Scholars of physics have an idea they call String Theory, which is a simple name for a simple thing. In essence, it is the theory that all things are connected by strings belonging to the universe which are invisible to the naked eye, meaning something that happens here will cause an outcome over there, and from there to there, and so on. I do not know whether they are right; I am only a girl from impoverished Naples, barely educated, and whether time or space have any meaning is of no consequence to me. It’s a pretty thought, that things can or should be so intimately connected, and it has a ring of satisfaction. In my experience things are connected, yes, but the picture it makes is less pretty than these strings of the universe, and sometimes even harder to see.
I know Lenuccia has presented me in her story of our friendship as a person very contradictory, perhaps even sometimes deliberately cruel. She is brilliant, my friend Lenù, but from time to time she doesn’t know where to look to uncover a person’s true nature. When it came to me, I was grateful for that. When it came to others, not so much. She caused herself a great amount of pain by searching for goodness that did not exist, or by craving affection from those who lacked proficiency to give it. She was also stubborn; when Lenù wanted to find some glimmer of hope, she would find it, regardless if it existed or not. I, for example, was never what she wanted me to be. I was like a poorly made brassiere, never fully formed to her shape, poking out in some places and causing her ceaseless discomfort on the whole. We pushed each other so much that by the end we were bent badly, caged by some mutation of the shape our girlhoods had formed.
For much of my life I have carried with me a burden of fear, though not my mother’s inherited fears of illness or ill-wishing or death. This string, my primary string, and the one which bound my universe together, was my knowledge that my biggest aberration was me; that I hid something deep inside myself, knowing it was ugly. Perhaps a priest would call it my soul, or a physicist would call it my atoms, my quanta; somewhere in the foundation of my materials I was made badly. Corrupted, like a bug within a program that destroys a computer’s functions from the inside out.
Lenù knew little of my monstrous interior, though I think she was suspicious of it nonetheless. Intuitively, like an animal sensing danger. The evil inside me, the wickedness, I shared only with men; they brought it out in me. Sometimes I wondered if the evil inside me was men, if they were the ones who planted it, but I have known at least one man who was better than I was, and perhaps even better than good. Still, men are the ones who provoked my most dangerous tendencies, who caused me to lash out and strike like a snake, like a scorpion. I tried to live like a spider, weaving webs, but in the end, I was the one still trapped.
It seems strange to recount my life by men when it was a woman, Lenù, whose path defined it. I never hoped to appeal to the opposite sex; among the scarcity of my virtues I confess I did not want their attention. I wanted, rather, to be like them, and specifically to be like my brother Rino, whom I once adored. I wanted to make a choice and have it be that—done, finished, finale. Men always wanted me to be small, and in my vanity I wanted to be bigger than they were, enormous. I wanted to fight and beat my breast; coraggioso, maschio, virile instead of silenziosa, tranquilla, obbediente. I wanted others to seek my counsel; to turn to me for praise; to admire my discipline and salute my courage. I wanted them to marvel at my strength.
The truth is that without these men, I do not exist; I am only a shadow that way, of things I wanted to be but wasn’t. But maybe once I have found words for my corruption, given it a name, the evil will leech out of me, finally bled from my bones, and maybe then I can cast out the toxicity of their venom, unshackled from their hold over me. The last cruelty men will cause me is that I cannot recount myself without them. I am a woman on the outside being watched by another woman in my head, who is herself observing me through the eyes of a man. Having lived exclusively under the control of one or another, I know I am inextricable from them, even when I foolishly thought I was free.
Now that things are different, I have plans to remove myself from the equation; once I disappear, will I stop entirely, or will I go on? Maybe if I can recount the strings I can connect them, and maybe once I do, I will finally see the picture. If I can see the picture, then maybe I will know the moral. If I make sense of the moral, then perhaps I’ll have an answer.
Only then can the story really end.
We come from poverty, Lenuccia and I. We know what it is to hunger, to starve, though I think perhaps we were too proud to bond over it. I never confessed to her, for example, what my own hunger once caused me to do, or to almost do. I never told her how my starvation sealed my fate for me, or how it decided on my behalf where I would end before I ever began. I mentioned neither how it caused me to make a choice so dangerous it nearly killed me, nor how, in the same way, I still believe it to be the decision that saved my life. If I had acted any other way than what I ultimately chose, I would have gone down an irreversible path, losing myself entirely. It is for someone else, perhaps one day Lenuccia, to judge if the outcome has been better or worse.
I already knew Marcello Solara was three things: spoiled, inherently cruel, and the son of a murderer, if not a murderer himself. Perhaps, knowing that, it is easier to understand why I refused to love him. There were some who couldn’t see those things about him—owing to strings that floated invisibly, even in the universe of our small neighborhood—and therefore they judged me to be a madwoman, rejecting him out of cruelty or rudeness or worse, stupidity, as if I somehow didn’t know what he and his family might do to me one day for the insult I had caused. There are many who think I sought to protect myself with Stefano, running to him to shield me from Marcello’s wrath, which might have seen me killed or worse.
The truth is I needed Stefano to save me from myself.
It started with the knife I held to Marcello’s throat. I think he knew I would slit him there as easily as I knew he could bruise me, kick me, beat me, tear my hair from my scalp and leave me bleeding in the road. But in that moment we were frozen together, my knife to his throat and his eyes holding mine, and I knew Lenuccia was crying but I couldn’t release him to go to her, not for anything. It was the start of a war and I knew that, looking at him. I knew we both knew it. He would make me his or he would destroy me, and in that moment, I wasn’t so sure which it would be.
