[I think this is probably going to be quite frustrating to read because a) it’s a lot of me complaining about my feelings and b) it’s not neat. It doesn’t wrap up in a particularly satisfying way. But I thinks it’s probably more accurate like this. So yes, this will probably be rubbish to read, turn back now or reap the consequences.]
This could very well be the story of how I learned all about myself in Rome (which I did), or how I became more brave and more confident (which I did not). But, well, this is not that story. This is the story of how I literally met a man with my name, and quite a few other things of mine as well.
He was in the kitchen, because he’s always in the kitchen. I was there for three nights and without fail he would always be typing away on his mac, adding word after word to his upcoming book. That’s the first thing we talked about, or the first thing he told me about (the first of many). This book he was writing, a book about life and belief and the very nature of humanity. A book that, he insisted at least, would be very controversial upon its release.
I’m writing a book as well. Or I am when I actually sit down to chisel out the stupid thing, which is not very often. I highly doubt my book will be controversial upon its release, or that it’ll be released at all, but still, we’re both writing books, and we both have the same name, and now that I think about it when I’m forty-ish like him I’ll probably be bald as well. It’s in my genes, see.
His book, he repeated, was going to be a big deal. It would start conversations and that’s all he really wanted. He didn’t need the praise or the money. He was ambitious, I couldn’t deny that, and he was proud of his work. He was also very good at monologing, a fact that only became more apparent as the days went on.
When he offered to show a girl staying in the hostel around Rome one night, a girl who through either desperation or kindness invited me and another guy along, I didn’t even for a second consider saying no. And so we stepped out into the gentle respite of cool air, wading through the golden glow of pizziaras and bars, as he spewed possible truths about the historical importance of that big old rock looking thing over there, or the stretch of distant grass where I’d end up weeing later in my trip. He was definitely right about one thing at least, that bald, confident, forty year old me. Rome was better at night.
I saw him, to begin with, as the most awful version of what I might become. A man so unbelievably confident in his work that he couldn’t for a second consider it as anything but great, a man who was arrogant and, to use the most eloquent of insults, really really twatty. But he was right, about Rome, and he was right, about where to eat and where to find a weirdly high tech water fountain and the quickest way to the colosseum and probably his book, much to my chagrin. He was more than likely right about all the history, too. I certainly didn’t know any better. He was the opposite of me, in his assuredness and pride and opinions. That didn’t make him awful, though. Honestly, it probably made him better. At least he had good work ethic, and didn’t complain as much as me. He wasn’t twatty. He was just some peculiar funhouse mirror version of the person I currently am, a sort of doppelganger with a few bits missing and a few bits added on. He wasn’t any of that, of course, because he had a life and a mind and a body all of his own. But to me, in the vulnerable, pathetic state I was in, he was an omen, good or bad I’m not sure, but an omen nevertheless.
The truth was, I’d been struggling. I was traveling on my own, just for a week, but the combination of my general fear about most things and a pretty rubbish state of mind before even setting off had meant enjoying any of it was tricky. Being forced to actually make decisions and put myself in slightly strange situations had meant that whatever was causing my weird moods could crawl out and burn bright beneath the sweltering Italian sun. There was no burying it beneath videogames and aimless internet scrolling anymore, I had to sit on this wall and look at the Leaning Tower of Pisa and pretend I was feeling anything but terrible. Which of course made it worse, because how could I not be excited right now when I was in Italy for god’s sake? (This moaning does go somewhere, I promise. Maybe not anywhere interesting, but somewhere.)
I had decided I was feeling bad because I was lonely. That wasn’t true, I realise now, but that’s what I’d decided and so that’s what I’d go insane focussing on. The furthest I was willing to go in terms of trying to fix that was to vaguely smile in someone’s direction, thinking it could somehow serve as an invitation to come talk to me while completely failing to realise it probably just seemed creepy. But of course when nobody responded I’d feel another stabbing jolt of ergh, and get thrust a little further into the gaping maw of mild discontentment. I was in my own head and I couldn’t get out, because I was lonely godammit, and everyone hated me and I just wanted someone to talk to! If I had people to share this all with I’d be fine…
I wasn’t fine, following the other me through Rome that night. I wasn’t fine, even though I was talking, not just to him but to the other people he was showing around as well. This was special, whatever it was, the sort of thing that can only ever happen once. I could tell it was special, I was effectively being given a free walking tour. But I wasn’t happy.
