The first thing she does is turn off the radio.
The sky is black outside the car. It oppresses things, it crushes them.
The young man turns the ignition key off, the engine falls asleep, and he breaks the silence as if it was the breadstick they both had decided to eat, that night.
«Do you always go out alone?», he asks her.
«No», she lies. She smoothes the edge of her skin-tight skirt.
«I haven’t even asked what your name is». The young man’s voice is thin like his hair. Laura looks at his hair, touches it, tries to focus on the details. These images are like handholds, she says to herself, I must strive to imprint them on my mind. I must create a picture in the night, in order to devote myself to it during the day.
«My name is Laura», she replies, but she can’t bend her tongue on the palate: her R is not linked to the other letters. So the word remains like that. Mutilated.
Laura snorts slightly from her nose, rests her head on the seat and closes her eyes. The world around her is swollen, it quivers like the inflated castles in the playground.
«Shall I take you home?», the young man is asking her from a distance. His voice hardly oversteps the whistle of a train, which cannot leave her head.
Laura wraps her smile like a present and gives it to him, opens her eyes and tries to look into his. She succeeds for just a few seconds. «No», she replies.
She unbuttons his trousers with her hand and bends over him.
Her moves are precise, she has no fear. She lifts her skirt up and let him catch a glimpse of her embroidered panties: it’s her welcome billboard. He closes his eyes, moves his head backwards, sneaks in under her sweater, slides his palms on her naked skin, exploring every part of it.
Laura receives his fingers inside her with a slow moan of pleasure, a sound she lets out by reflex: she feels nothing more than her wet sex. Her body has been sucked inside the black leather seats, inside that car smelling of new car smell, and not of sex; inside that young man with no name, with a pocket where she has put a sheet of paper with her number on it; inside her life, folded up again and again a thousand times, like a sheet of tissue paper. She takes off her panties, relaxes her arms, and paints that image in her mind.
The first thing she perceives is the cold on her nape.
It’s as if somebody had put her head into a freezer. That’s why she wakes up.
She stretches her hand out to switch her bedside table lamp on, but she pulls it back at once. She prefers the dark. Darkness shelters her and she feels protected.
She takes away the towel she has placed on her pillow before going to sleep. It’s wet with her sweat, as happens every night. She gets up from the bed to put it into the washing machine and takes a clean one from the drawer of the wardrobe.
The house is full of those buzzes one can hear only at night: a feeble whistle from behind the fridge, the unceasing breath from her pc, still functioning on the table, a drop falling in the sink, Ray’s low breath, peacefully sleeping on the rug at the foot of her bed. She bends on her knees to pet him and enjoy the softness of his white hair. Suddenly, the puppy turns, and then starts to sleep again.
Barefoot, she walks into the kitchen, sits at the table and lights a cigarette. From the window, lamplight filters in and falls on her naked feet. There’s an almost empty vodka bottle on the kitchen shelf. Again, she stretches her hand and then pulls it back. She sighs.
With the cigarette in her mouth, she leans back in her chair in order to reach the fridge. She opens it and the light makes her eyes close. It takes a few seconds before she gets used to it and is able to look inside: on the shelves half-eaten food left on the dishes is mixed up with fruit juice bottles, an uncorked milk carton, and an open yogurt pot. Laura takes the yogurt pot and places it on the table. She closes the fridge door, but then she re-opens it and takes out something more: a dried up piece of cheese, a lasagne dish, a salad bag, the milk carton. She puts everything in front of her on the table, and starts eating, following no order. In the other room Ray is whining.
She takes a bite out of the cheese and keeps on chewing until she can swallow it. She dips her hand into the salad bag. She has never tasted anything so flavourless. The lasagne is buttery: they remind of her the cubic, three-layer chocolate candies her grandma used to bring her from Turin. She grabs the milk carton and drinks: a small white dribble of milk runs along her throat. She tries to stop it with her hand but, anyway, it drenches her t-shirt. Therefore, she pushes the chair to her right and tilts it towards the worktop to take a paper towel, but one of the chair legs slides, the chair falls down, taking her body with it to the ground.
She remains in place: down on the ground. She is sure that her right shoulder will hurt slightly tomorrow. Nothing bad. Nothing, really. Just a slight pain in her right shoulder.
She hears Ray’s paws (now he’s awake) pattering on the floor. He runs to her, sniffs her, then licks her milk-soaked t-shirt. Laura crouches to drive him off, and he quickly climbs on another chair and ends up licking the scraps on the table.
