Willie's new to Rome. In town with his companion Anne, an artist with a one-year residency at the Crest Foundation, they have an apartmentino on the second floor of a giant villa that fifty others live in with them. It's a neighborhood southwest of the Vatican with good markets and restaurants, a big park he jogs in, and an old-world Italian bar down the hill in Trastevere he drinks espresso and reads in for an hour or two each day. His Italian is good enough to order meals and exchange pleasantries in the stores he frequents. He's comfortable getting around.
It's 1990. Willie is twenty-seven, in many ways a kept man with a lot of free time on his hands. Two or so hours a day he taps out his novel on his electronic typewriter. It's based on a former acquaintance named Jonathan Bliss, an outlandish, ecstatic character who disappeared from his life without saying goodbye. Not to him. Not to anyone. It's the time after Jonathan Bliss takes off that Willie imagines and what his novel is about. Where did Jonathan Bliss go and what did he do? Why did he leave without letting anyone know? Questions there are lots of possible answers to. A lot of forks in the road he might have taken. While Willie's decided on one, he continues to wonder if it's the right one? He follows Jonathan Bliss to a city named Tulipanes in southern Mexico, where he goes to join the guerrilla uprising going on there.
In all, Rome's beauty is stunning. He walks and walks in it but there's only so much walking he can do. At night he sits in the TV room watching CNN on the big, color tube. Most of the reporting's about the storm clouds gathering in the Middle East. A military engagement involving the U.S. seems inevitable. Still, there's a lot of time to fill up while Anne's in the studio the Crest Foundation provides for her to work in. While she networks with the other artists and makes sculptures for shows she has coming up in Bologna and New York. He knows he has to find more activities to fill up the time.
While that's underway, the weather gets colder. It so happens the villa isn't heated. Well, it's heated but not so much. The old iron radiators cast off a low-level warmth in the mornings and evenings. Otherwise, that's it. It's not the seventy-degree heat he's used to back in New York. Halfway into October the walls of their apartmentino, of the entire villa, seem to retain the chilly outside air instead of keeping it out. Willie's cold all the time, even with a wool sweater on. Even while sitting on one of the armchairs near the big, crackling fireplace in the Common Room where the pool table is.
One morning he wakes up feeling ill. He coughs a lot. He has a fever. He stays under the covers for an entire day and night. Anne brings him trays of food from the villa's group meals in the dining hall, but he's lost his appetite. She worries. In the four years they've been together, she's never seen him like this.
"You never ever get sick," she says.
"Not this bad," he says.
First thing the next morning Anne goes down to find out if Giulia in the office has the name of a doctor he can go to. Giulia’s in charge of the day-to-day business there. She recommends a doctor with a practice in a medical facility down the hill off viale Trastevere. Dr. Ferro's fees are reasonable for villa residents. Giulia calls over there. Her office tells Anne if he wants, Willie can see her today.
That afternoon Willie sits and waits for the nurse to call his name. It's a busy office and he's there an hour before she leads him into a room with medical equipment and a reclining chair she tells him to sit back on. She uses English. It's obvious who and what Willie is. She takes his vitals; temperature, blood pressure. She listens to his breathing. She hears something unusual in there. She draws a blood sample. When that's done, she sends him down the hall for a chest x-ray. After it's developed, he waits in another room. This time the doctor comes in holding the film with both hands. She has blackish hair, a thoughtful demeanor that calms him. Forty years old, he guesses. She studies the film one more time.
"Looks like you have pneumonia," she tells him.
Willie puts a hand to his chest. For the most part, he's relieved.
"How bad is it?" he says, to say something.
"Not too," she says. "I'll fill out a prescription for you to take. Follow the instructions that come with it. Rest up, and stay warm. At some point you need to come back to see us."
That was it. Doctor Ferro heads off to see other patients. The nurse hands him the prescription.
Ten days later Willie has another chest x-ray. Checking out the film, Dr. Ferro declares he's cured. He can go back to the villa and continue his regular activities.
"How did you know?"
"From the address. I see a lot of patients from there. Are you one of the…"
"No, my girlfriend is," Willie says before she has a chance to finish her sentence. Unfortunately, he's not one of the honored fellows with a stipend.
After his bout with pneumonia, the days and weeks go by. Willie works on his book about Jonathan Bliss. He does what research he can in the villa's small library. In his favorite bar down the hill, Bar San Calisto, he reads and drinks espresso. He gets along fine with the group in the villa that include scholars, artists and architects, though he doesn’t connect with them the way Anne does. It's her gig, not his. She has a larger presence there he's fine with. As fine as he can be. There's no other choice. Then comes the news out of the States. A massive air strike against Iraq could start anytime. Sources confirm Iraqi communications are being jammed. It makes the likelihood of a terrorist attack on American interests, and the villa, remote in the preceding days, more possible.
Two days later a security meeting's held in the Common Room, a large, ornate space with framed paintings in Renaissance mode and reproductions of ancient maps of Rome on the walls. The residents sit on the chairs and couches. The shades are drawn. The fireplace cracks and pops.
The Crest Foundation's Director, a tall, silver-haired man named Parker leads the conversation. Next to him is an official from the Florence consulate. A man dressed in a sports jacket and tie. A man Willie imagines having played lacrosse in college. Who would wallop you with a forearm if you got in his way. He's there to lead them through security procedures they'll need to follow in the event of a disturbance, as he puts it to them.
The phrase gets a nervous laugh. Disturbance embraces a wide range of possibilities and outcomes.
"It's unlikely," Parker says, "a terrorist will want to harm anyone in this room. That said, news sources have confirmed if there are air strikes against Iraq, it will increase the possibility of attacks against Americans living and traveling overseas. What I'm saying is, there's a chance, slim as it is, we could be a target."
After that, the official from the consulate chimes in. All necessary precautions have to be taken. For their safety he's there to make sure a plan's in place.
"I agree with Director Parker. We don’t expect anything will happen. But you need to be aware of what to do in case something does. That’s what this is for. To make sure you're safe."
In response, voices are raised. Many speak at once.
"Should we stay in the villa?"
"We’re still not sure there’s going to be a war, right?"
"We have to act like it's going to happen."
"There's going to be one so we have to make sure we know what to do."
Throughout it all, Willie's quiet. He's content to listen to the back and forth that goes on. When it subsides Parker calls for order and asks for suggestions about increasing security.
"Round-the-clock guards at the gates," is the unanimous opinion.
From then on the villa's in lockdown. Guards are stationed at the front and back gates. Some residents are reluctant to venture far from the grounds. No matter. Willie continues his routine of taking his run in a nearby park and reading and drinking coffee at Bar San Calisto. Otherwise, he stays close by. Then one morning he spots a notice on the bulletin board next to the villa's offices. Posted by a group calling themselves Americans Against the War, the bold headings read: NO BLOOD FOR OIL and STOP THE BOMBING NOW. Residents of the villa and others are welcome to attend the first meeting. At the bottom of the page Willie checks out the names of the organizers. He recognizes one of them. Susan Ferro. He wonders if it's the same Susan Ferro who treated him for pneumonia? Is she more than a doctor? Which in Willie's view is enough on its own.
Right off he decides to go. He's never done anything like that before. He's wanted to, but he never took the leap.
When Sunday arrives, Anne's under pressure to make the objects for her shows. She's working day and night. She can't go to the meeting. With a few more inquiries Willie finds out no one else from the villa's interested, so he goes alone. When he gets to the four story cream-colored building on Lungotevere, he finds out it's in fact Doctor Ferro's apartment the meeting's being held in.
"It's all right to call me Susan," she tells him when he's in the door.
As others show up, chairs are moved from the kitchen, hallway and study into the front room. When those are all taken, Susan Ferro hands out colorful pillows to sit on.
In all, twenty-four are present. Not much of a turnout, Susan Ferro tells them, considering the enormity of the threat. But enough. Enough to do something to draw attention. They each spend a minute introducing themselves. When it's his turn, Willie mentions his novel and that gets a few ooohs and aaahs. When that's done, a woman named Joan is the first to speak. She's about the same age as Susan Ferro, the administrator of a university study abroad program. She stands in the middle of the room waving her arms for emphasis. She goes on in English.
"They want the public to forget the problems at home. They want to protect the oil by telling us if Kuwait goes the rest of the Middle East oil countries go with it. The U.S. is now the world's soldier of fortune. This Administration will sacrifice our troops to protect oil that isn't ours to protect. That's why I'm here. Why we're here. We have to do something to stop it."
A man named Carlo, a dentist with dark hair and eyes, and a special connection to Susan Ferro, Willie notices, talks next. He does so in the same vein as Joan. When he's done, Susan Ferro says, "I've made a list of things we can do. Let's go over them."
An hour later a vote comes up on whether or not to march in front of the U.S. Embassy that week. Willie includes his voice in the unanimous response. It's the kind of thing he was looking for outside of the villa and the narrow social life there. He likes this meeting people on his own terms even in this circumstance, under the threat of a widespread war. He doesn't care if no one else at the villa's interested. In fact, he prefers it that way.
