By Peter Gethers
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2013 Peter Gethers
All rights reserved.
I fell in love with Anna because of her laugh.
Well, that's not entirely accurate. What really happened was that when I met her, I heard the laugh — gentle but not delicate, more than a giggle, less than a guffaw, and it came with a smile, one that caught me by surprise and opened a quick glimpse into a world of delicious absurdity and wonder — and then she turned around and said something that made my heart ache. In the few moments before the laughter and heartache, I wanted to kill her. It was a brutal combination.
I was twenty-four years old, on a summer break from my second year of graduate school, midway to becoming a VMD, which is Latin for DVM, which is Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. I was traveling through Europe, taking trains from one place to another for the most part, hooking up with friends and acquaintances in various exotic places (or at least places that seemed exotic to me), spending much of my time alone drinking cheap wine, smoking excellent pot, reading dark thrillers or spare Scandinavian treatises on death and despair, and staring out windows while doing my best to ponder the essential questions of life. Occasionally, I sent postcards back home hinting at a vague cultural awakening, but actually I spent most of my energy trying unsuccessfully to pick up women in museums and cafés.
My only success came, a little bit to my shame, in the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I was standing in the middle of the famous attic, trying to figure out how it was possible that the Nazis hadn't simply looked up from the street, seen the top part of the house, and thought, "Hey, that seems like a good place to hide some Jews," something I never did come to grips with, when I saw a girl wearing jeans and a tank top. Her back was to me at first; then she shifted her feet so she was turned sideways. While pretending that I was looking at some yellowed photos of Mr. Dussel and the Van Daans, I studied her more closely. She wasn't beautiful by any means, but there was something I found very attractive. Her face was round and soft-looking, sensual in its fleshiness; her skin was smooth and cried out for touching. All that was extremely appealing. But mostly what attracted me was that no cool, good-looking guy with a backpack and a wire-chain tattoo on his bicep came up and put his arm around her while I was gawking. So I took a deep breath, strolled over, and started to say something about how I was alone and she seemed to be alone and that I wasn't very good at this whole introducing-myself-to-women thing, when I saw that she was crying. That stopped me cold.
"I've made women cringe before," I said. "And occasionally roll their eyes."
She stared at me and it crossed my mind that she didn't speak English, but I kept going. I figured it couldn't get any worse. Not speaking English might actually turn out to be a plus in this instance.
"I even made one vomit once. Although, no matter what my friend Phil says, it was really the tequila. I was only peripherally involved."
The crying seemed to slow down, so I sped up.
"But I've never made anyone cry before," I told her. "At least, not this quickly. And not without running over her foot with a shopping cart."
She looked like she was trying to smile. Or at least trying to stop the tears, so I thought the hell with it, skipped the semi-clever banter, and went for sincerity. I said to her, "Are you all right?"
"Yes," she said, her first actual word. Then she added, "No, not really." She sniffled a little bit more. "I'm just so moved by what I'm seeing and feeling."
Her response was touching and also encouraging, because not only did I now know that she spoke English, but when she said things like "not really" she said them with some kind of a German accent (it turned out to be Norwegian), which makes everything, even when you're sniffling about Nazi-related devastation, sound sexy. I wound up taking her out for a drink, and we talked for hours. During that time our mutual attraction grew. She started to look lovelier to me and she decided I was sensitive because I was going to work with animals when I got out of school, and then we went back to her hotel room and spent the night together. We didn't actually have sex — instant passion with a Norwegian stranger was definitely not my lot in life — but we did sleep in the same bed and cuddled. The first night she wore a T-shirt and nothing else. The second night she wore nothing at all but still insisted on the whole cuddle thing. Even without the sex, being in bed with a very attractive woman with a cool accent within twenty-four hours of meeting her was thrilling for me and way more exotic than most of the places I'd been visiting. Then, on the third night, when we made love, it moved from thrilling to spectacular.
Immediately after that it moved to something else entirely because we wound up spending the next four days and nights together, during which time I realized that Joly — short for something long in Norway-speak that either meant Son of Joe or Forged from the Steel of Thor's Loins — didn't just cry at museums for Holocaust victims. She cried when she saw mothers yell at their children on the street, and at magazine covers that showed rehabbing celebrities, and when I turned away from her too soon after having sex rather than cuddling, and even when walking among ancient ruins in Rome (they prompted visions of the people who had once lived and played and worked there, which in turn made her unbearably sad because they had all shuffled off their mortal coil and couldn't see that a two-thousand-year-old column they'd once leaned against had managed to outlast them). I also realized that all this crying wasn't really so touching. It was pretty annoying.
