The past interested me. Like any young, stupid thing, I yearned for authenticity and credibility, which history had. Perhaps I hoped I could magically age myself by rubbing up against old things, stealing their gravitas. I also held Europe in the kind of misplaced esteem Americans often do. I knew almost nothing about contemporary Italy and viewed its place in modernity as less interesting or important than its place in history. When I went, I didn’t even know the name of the Italian president, and I will ruin the suspense and tell you: I didn’t manage to learn it during my journey there. In fact, I didn’t manage to learn a thing about history either.
My friend, S, a girl I had known since we were fifteen and whom I adored in a passionate, unhinged way, was my traveling companion, and we had only a drifty, half-formed itinerary, which involved traveling north from Rome toward the Cinque Terre, magical town-lets in the seaside cliffs that had been billed to us as hidden treasures. Hidden treasure was exactly what we were looking for. We wanted to have an experience of Italy that was somehow more or better than the regular tourist’s experience. The word we used for this was “authentic.” But by the time we hit Florence, we had overheard several drunken American girls loudly bragging that they were going to Cinque Terre to party. It was characteristic of our lack of irony that we, two drunk American girls, were repelled by the idea of going someplace that other drunk American girls wanted to go. We decided instead to head south to Naples and then to Sicily.
On our last day in Florence, we were too hungover to even go to see the David. It was bright and sunny and the line was long and the tickets would be so expensive we would not get to eat the rest of the day. Instead, we drank thimblefuls of espresso and choked down bizarre lemony croissants with chocolate chips in them, staring at each other with red, puffy eyes.
It is difficult for me now to forgive myself for not going to see the David. But you see, at the time, I had this boyfriend. He had green eyes and he was very depressed and he liked pink wine and together we would listen to David Bowie and eat candy bars, and I loved him. But somehow, lately, we had both become psuedo-adults playing house in the most priggish and suffocating way imaginable. When we first fell in love, we were jobless in California. We did nothing but co-write poetry and make up secret languages and play guitar in other people’s cars. But when we moved to New York City, we started college, got jobs, had to balance homework and paying the bills, and we were both so terrified we would screw it all up that we became afraid even to leave our own house. We were like cats that have gotten freaked out by a cross country move and spend the next year under the sofa. Of the two of us, I was the more bold by nature and so I took on the job of herding us through our daily life, which had at first made me feel important and saintly, but now made me feel trapped and frightened for both of us. He should not trust himself to me, just a girl not yet twenty-one who was actively suppressing so many impulses: the impulse to kiss other men, the impulse to start singing on the train, the impulse to tell him to stop being such a baby. He hadn’t wanted to come on this trip to Italy with me and that had been the breaking point. I knew that I was slowly becoming someone who would want to do things he wasn’t comfortable with, and I was terrified of breaking his heart.
I think he was afraid of this too. In an uncharacteristically manipulative move, he had threatened to commit suicide if I went on this trip, and I had taken my cab to the airport convinced he would slit his wrists. I called him guiltily from payphones in Rome and Florence, unable to put into words what I had seen that day, what I had done, just as he was unable to put into words the pull of home, the purr of our cats, the aching need for me to come back, to come back to him. So you see, I was in no mood to consider the beauty of the young male body by going to see the David. I would have preferred to forget all about the young male body. I didn’t want to see my young lover triumph over giants, I wanted him to go away.
Surely I could present all of this in a way that would be more sympathetic, but make no mistake: this is a story about breaking a young man’s heart. A young man who never cheated on me, never called me names, never even raised his voice at me, and instead bought me a dozen Iris Murdoch novels which he hid throughout the house so that I was finding them for weeks, who made me scrambled eggs with salsa already mixed in so that they were pink and sweaty, who wrote me songs, dozens of them, love songs and sex songs and silly joke songs. And I wanted him to go away so that I could be free.
But free to do what? To be whom? I was still trying to figure it out. And that morning in Florence, I was only dimly aware of any of this. What I knew was that I didn’t care if I never saw the David, that the espresso in the thimble was hot and wonderful, that my friend, S, even red-eyed and splotchy-faced, was beautiful and that I was beautiful too, and we were in Italy and we were only twenty years old and anything, anything could happen.
