Guide to the Ruins
by Eve Müller
It is dark outside the plane. You see your face in the window, harsh, more committed than ever to its path of decay. The plane hurtles across the night sky, carrying you from suburban Maryland all the way to Rome. You remember reading about Romulus and Remus, twin founders of the city, suckling at the teat of the she-wolf thousands of years ago. You are hoping to save your marriage, heavy with its own history. Rome will transform us, you think. You lean back in your seat, inviting a miracle. Loaves and fishes. Something holy, sanctified, but also useful.
You arrive to find Rome closed. It is August and the Romans are at the beaches, flirting with waves, swimming in crystalline lakes, hiking through olive groves on Monte Subasio. They are laughing and drinking elsewhere—the city an empty vessel. Corks, bottle caps, bits of confetti, and flyers promising the perfect mattress lie crushed among the cobblestones, the only signs of life. You forage for your supper, try out your new skeleton key, ride up and down in the little red elevator. It will lead you up to and away from your husband all year, rattling along with the weight of daughters, grocery carts, time.
A bag is misplaced. Argument ensues. You storm out into the blazing heat, find a loaf of bread, a ball of cheese, some anchovies. You remember the words for bread and fish. Pane. Pesce. You go home, feed your family. Does this count as a miracle?
Your apartment is eight flights up. A narrow balcony allows you to look down over Via Celimontana. You think this means “heaven’s mountain,” but foreign languages have never been your strong suit. Still, it can only bode well.
You visit your husband in his office, the United Nations’ modern-day palace. He is preoccupied. He fills his tray with rabbit and duck and sauvignon blanc, everything cheap and good, but you suspect he feels no joy. The view from the cafeteria balcony should give anyone pause. And yet they all chew, swallow, talk about crops droughts euros banks as if the rocky skeleton of Circo Massimo were not spread out beneath them like a second banquet.
San Clemente lies a few blocks away, an architectural palimpsest. Three levels down, the ruins of a Mithraic temple. Above that, the remains of a primitive church with bits of fresco visible in dim light. At ground level, a basilica with a golden tree of life that takes away your breath, rewriting—but not erasing—everything that came before. Here it is: The possibility of making something new without wholly replacing the old.
You’ve always wanted to visit Rome. As a long-time fan of ruin porn, dilapidated grandeur, the remains of what was once magnificent, you’ve sought out ghost towns, abandoned churches, the crumbling cores of industrial capitals. You love entropy in action, feel vindicated when weeds spring up between the paving stones, when vines take over walls. Given a choice between old and new, you always choose decay.
Lying side by side in the darkness, you ask your husband:
Do you ever think of laying waste to what you love?
Reducing it all to rubble?
I have no idea what you’re talking about.
The children are speaking Italian. You marvel at how quickly this happens. Yet now you are locked out of their world as they prattle of bambole, orsi, palle.
And so, Italian lessons twice a week. Not enough to speak of the sky, the lush feel of vowels rolling around on your tongue, your slow promenade towards death, but enough to buy garlic, bunches of parsley, greet the man in the wine shop downstairs. Your teacher commands you to open your textbook and read.
Do you speak Italian?
I do not speak Italian.
Non parlo italiano.
And yet you speak of ruins.
Ma tu parli di rovine.
You speak of nothing else.
Non parli d’ltro.
You make friends at the children’s school. Giulia and Maurizio and Lilli and Alberto and Ludovica and Giovanni. You drink coffee and giggle like a girl. You’re not a girl, and you get a bit loud. The café owner asks you to be quiet. She has other customers, and they don’t like American noise.
What are you reading?
Cosa stai leggendo?
I am reading about noise.
Sto leggendo del rumore.
What does European noise sound like?
Come suona il rumore europeo?
I do not hear anything.
Non sento niente.
Your younger daughter is turning five. The mothers at the school, a chorus of Roman fishwives, tell you where to buy a cake, special order. It is spectacular—Spiderman hazelnuts zabaglione, fit for a tomboy king. It costs a fortune. All her little friends in the scuola materna eat the cake with their hands. Constantine’s barbarians, they leave you none.
The Italians know how to throw parties. This makes you a bit jealous. You only know how to throw potlucks. The host presents a magnificent loaf of porchetta. People roll up their sleeves, sigh with pleasure. A knock at the door interrupts all of you mid-sentence, mouths full of meat. A guest sweeps into the room. Helmet in hand, he grabs you by the waist, plants a kiss on your lips. You’ve never seen him in your life. His girlfriend laughs, Welcome to Rome!
