The seven of us return from Cinque Terre with enchantment percolating in us. A tribe has emerged. In class our teacher Jonathan asks us how our weekends were and says, “I know some of you went to Cinque Terre,” with a big smile and we all look at each other with a glow, the remnants of our time there all over us. Omri and I nudge each other, plotting our return to the beach towns through stolen glances and elbow nudges as class goes on.
At a reading at Palazzo Strozzi on Wednesday night we tell Chris our plan to revisit Cinque Terre as a smaller group. She tells us she wants to join us and we all wriggle within our skin, excited at the prospect of having our teacher all to ourselves.
She has just stepped away from the microphone after delivering a reading that has left me quite speechless. A dainty thing, she tells the story of a man who has just emerged from prison and is working his alcoholics anonymous steps. She tells this with such candid honesty that I am transported to a time when my own mother was released from jail and beginning her journey toward sobriety. There is a wisdom in what she is saying that tells me there are seeds of her own life woven into her fiction and I love her all the more for being able to tell a story like this so sincerely, with such life, such vigor, despite her girly presentation. She is warrior through and through. I can see the living she has done all over her and yet she wears it well, with such class. It hasn’t weighed her, only made her, made her all the more beautiful, all the more real. It turns out that Eileen, one of the poetry teachers is a close friend and may come with her to Cinque Terre over the weekend–Perhaps we could all meet for lunch or a hike?
I am almost drooling. I want to soak in everything these two women have to offer, bathe in their understanding of what it means to write. The prospect of meeting them outside of our class setting sounds too good to be true. Omri and I whisper to each other about our plans then talk loudly as we explain to Chris so that she can hear us. As previously mentioned, her hearing is fading and I keep glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one is listening to our extra loud but private conversation. It is selfish but we want to keep the number of people on this trip to a minimum. It’s not that we don’t like to be around the others, it’s that there is a that the intimacy of this particular trip and the nature of departing without a plan for where to stay calls for us to keep the numbers down. At this juncture we have decided it will just be the three of us, Charlie, Omri and me.
We spend the week with our heads down in our school work, giving each other knowing smiles when we pass in the hallways, a nod at the happening that lies ahead. After this weekend there will be only one week left before we all head home or off to our next excursions.
The week is full of readings in the evenings, one with writer Vendela Vida, who apart from the many novels she has written, happened to write one of my favorite films, “Away We Go,” with her husband Dave Eggers. I’m starstruck. I want to ask her everything there is to ask. I’m shy about asking questions but i raise my hand and ask, trying not to sound like too much of an awkward fan. I can’t believe we are alone in a villa with her in Italy, just 20 of us writers there to ask her anything we like. I’m still not sure this experience is real and not some wild dream I could wake up from.
We walk back To Villa Natalia that night and people are buzzing around the common room talking about going out to a pub and I am thrilled when Omri looks to me and says, “Hey Jen Jen, shall we put our house clothes on?” This has become a nightly routine. When all the young ones go out for drinks we put on our PJ’s and hit the common room with our computers and our ideas and write, drink coffee, laugh at each other’s jokes. Charlie often joins us though he heads to bed much earlier. Sometimes I bring a mug of red wine down with me. Charlie drinks whiskey from his mug. Some nights I sit outside on the picnic tables and swing in every now and then to say hello and get another espresso from the vending machine.
I am editing pages from my manuscript and Omri and I are both working on edits for essays that we are submitting to Mercer Street, NYU’s collection of essays from the previous years writing the essay course. Each year it is printed and used as a text book for the incoming class of students. We have been hard at work on these essays since arriving in Florence, fitting in time to work on them on top of the school work assigned to us in our writing classes here in Florence. We print pages for each other to read and mark them up with notes, then we make changes, send them back to our respective teachers and continue molding. My teacher Jenni puts my essay into a google doc and we both make changes to it simultaneously via the internet. It’s amazing what can be accomplished from afar using technology. I feel almost as if she is sitting beside me helping me make choices as to what to cut away, what to move, what excess words to strike. We finish our work just in time for the submission deadline.
I hear back from Mercer Street almost instantly, telling me they would like to include my essay, “Repairer” in this year’s edition. This will be my first time being published. My chest swell with pride and accomplishment.
Omri gets an email back asking him to make a few changes and to stay on call for edits and we scream with joy that one or both of the two essays he submitted will be included in addition to mine. There are 450 essays submitted each year and 28 are chosen. “What are the odds of both of us getting in?!” we scream as we jump up and down, so incredibly happy for one another.
In Chris’s class Wednesday we learn that we will be taking a morning field trip on friday to the Museum San Marco in place of our afternoon class. We decide right away that this will give us the opportunity to leave for Cinque Terre on Friday rather than Saturday.
