Translated from Italian by Elizabeth Harris
Please find enclosed your two letters (I imagine you recognized them right away), which I’m returning because I don’t think it puts me at too much risk. I won’t return your money—I spent most of it anyway on things I need—and I won’t return your purse, which I destroyed, or the other things I found in your purse that I hope didn’t hold too much practical or sentimental value. You must have gotten your ID cards by now: I tossed them in a mailbox like always (I know the mail is reliable). I’m afraid you’ve already changed your locks, and in a way I’m sorry about this, since there’s no benefit for me and it was a waste of money for you, as your keys—along with everything else—wound up in a trash bin, where I’m fairly sure no one will fish them out, and even if someone did, without your address, he’d have no idea what to do with them. For security reasons, I generally don’t save or resell what I find in a purse, even if it’s worth something. But I always go through purses carefully—you never know—there might be some kind of medicine for a life-threatening illness like diabetes or heart disease that a person has to carry at all times. While I’m sure there’d be some risk, you should know if I found this type of medicine, even if it can be replaced at any pharmacy, I wouldn’t think twice about returning it as quickly as possible, and that’s why I’ve memorized the numbers for two express delivery services. Actually, so far I’ve found only aspirin, other headache remedies, eye drops, etc. I once kept a lottery ticket, but then I realized I’d never bought a lottery ticket in my life, and a sudden windfall—even a spectacular one—might not turn out to be such a happy event for me. You should never own something you didn’t desire first, I thought, so I tossed the ticket.
I considered just sending your two letters back in a sealed envelope without any note at all—you might have appreciated the gesture, found it chivalrous or something, but you might also worry about this stranger who maybe read your personal letters and could even be dangerous. Sorry I’m letting myself imagine your thoughts, but since we can’t meet, I don’t have much choice. I even had your letters sealed in another envelope, but then I couldn’t send it. I decided to add this note because I’m not returning the letters to be chivalrous (I don’t even know what that word means, really), and I wouldn’t feel right if you had some ideas about me that weren’t true. I know this is a strange situation—believe me, I find it just as strange as you do. But you need to know that I have no plans to contact you further after this letter. I won’t save your address; I won’t sneak into your house; I won’t make obscene phone calls in the middle of the night. I know some people who would, and that’s why I’m giving you these examples. Please believe me: nothing like this has ever crossed my mind.
I’m in the odd position of having to keep our conversation going even though we can’t meet and we can’t talk. A conversation is only possible between two people who know and accept one another, who have a reciprocal relationship; in our case, this reciprocity must be set aside. I assure you I’m not happy about this, and if my letter is some type of written monologue, please understand I never wanted to keep you from answering; I’m just looking out for my personal safety. From a strictly technical point of view, I also could have called—that probably wouldn’t be too risky. But a phone call wouldn’t work. As soon as I said, “I’m the one who stole your purse” (and something like that over the phone can only sound ugly), you’d have an immediate emotional reaction, and that would be the end of any normal conversation. No matter how you react on the first read, this letter will still be there, so you can read it a second time, after your head’s cleared. Besides, I think a letter’s the best method for saying what needs saying, and as clearly as possible: if you can revise, you can be more precise, more honest. But maybe since speech is more spontaneous, you think it’s more honest. A lot of people do. I know plenty of businessmen who’d rather take an exhausting, expensive trip than close a deal without meeting the other party face-to-face. You’ve got to believe me—I’m being absolutely truthful here—I don’t think a person can lie in writing. You can lie out loud, and what you say won’t leave a trace; and your words can mean one thing while your tone, your expression, can mean something else; but a piece of writing can be read over, mulled over, so I really don’t think it’s possible to insert lies without leaving some trace of evidence behind. What I mean is that in a letter, even if you want to tell the truth but can’t, maybe you’re too cautious or shy, there’s an involuntary truth that seems to come out anyway, that’s impossible to avoid.
