You Never Know Just How You Look in Other People’s Eyes

train passenger
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Nicole Walker

There are several ways to get to Siena, Italy. For Erik and me, to get out of Lecce, a town notched in the heel of the boot of Italy, and into Siena, where, if these boots had laces, you would tie the knot, we had to take a car, then a train, then a taxi, then a plane, and then another train and then walk straight up hill to the medieval city that is like Florence if Florence had not become heart-of-the-Renaissance-Florence. We took our first train from Lecce, through Brindisi, to Bari.

We are competent train takers. We take the subway when we’re in New York. We know you can sit forward or backward. We don’t get motion sickness. We can walk up and down the aisle. We know it is not like a car or a plane, but, admittedly, even though the Burlington Northern and Amtrak make us wait at the crossing in our Flagstaff hometown twice a day, we know trains as occasions, not everyday transportations.

The train from Lecce into Bari was late. We got into the cab to head to the airport. I told the driver, “We are late,” in whatever pretend Italian I knew then and have since forgotten. We were blond and carrying rolly suitcases. In Lecce, no one pretended to know English like I pretended to know Italian. But in Bari, the cab driver pretended to understand. Maybe I showed him the plane ticket. It was 11:40. Our flight left at 12:15. The train station is nowhere near the airport. I know he understood me because he spoke the international language of late-for-the-airport. He drove on the sidewalk. He took a left in a lane marked “right turns only.” His tires scraped curb. He stepped on the accelerator to speed around a bus to turn in front of it, bus honking, breaks squealing.

Now might have been a good time to tell the cab driver I was pregnant. Being pregnant shifts your perspective. Suddenly, your life, as protector of fetus, becomes much more precious, even if it’s a pregnancy you’re ambivalent about—it’s hard to be pregnant in wine country. Unlike normal times, making the plane on time seemed less important than surviving the cab-ride. But I did not know the word for pregnant and, although my perspective had shifted slightly, I didn’t want to bug the driver who was concentrating very hard to make a third lane for the taxi-cab where two lanes only existed.

•••

We thought we missed our flight. But then we read the arrivals and departures wrong. We had time to make it to the gate where we had prepaid for assigned seats. In Europe, people who fly Ryan Air rush like Barian cab drivers across the tarmac, suit coats flying, hand holding hat, to get their seats. Erik and I fly in America where our seats are assigned, and we board as soon as possible because sitting in a too-small seat ensures on on-time departure. In Bari, I walked to my seat like a pretend-calm person even though I did not understand why there were two staircases leading up to one airplane. The flight attendants had opened the back door of the plane to let us board. I did not know planes had back doors although I did know, thanks to my desperate attempt to keep the plane from crashing by listening attentively to the safety speech at the beginning of every flight that “the nearest exit may be behind you.” That an exit can also be an entrance is a very European idea.

After that, easy peasy, as Max, who was then only a two-month-old fetus, would say as a five-year-old now. He lived. We lived. The flight. The cab ride. I did not know how dangerous knowing only iPod Italian might be. When we arrived in Siena, our host spoke English. The knot that had been in my stomach, squishing fetus Max, unwound. I would give anything for a host for forever, someone to take me to a foreign country, find the airport on time, speak Italian to the taxi driver, explain why Americans don’t use two staircases to board the airplane from the front and the back.

•••

It’s impossible to know how high the seas will rise. Maybe they won’t rise much at all. Maybe whale poop will sequester the carbon. Maybe the mushrooms will. But some maps predict a bleaker future. In Grist Magazine, Greg Hansom describes pictures of sunken cities, newly named reliefs like Sea of San Diego and Archipelago of Bainbridge. San Joaquin Peninsula is all that’s left of Orange County. The coast we know now probably won’t disappear in our lifetime but in the next or the next or maybe sooner if the coal keeps burning and the cars keep driving.

