What I remember of it now is the river looking back at us the whole time. Like it was appalled.
I had called up this Brazilian guy and asked to look at the room he was letting. It was close to the Duomo so I figured it could give me a real feel for the city. Like the medieval feel everyone was after there but you could never quite touch. He showed me through from the main door which led straight into his bedroom. Three beds had been squeezed side by side into the room right up against each other. I couldn’t imagine how they’d done it. There was just space enough for a tv at the end of the room, which was showing a game. There was another Brazilian guy on the farmost bed, rolling a joint and drinking neat rum. He was just all smiles. They told me they worked in an enoteca the other side of the river, serving fine wine to rich natives. They spent the rest of their time laying around that room in their underwear, drinking neat rum and trying to pick up the language from television.
“Your room is next to this one.” He said. We had to climb over the other beds to get to it. “It’s not much.”
“I’ve seen worse. But not at this kind of a price.” The bed managed to touch all four walls at once. There was no walking space. “Where do you keep your things? Like, your clothes?”
“We use boxes. There are these boxes that slot under the beds. It works out okay. The one thing is that the only bathroom is past your bedroom.” He kept calling it my bedroom, like I had already been condemned to it all. “So people will have to climb over your bed at night to get there. But you get used to it.”
“And is there a kitchen?” He looked at me like I had asked after a billiards room. “You people are crazy. For this kind of money you could get a palace five minutes out of the centre.”
“Yeah but look out this window. You see the Duomo? You see the Ponte Vecchio? I write home telling my family I look out every morning on the Ponte Vecchio. They just go crazy for it.”
I found a bar around the corner from there and tried to forget that I was one week from getting evicted. Those guys were crazy. There was medieval and then there was medieval. I was on my second drink and was trying like hell to ignore the giant television they had on in front of me when I heard someone calling over.
“Hey. Over here. Come on over here.” They guy had an Irish accent and was beckoning me over like we were old friends. I wondered if I was going to have to pretend to remember him. I got over and he gripped my hand. “I could tell you were Irish. You can always tell. Some kind of miserable slouch when we have to drink alone. It’s all over us.” He pointed out the book I was reading, The Leopard by De Lampedusa, and produced the same one out of his bag. To him, this was the cosmic seal of approval on our drinking together. There was no longer any alternative. His name was Leo and he was from Dublin. He had been working in a bookies until the day he finally packed it all in to follow his dream and travel Italy. He had done so for 3 weeks and had about run out of money. But it had been worth it. He said he loved poetry and art and fine things, all the fine things you don’t get in bookies. Also mediterranean women. And that this break would have to nourish his soul for the next few years. But he thought it just might. He figured this was his last weekend and was due down in Rome for some reason the next morning. He was pretty excited about this too. I told him about my own situation. We agreed there were two kinds of people in life. The kind everything fell gracefully into their laps right from heaven and the kind like us, who had to fight every morsel off another guy’s plate. We drank some more together. Then he said. “What you’ve got to do to get by is this: Learn how to use the first kind of guy. I’ve been staying rent free over on the hill. Over in this beautiful seventeenth century house. It has an east and west wing. It has these lavish gardens full of flowers. The guy living there is this crazy old gay guy. He lives alone and sits in his drawing room listening to Mahler all day. All I have to do is be around.”
“Yeah, that’s the beauty of it. For him I represent the potential of something happening between us. It’s all mystique. Like the best things in life, it’s the promise. Between you and me I don’t swing that way at all. I’m not into anything like that. But I don’t have to do anything. Just be part of the illusion. He talks to me sometimes. They get a certain age, they need people to talk to. He introduces me to his friends. I’m like some kind of a novelty.”
“So how come you’re complaning about running out of money?”
