Thomas Mira y Lopez
In 2008, microbiologists discovered two new species of bacteria growing within the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome. The discovery thrilled the admittedly narrow set of biologists, since the bacteria’s existence contained useful keys on how to better preserve the underground networks. Yet the bacteria also ate away at the catacomb walls, staining the volcanic rock white, causing minerals to dry out until they became a fine powder, an efflorescence like granulated flour or ground bone. Their presence created a dilemma. What is to be done when the only thing left alive in a place also destroys it?
I lived in the north of Rome in the fall of 2006. Tourist maps cut off this part of the city, the neighborhood outside the ancient walls where the Romans buried their dead. I was studying abroad for a semester in college, so “lived” is probably the wrong word. A friend once said you lived in a place only if you received mail there, and I did not. Instead, I rolled my suitcase into a small, windowless bedroom for a home stay with Paolo, an architect in his late thirties. Paolo lived alone on a street named after Vivaldi and rented the extra room to students in an apartment his mother owned. I was one of a dozen or so Americans that had stayed with him over the years, though he did not speak much English, and I, despite having wanted to go to Rome for three years, knew no Italian.
Paolo, by his own account, was a melancholy guy. He listened to Tom Waits and Fabrizio de Andre at night and, since architectural work was slim in the Italian economy, drafted freelance designs at his desk. He owned a computer from the 1990s that he never turned on. He had curly, pipe-cleaner hair swept back from his forehead, giving the impression he might bald someday. He looked like the villain of some movie I couldn’t remember. I was very nervous to meet him, and the first thing I did was to explain, with demonstrative hand gestures, that I did not like George W. Bush.
Paolo was disciplined. He trained for half-marathons in the park and timed his pasta with a stopwatch. He allowed himself a baby can of Coke with dinner each night. Mio vizio, he’d say, pointing to the can. We ate together at his kitchen table while watching histrionic Italian game shows where contestants had to choose between the unknown contents of large wooden boxes and follow sets of seemingly arbitrary, inconsequential rules. “I hate this show,” Paolo would say. Then he’d go on to explain its rules to me.
Shortly after I moved in with Paolo, my father became unexpectedly sick and began dying, hospitalized first in Rio de Janeiro and then New York City. I did a lot of walking around those months, beating the same path between school and Paolo’s apartment, waiting for bad news via expensive cell-phone calls. I watched old women walk around my neighborhood and grew furious at them for their health. I’d wander down to Villa Borghese where I’d stare at the Bernini sculptures alongside the other tourists: dutiful Aeneas with Anchises on his back, carrying his aged father out of Troy. I stopped buying into the system that many buy into: that bad things aren’t supposed to happen to you because you haven’t agreed to this narrative. I’d circle the highways that ringed the city, lost in the middle of the night until the Metros opened in the morning. I’d walk back to Paolo’s house, sleep an hour, then wake up and walk to my elementary Italian class.
In short, I had very little mooring me to real life except for my host. He asked how I was doing. He’d make me speak in Italian and then let me switch back to English when I got tired. He’d moon his eyes out to let me know he understood what I was trying to say. When I did the same, he laughed and called me Mr. Bean, the Rowan Atkinson character from another stupid show we both had watched. He’d share his little can of Coke with me. Afterwards, when I fell asleep at 9:00 p.m., he’d wake me up so we could get gelato. Somehow we understood each other—as if language were only a river whose rocks and mud we had to wade our way through.
Paolo’s house stood a fifteen-minute walk from the Catacombs of Priscilla. Wealthy patrons in Ancient Rome built these catacombs beneath their property in exchange for sainthood. Priscilla, my neighborhood benefactress and the wife of a Roman politician, donated her land in the late second century CE.
Roman catacombs were originally designed like a fish bone, a central spine with galleries jackknifing off on either side like ribs. As burials increased, their structures grew more complicated until, by the fifth century, with its maze of honeycombs and orthagonals, a map of the catacombs would have looked like the molecule you memorize for an organic chemistry test. Fossores, the catacomb diggers, had to ensure their tunnels corresponded with property lines overhead. When they reached their outer limits, the fossores simply dug down. Priscilla descends some three stories deep and thirteen kilometers long; if you stretched it out, you could walk to the Colosseum and back and still not have exhausted its paths.
As the catacombs grew, it became more difficult to determine who was buried where. To ease navigation, fossores left itinera ad sanctos—paths to the saints—in the tunnels, skylights that guided visitors down corridors until they reached a martyr’s tomb. Families left small markers by graves, statues, or trinkets of little value. They carved epitaphs as well, brief messages imploring visitors not to disturb the body, like the No Radio sign taped to a parked car: “He lived thirty years. In peace.” “Aeternae memoriae.” “Not a seventh part of what once existed.”
