During World War II, I was a combat navigator, We flew out of Foggia, Italy, took leave in Rome. The first time I was there, I went to my room—one of the watering holes for Army Air Corps officers on leave in Rome was the Excelsior Hotel—changed into a clean shirt and went down to the bar. It was crowded with young men drinking steadily with pretty young girls. It could have been a college fraternity party, except that all the men were in uniform and all the girls were Italian.
I asked a buddy where the girls came from and how these guys managed to line up dates so fast. He said, "Take your pick. They're all for rent."
The price was usually quoted in cigarettes. We paid fifty cents for a carton of a major U.S. brand at the PX, but were rationed to one carton per week. The same carton sold for twenty-five dollars on the black market. A night with one of these young girls usually cost a carton of cigarettes. During the evening, couples would pair off and leave. Toward the end of the evening, there was often a raucous, drunken auction, and if you were not too choosy about taking leftovers, you could often get a night for less than a carton.
Roy, my ascetic pilot, avoided this kind of ribaldry, but Bill, our feisty co-pilot, got involved with several girls. One day, I was scheduled for some leave time in Rome, looking forward to the rest, a little sight-seeing, maybe a little drinking, but especially to calling Phyllis, my girl friend, in New York. Rome was the onlyplace where we could place international telephone calls.
Before I left, Bill took me aside and asked for a favor. "Gene," he said, "Can you help me out with a whore in Rome?"
"Help you out how?"
"Well, I've seen her a couple of times and I think she's in love with me."
"Cut that out. She's expecting to see me at the Excelsior Hotel tonight, and I just don't want to get involved. Would you tell her that I'm not going to be there, that I've been reassigned, that I've died? Tell her anything, but just get her off my hands."
Her name was Maria, and I remembered her from the last time Bill had introduced me to her. She was an attractive young girl with a shy smile and arms and legs that were painfully thin, but she could keep up with my exuberant co-pilot's dancing. So I agreed, not really knowing exactly what I was going to do. But you don't turn down your co-pilot in his time of need.
When I checked into the hotel I searched the bar, but no Maria. So I went to the dining room, ate a dinner that cost all of fifty cents for men in uniform, and went to the bar and nursed a drink for about an hour before we spotted each other.
Where's Bill?," she said. She pronounced it "Beel."
Maria had dark curly hair, bright dark eyes and a face that looked as if it had seen a lot of lousy things in this loser of a country. She couldn't have been any older than nineteen.
I was embarrassed, told her Bill wasn't here yet. Her face fell, and she asked me if I knew when he was going to come. I said I didn't and asked her if she'd like a drink. She said she would and, as she drank, occasionally looked around the room.
After another hour, I screwed up my courage and finally told her that Bill wasn't going to be there at all. She looked at me with a resignation that spoke of having been brushed off before. As she slowly got up from the table, I said on impulse, "Have you eaten?"
"No," and started to leave.
"Hey, come join me."
After a pause, she did and we went back to the dining room. When she ordered her meal, I told the waiter I had already eaten, and Maria turned to look at me. When the food arrived, she began to eat hungrily.
"You are very gen-ti-le [kind]"she said, when she had finished, "to give me a meal because your friend is a bastard."
"Well, I figured you were planning to eat with him, and didn't want you to go away hungry," This whole thing was beginning to sound pretty maudlin, but I didn't know what else to say.
"You come sleep with me tonight?"
"No," I said, "I really can’t."
"You so gen-ti-le, I won't charge anything."
I got up to go, taking her by an arm. God, it was thin. I wondered how much she ate in a day. I wondered if she was supporting anyone else. Many of the young prostitutes had children and occasionally one would bring a child around to meet her "friends." What a hell of a way to make a living, I thought. Then we walked out of the Excelsior. I never saw Maria again.