“A story for every—” she says.
“Like Scheherazade,” he says.
“The first one is a memory. When we were on the island.”
“Do you remember the painting? The one Of Lucretia?”
“That was in Cambridge. Titian’s version of the Tarquin and Lucretia story. Tarquin, the violent aggressor, who—
“The other one,” she says. “We saw it in the small museum on the island. Remember the place that smelled of mildew?”
“That was a replica,” Alvise says.
She gives him an offhand shrug.
“It’s the one where she looks like she doesn’t mind.”
“Exactly,” Victoria says.
* * *
Victoria checks in Hotel New Orleans at a little after eleven. The hotel is tucked away in a pedestrian area behind Piazza del Popolo.It is an atypical Roman morning in July, overcast and grey. She usually likes the rain but not today. She walks in, wearing stretch denims, half boots, and a black bomber. Good enough to eat,say the sinister eyes of the concierge.
Her room is on the second floor, a matrimonialewith a rickety bed that stinks of cat urine. High stucco ceiling and heavy brocade Venetian drapes, plastic chairs in brown and orange, beige wallpapers, a mirror darkened with age from which a darker version of Victoria stares back at her.
Through a small window there is a view of the swarming humanity outside, umbrellas and raincoats—a paint-by-numbers in scales of gray. A couple of Japanese tourists with handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths look up as she shoves the shutters open.
She starts to turn when a slide of light catches her attention. She leans over and looks two floors down, expecting to see the Master standing on the sidewalk looking up at her window with his signature wistful smile.
The sidewalk abounds with pedestrians but there is no sign of the Master.
Jinn can appear in the form of shadows or winds. They may appear in sandstorms. The bist roz that blows in Afghanistan for twenty days carried a hundred jinn who leapt into Europe and started the black plague in 1347.
She dresses in her favorite ensemble, powder blue skirt and matching blouse held together with skimpy metal clamps in the front, and steps out, barefooted, holding her pumps casually in her hands—giving the impression of hasty retreat from a hotel room. The floor is cold under her feet as she walks the length of the corridor. It reminds her of Sheik Salman Al-Farsi who used to worship her feet.
Outside, light rain flounders.
After two hours of heavy shopping (crêpe sleeveless top with a wide neckline, La Perla lingerie set with matching lace top thigh highs, three-inch, flannel Prada pumps, and a pair of Wolford leggings)accompanied with light flirting (half-smiles and timid glances of the I-am-married-and-not-really-availablevariety) she finds what she has been looking for.
It is not perfect. But, he’ll do.
The air in Via Margutta is saturated with shellfish and flayed chicken. The stench comes from a restaurant that advertises Real Italian Foodin English—a place for tourists, she thinks. No real Italian restaurant would brandish a sign like that. It would be like a real witch wearing a Bewitched T-shirt.
Next door to the restaurant there is a café, and a store next to that. She watches her mark enter the café. She slips closer to observe him better. He orders an espresso, tosses it down like a pro and walks out, saying something over his shoulder, laughing out loud at his own joke as he struts away. He is smug and pretty, almost on the feminine side. Perhaps the Master will do to him what he does to the prettier ones.
She watches him raise the metal shutters of thestorenext to the café,unlock the front, and enter. He is young, early to mid thirties but the way he does things suggests an assumption of self-importance. The owner or a senior salesman, she thinks.
She walks into the café. Two scrawny kids sit on a table in the front playing cards. Every now and then one says something and the other one stares at him with pure loathing.
As she walks past she catches a sentence. “Don’t mention her again.” Then words from a TV she cannot see. It has to be somewhere in the back. Sounds like a western or a war movie.
Victoria remembers a dream: a prickle of porcupines, a stick of butter melting at the edges. The Victoria in the dream captures a porcupine and brushes her hair with its coat of sharp quills before swallowing it whole. The Victoria in this world would never eat a porcupine. She doesn’t like meat.
She stands at the counter and the kid who said don’t mention her againwalks to the back of the counter to serve her. She orders a Sanbitter.
“What do you mean?” he says.
“Her loss,” she says, and he smiles into one cheek.
She enquires about the man who was here.
“Right before I came in. Cute hair.”
The kid wants to know why she is interested.
She tells him that it is none of his business. Her tone is not playful, not exactly, but hints at the possibility of becoming so.
