Saints and strangers...

It was six days into our Rome trip – catacomb day...

The sky was overcast, unable to decide whether or not rain was in the cards. Regardless of precipitation, the grayness of it all was spawning a major depressive crash within me. I didn’t want to be with my group. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to be out of bed, regardless of how excited I was to be in a different country, exploring tunnels that once held the bodies of those members of the faith who had gone before me.

We were at the catacombs of Saint Sebastiano when I saw him. Aviator glasses. Tall, slender body. Olive skin. Perfectly tousled hair. Cotton button up shirt opened to reveal a slightly yellowed beater. Linen pants. An old 35mm camera slung over his shoulder. And his eyes. Gentle yet mischievous, I couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking. I could barely remove my gaze from him, except for those moments where his gaze was on me.

We went through the tour, me always towards the front of the group, and him always bringing up the rear. I would later learn the reason for this (his contemplation of slipping away from the group to explore), but in the moment, I couldn’t help but think that he valued the solitude of being the last one in, the last one out.

The tour ended, and we both found our way outside. I watched him across the road, standing at one of the countless water fountains scattered throughout the eternal city. His hands cupped underneath the spigot, I wondered if he knew the trick of plugging the hole up so that the water would come out as from a normal water fountain. I walked across to meet him (and enlighten him). Mostly though, I just wanted to assuage my own curiosity about (and attraction to) this young man who seemingly belonged in the 1920’s.

James... His name was James...

Originally from Kent, just outside of London, he was in Rome working as an au pair for a gay couple on the southwest side of the city for a couple of months. He was a writer, a nomad of sorts, who defied labels and categorization. He hated conformity of all sorts. He was himself, and no one would ever take that away from him.

We exchanged numbers—his being the first international number I would ever have in my phone—and decided to meet up later that evening for what would become a ritual of sorts. We wandered around the city, weaving our way towards the Pantheon. We stopped for pizza, found a large pillar by the old pagan temple turned church, and sat to enjoy our simple meal. Laughter ensued as we people watched, voicing our annoyance at the street merchants trying to sell us the most ridiculous toys. After our small dinner, we sauntered over to Piazza Navona where we enjoyed gelato by the Barberini fountain. We talked about relationships, sex, labels and love.

When we made eye contact, I found myself lost in his smile, this new friend of mine.

Or maybe I was simply lost in his accent, reminiscent of a different world so close to and yet light years from my own.

Finally, given that he had already been in Rome for a month, he led me to one of his favorite spots, a small bar nearby called La Boticella. Owned by Giovanni, an Italian man raised in Canada, the wood-walled dive bar was covered with flags and banners of American sports teams. James with his Pinot Grigio and I with my Makers Mark old fashioned sat down in the back, listening to the random playlist of 1980s American pop. It was then we learned of our mutual love of music and started singing along, probably more on-key than Giovanni and his bar back Luisa had ever heard from a pair of slightly intoxicated English-speakers.

Realizing what time it was (and not wanting to be stuck taking cabs to our respective domiciles), we started making our way towards the metro. Walking along the Forum where preparations were being made for what we learned was the Italian version of Independence Day, we ducked under caution tape to cut through rather than having to walk around.

Singing various Disney songs, we made quite the pair. Little Mermaid. Beauty & the Beast. Mulan. Lion King. Aristocats and many more. Despite nearly a decade age difference between us, it felt as if we had been lifelong friends, perhaps once lovers, reconnecting after years apart.

There were moments where we walked either hand in hand or arm in arm, moments I will not soon forget. His hands were soft against mine, and despite my innate trust for him, it was exhilarating to have him lead me across the traffic-filled cobblestone streets of the city, sometimes fearing for my own life. But those hands… strong… soft… just as intense and intentional as everything else about him…

James never told me whether he was gay, straight, or somewhere in between.

In fact, the way he described it, labels were inconsequential. “You love who you love,” he told me. “And if someone has a problem with it, they can bloody well go to hell.” He wanted to get married, to a woman, and have kids. But he also knew that there was a possibility of him falling in love with a man. He was open to both possibilities. Whatever life brought his way, he was ready to take on.

We reached the train station near the Colosseum. It was a split platform, his train on one side, mine on the other. And so we said our goodbyes for the night with a hug and a typically European two-cheek kiss. We went down the stairs, and stole glances at each other from across the tracks. Our trains arrived at the same time, which I was grateful for.

We repeated the night, in part, two or three more times before my adventure ended. Platonic flirtation continued, as did the length of our walks. The stories became more intimate. We became more vulnerable. On what we both assumed would be our last encounter, the tone was slightly more somber, the hugs more frequent and elongated. During our final embrace, I thanked him for making my trip more special, more memorable, and he reciprocated the sentiments. We both stopped speaking, silently wrapping our arms around each other. The final kiss was not merely platonically European. It was holy. It was sacred. Lasting a second, but feeling  infinite.

I don’t know if I will ever see James again, but for those few nights, we were perfect strangers…