Trastevere: Piera, Paola, Priscilla and a Poet
by Gaither Stewart
Her two roommates, Piera and Paola, reconstructed that Priscilla had been missing since noon on December 31. Twenty-four hours did not sound like a long absence to the police agents but for Piera and Paola it was a lifetime. Smirking and winking at each other, agents in their district police-station, asked about Priscilla’s love life.
“Turbulent?” one asked, grinning at both the girls and his colleagues.
“Normal, I would say,” answered Piera.
“Don’t worry about her love life and find her,” Paola barked in her biting manner.
Now since Trastevere—Rome’s bohemian quarter on the right bank of the River Tiber—can be less than secure for beautiful girls like them, the three street-wise women had an agreement to always keep the other two informed of their whereabouts. As a rule each was aware of where the other two were at any given time.
That agreement worked. Once Piera had been practically a prisoner of a group of drunken Liverpool soccer fans in town for a Champions League game who were convinced she was English only pretending to be Italian which made them furious. Only the timely intervention of her friends and a police patrol avoided a disaster.
Piera, Paola and Priscilla rented a sprawling, luxurious top floor apartment on the piazza precisely vis-à-vis the Basilica of Santa Maria di Trastevere with the statues of four former popes, their heads crowned by high mitres, spaced across the top of the frontal balustrade. The young women joked that the popes were observing them. And they too liked to admire the holy men and point them out to guests. At any dinner party in their apartment one of them was certain to repeat the mantra that ‘if Trastevere were a small city on a hilltop in south Italy, Santa Maria di Trastevere would be the cathedral instead of the district church on the wrong side of the river in the heart of Rome.’ In fact the church had the distinction of being the first church in the newly Christianized Rome where Mass was celebrated openly. They liked to tell guests that the four Baroque statues depicted the popes-saints Callixtus, Cornelius, Julius and Calepodius who played roles in the construction of the Santa Maria Basilica dating back to the third century.
Although the three young women were very different from each other and didn’t share the apartment for economic reasons, they had lived together for several years, enjoyed each other’s company and not one of them was interested in marriage. All three were twenty-five years old, each enjoyed a successful career in diverse fields, and each had many admirers. It didn’t occur to any of the three to live alone.
Piera was somewhat religious as were her parents with whom she lunched most Sundays after mass at the basilica. On the other hand, Paola was so tomboyish that some people assumed she was lesbian. Priscilla instead was sluttish in behavior, spoke like a British sailor and in imitation of Helen of Troy said of herself, ‘What a bitch I am.’ In fact she never hesitated to bring men home with her and hole up in her room for twenty-four hours before he would disappear never to be seen again. So the word “normal” they used to the police to describe her sex life was exaggerated.
However, the three girls had much in common: first of all, all three were physically striking. Secondly, they had studied together in the Rome Montessori elementary school and still felt a loyalty to those times. And thirdly, they were gourmands, with a tendency to drink too much. Nothing they liked better than sitting at their dining table overlooking the piazza, opening bottle after bottle of the choice wines of which Paola was the connoisseuse.
For similar reasons they disliked the wedding scenes played out on the piazza below their windows where almost every spring day a bride in white and a groom in black posed for pictures in front of the Romanesque basilica, Rome’s most popular church wedding site. The three girls snickered and Piera said things like, ‘Thank God, it’s not one of us committing that sacrilege.’ Or, Paola would say, ‘They’re too young to know what they’re doing.’ Or, Priscilla might add in her most sardonic tone. ‘All this rigmarole and promises of lifelong devotion just to get laid!’
Paola and Priscilla loved Piera in a special way: since they considered her naive and blind to the evil in others, they felt it their duty to protect her from dangers of which she was not even aware. Although Piera recognized that corruption existed in the world, she could not conceive of lying and cheating among people she knew. In her work as a special assistant to the city architect she had read of the countless cases of bribery of the architect for contracts he allegedly sold for a cu0,t but she excluded a priori that such malpractice occurred, while he was widely known as a swindler who had a fixed price list for the favors he lavished left and right among the corrupters. While intellectuals discussed in TV talk shows who the real corrupt were, the corrupters or the corrupted, Piera worked and studied the habits of the staff and superficially at least those of the architect. The corruption virus, she maintained, had been eradicated in the city administration. Moreover, Piera never engaged in malicious gossip; she only had good things to say about others and excused the shortcomings of out-and-out scoundrels.
