CCW Contest, Fiction Winner

The Statue of Giordano Bruno by Michael Thomas

You spend much of your first few days in Rome lost. We should have taken the tour, Rebecca says as you fumble for the umpteenth time with two maps that do not agree on all the side streets of the Eternal City. Let's get a cab, she says.

You go up to the Roman behind the newsstand window, behind the counter in the tabaccheria, to ask directions. Non so dove mi trovo, you begin. I am lost. But the Romans prove as vague as the maps. They point with a gesture of the head. If pressed, they might add a destre or a sinistra. Right, left. Or sempre diritto. And you try straight ahead, and the alley forks, and the forks fork, and soon you aren’t even sure which direction you’re headed.

Let’s just get a cab, for God's sake, Rebecca says.

You had three guidebooks and two maps and the most common Italian phrases memorized. You were ready for everything except this getting lost. You try all the tricks, turn around occasionally to get a look at things from the other direction, pick out landmarks, a statue, a cathedral, to come back to. But when you come back a few minutes later they are gone.

* * *

Only one statue is faithful: the statue of Giordano Bruno, filosofo et scrittore, in the Piazza dei Fiori. He was near the Paradis, your hotel, draped in a dark marble cowl like a druid or a monk.

You would tramp back to the Campo dei Fiori district in the late afternoons, calves and feet aching, backpack heavy with Roman booty, swigging the last of your bottled water. You wanted nothing but the cool sheets of the bed, an hour of apocalyptic Italian television or a nap before dinner. But the Paradis would not be where it was supposed to be.

Gee, that's surprising, Rebecca would say.

So you would wander a bit more. Try this alley and that, the scent of evening beginning to flower out of flagstones as the sky turned blue and copper. You were looking not for the Paradis, you realized, but for Bruno—Bruno presiding over the piazza with its taverns and cafes. Bruno bathed in a sort of stadium glare, solemn in the midst of the laughing, drinking students whose boisterousness rose with the moon.

I know this guy, you would say to Rebecca, shaking a finger at Bruno. We're getting close. And soon the Paradis would come back, tucked away in one of the adjacent lanes where it had always been, between two apartment buildings with laundry hanging from balconies and cars parked chock-a-block to within a few feet of the door.

* * *

It goes better over the next several days. You oblige Rebecca by taking cabs to the Villa Borghese and the Trevi Fountain. But you find the Spanish Steps, the Keats house, the Colosseum, the Forum, all on your own. In the late afternoons, evening already whispering its fragrances, you navigate the bypaths of ancient Rome, real Rome (you explain to her), a Rome that would yet be yours. You find the neighborhood of the Campo dei Fiori, nod to Bruno, greet the second-shift concierge with a serviceable Buona sera.

You read an article in an in-flight magazine about certain birds having a magnetic property in the skull that oriented them to the directions of the earth. That was very interesting. It made you want to tell it to someone, to write it down. Because that was what Bruno was like for you. A property that oriented.

It was not something you could really share with Rebecca. Not anymore.

* * *

You take pictures of him, a few every day. Bruno at morning. Bruno at night. Bruno in sunlight. Bruno in the rain. Bruno up close—close enough to see the folds in the cowl, the face set like flint in the dimensionless night. Bruno far away, with La Carbonara in the background.

Why so many pictures of this guy, Rebecca asks.

I don't know, you say.

* * *

One afternoon you pick up a leather-bound notebook from a street vendor.
I thought I might keep a journal, you tell Rebecca.

A journal, she says.

* * *

You wake before daylight, the neighborhood silent, the streets dead. The air of night passes into your room, tinged with the mildewy scent of time gone. Roma, asleep. You wonder what it would be like to explore the city now, the city clothed in midnight, the arches and angels and statues and visions, to be lost among them and not care where you might end up. You think of Bruno presiding over the empty square, the piazza still as a painting, the night sky high as St. Peter’s Basilica.

Sometimes, in college—you hadn’t thought of this in a while—you would go for a midnight walk. A few images return to you: the tree in the commons, with roots struggling out of the ground like fingers; the darkened dormitories, perhaps a light burning in a stray window; the generator behind the Business Administration building. Once you even went out in a pouring rain.

Under the sheets you reach for Rebecca's hand. She lets you have it for a moment, but only a moment.

* * *

Let's go back to the hotel, you say to her over lunch at a cafe near the Vatican. Let's do riposo, like the Romans. You arch a mischievous eyebrow, a gesture from the days when you could make each other go weak.

She takes a sip of wine. But what about Castel Sant'Angelo? she asks. I thought we were going to see that. As long as we’re in the area.

Sure, you say. You take a sip of your own wine. Vino della casa.

* * *

The Vatican gardens. Day trip to Tivoli. Four more days of gazing through Ray-Bans at the ruins of the Villa Adriana, of wandering the Villa d'Este and the Villa Gregoriana, of snapping pictures of scenes you will never see again in this life, of feeling Rebecca's eyes go to the olive-skinned businessmen in their silk ties and oily hair and white teeth, of heartbreak taking you at sight of the Italian girls with black ringlets cascading down their backs and eyes darker than you can believe is possible: and one morning it’s time to go back. Back to the world that is mostly thought and thinking.

What had you read at the Keats house, something from the poet: "Oh, for a world of sensation and not of thoughts..."

Where are you going? Rebecca asks in the darkness.

To say goodbye to Bruno, you reply, pulling on a jacket, a baseball cap, leaving.

* * *

You steal past the third-shift concierge, asleep on the couch in the lobby, and go out into the night-morning.

It’s an afterworldly feel of flickering gaslight, alleys so quiet you can hear the blood in your ears. Sometimes the patter of a fountain.

You come upon a main artery empty of the cars and zipping motor scooters, the flashy storefronts at odds with the medieval houses a block farther.

Down one street you pass a few men unloading carcasses in front of a ristorante.

Down another you pass a news vendor cutting open bundles of newspapers, papers that spill and flow.

The Piazza Navona is a stage set waiting for the lights to come up.

Occasionally you gaze up at the overhanging buildings to see flower boxes and balconies waiting to emerge from the night. You even pause in front of a construction site and, realizing your camera is in a coat pocket, spend your last picture on it. A workman, waiting for his crew to show up, drinking coffee, shakes his head at the crazy tourist. Buona sera, you call to him.

Across from the construction site is a café, its chairs and tables stacked outside. You take down a chair and sit. The sun touches the wet concrete, an inkling of morning. You have the urge to write in your journal. What will you write?

And then you realize: You don’t have your journal on you. You haven’t written in it once.

And then you realize: You have lost track of the time.

You find yourself walking, no, jogging down the street. You think you know where you are. You think you are close. A left here, bear to the right, then two more lefts, two more alleys. The piazza opens up to you.

But the statue of Giordano Bruno is not there.

You look toward the mouth of the alley, where there should be a church with two statues. There is a church, but no statues. Where did the statues go?

You try to retrace your steps. But now the construction site is gone.

Oh, come on, you say out loud, to Bruno, to Rome. I should be packing right now. We could miss our flight. It could be the last straw with her. Because I am not leaving until I say goodbye.

The streets are nameless, everywhere.

Michael Thomas