n this overheated lobby of mesmerized mothers the televisions are never off. The clinic’s oversized screens, five in all, are hitched seamlessly to pylons covered in elegant beige gauze. Four sets broadcast the CNN-style news channels run by RAI and the Italian branch of Sky. A fifth, catering to a separate market, is tuned to the incessant weather channel where lanky blondes pass splayed palms over liquid crystal storms, ostensibly taming them. Men watch this aggregate of stroking with uncommon interest. The women, however, prefer the news, which today has its heart set on repeated footage of explosions and smoke. In their laps, the women hold sonograms in giant white envelopes and cradle tiny blue mobile telephones (blue is the color of choice); the men hold their own tiny telephones, mostly the color of silver or tin. Conversation, because of relentless information and noisy weather, is infrequent or muted.
The modern version of the clinic, on a street near my Rome apartment, opened only a month ago. Before, the offices were housed in the building next door, a 19th-century palazzo with a faded entry staircase and a makeshift lobby that was a foyer. It took little to recreate the room’s previous life, full of overcoats and umbrellas, or to imagine a couple returning from a walk along tree-lined Viale Liegi, once a great boulevard. The transition from residential palazzo to office space to clinic all took place in the 1990s, when Italy accelerated at breakneck speed like some Disney cartoon in which the characters comically speed ahead of their bodies, riveting past and present in the same time and place. The spectacle of a whole city accelerating was dizzying, but to me protractedly savage (cars are now parked five-deep on the boulevard, alarms screaming.)
I wonder, looking at the pregnant women (who do not notice me), if it wouldn’t be better that they watched cartoons, and not the news. In the old clinic, because size cramped privacy, banter abounded. Getting blood tests one day I met a woman who told me her Bosnian lover had been killed by a mine outside Sarajevo but had once written poetry to her by candlelight when they vacationed in Split before the war. She recited a line of the poetry in Italian. All this information was conveyed breathlessly. She had ovarian cancer, I learned.
Another time I sat beside a young couple locked in a lovers quarrel that introduced a mother, father, brother, cousin, electrician and accountant. The accountant had apparently slept with a cousin, who told a father, who, said the woman of the couple, had no business involving the electrician. This had somehow escalated into pregnancy. The couple hissed at one another until their number was called. Then, as if reading on cue from a hackneyed film script, they reconciled, kissed, and disappeared together into an exam room.
The old clinic’s numbering system was clunky: Attendants would hand out small slips of paper on which numbers had been weakly printed, making them nearly illegible and prone to misreading. Later on, the quaint slips were replaced by a primitive computer system connected to a luminous display, which was effective when it functioned. When it did not, it repeatedly flashed the word ERRORE. I remember an elderly man, unfamiliar with the system and perhaps myopic, frantically attempting to convince the desk attendant that the error message was actually flashing his surname, which had two r’s. It took shutting down the display to convince him otherwise.
I also recall nurses taking their lunch breaks from the clinic, leaving the palazzo in their short white coats, dangling open in summer, and snacking at the tavola calda next door. Sometimes they’d talk about men, but more often the chatter reviewed house problems, tiresome chores, the annoyance of some husbands, the erratic delights of motherhood, and the arcane details of shopping excursions. They would guzzle coffee and smoke cheerfully under a sign that declared No Smoking and laid down the half-hearted threats of an ignored 1974 law (fines, mostly). On occasion, pregnant women, the standard giant white envelope under their arms, would dally to smoke and chat with nurses, with both sides gesticulating nervously. Their lunch break over, the nurses would retreat to the palazzo’s side entrance, an alcove that was once an entrance to maid’s quarters. They tossed down their cigarettes as they walked.
Nostalgia is a tricky thing. It has the attraction of absolutism in that it can make you feel safe or protected from the passage of time. Memory is exclusive and exclusionary, laundering only those shirts you liked and caressing you with a deliciously remembered feel. It discriminates against whatever in the “then” might cause woe now. I work on telling myself these things as I watch the mothers and their television peering. The sets, after all, work well, and the new lobby has a clean and friendly look, as well as a hospitable row of registry desks. A Siemens computer now runs the numbers, and they appear crisply, with a digital voice calling out the sequence.
Yet it’s hard to imagine Mr. Errore in such a room. It defeats his foibles and reminds me of what Churchill said after pondering a dull pudding, “It has no theme.” He sent it back. A pregnant mother can no longer banter intimately with her partner about cousin or father, nor can a stranger safely intone the arcane poetry of a dead man. That mood has been retired. Now, in the 21st century clinic, persuasive and shrill television voices take precedence over gossip. Now, before sonograms and blood tests, mothers are distracted by the news of the world: About Iraq, or bombs, or storms, or strikes; one after another, the world’s collected aneurysms floated toward unsuspecting wombs. It’s a modern lobby now, I grant you that, fully functional, updated and efficient, successfully impersonal, which is why today, a cold Tuesday, I leave before the computer catches up to my number, and to my incurable romanticism. It’s a disease of my own choosing, and I take it home to ensure it’s kept kindly, kept safely, and nourished outside time’s grasp.
Christopher P. Winner’s email address is [email protected]