My Hunger and a Surfeit of Life

from La Piscina
from La Piscina

Back then I was always hungry but never could eat quite enough. My life felt this way, over-full of richness yet still ravenous. You might say I was piloted through days and nights by hunger, by the insistence of it, and the baffling measures needed to find the right amount of satiation. Some people know how to navigate all sorts of hungers without worry. They find their destination via set rules and plot a trajectory along stalwart lines and through a captivating geography of internal and external mapping. How reassuring that must be.

I have found my way by a fumbling instinct. I do at times wish for maps of all sorts.

My older brother, Stefan, and I traveled with our parents more than we had expected. We stayed in tiny or enchanting rooms, got confused in multiple countries and alleys, ate at places guidebooks wouldn’t note. But what did I know? I had trust still, at the first. My parents had the nerve to forge ahead and why wouldn’t an adolescent daughter expect things to go well enough? We had become globe trotters by default–we did it and we kept doing it.

Stefan thought he was an authority long before he actually understood much and boasted of his insights: our parents were rootless due to too much money; the kind of work that had left disgruntlement; the right DNA (which mystified me–was there DNA of rootlessness? of an intelligence peppered with rebellion?) but I knew better. It was simple: they had opted out of ordinary life. If one was deeply hungry for more, there was always something else to be discovered and absorbed. Travel was a good way to do that and they could teach us a few things we wouldn’t get in a regular school.

One of the nights when we sat under piercing white stars in Tuscany, during my seventeenth birthday, I told Mom, “Whatever room is left in me–and it’s a lot–needs occupying. I can’t think by just what, though. It’s like I am always needing the last bit of space taken up, like blank spots aren’t bearable. But there is also so much that I feel like I’m going to burst…”

She nodded, a goblet of wine cupped with her birdlike hands. “You really can find all good fruits along the road. Sample, move on, sample more, the right urge will guide you. Trust the road before you, Celia, my dear.”

My father chortled as if she had told an old joke, then smiled benignly at us, his tiny kingdom gathered about. I felt affection rise up. He wrote and published more now and he was happier than when he taught world history at the community college. He got to live his interests every day.

Mom’s eyes sparked when she talked like that, as if she was a poet with the fire of a mystic. There had been a shift from a literal to more figurative view. She was a very good chemist who had fled a dull lab job after a startling inheritance from a great-aunt. That was three years ago. No one had believed she would up and leave with family in tow.

My mother was someone I loved from a distance. I was busy trying to not to be like her. She was brainy, even inventive. Quick to note the wrongs of the world. She could be fun at times. I never thought she was impulsive. That was more like Dad, a born romantic despite his denial. A lover of antiquity and serendipity. Anyway, they made a quick decision, off we went, and our house became a rental property. No one looked back but me.

They had never liked life in Indiana and the memory of pretending to spurred them to travel longer and longer. Stefan thought he was the luckiest eighteen year old alive. I thought how home was supposed to be where your heart was, yet mine was a kite bouncing about in various parts of the sky. I reeled it in each stop we made for more than a couple of weeks. Then let it go, followed the tugs. I liked our weird bohemian life despite being confused by no clear directions for living it.

Today I looked at a picture from the summer of my seventeenth year. The occasion required it, a lecture I was going to attend. I held the picture close, studied Stefan in the print, snoring in the middle. Antonio at the end. Me huddled at the other side, trying to vanish. Mom took it. It was the summer of much less eating, more sun and water, more lingering. We had remained in Praiano on the Amalfi coast for three months.

That sunbathing day Stefan said out of the blue, “If we put down roots again we’d be boring. No one would know what to say to us and we’d lose our minds.”

I rolled over, stealing a look at Antonio. “Then why do you talk about returning to the States? Like you wish it would happen?”

His eyelids flickered and he scratched his chest. “I miss playing basketball and baseball at the park. Remember it? Hamburgers with white buns, dill pickles, onions and sloppy stuff. But not too badly.”

Antonio pushed himself up on an elbow. “Celia, what about you?”

“Sometimes I do miss having a real house of our own. And Lexie, our dog…she was given to our neighbor. And my blue and cream room.”

He smiled at me in a way that said he was glad I was at a house in Indiana. He, however, was going to my country. He was to enter Boston University the following year. His only uncle lived there, he owned some leather goods stores. Antonio would stay with him and study music and anthropology or international finance.

Antonio  liked to sing, his voice melodious and loud. I could listen longer than Stefan. My eyes memorized the contours of his face and length and felt he would be important one day. He had a hunger he would find out how to fill and it would lodge his name in people’s minds. Antonio Marcello. Like it was in mine already.

