As you know I’m in Rome, where looking back becomes a daily ritual, and so it’s only natural that I look back at my own life as well.
I’m up at five in the morning in Roma, not because of excitement for the dawn approaching all around me as I stand drinking coffee on the fourth-floor outdoor balcony, but because I had a vivid nightmare—I won’t bore you with the details—about my past and how all the hate came pouring back into my anger. I woke disturbed from the dream at four, washed, dressed, walked down the long corridor with rooms on both sides with sleeping artists and scholars and idle studios, and proceeded down the hall, trying to shake the haunting dream from my thoughts, so I could do a small thing which is to make coffee in the communal kitchen.
When the sky starts to warm and lighten, birds caw and swing overhead and glide in a current of invisibility that I can feel. I’m waiting for the sunrise, drinking my Italian coffee, and I’m thinking about my first two children, both daughters, and the circumstances over the years that happened to cause me to rarely see them. They deserved a father to be there with them and not out traveling the world for inspiration for new words and new stories to tell. The sun will be up soon and I’m forced to weigh myself against the light of a new day, even if I am in Rome all alone—without family, friend, or foe.
Like I said, looking back is done each day by tourists trekking across the cobbled city and across the river that runs through it. There are hills to climb and lines to queue—if you’re smart, you would buy all your tickets online prior to arriving—and there’s so much history around you, even beneath your feet, that your sense of self can be overwhelmed by sense of place—the power of Rome.
Today, though, I’ve been looking across the horizon to where Venus and Jupiter will appear in a close conjunction in the east. I’ve been drinking coffee, waiting for the planets, thinking of the past, and waiting to catch a view of the celestial rendezvous bringing Venus and Jupiter to within seventeen arc minutes of one another inside the constellation Virgo just west of the crescent moon.
At a quarter to six I can start to see the Roman gods of Love and Thunder above the horizon and I try to think about what it means for them to meet on this day of all days, and I’m immediately drawn to the parallels with my wife and son, who we named Thor.
I left them in Hong Kong for a few weeks so I could finish my three novels at the American Academy in Rome, where I’m on the fourth-floor balcony.
The sun is up now and I walk back inside, away from the November cold, take the elevator down to the second floor, turn right down the hall and find Room 258 on the left. There’s no need to lock the door in this community of professionals from all over the world, and I enter my cozy room where I’ve worked at my desk and slept in my bed at odd hours around the clock.
After washing my face to refresh myself, and rinsing out my coffee mug, I head downstairs, pass the fountain out front in the courtyard, and exit the gates on Via Angelo Mesina.
I’m making my way through the streets, avoiding traffic, and thinking all the while of the horrible person I’ve become (it doesn’t matter because society—the one which strives for empathy—doesn’t care about the problems of white American men). Over the last twenty years I’ve pursued my writing career as a novelist—not a very good one, mind you—but pursued nonetheless the words on the page and the characters in the stories, all of which, deep down, I’d say was an attempt to find the essence of the perfect story or novel for me to write. A novel only I can write. A novel that can mean something to someone else. A novel that can be a thing of beauty and a work of art.
Even as I walk the streets of Rome, I know I’m not even close to any of that, not even after twenty years. Still, here I am in Italy working on three novels no one will probably want to publish. And for what? I honestly don’t know any more.
From the fallen leaves of brown and gold dappled on the walkway, I look up to see the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance above rooftops and my legs seem to know where I should go without me needing to tell them so.
Down the road a bit I cross the street to enter a tunnel below a major roadway and when I ascend from the tunnel there before me is St. Peter’s and the Vatican and all the splendor of ages gone by. The square isn’t crowded today and because there’s no major event, like on Wednesdays or Sundays, there’s no security checks. I slip easily between the metal poles marking entrances or exits to the square, beneath the columns, the colonnade, and enter to the Piazza San Pietro where the Vatican obelisk stands in the center of Bernini’s creation. High above me stand the immortals.
I feel a fool to weigh myself against the basilica, the square, the immortals, and all everyone has done to carry this tradition for thousands of years, because any deeds of mine will stay insignificant and unworthy of remembrance. All I’ve done over the years was to chase after a child’s dream—let’s be open and call it what it is—and now a small man looks at St. Peter’s—the one who denied Christ three times before the cock sang—and I know I am no different, because I know I have betrayed all that is holy in the world, because it comes to me like an alleyway opening up to a grand cathedral, and the ones I denied over the years were the ones I should’ve cherished and loved, and that our lives were tied as one.
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.