Like Sleeping Next to a Boiling Kettle

A man named Osvaldo Ventura entered a boarding house in Piazza Annibaliano. He was square, stocky, and wore a mackintosh. His hair was grey-blond, his skin flushed pink, his eyes yellow. He tended to smile when he felt uncertain.

He’d gotten a telephone call from a girl he knew who was staying there. Someone had loaned her an apartment on Via dei Prefetti and she’d asked him for a ride.

She was waiting in the lobby, wearing a cotton turquoise shirt, eggplant-colored pants, and a black kimono with silver dragons embroidered on it. At her feet there were suitcases, shopping bags, and a baby in a plastic yellow bassinet.

“I’ve been sitting here for an hour like an idiot,” she said.

Osvaldo gathered her things and started towards the door.

“You see that curly-haired lady by the elevator?” she asked. “She was in the next room over. She was nice to me. I owe her a lot. Money as well. Smile.”
Osvaldo smiled uncertainly at the curly-haired lady.

“This is my brother. He’s here to pick me up. I’m going home. I’ll bring back your thermos and everything else tomorrow,” said Mara. She gave the curly-haired lady a kiss on each cheek.

Osvaldo picked the bags and bassinet back up and they left.

“I’m your brother?” he said.

“She was very nice. I told her you were my brother. Nice people like to meet relatives.”

“Do you owe her a lot of money?”

“Not much. Do you want to pay her back?”

“No,” said Osvaldo.

“I told her I’d bring it tomorrow. But that’s a lie. I’ll never come back to this place. I’ll wire it to her one day.”


“When I find a job.”

“What about the thermos?”

“I might not return the thermos. She has two.”

Osvaldo’s Fiat was parked across the square. It was snowing outside and the wind was blowing. Mara held her big black felt hat on her head. She was a tiny, pale brunette, broad hipped, and very thin. Her dragon kimono blew in the wind and her sandals sank into the snow.

“Don’t you have anything warmer to wear?” he said.

“No. All my stuff is packed away in a trunk. Two friends on Via Cassia are holding it for me.”

“Elisabetta is in the car,” he said.

“Who’s Elisabetta?”

“My daughter.”

Elisabetta was curled up in the back seat. She was nine. She had carrot-colored hair and was wearing a checked jumper and matching top. She held a dog in her arms. The dog had long ears and tawny fur. They put the yellow bassinet on the seat next to her.

“How come you brought along this child and that animal?” said Mara.

“I had to pick Elisabetta up from her grandmother’s,” he said.

“You always have something to do. You do favors for everyone. You need to get your own life,” she said.

“What makes you think I don’t have a life?” he said.

“Hold on to that dog, Elisabetta. Make sure it doesn’t lick my baby. Got it?” she said.

“How old is the baby now?” asked Osvaldo.

“He’s twenty-two days old. Don’t you remember? I left the hospital two weeks ago. The head nurse there was the one who told me about this boarding house. But I had to get out. It was filthy. I didn’t want to step on the bathmat with my bare feet. It was one of those green rubber mats. You know how repulsive those green hotel bathmats can get.”

“Yes, I know.”

“And it cost too much. And they were rude. I need people to be kind. I’ve always needed that, but even more so now that I have a baby.”

“I get it.”

“Don’t you need people to be kind, too?”

“Very much so.”

“They said I called down too often. I called because there were so many things I needed. Like boiling water. And other things. I need to mix formula. It’s very complicated. You have to weigh the baby, feed him, then weigh him again to see if he needs more milk. I would call ten times but they would never come. When they would finally bring the boiling water I always wondered if it had actually been boiled.”

“You could have gotten a kettle for your room.”
“No, they didn’t allow that. Then they always forgot something. The fork.”

“What fork?”

“To mix the powdered milk. I told them to bring a bowl, a glass, a fork, and a spoon. Every time. They’d bundle it all in a tablecloth. The fork was always missing. So I’d ask for a fork again. A boiled clean fork. And then they’d be rude about it. There were times I considered asking them to boil the tablecloth too. But I worried they might have a fit.”

“I agree. They probably would have had a fit.”

“I’d have to go to the curly-haired lady’s room to weigh the baby. That lady you met. She has a baby and a baby scale. But then she very politely told me I shouldn’t be coming to her room at two in the morning. So at night I had to improvise. I just don’t know. Does your wife, perhaps, have one of those scales at home?”

“Elisabetta, is there a baby scale back at the house?” asked Osvaldo.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so,” said Elisabetta.

