“Oh my God,” I said, scrunching up my nose. “What is that?”
It was past midnight, and we were heading to Volcano, a volcanic island in the Aeolian Islands blanketed with black, sulfurous ash. In the distance, I could see the faint glow of lights as we motored through the dark in our boat. I was swigging a bottle of Peroni, the staple Italian beer that we’d discovered early on in our trip and hadn’t stopped drinking since.
“Sulfur,” Francesco said. “Just 100 people live there.”
My best friend Amanda and I had been curious to see Volcano, had heard the shores were made of ink-black sand. It was basically uninhabitable, but, in the tourist trap of the Aeolian Islands, it was prime real estate, so it had been transformed into one big party out in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea, just north of Sicily. As we neared the shore, the lights grew brighter, little beckoning lighthouses that blurred in my drunk vision. I could make out a low bass, the sound of club music moving across the water.
Amanda and I had met Francesco and his friend Victor a few days ago on the main island of the archipelago, Lipari. Tonight, after a night of drinking on the beach, the four of us had crammed onto a single motorcycle, riding helmetless along the shore to the docks—something, at twenty, I was still stupid enough to do.
“Whose boat is this, anyway?” Amanda asked as the outdoor bar on Volcano’s shore was just coming into view.
They both laughed in response—it was either an inside joke, or they hadn’t quite understood the question. We’d been managing to piece together conversations with their English and our Italian—Amanda’s was far better than mine; I never understood the cadences of the language—but much of what we said was half-lost in translation. This didn’t create awkwardness; instead, it smoothed out the rough edges of things, so that nothing could catch. It allowed us to ignore the fact that we really had nothing at all to talk about with these guys.
We made our way to the docks at the edge of Volcano, and Francesco jumped off the boat before Victor even had a chance to tie it up.
“Time to party!” he yelled idiotically, his skinny, long arms waving high in the air as he beelined for the bar. This was just an average Wednesday night for them, we knew. These were island boys, boys who had no schedule, boys who hopped from one party to the next, boys on permanent vacation. Rich boys. Every week was the same, I imagined, except for one component: the tourists who filled their days. This week they had picked us, and, on some level, this made us feel special. Of all the American girls who were swarming the Aeolian Islands right now, we had been chosen.
The trip to Italy was a gift I hadn’t seen coming. Just a few weeks after I graduated from college, I got a call from Amanda while I was at work, an offbeat performing arts club on the Bowery in New York City. When she called, I was stocking the café’s display fridge with rows of carbonated juices, a task I had completed so many times I dreamed about it in my sleep.
“Hey, I’m working,” I said, cradling the phone between my neck and shoulder.
“Just quickly, do you want to come to Italy with me?”
“It would be amazing if you could.”
“Wait, back up,” I said and closed the fridge door. “What about Jared?”
There was a long pause.
“He won’t go.”
Amanda’s mother loved to spoil her, and for graduation she had given her and her boyfriend Jared a fully-funded trip to Italy—Amanda had been studying the language for the past year. The couple had moved in together when they were just eighteen—and I, her roommate, had moved out. Amanda became prematurely domesticated, playing house and cooking Jared dinner every night, putting on weight, and quietly receding into herself. In the past year, though, Amanda had begun to grow out of him, feeling cramped by his clinging kisses and pet names, bored and sad and tired, wondering how, at twenty, she could already be all of those things. I knew he’d had reservations about going, deep-seated neuroses about alienation, foreign languages, and hotel rooms. But I’d thought, in the end, that he’d man up—it was a three-week, all expenses paid trip to Italy. No shitty hostels, no sleeping outside, no street food. But Jared wanted to contain their world, to keep it as small and translatable as possible. And Amanda wanted any world that wasn’t the cage she currently lived in.
