Is it a girl? A woman in blue loafers called from across the stone path of Villa Pamphilli, where her off-leash beagle was nosing Asha’s dog. Asha knew what she was getting at: two bitches in close proximity meant trouble.
No. Asha shook her head, her hiking boots covered with dried mud from the last weeks of walks. On another day, Asha would have enjoyed the attention.
The woman came closer. Gli occhi blu! The woman covered her heart with her hand, as if to keep it from jumping out of her chest such a sight. A blue-eyed dog. Bellissimo!
Asha sometimes wondered if she would get less attention if she had George Clooney on a leash.
Dio mio! The woman gushed.
Asha was used to it. The unquestioned admiration Romans held for Aryan features was rivaled only by their outsized devotion to their canines. Designer dog sweater shops sat next to boutiques for humans on Via di Corso. You could feed your family fresh pasta for five euros, but a small bag of gourmet dog food would set you back fifty. No one had the heart to ban dogs from shopping malls or restaurants – they were even welcome at Comic-Con. All this in a city where you had to watch every step for uncurbed plops.
Il gotto? The woman bent over to rub the dog’s blonde curls. Asha could see the woman’s scalp through her hair-sprayed coif.
No, no. Betty is not a goat, but a dog. Asha ran her hand through her own brown mop, which she had not brushed before she left the apartment.
Il gotto, the woman explained in rapid Italian, running out of patience herself, was a special breed from the Dolomites.
Right. Asha knew that when she wasn’t distracted.
The woman puzzled. Betty? So. It is a girl?
So much to explain about the blue-eyed dog. My daughter named her before she understood that Betty is a name for a girl, Asha attempted, bracing herself for the fluster that would cause. For that generation of Italians, women wore heels, even on cobblestones.
Blue loafers drew her eyebrows together. Perhaps we should keep them apart? She lowered her voice. The vee-rus.
Oh! Asha’s casual dress and hair suddenly seemed to indicate a laissez-faire attitude about something more sinister. There’s no…evidence…that dogs can get it. There was a case in Hong Kong, Asha had read, but the study was still inconclusive.
Further north, in Lombardy, Milan and Venice, the virus was spreading like wildfire, but in Rome, it was still an abstraction. Asha was always making doctor’s appointments for bladder infections and to biopsy moles. A pain in her left heel had brought her to multiple specialists who shooed her away, telling her to rest for two weeks and come back with a real problem. The scale of this new virus that filled up lungs and stopped hearts was too enormous to contemplate. It felt abstract, as it wound its way through the north.
Asha was a healthy 52 and not overweight, though she did have a weakness for the baguettes from the bakery under her apartment. She didn’t smoke. For once, she was not in a panick about the prospect of illness. That she might become compromised in some way she couldn’t anticipate, be less than she was through no fault of her own. Asha had not supported herself since giving birth to Jared, who had just turned 19. Her husband Reid’s work on seed preservation had taken them to Nepal and Mali and now to headquarters in Rome.
For Asha, finding work as an art therapist had not been possible in the past two posts, and proved to be as difficult in Rome, where the sluggish economy had college graduates interning for years without a salary. She didn’t have to work, but it was a long day without something to do; somewhere she had to be. The only paying job she had found, in addition to her volunteer work at the refugee center, was teaching English for ten euros an hour. After the low pay and tedious repetition, the job had another liability. When she asked her overqualified friends how many of their private students had propositioned them, they laughed. No male student made it to the end of the course without some illicit offer – even if their wives took part in the lesson.
Today was the last day the park gates would be open, as the city prepared for an indefinite shutdown. Where would she escape to when her husband who was now working from home went after her son, who was home from college in the Netherlands? The thought of being locked out of this park, with its palazzo and topiary maze, its bio café and obstacle course, its edible elderflower, and swans in a pond, filled Asha with dread.
The loafered woman called to her dog and moved along down the path. February had drizzled itself to a close, and the sun was drying up the stone paths that wound under stone arches. Asha paused at the Nymphaeum and noted how much the water around the statues’ ankles had risen with the recent rains.
Once a week, Asha went to the basement of the Episcopal church on Via Nazionale to teach English to recent immigrants. She found Mimmo in his usual spot on the bench in the back of the classroom, early for class, a scarf wound around his neck. His position was a decoy, to give the impression he was casual about being there.
The question of the day was: should vultures be hunted because they had been known to carry babies away in their claws, or should they be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to procreate like any other animal?
