ţDahn Ben Amotz
Buon giorno Valentina
Translation copyrighted by Karen Alkalay-Gut
On one of the narrow streets not far from the Piazza di Spagna, is a tiny church where on my first visit to Rome when I was twenty-three, I met an extraordinary woman named Valentina.
It was in the Autumn, near evening. A fog had descended on the streets when I came to the Via del Babuino, after a long tour of the Villa Borghese. I was in love with Rome and every day I wandered in her streets wherever my feet took me. Gradually I came to know her body, but her soul had not yet been revealed.
And here in a deserted alley that I wandered into on an autumn evening, I saw her for the first time, the celestial Rome that I had searched for vainly in the city’s avenues. All her unexplainable aesthetics from medieval Christianity as it was sketched in my imagination from madrigals and books I had read - was revealed to me there in the house whose color was dark brown like the robes of the monks, in the locked garden gates, in the shutters shut as if against a plague, and in the yellow street lights which had been lit and emitted golden haloes in the wicked fog. Measured peals from a faraway church together with footsteps on the basalt pavement, counted the full weight of the silence.
I had already considered retracing my steps when I heard measured footsteps behind me. A woman who had emerged from the fog, came closer with quick determined steps. When she passed, she stopped, turned her face to me and said, “Buona Sera” in a soft and incredibly gentle voice. With two well-cared-for fingers, she raised her shawl from her white face, and when she recognized her mistake, turned the back of her neck to me and hurried away. I followed her to the little church in the corner of the alley and stopped by the entrance into which she had disappeared, debating whether to enter or return to the streets leading to the city. At last, perhaps because of the fog and the ringing bells, perhaps because of the woman’s large eyes, I went in.
We were the only ones in the church. I saw her cross herself while kneeling opposite the pale crucified one that hung in the middle of the altar, and return down the aisle past the empty pews. Her high heels on the marble floor echoed in the empty church. The velvet curtain at the entrance was steeped with the smell incense and age. I leaned against the raised fountain of holy water and watched the approaching woman. Now she will pass by me, I thought, go out the alley and be swallowed in the fog, and that will be the end of the story.
I couldn’t see her eyes through her veil but it seemed to me that she looked at me at least once before she came to the end of the aisle and bowed to prayer at the last pew, a few steps from me. Before she kneeled at the bench she spread a white handkerchief and folded up the train of her red dress slightly. Her legs were encased in taut black silk stockings. She rested her elbows on the rail holding her rosary in her hands and rested her forehead on them. She was the classical Roman beauty: her age, maybe thirty or forty.
I had seen a picture of this sort in black and red in some French novel. In my fancy’s confessional I found, more than once, women kneeling in empty churches, whispering prayers of lechery and lust in Latin.
I'll kneel down beside her, I said to myself, and slowly, slowly my arm will touch hers. She will close her eyes in prayer and my leg will touch hers. I’ll move my head closer to her, my lips will touch the nape of her heck and a tortured sigh will escape from within her.
My hand trembled in my coat pocket. I withdrew a cigarette, and when I lit a match the woman turned her head and looked at me. I blew out the match and hurriedly returned the cigarette to the package, but she continued to look my way. I thought that perhaps she saw something behind me, but no one stood in the entrance. We were alone in the deep silence. I could hear the whisper of her stockings rubbing against each other.
Strange, I thought when she went back to her prayers, why did she look at me for so long? If she just wanted to express her displeasure, she could have been satisfied with a single fleeting glance. And why did she whisper to me there, outside, “Buena Sera”? Did she really mistake me for someone else or was she trying to strike up a conversation? Perhaps she knows who I am and what I’m doing here?
In my wild imagination I saw her as a British agent following me and reporting on my shady doings. I was occupied in those days with all kinds of secret deals concerning smuggling immigrants and weapons to Israel. I had arrived in Italy as a stowaway in an old freighter that had sailed from Marseilles to Genoa and at the port I wasn’t asked to show my forged Papers. My first days in Rome had been passed at the Aliyah-B Offices and when I finished the boring work imposed on me (preparation of a long list of equipment and food needs for a clandestine immigrant ship that was ready to sail from a deserted shore south of Gaeta), I was given a few days off which I devoted to the initial courtship of the city and its daughters.
Now as I stood there in the small church and tried to understand the meaning of the praying woman’s stare, I thought of the possibility of one of the emissaries of the British Intelligence swarming around Italy at that time - just as we in the Mossad had been warned - in order to follow our clandestine activities.
