Good Friday – Alfredo Ronci


“Human beings live their lives in constant search for the idolized or remembered father.” (Anna Maria Ortese, Alonso e i Visionari)

Nasty weather. Not enough to cause real concern, but for my sister, nasty weather meant Good Friday. For years I had tried to understand if the weather was bad because it was Good Friday or if it was Good Friday because the weather was bad. The simplest calendar—or just a little common sense—would have clarified that the second hypothesis was worthless. But the first did allow one to consider the unique character of geography.

Did it mean, for instance, that the weather was bad all over Europe? Or only in those countries where Catholicism had taken hold? In that case, excluding Asia, Russia, the Balkan Peninsula, and the major part of Africa, Good Friday ought to have been a very ugly day indeed. Still, I wondered what the weather would be like for the sixteen percent of Catholics on the Island of Tonga or in the Federated States of Micronesia.

By the age of fifteen I had already understood that meteorology was capable of expressing ugliness in a thousand different ways. March and April would surely bring rain to Italy, snow or frigid temperatures to Northern Europe, a dense and threatening overcast to Central America, drought to the Christian part of Africa. All of that remained true, my quasi-religious and semi-scientific doubts notwithstanding.

That day the weather was ugly, but it wasn’t Good Friday.

Nicola had been looking for me. Somehow I’d managed to avoid him. I didn’t even know why, but I had no doubt that our little role-play was just as beneficial for him as it was for me.

His excessive worrying and his habit of making so much of my absences aggravated me no end. He said I tried to avoid the responsibilities of couplehood. The phrase—the way he said it—embarrassed me, not because I didn’t share the idea of a union as complete as the one he imagined, but because it made me think too much of family, of an institutionalization of our emotions that sliced through me like a knife.

And yet he’d used every lover’s trick in the book to try to win me over, including telling me how the former Secretary of the Italian Communist Party, Luigi Longo, had been at the source of his awareness of his sexuality.

In August 1968, when Nicola was ten, he discovered he was homosexual just as the Warsaw Pact troops were running rampant through the streets of Prague.

“Would you mind telling me what in hell that has to do with anything?” I’d asked him.

“It has to do with it because my father was anxiously awaiting an official statement from the Italian Communist Party on the situation in Czechoslovakia.”

“And so?”

“And then it came, but only because Armando Cossutta tracked Longo down with a phone call to the Soviet embassy. Longo happened to be visiting Moscow at that very moment.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“My dad was an old-style Communist. And he was worried.”

“Worried about what?”

“That the Italian Communist Party would lose credibility in the eyes of Italians. But what happened instead was that, in the middle of the election campaign, the Party leadership expressed: “the solidarity of Italian Communists with the brave struggle of Czechoslovakian communists for the defense and the empowerment of socialism in their country and for the full development of socialist democracy.”

He recited the communiqué with his eyes closed, making all the necessary pauses and reserving the most dramatic emphasis for the final reference to socialist democracy.

And you?

“I took advantage of the fact that my father was so happy and locked myself in the bathroom with a Pierino Prati soccer card.”[2]

“And that’s when you realized what you were.”

“Yeah, but that wasn’t the only thing….”

When he kissed me for the first time he told me how he’d stolen 230,000 lire from the Radical Party.

“I was in charge of a table for a referendum they were holding, collecting signatures and contributions.”

“You stole from the donation box?”

“No. I stole right out of the hands of the people who were paying their dues.”

“And no one ever caught on?”

“The notary who was there to verify people’s signatures, but he winked at me when I put the last of the money in my pocket. Then when we closed up the table he came over and invited me to have a drink with him.”

I never understood why Nicola told me all of this, how his sex drive had gotten mixed up with political debates about abolishing hunting and fishing, the art of petting with arguments over whether or not to remove a branch of the police force from under the control of the defense ministry.

Perhaps he wasn’t confident that he could offer with this body what his words could provide. And yet that white, gymnast’s shape fascinated me, reminding me of milk and of sports. He taught me that allowing oneself to become obsessed with clichés of physical perfection was a true obscenity.

