Eternal Goodbye: Rome
Esby looked away just for a moment from the streams of cars with the image of her face appearing before his eyes. The digital watch strapped to his left wrist showed 7:15, its round face illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun. He had 30 minutes. The road to Fiumicino, the international airport on the outskirts of Rome, would be jammed.
The garbage on the streets was piling up. He had heard about the chaos of Rome, in fact, before he had moved to the Italian capital three months earlier. His colleagues in other European capitals were fond of using a different nickname for the Eternal City: Cairo North. But now the disorder was overwhelming.
Esby fought the impulse to kneel on the sidewalk next to a clump of weeds and an empty bottle of San Pellegrino mineral water at the edge of Via Cristoforo Colombo. It was the busiest thoroughfare in Rome. He could feel the presence of the Roman drivers, only inches away from him, as they navigated their motorbikes or slightly larger cars along the streams of traffic flowing in both directions as far as the eye could see.
None of it made sense to Esby. He laughed, looking up at the sky. Life now with Julienne was different than it had been. He would see her again soon, although how soon depended on when he arrived at the airport. Only fifteen minutes before, Esby barely could remain calm in his chair as he sat at his desk at the back of the editorial team’s office holding the receiver of the telephone to his ear and listened to the dispatcher speaking in local dialect.
“A taxi,” she had said, “will arrive for you in twenty minutes.”
All week Esby had been waiting to hear those words. He was, without a doubt, excited to see Julienne. To his colleagues and also to himself, he freely admitted the fact. But at the same time, he was feeling, he realized, increasingly anxious. Rome, in many respects, was a beautiful city, despite the growing mounds of garbage. However, most of all, it was stressful. Romans, often aggressively and dramatically, seemed to pursue conflict and tension; he, in contrast, required a certain amount of peace and harmony. In Rome, he barely could get by on his own. How could he look after Julienne, prone to self-doubt and insecurity?
The sky above the highway still displayed its lighter shades of blue. To the east it revealed darker shades of purple and even streaks of black to signal the approaching night. As Esby’s eyes moved, shifting his view from the blue expanse above back down to the grey streets and buildings of the city below, his glance fell on a small green sports utility vehicle.
Esby watched as the vehicle detached itself from a stream of cars and pulled to the side of the wide boulevard. It came to a halt directly in front of him. Esby recognized the driver. Carlo Medrone, a production manager in Esby’s company, sat behind the steering wheel of the compact SUV. The middle-aged corpulent man rolled down the window on the passenger door.
“Ciao, bello!” Carlo shouted.
The words resonated in Esby’s head. Loud, aggressive, familiar. Esby bent his torso slightly from its upright position to make eye contact with the driver, but instead his gaze was captured and directed downward to the floor in front of the passenger seat. In the next moment, Esby’s glance shifted back upward again, detaching itself from the images of naked women in lewd poses on plain covers of various magazines on the floor and, then, fastening on Carlo’s face. As quickly as Esby had felt in the previous moment a wave of embarrassment, he now felt a sudden and genuine confusion.
The Roman’s face was impassive, almost innocent.
Then Esby recalled that Carlo’s long-time boss, a Frenchman named Daniel, had published a series of pornographic titles for many years, although he had attempted to hide their existence from Esby and his compatriots who now worked for Daniel’s newest magazines, including the latest one about buying and selling art, where Esby was managing editor.
When Esby had moved to Europe 15 months earlier to take on the role of editor, he had struggled to adapt to a new life, both inside and outside the office of the young magazine. Then, a year after he had arrived in Brussels, where he and the rest of the editorial staff initially were based, he was forced to pick up his possessions and move to Rome, where his bosses in New York and their close friend and Roman partner, Daniel, had decided to take advantage of lower labor costs and publish all magazines.
“Where are you going?” Carlo asked, speaking in his native Romanesco with its long, indecent drawl. “Do you want a ride?” Esby felt a different emotion then. Was it disdain?
“I’m going to the airport, capo,” Esby replied, pronouncing carefully the words in the Italian he had been learning to speak, although he had studied the language at the university in California for three years because of some vague, romantic notions he had long since buried along with other, painful memories. Esby doubted the older man would want to drive him such a long distance. Fiumicino occupied a grassy plot of land 25 kilometers west of Rome.
