Bus Surfing, U.S.A.: A Story by Johnny Townsend

bus_surfing
Originally published in Christopher Street magazine. Posted with the author’s permission. © Johnny Townsend

“Come on, it’s 3:30,” I said to Elder Deiana, picking up my notebook and Bible. “You ready, Anziano?”

“Sí,” he replied, but headed for the bathroom to brush his teeth. I smiled and opened my notebook, studying the crude map I had drawn a couple of weeks earlier. Elder Deiana and I had tracted out almost half the streets in our new tracting zone in northeastern Rome, no small feat considering that nearly every apartment building was seven or eight stories high. Several doormen, however, had “helped” us speed along in our zone by refusing to let us tract out their buildings. Some wouldn’t even allow us to use thecitofono, or intercom, outside.

Deiana was pretty good with portieri, though. We were able to sneak past a few each night, and if we got caught, he could usually laugh or talk his way out of a potentially sticky situation. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he’d say. “We didn’t see you sitting right there in your desk by the door.” The portieri were never pleased, but my companion’s obvious lie and the twinkle in his eyes would usually get us off the hook without being shouted at too loudly.

Elder Deiana glided into the room then, showing me his clean teeth in a wide grin. He picked up a Book of Mormon and a few pamphlets from off of his desk. “Ready?” he inquired innocently.

After Deiana offered a brief prayer, we headed out of the apartment and down the street toward the bus stop. It was annoying to have to run half a block right after lunch to catch a bus, so we walked quickly down Via Franco Sacchetti and hoped we would be close to the bus stop if the bus suddenly turned the corner. Just yesterday, we’d had to race for the bus, but Deiana had had to pause to avoid being hit by a car. I didn’t realize he wasn’t right behind me until the bus took off and I saw him waving at me. I’d stepped off the bus at the next stop and walked back to my companion. We’d had to wait another fifteen minutes for the next bus.

Resting at the bus stop now, I glanced at Elder Deiana. He was a few inches shorter than I was, about 5′ 6″, with short, straight black hair and olive skin, wearing a stylish Italian suit compared to my cheap American one. He was looking at a pretty, dark-haired girl who was reading a book. Deiana was always pointing out girls reading books. “Antonella read that one, too,” he’d say, or “Antonella told me that one was garbage.” I’d heard enough praise of Antonella to expect her to be swept up in a chariot of fire. “I like a girl who takes care of her body,” explained Deiana, “but she’s also got to use her mind.”

A girl’s mind was about all I cared about when meeting the girl, and I liked that Deiana at least put that somewhere on his list of priorities. I wondered if he’d find me attractive if I was a girl, but I had no desire to be a girl, and I didn’t want Deiana to be one, either. I liked him as he was.

I had never told anyone about liking guys, and I’d hoped two years as a missionary would purge those sinful feelings out of me, make me worth liking as a person. The feelings were still there, though, and I didn’t know what I was going to do about them, but I was sure that God had had a purpose in mind when he’d given me a companion I could really love. Maybe being with Deiana would satisfy that need I had to have at least one man love me during my life.

I looked over at Deiana again. He had a contented grin as he continued to look at the young woman reading her novel. Deiana always smiled when he saw a girl reading a book. He seemed to be sentimental about a lot of things. So was I. I think that’s why I dreaded the next day so much. Transfers. Deiana and I had already been together for two months in the Rome Four district, and I had never stayed with a companion for longer than that. It was almost certain that one of us would be leaving in two days.

It seemed as if those two months had flown by, but I could hardly remember a time without Deiana. We had done so much together. Friendships usually came and went with transfers, but Deiana and I shared something special. We weren’t just compatible companions. We were friends and really cared about each other, especially when we could sense that the other was discouraged or feeling depressed about something. Like that time I had cooked eggs and potatoes for Deiana one morning, the day after he’d received his “Dear John” from Antonella. Or the time he had washed the dishes for me one afternoon when it was my turn. I had been discouraged with our lack of success in the work, and I felt like a failure. But I decided that if Deiana thought enough of me to help me out, I must have something going for me. I hadn’t made many friends back in America, and I certainly hadn’t made many out here. It was refreshing to have someone sincerely care about me now. Especially another man.

I had felt reasonably close to a couple of other companions previously. Nothing too special, but I would have liked to keep in touch after we’d been transferred apart. It was against mission rules to write letters within mission boundaries, though, so when transfers had come, that was that. Maybe we’d see each other again at a zone conference or something, and maybe not. Would I break that rule for Deiana, though, and keep in touch after transfers? Would he be willing to break it as well?

