A Beggar and a Lemon Tree
I'm actually really tired of this piece, and have a funny story behind it. We had a new teacher reviewing our "Rome journals" during our semester abroad, instead of the old one (a sad breaking of tradition)... and this man was a journalist. One day, he told everyone that he would be asking a few people if he could post one of their journal entries that he liked on his online Rome blog. Everyone secretly got into an uproar at this. There were whisperings flying here and there: "Would this be ethical?" "It is breaking with tradition...!" "Is this in the Spirit of the Rome semester?" "Will you do it?" "I haven't a clue; will you?" "Absolutely not!" "Heaven forbid." "I may..."
Leave it to fate, he asked me first. I gulped. I hadn't engaged in the secret whisperings myself, but I knew the word on the street, and despaired that I should be singled out to be put to the test. Would they consider me a traitor if I agreed? Lacking in integrity?
But I feared for this teacher's feelings more. I knew lots would turn him down, and, to soothe his ruffled feathers before they even got ruffle, I said yes.
I had one stipulation: "Can it be anonymous?"
"Yes. But can we put a picture of you next to it?"
I waited, with gritted teeth, for everyone's reception of my piece... my first piece ever put in public eye... my first laying-bare of my writings. Bated breath. Tensed up.
Word traveled quickly from New Hampshire back to Rome, and only the next night at dinner I heard what the students back in America thought of my piece.
"Who wrote that?" one girl had laughed. "It was a little... over-the-top."
I put my head down on the table and groaned. Never again.
But I'm laughing now and posting it again, though it feels worn paper-thin and tattered up, and I can hardly feel the body of any real sentiments it first held for me. It IS a little over-the-top; it IS somewhat intense. I half doubt the love in it. But who can blame a child, coming to Rome for the first time, when the power and the passion of the city falls over a person? A place already loudly colored, and a place that (perhaps unfortunately or not, I don't know) hardly recommends restraint. The first fruits of an experience - romance, college, etc., - are often the most intense. Not necessarily the deepest. But definitely the most intense.
2/08: first page of my Rome journal:
Right now I'm sitting in a courtyard. Next to a lemon tree. Near a nunnery.
(Two things so un-New Englandy.)
It is very windy, and we are near a hospital the nuns run. White veils billow and sail through the trees, down and up from the building. Startling white. A young novice about fifteen paces from me is standing underneath a large wooden cross with a plaster corpus on it. Her presence is gentle. The sun is sitting warm on her face. Hands in her pockets, she stands still, looking up, looking up. I'm spying on her through my hair. I wonder what she is thinking.
Suddenly sensing that I am being watched myself, I glance over at the squat lemon tree near me and am startled to see a pair of fierce eyes in a dark, dark face, framed by a veil, staring at me suspiciously through the leaves. A nun is walking by. Staring as only an Italian can stare.
I'm here to copy out what I scribbled in my notebook for this Rome journal last night. The experience I wrote about – an experience so human, crude, and confusing – had my heart in it.
Twilight in the courtyard. Today the girls and I walked into a bread shop that smelled like fish. We - (OH MY GOODNESS GRACIOUS! A cat just screamed. I jumped clear out of my seat and half-way across the courtyard. I've never heart a cat scream before. That was the most soul-scraping noise ever.) So we were in the little bread shop that smelled of fish, and an unshaven and easy-going old man was weighing out half a loaf of bread on a scale.
“No, too small,” one of the girls was saying. “That one,” pointing through the glass. He drew out a loaf the length of her arm.
“You're eating all that?” I exclaimed.
“Oh, no,” she said. “It's not for me. It's for the old woman with the cup.”
It seemed that, to her, the Old Woman with the Cup needed no other explanation or a name. She just was.
“May I come?”
“Sure, but I have to find her. I think I last saw her at the piazza. See, I met her before, and gave money to her, and then saw her the other day. But I didn't have any change on me, so I felt bad. She recognized me! I hope we can find her.”
But lo and behold, she was sitting right outside the bakery shop, crouched against the dingy wall, holding her paper cup. She seemed like a stone, inseparable from the wall.
