Time piles up on itself. Like the first newspaper tossed to the corner or pair of underpants hook-shot into the hamper after a backbreaking trip to the Laundromat, the first minute—hour—day blanket-bounced high into the air seems innocuous enough. Then you get cocky. Or, if you’re like me, and you don’t use words like that, you kid yourself, and before you know it it’s five minutes to everything and time has formed—and not coincidently, because let it not be said that time is unfamiliar with the concept of kidding—something resembling the Sphinx in your path. It’s the soft, conversational streams of snow that cause trouble; they invite an audience at the window for just long enough to seal you in at the door.
The vitamin hill, squared away in the bedside table drawer of my hotel room in Tropea, would have insulted an ant. That is to say time had piled up. The handful of moments in my life where I have actually wanted to stop time, work a single grain through its paces over and over, faster and hotter until, having bloomed crystalline, is poised forever in the terrible cradle of the hourglass—which I’d like to say are along the lines of when you smiled at me, that way, that Sunday, that summer—with only the faintest knuckle-whitening can be reduced to moments spent alone, in Italy. And my problem—a quintessentially American one—is believing that I want to stop time, therefore I can. Ergo the pile-up. Some plow through the pile, stanching wounds and spitting teeth all the way, others make end runs on tippy-toe, clothes held high overhead, some attempt to go under and are, predictably, never heard from again; I once saw a friend clear three consecutive piles without spilling his drink, but I think that’s only possible in college.
On what was inarguably to be my final morning in Tropea I awoke to several more facts, some pressing, some gloriously hard-pressed: my underpants, pinned up lovingly on the balcony the previous evening, were agreeably soggy after the early morning rains; the sun was only three hours from its fashionably late, corner-blasting debut and I was left with only one day to find Figline Vegliaturo, discover my real name and possibly marry a goat herder, sodding it all for a life of hillside breeding and prickly pears. I prepared for battle with the time pile all through my last run. First along a coast still talking the wee, weepy morning hours down from their despondent post atop Tropea’s bluffs and then homeward on the narrow farm roads crackling dolefully underfoot, shyly canopied at the shoulders by apricot boughs.
I had been trying to close the deal on my hotel bill for four days (had we but world enough and time, Hotel sur Mare!) and each time was told to return the next morning, when surely il Supermano would have abducted the archaic credit card machine, circled the Earth for a light year or two, and brought it into the millennium by daybreak. Alas, the albino and I waited in vain, were left each morning to briefly ponder why we had been forsaken before returning to our respective crossword and drift beachward on floodlit feet. And so on my final morning’s run I made an anticipatory stop at a bank to coax the required amount from an ATM. It poked my card back out like a petulant little tongue as unrecognizable words cut onto the screen: the longsuffering eyes of technology.
I closed the door on my room in the sky and the brown brown shoulders still shrugging in the square-cut mirror. After my suitcase and I clattered down four flights of marble stairs, announcing my intentions rather more forcefully than I felt them, I stood once again before my translucent padrone di casa. We shook our heads but kept the faith re: il Supermano and I indicated the void in my wallet. A brother, translucent only about the gills, was summoned from behind the door where brothers loom and I was dispatched with him on an ATM hunt. And so it begins, I thought, as I buckled myself into the front seat of a minivan. I would cede the morning, a bloodletting of sorts, weakening the pile just enough to dart around it. A plan.
I explained to the brother, as he showily executed a six-point (but who’s counting) turn to remove us from the hotel’s cul-de-sac, that we needn’t bother with the defunct Banco di Crotone. For the next half-hour I was deposited at the foot of every bank machine in Tropea, and by the fourth no-go I feared suspicion that my solvency was at issue, so along with the “safe at third!” gesture to indicate failure I quoted the words that every screen had flashed at me—"_fuori servicio_"—which it was painfully clear I would not otherwise know, for credibility. We were finished in Tropea, this much was clear to the brother and I, and before I could rule out suspicion of being kidnapped and sold by the pound to lonely fig merchants I realized I was simply being driven to the next town’s ATMs.
In Nicotera we each had to spend a few moments in a turnstyle/isolation chamber before being allowed into the bank—very Buck Rogers—but once inside it was back to a time long long ago, where black loopholes prevent credit card cash advances and the dilapidated ATMs also await il Supermano’s second coming at 14:30h. It was two and a half hours I could not afford to lose, and I explained this to the brother in pidgin Italian as I coaxed him back into the van.
With a hand fastened to each knee, as though to steady the words, and eyes fixed on a distant point in yogic concentration, I managed to map out my need to get to Cosenza and find the village of my great-grandparents that afternoon before taking the overnight train to Florence in order to attend—and here I took both a great linguistic liberty and my own marital status in my hands by making the ring-goes-on-the-finger gesture— the wedding of my cousin. “Ah, sposare!” gasped the semi-albino brother, and I turned in time to see his glow transmute, marvelously, from rosé to a high Pepto-Bismol, as he wrestled the van into fourth. Suddenly everything was fine, back at the hotel I was greeted by a general consensus of satisfaction with my efforts, tossed back into the van, suitcase catching some air behind me, and a business card flicked through the window onto my lap as we laboured out of the cul-de-sac and bam-zoomed station-ward.
The brother had a brief drive-by exchange with a woman leaving the station front as we pulled in, a woman I later learned was actually the ticket vendor beginning her two-hour break. Advantage: pile. I was counting on getting money that morning, and now had to board a train with no ticket and less than two euros in my pocket.
I had a one-hour wait for the train to Cosenza via Lamezia, and I pulled my wayward charge past the few Italian lingerers, typically clustered together in solidarity for the act of lingering, to the furthest bench on the platform. The rest of the day would be wasted under the cover of travel and I wanted to stretch out, nimbus-addled, and draw a day’s worth of sun in right through the nose. We had made friends lo those last three and a half weeks, and though my back was yet a cartography of lower Afghanistan and my hair a madly blonded tangle, I smiled into the warmth of its hard-won favor, slung so much lower in the sky without sky-scraping stakes to prop it aloft. There was fruit, like forgiveness, ripening at a confident clip in a bag on the ground, an arm spilled from my side, the elbow’s inseam suffering the breeze warily—unhappily exposed, secretly thrilled—and the punt/counter-punt cadences of a heated argument somewhere on the other side of a building, fence, and row of tall trees lapping steadily at my ear. I discerned that it was, incredibly, pasta-related.
Reading in Cosenza: Galileo’s Daughter, by Dava Sobel