P.O. Box Loveby Paola Calvetti, Anne Milano Appel (Translator)
A charming epistolary novel that chronicles the love story between Emma and Frederico, former high school sweethearts who meet again thirty years later.
At Dreams & Desires, 50-year-old Emma’s quaint bookshop in Milan dedicated to romantic fiction, the passionate bookseller serves coffee and tea to her customers and completes order slips in pen rather
A charming epistolary novel that chronicles the love story between Emma and Frederico, former high school sweethearts who meet again thirty years later.
At Dreams & Desires, 50-year-old Emma’s quaint bookshop in Milan dedicated to romantic fiction, the passionate bookseller serves coffee and tea to her customers and completes order slips in pen rather than using a computer. One day, she finds a mysterious handwritten note stuck between the pages of a novel. The message is from her high school sweetheart Frederico, who is now a successful architect in New York and whom she hasn’t seen in thirty years. When she finally meets Frederico again, Emma is convinced that her life is about to turn into a romance novel – an intercontinental fairy tale between Milan and New York, between two post office boxes and two lovers that are separated by the Atlantic Ocean and half a life. But Frederico is married, and their epistolary romance, punctuated by once-a-year sojourns on the island of Belle Ile, seems to have no future. Paola Calvetti's PO Box Love is an ode to old-fashioned relationships (the ones that last a lifetime), old-fashioned habits (such as writing letters by hand in fountain pen) and old-fashioned notions (such as politeness, and the great lost art of conversation), and will enchant readers of such perennial favorites as 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff and Same Time Next Year by Bernard Slade.
"Paola Calvetti takes readers on a delicious trip through Italy, books, letters and love, reminding us all of the joys of a completely compelling read."Cathie Beck, author of Cheap Cabernet: A Friendship
“I was charmed by Paola Calvetti’s story. This is an enchanting evocation of long-distance love, a book that’s tender, witty and wise.”Margaret Leroy, author of The Soldier’s Wife and Yes, My Darling
"Emma’s loving descriptions of her bookshop—its content and layout, staff and customers—are an ode to the written word and a wonderful backdrop. Calvetti’s evocative, unhurried prose is fittingly old-fashioned compared to modern communication, and bibliophiles will delight in the setting, passionate book talk, and fanciful anecdotes about the Morgan library and its first librarian, Belle de Costa Green, J.P. Morgan’s mistress. Federico’s letters to Emma are filled with romantic longing..." Publishers Weekly
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.94(w) x 8.54(h) x 1.20(d)
Read an Excerpt
P.O. Box LoveA Novel of Letters
By Paola Calvetti
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Paola Calvetti
All right reserved.
I wake up early now.
But first, that very first blissful moment between sleep and wakefulness is given over to Alice and the bookshop. The moment comes around 6:00 A.M., 6:15 at the latest, when the herbal potion that has replaced the dream-suppressing pills has done its job and I find myself riveted to the bed with my eyes wide-open and a unique surprise: It is in the empty silence of my room that my best ideas are formed.
And my heart settles down.
There is an annoying aspect to my precocious awakenings: Right after lunch, I slip into a deplorable state of lethargy and my eyelids lower like shutters. If I could, I would fold my arms on the bookshop counter and rest my head there for a nap, even just a brief one. Or I would stretch out on the Persian rug beneath my feet, nose between my paws and tail lying sideways like Mondo, Gabriella’s Gordon setter.
Naturally, I can’t, and I restrain myself.
To rouse myself from this torpor, I go upstairs with the excuse of having to refill the thermoses, and take refuge in the coffee nook. Oh, nothing special, not an actual café, just two armchairs and some bistro tables and chairs purchased at the Porte de Clignancourt flea market and shipped at an inordinate cost—you’d think they were the treasured relics of a saint.
At exactly ten o’clock, Dreams & Desires opens its doors to the public.
The schedule was not chosen by chance. One rarely feels the urge to skim through the pages of a romance right after breakfast or just before sitting down to business at the office computer. My artisanal salle de thé is not the right place for readers who are insomniacs. Complex moods, such as the euphoria of falling in love, the pain of an inexplicable rejection, regret over a lost opportunity, the languor of the first time, or the urgency of a quickie, cannot be drowned in a latte, despite the reassuring nicety of the porcelain cups and real glass tumblers set out in rows like a battalion of stout soldiers. No paper cups from a vending machine here, but also no croissants, raisin scones, or slices of jam tarts out of a Victorian novel. I don’t have a permit to sell solid types of comfort and I have never in my life made a soufflé.
