To Rome With Love
Dinner with Julie - September 2017
My fork plied the leaves of bright green lettuce on the plate. It shuffled the crisp half-moons of red pepper and toasted slivers of almond while it flicked bits of sesame seed and toppled droplets of the dressing from each layer to the one below.
I say my fork did all this because it seemed to be detached from me, held by a hand that mindlessly stirred the assembled salad without any motive force from my brain.
“Mom?” Julie’s voice seemed to appear suddenly from a void, although she was sitting next to me at the kitchen table. Her question drew me from my thoughts.
“You seem so quiet,” she added. “Everything okay?”
“Of course, honey. Of course.” To prove my point, I stabbed some lettuce and plunged it into my mouth. Julie continued staring at me, showing a bit of concern and I wanted to reassure her.
But how could I reassure her without telling her the whole story.
“Your father loved you very much, Julie.” That opening sounded odd even to me. What did my daughter’s father who passed away two years ago have to do with my blue state this evening?
“And, of course, I did,” I added. “I mean, I do, of course!” An embarrassed chuckle caught in my throat at my sudden inability to speak clearly.
My hand resumed stirring the contents of the salad plate while my gaze wandered over the carved pattern of the chairback across from me, teasing out every curl and rosette etched into the darkened wood frame of the chair. My eyes were searching mindlessly in much the same way that my hand was stirring carelessly through the salad.
I spoke the name out without much thought or hesitation, then wondered whether my tongue had taken a cue from my disconnected hand and eyes.
“Huh?” Julie asked.
I engaged my brain just in time, realized that I was on the doorstep of a story that Julie had never heard, a story that would bring some pain, one that might fill in gaps in my history that she didn’t even know existed. But my toes were on the threshold, and I felt that now, suddenly, I couldn’t pull them back out of the doorway.
“Giorgio,” I repeated, and I began to tell my dear daughter of the man before her father.
Piazza della Repubblica, Rome, March 1985
Tammy’s head was tilted back to allow the warm rays of afternoon sun light her face. She was sitting on the stone wall around the fountain in Piazza della Repubblica, her hand resting beside her hip as she closed her eyes and opened her other senses to the city sounds and smells that swept over her.
The rub-rub of bicycle tires mingled with the occasional car horn and light screech of tires from the Fiats and Alfa Romeos careening around the circular traffic pattern of the piazza. Young children giggled and young adults called out to one another, some with excitement in their voices, some with urgency.
The deep aromas of espresso from the hotel terrace behind Tammy were strong enough to reach her nose, as was the fragrance of the vases filled with lilacs and orchids being sold by the street vendor nearby. The aromas were just as seductive as the lilting vocal sounds of the Italian soprano in the window three stories above.
This was the vacation of a lifetime, and she was happy that it was only half over. Tammy had wandered the crazy maze of streets in Venice and slurped the incredibly fresh flavors of gelato in Florence. She had gazed out at the green rolling hills of Tuscany that swept by the train window as she traveled from town to town, and she had lingered over long, leisurely evenings on stone balconies perched on the cliffsides of the Amalfi Coast, captive to the scent of bougainvillea and vine-ripe grapes that hung from the balustrade.
Italy was dreamy, and she had no trouble concluding – as had millions of tourists before her – that the country was the most romantic place to be.
Well, at least for most people.
Tammy couldn’t dismiss the reality that of all the things she had seen and done while rambling across the regions of Italy – that in this land known for romance and love – she was still alone, and had not even sampled a single romantic moment except for those in her imagination.
The night before, she had sat at a table in the Piazza Navona, a perfect sunset place to be and a favorite spot for visitors and Romans alike while in the city. Despite its local fame, most Americans seem not to find it, but Italian lovers huddled together to share whispered promises in the shadow of Bernini’s fountain, and this drew Tammy to the cobbled streets of this particular piazza.
She sat for three hours in a café, watched the twilight slip away and yield to twinkling stars above. She sipped a cold Negroni – a cocktail of Campari, gin, and vermouth that would normally have been too strong for her. She nibbled at the bowl of olives and marinated carrot spears, and inhaled the fragrance of garlic and fennel that coated the little orbs. And she listened to the mandolin music that carried faintly from the dining room behind her.
Tammy hadn’t come to Italy to find romance but she would have been open to the idea. She was not particularly needy, but the wine, the food, the music in this country – not to mention the brilliant palette of extraordinary scenery that ranged from Medieval castles to verdant hills to post-modern architecture – could put a buzz in anyone with starry-eyed thoughts.
So, after a wonderful but platonic vacation in Italy, she planned to take home many memories of the non-romantic type. That is, until this one moment when it all seemed to change.
Her mind was drawn back to the present and back at the Piazza della Repubblica. With her eyes closed and face tilted toward the warming effect of the sun, she was enjoying a trance-like state when a voice brought her out of it.
“It’s warm, no?”
Tammy opened her eyes and turned toward the man’s voice. With the sun above casting narrow shadows about, his face was sunlit and easy to see. He had a warm, kind smile, and Tammy smiled back. His blue-hazel eyes were bright, and his dark curly hair cascaded down his forehead. The deep brown beard and mustache were cropped close to his face, and his luxuriously tanned skin crinkled when he smiled at her.
“Um, yes,” she replied with a pause. Not a facile response, so, she gave it another try.