So I have to confess I spent some time reading your two letters, even if they weren’t mine. I’ve never found letters in a purse before, and I had this vague notion that a letter, like someone’s medicine, might hold some crucial piece of information, some address or recommendation. I’m not used to writing letters—it feels a bit awkward. Reading this, I can see I’m drawing a strange portrait of a thief as someone not exactly “honest” but “sensitive,” anyway. I must admit I’m not at all interested in making the consequences of my thefts out to be more serious than they really are. I’ll take responsibility for a theft, but in some ways I don’t want to be held responsible (e.g., in front of a judge) for someone else’s life. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me, and perhaps that’s making me too verbose; my apologies. I have to say that I’m not inclined to think of myself as a thief. I live this way because I want to, but if someone else chooses a different lifestyle, I don’t hold it against him. There’s plenty of wealth to go around in this world, and I don’t think you can criticize someone if he limits himself to taking only what he needs. I don’t like harming people more than I gain for myself. This is a good rule of caution—maybe it’s the first rule of caution. I’m not some addict who just goes out and steals for a fix. I want you to understand this, even if it’s also true that I consider a certain number of cigarettes a day to be something I need. Since you didn’t have cigarettes or a lighter in your purse, you must not smoke, so what I consider a “need,” you might not find all that convincing. I’ll admit: I want to make a good impression.
I do a job a week—that’s usually enough—so I can take my time. It’s a modest living. You know how much money you had in your purse, and you have to trust me when I tell you that this is plenty for one week, even with the small amount I always set aside. I know people, convinced they live on next to nothing, who spend the same amount in just two days—and unlike me, they don’t even pay rent. I try to give money its due, and if deep down you object that I don’t earn my money, consider this: I do get it at some personal risk. I’m extremely careful, I’ve never been caught, and I know if I pay close attention, I can reduce this risk, but I can’t eliminate it entirely. I don’t want you to romanticize me as some criminal character. I’m not in any criminal circles, I don’t know any other working thieves, and most of all, I don’t hang out with fences. But don’t get the idea I look down on these people, either. I stay away to be safe. Fences and chronic thieves (people who steal because that’s the only thing they know) almost always have records, and they all have to do a little informing, just to survive. I don’t want a life that’s always on the inside, on the outside . . . so if I want to keep living the way I live now, and I do, I have to stay as far as I can from this small, side world that I really don’t know anyway, or I know it the way you know it, from what’s in the papers. But I do have to admit, when I find myself with something gold in my hand, I’m awfully tempted.
A couple of years ago, I found a pamphlet under my door, probably slipped under there by some of the parish boys, about a project for digging wells in an extremely dry part of Central Africa. The pamphlet included an address, so about once a month, when I find something valuable (usually gold lighters, but sometimes pens or earrings), that’s where I send it. Maybe this sounds ridiculous, but otherwise, I’d just toss this stuff out, which seems like a waste.
Truthfully, I’m not entirely sure what a thief is. If I happened to meet one, I’d never think of swapping trade secrets. It’s not like we’d have some special bond just because we’re both thieves. No, if I met a thief, I’d hang onto my wallet.
On the other hand—and this will sound strange—I do need to feel something for the ladies who (just between you and me) I like to call my clients. This word, it didn’t come to me right away. There’s a reason for stealing purses instead of wallets. It’s easier. Young women are a bit more distracted than older women, and this little bit means a lot. I prefer “clients” to “victims,” because when it comes down to it, I really don’t think what I’m doing is all that bad. Stealing a purse is something you can’t hurry; that would be reckless. On a Saturday afternoon, I’ll go out for a walk like everyone else. I’ll people-watch, window-shop. Most of the girls going into the department stores on Saturday carry a bit more money in their purses. And more than likely, they’ll spend that money on something superfluous, or at least on something they want and don’t need; so working in a department store on a Saturday, I’ll get good results, and I also won’t feel like I’m stealing anything that essential. In department stores, people wander around, and no one’s surprised to see the same face two or three times. Everyone’s happy just wasting time: it’s normal for someone to set her purse down, to leave it for a few minutes on a counter, by a display, while she picks out something she likes, touches the fabric, inspects it for flaws, compares colors. I don’t think it’s particularly dangerous telling you all this—we have so many department stores here. But it’s not safe, either, always working in the same city, so every once in awhile, I’ll take a trip.
