If he stopped walking long enough to sit on these steps, then maybe I could plant myself next to him and teach him something, though if he looked at my face he'd tear through the plaza and disappear behind those buildings, concluding only later, after his heart stopped racing, that I couldn't possibly have been an older version of him, that it had only been his wild imagination.
At twenty-seven years old, he spooked easily. Visiting Rome alone shook him up. In those days it had only taken a few hundred dollars to take a plane here, but all he did was wander the streets, something he did anyway in New York, where at least he knew the language. But he was restless, and he was mad, and I shouldn't laugh now, because I miss him, and wish I could sit beside him on these steps, or find him out there and wander with him. We could stroll all day and watch people, and maybe I could tell him how differently we see things.
Don't tell me what I see, he might snap.
It was difficult for him. Only I know that. And it would be hard to find him in this city. Even if I did find him, catching up with him would have been unlikely. His legs were strong, and he didn't think they could ever possibly weaken, and he walked so darn fast, so I could only hope to bump into him accidentally around some corner, and maybe spill out what I want to say before he recognized me and ran like hell.
If it were possible to choose the moment, then maybe it could be just after he met Fia in that little grocery store somewhere past those buildings, on some cobblestone road, who knows exactly where. I could wait for him on the corner and say hello as he passed and hope that he stopped. It would be right after that little exchange with her, only some of it in his lousy Italian, and when he left he walked slowly on his way to his little hotel room. He turned the corner and grinned -- thinking of Fia and only Fia, just because of that little exchange. Her pretty brown eyes and her long dark hair were so present to him, though I remember her now only as one remembers a stranger who appeared in a dream.
She'd helped him find bottled water and handed him bread sticks and waved off any money for them. She said something in Italian about the breadsticks, maybe that they were yesterday's. Hai fame, she said to him, and put her hand to her own stomach. It was that kindness that finished him, and her voice as she told him her name and repeated his name, and her dark eyes when she looked at him.
I could be there when he rounded the corner, and he'd stop cold. I'd tell him that she was only Fia, not some final prize. She was smart and funny and special, yes, but just one of many special ones to come. I don't mean lovers, I'd tell him, as he edged away. Just people. I'd try to explain it to him. There will be so many good people. Each wave of them will surprise you. But he'd hurry away, whether he recognized me or not.
Maybe then I would wait for him on that same corner when he returned the next morning, or I could find that little store now where she worked with her mother. I'd wait for him there, maybe chat with her for a while first. Fia, I'd like some bread sticks and some water… Yes, I am very hungry, you're right, and I'm tired too, from just this little bit of walking… Very nice little place here. I remember it now. She'd speak, and I'd ask her to repeat, to teach me a little Italian. Maybe she'd ask me to sit a while, and then I'd know some new special person, for life, forever, just because of that little talk.
That wasn't enough for him then. He paced outside for a long time the next morning before drifting in to find her busy with an Italian family that she seemed to know well. They were joking, and there was a young man among the family who said something into her ear and made her laugh.
Maybe if I'd been there when he drifted inside, I could remind him that she was a gift, that he should tell her he likes her very much and leave it at that and take her with him, in his heart, back to New York. But he would have shaken me off. She had to see only him, and only he could whisper into her ear. She was his latest last hope for one connection, the finish to a long drum roll.
He would have side-stepped me, or bumped me, on his way out the grocery door, if I told him anything at all after the man whispered in her ear.
Maybe I'd try to catch up with him, or I'd step outside and call to him before he reached the corner. That's nothing -- a friendship, a love interest, a flirtation, whatever it is, it's all nothing. Come back in here and look at her. See how beautiful she is, and what a nice person. Maybe he'd stop at the corner to glare at me, and I'd shut up, and he'd hurry away. He could glare and hurry away with the best of them.
He stayed here a week, and every day he passed her little store, and once, maybe the day before he returned to New York, he went back inside, his heart racing, and he bought water and breadsticks. He put them out on the counter. She asked him in Italian if he'd been walking all day again, because he looked so tired. Hai fame? she asked. No, he said, and her lips parted and she nodded a little.
