Widowhood Exercises

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When Ilaria Martini began to suspect that her husband was cheating on her, she decided to convince herself that he had tragically disappeared in a car accident.

Without any explanation, from one day to the next, he entrenched himself in an inexplicable and somber silence, interspersed only by the laconic repetition under his breath of the words, “He died. My husband died and left me alone“.

In the first few moments, however, that thankless task was not at all easy for her: the man was constantly pressing her and, unable to understand the reasons for her behavior, kept asking her how she was doing health-wise and whether anything had happened to upset her in that way. But unfortunately, despite repeated attempts, the responses he received were always only inarticulate grumbles and fleeting glances, nothing more. Day after day, engineer Franco Paoletti, an upstanding man who had never betrayed his wife, then began to think that this once so tenacious woman had suddenly lost her mind, becoming tragically unable to rationally communicate what was going on in the depths of her spirit.

One evening, after a tough day’s work, tired but decidedly more tried by worry, having finished dinner, he took her by the arm and asked her to sit on the sofa with him, “What is happening to you, Ilaria?” he asked her with an even pleading attitude.

The woman stared into her void for several moments, letting her husband’s eyes try to catch a glimpse of light in the depths of that misty tunnel; then, inexplicably, she burst into tears.

Woman crying over her lover's betrayal

What’s wrong with you?” cried the engineer as his helplessness grew. “Why are you crying now?

He got no response other than that eloquent expression of discomfort. The wife got up slowly and headed for the bedroom, interspersing her dragging steps with a sob that told her strange stories in an unfamiliar language.

Paoletti spent the night obsessively thinking the worst: “She’s sick…” he kept repeating to himself, mixing sleep and wakefulness. “And he doesn’t have the strength to tell me. There can be no other explanation…“.

The following day, having arrived at the office with difficulty, before starting his duties despite himself, he decided to call the family doctor: “Doctor,” he exclaimed in the trembling tone of one who is about to give in under the weight of fatigue “If misfortune has happened to my wife, she must tell me. Hiding the truth from me is completely unnecessary, although I realize that you have a professional secret to protect. But put yourself in my shoes–a husband has a right to know!

“Of course, engineer…” replied the doctor patiently, accustomed by now to the eccentricities of his arteriosclerotic patients. “But I don’t know what he is talking about. I met his wife a few weeks ago, and she was healthy. What are you concerned about? Has anything happened in the last few days?

The answer was at the same time both a relief and more reason to justify his concern: “But then…” stammered the man with the handset still in his hand. “I don’t understand why. Is it so strange? I don’t understand…

On the other end, the doctor did not know what he could answer and, fearing that his client was confused due to overwork, tried to impose his peremptoriness: “Engineer, please, I have many patients in the clinic… If you have something to say, do it; otherwise, leave me to my work. If nothing has happened to your wife, I can assure you that your concern is completely misplaced“.

Sure, sure…” muttered the man, putting the phone back down. “But then, what’s the matter with her? What?” and let himself go slumped over the desk as if he wanted to indulge in a sleep capable of exempting him from experiencing that incomprehensible reality for a while.

Still deep in thought, like a fly inside a closet, Engineer Paoletti was summoned by his office manager for a particular assignment. The company management had decided to send one of its officers to a postgraduate course in Prague, and the choice, after several requests and waivers, had fallen on a person with a strong aptitude for learning.

After hearing his superior’s enthusiastic words, the unarmed and tired man stammered a few syllables as he crinkled his eyes, “Yes, of course, doctor–I will go.”

The office manager squared him without answering: in front of him, he saw a hallucinated man, lost in who knows what maze of images and thoughts. He stood surprised for a few seconds and even regretted having recklessly flagged him for that assignment.

Paoletti,” he suddenly exclaimed, “But she is not well!

Me?” replied the engineer as mechanically as a tape recorder. “No, no… I’m fine, don’t worry.”

There was another interval of mutual observation, and then, begrudgingly, the office manager, raising his tone of voice a bit, told him, “Agreed. Then collect the tickets from the secretary and pack your luggage this afternoon. The plane leaves early in the morning. I’m sure this experience will also help her relieve some stress….

Paoletti nodded and took his leave like a whipped dog.