“Well he came back late one night this week. I felt right off things had changed. He had some other guy with him. A lot prettier than me. We talked a little in the kitchen. Italian guy, he seemed ok. Had a girlfriend in Pistoia. But he was sliding right into my gig. He was thinking to involve the girl after a while too. No matter what way you look at it, it’s dog eat dog.” That all seemed to me like a stressful way to live. I needed a place to come home and relax.
There was a middle aged guy in a sailor hat who’d been sitting nearby. Leo pointed him out to me. He was swaying back and forward for drink and looked very alone. He said one or two things in this guy’s direction. About the footbal, about the waitress. And then he was over at our table. He was Belgian. His family were elsewhere.
“Are you guys Irish? What are you doing here? Irish, well I never!”
“Sure we’re Irish.” Leo said. “What do you think we’re doing here, we’re great artists. We came here to make our names.”
This so impressed the sailor that he went and bought us three straight whiskeys. “Not only are we great artists, we sail too. We sailed here. Do you sail?” He was equally impressed by this, and returned from the bar with 3 more drinks, cocktails this time. Leo was looking at me the whole time like he was giving me a priceless life lesson. This guy in the hat was getting drunker. He told us that he had saved up a lot of money. That he had only arrived that day. He needed to get away from his family for a little while.
“I don’t know that this guy is so rich.” I said to Leo. “I think we should get away from here. I can feel the atmosphere about to change.” The atmosphere did change. Leo changed it. He leant in closer to the sailor.
“I bet you’d like to have at it with me wouldn’t you?” He said to him. That harmless guy in the hat who’d been buying us drinks. “I bet you would. You’ve been buying us these to limber us up. Get me back on your boat.” The man almost fell off his chair. “You want to keep me in your boathouse. Perpetrate vile, indecent acts.” The man looked around in panic to see if anyone heard. As it turned out, he was just a normal guy, alone in a bar, who was after someone to drink with. Leo wouldn’t be told though. He pressed the point loud enough the three of us were fired right out.
We walked a while in the fresh night. The buildings came at us in cold blues, in dead greys. The trees moved through these right into pitch black, rustling in the breeze. We talked about girls. We talked about writing. He wrote. He was writing a book about a girl he was involved with back home. She absolutely hated him but she just couldn’t get enough. He was indifferent. This seemed the perfect substance for a book as far as he was concerned. I told him I’d tried to write a few stories about girls but I always ended up idealising the girl, which wasn’t honest.
We found our way to a club. It was all red lights and leopardskin and the doorman was an african midget, but that was all a sham. You paid in and found it was just a regular cocktail bar. It was full of locals. They were sitting around and playing board games. No one in there was anything like drunk, bar us. We took one look around and wondered what the hell we were supposed to do. But we were welcomed with open arms by a group of Italians up a flight of steps. They were all sitting, playing some card game. Most of them were girls and incredible looking girls at that.
“Irish!” They shouted. “Finally some crazy Irish! Come up here!” And they made space for us to join in, they even dealt us hands. Leo arrived back upstairs with 2 White russians plus chasers. It dawned on us then no on else was even drinking. He gave me one of what he had taken and we attempted to play. The cards were insane. It was some local game. There were monkeys and lizards and planets on them. I was played out right away. I had no idea. But he was able to bluff his way through a few hands.
“Look at these retards.” Leo thought that talking out of the side of his mouth was the magic trick to prevent anyone else understanding. “Playing some retarded game for kids. For gypsy kids. Two hands from now I’ll up the ante, get them betting. Then we’ll own the fuckers.” The whole place was filled with people like them. They were well turned out, sober and laughing. It didn’t take long for them to cotton on to the condition we were in. Then their affection cooled. Leo had turned up a book people had written in. They had written quotes and lines from songs, pieces from poems and sketches of things. To us, that these people were sitting around sober, playing children’s games and writing quotes from John Lennon, Artaud and Bill Hicks in notepads was the funniest thing of all. He brought down this book to the midget. Leo was shouting at him over the music, all about what kind of establishment this was. That nobody was drinking. The midget looked him up and down a certain way. Looked us both up and down. It was a certain look, like he had met something distasteful for the very first time. That he was cagy on how to react. We kept on getting the girls to bring us White Russians, all the way up those steps. We tipped like crazy but we weren’t getting the right kind of reaction at all.
