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Chapter 1: Undressing
A djinn skips from body to body and dies for none. The body is to a djinn its human bottle when it accepts for a time the limit of one person and one life. A spirit is locked in one for the precise purpose of undoing its knots--all the deviations on the path of blood or breath and the impulse of nerves. I wake up and come to life within its humid membranes, the palpitation of cells.
Talking about "myself" is like peering endlessly into a handful of air. If I stare long enough I begin to see shapes and what I see as I see it and put it into words is as indisputable as a current--you could say it should have gone to the right or to the left, should have been warmer or cooler, but none could have stopped it from blowing altogether.
Past and future tug me backwards and forwards trying to take over whatever room "I," that is the present, may occupy. But the present is the only piece of ground on which one is permitted to stand, the air around a body and in it. . . .
One of the little-known sights of Milan, of its chic, was a hippopotamus that was kept in its diminutive zoo in the center of town, steps away from the arch that heralds the way to Via Manzoni which leads straight to the Hotel Milan once the house where Verdi composed several operas, down further to Piazza della Scala and just before reaching it on the left was the bookstore where I bought the newspapers and foreign books that alone made me feel the city had not yet swallowed me whole and I would never emerge to make myself known in any other part of the world. A corner of my coat was recalcitrantly exposed, begging for attention,hoping to be caught in a wild current and borne to a land far from this low-lying swampland. For we, my families, had lived a vagabond life, series of lives, from Spain to Turkey, Rhodes and Egypt only to end up in this pit at the foot of mountains that gathered all the fog of the region, a city saved by the electric light and where most people become very pragmatic because the lack of light and nature makes them suppose that all that happens rests on their shoulders. They work hard, go to sleep early, count their earnings, as the government takes greater and greater shares of it in taxes and health insurance of which they will never receive the benefits. That the Milanese are ordinary human beings is proved by the fact that when they return from their summer holiday in August, their faces are filled out, for a fortnight they smile and look as though they look forward to the day ahead and take pleasure in rubbing shoulders with their fellow beings. Then it stops: their light is turned off and they return to principles of duty and human decency but instinct is forgotten between layers of efficiency and striving and good sense and you can't help but become extremely fond of so much withstanding withstood without complaint, the stoic good humor, the brave grimness of it. Shopkeepers never fawn or smile but their greeting when after several years they begin to take you as one of the regulars of the city will make you feel more of an insider than any other. The hippopotamus was such an insider: he breathed the city's smog every day and he had learned to eat rosette, Milan's crusty buns that are divided into sections around a central one. He stood by the railing of his meager open-air paddock with his mouth wide open and waited for the dry rosette to be thrown into his mouth but he did not chew them immediately: he waited for several to be deposited before bringing up his massive lower jaw to his upper in a single chewing motion then let it drop again and one saw with amazement that the dozen or so buns had been flattened into a white paste that stuck to the surface of his tongue. His hunger was unsatisfiable as, one felt, was his nostalgia. I went to him to have a sense of kinship with another exotic--we came from much the same part of the world since I was born in Egypt--yet we had both become pale renditions of what we might have been. He must have yearned for nature--his very hide seemed slackened and puffy from the lack of oxygen. I didn't know what I yearned for, only that I was in a perennial state of yearning. I was very ignorant then of the simplest fundamental things: it never struck me till much later, when I had left Milan, that I suffered from a lack of light, the obscurity of myself to myself.
Yet in Milan I felt very much a foreigner because there the first questions always asked were "Where are you from? Are you American? Your name is not Italian." And they were not wrong because my explanation when I still felt it was my duty to provide one was always long and contrived and I never felt that I had done the question justice. I was always caught between the need to answer and so to respect the curiosity of the person asking and not tasking his or her limit of endurance and interest for what might after all have been a fleeting curiosity.
Whenever I could, I headed straight for my uncle's penthouse apartment on Corso Monforte and there I was sure of the welcome I would receive from Wally which in Italian was pronounced "Valli." She was a lively blonde and had she had an education she would have run a corporation or a country or done anything she set her mind to. As it was, she infused the role of housekeeper with every extra her very ingenious disposition could muster: diplomatic abilities, imagination, grace. She had a family but one felt it belonged to some other less-enchanted area of her life in which she kept one foot firmly planted when it came to their economic and daily needs.
Wally was my first taste of the Milanese and they were magicians at making you forget just how deprived the city was and how deprived you were if you lived there. They convinced you that it was an easy life conducted among a few blocks, their elegant courtyards with a palm or a magnolia growing happily in them. And there would be a portinaia who knew you and everything about the person you had come to visit and it felt as though you never left home but simply wandered from drawing room to drawing room in the same house. In the old-fashioned Otis elevator, you opened the iron grill, then the glass doors, and within the smell of recently polished brass railings and leather-covered seats was fragrant. The smell inside those elevators was the smell of Milan. Or rather, the smell of the damp earth of the courtyard compounded by that of brass polish and old leather with that of the oiled machinery of the elevator was Milan to me.