That Wednesday, between noon and two, the Americans Against the War join several other Italian and English-speaking groups in front of the embassy. The street the giant palazzo is on, Via Vittorio Veneto, is closed to traffic. Inside and outside the imposing black-iron gates U.S. soldiers cradle automatic rifles. The Italian carabinieri are there with their own weapons.
On the street, the Americans Against the War carry signs and chant. The sign Willie chose out of many says USE YOUR HEAD NOT OUR TROOPS. Sometimes his voice is heard above the others. "No blood for oil," is the repetition he yells loudest.
On the sidewalk, Susan Ferro hands out the leaflets she wrote in English at the meeting and translated into Italian. At one point she talks to the television reporters from RAI UNO with Willie behind her holding his sign high in the air. His expression is defiant. That evening Susan Ferro tapes the news segment that shows her repeating the platform of Americans Against the War. When she plays the tape at their next meeting, it gets a laugh. She, Joan and Carlo make jokes about Willie's eagerness to be seen on camera.
"Your picture's on file with the politzia and FBI," Susan Ferro says.
"I'm betting he's arrested before this war starts," Joan says.
"I'll make sure to tell them you all made me do it," Willie says.
Much as Willie likes being with his new friends in Americans Against the War, much as he looks forward to their meetings and actions, he spends most of his time at the villa.
Later that week he and Anne are done with dinner and join a group intent on getting a gelato. It doesn’t matter it's cold and windy, gelato should be eaten in all types of weather is the collective agreement.
"Even during a lockdown," Willie says.
"Especially during a lockdown," is one response.
Outside, a three-quarter moon shines sharp and clear. They proceed past the gate with the attitude of people breaking out of an institution they’ve been committed to.
On Viale Trieste they fill the quiet neighborhood with jokes and observations about life at the villa. About a looming war and how they might be walking into a terrorist attack.
"We need our own armed guards," someone says.
In a few more blocks the gelato shop they're looking for is lit up on a corner. It's a small slit of a storefront with three plastic tables and two plastic chairs set at each. Inside, the white, fluorescent glow has the feel of the incessant flash of a camera.
When it's his turn, Willie orders a cup of pistachio. Pis-stahk-e-o. He's corrected by one member of the group. His name is Andrew, an artist from Philly with a studio next to Anne's. He's in his mid-thirties, lanky and confident, with sandy hair. Anne's been talking a lot about his work and burgeoning career.
He tells Willie, "It's better to learn the pronunciation the first time or you may never get it right."
"I won't forget. Just like I won't forget it's bo-ti-li-ah, not bo-tig-lia as you pointed out the other day."
"I'm trying to be helpful, Willie. With that attitude you'll do just fine while you're here. Believe me, I learned the hard way my first time in Italy."
It's obnoxious, but Willie doesn't say anything more. He has nothing more to say. He and Anne go back outside and wait for everyone to get their cup or cone before they start back. On the walk he wonders what Anne's thinking? When they're in their room getting ready for bed, he says, "You could have put in a supportive word for me."
"I didn't think it needed a response," Anne says in a matter-of-fact voice.
Willie wants to vent his frustration, but he manages to hold it in. The slightest noises resound in the villa's halls and he doesn’t want to draw any unnecessary attention.
The televised publicity of their first protest lifts the morale of Americans Against the War. Several new faces show up to their next meeting to raise clenched fists and issue loud whoops in solidarity. In her front room, Susan Ferro tells the gathering they've been asked to join other Italian peace groups in a nationwide march the coming Sunday. She leads the discussion about the particulars of the banner they need to make and the content of a leaflet to hand out.
Willie's still the only representative from the villa. Though he's not a silent presence. He challenges several others over the wording of two key points of the leaflet's statement. In the end, he loses out, but it doesn’t get him down. In fact, he volunteers to type the paragraphs they agree on. To stencil on the bold heading and subheadings that go with them. To take the master copy to the printer Susan Ferro gives him the address for. Midweek, he picks up the two thousand copies and carries the two plastic sacks to her apartment.
When Susan Ferro's back from her office, she finds him sitting by himself in front of her building.
"I didn’t want to leave them in the hallway," he explains.
"Thanks for doing this," she says.
"I have extra time," Willie says.
"Enjoy it while you can," she says.
"I'm trying to," Willie says.
Susan Ferro invites him up. For his efforts she pours him a glass of wine. She pours one for herself. They take them out to the balcony and sit at a small metal table. Across the Tiber is Trastevere, the villa up the hill from there. Willie tells Susan Ferro about life inside the 15th Century structure, and about he and Anne, how strained their relationship's become since they settled in.
"It's as if we're living separate lives. Maybe we are. Maybe that's where we're headed. Maybe that's what's supposed to happen. I don’t know."
"I've heard the same from others over the years. It's not an easy situation to feel comfortable in. Especially if you're not one of the selected few."
The talk with Susan Ferro helps. When she's not railing against the powers that be at the group meetings, she has a serene, understanding manner. That's the doctor side of her, Willie assumes. He feels better about his and Anne's situation. What's going on with them isn't unusual. It's an unusual situation to be thrown into. It'll improve. At the door they say goodbye and before Willie heads off they exchange the traditional kisses on both cheeks.
The next afternoon Willie hangs his bag over a shoulder and leaves the villa. He isn't at all menaced by the most recent advisory out of Washington Director Parker warned about. The heck with it, he thinks on the way to his favorite stationary store on via Nazionale. From there he intends to go to a cafe on via Firenze to drink espresso and read in. He needs a change of venue. To break out of his routines.
Along the way he stops at a kiosk in the Piazza Venezia to buy the Herald Tribune. He hands the vendor the exact lira, folds the paper in half and as he does he spots Anne and Andrew across the street heading in the direction he intends to go in. Struck by the sight of them, he steps behind a spinning postcard display. Through the wire hangers he checks them out, notices by the casual way they walk they're not threatened by Washington's advisory either. He stays there. No way he wants to run into them. No way he wants to have that conversation. Anne might wonder if he's following her. Andrew's smiling eyes would recognize the surprise on his face.
He continues to watch them walk with a purpose. He knows of a few museums up that way they might be going to. Or they might be on a studio visit of a Roman artist they've met. Several were around the villa the past week and there's a community of them not far from there. Whatever the reason, he's sure he wasn't seen.
He stuffs the Herald Tribune in his bag and redirects himself back toward the villa. He turns down a street with a church that would be a fascination if he wasn’t in such a hurry to get as far away as he can fast as he can. He’ll have his espresso and read at another café he comes across and in that way begin to withdraw himself from what he’s seen.
Out of the subway at Termini's Piazza dei Cinquecento the weather's cool, the sky's gray, Willie's breath is visible. All around him the streets are jammed. Tens of thousands are present. He looks for the Americans Against the War. He goes here and there, over by a row of parked buses, then, at a corner, he sees them gathered farther up the street.
"Some groups are from Milan and Padua," Susan Ferro tells him. She reaches into her bag and takes out a handful of leaflets. "Help me pass these out."
Willie reads the words he typed two days ago: "We condemn, as much as anyone, the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait, and we are no supporters of Saddam Hussein. Yet, we are alarmed at the suddenness of the military buildup. For these reasons, we support economic sanctions instead of threats."
At noon, two statements are made into a megaphone by a man and a woman standing on the hood of a car. The man wears a red stocking cap. The woman has a blue scarf wrapped around her throat. When those are done, the call goes out and the march sets off on Via Cavour, past the shops, restaurants and hotels, the lines of polizia in dark blue uniforms and the military troops in green. Along with the rest of the group, Willie falls in close to the front with others carrying signs, waving Italian flags and chanting: "Niente sangue per l'olio. Niente sangue per l'olio." Pushing ahead, he feels their power. Packs of counter-protesters hold signs of their own. People join in from the alleys. Others watch from windows and balconies.
"Not everyone's on our side," Willie tells Carlo.
Carlo shakes his head. "No, I am sure they are not," he says.
With the completion of every block Willie cups his hands and blows into his thin cotton gloves. There's nothing he can do about the cold except keep moving and keep banging his hands together. On the summit of the Esquiline Hill, at the back of Santa Maria Maggiore, he raises his arms and joins the chanting: "Niente sangue per l'olio. Niente sangue per l'olio."
When they come to Largo Visconti Venosta, the marchers ahead of them join hands and walk into the banner an opposing group has set up at the turn. Shouts and the sounds of trouble grow. In a few more steps Willie makes out the finger-pointing and pushing. He sees the grave looks on the faces of the politzia as they move in with their clubs. Farther on, near the Transportation Ministry, a Cinquecento's been flipped on its side and set on fire. Then he hears BAP BAP BAP. In another moment he sees gas coming at them but he doesn't turn away. More BAP BAPs follow and he sniffs a strange and potent smell. His eyes begin to burn, then tear. Breathing becomes difficult. He uses the back of a glove to rub one eye, then the other.
A siren starts up, and as if it's a suggestion, two more follow and close in on them.
"Come this way. Here. This way." Joan waves the rest of them over to the side of the street. There's enough space there to avoid more trouble and let them continue along Via Cavour.
