TROPEA—Lying on top of my sheets, dozing to the slate-blue stylings of the waves, everything came easily. The surf’s suave exhale coaxed at my cheek and rifled through my hair with cool ardor. Where Reggio’s air was sour and over-talked, Tropea’s felt like that surrounding a consummate charmer: wry and exciting, especially after nine. As the sun raises the sweetness in a nectarine’s flesh, the joy of the day flowed high under my skin, needing a tempering rest in the dark to become palatable. “There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy/and though he traveled very far, very far, over land and sea./ A little shy, and sad of eye, but very wise was he…”
I slept so hard I feared hurting the pillow and awoke with the usual song on my lips after a night of words square dancing through my head. Even the faces and people who hijacked my thoughts with pocketed hands and swift steps during the day morphed into heliotropic words, all blink-eyed with light, brightly attainable, infinitely arrangeable.
There’s a photo of my dad, age 44, holding my rabbit, Wilbur, to his chest and flashing the camera a conspiratorial look. The sly bluff of his eyes and lift of one corner of his mouth recalls the easy confidence of my grandfather’s youthful mien: deceptively slack, a wheel at rest. I saw it in Tinnucia. Even at three, she wore the fact of her self-possession like an anchor to be dropped at will. I hate having my photo taken. My man in Capri was crestfallen by my refusal to pose for a picture with him. He probably remembers that most of all.
At the time, building a futuristic scaffold around a long-dead three-year-old’s face, or stealing onto a porch whose door’s opened top half let the mid-afternoon arias of Maria Callas sail regally overhead while the closed bottom bore up my illicit, fetal swooning, or laughing at the 10 kilogram jar of the local delicacy, Nutella, at its apparent flagship store, seemed like the most worthwhile pursuits on Earth. It also seemed increasingly unfair that I should ever have to leave this place, and the thought of anyone doing so willfully perplexed me to the point of offense. Clearly my great-grandfather’s dubious decision-making skills rivaled mine: I had dickered myself down to the least possible amount of time to do what I had spent the entire month preparing to do. Which was basically to make Orange family history. The only one surprised was me.
Not making the trip was clearly out of the question. That the girl who runs should equivocate about such a matter may not surprise Raffaello or Francesco. Each day I meant to leave, but then the sun came out and… if there was just one rainy day… one mealy peach. I have operated on the principles of reverse-motivation for quite a while now. Whole years marked not by what I should do, but what will stop me from doing what I shouldn’t.
Like travelling to a careworn past and a careless future at the same time, Italy is freedom, almost as much from the things I have done as from the things I haven’t. As the tide gently but firmly ushered the night into my room I plugged words into formulas, factored moments into equations. Tinnucia is to young dead couple as being remembered for how you were is to being remembered for what you did. I threaded out different strains of legacy until attendant agonies and inevitable paralysis met at Point Paradox.
I wonder if my grandfather ever felt it was his youth itself that was killing him. Looked at his hands at 21 and felt helpless against the anguish of generations of jealous forebears hissing down on him. Was unable to even fathom his responsibility, the demands his relentlessly smooth hands must meet, on and on and never stopping and him so still, always checking them, waiting for it to be over. Did he ever say “No! Enough!! Take me back, please God, I have nothing to give! Let me hide forever under a sodden hill and then cry in my captivity: ‘Oh what the world is missing! Yes, am I not a marvel? Do I not shine here, alone, like the lips of a drooling babe in the centre of a universe of love, unable to muscle out a word?’ I detest the world I see and I reject my smooth smooth hands and will crease them for spite and lump up my easy face to show you my hate! I break and break and break and you never never look! How long it takes to be young! To set tender shoulders against the dawn!”? Or words to that effect?