So as I was saying: I need to like my clients. This probably has something to do with my sense of guilt (I was raised, as you probably were, to respect the rules), but liking my clients has its practical side, too. In a crowded place, no one’s surprised to see some guy staring at a pretty girl—as long as he doesn’t overdo it, of course. Sometimes I’ll pick out a few small things I need, then find a sales counter with a long line so I can look around. No one remembers the guy standing next to her in line. If you don’t mind my saying, you’re very pretty, and I liked you right away.
It’s easier to read someone you like. You can’t just wait for her to leave her purse on a counter—she needs to do it two or three times so you can figure out how distracted she is, how long the distraction lasts, how intense it is (or maybe “un-intense” is better). Then you need to make sure no one’s looking, that everything’s close, you’re in a good spot, the exit’s clear and easy to reach. It takes a lot of patience. I like to see someone staring at everything, all the items for sale, then coming closer, staring at a group of things, focusing in on one, doing the math. I like seeing her concentration kick in (and it’s during this concentration/distraction that I can make my move). There’s little outward sign of her concentration, but it’s very decisive, very intense. She devotes herself completely to the thing she’s picked, and everything else, the room, the people, the noise of the store, they all disappear. I’m lost in the moment, too—but in secret. I have to admit I watched you more closely than normal: you’re especially graceful and charming, and I decided to take a moment to enjoy, in spite of the risk. I’m lucky I enjoy my job of watching others so much; I look pretty natural doing it. With all the details I’ve brought up, it must seem like I’m writing a book. I’ve never tried to describe what I do, and it feels a little strange. I want to do a good job, be as thorough as possible. I get a bad feeling about some people; they almost make me worry, the way they walk by all the things in the store, not even seeing them, just keeping their distance. They only want to look at price tags and don’t get any pleasure at all out of being surrounded by so many beautiful things. They go to a department, head straight for the saleslady, and ask for one specific item—they can’t risk being seduced by some other beautiful thing. They buy cheap, tasteless stuff. They’re also the ones clinging to their purses: they’re more interested in their money than what their money can buy. And then there are the women I see week after week, in the same department in the same store, always staring at the same thing. Maybe it’s something fairly expensive, so they’re saving their money a little at a time. Or maybe they’re working themselves up to buying something, making sure it’s exactly right.
So far, I have to admit, this has all been fairly easy to talk about, to describe. I’ll circle someone, trying to establish a sort of mental connection, but making as little real contact as possible. We can’t look each other in the eye; if we do, it’s over. Sometimes I test myself, almost draw up next to her; I examine what she’s just examined; I move like she moves, look where she’s looked. This is very important—to read her, I need to identify with her. The more I feel like everything’s working, the more I enjoy myself, and also, no matter how strange this might sound (the two of us, we live worlds apart), it’s my way of getting to know someone. I can feel incredibly close to someone. Unfortunately, I’m pretty shy, and I can’t maintain this feeling very long. It’s so overpowering, there comes a time when it’s almost unbearable: I can hardly control this desire to make some contact beyond what’s necessary to earn my living. Sometimes, it happens. I’ll chat with the person a little—you know how it is in a store—about what’s in front of us, about matching colors or something, and then I’ll take off. On these rare occasions, all I’m left with is the feeling that in just one moment, I’ve blown a half hour’s work, that with a few banal, clichéd phrases, I’ve cheapened a real closeness, an affection I could have savored in an entirely different way. It’s just beautiful watching someone (from the outside, if I can phrase it that way) who’s drawn by her desire, who touches the fabrics, and smells the drop of perfume on her wrist, and tastes the moisturizing cream with the tip of her tongue. Department stores are easy places to work; they’re fascinating, too, and here’s why: they’re like gardens of delight, and that’s just beautiful. I know you understand. I’ve seen the way you move, the way you look.