“Everyone has one of those scales in the closet,” said Mara.

“I don’t think we do,” said Elisabetta.

“But I need a scale.”

“You can rent one at the pharmacy,” said Osvaldo.

“What can I rent without money?”

“What kind of work are you looking for?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe I can work in your shop, selling books.”

“No. That won’t do.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a hole in the wall. And I already have someone helping me out.”

“I’ve met her. She’s a cow.”

“Signora Peroni. She used to be Ada’s nanny. Ada my wife.”

“Call me Peroni. I’ll be your beer. Actually, wait – I’ll be your cow . . .”

They came to a little piazza with a fountain in Trastevere. Elisabetta and the dog got out.

“Goodbye, Elisabetta,” said Osvaldo.

Elisabetta disappeared into the doorway of a red building. She was gone.

“She barely said a word,” Mara said.

“She’s shy.”

“Shy and rude. She didn’t even look at the baby. It was as if he weren’t there. I don’t like the color of your house.”

“That’s not my house. That’s where my wife and Elisabetta live. I live alone.”

“I know. I forgot. You’re always talking about your wife so I forget you live alone. Actually, give me your phone number. I just have the shop’s number. What if I need something at night?”

“I’d rather you didn’t call me at night. I have trouble sleeping.”

“You never let me come over to your house. When I ran into you on the street this summer and I had a belly out to here and I said I wanted to take a shower, you told me there was no water.”

“That was true.”

“I was staying at a nunnery and we were only allowed to shower on Sundays.”

“How did you end up at a nunnery?”

“It was cheap. I was staying on Via Cassia before that. Then I had a fight with my friends. They got angry with me for breaking their movie camera. They told me to go back to my family in Novi Ligure. They even gave me money to pay for the trip. They weren’t cruel. But what was I supposed to do in Novi Ligure? I haven’t spoken to those relatives in a long time. If they saw me come in with that giant belly they would have keeled over dead. And there are so many of them there and they don’t have any money. But he’s better than she is.”


“The husband. From Via Cassia. His wife is too obsessed with money. He’s nice. He works for the television company. He told me that as soon as the baby came I could have a job. Maybe I should call him.”

“Why maybe?”

“Because he asked me if I knew English and I told him I did. But I was lying. I don’t know a word of English.”

The apartment on Via dei Prefetti comprised three connecting rooms. In the back room there was a glass door with tattered curtains. The door opened onto a balcony that looked out onto a courtyard. There was a clothesline on the balcony and a faded lilac flannel nightgown was hanging on the line.

“The clothesline is very convenient,” said Mara.

“Whose nightgown is that?” asked Osvaldo.

“Not mine. I’ve never been here before. The apartment belongs to a girl I know. She’s not using it. I don’t know whose nightgown that is. But it’s not hers because she doesn’t wear flannel to bed. She doesn’t even wear nightgowns. She sleeps in the nude. She read somewhere that Finns sleep in the nude and it makes them strong.”

“You didn’t look at the apartment before taking it?”

“Of course not. It’s a loan. I’m not paying for it. My good friend is lending me her apartment.”

There was a round table covered with a red-and-white checked oilcloth, and a queen-sized bed with a faded lilac-colored coverlet. In the middle of the room there was a hot plate, a sink, a broom, a wall calendar, and pots and plates piled on the ground. The front room was empty.

“You start boiling,” she said. “There should be everything I need here. They told me there would be everything. A bowl. A cup. A fork. A spoon.”

“I don’t see any forks,’ said Osvaldo.

“Jesus Christ! I’m cursed when it comes to forks. I’ll just mix it with a spoon.”

“I don’t even see a spoon. Just some knives.”

“Jesus. I have a plastic spoon here. The curly-haired lady gave it to me. But you can’t boil it, the plastic would melt. That’s the problem with plastic.”

She lifted the baby out of the bassinet and put him onto the bed. The baby had long black curls. He was wrapped in a flowered towel. He stretched out.

Two feet wrapped in enormous blue booties emerged from the towel.

“You’re also cursed when it comes to chairs,” said Osvaldo. He went out onto the balcony and found a folding chair with a ripped fabric seat. He carried it inside and sat down.

“I’m cursed when it comes to everything,” she said, sitting on the bed and slipping her shirt off to nurse.

“But you’re supposed to weigh him first. You haven’t weighed the baby,” he said.

“How can I weigh him without a scale? I just have to estimate.”

“Do you want me to run down to the pharmacy and rent you a scale?”

“Are you willing to pay for the rental?”

