The partially paralyzed Ambassador was my first steady client in Rome, and Leticia—the woman from my language class who worked for him—was my second. She, too, held an esteemed post at the embassy, but her sessions were much more informal. By informal I mean that every single time I massaged Leticia, she ignored my instructions to lie underneath the towel and, instead, splayed atop it buck-naked. With her I didn’t mind, partly because I liked Leticia, and partly because she had a jarring anatomical deformity that really engaged the eye. At the base of her sternum was a cavernous depression, the skin sinking deep between the bones of her ribcage. Leticia’s heart was in the wrong place. Always had been, she told me.
(I acknowledge the implausibility of both of these clients having physical abnormalities. I don’t know if this is sheer coincidence or if that diplomatic team was an affirmative action hire, but I swear on all that is good and decent: This is true.)
Week after week, I stared at that gaping cavity, like it was speaking to me. As such, I was carrying on two conversations because Leticia was always talking to me, too. She was a real chatterbox. Leticia was also the nerdiest person I’ve ever met. Having lived almost everywhere, she possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the world. But she was, by nature, a purely brain-driven person. She might know the operational hours of every museum within a ten-mile radius, but she’d never visit a nightclub or get knocked up by a local. It was for this reason that Leticia managed to fray every page in her passport while maintaining the naiveté of someone just this side of the birth canal.
Intelligence and a respectable career notwithstanding, I was no different from Leticia. But like doesn’t recognize like when it doesn’t want to—when it’s 26 and full of itself—and I had a very exalted view of myself that year.
Three months earlier, long before I met Leticia, I moved to Rome with my friend Donna. We rented an apartment in the neighborhood of Trastevere, charmed by what we perceived as its gritty authenticity. Like so many suburban white kids who came before us, we flattered ourselves into believing we’d stumbled upon something down-market and real when, in fact, Trastevere was already established and desirable. Residents were slowly being priced-out and foreigners with strong currencies crowded the patio seating of restaurants, demanding their diet cokes and unfolding maps the size of posters across the tables.
A block from our apartment stood a tattered café nicknamed the “Heroin Bar,” a nod to the addicts who’d once shot up in the establishment’s bathroom. It was the single dirtiest place I’ve ever ordered a cup of coffee and I’d squat on a landmine before I’d sit on one of its toilets, but I became a regular. The bar’s illicit reputation was in reference to the ‘80s—a decade I spent in elementary school, not passed out with dope fiends in Europe. I have, in fact, never so much as seen heroin nor known anyone who’s used it—and I’d probably faint on the spot were I ever to be in its presence—but Donna and I would claim every opportunity to call this place the Heroin Bar, without a trace of irony, as though we were jaded survivors of a less fortuitous time.
Donna—beautiful by any cultural norm—landed a boyfriend before I’d unzipped my suitcase and our earliest acquaintances were gleaned through him. Originally from Sicily, Mario attended a small American business school in the city’s center. His social group was pulled from the university’s student body, wealthy international boys with bottomless bank accounts and the consular protection of diplomatic passports. Mario was a nice guy, but his cohorts were rowdy and rude. Some were only guilty of over-indulged arrogance. Others were the reason we live in a world wherein the act of rape requires clarifying subcategories like “date” and “statutory.” All of them were handsome. I’ll do just about anything to convince myself that a person in possession of good looks is also in possession of virtue, but there was no getting around the fact that Mario’s buddies were jerks.
After striking out at my first attempt to make friends, I decided to enroll in an Italian class. I determined that my kind of people were the studious sorts who stayed indoors on sunny days and learned languages. I imagined scarf-wearing ex-pats deep in philosophical discussions about the meaning of life or lack thereof. My own knowledge of philosophy is drawn from bumper stickers and coffee mugs, but I did a ton of high school theatre and figured I’d act the part with thoughtful nods and melancholic musings that shit does, indeed, happen. Rather than get a jump start on verb conjugation, I spent my days between enrollment and class commencing fantasizing about the soul mates I’d soon meet—the sullen English poet, whose work I’d edit, the romantic Italian teacher I’d fall in love with while humming around on his Vespa, the sweet French masseuse I’d invite over for tea so we could talk about how much our hands hurt.
“Immersion” is just a fancy way of saying you have to attend class daily and try to learn at a pace that makes comprehension impossible. I arrived early for the first of thirty sessions and took a seat at a large round table. Surrounding me was a ragtag collection of people I’d soon refer to as the Bad News Bears of Berlitz. We were an offbeat bunch, to put it kindly. As foreign as I felt outside of that room, it was nothing compared to how I felt within it. Leticia introduced herself to me first as she wiped clean the lenses of glasses that, when worn, made her look like a Jim Henson creation.
