La Notte

I need all this context to tell the story of our walk, which doesn’t really have a story at all, but which is connected to and inseparable from the past. I often end up there when investigating my reactions to the pandemic. Other people tend to stress the exceptional nature of this experience, but the lockdown blows me ceaselessly into the past.

Rome Coronavirus Dispatch #4

Still from Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961).

This is my fourth pandemic dispatch. The first was about my father’s hip replacement, the second was about my marriage, and the third was about my toothache. —FP

The first time I left the house for non-medical reasons was at the end of our fourth week of lockdown. I felt I had to experience a reality larger than the stifling triangulations of my home-dumpster-pharmacy circuit. My mood swings were becoming severe. I needed to walk and talk to people and escape the mirror panopticon of married life. For a non-medical outing it nonetheless felt as medically necessary as my recent visit to the dentist.

There’s a road not far from my house that runs next to a 17th-century aqueduct, an alternate reality concealed between two built-up parts of the city. Until a couple of years ago, the road let me circumvent the backed-up traffic on the main boulevard that connects the city to my neighborhood. It was a nice, surreal detour, until a small section of it—two hundred meters or so—was closed off indefinitely. The road is private: it technically belongs to all the properties that abut it, mainly factories and offices whose owners and bosses supposedly aren’t willing to spend the money needed to fix it up. I don’t even think there’s any actual damage to the closed stretch, which winds its way alongside the thick, salmon-colored wall of a ghost train station.

Allegedly the road is on the verge of collapsing into a series of caves on which it was built (at one point the local authorities discovered that drug dealers were using said caves to store their product), and no one wants to risk being sued the moment the first car falls into a gaping crater. That’s why roads are usually public: they’re an insane investment. Another story I’ve heard is that the road absorbed too much water over the past few years, as rainfall increased with climate change. Development in this part of Rome is patchy and enigmatic, but we know for sure that the road will never be fixed, that we’ll never beat the traffic again the way we used to. The closure has become one of those factual metaphors you insert into novels or movies when you need to show how a city has started to go to hell, though in this case the psychogeography has been troubled from the beginning. After World War II, people fled a bombed-out neighborhood elsewhere in the city and ran here for cover. They built shacks under the arches of the aqueduct. Pasolini was drawn to the area because of this urban dynamic and wrote about it in Ragazzi di vita.

Since the closure, and now especially since the lockdown, the road has become a fuzzy, Tarkovskyan Zone. What was once a bucolic, sparsely trafficked backdrop we half-observed through car windows is now a slo-mo spectacle for walkers, full of hints and implications: sleepy warehouses, complicated clusters of customized living arrangements, funky vegetation, to say nothing of the cracks in the pavement and the overall look, which has gotten messier as the road returns to nature. It is a T.A.Z. seemingly designed for these times. The police hover at the fringes without really entering the area, or so it seems.

My best friend returned to Rome in September, after a decade abroad, and found an apartment nearby. We usually meet in the neighborhood’s more urbane sections, but we both live near the road, and it was calling. To get to the Zone and meet my friend, I walked from the end of the dead-end street where I live, turned left, passed the votive niche, made a right, and entered a short, pitch-black tunnel that runs under the local train lines. The tunnel dead-ends into the aqueduct road. Three cement blocks to the right block cars from entering the closed area.

I need all this context to tell the story of our walk, which doesn’t really have a story at all, but which is connected to and inseparable from the past. I often end up there when investigating my reactions to the pandemic. Other people tend to stress the exceptional nature of this experience, but the lockdown blows me ceaselessly into the past.

My best friend was the natural companion for such a walk. There was a time in my life when everything and everyone was able to hurt me, except him: he’s the one person from that time I can still see. My panic attacks, which began at 27, pulled me out of a very long spell of what professionals call the “false self.” The attacks helped me single out situations and relationships that were not ideal for me, allowing me to slowly pour out some of my real desires and emotions into the world. Only my friend and my sister survived the reckoning, the years when I started to feel that I had spent my life with people who had always rubbed me the wrong way. (My mother’s normal mode was inattention, so for a long time I naturally confused that for affection). My friend was the only person in my life back then who knew how to avoid aggravating me. Most people who consider themselves mature and socialized have a form of . . . let’s call it statistical empathy. Insofar as they’ve experienced a situation more or less by the numbers, they can respond with the right reaction, but they have a harder time adjusting to specific needs, even when they’re urgent and obvious. When they find out they have unwittingly hurt your feelings because your threshold is lower and you will respond poorly to normally undetectable amounts of carelessness, they want no part of it. When you try to tell them that you’re designed so poorly that that one thing they did broke you down, very few people have the frame of mind to say simple things like, “Oh, I’m sorry I was a part of your unraveling.” There’s always an emphasis on their own innocence, on themselves—“I had no idea,” or “I didn’t mean it”—and a scornful reaction to your perceived fussiness. Society is a place where you need to have the right emotional balance; otherwise you are the problem.

