On the 8th of December. Joe got home early. With the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on a Friday, many of the students’ families were leaving town for the long weekend. In a rare miracle for the occasion, the rain had stopped in the morning, though showers were predicted on and off for the weekend.It was the first day since he bought the Vespa that he had not been rained on in both directions. The new poncho he bought worked better than he expected at keeping his clothes dry. He folded the poncho and stashed it in the compartment of the scooter before walking upstairs.
Angela had left at noon for the long weekend. Joe sat down at the dining room table and wrote out the two letters that Nancy had given him the day before. He finished them in less than an hour. He was wondering whether to start on some Arland papers or go for a ride, when he heard the door open and his mother’s heels hit the floor.
“Hi, Mom, you’re home early.”
“Not done, though. Almost everyone bailed out for the long weekend, so I decided that I could work in jeans and bunny slippers as easily as heels and a suit.” She came into the dining room and stopped. “Wait a minute. You’re early yourself. What happened?”
“So many parents called in about getting an early start on the weekend, that Brother Roger made it a half-day.”
“That’s unusual,” she said. “Brother Roger rarely makes exceptions.”
“Yeah, well, in the hallways they’re also talking about all the brothers going to a spiritual retreat at Terminillo.” Joe grinned and winked.
“Right. At a ski resort.” She grunted with good humor. “So they loaded you down with extra homework to make up for it?
“Actually, no. I had a study hall last period this morning, and it’s all done. In fact, here are the two letters you gave me yesterday.” He picked up the handwritten sheets and gave them to her.
“Thanks. That’s one thing off my to-do list for today.”
“Well, since you’re busy, and I’m free, I’d like to go out tonight. Some of the guys at school are going to meet up at Il Klub after supper for a while.”
“The new discotheque on Via Salandra?”
“Nice place,” she said.
“You’ve been there?”
Nancy laughed. “Of course. I’m not a nun, you know. Anyway, I think I’ve had an after-dinner drink at most of the better clubs in town. It’s where we take our out-of-town visitors after business dinners.”
“Of course. Makes sense.”
“Anyway, I like Il Klub personally, because it you ask, they’ll take the booze out of your drink discreetly, so you can keep up with the others without getting smashed.” She put the letters in her briefcase. “We don’t go there much now. Too many students, and the music has changed.”
“Yeah. That’s why we like it.”
“So, who’s going?”
“Aldo, Hans, maybe Matt. I don’t know who else.”
“Your motorcycle gang.” She arched an eyebrow but smiled.
“Uh-huh. Who else? Only Aldo and I know how to use the bus system.”
“Well, if you want to stay steady on that new scooter of yours, ask the barman for a screwdriver ‘senza‘. No one will guess it’s orange juice.”
“Thanks, Mom. I don’t really like vodka. Last time I had wine, they razzed me.”
“Can’t let your social reputation slip, can we?” She turned to go to her office but stopped at the door. “I’ll probably be burning the midnight oil, because I want a long weekend, too. Don’t worry about creeping in. I’ll be up.”
“OK.” He let out a sigh of relief. He had shoved the Arland papers back into his bag just before she had come in. He took the bag to his room to put it in the closet.
“Oh, Joe,” Nancy said as he passed the door to her study. “I have another letter for you, if you have time.”
“Of course, Mom. I was wondering what to do before supper.” He walked in and took the letter from her. Two pages. He noticed the cigarette burning in the ashtray on her desk. Without saying a word, he cracked the window and closed the door on his way out.
Like the two he did before Nancy came home, Joe had this one written out in an hour. He went to the kitchen. His mother had a Brahms symphony playing on the phonograph in her study. Angela had left a roast chicken and roast potatoes, so he put those in the oven to heat up, then he started chopping vegetables for a salad.
After supper, they did the dishes while Nancy brewed caffé. She went back to her study with a cup of coffee. Joe went to his room to change.
Il Klub would be easy to miss without the neon sign lighting up the back street next to the Forestry Corps building. The entrance was only half-height, with stairs leading into the basement club. Joe parked his Vespa, checked his hair in the rear-view mirror, and walked in.
