2. Servi had sharpened his impressions on the whetstone of urban Rome: The Americans in the Eternal City were loud, heavy, cumbersome, pushy and did not mix well with the natives. Italians were an anarchic people, suspicious of those who wielded power and adverse to its manifestations, such as forming lines. When thrown together in a crowded piazza, these two peoples were mutually antagonistic, like two armies bristling with unused weaponry, aching to be smeared with the other’s gore.
So when he saw Americans, Servi ran the other way. He avoided the Coliseum, the Vatican, the Forum, the Pantheon -- all the places his countrymen flocked liked schools of invasive fish.
Servi’s trip has begun auspiciously enough with a small scholarship from an Italian-American foundation, The Amerigo Vespucci Fund, to study philosophy at La Sapienza. Servi, like an actor reading from a script of the most banal platitudes, rode a dinged motor scooter to class each day with Aristotle’s Metaphysics. But he had little aptitude for philosophy, and when his instructor hinted at this, Servi quit, leaving the scholarship dangling in the air like a noose without a body.
His formal reason for being in Rome gone, Servi adopted another. He began to draw and paint from a variety of saggy nudes, under the tutelage of a cranky dowager who critiqued her student’s drawings with a slashing motion from a slim bamboo reed. After a few weeks of study, she told Servi he had no eye for form, shape, line, perspective, shading, or an overall sense of composition. She did not tell him to quit, but once again Servi took the cue. What else could he do? He viewed people as mirrors of his own inner workings. What he saw reflected in these professore, dottore, and dowager instructors was a sense of dread about this wayward, but ardent, shaggy American. They had a hard task: they were purveyors of bad news to a fervent young man. Even his fluent Italian failed to help him, merely providing a fluid medium through which to communicate both his teachers’ displeasure with his performance and Servi’s all too ready acceptances of their diagnoses.
In a final sputter of effort to fulfill his evaporating quest, Servi started a short story. He sat at the small desk at his pensione and wrote well and without effort for about five pages and then his hand halted and twitched, as if afflicted with palsy. He read what he wrote. It wasn’t all that bad, but after five pages, he could not imagine what would happen next. It was like a spigot in his mind had drained the sap from the pipes that controlled his hand. In five pages Aaron Servi had written himself out. He did not need some overexcited writing instructor at the American Academy to hint that he should put down his pen. On the stone slab in the morgue of words strung together and failing to meet a meaningful end, Servi threw the shroud over the corpse of writing with his own capable hands.
Then Servi packed up his small bag and left the pensione to find cheaper lodging. As frugally as he lived, he was running out of money. But there was more: Servi wanted to hide. He had committed an unpardonable sin in the eyes of his countrymen: he had failed. His native optimism dead, Servi had begun to develop a petite pain in his side. It was nothing at all really, a slight pull in his right flank. But sometimes it caused a twinge of prickly discomfort, as if a needle had pierced his side only to be quickly withdrawn. So like a wounded animal that ignores offers of help to die under the porch, Servi set out to vanish.
Dear Aaron, his mother wrote, there is nothing wrong with failing. Everyone fails. But to stay in Italy proves nothing. All it proves is that you have a lot of growing up to do. You are not being a hero remaining where you are…you are not owning up to your failure.