A Winter Break in Rome
I was dealing out a deck of cards when the compartment door flew open, letting in a blast of frigid December air and a girl so classically beautiful – lively hazel eyes, cheeks glowing, a cascade of loose blonde curls – that she might have walked straight out of a Botticelli painting. She was American, college age, wearing faded Levi’s and an expensively cut Italian-leather jacket. She leaned down to kiss Silvio on both cheeks and then sat beside him on the upholstered seat facing me. Outside the window the Umbrian countryside flew by, a blur of fields and hillsides in desolate shades of brown.
“You’re Justin, right? Kate Higgins. Art History 101. Don’t you remember me?”
“Of course I remember you,” I lied. I didn’t, which was surprising, but it didn’t matter, because from that moment on I was under her spell.
The three of us chatted all the way to Rome. An Italian major, Kate had spent the previous semester in Florence. Every so often her gaze would come to rest on mine in a way that made me feel singled out, understood, appreciated. As we pulled into the Roma Termini station she scribbled the address of her pensione and handed it to Silvio. She pressed the button to open the compartment door and smiled at me as the clatter and whine of the braking train flooded in behind her. “Justin. I know you don’t remember me.”
“Of course I do.”
“No I’m not.”
“Yes, you are. But I do remember you. You said some intelligent things in that class.”
“I did?” I was annoyed to find myself blushing.
The door slid shut behind her, and Silvio punched me on the shoulder. “There you go, dude. I told you Rome was gonna be fun.”
Silvio was an actual baron, with a title-laden name that took more than a minute to recite, which he sometimes did as a party trick. He’d grown up mostly in Scarsdale, so he was fluent in the idioms of the American upper-middle class, and he was quite charming; people generally thought highly of him until they saw him drunk. Like me, surprisingly, he was a financial aid student. His parents had divorced when he was young, and they’d burned through their respective inheritances. In the end his father had been forced to work as a taxi driver in New York City, which was not something that Silvio was eager to talk about.
And although he really was a baron, his Roman cousins one-upped him: they were dukes. Filippo was a ruggedly handsome university student around our age, Tomasso an army officer in his mid-twenties. They lived in an old palace with their widowed mother, the duchessa, who never smiled and rarely spoke. There were marble statues in shadowy niches, time-blackened portraits on every wall, and a set of antique halberds on hooks above the hearth in the great room. The mantelpiece was a Renaissance marble bas-relief of Hercules and the Nemean lion. The palace was more like a neglected museum than a home, and I was fascinated by it, though it was dim and chilly and I couldn’t stop shivering the whole time I was there. At certain moments I felt homesick, a little guilt-stricken for neglecting my family over the Christmas break. On a side table in my guest suite I discovered a stand-up frame containing a black-and-white photograph of Benito Mussolini; I recognized the military uniform and the ugly little smile from a Twentieth Century history course. Picking it up to get a closer look, I experienced a moment of vertigo.
On our first morning in Rome, Silvio and I borrowed Filippo’s battered Fiat, which rattled and stuttered as Silvio drove it up out of the dukes’ underground garage. On the way to Kate’s pensione, I mentioned the Mussolini portrait.
“My great uncle was part of his inner circle,” he explained.
“So your great uncle was a fascist?”
“Sure. A lot of people were fascists back then.”
“My great uncle died a long time ago, dude.”
“Of course.” I’d been thinking more about the cousins than the great uncle, but it didn’t matter.
It was history now, water under the bridge. The pensione was in a neighborhood near the Villa Borghese, on a steeply tilted street edged with small stores and cafés. Silvio parked the car and set the emergency brake. “Why don’t you wait here while I go in and get her.”
“What for?” I asked.
“Someone needs to stay with the car.”
As the minutes stretched on, I became increasingly annoyed. Silvio had lied. No one needed to watch his cousin’s banged-up Fiat; there were much nicer cars unattended all up and down the block. The truth was that he wanted time alone with Kate. In Madrid he’d strung together an enviable record of success with American college women, but I sensed that Kate wouldn’t be such an easy mark. She was too self-assured for that, too confident in her own persona. On the train, I believed I’d felt an authentic jolt of electricity between Kate and myself, though perhaps I’d only imagined it. Even so, she didn’t strike me as the type to be taken in by Silvio’s brittle charisma.
