Julienne in Rome
“You are one lucky man,” the street vendor said. He leered. Esby, looking closely at the man, didn’t feel lucky. He didn’t know what he felt. Maybe he still felt the effects of a quarrel he had with Julienne at the hotel, even though, in the end, she apologized.
“Let’s buy a camera,” Julienne suggested, pulling down on the front of Esby’s shirt while displaying a smile. Esby recognized the gesture.
“How much for this camera?” Esby asked, pointing at a disposable model on display next to bottles of Gatorade in assorted flavors.
“Fifteen euros,” the street vendor replied, but he didn’t look at Esby, who translated the price. Almost 20 dollars.
The vendor stared at Julienne. Esby felt an irritation rising and looked closely at the man, who resembled a typical middle-aged Roman, short and deeply tanned, with leathery skin, the result of too many days in the sun. But he didn’t talk like one. He spoke English with an American accent. He probably grew up in New Jersey, Esby thought, and returned to Rome to set up a little business for himself. He must have gotten a tip from a friend or a relative and rushed to this spot. After all, it was prime real estate at the base of the Capitolium, or, simply, il capitolino, on Via dei Fori Imperiali.
Julienne said something, and Esby looked at her, recalling he had heard somewhere the SuperSharp 180 produced photos of high quality.
“I’ll take it,” Esby said, “and I want two bottles of Gatorade.”
The street vendor continued to stare at Julienne, and Esby could feel his irritation rising once more. The little man’s eyes grew dull, as if they had died. His origins were in one of the central regions of Italy, Esby decided, Toscana, Umbria, or Lazio, which encompassed Rome. Typically, the émigrés who returned to the old world were 65 or 70 years old, though, and looking to retire. This man was different. He was not old; he certainly was not retiring.
“Where are you from?” the man asked Julienne.
“Paris,” Julienne said. “But my family is from Congo.” She wore a breast-hugging top, a pair of tight jeans, and the latest French-style, high-heeled sandals. She was slender, dark, and almost as tall as Esby.
The vendor continued to stare at her from behind the counter of his little street business. It may have been small in size but undoubtedly it was a high-profit operation.
How many tourists, Esby wondered, paid more than four dollars for a bottle of water and six dollars for a bottle of Gatorade? Probably two hundred a day. He looked around, peering out from under the umbrella through the light, heat, and dust at the crowds of tourists which swarmed in all directions while small, intent cars coursed through the streets. Locals were darting out of or into unrelenting streams of traffic. He wanted to get out of there.
“Well? How much?” Esby said, shifting his gaze to the face of the vendor. But he already knew. “Quanto ti devo?” He added. “Twenty-five euros?”
The man nodded. But Esby was watching his own hands as they counted out the money, separating euros from dollars. He tried to remember the last time he had spent money in Belgium. It was in Tervuren, a town outside Brussels where he had lived, a day before he had packed his clothes and books in two suitcases.
“Eccoli,” Esby said, looking up and placing the bills on the counter next to the postcards of the blonde women in bikinis. Abruptly, the vendor scooped up the money and turned to his right.
“Yes, my friend,” he said to a Japanese tourist.
When Esby turned away from the counter, he noticed Julienne had stepped out from under the umbrella and started to walk across Via dei Fori Imperiali. As she crossed the street, she raised one of the bottles of Gatorade to her lips with her left hand and started to drink. He watched. The liquid was dark blue; against the backdrop of blue sky her bare, dark skin was illuminated by the light.
“Do you want to visit the museums now?” Esby called out to Julienne.
As Esby walked, he regretted buying the camera, not because he didn’t want to commemorate Julienne’s trip, but because he had acted rashly. The exorbitant price of the camera added insult to the injury of the ridiculous price of the two bottles of Gatorade. When he reached the west side of Via dei Fori Imperiali, he put his arm around Julienne, who had approached, and as quickly as the feeling of regret swept over him in the previous moment, it disappeared.
Side by side, they moved down the sidewalk. A large group of Japanese tourists approached from the opposite direction.
“Wait a moment,” Esby said, raising the camera to the level of his chest. He motioned her to a spot at the base of the seemingly endless steps leading up to the museums, which occupied the Capitolium. He looked up and immediately closed his eyes against the assault. The majestic domes and statues and the broad steps which led up to them shone too brightly, bleached a blinding white by the unforgiving rays of the sun.
“It’s too bright here,” Esby said to himself.
Julienne struck a pose, and Esby raised the camera to the level of his eyes, holding it with two hands in front of his face. He focused the lens. What is she thinking? He tried to imagine, but he could not, and, abruptly, he stopped thinking.
“L’ho fatto,” Esby said.
Julienne approached, raising the bottle of Gatorade again. The dark blue liquid filtered the afternoon sunlight, turning it gold. He had met Julienne at Le Sud on a cool, grey September night in downtown Brussels. It was only seven months earlier, but it seemed like a long time ago, especially when he considered how much had happened since then, including the demise of the popular bar and dance club, which had burned down in an inferno so explosive it had threatened to engulf the entire center of old Brussels.
“What time is it?” Julienne asked.
“3:45,” he replied, looking at the digital watch strapped to his left wrist. He felt disoriented.
“It’s too late to go to the museums now,” she said, staring off into the distance for a few moments. “Where shall we go?”
“I don’t care,” he said, but as soon as he uttered the words, he knew he had made a mistake. She became angry when he was indecisive.
“We’re walking around like we’re lost,” she answered. “We’ve been doing it the whole day.”
“The whole day? We didn’t leave the hotel room until almost 1:00,” Esby thought.
“All right,” he said out loud, recalling a shopping district close by. “Let’s go this way.”
They moved a few feet in a northerly direction and stopped, facing Piazza Nazionale. Streams of people flowed around them, slightly diverting from their courses, barely avoiding them, occasionally bumping into them. He guided her into the stream flowing into Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II, a wide street. Like other streets in il centro storico, it contained both automobile and pedestrian traffic.
Esby stopped, and Julienne stopped next to him at the intersection of Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II and a smaller, equally congested street, Via delle Farfalle, according to the words engraved on the black, iron plaque affixed to the stone wall of a building, which was a branch office of Banca D’Italia. Boutiques on the sides of the street displayed the latest fashions.
Esby looked at Julienne. Her eyes were wide open. They seemed to attempt to focus on everything at once. She pointed at a leather jacket, a light shade of purple, in the window of the store next to the bank on the corner. She moved closer to examine it. Then she saw something in the doorway of the adjoining store which caught her eye.
“Look at those shoes,” Julienne said. “I need to go inside. Wait for me here.”
“Here?” Esby said, realizing, suddenly, the consequences of his decision to go shopping.
A group of young Italian men approached, talking loudly, gesturing wildly. Julienne bent over to examine a pair of high-heeled sandals. Abruptly, she stood up, looked at him, and smiled. Then she was gone.