Free Fiction—Lying to the Muse

[Euterpe]

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Lying to the Muse

After making a spectacle of destroying his work, a disenchanted writer is visited by a hungry Muse, who agrees to help him fix his novel. But he has more on his mind than writing.

Carefully with the skill of a surgeon, I sliced the last of the pages to bits with the good knife. Though they represented six tortured months of my life, I felt a kind of giddy satisfaction at seeing the mad confetti I had created flittering to the floor like silent snowflakes.

My dog Fellini must have thought I was doing this for him because he started pawing at the shredded mound and barking in his classic urp-squeak. Fellini was a Great Dane-Chihuahua mix. Though he was barely the size of a starved squirrel, his undercarriage was prodigious, and he rode it like a cannon in a Missouri Fourth of July parade.

Anyway, there it was: my awful samsaric masterpiece of Love, Death, and Disillusionment. Two hundred forty-seven pages of pure, unfinished dreck in pieces.

It was supposed to be the story of a spiritual orphan of uncertain gender named Muck who drifted through life pleasing both men and women but never itself. I started out by convincing Muck to get a job selling accordions to the star-struck parents of tone-deaf grade-schoolers. Then, I suggested it seek enlightenment in Chihuahua, Mexico, where it could live with the Tarahumara Indians and make dolls from wood and bits of colorful clothing. On its day off, Muck would paint fantastic murals of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the inscrutable rocky faces of distant mountains under thunderous gray skies.

I tricked Muck into descending into hell in a gutter in South Central LA, bleary from cheap, potent wine and dirty needles. Finally, it died from ebola virus. I buried it in an unmarked grave in Berwyn, Illinois, where years later a girl with disappearing bone disease would weep because she remembered knowing Muck in a former life when she was a Carthusian monk.

As I say, it was pure dreck and deserved to be burned.

I swept the last of my novel into the trash and put away the broom. As I shut the closet door, I heard a dull thud. Lowering his head, Fellini let out a deep background growl.

“Stop, it’s just the broom. See?” I opened the door to prove it to him.

That’s when I saw her.

She was very pretty and had strong Mediterranean features. Dark hair and dark brown eyes—not old and not young—with pale, luminescent skin. Seeing me for the first time, she smiled as if encountering a dear old friend. There was something unsettling about her gaze, though; it was as if she were surveying the long, lonely desert of my secrets and disappointments. She was wearing a filmy, faded pink tunic and worn ballet slippers. I half-expected to see a wand. But all she had in her hand was a leather musette bag.

“That closet’s really cramped,” she said. Her voice was melodious and unbearably pleasant. She extended her hand so I could help her climb over the vacuum cleaner. “You should clean it out sometime.”

“I—”

Fellini bolted up the stairs, yipping. “Nice dog.”

“I don’t mean to be rude,” I said, my voice wavering. “But just who in hell are you?”

“Okay if I sit?”

I watched as she plunked herself down on one of the dining room chairs. It was the one with the loose armrest. She wiggled it and gave me an annoyed “Who’s your decorator?” look. Then settling in like a snowy egret on her new egg, she let out a little musical sigh that reminded me of a silken French bagpipe.

Defeated, I slinked over to the table. “Would you like a glass of wine?”

“Not yet.”

“Espresso, then?”

“That would be nice.”

She sat there for a long time, stirring her coffee and staring at a black-and-white photograph of a toothless woman in rags. I had taken it in college. The woman was probably dead from tuberculosis by now.

“I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner,” she said. “I was on vacation.”

“Oh?” I said, feigning interest. My head was throbbing now with gloppy, nagging questions I was certain she would never answer.

“Yes. I just got back from Tuscany.”

“That was fast.”

“It’s the harvest, you know.”

“I know.”

“Have you been to Florence?”

“No.”

“It’s incredible. When you walk the streets, you can just sense the magic. I was composing sonnets in my head! You feel, I don’t know, so creative there. Like you could write anything.”

She sipped her espresso, waiting for me to jump in.

“It’s funny how sometimes the words just come pouring out,” she said. “You’d really like to stop, but somehow you’ve just got so much to say and, well, you won’t be satisfied until you get it all down on paper.”