Before opening, I inhale my hour of freedom and apply myself to dusting. A light touch of the wrist, little more than a flick from top to bottom, guides the feather duster as it dances along the spines and dust jackets. With its bamboo handle and swirl of goose down on top, it is a nod of deference to my old nanny. Her name was Maria (“like Callas,” she used to say, proud of having a well-established, respectable name), and as she polished the furniture in the small dining room, she would sing popular Sanremo hits like “Grazie dei Fior” and “Vóla Colomba.” In the afternoon, I would come home from school and find her and Mama sitting there in the kitchen, chattering away. I would eavesdrop as Maria poured out her wretched life, and in the eyes of a child considerably inclined toward an overactive imagination, Maria seemed to be an untiring model of tolerance in the face of adversity.
As I dust, I sing softly to myself. Pop tunes from the seventies, selections from Lucio Battisti, the Beatles, and Bruce Springsteen. I stay away from operatic arias, too demanding for my frail little voice. Dust motes flutter in the air, causing me to sneeze in allergic syncopation. Still, dusting is a necessary exercise and the feather duster a reliable ally: It comes in close contact with titles and writers, memorizes the covers, steals a peek at the plots from the jacket flaps, finds books that are missing, retrieves those unjustly forgotten. The morning’s silent roll call gladly welcomes new arrivals, affording a kind of intimacy with novels I’m not acquainted with, the possibility of mingling stories and plots without constraints of genre, time period, or setting. From the gloomy dwelling of Thornfield Hall, Jane Eyre confides her hopeless adoration for Rochester to the stony Elizabeth Bennet in simulated flight from the astute Mr. Darcy, while Mr. Stevens, bundled up in the “Love Under Ice” section, pines in obstinate silence for Miss Kenton as he polishes the silverware and broods, green with envy, over The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The latter, autographed by John Fowles, resides in the display case of the “Untouchables” alongside a letter from Mary McCarthy to Hannah Arendt, a gift from Gabriella for the shop’s opening.
This mingling of genres is an infraction, I know.
Manuals for booksellers dictate precise rules about dusting, insisting that the merchandise—as those who don’t know any better call it—must be tidied up in the evening, before closing. I, on the other hand, prefer to let the volumes doze on the tables. Let them do what they like, at night, unrestrained, with no one in charge.
* * *
It was not an easy step to take.
The alarm bell went off when a guillotine dropped into place at the mouth of my stomach no matter what I ate. Usually in the afternoon, around four o’clock. I tried to keep things light, I reexamined the chromatic solitude of rice with olive oil, I developed a passion for hospital diets, I eliminated red meat, and I gobbled up cooked vegetables, processed and bland. Nothing helped. The invisible blade came back punctually in time for tea. I lived in a vague state of expectancy; I had a presentiment of change, but I had no idea what to do or where to start.
I was seeking simplicity.
I needed space, to start listening, to get out of airplanes. And so, before I ceased to exist, I gave up years of grueling business trips around the world and took off. Alone, in the snow-white anonymity of Arvidsjaur, a village in Swedish Lapland, amid reindeer steaks and pitchers of dark beer, I worked out plans based on the endless possibilities of a decent life. When the blond giant booked by the hotel took me on a “unique and unforgettable” tour of that icy wilderness, most of my five foot, three inches bundled up in a sled, the signal lit up and a single sentence flashed on my internal monitor: IT’S TIME FOR A CHANGE. It was like being born a second time, though I didn’t have the slightest recollection of what the first time had been like.
Back in Italy, I found a message from the office of a notary named Predellini, who turned out to be a charming woman of about forty, whom my aunt had gone to. An opportunity that only knocks once, I thought. Grab it without thinking too much, no matter where it leads.
“You are naïve, rash, and stubborn. I say this fondly, Emma, but you’ve taken leave of your senses.” The statement has the baritone ring of my Faithful Enemy. His name is Alberto, he’s an accountant, he’s been married to my best friend, Gabriella, for twenty-five years, and he has opposed my plan since its inception. After his lapidary “It won’t work,” the specter of insolvency, failure, and poverty in which I would plunge within six months haunted me like Banquo’s ghost, no doubt partly due to my ignorance in business matters, as abysmal as my incompetence with crossword puzzles, petit point embroidery, the sciences, and any kind of dog breeding.
“It won’t work.” The Faithful Enemy went on chanting his mantra. I invited him to dinner, just the two of us, to at least show him the photographs.
He was on a diet.
I abandoned the idea of a pasta al sugo and set my sights on steamed sea bass with new potatoes, green beans in olive oil, and a Trebbiano d’Abruzzo that cost me a fortune. On the off chance that he might waive his strict regime, I bought a chocolate cake at Cova’s to serve with the best dessert wine in the world, a Pedro Ximénez sherry. The drain on my finances was essential to win him over to my project.
