Because my office—a massage table—folds down and fits in a bag, in my mid-twenties, I decided to relocate to Rome. My plan was to instantly acquire a glamorous European life, and when that failed to happen, I took to making things up and lying to friends back home.
To read my correspondence or journals, I was having an enviable time. Always pulling dead last in the technology race, I hadn’t transitioned to email yet, and I wrote old-fashioned letters on filigreed stationery to anyone I had an address for. The beauty of living overseas, I learned, was the unlikelihood the reader would fact check my stories. A cracker nibbled in silence next to a stranger at a bar could be reported as a sweeping dinner party that lasted for days until the candles were reduced to wicks and we were all spent and achy from the witty repartee. If I stepped in a puddle on one of my many aimless walks around the ancient city, I might write about a whimsical day spent seaside. There would always be some roundabout path I could trace back to a truth, but it was winding and long. Actually, even that is a lie.
Deception is labor intensive, and pencils are the preferred instruments of the deceitful. Ink is far too permanent, far too certain. I was always worried the prose felt forced or the timelines weren’t aligned and erasers were essential. Fiction requires much more attention to detail than I ever could have imagined. It’s not something I’ll try again.
On real visits to the coast, all whimsy was sacrificed to the necessity of reapplying sunscreen every ten to twelve minutes. Depending on the overhead lighting, my skin is either alabaster or transparent, and beaches are not my natural habitat. Had I opted to live further north, I might have had a shot at blending in, but the south was another can of worms. The Romans consider the inability to tan a character flaw. On more than one occasion, complete strangers approached me on the street and insisted I get some sun, as if informing someone with a gushing flesh wound they needed to seek medical attention. Like every other move I’ve ever made, by the time I realized I stood no chance of fitting in, I’d already signed a legally binding lease. The most exciting thing that happened to me in Italy with any regularity was the theft of my handbag by the children of the Romanian gypsies camped outside the city. Economically, I sat slightly higher on the social totem pole than the country-less thieves, but they had nice olive complexions that shifted the balance enough to make us fairly equal in the eyes of locals.
Stationary and postage weren’t cheap and I soon needed to find work. Concerned that “massage therapist” translated to “prostitute” in Italian, I sometimes told people in social settings that I was a physical therapist. It just sounded better. Because my entire tenure abroad was marked by dishonesty, it became increasingly difficult to keep my fibs straight and remember to whom I’d told what. When a woman from my language class, Leticia, called to book me an interview with her boss, it never occurred to me he wasn’t looking for a masseuse. I couldn’t recall what Leticia did for a living, although I remember thinking it was neat. Certainly neater than cat napping and failing to memorize irregular verbs, which was how I entertained the day.
The address she gave me turned out to be the palatial embassy of a prominent South American country in the middle of one of the city’s most elegant piazzas. Leticia’s boss was the Ambassador to Rome. Oh, and he was partially paralyzed from a stroke, in need of legitimate physical therapy.
As I sat inside a stately office across from an elderly man propped up in a chair, I wondered if this was the sort of thing I could be arrested over. Ironically, my uncle—a man who regards the United States as the only safe soil in this doomed world of unaddressed body odor and socialized health care—had phoned me before I departed to let me know that I could call him should I end up in prison. “If,” he alluded ominously, “they even allow you a call.” His voice chocked a little on that last part, as though these might be our parting words until we, and all other believers in deodorant and free market economies, were reunited one day in heaven.
To be a physical therapist, I needed a master’s degree I didn’t have. Actually, the master’s degree was irrelevant until I completed two full years of academic prerequisites that my undergrad transcripts lack. The trick to surviving the impending conversation, I quickly surmised, was to always be the one asking the questions.
“So, the stroke, um, that must have hurt.”
“Yes. I suppose,” he carefully answered, after a pause.
“Now, where exactly did this happen?” I continued, as though working down an imaginary list of important intake questions.
“To my great fortune,” he replied formally," I was posted in the U.S. that year and had access to excellent medical care."
“No. What I mean is, did it happen in the dining room? The bathroom?”
As a quizzical expression crossed his face, I realized I was moving in the wrong direction and skipped forward to the next question I thought a physical therapist might ask.
“So, what sort of sensation do you have in the limbs?” I inquired, feeling emboldened, certain I’d hit a target.