“Anziano Anderson,” my companion interrupted my thoughts. “Here comes the bus.” We crowded in behind the other passengers. Since we didn’t have to worry about tickets, having bought a monthly pass for eight thousand lire, we squeezed by some of the other passengers and made our way to a reasonably vacant spot near the front of the bus, where we grasped a metal bar above our heads as the bus took off.

Sometimes, we talked to the other passengers, trying to get their addresses so we could go teach them, but usually my companion and I just talked to each other. It had been during our on-bus conversations that I had learned a lot about Deiana’s past. Almost every time we passed the army outpost on Via Nomentana, I heard another story of the year Deiana spent as an Italian paratrooper. Even though his service had been obligatory and difficult in many ways (hassles with leaders and rules, mostly—Deiana sometimes had a big mouth), he seemed to enjoy a lot of the things he’d had to do that year. He told me of the times he and his buddies had clogged the bathroom drains in the barracks and had slid naked on their stomachs in the three-inch deep water on the floor, and about how they would terrorize the new “allievi” in the middle of the night by making them leap off of upper bunks in the dark onto mattresses they couldn’t see. He reminisced about using the big guns on the base and the war games they played. Once, due to a miscalculation, a huge shell from the opposing team had landed almost at his feet. Fortunately, the ground was wet from rain and the shell had sunk about ten feet before exploding.

One day last week after relating one of these stories to me, he’d paused, fingered his dog tag which he still liked to wear almost every day, and had then handed the tag to me nonchalantly, but had quickly turned to talk to a nearby man about the Church before I could say anything. Now I wore it every day. Another time when I’d asked about parachuting, he’d told me, “I was scared to death to jump out of that first plane, but since I had to go, I decided I might as well take a picture of myself falling,” and he’d given me a copy of that picture later.

It was also on the way to our tracting zone near Piazza Bologna where I learned about some of Deiana’s hobbies. He liked mountain climbing in the Alps, north of his home in Milano, and he enjoyed camping. I was surprised to find that I was interested to hear him talk about his hobbies because I had little desire to participate in them, though I had to admit that his example with weightlifting had gotten me to work out with him twice a week so far. And his soccer lessons each Preparation Day had made the game at least reasonably fun for me, though I had never been much into sports before.

More than that, though, I think we discovered that we were both simply nice, that because we never tried to take advantage of each other or insist on having our own way, that it was a pleasure to be together. Once, Elder Lucas, our zone leader, had ordered a “work visit” with Deiana, intending to take my place as companion for an evening. But while Lucas was brushing his teeth after lunch, Deiana had pointed silently to the door and led me outside so he could work with me instead. “You’re my companion,” he’d said, giving me a light kiss on the forehead. “I want to work with you.”

“Our stop’s next,” Deiana said, pushing a square red button near a window. We edged over to the two doors near the center of the bus. When the bus stopped, we jumped down and crossed over to Viale XXI Aprile. We usually had to wait for the light, but our timing was just right this time. We passed the blue and white police van, always parked in the same place, and about seven young policemen.

We had been right there by that police van when Deiana told me about the time he was in Milano on his way to school one morning and saw a carabiniere get shot to death by the Red Brigade. The carabiniere had been just a young man serving his obligatory military term, but had had the misfortune of standing next to a higher officer, who had been seriously wounded in the incident. I think it was also as we passed the van, but on our way home one night, when Deiana reminisced about the fights he and his friends in the military used to get in with the local punks in Livorno, where they were stationed, and about the time he was beaten in Milano after refusing to give up his wallet to a couple of thugs. He lost his wallet, anyway, but he said he always loved a good fight.

A few minutes later, we were on Via Pisa, so I opened my notebook and checked to see where the next building we needed to tract out would be. We had to walk about two thirds of the way down the street before we could start tracting. We walked over to the next building on our list, went into the elevator, and pushed 7. At least we didn’t have to pay ten lire each trip up, like down in Napoli. Most of the elevators in Rome were free.

“You’re awfully quiet tonight, Elder,” Deiana told me as we got out of the elevator on the top floor. “Anything wrong?”

“Oh, just thinking a little. It wears me out,” I replied, smiling.

“I can understand that.” He smiled back and pushed the doorbell of the first door.

A moment later, the door opened. A middle-aged woman answered. “Chi é?”

“Good evening. We’re two representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and we have a short message we’d like to share with you and your family.” Elder Deiana paused. “Is your husband in?”

“No.” She closed the door.

“Oh, well. Good evening,” he replied.

“Not your type, Elder.” I pushed the next doorbell. “What is your type, anyway?” I wondered if his type had changed any since Antonella.

