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Thirty Days Ago
The next thing I knew, I was sitting in the middle of a tiny attic apartment I had booked at the last minute. A literal closet. (The irony was not lost on me.) That was when the sum total of my last twenty-four hours of traveling finally started thudding against my head.
It started lightly and then knocked harder and harder as I stared outside my tiny window at the slant of the rooftop. I let my eyes follow the red tile, down the white building walls, the clay windowsills, all the way to the courtyard, where there was a sexy red Vespa sitting on a bed of cracked brick.
And then, a full-on thwack: Holy shit. I was in Rome. They say stress makes you do crazy things. And I mean, I basically blacked out and booked an international trip. That’s like the time I fell asleep on the NYC subway and ended up in Harlem, but on a plane. I don’t remember going to the international departures gate; I don’t remember the flight; I don’t remember the bus ride into Rome or fitting the key in the hole or taking off my shoes.
I rushed outside, onto the street. There I was: Via della Gensola. Moss-covered walls. Cobble. A couple whizzed by on a Vespa, and my gaze turned with them as they stopped at the end of the street and made out for a few seconds before disappearing into the restaurant. It was the most Italian thing ever.
I ran back to my apartment. I burst into the tiny bathroom, nearly bulldozing the ancient water heating system, and stared at my face in the mirror. Bloodshot eyes. Dark bags underneath them.
Looking at myself, there, I knew: You’ve gone too far this time, Amir.
Through my tiny window, I watched it get dark outside. I listened to the clanging of pots and pans from somewhere down below. I heard bells chiming. I smelled fried onion and garlic rising up. There was something freeing about being thousands of miles away from my problems. It didn’t erase them completely, but the distance helped. It always does.
I decided I owed my parents at least the bare minimum of an explanation. So I emailed them: Mom and Dad, please don’t hate me. I’m dealing with a lot right now, but I want you to know that I’m safe. I promise I’m safe, and I’m fine. I just needed to get away for a couple of days. I closed out of my inbox as soon as I hit send.
I woke up the next morning to the smell of fresh bread and frying eggs drifting in my open window. There were still pots and pans banging, but also birds chirping. And sunlight. Glorious, glorious sunlight. I smiled for the first time in days. And I had my first clear thought: What’s a kid like me supposed to do after making the craziest decision of his life, when his life is hanging by a thread? How do you go back to normal after that?
Gelato. I stepped outside and found a little street-side gelato stand, where I splurged and ordered two heaping scoops: one chocolate, one strawberry. The cool sweetness calmed my nerves. The ground below me felt stable again.
The gelato melted quickly as I strolled the colorful streets of Trastevere. There was something magical about this neighborhood, its old doorways and passageways, the young people sitting in plastic chairs outside bars and restaurants, smoking and having coffee without a worry in the world. I took the last bite of my cone, wiped my fingers on my pant legs, and smiled. I liked it here.
I found a bookstore and stepped inside. It was completely empty and air-conditioned. A man yelled “ciao” from the back room; I yelled “ciao” back. I found the English section, and I was flipping through the latest John Green novel when another customer entered the store. She seemed to know the bookseller. I eavesdropped on their conversation. I was surprised that they were not only speaking in English, but the bookseller had a perfect American accent. He asked the woman how her writing was going—she was an Italian author of sexy romance novels. She asked him how his partner was doing.
My ears perked up at the word “partner.”
Was the bookseller gay? It could have been his business partner. It could have been his long-term girlfriend. But for some reason, the possibility that this man might be just like me made me happier than I had felt in a long time.
It struck me right there, as I pretended to flip through a copy of Turtles All the Way Down, that at any other point in my thus-far-short life, I would have clammed up in this situation. I would have died just being near another gay person, or hearing the word “partner.” Whenever my family passed two men holding hands, I felt that if I glanced for just a second too long, I would be exposed. That my mom or dad would figure it out. For once, I didn’t have to worry. Not only that, but I had the luxury of feeling like I was a part of something. That word, “partner”: that world of men holding hands. It wasn’t a threat anymore. It wasn’t going to give me away.
