by Loren Higbee
Ghetto is an Italian word. In Bologna, our apartment was a twenty- minute bus ride from the train station. We spoke the best Italian in the building, though Maria, the Puerto Rican lady upstairs, knew enough English to call us "elders," the five Croatians down the hall to mutter "richamericans" under their sour breath when we passed. The ubiquitous Albanians in the bar downstairs stared dully when we bought stamps or ice cream, but never spoke at all. We were all extracommunitari, members of no community but the brotherhood of mutual dissimilarity. But foreignness is always relative. A block beyond our complex sprawled a gypsy camp, ramshackle, hesitant. It smelled of excrement and fear and impermanence. I can't distinguish them now, can't remember a single face—maybe because we never dared meet each other's gaze— except for one, a pretty gypsy girl, not the most beautiful woman I ever met in Italy, but the most striking. She was about my age with sun-darkened face and hands but fair hair and amber eyes. She always wore a blood red jacket and stood out among the older women dressed in gray like a rose laid in ashes. They begged in the shadows of the famous towers and near the palazzi of the oldest university in Europe. I don't know why I can't forget her. We never talked to one another. We had no common attribute but bravado, no common language but alienation. I only know that every time I saw her, I wanted to clean the dirt from her face, wash and brush her long hair, undo the gold buttons of her jacket, and hold her close. I wanted to have and share one safe place in the world where we could be afraid.