It is 1976 and I am arrogant, full of wonder and worry as I stand on M’s terrace overlooking the hills of Rome. I am twenty-one and, although I love to dance, I don’t know what I want or where I will go.
Some things are easy. Making love, for instance. I learn Italian phrases, many of them too profane for civil conversation. We have no common language–he speaks Farsi, German, and Italian. I speak English and French. Still, we find ways to argue.
He asks if I am comrade and I tell him I don’t know. If I am not comrade, then I am fascist, he says. I’m pretty certain that I am not one of those. I know about the war.
In the piazza, I sing with him and his friends–all comrades and all architecture students–we sing, Bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao. I believe that we are singing a love song. Hello beautiful. Men call these words out to me when I walk alone, so I don’t imagine they are calling me a fascist.
He likes the English word, beautiful, and says it often. He uses it to describe a man in exile in Paris, the “beautiful old man” who will return to Iran to free “all the people” from the evil Shah. I see the hope in his eyes as he struggles to explain, the hope he has for his Persian homeland.
He tells me in broken English that he loves all the people. I understand him to say that if his mother betrayed the people he would kill her. Non ti credo, I say, because I don’t. Believe him.
In Italian he tells me that I don’t understand.
I’m beginning to.
I do not attempt to learn Farsi, but I’ve begun to form sentences in Italian.
At the entrance to his building, there is a trellis heavy with climbing red roses. After an evening of pizza and wine with his friends, he tears a rose from the vine, buries his nose in it, and tosses it to the ground.
Non e buono, I say. Non fai questo.
Uno non importa, M tells me. One alone doesn’t matter. This I understand.
I sing that Gale Garnett song about staying a year with a lover. And when those two months have ended and I have gone away, you’ll often speak about me… He grins and sways to my shaky song, sure that it’s a love song for him.
It’s time to go home.
Perhaps I will dance.
When he arrives in Toronto the following year, he has acquired more English–broken, but enough. Enough to soon realize the mistake of it.
As I study the old photographs he’s scanned and sent to my inbox, questions fill my mouth. While standing on his balcony, my heart straining to hear its own truth, what did it want? In whose chest was it beating? I hadn’t been paying attention to that man, not really, nor to Nicco, his friend who also courted me when M was too drunk to notice. Nicco was far too sweet, too kind, too nice, but his French was good. In those days, the girl in those pictures, her face soft and sunny, was constantly looking over the shoulder of the moment. She missed so much.
The “beautiful old man” did return to his homeland and did indeed cause a revolution. M did not return.
As for him, he writes now that his English is still “not good.”
We could use a translation app, our modern streamlined version of that small phrase book we passed back and forth, its pages softened and dog-eared. But I choose, instead, to look over the past’s shoulder and let it rest.
Perhaps I will dance.