I ached, head to stomach to feet all summer. I felt his presence like the balm of coastal light one day, the sting of a bee the next. Being near him made me lazy and empty while my skin gave off a fragrance of sea water and wildflowers. He told me that once as we sat on a stone fence above the town, watching the horizon. His shoulder contacted mine. Vertigo threatened but nothing else happened.

I nibbled on bread, olives, cheese when the three of us–sometimes others–gathered at a cafe and talked of nothing but happiness, how to capture it, keep it, live inside it. How to stay forever young. He laughed easily as breathing, fed me pieces of chocolate amaretti cake, his fingers grazing my lips. Antonio’s eyes were two moon shadows, the light glowing inside the deep brown, obscuring my own vision with wild images of love. It didn’t seem as though he knew, or if he did, it meant little that I was charmed. I began to avoid him, walking and swimming long and reading alone. Stefan left me to my ways. They played day and night, roamed like unfettered creatures along the shore and rocky headlands. I crept high along ancient rocks, dove deep, deeper into the wily sea. The chronic emptiness had been filled with Antonio’s smooth, tanned skin though I had not come too close to it; by his voice, resonant and lilting as he joked around or sang; by his eyes, which stayed the rocking of my anxious self with one warmly teasing glance.

I felt ruled by appetites both sensual and intellectual. How is hunger defined? A lack of satisfaction, the hollowness of want, a dull pain that is tamped down by something good or at least filling. A driving need of sustenance. Perhaps the real remedy is in the seeking of nourishment. The work of it settles matters. I slept sporadically at odd hours, ate but felt bottomless, wore myself out learning the land and sea, sought talk with townspeople to improve my understanding of many things. My senses were on high alert in wind, sun and moon, water and earth. The salt clung to me as if I was meant to be there. It was a dream life, one any girl my age would love to live. How could I leave a place so exceptional? But I was pulled by other needs.

Had we found the place to stop or were we heading out soon? My family had tramped across continents as if in search of the last outpost, the one true home. I finally asked my parents when we would return to the States. To Indiana.

“Why? Why now?” My father had just gotten news of a short essay published in a good newspaper.

My mother was darning a hole in her pale blue sweater but looked at me sideways.

I breathed in the scents of oranges and deep ruby wine. Through the living area windows the enormous ocean winked at all. Fishing boats were specks on its undulating surface.

I came back to her eyes. “I am starting to wonder what it is to see only dry land. To watch oak and maple trees turn color, lose their leaves and grow new greenery. To sit in a classroom again, learn with friends rather than being home schooled.”

“We can go inland; we were just talking about moving on. Maybe Germany for awhile again…” Dad sought me with his laser look.

Mother put the sweater down. “It’s something more. You’re restless for something. Ah…is it that boy?”

I turned away from them both. Would they never want to go back, then? Would I stay caught between stupid love and other longings? Here and there? Up and down like a yo-yo?

“Of course, that Antonio, he’s darling, Celia. He’ll do well at Boston University, he’ll be there in two months, not here…does he like you?”

Dad shook his head as if this was territory he could not reckon with and took up his book.

“Dad, don’t you ever miss teaching?”

He put the book down, surprised, forehead wrinkling. There were so many lines there, a graph of life lived with pondering as a main activity, and the beating sun setting darkened furrows.

“Of course I do. Just…not in Indianapolis, Indiana.” But he looked almost doubtful. “Do you really want to go back? Everything would be… too different. We are now so different, don’t you agree?”

“Thank goodness,” Mother murmured and continued with her darning. “Celia, give the boy a reason to pay more attention. Talk to him; I know you’re being shy. And you could eat better, they all love to eat here.”

I left the villa and climbed a long, grueling half hour, up the winding path to the top of a hill. Stretching my arms out I felt as well as saw the panorama. It held an alien gorgeousness. The vastness might look conquerable from that rocky perch but I was only passing through. It was too much, the world at large, a smorgasbord where you never knew how much to take of what, your plate towering with things, your mouth watering but your eyes bigger than your stomach. I was tired of all the options, the endless wonders. I wanted to feel more ordinary, think less of the riddles of life.

Before long my father started to speak of leaving for the States. My mother blamed me for rousing his memory of only the good points, as if I was conspiring against her with my homesickness. She got moody, cried some as they debated the merits of being wayfarers versus being homebodies. Dad won out; it was time for us kids to settle again, and for them to stop. Regroup.

Stefan was amenable either way, it turned out. He had thought some of college since meeting Antonio but he had come to feel at home with few constraints. He had become stronger, muscled; he turned heads all the time. He was nearly fluent in Italian and German.  But I was still the same, I told him the week before we were to leave. It seemed as if I was the one less improved by all that we had experienced.

