We are what we can be, not what we ought to be.
—from Romaine Brooks’s notebooks
On the third floor of her villa in Fiesole, Romaine tries to control the afternoon sun by slapping a yardstick against the blinds. A screaming wedge of white light falls across her face. Unable to rise from her chair, she rings for the houseboy, Mario.
He hears the clatter of the bronze bell and sprints up from the kitchen, where he’s been smoking cigarettes with the cook. He runs a hand over his thick hair and clears his throat before entering the room.
Signora, he says humbly, bowing his head.
Close the blinds, she says.
He nods solemnly and releases the wooden slats, which collapse against the window with a clatter. The wedge of light disappears. Romaine, he has learned, likes to sit alone in the dark.
He treads lightly across the floor. Noise, like motorbikes, or a woman singing one house over, can trigger Romaine’s rage, and if he isn’t careful she’ll spend the afternoon bedridden with a pillow over her head.
I will work today, she tells Mario, but when he returns with her canvas and paints, Romaine is asleep, body curled like a prawn, her head lolled to the side, large eyes closed, breathing heavily. She wears her usual outfit, a white silk blouse, loosely-done bow tie, faded brocade jacket with dander on the shoulders. he hates the way gravity sucks at her chin, the crescent-shaped pillows of skin underneath her eyes. Her hair, occasionally dyed black, is short and unwashed, primarily because it is an act of great courage to wash her. The first time he tried, she slapped him with the washcloth.
You brute! The water is frigid, she complained, her body stiff in the cloudy water, breasts drooping below the water line. I’ll die of cold.
She tells him to wake her if she sleeps during the day, that she does not like to sleep, that she has nightmares from childhood. But he never wakes her. One time he did and she accused him of touching her inappropriately.
You put your hands underneath my blouse, she said, snarling. Her right eye floated slightly away from the intended line of her gaze, as it always had.
Cristo! I would never, he exclaimed, backing away, his hands up in protest. His disgust was evident to Romaine and enraged her even more.
I’ll have you arrested! she said, but her voice was hoarse and raspy and came out as a whisper. I was a beautiful woman, she said, lip curling. I had many lovers.
She’s feeble but threatening, and he has to take her seriously; he needs this job, and she knows it. He made the mistake of telling her. No one ever works for Romaine longer than six months. She’s too demanding, too proud, too suspicious. Last year she fired everyone and was found by a nurse shivering in her bed, weak from having not eaten for four days. What one night nurse told him his first day of work: Romaine would rather die than compromise.
Mario tells his mother, who is eighty-six, that Romaine is ninety-three and has a closet full of silk opera capes. She doesn’t wear glasses, he says.
She’s paid for new eyes?
No, Mario says. She’s more stubborn than blindness itself.
Mario lives with his mother in a one-room flat in Fiesole. His mother takes on laundry and mending, and he often finds her hunched over the tub, swirling someone else’s pants in the dull water. He’d hoped to become a literature student, maybe a teacher, but his father died and his brothers were off working in the vineyards of Serralunga d’alba. Someone had to stay home and care for Mama, even if she was tiresome, full of outdated gossip and complaints about the arthritis in her worn knuckles.
How did I come to spend all my time with two old women? Mario wonders, hating his life, hating his conscience for keeping him home when he’d been the studious one in the family. He’d stayed up many nights, chewing licorice and drinking weak coffee, pouring over the old encyclopedias his aunt had given him. He was supposed to escape, not his brothers. He was supposed to fall in love, grab happiness by the throat.
I wish she would die, Mario says, looking at Romaine’s limp body, the silver hairs on her upper lip, but he knows he’d have to go back to busing tables, bleaching napkins, cutting the mold off of cheese rinds. Because Romaine sleeps so much, Mario can read books and Enzo, the cook, can drop acid and organize radical political meetings in the galley kitchen, drinking up Romaine’s barolos with his communist friends, thumping the ashes from his cigarette into her gnocchi.
Today her lunch, tomato soup and croquettes, is untouched on the wheeled tray, which she has pushed into the corner so as not to smell it. As far as he can tell, Romaine takes joy in nothing. She turns friends away, leaves letters unopened.
He tiptoes toward the door, hoping to get back to his novel, Caproni’s translation of Céline’s Death on Credit.
