AN INTRODUCTION BY BRANDON TAYLOR
Donald Windham’s novel Two People was first published in 1965, though I first encountered it in 2010. Back then, I was always looking up lists of gay novels because I wanted to read about people like myself. After a bookseller at my local chain store told me in no vague terms that they were a family bookstore and didn’t sell those kinds of books, I turned to the internet and, through a series of random clicks, landed on Two People. I recently realized that I’ve carried it with me every time I’ve moved out of and back into the dorms of undergrad and then graduate school in the Midwest. It’s been a constant companion, the way that the most important books of our lives often are.
On its surface, Two People is a simple story. Forrest, a man unmoored in Rome by his wife’s sudden departure after a long period of dissatisfaction, takes up with a young Italian male prostitute. The writing is spare and lucid, with a kind of keen emotional intelligence that arrives with all the suddenness of a spring shower. Windham is a master of accumulating seemingly inconsequential details that crest into something true and deeply felt. There is great style in his pages, a quiet elegance. It’s easy to give yourself over to his storytelling.
It’s been many years since I read Two People, and in returning to its wonderful first chapter to write this foreword, I found it changed somehow. When I first read the novel, I felt a strong relation to Marcello, the young man who is flinty and cagey. I assumed that I understood Forrest, the American. He was secretly gay and therefore withdrawn. That was that. It was easy. I am not so sure anymore that this is the case, and I find myself feeling for Forrest. The first chapter to me paints the picture of someone who does not know who he is. Someone who is deeply lonely and in need of intimacy. Forrest is the kind of man who does not quite sleepwalk through life but who often finds himself elsewhere. He’s an enigma to himself.
One of the reasons the book has remained one of my favorites is that it was one of the first compassionate, human stories of gay male life that I read.
The remarkable thing about Two People is how it dramatizes the ways we keep things from others and ourselves, including our disappointments and desires. And Windham portrays this kind of self-mystery with a smooth, empathetic hand. He doesn’t persecute Forrest, as some writers might have done. He doesn’t wring him out and bash him against life’s harder surfaces. Indeed, one of the reasons the book has remained one of my favorites is that it was one of the first compassionate, human stories of gay male life that I read. No one is tortured or put on the rack or forced to suffer in silence. For me, Two People was a hopeful premonition of what my life might become, one free from pressing stigma or the need to explain the origins of my desires.
Nobody talks about Donald Windham, and that’s a shame, a gap in the history of American literature the shape of my life. He was friends and contemporaries with Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. His work was hailed by other great novelists like Andre Gide and Thomas Mann. Yale University, since 2011, administers a prize in his honor named after him and his partner, Sandy Campbell. This is how it happens, especially to queer writers. We stop talking about their work, and they vanish. I think, how close did I come to missing this book and this writer entirely? It chills my blood.
But in this moment, we are lucky. I’m so thrilled to be able to share the excellent first chapter of Two People with you. It’s a story that will echo of other, more recent novels such as What Belongs to You and Necessary Errors. It’s a pivotal link in the lineage of queer novels. It’s a beautiful story of a man finding his way. It’s a reminder of the ways we hide from ourselves. It’s gorgeous.
– Brandon Taylor
Associate Editor, Recommended Reading
Donald Windham Wrote the Essential Gay Fiction You Didn’t Know You Were Missing
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Two People: Chapter One
by Donald Windham
A number of people jumped from bridges into the Tiber yesterday. Forrest saw the item in a newspaper lying on the projecting terrace of the Pincio.
Their intention, it turned out, was diversion, not suicide. The newspaper was a month old and jumping into the Tiber is a Roman way of celebrating the New Year.
He turned away from the Pincio terrace and entered the park. Ahead of him, beneath the obelisk in the center of Viale dell’Obelisco, two boys wearing pale blue coveralls inscribed with the name of a garage were teasing two girls dressed in the white uniforms of a hairdressing establishment. All four were beautiful, but in the encounter the girls suffered the disadvantage of having to play their parts with frowning disapproval, while the boys, each with an arm around the other’s neck, and holding hands in the pocket of one of their coveralls, laughingly threw themselves before, between, and behind the girls. Like true sportsmen, they enjoyed the game more the greater the opposition of their adversaries. They switched direction whenever the girls did. The procession, continually turning on itself, came back toward Forrest each time it went a short way ahead of him. Then it was four o’clock. The girls marched off in one direction; the boys, holding onto each other, reeled off in the opposite.
Forrest followed the girls toward Trinità dei Monti. At the top of the Spanish Steps, he leaned on the balustrade and watched the girls descend. It consoled him to look at the Spanish Steps. The church of Trinità dei Monti, behind him, had been there first, at the top of the hill; at the bottom, Piazza di Spagna and the low fountain. The architect had come into this disordered landscape and given it a center so perfect that it was difficult to believe that the surrounding constructions had not grown up around the steps. How satisfying it would be, he thought, to fit so well into your situation that your presence seems to have produced it.
As Forrest leaned there, wondering what he was going to do, he caught sight of a black-haired boy in a white raincoat coming up the steps toward him. He had seen the boy once before, in the same place. He had been standing at the balustrade with Robert, a travel representative for an airline, in whose apartment he was staying. Robert was an old friend of Forrest’s wife. Forrest had met him upon their arrival in Rome when Robert, who was being transferred to Athens, had offered to sublet them his apartment. They had agreed to take the apartment and moved in. Then Forrest’s wife had gone back to the States and left him alone.
