- Hotel Majestic
Illusions are art, for the feeling person, And it is by art that we live, if we do.—Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart
Ora Fitz breakfasted on the terrace, her manner chaste, irreproachable. She scarcely inclined toward her food, showed small appetite and, afterward, dabbed her mouth with a pressed napkin, leaving suggestive traces of a costly matte lipstick named “Marie.” Below, on Via Veneto, traffic was sparse, sidewalks empty.
Boxwood topiaries edged the formal terrace, scented jasmine frothed in white waves over the hotel’s pale gold and bisque walls. Waiters in black-and-white uniform stood idle. Beneath Ora’s chair, a charcoal-gray pigeon, obdurate and fat, waited for crumbs. Others fluttered from mature plane trees lining the boulevard to the stone parapet or marched across the marble floor with its white-and-black chessboard pattern. Someone breakfasting near Ora spoke to someone else. “We were middle-class families, two servants apiece. After the war, we thought we would return to that. Now, only Eastern Europeans remember the art of service.”
The art of disguising loneliness has never left us, Ora thought, uncreasing her hotel map with its garish frieze of advertisements, checking off sites she’d visited, circling the few left to see. Museo Nazionale Etrusco, Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, Galleria Borghese, and Nino’s, a famous restaurant near the Spanish Steps. Places that Giles, before he died, had chosen for them to see together.
It was early August, with Rome suffering its worst heat wave in decades. “Scorching,” “oppressive,” “sizzling,” “deadly,”—Il Messaggero, the city’s newspaper, strained for adjectives. Locked into prepaid bookings, winter dreams of a Roman holiday now mocking them, tourists edged miserably along shady sides of streets, some risking [End Page 125] fines to wade, thigh-deep, into the city’s famous fountains. “I tip my hat to you,” the Pope had said on Sunday to the crowd gathered beneath his window. He didn’t tip a hat, he wore no hat, but he did praise his flock’s courage, awaiting his papal blessing in such heat. Ora had been there, pasty beneath a cheap Nile green umbrella she’d bought from a hawker, his canvas quiver jammed with polyester and bamboo umbrellas made in China. The Pope withdrew from his window, waving his hand, a cuckoo breathed back into its Black Forest clock.
After breakfast, Ora climbed two flights of marble stairs, forty-four steps, forty-four brass wands holding a continuous stripe of claret carpeting in place. The second-floor hallway was a long, chandeliered curve, white walls hung with oversize black-and-white photographs in gold frames—film stars and directors from the ’50s and ’60s—Sophia Loren, Virna Lisi, Gina Lollobrigida, Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini filming Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita—all taken during the Majestic’s heyday, its prime. With a silk-tasseled key, she opened the lacquered white door. Her room had been cleaned, the single bed made. Above its taut snowiness hung four gold-framed prints, architectural sketches by Michelangelo. Floor-length drapes, stately folds of vermilion velvet girdled with gold cording, framed the window; the view was of a private garden of palms, magnolia trees, spires of dark cypress behind a low stone wall. Even with sunlight piercing the green foliage, the view was dull, a faint brushstroke in an ambitious painting, a piece of puzzle, edge or background, its shape similar to a hundred others.
Earlier that morning, Ora had unlatched the white shutters, pushed open the window. Below her, parked opposite on the narrow street was a tiny bright orange car, comically shaped—a brimless bowler. A man sat behind the wheel, his features indistinct. He wore a dress shirt the child’s blue of a summer sky. Ora stared, drawn to the car’s candy shock of color before she realized she was naked. Jaybird! Jerking shut the windows, latching the shutters, she stood paralyzed by embarrassment.
We believe what we like, not always what is true, and one thing we like believing is that we are fairly certain of who we are, a somebody shaped by habits, principles, ideals, others’ expectations...