My first kiss, Italy, at fifteen. A white boat on the mouth of the river. I don't remember much about it all. I can't remember exactly what the boat looked like, whether the sides were polished or painted, wood or fiberglass. I remember the deck took my weight as I stepped onto it, bobbing like a bottle on the water, and the way the thin trunks of trees looked like bundled kindling wedged into the mud along the bank. From the dirt road lip of the river all that was visible was the bursts of their branches, bare, like chimney brushes. I don't remember much about the boy, not his face, anyway, or even his name. Just that in the dark I followed him. I remember the way the loose boards of the pier wobbled and rocked under my sneakers. The short crop of his hair, a white collared shirt and his hand. He held it palm out, rough and big to steady me as I lifted my foot off the warped planks, over the edge and into the white boat.
It must have belonged to one of the wealthier families that lived up the mountain because I remember an enclosure, a cabin of sorts with round portholes. The other boats belonged to the fishermen from Bocca di Magra. Their boats didn't have cabins, just chests and benches. Nets and lines. Dried guts and glints of silver scales like flakes of glass or coin money. The stink of their catch.
This is what I'm thinking about as the train rattles along the tracks, as a different Italy, the now Italy blurs by like an oil painting, wet. The train is not like I remember them. Torn Naugahyde on the seats is frayed into pieces of gray string knotted. The windows are clouded and splotched with dust and fingerprints. I remember it more like the Orient Express. My fiancé, Rick, and I have passed the second class and upgraded. We have a little roomette, a cabin to ourselves, and Rick has his nose in a tourist guidebook.
"We should have stayed in Rome," he says without looking up. "I can't believe these pictures." This is the first time Rick has spoken since the man came for our tickets and he had to ask me what biglietti meant.
"Trust me," I tell him. "The other sites are better. The food, my God. You'll see."
Outside are the gray stone buildings I remember.
The boy was Italian and had come with Gianni, the son of the groundskeeper for a millionaire who lived up the side of the mountain behind our house. They invited my family up there one afternoon and my sister and I met Gianni. A thin, tan Italian kid with long straight arms. I remember his arms and the way he smiled at my sister while he spoke. He spoke English. Gianni brought the boy, and my sister and I walked with them in the dark across the narrow road that ran in front of our house. I don't remember what we talked about. The boy didn't speak much English.
"Sei una bella ragazza," he said to me. Beautiful girl.
I may have blushed in the darkness, my face warming, but I don't remember that either. Gianni and my sister had disappeared into one of the boats and I followed the skinny boy.
Outside, the buildings have given way to cliffs. I watch a streak of olive trees. Red nets hang fat with fruit like udders beneath them.
I nudge Rick, "Orchard, take a look."
He looks up and out the window. "Olives?" he asks without really asking. "Sweet."
"Well, that's camera worthy I'd say, don't you think?" Rick has brought along three of those yellow cardboard cameras. Twenty-eight exposures each. He's determined not to buy another one while we're here, so he's rationing out photo-ops. So far he's only taken three. One of a guard in the Rome airport, and two of me in the cab to the train station as we passed the Coliseum. He leans out the compartment window now and snaps his fourth shot of the trees, then splurges on another one of me watching them move past us. The landscape changing again. He goes back to reading the guide.
I notice the way he slides his hand beneath the page he's reading, still finishing the last paragraph but eager to move on. "Venice. Man. Venice would have been so cool. Could've gone in one of those gondolas." He looks up at me. "Do they really sing to you in those things?"
"I don't think so, maybe."
"Tell me again why we aren't going there."
"It's dirty, Rick. Expensive, touristy. We'd have to drop a ton of money."
"But it'd be romantic," he says, massaging my legs, a knee.
I look around the cabin of the train. It's small. Close. Rick and I are opposite each other on couches that pull out into almost beds.
"Yeah, I guess so."