Once that realization set in, I did my best to go my separate way. But I was lonely by that point in my travels, and I wasn't very good at going my separate way, especially with someone who was so vulnerable that she teared up when the sun went down. Finally I wound up going with her to her friend's parents' vacation house on a small island off the coast of Sicily, which seemed more fun than making her cry yet again and traveling somewhere by myself. Besides, I only had a week left before I had to untangle myself from the relationship and return to the States and my last year of veterinary school. It turned out to be the right call. Because of Joly — neurotic, tearstained descendent of the Thunder God — my entire life changed.
The island off Sicily was called Favignana, and it was known for two things. One was its famed tuna hunt, written about as far back as the Iliad. People came from far and wide to watch the fun-filled spectacle of Favignanian fishermen herding thousands of tunas toward the island and then brutally slaughtering them. Even then, as a veterinarian-in-waiting, I could barely stand to see animals in pain. I especially did not like to see pain inflicted upon them by humans. But also, even then, I was learning to distance myself from the pain, so I could study it (some might say so I could stand it and cope with it) and possibly do something about it. In this case, however, there was nothing to be done. Inflicting pain on large fish was what kept the place thriving. So I did my best to accept the fact that I was visiting an island where a lot of people in boats felt very Hemingwayesque when it came to killing creatures of the sea, and where, as a tourist, one could buy an astonishing variety of dried tuna, tuna roe, canned tuna, tuna refrigerator magnets, and probably tuna-flavored toothpaste and rolls of toilet paper emblazoned with little silhouettes of tuna.
The other thing the island was known for was tufa — an ancient stone that had been excavated there for centuries. Every house seemed to be made of the stuff, which not only gave the island a distinctly medieval feel, it made every single dwelling look exactly like every other dwelling. As an outsider, I discovered that finding a specific home on the island was like looking for your suitcase at an airport baggage claim and realizing that everyone has the same Samsonite bag. The house that Joly's friend Marcella's parents owned was three or four hundred years old and built on a cliff overlooking the water. The walls were thick, which kept the house cool despite the staggering heat outside, and it was furnished, incongruously, with brightly colored couches and wall hangings from New Mexico. It was like staying in some weird cross between a Crusader castle and Graceland. I'd never seen anything remotely like it; growing up in a small town in upstate New York, I had never even imagined anything like it.
All in all, that house was my idea of perfection, except for the fact that Marcella was even more annoying than Joly. Unlike my depressed Norwegian, Marcella didn't cry at the drop of a hat; she scowled. At everything. I'd compliment her on the breakfast she'd made, and she'd glare at me as if I'd taunted her. I'd make her lunch, trying to be a good houseguest, and her lip would curl up as if I'd insulted her cooking. Between the tears and the scowls, I had to escape, even just for a little while, so the third day we were there I went for a jog. When I announced my intention at eleven that morning, I could see Joly's eyes go moist and Marcella's jaw start to harden. I got out of there as quickly as I could, running a little bit faster and harder than I normally would have.
I was about twenty yards from the house when I realized that my chances of finding it again were, at best, fifty-fifty. Not only did every house on the island look exactly the same, I also had possibly the worst sense of direction of any person who actually had all five senses functioning normally. So I did something clever. On a road leading up a hill, I saw a sign for a little trattoria. The sign said, BAR INGRESSO, and now I knew that no matter how lost I got, all I had to do was ask someone where the restaurant-bar named Ingresso was and eventually I'd find my way back. As an extra precaution, I did my best to memorize my jogging route. The whole time I was running, I would say to myself, "Okay, I just passed one street on the left," then, "That's a second street going off to the right," and "Street number three, winding up into the hills." I did that for about twenty minutes, which I thought was plenty, since I would of course have to spend another twenty minutes jogging back and by now the temperature felt like it had risen to about a hundred and fifty degrees.
I turned around and began backtracking. Fairly soon it occurred to me that my route looked completely different running in this direction. Within minutes I was a lot farther away from the sea than I thought I should be. But because I didn't trust my sense of direction I just kept going, figuring that in another ten or fifteen minutes I'd recognize something — with a little luck, the Ingresso bar. After twenty minutes or so, I still hadn't recognized anything. And I was now even farther away from the water: I couldn't even see the shore anymore, although I was certain I'd been running parallel to it the whole time.
By this point I'd been running ten or fifteen minutes longer than I'd planned and had absolutely no idea where I was. Bar Ingresso was nowhere in sight. I also realized that because I'd made such a hasty exit from the house, I didn't have any money on me. I didn't know Marcella's phone number. I didn't know her address, or even what street she lived on. Or if her street actually had a name. Then it occurred to me that I had no idea what Marcella's name was, other than Marcella. The other nice touch was that I didn't speak a word of Italian other than grazie, ciao, and carbonara.
So I did the only thing I could think of: I kept running. Eventually I had to see the house where I was staying. Didn't I?
* * *
When I hit the hour mark, the answer was starting to seem like a resounding no.