“Here, take a look. I photographed the rooms to give you an idea of the space. As soon as you have time, I’ll take you to see it. It’s already inviting, and with some touching up, it can become quite charming. All it needs is some fresh paint on the walls, getting the parquet floor polished, moving the counters, adding a couple of tables, and having the shelves restored.” When I fear reactions that may go against what I want, I tend to overdo it with the details.
“You’re like a little girl playing shopkeeper: ‘Good morning, ma’am. What would you like today? Shall I wrap it for you?’ and all that crap. It’s a midlife crisis, Emma. Sooner or later, we all think that changing our lives has the power to stop the years. It’s called second adolescence. Why don’t you go and take a nice trip with Gabriella?”
“Right, and maybe a face-lift and liposuction for my thighs. Albi, I’m sick and tired of traveling around the world. I want to stay put. Coach me in the basic rules of business. All I’m asking for is some help.”
“The competition is fierce, Emma. You’ll have to contend with shopping malls and chain stores, sharks who offer fifteen, twenty, or thirty percent discounts off the cover price. Think about online sales: You pick a title on the screen, you press Enter, and the book arrives at your house in two days. You’re getting yourself into a real mess.”
“You always see the negative side of things! Not to mention that it will be a specialty bookshop, not just any old bookstore.”
“Nowadays, books in their original language are available everywhere.”
“That’s not what I meant. I mean there are no bookshops that specialize in love.”
“Oh please! You’re joking, right? Or maybe you’ve already decided to paint the walls a nice syrupy pink? That’s paraliterature, Emma; the bookstalls are overflowing with silly little romance novels.”
“This would be something completely new. Look, not even in London or Paris—”
“Exactly. Ask yourself why. Love is too specialized a topic to build a business plan on. A little like bocce, or chess, or horses. Niche interests, for a few devoted fanatics.”
“Alberto, the history of literature, the entire history of literature, is an uninterrupted river of love. It’s not an endangered genre on its way to extinction, like the giant panda, sea lions, and hens—museum creatures or subjects of National Geographic documentaries.”
“Children know perfectly well what hens are, that they’re not on their way to extinction.”
“Try going to an elementary school in Milan and ask them to draw a hen. Five out of ten wouldn’t be able to, and you know why? Because they’ve never physically seen a live hen.”
“Selling books is economically unsound to begin with; opening a bookshop that sells only romances is a surefire fiasco. A crappy idea. Now, don’t take offense.”
“Alberto, listen to me: No one can compete with the dissolute grace of Count Vronsky, boast the alabaster skin of Prince Andrei, scheme like the Marquise de Merteuil, overturn your life like that scoundrel Heathcliff,” I replied with a stab at bravado. It fell on deaf ears.
My accountant did not have the foggiest idea who Heathcliff was.
“Use your brain, count to ten before answering, and explain to me why on earth a customer should buy a book from you rather than at the supermarket while doing her Saturday-morning shopping.”
I sipped from my goblet of sparkling water, took my time, and refilled his glass with Trebbiano. As a confirmed teetotaler, I am unfamiliar with the power of alcohol, but I place my trust in it wholeheartedly.
“Try saying to any old megastore clerk wearing a name badge on his jacket, ‘Excuse me. I had an argument with my girlfriend. Do you have a book that will give me some advice on how to make up?’ He would stare at the computer screen and type in the formula ‘girlfriend plus argument plus make up,” expecting the monitor to flash an algebraic sum masquerading as an intelligent answer. Or else, without even looking at you, he would point toward the nonfiction section ‘in back to the left.’ Nonfiction, get it? Chain bookstores are places no one possibly wants to go to, nonplaces, as Marc Augé would say. My bookshop will be a place place. I won’t have customers and consumers, as you economists call them, but people who will come and find courteous responses. They won’t experience that supermarket bewilderment, or the feeling of inferiority that comes over you in those boutiques for bibliophiles run by people who treat books like monuments: Look but don’t touch. Mine will be a shop with a human touch. I’ll make sure the renovation is inexpensive; I’ll resort to used furniture. You’ll have to estimate start-up costs and at least one year of operating expenses, but, please, don’t slaughter me with your damn numbers.”
Though I felt swallowed up in a maze of humiliation, I tried to refute his cynical offensive by wearing him down. I had to convince him.
“Your enthusiasm is touching, my dear, but I might point out to you that the world, life, even the reproductive activity of animals, all revolve entirely around those damn numbers.”
“The only alternative is to sell it. It would be like killing her. Voluntary homicide.”
A deep breath. A pause. The idea of a crime scared him. Maybe.