Look, I hadn’t gotten to steer my own destiny in a very long time. I had been closeted by circumstance. I had been driven to Rome by circumstance. But now that I was here, my circumstances belonged to me. So I decided to do something; I would talk to this man. I would strike up a conversation with him—gay or no—and ask him what to do during my brief time in Rome.
I pretended to flip through a few more books before I heard the door jingle, signaling that the author had left. I finally grabbed a copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (it was a euro cheaper than the other YA paperbacks) and took it to the checkout desk. The bookstore clerk looked up and dog-eared his page in the book he was reading.
That’s when I lost any semblance of cool.
No one should be allowed to look that good and work in a bookstore.
Seriously, this guy looked like he had jumped straight off of a romance novel cover. His eyes were absurdly piercing. I wanted to roll a marble down his slicked-back hair. And the way he wore his tank top, light and loose, with tattoos and muscles peeking out from underneath it—they stopped me so hard in my tracks I said a little prayer for all the men and women who had fallen before me.
He was immediately friendly. All, “Perks! Wow. Great pick. I haven’t read that one in forever.”
And I was immediately a fool. Awkward. Clumsy.
The man rang me up and handed me my receipt, and he was prepared to send me off like any other customer, when I blurted, “I’m only in town for a couple days, and I was kind of wondering what there is to do . . . in town?”
He smiled, like any friendly person would, and I think my shoulders actually melted into my chest. He ripped a piece of paper off a notebook to the left of his desk (sadly, that was the only thing he ripped off ) and started writing.
“I assume you don’t want the tourist traps, like the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel . . . not that they’re not historically important! But you can find those recommended in any guidebook . . . Oh! There’s this gorgeous park, Giardino degli Aranci, which is lovely in and of itself, but if you go, you have to find the keyhole. It has the most jaw-dropping view of Rome. Like, you get the most incredible view of Saint Peter’s Basilica through it.”
He also wrote down a couple of bar and restaurant recommendations.
“Are you old enough to drink?” he asked.
“I don’t . . . know,” I said. What I started to say was I don’t drink, but that wasn’t true. Not after senior year.
“The drinking age here is eighteen,” the book clerk said, twirling his pen on his finger, and in that moment, he was a magician. He was straight-up Cedric Diggory. “I can’t believe it’s still twenty-one in the States.”
I used to genuinely think I’d never drink alcohol. Neither of my parents drink, and I have relatives who call alcohol poison, so it seemed straightforward to me. But Jackson had changed my mind on drinking, among other things.
“In that case, I’m old enough,” I told the bookseller.
He started to write something else but scribbled it out. “If only you were staying a bit longer,” he said. “My partner just opened a bar—well, not a bar, a cultural association—and the official opening is in a couple of days . . .”
And here I blurted, “Your partner!” like the fool that I am.
He gave me this sideways look and went, “Yes . . .”
And then he wrote down another spot and asked if I’ve heard of Pigneto—“It’s like the Bushwick of Rome”—and I told him I don’t even know the Bushwick of wherever-Bushwick-is, and he laughed. Then he wrote a third spot, and a name. “Jahan. That’s the name of the bartender there. He’s an incredible poet, too.”
Suddenly, a shard of sun sliced the bookstore clerk’s hair, turning it from brown to blond, and once again, my mind flashed to Jackson. I thought about the texts he’d sent me yesterday—where are you, what the hell Amir, answer me damn it, are you okay, should I call your parents—
NO, don’t, I finally replied, I’m fine, family emergency.
And just like that, all my troubles came flooding back.
I quickly said thanks to this gorgeous bookseller (whose name I didn’t even catch) and went on my way.
Outside, the streets were busy and crowded. I came to a four-way intersection and froze. My heart was beating out of my chest, and it was like this entire ancient city—its Colosseum, its Sistine Chapel—had come crashing down over my head.
My thoughts swirled between the bookstore clerk, his slick brown hair, and Jackson, whose hair was getting longer and blonder every day. From Jake, who still owned my secret, to my parents, who still didn’t know. At least, I thought they didn’t. Who knew what could be happening in my absence?
I swallowed the tightness in my chest long enough to find my way back to the Airbnb. I drank some water and lay down in bed for a couple hours. Then I moved to the floor. I rested the back of my hand over my burning forehead and closed my eyes.
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