I say “the cars” and “the coal” as if I am not sitting in a house, typing on a coal-burning laptop as the heater kicks on and pours naturally gassed heat upon me. As if the “the” means I won’t drive my Honda CRV to pick up my kids from school. Another article in the same magazine claimed that it’s liberals as much as Republicans who are the problem. We blame them for denying what we believe is there. But somebody else’s denial is necessary for us to believe that we liberals are doing the right thing, which is a whole lot of nothing. Nobody wants to be blamed for the Santa Monica pier falling into the ocean, but no one also wants to turn the heat down to fifty-five degrees in the winter or the air-conditioning to eighty in the summer. Heck, I have a dream to drive Route 66 all the way from Santa Monica to Chicago, Illinois. I wish I’d driven my car to Italy. Cars are a host country, like a planet. Every gum wrapper and seat print is our own. Our dreams are our cars. They take us out of here without it having to feel the pain of the unfamiliar. But, as the seas rise, perhaps we should get familiar with the boat.

•••

In Siena, the Palio happens twice a summer. Around the Piazza del Campo, horses race. Men, called Camparsa, in medieval outfits parade flags from their district through the streets toward the piazza. The streets, lined with nearly black cobblestones, are bordered by tall, connected houses from the 1300s, red flags, black stone, a Duomo, the Siena Cathedral.

The food in Siena was not the food of Puglia, which was dominated by broccoli rabe and orchiette, a whole-grain pasta. Siena had pizza. It had gelato. It had the food of the American Italian Vacation and it had wine I couldn’t drink. Like a proper tourist, I bought a scarf for ten euros. Like a tourist full of regrets, I should have bought a hundred. We stayed in a hotel that overlooked a garden. The piazza formed a circle where, during the parade, the horses rode around and the centuries swirled around and everything was stone which is how you make a city last—make it stone, make it circular to keep the art inside and the pillagers out. You keep the Renaissance at bay by keeping Florence down the street. You keep nature managed by turning it into a vineyard called Tuscany. Italy is a land of circles made by square painting frames and plots of grape and tomato vines. In Siena, you can’t see far because of the tall houses and the circling streets. It is easy to get lost although most of the time, the Duomo is in sight but the middle of the Duomo too is round and so if you end up on the wrong side of it, you might never know.

And I didn’t know, when we were on our way back to Lecce, to return to Zoe, the already-born kid, who was being watched by her attentive but window-opening grandparents who didn’t know about the Vape that you plug into the wall and emits some mosquito death vapor—and who could know of them? They, like we, are from the United States where we have DEET but no Vapes and so invited a thousand or so mosquitoes into their cottage to feast upon our already barely-alive daughter. She wasn’t really barely alive, but she had the Bad Lungs and the RSV and the inhaler broke the minute we plugged it into the wrong wall adapter. We adapt less well to the foreign world. We have made mistakes. We repeat them. Mosquitoes can sting more than once.

•••

The mosquitoes are getting worse. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that mosquito-borne diseases are already spreading more rapidly. In the regular times, like the eighties, at seven-thousand feet elevation, people are safe from mosquitoes carrying Dengue Fever. Dengue-fever-carrying mosquitoes once didn’t travel higher than 3,200 feet. But it’s getting warm up here. Mosquitoes don’t suffer from altitude sickness, just the cold. Which it is not. Not even in December. Scientific American, in a September 27, 2013 article notes that incidences of Chikungunya, a disease carried by the Tiger mosquito, which causes high fevers and rashes, is on the rise in Western Europe. Zanahoria, Italian for mosquito, was a word we all knew when we left Italy. Chikungunya is a word we do not know but maybe experienced that long night in Lecce when Zoe couldn’t sleep.

•••

Erik and I wouldn’t be late for the plane this time. We made it to the Siena train station early. I read the schedule. Or, I tried to read the schedule. Pisa CSE, Pisa Centrale. Trenitalia. One stop in Empoli. Isn’t there a nonstop?

