Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World
Жанр: Дом. Семья. Хобби
Год издания: 2018 год
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On our second morning in Italy we push the stroller out the front gate and turn right. The boys moan; the axles rattle. Little cars shoot past. We round a corner and a chain-link fence gives way to hedges, which give way to the side of a monumental marble-and-granite fountain. We wheel gape-jawed around to its front.
Five niches in a six-columned headboard as big as a house unload water into a shallow, semicircular pool. Seven lines of Latin swarm across its face; griffins and eagles ride its capitals. The Romans, we’ll learn later, call it simply il Fontanone. The big fountain. It was completed in 1690; it had taken seventy-eight years to build. The travertine seems almost to glow; it is as if lights have been implanted inside the stone.
Across the street is another marvel: a railing, some benches, and a perch with a view over the entire city. We dodge traffic, roll the boys to the parapet. Here is all of Rome: ten thousand rooftops, church domes, bell towers, palaces, apartments; an airplane traversing slowly from right to left; the city extending back across the plain. Strings of distant towns marble hills at the horizon. Beneath us, for as far as we can see, drifts a bluish haze—it is as if the city were submerged beneath a lake, and a wind were ruffling its surface.
“This,” Shauna says, whispering, “is fifty yards from our front door.”
The fountain roars at our backs. The city swirls below us.
Farther down the street is a church, a little piazza, and the top of a twisting ramp of staircases. The steps are worn and greasy; dried leaves rustle on the sloped landings between. I take the front of the stroller; Shauna takes the back.
She asks, “Are you ready?”
“I think so. Are you?”
“I think so.”
But who knows if we are? We start downward. The stroller weighs forty-five pounds; the boys each weigh about fifteen. With each step it seems to get heavier. There are maybe twenty stairs, then four or five connected ramps, then more stairs. Sweat drips from the tip of my nose. My palms slip. Any moment the stroller will tear free, start bouncing, gain momentum, hurtle around the corner, and explode in front of a bus.
We descend into the unknown. The ramps are lined with stations of the cross. Jesus gets his crown of thorns; Jesus collapses beneath the weight of the cross. Someone has set a bouquet of pink roses beside the twelfth station: Into your hands I commend my spirit.
At the bottom an archway opens onto a street buzzing with cars. Henry starts crying. We zigzag; we hold our breath and sprint. “Frogger!” Shauna says, halfway out of breath, and grins at me.
The traffic fades. We stick a pacifier between Henry’s lips. Trastevere is full of medieval houses and clotheslines and drinking fountains that appear to be permanently turned on. Little cars are parked in impossible places. In front of one building maybe eighty scooters stand handgrip to handgrip; there is the temptation to give one a kick to see if they’ll all go down.
Julius Caesar lived in this neighborhood. So did Cleopatra. Every Roman we pass smiles at the boys. Gemellini, they say. Little twins. And something like piccininni. Or porcellini? Small pigs?
Grown men, in suits, stop and crouch over the stroller and croon. Older men in particular. Che carini. Che belli. What cuties. What beauties. The stroller could be loaded with braying zebras and it would not attract any more attention.
We get lost. Shauna changes a diaper on the cobblestones while I peer into a map. Is this Vicolo del Cinque? Piazza San Cosimato? In a pasta shop—a glass counter, piles of tortellini, yards of fettuccine—I manage to buy a kilogram of orange ravioli stuffed with pumpkin and ricotta, the pasta dusty with flour. “I suoi bambini,” the shopkeeper tells me, watching my eyes to see if I’m following. “Sono belli.” Your babies, they are beautiful.
I carry the package into the street feeling victorious. A breeze seethes in some locust trees at the head of the alley and their little leaves fly past us, a blizzard of gold. Through a doorway I can see a dim kitchen, copper pans hanging against whitewash. A woman stares into a sink, ensconced in steam, her hair stacked in a complicated tower.
Sixty hours ago I was buying Pampers at an Albertsons supermarket in Boise. Now I stand near the ghost of what, two thousand years ago, was supposedly an amphitheater flooded regularly by the Emperor Augustus to stage mock naval battles. We stare at clothing shops, a bookstore, try to imagine the keel of an imperial trireme slicing past above us.
Shauna asks, “Shall we go home?” At first I think she means Idaho. But she’s only gesturing behind us, where the spine of green that is the Janiculum arches above the rooftops. A river of leaves streams past our feet. Owen yawns against his stroller straps. Henry sucks his pacifier.
We race across a street whizzing with buses. We start back up the stairs. We see no fat people.
The twins are fraternal. Henry’s hair is blond with a touch of white. His eyes are yellow-brown. His skin is pale, and a cleft divides his chin, and when he reaches for something, his eyes widen and his lips purse. He waves things back and forth—a plastic spoon, a fuzzy rattle—to see if they’ll make a sound. When the air is humid, his hair fluffs high on his head and bright orange balls of wax appear in his ears.