Some days you can’t bear the splendor. Basiliche and glittering chapels and a million pizzerias and big looping graffiti on stone walls that insists on now at the expense of then. There are no trees, but the flowers in the market at Campo de’ Fiori are flushed pink and red like women dying of rheumatic fever.
Some days bore you to tears. You drink a cup of hot tea, use the bidet, check your email. You might even mop the floors, but you’ve never been a very good housekeeper. You watch a YouTube video about objectum sexuals, people who fall in love with—and want to rub up against—the Eiffel tower, Statue of Liberty, bells of Notre Dame. You understand this urge. How many times have you stood on the rooftop, hung laundry out to dry, fantasized about lying down among the ruins, becoming one with Roman stones?
You watch your husband fix the bathroom sink. He remains an enigma after all these years. Solid and fine as Roman rock. You have spent your marriage trying to crack him open, lay him bare. Seeing him on his knees, head bent in concentration, you think: He is master of band saws, nuts, bolts, all things mechanical. Yet of you, he has no inkling.
What do you want from Rome?
Cosa vuoi da Roma?
I want abundant life.
Voglio una vita abbondante.
And what of you?
Will you never choose abundance?
Sceglierai mai l’abbondanza.
Lying awake at 3am, you can’t remember why you came here. Your husband sleeps beside you. You haven’t touched in months. You are suddenly hungry beyond belief. Standing in front of the open refrigerator—cold air, white light pouring out into darkness—you think of all you want to eat. Chicken legs, black cabbage, stuffed pigeons, marzipan. But more than that, you want to fill your mouth with marble columns, Bernini’s ecstatic saints, Caravaggio’s red lipped boys.
Your husband comes home from work, stretches himself out on the couch like a dying god. You pour him a drink. You know you should leave him alone—he is tired. But you can’t help yourself.
Do you ever think about desire?
No, not really.
Do you ever get the urge to grab everyone you speak with,
kiss them hard on the mouth?
Do you remember the scene in Microcosmos, where the snails mate to the sounds of Wagnerian opera? Rise up on their glistening feet and merge from head to toe?
That’s what I want.
Good luck with that.
Steeped in Roman history, you’re tempted to forget your own. You came to Italy with a pocketful of pills that keep you from flying too close to the sun, getting lost in serpentine darkness. Work has always protected you. But here in Rome there is little to hang your day upon. You and your husband tried all this before, many years ago before there were children—pulling yourselves up by the roots, planting yourselves in Mexican soil. You remember how you sank into depression like a stone into well water. Even though you wanted to bring your family to Rome, you are not without misgivings. History is so often a story of return.
You discover Facebook and the middle-aged men come out in droves. This feeds your vanity. It’s too much, yet never quite enough. You refresh your screen. You find the waters irresistible. You type faster, fingers on fire. Your children have to pry you away from your desk.
Half a dozen confessions of ardor appear in your inbox. You think about the wooden gates of Santi Quattro Coronati, opened silently by slippered Augustinian nuns. They usher you into a frescoed room, life’s possibilities unfurled across the walls: Constantine is cured of leprosy, crowned Emperor, holds the wide green world in his fist. Now Byzantium is yours. You think, at last I will be loved as I deserve.
The language teacher, eyes thick with mascara, mouth a red smear, little black hooves where feet should be, tells you that what you are going through is pronounced crisi di mezza età—mid-life crisis. You like this. You like it so much that you go out and buy a pair of knee-high boots—gli stivali. You take a photograph of yourself in the boots, post it to Facebook, wait for the silver-tongued flatterers to sing.
It’s Thanksgiving and Rome doesn’t care, but your American friends are joining you for dinner. You special order a turkey from the butcher shop across the street. Tacchino. It’s got a nice ring. You go to pick it up, and the butcher gives you two chickens instead. You try to explain that this is not the same thing, but your Italian fails you. You mutter something about a festa americana. The butcher shrugs. You give up, head home, eat pollo and apple whiskey cake, go to bed with your back to your husband.
The stranger climbs steep hills.
La straniera sale colline ripide.
She sighs as she climbs.
Sospira mentre sale.
She finds herself among the clouds
Si ritrova tra le nuvole
looking down on granite tombs.
guardando dall’alto tombe di granito.
Your Italian friends think you are sleeping with another woman’s husband. You are surprised to hear this, a little bit sad and a little bit proud. You really are a Henry James heroine now, wandering the Colosseo at night with your gentleman friend, hopelessly lost in translation.
