I study him while he smokes, lying back, arm behind his head. I watch him release the smoke, breathe it back in and out, thinner now. He’s focused on something in the room but I can’t tell what, maybe my family photos—my mother, my father, the twins—or maybe the cubist still-life painting Donatella gave me. Or maybe he’s not looking at anything at all, just as high as his eyes can reach in this room that’s only twenty meters square.
I study him, study his other arm stretched along his body, the curve from his forearm to his deltoid, those three moles up close, chasing one another along the dunes of his arm, escaping to his shoulder, a flight toward nothing. His slightly pointed chin, his intense red lips, his messy, dark hair, flattened by the pillow. This is the first time I’ve gotten a good look at him. Earlier, it wasn’t about looks; instinct took over. Earlier, I don’t think I even noticed that tiny scar along his upper right jaw, a tiny naked dent, a hairless ring of new skin.
He hands me his cigarette to finish, and I shut my eyes a moment. I lie still, in the imperfect silence of our quiet breathing, concentrating on these last remnants of pleasure before they drown among the sheets. I take one long final drag, slowly blow out all the smoke, drop the butt into the paper cup on the nightstand; it sizzles in the water at the bottom of the cup. He shifts and stretches while I lie there, and I close my eyes, and he groans a little as he settles back down. He lays his hand on my stomach. His hand is warm, his fingers long. I see him watching me. I smile slightly, shy, blushing, not sure what to say. I’m always like this after, I turn into an embarrassed idiot.
“Everything OK?” I ask.
I set my hand on his. He smiles, moves away from me, crawls out from under the covers, and naked, he heads to the chair for his wet clothes. He drapes them as best he can over the radiator below the window. He pulls back the curtains, but there’s hardly any light. He stares out, through the glass, through the sheet of water coming down.
“Merda,” he says. “Awful weather. Can I stay a little longer?”
“Yeah, sure.” I roll over and pull the covers up to my chin. “Stay until it stops.”
He wanders around the room, looks out the window again, impatient for it to finish, like he might find some kind of button behind this afternoon’s gray curtain of a sky to turn off all this monotonous pouring rain. He rests his hand on the glass, fogged up now from his body heat— another barrier to the outside. He draws four parallel lines along the glass, delicate claw marks. He heads for the bathroom.
I watch his ass till he reaches the door and disappears. He seems relaxed, not how I’d feel in his place, though his self-assurance still can’t erase the difference between our ages, our respective unknown realities. But I do everything I can to indulge him in this attempt to make us equals: I just want to feel young. I stay in bed and think back to the afternoon. His gasps while I masturbate him, his newfound audacity as he takes me from behind, my chewing on the pillow, his long fingers gripping the covers, the hot, thick spurt across my buttocks.
He steps out of the bathroom, and I realize his eyes are bright brown, and he settles onto the edge of the bed and caresses me, now that I’m weak, vulnerable again, now that I want him again. Slowly he pulls back the covers. He starts touching me, almost with affection, almost hiding his desire. Now he’s the one who’s embarrassed and shy.
His mouth is at my hips. He kisses my belly, then lower. He touches me softly and brings my cock to his mouth, and it slowly disappears between his lips. I close my eyes and stroke his face. I think about him, his nineteen years of life, and when I was that age, twenty-five years ago. When I was waiting for someone to guide me, someone to take me by the hand and find the right way, the exact right combination that would make me feel like myself. This is why I’m sweet with him, because I was nineteen and no one gave me that gift of sweetness, that small, necessary human understanding, even for a prostitute, because boys like him should want this, too, because you don’t just meet in Valle Giulia by accident. His thin legs in tight, rain-soaked jeans, with me asking if he wants a ride, the car skidding on the wet tram tracks. That was me once, soaking wet in the rain, one fall long ago; that was me in the 1100 Granata, taking a beating from some fat, greasy, gray-haired guy, the bruises along my spine, souvenirs of my baptism into prostitution, horrific green marks against the still-pale skin I was so proud of. That was me getting my first few thousand lire for a blowjob behind a hedge in Valle Giulia. That was me they threw rocks at, me in the early eighties, lying in a flowerbed in the Pincio Gardens, crying at sunrise in Rome.
I gasp. His frenzied movements, his head going up and down makes me fall back to instinct. I grip his shoulders, a last jolt, then I pull away. White. Everything’s white. The ceiling, my mind, my shirt on the floor, his synthetic socks. My breathing slows; I cough. I look at him, and he wipes his mouth with his hand.
“Was this really your first—“
“So what do you think?”
“I’m not sure. I feel good, though.”
