Whenever the football World Cup comes around I think of Leonardo di Lorenzo.
In July 2006 the World Cup was in Germany and I was in London. I’d been flown there to be a finalist in an international fiction competition that I did not win. A couple of weeks is a long time to spend all alone in an old residential hotel off Picadilly in the high heat of July when you have not won a competition. Of course, even if I’d won the competition I’d probably still have felt lost and lonely but that’s a hypothesis I’d like to have put to the test.
I spent a lot of time walking and sweating in the London heat and everywhere I walked there were people gathered in pubs to watch the football, there were blackboards outside restaurants listing the next games and fixtures, there was every kind of national flag fluttering from balconies and in shopfronts, and you would think that all of that might have made things easier for someone lost and alone, but when you are lost and alone a large sporting event that creates a feeling of community and common cause is a little like Christmas when you are sad: it doesn’t bring you closer to anyone, it makes you feel further away, shut out from what seems like the easy companionship being performed all around you. Plus, I can’t stand football.
Every evening when the worst of the heat was waning I would go to the only place in London that wasn’t packed with people who knew one another: an empty vegetarian café in Soho called Karma where I could always find the same small wooden table on the pavement and drink a cold bottled beer and turn and see the football on TV if I felt like looking at something. I’m not a vegetarian but that didn’t matter because I never ordered food.
There was another guy who also came every day. He was Italian and my age and spoke halting English and his name was Leonardo. He had very gentle brown eyes and shoulder-length romantic hair and he was a composer. He had moved to London six months before to score music for the movies and for television but he didn’t know anyone there.
We met each night and exchanged sad stories about our circumstances. “I am an Italian man who does not watch football,” he said, so I lost that competition too.
We spoke about expression and making things that connect with people but in those days I was embarrassed about being sincere and afraid of being honest and letting people see what I didn’t think was there, so I think I let him down in those conversations.
One night he brought his mother to meet me. She had come to visit him in London because she was worried about how lonely he must be. She was very gentle and warm and she spoke slightly worse English than he did but the more two people talk the more each begins to understand the words that aren’t in either language. After the café closed we went to an after-hours cellar club in some backstreet of Soho and while Leonardo was at the bar she told me that she was glad he had made a friend. She looked me kindly in the eye and said, “But you know, he is not gay.”
I told her about my life back home, how my engagement had ended and how convinced I was that I was not a real person and that I could not be loved. She took my hand in both of hers and told me that I am a real person and that I could be loved. If you are ever sad and lonely I hope that you will meet a kind Italian mama who will tell you that you are a real person and that you can be loved. Lorenzo came back with the drinks just then and I’m not sure if he was surprised that his new friend holding hands with his mom. Maybe he was used to it because he shrugged and smiled. She also told me that the person who would best love me would be a particular astrological sign, and she told me the sign but I can’t remember it now because I don’t believe in astrological signs.
On the night that I left London the World Cup final was played, and Zinedine Zidane was sent off for headbutting and Picadilly Circus was filled to the top of Eros’ wings with Italians waving flags and shouting “Forza!” Italy had won, and it felt like every Italian in the world was there and shouting and happy but I knew that there was one Italian who wasn’t and as I made my way through the crowd I reflected that a few weeks earlier I would have felt desperate at such an outpouring of people, such a wave of single-minded humanity, but now I didn’t, now I could enjoy seeing it even though I wasn’t a part of it because now I knew that no matter how powerful the tide there are always other small pockets of still water just like yours, there are always cracks and gullies containing creatures just as odd-shaped and unstreamlined as you, and as long as you remember that, there’s always still the chance of connection.
Times, 21 June 2018