She’s awake. He sighs.
Can’t you see that I’m doing my exercises?
She looks to the right, a hard right. Then to the left. She’s exact in her movements; she’s been doing these exercises daily for thirty years. Down, around, repeat. Now angles. Now close and far away.
Mario hears the neighbor’s rottweiler barking. The dog sits on the rooftop patio across from Romaine’s bedroom, howling at ambulances, barking for hours. Once the dog starts he can’t stop.
You must make the dog stop, Romaine says, holding her trembling fingers to her temples.
Mario has tried explaining that he can’t make the dog stop barking, but Romaine expects the impossible. So he opens the doors onto Romaine’s terrace and yells at the thick-necked dog, who only barks harder and louder upon seeing Mario, frothing at the mouth, placing his front paws on the planters filled with red begonias. Vaffanculo, Mario mutters.
He picks up the broom they leave on the terrace and sweeps the dead blossoms from the terra cotta tiles; as soon as the sun goes down Romaine will take her wine out here, as long as the dog is quiet. How can she be so paranoid when she can have anything she wants? he wonders.
When he comes inside, Romaine is staring at the wall.
Should I set up your paints? he asks.
This question is a formality. Romaine has not painted in forty years.
She’s even sanctimonious when taking a shit, he thinks, taking the lunch tray and paints downstairs.
Enzo is chopping a spoiled onion, wild-eyed as usual, shirt unbuttoned, glass of barolo precariously placed on the marble chopping block. He has two bags of carrots nearby which he will make into the juice that Romaine drinks twice daily for her eyesight.
Ecco! he says, sweating, laughing, always laughing. È la domestica!
I’m a student.
You’re a nurse! To an old woman with droopy tits and a mouth like a marinaio.
Do you have to wipe her ass? What’s it like?
Mario ignores Enzo and collects the mail, opening the complex series of bolts Romaine has ordered installed on the door. Among her many paranoias: theft, blindness, and the belief that trees try to feed off one’s “life force.”
Romaine is not kind, but she is interesting; he will allow her that. Every week there’s a letter from an art dealer in New York, hoping, no begging, for some of Romaine’s work. She never responds.
An envelope stands out in today’s stack: expensive lavender card stock, perfumed and embossed with a lily. He knows this stationery. It comes from Paris, from a woman named Natalie. He knows what will happen. He’ll take these letters to Romaine on her dinner tray and she’ll toss them on the floor or leave them underneath her silverware. Some days she painstakingly marks the envelope to be returned to sender: “Miss Barney—Paris.”
Mario usually reads the letters in the kitchen on his lunch break. Natalie’s are his favorite; she seems to know she’s having a one-sided conversation, that Romaine will never answer. She writes of the war, of the time twenty-odd years ago when she and Romaine were living in a Tuscan villa, gardening like peasants just to feed themselves. Her sentences move from hemorrhoid management to oral sex. Natalie is, from what he can tell, an elderly woman with an active libido.
Tonight, instead of taking the letter to Romaine, he puts it into his coat pocket and, after checking on his mother, reads it in bed, carefully unfolding the stationery. A lock of silver hair falls to the sheets. He scoops it up and places it on the bedside table.
I’m hungry for you. Old you, new you. Do you remember the ways we used to make love? And how often? Do you remember the way I used to reach inside your gown in the back room of a party? Do you remember the things we did under the table, one hand between the other’s legs, the other wrapped around a glass of wine? And how our companions thought we were smiling at them, that our ecstatic faces were for them, but they never were—
The letter makes him feel—God, how does it make him feel?
As though there is vitality in the world, and he does not have it, he has never even tasted it in his mouth. He has never lived the way he wants to live, never felt in control, or able to express his lust for people and things. For men in new leather shoes drinking wine at the hotel bar, or the boys standing outside the less reputable discotecas smoking cigarettes. he has never been explicitly himself.
The next morning he makes his mother coffee and, with a newspaper over his head, runs to Villa Gaia to relieve the night nurse. Rain is rushing down the streets, clinging to the wisteria, washing over the empty roman theater nestled into the hillside. Its circular steps have been there a thousand years and will be there a thousand more, he thinks. Everything is like that in this country. It rots or it hardens and becomes an artifact, useless and revered.