“Yes, I am.”

“I thought you were a cheapskate. You always told me you were poor and a cheapskate. You always say that you don’t own anything – even the bed you sleep in at night belongs to your wife.”

“That’s true. I’m poor and a cheapskate. But I’m willing to pay the rent for your baby scale.”

“Go later. Afterwards. For the moment, don’t move from that chair. I like having company while I mix the milk. I worry I’ll make a mistake. Or that it’ll come out lumpy. At the boarding house I had the curly-haired lady. I would call her and she’d come right over. Except at night. She never came at night.”

“I can’t stay here forever,” he said. “I have to go see my wife later.”

“You’re separated. Why would you go see your wife?”

“I spend time with my daughter. And I see her too. I visit them almost every day.”

“Why did you split up?”

“Because we’re too different to live together.”

“Different how?”

“Just different. She’s rich. I’m poor. She’s very active. I’m lazy. She’s crazy about interior design.”

“You’re not crazy about interior design?”

“Not crazy.”

“When you first married were you hoping that you’d just become richer and less lazy?”

“Yes. I made some effort to be less lazy. But it was torture for her. Even when she lay down to sleep, she couldn’t stop thinking about her projects. It was like sleeping next to a boiling kettle.”

“What types of projects?”

“Oh she always had some project going on. Houses to restore. An old aunt who needs fixing. Wardrobes to paint. Garages to turn into art galleries. Dogs to breed. Quilts to dye.”

“And how did you try to become less lazy and more rich?”

“In the beginning I tried doing some things to get richer. But I didn’t put anything into it and nothing ever worked out. She didn’t care if I earned money. She wanted me to write books. She wanted that. She said so. She was waiting. That was the horrendous part.”

“Couldn’t you just tell her that you didn’t have any books to write.”

“I wasn’t sure – I might have had a book in me. Sometimes I thought I could have written a book even if it hadn’t been what she’d wanted me to do. But she was always on me, waiting, stubborn, pushing. She was so intense. I could feel her anticipation on me even when I slept. It was killing me.”

“And so you left.”

“It all happened in the most extraordinarily calm way. One day I simply told her that I wanted to live alone again. She wasn’t shocked. It seemed as if, with time, her ambition for me had wilted. Nothing had really changed except she got these two little lines at the corners of her mouth.”

“What about the shop. Does that belong to your wife too?”

“No, that belongs to my uncle who moved to Varese. I’ve been running it for so many years that it feels like it’s mine.”

“And you still haven’t written any books even though you live alone now. It seems obvious that you can only sell the books that other people write.”

“No, I haven’t written any books. That’s true. How do you know?”

“Michele told me. He said that you’re lazy and you never write anything.”

“That’s true.”

“I’d like your wife to come decorate this apartment.”

“My wife?”

“Your wife, yes. If she can transform a garage, she can transform this place.”

“My wife . . . My wife would come right over. She’d bring carpenters and electricians. She’d change everything – your whole life. She’d put the baby in nursery and send you to school to learn English. You’d never have a moment’s peace. She’d get rid of all your clothes. She’d throw that dragon kimono right into the rubbish.”

“But it’s so cute,” she said.

“It’s not her style, a kimono with dragons on it. Not Ada’s style.”

“The curly-haired lady said that I might be able to go with them to Trapani. Her husband is from there and he wants to open a restaurant. If it goes well, he can hire me. They’ll need someone to look after the books.”

“You know bookkeeping?”

“Everyone knows bookkeeping.”

“Except for you, maybe.”

“But the curly-haired lady thinks I do. They could give me a room in the apartment above the restaurant. I could do the books, some housekeeping, even look after their baby and mine at the same time. It’s located near the train station. With a location like that you can make a mint.”

“Have you ever been to Trapani?”

“Never. The curly-haired lady is a little nervous actually. She doesn’t know if she’ll like Trapani. And she doesn’t know if the restaurant will take off. Her husband already has two failed restaurants. It’s her money after all. She even took her husband to a psychic. The psychic told her they should stay far away from Southern cities.”

“And so?”

“So nothing. She had a nervous breakdown. She thinks it would be a great comfort to have me nearby. If I can’t find anything else, I’ll go there.”

“I’d advise against it.”

“What would you advise instead?”

“I wouldn’t advise anything. I never give advice.”

“Are you going to see Michele tonight?”

“I don’t know. Are you looking for advice from Michele?”

