by Italo Calvino

AMILCARE CARRUGA was still young, not lacking resources, without exaggerated material or spiritual ambitions: nothing, therefore, prevented him from enjoying life. And yet he came to realize that for a while now this life, for him, had imperceptibly been losing its savor. Trifles, like, for example, looking at women in the street: there had been a time when he would cast his eyes on them greedily; now perhaps he would instinctively start to look at them, but it would immediately seem to him that they were speeding past like a wind, stirring no sensation, so he would lower his eyelids, indifferent. Once new cities had excited him--he traveled often, since he was a merchant--but now he felt only irritation, confusion, loss of bearings. Before, since he lived alone, he used to go to the movies every evening; he enjoyed himself, no matter what the picture was. Anyone who goes all the time sees, as it were, one huge film, in endless installments: he knows all the actors, even the character players and the walk-ons, and this recognition of them every time is amusing in itself. Well: now even at the movies, all those faces seemed to have become colorless to him, flat, anonymous; he was bored.

   He caught on, finally. The fact was that he was nearsighted. The oculist prescribed eyeglasses for him. After that moment his life changed, became a hundred times richer in interest than before.

   Just slipping on the glasses was, every time, a thrill for him. He might be, for instance, at a tram stop, and he would be overcome by sadness because everything, people and objects around him, was so vague, banal, worn from being as it was; and him there, groping in the midst of a flabby world of nearly decayed forms and colors. He would put on his glasses to read the number of the arriving tram, and all would change: the most ordinary things, even lampposts, were etched with countless tiny details, with sharp lines, and the faces, the faces of strangers, each filled up with little marks, dots of beard, pimples, nuances of expression that there had been no hint of before; and he could understand what material clothes were made of, could guess the weave, could spot the fraying at the hem. Looking became an amusement, a spectacle; not looking at this thing or that--just looking. And so Amilcare Carruga forgot to note the tram number, missed one car after another or else climbed onto the wrong one. He saw such a quantity of things that it was as if he no longer saw anything. Little by little, he had to become accustomed, learn all over again from the beginning what was pointless to look at and what was necessary.

   The women he encountered in the street, who before had been reduced for him to impalpable, blurred shadows, he could now see in all the precise interplay of voids and solids that their bodies make as they move inside their dresses, and could judge the freshness of the skin and the warmth contained in their gaze, and it seemed to him he was not only seeing them but already actually possessing them. He might be walking along without his glasses (he didn't wear them all the time, to avoid tiring his eyes unnecessarily; only if he had to look into the distance) and there, ahead of him on the sidewalk, a bright-colored dress would be outlined. With a now automatic movement, Amilcare would promptly take his glasses from his pocket and slip them onto his nose. This indiscriminate covetousness of sensations was often punished: maybe the woman proved a hag. Amilcare Carruga became more cautious. And at times an approaching woman might seem to him, from her colors, her walk, too humble, insignificant, not worth taking into consideration, and he wouldn't put on his glasses; but then, when they passed each other close, he realized that, on the contrary, there was something about her that attracted him strongly, God knows what, and at that moment he seemed to catch a look of hers, as if of expectation, perhaps a look that she had trained on him at his first appearance and he hadn't been aware of it. But by now it was too late: she had vanished at the intersection, climbed into the bus, was far away beyond the traffic light, and he wouldn't be able to recognize her another time. And so, through his need for eyeglasses, he was slowly learning how to live.

   But the newest world his glasses opened up to him was that of the night. The night city, formerly shrouded in shapeless clouds of darkness and colored glows, now revealed precise divisions, prominences, perspectives; the lights had specific borders, the neon signs once immersed in a vague halo now could be read letter by letter. The beautiful thing about night was, however, that the margin of haziness his lenses dispelled in daylight, here remained: Amilcare Carruga would feel impelled to put his glasses on, then realized he was already wearing them. The sense of fullness never equaled the drive of insatisfaction; darkness was a bottomless humus in which he never tired of digging. In the streets, above the houses spotted with yellow windows, square at last, he raised his eyes toward the starry sky: and he discovered that the stars were not splattered against the ground of the sky like broken eggs, but were very sharp jabs of light that opened up infinite distances around themselves.

   This new concern with the reality of the external world was connected with his worries about what he himself was, also inspired by the use of eyeglasses. Amilcare Carruga didn't attach much importance to himself; however, as sometimes happens with the most unassuming of people, he was greatly attached to his way of being. Now, to pass from the category of men without glasses to that of men with glasses seems nothing, but it is a very big leap. For example: when someone who doesn't know you is trying to describe you, the first thing he says is "He wears glasses"; so that accessory detail, which two weeks earlier was completely unknown to you, becomes your prime attribute, is identified with your very existence. To Amilcare -- foolishly, if you like -- becoming all at once someone who "wears glasses" was a bit irritating. But that wasn't the real trouble: it was that once you begin to suspect that everything concerning you is purely casual, subject to transformation, and that you could be completely different and it wouldn't matter at all, then, following this line of reasoning, you come to think it's all the same whether you exist or don't exist, and from this notion to despair is only a brief step. Therefore Amilcare, when he had to select a kind of frame, instinctively chose some fine, very understated earpieces, just a pair of thin silver hooks, to hold the naked lenses and connect them over the nose with a little bridge. But after a while, he realized he wasn't happy: if he inadvertently caught sight of himself in the mirror with his glasses on, he felt a keen dislike for his face, as if it were the typical face of a category of persons alien to him. It was precisely those glasses, so discreet, light, almost feminine, that made him look more than ever like "a man who wears glasses," one who had never done anything in his whole life but wear glasses, so that you now no longer even notice he wears them. They were becoming part of his physiognomy, those glasses, blending with his features, and so they were diminishing every natural contrast between what was his face--an ordinary face, but still a face -- and what was an extraneous object, an industrial product.