He remembered the black-haired boy in the white raincoat because that first day the boy had frowned and stopped in his tracks when he caught sight of Forrest. He walked on after an instant, disappearing into the last flight of steps, and reappeared soon afterward at the end of the balustrade. His frown was the sort that can come from self-consciousness but that can also come from ill temper, and in his case it looked like ill temper. He walked slowly past, then stopped in front of the obelisk that rises at the top of the Spanish Steps, like the obelisk in the center of the Pincio. After a minute, he turned toward Forrest and Robert and gave them a long look.
“Is that a friend of yours?” Forrest asked. And Robert, glancing at the boy, replied:
“No, I’ve never seen him before.” Forrest had often seen Robert talking to boys at the Steps. He had met one or two of the boys leaving the apartment. Robert did not talk about his friendships, but he made no effort at concealment. And Forrest, although similar conduct was accepted by the people he knew in New York, was surprised to find that here with these young Romans it had no hint of limitation or perversion. He was curious and impressed by how pleasantly Robert lived, as though the ambient air of Rome, with its innocent male conviviality, gave a more permissive aspect to this activity. In any case, Robert was an embodiment of his profession: whomever he went to bed with, there was no hint that he had any permanent attachment in Rome. His directness gave him the air of meaning exactly what he said and no more. One day he had said to Forrest that promiscuous encounters are to Italian boys what ice cream sodas at the corner drugstore are to their American counterparts. Forrest considered this an extreme opinion, but he had no grounds on which to contradict it. The boy in the white raincoat was the first that he had mentioned to Robert.
The boy had seemed in a hurry while he was walking that first day. When he stopped, a look of business and purpose still separated him from the aimless people around him. His immobility was a deliberate move; it entirely lacked the gracious air, so nearly universal among the young workmen and students Forrest had seen on the Steps, of their being there for their own diversion, to pass their own free time, regardless of the form that the passing of it might take.
“I’ve seldom seen a Roman frown like that,” he said.
“A Roman usually doesn’t,” Robert replied. “He’s probably from Florence.”
The boy had been watching them when they walked on. But it was less the boy than it was the conversation that Forrest had had with Robert at dinner in the evening that made him remember the day so well.
Robert had taken him to a small trattoria on Via di Repetta. They entered past a long table loaded with artichokes alla Romana; stuffed tomatoes; platters containing tiny clams in their shells; spiedini of sausages, livers, laurel leaves; and every kind of roast meat, poultry, and game. The trattoria had no menu. As soon as they sat down, the waiter rattled off a list of other dishes available that day. The Italian ideal, Robert added, was to think up some pasta or other concoction besides those offered and to give precise instructions for its preparation.
“I came here last year on Befana with three Englishwomen,” Robert said toward the end of the meal. “Afterward, we went to Piazza Navona to watch the crowd. My friends all wore their hair cut short and one had a small mustache. The children kept circling around them, asking for presents. They thought that they were disguised as witches.”
“They must have been furious.”
“On the contrary. They were delighted. They’d never been such centers of attention before.”
“That’s surprising, from the way you describe them.”
Robert pushed away his fruit plate and gave Forrest a look.
“Rome is full of surprises.”
“What do you mean?”
“It was here that your wife left you.”
Forrest, disconcerted, reached for a cigarette before he remembered that he had stopped smoking.
“That had something to do with Rome, didn’t it?”
“Perhaps. She said that Rome made her nervous. But she’d said that about most of the places we’d been.”
“I hope it didn’t have anything to do with me.”
“Of course not.”
“Well, wives have a way of being annoyed if their husbands don’t like their old friends, and just as annoyed if they do. Also, it can be difficult for a couple to share an apartment with a third person, even for a few days.”
“She enjoyed seeing you. Our troubles started much earlier.”
“And I didn’t bring them to a head?”
“I’m glad. Perhaps, as I said, it’s just that Rome is full of surprises.”
“I hope so. I really don’t know what happened between us. Maybe she just wanted to get back to the children. Anyway, I’m sure that everything will work out all right.”
“Good. Maybe Rome will take care of it, in its roundabout way.”
It had rained while they were eating. The rain had stopped, and Robert suggested that they walk to Piazza Navona. As they went, Forrest tried to say clearly in his mind what had happened between him and his wife. It was difficult. His memory of their discord was like the memory of a conversation where one person says “What?” and the other replies with the same word. The first explains, “I didn’t say anything, I was asking what you said.” The second objects, “I didn’t say anything.” And the first, “Oh, I thought that you did.”
They had argued from the beginning of their holiday in Europe. At first, his wife had blamed it on his having been ill and on his having given up smoking. Their arguments seldom originated from anything that either of them cared about. The discord came from within, but it was momentary and petty difficulties that called it out. In England, where they had more acquaintances and the life was more familiar, there were only minor disturbances. They were sufficiently in control of the situation when things went wrong to surmount their annoyance or to turn it on outsiders. The situation became worse, however, as soon as there were mysteries of language and custom. In France, it was easier for them to be nonplussed by the behavior of taxi drivers and waiters. They blamed each other for not taking the initiative in difficulties, then both assumed command of the situation, or resigned it to the other, at the same moment.
In Italy, her need to stand between him and new experiences — which worked fairly well at home — did not work at all. How deeply she needed to do this was recalled to him by something that had happened before they left the States. He had gone into a drugstore one day when they were packing and bought tubes and bottles of all the pharmaceutical products that they used. As they were traveling on a boat and were to be away a long time, he bought the large size of each. She took them all back the next day and changed them for smaller sizes. It seemed a pointless opposition, yet pointless to argue about, and he let it go.