The crack in the bathroom mirror splits your face down the middle. You lean into the glass, peer closely at what is left of you after forty-five years. You see a web of lines and think of lace, broken china, the inlaid gold tilework of the Cappella di San Zenone, backroads connecting Umbria with Tuscany, the Fiume Tevere snaking through Rome. Yes. Even in ruins you are beautiful.
Who am I?
I paint my face each morning.
Dipingo la mia faccia ogni mattina
Comic, tragic, forgettable.
Comica, tragica, dimenticabile.
The man in the cigarette shop sees you walking past the Colosseo in your rabbit fur hat, a child’s hand clutched in each of yours. He approaches the three of you, says you look just like Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago. For a few golden minutes you forget your children, your failing marriage, are lost in talk of long-ago movies and far-away places.
You walk down Via Merulana in your black dress and boots, your skin alive, electric, your legs longer than ever. You stride past liquor stores, butcher shops, displays of shiny knives—the street is yours for the taking. A man on a motorbike stops dead in his tracks, blows you a kiss.
Strung out on espresso granita, you find the technicolor glow bright and gaudy in the winter sun.There are halos around everyone’s heads, and not just the saints on the walls of San Giovanni in Laterano.You turn to your personal intercessors—Cymbalta, Olanzapine, Ativan.
On a whim, you enter Santa Maria Maggiore, settle into a pew, pray for healing of this bone-deep restlessness you feel, this hunger. After you light a candle, you descend into the crypt beneath the church, where you find a hair of the Virgin, the arms of St. Luke and St. Matthew. Proof, you think, of the Italians’ abiding affection for bodies—even the bodies of the dead.
In the Capuchin crypt beneath Santa Maria della Concezione, you find yourself drawn to the artful arrangements of skeletons, macabre valentines to death. There’s poetry to the names of each room—Crypt of the Skulls, Crypt of the Pelvises, Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones. Later, you spot your reflection in the plate glass windows of Via Veneto, hunched, formless in your black coat, and think of what lies just beneath your own pale skin—scapula, clavicle, iliac crest. You turn and head east. Towards home. Relieved to find your children adamantly alive, demanding suppers and baths.
The family is eating another dinner from one of your Italian cookbooks. Not on the roof tonight—it’s still too cold. No one is talking, and your husband is more remote than ever. You think, maybe you overcooked the pasta. Maybe you over-salted the meat. Maybe the silt that filters in through the windows and settles on the book shelves, counters, beds and tiled floor—maybe this dust of ages is burying you all alive.
Your husband once told you that after his first time unzipping your dress, watching you step out of it, trembling—after the first year of playing house, growing lettuces, hanging bed sheets out to dry in baking sun, painting all the walls bright shades of blue and green—after the first baby bursting from your womb, wet with blood, loud as thunder—there wasn’t anything left. He’s been around the world half a dozen times. Perhaps for him, Rome is just more of the same.
The children ride ponies in Villa Celimontana, your husband lies on the trampled grass, basking in silver light. He is noble, you think. His wants and needs so few. Not unlike the turtles sunning themselves on the lip of the fountain.
How can you stand it?
Living in a world where nothing’s ever new?
Boredom’s the price you pay for peace.
You lean back on your elbow and take stock of this man beside you. You are struck by his beauty. How like a turret, you think: silent, steadfast, insular. But you want to lose yourself in talk, to speak of the Milky Way, the vast universe outside and within you, to love with abandon. And he wants none of this.
It’s a lovely spring morning. The ruins are calling. You and your American friend make your way down Via Appia Antica. You are surprised by how quickly the city turns to countryside. It’s 10am. You step into a small shop and your friend buys a bottle of wine. She’s a poet. She promises you that drinking this early will be a revelation. There is laughter and the twisting of an ankle on cobblestones. You can’t believe how much you are enjoying yourself. It is your turn to offer her something. You give her the Catacombe di San Callisto which extend beneath the fields for miles, are home to half a million bodies. In the dimness, you come upon Maderno’s statue of Santa Cecelia—hands bound, head neatly severed, face covered with a marble rag. You are both abruptly sober.
All the families are out walking. You arrive at the gates of Villa Doria Pamphilij, littered with grottos, hedges, putti, artificial ruins. Why build crumbling towers? you ask. Why begin with endings? No one hears you. Your husband is far ahead. Your daughters busy chasing after swans.
