SANDRA BILLINGSLEY took a sip of Frascati, puckered her mouth, and shook her head. It’s true, she thought, it doesn’t travel. She stood and poured the white wine down the sink. She reached for the bottle of red Grottaferrata next to the bread box and poured a glass of something she knew.
Back at the kitchen table, she worked on the letter to her mother. The last phone call had not gone so well. Marcia Billingsley seemed to go on forever about Sandra being alone in Rome, and not having family or a man to protect her. Sandra had bit her tongue. She’s the art teacher, she should be excited for me. When Sandra had tried to tell her about the paintings at the Capitoline Museum, her mother had interrupted twice. Her father had gone to collect Martin at the Columbus train station. Marty had a thirty-day leave between duty stations and was stopping home on his way from California to Virginia.
Phone calls were expensive, and it did not help that her parents were paying for it. She still felt the need to keep it short and to say something nice to everyone at home. She thought a while, then wrote,
Thank you for calling last night. I love to hear your voice. It’s a shame that intercontinental service is so expensive, because I feel bad if I don’t get to talk to everyone. I didn’t know about Marty coming home and Dad not being there. In the future, let’s propose a day for the phone call, so we can plan on being there. I’ll start: I have classes during the day for another week. I’ll have to let you know after that, because there are some very interesting job opportunities here in summer, and I might take one. That can be my news on the first call. In any case, I am almost always here at home in the evening, and if we have a phone call planned, I won’t go out that night. When would you like me to be available here, and who will be home there?
As I was saying on the phone, the Capitoline Museum is a treasure. Even if I weren’t an art history student, the Campidoglio is such a delightfully cool place even on the hottest days, especially after climbing all those stairs. I know you know what I mean. The Borghese is still my favorite, even though the Vatican Museum is the most famous. My student ID card gets me into all of them for free, so I want to take full advantage of it. The ticket prices later will be terrible!
Please tell Samara that I stop at the Dama con Liocorno every time I go to the Borghese. I love to spend time sitting in front of it. Looking into that picture now, I not only imagine the life of the young woman, but I picture the woman in Bride of the Chief, and I think of Samara and you, and all the beautiful art we have shared in our homes and our conversations. You two are treasures, believe me, and it makes me very happy (and proud) to be your daughter and a friend to her and Karen.
Karen writes about every other week, which is wonderful. Between you and her, I am the envy of the others in the house. So much mail, they think!
Mom, when I tell you that I have no boys in my life, it’s not that I don’t have anyone at all. There are only four women here in the GW house, and the guys are fun, smart, and our ages (well, almost, since I am two years younger than everyone). Through my friends here, I’ve met several very nice Italian men, too. We go out together and we have good time. In the house, we help each other with our projects. The Italian men try to be as charming as possible, but I get a little impatient, because they want to practice their English, so I can’t ever improve my Italian! Thanks to Dad’s voice lessons, at least I can pronounce it convincingly.
Remember Sonja Sankar in my class at GW? She wrote to tell me that she hopes to come to Rome next year for this same program. I might see her if she comes early.
Please let me know about the idea of scheduling the phone calls. Give Dad a big hug and kiss, and swat Jim and Arnie for me – lovingly, of course.
Your loving daughter,
She addressed the envelope and set it all aside to re-read before sealing it. The Grottaferrata went well with the porchetta sandwich that she had made on a ciriola, a Roman type of short baguette. She finished her lunch, washed the dishes, and went to her room to change. Cesare wanted to go to the American movie in English at the Fiammetta Theater near the American Embassy. She wanted to buy a copy of the Rome Daily American newspaper at the Stars and Stripes bookstore and look for a copy of Christ Stopped at Eboli in the US Information Service library. They had made a date for the early showing.
An hour later, she hopped off the number sixty bus and walked up the Via Veneto to the Embassy Annex, where the bookstore and the library were. It was late May, but it was already hot downtown, probably as much from the traffic as the sun on the buildings. The air-conditioned annex felt like a walk-in freezer when she stepped through the outside doors.
She was lucky to get the last copy of the newspaper, and the USIS library did not carry books by Italian authors, even in English. The librarian, however, knew that the American Catholic church, Santa Susanna, operated a lending library on the top floor, and that might be the place to find Carlo Levi’s book. Otherwise, she’d have to buy it at an English-language bookstore.