“Are you kidding? I’d agree just to bug you but in fact you are quite different,” he said. “Oh, I don’t mean obvious things.” He looked down. “Though Antonio says you are soon to be ‘ravishing’… No, I mean you’re a lot smarter than I imagined. Aw now, wait–it’s like your mind has ripened and everything you feel or say is more interesting, your ideas more complicated. I see how much you take in, wonder over like Dad, but you have Mom’s way of making your way with new people no matter where we are. People are drawn to you. I’d say you’re better than before, too.”

He stopped to throw a rock into the vibrant blue water. We watched it sink a little, then disappear.

“I didn’t know you had such thoughts about me,” I said. “I can say you’re more confident, You can learn languages so easily! You always enjoy forging a new path, finding adventure. You seem fearless to me, Stefan, like nothing can deter you. You don’t feel lost in the world, it seems.”

“Nice. Not all necessarily true but very nice.”

We moved closer to the water so our feet found the water’s edge. Each wave greeted toes, then receded. It was good to sit with my brother at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, thinking over the times we had spent in breathtaking or simple or unusual places. I was saturated with the time away from Indiana. It felt as if I could be wrung out and then people might see patterns, colors and textures come to the fore as I dried out. Things that had never been there before, transforming moments that might not be understood for years to come.

Stefan pushed me into the sea but I rose right up and got him back. We swam a long way, our bodies lithe and shining like vessels captured by the water’s mysterious pull, its beauty a power we accepted, felt in our veins.

Antonio was waiting when we returned to the shore. He put his arms around me, hugged me, told me he hoped one day we would meet again. So I kissed him and he responded and everything I had hoped felt true, even if only a moment’s worth of truth. It was just enough to last me a long while.

The three of us joined my parents for a meal and I ate. I ate as if I had not tasted such marvelous food in years. Every bite was a revelation. My eyes rested on Antonio and my heart felt fed, too.

Now, tonight, I am sitting in a large auditorium in Chicago. It has been fifteen years. I am the well known editor of an arts magazine. Two years divorced; one child, a young daughter. Prone to working too late not far from this place. I am riveted by the person on stage. Antonio is taller and darker than I expected and he is leaning into the lectern, enthusiasm for his topic spilling over into an attentive crowd. He is telling the audience how he ended up becoming a ethnomusicologist. That he believes music tells the truth, the critical stories, and he wants no one’s music to be lost or kept silent or to be misrepresented. He travels a lot, the kid from Praiano, Italy who got lucky. Antonio is animated with an ardor for his field and his mission to share what he’s learned. I give in to his words and vision and time floats by. Music plays and I am carried by each idiosyncratic note, how they create a wholeness of song.

Afterwards when he signs copies of his book, my body doesn’t want to move along in the noisy line, to take itself to where he sits, a smile readied as his pen is set upon a blank page. I force my feet to take small shuffling steps until I am third in line. It is too much, the past colliding with the present, his life, my life. I step away and glance at him and he looks up, just catches my eye. Frowns. I pause to smile, then rush through the front doors, onto the sidewalk where glaring lights and honking cars and congested sidewalks conspire to steal my breath and rattle my mind. I am starving, my stomach clutching my ribs. There is a coffee shop nearby, I will find it, drink a strong cup and gather my wits before I pick up dinner to take home. Antonio, in Chicago! It is too crazy and wonderful to grasp.

But the chilled wind is pushing against me, enough that getting my footing isn’t so easy as people rush by. Someone grabs my shoulder and I pull away.

“Scusami, is it really you Celia?”

When I turn around, Antonio is there. Praino is there. That time of wonders unfolds in his beautiful, craggy features, in his vibrant voice, in my spoken name.

“Yes,” I answer. “Want to share a decent Italian dinner with my daughter and me?” and his laughter is a relief, a cascade of delights as we enfold each other inside no small joy. At last.

 

15 thoughts on “My Hunger and a Surfeit of Life

  1. The story sounds like a life I dreamed long ago only in more brilliant, specific detail than I could have imagined in my life; travel, family, embracing every molecule of life, adventure, even Antonio (thought I never named him). Had I also inherited I could read your stories all day, every day!

    1. Well, it IS a life dreamed, after all, isn’t it–fiction being full of all we imagine as well as sense and know or want to know…but the “embracing every molecule of life” is actual… Of course it is, or you would not have replied in such a manner! And I thank you, Roo’s Ruse. I am so happy my small stories have found you!

  2. Cynthia, this story seems so richly detailed and real. You captured the intoxicating first love and the ache. Indiana to Italy and back. So msny years later and still Antonio. Ooh, so wonderfully told! Smiles, Robin

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