Interesting Women

Interesting Women


First Impressions

During my second autumn in Milan, I would always stop in at the Delinquents' Bar on my way back from dropping my daughter off for school. The bus from the American School stopped in front of the Hotel Milan, and so from our apartment in Via Monte di Pieta we had a long walk through the fog. At that opaque morning hour the streetlights still made big blurred cat's-eyes in the muffling gray; the legendary shops of Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spiga, which just a few hours later would be filled with hordes of reckless women battling for luxuries, were shuttered. The antique palaces that had been turned into banks and boardrooms for the making and reshuffling of new money and new ideas were still unlit, revealing themselves through the thick numbing atmosphere in Piranesian glimpses of barrel vaults and muscular caryatids. It was a purgatorial landscape through which to guide a six-year-old girl every morning, a landscape that illustrated my dreary bemusement at finding myself, at my own initiative, suddenly unmarried and making a new home in a foreign city.

My daughter, the subject of much guilty pondering, was, in fact, obstinately cheerful in the midst of the fog. Full of oatmeal and orange juice, she skipped along in her dark blue jacket and mittens, chattering and laughing at the top of her lungs. While walking she liked to play a game called Torture and Forgive, in which she would pretend to crush my fingers, squeezing them as tight as she could in her own small, fierce grasp, and then raising my hand to her lips, where she would undo the damage with kisses. On our route, there were certain things we couldn't look at because they brought bad luck: a monstrous rubber plant in the window of a pharmacy; the flyblown diamond earrings in the grimy showcase windows of the Hotel Milan, which apparently had not been refurbished since Verdi died there, and was famous for its cockroaches. We stood with our backs to the diamonds until the school bus came. When my daughter stood on the steps of the bus and I kissed her cold red cheeks, her face would blaze out at me from her dark hood like a fiery rose.

Then I was alone and it was time for my cappuccino. In Italy cappuccino has not taken on the overblown dimensions it has acquired in America, and remains a spare and seemly breakfast drink. Whether it is good, really good, depends not just on the lightness of its foam, the perfection of its mixture of strong coffee and bland milk, the correctness of its temperature. To my mind, it has to incorporate a slight taste of misery as well, a tinge of bitterness or sadness that has nothing to do with the provenance of the beans but is drawn from the surroundings in which it is drunk. From this point of view, the cappuccino served in the Delinquents' Bar was nearly perfect.

The D.B. was a neighborhood bar of mine—in fact, it was on the ground floor of my apartment house—and was really called Bar Opera, in honor of the fact that La Scala was a block away. I'd renamed it because it was a gathering place for a peculiar subspecies of the generally fashionable denizens of central Milan: ten or fifteen sidewalk loan sharks and ruffianly small-time dealers in gold and jewelry. These men spent their mornings hanging about the sidewalk in front of the great stone facade of the Monte di Pieta Bank, which was a few doors up the street and had since the Middle Ages been the public pawnshop of Milan. There they lay in wait for the desperate souls whose offerings were too scanty for the official exchange. Often the carabinieri would pull up, and they would scatter like a flock of vultures, to regroup a few minutes later around an old man brandishing a pair of silver forks, or a woman in a worn fur coat who furtively displayed a set of cameos. It was an odd sight in a neighborhood where the normal uniform for men and women was English sports clothes, or suits by Armani, Valentino, and Versace; where chauffeurs and bodyguards hung about idly outside gateways through which manicured gardens could be seen like glimpses of Arcadia. Yet the Milanese are pragmatic enough to comprehend the sudden ascents and collapses of fortune—to see that the easy wealth they seek and enjoy must have its spectral reverse side in the gray mornings at the Monte di Pieta.

So one by one the delinquents used to materialize out of the fog as I sat on a high slippery stool, sipping my cappuccino and glancing through La Repubblica. They would order coffee and grappa, greeting each other with a weary matutinal precision, like employees checking in at an office. In looks they were a brilliant cast. Their leader was a short muscular fellow, wide as a refrigerator, with a fixed carnivorous grin and glistening gelled hair that seemed to begin at his eyebrows and swept back all the way to the base of his fat neck, where it turned up in a dandified flip.