Every city has a mien in relation to the previous city one has been in. Coming from boarding school, Milan seemed to me a city of freedoms and infinite possibilities. Paris from Milan was paradise while when I came to it from New York, it appeared austere. London seemed friendly coming from Paris, small coming from New York. Coming from Milan, any city seemed blessed with particular grace, I mean from a physical point of view as Milan had little to recommend it that way. Its architectural attractions might have been many but somehow one became inured to the man-made and it never caught one unawares as a strain of sweetness in the air or a chilly gust of wind or a pall and color of light. Milan's greyness washed the eyes and the spirit, put one in a state of desire and resignation, a state of purity: anything that came along after Milan--a not-so-glamorous country town, a hillside, a stretch of cultivated ground--could move one to tears. It was sufficient to arrive in Paris, sit at a café and see people who were clearly not Milanese to feel very moved. One felt like an exile in reverse: felt at home feeling the strangeness all around. Leaving Milan, its strict dictate that one belong, that one come from there for generations back, the life contained within its streets, the hours it kept so suited to the Milanese nature, its sobrieties, the range of its culinary consolations so untouched by those of any other country, leaving all that, it was with joy that one embraced the freedoms of other cities. You didn't need to know then that what felt like freedom could later feel like extreme solitude and isolation. But Milan, too, was a city in which it was impossible not to learn solitude. It was not a city meant for an outsider, had no services for them. At lunchtime, in my day, people went home for lunch. I went to a café such as Sant' Ambroeus and had three or four of their tiny sandwiches in sweet buns, a cappuccino, sometimes a Campari and soda and I would return to work tipsy and light-headed up the staircase of Palazzo Bellini. I remembered the story of the nobleman who was stopped by the police. "Name and address," they asked him rudely and he replied, "Bellini, Palazzo Bellini, Via Bellini." He was a real Milanese as I was not and would never be but for the sake of survival I pretended to be one, used Milanese expressions, spoke with a Milanese accent until the day I met Hare who could not abide it and little by little one correction after another banished every trace of that accent from my speech, every vowel too closed or too open which was a dead giveaway for a Milanese. Still, part of me had become and would always be Milanese.
My first apartment overlooked a courtyard. There were three rooms, and one entered the bathroom from the kitchen and it was the place farthest from the bedroom for to reach it I had to cross my study and the living room into which I never went, though the largest room, because it had no windows and only some beastly furniture I did not like put there by my landlord--large square foam rubber cubes covered in a riotous jungle print in all shades of green. The same cushions lined the back wall of my tiny study, of which one wall was all windows so that brilliant light came in, only I covered them with white cotton spreads. I loved to sit at that table and work. The table was a bamboo table I had bought in New York for a studio apartment that was a sort of underground cage I made much worse by painting it dark brown. This, I was told, would give it a wonderful atmosphere, though it made it into a foul den which at any rate was its natural inclination. Always it reeked of the Italian restaurant on the ground floor--the smell of frying garlic and simmering tomato sauces had embedded itself in the hallways, in the carpeting of the stairs and it is a good thing I wore Mitsouko perfume or I probably would have smelt of it, too. A robber, one summer while I was away, came through a skylight in the bathroom and fell with one foot into the toilet before stealing my television and making a more dignified exit through the front door. I had left a detachment of cockroaches to guard the place but they did not prove a deterrent.
In my first apartment in Milan, I was robbed by gypsies most mysteriously for I simply came home one day to find a gold chain gone and not a single thing out of place, as though nothing had happend. There was a robbery in my second apartment, too, on Piazza Tricolore, just as clean and just as mysterious: I found the front door unlocked and the only valuable things I possessed gone.
Maria came to clean there. She was a tall gaunt woman with straight black hair. She had long black hairs on her legs and when she came would walk straight to the middle of the large room, pause, roll down her stockings after unhooking them from the suspenders and her hairs would bristle audibly with electricity. Sometimes she told me of her husband. She had a funny name for his advances: she said that he came near her and made "moïne," which means to talk sweetly or make sweet noises like a purring cat. "What does it matter anyway?" she would conclude. "You wash it, you dry it, and it's good as new." Once there was an earthquake while I was sitting on the floor at Piazza Tricolore and it was the only time in Milan I felt something exciting was really happening to me. There were evenings when I would have gone out with any friend but had already run through my short supply of them. They were usually foreigners who were able to have as loose a life as mine. The Milanese mostly went home for meals, lunch and dinner, and to get them to go out was an undertaking. Their aunt, or their mother, was always waiting for them.
I walked to work down the long and narrow Corso Monforte observing how the soot had blackened the façades of buildings and thinking I was breathing all that was making them black every day aside from, perhaps, Sunday. They called it lo smog in Milan and soon it would be paired up with another enemy bearing an American name, lo stress. I got lo smog and lo stress to a great degree and when I hadn't been on holiday for some time, it became harder and harder to get up in the morning and turn on all my pretty electric lights. Even now on stormy days in New York when the sky is thunderous grey and I turn on the light, it reminds me of Milan. Aside from the hippo, I encountered another exotic in Milan, on more than one foggy night--a Somalian woman wreathed in white veils. With her, too, I felt a kinship.
On the way back from work, I would stop at a record store and buy two or three records a day--a group called Penguin Café Orchestra, Nina Simone, Maria Callas singing Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti, the pianist Benedetti Michelangeli. And I bought books, brought them home and put them on a table face up and they would constitute my gallery of friends.