My friend put the bread into the gypsy's brown hands. “Grazie,” the woman said. Who knows how old she was... I want to describe her face, but I can't. It is not that I don't have the words. It is that, with my American inhibitions (“politeness”) and sensitive feeling of awkwardness for her position, I didn't stare like an Italian.
It is funny: THEY are not afraid to bore their eyes into you, even from across an almost-empty pizzeria; their eyeballs slide tangibly down your nose and the curve of your cheek. It is rude in America to stare. We have definite personal spaces and we are aware of our own and other people's. We apologize even if we brush arms on the bus.
Now I wish I had been rude. I wish I had been beastly rude. I wish her face was burned into my mind. All that I can remember, oddly, was her tooth. It was large and rectangular and stuck out really far – yellowed, and with brown stains.
Moved by the woman's apparent plight and my friend's generosity, I dished out a two-Euro piece from my pocket and clinked it into her paper cup. Tears filled her eyes! This unhinged me; I was disconcerted. Could she cry on command? Whip up a batch of dramatic tears at the perfect moment? I don't care; I didn't care.
The weeping woman was trying to tell me something. “Cinque bambini, cinque bambini,” she wept.
“Aw,” I said, not understanding. She kept pointing to her tooth. I thought she was saying she would feed her five babies with my money. “Aw,” I repeated.
“Non, signora,” she said persistently, pawing at my hand. “Cinque.”
I couldn't understand why she was delaying me. She smiled a little at my stupidity and held up five fingers. “Signora...” Then it dawned on me. She wanted more money!
Now I remember her eyes. They were absolutely nondescript. Maybe red-rimmed, perhaps darkish, dingy-gray – smallish? Her clothing? I can't remember the color. Maybe there was no color. Maybe you couldn't bore through her eyes to her soul. I wanted to say, “Show me your children. I want to wash them, feed them...” Maybe she was fake. Maybe her cup was empty because she sat on the coins already given to her. She dabbed at her eyes with the corner of her shawl. Maybe she wasn't real. Maybe she would hide the loaf on her lap, under that shawl, so people would still have pity on her. There was such a mix of cynicism and pity in me, it was confusing and bothering.
I remember perfectly the nun's eyes in the lemon tree, even though I only saw them for 1.6 seconds. Fierce dark eyes set in white. Bushy thick brows wisped with gray. Flitting through green leaves, wide-eyed, angry near the pale lemons.
There was a Euro note conveniently in my pocket. Maybe she did have five children; maybe she didn't. But it was the “maybe she did” that made all the difference... that drowned the latter and nixed my suspicions.
She took it and started sobbing. Her shoulders shook.
I didn't know if it was play-acting. Maybe she was pretending to shake her shoulders. I didn't care. I looked at her, and our hearts touched.
You know those instances, disturbing, exhilarating, when hearts touch? It stays with you forever, like the stubborn prickles I got today on my palm, from picking the purple fruit of a prickly pear.
Be it farce, I saw love in her. I was jolted by the knowledge that she loved me. And this was only by standing awkwardly in front of her. I wanted to physically touch her, but with my English sensibilities, I didn't know how to make the move.
“Ciao! Deus – benedictus?” I said awkwardly, and turned to go, but she caught my hand.
“Grazie, bella,” she said. She put her other hand up and touched my cheek – cupped my cheek. The hand was dirty, warm, and human. She was like Queequeg throwing his arm over Ishmael in bed.
She brought me down closer, by her mouth, as if she wanted to tell me something intimate.
“Me, Olga,” she confided, speaking slowly to the dumb American. She had not let go of my hand.
Then I was brave and squeezed her hand before letting go. In fact, she held so tightly, so stickily, to my fingers, I almost had to pull a little away, like tweezing out the prickles from my palm.
She was not a plaster corpus, even if she didn't have the honest fierce stare of the lemon tree nun. Even if her beggarly life was a fake. She was human. And I think I remember her blank gray eyes, and love her.