I wondered myself what I had become in that bone mosaic passageway in the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione. What was “
For years, I had wanted to know who I was. Why was I Catholic? Why was I born Italian and not some other nationality? What does it mean to be Catholic? What does it mean to be Italian? Oddly enough, growing up in the predominantly Italian-American
And my glasses and allergies didn’t help my self-esteem or the way I was perceived, either.
The only people who ever accepted me completely were my parents and my brother. And now that I was on the cusp of adulthood, the prospect of leaving them terrified me. Did I really have to go out into a world that seemed completely hostile to everything I held dear?
I was hoping
One thing I certainly did appreciate was the visibility of religious symbolism.
I had been raised to think of God as a fairly aloof male figure who looked something like Charlton Heston. The fact that God was the man and Mary was the woman would factor rather strongly in my future tendency to pray more to her for intercession than to pray directly to God the scary patriarch. After all, I got along better with women, overall, than I did with men.
Naturally, because I received so many of my first impressions from things I saw on television as a child, my love for Mary began when I had seen a mini-series called “Jesus of Nazareth.” I have no idea how young I was, but I was fairly young. In the series, a very beautiful actress named Olivia Hussey played Mary. Hussey did not have a large part, and most of the time she represented Mary in a very mysterious, inaccessible way. However, there was one moment in particular that was very visceral and very human, which had made an enormous impression on my young mind. While Mary had been a silent sufferer and somewhat aloof figure for much of the miniseries, she collapsed into tears and wailed in agony when Jesus’ corpse was lowered from the cross. The image of Mary clutching Jesus’ body to her chest as the rain poured down upon her was memorable, to say the least. I remember thinking, what must it be like to lose your only child? Even back then, I knew it was a nightmare. She felt pain, so she could understand my pain. God probably couldn’t feel pain, so how could he understand mine?
So I prayed to Mary, because she knew pain and knew what it meant to be human.
* * *
“I wasn’t raised a believer,” Eileen said.
The two of us stood in front of Michaelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica in the
Eileen, on the other hand, was still moved, even if she disliked the glass as well.
“I had no contact with religion,” Eileen continued. “And one of my friends, who was Born Again, was trying to tell me a few years ago about the wrath of God. I didn’t buy that. It didn’t sound right. None of it did.”
"I understand," I said.
"But that doesn't stop this from being the greatest work of art I've ever seen."
We returned to
“Yeah! Augustino!” I’d shout, confusing Olansky (who probably thought I had emotional problems by this point).
Mark Newcomb would raise his arms in the air like Superman taking off. “Da-da-da-daaaaa! The Blessed Augostino Novello! Fighting for Faith! Hope! And Love! And the greatest of these is LOOOOOOVVVVEEEE!”
While I listened to Olansky’s lectures, Eileen was free to roam
Each night, the two of us always ate dinner together with Colin and Drusilla in the Locanda Garibaldi. Each night we’d have a different meal, and each night Colin would wind up with a plate that looked twice as good as mine. My food was always great, but it was still funny to all of us. I was thankful that genuine Italian lasagna tasted totally different that my mother’s, so that her lasagna could remain “undefeated,” even after I tasted the cuisine of the motherland. It was not inferior, only different. Colin would get angry any time Drusilla glared at him for eating meat and would respond by further insulting her vegetarian sensibilities with tales of his deer hunting expeditions. While I was sympathetic to Drusilla’s sensitivity to animal rights, I have to admit I was squarely on Colin’s side as I chewed on my meat-filled lasagna.
“That Drusilla’s a piece of ass,” Colin said, “but she’s so liberal it makes me not want her. It kills the whole sexual attraction for me, her whole annoying vegetarian, Unitarian, Commie, feminist, pro-gun-control, holier-than-thou crapola.”
“That’s funny,” I observed. “I always found Commie vegetarians kind of hot. And Drusilla looks like Liv Tyler, too.”
“Hey,” Colin said, “you’ve already got one girl on this trip. Leave the annoying pinko to me.”
“I’m just saying, if I was you, I’d stick to topics we had in common. She’s pretty and worth getting along with. Yum, yum, yum.”
“I think she has a boyfriend,” Colin said sullenly. “If she didn’t, I just know I could bend her to my will. One night with me and she’ll be singing the praises of Ronald Reagan and the NRA ‘til morning.”
“Well … okay, then. Good luck with that … whole … enterprise,” I said.