How merciless fate can be with the one who, more than anything else, wishes to remain to contemplate the minute detail of a painting while the loudspeaker announces that the museum is closing! To turn away at that moment, though liberating, appeared like a devilish act, an invisible oxen goad constantly aimed at its victim.

Right now!” he thought as he fell back into the chair. “And who knows what will happen during my absence…”

After another troubled night, he heard the alarm clock with relief the following day. He got up without making too much noise, went to the kitchen for a quick breakfast, and began preparing for the trip. He had communicated that sudden commitment to Ilaria the night before, but the effect had been to hear the echo of her voice confirm the loneliness into which he had sunk.

As he closed his suitcase and put on his coat, he saw his wife enter the bathroom. He approached the door and waited. He longed to greet her more than anything else and then to feel greeted, observed in her eyes, desired, but as he had not in years, he was invaded by an almost religious modesty.

I will kiss her as soon as she comes out. One should not expect answers for that…” he thought.

A few minutes passed. Paoletti looked worriedly at his watch: he was in danger of being late. He felt panic rise from his stomach to his head and drew a trembling hand closer to the walnut door that separated him from that incomprehensible universe.

Now determined to knock, he listened for a moment for his heart to speed up, but as soon as his eyes returned to point to that insulting expanse of wood, he heard the rush of water from the shower. Ilaria wished no farewell. Disappointed and bitter, he picked up his suitcase and left behind a house filled only with muffled shadows.

As soon as the security door emitted its dull signal to leave, the woman turned off the faucet and exited the bathroom. The empty apartment reassured her, but as soon as she entered the living room to recline on the sofa, she realized she was at the mercy of the absurd: whose departure had she so eagerly awaited?

Franco is dead!” he thought as he observed a painting purchased a year earlier from a junk dealer in the Old Town. “He died. Do you want to convince yourself?” she repeated like a madwoman.

Yet she knew that that intimation addressed to herself was only a spur that had already failed. Was Engineer Paoletti considered a dead man to be mourned or instead as a faithless husband? He suddenly remembered the words he heard the night before: “Ilaria, tomorrow I have to leave for a business trip to Prague. The company chose me to participate in a weeklong course. I am sorry to leave at this time, but I could not refuse. I hope you understand…

Of course, what the woman should have realized was precisely the confirmation of her initial fear: her husband was shamelessly cheating on her with another woman and even leaving with her while pretending to work.

He has a mistress,” she shouted. “He told me! Yes… He confessed it to me right before he died! And I, not to tire him out, told him not to worry-what an idiot I was!

So the man had died under the weight of a most grievous wrong, and she had magnanimously made him believe that she had forgiven him, although, in her heart, she harbored a deep hatred that not even that excruciating death could dispel.

But then, why fear it? Why was she trying so hard to avoid meeting him and not to hear those plaintive words?

“It is the memory,” she exclaimed, nodding as if someone was before her. “Every widow continues to think of her husband as still being there, and this is also happening to me. It will pass, as it happened to Aunt Lucia, the poor woman. I still remember her crying in my mother’s arms….

Reassured by that semblance of certainty, she paced up and down the apartment. He entered each room, opened the closets and drawers, went out to the balconies, and returned. Emptiness surrounded her. A void overflowing with memories, objects, and clothes, but still a void, an absence that only she could fill again.

He got dressed and went out for a walk. The air was fresh and immediately sharpened her senses; everything looked different and new, and even the sad pallor of the morning sky gave her the intoxication of serenity. He crossed the street and took a long avenue parallel to the alley where he lived.

People moved fast; mostly, mothers were driving their children to school, and office workers were hurrying to their workplaces. She stopped in front of a bar; usually, she never went in, but that morning, she felt driven by the need to do the very thing her previous life had precluded her from doing. Although trivial, that gesture filled her with confidence. He ordered coffee and a croissant, sat down, and began flipping through a newspaper on the coffee table.

After five minutes, which seemed like an eternity, she paid and left the premises. She walked quickly among people moving in the opposite direction: each time she passed one, she felt lighter, even joyful. A van selling vegetables and fruits passed by and came to the small space before a modern church. He came to a screeching halt as if he had run straight into an invisible wall. Just in front of the front door was a long hearse, surrounded by three floral wreaths and a group of people waiting for the body to enter the church.