Meanwhile, Susan Ferro checks out Willie. "I’m so sorry. Did you know this is what tear gas does to you?" She avoided a direct hit.
"I should have run away instead of walking into it," Willie says.
His eyes continue to tear, but he keeps moving. Blocks later they come to Via dei Fori Imperiali and the gates of the Forum Romano, where a speech is underway. It's observed by the polizia with their chinstraps tightened and tear gas rifles in their hands. Willie turns to look back. He sees the swarm of marchers and polizia. Smoke from the Cinquecento rises above the apartment buildings.
"Is everyone here?" Susan Ferro says. There's a quick head count. Everyone's made it through the disturbance.
As more arrive the street becomes dense, as if they’ve stepped into a crowded metro. Willie's eyes continue to burn. The smell of tear gas lingers in his nostrils. Susan Ferro's face continues to show concern.
"It doesn’t cause permanent damage," she says. "It's intended to create discomfort, not injure."
The conversation among them is to abandon the speeches and go where Willie and Carlo can wash out their stinging eyes.
Several others go around the Forum with them. In a bar near the Tiber the barista gives Willie and Carlo wet towels to dab their faces with. After that, they walk over the Ponte Palatino and into a Sicilian osteria. It's a giant room of tables set up with silverware and napkins. The smell of garlic, seafood and broiling meat blows out of the kitchen whenever one of the waiters pushes through the swinging doors. They sit at a long table.
"It must be over by now," Susan Ferro says.
Joan says, "Well, there you have it, we had our moment. It won't change anything. They’re going to do what the fuck they want no matter how many people march in how many countries."
Willie adds his own comment about power and war, and how the murderers were history’s stars. Their march would be remembered as a footnote, is all.
When Susan Ferro speaks up, Willie looks over at her. He likes her for bringing him there. He likes her for letting him be among her friends. He's comfortable with all of it.
"We can still make it memorable," Susan Ferro says. She raises her glass.
"To footnotes," Willie says.
There's another toast to annotations, sidebars and marginalia. Then the antipasti arrives, plates of olives, white beans, radicchio salad, prosciutto and grilled calamari. Thick slices of bread and three bottles of red wine. The conversation doesn't stop. Willie's eyes no longer burn. Though he's still angry at the polizia. Everyone is. Everyone knows they’ll meet up at Termini again, though it's more the collective sigh of thinking about some unwelcome task ahead.
Joan says, "It’s embarrassing to see our militaries ready to be rented out. That's who and what we are now, oil whores."
"Some of those oil whores are us," Carlo says.
"Oil whores of the world unite," Susan Ferro says.
And they toast to that too.
Not until later, when Anne's back from a bath, does Willie find out the single most destructive air raid in history is underway.
"The sky’s blazing," she says.
"You mean it’s live?"
"That’s what I was told."
"Did you see it?"
"No, I heard." Her open hands draw attention to her bathrobe.
"I'm going in."
A crowd's gathered in the TV room. Willie and Anne stand watching the sky over Baghdad lit up like a million firecrackers going off. Willie feels helpless. It isn't terror, but disbelief. Of seeing the war brought into the room not after the fact but in the moment. He’s never seen such a thing broadcast live. The mother of all television events has everyone glued to the tube, pointing, commenting, exclaiming.
"I can’t believe this."
"It's going to be over in a day."
"It’s the first war you can follow the missiles to their target, like you’re riding on the damn things."
Antiaircraft fire blazes away. Bombs bursting in air, the song enters Willie's head and he can't will it away.
"Oh shit, that was a direct hit."
"That went from being a tank to scrap metal in a second."
Bill Held, a photographer from Boston, nods at the bottles of wine on the table. He says, "Willie, Anne, get yourselves a glass. Settle in and enjoy the show."
"Yes," a voice speaks up, "drink up, they’re for everyone."
Willie says, "I wasn’t planning to stay up long. But now I doubt I’ll be able to get to sleep. It's going to be a long night."
Anne's in her studio working late so Willie puts a sweater on and goes out to the TV room. The space at the back of the villa is a hangout for a certain few and the only clique Willie's involved with. Tonight Bill Held, a man fifteen years older than he is, with a thick head of hair, sits sunk in one of the deep cushioned chairs watching CNN. A glass of bronze liquid is set on the table next to him. Willie's aware of his fame. His photos are shown in galleries and collected in museums worldwide. Sitting next to him one night at dinner, Willie found out he's there to work on a book about the Roman aqueduct.
"I expect the bombing to start back up any minute." Bill Held rubs his hands together.
"Is that what they said?"
"No, that’s what they hope. It'll be a huge letdown if it doesn't."
Willie drops down on the couch and puts his feet up on the coffee table. On the tube three pundits come to the same conclusion: Operation Desert Storm has been a huge success. The one with a helmet of black hair is emphatic. The world needs to get on with its business. The sooner Iraq is under the control of coalition forces the better.
Willie says, "It’s been a long, drawn out foreplay. Now they have us anticipating the happy ending."
"I hope it's as good for you as I know it's going to be for me." Bill Held reaches next to his chair and brings up a liter of bourbon, an Italian brand in a bell-shaped bottle. Anne mentioned he was famous for this too. "Have a drink with me."
"Best offer I've had all night," Willie says.
"You didn’t like the free dinner?"
"Loved it. What I didn’t like was having my Italian corrected twice by the same person."
Bill Held smiles. "If you want ice, you’ll have to fetch it yourself."
"Don’t you mean ‘if I want ghiaccio’?"
"Now you’re trying to impress me. You don’t have to."
Willie goes down the hall to the kitchen and comes back with two glasses, one with extra cubes Bill Held drops in his glass.
Willie says, "Is it appropriate to toast a war?"
"I think the protocol is to wait until it's over. But who the fuck cares about protocol?"
"Not you. Not me."
They go silent after that until the art historian from California comes in the doorway. She's a tall woman in her late thirties with a wry smile. She stands with her arms crossed. Within ten minutes three more are present staring at CNN. The group includes Willie's favorite academic, a thick-bodied guy from Chicago with a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. For whatever reason they all remain standing until Bill Held draws attention to the bourbon. In response, more glasses and ice are brought in from the kitchen. Two more people and two bottles of red wine make an appearance. In no time everyone's drinking. The conversation gets louder. A change of colors on the tube as the fireworks display starts up. White, flare-like sparks shot in the air at U.S. planes sputter and crack. Here and there bombs explode on the city. It's the full visual with sound effects.
"Is this really real?" Willie says. "I wonder?"
"No, it’s not," comes the answer. "Someone needs to tell them to stop wasting taxpayer money on arcade games."
The art historian from California says, "I believe it’s bull. I mean, did we really send a man to the moon? I don’t think we did. I think it was all done in a studio in Arizona."
Willie's sure no one thinks that except her, though her smile indicates she doesn't either. But it starts an onslaught of comments.
"Well, this is a lot like it. A fake backdrop. Done very well, I will say."
"Computers have advanced the quality of presentation and affect."
"Is Elliot Gould’s starring in this too?"
"I want to know who’s playing Schwarzkopf?"
Willie finishes his bourbon. Around him conversations go on in English and Italian. It's become a room of tipsy people trying to find a niche of humor in a brutal conflict.
A CNN reporter estimates the number of dead on the Iraqi side in an inordinate proportion to the U.S. forces. The disparity brings this from his favorite academic: "This is so bad. Why do keep we watching?"
Willie says, "We can't help ourselves."
Bill Held raises his glass and proposes a toast. "What the hell, we might as well all drink to…" he stops. "To the…"
Someone says, "The mother of all battles that’s turning out to be the motherfucker of all defeats."
After that another bottle of wine starts going around the room.
A few days later comes a strange and uncomfortable moment on the stairs, Willie going down, Anne's artist neighbor Andrew coming up. At a loss for words, Willie supposes something needs to be said. Two steps from each other, Willie says, "How's it going?"
Without looking at him, Andrew smiles. "You mean come va?" He continues his way up.
The response surprises Willie. It's unnecessary. Loaded with judgments and inferences he doesn't like. He says, "No, I meant to say how's it going?"
"I know what you meant, but your Italian’s not going to get any better unless you speak it all the time."
"The progress of my Italian’s none of your business. So drop it. It's annoying. We don’t know each other well enough to say those things. And I want to keep it that way."
Andrew stops and turns. The squeak of a shoe on the marble step is like a belligerent accent. "Not knowing each other’s the way it’s going to stay, so no need to worry about that."
Willie's voice rises. "I meant what I said. Don’t correct me anymore."
Andrew's voice comes back firm, but in control. "I'm not correcting you. I'm trying to be helpful. There's a difference."
"I’ll get by just fine without any of it. And from now on shut the fuck up or I’ll get in your face."
When that's out, Willie wants to believe someone else spoke those words. But they came from him. He stands there as if waiting for them to float back into his mouth unheard.
Andrew continues up the stairs. With his back to Willie, he says, "You shouldn't have said that."
Willie's mouth hangs open. He lets Andrew have the last say. His eyes follow him until he reaches the landing and goes through the double doors.
