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 have only one or two precious ones left 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.”
Hubris. I’ll be the first to admit that I think I can do way more things than I can do.
Like riding a Vespa.
In the final days before we left on our trip to Italy, I madly booked tours in the five locations of our trip. Food tours, a concert, and skip-the-line access everywhere because, in addition to having too much pride, I am also impatient.
“Honey, I’m booking a Vespa and Wine Tasting Tour,” I yelled through Paul’s office door at home. He was working on his computer and whistling. The words were barely out of my mouth when the whistling stopped. I heard his chair roll backwards and the door creak open. I even heard Sibby shake her collar and get to her feet.
“Do you think that is such a good idea?” Paul leaned against the door frame of the kitchen where paper, my phone, and my computer surrounded me. He folded his arms across his chest. Any good marriage counselor will tell you that crossed arms means resistance to an idea.
“Sure. I can do it,” I said showing him the Budget Italy Tour picture of all the sweet, young people scootering along waving at the camera. The sun was shining, the road was empty, the medieval town, San Gimignano, beckoned in the distance. “It says we will ride to this town in the Tuscan Hills, taste wine, eat lunch, and then return back to the Vespa place.” Paul stood unmoved and Sibby, the golden retriever with a great deal of hair, lowered her butt to the floor. They both looked like they didn’t believe me. “Paul, I can do this. Everyone can ride a Vespa. It’s like a scooter.”
No, it’s not.
We pulled into the Mailbox Etc. store where the Vespa company rented a garage in the back. Five shiny Vespas were lined up outside the door. I looked closer and a black one had several scrapes on its sides and the front fender was missing over the wheel. Up close, it looked more like dirt bike than a scooter—just with tiny, cute wheels.
“Okay, I am Vincenzo, I will be your guide today,” He walked the line of Vespas, pausing to run his hand across the gleaming silver chrome of the handlebars. “First off, I need to assure you can ride safely.” He gestured to the black one. “Get on.” Paul obediently straddled the machine with his feet on the ground, twisted the key, turned the handles back and forth and squeezed the brakes. He sat down on the seat and vroomed off to the end of the parking lot. He made it look easy.
“Okay, your turn,” Vincenzo pointed at me. “Pick one. Pick the pretty orange one.” I couldn’t move. Paul was circling the parking lot and doing that Vin Disel move where you put your foot down and spin the motorcycle in a half circle.
“I can’t.” I stared at Vincenzo’s Sibby-like, brown eyes. “I can’t.”
“But you have paid?” Panic made his voice a little higher. “Your husband is ready.” He pointed to Paul who was just about ready to ride with no hands.
“I can’t.” Poor, young Vincenzo looked uncertain. Obviously, everyone he knew could ride a Vespa. I stepped closer to him and said in a low voice. “Look you don’t know me, but I promise you, I can’t do it. I would crash…like into something, not just myself.”
Sighing, Vincenzo waved Paul back. He had to whistle to get his attention, actually. My husband was bent with his chest to the handlebars pretending to be Tom Cruise racing alongside the airplane runway.
So, four Vespas left the Mailbox Etc. parking lot. Our teenage leader, Vincenzo, Robbie and Travis from Tennessee, and me and Paul. I rode behind Paul on the black, beat up Vespa. It was really not meant for two—at least the two of us.
Vincenzo led us out to the highway where we rode in a line on the side of the road. We stayed on the white line inches from the shoulder. Cars whizzed past us honking, and good old Vincenzo and Robbie and Travis honked back. Paul couldn’t. I had his arm in a vise grip.
“We are on a freeway! What is that kid thinking?” I screeched in Paul’s ear.
“I am going to stop this thing right now and turn around if you can’t get a hold of yourself,” Paul snapped. Unlike when we drive together in the car, my mouth was directly in his ear even with our helmets on.
“What do I do? I don’t know what to do. Tell me what to do,” I moaned over the buzzing of the Vespa motor. Vincenzo looked back and gave us a thumbs up with a big grin.
“Don’t move so much. Hold onto me. I have to balance both of us,” Paul talked out of the side of his mouth concentrating on the road. “Lean into me.”
“Okay,” I said and leaned forward to lay against his back.
“Ooh, that’s nice,” he said.
“Your breasts,” Paul announced.
“Paul, that’s not even funny. This is dangerous.” I jerked back up as bits of gravel kicked up from under the front tire.
“Don’t move!” Paul grabbed both hand brakes. “No, it’s good. When you lean against me like that you don’t wiggle so much. Just stay like that.”
We rode. I was terrified. I didn’t know where to hold on, and my short legs prevented my feet from resting on the platform behind Paul’s legs. I finally gave in. I wrapped my arms around my husband’s torso and clasped my middle fingers together over his tummy. I laid my chest onto his back and nestled my chin into his shoulder. We would have been the perfect picture for Budget Italy Tour’s advertisement.
We motored towards San Gimignano, and the road of the valley fell away. Carefully, I sat up and looked on either side of us. Olive orchards streamed down the hills like grey and silver smoke and curled against the land. Purple grapes, plump and full on vigorous green stalks, marched in leafed rows down the hills while the branches and leaves of white grapes, softer and already harvested, sank into the soil ready for sleep. Cypress trees, tall and singular, paraded down the landscape.
It looked exactly like—Tuscany.
“Breasts!” Paul hollered.
We were on a steep incline and the Vespa was groaning under our weight. It slowed to 20 kilometers an hour and then to fifteen kilometers an hour.
“Should I jump off?” I yelled in Paul’s ear.
“No, just lean in, Honey. Lean in.”
We crawled up the hill at a tortuous pace. Cars six deep honked impatiently behind us and pulled into the center of the road to see if there was enough room to pass. Alas, there was not. Everyone, including Robbie and Travis, had to plod up the hill behind us. Vincenzo sat at the top of the hill waving the cars on, looking more like a safety officer at an elementary school than a cool Vespa wine tasting tour guide.
Hubris. It doesn’t matter who you are. It gets you every time.
There are nights you feel like a princess, and you just have to go with it. My new dress and shoes—a silk gown with gauzy, see-through sleeves, the fabric scattered with blooms, and the length hitting above my knees just right, and then, of course, paired with four-inch-high Tommy Hilfiger wedges all made me feel willowy and sensuous.
“Wait up, Little Goat,” Paul called huffing behind me a good twenty feet. “My feet are hamburger, give me break.”
“Little Goat?” I laughed. If I had not been in such a good mood, it would have been a much different conversation.
“Yes, you are bounding around on your toes on those shoes. I just see you head bobbing up between all the people.”
“I can’t bound on my toes, wedges are platforms; it’s like regular walking just much higher,” I retorted.
Florence had changed during our five-day visit. The first day was ninety degrees and our cotton clothes clung to us in the heat and humidity. Tonight, the wind was brisk with a little bite to it. The air was clearer, and everything–the white façade of Santa Croce cathedral outside our porch, the thick, red tiles of the immense round dome of the Dumo, and the lantern-shaped lights on the street corners—stood out in stark shadows in the twilight.
“I wish you had a regular coat,” I told Paul as he adjusted the collar of the sports coat I insisted he bring.
I had told him, “You never know when you’ll need it for an event you hadn’t planned on.”
“What do we women bring for those moments?”
“A pearl necklace.”
“Why aren’t you wearing yours?”
I didn’t feel like it.”
And then, just like me not minding Paul calling me the Little Goat, he didn’t mind wearing the sport coat. He didn’t mind at all.
We should have been exhausted, in our pajamas, drowsing in front of the TV. In a single day we have visited the Uffizi Art Gallery, climbed the Duomo’s dome and bell tower, and now we were on the way to a Three Tenors concert. We sped through the streets where the owners of restaurants were pulling down plastic curtains to protect the diners from the wind. We were late for the performance. The proprietor at the bottom of our building offered to put our dinners in a warmer for us to eat later, but instead we jumped up from our table, grabbed hands and shouted, “We’ll see you for dessert, Ciao!”
When you start shouting the language of the place you are visiting, you’ve made it. Florence was ours.
The Uffizi Gallery, opened in 1560 when the local mafia family, the Medicis, started hauling in art they had in their palace and hanging it on the walls. Five hundred years later, the Uffizi is stuffed with art. Shaped like a horseshoe, two sweeping galleries are crowded with thousands of years-old marble statues and paintings of historically important Romans and Italians as well as the ubiquitous Madonna with Child. Who knew though, that most of the statues had been repaired over the centuries with extra body parts from defunct statues, and many of the works were painted by one artist but a different one had signed his name over the top after the painted had dried?
“I’d be pissed for eternity,” I said solemnly to Paul. “I’d find the faker and haunt him and his family forever.”
“Yep,” Paul patted my shoulder. “I have no doubt.” I’ve been known to wish for revenge.
Now is moment I have to apologize to Paul. I called him an idiot. He wanted to climb the 463 steps of the immense Duomo dome. Its real name is the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, but she is called the Duomo. Massive, she dominates the skyline of Florence, and you can feel her ownership of the city. Calling them “interruptions and resumptions,” it took 150 years to complete the Duomo, and Filippo Brunelleschi, the final architect and builder, burned his notes and plans used to build the double dome (one inside the other to hold it together) making it a near impossibility for the current architects to figure out how to maintain the structure. Idiot.
Back to the other idiot. “We are fifty-five years old, we do not exercise AT ALL, we drink way too much wine, eat too much cheese, your blood pressure medicine had to be increased, and I am considering botox. Why do you think we should climb it?”
But we did. We used the same staircase the workers did all those generations ago, and at the top we saw the whole swath of Florence stretching out in red roofs, church spires, the glinting Arno River, and palaces on the hills in the distance. It was so exciting that, buoyed by our success, we dashed across the piazza and climbed the Bell Tower which was 414 steps. On our way down, the bells began to toll, and I felt like I was being rolled from side to side on an old ship. We passed the opening where we felt the powerful push of the metal bell through the air as its gong, gong, gong pulsed steady and unrelenting. Though my teeth were bouncing around in my skull, it was stupendous.
So, it brings me to the last event of our crazy day. I had bought tickets for a Three Tenors concert. Now I knew they weren’t the real Three Tenors—Carreras, Domingo, and Pavarotti—but I was hopeful it would be like Las Vegas where we once saw one guy who could sing exactly like Billy Joel and Elton John.
These guys? First of all, only one of them was actually on the cover of the program. The other two were subs. They sang for an hour and a half, and they were pretty good. I called one of them Hair Flipper because he liked to bend deeply at the waist and throw his head back, so his hair cascaded around him, another guy I nicknamed the Hulk, because that guy had a head like a boulder, and the last one I called Mike the Neighbor.
“What? He doesn’t look like Mike (our best friend),” Paul wrinkled his forehead and frowned.
“No, he looks like Mike the neighbor who only replaced half his roof and doesn’t mow his lawn,” I whispered.
“Oh,” Paul said nodding. “He does look like Mike the neighbor.”
They sang arias from La Traviata, Rigoletto, and Tosca. They entered the stage and exited the stage. Over and over.
“Why don’t they just stay up there?” Paul asked.
“It’s all about getting in character,” I sat on the edge of my chair. I just wanted to hear them sing Nessun Dorma—a song I first heard in 2007 and makes me weep every time I hear it. But it wasn’t to be. When people started leaving during the third version of The Marriage of Figaro, the three tenors hastily tied it up and bowed. Hair Flipper, the Hulk, and Mike the Neighbor. They held hands. Ooh, gross, I thought.
Giggling, we ran back through the cold where the owner of the restaurant called out, “You’re back! Come tell me about it!” We sat with him and drank Moscato wine and ate tiramisu while I told him all about my names for the three singers. He wasn’t offended at all.
So, we’re packing up. We will look like idiots once more as we wheel our four robin’s egg blue suitcases across the piazza towards the taxi stand. Florence has been glorious; Tuscany, we’re on our way…
There are 5, 518 miles between Olympia, Washington, and Florence, Italy. The time difference is nine hours which means Paul and I have just a couple of windows of time when we can talk with our friends and family. Our house sitter, someone we have known for years, made some serious mistakes at our house, and, per our ADT alarm system, we realized people were coming over to our house all night long every night for five nights. On Saturday night alone, our front door was opened 19 times between midnight and six am.
Paul and I spent all Sunday in a tiny Fiat car with our six pieces of luggage piled to the ceiling behind us arguing over how to handle it. It was supposed to be a beautiful drive through the countryside from Venice to Florence, but we somehow got stuck on the autostrade, and all we saw were tall grey, metal walls and the inside of tunnels. Paul thought if we gave the house sitter a good chewing out, he’d snap out of it and get better. I didn’t think so. Something had withered inside me. My trust was broken.
We have no idea how many people went through our house, if they looked through our messy pantry with all the boxes of forgotten taco shells, laughed at the absurd number of pillows on my couch, upended a cup and saucer from my great-grandmother’s china and pretended to drink from it, or (bile races through my stomach here) slept in our beds. I don’t know if they looked at my photo albums on the living room coffee table and flipped through the pages, a drink in their hand or a joint pinched in their fingers and skipped to the end because they were bored.
I don’t know if they petted Sibby or pushed her away because of her horrible habit of jumping on people. I don’t know if Lily cowered outside afraid to come in but more afraid of the coyotes who have treed her in the past.
We talked to the house sitter, and he promised no more guests, he’d settle down, it would be quiet.
“Please send me a picture of Sibby and Lily,” I asked. “Please, so I know they are okay.”
When I woke up the next morning, there was no picture. I had no way of knowing if they were okay. I sucked in a giant gasp of air and fell into a panic attack where I couldn’t remember how to breathe. I say fell, because it is like falling. Air can only come in, the room spins, the dizziness makes me want to throw up, and my legs won’t work. The worse it gets, the more I panic, and I am convinced I am going to die. In the deep recesses of my brain, I remembered a trick someone had told me about.
