The Cinque Terre is part of the Italian Rivera where small villages hang off cliffs of granite and hover over the waters of the Mediterranean. The most famous towns are: Manarola, Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare. Painted vibrant pink, yellow, and coral, they string along the coast connected only by hiking paths. To reach them, visitors must park their cars high in the hills and walk down. Vehicles are not allowed in the villages, so unlike the constant and annoying buzz of the Vespas in Rome and Florence, all you can hear is the sound of daily life drifting out the narrow open windows of the tall houses connected to one another. Dogs stand in the doorways and peruse the tourists passing by, and children play ball in the piazza, often scolded by the elderly men who collect on park benches and tap the rubber ends of their canes for emphasis.
The first time I was in Cinque Terre, in 2007, I was on a day trip with Paul from our Mediterranean cruise. I half-listened to a guide explain that all house colors must be approved by a “Commissioner of Good Taste,” but what I was really doing was watching an older gentleman in an apron and baggy, worn polyester pants stand in his window frame and use an extended paint brush, like the ones kindergarten children use, to daub green paint onto the worn slats of the shutters of his house. They are open during the day to string laundry out to dry, but they are pulled shut at night to deter the mosquitos. He winked at me. Enchanted, I promised myself I would return to the Cinque Terre.
In 2013, my best friend Belinda suggested a trip to Cinque Terre. For the four years I lived in Tulsa while working on my doctorate, Belinda and I had tea most afternoons together. We nursed babies and commiserated on my miserable first marriage and her pie-in-the-sky (now deceased) husband. A friendship of thirty plus years, there is no one I’d rather go to Cinque Terre with–other than Paul.
“Are you okay, Paul? We can go together in a few years.” I saw him hesitate for a moment. Not to say yes or no, but, instead, thinking, ‘I don’t want to miss it.’
I was 46 in 2013. I am a firm believer that the most beautiful time in a woman’s life is when she is in her forties. Her lifelong friendships are made. She’s had enough relationships in her life that she knows a good man (or woman) when she has found one. She drinks champagne in her cozy pajamas, hands the car keys to her children trusting that someone will watch over them, willingly contends with an acquaintance about politics, mourns for longer than is necessary when her dog passes, and has discovered a moisturizer for life. She is not afraid any more.
I write this, and I fervently wish I was in my forties again—this time to savor the years like beads on a string that get lost one at a time until you only hold one or two precious ones clutched in your fist. If you still have them, hold them fast. You’ll need them in your fifties. That’s a whole other decade better addressed another time.
I was primed to meet Billy. Belinda, already in her fifties, knew so much more than I did in my forties. She knew that a Billy meant trouble. A Billy meant flaking paint on tall shutters. A Billy meant a lark is never just a lark.
Trattoria dal Billy sits on the top of Manarola’s largest hill. It has three levels: a few street-level tables, two inside rooms with a large open space from where you can see the sea and the sky meet, and a protected outdoor terrace with a rock wall that overlooks the steep vineyards. An almost vertical stone staircase, shaded by a lemon tree, connects the spaces together.
I don’t know what it was about that night that made me laugh with abandon, flirt without shame, put my glasses in my purse and lock eyes with a man who stared at me—Billy.
Billy was not much to look at. He was short, dark haired, and with a shadow of stubble on his cheeks and chin. He hunched over the reservation book and constantly conferred with his staff preparing tables and cashing out customers. His eyes slid to our table and in between plates of bread, fish, and potatoes, I blushed when I saw him whispering to our waitress with his eyes trained on me.
“He wants you to see a picture of him from his fishing days. He had curly hair.” She handed me a dusty 8×10 frame that had been propped up on a long shelf that extended across the room underneath the large, picture windows.
Billy’s photograph was faded with curly edges under the smeared glass. Without my glasses, I had to hold it close to my nose to see it clearly.