(I’m aware that I’m writing about this in the face of a public health crisis and an economic collapse that will transform everything, but personal histories are made up of this stinky material.)

My best friend knows my bones are made of glass, but he’s totally unfazed by that. Whenever he deals with me he employs an exceptional smoothness. Back when I had not yet experienced my first panic attack, the other people that loved me—and I include my family here—had little interest in figuring out the elementary, almost mechanical procedures required to keep me from going to pieces, which came down to clear intentions and a total absence of ambiguity in both requests and offers. Ambiguity makes my knees buckle. My friend is the only person who could, in his own dry and calm way, testify for me. He offered me a unified theory that linked the invisible pain of my youth with the more open-ended, less acute situation I find myself in these days, when I have more leeway and can extricate myself from relationships when their murkiness starts to make me feel weak.

Examining my past I’m starting to see that, in the midst of this tragic predicament we all find ourselves in, some deep part of me is seeking respite from society, which I’ve always felt was a prickly riddle. The experience of this suspension is awful, of course: my wife’s job is on hiatus, and who knows what will happen next. At first she was scared all the time, which was heartbreaking, but that has been now replaced with things that feel heartbreaking in a different way: drawing lessons from her best friend, over Zoom, and classical dance and guitar practice. Writing these dispatches keeps me engaged, and also keeps me away from the dopamine binges that life at home consists of—sugar, booze, porn, Facebook likes. But the person I’m sharing this journey with has had nothing comparably absorbing. She misses all that bustling activity, but there is nothing that can take its place for her, not right now.

The city is an evil force in the films of Antonioni. At the beginning of La Notte (1961), the soul of the city is depicted in the most unflattering ways possible, first as a hospital where a man is dying and his friends are in such a state of shock that he almost comes off as guilty for being ill; then as a traffic jam; and finally as a book launch attended by socialites who are capable of saying only the most inane, non-sequitur shit, like “Do you always sign autographs with your left hand?” And “Do you generally open your books from the left?” (That sentence makes no sense in Italian, either.) “Oh but that’s interesting, no?” Illness, monotony, stupidity: this is Antonioni’s modern city.

When Antonioni’s characters brood, they’re usually dismissed as the victims of an existential crisis. But watching these movies again, now that I haven’t been in the full whirlwind of society life for a while, it seems to me that the numb state the characters find themselves in—standing on their own, staring at the void—might only be a cleansing stage, with the promise of something better on the horizon: something less hazy, a new and full life in a place where there won’t be a society to torture you with its varied and shameless hostilities, its insistence on enabling everyone’s worst impulses.

My best friend didn’t wear a mask; I wore a makeshift one. He wasn’t worried he’d catch or spread the virus; I was. The general consensus is that nobody in Rome has it. But even if that’s true, surely that’s because we’ve been cautious and thorough this whole time. It’s a queasy chicken-and-the-egg riddle, but on that sunny Saturday afternoon the two of us were not inside society, which meant that my friend didn’t have to point out that I looked stupid, and I didn’t have to point out that he looked like a murderer. We kept ourselves the rightish distance apart and walked side by side the whole time, so that he couldn’t spit dangerous droplets in my direction.

When we spend time together it’s always low-key. We don’t hug and we don’t shout. We talk a lot, circling around themes with pleasure. Our conversations work and feel the way they would if we were in a band, which is actually how we became friends. Back then we didn’t hang out, we jammed; now we don’t hang out either, we have conversations. Whenever I talk to my friend I feel as I’m experiencing the very best that a life with very limited psychological range can offer. I feel grateful for the feeling of complete surrender to affection and reflection that our conversations offer, the sense of home.