I pulled out a game of connect 4 and we started to play. Leo was only interested in games where there was something to win. First of all we bet the little money we had over, which amounted to change. Finally, we wound up betting that if either of us managed to pull that night, the other one had first option on her. At the same time, to give us our due, we were as likely to pull as one could ever be, struggling to recall how to play connect 4, too inebriated to even sit up worth a damn and having alienated ourselves from the entire pub, roaring obscenities at one another over cocktails. This can only have been helped by my stool slipping from under me right about that point. It sent me all the way back down those stairs, damn that hurt the next day, and the connect 4 game with me, sending the pieces in all directions. Comically, they were still tumbling down long after I had settled, heaped against a chair on the ground. I can’t tell you why that midget waited until that point to throw us out, but it seemed the right time to him. Leo wanted to fight him. He wanted to fight that african midget dressed in a leopardskin hat. This guy just looked at him right through. It was contempt all over. Short as he was, he knew how to handle a drunk and we were outdoors faster than we understood how.
“Man. I’m ruined. I’m good and ruined.” Leo collapsed onto the kerb, staring out at the river. It was bright enough out it could’ve been day. This is how I remember it. He slouched and lit up a cigarette. “My hostel closed at eleven. I’m homeless. All my stuff is there. My tickets are there. I haven’t a cent left.” I knew what was coming. “Can I crash on your floor? I’ll be gone early. I’ve got to be in Rome early.”
“Sure.” I said. “But we still might be able to find a bar open on the way.”
We arrived at my door it must’ve been hours later. The walk should only take about twenty minutes but there were so many diversions. We just lost the time that way, wherever drunk time disappears to in the night. Our conversation had come round to how the world owed us something. That way they say the world owes you nothing. We took issue with that.
We got in the main front door, that thing groaned open loud enough to wake the street and we let it slam after us. Not out of malice, we were just fighting to stay upright, holding on to the walls. I got up to my flat but the key wasn’t fitting in the door. I tried that key five times it must’ve been, but no deal. I said:
“They’ve gone and changed the locks. The fuckers. This is that landlord. That fucker. I still had a week!” I started thumping on that door then. Really letting go. “Why did you change the locks? I’m right out here. Let me in!” No answer came back. I hammered on this door a while. It was around four or five in the morning. That time of night that seems to bear no relevance to normal life. Leo was looking at me like I had lost my mind. I wondered if I had.
“Are you sure you live here?” He said. I was pretty certain this was the place. And that they were all inside, laughing or cowering under a table in dread. I really invested a lot of emotion on letting that door have it and swearing. Then we both went back downstairs to make sure it was in fact the right building.
We got outside into the fresh air and something came over the both of us. We were looking at each other in abject hatred. I think we looked at each other and saw exactly what the other saw. Probably whatever everyone else had been seeing all night. A moment later we were fighting around the street. Swinging fists drunkenly and grappling each other without any balance at all. I got him down into the gutter and started pummeling away. Then he got me in a headlock grip and squeezed hard. Anyone watching this bizarre dance would’ve been mesmerised by the lack of grace, co-ordination or anything like aim. But it meant a whole lot right then to us. There were more things coming to the surface than we knew. There was blood on the pavement but I couldn’t see from where. He landed me a good one to the cheekbone though. Then I got him in the ribs. We were out of breath pretty quickly. We sat down on the kerb and I think he might’ve been in tears. He had a cigarette. Then we went back inside that main door and decided to sleep it off in the hall, where it was at least warm.
By the time I awoke next morning he was gone. I checked my wallet and keys and bag were untouched. It was late enough people had been walking by me for hours in that hall. When I went back upstairs my key worked perfectly.