Revisiting the gritty Roman neighborhood of his youth, a writer discovers a world of his own invention
By Andre Aciman
I finally went back to Via Clelia. I had passed by the first time I returned to Rome almost 40 years ago, then a second time 15 years later, and still another three years after that. But for reasons that had more to do with my reluctance to come back here, these visits either occurred by night, when I couldn’t see a thing, or when I didn’t dare ask our cabby to make a right and stall a while to let me see our old home again. From Via Appia Nuova, a bustling working-class artery, all I ever caught was a distant glimpse of Via Clelia. After that third time, I stopped trying. In Rome, whenever I come back, I never venture beyond the center.
Summer before last, though, with my wife and sons, I took the Metro and got off at the Furio Camillo stop, two blocks north of Via Clelia, exactly as I’d always envisaged the visit. Two blocks would give me plenty of time to settle into the experience, gather my impressions, and unlock memory’s sluice gates, one by one—without effort, caution, or ceremony. Two blocks, however, would also allow me to put up whatever barriers needed to come up between me and this lower-middle-class street whose grimy, ill-tempered welcome, when we landed in Italy as refugees more than four decades ago, I’ve never managed to forget.
I had meant to enter Via Clelia precisely where it crosses Via Appia Nuova and take my time recognizing the streets, whose names are drawn from Virgil mostly—Via Enea, Via Camilla, Via Eurialo, Via Turno—and confer far-fetched echoes of imperial grandeur on this rinky-dink quarter. I had meant to touch minor signposts along the way: the printer’s shop—still there—the makeshift grocer-pizzaiolo, the one or two corner bars, the plumber—gone—the barbershop across the street—gone too—the tobacconist, the tiny brothel where you didn’t dare look in when the two old frumps left their door ajar, the spot where a frail street singer would stand every afternoon and bellow out bronchial arias you strained to recognize, only to hear, when his dirge was done, a scatter of coins rain upon the sidewalk.
Home was right above his spot.
As I began walking down Via Clelia with my wife and sons, pointing out aspects of a street I’d known so well during the three years I’d lived there with my parents while we waited for visas to America, I caught myself hoping that no one I knew back then would be alive today, or, if they were, that none might recognize me. I wanted to give no explanations, answer no questions, embrace no one, touch or get close to nobody. I had always been ashamed of Via Clelia, ashamed of its good people, ashamed of having lived among them, ashamed of myself now for feeling this way, ashamed, as I told my sons, of how I’d always misled my private-school classmates into thinking I lived “around” the affluent Appia Antica and not in the heart of the blue-collar Appia Nuova. That shame had never gone away; shame never does, it was there on every corner of the street. Shame, which is the reluctance to be who we’re not even sure we are, could end up being the deepest thing about us, deeper even than who we are, as though beyond identity were buried reefs and sunken cities teeming with creatures we couldn’t begin to name because they came long before us. All I really wanted, as we began walking to the other end of Via Clelia, was to put the experience behind me now—We’ve done Via Clelia, I’d say—knowing all along that I wouldn’t mind a sudden flare-up of memory to make good the visit.
Torn between wanting the whole thing over and done with and wanting perhaps to feel something, I began to make light of our visit with my sons. Fancy spending three years in this dump. And the stench on hot summer days. On this corner I saw a dead dog once; he’d been run over and was bleeding from both ears. And here, every afternoon, sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk by the tramway stop, a young gypsy used to beg, her bare, dark knee flaunted boldly over her printed skirt—savage, dauntless, shameless. On Sunday afternoons Via Clelia was a morgue. In the summer the heat unbearable. In the fall, coming back after school on the number 85 bus, I’d run errands for Mother, always rushing back out of the apartment before the shops closed, and by early twilight, watch the salesgirls head home, and always think of Joyce’s “Araby.” The girl at the tiny supermarket down the street, the salesgirls of the tiny local department store, the girl at the butcher’s who always extended credit when money was tight toward the end of every month.