And yet, that first day, walking and having company felt wrong. I had to ease into it as we walked. He looked his usual grungy self, while I had a scarf on, and my sunglasses. I looked like I was in a Pitchfork band from 2008. A few people were strolling and running, a 7-year-old rode his bike, three good-looking teenagers weren’t social distancing at all, two different women our age were walking alone, a smile on each of their faces.

I returned home forty minutes after I’d left. I didn’t feel like I was “back.” I didn’t break an emotional sweat, but the whole time we walked I was fidgety, restless.

At the beginning of L’Eclisse (1962), another Antonioni movie that feels more like documentary than affectation these days, Monica Vitti breaks up with her unconvincing boyfriend. Everything that follows pulls her back and forth between her own damaged self and society’s dangerous lure. The commotion at the stock exchange where her mother gambles for extra money, her flirtations with the endearingly soulless character played by a young, gorgeous Alain Delon—the things her character receives from society are difficult and ambiguous. All she can do is dip her foot into it and then turn away.

At the stock exchange, a minute of silence interrupts the proceedings: the finance community is mourning the passing of a colleague. Everyone is matter of fact about it: to stop trading is to waste money, and yet they remain dead quiet for the whole minute, which Antonioni depicts unflinchingly, in its entirety. Delon tells Vitti that they have to mourn the dead guy, sure, but a minute costs billions. The minute ends, and the crowd roars back into action. Antonioni is being very even-handed in his judgement of people here. They’re crass, of course. But perhaps they’re also capable of some sort of collective inspiration? Then again, maybe not, since Antonioni compels Vitti to go ridiculously out of her way to try to be someone else, someone whose life (a privileged life, yes, but a monk’s wouldn’t be much different) isn’t entirely predicated on belonging to the crass, greedy society of the city and the stock exchange.

We tend to make fun of these “existentialists.” Reactions to their existentialism, which seems to cripple its protagonists, usually turn the table on Antonioni’s insight by arguing that we must find a way to connect. But when no part of you exists outside society, everything that happens in your life can be repossessed by a column in a lifestyle magazine. What Antonioni tried to show us was that there is no part of society that isn’t obscene.

That same day, around 7:30 PM, I had to pick up a bag of limes from another friend. Limes—for my Zombies and Last Words—are the one thing I have a hard time finding online, and my friend hasn’t stopped shopping at the farmer’s market. Every new batch makes me wonder if I’ll still be able to find them in a world whose economy will be upended. Where are limes from, anyway? What if Italy becomes a lime country as our weather gets more tropical? These inane thoughts make me feel that, somewhere behind the thick curtain of my brain’s God-given ability to avoid the big picture, perhaps I do know what the stakes are after all.

The friend with the limes lives with two other people I used to see every day in the coworking space where we spent our days. She had just returned from a stroll when I met her outside her house. I had parked the car illegally at a narrow intersection of two alleys, a sloppy maneuver fueled counterintuitively by the awareness that I had no legal reason to be there—myself, that is, not my car.

There’s a small, triangular yard at the foot of the four-story building where these friends live on the ground floor. The yard is cluttered and has a strong personality. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel like all your plans are too ironed out and well defined, that the best way to live is just to cram things and people into one magical looking space with a hammock and a square wooden table that seems to host all sorts of invisible lifeforms without ever really looking dirty.

All three of my friends were maskless. One of them was sitting like a king between the two entrances to the living room, the other was busy working on stuff, maybe a piece of furniture, I forget. The lack of access to all the data from the body odors, the sweat, the impalpable tears from exhaustion, and the spit that emerges in the midst of laughter is giving a strange quality to these encounters. My friend who bought the limes said that we looked like four people each in their own universe. It’s as if our four distinct looks had managed to unglue themselves from the picture of what we constituted as a community. We could only be processed as people apart from one another, moons on different orbits.

I stayed by the entrance to the yard and didn’t venture any further. I had brought a jar with a couple of Negronis in it in exchange for the limes. They offered me a drink but I declined. I realized that by being so fastidiously masked—I still had my sunglasses on, even though the sun had set—I looked ill at ease, like I didn’t belong in this new world, which requires a lot of good energy to navigate. I didn’t want to take off my mask and glasses, which is what I would have had to do to have a drink. I told them that this was my first day of going out. I was trying it out to see if I could manage, and it had already been a lot to take in. I was handed the bag of limes and left.