“I7, 84, 46, 3,” I wheezed. Random numbers. By talking, I must breathe out. “64, 17, 32, 17, 42,” my shuddering slowed. Paul held my hand and looked at the floor. There was nothing else he could do. My breathing finally returned.
“You sure like the number 17,” he said rubbing my back.
All day I was as brittle as glass, and I stepped carefully on the cobblestone streets afraid I might slip into the cracks.
Operation Move Sibby went smoothly with the help of neighbors and friends. She is now staying with two other golden retrievers and I hope they are speaking their special language of limited conversation but lots of smiles. Lily is back home with three different families caring for her in the next couple of weeks.
I don’t know what you do to thank the people who saved the places of you that are the most vulnerable, the most exposed, the most naked. I will find a way. But it will have to be without words because if I had to speak of it again, I’ll have to start counting.
Perhaps you wonder why this hit me so hard.
In July, my son was diagnosed with cancer. I was there for the surgery, but he didn’t want us to miss our trip to Italy, so he and his family are weathering his bouts of chemotherapy alone. They are taking it one trip to the clinic at a time. He counts the days of treatment he has left. His goal to is to be well enough to shoot his bow during deer season November 1.
Having a child with cancer makes me feel like all the doors and windows of my house are open and I cannot return home. It makes me feel like my grandchildren have wandered into a cornfield and I can’t hear their voices over the clatter of the corn stalks in the wind. It makes me feel like a part of my body that became a part of his body betrayed us both. It makes me feel like strangers are idly riffling though our lives with little interest.
So, I guess you could say being unable to stop the violation of your home shares a whisper of a resemblance to being unable to stop cancer invading someone you love.
Every day since July 7, I have practiced self-talk. He will be okay. He is young and strong. The survival rate is over 95% with the chemotherapy. He will be okay. It is my mantra and I say it over and over again every day.
Last night, as we walked back through the maze of streets, the hulking, silent Duomo brooding in the twilight and the Ponte Vecchio glowing in the last of the sunset, we heard the sound of music. We crossed the street and followed the sound of a single violin. We found the violinist in the piazza outside the shuttered Uffizi Gallery where the Birth of Venus lay sleeping inside.
He played for the crowd, he played for himself. He spoke little, but the music soared up between the walls of the buildings and seemed to weave its way between all of us sitting on the stairs. It grew darker until we could barely see him, but he continued to play. Paul and I left while he was still playing. I wanted to remember his music living and breathing, strong and knowing, healing and whole. I wanted to remember that even though I could not see him, he played through the darkness.
“No, no, Miss. Say it again.” Our tour guide, maybe eighteen years old with spiky hair and a chipped-tooth smile, pinches his fingers and thumb together, Bacaro!” He kisses his fingers and explodes them open in the sky. “Bacaro!”
“Bacaro,” I say enthusiastically and kiss my fingers and watch them fall open like a drooping flower.
Paul and I are on the Definitive Bar Tour, advertised as visiting six bars with six snacks with six glasses of wine—all in three and half hours. Easy. The Klenks can handle that no problem.
We met Francesco in the university district where the Grand Canal opens up to the enormous lagoon of aquamarine water churning with the passage of speed boats, vaporetto (water taxis), gondolas, and tiny fishing boats manned usually by a young boy or two. Imagine a cruise ship and a canoe next to one another. It is stressful to watch, but so far, we haven’t seen any collisions or casualties.
We take off—Paul, me, Francesco, the tour guide, and a couple from Chicago. They didn’t talk the entire tour. I watched them chew and swallow—that’s it.
“Stop here.” Francesco left us in the middle of a street in Piazzale Roma with tourists surging around us. “Come now, now,” he waved from a tiny, low doorway between a lace shop and a hotel.
“Dive bar,” I whisper under my breath to Paul, as we squeezed into a narrow room with flapping posters on the wall and a table-like counter running around the perimeter of the room. Older men stood at the bar top eating bread with toppings without expressions. When they were done, they threw back a shot glass of wine and left greasy napkins that floated to the floor.
“Ooh,” I breathed.
“You can pick a cicchetti for yourself or I’ll select some for the group and we’ll all share them together.” The Chicago duo chose their own. Reluctantly, I wished I could read the Italian and know if I was choosing octopus or not.
The glass case was probably five feet long and filled with slices of French bread piled with meats, cheeses, spreads, and unrecognizable lumps.
“Cicchetti?” Paul asked. He totally massacred the word, but Francesco did not correct his pronunciation.
“Yes, yes. It is what separates Venetians from Italians. You will not find cicchetti, a small snack, in other places on your vacation.” He laughed. “Sir, I tell you what is here, and you choose. And then your wife.” He smiled at me.
Bud, if you want a tip, learn my name. Paul gripped my hand. Twenty years of marriage and he didn’t just read my mind. He heard it.
“Let me see what we have here. We have like your grilled cheese, I think.” He pointed to a fried bread sandwich. “But in Venice, we add a surprise, an anchovy in the middle and dip the sandwich in a batter to fry in lard. Delicimo!”
“Next one?” I inquired.
“This is Baccalà Mantecato,” he said pointing to crostini spread with a white fluffy concoction that looked like marshmallow. “It is salted cod spread.”
“Next?” I asked peering into the finger-print smudged glass case.
“Fior di Zucca, fried pumpkin blossoms stuffed with ricotta,” Francisco said meeting my gaze. “Very Venetian, you know.”
“I’ll try that one,” I spoke up. Paul picked one piled high with meat. We stood along the countertop and chomped on our cicchetti. Mine was creamy and salty and Paul’s took a bit more effort. He tried to eat it in several bites, but the meat was layered and didn’t pull apart well.
“Now the other part of visiting a bacaro, which now you should know is a local bar, is you drink a small glass of wine. Venetians pop into bacari all day long for a snack and a little glass of wine.” He carried four tiny glasses of white wine to us. Paul and I looked at each other. We tipped them back in one gulp.
“Very good. You drink like Venitians, no?” The Chicago couple drank theirs in sips.
“You can carry it, if you like,” he offered them. In Venice, you can walk with your drink. Never plastic, no.” he shook his head in disgust. You take a glass, you bring a glass.”
“These small glasses are for just a taste of the wine. When you order one, say ‘l’ombra bianco if you want the house white wine or l’ombra rossa for the house red. I’ombra means shadow in Venetian culture. It means the little shadow it makes in the face of the church.”
Paul and I looked at each other. All good information.
“So, this is called a desk.” He patted the scarred countertop. “A true bacaro has no chairs. You eat standing up and then go about your business. If you want to sit at a table in a bacaro, you pay two euros more each.” We gathered our stuff up and prepared to move along to our next five stops.
We ate Sard in Saor, crostini with fried sardines and pickled onions garnished with raisins and pine nuts in the Jewish ghetto. Throughout the centuries and during World War II, Jewish citizens were locked into a gated square each night in their neighborhood even though they spent their days building and working on Venice like anyone else.
We tasted glasses of fresh red wine that had been harvested, pressed, and immediately put into wine barrels for sale. It was delicious and reminded me of the fresh sangria I made at home.
The time flew by as we inhaled giant meatballs made of finely ground beef, egg, Italian bread, milk, Italian parsley, garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and some Grana Padano cheese. Then, it is fried not baked. We slurped tiny tastes of Tuscan wine.
By the time we finished olives stuffed with meat, prosciutto and gorgonzola, pecorino and sottocularino, we were stuffed. However, those miniature glasses of wine didn’t seemed to complete the snack.
We said goodbye to Francesco and the couple from Chicago. I did give him a tip. His enthusiasm was fetching, and his dimples were delightful. I still can’t say bacaro with conviction, and cicchetti is way beyond my pay grade.
The next day through, Paul and I confidently made our way to the glass case in a bacaro and ordered three crostini a piece. A pair of young women watched us as we pointed and selected our snack.
“Do you need to know what to do?” I asked.
“Yes, would you help us?” they said visibly relieved.
“Okay, pick out which cicchetti you want—that is the name for the crostini or a fried thing—and then tell them what kind of l’ombra you want, white or red. It’s a little glass of wine.”
“What about you guys?” One of them pointed to the large glasses of wine we carried with our plates and the table we had commandeered.
“Uhh, I paused. “What can I say? We’re as American as it comes.”
Good morning from Joy, Illinois. It’s 5:30 am. on one of the last days of May, 2022. It is not my usual waking time, but when the pink and orange sunrise steals into your bedroom, it’s insistent.
Begin your day, it said.
The just-awake robins and finches chatter in the tall sugar maples with quaking leaves and lightning bugs slide back into the grass surrounding the massive, spreading oaks waiting for twilight to return. The intermittent croaks of the young toads quiet down in the muddy section of the pasture—they’re thinking about moving to the bushes higher up on the hill.
The big bull—mottled with a cream and sable hide and two curving horns that span at least two feet—turns to look at me and flicks his tail. He stands between me and the two black, elderly mama cows, ages twelve and fourteen, who have had their last calves.
Old girls, the neighbor called them. They probably wouldn’t last the winter. They’re headed to town at the end of the summer. Their calves nudge the udders hard to bring down the milk.
Old girls, I mused. I tried not to think too much about that.
The corn started late, the neighbor said. Came up well, early actually, but then one day, it spiked to ninety degrees and it all burned up. The earth cracked, he said shaking his head. We planted again.
My son, Connor, and daughter-in-law Samantha, are new to the small town 40 minutes outside of the Quad Cities—Moline and Rock Island hail from the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, while Davenport and Bettendorf nod from the Iowa side. The Mississippi River is high now from the spring rains, and it lolls back and forth against its bank moving with a laziness that is deceiving.
Not a time to go into the river, or crick, the neighbor said.He knows a swimming hole down the road that gets deeper every year because the force of the water comes over and dives straight down into the earth. It just keeps digging, the neighbor looked up at me. No end to it, he comments.
Paul and I drove fast from the airport, anxious to see our little ones (big ones too) after four months apart. He crested a hill at sixty, and we landed on a gravel road on the other side.
Goodness, I thought, someone needs to fix this stretch of road. It stretched alright—another eight miles to their house. Their road is numbered now—140th—but it’s known as Rainbow Barn Road to everyone in Joy.
A decrepit white barn sitting at the top of a hill, Rainbow Barn is a smiling Jack o lantern with few teeth, and its peeling paint reveals softened, grey wood that was once hard and new. The barn is known all over Mercer County for the rainbow painted high above the sagging double doors. The cheerful colors are a landmark to the residents in the area, telling them where to turn to travel to Eliza, a tiny town with a brick school house or to Muscatine, a bustling town on the River in Iowa.
The original owners of the barn painted the rainbow years ago, and the elders of Joy say there were a few reasons for their decision. Hope was one, they said. Another was joy. Rainbow Barn was born, and it means something different to everyone who passes it. It makes me smile, Sam said. In tribute to it, she painted a rainbow on their new, white and blue chicken coop. The neighbors love your rainbow. It makes them smile, someone told her.
The babies, as we call them, put on mud boots to play in the yard. They look comical, running through the velvet green grass, shirtless with dusty knees and elbows from where they have crawled under the bars of the fence around the barn. At three and four, they don’t pay attention to the bull staring at them with narrowed eyes. As you can guess, they get hustled back into the yard with a scolding; they don’t pay much mind.
Last night we sat on the back stoop, drinking beer, and watching the kids play on the slip-and-slide. We squirted Dawn soap on their round tummies, and when they reached the end of the plastic and landed in a small pool, bubbles rose into the air and drifted towards the sunset that was just slanting into the cornfield. We forgot the soap would get in their eyes, so we rushed to wipe their faces with our shirts, not wanting them to feel any pain.
Which brings me to end of this piece. On one of the last days of May in 2022, while we’ve been cocooned in this perfect world where neighbors stop by for a quick visit and the last rays of the sunset awaken the lightning bugs from their slumber, there are families unable to speak because of their grief. In Texas, they are planning funerals instead of birthdays and sitting in the lonely silence of small bedrooms where little shoes and toys still litter the floor. Their children are gone. They will never live on Rainbow Barn Road or dance next to a staring bull, or shriek with laughter as their slick bodies fly down their newest toy. The children of Uvalde don’t live in Joy, Illinois.
Icelanders believe in Huldufólk—hidden people—supernatural, mythical beings that live high in the craggy, green bluffs that circle the sky and alongside the tumbling, icy streams that meander through mossy flatlands that lead to the sea. Appearing and disappearing just out of the corner of your eye, elves, fairies, trolls, and ghosts look and behave like humans and enter and depart a person’s life leaving a faint mark only the wearer can see. The mark they leave, you ask? It is a pointer—the direction in which to go.
Although my Nancy Drew heart beats fast at the thought of tripping over an elf who impudently steps in my way, it is not I who will bear the mark when we leave Iceland, I believe it will be my daughter, SarahKate.
SarahKate invited me to accompany her on the first leg of her three-week journey through Iceland, Scotland, England, Amsterdam, Norway, and Denmark. She is in that in-between place that some of us experienced in our youth—momentarily free from responsibilities and brave enough to embrace the unknown.
I see her clearly at moments on this trip—the stubborn little girl who hated to wear shoes—and then she wavers out of my sight when her eyes gaze far out into the sea and I have no idea where she has gone. Unlike my boys who are…well, boys…SarahKate is introspective, loyal, and to be perfectly honest, somewhat of an Eeyore (the donkey from Winnie the Pooh). If there is a cloud in the sky, she will point it out.