His appearances started shortly after. Lenù was surprised, my father was surprised, Rino was surprised, I wasn’t. I was the only person on earth in that moment with him, and therefore I am the only one who knew what he had seen. For one moment there had been a string reaching from me to Marcello Solara, and though I knew what he was and what he was made of, I let the string form. I didn’t let go of him, I didn’t drop my gaze, I didn’t back down. Call it courage if you want but I know it was hunger, in the end. My hunger for him, and his for me, started in the same moment, with that invisible, connected string.
It was a distressing time for me, as even Lenù would report. There was no escaping Marcello; he was a man who could be present even when he wasn’t. Gifts to my family, his name on my mother’s lips, the subject of his money always on my father’s mind. He was present in the room whether he sat there expectant or not. At night, when I tossed and turned amid the summer heat, I replayed the moment with my shoemaker’s knife, the monster inside Marcello Solara recognizing the monster in me and rising up to claim it, whispering little secrets of destruction. I knew it was hunger because it ached in my stomach just the same, made me sick. There was a piece of me that wanted to be consumed by him, just as there was a piece of him that wanted to devour me whole.
I never feared monsters as a girl. Not the one from fairytales, Don Achille, and not even Stefano when it turned out he was worse an ogre than his father had been. To this day the thing I fear most was my own self, and the mutations I suffered, when I was in Marcello’s presence. I knew he was cruel and I continuously provoked him, desperately hoping some new ugliness I revealed in him might help me stay away.
I have always been two parts: my logical thoughts and my demonic ones. Part of me has always known Marcello is a criminal like his parents, like his brother, a man with brutality in his blood. Men have an inherited violence, just as women have inherited fears; some men have more Cain in them than others. I had seen Marcello Solara hurt women before and I knew I would not be special to him, I would not be precious to him. I would be another thing in his path he could hurt.
The other part of me knew what happened when he looked at me. I understand why some women are satisfied to be prey, because I was nothing but a target in Marcello’s eyes and still, I struggled to be revulsed by the prospect of a cage. I had curiosities; Would my breath quicken when he touched me? Sex is like violence in Naples, constantly on our minds and tongues. I had heard enough to wonder, and with Marcello, my imaginings were brought to life in chills of fever. He has softness. Never believe monsters cannot have sweetness. It makes them more dangerous if you cannot look at the shape of their mouths or the slope of their shoulders and admit yes, this is handsomeness, this is beauty. He has all the elegance of a predator without the callousness of other men; he is not a shoemaker with roughened hands, nor a construction worker covered in sweat. He calls to me, he deludes me with his sweeter nature, and that is what makes him a monster. I am a monster for reasons very much the same.
Until the day we both die I think he and I will equally remember the night I made my decision. He had brought me something; I struggle now to remember, or I have tried so long to forget that my mind has finally acquiesced. Jewelry, I think, or some trinket for which I should be grateful. Giving is not a virtue when it counts towards some invisible ledger, which is a lesson I first learned from him.
I gave it back to him, or perhaps I threw it. I remember nothing in specific until he presses me against the wall outside my family’s home, his hands on my waist, his touch doing all it can to scar me. Then my memory is sadistically clear.
“You’re mine,” he said. “You will accept what I give you and you will be grateful.”
He hated to hear me say no, but I think he would never have wanted me if I had ever known how to say yes. “What do you mean no?”
“I say no, I mean no. Or are you too stupid to understand?”
His fingers were hard enough to bruise.
“You’re a demon,” he said to me, and it was the dangerous kind of quiet. The kind of quiet that meant he was reminding me I could die and no one would stop him. I would slip into the night like a shadow and no one would say a word. “Lina,” he said, “you are the worst kind of woman. You push and you push and you push—”
“You push back,” I reminded him nastily. “Try something else for a change.”
His mouth was close to mine, his breath on my lips. “Why is it so hard for you to accept me?”
“Because I don’t want you.”
“It’s not true, you do.”
“You think I can’t see it on your face? You do.” Briefly, his grip on me softened. He raised one hand to my cheek, the tip of his finger stroking my jaw, my lips. Softness. “See? We could be sweet to each other, Lina.”
I turned my head and bit his finger. He slammed me against the wall, furious.
“I don’t want sweet,” I said. “Not from you.”
“You don’t deserve it, either.” His eyes on mine were bright, like a fire. Angry and darting and blazing, like flame. “Someone needs to put you in your place.”
My place. As if my father had not done that when he threw me from our window. As if my mother had not done that when she agreed to pull me from my school. My brother did it when he sided with the Solaras over me, when he gave Papa the shoes we made together. Elena did it when she went on to school without me, when she told me of her success as if I should be proud, as if it were so improbable I might be jealous. I have always known what my place was, and I have fought against it with every breath for my entire life.
“Why do you want me?” I asked Marcello, and I suppose I was taunting him. “You could have a girl who does what she’s told. Go find one of those if you want one.”
But no, he wanted to break me. I was special enough for that.
“It’s you I want.” Strange words from an intemperate mouth. I tasted them on my tongue, confused by their docility. “We could rule this neighborhood Lina, you and I. There is no one equal to you, or to me. If you would just stop fighting me—”
“Who would I be if I didn’t fight you?”