“You could make a ton of money; thirty-seven hundred square feet with a loft right in the city center are worth roughly one point five million euros. But okay, I’ll try. I’ll look into it and prepare a feasibility study at seven hundred thousand. I have a couple of clients in the publishing world, and I don’t want to be a cause of depression. I just wish you wouldn’t gamble away your savings. You have a son to support and you’re in excellent health, my dear.”
My precious Alberto—a brother to me now that I no longer have any brothers—stood up from the table with a resigned air and, upon reaching the door, froze me with a sardonic grin—the same one that had led my best friend to the altar. Alberto is tall and charming, and he still has a full head of hair, which makes him look like anything but an accountant. Behind his rational, disenchanted ways lies a gentle, generous soul. He hugged me, his views unchanged. “While you’re at it, be sure to devote a shelf to ill-fated romances. They are statistically more common than happy ones.”
The “Broken Hearts” section, on the upper floor, is dedicated to him, with a gold-plated plaque. Alberto: the accountant who lets me live peacefully by taking care of bar codes and invoicing and who allows me to keep track of the stock in a ledger where titles, publishers, books sold, and those to be restocked are entered by hand. In my bookshop, in fact, there is no trace of a computer. Ever since I read that at least twenty million Italians are affected by stress due to new technologies and that reading e-mails and text messages lowers one’s IQ, I have excellent reasons for living without an e-mail address. I’m beginning to enjoy doing one thing at a time. Getting over multitasking was as tricky as learning a new type of exercise. Now I brag about it. I dedicated a section to what Aunt Linda left behind, a treasure trove of pastel-colored envelopes and stationery adorned with borders of violets, bunches of suitably soft Caran d’Ache pencils, three inkstands, a stack of notebooks with black covers and red spines, a sponge finger pad, packets of rubber bands, a set of red sealing-wax sticks, pins and thumbtacks with colored heads, felt blackboard erasers, rubber erasers, tins of paste and bottles of glue, and a unique specimen: a red leather portfolio with a rawhide cover and a built-in pencil case. In the back of the stationery shop, I found an Olivetti Lettera 22, a dilapidated gem, which, thanks to the attentions of the only Milanese craftsman who still cares about that kind of typewriter, is displayed on the shelf that holds the epistolary novels.
Mattia was the sole member of the family who supported me. “The only thing more absurd that can happen to a kid who still keeps his textbooks in plastic covers is a mother who’s a bookseller,” he said. My son’s enthusiasm and a little pair of yellowed cotton gloves that I happened to find in a drawer were the definitive viaticum.
Now I’m really happy here, among the paper romances.
They are fail-safe loves that do not dissolve beneath a web of wrinkles. They have silenced the pitying concerns of friends, ex-husbands, and ex-lovers who are convinced that when it comes to sentimental development, I did not follow what they, the all-knowing ones, call evolution. More simply put, I’m done with that subject. Case closed. And ten months after I fled to Lapland, the bouts of nausea and other ailments disappeared. My daydreaming has a good front: At times of dejection, I remedy the situation by opening a book, and I no longer have to deal with real love.
I am a fulfilled woman.
I pass the duster over the “Romantic Hideaways” section, alcoves and hotels where enduring marriages and illicit trysts were consummated; Marguerite Gautier’s “charming little house of two stories, with a semicircular railing”; “the hall paved with coloured marble,” belonging to the wheeler-dealer d’Ambreuse; the “secret little hut made of rustic poles” where D. H. Lawrence’s Connie waited and waited and waited; the London homes of Thomas Carlyle in Chelsea and John Keats in Hampstead. I haven’t sold many during these days of the furnishings expo; who knows, maybe carpenters and designers don’t fall in love. It’s a few minutes before ten, just enough time for a cup of tea with lemon.
I climb the stairs, proud of the monastic order of the tables and shelves. A small phosphorescent yellow flag sticks out from the pages of Ballades d’amour à Paris (the only copy, in the original language, bought from a Parisian colleague). I hate people who tamper with the books, but it’s because of my tolerance that customers treat this place as if it’s their home. Someone left a place mark. Thank goodness he didn’t fold down the corner of the page. I remove the sticky note gently so as not to tear the paper. Written in green felt-tipped pen, a name and telephone number. That name. Can it be?
* * *
“I got you a scone. It’s still warm. Would you like it up there?”
Alice’s face is rosy from her workout and her damp hair smells like vanilla balsam.
“Thanks, I’ll just finish straightening up and come down. Meanwhile, you open up; it’s already late.”
Sitting in this chair, I’ve been trying to organize my thoughts for the last twenty minutes. I think maybe it’s a joke, a coincidence, a chance occurrence. Federico is a common name. I look in the drawer for the calculator that Mattia gave me for Christmas, a never-used radish red plaything with yellow keys that look like coat buttons. I turn it on. It works. I punch in the numbers. It’s been 31 years, 372 months, 1,612 weeks, 11,315 days, and 271,560 hours since I’ve seen him. Give or take. I never heard anything more about him, and even with Gabriella, the only witness to that affair, the subject was relegated to the letter E, for Error.
