TROPEA—There is a photo on each tomb in the musty stacks that grid Tropea’s only cemetery. I skipped my eyes over them like a savvy stone across a slavering ocean, touching down to pay only the most economical of respects, but was sunk by a little girl named Tinnucia. Only three when she died in 1954, her tomb was engraved corner to corner with script. Her face was darkly angelic, each pierced ear flashing from the blackest recess of an artfully practiced curl. There seemed to be a lot to remember about this face, at once too old and too young. The text on her tomb took up eight lines in my notebook; I couldn’t translate completely but it seemed like a plea from the family. What had happened to this slyly innocent child in perfect Tropea? Did little girls die here as well? The words “le nostre la crime” held me there, searching her wan, untrusting face.
Down a few stairs there was a monument of sorts, a wide, white berth, at the top of which rested the obligatory photo. This time it was a young couple, their matching grins set off by the blindingly white hull of a sailboat. They were 19 when they died on Christmas Day, 1998. Again, my poor Italian thwarted me, and for the first time I longed for the company of another: Caterina, Serbian translator of Italian into English par excellence. Did the quote from the couple read “Since we ARE no longer living in this world…” or “Since we CAN no longer live in this world…”? I watched their faces for a tell, a suicidally raised eyebrow or sentient pull of the mouth until their smiles resolved into curdled question marks: did the fresh flowers at these graves attest to epically swollen, endless grief or cleareyed dedication to convention?
Most North American cemeteries are golf courses jumbled with stone-clad non sequiturs, at best. I haunt them nonetheless, running in the big ones, hiding in small ones with a boy I desperately want to kiss. The final lines of Middlemarch trail behind me like a plane-pulled banner past regulars and Hall of Famers (I. Fell, Richard Blewett) alike: “the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” It was the gentle defense of obscurity that devastated me at 22; all of those faithless tombs, narratives reduced to sentence fragments. That “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts” was of no comfort to me. I remember turning out the light to sleep, pulling the book to my chest and murmuring: “I visit them.”
My uncle is buried in the huge cemetery where I run at home, yet for years I couldn’t find him. Every morning I pounded past the stone rows, knowing he was in there somewhere, and I waited. I wanted it to just happen. I always want things to just happen. I never kissed the boy.
Last year, waiting on Sorrento’s pier for a boat to Capri, I was approached by a boy with eyes like bottled antifreeze: garish blue shot through a sheen of white. I am reluctant charmee where locals are concerned — it’s time-consuming more than anything — but something about Anti-Freeze was genuinely warm; by the time we got to the island he had reasoned himself out of returning to work and I had half-witted myself onto the back of his motorcycle. Within a couple hours we were a young married couple and I was on the other side of an enviable, hair-whipping tour of the island. Ultimately, however, I slipped from him with relief, protestations of visiting me that night in Sorrento on his end and promises to call and confirm on mine.
On a pier bench hours later I watched the lame duck sun, having, in its final minutes, cleared the volcanic haze, slip demurely into the sea. The murk is ever-present in the daytime, and finds tenuous purchase on the bridge of your nose, displacing checks and balances across the body like ill-fitting glasses, but in the moments before sunset, Capri appears on the horizon. The last boat from the island arrived, and I watched the faces of the sun-splashed passengers tiding by me in chastened, chatty trances. Then they were gone, taking the sun with them, leaving me with the cats and a stiffening wind.
Checking out the next day, I left a note and memento at the hotel for my friend, with plans to call from Rome offering instructions and apologies. In Rome, days earlier, I had targeted a remote landmark with the intention of marking a small portion of its base with finely spun strands of gum. I had determined gum to be the most enduring of media, perfect for sticky communiqués strung out in vain. Ah, the notes fired off around this country, I launch them like halfhearted satellites.
The Tunisian men I ran by every day on my way to Reggio’s boardwalk stood out on the corner of a massive intersection. They charged into traffic at every red light to pour water on unsuspecting windshields and mess it around with questionable vigor. Did anything of mine strike them as deeply as their squeegee-stuffed Beauty and the Beast backpacks propped on the curb had struck me? Such fits of legacy pique writ miniature remind me of Caterina: she was probably uneasy about being alone with Raffaello, our Spanish professor, whose nocturnal arias she found unbearable. Did he hear me singing at night, and was it unbearable? He left the apartment while I was making my final, take-away dinner in Reggio and I returned his goodbye with no indication of its finality. Perhaps because I took an instant dislike to a man who would leave the seat up in a bathroom he shared with two girls. Perhaps not.
Caterina’s toothbrush, mummified in an orange plastic bag, was initially set on the sink, then dangled from a nail above the sink, then, inexplicably — perhaps as some sort of passive-aggressive reproval — it moved across the bathroom and over the toilet, where another incongruous screw jutted from the wall. Raffaello’s toothbrush, when it appeared after three days of suspense, was encased in a high-falutin’, blue and green plastic baguette. He staked it — rather audaciously — in the prime real estate behind the faucets. Frankly, it was a little too close to mine for comfort; I felt that he was making a statement with his baldly sinkist stance, clearly filibustering our germs. He opted not to grace my Colgate Total and Caterina’s Kolystone with his toothpaste’s presence.