“Then fight me, I don’t care, but do it quietly. Do it like this,” he said, and his hand moved, bunching the fabric of my dress until he reached the skin of my thigh, brushing his cruel hands over the length of it. “I could teach you, Lina. I could teach you what it’s like when love has sparks like ours. Oh, you don’t have to like me,” he said, teeth white when he smiled. “Maybe I don’t even want you to. Maybe I want you to hate me, to give into me just a little, just enough so I can hate you back.” He and I were both breathing heavily, our chests painfully tight. His hand slid over my leg, fitting the entire width of it in his palm.
He took my face in one hand, holding it steady. “Tell me you’re mine, Lina.”
Part of me wanted to. Part of me wanted to see what he would do if I gave in, just a little. Just enough that he’d close the distance between us. I had no doubt my skin was heated beneath his touch, and the way we fit together was mesmerizing. He hadn’t asked for love.
“Say you’re mine, Lina.”
Simple, so simple. Maybe he was a bad man, but for a moment he was a man whose touch I craved like intoxication, like addiction. There were moments near Marcello Solara when I understood the ceaseless wailing of Melina Capuccio, her need to throw things and watch them shatter all for the love of a man. I was hungry for him, insatiably. Even if it meant my death, I struggled to find a more preferable outcome than knowing it was my wickedness that would consume me in the end.
He leaned forward to place his lips on mine. They were tart with my mother’s limoncello. I could smell him, musky with the scent of wanting. I didn’t breathe.
His hands drifted, the one beneath my skirt finding its way to my hip, floating over the material of my undergarments. I felt a twisting in my stomach, a strange sensation between my thighs, and I whispered a sigh in his mouth that must have sounded like a yes. It made him work his free hand into my hair, trembling, while he slid his kiss to the side of my mouth, then drew his tongue across my lips, coaxing them apart.
I gasped. He slammed me against the wall again, less angry this time and more desperate, and he said in a groan, “Lina, tell me right now, tell me.” I was busy burning, the evil things inside me laughing, happy to trap him between my heated legs and keep him there, twist them around him until he melted or floated to ash. “Lina, say it.”
“No.” I kissed him back. I lacked the choreography to say I performed it well, but I know what I did was reciprocation. “No, never.”
He whimpered in my mouth, slamming my head against the wall. “Never?”
“Never, Marcé. I’ll die first.”
His hand tightened in my hair. “Then I’ll kill you.”
“Do it. You’re welcome to kill me now. I’ll give you my knife.”
He sucked in a heavy breath, slamming a fist against the wall beside my head.
I didn’t flinch. I stared at him, and when he dragged his gaze to mine, I made sure he could see it on my face. I was careful to make sure he saw that I would not be powerless. I would not choose a man like him just because my body wanted him, or because my wicked self could be temporarily tamed in his arms. I told him with one look that I would never choose him, no matter how hard he tried, specifically because of this: I wanted him, and I know better than to give in to what I want.
Only then did he loosen his grip, staring at me.
“You’ll kill us both,” he said, voice ragged. “You’ll have both our deaths on your conscience.”
“Fine. I’ve had worse.”
He yanked me into him, kissing me again, and I tore at the roots of his hair when I kissed him back, making him cry out in my mouth.
“You’re the devil,” he swore, tearing himself away, or maybe I shoved him. “Diavola. That’s what you are, cursed. Evil.”
I smiled at him. “Yes,” I said, “I am. I know.”
“You’ll be mine one day, Raffaella Cerullo,” he said, full of spite and vitriol. “One day I’ll have you.”
I had no doubt that he would. But I also knew I would put as much distance between that day and this one as I could, even if I destroyed everything in my path to do it.
When I told Marcello I was marrying Stefano instead of him, he seemed resigned. I think my mother thought he would kill me, but I already knew he would not. He needed me alive. He needed me to stay alive so he could hate me.
It was the closest to having me that he would ever get.
“You don’t love him,” he said to me, speaking about Stefano. “I know you don’t love him, Lina.”
“I do,” I said. “I’m marrying him and not you, it’s simple.”
“No,” he insisted. “You don’t love him, not like you love me.”
“I don’t love you.”
He got that monstrous look on his face again, full of wickedness when he looked at me.
“Will you kill me now?” I asked him. I was taunting him, knowing he would not, though I did not know yet there are many things worse than killing.
He took three long steps to reach me. In that moment I would have sliced my own throat rather than run.
That time, the final time, his lips were bitter, like venom.
“See? You love me,” he said, triumphant. His kiss is burned into my memory, cluttered among other things I hope one day to forget. I never wanted anything like I wanted him, and from that day on I began to avoid the things that drove me from my sense of control. The hunger I had for him would never be duplicated.
“Lina, I know it, you love me.”
“Then spend your life wondering why I’d choose to marry a man I don’t love rather than give myself to you, Marcello Solara,” I said, and then I walked away, feeling his fury at my back.
So there is one piece of the picture. See if it isn’t pretty up close.
My husband is not worth a story. That would be giving him far more of me than he is due, having taken as much as he already has without asking. He is a miscalculation I made, something to learn from. He is also the reason my wickedness returned.