Laura thinks about her shoulder. Nothing bad, really. Nothing bad.
A group of people walk in the street, a cell phone rings.
The first thing she sees is Alessio sitting at her desk.
He still has his jacket on and the briefcase at his feet.
Laura looks carelessly at the watch.
The other girls are already at their posts, sitting, their heads down, looking intently at the keyboards.
We have to talk it over, he says.
Laura nods and follows him into his room. She already knows what he will say to her, and the very words he will use to say that to her. She has been waiting for it for days.
He takes two only steps, and is soon behind the mahogany desk. She stops in the exact centre of the room, on a yellow-black silk flower of the Nain rug, uncertain whether to sit or to keep standing. She concentrates upon the design around her shoes while Alessio starts talking. His voice reaches her off and on, overlapping the Far East images.
…you’re always late…
I cannot justify you with the other girls…
…and please stop with that crap you’re drinking!
…I don’t care what you do out of here, but…
You need some rest…
…it will do you good.
Laura lets her eyes wander through the room. She places them on the plants in the corners, on the shelves where the invoice registers and the sales journals of the company are kept, on the picture of Alessio and his wife Elena, in plain sight at his shoulder. She sees everything for the first time. However, she cannot move her legs. They are vanishing, sucked into the precious geometry at her feet.
Alessio is asking her something that Laura cannot understand. He’s holding her hand. It’s a well-groomed hand. The hand of a man who looks after himself. He has big nails, flat and even. Laura wonders what the face of the woman who files those nails is like. How old she is and if she is married. She wonders if sometimes he gets her into bed. If he puts his hands under her apron. If he takes off her shoes. If he kisses her feet. She wonders if she closes her eyes, while he’s kissing her. If she likes when he makes her turn around and takes her hips by force to enter inside her. If she cries when she’s coming, and lets him close her mouth not to be heard by the clients in the next room.
I need something to drink, she thinks. But, perhaps, she says it out loud, because Alessio hands her a paper cup full of water.
A phone is ringing from a nearby office. Laura lets her mind go. She thinks of Vale. She remembers her sister’s face on Saturday evenings, when they went together to disco clubs, when disco clubs were still the only place to meet young men and to make out with them on the dirty blue couches near the entrance. Vale with her hair swept back to expose her forehead and the kohl pencil lines, traced almost up to her temples. Vale before going in, changing her sneakers with high-heeled shoes stolen in a downtown shop. Vale taking a plastic bottle of vodka from her handbag – «I took that from the cupboard in the living room» -, and holding her finger on her crimson lips. Vale telling her that sooner or later Mom will kill her, if she realizes that she always comes back home without her panties. She remembers herself laughing and tracing another even more crooked line on her eyes. And again, with the same pencil, writing their home number on the toilet wall.
Like soft tentacles, the silk flowers under her shoes rise up to her ankles: they call her to the darkest corner of the design, luring her to disappear.
Alessio pats her on the shoulder. He takes her chin and kisses her. It’s a taste she knows. She recoils, but then she starts undressing. Her hands are sweaty.
«Not now», he whispers in her ear. «A few days off will do you good. You’ll be better, trust me». He goes back behind his desk and bends over some sheets of paper. «Be back in a few days. You’ll be better», he repeats without lifting his head.
Laura raises her feet. The silk tentacles withdraw.
The first thing she remembers is the match.
She is going out of the coin-operated laundry. She has left the clothes in the washing machine and wants a cup of coffee. A woman passes with a lit cigarette. The smoke curling in the air.
She remembers the scratch on the rough box. The light blow of the expanding flame. The thin curl rising to the car ceiling.
Still with the laundry basket in her hands, she feels the sweat wetting her back and a sour gush in her palate. She goes back to find a seat. She’s alone in the small room; it may be 10 o’clock PM. Around her washing machine drums are spinning, glares are glowing from a screen on the wall, and the memory of the match gets wider and wider like a wine blot on a tablecloth.
Images always come out like that, suddenly, like a pain in her kidneys. A sound, a smell. And then the visions are blurred, like the scenes of the last film she saw or of the last book she read. But they are hers. She knows that. They are her own pictures melting into reality.
She stares at the naked bodies of the dancers moving in front of her. The television screen has no sound and the dancer in the middle opens her mouth, sending imaginary kisses, gently touching her breast. Her skin is so shiny that it seems wet.