It struck me one morning, however, that there was a rather uncharacteristic crumple to my tube. I let it go, not least of all because I am a worthless pagan. I made laughable attempts to rest my brush on top of the tube of toothpaste, lest it be sullied, but it was for Caterina’s sake rather than mine. I took her toothbrush decorum as a cue that sink contact was for cavemen, and seeing as we weren’t going to be friends, this was my chance to make an impression. When I say I tried I mean I gave it one shot, then watched with a smirk as it slumped onto the porcelain, like a toddler’s fat bottom plunking down the final stair. I doubt either of them consciously participated in the vanity version of RISK I had us playing, much less extracted character judgements from toothbrush, facecloth and razor peccadilloes. Were I to merit a sentence from any of the people I meet in Italy, it would most likely be: “She’s the girl who runs.”
Although running in Tropea remained an object lesson in curiosity, it was a kinder, gentler fish eye. My first morning, I noticed a car slowing alongside me and battened down for the incoming. At least it was a chance to slot the inevitable preverbal proposition according the categories I had created: the Pinched Nerve, the Bicycle Pump, the Mother May I, the Firewalk, the Metronome, the Wounded Balloon, the Begnini. With no sounds forthcoming I turned to look and saw a father directing his tiny daughter’s attention to the freak on wheels. She scrabbled to her knees on the passenger side, keening toward me, her eyes gulping with wonder.
And I would laugh. In Tropea, in fact, I may have evened the odds of being “the girl who laughed” with “the girl who ran.” At night, however, the laughter spilled on my bed — sounding as it does, in this strange country’s random rooms off undetermined corridors, so impossibly like itself, like something I know to be true — spooks me. I am compelled to open the balcony door to send it hydroplaning across the water to those I love. Another dummy satellite. I laugh even while considering that the various trajectories of my messages may lead not to another heart or even a knotted hub in time but merely to more of my own words, read and unread to be sure.
Time began to pass with alacrity, and I dove through the days like a dolphin. I was flush with the energy I had put into living as a hen in Reggio’s foxhouse, and instead of leaping from corner to corner, landing always with my chin to my knees and eyes to the sky, I could plod to the beach lost in thought. Or just lost. It was located at the foot of 100 meters worth of stairs eked somewhat incidentally from a cliff. The wide, beige belt of sand hosted an older crowd, mainly couples and a few amorphous, kicky-legged infants. Even so, it took a while for my guard to literally drop. A book is woman’s best friend in Reggio: a barrier when propped in front of her face, it eliminates all opportunities for eye contact. Often I would move the page, instead of my eyes, from left to right to block a man’s peripherally passing form.
During my inaugural beach trip in Tropea, I tentatively turned my figurative shield into a more functional one, placing it over my face in response to the sun’s perverse desire to brand only the rounds of cheek beneath my eyes. In Scilla, this concession courted disaster, predators cleaving instantly to a woman holding her defenses so close as to be useless. Thus gunshy, false alarms turned my pseudo-relaxing flop on the sand into something of a slapstick routine. I would hear the telltale crunch of footsteps too close to my head and brace for an interruption. Each time, however, I peeked from under my book and saw no one and nothing in either direction. After four or five rounds I realized that the footsteps stopped the moment I lifted the book, and that they were not footsteps at all, but the scrape of my eyelashes, with each blink, across the page.
Once, on a lark, I engaged the television’s “on” button with a flourish, keeping manual contact to a minimum out of superstition and, it must be said, intrinsic spastic tendencies. Even before the picture materialized, however, the super-charged chatter of MTV Europe startled me straight. Expedition aborted. Unfortunately, the TV was not foresaken for more productive pursuits: during the day I couldn’t write a word and focused only on what was in front of me, like the loll-eyed beach babies. If my eyes accidentally passed over my notebook between 9 AM and 7 PM, sighing forlornly on the night table, I quickly looked away. When I had to move it, say, to make room for a glass or a nearly finished mouthwash bottle (anticipation killing me!), I prodded gingerly, as if not to wake it, sometimes using a pencil instead of my fingers. I didn’t want to chance a bleary inquisition: “When did you get in? Do you know what time it is?”
I had not spoken to my dad since Reggio, and wouldn’t until we met in Florence. When I told him I had found the village of his grandparents — on paper — he sounded off with typical skepticism, asking absently if I was really going to go there. Of course I was going to go there! Of course I was! Yet here I was, still in Tropea, vigilantly guarding my serenity against the tyranny of inanimate objects.
Each night, when I had thoroughly given train times, departure days, and route alternatives the what-for, I’d move on to the money I had left to spend, the items I could leave behind for the next, and most important, leg. Though I have been obsessed with lightening my suitcase since arriving in Italy, I had been more successful at lightening myself. My hair was braided with sun, my eyes a brighter, sugar snap green, my clothes balked from sharpened angles. Yet the thought of one less T-shirt, shampoo bottle, or (newly targeted) dwindling stick of lip balm calmed me enormously. Calmed me enough to confront the question of Figline Vegliaturo. To find: The City Hall. A marriage license. Our real name, perhaps on a tombstone. Those were the things on the list, anyway.
Reading in Tropea:
Sons and Lovers, by D. H. Lawrence