We have switched places. I refuse to drive; there is no need to be criticized for something I know I am barely competent at. At the rental car place, they warned us that car doors can get caught in an Icelandic wind gust and tear from their hinges. Now each time I go to open the car door, she peers over the top of her glasses as if I am a teenager and warns me to “watch out for the wind.” Yet, when she spots a humungous waterfall from the road, it is I who says, “are you sure?” We return to the car waterlogged wishing we hadn’t spent so much time on our hair that morning.
While in Vik, a lovely village adjacent to a black sand beach, I feel an oozing wetness trickle down my calf and discover a rope burn from Sibby’s leash has burst open. Her face blanching at the sight of the mess and my grimace of pain, SarahKate hustles like a parent and talks to a local woman who tells her to take me to an unmarked clinic high on a green hill where a kind doctor applies a burn patch and bandages me up. I feel comforted and safe with my daughter at the helm.
We have merged our pictures through Air Drop and, although it appears seamless which are hers and which are mine, there is a freshness and an eagerness in her photos while I feel mine look still and staged. I realize that, although she came from me almost twenty-nine years ago, she has cut the last tether and is leaving on a road of her choosing.
The hidden people of Iceland are known to cause mischief, speak in the wind, and drop trinkets at the feet of the unsuspecting. Tomorrow SarahKate will get a new tattoo that symbolizes who she is grounded and whole and who she will be in the unknown world that lies ahead. My reasons for finding the hidden people are different from hers—I want to catch them by their sleeves and hold them fast, while my darling, Eeyore daughter would say to them “climb aboard and come with me.”
I married Larry, the high school typing teacher, in a field dotted with bison on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation in Montana. There is no record of our marriage other than the witnesses that stamped their feet on the frozen grass, but the place where we stood was crowded with lost souls who were forgotten by time but not by Larry.
In the mid-1990s I worked for the federal government as an education researcher helping school districts implement grants. My laptop computer weighed fourteen pounds and needed an external modem to access the world wide web; I did not have a cell phone, Google Maps, or anything else. I was divorced with two small children, and I cobbled together overnight babysitting stints when I traveled. I look back on it now, and I don’t know how I managed it. It felt like I carried the two of them, one on each hip, across a tight rope without a net to catch us if we fell. Each time I took off on an airplane, I only cared about the number of hours it would take for me to arrive home. I was headed to Browning, Montana for a one-day meeting. Thirty-six hours. What could happen?
The little plane was shaped like a bullet with silver domed walls and ceiling. We bent in half to enter the doorway and, when I passed the cockpit, it looked like a scene from the movie, Apollo 13 with bald men intent on their papers, maps, switches, and dials. There were ten seats on each side of the plane, which meant we all had window seats, however, the luxury ended there. Drinks were served by shoving a container of beer and soda down the aisle to the next person.
Somewhere between Spokane and Great Falls, we heard a thud and a crushing whine, and the air beneath the plane dropped away like a roller coaster ride. My stomach flew up and bounced against my throat. Bile sloshed in my mouth. It felt gritty, like sand. I gulped it back. I jerked my head to look over my shoulder out the window. Black smoke was streaming from the right-side engine. Its propeller was still. The flight attendant backed into her seat and pulled the straps over her head. Her eyes were huge, and she puffed air out between her lips in little bursts almost like she was in childbirth. “Tighten your seatbelts,” she squawked.
“Folks, we are in an emergency. We have been cleared to land in Missoula. Listen to your flight crew. This is for everyone’s safety. We will be exiting from the back of the plane. Now,” I imagined him squeezing the controls, “please lean over and grasp your knees.” “The ground was rising rapidly to meet us, a wide swatch of white foam covered the runway, and two fire engines, lit with red and white pulsing lights, waited for us.
We landed hard. I realized why we had to grasp our knees. A woman a few seats up who wasn’t grasping her knees rose like a balloon and smacked against the ceiling. The whole plane bounced in the air and hit the ground again. I could hear every nut and bolt groaning as they strained to hold on to one another. The fire retardant whooshed up the windows like the plane was in the middle of a car wash where everyone is ghostly green, and the world is suspended in the center of a soap bubble.
As my nineteen fellow passengers raced to the bank of public phones to call their loved ones, I walked to the rental car desk. “Can I get a car, please? I’m going to Browning. I’ll return it to Great Falls tomorrow.” My fingers trembled as I handed the woman my credit card. She tilted her head towards the lines at the phones. “I don’t have any anyone to call,” I said and slid the keys off the countertop.
That wasn’t exactly true. I could have called my parents, but while I was crying on my end of the phone, they would have been gazing out on the sparse landscape of the Arizona desert waving a silent hello to their neighbors in their golf carts. They lived in two worlds, and I tried not to intercede during their respite time. They helped with the babysitting during the summer when they were back in the Northwest, but I was on my own during the chilly, rainy, god-awful months of winter. My ex-husband was gone—on a ship to the Antarctic, camping out in a friend’s place in Half-Moon Bay, showing up a couple of times of year acting like I should have saved a seat for him at the holiday table. My marriage had been terrible, but I consoled myself that I had been half of something that when together was whole—until it was less than half when it was over.
My suitcase retrieved, I sat in the tiny Toyota Corolla, a comical clown-size rental car, flipping the map of Montana in ninety degree turns trying to figure out how to get to my destination. I used my finger and thumb to pinch across the map using the scale at the bottom as my ruler. I put the car in gear and gunned it. “Browning, here I come.” Highway 93 took me north of Missoula and climbed into the Rocky Mountains. I urged the protesting little car on, flattening my foot on the gas pedal and grinding it ruthlessly to the floor. Twilight was replaced by night by the time I sped past the town of St. Ignatius and the straight road changed to hairpin turns. The tiny sullen car and I traveled 223 miles together, and the gas tank marker wobbled at less than a half a tank in the bleak light of the dashboard. I shake my head now. What an idiot. Why didn’t I turn around and go back to Portland and just tell my boss I was in a plane crash? I was thirty. That’s the only answer I can give you.
I slowed as I reached the edge of Browning. A billboard advertised “Browning Pencil Company. You Can’t Erase Us.” A devilish little cartoon boy was pictured holding a huge pencil against a scroll of paper. Faded and curled, the advertisement was falling off the board in strips. White painted letters covered the top. “Closed Now. Thanks for 50 years of Business.” Everyone needed a pencil. Why was Browning erased?
There was a main street with a blinking yellow light, a bar with a half-lit neon sign that was missing the “C” in front of the oors, and a concrete block hotel with a rolling lidded drawer where I slid my credit card to a silent woman who used the carbon machine to make my receipt. She didn’t look up when I asked her about a place to eat. She pointed over her shoulder.
“oors it is,” I mumbled to myself.
“What’s good?” I asked as I pulled my fingers away from the sticky, plastic menu.
“Burger.” Gladys, the waitress, chomped her gum and stared at me. The roots of her bangs were sprayed so stiff they erupted from her forehead like a fountain.
“Burger it is then,” I sighed. “I’d like it well done, please.”
“Yep.” She vanished.
I looked around the restaurant. Five cowboys hunched over their beer at the bar, their dirt-encrusted boots hooked around the legs of the stools, their wrangler jeans tight at the crotch. One at a time they glanced over their shoulders at me. I sank into the torn plastic sanctuary of the booth.
Thankfully, my burger arrived, steaming on an overflowing platter of French fries. I lifted the bun. The meat was bright red—so red I pulled back. Jesus Lord, I thought. “Miss? Gladys?” I said faintly. “I thought I ordered it well done?”
“You did,” she said shortly. “You haven’t had bison before, have you?”
Bison. Bison. “Isn’t it kind of like buffalo?” I whispered.
“Lady, do you want your burger or not?” Her voice was loud and carried to the men at the bar.
“Yes, everything is fine. Thank you.” I covered the burger with a pile of napkins and slid it next to the ketchup and jam holder. I inhaled the French fries and wondered what the motel vending machine might hold.
When I stood up to leave, the familiar strains of Glen Campbell’s song, the “Rhinestone Cowboy,” floated out of the hidden speakers. I closed my eyes and remembered 7th grade choir. I sang in a small group with Tommy Owens, a hunk of a boy who lived three streets away and played touch football in the street as I rode my bike past his house ten times a day. Our little group wore wide-bottomed white jeans, long-sleeved white shirts, cravats, and white cowboy hats my mother was tasked to find. I swayed back and forth to the music as I waited to pay my bill.
“Rhinestone cowboy, bum, bum,” I crooned quietly. Then I was startled out of my memories of 1979 when I felt a hand grab a large portion of my rear end.
“Want to dance?” I turned and recoiled as one of the guys at the bar released my buttock and moved his hand to my waist. “I saw you dancing.”
“No,” I tried to pull my arm away. His teeth were stained a shiny brown varnish. His shirt had not been washed for a long time. The stench of bison burger hovered around him like a cloud.
His hand tightened. “Come on now,” he jeered in my ear. “Dance with me, Honey.”
Gladys stomped from behind the cash register, her sprayed bangs aloft in a storm. “Norman. Knock it off. She said she didn’t want to dance. Leave her alone.” The other four men stood up and leaned back against the counter.
“Gladys, shut up.” Norman’s grip tightened on my arm.
Gladys grabbed my other arm. “Norman?”
“What’s going on out here?” A cook emerged from the kitchen. Raw. crimson bison juice covered his white apron. As Gladys and Norman began to argue with the cook, I jerked away from both of them, threw a ten on the counter and ran out the door. It slammed behind me, its bells jangling against the frame. Panting, I dashed across the street to the miserable motel. I dropped my purse letting everything rain onto the ground while my hands patted the concrete feeling for my door key. I lay awake all night, fully clothed, shivering in the chill air. I got up to check the lock on the window and the chain across the door. I wondered how my children were asleep in their Toy Story sleeping bags on my neighbor’s living room floor.
During this time in my life, I prided myself on my professional attire. Realizing it was Montana and not quite spring, I wore a navy, wool pantsuit instead of a skirt. I held the line, however, on my shoes. Sling back, kitten shoes with a tiny 2-inch platform heel gave my 5-foot-tall frame a bit of height and shaped my calves better than flats. Climbing into the clown car, I set my lips in a firm line and floored it out of the motel parking lot. This day was going to end with me putting my kids to bed.
I drove fast on Highway 2. I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get to the school. The car was facing a set of mountains that erupted from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. According to the infamous map that got me from Missoula to Browning, the two mountains, Chief Mountain and Rising Mountain, were the two sharp and pointed peaks facing me. They were covered in snow, and it was hard to see where they parted. The only indicator of their separateness was the intense blue of the sky between the two of them. They were beyond the Going-to-Sun Road which was the turn off to the Pre-K-12 grade Blackfoot Reservation School, my work location for the day.
I left the highway and turned onto a gravel road. Children ambled in pairs and small groups and moved slowly towards the school in the distance. Little girls tossed their long hair in the wind and the boys hitched up their pants as they scuffled along in shoes missing their shoelaces. I didn’t notice the speed bump until I was almost on top of it. I tensed as my car’s front bumper hit the ground while the car’s back end hung in the air. To my right was fencing around a wide field with clumps of brown grass sticking up from piles of snow. I squinted. Leaning over the wire close to my car was a group of large animals. I thought they were cows, but, given their tall, curved horns and broad bodies, I realized they were bison. Eight bison to be exact. Eight bison all leaning against a sagging wire fence that strained at their bulk.
Their breath came out in frozen clouds. Taller than elk and moose, wide as grizzlies, and smarter than cows, the bison leaned precipitously close to my car searching for the small, tender green stalks emerging on the side of the road. Their eyes were vacant. I sat with my hands on the wheel. How many people see bison up close? They were behind a fence. I kicked open the clown car door. I carried a disposable camera in my briefcase for moments like this.
I shuffled towards the group my little kitten heels slipping on the icy road. I held my camera up and positioned the group in the tiny, blurry view finder. The bison had moist, black nostrils and matted, poodle-thick hair that grew from their ears across their broad heads. Click. I held my finger down to make sure the picture was perfect. While I wound the film to the next picture, I heard hooved-feet scrabble at the edge of the road. I pulled the camera down and came face to face with a bison so close I noticed his eyelashes curled back against his fur in ringlets. He drew in a breath and huffed at me with a whoosh. Strings of snot and mucus slapped against my hair and face. I felt it drip down my chest where my suit parted on the sides of my blouse. He heaved up another breath, and I scrambled around the car. The next blow of bison boogers hit the passenger side window. I got in the car waving my hands around too disgusted to touch my face and clothes. I finally wiped the gunk all over the fabric seat next to me.
The bison snot smelled of grass, poop, and a smell I couldn’t identify—something internal, primordial, and guts-like. I looked in the rearview mirror, and it looked like I had a glossy, facial mask applied to my cheeks to improve the elasticity of my skin. I put the car in gear and flew over the speed bump scraping the back bumper this time. I didn’t pause as I sailed past the children who were still moseying towards the school building.
An hour later, with wet circles staining the front of my silk blouse and hair glued to my forehead, I was ensconced in the school cafeteria where 18 teachers spanning grades kindergarten through 12th-grade sat on the uncomfortable lunchroom benches. I went through slide after slide of examples for using the grant money. I proposed portfolios, a collection of evidence including assignments, interviews, and self-reflections about student learning. After several hours with a break for lunch, I turned on my kitten heels and asked if anyone had questions. I waited for a hand, two hands. There was none. Hurt, I turned to pack up my briefcase, and the school principal came to me.
“Thank you,” she ventured. “It takes us some time to process information and think about our children and their learning styles. Do you have a little more time to spend with us today?”