I first saw Rick at Ivan's New Year's Eve party. Ivan throws the greatest parties in town. This time, he had filled the basement with buckets of dry ice. When I noticed Rick, he was leaning against a wall near the keg. Back flat, one leg out at an angle, the other bent and butted against the wall. Swirls of fog like low water around his ankle. He was wearing a white Polo shirt tucked into a pair of jeans. He held a plastic cup half filled with beer on which he or someone else had scrawled drunk motherfucker in black magic marker. I remember the ink was all smudgy and there was a dark smear near his mouth. When I passed him to get to the keg he made a face, a sort of half smile, toothy. I thought I might like to kiss him at midnight.
Rick has great lips. Rob Lowe lips, red and fat like a girl's. I watch as he licks his finger and pinches up his page in the Frommer's guide.
Outside we pass blocks of red-roofed houses, and an old woman feeding chickens. Along another cliff, the twisted, knotted ropes of grapevines. Several men carrying crescent shaped baskets snug like babies against their hips.
In the corridor a man wearing a black suit and fedora pauses outside our cabin. He stares in, a shameless voyeur. Rick doesn't see him, but I do. I stare back. Wonder who he might be. The man mouthes something. He taps his finger against the window panel of the pocket door without making a sound then nods and walks away.
"You're going to love Cinque Terre," I tell Rick, pressing my cheek into the cool glass of the train's window. "It's amazing."
"I wish it was in the book," he tells me, fanning the pages of the guide like flip art. "Tell me again where else we're going."
"Florence," I say. "Firenze," I pop the z at the end. "That's for last. I want to take you to the Ponte Vecchio and the Pitti Palace, the Uffizi Gallery. You'll have to rub the boar's nose for luck in the Straw Market and of course the Duomo."
"The what? I've heard of that."
"Duomo. It's a really big church with a dome on top of it. I've showed you pictures."
"No, cupcake," he says. "What's with the boar's nose? I'm telling you now, I'm not going anywhere near a pig."
"For luck, it's a statue."
"I want to see the David," he tells me. "That's Florence, right?"
"Yeah, but it's a real bitch to get to. There's a replica of it in the square, I never actually saw the real one."
"No shit, really?"
"It's in a separate museum or something. There was always a line. Busses."
"I still want to see it," he says. "If that's okay with countessa."
I tell him we will. We'll do it all. I want to see, too.
The boy and I looked around the cabin of the boat. We looked outside at the outline of the Carrera Mountains. A cathedral of ghosts and stone. I used to imagine Michaelangelo still hung out there looking for the perfect piece of marble. Then the Italian boy was close. A dark outline in the cabin. I could feel his breath as he leaned in to kiss me. Then his lips, his tongue, hot, thick in my mouth like a creature moving, his hands everywhere, too much.
Rick's been boning up on the language for weeks but he can never remember the verb to be.
"Essere," I keep repeating. "Sono, sei, è, saimo, siete, sono," I conjugate for him. "Finalmente, siamo in Italia," I tell him.
He says, "Okay, yeah. I think I've got it." But he'll ask again, his lists of things for the next city.
I stare at the top of his head. His hair never moves. It's straight and lays flat to the left like broom bristles. If I push my fingers around in it, it will fall back into place exactly as it was.
Rick's hair was longer at Ivan's party. He wore it pulled back in a ponytail. I remember I followed the nub of it from room to room so I could be close to him when the ball dropped, but I kept mistaking him for a thick blond chick in a white shirt. I lost them both some time after eleven.
At midnight I kissed a black boy with dreadlocks like ivy vines. He was visiting a friend in town, he told me. We drank champagne out of Dixie cups and took turns smoking a joint he'd brought. When it was his turn he'd kiss me and exhale, filling my mouth with the smoke. I ended up spending the night with him on the floor of his friend's apartment. I woke up with stiff muscles, a jackhammer hangover headache, and only a vague recollection of how I'd gotten there. The boy slept beautifully, but still, as if faking. I walked home. It wasn't until Rick came by the bar where I worked, to return my belt, that I realized the rasta boy's friend had been Rick, his apartment, his sheets, his hard wood floor.