The music was loud, coming from speakers located in every corner, but only as loud as the excited voices of a hundred students scattered around the locale. This place featured a disk jockey instead of a band, which was becoming popular with the younger patrons. They wanted to hear their favorite songs done by the original groups.
Comfy couches lined the dance floor with its spinning disco ball. Joe recognized Aldo and Hans at the far side and started around the crowded floor. Then he saw the girl from the Embassy Annex, the one he had held the door for back in September. She was seated with another girl. Joe gave his friends a wave and turned to the two girls. The blonde had her hair in a ponytail now and was wearing a blue dress. Her friend had jet black hair, dark skin and black eyes. They both looked up as he approached.
“Hello. It’s not a pickup line, but I have seen you before.” He put out his hand and smiled. “I’m Joe Mather.”
Her face grew wide with pleasant surprise, like finding an old friend in a party full of strangers. Her companion seemed less enthusiastic but smiled politely.
“Sandra Billingsley.” She took his hand and held it slightly longer than necessary. “This is my friend, Sonja Sankar.”
Sonja and Joe shook hands. Sandra patted the place next to her. Joe sat down.
“You’re the first person I seen before in this place, even if we’ve only just introduced ourselves.”
“It’s supposed to be a hangout for international students,” Joe said.
“Well, I’m still a student,” Sandra said. “GW – George Washington University – art history. And you?”
“South Bend or the Via Aurelia?”
Joe laughed. “The one here. What about you, Sonja?”
“GW also. I’m on a semester abroad until January.”
“You don’t sound like you’re from DC.”
“No, but my father’s stationed at the British Embassy there. I’m from London.”
“I’m meeting some friends.” He indicated Hans and Aldo. “Would you like to join us?”
“Why not?” they said together. The three of them rose and went over to where Hans and Aldo were getting out of their seats.
As soon as he made the introductions, he asked Sandra to dance. It was “the Twist”. Sandra clearly wanted to dance, which suited Joe fine. He admired the easy grace of her movements and the natural way she swung with him on the rock and roll numbers. Sonja seemed to be enjoying taking turns between Hans and Aldo. When “Blue Velvet” came on, Sandra did not move back to the wall, but moved straight into his arms for the slow number.
“I thought we’d never get a chance to talk,” she said. “I’m delighted to meet you finally. I’ve seen you working in the USIS Library, but I’ve always been running an errand and couldn’t stop.”
“I’m glad, too. So, what’s a working girl doing in a club full of college and high school students?”
“I am a student. I mean it. Last semester, I came here. Then I got an internship at the Embassy Annex. The office hired me to stay on after the internship, and I like working there. Now I’m taking time off to decide if I want to change majors or continue in art history.”
“So, going back to DC next semester?”
“No. I can stay out for a year, but then I have to return or transfer to another school.”
“Rome is ideal for art history. What else might you study?”
“Law or political science or accounting.” Her face was expressionless.
“That’s an interesting set of choices.”
“I know. That’s what makes it so hard.”
“What kind of work are you doing?”
“Just a secretary.”
“Just a secretary. That’s the most important job in the office. Without secretaries, we’d have to shut down the Embassy and break diplomatic relations.”
Sandra laughed. “You’re very observant for a boy, you know that?” She looked in his eyes. “If you’re a day-dog at Notre Dame, you must be here with your family.”
“How come you know what a day-dog is?” he asked.
“I listen. You and your friends aren’t the only ones who go clubbing. Sometimes, boarders go over the wall and sneak into town.”
“Impressive. You’d make a good spy.”
“Back to my question. I haven’t seen a Mather in the Embassy phone book. Where does your father work?”
“He died when I was small. I live with my mother.”
Sandra dropped her eyes and blushed fiercely. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry.” Joe gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “Anyway, I’ve heard all about secretaries from her. She stunned the office when she arrived by hiring a woman from the outside instead of taking one of the men in the clerical pool. She says that Maria Grazia is the best secretary she’s ever had. They’re quite a team.”
“So, your mother isn’t the secretary. Unusual. Let me guess: Nancy Ardwood Mather, VP for Operations at Smithson Italia.”
