chasing one little baby tick of unblackened weed around the rim of the pipe, warm in my bone-cold fingers: cold white light and me here on this dingy old velvet couch listening to the boys in AIDS’s bedroom pretending it’s a real gym. they listen to eminem a little too much, but i won’t givem shit for it.
genezareth and hannah are considering busking on a corner on weekends; seabass was turned down for a resto job due to his lack of a work visa; bethany was selling Christmas cards for a euro apiece; i was considering selling knit caps, AIDS and I have discussed becoming regional camgirls.
we are sort of brutally poor, but we do our bestish. combat creeping depression with routines and rituals: open the shutters every morning and close them up every night, go for hikes, go for runs, do pullups and pushups and abs, chat together in the sparsely-furnished kitchen all squattin on buckets and low stools on the ground. we are all in balls deep for bernie sanders.
written fall-winter 2015. entry 1 of a series.
Italy reeks of love in its dirtiest places.
The decrepit autostazione in Milan is sufficiently reminiscent of Greyhound to feel strangely homey: molding brick building under wet-orange sky, shuttered business counters, two broken payphones, five different men from five different ethnic backgrounds aggressively eyeballing me all at once beside the unabashedly romantic spray paint on the wall:
EMI TI AMO
PER FAVORE CHIAMAMI 39666-6666
A tall gentleman in a basketball jersey sucks his teeth at me and fingers the crotch of his acid-washed jeans. I sit on my pack, toying around with my trusty invisible prison shiv until someone else’s father pulls up in a family-sized hybrid. An athletic young girl bursts out screaming, “JESSI?”
My ride’s here. Sorry fellas.
VALERIA IS EIGHTEEN and she’s 100% ready to marry her boyfriend. They are fiercely in love, fighting every ten seconds and sucking face every twelve. He grabs her gullet with his hand and squishes her lips together when he kisses her; I’d rip a nut off a dude if he ever did that to me but it’s somehow aggressively romantic in a way that could only ever make sense in Italy. I’m staying with Valeria’s family for two weeks. Her mother Viviana cooks every meal for us all and if I try and help out in the kitchen she gives me an affronted look and chases me out, “Certo che no!”. The results are similar if I attempt to pay for anything or, for that matter, refuse food to any degree. This is the only time I feel at risk of being physically harmed.
Vale tells me her parents are prolonging their unhappy marriage for the sake of their children (who, like my brother and I years ago, strongly oppose this decision.) Vale takes Prozac and is recovering from anorexia, although she’s bulimic now, and her younger sister suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, so the two girls combined are basically a whole me. After divulging this information, Vale hugs me and tells me she loves me. I feel pretty strongly that she is the real reason I’m here.
Saturday 13 June
Went out in Pavia tonight with Valeria and her friend Erika (also eighteen), had a fancy Pacino cocktail at a fancy bar stocked with fancy booze and got bored listening to loosely-translated high school drama for the better part of three hours. Worth it when Vale dragged me over to a circle of her boyfriend’s hoodrat buddies as they fervently freestyle rap battled in a narrow alleyway, enthusiastic neighbors cheering from the balconies above. The city is beautiful, not too touristy, all cobblestones and golden-burning lamps, the smell of hot pizza and waffle cones and sweet chestnut trees in the muggy air. Italy is a magical place. Almost all the graffiti I’ve seen is some sort of romantic declaration — one notable anonymous vagrant even devoted an entire pillar on the Ponte Veccia to a four-stanza poem about losing his wife. I admit, I’m probably once again experiencing The France Effect – the one where you leave France and everyone’s nice all of a sudden and the world is shiny and bright and new, nobody rolling their eyes at you and saying “Mais NON, evidemment, c’est pas possible–“ even though all you want to do is buy A MOTHER FUCKING STAMP
I could stay here.
(Side note: mosquitoes notably aggressive.)
Tuesday 16 June
There’s a thunderstorm today but little rain, the kind of thing that could take down a forest back in Oregon. Exhausted, running on 6 cumulative sleep hours in 60 hours total due to mosquito hunting and general insomnia. The (incessantly overbearing) director of our program looks like a shrunken head with a body still attached and she haunts my dreams, which doesn’t help. Woke up today thinking that I was back in the bar in Lyon and had fallen asleep at work, which is not altogether unreasonable. Head pounding, but have yet to slay any youths. Received one love note, more hugs than the rest of my life combined and probably Hepatitis B from high-fiving so many nose-picking buttcrack-excavating little gremlin-people. The young ones are fucking adorable. The old ones, meh. Two of them are chubby little fuckboys, a head taller than the others. Hobbies: screaming, humping myself and the other children, hiding under tables during lessons. I gave one of them the most epic punishment today – private one-on-one in the classroom with me while everyone else played outside. Instead of bashing his fat little fuckboy face in, I explained some prepositions, smiled, looked him in the eyes, was the absolute best tutor I know how to be. The worst kids deserve a chance, they’re like that for a reason. That is more likely an excerpt from a teacher’s self-help forum than my own original thought, but either way — this kid better have a fucking reason. Seriously. Somebody somewhere better be beating him.