He finds Romaine hunched over steaming tea in her bedroom, wearing a pair of green-tinted shades to protect her eyes. She removes them and looks him over. Mario notices that the ribbon to her blouse has come undone.
Would you like me to fasten your bow? he asks, leaning in cautiously.
You’ve been sweating, she says, wrinkling her face. I can smell you.
He stands up and away from her. I walk in the mornings, he begins. I didn’t want to be late—
I’d like to go downstairs, she says, interrupting.
Mario nods, but inside he is furious at her, because getting her chair downstairs is an arduous task. Some days he asks Enzo to help, but lately Enzo has been too unkempt and boisterous, and Romaine would fire him on sight. Which, Mario is starting to think, might not be bad. A new cook would be better. Over time they could develop an understanding, and perhaps, like Enzo, the new cook wouldn’t mind if he read novels or took bread home to his mother or stole naps on the expensive sofa in the parlor. It’s the only comfortable piece of furniture in the house. Everything else is so hard, so cold—
Mario, he whispers.
Are you daydreaming? My chair!
Twenty minutes later, his fingers and back ache and he’s drenched in sweat, but they are on the second floor. She is silent. He wheels her down the hallway to see her paintings, realizing that all he wants is for her to say Grazie, Mario. What would I do without you?
He’s seen her private gallery before, but it still makes his throat close up when the soft lights go on and the velvet curtains are lifted, because it is evidence that she possesses greatness. Or has the greatness gone?
The canvases are enormous, and their frames are ornate. The paintings are dark: androgynous women in various brave poses or nude recline, their lithe bodies rendered in white, gray, and black. There’s a woman in a cheetah skin with an African dog. A woman with trousers, a monocle, and a dachshund. A woman with a sallow complexion and eyes hidden by a top hat.
I painted this one in Paris, she says, nodding to a portrait of a woman in a fur stole with a commanding expression and the figurine of a black horse on the table in front of her.
Natalie, he thinks.
Paris must be beautiful, he says.
Je déteste Paris.
He’s quiet for some time because he knows that’s what she wants. He realizes that he’s jealous of the life she’s had, the money, the talent, the experiences. She calls herself American but she’s not American, he thinks, she is of the world, and how many people can say that?
I’d like you to leave now, she says.
I was sent to live with the maid, Romaine says when he brings her lunch, surprising him with her conversational demeanor. My mother sent me away, abandoned me, left me to fend for myself, even though we were wealthy. I lived in squalor with a large family in an apartment that smelled of cabbage and spoiled butter.
Mario wonders if she is just talking, or actually talking to him.
Romaine pauses to choke down a stewed tomato. Then, she continues, I was sent off to boarding school. Mother didn’t love me, you see, she never did. She loved my brother, St. Mar, and he was atrocious.
How so? Mario asks. He wants to engage her, be spoken to as an equal.
St. Mar was deficient, insane, violent, she says. You couldn’t touch him. Not even to cut his hair, and it was long and tangled and he would come at you with a pair of scissors. He was a boar that couldn’t be brought out in public. When he was older his beard was long and he had sharp nails; he shuffled around the villa, moaning. Mother let him buy a monkey that bit children.
The women in my life were insufferable and strange, she continues, leaning back in her chair, the paleness of her face exacerbated by the maroon velvet upholstery. My sister, I’ll have you know, had a child with my mother’s boyfriend, and married him. This is before St. Mar died.
How did he die? Mario asks.
He starved himself. After he died Mother became convinced she could summon spirits. And when she died? I went from being an impoverished artist to owning six flats in Nice. She left me boxes of things, wigs and false teeth and the sense that I was haunted, always, by St. Mar’s incessant crying, and Mother standing over me at night.
She comes to me still.
I’m a martyr, she says, reaching gingerly for her teacup. I always have been.
The sound of her body trying to swallow the hot liquid is repugnant, but he feels some measure of pride that she’s confiding in him. This is her way of saying that she knows he is more intelligent than the average domestico, that he has potential, that he’s trustworthy.
Maybe she will see that I need help, he thinks, and send me off to Paris with a little annuity, send groceries to my mother, or even her leftovers.
I’m planning to move to Nice, you know, she says, removing her green glasses again, looking up with clear eyes. Your services will no longer be needed. You should make other plans.