A gang of teenagers streamed by on the sidewalk. One boy rapped his knuckles on the Fiat’s trunk and glared in through the windshield as he strode by, as if daring me to come out. Rome puzzled me. It still does. There seems to be something ugly in the air, a whiff of ancient savagery seeping up through the flagstones.
Kate wore an ivory fisherman’s sweater and her golden curls were gathered back in a ponytail. She gave me a bright smile as she and Silvio strolled arm in arm down to the Fiat. Her radiance cut through the Roman winter like May sunshine, and for the rest of that day we were a companionable threesome. Silvio drove, pointing out the monuments as we passed. Kate rode shotgun, enthusiastically taking it all in. I sat in back, trying not to say anything stupid. You said some intelligent things in that class, she’d said on the train. Well, I had done most of the reading.
We meandered through the Vatican museums and climbed the long spiral staircase to St. Peter’s dome. Out in the freezing wind we looked across the piazza to the Castel Sant’Angelo. As we waited in line to descend the staircase Kate turned and flashed me an intimate smile. My heart leapt, but in the very next moment I succumbed to an attack of defeatism. If only circumstances were different. If only I’d been born to a different family. If only I had money, looks, a pedigree.
On our way out through the basilica we stopped to admire the Pietà. I remembered the sculpture from that art history class. The professor had dedicated an entire lecture to showing slides of its finer details from various angles. He’d lingered on the tenderness of the Virgin’s mournful expression, the great artistry of her fingers, the loving way she cradled the corpse of her son, the fallen god. “Now I see what all the fuss was about,” I remarked.
“Mm.” Kate stood beside me, our shoulders nearly touching, and we peered in through the glass at the beautifully sculpted marble.
On an impulse, I took her hand in mine and held it up for scrutiny. “Michelangelo would have loved these fingers.” Even as I said it I wished I could take it back, but she was smiling, and I saw that everything was okay.
At the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, we took turns kneeling before the massive stone disk known as the Bocca della Verità. Believed to have been a manhole cover in the ancient city, the Bocca is carved in the heavily bearded likeness of a pagan river god. If you stick your hand in its maw and dare to tell a lie, the legend goes, you will lose the hand. Silvio went first. I asked if Filippo and Tomasso were fascists. He denied it, pretending to be amused. I went next. Silvio asked if I’d voted for Reagan. I said no, which was the truth, but not the whole truth, which was that I’d neglected to vote at all. When Kate’s turn came, Silvio asked her if she had a boyfriend. I watched carefully as she stared into the idol’s vacant eyes. “We haven’t seen each other in months.”
“The Bocca requires a yes or no answer,” Silvio said sternly.
Kate smiled. “Okay. If you insist, the answer is no. As of this moment, I do not have a boyfriend.” She glanced up at me as she said it, and the adrenaline shot through my limbs.
That night I lay awake under a heavy woolen blanket in my chilly suite in the palace with a feeling of almost physical pain, an exquisite ache centered below my sternum and radiating outward. My mood fluctuated between ecstasy and despair. A few months earlier I’d been chasing grocery carts at my local Safeway, scrimping and saving to get to Europe. Now I was in Rome, the ancient capital of western civilization, staying in a ducal palace, deeply infatuated with the prettiest girl I’d ever known. Thinking about it now it seems vaguely preposterous, like a scene out of some overwrought nineteenth century novel. But in the moment, my feelings were as real as any I’d ever known.
The next day was New Year’s Eve. Kate was meeting some other friends, and Silvio and Filippo and I took the Fiat down to Ostia Antica. I could think of nothing but Kate. I recognized the slant of her nose in a third-century mosaic; I heard the timbre of her voice in a crowd on the steps of the ancient amphitheater. The toga-draped hips and waistline of a headless statue filled me with longing, and my mind seethed with vividly remembered images. The way her eyes crinkled at the edges. That quick meaningful smile at the Bocca della Verità. How she’d tucked a few of her luminous golden curls behind her ear when they’d escaped her ponytail. The day was bittersweet torment. The only way to ease the pain was to repeat her name over and over to myself, like a mantra.