Which often coincide.
Dialing this number would be like taking a shot at speed dating, those horrific blind dates that give you just a few minutes to decide if you want to go to bed with someone and if he wants to do the same with you. Federico was never about sex. He exited my life abruptly and his memory was buried away with reckless haste, only to reemerge from our high school days a few minutes ago.
No need to dramatize.
From a certain age on, it is statistically possible, even probable, that among more than six billion people on the globe, an ex might well turn up as if nothing had happened in the meantime. What is disturbing (assuming it’s not someone with the same name) is that he would show up just now when, having packed away the past, I am strutting along radiantly in my neospinster Eden. I have the shop, and the books protect me from everything that’s out there.
Except that, as of today, he’s out there.
After 271,560 hours, I can’t call him. I couldn’t bear the disappointed look of a man who won’t say what’s going through his mind (polite, he was always extremely polite) but meanwhile is thinking, That was a close call. And what if he has put on weight, or turned into a ridiculous dork, a car dealership manager, a sales rep, a lawyer or notary, or one of those executives who says slide instead of transparency, briefing instead of meeting, name tag instead of the badges Scouts and Brownies earn, or calls a switchboard a PBX? I’m done with slides and I’ve learned to keep a tiny back room as orderly as a boutique. The only clue is the Post-it note stuck to my right thumb. Why on earth would someone go around with a pad of Post-its in his pocket? Maybe he’s an artist, or a meticulous person who takes notes and sticks them on the refrigerator. Maybe he’s a long-winded bore by the name of Federico who will buttonhole me and tell me his never-ending tales. Asking Gabriella for advice is not an option. She would weigh the pros and cons, imagine some hidden intrigue, and embellish it. Of the two of us, she’s always been the reflective one. After close scrutiny of the available information—phone number, handwriting, the book in which he chose to leave the message, assessment of the past, the time elapsed between his leaving me and the discovery of the message—she would advise an F.
* * *
He answers after five interminable rings.
“Hi. It’s me,” I say.
“Thank God. I had given up hope.”
The first six attempts had gone no further than the area code, but now the voice—the piece of the puzzle that kept me undecided all day between taking a chance and prudent hesitation—that voice on the other end of the line, is speaking quickly and is not at all mellow, unlike what I was sure I remembered. I resist the urge to end the conversation before it has even begun. Better to sit calmly; there’s no reason to get upset.
“How are you, Emma?”
“Fine. I’m fine. Where are you?”
Did I really say that? Me, of all people, the one who goes around proclaiming her disgust for cell phones, not to mention loathing that question to which anyone can reply with any old baloney. Me, who passed the Nokia on to Mattia (in my previous life, I had used it like everybody else), feeling a dull loss at first and later a superior sense of liberation. I admit that the first few days were a disaster, but I had announced my historic decision to half the world and I couldn’t take it back; somewhat like when you go on a diet or you decide it’s time to quit smoking: You tell everyone you meet. And though the first few hours, the first few days, the first few weeks of abstinence from obsessive conversation are terrible, once your willpower overcomes the compulsion to be constantly in touch, your self-esteem grows by leaps and bounds. The cell phone and the PC had become extensions of my body, so that when the computer froze, I went to pieces; not responding to an e-mail seemed a mark of rudeness; and if I deleted a text message, I lost my identity. I copied the most significant ones in a small notebook covered with Florentine paper. Alice accuses me of “Paleolithic obstinacy.” That’s not so. I claim the sacrosanct right not to be found and I enjoy the perverse pleasure of being unreachable. Not being always online has its drawbacks—my metamorphosis has left a lot of people by the wayside—but I’m now free to leave no traces. I’m a prototype of new contemporary womanhood: I believe it is possible to live without technology. Those who love me know where to find me. I have a landline at home, and at the bookshop I have a tabletop phone with a bulky receiver and a rotary dial.
So … Emma the virtuous asks, “Where are you?”
“I’m at a hotel. I’m leaving for New York Monday morning. I’m living there now.” The news of an imminent departure is a relief. “We could have dinner together, but it seems a little late. How about tomorrow?”
Why am I stammering? It’s hardly the first time someone has asked me out to dinner. I could kick myself.