I suppose I was looking for an escape too. My life was just as confining as Amanda’s, but, unlike hers, mine had no borders, no guardrails—it was a big, ugly expanse so great and empty it was its own kind of trap. I had just finished college and was broke and directionless, scraping by on barista and catering tips, babysitting money, any work I could find. My father had left the continent for good; my mother was living on disability on the other side of the country. I was sick with a severe chronic pain condition that would not be properly diagnosed for another six months, and trying my hardest to ignore all signs that my life without the crutch of college was quickly unraveling, a process sped up by my deeply unsatisfying relationship with Mark, a quiet but potently destructive force in my life. I was hopelessly addicted to him, and we’d played out an extraordinarily tiring half-romance for the past six months, attached but not devoted to one another. I’d partied my share in college, but none of that could compete with how much I was drinking now to keep up with him—afterhours at local bars, all night jam sessions in his tiny living room on Rivington street, rounds of drinking that would last, sometimes, until 8 AM, when we’d collapse, near-blind, into his bed, the punishing morning light coming though his blinds. He had just gotten out of a long relationship, and I had just left a man I didn’t love, a man much older than me who offered me a beautiful apartment in Chelsea, a safety net, a substitute anchor while I was waiting for the real thing.
Perhaps these are the reasons we approached this trip with magical thinking: Italy would be another life, a transformative three weeks. We’d return with our heads straight and our minds made; we’d have an uninterrupted span of time together, the way we had before men—or boys—had gotten in the way. Italy would be different; it would feel different.
Except, for the most part, it didn’t. Five days into the trip, Amanda was frustrated that we hadn’t discovered some elusive “authentic Italy” she’d dreamed up, and we kept leaving popular tourist destinations nearly as soon as we reached them, lacking even the patience to stand in line to see Michelangelo’s David or visit the Vatican.
“I don’t know what I was expecting to find,” Amanda said one day in Salerno, a beach town on the Amalfi coast. “Women in villages weaving baskets? Old men picking olives and crushing grapes? Some twenty-something version of Under the Tuscan Sun? I don’t know. I didn’t expect this. I didn’t expect to feel like I’m in America.”
There were differences, of course, huge differences—the language, the history, the insane drivers, the fact that everyone ate pastries every single day for breakfast yet remained thin. But the sameness of globalism was impossible to escape, following us wherever we went. So we snaked our way down the coast of Italy until we reached the toe of the boot, Reggio di Calabria, a depressing port city where we stayed in a hotel room that was rank with mildew, its old, flowered wall paper covered with stains, dust-covered porcelain dolls lining the bookcases. It felt like some creepy mausoleum, a dead child’s room that had been left to rot, never changed. The next morning we decided we were done with the boot, so we only had one place to go: Sicily.
We missed the daily passenger boat to Palermo by just three minutes, watching it motor obliviously away from shore as we hollered, waving our arms. The workers took mercy on us, and beckoned us onto a cargo ship that was leaving in the other boat’s wake. The surly men fed us espresso and cookies as a we sat, shyly, wondering if it was smart to share the helm of a ship with three hairy, strong-armed Italian men, out alone in the ocean. I had always traveled with guys before this trip; I hadn’t realized how vulnerable I’d feel with only Amanda by my side.
“Sicily is dangerous,” they told us as we waved goodbye to them. “Watch out for the men.”
We could sense, immediately, that Sicily was different: In Palermo, stray cats and mangy dogs ran free, the food was cheap, the squares strewn with rotting vegetables from outdoor markets that had come and gone. At night, the streets went black without the glow of streetlights; the air was hot and dry, and palm trees swayed in the parks. That otherness we’d been looking for, we could almost feel it, a hint of Tunisia to the south. After a few days, we got the itch to keep moving, so we got on an early morning boat and made our way to the Aeolian Islands. We’d been told that they were heavily touristed, but we’d certainly never heard of them. Named for Aeolus, the keeper of the winds in Greek mythology, the archipelago sounded romantic, the stuff of legend and lore. Aeolus, we read in our guidebook, could either shipwreck you or guide you safely to shore.
Francesco practically owned Lipari. We met him the second night we were there, on the main street where people were spilling out of lounges and cafes, women wobbling precariously on high heels over the cobblestone. The reason he found to approach us didn’t make much sense: In stilted English, he asked if he could wear one of my silver hoop earrings so he could pretend to hit on the gay bartender and score free drinks for all of us. In minutes, he returned from the busy bar with a slew of rum and cokes for us and his friends, and proceeded to walk up the hill, leaving with all of it: glasses, straws, and tray in hand.