And things did happen, though mostly they were things I could have done at home: I rode trains, I ate, I drank too much, I road on boats, I ate, I drank too much, and mostly I spent hours and hours and hours talking to S. I lay on beaches. I ate gelato. I remember flirting with two Italian boys we had mistakenly brought back to our hotel room one night. I remember dancing to the tinny music of our clock radio with them. One of them grabbed up a bra of mine from the dresser, slipped it on his naked, tan chest, and filled the cups with ripe peaches we had bought earlier in the day. He danced shamelessly, aping the movements of a female pop star, tossing his shoulder-length hair and laughing. I remember playing Egyptian Ratscrew on trains and annoying the other passengers with our loud slapping of cards. I remember laying out on stony beaches with S, getting sunburnt in our bikinis and eating cold roast chicken and drinking white wine. I remember that she was better at finding shells than me, and it drove me insane. How was she finding them? Did her patch of sand contain more shells than mine? I made her switch towels and then switch again when she continued to find more treasures that I did.
I reduced myself to a kind of sun-soaked idiocy so that I could finally realize a few profound, but simple things:
1. Other people are separate from you.
2. You can try to pretend you don’t want something, but you can’t actually stop wanting it without spraining an obscure internal ligament. Other people also cannot control what they want.
3. Most of what people say and do to you has nothing to do with you and should not be taken personally.
Certainly I knew that my boyfriend should not take it personally that I was about to break up with him. I knew that I was going to break up with him the morning after the peaches incident. I was so grieved by the fact that I had kissed the boy who wore my bra and so hungover that S had to leave me dry-heaving on a stone bench while she went in a store to try to buy something to help. “This is all I could find,” she said, offering me a room-temperature hotdog that had been wrapped in terrible lemony dough. (Maybe the one thing I did learn about Italy is that they do not excel at bread-making and they are far, far too interested in the taste of lemons.) “Thank you,” I said, and ate the terrible bitter dog of friendship and felt better.
This trip took place before the advent of cellphone cameras and so the photographs we have are few and blurry, and something about the blueish tone and washed-out details of these pictures seems evocative of the trip itself. We took stupid risks, sure of our safety in clean, orderly Europe. We rode on the back of motorcycles with men we had only just met. We walked unlit alleys in Naples and stepped over crack addicts asleep on the cobblestones. We ate cans of tuna and Twix bars for dinner. We hesitated watching bright green lizards paused on stair banisters in Palermo. We took a running jump and leapt over four feet of water onto a boat leaving the harbor, only to discover it was not our ferry at all, but a commercial vessel where the only other passengers were Sicilian truck drivers. We shared espresso with the boat’s captain, a man named Christmas, who quizzed us on how to pronounce lines from the movie Ocean’s Eleven. None of it made any sense. We didn’t make any sense. At one point, we tried to recite the events of the trip to one another and we found we couldn’t and were getting them all out of order. I think the photographs capture some of this, out of focus and badly framed as they are. I like particularly the one of me in front of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, my body cut off, my face so blurred as to be unreadable, the building like a dream rising above me.
The transformative power of travel is a well known trope, and one I then embraced with the same fervor as a young girl accepting a love-tonic from a witch doctor. Oh, to be changed! I wanted nothing more. I found the future in its blank mystery to be oppressive and terrifying, and so I raced toward it, wedging my face into the wind of passing time, trying desperately to catch up to my future self.
These days I am more suspicious. Is it really reasonable to use another country as a sort of spiritual can-opener to pry into your own insides? A three week vacation is too fleeting a period for true cultural cross-pollination. At best, you are having a one night stand with another country. As for history, I would have learned more if I had stayed at home with my school books. What I wanted, I think, was to get out of my everyday existence and find out who I was outside the confines of my life.
These days, some ten years after this trip, my life, while profoundly joyful and deeply gratifying, is just as confining– all lives are. As I was watching Sesame Street the other day with my two-year-old son, Big Bird explained that liquid is a substance that takes the shape of whatever container it is in. It occurred to me, as my son tried to pinch a mole off my neck with his tiny fingernails, that being a mother and a wife is a lot like being water poured into a vessel. Every day I am the same shape because my life is largely permanent. What seems peculiar and true about this analogy to me is the idea that I myself can actually be changed by altering the container that I am in. If I had married a different man, I would be a different me. If I lived in another country, had more or fewer children, ate different foods, made different choices – all of these things would alter my sense of identity. I think that this is why travel is so appealing. In a foreign land, we are like genies let out of our bottles.
As the days flew by and the countdown to our flight home began, I was filled with queasy dread and poor S was subjected to many conversations regarding my young man and how exactly it was that I would break his heart. What would the best way be? Was there a way of optimizing heartbreak? And if I was about to do a bad and hurtful and cruel thing, did that make me bad and hurtful and cruel? I thought yes, but S has always been more comfortable with gray areas than I, and she voted no. “You are not bad,” she said, as we shared a pizza, thin and crackling with sweet red tomatoes and spicy fresh basil. “Sheesh,” she said, “people break up all the time.”
