Sometimes it’s nothing, the smallest thing. A word catches his attention, an improbable but amusing translation, an innocent allusion. A kylix, at the back of his Greek vademecum. Sargent, sometimes even Jacques-Louis David. Small sparks that fire off an unstoppable chain of thoughts and associations, building up underneath his Adam’s apple, like a geyser or a volcano, until he can’t focus anymore, until he excuses himself from the room, keeps his eyes open so he doesn’t see the images in his head.
Other times it’s Hiraga. A smile, his black hair sticking to the nape of his neck, a misplaced sigh.
Whatever it is, it always ends the same way. The thoughts accumulate week by week, like a snowball. Each month, eventually, his legs find their way to Line 15.
Roberto validates his ticket and takes the first seat he sees. Outside, Rome is basking in the glow of a late June evening; bracelet scammers prowl the square, two tourist looking girls struggle their way through the cobblestone streets with a map in one hand and a phone in the other, a waiter props the chairs up on the tables and closes the restaurant umbrellas for the night. Despite the centuries, his Rome and Hadrian’s Rome aren’t all that different: restless and bright and sick to the core.
He always brings a book with him on this ride - this time it’s Genette’s Paratexts - but he never reads it. His nerves are pulled too tight for him to focus on anything but the buzzing swarm of tourists and commuters and pigeons and students celebrating somebody’s graduation right outside his window.
Finally the tram takes off and Roberto moves his eyes away from the window and onto the dirty floor. He tells his confessor, quite shamelessly too, that it’s an act of impulse, that he can’t reason until it’s over. But the whole ordeal stinks of design: he changes into his (carefully picked) layman clothes, shaves and styles his hair, walks half an hour to the station farthest away from his house, buys a ticket, rides the tram for 48 minutes and then gets off a stop away from where he needs to be. He has plenty of chances to stop, he just doesn’t take them.
When he was younger, the whole thing excited him. Now he felt more like an addict prepping his arm for the needle.
What would Hiraga think of him if he saw him now, untouched book in his lap and a pack of condoms in his pocket? It should worry him, how Hiraga’s opinion counts more than God’s, but it doesn’t surprise him anymore. He goes from the most violent atheism to unwavering faith at the turn of a page. He knows too much and too little about God to really know anything at all.
He rubs his eyes before looking out of the window again. The tram is still. It has gotten quite dark outside, but through the street lamps he can tell that he’s in Piazza Vittorio. Two people get off and one person gets on. Roberto bounces his leg up and down, concentrating on the rhythm of his book against his thigh. Just a few more minutes to go.
When he gets to the bar it’s almost pitch black outside. Inside, the club is heavy with sweat and alcohol breath and what Roberto assumes is a popular song, with its bass upped to a hundred. It’s filled with university students, as it always is in June. One such student is occupying his usual spot on the couch farthest away from the loudspeakers, so he begrudgingly looks for a seat at the bar.
Ah. Is that Father Zandrini, in plain clothes? He sucked his cock behind the old bus station a few months ago, and afterwards Zandrini cried with shame. When he passes by him, Roberto pretends to study a poster for the umpteenth queer art exhibition this year, and makes a mental note to interact as little as possible with Zandrini. The man is too sentimental for his liking.
He’s already had a few drinks when a dark haired man sits next to him at the bar and asks if he can get him something. He looks about his age, maybe younger, with thick eyebrows and a thicker Romanesco. He’s not exactly Roberto’s type, if he still has one at all, but something catches his attention: when the man briefly turns his head away, just above the sweaty neck of his green shirt, he spots a small, dark mole. The same one that peeks out of Hiraga’s collar when he asks Roberto for help with his clerical band.
Roberto smiles and agrees to another drink.
Later, when Roberto is fucking him from behind in the bathroom stall, he presses his - Marco’s? Massimo’s? - head against the door and paws at the short hair that curls on his neck until that mole is visible again. Then, he leans in and presses a kiss against the mole, bites and nips at it - like he has done countless of times in his dreams.
The ride back to his apartment is uneventful. The man had offered to drive him home, and gave him his number as consolation when Roberto declined. He throws the slip of paper away almost immediately.
He collapses on his bed, tired, sticky, ashamed. It all feels more real when he’s home. In his apartment, here, his conscience catches up to him. It’s easier to pretend, when he’s walking the streets of Rome, that the person who leaves his apartment and the person who enters it are not the same. For six hours a month, he is young, impatient and guiltless.
But here, here, under the light grey sheets of his improvised baldachin bed (they're wide and scratchy, and a little too short for the bed, but he does like to think it gives it a certain flair), under the plastic Etruscan relief mounted on his wall (courtesy of Hiraga), under the picture of his mother, the only one he has (he fought viciously for it with the police department, who insisted on keeping it as "evidence"), under the critical gaze of his little belongings, the memories drown him. The dirty bathrooms, the hickeys under his collar, the bodies - oh, God, the abandon, the sheer shamelessness of seeing a man, wanting him, having him in the span of three hours.
Roberto rubs his nose on his deep blue pillow. It stinks a little. The projection clock tells him it’s well past midnight; tomorrow (today, Hiraga would correct him) will be the 15th.
Fifteen days have passed, fifteen days to go. Fifteen days he has spent in sin, fifteen days it will take him to recover from it. Tomorrow he will get up early despite this white night - in fact, he will pretend it has never happened, like a priest after a confessional. Tomorrow he’ll change the sheets, he’ll water his desperate basil plant, he might even clean his windows. He’ll confess, and then he’ll spend the rest of the day deep in prayer, or in study or in contemplation. If he can keep this up for fifteen days, then, well, surely everything else - piousness, devotion, faith - will follow, and he’ll never fall again. All he has to do is start tomorrow —
His phone, discarded on the carpet, buzzes twice. A wave of annoyance washes over him as he unlocks it. God, he didn’t give Marco his number, did he?
hey roberto are we having dinner at ur place tomorrow
Tomorrow. He will do it all tomorrow, but for now, for the last two hours left until dawn, when his brain will finally register tomorrow as today, he will indulge, just a little more.
What are you doing up so late? Go to bed.
And sure. Duck stew sounds OK?
He falls asleep to the excited buzzing of Hiraga’s replies and with the thought that it doesn’t make much of a difference, if he starts on the 16th after all.