Somewhere in the Heart of Rome
The taxi stops on the Via della Stamperia near the Trevi Fountain, the driver raising his hands in frustration. “That way. That,” he says, grappling for the few English words he knows and pointing to a narrow street on the other side of the fountain he can’t reach. Herman Cogan understands. He pays the driver and, picking up his suitcase, sets off toward the hotel he hopes he will find not too far down that narrow street. He stops first at the famous Trevi Fountain. How could he not? He has seen the movie and wonders now if he, too, can find romance in Rome. He puts his suitcase down, takes one of the Italian coins the taxi driver had given him in change, and tosses it in the water. “Make it mine,” he whispers before moving on.
Cogan will be in Rome for one week, courtesy of the insurance company he has represented for twelve years. This is the benefit bestowed for being one of its best producers. He sees his life as modest and mundane, but this suits him. He sells debit life insurance to people in his Chicago neighborhood. He attends Shabbat morning services regularly at the synagogue not three blocks from his apartment. But, for Cogan, this is a day of firsts: the first time in his forty years he’s ventured outside the United States. Even during the war, he was stationed at Fort Bragg, but never saw action. It’s his first time on a jet plane, the first time he has to deal with foreign currency and, of course, his first time in Rome. He’s exhausted and in need of sleep, but he is also excited at being in the City of the Seven Hills.
The summer sun overwhelms the off-white walls of his hotel room, making them sparkle when what he craves, in his exhaustion, is darkness. From his vantage point at the window of this third floor room, with his hand on the drape cord, he sees, lying on her back, at the edge of the hotel pool below, a young woman wearing only the bottom half of her bikini. Cogan never thought of himself as a voyeur, but maybe, he realizes now, that was because the opportunity hadn’t presented itself. He stands there, dog-tired and totally transfixed.
The woman, motionless, with close-cropped dark brown hair, is shapely and long. On her right breast is a small tattoo of a five-pointed star. Her thin left ankle is crossed over her right and, around it, is a gold bracelet. He wonders if this means she is left-handed, and then he laughs at himself for noticing her ankle bracelet when there are so many more important parts of her to appreciate. As he stares, he thinks he sees a blink behind the woman’s gray sunglasses. Has she spotted me? He hurriedly closes the drapes and backs away from the window.
He sighs as he lowers himself to the bed. There he lies for a minute, maybe two, thinking of the beautiful woman sunning herself below his window. What a country, he says. He wonders if this is normal for women in Italy. Or is she a harlot? When he is no longer able to contain himself, he goes again to the window. The woman is on her stomach now, stretched out on a yellow beach towel, reading a book. Her back is beautifully tanned and Cogan imagines her spine as a riverbed leading to a tiny pool just above her round, white, bikinied buttocks. She raises her head and peaks over her glasses at a waiter who leans down to hand her a note. She opens it and turns to look up. Cogan is sure this time that she is looking directly at him and he moves quickly from the window, letting the drape fall back into place.
At five-thirty, he checks the window again—the woman is gone. A fat, balding man, smoking a cigar and wearing a black and white flowered bikini brief swimsuit covered in front almost entirely by the overhang of his belly, is sitting on a hardwood chaise, reading a newspaper. Cogan dresses and goes downstairs. The travel package includes dinners at the hotel restaurant, which is directly across the lobby from the front desk. But when he tries the door, it’s locked. At the desk, the clerk tells him dinner service will begin at eight.
“It is our custom,” he says in response to the quizzical look on Cogan’s face.
More firsts, he thinks: naked women, fat men in tiny swimsuits, dinner close to bedtime. Cogan marvels at the peculiar customs he’s been exposed to in such a brief time. What next? he wonders.
Armed with a map provided by the hotel, he finds his way to the Colosseum. The late afternoon sun is hot and the walk has made him sweaty. He marvels at the structure while looking for an entrance that would get him inside. When he sees the ticket office is closed for the day, he moves on to a small street that gently rises above the heavily trafficked Via Celio Vibenna. Here he sits in the shade of a stone pine tree with an unobstructed view of the iconic circular monument. The magnificent view, a cool breeze, and the steady hum of traffic below him add to his fatigue, and he is soon asleep.
It is almost eight when he awakens. Seeing the Colosseum and the lights of the city makes him smile. Walking back to the hotel in the dusk, Cogan loses his way and finds himself on the Via Sacra in the middle of the famous Roman Forum. He spots the Arch of Titus. Finding it on his map puts him back on course and, as he passes through the Arch, he sees a young woman passionately kissing an older, well-dressed man. The City of Love, he thinks.
Cogan gets back to the hotel after nine. The door to the restaurant is now open and almost every table is taken. The maître d’ asks if he’d mind sharing a table with another guest. Cogan says not at all. He realizes that in Chicago he would have said no and waited for a solo table. Whether the difference is being in Rome or just being so far from home, Cogan isn’t sure, but he senses adventure and, to his surprise, it doesn’t frighten him. He is seated at a table for two with a plump woman he gauges to be about his age.
“Good evening. Herman Cogan. Chicago, Illinois.”
