translated by Tom Di Salvo

The night I became a real man is something I remember quite well.

That night Mestre, my city, the most beautiful city in the world, was stark and sparkling in springtime. It was already ten p.m. or a little later and the streets were empty, enlivened solely by the light of the streetlamps and the glow of drawn blinds reflected by the asphalt under a fresh, inebriating shower scented by the fragrance of mimosas.

Martha came for me. She was a young girl I had met at the university, who was having boyfriend problems, something like that. She wore a very short miniskirt with black stockings that looked good on her, notwithstanding she wasn’t tall and not overly pretty. She wore very thick glasses and her nose loomed large and a bit vulgar on her smiling, attractive face.

“You coming down?” she called out. Leaning out the window of my parents’ house I said: “yes”.

Martha had a red Citroën 2CV and drove it with considerable skill, manipulating the stick-shift knob with erotic determination, while her black laced legs danced between the clutch and the brake pedal; this slip of a girl looked like an Amazon breaking in a stallion and I envied her, yes envied her, and therefore wanted her.

“Where’re we going?” she asked, and it was just too much for me that she should be able to talk, have on black stockings and shift gears at the same time - God, what a monster!

“What about the Distributor?”

The Distributor was a beer joint a couple of hundred yards from the hospital, on the other side of the tracks. There you could hear the train whistle in the distance as the orange light of the lamps lit and glanced off the wooden tabletops. Young men in red plaid flannels and girls in denim miniskirts, drinking dark beer and munching on hotdogs, sat around those tables, while the smoke closed in like a cloud and bluesy music played ­ all of this gave you the feeling of a nocturnal saloon for tired, disappointed and love-sick cowboys, or some dance hall late in the Louisiana night (a young black waiter was serving sandwiches); one thing was sure: you were somewhere in America.

With a ridiculously easy-looking maneuver Martha parked the car between a black Mercedes and a mauve colored BMW. She turned the key to kill the motor and said “here we are”; then she spread her thighs to open the car door ­ it was then my belly gave a spasm of remorse.

To me she seemed a little too cheerful for someone who just opted out of a five-year love affair. When you’re twenty, five years seems an eternity. I realized this when she ordered a double whiskey:

“Whoa, you’re one tough woman, hah?”

“Tonight I want to exaggerate a little”, she whispered with a mischievous smile.

“Sounds good, but remember you have to drive home”.

Martha lived out in the boondocks, in an old grain storage barn turned country house. I had been there once for a party: dogs were everywhere, the Tequila was flowing and the sofas were incredibly comfortable.

“If worse comes to worst you can drive me and keep the car,” she said with her nose in the whiskey glass.

I froze.

The whiskey had the strange effect of fogging up her glasses, which she took off, revealing two great big eyes somewhat circled like a turtle’s, the color of bark, pointed straight at me, apparently waiting for a compliment.

“Nice eyes you have, really.”

“You should know that when I drink I can’t resist a compliment.”

“So what happens?”


Talk about dialogue! Who was writing this soap opera? In any case my attention was totally focused on her black stockings. They seemed soft and fine, and she was voluptuously crossing her legs under the table. I took my time with my Corona, like a real tough guy; suddenly, her glance fizzled out in mid-air. It took a while to understand whether it was an attitude intended to restore her dignity, whether the whiskey had addled her brain or the ghost of her ex had suddenly floated to the surface.

“What’s up Martha, a moment of meditation?”

“Reflection, more than anything...”

“That’s the beauty of whiskey. It makes you reflect.”

“No, I was just ... thinking.”


“I’ve been with Andrea for five years, and here I am now flirting with you.”

“Andrea? Some name! People with names like that are usually unbearable.”

“Go on!” And she mimed me a slap.

“Sorry. You want to talk about it?”


“Okay then.”

“That’s life.”

“That’s what my granny says. She also says: 'life is a drag'.”

“Your granny’s very wise.”

“My granny!? To hear my mother tell it, she’s been daffy since she was twenty.”

