wonders if he can do it, if he can get to Rome and leave, turn away from the cause of his evil, from repeating his mistakes.
Elizabeth Harris is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of North Dakota. Her translations of Giulio Mozzi and Marco Candida have appeared recently in the Literary Review, the Missouri Review, the Kenyon Review, and in Dalkey Archive Press’s annual anthology, Best European Fiction 2010 (Mozzi) and Best European Fiction 2011 (Candida).
Original text: Giulio Mozzi, Questo e’ il giardino. Milan: Alpha Test S.r.l., 2005.
This story is excerpted from This Is the Garden by Giulio Mozzi, translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris. Used with the permission of Open Letter Books, which will publish it in Spring 2014.