We’d made a plan to meet that night at Filippo’s favorite trattoria. We were nearly an hour late due to Silvio’s dawdling, which I suspected, groundlessly perhaps, was intentional, and by the time we arrived I was unbearably agitated. Kate sat alone at our table for four, sipping a glass of red wine, looking fresh and elegant in a simple black dress with those glorious blonde curls unbound and the stylish leather jacket draped over the chair. She stood for the ritual cheek-kissing. The brush of her lips was a precious gift, but it wasn’t enough. I needed to possess her.
Over dinner, out of deference to Filippo, the conversation was conducted entirely in Italian. Every once in awhile I would catch the drift of what was being said, and occasionally I would chime in myself, speaking Spanish in my best approximation of a Roman accent. Filippo stared sourly whenever I tried this – his close-cropped ringlets and prominent cheekbones putting me in mind of busts I’d seen of the young Caesar Augustus – but Kate seemed to find it amusing, so I kept it up. At one point I went to use the stanza de bagno. Silvio strode in behind me. “She likes you,” he said, taking the next urinal.
“You think so?”
“Yeah, dude. Too bad she’s so fickle. Did you notice how fast she dumped her boyfriend yesterday?” I zipped up and walked over to the sink. Silvio joined me at the mirror, frowning at my reflection. His eyes were bulging a little, which I recognized as a sign that he was about to be drunk. “Be careful, Justin. That’s all I’m saying.”
I dried my hands on the cloth towel. The silence between was heavy, toxic, and it was broken only by the buzzing of the fluorescent bulbs and the muffled background clink of dishes from the restaurant kitchen. “Leave it alone, Silvio. Okay?”
“Sorry, dude,” he said, giving me an offended look in the mirror. “Just trying to help.”
Back on campus, Silvio had gained a reputation as an out-of-control boozer. We would be at a keg party and he would climb up on a table and start belting out an old Italian mountaineering song, or he would pick a fight with every single person in a crowded bar, or he would break a bottle and threaten the bartender with the jagged neck until the bouncers muscled him out into the frigid New England night. I’m not sure why I stuck by him, except that he had been my freshman year roommate, and I felt a certain loyalty. And, he was never dull.
It must have been two o’clock in the morning on that first day of 1986 as I sat in the back seat of the rattling Fiat, staring out at the blur of sooty architecture and flashing traffic lights. Filippo was driving, Silvio riding shotgun. The Fiat was moving too fast, though I have to admit that part of me was thrilled by the danger, even as I feared it. My palms ached from gripping the back of the driver’s seat as Filippo sped through the roundabout below the Capitolio, past the Arch of Titus and the crumbling Coliseum. Silvio was in top form, slurring his words as he rolled down the window to hurl insults at late-night pedestrians, mostly street-sweepers and prostitutes. I could feel Kate sitting tensely beside me, although out of shyness or possibly embarrassment for Silvio and his reckless cousin, we’d mostly avoided looking at each other.
Silvio had a gram of hash in his pocket and suddenly he decided he wanted to smoke it. None of us had tobacco or rolling papers, so Filippo pulled into a small piazza lit by a single streetlight. Half a dozen young men loitered there, leaning against their Vespas and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. Silvio rolled down his window and asked for one. His tone struck me as dangerous, because it was both arrogant and patronizing. This was not a group of schoolboys. These young men were muscular and thuggish, with blunt faces that seemed at once bored by life and animated by a kind of dull, slow-burning anger. None of them responded to Silvio’s request, and in the next moment he spat out a well-known Italian insult.
As one, the thugs arose from their Vespas. Beside me, Kate drew in her breath. Silvio’s door flew open and he sprang to his feet. He broke a half-empty Barolo bottle against the lamppost and waved the broken neck at the Vespa gang as if it were a conductor’s baton. Filippo got out of the driver’s side. I started to open my door too, but Kate grabbed my arm. “Justin. Don’t.”
