I can see why Hemingway loved Italy. Magic floats in the air all across Rome as though it’s as normal as the cobblestones that make up the roads or bricks that cling together to forge one of the many high walls keeping gardens and fountains safely inside and hidden away from the rushing of loss and modernity. The cheeses and cured meats are daily treasures enjoyed by the Romans, and as a newcomer I feel I’ve missed out on good eating for far too long, even though I’m an epicure.
One November morning in the market I looked over the selections to make a full snack and settled on a large piece of gouda and salami, which was tied by twine at both ends. From the liquor section I chose a bottle of grappa invechiata, and all my items were placed in a sack that had many of the city attractions printed in color on the outside, such as the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, and the Colosseum.
I had planned to eat alone in the Botanical Garden belonging to Sapienza Università di Roma, and was doing so at around noon when a young Italian woman, who must’ve been in her early twenties, came down the steps of the Eleven Fountains and stood across from where I’d been sitting alone and eating and looking at the view of the city from Gianicolo Hill. I’d been eating the gouda cheese and drinking the grappa and looking for the Pantheon when the young woman stood near where I was sitting on the bench and spoke in English,
“The day is cold but nice.”
I nodded because I had a mouthful of bread and salami.
“Do you speak Italian?”
I shook my head like a mute child to show that I didn’t.
The stranger’s hair, thick black curls, bounced when she turned from me to the Colosseum down below to our right and her hands stayed inside the pockets of her jacket, but from what she wore I could tell her figure was ample—her breasts were young and full, her backside rounded, and she had the kind of figure a man wants to approach from the back so he can settle crotch to butt and grab the breasts while kissing a woman’s neck just below her ear as she rubs backwards—and I thought of this as I waited for her to speak again.
“Where you from?” she asked. “London? Paris?”
“Texas,” I said. “You know the horses and cowboys.”
“That’s far,” she said, and she sat next to me on the bench. I could tell from the size of her thighs that she must’ve walked or hiked a great deal, and that those legs made her even more attractive because as a man you wanted those thick legs wrapped around you.
“Would you like something to eat?” I asked. “Bread?”
She took a piece of gouda and a nice chunk of salami and thanked me in kind Italian.
“Are you from Italy?”
“Yes,” she said. “Napoli.”
“Naples? That must be an amazing place to live.”
“It is,” she said between nibbles of her cheese. “Napoli is not like Roma. You have many open spaces from where I live.”
“What’s your name?” I asked, and I told her my name.
“Like Dante’s great love.” She must’ve heard that her whole life because she didn’t give a reply. “What are you doing in Rome?” I asked.
“I’m an intern in the kitchen in the academy up on Janiculum Hill.”
“I know of it,” I said. “So, you want to be a chef?”
“No.” When she shook her head, her black curls swished and swayed and highlighted the youthfulness of her cheeks, as though she were one of those young virgins painted nude at the edge of a stream. Beatrice’s gaze fell across the city of Roma below us. “I want to be a kind of baker. Making pastries and cakes.”
“An entrepreneur. That’s great.”
“Yes, I do not want to work for someone else, and I also want to take vacations.”
The botanical gardens lay idle around us and at the same time there were only one or two other couples in the sanctuary that lazy afternoon.
“I have a confession,” I said.
“This is not a church,” she replied. “Would you like me to take you to a priest?” She seemed to want to laugh at her own joke.
I gave a chuckle and said that wouldn’t be necessary. Not in the slightest.
“I have a boyfriend,” Beatrice said. “He lives in Napoli. I try to go home on the weekends.”
“It must get lonely. I know how that feels.”
“Yes, it does.” Beatrice turned from looking at the tomb of the unknown soldier, the grand monument to Victor Emmanuel II, where the goddess Roma burns an eternal flame, and gave me an odd look. “What did you want to confess?”
“You remind me of someone. She looked a lot like you do now. But years ago.”
“Ah, interesting. There is a story there. No?”
“No. No story,” I said. “Just memories.”
“In Italia we have many such stories. So many it is difficult to count them.”
“I loved her very much. Her name was Cecelia, and we had been in university together. That’s been almost twenty years ago. Maybe older than you.”
“I’m twenty-two,” Beatrice said. “Where is she now? This memory of yours?” Beatrice nibbled on a piece of the bread in her hand. “This is getting interesting.”
“I don’t know. We parted ways in university. Long ago. We haven’t seen one another since. We spoke on the phone once, but that was it. The last time I heard her voice I was lying in bed late one night and she was in a car driving with friends.”
I offered Beatrice the grappa and she sipped some from the bottle.
“I also have a confession,” Beatrice said. “The reason I came to talk to you.”
“Should I be the one to take you to a priest?”
This time we both laughed fully and relaxed in the presence of one another. The softness in her eyes and on her face made me more comfortable. She did remind me so much of Cecelia.
“I must watch out for you,” Beatrice said. She drank a little more of the grappa.
“Perhaps,” I said, “but I’m happily married, and I have a son. Too late.”
Beatrice ignored this and said, “The reason I came to talk to you was because I thought you were someone else.”
“There’s a story here. Yes?”
“Yes,” she said sadly, and I regretted saying what I did. Beatrice crossed her boots and looked at the gravel path in front of us. “Roberto had been special to me in scuola secondaria (di secondo grado).”
Beatrice nodded that this was true.
“You look exactly like him,” she told me. “I thought I’d never see him again. He was lost to me.”
“Why not?” I didn’t know what else to say. Perhaps she was a mad-woman lying to me. I didn’t know. “What happened?”
“I came here,” Beatrice said, and she lifted her face to the clear sky above the trees that shaded us, “I came to this garden to remember Roberto, because today is the anniversary of his passing away. When he left this world.”
“How?” I asked rudely. I sat and drank the grappa. She watched me do this and emptied her hands of the food onto the sack between us. Beatrice shook her head to fight back the tears that were going to come. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know. Excuse my stupidity. I’m not very good with people. Never know what to say.”
“I was walking,” Beatrice continued, “and when I saw you the light of the sun made you shine, and I thought—”
“I was eating,” I said. “That was all.”
“Yes, you were, because Roberto used to take his lunch in the park with me on Saturdays, like today.”
“I didn’t know,” I said. What could I say? Beatrice was now crying. Softly. Tears tracing her cheeks. I felt bad. Stupid. An idiot. Terrible. Gently I said, “I’m sorry. I am.”
“You did not know,” she said. “You did not know, and how could you know that I still love him and miss him so. When I woke this morning, I believed I’d see him again, and then I saw you sitting like he used to sit, like an idiot looking at the city and not at me.”
“I know,” I said. “I am an idiot.”
Beatrice picked up a piece of cheese and playfully tossed it at me. “So,” she said, “What do you want to do now?”
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of Club Med & a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.