   He didn't love them, and so it wasn't long before they fell and broke. He bought another pair. This time his choice took the opposite direction: he selected a pair of black plastic frames an inch thick, with hinged corners that stuck out from the cheekbones like a horse's blinders, side pieces heavy enough to bend the ear. They were a kind of mask that hid half his face, but behind them he felt like himself: there was no doubt that he was one thing and the glasses another, completely separate; it was clear he was wearing glasses only incidentally and, without glasses, he was an entirely different man. Once again--insofar as his nature allowed it--he was happy.

   In that period he happened to go to V. on business. The city of V. was Amilcare Carruga's birthplace, and there he had spent all his youth. He had left it, however, ten years before, and his trips back had become more and more brief and sporadic; several years had gone by now since he last set foot there. You know how it is when you move away from a place where you've lived a long time: resuming at long intervals, you feel disoriented; it seems that those sidewalks, those friends, those conversations in the café either must be everything or can no longer be anything; either you follow them day by day or else you are no longer able to participate in them, and the thought of reappearing after too long a time inspires a kind of remorse, and you dismiss it. And so Amilcare had gradually stopped seeking occasions for going back to V.; then, if occasions did arise, he let them pass; and in the end he actually avoided them. But in recent times, in this negative attitude toward his native city, there had been, beyond the motive just defined, also that sense of general disaffection that had come over him, which he had subsequently identified with the worsening of his nearsightedness. So now, finding himself in a new frame of mind thanks to the glasses, the first time a chance to go to V. presented itself, he seized it promptly, and went.

   V. appeared to him in a totally different light from the last few times he had been there. But not because of its changes: true, the city had changed a great deal, new buildings everywhere, shops and cafes and movie theaters all different from before, the younger generation all strangers, and the traffic twice what it had been. All this newness, however, only underlined and made more recognizable what was old; in short, Amilcare Carruga managed for the first time to see the city again with the eyes of his boyhood, as if he had left it the day before. Thanks to his glasses he saw a host of insignificant details, a certain window, for example, a certain railing; or, rather, he was conscious of seeing them, of distinguishing them from all the rest, whereas in the past he had merely seen them. To say nothing of the faces: a news vendor, a lawyer, some having aged, others still the same. Amilcare Carruga no longer had any real relatives in V., and his group of close friends had also dispersed long since. He did, however, have endless acquaintances: nothing else would have been possible in a city so small -- as it had been in the days when he lived there -- that, practically speaking, everybody knew everybody else, at least by sight. Now the population had grown a lot, here too--as everywhere in the well-to-do cities of the North--there had been a certain influx of Southerners, and the majority of the faces Amilcare encountered belonged to strangers. But for this very reason he enjoyed the satisfaction of recognizing at first glance the old inhabitants, and he recalled episodes, connections, nicknames.

   V. was one of those provincial cities where the tradition of an evening stroll along the main street still obtained; and in that, nothing had changed from Amilcare's day to the present. As always happens in these cases, one of the sidewalks was crammed with a steady flow of people; the other sidewalk less so. In their day, Amilcare and his friends, out of a kind of anticonformism, had always walked on the less popular sidewalk, from there casting glances and greetings and quips at the girls going by on the other. Now he felt as he had then, indeed even more excited, and he set off along his old sidewalk, looking at all the people who passed. Encountering familiar people this time didn't make him uneasy: it amused him, and he hastened to greet them. With some of them he would also have liked to stop and exchange a few words, but the main street of V. had sidewalks so narrow that the crowd of people kept shoving you forward, and, what's more, the traffic of vehicles was now so much increased that you could no longer, as in the past, walk a bit in the middle of the street and cross it whenever you chose. In short, the stroll proceeded either too rushed or too slow, with no freedom of movement. Amilcare had to follow the current or struggle against it; and when he saw a familiar face he barely had time to wave a greeting before it vanished, and he could never be sure whether he had been seen or not.