His smooth stride pleased me, slightly overbalanced as it was toward the right, with a head that, rather than act as a counterweight, accentuated his posture: he described an arc in space, the outline of a bird cage for hunchbacked parakeets.

I was much less pleased by the fact that he had placed so much hope in me—expectations beyond all dignity. What did it mean for me to double as his father, to deliver into his life a newly youthful parent with whom he could play out—painfully—another thirty years?

“You exhaust me,” I told him one day when he was far away: New York. “It’s like carrying you around on my shoulders all day long.”

When he came home again he was a rag. He’d lost so much weight and was so thin that at first I thought he’d deliberately misunderstood my meaning.

“I don’t want you thin. You didn’t understand a damn thing I said. I love you, if that’s the issue, even when you’re gone—your head and your body, I mean. But most of the time you go around here like some worn-out elephant.”

“I’m what? I do what?”

I loved torturing him with words, my disingenuous virtuoso—he who was so enamored of his own verbal inventiveness, a slave to the desire to impress with his clever story-telling, even when it meant parting with reality.

“You know what I mean. Why don’t you try making like the birds in autumn.”

At that point, I was the one talking bullshit—like when I confessed that I had been raped by my uncle when I was thirteen. It was believable enough. I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t hiding, behind a calm and patient smile, or perhaps behind a kind of feverish agitation, some childhood violence.

And now I was the calm and thoughtful one. He was upset and emotional.

He hold me that he wished he’d been there.

“What do you mean ‘been there’?”

“Sometimes it’s hard to imagine your past without me. Even if I wasn’t there, I like thinking about maybe having shared some of your life with you.”

I find ideas of that sort to be alarming, but at the moment I took it for a declaration of true love, tied up in a bow, a passionate and lucid (imagine such a thing!) testimonial.

But I didn’t spare him one small jab.

“It was a lucky thing you weren’t there. By now you ought to know me well enough to know what I’m like, even when you’re not around.” And I cut my eyes at him, making them hard and a little violent.

Lately I’d been thinking about having him knocked off. That’s why I’d started seeing Vittorio. Vittorio was a plumber of nearly Pasolinian ugliness, one of those guys whose muscles you can barely manage to count and who leave you breathless with the effort. But they have devious eyes, like whipped dogs, and teeth like a piano keyboard, one black and the other the color of vanilla ice cream.

The evening before, we’d seen each other at his place. His nearly theatrical passivity had always irritated me, his desire to turn himself into the slave of every situation. He handed his body over to me like a gift, with the same ease with which a child extracts his favorite toy from the grasp of a playmate—in other words, with an almost embarrassing determination. Fucking him meant putting a cock into a mechanical and adjustable opening.

I fucked him halfheartedly. The other half of me simply didn’t understand him.

“I want to see you,” I told him when I called him later. I was using my most persuasive voice.

“Like last night?”

I knew what he meant. I felt my saliva starting to go down wrong. “I need to talk to you. It’s important.”

“Did someone find out about us?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“What is it then?”

“It’s something else. I’m too embarrassed to talk about it over the phone.”

“Does it have something to do with me?”

“I’ll tell you when we see each other. What time?”

“Right now then. Do you want to come over here?”

I said yes, but I didn’t like the idea of going to his house. He acted like he owned the place: He showed you in with an air of total indifference, neither asking nor expecting the slightest consideration in return for your presence.

I couldn’t have gotten away with anything like that at my own house. There, I always had the feeling that my presence was an adequate—but by no means inevitable—addition.

When I arrived, Vittorio was scratching his ass. It was a gesture that he performed often and nearly convulsively, and the intensity of the movement was far from playful. There was no genius in the act and no elegance. It came as no surprise that I managed to see him only as flesh. Good flesh, but flesh still meant for the butcher and destined for death.

“‘I love you,’” he said suddenly.

