Twenty-two years ago, after having been married a few months in Rome, my Italian husband telephoned to say he wasn't coming home to lunch because, remember Miss So And So was an elderly lady we knew in Berkeley, Calif.
That evening when he returned I asked him how our friend was. Miss So and So was fine, he said, but did I know that she was waiting for him outside, seated on the steps of the buillding of his office?
"Well, what's wrong with that?," I asked, with a sense of defensiveness towards my countrywoman and not understanding anyway what was wrong with sitting on the steps of a public building.
"First of all, she looked like a beggar," said my husband. "I was embarrassed to greet her. No one in Italy sits on the steps of public buildings unless they are gypsies -- or Americans."
Of course I was offended. In the first place I had thought nothing of sitting on the steps of buildings myself until then. And when the seed of its being unbecoming took root I was insulted: My own people held accused as only one of two cultures who practiced such a deed.
Later I pictured Miss So and So sitting on the steps of the building. Though I was still slightly angry, I liked the steps better without our friend, my compatriot, sitting on them.
As time passed I would think of Miss So and So whenever I found myself in a line in Italy, and those lines happened to be by steps; whenever I found myself by steps and tired; near steps and having to wait for someone; when I was pregnant waiting for a bus by steps.
How I would stand and gaze longingly at those seats, seeing them existing so unfairly for ascending and descending tireless feet, bases to stand still on if stopped in conversation. How my bones ached to be seated, and why was I not stoic or tireless like these non-americans? But I certainly was not the type to go against convention, even far away from the office or my husband.
And, too, something had seeped into my bones that made me believe it was unbecoming. Believing made it easier to resist.
And so 22 years have passed. Things have changed now. Miss So and So has come to Europe in droves. She has brought her lunch. Her dinner. Sometimes her bed.The steps in Italy have seated bodies now: full as ant-hills; beaches with pebbles. Resistance was not an effort for me anymore as I would wind my way up or down those steps, along the paths I found among seated bodies, avoiding temptations to keep my balance on someone's head. I felt something like a queen among subjects; I enjoyed a complacent feeling of being well-bred.
The other night I was in Washington at the Kennedy Center. It was still early, not time to go up to our seats yet. Outside on the huge terrace a soft rain was falling; in the wide, seatless foyer people were milling around over the thick red carpet in long dresses and sport-jackets. Some were standing sipping wine.
My friend looked well. Her hair has been cut short and it frames her face softly. She wore a long dress in a cheerful, pleasing print. We talked and strolled and then seated ourselves on the Red-carpeted stairway leading to the Opera House. Other people were seated there, too, some holding their glasses of wine. Dresses and evening capes trailed languidly along the bright red stairs.
I had been talking and hadn't realized what I'd done until my hand recognized the velvet of the carpet under it. I jumped to my feet.
"What's the matter?" My friend looked startled.
"We're sitting on the stairs!"
"I know," she said. "That's because there aren't any seats in the foyer."
"But we don't have to sit on the stairs!"
"But where else?" said she. "That's conservation isn't it? It's very comfortable, and the Kennedy Center doesn't have to buy seats."
It was at that moment I was gripped by the image of infiltration, a sense of spies around me that the government has put there to form the small snowball of conservation. But of course! None of us -- Americans -- could learn the art of saving on our own. But could we be organized to do it? Yes, if there were spies among us. Spies who were ordered to tell us there were shortages -- remember the gas shortages? -- if in fact there were not. The spies would make us savers. They would sit on steps and teach us to do the same.
I sat down. It did feel good to be there after all those years. I leaned back and relaxed, stretching my legs out in front of me like some others were doing and arranging my skirt neatly around them. I laughted. To my self naturally, because my friend would not have understood.