I spoke to my father twice while I was in Rome. He had undergone two brain surgeries that paralyzed the right side of his body. He was no longer capable of forming real speech. Only a breath and then a syllable: a “T—” that could not become Tom. A “Ha—” that could never reach Happy Birthday. On the other end, when I spoke, I wanted to shout out loud like the game show host Paolo and I watched every night, eager to window dress the Italian I was learning. I wanted to parade the words, the short, staccato, twinned syllables. Ho dimenticato tutto mi Italiano. “I’ve forgotten all my Italian.” Sono stanco! “I am tired!” Or the words when wanting to leave a crowded bus: Scuzi, scuzi, permesso! “Excuse me, excuse me, I have to get out of here!”
We visited the Catacombs of Priscilla on class trips. On the ceilings, the tour guides showed us the mosaic of women leading the Eucharist, smudged over so that the women appeared men. God forbid the historical record reveal female priests. On the walls, there was a censored Medusa’s head, her Gorgon curls whited out, the snaky ends now a mess of ringletted hair, your garden-variety, photoshopped saint. All over the catacombs lay the evidence that people reconstituted bodies to better suit a message.
I stood at the back on these trips, bored and waiting for the tour to be over. I traced the electric cabling that ran along the tops of the tunnels. I thought how I should probably leave Rome and move back home with my father. I wondered why I did not. The tour guides told us about the walls, the soft volcanic tufa the Romans initially believed bees nested within, walls that now were filled with tombs, loculi stacked three or four high like bunk beds. I thought of the rehab ahead, of how my father’s body and mind would be permanently changed. I thought of all he would lose. I realized I did not want to go back because my father would not be my father anymore and, when I knew this, I told myself he’d be better off dead. I was tired, I said, and so was he and it was OK to give up. The tour guides told us that when it grew too hot in the summer, Priscilla would bring her family down into the catacombs to eat their meals. I thought how if you thinned out Paolo’s face, gave him a darker head of hair, and cast him in dim enough light, you could say: there goes my father.
Paolo and I ran in the park together. We visited architectural museums and drank Birra Moretti with his friends. We hung our laundry from the clothesline out the window. Ours was an easy domesticity. He cooked and I did the dishes. He taught me how to make a good tomato sauce (a pinch of sugar to offset the seeds’ bitterness), to sauté couscous directly in the pan with chicken and olive oil and red wine vinegar. He weighed his pasta in grams and tossed it into the frying pan for a minute to mix with the sauce. He showed me if you cooked Bolognese in conchiglie, the meat would hide in the shell to form an ad hoc dumpling. He told me not to eat so fast when he saw me scarf it all down.
If I counted the hours, I might find I spent more time with Paolo in four months than with my father in the previous four years. My father worked long hours—in the lab from nine in the morning to nine at night—and I had a lock on my door at the age when I would use it. Then came college. At some point, I don’t really know where the time went. One day there was a man and the next a scratch on the wall, lamenting this was not a seventh part of what once existed.
One night, Paolo and I ran into each other as we both entered his building. We rode the elevator, one of those small, old European things with folding doors and a metal grate that shuts so fast it might take off your foot. We stood almost touching but did not speak. As the elevator cranked itself up, the moment was outside enough of our usual contexts that it made us strangers. Suddenly Paolo became someone I didn’t know at all, someone I didn’t understand. We had been speaking the wrong words all along. I had a moment of B-movie paranoia and thought, ridiculously, how he could pull a knife out from his jacket and stab me in the chest. He really did look like the villain from a movie I had seen long ago.
I was wrong, of course. Still, I’ve never felt that way about someone I know. He had become a symbol, and that consequently meant he was wide open for interpretation.
Other nights, I’d come home to find Paolo eating potato chips and drinking his little can of Coke at the kitchen table. His blueprints and drafts lay untouched on his desk. “That’s your dinner?” I’d ask him. “Yes, usually,” he said. When you live alone, he said, you let yourself eat like that, you let yourself go.
“Why not get back together with your ex-girlfriend? Why not have kids?” I asked him, the same way I ask single people now if they want a cat. I thought if he could care for me, he could care for others. The two of them were friends, and she sometimes came over to the apartment in the afternoon. She seemed as melancholy as he did. “Boh!” Paolo exclaimed and turned up his hands, the sound he made when he did not want to tell you the answer. Then he bugged his eyes out, spread his mouth into a smile. “Never be friends with your ex-girlfriend,” he said. And he rubbed his eyes and said there was no point, no, he’d never have kids, there was no point.