“You’re nineteen” he said, after I found myself speaking up. “I wouldn’t have ever assumed I knew everything when I was nineteen, and you have to realise I have more life experience than you. I’ve been homeless, when I was younger I decided to get rid of all my helplines and live just like them, to understand what it was really like. I’ve had experience, and I’ve seen all the chances they have to get out. But so many of them don’t take those chances. They piss on themselves when they could go and use a public restroom. They beg for money and spend it on drugs and drink. They’ve had second chances and they were too lazy to make use of them, and they don’t deserve fifth and sixth chances when they’ll just fuck it up.”
I eyed him. “Come on. That’s just a way to shut down a discussion. Just because I’m younger than you doesn’t mean I’m wrong.” I was annoyed now, which was honestly pretty refreshing.
“No, no I’m not saying that, I’m not trying to offend you. I’m just saying I’ve had more experience than you so I know what I’m talking about.”
“What experience have you had that means you know more about this though? Because you chose to be homeless, they didn’t.”
“Yes but I cut off all my helplines, I was with them and I couldn’t get out just because I’d had enough.”
“Sure but you still chose that, I don’t think it’s really the same. It’s very rarely their fault that they’re on the street and once you’re on your own it’s like a trap, it’s not as easy as just taking advantage of opportunities because often those opportunities don’t lead anywhere.”
“How do you know it’s not their fault? How do you know those opportunities don’t lead anywhere? Where’s all this knowledge coming from?”
I sighed, tripping over his words. “Okay, you’re right. But what I’m about to say is just how I feel so you can’t shut it down by saying I’m too young to know anything. I’m not saying its right, it’s just how I feel. People deserve as many chances as you can give them. You can make a million mistakes but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get another chance. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, within reason obviously-“
“Within reason. That’s what I’m saying. These people are not making mistakes within reason. They’re being lazy and they’re being selfish and there is no point wasting your time holding out a hand when they’d sooner pull you down into the muck than lift themselves out of it.”
“No, come on, that’s not fair. What I mean is if someone murders someone, don’t let them out of prison just on a whim, because that could hurt other people. But for the most part these people aren’t hurting anyone but themselves, and if they’re not hurting anyone else then they deserve help.”
“That’s typical. When your my age, if you get a nineteen year old telling you don’t know as much as him-“
“I’m not saying that. I’m just saying how I feel.”
“Well I can tell you that when you grow up you see what things are really like. You see that these mistakes hurt lots of people. You see that humans are lazy, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do to help lazy people, and you shouldn’t waste your time trying. There are people who could really use that help, so don’t waste it on guys who’ll just go right back to where they came from the moment you turn your back.”
I shrugged, feeling that anger in my belly somehow tempered. I’d just noticed the river we were standing over, rippling and sparkling beneath the homely city lights. I hadn’t really been looking at where we were going beneath the torrent of our discussion, and it suddenly seemed like I’d missed out. It was incredible, watching the night as alive as this. It was really, honestly magical. The stupid old ruins were suddenly poetry, remnants of an impossible place made real. The crowds gathered round tables, eagerly awaiting great cauldrons of pasta, were suddenly truly Italian, truly here and now and separate from home. I could tell it wasn’t going to last, this feeling. I could tell it would fade just as quickly as it had come. But that didn’t stop it being real, and present, and wonderful. “Okay” I said to my bald, brave doppelganger, looking at him as he watched the water run. “I’ll get back to you in twenty years, see if I’ve grown up at all.”
“I hope I didn’t offend you” he said in his pointed, matter of fact way.
“You didn’t” I lied, but I’m really pretty glad that he did.