Here I thought she’d laugh, but she started crying. The evening was taking a dangerous turn, and I’ve never been a great consoler of souls in pain (not even those wearing black stockings). I had no idea why she was so broken up over somebody named Andrea. I watched as her tears ran down the sides of her big nose and all I could do was pat her on the shoulder and tell her “come on now, don’t be like that” and other famous quotations. That’s how she told me her story. It seems that Andrea was a sun-tanned gym membership product and an IT guy. He was an amateur and collector of period models of something I don’t even remember, let alone what period. They’d known each other since childhood and had always been in love and got on well, until something had snapped in her, he no longer amazed her ­ “excuse me, how did he amaze you before?” I don’t know, it was the little things ­ and so they had started to quarrel over every little thing, any excuse was enough for an argument, and she could no longer stand how rigid, smug, and immature he was and couldn’t understand that she had other needs, that she need to grow and that instead, with him, she felt closed in, trapped, she felt she was being smothered ­ “what does personal growth mean to you and what subtle means did he use to clip your wings?” Yes, yes, clip my wings, you’ve understood perfectly, that’s what he was doing, maybe only unconsciously, I’m not denying that.

If I play my cards right I can have her, I was thinking, while below deck Long John Silver hoisted sail and the blues played sadly in the background.

We headed for the exit. The night was soft and fresh. The train was whistling and the aromas were wafting in the breeze. To reach the parking lot you had to cross a little wooden bridge over a creek ­ that’s when I pounced on her little birdlike shoulders, turned her clumsily and kissed her.

She went completely limp, it was a very technical kiss, as I remember, something demanded by the situation, maybe better if in a different place and at some other time ­ but I was young, dammit, it was a beautiful evening, and I was dying to have a woman!

When we finally came apart our beery and whiskey breaths mingled mouth to mouth:

“I didn’t think you’d get to it so soon...” she whispered hoarsely.

“To kiss you?” I asked in the same voice.


“It’s that you seemed so vulnerable...”

“What do you mean, that you kissed me out of pity?”

“No, not pity, fondness I would say.”

I kissed her neck and slid my hand along the middle of her back (but the material was coarse and the going was rough) while she sighed with her eyes closed and stroked my hair ­ but neither of us seem to believe in it all the way.

“Can we go talk somewhere?” I asked distractedly.

“Another joint?”

“How about the car...”

She smiled beautifully and gave me a smack right on the lips:

“Don’t you think it’s a little early to be talking in the car?”

Damn, she’s on to me. I felt the blood rushing to my cheeks but tried to stay cool and confident. I tried to kiss her again and pulled her into my groin so she could feel the virility of my desire ­ but she gently put a hand on my chest and said:

“We’ve gone a little beyond my understanding of a first date...”

I blushed again:

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“No, you haven’t offended me, just the opposite...”

“It’s that I really like you.”

“I like you too.”

Well, dammit, let’s do it! Life is short! It’s springtime! My blood is boiling! I feel like tearing off your stockings and swallowing you whole, like a chicken dumpling!

“That’s why it’s better for us to go home,” she concluded with a smile that left nothing unsaid.

“Maybe we’d better,” I sighed, pulling the least convincing I.D. card smile of all time.

She turned the ignition, put the car in reverse and looked at me. I put my hand on her little knee all veiled in black, and she let me. Then she had to work the clutch so I moved my hand. I was mad and horny, and I needed to say something, but I could only picture her to myself naked, and how small and hard her boobs would be, two little boulders, and how fabulously hairy she would be under the mound, how firm and rosy her ass ­ and I thought that what was needed was a little patience, maybe only until next time; a question of a little caution:

“When can we see each other again?”

No reply. I was tense. I tried to explain myself better:

“Because I had a nice time with you and I’d like to see you again.”

“I don’t know.”


“Tomorrow... no, tomorrow I can’t.”

“I understand.”

“It’s that... you know...tonight I’ve realized how much Andrea still means to me and I didn’t feel right being here with you, so soon....”

“It’s called guilt. Don’t be duped by guilty feelings. It’s a trap, the hysterics of the swindler we call conscience.”

“Why is conscience a swindler?”

“Because it passes off as moral acts what in reality are acts of cowardice.”

“So you’re calling me a coward?”

“We all are, my dear. We’re afraid of breaking with the past; after all, the past is all we have. What still binds you to Andrea, or whatever his name is, is a wonderfully rosy past, which is really wonderful and rosy because it is past and you’ve forgotten it; at the time, odds are it didn’t seem so wonderful to you.