And that's that. Willie looks up and down the stairs. Sees no one else is around. Still a bit disconcerted, he goes on his way across the courtyard to the library. He's sure he made an enemy for the rest of his months at the villa. But he has to put a stop to that unwanted attention before it goes on any longer. He has to make sure Andrew knows he isn’t some second-rate player who can be hassled like that. He's already wondering how Anne's going to react. Thinks how he’ll avoid Andrew as much as he can. But the corridors are narrow and the places to do that few. And yet, it might be possible. A creature of habit, not someone who likes spontaneity, he has routines he’s settled into. The nine a.m. coffee at the bar next to the Common Room, Andrew's never there when he is. The daily runs he takes in the park and lunch at Bar San Calisto won't put them in contact. There's only dinner he'll see him at, and they won't sit at the same table. He’ll run into him, sure, but he can avoid another dispute. He can ignore him.
Later, in the library, Willie's calm and focused on his manuscript about Jonathan Bliss' Mexico adventure when he hears, "Scusi, per favore. Excuse me, William."
He looks over his shoulder to see Paula, the pregnant lady from the office staring into his eyes, her hands folded in front of her as if in prayer.
"Is something wrong?" There's bad news from home is Willie's first thought.
"Director Parker would like to speak with you."
"Yes, please, if you can come. If you do not mind."
"Why would I mind? Tell him I’ll be there in a minute."
He stacks the pages of his manuscript. He leaves them and his backpack on the table. He goes through the courtyard to the front of the building not sure why Parker wants to see him. At her desk, Paula smiles. Behind her, the ping-pinging of the electric typewriter being used by Giulia goes on at a speed that makes him think she's playing pinball. He pauses at the threshold. Parker's seated, a few papers on the desk blotter, a silver pen set next to them. All around the bookshelves are filled. It's the office of a scholar as well as a man busy with the Foundation's administrative matters.
"William, come in. Have a seat. This will take just a few minutes, then you can get back to your work." Parker sounds apologetic. But once he looks into his eyes, Willie knows what the rest is about. "Would you mind closing the door? No one else will be coming."
Willie shuts the door and sits in the chair across the desk. He waits for Parker to begin. To set the tone of the discussion he's already building a defense for. He has every intention to state his case and hopes he won't have to be vigorous about it.
"As you might have guessed by now, I had a visit from one of our residents. He was troubled with some things he claims you said to him in the stairway this morning. He was disturbed by what he described as a threat that you would harass him the next time he said something to you. He says it was unnecessary, that he was trying to be helpful, but you took it as a personal attack."
Willie's first instinct is to smile. At the same time, he's surprised Parker hasn't used Andrew's name.
"I know who you’re talking about. I said a few things. I was trying to make a point. He wouldn’t listen. I have a right to set boundaries on how I expect to be treated just as much as he does."
"I understand. I do. It’s not my role to get between personalities that don’t see eye to eye. But it’s unavoidable I have to do some of that. I don’t take action unless there’s a problem that might disrupt others from getting their work done. Fortunately, in the five years I’ve been in this position it hasn’t come to that."
"I’m sorry you have to deal with it at all. I didn’t think what happened is worth an official interaction. It was a small thing. It’s all over with as far as I’m concerned."
"So you didn’t think it was much?"
"No. In fact I forgot about it until I came here. I realized it had to be about that. He said stuff to me. I said some things back. I probably shouldn’t have said them, or anything, but I have to draw a line somewhere. It wasn't the first time, or the second time it happened. It was a natural reaction. I don’t know why he doesn't understand that."
"Well, he thought you went too far. That was his main issue. That you were hostile, which is how he phrased it. And you may be hostile in the future."
"I was hostile? No. I wasn’t that way at all. I was firm, sure. I’ll say this, he can be obnoxious with his mouth without having the slightest sense he’s coming off that way. I don’t think he really knows when something he says might be inappropriate."
"I’m not the one saying you were hostile. I’m not saying I thought he was. He came here to make a formal complaint. When that happens, I have to take note of it. I have to talk to the parties. I understand no one else was around, so I have to take his word that something happened. And you confirmed it. I expect it was a misunderstanding, and that’s all it was."
"Well something did happen but not of my doing. I said hello and was willing to go on my way."
"I understand you see it differently than he does."
"I do. A lot different. I promise you I won’t have anything to do with him for the rest of my time here. I suppose that’s possible even in a tight living situation."
"I’ll take that as your way of saying it’s over as far as your concerned. This will be the end of it. I don’t expect to hear any more about it. I don’t have any more to say. Thank you for coming in."
"No problem. I needed a break, though not quite like this." Willie pauses a moment. There's something else he wants to say, some clarification on his part he catches a flicker of and feels he should put out there for the record. But the full verbiage eludes him. He sees Parker senses it, and he gives Willie time to form his thoughts. Instead, Willie stands up, says thanks, they'll see each other around, maybe at dinner?
"Yes, I’ll be there tonight."
And that's that. Parker dismisses him with the ease of a man who's used to being in a supervisory position.
The moment Willie opens the door Paula looks up from her desk. Willie nods in a way that tells her everything's fine. He goes past her and out to the courtyard.
But he doesn't go back to his manuscript. He can't. His feelings alternate between fury and revenge. He's angry with himself and his opponent. Andrew's outmaneuvered him. He's put him on notice. No matter what Parker says about not taking sides, he took one by hearing Andrew out then calling him into his office. He has the urge to go find him and tell him what he thinks of his pathetic, conniving ways. He wants to give him a bit of a scare. He won't do that, but the idea he could makes him feel better.
In the dining hall Willie and Anne share a table with four others. The conversation that goes on through the pasta and meat courses is about the Iraq war and life at the villa. Throughout it, Willie's uncomfortable. He sees the curious, widening eyes fixing on him. The interaction with Andrew and closed-door meeting with Parker had traveled around with bullet-train speed. Nothing's said, but he feels sides forming. The forces uniting against him. He doesn't think it's his imagination run amok. He smiles a lot. He drinks a lot of wine.
Upstairs in their room he doesn't tell Anne what happened. Instead, he wants to let her know how much he misses her. His hands rest on her shoulders and slide down her arms. But the look in her eyes lets him know she isn't in the mood for the activity he has in mind.
She says, "Were you going to tell me about it?"
"How did you find out?"
"I heard. I won't say who it was. They were surprised you didn't come to tell me."
"Was it him?"
"No. Not him."
"I didn't start it. I couldn’t believe he went to Parker. What a baby."
"I didn't say it was your fault."
"He's irritating. He doesn’t know when to give it up. He doesn’t have a built-in annoyance detector like most people. I'm stunned no one's decked him."
"You didn’t have to threaten him. Remember, he's lived in Italy for two years. Maybe he really is trying to help you. Did you think of that?"
"You sound like Parker. It wasn't a threat. I didn’t tell him I was going to kill him. I said if he kept it up, I'll come back at him and he won't like it."
"That sounds like a threat. He only corrected your Italian."
"You're on his side?"
"No. But while we’re here I, we, have to get along. That means with everyone."
"So he doesn’t have to try to get along with me? What's that about?"
"You're going overboard on this."
"I'm not taking his shit. He needs to get off my case. If he doesn't, it's going to be hard to ignore."
"He will. I'm sure he gets it now."
"I wonder. But okay. I'll be a good boy."
"Don’t let him get the better of you."
Willie shakes his head. "I won’t think about it, or him, anymore." But he sees it's impossible to change who he is and how he's perceived. They're stuck at the villa and there's no leaving it until the time's up.
"It’s like that for everyone, not just you. So you see, you can’t react to everything the way you do."
"I don't like him. That's not going to change."
"Well, I have to get along with him no matter what. He has an impressive career going. This is important to me. These are professional relationships. We knew before we got here it could get tense. Don’t take it to the point of no return."
Mid-afternoon Willie takes a break from the library and goes up to his room. It's the time of day the villa feels more like a hotel or guest house. Cleaning time, when one of the ladies in blue smocks and heavy sweaters comes into their room, sweeps the floor, polishes the desk, makes sure the mirror's free of streaks and takes away the trash. He sees that's been done so he reads by the window in the soft Roman sunlight that streams in and gives him the feeling of being in a Vermeer painting without the clay water jug and bowl of fresh fruit.
After dinner he doesn't go back to the library. He left Jonathan Bliss traveling to a village where the military occupation was most intense and a ten o'clock curfew in place, and that's where he'll pick up the story tomorrow. In the TV room Bill Held occupies his favorite chair, a glass of red wine in hand and bottle on the table next to him.
"A decent Dolcetto d’Alba," Bill Held says. "Feel free to try some."
Willie retrieves a clean glass from the kitchen. When he's back, he says, "Tomorrow I’m supplying the grape. Actually, tomorrow and the rest of the week."
"Tomorrow I’ll be here. The rest of the week too."
On the tube, the correspondents and pundits rehash the coalition’s superiority of the air war. Entire Iraqi brigades were wiped out in the open desert. Supplies were stopped from getting to others.