“Yes, I do have a bit more time. I have to leave for the airport by 3:00 at the latest. I have children waiting at home for me. You know how it is.” I laughed lightly pretending it was no big deal.
“Oh, you don’t have family to care for them?” she asked. Her hair was a sleek, shiny black and pulled back into a simple bun at the nape of her neck. She wore jeans, boots, and a warm black sweater.
“No. Not this time of year.” We stood looking at one another, and I was suddenly jealous of her. She likely didn’t feel the thread unspooling as it sailed back towards her untethered children. My biggest fear was the thread would run out and the kids would drift away from me. I don’t know if she was part of a marriage, but she was more whole than I was—she was surrounded by family. Not even the bison snot could hold together my brittle edges.
“Will you be back here to advise us on the grant? We appreciate your help,” she faltered. “I don’t know if you know much about our history. You might like to see a few places on the reservation.” Something in her voice made me stop. It was a hesitancy, an opening, a little bit of fear but a crack of openness too. She motioned to a man standing off to the side. “Larry, please meet Dr. Thompson. Larry is our typing teacher.” My small hand disappeared into his beefy one, and his fingers felt like stiff sausages. Larry had two long, grey braids that hung down the front of his jacket. His large belly hung over the top of his pants, and his butt disappeared into the depths of his pants at the back. A packet of cigarettes was stuffed into the pocket on his shirt front.
“Come on. I’ve got two tanks of gas. We should be fine.”
Oh shit. Two tanks of gas. Hysteria flooded my chest. “We’re only going for an hour, right?” I asked him while looking for the principal to confirm our return time. “I’ve got to get on the road to Great Falls to catch a flight.” I followed Larry, my kitten heels tapping on the lacquered hallway floors. I saw the principal clutching a notebook to her chest in the office window. She waved goodbye to me. The runaway plane, the push and pull between Gladys and Norman, my children sleeping on my neighbor’s floor, I began to feel bits and pieces of myself crack off and fall to the ground.
Larry put the truck in gear, and we lurched out of the school driveway. We shuddered and bounced along the roads. Larry gained speed as we approached the speed bump warning of wandering bison. I wasn’t prepared. We vaulted over it, and the crown of my head slammed against the metal ceiling. Just like the woman in the plane.
“Sorry,” he said. He looked at me full in the face for the first time. “Are you hurt? He looked more alive than he had in the school. His brown eyes were direct. I noticed his hand rested on the gear shift clutching it only when gaining speed.
“I’m fine.” I was tired and I tried to sit up straight.
“We don’t have to go,” he offered.
“No, no, I do want to go. I’ve just had a hectic trip. A lot has happened in 24 hours.”
“Like what?” he looked at me with a calmness on his placid face.
“You really want to know?” He nodded yes. I tried to stick to the facts. I detailed the plane emergency, the drive around the lake, the bison burger and unwanted dance partner, and then the bison snot attack. Larry laughed until he had to use his large, puffy hands to wipe under his eyes.
“I’m sorry you haven’t had a better trip to Montana.” He grew silent for a few moments. “Thanks,” he said. I cocked my head sideways. “For saying Blackfoot instead of Blackfeet. Most people don’t know the difference.”
“I only knew it because of my research. Why isn’t it corrected?” Larry shrugged his shoulders at me. I shook my head frustrated. “It’s hard. I do all this research, but it is not the same. I go to different states and walk into places where everyone knows one another. I want to be respectful of how people live their lives and how teachers have separate ways of working with kids. I don’t think I’ve done a very good job while I’ve been here, or anywhere,” I muttered.
“You did alright,” he acknowledged. “Maybe we can do something like you talked about. No one told you that rez kids don’t take schoolbooks home. They aren’t that important. They leave them somewhere or they get lost at home. We teach other ways.”
“Yeah. Everyone did.”
I felt better. I looked around me as we chugged along. Wild prairie rolled off into the distance until it turned into the foothills of the mountains. We crossed a small river that appeared to be over its banks with spring run-off. The trees lining the bouncing water had a tinge of green to them.
“Two Medicine River.” Larry pointed. A more substantial waterway, it passed beneath the highway we crossed.
“Larry, “what do the kids type in your class?”
“What the book tells them to type.”
“You mean they don’t type their own essays, memos, or letters?”
“Nope. They type what the book tells them to.”
“Why do you do it then?”
He scratched his head. “It’s a job. I get to see all of the kids grow up through the grades. I taught their parents too.”
“Do they type now?” I held my hand on the console as we dipped into a depression in the pasture.
“They don’t need it.”
I let it sink in. “I don’t know how to act here.” As soon as I said the words, I wished I could snatch them back.
“You’re fine.” That’s all Larry said. It was later I realized my bare-naked words hanging in the air opened the door wider still. He slowed and stopped next to a gate. He got out opened it and drove through. Bison looked at us. They didn’t move as we bounced in and out of the ruts in the field. A giant pile of hay was piled up a few car lengths away. Their tails flapped like irritated crows.
“We’re here.” He turned the truck off. Looking down at my shoes he said, “We’re just going to step over there.” He pointed to the high point where a lone tree stood at the crest of the hill.
I looked down at my kitten heel shoes. Maybe I could have them dry cleaned, I thought.
We hiked up to the top of the ridge. I stumbled. Larry grabbed my elbow and pulled me upright. I looked at my watch. 2:00. I still had time. Buoyed, I hurried to catch up to Larry’s slow but unstopping pace.
“Why do you look at your watch all of the time?” He asked as we stood and surveyed the valley below us.
“I want to get home to my children.”
“We have Indian time.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It means we get there when we get there.” Larry cleared his throat. “The last of the buffalo were slaughtered here.”
“I’m sorry.” I looked around at the desolate land where shadows indicated depressions in the earth and small groves of leafless trees were bent against the wind. “Where are we?”
“Ghost Ridge. About a hundred years ago the Blackfoot think the last buffalo died here.”
“See down there?” He pointed to a pile of boards that looked like it might have been a shed once. “When the buffalo died, the Blackfoot camped here in the winter and most of them starved. They ate cottonwood bark trying to stay alive. An Indian named Almost a Dog cut notches on a branch every time a body was taken away. He had over 500 notches. That building down there is filled with bones. There’s a few more caved-in sheds around here too. There got to be so few people left they were too exhausted to bury them.” He looked at me. “Come see.” He held out his hand and I grabbed his arm. We carefully made our way down the hill. We stood a respectful distance away, and Larry took his cigarettes out of his pocket. He handed me one.
“Thanks, but I don’t smoke.”
“They are not for smoking.” He motioned me to make a slit along the side and free the tobacco from the paper. He turned to his left, bowed, and dusted the ground with the faded bits of dried leaves. “West.” He turned to the south, and we shook out a few more flakes. “East,” he said quietly. We turned last to the north and let the last of the tobacco flutter to the ground. “We’re giving thanks.”
I leaned past Larry’s shoulder to see the bones. He turned me to him and kissed me tentatively on the lips. I stumbled backwards, and my fingernails dug at my chapped lips like I was trying to remove the bison snot from the morning.
“Larry, why did you do that?” I wiped my mouth with my hand again. His cigarette breath repulsed me, and his slack, old man lips had pushed against my teeth, probing for more.
“I thought you knew this was sacred to us.” Larry’s red face blazed from cold embarrassment.
“Yes, but why you would think it was okay to kiss me?” I lost control of my voice, and it grew higher as I slipped down the hill towards the truck. I started to cry.
“We were talking, and I thought you were interested in being a Blackfoot. I thought you would be my wife.” Larry passed me on the hill with large, long strides.
I tried to keep my rising fear under control. “I need to get back to my car. I need to get to the airport. I need to get home. I need my children.” I hiccupped through my tears. Larry slammed his door shut and started the engine. The truck came to life and began to bump its way through the field.
“Larry, wait for me,” I wailed. Exhaust puffed from the tail pipe as it left.
I began to walk, then jog and then run through the pasture. I couldn’t catch my breath. According to my watch I had left Portland exactly a day ago. I ran past the bison daring them to engage with me. I reached the gate and saw that it was locked shut. I didn’t even stop. I put my kitten-heel shoes on the bottom rung and climbed the gate. I slung my leg over the top bar and climbed down the other side. My suit was sopping wet and covered in mud. I stumbled up to the road and did the unthinkable: I stuck out my thumb.
“Oh my, what happened?” The school principal asked rolling down her window. She pulled over and grabbed her pile of notebooks, kids’ lunchboxes, and a basketball and threw them in the back to make room for me.
“He wanted to marry me.” I sobbed.
“Oh.” She focused on the road. “Larry’s wife just died. I am so sorry. I thought he would show you the river. Never would I have thought something like this would happen. He must have really liked you to go to that place. Please, please don’t be angry at him. He’s an old man who doesn’t know better. Showing you Ghost Ridge was a great honor,” she took her foot off the gas pedal for a moment. “For most it has been forgotten.”
“I just want to go to the airport.” I stared out the side window.
When I knocked on my neighbor’s door later that night, my children were in their pajamas asleep on her couch. They clutched their lunch boxes on their laps.
“They were sure you would come,” she said smiling. “They’re good kids, you know.” She sniffed me. “Tell me later about your trip?” she asked.
“Definitely,” I whispered. We slept that night, the three of us, piled in my bed under covers that smelled of lavender laundry detergent, clean hair (mine, thank goodness), and that mysterious, undefinable scent of toddlers in sleep.
It’s been twenty-five years since my trip to the Blackfoot Reservation School. I’ve been married for two decades to Paul, who is not just the other half to make a whole, but my everything. Even so, sometimes I find myself sliding back to that trip to Montana. I’m pulled backward like time has fallen away, and the distance has shrunk into nothingness. Logically, I know the plane’s dead engine is scrap parts, and surely someone fixed the “C” in front of the oors sign, my navy wool suit and my kitten heels are buried in a landfill, and the grant money has been spent and replenished many times. Larry, however, has only Ghost Ridge where the bones of his people lay forever in the ruins of a few scattered old sheds. He could still be the typing teacher who types nothing living near the town that was erased. What was it the principal said?
“Showing you Ghost Ridge was a great honor. For most it has been forgotten.”
I remember Ghost Ridge, the site of our brief and bewildering marriage. Perhaps more than one version of time exists. I rocket through time anxious to see around the next corner while Larry gets there when he gets there. Our times converged while we stood together on the top of the ridge looking down on the history below. His blessing of the four winds, the visit to the bones, and ultimately the kiss, were his attempt to tease time into giving him a life he had lost. How sad, that it is only through a backward glance, that we realize time has moved at all, and much of what we have done has been forgotten—if we are lucky, maybe it’s remembered by someone.
The last time I was in San Francisco, I believe I was thirty-two years old. I was single, alone, on a business trip, and my parents were taking care of my children. I remember thinking that the city was invigorating and abuzz with activity.
Fast forward twenty-three years, and the activity was about to do me in. “Paul, I’m going to die. Stop.” I stood in the middle of a sidewalk on Stockton Street, one of the city’s highest and steepest hills. I was desperately trying to suck massive amounts of oxygen into my lungs. “What’s wrong with me? I’m never like this.” I leaned on my husband who was standing with his back to the hill also gasping. “The problem… is… my… thighs,” I wheezed loudly between words.
Paul started to laugh and it turned into a spasmatic cough similar to the sound of a barking seal. “Your thighs?”
“Yes,” I said taking deep breaths. “Aren’t muscles supposed to move oxygen around your body?”
“Honey, they do. They just aren’t capable of breathing for you.”
In Seattle, Paris, Mexico City…in so many places I would have smacked him, but at that moment, I didn’t have the ability to lift my arms, so I tucked it away for another time.
It was our first night in San Francisco, and I was determined to go to the Tonga Room in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel. Never have I been more disappointed and humiliated by a restaurant. It was like a marriage between Chuckie Cheese and the Panda Express. The mai tais were 22 dollars, the pupu platter was 48 dollars, the fried spring rolls were seven dollars each and they came four to a plate. A giant fan blew warm moist air across the room, and waiters stood still clutching paper menus when the inevitable gust passed by them. A recording of rumbling thunder and lashing rain boomed from speakers in the corners, and dozens of children ran through the restaurant, dipping their hands in the refurbished pool-turned- lagoon and splashed one another. I was hit with a chilling wave. I resisted the urge to stick out my foot and trip the urchins.
“I’m double dipping the spring rolls,” Paul said shoving one in his mouth. “If we’re here when the band starts, it’s a fifteen-dollar cover charge for each of us.”
“Fine,” I said breaking a fried roll in half and using it like a biscuit to sop up the extra syrup. “These children are heathens anyway. Where are their parents?” Then I saw the line of mai tai glasses lined up in the center of the table next to us. “That’s a hundred dollars of mai tais,” I said shocked.
“Check, please,” Paul said raising his hand and struggling to swallow the last of the roll.
We landed on the sidewalk outside the hotel.
“What do we do now?” Paul asked.
“We look for people who are at least our age, cheerful, enjoy food, and are not afraid to drink a whole bottle of wine with dinner,” I said determined. “To begin, we only walk downhill.” We picked up the pace.
“Women’s hair will be tastefully colored,” I whispered.
“Men?” Paul inquired.
“Silver foxes just like you,” I said patting his thick silver-grey hair.
“Do these people like Italian food?” Paul stopped and pointed his finger at the end of the block. A brave green, white, and red striped flag stood out in the darkness. Standing on my tiptoes and straining to see, I saw white tablecloths covering the tables. As the door flew open and ejected a happy couple, laughter rang in the cold night air.
“I love being 55. Thank goodness we are not afraid of white flour, cream sauces, or lady fingers soaked in espresso…let’s hurry.” My patent leather shoes clicked frantically towards the warmly lit windows.