Owen’s hair is thicker, the color of varnished walnut. One minute he’s inconsolable, the next he’s eating homogenized pears by the jarful and grinning like a madman. He refuses to go to sleep. He wakes screaming at 3 a.m.; he wakes for good at 5 a.m.
Shauna and I have meandering, sleep-starved debates: Why won’t Owen sleep? Gas? Jet lag? Italy? Having a baby is like bringing a noisy, inarticulate foreigner into your house and trying to guess what he likes to eat. With Owen we begin to believe we are missing something obvious, a splinter, a rash, an allergy, some affliction experienced parents would diagnose in a minute.
“You know what I think it is?” Shauna asks. “There’s too much light coming through the bedroom window.”
So ten minutes after the boys should be going to bed, on our fourth night in Rome, I tear apart diaper boxes and climb out on the sill in the second bathroom, fifty feet above the sidewalk, and tape ragged sheets of cardboard over all four panes. Shauna wheels Owen’s crib down the hall, into the bathroom, and wedges it between the tub and sink. Instant bedroom. When we switch off the light, it is completely black inside.
“Maybe now,” she says, feeding him his bottle, “he’ll sleep.”
He does. We don’t. I lie awake and feel the earth make its huge revolutions beneath the bed.
What is Rome? Clouds. Church bells. The distant pinpricks of birds. In Trastevere yesterday, a girl in a black dress sat on the rim of a fountain and scribbled into a leather book with a bright blue quill two feet long.
We meet some Academy fellows: a scholar of Latin epics named Maura, a lawyer-turned-composer named Harold, an abstract painter named Jackie. Many speak Italian, some are Latinists, too. Rebecca is studying a certain set of floor mosaics, Jessica a 1551 map. Jennifer is studying how Trojan myths were depicted in Roman paintings; Tony is studying the terra-cotta sculptures of Gianlorenzo Bernini. Rome, it seems, seeds esoteric passions: there are scholars of staircases, scholars of keyholes. A few years ago a fellow spent an entire year studying a handful of medieval coins; another spent two years examining the urban development of Parma between 1150 and 1350.
We meet the various gatekeepers, Luca, Lorenzo, a grizzled American expatriate named Norm. I carry Henry past the top-floor studios to the roof of the Academy, maybe fifty feet higher than the terrace of our apartment, the highest spot on the Janiculum, high enough to see over the iron cross at the very top of the Fontanone, high enough, it seems, to see the edge of the world. It is evening and the wind pours over us and the whole city looks spectral, insubstantial. As we watch, two clouds uncouple and a fan of sunlight surges through the gap, sending a wave of orange across the domes, crashing against the sides of apartment buildings, breaking across a mass of white marble that I think is the huge shrine to unified Italy called the Vittorio Emanuele II monument.
Everything is radiant. Distant trees toss; faraway walls gleam. The mountains at the horizon have switched on like streetlights, stark and defined, giving way to still more distant ranges.
Then everything goes dark again, the clouds knitted together, the mountains sucked back into silhouette, Rome sinking into shadow.
Mornings I try to get to work early, hurrying down the long, red-carpeted hallway on the second floor of the Academy, past dozens of closed doors. Behind them sleep visiting scholars and the fellows who don’t have children, Franco the oil painter, John the architect. I unlock the Tom Andrews Studio, drag open the big window. Pliny’s Natural History, the field guide to trees, and the war book sit on the desk; two pencils wait in the drawer. A few notes for my novel flutter on the cot.
I paper one wall with grainy photos of bombed-out cities. Saint-L?. Dresden. Hamburg. I read about the Allied assault on Germany, incendiaries, firestorms, infernos so hungry for oxygen they sucked trees from the ground and human beings through walls. Beyond the windowsill, chimney swifts dip and turn over the garden. I open a notebook, sharpen a pencil. Paint flakes off the baseboards; a spider crouches in her web in a corner of the ceiling.
Some mornings, this is as far as I get.
We’ve been in Italy a week when a car kills two pedestrians a hundred yards from our front door. Our windows are open and I am putting a jar of baby food into the microwave when I hear the smack.
It is one of those noises you know instantly is a bad noise. There are sirens, more than usual. We carry the twins down to the sidewalk and watch the fire trucks, the ambulance, the insurance man taking photographs. A little rental Peugeot is smashed against the stone corner of the Porta San Pancrazio, the big archway at the end of our street.
The pedestrians were in a crosswalk. Parents of a ten-year-old, who was walking with them. The Peugeot was driven by an American tourist in his seventies. Both the tourist and his wife are hospitalized, in shock. As is the boy.
In our week here I have pushed Henry and Owen through that intersection three or four times a day. Yesterday, in a rainstorm, Shauna and I stopped the stroller beneath the Porta San Pancrazio and studied our map while traffic splashed past all around us.
Go to Rome, rent a compact, decimate a family. One instant, like any other, but in any particular instant everything can change. Obvious, perhaps, but it’s one thing to think I understand this, and another to stand in our kitchen and hear it.