Two or three weeks later I met up with Rick at Crazy Charlie's dollar drink night. That time I slept in his bed.
I remember regret like a wash of warm water. My cheeks were hot, without panic. I don't think I said anything to the boy on the boat, just barreled past him and climbed the dock in darkness. I wanted to erase the kiss forever. I never told anyone about it. It didn't count as far as I was concerned. It wasn't what I wanted my first kiss to be. Hot and gummy in the sticky heat of a cabin on a boat that didn't belong to me, with a boy I would never remember. I felt lost.
By the time the train arrives in Sarzana it's night outside. When we get off, Rick asks, "Is there anything to see here? It's not listed."
In the station stooped women with white hair carry plastic mesh bags filled with groceries. Children cling to their parents' hands. "Let's go for a walk," I say.
We step out into the cobbled street and I try to get my bearings, remember where things are. The buildings are like a black and white photograph of a wholly different time. In plastered rows, packed close. Thin strips of darkened alleys strung together by clotheslines. A piece of white tin advertising Pellegrino has been nailed into a cracked stone wall. Awnings jut from shops and trattorias like the brims of baseball caps.
Rick looks at his watch.
When we reach the square I know where I am. A young couple is kissing on a bench, their knees touching.
I adjust the strap of my luggage against my shoulder and watch as Rick tries not to look at them. "Okay. You want to check out a killer discotech?" I ask him.
"Disco," he says like a question.
"A club. You know dancing, drinks they call them discotechas."
"I don't think so, sweets," he says. "I'm pretty wiped."
Neither one of us slept much on the flight over.
"We'll need a cab then, to the hotel."
"How far is it," Rick asks. "Can we walk?"
"No, it's in Lericci. You'll love it," I tell him. "It's right on the water. Figured we'd get up early and go to the market, head over to Cinque Terre."
"Sounds like a plan," he says. "You're the expert. Andiamo, right?"
Rick had proposed to me in a drunken stupor about two months before this trip. When he woke up asking for aspirin he also asked for my answer. I sat on the edge of his bed with a palm full of Excedrin and a glass of cold water. Floored.
"No shit, now wait," I said. "You were serious?"
"Sure." He took three aspirin, placing them in his mouth one at a time. The water shook in his hand each time he swallowed.
"Yeah, I mean it. Why not?" He lay his head back on his pillow and closed his eyes.
The phone rang and I remember listening to Rick tell someone on the other line that he was waiting for my answer. When he got off the phone I begged a little time and went to Barnes and Noble. I bought an Italian-American dictionary, the tourist guidebook that has since become Rick's Bible, and a coffee table book packed with glossy pages. Pictures of Italy, the tourist version with no counterparts, save only in National Geographic. That night I cooked him linguini al pesto and insalata Capres. We talked about nothing, then anything but marriage. I gave him the books and told him I'd consider it on one condition. "I want you to go to Italy with me," I said.
I popped another bottle of Roja.
"What do you mean, like a honeymoon?"
"No, before before we actually do it."
Rick started chopping his pasta into bite-size pieces without saying anything.
"Ultimate road trip," I said. "Get a couple of Eurail passes, stay in cheap hotels. We can try each other on for size in a foreign country." A test run. What would I say.
He scooped a spoonful of linguini. "Okay," he said. "I'm game."
The market is overcrowded, but exactly the way I remember it. Everything from trading cards to tablecloths on sale in a maze of stalls. Rick and I walk past a man selling parakeets which shift in painted wooden cages, then a table covered with waxy ice-filled boxes, a fat brown woman in a bloodied white apron selling fresh fish. A man inside a dingy trailer is grilling meat for sandwiches. Behind the sliding glass window is a giant pig head. It's fat tongue swelling out of its mouth. Rick and I look at each other and make faces.
"Gross," Rick says. We laugh and I promise him we'll have lunch somewhere else. Inside.