Yeah… The funeral,” he thought as he ran a hand through his wind-tousled hair. “How was Franco’s funeral? Were there a lot of people? And what words had the priest spoken before blessing the coffin for the last time?

With those questions in mind, he walked through the small crowd toward a plant and flower stall. She stared at an orchid that seemed to bow in reverence and, without fully realizing it, wondered what it felt like to accompany one’s husband to the cemetery.

“It must be like the strange feeling that invaded me just now,” he thought as he moved slowly along a completely bare stretch of sidewalk. “Yes, I am sure of that. It has to be just like that”.

Yet something still didn’t add up. He tried to imagine the scene: she was sitting in the first pew, inches from the catafalque, surrounded by yellow roses, hyacinths, and chrysanthemums. All around friends, relatives, unknown people. In the background, standing between two columns, even her late husband’s mistress. He saw her perfectly: she was tall, with long brown hair, and wearing a dark dress hidden by the folds of a black coat.

That must have been what that damned man’s mistress was like!” he thought, gritting his teeth. “As if I were any less! But now, who is in the front row? Who should weep and show sadness and desolation? Who? You? No — of course not! She is at the back, serene and eyeing other men to attract!

Gripped with anger, she quickened her pace and reached a large intersection, beyond which stood a bridge over the railroad tracks. She began to move toward it, determined to cross it and continue her walk on the other side when she noticed that to her right was the spartan storefront of a funeral home.

He approached slowly as if it were a snarling dog. There was nothing flashy beyond a few signs, a couple of phone numbers, and an ample, half-empty space. In the main room was a desk, some gilded lamps, and, in front, perhaps more for lack of space than fundamental necessity, a mahogany coffin whose sophisticated ivory satin upholstery was shown.

Ilaria watched that scene in silence, entirely dominated by the symbolic power of the images. Then, fixing his gaze on a brass handle, he thought, “This is my fate—widow with an empty coffin. I could even arrange a funeral, have people come, and ask a priest to speak words of comfort, but both I and my husband’s lover would certainly know that we are only burying a void. What tears can be shed for an absence that evades even death? Which ones?

The idea of betrayal had become, in fact, an actual exercise in widowhood: the thought experiment of a woman who had convinced herself that she had lost the exclusivity that made herself the only object capable of ending her husband’s incompleteness.

What is the difference between a widow and a betrayed woman?” she asked herself, frightened by the emptiness evoked by that scene so bare and aseptic. “A widow embraces that sense of emptiness she longed to awaken in her husband’s very soul, that emptiness which, given to her lover, creates an indissoluble attraction but which held for itself reveals the features of death. Such and such…” He cast his gaze back to the few objects present. “…Such is the squalor of this environment. There is not even a picture on the walls: only a table, two chairs, and a few memorial objects of the deceased. A widow is truly a woman betrayed! Betrayed and humiliated by this space rendered mute by an emptiness never accepted.”

He swayed on his legs, feeling the morning chill celebrate his mood. He closed his eyes. He thought. He shuddered but did not resolve to open them again. In the darkness, his loneliness had found meaning.

When the engineer Paoletti, unaware of her fate, had decided to cheat on her, Ilaria was still a desirable woman, full of vitality, attentive to every need: a desirable wife, according to him. Why, then, that slap? Without explanation, without any reason, Franco, a consistently calm and thoughtful man, had become a piece of ice. Gloomy, eager only to escape: “…as for his last trip to Prague…” thought the woman, dramatically excluded from that well-deserved enjoyment.

He took his eyes off the window and looked again at the gleaming bridge under a white-stained sky. He tried to push forward but realized he no longer wanted to push past it. She turned around, as tired as if she had walked every possible street in Rome, and cautiously began to head home. She passed by another bar, more welcoming than the one she had entered. He peered inside almost as if he feared that his life’s despoliation was also being staged there. A couple of patrons were sitting at a small table and chatting quietly; behind the counter, a young man in a white jacket with a bored look was flipping through a subway newspaper.

No!” said Ilaria under her breath, returning to stare at the uneven surface of the sidewalk.

That world did not belong to her. She even felt rejected. He tried to quicken his pace despite feeling his ankles as heavy as cinder blocks and returned home just before eleven o’clock.