“Is there a point to this?”

She threw me a sideways glance, smiled enigmatically, and went on. I proceeded to get comfortable.

“Why, just the other day—actually it was before I went on vacation—I was helping an elderly woman in Guangdong who thought she had nothing in the world to say about Love because her husband had been dead almost twenty years. He insisted on being buried with his exercise balls for some reason.

“Anyway, I convinced her she had plenty to say. After all, her mind was still sharp. And she had her memories. And do you know what that sweet old lady did?”

“Wrote down her memories?” I said.

Uffa! I knew you were no dummy!”

“Look, um… What was your name again?”

“Euterpe.”

“Now hold on!”

“They were supposed to send my sister, Erato, but she’s helping a famous Hollywood screenwriter through a personal crisis.”

“Anyone I know?”

“We’re not supposed to name names,” she said, touching her nose with her forefinger. Then, in a stage whisper, “His last movie bombed, though.”

“At least he got paid. Why didn’t they send Melpomene? After all, I was writing a tragedy.”

“The only real tragedy is that your book is so bad.”

“You’re a big help.”

“I am a help. You’ll see.” She pulled a surprising amount of paperwork from her tiny bag. “Now as you know, I am the Muse of lyric poetry and music. Are you musical by any chance?”

“Forget it.”

“Before I can start, you’ll need to sign this contract. There’s also a waiver and a model release form.”

“Model release—”

“In case we decide to use your photo on our website.”

“I’m not giving you permission to—”

“I’m kidding! Wow, lighten up.”

“And the waiver?”

“Just a formality, really. It basically states you relinquish the right to sue us later if your book doesn’t sell. Stuff like that. I mean, we can’t be responsible for the public’s taste.”

The documents looked like preprinted forms you could purchase in any office supply store. They were already made out in my name.

“I should really run these past my attorney,” I said.

“If you like. But I can’t start until they’re signed and dated.”

She was good. I scribbled my signature on each one. As I did so, she notarized everything and handed me a copy.

“You’re a notary, too?”

“Well, I can’t very well drag one around with me,” she said, squinting at the signature. “Now, Richard, how about showing me your work.”

“I’ve hacked it to pieces.”

“So print out another copy.”

“I’m out of paper. Can’t you just read it on the computer?”

“I hate computers. Go and bring me the trash.”

“But it’s all chopped up,” I said.

“Do you want my help or not?”

“Fine.”

Muttering, I brought the trash can over to her. Fellini was on the bottom stair, poking his head around the corner and wagging his tail. Euterpe sighed as she looked at the shreds of my misunderstood genius covered in cucumber skins, dog food cans, and coffee grounds. Reaching in, she pulled out the manuscript fully formed. Dusting it off she placed it on the dining room
table.

“Wait, how did you—”

“Okay, let’s see what we have here.”

She read for the next two hours. I pretended to have urgent business in the kitchen. I took out the garbage and put out the empty water bottles. I washed the dishes and cleaned the bathrooms. I took the dog for a walk. When I returned, I made more espresso. Once I thought I heard her giggle. I brightened until I realized that Fellini was licking her bare foot.

At last, she finished, closed the manuscript, and sat back, yawning and stretching. “Have you got any grapes?”

“Sorry.”

“Oh.”

She seemed more than a little disappointed. I remembered the cantaloupe and ran to the kitchen to cut up a few slices. When she saw it, she smiled.

“That was sweet of you. Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No. What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Just curious. Women can be a real inspiration.”

“They can also be a pain in the ass.”

“Oh, dear. Someone must’ve cut you to pieces. Did you have it coming?”

“Most likely.”

When she’d finished the cantaloupe, she wiped her mouth daintily and pushed the plate aside.

“Now, let’s talk about your work.”

I felt my stomach churn. Suddenly, I didn’t want to talk about it. What I had done only hours before was emotionally sever myself from this moribund piece of claptrap. I was prepared to never write again. I didn’t ask her to come here, dammit!

“Yes, you did.”

“Did what?”

“Ask me to come here. Or rather, you asked Erato. But she wasn’t available as I explained earlier.”

“I don’t remember asking.”

“No? You stood over there in the kitchen, and you mutilated six months of hard work with the good knife. If that isn’t a cry for help, I don’t know what is.”