“They do, don’t they!?!” I cried, elated at the idea.
“All the time,” S assured me, taking a sip of her beer, staring out at the pigeon-filled square. What was S thinking, inside her head? What was it like being her, seeker of seashells? I felt I could spend a lifetime sitting across a table from her, asking myself these questions. Perhaps it was the inherent distance of friendship that made us so intimate. The details of our lives did not depend upon each other, and so we did not hold each other at the emotional knifepoint of daily expectation. She didn’t need me to guide her through to-do lists or depend on me to make dinner. She was never in a state of having failed or succeeded at changing the cat litter precisely because we did not own cats together. Even though she had quit her job and given up her apartment to take this trip with me, she in no way held me responsible for her future or her finances. It was clear that our lives were separate and autonomous, and we were both facing different scary futures. I was worried about breaking hearts, but was relatively secure financially, while S had just graduated from college with a largely useless degree in English, saddled with thousands of dollars worth of college loans. Surely the chaos of her own life was part of why she was willing to climb onto the backs of motorcycles, to leap over water onto the wrong boat, and to tell me that heart break wasn’t the end of the world.
This seems an ordinary enough observation, and yet there is something in the paradoxical nature of it that continues to fascinate me. By being more distant from each other, less entangled, S and I were able to be closer to each other, and so, somehow, found a way of entangling ourselves quite permanently. I am as sure that I will always love her as I am that I will always be myself.
When I did finally return home, I remember going to the bathroom in the Newark airport, trying to refresh myself after the long trans-Atlantic flight. I was tan. I was wearing an amber necklace that matched S’s and that we had bought in a touristy beach shop. I remember examining the tired, resigned look on my face and thinking, “Yes, this is good, this is a good sign.” By the time I got to my own front door and saw my dear, dear boyfriend, I knew there wouldn’t be any going back. I had caught the sleeve of a future self and now I was looking at my present life like it was the past. The miracle of transformative travel had been performed upon me. When I told my boyfriend I had kissed a boy in Italy, he punched me in the ear and broke down crying. I was breaking the vessel that contained both of us. I was breaking his heart.
As to the mechanics of the miracle, how exactly travel is able to so transform, I remain speculative. My husband, who is a scientist, explained to me yesterday that photons are traveling through space so fast that they do not experience time at all, and instead live in an eternal moment. Maybe that is why humans and cats so love patches of sun, a way of communing with eternity in the present. Maybe that is why the simple act of riding on all those planes and trains and boats and motorcycles was enough to make me a different person, so that my life no longer fit and I was forced to break it to get free.
Or perhaps, as Shakespeare would insist, there really is something magic about Italy, some tonic in the Aeolian breeze that puts man in touch with his emotional self and makes both love and opera more possible.
The real miracle, though, was that S took that trip with me. She and I traveled so fast that we didn’t experience time at all. Like photons, we existed in one long, sun drenched moment, our faces blotted out, our bodies dwarfed by the massive dream-structures of cathedrals. The gelato. The wine. The ocean. The ferry drivers. The card games. The spinach in our teeth. The laughing fits. The pigeon filled squares. The decisions not to go see the David, but to do something less worthy instead. Together we rushed towards the future in a place that was the epicenter of the past. If time was a river, we were rowing into its mouth. We had no idea where our lives were headed, or that in the end everything would be okay. We were so stupid, and yet so brave.
We have remained bonded together because of that trip. We never cast each other aside the way we cast aside so many men, so many cities, jobs, careers, favorite colors, affectations, interests and peeves. She did not even remember that she was the one who was good at finding shells, and she does not think of me as the one who is bad at finding shells. Sometimes things about her life mystify me, decisions she makes or opinions that differ from mine, but this does not bother me. I can squint and suddenly see her in the vessel of her life: just water. Just like me.
Occasionally, when my mind wanders, lulled by the chatter of Sesame Street, soothed by the feverish dumpling of my son in my arms, I imagine all of humanity as a kind of honeycomb, each chamber filled with a drop of water, our differences only minor anomalies of the vessels we have been poured into, accidents of birth, interactions between the vertices of time and space. But inside each of us there is only life. In the eyes of a stranger, I imagine I see S if she had been born somewhere else to some other mother and world. In my own eyes in the mirror, I see my son’s. He has no idea that he is separate from me at all, and so he pinches the mole on my neck and startles when I cry out. It will take years to teach him that he is separate from other people, and years again to teach him that he is not.