That same evening, thousands of miles away, Engineer Paoletti, not at all attracted by the content of the lectures but governed by an internal struggle of thoughts, began to suspect that his wife no longer loved him and that perhaps she even had another man. When the first session of the course was over, he freed himself from colleagues who wished to involve him in goliardic activities and decided to be alone to finally try to understand what was going on in the turmoil of his life.

He doesn’t dare to tell me that he wishes to leave me,” she thought as she let the icy wind gusts into the hall lash her. “…And maybe he thinks that entrenching himself in that silence is the most elegant way to ask me to step aside…”

Leaving the hotel shortly after sunset, he headed for Staré Město, a place frequented by residents and tourists even during winter evenings. The narrow streets were lit up by the windows of typical restaurants, where people of all sorts consumed rich dishes accompanied by rivers of beer. He imagined himself there with Ilaria, standing still in front of the menu displayed by the door of a diner, trying to figure out what was right for them. He noticed a few young couples behaving just like that, observed them with anger and disappointment, and then, seized by a surge of rebellion, opened the door of the first tavern before him and entered without a second thought.

The place retained the typical features of old Prague and exuded the warmth that can only be felt in contrast to the cold of the street. He felt refreshed momentarily and asked for a single place to have dinner. He tried to forget that woodworm that was attracting his attention. They gave him a sheltered but sound overview table, to the right of which rose a long mirror across the wall. He accepted by smiling at the blond waitress and ordered dinner.

As he was finishing his meal, observing his reflection in the mirror, he noticed that he was the only customer alone, “I wonder why,” he thought, “in certain restaurants, there are only people in the company–perhaps to mark the loneliness of the clueless even more emphatically. Or because when you are alone, you see others united in a group….

Yet Engineer Paoletti was not precisely “alone”: he had a beautiful wife, and if it had not been for that initially absurd behavior, he might have been in the company of his colleagues at that moment, perhaps planning to return in the future to those very places with his life partner.

But the woman in whom he had placed all hope had not only blatantly decided to cheat on him but was no longer even willing to argue with him, explain her reasons, and perhaps even question them in light of her husband’s fidelity.

He exited the restaurant and returned to soak in the frozen air of the street. They would start early the next day, but Paoletti was not sleepy and even feared falling asleep to avoid finding, when he woke up, the communication of even worse news.

He left Staré Město and walked with other tourists to the mouth of the world-famous Charles Bridge. The Vltava River flowed slowly and even seemed to stand still at times. Paoletti approached the parapet and paused to observe the lights of Malá Strana, which were not shining far away. The undisturbed flow of the river brought to his mind the Gospel account, where Jesus rebuked the apostles who had feared for their safety during a storm in the sea. He, too, perhaps less realistic than Peter, had lain down in a boat carried by the currents and fallen asleep because he considered Ilaria the only certainty that could make sense of any other reality. He had hoped until that moment to be his wife’s thoughts, but the force of the waves in his life had been far more peremptory than the vacuous words of a sleepy messiah.

He walked onto the bridge among small groups of people, watching some simple sights and couples holding hands, counting the few stars visible in the sky. Every fifty meters, there was a statue with a religious character: he observed them all, although the light was poor, and the shadows lulled his tired eyes.

He had the impression that that nation, once so oppressed by the most boorish communism, instead retained a spiritual soul that went far beyond parades and proclamations and that that bridge, a symbol of the connection between two different realities, was consecrated, step by step, by the very often sad story of saints and martyrs, just like those rebels who during the Prague Spring they had understood how strange the features of freedom were.

Equality, so much hailed by the theorists of communism, was almost as worn and ragged as that born of the sham wealth of capitalism: only those saints, through their mute and cold effigies, testified, like the faces of Caravaggio, the possibility of a path above the convulsive swirl of passions and obtuse ideas, a path that, perhaps by a fortunate chance, united the old city precisely with the most modern neighborhood, as if to testify that if a man could move forward, it was only because in that motion the most profound meaning of events was slowly but ceaselessly revealed.

He tightened his coat lapels and continued walking toward the modern district. The air was damp and pungent, but Paoletti was now committed to reaching the other side of the river as if that passage represented a symbolic rite to forget what was happening to him. Yet in his soul, he felt an inexplicably sadistic and voracious grip: as soon as he stretched out his leg in an outburst of liberation, he saw before him the vivid image of his wife who, in silence just like the statues that lined the bridge, spoke to him, without remorse or transport, of his inescapable fate.

