Marginalia and I sat side by side on a velvet sofa in her apartment above Via Arenula drinking amaretto from teacups. When she’d carried the cups into the living room, I must have looked surprised.
“Something wrong?” she asked.
“No, not at all,” I said.
But it troubled me, drinking that horrible, syrupy liqueur from a teacup, instead of a proper glass. I was equally alarmed by the SS insignia on the teacups: angular, blood red letters outlined in black.
Marginalia smiled sweetly, apologetically. “The war,” she said, fluttering her free hand in the air as she sipped her amaretto.
I gulped mine and set the awful cup on the coffee table.
Six months earlier, fresh from art school, I’d moved from Philadelphia to Rome to become a great painter. Rent was cheap, food was cheap, and so was wine. The museums were cheap. Paint was cheap, canvas too. The almighty dollar was king.
I met Signorina Tazarini at a post office where I’d gone to mail a postcard to my parents, assuring them I was still fine, the weather was still fine, and, no, I hadn’t been kidnapped or stabbed to death yet, and I missed them both. The photo on the postcard was of The Catacombs: hundreds of human skulls, ribcages, arm bones, finger bones, and leg bones piled in a dark basement. I’d written, “Wish you were here!” across the picture.
I was about to put a stamp on the postcard when an attractive, fashionably dressed woman of about thirty-five approached me. “Do you speak English?” she asked.
“A little,” I replied.
She laughed and pointed to the stamp. “Do you want me to lick that for you?”
And now, a week later, I was in her apartment, pretending I spent all my Saturday nights with exotic, older women. Bilingual women with classic Roman noses, black hair, and deep brown eyes. I knew almost nothing about my hostess, except that she worked as a voice actor at Cinecittà, the large cluster of film studios on the outskirts of Rome, and that she’d studied American Literature at NYU. Her English was practically flawless, in vivid contrast to my sorry Italian.
“Ti piace il jazz?” asked Marginalia.
“Che cosa?” I managed.
“Jazz music, silly. Do you like it?”
I didn’t like jazz, but what could I say? Our relationship was just beginning and I didn’t want it to come to an abrupt halt before we got to know each other more intimately. Honesty is always the best policy, I reasoned, but perhaps its implementation could be delayed for a while.
“I love jazz,” I confessed.
“Well, then, jazz will be the soundtrack della nostra storia d’amore.” Marginalia winked at me, and then, a moment later, snorted.
She had a cruel streak, I realized, and that knowledge turned what had been a slight stirring in my trousers into an actual boner. Instinctively, I rested a hand in my lap, hoping to conceal my mischievous member.
Marginalia wasn’t fooled. “Ah,” she said softly, “a tree grows in Brooklyn.”
Just then, a thunderous clatter arose from the street below. Marginalia ran to the window.
“Cavalli!” she screamed. “Hundreds of horses. Come look!”
By the time I reached the window, the last few horses were disappearing around the corner onto Largo Argentina. The sound of hooves became fainter and fainter still and then was gone. In its wake, the rich smell of horse manure filled the air.
Turning from the window, Marginalia took my hand in hers. “So many horses,” she murmured, “so little time.”
Her bedroom was spare and, except for a framed poster of Mussolini waving from a balcony, free of decoration. A record player and a few albums sat atop a white enamel table. Marginalia slipped a record from its sleeve and placed it on the turntable. A terrible honking and squealing commenced. Jazz clarinet music! My least favorite of all the musical idioms in the entire goddamn universe.
“Acker Bilk!” hollered Marginalia. “Dig it, mein kleine putzen katze!”
Those hideous teacups, and now she was speaking German! Maybe, I thought, I should get out of there while I could.
Marginalia, though, was transformed by the music. She leapt onto the bed. In seconds, she’d removed her shoes, scarf, blouse, and skirt. She hopped back and forth on the bed in her underwear. The brassiere was standard-issue stuff, but Marginalia’s silken panties were patterned with images of equine paraphernalia: saddles, horseshoes, bridles, bits, and halters. Prancing and twirling to the jazzy clarinet, she cried, “Tally ho!” and, “Avanti, cavalli!”