Though Piera admitted that she didn’t know if she believed or not, she attended mass three out of four Sundays, chiefly, she said, to please her parents who were fervent Catholics. However, she dumbfounded her friends in displays of her unorthodox opinions when after consuming more alcohol than usual—surprisingly she was the most uninhibited drinker of the three—they returned to a favorite topic: marriage. They all admitted that someday they would marry—or at least cohabit with a man instead of other women—and have children. Discussions which inevitably led back to the enigma of Piera’s chastity. She was the most beautiful of the three, tallish, long blond tangled hair, the body of a thirteen year old boy’s wettest dreams, and blushed when anyone commented on her beauty. Although it seemed unimaginable that she could still be virgin, Paola and Priscilla believed she was because when the subject arose, she turned away, neither admitting nor confirming their suppositions.
There was only one promising factor: each Wednesday Piera slept late and then vanished until about midnight. When queried, Piera reminded them of their pact: no questions asked about the private lives of each. They were puzzled but tended to believe it had to do with some welfare project. Maybe she worked in one of the canteens for the homeless. On the other hand, worldly-wise Priscilla suggested that maybe she was getting laid regularly every Wednesday.
If Piera projected an image of wide-eyed innocence, Paola at times seemed to harbor a calculating spirit, not mean or evil, but a philosophical kind of shrewdness that was part of her nature. She believed the world was an enigma, “an enigma that might seem harmless,” she once said, “but that I sometimes find terrible when I attempt to interpret it, convinced that it contains some universal truth.” People who did not know her well might feel they were under examination under one of the microscopes produced by her company. Unlike Piera, who accepted people at face value, Paola studied people and behind her calm she took her sweet time deciding whether they were worth her attention. Some people who fell under her studious gaze considered her cold, stuck-up and arrogant. When Piera and Priscilla saw that happen they intervened in her defense, explaining Paola’s down-to-earth nature; according to them Paola was curious to get to know others as quickly as possible. While at Rome’s La Sapienza University—where she had studied hard in business administration and psychology in order to achieve the academic honors she knew she would need in life— she had fallen in love with an older philosophy student with whom she shared two years of her life with the understanding they would remain together when they both finished their studies. Instead, during her final year he met someone else and married her when she got pregnant.
Paola’s life philosophy thereafter took two directions: first. if you are intelligent even though not brilliant like Priscilla you can still get to the top with courage, grit and determination. Secondly, she was convinced that most people are not what they seem. When she finished her studies she had the good fortune to land a job that corresponded to her interests; her father arranged an interview with the founder of the company whose microscopes were known throughout the world. Today she knew that her student lover, Max, was not a bad man for abandoning her; she sometimes invited him to dinners in their apartment and they again became friends. She said that everyone makes such mistakes but that people as a rule are not what they themselves believe they are.
The little family’s realist, promiscuous, perplexing, phobic and flamboyant Priscilla, charged that nothing like sex stirs men’s inherent spirit of possession. That air of superiority that comes over them just after they fuck is the worst moment of all. You go to bed with a man and he immediately becomes cocky and thinks he owns you, she argued. For that reason she detested pop song lyrics like ‘I belong to you and you belong to me.’ She lamented that many women want to be possessed. Belonging to a man bolsters their courage and their sense of security, she explained. Some raped women even fall enraptured of their rapists. But she dispelled the illusions that a rapist gets sexual satisfaction; it’s just the male’s sense of possession, she believed. Even in cases of gang-bangs each rapist walks away with a piece of the raped woman lodged in his memory cells subject to genetic mutation which perhaps becomes hereditary. Rather madly she wondered if rapists beget rapists. This was quirky quicksand, she knew, a subject she skipped over dismissively.