“But we had so many dreams in common!”

“You mean a future. You see, what still ties you to him is a past that no longer exists and a future that will never be. And, in the name of those nonentities, your conscience is keeping you from living a present that is real and, if you’ll allow me, very gratifying.”

“Maybe because it isn’t right.”

“Or maybe because you’re afraid that I, Andrea, you yourself and the entire world will condemn you as an ingrate, superficial and flighty: five years with Andrea and puff, all of a sudden you kiss the first guy you see on an exquisite evening in Spring. But I ask myself: why do we give the past with such fatal and ridiculous moral importance? Is it because five years are more important than a single night? I know that damned Viennese doctor has something to do with it!”

The asphalt was slick. There’s an S curve that takes you from Piazza Barche to Via Forte Marghera, and Martha took it so fast that the red 2CV kept going straight (good thing there was no one in the other lane); Martha hit the brakes and the car spun around twice before ending up on the sidewalk with a thud. Thank God there wasn’t a soul around.

I looked at Martha and she looked at me ­ her glasses were all crooked and I sensed a look of terror in her eyes ­ it was only then that I felt my heart beating again. The more I looked at her mouth, tense and down-turned, the more I felt my stomach knotting up and saw flashes of the city dizzily spinning in my brain. Then she fainted and I grew calmer. Somehow I realized that we were safe and that it was up to me to act like a man. Meantime her skirt had slid high enough to show her black panties beyond the veil of her stockings. I thought I could make a virtue of necessity. I thought she might be grateful if I helped to dispel her fear. I slapped her with renewed optimism, while outside it was beginning to drizzle and the street lamps were glowing in the empty streets. I heard a cat meow, and two cars passed us rather indifferently, probably thinking that ours was an improvised and temporary parking space on the sidewalk for a couple that was making love or saying good-by.

Then Martha came to. She looked at me as if she had just left the womb. She was dumbfounded. I gently caressed her face and said that everything was all right, that nothing had happened, that she should relax, and other tender things ­ all the while I was taking in how the seams of her black stockings were describing magic circles around her filly’s haunches, and a little black triangle was peeping obscenely from between her thighs. I felt like diving in head first!

But she might have thought this a bit indelicate.

“How stupid of me!” These were her first words.

“It could have happened to anybody, the road is so slippery.”

“Now it’s raining again!”

I thought she might start crying again. I told her:

“Shall we go to a bar and have a stiff drink?”

She sounded almost annoyed:

“Maybe I’ve had too much to drink, no?”

She closed her legs and pulled down her skirt. We got out to check the car. No damage done. We were about to take our places again, when she said:

“Please, can you drive?”

It was then that I felt real fear, and my heart started galloping like a stallion at sunset and I was paralyzed with fear under a rain I no longer noticed.

The fact is I did not drive. I had always been afraid of driving: better to get into a box full of poisonous snakes than drive. Better to face King Kong on a bad moon night than drive. Better to dare the Siberian winter naked or the tropical summer in a sweat suit than to drive. I think I’ve made myself clear. Oh, by the way, I had gotten a drivers license!

And that had been the most beautiful day of my life. Never had acing a college exam or the conquest of a girl or any other success up to then ­ I did okay, without too many complexes ­ given me such deep, unalloyed joy. It had taken me three years. Three years in which my parents had had to shell out zillions of dollars for my driving lessons; during which I had failed exams and scared driving inspectors shitless; in which I had given up so many times and cried for shame in a corner of my room ­ until one day my father picked me up bodily and stuck me behind the wheel of his grey Honda Civic. It was always torture for me: my arms and legs were paralyzed and cold sweat trickled down my shirt as my father said: “turn the ignition... clutch... no, that’s the brake! Okay... put it in reverse now... take you foot off the clutch and step on the gas...” Christ, how was it possible to keep all those concepts in mind simultaneously!!! My brain sent the messages with great deliberation and often in a language my feet did not understand, and I was left like a bird caught in traffic ­ the traffic! What incredible angst!!! The other vehicles seemed enormous monsters a hair’s breath from the sheet metal giant I was piloting, and from one moment to the next I saw them crashing and crushing me to death forever.

