Those were the two years I searched for my dead lover through skin and hip bones and tongues. Thinking I might find him in the almost orgasm with a stranger. I was a mortal breathing the breath of another and another and another to find my lover, to bring him back to life through skin and sweat.
I licked the ice from winter when he died.
When summer came I chewed on honeysuckle, lathered my body in Coppertone and smoked too many cigarettes, going from man to man in my grief – shuddering to the man with the fastest tongue, lifting to the hands of the ex priest, the half-holy one who caressed the part of my soul that had been left behind.
My female friends tried to brush the grief from my hair but didn’t know how, so I turned to men.
Did I like those limbs and tongues, the men I never knew?
Did I like the come cries and the pulling?
I lived for both the pleasure and the pang, the sliver of light in the darkness, the crack in the blackout curtains that only hinted of dawn.
I craved the music that carried my grief into each refrain.
I drank that first summer in Italy down to the nipple, sucking flesh off a tiny bone of baccalà.
I was not being nourished in my grief, but a part of me was flourishing in the shadow of death, as only the Romans know how to flourish there – in the darkness of Catholicism, in the crumbling walls and the starving cats of the coliseum who often ate my whole lunch, because I had to toss the crumbs of life toward them, to sacrifice something for another.
Even starving, those cats wouldn’t come to my hand.
One afternoon, I waited for hours outside the Cemetery of the Capuchin Friars to see the chandeliers they made out of the bones of a princess in the fifteenth century, such a practical way to honor the dead.
The darkness was overtaking me then as I searched for that small part of the last out breath of the man I loved. The turning point came late one night when I threw a coin over my left shoulder into Trevi Foundation and made a wish.
I turned to the gods outside the cathedrals. The winged beings carved into marble.
And those gods answered my prayers while I slept in the City of Death – in a pension that often locked me out with their 11 p.m. curfew – I was never good with time. Some nights those gods walked beside me down the cobblestone streets while I searched for answers, waiting for the sun to rise and the thick wooden doors to open again.
The out breaths of those gods whispered in my ear that everything would be alright.
There is a time to wallow in grief, and a time when the wings of the gods begin to lift you out of the grief. I began to leave my darkest hour when I threw a coin over my shoulder into Trevi fountain, when that coin joined the heartbreak and the hope of every other coin thrown in like a prayer.
That’s when I said, enough.
And the gods heard me. I rose above that city on the back of Pegasus, but really inside a small white Fiat, eyes closed, free falling into my future.
It was a frightening and exquisite time in my life.
What I am feeling in the world now is similar to that time in my soul – except it’s a collective, worldwide grief beside deeply personal griefs. I have to believe there is hope in the prayers of all the coins still collecting in the waters, as fountains all over the world receive all those wishes for the days ahead.
Because this is a frightening and exquisite time that is asking so much of all of us.
What I want to tell you is what I learned wandering the streets of Rome, staring at Jesus bleeding and suffering on the walls or restaurants, in basilicas and sidewalks everywhere, wanting to touch the bones of a princess turned into a chandelier:
Sometimes when you think you can’t take one more moment of sorrow, you have to take life into your arms again like a newborn baby and say to her, “It’s going to be alright, everything is going to be okay.”
You will sing that baby the songs of your ancestors, put onto their tongues by the gods.
The song will begin as a low hum.
Then you feel a winged being brush against your cheek while you cradle that baby, and you will know it is so – that everything is going to be alright.