Oh my God, she would know. As soon as she’d read the book, she’d know that he had lied to her.
The revelation came to Antonio on the train, exactly at midpoint between Siena and Firenze, as if some part of his brain wanted him to understand how hopeless his situation was, suspended between two cities, not knowing whether to hurry forward to Firenze to make sure that the publisher did not send out any more copies, or backward to Siena to visit every one of his friends and also the local critics scattered across Tuscany, to rescue every last book out there.
Why did he care?
He did. He hadn’t seen her in twenty years, but every morning when he awoke, the first thing he thought of was her awakening at that same time. He imagined Graziela in her nun’s cell, he imagined her imagining him. She nursed the only image of Antonio that he wanted to be kept unbroken somewhere in this world. He derived an inordinate amount of comfort from that idea, that somebody thought well of him, thought he had a brilliant destiny ahead of him. Even if her image of his decency was fraudulent, a falsified memory, one that had persisted only in her head, belied by his drab, gray, lonely life and by what had really been corroding his mind that night long ago.
And now the pure vision of a faultless Antonio that only she kept harboring, that hallucination of hers, was in danger of being shattered. She would devour the book, he knew it, he could not doubt that some harpy would remember that they had once been friends—not that anyone knew what had transpired that first and only night, but some malicious bitch would decide, had already decided, to send Graziela the novel by her old amico Antonio. Oh, he suspected who it might be, who would commit that perfidy, and Graziela would open the novel and start to read, out of loyalty to what they had been through two decades ago, and soon realize that her first love, Antonio, was a liar. Worse than that: that Antonio had not been a virgin when they had made love that night, when he had consoled her for the loss of her mother and sister. Worse still: that Antonio had fucked both the mother and the sister in Bellagio over consecutive weekends before the boat had capsized, before both her relatives had gone to their drowning and death in the generally placid waters of Lago di Como. The worst of all: he had used that tragedy to seduce her the day of the double funeral, used her grief to force her heart open and then her legs and deposit there the image of himself as immaculate and forever benevolent and ordained for great things.
A prediction that was about to be fractured into pieces when Graziela in her cell one week from today, two weeks from today—or maybe it had already happened!—when she received that book written by her old flame, everybody had known he was sweet on her, even if nobody had guessed that the sweetness had been returned for that one night. Yes, the whole illusive construction, so to speak, would be torn down as soon as the faraway nun came to the second chapter, the only part of the novel that was true, that Antonio had not invented for his protagonist.
Why had he taken that incident from his real life, from her life, and grafted it intact and exact onto the fiction of the character he had made up? What authorial demon had possessed him to slip into that entirely fabricated sham the one secret he had never revealed to anyone, that only she would recognize as she read among the cloisters while the Gregorian chants mingled with the songs of swallows outside, those birds fluttering under the sun and over the Abruzzian hills?
He’d done it because he could think of nothing more heinous to implant on the absurd creature he’d invented, because that entirely imaginary Giaccomo led a life as dingy and boring as Antonio’s and that character had to be forced to sin grievously against the innocent so that he might rise and redeem himself, be saved from his lackluster fate, go on to a life of heroism and sacrifice for others, rescue African orphans, save widows left homeless and adrift in a Bangladesh flood, discover a formula to squeeze endless energy out of orange rinds and milk cartons and other rubbish, an idealized version of what Antonio’s long-dead mother had dreamt for her son, that he had inscribed only in those fictitious pages, fictitious, all of it, except for—She’ll never know, anyway, Antonio had said to himself, justifying his sacrilege, it’s more than likely she’s forbidden to read anything as frivolous as a novel in the strict confines of the Monastery of Santa Maria della Annunciazione. The mother superior was said to rule with a harridan’s fist, run a tight ship. Impossible that the novel could reach Graziela.
But that was then, that was what he had thought when he was laboring over the episode, when he was clacking it into his computer, when he was correcting it as he did for a living with so many books by real authors, men and women who did not need to pay a vanity publisher like Montefeltro, that’s how he had depleted his days and many of his nights, rectifying and amending adjectives and cognates and mangled tenses. He was the best in the business, no mistake ever escaped his hawk eyes, but now he had made the only mistake that mattered: he had let his desire to see his name in print, his need to remedy and tweak his own novel, his own proofs and galleys, overcome the only wild and wondrous thing that had ever happened to him, to sully the woman he still revered, yes, he did care, he cared, but only now, on this train, had he realized it, realized that he could make it through the next—what?—thirty years of a lonely masturbating existence without ever seeing his name on the cover of a book or one word he had ever written by himself taking the world by storm (ha! with a vanity press?), he could live without that, but he could not live unless he could think of Graziela every day rising with the sun and the matins and offering a thought and a prayer in his direction.