One day at a Yield Sign at the end of Viale San Marco, where you pick up the San Giuliano, I saw a VW bug, grim and threatening, coming on the left. It was really a long way off: I could have gotten out, gone to the corner bar, had a coffee and sandwich, and finally gotten back to my car in time to see the little monster pass by ­ What did I do? I slammed on the brakes and BAM! I was immediately rear-ended by the blue Golf behind me.

(“Oh, Proserpina and Hades, why didn’t you intervene immediately to take me from this world as one takes out a useless and ugly flower, why didn’t you open a precipice in the earth to kindly swallow me up?”)

I didn’t dare look at my father. I expected to see him green with anger and shame for his idiot son ­ but my father has always had this unnerving peculiarity: he goes into a rage over small things but he’s as calm as a monk at the most critical times. He tapped on my pulse (nonexistent) and with the calmest voice in the world he whispered:

“Stay calm, nothing’s happened.”

I made myself as small as possible behind the wheel. My heart was beating wildly and my head felt as if it would explode. From the rear view mirror I could see the following scene play itself out: the driver of the blue Golf, a little woman about 55, was in shock as she left her car. She looked in amazement at the bumper of the Golf (there was a headlight bashed in, but nothing more) and then at the bumper of the Civic (a mere dent) and at my father (a look of regret on his huge, kindly face, arms thrown open as if to say: What’s to be done?). The woman stammered:

“But... but... why did you slam on the brakes?”

“Lady, there was a car coming on the left.”

“But... but... it was so far away!”

“You can never be too careful.”

“Careful my foot, will you look at this now!”

“Lady, you see the S? My son is a student driver...”

“Well, as a student he’s not too bright! The VW Bug was in Canada!”

My father is like that. Up to now he had been unflappable, but his son had been insulted and his intellect called into question (justifiably, as it happens); now he set his jaw and his voice sounded tense:

“Look here, you just concentrate on keeping a safe distance, and I’ll worry about my son. Now shall we get on with the friendly accident report for the insurance company?”

And they got right to it. When my father came back to the car he was beaming: “Heeheehee! We got ourselves a new bumper!”

“But we didn’t need a new bumper!”

“Well, it had a couple of scratches.”

“But that other car was really in Canada...”

“Well, not really in Canada, let’s say New York! Heeheehee! Come on, start the car and let’s go!”

“Let’s go? Sorry Dad, I can’t do it. I’m still in shock!”

“Come on now, don’t be a pussy!”

And so we went and, shortly after that, about a month before my date with Martha, with my intestines in knots and the veins in my neck bulging to the breaking point, after passing the written exam, I also passed my road test.

I remember that we were driving along a road full of potholes without my missing a single one. The old, pot-bellied driving examiner joked: “You like the holes, right?”

My dad was sitting next to me and let out an overstated laugh that also got the examiner laughing contentedly, and I tried to laugh too and could do no better than hah hah and said: “Sorry about that, I realize I’m a little nervous; usually I’m never nervous.”

And the examiner believed me and said: “Okay, go into the office and sign the documents, you’ll have your license in about a month.” As soon as he left I burst out crying and hugged my dad.

But a month had gone by and I had done no other driving, what’s worse, I had decided that I would never drive again. What did it matter to me? The license finally, the candy pink license that drove me wild with happiness each time I slipped it out of my wallet and ecstatically looked at both sides, the license that conferred social respectability with its official confirmation that I was not an incompetent fool (I was like everyone else, I was a driver!) ­ I had that license. Here it is kids, shining like a peach blossom against the blue spring sky: so if you don’t see me driving, it’s because I prefer not to; it bores me, and traffic wears me out ­ but I could.”) I’m not a conformist. I don’t need to drive to prove my manhood, just the opposite, I love girls who drive ­ I was born to sing madrigals next to a little blond tearing along at a hundred miles an hour.

Now Martha was eyeing me, under a cold and constant drizzle, and I think she guessed at my discomfort, I think she thought that I was unwilling to drive out into open country. I stalled for time by asking:

“But how will I get back?”

Her face was wet with tears, or maybe it was the rain, but she didn’t seem to notice it. She was gathering herself in from the cold and seemed to be in despair:

“Well, maybe you’re right...”

