I met Roma while I was on a plane to Italy. “Where are you headed? What’s your name?” I’d asked her. “Roma,” she’d said. When we landed, I thought I’d never see her again, but then 3 months later, we found each other while watching a man drown in one of the drainage ducts under the Tiber River.
“He died without pain,” she stated, as she guided me away from the crowd of people gathered on the stone-chipped bridge. “Probably,” I began, “poor guy. The whole town is out here. Does this happen every time there’s a death in the river?” I asked. “Yes. It is, come si dice, un spettacolo,” she answered. “A spectacle,” I translated. “Si,” she said. “You have very good English,” I told her. “Yes, I studied in America, remember? From the airplane.” We got onto the hard-pressed cobblestones, her boot heels stabbing every break in the rocks. “Don’t you feel bad for that guy?” I said, “he looked like Frankenstein. Everyone watching him.” She directed us across the congested street. “No,” she replied, calling out between the cars, “he looked beautiful.” I scratched my head. “You think drowning is beautiful?” I yelled back. “Death is beautiful. Beautiful or revolting. Nothing between,” she stated with definite punctuation.
Roma got up on her motorbike, which was parked right down the street from the Castel San’Angelo. “This was once an army castle,” she said, pointing to it. “There were cannons. Big fortress. But now it is old. Even tourists don’t care for it. Maestoso,” she explained, looking for the word. “Majestic,” I replied. “Do you want a ride to your studio?” She asked me, patting on the back of the bike. I grabbed onto her hips from behind and we zipped off onto the road, the mammoth castle looking smaller and more withered as we left it behind.
The little Italian cars and buses crammed themselves onto the highway beside us, casting fumes and noises onto the ancient bridges that split the city. “What about when someone dies of old age? Or in their sleep?” I mouthed into her ear, talking over the exhaust buzz. “Beautiful,” she said. “And falling from a cliff?” I asked. We stopped at a red light. She took out a cigarette, and answered, “revolting.” We got going again and I squeezed her hips harder when the road got more narrow.
When we got to the photography studio, I tried to ask for her phone number, but she just said, “meet me by the Pantheon at seven,” and sped off. In class, one of the students shared pictures she’d taken earlier of the dead man in the water. We all saw close-up, through a telephoto lens, that the man had indeed died on impact, and had just been recoiling lifelessly in the waves. In some of the photos, his head was beneath his legs, and his waist was twisting over itself like a kitchen cooking mixer. The man’s eyes were sealed shut and his skin looked white. Our instructor watched without fascination, a simple look of distaste was on his face. “Uh-huh,” he said, “nice composition.”
Afterwards, I waited by the Pantheon for an hour but Roma never showed up. The big structure was set to close, so instead of hanging around any longer, I stomped inside to make some use of my time. There were a few Chinese tourists puttering around, but no one was looking at the bright golden altar in the center. It was shimmering, as the last light from the day died out on the shards of gold. I clawed around in my jacket pocket for my camera. Roma came up from behind and stood next to me. “Sorry I am late,” she said. “It’s almost eight thirty,” I said back. “What’s wrong?” She asked as she unlatched her motorbike helmet and brushed the hair out of her face. “I wanted to see you. I didn’t think you were going to come,” I muttered. “I changed my mind. You remind me of a boy I once knew,” she said as she took my hand and guided me around the floor and towards the exit. “What happened to him?” I asked as I tugged on her hand to bring her near me. She resisted my advance but said, “he died in an accident, but you are like him.” She let go of my hand and changed the subject. “You know this building was built by Romans. But then it was burned by people because it was not for their religion,” she explained. “Then it was built again. But then burned again.” She looked up at the enormous hole opening in the dome from above. The sky had turned all black. “Now it is a Catholic church,” she said, and laughed. I took one last look at the altar before we left the building. “I love it here. It’s my favorite place in Rome. It’s so beautiful,” I said to her. She snickered and said, “schifoso,” which in Italian means, “so ugly.”
We walked outside and the city was dark. All the people and lights were running everywhere. There were old Romans dressed as Caesar-era warriors, signing autographs and posing for pictures. Homeless men played romantic Mario Lanza songs on accordions and collected tips from passing tourists. The gelato stand had a line that went all the way around the block. Roma put her helmet back on and cleared her throat, saying, “we need to get out of here.”
She took me up on the Aventine hill, and the entire city was quiet beneath us. There were skinny Pine trees everywhere, and Roma’s boots made cold crunching sounds on the brown leaves. I took a photograph of her and she smiled. “Let me see,” she said. I pulled the display out and showed her the image. Her bare shoulder touched my wrist. “Let me see all of your pictures,” she stated. I pressed through the images, all the photographs I’d taken of my time traveling alone in Italy. There were oceans and seas, statues, lemon stands, olive groves, wine casks, and fig gardens. There were old relatives holding big clumps of cheese, and my ancient great aunt picking squash from her garden. There were about a hundred pictures of the Pantheon from every angle and perspective in the piazza. She laughed through her nose and whispered, “Americani.” She twirled away into the dark. “Where are you going?” I called out. “Vieni qua!” She yelled, telling me to follow, “I’ll show you the best place in this city!”
I found Roma in a spot under a shroud of dead black Pine trees on a low part of the hill. I could almost see nothing at all. She was breathing very slowly and silently. “Who was the boy that you knew?” I whispered. “He is why I ran away to America,” she said, and turned her shoulders around. “Then why did you come back to Rome?” I asked. She pointed out in front of her, her black silhouette playing out on top of the even blacker background. “Because I could not be away from him anymore,” she said, as my eyes began to adjust to where she was gesturing towards. At first it was just all dark, but then, slowly, visages came into view. Ivory structures, patches of dirt and green grass appeared. Layers and layers of Earth, lying on top of one another like a big patchwork staircase. It was a massive old cemetery, and the graves were adorned in a white fog from the cold night. “Is this your favorite place in all of Rome?” I asked. She took a long breath in through her nose and said, “Si. É bellisima.”