“You’re unbelievable. Wait, you said you were on vacation. How did you get here so fast?”

“Time passes differently for us.”

“Of course it does.”

“Okay, we’ve wasted enough time. Look. You’re not a bad writer. Per se. You do have your own voice. You like to take tragic turns, then make them funny. That’s good. It keeps the reader involved.”

This wasn’t so terrible. I was starting to like her.

“But you lack discipline. Your work wanders all over the place. You can’t seem to stick to the point. You introduce characters who don’t serve any purpose other than to set up the next joke.

“For instance, here on page fifty-seven. You have this homeless man peeing off a building. And on the street below, the bank manager flips open his umbrella because he thinks it’s raining.”

“I thought it was funny.”

“But we never get to see the homeless man again. Or the bank manager for that matter. This is the sort of thing I’m talking about, Richard. It makes the reader very, very angry. It says you think she can be easily manipulated.”

“Can’t she?”

“Oh, and another thing. Your story offers no hope.”

“So?”

“People need hope. Just saying.”

“Huh.”

“Overall, what you have to say is worth writing down. And I think I can help you.”

“You can?”

“Yes. What time is it?”

“After eleven.”

“I’ve got to go!”

“What? But what about helping me?”

“Tomorrow night. No! I can’t. I’m seeing someone else then. Thursday. I’ll return on Thursday.”

“But what am I supposed to do until then?”

“Read. For you, I recommend Joseph Heller. Catch-22. That’s one of my favorites. Maybe you could pick up some Philip Roth. And John Irving. Stay away from Thomas Mann. You’re not ready for him yet.”

Before I knew what was happening, she got up and went out the front door. Fellini barked happily and tried to follow her, but I caught him just in time.

“Good night!” she said and disappeared. I didn’t see where she went.

#

That first night was hell. I didn’t sleep. Sharing my distress, Fellini kept groaning as my tossing and turning bounced him from one end of the bed to the other like a volleyball. In the morning I ran down to Book Soup to pick up the books she’d recommended. For two days, I did nothing but read and order take-out.

It was a relaxing time. Instead of stewing in my own misery, I let myself be carried away by the words. I trusted the author completely and allowed myself to be led wherever it was he wanted me to go. I didn’t feel cheated.

Thursday night, I made dinner. I thought Euterpe would like it. I prepared a simple salad of mixed greens, Roma tomatoes, Greek olives, and feta with homemade Vinaigrette. I’d gone down to the La Brea Bakery and picked up a loaf of Italian bread. Now I simmered a sauce of olive oil, garlic, black pepper, fresh tomatoes, and Pecorino that I planned to serve over linguine next to the cold chicken. On the counter stood two bottles of an interesting Barolo I had found at BevMo!

It was around eight when she knocked. I’d been half-expecting her to come out of the closet again. When I opened the door, I found her in a low-cut black tee shirt, black tights, and red sequined high top sneakers. Her shiny, dark hair was up, pinned on either side with black combs. She was wearing red lipstick.

“Something smells awfully good.” Smiling, she came in and patted the dog.

“I thought you might be hungry.”

“I’m always hungry.”

“Great. Would you like some wine?”

“Italian?”

“What else?”

“Perfect.”

I put on a CD of Maria Callas singing Turandot. Euterpe seemed to like it. We mostly listened to the music until I poured the coffee and Amaretto.

“You cook very well, Richard. I wouldn’t have guessed it from your book.”

“Why?”

“Well, nobody in it ever eats anything except canned beans, 7-11 hot dogs, and Milk Duds.”

“I was trying to show the poverty of spirit—”

“Through the cuisine, I know. It works. I guess.”

“You guess?”

She got up and stretched as I cleared away the dishes. I hadn’t noticed how firm her body was. I’d always pictured the Muses as generous and fleshy as in the seventeenth-century paintings I’d seen in art books.

“I work out,” she said.

We sat in the living room. I put on some Miles Davis. For a long time, she held the manuscript in her hands and patted it as if it were a purring cat. Before she arrived, I had determined to listen to everything she had to say and apply it to my writing. Finally, she opened the book to the first page, her delicate fingers with the red nail polish brushing past the
blurred, senseless patterns of light and dark.

