from “The Graveyard of Bitter Oranges”

In front of a tropical fruit stand in the Piazza dei Cinquecento, lit up by low-hanging bare bulbs, I stood and observed the red flesh pierced by black seeds of the melons, the yellow pineapples split in two, the ovular, yellow-green bunches of grapes, and the segmented coconut flesh laid out in large basins. I heard Arabian music, camels knelt down before a Corpus Christi altar covered over with flowers, blessed mendicants meandered through the streets among the dead cobras, playing panpipes. Starvelings from African countries squatted on the grass patches of the Piazza dei Cinquecento, ate and urinated on the spot, and, when night had fallen and the dew distilled, wrapped themselves in their rags and slept, until the sounds of the carabinieri and roving dogs awakened them. Nervous in their high heels, which clacked against the asphalt, two transvestites walked back and forth. Behind a café, where the street urchins and transvestites drink their cappuccios and Camparis, I saw three Tunisian boys step into a dark side street, in the company of a forty-year-old Tunisian man. I followed them and sat down when they did, a few steps behind, on a stone bench. One of the Tunisian boys walked to a nearby public fountain and washed off a bunch of yellow-green grapes. I went up to the fountain as well, to wash my hands, which were sticky, as I had eaten a half a pineapple, and looked more closely into his face. The boy stared at me a moment, taken aback, while I knelt next to him and held my hands under the stream of water. He stood up and went back to his friends with the washed-off grapes, which he had placed in a brown paper bag. Plucking a round grape from the bunch, the older African asked me in a mix of Arabic, French, and Italian since when I had lived in Rome, how long I wished to stay, and what I did for a living. As I answered, he sat down to my right, wary of the pizza that had been vomited on the stone bench. The boy to my left wriggled closer, and the one who had held the grapes under the streaming water squatted down by my legs and gazed into my face. Vexed and apprehensive, I glanced left and right as their net closed in on me. Worried for my leather satchel, which contained my observation book, with its depictions of the desiccated corpses of the bishops and cardinals from the priests’ corridor in the Capuchin catacombs in Palermo, I pulled it up onto my lap and laid my hand across it. I saw in the Africans’ eyes that I had insulted them by this gesture. I had taken them for thieves before they had even been able to contrive to rob me of anything. The boys had freshly washed hair, their faces, staring back at me, were well-rested, their clothing was new as well, and I concluded from all this that they had only arrived in Rome a few hours before. The Tunisians stood up, left the dark street, and walked in the direction of the Piazza dei Cinquecento. Standing up from the stone bench as well, I pulled a banknote from my pant pocket. The brightly lit café, ringed with windows, cast a broad glow over the Piazza dei Cinquecento. With a shimmering gaze, the youngest of the boys whispered to one of his friends that I had a banknote in my hand. While the others walked on a few steps ahead, the boy who had been spoken to stood still, looked back toward me, and turned in a half-circle, waiting for me to address him. Vuoi Soldi? I asked the African. Far’ l’amor? The boy whispered. He asked me whether I knew of a suitable place and made arrangements with his friends, saying, in two hours at the latest, he would be back in the Piazza dei Cinquecento. I thought we could hide behind some shrubbery, but those heavily frequented areas smell of urine and feces and are eternally damp, dogs are always passing by and sniffing around, and patrolling policemen shine the headlights of their blue and white cars into their every nook and cranny. As we walked by the brightly lit stall of a music cassette vendor, the sixteen-year-old Tunisian recounted to me that he had arrived in Rome just hours before, with a few friends and his brother, from Tunis. They had come as stowaways on a ship from Tunis to Cagliari and from there to Civitavecchia and on to Rome by bus. We walked up the Via Finanze and arrived at a bus stop. The people there, standing at the border of an excavation site and waiting on the bus, eyed us with distrust. As we walked by our oglers, I rested my hand on Omar’s shoulder and tousled his purple-black, curly hair. Continuing along, we came upon a wide-open iron gate and crossed the threshold. A few cars stood at the lit back entrance of a church leading into the offices and sacristy. But the arcades were completely dark. I laid my black leather satchel down on a stone bench, a few feet from Omar, because for a moment I was afraid he might make off with it. After I stripped off my pullover and laid my glasses over my bag, I walked toward Omar, who stood