His principal colleague was a tall pimply blank-eyed lad with a straw-colored pompadour and an anarchic snaggle to his teeth; he dressed in striped suits, and never have stripes looked sadder or scarier.

Giovanni and Giacomo, the father and son who owned and ran Bar Opera, detested their clientele. They once confided to me that they had removed most of the tables inside to discourage the delinquenti from sitting down and doing business there, but they dared not do more. There was some low-level odor of Mafia there that I never felt like investigating.

They had reason to feel annoyed, because just a hundred yards away other bars were packed with well-heeled businessmen, fashion models, elegant housewives and their little yapping dogs; while the Bar Opera attracted only this louche company that seemed to be an interior manifestation of the fog in the streets. It was partly the proprietors' own fault, since they hadn't bothered to gentrify the place with smoked glass mirrors and little islands of green plants; and because they served horrible stony pastries, too obviously bought day-old on the cheap. Father and son floated wanly behind a dented aluminum counter in a brown cavern of nineteen-fifties paneling lit by a grimy chandelier that seemed to have been looted from a provincial dance hall. Giovanni, who came from a mountain village near Bolzano, still retained a hearty physiognomy that went with his crisp Austrian accent, but Giacomo, who had clearly grown up on an urban caffeine diet, was a forty-year-old with the face of a schoolboy preserved in formaldehyde. And there was an heir, a pale sprout of a ten-year-old who appeared after school and pumped coffee with the deadpan ease of a pro.

The two of them treated me well, probably because they felt I gave a minimal touch of class to the place. Each morning, they paid me respectful compliments on my attire, and adorned my cappuccino with the stylized flower in chocolate powder that is the mark of a skilled barista. With the delinquents themselves I established one of those relationships between cordiality and aloofness that a solitary lady in Italy must set up with the shopkeepers in her area if she is to be considered a lady. I said good morning and nodded with a certain formality, and they did the same. If the truth be told, I was happy to see them, had begun to consider them a sort of family, and would have loved to know more about who they were and what they did. This, however, was impossible, for my own good, and for their clear view of the world. In a certain sense, I measured my dignity by not having recourse to their company and services, but the possibility, I told myself, was not so far removed that I could afford to be casual. Only once did it happen, one morning when I burst into the bar wearing blue jeans and a conversable American grin, that the great stout slick-haired leader stole up to me on light feet like Count Fosco and inquired whether he could buy me a grappa. I declined lightly and civilly, but that day, staring into the dregs of my coffee and milk, I saw an abyss.

Cappuccino is a morning drink, but in those days I drank it all day with my friend Nelda. She'd appear at my door after lunch, when I'd finished writing and she was on a break from her job of showing apartments to rich foreigners. She carried an umbrella against the eternal drizzle and wore a hooded mushroom-colored raincoat that like the rest of her clothes was slightly too large for her, and that made me think of the poem "An Old Woman of the Roads."

"Oh, to own a little house . . ."

Nelda was no old woman, but she was Irish, and in spite of being one of the most beautiful girls I have ever known, had about her a faint raggle-taggle air that inspired visions of a weary rainswept vagrant life. The hems of the long peasant skirts she favored were sometimes trampled and wet. She had once been the pampered young wife of a doting Milanese banker and had her nightgowns handmade out of plum-colored silk satin. Now she lived in a studio apartment with a decor that seemed to require underwear dripping in the bathroom. She had some Georgian silver teapots from her mother, and a NordicTrack squeezed alongside the sofa. She was always on the phone to the Philosopher, the man for whom she'd left husband, children, and fortune, a fifty-year-old anarchist from Bologna who spent most of his days getting stoned on a futon, like some wonderful period piece from the seventies. Nelda would call him up ask what he was doing, and he would reply, shamelessly: "Thinking." I could imagine him with his neat D. H. Lawrence beard, reclining on a bare futon decorated with graceful brownish blossoms of ancient sperm stains. Nelda worshiped the Philosopher. She told me that, unlike overstressed businessmen his age, who couldn't get it up, he could make love three times a day.