“Don’t we need to take this stuff back in?” Amanda asked, always the responsible one.
Francesco handed her a drink, ignoring the question.
“Swiss?” he asked.
“American,” Amanda answered, a response we’d discovered was not as shameful in Italy as it was in other European countries.
“New York City,” I said then, knowing it was an even better answer. Every Italian, it seemed, had a cousin Antonio or Giovanni in New York or New Jersey. Most were emotional about New York City, sentimental: I’d seen murals in dedication to the victims of 9/11 in Rome, and Italians loved to recite a litany of the names of all five boroughs: “Queens! The Bronx! Brooklyn! Manhattan! Staten Island!”
But it didn’t seem to faze sleepy-eyed Francesco, who had wild, curly hair and a reptilian smile. Thin and spindly, he reminded me of a lounging lizard—he had a suspicious gentleness about him.
“Want to come to the discotec with us?” he asked.
“What discotec?” I asked, looking around at the tourist shops, bars, and open-air cafes.
“At my house. My mom turned it into one.”
“You live in a discotec?”
He and his friends—of whom he clearly was king—guided us to a side street and we all squeezed into a sedan together, Amanda and I sitting on two of the boys’ laps. Nausea set in as the road grew steeper and narrower, and I was relieved when we finally reached the adobe house, a small palace at the very top of the hill. I hated clubs, and this was a bit more questionable than sharing espresso with sailors at the helm of a ship, but we’d done far stupider things in New York with far more dubious characters.
The discotec was as strange as you might imagine. It hadn’t been finished yet, and scraps of wood and chunks of plaster covered the floors, screws rolling under my feet as I felt my way through the dark hallways, random people seeming to appear out of nowhere, like clowns in a deranged funhouse. The main room, which was strewn with empty beer bottles, was lit up a nightmarish red, smoke clouding the air from a smoke machine somewhere. Outside, a huge strobe light flashed manically across the tile patio, where a few people danced next to a small, manmade waterfall that rushed down a large piece of dark granite. I made my way outside and over to the waterfall, cupping my hands and then splashing my face with water. The nausea had returned, coupled, now, with a painful tightening in my chest, the sounds around me suddenly far away as though I were under water, leaving the world of dry ground. I leaned my face against the slick, mercifully cool rock and tried to return to reality: I’d been here many times before, but it had been quite a while since I’d had a panic attack, which, in the past, would hit me while I was out late at night in New York City, suddenly aware that I was surrounded by strangers in a place I didn’t want to be, and the world felt like a huge, open maw ready to swallow me. I’d thought I had a handle on these by now.
“You OK, Simone?” I heard Amanda’s voice in my ear. I could tell, from her tone, that she was having a good time.
“Amanda, I’m sorry, I gotta go,” I said. “Not feeling so good.”
Moments later, I heard her close in my ear again.
“Francesco says thirty minutes,” she said, breathlessly. “Can you handle that?”
I nodded groggily.
“I’ll stay with you,” she said, stroking my hair. I looked over at her, her blond hair shining in the light, her blue eyes soft and comforting. In that moment, she looked positively angelic to me. After what felt like a small lifetime, Francesco came and touched my shoulder.
“Come on, we go now,” he said, taking my hand. They drove us back down the hill, this time in seat belts, the fresh ocean air coming through the windows like some miraculous blessing, the boys singing to bad Italian pop music I couldn’t understand, and I felt so much better, so much more alive. We asked Francesco to stop the car a few blocks away from our inn—we didn’t want them to know where we were staying—and we all got out of the car, the music still blaring, the doors wide open. Victor took my hand and twirled me around on the pavement, the once crowded streets now silent and empty. Francesco did the same with Amanda, and then Amanda and I danced a drunk version of the waltz as the boys twirled one another around, each of them both leading and following. Everything suddenly felt safe, and nothing—not anything back home, or up in that discotec, or in the unnamable future—mattered.