Mimmo’s role in the discussion was to forge a delicate truce between the devout Muslims from the hills of Pakistan and the Orthodox Christians from Addis Ababa about ‘God’s plan’ for the menacing birds. Asha relaxed with Mimmo in the room; she knew the argument would not escalate into a shouting match as it had when she played Abdullah Ibrahim’s Ismael for a lesson on adjectives that describe music and half the class erupted because they didn’t approve of Biblical stories being bandied about on a rare day when Mimmo was absent.
He was a terrible student. No matter how many times Asha reviewed verb tenses and prepositions, he clung to the passive voice and the full infinitive. But coming to the center from the shelter where he lived wasn’t about grammar for Mimmo. He was building a community. That was how he had survived in Rome without a job for the past eight years––on luck and charm. His only source of income happened during a few weeks in the summer when he sold counterfeit leather bags on the beach. Something in his knowing smile, the throw of his scarf, put everyone at ease, like he had already seen it all and had come back to tell everyone not to worry so much.
How is your family? Mimmo asked after class, and Asha never knew quite how to respond, knowing that his family was far away in Senegal, that he was indefinitely separated from them.
Everyone’s fine. I don’t know what they’re going to do when we’re all locked down. My husband and son…too much fighting these days. Asha sighed; she was dreading it.
It’s normal. I also to fight with my father. Even from far away, Mimmo told her. It was odd how often Mimmo ended up comforting her, instead of the other way around. That was what he came for – not the grammar lessons which seemed to sail right past him, unnecessary gerunds and misplaced prepositions dotting his speech no matter how many reminders Asha gave him.
The Center will close tomorrow, Mimmo told her, looking around. Before Covid, the church opened its basement as a day center. Anyone who came could take language lessons in Italian, English, French, and German. There were also sessions for job training, computer skills, and movies. In one corner, volunteers like Asha handed out clean underwear and socks, razors, and soap. The church had recently renovated the bathrooms where many refugees took showers. Mimmo shook his head. He had never asked Asha for money or help of any kind.
What is it? Asha packed up her books, extra copies of the vulture article, and was ready to go home.
They’re to lock us in.
No. Not here. At the shelter.
From previous chats, Asha knew that Mimmo slept on the top bunk bed above a man from Ukraine who snored. She’d also learned that the shelter was an hour north of the city, far from any shops. There were two working showers that often did not have hot water, and a small kitchen that over a hundred people were supposed to share.
What if the virus is inside? We are locked in with it, Mimmo reflected.
Asha had thought about this as the news from the north sent shock waves through the world. The worst outbreak in Europe. The worst outbreak outside of China. What would happen to her students from The Center? Shelters like the one Mimmo stayed in would become breeding grounds for the virus. Lombardy doctors were playing arbitrage God, deciding who got a ventilator or a bed. Before the pandemic, cafés served coffee to Mimmo in plastic cups instead of porcelain. The last person to get medical care in Italy during a pandemic was a refugee from West Africa.
Give me a day, Asha told him. I have an idea.
Asha’s laundry room was a source of envy among her friends, who hung their laundry on racks behind the couch in the living room or strung it out a window. Asha’s was big enough for a twin bed. It had windows on three sides and the afternoon sun warmed it. She had an extra rug in storage she could put on the tile floor.
Asha walked into the dining room where her husband was typing on his monitor, his teacup steaming.
Your son is in his bedroom, playing that stupid game, Reid told her.
I can hear you! Jared yelled from his room, his door cracked open.
How does he have time for that crap? Isn’t he supposed to be studying? Reid should’ve been happy that he had more time to spend with his son because of the virus, Asha thought.
We all live in Coronaville now, Dad. What’s the point?
Asha didn’t know if she could make it three more days in the house, but she didn’t try to mediate, having learned many times over that if she got involved, it would only make things worse.
Listen. I’ve got a strange request. Hear me out before you answer.
She knew her husband wouldn’t like the idea of taking in a refugee, even though he worked for the United Nations. Their daughter Sabina was twelve, so that might be an issue. But Asha had a wild card: Jared. Think about it, she told her husband. Mimmo has nothing, but he’s so kind to everyone. Jared can spend time with a young man who doesn’t yacht around the Adriatic. Who doesn’t live in a palazzo. Their son went to a high school across from the Circus Maximo with the wealthiest children in the city.