“No. But I want him to come see me. I haven’t seen him for such a long time. I went to visit him in his studio when I still had a belly. It was towards the end of the pregnancy. I told him I wanted to take a shower, but he told me there wasn’t any hot water and he thought the cold water wouldn’t be good for me.”

“You’re cursed when it comes to showers.”

“There’s nothing I’m not cursed with. I called him when the baby was born. He told me he’d come but he didn’t. I wrote his mother too, a few days ago.”

“You wrote to his mother? What were you thinking?”

“I just did. I know her. I met her once. I gave the address at the boarding house. That was when I thought I’d stay there. I changed my mind. I told the curly-haired lady to forward my letters to your shop. I didn’t want her to have this address, in case she tried to come live here. I told the curly-haired lady a few lies. I told her I was going to live in a wonderful apartment with terracotta tiles in some rooms and parquet in others. I told her I was going to live with my brother, the antiques dealer. I made you into an antiques dealer. Instead you just sell old books.”

“More to the point, you made me into your brother.”

“Yes. But in fact I do have a brother. Though he’s younger than me. He’s eleven. His name is Paolo. He lives with those relatives I mentioned. I named the baby Paolo Michele. You know I could report Michele to the police. I’m a minor. If I went to court, he’d have to marry me.”

“Do you want to marry Michele?”

“No. That would be like marrying my little brother.”

“So why would you want to turn him in?”

“I don’t want to turn him in. I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m just saying that I could if I wanted to. Go see if the water is boiling.”

“It’s been boiling for a while,” he said.

“Turn it off.”

“You’re not a minor,” he said. “You’re twenty-two years old. I saw it on your ID.”

“That’s true. I turned twenty-two in March. But how did you see my ID?”

“You showed me. You wanted me to see the ugly photograph.”

“That’s true. I remember that now. I tell a lot of lies.”

“It seems to me that you tell a lot of useless lies.”

“They’re not always useless. Sometimes there’s a reason. When I told the curly-haired lady there were parquet floors here, I wanted her to be jealous of me. I was tired of asking her for things. A person gets tired of always bothering people. Sometimes you’re just feeling down and the only way to cheer yourself up is to talk rubbish.”

“You said that you didn’t know if the baby was Michele’s.”

“I don’t know. I’m not a hundred percent sure. I suspect it’s his but I slept with a lot of men during that time. I don’t know what was going on with me. When I found out I was pregnant I thought I wanted the baby. I was sure I wanted it. I’d never been so sure of anything. I wrote my sister in Genova and she sent me money for an abortion. I wrote her back and told her I was going to keep the money because I didn’t want an abortion. She told me I was crazy.”

“Can’t you ask your sister to come here? Don’t you have anyone who can come help?”

“No. That sister is married now to an agriculturist. I wrote her after the baby was born and he answered – this agriculturist I’ve never even met. He told me they were moving to Germany and that I should go to hell. Not in those exact words but almost.”

“I see.”

“When a woman’s had a baby she wants to show everyone. That’s why I want Michele to see him. We’re good friends. We had a good time together. He can be so funny. I went out with other men but always had fun with him. It never even crossed my mind to marry him. I’m not even in love with him! I was only in love once, back in Novi Ligure, with my cousin’s husband. But we never had sex because my cousin was always around.”

“Michele says that he’ll get you money. He’ll ask his parents. He’ll come by too. One way or the other. Though he says that newborns make him nervous.”

“I want money. I know he told you to be nice to me but I think you’d be nice anyway, even if he hadn’t asked you to. You have a gentle nature. It’s weird that you and me never had sex. It’s never crossed my mind. Yours either I bet. Sometimes I wonder if you’re gay, but I don’t think so.”

“No,” he said.

“So it never occurs to you to have sex with me?”


“Do you think I’m ugly?”




“But you’re not attracted to me. You’re indifferent.”

“Well, to tell you the truth, yes.”

“Go to hell. That’s not a very nice thing to say.”

“The baby’s stopped nursing. He’s asleep,” said Osvaldo.

“Yes, well this baby is quite a handful.”

“He’s hardly a handful. He doesn’t do anything but sleep.”

“He’s a handful even when he’s sleeping. I know I made a mess of things. Don’t think I don’t know.”

“What’s wrong? Are you crying now?”

“Go beat the milk.”

“I’ve never beaten milk in my life,” said Osvaldo.

“That doesn’t matter. Read the instructions on the box. Jesus Christ. Help me out.”

Excerpted from Happiness, as Such by Natalia Ginzburg. Translation copyright 2019 by Minna Zallman Proctor. Published in June by New Directions. All rights reserved.