We arrived at the restaurant and a bottle of chianti reserve was skillfully opened and poured. I closed my eyes and savored the bright, spicy scent.
“Don’t take this wrong,” Paul said. I opened my eyes to see him holding a glass up to cheer the good fortune of our night. “A toast to your thighs. May they always carry the oxygen to get us where we belong.”
We clinked glasses and I smiled at him as I took a small sip. Two. I have two smacks tucked away for the future.
I wrote this essay a few years ago when my son, Connor, and his wife, Samantha, were expecting their first child. That baby turned out to be CJ, Connor Junior, who will turn four this December. His sister Harley also has a December birthday, and she will celebrate her third birthday this year. Paul and I had the privilege and honor of spending the last four and a half months living with Samantha, CJ, and Harley while Connor was deployed in Kuwait. Our driveway was crammed with toys, books burst out of baskets, and playdough found its way into the most unlikely of places. Every day was a treasure, and a week before they were to return to Texas to welcome Connor home, the pumpkin patch opened. CJ and Harley did all the same activities my children did years ago, and, from the glimmer in their eyes, I have a feeling some unknown pumpkin patch in the future will suffer the same fate ours did. This essay is a compilation of conversations we have had over the years about this happy day at the pumpkin patch, so while my grown kids may protest the veracity of the setting, I can assure you all of the memorable events of that day DID happen.
My daughter SarahKate, son Connor, and daughter-in-law, Samantha were going through a stack of old family pictures. A picture of Connor and SarahKate as teenagers made me pause.
“Wait, what day was that?” I asked. The kids sat on the steps of the porch each holding an orange cat. Our golden retriever, Tucker, sat on the step below them and looked over his shoulder at the cats and the kids. Pumpkins were packed in untidy piles around them.
“You don’t remember that day, Mom?” Connor said. “Really? You spent the entire day mad at us.”
“It was a great day,” SarahKate grinned.
“It was a long time ago.” Connor handed Sam the picture.
“You were thirteen and eleven, then? They look happy. Do you remember why you were mad?” Sam handed me the picture.
“I’m not sure.” I stared at the photo. Connor, not yet in the Army, had curly hair. SarahKate had just started wearing make up and her fresh, peachy skin glowed through the luminescent powder. They leaned towards each other teasing the cats.
Something stirred in me.
“What happened that day?” I inquired. “On second thought, maybe it’s better if Sam doesn’t find out and I don’t remember.”
“Oh, no, I want to hear all about this day,” Sam said.
“Mom, come on. It was Pumpkin Patch Day.” SarahKate huffed. “Seriously, Mom? The cow, don’t you remember the cow?”
“Maybe,” I offered, probing my memory.
“What happened?” Sam asked.
“Connor hit a cow.” SarahKate’s face was solemn.
Sam turned to Connor. “How could you hit a cow? How mean.”
“SarahKate, you shouldn’t put it like that,” he glared. I held the photo in my fingertips and searched the young faces in the picture.
They were so young.
“There’s this pumpkin patch we go to every year since we were little. They have games, a petting zoo, and a big field where you can pick your own pumpkin.”
“Apple fritters, too,” SarahKate added. “They’re amazing. All drippy with frosting.”
“SK, I’m talking,” Connor invoked the nickname he gave her years ago. “So, there was this game called the Apple Sling Shot. There was a huge rubber band that you put mushy apples in and you pulled it back as far as you could and then let go. If you were really good you could even aim it.”
“So, Connor aimed for a black and white cow out in the field and he hit it right on the side. We heard a thunk.” SarahKate smirked.
“You guys are being totally unfair,” Connor ran his hand down his face in disbelief. “There were big circles spray painted on the grass. They had to know that people were going to hit the cows standing in the bullseyes.”
“So, you got mad?” Sam asked.
My eyes held hers for a moment.
“If it happened, I’m sure I hustled them out of there as fast as I could. I wouldn’t have wanted to pay for the cow.”
I didn’t want them to see me laugh either, I thought.
“Then,” SarahKate snorted, “she got really mad.”
“No, no, let me tell it,” Connor said. “She marched to the barn and told us to wait while she got fritters and cider.”
“Hmm, let me guess. You didn’t wait like she told you.” Sam frowned at her husband.
Her husband, I thought to myself. My son is someone’s husband.
“Of course not,” Connor and SarahKate screamed with laughter.
“No, my turn,” SarahKate rushed in. “We each had two tickets left. The train was for little kids, but Connor and I jumped on just as it took off. I had the cat,” she purred.
“Always picked the cat,” Connor muttered. “I had the elephant. So we couldn’t fit our legs in the seats, so we sat on top of the cars and held on to the sides. We thought we had enough time to get back before Mom came out, but,”
“I saw them,” I blurted out. “I was so mad I was running next to the train yelling at them to get off the kiddie cars. The cider spilled on my hands and the fritters got mushy.”
“You do remember that day,” SarahKate said astonished.
“I do now,” I retorted. “You kids were so bad.”
“Please tell me they didn’t do anything else,” Sam said.
“Come on, Sam, don’t you know us by now?” SarahKate teased.
My heart sang at the unexpected familiarity.
“All we had left was picking out our pumpkins. So Connor and I got a huge wheelbarrow to carry them back. We always picked out the biggest ones we could lift.” SarahKate looked innocent. “It was Connor’s fault after that.”
“Oh, no,” Sam said looking aghast at Connor. “You didn’t.”
“Oh yeah, we did,” Connor said. “SarahKate climbed in the wheelbarrow and we raced up and down the rows.”
“Then it got wild,” SarahKate broke in. “Tons of little kids were crawling into wheelbarrows and big kids were pushing them through the vines. Parents were yelling and slipping in the mud as they tried to catch them.”
“Oh, my.” Sam was shocked. “What did you do?” She looked at me expectantly.
“I hid in the minivan.” I held my palms up in defeat.
“We had to roll our pumpkins to the car. The cashier took our wheelbarrow away, obviously,” Connor sighed.
“The pumpkins wobbled a lot,” SarahKate remembered.
“It was the happiest day of my life.” I whispered.
“Ah, Mom. That’s nice.” SarahKate smiled.
“Thanks, Mom.” Connor kissed my cheek.
“I want a day like that too, but I think we should leave the cow part out,” Sam said.
“Oh no,” Connor and SarahKate chimed together. “You have to hit the cow.”
Mojo. It’s when the stars align and passion carries you forward into the best you can do. In baseball it means seeing the seams on the ball as you swing the bat, but for a travel writer, even wardrobe malfunctions can be the exodus you need to push your writing to another level. I give you…my mojo without a top or a bottom.
A journalist turned cigar shop owner who counted Fidel Castro as one of his friends and a machete-wielding river tour guide were the Puerto Vallatra and Sayulita mojo-producing stories of my ten-day Mexican vacation.
We spent just one day in Puerto Vallarta, and that was more than enough. Hurricane Nora had gone through just a few days before our arrival, and it had decimated the city’s sanitation system. Brackish water covered the cobble-stoned streets up to the curbs and fountains of brown water bubbled up from the city’s manhole covers. The smell? It was like a dog park where too many dogs had a party and tried to hide the smell by peeing on it. The locals called it “aguas negras,” or literally “black waters” spilling into the ocean.
In spite of the smell and the creeping tide of sewage water, I had done my research, and I knew the exact six-block radius of shops between the Cathedral of Guadalupe and the Puerto Vallarta waterfront that would yield the best art galleries, women’s boutiques, and 2 for 1 margaritas. Shopping is my life; I’m truly gifted at it. To keep Paul hoping we were just around the corner from the aforementioned margaritas, I occasionally have to find him a store that he thinks he discovered. It gives him a point in the win column. The shop must embrace manliness. It doesn’t have to stock things for men per se; it just must make a man feel manly to cross the threshold. A shop sign jumped out from under the eaves of an old hacienda—La Casa del Habano. A cigar shop. Paul’s eyes lit up. He could tell his brothers he bought Cuban cigars. It was a win for both of us. He got the cool brother nod, and I got the coolest wife award.
After wiping our feet off thoroughly, we stepped into the store and were immediately wrapped in curls of cigar smoke.
“I’m going into the humidor,” Paul said with his hand on the doorknob of a glass-paneled door. Inside I saw rows and rows of cigar boxes containing wrinkled, brown stubs all snuggled up together in the dim light.
“I thought a humidor was a box with a see-through lid,” I said flatly.
“That is our home humidor. This is a man’s humidor,” Paul said softly as he eased the door shut behind him.
I looked around at the shop. This was a man’s world. Bottles of tequila, rum, and mezcal lined the window frames and bookshelves, and a brick staircase led down into a cool basement where cigar smoke was puffing from the corner.
“Welcome to my shop,” a voice said from the shadows. A light switched on, and a man who vaguely resembled Ernest Hemmingway was ensconced in the corner of a worn leather couch the color of Havana coffee. He was portly with a wrinkled shirt tight around his belly, a close-cropped silver beard and matching silver hair partly hidden under a Panama hat. “Drink?” He held out a bottle of mezcal.
“No thanks. I am waiting for my husband.” I looked around. There weren’t a lot of places to sit. I slid onto the leather couch at the other end from him.
“I smoke ten cigars a day. Five at home, five here in the shop.” He went silent and drew in a drag that filled his chest. “Smoke?”
“Not a day in my life,” I responded folding my hands over the purse in my lap.
“Too bad. You might like it. Especially had you started early.” There was an uncomfortable pause. “What do you do?” he asked.
“I’m a writer.”
He leaned toward me and put an ash tray between us on the back of the couch. He tapped the ashes and then held the cigar out to me. “I’m a writer too.” I ignored the offering. “In fact, I was one of the only writers Fidel Castro allowed to interview him.” He blew smoke in the general direction of the ceiling. “Castro told me he’d had sexual intercourse 35,000 times in his life. Before breakfast, after lunch, and during siesta too,” he said breathlessly as he exhaled.
I felt sick to my stomach. “Well, I am headed to the humidor. Time for us to get going.” I trotted up the steps and pressed my hands and face on the outside of the cool glass of the door and used my fists to get Paul’s attention. I tipped my head towards the outside and motioned to my husband I was leaving.
While Mr. Fake Hemmingway wrapped up Paul’s purchases, I stood outside and smoothed my dress down in the stifling heat. Sweat dripped off the ends of my hair onto my skin and slid onto my neck, and I realized something didn’t feel right. I looked down and two buttons on the bosom of my dress had come undone. Not only was my chest open to the world, but my bra was a little tight and the ladies were propped and pushed like Marilyn Monroe’s.
I thought about telling Paul about Mr. Fake Hemmingway’s sleazy behavior towards me, but then I remembered there were three more stores to go, and one of them had multicolored leather sandals. People thought Marilyn Monroe was a ditz, but she managed to deftly handle an iconic playwright, a salacious president, and a major league baseball player with coyness and a pouty expression. I could take a page out of that gal’s playbook. I felt my mojo hum.
How do you tell a proud, macho tour guide that he dropped his machete in a small and accidental pocket? Paul shook his head in the negative as we stood behind Jorge, our tour guide for La Pila del Rey, a national heritage site for the Altavista petroglyphs, carvings made by the Tecoxquines, an Aztec tribe from the 16th century. His eyes gleaming in a wicked grin, Jorge had tossed the machete into the air over his shoulder. He thought it landed straight down into the big pocket, but instead it had tumbled it in the water bottle pocket leaving a two-inch slice in the worn fabric. I shook my fist at Paul silently and gave him the stink eye. I can’t believe a man’s delicate pride was more important than the very real chance I could be sliced by a bouncing two-foot-long rusty machete with bloody first aid tape for a handle.
Paul and I have hiked quite a bit together, just not in the last decade. With Jorge in front of me and Paul behind me, I didn’t have much of an exit strategy. I was stuck behind the machete, and all I could do was watch its movement. For the next two hours I trained my eyes on the machete like it was a bomb in an action movie.
Happily sharing his knowledge, Jorge led us on a scramble over boulders, a thigh-deep rain-swollen river crossing and sudden screeching halts to view over one hundred carvings. The machete swung wildly in every direction but gamely stayed in the small pocket. In the end I learned three things: one, the Texcoxquines deeply valued their gods and mind-altering substances; two, I was faster, quicker, and more resilient than I thought as I ducked and dodged the flipping and sliding machete (in fact, Jorge nicknamed me the little goat); and three, just when you let your guard down, trouble really happens. At the end of the river portion of the tour, Paul and I shot through a rock chute, down a waterfall, and into a deep pool. The force of water was so strong it stripped my bathing suit bottoms off and deposited them near a particularly large cluster of petroglyphs. For a moment I thought Jorge might pick them up with his machete and hand them to me, but thankfully he turned his back while I struggled to put them on in the churning water. You better believe my mojo was humming then.
For a travel writer, having your mojo in place is living life at its best. Losing my top and then my bottom may have been an uncomfortable way to arrive at that best of places, but Mr. Fake Hemmingway and Tour Guide Jorge, were the means to writing about this part of Mexico—where the sound of a tuba playing carries across the water, surfers linger off the coast waiting for the perfect wave, visible generations of dogs dash through town, never ending milk chocolate water crosses the path at the corner, walking through a cemetery is one way to get to the beach, and speed bumps come with tops or are topless. Tops and bottoms aside, I’d have called you crazy a week ago if you had told me Marilyn Monroe’s ghost would be the one to help me find my mojo.
Falling in love is not just for lovers, it is for travelers too.
