This Is Not Your Country

Warden soon found himself working two or three times a week. The remainder of his days were spent trekking through the hot Milanese streets from casting to casting. At some point he lost track of how many jobs he'd done, never sure where he might encounter his own image next.

Weekends were spent recapturing leisure hours. Summer was in full swing, brimming over in a constant surge of activity. One night after supper at the International Table they took in a show at the American Cinema before going on to Bar Magenta.

It was the usual Friday night crowd, sipping beer, relaxing and complaining about the heat. Jimmy and Derek were soon arguing and Joe had wandered off. Warden got up to stretch. Out on the sidewalk the bar was mired in a squabble of tables and chairs and parked motorbikes. The smell of cologne and cigarettes hung in the air like meandering moonbeams. Warden stood in the doorway absently looking out.

Across the street, a motionless figure stood framed in a pool of light. Long, dark curls blew across an oval face, leather jacket slung over one shoulder. Jeans with rolled up cuffs and a white T-shirt completed the uniform. He seemed to have stepped onto the street corner from a different world, and stood waiting as though anchored at the foot of the stars.

A group staggered out of the bar and Warden felt someone brush against him. He turned to see the face of a boy he'd worked with earlier in the week, now off in search of unknown pleasure.

"Sincerely sorry," the boy said, turning, then recognized Warden. "Hey, Ward—how's it goin', dude?"

"Great, Kent—looks like you're off for some fun."

"Gotta make the most of the weekend, man! Hafta face that old sidewalk come Monday morning."

He gestured vaguely towards his companions who had stopped drunkenly, watching the exchange like prisoners out on leave for the weekend, uncertain how far to take their new-found liberty.

"Catch you later, then."

"Awesome, man—keep well."

The group staggered into the street, oblivious to passing cars and other mortal dangers. When he looked around again, the boy with the leather jacket stood next to him. His lips were wrapped around a cigarette which he removed from his mouth and let fall to the ground.

"My name is Valentino," he said.

Warden stared into two eyes framed by a dark grove of lashes.

"You don't know yours?" he asked with mild sarcasm.

Warden laughed awkwardly and extended a hand.

"I'm sorry—it's Ward."

"Piacere. Pleased to meet you." Valentino pointed across the street. "And that is Paolo."

Warden looked over but saw no one.

"Where?"

"There," he said. "My motorcycle is called Paolo." He looked slyly at Warden. "If you are free, Paolo and I will take you for a ride later."

Warden liked his humour. He was drawn to the boy's dusky presence. In the bar, Warden introduced Valentino to the others who took him for a model.

"I am a student," he corrected them. "I am studying architecture."

Valentino related stories about Italy and asked the others in turn about their backgrounds. He and Joe exchanged formidable-sounding anecdotes about mafia activity in Sicily and Brooklyn. Around them the bar was crowded to capacity, the air filled with affable talk and easy laughter.

"You are free to go for a ride now?" Valentino asked.

"He's not free but he's relatively cheap," Joe piped up.

"What does this mean?" Valentino asked.

"I'll explain later," Warden said, chuckling, as they stood to leave.

"Make sure you're not out late, Ward. You know how we worry," Jimmy said.

"Yes, Val, we want him home by midnight," Joe added. "We'll be waiting."

"Don't worry, guys—I'm in good hands," he said. "Ciao."

Valentino slipped on his jacket as they crossed the darkened street. They passed a fence topped by dangerous-looking spikes constraining a flowering rose garden. Valentino took a penknife from his pocket, reached through, cut a blossom free.

"What's the rose for?" Warden asked.

Valentino looked at it as though he had just discovered the blood-red flower in his hands.

"I think it is for you," he said, handing it to Warden.

Warden put it through a buttonhole in his vest. "In my country boys don't give other boys flowers," he said.

"This is not your country. It is mine."

Valentino stood over the motorbike and gunned the starter with his foot. It roared and shook with life.

