While I am packing, I suddenly remember him, a handsome journalist whom I met while I was doing that whole celibacy thing last year, the way you remember a treat from the back of the refrigerator. I take him out for drinks to pick his brain before my upcoming trip to Italy, and things lead to other things. He lives in my friend’s building, and I have her keys, so when we get to the front of his building, I freak him out by pulling out my spare key and unlocking his lobby door like a magic trick. “I know people,” I inform him breezily. “I am very popular.” The Roman is gorgeous, with that thick mane of hair Italians have, and those dark eyes, and a tenuous grasp of English syntax. I can tell I am losing him with my improvisational, slangy vocabulary, and our conversation is sparing by necessity. I wonder if it bums him out, to be a writer who earns a living from his words, and to be here, and to find himself down to stock phrases with which to woo women.
His apartment has nothing hanging on the walls, no plants, no tchockes. There are four pairs of shoes facing the door with the socks still balled inside. It looks like he could leave at any time, but the Roman is a man who goes slow. He doesn’t tell me I’m beautiful; instead, he shows me, rubbing my bare back for an hour before unbuttoning a single button of his shirt. He holds my damaged and exhausted face like you would hold a kitten, and he looks at me until I think he can actually see me. He’s hard the entire time I’m there, even after sex, even after he falls asleep. He sleeps with both his arms around me, his stubble pressed into my forehead. It is exactly the right amount of human connection before I prepare to leave for Europe with a bag so small I can hide it under my pillow.
Or, at least, I keep trying for minimal baggage. But things keep coming up. Hours before I leave for JFK, I have to go to Urgent Care; something is amiss with my lady parts. At first, I thought my girl-petals were just trampled from hours of sex with the Roman, but when they are still smarting a day later, I bike (uncomfortably) over for some last-minute medical attention. Doctor Douchepants takes a look and heartily posits that it is an STD, a 1940ish one like the clap. “Looks like someone’s been having a little too much fun in New York City,” he chuckles, swabbing, while I glower in the stirrups. I get a shot of penicillin as a just-in-case, and he promises to email me the test results. The only unprotected sex I’ve had this year was with Sketch, and I am already mentally dress-rehearsing how that conversation is going to go. How should I play it off, when I call him? Casual and off-handed? Accusatory? The naked truth is, I am dying to talk to him, even if it’s about VD.
It’s hard not to feel all this as the universe rebuking my sluttish ways. It sucks, having all the illnesses that carry stigma; just once, I would like to have MRSA from building homes for orphans in Haiti or lockjaw from rescuing sad-eyed kittens from their rusty pens instead of, like, alcoholism and a complement of STDs. All my diseases are the selfish ones you get from behaving badly.
One of the last messages I get from some dude online while I’m waiting for my flight is a question: Are you clean? Like I’m a horse for sale. I answer with some choice words for him to reflect on and block him. Just the other day, I was messaging with some guy in the park who wanted to know what I was wearing. I told him a burqa. He asked what I had on underneath.
I’m done, I’m out. I know that leaving New York fixes nothing, that wherever I go, I take myself, addictions and STDs and mess, with me. But I do like the sharpness of focus that travel brings, every step an engaging little puzzle. I land in Copenhagen and am instantly confused, but somehow I feel OK about needing to be taken by the hand here. The Danish vending machine, which takes kroner or a credit card but only if you know the magical Scandinavian way of inserting it, is like a Sudoku puzzle, one with soda at the end of it. Abroad, there is magically less mental bandwidth with which to obsess about Sketch, and what he is doing, and whether or not he gave me a disease.
I fly on to Rome, brushing my teeth in the airport bathroom. This is the first time I’ve travelled someplace where the water is safe to drink, and Romans are profligate with their water. In the middle of white-hot piazzas, I refill my bottle from another spouting baroque masterpiece; all the Bernini sculpture sucks involuntary noises of appreciation from me. There are no fountains like this in New York, and if there were, they would probably run with cigarette butts and the toe-jam of a thousand poorly-cared-for homeless people.
My path through Rome is a vast, lost, looping spiral, like the signature of a crazy person. I am wearing cutoffs so short that I am given a vaguely surgical-looking paper sarong at every church. In St. Peter’s, I slip into an annex where the guard stops me, telling me sternly, “Is not to visit, only to pray.” And I do pray. For Sketch, for my friends, for my insane family, for my diseased self. When I rise, I am embarrassed by the tears on my face.
I love it here, all the strata of ruined history. I relate to this city. It is messy, a city to be toured not with a clipboard, but with bleeding feet. I cross the olive green Tiber River, unmolested—I thought, and half-hoped, that I would have packs of men following me here, but they leave me alone. I talk to strange men without expecting any follow-up: an interesting but odorous Englishman on the Metro who could donate his breath to science, a Dutch dude who takes my picture with my hand in the mouth of the Bocca della Veritas. The marble mouth is supposed to bite off the hand of all liars, but I leave with both my hands, and walk around Trastevere, lost on purpose again. Someone is playing “As Time Goes By” on the sax, and I am eating a chocolate gelato as dark as my soul, and it all feels perfect. Everything is where it is supposed to be. The email I get from the doctor, telling me that I don’t have any diseases, or at least not any new ones, comes almost as an afterthought. When I turn around, no one is behind me, and I’m not following anyone either, but eventually I figure out where I’m going next.