Excerpt: A Winter in Rome
“Gloria” by Patti Smith came on the radio in the car. I shut it off after the first few lines, Patti’s wrangled voice echoing in my ear as I gripped the steering wheel. Alan wasn’t due back from Rome for another twenty-seven hours. I had another fifteen minutes before I had to go to work, and then an eight-hour shift before I could see Sybil for our date after work. I wondered if she knew Alan’s departure time. And if she did know, was it because I had mentioned it each time I had checked the airline website, or because she was now checking for the plane time after four months away, too? I could never tell with her.
My phone buzzed and I picked it up. Italian stared back at me. I struggled to remember what limited words I could recall over my heart pounding in my chest. After Google Translate, the message read: This is costing me a fortune, but I wanted to tell you I’m fine. I have stories for you.
Alan. I texted him back—but in English. I haven’t taken Italian in years. Be nicer to me. But I accept stories as payment.
Good, bonne. Mon amour.
That’s French, I wrote him back. Italian for ‘my love’ is mio amore.
I thought you said you haven’t taken it in years? Alan was writing in only English now. You’re playing me for a fool, Craig.
I grinned so hard that my face hurt. The car’s air conditioner wasn’t working anymore, and my keeping it in idle before I had to drive to the café wasn’t comfortable anymore. But Alan, I thought. Alan was always going to be worth it.
I can’t forget how to talk about love. One of the many good things Sybil taught me, I texted back. There was a pause on his end. I wasn’t sure if it was him trying to remember Italian words or our Canadian phones doing a terrible job of keeping up with the distance. I soon added: And you, of course. You’ve taught me a lot and I’m sure you’ll have more for me now.
Of course, of course. You have to work now, don’t you? You’re always working. Go do stuff. I will be home soon.
I paused on the word ‘home’ on the screen, then looked up at Alan’s apartment in front of me. The small, eight-storey building was just outside the downtown core of Toronto where he taught. It wasn’t an expensive place—a blessing in this city—and in spite of the long bus ride to the university and back (or shorter car ride, if Alan took my small Mazda with rust everywhere), it wasn’t too far from his job. It was also halfway between Sybil’s small apartment and my job at the local café.
When Alan had gotten the contract for a research position in Rome, he had needed someone to take care of his apartment—and monitor his mailbox at the university—while he was gone. I had been the obvious choice to step up and put out any student issues on campus and water his plants. But I had also moved into his place, more or less, since he had been gone. Before then, I had been living with friends I had known since my undergrad who weren’t really my friends anymore. Our apartment building was falling apart, the heat never worked, and David had a girlfriend who was practically moved in, anyway. When I had picked up my things to leave “for a few months,” David hadn’t said a word; just gave me the silent guy-goodbye I had come to know from him. Now that my stuff was in only one place, I hoped that when Alan got back, we could just pick up where we had left off. His trip to Rome to collect artefacts for the university had gone well according to expensive text messages and stray postcards from Italian tourist spots. And because this trip had gotten him what he had always desired—a chance to see the great masters and to visit the Sistine Chapel so he could almost touch the hand of God—I hoped he could see that it had also given me what I needed: a home.
I miss you, I texted. I’ve been keeping the place warm for you.
I know you have, Craig. I can’t thank you enough.
My breath was shaky. I could hear his voice in the text message: low and quiet, like he was whispering to me with our foreheads pressed together in bed. I decided I would just tell him my plans in that moment, instead of merely hoping. I’m not moving out. After a pause, I added a comical. Mostly because I’ll be broke after this phone bill.
Good. Wouldn’t want you to leave after missing you so much. We have lost time to catch up on. And now—go to work, Craig. Give Sybil my regards.
I will, I texted back with another sporadic declaration of love. I wanted to hold my phone to my heart and keep it there a little longer, but as if Sybil had heard her name, my phone buzzed again with her ringtone.
Craig, where are you? I can only hold your shift so long…
Sorry, be right there. I turned the key in the ignition fully and cranked the radio as I drove to work, a smile still on my face.