It must have been the wine. I kissed her neck. It was fragrant like laurel. She didn’t startle or move away but pretended to consider the writing. Sliding closer, I gently took the manuscript from her hands and tossed it onto the floor. Turning her lovely oval face toward me, I kissed her red lips.

“Richard, I can’t help you this way.”

“Yes, you can. I don’t want to hear about the words right now. I just want to be with you. Please, Euterpe.”

She sighed. “This always happens when there’s wine.”

I kissed her again.

This time, she melted like a poppy drenched in honey. The last thing she said as I gently lay her on her back was, “We’re not supposed to get involved. It’s in the contract.”

We lay on the sofa for a long time. Fellini had fallen asleep next to Euterpe’s sneakers. Gently, she stroked the hairs on my chest, making little swirling patterns like tiny whirlwinds. Her body was so fragrant, it made me dizzy. I felt as if I were lying in a Tuscan field of wildflowers.

“What time is it?” she said.

“After midnight, I think.”

“We should’ve done some work. Come on, let’s do it now.”

I groaned as she pushed herself off me and got dressed. “Do we have to?”

“Yes. A contract is a contract.”

We worked until four. By the time we were on Chapter Eleven, I was exhausted. But she seemed as full of energy as ever.

“I need to sleep,” I said, rubbing my eyes like an exhausted toddler.

“Yes, I’m sorry. I tend to lose track of time.”

As she got her things together, I asked if she wanted to shower. Wagging her finger, she smiled wickedly and kissed me. Then, she slipped out the door. I went to bed and didn’t awaken until one.

#

Though we hadn’t arranged the second meeting, I knew Euterpe would be returning the next evening. After drinking three cups of strong Kenyan coffee, sucking on a navel orange, then walking Fellini, I showered and got to work on the changes she had suggested. It was remarkable. Everything she had told me was dead on. It was as if I were peeling away a dull, waxy coating and getting to the shining essence of my story—the thing I had always hoped was
there.

I didn’t have time to go to the store. I still had some wine and I had enough odds and ends to make a Sicilian-style pizza. The doorbell rang, and my heart leaped. On the one hand, I wanted to bury myself in her warm fragrance for a night and a day. On the other, I wanted to hear her every word—every criticism—about my evolving opus. I opened the door and found Euterpe with another woman who resembled her.

“Richard, this is Erato.”

“Hi.” All I could do was stand there frozen in stupid embarrassment. The smell of burning pizza brought me back.

Euterpe and Erato giggled a lot during dinner, alternately conversing in English and Italian. When we were finished, Euterpe helped me with the dishes. In the kitchen, I grabbed her arm and pulled her toward me.

“Ow!”

“What’s the idea?”

“What?”

“You know what. Why can’t we be alone?”

“Richard, I’m here to help you with your book.”

“But what about—”

“What happened before was a mistake.”

“You seemed to enjoy it.”

“Why shouldn’t I enjoy it? That’s not the point.”

“Oh, I get it. I’m not good enough. A mere mortal.”

“Stop it. You’re plenty good.”

“Then, why can’t we—”

“We can’t, that’s all. Now please, don’t make trouble. I’ve already been telling Erato how sweet you are.”

“I’ll bet.”

As I slinked back to the dining room with a tray of hazelnut biscotti, I put on my sweetest smile for Erato and hummed “La donna è mobile.”

Erato said very little during our writing session. She seemed to be fascinated with old Sex in the City episodes on cable.

“The changes you made are perfect,” Euterpe said and kissed my cheek.

“Don’t do that.”

“You’re not pouting?”

“What if I am?”

“Maybe if you’re a good boy and finish the book, we can see what else develops. By then you won’t be my client anymore. ‘Officially.’”

Inside, I was like Mt. Etna ready to melt Palermo. Outside, I smiled and said, “That will be nice.”

We made it halfway through the novel. Erato was asleep on the sofa where Euterpe and I had made love. I could hear Seinfeld faintly in the background.

“I think that’s enough for tonight,” Euterpe said.

Unlike her sister, Euterpe never seemed to tire. If I had asked her to, she probably could have run five miles, cleaned out the downstairs closet, and given Fellini a bath.