Mimmo will help with the dishes. He’ll walk the dog.
Reid begrudgingly agreed. He would try anything at this stage.
Donne-moi la petit truc, Asha overheard as she walked by her daughter’s bedroom. She didn’t know her daughter had been paying attention in French class. Mimmo passed her the tweezers. In Senegal, he had been a silver smith, and now he was helping Sabina make earrings from a kit she’d been given for her birthday.
When Sabina tried to explain why she named their male dog Betty, Mimmo was perplexed. I understand that you were too young to know the difference, he told her, but why didn’t you change it after you found out? You could to call the dog something else? The male version of Betty?
Bertrand? That’s a terrible name. Sabina made a face.
How about Bert? Mimmo suggested.
It’s too late to change the name. We didn’t want to traumatize her, Sabina explained, stroking the dog.
On the inflatable raft Mimmo took from Libya to Lampedusa, three people didn’t make it. One of them was pregnant. But he indulged Sabina the trauma of a dog who did not speak English.
Asha smiled. Mimmo had reversed the dread she’d felt at the park. Asha had promised her husband it would work out, and even he had to admit it was going even better than she expected.
She had killed two birds with one stone.
No, not killed. Saved.
The Chinese made noodles out of the grain four thousand years ago? Mimmo asked at dinner one night, after he had been in the apartment for almost two weeks. Mimmo showed so much interest in seeds that Asha couldn’t tell if he was just being polite or if he really did care about ancient strains of millet. Reid loved talking about his work, but Asha, Jared, and Sabina had tired of hearing about it.
Older than that! Archeologists have found clay pots with millet grains that are ten thousand years old. One of the Ancient Chinese emperors was called ‘Lord Millet’.
That’s what we should call you! Jared could not resist. Lord Millet.
Very funny, Reid glowered as the rest of the table giggled.
Even Betty seemed to like Mimmo best. The gotto lay at his feet under the dining table.
And what should we call you? Reid said, chewing his Thai shrimp curry.
Come on you two. Asha couldn’t believe her husband would start something at the dinner table in front of a guest. He acted as if he really did not want their son at home with them, but where else was he supposed to go? The dorms had closed and all the students had gone home to their parents. Couldn’t Reid at least pretend to like his first-born child in front of their guest?
I don’t care what you call me, Jared said to no one in particular.
Mimmo looked back and forth. This was his wheelhouse. If he could mediate between devout Muslims and Orthodox Christians at the center, this should be no problem. But he was stuck. Mimmo shared a look with Asha, pleading and sorrowful. There were many kinds of love bandying about the table.
After dinner, I will take Betty for a walk, he said cheerfully, grasping.
Sure. That would be great. Asha was so angry at her husband, she couldn’t swallow.
Mimmo pulled his knit cap over his hair. Even though the wisteria had draped over walls in February, it was still chilly. In one hand he had the dog’s leash, plastic poop bags tied around the loop, and in the other, the signed paper that allowed him out of the apartment within a one-kilometer radius for one hour. He didn’t mind a break from the tension in the house. If Mimmo ever spoke to his own father that way. Not that he ever would. He’d changed his Facebook name so his father couldn’t find him. Mimmo was his pseudonym. He could not send money back home when he could barely feed himself. Without the kindness of people like Asha, where would he be?
The park was closed. Its gates had been locked ever since the first day of the shut down, so instead he wound through the neighborhood, heading for patches of grass at the end of certain streets, where the Monteverde hill dropped and headed down toward the tram line.
É masculo? A man walking his dog stopped to chat as the two dogs sniffed each other. The man also wore a scarf, just like Mimmo, to ward off any spring winds that might unleash the cervicale, an illness only Italians caught when a cold wind hit the neck.
Yes, it’s a male. Mimmo would not be able to explain the name, so he skipped that part.
Gli occhi blu! The man exclaimed, stooping down to look directly into the dog’s eyes. In my whole life, I have never seen a dog like this.
Like Asha, Mimmo enjoyed the attention.
E un gotto?
No, no. Mimmo shook his head, his half-smile drawing the man in. He reached down to pet the man’s dog, his head titled just enough so that he didn’t see the carabinieri approaching. The police were everywhere these days, sitting in their cars, not only along the main roads, but also on the tiny streets.