Willie says, "It’s time for the mercy rule. Like in Little League, when your team's leading twenty to nothing the ump calls the game. Or at least gives the opposition an opportunity to throw in the towel."
"This is the no mercy rule game we're watching," Bill Held says.
"Ain't Little League?"
"Ain't that at all."
Willie and Anne are just in the villa's bar for their morning espresso and rolls when his favorite academic asks if they heard what happened late last night?
Willie says, "They stopped all shipments of coffee into the country?"
"Close," his favorite academic says. Then he tells them about the bombing of the Palace Hotel down the street from the American Embassy. There were injuries and a lot of damage. The Red Brigade is being blamed.
Looking around, Willie sees everyone's on edge. He hears the anxious voices go on about it until Bill Held comments in the slow, deep voice of an old-time newsreel announcer: "It…can’t…happen…here." From across the room Willie studies the small, dark pouches under his eyes. Bill Held shakes his head and bangs the tabletop. "And...it…won’t…happen...here."
That said, they all must have images in their heads they took from other events like it they’ve lived through. Civil unrest, mass shootings, blown up airliners. Images that come to them as vivid as the ones on the front page of La Repubblica. Willie's sure whoever's responsible won't have any interest in the villa. And yet, maybe it's just his imagination trying to eliminate the possibility.
The conversation hits a lull until Director Parker comes in with a nod and hello. Others come in behind him in Pied Piper fashion. They fill the doorway and the empty spaces around the tables. Parker pulls a stool away from the bar, hoists himself up on the edge, and says, "I just got off the phone with the Consul in Florence. He informed me Italian authorities believe what happened is an internal political matter. He doesn’t think, and I emphasize this, that what happened will have anything to do with us."
"Well three cheers to that." Bill Held raises his cup.
The news eases the tension in the room, as if all the air's gone out of it.
When there's a break in the conversation, Willie throws out a question: "Do they know for sure it was the Red Brigade? If so, wouldn’t the polizia already have some idea where they live and go get them?"
Parker says, "Well, perhaps they do. I assume at some point arrests will be made. But I came here to let you know the Consul’s quite certain it’s not the work of an international group looking to harm U.S. citizens. It’s more likely the current political atmosphere is being used to get a message out."
The question comes from his favorite academic. "How can the Consul know that so soon?"
"That’s another good question. I’m sure he wouldn’t tell me if he knew the answer. He mentioned there was evidence at the scene that points to what I just told you. Videotape is being examined. That was as much as he could say. And maybe all he knows. But again, he feels certain we're not at risk."
A female voice asks, "What can we do?"
Parker says, "Go about your business as you’ve been doing. The round-the-clock guards will continue for the foreseeable future. If they see anything unusual, they’ll contact the polizia right away."
Soon after that, Parker leaves with the offer to take up any further concerns in his office.
Willie finishes his coffee and roll and jokes with Bill Held about the possibility of internal political activities being expressed from within the villa. After that, Anne goes off to her studio and Willie goes up to their room feeling some satisfaction at another topic dominating the conversation and taking the spotlight off him. A crisis, or the possibility of one, can focus a person on what's important, whereas an idle mind can lead to all kinds of gossip and distortions.
Two days after the hotel bombing Anne's back from her studio with the suggestion they go to Ragusa, the city Willie's grandfather on his mother's side emigrated to the States from.
"As we intended to do," she says.
It's abrupt, but Willie's all in. Even if there's an unusual edginess in Anne's voice, he writes it off as some irrational feeling.
He goes to the desk and pulls their Michelin Guide out from under the books stacked on top of it. He flips through the pages. He'll get the train tickets. He'll book them a hotel room.
The first leg of their journey takes them to Naples. There seems to be no semblance of order in Garibaldi station, but Willie's sure it works. Anne checks the Departure board and confirms their train's leaving on time.
"Order in the chaos," Willie says.
Since they have an hour to kill, they roll their luggage to the food court and take an open table at a restaurant demarcated by an aluminum-tube rail. Anne's first to make a trip to the bathroom and by the time Willie's back from his own visit their fried spaghetti omelets with garlic, olives, anchovies, capers and parsley, and cold glasses of beer, are on the paper placemats with the map of Naples.
Willie chews and swallows. He runs his tongue between his lips. "Amazing. Spaghetti jacked-up with a few ingredients. Fried in olive oil. I'm so hungry. I feel like we just hiked all the way here."
They go quiet and eat. For the moment Willie feels like a tourist on vacation. He takes in details he might not otherwise notice. The beggar woman in a heavy gray coat too big on her. The column of colorful sweepstakes tickets pinned to a board in front of an espresso vendor’s cart. The four Scandinavian-looking students with long hair and swelled backpacks at their feet sprawled on a row of linked red plastic seats.
"Are you happy now?" Willie says.
"I was never unhappy," Anne says.
"Sure you were. You wanted out of there fast. Did something happen you’re not telling me?"
"No. Nothing in particular."
"How about in general?"
"I mean nothing."
"I was hoping getting away for a while would get us back to where we were before this."
Anne looks away. Just like that Willie sees the formless anxiety he detects in her at the villa come back.
She says, "I've been wondering if it will ever be that way again. It's not the same, I know that."
"They told us, or you, it's a life-changing experience."
"They were right. I didn't know it was going to include how you see your partner."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You know. Since we got here I notice you giving me strange looks."
"I guess I'm wondering what you’re thinking. I'm never sure."
"Well the same goes for me. I'm not sure what to expect."
"That thing with Andrew was nothing."
"It was something. You need to admit it."
"Sure it was something. Something I didn’t start."
"I'm not so sure anymore."
"What the…" Willie stifles himself. He knows it's better to drop a topic too dangerous to go into in a public space. He tries to get back to feeling he's on vacation. But all of a sudden he's lost the sense of adventure they set out from Rome with. He recognizes the same in Anne. The thought of going back to the nitpicking tension of the villa disturbs him. He doesn't want to watch the war in the television room. He doesn’t want to work at the table in the library. He doesn't want to eat dinner in the dining hall with everyone else.
He scrapes up what's left of the spaghetti. He says, "There’s nowhere in the States you can get something this good in a train station. If we had time, I’d order another for the road."
"It's better than I expected. We need to get to our platform soon."
In Ragusa they have a hotel with a balcony that looks out at Ibla’s narrow streets and white-stone buildings. The baroque cupola of San Giorgio, the vaulted passageways and dramatic towers has him wondering what made his grandfather want to leave a place so beautiful? Was life that difficult back then?
Yet, in all the beauty he and Anne struggle to get along. The tiled tub in their room is big enough for two, but they take separate baths. The second night they make love for the first time in weeks, but it's without passion. The directions Willie has to his grandfather's house takes them to an abandoned stone structure on an unpaved road outside the city, but when they walk around it Anne doesn’t share his enthusiasm. Three days later they're on the last ferry across the Tyrrhenian Sea and from Garibaldi station they get on the rapido to Rome where the drama waits for them.
But in fact, nothing's changed. The same fellows with the same faces and attitudes are there and will be there with Willie the coming months. Unpacking, he's surprised to find himself thinking from now on it might not be so bad. Maybe for the first time he feels calm and at peace with his place there.
After dinner the next night Anne goes off to her studio and Willie stands at the bar with a bottle of Italian beer in hand talking to his favorite academic and some others about the marvel that's Ragusa. They talk and laugh. Willie's comfortable, as if all of a sudden he’s gotten used to being at the Foundation just as he’d get used to anything else if he had to be in it long enough. He sees how a small change in his own personal chemical response will make the rest of his time there easier. He sees himself in a picture someone will take at the end of it, that he'll bring back to the States to share with friends, a classic image of the after-dinner cocktail hour at the bar, of success and sophistication, a view of himself from the side in black jeans, blue oxford cloth shirt and gray pullover sweater that makes him blend in with the others, in sync with them instead of being the someone who's been setup by a luxury liner captain to give all the others on board a conversation piece that unites them.
The thought makes Willie forget himself. As if for the first time he takes in the aging oak wood bar with a polished glow, the black-and-white photos on the walls of Roman street scenes, the empty stools that make him wonder why they're standing instead of sitting with their feet resting on the rungs. Then, just as the bar's closing and the conversation's at a loud, dizzying pitch, Bill Held comes in. He was all alone in the TV room wondering if the building was evacuated without his knowing it?
"But I see I'm missing out again," he says.
"If you’re here, we can’t talk about you," is a comment that gets a laugh.
Bill Held points to the ceiling. "Any of you want to join me?"
Willie's the only taker. The only other member of a clique that can't get enough news. He and Bill Held go upstairs to watch television and drink wine. It's two a.m. when they shut the place down and go to their rooms.
With surrender imminent and victory declared, the fighting stops. The Iraqi military agrees to observe the ceasefire and attend talks on the cessation of hostilities. Two weeks after that, the Trustees are due to arrive for a weekend of eating, drinking and yakking.