The truth is I knew Lenù’s heart. She wore it so plainly it was hard not to see. I knew she loved Nino Sarratore, and there was a time I would have happily given him to her if I had thought such a thing could be accomplished. Here, he loves me but he would be better for you, have him as my gift, Merry Christmas. If only such things could be done.
The madness of Nino was not my madness alone. Like with Marcello, there was a string that bound us. To be really cruel I would say it was me alone whom Nino loved; the only person from whom he had nothing to gain, and still the only woman for whom he nearly gave up everything. He would have thrown away his bright future for a dull one with me, and that is either love or madness. I do not think Nino is particularly capable of love, so it must be the latter. I was mad right alongside him, and together we recklessly burned.
It was his mind I wanted, though not for affection. I wanted it in the sense of wanting it for my own. If I could have sliced open my skull and his and replaced his knowledge with mine, I’d have done it and licked his blood from my fingers, staring blank-eyed at the vacancy that would remain in his brain. The books I read were not knowledge. The arithmetic I learned in school was hardly enough to count as a speck among everything he’d been privileged to learn. I coveted him, sinful and lustful, not for his love, but for what became of me in his presence. Suddenly I was alive again. Marcello wanted me dead right beside him, Stefano wanted to kill me with his demands, but with Nino I was finally alive, flourishing in an ocean of thought and conversation.
It was because of Lenù that I was wicked for him, forsaking her happiness for what I foolishly thought I deserved. But then again, she is, between us, the good one.
Only for Nino was love such a physical act. I indulged him his appetite because it meant that while I held him close, while I held him inside me, the extent of my mind was limitless. “Tell me again of Dante,” I would say in his ear, substituting that at times with Boccaccio, Machiavelli, Ariosto, Manzoni. Camus, Proust, Zola, Voltaire. Shakespeare, Lawrence, Wilde. I loved when he would speak in poetry to me. I said before I would have given him to Lenuccia if I could have, but I don’t think I’d have let him go. I think I would have come along as part of the exchange, legs entwined around him like a child, catching his whispers even if she had been the intended net.
So you see, then. For a time Nino cost me my sanity. I would have given anything for Lenù’s happiness and still, I could not let him go. I thought, Stefano will kill us. Nothing, no response from my heart, hardly a pulse. Perhaps even Marcello would kill us? No, never, not him. He needs me alive so I can suffer. I thought maybe Lenuccia will kill me; maybe her love for Nino is that wild. Oh, I hoped for it. I prayed for it, from time to time. Anything to rid me of the fever, the curse of wickedness that was my wanting him at all.
“You don’t love me,” Nino accused me. The second time a man accused me of it.
“Hush, I love you, you know I love you.” The first time Nino kissed me it had been so different from Marcello’s kiss I barely recognized the recurrence of the action. It was only when Nino slid his hand under my skirt that I remembered all men are essentially the same. He wanted to own me, too, but I was weaker now from marriage, and not myself. Lina Cerullo had been choked to death in her marriage bed and now Lina Caracci was weak-willed and mad.
“Sometimes you treat me like I’m an idiot,” Nino sulked. For a man with so much education his brain was a sensitive area. “You make me feel I’m a child, like I never do anything right.”
“Why should you feel that way? If things are right, they’re right.”
“You cause problems for me, you confuse my thoughts.”
“Why is that my doing? It’s your thoughts which get confused, not mine.”
He would get angry, sulky, and briefly I would think: I don’t love him anymore, maybe I never loved him at all, I’ll tell Lenù not to love him either.
But then he would soften, “I want to be with you always,” he’d become meek and he’d take me in his arms, shove aside my skirt and plead with me, and I’d say yes yes yes, soothing more than wanting, because in my madness I would think: What am I if he leaves? What becomes of me if he goes? I was growing a new monster in my stomach, a baby demon. It was bleeding the life from me as if my own monster wasn’t enough, and it was Nino’s monster, or so I thought, so I knew it would be a monster who demanded all of my attention, all of my affection, all of my love. Finally I would go mad for him from the inside out.
After I found out Antonio beat him I could see the whole thing through clearer eyes. I wasn’t mad anymore, not after some distance. I realized Nino was actually an idiot, that maybe he had knowledge but he didn’t have an ounce of smarts. Lenù was always smarter, more naturally intuitive, when she wasn’t trying to impress him. The idea of her lowering herself for him only for him to betray her with me was sickening. I grew to hate him, having already hated myself. I was angry with who I had been in my fog of wickedness, though now I consider it a blessing. Better he didn’t put a baby in Lenuccia back then, before she had finished school and written her books. Nino was not a careful man, and what would have happened to her if he’d chosen her then instead of me? She would have been ruined, probably. She would have surrendered to complacency and to motherhood even sooner than she did. She will not thank me for this string, not ever, but then, I do not require gratitude.
This one is a gift, from me to her, and if she never sees it, fine. There are plenty of things in the universe no one can see.
Perhaps a better word for this is hubris. I am jumping around in my story now. The problem with the neighborhood is people coming into our lives and out. It makes chronology difficult, though time is a fantasy. There is no such thing as time, only something we gave a name to in order to grant ourselves an orbit, making everything relative to us. How selfish we are, how greedy, that we can look at the world and say it revolves around us, our experience. Time is not a straight line moving forward, it is me sitting here today while being thirty years in the past; forty, fifty, sixty. We are all just little monsters trying to give our feelings names.