Paper please. The officer wore a black mask, and his jaw was dotted with coarse stubble where Mimmo’s cheeks were smooth. Mimmo pulled the ‘paper’ that Asha had filled out for him from his pocket. It showed the time he left the house and when he was supposed to return. On the bottom was the signature of his fake name.
The policeman looked at Betty with his blue eyes. You live in this neighborhood?
Si. Si. Mimmo nodded.
The man in the scarf padded away. Dinner was waiting for him at home, and he didn’t want it to get cold.
This is your dog? Paris, London, Madrid. Other European capitals had been breached, but the Italian police didn’t have a record of zero terrorist attacks in Rome by giving anyone the benefit of the doubt.
Gli occhi blu?
Italian public schools read their own authors: Calvino, Dante, Eco, Boccaccio — not Toni Morrison. The officer had never heard of The Bluest Eye. When he was in school, he dedicated hours every day to ancient Greek and Latin. The classics.
Davvero? Really. The officer looked at the form again. It was written on purpose with intentionally vague language so that it was up to the discretion of the officer which infraction they could charge you with. The officer looked at the dog’s fancy collar and clipped nails. How could he say it, exactly? It just wasn’t possible that this dog lived with this man.
The blue loafer woman was walking up the hill with her beagle. She recognized il gotto right away but had not seen Mimmo before.
How is it going, officer? What is the problem here?
The officer was exhausted. Ever since the pandemic began, he had been working overtime, his wife was going crazy with the kids at home, his parents had moved down from Trentino into in his three-room apartment to get away from the vee-rus, he sat in a squad car all day, and now this. He says this is his dog.
Well, I can tell you for a fact that is not true. In Italian, it took her about six sentences to express this sentiment. I met the dog’s owner in Villa Pamphilli, the day before lockdown. She’s Inglese.
Yes, I know this woman. Mimmo thought this was his opening. She’s my friend. I’m staying in her apartment.
The officer shook his head. He knew this neighborhood, and he didn’t think any of these rich people had an extra room, even if it was for laundry.
I’m just out for a walk with the dog. I didn’t take my ID. Mimmo hadn’t had a legal ID in Rome ever.
You heard me. Andiamo.
Mimmo rested his hand on Betty’s head; she looked up at him adoringly. Jail was even worse than the shelter with the Ukraine snoring underneath him. Jail was where the veerus was. Unlike at dinner, where he choked under pressure, Mimmo had a flash of inspiration.
If you take me, what are you going to do with the dog?
Do you know where the dog lives? The officer asked blue loafers, hoping she could take the dog home.
Sorry, officer. The woman shook her head and her hair didn’t move.
Dammit. Can’t take the dog to jail. He shared a steely laugh with blue loafers that Mimmo did his best to forget as soon as it happened. God forbid anything happen to the dog.
Merda! You’ll have to walk her back home. What else can I do? The officer made some notes in his book. Don’t let me find you in this vicino again.
Mimmo watched the officer slink back to his car and tried to summon a morsel of pity. The man lived in a city where pairing amatriciana sauce with orchiette instead of penne could throw off your whole day, never mind a dreadlocked silver smith and a blue-eyed dog.
Asha’s family gathered around his bed in the laundry room to hear what had happened. By the time Mimmo got to the part of the story where the blue loafer lady chimed in, Reid was laughing so hard his knees buckled, spittle showering the rug.
Il gotto saves the day. Again! Jared cracked. It was a strange sensation to be laughing with each other instead of at each other.
If Betty had brown eyes, he would have believed she was your dog! Reid couldn’t breathe. He had been couped up in the apartment for almost three weeks, and it didn’t take much to release a kind of hysteria in him.
About the Author:
Tej Rae is a freelance writer and former English teacher based in Addis Ababa. Since 1999, she has lived in Zambia, Senegal, Dubai, and Rome with her husband and two children. Her publishing credits include The Washington Post, BBC Focus on Africa magazine, The National newspaper UAE, YogaLife Middle East, Necessary Fictions, Prometheus Dreaming, Bangalore Review, Arch Street Press, Typishly, Romeing, Spittoon, Teach Afar, and Wanderlust, among others. She is an editor for the literary magazine Wanderlust and is pursuing an MFA at Queens University in North Carolina in screenwriting and fiction. In the summer of 2021, she attended the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. In June 2020, she was awarded fourth place in The First Pages Prize by judge Sebastian Faulks for a chapter from her debut novel, Salaula Sisters. You can read more of her work at http://tejrae.com