P’s Parties

A person wearing an orangered dress with their back to the camera holds a cigarette.
Photograph by Bea De Giacomo for The New Yorker

I should note straightaway that P’s parties took place every year at her house, on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, during the mild winters we typically enjoy in this city.

Unlike the slog of other winter holidays spent with family, always arduous, P’s birthday, at the beginning of the New Year, was an unpredictable gathering, languorous and light. I looked forward to the commotion of the crowded house, the pots of water on the verge of boiling, the smartly dressed wives always ready to lend a hand in the kitchen. I waited for the first few glasses of prosecco before lunch to go to my head, sampled the various appetizers. Then I liked to join the other adults out on the patio for a little fresh air, to smoke a cigarette and comment on the soccer game the kids played without interruption in the yard.

The atmosphere at P’s party was warm but impersonal, owing to the number of people invited, who knew one another either too well or not at all. You’d encounter two distinct groups, like two opposing currents that crisscross in the ocean, forming a perfectly symmetrical shape, only to cancel each other out a moment later. On one side, there were those like me and my wife, old friends of P and her husband who came every year, and on the other, our counterparts: foreigners who’d show up for a few years, or sometimes just once.

They came from different countries, for work or for love, for a change of scenery, or for some other mysterious reason. They were a nomadic population that piqued my interest—prototypes, perhaps, for one of my future stories, the kind of people I’d have the chance to meet and casually observe only at P’s house. In no time at all they’d manage to visit nearly all parts of our country, tackling the smaller towns on the weekends, skiing our mountains in February, and swimming in our crystalline seas in July. They’d pick up a decent smattering of our language, adapt to the food, forgive the daily chaos. Overnight, they’d become minor experts in the historical events we’d memorized as kids and had all but forgotten—which emperor succeeded which, what they accomplished. They had a strategic relationship with this city without ever fully being a part of it, knowing that sooner or later their trip would end and one day they’d be gone.

They were so different from the group I belonged to: those of us born and raised in Rome, who bemoaned the city’s alarming decline but could never leave it behind. The type of people for whom just moving to a new neighborhood in their thirties—going to a new pharmacy, buying the newspaper from a different newsstand, finding a table at a different coffee bar—was the equivalent of departure, displacement, complete rupture.

P was an old friend of my wife’s. They’d known each other for many years before we started dating, having grown up on the same block lined with grand palazzi. As kids they played together until dark; they went to the same elementary school and then the same challenging high school; they wandered off to buy contraband cigarettes from a shady guy behind a piazza that was quiet in those days. They went to the same university and, after graduating, rented a fifth-floor apartment in the thick of the city center. In the summers they travelled together to other countries—experiences they still loved to talk about. Then matters of the heart intervened: my wife met me at a New Year’s Eve party, while P married a staid but friendly lawyer, a man of average height, good-looking but slightly cross-eyed, and became a mother of four—three boys in quick succession, and then, like a simple but welcome dessert after a three-course meal, a girl.

Not long before the girl was born, P had a brush with death. A renowned doctor, always among those invited to the party, ended up saving her life with a tricky surgery. From then on, this yearly gathering became a constant: this sunny afternoon around her birthday, this merry, lavish lunch that brought together a wide range of people. P liked to fill the house and churn her friends together—relatives, neighbors, parents of her children’s classmates. She liked to throw open the door at least fifty times, offering something to eat, playing host, exchanging a few words with everyone.

It was thanks to my wife, then, that I went to that house once a year, a somewhat secluded house on the city’s outskirts. To get there, you took a curved, picturesque road, lined with cypresses and tumbling ivy. A road that swept you away, an urban road that ferried you toward the sea and put the frenzied city far behind. At a certain point there was a sharp right turn; you had to keep an eye out, it was easy to miss. After that it became a sort of residential labyrinth, with narrow, shaded, unpaved streets. You couldn’t see the houses, just tall gates and the house numbers etched in stone.

P’s house, where she lived with her children, her husband, and their two dogs, was at one end of this labyrinth. A spacious home, recently constructed, airy, with large, open rooms and plenty of space for a hundred-plus people to move about. At first glance—the house sat on a vast lawn, with no other structure in sight—it resembled a big, white, square-shaped rock jutting out of a green sea. In the distance you could glimpse the faint outline of the city where my wife and I and nearly all the other guests lived. It had a certain effect on me, coming to that house from our pleasant but compact apartment, where every book, every spoon, every shirt had its proper place, where I knew every shelf and hinge, and seating ten at the dinner table was a squeeze. An apartment whose windows looked out only onto other apartments, other windows, other lives like ours.

My memories of the past five or so parties had blurred together. Each year was different, and each year, for the most part, was the same. I made the same small talk I’d forget a minute later, I practiced my two rusty but still passable foreign languages, which I’d always brush up on a bit. I indulged, perhaps a little too much, in the same delicacies arrayed on the buffet table, circling back for more, with no regard for the extra kilos I’d put on and fret over after all those holiday meals. I said hello to friends and kissed the cheeks of women in their forties and fifties who staunchly refused to turn into signore. I absorbed the scent of their expensive perfumes, made brief contact with the warm skin of their shoulders, admired the elegant, form-fitting dresses they could still get away with at their age, at our age. At P’s parties I felt embraced, cared for, and at the same time blissfully ignored, free. We were detached from our flawed, finely tuned lives, from our frustrations. I could sense time lengthening and the suspension, at least for a few hours, of all responsibility.

I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish one party from the next, the incidents, the particulars, until one year when something out of the ordinary occurred, an ultimately banal disruption that remains a caesura in my life.