There was a girl who came every day for vitamin B12 shots. My mother, once a volunteer nurse during World War II, was only too glad to administer the injections; it gave her something to do. Afterward, the girl and I would sit and talk in the kitchen till it was time for dinner. Then she disappeared down the staircase. Pina. The landlady’s daughter. I never felt the slightest desire for Pina, but it was kinder to conceal what I couldn’t feel behind a veil of feigned timidity and inexperience. Neither timidity nor inexperience were feigned in the slightest, of course, but I exaggerated the performance to suggest a dissembled feint somewhere and that behind it lurked a waggish side capable of great mischief if given the go-ahead. I feigned an earnest, bashful gaze the better to hide the writhing diffidence underneath.
With the girl in the supermarket, it was the other way around. I couldn’t hold her gaze and was compelled each time to affect the arrogance of someone who might have stared one day but had forgotten to the next.
I hated my shyness. I wanted to hide it, but there was nothing to hide it with. Even trying to cover it up brought out more blushes and made me more flustered yet. I learned to hate my eyes, my height, my accent. To speak to a stranger, or to the girl at the supermarket, or to anyone for that matter, I needed to shut down everything about me, weigh my words, plan my words, affect a makeshift Romanaccio to cover up my foreign accent, and, to avoid making any grammar mistakes in Italian, start undoing every sentence before I’d even finished speaking it and, because of this, end up making worse mistakes, the way some writers change the course of a sentence while still writing it but forget to remove all traces of where it was originally headed, thereby speaking with more voices than one. I dissembled with everyone—with those I wanted nothing from, with those I wanted anything they could give if only they could help me ask. I dissembled what I thought, what I feared, who I was, who I wasn’t even sure I was.
Wednesday evenings, I remember, were earmarked for running errands and redeeming bottles at the tiny supermarket at the end of Via Clelia. The girl in charge of stacking the shelves would come to the back counter and help me with the bottles. I was scared each time I watched her empty the bag of bottles fast, feeling that time was flitting by sooner than I’d hoped. My gaze seemed to upset her, because she always lost her smile when she stared at me. Hers was the dark, ill-tempered stare of someone who was trying not to be rude. With other men, she was all smiles and bawdy jokes. With me just the glare.
We arrived at the Furio Camillo Metro station at 10 in the morning. At 10 a.m. in late July I’d be in my room upstairs, probably reading. On occasion, we’d go to the beach before it grew too hot. But past the third week of the month, the money ran out and we’d stay indoors, listening to the radio, saving the money for an occasional movie on weekday evenings, when tickets at the seedy and deserted, third-to-last-run movie theater around the corner were cheaper than on Sundays. There were two movie theaters. One had disappeared, the other, all gussied up now, stands on Via Muzio Scevola, named after the early-Roman hero who burned his right hand on realizing he’d murdered the wrong man. One night, in that theater, a man put his hand on my wrist. I asked him what was the matter with him, and soon enough he moved to another seat. In those days, I told my sons, you also learned to avoid the bathrooms in movie theaters.
One more block and scarcely five minutes after arriving, our visit was over. This always happens when I go back to places. Either buildings shrink over time, or the time it takes to revisit them shrinks to less than five minutes. We had walked from one end of the street to the other. There was nothing more to do now but walk back the way we came. I sensed, from the way my wife and sons were waiting for me to tell them what to do next, that they were glad the visit was over. On our way back up the street, I did spend a few more seconds standing before the building, not just to take the moment in and never say I’d rushed or bungled the experience, but because I still hoped that an undisclosed something might rush out and tug me, exclaiming, as some people do when they suddenly show up at your door after many years, “Remember me?” But nothing happened. I was, as I always am during such moments, numb to the experience.
Writing about it—after the fact, as I did later that day—might eventually un-numb me. Writing, I was sure, would dust off things that were not there at the time of my visit, or that were there but that I wasn’t quite seeing and needed time and paper to sort out, so that, once written about, they’d confer on my visit the retrospective resonance that part of me had hoped to find here on Via Clelia. Writing might even bring me closer to this street than I’d been while living there. Writing wouldn’t alter or exaggerate anything; it would simply excavate, rearrange, lace a narrative, recollect in tranquility, where ordinary life is perfectly happy to nod and move on. Writing sees figures where life sees things; things we leave behind, figures we keep. Even the experience of numbness, when traced on paper, acquires a resigned and disenchanted grace, a melancholy cadence that seems at once intimate and aroused compared to the original blah. Write about numbness, and numbness turns into something. Upset flat surfaces, dig out their shadows, and you’ve got dreammaking.
