The Key

By Matthew DiPaoli

I’ve come to Rome for salvation. It’s become fashionable—menopausal women attempting to recapture a fictional youth, American co-eds exploring their sexual ferocity, fountain fucking with unobtainable women born of the Cinecitta.

The eternal city has a way of showing you how much you’ve changed because it never does. Many years earlier, I’d lived steps away from the Vatican. It’s incredible that something so small has so much power, like a little pope-sized battery. Prayer carried on the torrential Roman winds and slithered straight through my window. Sometimes I pretended it was my own.

The other reason I’ve come is to find an Italian girl named Marianna I met several years back in New York. Our affair had lasted three days: the first on a rooftop bar at sunset where we drank tall glasses of Campari, the second watching Grucci fireworks on the Williamsburg Bridge in the rain. The third day, at my apartment, I presented her with a necklace that she’d admired in passing. Overwhelmed by this gesture, Marianna declared that she couldn’t make love with me. That it would be too sad. I never knew what her body felt like. Consider this my opportunity to alter the past.

I can smell her small perfumed wrists as I ride into the city proper. Along the roadside, gypsy villages rise and ancient, forgotten women wash their underthings in finely adorned bowls, unaware of their worth.

I’m staying above the Spanish Steps, between two world-renowned, five-star establishments. My hotel is their deformed love child. I settle into my tiny, breezy room. For a moment, I hold the brass key in my hand. It becomes warmer and warmer, and the moment I feel it’s about to burst in my palm, I set out into Rome. I’ll be meeting Marianna tonight. I arranged it through a series of handwritten letters because it was more romantic that way and I found the anticipation erotic.

It isn’t warm yet in Rome, but the sun is up and red. Brick and mortar join around me as Rome reassembles. Each step lays cobblestone and alleyways sprout over me like ivy. During the day, Campo Di Fiori sells fruits and seed. When I lived here I liked to walk among the pushcarts and smell what had ripened, shooting film indiscriminately. At night, droves of young, drunk American students flooded the square. I’d been one of them, and I can taste the old sweat and grappa as I pass through.

It’s cold in the hotel, the windows snap back against their hinges. I lie in bed, my long hairy toes slightly obscuring the Italian game shows I don’t fully understand. Three blonde women in top hats and short skirts each wait to be hoisted onto an assembly line filled with sandwich meats. It must make sense in translation. I wonder what Rome was like before color, when everything tasted of blood and pistachio.

My body becomes heavy, and I’m drifting off when a man comes to my door. “One momento,” I say, flustered. I put some socks on and opened up.

“A young lady come by. She say she would like to meet you at Café Paparazzo,” said the bellhop.

“Ok. Why didn’t she just tell me herself?”

“If we could apprehend women the world would stop its spinning.”

I chuckle a little. “Is that an Italian saying?”

“A saying? No.” He looks at me funny as if to say it’s the absolute truth, and I feel a little foolish as he walks away down the tattered sea foam carpet.

She’s late. She’d always made it a point to be late, which made her appealing. I wonder if there’s an equation for the time of a beautiful, young Italian actress with long legs and fair skin being greater than or equal to a scruffy New York photographer. I’ve always hated variables.

After a glass and a half of the house red, she shows up wearing a sheer leopard top that sags over her very slight but perky breasts. Her dark hair swings against her shoulders, and there is something glamorous about her. She kisses me on the cheek, sits on the purple velvet seat cushions, and orders wine immediately.

I feel fortunate to have met her. I’d never tried for an Italian girl while living in Rome because I heard it was impossible. They’ve all sworn off of men because of the hordes of shiny-jacketed horny minstrels that are Roman twenty-somethings, jacking off on their Vespas to blonde Americans and anything with hips. Or that’s what I heard, anyway.

Marianna wears a red bow in her dark brown hair that glows in the hazy twilight. Her accent would be comical if she were a man. But when a woman struggles to say something, she becomes more desirable.

We sit under the chimes of the Mediterranean wind, sipping dry red and lazily observing a van that is unable to squeeze through a narrow cobblestone alley. Roman streets were not made for modern convenience; they remain stoically obstinate in the face of passing centuries. Beside them, a man is yelling, “La chiave!”

I know that means the key from the time I locked myself out of my Italian villa at three in the morning. Italian locksmiths are not very helpful at that time, apparently.

“I didn’t think I would see you—definitely not in this place, like this,” she says, her accent has softened over the years.

“How should it have been?”

“I’m not certain. You know, passing in the evening like strangers in a foreign place.”

“This is a foreign place.”

“Not to me,” she says.

I notice a string slowly dangling above me, swinging, descending toward a man in a green-striped shirt. The man is laughing. Attached to the string is a key. “Did you ever think about me?”

“You know—” She pauses as if reconsidering. “Maybe that was too serious a question. You always are a serious one. I remember.” Marianna pulls her hair back, revealing her marble eyes and then lets go as if closing a curtain.

“I don’t know if I’m more serious than the next person,” I say.

“Then this next person must be very serious,” she lowers her lips to the glass.

Above us, the key dangles down to the man in the striped shirt and I translate (roughly): “Fantastic! We can always remember that. This will be a fantastic story to tell other people.” I’m impressed I know the Italian word for fantastic.

The string now whips freely in the breeze. The woman in the window waves and shuts the blinds. I wonder what that key leads to and how long that man in the striped shirt had tried to obtain it.

“I guess that’s our story, too, now.”

“Do you think we were part of it?” asks Marianna.

“Instrumental. We practically gave him the key ourselves.”

As I tinker with the base of his wine glass, I find Marianna very beautiful. We’ve suddenly recaptured whatever was between us years ago. I almost lean over to kiss her, but stop myself. It isn’t fear that stops me, but something darker.