Last night Valeria and I rode around Pavia on her family’s little Vespa. We went for pizza in the city center by the Duomo, and later got gelato with Stephano’s boisterous plump sister in his “bro’s” gelateria. Stephano tells me enthusiastically that Detroit is the best city in the world and wants to know if it really contains black people. His “bro”, the owner, looks like the type that would leave a severed animal head between your sheets if you crossed his clan or engaged in consensual intercourse with his daughter: fifty-something, gold chain around a thick brown neck and greasy crumpled eyelids, expertly slapping gelato onto cones with the finesse and determination of a man who’s highly trained in pistolwhipping. Though I can comprehend a fair amount of Italian I was rapidly fading from my one hour of sleep the night prior, so the evening blurred out into a delusory stream of white-green light and milk cream and Valeria’s strained, amorous laughter. Stephano’s sister speaks decent Inglese, she worked at Epcott for a year in 2004, and told me a hilarious bunch of rapid-fire stories, namely one about her endemic struggle to “hold a fart during scary events”.
Saturday 20 June
Milano has fashion in it. I don’t get high fashion. I think it’s a cult and that its followers are a bunch of witless swaggery capitalist sheep-drones.
This city is more sterile than the Italy I’ve become accustomed to. The Duomo is the most fantastic church/building I’ve ever seen, though it looms out strangely from the city like an ancient twisted wizard’s island from a featureless sea. Antiquity, evidently, was washed from Milan years ago when it went out of fashion. Perhaps now it’s coming back. Too bad architecture isn’t like high fashion, you can’t just fish back the charm of an ancient villa like you can bring back bellbottom jeans. CAN YOU, GIORGIO ARMANI? YOU SICK CHEAP FUCK.
(Note: the mosquitoes are black with white stripes and iron rods that pierce through denim. Repellent has no effect and they can hang on while prey is running away. Have counted over 90 bites. Melanie says they go for the legs as gravity sucks all the blood down there.)
Monday 22 June
I’ve been moved to a new family. At first I wasn’t too happy to change over, feeling pried away from my perfect dysfunctional unit (I felt uncomfortable at all the right times, yet loved enough to make up for it — just like home!) But this new family… they are so happy, genuinely a happy family. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in person before. Fabrizio fondly refers to his two daughters as his “little shits”. He tells me about the trackmarks in the ditches of his arms, remnants of the junkie life he left behind when he decided to settle down. Having loved an addict for over a year, Fabri’s stories haunt me in a profoundly saddened way. I find myself swallowing and blinking too much, listening to Patricia talk about making her husband turn back in the morning on his way to work if she’s forgotten to kiss him. Blow-drying Sara’s hair, helping her with math problems. Marta texting (she’s 14 and refuses to speak English to me) but with a grinning family selfie as her WhatsApp background. They break my heart in two.
(Mosquito update: Bite count past 120. Have bandaged up a select few, thought Patricia might barf when she glimpsed that one on the back of my calf)
Tuesday 23 June
Italy is killing me. I like it a lot, but this is the least healthy I have ever been. Exhausted, craving sugar, won’t do planks. When I tried to reason about portion sizes (“I’m American, I can’t eat this much real food!”) Fabri said tomorrow they will give me one tomato and one apple to eat. Probably an improvement from the literal bucket of pasta a day I’m being shoveled (not that I’m complaining.) Nobody even lets their kids walk to school, which would be a 3-4 minute journey, maybe 8 if they’re rolling horizontally. My awe is profound. Each of these people consumes enough carbs a day to feed a small village, yet you could fit two of them inside of me. If I ate one Italian in a day, I would likely be consuming fewer calories than I am currently being fed by Italians.
Wednesday 24 June
You wouldn’t guess where I got bit by a mosquito last night.
Thursday 25 June
A CIRCLE OF ITALIAN PARENTS DISCUSSING GENITALIA
Pattatina: “friends of bird”
Fabrizio explains the process of seduction: “A bird fly in the world and meet a potato…”
Pattatina: literally potatoes, child appropriate
Pussy (English): Italian mothers believe this to be child appropriate (“sounds so cute!”)
