It’s 1 September, the night before I leave for Dublin. I’m having an arrivederci dinner with my upstairs neighbors, Maria and Eugenio – parents of the screaming Giada. Maria says it’s her mission to find me a man. She says this over spaghetti alle vongole, as Giada grabs fistfuls of table and kicks her feet towards the wine glasses. A glint comes into Maria’s eye. She says: “I have it. The perfect man for you. Stefano.”
“What? No. Not Stefano,” says Eugenio.
I’m not interested in a set up, not even in the slightest, but Eugenio’s note of alarm intrigues me.
“Why?” I ask. “Who is Stefano?”
“Never you mind,” says Maria. “I’ll take care of everything.”
So I go to Dublin and finish my thesis and get drunks lots. 20 September, I get back to Italy and listen to the crickets chirp; watch the waves lap at the sad, empty beach. I’m back a day when Maria invites me to dinner. Pizza night; Eugenio’s brothers are coming, too. At 8:30, I put on a clean shirt and follow the smell of melted mozzarella upstairs. I meet Eugenio’s brothers. Their names are Daniele and Stefano. Stefano. Stefano. We drink wine; Daniele and Stefano are both shocked that I’ve lived outside of my parents’ house for the past 12 years. At the end of the evening, Stefano says: It was nice meeting you. Maybe I can see you again one of these evenings. Stefano is in his late 50s. Goddammit, Maria.
It’s a restless night; fighting with the twisted sheets, fighting with myself. This is my own fault, really. Old junk, old issues. Nearly four years of expat life and I’m still stupidshy about making new friends. And life is nothing without friends. Life is cold and sad; hands pressed against the glass looking in at people whose lives are fixed, who don’t have to explain themselves to the others at the table. But stupidshy people don’t get Sunday brunch. They don’t get Friday night drinks. They do, however, get set up with middle-aged men. Am I going to keep hanging with my parents’ friends, wondering where all the people my age are? Or am I going to grow a pair and find them myself?
So I grow a pair – a big one. And for my next trick, I run across the street to the Pensione Ulisse, where I’ve seen thirtyish people drifting through the dining room and lobby. Paolo, who runs the place. His brother, Pietro. Lorenzo, the cook. Veronica, the maid. I fling open the door and hurl my phone number on the front desk: IF YOU GUYS ARE GOING OUT SOME NIGHT, CALL ME FOR THE LOVE OF PETE CALL ME CALL ME CALL ME!!!!!!
Then I ride my bike into the centro, hiking my knees up high over my thighs. Where else have I seen people my age? The perfume shop. Right. I throw my bike against a crumbling brick wall and kick open the boutique’s doors like it’s the motherfucking Wild West. Crazy eyed. Sweat beading my brow. WHO WANTS TO BE MY FRIEND, BITCHES?! I wade through perfume displays and find the sales clerks. I say: ARE YOU GUYS LOCAL? I’M NEW, I’M NEW, I’M NEW. WHAT DO YOU ALL DO HERE FOR FUN? Pub names are dropped. Numbers are exchanged. Cigarette smoke is exhaled. Talk of dinner. I say: Eccellente. Arrivederci. I kick up the dust behind me and I head back to my bike.
Now something I like to say – something I like to remind myself of – is that life turns on a dime. One day you’re in, one day you’re out. One you’re happy, one day you’re not. One day you’re spending all your time alone on the beach, and one day there are new people, new faces. An osteria at the foot of the antique city; closed to the public on Monday nights but open to friends and new friends of friends. A TV high up in the corner, flickering. David Caruso dubbed in Italian – still a weirdo. A red thigh of prosciutto on the counter; a plate of pasta big enough to feed a builder. Muscatel grapes in a blue bowl. Red wine. And Where are you from? You speak Italian, right? Hey, brava, you’re already learning local dialect. Why did you come to this tiny town? How long are you staying here? Do you want some more wine? Ma dai, why don’t you have some more bruschetta? Are you a Japanese spy? Listen. Last week there was a bachelor party for the cook, right? Madonna mother of God, it was a crazy, crazy night.
And then there’s a flour mill out in the country. A river lapping through the scenery – mountains and Roman ruins. A long picnic table stamped with jugs of red wine. Pomegranates cracked in half, glistening with ruby-like seeds. You’re not from around here, are you? You speak Italian, right? What on earth are you doing in this part of the world? Here, have a pomegranate; they’re from the tree. Want some hash? Ah, you’re a good girl. Brava. Stay that way. A jam session; electric bass, drums, electric guitar, and bongos. Zeppelin-like grooves. A dog, chained to a tree, shakes my hand and then promptly tries to mount me. There are fat flies buzzing into our eyes and mouths; we slap them away. The couple from Naples tears sheets of loose leaf from a notebook and scrawls, in red ink, the number 58 on each one. This, they say, will keep away flies. I ask them: Why the number 58? They say: It’s a Naples thing. I say: But why 58? They say: We have no idea. I’m invited to play the drums, which I do after a little coaxing. I’ve never sat at a drum set before. I imagine I’ll be like Garth Algar – busting out all over in red and blue lights and that when I’m done, they’ll say: Wow. You’re… amazing. But it doesn’t happen that way. Someone’s child shouts at me: You! You can’t play worth a cabbage! His father says: You say you’re sorry right now! The child says: But she can’t play worth a cabbage. The father: Say you’re sorry. Don’t be rude. The child: Sorry. The real drummer: Do you mind if I get back into the jam session? Myself: Please, please do.
A literary festival – the first of its kind in town. Celebrating local writers. Champagne. Appetizers. A short film about a brigand of local legend – famed for ripping out the tongues of all those who betrayed him.
Gelato in the streets, in the piazza.
Coffee on the pier.
This is where the people my age are in Terracina. They’re not hiding in the mountains. They’re not chained to their desks. They just need to be asked out to play.
Window shopping on perfect nights that are no longer sticky, but not yet chilly. Soft orange lights on the old buildings. I feel strong. I feel hopeful. I feel alive.