I ruffle his hair. I’m tired. I feel good, too. We stay as we are, stretched out together on the bed. Then I sit up, and all at once I’m telling him who I was, who I am, what I’m doing with my life, out it all spills, and I’m feeling even better, I’m not sure why, but I’m more comfortable now that I’ve thrown all this in his face, how established I am in society, I feel stronger, like I can handle this whole situation.
“And after I was qualified, I started teaching social psychology. I’ve been doing it a few years now, and I enjoy it.”
“I know,” he says. “You’re a great professor—I’m one of your first-year students.”
He laughs. He sees I’m petrified, and he laughs. He slaps his hands over his mouth. He laughs and says he’s sorry.
“You are a bastard,” I say. “A real bastard.”
I kick him—he falls off the bed. “What the fuck!” He stands up. “Screw you, Professor! What do you want from me?”
“Just go. Take your things and go. What were you thinking, huh? What’d you expect? Ever think about telling me ahead of time?” I get up, grab his clothes off the radiator, and hurl them at him. What a goddamned mess. I’d never thought about this, one of my students turning tricks in Valle Giulia. I feel a pulsing in my veins, my heart pumping faster. I start pacing around, kicking whatever’s in reach. Like some kid who doesn’t want to admit he’s been caught. Like I could whisk all this away. Like I could hold back this flood of coincidences.
He stands there, naked, his clothes on the floor. Hands at his sides.
“You idiot.” He gathers his clothes and lays them on the bed. “I don’t give a shit who you are.”
“Cut it out. What are you looking for? You think you’ve got something on me, but I don’t give a shit—”
“Listen, I don’t want a thing from you, everything’s fine—period.” His voice is calm. “Take it easy. Really—everything’s fine.”
I want to look angry, to make him nervous, but I must just look silly, because he starts laughing again, but not so mean this time, more an understanding chuckle, and he comes over and hugs me and rubs my back. He lays his head on my shoulder and once again we’re still, the silence even less perfect now with our ragged breathing, and I feel a new set of emotions building in my stomach, almost viral, it’s affection, wanting to console, to be consoled. I raise his chin with my finger; though his eyes are wet, he isn’t crying.
“It’s fine by me,” he says. “It’s fine what happened,” and his voice has more emotion in it, but he sounds certain, too: “I’ll go soon, and that’ll be it. No problem. And no problems for you.”
So what’s different now? I ask myself. What were we searching for so many years ago, moving about like geckos, always changing colors to match the walls we clung to? What did we think of all those older, overweight signori? Those men with their beautiful cars, their faces we’d never forget, because we were hoping to find ourselves a co-conspirator, someone who’d play with fire, though mostly, we just found violence and ingratitude. What sort of emotional rush did we expect from those large coarse hands, like sandpaper, along our backs? And now, they, these boys, what do they seek from us? Will they think about us, our adult bodies, the age spots forming on our hands? Or will they just make fun of us, laugh about us, mock our empty faces, soon-forgotten, soon to be replaced by others just as bland? If they give us lazy smiles, worse than the whores on Via Salaria, and insist on too much money, and look us over, hoping we’re not too flabby, the trick too tedious, then what are we to them? They stare after us, like treacherous divas in their tight clothes; so now we’re a generation twice disdained.
Outside, the rain won’t stop. I’m sprawled on the bed, my breathing more regular. He’s beside me, his hand on my shoulder; he closes his eyes, and after a few minutes, I can hear that he’s asleep. He’s on his side, facing me. I study him again, his thin, smooth body, his penis hanging straight down, his legs with some stubble, so a little while since he’s shaved. I stroke his legs, along his thighs, feel the bristles. Then I lie back and touch my forehead, my receding hairline; I rub my fingers in my hair, catch a few loose blond strands. I let them fall to the floor.
I head into the bathroom and turn on the shower.
In my bathrobe, I stare at the mirror, at the wrinkles around my eyes; I rub anti-wrinkle cream into my face. With every movement, I try to put myself at ease.
I find him in the bedroom flipping through The Dreams in the Witch House, a paperback Francesco’s reading. He marks Francesco’s place and sets the book on the nightstand.
“Ciao, I’m Leo.” He holds his hand out to shake.
“Ciao, Leo. I’m Alberto.” I squeeze his hand, playing along, but I keep holding on when I should let go.
“I like Lovecraft,” he says and withdraws his hand. “What else have you read of his?”
“I’m not reading him.” I start drying my hair with the hood of my bathrobe. “That’s my partner’s.”
“Oh, yeah, of course—your partner.”
“You didn’t know I live with someone?” I tighten my robe.
“In the bathroom, I saw two robes by the shower.” He taps his temple.
“Very sharp,” I say. But a little slow on the uptake. “Listen, why don’t you stay for dinner? It’s just not going to quit raining.”
“Sure, great. But what about your partner? Won’t he be back?” He checks his clothes that he laid over the radiator again.
