Joie Davidow

I Wouldn't Leave Rome to Go to Heaven

My latest book, I Wouldn't Leave Rome to Go to Heaven was published in March 2008. In this novel, three single women, all expatriates living in Rome, face middle age: Margaret walked out on her husband as soon as her son was old enough to leave home, and she’s never regretted it. She relishes her solitary lifestyle until illness threatens her independence. Katja, a former model, still believes that Mr. Right will come along, and she fights hard to stay beautiful until he does. Francesca has recently ended a relationship with a man she hopes will be her last big mistake. She wants to slink into a cozy old age alone, but the dark-eyed men of Rome are impossible to ignore. It's a love song to my adopted city, Rome, and an examination of the lives of a new generation of women, who find themselves single at an age when they could have been grandmothers. I've tried to fill the book with humor, and whatever wisdom I've managed to accumulate.



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"This book is so much fun. It may be about three women, all looking for Mr. Right, but both my husband and I (I, who presumably already have found Mr. Right) found it a page-turner. Davidow has a great sense of story and dialog, and she makes the most of the world's most intriguing city--because she lives there. "I Wouldn't Leave Rome to Go the Heaven" should be required reading for anyone going to Trastevere, and highly recommended for anyone going to Rome--even via armchair."
Dianne Bennett, author of "Rome the Second Time"

Excerpt

Too Old to Be Waylaid by a Broken Heart

Rome is a city full of scavengers—gulls, pigeons, thousands of feral cats scavenging for rats who are scavenging for garbage; gypsies who send their children off to beg at sidewalk tables as soon as they can walk. Lost youths who block the narrow ancient streets, shoving their filthy hats under the noses of passersby, scavenging for spicci, loose change. Frankie di Falco was a scavenger too, picking through her imagination for stories, stealing the stories other women told her. She had come to Rome to escape the comfortable routine of the life she had struggled to make for herself in Los Angeles—a fine life that had begun to grow stale and bitter, like wine uncorked too long. And she had come to work—to write—in borrowed or short-let flats where she could concentrate hard on her work and reward herself by roaming the streets.

She spent most of the day holed up in her apartment. It was a shabbily furnished one-bedroom in the old Trastevere zone, but it had the ancient charm that made Americans like Frankie willingly put up with the accompanying discomforts. The dampness, the darkness, the narrow staircase, and the litter that often blew past her door were compensated by the terra-cotta floors, beamed ceilings, and the romance of living in a space filled with the spirits of all those who had lived there before her. She slumped over her laptop computer for hours, an Indian shawl wrapped around her shoulders, working on yet another in the series of romance novels that earned her a passable living.

Frankie came from a musical family. Her father had been a violinist, her mother a cellist. They had encouraged both Frankie and her brother, Gino, to take up music, but though both were avid listeners, neither had the discipline of a player. Instead, Gino managed the press department of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and Frankie wrote novels in which musicians were often central characters: the soprano who falls in love with a married conductor, the cellist who falls for a pianist with a crime of passion in his past, the pianist who falls for an alcoholic composer. She scavenged the names of her characters—and sometimes even her storylines—from the pantheon and mythology of ancient Rome. These stories ended with her heroes and heroines either living happily ever after or sadly fading into the sunset, depending on Frankie’s own romantic status at the time.

That winter, she was writing about several intertwining relationships within the context of an entire symphony orchestra, but the plot was giving her trouble. When inspiration failed her, she played backgammon on the computer or stared out the tiny recessed window, imagining the faces of former inhabitants who might have peered through the same grill in centuries past—the wine merchant, the monk, the Renaissance housewife scrutinizing a visitor before deciding to open the door. Instead of writing, she listened to the refrigerator’s discontented growl or to the scavenging gulls calling to each other on the river. Although she never admitted it, not even to herself, in 2001, the fifty-third winter of her life, she had fled to Rome to escape yet another heartbreak, yet another man—not a husband, not even a long-standing affair, but a brief passionate romance, a final inning played in overtime.

She was much too old to be waylaid by a broken heart. She had wasted too much of her youth on romantic regrets. Her life now, her mature life, was about honoring herself, protecting her hard-won serenity. She liked to think that, at her age, she had become a woman who knew and respected herself, not a woman who needed to admire dark-eyed Italians with thick wavy hair so that she could escape the memory of the bald and blue-eyed Jack. But she was grieving nonetheless, grieving and unspeakably embarrassed to have made the same mistake again. Her friends would have given her pity, but not sympathy. So she pretended she didn’t care. She laughed with them at having become a slave to her own pussy one more time. And she cried when no one could see her.