“Hi. Rhoda Finkelstein. New York. It looks like the Fates have thrown us together.”
“Vacationing?” he asks, pleased with his newfound boldness. The woman has a pleasant smile and, when she puts her napkin to her mouth, he sees she is not wearing a wedding ring. Thoughts skim through Cogan’s brain faster than he can process.
“No, actually. I’m here on business,” she says. I’m a buyer for Saks.”
He must not have heard right. “You buy sacks?”
Rhoda Finkelstein laughs. “Could be. If they’re fashionable enough. Saks Fifth Avenue.”
“Ah,” he says.
During dinner, he finds out she was born in Brooklyn and, until she got the job at Saks, traveled very little. She talks freely about herself and listens attentively when Cogan speaks. He notices a small tattoo on the inside of her left wrist, half hidden by her wristwatch. It looks like the same five-pointed star he saw on the breast of the woman at the pool. “I like your tattoo,” he says. “Does it mean anything?”
“Thanks. Just a design I like.”
“I think I’ve seen one like it before.”
“They’re popular,” she says. “It’s called the nautical star.”
They both order the same dessert: chocolate gelato. When they finish, Rhoda stands and holds out her hand. “Nice to meet you, Herman” she says. “I have to look for a friend. I sent her a note about dinner, but she seems to have misunderstood.” They shake hands and she disappears into the hotel lobby. Cogan sits for a while, drinking the last of a warm glass of water, thinking about Rhoda Finkelstein. Very attractive, very pleasant. He notices a tall, attractive woman with close-cropped dark hair standing at the door to the restaurant, leaning in on tiptoes, as if looking for someone. He must have been staring without being conscious of it, because the woman smiles and lowers her eyes. Embarrassed, Cogan looks away, but he realizes it is the woman from the pool. How odd, he thinks, to be looking at a fully clothed stranger knowing that, a few hours earlier, he had seen her—what was the term his friend Stern used—precious assets. He watches as she walks back through the lobby to the elevator. Cogan thinks she is as lovely with clothes as she was earlier without. He fantasizes bringing such a woman back to Chicago, introducing her at his synagogue. The imagined reactions of his fellow congregants make him smile. He isn’t generally known as a lady’s man and he thinks of himself as being painfully shy around women. After a few minutes, he leaves the restaurant and goes to his room, hoping to quickly fall asleep.
Next morning, he is sitting on a bench in front of a small bookstore close to the hotel, thumbing through a guidebook to Rome, when he sees Rhoda and the woman with the anklet leave the hotel. Cogan is amazed the two women know one another. He decides to follow them, although he’s not sure why. It dawns on him as he trails behind at a safe distance that the anklet woman could be a model working with Rhoda to help her select merchandise. The women are headed toward the Roman Forum. With fewer people on the street now, Cogan drops farther back. He catches a glimpse of them near the Arch of Titus. In the darkness of its shadow, he sees the anklet woman pull Rhoda to her; they kiss in a quick embrace and then walk on, now holding hands. What is it about this arch, he wonders?
While he is not worldly, Cogan, nonetheless, is aware that there are women attracted to other women. These are the first he’s ever met, however, and he would never have guessed. Not that he’s actually met the anklet woman, but he has seen a lot of her. Cogan thinks both, in their own ways, are feminine and certainly attractive to men—at least they’re attractive to him. He wonders what brought them together. While he feels some disappointment that he will not find romance with either of them, he feels relieved as well. Relieved, because his few forays into relationships with the opposite sex have been stressful affairs. Perhaps, he thinks, this opens the door to a more relaxed liaison with the women, a simple friendship.
That evening as he enters the hotel restaurant, Rhoda waves at him. “Over here, Herman.” She’s sitting with the anklet woman near the rear of the restaurant. “Herman, this is Fina. Fina, Herman. We were just talking about you.”
He shakes hands with both of them and sits down. Cogan finds Fina charming. She speaks excellent English with a soft Italian accent. The women tell him of their visit to the Vatican. He tells them of his tour of the Great Synagogue of Rome and his walk through the Jewish ghetto.
“So we’ve got the religious part covered,” laughs Rhoda.
“And how do you two know each other?” he asks.
The women look at one another. Rhoda answers: “We met some years ago on one of my buying trips. Fina was modeling at the time. We’ve remained friends ever since.”
“Good friends,” Fina adds. Cogan smiles. He wonders if there will ever be a time when he can tell Fina he saw her sunbathing, or if she already knows. His face reddens at the thought.
When Rhoda invites him to join them on a boat tour along the Tiber in the morning he says, “Why not?”
At one point on the boat, Fina notices Cogan looking at a young woman in high heels and shorts lean over the starboard rail. “You like women, eh, Herman?” He’s not offended by the question. He remembers in high school, when the cute girl sitting in the next row asked him to look at his fingernails. He bent his fingers toward his palm and, looking, asked, “What’s wrong with my nails?”
The girl giggled. “If you did this,” she said holding her fingers straight with the back of her hand facing her, “you’d be a homo.” He laughed then, pleased that he’d passed the test, but he wondered what it was about him that led her to ask the question in the first place. Did he seem gay? Had she asked other guys? Fina’s question was similar, but more in the nature of whether he was a member of the club.