That year, I remember everything very precisely. I remember, for example, that there was more traffic than usual, which meant that we got there an hour late. It didn’t matter; at P’s it was always buffet style. I remember that my wife was telling me a story, talking ceaselessly as I drove, and that I was tuning her out. In fact, her slightly hoarse voice and her tendency to be long-winded were getting on my nerves. She managed an art gallery. I’d have preferred to drive that scenic stretch of road in silence, but she went on about clients and promising young painters. Before getting out of the car, she changed her shoes, trading her comfortable flats for a fancier pair with heels, partly to gain an extra inch or two and become just a touch taller than me.

Because P always invited all her children’s friends, the first thing we saw, walking up to the house, was a swarm of younger and older kids playing out in the yard, in the sun. Their coats were strewn on the grass, like towels left on the beach while everyone goes for a swim. The grade schoolers and teen-agers ran around in good spirits, sweating, and P’s pair of dogs were barking and chasing after them.

I thought of our own boy with a pang of nostalgia, the one child my wife and I had brought into this world. Just the other day he’d have come with us, and he, too, would have played in the yard without his coat. But now he was a grown man, a college graduate, a few months into his new life abroad, pursuing further studies at a foreign university.

My wife didn’t mourn his absence—if anything, she was eager for him to become more and more independent. According to her, the fact that he was getting by on his own for the most part, and now had a woman in his life, and was far from us, was a much deserved and happy ending to our long and exhausting road as parents. It meant that we’d done a good job, and this was a milestone worth celebrating. I found her lack of worry astonishing: she who’d hovered over our son his whole life, who’d taken such exacting care of his every meal, every soccer game, every test, every report card. But then I realized that she was always looking ahead, very rarely behind, which was why she now had her sights on his career, his love life, his future children—in short, his complete separation from us. While, for me, not seeing him every day, not hearing his voice around the house, or even his mediocre violin playing, not knowing what he was up to, not adding his favorite juice to the grocery cart—it all came as a blow. I was proud of him, yes, I was excited about his prospects, but I still had a hole in my heart.

We rang the bell even though the door was ajar. We kissed cheeks with P and her husband, who were there to greet us at the entrance as always. P was in fine form, radiant, wearing a printed dress from the seventies that had belonged to her mother, with a leather belt to accentuate her waist. We’d come bearing a few gifts: a scented candle, body cream, a new novel that everyone was talking about. After we chatted a minute, the doorbell rang again, and we were ushered down the hall. We took off our coats and threw them on the couch, atop an already precarious, promiscuous mound of fabric. It was warm in the house, but my wife, who is sensitive to cold and was wearing a sleeveless dress, decided to keep her pearl-gray wool shawl around her shoulders.

We found our way to the bar and picked up two glasses of prosecco. We made a toast, locking eyes for a moment. Then, with no hard feelings, for the rest of the afternoon my wife and I moved through the party in separate circles, paying each other no mind.

I began wandering about the house as if it were a favorite haunt, a place I knew fairly well but always partially, encountering one friend after another. It was only in this house, at this party, that we—mired in our responsibilities, in the personal and professional obligations that devour us, that define us—found the calm and the time to catch up. We ate, shared our news, chatted aimlessly.

All the while I was paying close attention to that other group: my potential fictional characters, the foreigners with whom I’d exchange just a few words, or more glances than words, really. I was intrigued by their point of view. They fascinated me precisely because, even though we were crammed into the same house, celebrating the same mutual friend, partaking in the same collective ritual, we remained two species, distinct and unmistakable. Eventually they’d drift off into their relaxed and secluded conversations, and we into ours. They seemed proud of their decision to uproot their lives, to acquire, in middle age, new points of reference. They evoked a world beyond my horizons, the risky steps I’d never taken: a world that had perhaps snatched my son away for good.

After making the rounds inside, I went out onto the patio. I stole a cigarette, one of the few I allow myself on occasion when unwinding away from home, and I joined the others watching the mix of younger and older kids still playing soccer, making a racket in the yard. The trees scattered around the lawn were turning gold in the light. At first, we were all men. Then P joined our conversation for a minute, to make sure we had everything we needed, something to drink, something to eat. She treated each of us like a lifelong friend, even though she hardly knew most of her guests.

“You’ve got a fantastic lawn. It would be nice to put a pool back here,” one of the men said to her.

“It’s not worth it. Every summer we spend two months at the sea,” P replied.

“Oh, where?”

“A tiny island, rather remote, still quite primitive. You have to take a boat to buy groceries.”

“You don’t mind?”

“Not at all. It’s the inconvenience I crave. I’ve been going there since I was a little girl.”

“How wonderful.”

“In August the entire island smells of rosemary. There’s a small lighthouse, a pool in the middle, the sea all around, and that’s about it,” P said.

I’d never been to that island, but I’d heard about it from my wife, who used to go there for a week or so every summer as a guest of P’s family. Then one year—my wife told me—a man, a great swimmer who did twenty laps in the pool twice a day, died right there in the water, while racing a friend, struck by a heart attack in front of all those young kids and the teen-agers, including his own children. My wife, traumatized by the scene, never wanted to go back. And even though we did travel with P and her family from time to time, spending a weekend together in the countryside, we’d never gone to visit them on that island.

“And I don’t really like swimming in pools,” P added, as if she’d been listening to my thoughts.

“Why not?”

“There’s no life in that water.”

We talked about other seas, other islands, the pleasures of boating versus going to the beach: the frivolous patter of people with money. But as we spoke we became aware that a strange calm had descended over the yard. The children weren’t yelling anymore. Something had happened.

We went down to see. A group of kids, a dozen or so, stood frozen in the distance. In the middle of their circle, someone was lying on the ground.

