“Why are you afraid to go to bed with me? Because we have the same last name? Are you afraid it would be, how do you call it in English, incense?” She said the last word in English.
“Incest,” Servi said it in English and then Italian. He studied, with rapt attention, the long arc of Francesca’s slim, pale neck; she resembled the images of countless Roman murals he had meticulously studied in Rome’s museums: the elongated, chiseled cheekbones, and darkly etched eyebrows of the classical Roman face, frequently viewed both in reality and on museum walls, but still startling enough in its disquieting beauty to be anomalous.
Behind her, the arch of the Porta d’ Octavia framed the beguiling curves of her petite body like a statute in the niche of some sacred space. As if to confirm this, Servi was aware of a tingling sensation all about her pale, nearly luminous skin, like minor electrical disturbances in the air surrounding her. And all around were portents pregnant with meaning. Ahead, and to the right, was the small chapel of San Gregorio della Divina Pieta. Above the lintel of the door was an inscription in Hebrew and Latin, beside an image of Christ crucified: a rebellious people, which walks in a way that is not good, after their own thoughts; a people which provokes me to anger.”
There, up until the tenth century, the Jews of the Roman Ghetto were forced to hear sermons denouncing their recalcitrance. Christ had died for their sins, but the Jews of Rome turned their stiff necks away from there redeemer, and here, of all places, in the very capital city of Christendom. Looking at Francesa Servi, this beguiling, unexpected creature seated in front of him, improbably bearing his own last name, Servi thought it best to be like those Roman Jews and go after his own thoughts and his own thoughts only.
“Aren’t I attractive?” Francesca asked leadingly in English, and then switched to rapid fire Italian. “Don’t American men like Italian women? I thought that is why you all come here, to sleep with the dark daughter’s of Rome, with our wide hips, big boobs, torn stockings and ragu bubbling on the stove. You think you fool me, but I am no fool. You are known for talking to all the whores on the via Saleria; what, am not as good as some Yugoslav bitch?”
“Stop that,” scolded Servi. “I don’t sleep with those women. They feel sorry for me. It is a common reaction: the female takes pity. It isn’t that you aren’t attractive. Or that we share the same last name. I just decided, when I came to Italy, to concentrate on other things beside sex. I decided I didn’t need the distraction.”
“That is a ridiculous answer,” Francesa hissed, and withdrew her hand from Servi’s, for she had just seized it when she began the subject of sexual relations. She pushed her coffee away from her, as if she meant to stand up and leave, but she merely folded her arms and seemed to scowl at the building behind Servi, as if his stubbornness was somehow written on its pitted facade.
“What kind of distraction is sex?” she continued. “You think about it, get exited about doing it with someone you like, do it with that same someone, and fifteen minutes later, or a half hour, or four hours, whatever it takes, you get up and put on your clothes and do something else, and you don’t have another thought of sex to distract you!”
Servi laughed. She almost had him. The scenario was so deceptively lucid she could be talking about the working of two finely made, greased machines, and not emotionally flammable twenty-two years olds.
For Servi, there was every reason in the world to take Francesca to bed. But when he thought about it even more, when he pushed the powerful drive to have sex to the side, as if drawing a curtain over impulse with restraint, a world of reasons to refrain from sex presented itself like an alternate universe. Beyond the fact that he was painfully lonely, that he had not had a woman in over a year, and that Francesca was the very rubric of Roman attractiveness, the female embodiment of the eternal city sculpted in the cascading line of her hips, in the beguilingly bulge of buttocks, in the supple promise of her conically shaped breasts, magically standing at attention, like two Swiss Guards, despite all this, Servi could not find a valid reason to sleep with her.
“I’d rather we just stay friends,” Servi answered lamely, for want of a better response. Servi then switched to Italian. “I don’t want to get into a relationship right now.”
“Aarone,” she answered, wringing her hands emphatically, “you are not listening to me,” and then she switched to the clipped Roman dialect, as she always did when her dander was raised. “I’m talking about sex. Let me be blunt: I am talking about fucking. Everyday, if you want it. If you can handle it!” and here, Servi laughed.
Francesca’s disputation was beginning to sound comic. In the year since he had landed high and dry in Rome, he had not met anyone who had taken such a proprietary interest in his life. He often felt like a piece of flotsam amongst these indifferent Romans, who treated each other, but strangers especially, with the same causal indifference as domestic cats: they were aware of your presence, but were congenitally incapable of forming lasting connections. And why should they? In a city that constantly reminded you of time’s vast scale, and its corrosive force, petty states like friendship were dwarfed and stunted to insignificance. Like many large towns, and like Servis home of New York City, Rome was an ideal place not to find oneself or others, but to become utterly lost.