The Dog Outside the Hotel
Esby and Julienne skirted the periphery of Piazza della Rovere toward the entrance of the Hotel Rovere. A lone dog with a short, black coat sat on the sidewalk. The dog was completely motionless, unnaturally still, as if made of stone. It watched, its gaze fixed on the entrance, its anticipation almost too intense.
No one emerged from the hotel. Nothing moved. The stillness was as profound as the quiet after a storm. Their footsteps, precise and soundless against ancient stones, were surprising. They entered the building. They passed the front desk and an unseeing man who, apparently too old and too tired to sit up in a wooden chair, slumped to one side. He didn’t seem conscious. Soothing air, cool and dark, flowed toward them as they approached a large atrium.
They rode the elevator to the 5th floor, disembarked, and went down a corridor. The thick, light brown carpet, which looked new, swallowed their steps. They saw no one, heard no sound. Silence was absolute. It seemed as if every object in the old hotel had become unreal.
Esby stopped in front of a door. Julienne, who had been walking behind him, stopped too. He inserted his left hand into his left pocket and then his right hand into his right pocket. At first, the fingers of his right hand could not find a key. Then, they found one and succeeded in clasping it. Esby hesitated, released the key, then clasped it again. He repeated his actions a third time. Esby took the key out of his pocket, looked around, and inserted it into the lock. He paused for a moment, turned the key, and opened the door. It made a scraping sound. Esby watched as Julienne brushed by and disappeared into the bathroom. The door closed. The lock turned, making a sound he thought was too loud.
Esby went over to the bed and sat on it noticing with surprise as if it were impossible it was soft. He was tired and wanted to pull back the covers, lie on the sheets, rest his head on a pillow, and pull covers over his body. Instead, he did the opposite. He stood up, reached for a TV remote, and pushed a button. Images flashed across a screen. Music filled the room. MTV Italia seemed unfamiliar. Presenters spoke Italian while performers, Americans, sang in English. He didn’t recognize the songs. The singers looked unhealthy and bored. The music, in fact, mixing with late afternoon sunlight, was upsetting.
Esby walked to the window and looked down, but saw only pale, grey cobblestones on a narrow road widening at one end and curving out of sight on the other. A dog trotted past. It was the dog which had been sitting at the hotel entrance.
Why had it been waiting? He wanted to call to the dog, but knew it was too far away.
Esby flexed muscles in his legs. He bent over from the waist and touched the floor with the palms of his hand. He felt his fatigue. He looked at his digital watch. It was 5:40, and he recalled an appointment with Karen near Santa Maria Maggiore church. They had agreed to meet in Trastevere at 7:00 at a popular restaurant, I Tre Fratelli, which offered his favorite dish, spinach ravioli, among other dishes for dinner.
Esby stood at the bathroom door.
“Julienne?” he said. He could hear nothing inside the bathroom. Behind him, a pseudo-Frank Sinatra sang, “My Way.” Esby placed his ear against the door and listened. He heard water running in the sink. “Can you hear me?” he asked. “Do you want to meet Karen for dinner?”
“You abandoned me.” Three words. Esby stared at the floor. He was disappointed in himself. He didn’t blame Julienne, only himself.
The door to the bathroom opened. Esby backed up and looked ahead. Julienne emerged with one of the complementary robes wrapped around her body. She avoided his gaze and went to her suitcase from which she removed a skirt and a blouse. Then she placed a pair of gold earrings on the bed covers. He had given her the earrings a couple of days before he left Brussels for Rome.
“We’ll go,” Julienne said, finally, speaking so softly he barely heard.
“Romans behave like children, especially in public,” Karen said. She picked up her glass of pinot noir and moved it to her lips. She took a sip, then a big swallow. She held the glass in her hand so that its rim was level with her shoulder. It was a typically dramatic gesture on her part. She was English and expressive by nature, but, he thought, she often tried too hard to emulate the melodramas of Italians.
“On the streets,” Karen continued, “they stare at everyone, but they expect you to stare back at them. They need attention. It’s a game, and it’s all about them. It’s not about you. So, don’t take it seriously. The French—unfortunately, of course, you are French; you aren’t Congolese anymore—take everything so seriously.”
Karen, who was a marketing manager for the same company which published Esby’s magazine, believed in being direct. She paused for a long time now. Then she looked at Julienne and smiled.
“You’ll be fine,” Karen said.
Julienne always had liked Karen, who was a chubby and older but, apparently, a sensual woman. She seemed to gaze with admiration—or perhaps envy—on the young and visually stunning Julienne. Esby was glad he and Julienne had left the hotel, after all, to meet Karen. He felt relaxed for the first time all day. The three of them sat in wicker chairs at a table in a corner of the restaurant with remnants of the evening meal before them on a white tablecloth.
The food was good, Esby had to admit. He loved spinach ravioli. He was staring across the crowded restaurant and through the open door into the night. His eyes focused on Santa Maria Maggiore, illuminated by brilliant orange lights in the darkness. The church seemed to dominate everything. A dog trotted past the open gate to the church. He thought it was the same dog who was at the hotel earlier.
“Will you give him another chance?” Karen asked. She took another sip of wine and leaned across the table, her face flushed from the wine. She was drunk now. But so was Julienne. Karen reached out her hand. Julienne allowed Karen’s hand to clasp her own.
“I don’t know,” Julienne said. “It depends on what he wants.” She frowned. The alcohol seemed to lose its potency. She was anxious. “He has to decide what he wants.”
Esby knew he might have to return to the United States soon. Julienne knew it too. But they hadn’t discussed any long-term plans. Still he suspected she would want him to take her with him. He hadn’t made up his mind, and he realized she knew he had not. It was, perhaps, the primary reason she increasingly was annoyed with him. Her nursing program in Brussels was not going well. She was failing her courses, and her parents in Paris were growing more displeased every day.
Karen, though, knew nothing about Julienne’s struggles at school. The English woman, taking another drink from her glass of pinot noir, clearly was enjoying herself.
“This wine is very good,” Karen said, leaning back in her chair. “We need another bottle.” She glanced at the waiter and gestured for him to come over. “Look at it this way,” Karen added, leaning forward now. “Esby doesn’t have to decide what he wants.” She drained the contents of her glass. Then she said: “He has to see what he already has.”
They were talking about Esby as if he wasn’t there. He felt a faint irritation, but it wasn’t enough to cause him to respond and stir things up. He looked out the door at Santa Maria Maggiore, even more brilliant now. He had read about the church and its history, but all that he could think about at this point was that it looked peaceful and he felt tired.
Maybe we can visit it tomorrow, he thought.