As we inched closer, we saw a handsome young boy, twelve or so, his hair dishevelled, legs splayed—it didn’t look good. Had he fainted? Or had something worse happened? We had no information. Then the doctor arrived, the one who’d saved P’s life years before. A tall, lanky man with black hair grazing his shoulders, a dangling mustache, a steady, good-natured demeanor.

“While you were preheating the oven, I pre-ate the cookie dough.”
Cartoon by Roland High

Next to the boy was a pale-faced woman. The mother, I assumed. I hadn’t noticed her before—we hadn’t crossed paths, despite having just spent at least an hour in the same crowded house, in the same rooms, circling the same table, eating the same food.

She was a foreigner, you could tell right away by her facial features. She was wearing a summery dress unsuited to the season; a heavy and complicated necklace adorned a triangle of bare skin. She wore very little makeup—with the exception of wine-colored nail polish—and had a kind of prematurely weathered beauty. Her dark hair was tied up in a bun at her nape. She must have been around ten years younger than my wife, with a sharper gaze and, I felt, a more turbulent inner life.

“What happened?” the doctor asked her.

“I have no idea. I was inside while he was playing. Then one of his friends came and told me he wasn’t feeling well. By the time I got here he was trembling—he seemed shaken and disoriented.”

The woman spoke in a strange mix of her language and ours, but it was easy enough to follow.

“And then?”

“He said his head was spinning, and that he couldn’t hear anything for a few seconds, that everything went silent.”

“Give us a little space, please,” the doctor said.

The crowd backed off. Only the boy and his mother remained, with the doctor and P. I took a few steps back myself, but then I froze, paralyzed by the thought that the same thing could just as easily happen to my son—why not?—playing soccer in the park on a Sunday, with no parent at his side.

No one spoke for a minute or two. The doctor examined the boy, lifted his feet, felt his forehead, his wrist. After a little while, the boy sat up on his own and had a sip of water.

“It’s not too serious, signora,” the doctor explained.

“But why? He’s always been an active boy, nothing like this has ever happened.”

“Your son suffered a mild shock. Perhaps he didn’t eat enough lunch. Kids are always running around non-stop without thinking. This kind of thing can happen sometimes when we get overexcited. Did your son have breakfast this morning?”


“Is he an anxious boy?”

I got the impression that she didn’t understand the question. In any case, she didn’t respond. Her son was back on his feet now, a little embarrassed, insisting he was fine. His speech was normal. He had braces. He’d accepted a sandwich from someone and was eating.

“Can I keep playing?” he asked the doctor. Unlike his mother, he spoke our language perfectly well, and even had a touch of our city’s accent.

“Of course you can. Just take it easy.”

And that was that. The party went on. We went back inside, they brought out the cake, we sang “Happy Birthday,” raised our glasses to P. Her kids gave her a stiff gold bracelet. Then there was a real surprise: her husband stood on a chair and sang a short, sweet love song out of tune, while P, overwhelmed, in tears, burst out laughing, then gave her husband a long kiss, eyes closed, in front of everyone.

The crowd inside the house began to thin, guests were starting to leave. I rejoined my wife, who told me that she, too, was ready to head home. We said our goodbyes to P and her husband, thanked them for the pleasant afternoon, and returned to our car, where we waited for the long line ahead of us to budge.

“It’s late. Did you have fun?” my wife asked me.

“I had a pretty good time. How about you?”

“Did you drink?”

“Not much.”

She looked me up and down.

“Let me drive.”

I was tired, and handed her the keys without protest. We switched places. She adjusted the seat, the mirror. She put on her seat belt, the comfortable shoes she liked to drive in. She was just about to start the car when she realized that she’d left her shawl in the house.

“I don’t feel like getting out. Will you go?”

“Any idea where it is?”

“Check on the patio—I think I draped it over the back of a chair.”

The house was empty, silent, filled with abandoned glasses and soiled, crumpled paper napkins. P and her family must have retired to one room or another. My wife was right, the shawl was there, hanging limp as a fresh sheet of pasta over the back of a patio chair, not far from where I’d listened to P rave about her island, before the boy felt sick.

The boy’s mother was standing in front of me—facing away, but I recognized her immediately, her hair in a bun, her taut neck. She was alone, staring at the yard, where a handful of kids, including her son, were still out playing. She was smoking a cigarette. When she turned to see who was there, she, too, seemed to recognize me right away. From the blanched look on her face, I could tell she was still distraught.

“What exactly does ‘a mild shock’ even mean?” she asked me at once.

“A state of confusion, perhaps. A moment of psychosomatic distress.”

“I thought he was going to die. In the middle of a party, at this house filled with people I barely know.”

“Don’t worry, it’s over now, I heard what the doctor said.” I addressed her with the formal pronoun.

“I used to be such a centered person. I knew how to run my life. But these days, in this country, I can hardly manage a thing.”

“How did you end up here?”

“My husband is a journalist. He likes Rome. He says he loves this city more than he loves me.”

“And you, how do you like it?”

“I’m not happy and I’m not unhappy. Mind if we use the tu?”

“Of course.”

“Why did you stay with my son and me the whole time?”

“What do you mean?”

“On the grass. You didn’t walk away with the others.”

“I was worried, like you. That’s all.”

“Do you also have a son?”

“Yes. He lives abroad.”

“So you’ll understand.”

“Understand what?”

“Today I brushed up against the worst thing that could possibly happen.”

For the next few days, I was left reeling from that abrupt exchange of words. Who was that woman? Why had she been so open with me, so unguarded, instantly bridging the solitary distance between two strangers? Why had she revealed to me, out of the blue, that she was in crisis? What was her name? When and how had she met P? Where was this husband she’d spoken of, who loved Rome more than he loved her?