“I have none,” he said slowly, and then emphasized, “I am paralyzed on my whole right side.”
“Yes, okay, I see,” I responded with my steady, clinical nod, " so you have that kind of paralysis."
In the dead quiet that followed, I cleared my throat and considered an imaginary piece of lint on my sleeve before lifting my eyes to his and saying, “Look. Here’s the thing…”
Amazingly he did not have me deported, and more amazingly still he booked three weekly massages for the rest of the year. I was over the moon at the prospect of having scheduled activities and—with the benefit of hindsight—I tend to believe he felt the same.
I’m not altogether sure what an Ambassador does, professionally speaking, but it seemed a lot like what I was doing. Except for the lying, of course. Or maybe not. Foreign service is a corner of politics, after all. Either way, I got the impression the Ambassador spent a good deal of time taking siestas and eating and feeling lonely. I went to the embassy every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to massage him for an hour, and we passed much of the time talking about whatever new Roman cuisine we’d tried or measuring the Italian means of doing something against the superior way each of our own countries did it. As we got to know one another, based largely upon how little we engaged with where we were an earnest friendship emerged. He was always yammering on about his homeland and I was always yammering on about mine. We weren’t suggesting we missed these places, per se, but we each sounded like a girl talking way too much about an ex boyfriend to sell anyone on the idea that she’s “like, totally over him.”
A few months into our relationship the unthinkable happened, and I started making friends and enjoying something that resembled a life. It didn’t go over well with the Ambassador. Previously, he’d sheepishly confess to wasting a night watching a video he’d seen four thousand other times, and I’d respond with a description of the lint I’d spent all evening extracting from my belly button, and we’d find mutual comfort in one another’s dumb existences. All of our more winsome stories were pulled from the past tense; places we’d been, things we’d done. When my life suddenly took flight in real time and space it felt like I’d broken a pact. My accounts of a funny Halloween party or meeting a local celebrity weren’t enthusiastically received by the man unable to bath on his own, and when I showed up one morning with a particular kind of bruising on my neck, our relationship moved from awkward to strained.
Antonio’s last name translated loosely to “baseball bat” in English and I’d met him a number of times at a local café since arriving in Rome. One thing led to another and we began dating. The morning I woke up and noticed the hickey, I knew discomfort loomed. I applied a dense layer of foundation to disguise the purplish mess of clotting blood, but there was a transit strike that day (as there is nearly every day in some part of Western Europe) and I had to walk to the embassy in pouring rain—which had an unfortunate cleansing effect.
The Ambassador’s disappointed gaze settled immediately on my mottled neck and when I nervously asked about his weekend, I was met with chilly silence. This went on for weeks. I felt like I’d reneged on an unspoken contract; an agreement I was fully aware of seeing as how I’d desperately tried to conceal the betrayal. If I were a cooler sort of person, I’d have shrugged everything off with a decidedly “get over it” brand of detachment. Which is probably the appropriate response. But I felt terrible and culpable. In ways I can’t fully articulate, the Ambassador and I were dorks in the high school of Rome, sitting at our own sad table in the lunch room, him with his gimp arm, me with my stupid melanin deficiency, picking food from our braces and speaking in secret dork language about how lame the prom was. And then I up and got a date for the big dance and left him eating alone. It wasn’t right.
Antonio turned around and unceremoniously dumped me soon after. I wanted to hit him over the head with his last name, but I was far too excited to tell the Ambassador that I was a loser again. My best friend, the disabled foreign diplomat, tried to act unfazed upon hearing the news, but I could tell he was relieved and we slipped right back into our platonic romance. I won’t say things were exactly the same between us after that, but it was close. Close enough that were I to make a short list of the people I have cared for in my life, his name would be on it, written in ink.
Put to it at the time, we’d have both claimed our bond came from our adventurous spirits, our foreignness, our wanderlust. We were quite enamored of ourselves in that way. I suspect, looking back, it was actually the opposite. We were each, he and I, simply adopting those personas—chasing life into distant places, only to get there and find ourselves bored out of our minds, just like we would have been had we stayed where we started. He got the massages for the same reason I gave them; because it was a way to pass the more tedious hours of an existence, a way to satiate the empty spaces between carb-heavy lunches, late afternoon naps, and the fraudulent composition of letters mailed back home.