hree Italian doctors convene in windowless room in a Fascist-era Rome hospital. I am there with them, in a chair. I am the object of their attention. I have advanced glaucoma. I am an unusual patient with highly fickle eyes. They are present, at least allegedly, to discuss the next stage in my case. But that’s not what unfolds.
“Excuse me,” says the tallest of the three doctors, in his early 40s, the only one I don’t know, “but can you tell me one thing. You’re American. Why is he so destructive? Why is all the conversation about dismantling this law or prosecuting that person, or constantly about who is right or wrong about leaks? When I looked at America I always saw a place I envied and wanted to go, but that has changed now. Your political fighting is now just like ours: loud, rude and useless. And then you elect a president who actually wants to eliminate health care for the poor, which, I’m sorry, seems to me a little crazy. I don’t understand.”
This, I know by now, is not a question but an unburdening, a release of tension, my citizenship opening the door. “I don’t know what to say about my country at this time,” I say in a near whisper, hoping to refocus the attention to my eyes. But I fail.
The second doctor, Vittorio, a man I know well, picks up the theme. “Look, Gianni,” he tells his colleague, “don’t put the weight of the world on poor Winner. The fact is the provinces elected Trump and they seem to like a certain kind of loud and vulgar speech — look at Berlusconi here. So it seems to me the entire world’s a village. What’s changed is that maybe we thought somehow America was exempt from folly, that something like Berlusconi could happen only here. Now we know we have good company…”
The younger doctor, Gianni, is about to reply, when the eldest of the troika, Vincenzo, “the professor,” the surgeon, the man to who all along the eye corridor defer, decides it’s his turn. He’s Sicilian and usually laconic. Not today.
“Hillary didn’t have the balls. Now you have men who say what needs to be said and don’t think too much about it, like Trump. What, you think the world is built on good feelings and kindness! Everyone’s out to screw everyone else, and now America has a president who speaks that language. Health care? That’s fine here. This is a socialist country, for now. But I remember seeing an American movie with the line, ‘There is no such thing as a free dinner…'”
“Lunch,” I interject.
“Yes. No free lunches. So it’s a different mentality. And anger makes men strong. We could probably use a dictator here in Italy for a few decades, just to set things straight…”
“You’d like that,” interjects Gianni.
“Actually, I would,” snarls the professor. “Maybe he could fix this hospital.”
“Not even a dictator could fix this hospital,” howls Vittorio.
Gianni won’t let it rest. “Go ahead. Talk about dictators. The last one did such a fine job here. I was asking Winner about this destructive mentality, which is new to me. If anyone says anything bad about Trump, he must answer on Twitter. Are you kidding? Is this ‘governing’? It doesn’t seem so to me. It seems to me, at least on TV, like a big daily brawl. I’m disillusioned, but maybe our friend Winner isn’t…”
Their friend Winner remains parked at the edge of the fray, wondering when he last heard such an extensive digression in the American medical work place. The answer is never. All are pressed for time. And all ironically revel in the dramatic stress that pressure imposes.
By the time the doctors get around to my eyes, some 20 minutes have passed. Gianni has taken a call. Vittorio has argued debated a separate case with Vincenzo. Vincenzo has left the room three times, each time cursing aloud.
The political verdict? Inconclusive.
The ocular verdict, as explained by the dictatorial Vincenzo, “You have two eyes and they’re both bastards.”
And I’m allowed to take them home.