The afternoon we’d arrived in the Lipari, Amanda and I had taken a boat tour of the islands. When the handsome Italian tour guide approached us and saw the promise ring Jared had given Amanda, he immediately homed in on me. Amanda left within a few minutes, bored with the guide’s expert flirting, but I was, for the moment, captive, relishing the freedom of being a new woman in a new man’s eyes—until he asked me to come, alone, to his apartment after the ride and I politely declined. The guide slinked away, then, and Amanda joined me at the boat’s edge.
“That guy is a professional flirt,” she said, bristling, clearly annoyed I had left her to fend for herself for so long. I didn’t want to acknowledge it, but I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was right: he was already courting a tall, blond Swedish looking girl—a girl who would be sitting in his lap by the end of the ride.
“You’re right,” I said, feeling reduced and sad, and hating myself for feeling those things.
We looked out at the tiny islands that the locals called “fragoles,” or “strawberries,” and Amanda fingered the promise ring Jared had given her when they moved in together. I looked down at the white gold ring on my right hand, one of the matching friendship rings Amanda had bought for us in Naples. She’d bought the rings from a shady jeweler, and eventually, they’d tarnish, turn a disconcerting green, reveal themselves to be fake. I wondered if a man—a man I wanted, a man I loved—would ever give me the real thing.
“Why is it that the world refuses to honor friendships in the way it honors romantic relationships?” Amanda asked suddenly—she was prone to posing overly articulate questions or making uncomfortably dramatic statements. “I mean, I don’t have any desire to have sex with you, but still, I love you just as much as I love Jared,” she said. “In some ways, maybe more.”
“I don’t know,” I said, thinking of the way I’d been displaced from Amanda’s apartment when Jared moved in—a change that was silently understood to be necessary. I was sad to leave—in some ways, my downward spiral, my flitting from one rented room to another began the moment I moved out—but I hadn’t felt it as rejection at the time. I’d just accepted it as the natural progression of things, a reshuffling of the social hierarchy that seemed inevitable, whether I liked it or not. My living on her couch was supposed to be temporary anyway—I had broken up with my boyfriend at the time and had nowhere to go. I was grateful for her rescue—she was always rescuing me—and she was grateful for the company. We became like a married couple then, riding the subway into the city together every morning with matching cups of Dunkin Donuts coffee, even if only one of us had class; meeting for lunch everyday at the same bagel shop; sharing beer and imported chocolate bars while we stayed up late together in the living room, working on papers. During that year, for a brief period in my young life, I felt safe—something I’d maybe never felt before, and something I wouldn’t feel again for a very long time. If I’d been a different kind of person, a person more like Amanda, I would’ve said something about it now. But instead I said this:
“I guess I thought that’s part of growing up—meeting men, having babies, moving away, and drifting apart.”
“But it doesn’t have to be,” she said, visibly stung. After Jared moved in, I’d visit their apartment every couple of weeks, the signs of domesticity appearing in greater number each time I came: scones baking in the oven; matched towels in the bathroom; abstract portraits of Amanda on the wall that Jared had painted. Amanda would appear with a spatula in hand, an apron tied around her waist, and I’d wonder where exactly the rest of her was hiding—the explosive Amanda, the alive Amanda, the Amanda who could suck all the air out of the room or give it more oxygen than anyone could handle.
I didn’t realize until that night, dancing a drunk waltz with her on the shore of Lipari, just how much I’d missed her, just how much I’d needed her.
Once Victor had tied up the boat to Volcano’s docks, he helped Amanda and me onto shore. Amanda followed Francesco to the bar, but Victor and I stayed out by the island’s edge, walking.
“You have a beautiful face,” he said in Italian I could understand, putting his palm around my jaw. His hand felt soft, like it was unaccustomed to work. With wavy, dark hair and strikingly flawless skin, Victor was beautiful in his own right but in the way a cherub is beautiful—pure, asexual, the kind of person you might paint a portrait of but not kiss.
“So do you,” I said, looking in his eyes for a moment before turning my head away. We were on a deserted path that jutted out from the bar’s open-air dance floor, where the crowd was thinning. He turned my head towards him again and kissed me, and I kissed back a drunk and unmemorable kiss. I felt his hand, then, at my back, reaching beneath my tank top, and I moved away instinctually, trying to look casual as I stepped aside.
