Eur Magliana. Metro B. Rail number one. The space is huge. I have never noticed how large the platform was until this moment. Too many people waiting for the train usually stand on that platform; so many that I have never had the chance to see the black floor made of marble tiles with some red carvings here and there. Although I wear the lightest shirt I own, I see my pit stains and my hands are sweaty.
"Excuse me, do you have the time?" asks the man next to me. He is the only one on the platform apart from me and he is wearing an unbelievably warm and elegant suit.
"Eight o 'clock," I answer firmly.
"Thanks. You know, I have an extremely important job interview and I just don’t want to be late. You see how one cannot stay peaceful and just relax, even on Sunday morning…” I barely agree, nodding. “And it's summer too. One should be on holiday at this point," I nod again. "…and then it's just too hot for the subway, I cannot bear this stuffiness. Still, it's always better than the rain. "
An uneven tile under my right foot looks like a shark, one of those big ones that live mostly alone. "It’s always better alone," I whisper.
"What did you say?" the elegant man asks, for the first time turning his head towards me to better hear what I say.
"Never mind, I was talking to myself," I say, hiding a mischievous smile.
"It happens to me too from time to time, you know?!” said the elegant man “Sometimes talking to yourself helps to know yourself better! And it is crucial to know yourself in order to feel good with others.”
“Then I recommend doing it more often.”
I raise my head, turn, and start walking. The tiles of the terribly beautifully empty station reflect the white neon light above me. I leave through the turnstiles and immediately the sultry air fills my lungs. The cigarette that I rolled earlier is waiting for me in the box of Old Holborn blue tobacco in the right pocket of my jeans. I start smoking; the first puff must never be inhaled. I close my eyes for a while. I open them again, and blow the smoke out, which slowly dissolves into the air, revealing a billboard for a marketing and communications company. Across the street, the yellow text on the black background of the billboard reads: "Bee Communication: be part of it, be and communicate".
I am Will Smith with his dog. New York is wonderful. Empty. It is the kind of emptiness that is too beautiful to be filled and stay beautiful. I walk the streets of the city, the imposing skyscrapers stare down at me. I cannot believe it, all for me. I even begin to levitate, over Times Square. I brush against the Times Tower, and then go flying over Broadway. A perfect, flawless motionlessness fills the Big Apple up. I fly over Bryant Park, all the way to the Empire State Building, as I approach it I reach out to touch its peak but miss by only a few centimeters. All of a sudden, I hear a deafening noise, like a ticking, electronic, acute sound. Unbearable.
6:45. I open my eyes. Another Monday pain in the ass. I get up indolently. I go into the kitchen, and put on the coffee, my morning ritual. Jacket, tie, and briefcase. I approach the door to grab my keys lying next to an old picture of my parents just married. Mom, beautifully white-dressed, looks like a princess facing her prince, my dad… my dear parents. I grab the keys from the porcelain vase on the table, right next to my beloved picture, what is left of them. Ready to go. The elevator is there, waiting for me, in the quiet hallway. It never happens... amazing! I get in, and leave the building, through the front door, still happily thinking about my parents just married.
Silence. Completely pleasant silence; no pigeons cooing, no drivers angrily honking their horns on Via Portuense, and nobody leaning from a balcony overlooking the street to coarsely shout at someone in the garage that the coffee is ready. Everything seems to be magical like the Monday morning I might have had when I was in that I-Am-Legend dream, when I was Will Smith with his dog until just a few minutes earlier.
I approach my Fiat Panda, parked next to the beautifully hushed Bar Portuense. I open the door of my car, get into it, turn the engine and the air-conditioning on… and give birth to that day of shit.
Viale Marconi is deserted… I lower the car window to take a better look around. An extraordinary stillness dominates everything. I pass by my beloved tobacconist, whose shop is dreadfully gloomy, like it never usually is. The tobacconist has not opened yet: no sign of Mancini.
The beautiful emptiness of Via Portuense makes me turn on the radio. No stupid mainstream song on, no speaker babbling loudly, no annoying advertisement playing. Silence has taken over the Eternal City.
I get the traffic lights green wave from Piazzale della Radio to Ponte Marconi. On my way, I pass by the small playground my dad used to take me on Sunday mornings. Everything is still there: the red seesaw, the green slide, and that awful gravel I used to fall on, scraping my knees. No children playing, no fathers or mothers around.
The unlit shop signs run faster as I drive by and the empty cars parked on the roadside gaze at me with hollow stares. Every time I look at the mirror I see no stupid biker, no irritating cycling behind me, no idiotic pedestrian trying to commit suicide by throwing himself in the street, I see no other jerk drivers. The road is empty. Suddenly I think I have not woken up yet from the dream of I Am Legend: too good to be true.