Standing in the hallway with the newspaper, Sandra looked at her watch. A whole hour until her date with Cesare. Heavy interior doors led into the rest of the building, where she knew everyone worked. Curious about what might be there, she pushed her way through the doors.
In the middle of a marble-floored lobby, she was stunned by the two grand staircases that rose on either side. Rococo friezes and sculptured windows adorned the walls leading up to the offices on the five floors above her. Directly in front of her was the counter of the Army Post Office, which handled the diplomatic mail as well as the mail for the hundreds of military and civilian personnel and their families connected with the Embassy or the Military Advisory Assistance Group (MAAG). The unmistakable smell of a burger joint wafted up the stairs from the basement. Someone had told her that there was an American-style grill down there.
A large bulletin board to the right of the mail counter caught her attention. She walked closer and noticed the usual top-ten wanted posters from the FBI, two of which she recognized from the post office back home in Ohio. There were all sorts of notices, and, to her surprise, job postings.
One notice advertised a summer internship with the FBI Liaison Office, Room 335, MAAG. Nothing on the advertisement seemed unfamiliar; she had done all those things in the newsroom at the London Messenger in high school. She copied the phone number and the point of contact at the Civilian Personnel Office and made note of the required forms. The CPO was around the corner from the Post Office, so she stopped by to pick up the forms, and put them in her purse.
Cesare was waiting at a café table outside Doney’s bar on the Via Veneto, two blocks up the street from the Embassy. Sandra knew that he (or his family) was well-off, but still, meeting her at Doney’s had to be showing off. She knew he didn’t own a car or a scooter.
He sprang to his feet as she approached and pulled her in to kiss her on the cheek. After nine months in Italy, she was still getting used to kissing as a simple greeting, but she liked it. Sometimes, she recognized a hunger in men’s eyes, and it made her wonder if there was more kissing of a different type waiting for her.
They ordered two espressos, and he signalled for the bill as the server left.
“We have plenty of time, but Cleopatra is a first-run show. I am sure that it will be packed.”
Sandra agreed. They downed their coffees quickly, Italian-style. He left enough to cover them and the tip and took her hand as they stood.
Passing the other tables on their way, Sandra noticed the approving stares of the other patrons. Cesare stood a little taller than she, with shiny black hair that he kept well-glued back. With his Roman nose, high cheekbones, and dark eyes, he was a pleasure to look at, and he had the figure of the Roman statues that Sandra had admired throughout the city. No wonder, then, that the women let their stares linger.
But what surprised her was the admiration of their partners. Sandra felt almost embarrassed by the shameless staring of the men, who even smiled and nodded as she went by. Taller than most Italians, with powerful shoulders and long blonde hair, she did not realize just how exotic her appearance was, until Cesare explained it to her last week.
“You are exciting to watch, Sandra. It is very exciting. The men, they appreciate you as something rare and beautiful, which you are.”
“I won’t lie. I see you as exciting, but also – what’s the word?”
“No. I mean, yes. Sexy is what I mean by exciting. But you have other quality. Strength, carattere. Yes, character! I not only like to be your friend, but I would be afraid to be your enemy.”
Unable to process that, Sandra walked silently with him as they passed in front of the Embassy.
“You are insulted? I am sorry.”
“No, no, not at all.” She squeezed his arm. “I’m flattered, but also surprised. I’m not used to attention from men. It’s new and different.”
“You are a beautiful woman, Sandra, you must be used to the looks.”
“I’m just a girl, Cesare. I’m not used to it at all.”
“You are a university student, like me.”
“Yes, there’s that.” She tugged on his arm and lengthened her stride.
At the Fiammetta, they were a half-hour early, but the line wrapped around the block. They found seats in the back just before the theater darkened.
Cesare seemed as taken by Elizabeth Taylor and the epic cinematography as everyone else, but he occasionally muttered softly about a bad translation in the Italian subtitles. His English really is good, Sandra thought, he just can’t speak as fluently as he would like. For her part, she could not have read the subtitles in the brief times they displayed, without the help from the English dialogue.
When he slid his arm behind her back, he asked, “permesso? as if seeking permission to enter a home. Sandra felt a thrill at this attention but was also touched by his shyness and courtesy. No boy had ever asked before grabbing her or trying to hug her.