Enzo, he says, wandering into the kitchen that evening, can you cover for me for a half hour? I need to check on Mama.
Certo, Enzo says, smiling at him with dark, wine-stained teeth. He’s cleaning up the kitchen as if he’s going to leave, but Mario knows he sleeps in the house so he doesn’t have to pay rent elsewhere.
There is contempt between them, but that doesn’t keep Mario from fantasizing about him. He imagines an angry, passionate tryst in the kitchen or the wine cellar. When he pictures these moments he has trouble looking Enzo in the eyes. He finds the cook’s sweaty masculinity both disgusting and erotic.
At home, Mario finds his mother sleeping on their couch. She’s snoring loudly and her body is a fat little heap on the worn green upholstery. The small one-bedroom apartment with the concrete floor insults his taste. It’s made for a rat, he thinks. I’m growing accustomed to nice materials.
He leaves his mother a baguette and a hunk of cheese and a note. He doesn’t have the courage to tell her that soon he’ll be out of a job.
When he returns to Villa Gaia, he hears shouting in the courtyard. Enzo has his shirt off and is swinging at a much larger man in a black T-shirt.
Lasciare! Mario hisses. You’re going to wake Romaine and we’ll all lose our jobs!
He owes me money, the large man mutters. I’m going to kill him.
Enzo, assumedly drunk, swings again. The man ducks.
Kill him down the road, Mario says. Prego.
Heart pounding, he slinks into Villa Gaia, and silently creeps to Romaine’s bedroom door to see if she’s awake.
I hear your feet out there, she shouts. Come in at once.
Mario, head bowed, enters her dark bedroom. Romaine is propped on her pillows; a small light glimmers on her bedside table. The room is sparsely decorated, only a bed and bureau and the bedside table, but the wallpaper is hand-painted, a gray-blue background with white and silver cranes fishing in pools.
You’ve been sneaking around, haven’t you?
No, Signora, I—
You’re fired. I can’t sleep. I have called and called for you.
I’m ill. I’m ninety-three. I’m going blind. I can’t walk.
Can I make you more comfortable?
Just leave, she barks, raising a spindly arm, pointing a skeletal finger at the door.
He backs out of the room and leans against the wall, heart racing still. If he loses this job now there’ll be no rent money, no food.
The next morning, he brings her breakfast tray to the bedroom. Romaine sits up and rests against her pillows, grimacing, squinting at him. Her hair needs washing, he thinks.
Didn’t I fire you last night? Didn’t I tell you to leave?
No, Signora. Mario smiles reassuringly at Romaine. You didn’t. You must have had a bad dream. May I put cream in your coffee?
I never take cream!
May I open your windows?
Only a little.
The dry air comes in, and with it the scent of tiglio blossoms, a scent that seems too delicate and sweet for a woman like Romaine, who reaches first for her glass of carrot juice.
I win, Mario thinks, smiling to himself as he backs through her bedroom door. Power is a funny thing. Sometimes you can just take it.
The next morning, Romaine cracks one of her ancient teeth on biscotti. The misery in this world is constant, Romaine says, one liver-spotted hand to her temple.
I have suffered again and again, she continues.
Mario leaves and comes back with a cup of lemon tea.
He has dressed her in a soft, looping bow tie. Her head is tilted back, eyes suspicious. I didn’t ask for that, she says, looking at the tea in front of her.
Tell me again about the flora and fauna of Capri, he says, kneeling at her side.
Why should I tell you anything? she asks, frowning down on him.
Because I’ll listen.
Why don’t I tell you about the woman who locked her children in a cage? I was a boarder in her house. They used to scream like animals. But I was always in bad places then, living in squalor. I had no money. I wanted to become a singer.
Would you sing for me?
Why did you stop?
The notes of song could never replicate human suffering, she says, turning away from him. Not the way I could with line.
I want to see you draw, he says, casually brushing dander from her shoulder.
How dare you, she hisses, though he thinks maybe she is flattered. Perhaps the corner of her wry, bitter mouth has lifted for a second.
I don’t believe you can do it anymore, he says, his voice teasing and almost, he realizes, malicious.
I can do it. I don’t want to do it, but I can do it.
Do it, he says, thrusting a pen into her gnarled hand. He brings a sketchbook to her and scoots her up to the table.
