There are different kinds of parachutes in this world, different ways of escaping a life which resembles a crashing plane, and eight years ago my parachute was taking a quick trip to the Eternal and making that trip last forever. They say a wolf will chew its own leg off to get out of a trap, and I was like that then. But Rome is the perfect place for an American woman remaking herself.
Today my neighborhood is called Colle Albani, White Hills. It’s just by the Aurelian walls, and our mailing address is still Roma.
Only once has the veneer I pulled over my remade life slipped to the side to reveal the truth. The day I’m speaking of, I was walking home after dropping by the school to look through the glass, and watch my sons scribbling away at their lessons. The morning was brisk but not cold, and Grigo, my Italian Greyhound, was trying to get me to pick him up and put him into my handbag. He tapped along at my heels, his tiny head averted, trying to catch my eye, trying to let me see that his tiny legs were tired and his tiny body was so light it didn’t matter anyway. I grabbed him, opened the bag, and let him jump in. It was only one more block to the flat.
But when I got to number 65 Colle Albani, to the great front entry, in the alcove that sets the double doors a few feet back from the street, a man was there. An American. You could tell he was American from a distance, by his jeans and his shoes with thick clumsy soles. Besides, I knew him. He was my adversary, my enemy, a person I once let myself think of as my forever love, and he stood by the call box with its row of 16 names, one of which, Mancini — Smith, had long seemed all too public.
I told my husband, Carlo, that I didn’t want my name on our door. I had told him I didn’t feel comfortable, I didn’t feel safe! But he said simply, “e fatto cosi,” It’s done this way, and that was the end of it. Italian men are unbelievably stubborn about the things they care about. And I did not want to be “wrong” in cultural things. I could never stop being a straniera, a foreigner, but I could at least be assimilated.
And now here was Mark on my doorstep, the very thing I had wanted to avoid by not putting my name on that box. Grigo growled under my arm.
“Stella! It’s really you,” he said, smiling a fake and doubtful smile. I made a little theatrical bow. “You live here?”
“Well, well, well.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. His eyebrow raised as he saw Grigo poke his head out of the bag, lips pulled back from tiny white teeth. I said nothing, wanting to put Mark on the spot. Let him say why he had come.
“I stopped by to see how you’re doing,” he finally divulged.
“How did you find me?”
“I called your aunt.”
“What did you tell her?”
How could Aunt Mia have done this to me? Hadn’t I explained that there were reasons, more serious reasons than just hurt feelings, that I didn’t want to see Mark, that she was not, under any circumstances, to tell him even my new name, let alone where I lived? Not, of course, that he could have found me by my name alone. We are not in the phone book. We are not on the web. We are only on that little box by the great front doors on a side street in Rome –and now Mark had found the one hole in my separate universe and come through it.
I wanted to remember him the way he was, not know how he’d changed. Though, as I was to discover, he’d changed very little. He was staring up into the vestibule of the apartment house, at the vaulted yellow stucco.
“Could we have a cup of coffee?” he asked, still looking up at the ceiling
I should not go anywhere with him. He could still hurt me. He had hurt me before and now today by showing up he was re-opening the wounds.
But if I went to coffee with him– I might be able to hurt him back. I still wanted revenge. I had temporarily forgotten the proverb, that those who want revenge should first dig two graves.
“There’s a bar around the corner.” I said.
Il Bar del Mondo is located across the street from my husband’s accounting office, a block south of our apartment. Il Mondo is a traditional Roman bar, which means it has a marble countertop and brass fittings and windows which are cleaner than clean and the servers are handsome young men between the ages of 20 and 28. There are three tables on the sidewalk which if you sit at them someone will come out and serve you, but if you don’t want a tip added to your bill you have to stand at the counter. Which is the way I’d learned to do.
But Mark sat down outside, like a foreigner, like a tourist. And as if it wasn’t enough that we sat at a table, Mark ordered a café latte – it was too late in the morning for that — and naturally he wanted to speak English in public. I had always taken pleasure in the fact that no one could tell I was from the States. From my accent strangers assumed I was French. This was because I worked at it, spent time alone, repeating phrases I heard on T.V. over and over. I even did the Roman hand gestures, for example, the flicking your fingers under your chin which means, it doesn’t matter to me. Only, I couldn’t use that now, because of course it did.
“What brings you to Rome?” I asked.