It’s extremely hot in this car, she remembers she had thought, why the devil doesn’t he open the windows? Perhaps she even told him so. Perhaps.
The dancer turns around and bends forward.
«Nice dress», he tells her while he’s smoking. Laura had bought it that afternoon, the dress. On sale. Low price. It’s red, with a stripe on the breast and the hips. It makes her feel attractive. The man shakes the cigarette out of the window. «My wife doesn’t want me to smoke inside the car. For the children», he says.
The dancer strips off her trousers with her hand. She is in her skin-tight shorts now.
«We should go back home, now», Laura tells him, smiling. She still tastes the sickly flavour of the cocktails she has drunk during the evening with him. She tastes them on her tongue. She can’t smother a giggle.
«Your wife will be waiting for you».
He throws the cigarette away and puts his hands under her dress. He squeezes her boobs. It’s a quick and unexpected move.
The laundry basket falls from her hands. With her arm she pushes away the air before her breast.
The strength. Laura had always thought she was a strong woman. Every single Wednesday working out in the gym. Two flights of stairs with the shopping bags. She cannot free her wrists from the man’s grasp, and ask herself where her strength is. A haze falls down on her brain. She faintly pushes his head away with her elbows. She is shouting something. Or maybe she is not. She feels his fingers pulling the hem of her panties, and then the point of his hot dick. When he thrusts it inside, the pain in her belly leaves her breathless. He keeps on repeating a single phrase. He finds rhythm in his own words: you-asked-for-it-babe.
(You asked for it)
After a few minutes the vodka comes up and she pukes on her dress.
The washing machine drum starts to slow down. Her shirts, her jeans, her white lace panties are spinning around in the window.
The first slap doesn’t hurt her. Laura turns and sees that some of her puke has dirtied the car seat. With his hand, the man pushes her head against the blot. The sour smell penetrates her nostrils.
(My wife doesn’t want me to smoke inside the car. For the children)
The second slap hits her nape. It’s stronger than the other and wakes her up from her stupor. The pain burns her skin.
Then a breath of cool air on her arms, the car door opening.
(Your wife will be waiting for you)
He throws her out, on the wet night grass. He lights the dashboard controls. He drives away.
The washing machine window unlocks with a click. The wet clothes look at her, motionless and full of wrinkles.
The red lights of the car going away; the puke smell; the fresh grass under her; the moon, stained by the clouds, casting its light on her. She doesn’t know where she is. She doesn’t know who she is. All that she knows is that she doesn’t know.
No more dancer on the screen. Laura stands up and goes out.
The first thing she puts on is the red dress skin-tight to her hips, the one she bought on sale.
She finds it in the bathroom wicker basket, under four pairs of dirty socks and a striped silk pyjama.
She happens to glimpse her face: the dull pupils, the red line of her eyelids and the wrinkled line of her lips. From a drawer she takes out the lipstick tube and traces a line starting from the middle of her forehead down to her chin. The two halves of her face are like two pieces of a broken vase.
She goes into the bedroom, opens the wardrobe door and places herself before the mirror: the dress still has a dark blot on the right, and the fabric is harder in that point. It has a sour smell. She lays it out stretching the skirt with both hands.
From his kennel Ray is whining with his muzzle resting between the paws. A window in the building, perhaps in the nearby apartment, is slamming loudly. A motorbike starts moving, roaring.
She keeps a pair of poultry shears in her hand. The last time she used them to cut some cooked chicken meat, but she doesn’t remember how long ago. One month ago? One year ago?
She inserts them in the middle of her neckline, and cuts.
Her dress trickles down on her body like blood, it slides along her legs and covers her feet.
She takes the other dresses from the wardrobe, throws them on the bed, and puts them on, one by one. She savagely divides them all in two. Many halves of herself fall on the floor.
Every now and then the shears tear her skin. Her body is covered with red marks. One of these, just above her pubis, bleeds so much that it dirties her knees.
Ray starts barking. Laura’s eyes are empty. She passes her fingers on the marks of her skin, counting them like the rings of a tree, like the layers of the rocks. Like the years that have got out of hand.
The dog leaves his kennel and runs into the living room. She tries to free herself from the clothes at her feet, but she stumbles and falls down.
The telephone in the living room is ringing. Laura couldn’t say since when. She reaches the receiver. She picks it up and hangs up at once.
She stares at the white floor to see the red footprints she has left.