By the time they reached Rome, communication was impossible between them when something went wrong. Suddenly, they had to repeat the simplest sentence, to explain the simplest story, to elaborate the simplest statement. One of them would not know what the other was talking about although it was the same thing that they had been talking about a moment before. Communication short-circuited, and they no longer were able to fall back on the ordinary explanations used by people who have not lived together for eight years.
Forrest wished that they had disagreed over Robert, or over something specific. It would have been a help if a distance had come between them. But without the children and without his work they were too close together, not too far apart. The week that Robert was in Milan and they moved into the apartment, each day ended in a fight. The trouble began as the daylight faded. He lit the fire of wooden logs in the front room. She mixed drinks. They sat down, believing that everything would be all right and that they would have a pleasant evening. Misunderstanding came as suddenly as the Roman air changes from warm to cold as you step from sun to shade. The conversation split in two. Humor, friendliness, civility vanished. His wife said that she had told him something that he had not heard. That was possible. Then she said that he had made a statement that he had not made. That was impossible. Soon, each was staring into the fire, saying things that would be regretted. And one morning she had announced that she was returning home.
Befana, the eve of Twelfth-night, when Italian children receive their presents, is a combination of Halloween and Christmas. Piazza Navona was as crowded as though it had not rained. The light-strung toy stands set up around the long stadium-shaped piazza were crowded with customers; the shouting torrone vendors were doing a good business. The din was terrific.
Forrest and Robert found themselves pressed so closely in the slowly revolving mob that it was impossible to avoid having whistles blown directly in their ears. A group of boys, grinning furiously to show that their intentions were friendly, pounded them over their heads with sponge-headed hammers. Forrest, feeling the same homesickness that he had felt at Christmas, pushed his way to one of the stands and looked at the toys displayed. His two little girls did not care much for dolls, but they were fond of anything to do with animals; and here were cats riding tricycles, elephants driving trains, dogs tending bar. When he had bought two of the toys and turned to look for Robert, he saw him near the Fontana del Moro at the end of the piazza, talking to the boys with the sponge-headed hammers.
As Forrest came up, the boys were passing Robert’s notebook from hand to hand, writing their names and telephone numbers in it.
“They say that we are sympathetic foreigners,” Robert explained, “and that they want to be our friends.”
Each of them introduced himself to Forrest. One of them suggested that they accompany Forrest and Robert for the evening. Robert declined the offer.
“I hope that you didn’t want to bother with them,” he added to Forrest when they were walking again.
“In any case,” Robert said, tearing the page out of his notebook, “I’ll give you this. I go to Naples tomorrow. When I come back, I’ll be leaving for good. And it might come in handy for you.”
“They could be useful at showing you around sometimes.” Robert held out the piece of paper. “Take it.”
“I’ve decided to leave Rome, too,” Forrest said. “I don’t think, after all, that I want to stay on here alone.”
“At least stay until the quarter’s rent is up. You’ve paid me and I’ve paid the landlady, and we’ll never get anything back out of her.”
“Don’t you know someone that you’d like to give the place to?”
“I can’t hear you,” Robert shouted over the blast of a horn. “Let’s get out of here and go somewhere quiet for a coffee.”
In the narrow street that led off the piazza, Forrest crumpled up the notebook page and dropped it. He did it quickly, where it was dark; but when they were around the corner, instead of finding the bar that Robert was looking for, they entered a section where the electricity had failed. The effect was in complete contrast to Piazza Navona, and in contrast to most things that Forrest had seen in Rome. Since his arrival, the city had struck him as familiar and unreal. The traveling Luna Parks. The earth-colored buildings. The endless traffic jams. The businessmen with liverish faces. His quarrels with his wife. Despite the ruins and monuments of Vecchia Roma, he missed the sense of the past that he had expected. The familiarity was modern and nervous, and he had been impressed, even in the poorest quarters, by the absence of medieval darkness and mystery. Suddenly, with an intensity that made the hairs of his neck stand on end, he was in the midst of it. A century separated him from the shops and buses of the Ludovisi quarter. Candles shone on tables inside a small trattoria. In the dark narrow space between the high walls of the street, sounds carried with an extraordinary sharpness. The voice of an unseen youth in a doorway, calling “Avanti, vieni qua!” seemed to come from lips almost touching Forrest’s ear. The girl’s laughter that answered was innocent and intimate. He and Robert and the girl were all making their ways up the street. There had been a garbage collectors’ strike for several days and rubbish, thrown from doors and windows of the buildings, had not been collected. As they neared Campo dei Fiori, something soft and wet squish-squashed beneath Forrest’s shoe. The youth’s call was repeated in the doorway ahead, answered by the girl’s laughter and by a harsher voice from above. Looking up, Forrest saw a line of washed clothes silhouetted against the sky with an umbrella propped above to protect them from the rain.
The morning after the evening that he had first seen the black-haired boy in the white raincoat and had gone to Piazza Navona with Robert, he spent surrounded by the musty volumes of the Biblioteca Vittorio Emanuele. Disappointingly, the books did not give him as strong a sense of the past as he had had the night before, but he stayed in the library until lunch-time. Following his wife’s departure, finding himself with nothing to do much of the time, he had decided to fill part of his days by searching out documents on the last years of the life of Giordano Bruno, the Dominican who was burned as a heretic in Campo dei Fiori in 1600 and who had been the subject of Forrest’s thesis when he was at Columbia, majoring in history and not yet thinking of marrying and becoming a broker.