This was it, then, the last man and the worst of the lot. She imagined her taste in men declining like a line on a graph, that hadn’t started at the top of the chart in any case and had finally reached something like the bottom. Her first love, her one great love, Adam, must not have been such a bad choice. He had been married to the same woman almost since he’d left Frankie. Their children would be in college by now. Charles, the rebound lover after Adam, had turned out to be a lunatic, a functioning but severely damaged person whose view of what Frankie saw as reality seemed to get fuzzier and fuzzier during the years they were together. She had discovered too late that Michael was hiding twin careers as a drug dealer and a playboy. (He hadn’t exactly introduced himself that way.) She had sworn off men for seven years after that. But then, there was Jack, an alcoholic who had trouble supporting himself, whose ex-wife couldn’t stand him. Why had she found him so appealing?

From the street below, Frankie could hear the voices of students waiting to take a yoga class in the building across the way. The smoke from their cigarettes competed with the vanilla-scented candle she kept burning on the ledge of her window. Its calming fragrance freed her mind from intruding memories. Two floors above the yoga studio, the widowed Signora Becchere was on guard as usual, peering through her lace curtains, her fluffy white hair curled neatly around her face, her sheets and towels hanging to dry on a line that stretched from her window to Frankie’s. Whenever one of the yoga students thoughtlessly tossed the cellophane wrapper from his cigarette packet on the ground or dared to put out a stub in the potted plants that flanked the front door of the signora’s building, she showered insults on the head of the offender. Frankie got up from her desk, blew out the candle, pulled on her coat, went out the door and locked it behind her. She was a disciplined writer, keeping strict hours and taking scheduled breaks. While she worked, she lived in another place—in the heads of her characters, in the world she had built them. But when the fantasy she was creating for the novel began to be obscured by the fantasy she had created about Jack, it was time for her afternoon coffee.

The Roman winter was unusually cold that year. A punishing wind blew off the river. Along the Lungotevere, piles of leaves, crumpled paper napkins, candy wrappers, discarded handbills, disappointing lotto tickets rolled like waves so that pedestrians had to kick and leap their way along. They hurried, heads down, their long wool scarves whipping about their heads as though struggling to escape, then traitorously turning back to slap them in the face. Frankie was bundled in a black raincoat with a practical zip-out lining, throat wrapped against the wind, gloved hands thrust into her pockets, woolen cap pulled down over her ears. At the corner of the alley, she turned down the Via Lungaretta, ducking her head against the wind, walking along ancient walls thick with graffiti and peeling handbills, past African men selling bootleg DVDs and fake designer handbags, past the incense sellers who perfumed the street with their smoldering wares, past the seller of scarves and the seller of beaded change purses.

When she reached the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, she bought her daily copy of La Repubblica from the plump lady whose smile lit up the shadows of her kiosk. At the Caffè di Marzio, she chose a table just inside the door, shielding herself from the cold without depriving herself of the view. She sat quietly for a moment, enjoying the white winter light that shattered into millions of frosty shards in the waters of the fountain. The young waiter came to her table and raised his hand to give her a high five, “Dammi cinque,” he said. “Caffè e biscotto?” Her usual.

By the time she got tired of fussing with the newspaper, the day had faded. The sky was dark, but the Byzantine mosaics of the church across the piazza shimmered under spotlights. The stores that bordered the right side of the square had turned their lights on as well, and shoppers were hurrying along, passing in and out of the shadows. She signaled to the waiter, who was behind the bar, talking with whomever happened to be standing in front of him. He finished what he was saying before strolling over to her table to ask, “How much?”—the only two English words she had ever heard him utter. “Troppo,” she replied. Too much. She put the money into his outstretched hand, and they both laughed. Then she gathered up her things, took one last admiring look at the piazza, and reminded herself that she was lucky to be in this beautiful place, even on a grey and windy Tuesday in January, even if she sat drinking coffee alone, even if she wasn’t sure why she was there or how long she would stay or where she could go from here.

In the morning, when Frankie phoned to invite her, Margaret said, “Cool! I’ll fall by and check out your pad.” Margaret sprinkled expressions from her hipster youth in 1960s London with her native middle-class British vocabulary. She referred to men as “that cat,” even when she was speaking, as she often was, of Julius Caesar or Michelangelo. At one o’clock, she parked her bicycle beneath Frankie’s open kitchen window and crowed, “Toodles! Hello, dearie!”