“No, he’s not in Rome. He’s out of town on business and won’t be home until tomorrow afternoon. OK?” I gesture toward the living room.
“Sure, why not? My clothes are still wet anyway.” He looks out the window. It’s dark now. The streetlamp across the way fills the room with a pinkish-yellow glow. You can see the rain in the light, an endless, steady, drizzling rain.
I sauté some onions in oil. I chop up green and yellow peppers. I add them to the onions with a little salt, a little warm water and, leaving it all to simmer, I head for the bedroom to get dressed.
“Feel free to take a shower,” I say. “There’s a bath towel in the bottom left drawer below the mirror.” I put on Francesco’s denim shirt.
“Thanks. Hey, Professor, can I turn on the stereo?” I glare at him for his stupid joke. “Sorry,” he says: “Alberto.”
“Sure, play what you want. It’s out in the living room. The CDs are underneath, in the chest.”
I head back to the kitchenette off the living room, add tomatoes to the peppers, put water on to boil. I open a bottle of white wine and pour two glasses. I go sit on the couch, and I sip my wine, and my thoughts race along with the crazy trumpets of Soft Machine on the stereo. Like a mad dash downhill, accelerating through your own body weight. Losing your balance. Finally, my ponderous thoughts settle on the issue of money. We haven’t talked about money; it strikes me as terribly embarrassing, this issue of money, and I don’t want to talk about it. A guide—I was waiting for someone to guide me. It’s a fixed thought, a longing that’s been dredged up ever since I brought this boy home. In the end, I could be this guide. I could be a teacher, a bad teacher, or just plain bad.
I go into the bedroom for my wallet and lay two hundred euro on his now-dry clothes, while free jazz plays from the living room. Wallet in hand, I glance out the window, at the streetlamp and rain. I stare at the money. I close my wallet and slip it in my jacket pocket. I’m hoping nothing will be said, that he won’t ask me anything.
I choose the pasta, drop farfalle into the water.
He comes in, already dressed and drying his hair. I hand him his glass of wine and turn off the burner beneath the peppers. He wanders around the room, looks at the black-and-white photos of Anversa over the couch, the CDs in the chest. Without a word, he studies the poster of The Wizard of Oz. I feel a slight sense of pleasure at my transgression, at this stranger strolling around my home, but this clashes, too, with our contrasting positions, and then there’s this steady electric current running through me, looped around my feelings, setting off tiny shocks.
“Mind if I turn on the radio?”
“Go ahead. I’m almost done here.”
After our pasta and wine, we sit and smoke and listen to some rock music. He talks about his family, his mother, the kids in school, his father who’s a bailiff, his town in Calabria, how he wound up in Rome. He’s completely at ease. He almost sounds cheerful; I listen while I do the dishes that he offered to wash. I keep going through various emotional stages. His comfortable, leisurely conversation makes me oddly anxious. I’m also starting to think that he’s cheerful because of all the money I left for him; maybe he’s interpreted this as a subliminal invitation to keep quiet. Unconsciously, that must be exactly why I did it. The tension’s broken by moments of my feeling relatively tranquil. Now I’m waiting for it to be over.
“Mind if I smoke a joint?” he asks as I dry my hands on the towel.
“What time is it?”
“Ten after ten.”
“Maybe you’d better go.” I open the doors to the balcony. “The rain’s almost stopped.”
“You’re right—I should go.” He gets to his feet. “You’re right.” And now he sounds more serious; clearly the period for relaxing is over and the time for good-byes has arrived, the inevitable, embarrassed shuffling between us both.
He pulls on his tennis shoes and his black denim jacket. I walk him to the door without saying anything.
“Thanks,” he says. “Thanks for dinner and the hospitality. I don’t know what else to say. You want my cell-phone number?”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Maybe not. Just let it be.”
“Okay. Ciao, Alberto.” He kisses me on the mouth; as he’s leaving, he turns and glances at me, then pulls on his blue wool cap and heads for the stairs.
I close the door and return to the living room. I lie down on the couch. I take deep, slow breaths. The adrenaline’s releasing its grip on my nerves. Like that feeling when you finish a book: the push to the end, the rush to devour the last pages, the emptiness when you’re through. An emptiness soon filled with inevitable, churning thoughts. Picturing tomorrow. Walking into the building, apprehensive, scanning the classroom, nervous, distracted, trying to find his face among two hundred others. Then to more practical thoughts: sheets to change, papers to organize, clothes for Donatella’s wedding that have to go to the cleaner’s. I wait for Francesco’s call. On the radio, there’s a familiar song from twenty years ago.
Translation of “Muovendoci come gechi.” Copyright Marco Di Marco. By arrangement with Minimum Fax. Translation copyright 2011 by Elizabeth Harris. All rights reserved.