Since his marriage, he was not used to being alone. In New York, his days were as full as the briefcase he carried to work each morning and as much alike as the business suits he wore. Twice a week, he played handball after he left the office; about as often, he and his wife had guests to dinner or called a baby sitter and ate at the house of friends. But he never found himself alone with time on his hands. When he had first come to New York from the Middle West, he had felt that living in Manhattan was like being at a party given by rich and interesting people whom he knew only slightly. He missed his family’s house, full of brothers and sisters, and he could not get used to living alone in one room. He looked on the city with round, friendly eyes, whose irises exactly touched the tops and bottoms of their openings; but his amiable disposition was combined with a shyness that made him slow in making friends. This problem disappeared when he fell in love with his wife. He spent as much time with her as possible. Her large circle of friends — business acquaintances of her father’s, among whom she had met him, actors and writers — became his. Then there were the children.
The sparsity of his days in Rome, compared with their plentitude in New York, had taken on a baffling quality that brought to his mind the Italian word for nothing: niente. The slide of its nasal syllables, pronounced by Italians as an answer to almost any question that they did not care to discuss further, turned nothing into a reality as formidable as a day of twenty-four hours stretching before him with no appointments, yet with no chances for his fulfilling its opportunities. Niente was not merely blank, as his days had been during the months he was sick in bed with hepatitis. And it was not merely weak, as he had been after he went back to work and began to buckle under the pressure. Niente was the intangible barrier that by some negative means, now that he was well and strong, shut him out from the intimate Roman life that he saw Robert and others enjoying, just as loneliness had shut him out from New York life before he was married.
The Biblioteca Vittorio Emanuele was a makeshift for the research he wanted to do. He had inquired shortly after his wife left for a permit to use the Vatican Archives. But if he was not going to stay long in Rome he could not count on receiving it before he left. He might as well settle for these state libraries which were more accessible. Nevertheless, he did not cut short the effort he had started to obtain the permit. The second evening after his walk in the dark near Campo dei Fiori, he went to dinner at the house of a friend who had arranged for him to meet an American cardinal who could give him the recommendation he needed for the Vatican permit.
The weather, following the shower on the night of Befana, had turned to the kind described in dispatches from Rome as “partly cloudy.” The sky was black on and off all day. Storms rained themselves out and started again hourly. In between, it thundered. The sun came out by late afternoon. While Forrest was dressing, there was a magnificent sunset. The clouds cleared. The moon rose. Then, at the moment he started out, a downpour filled the streets with water up to the tops of his shoes.
His hostess lived in a small street of new buildings near Piazzale delle Medaglie d’Oro. The bus that he took crossed the river and started up a long tree-lined street with a lighted fountain in the distance. On the other side of the fountain, it twisted up a hill into the dark, as though leading into the country. Then blocks of new apartment houses appeared.
Forrest had explained on the telephone that his wife had gone back to the States, but he was forced to repeat his explanation as he was taking off his raincoat in the vestibule. His hostess listened carefully, then took his hand, patted it, and led him into the room to introduce him to the other guests.
After dinner, the cardinal told him that if he was allowed to see unpublished documents about Giordano Bruno in the Archives, which was unlikely, and if they were legible, which was more unlikely, they would be in such bad Latin that unless he was an optimum scholar of the vagaries of medieval Latin, most unlikely of all in a non-Catholic layman, he probably would be unable to read them. The cardinal’s series of warnings was given jovially, with smiles, almost with laughter. It ended in an offer to find him, if he wished, a gifted, unprejudiced young student of theology who knew his way through the Porta di Sant’Anna and would help him. Then he gave Forrest the recommendation.
He mailed it the next day, together with a letter to his wife saying that he thought he would leave Rome and asking if he should return to New York. Afterward, he went back to his books in the government library. They kept him pleasantly in motion. The Biblioteca Nazionale is in several buildings scattered about the section of Vecchia Roma, full of ecclesiastical stores and cats, that is near the Pantheon. He went from one to another, dodging showers. Nothing abruptly decisive happened. He did not progress fast enough to accomplish anything if he left Rome soon. A book that he asked for might be ready if he went back in twenty-four hours. If it was not, he went back in forty-eight. The chances of his receiving it then were about the same as his chances of arriving where he was going before it rained — fifty-fifty.
Several unpleasant surprises awaited him at the apartment in the evenings. The first was an answering letter from his wife. When she had left he had felt sure that she wanted him to go with her. Now she wrote that they should remain apart. And he admitted to himself that he was afraid to return. He did not believe, as he had said to Robert, that everything would work out all right. He resented that their fights had ruined Rome for him, and he felt that if he went back with nothing changed there would be no more for them in marriage as they had known it. But it upset him to know that his wife felt the same way. Instead of trying to get back their apartment in New York, she had told the people who had sublet it that they could keep it for the original six months. She would stay with her parents in Southport, where the children had been all along. After that, they would discuss what would happen.
He did not eat that night. The depression returned that he had experienced during the evenings of discord when they were in Rome together. He had skipped dinner the evening before, because he did not have an engagement and did not feel like eating alone. Remembering this, he went out with the letter in his pocket and walked around. But he could not make up his mind to enter any of the restaurants that he passed. He ended by ascending the steps from Piazza del Popolo to the Pincio and crossing the Villa Borghese to Via Veneto where he drank a negroni standing at the counter of a bar. After two drinks, he knew that he should go out and eat or he would be drunk. But when he was outside again, the idea of food was no more possible than before.
