Three weeks is an endless loop of time where your sanity drains away from you like liquid in low gravity.
When Rome was my lover, I was young but thought I was old. When I was young, I was gifted the sense of invincibility shared by all foolish hatchlings. Even though Rome was my lover, I lived on the streets in Florence for three weeks. I was seventeen, a virgin and fully reliant on the kindness of strange men.
And I felt invincible even after escaping the cabbie who would have raped me, even as I stood on a rainy highway at 3 a.m., laughing and crying.
Ten minutes later, the truck driver who stopped for me to get in, propositioned me just as I finished telling him what the cab driver tried to do. So as soon as he pulled into a gas station to fill up the semi, I leapt out without a word and stayed there until it became light. I ended up taking the bus from Fiesole back to Florence proper in time to use the public showers at the train station, get a change of clothes from my stored suitcase at the Deposito Bagagli a mano, and make it to my 8 a.m. Italian language class.
Some nights I slept on the floor of the train station — well, maybe one night. I don’t think I bothered again after being woken in the morning by a toothless vagrant’s face an inch away from mine. He emitted a not nice odor and wanted to “prendere un caffé” with me. Espresso. He wanted me to go on an espresso date with him. I wasn’t so much insulted as annoyed for having had my sleep interrupted.
“Non rompe le scatole,” I said, which roughly translates to ‘don’t break my balls.’ I had it in my head that’s how us street people got our point across. I rose and walked off, rolling my eyes, teenager that I was.
I had an unlimited rail pass for the month, so some nights I slept on the train to Rome and back. Once in a while I’d leave early to hang out in the piazzas of my beloved Rome.
The cabbie’s core was decayed and foul, but most of the couple dozen men before him who enlisted in the cause of my survival fed me pasta, got me a hotel room or let me sleep on their couch or in their car. Most. Out of the rest, one was as manipulative as I was arrogant, and another had a switchblade.
I met the switchblade guy in the Rome metro, and I don’t actually know what he would’ve done. But late night on the park bench in Villa Borghese, just as he pulled out his knife to show me, we heard rustling from nearby bushes. He became instantly spooked and rushed us out of the park. Once back among a crowd, I decided to part ways and get on the train to Florence. Maybe subconsciously it dawned on me, What if he wasn’t just showing off his knife in a friendly way?
Later in Florence, after the cab driver incident, my bravado fully withered in spite of myself. I caved in and called my parents back in New York. It was time to make up with them and find a place to live for the rest of my stay.
I had only been a street person for three weeks. But if you don’t have a home to sleep in, three weeks is an endless loop of time where your sanity drains away from you like liquid in low gravity. When you don’t have shelter, neither does your mind.
A disproportionate number of the men I met told me about il Mostro, a serial killer loose in Florence since the late 60’s who murdered kissing couples in outdoor spaces. I always shrugged, thinking, What’s it got to do with me? I’m not planning to make out with you. Indoors or outdoors.
‘Invincible’ I know now, meant ‘lucky idiot.’
It’s debatable whether I became a calm, respectable adult, but I became good at pretending to grow up. Those three weeks are worthy of a few chapters in a book, and it happens that a few years ago an older male friend had what he considered helpful suggestions.
“Why don’t you write?” He asked.
“Why don’t you write a book?”
“It’s a memoir.”
He scoffed, as if an unknown person’s memoir can’t matter.
“You haven’t lived enough,” he said.
I beg to differ.
Of course, the memoir in question is a painstaking, on-again, off-again endeavor and I’m not in a rush. Still, pieces of it are starting to emerge in scattered places.
Ten years after living on the streets of Florence, I was twenty-seven and in a relationship. I treated my boyfriend to an Italian vacation and couldn’t wait to present Rome to him. The story, an ode to one lover amid the resuscitation of another, is live today on Full Grown People and called Head Inside the Head. Let me know what you think if you read it.
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