Da hole: Fabrizio believes this to be the superior option, appropriate for all ages
I have decided that my future estate shall henceforth be titled Pattatina Palazzio… or just Da Hole. Not sure. If the actual look and value of my future estate is to be taken into consideration, Da Hole is certainly more appropriate.
Saturday 27 June
Just booked a dirt-cheap flight to Copenhagen. Remember that ticket to Roskilde Festival?
Patricia is evidently not the last-minute type. Her immediate response was to ask, “What are you doing with your life? What are you running away from?” Well, Patricia, thank you for asking. I would say that for the moment I am traveling the world and rocking the fuck on. I am running away from my dysfunctional childhood-induced pathologies and my fear of commitment to the real world. Just kidding, I can’t say that in Italian.
Fabrizio wrote me a card that says, “WE CONTROL YOU EVERYWHERE.” He handed it to me and said “Remember, don’t make the gay with the ass of the other.”
Fabrizio gets it.
Monday 29 June
Spent the night hooliganizing the Milano Marpenza airport. My only shorts decided to blow out in the crotch. Have stitched up with dental floss.
Slept on the floor of a toilet, in my opinion a highly underrated place to sleep – dark, quiet, locking door AND private stall? Not to mention the toilet itself. I mean it’s basically a hotel.
Woke myself up twice on the floor shouting “Okay, everybody, time to go… time to go, come on guys…” believing wholeheartedly that I was wrangling a field full of children. When I rustled and the light flicked on, I realized rather hollowly that I was trying to rally my rucksack, perched on the toilet in my blurred-out line of vision. I’m gonna miss those little fuckers. A little bit.
The stories are clawing at my insides.
I’ve been on the road for months now, haven’t paid rent since May. Been living out of a sack, the same peeling yellow plastic bag of crumpled clothes that still smell like air-conditioning vents and jaundiced summer subway air and the sad empty space under hostel beds no matter how many times I’ve managed to launder them, at least until I discovered the indispensable trick of stuffing a sack of espresso grinds in my pack. Keeps yeh fresh.
The backpack pockets are crammed with paraphernalia of the deliberately homeless, essentials built up over months of wandering: a watercolor palette, crayons charbon of different hardness levels, an emergency thermal blanket and a roll of duct tape, a pack of band-aids, a rather rag-tag assortment of crumpled condoms, a glue stick and sewing supplies, four or five dirty kitchen spoons – I collect spoons wherever I go, the way most people collect accidentally stolen pens — a torn Ziploc sack full of pennies and two-cents and Danish kroner and Moroccan dirhams, my loose bus/café fare.
In the top of my pack I have clipped the spare keys to Dennis’s apartment in Ishøj, Denmark, which he insisted I take just in case I decided to come back. “You know that’s not possible,” I told him. “This is it. I’m sorry.”
Still, he insisted. I guess some folks just need something to hold on to.
FIVE MONTHS AGO, the end of April in Lyon. The sun was beginning to make appearances from time to time, people blinking sluggishly up as if in a state of mild surprise: « Qu’est-e que c’est ? » I had just turned twenty-two on a brilliant rainy day with a double rainbow smeared across the sky. The wind was turning, getting warmer, buzzing with a hint of electricity, a hint of change.
School was not going so well, mainly because I was giving up on it. Spending more and more time in the real world instead of the classroom, traveling instead of studying, speaking French instead of taking notes in it. I had bombed a final already and suspected I might blow a few more in the coming week. My mind had been made up; I was not going back. I watched idly as the other study abroad students packed their suitcases and figured out their flights home, made plans with their families for their return, registered for classes in the coming semester. I had decided to move to Spain and teach English and was waiting on my formal acceptance letter. In the meantime I searched online for volunteer jobs across Europe; tutoring, gardening, painting, repair work, childcare, whatever I could get. I wasn’t sure where I would travel, only that I would.
Camille and I met on the 30th of April. We had matched on Tinder, which I had downloaded that morning on a whim, and scheduled a date for the same night without hesitation. I rode up on my bike, tires slicing lines on slick pavement, and found him next to the fountain at Terreaux in Lyon city center. He had arrived early. He smiled at me. His eyes were a fiercely glowing blue and we were both wearing flannel shirts.
Our first date lasted twelve hours. Our second, over forty.