Among our student body was Muza, a girl from the Congo who was starting medical school in the fall and living in a convent with nuns. Baacko, also from Africa, bore a striking resemblance to Sydney Poitier and was preparing to join the priesthood. Siresh was a middle-aged man from Pakistan who’d left his wife and children behind to learn jewelry making in Rome. He lived near the train station and bartered household help to an elderly couple in exchange for room and board. It is entirely possible that Leticia and I were the only people at that table without a curfew. No one looked philosophic. Not one person wore a scarf. Musa was outfitted in full tribal dress, and Siresh had on a Member’s Only jacket.
My lone remaining fantasy was disabused when our instructor finally arrived. Vincenzo was not the strapping Italian man I imagined would school me in many things, the least of which was a Latin based language. He looked like an import from the Jersey Shore; greased back hair, heavy gold chains, biceps so overly developed that he couldn’t extend his elbow and straighten his arm. He was also abnormally animated and always trying too hard to be funny. This is never sexy.
As it turned out, the Bad News Bears were nice folks and Vincenzo was an excellent teacher. He engaged my classmates and took time to learn things about each of their cultures. He flirted with a giggling Muza, and teased our young Sydney Poitier. He addressed Leticia as though her mind were as attractive a thing as facial symmetry or shiny hair. And he tolerated me, perhaps the greatest of his generosities.
Over those six weeks I grew to adore the people at that table, but was too self-conscious back then to have entertained the idea of taking our relationships beyond the classroom and into the open public. I had the good sense to know Mario’s popular friends weren’t worth the bail money they’d someday need posted, but I also suffered from a fragile vanity that disallowed me aligning with people I knew would draw sideways glances. For this I was deprived their friendship, and they were spared mine.
By the end of the term, I ceded a bit of ground and offered to host a graduation party in celebration of our ability to barely speak Italian. Siresh piped in with the idea that everyone could bring a dish typical of their countries, and my classmates enthusiastically agreed. I cried the entire walk home.
For the majority of my youth I ate only chicken, beef, white bread and butter. Vegetables brought about conniptions and if certain foods on a plate touched other foods on a plate, I’d descend into hysterics. My own parents hated taking meals with me and I was never invited to anyone else’s house for dinner more than once. Adulthood has broadened my palate, but not to the degree that I’m game to nosh on an animal I might sleep next to or dress up in a cute outfit. Which is exactly what my classmates showed up with that evening; freshly killed, steaming and wrapped in foil. I’ve spent much of my waking life learning how to politely avoid other people’s adventurous cooking, and I was unprepared for the impossibility of doing so that night.
Italy, as a whole, had accepted me in ways it had not accepted the others—namely because I am Caucasian and wear normal clothes. That evening presented an opportunity for my peers to express pride in, rather than diminish, where they were from. Their unbridled excitement to introduce me to themselves through their food was nearly heartbreaking and I was rendered incapable of declining anything. One by one, they presented me with pickled varicose veins and kittens sautéed in placenta. To repress the gag reflex triggered by their frightening forkfuls of love, I chased each bite down with gigantic mouthfuls of wine. I must have gone through a bottle a minute.
The profuse sweating started almost immediately, followed by a ringing in my ears and the eventual thick-eyed confusion as to why there were suddenly two Muza’s in the room, approaching with two vibrating plates of goat tongue. The end of that night would find me face down on the bathroom floor, rising only long enough to spray the walls with vomit, like graffiti.
There was an instant, though, before my vision began to blur and my stomach to churn, where I looked around the room and really saw it. My guests were relaxed and laughing, Muza was telling Vincenzo about her boyfriend back home, Baacho was praying blessings on our food. It certainly wasn’t a feast Hemingway would write about, nor anything you’d find on a postcard. And it was almost achingly beautiful. Maybe it was delirium from the wine or the goat. Maybe it was just the inevitable exhaustion of my expectations, where I briefly accepted how ordinary life manages to be no matter what three-digit code I have to dial to place a call. All I know is that for a fleeting moment—a moment I’ve tried, and failed, to experience again— the ordinary lit up the universe.
The only important muscle in the human body is the heart, and it’s the one I’m unable to access. I can’t lift it off the bone like the trapezoids, or knead it like the gluts. And even if that were possible, I’d have to locate it first. And therein lies big conundrum of my life: I’m always seeking the heart in one place, and finding it—slightly too late—in another.