Nonsense, I said to myself. If she was really following me, I would have noticed her already in the gardens of the Villa Borghese. After all I hadn't stopped imagining, while I was walking, adventures of love with all the women who passed by. With every one of them I carried on wild love affairs out of the Decameron and the degenerate stories of Pitigrilli. If this secret agent had followed me as I followed other women, I certainly would have felt her presence sooner or later. And anyway, I raised the convincing point, what kind of secret agent would dare reveal herself to the man she is following? Absurd. She probably really mistook me for someone else.
Suddenly, as I stared at her back, I noticed something strange. Her rump - I had barely noticed it before through her wide dress - clearly bulged towards me in a manner that could not been accidental. Her back was straight and her shoulders strained. In order to stick her behind out so much she had to make an express effort.
As my eyes clung to the rounding of her tights, the woman turned her head and again stared long. She saw what I was looking at and yet didn’t try to hide her lovely rump. On the contrary, as she bowed her head in a pure prayer, she very gently rolled her bottom once or twice. For a moment I thought that I was seeing what I asked to see, but she stuck her rump out even more and again rolled it clearly and provocatively from side to side and forward and back. These movements were so tempting and inviting that suddenly, as one hypnotized, I found myself taking two steps towards her. When she heard my footsteps, she thrust out her hand to the side and with strong finger signals from side to side indicated clearly that I should not approach. I stood still. Her threatening hand fell and began to slide down her leg. When she got to the knee, she opened her fingers and again slid her hand up the length of her tights and her hips, belly and breasts, belly and hips, until her hand stopped at her crotch. All this with her back to me and her face to the crucified saviour. By the movements of her hands I could hypothesize her finger’s activities between her legs.
Shocked and excited, I opened my coat to my hand in my pants, when suddenly the woman straightened her dress, turned to me, dipped three fingers in the fountain of holy water and walked out, casting me a final glance.
With a few quick, long steps I reached her outside the door and tried to put my hand on her arm, but she pulled her arm away and shook her head in a definite no.
“Te prego,” she said entreatingly in the same wondrously low and soft voice and began to move away from me. I took a step forward and stopped, embarrassed, I couldn’t explain her behavior. Did a sudden impulse seize her inside the church that she suddenly shook herself from in remorse, and ran out to escape the pangs of lust? If so why did she look at me before she left? Didn’t that mean I should follow her? And maybe she lives nearby and is afraid the neighbors would see her walking arm in arm with a stranger? Perhaps she wants me only in secret, so no one will know?
As if in answer to my questions, I saw her stop next to the nearby lamp post, look at me, and wait. The fog had dispersed but the empty alley stood enigmatically locked. When I began to walk towards her, she continued on her way. When I stopped, to be certain of her intentions, she also stopped, and when I continued to walk, she nodded and continued to draw me after her into the trance of the unknown.
She’s not a whore, that’s certain, I said to myself. A whore wouldn’t bother to lengthen and complicate the proposition so. She would have demanded her price at once without wasting time on me. She’s probably married and her husband isn’t home. There is no other explanation.
After a walk of a few minutes on the Via Margutta, with both of us keeping a stranger’s distance, she turned into an alley, sped past a pizzeria crowded with noisy youth, opened a wicket in a heavy gate, and slipped inside. When I came to the gate, she peeked out, looked both ways carefully, and convincing herself that no one was there beside us, grabbed my hand and pulled me into a wide and paved yard.
At that moment, when the wicket locked after me with a click, her arms encircled my neck, she pressed herself against me and drowned her mouth between my lips. I wanted to invade her dress but she held my hand and pulled me into an enormous hall that was lit with a dim yellow light, up the white stone steps, along a dim hall and again upstairs until she stopped before a high door. From her purse she pulled out a noisy key chain, quietly threaded a large iron key into the lock, and turned twice. Inside, after she had locked us in carefully, she pressed my mouth with her lips and her capricious tongue, and impatiently began to open the buttons of my pants. Her cold hand invaded at once and grabbed with powerful initiative. An embarrassed cough rose up in my throat and she hurriedly placed three fingers on my lips.
“Sh-h-h. sta 'zitto” She whispered in my ear and pulled me down a darkened hall and into a dog-kennel, whose door squeaked shrilly. A smell of old furniture and unaired bedclothes was in the air. The street lamp that threw a window of light in the cornice of the wall and the ceiling faintly lit up heavy furniture, a blackened oil painting in a gold frame, an unmade bed near the window. I pushed her towards the bed, struck a chair, and with a light, determined push, tried to lay her down on the bed. But she set her spread feet on the thick carpet and softly repelled me.
