Like any Roman, Elena was quick on the cobbled streets, dodging down one alley, one street, rushing through another section of town, then another, striding in front of taxis with her hand held out, assuming (correctly) that they would all stop for her. The afternoon had turned humid, the air thick with exhaust and heat. The tourists were easy to spot-all scrutinizing maps, their faces confused and sweating-while the Romans breezed by, seeming not to notice them and not perspiring a drop.
We passed through the Piazza Navona, where street vendors ran after tourists, trying to sell belts and bags. I wondered if they were fakes made by the Camorra. We skirted the Pantheon next, the circular temple still and solid amid the chaos of the city. I glanced across the piazza and saw the ivory-colored awnings of Fortunato, the ristorante where Elena had taken Maggie and me when we were here years ago. Had my father been here, too? How had Elena sat across from me then, knowing my father was-what?-maybe a mile away?
Meanwhile, where we were going now, I had no idea. Elena had told me to follow her. That was all. Elena walked faster as I struggled over the cobblestones, always a step behind. She dodged around more tourists, she darted into deserted alleys and then would turn again onto the bigger streets like the Corso. I kept following her, past gelaterie, past piazzas with center obelisks and columns decorated with enough symbolism to study for years.
All the while, Elena was quiet. I kept sending glances at her, murmuring my appreciation for taking me to him, for being honest with me. When these comments were met with nothing more than a scared look in my direction, I decided to ignore the topic of my father, and instead started commenting on a church or a facade of a shop as if we were out sightseeing. Elena responded to the overtures with a terse nod, a quick smile, her face always returning to one of deep thought. I decided not to say anything more. I was afraid she would change her mind.
We turned another corner, and I gasped at the sight of the Trevi Fountain. Tucked in an otherwise average and rather small piazza, the fountain was a massive white marble wall, carved with a commanding figure of Neptune in the center. Streams and arcs of glistening water shot into a huge oval pool that glittered silver and gold from the coins coating the bottom.
Tourists were packed in front of the fountain, snapping pictures and throwing coins over their left shoulder, a superstitious way to ensure your return to Rome.
Elena stopped, too, as if giving me a short break. She followed my gaze to the pool. “Do you know,” she said, pointing at the coins, “how much we collect every night from the Fontana di Trevi? Three thousand euros.”
Elena nodded. “They say they give the money to a supermarket for food for poor families.” She shrugged as if to say that might happen and it might not. She touched my arm. “Andiamo.” Let’s go.
Elena started moving fast again, skirting the fountain, not giving it another thought. I got my legs moving and scurried after her, but I kept slowing inadvertently, darting glances at the fountain. I felt envious of the tourists, and I wondered if I didn’t throw a coin, would I get back to this city? I shook the thought away. It didn’t matter. How could it possibly when I was about to meet my father, to see him resurrected from the land of the dead?
Elena threw a glance over her shoulder at me. Her expression seemed to say, Hurry or I’ll change my mind.
At a corner of the Trevi’s piazza, I followed Elena to the right, into a narrow, jaggedly shaped street. A bookstore was on a corner. Elena turned left in front of it, then right, then left, weaving away from the fountain, the sounds of its crowds and splashing water receding quickly.
Suddenly, Elena stopped at a wood door. Many of the doors in Rome are works of art-some are tiny, others three stories tall and arched at the top. They might be made of hammered metal or studded with iron posts or boasting handles the size of a globe and shaped like a lion’s head. Some were painted faded red, others a vibrant green. They might be trimmed with marble or decorated with brass finishings. But this door was boring in contrast to the usual lot. It was the same size as the doors at home, rectangular, nondescript-made of wood that was clearly thick and solid, with fist-sized circles carved at the four corners.
Elena reached up and pressed the top right circle. The seemingly solid wood depressed, then just as quickly regained its shape, so that nothing about the door appeared different.
There was a clicking sound. Elena looked over her shoulder, past me, her eyes darting up and down the street, then she pressed the door with the flat of her hand and it swung inward.
She gestured at me to follow her. We stepped into a foyer, cold and dark, made of white marble with streaks of gray. The only light in the small space came from two iron sconces high on either side wall. There was nothing else in the foyer-not a piece of art on the walls, not a chair or a hall table. Elena took a few steps toward the other end. I did the same and stood behind her. It was so quiet that I began to notice the pulse in my ears, the beat of my heart. Both sounded like drums, thudding slowly, then faster and louder, faster and louder.
I watched as Elena reached out and touched the marble wall, sliding aside what was apparently a small panel. A keypad was behind it. She punched in a few numbers and then letters with an elegant finger, not bothering to hide them from me. The letters I recognized-V-I-C-T-O-R-I-A.
“My mother’s name,” I said.
“And what were the numbers?”
I thought about it for a second. “June 18. The day they got married.”
Elena nodded. “It changes frequently, but yes, that’s correct.” She slid the panel shut.
I noticed, right then, that I was trembling a little. I tried to calm myself, tried not to think any thoughts at all, because, if I did, they would only be a battalion of warring questions-What am I doing? Where are we going? Where is my father?
But the questions broke through anyway, muddling my mind, the whole experience reeling with the surreal.
I looked at Elena. Her mouth was grim, her eyes worried. She seemed to see me studying her, and she gave me a smile that broke the tension in her face. But then just as quick it was gone.
A whirring sound, and suddenly the back wall of the foyer began to move. It was a pocket door of sorts, I realized. I stared in awe at the space behind it. Would my father be standing there? What would he look like? Would I want to hug him? Or would I want to slug him for disappearing on us? Or would it be something else altogether-would I feel nothing upon seeing a man who was, after all, just a stranger now?