We are in Sayulita, Mexico, on the Pacific Ocean where pelicans cartwheel into the water, their outer feathers ragged from diving for tiny fish. Our home for ten days is one of seven little bungalows split from an old villa called Los Casa Arcos. A white stucco alcove with a red tiled roof, black-painted windows, and surrounded by worn brick paths, our temporary home is tucked between an old cemetery settled into the hillside above us and a canopy of trees that muffle the crashing waves against the rocks below us. Just after sunset, candlelight flickers between the crypts, and the geckos, birds, and cicadas take turns whirring and chirping from the spreading branches.
Antonio, the innkeeper, gardener, bug sprayer, and roof leak fixer stomps around the grounds and the houses. He is trailed by his little girl, Nina, who chatters at him like a tree gecko searching for her family. Antonio shoos Rita, the white cat with a brown face, from our covered patio, but since she cries with pleasure when we return from our adventures, we adopt her and sneak her little pieces of cheese as she winds around our legs.
Antonio shows us the secret tunnel that runs underneath the length of the villa and hands us the keys to the gate at the far end that opens onto a crumbling staircase above a hidden beach. The granite rocks glitter with shimmering mica, and Paul is enchanted by all of it—especially the tunnel.
Thunder and lightning race across Sayulita Bay each midnight and Paul knows where to put the bowls and towels to catch the water streaming in from the cracks Antonio has not yet fixed. On our third night, a violent storm hung over the villa for an interminable time, and Rita became frantic on the patio howling and moaning for help. Against Paul’s better judgement, we let her in where she raced to the bed and dropped a two-inch long cockroach in the middle of the tangled sheets. My screams pierced the night greater than any boom of thunder, and Paul and Antonio met at the ancient door of our abode and silently exchanged the squirming cat. Both men were in their underwear, but they only wanted my shrieking to end, so they silently agreed to let appearances—Antonio in his boxers and Paul in his white underpants—to pass without comment.
I have never seen so many beach hawkers trudge through the sand and ask people to buy from the rainbow of wares piled on their backs, hanging from their arms, or tucked away in large, flapping bags. Old men with tired, dirty cowboy hats open their briefcase-like boxes to reveal brilliant, shined silver jewelry, while pairs of women grab corners of neon blankets and frilly table clothes and shake them aloft to showcase the expansive colors. Grim little boys hold bouquets of roses and lilies aloft and cajole men at each table; they know they must sell them before returning home to their mothers.
But it is the musicians of Sayulita who greet you on every street corner, beach entrance, even under our patio one night. No one sings softly, everywhere ukuleles and bongo drums play country music, and guitars pound the chords to 1970 hits—especially Hotel California—which gets in your head for the rest of the day, but it was the Mariachi band that made me fall in love with Sayulita.
A band of five coronets, a bass guitar, an accordion, and one violin crowd into the beachside restaurant where we are having dinner, and other diners grumble as they scrape their chairs closer to their tables.
“200 pesos a song,” the leader announces. Only eight dollars. His hand rests on the shoulder of a young boy, about twelve, with flawlessly gelled hair and a blank expression on his face. His coronet hangs next to his leg; his fingers slack around it. None of the diners speak up and instead turn to their dinners.
“I want a song,” I call as the group makes its way down the back stairs of the restaurant toward the beach. They pause as I stand up and welcome them back to our table.
“How about you play it?” Paul motions to the young man.
“Paul,” I turn to him horrified. “He is just a little boy.”
The young man uses his fingers to pull on the soft fringe of his hair and shifts his weight from foot to foot. His green-brown eyes, like the sunburned hills surrounding the water, are large in his face.
“You don’t have to,” I protest seeing his lower lip tremble.
“No, he can do it, Senorita,” the leader said. His own hair is slick too; he is the boy’s father. He slips his hand into his pocket and pulls out a mouthpiece for his son’s coronet. He pushes it into the boy’s hand and squeezes the boy’s small fingers with reassurance. He clears his throat and announces, “The song is called El Perdido Niño, and is about a parent searching for their child. It is an old Mariachi song.” He smiles at me. “In English, it is known as the ‘Lost Child.’” Carefully, holding his coronet at his side, he turns and walks out of the restaurant into the twilight.
Oh my Lord, I thought. What have we done?
The little boy is sweating and licking his lips painfully. He shoves the mouthpiece into the instrument. The band members pat his back and ready themselves to play. He trains his eyes on me and then closes them.
“Listen. They wouldn’t have let him come if they didn’t think he was ready.” We lean forward.
Outside, a cry comes from a distant coronet. It calls into the night where the sun has just set into the bay. It reaches out like an anxious mother calling to her missing child. Fear and beauty are woven together in its hanging notes. The talking around us stops. I wait to hear the coronet’s song again, but it is silent and dark outside.
In front of us in the warm, humid air of the cheerful restaurant, the young man’s shoulders relax, and he fills his cheeks with air. Raising his instrument to his lips, he returns the distant call with the same melody, the same haunting cry. He is the child searching for his parent. He drops his head and listens. Eyes closed, he waits. The boy’s face turns red as he catches sight of his father beaming through the restaurant playing the refrain again. With a huge sigh of relief, the young man blows hard into his instrument and drums his fingers on the valves. The rest of the group picks up their parts and the song bursts to life. It feels exactly like the child has been found. The diners who had gone silent during the lonely call and response, clap and slap their hands on their knees.
I put my hand to my sunburned neck where my pulse pounds. My face is flushed and happy. I lean forward and say to him over the music, “You touched my heart.” I lay my hand on my chest and look at his father. He grins, one parent to another. Paul hands the young boy a generous tip. He holds up his hand and the boy gives him a high five.
I have fallen in love with Sayulita. There is no doubt about it.
Paul and I became those people tonight–the ones dining on the beach with a private valet, bushels of orchids perfuming the air, a lighted chandelier swaying over our heads, candles marking the edges of our dining area, and broiled lobsters bristling on our plates.
Our travel company kindly treated us to a romantic, private dinner on the beach at the Tubkaak Resort in Krabi after an unfortunate experience in a Bangkok restaurant.
It was a beautiful setting and delicious food, but there was a story under all that glitz and glamour…
We’d been traveling for ten days by this time, and we’d done our laundry once. We bundled the hot, smelly mess into a bag and handed it to the staff. When later I opened the closet to change my clothes, it was empty. We had two choices–each of us wear the one pair of dirty underwear we had turned inside out twice already–or my idea–go commando.
“I’m not going without underwear.” Paul said, pulling back on the grey, rumpled pair of shorts that had already seen a waterfall hike and a particularly warm day at a temple.
“My dress is lined, so I don’t need underwear.” Together we held up the pale blue, strapless dress and inspected it. We had it made in Chang Mai, and the tailor was better at men’s clothing. Significantly better.
“Pretty sure you need that underwear,’ Paul said shaking his head.
So, just like the couple who planned the events of their Senior Prom, Paul and I prepared for the Romantic Beach Dinner.
Paul shaved. Then I shaved using his razor. He says they are ruined after that, but I don’t see the difference. Paul ironed his pants and shirt and buffed his shoes.
I needed help of a different kind.
“I lean over and drop them in and then you cinch me on the tightest clasps,” I instructed him while bending over at the waist. Paul stood frozen.
“How do you think a woman gets a strapless bra on?” I complained and snapped my fingers.
When we arrived at the beach, our valet, Chantra, waited for us. The sun was still bright over the water, and the humidity seeped into my hair. I had used a new organic mosquito repellent, Kaffir Lime, and the smell made Paul walk several feet behind me.
Chantra seated us at a table for two in the sand. Tinkling crystals bushed against each other overhead, stems of white and purple orchids spilled from the candelabras dug into the sand, and yards of tulle covered our chairs and the table. We were the cake topper engulfed in cream frosting.
What I didn’t expect, was the string of people who walked past our table a few feet away guessing why were having such a fancy dinner.
“Too old to be getting married,”
“Yeah, anniversary, maybe,”
“I don’t get it. Who are they?”
As we were the objects of scrutiny and discussion, we dined on Crab Salad Towers, Andaman Sea Soup, Passion Fruit Sorbet, Broiled Lobster, and Tiramisu for dessert. In between each course, Chantra dashed from the shadows and sprayed Bug Off on my legs (the organic stuff was a bust), and Paul and I took turns re-lighting the candles which was like playing Whack-a-Mole, because there were so many. We shooed away a cat who jumped on my lap determined to snare our lobster carcasses, and I helped Chantra find a fork when he dropped it in the sand. It took a village to keep that dinner on track.
“Coffee,” I called out to the darkness. “Please?” I cleared my throat. “Chantra?”
We picked up our things–phones, reading glasses, and sun glasses–the vitals, you know, and before we left, just for me, Paul faked one last dancing picture.
Upon returning to our room, we really celebrated. Our laundry was back. Paul counted his underwear pile twice, and I squealed when I saw my Ohio State Buckeyes nightgown starched and hung on a hanger. It looked better than the dress, and it did not require a bra of any kind.
I told Paul I wanted to meet a monk in Thailand, and he responded that it was unlikely there was a Monk Chat tour. Maybe Karma will arrange a meeting, I sniffed. Sure, he said. Go for it…
Well…on the last leg of our inbound flight to Bangkok, I saw a monk, swathed in a voluminous, tangerine-colored sheet with a wool hat pulled over his ears, enter the plane and walk down our aisle. I offered to trade him my window seat for his middle seat, and he said yes. It felt odd to sit between my husband and a monk, but when I glanced at Paul with a bemused smile on my face, I did not know that Karma dislikes smugness.
“Would you mind if I asked you about being a monk?” He nodded in agreement and I pondered my opening. In the back of my brain I remembered my feet had to point away from him, I couldn’t step on his shadow, and, with a thrill, I recalled there could be no skin to skin contact with a woman (even his mother and sisters) because females have a corrupting influence on monks. I raised the armrest between Paul and myself and mentally measured the distance between the monk and me. It appeared to be ample. Karma also does not appreciate superciliousness.
“How long have you been a monk?”
“Since I was seven years old,,” he replied looking at me over the top of his glasses. “My parents sent me to the temple so I could get an education. I was a novice until I was twenty and then I accepted the robes for life.”
“Did your parents come visit you?”
“Yes, but only once a year on my birthday. Chang Rai is very far from Bangkok,” he said pulling his robe tighter and settling into the gap between the seat and the window.
“Could they bring a birthday cake?”
“No, monks can only eat what they are offered each morning.”
I raised my eyebrows. Karma does not like doubt.
“Monks take bowls out each morning and people who follow Buddha put money and food in the bowls. It’s called alms.” His sheet pulled away from his shoulder, and for a moment I saw a section of his smooth, hairless chest and bare arm. They looked delicate, unlined, and, I have to say it…naked.
“What do you do as a monk?” Karma does not like rudeness.
“I pray, chant, and meditate.”
“I can’t meditate,” I rushed in. “There are so many thoughts in my head, I can’t stop them.” Next to me I felt Paul’s back shake with laughter. Karma does’t like interruptions.
“Yes, you can. You can learn to meditate.” He pointed to my water bottle. “Look at it. See how it is shaped? The color? The amount of water? Focus on it.”
I tilted the bottle back and forth like a snow globe. “What does meditating do?” Karma does not like impatience.
“When you are a monk you can meditate alone or with others. It is about stilling your thoughts, carving a hole inside you, and letting it fill itself. I teach the novices to meditate using the full moon as their object.”
We chatted for a while longer, and then he put his headphones on and turned away to watch a movie. I stared at my water bottle and tried to do as he suggested. Still my thoughts, carve a hole, let it fill itself. I looked at the water through the blue plastic. Maybe I could smell the water. Karma does not like disbelief.
I flipped open the top of the bottle and leaned in to smell. The bottle was filled to the edge, and I didn’t notice growing bubbles roiling and building in the bottom. Before I could figure out what was happening, the straw bulged and water surged to the top. The combination of the change in air pressure in the plane and my shaking the bottle during my monk chat had created a geyser of pressurized water. It shot out the bottle and straight into the ceiling above our heads. It rained all over the monk, Paul and me, and when the bottle was empty, drips from the ceiling rolled down the sides of our faces. The front of my shirt was soaked, and the monk’s robes were so water-logged, he could have wrung them out. Paul jumped up to get towels, and I held the empty water bottle in my hand. Karma got even.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “I was meditating. Trying to.”
He took his glasses off and used a section of his cloth to rub his lenses dry.
“That’s good,” he said placing his glasses back on. “perhaps if you focus on a full moon, it is unlikely it will rain.”
I have never believed in Karma. I may have to rethink my position.
I led a congo line of dancing middle-age women to Frank Sinatra’s I”’ll Do it My Way” tonight at the Night Market in Chang Mai, Thailand. Where’s the picture? There isn’t one. Paul was in the bathroom.
I’m glad—but not for the reasons you might think.
Our vacation to Thailand has come at a crossroads for me. Although we started planning it back in February, I didn’t know until a few months later that the legislature would eliminate my job. I was unaware that I would be facing medical issues that are more annoying than anything else–but still real.
I felt like I was waiting at a bus stop where every bus passed me by. When the funding was cut for my position, I was five months from my twenty-year anniversary which is the magic number for a complete retirement package. The state education agency agreed to keep me on for those extra five months and asked me to complete a few small projects. Five months is a long time to have very little to do. It is a long time to be an expert in what you do and yet no one needs you to do it. The few projects took me a few weeks, not months, and while I waited for the time to pass, I did a lot of thinking.
So, that brings me back to the Night Market dance. In Chang Mai, there is a day market that sells indigo clothes, smocked pants, and all things elephant. The night market sells all of the same things, but it takes place at night where pastel lamps swing in the breeze, the flames of the street food surge with the cooking meat, Las Vegas-style Thai Lady Boys pose for pictures for 100BHT (three dollars), and people get up and sing karaoke. Here’s the deal—Night Market in Chang Mai is huge. I’m talking enough vendors to fill a football field. I’m talking a booming audio system for the karaoke.