"Climb on!" he yelled.

Warden slid a leg over the seat and sat unsteadily behind. Valentino turned to give him a sarcastic stare.

"If you sit this way you will fall off. You must put your arms around me. Are you afraid?"

"I'm not afraid."

He put his hands around Valentino's waist, feeling the other boy's ribs through his jacket. The bike rolled onto the pavement, picking up speed. Warm wind lifted his hair as they sped through the city, passing beneath stone archways and along winding streets. The grey facades of ancient granite buildings flew by until they seemed to have left the twentieth century behind. Vanishing into the cool face of antiquity.

Warden gripped Valentino tightly. Smooth leather grazing his cheek as they wove in and out of traffic. Eventually, the bike veered onto a narrow roadway following a shadowy canal and stopped.

"There is the naviglio," Valentino shouted over the noise of the engine.

They dismounted. Valentino jumped on the kickstand, leaving the bike standing upright.

"Now I will take you to my favourite bar," he said, leading the way along a dark, cobbled street, pursued by the echo of their footsteps.

The canal rippled off to the right, reflecting pale street lamps lining its edges. They came to a building with a flashing sign—Scimmia Jazz—lighting up the block. Inside, the bar bristled with music.

"What's it say?" Warden asked, looking up at the sign.

"Shee-me-yah," he pronounced. "It means the animal that lives in the trees and likes bananas. How do you call it?"

"A monkey?"

"That's it—Jazz Monkey."

As they entered, a saxophone made clipped squawking sounds like coins tossed across table tops. A singer poised in a pinspot of light broke into melody as though she had been waiting for them, her wafer-thin voice reaching out to greet them.

"I will buy the beer," Valentino said, taking out his wallet as a waitress came up balancing a tray.

Valentino held up two fingers and she placed two glasses on the table, pushing them forward along the water-beaded surface. He fanned a collection of bills at her, allowing her to pull several from between his fingers. He winked and put the rest back in his pocket. She said something rapidly in Italian. Valentino turned to Warden.

"She says you are a very handsome American boy."

"Grazie," Warden said. He removed the rose from his vest.

"May I?" he asked Valentino.

"Of course."

He laid it across her tray of glasses.

"Per me? Grazie," she said, laughing as she went on to the next table.

They sat back and relaxed. Valentino laughed when Warden explained Joe's parting comment at Bar Magenta.

"I did not think you would come with me," he said. "Most American boys do not talk to the Italians."

"I'm not American—I'm Canadian."

Valentino shrugged.

"Is it not the same thing?"

"Not to a Canadian."

"You are quiet and more polite."

Warden laughed, thinking of his mannerly, order-loving compatriots back home. How happily the queued up for anything. How politely they behaved even when they went on strike or protested the government.

"But you have the same country. The American president is your president, no?"

Warden shook his head and laughed again. "We share the same continent but we're a separate nation with our own government."

"Who runs your government, then?"

"We have a prime minister. Technically, the Queen of England is our head of state."

Now Valentino laughed. "You are joking me," he said in disbelief. "The Queen of England does not run your country."

Warden tried to explain but Valentino remained sceptical.

"What is it like to be a Canadian then?"

"It's very clean. We believe in fairness and respect for the individual and protecting the environment. It's ...." He couldn't think what it was exactly, unable to define the very place he came from. "It's a big country, so it's a lot of things," he said with a shrug. "What is it like to be Italian?"

"The best, of course!" he said, laughing. "Italians have passion and we love beauty and our country. But you are a lucky country, I think. It was never a big war in Canada."

Warden remembered the week before having seen the ruins of a bombed-out building rise up startlingly in an urban neighbourhood, unchanged in nearly half a century. He also recalled the great station he had arrived at the first afternoon, a long, crypt-like monument fronted by prancing stone horses built to celebrate the glory of Mussolini and his Fascisti.