“Aspetta,” she scolded with a whisper and kissed my neck with light kisses. I let her escape from my arms and be swallowed in the gloom. A door opened and shut. The sweetish taste of her lipstick was in my mouth. I took out a cigarette. My palm that had slid into her armpit emitted the smell of an unfamiliar perfume together with the pleasant essence of sweat. By the light of the match I recognized a framed photograph of a chubby boy on the wall above my head. I undressed and hung my clothes on the chair. My wallet containing a few thousand lirettas and two fifty dollar bills I stuffed under the socks I shoved into my shoes. The mattress springs creaked thinly as I crept in under the blanket to await her in my nakedness. From the pillow arose the same smell of the unfamiliar perfume as from her armpits. I put out the cigarette in a potted plant on the window-sill and with one hand under the blanket I awaited her.
A stream of water rinsed some far away toilet bowl on the other side of the wall. A door opened and closed in an adjoining room. In the deep quiet I could hear my heart beat. And suddenly there came to my ears whispers on the other side of the wall, and someone emitted wet coughing sounds of wicked laughter. At once I lowered my legs from the bed, ready to dress and run away. The erect member in my hand fell limp.
Riddles and puzzles. Who is she whispering with there? Who is laughing and why? What shady conspiracies are being embroidered against me in the next room? She’s told her husband that she’s found a new victim in the street and very soon, when she gets into bed, he will break in to the room in the middle of the party and by gun point demand all my money. Or he’ll wait until I’m asleep and steal my Canadian passport, my shoes and my wallet with all the money in it. I won’t sleep here, I decided. As soon as it’s over- I get dressed and get out of here. A nearby door opened and closed quietly. I got under the covers and kept my eyes open.
She rose up from the darkness wearing a long nightgown, barefoot. I made a place for her under the blanket and tried to pull her head to the pillow, but she had other plans, altogether. Her head disappeared under the blanket and immediately I felt her tongue on my body sliding like a viper toward my loins. With a forceful hand she took it from my palm and her soft mouth began to do things that in those days seemed to me shockingly bold. After, almost at the last moment, when I put my arms around her and cupped her tiny breasts to pull her onto me, with a single motion she turned her back to me and just as in church, during prayers, began to move her warm behind in enticing and maddening motion as her hands held my hands holding her breasts.
Many years have passed since then and I am still surprised when I remember the surprise that awaited me in her bed that night. She really was a remarkable woman. Today I can permit myself to speak openly and uninhibitedly about what happened in her bed, but on that night, and even more next morning, I wanted the earth to swallow me up.
In the morning when I awoke to the sound of a light knock on the door, I found him asleep with his back to me, breathing deeply and peacefully. I shook his shoulder with one hand and he opened his made-up eyes, looked at me sweetly and cast his glance at the door. The knocking began again more strongly.
“Vene, Mamma, Vene,” He called out loud holding his nightgown from under me and hurriedly donning it. The door opened and I pretended to be asleep. In the small space between my closed lids I saw his mother enter the room, carrying a breakfast tray. She was about sixty, and wore a pink flannel robe. Her gray hair was arranged carefully and her full lips reddened with lipstick. “Buon Giorno Valentina,” she whispered after she rested the tray on the round table near the bed. She kissed her son on both cheeks and began to pour coffee into the cups. She looked sidelong at me, smiled, nodded coldly and passed a caressing hand over his long hair that descended to his shoulder. I heard her whispering a question and saw him shake his head negatively and put a finger to his lips. The mother suppressed a sound that might have been a wet cough or possibly a laugh. He embraced her small waist and accompanied her to the door. They stood there for a moment whispering secretively before he kissed her forehead and closed the door after her.
I dressed without looking at him while he removed the steaming cups from the tray and arranged them on the table near the jug of milk and a basket of round rolls. I didn’t want coffee, I didn’t want anything. I wanted to go, but Valentina rested a soft hand on my arm and without saying a word sat me down in the chair next to the table and presented me with the coffee.
We drank the coffee without speaking. I diverted my glance to the heavy furniture, the black oil painting that I now recognized as a dark alley whose houses were the color of the cowls of the monks, and the shingled roofs that reddened in the window, and the photo of the chubby boy whose face I now saw resembled hers. I had a bitter taste in my mouth. I put two sugars in the coffee, stirred well, and with a lazy glance looked at the blue flowers on the milk jug. Suddenly she touched my chin with two fingers and turned my face to hers. Her large eyes were clear and the look she gave me was an innocent one.
“Buon Giorno Caro,” she said in her wondrously soft and gentle voice. “Buon Giorno Valentina,” I said and for a moment did not drop my eyes from hers. And suddenly, as we were looking so seriously at each other, we smiled and for no reason, broke into extended laughter that continued, full and free laughter that became stronger until it echoed in the space of the room.