Max and Greta agreed that everyone needs two main dramas in their lives, one in their public life and the other in their private space. Max said that his public drama as a political journalist provided him a place where he felt right, so that he didn’t have to blow his brains out each day because of his endless fuck-ups in his private life. Greta’s public life in an advertising agency gave her personal satisfaction because she believed she injected honesty into a field peopled by liars. But she too had misgivings about her private life where it was one mistake after the other. Both considered their lives balancing acts between their complex private lives as opposed to their flawless public personae.
A life-changing disaster had begun on a rainy night in a penthouse studio near Piazza di Spagna. Until midnight to the pleasant rhythm of the pitter-pattering of a steady rainfall on the flagstone terraces lining the sides of the artist’s apartment, Greta Dovidio and her friend, the painter Maria-Teresa, had chatted about love and drank moderately; Greta’s fiancé, Massimiliano Pane—or Max—drank less moderately and spoke more animatedly than usual with their Swedish adventuress friend named Ellinor who drank excessively.
There was nothing unusual about Ellinor’s drinking exhibition, but the sultry Swede had just broken up with another tired-out boyfriend and was either grieving or celebrating their separation, which encouraged her seduction vice and exposed the easily seduced Max whom she’d had in her sights that entire calamitous evening.
“Love!” Ellinor sneered—her eyes fixed sexily on Max. “Who invented the word, Plato? Love is a euphemism. A reason to quaff the stuff in this glass and have all the sex we want. Anything to help us overcome our loneliness.”
For Greta, tonight’s sequence of events was another sign of Max’s weak character; for Max it was a regrettable but insignificant episode in their social life. He blamed what happened on the wine and beer and the cold vodka, his weak character and the Swedish blond who anyway drank like a sailor on shore-leave in Veracruz and fucked any fuckable male at hand.
When they drove the drunken nympho home, gallant Max escorted her to her door while Greta waited in the car. When he kissed her on each cheek in the Italian good-night manner, she in a sudden move yanked him inside her foyer where in about three minutes she raped him in the Swedish good-night manner without leaving her feet.
On Max’s disappearance behind the Swede’s front door, a furious Greta had responded in typical Greta manner: she drove away locked in first gear just as she’d left him locked in the arms of the Swedish lush. At home, she again hurled armloads of his belongings out the window into the rain. Then she locked the entrance door, put in ear plugs and went to bed.
What had happened before happened again. Drunken Max walked the three miles home in the rain, the whole time obsessing about Greta’s recurrent nightmare of imaginary buzzards pecking her eyes. Her terror was being locked in a small room with a flock of dirty black buzzards flapping around her head. He felt certain her hallucinations had delusional significance and reflected on her treatment of him.
From the wet street under their bedroom windows, Max’s own craziness erupted as he shouted for Greta to open their fucking door. He was sick of her insane behavior and her buzzards. He drinks a bit too much and some Swedish vamp comes on to him, and Greta goes nuts as if those buzzards really existed. Leaves him here in the rain. Besides, he was certain he was coming down with pneumonia. All her fault that he was so tired and hoarse, and coughing and sneezing. So he yelled louder and louder for Greta to open their fucking door.
Like other times, neighbors’ windows begin banging open, men and women with maddened faces shook their fists and shouted the usual threats of calling the police or the fire department. And their shouts echoed up and down the narrow street..
Between his now muted calls of ‘Greta, Greta, Greta’ Max gathered his soggy stuff spread over the wet sidewalk pushing what fit pell-mell into his trusty old suitcase that Greta had provided..
At the acme of his drunken furor and his ache for his Greta, other windows of their palazzo opened. The inhabitants knew that theirs was a torrid relationship indeed. Greta and Max were part of the lore of the wild apartment palazzo at number one of Via Calcata (named after a trendy old township north of the city), a street Greta called Via Calvario because of their suffering there; Max named it Via Calcutta for the same reason.
“Quiet! Enough you two! Basta!” one lady on the fourth floor yelled. “Oh, God, just listen to that racket. Those two are at it again.”
“And to think that they’re the two most beautiful people in the city,” someone insisted.
“They do it all the time,” another shouted.
“But why their endless fighting?” someone asked. “Why don’t they divorce if they can’t live together?”
“God knows what holds those two together?” echoed the answers.
“Love!” responded the ancient philosopher from the top floor and closed quietly his window to them all … like God speaking to mankind, Max thought.
After a moment of respectful silence from all the windows, the philosopher’s immediate neighbor seconded the old man: “Truly theirs is a great love.”
“I don’t believe they know how great their love is,” a fat man in an undershirt from a fifth floor window door added.
“Love is the most beautiful thing in the world.”
“And the love of two such beautiful people,” the same voice remarked.
“I’m a marriage counselor,” shouted a shrill vice from below the philosopher. “Let the children come unto me.”
“Are they even married?” a little old lady asked, whom no one answered.
“Love!” the sarcastic divorcée in the fourth floor window repeated like a mantra the philosopher’s conclusion.