One evening, after some hesitation, I asked my wife, “Did you meet anyone interesting at P’s this year?”

“Not really. Sometimes I have no patience for meeting new people.”

“There were so many foreigners, more every year.”

“They must be the parents of her kids’ friends, who go to the same international school.”

“A good school?”

“Expensive, and a little overrated if you ask me. I trust our school system.”

Then she told me about a friend of ours—he, too, a regular at P’s yearly party—who was thinking of quitting his job as the dean of a small suburban university to open a wine store in a foreign capital.

It would have been inappropriate to turn to P for any information. My wife was probably right, the woman who’d spoken to me was most likely the mother of one of P’s kids’ classmates. The more I thought about our conversation on the patio, the more I was struck by our strange synchronicity in that moment, as if she were expecting me, as if she knew, beforehand, that my wife would have forgotten her shawl, and that she’d send me back to the house to retrieve it. In the end, it was the only conversation of any real substance I’d had at the party. We’d looked each other in the eye, we’d been alone, our bodies close, but I’d never even introduced myself. I’d grabbed my wife’s shawl, mumbled something awkward, and then I’d slipped away.

Over time, the memory began to dim. I went on living with my wife, in the house where we’d raised our son. I made love to her still slender body, I invited the same friends over for dinner, cooked the same reliable recipes. While my wife went to the gallery or away on the occasional business trip, I worked at home, in the corner of our bedroom, making slow progress on my fifth novel, my articles, my tepid reviews. When she returned in the evenings, I’d pour us some wine and pretend to listen while she gave me the full rundown of her complicated days. On Saturdays, once a month, we’d go to hear classical music, then out to a restaurant, or else to the opening of a new art exhibit. I would go to the library, and we’d go on vacation: to the mountains every year, for her birthday, and to the sea, in the off-season, for mine.

At Christmas we travelled abroad to visit our son. He showed us his drab studio apartment, where he lived happily, and introduced us to his first girlfriend, an attractive young woman with parents from two different continents. He’d met her at the university. The two of them took us to a sprawling, noisy restaurant they loved. I noticed that my son, taller than I was now, was looking bulkier even though he’d become a vegetarian. He preferred beer over wine. The photo of a gawky boy which greeted me every time I picked up my cell phone, taken on a fishing boat the previous summer, looked nothing like him anymore.

Because of the girlfriend, we never spoke to each other in Italian. He gushed about the multiethnic neighborhood where they lived, where they’d go out every night of the week to eat food from seven different countries. His answers to my questions were polite but brief. We conversed in a language I struggled to keep up with, a sensation that I enjoyed at P’s house but that here, with my own son, felt frustrating and artificial. For Easter, he told me, he planned to go hiking with his girlfriend among castles and sheep. In the course of a day or two I could sense his tacit rejection not only of Rome but of our way of life, of all the effort we’d put into raising him a certain way.

He was thriving in this new city—but, even so, I didn’t like the thought of him in that drab apartment, at those loud restaurants, eating bizarre and expensive food, with his wisp of a girlfriend smiling beside him. I didn’t like the thought of him in the crush of a subway car, or walking the streets alone and a little drunk at three in the morning, or going to the park on Sundays to play soccer with no breakfast in his stomach. I worried that he wasn’t mature enough, that deep down he felt unhappy, that he’d end up in some kind of trouble. But that naïve and vulnerable boy was not my son: he was me. Or rather, he was the version of me I’d never allowed to form, that I’d neglected, blocked out—a version that, even without ever having existed, had defeated me. With this thought in my head, I strolled around my son’s new city, patiently admiring bridges, gardens, and monuments, beneath a low and leaden sky.

On the plane, before taking off, watching my wife check her e-mail on her phone, I realized that it was just the two of us again, except this time with no desire to have a child, without that life project to tie us together, as it had until now. What was she reading? Who was writing to her? Hundreds of messages poured in every day from mysterious senders. A densely inhabited world, buzzing with activity, hers alone. But at a certain point she raised her head and reminded me of the date for P’s next party.

Only once we were in the car, on the way to P’s house, did I recall that distraught mother, that unexpected confession on the patio. It had been nearly a year since I’d thought of her. I’d left my curiosity back at P’s, as if it were an umbrella, or the shawl my wife had asked me to retrieve: the kind of thing whose absence you feel for a little while and then easily let go of. But now that I was about to return to that house, again I sensed that she and I shared some secret link.

My foot was heavy on the gas, I was distracted. I missed the sharp right turn, took another road, had to put the car in reverse, as my wife’s irritation grew. I was thinking: I should have chosen a different shirt, the one I’m wearing doesn’t do much for me. The agitation I’d experienced after the abrupt exchange on the patio was back. I could picture it clearly now: the flattering but unseasonable dress, the complicated necklace, the color of her fingernail polish. As if the year gone by were nothing, nothing the passage of time. We hadn’t even shaken hands, there was just that flash of understanding. So why was I feeling a little guilty?

An ancient, ridiculous memory came back to me then, from just before I met my wife. I was going to a gym with a pool at the time, and every week, by the pool’s edge, the same girl would smile at me and say hello. She swam in the lane that I’d take over. For a few months my entire week revolved around that brief encounter by the pool, to the point where I’d even rush to the locker room to make sure I didn’t miss her. We never talked about anything. She’d just say Have a good swim, or something like that. But every time she looked at me and spoke to me, it felt as if I were the center of her world. We ran into each other in this way for a few months, then she stopped showing up. A couple of months later I met my wife—but early on, in bed, I’d picture the swimmer’s eyes, her smile. That’s all.

