When the Fountains Ran Dry by Tej Rae

Rome: August 2017

To return to Rome at the end of summer is to find a city altered. Where water flowed from waist-high fountains in June, now their drains are chalky instead of slippery-green.

A drought stalks the city.

I hear imagined trickles the way a new mother hears ghost cries. The groodle and I turn medieval corners in Trastevere, following our ears. We spot a red-headed bride being photographed on a piazza, the bottom of her dress grey with soot. A waitress stops to pet the dog and brings out a dish of tepid tap water in a takeaway box.

The expansive green park where my kids like to play on weekends is brown and dusty. The grocery store in my neighborhood is closed for renovations. The gym is running on an abbreviated schedule. My hairdresser is at the beach, stretching summer for two more weeks into September, perfecting his tan.

A vacation implies that when return, we will find our lives as we left them. But Rome is a city where one day the buses are running and the next they’re not; where the mayor runs on a campaign to collect the trash and instead, new mountains of it pile along the streets; a city that refuses to adhere to something as dull as predictability.

During the summer, two women who run the non-profit organizations I work for have resigned. A sign of the city’s faltering economy, and its concomitant management style. The music teacher at my children’s school, who often rode the bus with us, and was the brightest part of anyone’s day, is no longer employed there. I am still processing this when I get the next surprise: the school rules have changed, and my children can no longer walk home on their own. My afternoon routine of reading and cooking dinner is over.

My patience splits and frays. Emotionally spent, I stagger into the cafe at the foot of our hill, where chef Mauro, an elderly mustachioed man, runs the kitchen and counter.

Sto cercanda pesce, I lie.

I’m not looking for fish; what I’m really looking for is comfort. He slips into the kitchen and grills a piece of tuna. I wash it down with a Peroni. Neighbors pop through the door every few minutes to pick up a dinner they didn’t have time to cook themselves. Each shares some bit of news with him. In the moments when the cafe is empty, he chats to me in broken Italo-English, tolerating my clumsy verb conjugations. A vanilla ring cake emerges from the oven. Mauro passes out hot slices to all who enter, and its effect is the balm I’ve been seeking since the nasoni were turned off.

This is also the city that made him.


BIO: Tej Rae is a freelance writer currently based in Rome, working on her third novel. After teaching high school English for 15 years, she transitioned to journalism and fiction. Her publishing credits include The Washington Post, BBC Focus on Africa magazine, The National newspaper in UAE, YogaLife Middle East, The Wheelhouse Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Eunoia Review, Romeing, Spittoon, and Fiction365, among others. Writing courses at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, Bard College Summer Institute, NY, and at George Mason University, VA, have contributed to her growth as a writer, in addition to online classes with Grub Street in Boston and The Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing. Tej has two teenage children and travels with her work for the United Nations. Since 1999, she has lived in Zambia, Senegal, Dubai, Rome, and will be moving to Ethiopia in August 2019. In all of these places, she has formed and led writing groups. In Senegal, she helped establish Africa’s first children’s museum, ImagiNation Afrika, which is still thriving.

Many of her publications can be found on http://tejrae.com

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