The Man Who Bounces Back

Barbara was a fish herself

Still from Vittorio De Seta’s Islands of Fire (1954).

The following is an excerpt from Francesco Pacifico’s The Women I Love, out today from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. On Wednesday, December 8 at 7 PM EST, join n+1 and McNally Jackson for a virtual discussion of the book between Pacifico and Alexandra Kleeman.

[It was hard for me to seriously confront my relationship because I’m a typical Italian who’s always got himself a steady, token girlfriend—guys like me are incapable of truly being alone and analyzing our own emotions.

My friend Francesco insists that in novels by real men, from Philip Roth to Edoardo Nesi (only the best), the man must endure a woman’s incomprehensibility, as if this were natural, just one of the ways life is unfair: for Francesco, these books don’t portray real relationships between men and women who know each other deeply. In these great male novels, men are restless, they make mistakes, they struggle, and the novel is a pinball machine where the women are bumpers that ring and light up when touched—they’re so striking, so crucial, that they seem like main characters, but they’re really only a function of the man’s little steel ball.

In spite of my own nearsightedness, I think I do know Barbara, and I have a relationship with her that I can describe, but in order to do this, I’d have to step outside of the mold of the man who makes mistakes, the man who bounces back.

On the other hand, there’s no saying that by leaving the safe path—which I’ve urged so many young writers to do, sending them off to study the masters—I’ll manage to land somewhere, in the unwritten androgynous literature that Woolf called for a century ago, but which, with the mystifying banality of prose, seems unattainable.]

Let’s take a look at her, let’s see if I can manage to get her down. In front of the lady at the fish counter, the loudspeakers announcing the store would be closing, she stood comically straight, something she’d learned from her mother, that you stand up straight when you order at a counter: “And the gilthead? Is it locally caught?”

Barbara was a fish herself: from nose to chest, she was completely rigid, cold, symmetrical, shoulders defined in her sleeveless, red-and-white striped shirtdress. The woman behind the counter, with her white coat and big, black eyebrows, held up a farm-raised gilthead, and after weighing it, slipped her fist inside the belly to rip out the guts, tossing them down the hole at the center of the filthy counter.

I asked Barbara: “You girls planning your Christmas trip?”

“Oh, sure. But we’re still waiting because Michi’s not sure when she has off.”

“Mm. I’d like to get out of town this year, too.”

She pretended to concentrate on the shop assistant, blurry in the fluorescent lights behind her, who was scaling the fish with a grater, gripping the fish under the water, shifting the hose. I knew Barbara was annoyed by what I’d said. She paused, then replied curtly, “Good idea. You should get away.”


“Go visit your cousin, maybe—he invited you.”

In the checkout line, she criticized me, saying that I was getting a late start, in her opinion.

The fish wrapped in blue paper proceeded down the conveyor belt, along with a bottle of wine, some bitter chocolate, not much else. “Can I kiss you?” I hugged her and gave her a kiss, which she seemed surprised by. I could taste her lip gloss. “Is that mint?”

“It’s something gross—from a guy at work because I’m always losing mine.”

I imagined this stranger kissing her. She was beautiful, and I wanted other men to think so.

While we walked up the street, headed back home with our bags, I said: “Where else could I go for vacation? Where are you all going?”

“You want to horn in on our trip?”

“Maybe. Me and all your girlfriends—we’d have a blast.”

“Right. You could go hide out somewhere with three manuscripts. You wouldn’t bother anyone.”

“Really? Could I?”

“Come on. What would you do—go find someone else to ‘work’ with, and you two ‘work’ together?”

“So where are you going?”

“Not sure yet. Lisbon, maybe. So how much time will you have to spend in Milan over the holidays?”

“Actually, I’m thinking I won’t go back between Christmas and Easter. Maybe not even after that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. I’m just joking.”

“Oh, sure. Joke all you want. You always make me sleep alone.”

I stopped, carefully set my two bags on the roof of a car, and hugged her, lifting her off the ground: “You’re right.” We started kissing warily.

Barbara’s mouth was dense, cool; her lips were chapped. When I set her back down, she looked me in the eye for a moment. A pack of rice and some zucchini dropped to the ground from one of the grocery bags. I told her: “What if you and I go away alone together, right now, and forget about Christmas? We won’t take time off.”

Her eyes shut down. I looked away; I squatted to pick up the fallen groceries. We started walking again, in silence.

By the time we opened the iron grid over the front door, I’d forgotten about her long silence; I filled the fridge, withdrew into the bathroom, turned on the fan, and put some music on my phone, because the bathroom door faces the bedroom.

Through the different sounds, I heard the bedroom door slam. I slowed down, kept sitting, listened to music, and after flushing, I washed myself with various cleansers, intimate, then facial, then a bar of soap for my armpits; before I left the bathroom, I put my shirt back on, cleaned my ears with a cotton swab.

I turned the key and looked in to find that the bed was suddenly unmade, and there was a wet blotch in the center. Barbara could cry quite a bit, and all at once. I felt my heart clench, and I didn’t know where to go. I turned—I was in the doorway—and I opened the closet: on the highest shelf, where we kept our suitcases, the red roller bag was missing. I stepped into the courtyard and looked toward the street. Her scooter was gone.

The red roller bag has a symbolic purpose. Barbara looks at it to remind herself that she’s free to escape whenever she wants. This isn’t the only manifestation of her restlessness toward domestic life: at dusk, for instance, I can’t lower the rolling shutters all the way, or she’ll feel like she’s suffocating. We don’t lower them fully until she goes to bed.

Anytime at all, she could fill her red roller bag with her miniature clothes and run off. She’d done that with me several times. Each time was quietly revelatory: her escape expressed distance, but also measured that distance. As though our relationship had developed in such a way that Barbara had the right to be seen leaving, to be grieved for.

When she did this, I’d pour myself a drink—tonight, a whiskey soda—and lie down on the bed. Two drinks later, I picked up my phone and started writing her loving texts. I thought it was fine for her to leave, though I insisted she tell me which of her friends she was staying with. All of a sudden I missed her voice, and called, but she didn’t answer.

I texted her that I had no problem with her staying overnight someplace else, it was fine.

She responded: “If you have no problem with me leaving, then why are we even together?”

“I like this about you—I like how you run away from home.”

There was something, I wrote, that made me still have hope for our ridiculous relationship.

She wrote that my texts cheered her up.

It was almost two in the morning, we’d been texting for hours and from my bed, through the window and wisteria leaves, beyond the grate and past the low wall, I saw the front of two cars parked herringbone-style on the empty, dead-end road. I geared up to get out of bed, shut the glass door, brush my teeth, or maybe eat something.

Now Barbara was more present than ever, and I was like a scientist grappling with antimatter, reflecting on that sense of absence and tenderness, that momentary clear-cut distance.

—Translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris

Excerpted from THE WOMEN I LOVE by Francesco Pacifico. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2018 by Francesco Pacifico. Translation copyright © 2021 by Elizabeth Harris. All rights reserved.

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