Erik and I peered through the glass, the train schedule old and blurry. Our phones didn’t work then, in Italy. The computer, as the nebulizer adapter died when we plugged it in, died on the plane in from Rome. If it were 1960 and Erik and I were on the platform, perhaps then things would have made more sense. We would have studied the book harder, not being so lulled into submission by easy info access on our smartish phones. We would have taken trains more often, understanding that Centrale and One Stop were the same idea. Perhaps, in the 1960s, when the mosquitoes were happy at 3,200 feet and San Diego was confident of its shores, we would have been more versed in chivalry. Perhaps it would have been a time when Erik understood One Stop and Centrale to be the same destination, I would have trusted him. Perhaps if all our verses had been written in 1960s chivalry, he would have waited for me while I was in the bathroom instead of getting on the train without me. Perhaps I would have trusted him and his new British friends as they all waved to me to get on the damn train. Perhaps my 1960-self would have been more credulous. Of course Erik made new British friends and boarded a train without me. If only we could go back in time and then, again, in time, because it keeps coming, time, perhaps I would have jumped on that train, full of belief and trust in trains I did not know and toward the only Pisa that could have been waiting for me.

•••

We use the word “believe” when we talk about climate change. Fox News doesn’t believe it. Members of the National Resources Defense Council do believe it. Readers of Scientific American mostly believe it. Belief is the word you use when you cannot be sure about the future. And the scientists aren’t sure how high the mosquitoes will fly. They aren’t sure how high the oceans will rise. Belief, though, whether you do it or not, only worries about the future. When you believe in God, you pray to him to make good things happen. When you believe in climate change, you believe that maybe good things don’t. One of my mentors believes science will save us—big carbon scrubbers in the sky. How is hope different than belief?

•••

Instead, I did not get on the train. Erik did not get off the train. I stood on the platform as the train pulled away. Erik stared at me through the train window. Incredulity is another word for stubborn. I sat down on the concrete platform, underneath the schedule that predicted when Erik would come back. I’d figured out the train schedule by then but not my husband. I figured out that he might have been right about all trains leading to Pisa but that didn’t necessarily make me wrong. I waited as one train came back. Two trains. Three trains. He was not on any of them. I figured out that maybe sometimes it’s important to just go with the person you are with rather than let your butt get cold on the concrete platform of the Tranitalia Empoli station. Longing is another word for not knowing what to do next.

•••

If I had a house on the Olympic Peninsula, built fifty feet behind the neighbor’s property, which reaches out to the shore of the Puget Sound, how long would I have to wait until I could claim millionaire status for my now-ocean front property? When the water swallowed the neighbor’s strangely-suburban lawn? When the water lapped at my neighbor’s duck-dotted welcome mat? When the country duck hanging as a welcome sign is as wet as the doormat? When the roof of my neighbor’s house makes a nice fishing dock? You are silly to think oceanfront property will mean anything when you have to stay indoors to keep the mosquitoes from injecting their malarial parasite near the now-warm waters of the Puget Sound.

•••

Eventually, I got on a train to Pisa. Eventually, Erik came back. Our trains must have passed each other. When I got to Pisa, he wasn’t there. I went back to Empoli. He wasn’t there either.

•••

The seas have risen far enough to turn Queen Anne into an island at least once before, Jurassicly. They can do it again. Of course, the pretend house I built on the Sound will be under water by then, but, then, the sea doesn’t mind the taste of human constructs.

•••

Finally, our flight back to Bari, back to our mosquito-ridden daughter, back to our flight back to Rome that would get us out of Italy nearly departing, I rode the train back to Pisa. I had the plane tickets. He had to be there. And he was. He stood at the edge of the platform. If this had been a movie, I would have run to him. He would have run to me. Open arms.

•••

I am a good swimmer. If not a good reader of schedules or husbands. I am ready for you, warm waters of the Puget Sound. I know it would be too much to ask for you, dear ocean, to leave me any oysters.

•••

But this is not a movie. His arms are folded. Crossed. I’m so happy to see him. My heart thrills. I am home. But still. I cannot believe that he left me behind.

He says, “I cannot believe you.”

Which I take to mean, I cannot believe in you.