I sat down in a plastic chair in the middle of the third row in front of the karaoke stage. I clutched my purse in my lap. ‘Zip up your purse,’ Paul mouthed to me over his shoulder as he walked away. I sat quietly, my leg bouncing to the rhythm of the music. A tiny, grey-haired Thai man on the stage was sweating, pacing back and forth, and pointing to the women in the crowd as he belted out Sinatra’s greatest hit. The woman sitting next to me reached over and tapped my arm. She tipped her head towards the stage and motioned for me to go up. I shook my head No. No way. Her friend reached over and patted my leg. Her eyes crinkled at the corners, and she laughed and pushed my arm. It was a friendly push.
Emboldened, they began to talk to me in Thai. Their voices got higher and more insistent. Their friends came over curious to see why the crazy American lady wouldn’t sing karaoke. Finally, I dropped my purse and stood up. They roared and shook their fists in the air. There was no way I was going to sing, but I could dance. Seconds later there was a pile of purses knee deep, and twenty Thai women and one crazy red head were pressed against the stage and waving their arms like they were at a concert.
The singer motioned for the music to start again. I lined the little ladies up, their worn ballet flats facing forward, and patted each of them as I ran down the row putting their hands on the shoulders of the woman in front of them. I took the lead at the front of the line, and we took off. We snaked through the stalls, pausing to wave our hands like flags when it came to Sinatra’s big line. People were filming us with their I Phones, and I am afraid to check YouTube.
I was astounded by the joy and freedom I felt. It didn’t matter if I looked ridiculous. The Thai ladies and I were having the time of our lives. I kicked my foot to the left with my friends, and we belted out the chorus better than the big New Yorker himself.
All those months of waiting are done. Twenty years was a long time to wait for the congo-line moment of my life, but it is here, and I don’t need a picture to prove to myself that I can do it. For the rest of the night, every time I passed one of those lovely ladies in the market, we’d put our heads together and sing, “I’ll do it my way.”
There’s something about Autumn that causes Paul and I to glance at one another with renewed interest. We feel an itch that needs to be scratched. We stare at each other with raised eyebrows. We pace the house while the rain falls outside. Finally, one of us says, ‘Do you want to go on a trip?’ and the other one sighs, ‘Yes.’
We’re going to Thailand.
Paul spreads travel guides across the dining table, studying maps until he has them memorized. I practice my wai greeting—bowing my head and pressing my palms together. I say the feminine ‘Sawasdee kha’ and Paul answers with the masculine ‘Sawasdee krap,’ the Thai greeting for hello. We watch Netflix shows on street food, buy mosquito repellant for the jungle hikes, ponder appropriate footwear for longtail boats, and read numerous New York Times articles on the ethics of elephant and human interaction.
Paul is relaxed during the days of planning, but my gut churns with something other than acid reflux. Finally, one evening, I lean over on the couch and whisper in his ear, ‘I can’t use chopsticks.”
In the summer of 1987, two of my male friends talked me into going on a blind date with one of their buddies. Don’t ask me his name, I don’t remember. All I know is on that night I went from being a chopstick virgin to a chopstick failure.
He took me to a Chinese restaurant in downtown Seattle, and as our food arrived, he grabbed the fork out of my hand and slapped a set of thin, wooden sticks into my palm.
‘I won’t let you use a fork.’ I still remember his smarmy grin. He must have thought I was the kind of girl who would find it funny. I didn’t. I was steaming.
I bent my stiff fingers around the slim sticks and tried to twirl the noodles like spaghetti. They slid down and pooled on the plate. I chased the chicken trying to get one stick under the meat, but it just kept circling the rim. I attempted to stab a vegetable. No luck. I contemplated stabbing the back of his hand laying on the table between us, but then I remembered I was a lady. I heard him giggle, and I raised my eyes in time to see rubbery rings of calamari speeding towards my mouth.
“Open,” he demanded. “You’ll love it.”
“I want a fork,” I bellowed over my shoulder. The waiter ran between the tables and placed it next to me. He took the offending chopsticks and scurried back to the kitchen.
“The guys didn’t tell me you were so feisty,” Blind date guy said slurping noodles between his lips.
So, I’ve never recovered from chopsticks failure. I’ve tried over the years, but as soon as something flies over the booth, falls on the floor, or zings across the table, I toss the sticks into my purse and embrace the fork. Paul, of course, clicks chopsticks in the air like an insect during mating season and swoops, shovels, and gulps without dropping them or flicking sauce on himself. I watch unmoved.
I remind Paul of the possible benefit of my inability to use chopsticks in Thailand—weight loss. ‘Time on task,’ he chides. ‘You have to practice.’ Easy for him to say. I agree to try again. I retrieve Paul’s personal chopsticks and plop a scoop of ice cream in a bowl. Then my phone rings. It is Natasha, our guide, from Audley Travel.
I confess my fears to her. She laughs and says, “You’ll be fine. People use spoons, forks and chopsticks all over the country.”
Triumph in my eyes, I hang up the phone and announce to Paul, “Good news. Natasha says I don’t have to smuggle a fork into Thailand.”
Paul, knowing there is no topic too insignificant to discuss, nods carefully and replies, “I am happy. Any time we can avoid an international incident over table utensils is a good day.”
I spent my last night in Paris with a Turkish tour guide, a Middle Eastern banker, my husband, and my brother-in-law on a cocktail tour that ended with me stepping through a refrigerator door in a pretend pizza restaurant. What was behind that door? My future.
“Ah, I told you guys not to drink,” Pete looked annoyed when he arrived at our agreed upon meeting place. He walked. We ubered. We had time for one last carafe of cheap wine. He was waiting for the good stuff. He used a parents’ best weapon. Guilt.
“This is a cocktail tour. It is not a pub crawl. We are going to go to bars, try different kinds of spirits and learn about cocktails.” It was a lecture.
Paul and I looked at each other and waited for Pete to move towards the door. Together we raised our glasses and gulped the rest of our wine. Paul grabbed his coat and I pulled my wrap off the back of the chair. In Paris I didn’t wear a coat. I wore a wrap. It was quite theatrical when I flung it across my chest and over my shoulder.
“We’re meeting the guide at the corner up there.” Pete marched ahead and I followed him. Paul brought up the rear steering me, holding up my wool wrap that kept sliding to the ground and keeping an eye out for pickpockets. One of my favorite Paris activities was to scan the crowd on the Metro and decide who was the guy most likely to lunge for my purse. No one did. Paul would say it was because of his protection, but I believe the potential crooks read “screamer” all over my face when they considered me.
“Great I am glad you are here.” Dicle, a young girl from Turkey was leading our tour. An aspiring actress, she talked Airbnb into offering a cocktail tour to get the real vibe of a working-class neighborhood on the eastern edge of the city.
“Here’s Mohammed; he’s joining us too.” Mohammed, dressed in black, stood a little away from the group. He kept his eyes averted and walked in the street instead of cramming onto the sidewalk with us.
Dicle explained to us that the tour was really ours—we could go anywhere we wanted. Pete suggested whiskey, I suggested anything as long as it was pink, and Paul suggested he would decide when he got there. Mohammed, out of the shadows said, “I’d like whiskey too. I’m on the Keto diet.”
“Oh, me too,” Pete said turning around. “I’m at my lowest weight since 20 years ago, 224 pounds.”
Paul and I were quiet. We had just spent two glorious weeks in France gorging on chocolate croissants and café au lait for breakfast, bread for lunch and dinner, butter sauces on our fish, and fries with steak. We washed it all down with dry rose wine whenever the opportunity presented itself. A carafe was less than a whole bottle—at least that’s what we told each other.
“Damn,” Paul muttered. “I’m not the skinniest Klenk brother anymore.”
Bar #1—Dirty, but interesting seating.
We had to duck our heads under a low doorway to get into the first bar. Old, grungy couches hugged the dirty walls and endless techno music made my teeth grind together. The only seats available were little preschool-sized woven straw stools lined up and facing each other. We lowered ourselves down and sat hunched over, our elbows resting on our knees. While sipping our drinks—whiskeys for Pete and Mohammed, a rosy-hued spritzer for me, and an unknown drink for Paul—we relaxed.
“Mohmmad, where are you from?” Dicle asked. She was drinking water.
“Saudi Arabia. I am from there.” He took a long drink from his glass and raised his head. “I like whiskey.”
I practically crawled over Paul’s lap to hear Mohammad’s soft voice.
He was handsome with dark skin, possessed all of his hair (Klenks, not so much), sported expensive clothes, and, I checked, didn’t wear a wedding ring.
“Hey Dicle, I want to go to Turkey. I’ve always wanted to visit there and drink Turkish Coffee,’’ Pete said.
“I know,” she answered. “But, it’s funny, did you hear that it isn’t really from Turkey? The coffee is from Greece!”
“But Turkey got back the meatballs the Swedes stole from them. The recipe was originally Turkish.” Pete was nimble. He could pivot on any conversation. He was an attorney.
“You know what is only in America?” Mohammed asked. We all shook our heads and leaned off our tiny stools to hear him. “Hooters!”
He was right.
Bar #2—Reminiscent of college but with a surprising twist
I trailed behind Paul, Pete, Dicle and Mohammed and fiddled with my phone.
“What are you doing,” Paul asked grabbing my wrap before I stepped on it. “Are you texting?”
“I’m not. I’m taking notes.” Paul looked to the sky as if patience would rain down on him.
We walked into the second bar, coughing through the smoke. We grabbed a table at the back. The table and stools were constructed of pallets. There wasn’t a single cut. At one point I thought Paul went to the restroom, but then he popped up from under the table. He was studying the craftsmanship.
“The bartender doesn’t really make any official cocktails,” Dicle observed. “He’ll make anything you want. Just ask him.”
“Whiskey?” Pete asked.
“Whiskey?” Mohammed echoed.
“Sure,” she answered. “Just ask him.”
Paul ventured to the bar and brought back a margarita presented in a champagne flute. Mohammed and Pete got their whiskey in jelly jars. It was my turn.
“Bonjour,” I pulled myself up on to the bar and shouted over the noise, “make me your best drink.”
The pony-tailed bartender began grabbing bottles above his head and from the tall shelves behind him. When he presented the tall glass to me, it was amber-colored with Thai basil shoved down into the ice. He stuck a sprig of rosemary into the top. I reached for it.
“Wait,” he said. From behind his back he pulled out a butane blow torch. He blasted the rosemary until it turned black and slumped into the drink. “It makes it taste smoky,” he explained as he handed it to me over the sticky bar.
“What’s that?” Pete asked as I struggled to climb up onto my pallet stool.
“A Rosemary Basil Smoky,” I lied and took a long drink through my straw. It was unknown, scary, but still delicious. “Are you okay with the tour?” I asked. I wondered because Pete loved the science and the art of making cocktails. Recently divorced, he was looking for both whimsy and stability in a potential partner—not an easy combination.
“Oh, I gave up long ago, but this is fun.” We clinked glasses.
“I am married,” Mohammed announced holding his glass up to us. “I drank whisky before I came so now I am, what do you call it?”
“Tipsy?” I offered.
“Yes, that is the word.”
I glanced down at my phone in my lap. I was typing words with one finger and swigging my drink during breaks in the conversation.
“My wife wants to see you,” Mohammad said holding his phone aloft in FaceTime mode. I couldn’t see her face as his arm swept across our group, but I shouted,
“Everything is fine.” I imagined her home and alone. “Absolutely fine.”
Bar #3—unremarkable until the shock at the end.
It was after midnight when we reached the third bar. It was quiet with benches pulled up to large tables. We faced each other, and I was finally able to hear Mohammed talk. He loved Paris. He had been coming to the City of Light since 1999 when he graduated from college. He was an investment banker. He was presenting at a conference on Monday. He had been married for a year. After the Keto diet, he explained blushing.
I saw Paul and Pete look at each other behind me. If they had been wearing watches they would have tapped them.
“So, I want to know. Are you like a princess or something?” Dicle asked me.
“What? No, I don’t know what you mean.” I looked down at my black linen palazzo pants with the wide cuffs, my peach silk blouse, and, my hand went immediately to my birthday present, a strand of extra-large freshwater pearls.
“Yes,” Pete and Paul chimed together.
“What do you do?”
“I,” I stumbled over my words. “I work in education, but I’d rather write. Like this.” I held up my phone and showed them the notes I was taking.
“I’ll write a blog when I get home,” I explained.
“Cool. Here’s my email address. Will you send it to me?”
“There’s one more place you might want to go,” Dicle said pulling on her jacket and winding her scarf around her neck. “It’s a speakeasy called Moonshiner.”
“A speakeasy? You mean like in the 1920s?” I felt my pulse beating in my neck.
“Yeah. You just go there. It looks like a pizza place. A guy will let you in. Just go through the refrigerator door.”
Standing outside the bar, Mohammed and Dicle melted away. Paul, Pete, and I had a “discussion”, which actually means I used my princess status to get what I wanted. I didn’t care if it was 1 am, or we had to take a taxi to the airport at an ungodly hour in the morning, or it might be closed. I was going to the speakeasy, even if it meant I would have to create my own Uber account on the spot.
“Are you sure?” The uber driver slowed the car to a stop. Silent warehouses lined the streets. There were no cars, no people, nothing except for a brightly-lit store front with a blinking, neon pizza sign. Inside the window I saw a man sweeping the floor and another man cleaning dishes in the sink.