The bar was crowded with a garrulous mixture of locals and holidayers indulging in a timeless atmosphere. The music flowed, metamorphosing with the shifting moods of the crowd. Each time the elegant singer appeared her costume changed, becoming more and more extravagant. It was well past the oasis of midnight when the band stopped playing, disregarding the stamping and cheering of the noisy partyers hoping to extend the night for just one more number that might possibly stretch on to eternity.

Outside, the cafés and restaurants had dimmed their lights, the revelry put away as the crowd drifted home, only half-conscious their laughter and jubilant manners were at odds with the echoing stillness telling them to save their exuberance for another day.

It had cooled slightly from the day's oppressive heat. The evening was deflating like a balloon whose air escapes in small degrees. They mounted a foot bridge over the naviglio and stopped midway. The moon, exactly half-light and half-shade, reflected soggily on the water, rippling with the slight breezes that had arisen.

They leaned on the railing, staring out over the water. The silence was comfortable. Occasionally their eyes met.

"It's nice here," Warden said, his gaze following the river winding through the city.

"I think to myself you will like this place," Valentino said. "It is more quiet."

The air was filled with night sounds. Street lamps traced an ephemeral path along the canal. Warden pondered Valentino's face framed by its dark ringlets. They watched one another in silence. Valentino reached out and touched Warden's cheek. A smile flickered, faded. His face moved closer. Breath held, lips open slightly. Warden shivered as their lips touched, moist, warm. Then parted.

He stood there, mouth agape, as though becoming vaguely aware of certain things. The taste of salt in his mouth, the fragrance of flowers in the air, the infinitesimal distance between stars. Things that had been there all along which he had never noticed before. It was like looking over the garden wall into the unknown.

He had never been kissed by another man before. In the world he had inhabited until that moment it would have been impassable, like Gulliver's distance. Tabu. But there was a boy in a black leather jacket wearing a white T-shirt with curls fawning around his neck. Valentino's lips pressed forward again, retracing their eager route.

Warden felt a sense of trepidation, as though he had broken an inviolable rule. He pulled back. Valentino's face wore a look of intoxication.

"I think this is another thing the boys in your country do not do with each other," he said.

"No—none that I know."

"I had to kiss you—you were so beautiful." Then, almost apologetically, "I do not kiss other boys very often," he said.

"You could've fooled me," Warden said.

Valentino grinned impetuously.

"You have a problem?" he asked.

"No," Warden shook his head. "Not any more."

They laughed at the same time.

"Come, I must take you home," Valentino said, heading back to the motorcycle. "A photo-model must sleep so he is as handsome in the morning as at night time."

They sped through the empty streets in the coolness of the approaching morning. It was nearly 3 a.m. when they drove up to the albergo, the motorcycle's echo roaring around them in the streets.

"What room are you?" Valentino asked.

"Twenty-two."

"You are free later this week?" he shouted. "Or do I say `cheap'?"

"For you, I'm always a bargain."

"Thursday I will come at seven," he said, and drove off in a roar, leaving a cloud of exhaust hanging in the air.

Warden jaunted up the steps. Most nights the door was locked at midnight, an old-fashioned form of curfew imposed by pious hotel owners in the land of love. Latecomers had gotten into the habit of wedging a piece of cardboard in the doorjamb to assist the next latecomer who, it was understood, was to do likewise. It was in place that evening and Warden slipped quietly inside. He did not turn off onto the second floor, but continued up to a rooftop patio ringed in by walls on two sides and a sloping tiled roof on the third. He lay in a hammock strung up in one corner.

He remembered Valentino's kisses, how his lips felt, and the touch of their bodies gently nudging together. He listened to the stillness between his heartbeats like the silence that follows a sound in the dark. Then he fell asleep, feeling like a thief in the night.

 

From the novel A CAGE OF BONES by Jeffrey Round (© 1997), published by The Gay Men's Press (UK), released in North America Feb. 1998
 

 
 

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