No—my tooth is broken! Are you an imbecile?
Do it, he says, using the firmest voice he has ever used with her, with anyone.
Looking up at him with confused, then furious eyes, she puts the tip of the pen to the paper. At first it does not move. She’s just looking at it, or maybe she is looking within her mind. The tip begins to slide across the dry paper, and a robed figure appears. She gives the figure wings and then draws two bald, stooped demons, which the angel presses to her chest as if about to nurse them. Romaine never lifts the pen; the line is constant and never-ending, sure of itself.
He sees her tongue—God it is an ugly tongue—examining the jagged edge of the broken gray tooth as she looks at her work, letting the pen fall to the table. She grabs his arm and whispers: I’m in pain. Please call the dentist.
This is the price you have to pay, he thinks, looking down at her bulging eyes, for having a good life, for being able to wake up when you want, fuck who you want, travel the world and sleep in soft beds and never clean your own toilet. This is for your closet full of opera capes.
I’ll see to it, Signora, he says, pulling his arm from her cold grasp, gathering the drawing, leaving the room.
As he leaves, the rottweiler begins barking.
Marco! The dog, Romaine says.
He pretends he cannot hear her, and continues down the stairs.
Before he phones the dentist, he finds one of the letters from the art dealer, and places a call.
I have new work, he says, in a confident voice he can’t believe is his own. And we’re willing to sell.
On his next shift Mario finds Romaine sitting alone. She doesn’t look up or acknowledge him. She isn’t sleeping, but her body is in a state close to sleep, he thinks.
Romaine, he says, addressing her by name for the first time. She looks at him, confused. Overnight he has come up with a plan, and he’s determined to put it into action, to claim the experiences that should have been his.
I have something to tell you, he says.
Don’t waste my time, she mumbles, fingering the silk of her blouse, brushing the morning’s crumbs from her lap.
She looks weaker, he thinks, pleased with the idea that she might become more vulnerable. That’s what he wants. Vulnerable, but not dead. He takes a deep breath and continues.
The cook—you remember Enzo?
Of course I remember!
He’s been using the galley kitchen as his private meeting space, Mario says—sighing as if this has bothered him morally—and there’s been trouble. I broke up a fight the other night; I was worried they would wake you. Did they wake you?
I’ve told you that I rarely sleep. My mother—
What would you like me to have done?
Fire him, of course, Romaine says, sighing, sagging into her chair.
Would you like to do it?
Take care of it, Romaine says, turning her large eyes to the window. I don’t have the energy.
Mario goes first to the galley kitchen, which is hot and rank with spoiled vegetables and forgotten, decanted wine. A raw goose, head still intact, lies defeathered and gray on a platter, beak resting on its pimpled back. The unwashed butcher block is scarlet with blood, marred by years of haphazard cuts. Unable to find Enzo, Mario moves from room to room until he comes to Romaine’s gallery. This is a sacred room, he thinks, and so when he finds Enzo sprawled in the corner, a sheet over his body, a white enamel pot of piss in the corner, he is furious, shaking with anger as he walks toward the sleeping cook and nudges him with the toe of his shoe, his father’s shoe.
You’ve been let go, he says.
Enzo rubs his eyes, sits up, spits onto a corner of the sheet and rakes it across his face. You’re a big shot now? he says, blinking. How did you manage that?
If you don’t believe me you can go and speak with Romaine.
Fuck Romaine, he says, rising, standing nose to nose with Mario. Did you stick your tongue in her mouth?
Please don’t make a scene, Mario says. He can smell Enzo’s musky body odor and unwashed hair.
I’ll take everything, Enzo shouts, getting angrier by the second. Brutto figlio di puttana bastardo!
Do what you think is right, Mario says, turning to leave. He’s shaking inside, waiting for Enzo to strike him or throw something, but he doesn’t. Mario calls the night nurse and tells her not to come, that Romaine has asked him to stay on for the night.
That evening, the house is quiet. Enzo has taken all the wine and the cellar is barren. No matter, Mario thinks, running a finger along the shelves to clear the cobwebs. I’ll order more. I can order anything. There are no limits.