Friday morning I am ready early, I knock on Omri’s door and skip breakfast. People have been asking what we are doing this weekend and we have avoided giving an answer. Some are going to Rome, which sounds amazing but we are anxious to get back to the beach and explore all the nooks and crannies that we were only able to see from a distance on our last visit. We have declared the weekend one of no agendas. If you want to stop for gelato you just fucking do it. If you want to read by the sea for an hour, no one will stop you. If you want to hike without saying a word to anyone that will be fine. Omri and I keep quoting a line from some movie I can’t remember, “People won’t give you nothing in this world, if you want something you gotta take it.” And then we laugh like children, giddy with the anticipation of getting to do whatever we feel like all weekend, just roaming like Jack Kerouac in Dharma Bums.
We have invited Monica to join our crusade. The four of us arrive at Museum San Marco a little late with stuffed backpacks on and the secret of our planned escape burning in our stomachs. The only other person aware of our plan is Chris. We wander the museum looking for something to inspire some writing. The idea is to plop down in front of a work of art and just write whatever comes to mind.
Most of the paintings are of Jesus on the cross. They don’t do a lot for me. They remind me of attending church with my mother when I was a teenager when she was newly sober. She would cry a lot and I was grateful for sundays when there were other arms for her to cry into, to lighten the load. I felt a bit helpless. I didn’t always know what the tears were for, which hurt they were linked to, or if it was merely her disease disrupting her insides. We would get there a few minutes late and fill little styrofoam cups with coffee and chew donuts and scones as the band began to play. We would throw our hands up in the air and sing, joy seeping from my pores. I had my mother again.
Capistrano Beach Calvary. In truth it was an old bowling alley that had been converted and it showed. Worn green carpet covered the stage and a piece of it lifted up to reveal a Jacuzzi tub right there on the stage where people could be baptized. I entered the warm water on a monday night at the youth group, still wearing my ballet clothes from a class right before. I came home dripping wet and my mom was thrilled. I’d wanted to do it alone, for it to be my own idea. I attended the youth group most monday nights. I liked the young hip pastor. I didn’t know anyone and I coveted the chance to be alone inside that big group. To anonymously be myself. I would sit in the same spot my mom and I would sit eating donuts on sunday mornings, and sing along with the band. I didn’t know if I bought any of it, but I enjoyed the opportunity to let some of my demons out, to express myself and whatever hurt I was smothering inside myself, the aches that I kept private as not to offset my mom’s progress.
Some nights I attended meetings with her as a babysitter in the next room so that mothers with small children could attend. I began babysitting weekly for a woman with three little girls who lived in a trailer park down by the beach. It gave me purpose to love those little girls for a few dollars an hour. I read them stories, made them bean burritos in the microwave, and put them to bed on mattresses that lacked sheets. Sometimes the three girls would fight over the single clean pair of underwear in the house to be worn to bed. A litter box piled with feces sat beside the youngest’s bed. I cleaned it, stroked the little girl’s head as she fell asleep. She was only four. What did Jesus have in mind for this kid?
I write, almost illegibly in my journal with all of this in mind, standing with my backpack for the weekend on, looking at the paintings inside San Marco. I find myself more interested in the tombs below the museum where the monks who once lived there are buried. What was it like for them to live in the place where they knew they would one day be buried. A mixed rumble of emotions and the lack of breakfast growls in my stomach. Part of me can’t wait to get out of there, and I can’t tell if it’s this place making me uncomfortable, the memories I’m recounting, the tombs, the Jesus paintings on every surface, the need for food to appease my growly stomach, or just the itch to get back to Cinque Terre.
We make fast exits when our class time is finished and head to Mercato Centrale for some lunch. I haven’t been there yet and Charlie has me really excited about a sandwich called “the orgasmic” which is made on a big baguette with peppers and onions, greens, mushrooms, prosciutto, giant chunks of cheese, and is dripping with balsamic vinegar. we charge to the deli where “the Orgasmic” is made and each order one and I ask them to make mine spicy and the man behind the deli case winks at me. We eat and grab baguettes and croissants for later. Jamie is with us and we admit we are off to the train station next to go back to the beach. She seems a little hurt that we didn’t tell her before but we know she is going to Rome and will have fun there. We eat quickly. I tuck the second half of “the Orgasmic”, which was truly orgasmic, into my pack for later. I eat too slow and I’m too excited, and we are all anxious to get moving.
We head to the train station feeling freedom so close that our steps become lighter and smiles spread across our faces. We work like a well oiled machine, putting all of our tickets on one credit card and handing euros to the person who bought them, no time to waste using the machine with each of our cards and it doesn’t take cash. We have done this before and now we know the drill. Last week was the dress rehearsal. This time we will see everything,do everything, know what to expect, how to navigate our way. We stay together and with less people we don’t have to look around every minute to see if someone drifted into a store or slipped from the flock. It becomes easier to get seats together on the train. Our interests are the same. We are hungry at the same time, sleepy at the same time, our pace, our heart beats seem to link up. The train slips away from the station and we are free, our secret brimming inside us like four gloating thieves.