He missed the apartment in New York. It was a clutter of large and small rooms, perhaps unimpressive in comparison with the apartment he was occupying in Rome; but he wished that he could sleep there that night. His wife must no longer love him if she had not wanted to return there. All their happiness was associated with it, and the seemingly useless small rooms had come after the children were born. They had even been able to close up one of them, full of toys, clothing, and mementoes, when they prepared the apartment for subletting. And it depressed him further to think that strangers gone into that room, too.
He drank caffè latte in the morning and tried to make a telephone call to his wife. The operator said that the connection would go through in the early evening, about the same hour that he had received the letter the day before. At lunchtime, he was not hungry and did not eat, hoping that abstinence would stimulate his appetite and make him hungry at dinner. He walked by the river, crossing it first on Ponte Sant’ Angelo, then recrossing it on Ponte Garibaldi. The idea of jumping in did not tempt him; nevertheless, the water viewed from the bridges suited his mood. He spent a long time standing at the top of the Spanish Steps, looking at the pools of rain in the dark sponge-holes of the travertine. When he returned to the apartment, he collected all the small rugs from the various rooms, put them beneath his feet on the cold terrazzo floor in the dining room, and tried to write a letter while he waited for the call.
It was noon in Connecticut. His wife, ready to go to New York for the day, said that she was sorry that her letter had upset him. Nevertheless, it was better to face facts. He agreed, but when he tried to tell her that the whole difficulty was a misunderstanding, she did not want to listen.
“There comes a point,” she said, “when you don’t want to be told any more.”
“Do you mean that you want to divorce me?”
“No. If I wanted to divorce you, it would solve everything. But I don’t want to talk about it now.”
He asked to say hello to the children. They had gone shopping with their grandmother.
“I sent them some toys last week,” he added. “Like the ones we bought them at Christmas, but different. Is your father there?”
“He’s in the city. It’s noon here, you know.”
“Doesn’t he think it odd of me to stay on without you?”
“No. I told him that it was more of a rest for you.”
“He hasn’t written me since you’ve been back.”
“I’ll tell him to write. He said that he hasn’t heard from you, either.”
“I haven’t known what to say.”
The children were well, his wife added: the older one had lost one of her front teeth and looked funny; the younger had become so fond of a pair of artificial hairbraids that she wore them in bed at night.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes, everything is all right.”
“And you’re sure you don’t want me to come back?”
“There’s no need for you to come back.”
“All right. I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll write. Take care of yourself.”
Just before they said good-bye, she added: “Take care of yourself, too.”
The conversation plunged him into a depression that was composed less of thinking than of wandering through thoughts that he had thought before. Eating was as impossible as it had been the previous night. He felt no perverse desire to starve himself, but he felt no more need for food than if he were a ghost or an angel. A lightness, almost a weightlessness, buoyed him up; food would have been a deadly weight on it. He went for a walk, trying to connect to the city, telling himself that he had wanted to stay in Rome without his wife. He should enjoy it.
The night was clear and cold, and the dark was comforting. But the wind, touching his cheeks, his brow, his wrists, increased his loneliness.
Three days had passed since he had eaten when, the next afternoon, Forrest followed the two girls down from the Pincio. Standing at the top of the Spanish Steps, he wondered how long he could go without nourishment. He suffered no bad effects; there was not even a growl from his stomach. But there seemed to be no more reason for him to eat than for him to be in Rome. He felt trapped. He had been to the libraries that morning, but he might as well have slept. There seemed, really, no more reason for him to do one thing than another. Perhaps this had been a good thing the last time he had experienced it, after his return from Korea and before he finished college, when he had spent an aimless year in the Village. But at thirty-three his life should be settled. And a few months before, it had been.
He was wearing a cashmere shirt and a Shetland jacket. The warmth of the sun lay across his head and shoulders as intimately as a hand. As he stood there and watched the black-haired boy in the white raincoat coming up toward him, he longed to forget about himself and become a part of the convivial people around him. The boy’s unpleasant air of surveying him for a purpose was the same as it had been the earlier time. His expression, once again, was the kind that appears on a person’s face when he wants to end an encounter. But once again he acted as though he wanted to start one. When he reached the top of the steps, he walked past Forrest. The sight of his face was replaced by the arched lines of his neck and the childlike shape of his skull.
He stopped at the Pincian end of the balustrade and looked down the way he had come. Then he glanced from the steps toward Forrest and back again. There was no hint of friendliness in the look. It was a look that accused rather than invited. Something in it, and in its recurrence, annoyed Forrest. He felt trapped enough, cut off from his own life and the life of Rome, without being surveyed this way each time he encountered this boy. Then the boy, his attitude carefully balanced between the indifference of a departure and the deliberateness of an approach, walked past the people between them and toward Forrest in the sunshine. He kept his eyes up, but his expression did not soften or give any hint that a greeting was forming behind it. And Forrest thought: This has gone far enough; I will put a stop to it.
When he spoke, his “buon giorno” had a magical result. He had seen the same effect before, but never to the same degree. The syllables broke an enchantment. The boy’s smile changed every detail in his face. All hint of ill temper disappeared. His features became as youthful as the shape of his head. The eyes glowed like the eyes of a child of six. He put both hands to his chest in a gesture like that of a squirrel in Central Park hoping for a nut, and asked:
Forrest was disconcerted. He felt that he had spoken to a different person from the one he had decided to speak to, and he wanted to say the opposite of what he had planned to say. The best that he could manage was:
“It’s a beautiful day.”
The boy agreed and waited. Forrest asked if he lived in Rome.