"Oh," she would sigh. "If only I didn't have to be unfaithful to him." For she saw him only on weekends, and in the splendor of her loneliness was generous with her spare evenings. The only men she disdained were Irishmen, "because I don't like pink penises." She liked all other colors. She told me about a young prince from Ghana, a shy polite boy of twenty who had the biggest one she'd ever seen. "It looked like a weapon. I said: 'That thing is not coming anywhere near me,' and he said: 'Look, Nelda. You've had babies. If they could get out, this can get in.' "

Nelda's eyes, as she told me these things over cappuccino, had the unnerving clarity of a kitten's. She seemed born without the capacity to regret anything, and she gave me courage. I felt that if one day I informed her that I'd gone to the zoo, jumped into a cage, and made love to a chimpanzee, she would have found not just an excuse for me but a way of explaining that it had been urgently necessary for my mental health that day to have sex with another species of primate. At the same time, she had a curious loopy sense of practicality that appealed to me in that disordered stage of my existence, and with it she spent a surprising amount of energy trying to redirect my life. For someone who lived in a way I associated with cheese rinds and the ends of candles, she thought in the economic terms of a great demimondaine. An industrialist was courting me, and she told me that I should simply ask him to buy me a big expensive apartment in the best part of Milan.

Though I had no intention of following her advice, I amused myself by letting her show me an array of apartments whose prices were redolent of abused expense accounts: ten-room penthouses in the Montenapoleone or Magenta district, full of dirty wall-to-wall carpet. These places all had vast wet terraces covered with tubs of moribund oleanders, terraces from which you could sometimes view the prickly spires of the Duomo, and the wasteland of fog pierced by the sparks of the streetcars far below.

One November afternoon after we'd looked over a particularly dismal apartment in Via Visconti di Modrone, Nelda continued her rehabilitation campaign by convincing me that I had to track down a man I'd known briefly that summer in Sardinia. This was a lawyer from Varese who wore white patent-leather loafers, and who had astonished our little seaside colony of mothers and children by manifesting a sudden devotion to me as apparently respectable as it was intense. He would arrive at my door with flowers in the early evening when all the ladies, baby-sitters, and children were assembled on their condominium terraces, and take me out to one of the cheaper restaurants on the Costa Smeralda. He made the sign of the cross before he ate. On our third date, he asked me to marry him, and bear many children in an ancient brick farmhouse in the swampy midst of the Varese rice paddies, where frogs are so common they are included in risotto. He vanished quickly when I showed little enthusiasm for the project, and I had forgotten his last name. However Nelda seized on the idea that he was the man for me. "He may have seemed dull, but dull men can be the best husbands. There's no disappointment, because you know what you have."

She said we should get a detective and find him. I didn't want the man, but the idea of sleuthing in the Northern Italian provinces had a dark frivolity that appealed intensely to me. So we made an appointment—telephoning, of course, from a bar—with a detective whose face had the benign look of a father confessor as he stared out of a half-page ad in the Milan yellow pages. His offices, on a fashionable street near Piazza San Babila, were big enough for a whole law firm and lined with dark green leather, and his beautiful receptionist had a brisk air of high-class tartiness. Seated at a mahogany desk littered with telephones, the famous investigator was small and bald, and wore the bland sacerdotal smile of his advertisement; he spoke, however, in a fast rough voice with a trace of a Calabrian accent. At once he began to ask me questions in a way that was so vulgar that it gave me a thrill.

Instinctively, I prepared my body and mind to follow unexpected mysterious orders, as if I were visiting a medical specialist.

"Did you—" He made a back and forth motion with his fist.

"I don't understand," I said.

Nelda poked me. "Don't act like a fool," she whispered.

"Excuse me, Signorina, but I have to be blunt. If I am to help you, it's important that I know everything. Did you have relations with this man?"