“Oh my,” Belinda said taking the picture from me and looking closely at it. She and I put our heads together and giggled. Out of the corner of my vision I saw Billy’s head snap up and turn to me. In the photo he was wearing a tiny, red speedo bathing suit and lounging against the side of the boat. His hair was indeed curly and long. He was holding it back with one hand and an easy grin was spread across his face. He was holding a giant swordfish and blood covered his hand where he gripped it tightly.
When I stood to return the frame, he motioned to us for a picture. Belinda and I stood on either side of him, and he put his arms around our waists. Just as we pulled apart, I felt a quick pinch of his fingers on my butt. Startled, I yelped.
“Watch yourself,” Belinda advised.
“It’s just innocent, B,” I said.
“Maybe to you,” she whispered.
Then the lights went out and the whole restaurant went dark. Voices started singing happy birthday in the kitchen, and as the waitresses entered the main dining room, they made their way to our table. The rest of the diners, now swigging the free grappa and limoncello being passed around the room, joined in the song. Although it was not my birthday, the girls set the cake down in front of me, and one of them leaned down and whispered, “he wants to kiss you.”
I felt Belinda’s hand cover mine, lightly like a piece of gauze applied to a burn. For a moment I knew what it was to be a comet streaking across the sky. It only happens in a blue moon; it’s never in the same place twice; it’s meant to be enjoyed for the moment, it’s never to be spoken of again.
“No,” I said smiling at her young face. “No.”
Now, in 2022, Paul and I are within a couple of hours of the Cinque Terre. “Let’s go to dinner there. I want to see Billy,” Paul jingled the rental car keys in his fist.
“I’m sure he doesn’t work there any longer,”I said.
“No, Kathi and Mike said he did when they were here in July. Come on.”
It was cold the night we went to Billy’s dal Trattori. I had only a cheap rubber coat I had purchased from Walmart to ward off the chill of the evening. The wind was blowing in from the water and even though we were far from it, I felt the salt brush my face like a kiss. We carefully walked down the steep steps, a few lemons still high in the tree above our heads. I had my phone clutched in my hand with the picture of Billy, Belinda and I saved on the screen. Nine years is a long time and many, many guests ago. I wondered if our encounter still occupied a part of his mind like it did mine. Unlikely.
We didn’t have a reservation, and I watched Billy and his head waitress argue over whether to give us a table or not. “I’m sorry, we just don’t have room for you,” she said coming back and speaking to us.
I held up my phone. “I met Billy nine years ago,” I felt a little dizzy balancing on the uneven stair. “I don’t think he’ll remember me, but I thought I would show it to him.” She took the phone from me and began to laugh.
“Eduardo, come here. Come see how handsome you were!” She held my phone to him, and he squinted and put his reading glasses on. He shook his head and spoke in rapid Italian. He shook his head again and threw up his arms motioning towards a table in the corner of the terrace. They seated us and I sat down stunned. He was not Billy, the owner of the restaurant. Nine years ago he acted a part that was not his. He waved his hands over the top of the restaurant like a conductor working his orchestra. Feeling sick, I realized I did too. We were both actors that night. For me, it defined the margins of my marriage and they are crisp, white, and well-trimmed like good sails on a boat should be. Paul took in the shock in my eyes, and I understood that moment of hesitancy he had when I left for Cinque Terre with Belinda. It wasn’t an issue of trust; it was a knowledge that a moment would take place that would change me in some undefined way, and he would not know how it happened.
It became so windy, we gathered up our things and prepared to go. Eduardo came out of the main building and motioned impatiently to me. He shoved two bottles of thirty-year aged balsamic vinegar glaze into my purse. He put an arm around my shoulder and another around Paul and nodded his head for a picture. I stood there, confused, my Walmart coat hanging from my hand and the precious balsamic vinegar bulging in my purse.
“Hey, now,” Paul said patting Eduardo on the back. “Don’t go pinching my butt or anything.”
I loved my husband so much in that moment.