All pleasure must come to an end. My pleasure, my dream life of watching another vibrant person, ends with a theft. It’s quick, it’s ugly, it’s dark; it blots out everything else. I think this is typically male—breaking things off in such an ugly way. The theft itself is hard to describe: something, almost a different self, takes its revenge, and when this self retreats, so do its memories. Now I’m here in my rented room, and all that’s left is a pure chain of events. Like the workings of a machine. I move toward the purse, take it, put it in a larger bag I always carry, and the whole time, I’m walking away. I move quickly, calmly; I try to act natural. After I’ve left the room or I’m blocked from view behind some shelves, I hurry to the exit. I don’t look back—I don’t want to be noticed—but I keep my ears open. Outside, I run to the first corner, the first bar, the first subway stop. In cooler weather, I’ll keep a bright-colored jacket or sweater in my bag that I’ll slip on to change my appearance. In an hour I’m home; then I’ll take a look at what I’ve got. During that hour, my fear keeps building, but as soon as I step inside my door, it disappears, and all I feel is incredibly weak and tired.
The two letters I found in your purse also piqued my interest because they were typed but didn’t seem official. After I read them, I thought that maybe the person typed them because he was shy, or even a little deceitful. I liked the idea of someone who didn’t want to show his handwriting. Let me clarify here that the letter you’re reading now is only typed because it’s practical. For years I was a secretary, so I’m more comfortable using a typewriter than a pen. I think we all get an immediate impression from someone’s handwriting, like we get from someone’s face or body or clothes. And I think we all have a certain amount of natural talent that can be developed, when put to use. I really got a feeling from these typed letters. As I said before, that they’re typed means someone’s hiding something. And then I was struck by that wide left margin, like a person who pauses between each little burst of speech. And the lines run to the end of the page—some run right off the page, mutilated, the way some people end their sentences by mumbling, garbling their words. I’m not trying to do some cheap graphology here; these analogies just help me explain my first impressions. I don’t know if you can make direct correlations between the psychology behind certain speech patterns and their impressions on the listener.
As I already explained, I read your letters mostly out of a sense of duty but also, I’ll admit, because I was curious. It did feel like I was violating a trust, though, and something more complicated, too, not just from a moral standpoint but because of the head games involved: because stealing a purse, what I do for a living, ultimately helps me, while I read your letters to see if they helped you; and a person’s gratuitous interest in how useful something is for someone else makes that person, whether he knows it or not, something of a hypocrite. After reading your letters, I can’t say exactly what I was hoping to find. Probably something interesting, at least interesting enough to keep me reading. For a while, I remember thinking they were love letters. But this is silly: you know perfectly well who wrote these letters, and of course you understand them a lot better than I do. I don’t think I could write a love letter—I’ve never tried, anyway—the situation’s never come up. I’ve seen a lot of how-to books or collections of love letters on store shelves, and it’s got me thinking, though maybe this isn’t reasonable, that the people who write love letters can’t actually handle any real emotion. And this must be extremely painful and sad.
One letter describes a garden, the other, a room. The descriptions are very precise, but your friend (I’m assuming he’s your friend) seems to think everything’s a mystery. I’m tempted to show you what I mean by quoting from some of the more interesting passages, the ones that made me decide to write you in the first place. But I’d rather not—it’s embarrassing—and I think you’d find it pretty unpleasant, too. But I don’t want to paraphrase, either: I’d feel like one of those pesky salespeople who keeps interrupting with stupid, phony comments like, Look how green! How yellow! How round! How light! As if we’re all completely deprived of our senses.
Maybe I should limit myself to how I reacted to your letters instead of discussing the letters themselves. But I’ve only just realized now that I can’t separate the two at all. In short, these letters seem as if they’re written by someone from an unfinished place, and only the people who live in this place can actually finish it, by letting their imaginations run wild. I don’t know if your friend’s joking or serious, if he’s sick or sane (sorry to be blunt), if he’s master or servant to this imaginary world he describes so well. He describes some photos tacked to the wall: These photos, even the ones that are the most touching and evocative to the person who put them up, are actually a little silly and pretentious. They suffer a great deal because they’re old, and they mock each other for it; the oldest have to endure the sneers of those just tacked up the other day. Slowly, the oldest photos are slipping away, into the past, withering, their corners curling; desperate, they try to commit suicide, tearing themselves off the wall, plummeting headlong to the floor, trying to whisk beneath the couch, to disappear from this life, from all the others and their insults. Meanwhile, the youngest ones heckle and jeer at these foolish attempts to escape, and the other old photos grow quiet, hoping not to be the next victims. . . .