Italy was full of ladies on bicycles like the sixty-two-year-old Margaret, whose knees seemed to hold up long past all reasonable expectations. She had the fragile body of an egret but the piercing voice of a raven. “What luxury, what luxury!” she crowed as she came through the door, pulling off gloves and unwinding scarves. “Che bella giornata! Oh, to be in Rome on such a day!” Her clothes, hanging loosely on her delicate frame, appeared to have been randomly selected from the boys’ section of a thrift shop—khaki trousers, a faded green cotton turtleneck, a misshapen burgundy V-neck sweater, a boy’s woolen blazer, a big down parka. Fifteen years before, when she had gotten rid of her husband, she had also dispensed with makeup, skirts, uncomfortable shoes, and any thought of trying to make herself pretty.

But oh, the glory of her hair! Wispy bits of silver framed her face, and a heavy braid crowned her head. Like a shawl that kept slipping, revealing a glimpse of shoulder before it was modestly rearranged, her hair was the impetus for a hundred seductive gestures, wayward tendrils brushed from her eyes, loose hairpins captured before they escaped. Her friendship with Frankie had survived more than thirty years of sporadic reunions. And though for months and even years, they had been unaware of each other’s daily trials and triumphs, the connection between them had proven to be as durable as family ties and less hobbling. Neither of them ever doubted the love of the other. Frankie had set the table as prettily as could be managed with the limited resources at hand—with a vase full of yellow roses compensating for the paper napkins and chipped plates. Now she filled two mismatched glasses with white wine.

Margaret relaxed into a chair, settling into the pleasure of an afternoon of wine and talk and good food, of the cold sunshine of a Roman winter. She was lucky to be alive and well in such a place on such a day with such an old friend. She was lucky to be a free woman, single, her only child grown and on his way. And she was a pensionata, retired from decades of teaching history to the spoiled children of wealthy Italians and foreign diplomats. Every morning when she woke up, Margaret reminded herself that she was blessed. Her morning smile began as a seed planted deep inside her, and it grew and grew until it was so big it blossomed onto her face like a flower unfurling its petals. And she bloomed. She bloomed all day long. Now she watched Frankie bringing plates from the kitchen. “Have you spoken with Katja?” Margaret began many conversations with this question, implying clearly that she knew all about the latest news from their friend Katja and would be delighted to discover that Frankie didn’t. She squashed her blooming smile a little so that her dimples showed.

She would have been horrified if anyone had accused her of being a gossip. She was just trying to be a good friend, after all. But there was nothing she liked more than discovering some delicious little “tiddy-bitty”. Now that she was retired, she started her day by calling each of her friends in turn, checking in on them, finding out where they’d been the night before, hoping to catch some bit of news. Her own life was blissfully uneventful these days, so even the smallest scrap of a story was enough to keep her calling around to report it to all her friends, whom she thought of as chicks to her mother hen. Now Margaret licked her lips, bright eyes prevailing over her boney face. “I’ve got a little tiddy-bitty for you,” she told Frankie confidentially. “Katja was in an absolute cadenza of excitement this morning. Yet another man has led her astray. This cat is a bit older—I think she said he was sixty-something, but he could be lying, or maybe she is. The family has bread, of course. No doubt she hopes he will take care of her. She’s as helpless as a vixen but persists in thinking she needs protection. Why does she continue to put her feet to the fire? Why can’t she realize that she’s got the world on a string and just groove with it? Nobody to look after but herself, more money than she can spend—I don’t dig it.”

Margaret studied her plate of caprese salad and dipped a morsel of bread into the puddle of olive oil mixed with the juice of the tomatoes, neatly managing to sponge up a bit of fresh basil as well. She closed her eyes as she tasted it. “Oh, wow! Heaven!” she said. She had decided late in life that happiness was an option, not a circumstance, and she was determined to spread her optimistic view to everyone in need of it. Katja, fourteen years her junior, was in particular need of enlightenment. She had threatened to adopt a Chinese orphan, move to Uruguay with a handsome sport fisherman, and advertise for a husband with one of those online dating services, all in pursuit of the contentment that eluded her. If it weren’t for Katja, Frankie and Margaret would have had no gossip at all.