Does writing, as I did later that day, seek out words the better to stir and un-numb us to life—or does writing provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience?
Three years in Rome and I had never touched this street. It would be just like me scarcely to touch anything, or to have grazed this city all but unintentionally, the way, in the three years I saw the gypsy girl seated on her corrugated piece of cardboard next to the tramway stop, I never made a dent into her sealed, impenetrable, surly gaze. I called her the dirty girl to hide arousal and disturbance whenever I spoke of her to my friends at school.
Was I disappointed? It seemed a crime not to stumble on at least one quivering leftover from the past. Did numbness mean that even the memory of hating this street had gone away? Could parts of us just die to the past so that returning brings nothing back?
Or was I relieved? The romance of time had fallen flat. There was no past to dig up here—never been any. I might as well never have lived here at all.
I felt like someone trying to step on his own shadow, or like a reader who failed to underline a book as a teenager and now, decades later, is totally unable to recover the young reader he’d once been.
But then, coming back from the West, perhaps it was I who was the shadow, not this street, not my books, not who I once was.
For a second, as I stood and looked at our tiny rounded balcony, I felt an urge to call myself to the window, the way Italians always shout your name from downstairs on the sidewalk and ask you to come to the window. But I wasn’t calling myself. I was just trying to picture what I’d be doing behind that window so many years ago. It’s past mid-July, there’s no beach, no friends, I’m more or less locked up in my room, reading, and as always shielding myself from the outside world behind drawn shutters, desperately using books to put an imaginary screen between me and Via Clelia.
Anything but Via Clelia.
In that room on Via Clelia, I managed to create a world that corresponded to nothing outside it. My books, my city, myself. All I had to do then was let the novels I was reading lend their aura to this street and drop an illusory film over its buildings, a film that washed down Via Clelia like a sheet of rainwater, casting a shimmering spell on this hard, humdrum, here-and-now area of lower-middle-class Rome. On rainy days when the emptied street gleamed in the early evening, I might have been very much alone in my room upstairs, but I was alone in D. H. Lawrence’s “faintly humming, glowing town”—by far the better. Dying winter light took me straightaway to the solitary embankments of Dostoyevsky’s white nights in Saint Petersburg. And on sunny mornings when shouts from the marketplace a block down couldn’t have sounded more truculent, I was in Baudelaire’s splenetic, rain-washed Paris, and because there were echoes of Baudelaire’s Paris around me, suddenly the loutish Romanaccio, which I learned to love only after leaving Rome, began to acquire an earthy, Gallic coarseness that made it almost tolerable, vibrant, authentic. Earlier in the morning, when I opened the windows, I was suddenly in Wordsworth’s England where “domes, theatres, and temples . . . glitter in the smokeless air” “beneath the blue suburban skies.” And when I finally put down Lampedusa’s The Leopard and began to see aging, patrician Sicilians everywhere, each more lost than the other in a scowling new world that none of them could begin to fathom, much less belong to, I knew I was not alone. All that these Sicilians had left was their roughshod arrogance, their ancient, beaten-down palace with its many, many rooms and rickety balconies that looked over the shoulders of history back to the Norman invasion of Sicily. One could step out onto Via Clelia and enter a tiny park where scrawny trees and scorched growth told me I’d stepped into the abandoned hunting grounds of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen.
Anything but Via Clelia.
So, why shouldn’t Via Clelia feel dead now? It had never been alive. I had hated it from my very first day and had almost managed to hate Rome because of it.