“Coffee tomorrow morning? Or maybe lunch? Just to say hello at least…”
Federico presses me; from the hurried way his words tumble out, one might think he’s overcome by childish euphoria, or that maybe he’s afraid his old high school sweetheart will send him packing with a curt “No,” or a vague “I can’t,” or an “I’m so sorry, but I have prior plans for the weekend; it would have been lovely to see each other again after all this time.” I have nothing planned for the next twenty-four hours. Nothing other than making myself irresistible, come to think of it. Federico goes on talking, and I can just picture his knobby fingers, the nails bitten and squared off, those asymmetrical hands that moved like fish in a bowl. I saw them a short time ago. Before finding the necessary courage to dial the number, I rummaged through photos of family members, elementary school classes, baptisms, First Communions, and graduation parties until he popped out of the pile, standing in front of a whitewashed house at the shore. On the back, written in ballpoint, a date: “August 23, 1969.” I hesitate, not that I’m troubled by any uncertainty. What does he look like, this fifty-year-old man who walked out of my life before he had even turned twenty?
“What if we don’t recognize each other?”
It might be the voice or that afternoon’s photograph, but I can see his perfect, flawlessly white teeth.
“We can always call our cell phones, right? Besides, I saw you just a few hours ago. Shall I make a reservation? Is the trattoria in Santa Marta still open?”
He sounds eager, enthusiastic.
“The owner’s son took over. Okay, let’s meet there at eight-thirty. Just in case, my number is 0234934738. Do you have a pen handy?”
“Noted. See you tomorrow.”
Click. I hang up the receiver as if in a film, lost in thought.
My hairdresser is closed tomorrow, and if I wash my hair myself, my seventy-euro cut will look like a tossed salad. Going to the hairdresser for a weekly trim is one of my addictions, like going to the gym or seeing my aesthetician. The solution to the problem goes by the sweet name of Alice, who because of her love for books has put aside her degree in Romance languages and accepted a temporary job in the retail business.
“I’ll do an online search and find a hairdresser you’ll like. I’ll make an appointment for you. Oh, Emma, do you need a manicure?”
* * *
“Mom, I’m late, I’m out of gas, Andrea is waiting for me downstairs, and my cell phone is dead. I have nine and a half minutes to take a shower.”
Mattia uses the house as a pit stop, and tonight his rushed, irritating sprint is a disturbance. I am critically focused on the lash-lengthening mascara when I hear him knock at the bathroom door with the impetuous arrogance that usually melts me but right now interferes with the restoration operation I’ve been engaged in for hours. It took me six hours to feel a smidgen secure about my appearance, and he’s hurrying me up.
“You can call him from the home phone, can’t you? Andrea, I mean!” I shout. Meanwhile, he doesn’t budge from the door.
“Mom, what is this schmaltzy music?”
“It’s ‘My Girl,’ by the Temptations, ignoramus. You can use the small bathroom.”
Hygiene, for Mattia, is closely related to sex. If he needs to wash, it’s because today, a weekend day, he is likely to find someone to go to bed with him. But if I say “go to bed,” he corrects me.
“It’s called fucking, Mom.”
I can’t bring myself to say fuck, but the night I saw him floss his teeth, devour breath mints, concentrate on his lower body parts, and ask advice about deodorants, I was almost moved. Assuming, despite my ignorance of the sexual habits of today’s eighteen-year-olds, that he had hopes for something more complex than a kiss. I open the door, twirl around, and do a credibility check with the only tangible result of my married life: “What do you think?”
“Thanks, Mom. In the smaller bathroom, I have to sit down in the tub. How come you’re so foxy tonight? Where are you going all dressed up like that?”
“I’m going to see what kind of girl I used to be,” I say enigmatically with the most literary phrase that comes to mind, lowering the volume of the CD player, and secretly hoping he won’t ask anything more. We’re very close, but I’m still his mother and I can’t tell him that I don’t want to be outdone by the ghost of who I was at age eighteen. Despite the fact that he encourages me to find admirers, for Mattia, my love life ended with Michele, his father, my ex-husband.
* * *
The wavy hair in the photograph is still all there. The brown mane that spilled over his shoulders is now a short, neat bush, sprinkled with dove gray. He keeps his hands buried in his duffel coat. The collar of a Brooks Brothers shirt peeps out from under it; below, wool flannel cuffed trousers and Church’s dark brown suede lace-up shoes. Did he do it on purpose? Maybe he never changed his uniform. I take a deep inhalation and a deep exhalation, then … off I go. I cross the short distance that separates me from him with my head held high. He’ll see me and will surely notice the color in my cheeks. They’re hot, definitely red, with eggplant purple spots. I’m shy, but this detail of my character is known only to those close to me. To everyone else, I’m an extrovert with a gift of gab, though with age and experience I’ve dropped the melodramatic tones and learned the therapeutic value of irony. We petite women don’t march forth with a solemn gait; we slowly pick our way along. And even though just a few yards separate me from him, it’s as if I’m moving toward an unknown continent and am midway there. Impossible to do an about-face and go back, even if only to decide how to greet someone who stole your heart an incredible number of years ago. A hug might be misunderstood, viewed as excessive familiarity. I could just shake his hand. Good to see you, hello. Basically it’s a bit like a first meeting. He might think me too formal and this would make him freeze up for the rest of the evening. Pouncing on his neck is unthinkable; Federico is over six feet tall, and I—if I stand on tiptoe—manage to reach at most a height of five three. The man with the salt-and-pepper hair takes a step toward me. There’s not enough time to get used to this new face with traces of the old one, no time to examine—out of purely anthropological interest—how it’s changed, because as soon as I’m in front of him, Federico clasps me tightly to him with the most natural gesture in the world. How could I not have thought of it before?