“I’m sorry, I’d be glad to do it, no problem...” I said with immense relief.

“I’ll call my father to come and get me...”

I was embarrassed now. I felt I was abandoning her, that I had to do something. Besides, her mom and dad were rather on in age.

“Wait. You don’t want to call your house in the middle of the night and force your dad to come get you. Wait a few minutes; you won’t be so frightened, you’ll see. I’m no longer afraid. After all, if you don’t get back behind the wheel now you run the risk of never driving again, shock must be confronted head on...”

I went to her and tried to hug her, and she dove into my arms and started sobbing:

“I was so afraid...”

“I know, I know...”

Then, lifting her face like a puppy, she said:

“What if you drove and spent the night at my house and I could bring you back in the morning?”

I felt that horrible sensation again, two great talons gripping my heart and driving it to the middle of my belly; I was trapped and I knew it. I looked at her and wanted to tell her that I would have wanted to but unfortunately I had an appointment at dawn next morning ­ but I couldn’t be such a coward, that’s something else I knew. I looked around, the rain was beating on the brightly lit puddles, on the shiny street, on the closed gas stations and on the little boats moored at the bank of the Salso Canal (the filthiest creek in the world, a basin greasy with huge, grey rats and reeking of all the pismires of Marghera) and Martha looked at me imploringly and I held her in my arms, terrorized, while normal people slept serenely in their little brick houses, deaf to the drumming of my heart and the miaowing of the cats that made up the sound track of my nocturnal nightmare ­ so I surrendered and whispered: “okay.”

I got in the car with the enthusiasm of the condemned man walking to the gallows, and my brain was already flashing me images of the world beyond, where I was already begging Martha’s forgiveness for having caused her to drown with me in the Salso Canal, just before our bodies had been devoured by rats.

Left foot on the clutch, I thought; right foot, lightly on the gas.

My heart was beating like a thousand drummers. As I turned the key, an electric current tingled through my chest. The street was still empty and sopping wet and it went on raining. Oh God, at least let the rain stop, I prayed.

Martha pushed a lever and the windshield wiper came on. The clutch ground threateningly as I shifted into reverse: “it always grinds like that,” Martha said. I released the clutch with surgical precision and slowly pressed on the gas pedal ­ too slowly, as it turned out, and the motor died. “It always dies,” Martha said. I wondered whether she could hear the screeching of my nerves, or whether she had guessed that my bladder was about to burst with fear. “Fuck” I said to myself, “fuck!” It’s always been a word I could count on for courage. I turned the key again, stepped on the gas, and the car roared, it moved, a weight was lifted from my chest, my limbs loosened up, my blood started flowing again, a drop of urine stained my boxers and I tightened the muscles of my groin. The car slipped off the sidewalk just as two headlights in the distance again froze my heart, blood and limbs: I jammed both feet into the brake pedal and in the fraction of a thousandth of a second I remembered the clutch and realized that the motor would die, and so I slammed my left foot down on the clutch and ­ a miracle ­ with the growl of a lion not quite decided whether to attack or crouch, the motor kept running.

The oncoming car took a very long time to pass us. It was a blue Skoda all banged up and harmless looking, and as mindless as a manatee. I looked at it with scorn and some relief and awkwardly justified my hesitation:

“I know it was a mile away, I had plenty of time to cross, but considering what’s happened, you know, I’m taking it slowly...”

She laughed and seemed reassured:

“Oh, don’t tell me, I can’t thank you enough, you must have nerves of steel to drive after what just happened.”

You’ll never know, my dear!

The car moved with a certain French finesse. The lion seemed to have been tamed. I was able to return to my lane and thought it about time I shifted into second ­ mentally I went over what I had to do with the help of a few choice obscenities to keep my courage up. I felt a drop of sweat roll down my forehead as I pushed in the clutch pedal and pulled back firmly, but without malice, on the shift knob ­ by God it worked, yes, I was in second gear, the car was rolling forward and my chest again relaxed and I could not stifle a sigh of relief.

“Everything okay?”, I asked Martha, fishing for a compliment.

“Great.” And I think she smiled, even though I didn’t dare take my eyes off the road.