Cartoon by Roz Chast

Parking the car, I thought: Maybe the distraught woman won’t even be here, maybe she wasn’t invited this time around, or maybe she had another engagement. Her presence was hardly a given. But as soon as we entered, after P and her husband had welcomed us in, as my wife was already chatting without me in the adjoining room, I caught sight of her.

She was sitting in the dining room, beneath a window, in one of the chairs lined up against the wall so that guests could circulate. Next to her was her husband—a tall, handsome man with shiny white hair, a young-looking face, tan even in January. It had to be her husband because they were sharing a plate of food; that way, each could hold a glass of wine in the other hand. She wasn’t talking to him. She was turned toward two other women seated to her right—but there was too much noise, I could barely even make out her voice.

She was utterly changed. She was laughing, telling a funny anecdote about herself, while her husband listened and held the plate. He seemed like an attentive guy, amiable but a little bit tense. She was speaking with abandon, with irony. She didn’t strike me at all as a woman in crisis.

She was dressed in black, like nearly all the other women at the party. No necklace, just that triangle of bare skin. She wore a pair of tight-fitting pants that matched the season, and hammered leather boots. Her hair, longer now, was streaked with gray, which she clearly didn’t mind. She was thinner, even more beautiful—that weathered sort of beauty, which flattered her. Like my son, she had morphed over the past year into a sunnier, more confident version of herself. We lived in the same not particularly large city, and yet we’d never bumped into each other, not in a restaurant, not at a pharmacy, not on the street or at the gym. Our paths crossed only at this house, only at P’s party.

“Hey, we’re on the patio, it’s nice out there,” an old friend said, running into me.

“Be there in a minute.”

I made a leisurely loop around the table, picking up some cheese, some crudités, some sliced salami. I was trying to make my presence felt. I couldn’t hear her, all I could hear was my wife’s gravelly voice, which worked its way under my skin even amid all those people.

When her husband stood to find a trash can where he could toss their plate, I looked at her, waiting for her to look back. Hoping for what, I don’t know—a smile like the one the girl by the pool would give me? But she remained absorbed in her anecdote.

I continued staring, and she kept talking. Her husband was gone, my wife in the next room. The more I looked, the more she evaded me, unfazed. Until all of a sudden she lifted her gaze, for an instant, and revealed her eyes to me—filled (I thought) with fury and exasperation, blinding eyes that were shining (I hoped) for me.

The idea appealed to me: a relationship punctuated with gaps; a fixed date, ours alone, in the middle of the party. It seemed like an acceptable form of infidelity, entirely forgivable, a bit like when I thought of the girl from the pool while I was already with my wife. In truth I wasn’t looking for trouble. Just a few blazing hours spent together, checked by a year of separation.

I’d never betrayed my wife, in this city where everyone’s always cheating on everyone. With the exception of my little crush on the girl from the pool, I’d always been a faithful man; I was used to being the one who got dumped or cheated on, even before I met my wife, and not the other way around. I didn’t have infidelity in me, I suppose I lacked the impulse. I accepted my wife’s activities, her obligations—the constant messages on her phone, her dinners without me, her work trips abroad, her quick jaunts to other cities—while also admitting the likely consequences: a quickly forgotten one-night stand with some guy, lunch and a stroll through the botanical garden with another. But since I wasn’t jealous by nature, my conjectures never took hold of me. As with any couple, things left unsaid enter in to maintain your aging affection. Which was how we’d survived twenty-three years together with no major disruptions, no earthquakes.

I repeat, I’d have been fine dragging out that trifling dalliance. But just a few months later my wife informed me that P was having another party.

“So soon? What’s that about?”

“She said she’s been teaching her oldest son to dance, which got her thinking that she’d like to throw a different kind of party. At night this time. No kids.”

“Did we ever teach our son to dance?”


“Do you know who’s coming?”

“The usual slew of people, I imagine.”

The weather was terrible that evening. I felt queasy the entire day. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t concentrate at my desk.

“It’s been a long week, I can’t shake this headache,” I said to my wife.

“And so . . . ?”

“What do you say we stay in for the night?”

I already knew my suggestion was futile. She was taking her time getting ready, wearing a short dress she hadn’t pulled out in years.

“Tonight we dance and let go. Time to perk up.”

In the dark, P’s house seemed like a new destination—even more out of the way, more alien. The drive was stressful, the charming road slick with rain. And the spring air felt wrong to me. I couldn’t get my bearings.

“Did you hear that their house was robbed recently?” my wife said as I was parking the car behind a long line of vehicles.


“P’s family. They were gone for three days, all the jewelry was taken.”

“They didn’t have it in a safe?”

“No, unfortunately, she’s always been a bit disorganized.”

The house, too, was nearly dark, unfamiliar. They’d removed most of the furniture to make room. P’s daughter greeted us at the door and whisked our coats off to who knows where. I stuck to my wife’s side. We went to get our first glass of prosecco together, to fill our plastic plates with slices of bread, slivers of cheese, honey. We were attached at the hip as if we were a shy couple on an early date.

I saw all the known and unknown faces that were always at P’s. Apart from the new setup, the empty rooms, the scene was more or less identical, and yet I couldn’t manage to wedge my way into conversations as I usually did; searching for that woman left me discombobulated. She was standing next to her husband, on the other side of the room. And this time she didn’t avoid my gaze. She was looking straight at me through the crowd, registering my presence without smiling, without budging, without communicating anything.

After dinner, the dancing began. P’s older son chose the music, a string of inane songs from our younger days. I danced with my wife, the woman with her husband. P’s other kids danced between us, they danced with P and her husband. P danced with my wife, and then with me. She was a little drunk, barefoot, affectionate, shimmering, even without a bit of jewelry on. I really love you two, she said to me and my wife, as the three of us danced together.