"Yes—well, no, not in the sex way that you mean. Well, not in any way, really."

"How often did you see him?"

"We met on the beach, and then we went out for dinner four times."

"What did he talk about when you were together?"

"About the fact that I was, well, a goddess—"

"A what?"

"A goddess." I said the Italian word clearly, and the investigator wrote something down on a small pad of paper. "And he wanted me to come and live with him in an old farmhouse in the rice fields—"

"He asked her to marry him!" broke in Nelda. The investigator smiled fatuously at her, as men always smiled at Nelda. After a few minutes, he telephoned a minion and demanded information on restaurants on the Costa Smeralda. Then he put down the phone and said:

"Signorina, it's a clear case of breach of promise. I'll find the individual in question for you, but it won't necessarily be an easy path. For expenses I'll need immediately from you a check for three million lire."

Something I was never afterward able to reconcile with any idea of sanity was the unmistakable pleasure with which I drew out my checkbook and wrote a check for the outrageous amount of money—twice what an office worker would earn in a month, and money that I could not easily spare. I did it with a promptness that clearly surprised even the investigator. It was obvious that the desperate women he preyed on usually required at least a minimum of convincing. He had his mouth open, showing an unharmonious array of dental work, when I tore off the check and handed it to him with a flourish. "Signorina," he stammered, "I want to explain—"

But I waved him aside with a gesture I didn't know I possessed, the gesture of a grand duchess. "Trovalo a tutti costi," I said. "Find him at all costs, my dear Mr. X."

As we left—as in some psychiatrists' offices, the exit was different from the entrance—Nelda squeezed my arm affectionately, like a mother proud of a clever child. I felt weak with relief. It seemed that there was a climactic folly in what I had just done that laid to rest whatever shades had been haunting me. I had paid a tithe to hell, and it could now absent itself from my mornings and afternoons. We went out onto Corso Monforte, where at three in the afternoon the streetlights were already lit, and the umbrellas of the crowds of shoppers sliced through the drizzle. The expensive shops shone through the fog like caves of warmth, full of treasures that could nourish and heal, and the women lingering in front of the bright windows all looked like children on Christmas morning.

Soon I would be picking up my daughter from the school bus and could forget the perverse adventures of my afternoon in the clasp of that small exacting hand. "Let's stop somewhere," said Nelda, in a happy voice. "And have a coffee."

Needless to say, the detective never found anyone, though the two times I called him, he said: "I have a very promising lead, Signorina. It is a matter of days."

I lost my money as I had known I would. Shortly thereafter, Nelda borrowed my black leather Azzedine Alaïa jacket and set off for a long visit to the Philosopher. And what did I do? In the weeks that followed, I abandoned the Delinquents' Bar and began to wander the streets of the city among the coffee-break crowds, searching for the perfect cappuccino and the perfect bar to drink it in. Each bar I entered was for a few minutes a small shelter that I considered for myself. I was convinced that imbibing caffeine in some places brought you luck, and in others brought you failure and general woe. The beauty of the bar had nothing to do with it, nor did seediness guarantee good fortune. The glossy tearoom on Via Montenapoleone would have seemed to have been an obvious cliché, to be avoided, but in fact those mirrored rooms stuffed with marrons glacés and people whose faces, above their furs, had the same gleam of expensive candied fruits, felt lucky; just as the sinister artists' hangout down on Via Brera had something indefinably wrong about its atmosphere and its cappuccino.

The barmen in some places were skilled at producing a crisp, dry halo of milk foam, and in others produced a creamier nimbus. Some could draw flowers with the powdered chocolate sprinkled on top; and one lost master, hidden from the world in a tiny establishment on the glum middle-class shopping street Viale Piave, presented his cups sketched with a tiny, ephemeral chocolate face that regarded one pensively as one pensively drank.