Much is done to make sure the villa sparkles. The ladies in blue smocks scrub and sweep the hallways and common areas. They do more of that. The ground crew cuts the grass, plants rows of flowers and polishes the courtyard sculptures. At dinner the night before the Trustees touch down, Director Parker uses a fork to clink his glass. He stands and tells everyone to enjoy their time with them. To not be afraid to mingle. To let them know they appreciate all they’ve done to make sure the Foundation continues in the future as it has in the past.
When he finishes, Bill Held says in a low voice, "He's making sure we’re on our best behavior. We don’t drink too much. We bite our tongues when we get the urge to find out what great crime is behind their fortune."
Willie says in a voice set just as low, "What happens if I don’t go? Or worse, what if I go and say something that might be deemed plebian? Will that ruin it for everyone else?"
Anne says, "I'm sure you won't do anything like that."
Willie says, "If one of them corrects my Italian I may snap."
Bill Held says, "Fear not. I'm an experienced hand at this. The conversations will all be in English."
The first evening, a bar's set up in the Common Room with a handsome bartender mixing drinks and classical music playing in the background. The chandeliers are on and the lighting, usually dim, is bright as day.
Willie's one of two males not wearing a tie. He didn't think to go out and buy one. He's ill at ease mixing with the Trustees and important invitees from Rome. His purpose there is of little interest. He strains to find words to say.
The meal in the dining hall is catered, a soup to nuts eating experience that lasts several hours and served by waitresses and waiters in black pants and starched white shirts. Tall silver candelabra are set on each table. Two or three Trustees sit at each. There's no avoiding them at close range, as Willie had hoped. No avoiding an explanation of his tiny corner of the writing world. It's humbling, and yet, later on by the fireplace, he doesn't mind talking to the elderly lady from Houston sitting next to him. Ms. Catherine Johnson is soft-spoken and generous with her words and attention. She wears all black except for the dazzling jewelry hanging around her neck and adorning her wrists. There's a social ease about her that relaxes him even if he knows she doesn't connect much to his novel about Jonathan Bliss' Mexican experience. She gives an assuring nod at each pause even as the look in her eyes has the appearance of someone trying to find a pinpoint across a vast desert.
At the end of his explanation, Ms. Johnson asks, "Where do you do your academics?"
"I don't," Willie says.
"I see," Ms. Johnson says. Willie detects a questioning look about her as she mulls over a situation he gets his money from? "So you make your living freelancing."
"No." Willie decides there isn't any point in avoiding it. "I write for businesses. Advertising. Technical. Anything. It pays the bills. Whatever I make off my other writing is extra."
Ms. Johnson says, "Well that seems a fine enough compromise for you."
"It’s a means to an end, so I don’t think too much about it. And it can be interesting."
Ms. Johnson smiles. "You have to do what you have to do."
It's ten o'clock. Willie and Anne sit by the window in their room having a conversation. Outside, the sky's clear and dark. A few stars sparkle. This is what's left of the day.
Willie says, "You're asking me what's the matter? You avoided me the whole time the Trustees were around. It makes me think you didn't want me near you."
"How can you say that? That's not what happened. I wasn't avoiding you. It's the way things developed. You had people to talk to. I had people to talk to."
"We didn't sit together once. Not once. We didn’t share one conversation until we were back here. Then all you could talk about was how well you got along with everyone."
"We were supposed to socialize. To find our own way around. That was the situation. You can do that too. You don’t have to have me next to you."
"You hung with Andrew the whole time. I didn’t miss that."
"Do we have to go over this again? Andrew and I do the same thing. We're here at this place at the same time. And, he's good in those situations."
"And I'm not?"
"All you wanted to do was play pool."
"I wasn't the only one." The emotion in Willie's voice echoes out to the hallway. Anne's head and shoulders turn to look that way.
"Good. That's fine. I wanted to get around. That's it. Maybe you should have thought more about what it meant to come here. You can adjust. This is as good for you as it is for me."
Willie can't hold in his irritation. His voice is sharp. He says, "I did think about it. We spent a month talking it over. It was all going to be fine. It's different now that we're in it. I was expecting it to be intense. But not this intense between us."
There's a moment of silence. Anne says, "I didn’t either. But that's where we're at."
"I'm not overreacting."
"Did I say you were?"
"Five minutes ago. Just not in those words."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. Okay?"
"Okay, and that's it?"
"Let's sleep on it. Nothing's going to happen tonight to change anything."
"We'll see how it goes from here. I don't know…"
Anne gets up. She takes the red case with soap and shampoo off the bureau and a towel off the rack next to the sink. "I'm taking a bath," she says and goes out the door.
"Another glass of wine?" Willie's favorite academic holds the bottle out over the table.
"Why not," Willie says.
Five of them linger in the dining hall after the plates are cleared. The man wiping down the tables sends a reproaching look their way. Drinking the house wine is supposed to stop after dessert. In fact, they're not supposed to be hanging around at all. It's what the bar's for. You pay for drinks there. That's how the family that runs it makes money.
"Sorry to hear things between you and Anne are tense," Bill Held says.
"It's this place. Believe me, everything's not going hunky dory with us," his favorite academic says.
Willie laughs. The others do too.
"Where is she now?" Bill Held says.
Willie shrugs. "Studio, I guess. She needs some space. I do too."
His favorite academic says, "You mean she missed dinner just to miss it?"
Willie says, "I mean she said she's eating in her studio. We didn’t go into details. If she doesn’t want to come to dinner, she doesn't have to. We don’t need to do everything together." After saying that, he goes silent. It's another night at the Foundation with the talk heating up as the wine goes down. He knocks back a final mouthful and curls a hand behind his ear. "Nobody's on the table. Let’s go claim it."
"Good idea," his favorite academic says. "Get out of here before Giovanni and his boys throw us out."
They go into the Common Room and pluck sticks from the black clips that hold them to the rack like a collection of shotguns. Sides are made and Willie flips a coin for the break. His team wins and he does the honors. The crisp crack of balls striking each other is soothing to his mind and ears. That's until Andrew comes in a few minutes later and writes his name on the chalkboard.
To Willie, it wasn’t a big deal. No punches were thrown. Neither of them was hurt. It was a competitive night on the table that got a bit out of hand, is how he explains it in the TV room.
They were playing for rounds. He and Bill Held against Andrew and Willie's favorite academic. "We kept beating them, they kept racking them up," he says.
"That frustrated the hell out of him," Bill Held says. "He wanted to win so bad, he was licking his chops. We didn't give him a taste."
The mood went from sociable to one intense with defeat and victory. Willie dropped the eight ball in a corner to end another game. After it, he laughed. It wasn't much of one, but it got Andrew's attention. Andrew asked him what was so funny?
"I was thinking how everything’s gone our way. That's all." Willie gave a diplomatic answer. He hadn't forgotten his visit to Parker. From far off he saw the storm clouds gathering.
Andrew went over to him, pointed a finger a few inches from his chest, and said, "You mean you were wondering how lucky you are."
Willie said, "That’s your interpretation. You put your name on the board. You wanted to play. You win some, you lose some. Sometimes you lose them all."
Willie looked over at his favorite academic in wonder. He got a shrug in response. When he turned back, Andrew's finger was still pointing at him. He didn't like it. Who in the TV room would? No one, just as he thought. So he reached out and moved it away, not with hostile intent, but it got to Andrew. And that’s what started it. They grabbed each other in a lover’s embrace, spun back into the table and bounced away. Then they were on the floor twisting and rolling until his favorite academic and Bill Held pulled them apart. Back on their feet, they exchanged some unflattering words. There was some evil eyeballing. But that was it. The games were over for the night. Andrew took his beer and left the room.
"Did you punch him?"
Willie hesitates. He's wary of saying anything he thinks might dig him in a deeper hole. He wants to start putting his own spin on it. One at a time he looks at the five others there with him.
"You don’t have a mark on you so he must look like crap." The joke lightens the atmosphere.
Willie sits on the couch. He understands it's the kind of thing sure to get the Foundation’s natives excited and looking to take sides.
"If you run into him, say hello, that’s it."
"What if he says something? What do I do then?"
Bill Held says, "Let it go. You’re a grownup. Well, kind of." There's a laugh.
"What did he say that bugged you so much?"
"He wondered what I was doing in a place like this?"
"You belong here," Bill Held says.
"As much as anyone," his favorite academic says.
Willie reaches for the bottle Bill Held holds out to him. He fills his glass. "By the end of this my bar bill’s going to be huge. I’m going to owe you a millioni."
"I’ll take it." Bill Held smiles.
Willie says, "When do you think the last fight at the Foundation was?"
"I doubt there’s ever been a real one," his favorite academic says.
Willie laughs. It's a better reaction than putting a hand on his head and moaning in humiliation.
This time in the library Willie's ready for Paula. Not coming to get him would have been the surprise.
"Excuse me, William," she says. She gives him a warm smile.
Without explanation he uses his legs to nudge the chair back. "I know. I know." He says with a nod. "Director Parker wants to see me."
The smile doesn't leave Paula's face. "Yes. He told me to tell you he would like to see you as soon as you are able to."
"I understand. I’ll come now."
He holds the door open and follows her through the courtyard where two of the villa’s cats sun themselves on the flat stones. The door to Parker’s office is open. He's behind his desk, staring at the sheet of paper centered on his blotter. Willie pauses at the threshold.