The music felt liberating, at moments wrenching. It levitated us magically above the cramped and craggy present, it restored a glimmer of hope. We were, all of us, each on our own, replaying our previous lives: lives still in progress, foolish, makeshift, splendid lives. I glanced around at the women who refused to assume the role of signora, who’d kept up their looks. And yet we weren’t getting any younger, we were accumulating wrinkles, health scares, disappointments. The songs took us back—to our first kiss, our first relationship, ancient emotions, our first heartbreak, minor grievances we’d buried, unresolved, but had never shaken off.

She and I danced, together, on our own. It was a torment, also a triumph. We would lock eyes for a moment, here and there I’d feel my body brushing hers, a shoulder, a hip. The two of us were still nailed to our respective lives, but underneath it all I sensed that we were being reckless, conspiratorial.

Outside it was still raining, but inside it was hot, oppressively hot. I was covered in sweat. I told my wife I could use a little water. I went to the bathroom, rinsed my face. Then I went to the kitchen to find a glass. There I noticed a complex surveillance system mounted on the wall, for monitoring the house’s entry points. It had multiple tiny screens, each with a different view: the front gate, the yard, the patio. At night, in the heavy rain, every image looked to me like a kind of ominous ultrasound, ripe with meaning but completely indecipherable.

When I returned, I noticed that the lights were on. The barren room, only recently vacated, reminded me in some ways of my son’s apartment. No one was dancing anymore, the music had stopped. In the old days we’d have merely taken a break, but we were already worn out.

My wife was over by the table. She was eating dessert. And she was talking to her. They didn’t notice me. My wife said, “I was just admiring your necklace while we were dancing, it’s extraordinary. Can I ask where you bought it?”

“In a cute little shop, not far from where we live.”

“How long have you two lived in Rome?”

“Three years now.”

“Are you here for work?”

“My husband, yes. He’d like to live here forever.”

“What about you?”

She shrugged. “ ‘Forever’ is a big word.”

They went to grab their purses, they pulled out their phones. Right there on the spot they exchanged numbers, scheduled a date.

And this is where my story takes an unexpected turn. This stranger, with whom I’d had only one conversation, a fevered and fragmentary exchange, and with whom I’d felt an inexplicable bond from that moment on, despite never having learned her name, became my wife’s friend. They met for lunch once a month, then went shopping for clothes and shoes together. She remained a secondary, casual friend for my wife. Not someone she’d invite over to the house, or fold into our everyday lives, but a person she’d spend time with on her own now and then, in her own way.

Through their friendship I learned a few things: her name—L—and the neighborhood where she lived (San Giovanni). One day she mentioned how often her husband had to travel, racing back and forth between cities. They had one son, the boy who’d felt sick in the yard. As my wife had intuited, he went to the same school as one of P’s sons. L used to have a job herself, as a magazine editor, but here she spent her days diligently studying our language and belonged to a group of foreign women who relentlessly visited the city’s infinite monuments, attractions, and ruins. Apart from these details, my wife never spoke of her new friendship.

I knew that it was normal, even healthy, to cultivate these kinds of friendships outside a marriage. It wasn’t like there was anything sexual involved. And yet I agonized over it. My writing suffered, I began missing deadlines for my projects, I envied my wife.

I envied my wife and yet at the same time I was grateful. There was no way, when they went out together on their walks or to see an art exhibit, that L didn’t think of me. No way my wife didn’t speak of me, of our long marriage filled with the predictable ups and downs, of the flings she’d probably had with other men, of our strained relationship with our son. No way I didn’t factor in to some extent. After more than twenty years of marriage, I knew what happened when women talked—all that archived information which loosens in the vapor of friendship, which floats to the surface while they’re out buying shoes, eating salads, admiring paintings.

But what was I hoping for? An actual affair with L? A date, a few hours in a hotel, in bed together? I don’t think so. Even after the dancing I never thought of her body, her hands. What I fixated on was our conversation on the patio, when she was distraught, sick with worry over her son, when she confided in me. That moment seemed more transgressive than any erotic act. What had we shared? An intimate exchange, inexplicably charged. And now, just as inexplicably, we shared my wife.

Soon enough the spring had gone by, an entire season. I remained passive, cagey, lying in wait for a new development: a dinner together, plans for a night at the theatre with L and her husband. But what I was really waiting for was winter, and P’s next party, even if—and it was clear by now—those spirited occasions, those restorative afternoons I held so dear, were tainted.

But late that summer, once again, P suddenly changed the script. My wife and I were already back from vacation, had stashed away our bathing suits and beach towels and sandals. For my own part, I was looking forward to the firm and reassuring light of autumn, the plates of puntarelle at the trattorie, the starlings that dart in the sky, appearing and disappearing like tornadoes or ribbons or giant tadpoles made of ash, when P offered us a last-minute invitation to the island where she and her family spent two months each year. She had access to a spare bungalow with an ocean view—the usual tenants had cancelled—and she was certain that it would make an ideal spot for my writing, having heard from my wife that I’d been in a long slump.

“You know, I wouldn’t mind going back there either, finally putting an end to my childhood fear,” my wife announced, referring to that poor man she’d seen die in the pool, decades earlier.

And given that it was a particularly stifling summer, and that my wife and I really had nothing to do but idle around the apartment, we packed our suitcases again, drove down to the harbor, and boarded a ferry. The island was a rock in the middle of nowhere, a bit like P’s house.