In another passage, he describes a friend just waking up: Stefano in bed, barely awake, no, not awake yet, in that half-stage between sleeping and waking, when his soul hasn’t taken over his body again, and his body’s still just a soft, white mound of flesh. Sleep fills his entire body, every cell, and though his body can move, can walk around in the room, this isn’t a man walking; this is a gathering of clouds, and all it would take is just one breath to scatter the clouds away. Then the soul drops from the sky, crashes through the ceiling, a whirlwind that tears the room apart, a wind blowing into Stefano’s heart, swelling his heart, pushing out sleep, rolling in his blood, flowering in his mind, opening his mind to another day, you can see it in his eyes now, his soul, still smelling of sky and stars, a memory of the divine, mingling with the scent of Stefano’s just-warm flesh.
Your friend has an odd way of seeing things that don’t exist, that are absent, and seeing them just as intensely, perhaps more intensely than things that do exist, that are actually there. He seems full of emotion, full of passion, love, and also fear, feelings completely out of proportion to the things and real events that probably provoked them in the first place. I truly believe that for every situation, every person experiences different sensations—sensations that vary in content, quality, and strength; but that doesn’t mean we all live in entirely separate worlds. Anyway, though your friend’s descriptions were completely unreal, I took to them at once. Children view reality this way, too, and I’m not sure if it’s instinct or habit that makes adults tell fairy tales and stories to reinforce this idea of the world as somehow magical, or if adults are just too lazy to explain the way things really work. When I was four or five, my family lived in a city on the coast, and the sun, the summer heat, were absolutely awful. Our apartment had a very large terrace I used to play on, but it was too hot to go out there in the summer. On wash days, the laundry was always hung out to dry on this terrace. Then I’d go out; I was enchanted by all those white sheets, by the fresh laundry smell. The clotheslines ran parallel, taut, between the walls, and in among the sheets, I was shut up in a small room that was cool and very bright. I’d stay there for quite some time, my senses taut. Who knows what was going through my mind. Something very emotional, I’m sure, some deep contemplation. Your friend talks about his Sunday mornings, how since he doesn’t work, he’ll go out to the garden after showering, have a cigarette and look at the plants, the leaves on the ground, the wall, the gravel. Once in a while, your friend writes, I think you’re in the garden, too, and this thought’s so intense that your soul, wherever you are, feels drawn here, and it leaves your body for just an instant, comes here looking for the person looking for it, sees me, waves, then slips back to you before you’ve even noticed it’s gone, or maybe you have noticed, but your soul can’t leave you all alone, so it’s come home. This happens in an instant: but your soul, this quick come-stop-go, leaves something behind in the air, a waft of some imagined smell that mingles with the smells of the garden and gives off a feeling of joy that’s also very good for the plants. This might have been just some fantasy meant to charm you if your friend hadn’t followed up with some serious, serious questions: what it was like not having your soul for a few seconds and did your soul by any chance tell you what happened on these quick trips.
The description about the red carpet stuck with me, too, because it did such a good job of making something feel real that really isn’t: To get from one side of the carpet to the other, you have to cross the entire world. You measure the carpet along the outside edge: 2.5 meters long. You climb on, start walking, you walk and you walk, and you see strange, wonderful places, forests, palaces, crowds, deserts, people of every race, animals of every kind, and every climate you can imagine: nothing can harm you; you’re on the carpet. In eighty days, you’ll reach the other side. If you return, the carpet’s so large, you won’t remember the right path, so one way or another, no trip’s the same. But be careful getting off the carpet—if you don’t pay attention, it’s like jumping off a moving train—you’ll crash against the wall of the room or find yourself in a different room entirely, someplace strange and hostile—that’s exactly how I felt when I suddenly stopped reading and found myself back in my rented room, which had always seemed so modest and comfortable before.