You think, if only you could make him see Rome as you do. Layered like a vast cake. You propose dinner with Italian friends, music by Monteverdi in the chapel at Santa Prassede. He declines your offer. You go without him. You find you don’t really miss him. You come home and he’s in front of the TV, doesn’t even look up when you enter.
After your night of stained glass and madrigals, the long walk home cloaked in darkness, you are surprised by how readily ecstasy morphs into anger:
I want to scream.
You make me want to scream.
Don’t start up.
I’m not in the mood for your hysteria.
Hysteria is the only thing that keeps us honest.
Today you choose self-denial, crawl all the way up the Scala Santa on your knees. You and a friend do it for kicks, but the feel of stone scraping skin, each step worn down by centuries of penitents creeping toward salvation, brings you close to tears. You bend over, let your forehead rest on the stairs for just a moment, try and strike a bargain with god.
Today you choose Bacchus. Your husband stays home, watches Netflix reruns. It’s already midnight and you are just beginning. Your Italian friends take you to the Forte Prenestino, abandoned military complex, labyrinthine squatters’ lair. The whole place is illegally occupied, you sneak in under cover of darkness. You feel like a rat. See a few scuttling down shadowed halls. You are already thinking about how you can spin this to your American friends. You are drinking too much grappa, smoking hashish with people you’ve never seen. You are ridiculously free you are dizzy giddy rushing spinning burning liquid on your tongue you trip over your teeth speak in broken sentences hold up a few Italian phrases like bright jewels in the darkness.
You’ve reached an unspoken agreement. Your husband stays in Rome, while you and your daughters travel deep into the countryside to visit a Swedish friend. The children watch Jaws dubbed into Italian. You are all horrified by the blood, fascinated by the shark’s gleaming teeth. Clothes come off and everyone is naked in the river. Your friend’s father gathers mushrooms for dinner, lays them out on a big wooden table. They are larger than a man’s hand, bold shades of red and green. You think of fairy tale endings. They are surely meant to kill you—bad mother, failed wife. Who will live to tell the story? You close your eyes and eat.
How many mushrooms would you like?
Quanti funghi vuoi?
No thank you.
I do not eat the red ones.
Non mangio quelli rossi.
I do not court death.
Non cerco la morte.
You pass the whores on the way to the beach. They stand by the side of the road, hard-eyed, unsmiling, spread out at equal intervals among the scrawny pines. It goes on like this for miles. You wonder, what would sex feel like on a bed of dry needles, a stranger in your arms?
The beach is mobbed with Romans reaching for the sun. A big fleshy woman, all ass, hip, belly, rosy areolas, dances frantic in the surf. Bare breasted maenad, transistor radio in one hand, sandwich in the other. She is everything you wish to be. Untethered, glorious, entirely without shame.
The children run wild. You drink cold coffee from a can, sit listless on a park bench, watch your daughters climb gates pick up trash hide in dormant fountains walk on walls spray-painted all the colors of the sunset. Slim-hipped boys swagger amidst the rubble of Trajan’s baths, conquistadores with cigarettes, tight blue jeans, attitude to spare. Your elder daughter appears victorious before you, holding up a broken plastic figurine. For her—a princess, mermaid, treasure. For you—a tiny naked martyr, neither hands nor feet to call her own.
You seek signs and portents everywhere, wander the streets, stumble upon Largo di Torre Argentina. Mussolini excavated these derelict temples. Julius Caesar was betrayed and killed here. Now the place belongs to packs of feral cats who strut, sleep, breed among the ruins. Perhaps you should join them.
You return home after your wanderings. Your husband speaks to you through clenched teeth.
You make a terrible housewife.
I never asked to be a housewife.
I ask so little of you.
If only you’d ask for more.
You’ve been here before. Always an ocean roiling inside you. Always a forest of thick black trees shooting up between you.
You’re like a dead man.
And you’re just looking for drama.
I bring you Italy
hand it to you on a platter
and you won’t fucking eat.
Your family climbs down from the bus, tramps through the fields and farms on the outskirts of town. You take pictures of the girls. You take pictures of your husband, moving through the grass in silence. You put the camera away. Why commemorate pain?
You pass the nymphaeum you love so much, take in the vivid green, the bubbling spring, imagine your daughter water nymphs bathing naked, pure.
Do you like the water?
Ti piace l’acqua?
Yes. May I join you in the nymphaeum?
Sí, posso unirmi a te nel ninfeo?
I am sorry, age and pain have no place here.
Mi dispiace, la vecchiaia e il dolore non hanno posto qui.