Now he has absolute privacy and authority in the house. Romaine is asleep in her chair in the parlor; Mario enters her bedroom and walks straight to the closet, taking a silk opera cape from its rack, sliding it over his own narrow shoulders, admiring himself in the Japanese mirror. He can’t stop stroking the black silk. He wears the cape downstairs to clean the kitchen. He wears it to put out the trash. When the rottweiler begins to bark, he is so bold as to walk past Romaine wearing her own clothes, the fine clothes of her youth, and onto the patio where, beneath a purple sky, he pelts the barking dog with Romaine’s uneaten dinner, undercooked goose thighs and roasted potatoes. His fingers are greasy from handling the food, but he continues stroking the opera cape. The streets of Fiesole are quiet. The families are eating their late dinners in their fine homes, congratulating themselves, he thinks.
He wears her cape as he runs downstairs toward the gallery, silk trailing behind him. He opens the door, not hesitating this time, and stands in front of Romaine’s sad, beautiful paintings, imagining that they are his, that he is capable of such fine work. He wonders if it comes out of her naturally or how hard she had to work to master the shape of a human face, the arc of human hands, the color of flesh. He doesn’t want to imagine her working hard at anything, but it’s worse to imagine her so fortunate to be born rich and egregiously talented as well. How miserably unfair.
The next night, after leaving Romaine to fall asleep again in her chair, he puts on her delicate, pale pink pajama set, so pristine he’s sure she’s never worn it. The silk feels incredible against his skin, nearly liquid. He brushes his hair at her vanity using her brush. He buffs his nails. He sprays himself with the expensive French perfume, a glass urn of amber liquid marked Guerlain with the unmistakable whiff of vanilla.
He opens the windows and stands on the marble windowsill. He can see the lights of Florence in the valley below, the sheen of the Duomo. How could you get tired of this? he wonders. He has never felt so opulent, so himself. He smokes a cigarette, flicks the butt down onto the street.
He rubs cold cream onto his face and, letting it sit a while, begins sifting through Romaine’s drawers. In the top drawer of her bureau he finds yellowed photographs, and one which immediately stands out from the rest. It is not a beautiful photograph. Here, in some studio, some mansion from another time, another life, there is a boy in Victorian breeches seated on a tasseled velvet pillow. The boy has a wild dog’s eyes and long, tangled blond hair. Mario shudders and places the photograph back in the bureau.
At 3:00 a.m., still wearing her pajamas, he wheels Romaine to the toilet, then to the guest room and helps her to bed, turning back the heavy duvet, easing Romaine’s diminished body underneath the sheets.
What are you wearing? she asks, wincing, her eyelids swollen. She reaches out to touch him with a finger. Why are we in the guest room?
He notices her nails are long and need trimming. Shh, he says. You’re imagining things.
It’s late, she says. My back hurts. Do you have pills? I need pills.
Shh, he says, turning off the lights and leaving her as quickly as possible. He sleeps in her bed and wakes slowly and contentedly in the linen sheets.
In the morning, Mario makes what he considers to be decent eggs and perfectly crisped bacon and takes the food to Romaine.
Why am I in the guest bedroom? she asks, narrowing her eyes.
We’re having work done in your room, he says. You recall the damp spot on the ceiling?
Have you found a replacement chef? she asks, frowning at the tray, the yolks running across the china. Someone competent? These are vile eggs. I once knew a blind peasant who could cook better than this.
I’m looking. I want the best for you, Mario says. Then he says her name again: Romaine.
You can take the tray downstairs. I don’t want breakfast.
That afternoon she wraps her old fingers around his arm with surprising strength as they are sitting in the parlor. I want to end my life, she says plainly. Surely we can pay someone? A doctor who has a gambling debt? There must be a black market for these things? Surely I’m not the only one tired of living?
I’ll look into it, Mario says, though he has no intention of helping her end her life. If she were to die, he’d lose the beautiful house, the opera cape, the fine wine, the respite from his mother.
The next morning a nice woman with short hair and round cheeks named Berthe shows up at the house. Mario answers the door.
I’m just off the train from Paris, she says, smiling.
Signora does not take visitors, he says gravely.
I have news from a gallery, she says. Since Romaine won’t answer the letters, Natalie sent me in person.
Begrudgingly, Mario heads upstairs to inform Romaine of her visitor.