All afternoon I feel like lifting the boys out of the stroller and holding them against my chest. Sunlight filters through the olive trees in the garden, and the Street of the Four Winds down by the bakery comes alive with blowing leaves. In the evening I lift Owen high in the air and yell, “Crazy cannibal,” and he squeals as I pretend to take bites out of his stomach.
Reinhold, a Venetian scholar studying centuries-old financial records in the studio next to mine, has a silver beard and an impossibly kind face and always wears corduroy. He tells me, in English, that parrots sometimes visit the garden. You have to be up early, he says. Keep your eyes out the window.
Parrots? The boys wake us before dawn every day; I have not yet missed a sunrise. Most days our little family is awake, I think, before every other person on the Janiculum Hill. The window in Reinhold’s studio overlooks the same wedge of the back garden that my window does. But I haven’t seen any parrots.
Flyers appear on Academy bulletin boards, a trip to ancient Ostia, a tour of something called the Cloaca Maxima. Am I supposed to know what these attractions are? The sign-up sheets are completely full of names anyway. Shauna and I bring the boys to an Academy lunch, six or seven tables arrayed in a corner of the courtyard. Around us are academics, scholars, a visiting luminary in rumpled linen.
“…but the ecology of formal systems in Italian gardens prevents…”
“…consider public religiosity…”
“…of course Piranesi is about spectacle as much as…”
I hear someone—a classicist from California—at the table behind us say, very clearly, “You haven’t been to Arch of Janus Quadrifrons yet?”
Henry bangs a spoon on the table; Owen dribbles milk down his chin. All the time here, it seems, we’re missing things. I still have to stop myself from calling the Pantheon the Parthenon. We’ve been in Rome nearly two weeks and still haven’t seen the Vatican.
Instead, we wrangle mashed bananas into the mouths of our sons. We wait ten minutes outside the office to ask the Academy’s assistant director of operations, Pina, if she knows a shop in the city where we might buy crib bumpers.
At night Rome bangs, roars, peals. Car alarms, the shunting of a distant train, backfiring Fiats—at 2 a.m., someone below our window sets off a string of firecrackers. At three, the trash truck grinds up the street, upends the Dumpsters across from our front gate, and drops them again onto the asphalt.
Our building funnels noise strangely, too: a chair leg squeaking in the upstairs apartment, a door slamming downstairs, a girl’s laughter clear as day through the wall behind our headboard. Even when the twins are sleeping quietly, I spring up in bed, thinking I’ve heard them wake up.
I shake Shauna’s shoulder. “Are they crying? Which one is that?”
She groans. She stays asleep.
When the boys first came home from the hospital, six months ago, they had to be fed every three hours: three, six, nine, noon, three, six, nine, midnight. They were slow nursers and Shauna was breast-feeding eight hours a day. Owen had acid reflux and had to be given drops of Zantac every few hours. Henry had to be strapped to an apnea monitor the size of a VCR that squealed like a smoke detector any time his breathing paused or the adhesive on a diode slipped off his chest. The doctor had us put caffeine in his milk.
Once or twice a night, during those first weeks as a father, I would be drifting toward something like sleep when Henry’s monitor would start screeching. The dog would leap trembling into the corner, Shauna would bolt upright, and I’d be scrambling out of bed, thinking, He stopped breathing, he stopped breathing, only to find Henry sound asleep and a loose diode stuck to the inside of his pajamas.
After a month it got so we could not remember whose diaper had been changed, who had been given what medicine, or even what day it was. There were nights when Owen screamed from dusk until dawn. There were nights when we had poured enough milk bottles and changed enough diapers and stayed awake enough consecutive hours that the rituals seemed to become somehow consecrated. I would stand dry-eyed over Henry as he stared up at the ceiling at three or four in the morning, and in something like a waking dream he would seem so wise and sensible that he became like some ancient philosopher.
He never cried, not even when his alarm went off. Swaddled in his Moses basket, wires trailing out the bottom, his monitor flashing green, green, green, his entire four-pound body motionless except his eyelids, it seemed he understood everything I was working so hard to understand: his mother’s love, his brother’s ceaseless crying; he was already forgiving me for my shortcomings as a father; he was the distillation of a dozen generations, my grandpa’s grandpa’s grandpa, all stripped into a single flame and stowed still-burning inside the thin slip of his ribs. I’d hold him at the window and he’d stare out into the night, blue tributaries of veins pulsing in his neck, his big eyelids slipping down now and then, and it would feel as if tethers were falling away, and the two of us were gently rising, through the glass, through the trees, through interweaving layers of atmosphere, into whatever was beyond the sky.
Occasionally I’d be lucid enough to think: This is not normal. I should not be trying to write a book during this.
By summer, after they were three or four months old, the boys started sleeping better at night. Four hours. Sometimes five. There were even one or two rare and terrifying times when both would sleep six hours without waking. But by then it was too late. So many nights of sleeplessness had broken some flimsy little gyroscope inside my skull, and the rested world had left me behind.
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