Bologna

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.