The string that bound me to Pasquale Peluso is the same string that bound me to Michele Solara, and in this it was a matter of power. They look at first glance like opposites. They represent opposite sides, or they think they do. Pasquale sees himself a man of the future. Michele is everything ugly about the past. In the end there is little difference between them, though, because they are spoilers. They spoil beautiful things, taking their ideas to extreme and dangerous conclusions, causing a wreckage because destruction comes easily to them. Like the violence of Cain, the art of war is evergreen, passed down from father to son. I loved one of them as much as I despised the other, though there is almost no point distinguishing them. In the end, what difference did it make?
If I have a talent, perhaps it is in the same way sirens have talents but are really monsters. I cut my teeth on Pasquale, who was the first to reveal his feelings for me. What a brilliant light, Pasquale; how devastating that even after me, he would never improve his ability to tell an exciting woman, a dazzling one, from a good one. His affection for me was the first I learned to weaponize, realizing that men would listen better if I were a mirror for them: What do you think, what do you believe, what would I know compared to you ? Pasquale rewarded me for my curiosity when I shone his light back at him: Tell me everything, Pasquá. I am so confused, how do you know so much, how can the world make so much sense through your eyes? He was all too happy to indulge me.
This is what I mean about having a man in my head. Everything I have done, at the heart of it, has been to persuade a man, either that I am worthy because I refuse to let him silence me and therefore I am not so easy to push around, or I am worthy because his feeling of pleasure in sheltering me has brought him satisfaction. There are only two ways to succeed as a woman in a man’s world; in this, there is no infinity. You can be soft enough to persuade a man to worship you, or hard enough that he fears your absence. There is no in between.
Michele would not have been so easy had I not already refused his brother. If I had given into Marcello, Michele would have never listened to me. Why would he? If I said yes to Marcello I was a woman easy to win, his own brother managed it, why bother. But because his brother, for whom he was nothing but a tail, could not have me, well… then no one could. It is an arrogant man who confuses ‘no one’ for himself, but that is Michele Solara in a word: arrogance. How could any woman measure up to the idea of me? All he did was elevate me, and I helped. Every time I outplayed him, I only vaulted myself higher. I was untouchable, or so I believed. After all, he would have loved even the shadow of me, even a ghost of me. I forgot that even I had a heart that could be broken. The day he figured it out must have been the only day he ever used his brain.
I’m losing the thread again. Pasquale and his Communist ideas; I learned those from him. Briefly, because of him, I found I had power. I learned I had a voice, that I had thoughts of my own, and that if I spoke them others would listen. I learned fearlessness from him. Michele, gangster that he was, I only knew how to use him. I never believed him to be more than a tool to be picked up at will, set back down when I was finished. Oh, I will work for him, sure, I will let him think I am loyal to him because he pays my bills. He is the cyclops from the Odyssey, and I, in my hubris, I waved the torch in his eye and told him my name. I wanted him to know it was me who had done it, who had destroyed him. That I had seen it all and used my weapon just at the opportune time.
In the end I was no worse than Michele. I was the same fool as Pasquale. Michele is dead now, shot three times in the back, killed right in front of his family. Pasquale is in prison, betrayed by the woman he loved. Am I better off than they are, for being no better than them? My son is a disappointment and my daughter was taken from me. The man I loved… for him my heart is like a box. I cannot know whether anything is alive inside unless I look, but I can’t look, not yet. Not while I fear the insides are rotten. This is what power does, it corrupts absolutely, it takes root and festers until everything is destroyed. We were connected by strings, Pasquale and Michele and I, even when we could not see them. For them, their strings were a noose.
Mine is coming for me, but not quite. It ties around my throat and waits for me. What I do next will either pull it tight or allow me to slip away.
“I love you, I have loved you, I will love you,” Enzo said to me once as if it were nothing, as if cutting his heart out and handing it to me had no cost to him at all, “but it is not my right to open your arms for that love. If you want my love, you decide when to take it. You will have to ask me, Lina. I cannot decide for you. Until then you know where to find me. When you’re ready, ask.”
Enzo’s love was full of angelic things: admiration, gratitude, respect. Love for him was selfless and virtuous, never forced upon me, never stolen, never without kindness. I think if I had never loved him back he would have lived beside me his entire life, never crossing the line I drew for him. It would have been enough to be my friend, to watch over me, to help me when I asked.
But my love was not like his.
“I want you,” I said to him. We had been living together for years and only once had I asked to sleep in his bed, to feel his warmth. But I had a hunger again that night, a starvation for intimacy. I needed to be touched, to be held. Selfishly I insisted upon it, even when he told me I had to really want him, that it wasn’t enough just to use him like a battery. He thought I disgusted him and I didn’t know how to say, No, Enzo, you don’t disgust me, you are the only beautiful thing in my life and I don’t know how to want you without disfiguring myself. So instead I said nothing, and he was kind enough, generous enough, to let me take from him while I, in turn, gave nothing.
But then I wanted more, and I kept taking. I said I want you Enzo, he said no, Lina, you’re just saying that, I said no and I kissed him. I kept pulling him close, touching him, caressing him. He resisted at first, saying I wasn’t in my right mind, I could never love someone like him, but I persisted. I remember the sounds that night were especially percussive, the thud of his pulse beneath my lips. I was never good at loving, not in any sense. I never liked sex much and didn’t have the instincts for it, not like with dancing. But with Enzo, it felt natural to tuck a kiss into the place his neck so often pained him, where it was always bent over his algebra books. I touched my cheek to his chest because it seemed fitting to find a place against him there. I ran my hands over his waist, trying to fit him between my palms, because the reflex to contain him was suddenly overwhelming. I hate the penis, how it looks so angry and swollen and how all men treat theirs like guns, but when it came to Enzo’s I caressed him. I remember I felt him shiver and convulse.