And yet, as though to punish me now for calquing my own images over these sidewalks long ago, Via Clelia was giving them all back—but not a thing more. Here, Baudelaire’s vendors, take them back; here’s Raskolnikov’s hat, you wear it; over there, Akaky’s overcoat, yours; and if you looked over across the Appia Nuova through Oblomov’s smoky windows, you’ll find Lampedusa’s declining mansion, and farther out, D. H. Lawrence’s town—all, all yours now. I had lined the world with books; now the city was giving them back to me, one by one, as one returns a tool, unused, or a necktie, unworn, or money that should never have been borrowed, or a book one had no intention of reading. The snow of Joyce’s “The Dead,” which had mantled Via Celia after midnight one evening and given it a luster that would never have existed outside of books, was being returned to me with a curt inscription: “It never snows on Via Clelia, didn’t you know?” De Quincey’s London, Browning’s Florence, Camus’ Oran, Whitman’s New York had been waiting in escrow year after mildewed year. “Truth wasn’t good enough for you, was it?” asked the street, irony flecking each of its features.
The illusory film, the shadow of my three years here, was all I had. And as I walked back from one end of Via Clelia to the other with my wife and sons, I realized that all I’d be able to cull here were the fictions, the lies I’d laid down upon this street to make it habitable. Dreammaking and dissemblance, then as now.
It dawned on me much later that evening that our truest, most private moments, like our truest, most private memories, are made of just such unreal, flimsy stuff. Fictions.
Via Clelia was my street of lies. Some lies, like impacted chewing gum, were so thoroughly stepped over each day that there was no undoing or erasing them. Look at this corner, that store, this printer’s shop, and all you’ll see is Stendhal, Nerval, Flaubert. Underneath, nothing. Just the memory of three years waiting for our visas to the States to come through
We had no television in those days, no money, no shopping to take our minds off anything, no friends, hardly any relatives, no point in even discussing a weekly allowance. All my mother gave me was enough money to buy one paperback a week. This I did for three years. Buying a book was simply my way of running away from Via Clelia, taking the number 85 bus on Saturdays, and spending the rest of the day burrowed in Rome’s many foreign-language bookstores. The walk from one bookstore to the other without paying attention to the city itself became my way of being in Rome, of knowing Rome—a Rome, which, for all my reclusive bookishness, was no less real to me than was the Rome of everyday Romans or the Rome tourists came looking for. My centers were bookshops and, between them, a network of cobbled, narrow lanes lined by ochre walls and refuse. The piazzas with their centered obelisks, the museums, the churches, the glorious remnants were for other people.
On Saturday mornings, I would get off at San Silvestro and wander downtown, hoping to get lost, because I loved nothing better than stumbling on one of my bookstores. I grew to like the old city: Campo Marzio, Campo de’ Fiori, Piazza Rotonda. I liked the muted affluence of rundown buildings I knew were palatial inside. I liked them on Saturday mornings, at noon, and on weekday evenings. Via Del Babuino was my Faubourg Saint-German, Via Frattina my Nevsky Prospect, streets where people crowded dim-lit sidewalks that could, within seconds, seem studded by turn-of-the-century gas lamps flickering in the evening’s spellbound afterglow.
I even liked the people who suddenly popped out of 17th-century buildings, leading flashy, extravagant, dream-made lives where love, movies, and fast cars took you to places the number 85 bus knew not a thing about. I liked hanging around a while after the bookstores had closed and the streets had begun to empty and amble about on this magical part of the city whose narrow cobbled lanes and spotty lights seemed to know, long before I did, where my footsteps were aching to turn. I began to think that over and above Via Clelia and the books I’d come looking for, something else was keeping me from heading back home now, and that if books had given me a destination that was a good enough alibi for my parents and for myself, my staying in old Rome now had a different purpose. I’d grown to love this Rome, a Rome that seemed more in me than it was out in Rome itself, because, in this very Rome I’d grown to love, there was perhaps more of me in it than there was of Rome, so that I was never sure if my love was genuine or simply a product of my own yearnings thrown at the first old lane that crossed my path.
It would take decades to realize that this strange, shadow Rome of my own invention was everyone else’s as well. Who would have guessed . . . I’d been hiding my shamefaced, lonely-adolescence Rome from everyone, yet all I had to do was share one picture, and everyone, young or old, knew exactly . . . Emerson: “ . . . to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense.”