“They can’t live apart,” another noted
“Ah, this new generation,” said a saintly voice through a turret from the basement apartment. “No morality at all.”
Exasperated, Max shouted drunkenly, “Thass the lass straw, and will you juss fuck off, Priest!” To which he added a “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned!”
After the mention of love, the yelling and the cursing and the epithets and the calls for police had subsided and finally ceased. And silence came to reign over the palazzo in Via Calcata.
A soberer Max found a stray key to the palazzo door and lugged up the stairs the now soggy suitcase and assorted wet stuff, piled it all against his apartment door and as usual settled on the floor..
At five-thirty a.m. he was shaken awake, cracked his eyes and met those of the portiere making his rounds. “The usual, Dottore?” the older man asked in irony and pulled out an enormous key ring and jangled it under Max’s nose.
“Of course,” Max whispered.. The portiere unlocked his door and with his help Max dragged his stuff inside and collapsed onto the heavenly living room couch, his last thought lingering that ‘the drinks and the stand-up fuck just wasn’t worth the candle.’
Massimiliano Pane and Greta Dovidio had been together for three years. Their love affair had been fervent from the start … their separations no less so. Each time Massimiliano was humiliated and rabid; Greta, indignant and miserable. You go your way and I go mine, was their resolution. Distance, loneliness and isolation, the outcome. And then reconciliation. Their separations lasted about thirty-six hours.
This time Max slept on the couch also the following night before that morning rejoining her in their boudoir and falling into her open arms. Those two just couldn’t stay apart.
A week or so later, on a crystal-clear November day they were walking to the supermarket when Max stopped, his head turned toward the skies. “Look at that, Greta. Guarda! A good luck sign. It’s like we’re lying in a field of white and yellow flowers on a warm August day and watching flocks of birds flying northwards to their mysterious destinations while we speak fearlessly of our present as accomplished. We know where we’re going, together.”
The sky was suddenly darkened by hundreds of thousands of gyrating birds, dark masses, swelling and shrinking, inhaling and exhaling like breathing lungs. Starling scouts rocketed earthwards in search of landing places in the stone city. It was the winter migration of millions of European starlings who love the mild winter weather of Rome. They come for days, maybe weeks, sometimes months. And they love the cement of the city itself, the stone embankments along the river where Greta would never go. They were all buzzards for her.
Observing the arrival of the starlings, Greta had the thought that also the life of successful families was marked by regular recurrences and repetition like that of the migratory birds. Birthdays and marriages and the birth of children proceeded according to fixed codes. ‘But Max and I have no core. Nothing to which to belong … besides our love. But that is not a tangible object to hold onto. Maybe a sacrament like marriage would serve us well.
“Yes, Max, you are right in so many things. Finally we’re getting used to each other’s quirks and weaknesses.”
“Right, my love. Like I worry less today about your conviction of the dangers of the full moon and your fears of the buzzards.”
“Now Max, don’t exaggerate. Some things are too much. I still can’t accept the assurances of your soberness when you can hardly walk across the room without falling into the arms of some wanton Scandinavian.”
“Well, er, Greta, you know too that things are not always what they seem.”
“Now what the fuck does that mean, as the drunken Swedish whore would say? Sometimes they are exactly what they seem.”
“Yes, but … Hey, Greta, watch! Let’s just watch this performance in the heavens … just for us. Maybe the starlings are celebrating our marriage.”
A few days after the Swedish mishap the happy couple, hand-in-hand, Greta never letting go Massimiliano’s hand, ran into the priest walking down Via Calcata, his arms full of groceries, the necks of wine bottles showing from one sack.
“Well,” said the frocked one, “the happy children, Massimiliano and Greta, the love and joy and suffering of our whole palazzo. How good to see you like this in the glory of God’s smile.”
“Thank you, Father,” Max said, always respectful to men of the cloth, of whose words he didn’t believe even a comma. “You are too kind to two of God’s stray children! We have decided to follow God’s command: we’re getting married.”
So a short while later the whole palazzo population joined the couple’s friends, relatives and co-workers for their civil wedding in the City Hall Red Room on the Capitoline Hill that looked to Max and Greta suspiciously like a church. .
‘My vision is now clear,’ Max thought as the merry group of the celebrants walked down from the Capitoline hill to a wedding lunch. ‘Where then was our waywardness? Oh, fucking Christ—so sorry, Father!—the blindness of the self-righteous who think a marriage license changes anything. Do I feel different since the Mayor’s representative said ‘I pronounce you, Massimiliano, and you, Greta, man and wife? No, I do not. Marriage is not enough. Greta and I must keep in mind that marriage is often just another wall to separate lovers and destroy love, as the sixth-floor philosopher so wisely said. It is not a bridge as the third floor marriage counselor and basement priest claim. But then, what about love? Where does love go when it departs in a time in which feelings dwindle? To the same places the starlings fly in the spring? Or is it as Ellinor says: love doesn’t exist. It’s only a euphemism. That’s the horrible reality of most marriages. That’s why one of our first acts as a married couple will be to file for a divorce.’