“Yes.” I threw open the car door and jumped out leaving my wrap tangled in the back seat. I ran up the two steps. I wasn’t cold in the frosty night. “Hi,” I said stepping onto the black and white tiled floor. “I’m here,” I breathed. “I’m here.”
The man with the broom pointed to the back of the store.
“Open it,” Paul said easing the pizza door shut as he and Pete joined me. “Go first.”
I turned the handle on the wood paneled refrigerator door and stepped into a storage closet. Bags of flour and cans of tomato sauce lined metal racks. It was dim and dusty in the room. A plain wooden door stood in front of me.
“Keep going,” Paul said and pushed me gently. My wrap was slung around his neck.
I stretched out my hand, turned the handle, and pushed the door open.
If I had looked hard enough, I believe I might have found Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in the crowded room. Jazz music played on an old stand up record player in the corner. The walls were covered in gold chevron-striped wallpaper, and chandelier lights were muted by small lamp shades. People stood at tall tables, sat at the bar, and hid in the depths of wing chairs pulled up to secret corners. The tin ceiling, embossed and polished, reflected the lights behind the bar that illuminated hundreds of bottles of liquor. Candle flames fluttered on every surface creating shadows on the walls. Velvet drapes covered all but a sliver of the night sky outside.
The bartenders were dressed in black with grey vests and bow ties and moved like graceful ice skaters behind the bar. They tossed bottles up, the liquor careening into the glasses. They stirred, measured, crushed, sniffed, eyed, and tasted. We ordered drinks.
Pete whistled low as he tasted his drink. “I’ve waited for this Side Car all night. This is done perfectly.”
“Are you happy?” I asked my husband.
“Are you?” he answered.
“Yes. Except I have to go to the bathroom.” I slid off the too-high bar stool and snaked through the people towards the toilette sign. I hesitated. There were two doors, and it was dark.
“Not that way.” The voice seemed familiar. It was soft and hesitant with a whisper of an accent. With a touch on my arm, he turned me to the left. “Goodnight.” He eased away into the shadows.
I cannot say for sure, but I think it was Mohammed.
We left the Moonshiner at 3 o’clock in the morning. We hugged Pete goodbye. Once again, he walked and we ubered. I watched Paris go by outside the window and thought about all the people I know and love. How many would tremble with excitement at the idea of going to a speakeasy? How many would walk through the pizza restaurant’s refrigerator door and step into a supply closet confident it wasn’t the end? The real question was, why is it so important to me that there be something more on the other side of the door?
“Because you have to get to the other side,” Paul said yawning.
Paul is right. I’ve crossed to the other side. Time is ticking away. I have to decide.
I am missing our meeting tonight, but I know the red wine flight or the 5 o’clock Somewhere margarita at Swing’s will be someone’s choice for the evening. Lift one for me.
I wish you could see what I see as I write. I am perched on a tall stool looking out grand windows that I have to stand on my tiptoes to reach the latch.
Three ornate buildings with sculpted balustrades hovering over the tops of the windows and balconies framed with black, wrought iron railings are close enough neighbors I could say hello without raising my voice. When I stick my head out the window, the view down the street is filled with fluttering awnings, sidewalk tables with neatly folded blankets on the chairs, and light from shops spilling out onto the cobblestone streets.
We are staying at 19 Rue de la Harpe, Saint Michel Notre Dame, a third-floor apartment with stairs so narrow, Paul and I had to walk on our tip toes while carrying our horrendously heavy suitcases. Paul has given in—we will buy one more to get everything home.
Notre Dame is just over our shoulder here on the Isle de la Cite on the Left Bank. Heavy, tolling bells and singing chimes announce the start of every hour. I run to open the window or stop on the sidewalk to listen. All of Notre Dame’s bells are named and tuned to a specific key. I would like to hear Emanuel, hoisted into place in 1681 and weighing 13 tonnes (Conversion needed) but he is only rung on high holidays or moments of great importance. Guess what? What I always called the “clapper” in the bell (forgive me, I know), is actually called the ‘fighter.’ Paul and I are still discussing the physics of who swings what and what gets hit where. (Now the bell image is gone, oui?)
When we were in Normandy on a D-Day tour, I thought of you often. We read those novels on World War II—The Nightingale, the Lilac Girls, All the Light We Cannot See, The Gournsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—and I saw all the characters we brought to life in our conversations. The small French villages where the resistance fighters smuggled children out in wagons and women planted gardens out of the treasured few seeds they had left, and the long fields where they walked and dreamed of a life beyond the ugliness were real—just as we had discussed.
We have had our ‘near accidents’ as always: we almost hit a cow late at night that wandered out of its field, and, of course, the first thing I thought, ‘I can blog about this!’
We took up every spare place for suitcases in the train car and Paul and I pretended they weren’t ours; and we stared at our host and hostess every morning at the bed and breakfast inn as they grumbled to one another in murderous French. I am not sure if they resented us or they were having troubles in their marriage.
We have a few more days until we leave for home. I am reading A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemmingway. We have a tour tomorrow on the Roaring Twenties—Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Ford, Eliot, Picasso, Dali—all the places they ate, drank and lived. Gertrude Stein better be on the top of the list—she mentored them all, and of course her lover, Alice B. Toklas.
I’ve never been a Hemmingway fan, but I am loving this book. Remember last month when you asked me ‘Lesley, why are you writing? What are you going to do?’ I didn’t how to answer without stumbling over my words trying to make sense of my writing life. So, I’ll let Hemmingway speak for all writers: “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
Last night Paul and I ate dinner in a neighborhood bistro called the Alchemist. We ordered the prix fixe dinner that was listed in chalk on the wall. We didn’t know what we were ordering. Paul was curious.
He stood up in the middle of the restaurant and positioned his phone to take a picture of the whole menu written in loopy, smudged handwriting. It was a moment where I experienced what it must be like to be Paul married to me.
“Sit down,” I hissed. “Everyone is looking at you.”
Paul sat down and fiddled with his phone. The Google Translate app could take text and translate it into English. He looked up at me. “It didn’t translate. We’ll have to guess.” We each pick an appetizer—goat cheese stuffed peppers for me and lentil soup for Paul. He put a large spoonful in his mouth and then stopped. “Potato?” He swallowed. “Here,” he said and shoved the spoon between my lips. A marble-size lump rolled onto my tongue.
“Not a potato,” I said biting into it. It melted and broke into pieces. It tasted like everything in the soup in one small little bite. The restaurant owner came over and Paul scooped one of the chunks from the soup and held it out for his inspection.
“Champigon,” he shrugged. “Mushroom.”
Paul and I held hands over the table. “It’s a mushroom,” I said relieved.
“A mushroom,” Paul sighed, happy and satiated, and scraped his bowl clean. “A mushroom.”
The sounds of Paris are the barest whisper to the most frightened wail. Dishes are stacked softly, croissants crumble and flake to the table top, feet shift on the Metro as riders wait for their stop, vespas buzz like bees and jump curbs. The scream of ambulances and police vehicles sound like the ones in Rome and London. I think hard, but in that moment, I cannot remember the sound of our own ambulances at home.
Paul attempts to jaywalk across the teeming streets, but I will no longer follow him. He thought we had time to run across a traffic circle near the Alexander III Bridge, and the stoplight turned. Motorcycles, cars, taxis, and buses merged together behind and to the side of us. We ran, splashing through rain puddles, and I yelled, “Shiiiit, Fuuuck, Pauuul.” Now I shake my head and point my finger at him when we become separated on different sides of the street.
Touching Paris is best done in shops while caressing silk scarves laid out in overlapping swaths like splayed decks of cards. I rub cashmere wraps against my cheek and wonder if perhaps I can get can one more if we buy another suitcase. Two different women have taken off my over garments, eager for me to see the grace of the scarf wrapped around my throat, the drop of a sweater against my leg, or the elegance of fur snuggled against my neck.
“Here, here,” one woman fretted, unwinding my scarf and throwing it to Paul. She pulls on the back of my collar and eases my coat off. This too, she tosses to my husband. He sits, refusing to remove the 5 euro hat he bought at a flea market while my back was turned. He hunches on a low stool and glowers at the carpeted floor. It’s even worse when he decides to wait outside. He paces back and forth in front of windows always staying within view.
“It’s beautiful,” I say as I admire it in the mirror. It’s a black swing coat with black fur ringing the neck and circling the cuffs. She takes my hands and tucks them together so it looks like I have a muff between my fingers.
“It’s 500 euros, Darling,” she coos. “A coat for life, a coat to remember Paris.” I feel myself weakening. If I average the cost of the coat across over my lifetime it begins to seem like a deal. The saleslady wanders away to allow Paul and I time to negotiate.
“It’s fox,” Paul said holding my things out. “The fur is black fox.” I shed the coat instantly and hand it back to her. She whisks it away, cradling it in her arms like a wedding dress.
In Paris it is as if you cannot separate a smell from what it is or what it will become. The Seine’s waters are brackish, quick, and malodorous, moving and churning towards a port I cannot imagine. On the sidewalk at night we walk through clouds of flour that hold the promise of tomorrow’s croissant. Meat steams on plates, and unlike the States, swim in pools of au jus. Flowers on the street corners smell spicy and unusual. Buckets of Birds of Paradise, spiky and exotic, stand tall and graceful, while hydrangeas, heavy and full, are unmovable. I feel displaced, lost, adrift. Decades ago my children and I would make Christmas cookies together and the flour drifted over us in a haze. I did not know I would walk through a cloud of flour in so different a place and time. Similarly, on my wedding day, I was unaware that the flowers I carried in my simple bouquet would someday lay in my gloved hand on a freezing Paris morning. Although aromas both linger and flee, they can unseat you and wash over you with memories made then and now.
The taste, sound, touch, and smell of Paris layer over one another like a tapestry, and it is impossible to pull the threads apart once they are bound together. To see Paris, however, is different. The enormous buildings, hundreds and more years old, feature copper cornices galvanized into green. The Louvre’s glittering pyramid looks like it has always been a part of the eight-century year old museum. Notre Dame’s Gothic spire and silent towers come to life when the bells toll. But, it is the moment you catch sight of her that make you swallow the lump in your throat and think to yourself, ‘It was worth the wait.’
The Eiffel Tower looms vast over the Seine. She is more substantial than I thought she would be. Her base is massive, and the interlocking metal skeleton appears determined as she climbs towards the top. She becomes graceful as the legs merge into the center. When I was in junior high school, I tacked a poster of her standing in the face of a setting sun to my bedroom wall. She was my totem, my affirmation that my romantic soul (so out of proportion), would someday find legitimacy. Never did I think it would take until my 52nd birthday to stand beneath her and watch her illuminating lights glow in the foggy night. I looked at Paul and noticed the shine in his eyes. He looked just like I imagined he did as a small boy on Christmas morning. We clutch each other in the cold and laugh and kiss and laugh again.
I am convinced I can do anything in Paris now. I have tasted a soup in one marvelous bite, donned a fur coat whose secret made my heart blanch for being unaware, thrilled at the clash of traffic causing me to curse at the top of my lungs, discovered the allure of a scent, like a siren, that calls me back and leads me forward, but mostly, it is the Grande Dame herself who said, ‘You were right to wait. Your life is unrelenting and beautifully so.’
We’re here. We’re in Paris. I’ve already overcome my initial fears: to find my luggage, secure a taxi, negotiate the language barrier, put in the correct codes to the building, and turn the key in the right lock of the right flat, and figure out how to use the toilet. I was afraid to face a bidet. I don’t quite get it. After 24 hours of flying, sitting, and eating food I normally wouldn’t eat, I need a glass of rose and a salad.
I look haggard in the mirror. I mean bad. I slather on my new Estee Lauder makeup, and I recognize my face begin to take shape. We decide to go out and find some food, so we press the elevator button—impair, meaning the odd floors—and wait for it to arrive. Paul looks at me and cocks his head.
“You don’t have any lips.” He sounds lost. We abandon the elevator and go back into the flat. I find lipstick and carefully outline my lips and fill them in.
“That’s better,” Paul said and pressed the button for the elevator.
I think of our other trips to Mexico, Canada, South Africa, Spain, Italy, Malta, Sicily, and Tunisia. Not for a minute did I worry about not fitting in in any of those places. I was the usual Lesley—marching through the streets, looking over my shoulder at Paul lagging behind, engaging with the locals, smiling, and making new friends.
So, what is different about France?
I’m afraid that my big approach to life will be too much. I’ll offend the sensibilities of a measured society filled with subtle cultural norms that I could blow out of the water without meaning to.
So, we arrive at a bar called Barracuda, and I couldn’t help myself. “Do you speak English?” I sputtered to the hostess. I intended to lead with classic “Bonjour, Madame”, but the true Lesley rocketed to the surface.
“Of course,” she said with a big smile. I had to stop myself from hugging her. Over a simple meal of salad and bread and cheese, we chatted with the bartender/barista, hostess, waitress, and patrons at the next table. I advised them of Airbnb’s new “Experiences” offerings where photographers, historians, tour guides, chefs, and artists could design a class—an experience—and market it on the website. A female photographer from Finland who speaks four languages, squeezed my arm and said,
“I am so glad I met you! I’m wanting to find direction in my life. You’ve given me a new idea.”
Me? I helped a woman who speaks four languages and knows how to use a fancy camera?
Paul and I walked around the block looking in on boulangeries, bistros, little grocery stores, and spas. We were almost back to the flat when I walked past a store window and screeched to a halt.
“Paul,” I said miffed. “Look.” I gestured at my clothes.
“What?” He was so tired his eyes were glazed over and deep red.
“Did you notice my dress?” He shook his head and then looked down at my legs. My tights and the dress were glued together with static electricity and they bunched up around my waist like an inner tube.