After denying myself a gelato on economic grounds, I approached one of the phone booths that still spotted the streets of Rome. Stepping out of the booth was a guy with a straight nose and curly hair who looked like one of those marble statues out by the fountains. When I saw his Knicks t-shirt, I gave him a thumbs-up, but he seemed confused and asked me a question in Italian.
After a series of gestures, mangled words and misunderstandings, I finally came to learn that this guy—who looked like a David to me, because Michelangelo clearly grasped the essence of the Italian man—could help me make a free international phone call. This was great, since my parents had cut off my cell coverage after they found out about me dropping out of MIT. Same kind of tough love they served their subordinates on Wall Street. They were happy to let me embrace my Italian heritage as long as I didn’t give up my Manhattan aspirations, but I wasn’t going to get a Math degree just because I could. Certainly not to please the people who had lied to me my entire life.
The David beside me—the one made of flesh—gestured with his oversized fingers for me to enter the phone booth. It was a preserved relic—a connection to the past, just like the Colosseum and all the other archaeological novelties in Rome. I stepped out of the moonlight and into the booth, where David’s intoxicating smell infiltrated the air, and we were squeezed in so tight that his Florentine leather squeaked against mine. With some adjustments, our bodies fit like puzzle pieces into the cramped space. David pulled a paperclip out of his pocket, bent it, and fit the tip into one of the tiny holes in the receiver, then jiggled it around. After a click, he hung up, careful to keep the paperclip in the hole. Then he counted—uno, due, tre—and lifted the receiver. We waited a few seconds, and when we heard the dial tone he handed me the phone.
I punched in the number and got a clear connection. The long bell-ringing of the American phone line made me home-sick; it was nothing like the snappy buzz of calls within Europe. The Roman beside me never questioned why I was calling a football player across the ocean. It wasn’t Brad Carmichael’s trite handsomeness—quarterback shoulders, blond hair, flat belly, and the aura of an All-American athlete—because these superficialities were wasted on me. My attraction to him had grown from his understanding of why I’d lied to my parents—allowing them to believe I was at MIT while I was in Italy, until my advisor called them—and his strength in calling me out on it before exposing his own vulnerabilities. He understood my rage at their mentioning the lost tuition when my identity was at stake. He always knew when to use words and when to use his powerful arms to hold me in silence.
When Brad’s voicemail picked up, I tried calling his room instead. I imagined the electrons swimming down through the metal cable of the phone box and underground for miles under the ocean, then overhead on poles until reaching the MIT frat house.
I’d met Brad in the library the prior Spring, while I was researching my family tree and learned that I’d been adopted from an Italian orphanage at 18 months. I didn’t believe it until I called my parents a few moments later, and their response was silence. Although I was just a stranger in tears that day, Brad asked questions and consoled me about my discovery. I was stuck on this image of having spent my first birthday without a family, and Brad promised I’d never spend another birthday alone. It was a silly vow he couldn’t possibly keep, but it led to margaritas and jazz in Central Square. This was followed several months later by a Summer internship with him in the magnetics research lab at MIT, which was accepted by my parents as a legitimate excuse not to return to New York. I held the paperclip in place as the ringing continued, but I waited because I needed to speak in complete sentences and engage in a relationship beyond the ordering of food. I was tired of being the outsider.
Before Brad, I drank my way through the boredom of weekends, but it was the flicker of his disapproval about my behavior that drove me to get serious about Math. During our first snow that Fall, I’d struggled on a problem in Differential Geometry, yearning for understanding until the symbols magically transformed into a picture language which allowed me to see the connections that led to the answer. After scrawling the proof on the back of Brad’s practice schedule, I proudly admired its simple beauty. I was about to call my parents when it struck me that my math brain hadn’t come from them, but was from the coalescing genes of two random people living in Italy. That’s when I bought my ticket to Rome and flew away. Four months later, Christmas and New Years spent alone in barren cafés, my cash was dwindling.
“Hello?” I imagined, but all I heard was ringing. Maybe Brad had a game. The blisters behind my heels throbbed as the ring of the phone repeated its dull chorus. I longed for his grip on my waist. At the airport, when I had stood up to board, he clung to my hand so our arms were outstretched and only our intertwined fingers were touching. He was so dejected and beautiful, allowing his face to expose how anxious he was about my leaving. He said he’d be lost without me, but we all need pain, or else how can we tell when we’re happy?
