By Mark Anthony Jarman
“I would have made a good Pope.”
Richard Nixon, 37th American President
The afternoon sun hides a thief in my eye. My cousin Eve hides little as she sunbathes on my rooftop terrace, hides almost nothing as we read newspapers or work together on a crossword. She loves gazing at newsprint; I believe if Eve owned a moped here in Rome she’d happily read a rattling paper while buzzing the city's boulevards. When was the last time I drove!
My mouth tastes of mufflers and conflict (Rome throat, says Eve of the exhaust clouds and particulates in the air we breathe, she says it’s like smoking a pack of cigarettes, that only Bulgaria is worse), but the moped riders look so beautiful, sleek executives and office workers in silk suits and fluttering dresses and sharp winkle-picker shoes coming at you in formation, a phalanx of Valkyries balanced on tiny toy wheels.
They killed St. Valentine on 14 February outside the Flaminian Gate during the reign of Claudius the Goth. Valentine’s skull was crowned with birds and flowers, he gave eyesight to the blind, hope to the bland. They beat him with clubs and stoned him and later severed his head at the gate; they took their time killing him. Christian couples came to the city gate, young couples he had secretly married, they came and left gifts for this martyr as he died slowly and painfully for his faith. Or this man did not exist and was invented by Chaucer, or he worked for a chocolate lobby group, like the Easter bunny. The Church is not sure.
But the riders look so beautiful. My admiration for Roman drivers grows and grows. Local drivers seemed crazed at first, but now I see their staggering talent; cars and scooters fly from all sides like jets in a dogfight, but I have yet to witness an accident. Lanes and lines mean little and at each red light hordes of scooters wobble past rows of stopped cars and assemble ahead of their bumpers, a dozen scooters across the real estate of two tiny lanes, scooters ready to roar away at the green. Drivers share such little space without border wars, without crashing, though I did see a woman fly off a moped on a corner by the market, her moving cry the exact pitch of the engine she was leaving behind. The ambulances park right on our street so she was in good hands.
The green lizard glows in the wall and we punish the bottle of red. Eve becomes more and more certain that I can be the first Canadian Pope (I wonder, can we count poor Louis Riel as a Pope of Assiniboia?).
Yes, says Eve, “I can see white smoke from the chimney, they’ve decided!”
What odds would British bookies give on a foreign tourist becoming the new Pope? am not the worst candidate. Once I was an altar boy serving First Fridays at dawn, I know my way around the rosary beads and Stations of the Cross and as a child I left room for my guardian angel beside me at my school desk and left room for my guardian angel alongside me in my tiny childhood bed.
As a child I wanted to be a priest and I envisioned my guardian angel as blonde and slim and kindly, not unlike the Quebec stewardess who helped me with the taxi, not unlike Natasha who was kind until the moment she left me. Has that childhood religious vision affected my expectations of real women later in life, of those I make room for in my bed?
I say, “I always assumed my guardian angel was blonde. But Jesus was Middle Eastern; would he not be dark-haired?”
There are gaps in dogma, but I love the look and colours of Rome, its lovely hues stuck in my eye, shades of crimson and cinnamon, salmon and sienna, charcoal and blood, black brick touching blond brick touching walls of ashen stone, ochre clay and yellow plaster and tile in startling nebula swirls and slabs of veined green marble.
I could live here where cobblestones lift around the bases of ancient trees and that bridge over the river dates from before Christ. Once they had a leper island by that bridge, once they loaded plague victims on barges to float them out of the city to the sea. Laundry on the next building slaps in the breeze, a nautical effect, linen and blouses like mizzen skysails and royal staysails and flying jibs, as if the tenements will also weigh anchor and // follow the plague barges // to drift downriver to Ostia and the sea.
Eve tells me of past Popes, how many Popes were murdered and how many Popes were murderers. Constantine II murdered, Stephen VII strangled in prison, John X strangled in prison, John XI died in prison, Benedict VI: strangled in prison.
Fame to me does not seem a good thing. Fame seems like some form of dementia or Alzheimers where everyone knows you, but you don’t know them
Pope John XIV was killed by Francone, then the brand new Pope Francone was himself murdered, Pope Gelasius was set upon with stones and arrows. Pope Gelato was destroyed by diabetes and Pope George Ringo lost his record deal. Ditat Deus, God enriches.
Italian newspapers drift soft as Kleenex outside every station of the Metro. I look at each page for a news article, but the nervous suburb under the distant volcano seems to have absorbed the bloody knifing without comment. They expect it of Napoli.
She says, “I want to see the fresco, The Liberation of Saint Peter from Prison. I saw the David long ago and it looked so lonely.”
Eve is scholarly, better at languages and accents than I am; she can mimic any passing tourist voice (how much is that in real money?) and she comfortably teaches in French and Italian at her school in the Alps. She skis mountain frontiers and she appreciates fine food more than I can, has made a point to educate herself in French and Italian cooking. When a meal arrives she admires the bright vegetable colours, meals so pretty we don’t want to disturb the plates.