Tell her she is not to come unannounced, Romaine says, voice as loud as he’s ever heard it. Tell her I don’t read letters from Natalie’s spies!
She says your work will be displayed at a prominent exhibition in Paris, Mario says.
Tell her I don’t care. Tell her I’m dead.
When Mario tells Berthe that Romaine will not see her, Berthe looks down at her feet, then bites her lip, speechless.
Two hours later, when Mario takes out the trash, Berthe is still sitting on the old stone wall in front of the villa.
She thinks we’re all out to hurt her, she says. Won’t you tell her she can trust me? That I mean her no harm? All we want to do is secure the legacy she deserves.
Mario shrugs his shoulders. I’ll tell her, he says.
I served her lunch nearly every day for twenty years, Berthe says, dumbfounded, on the brink of tears, hands gripping her knees.
Mario nods curtly at her. She is a threat, someone who might genuinely care for Romaine and threaten his job, his newfound freedom. When he peers out of Romaine’s blinds before supper, Berthe is gone.
Another letter comes from Natalie, which he doesn’t share with Romaine, but reads alone, reclining on the couch downstairs: My Angel is, as ever, first in my thoughts and deepest in my heart.
It’s hard for Mario to imagine Romaine deep in anyone’s heart. He stares at the lavender card stock with disbelief and jealousy. He wants words this intense, this loving, coming in a letter with his name on it. But he’s never been in love. Only once, perhaps, with a man who was twice his age, a teacher, who kissed him behind the changing rooms at the swimming pool one summer, sticking his tongue in his mouth, amidst the blooming flowers and buzzing insects. He was fourteen and wrote the man at least fifteen letters and he only responded once, telling Mario to go to hell and leave him alone. He had.
He falls asleep with Natalie’s letter on his chest. When he wakes up, he notices the dust floating through the house, settling on the expensive, unused furniture slipcovered in white muslin. He hasn’t checked on Romaine in some time. Regretfully, he goes to her with a tray of tea and a stale croissant.
Please draw for me again, he tells Romaine.
Absolutely not. you’re late. I’ve been sitting here, waiting. I shouldn’t have to wait in my own house.
If you want pills, you’ll draw, Mario says calmly, leaning on the table, feeling as though he can afford to be casual.
I won’t stand for this! she crows. I’ll tell—
Who will you tell? Your mind is slipping. You’re confused, darling. You want pills?
Mario has no idea what pills Romaine wants, or how to find a doctor on the black market, but he knows she wants both badly. He spreads his palm across Romaine’s shoulder.
Do I have your word about the pills? she asks, her voice defeated.
You have my word, he says, handing her the pen.
He watches as the lines turn into a Pegasus-like figure, with the same bald demons she’d drawn earlier gripping its tail, holding onto the winged horse as if it were a balloon they could ride into the sky. Looking at the simplicity of her drawing, he tries his own hand at the figures.
Stop, Romaine says impatiently, looking over at his work. You have no talent.
But if I work . . .
Romaine doesn’t hesitate: Not even then. You have no sense of depth or feeling, there is nothing jarring in your line.
A line is a line, isn’t it?
It is not, she says, laughing meanly at his ignorance. There is so much behind a line. You see simplicity where there is much more at work. People like you—
Would you teach me? He can feel the new film of self-confidence he has acquired peeling back, revealing the well of indignation, the sense he has carried with him his entire life that he has been wronged, that he is owed more. He needs her to see who he really is, who he can become. He hates her and he needs her love, and she is never going to give it.
You aren’t sufficiently traumatized, Romaine explains, one hand in the air. Teaching you would be a waste of time. I can look at you and tell. Accept it now and save yourself the trouble.
He leaves abruptly, taking the tray with him. He can hear her laughing. His ears sting.
One August morning there is vigorous knocking at the front door. He looks out the window and sees two well-dressed people, a man and a woman, waiting.
Romaine! the man yells. We’re here!
Mario, caught off guard, locks the bedroom door and quickly changes out of the pink pajamas, panting nervously. He tries to straighten the dressing table and knocks over the perfume.
Where did they come from? Who called them? How does she have any friends left?
He rushes downstairs to open the door.
May I help you? he asks, aware that he reeks of vanilla.
We’re here to move Romaine to Nice, the man says, brushing past him.