“Do you work nearby?”
“I go to school.”
“At Piazza Venezia.”
“What do you study?”
“History. Italian. Trigonometry.”
He enunciated the words with affable distaste of them. The two of them stood for a moment, the boy’s smile a part of the sunshine. Out of the same sunshine, Forrest heard his own voice asking:
“Would you like to come home with me?”
A shadow passed from Piazza di Spagna, up the white travertine theatre of the steps, and over the obelisk. The boy frowned, then smiled.
Forrest felt a sudden guilt that made him question his intention at the same moment that he became aware of it. Self-conscious, he did not want to descend the steps under the eyes of all the people there. He pointed in the direction of the Pincio and the boy nodded. As they walked beside the wall that runs toward the outdoor café facing the Villa Medici, he asked if the boy studied English. The answer was yes, but the boy would not attempt a word of it. Even in Italian, he only answered questions. He did not ask how long Forrest had been in Rome, if he was married or single, lived in an apartment or hotel, was American or English — none of the Mediterranean questions. And he replied to Forrest’s demands with the bare precision of a child responding to a catechism. His name was Marcello. He was seventeen. He had two sisters and a brother. He lived in Monte Mario.
“Piazzale Medaglie d’Oro is in Monte Mario, isn’t it?”
“I went there the other night.”
The word to go is conjugated in Italian with be rather than have as auxiliary. Forrest knew this, but he usually said it wrong. The boy corrected him. So far from being usual, this was the first time any Roman had ever admitted to him that his broken Italian was anything but perfect. He was delighted. The correction, however, ended the boy’s spontaneous remarks. He continued to smile and to answer, but in between he was as silent as he was beaming. The impression he made was so different from the impression he had made a few minutes before, as well as the other day, that Forrest was inclined to believe that there must be some innocent explanation of his boldness. Perhaps someone had pointed him out to the boy for some reason. Maybe this was a further exaggeration of the Italian gregariousness that he did not understand, and when they reached the apartment the boy would be embarrassed or surprised and take his leave in confusion. Or maybe, at the door of the building, he would politely say good-bye, shake hands, and walk away.
As they turned down the steep incline of Via di San Sebastianello and into the far end of Piazza di Spagna, Forrest said:
“There are more Americans every day at the Spanish Steps.”
The statement was an unexpected success. The boy’s face burst into a smile that equaled his first one.
“Wait until summer!” he exclaimed. “There are more. Many more! More Americans than Italians.”
They turned on to a side street in the neighborhood of Robert’s apartment. Forrest saw shopkeepers whom he recognized and was once more embarrassed. At the building, without a word, the boy followed him inside and up the four flights of stairs. At the sight of the front room of the apartment, with its high white walls and transparent-draped windows, its wide expanse of modern and antique furnishings, the boy gave one more expression of unguarded enthusiasm. Then he stopped, as though remembering that this was something that he did not do. On Forrest’s invitation, he took off his raincoat and sat down on one of the upholstered chairs that rose like green silk rocks from the terrazzo floor. As Forrest looked at him, sitting there passively with his curved hands lying palms up on his knees, he could think of nothing to say. The boy had retreated into the air of a child paying a visit with adults, resigned to wait until the adults finish their business. He looked alone rather than ill at ease, as though he might be in a doctor’s foyer or a train station, with no relation between him and anyone else who happened to be there. There was no longer any hint of either the defiance or the delight that he had shown in the sunlight at the top Spanish Steps. His face was serenely beautiful.
Alone before this person whom he did not seem to have seen before or to have any intentions toward, Forrest did not know what to do. His Italian disappeared. He could not even manage the words for: Come and see my room. Instead, he held out his hand. The boy allowed himself to be pulled to his feet and led through the apartment. It was a big apartment. As they walked across the long, bare dining room, Forrest felt more than ever that he had made a mistake, from his viewpoint as well as from the boy’s. Obviously, he had started something that he would regret that would end without anything having come of it. He decided that he might as well get it over with as soon as possible. He sensed, in the sound of their footsteps across the terrazzo floor, the emptiness which he remembered from the promiscuous encounters of his early days in New York when he had found himself alone again so soon that he was unable to believe afterward in the brief series of embraces that separated solitude from solitude. When they reached the bedroom, he decided to be as precipitant as possible. Putting his arms around the boy, he kissed him on the lips. The kiss was returned.
They stood facing one another, Forrest looking at a cluster of freckle-flat moles on one of the boy’s cheeks. There was no longer any question of his having been abandoned by his Italian: he had never known the word for undress. He pantomimed pulling his clothes over his head, and once again expected to be opposed. The boy nodded, looked around for a chair, sat down, and began to untie his shoelaces.
The room, the first of two bedrooms, was sparsely furnished: a bed, two chairs, a chest.
When Forrest was in his underwear, he crossed to the bed and turned back the covers. The boy, wearing a short-sleeved brown wool undershirt and white cotton jockey shorts, followed him. He gave a smile and a shiver as he jumped beneath the turned-back covers.
“Are you cold?”
“Only my feet.”
Forrest put his feet against the boy’s. They were icy. As he pressed them between his own to warm them, he looked down into the brown eyes gazing up at him. Only innocence could be read there.
“In English, we say that someone has cold feet when he is afraid.”
The boy nodded.
“Also in Italian.”
Forrest pulled his head back and saw that the lips of the face beneath his own were curled up with a hint of amusement. The boy’s hands slipped around him, touched the back of his neck, and came to rest lightly on his shoulders.