Why?” he asked himself, quickly realizing how pointless that question was.

Immediately, a voice from his depth thundered: “Never mind. It will pass… You know these things also pass….

But I want to understand!” protested the more rational Paoletti. “At least I wish to know the reasons for his betrayal. What happened? Was it me who neglected her, or perhaps she found another man who made her forget she was married?

No response came, and silence again took center stage.

View of Prague, where the man goes after being suspected of treason

“It’s just like when you die,” Paoletti said to himself, feeling a twinge at the stomach level. “As long as one is alive, others may go against our will, but freedom always allows a response. When one is dead, however, no — when one is dead, one’s remains, one’s memory, all that belonged to us, become silent commodities. The missing person, who knows, sees everything from another plane, but for others, including those who say they loved him, he is simply no more… His screams can only attract a very long, echoless silence…

He approached a familiar-looking statue: a representation of the Pieta with Mary supporting the lifeless body of Jesus and, behind her, St. John, Mary Magdalene, and a large crucifix. He oversaw her, but his gaze was constantly drawn to that tortured body contemplated in its motionless divinity.

I don’t think Jesus Christ wished for mercy for himself,” thought Paoletti, and for a moment, mentally repeating the meaning of the INRI inscription, he could only see how bizarre and irrepressible fate was with the kings and queens of this world.

That man lying on the ground, his arms dangling and his head abandoned like a broken flower, was a far worse mirror of his conjectures. Ilaria was Mary, or perhaps even the Magdalene, infinitely distant from his pain but bending over him to show the whole world how much pity was kept in his betrayed heart.

“No!” he roared. “I don’t want any pity! And no funeral! I don’t want them to think of me as a derelict to whom they can say anything without expecting an answer! Not!”.

He approached the parapet and leaned down. The river stared at him, never tired of its monotonous life, spraying water like a blind priest with his aspergillum. It was now late at night in both Prague and Rome.

At that hour, Ilaria was perhaps asleep, turned on her side as she usually did, about to begin a dream that reality had always hidden from her: to have a real family, children, a big house, and a faithful husband who could give her the joys of everyday life.

But the truth was quite different: she had a congenital malformation of the uterus, and only a miracle could give her the pleasure of pregnancy. Franco knew this well, and from a father defrauded of his right, he had turned into a husband devoted only to the flat regimen of a fruitless life: an immense tree with no flowers, no seeds, no places of attraction for bees or spring wind gusts. But he did not complain; he had accepted that role and did his utmost to play it. Occasionally, he would observe other people’s children, fathers holding hands with children when they had to cross the street or chasing them through parks to get them home. He imagined himself in that role and smiled as if he were playing with his child, but in the end, he closed his eyes, thought of Ilaria, and went back to his activities as if nothing had happened.

Can such a plant then live by glorying only in itself? Perhaps in a world dominated by completeness, the absence of desire, the calmness that does not follow disorder but is everything simultaneously. Certainly not in a life impregnated with the stench of latrines and sordidly attached to a tiny shining fragment, as if it were the grandest and most perfect Colombian emerald. No, illusions were not for Engineer Paoletti, not even the most seductive ones. He preferred essence, whatever it was, bright as lava or black as oil, as long as it was always made of genuine substantiality.

There had indeed been a betrayal, although neither of them realized it and continued to believe in the improbable rather than the simplicity of events: the mutual renunciation of a role neither of them could believe was absolute.

Ilaria, who for once wished to shine in her light, and Franco, whom the years had made more challenging and complicated and more disillusioned and who, in his heart, still hoped he could wish without already knowing every line of the script entrusted to him by fate inside out.

On that bridge, flanked by statues commemorating virtues devoid of history, he had even considered looking for a prostitute to spend the night with. One saw plenty of them next to the luxurious hotel entrances, but each blonde, brunette, tall, petite, reminded him of Ilaria. Not the woman to whom he was married, but rather the flame that burned only to draw to itself breezes of fresh air, breezes that could stir up what was always about to go out in a long, silent snake of smoke.

I am therefore dead,” murmured Paoletti to a small wave rushing toward the sea, “A widower betrayed and also dead…”

Any timid lapping faded into darkness, and the moon dropped into the dried-up, tired arms of the last, scattered clouds.

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