“Well, we’ll see each other tomorrow at the office. Ciao,” Carlo said.
Carlo shifted his corpulence in the seat, looked over his left shoulder, and waited a few moments. Then he shot his car forward. The car moved away from Esby, and he watched as it attached itself once again to the stream of cars flowing, he thought, with more urgency among the dim shadows of evening.
Esby knew, at that moment, his life would never be the same, no matter the direction of his relationship with Julienne or the success or failure of his magazine, which currently was headed toward bankruptcy. He knew he had to keep trying out new ideas and new projects. He couldn’t go back to where he started. In California, there was nothing for him, except demons he was trying to escape.
“Ha. Ha. Ha.”
Then came a shriek. It happened again.
Esby opened his eyes. Laughter, he realized, had come from the corridor just beyond the door to his hotel room. He was awake now. A third shriek of laughter reached his ears, this time accompanied by the sound of rapid, but not heavy, footsteps on a carpeted floor. It was a small girl, or perhaps boy, Esby decided, running down the corridor. Then he heard the sound of a door opening and closing.
“The child is inside a room now,” he said to himself. He pictured the doors, all painted a dark red, to at least ten rooms along the light brown-carpeted hallway on the 5th floor of Hotel La Rovere, just off Piazza della Rovere.
A silence ensued. Esby looked to his right at the blue numbers of the digital readout covering the face of the clock on the nightstand.
“It’s almost 10:15,” he whispered. But the morning, the first part of Saturday, the day before Easter, had passed by entirely.
“Was breakfast still being served in the restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel? If the dining room downstairs was closed, could he find a small market or café nearby where he could order a quick meal?”
“There isn’t much time,” he whispered again.
Esby raised his torso a foot off the bed, propping himself on his elbows, and looked to his left. He saw the body lying next to him, completely enclosed in a white sheet and black comforter with red stitching. Julienne, still asleep, lay on her side facing the window, the window now hidden behind a thick, green curtain overlooking the narrow, cobblestone street below. A narrow band of sunlight breaking through the point at which the two parts of the curtain came together lit up a corresponding patch of brown carpet lying between the window and Julienne’s side of the bed.
Esby stood up from his side of the bed and moved toward the bathroom next to the front door.
The moment Esby closed the door of the bathroom and turned on the light above the blue-tiled sink, scenes from the previous night came flooding back.
The airport, on a Friday night leading into Easter week-end, barely could contain the surging crowds, large numbers of travelers who either were departing for other cities or were arriving in Rome. Small units, meanwhile, of traditional, brightly costumed carabinieri or more solemn, black-uniformed military personnel roamed the congested spaces of the terminal, moving their eyes from side to side.
Esby recalled rushing through the terminal, thinking he was one hour late and expecting to find Julienne sitting on a hard, metal seat, fuming, ready to voice displeasure. But, then, he recalled, after carving a path through the crowds and reaching a designated waiting room, he had lingered for one-and-a-half hours, pacing back and forth on the hard linoleum floor until seeing at last on a monitor above his head an update indicating Julienne’s plane—Virgin Express flight 2717—had landed in Rome.
The plane had departed Brussels much later than planned. Why hadn’t Julienne called? Maybe the plane been trapped on the tarmac, unexpectedly, and Julienne couldn’t call because her cell phone didn’t have a signal inside the cabin? Maybe she had forgotten her phone?
It was almost midnight, Esby remembered, when Julienne appeared in the baggage-claim area, walking quickly and assuredly on five-inch heels pulling a small suitcase on wheels. He had wanted to take her back to the city center and check into the hotel room he had reserved. But, immediately, he realized he couldn’t.
“Let’s go find a restaurant and eat some pizza or pasta,” Julienne said upon approaching him, flashing her trademark smile and kissing him. Then she transferred the handle of her suitcase from her left hand to his right hand. “I’m hungry,” she added.
Julienne never explained either the reason the plane arrived in Rome late or why she had not called. Her phone, he noticed, was inside her purse. It was another mysterious misconnection. Something always seemed to go wrong, or she changed plans with no explanation.