She reached up with her hand from the side away from him, and pulled his arm over, leaning into the side of his chest. He squeezed her shoulder, and she could have sworn that he sighed.
This felt so right, to snuggle with a handsome man in the dark. And a great movie, too. During the credits, he lifted the hand closest to him to his lips.
“You are special, Sandra. Ti voglio bene.”
Before she could say anything, the lights came on. They stood and filed out with the other patrons. The next crowd was already pressing at the doors at the back of the theater.
“Will you have supper with me?”
“I have ideas, but do you have a preference?”
“Do you like Chinese food?”
“I’ve never had it.”
“Then let’s try it. The China Garden is just across the street.”
“The PanAm building?”
“The penthouse. Top floor.”
“Oh. It’s my city, and I never knew.” He took her hand and walked with the excitement of a child in a new playground.
After egg rolls, she taught him how to use chopsticks, which he surprised himself by learning quickly. The servers beamed appreciatively at his efforts.
After supper, they walked up the Via Veneto. Sandra felt a growing anticipation, wondering if the evening could be more perfect. Heat was still radiating from the asphalt and the buildings, but not so much that the breeze did not keep it under control. Walking through the ancient Roman wall at the Porta Pinciana, they walked into the Borghese Garden. Cesare turned left as Sandra turned right, and they jerked hands.
“Sorry!” They said together, then laughed.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“It’s a habit. I spend so much time in the Borghese Museum, that I started that way without thinking. Where are we going?”
“The Pincio. Have you been there?”
“Only to pass by on the bus. I’ve been to the Spanish Steps and the Trinità dei Monti.”
“Close, but the buildings get in the way. Come.”
He led her through the gardens, past the water clock and out to the overlook by the Villa Medici. The dark mass of the Janiculum Hill to the left of Saint Peter’s basilica resembled a dark monster sliding between the twinkling stars above and the twinkling lights below.
“I think I live – over there.” She pointed to the left end of the darkness.
“Yes. Me, too.”
“Do you have your own place?”
“Oh, no. I am just a University student, too. I won’t need my own place until I marry.”
“Are your parents home with you?”
“Yes, and my two sisters.”
“How old are they?”
“Seventeen and sixteen.”
Sandra did not feel like mentioning that she was his sister’s age.
“What if you don’t find the right woman before, say, you’re thirty or forty?”
“That does not matter, does it? A man leaves his mother and clings to his wife.”
“You’ve never wanted to live alone?”
“How could I? Why would I?” She could hear the amazement in his voice. “I can’t cook or clean a house. I don’t know how to buy food or mend clothes or those things that women do.”
“Wouldn’t servants do them, too?”
“It’s not the same. And what would I say to the servants? The signora runs the household. She tells the servants what to do.”
Sandra thought immediately of an elderly English bachelor with his manservant and housekeeper but decided not to bring it up.
“This is a lovely view. So romantic.”
“Yes, it is. You like Roma?”
“More than you know. Do you come here often?”
“No. Only when I meet someone special – like you.”
They looked at the city for a few moments, then faced each other. As if rehearsed, they kissed with exactly the same level of gentleness, and pulled apart. She moved her arms farther behind him, and he hugged her closely. This time, the mouths met with passion and need. Sandra had never had anything feel so right in her life.
With their arms around each other’s waist, they turned back to the view.
“Cesare, what does ti voglio bene mean? It’s in songs, and you said that to me in the theater.”
“I love you.”
“Isn’t that ti amo?”
“It’s different. A friend says ti voglio bene, but mothers and spouses say ti amo.”
“So, it’s more than ‘I wish you well’?”
“That’s the translation, but it’s much more. There’s loyalty and friendship in addition to love.”
“It’s a beautiful language.”
“Perché non parliamo mai in italiano?” Why don’t we ever speak in Italian? She felt clumsy as she formed the words.
“Because I need to speak the English.”
“What about me?”
“Your Italian is fine. What do you need?”
“For one, practice. For another, I like the sound of it, especially when you speak it.”
He took her arm, and they walked toward the Trinità dei Monti.
“I want to go to America, Sandra. I need the English.”
“And I want to study here. I need Italian.”