Soon there are cardboard boxes, crates for the paintings, radios blaring pop songs and news about factory strikes and student protests, men sweating on the staircase. The friends are in his house. They are causing confusion and disarray.
Gray and Michele are in their mid-sixties, elegant, artistic, grossly cheerful. At night they leave the house to go drinking. No one will say it, Mario thinks, but they must know it’s the last move, the final time they’ll be called upon.
Romaine is silent, brooding, staring out the window as people move around her, rolling up carpets. She is thinner than ever, not eating.
Once, as Gray is talking about his lackluster watercolors, Mario pipes up, hopeful to join the conversation. I’m a failed artist, too, he says.
You never had any art to fail, Romaine says.
The quiet is so excruciating that Mario is forced to think of a task. He nods humbly and stumbles onto the patio, which he sweeps furiously, more thoroughly than ever before.
On her last day at Villa Gaia, Romaine requests a lunch of cold tongue followed by semolina pudding. Michele, glamorous in a pink sheath dress, offers her a glass of Verdicchio.
Romaine waves her off. Pink clothes are vulgar, she says, shielding her eyes.
While Mario is preparing the lunch trays, a carabiniere marches up the front stairs in his crisp blue uniform and hat and knocks on the door. Mario answers.
The lady of the house called to report a theft, he says.
Mario covers his mouth with a hand. There’s been no theft, he says.
I must be thorough, the carabiniere says. You understand.
Let me show you to her, Mario says, heart pounding. Signor, he says, before entering the room, you should know that her mental powers are greatly diminished. She’s moving to Nice tomorrow, and gets very confused. But it’s kind of you to humor her.
Mario stands in the doorway as the carabiniere greets Romaine.
The boy has been stealing from me, Romaine says, pointing a finger at Mario. He thinks I don’t know what he’s doing.
No, no, Officer, Mario hears himself saying. There was a cook here who had some debts. He was fired and left angrily, taking the wine and God knows what else.
Yes, Michele says, stepping forward. Our Romaine can be a little paranoid. She has visions.
The carabiniere smiles. It’s a smile that says Yes, I’m in on this joke. Poor old rich woman with five locks on the door.
But should the carabiniere choose to search the flat Mario shares with his mother, he would not find a painting. He would not find anything unless he looks inside Mario’s mother’s Bible, where she has stashed Romaine’s drawings because she thinks they are evil. Lavoro del diavolo, she says, plucking them from the wall. He brings them home, the few times he has deigned to spend a night outside of Romaine’s elegant bedroom. He’s kept all but the one he sold to the dealer, the money from which he will use to rent a room in Saint-Tropez. He can picture it now: a lover in his bed, the glittering sea, the green hills, the masts of tall boats, the women in their wide-brimmed hats and enormous sunglasses. He will be standing in a window, watching them all.
The carabiniere has bid them good afternoon. Michele and Gray have gone out drinking, and Mario is home alone with Romaine. He takes his favorite cape from the closet, gently folds it, and places it into a paper bag.
Romaine is having her dinner, hands trembling as she runs her knife through the tongue, leftovers which she has never deigned to eat before now. But tonight is different from other nights.
I do not care for her, Mario thinks. I do not feel sorry for her. I only want to become her, to take some small slice of her life and have it for myself.
He comes to the chair and crouches down at her knees, which he has done so many times.
Can I wash your hair? he asks.
Why must you be so tender about everything? she asks, dropping her utensils to the plate. It’s unnerving.
He moves silently about the room, adjusting the black curtains, waiting.
It would be nice to be clean before I travel, she says flatly.
He fills the tub with warm, not hot, water. He opens the small window in the bathroom and lets the fresh air in. He helps Romaine undress, steadying her as he unbuttons her blouse, never making eye contact. When she nearly slips he lifts her up like a young bride and lowers her carefully into the soapy water.
The dog is barking. The motorbikes scream underneath the window. This is what his mother does, he thinks, washing something that belongs to someone else. Romaine sits in the tub with her knees up. Relax, he says. Let go.
You must. You should.
He grips each side of her face with his hands. It won’t hurt, he says.
She is staring at him—or she may be looking through him onto someone else, someone he can’t see—with those eyes. One trails off, the other remains steadily on his face, searching. The night comes.