His gaze wanders to the wedding ring on her left hand, then to the front of her shirt.
Slowly, smiling with her eyes only, she unhooksthe top clasp of her shirt.
The man’s name is Camilo, with one L. He is Cuban, born there, raised here. He owns the store with two other guys, or one other guy. The kid is not sure. Separated, getting a divorce. They used to sell books. Now they sell antiques. Antique books? Maybe. Other things too. Big ugly carpets and furniture. Antiques, you know?
The kid licks his lip and stares at the top of her breasts.
Victoria finishes her Sanbitter, tips him with a smile, and turns.
“You’re not paying lady?”
“Next time,” she says and walks out.
The inside of the antique store smells of dead sheep. She wonders if this is intentional, if the stench from unwashed rugs and the eclectic ensemble of ugly pieces is intended to convey authenticity.
She stops in front of an antique globe, a Mercator 1541.
He approaches, stuttering.
Perfect, she thinks.
* * *
Alvise Renire reads Victoria’s texts.
The trick is detachment. Everything that happens—happens in a pocket universe, to another version of Victoria. In Rome. Roma. All those filthy Italians hounding her, chasing after her tight little…
It hits him hard and quick, the knowledge that his life has been reduced to living this absurd fantasy, Victoria being a Jinni captured by the Master, a prisoner who needs to find new lovers and recount tales to stay alive. He remembers the first time they went out, a note of defiance in her eyes, a hint of folly straining around the edges of her mouth, signs he should have seen, but that were perhaps never there to begin with, only in retrospect.
Alvise cannot leave her because he is not in love with her. What he feels for her is a lot worse.
Victoria texts him and tells him how she is dressed. She tells him that she has located Apis the Bull.
<Where> Alvise enquires.
<The top clasp of my shirt became undone. My tits are showing>
He imagines Apis, his filthy hands on her, kneading the porcelain skin, squeezing, teasing, and he imagines Victoria looking like she doesn’t mind. He imagines her like Lucretia, naked, trembling, fighting, or pretending to. He imagines the bull with his jabbing knees, opening her legs, and her eyes rolling, her breath coming short.
She texts <I forgot to wear panties>
<Are you wet?>
<I have to go. Ciao>
His mind fills with jealousy, with rage, with disgust, and love. He is in a lovely, wretched state. He trembles with warmth.
* * *
Camilo notices the Signora texting on her phone as she enters the store, trailing musk and bitter almonds, some sugary body lotion turned sour with her sweat and the hot syrupy taste in his mouth turns into champagne. She has blonde hair layered to her shoulders with a severe streak of white that cascades to her décolletage . She keeps glancing over her left shoulder as though she expects to have been followed. It may be a tic as it is always the left shoulder, never the right one. Camilo assesses her jaw. It is raw. Contact from someone’sjawif he had to guess. The rest of her skin is smooth and shiny like a porcelain doll.
She stops in front of the ancient globe, Mercator 1541 in bronzed, distressed French finish—a replica, like most pieces in the store.
He mentally gauges her measurements, 36 C, supple yet firm, all natural, waist is a healthy 28 or 29, and the hips are Sophia Lauren’s. The Signora eats pasta and drinks red. For exercise, she dances and makes love—both divinely, he assumes. He wants to go to her and put his hands on her. Instead, he stutters as he walks over. “E-elegant and imposingly present.”
“Me or the globe?” She closes the top button of her shirt.
He manages to glimpse her bra (powder blue, the same color as her shirt and skirt) and the top part of her left breast before she makes herself decent. Her eyes are dark green with flecks of gold. On closer inspection the shirt does not have buttons but clasps of some sort, revealing, intermittently, small patches of the white-porcelain skin of her stomach. Men fall in love with beautiful eyes or a smile. Camilo falls in love with small expanses of skin.
“Looking for anything specific or just browsing?”
“Yes,” she says, walking away, making the air sultry with her scent.
He follows, admiring the vigorous hips, trying to catch up. She glides over to a pile of rugs. Glide, not walk—she does not walk but rather materialize elsewhere in a short instance. The rugs are of medium size, relatively heavy but she goes through the pile like flipping through the pages of a magazine. People usually struggle. She is stronger than what her fifty-and-change kilograms suggests. The fourth rug interests her or disgusts her. He cannot tell from her expression. She takes a step back to contemplate it with a snug sigh.