“I’m not going to fight,” I said. “This isn’t the first time I’ve had to rescue Silvio from one of his alcoholic suicide missions. I’ll just get him back in the car. Why don’t you take the wheel?”
Kate clambered up into the driver’s seat and I opened the door and stood. My plan was to run at Silvio and knock the bottle out of his hand. I would put him in a headlock and wrestle him into the back seat. Hopefully Filippo would see how things were and jump in on the passenger side.
The night air was bitter with exhaust fumes. Somewhere a vent exhaled the breath of ancient sewers. Before I could execute my plan, a heavy object – it might have been a truncheon or possibly brass knuckles – hit me hard on the side of the head, and I crumpled to the ground. I held up my hands to protect my skull from of the Vespa gang’s sharp-toed kicks, but it did little good. The last thing I remember before losing consciousness was that in the weak yellow glare of the streetlight, my blood spattering onto the flagstones didn’t look red, but as black as the shadowy regions of a Caravaggio painting.
I gained consciousness in the Fiat with my head in Kate’s lap. One of her hands was open on my chest and the other, cool and soothing, was stroking my hair as she gazed tenderly down at me. The whole left side of my face throbbed. I felt ashamed about the blood seeping from my mouth onto her dress.
She seemed to be waiting for something, and then I realized that she’d just asked me a question. No, I couldn’t remember my birthday. How about my name? No, I couldn’t remember that either. Nor where I lived, nor her name, nor how I’d come to be driving around in the middle of the night in this half-familiar, soot-stained European city. Exploring my mouth with my tongue I discovered an emptiness that gave me a shock. Kate must have noticed me sucking my lips. “Open your mouth,” she said. I did. “Silvio, you fucking bastard. Look what you’ve done. Jesus, he’s missing half his teeth.”
To me, she murmured soothingly: “It’s going to be okay, sweetie. We’ll get you home and you can go to bed.”
“Did you swallow them, Justin?” Silvio’s voice was thick-tongued from the alcohol. “Did you swallow the teeth, or did you spit them out?”
“What the hell does it matter?” Kate retorted. “They’re not in his mouth anymore. You can’t just put them back.”
“Actually, yes, you can,” Silvio said, sounding wounded. “If you keep them in milk you can put them back in, as long as not too much time has gone by.”
My memory had begun to come back. I knew my birthday, and I could sense the past filling in like a Polaroid. I was sad about the teeth, but it was amazing to be lying in Kate’s lap. “Maybe they took them,” I said, lisping cartoonishly. “Ath thome kind of trophieth or thomething.”
“Hush,” Kate said, rubbing my chest. “Don’t try to talk, Justin. We’re almost home.”
The next morning my face was so swollen that I couldn’t open my left eye. My tongue kept finding its way back to the sockets of the missing teeth. I couldn’t get the mindset of my attackers out of my head. What had they been thinking? It was incomprehensible to me that anyone would wish to inflict such violent damage upon another human being. I didn’t yet understand the true nature of chaos. That if you insist on cultivating it, on being entertained by it, you have no right to be outraged when it reaches out of the frame to engulf you.
The ducal palace was dim and cold. It seemed less grand than before, and shabbier. The upholstering was threadbare, and the walls were in need of a paint job. At breakfast the duchessa shook her head and gave my face a long disapproving look with no hint of warmth in it. I drank coffee and picked at my fruit plate. Silvio and the dukes chewed their bread in silence, stone-faced and furious. It turned out that Tomasso was an avid connoisseur of antique weaponry. The three cousins spent all morning loading up his jeep with sabers, crossbows, World War I era Mauser C96 pistols. They dressed themselves up like commandos in black turtlenecks and balaclavas, shook my hand with firm grips and steely eyes, piled into the jeep, and set off to restore their tainted family honor.