Two stalls down, a stick figure man is singing what sounds like opera. When we reach him I see that several people have put money at his feet. I throw down a couple thousand lire. La Traviatta. Rick takes his picture with the yellow cardboard camera.
I can feel people think, American.
The air is sweet with the smell of rosemary. There used to be another white trailer here with chickens roasting on a rotisserie. I weave between the stalls looking for it. Without paying attention I run square into a guy coming around the corner. He's my age, somewhere in his late twenties. Italian. He asks me in broken English if I'm lost.
"Tutto bene," I tell him. Everything's fine.
He looks familiar.
I have asked Rick to wait for me by the singing man, but when I get back he has walked ahead. When he sees me he jerks his thumb back at the guy and says, "Fucker can sing."
At some souvenir kiosk, Rick has found a brochure on Cinque Terre. The whole thing is written in English, French, German and Chinese. "Says here you can only get to this place by boat or train. Is that true?"
"Yes and no," I tell him. I remember cars, but I don't know how they got there."
"So? What'll it be then," he asks, ready to go. "Train or boat?"
"Train first, I guess. We can take the ferry boat back tonight."
"That'll do," he says. "At least someone knows where we're going."
We're tired, and I think, this is the kidding Rick.
We take a taxi to La Spezia. Rick and I stare out opposite windows.
"Come over here," I say, palming his inner thigh, pulling him in. "Sit close."
We share my side of the tiny Fiat cab, our shoulders flush against each other. I point out things that are familiar as we pass, but nothing is exactly the same.
"What?" Rick says.
When the driver pulls up in front of the slate-faced station Rick asks me if we have to tip here.
"Why wouldn't we?" I say.
He counts the money out slow to make sure he doesn't mess it up. He hasn't quite got the hang of it yet.
Inside the station is dim. Several tubes of florescent light flicker almost rhythmically overhead, like strobe lights. Cigarette smoke hovers like layers of gauze above us, floating. We have our tickets and walk out onto the concrete platform. A low ceiling extends from the building to the edge of the tracks. Rick and I walk down a dank brick stairwell and through the tunnel that runs beneath the trains. Dark splotches of moisture mark the cement walls and the sound of dripping water echoes through the passage, a plumbing smell.
"I don't know about this," Rick says, looking up as he walks.
"It's fine," I tell him
He boards first, jumping onto the step of the train like hopscotch. I wait until he's in shadow and follow.
This train is in better shape than the last one. It smells of lemons, a little Armour-all. We slide into our seats and slump like dolls. Rick hoists a knee up and braces it against the seat in front of us as if we were kids on a school bus. He says, "We're going to have to walk a lot, aren't we."
"Climb, yeah. Hike I guess. Through vineyards. It's gorgeous though. You can see the ocean from the mountains."
"Jesus, sounds exhausting."
"Yeah, but the key is to stop in each town and drink a bottle of wine," I explain. "That way you don't care. The wine here's awesome Rick. Some of the little trattorias are owned by the same people who have the vineyards and they only sell the good stuff."
"I'm not that big on wine."
"They have good beer, too. But I don't know who drinks it."
"People who don't go ape shit over fermented grapes," he says, smart alecky, then locks my head between his forearm and shoulder and pretends to knuckle my scalp.
"Quit it, you'll mess up my hair." I try to duck free but he's got me pinned to his chest, and surely everyone on the train can see we're lovers cutting up. But Americans.
"Say, wine is for snobs."
"No," I laugh into his shirt.
"Say it or I'm not letting you go." He flexes his muscles and I feel their sweet bulge against my cheek.
"I can't breathe."
"Then say it. You know it's true."
"Wine is for snobs," I say. We're like children.
Rick lets his grip up and I'm free. I fake like I'm going to punch his arm and instead slip my hand beneath it, find his nipple through his shirt and give him a twist. "You ass."
"Hey, that hurts." He swats my hand away and rubs at the tender spot.
"Well, serves you right," I laugh.
"Wine snob," he says.
"Beer slob," I shoot back. "I'm going to get us a really good bottle if we ever get down there," I say. "You at least have to try it."
Rick pushes back a strand of hair from my face and kisses my forehead. "It's not going to happen," he tells me.
"We'll get some good bread and cheese. We can have a picnic on the mountain."
The world outside the train has changed. We're out of the city and riding through shades of brown and green. Earth and leaves. "Look, we're missing it," I point.
The train takes us through a mountain and I hold my breath in the tunnel. Dim overhead lights flicker on then off again.
"Is it a long way between towns," Rick asks, picking at the pilled upholstery on the seat in front of us.
"Not too bad."
"What do you do if you have to take a whiz?"
"Fertilize the grapes."
Rick looks skeptical.
I link my arms around his. "It'll be great. I promise."
From the white-washed, first coastal village, we follow dirt paths down the mountain then somehow wind our way up again. Shaded by a solid canopy of leaves, we step over roots and polished stones, steadying ourselves against the sturdy trunks of trees. I should have brought water. Instead I gulp red wine out of a labelless bottle and offer it to Rick. He waves it away.
In places the trees give way, opening onto the mountainside. Grapevines twist down rows forming chest high walls. Each one a good foot fat. We have to walk between them to get to the path on the other side. Grapes are nestled tight together in snug bunches, the color of sky at twilight, a deep inked blue. I tear a clump from the vine and bite into them like a pear. The sticky juice runs down my forearm.
"But they're dirty," Rick says.
"And sweet," I tell him.
Walking down the vineyard a boy, a teenager, sees us. "Non per mangiare," he says. "Questi solo per bevere." He laughs.
I lift my wine bottle.
"Si, per bevere," he tells me.
"Mi dispiace," I say. He has straight thin
arms like Gianni's.
The path starts up again by the edge of the mountain. Rick has gone ahead without me. Below I can see a horseshoe shaped cove, a narrow beach. The wave caps foam like frothed milk and the sound is like the steam working. I uncork the wine and swallow long.
After the first two legs of the hike we stop in the third town. The same stone chalky walls. Rick hasn't eaten any of the cheese or bread, so I sit with him drinking more wine while he eats pizza and drinks beer. He buys more beer for the hike, and we head back into the mountains.
Rick walks fast and yells back, "Still there?" when I fall behind. I remember coming here with friends and pretending to be lost explorers. But we were never lost. I climb up a tall rock where the ceiling of leaves is thin and I can see the ocean. In the other direction, up the path, I can see Rick with his stuffed khaki backpack. I slide down a smooth part of the rock and try to catch up.
By the end of the day Rick and I are both tired and a little too drunk. The ferries run every fifteen minutes during peak hours, but we've missed the last of that schedule, and now they have only a boat every hour or so. We sit in the bleached sand and wait. I borrow Rick's boxed yellow camera and take some photos of the ocean, the way the waves push lips frothed onto the sand. It hasn't gotten dark yet, but the sun is pulling away fast and there's a breeze off the water making me chilly. The sand is still full of heat, a great opened beanbag of warmth. I'm considering lying down in it and going to sleep when Rick drapes his arm across my shoulders. His arm is dead weight. He leans close until our noses touch.
"The train and the hike and those towns and all. Thanks," he says. ". . . That was okay." Then he kisses me. His mouth tastes like garlic and his lips are dry and hot. I try to convince myself that this time doesn't count, or it counts enough.
When the ferry pulls in it takes awhile for the workers to get it roped, then some more time for the few late comers and villagers to get off. On the boat, I hang my head over the edge and look down. The water is transparent blue and looks like a silk sheet moving on a clothesline. I can see the white sand shift beneath the surface. Rick has met another American and they're poring over a map spread over both of their laps. Out beyond the wake of the ferry I see a young boy and a man in a small boat, fishing with nets. The American is saying something about a girl named Doreen, his girlfriend probably, or wife, somewhere out on the island. Rick just nods and occasionally looks up to see if we've arrived, if we're there.