It would do no good, I guess, to stand beside him and shout, You idiot, you stubborn ass, you damn grouch, look at her face. How could you say no to her about anything? Such goodness in her, can't you tell just by glancing at her? But he knew it already, he wasn't stupid. He glowered his way out the door anyway, with his stupid breadsticks and his little water bottle, and he cursed himself and cursed her beautiful face and didn't go back.
In New York again, he roamed the East Village streets after work or on the weekends. He walked fast and left the sidewalk to walk into the street to pass all those damn slow pokes.
Months later when he received ashes for Ash Wednesday, the priest smeared a long thumb-stroke down his forehead and finished the cross with a long sloppy horizontal stroke. Later, near dinnertime, while he walked up Broadway looking for a diner or a deli, a woman walking ahead of him glanced back. She did a double take, her second look a mix of horror and disgust and surprise, and he roared at her, "What are you looking at!"
She turned immediately and sped up, and it was only when he was home and looked into the mirror that he remembered the exaggerated cross the priest had pressed into his forehead. He stared at the fat black cross, then cursed and scrubbed it off.
Now it's very funny. I tell this story to people sometimes, every few years when something reminds me, but it wasn't funny to him then. I'd tell him now, Well, take a look at yourself. No wonder she was horrified. Maybe he'd be mad at me, or maybe he'd laugh, I don't know.
Maybe I could find that little store now. But of course it wouldn't be there any more, some forty years later, and if Fia were there she'd be as old as I am now, with children and grandchildren, though I bet I'd still recognize her, even though her face is just a shadow to me now. I'd tell her, I've never loved anyone else so fast. I wouldn't hesitate. I'd leave and be satisfied, and then I'd wait for him on the corner nearby, just before the man whispered in her ear. I'd watch him ease around me on his way into the store. I'd wait five minutes, and then he'd knock me sprawling when he stormed around that corner. He would help me up and say sorry -- he was good that way when it came to it -- and I'd wave my hand and tell him it was nothing, that he couldn't hurt me. Still, he'd worry and want to be sure I was all right, and then he'd look into my eyes.
Remember The Grapes of Wrath? I'd say. You hated that book in college. Remember Casy the preacher wondering if we were all one big soul? You didn't like that. You skimmed the rest of the book and tossed it aside. But let me tell you, I think he was right. He'd stare at me, knowing who I was, but I'd continue. I married late, but the wait was worth it, I wouldn't choose any other way, and I've loved so many people, not just my own wife and children. I can't list them all. I try sometimes to list them, but the list gets too big.
I'd try to hold him longer, but he'd shake me off and hurry away, and there would be no way for me to catch up. He'd stomp past her little grocery again and keep going, up to his hotel room, where he'd lie on the bed and try a USA Today crossword and look at baseball box scores and make a list of one possible lifetime love, then another possible lifetime love, and he'd remember me with a shudder and try to laugh it off.
His future could only be about himself and one other person, maybe, and so he hated that Casy character. He never could have guessed that someday he would love hundreds -- his friends and his colleagues and his neighbors and his students, and the baseball players that he coached. Hundreds of them. And later he'd most love his own family.
Funny that he always wondered if he could possibly love anyone, any one person. And when others did come and he did love them, he was surprised, and after they were gone he was sure that they were the last ones.
Maybe I can be fast enough to catch up with him after all. I'd find him in his little hotel room and pull him out, tossing his crossword puzzle in the trash on the way out the door. We'd roam together, and he'd have to keep up with me. I'd find us a coffee shop, and then maybe we'd run into a parade somewhere -- there were always parades somewhere -- and we'd watch it pass, and I'd say, For me, they're not just passing by, they're going in a circle.
Later, both of us tired, I'd bring him back here on these stairs and ask him to look down at the plaza at all of those people. Let's just watch them for a while. Aren't they something?
But maybe he wouldn't know what I was talking about, and it's just as well.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Lou Gaglia. All rights reserved.