High above the water on the winding road amidst the fingers of cliffs, I realize that I stopped being scared. Even when I said I wasn’t scared, I was scared.
Never trust me when I say I’m not scared. Just like you should never trust me when I say I’m not drunk.
But on the road in the morning as the landscape changed, as the cliffs reached higher and higher into the sky, I knew.
I want to know when it happened, what city. To drop a plaque in that spot.
Secrets work like poison, slow and without superficial trace. Say them out loud and you explode them to bits, boom like the Death Star. You obliterate them, shatter them into pieces.
You will need to catch the shards, because they’re still yours. Pull them out of the air around you and dig them out of your wounds with tweezers and a needle.
And build them into something, a mosaic of all the sadness you bore, all the nights you prayed no one would hear you, a masterpiece of what you were and what you became, the reason why you stand up straight, skip, dance on occasion, instead of lumbering hunched-over, heavy with the weight of it, never really knowing how it was working under your skin to kill you, turning your blood black, drop by drop.
I do not realize they are gay or a couple until I have attempted to separately flirt with both of them, and even then, I don’t fully understand — not fully — until one calls the other one “babe.”
I cannot tell. I cannot ever, ever tell, even in cases where I am told that such things are obvious. Maybe I lack presumption, or maybe I only have one overriding presumption: That all men want to sleep with me.
When it’s fully established that neither of them does, we decide to be friends and go hiking.
They’re both from Chicago — Ravi is a GP and Tim teaches classes for gifted kids — and I like them immensely and immediately, so grateful for smart people, for actual humor, for people who have read the goddamn guidebook. Tim exudes sweetness and the kind of patient, understanding manner that I can imagine makes him insanely valuable in the classroom. Ravi is exacting and quick-witted, the engine that will carry them through Eastern Europe for three months, and then to South America for three more. They quit their jobs to do this. They saved for years. They’re grownups.
I am not alone.
We hike with huge jugs of water up the cliff from pretty little Atrani on the coast to Ravello.
At the bottom, we ask a woman if we’re going in the right direction. She says, “Ravello” and points to the sky.
They have packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as a money-saving measure, but I opt for mortadella and provolone at a local deli, feeling guilty about the €2, knowing that I should be more responsible, that I should have peanut butter and jelly of my own. All the way up the cliff, I can smell the mortadella right through the paper. It drives me insane.
Up steep, winding stairways, through lemon groves, past postage-stamp-sized chapels and rambling little houses, we talk about mostly nothing. Plans for the future. (They want to get married. I want to get a real job someday.) Travel. (Them: Eastern Europe/South America. Me: Anywhere with a beach.) Vegetarianism. (They are. I’m not.)
I am so comforted by them, by their easy-flowing conversation, their openness.
They always say. You meet so many people when you travel alone. And you do. But in the end, there are always only one or two.
At the top of the cliff, in the cream-colored piazza of beautiful, wealthy, flower-strewn Ravello, a well-dressed crowd gathers in front of the duomo while we sit on a bench across the way and eat our sandwiches. My shirt is stained through with a single, giant sweat blob. I can still feel it running down my sides.
I would rather be in a sundress and sandals. Sitting on the bench, I mentally pick out the outfit and try to ignore how I smell. Tourists in button-downs and polos, big straw hats, give us the eye.
An old-fashioned car pulls up in front of the duomo and the bride gets out, balancing gracefully on her father’s arm. Her dress is chic, beautifully tailored, without an ounce of superfluous ruffle or tulle. As she ascends the steps, Tim says, “Someone forwarded me this thing. Gay Wedding Day Etiquette: The grooms are not allowed to see each other at the gym on the morning of the ceremony. There should be an open bar at both the ceremony and the reception…”
“I want my wedding to either be nothing — four people in a field and a punchbowl — or the blowout of the century,” I say. “Ten hours of dancing. Endless booze and food. The most incredible dresses.”
“An Indian wedding,” says Ravi.
The bride ascends the steps. A small crowd of tourists that’s gathered on the piazza breaks into applause. When the doors close behind her, a chorus starts to sing.
“Italians are so into weddings,” I say. “I guess because in Italy, getting married is more or less the most exciting thing you’ll ever do.”
Ravi smiles. “You mean like everywhere else on earth?”
The hike down to Maori is supposed to be easier, but it’s not. It uses the down-stairs muscles instead of the up-stairs muscles, and mine quiver, begging for mercy, as we descend and descend, to the blue sea below.
My plan is to sunbathe for a few minutes and then swim, but the sun is unbearable and my whole body aches. A streak across the hot sand. A plunge. I float, letting the salt water carry me to the surface. I don’t think about sunblock, about gunk in the water, about exhaustion. I think only about the sweet ends of things, of work and reward.
It’s begun. I’m preparing to go home.