“Wait,” she says, “wait. The eye must eat before the stomach.”
We are deep in a city of millions, but songbirds flit the nearby boughs and a green parrot balances at the tip of the tree; it makes me happy to spy the fabled green parrot in the tree, my eyes, my tree, my parrot’s weird chirping as goldfinches zip past my cousin Eve in lines of yellow light, swift radiant birds leaving the imprint of a sunlit laser show on my eyeballs, wild birds asking nothing of me, selling nothing, possessing nothing but beauty and song.
On the sunny terrace my cousin reads to me from her book of Roman history; she knows I am obsessed by Pliny the Elder and she feeds my obsession: Pliny battling in northern swamps, Pliny fighting barbarian tribes on horseback, Pliny beating up the Franks, Hungarians, Vandals, Pliny smoking blunts and tossing deadly javelins from horseback.
Pliny rides and our green lizard glows in the wall. The next bottle of wine is reminiscent of cabbage and sardines so we decide it must be way good. My bookish cousin Eve looks nice in that female-who-isn’t-yours sort of way: dark glasses, pigtails, Capri pants, Chinese slippers.
St. Valentine is the patron saint of bee-keepers and travellers, so I feel close to him. I’m not a bee-keeper, but bees seem to like me and I’m a traveler. Pliny travelled the far edges of his Roman world, but he came back to the centre of empire to die under the volcano, asphyxiated near Pompeii, or did he suffer a stroke? The volcanic cloud rose through green sky, a ghost tree hanging over beautiful villas until the shape collapsed and crashed in ash and heavy stones to crush the beautiful villas. I can’t stop thinking of Pliny and his last deadly moments in Pompeii, sky gone black as a room with no light, his small apocalypse in the same town as the knife party where the unwanted neighbour fell in the hallway and we ran like spooked goats.
During the day I worry about Eve’s pale skin in Italy’s powerful sun. My cousin doesn’t worry, no, she thrives on sun and heat in scanty summer outfits. Others limp back to their rooms exhausted from our exalted tasks in the world of art and red-faced from our master the sun, but she seems unfazed, Eve thrives. As the sun fades behind walls I quietly play my new chromatic harmonica, silver flashing as pink Roman stone turns dark, and I gaze at her form, a thief hiding in my eye.
On my rooftop terrace Eve says, “You know you have to get over her. Dwelling on it is not going to magically change things.” Eve enjoys lecturing me about my lost Natasha, my girl from the north country. Eve has brought beautiful tart berries from the street market to our rooftop, she passes me a cold lemon drink and reads an Andre Gide aphorism from her endless heap of used paperbacks: To be utterly happy, you must refrain from comparing this moment with other moments in the past.
Yes, but how to not compare? How to stop the built-in comparison machinery in your head?
“Well sir, that’s another problem,” says Eve.
Archimedes worked out problems in the sand. They killed Archimedes in 212 BC as he was drawing his circles in the sand, his island invaded. Wait, Archimedes said reasonably as crazed Romans attacked him with swords, wait until I finish my math problem, my circles in the sand. We must all deal with our problems, border wars over armrests in dark cinemas, the lost yellow-cake uranium or forgiving the recalcitrant lawnmower.
But did the Roman soldiers wait for Archimedes to solve his crisis of the lawnmower? No. They put Archimedes to the sword, soldiers invaded the body, invaded the island. I suppose that is a sort of solution to a problem. Or the problem is swiftly made a lot less relevant.
The knifing in Napoli may have given me some gruesome perspective. This perspective changes moment to moment, but right now I think I’m weirdly better about Natasha.
It is good to at least once be in a relationship with this kind of depth and fervour, to know it, but not to the point of leaping from a bridge. After Natasha abandoned me in a hotel I hit a point where I understood why people leap from bridges, I was on the bridge and fully understood the attraction, but I did not leap from the bridge. I will bounce back, I will be the Superball driven into the pavement and bouncing clear over the roof of my childhood home.
It’s a bit of a surprise, but Rome’s rouge walls and running water spigots seem familiar and pleasing after Napoli’s grey hulks and volcanic dust and volcanic drugs and jackal bedlam and mountains of aromatic refuse and a knife steering its formal way through the air of a kitchen party and a man lying like meat in the hall.
I knew that Rome had a pleasant complexion, but until I left and came back I didn’t know that I’d taken it in my head this way, that I was returning to a place that seems an old friend, an open city that seems warm and broad and green - so oddly comforting to be held in its glowing walls again.
As I walk Rome it seems almost a home, as if I know it well and have spent some bright worthy part of my life here, which may not be true, but is a fine feeling since I seem to have lost my sense of home and I don’t know if I’ll have it back.
In Rome we live inside the beautiful sun; in Rome we live where the ambulances start. The ambulances park on the street below and race away to help the unfortunates, a pleasing musical quality to their sirens, almost mariachi. Where we live in Rome is not far from the river, a 19th century district that Benito Mussolini expanded while feeling expansive, before things went bad in the 20th century and they hung Benito and his mistress Claretta by the heels in Milan, the way the mob cornered Cola di Rienzo with all their sharp knives on the high steps, on the monumental steps leading up to the gods envious of our blades and opinions.