“Early twentieth century,” he offers. “Silk and Kork wool, hand-weaved by—”
“Replica. Mid-century at best. Treated to look old and there is nosuch thing as Kork wool anymore—wool taken from the underside of a lamb at its first shearing? Please ”
He is impressed, firstly with her vast knowledge (that may suggest she is a competitor or an expert buyer) and secondly, with her use of italics in speech.
He clears his throat.“I was—”
“I already said yes.”
Jinn come in different shapes, sometimes as a wind, sometimes as a poisonous insect, or a sheet of light. Or darkness. They exist in a subterranean connection between everything, a stratum of space-time we cannot perceive. Jinnmay take human form and exist among us but only as long as their Master commands it. The rules that govern their existence are complex. They are not clairvoyant or psychic, just a few seconds ahead of us in the time continuum.
“We shall have dinner tonight,” she says. “But do not get the wrong idea. You’re too young.” Her mouth seems to have grown larger, less refined as she says this. “I just want to tell you a story.”
First she needs to call Alvise Renire. She calls her husband by first and last name. She walks away, succulent cheeks barely contained in the tight skirt.
Camilo imagines the taste of her. He imagines ripping off her clothes.
“What time do you close?”over her shoulder.
He tells her.
“Pick me up at my hotel after eight.”
“I walked here,”she says.
He imagines feeding on the ambrosia. He imagines the silky petals in the front.
* * *
There are seven hotels within walking distance from the antique store—at least what he assumes is reasonable walking distance on four-inch pumps. The fourth concierge remembers a beautiful woman with a shock of white hair.
They have dinner at a decrepit trattoria. She insists on sitting at a table in the corner, next to the toilets. She sits with her back to the wall, slightly belligerent.
Bored with him already, or hungry. Perhaps both.
During the meal she is cold, elusive, except when looking over his shoulder with a faint irrepressible smile, squinting her green eyes. That is when she is radiant, engaged with whatever it is she is connected to. It takes all his willpower not to turn and look over his shoulder. Nothing is there, or worse, someone is.
Signora Renire wears a black blazer over a short black dress with lace trimmings at the hem—sexy and stern at the same time. She speaks in gestures, shrugs and nods. When he manages to draw her into a conversation she is terse, mercilessly pruning unnecessary words from her speech.
She orders a fritto misto and consumes it with a bushel of butter. “Some more butter please,” she says to the waiter and giggles. He giggles back. That just made his day. After her laughing fit is over she looks at Camilo with moist eyes.
The waiter brings the butter, smiling awkwardly, doddering in his movements. He makes a senseless joke and she glowers at him. After he leaves, tail between spindly legs, she tells Camilo that she is not wearing anything under her skirt.
She eats with utter gusto. When she opens her mouth to accommodate a piece of bread she does it with a volcanic ardor, as if that morsel of bread is the last left in the universe. She either has a healthy appetite or hasn’t eaten for a while. Perhaps she is scamming him for a free meal.
“I was starving,” she says, by way of explanation, perhaps to justify her caginess.
She complains about the jet lag. She lovesto travel but thisflight had been awful.
“Where from?” he enquires.
She doesn’t respond.
He had assumed she were Italian. Her accent is not Roman, suggested she was from one of those places up north like Courmayeur or Saint-Vincent where they talk with a funny accent but a jet lag suggests hours of travel, a far distance between her and her husband. This could represent enticing opportunities. He imagines her in a hotel robe, naked underneath, bringing him coffee in bed.
“Are you alone on this trip or…?” He lets his voice trail off.
Buy, sell, someone at an adjacent table says. Everything is a negotiation.
“I always am,” she says enigmatically, then, “unlike common belief, Iam the prisoner.”
He assumes she is talking about her marriage.
She talks about a coup in an African country he has never heard of, then she talks about a bull mounting her.
He doesn’t know if she is speaking metaphorically or is perhaps a bit drunk. They have finished two carafes of red wine, so the later conjecture is a possibility. Her eyes, when they are on him, are politely assassinating someone—but not him. She is not looking at him when she is looking at him. He just happens to be in the way.
Something caresses his knee under the table, definitely not her hands. They are both on the table. Feels like sharp claws. She needs a pedicure,he thinks.