It wasn’t Rome itself I was seeing; it was the film, the filter I’d placed on the old city that finally made me love it, the film I went to seek each time I’d go to a bookstore and would come out late in the evening to stroll down my Nevsky Prospect in search of vague smiles and fellowship in a city I wasn’t even sure existed on the sidewalks. It is the film I can no longer lift off the many books I read back then, the film that reverberates over time and continues to make Rome mine long after I’ve lost it. And perhaps it is the film I go in search of each time I’m back in Rome—not Rome. We seldom ever see, or read, or love things as they in themselves really are, nor, for that matter, do we even know our impressions of them as they really are. What matters is knowing what we see when we see other than what lies before us. It is the film we see, the film that breathes essence into otherwise lifeless objects, the film we crave to share with others. What we reach for and what ultimately touches us is the radiance we’ve projected on things, not the things themselves—the envelope, not the letter, the wrapping, not the gift.
Lucretius says somewhere that all objects release films, or “peeled skins” of themselves. These intimations travel from the objects and beings around us and eventually reach our senses. But the opposite is also true: we radiate films of what we have within us and project them on everything we see—which is how we become aware of the world and, ultimately, why we come to love it. Without these films, these fictions, which are both our alibis and the archive of our innermost life, we have no way to connect to or touch anything.
I learned to read and to love books much as I learned to know and to love Rome: not only by intuiting undisclosed passageways everywhere, but by seeing more of me in books than there probably was, because everything I read seemed more in me already than on the pages themselves. I knew that my way of reading books might be aberrant, just as I knew that figuring my way around Rome as I did would shock the fussiest of tourists.
I was after something intimate and I learned to spot it in the first alley, in the first verse of a poem, on the first glance of a stranger. Great books, like great cities, always let us find things we think are only in us and couldn’t possibly belong elsewhere but that turn out to be broadcast everywhere we look. Great artists are those who give us what we think was already ours. Never mind that we’ve never seen, felt, or lived through anything remotely similar. The artist converts us; he steals and refashions our past, and like songs from our adolescence, gives us the picture of our youth as we wished it to be back then—never as it really was. He gives us our secret wishfilm back.
Suddenly, the insights nursed by strangers belong, against all odds, to us as well. We know what an author desires, what he dissembles; we even know why. The better a writer, the better he erases his footprints—yet the better the writer, the more he wants us to intuit and put back those parts he chose to hide. With the right hunch, you could read the inflection of an author’s soul on a single comma, in one sentence, and from that one sentence seize the whole book, his life work.
With the right hunch. Pascal: “Il faut deviner, mais bien deviner.” [You have to guess—and guess right.]
What I found in the authors I grew to love was precisely the right to assume that I hadn’t misread them at all, that I wasn’t making up what I was seeing, and that I was getting the obvious meaning as well as the one they were not too keen to proclaim and might gainsay if confronted, perhaps because they themselves were not seeing it as clearly as they should, or were pretending not to. I was intuiting something for which there was no proof but that I knew was essential, because without this one unstated thing, their work wouldn’t hold.
It never occurred to me then that insight and intuition, which are the essence, the genius of all criticism, are born from this intimate fusion of self with something or someone else. To everything—books, places, people—I brought a desire to steal into and intuit something undisclosed, perhaps because I mistrusted all appearances, or because I was so withdrawn that I needed to believe others were as dissembled and withdrawn as I feared I was. Perhaps I loved prying. Perhaps insight was like touching—but without asking, without risk. Perhaps spying was my way of reaching out to the Roman life that was all around me. In the words of Emanuele Tesauro: “We enjoy seeing our own thoughts blossom in someone’s mind, while that someone is equally pleased to spy what our own mind furtively conceals.” I was a cipher. But, like me, everyone was a cipher as well. Ultimately, I wanted to peer into books, places, and people because wherever I looked I was always looking for myself, or for traces of myself, or better yet, for a world out there filled with people and characters who could be made to be like me, because being like me and being me and liking the things I liked was nothing more than their roundabout way of being as close to, as open to, and as bound to me as I wished to be to them. The world in my image. All I cared for were streets that bore my name and the trace of my passage there; and all I cared for were novels in which everyone’s soul was laid bare and anatomized, because nothing interested me more than the nether, undisclosed aspects of people and things that were identical to mine. Exposed, everyone would turn out to be just like me. They understood me, I understood them, we were no longer strangers. I dissembled, they dissembled. The more they were like me, the more I’d learn to accept and perhaps grow to like who I was. My hunches, my insights were nothing more than furtive ways of bridging the insuperable distance between me and the world.