“I’d like to strip them all naked,” she once claimed “and photograph their fearful, shrinking little dicks and then make them eat the picture. Eat themselves! I don’t know why Dante didn’t specify which ring rapists belong in. If I were writing The Divine Comedy I would put the rapist at the very bottom of the lowest ring. Now the male dominators of today might be upset at such female counterattacks but a good session of rape, photography and picture eating might give those fuckers a hint.”
Priscilla herself was a black spider, a Circe, in her fervid imagination she lured them in, fucked them, then sent them away with limp cocks and doubts about ever being capable again. “Some people think that even to kiss is to love. men should want to know what women think. But most males will never know. They don’t even try to understand. What the male feels is obvious but woman’s feelings lie deeper. They’re more mysterious. Does the woman’s kiss mean love? It might. Maybe more than a fuck. The thing is the male thinks that to be loved is more important than to love. Most women, the opposite. We have to keep in mind man’s fear of women. That’s universal. While the man worries himself sick about betrayal, the woman is thinking of love.”
But although she was a brilliant sexual relations psychologist, her friends Piera and Paola knew that the Priscilla was in reality shaky and insecure. She had felt secure all her life because of her wealthy father who catered to her every desire and because of her awareness that she was the best. In fact, her job as the assistant to a wine distributor was just a pose to show that she was independent … even of her doting father. She tended to be cocksure of herself because of her natural mental gifts; she had been brilliant in her studies and Piera and Paola considered her a genius. She had an almost photographic memory which made learning for her a cake walk; however that quality had its drawbacks: she forgot quickly what she acquired so easily. At the end of a conversation with confused Piera and Paola she would say jestingly something like: “You might think you know what I’m trying to get over to you but you can’t really grasp what I’m talking about so I’m going to bed, alone. With nobody to fuck,” she might add, just to shock her friends.
So how could they possibly describe in a few words their complex friend Pricilla Miller to the policemen? Or even guess where she could have gone? Her habits? Unpredictable. Who were her friends?
“She is attracted to strange people,” Piera said.
“Extravagant and bizarre people,” Paola added.
“She herself is different from other people,” Piera continued.
“She always wants to be remembered,” Paola explained.
“Well, you ladies can rest assured that we’ll do everything possible,” the police inspector promised. “Many people in this city do crazy things. And a woman like this,” he said, admiring the photograph of Priscilla that Paola had brought to the precinct station, “does not go unnoticed … no more than would either of you,” he added in his flirting manner.
“Oh, you policemen!” Paola answered. “You see a good-looking woman and immediately try to link disappearances like this in some way to sex. This is absolutely not like her, I tell you. Something has happened to her and you have to act fast.”
“Well, you might know half the police force is on strike, as usual—all writing in sick with influenza. Anyway, I advise you to go home and wait. She might contact you there … if it’s an affair of love. She might even be at your apartment now.”
In that moment Piera’s cell phone sounded.
“Ciao, ladies! Happy New Year!” Priscilla’s cheery voice rang out in the English they sometimes spoke together for practice. “I had a wonderful swim and am full of life,” Priscilla said, now in her shocking Italian, “but unfortunately no one to share my erotic joys with … I think you know what I mean.”
Piera gasped, and then blushed in embarrassment.
Paola, her ear next to Piera’s, looked at the policeman and said, “You were right. No one but our Priscilla speaks like that.”
“Oh, we know quite well what you mean,” she said to Priscilla. “We’ll tell the police to close the case but you’re not getting of the hook so easily.”
“So you’re at the police station, eh? I just love cops. They’re so sexy in their tight uniforms. Is the inspector, well, uh, how does he look? Anyway ask him if he knows if Mister OK, that is, Maurizio Palmulli … you know, the man I dived off the Cavour Bridge with into the cold Tiber at noon yesterday … does he know if that man is gay or not? I spent all night with him and he wasn’t even tempted. Just ask your inspector about that. Now I’m going home. See you there.”
Piera had blanched. She handed the phone to Paola and, her eyes lowered, was searching around in her shoulder bag.
“So that’s where she was,” one cop said. “Maurizio has been diving off that bridge every New Year’s Day for the last twenty-five years … to keep ancient traditions going, he says either in his Trastevere dialect or sometimes in a thick-r German accent. He always says this year is the last time. Now maybe he’s found a replacement … that is if your girl friend is telling the truth.”
