The email comes with an attachment that might, probably will, ruin her life forever.
She repeats each word carefully, her face bright in the pale blue glow of her laptop screen. She’s sure she knows what the attachment is but she’d rather die than open it.
The email has no subject. The sender is a certain thirty-year-old Davide who works in TV production and whose life goal is to be like Berlusconi. At work, Davide’s private office is right next to her desk, and every time he walks by talking about budgets or casting he winks at her while she answers calls and brings coffee to the men. Davide invited her to a ‘huge party’ last week and she went only to discover that it was a small gathering in his private hotel suite in Milan. A chandelier, long and thick curtains, smell of refined wine like Château Du Tertre or Terra Gratia (names she read on the bottles scattered all over the glass tables), skinny models in fashionable and glittery clothes. Men talking excitedly about business, politics, the elections, while women listened to them, mute. One of these women looked at her, with her gorgeous blue eyes, like the colour of sky and sea when they merge together in the summer evenings. She looked back, but she can’t remember what happened after, she just knows she was on the balcony and her bra was off and then what? Someone must have taken pictures.
There is a nice smell coming from the corridor. She closes her laptop, stands and walks out of her tiny bedroom, which smells stuffy, and goes to the kitchen, which has one old wooden table, always covered with her sister’s books. Sofia, her sister, looks up from her 400-page volume on female-writers-in-modern-literature-or-something-like-that and says,
‘Are you alright, Ambra?’
Sofia keeps her hair in short, emancipatory bobs and doesn’t cover her freckles with foundation. She talks freely about tampons in front of grandmothers and is the first member of the family to go to university.
Ambra nods. Mum is stirring something in the pot, her back to them. It really smells delicious. Penne with tomato and aubergines. Just to do something and avoid her sister’s gaze, Ambra starts cutting the basil.
Mum puts the pasta in the dishes and Sofia moves her pile of books onto the battered armchair, which is where Dad used to sit, when he was still with them. Mum’s hands used to be long and beautiful but now are chapped and a bit swollen.
‘Buon appetito,’ she says and Sofia says ‘thanks,’ her mouth filled with pasta. They turn the TV on. There is a reality show with girls with fake boobs and lip fillers who shout at each other.
‘Disgusting,’ Sofia comments and switches over to the news.
Mum doesn’t say anything. She is looking at Ambra but Ambra is thinking of the attachment.
She knows now what it feels to look normal
but to hold despair inside like a sickness,
spreading all around the body,
At night, when she hears Mum going to bed and Sofia joining her and turning the light off, she stops staring at the ceiling and opens her laptop. The attachment is a video. She watches it. There she is,
her hair braided around her head like a crown,
her arms thin and long,
her lips bright red.
She is dancing,
until the men tell her to striptease.
She sees a flicker in her own expression, like candlelight before it’s blown out, but the men are the ones who decide, at least that is how it is in her office – and everywhere else, really – where they choose budgets and presenters and topics for the TV programs and she just brings coffee and occasionally auditions to be among the showgirls, the veline.
So she takes her top off and then her bra, while Davide and the others say things like: ‘Someone’s going to be promoted, HA!’
She shuts her laptop.
But it is her fault.
It is her fault because, when she was a child, she promised herself she would be different from her townspeople.
She would see the teenage moms carrying their yelling babies around the grocery shop, their faces hysterical, just like her own mum had been.
She would see them tired but still setting the table quickly when their husbands were hungry and asked for bread or focaccia, and the mums hurried to give them food, as if the men didn’t have hands themselves, as if once seated they couldn’t move.
She would look at the courtyards where they lived, yellowish and striped curtains leading into the apartments, grandmas sitting on plastic chairs outside as children played with sticks and adolescents smoked and climbed on rusty bikes.
She would look at all of this and think: I will be famous, I will be on TV someday.
But she didn’t realise
there is no escape
Father was the only one who believed in her. He always took her to dance rehearsals in his old pale blue Fiat 500. They listened to the radio together and sang Tu vuo’ fa’ l’americano while she dreamt of dancing rock’n’roll and making love under the moon just like the song said.
But Mum didn’t like Dad and neither did Sofia. For his part, Dad always said that Sofia was boring because she was always sitting somewhere, her head buried in a book. Sofia ignored him, even when Dad said: ‘look at Ambra, look how pretty your sister is.’
Once, when he came home in a bad mood and Sofia was writing on her leather notebook, he grabbed the notebook from her hands, threw it on the floor and shouted:
‘This shit never did a girl any good!’
Mum, who was cutting mozzarella into thin slices, banged her fist on the table.
‘Leave her alone,’ she said, her eyes bloodshot. ‘Maybe she’ll get a decent job someday!’
Dad was scornful. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘Because studying worked out so well for you, didn’t it?’
