K. W. Oxnard
The Tiber is a long, snaking cauldron, a ribbon of thick black oil bubbling into boils and eddies, the sweat of three thousand years, the liquid, visceral manifestation of eons of thought, labor, love and war.
It is the legs you see first as you walk along Viale di Trastevere. Spindly, sockless, dangling inside rust-colored jeans and splayed out from underneath the mud-brown curtain. It is after eight o’clock at night, late May, the plane trees on the avenue sloughing off their fluff in billowy gusts from the river, just two blocks away. Sounds are intermittent: silence for stretches, then the throaty, rumbling-from-the-center-of-the-earth roar of the diesel buses as they heave their way along their route, punctured by the high whine of motorini ferrying young women in platform shoes and movie star sunglasses to jobs as barmaids, switchboard operators, coat-check girls, to trysts and to informal gatherings in pizzerie and video arcades.
The photo booth spills light like corn oil onto the cast iron sidewalk. Inside he drones on into his telefonino. If you drew aside the curtain you’d see a kid like any other. Maybe a bit thinner. He wears his hair long and tied back, but neatly—it’s brushed, not scraggly. He observes himself in the glass, next to a sign that says ALTEZZA DEGLI OCCHI. He stands up, talking as he spins the stool until he’s sure that his eyes will line up with the arrow. The fluorescent bulb renders his skin a decadent and glamorous green above the black sweater. Long fingers stroke the telefonino as though it were an oversized insect which he holds to his ear, the better to hear its unique, high-pitched chirp.
He has all his gear with him: rubber tubing, syringe, needle. The bag containing the white Asian dust he gets from an exiled Karen tribe member, on the run from Thai and Burmese authorities. He has always enjoyed the ritual of buying the stuff from that silken man, with his nut-brown skin and his backwards intonation in Italian, always inflecting up where he should be going down. His Asian eyebrows discreet little sine curves arcing expressively over his huge, half-moon eyes. It makes the rush that much more exotic, doesn’t it? It makes it international.
The boy slouches, chatting with a girl on the little cellular phone, the one his parents gave him after he graduated from liceo. He received a lot of gifts, cazzo, wasn’t that a long time ago? It has only been a year, but it has stretched out oddly, like a wet sweater left too long on the line. He has spent most of his time researching obscure facts on the Internet about Michael Jackson and butterflies, gossiping in virtual chat rooms with Italians in San Francisco and Rio. He lingers on this way for hours, between fixes, his friends slipping easily from his consciousness. Even food interests him so little. Nothing like it used to be at ginnasio, when he played half back in soccer and ate like a priest.
The tubing, in particular, he finds very attractive. He bought it special from a store near the university in San Lorenzo that sells chic rubber and plastic casalinghi: wastebaskets and pencil holders and trivets, in crazy, psychedelic colors, all the rage in Rome. Most customers use it to spice up their hand-held showers. He wraps it around his left forearm, the electric chartreuse deepening to a kelly green against his skin. He is left-handed, but the veins in his right arm have all collapsed, so he’s become quite proficient at using his right hand these days. As he extracts the syringe out of the shiny satin bag, he hears the click of high heels approaching the booth. He waits for the woman to see his legs. She does see them. She has a telefonino too, and she’s trying to get through to her children. As she dials home again, she observes the boy’s legs as though they were something severed from a body, as though they made no sense being there at all. She shakes her head and walks away.
He continues to guide the needle into the plastic syringe. His girlfriend complains about how her parents are driving her crazy, that she wishes she had her own apartment, that her sister always borrows her clothes and never asks. The booth provides a neat little metal ledge underneath the glass, and there he places the gear while her voice flutters in and out, and he heats the heroin in the spoon with a little lighter in the shape of a Marlboro cigarette. A gust of wind riffles the curtain. It feels delicious against his naked ankles, sends shivers up his legs and to his crotch.
