he is my distance marker. When I see her waiting at the bus stop by the old city walls, I know that my evening walk is nearly halfway over. She is one of a series of familiar faces, dog-walking groups and cars-nudging-into-parking-spaces that tell me it is almost dinnertime in Rome.
She is my neighbor.
More than once I have seen her getting on the bus at another stop, the one near my apartment building. I have seen her with a plumper, blonder woman who must be her sister. I have seen her walking up the hill with a plastic grocery bag, one delicate leg trailing crookedly behind the other.
She appears to be in her early sixties. Well-coiffed and tanned like many signore in this southern Roman neighborhood, she wears a tailored jacket or shirt in cooler weather with a hint of something softer underneath — a glint of jersey or silk stretched over her bust. I love Italian women for the pride they take in their appearance at every age and I like this older woman for projecting style and a hint of sensuality.
She’s almost always still there, at the bus stop, when I make my way back home. One evening I see her get out of a car driven by a middle-aged man. She closes the door and turns away. No wave, no nod, no smile. He drives off without looking back. Like total strangers, they seem, in a city that buzzes with cheek-to-cheek kisses and exclamatory greetings. Her hair is poufy, as if tousled by the breeze. She smoothes her skirt and walks over to a low, grass-covered stone wall next to the bus stop, one delicate brown leg trailing crookedly behind the other. She sits on the wall and sips on a bottle of water. She is not waiting for a bus, I conclude.
By this time we have grown to recognize each other, the foreigner in a shapeless sweatshirt and the older woman who could be a receptionist in a doctor’s office. I walk energetically and nod from a distance, perhaps too vigorously, pretending not to have noticed the car. She lifts her head in acknowledgement.
I have seen older streetwalkers before. But not in Rome. And none like this attractive yet innocuous woman, sitting by a bus stop in a “nice” neighborhood. At the roadside sex markets that crop up along certain boulevards and piazzas, I have seen mostly very pale or very dark adolescent-type bodies punctuated with strips of clothing and anchored by steep footwear. The older street professionals tend to be the trans, as some Italians call them, their leggy, big-haired forms lined up along the road that runs through the park near the ruins.
In Rome, I think to myself, don’t women like the signora work? Maybe she did once. Perhaps her clients call ahead and she is simply waiting for them to drive by. Or maybe she was waiting for the bus one day and was approached, as sometimes happens in this city, by a well-dressed man holding a set of car keys in his hand. Instead of turning away, she might have paused.
Does she mind? Is she ever afraid? Has she ever been hurt? Is it condescending of me to wonder? I don’t want to moralize. I warm to this woman for her inconspicuous effort. But I feel unease as well. I consider my jealous attachment to my own body and personal space — a self-centeredness for which there is little room in much of the world. In my mind, my neighbor’s sidewalk marks a confine beyond which lies a vast stretch of vulnerability.
The woman at the bus stop provokes thoughts about the reality of my gender. And the reality of the economy — the real economy. The sluggish beast whose official inflation rate doesn’t truly factor in the soaring cost of living since the euro took over. I know nothing at all about her motivation, but the woman at the bus stop makes me think about all of this. About what people might do to make ends meet in one of the wealthiest nations on the planet.
It is nearing sunset in Rome and I am walking simply to walk. The dogwood trees shed petals that dribble along the sidewalk in the breeze. The caramel-colored brick of the ancient city walls soothes me. Unleashed dogs stop to pee then dart across the grass with the giddiness of toddlers, making me smile. I see my neighbor sitting on the stone wall by the bus stop. Rounding her corner, I see her coppery skin pucker around a cigarette. She smiles at me with her eyes. I smile back at her and nod.
“Signora,” I mouth. We greet each other with the camaraderie of strangers who feel they are part of the same community. I walk along her sidewalk, a world away.