"William, come in. I take it Paula found you in the library doing your work."
"She looks for me a lot in there." Willie's attempt to add some humor fails on Parker.
"Close the door, please," Parker says.
Willie sits down without the offer being extended. He's nervous, yet clearheaded. He knows a second discussion's going to end with an ultimatum and it's just a matter of what it'll be. He wants to ask Parker if they have a penalty box they send disobedient villa residents to? But he lets the thought pass.
"I was made aware of an incident around the pool table last night. As you know, I wasn’t there so I’m dependent on secondary sources. I assume something did happen and that's why the incident was brought to my attention. Is that right?"
He notices Parker’s use of the plural form of "sources." So more than one person ratted him out. He scans the lineup of faces that forms in his mind of those who were in the Common Room at the time. How many of them besides Andrew gave him up? That, more than whatever else Parker has in mind for him, is a disappointment.
He's careful with his words. "I had a disagreement. So, yes, something did happen. It wasn’t much. At least I didn’t think so."
"It was described to me somewhat different. I heard you had a fight with Andrew. Are you saying you didn’t?" Willie doesn’t like Parker’s patronizing tone.
"It wasn’t a fight, as you and I know it. We had a disagreement. No punches were thrown. We grabbed each other. We wrestled for a minute. That’s it."
"There were no punches?"
"You didn’t hit him in the face?"
"No. Did someone tell you that? If they did, they’re lying."
"That’s not the way it was explained to me, William. But we can let that go. It almost doesn’t matter what the blow-by-blow details are. There was an incident last night that was disturbing to some. You were involved. Can we agree on that?"
"I suppose. But considering there was a war going on until a few weeks ago and we were talking about a possible terrorist attack, I’d say it was school-kid playground stuff."
Parker turns his eyes to the bookshelf next to his desk. For the first time Willie notices it's an impressive brown-stained object with two glass doors and intricate spiral carvings.
"This hasn’t happened before in my tenure here. We’ve had the usual personality conflicts, excessive noise, an argument or two, but no fighting. No, nothing…"
Willie wants to interrupt him right there. Fighting? Neither of them has a scratch to show for it.
Parker's looking at him. "So it’s something new for me. I looked into the old reports and spoke to a few of my colleagues. There’s no record of anything like this happening. I’ve spent the morning thinking it through, trying to find the best solution. I have to do something to show those here now, and those who come in the future, that this kind of behavior won’t be tolerated. I’ve concluded William it’s best for everyone if you leave the villa. I don’t like doing this. I know you’re here with Anne. That's something the two of you will have to work out. Of course, she can continue here if she wants. As we know, she's an exceptional artist. If she does decide to stay, you’re not to come back to villa to see her."
"You’re not serious," is what comes out of Willie's mouth. "You want me to go? Because of that?"
"I’m saying I feel it’s the right decision. You don’t have to leave right away. Take a few days to pack and make other plans, to stay in Rome if you choose to, or to go back to New York. That’s up to you and Anne. Will the rest of today and tomorrow be enough? I’d like for you to be out by noon Thursday."
Willie almost laughs. Yet, he's surprised how calm he is. There's no angry swelling in his chest. He doesn't raise his voice.
"I have to tell you, I don’t agree with anything you said. I think it’s bogus. It isn’t a solution for something so minor. I’d like to know who reported it and why you believe them? First, he stuck his finger out at me. Second, no punches were thrown. So that right there shows the people that came to you are liars. They have other motives." He pauses. He wants to go on, but a voice tells him it's a place Anne belongs to, not him. He's a guest is all. One who's no longer welcome.
"We agreed that wasn’t the issue. This is the second time someone has come to see me in my office with a complaint that concerns you. Both times you admitted as much. I appreciate your honesty. You're very upfront about that. The first time I let it go. It seemed to be one of those things. But this time I feel I have to make a decision. And I have. No organization can allow this to happen on its premises. In my place, I think you’d do the same."
"The first time was a pathetic little complaint about something that should have never been reported. You shouldn’t have reacted to it. In your place, I would have laughed. This time, it’s something I didn’t start. And nothing happened."
"I’m sorry. I have to do this. As I said, I conferred with several colleagues. It isn’t a decision I’m pleased with. It's one I feel has to be made."
"No, it isn't. It isn’t anything that has to be made. It’s arbitrary. There are other people here who are just as much at fault as I am. If not more. But I know you all work in the same business and it’s a small world. I understand. I do. You’re in a tough spot."
Willie's had enough. The thought he has to leave settles in. To where, is the question. He says, "I’ll be out of here soon as possible." He gets up. He has no intention of shaking Parker’s hand. He has no intention of uttering another word. It's an amicable parting. Amicable in that they care little for each other. On his way out he smiles at Paula. She smiles in a way that's intended to be a sociable goodbye. He knows she likes him. He knows she's aware he's a goner.
Later, in their room, Willie and Anne have their talk about it. Anne sits in a chair staring out the window. There's still some light in the sky. Willie paces back and forth with crossed arms. Sometimes he stops to lean against the bureau. They're calm. Parker's decision is incontrovertible. There's nothing more to explain so there's no need for dramatics. It's decided: Willie's leaving, Anne's staying. They don't talk about what it means for them in the future. They stay away from that topic. What's most concerning is the present.
"I can't believe I'm in this position," she says.
"This is the last time I'll say it, it's ridiculous, I didn’t do anything."
"You can't come back here. That makes it difficult. It's embarrassing, Willie."
"I'll find a place. It'll be all right. We'll see plenty of each other."
"How do you plan to pay for it? You don't have a job."
"I have money stashed away. I'll figure something out."
"It isn’t like the States. You don't walk in somewhere and they hire you. You need connections. You're not fluent. That's been pointed out."
"Screw that jerk."
That evening Willie doesn’t go to the dining hall. Instead, he walks down the hill and across the Tiber. He needs to talk to someone unaffiliated with the Foundation. Susan Ferro's the only person he knows in Rome he can do that with.
She finds him sitting on the top step outside her building. Right away she sees he's distraught. "Is something the matter?" she asks.
"It's not good," he says. He summarizes what's happened. He's been told to leave the villa. After tomorrow he can never go back. Anne's staying, as she should. It's all a big mess. He wonders if she has a bit of time to talk it over? He suggests they could do it at the bar down the block. Instead of that, Susan Ferro invites him up.
"I don't want to be a bother," Willie says.
"I don’t know what I can do, but it's no problem for me," Susan Ferro says.
Willie sits out on the balcony while Susan Ferro changes out of her doctor's clothes. He stares across the river where the villa's located. Still in disbelief, he feels like a school kid tossed out of class for misbehaving. He's mulling the consequences of that when Susan Ferro comes out with a bottle of wine and two glasses. She sits at the table with him and fills the glasses. She listens as Willie goes into more detail about what's gone on over the past twenty-four hours. It's come down to this: he needs to find a place to live for seven months or go back to New York. Those are the only options he has. Though he's thinking of doing the latter. If he isn’t a part of what goes on, he's going to be a drag on Anne.
"You can’t leave her here the rest of the time," Susan Ferro says. "Even if you come back to visit, it would be the end. If you still want to be with her, you need to stay."
Willie agrees. That's the way he was leaning, but he needed to hear it from someone else. Still, it feels weird. Very weird. An hour later he leaves with Susan Ferro's assurance she'll see what she can do to help him find somewhere to stay. She'll get the word going around to the Americans Against the War. She's sure they'll do all they can to help.
Back at the villa, Anne tells Willie to go to the television room. He wonders why? "Just go in there," she says.
He enters into the gathering of friends and the table covered with bottles of wine, sparkling water, some beer and a bucket of ice. A dozen of his favorite people are present. A final night in the room they watched the war from beginning to end. They drink and talk. Drink some more and laugh. All the while Willie wonders when Anne's going to show up? Awkward as it is without her, he sees the villa's future go on without him even if he wonders how he and Anne will survive. After several toasts, a few of them go down to the Common Room for some final games of eight ball. The last one ends with a mock swordfight between Willie and his favorite academic using their sticks as épées.
Back up in the television room, Bill Held says, “This is the best going-away party in the history of the Foundation. No one ever got a sendoff like this. No one.”
“It's the only one I’ve ever seen in one of these places,” his favorite academic adds. "And I’ve been to a few.”
“Should I feel special?” Willie laughs and keeps laughing.
“I wouldn’t let it go to your head,” Bill Held says. “Think of it being more like the last meal they give a prisoner before the execution. You get to eat and drink anything you ask for, then you die like a dog. And as far as this place is concerned, you’re dead.”
In the mirror the next morning Willie checks out the dark lines under his eyes. His lips are crusted at the corners. He's hungover. He fills a glass with mineral water, drinks that and another. He tells Anne about a cheap hotel near Termini Bill Held told him about. The Hotel Socrates is its name. It's about twenty dollars a night. It looks like that's where he's headed until something longer term comes up. He sees it can work out. But for a while, he's going to the hotel.