Mum broke a glass and shards went flying everywhere. Dad slapped her, hard, and her cheek was red for the rest of the day.
Years later, when Sofia and Ambra were doing the shopping together, choosing bread and ham at the market, Sofia said, ‘We’re so happy without dad, aren’t we?’
‘I guess,’ said Ambra.
Dad had left for some other woman months before and Ambra had cried for one week, punching the wall and wishing the other woman dropped dead.
In the morning, when the sky is flat and grey, she goes to find Davide. She takes the bus, then the train, then walks the long walk to the TV production headquarters.
Inside, no one cares about her, which means no one has seen the video yet. Davide is in some all-guy meeting in a posh room with glass walls, so she waits outside, clutching her hands, untangling her hair, watching the people running everywhere around her.
When the meeting is over, she stands to confront Davide but, without even taking her aside, he says:
‘Did you see it? Great performance. Should’ve paid more attention though. Now you’re at a dead-end.’
‘Who did you send it to?’ she whispers.
‘Just the boss,’ Davide says, smirking, and she wants to smash his face against the wall, arrogant piece of shit who feels entitled to ruin other people’s lives, who spends his time talking about drugs and luxurious holidays and weekends in London and Paris and the women he’s been with. He hasn’t earned one thing in his life, not one. And he hates her only because she wouldn’t sleep with him, because that is what they all want from her, always.
So she goes to see the boss, because what other choice does she have?
There is no waiting this time. When the boss sees her, he lets her in straight away. He smells nice like vanilla and is the kind of man who jokes about keeping ‘his’ women all in one room because ‘maybe, if you put them all together, they can make one man’s brain, HAHA.’
There is no need to explain. Before she can say anything, he starts talking, mumbling things like:
‘Who knew you were this pretty’
‘I will make sure to have you on-air every night next week…’
But at the same time he is coming closer and closer to her, and before she knows it, he is trying to kiss her, she can see his grey eyes closed as he leans forward…
She pushes him away.
It takes a minute before he recomposes himself.
‘Do you want to lose your job?’ he asks.
‘Then you know what you have to do.’
‘Then I’ll fire you, and your stupid beginners porn video will be everywhere, is that what you want?’
She wants to throw up.
She walks out of the office.
Her sister was right when she said, ‘at least in class I can prove that I’m better than the men, at least I can show them I have brains too.’
In the street, everything is blurry, is it because she’s crying?
She stops under a lamppost,
aware of the traffic,
of the hundred people
walking around her,
Mum isn’t home yet. Ambra stares at the pots and pans hanging on the kitchen wall. Her life will soon be over. The boss will upload the video and she will die, because she can’t live in shame. She doesn’t want to go back working in that supermarket, how humiliating, how tedious, scanning each item while the clients wait impatiently, giving out change under the neon lights, always the same, like hospital lights.
She shakes with rage and rubs her eyes and smashes one plate on the floor, just like she saw her father do so many times, until-
‘Ambra, what is it?’
Sofia has come out of the bathroom, a pink towel wrapped around her slim body, glasses balanced on the tip of her nose.
Ambra doesn’t want to tell, because her sister can’t understand, she is perfect, she is always right, she knows what to do even though no one ever taught her…
But then it was Sofia who cared after Ambra whenever she got home drunk and wanted to sleep on the kitchen floor, Sofia who told her she was much prettier than all the other showgirls even though Ambra knows how much Sofia hates Italian TV.
So she tells her sister everything that happened, the video and the threats and the firing.
And to her surprise, Sofia doesn’t blame her.
She calls her boss ‘a pig’ and Davide ‘an arrogant loser’ and promises she will do anything to take the video taken down, anything she can, she will go as far as taking the pigs to court if she has to, even if that is the last thing she does.
And, for a moment, Ambra looks at her sister. Her hair is wet after the shower, her grip firm on her hands, her face determined and a bit defiant.
She looks at the small kitchen she has always hated, at the smashed plate, at Sofia’s books on female filmmakers and the suffragette movement and the best poetry of the twenty-first century.
She closes her eyes,
and feeling hopeful
Costanza Casati is a fiction writer, freelance journalist and screenwriter, passionate about storytelling with women at the center. Her short stories have been published on Nothing in the Rulebook and broadcast on RAW1251 Warwick Radio as part of the show ‘Flash Fix’. Her latest project, ‘Tintoretto and the New Venice’, a documentary on the 16th century Venetian painter, has been broadcast by ARTE, the European culture TV channel, and by RAI, the national public broadcasting company of Italy. She is currently working on her debut novel, a dystopian feminist, and on the launch of a monthly podcast that focuses on book-to-film adaptations. You can find out more about Costanza on her website https://www.costanzacasati.com
Feature picture photograph: ‘Crouching Nude’ by Schiele.