“We don’t need these,” Forrest said, throwing back the sheets and blankets far enough for him to remove his underwear. The boy followed suit; then, with another smile and shiver, pulled the covers up close around them.
Forrest dressed while the boy was in the bathroom. He was fully clothed when he watched the Italian get ready to leave. Unself-consciously, the boy removed the robe and slippers that he had borrowed. He pulled on his brown wool undershirt with slow, precise movements, drew it down under the white jockey shorts and out beneath them at the bottom, to finish by tucking the ends in again under the crotch.
When he had put on his trousers, he sat on the chair and tied his shoelaces as though it were morning and he were at home dressing for school. Then he asked permission to use Forrest’s comb and, smiling as though to excuse his vanity, combed his hair at the mirror above the chest.
Forrest watched him, no more sure now than before what sort of person this was. He had heard Robert say that the boys who hung out at the Spanish Steps to be picked up wanted money. But this boy possessed none of the puppylike characteristics that he had seen in the youths who spoke to Robert, and nothing about him coincided with Forrest’s imagination of those boys’ characters.
He stood there with his hand on a thousand-lire note in his pocket and wondered if he should give it to the boy. Would he expect nothing? Would he be insulted? Or would he, showing another face that Forrest had not yet seen, threateningly demand a larger sum? Forrest had received so many surprises that one more surprise would not have surprised him. But he had to make up his mind. He fell back on his idea that in no situation is it wrong to offer money to an Italian. When the boy turned from the mirror, Forrest put the bill into his hand.
The boy looked down. Without a muscle in his face moving, a smile came into his eyes. Then he lowered his lids, the smile descended to his lips, and he said:
He had blushed.
Longing that evening for a friendly, ordinary atmosphere to be in, Forrest remembered the trattoria that Robert had introduced him to. It was run, as Robert had pointed out, by a family. The oldest waiter was the owner. The youngest waiter was his son. There were other hints of a family atmosphere: a dark-faced woman who sometimes poked her head out of the kitchen and a small boy who brought and took away empty plates, making as many mistakes as was possible. Forrest was recognized when he came in. It was early for dinner, just eight o’clock, and all the time that he was there he heard the waiters addressing the arriving clients by name and watched the son joking with a table of soccer players, apparently regular customers, sitting across from him. There was no bill at the end of the meal, as there was no menu at the beginning. The waiter stared at the ceiling, frowned, and announced a sum not much more than half what the food would have cost in most restaurants.
Forrest saw the boy again a week later at the Spanish Steps. He was descending, the boy ascending, and they met on the middle level. After they had talked a few minutes, he asked the boy back to the apartment. His action surprised him, and he tried to reassure himself that what he was doing was unimportant. When he had thought of Robert’s going to bed with Roman boys, he had not considered it something that he disapproved of, but something that, as far as he was concerned, there was no point to. Now he remembered an incident that had long been pushed to the back of his mind. When he was a year or two younger than the boy, something had happened that he had never understood. He had been staying at the house of an aunt and uncle in the country. In the middle of the night, his uncle, who had been on a hunting trip, had returned and gotten into bed with him. His uncle’s sexual advances awakened him; he was excited and responded. The incident was not repeated. And neither then nor later was it referred to. He went to the country only occasionally and knew his uncle mainly as the father of several of his older cousins, a convivial man, liked by everyone, who had no noticeable eccentricities. For a long time, Forrest watched him whenever he had a chance and listened to what people said about him, expecting to discover some secret. But he discovered nothing. He was left with what had happened and with his uncle’s genial character — and no explanation between them. In the years since, the memory of this had occasionally affected his thinking about other people, but he had not given thought to it in connection to himself. The incident was one of those do not fit into categories and therefore suggest that categories do not account for everything; but his own life, from the time that he had grown old enough to connect sex with love, had fallen into the most conventional patterns.
This second encounter upset him more than the first. He had not expected to experience again the pleasure that he had felt that earlier afternoon. He considered their meeting a phenomenon, a sport of Rome, not a personal attraction. He could not find a category to put this new desire into, just as he could not fit the boy into any category he knew. The boy’s figure, lean and rounded, evoked neither masculinity nor femininity, rather the undivided country of adolescence; and his silent receptivity, open equally to tenderness and passion, spoke of no special desires, but of a need for love so great that it prevented him from asking for it.
That second afternoon, Forrest tried to hide his bewilderment about himself behind his curiosity about the boy. But he could not get the boy to answer any personal questions, and he was unable to retain him after he put on his clothes. With the donning of his garments, the creature who a moment before had seemed removed from all contingencies of time and place, hurried away like any Roman schoolboy with a schedule. During the week that followed, Forrest talked to other youths at the Spanish Steps and to the son at the trattoria. But these efforts had an effect the opposite of that which he wished for. He found these boys perfectly comprehensible, but also perfectly ordinary. He could imagine them doing anything, playing any part, even that of the boy whom he had taken home; and he knew that the counterfeiting of innocence is one of the oldest professions. But what is counterfeited must exist. The imitation has an original. On the other hand, why should he have found the original scowling at him from the top of the Spanish Steps?
Robert returned one morning while a coal-dust-covered giant from a nearby carbonaio shop was filling the carved chest in the entrance hall of the apartment, once a receptacle for some family’s silks and brocades, with wooden logs for the fireplace. After greeting Forrest and the maid, whose day it was to clean, Robert put his suitcase down beside the sofa in the front room and announced that he had met an old friend on the plane who would be arriving in a few minutes. He was a director and would be on location in Rome for a week or two, making “postcard” shots for a film. Robert had invited him to stay at the apartment.