Now it was time to shift into third, the lion had begun to roar, but the stop light leading to Via Sansovino forced me to stop before turning left, and that’s when something terrifying happened: there was another car behind us. I saw its headlights, cold, cynical, suspicious headlights, scrutinizing my ineptness. I was sweating and dreading the moment I would wet my pants. A car behind me had always been the thing I feared most; I felt I was being judged, that the horn would sound any minute. When I looked in the rear view mirror I always saw a sneering, angry face. But my daddy had always said to never mind the other drivers, don’t pay attention to them even if they blow their horns. “Take no heed of them, but look and go your way.” He could never resist throwing in a good quote.

I paid no attention to them; at least I pretended not to, but fate had laid an ambush for me. I’d done everything properly: I had kept the motor running while the light was red; I’d quickly taken off when it was green; but, just then, from the opposite direction, two jaguar eyes opened in the night and I understood immediately that I was dealing with a dangerous animal, certainly not the old Skoda of a while ago. But this too was far-off. I was sure it was miles away. Only an imbecile would stop and wait for it: the guy behind me would have honked his horn and unmasked my timid soul; or he might rear-end me like the little woman in the VW bug. And so I went and turned, by God, I floored the accelerator and the car gave a squeal of joy as it made the curve and gently returned to its lane like a triumphal chariot. And in the euphoria of it all I quickly shifted into second and then even into third gear. And we were riding, yes, riding, and I was tempted to look at Martha to see whether she was hearing the thumping of my heart, whether she was looking in astonishment at my audacity, whether she expected me to be that kind of driver...

But Martha said nothing and I calmed down; I realized how idiotic it was to get all excited ­ there was still a long road ahead of us.

In Viale San Marco, my neighborhood, I got it into fourth gear and my heart was singing like a tenor: my God, why is there no one here to see this?

I was extremely focused.

Martha said:

“I still don’t understand how I took that curve so fast ­ how stupid of me!”

“Naw, come on.”

“It must have been the whiskey. You shouldn’t have let me drink like that.”

“Naw, really.”

“No, I’m just joking you know. I need to joke about it to get over it. I should really say how sorry I am. I hope you’ll forgive me; I just don’t know how to thank you and ...”

At any other time her words and the hand I suddenly felt on my right thigh, because of her fright, the gratitude and certainly not from malice, would have awakened my most horny thoughts ­ but just then I was deaf to them, and her well-meaning hand on my thigh was merely an awkward sensation on my leg, whose every muscle was concentrating on doing its duty. Luckily, she soon took it away and, increasingly full of self-confidence, I felt that the car was letting itself be tamed and that it had left the overpass behind, driven by me, dammit, as I continued to shift gears without a hitch. I was as if hypnotized, ecstatic. I was beginning to feel happy inside almost to the point of bursting.

“Do you always drive so hunched up over the wheel?” Martha asked.

“What?” And I turned my head to look at her. I swear I did. I noticed that I could take my eyes off the road and look at her, and what a marvelous thing it was that I was driving ­ yes, I was driving just like other human beings, who knew how to drive and simultaneously carry on a pleasant conversation with their companions.

I was so excited by this new discovery that I turned four times towards her as I pronounced the following phrase:

No ­ it’s that ­ with the rain ­ I ­ can’t see very well.” Just like an epileptic.

We took the Terraglio, the wide road that leads to the fields and ends in Treviso. It’s considered extremely dangerous because of the considerable number of imbeciles who drag there only to crash and take with them dozens of innocent and casual passers-by, especially during weekends after dark. I felt another squirt of urine warm again an area of my boxers at the thought, and a cold shudder stopped my heart for an instant: but I was bound to make it, by God, I would make it and ignore the others, as my father advised.

On the Terraglio, which bordered the black countryside smelling of wet leaves, I did meet with a lot of other vehicles. Their headlights slammed into my face as I kept a respectful distance from a little black car that could hardly be made out in the dark, while in the rear-view mirror I kept an eye on a pair of headlights that were not threatening or condemning, and were content keep their place.

Yes, I was driving, driving wisely and calibrating my foot pressure on the gas so as not to be considered a Saturday night nuisance or tie up traffic like an old snail, and as my nerves relaxed and my heartbeat slowed to normal, my bladder found relief at last ­ for the first time I felt I was a man.