When they were younger, reports of what he said and what she said in the course of a flirtatious conversation would have been enough to hold their interest. There had been confessions of one-night stands and scandalous discoveries of infidelity. But as the years passed, their talk drifted toward books, movies, shops, restaurants, politics, and, later, symptoms of menopause and the surprises an aging body springs on the unsuspecting. Margaret was of the opinion that marriage was a wonderful thing for men and a terrible thing for women. She described young couples as “still very much in love,” implying that they couldn’t possibly stay very much in love for very much longer. Romantic love was a transient thing, an illusion, a form of insanity. She often extolled the joys of single life, pointing out the many small blessings of solitude. Until she made her morning calls, Margaret spoke to no one. She did not have to be pleasant, inquire how anyone had slept, or waste time on the sort of small talk that plagues couples. She did not have to put up with anyone’s overly cheerful “good morning!” And having decided that the bells that rang so raucously from churches all over the city were more charming than annoying, she did not have to put up with anyone’s dissenting opinion. At noon, when the cannon went off at the top of the Janiculum Hill, as it does every single day of the year, she could decide that it was just a friendly “hello! Check your clocks and watches!” And she didn’t have to listen to anybody gripe that it gave him a headache. So she found Katja’s persistent search for a new husband amusing, annoying, or even alarming, depending on how much time she had to spend listening to her friend obsess about it. “I’ll call her,” Frankie said. “If she’s really into this guy, she’ll be going over the edge any day now, so I’d better get into position to catch her when she falls.” Frankie was delighted with the news of Katja’s love affair. She was encouraged by any whisper of middle-aged romance. She wasn’t at all sure that she wanted another turn on the dance floor, but she thought she might like to be asked, all the same.

The accepted doctrine among her friends was that they were all delighted to be single and free. With the exception of Katja, they rarely complained about the lack of men in their lives and viewed any attempts at coupling with great skepticism. But Jack had shattered the solitary contentment Frankie had so carefully built for herself. Now, she sometimes longed for a masculine body—an arm thrown over her shoulder. Sometimes, when she absently rubbed her bare feet together in bed, it brought back memories of other feet in other beds, the reassurance of a male foot in the night reaching out to touch hers, wanting to know she was there. When the longing overcame her, she reminded herself that, with Jack, as with each of the past-tense men before him, there were anguished nights, lying awake, waiting to hear his key in the lock. There were long desolate silences when their eyes never met and their bodies never touched. She remembered silently crying at the theater or at the hairdresser’s, crying while she washed the dishes, wiping her face with a sudsy hand—crying because something was wrong, and she didn’t know what it was and was afraid to ask or because she had asked too often, and he had never answered. She reminded herself that the only way she could be sure she’d never feel that loneliness again was to remain on her own—and then the longing disappeared.

Frankie and Jack had never had a proper end-of-the-affair. There had been so little left of it that there had been no need to break it off. He had just decided to disappear, and she had decided not to go looking for him. After he left, she kept seeing him in her house in LA. In the mornings, she saw him at the stove, preparing coffee, looking up to smile at her as she stumbled sleepily into the kitchen. She saw him sitting at the table, wearing just his walking shorts, grey hair curling on his chest, long muscular legs, the graceful arch of his bare foot, lips pursed as he bent over the newspaper, reading glasses sliding down his nose. And in bed at night, she remembered his body, the way his hands twitched in the final moment before he fell asleep. She knew that, in time, she would think of him the way she thought of all the other men she’d loved—twisted souls, too pitiful to resent. She could only get down on her knees and thank each and every one of them for having left her, no matter how sleazy their motives for leaving may have been. She had already begun to think of Jack as an aberration in her normally measured behavior. She attributed this lapse to a temporary spike in her otherwise declining hormone production, a final surge of sexuality that had driven her to take him to bed. So with almost total sincerity, she laughed with Margaret at poor Katja’s silly hope that romance was a thing that could last.

Months after Jack’s disappearance, she had received a letter forwarded to Rome with the rest of her mail, a letter that she had decided not to open. There had been no return address on the envelope, but the neat handwriting had been as familiar as his face. She had seen it on notes left on the kitchen table, bulletins about dinner that night or the projected time of his return, notes always signed with a drawing of a heart or a sweet word. Seeing his handwriting on the envelope had been like running into him by chance. At first, she had thought she ought to tear it up. She couldn’t afford to read that letter. She’d been busy rebuilding the walls that Jack had demolished, sweeping clean the cozy little room in her head where she’d lived comfortably alone for so long. But finding she was unable to destroy the letter or to throw it away, she had put it into a desk drawer, shoving it as far back as she could so that it was hidden from view and she was unlikely to run across it by accident while looking for a pencil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


I Wouldn't Leave
Rome to Go
to Heaven


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Infusions of Healing

Las Mamis

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Italy: A Romantic Journey