Melissa P.

100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed

Translated from the Italian by Lawrence Venuti

To Anna

The translator would like to thank Melissa P., for her patient answers to queries about stylistic matters; Lauren Wein, for her help with sartorial terms; and Martha Tennent, for her steadfast support, moral and otherwise.

6 July 2000

3:25 P.M.

Diary,

I'm writing in my shadowy room plastered with Gustav Klimt prints and posters of Marlene Dietrich. As she levels her languid, haughty gaze at me, I scribble across a white page that reflects the sunlight seeping through the chinks in the blinds.

It's hot, a dry, torrid heat. I hear the sound of the TV in the next room, and my sister's tiny voice reaches me as she harmonizes with the theme song of some cartoon. Outside a cricket screeches like there's no tomorrow, but inside a soft peacefulness has descended on the house. Everything seems safely enclosed in a bell jar of the most delicate glass, and the heat weighs down every movement. But inside me there's no peace. It's as if a mouse were gnawing away at my soul, so gently that it even seems sweet. I'm not ill, but I'm not quite well; what's worrying is that 'I'm not.' Still, I know how to find myself: all I need do is lift my eyes and fixthem on the reflection in the mirror, and a soft, peaceful happiness will possess me.

I admire myself before the mirror, and I'm transported by the figure gradually emerging there, by the muscles that have assumed a firmer, more defined shape, by the breasts that are now noticeable beneath pullovers and bob gently at every step. Ever since I was little, my mother has innocently wandered around the house nude, so I've grown accustomed to observing the female body, and a woman's figure is no mystery to me. Still, an impenetrable forest of hair hides the Secret and conceals it from sight. Often, with my image reflected in the mirror, I slip my finger inside, and as I look into my eyes, I'm filled with a feeling of love and admiration for myself. The pleasure of observing me is so intense and powerful that it immediately turns physical, starting with a twitch and ending with an unusual warmth and a shudder, which lasts a few moments. Then the embarrassment comes. Unlike Alessandra, I never fantasize when I touch myself. A while ago she confided to me that she too touches herself, and she said when she does it she likes to imagine she's being possessed by a man, hard, violently, as if she were going to be hurt. Gosh, I thought, and here I get excited simply by looking in the mirror. She asked me if I also touched myself, and my answer was no. I absolutely don't want to destroy this pillowed world I've constructed, a world of my own, whose only inhabitants are my body and the mirror. Answering yes would have been a betrayal.

The only thing that really makes me feel good is the image I behold and love; everything else is make-believe. My friendships are fake, born by chance and raised in mediocrity, utterly superficial. The kisses I timidly bestow on boys at my school are fake: as soon as I press my lips on theirs, I feel a kind of repulsion-and I bolt whenever I feel their clumsy tongues slipping into my mouth. This house is fake, so far removed from my current state of mind. I want every picture to be suddenly torn from the walls, a freezing, glacial cold to penetrate the windows, the howling of dogs to replace the crickets' song.

I want love, Diary. I want to feel my heart melt, want to see my icy stalactites shatter and plunge into a river of passion and beauty.

8 July 2000 8:30 P.M.

A commotion on the street. Laughter fills the stifling summer air. I imagine the eyes of my peers before they leave their homes: bright, animated, yearning for a fun night out. They'll spend it on the beach singing songs accompanied by a guitar. Some will wander off to spots cloaked in darkness to whisper infinite words into each other's ears. Others will swim tomorrow in a sea warmed by the dim morning sun, guardian of a maritime life that is yet unknown. They will live and learn how to lead their lives. OK, I'm breathing too, biologically I'm on track. But I'm afraid. I'm afraid of leaving the house and facing strange looks. I know, I live in perennial conflict with myself: there are days when hanging out with the others helps me, and I feel an urgent need for them. But there are also days when the only thing that satisfies me is to be alone, completely alone. Then I listlessly drive my cat from the bed, stretch out on my back, and think. I might even play some CDs, almost always classical music. I perk up with the music's help and don't need anything else. But that racket outside is tearing me to pieces: I know that tonight they'll live more deeply than me. I shall remain inside this room, listening to the sounds of life, listening till sleep welcomes me into his embrace.

10 July 2000

10:30 A.M.

You know what I think? I think starting a diary was the worst possible idea. I know what I'm about, I understand myself. In a few days I'll forget the key somewhere, or maybe I'll just decide to stop writing, jealous of my thoughts. Or maybe (this isn't so implausible) my snoopy mother will pore over the pages, and then I'll feel stupid and break off my tale.

I really don't know if it's such a good thing to unburden myself. At least I'm distracted.

13 July 2000

Morning

Diary,

I'm happy! Yesterday I went to a party with Ales-sandra, who looked very tall and thin on her spike heels, beautiful as ever, and as ever slightly rude in the way she talked and acted. But she was affectionate and sweet too. At first I didn't want to go, partly because parties bore me and partly because yesterday the heat was so stifling it stopped me from doing anything. But then she begged me to go with her, so I went along. We traveled by scooter and sang till we reached the suburb in the hills, now transformed by the scorching summer from green and lush to parched and shriveled. The town of Nicolosi had gathered in the piazza for a huge festival, and the asphalt, cooled by the evening, was covered with booths selling candy and dried fruit. The little villa stood at the end of a narrow, unlit road. When we arrived at the gate, Ales-sandra started waving her hands and shouting, 'Daniele, Daniele!'

He walked up very slowly and greeted her. He seemed rather handsome, though I couldn't make out much in the darkness. Alessandra introduced us, and he gave me a limp handshake. He murmured his name very softly, and I smiled, thinking he might be shy. At one point I distinctly saw a gleam in the darkness: his teeth were so white, so amazingly bright. I squeezed his hand harder and said 'Melissa' a little too loudly. Maybe he didn't notice my teeth weren't as white as his, but maybe he saw my eyes brighten and shine. Once we had gone inside, I noticed that in the light he seemed even more handsome. I walked behind him and saw the muscles ripple on his back with each step. At five foot two I felt very short beside him; I also felt ugly.

When we finally sat down on the armchairs in the living room, he was facing me, slowly sipping his beer and staring straight into my eyes. I was embarrassed by the spots on my forehead and by my complexion, which seemed much too fair compared to his. His straight, well-shaped nose looked just like the ones on Greek statues, and the veins that stood out on his hands endowed them with an awesome strength. His huge dark blue eyes cast a

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