“Shall we go in?”
My breathing becomes more regular; my heart slows down from the mad gallop at which it had foolishly set off. I walk behind him into the warmth of the trattoria. He hasn’t changed his cologne: Eau Sauvage. Evidently it’s remained a classic, like my Chamade, a duty-free souvenir from my prior life. Or else he chose that on purpose as well.
Take it easy, Emma. Novels have nothing to do with real life. And this, my Faithful Enemy would say, is a thought right out of a silly romance novel.
Federico is almost old-fashioned in his ways, and his height forces him to hold his body slightly forward. He has not put on weight, and he was already gallant back in school, when others acted rude just to seem important. He slips my little black coat off my shoulders and hands it to the waiter. He moves my chair out and, when I’m all settled, he sits down on my right. He picks up the wine list, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world after all this time.
“Red or white?”
Now how can I tell him I don’t drink wine anymore?
My ex-husband considers it one of the factors that precipitated our divorce. Plus, Federico was already a wine lover back then, never passing up a glass of house wine when we went to inexpensive pizzerias. I am expecting something to happen, or maybe I’m struck by the absolute naturalness with which he moves, so self-confidently.
“I don’t drink wine. Maybe a beer.”
“Not the perfect choice for celebrating.”
“How do I seem to you?” I ask, getting bread-stick crumbs all over the bright yellow tablecloth in that trattoria where time seems to have stopped at our graduation dinner: the same straw-bottomed chairs, the sideboard with the white dishes and bottle green glasses, the walls covered with movie posters and black-and-white photos of opera singers, stage actors, and showbiz entertainers whom I don’t recognize.
“The same,” he replaces, with no particular inflection in his voice.
“Say that again,” I ask, immensely grateful for that irresistible gesture of generosity and good sense.
“You haven’t changed a bit, Emma. You look just the S-A-M-E,” he repeats, spelling out the letters and giving me a smile—that for sure is the S-A-M-E, that broad lady-killer smile that swept me away in the final year of high school, when we girls had to wear a black smock with embroidered polka dots on the collar, while the boys were allowed to wear bell-bottom jeans and plaid shirts. When we got to the fifth polka dot (Maria saw to it for me, with perfect hieroglyphics in blue thread), we rejoiced: Nine more months and this hell would be over. The ignominy of the black muumuu, which concealed a glorious explosion of kilts, miniskirts, musketeer boots, and skimpy sweaters, was washed away by oblivion on July 17, 1970.
A top score of sixty out of sixty ensured parental permission for the first group trip. Coming from a private high school, Federico had plunged into our class like a meteorite at the beginning of the school year, an appearance that disrupted my life. He drove a wedge into my symbiotic friendship with Gabriella, who, in fact, immediately judged him loathsome and arrogant, the boring son of wealthy parents. Flawed, not to her taste as a girl from a good family, brought up simply, with a hint of huffy snobbishness accentuated by a rounded r that helped her in French. Actually, she was jealous. She admitted it many years later, at our English teacher’s funeral: to overcome our sadness at the loss of the only person in school who had understood and encouraged us, we tried to take our minds off it by playing who was who and look how he turned out. Gabriella remembered him; she looked around for him among the pews of San Marco, crammed with three generations of students, and said, “I wonder what happened to the beanpole,” as she called him.
“It’s just another four months.”
It’s the first thing that pops into my head as I order risotto Milanese and meatballs in sauce with mashed potatoes. I need time. And calories. I lower my eyes like a schoolgirl and look at myself in the empty plate, where the crumbs have formed a minuscule sand-colored dune.
“Another four months to what, Emma?”
“Till I turn fifty.”
“Oh, I’ve just reached it, and I assure you nothing serious happened. Just a more lavish party than usual.”