She woke Erato and kissed my cheek again. “I’m very proud of you, Richard.”

“Thanks.”

Sleepy and agreeable, Erato kissed me, too. Then, they went to wherever it was Muses go when they’re not on duty. This time, I wasn’t sleepy. I continued working, making the changes we had agreed on.

Whenever I work in my office, Fellini likes to sleep at my feet, lulled by the soothing sound of the little fan that keeps my computer from burning up and the steady tapping of my fingers on the keys. The book was taking on new dimensions. It was as if it had been in cardiac arrest all those months and Euterpe had given it the kiss of Life.

But there was more. She had given me the Kiss of Life. Though annoyed at having been denied her unashamed nakedness, I no longer felt the deep-seated anger that seemed to consume me for so long. For the first time, I was giving myself permission to let go. To stop the grasping and the criticizing and the loathing and just be—could I even say it? Happy.

That night falling asleep, I thought vaguely of Florence and how I should go there very soon before this wonderful feeling of carelessness and goodwill withered in the cold burning light of my regular solitude.

#

For the next three days, Euterpe appeared at seven and stayed until after midnight. Feeling she had made her point, she no longer brought Erato. And I no longer plagued her with low innuendo and impoverished pleading. On the third night at around eleven-thirty, we finished. All that was left was for me to make the final changes and have her proofread them. To celebrate, I made cappuccinos and brought out fresh cannolis I’d picked up that afternoon.

“You always know exactly what I like!” Euterpe said, wearing a little mustache of milk froth.

“I’m glad. I guess it’s my way of thanking you. For everything.”

“But you’re the one who did all the work.”

“It would never have happened without you.”

I kissed her cheek, then her lips. I could taste the coffee and the ricotta cheese. She didn’t seem to mind. But when my hand moved toward her breast, she moved away.

“Lots of times, my clients celebrate on the last day with champagne. It’s a kind of tradition.”

“I’ll make sure to have some chilled when you come tomorrow night.”

“That’ll be nice.”

Her voice was faint and distant. I recognized it as the sound of addio. We both knew there was no reason for her to come back. Just a few odds and ends for me to tidy up. Her returning now would just be out of politeness and professionalism.

“Tomorrow night then,” I said as she went out the door.

“Don’t forget the champagne.” She kissed me and disappeared into the moonless night.

#

When seven o’clock came again, everything was ready. The finished manuscript fresh from Staples was lying on the dining room table. Next to it stood two gleaming champagne glasses. I had decided on an Arugula salad and spaghetti puttanesca. For dessert, I had picked up two slices of tiramisu. La Bohème was playing on the stereo.

At seven-thirty, I turned off the music and ate my salad. At eight-fifteen, I boiled some pasta and ate the puttanesca. Finally, I cracked open the champagne, and flipping through the manuscript with a mixture of sadness and accomplishment, I drank a toast to myself. The tiramisu went well with the champagne. I carved off a tiny section and fed it to Fellini. He liked it.

I had known all along Euterpe wouldn’t return. She would only have had to try and worm her way out of staying the night. It was better this way. She had given me the help I needed. Why should I expect more?

At around ten-thirty, Fellini began scratching at the front door and whining. I stumbled to my feet, thinking that Euterpe might have changed her mind. When I opened the door, I found a note. There was no one outside, but I could smell her flower fragrance. She had come as promised.

The note was written on parchment with a quill. It was in
Italian.

Chi lascia la via vecchia per la nuova, sa quel che lascia ma non sa quel che trova.

It means, “He who leaves the old way for the new, knows what he leaves behind but doesn’t know what he’ll find.” The saying was familiar to me and made me smile. I drank the last of the champagne and went to bed.

#

As I settled into my first-class seat, the flight attendant was already asking me what I wanted to drink.

“Champagne,” I said.

In two months, my book would be in stores. It didn’t seem real, my time with Euterpe. Recently, I tried to find the legal papers and the note she had written me, but no luck. I was beginning to believe I had dreamed her up. Suddenly, she appeared in the cabin and sat next to me. She was dressed differently and had on a sharp pair of black Persol glasses. She wore a short black skirt, no stockings, a black sweater, and red barrettes that matched her lips and fingernails.