Every night after dinner, I would walk around
It was great spending all this time with Eileen, but I desperately wanted to be alone with her on a date. I wondered what it would be like to have dinner just with her and nobody else. But something like that had to be arranged. There were too many people around us and it was too much of a habit for us all to get together every night for food.
For months prior to this trip, I had fantasized about having an affair in
A few evenings later, I returned to my bedroom in the Locanda Garibaldi to greet Colin with a sullen face.
“I don’t know what to do about Eileen,” I said.
“That makes two of us,” Colin replied.
It was clear Colin was not overly interested in the conversation, but I needed to talk to him. “I think she knows I’m attracted to her.”
“She’s pushing me away.”
“So don’t hang out with her anymore.”
I sighed. “But the weird thing is, I think she likes me. At least, I think she does. I’m getting mixed signals.”
“I don’t know, Marc. She spends a lot of time following you around, but that might not mean anything. She might just want to be your friend, or some gay crap like that.”
“I’ve just been talking to her for two hours in her room,” I said. “For a while, it was a great conversation. She talked to me about why she loves medieval art and how her dream is to one day become a coach for the Mets.”
“That’s great. You hate baseball and medieval art.”
I smiled. “I thought I did, but she’s so enthusiastic about these things that it rubs off on me. I see the beauty of the art and the excitement of the sports through her. You know what I mean?”
“Anyway, we got to talking and I was so excited by her that I tried to move in closer. I wanted to kiss her. But the last time I tried to kiss a girl, she didn’t want me to and I chased her away.”
“Exactly. I didn’t want that to happen again, but I didn’t want to be a wuss and ask to kiss her. That’s lame.”
Colin was beginning to pay closer attention to what I was saying. “What did you do?”
“When the moment seemed right, I lightly brushed her cheek with my hand and told her she was beautiful.”
I dropped down onto my bed and stared up at the high, white ceiling. “I think it embarrassed her. I don’t think she’s used to that kind of attention.”
Colin laughed. “That doesn’t sound too good for you.”
“Well, she spent the last half hour telling me how she never wants to get married or have kids, and since the only purpose of dating is to find someone to marry, she doesn’t have much use for that either.”
“THAT was her response to you telling her she’s beautiful?”
“Then to hell with her.”
I cleared my throat. “I think she’s trying to protect me from falling for her because she knows we can’t be together.”
“She’s right,” Colin said. “You’ll regret this down the line.”
Then I remembered the plaque next to the four hundred skeletons in the bone mosaic: What you are now, we once were. What we are now, you will be.
“I don’t care about the future,” I said. “All I care about is right now.”
“She lives in
“If I’m too scared to make a move in this situation, where there’s little to lose and a lot to gain, then how can I hope to be brave when the stakes are higher?”
“You’ll probably never see each other again after this trip is over.”
“All the more reason to act as quickly as possible,” I said.
“It’s not worth it.”
What you are now, we once were. What we are now, you will be.
“I’m tired of being afraid of living,” I said. “I’m going to do it.”
Two nights later, as I was sitting in Eileen’s room, I said to her, “How it is somebody as pretty as you has no boyfriend?”
It was ground we had already covered, of course, but this time I wasn’t going to let her convince either of us that she wasn’t good enough for me. If anything, I wasn’t good enough for her, but I couldn’t let myself think that way or I was doomed from the start.
Eileen smiled and looked down on the bed. “I don’t know. I just don’t. I haven’t been on a date since I was nineteen.”
Eileen nodded, a little sadly. “I don’t have much use for dating, anyway.”
I paused. I had been planning to do this for days, and I was finally ready to do it. “Would you mind if I asked you to dinner? You know, just the two of us.”
“I’d like that very much,” Eileen said softly.
The dinner date happened several days later. We were oddly formal with one another at the outset, typical of two people who had very little experience with romance. Neither of us knew what we were doing, so we were very forgiving of one another. After we got to the restaurant, it became pretty clear to me that Eileen was not the sort of person who responded well to gentlemanly gestures like opening doors or buying flowers. This put me more on my guard, because those traditions had always helped me demonstrate my feelings in the past, and now I was no longer able to use them as a crutch. So I decided to be natural and just talk to her as I had been all along.
I made no romantic moves towards her last night because she didn’t seem ready for them, and the time wasn’t right. I wanted our relationship to evolve slowly and naturally.
The evening was so enjoyable that I was only partly disappointed that I didn’t get a kiss.
I still didn’t know exactly where I stood with her, because she was so eccentric in so many ways, but I knew she wouldn’t agree to the date if she didn’t feel something for me.