Sandra Petrignani trans. by Shelley Tepperman
I had perfected a way of appearing to eat when invited to dinner parties. I would serve myself the tiniest portion possible and spread it around my plate to look like more. Then, while the other guests filled their mouths, slicing and slurping with gusto, I’d slowy stroke the food with the tip of my fork, stir it around as if to cool off a mouthful, place a tiny morsel in my mouth and then chew it for an eternity. That way, when it was time for the next course, I’d be relieved to let them take my half-full plate and give me a fresh one. It would seem—or at least I hoped it would—as though I’d enjoyed the dish and had simply had enough.
Back then I was never hungry. The mere sight of food was enough to nauseate me. My stomach would clamp shut and accept only minuscule amounts that had been chewed so long the food was practically digested. But I was probably deluded in thinking that nobody noticed. There was always some woman who would glance at my plate and comment loudly: “Do you always eat so little?” And that would lead to discussions about diets, about being too fat or too thin, about different eating habits. Conversations I found excruciating: I felt all eyes were on me and I yearned to be invisible.
But on this one night attention was focused on another dinner guest, a man as thin as me with as little appetite, who had begun to tell a very disturbing story. The other guests had been talking about the meaning and sense of the tragic, about the fact—if I remember correctly—that today there’s no such thing as genuine tragedy. One of the guests, a man in his forties, said that even the most traumatic events—events that are traumatizing for an individual or society, don’t leave marks—they just happen and that’s it, their failure to link up the way they used to in the chain of causality dulls their dramatic impact, turns life and history into an inscrutable joke and thrusts the suffering individual into total solitude, into utter incomprehension. The thin man who wasn’t eating, who was at least twenty years older, said he disagreed. He said he found the discussion an empty intellectual exercise, a good attention-getting thesis to awe people like a sleight of hand trick, but disconnected from real life experience. I liked this man’s calm seriousness, I liked his hands that were scratching at crumbs on the tablecloth, scraping them into a little pile next to his plate. I should have understood that this obsessive gesture concealed a powerful aggressiveness, a suppressed ferocity. His head regularly jerked in a sort of tic: He would shake his head quickly as though saying “no,” or as if he were shuddering. The man in his forties stuck to his guns. I distracted myself by spreading a mound of sauce into oblivion. I smeared it all over the dish till it completely coated the porcelain bottom. Meanwhile, the older man had lit his pipe. “So . . . enough blather. You can’t understand.” he said peremptorily with a jerk of his head. “I’ve never been the same since I happened to witness a terrible event a few years ago. I assure you that the tragic does exist, and it’s something you can’t dismiss with irony. It’s something that leaves profund traces because it’s a shock even to people who aren’t directly involved but are merely witnesses—a feeling they never get over and that I’d call compassion.
“So what was this event?” someone asked.
The older man took two or three deep drags on his pipe and started to tell the story. I felt like throwing up and wanted to cover my ears, but I restrained myself by pressing my arms against my stomach and I listened.
“I used to live in a building that had a large shared garage. I’d leave every morning around 8:15 and I’d almost always see a woman who left at the same time to drive her seven-year-old son to school. The little boy would wait for his mother to back out of her parking spot, then he’d hop in and off they’d go. Meanwhile, I’d let my engine warm up so that they could leave first. I liked to sit in my car and watch them, recognizing the same gestures and enjoying the same ritual each day, nodding to the young mother, sometimes joking with the little boy when they weren’t in too much of a hurry. If for some reason I didn’t see them, it didn’t feel right, as though the day were starting with a bad omen. I only saw them in the morning, since that was the only time our comings and goings overlapped. And I don’t think we’d ever done much more than exchange pleasantries and the occasional quip about school or the weather. But I was very fond of that harmonious image and felt like I was part of their loving bond. Most people saw me as gruff and bearish, but to them I was a kindly man who sent them out into the world each morning with his blessing.”
Here he paused. His pipe needed attention. He poked at the embers, then tamped down the tobacco and took several deep puffs, cupping his hand over the bowl. Around the table there was total silence: everyone was listening, staring at the white smoke scattered by the brusque “no” of his tic.
This is an excerpt. The full text of Sandra Petrignani's "Enough" can be read in the print edition of The Arkansas International 3.
Sandra Petrignani has written novels, short stories, and travel books. Born in Piacenza, Italy, she divides her time between the Umbrian countryside and Rome, the setting of two of her works: E in mezzo il fiume on life in the Trastevere neighborhood, and Addio a Roma about Rome’s post-war artistic and literary society. Her upcoming book is a biography of writer Natalia Ginzburg called La Corsara.
Shelley Tepperman, one of Canada’s pre-eminent play translators, translates from French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Her translations have been produced throughout North America and the United Kingdom. Shelley is also a filmmaker and works in documentary film and television as a writer, director, and story editor.