I wasn’t expecting that, just as I hadn’t expected him to have gotten cleaned up after a hard day at work. He was wrong about that, too. He didn’t understand that the dust and the dirt and the bad breath were products of nature and that they kept me just fascinated enough to hold my desire to escape at bay. The plastic mannequin in front of me left me feeling slightly nauseous.

“What are you saying?”

“It’s true. I realized it a little while ago.”

I didn’t tell him that I much preferred the long, slow road to sudden declarations of intimacy. Nor did I ask him who else he had been in love with, whether the men before me had felt the same horror in the face of his sudden and ill-timed effusions of love.

“It was a stupid thing to say, huh?”

“No. I’m just surprised.”

More than surprised, in fact, I was deeply bitter. All I wanted was a body to distract me from the strange life that seemed to be taking shape around me.

“How surprised are you?”

How the hell do you respond to something like that? What was I supposed to say? Was I supposed to tell him in grams or meters exactly how disorienting his declaration was?

I shrugged my shoulders and said nothing. The ball was back in his court.

“I’m sorry. I thought hearing something like that would make you happy.”

“Happy, sure….”

“So?”

“I belong to another man.”

“Just one?”

That stopped me. The astonishing intelligence of Vittorio’s response surely deserved a medal, but I just as surely didn’t take the time to tell him so. He started scratching his ass again, but so forcefully that his body tipped forward. He almost fell on top of me.
“What are you doing?”

“Sorry. I needed that.”

“You needed what?”

“I don’t know. It’s a habit. Like the way I need oxygen when I make love. You never caught on, right?”

I hadn’t caught on, but I had suspected something. On those few occasions when we’d had sex, he’d allowed himself to be fucked only from behind, and there wasn’t any way to convince him to do it differently.

“I use an inhaler with therapeutic oxygen in it.”

“What?”

“I need it. What did you think? When we’re doing it, I get short of breath.”

“But not when you’re surrounded by all that poison at work!”

“So now you’re criticizing what I do for a living?”

It was the first time he had ever stood up to me, though he managed to do it with elegance.

“Have you been to see a doctor?”

“No.”

“Where do you get the oxygen from?”

“My father uses it. He’s got a serious respiratory problem.”

“So it runs in your family.”

“My father is a war invalid.”

“Oh, sorry. So does scratching your ass mean something?:

“Oh, well, that….”

He came closer and he kissed me. One way or another for keeping words from coming out of my mouth.

“So what was it you had to tell me that was so important?” he said. “Is it about me?”

“No, me.”

“You know I’d do anything for you.”

“You’d better wait until you hear what it is.”

“What is it? You want me to knock someone off?”

“Touché!”

“What?!”

“You guessed it, blockhead. How much would you want to kill someone?”

He let himself be fucked in the usual way. But this time, I stayed on guard. I was more fascinated by his asthmatic sucking noises than by the muscular body that flashed and twisted beneath me like a fish.

He kept a green-colored inhaler by his side. When he had trouble breathing, he practically engulfed the small plastic tube that protruded from it. The hiss that followed was wet and metallic at the same time. Then he would swallow, nearly exhausted by the effort.

“I’ve never killed anyone,” he said later, stretching himself across the bed.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever asked anyone.”

“I’ll bet it is. Are you sure you haven’t lost your mind?”

“And you’ve never once wanted someone dead?”

“No.”

“Not even when they screwed with you?”

“You don’t kill people for something as small as that.”

“Ten-cent philosophy,” I thought to myself, but in that moment, I admired him. I appreciated his sense of calm in the face of my dogmatism, of my efforts to demonstrate my lack of decency.

He watched me, and at the same time he used one finger to smooth out the hair on my chest. He rolled a curl around his finger, then he unrolled it again.

“When I was seven I almost killed a boy at school with a stone,” he said, sniffling.

“It wasn’t premeditated.”

“But I came close … what are you doing?

I had climbed over him, leaning across to reach his side of the bed.

“I’m taking this with me.” And I grabbed the inhaler.

“And why’s that?”

“You don’t need it.”