“Well!” Paola said, suppressing a grin. “That is insulting. Priscilla always tells the truth….”
“That is, unless she’s telling a lie,” Piera muttered, as if still under shock and aware that their friend had no mad passion for truth.. “But her lies are so gigantic and complex they ring like the truth.”
“Well, ladies, I will reveal a hidden fact about Mister OK. His real name is not Maurizio Palmulli, though we don’t know what his real name is or even where he comes from. He just gave himself that name to cover up his illegal residence status of back before the European Union. As Maurizio Palmulli he has never had a residence permit of any kind. So that name must be false …
“Why don’t you know his real name then?” Paola asked.
“Yes, ah, umm, dunque … the truth is we got used to him so we just ignored regulations. And after all his dive from the bridge does attract many foreign visitors. Anyway, we just kept our mouths shut and let him stay.”
“Very generous of our police,” Piera murmured.
“Sort of crazy but in all these years, living in Trastevere and diving off bridges, he learned only Roman dialect and pretends to be a real Roman … and besides he must be half crazy because that river is too polluted to even put your little toe in.”
“Then our Priscilla is crazy too,” Paola said.
“No,” Piera muttered, “she’s just a show-off … and so is he.”
On the evening of January 2, the three beautiful young women sat at the round table looking over the piazza, the fountain, the basilica of Santa Maria di Trastevere and the four popes. The second bottle of Pallavicini Casa Romana stood waiting. Silence reigned.
“Well, we’re all ears, Priscilla!” Piera said, her voice invaded by an unusual brittle tone. “Are we going to just sit here and admire that bottle or are you going to tell us what happened while we drink the rest of this enticing nectar?
“Do you mean about Mister OK or the dive into that fucking filthy river?”
“Maybe you could start with your failed love affair,” Piera muttered, looking intensely toward the four popes. She poured herself a full glass, caressed the round bowl absent-mindedly, made a weak gesture of sniffing it and took a sailor’s swig.
Priscilla laughed, took a long drink of the deep red herself and said: “And so could you, disappearing like you do every Wednesday. Come clean, dear! Are you getting laid once a week … at least.”
Piera reddened, stood up at the window, leaned forward staring down at the piazza, and didn’t answer.
“By the way,” Priscilla added, “I invited Maurizio to come for dinner tonight just to meet my best friends.”
“What’s that?” Paolo cried. “You mean we’re to spend an evening trying to understand his Romanesco dialect. Why the police told us they can hardly understand him.”
“Don’t worry, Sister,” Priscilla said, laughing and slapping the table so energetically that the teapot tipped and untouched cups spilled. “He speaks perfect Italian,” she added, looking at Piera and nodding her head. “He doesn’t even have a German accent.”
“Why should he have a German accent in the first place?” Paola insisted.
“Because he is German … well, half-German and his name is Paul Müller.”
“Marty! … uh, I mean Martin,” Piera said, turning toward them and running one hand through her tangled hair. In embarrassment she downed the rest of her glass. “I just love his name, as much… as this Pallavicini,” she added confusedly.
“Marty!” her roommates exclaimed at the same time. They had caught her slip.
“You mean you …” Paola began, before Priscilla nudged her.
“Marten Paul Müller, a phony Communist,” Piera began. “claims to be the son of Ernst Müller who was linked to the Red Army terrorists in Germany. His favorite lie. But that’s not true. His real father is a very rich Italian. One time he …”
“Piera!” Paola gasped. “How do you know all this about this … this Trastevere bridge diver?”
“Bridge diver, my ass! He’s a mathematical genius, at home all day writing a Doctoral thesis on the pi … to show that it can’t really exist. Whatever that means.”
“How come you know all this, you sly little bitch?” Priscilla jested, stepping near Piera and caressing her still dazed face.
“I should know,” she muttered.
“Why is that? Why should you know?”
“Because Marty and I, uh, he’s my fiancé. I think I’ll marry him … someday.”
“Well, you’d better hurry or you’ll be marrying an old man.”