Leaning against David, while the phone continued ringing, I slid off my sandals to relieve my blisters on the cool metal floor. I didn’t pay attention to a woman who stood outside the booth glaring at us, except to note that she had a square face and was about the right age to be my mother. I wondered if my mother was on the lookout for me, the way I was always on the lookout for her. Garlic from Alfredo’s Restaurant wafted into the booth as a reminder that I couldn’t survive on cappuccino, even if it was the cheapest escape from hunger. I thought of telling David it was my birthday, but I couldn’t remember the word for “birthday” in Italian. It was almost over, anyway; my watch gave it another four minutes. I pushed my index finger against the fog on the glass, leaving my print—the unique identifier that connected me to two parents I still hadn’t found. I’d been fingerprinted at my Saturday banking job last Fall, and I noted again how much easier it is to see our fingerprints through the image created by our touch, as opposed to just looking straight at the source.
The phone rang on and on. We ignored the woman with the square face knocking on the plexiglass window, whose hair, I noticed, was flat and thin, unlike my disobedient mass. The problem was that Brad’s complex inner life—always searching for the answer—was hidden in a package that was alluring to anyone, including that slut Serena, who couldn’t tell the difference between his mind and that of any other player out on the field. She and the others were posting photos of all their togetherness. Meanwhile, Brad’s brief emails made me wonder if there was an implicit expiration date to the words, “I love you.”
The woman outside the booth finally walked away, exasperated, as I rubbed my scratchy eyes. After my invincible state during the process of falling in love, how could I now feel so vulnerable? It was wrenching. I just needed to hear Brad’s voice. Screw this quest. I still hadn’t found the people who abandoned me. The orphanage hadn’t given me any information and I was all out of leads. These people were a fiction; Brad was reality. I didn’t want to know who I was; I wanted to know who we were. He would never forget my birthday, but it was already early evening back home and I still hadn’t heard from him. In three minutes, it would be over. Sure, he couldn’t call, but there were other ways to communicate.
The ringing wailed on as a gypsy in a tattered dress approached with a baby clutched in her arms. She put out her hand, so I reached into the pocket of my jeans for change, but I felt nothing. The woman’s hair was dirty and she looked hungry. She had nothing for her baby except the tactile embrace of her arms. She leaned forward, pleading, so I reached further down into my pocket, until, at the very bottom, I felt my key from the pensione. I tried my other pocket, where I found a quarter, but it had no value here. Brad would’ve said there was no point in giving her money anyway; it wasn’t solving anything. He was always reaching conclusions, always predicting the end of the movie instead of watching it unfold. The woman’s head fell, and as she slunk away, I noticed that the moon had shifted since my arrival into the booth.
My contacts were irritating my eyes, so I removed them and tossed them to the ground. As David’s face came into my focus, his long, full eyelashes blinked. The phone was still ringing when he finally reached over and took the receiver from my hand. He had a look of sympathy on his face, as if he understood my disappointment and wanted to make things better—somehow, without any common words between us to do so. He removed the deformed paper clip from the hole in the receiver where it had fit in so snug and slipped it back in his pocket. The last ring faded into silence before he replaced the receiver on the hook with a click.
A breeze blew in the smell of roasting chestnuts from a street vendor. I lined up the two rows of teeth of my leather jacket and began zipping it shut, one tooth intertwined with the next like the DNA from my unknown parents. When I realized my jacket was caught in David’s jacket, he seemed amused. He untangled us, tipped his head forward and glanced down at the ground before licking his lips. Then he looked up, half-laughing, and flung his black hair out of his eyes with a swift motion of his head.
He unwrapped a lollipop from his jacket pocket and stuck it in his mouth. There was just one more minute left to my birthday. My past and future birthdays felt irrelevant during these sixty seconds. Foggy-eyed, I leaned down to pick up my sandals, but there wasn’t enough room, so David began to squeeze out of the booth to get out of my way. When the pressure of his body against mine started to release, I panicked and clutched his arm. Then, to keep him from moving, I stepped on his left foot. I didn’t know him and I never would, but none of that mattered because he was here with me right now, standing beside me in flip flops so I could feel his warmth under the balls of my bare feet. His skin was soft, nothing like the marble David. He popped the lollipop out of his mouth and placed it in mine. Artificial strawberry.
His lips separated slightly as he studied my face with his brown eyes. David whispered something in Italian which I didn’t need to understand, and then he took off his gloves without moving his gaze from my eyes. His breath warmed my face. I counted the chimes of the church bell: uno, due, tre, and on. Twelve strikes. Midnight. My birthday was over.
David removed the lollipop from my mouth and put it on the ledge below the phone while I licked the strawberry off my lips and drew a line on the fog clouding the booth window. David drew another line and then tapped on the point of intersection. His hand’s movement was expressive and intentional, like that of a painter. He touched my lips with the tender skin on the tip of his damp finger with such delicacy that I almost felt the ridges of his fingerprint. The feeling was soft and electric, causing me to shudder. Just that morning, at the Sistene Chapel, I had seen the painting of God, four fingers limp, reaching his forefinger out to grant life to Adam.