So many bodies and blades and invasions – I can’t keep track – so much meat and so many martyrs and monsters and gargoyles and gods and I study Eve’s face transfixed listening to a woman’s high lovely voice singing music of such formality and grief, And thou true God gave thy only son.
Eve hovers near a varnished painting, cracked faces and black shadows, the stone church cool and quiet, mysterious as a suicide on a bridge, and all that sunshine just outside – just a dark chapel bent under endless stone light, a chapel with gilt Byzantine icons, gorgeous metallic paintings of Madonna in starry blue robes with a tiny child and sober aquiline faces, faces bent into long cubist angles.
These Byzantine faces make me want to jump up and tear across an ancient map to seek Istanbul’s eastern empires and all the Virgin Mary’s collection of custard-yellow halos and cobalt gowns.
Pliny the Elder tore around the ancient papyrus maps. I have an image of Pliny when he was much younger, as if I am there on the deck of his wooden boat, part of his crew and Pliny my captain cutting the waves in a speedy Arab felucca, firkins lashed down and sharp sails snapping and swinging around my sunburnt face.
I hang my white shirts in the sun near a lazaretto, the hospital island named after the beggar Lazarus, an island where they loaded plague victims on open barges to the sea and I wonder, how does Eve’s skin feel and smell, and what is it to cradle her limbs on a high Irish hill and feel her shirt, feel her shadow move over me like a cloud on gold grass.
Tell me, is luck a thing you manufacture, like a set of tires?
In my room late at night I can’t stop listening to Cat Power’s troubled cover of Moonshiner, listen over and over to her lament, if the drinking do not kill me. Her voice, ghostly slow, seems to accrue more meaning and weight than the song’s plain words should be able to convey. It’s a spooky puzzle and I keep trying to figure it out and at 2am the matter seems of utmost importance.
Our sheets and shirts spread on the bright terrace as we taste apples from Afghanistan and dates from the Euphrates and sip sharp juice from blood oranges. It’s so lovely to eat outside with a view of this fabled river and leper colony. Mangos and blood oranges, mangos her new favourite and Eve waves a tiny knife to demonstrates how to peel the lovely skin.
Eve smiles widely. “Remember we saw that huge fish jump by the island? Two or three feet, and fat!” She seems bright today. Is sleep coming easier at night? Will we ever be reconciled with the knife at the party, will the mind forget the body twitching in the hall and the dead man’s daughter weeping? All those body parts worked as a perfect machine until the introduction of the knife into the sensitive wires under the surface. We escaped to the silent train and the next town’s closed shutters.
“What is Italian for blood oranges? I should know,” Eve says.
Later she remembers and e-mails an answer: Arancia sanguigna. Ci vediamo presto! xxx
See you soon. In Gaspé the laundry-lines so noisy flapping in the winds off the sea, but in Rome her sheets are silent in sun and heat, no noise or fanfare as moisture exits the cotton, cloth dry in moments.
“Are you peckish?” We have smoked salmon and honeydew apples. “We’ll eat a bite and then wander.” When wandering I enjoy happy accidents, enjoy my mind’s momentary lapses and I forget where I am. I wandered through Piazza Cavour the other afternoon and found a huge bruised palace fronted by groves of shaggy palms trees, tropical palm trees and erotic statues on stone plinths, this otherworldly palace decorated like a Cuban wedding cake – such long stripes of ornate balcony and porticos and fluttering doves and steroid blossoms pushed toward me from every meaty tree in the piazza.
I stand in Italy and walk someone else’s fever dream of Latin America. What a dream, what a bewitching chimera city, where they beat the shit out of the patron saint of lovers with clubs and separated him from his head.
In this concussed city Eve cooks a beautiful omelette of market eggs and goat cheese, she chops spinach and green onion and layers a thin membrane of smoked salmon within the eggs. She wields a sharp knife. Does my cousin wish to kill me, leave me twitching? No, she slices her creation so neatly, half for her mouth and half for mine, and her tender omelette melts on our tongue, the best I have ever tasted.
Later we will walk fountain to fountain, drift palace to palace, painting to painting, but first we eat and drink at our small table on my sunny terrace. Soon we will go to Venice and Cannaregio and the cemetery islands to visit Ezra Pound and Joseph Brodksy and dangle our legs in the canal, sit at the canal drinking chalices of beer and eating tiny cicchetti from the charming bartender with the shaven skull at Zonan Birreria. I travel so large a world, but my favourite is the tiny island we create when two people are kind to each other.
Mark Anthony Jarman is the author of Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, My White Planet, 19 Knives, New Orleans Is Sinking, Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, and the travel book Ireland’s Eye. He has published in Walrus, Canadian Geographic, Hobart, the Barcelona Review, Vrij Nederland, and the Globe and Mail.