In the end, my solitude, my disaffection, my shame on Via Clelia, and my wish to withdraw into an imaginary 19th-century bubble were not incidental to the books I was reading. My disaffection was part of what I saw in these books and was essential to my reading of them, just as what I read in Ovid was not unrelated to my tremulous yearnings for the swarthy knees of the gypsy girl. But they were essential in an altogether strange and undisclosed manner. I wasn’t identifying with Dostoyevsky’s characters because I too was poor or withdrawn, anymore than I was identifying with the lust of Byblis and Salmacis because I would have given anything to undress the gypsy girl in my bedroom. What my favorite authors were asking of me was that I read them intimately—not an invitation to read my own pulse on someone else’s work, but to read an author’s pulse as though it were my own, the height of presumption, because it presupposed that by trusting my deepest, most intimate thoughts about a book, I was in fact tapping on, or rather divining, the author’s own. It was an invitation to read not what others had taught me to read, but to see what I, by virtue of the films I brought to everything, was seeing, yet to see things in such a way that the very few who heard me report what I’d seen would agree that they too had always seen things in exactly the same way. The more solipsistic and idiosyncratic my insights were, the more people said they nursed the very same ones themselves.
Maybe this is why I liked every French roman d’analyse. Everyone was after intimacy in those novels, yet everyone dissembled and knew that everyone else did so as well. Over and above every plot their authors spun and every grand idea they jiggled before their readers, the one thrilling moment in these novels always came when their authors bored through that amorphous landfill of inhibition called the psyche and wrote something like: Her lover knew, by the way she showed every conceivable proof of love for him, that she was determined to say no to him. Or: Her future husband could tell, by the way she blushed whenever they were alone together, that she felt neither love, nor passion, nor desire for him; her blushes came from exaggerated modesty, which in her coy, girlish way she was pleased to mistake for love. The very means meant to conceal her blushes is precisely what gave them away. Her husband guessed by how happy his wife was when she heard that their friend was not going to join them on their trip to Spain that he was the one with whom she’d have betrayed him if only she had the courage. Or: The frown with which she seemed to dismiss the man she wished she didn’t love told him everything he longed to know. Even the abrupt, rude manner with which she snapped at him as soon as they were alone was a good sign: she was more in love with him than he had ever hoped.
Then, one summer evening, a sentence suddenly pops up and seems to determine the course of my life.
Je crus que, si quelque chose pouvait rallumer les sentiments que vous aviez eus pour moi, c’était de vous faire voir que les miens étaient changés, mais de vous le faire voir en feignant de vous le cacher, et comme si je n’eusse pas eu la force de vous l’avouer.
[I thought that if anything could rekindle your feelings for me, it was to let you see that mine too had changed, but to let you see this by feigning to wish to conceal it from you, as if I lacked the courage to acknowledge it to you.]
This sentence was me. I reread this sentence from La Princesse de Clèves many times over. The letter of a woman who wins back the man who jilted her was no less intimate and dissembled than I was in my days and nights. If she succeeds in rekindling his love, it’s not by feigning indifference for him—he would have seen through this feint easily enough—but merely by pretending to want to conceal a budding indifference that seizes her almost against her will. There was so much guile and so much insight in her letter that for the first time in my life I knew that what I needed to navigate the multiple removes of LaFayette’s prose was nothing more than the courage to think that I had lived this sentence, that I was this sentence more than this sentence was LaFayette’s.