For several days we did nothing but enjoy luxuriant, late-morning swims, light and refreshing lunches, and sunset strolls down to the lighthouse. The water was as clear as glass, filled with dark sea urchins. A beautiful path ran the length of the island, but in certain stretches you had to beware of clefts in the rock. Once, P told us, a woman had fallen to her death while taking a photo of her husband. We floated around the island on a rubber dinghy and ate baked fish on the terrace, with coils and citronella candles to repel the mosquitoes.

P and my wife took the boat every day, either before or after lunch, to pick up groceries. They wore flared linen dresses, and always came back with a little something extra: a clever bracelet made of cork, a perfume that smelled of salt, silicone kitchen utensils in various colors. They cooked together, reminiscing about the happy years when they’d shared an apartment, before they were married and had kids. P’s husband came out on the weekend but left again for work. The kids played Ping-Pong all day or horsed around on the beach or tried out reckless dives at the pool or wandered off alone to some secret spot.

Our bungalow was very charming, picturesque, a bit dim inside but airy. It had belonged to one of P’s uncles, he, too, a writer, and I discovered many old, well-loved books there, marked up in pencil. It was a cozy space, masculine in feeling, just one room, really, with no kitchen and one square window that looked out on the sea and opened like the door to a cupboard. The furniture had never been replaced—soft, faded armchairs, dark, glossy wood, a musty smell, all of it frozen in time.

As soon as I stepped inside I felt better; the space was invigorating, and had an effect on me similar to that of P’s house, except here there was no party. This was a refuge where I could hole up and concentrate. Which got me thinking, a bit peeved: It would have been truly ideal to have had a place like this at our disposal, a place to write, if only my wife hadn’t been avoiding this island, if only she’d brought me here before. Our son would have liked it, too, in the past, but now there was no room here for him and his girlfriend, there were just two couches, one across from the other, that became beds—two separate singles, one for me and one for my wife.

As soon as we were settled in, I hit a stride with my writing, hunched over a tiny desk against a wall, or else lying back on one of the sofa beds. I skipped lunch with P and my wife, instead grabbing a sandwich at the snack bar around three, my mind humming. I was pleased with this second summer of ours, with the inspiration I found on that island, in that cozy and comfortable bungalow.

The mistral arrived, as expected: three days of non-stop wind, of deafening gusts. On the storm’s first day I started a new short story about L, set at P’s house. In my invented version things took a more predictable course: she and I had a real affair. Staring out at the white shelf of sea lashing the shore, I thought back to our conversation on the patio—in the fake version we kissed immediately—looking for ways to stretch the details. I inserted the scene where we danced together, and also on our own—it felt like a critical juncture in the plot—and I left out L’s friendship with my wife, which proved an unwieldy development. I molded and massaged the facts until it felt like a vaguely appealing story, the kind a literary magazine might take. All I needed was the ending, the grand finale.

One morning I decided to go for a swim, to clear out my head before sitting down to write. The mistral had just moved on, and the water was once again a sheet of glass. I climbed in from a small sheltered cove, first checking for jellyfish. My destination was a red buoy, which I swam toward through a beautiful patch of green sea, following a school of minnows. I was out in the middle of that patch when I saw a motorboat heading straight at me. I stopped and waved an arm, but the boat kept coming. I didn’t shout, it would have been pointless. Out that far, all sounds are swallowed by the sea’s silence. Feeling slow, weak, frightened, I somehow managed to move out of the way, and I made it to shore.

I walked back to the house, stricken, pale, still unnerved. But my wife wasn’t there, and P’s place was empty, too. On the little desk was a note: Out getting groceries, catch up with you later. My head was spinning. I felt like I needed a fresh glass of orange juice. At the snack bar I ran into one of P’s boys, the thirteen-year-old.

“How’s it going, all good?” he asked.

“A boat nearly ran me over.”

“Were you swimming alone?”

“I was.”

“Best to stay close to shore.”

“And that’s when I realized I had two of everything I needed, right in front of me, this whole time.”
Cartoon by Evan Lian

“What about you guys? You having fun?”

“It gets a bit boring. I’d like to go somewhere else next year, but my mom always wants to come here.”

“Hang in there.”

“At least my friend’s coming tonight.”

“Oh, who’s that?”

“This foreign kid I go to school with. He’s on a boat trip with his parents, his dad’s a really good navigator. They’re stopping at the island and staying for dinner.”

At sunset we walked down to the harbor to greet them. It was a beautiful motorboat. They were dropping the fenders. Her husband was at the helm, her son hanging their wet things on a drying rack, L clambering around the boat. She was moving swiftly, asking her husband what to do before they docked. She was wearing a special pair of gloves for handling the anchor chain. I admired how deftly she tied and untied the mooring line. I noticed the ease and economy of communication between husband and wife.

With the task complete and the motor spent, they said their hellos. L had picked up a tan, her husband, too. Their son had outgrown both his parents. I glimpsed L’s dark, muscular legs, a scar on her thigh. She was barefoot, sweaty, her hair a windblown mess. She quickly slipped into a sheer beach coverup, a pair of elegant but well-worn sandals.

I wanted to break up the scene right then and sneak down into the cabin, on that boat, with her. As if driven by the mistral, like the waves beating steadily in one direction, an impulse intensified by my own imagined version of our affair, I now yearned to kiss her mouth, to taste her salty skin, to solidify our connection at last without having to share it with anyone else. Instead, when she stepped off the boat, we greeted each other with a handshake, and all she said to me was “Ciao.”

We took our seats out on P’s terrace. There were five of us—P’s husband would be back the next day, and L’s son had rushed off to meet his friend in the small piazza. We spoke in Italian. By now, after all their meticulous studying, L and her husband could speak it more or less fluently. The windstorm had swept away the mosquitoes. The air felt crisp, refreshing. I was sitting next to L, at the head of the table, with P and my wife on one side and L and her husband across from them.