That was a mistake, because I actually believed him: He couldn’t have sex without the inhaler, and as long as I held onto it he couldn’t have sex with anyone else.

“I’m just want to know what it tastes like.”

“Careful. It’s pretty disgusting.”

“But aren’t you supposed to squirt it into your nose?”

“Give it a try!”

In reality, it had no taste at all. It was like licking a pane of glass wet with winter humidity. Like swallowing snow.

“I thought it would be worse. And anyway, I don’t understand you. I’d bet my right arm this isn’t doing you any good.”

“That’s what you say.”

He tried to grab the inhaler out of my hand. I aimed a fist at his balls.

“So are you going to tell me how much you want?”

He didn’t make a sound. He covered his sex with his two cupped hands and gave me a sideways look. He wasn’t even remotely handsome, but I thought again of Pasolini and of the expressiveness of the faces in his movies. Vittorio’s ugliness was entirely appealing, a joke of his features that was both bitter and sweet. He was a kind of alloy, a compound of rusted iron and warm winter cotton.

“Want for what?”

“I told you: Would you ever kill someone.”

“You’re asking too much. Besides, I already have a job.”

With Vittorio, people were always tempted to take on the role of father or big brother. He was one of those guys. He had a square head and his gaze tended to veer off suddenly, only to land on some insignificant detail. And a cocky smile: His lips were drawn in roughly, a kind of reddish mark that formed the outline of a mouth, a slash across his cheeks that gave his face an insect-like appearance. Short as he was, he always seemed an abbreviated version of other men. When the sun was out, Vittorio stood beside them like a second shadow.

When I went to visit him at the construction site, I found him conferring quietly with his supervisor, a fat giant of a man. Vittorio was half the size of the other man, but his stature was relative—the monumental dimensions of the other man were an optical illusion of blubber, whereas Vittorio’s physical vitality resulted from a specific combination of details. His proportions were augmented by the slightly off-kilter perfection of the way his body moved through space. Alcoholics aren’t the only ones who know that good wine comes in small barrels.

“I need to talk to you.”

He ignored me for a while, then he turned, his eyes fastened on the ground.

“I’ve got things to do. Can’t you see that?”

“I see something else.”

“And what’s that?”

“A man who’s scared for no good reason.”

The giant suddenly burst out laughing, also for no apparent reason. He yanked his belt upward, mashing his balls against the spherical overhang of his immense belly.

“I’m not frightened.”

Vittorio was a useless man. I realized that. But I rode over his uselessness like an armored tank.

“I still need to talk to you.”

Vittorio took me into a tool shed where the only light came from a window covered with a sheet of yellowing plastic.

He posed a little, his hands in his pockets and his legs slightly spread.

“So?”

“I need to explain. Really … I’m not nuts. Up to now we’ve been kidding around, but I’m serious.”

“But you can’t make me kill someone … come on … that’s crazy.”

He’d said it. He’d taken the words out of my mouth. Instead of skirting the issue, he’d stepped right into the middle of it.

“What if I were to tell you the whole story?”

“Because then I’d think you had a good reason?”

“I know … it’s not easy.”

“It’s not easy to think about. Imagine actually doing it.”

He moved closer. I took him in my arms and started chewing one of his earlobes. He smelled like plaster and dried sweat. He had no idea that his own smell was better than any promise and that it cut the distance between us like a knife through butter.

“They’ll see us.”

“You worry too much about other people.”

“And you’re a monster.”

He said it with a smile on his lips. I licked his sweat. It tasted like bitter chestnuts.

Nicola came back from yet another trip to New York on the morning of Good Friday. The sky was covered with an embroidery of white-chocolate Easter eggs.

He called me the minute he got into the house.

“I’ve lost three kilos.”

He was clever that way, always knowing how to ingratiate himself, a master juggler of the feelings of others.

“What do you expect me to say?”

“I don’t know. Whatever you feel like….” He snickered, the sound of a flushing toilet punctuating our silences.

“How’d it go? Did you have a good time?”