She talks about spiders.
“The young male spider,” she says, “the Latrodectus geometricus, ignores the prettier, younger females, who are easier to court, and instead opts for the deadly older female. The young male fights off numerous rivals to be with the older of the species for a few hours of bliss before being slaughtered and cannibalized.” She butters up the last piece of bread and waves to the waiter for more butter.
“You really like butter.”
“Latrodectus geometricus,” she says. “The L of Latrodectus is capitalized, but not the g of geometricus. Do you know why?”
He professes his ignorance.
“The butter,” she says. “This last piece,”—lowering her voice—“is notfor eating. I need you to steal it, wrap it in a handkerchief and put—”
“Not sure it’s a good idea,” he says, finally convinced that she is insane, or pretending to be. “Butter will melt.” Perhaps she is just fucking with him. “And it will not be stealing as we are, or rather I am paying for—”
“I don’t like artificial gels,” she says, a faint, irrepressible smile pulling at her lips, “but butter, especially the first thrust.” Smile blossoms. “There is nothing like it.” Her lips are two perfectly hinged petals that open and close.
“Ice cream is good too.”
Slowly, after much swooping, the penny drops. “You mean?”
She blushes beet red.
He imagines her with a pillow under her stomach. He imagines her luscious cheeks in—
“I’ll tell you a thousand stories,” she says.
“Like Scheherazade,” he ventures.
“I’ll tell you the story of the seventh caliph who was in love with my ass. He fed melon seeds to his canaries, and drank the melon juice off my butt. He feasted on me before…youknow.” Eyes semi-closed, seemingly absorbed in blissful contemplations, she continues, “I’ll tell you the story of a fisherman who violated me on an island.”
The waiter brings the butter and Camilo asks for the check.
“She was a Jinni,” she says. “Scheherazade, I mean. Only jinn know the secret of storytelling.”
“What evokes our affection for a story is neither the plot nor the characters,” she explains, “but a single defining object—think Cinderella’s slipper, or the cat in Murakami’s…”
“The butter?” he suggests.
“Yes,” she says, beaming.
“Was this kaliph the first man to—?”
“The caliph? No. Bedouin in Yemen kidnapped me when I was fifteen. They were the first to take me in the ass.”
“That,” he says, “just made me hard.”
“Truth is no one gives a shit about plot or characters.”She stands. “I need to go to the little girl’s room. I will pee and wash up so I will be ready.”
“And that made me harder.”
When she comes out of the bathroom she takes out a box from her purse and begins to unwrap it.
“A gift for me?”
“It’s empty,” she whispers as she sits down. Her quiet voice is the silent clinking of ice cubes. “For now.”
It is an antique box, less than twenty centimeters in length, seven or eight in width, made of rosewood and adorned with an Arabic emblem.
“Jinni’s box,” she says.
“They say she comes out of a bottle.”
“And what the fuck would they know?” She smiles and it is the first real smile of the evening.
* * *
The supernatural nature of the Jinn does not mean that she is transcendent to nature, but that she appears so in relation to our perception of nature.
So, he muses, we are bound in time and space. She is bound to…somewhere else.
The grandfather clock ticks and tocks.
His memories of when they started playing this game are like images on a spinning spool of film, fragmented and confused, the entire chronology of events lost. It’s all a blur. He only remembers the first time, remembersthe raw and rancid smell of sex. He remembers watching, glimpsing her beseeching eyes as two guys half her age took her. She lay on top of one, legs wide open, with the other one kneeling in front of her—both going at her like ferocious beasts. He remembers the copper sheen that mitigated the blackness of their skins.
In the morning there was no sign of her lovers, and Alvise asked her if they had left.
“I put one in the box,” she said. “One escaped.”
That is when this nonsense began.
Her name was Vittoria. She changed it to Victoria when she became an American citizen.
Once she told him that she was Dante, banished from Florence. Another time, she was Eve. She has been stepped on, shunned, despised, spat on and tortured, a prisoner in Abu-fucking-Suburbia.
I am the prisoner,she likes to say.
The Master holds the keys,she says. I am just Margarita.
Alvise has never seen the Master. According to Victoria, her magic is the Master’s. She is powerful because he wants her to be.
So that I can tell stories,she says.
He realizes he is starving.
