What it was like to be single

November 9, 2008

I don’t often think back to my days as a bachelor. For one thing, I’ve been married for over six years, and for another, I hated being single. It seemed as though I always had my eye on women who were not available to me, either because they were already in relationships or because I lacked the courage to pursue them. I harbored a melodramatic but genuine fear that I would spend my entire adult life unappreciated by the fairer sex, a diamond in the rough left buried forever. Along with the fear came equally melodramatic flashes of hope; even the most trivial sign of female approval, like a friendly pat on the back, was cause for celebration and speculation.

These emotions, so vivid at the time and so remote in recent years, were invoked powerfully and unexpectedly by the last book I read: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, a Jewish-Italian chemist and author. The book is a collection of stories, each named for a chemical element. I liked several of them, but “Phosphorus,” set in Milan in 1942, was unique in reminding me of my lonely past. According to Levi, the word phosphorus means “bringer of light,” and in this story his source of illumination is a former classmate and coworker named Giulia.

Below is a severely distilled version of the story. Read it, then go to a library or bookstore to enjoy the unabridged version.

. . . Giulia was a dark girl, minute and quick; she had eyebrows with an elegant arc, a smooth, pointed face, a lively but precise way of moving. She was more open to practice than to theory, full of human warmth, Catholic without rigidity, generous and slapdash; she spoke in a veiled, distracted voice, as if she were definitely tired of living, which she was not at all. She had been there [at the factory] for nearly a year — yes, she was the person who mentioned my name to the commendatore — she knew vaguely about my precarious situation at the mine, thought that I would be well suited for that research work, and besides, why not admit it, she was fed up with being alone. But I shouldn’t get any ideas: she was engaged, very much engaged, a complicated and tumultuous business that she would explain to me later. And what about me? No? No girls? That’s bad: she would try to help me out there, forget the racial laws; a lot of nonsense anyway, what importance could they have?

. . . We went together to see the movie Port of Shadows and thought it marvelous, and we confessed to each other that we’d identified with the main actors: slim, dark Giulia with the ethereal Michele Morgan and her ice-green eyes, and I, mild and recessive, with the deserter Jean Gabin, a fascinator and tough guy, killed dead — ridiculous, and besides, those two loved each other and we didn’t, right?

Giulia was a lioness, capable of traveling for ten hours standing up in a train packed with people running away from the bombings to spend two hours with her man, happy and radiant if she could engage in a violent verbal duel with the commendatore or Loredana, but she was afraid of insects and thunder. She called me to evict a tiny spider from her workbench (I wasn’t allowed to kill it, but had to put it in a weighing bottle and carry it outside to the flowerbed), and this made me feel virtuous and strong like Hercules faced by the Hydra of Lerna, and at the same time tempted, since I perceived the furious feminine charge in the request. A furious storm broke, Giulia stood fast for two strokes of lightning and at the third ran to me for shelter. I felt the warmth of her body against mine, dizzying and new, familiar in dreams, but I did not return her embrace; if I had done so, perhaps her destiny and mine would have gone with a crash off the rails, toward a common, completely unpredictable future. . . .

Giulia . . . told me point-blank that she needed me. I had come to the factory on my bike, right? Well, that very afternoon she had to go immediately all the way to Porta Genova, and to get there you had to take three different trains, she was in a hurry, it was an important business: would I please carry her on the crossbar, agreed?

. . . Giulia, rather restless as a rule, that evening endangered our stability; she convulsively clutched the handlebar, making it hard to steer, suddenly changing her position with a jerk, illustrating her conversation with violent gestures of her hands and head, which shifted our common center of gravity in an unpredictable manner. Her conversation was at the start generic, but Giulia was not the type to bottle up her secrets and so harbor bile; halfway down Via Imbonati she had already left generalities behind, and at Porta Volta she spoke in quite explicit terms: she was furious because his parents had said no and she was flying to the counterattack. Why had they said it? — for them I am not pretty enough, understand? — she snarled, shaking the handlebar.

“What idiots! You look pretty enough to me,” I said seriously.

“Get smart. You don’t know what it’s all about.”

“I only wanted to pay you a compliment; besides, that’s what I think.”

“This is not the moment. If you’re trying to court me now, I’ll knock you down.”

“You’ll fall, too.”

“You’re a fool. Go on, keep pedaling, it’s getting late.”

Above all, I could not understand how his will was not enough to overcome the problem — it was inconceivable, scandalous. There was this man, whom Giulia had at other times described to me as generous, solid, enamored, and serious; he possessed that girl, disheveled and splendid in her anger, who was writhing between my forearms intent on steering; and, instead of rushing to Milan to present his arguments, he was holed up in some border barracks to defend the nation. Because, being a goy, he was of course doing his military service: and as I was thinking like this and as Giulia continued to fight with me as if I were her Don Rodrigo, I felt myself overcome by an absurd hatred for this never encountered rival. A goy, and she was a goya, according to my atavistic terminology: and they could have gotten married. I felt growing within me, perhaps for the first time, a nauseating sensation of emptiness: so this is what it meant to be different: this was the price for being the salt of the earth. To carry on your crossbar a girl you desire and be so far from her as not to be able even to fall in love with her: carry her on your crossbar along Viale Gorizia to help her belong to someone else, and vanish from my life.

In front of No. 40 Viale Gorizia there was a bench: Giulia told me to wait for her there and flew through the street door like a gust of wind. I sat down and waited, battered and sorrowful. I thought that I ought to be less of a gentleman, indeed less inhibited and foolish, and that for the rest of my life I would regret that between myself and her there had been nothing but a few school and company memories; and that maybe it was not too late, that maybe the no of those two musical comedy parents would be adamant, that Giulia would come down in tears and I then could console her; and that these were infamous hopes, a wicked taking advantage of the misfortunes of others. And finally, the way a shipwrecked person tired of struggling lets himself sink straight to the bottom, I fell back on what was my dominant thought during those years: that the existing fiance and the laws of racial separation were only stupid alibis, and that my inability to approach a woman was a condemnation without appeal which would accompany me to my death, confining me to a life poisoned by envy and by abstract, sterile, and aimless desires.

Giulia came out after two hours, in fact burst through the door like a shell from a mortar. It was not necessary to question her to find out how things had gone: “I made them look that high,” she said, all red in the face and still gasping. I made an effort to congratulate her in a believable fashion. But it’s impossible to make Giulia believe things you don’t really think, or hide things you do think. Now that she had thrown off that weight, and was shining with victory, she looked me straight in the eye, saw the shadow there, and asked, “What were you thinking about?”

“Phosphorus,” I replied.

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