“Buon giorno,” she said, adjusting her seat.

Buon giorno.”

I listened as she spoke to the flight attendant in Italian. Her accent was delightful. She didn’t strike me as a city girl. I imagined her growing up on a small country farm in Sienna. Carrying buckets of milk to an ancient stone building where they made cheese the old fashioned way.

“Excuse me for staring. I thought you were someone I knew,” I said.

“It’s not very original.”

“No, it isn’t.” I tried laughing it off. “I’m Richard.”

“Claudia.”

My champagne arrived, and I went to sip it. Instead, I gave it to her and ordered another.

Grazie.

“Do you live in Rome?” I said after a while.

“No, Firenze.”

“Really? I’m visiting there! It’s my first time.”

“And you travel alone?”

“Yes.”

“Better to see the city with someone.”

“I agree. Are you volunteering?”

She sipped her champagne with amusement. That’s when I noticed her leather musette bag.

“When you are in Florence,” she said, “you must visit Uffizi Gallery. There you will find Allori’s ‘Hercules and the Muses.’ It is quite stunning.”

“I’ll be sure to check it out.”

She yawned and said, “I often go there.” Then, she closed her eyes.

As I watched her sleep, I thought of how much my story had changed. Now, there was hope in the subtle suggestion that Muck and the girl with disappearing bone disease would be together someday in a distant, starry future that neither could have predicted.

I closed my eyes, and finding myself in a field of poppies at forty-one years old, I accepted the cup that was offered.

Copyright © 2017 by Steven Ramirez.

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Coins in the Fountain

By Judith Works

[Judith Works]One evening after I finished the last of the Italian expat stories stacked up on my bedside table I said to myself: “No one has had my experiences. They all write about vineyards and old farmhouses. I lived in Rome.” So the next morning after I poured a second cup of coffee I sat down in front of my laptop. The screen was blank and so was my mind until I thought back to that first day in our Roman apartment when I could hear my husband screaming “Stop that!” I had rushed into an empty room to see him hanging out the window yelling at a group of nuns who were dumping garbage behind our apartment. Well… yes, it seemed that there was a story to tell. No rural idyll, but the story of life in Rome and a job working for the United Nations. A story with plenty of weird adventures (like falling in the subway and getting arrested by the carabinieri) and wonderful times eating, drinking and laughing with new friends. A story of traveling around Italy and even travel to some of the places the UN works to provide humanitarian assistance. A story of running away in middle age to join the circus (the Circus Maximus in Rome, that is).

As a lawyer I spent my career writing in dull passive legalese. To tell a story I had to change my thought process entirely – become a story-teller instead of an arguer trying to prove some arcane point. That was a challenge. Another challenge was to shape the story. My husband and I had two stays in Rome, the first for four years and the second for over six. Should I deal with one or throw them both in; did my husband mind having stories told about him; how should I depict some of our more exotic friends and acquaintances? Should I talk about the difficult times or only write about the best? Should I begin at the beginning or at the end and look backward?

It took well over a year to get the stories down and more time to get rid of the ones that were uninteresting. Then I had to overcome the trepidation attendant with showing the work to anyone. So I started with my husband. As he read along he would say, “No, that’s not the way it was – it happened like…” Discussion followed. Who was right? Each problem was settled until I showed it to my daughter who knows Rome well. She would say, “But you forgot…” More revisions!

Now it was time for a critique group. Every other Monday we went at it. “I don’t understand this?” “What do you mean by that?” Or, best, “Yes, that’s exactly the Rome I saw.”

Finally I had a completed manuscript. It told the story of an important period in my life and marked the exciting finale of my working career – a summing up one might say. I had clarified some events and contemplated the meaning of others to reflect on the meaning of it all.

Being an unknown author, I decided to take a chance and just put the book on Amazon for e-readers, a decision I have not regretted. Readers and travelers love Italy for good reason. With the ability to price the book at a modest level I have attracted many more readers than I could have hoped for, earned many new friends who have written me about their own Italian dreams and adventures.

About Coins in the Fountain
Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of Coins in the Fountain:

“Hey! What are you doing? STOP that!!”