Joe started. “How did you know?”
“I’m a secretary, and I have to get the guest lists for every affair that my boss attends. Besides, I can count the number of female executives in this country on one hand – with three fingers left over. Your mother’s a rock star among the working girls, as you call them.”
Joe blushed. “Yeah, I guess.”
The song was going into the finale. She squeezed his hands and backed up her head to look directly at him.
“Joe, if you don’t mind, don’t mention that I work. It’s not secret, but all my friends know me as a GW student on a year abroad.”
“OK. I can handle that. I’ve never seen you at work anyway.”
Back at the couch, Joe offered to make a run for drinks. Sandra asked for a glass of white wine, but the others had just refilled. He went to the bar for his screwdriver senza and a glass of Frascati for Sandra.
The DJ was taking a break when Aldo shouted at the door. “Look who’s here.” Matt and two girls came across the floor doing a silly soft shoe number. The girls were twins, taller than Matt, identical redheads with ponytails and green eyes.
“Oh-oh,” said Joe. “The Irish invasion.”
Matt introduced Cara and Kelly around. The girls went to Marymount, the girls’ international school close to Vigna Clara. They lived in the apartment building next to Matt’s, and obviously got a ride in with him. Soon the party was in full swing and expanded to include students from Overseas American and the American Academy.
About midnight, Sandra was dancing another slow number with Joe. Sonja had disappeared with an English student whose family knew hers from the Foreign Service.
“Joe, tomorrow isn’t a holiday in our office.”
Joe leaned back and looked surprised. “I never asked you where you worked, but if it’s in the Embassy Annex, I guess you have to go.”
“Yes. It’s been a wonderful evening.”
“Wait a minute. How are you getting home?”
“Usually, I take the bus”
“There’s a bus strike, you know.”
“I thought the strike wasn’t supposed to start until tomorrow.”
“Yeah, but ‘tomorrow’ starts at midnight. The crews don’t even start a run if they’ll still be out by then.”
“I forgot the strike.” She paused, thinking. “I can afford a taxi.”
“Want a lift home? You’ll be hard-pressed to find a taxi with the buses not running.”
“You have a car?”
“No. A Vespa. I can carry one more.”
“On your Vespa?” Sandra leaned back to face him, wide-eyed with her mouth open.
“Well, sure. Haven’t you ever ridden one?”
“No. You’re the first guy I ever met who even owns one. Let’s do it!”
They said good bye to the others. The guys gave Joe knowing winks, to which he rolled his eyes. There would be serious razzing on Monday morning.
Sandra collected her umbrella from the holder at the door.
“Where to?” Joe asked.
“Via della Giuliana, number 8.”
“Not one of the usual expatriate enclaves. We used to live in that neighborhood.”
“Well, it’s affordable, and there’s plenty of public transit right there.”
“It’s also on my way home.” They paused at his machine.
“This Vespa doesn’t have a foot rest, so you’ll have to hold on tight, but there’s plenty of room to sit sideways, so you shouldn’t feel like you’re falling off.”
He rolled the machine out to the street, straddled it and sat way up on the seat. He started it and motioned to Sandra. She folded the umbrella and put her arm through the strap. She sat sideways behind Joe and put her arms around his waist. Funny, he thought, I don’t feel this warm when Mom gets on the scooter.
Traffic was light, so he could move as carefully as he needed to let Sandra get used to the motion. She balanced instinctively behind him. Thank goodness that the rain stopped today, he thought.
Soon they were outside the portone, the heavy door to her apartment building. She slid off as if she had been born on a Vespa.
“Thanks, Joe.” She took his hand and kissed him on the cheek. “Best time I’ve had in ages.”
“I hope to see more of you.”
Joe waited while she pulled her keys from a pocket he never noticed before and let herself into the building. He checked for traffic and did a wide U-turn to head up the Via Trionfale to the top of the Monte Mario.
“You’re home earlier than I expected for a night clubbing.”
Joe coughed. The hall was thick with smoke. Nancy had left the door to her study open, again.
