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PART II


14

Ciao, ciao, the porter said to me, as I left.

I waved at him, went out into the courtyard and walked a pathway lined with stone busts.

My first day in Rome, and I felt as if I was in the middle of one big flashback.

When I had arrived at OHare yesterday, my flight wasnt leaving for a few hours. Using one of the public computer kiosks, I got on the Internet and searched for hotels in Rome. The rates were astronomical. Since Mayburn picked up my flight, I was willing to take on some credit card debt (something Id never done before), but if I stayed a week in the Roman hotels, even the modest ones, Id have to live in a cardboard box under Lower Wacker when I returned.

I kept thinking about the summer Id spent in Rome years ago. It was during that time that my friendship with Maggie solidified into sisterhood. Maggie and I immersed ourselves in Roma, in our fellow students, our professors, the tenets of international and comparative law, and it was as if a happy bubble had sprung up around us. Of course, there were the usual travelers woes-blisters adorning our feet, having to wash your underwear in a dorm sink-but I loved every bit.

As I remembered that time, a thought occurred to me. I found the Web site for Loyolas Rome campus. It was in Monte Mario, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city with upscale apartments and a few piazzas full of shops.

I scrolled through the Web site. And there, on the bottom of the Housing page, it said, Alumni: Rent a Room! Low Occupancy in the Summer Means We Welcome Visitors! I scrolled to find the cost-less than half of what the hotels were charging. I could put up with dorm-style living in order to save money and to be, once again, in Rome, where I could escape Dez Romano and where Elena couldnt escape the questions about my father.

The campus was set on a long, narrow, grassy plot of land, the main building a three-story unassuming brick affair. But if the architecture and the setting were somewhat unremarkable, the feel of the place-the energy-wasnt. Rome is a seen-it-all kind of place. No matter how much the Italians delight in things-food and wine and sex, to name a few-the fact remains that their cultural DNA includes a world weariness of it all. And yet the American students who studied at Loyola were visiting Italy, and sometimes Europe, for the first time. They were wide-eyed, eager to see, to learn, to live. And so the campus with its otherwise sleepy appearance hummed with that energy. It vibrated at a low level but with a certain light that colored everything a pretty ochre, that made the place soothing and yet made it sing.

Thank God, because dorm living and me really werent made for each other. But I let the energy of the place take me, happily, to the showers that scalded in such a familiar way and then turned suddenly freezing, to the teeny bed that was really just a cot with sheets that felt like paper towels. I slept a dreamless sleep-a godsend-and in the morning, I left my dorm room and strolled past the campuss stone busts. I pushed through the tall metal door set into the high brick wall and walked onto the street.

A bus took me to the Balduina subway station, and I rode a couple trains until I landed at the Barberini stop. I got out there simply because I couldnt remember seeing the piazza during my last visit. When I got to the top of the subway steps, I chose a cloth-covered table at a restaurant, essentially because it was the first one I saw, and I was bleary and hungry from the overnight flight.

Even though I normally avoided caffeine, I knew I should probably get a cappuccino, something to power through my jet lag. But when in Italy one tries to do what the Italians do, and the Italians dont drink cappuccino with their midday meal, they drink wine. I ordered a glass of Greco di Tufo.

Then I got out a notebook I had brought with me, opened it to the first page and wrote at the top: Christopher McNeil, Things to Do.

Under that, I wrote:

1. Find Elena, get her to talk

2. Bug Mayburn to find R. J. Ohman, flight instructor. Ask him why Fed instructor needed for McNeil and also what was cause of crash

3. Learn who killed Grandpa Kelvin

4. Find out more about the Rizzato Brothers

I put the pen down and looked up via Veneto, the street that the restaurant faced. It was a wide, stately avenue flanked with regal appartamenti decorated with stone balconies and potted plants. It ended at the Piazza Barberini. A hotel sat at one side of the piazza. Its unimaginative brick front looked more like an American hotel, but surrounding it were stuccoed buildings painted brick-orange, their windows and shutters thrown open. Taxis and scooters and the tiniest of cars zipped around the circular piazza. And not just any scooters. Vespas! Rome wasnt just the capital city of Italy, it was the capital city of Vespa country. They skirted the fountain and shot up via Veneto. I itched to get my fingers on the handgrips of one of them.

I took my cell phone from my bag and set it on the table, hoping my aunt Elena might call. I had followed Mayburns recommendation that I turn on my international service while in the car on the way to the airport, and so my phone worked. Since I didnt know where she lived I had called Aunt Elena three times since landing in Rome. Each time, the phone was answered with a quick message in Italian. I couldnt understand whether it was Elenas voice telling me to leave a message or a recorded message notifying me I had dialed wrong.