“Let’s go dance!” I said to cover up my retreat, and took his hand, walking up the path towards the bar, my grey skirt swinging across my knees, the soft, black sand finding its way into my leather sandals and between my toes. Francesco and Amanda were doing a clumsy version of the dancing-kissing combination people do when they’re wasted on dance floors, her blond hair flying.
We joined Francesco and Amanda on the dance floor, and after we were all dizzy and tired, we took a round of shots at the bar.
“I’m starving,” I said. Everyone else nodded.
We hopped in the boat, riding back to Lipari, the bright moon lighting our way back. We rode the motorcycle up the shore, a little slower this time, and returned to our inn with a fresh pizza from a pizzeria that stayed open late for drunk kids like us. We sat on the little tile porch that had begun to feel like ours, and the four of us talked for what felt like the first time—we talked about the novel Amanda was writing, the poetry I was working on. They talked about how the two of them grew up together.
It happened so casually, so quickly, that I can’t say exactly how Amanda and I ended up on our respective beds, our faces down on the pillows, Victor and Francesco massaging our sunburned backs with lotion. Victor pulled my tank top up to my neck, and then I felt it—a second pair of hands on me, Francesco’s hands, moving their way up to and under my bra. I turned my head toward Amanda and froze, staring at the red light on our nightstand that had led us to name our room “the brothel.” It reminded me of the nightmarish red of the discotec, those spinning rooms and I felt, suddenly, like I was going to be gripped by something that would not let me go if I didn’t stop this now. Am I going to do this? I thought. Am I really going to do this?
“Stop,” I said, my voice sounding weak like I wasn’t sure I meant it. I could feel Francesco attempting to unhook my bra.
“Stop it!” I yelled this time, pushing myself up and throwing them off of me—fortunately, skinny island boys were not strong boys, and rage made me unnaturally strong.
“It’s OK,” Francesco said. “We’re like brothers.”
“And we’re like sisters,” Amanda said, stepping in. “Which is why we can’t do this.”
“Just get the hell out!” I said, and stormed out myself onto the porch. Though Amanda was the brazen one, I was the one who had the fierce temper, the one who could be unduly harsh, especially when drunk. I could hear Amanda inside apologizing for me. At least to my ignorant ear, her Italian sounded surprisingly flawless, and I felt disturbingly sober. On their way out, Francesco stopped in front of me.
“We are sorry,” he said. “I hope you write many books.” He lowered his head, his face child-like, no longer reptilian. As I watched them walk out to the bike, I felt the panic in my chest release, replaced by a heavy, sad weight. They looked as careless and light on their feet as they had when we first met them. There would be many more weeks with many more girls, I knew, girls who would put out. I went back inside and sat down next to Amanda on her bed.
“When Francesco left my bed and they were both on you, I just thought…” Amanda said, trailing off.
“That I wanted it?”
“Not at all, Amanda,” I said. “Trust me.” She seemed instantly relieved that her friend had not betrayed her by turning into a completely different person under the gaze of a man—or two men.
“The worst part of the whole thing was this creepy red brothel light,” I said. “Guess we called that one.”
We both started laughing, until Amanda stopped: “Shit. I kissed him,” she said, as though she were just remembering. “I kissed him, Simone! I am a terrible, horrible girlfriend.”
For some reason, this made me laugh even harder. “No, you’re not,” I said, still feeling a bit shaken but grateful to be here, with Amanda. “You’re the best person I know.”
“We were lucky, you know,” I said. “They could have been different kind of guys, dangerous guys.”
“I know,” she said. “It was stupid.”
“No, it was human,” I said. “But no more guys.”
She nodded. “Agreed. No more guys.”
“And let’s get the hell out of dodge,” I said.
“Where should we go?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Back to Rome? Does that sound weird? Maybe we can actually see the sites this time.”
“That sounds perfect,” she said.
We both lay down in our beds then, fully clothed, too tired to bother with pulling down the sheets or turning off the light.
“Simone?” Amanda said after a few moments.
“For making me feel safe,” she said, sighing.
“Me too, man,” I said. “Me too.”