If terrible men enjoy sex so much, then surely good men deserve it. Enzo deserves it, and I thought, unlike before, I can want him with some temperance. I can control myself, and he will be kind, and then maybe love with him will be sweet.
I remember the little sound from his lips, the helpless moan, like he wanted to remember something but couldn’t. Like the details were all out of reach. His fingers slid through my hair, gentle. I had never known touch without Nino’s urgency, my husband’s cruelty, Marcello’s fury. I thought maybe I won’t even want it if it goes too slowly, if it’s too soft I won’t even notice. But I tightened my hands on Enzo’s hips and he responded to me, like finally we spoke the same language. Binary, zeroes and ones, easy communication. He turned me and in one fluid motion we fell onto the bed together, finally giving in.
Our love was always about me: waiting for me, appeasing me. The monster I was when I was in love was a greedy one, taking and taking. I put his hand under my skirt and he stroked my sex with trembling fingers until I whispered yes, Enzo, please. I knew if I said please he’d give me whatever I asked; I said it so infrequently. I knew if I asked him to love me he would do it, to the detriment of his future self. I would be robbing him of a happy life with an unselfish woman, someone who would adore him properly, who would bear his children proudly, who would cater to his every need. There are women like that, good women, everywhere. I knew by letting him in I would steal that possibility from him forever, but I did it anyway. I ruined him when I said Enzo, please.
All restraint vanished. He gasped in my mouth and asked me how did I want to be touched? I said hold me close, just hold me, don’t let go. He parted my legs, slid one hand under my hip, told me to stop him if I wanted him to stop. I didn’t. When he filled me we both cried out, and I caught his lips with mine, not wanting to be alone in terror, in reverence. Wanting to steal his breath. He moved against me slowly at first, deeply but with patience. Each time his hips moved against mine I thought I would die a little, but he did as I asked and didn’t let go. He parted my hair, stroked my face, kissed my neck, all the while moving slowly, carefully. It was a surprise to me when I gasped, letting a wave of pleasure fall over me, carried away by a current belonging to an ocean I’d never seen.
I always told him I didn’t want to get married. Why bother, I said, we’ll just stay together as long as we feel like, and when we get sick of it we’ll go our own way. That’s how selfish I was, how monstrous, how wicked. I couldn’t let him think I wanted him forever, no, that would cost me too much. I’d had one husband who betrayed me. Why do it again, when marriage was only betrayal? It was me who couldn’t bear it, but I made light of it. Oh, if you tire of me then just go, it’s only now that matters. All that matters is we love each other now, who cares about tomorrow? I couldn’t even tell him that I wanted tomorrow, that in fact it was me. I wanted every tomorrow, but I was afraid if I asked for it he would say no. Enzo, who had never said no to me, I was even afraid of him. I had never loved someone who hadn’t disappointed me; my brother, my father, my husband, my son. The one person who would have loved me as long as I wanted him to, I could barely ask him for any of it. All my life had ever done was make me smaller until I was a loud, brash piece of dust.
There were, at least, a few days I loved him bravely. The day he told me please, can we have a baby, I want to see a baby with your face and mine, I want to see what kind of person we make. I laughed at him, pushed him, said don’t be crazy, I’m not good at babies. Look at my son, how lazy he is, somewhere I went wrong. Enzo caught my face between his hands and said Lina, Lina you did nothing wrong, Gennaro will be his own self according to where his life takes him. “But you and me, Lina,” he whispered to me, still holding my face, “our baby, can you imagine? Beautiful like you, funny like you, smart like you.”
“And you?” I asked him ironically. “What will the child have from you?”
But I knew the answer. She would have his good humor, his easy charm. She would be steadfast like him, kind but also firm. She would care about others, she would be good and clever and free. She would be confident and thoughtful, and her father—unlike my own, and unlike my son’s—would deny her nothing; not education or affection. She could have as much of both as she wished. Her father would be Enzo Scanno, a boy who had made something of himself all on his own and who had learned so patiently how to love me, and whoever his daughter was, she would be luckier than I had been. I would make sure of it for as long as I lived.
“I don’t know what they’ll get from me,” Enzo said, “maybe nothing,” but I kissed him like I knew better. I pulled at his lip with my teeth and yanked him closer, closer, until he backed me into the kitchen sink and lifted me up, and I wrapped my legs around his hips; closer, closer. He made love to me on the kitchen sink and in return I loved him unselfishly, for once. Because when I let out one of those unfamiliar cries of pleasure and pain, I was thinking, for the first time, that I would make his daughter.
I liked loving Enzo. I never cared for easy tasks, always preferring a challenge, but loving him was such a process that when it came to my surrender, I was already a little exhausted, ready for something that wouldn’t cause me pain. “Do you know,” I said quietly, “I think I loved you when we were children? When you nearly beat me in the math competition and then you hit me with that stone.” I rewrote our history with my fingers twined in his, painting it in rosier tones.
“You loved me then? But I hurt you.”
