Uncle John died of AIDS when I was 23 months old. Uncle John was my dad’s closest brother.
He was in critical care at Piedmont Hospital on the north side of Atlanta, only ten miles or so from our house, so my parents would swaddle me up and we’d visit John for hours, trying to fill the little beige hospital room with cheer. This might seem like a no-brainer today: bring a baby to a dying man’s bedside, let an uncle be an uncle even in dire circumstances. But it was 1991 and AIDS was a fearsome beast that few took the time to understand. Plenty of people didn’t visit John. Even fewer brought their child to his sickbed. They were ignorant, full of irrational fear. But those were the times.
My parents weren’t ignorant. They educated themselves and learned that HIV can’t be transmitted by an uncle kissing his nephew. And because they weren’t scared, they brought me to see John. Once a week or more we’d drive to Piedmont and for a few hours that lonesome hospital room was filled with laughter. Laughter of an uncle enjoying fleeting moments of normalcy and laughter of the naive child who doesn’t know what he’s about to lose.
You’re damn right my uncle John was an underwear model.
Then we lost him.
As soon as I was old enough to start understanding, my parents began creating John for me through a combination of stories and artifacts. They gave me a stack of colorful postcards that painted a map of John’s career in Paris, Milan, and Rome. When my dad made the chocolate souffle John had taught him, I learned about John studying French cuisine under a Parisian chef. A little later my mom showed me the VHS of John’s commercial. In the commercial he runs the length of a darkly lit train, looking like a blonde Bond with cheekbones that could cut a steak. Except instead of a tuxedo he’s wearing white briefs. You’re damn right my uncle John was an underwear model.
The legend of the man didn’t stop there. He knew how to have a good time, but he wasn’t slugging cans of beer. He gravitated toward the best in everything, and booze was no exception. That’s how I learned about the Singapore Sling. According to John, his Aussie friend Graham Milkins had wheedled the recipe from the bartender at the Raffles Hotel Bar in Singapore. I didn’t know what it tasted like, just that it sounded about as fun as a drink could sound. It contained gin, all sorts of bitters, and the most specific ingredient: Peter Heering Cherry Liqueur.
I didn’t know what it tasted like, just that it sounded about as fun as a drink could sound.
John represented adventure and worldliness, and the Singapore Sling was a way to access a drop of the man’s magic.
Smash cut to my junior year of college. I’m in Rome for the semester, living the dream. I’ve latched onto my Italian roommate, Roberto, and his bohemian crew. Roberto, Silvio, Dara, Jessica: they’re all effortlessly cool, and I’m just trying to hang. It’s my “citizen of the world” moment. My scraggly beard and hand-rolled cigarette do the trick. Silvio tells me I look more Hungarian than Yank. That’ll do, pig.
We leave the apartment on Via dei Genovesi, headed to happy hour at Freni e Frizioni. I’ve got every sensory input turned to max capacity, I’m drinking this in. The lilting, melodic language washing over me makes me feel tipsy already. Hell, even the police sirens are musical.
As we walk along the river, I feel myself float above the conversation. I’m applying my pseudo-photographic memory to the moment, taking snapshots with my mind’s eye. The world is in sharper focus for me right now: Roberto’s laugh is louder, the sunset on the water is brighter, the shadows darker. We’re walking fast, skipping around groups of tourists and old women. We leap over the same broken cobblestones, limbo the same tree branches.
To be Roman is to own the place. I want to be one of them.
“Siamo qui,” says Roberto. “We’re here, ragazzi.”
Indeed we are. Freni e Frizioni has its own small piazza and nearly a hundred of Rome’s finest groomed gente have spilled outside. They flick ash and lean on thousand-year-old pillars. It’s the sexiest group of humans I’ve ever seen. We push through the crowd and inside the bar. It’s not just locals though, it’s a beautiful melting pot of Scandinavians, North Africans, Slavs, Arabs, you name it. But here’s the thing, these immigrant taxpayers, like their Italian-born amici, are truly Roman. Roman is a state of mind, Roman is an attitude. To be Roman is to be assertive, boisterous, astute, and romantic. To be Roman is to own the place. I want to be one of them.
We navigate the packed bar like a panther in tall grass, slinking in a row with hands linked. Dara’s shoulders are bare. She’s yanking me along and I can’t help thinking, I want to be one of them… shit, I’ve been here for five days and I feel like I belong… I bet I could stay here forever if I married Dara… Dara tells a joke and everyone laughs but me. Their Italian is a little too fast, the room is a little too loud.
Finally we belly up to the bar. It’s a massive slab of black granite, gleaming wet. The Italians order, three red wines and a Campari for Roberto, como sempre. The mirrored wall reflects the last bits of orange and red sunlight. I turn and look out at the sea of irresponsibly attractive people speaking a half dozen languages. There’s a French guy twirling a girl with his right hand while rolling a cigarette with his left. There’s a group of five Italian smokeshows pouting around a cocktail table, taking turns tossing their luxurious heads of dark hair. The music gets louder. The crowd starts moving together, hips swaying in sync, and a woman shrieks with laughter. I want to join in the fun but I’m rooted to the spot, feeling like furniture.
For two full seconds all I can think about is stripping down to my white briefs and running out onto the dance floor.
All of a sudden I’m spun around by Dara. She pulls me up to the bar next to her. “Asa, Asa, stop staring at the ragazze and order a drink,” she says, smacking me on the back of the head.
The bartender is a tall dreadlocked man with diamond earrings and striking cheekbones. He flips a silver shaker from hand to hand. I peer at the shelves and see a sleek black bottle of Peter Heering Cherry liqueur amidst the mirrored reflection of hundreds of stylish romping Romans. Then it hits me: I’m in that reflection too. I’m here, I’m part of this. For two full seconds all I can think about is stripping down to my white briefs and running out onto the dance floor.
I grin to myself and catch the bartender’s eye.
“Gimme a Singapore Sling,” I say, a little louder than necessary.