(Early Gay Classic; Novel)
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.
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.
“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.
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. 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 of the 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 or 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.