Sitting in my car it was as if the old feeling was back and intact, the suspicion that, however I respond to reality’s demands, I will always feel like there’s something incorrect and unbalanced in my actions.

The third outing was prompted by bad news. A few days after our first walk, my best friend texted me to say that he’d been “fired.” The word “fired” was a knowing joke. His job is shadowed by constant uncertainty and he has no meaningful contract. The people he works for, like the people I work for, operate under the tenet that they owe you nothing—and certainly not a livelihood. Their employees are interchangeable parts of a machine that creates a product for people that can pay for it.

We went back to the Zone and met halfway, where a sequence of very short bridges gives way to a bend in the road, and then another, and then another. Three rail lines converge underneath, the aqueduct looms over everything, and the sloppy architecture of the projects just ahead seems completely out of place. The landscape is bright and complex, bringing to mind the busy activity of Piranesi’s etchings. Our conversation revolved around the newspeak his bosses were using to let him and the others go. The thing is, they were not telling them to go—they were asking them to wait. We agreed that waiting is what we’ve been doing since 2008, that the crisis had only sped up the waiting.

The rage helped me forget the virus, and I was able to engage fully in the conversation. But the first real sign of normalcy happened only after we said goodbye, when I stumbled into another friend who was also on her way back from a walk.

This friend walks twice a week, wears a mask, and has to pay frequent visits to her ill mother on the other side of the city. She only has one lung, so she’s the most careful person in our circle when it comes to keeping at the right distance. She lost part of her income—from a second, seasonal job—but her landlady told her not to worry about the rent. She has been walking in the Zone since the beginning of the lockdown, because she couldn’t afford to go crazy or let her immune system get too weak.

She comes to see us in our yard from time to time, always safely positioned in a distant corner, a glass of wine in hand, a fun presence, incapable of posing, always engaged in conversation but in that way of Romans, where you’re not too eager to talk, either.

“When I started coming here for my strolls, I was alone,” she said. We laughed at the way this made the Zone walks sound like a fad.

There were two police cars idly patrolling the street where she lives. We split up and I crossed the street. I was also close to home, and we kept talking. “What do we say if they stop us?” I asked.

“Ha, we say that we live here!”

They rolled by without stopping.

This account has left me deflated and tired. Writing all this has shown me that the only highlights of the recent events—the aspects I’m holding onto because they’re worth remembering—are these haiku interactions. After this temporary suspension of social life, I will have to go back to a place where people are ambiguous; where entire groups handle you gracelessly, rather than the occasional careless individual human out for their own cautious walk. In the near future, friends will again be ruthless with you in the presence of others, leveraging their more normal reactions against yours, even as they shapeshift into entirely different people when you hang out one on one.

Deserto Rosso (1964) takes place in a rich, industrial town in the north of Italy that seems utterly depleted of life. Monica Vitti walks around the town, and every time she meets an organized group of people, they’re nuts. It’s ridiculous. There’s only one alternative to the insanity: the glimpses of the sad, moral autonomy Vitti exerts.

I can’t stay home forever, but I don’t really want to go back to that. During the pandemic, I’ve escaped group chats because they’ve started to feel like normal society reasserting itself, and now that I’m not a part of society, the chats feel particularly violent. What I realize is that I’ve always felt that their dynamic is violent and obsessed with power, even when all the participants are at their best. My God, maybe that’s what’s normal, and I’m not, but then that’s precisely my conundrum. I’ve never had a chance to take such a long time off before, and I’m not sure I can stand participating in that circus all over again.

My fourth outdoor adventure is a good example of what I’m talking about. It’s not evidence, it’s just a sample of where I’m at.

One of the friends with the triangle-shaped yard turned 40 the other day, and I wanted to show up with a gift and my birthday wishes. I get to the house with my gift, and there are eight people in the yard. They’re all people I’m fond of and have known for over a decade, and obviously I haven’t seen them in a while. They look gorgeous—so much flesh and skin, so many eyes and hands and butts and smiles—but I’m taken aback because none of them is wearing a mask. None of them except the person I consider the looniest member of our coworking space—along with me, for similar reasons. It’s the two of us, plus her partner.