The needle is in now and he plunges the syringe down toward his flesh. He watches himself in the mirrored glass as the stuff begins to bathe him, to soak him in its delicious sensual glue, like the come of the heavens, ah, so much better than mere sex. And isn’t that why he prefers the portable phone? That feeling of proximity and distance in one fell swoop. He can sit and coo with his girlfriend yet experience no need to watch her face as it traverses the mountainous ridge of her complaints. She who is busy chattering away about going to Porto Santo Stefano this weekend, and wouldn’t it be nice if they could get out of their parents’ houses for just a few days—maybe they could even stay in a hotel? Merda, non è giusto, their parents lived together when they were young, so why don’t they let them stay in the same room, instead of making do with his tiny Fiat Panda or getting together when their parents are out?
He pumps the stuff into him, and the fuzz on the phone grows more beguiling. Even the fluorescent glare of the booth takes on a honeyed, romantic glow as he heats up from the drug. The conversation grows ever more one-sided, though she hardly notices. He slides down further onto the stool and observes himself in the dark mirror, adjusting a strand of hair here, a corner of his sweater there. He turns to the right, sees the metal placard showing a profile of a hairless human head and the words POSIZIONE DELLA TESTA. He is like that sign. Ageless. Ancient, cynical mouth, the corners turned down in a crotchety frown, the eyes, though bloodshot, mimicking the youthful umbrellas of the eyebrows, the silvery coating on the cornea so much drizzle on the windowpanes.
Faccio una foto adesso.
Taking his cue from the flashing LED sign above, he feeds 5,000 lire into the machine and presses the big red button on the right of the glass. He smoothes his hair, stretches his lips, tries out various expressions. The first flash goes off.
Really? Hai sbrocato, ragazzo. You’re so crazy. Will you give me one for my wallet?
Certo. There are four.
Silence, another flash. The boy grins absurdly at his image.
Listen, cara. Listen to the sounds of the street. I wish you could be in here with me, it’s so cool.
Another flash pops. He has slumped further down, his eyes nowhere near the correct spot. The photo will show his eyes only, those silvery slits.
Can you hear the traffic? There was an ambulance about four minutes ago. Did you hear it?
Yeah. My mom wants me to take English lessons.
He has forgotten to take off the chartreuse hosing, and his arm is falling asleep. But the stuff is powerful in him now. The last flash goes, finding him wedged into the corner.
But I hate them. You know that uncle of mine—the one who works for RAI Due?
Yeah. I think so.
This teacher looks like him. You know, with that stupid hair he pulls over the top of his head to cover the bald spot?
He struggles to see this image, looks into the black glass covering the camera’s lens in front of him. His own hair has come out of its elastic and fallen into his eyes. It is thick, wavy stuff, and he pulls at one of the walnut-colored locks, only to release it, and it springs back into place. Hair is fun. A beautiful thing. All that dead cell matter sprouting like so much fresh vegetation in his grandmother’s kitchen garden. His hair will continue to grow for a good while after he dies. This comforts him. Growth without life. Images with no photographer. Another breeze wafts the curtain against his cheek as the photos drop into their little slot on the outside of the booth.
K.W. Oxnard‘s fiction has appeared in literary journals across the U.S., including Story, Reed, TatlinsTower.com, Mediphors, and Sniper Logic. Her non-fiction essays and articles show up in magazines and newspapers such as Savannah, The South, Women Outside, MaineBiz, Canoe & Kayak and Hooked on the Outdoors!, and she writes a regular op-ed column for the Savannah Morning News on topics ranging from national politics and environmental issues to pop culture and her own family history. Oxnard has taught fiction and composition writing at New York University; the Harvard Extension School and the Radcliffe Seminars in Cambridge, MA; University of Southern Maine in Portland; and Armstrong Atlantic State University near Savannah. In 2004, she returned to her hometown of Savannah, GA, where she lives with her husband, two wonderful stepchildren and a crazy nine-year-old Pomeranian named Penny Lane.