|Jan/Feb 2009 Travel|
In Sardinia, island Italy, I sleep on the beach in a white-stuccoed little hut with a peaked, red-tiled roof. The campground calls it a tukul and I get a deal because I'm alone. It holds a bed and a light and after dark, the sounds of lapping waves and knocking boat hulls drift through the single screened window. I am the only person on the site without a family and the only American.
During the day, the other campers watch as I move from the tukul to the showers to the beach, following my daily routine with shifting eyes. Buy water. Wash fruit. Eat. Shower. Read by the shore. They want to ask what everyone asks, if they brave a conversation.
It's weird in Italy to be without a clinging, sticky-fingered child or a tanned, Aviator-sporting boyfriend or a hunched-over grandmother or aunt. At first, their eyes widen in disbelief and then always the same reaction. A smile. A little huff.
"Alone? It's probably better that way."
On the trail to the lighthouse under blazing sun, I walk with the butterflies. From the shore, I follow a sign painted onto a splintered board in a shaky hand. No one else from my boat—my fellow daytrippers—follows. They all run for the gleaming white sand of the cove, the shallow waves, the souvenir stand where a man sells Sardinian flags, cheap plastic sunglasses, ropes of woven sea grass, and wind chimes made from tiny shells.
As I make my way along the path, hoards of technicolor salamanders scatter and hide as I approach, their colors flashing as they move from road to brush, their tails whipping like strings.
At the top of the cliff, I pass a fantastic-looking older woman walking in the opposite direction. Her gray hair is short-cropped and she wears fashionable sunglasses with her sensible hiking sandals. She asks a question in Italian and I don't understand, so she asks again—the time please—in slow, strong-consonanted English. I check my phone and wish her a good day and, as a farewell, she opens her arms and swings her head around to absorb the whole panorama—blue ocean, orange rock, white rubble trail, green brush. Palms to heaven, she shouts, "Che bella!" and continues down the path.
Back on the boat, we drop anchor where the water is deep and the color of treasure. All the little boys squirm and crowd to jump first. Skin peels off their backs in fist-sized spots. The skin underneath, newly exposed, is already pink. First, I try to climb backwards down the ladder and ease into the water, but one of the burly, dark-tanned men on the staff stops me. It's one way. Exit by diving. Enter by climbing up the ladder.
An instant later, I stand on the narrow edge facing nothing but a sheet of turquoise water. The boys watch, expectant, in a soggy line behind me, wishing I'd hurry up. I don't count to ten or contemplate or agonize. Maybe for the first time in my life. I just jump.
The boat drops us on another island, another pin-prick on the map surrounded by neon water.
Before I put my head down on the soft sand, I recite in my head,Do not fall asleep. If you fall asleep, the boat will leave without you and you will not be able to get back. The sand is bright as clouds and the breeze is a caress, blowing away the heat, and I am cool from the water and heavy-limbed from a day of swimming and walking, and I know myself too well. Do not fall asleep.
I wake up terrified under blaring afternoon sun, heart slamming out of my chest.
The boat left without me. I fell asleep. I cannot get back.
I had been dreaming about something good. Someone good. Even frantic and scared, I grasp at the edges of the dream, try to remember. A dream as blue and white and flawless as this cove. But it's gone.
Then I realize. My brain starts working again, thick and sleep-addled, sand in the gears.
It hasn't been that long. The boat is still there, bobbing in the waves against a cloudless sky.
And my phone is ringing. No one ever calls me because it's so expensive, and I call no one because it's so expensive. But it's ringing. And I am on a beach, in a hidden cove, on an outlying island of an archipelago, off an only slightly larger island, in the middle of the sea, a continent away from home.
I put a hand up to block the glare and tiny letters on the display say UNKOWN.
I do not answer. I have no idea what I would say.
The woman from the lighthouse path is on my boat. I am delighted and realize that I'm lonelier than I will admit even to myself.
"Such an incredible place," she says to me, and I'm not sure whether she's referring to the path to the lighthouse or... everything. The beaches. The people. The nation. The universe. It's time to eat. She offers me the empty seat beside her.
We work our way through enormous styrofoam plates of penne and mussels while the boat sways beneath us, anchored in the cove. I pick gingerly around the shrimp, which still have shells and heads.
She tells me about her daughter.
"She used to work here, and I would come visit. Now she doesn't work here anymore, and I still come visit," she says, with a smile.
We're quiet for a minute and then she says, "Did you see that we were the only ones who climbed up to the lighthouse? So simple to get there, but people don't want to move. They want to be still."
Finally, she says. "I was just thinking that you're very young and I'm very old."
"I'm not that young," I say.
"I'm 28," I say. "You?"
"I'm 70," she says with a smile.
And maybe it does not matter so much. We climbed the same cliff.