“I’m not having any party. Ignoring my birthday is the best way to avoid falling into depression. Your lips are thinner,” I murmur, moving closer to study him, and immediately regretting having used such an unfortunate remark to try to allay my impatience to tell him about me and, above all, to hear about him. One of the annoying things about meeting someone new at my age is that it requires a summary of our respective pasts: university, jobs, wives, husbands, boyfriends, literary tastes, the ten songs you should never split up to.
The advantage, with him—if you don’t count the scarring and damage left by 271,560 hours—is that we already know each other. Mentioning that would offer some idea of my current state of mind, yet I can’t think of even a single thing.
“It’s charming, the store where you work,” he says.
“It’s not a store. It’s a bookshop, and I own it. I inherited it.”
“How nice to inherit a bookshop instead of the usual pile of money.”
“You should have seen me at the notary’s! I felt like an heiress, while she solemnly read the simple letter from Aunt Linda, who died after seventy-nine years spent sharpening pencils, selling notebooks, and comforting pupils. She left me her memorable stationery shop. I was her only remaining relative, her favorite niece, and she wanted to leave her notebooks in good hands.”
“And how did the stationery shop become Dreams & Desires?”
“I visited more shopping malls in one week than in my entire life, and the more books I saw stacked up among the mountains of diapers and cans of peeled tomatoes, the more I became convinced that there was a need for a place where people could come together and browse through books without feeling obliged to buy. I conducted surveys among my friends, smothering them with questions, until it dawned on me that I needed to open a bookshop that resembled me. A place that would speak of feelings.”
“You haven’t changed in that respect, either.”
“With respect to feelings?”
“You’re talking nonstop and your risotto is getting cold.”
“I wanted to sell an immortal product: love.”
“Well, immortal but perishable.”
“Less perishable than a new electronic gadget that has already been surpassed by a new generation the minute you take it out of the box.”
“It’s a delightful place and you’re a perfect proprietor. I would have liked to linger just to enjoy the atmosphere.”
“Instead, you ran off.”
“Ran off, no, but I was … I didn’t know how I should act.”
“You never ran into an old girlfriend before?”
“I avoid them, usually. There’s the danger of being disappointed. And you’re not just any ex-girlfriend.”
“Ex is always better than post.”
“Sorry, I don’t care for the prefix, either.”
We go on for hours, our student pasts recomposed like A History of Italy, tomes that would never find a home in my bookshop.
“Whatever happened to that brownnose in the first row?”
“And Enrico, your best friend? Don’t tell me he married that tease Teresa?”
“I got my degree in architecture. I work at the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Right now, I’m overseeing a project in New York.”
“I have a son who’s eighteen.”
“And I have a daughter, thirteen.”
We are so caught up in the nightmare of class assignments that we don’t notice the waiter. With an imploring look, he hands Federico the bill, politely but firmly. We are the last remaining diners, and he must surely have a girlfriend waiting for him somewhere. Federico pulls out a credit card from a slim wallet. No photos, it seems. We leave. The street is deserted. Milan is fragrant with the scent of spring and Eau Sauvage.
“Shall we take a taxi?” I ask.
“Let’s walk a bit, if it’s okay with you.”
“Of course. I’d like that.”
We walk all the way home.
“Here we are. This is where I live.”
The awkwardness is palpable. Also a kind of gaiety, at least as far as I’m concerned. I’m saying good night to a man at the door and I feel like a debutante returning from the ball. Sort of like Cinderella with shoes, with a different ending. The prince takes her home and vanishes in the night. The strange thing is that I fall asleep without my sleeping potions and without mulling over what happened.
* * *
Two days later, I enter from the back door that opens onto the courtyard. The bookshop is set into the building like a bauble around the wrinkled neck of a turn-of-the-century woman. The Philippine caretaker, who lives in a few square yards crammed with plastic knickknacks and rice-paper chandeliers, comes toward me, holding a stiff scrub brush, and hands me an envelope. My name in green ink is the only thing written on it, the handwriting upright and the capitals rounded like the pinnacles of the Sagrada Familia.
Emma Valentini. Private and Confidential.
“A fine gentleman delivered it, early this morning,” Emily mutters, as if she is holding a bill that promises to be a nuisance.
A gentleman, of course. Nowadays, an envelope lined with ivory paper is sent only to invite you to a first marriage. For the second or third, they’ll give you a call at best, and there isn’t even a bridal registry. I open the envelope. Whoever the fine gentleman is, he must have read my mind.
Copyright © 2012 by Paola Calvetti.
English translation copyright © 2012 by Anne Milano Appel
Excerpted from P.O. Box Love by Paola Calvetti Copyright © 2012 by Paola Calvetti. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
PAOLA CALVETTI has been a journalist with La Repubblica and a publicist for Milan's La Scala Opera. She is the author of five novels and lives in Milan.
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