I had never felt that way before and it was a terrific sensation. My gestures took on more determination; my look was virile, and a full grown heart beat within my breast.

But I was celebrating victory too soon.

All of a sudden, as weeping willows leaned in from the sides of the road, while the rain had completely stopped and Martha had turned off the windshield wipers and everything was going swimmingly, I was forced to slow down by a tractor that planted itself in front of me with its mousy red lights and a total absence of an inferiority complex. At first I thought nothing of it and followed behind it with all the patience and good will in the world; in fact, that little man with the straw hat astride that slow-moving contraption reminded me of an unruffled maharajah seated on the back of a peacefully plodding elephant right out of Kipling’s Jungle Book, fables that were distant in space and time, with their flavor of mystery and indolence, knowing nothing of automobiles, frenzied activity and car horns. But Martha could contain herself no longer:

“Will you look at him, he shouldn’t be driving at night ­ he must be drunk!”


“Dear God, it can’t all be happening to us tonight, go ahead and pass him when you have a chance.”

“Pass him? But I’ve got an undivided median line.”

And in fact the undivided line was very reassuring; it seemed to settle the matter and I was grateful for it.

“Don’t tell me you’ve never passed with an undivided line?”


“Now, now, there’s no one coming, pass him!

“But... give me a break Martha, the place is full of troopers on nights like these...”

Her voice became strident and got on my nerves:

“Yeah, but look behind you, traffic’s backing up and they’ll start honking any minute!”

“At me!?”

“At you, at you, don’t you think they’re waiting for you to pass him?”

I looked in the rear view mirror. The headlights of the little black car had been joined in a line stretching back a ways by pairs of others and others still. It was true; there was a line and they were all waiting for me to make my move. The road was now dark and narrow and only one car could pass at a time. It was up to me; no one was coming from the other direction, damnation, and I felt my temples pulsing and my heart galloping like a crazy horse on a beach as I began to slide over to the center line:

“What are you doing, not around a curve!”

“Calm down, I was only looking, relax, I know how to drive!”

She felt humiliated.


“It’s nothing.”

The blast of a car horn, probably from the traitorous little black car, was like a spear thrust through my chest, and in the rear view mirror I saw a phalanx of headlights stretching into the distance, all waiting for a move on my part. The man with the straw hat, stationary as a statue, continued to drive his tractor at a glacial pace in the dark and misty night; under that straw hat he seemed a demigod come down to put me to the test, while the dark, powerful forms of trees were sneering giants betting against me. I looked at the straight stretch of road before me, drifted to the left, crossed the dividing line and pulled up even with the tractor ­ but I was going so slowly, pianissimo by God, and at that instant there appeared before me two headlights like the flaming eyes of a dragon and I felt a large kitchen knife splitting my belly open. I realized that I was in fifth gear and that my father had always told me always to pass in third or second gear. I downshifted into third and the car gave a terrific roar ­ for a moment I had the impression that the maharajah looked at me approvingly as I put him behind me. I got back into my lane, the dragon still a mile away: I had passed the tractor.

Martha’s mom and dad were elderly. He was doubtlessly a wizard; and she, a good witch. Tall and extremely thin, his nose ended in a strawberry. She was petite but plump and her smile was a slice of watermelon. They had woken up and greeted us all anxious and astonished, but also caring and attentive, as if they already knew ­ it must have been the crystal ball ­ and the four of us all sat on a wonderful green, pink and wine colored sofa, in a crescent around the fireplace. Fright painted their faces as they heard our account of what had happened, followed by relief and thanksgiving to God (they could have been thanking Beelzebub), and the lady witch made us chamomile tea while the wizard lit his pipe, and thanked me repeatedly for my sang-froid and kindness.

A cold sensation ran up and down my spine and my heart was thrashing about like a poor fish just pulled from the water. But now my nerves slowly unwound; the fish ceased its mortal struggle, all the muscles in my body slackened their hold, and a celestial bliss descended and enveloped them completely. I shifted into fourth without even thinking about it. Martha’s silence gave me to understand that I had done something perfectly normal, but inside I realized that I had slain the dragon, killed the giants and silenced the demigod. One after the other, the cars behind me also passed the tractor and got in line behind me. Now I no longer feared them or their condemnation: let them be good enough to follow me if they wanted to, and if they wanted to pass because I was going too slow for their taste, let them sound their horns: “Take no heed of them but look and go your way.”