“I’ve been enjoying the warmth of the afternoon.” Then, after a momentary pause, “And the scenery here at the fountain makes it a complete experience.”
“Sì,” he said. “It is the Fountain of the Naiads, la Fontana delle Naiadi. Did you know that?”
She shook her head.
“Naiads were Greek nymphs,” he said, then laughed. “Yes, well, I laugh because they are of Greek creation, but still, here, they are Roman.”
“Why nymphs?” Tammy asked. For Americans, the word had pleasurable connotations.
“They are little goddesses,” he replied, using his hands to suggest something diminutive. “Here, the naiads look after our fountain, to protect the water and the people who depend upon it.”
Okay, so pleasure wasn’t their first duty.
“I’m Tammy,” she said, extending her hand. He took it and held it warmly for a moment longer than was necessary. But it felt too good for her to pull away from.
“I don’t know the name ‘Tammy.’ But it is American, no?”
“My name is actually Tamara, but everyone calls me Tammy.”
He shrugged a little shrug. “But I like the sound of Tamara,” he responded. “You should tell this ‘everyone’ that your name is too beautiful to shorten.”
She felt a tingle zing down her back.
“I am Giorgio.”
Dinner with Julie - September 2017
“Giorgio? Mom, really?”
Julie was never good as disguising her thoughts through careful modulation of her voice. She came across as both surprised and disappointed, maybe even a bit indelicate in her willingness to doubt me.
“I wasn’t a young girl, Julie.” Somehow, I felt like I had to defend myself and my time with Giorgio. Julie sat back against the chair and tapped her fork on the plate; she seemed ready to offer some ‘grown up’ advice to her mother.
“Mom, was that his real name?”
Okay, so that really set me off. I had many fond memories of my relationship with Giorgio and how it had matured and developed, but Julie – with no knowledge yet – acted like I needed a lecture about avoiding swarthy Italians approaching me on a street in Rome.
Hmmm. When I thought about it in those terms, I had to laugh a bit myself.
“Yes, Julie, that was his real name. But there’s so much more. Can I tell you about him?”
She paused her fork-tapping and focused on me as I proceeded to tell the story of how I met Giorgio so many years ago and how we fell in love.
Piazza della Repubblica, Rome
Tamara shook Giorgio’s hand and looked into his eyes. The bright color of his iris was amplified by the white surrounding them, which made his eyes seem even more alive set against the bronze glow of his skin.
They talked for some time about their lives – they were both thirty-two years old, both college educated – who they were and what they did for a living.
“I’m an architect,” Giorgio revealed in an offhand, unimposing way.
“I’m a CPA,” she replied. “That’s certified public accountant,” she responded.
He laughed that gentle, smiling laugh of his.
“Sì, sì. I know what a CPA is. I have one – no, two! – for my company. So,” he paused, “you are good with numbers?”
Tamara shrugged her shoulders in an easy reply to the question, and added, “But so are you. You’re an architect. I’m sure you’re good with numbers, too.”
“Yes, well, not like you are. If an architect doesn’t like the way the numbers add up, he just erases the line and moves it somewhere else.”
His voice was strong but not loud, and he expressed himself with twinkling eyes, hand gestures, and a wink now and then when he was making fun of something, especially himself. There was something so casual and easy-going about Giorgio; and Tamara wondered for a moment why he stopped to speak to a stranger at the fountain. But then she realized that his relaxed demeanor was a simple presentation for a confident, poised man – a public self that held his self-assurance in check while engaging with people.
One of the things they didn’t talk about was their families, at least not at first. Tamara could feel a certain reserve in Giorgio – or was she projecting her own on him – as if they wanted to remain just two people sitting at a fountain in Rome for a while longer. As if mention of parents, siblings – spouses? – might ruin the moment. She wasn’t married back then and she sneaked a look at Giorgio’s ring finger. No jewelry there, and no sign of a tan line.
He didn’t ask how long she would be staying in Rome. She waited for the question; it seemed like a natural segue in their discussion, natural for an American tourist to be asked. Their conversation kept her mind too busy to focus on that, but she recalled thinking back later and wondering why Giorgio wasn’t interested in that point about her vacation. Maybe he thought it was trite, as in a gigolo asking a single American woman traveling alone, “so, how long will you be in town?” Maybe he didn’t want to know because they were really just having a little talk by a fountain in Rome on a sunny afternoon. Nothing serious.
After a while, Giorgio looked down at the street, then surveyed the cars sweeping by. It seemed like he was bringing the conversation to an end, and wondering how to get up and move on. Then he stood and, slapping his hands on his thighs, said he would have to go. But he didn’t move.
“I am very glad to meet you, Tamara.” He paused, looking for the next thing to say.
“Yes, me too,” she said. Tamara was also at a loss for words.
Giorgio turned slightly toward the traffic and smiled back at her.
“I hope you enjoy this lovely city.”
“There’s no question that I will. And I have.”
He turned full on to the street and took a few steps away, then stopped. He turned back to her with a wan smile. Waving once more, he turned back away and took another few steps before stopping again.
“Tamara,” he called out, but then he ran out of words. After a few seconds, he came back to her, sat down on the fountain wall again and peered into her eyes.
“Tamara, would you be interested in joining me for a glass of wine?”