By coincidence—and if it wasn’t a coincidence, what was it?—the evening I discovered this sentence fell on a Wednesday on the 85 bus. As I walked with my Princesse de Clèves on my way home, the girl at the small supermarket was sweeping the floor by the sidewalk wearing her light blue tunic. She caught me walking by and gave me her usual ill-tempered stare. I looked away. When, 15 minutes later, I came to redeem our bottles, she emptied the bag, lined the bottles on the glass counter as she always did, and, after dropping the coins into the change plate, leaned over toward me and extending her right hand, elbow touching elbow, rubbed her index finger the length of my bare forearm, quietly, softly, slowly. I felt my lungs choke, as I fought the impulse to withdraw my arm, something at once spellbound and illicit racing through my chest. Her touch might have been a sibling’s sympathy caress, or anything ranging from a don’t-forget-your-change-now, to a let’s-test-if-you’re-ticklish, or a you’re-sweet, I-like-you, relax!, or just simply stay-well, be-happy. Then, for the first time, and perhaps because she seemed less busy than usual, she smiled. I smiled back, diffidently, barely hearing what she said. We’d exchanged no more than four sentences.
I had wanted smiles and fellowship. And smiles and fellowship I’d gotten. Someone, a stranger, had read me through and through—down to my jitters, my wants, my second thoughts. She knew I knew she knew. Was it possible that I spoke the same language as everybody else?
It took weeks to screw up the courage to pass by the store again. Trying not to look nervous, trying to seem mildly distracted as well, trying to show that I was capable of bandying a joke or two if prompted, trying to find safe ways to retreat in case she stared me down again—with all these feelings sparring in my mind, I heard her remember my name while I had all but forgotten hers.
I tried to cover up my mistake. Blushes, shortness of breath, more blushes. How paradoxical, that I, the most innocent boy on Via Clelia, should turn out to seem no better than a cad who forgets names—and should be tormented both for being so hopelessly enamored and for suggesting the very opposite. I decided to milk this newfound roguery by overdoing and showing I was overdoing my apologies, hoping she’d disbelieve them. “One of these days we should go to the movies,” she said. I nodded a breathless and sheepish “Yes.” It took me forever to realize that “one of these days” meant this very evening—last row, dark, empty weekday movie theater. “I can’t,” I said, trying to sound abstract, meaning never. It didn’t seem to faze her at all. “Whenever you want, then.”
That same Saturday evening, while coming back from bookstores downtown, I saw her standing with her beau at the bus stop across the way. They were headed downtown. They weren’t even touching, but you could tell they were together. He was older. Figures. She had washed her hair and was wearing flashy, party clothes. Why wasn’t I surprised? I felt rage coursing up my body, around my temples. I hated everything—the street, her, me.
I put off going to the small supermarket. With the visa approaching, part of me had left that store behind long before I stopped going there. Soon, I’d be in New York, where another me, who wasn’t even born yet, might never remember any of this. By next winter when it snows there, I’d never think back on this corner.
It would never have occurred to me that this other me one day would give anything to run into the shadow me trapped under Via Clelia.
So on my return visit with my family, I looked for the tiny supermarket, hoping not to find it, or, rather, saving it for last. When we reached the end of Via Clelia I realized that the store was gone. Perhaps I’d forgotten where it was. But a second look, and another across the street even—as though the shop might have shifted to the other side, or had always been across the way—told me there was no doubt about it. It was gone. All I’d hoped was to recapture the thrill, the fear, the thumping in my chest each time I caught her eyes on those evenings when I’d go to redeem our bottles. Perhaps I longed to walk back into that same store and see for myself—my way of closing the circle, settling the score, having the last word. I’d have walked in, leaned against the glass counter, and just waited a while, just waited, see what comes up, who turns up, see if the ritual had changed, see if I’d be the same person on the same errand on the same street.
To make light of my disappointment and draw their laughter, I told my sons all that happened in the tiny supermarket: woman rubbing her finger on Dad’s forearm, body touching body—was ever a come-on more explicit?—Dad running for cover under Grandma’s kitchen apron, and as always scampering back to his books, never daring to go back, while skulking and prowling the streets for days and weeks afterward—for years, I should have said—for decades and a lifetime. “Were you in love with her?” one of my sons finally asked. I didn’t think so; love had nothing to do with it. “So you never spoke again,” said another. No, we never did.
But I hadn’t told them the truth, not the whole truth. I might as well have been lying. Would they know? Would they dust for the footprints I had erased in the hope they’d ask the right question, knowing that, if they asked the right question, they’d have guessed the answer already, and that if they’d guessed it, they’d be reading my pulse as if it were their own?