We drank heavily that night, though L a bit less than we did, since she was suffering from land sickness. Her husband weighed in on the recent elections, and told of their boating adventures, describing their favorite islands and inlets. At sea, he said, you live with less but have it all.

We ate a rice salad, followed by some fish and a few slices of melon. L passed me the fruit, the bottle of mirto. And while we ate and talked, while we looked at the stars and listened to the waves, while my eyes strayed now and then to that same triangle of bare skin, that extraordinary divot of flesh outlined by her collarbone and shoulders, I learned something new. In a month they’d be returning to their country; their time in Italy had come to an end. The reasons they gave were practical: her husband was tired of the constant travel, their son was about to start his first year of high school, and L, it turned out, was missing the working life that she’d sacrificed to be here. They were sad to go, already speaking with nostalgia about certain things, but you could see that the decision to reactivate their old life had restored the family balance, and that the cliff’s edge they were once teetering on was no longer a threat.

“Maybe we’ll come back around New Year’s. It would be nice to get a little winter sun, have some panettone and pandoro, eat lunch outdoors in January.”

“Perfect. That means you’ll be here for my party,” P said.

We accompanied them back to the harbor, said our goodbyes on the dock. “Ciao,” L said to me again—nothing else—and in that moment of confusion I kissed her, at first on the cheek, but then my mouth drifted down toward the salty skin of her collarbone, planting itself in that sunken triangle. I latched on to her for a few seconds, then I lifted my head, mortified, and muttered, “Forgive me.”

She immediately stepped back. And she may have glared at me then as she had once before, her eyes filled with fury and exasperation, but it was too dark to tell.

After she hugged and thanked everyone else, after she said her goodbyes to my wife and P, she left with her family to spend the night on their boat, by a secluded grotto, in a tiny cabin beside her husband. My wife, meanwhile, who’d glimpsed that errant kiss, started haranguing me as soon as we entered the bungalow and kept at it until dawn.

“Is there something going on with you two?”

“Nothing, I barely know her.”

“You imbecile, she was my friend.”

“And she still is.”

“I doubt it. The whole reason I came out here was to lay down an old burden, and now, thanks to you, I’ve picked up another.”

“I’m sorry.”

My wife refused to calm down. She went on attacking me, then burst into tears, transforming my creative sanctuary into a hell.

The next day, earlier than planned, we, too, left the island, in a rush. There was no need to explain our departure to P, given that I’d kissed L in front of her and her children, too. The whole lot of them were witnesses—and, worse, even with the whistling wind and the crashing waves, they’d probably heard us fighting until dawn. For days, back in the city, I cursed my own stupidity, steeped in embarrassment, but my wife never brought it up again, and soon the unpleasant feeling faded.

We fell back into our old routines, though for months I was adrift. I abandoned the short story—with those pages, I realized, I’d been luring myself onto a precipice. What had happened between L and me made for a dull premise, it never would have worked. Yet for a moment, on that island, my embellished version of events had fused with reality: it had driven me to wound and demean my wife, in a way that she, with her discreet behavior, had never done to me in our long years of marriage.

I’d already decided, before Christmas, that I wouldn’t be going to P’s party that winter. On the off chance that L and her family were in town, I had my excuse prepared. But then, just before Christmas, P got sick again. Her decline was rapid, until the same good doctor who’d saved her life said there was nothing left to do.

Soon thereafter, I found myself at the funeral, and afterward at the house where we’d celebrated P so many times. Yet again on a bright and balmy winter day. A Saturday afternoon, a few weeks before her birthday, with all the guests from her previous parties, all of her closest friends.

My wife was devastated, she’d practically lost a sister. We clasped hands before entering the house. All the women, wearing black, were stone-faced. P’s children, who’d been so drunk with joy on the island, who’d had so much fun that summer, were standing still in a row, in one of the rooms. The littlest one started weeping when my wife went to hug her.

“It was important to her, the party,” her husband said to me. “She looked forward to it every year.”

“Me, too,” I replied.

We spoke about P. About how she was a singular person, a singular woman, radiant, the only one with the strength to bring us all together. To open the door a thousand times, to fill the house and churn the crowd.

Aside from the absence of P and her hospitality, things were essentially the same. The funeral, too, was a kind of party. The kids, after a while, went out to play in the yard. Food covered the big oval table in the room with many windows, all the chairs lined up against the walls so that guests could circulate.

We ate, we conversed. But in the wake of a death even your own breath, your own shadow come as a shock. Everything feels inappropriate, indecent, for a while.

This would be the last time we ever set foot in that house. It was already up for sale. P’s husband, her children, couldn’t bear to live in it anymore.

L wasn’t there. Which didn’t surprise me. As a peripheral figure, an occasional guest, she wasn’t invited to the funeral. I saw only a few members of her group, the people who spoke other languages, who passed in and out of our lives. Just like P, whatever had happened between us—that stalemate, that non-starter, brought to an end by my foolish gesture—was no longer.

I can’t complain. Unlike me, P, to whom I owe these pages, didn’t make it out of the story. She’ll never visit her children in other countries, or cry about distances or the passing of days, that merciless, automatic plot device which propels us forward and brings us to our knees. Her parties, however, have stayed with me, and the thought of them still quickens the heart: the secluded house packed with people, the sunlit lawn, those hours of sublime detachment. A setting I cherished, a promising start I tried to finish, to put into words, in which I’d been, briefly, a wayward husband, an inspired author, a happy man. ♦

(Translated, from the Italian, by Todd Portnowitz in collaboration with the author.)

This is drawn from “Roman Stories.”