The others are easygoing. They’re naturally distanced—I mean, they’re not trying hard, and actually I don’t think it’s the right distance. They make jokes about their spatial situation with their gorgeous human lips and funny hand gestures. Writing about it brings me back to that long, exhausting party in La Notte, where nothing major really happens. But it’s there, and it takes up as much time as it does, because Antonioni wants you to know that those people—high society—are corrupt. I feel the same sense of mystery and dread here, even though it’s not even dark yet, and this party’s not as crowded or flamboyant.

When I called the masked friend the looniest just now, I have to admit I didn’t mean that in a good way. We are the two most difficult people at the coworking space. She’s an artist. We are the tense ones, the clunky ones, the ones who always have the loudest or most unnatural reactions to things. I throw tantrums and am petty, she’s also petty and rubs people the wrong way. Just to give you an idea, the first two things she says to me when we see each other that evening are, “Oh, you do exist,” and, “I thought it would feel weirder to see you again. No, it’s fine.” I have my own version of that vibe, I know where it comes from. Nothing ever comes naturally to us, except maybe when we’re performing at work.

And so here I am, stuck at the same entrance, standing like I did for the first two months of kindergarten, when I couldn’t bring myself to go and sit and play with the other children and I just stood at the door for weeks until I felt it was time and finally started playing with the other children. That was when I first began dealing with the world, and I haven’t stopped since. Then, six weeks ago I had this unexpected break and now I have to get used to the world for only the second time since that slow start at that very patient Montessori school.

I leave my gift somewhere safe and refuse a drink. I claim I’ve already had a couple at home, so I’ve already done my celebrating. It feels wrong not to toast my friend, and yet I can’t do otherwise.

My artist friend gets up and leaves the party soon after I arrive. Like me, she never seems comfortable unless she’s very drunk. She has a way of using her adorable partner of many years as a smiling, sexy shield. They’re gone, and I’m still at the small metal door at the entrance.

I’m sure that if she and I were forced to explain our decision to wear masks it would come out somehow nasty and belligerent.

This is what society is for me, and why I don’t miss it. There are people I love or at least like at the party. But whatever they do, I don’t feel that what I do has a place—unless, that is, I throw a tantrum or freak out and then leave, which is not the same thing as having a dialogue and negotiating emotions and conflicts.

These eight or ten people who are having a party are the mean, the average. They smile affectionately at my inability to take my mask off and celebrate, but I feel I cannot argue my position. What if this is all there is to it, to the kind of life I’ve temporarily lost?

One of my closest friends, also in that circle but absent from the party, has excused himself because his mother is very ill and he doesn’t want to risk catching the virus, since he has to help her navigate the city’s hospitals. The birthday boy’s reaction on the phone is interesting. “Hey man,” he says to my close friend, “you’re the only person who’s excused.”

I see something so subtle, a toxic quality so finely diluted, in the expectation that is at the core of this reaction. It’s something that has surfaced in the unique circumstance of this quarantine, so I’m writing blindfolded, I’m feeling my way around things, I’m not sure what I’m saying, I’m only leaving a trail for future analysis.

My friend, the one with the sick mother, must have sensed that something invisibly violent was going on in the weird contingency of the response. If the birthday boy had replied, “Hey man, of course, don’t give it a second thought, I love you, take care,” the message would have been clear, unambiguous, loving. But the reply was totally ambiguous, totally unclear. It conveyed—and this is only the way I feel things, I’m not saying it’s the truth—the poison that I detect in so many interactions that center on some collective thing—in this case a party, where one person risks not doing the average right thing.

Somehow the phrasing had both instantiated and enforced a rule, as if on this particular night a new norm for a new kind of occasion—a party in quarantine—had been discovered. A unique predicament, a friend with an ill mother, became one instance among many, and a norm was asserted even though we didn’t need one, so that my friend’s specific situation could be salvaged only by creating the exception. But if he hadn’t made it sound like a norm, he wouldn’t had needed to create the exception.

The difference is so subtle I fear I’m making it up. But what if a society is nothing more than this—this continuous, neurotic, careless creation of norms for everything we do? And what if I can’t stand the thought of going back?

April 21, 2020

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