The dim light of the sun hidden in the clouds comes into the car through the windows warming the air inside, despite the windows being down. Unbelievable, for the first time in my life I am arriving to work on time, with no stress from the Roman traffic and especially from a fight with at least two taxi drivers, a stoned cyclist, and a bus driver who feels like the master of the road. In five minutes I drive across Viale Guglielmo Marconi to Viale Cristoforo Colombo. I check the time in the car: 7:45. I drive through Piazza del Lavoro to the overpass without any hindrance. I am alone with my Fiat Panda, the uncut asphalt, and the green traffic lights. Nothing else is around and the air is peaceful. I park directly in front of the office, in Via di Val Fiorita 14. I feel like that spot is there, waiting for my Panda to take it. Not a bus around. Not a helpless old man sitting on the usual bench reading the newspaper and judging the work of some laborers struggling on the road surface. Not even the newsagent is there. No one is jogging up and down the staircase of the Colosseo Quadrato. Everything is motionless and still, precisely like the dream I had this morning, before the alarm clock rang. The peace and beauty that up until this moment has been a welcome addition to my morning begins to fade and is replaced with a sense of unease. Everything is just too bizarre.
I walk briskly toward the office, on the first floor where my workplace is and where my boss, mister Paniccia, a 60-year-old fat talkative man in a horrible ‘60s corduroy suit, would have been waiting, ready to assign me new shitty tasks to accomplish in the next three hours. I enter the main hall and see that the elegant wooden stools around which the secretaries usually circle from morning to night are empty and probably cold. The green office ivy carpet gives off a strange smell of bleach, and all the desks are beautifully clean and just as empty of papers or colleagues. My desk is waiting for me as usual, next to the door leading to the relax area. That is the worst location to work for people like me who merely want to meet the least possible number of people, especially while working. My boss is not here either. I check the time again, first from my wristwatch and then from the square clock on the office wall. They both say 8 o'clock. The whole thing begins to be less and less pleasant and I begin to break out in a cold sweat.
I walk up and down the office, nervously going from one location to another without a precise goal. I walk into the relax area. Coffee machines and snack trays are overflowing, as if no one has ever used them. I step in front of the burgundy leather banquettes, over the machines, towards the men’s toilets. I push the toilet’s door open, leaving a sweaty handprint. The white tiles on the walls and the floor give off the same smell of bleach as the office carpet, only more intense, probably because the toilet is smaller. I approach the one sink. I look in the mirror and turn the cold water on to rinse my face, closing my eyes for a few seconds. I open them thinking I might wake up in my bed like I did after the I-Am-Legend dream. A shiver runs through my back. I leave the men's toilet and go into the women's, next door. Still the same musty smell of bleach invades the space and my nostrils too. The tampon dispenser next to the sink seems to be untouched. I look around to see if there is a single spec of dirt anywhere. It would have meant that someone was there or had been there. Everything is perfectly clean and candid.
I go out, I hurry back to my desk where I nearly threw my briefcase and car keys. I quickly snatch them, making the computer keyboard drop from the desktop. They slam into the carpeted floor making deafening clatter that echoes in the silence of the office. As the echo fades, I ignore the keyboard and head briskly, almost running, toward the window facing the subway station.
“There must be someone using the subway. There has to be the usual bum at least, Mezzapiotta, asking for 50 cents, squatting on the entry of the station steps, next to his SH 50cc. There must be at least the kid that distributes the free Metro newspaper." I say out loud, trying to convince myself I am not really the only one, alone, in the Eternal empty City.
Finally, I reach the window; it feels like a lifetime since I was in the toilet. I look through the glass, almost with the fear of knowing. It is all there, the station. Completely still. No worker is running late to catch the train, no boy is distributing the free newspapers, and no homeless man is squatting on the entry steps. No sign of life. I feel my palms begin to sweat and my briefcase nearly slips out of my right hand. I feel my heart race and my mouth become dry.
I turn and run to the exit. I go quickly over the main office door through which I entered earlier. I check the time on my wristwatch: 8:10. It seems like a lifetime. I run to the car parked across the street and clumsily get in. I turn the engine on quickly, and aim for the subway station. Both traffic lights I pass on my way to the station are green. I drive, skirting the billboard of Bee Communication, still there. I park and leave the car in the middle of the station square and get out hastily. I leave the door open, and the briefcase on the passenger seat.
I run into the station, scraping my feet on the black marble tiles adorned with red carvings. On a bench in front of the dock I see a black silhouette; the broad shoulders of a man in elegant suit. I run towards him like a child in a playground. I reach the bench, out of breath and put my hand on his shoulder. The man turns. It is him. My face is contracted into an expression of joy and relief. His is rather terrified and I can clearly see a shred of hatred in his face. He turns back to the tracks. I walk around the bench to sit next to him. My breath is normal again, as well as my heartbeat.