“I’m working for the University of Dallas at their Rome campus.”
The University of Dallas claims they give a Rome program and they had apparently fooled Mark. But there is no such program. It’s actually an only-a-short-distance from Rome program. Just one more thing – one more misnomer – perpetrated by my countrymen. “You mean the Castel Gandolfo Campus,” I said primly. He shrugged. “To the folks back home,” I continued, “I suppose Castel Gandolfo is Rome, Paris is Province, London is Shrewsbury…” He shrugged more violently.
“You always were a one for technicalities.” He replied.
“To a Romana, being in Rome is a big, big deal. And Castel Gandolfo is not Rome. You guys don’t qualify. You’re in Lazio, not Rome.”
He frowned. “What has happened to you, becoming so smug? Is it because you got married? And how did that happen, anyway?”
“He compromised my honor so I had to marry him”.
“I don’t believe that.”
“Either part.” He smiled.
I wanted to slap him but I pretended not to understand the implied insult. “There’s little enough you know about Italians. Or me.” He shrugged. We had grown so far apart. My obsession – gli Romani, and how to become one, didn’t matter to him at all.
“Why didn’t you write, or call, check-up, as they say?” he asked.
Ah, the hated check-ups for the departed lover. He had mentioned receiving those from previous girls. I had been disgusted. If it’s over, it’s over, I don’t want to talk to you like we’re friends, a member of an inventory of your former sexual conquests that you can rely on to keep calling so your ego doesn’t go slack. Of course I didn’t say all that. “And say what?” I asked meekly.
He turned his glass in his hands. “I don’t know, that you missed me?”
No. He would not hear me say that, above and beyond the obvious problem that I was now married, I additionally couldn’t contact him because what if I got sucked back into his circus and all that went with it and he betrayed me again? I really thought, seeing how bad my rage and despair was the first time, the second time he abandoned me I might spontaneously combust. I’d be walking down the street, and suddenly my dress and my shoes and my hair would be on fire and a bystander would say “What happened to her?” and the-friend-of-bystander would say “same man burned her twice and now she’s actually on fire.” First bystander would nod sagely, and say, “Of course, that explains it. Never get burned by the same man twice. Very dangerous.”
I skipped all that, simply said, “Why should I miss you?” He didn’t believe me, that’s what it said in that chic facial expression, that incredibly seductive raised eyebrow and curve down of the mouth.
“And you’re okay after everything?” Still with the mouth curve.
Oh ho ho. I’m so, so so okay after everything. “Yep.”
“There wasn’t any … trauma?”
“Why would there be trauma? Pain, but no trauma.”
“Well, some people say … they feel guilty.”
“Why would I feel guilty? You’re the one who left me in the lurch.”
“Oh, they say it’s hard, but then, I’ve always wondered. You know women are tougher than we men realize.” I looked across the table. Oh, Mark, you have no idea, no idea whatsoever, how tough we women are. “So where did you take care of it?”
“They do that in Rome?”
“Yes, every day. Usually, I take care of it, but right now an Italian school teacher is handling the problem. On nights and weekends, it’s me. And Carlo.”
“Yes.” I waited for it to sink in. It sank. It sank some more.
“It turned out not to be necessary. I found someone who actually loves me, you see.”
Mark looked up again at the ceiling. He was, for once, at a loss for words.
I felt the force of his magnetism, Mark, handsome like a cavalry officer – seductive, like the sea –the first man I had ever really desired. I fell for him so hard, years ago. I imagined him back then, plotting my capture, selecting a line to close me off from escape, from a list inside his devious head. He had told me, “I couldn’t stop thinking about you.” It was just one of a gilded string of lures irresistible to women he had collected, I later realized. Like a fisherman, he would have been thinking, I can get her this time with this lure.
Across the table, I watched him, that moustache touched by milk foam, and how a paper napkin would wipe the foam away from that upper lip!
Sometimes you have to make a hard choice. I had decided this one a long time ago.
“I’ll take you back to the States.” He said. “I’ll take you both.”
Oh, he had been shopping for lures again. I knew no matter what I did, that this particular offer would never happen. “No.”
“You’re not in love with your husband, I can tell.”
“You don’t know what love is so how would you know?”