While they were gone, I went upstairs to ice my face and obsess about Kate. I kept replaying the car ride home. The sweet tenderness with which she’d gazed into my face. The way she’d held me in her arms, as if we were already lovers, and the ferocity of her reprimands for the drunken Silvio. My parents would adore her, I thought. They would have to pinch themselves – heck, so would I – to believe that in anything other than our wildest dreams a son of theirs could bring home a young woman so genteel, so spirited and elegant and kind.
Much to my relief, and the Duchessa’s too, I think, the aristocratic Delta Force returned after several hours without having fulfilled their mission of revenge. Unable to locate the Vespa gang, they’d settled for an empty lot and some crossbow practice. I called Kate and we made a plan to meet that afternoon. Silvio, no doubt feeling guilty for what had happened to me, was uncharacteristically considerate. In order for Kate and I to be alone, he called a taxi instead of volunteering to drive.
When Kate saw my face she winced. “Oh, Justin. I am so sorry.” I attempted a devil-may-care grin. Excruciating little needles of pain attacked the nerves deep in my jaw, and I held my breath until it passed. Kate was as luminous as ever, though slightly blurred in the watery view of my one functioning eye. We found a corner table at the café near her pensione and ordered coffee. The waiter had trouble looking at me and kept his eyes on Kate as he took the order. The January sun slanted in through the windows, adding to my lacerating headache. Kate reached across the table and squeezed my hand. “Are you in a great deal of pain?”
“Not really. Some.”
“How many teeth did you lose?”
“Three.” The waiter brought out our coffees. I blew on mine, then took a sip. It was too sweet, the sugar blending with the iron-ore taste of the blood still seeping from my gums. “Listen,” I said. “I’m thinking of heading down to Greece for the rest of winter break. I’ve got a Eurail pass that will cover the ferry from Brindisi to Patras, and then I’ll catch a train to Athens, maybe take another boat down to Crete. Want to come?”
The waiter reappeared with a plate of pastries. Kate spoke to him in Italian and he responded, glancing in my direction without really looking.
“The pastries are on the house,” she said when the waiter was gone. “He says the whole staff wishes you a speedy recovery.”
“That’s nice. I’ll be fine. The biggest wound was to my pride.”
She nodded. “Orthodontists are so good these days. Your smile will be as handsome as ever.”
“I know.” I didn’t bring up the fact that my family wouldn’t be able to afford orthodontic surgery. We sat in silence for a moment, staring down into our coffees. “Did you hear what I said about Greece?”
“Crete should be beautiful this time of year. Also Mykonos. You should definitely go there.”
“Are you okay, Justin? You look pale. Do you need to lie down?”
“No. I’m fine.”
We soon ran out of things to say. Kate told the waiter to call me a cab, and offered to go down to the train station to arrange my ticket for Brindisi. I told her thanks, but I could take care of it myself. Out on the street we said goodbye. She leaned in for the double kiss, thought better of it, and gave me a hug instead.
Tim Weed is the winner of a Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Award and his collected stories have been shortlisted for the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project, the Autumn House Fiction Prize, and the Lewis-Clark Press Discovery Award. Based in Vermont and Nantucket, Tim travels widely as a featured expert for National Geographic Expeditions. “A Winter Break in Rome” is a fictional story inspired by true events.
Read more about Tim and his recently released debut novel, Will Poole’s Island, at www.timweed.net.
La Cosa Preziosa (Susanna Caprara) is a sound artist and field recordist originally from the south of Italy and based in Dublin, Ireland. The pseudonym ‘the precious thing’ refers to the beauty and fragility of the natural sounds that regularly feature in her soundscapes.
Recent work includes curating the ‘Sound Devices: explorations in sound and literature’ series (Rathmines Public Library/ UNESCO Dublin City of Literature) and completing a large scale Public Art Commission on the subject of the Irish Grand Canal (Offaly County Council/ Dept. of the Environment and Local Government), developed over the course of a six-month engagement field recording, composing and working with the local community.
Committed to sound education in all its forms, Susanna regularly presents interactive workshops in Ireland and abroad (most recently for Trinity College Dublin’s Music Composition Centre and Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, Dublin).
Find out more at: www.lacosapreziosa.net.