At an hour and fifteen minutes, I saw my first person. A car was coming toward me. I flagged it down, waving my hands, doing my best not to look like a lunatic. The driver slowed and cautiously rolled his window down. I politely said, "Speak English?" When he shook his head no, I spoke in your basic, sophisticated Chico Marx accent, saying something that was very close to "Excusa mio ... Bar Ingresso? Knowa Bar Ingresso?" At first he looked puzzled — hard to blame him — but when I mentioned Bar Ingresso he nodded and pointed in the direction I was headed. I hoped the look in my eyes and the raised eyebrow somehow communicated the words "How far?" They seemed to do that because he said, "Due chilometri." I said "grazie" seven or eight times and resumed my jog, this time happily. In about two kilometers, I did indeed get to a bar. But it wasn't Bar Ingresso. It was also closed, and it looked like it had been closed since the last dinner party thrown by the Medicis. Deflated, I decided to keep going and quickly resumed my running. Moving seemed like a better alternative than simply lying down on the side of the road and getting parboiled.
I'll spare you an account of the next two hours of my life except to say that it was pretty much the same as the previous hour and a half, only a lot hotter. Along the way I encountered three different people, none on foot, each of whom confidently sent me to a different bar, none of which turned out to be Bar Ingresso. When I encountered a fourth person — actually a small group of people — I went back to Chico Marx and did my best to say the following: "I'm a really stupid American, I don't know where I'm staying or who I'm staying with, and I don't have money, but could you please send me to Bar Ingresso?" When they stared blankly at me, I asked if they knew anyone named Marcella who lived on the sea. They beat a hasty retreat.
Somewhere around three P.M., I decided that Joly and Marcella would come looking for me. So I began to walk slowly — and "walk" is a slight exaggeration here; I was by now struggling to put one foot in front of the other — but whenever a car appeared in the distance, I'd raise my head, puff up my chest, and start jogging, so if my two hostesses really had formed a search party, I could tell them that I'd simply been running and had forgotten all about the time. Being a macho athletic machine seemed a lot more appealing than coming across as a total and pathetic loser on the verge of sunstroke.
At three-thirty I passed a small fire station and a park, which I was reasonably sure I'd passed an hour or so before. As far as I knew I'd been going in one direction, so I wasn't quite sure how I could have passed something twice. But by this point I had stopped trusting anything that was emanating from my brain. And my trudging was on the verge of becoming something closer to a crawl, the hands-and-knees kind. Then, somehow, I found myself on a small, white-stone beach. (There's no sand in Favignana, just white pebbles and crushed shells, a fact I discovered when I sat down, exhausted, and discovered that lying down on the lovely landscape was like leaping onto a red-hot table topped with crushed glass.) Since I knew Marcella lived on the water and I was now on the water myself, I took this little white beach as a very good sign that I was on the verge of finding my way home.
And here was another good sign: On that pebble-and-shell beach was one of the most stunning women I'd ever seen in my life, lying serenely on a towel a few feet from me, impervious to the pain of the shells and pebbles. She was wearing cut-off jeans and a bathing suit top. Her legs were long and flawlessly tapered. Her hair was medium-dark brown, streaked lighter from the sun and layered as it made its way down to her perfectly shaped shoulders. Her eyes were brown and oval and hypnotic. I honestly don't think I'd ever seen anyone who was so beautiful in a nonintimidating way. She was so intoxicating that I didn't give all that much thought to the fact that I was sweating more than Shaquille O'Neal after quadruple overtime, or that my skin was starting to blister in a way that made me look vaguely leprous. I just stumbled over to her and went into my new Vito Scotti impersonation, the by now almost rote I'm-a-dumb-American-no-money-no-idea-of-anything-except-I-have-to-find -Bar-Ingresso.
She looked at me strangely. I'd gotten extremely odd looks throughout the day, but this one had that special extra subtext of "Are you a dangerous lunatic or just a tragic, helpless lunatic?" But when she didn't say anything, I finally said, "Do you speak English?"
She hesitated, then said, "A leetle."
If I thought the Scandinavian accent was appealing, this Italian accent almost made my head spin, which wasn't much of an accomplishment at that point. Still, it was pretty intoxicating.
"You want Bar Ingresso?" she now said.
"Well," I said, "I'd also like to find my friend or maybe even a hospital with an oxygen tank and a burn unit, but Bar Ingresso would be a good start."
She looked at me blankly, obviously not understanding a word I'd said. Determined to help my cause, I said, "See, I was jogging, but I have a terrible sense of direction, so I memorized the name of a bar, Bar Ingresso, that was close to where I'm staying and ... and ... well, I've been running around the island ... and ..."
I degenerated into "and"s and "well"s because I perceptively realized I wasn't actually helping my cause. I was making a case for commitment to a mental institution. But she must have seen something that touched her because she mercifully interrupted my blathering and said, "You want you should walk with me?" Then she shook her head fiercely, annoyed at herself. "You want I should walk with you?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from Ask Bob by Peter Gethers. Copyright © 2013 Peter Gethers. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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