“Can I give a long answer?” He laughed.

“Sure.”

“Well, she’d have to be pretty, have auburn hair—”

“Auburn?”

“Uh-huh, and be fun.”

I pushed the doorbell again. I wasn’t sure if I heard anything, so I knocked. “What do you mean by ‘fun’?”

“Oh, you know. Crazy. We can joke and laugh and have fun.”

“Oh.” We started down the stairs.

“But,” he added, “she has to be serious at the right times.”

“Like when?” I pushed the first doorbell on the sixth floor.

“In the park or in the car.”

The door opened. “Chi é?” said a guy about our age.

“Hi! We’re from the Church of Jesus Christ. Is your father home?” I asked.

Before I even finished my question, the father was at the door, but he wasn’t interested in our message. At least he was nice about it, though. He closed the door and Deiana pushed the next doorbell. “So what kind of car did you have?” I asked him.

“A Fiat 500,” he said, looking indignant when I snickered. The “cinquecento” was probably the smallest car made by Fiat, so tiny it made a Volkswagen bug look big. “Better than a moped!” he added defensively.

“I’m sure! So, just how serious do you like to get in the park or in your 500?”

We heard some rustling in the apartment in front of us, so we knew someone was looking at us through the peep hole. Deiana decided to give his approach to the door, but he got no response. We went down to the next floor. I pushed the first doorbell.

“Well, if I know her well enough, we’d probably French kiss.”

“Yeah?” I paused. “I hate to sound ignorant, but I’ve never kissed a girl before. Just exactly how do you go about French kissing?”

Deiana looked incredulous for a moment, but he knew me pretty well after two months, though I was sure he didn’t know why I had never kissed a girl, and I would have preferred to die rather than ever tell him. “Well, when you kiss,” he said, “you just put your tongue in her mouth and tickle the roof of her mouth. Girls love it.”

“And what does she do?”

“Chi é?” said an old, female voice from the back of the apartment.

“Good evening!” I said loudly. “We’re two—”

“Chi é?” the old woman shouted, a little closer to the door. It was useless to answer yet. “Chi é?” she shouted again. Now she was almost close enough. “Chi é?” she repeated yet another time, right at the door. I explained who we were and our purpose, but she was sure we were thieves and told us to go away. I pushed the next doorbell.

“Oh, girls do the same thing,” Deiana continued. “Guys love it, too.”

“I’ll have to try it one day.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing.”

In the next building, we discussed relatives. Deiana almost died when he heard the country names of my Southern relatives, my Uncle Buford and Aunt Betty Jo, and my cousins Mary Lou, Thelma Rose, and Bertha Sue. A woman opened her door as Deiana was laughing, but fortunately, she was good-natured and liked to see two boys who seemed pretty decent. Since her husband was home, she let us in and we taught them our first lesson, about Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ. They weren’t terribly interested, but we left a Book of Mormon and a couple of pamphlets along with our card, which had the address of the local congregation and the missionaries’ phone number. Who knows? At least we planted a seed.

Of all the different things we did as missionaries, tracting was one of my favorites because my companion and I were able to contact a lot of people and still have time to get to know each other better. We could discuss the work and new ideas, experiment with different door approaches, and get to meet with people in their homes where they felt most comfortable. It had taken me a while before I learned to enjoy it, of course, but it had almost always been better than referral taking was for me.

Not that tracting was always fun. After all, there was the time that woman had chased us out of her building with a pair of scissors, and over near Piazza Sempione last month when that man had pulled a gun on us, and there were a couple of doors shut in our faces each night along with being kicked out byportieri. But even those experiences were okay when shared with a friend.

I had always been afraid of having to be with a companion for twenty-four hours a day, every day. Surely there would be habits and characteristics that wouldn’t blend well. That was true, I’d found out, but after a year and a half, I had learned to tolerate an awful lot of habits. I’d had a couple of rough companionships, but Deiana was not only okay, he was absolutely the best companion I’d had out of twelve so far. We had a lot of good times, but still there were days when having a good friend by my side constantly was the only way I survived emotionally or spiritually.

We had always been told, “Love the country, love the people, love your companion. Then you’ll be an effective missionary.” I’d always tried to put that into effect, and I’d found that it was true. All of that came together in my present companion, which made me appreciate him more than my other companions. But no one had prepared me to be separated from the people I had learned to love.

Love was a weird feeling for me, one I hadn’t felt often, and it scared me a little. Once, when I was a child, my Sunday School teacher had asked us all to go home and tell our fathers that we loved them, saying that our fathers needed to hear that once in a while. That night right before I went to bed, when my father was in the kitchen getting something to drink, I’d said, “I love you, Daddy.” He hadn’t even looked at me. I supposed he’d felt awkward, but at the time I thought it meant he didn’t love me at all.