Forrest was disappointed that a stranger was to join them. He wanted to tell Robert about the boy, but he was not sure that he would be willing to talk in front of a third person. He could bring up the subject right away, but that would make it seem to have an exaggerated importance, and besides he was put off by the maid’s presence. She was an absurdly short and plump and slow woman whose cleaning consisted mainly of circling around the apartment with a dreamy expression on her face as she dusted the tops of valances and doorways with a long-handled feather duster. Instead, he told Robert that he would like to keep the apartment until the end of the quarter, as they had originally planned.
“Apparently no one either wants or expects me back at the moment,” he said, “and if I am going to be idle and homeless it may as well be in this apartment.”
Robert was delighted. He apologized for having invited the director to stay there, but he had done it in the belief that Forrest would be leaving any day. He immediately telephoned the landlady. A long conversation ensued that consisted, as Forrest found most Italian conversations did, of the same few sentences repeated over and over. At the end, Robert said that the apartment was Forrest’s through March. And while he was explaining a few more things about the agreement, the director arrived.
Forrest liked him. He was a Latin American, full of charm and like a lean Italian in appearance. He had been to Italy shortly after the war and he was convinced that the population were all criminals of varying degrees. As soon as he had installed his luggage, he left to see some of the “extortionists” who were arranging his business. He agreed to meet Robert and Forrest for lunch at the trattoria. While they were waiting for him there, Forrest said:
“There’s something that I ought to tell you.”
“Do you remember the boy in the white raincoat that we saw at the Spanish Steps? The one who frowned?”
“I brought him to the apartment the other day.”
Influenced, perhaps, by the director’s conversation, Robert looked grave.
“Did something unpleasant happen?”
“No, not at all. I just thought that I ought to tell you.”
“Well, you don’t have to confess to me, you know.”
“I’m not confessing. I just want to talk. I didn’t understand him at all. He seemed so experienced and yet so innocent.”
“You have to remember that Roman boys like to see new reflections of themselves in foreigners, not the same ones that they get from their mirrors at home. They talk a lot, but you can discount most of what they say.”
“This one hardly talked at all. He told me that his family are Sicilians — ”
“Sicilians,” interrupted the director, who arrived at this moment, “are the only people in the world more treacherous than Italians. I think that the people I have just left must be Sicilians.”
Forrest was not able to ask the questions he wanted to. His curiosity remained unsatisfied. But the conversation probably would not have satisfied it, anyway. Robert left that evening, looking forward to Greece. Forrest and the director shared the apartment without difficulty. During the mornings the next week, Forrest went to the libraries and to the Salvator Mundi Hospital for liver function tests. In the afternoons, he often visited the locations where the film unit was working and watched the crowds who stood around. Between takes, the director confided to him:
“These people are not looking because they are really interested. They are used to movie people. It is because they hope to steal something. Watch the way they look at the boxes and cables and chairs. Some of them would grab the camera itself if they had the chance.”
Forrest did not see the boy in the crowds, as he had imagined that he might. Then, one afternoon after he had given up, he caught sight of him, again at the top of the Spanish Steps.
It was the last day of carnival. In the Pincio gardens, hanging above Rome like those of Nebuchadnezzar above Babylon, the film unit had been photographing color views of the sun setting behind Saint Peter’s. Beneath the trees, young men and women walked around with confetti in their hair. The pale pebbles of the paths between the flower beds were mixed with the many-colored circles of paper. Small bullfighters, Portuguese grandees, gauze-winged bats, Colonial ladies, and Eskimos ran in and out among the flowering azaleas, forsythia, and camellias.
The director and Forrest were walking back toward Trinità dei Monti. It was twilight. Forrest, who had been to the Steps at this time the last few days, had noticed that the streetlights came on three minutes later each evening. He was telling this to the director as they approached the obelisk. The two of them were watching to note the precise moment when the globes of the iron lampposts along the balustrade would be illuminated. They were almost past the boy before Forrest saw him, standing by the balustrade and talking to a man. He had left off wearing the raincoat; his figure was displayed in dark trousers and a crew-neck sweater over the top of which Forrest could see the collar of a pink shift. Forrest said ciao as they passed. The boy returned the greeting, as one returns the greeting of a casual acquaintance, then went back to his conversation. At the end of the balustrade, Forrest suggested to the director that they stop and look at the view for a moment.
There was a small blue and white airplane travel bag on the balustrade at the boy’s side. Forrest wondered if it belonged to him or to the man he was talking to. The man’s business suit looked more like an Italian’s than an American’s, but Forrest was not sure which he was. The director’s presence made him self-conscious and he pretended to pay no attention to the couple down the balustrade. Nevertheless, their presence was at the center of his consciousness. He was aware when the boy picked up the airplane bag and he and the man started down the far flight of the Steps together. They paused beside the flower stands when they reached the bottom, then crossed the traffic-filled Piazza di Spagna and turned into the crowd beneath the neon signs of Via Condotti. Once, when they had to step out into the street to pass people on the narrow sidewalk, he saw the man put his arm around the boy and pat him on the shoulder. Via Condotti is straight; its name changes, but it goes on without a turn and diminishes in a direct line, like an illustration in a book on perspective. Forrest could look into it from the top of the Steps all the way to the vanishing point. The two figures grew smaller, disappeared into groups of people, reappeared, then disappeared again, until at last they were lost in the foreshortening of distance, somewhere near the Tiber.