He imagines Victoria in Rome. He imagines her eating. He imagines her kissing someone else. Hunger turns into jealousy, and then into cold-blooded fury. He feels everything at once, passion, shame, love, humiliation.
He picks up her copy of Plath and reads from it, smelling Victoria as he flips through the book.
Ten minutes later she texts him <I am in the bathroom in the restaurant, touching myself>
He writes, <Take a selfie>
<Told him to order some butter. We’ll wrap the stick in his silk pocket square and take it with us. It is warm outside. We’ll do it outside using the butter. I’ll bring you the pocket square>
<I do not wear pocket squares>
<You’ll wear this one>
<Send me a picture> he writes. <Please>
* * *
Camilo’s heart is ticking in his ears. Tock, Tack, Tuck.
She wants it outside, in an alley. Right away. Before stepping out she whispersinto his ear that she is dripping. “Here… touch me. See?”
He takes her hand and leads her to a side alley, shoves her against a wall, and kisses her.
“I am heartless and insatiable,” she says.
He unzips his pants. “Then I shall fuck you furiously.”
“I am the story that lodges in your heart like a diamond.” She touches him. “The diamond will lodgein the superior vena cava of yourheart, blocking the vital flow, killing you.”
“Yes,” he says. “Yes.”
Traffic squawks. In another universe.
Pale moonlight falls and he glances around, suddenly conscious of the odious spot they’re in, the raw and rancid smell of garbage around them. Nails, syringes, discarded condoms, and empty bottles everywhere.From the main street comes the heavy fragrance of exhaust fumes.
“The butter is melting,” he says, now wanting to get it over with quickly.
“Lick me first. Then the butter. Lotsof it. You’re huge.”
He drops on his knees, lifts her skirt and shoves his face at her mount Venus. Her sex is like coral, textured and soft and it smells a bit like the ocean. His handsfeel the warm naked flesh of her, and he becomes hard likean iron rod. He devours the sap and warmth she generates. He spins her around and she rolls her ass against his tongue. He tastes the raw sweetness and when he cannot wait any longer he stands and, holding her sides, begins to penetrate her. He cannot. She is too tight. He spits on his hands, wets his shaft and goes at it again, managing to slip the tip inside.
She growls, a guttural sound, like she is about to devour him.
“Spiders spin a web,” she says, “endless spinning and stitching.” She draws her cell and begins texting.
“Who are you texting?”
“Alvise Renire.” Half turning, she tells him to look at the phone. She takes a selfie, and instructs him to write the caption for Alvise Renire.
“Tell my husband how tight I am.He needs to hear it from a stranger.”
She passes him the phone and opens her butt cheeks with her hands.
He bends his knees, thrusting forward, advancing by degrees, half-centimeter at a time.
“Gentle,” she says. “You’re huge.”
At first he does not know what to write, but then as he types he begins to enjoy telling Mr. Renire what he is doing to his wife.
“I am telling him how your tight married ass feels.”
“Stretch me. More, more.”
With that he is inside her, completely.
Her ass opens and closes like African Venus flytrapsthat feast on bugs. “What does Alvise Renire say?”
“He is not responding but I amtelling him that… that… that.” He wants to last longer but he cannot. The nerves of pleasure have been laid bare, teased, and torturedfor too long. He lets go and it is the single most satisfying moment of his life.
Afterwards he feels limp and heavy, disoriented like he has been spinning in a circle and now he can’t tell which way is up. For an odd moment he stares at an overflowing trash can and thinks he sees something come out of it.
He looks around and it seems as though the alley has gotten darker. She takes his hand and says: “I was the mosquito who gave Alexander malaria.”
He is about to respond when he senses movement in the corner next to the trash cans. A winowho has been watching them? A feral animal? The thing comes closer and it reminds him of an image he saw as a child, something from a story about a twirling demon emerging of fired clay.
She tells him that she is going to fold him into a box.
“I think someone is watching.”
“Take a deep breath,” she says.
He feels a sharp pain, quick and precise, like a knife blade piercing his back. He wants to move but he is stuck. The air is thick and sugary. Something glueyis wrapping itself around him in a way similar to an octopus tentacle.The phase of frenzy dissipates and transforms itself into fear, pure and awesome. He has never been this scaredin his life, this lost.
Her voice comes from behind him. Once upon a time.