“Twenty years older than me … and than you too.”
Standing on the bright blue-red Chinese carpet just inside the entrance door, tall and slim, fair-haired Maurizio-Paul-Marty looked younger than his forty-five years. Completely at ease in the company of the three intimidating women, he greeted each of them individually.
“Ciao, Pierrot,” he said to Piera, kissing her on each cheek, one hand stroking lightly her neck under her thick hair.
“Buona sera, Marty, how strange to see you here,” Piera said, her face again fiery red.
“Why, hello there, Pauline,” he said turning toward Paola and kissing her twice in the same way. “I’ve heard all about you … from your roommates.”
“Shall I call you Paul or Marty,” Paola asked sharply, her tone as if tinged with suppressed jealousy, “now that we know you’re not Maurizio? “
“Marten is fine,” he sad. “But you’re right. You just never know in life the correct names of things … and people.”
“And hello again to you, Prissi,” he said, holding both Priscilla’s hands and kissing her tenderly. “My co-diver and successor.”
“Not me! You won’t get me into that cesspool again ... anyway here we are, all together,” Priscilla exclaimed, with triumph in her tone. “One big family.”
Candles illuminated the window table. Street lamps created chiaroscuro images around the fountain in the middle of the piazza, spotlights highlighted the façade of Santa Maria di Trastevere and the popes-saints Callixtus, Cornelius, Julius and Calepodius looming on their balustrade. On a small table near Piera stood two open bottles of her favorite Pallavicini Casa Roma and a bottle of Syrah for Priscilla who in reality drank anything Piera served her. Paola proposed a triple brindisi: to the safe dive from the bridge, to the return home of their prodigal friend and to their guest Mister OK-Maurizio-Paul-Marten, after which Piera drained her glass.
Then, to break the post-toast silence, Piera asked Marten if he would not like to explain his pi theories.
Marten laughed his Mister OK laugh and fumbled with his silverware. “Bene, if you are interested, it’s really simple. Then I will tell you what interests me most.”
“Yes, yes, Paul, please do. Math is such an interesting dinner conversation.”
“Priscilla!” exclaimed Paola. “Ti prego! No sarcasm tonight, please.”
“Va bene, va bene, dolce mia amica.”
“In a nutshell and as you all know, ” Marten began, “the lower case Greek letter pi is the symbol mathematicians use to represent the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. The circumference of a circle is slightly more than three times as long as its diameter. The ratio between the two is approximated as 3.14159. That number is the pi. The ratio is constant regardless of the circle's size. If a circle has twice the diameter of another circle it will also have twice the circumference,”
“So what?” Piera muttered, somehow put out, and refilled all the glasses.
Marten stared at her for a moment and then continued more softly. “Pi is a mathematical constant and many tomes have been written about it. You all know it from school. But the fact is the pi cannot really exist since its standard value of 3.14159 is incomplete and even adding an infinite number of digits it will never be complete. Pi is endless and timeless.”
“Well, if that’s the case, then you have explained enough, “Piera said and drained another glass. “We might never understand why the pi is not precise but this Pallavicini is.”
“Is what?” Priscilla asked.
“Precise ... in a way math is not.”
“I just want to be able to explain why the pi cannot exist,” Marten continued. “Anyway, I won’t bore you with it … I’m not really a mathematician anyway.”
“You’re a bridge diver,” Priscilla said. “And I should know.”
“But I’m also a philosopher. My real doctoral thesis concerns Lucretius … De Rerum Natura or On the Nature of Things. You must have read it in school. You know, pleasure and sex … and marriage too.”
“We read it in school?” repeated Paola.
“If I read it, I’ve forgotten what it’s about,” said Piera, still drinking and more beautiful than ever after reaching her optimum Pallavicini level.
“What about marriage and sex,” said Priscilla. “Tell us about it, Dottore.”
“Seven thousand lines of unrhymed hexameters. A wonderful poem, two thousand years old but still modern ... though I dispute a few of his points. Ah, that Lucretius! He says it all: everything in the universe is made of invisible atoms.”
“Atoms!” Priscilla groaned. Seven thousand lines about atoms you can’t even see. For heaven’s sake!”