I grew leery of the word “love” just after the one incident, and when my aunt told me she loved me a few years later, all I was able to manage in reply was, “I sure appreciate you, too.” And whenever I felt particularly close to any other friend or relative, which hadn’t been all that often, the only thing I’d been able to say was, “I like you.” The word “love” just wouldn’t come out of me. I felt it for Deiana, but I wasn’t sure I’d actually be able to risk saying it again. I had tried a couple of times during the past few weeks, but the words simply would not come.

Now Deiana and I were probably going to be split up. I only had six more months before I went back to America. Why, I might not ever see Deiana again after two more days. Ever! I slipped my left arm around Deiana’s right arm as we turned onto Via Livorno. It was common custom among Italian friends, even guys, to hold hands or walk arm in arm. I had quickly picked that up during my time with Deiana, although I knew I’d be clobbered if I ever tried that with an American companion.

The first time Deiana had held my hand was during a district meeting with the other elders and sisters all around us. I’d been so surprised I didn’t know what to do. I could feel my face turning red, but I likedholding his hand, so I didn’t pull away. Then one evening, I had casually been rubbing my neck to get a crick out of it, and Deiana had come over and given me a massage. To feel his strong hands against my skin was wonderful. Wonderful. I was so afraid I’d fall in love with him, and yet I never felt that any of the contact we had was sexual. It was the touching between two friends, and I thanked God he’d sent me to a country where I could actually touch another man, and it was all right.

It was time for a break, so Deiana and I walked over to a nearby bar and ordered two glasses of Ferrarelle orange soda, my favorite. We watched a teenaged kid playing a pinball machine for a few minutes, and we talked to the bartender for a moment. He said he’d had the missionary lessons a few years ago, but he didn’t care to hear any more. “Keep on working, though. I believe what you’re doing is good.” He wouldn’t let us pay for the sodas. Thanking the bartender, we left and headed back to Via Livorno.

The rest of the evening went fairly well. We only got in one more door, and that for only fifteen minutes, but we did have some good talks with people in the hall. One man said he’d come to church on Sunday, but of the hundreds who had said that to me, I had yet to see someone actually come out to church. There was always the chance, though. We’d see.

Deiana and I also got to talk some more to each other in between doors and buildings. I thought I knew almost everything about him already, but I did learn a couple of new things. For example, he could say some English curse words quite well. That jerk on the moped who spit at us didn’t know what was going on, but I sure did. He had that pronunciation and accent just right. I wondered who’d taught him.

We left our zone and started back to the apartment at about 9:00. We only had to wait a few minutes on Nomentana before a 136 came along. There weren’t many people on the bus, so Deiana grinned at me and said in English, “Bus Surfing, U.S.A.”

“In bocc’al lupo, Anziano,” I said. It was an expression used to wish one luck, which translated literally to “in the mouth of the wolf.” Legend had it that Rome had been founded by Romulus and Remus, two orphans who had been raised by a wolf, so the expression was a wish that the recipient would be as fortunate as Romulus and Remus had been. The phrase had sounded ominous to me the first time I heard it, but I’d seen that a lot of things which seemed negative at first could turn out to be positive in the end.

Elder Deiana and I started bus surfing then. We balanced ourselves in the back of the bus and tried to stand without holding onto or leaning on anything. I cheated on a couple of curves and almost fell at one stop, but Deiana had been practicing longer and was really rather good. My balance had been getting a little better lately, though, since I’d been practicing more with Deiana. A few odd stares did come our way, especially from one old, large woman in black who scowled at us several times, but we were so used to being stared at as missionaries that it didn’t bother us at all. We either ignored the staring people or smiled back at them.

Within twenty minutes, we were back on Franco Sacchetti, so we pushed the button and hopped off the bus. At least at night we could get off at the same stop. Last week, when we had been coming home for lunch at 1:30, the bus had been so crowded that only Deiana could squeeze off at the right stop. Then I’d had to battle for a minute with a “pasta mamma” and some young teens and get off at the next stop a couple of blocks away.

As we were slowly walking back to the apartment, Deiana looped his right arm around my left, and he rested his head on my shoulder. We looked up at our building and saw that the lights were on in our apartment. The other elders were already home. We rode the elevator up to the third floor and started to walk down the hall toward our apartment.

Deiana didn’t slow down as he spoke. “Ti voglio bene. Sai?”

I didn’t hesitate, either, in my reply. “I love you, too, Elder.”