I AWOKE FROM A DREAM in the dead of night, that hour when your fear lays bare the truth that you’ve been hiding. My dream was like that song they write a thousand different ways, the one about the love you lost, the girl that stole your heart, the face you can’t forget. In mine she’s sitting still as stone beneath an ancient oak, staring off inscrutably, unaware I’m there. Her beauty takes my breath away. Her glance would stop my heart. However hard I try it seems I cannot turn away from her. The woman has enthralled me. Longing is my fate.
It’s a cynic’s dream, I realize, now that I’m awake. A jilted lover’s pity party. An alibi for apathy; no surrogates will do. Which only begged the question: Who was this unfortunate woman lying beside me now?
Her snoring had woke me up. Open mouth gasping through the tangle of her hair, face half-buried in her pillow. What was it we’d been drinking? All I could remember was that single red carafe. A deep fatigue still dragged me down; I could not seem to shake it. Studying her face, I forced myself awake.
She hadn’t been on the tour, that much I remembered; she’d joined up with my group of students later at the club. Half-Asian, half-Caucasian, an alluring blend of East and West, yet so gregariously American she fit right in among them. Something about the woman had reminded me of Phoebe. Her spirit, her “spark.” The immediate attraction. But I could not remember now the color of her eyes—always a bad sign. And then it occurred to me, lying there beside her in that crappy pensione, I couldn’t even remember her name. Glenda? Gwyneth? I know it started with a G. Gina? Ginny? Something like that. Gabby?
She had been a talker. University of Miami, “the one in Ohio,” she said, a vital point of distinction. Her program was out of Luxembourg. With a few fellow students, she’d traveled by train to Rome. This was to be her last night on the town before heading back to the States. Final chance for that foreign fling with the dark and handsome stranger. After all, what is that glorious semester abroad but a closet romantic’s make-believe adventure? In reality, Europe is just one big museum, the display of a dead culture’s former greatness, everything God left behind before he finally died, all prettily preserved for the tourists.
That’s where I came in. Guide to the Eternal Museum by day, escort to the underground clubs at night. No dark and seductive Italian, perhaps, but good enough in a pinch, and probably safer, too. I made certain of that. Both of us could rest assured that nothing we did mattered. Aside from a hangover, our night of blithe abandon would be free of consequences. STDs. Pregnancy. Or God forbid, love.
Or even love-making, as it turned out. Yes, I had been that wasted. Waiting forever for her to return from the bathroom down the hall, I had fallen fast asleep.
I got dressed now quietly in the dark, careful not to wake her. Why go through the embarrassment? Why bother with goodbye? Would she remember my name? Even if she did, she’d probably feign to forget, laughing it off with the other young scholars swapping tales on the way to the airport, flaunting the newfound sophistication they were transporting back to Ohio.
But later, on the plane perhaps, sitting with her headphones on, gazing down at the sea, she might think of me a moment, conjure up my face, recall something I said—that joke about the gelded gladiator?—converting me into a reminiscence, an “experience” had in Europe, repeating my name one last time before filing me away for good.
Jack Duran. That derelict American I tried to hook up with in Rome.
How quickly, I wondered, would he be forgotten?
“VANITAR. WAKE UP.”
Arshan’s voice startled me awake. I instinctively grabbed the steering wheel, then remembered the car was parked.
Arshan nodded out the windshield. “He’s leaving,” he said. “Alone.”
Duran had stepped out the hotel door. He stopped under the streetlight and pulled out his cell. “Who do you think he’s calling?” I asked.
“A taxi,” Arshan muttered.
“How do you know that?”
“How do you think?”
“I have no idea.”
“Look. What’s he doing?”
“Standing there. Dialing.”
“And what is it he’s not doing?”
A thousand things, I thought.
“Walking and dialing,” he said.
Duran held the phone up to his ear repeatedly.“There’s something wrong with his cell,” I said.
“Maybe the battery died.”
Arshan watched in silence.
At last Duran pocketed the phone and started up the street. “If he was calling for a cab,” I said, “looks like he’s given up.”
“Take us back to the hotel,” Arshan said.
I started the car. “Don’t you want to follow him?”
“He’s going home,” he said.
“How can you know that?”
Arshan watched the American slowly disappear into the dark. “I just know,” he said.