Within the week I had found a job bartending at a dingy little pub in the center of Rue de Sainte Catherine, Lyon’s most notoriously filthy and unscrupulous pub street, under a tightly-wound, beady-eyed little Frenchman with a temper like Mount Vesuvius in Year 79. His name was Tom. On my first night, Tom approached me and said curtly in his dreadful thick French accent (for, although we conducted the interview only in French and he knew I was fluent, refused to speak French to me): “Gessica. You must clean ze farst bathrhoom. You go to ze middle of ze bar, you find ze glove, you pick up ze vomit and you trow it away. You do not trow away ze glove. Okay? It iz ze only one we have-uh.” I approached the bathroom with a deep breath and an open mind, C’est que du vomi, can’t be that bad, to find a partially-digested pound or so of what appeared to be a rump of ham artfully deconstructed and spewed into the men’s urinal. Scooping out the chunks with my single preciously-gloved hand, I was soon fishing out handfuls of pubic hair and unidentifiable slime from under a small lip in the bottom of the urinal – quite possibly more pubic hair than vomit, of which there was plenty. When I asked my coworker when the urinal had last been cleaned, he looked at me like I was insane. “I dunno,” he said with a shrug, “Not since I’ve been here. You don’t clean the urinal. Takes too long.” Silly me.
Later, Tom informed me that the customers were not allowed to bring cups into the street – not even plastic ones. “Oh really? Okay,” I responded with a nod. In ten minutes or so he came back and demanded, “Gessica I must see you outside, NOW.” The bar was swarmed with customers and I had an entire row of pints filling, but my coworker urged me out. “Run, run, go go go! Don’t make him wait!” In the street Tom started shouting and throwing his stumpy little hands about. “I do not want your o-pinion,” he said hotly. “When I say somezing to you, you do not respond Oh rheally? OH-KAI. If I say somezing to you you say Yes sirh, yes Tohm. Nozzing elze. I do not hire you to listen to your o-pinion. UNDERZTAND?” He was a head shorter than I and I was acutely aware that I would be able to break his nose with only a minimal amount of effort. “Yes, Tohm.” A growl through tightly clenched teeth. First night of many, folks.
YET IT WAS WORTH IT, every second of it. Cam and I had fallen in love perhaps the moment we met, then a little bit more every passing day. He was raised between Grenoble and Côte d’Ivoire in Africa and had taught himself perfect English through punk rock music. We could talk and joke for ten hours without noticing the time, bouncing between French and English, learning from each other. He was a world traveler, a constant nomad, loved camping, hiking, trail running, cycling and good beer. He looked like a tattooed lumberjack and, just like an Oregonian, he refused to use an umbrella in the rain. In short, he was perfect, and though I was wary, I let myself fall.
It was late May when I received my placement in Spain, in the Balearic Islands. I was working a private party at the bar, got the e-mail, went through the rest of the night in a daze. At home I woke up Cam to tell him, stammering, unsure of how to approach the subject. There was stillness, silence. We were both stunned, though of course we’d known it was coming. Perhaps we’d thought it wouldn’t happen, that reality would never set in — but there it was, inconveniently, as reality tends to be.
It was fast, all so fast, and then he was slipping away before I even had a chance to make a decision. He would not ask me to stay, because he knew better than to try and hold me back, but was unwilling to stay together if I left. Cam does not believe in the possibility of long-distance relationships, and a year ago I would have agreed with him wholeheartedly. Now, I’m not so sure.
I’m willing to try. I know it will be hard. Mais je ferais n’importe quoi, pour toi.
He was a nihilist to the core, embittered, chasing the life he believed he was supposed to have. Done with all that now, he said. Much like his predecessor, he now wanted stillness. He sought routine. He hated France, but felt he had no choice but to anchor himself there. I could taste his nomadic soul, like the other half of my own, but he said he didn’t want to be wild anymore. Said he didn’t own anything, no house, no car, no nine-to-five grown-up career. It was time to settle down.
“Then this can’t work,” I told him. “If you’re looking to settle, you’re not looking for me.”
He was mine, and I loved him, and I might have been the one to tame him. But I let him go.
In early June I applied for a position at a children’s arts camp based in Rovereto, Italy. I interviewed over Skype the next evening, and the program manager told me she needed me to start in four days. In a whirlwind I packed all of my belongings, scrubbed my apartment from ceiling to floor, and rode around the city like a madman tying up loose ends. There was no time to be heartbroken. I hopped a bus for Pavia, crossing the Alps away from everything I had come to know and with absolutely nothing left to lose, for I’d already given it away.
Ca va aller.
-TO BE CONTINUED-
And for those of you who are interested, here’s a low-quality video of me being a high-quality employee at the pub in Lyon.