Writing—as I did later that day—is intended to dig out the fault lines where truth and dissembling shift places. Or is it meant to bury them even deeper?
Before leaving, I took one last look at Via Clelia. All those rides on the bus, the walks through Rome, the books, the faces, the waiting for visas that I sometimes wished might never come because I had grown to like this place, the vitamin shots, the conversations at the kitchen table, Pina who almost seemed to rush out in tears sometimes, and the dream launched like a desperate call on a winter night when I finished reading “The Dead” and thought to myself, I must head West and leave this town and seek a world where snow falls “softly into the dark mutinous Shannon waves”—all, all of it no more than a film, the aura of my love for Rome that was perhaps no more than my love for a might-be life born from a story Joyce had penned during his hapless stay in Rome, thinking of his half-real, half-remembered Dublin. The cold nights staring out my window as rain fell obliquely against the lamplight; the evening I came so close to another body that I knew I could no longer live like this; the sense that life could have started or just turned on this improbable three-block stretch—all of it a film, perhaps the best and most enduring part of me, but a film all the same. All I’d encountered here were half-truths. Rome, a half-truth, Via Clelia, a half-truth, the adolescent who ran errands after school, his books, the gypsy girl, the girl from the supermarket, half-truths as well, even my return trip now, a muddle of half-truths veiling the numbing thought that, if I never really wanted to come back here and had been putting it off for years, it was also because, much as I thought I hated it, I wished I’d never left at all.
Did I know what this numbness was? I blamed it on my fictions, my films, my impulse to deflect the here and now by proposing elsewheres and otherwises. But perhaps numbness had a more troubling side. And as I neared the Furio Camillo Metro station and could no longer see Via Clelia, something did begin to come to me, distantly at first, then, as we were about to enter the station, with a fierceness I’d never expected: Via Clelia was not just littered with the many books I’d read there, but what it harbored unchanged, untouched after 40 years, were chilling premonitions of the city across the Atlantic for which I knew I’d have to abandon Rome some day soon, a city that terrified me and which I hadn’t seen yet and feared I might never learn to fathom, much less love. That city had been dogging me during my three years in Rome. I’d have to learn to like another city all over again—wouldn’t I?—learn to put new books on the face of yet another place, learn to unlove this one, learn to forget, learn not to look back, learn new habits, learn a new idiom, learn a new me all over again. I remember exactly the spot where this discovery had filled me with disquieting premonitions: in a used bookstore on Via Camilla where I’d found by pure chance a tattered old copy of Miss Lonelyhearts and simply hated it, hated the thought of moving to a country where people liked and read such books. And on that spot it had finally dawned on me that, if I had never wanted to live in Rome, still I would have given everything to stay here, on this street, with these people, with their language, their yelps, their seedy movie theaters, the girl from the supermarket, and eventually become as surly and kindhearted as each and every one of them had been to me.
Outside of that bookstore the uncanny question had bubbled up before I could quell it: What was Rome without me? What would happen to Rome once I no longer lived there? Would it go on without me, Baudelaire, Lawrence, Lampedusa, and Joyce? One might as well ask what happens to life when we’re no longer there to live it.
I was like someone who comes back to life after being dead and finds traces everywhere of how naïvely he’d imagined death. For a moment, it was as if I had never been to America at all yet, as if all those years away from Rome had never happened. But I also felt like someone who comes back to life and has no recollection of death. I didn’t know whether I was here or there. I knew nothing. The pitch-dark center of hell is a cloud of unknowing where words are tongue-tied and where writing, as I did that evening, is useless. I’d settled absolutely nothing, and the work that remained to be done here hadn’t even started, might never start, was never meant to be.
I was never coming back again. Or if I were to one day, I’d come back on the 85 bus—alone. And remember, among other things, coming here with my family.
I told my wife and sons I was happy they had come with me. I told them it was good to come back, good to be heading back soon, good they didn’t let me come back alone.
But I spoke these words without conviction, and would have thought I hadn’t meant them had I not grown used to the notion that speaking without conviction is how I hope to be honest. What roundabouts, though, for what others feel so easily. Roundabout love, roundabout intimacy, roundabout truths. In this, at least, I had stayed the same.
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