While on Vacation in Rome

by Shelagh Power-Chopra

While on vacation in Rome, Jeanine was accidentally mistaken for Jerry Lewis. She and her mother had rented an apartment on Via Babiuno and Jeanine was prone to roaming—she liked to take long walks in Villa Borghese and rent boats on the lake. This was 1961 and The Ladies Man had just come out. In the film, Lewis played a man jilted by his fiancée who reverts to an infantile state—Lewis's shtick by this time—and inadvertently lands a job as a houseboy in a boarding house full of women. He bumbles around the house, gangly arms and lips predominating every frame, hulking over the girls in the picture like a mawkish spider.

Jeanine's only inkling of Jerry Lewis was a few scenes from The Bellboy, a film that had come out the year before. Her father brought her to the theater—her mother, shunning the comedic actor, stayed home, closed up in her study, the actor's physicality too provincial for her. His face seemed enormous on the screen, the popping eyes and rubber neck, his wretched screech filling the theater—her father's full laughter restless in the seat next to her. Lewis's large feet groped the floor like a child, bony thighs encased in the awkward bellboy's uniform, the elongated fingers clutching the shoulders and arms of hotel guests as he maneuvered about. After the film was over, she seemed to forget entire scenes and the set blurred before her eyes, yet his spastic gestures and facial ticks remained, sent back into random pockets in her brain like terrible traits a person inherits but wishes to distance himself from.
One morning, she went walking in the park. It was scattered with local families and pasty English families entangled in maps. She passed a small Italian man lying on a blanket, two boys spread out behind him eating hunks of cheese and bread. The man jumped up and trailed after her, hovering behind her, a piece of bread wrapped tightly in his small hands. She was slightly taken aback by the stranger. To Jeanine, Italians seemed a restless, gesturing bunch in general and she quickly moved forward but the man tapped her arm with his bread-laden fist and asked in broken English what her name was. She hesitated and looked around; there were many people about and he seemed harmless. She answered quickly, her first and last name sliding into one another in a great rush. He leaned toward her a little further; the small toe of his dark loafers touched her own, in her clean, white tennis shoe.

“Jerry Lewis?” he said, his tone wavering with slight incredulity then sliding into a shrill falsetto mixed with hope. She repeated her name but he seemed to have stopped listening.
 “Jerry Lewis!?” He swung out the syllables from his lips again; he arms reaching up to the sky in a rapid upsurge of cloth and skin as he uttered the name. She kept repeating her own name to the man, stressing syllables and enunciating vowels. But by then a crowd had begun to gather, a series of thick Italian ladies and fragile children encircling her small frame, asking her for an autograph. They began a sonorous chant of, “Jirry Lewees, Jirry Lewees.” It reverberated through the trees and flung itself back at her. She put her arms forward and pushed at the small space of air between her and the crowd.

The crowd pushed back a little but then she stood still suddenly and began to study her fingers, the backs of hands, as if to look at her body for the first time. They seemed stumpy and apologetic, unadorned with any jewelry. She reached to her hair, it was short and dark at the time, not particularly reflecting any current style for she twelve and her appearance was in the conspicuous throes of post-adolescence and this rendered her physicality neither here nor there as far as masculinity or femininity were concerned. She hadn't stepped forward from her youth—she was a nascent figure—as her mother described her, awkward, benign, and somewhat unkempt—the pleated trousers she had slipped on casually in the morning—a drab gray, the loose sloppy cardigan thrown above—was it all too boyish?

She got scared, pushed through the thickening crowd, coarse hands pawing her arms and shoulders as she ran away to the apartment. The two young boys, who had stood behind their father, the accuser, followed her, a large pen clutched in one of the boy's fingers. While she was running she passed the aviary where Goethe had liked to sit when he traveled to Rome. A small white sign read, “Rotonda di Goethe” with a series of paragraphs in Italian below the title, the words blurred in her peripheral vision as she passed.

When she got back to the apartment she told her mother of the experience. Crying on the soft camel hair sofa, she told her of the small Italian man and the crowd, the chanting of the movie star's name. She pointed down out the window, where the boys still lingered near the awning of the apartment breezeway, their thick sandals tapping the sidewalk. Her mother leaned back, her tanned svelte figure blending well into the brownish fabric.

 “Ah, yes, a strange crowd! A strange people! Mistaking a girl for a man! You know, it was Goethe, who in Rome found out who he really was. 'I found myself here in Rome,' he said at one point in his life.” Her mother paraphrased and sipped her dark coffee while hesitantly nibbling on a pastry. Images of Jerry Lewis swayed before Jeanine—the whining and sniveling, his gaping teeth and lips protruding over the sweaters of a dozen girls.

The boys called out from below the balcony again: "Autografa! Autografa!" was all she understood. She rushed to the window and looked out, pushed her head forward, clutching the balcony rail and called out in a loud, tinny voice, “I am a girl, not a man!! I am a girl, not a man!!” She was mistaken for an American man in a country where she had never traveled before. She was mistaken.