“You can always find a husband with your English, but I need to speak better to succeed in America.”
Sandra stopped and turned him toward her.
“Cesare, I am not attending university to find a husband. Why would you say that?”
“But it is normal. All the girls I know want the husband. There are better men at university, so they go, too.”
After an initial flare of anger, she stood there, stunned. The honesty in his face and the sincerity in his voice disarmed her. Suppressing an urge to stomp off, she took his arm, and started them walking again.
“You will need to learn more than English to succeed in America, Cesare.”
From the Trinità dei Monti, they looked down at the Piazza di Spagna and the upscale shopping streets leading from it. The cars and people milled about the fountain like insects on a fallen piece of watermelon. They started down in silence.
“I can take the number forty-four bus home. You?”
“Same. I get off at Cavalleggeri. You go on to Trastevere, no?”
“Shall we shop the windows before we go back?”
“Actually, I need to finish a paper to present tomorrow. Let’s do that when we don’t have classes the next day.”
“Okay. I will call you.”
The bus was approaching the stop near the fountain when they reached it. They exchanged details on when their respective terms ended, and Sandra assured him that she was not planning to return to America right away. After the bus crossed the Tiber River and entered the tunnel, he rose to go to the door.
“Thank you for a wonderful evening, Cesare. Arrivederci a presto.” They squeezed hands, and he stepped off the bus.
“All hail, Cleopatra! How’s Caesar?” Mary gave a big wink-wink, while Susan giggled. Ann was laying out the dishes while Mary poured the spaghetti into the colander. Susan turned the gas off under the sauce.
“Great. It was historically accurate and very well-presented.”
“Not the movie, dummy. Cesare!” Mary said with mock disgust. Sandra gave her a grin back, so that Mary would know that she got it.
“He was fine, too. We almost didn’t get in, so we had to sit in the back.”
“I could handle the back row with him,” said Susan.
“Yeah. We did snuggle a little, but the movie really was good. Afterward we walked to the Pincio. Then caught the bus from the Piazza di Spagna.”
“That’s a lot of walking.” Ann was from New York City.
“About from the barn to the mailbox in Ohio,” said Sandra. “Thanks, Ann, but we ate. I’ll pour.” She took four glasses from the cabinet and put away the plate that Ann gave her.
“So, you gonna see him again?”
“I think so.” Sandra uncorked the Grottaferrata and poured wine for everyone. “Tell me, why do these guys date us? I mean, most of them are handsome and cool, but sometimes, they say some of the most clueless things.”
“That’s easy,” said Susan. “Green card.”
“Yes. The easiest way to get to the US is to marry an American. Some of them will do anything for that. Unlike here, we have divorce in the US, so they don’t care if it doesn’t work out.”
Mary finished dishing out the spaghetti. She motioned for them to sit, while Mary spooned the sauce onto the steaming al dente pasta.
“Sandra, sometimes you seem kind of clueless yourself. I mean, how many guys have you dated here?”
“Cesare is the fourth. He is really charming. I like him.”
“And has any of them not mentioned going to America?”
Sandra thought. “I see what you mean.” She grinned at them. “At least Cesare kissed me before mentioning America.” They laughed.
In bed that night, Sandra went over the evening in her mind. She would have loved to snuggle with Cesare all night. But when she considered exactly what he had revealed as they stood at the Pincio, she felt a deep sadness. She hoped that he would call; she did not have his number, and she would not have wanted to talk to his mother or father, yet.
Cesare did not call, but Sandra could not dwell on it at first. Presenting papers and the oral examinations at the end of the term consumed her attention. She thought of him on her way from one class to the other, and briefly before falling asleep exhausted each night. Meanwhile, she completed the Civil Service application and the security clearance forms for a background check, and delivered them to the CPO in the Annex.
The day after the last test, the phone rang in the apartment. Ann got it.
“No, but she’s here… Sandra, it’s for you!”
“Pronto, con chi parlo?”
“It’s an American, Sandra!” Ann shouted.
“Your friend is right, Miss Billingsley.” He chuckled softly. “This is Special Agent Redwood of the FBI. You applied for our summer internship.”
“I like the way you answer the phone. Could you come in for an interview?”
“If you don’t mind. Do you know where it is?”
