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.