He smiled again, appearing to feel he was coasting well over a rough spot, still hoping he was about to move into the green pastures of fling number God-Knows-What. How could he smile over my many refusals? But his persistence always had been preternatural, his self-assurance seemed divinely orchestrated. He was It, the Magic Man, the guy in the crowd that has this hypnotic effect on women, like a bottomless bank account, and he keeps cashing the checks day after day and month after month and I could feel that hypnotism pulling me, pulling me –
“In fact,” he continued, “You’re only in love with being an expat.”
Snap, and the hypnosis was over. “In love with expatriation? In love with it?” I pulled Grigo out of the bag. “No, this is me! So soft I don’t even make the dog walk! Yes, I had Davide! It wasn’t fun. I didn’t do it for fun!”
“I suppose you can’t be thinking of having fun anymore, since I can see in your face, that this husband of yours doesn’t do it for you—”
I jumped up. This man was really, really and truly trying to ruin my life! For spite! I took my hot coffee and threw it on him. Mark froze, stunned. I threw the cup on the pavement, smashing it.
“Senora! Per favore!” the barista cried out from inside the bar.
“People need to be protected from your kind of fun!” I yelled. “They do!”
“Well, speak for yourself. I know a lot of women who disagree.”
“Well, as PT Barnum said, there”s a sucker born every minute. But I still can’t figure out how you failed to see that I never want to see you again, do you understand?”
“If I knew you didn’t want to see me, I wouldn’t have come!” he objected.
“How could you not know? Did you not notice the lack of providing my address, the lack of writing, the lack of calling?” I was yelling. It was a wall I had built, like the ancient Aurelian Wall around Colle Albani! People walking along the street, pulling their little Italian shopping carts, slowed their feet within their exquisite Roman shoes and stared. Fortunately, since Italians mostly don’t speak English, they wouldn’t know what exactly I was saying. However, I had to admit the general import was pretty clear.
Two carbinieri came up. “Senora Mancini,” They spoke, calmly, consolingly.
The barista was on the phone. One of the carabinieri took my hand, calmingly. Mark looked completely confused and in just a moment I saw my husband Carlo come rushing across the street, his high forehead shining in the sun, his face a portrait of panic. Last chance to finish this discussion. I returned to yelling.
“Get out! Go away! Don’t every come back! Go back to Castel Gandolfo and tell the students they’re in Rome, they’ll never know the difference! You fraud! You cheap circus act!”
Mark got up out of the chair, shook his whole body, like he was shaking himself back into his clothes. And with that, he seemed to have instantaneously risen out of his discomfiture and back into his smug self. He looked at the barista. “Women,” he said, and went out, his face a picture of nonchalance, resuming his I’m-just-the-charming-me pose that had accompanied him all his life, that would give him his way in big things and small for God knows how long, and passed Carlo, who was looking desperately to find me.
“Can we please move?” I begged when my husband came up, stretching out his arms. “Can we please move and not put my name on the door buzzer this time?”
“Oh Coca, Coca, you’re all upset,” Carlo fussed in Italian, taking my hand, stroking my wrist, “Coca, you know, we cannot sell the apartment, it belonged to my parents, and do you know how much money it would cost, to move, and then the sales fees? Oh, no, dearest, let us stay here, in Colle Albani, I grew up here, I want to die here. My dear, was it him? That bad man who hurt you? You should have called me. You have your telefonino with you, don’t you? I told you never to leave the house without it. I told you he was a bad man. You should have called me. You thought maybe he had changed, didn’t you?”
“He was as bad as ever! Worse!”
”What is he doing here?”
“He’s working here,” I said. “Well, not actually here. He’s working in Castel Gandolfo. In America, he says, they call it Rome.” Now Carlo gathered me up in his arms, shaking as I was, and made a shush, shush sound.
“Castel Gandolfo is in the province of Lazio, Cara, I think we can both agree, it is not Rome, by any reasonable man’s conception.” I nodded and set my head against his chest, felt his silk tie upon my cheek and was back in my city, back in Rome, in my own neighborhood, Colle Albani. “Don’t worry, Cara. That man will never come back, I can tell, by the way he left.”
How my head hurt when he said that! How could Mark leave once and for all, and how could he still not love me as I had so loved him?
I have no answer to that, and I don’t think one is forthcoming. For me, Rome has won my eternal loyalty, by somehow saving me from him that day. But I now know that I should thank all that is holy – and in Rome that is supposedly a huge number of things – that Carlo was right. Mark stayed away; and none of us ever saw him again.