In the hotel dining room, the lady started to observe the gentleman seated at the table across from her, and upon preliminary inspection, surmised that he was interesting.
The essential thing – that is to say, the hands – were perfect. The lady never gave a second thought to men who had rough, neglected hands. The man at the opposite table took excellent care of his hands. They were slender, anxious hands, and the noble curve of the nails was free of impurities. His hair was smooth, grey at the temples, and moulded to his round, rather small head. As the lady factored each new element into her analysis, approval mounted in her heart, and her whole being was poised for happiness.
The gentleman had finished lunch without raising his head, so the lady hadn’t been able to catch his eye. He got up and left the room, not only without glancing at the lady, but without even a nod. For a moment the morsel of food that the lady had just swallowed stuck in her throat, but she hastened to think that maybe she’d been mistaken, and then she abandoned herself to pleasant daydreams, looking out of the window at the slope of the mountain where small fields of rye seemed to be fleeing below steady gusts of wind.
Someone brought the lady a note. The lady had been waiting for it, because she hadn’t seen Nicola Rossi when she’d arrived on the morning coach. Nicola Rossi apologised for not being there, and invited the lady to come up to his hotel. Nicola Rossi was a music critic and a friend of the lady’s husband. The whole afternoon, Nicola Rossi talked about the stomach ailment that had kept him from coming to meet her.
It was the altitude that gave him this trouble, and unfortunately the pharmacy in town didn’t carry effective remedies. Nicola Rossi talked about nothing else all afternoon, and in the evening the lady was grateful to the man at the opposite table for being there.
After three days, the lady had only managed to make eye contact with the man two or three times, though she hadn’t been able to hold his gaze for even an instant. Later, questioning herself about that look, which had made a distinct impression on her, the lady tried to discern some warmth in it, a flash of kindness or sensuality, but she doubted this had been the case. A certain restlessness began to take root in the lady’s spirit. But it was still linked to a subtle joy, owed in part to the sheer difficulty of the undertaking. And yet the lady realised that this particular joy or, rather, pleasant excitement, was growing much less spontaneous, so that she had to seek it out, provoke it; and so the joy was turning less vivid, maybe even a little insincere and false.
On previous occasions, a unique quality of this joy was that the lady felt it precisely when she exchanged more or less neutral glances or words with the new individual in question. This time, though, the strangest thing was that she couldn’t feel joy in the gentleman’s presence. Meanwhile she fell prey to an inexplicable embarrassment that could only be called shyness. That was the strangest thing. The lady was certain, however, that she would regain full control once she could speak.
At this point the lady burned with curiosity to know who the man was, and what his profession might be. His anxious hands suggested a pianist, or a surgeon.
Inventing an excuse, the lady asked to see the hotel register, but all she learned was that the gentleman was forty years old. The box for profession was left blank. The lady was irked that she’d written, on her part, ‘set-designer’ – she gave advice to her architect husband – so she now replaced it with ‘painter’, which struck her as less odd. She also regretted having put down her exact age, but she didn’t dare correct it. Besides, compared to the gentleman, the lady was still quite young.
By Lalla Romano
Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri
THE LADY (‘La Signora’)
By Lalla Romano (1906-2001), written in 1948
Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri in 2019
From The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories
Edited by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, edited by Jhumpha Lahiri, is published by Penguin Classics
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Lalla Romano (1906-2001) was an Italian novelist, poet, artist and journalist who was known for writings that drew on personal and family experiences. Romano painted throughout her life, and her former house in Milan has been converted into a museum to preserve her work.
Jhumpa Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prizewinning American author known for her short stories, novels and essays in English, and, more recently, in Italian. She has been a professor of creative writing at Princeton University since 2015. Lahiri also translates from Italian to English, and in 2019 she edited The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories.