We wake in Manarola around 9am. We shower and pack our things and head downstairs to check out of the hostel. We are reluctant to leave Manarola. It has been good to us and we don’t know what to expect when we leave it and venture toward the next town. We sit out on the terrace downstairs a while using the wifi to send a few texts to people back home. Breakfast in the little cafe downstairs is finished but the smell of croissants lingers.
We make friends with the orange cat sunning himself on one of the wooden benches. A backpacker with blonde dread locks and a floral skirt eats leftover vegetables from a tupperwear container at the table next to us. A young Japanese couple sit scanning things on their phones, each with their free hand resting on one another’s knee caps.
We email Chris about plans to meet in Vernazza tomorrow night, crossing our fingers that we are still on for dinner. We head to a cafe and order croissants and two rounds of coffee.
We spend most of the day by the sea. We aren’t ready to leave the beautiful pool of water where we spent the previous evening swimming under the moon. In the daylight it is just as beautiful but more crowded and women lay topless on top of the rocks where men are jumping, letting out howls on their way to making giant splashes. There is no beach. Just a cement driveway, most likely used for backing boats into the water. The people here use it as a beach. Beside it is a sea wall with giant cement stairs. Monica and Omri go kayaking and Charlie and I each take a stair and settle in and crack books and stay with all of our things. We lay towels down and read in the sun. It gets hot and I wander over to the rocks where people are jumping into the water and lower myself into the ocean using the steel step ladder. The ocean is the deepest of blue. I swim out a little ways but there’s no one else in the water and I get a little nervous that there’s no one around to help me if the tide picks up and the waves smash me into the rocks. It doesn’t pick up. I’m just frightened because I’m alone. I’m not sharing this with a man that I don’t know anymore. He isn’t responsible for me. He’s no longer there if something goes wrong. Or if something goes right. Our lives are no longer tethered.
I’ve spent all day reading and re-reading a short story about the end of a marriage that was compounded by cancer and how neither person knew how to end it without being the asshole. Now tears are leaking out of me and I can’t tell if it’s the tears I’m tasting or the sea water, if what I’m feeling is freedom or loneliness. I get out and dry off on my belly in the sun on my cement stair with the ocean lapping at my side. My head is a mess of confusion. Joy and sorrow. I put my clothes and a baseball cap on and leave Charlie with all of our things and wander up to a cafe to find a gelato. Tirimisu flavor this time. I think of my grandmother. It’s her favorite dessert. I think about how she is doing in her new home in California with my grandfather fading away and their whole lives left back in Miami. My chest feels heavy.
The gelato melts faster than I can eat it. It’s a soup of tirimisu before I get back to my stair. I go for another swim and read some more. I read “The Caretaker,” by Anthony Doerr. In it a man, Joseph, has lost everything including his mother to a civil war in Liberia. He spends his days caring for a wealthy family’s estate while they are away. When a family of whales accidentally beaches themselves near the estate, he loads his truck bed, one at a time, with the hearts of the five whales, digs great big holes, and buries the hearts on the family’s land. It feels like an imaginary universe, a gesture too big for our common world. And yet and yet….How else does one mend their insides when they have lost? Do they not do something unmentionably strange or foreign or kind or wild or unforeseen? Does not some kind of deviation from the natural progression need to materialize so that they aren’t held stagnant and crippled by what has occurred? Perhaps acts of psychological redemption are larger than the mind can understand. I take another dive in the ocean. I think about planting car sized hearts in fertile soil.
We take our time leaving Manarola. We sit down and order lunch at a table outside a cafe–bruschetta and salads and coffee, and we sit for almost three hours ordering one more coffee, one more gelato. We take turns going to the bathroom to change into hiking clothes, to brush our teeth, put sunscreen on. They don’t rush us and we are happy just to sit and order coffee all day long. Sooner or later it’s time to get hiking.
Before we know it we are above the villages again, amongst vineyards, looking down on little pink Manarola. It’s getting stormy now and we are grateful to have the sun off our backs. We walk in silence until a snake slithers between Omri and a couple on the path and then all we can talk about is snakes for a while. I have every finger and toe crossed that we won’t see another one. They are my most unfavorite creature. Perhaps because I simply don’t understand them.
Soon enough the hike is too beautiful to worry about a snake biting me and I relax again. We reach Corniglia as dark clouds roll in and can’t hold their water anymore. We ask the woman inside a bed and breakfast about a hostel in town and we are directed toward one near a church in the town square. It’s full. We walk back to the bed and breakfast. The woman tells us she is also full for the night but to ask inside the little grocer next door where a group of grey haired Italians dressed all in white are sitting on little stools in the street enjoying glasses of champagne while women from the store appear to refresh their glasses every now and then.
We ask the woman behind the counter about a place to stay and she says she will call a friend. We wait outside and munch on the cookies and trail mix I’d stashed in my pack at the start of our trip. A little while later Sandra appears. She is a short blonde woman with three or four children following at her ankles. She doesn’t speak a word of English and simply gestures for us to follow. The children are circling us like bees and the youngest is sipping a blue drink that has made his tongue and lips blue. He is practicing extreme concentration so as not to spill the blue drink cupped in his little fists as he makes his way up the steps inside the apartment building where Sandra leads us to the second floor and offers us two bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, and an enormous private terrace. Between us we are able to come up with exactly the cash we need for the room with only ten euros left between the four of us. We breath easy now. We may not have money for dinner–the single ATM in town isn’t working, but at least we have a place to stay. We all smile and shake hands and thank Sandra and she leaves with the children dawdling after.
Omri and Monica take one room and Charlie and I put our things in the other and Omri and I set out in the rain to see about a place that takes credit cards for dinner. We consider spending our last ten euros on a bottle of wine from the market. “Should we really spend the last of the cash we have on wine?” Omri says with a smile. He will agree if I say yes. We smile feverishly at the possibility of doing something a little reckless. Nah. We find a bar that takes credit cards and we order a bottle and take it back with us and I pour glasses for everyone and we sit on the terrace watching the storm clouds rolling in.
In the distance we can see the restaurant that Sandra had pointed to for dinner. Fresh fish. We are hungry again.
We walk in the rain watching bolts of lightning pierce the ocean in the distance. We quicken our pace. Inside the restaurant we take a table on the covered patio where people are feasting on swordfish and calamari. The inside of the restaurant is empty. It seems everyone wants to be out where they can enjoy the show. We order from a wobbly Italian man, bald and red cheeked from drinking house wine it would seem. We make friends with him straight away. He breaks the ice by telling us he can guess our birthdays or at least our astrological signs. He doesn’t get a single one right and we all laugh. He brings us wine and bread and we watch the lightning as we eat swordfish and a rice and seafood dish served right in the pot it was cooked in. The lights in the restaurant keep flickering on and off. Thunder is clapping and giant bolts of lightning keep lighting up the sky and water as we devour the delicious meal.
We are the last people in the restaurant at the end of the night. The credit card machine isn’t working. They tell us no problem, that we can come back and pay in the morning. We hug and say goodnight to our new friend, tell him we will see him in the morning.
We run home in the rain. It has lifted just enough to make the walk without getting drenched. Charlie and I smoke a cigarette out on the terrace and it starts to pour again. It’s only 9pm and nothing else is open and there is nothing to do and half the town seems to have lost electricity. Monica and Omri go to sleep. Charlie and I get in bed with full bellies and read on our kindles like an old married couple. We fall asleep early. The church bells next door wake us every hour which mostly amuses us. After the third time it stops waking me and just becomes background music to my dreams.
In the morning the ATM still isn’t working. We pass the restaurant manager on our way to pay our dinner bill and say hello and continue up the hill to the restaurant. We pay as the chefs are busy cleaning fish for the evening’s orders and then find a place for breakfast. Omri and Charlie order sausage with their eggs and get something that we are sure is a hot dog cut in half. We laugh. We drink our usual two rounds of coffee. We eat croissants. We couldn’t be happier. We take our time and enjoy the misty morning, the unsettled sky and remnants of the storm that may not be over. When we feel ready we begin our journey to Vernazza plied with caffeine and the calm tickle of adventure in our bellies.