“Atomism is just the starting point, Prissi. The number of atoms is infinite … and they are eternal. The universe consists of matter made of atoms … and void. and the atoms are in constant motion in the void, shooting all over, colliding and creating other chains of collisions which cause a declinatio, or a swerve, which creates everything. Nature experiments. Everything is chance. But most important is that there is no creator of the universe. And it did not come into being for human beings who are not unique—or privileged—and our species will not last forever. Lucretius described the soul as mortal, like the body. The soul is like a bouquet, a scent, and it dies when the body dies. So there is no afterlife. And get this! Organized religious are all superstitious delusions, always cruel. The highest goal of life is pleasure and the reduction of pain. It is right to seek sexual pleasure but the mistake is to confound this joy with the craving to possess the other.”
“Oh, my life philosophy,” shouted Priscilla. “Now I know I’m an atomist!”
“And the reason for our rather different relationship,” whispered Piera. “So hard to hold onto … all these atoms,” she added, holding to the second bottle of Casa Roma to her beautiful breasts as if for dear life.
“Anyway, it’s fundamental to accept that the world was not made for us by some indistinct creator and that humans are not the center of the universe. Understanding these things can lead to true happiness and to a human kind of self-realization.”
“Pretty humiliating, no?” Priscilla murmured.
Again silence fell around the table overlooking the piazza while atoms flew around the table. Marten rearranged his silverware and sipped his wine. Priscilla walked around the room and served herself a glass of Syrah atoms. Piera had passed her optimal point but poured herself another full glass of Casa Roma anyway. Paola cleared her throat and in a subdued tome asked Marten if they were as he had imagined them.
“Well, not exactly. But anyway I must make a major confession to you all,” he said, now in B minor key, softly, carefully. “Especially to Prissi ...”
“Me? Last night I thought you didn’t like me … or maybe not women in general.”
Marten chuckled too himself, shifted his tableware around once more and said he would explain in a moment … and that everything would be clear.
“I have seen all of you often and feel I know you. First of all I apologize to Piera in front of her best friends for my strange philosophy which, however, I believe is now mature. I wanted her to have all the time and freedom she wanted before accepting to stay with me. So as penance I will ask her in front of you if she wants to marry me … or stay with me in any kind of relationship she prefers. Her marriage with me however will change things for all of you.”
“Atoms in motion, eh? Now that sounds truly mysterious,” Priscilla said. “What could you have to confess to me?”
“Priscilla- Prissi, your surname is Miller, right? Now my surname really is Müller. Before OUR father, Gerardo Miller married your mother, he had a long relationship with a German artist, Susan Müller, my mother, whose name I took …”
“Oh no, Marten, you mean to say … so that’s why you ….”
“That’s why I have stayed near you and lived in Trastevere, the reason I lived my strange life. To be near my sister.”
“Sister! My brother!” Priscilla shouted, walking around the room and then back to him. “How I always wanted a brother! And now we dive off bridges together,” Priscilla said. “Stand up fratello mio so I can finally at least hug you.”
“Per l’amore di Dio,” gasped Piera, now slurring her words. “Priscilla, we’ll be sisters-in-law … if I marry this madman. But you’ve gotta keep your possessive hands off him or there will atomic family problems.”
“And me?” Paola cried. “What will I be?”
“A bride's maid!” Paola said. “Tell me something, Marten, or whatever your name is: have you ever been there?”
The others stared at Paola, the girls aware that something transcendental was coming.
“Where?” Marten asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“How do you know that pi doesn't get there … to complete itself?”
“Well,” Marten smirked, “since there's no way of getting there, there's no way of knowing that pi gets their either.”
“Or,” Paola continued, “that it doesn't meet the creator of the universe there.”
“That's ridiculous,” Marten, or whatever his name was, cried.
“And so is your story,” Paola rejoined. “Brother and sister indeed. Prisi and Piera, you better check this guy out real good. To me he looks like a Pinocchio whose nose didn't grow long.”
She turned her head and looked out the window. Callixtus, the pope on the left, seemed to nod. She felt like winking back, but didn't.