   Thus he ran into Corrado Strazza, his classmate and billiards companion for many years. Amilcare smiled at him and waved broadly. Corrado Strazza came forward, his gaze on him, but it was as if that gaze went right through him, and Corrado continued on his way. Was it possible he hadn't recognized Amilcare? Time had gone by, but Amilcare Carruga knew very well he hadn't changed much; so far he had warded off a paunch, as he had baldness, and his features had not been greatly altered. Here came Professor Cavanna. Amilcare gave him a deferential greeting, a little bow. At first the professor started to respond to it, instinctively, but then he stopped and looked around, as if seeking someone else. Professor Cavanna, who was famous for his visual memory! Because of all his many classes, he remembered faces and first and last names and even semester grades. Finally Ciccio Corba, the coach of the football team, returned Amilcare's greeting. But immediately afterward he blinked and began to whistle, as if realizing he had intercepted by mistake the greeting of a stranger, addressed to God knows what other person.

   Arnilcare became aware that nobody would recognize him. The eyeglasses that made the rest of the world visible to him, those eyeglasses in their enormous black frames, made him invisible. Who would ever think that behind that sort of mask there was actually Amilcare Carruga, so long absent from V., whom no one was expecting to run into at any moment? He had barely managed to formulate these conclusions in his mind when Isa Maria Bietti appeared. She was with a girl friend, strolling and looking in shopwindows; Amilcare blocked her way and was about to cry "Isa Maria!" but his voice was paralyzed in his throat; Isa Maria Bietti pushed him aside with her elbow, said to her friend, "The way people behave nowadays . . . ," and went on.

   Not even Isa Maria Bietti had recognized him. He understood all of a sudden that it was only because of Isa Maria Bietti that he had come back, just as it was only because of Isa Maria Bietti that he had decided to leave V. and had stayed away so many years; everything, everything in his life and everything in the world, was only because of Isa Maria Bietti; and now finally he saw her again, their eyes met and Isa Maria Bietti didn't recognize him. In his great emotion, he hadn't noticed if she had changed, grown fat, aged, if she was attractive as ever, or less or more he had seen nothing except that she was Isa Maria Bietti and that Isa Maria Bietti hadn't seen him.

   He had reached the end of the stretch of the street frequented in the evening stroll. Here, at the comer with the ice-cream parlor, or a block farther on, at the newsstand, the people fumed around and headed back along the sidewalk in the opposite direction. Amilcare Carruga also turned. He had taken off his glasses. Now the world had become once more that insipid cloud and he groped, groped with his eyes widened, and could bring nothing to the surface. Not that he didn't succeed in recognizing anyone: in the better-lighted places he was always within a hair's breadth of identifying a face or two, but a shadow of doubt that perhaps this wasn't the person he thought always remained, and anyway, who it was or wasn't mattered little to him after all. Someone nodded, waved; this greeting might actually have been for him, but Amilcare couldn't quite tell who the person was. Another pair, too, greeted him as they went by; he was about to respond, but had no idea who they were. From the opposite sidewalk, one shouted a "Ciao, Carru!" to him. To judge by the voice, it might have been a man named Stelvi. To his satisfaction, Amilcare realized they recognized him, they remembered him. The satisfaction was relative, because he couldn't even see them, or else couldn't manage to recognize them; they were persons who became confused in his memory, one with another, persons who basically were of little importance to him. "Good evening!" he said every so often, when he noticed a wave, a movement of the head. There, the one who had just greeted him must have been Bellintusi or Carretti, or Strazza. If it was Strazza, Amilcare would have liked perhaps to stop a moment with him and talk. But by now he had returned the greeting rather hastily; and, when he thought about it, it seemed natural that their relations should be like this, conventional and hurried greetings.

   His looking around, however, clearly had one purpose: to track down Isa Maria Bietti. She was wearing a red coat, so she could be sighted at a distance. For a while Amilcare followed a red coat, but when he managed to pass it he saw that it wasn't she, and meanwhile those other two red coats had gone past in the other direction. That year medium-weight red coats were all the fashion. Earlier, for example, in the same coat, he had seen Gigina, the one from the tobacco shop. Now he began to suspect that it hadn't been Gigina from the tobacco shop but had really been Isa Maria Bietti! But how was it possible to mistake Isa Maria for Gigina? Amilcare retraced his steps to make sure. He came upon Gigina; this was she, no doubt about it. But if she was now coming this way, she couldn't have covered the whole distance; or had she made a shorter circuit? He was completely at sea. If Isa Maria had greeted him and he had responded coldly, his whole journey, all his waiting, all those years had gone by in vain. Amilcare went back and forth along those sidewalks, sometimes putting on his glasses, sometimes taking them off, sometimes greeting everyone and sometimes receiving the greetings of foggy, anonymous ghosts.

   Beyond the other extreme of the stroll, the street continued and was soon beyond the city limits. There was a row of trees, a ditch, a hedge and the fields. In his day, you came out here in the evening with your girl on your arm, if you had a girl; or else, if you were alone, you came here to be even more alone, to sit on a bench and listen to the crickets sing. Amilcare Carruga went on in that direction; now the city extended a bit farther, but not much. There was the bench, the ditch, the crickets, as before. Amilcare Carruga sat down. Of that whole landscape the night left only some great swaths of shadow. Whether he put on or took off his eyeglasses here, it was really all the same. Amilcare Grruga realized that perhaps the thrill of his new glasses had been the last of his life, and now it was over.

from Difficult Loves

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