“I gave a lift home to one of the girls who has to work tomorrow. She forgot about the bus strike.” He coughed again. “Mom, you promised to keep the door closed when you smoke.”
“I forgot.” She did not look up from the paper she was reading. “Sorry about that.”
“Really?” Joe surprised himself with the bite in his voice.
Nancy’s attention swung sharply to him. “Who’s working and who’s playing here?”
“You know how I hate the smoke and forgetting doesn’t make it drift away.”
“It’s my crutch, not yours. I get little or no support anywhere else in this world.”
“Well, friends don’t flock to ashtrays.”
“Watch your mouth, young man.” Nancy rose and faced him.
“You don’t even smoke them that much. Most of them burn away in the ashtray like a joss stick. Why don’t you take up incense? It would smell better.”
Nancy took two steps towards him, eyes blazing. Joe grit his teeth and stared down at her. She took in a deep breath. Then she walked back to the desk, crushed out the cigarette, and opened the window.
“Crack the door and let it blow out,” she said. “Then let me get back to work. I’ll close the door.”
“Thanks, Mom.” A hint of sarcasm colored the remark. He walked down the hall to his room.
As his anger ebbed slowly, he was aware of a different feeling, one of pain. His mother did work too hard and too much. Besides, everyone else smoked. The only guys in his class who did not were some of the jocks, Aldo, Hans, Benny, and himself. At least, the other guys made a big show of it, because smoking was forbidden at school. He figured that they probably did not really get to smoke that much.
He walked back to the study and knocked on the door. Opening it gently, he saw his mother look up from the notepad she was writing on.
“About the smoking, Mom. I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair.”
“Accepted.” He could still hear the anger in her voice. “I’m as upset at myself as you.”
“Why? It’s not that big a deal. Only old ladies don’t smoke today.”
“Because I don’t like the smoke either. It takes away my lung capacity. I can feel the air moving differently when I breathe. And I get coughs and colds more easily.”
“So why do you keep smoking? You never smoked before Dad died.”
“Like you said, everyone’s doing it. I tried it. After the initial hacking, it stayed down, and it made me feel good. But you’re right. I do waste most of it. I guess I don’t like the taste, or the holes in my skirt, or the smell.”
“You could quit.”
“We’ve had this conversation before. It’s not easy. I tell myself every day that I won’t smoke, but then I get into a conversation or a group goes out for drinks, and we all start smoking. Plus, it’s kind of fun to watch the men try to outdraw each other with their lighters and matches.”
“Even I do that. It’s good manners.”
“Well, you keep on being a gentleman. I need not to pull the cigarettes out in the first place. Until then, bear with me.”
She got up, carried the ashtray to the bathroom and flushed the contents down the toilet. After rinsing the ashtray, she returned to the study. Joe did not move.
“So, since I’m taking an unscheduled break, did you have a good time?”
“Yes. It’s a great place. Lots of Beatles music and our favorite songs. I danced most of the time. And I had a couple of the screwdrivers senza. Thanks for the tip. I like the orange juice with a garnish much better.”
“So, who needed a ride home?”
“A student from GW. She’s on a year off from school and works somewhere in the Embassy Annex.”
“Running with the college girls, now, are we?” Nancy grinned with raised eyebrows.
“Oh, God, Mom, not you, too. Aldo, Hans and Matt are going to grill me good on Monday morning, I’m sure.” He smiled. “Besides, we’re the same age. She skipped two grades in school and went to college early.”
“Ooh, a child prodigy. Grab that one, son. Does she have a name?”
“Sandra. Sandra Billingsley.”
“Never heard of her, but then I wouldn’t know parents of a student here from the States. Did you know her before?”
“Not really. Back in September, I held a door for her when her arms were loaded coming out of the Star & Stripes bookstore. I recognized her from that.”
Nancy looked at her watch.
“Well, I only have a little more to do, and I want to finish it before quitting for the whole weekend.” She waved at the door.
“Good night, Mom.”
Joe felt a warm happiness thinking of Sandra as he slipped into bed, but dark and dreamless sleep wrapped him as soon as he hit the pillow.
(to be continued)