Rome (if you want to).
I shout from a crowd of Italians in the Roman airport. My father continues to shuffle from the arrivals exit, two miniature black bags at his sides, his eyes scanning his surroundings rapidly.
He turns, the English grabbing his attention. We hug and I notice we’re wearing the exact same outfit, a ball cap, blue t-shirt, and khaki shorts. He tells me he has a story for me. He always has a story for me. I smile as we walk for the train, my father relaying his first international travel blunder. It involves him accidentally grabbing his seatmate’s foot instead of his bag. He spices up the action with imagined dialogue. I know he can’t remember what’s actually been said.
My father is 64. I’ve been trying to get him to join me abroad for the last two years and have been told continually,
“Next time. Next time.”
His appearance in Italy is a complete shock. I expected a call (he rarely texts) citing some flight trouble or forgotten prior commitment. But here he is, in the flesh. I take one of his bags to find it’s half empty. He’s the only person I know who travels lighter than I do. People take more to the dentist than he’s packed for a week in Europe.
We glide through Rome on an inter-city train discussing what we plan to do and see. My father, of course, tells me he’s ok with whatever I want to do. It’s a seemingly gracious offer that leaves me entirely responsible for conjuring our entertainment. And while I’ve been to Italy before, it’s my first time in Rome. It’s my father’s first time abroad in any sense. I watch him like he’s a newborn seeing the world for the first time.
We exit the train at a random station I’m hoping is in the city center. We’re in a square with no distinguishable features that set it apart from any other European square. This is not apparent to my father, who sees everything through freshly birthed eyes. The cars are so small! The buildings are so old! People are hanging clothing from windows! Everyone is skinny! Everyone is walking! As my father points out these oddities I’m beaming picturing his reaction when we see some real sights.
We sit for a drink in a café. My father does his best to order, and from what I can tell the barista understands him perfectly. As the barista turns, my father repeats himself for some reason. The barista pauses, a confused look on his face. My father begins to mime what he thinks will illustrate “rum”. This goes on for an amusing few minutes before I try Spanish. It works and we take our place at an outdoor table under the twilight.
In the morning we board a train for the Vatican. Great brick walls reach skyward, protecting the enclave from the outside world. We tread into St. Peter’s square and I watch my father’s jaw drop like a cartoon. It’s incredible. Hundreds of massive columns and ornate statues look down on the crowd with expressions of condemnation. Nuns float by in flocks. Bejeweled priests prance by in homogenous packs, their colorful ribbons and hats in stark contrast to their white collars. If Athens offered calm, ancient wisdom, Rome offers sheer breathtaking power.
We stand in line for the basilica, sweating amongst hundreds of people sporting fanny packs and shades. We’re scanned for bombs and then scale a polished staircase into the structure. It’s unfathomable. Dark, looming saints adorn the walls. My father takes large slow-motion steps, his face craned toward the heavenly ceiling. Our conversation pauses mid-sentence often, the magnitude of the church too much for words.
In the afternoon we pick a café near the Tiber and order prosciutto and mozzarella with a bottle of wine. I take a bite of the appetizer. It’s succulent, fresh, and savory to the point where I can’t help but moan as I chew. It’s some of the best I’ve ever had. I ask my father how he likes it and am met with his typical verbal response,
His eyebrows raise more than usual as he says it, and I take this as proof that it’s the best food he’s ever tasted.
We finish our wine and explore a castle across the river. My father is shocked by it. It’s ten times the size of the St. Augustine fort he’s accustomed to, and he repeats this observation frequently. He pats me on the back and tousles my hair many times as we wind over the moat and up the castle spires. From the top we find a 360-degree view of Roma. It’s stunning. My father grips the railing and stares.
“What do you think, pop?” I ask him.
He shakes his head slowly, his eyes wide with amazement. It’s everything I’d hoped for.
After two days exploring, we board a train for Florence. It’s my first overlap from a previous trip, and the only reason for it is that I want my father to see the Duomo. In all my travels it’s still tattooed in my mind as the most magnificent building I’ve ever seen.
We get off the train in the Firenze station and I breathe in deeply, remembering the man who stood in this spot two years ago, how much has changed, and how little. We drop our bags in the private room I’ve booked in a hostel. There’s two small twin beds draped in yellow, fuzzy blankets. A shower is squeezed into the corner. A fan drones by the open window.
We explore Florence and my father seems more at ease with this place. It’s less monolithic than Rome, more inviting. We round the corner toward the Duomo and I watch as his shock snags, his mouth opening again. From my memory, the beautiful basilica blocked out the sky, preferring to shine with its own ornate radiance. And while the building is still quite impressive, it doesn’t quite match the breadth I’d fabricated in my memory.
After a bit of exploration we find a bar with an electronic dartboard. I trounce my father in cricket, beating him until he insists we play more straightforward games like around the world and baseball. When he begins to lose, he starts grimacing and muttering under his breath,
He’s frustrated with the board and with his abilities. So frustrated that he tosses the plastic darts at my chest after a bad throw. I tell him to calm down and that it’s only a game. He tells me to shut up. What’s miraculous in this moment is that I can see myself reflected at every turn. I suddenly, embarrassingly, remember every time a friend told me to calm down during a game. There’s a point of no return, and I recognize it from my outside vantage point.
Luckily, the bartender asks to teach us a new game at this point. My father brightens, either because he can’t throw a tantrum with a stranger present, or because he’s genuinely forgotten he’s upset. I think it’s the latter.
A scruffy, handsome Italian man enters the bar and the bartender introduces us. He’s a local. I think nothing of it. Many Italians are handsome, and I’ve accepted the fact that most are also either straight or won’t admit they’re gay. It’s not on my mind.
I take a bathroom break from the dart game. As I’m exiting, the scruffy man enters, giving me a distinct cruising stare, what’s known as the gay gaze. I shrug and reenter the bathroom. We kiss enthusiastically, myself pressed against the wall. I’ve barely said ten words to this man.
“Wait. My dad.” I tell him.
We kiss some more. I finally pull away and arrange my excitement into my waistband. We leave the bathroom, and no one seems to have noticed besides the scruffy man’s friend, who I gather is also gay. They sit together at a table and I return to the dart game. My father has spilled my beer and orders another round.
The bar patrons mix and mingle. The scruffy man speaks with my father, who is now in his ‘happy drunk’ place, slapping Italians on the back and cracking jokes. Before long the three of us file into a cab, my father in the front. The scruffy man silently negotiates his hand into mine. I kiss him and he points to my father, who’s chatting with the driver, completely unaware.
“It’s fine,” I tell the man.
Back at the hostel we meet a group of backpackers in the lobby and sit for a drink with them. I deposit my father there, as it seems he’s enjoying himself immensely. I invite the Italian to see the room and he nods coolly.
Fifteen minutes later, the door to the room creaks open and I look, in abject horror, at my father’s face. The scruffy man’s mouth is currently square between my legs, my pants and underwear around my ankles. I immediately wrench my shirtfront down to cover my erection.
“Just came to get something,” my father says.
I can’t tell if he’s in shock or if he’s just too drunk to register what’s going on in the small twin bed. But, he continues to enter the room to retrieve whatever it is he came for. I flail my one free arm like a wounded bird shouting at the top of my lungs,
“GET THE FUCK OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT!”
My father shakes his head as if waking from a nightmare and quickly scampers out the door. I look down to the Italian, who looks completely unfazed by the ordeal. I think to myself,
“When you wake up, please have forgotten this. Please, please, please.”