I wondered where I fit into the action, if it all. Was I to be participant or spectator? Marginalia danced as if possessed, her frenzy reminding me of whirling dervishes I’d seen in National Geographic. Those Sufi spinners were said to carry sabers beneath their robes. I felt relieved that Marginalia had nothing to hide in that department, until she reached beneath her pillow and extracted a riding crop. She shook it and swatted me playfully. Then she began whacking me in earnest, shrieking, “Giddyup, Roy Rogers!”
Suddenly, we heard, above the music, an insistent pounding at the door and a deep, booming, “Gina! Gina! Apri la porta!”
Marginalia stood still. She cocked her head. She jumped from the bed and raked the needle from the record.
“Who is it?” I whispered as Marginalia dressed hastily.
“It’s my brother, Carlo,” she said. “Jump out the window!”
The pounding at the door became fiercer. Marginalia threw open the window and pushed me toward it. “Out!” she commanded.
I hesitated. Her apartment was on the fourth floor.
A deafening crash, the sound of wood splintering. A moment later, a huge, swarthy man rushed into the bedroom holding an ax above his head.
I leapt from the window. While plummeting to certain death, I reviewed my life: a few highlights here and there, but, generally speaking, a slide show of regret.
Instead of landing on the pavement with every bone in my body crushed, my skull split open and me dead, I fell onto the awning of the trattoria on the ground floor and bounced from it onto a display case full of seafood. I lay sprawled among the crushed ice, the calamari, swordfish steaks, mussels, lemon wedges, clams, and a spiny lobster.
The few couples dining al fresco stared at me, briefly, then turned away, whispering to one another, glancing furtively in my direction again, and, their curiosity satisfied, returned to their spaghetti vongole, their fritto misto di mare, their bottles of cool Frascati.
From my icy vantage point, I could see the windows of Marginalia’s apartment. Nothing moved within, but did I see, backlit, a silhouette of a couple embracing? Probably a coincidence of shadows, lighting, perspective. Then, in case Carlo and his ax were hot-footing it downstairs, I decided it might be best to move on.
I hopped from the display case, brushing ice and seafood from my jacket, and strolled away, sending a message, I hoped, that this sort of thing happened all the time and was merely another facet of my dashing lifestyle. The bracing scent of horseshit lingered in the air as, peeking nervously over my shoulder, I walked toward Campo de’ Fiori.
A tall, thin fellow juggled cats in the center of the plaza. He’d attracted a large crowd. The cats, of all shapes and sizes, didn’t seem to mind being juggled. I stood at the back of the crowd, marveling at the juggler’s skill, the eerie composure of the cats. I watched until the performance ended, then dropped a hundred lira note in the juggler’s basket.
Delighted by my generosity, I ambled away. I’d helped a fellow artist, and although his medium was kinetic sculpture, and mine the traditional one of oil paint on canvas, weren’t we brothers in art? In truth, weren’t all of us earthlings—chimps, homo sapiens, brainy dolphins, elephants, songbirds, squid, bugs, and amoebic slime—brothers and sisters?
Fueled by this noble sentiment, my thoughts were those of a madman. I slapped myself hard in the face. My jolly mood darkened somewhat and I felt like myself again.
I walked to the river, across Ponte Garibaldi and into Trastevere, where I lived in a grim attic that doubled as my studio. I had a sick sweet taste in my mouth from the amaretto and an idea for a painting in my head: a dark cobalt sky, an ancient palazzo, a giant with an ax, a beatnik horse playing a clarinet and, raining down on all of it, hundreds of cats.
Cutting down an alley behind the Basilica of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrow, whose interior displayed Saint Cecilia’s nose in an ornate vitrine, I heard footsteps behind me. Wouldn’t it be awful—and tragically ironic—if I were hacked to pieces before I reached the shelter of my attic and began work on my masterpiece? I quickened my pace.