“Room 335 in the Annex.”
“Exactly. Would four o’clock today or tomorrow be suitable?”
“Today is fine, sir. Do you want me to bring anything?”
“Let’s hope for the best. Bring your passport, stateside driver’s license if you have one, and a nice smile for the security badge photo.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll be there.”
She cradled the handset and turned to Ann and Mary. “It’s a job interview at the Annex. I may not have to go home!”
They gathered around and hugged her. Two hours later, they wished her good luck and watched her walk to the bus.
The interview was almost a formality. Three students had applied, but only Sandra could type, speak some Italian, and operate the telex, the fax machine and, much to the surprise of the FBI agent and his secretary, repair the new IBM 660 photocopier. She had learned to repair most of the quirky failures of the machine in the Messenger newsroom. That she was familiar with police procedures and the criminal justice system was a bonus.
None of the four women in the apartment wanted to go back to the United States, so they convinced the American Academy to let them sublet the place for the summer. Sandra’s stipend as an FBI intern more than covered her share of the rent and her other costs.
One day in mid-August, Sandra came to work, to find the reception area empty. Agent Redwood was at his desk, intently looking at a report, ear to the handset of his telephone. Strange, she thought, he rarely leaves the door open.
“Ah, Sandra, you’re here. Good.” He put down the handset and motioned her in. “Annabelle is in the hospital. Can you cover the office, or should I ask for a temp?”
“I think I can handle it, sir.”
“That’s what I thought, but I wanted to ask you first. We’ll close up this afternoon and go see her. She should be out of surgery by noon.”
“Collision on the Via Aurelia. One of those little three-wheel trucks tried to run around a flock of sheep and went head-on into Fulvio’s car.” Fulvio was Annabelle O’Brien’s current boyfriend. The relationship was getting serious.
“How is Fulvio?”
“He died at the scene.” He paused. “Will you be okay?”
Sandra took a breath. “Of course. Anything you would like me to do first? Otherwise, I’ll have a look at her desk notes and set up your schedule. I’ll call across the street about our being out this afternoon.” She knew the secretaries who worked for the senior leaders of the Embassy and the MAAG.
“Thanks.” He beamed. “I knew you would rise to this. Do one thing, while I finish analyzing this report from the Polizia. Call down to CPO and ask Henry to come see me tomorrow.”
“Do you want me to mention Annabelle?”
“He already knows. If she can’t come back to work for more than two weeks, we need to bring you on as a full-time temp.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll take care of it.”
Salvator Mundi Hospital was on the Janiculum Hill, an oasis among the cool pine trees, where wealthy citizens of ancient Rome built their summer villas. It looked like a holiday resort in an elegant palazzo, but inside it had the bright glare and efficiency of any fully equipped hospital.
The hospital let them see Annabelle for a half-hour, but it was clear that she was not coming back to work. She would be evacuated to the United States in two weeks for reconstructive surgery and then rehabilitation in her hometown.
Jim Redwood considered his secretary silently as they stood there, his hand on hers, Sandra at his side.
“Annabelle,” he said, “what do I do without you? You were here when I arrived. You taught me this place.”
“Not a problem, sir.” She tilted her head slightly at Sandra. “My relief is already onboard.”
“Of course, if she’ll take the job, she’ll be better than I was. She’s even smarter.”
“But I will need to go back to school at some point.”
“Didn’t you say you could stay out a year?”
“That should give this lazy sonofagun plenty of time to find the next secretary. You’ll do fine.”
“Oh, Annabelle. I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll be back, dear. Or maybe I’ll come to see you in DC when I’m better.”
The nurse coughed behind them. They each gave Annabelle a gentle hug and turned to leave.
She turned back. “Yes.”
“You’ll need a place to live. I just renewed the lease on my apartment. Would you mind taking it over? Obviously, you can afford it; I could.”
“Of course. Thank you, Annabelle.”
“The padrone will be delighted not to have to find a new tenant.”
Jim drove the embassy car back to the Annex.
“What time is Henry coming up?”
“Tomorrow at ten.”
“You want the job?”
“The circumstances break my heart, but, yes, I have been trying to find a regular job all summer.”
“It’s yours. Welcome aboard, Signorina Billingsley.”
© 2020, JT Hine