The weekend before I left, Paolo and I biked along Via Appia, the ancient road that connected Rome to Brindisi, the road where the catacombs were first rediscovered.
We bought a baguette, some cheese and salami, and a bottle of Coke. I couldn’t bike well, it being years since my father and I rode in the park, and Paolo would wait for me, pulled to the cobblestones’ side as I wobbled along. We ate on a grassy hill by the road. I didn’t know it, but we were following the ancient pagan tradition of dining with ancestors on Sundays, just as Priscilla must have done.
The hill was near the hollow where a millennium ago an earthquake or a landslide opened a shaft in a vineyard and exposed a path down into the catacombs. Here, explorers first mapped the catacombs and followed itinera ad sanctos until they reached saints’ bodies. They plundered these, substituting anonymous skeletons for martyrs, rearranging epitaphs to create sanctified graves, the human body once again reconstituted to serve a message.
After we ate, I asked Paolo where he saw himself in ten years. “Ten years?” he asked, smiling, because it was a silly question he didn’t know how to answer. “I’ll be dead,” he said.
That was nine years ago now.
According to scholars, the epitaphs left next to the catacomb tombs were “rarely very communicative.” They “provoke rather than satisfy curiosity,” there not so much to tell us who a person was as to remind us not to disturb that person’s rest.
What’s curious about catacomb epitaphs is how precisely, how assiduously, they record the age of the dead. They measure lives down to the hour. One fragment in Priscilla reads: “To his dearest wife, with whom I lived so many years, six months, three days, and fifteen hours.” And another: “Five years, two months, six days, and six hours.”
This record-keeping is touching, if not baffling. Why be so Swiss about time? But maybe this is the point—knowing how much will be lost and the expanse that will be slowly eaten away; perhaps the only way to recognize a person is to acknowledge the days we had with them, to count the exact hours and believe that an extra six a millennium ago mattered as much as all the ones in between.
The morning I left Rome, we were running so late that Paolo had to push me on board the train to Fiumicino. Earlier, he handed me a note in Italian, at the end of which he wrote: quando una porta si chiude, un’altra si apre. “When one door closes, another opens.” That’s a cliché, I know, the simplest solution to an architectural problem, but it was what I wanted to hear. I don’t know exactly what he meant, but I wondered if, through the vagaries of language, he intended it the same way I took it: that when my father died, I found him.
Now I do not preserve the memory of my father so much as the memory of my losing him. His cold hands on my cheek after he came home from work. His hunch over the dinner plate my mother left out for him, the pasta and sauce always cooked separately. The way his knees have become my knees—so knobby that when we sleep on our sides we need an airplane pillow to soften the bones. How we must look like bodies in their loculi when we sleep that way.
To write about a memory, another saying goes, kills that memory. An act of preservation is an act of distortion. Just ask those explorers: when we get close enough to someone, we end up with someone else.
That’s fine, I guess. If my father’s no longer a person, then he’s a place where a person once was. A void, a quarry, a hollow. Material to carve into—tufa, soft porous rock, the ash sprung from volcanoes. Bacteria stained white, a structure slowly turned to ruin by the being that most wants to keep it alive.
The catacomb epitaphs, in their mixture of Greek and Latin, were some of the earliest iterations of the Italian Paolo and I pidgined our way through.
A funny thing happens when you’re able to communicate a simple phrase in another language to someone else. It’s as if you then know that person better than you’ve known any other. As if the precision needed for those few words was more than you could muster with all the words in your own tongue. As if to say anything at all is a hard-won power, microscopic and microbial, persistent and painstaking and all too slow to be seen.
Sometimes I search online for Paolo, hoping that in the intervening years he turned on his computer and signed up for wireless. I search, hoping he’s still alive. But though I come close, I can find no trace of him—there’s a Paolo Boni, who’s a lawyer in Rome, another who’s an architect in Milan. I run through images but do not see his face. I stop for a second or two—there’s someone his age, laughing or smiling, his arms around his friends—and I wonder if I’ve gotten it all wrong, if this is actually him and I’m remembering someone else.
Other times I go back and look through Google maps and zoom in real close to Via Vivaldi. I click on the chubby little yellow man and drop him onto the blue line of street. Suddenly, there I am in the digital flesh, a little herky-jerky, dizzy from my bird’s-eye fall as I swivel my fat yellow head around the streets. But once I gain my footing, I start to whirl around, first slowly then faster, 180 then 360, patient, swiveling my cursor, homing in not on the pavement or cars or storefronts or angles but on the people—searching their blurred, anonymous faces in the long-shot hope that there’s an outline or a semblance of a body, long-ago familiar, that I once knew.