Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Magna Mater IX

Servi continued to sit in the café in the shadow of the Porto d’Octavia.  He drank his coffee slowly, read all the Italian papers he could find on the other table from cover to cover, and when he felt like splurging an extra lire he could ill afford, he walked to the news kiosk near the Teatro Marcello to buy a New York Times.  For the first time in a year, he felt the barest glimmer of loss over his old life.  The lurid banality of the New York City paper comforted him at his deepest level, in the nerves that snuggled right up to his bones.   
            He wandered around the Tiber, crossing the bridge to Trastevere, walking down that side of the river, and then re-crossing to Rome, without any point.  He felt as if he was a piece of detritus strewn along the concrete embankments of Rome’s ancient river.  At night, before he retired, the Slavic prostitutes down near the embankment tried to entice him with sex underneath the storm drain.  Even if he wanted to, Servi couldn’t spare the lire.
            One night he lay on his mattress with a  compress on his head, trying to alleviate a  headache.  The compress was warm now, and had only been tepid when he poured it from the tap three flights down.  There was a gentle knock at his door.  He never had visitors.  He imagined it was one of the Protestant missionaries who plied Rome, the epicenter of Roman Catholicism, with their anti-papal pamphlets.  But when he opened the door, Francesca was standing there in business attire, long legs in hose even in the maddening heat, all piled on high heels.  Servi had not seen or heard from her in nearly four weeks.  He wordlessly stepped backward and fell on his bed.
            “What’s the matter Aarone, are you sick?” she asked clinically.
            “No,” Servi whispered.  “Just a bad headache.”  Francesca sat on the end of the mattress and rummaged through her purse.
            “Here,” she placed something in Servi’s palm.
            “What is it?”
            “Ibuprofen with codeine.  I have a prescription for a toothache.  Take it.”  Servi downed the pill without water.  In a few minutes, he felt the invisible tourniquet around his head ratchet down a notch.  In a few minutes more he was sitting up.  In the dim light of his room he could see Francesca scrutinizing him diagnostically, as if his secret pathology could be discerned by the juxtaposition of his nose to his eyes, his eyes to his forehead, and his lips to his chin.
            “Don’t you think it odd that we have the same last name?” Francesca asked calmly, in her Roman tinted accent.  Servi nodded his head. “We look alike too, you and I.  We could be siblings, don’t you think so?”  Servi just shrugged his shoulders.  “It’s true,” she continued.  “The first moment I laid eyes on you I saw the resemblance.  You did too.  Maybe not consciously, but subconsciously.  That is why you came to live in the Ghetto.  You are obeying the call of your old Jewish Roman name.”
            “I came here because I’m broke, or near broke.  I can live in this room for almost nothing. And I’m not Jewish.”             “No,” Francesca shook her head vigorously.  “You share our history.  The Jews of Italy are a small group, but we all have distinguished pedigrees.  We Roman Jews have been here for two thousand years.  We have always enjoyed accomplishments beyond our numbers.  Writers, scholars, scientists… Moldigliani, Primo Levi, that is what brought you here, a homecoming.”
            “Why are you here Francesca, to draw our family tree?  I can’t say that I like all the branches on it.”  On hearing this, she smiled at Servi’s display of bile.
            “What do you know of my Aunt’s struggles?  What do I know of it?  What would you do if your life was threatened?  My Aunt was a notoriously beautiful woman back then.  She was legendarily loose with her body even before the war.  It was her body, why shouldn’t she do what she wanted to with it?  And then that war.  You and I don’t know what real privations are.  I’ve heard stories about those years from my grandparents.  Trust me Aarone, they aren’t pleasing to hear.”  She stopped talking and moved closer to Servi.  She placed her small hand on his chest, and Servi allowed her ; they looked at each other with mutual self-interest.  She leaned over and kissed Servi.  He let her and they remained that way, connect by a small expanse of lips, for a few moments.  Then she pulled back.
            “That was like incest, don’t you think?  Like a brother and sister kissing.” Servi said no but far too faintly to be convincing.  “You and I are not so dissimilar Aarone.  We do what we want to do.  I bucked my family day one of my life, and you have too, living like this – and here.  The old rules don’t apply to us.  We are survivors, just like my Great-Aunt.  We do what we need to do…”
            “What are you getting at?” Servi interrupted, finally finding a voice.
            “I want you to meet me on the via Appia Antica tonight, just after midnight, near that section where the Claudio aqueduct meets the via Latina.  Do you know the place?”  Servi, on hearing the location, sat up in bed.  He knew the area well: prostitutes solicited men and took them to small, two seat cars to seal the transaction.
            “Why, for God’s sake?  That place isn't safe at night.”             “I want you to pay me for sex,” she said, and on hearing this, Servi at first said nothing, merely allowing the words to ring hollowly through his ears.  “If you don’t have enough, money, I can give you some now.”
            “But why should I pay you for sex,” he heard himself finally say, “when I wouldn’t do it with you for free?”
            “Precisely because you must pay for it.  It will make it exciting.  All this talk of my aunt and what she did.  This is another reason we were brought together Aarone, we were meant to reenact her act, just for once.  Just to see what we learn.  We are both fascinated by it, am I not right?  People learn more about themselves from sex than from anything else.”
            “Stop,” Servi got out of bed.  “My level of self knowledge is fine.  I’m actually crippled by knowing myself too well.  I can’t even buy cheese without deliberating the blessed joy right out of eating it. Don’t say anything more, could you…”
            “Aarone,” she stood up, and squared her shoulders threateningly. “I’ll be at the Aqueduct at midnight in my Fiat.  If you don’t show up, I’ll find some other man, but I’d rather it be you.  If something happens to me there, well,” she raised her eyes to Servi’s low, sooty roof. “It would be a terrible thing to live with.”  After she left Servi did not know if she meant for him or her.

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