I had decided I would keep calling and, meanwhile, forge into the city. If there was one thing I learned on my previous visit to Rome it was how much I didnt get to see. The treasures, the hidden courtyards, the historic sites-these are endless in Rome. And according to a guidebook Id picked up, a rash of new musi, galleries and palazzi had opened.

I pulled out that guidebook and flipped through it now, setting my sights on the Barberini Palace, right around the corner from the piazza. I kept studying the book, hoping I could divine the gallery Elena had mentioned, the one where she was working and which she said was close to her heart. The problem was, I didnt know Elena very well. I didnt know what moved her heart. Come to think of it, I wasnt sure what moved my own heart these days.

The sight of Alyssa in Sams apartment-in Sams T-shirt-nagged me, kept showing up in my mind like a neon-lit image. I let that image linger and filled it with more light, because sometimes that chased away the feel of Sams farewell embrace.

To get rid of both of them, I perused the menu.

I ordered a pasta Id never heard of and watched the Sunday foot traffic on the street, hoping in vain that somehow Elena might walk by, fearing that if she did I wouldnt recognize her.

I looked at my watch. It was early in Chicago, but that was probably the best time to catch Q. He would make me laugh about my whole situation somehow. He would encourage me to enjoy this time.

I called his home phone, at the apartment he shared with his wealthy boyfriend, but their voice mail picked up right away. Were not in right now, I heard Qs recorded voice say. In fact, were in St. Barts, and were not checking messages, but leave us one, and well call you when we get back.

I hung up, suddenly wistful at the thought of how much time Q and I used to have together and how our life paths had diverged so sharply. I went back to watching the foot traffic pass my table. The longer I stared at the parade of pedestrians, the more I noticed that Rome was different from when I was here eight years ago. Or maybe it was just the Roman men.

When I was last in Rome, if a reasonably attractive woman stopped on the street to consult a map or much less ate alone at a restaurant, as I was doing, it would invite a torrent of male attention. The men would literally surround you-touching you, shouting come-ons in a desperate mix of Italian and English. It became one of Italy s few liabilities.

As I sat near the Piazza Barberini, alone and unap-proached, it was clear things had changed.

My pasta was delivered-green-and-white striped noodles in a mushroom-y broth. Delicious.

I kept eating my pasta and sipping my wine, depressed a bit about the change in the Roman men. Being single for the first time in years, I had envisioned a bevy of male attention that, although largely unwanted, would serve to lift me away from my questions about Sam, from a lingering taste of fear at the back of my throat every time I thought of Dez and Michael.

In fact, most of the men strutted by, not noticing any women. The men were dressed in exquisite fashion, their heads held high. Most of them were in perfect shape, their black hair tousled to perfection. It was almost as if they expected to be watched now, expected that they should be the admired ones. They were preening peacocks, full of bravado, no longer reduced to preying on tourists.

I picked up my phone and called Maggie.

What courthouse? she barked into the phone. I could imagine Maggie in her South Loop apartment, her body only a tiny bump in her big bed. Whats the bond? Maggie loved to sleep as late as possible, but was constantly awakened by drug clients who often landed in holding cells over the course of the night.

Sorry, Mags, I said.

Hey, just because youre not working doesnt mean the rest of us arent. A pause. Well, actually, I was going to be working because of my trial but I got directed verdict on Friday. Which means Im going back to bed. Call you later.

Im in Rome! I tossed out before she could hang up.

What?

Yeah, I got here yesterday.

Youre kidding me? Did you get a hold of your aunt Elena?

Not yet. But I just felt like getting out of town. And away from Dez and Michael.

Youre in Rome?

Yeah. Im sitting outside near Piazza Barberini right now.

How is it?

As beautiful and chaotic as always. You should get on a plane and get over here.

Oh, I dont know. My trial is over, but Ive got to dig myself out of the mountain I let pile up while I was prepping for it.

I told her I was staying at the Loyola campus.

Youre kidding? she said.

You have to see it again. Cmon, Mags. How often are we going to get this chance? How often are we both going to be single at the same time? I mean, in a couple of years you might be married with a kid. Maggie very much wanted a family. It was the husband part of that proposition that was causing her trouble.

Youre right, she said, her voice excited. And we could celebrate your thirtieth.

Ive got a glass of wine in front of me and a spot across the table for you.

Im calling my travel agent.

Seriously?

Im going to make this happen. Im coming to Rome.


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