Anne's skeptical, but realistic. "If you’re sure you want to do that," she says.
"I already booked it," he says. "I have a few other things in the works."
A cold shower doesn’t clear his head. Down at the bar he has a second espresso. That's where Paula from the office finds him.
"This time I didn’t do it." Willie raises his hands over his head. He laughs. Paula gets the joke. She smiles.
"It is not about that. I have this for you." She hands him a slip of paper with a name and number on it. It's from his Americans Against the War friend Joan. "I was told it may be what you are looking for."
"Thanks," he says. "I owe you big time."
Willie goes up to his room to make the call. It turns out friends of Joan's are going out of town. Three months they'll be gone. If Willie doesn’t mind taking care of two cats, he's welcome to stay in the apartment until they come back. They prefer not to leave the cats elsewhere. It's important to them.
"I don’t mind cats at all," he tells Joan.
"They're not leaving until the end of next week. I know you have to be out soon," she says.
"I have a temporary place," he says.
It works out as planned. Wille takes the room at The Hotel Socrates. It's a gritty neighborhood. The hallways and shared bathrooms not so clean. The room crappy enough to keep Anne from staying overnight.
"It's Tropic of Cancer in real life," he tells her when she comes to see it.
Anne doesn't laugh. Instead, she gives him a look like she's smelling rotting food. She makes that, and one more visit as if it's an affair they're having.
The apartment in Testaccio turns out to be a sweet deal. The two tabby cats require minimum attention. Weather permitting, Willie works on his novel out on the balcony. Anne likes the setup, yet like at the Hotel Socrates, she doesn’t stay the night. She's busy finishing three pieces for a group exhibit in New York. She has to be up early to get at it.
In the meantime, Willie takes the train by himself to Bologna to go to her opening. She went a day early to set things up so he meets her there. Others from the villa are present. He chats with Bill Held. With his favorite academic. With a few more of his friends from the TV room. It's like old times in an alternate venue. There's plenty of wine to drink. Andrew's there too, as Willie expected. They don’t say a word to each other. Even with all the distractions, the tension between them is like a live wire. Now that he's banished, Willie has the urge to tell him what he thinks. Or to slug him. But for Anne's sake it's better to leave that back there. In fact, Willie likes his new life even if he misses some things about the one he left behind in the villa.
Whatever. He manages to have a good time. After the opening, a dozen of them take a long table in an osteria for a group meal. Andrew's not present and that makes the experience a better one for Willie. For two hours the food and drink keep coming. It's a full-on bacchanal with glasses of amaro to finish it off. When it's time to fork up his share of the check, Willie says, "I miss the villa's prices."
"You've had your last free dinner, ever," Bill Held tells him.
He and Anne stay in a hotel on via Andrea Costa. They're tired and tipsy and fall right to sleep. In the morning they take the train back to Rome. At Termini, Anne gets a bus to the Gianicolo. Willie gets one to Testaccio. The next afternoon he's surprised to get a visit from Bill Held. Greeting him at the door, Willie says, "You want to start on the wine this early?"
"I need to tell you something," Bill Held says.
Right away Willie thinks he know what's up. He's suspected it the past weeks. He and Bill Held go out to the balcony where Willie's electronic typewriter is set up.
"You need to know this," Bill Held says. "You know what I'm talking about?"
"I know, I know," Willie says.
"I thought it might be a passing thing," Bill Held says. "But since you left, it's out in the open."
Willie says, "I should have taken him out him when I had the chance."
Bill Held sits quiet. Willie's irate. He knows he has to do something. That night he dials Anne's studio number a dozen times before she answers. Without using Bill Held's name, he tells her he knows. Wonders why she didn’t say anything?
"I was going to," she says.
"When was that?" he says.
"I meant to do it last night. I couldn’t."
"Well, fuck you. And do one last thing for me, tell Andrew he's a fucking weasel. I know it. You know it. And he knows it." He hangs up angry and disbelieving even though he kept denying what was there in front of him. He knows that's it, he and Anne are done. There's no rewinding the reel.
He goes out to the balcony. He stares at Testaccio. At the ancient buildings. The soft colors. It's a view that calms him for a moment. That makes him want to be a Roman a while longer. How long? He decides he'll wait before he makes that decision. He has two more months where he is. He needs to think some more. He'll figure something out.
The Americans Against the War meet at Susan Ferro's for a BYOB. She wants to keep the group together. She's sure they'll need to be active again.
Willie's one of the first arrivals. He wants to be around people. He hasn't seen or talked to Anne. There's no reason to. It's going to be a while before he's over that. A while being never. Otherwise, he misses his friends at the villa. Except for drinks with Bill Held and his favorite academic at Bar San Calisto, he's had little social life the past weeks.
He sits on one end of the couch in Susan Ferro's living room with a glass of wine in hand. A newcomer to the group named Martina sits in a chair opposite him. Willie's attracted to her. They’ve had a few pleasant exchanges since Susan Ferro introduced them, but there's so much he doesn’t know except that she lives with her sister in an apartment her family owns. He's sure she's attached even if there's no evidence of a significant other present. With long black hair, dark eyes and a warm smile, how could she not be?
They get involved in a larger conversation going around. No one believes the Middle East is settled. The powers that be are sure to rile things up again, someone says.
"Yeah, as always, they'll create another mess," Willie says.
"That's what they believe they were elected to do," Martina says.
Later, Willie chats with Martina, just the two of them out on the balcony. He tells her about his situation without filling in the dirty details. Martina's attempt to put a positive spin on it, it will work out in time, doesn’t go far.
"It's over," Willie says. "She's been messing with this guy, maybe since we got here. This is what she wanted. She got it. I got dropped into it. Then kicked out."
Before Martina leaves, Willie suggests they meet for coffee some afternoon she's not busy. If she wants? Martina takes the number Willie writes down for her. The next Saturday morning they meet for espresso and a bite at a bar on Via Cavour. They chat about themselves, about the Americans Against the War and how impressed they are with Susan Ferro. The next Friday night they get together for a beer after Martina's out of work. It's a small place off Piazza Navona. They have a second beer, then they walk to Willie's place.
"Or the place I have seven more weeks to live in," he says.
"You will find somewhere else," Martina says.
They sit on the couch a while. They kiss and hug. Then they go into the bedroom and have sex. They linger there a while drinking wine in bed. "I never did this back home," Willie says. "But I know you have lots." Martina smiles.
When midnight comes around, they go out to the street to flag down a taxi. They have a final kiss before Martina gets in. Back in the apartment, Willie feels restored, like a man given water after days without any. He sleeps well into the next morning.
From there he expects to see more of Martina. He likes everything about her. He wants to know everything about her. They see each other a week later. This time Martina spends the night. In the morning they drink espresso out on the balcony. They chat it up. Willie wonders if Martina wants to get away from Rome the next weekend. Maybe they could go to Pisa or Florence?
"That would be so excellent," he says.
Martina tells Willie she can't. She has another male friend she's been seeing that's developing into something. They've made their own plans.
"Who is he," Willie says, almost choking.
"His name's Lorenzo, he's Italian," she says.
Willie knows she means he's a real Italian. Not the watered down second-generation Americanized version he is.
In fact, it turns out that's last time they see each other. Or talk. Willie doesn’t push it. He's feeling vulnerable and doesn’t want to be rejected.
When Joan's friends are back he takes a room, the same room in fact, at The Hotel Socrates. His second day there he's over by the Campo dei Fiori when he spots Andrew heading in the direction of the villa. He decides to follow him. He stays ten yards back. When they approach the Ponte Garibaldi, Willie hurries ahead and pulls up a step behind him. Detecting a presence, Andrew turns to see who it is. Willie looks into his eyes, and says, "Fuck you, you pathetic asshole." He strides next to him as they continue over the bridge. In the middle of it, Andrew stops. Willie does too. They stare at each other. Willie expects a response he can react to. Instead, Andrew smiles, turns and keeps moving. Willie doesn't go with him. He does nothing. He'll see him another time.
But that doesn’t happen. Two weeks later Willie books a flight back to New York. He can't stay in Rome any longer. His funds are getting low. He can't find a job. The day before he leaves he gets a hold of Bill Held to ask a favor: will he get the key to his and Anne's storage space in Brooklyn and leave it with the guard at the gate?
"I don't want to talk to her," he says. "Tell her I'll mail it back."
Key in hand, Bill Held meets him outside the villa's gates. From there, they walk to Bar San Calisto and get drunk. Vino and more vino, the perfect way to end his Roman days.
"To the TV room, may it live on forever," is Willie's final toast.
Back in Brooklyn, he finds a cheap place to live in Greenpoint. He fills it with the possessions he gets out of storage including some, like the futon bed and television, he and Anne had shared. His former employment agency hooks him up with a job. The draft of his novel closes with Jonathan Bliss being gunned down in a confrontation with the guardia. He plans to revise it then look for an agent. Other than that, his life is much the same as it was before he left for Rome except Anne's missing from it. When it comes time to mail the key back to her, he decides not to. She'll have to find a way to get a hold of him. She'll have to ask him for it. Then she'll have to come to him and get it.