“Everyone hurt me.” This is a fact. “My own father threw me from the window, broke my arm. Rino slapped me, twisted my arms, made me bleed long before you ever did. You were the only one who cared that you’d done it.”
“Lina,” Enzo said. He looked at me like he did sometimes, like I was the center of his universe. Like there was a string in his chest tied to the string in mine and it bound us, so he couldn’t look away. “No one will hurt you again, I swear. No one will ever lay a hand on you.”
“I already made sure of that,” I told him, always with my bravado. He thought I meant because I’d kill them if they tried, always seeing me as braver and bigger than I was, but I meant because I’d chosen him. I knew what I was doing when I decided his bed was where I’d sleep at night.
He liked me even more when I was pregnant. Biology, maybe, that I was making his baby for him, though I no longer thought of it like a parasitic growth. I thought of it fondly, even though it was difficult for me at first. Eventually the curves of my belly were almost pretty, or they simply felt that way. Enzo would sit up in bed and beckon to me and I would lie back in his arms while he held me, stroking his hands over my swollen belly, whispering things to me or the baby or both. By then when he made love to me I liked it as much as he did, and he always did it like I asked him, touching me all the time. Keeping all the parts of us connected, by more than just the universe and string.
During those days my wickedness slumbered. I was busy, too busy to keep the demon in my heart entertained. I tried to keep it out for my baby’s sake, that it would have only Enzo’s goodness and not become infected with my evil. And I must have succeeded, because then Tina was born.
“I knew she would be beautiful,” Enzo said proudly. He doted on her and on me, kissing my forehead, my cheeks, snatching kisses from my lips and stealing my breath, surprising me, making me sigh with happiness even though I pretended it was annoyance instead. I’d tell him go away, I’m tired, I’m feeding the baby she needs to sleep, but Enzo had loved my difficulty before she was born and he loved it after, too. My monster came out again through the process of labor; while giving birth I was a dragon-woman, screaming and breathing fire, but Enzo forgave me that, as he had always forgiven everything. “Come on Lina, she wouldn’t be our baby if she let us convince her to come out so easily,” he said. Blessed, wretched man.
Nunziatina, my Tina, smelled like all babies smell. Like talcum powder, milk, and newness, and I loved it, inhaling it like air. I gloried in motherhood for the first time, but because Enzo was so exuberant I was able to hide my own pride. Again he did me that favor, allowing me to be selfish, giving nothing of myself away. And he would give me his time without hesitation, pay me attention whenever I wanted it, even with our business to run.
“What about work?” I would protest when he was nudging me back against our bedroom wall, nuzzling my neck and bouncing my chin up to kiss me, laughing, hands bunching up the fabric of my dress. I would shove him away but not hard, just enough to be a little difficult, and he would laugh again and kiss me until I was the one who pulled him closer, eagerly giving in. “Enzo, there’s no time—”
“I have time for you, Lina,” he always said. “Lina, always so beautiful, always so clever, I am so lucky, the luckiest to have you.”
He would say that, really, even when he was tired: Lina, I always have time for you.
Enzo’s daughter was the most beautiful child, the sweetest and most temperate. I hardly saw myself in her, only him. I loved Imma, Lenuccia’s daughter, just as much for being Lenuccia’s. I always felt a strangeness, as if these two babies I loved so much were both mine, both more wonderful for having so little to do with me. “We’re both your mammas,” I told them once, but then at night it was Enzo whispering to me, holding me close and saying, “You are the best mother Lina, you make me so happy, every day I love you more.”
I should have been happy with what I had, but I have always been a monster.
I cannot dwell here for long. It hurts me. Everything goes terribly wrong and it is my fault, entirely my fault. Enzo never let me down, never as a partner or as a father or as a man. But I let him down, and for that my wickedness, all my prior mistakes, they return and collide.
I was ambitious. I wanted to make the Solaras pay for their crimes, for what they had cost the neighborhood and the people I loved. I was mad to think this was a world where justice could be served. Hadn’t Pasquale taught me better? It was our world that was made badly; the people in it were just symptoms of the cause. I thought I had power just because I could make a man listen to me, make him want me, but that’s the power a mirror has to stop a bullet. Meaningless in the end.
I loved so violently in my silent, selfish way it tore me apart, destroyed me. They took my daughter. The men who arrested Enzo made a terrorist of him. These don’t look like things I did, but the truth is I know I caused them. I shone a light on the Solaras’ shadows and they punished me the best they could. When Enzo blamed them I couldn’t do the same; it was like admitting to the man who loved me most that I had failed him, and even in love I was too selfish for that. Instead this neighborhood made a monster of him, calling him a violent communist, driving him away. Idiots that they are, they missed the obvious signs that the monsters were still here: I was still here, the neighborhood’s poison. Did no one think to wonder why all the death, all the violence, it all happened around me?
When I’m gone it will be better.
The curse can only end with me.
What happened to Tina is a mystery. I will never know who took her. This is what I have to come to terms with now: That for all the knowledge I have craved and all the power I have lost and all the hunger I have felt, this is the most of it. This is everything. No amount of study or investigation will tell me where Tina has gone. The Solaras are dead now, their truths buried with them. I will be hungry for the rest of my life.