What did you say?
Cosa hai detto?
Your age and pain have no place.
La tua età e il tuo dolore non hanno posto.
Time is running out, the year is almost over, your life in Rome a reckless scattering of stones. You sit on a park bench in Piazza Celimontana, watch your children playing for the hundredth time. They plunge their hands into the ancient fountain, pull out turtles, hands dripping with water. They shriek with joy, turn to show you, faces radiant, turtle shells glistening in the sun.
You lure your husband into yet another argument:
What do you think? Was it worth it?
What are you talking about?
Coming to Italy in search of miracles?
In case you haven’t noticed, your Rome and mine are two different cities.
I work all day in an office.
I’ve no idea what you do.
Your husband comes home early. You are playing memory games with your daughters. They are winning. He tells you the house is a mess. Filthy, he calls it, fed up with your Facebook housewifery. You exchange insults. Tears begin. You tell him to stop. He does not. A line is crossed. Neither of you sure how you got here. He standing above. You below. The children in the wings. Forks stones plates pins rain down from his mouth. You a heap on the floor. You don’t ever want to stand up share a mattress again. You lie face down for hours, kiss the cold stones.
You awaken bone chilled and stiff, peel yourself off the hallway floor, survey your kingdom from the balcony. So much for heaven’s mountain.
You command yourself to go on.
Hold your daughters tight.
Tieni strette le tue figlie.
You give your husband an ultimatum:
If you really want me, talk to me.
Tell me our happiness matters.
Promise me we’ll rise up together like snails.
He turns away without a word.
His silence spills into days and then weeks.
You can’t stand it. You tell him it’s over. You will move out when you return to America in a few weeks’ time. You will take your daughters with you and live in a friend’s attic. He is mystified. But you are unyielding.
It’s almost midnight. Your husband has gone to sleep, left you with nothing. You walk out alone into the darkness. Men stand in doorways. Call out to you. Make lewd gestures with their tongues and fingers. You don’t understand a word they are saying, but are pretty sure it goes something like this:
Le gambe tue sono colonne di alabastro.
Your thighs are alabaster columns.
I tuoi seni come cervi che saltano.
Your breasts like leaping deer.
Allungo le braccia attraverso la tua finestra, e le mie mani sono piene di miele gocciolante
I reach through your window and my hands are filled with dripping honey.
Vieni a casa con me.
Come home with me.
Sdraiati con me.
Lie down with me.
Non te ne andare mai.
Don’t ever leave.
This is the Song of Songs they’re whispering to you. It feels like your swansong. Your finale. You are sure of it. You walk for miles, past throbbing discotheques, bells tolling in the distance. Rome’s songs of desire and mourning poured out for your ears alone.
Wandering the narrow streets of Trastevere, noonday sun beating down, your elder daughter finds a speckled bird dying on hot stones and gathers it against her breast. She turns to you, eyes soft, and asks why the bird has to die. Some things cannot be saved, you say, and you both burst into tears.
Your younger daughter joins in. The three of you form a forlorn chorus at the edge of the piazza. Behind you, water tumbles out of a stone mouth and into a fountain. You wonder to yourself, is this the sound of Rome falling?
The bar is filled with jazz piano and the weary voice of an older woman, tired of singing for tourists who care for no one but Beyoncé. You have asked your Roman friend to drink with you tonight. There is no one else to talk to. You are wretched, but you cannot stop. You cannot believe how lonely you are. She listens, passes silent judgment on your American grief.
Have I been unfaithful?
Sono stata infedele?
Yes, you have loved a city.
Sì, hai amato una città.
It is dark outside the plane. Your younger daughter squirms in her seat. The elder leans into the warmth of your body. Both girls are bathed in the glow of their personal TV screens, rapt, angelic. You have no idea what you are doing with your dolce vita—sweet, sweet life. The plane shudders, turbulence right on schedule. You are overcome with nausea, retch until there’s nothing left, your body an empty vessel. You lean back, close your eyes. The plane’s engines lull you into fitful sleep. You dream of stumbling over mounds of broken stones, chasing after your daughters as they climb and gambol in their summer dresses, voices shrill as birds.
NOTE: With thanks to Alberto Zezza, who generously corrected my Italian.
Eve Müller makes zines and paper cutouts. She is a relative newcomer to the world of literary non-fiction/memoir, but has published extensively on autism and language. She is a single mom who lives in College Park, MD, with two breathtakingly reckless teen daughters, two cats and a rabbit.