In no time at all we reached the dark lane that led to Martha’s house. In the headlights, it was yellow and full of stones. It looked like a magic road leading to a fabulous adventure. Then I turned into the unpaved driveway and with amazing nonchalance I parked in front of Martha’s farmhouse. I would have loved to stay there all night long ­ a night whose colors and odors were now familiar to me, where the crickets were singing my praises, where the rustling of the wet vegetation would lull me to sleep as I watched the ambergris sky and imagined the mysterious fauna of the woods, owls, wolves, elves and fairies, all giving a party in my honor.

The aromas of the straw and the manure were ambrosia to me. I got out of the car, wrapped my arm around Martha’s waist, and we entered the little castle like its king and queen.

I just loved those two old geezers. I loved the world and life itself. I loved that house of fable with its fabric sunflowers pinned to the walls, its blue distilling tubes on the pantry shelf, its white gauze curtains and its spiral staircase leading to the upstairs bedrooms. I loved the spattering of the rain in the night, the fresh aroma from the outside ­ I even loved Martha.

It was already 4:00 a.m. and I suddenly thought of how my parents would be worried at not seeing me come home, so I asked to make a phone call. The call dragged my folks out of bed and they were marvelously afraid. My mother cried:

“Thank heaven, I thought you might have had a car accident.”

“Oh, that’s what happened all right, that’s what happened!”

Martha led me to the guest room. We climbed the spiral staircase and entered a room painted vermilion, and in a corner a little bed covered with stuffed toys: bears, crocodiles, even a little grey pig made of cloth. I’ve always found stuffed toys unbearable, but here I felt an oceanic feeling of tenderness.

Martha thanked me again and hugged me platonically.

I hugged her back with a laugh: “what for, what for!?”

And so we parted.

I looked out the window, a kind of hole excavated in the turret of a castle. Below in the enfolding darkness, faintly lit by the candles in the living room that continued to burn, I caught a glimpse of a dark wooden table and some chairs covered in purple cloth, where the good wizard and his witch wife probably drank wine under the mild sun of springtime and dined with their gnome friends during hot summer evenings. A little beyond, I could make out the chicken house, and in front of it what must have been the original barn, where the young wizard used to milk the cows and assist at the birth of calves, before definitely giving himself over to alchemy. A large peach tree shaded the old barn, with its surrounding rose and berry bushes, fruit trees and flower beds and rabbit hutches and beehives and troughs for the pigs ­ all this I made out with difficulty, buoyed by a sense of well-being, by the peace that filled my soul. But now the light of dawn was turning the sky into a gray, white and rosy mattress that was helping me to see farther off: there, beyond the little gate, there stood my car, the car that had popped my cherry, that had made a man of me among men! How beautiful it was and how nicely I had parked it!

There was the blessed countryside stretching before me in the fragrant dawn: the thick rustling woods with its lakes, and then the fields, the orderly vineyards, the rows of tomatoes, the well plowed furrows of red earth. And beyond that the road, the road I now belonged to, no longer an enemy, the road where cars passed one another, and among these there would also be mine.


The night that had initiated me to manhood was almost over. It came to an end quickly, like every thing of beauty. It was six a.m. A rooster crowed and I smiled, because later I would take my father’s Honda Civic and I’d ask him to come for a ride; he’d say: “ah, what wonder is this!” and I’d smile from ear to ear. Now I slipped under the linen sheets and the red and yellow blanket, and hugged the little fabric pig and fell asleep.

# # #

The Night I Became a Real Man by Emanuele Pettener
originally published September 15, 2008



Emanuele Pettener teaches Italian Language and Literature at Florida Atlantic University, where in 2004 he received a Ph.D in Comparative Studies with a dissertation on John Fante. He has published numerous short-stories in Italian literary magazines, and has just started to break the American market, most recently in The Mississippi Crow. His first book, on John Fante's novels, is forthcoming.

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The Night I Became a Real Man


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