But I have made two confessions: primarily the one I sent to Lenù, by giving her the lost dolls from our childhood. I hope now she will know the truth of what I am. I was always the wicked one, plotting like a spider, connecting threads. When there was no string to connect us I invented one; I saw her for what she was, a brilliant girl who wasn’t like the others, and I tied myself to her like an anchor. Do I regret it? No. She needed me, I pushed her. If it was wicked, then good, at least my wickedness had a purpose. When it comes to Lenuccia, I think now we are at peace.
Which leaves only this one, me bleeding out on the page, trying to make sense of the inconceivable, or perhaps the ineffable. I thought I was a puppeteer, but I was only another string. This is why science exists, to teach us how small we truly are; how gravely inconsequential. We ask questions and sometimes, if we study closely enough, we receive answers. That’s what I have been doing all these years: studying the picture, zooming out, trying to see.
I will never find Tina, that much is clear to me. I must accept that whether my daughter is dead or not, she is gone. I can go on or I can stop, and perhaps because I am wicked and selfish, I think I see how I can do both. The neighborhood can be free of me. My son Gennaro, who would have remained stagnant with me, will be free. Lenù will be better off with only my illusion, recast in new light; she no longer needs me to push her, and she cannot push me. We’re better off free of each other, with her having answers or more questions, but either way, with me gone.
There is only one person for which I can make things better.
“Lina,” he says, surprised to see me. I was careful about my inquiries. In the computer age, it isn’t so easy to hide.
“I’m not the good one,” I tell him. “Lenù is the good one.”
He says nothing, but he beckons me inside.
“Marcello Solara made me cold,” I tell him, stepping over the threshold. “He taught me to fear myself. Nino Sarratore taught me to close myself off further. Pasquale Peluso, Michele Solara, they taught me to take, to be selfish. Together they made me what I am.”
Enzo remains quiet.
“My father was cruel, and my brother, too. They were small men who tried to put me in a box to better suit their smallness. I’m not blaming them, it’s important that you see that, but I need you to know, Enzo, that I have never been good. I have never been good.”
“I never asked you to be good,” he says. It breaks my heart. But by now, my heart is accustomed to breaking.
“I know,” I say, “but I’m a smart girl. I know when it’s my turn. And you said you would love me if I asked.”
He swallows. He’s thinner now, too thin. I should have asked if there was a woman here but I already know there isn’t.
“Send me away if you want,” I tell him. “It’s my fault our daughter’s gone.”
“No,” he says immediately, but I shake my head.
“It’s my fault,” I say, “but I forgive myself. I forgive my wickedness, my selfishness. I forgive the hatred that made me seek destruction. I’ve said goodbye to it, I’ve let go. I sucked the poison out.”
He listens attentively but silently.
“I fixed the bug,” I say.
“How?” He isn’t smiling. He scratches at the stubble on his cheeks, which is grey now. I watched him grow old beside me, which is how I know I’ve grown old, too. I only know how I look by looking at him. I only know who I am when I’m beside him.
“It’s like this: a loop. I see myself made badly, I see bad things I made worse. But it’s broken, it’s a broken loop.”
“What do you mean?”
“You loved me.” This I say with certainty. “You loved me, and you are good. So I can’t be broken, there must be some good in me. My data is wrong.”
“What if your data is wrong about me?” he asks. “I was there too.”
I shake my head. “I know you. I was there the whole time, I saw you. You didn’t hide like me, you’re just Enzo, always exactly what you are. You’re a good man and you loved me.” I swallow, managing to say, “That means I must have some good, too.”
“Lina.” He says it like he means sweetheart, cara, stellina.
“May I have your love?” To my embarrassment my voice trembles. I sound like I did during the earthquake in Naples, when I clutched Lenù out of panic and fear. “Please, will you give it to me?”
I feel numb when he takes me in his arms. In fact, I’m still babbling.
“Please, Enzo, may I have it? I promise to deserve it. I will earn it, I will care for it, even without our daughter I swear I will value it—”
“Lina, Lina, hush.” He rocks me slowly, like he used to with Tina, to help our baby sleep. “I said you could have it if you asked, didn’t I?”
He is so good. I knew my calculations were correct. I might have been brilliant once, or at least gifted. I could have been something bigger, but I didn’t realize I already was. No one ever diminished me. I was never small.
“Enzo, our daughter is gone. They took her.” I cry into his shirt, a chasm gaping open, powerful but empty. “There was nothing I could do.”
“I know.” He’s crying, too. “There’s nothing we could do, Lina.”
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—”
“It’s not your fault. None of it was your fault.”
We cry like that for several minutes, holding each other, letting our past selves go. I have asked him to love me again, a second time, and he has said yes.
“I wrote a book,” I tell him after a few minutes.
He doesn’t seem surprised. “About what?”
What else? “Naples. The neighborhood. A history of Italy, with all its beautiful, gruesome parts.”
“Did you fix it?” he says.
“No. I let it be wicked,” I say, and he presses his lips to my shoulder, burying a kiss.
“Will you go back?” His voice is muffled in my dress.
“I’m done with it.”
“Can you be done with it?”
“I’m vanished,” I tell him. “Gone. I can be whatever I want going forward.”
“And what do you want to be?”
When I give him my answer he smiles, and somewhere, I imagine my smile in return pulls an invisible string. Because of it, Lenù puts our dolls in a high closet and forgets about them. My daughter Tina feels the sun on her cheeks, warmed.
I stop and I continue.
Perhaps the picture isn’t always pretty.
But at last, it’s something I can see.