It sounds like I was warning you a little just then. I promise I don’t want to get between you and your friend, though in a way, I guess I am butting into your conversation. I figured since you kept these letters in your purse, you must enjoy having them with you, close at hand, these descriptions of another world almost (or perhaps I should say: memories of another world almost). And then I started thinking that in spite of how you look—or from what I could see, anyway, that you seemed so happily grounded—maybe you really belong to another world, too. I’ve asked myself if just being physically exposed to these letters could really change the way I see things. I’ve thought about it and I’ve thought about it, and I have to confess, I’ve toyed with trying to shame myself out of thinking this way. I almost feel as though your letters have taken me hostage, drawn me in with their incongruous, unreal, twisted logic, and this abduction, this small, fantastic break-in, while entertaining, has also left me with an awareness of danger hanging over me.
I’m a person with his feet on the ground, and I try only to allow myself thoughts and feelings that let me live the way I want. These letters you carried around like amulets were just too alien. Destroying them wouldn’t free me, either. It feels right returning them: they’re yours. But unfortunately, by telling you what’s in my heart, I don’t believe I’ve explained myself at all. I’m writing this letter because it takes a letter to be free of a letter, the way it takes a love to be free of a love, or a dream to be free of a dream. But what does it take to free yourself from someone else’s dreams?
I’ll let you in on a little secret. I once loved a girl very much. Maybe it was passion more than love—there wasn’t much thought involved. We couldn’t see each other a whole lot. I’d visit her on Sundays, and we’d be together a couple of hours. We didn’t really talk: we didn’t know how to talk to each other. We weren’t all that happy, but we were as happy as we allowed ourselves to be. One day, all of a sudden, she called me a totem: “That’s what you are—a totem.”
And at that moment, I think I felt like I’d changed to some imaginary being, something protective and menacing at the same time. I tried to make a joke of it, stuck my fingers up behind my head like feathers. But that was a mistake. It was the beginning of the end, a quick and painful ending to our weak love. I don’t know if all this is good or bad. I do know—I’ve learned—that in my particular case, there’s only one possible world, and that’s the world you see with your eyes open; the other world, the one you see with your eyes closed, is too dangerous a place. I just wrote “we” and “our” as if I knew now or had any idea then of what was going on in this girl’s mind, or in her heart. Of course that’s not possible.
As you probably imagined, I didn’t write this long letter all in one sitting. I’ve corrected things, revised things, added things. In some parts, the tone seems different, even ugly; other parts are just digressions that can’t possibly interest you. The letter’s too long, I know this, and if I kept it a few more days, it would be longer still. I’m taking advantage of your time, just as a few days ago, I unfortunately took advantage of your personal property. I suppose you’re fairly annoyed with me. But at least you have to admit, I’ve tried not to make things any worse. And in spite of how long this letter is or all my efforts in writing it, I get a familiar feeling here. The most important thing I wanted to say, what I first announced, and hinted at, and promised over the course of a number of wandering pages (but you can’t be concise when you have something important to say), in the end I’ve said very quickly, carelessly, almost in secret.
A great writer, in a letter he wrote to the woman he loved at the time, said a letter is “some kind of trail marker leading to a human creature, along a path where you grow happier with every step, until one bright moment, when you realize you’re not moving forward at all, just going round and round in your own labyrinth, only you’re more excited, more confused than normal.” I didn’t quote this to make myself look smart; I think it’s fitting. You might say that in some letters, maybe all letters, the important thing’s only said after the final sentence, in the silence that follows. I’m very shy and reserved, and that’s why I chose my line of work. There have been many times, during intense conversations full of affection and emotion, with people I loved very much or at least wanted to love very much, that my words slowly disappeared, until all I had left in my head was one tiny phrase, or a few phrases, incongruous, but full of meaning, mysterious phrases, impossible to say. And in those moments, you can almost hear your brain creaking, straining to raise too great a weight. To say these words, to transform their mystery into a simple sequence, compressions and decompressions of air, to hear them disperse, scattered, useless, this would have been too much.
As I stop writing this letter, I apologize to you that I can’t even sign it. Good luck.
This story is included in Mozzi’s new collection This Is The Garden (Open Letter Books 2014).