After four years, three trips to Italy and five nights in Tropea I have this: I want to do right by my family; I want to bring a story to Florence; I want to be good; I want my dad to retrace my steps down to Calabria; I want my shoulders to stop peeling so I can wear my dress to the wedding. I want some things back, it’s true: our name; that look on my grandpa’s face; the kisses I’ve squandered and the moments of withholding; the messages, read and unread to be sure; all the strawberries I have ever eaten and will ever eat that will not be these strawberries, these perfect, orphan strawberries that bleed their little hearts out for me. I’m calling the satellites home, and if there’s no answer for me in that mountain village, no snapshot-ready tomb, message to record or revelatory certificate to proffer to my dad — my dad who will ask me after the wedding dinner if I got enough to eat, that curious query I remember from always — I will proceed undeterred. What I know in the dark is that I will bear all of those things, that I’ve got them by the tail.
With only 36 hours before Florence, less the 13 hour train ride it takes to get there, I found the more pressing calculations to be:
Belief + discipline = fulfillment
The winsome confidence of my grandfather + the handsome reticence of my father = me
The beauty of Siena X the beaches of Scilla = Tropea
Sudbury, Ontario – Figline Vegliaturo = Giuseppe Orange
It was the one answer that would resist the precious wrestlings of all time upon the starched linens of every hotel room until eternity. I was certain, anyway, that my dad must see Tropea. He would be taking a tour after the wedding in Florence. It was the subject of much controversy, this taking of tours. The thought of my dad gaggling along with the paunch patrol, led through the streets of Italy by a big red flag rankled. He should be bombing down the countryside in wayfarers and a shitty little Fiat. In Reggio I had urged him to ditch the tour and go to Figline Vegliaturo, as by that time I would have scouted it out. Ever vague, he said something about the tour bypassing Calabria but conceding to ask the driver for a pee break in Cosenza. A pee break?
I had wanted this to mean as much to him as it did to me, I wanted to show him the possibilities and felt I could, that the change in me must be apparent, was likely interfering with air traffic control over southern Italy that very moment. At once, however, the decision to go was mine alone, the wish list written in my hand only. I will leave this place, it’s true, and continue leaving places, sure, and will be remembered somehow, yes. Girl who runs — fine. Girl whose drying underpants kept blowing off the balcony onto the decks below — good enough.
After packing away the remains of my clothes and books for an early morning getaway, I leaned back onto the bed, arms wide, rolling my itchy back and sun-mapped shoulders into the rough bedspread. It felt unbelievably good, better than anything, involuntary muttering good. A boat’s egg-beater whir through the water down below drew me out into the clarified, still-warm air.
I stood there for a long while, the familiar tidal upswing swanning in over the beach. The cool concrete a balm for the embattled soles of my feet, the metal rails of the balcony a still-idling conduit of the sun’s warmth. It’s a moment you’d think begged company, yet I couldn’t imagine anyone else there. The sound of the air conditioning unit behind my head grinding into gear started me around, and I noticed that strung between its base supports, at eye level, was a laundry line of sorts, a single underpant’s length across and gridlocked with clothes pins. I dashed inside and set to giving an aesthetically ideal pair of underpants every unflinching, washerwomanly attention in the sink. Bearing my pitifully disoriented token back onto the balcony with something approaching solemnity, I clipped them to the line, filling it utterly. At their first slight waver atop the rising wind I swooned with them, sharing their relief.
I knew, of course, that it would rain all night, as it had every night, but this was my last chance. The fact that, come morning, I would not be nonplussed by the sopping wet state of my affairs attested to a native’s savvy, if not a traveler’s practicality. And there-pinned hangs a tale.
Reading in Tropea:
Sons and Lovers, by D. H. Lawrence
Translation of Tinnucia’s tomb:
From the cradle, you were a martyr of pain, despite the endless caresses and love of your parents. Still the visions of soon flying to heaven were always in your eyes and you smiled even in your agony. Pleading with us to dry our tears if we really loved you. Your inconsolable parents and uncle, with infinite affection. We remember you and hope to reach you up above.