But I say, “You can’t believe me? I can’t believe you!”

I touch my arms. My hair. I am here.

“You’re the one that left me,” I say.

“You never trust me,” he says.

“I’m the one who speaks Italian,” I say.

“You cannot read a map,” he says.

“I came to you. Twice.” I say.

“I went back for you,” he says.

We each folded our arms because no one wants to believe they misunderstood a schedule, a wave, a bathroom break, a pregnancy, a train-trip to somewhere so beautiful so badly. If this were an O’Henry story, this would have been a love story. But this is not O’Henry. Erik was raised by a single-mom who did everything by herself—made peanut butter and jellies, went to work, paid the mortgage, bought a car, hiked in the desert, took the kids to the dentist, mopped the floors. He doesn’t believe that just because I had to pee, just because I was pregnant, just because I wanted to be convinced by the signage, that I shouldn’t have just gotten it together, got on the next train, and met him in Pisa. A feminist is the guy who figures his wife will figure it out. His mom could have done it herself. And, on my side, I don’t believe I should have just trusted him, just gotten on the train just because he said so, without even talking to me. I’m a feminist who doesn’t believe anybody should tell me what to do, even if that means I wait on the platform for two hours to be rescued by some chivalrous husband who does not believe in chivalry. Two stubborn faces staring through the window. There’s no way to know how to go back. I sing a version of the Charlie on the MTA song,

Did he ever return, no he never returned 
And his fate is still unlearned
He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Pisa
He’s the man who never returned. 

Erik doesn’t laugh. And then he does.

•••

You can know a few things. You can know this: No one is going to rescue us. We are going to miss our flight from Pisa to Bari. We are going to miss seeing our kid, with her mosquito bites, harboring a virus we cannot pronounce. We are going to spend the rest of our lives passing our traveling companions on the train from Pisa to Empoli, from Empoli to Pisa. But we won’t know what it feels like until we open the windows and actually touch the water. Until then, all we will see is our warped faces, reflected back at us. Duck decorations can’t swim. I should have believed Erik instead of staying put and hoping he’d come back to save me.

They say with time, you look back and laugh. For Erik, that’s not so long. For the island of San Diego, it’s too soon to know.

•••

NICOLE WALKER’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg  (Barrow Street 2010) and edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloomsbury, 2013) and with Rebecca Campbell—7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts, she’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University where she will host the 2015 NonfictioNOW Conference in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.

Read more FGP essays by Nicole Walker.

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10 thoughts on “You Never Know Just How You Look in Other People’s Eyes

  1. Wow, I am in greece right now reading this, and I understand it all too well. I just spent two days calling verizon global to figure out why our phones won’t work, despite the two hours I spent with them before leaving the US. And went to Siena a few years ago == and oh, your descriptions of it all are so spot on! I, too, sunk into delirium when our hotel host could speak perfect english, making it all right. (Greece is another story!) 30 years ago my husband and I did just those same train trips, Brindisi, Bari, Siena, Rome. The timetables are impossible. We had a friend in Rome who, after driving over medians and the wrong way down one way streets (“a minor infraction” he kept saying, with a laugh) he parked on the sidewalk and when we got to the ticket office and he marched to the front of the line and began yelling at the ticket agent in loud rapid italian. Yelling and yelling, then turns to us and says, calmly: “here’s your ticket, I’ll put you on a bus to the airport.” We made the plane. Great essay! It sends me back.

  2. I don’t even know where to begin. You had me with the boot and where one ties the laces. You kept me through the back and forth from Italy to my fossil fuel guzzling laptop and AC (which is set too low right now). And then the train station and the husband and the feminist and taking a stand. Simply gorgeous. On good days, I get up and believe, yeah, I can write, I can do this. Then I read stuff like this and think holy jesus I’m out of my league. Brilliantly brilliantly done. Bravo!

  3. Why do I love this piece? Because “Jurassicly,” and all the levels of voice and tone and content that go with it. Thanks for this, Nicole – and Jennifer!

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