I sprang up from the floor where I was lounging on a deflated air mattress and rushed into what was supposed to be our dining room in the echoing, still-empty apartment. Why was Glenn shouting? I found the answer when I saw my normally mild mannered husband hanging out the window yelling at a group of nuns in their crisp black and white habits as they dumped wheelbarrows filled with garbage onto the open space behind our building. They looked up briefly. Then, paying no further attention to the outraged foreigner, they finished their work and swished off toward an unseen convent.

It was Saturday morning. To our great surprise, I had gone to work for a branch of the United Nations a month earlier. We stayed in a hotel on the Aventine Hill for the first two weeks after our arrival in Rome and then in a new colleague’s apartment for another two weeks while he was back in California. Now, at the unsettled beginning of the second month of a planned four-year stay we were tired and cranky from sleeping on the living room floor on a bed of flattened cardboard cartons that originally held an air mattress, a few dishes, pots and pans, two folding chairs, an old card table and some clothes. These items comprised our air shipment, meant to tide us over until the shipping container arrived by sea a couple of months later. The air mattress we hoped to use over the cardboard had slowly and irreparably deflated, paralleling our naïve enthusiasm for the whole adventure of a move to romantic Italy.

We had been desperate to find a home. The hotel was expensive and my settlement allowance was running out. The American Embassy located apartments for its staff, but my new office offered no assistance. The rental agents we contacted from newspaper ads had nothing satisfactory to offer, nor did the few ads on an office bulletin board. Word of mouth eventually led us to another agent, a disagreeable American who made her living finding apartments for greenhorns like us with minimum effort on her part. She insisted that we take the bus to the apartments she suggested, leaving us scrambling to find buildings in unfamiliar locations and waiting until she drove up at her leisure and parked her car on the sidewalk. Worse, after she signed us up we began to hear stories that circulated in the gossipy expatriate community that was welcoming us. One story in particular made us especially cautious about the woman: Several years before our arrival Marge invited a client for lunch at her own apartment that was filled with cats and their untended litter boxes. After a microwaved meal of Fettuccine Alfredo, she announced that she had an appointment and left, locking him inside. He was trapped with the cats. After waiting an hour, he managed to signal a neighbor on an adjoining balcony who reluctantly let him climb over the railings to escape an unknown fate.

We weren’t subjected to such dramatic events but then Marge hadn’t shown us anything livable either with her numerous dark and dilapidated suggestions. At the point when we were getting agitated she finally produced an attractive solution that we later heard was yet another apartment where she had resided. Our proposed new home had large windows on both long sides of one wing of a small building…. Best of all, there were two balconies on one side and a sunny terrace opening off the master bedroom and living room on the other. The outdoor spaces were the real attraction for migrants from our cloudy home near Portland, Oregon…

Early fall, it was still hot. I tried to focus on a remark by the ancient Roman orator Seneca: “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” Well, I always wanted to have a change of place, and now my wish came true. But sometimes mental exhaustion was a more common sensation than new vigor as my brain tried to get organized to meet the dramatic change in my life.

Our nights were spent lying awake on the floor contemplating my job, the antics of the nuns and the difficulties of getting settled. Packs of incessantly barking dogs left behind when their owners went on vacation provided a background to our thoughts. Adding to the noise, eerie sirens like those in World War II movies split the night air. We squirmed on the flat, sweaty air mattress while considering our decision-making skills – deciding to leave secure jobs for a flight into fantasy. Mamma mia! What had we done to ourselves?

[Coins in the Fountain Cover]

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About the Author
Life was routine until mid-life when the author decided to get a law degree. After graduation a chance meeting led her to run away to the Circus (Maximus) – actually to the United Nations office next door – where she worked as an attorney and entered the world of expat life in Rome. Now retired, she continues to travel, having fitted in over 100 countries in between many journeys to Italy where she always tosses a coin in the Trevi Fountain to ensure another visit. While her suitcase is cooling off she writes for several on-line magazines, blogs, and volunteers for arts and literary organizations. She has just completed a novel about expatriates set in Rome.

You can find Judith at www.coinsinthefountain.com, at alittlelightexercise.blogspot.com, on Facebook and on Twitter.