I didn’t know what else to say: I expected him to drown me in fears. His fears. I expected him to confess that the world had suddenly become dangerous and unlivable. That his life was hanging by the merest thread. I even hoped he’d tell me that he’d die without me.

“New York was about the same … but then once I got back here….”

“What about here?”

I quickly counted the beats of my heart and then, like some cold-blooded mathematician, I multiplied. Twenty-five beats every fifteen seconds. Which meant a hundred per minute. I was just getting started.

“Something very strange happened….”

“Strange? Tell me what.”

“I don’t know, maybe it’s just … one of my neuroses, but I feel like someone is following me.”

“Where?”

“Wherever I go…. I even thought I saw him outside the house.”

One twenty-five. A bicyclist who had to face the start of a climb at this point would have collapsed. Because of his outstanding physical condition, the great cyclist Eddy Merckx had a resting heart rate of forty beats per minute, which rose only as high as seventy as he made his way to the top of Coppi Hill.[3]

I was at one thirty-two, which, divided by four is thirty-three, like the age of Christ.

“Don’t talk nonsense. Who’d be following you?”

“I told you … maybe it’s just exhaustion. All this traveling. But it seems so real.”

“Why don’t you come over and we can talk about it?”

There was a reaction, but I struggled to make sense of it. At first it seemed like a sob, one of those involuntary reflexes that come over you when you don’t want to talk, but the words are determined to force their way out anyway. And then a muffled cry, like a call for help. When Nicola finally spoke, I realized my mistake.

“I love you.”

What I’d heard had been the guttural, drawn-out sound of a smile forming. Hardly a moan of pain! And with that he took complete possession of my body, easy enough for him even over the telephone.

“I might be making too much of things. Maybe I’m one of those guys who wishes he could make his intentions clear, but who’s afraid to show his real feelings….”

“Right. One of those guys who isn’t satisfied until he’s made you furious.”

“Why?”

“Because you always need certainty.”

“You never give me any, and yet I’m still here.”

Now it was my turn to react, and I did my best to make sure he wouldn’t understand me. But it wasn’t important. What difference did any of it make: a scream, a shout, a sob, a yawn, a belch, a moan, an entreaty, a plea, a prayer? I waited for him at home, prepared to hoist him back into place on my shoulders, no matter how light he’d gotten.

Instead, Vittorio appeared.

I had set the table as if for some grand occasion—if by “grand occasion” one can mean what most people would call a picnic: a drop or two of wine, just enough to bring a little color to our faces, and vegetables to fill our stomachs, because everyone knows it’s unwise to consume too much meat when dining al fresco.

He was wearing a pair of jeans faded down the front where the hands go to play but not to pray, and a white, short-sleeved T-shirt with black embroidery at the collar.

“I was just passing by.”

And yet he’d found time to make a detour to my door, which he now closed behind him.

He smelled fresh from the shower—though he hadn’t quite reached the point of being ready to be stamped “deluxe” and put on the shelf for public consumption. Still, he was no longer covered with mortar. In short, for the first time he’d found a way to present himself to me that was something of a compromise.

His prominent pectorals stretched the material of his T-shirt when he moved as if they’d been filled with air and left to float above his abdominals. The effect was irresistible. Beneath his shirt the imagination roamed freely: the hardness and the firmness of him, the slight softening along his sides, the shape of his belly-button, the way hair grew across his chest.

I was well acquainted with Vittorio’s body, but seeing it in front of me meant discovering it all over again, reconfiguring, with the evidence of my eyes, the image I’d held in my mind. And he knew it. He knew that behind the way I looked at him, even when I looked at him in anger, applause was always hiding.

“Don’t tell me you were expecting me.”

He glanced at the table.

“Actually….”

“I see. Another man.”

I was stunned. I’d have preferred it if he had at least said a name, if he’d proposed a suspect or two. But he stood there, a stolid presence—making clear that asking him to come back in again and give the scene a second try would have been out of the question—his slightly crooked mouth and his stained teeth threatening to arrange themselves into a smirk.