“Good morning!” I say.
“Hello,” he says, with his gaze still on the tracks.
“You know, yesterday I did not want to be rude. I was just sick because of my own stuff” I say.
“I understand,” he nods.
“I must apologize, sometimes I speak without thinking” I say, looking straight at him. “How are you? How did the job interview go yesterday?” I ask.
“Well, they hired me. Today is my first day.” He seems to loosen up a bit and he turns his head to look at me. “I hope I won’t be late, it is not good to be late on the first day” he says.
“I hope so, but it seems that the trains don’t pass this morning,” I suggest, with a trembling voice.
“Yeah, well, I think there was an accident on the line to Termini Station and also the line B the trains were affected,” my elegant gentleman explains.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure your train will be here in no time” I reassure him, trying to reassure myself too.
“I guess so. Are you going to work too? He asks curiously. “I suppose you are or else why would you wear this suit.”
“Yes, I’m on my way to work.” I reply, lying “My office is nearby. I just came to say hello and apologize. I knew I'd find you here”
“How did you know?” he asks.
“I knew it and that's it. And I wanted apologize for yesterday. What’s your job?” I ask.
“I’m a computer engineer.” He replies. “We program operating systems. And you? What do you do?"
"I’m a computer engineer too, but I deal mainly with designing applications.” I say. “You know the project for the Italian electronic identity card? I worked for years on that but this country prefers pen and paper so my project failed miserably after I even had it patented."
"I understand. I had the same problem a few years ago when ... oh! Here comes my train. Thank you for the apology and the company,” he says, “see you soon!”
"No wait, please; give me your phone number, just in case one of us gets tired of working for someone else. I was thinking of starting my own business." I try to convince him.
“Sure, write it down then: 335 ... 622 ... 15 ... 75. Okay? So keep in touch and have a nice day!" he answers, smiling.
"Perfect, thank you again. I'll call you. You didn’t say your name!” I scream, hoping he hears me as he walks into the train.
"Paolo Matticari!” he shouts. “See you soon!”
I wave to him, making sure his name and number are correct and enter it in my phone.
After a few seconds I stop to focus on the tracks that disappear and reappear under the shadows of the passing trains, I turn and walk toward the exit, trampling the marble carved in red surrounded by black. On the steps at the front of the station, I light up a cigarette I prepared in the morning while making the coffee. I close my eyes to puff on the cigarette, I open them to blow the smoke out. The first puff must not be inhaled. . I follow with my eyes the smoke spreading out before me in the cool morning air. As I watch the smoke dissolving and drifting away, the usual billboard greets me with its black and yellow lettering: “be part of it, be and communicate.” I look down and I see a red Fiat 600 moving on slowly on the Via di Val Fiorita. Next to that, in the other direction, a Fiat Panda, similar to mine, is moving slowly as well. I look around. The city is alive again. Out of the blue.
The wonderful chaos surrounds me. Pigeons, masters of the square, are cooing and running between the feet of the people entering and leaving subway station in a rush, bothering them. Cars are immersed in the Monday morning traffic. Bus drivers curse at scooter drivers, and everything is perfectly right to the Roman way. A couple of young Japanese tourists approach me to ask for information. Normally I would have said “Go to Hell” or dismissed them with a joke, but now I give them clear directions to the Aquarium. I taste my cigarette in the peaceful chaos of normality, in the din of car horns, and the constant chatter of passersby’s on the sidewalks. Next to me also Mezzapiotta appears, handing me a paper cup, as he hopes that I put 50 cents in it. I am doing it actually. And he smiles at me as to say “thank you”. I take the last drag of my cigarette, inhale deeply, and I throw the butt on the ground, stepping on it to extinguish it.
I get in the car which is still parked in the middle of the square where I left it. I drive back to the office, happily stuck in Via di Val Fiorita traffic. I lower both windows to let the noise and confusion of the busy streets into my car, and I drive my Panda slowly, in the lane right next to the sidewalk. One by one I look the passersby in the eye. They walk with their heads down focused on their phones. They all have the same expression, the typical Monday-morning-in-Rome expression: stressed and tired. They all look the same. All of them. But a woman.
I see her in the crowd, the only one looking up the street, without the mobile phone in her hand. Her figure shines in the sun. Her hair moves over her shoulders as if it were dancing to the morning breeze of the Ponentino. The light red dress she elegantly wears reminds me of a summer sunset on the beach. Too good to be true. I feel the urge to stop and meet her. Suddenly she turns her gaze towards me. I smile in turn. We look at each other for a moment. I see that she smiles at me too. I stop the car and get out in the middle of traffic causing a furious uproar of car horns and drivers shouting. I pay them no attention. I walk to her… there are new words on my lips.
I am. I communicate.