waiting in the corner and had already pulled down his zipper. With my lips I grazed his chin, his shampoo-scented hair, I slipped his pants down and spread the elastic of his tight white underpants, freeing his sex and his buttocks. After I had shed the clothes from my lower body, we pressed our stiffened pricks together. Amarcord! When I was sixteen years old, I used to go into the hayloft with the pictures of bare naked sixteen-year-old boys that I had clipped from the Bunte Illustrierte, push down my pants, and burrow with the black-skinned boys into a hay pile just under the swallows’ nests. In the arcade I knelt down, stroked the thighs of the Tunisian boy with my lips, licked his black balls, sniffed at his pubic hair, and took his circumcised penis into my mouth. While I sucked his cock, he groaned softly and made copulating movements with his hips and ran his hands through my hair. I let it slip back out of my mouth and burrowed my nose in the boyish aroma of his black pubic hair. He dampened his prick with spit and gestured for me to turn around. But I felt an intense pain in my lower abdomen and curled up, so that his prick slid from my backside; I turned around, knelt back down before him, pushed his shirt up over his nipples and pressed my face into his belly and into his crotch. I breathed in the scent of his pubic hair, the scent of his balls and his glans, bored my tongue deep into his bellybutton, clasping his buttocks in my palms. I sniffed at his thighs and moistened his kneecaps with my spit and, when he turned around, I pressed my tongue deep between his buttocks, until I perceived the taste of excrement on my tongue. I nestled my nose and tongue into the black hair of his armpits, sucked with my lips on his nipples and buried my face again in his loins. Hearing a noise, we let go of one another and listened attentively for a moment. Then I knelt down again before Omar and pressed my chin into his nude belly; but hardly thirty seconds later, I heard the shutting of an iron gate, and a man stood behind us yelling, Andiamo! Subito! Andiamo! We dressed ourselves in haste. I felt after my eyeglasses and pullover. It was not until we stepped across the threshold of the iron gate that the monk saw he had chased off two faggots. The nerves in his face were twitching and he spouted curses in Roman dialect. We raced away quickly, with quivering legs, out onto the street, and laughed on our walk back to the Via Finanze and once again past the bus stop. In search of another spot, we walked further on, and came to the open yard of an enormous building, but the bushes were not high or thick enough; when we entered, we found a grimy stone pathway leading up toward the house. Under a dark archway, I again laid my eyeglasses and my leather satchel aside. Omar had already bared his genitals, he came up to me and pulled down the zipper of my pants. Repeatedly kissing his right hand, which smelled of cigarettes, I implored him softly, Kill me! Kill me! I knelt down again and took his hot cock in my mouth, sniffed at his thighs, burrowed with my nose and tongue in his pubic hair and moistened his balls with my spit. Emerging from the back-alley, my eyelids glued half-shut from his semen, I walked out onto the perfumed Via Veneto, passing by two wickedly expensive whores, one of whom accosted me and spit at her feet when I explained to her that women held no sexual interest for me; I bumped into a transsexual, who had dumped out a half-bottle of perfume over his body, and cut through the Villa Borghese to the Via Antonio Gramsci, down the Via San Valentino and finally out along the Via Barnaba Tortolini. When I entered the foyer of the apartment building, and heard the voices conversing, I knew the signora was being visited by one of the elderly ladies from the Swiss embassy. I gave her visitor my hand, but I was so afraid, in that moment, that she would strip away the groin-scent of the African from my fingers, that I drew my hand back at once, after only fleetingly brushing against her. I sat down at the table, resting my chin in my hands, to surreptitiously inhale the scent of Omar’s hips. Later, when the visitor was gone, I sat on the divan and wept. I covered the left-hand side of my face with my hand, so that Signora Leontine Fanshawe, sitting next to me and reading in the leather armchair, could not see my tears. When I went to the bathroom and afterward used the sink, I avoided washing my right hand, so that I would not wipe away the boy’s scent. Before I went to sleep, I cleaned my face only with my left hand and was careful that I did not accidently dribble toothpaste on my right. I went to sleep with the scent of Omar’s loins on my hand. In the morning, when I awoke, the scent was gone.

©Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main 1993. All rights reserved by Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin. Translation © Adrian West 2013. All rights reserved.