“I invited my mother, stupid. Today’s Good Friday. It’s important to her.”

“Your mother?”

“You know how mothers are. Since I lost my dad, she feels lonely. And she wants to spend the holidays with me.”

“She didn’t invite you to her house? I mean, usually….”

“For Easter. Good Friday is my turn.”

No one is born a liar. The successful lie requires sweat and violent palpitations of the heart. I don’t believe anyone ever really manages to feel comfortable telling lies, even those who do it habitually. Sooner or later you have to give it up, or the symptoms kill you.

“You can’t stay. She doesn’t know about you.”

“I’d have bet on that.”

“What do you expect me to do? Tell her all about your oxygen fixation? The way you open right up for me like I was the master of the universe?

“Tell her how you want to kill someone.”

“I never talk about my most violent fantasies.”

I hoped he would read between the lines, but he was curiously resolute, nearly immovable. I was having a hard time recognizing him. At any other moment, his body would have betrayed him, reducing him to a puddle at my feet. But now he towered over me, making me consider the possibility that other mountains lay behind this one.

“You’re expecting Nicola, aren’t you?”

“And if I were?”

“You wouldn’t deserve me.”

“Look, I tried everything I could to make you understand how things stood between you and me, I even tried to scare you. And believe me, that was no small effort.”

“And I just took it….”

He tried to smile, tried to find some way to distract himself, because the standoff we’d come to weighed on him, all but unbearable.

“I even fantasized I was building this body for you,” he said, “even when you weren’t here, because I thought you’d like it.”

That old call-and-response between lovers, bouncing back and forth like a ping-pong ball.

“I know you followed him.”

He came nearer and put his mouth next to mine. His breath was barely tolerable, so who knows why I tried to chew his lip.

“I followed who?”

“Come on, don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“I told you: You can ask me anything, but not that….”

“But somebody followed him.”

“It wasn’t me. I have other things to do.”

He was high above me now, in a way I’d never imagined, light years from the mere patina of a man (and that was all I’d seen!) he had been until now. And that was why I didn’t believe him.

“I hope you didn’t make him suffer….”

He laughed.

“Are you nuts? As soon as he gets here, you ask him. I’m going now.”

As he made his way to the door, he held his hand out to me.

“Take it for once,” he said, “without asking anything in return.”


[1] Kind thanks go to Emanuela Canali of Oscar Mondadori, the publishers of the Men on Men series (Daniele Scalise, ed.) in which “Venerdì santo” first appeared, and to Alfredo Ronci for permission to include his story in the original Everything I Have Is Blue anthology. I am indebted to Fabrizio Rossi and, in particular, to Alessandro Amenta for their insights and many helpful suggestions regarding the translation of this story.

[2] As with baseball cards in America, Italian children collect figurine, cards and stickers that bear pictures of famous soccer players. The ruggedly handsome Pierino Prati was a champion for Milan during the late 1960s.

[3] The Cima Coppi is the name given to the summit of the Colle della Fauniera, the highest of five categorized climbs in the Tour d’Italia.

_______________________

Alfredo Ronci was born in Rome in 1958, and he still lives in the community of Colle Mattia, just south of the city. In 1992, he founded the literary magazine, Il Paradiso degli Orchi, for which he served as editorial director until 2000. His first novel, Moana e l’Atletica del Dilettante was published by Moby Dick (Faenza, 1999) and his second, L’Insonnia delle Rondini, by Addiction (Milan, 2000). His short stories have appeared in the Italian collections, Men on Men (Mondadori, 2002) and Men on Men 2 (Mondadori, 2003). His father worked for many years as a marble quarryman and his mother was a farm woman. Today, Ronci works as a librarian in the archive of the Italian State Railroad.

English translation © Wendell Ricketts, 2012.

Photo credit: “Jodenhaas” © Robin/FotoosVanRobin, 2011. See his photostream on Flickr. Used courtesy of Creative Commons License.

Read the “Still Blue” Call for Submissions.
Contact the Editor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s