A year ago I copied the words of Tennessee Williams from his notebook into my own. Tonight they activate my memory.
Thursday July 17, 1958 (6:20 am) Tonight one of Rome’s rare and lovely summer rain and thunderstorms.
In January 2010 my daughter was just a few months old and I had a grant to travel to Rome. Her mother was against it. But when else soon would I have the time and free money to live there by myself for a couple of weeks in the Eternal City?
My place is a room at the guesthouse of a monastery on the Aventine. Sant’Anselmo is large and crowded. The other guests here are to take part in the community: meals, work, and the monastic hours of sung prayer. I live mostly like a bad monk.
I arrive with two bottles of duty-free whiskey buried in my little suitcase. The guest master gives me key to the gate in case I return after it’s locked at the 8 pm curfew. I’ll be needing it. I do work for half the day then wander the city all night with the full leather wine bag I got years ago on the Camino. I see friends and meet strangers, but after a certain hour I have the place to myself.
January’s the wet time of the year. One night the rain starts after midnight. It falls in the way that makes it hard to find a refuge in the tight streets around Piazza Navona. It’s cold; there’s no place to get away from it.
Hurrying along via dei Coronari, I turn onto the vicolo della Pace. The gate in front of Sant’Maria della Pace is locked, denying me shelter on the porch. The street continues into the piazza; I see the lights shining through the rain that illuminate the Fontana del Nettuno. And then I’m there.
The rain stops but the lightning and thunder keep going. The rumble echoes and the bolts flash above the low buildings that surround this deserted place. I wonder how often anybody is ever here alone as I am now. I wander admiring the things I usually miss because of the crowds here.
Rain falls and stops again after a few minutes. This happens a few times. When it does, I press into one of the shallow archway entrances of the palazzi. I crouch in one of these and wait, gazing at the great Borromini church Sant’Agata in agone.
How long am I there? I’m not sure. But why would I leave? I have no other place to be, and when would I be here alone again. Never seems like the likely answer.
And what about Tennessee? He was at his notebook almost an hour after dawn. Has he just risen to begin his writing day? Or is he just home from the dark alleys or suburban streets where he spends so many nights chasing what he calls nightingales?
I’ll never know.
In a letter he wrote to a friend from Rome about the same time as his rain and thunderstorm, he says,
There are lots of things that we could have talked about that we didn’t, but that’s life for you.
It sure is.
Eight years later I will be with my daughter in Rome. We take a break from a long dinner at Il Miraggio and walk up via Corsini to his apartment at number 12. I point and tell her that’s Tennessee’s house, that we can’t see him in the dark but he’s there standing in the window. She squints and waves, twice.
By the time we get home she’s asleep. I take a beer onto the terrace and a couple of books. I read Tennessee’s one act Talk to me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen. It’s one of his unknown bests.
In the morning, I’ll learn that the hat I bought Aurelia at the lake near Castel Gandolfo is still at the trattoria. I’ll get it later.