I noticed him a few moments after he got on the bus that evening. At first I saw him only from behind since he had turned to face the front of the bus and to talk to the driver. He carried a simple cane, wore a simple nylon jacket and simple jeans, but even in his simplicity was an illusion. His hair was thick, white and coarse, pulled loosely back into a bushy ponytail. His hands were slim and his fingers appeared delicate, like those of a musician, but, paradoxically, were weathered by work. From this initial glance I couldn't even be sure that he even was a man. I thought to myself, "If this person is indeed a man, he must be interesting." And with that, I turned my gaze back to the windows of the central doors and the passing lights. The yellow interior lighting of the bus made the outside world seem even darker, but somehow clearer, as I stared blankly into the city.
The bus rumbled along in its irratic motion over the cobbestones. It was fairly early for a Saturday night. After the movie was over, I said good night to my friends and got on the 56, hoping that the ride would be short. The actual actual distance between Piazza Barbarini and my apartment was measurably short, but minutes could seem like an eternity on the bus, and often was more than eternity when the traffic is bad. Only a few people were riding the bus that evening: a gaggle of German tourists, a threesome of businessmen looking rather serious, some younger people off to or returning from some unknown event, and a half-dozen others, like myself and him.
The next time I looked away from the window, I found him looking at me with a pair of frank brown eyes. I was surprised that they were brown. For some reason, without even realizing I was thinking about him at all, I had expected gray-blue. I was curious about this man since itıs not many an Italian that has such beautiful hair, not to mention a pony tail at an age when one has white hair. Or at least, I don't see these people on the bus in Rome. Feeling somewhat confident in my ability to verbally defend myself if he got offended and confronted me for my rudeness, I returned his look, just as staunchly. After all, he started it. His face was combination of hard and strong and something else that I just couldn't put into words; crackling energy, perhaps. His face was lined with wrinkles, accentuating his very focused dark eyes. His expression didn't change as we exchanged examinations. When some one moved between us, he even moved slightly, in order to hold my gaze. "Afascinante" means fascinating and so much more in Italian. That's what he was. Afascinante.
I began to read in his eyes the same sedate curiousity that I knew I probably had in mine at that point. I will never look Italian. No matter how non-descript my accent becomes, height, long light brown hair and green eyes will prevent me from blending in anywhere people expect to see tourists. So, after over a year in Italy, I was used to being stared at with some degree of puzzlement. This was so very different. The effect of those profound eyes framed in deep, solemn crevaces in contrast with his white hair was "impressionante," striking; a fiery figure, but not frightening. Normally, I wouldn't hold eye contact with people on the bus late at night for fear I'd attract unwanted conversation and then confirmed as an American, but that night it wasn't late and his eyes didn't hold any threats or malice.
Then, he turned around. For a moment, I continued to look at him, I couldn't quite drag my mind or eyes away yet, wondering what was going through his mind. Still intensely focused on him, I then turned away as well. I still see him looking at me, into my eyes, with that reckoning stare. That's what it was. More simply: evaluative. He wasn't asking who I was, he was simply evaluating and waiting to see if I would... something. Say something? But I didn't do anything. As curious as I was, I didn't approach him or impose upon his person in anyway. He had shown the same respect for me.
I couldn't help but notice when he got off the bus, one stop before my own, on via Po. I watched him descend the stairs of the front-most door of the bus, and I wondered where he was going more because my brain likes to imagine scenarios when it's idle than for any other reason. We locked eyes as the bus began to move away. He stood looking up, directly at me, and I looking down, straight at him, as if something other than a bus ride on a Saturday night linked us to each other. Locked us. Then again, I could have just been curious, and the look I saw in return could just be a stare from an old man to spite an impetuous young thing on the bus on a Saturday night.
But, when he got off, he stood solidly and looked up at me, as if he expected me... to get off the bus and follow him? After the doors of the bus were already closed? I remember he took a few steps forward, towards me, after the bus started to move, to hold my eyes a little longer. In retrospect, I wonder what would have happened if I'd gotten off at that stop just to see his reaction or follow him or just have a little extra walk to get home. It had occurred to me, but I wanted to go home. Was he someone I should have known? Did he simply recognize me as a foreigner and "look me over?" In reality, I know that I will never know, but he intrigues me even now. When I return to Rome, I will look for him.
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