I drank many nondescript cups of milk and coffee, and a few great ones, but a poker-faced film-noir angel never did spring up beside me and tap me on the shoulder. At the same time I received an assignment from a magazine to write about Milan high life; and one evening, fastened into a black velvet dress and lined up on a white couch in a row of other women, like a line of drinks on a counter, I met the man who was to become my second husband. And then there was love, the indescribable, and my mornings in bars became something much more ordinary: the concluding acts of trysts. My lover, a small, elegant, good-hearted man, whose mixed aristocratic Venetian and Sicilian blood gave him ancestral depths of worldliness and cunning that I could only guess at, quickly put the delinquents at the Bar Opera in their place, shouldering up to the counter and ordering for me with a rich man's impregnable self-confidence. I could see the delinquents were impressed; they were, after all, consummate material men, and he exuded success on their terms. There was fatherly approval in their eyes as they regarded us together. I was no longer that disquieting figure: a female stray, a waif who had to pay for her own coffee.

A year later, when my daughter and I left Milan, and went to start a new life with my husband in Torino, one of the first things I did in that city, out of a sort of reflex, was to start looking for a place to have my daily cappuccino. I visited the extravagant Art Nouveau bars along Via Po and Corso Vittorio, where the courtiers of the Kingdom of Italy had languished in the mid-nineteenth century, nibbling lobster sandwiches among the brass and stained glass and polished wood, and chatting in their French-accented Italian of the latest vicissitudes of the House of Savoy. For a few weeks I went to a small pizzeria and bar in a rustic village center not far from my house in the hills overlooking the city, a bar frequented by a sort of village idiot called II Matto, who went around in a triangular sheepskin cap, sometimes clutching a piece of raw meat. II Matto was considered picturesque, and I tried to feel privileged as I clutched my cup and listened to his high-pitched chatter, but the cappuccino was watery, so I abandoned the village square for an establishment I had discovered down by the river Po. This tiny place, called II Bar del Buon Caffe—the Bar of Good Coffee—had an unreconstructed postwar interior of apple green linoleum and aluminum tubular trim that suggested an American diner.

Inside, a strange tight-lipped Piedmontese family with the vertical faces of Visigoths served small floral cups of the best cappuccino I had ever had in my life. A wall plaque in folkloric Piedmontese dialect informed customers that the proprietors had indeed won some kind of regional coffee-making contest. There were only two small tables, squeezed against the windows, and at ten thirty in the morning a crowd of well-heeled Torinese housewives, in their uniform of streaked blond hair, earth-colored tweed and cashmere, and handmade sport shoes, would press in with their umbrellas and bags of shopping. I liked sitting there with my wonderful drink—the powdered cocoa on top was mixed with raw sugar—breathing in the expensive perfume of these women, and listening to their breathtakingly pedestrian talk about golf and suntans and servants. Torino had weather as bad as that of Milan, but in that atmosphere I felt that I had banished uncertainty and melancholy from my days, that perhaps I had actually found my bar. It was agreeable to belong somewhere, to a region, to a family, to a man.

I said as much to a new acquaintance at a party, a tall skeptical-looking surgeon who had the nondescript features of the Torino upper classes, prematurely wrinkled from a lifetime of winters spent skiing in the Alpine snowfields. He laughed when I told him about the bar. "I'm sorry to disillusion you," he said. "But that is a rather naughty little place. It's notorious for being the starting point for Belle du Jour adventures. A lot of those bored wives are waiting for telephone calls about personal ads, or to meet strange men as previously arranged. People say that some of them get paid for it."

He laughed again as he saw my expression. "Strange, I didn't think you were a prude."

I wasn't shocked at the goings-on in the Bar del Buon Caffe, but rather at the stupid ease of my own self-deception. I should have realized, I told myself, that no matter how solidly planted one feels, the daylight hours are always times of random searches, of changing shapes in the traffic and in the fog along the street. It occurred to me then that for the rest of my life the delinquents, in one form or another, would be peering over my shoulder. I ended up deriving a curious comfort from the idea. It was a thought that went well with the taste of strong coffee and milk.

author's page
Bold Type

Bold Type
Bold Type
Excerpted from Interesting Women by Andrea Lee. Copyright © 2002 by Andrea Lee. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.