He smiles. “Yes, women, of course.”
“Fina was born here,” Rhoda interrupts. “She can show us all the best places. Stick with us, Herman. Better than roaming the streets alone.”
“Yes, yes,” Fina says, “Please, Herman.”
It was an odd invitation from women who kiss and hold hands. But Cogan thinks he knows why he is being invited: They’ve made a calculation that he’s harmless. And, perhaps, being with him will keep other admirers at bay. With a touch of sadness, he concludes they are right. “I’d love to,” he says.
Fina moves next to him and makes a show of kissing him on the cheek. “Hold it,” Rhoda says, taking aim with her camera. “I’ll send you prints, Herman.”
Harmless, he thinks, and maybe charming.
Both women are wide-eyed at everything they see. “Herman, look. Look!” Rhoda yells. He smiles and is amazed at the enthusiasm he didn’t expect from this sophisticated New Yorker. Yet Rhoda seems to approach everything with gusto. Fina, too, a native of Rome, overflows with excitement. In this regard, they seem to Cogan like grownup children.
And so goes Cogan’s remaining days in Rome. He squires Rhoda and Fina around the city—the ruins, the churches, the squares, the wonderful out-of-the-way bistros—all the while with one or the other of them by his side, holding his hand, squeezing his shoulder, kissing his cheek. He wants to tell them that it’s okay for them to hold hands and kiss one another, that he knows and understands. But he says nothing.
On the day before he is to leave, the three of them are alone by the hotel pool, Fina in her bikini, Rhoda in a man’s stripped shirt and pedal pushers, and Cogan in tan slacks and a pullover. The women are in high spirits.
Rhoda hands her camera to Cogan and sits on the hardwood chaise next to Fina. “Take our picture,” she says.
“Wait,” Fina says, as she casually and, with no outward appearance of shame, takes off her bikini top. “Now.” Cogan’s hands are shaking and he wonders if he’ll be able to hold still long enough to get a clear photo. He imagines people are looking down at them from their hotel room windows and he wonders what they must be thinking.
“Now you,” Rhoda says. “Over here.” She takes the camera from Cogan’s hands and pushes him toward the chaise.
The morning of his departure, both women are in the lobby to see him off. Using Rhoda’s camera, the man behind the desk takes a picture of the trio. Herman in the middle with his arms around both Rhoda and Fina. Both hug Cogan and kiss him on the cheek. His thoughts on the flight back are more about Fina and Rhoda than the Colosseum and the Palatine. Romance? No, not in the traditional sense. But a good time? Definitely yes. They were fun, he told himself. I had a great time. He was happy. The coin he threw in the Trevi Fountain worked. Not in the way he had hoped but, nonetheless, in a good way.
Two weeks after Cogan’s return home, a brown envelope containing twenty photos arrives with a note from Rhoda (If you ever get to New York, etc.) and a card for 10% off his purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue.
“Did you meet anyone?” his friend, Stern, asks.
“Two lovely women.”
“So tell me.”
He brings out the photographs, but he holds back for now—probably forever—the one of Fina and him taken at the pool. “Rhoda and Fina,” he says.
“Fina. Nice name. She’s the tall one, yes?” Stern begins his questioning in earnest as he examines each photo. How did you meet them? Which one did you like the best? What did you do together? Did you invite them to Chicago? Are there plans to see them again? And on. Stern, whose drugstore Cogan visits at the end of each workday for an Alka-Seltzer and conversation, is not, in Cogan’s experience, close-mouthed. He will tell customers about his, Cogan’s, trip to Italy and most definitely about the two women he was with in Rome. The word will spread. Some people at the synagogue will kid him: “Cogan, two women!” Or, “Next time I’m going with you.” Friends will ask to see the photographs.
Cogan knows he is bragging through Stern. He also knows, in leaving out a key fact about Rhoda and Fina, he is being dishonest. But, he reasons, he is helping the women. Is that not a mitzvah? With a name like Rhoda Finkelstein, someone here could know an aunt or a second cousin of Rhoda’s. Is it not better to keep quiet about her relationship with Fina? And if someone looking at the photos should get the wrong idea about him and these two lovely women, well, he concludes, he can live with that.
About the Author
Robert Sachs is a writer living in Louisville, Kentucky. He earned an M.F.A. in Writing from Spalding University (2009). He serves on the board of Louisville Literary Arts and has been a board member of Sarabande Books, a not-for-profit book publisher. His short stories have appeared, or are scheduled to appear, in Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Front Porch Review, Bound Off, The Writing Disorder, Red Fez, Blue Lake Review, Northern Liberties Review, Black Heart Magazine, Lowestoft Chronicle, Literary LEO, and The 10th Annual WD Short Short Story Collection. His story “Blue Room With Woman,” was an honorable mention finalist in the Glimmer Train November 2009 Short Story Award for New Writers. He was a semi-finalist in the Nineteenth Consecutive New Millennium Writing Competition.