“Why are you staring at me like this?” she says.

I don’t realize I’m staring and glance down at the lipstick on her wine glass.

“Now you’re just looking at my breasts.”

“To be fair, I’ve been looking at your breasts since you sat down.”

She laughs a little.

After another glass, we walk a ways up to Doria Pamphili, a park that only locals know about. Dusk is hardening over the city; and from certain spots, amongst the unripe orange trees and legless vine-tongued statues, we can see the whole city just as it had been, dinner lights flickering on all over Rome. I smell salt water boiling.

Before night falls completely, Marianna takes my hand and leads me to the black gates of the secret garden where swans live under cherry blossoms, and the coiling, wrought iron gates are the only things separating us from a life of fiction.

I put my arm around her waist, and she bites my shoulder ravenously. As night comes on, we walk back down the hill. She smells of plum, and it’s arousing having her skin against mine.

“We should go somewhere together,” she says, excitedly.

“Now?”

“Let’s just buy a ticket. We can lie on beaches—do nothing.”

“I’m more of a city boy, but yeah.”

Something in her sinks. I can feel it—as if she realizes at that moment I am inherently flawed.

“You think if you stick your hand in the Boca Della Verita you’ll get bit?” she asks, distantly.

The Boca is the mouth of truth, a large, round stone face that supposedly takes your hand if you lie. “Me?” I say, finally. “Absolutely.”

Her arm slips out from behind me, and we walk separately the rest of the way.

“I’ll still go somewhere. I’ll go to the beach if it’s with you—I don’t care,” I say.

She looks up where the moon should have been, but finds only murky, illuminated clouds. Thin cats, now sensing prey, mew and fester along the park’s jagged walls. After a long stretch of silence, I spot an open cab down the road, and we jump in.

In poor Italian, I give the directions to Piazza Di Spagna. She doesn’t help me. I lean over and kiss Marianna. It’s short because she says my beard hurts her face. She pulls away.

“It’s like a bunch of little needles,” she says, rubbing her chin.

Previous lovers commented, but it rarely affected our intimacy.

“Isn’t it worth it?” I ask. “To be hurt a little.”

“Why are we heading to Spagna?”

“The hotel,” I say.

“Why don’t we get some drinks? I have to take a train tonight anyway.”

“Tonight?”

“We are not all on holiday like you, my friend,” she says.

The evening had slipped out of my grasp, and I feel remote in her presence as the cab staggers along cobblestone.

“Trastevere,” she says.

The driver turns sharply down a tight alleyway without acknowledging her.

Trastevere is a haven for locals where you can drink wine in the streets and be trusted to return the stocky metal cups. Each road, each café is like a Pollack canvas, and there is no way to know where you are unless you’ve already been there. When I lived near there, I’d considered a certain bar home; Oil and Vinegar, it’s called. And the bartender knew me, so we go in.

It’s been seven years, but I waited excitedly by the bar, peering in until I saw him. “Giovanni!” I call out.

The bartender saunters over. “What can I get you?” He looks the same, except a bit more bloated from beer and time. He’s let his hair grow out and curl.

“You don’t remember me? We used to close down this bar together and go to after-hours. The photographer?”

“Hey, man, sorry—unless you had a vagina I’m probably not gonna remember you.”

I do my best to hide my disappointment and order drinks. Marianna and I sit down at the back of the bar. The tables are old bourbon barrels, and Giovanni has his barmaid bring over the drinks to ensure our conversation doesn’t continue.

I notice a bruise on Marianna’s arm. I lean over, run my thumb over the gray mark. “It’s strange to realize you’re just passing through.”

Marianna places her hand on my thigh and moves in closer. “I like your beard, you know—even though it reddens my face.” She nestles her head on my shoulder. Her hair smells like the breeze off the Tiber. “Forget here. Let’s go to Spagna,” she whispers.

When we get back to the hotel, I pour two glasses of whiskey I bought at the airport. We sit on the bed, and she drinks hers down quick. I pour her another and take my time. A Roma soccer game flickers in the background.

We are drunk when it happens. In some way, I think that’s the only way it can happen for her. As if it’s an accident, something inconsequential. And as she removes her leopard blouse, I snap a picture, and she allows it. And as she slips off her black bra, I shoot her, and I shoot her naked belly and the space between her buttoned jeans and her waist. I lower the camera and undo her jeans so that she’s standing there, swaying slightly back and forth, maybe from the booze or the breeze coming in the room, but she’s very natural. The camera almost seems to relax her as I tug at her jeans from either side until they slide down around her ankles, and I push her onto the bed.

I drop my camera and kiss her breasts; I kiss her lips and her waist and slide her panties around her thighs.

“I missed you,” she says.

All I wanted to say is that I’ve missed her too and envisioned her in twisted alcoholic dreams, but I hadn’t yet earned that intimacy; so I think of the cats, and the smell of salt and citrus and the key slipping away. I unbuckle my belt and thrust into her hard so that there is no doubt we’re finally connected, and instead of looking into her eyes, I look away, afraid of being too earnest; so my only thoughts are of the photographs I can keep, and if they’ve captured what I feel now and will never be able to relive.

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Matthew DiPaoli

Matthew DiPaoli / About Author

Matthew Di Paoli received his BA at Boston College where he won the Dever Fellowship and the Cardinal Cushing Award for Creative Writing. He has also been nominated for the 2015 and 2016 Pushcart Prize and won the Prism Review Short Story Contest. Matthew earned his MFA in Fiction at Columbia University. He has been published in Post Road, The Great American Literary Magazine, Neon, Litro, The Soundings Review, and Gigantic literary magazines among others. He is the author of Killstanbul with El Balazo Press, is shopping a second novel entitled Holliday, and teaches writing in NYC.

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