ou could live a lifetime in Rome and never set foot in Pigneto. Though it’s only a few miles east of Termini station, the neighborhood feels light years away from the rest of the city. It’s tucked into a triangle made up of traffic-choked boulevards Casilina and Prenestina. The former is the city’s randiest gay cruise-way. The latter leads straight to the heart of east Rome’s soft drug cartel. The Tangenziale expressway looms overhead.
Yet if ever there existed a secret urban oasis, Pigneto is it. Inside, bars and cafés flank a rigorously pedestrian strip, where open-air produce markets and artisan art shows draw a colorful crowd. A high concentration of dreadlocks, saris and headscarves mix with hipsters of a vaguely New York flavor, and Europe’s only transgender parliament member, Vladimir Luxuria, lives down the block. Falafel outnumbers pizza by the slice, and two girls can kiss on the street… that is, if they ever manage to meet.
Veronica: Performance artist, 25.
Giorgia: College student, cocktail waitress, 28.
Scene of Encounter: Tram no. 19.
From the feathery tips of her layered hair to the tips of her ankle boots, Giorgia shimmered in black. Her long, slender fingers curled around the leash of an Afghan hound, who sat poised at her feet, his fur dripping towards the dusty floor.
Their eyes met for an electric instant. Veronica shot her glance downward and busied herself picking flecks of paint from the knees of her jeans. When her stop came, she watched Giorgia rise with the grace of a goddess and head to the door. Veronica rode one extra stop, nudging her friend, who, lost in an iPod playlist, could have easily ridden forever.
Five months later…
Sweat was collecting around Veronica’s ankles. Her cotton sundress was soaked through and now clung to her thighs; wisps of sandy blond hair stuck fast to her cheeks as she held on to a friend’s bicycle amidst the madness of an annual August crafts fair. In the blur of skin and sunglasses, she spotted Giorgia, a vision of cool, in a white linen halter dress. The hound trotted alongside her, and they turned a corner, seemed to linger for a moment, and slowly faded from view.
Veronica sighed and felt a stream of cold sweat run down her back. After an excruciating five minutes, her friend returned to her and declared that he would now do her a favor.
They linked arms and strolled the periphery of the fair, scanning the crowd for white linen. Nothing. They asked friends and acquaintances if they’d happened to see a beautiful dark-haired girl and her Afghan hound, or even knew who she was, but their initial search yielded nothing but shrugged shoulders.
In Pigneto, however, everyone knows everyone else. There’s a collective pride and solidarity that comes with living in a neighborhood that the rest of the city considers the wrong side of the Roman-Catholic tracks. Later that night, after a long shower, Veronica left the ring in her tub for a ring on her cell. Someone had spotted the girl, and she was waitressing down the street!
She called for reinforcements and hit the bar, thirsty. They chose their table, careful to land in the section she seemed to be working. Veronica put her back to the bar, leaving her friends to tell her about Giorgia’s every move.
“She has a huge bruise on her arm!”
“Oh god! She must have a muscle-ly boyfriend. Forget it. I’m leaving!”
“A tall guy just went behind the bar… and they’re hugging!”
“She’s whispering in his ear.”
“Now you’re just torturing me.”
“You asked me to look. Hold on. He’s gone. What do you want?”
“You dragged me to the bar. I want a beer. And you’re paying… Wait! That guy is coming over here!”
“Oh, God. He knows I was looking! He’s going to punch me!”
As he neared, Veronica saw his vintage YMCA t-shirt. Notepad and pen in manicured hands, he cheerfully introduced himself as Alex. Veronica’s whole soul relaxed. Her lips parted in a wide smile, and she ordered the first of several rounds.
Alex trotted back to the bar where an anxious Giorgia interrogated him, her hands shaking as their pilsners overflowed.
“Is she looking at me?”
“She’s looking at us.”
“Don’t stand so close! How’s my hair?”
The evening unfolded in no extraordinary way. Tabs were paid, floors were swept, cigarettes were lit, and two girls walked home together. An Afghan hound waited his turn that night, and it looks like he’ll have to get used to it.