The other day Marcello persuaded me to photograph his new charter boat, a 30-foot white cabin cruiser, so he could update his website, brochure, and business cards. He said he couldn’t afford my usual rate, but perhaps I might be kind enough to accept a day-long round-the-island cruise, which would include lunch and plenty of liquid refreshment. He called early in the morning and said he was going to depart in about an hour with some tourists from America, so maybe I’d like to join them. “You’d actually be doing me a big favor,” he said, “since my English is not very good, and my dunce of a son can’t speak it either.”
Given my extremely low social needs I usually avoid groups. But for some reason I heard myself saying, “All right, I’ll be right down.” The three of us—Marcello, Vincenzo-the-dunce, and I—lounged in the cushioned seats aft and waited.
The first to come ambling down the quay in straw hats, sunglasses, shorts, sandals, and a dangling drug store camera were Kathryn and Howard, a retired couple from Ames, Iowa. And a few minutes later Molly and Susan from New York City appeared. Once the four were safely aboard we went through a flurry of introductions, hand shakes, and polite smiles all around. Clumsy Vincenzo finally managed to free the mooring lines, and we headed for the mouth of the harbor.
We began sizing each other up. Gray-haired Kathryn from Ames tried to disguise her disapproval of Molly’s shaven bald head, brazen forearm and bicep tattoos, and the stainless steel ring through her nose. Susan, a cute freckled red-haired Irish-looking lass, was clearly head over heels in love with Molly, and what’s more was wholly eager to show it. Howard was captivated by the spectacle of the young girls’ bouncing breasts and slim tanned legs, and of course Kathryn noticed and didn’t like it at all.
Marcello kept his eyes forward, one hand on the throttle and the other on the wheel, as we slowly exited the harbor. Vincenzo struggled to get the door to the storage compartment under the seats open, but it was stuck, so he threw our shoes and sandals into a corner.
“What’s that gray tower near the yellow church dome?” Howard asked, hand over his brow in a shielding salute.
“The torrone,” I said. “They built it—and five or six others—in the 16th century to defend against invading pirates. Later it was a prison. These days the lower floor is a gallery where local artists display their work, and the upper level is full of white stone sculptures.”
“So how come you know so much about this place?” Molly asked.
“I’ve lived here for nearly five years.”
“Are you married?” Kathryn asked.
“No, I live alone. Well, except for Pushi, a skinny calico cat who showed up mewing at my door last winter.”
“So you’re a soft touch for strays, eh?” Susan said.
“Not too long ago she peed on my bed,” I said. “I was tempted to stop feeding her.”
“Obviously she was angry at you for something.”
“I can’t imagine what. I’ve always given her exactly what she wants. Nowadays I keep the bedroom door closed when she comes inside to eat.”
“Where are you originally from?” Molly asked me.
“Manhattan. And you?”
“I lived on Riverside drive near 86th Street before I put all my stuff in storage to come here,” I said.
“Christ, what are the odds?” Molly said. “Our apartment is on West 83rd, between Broadway and Amsterdam.”
“My old neighborhood,” I said. “Not too far from Zabars.”
“Oh, yes, gotta love Zabar’s,” Susan said. “We go there all the time. Everything is always so fresh, especially the bagels.”
“Do you miss New York?” Molly asked.
I thought for a moment. “In a small way, yes. But this is my home now, and I have no intention of leaving.”
I turned to Kathryn and Howard. “Where in Iowa is Ames?”
“Exactly 30 miles north of Des Moines,” Howard replied.
“We were in New York for a couple of days before we came here,” his wife Kathryn said. “I’d never want to live in that crazy, noisy place.”
Marcello swung the boat southward, and we slowly passed a stone-encased promontory, on which rested the Moorish-style chapel of Soccorso. A tall slender-trunked palm tree stood like a sentinel at its front. I rose, steadied myself against the cabin, and pointed. They all turned and looked.
“Above that little white chapel’s main altar is a most unusual Madonna,” I said. “She stands triumphantly with a stout club raised above her head, her right foot trampling the vanquished Lucifer. The infant Jesus is cradled in her left arm, and beside her stands a boy of about five. There are lots of different interpretations as to who the little boy is.”
“You see one Italian church, and you’ve seen them all,” Molly said.
Susan laughed. “Stop it. That’s not nice.”
Kathryn was not amused. She turned away. Howard raised his plastic camera, clicked off one shot, and then with short pushes of his forefinger rolled the serrated film advance wheel until it stopped.
I sat down. Well, I thought, these folks can’t be much interested in my telling them above the side altar of the chapel are a dozen carved wooden angels perched on an arch, and the one at the very top holds aloft a large black cross. And I didn’t intend to share with them that this figure always reminds me of MY little angel, Maria.
In the first months of our relationship in New York she brought me a book full of color photographs of the island, and the chapel was among them. She said that Soccorso in Italian means succor, or solace. The words Pronto Soccorso are printed in reverse on the front of ambulances, and also on a big sign above the emergency room of the hospital in Lacco Ameno. As I looked at the bright colorful images, I told my little angel it would be in this place that we’d someday be married. Or, failing that, we would at least kneel side-by-side in the cool darkness and exchange private vows of eternal love and fidelity. She’d nodded. Yes. We could do that.
Molly nudged me in the ribs with her elbow. “Okay, Mr. tour guide, tell us some more about this place.”
“Yes, please do,” said Kathryn.
“All right, if you insist. We’re passing the beach of Citera, and up ahead is Punta Imperatore. Imperial point. I always see it as a massive Sphinx paw, its claws curling into the sea. That little white building, just below the top, is a lighthouse.”
I motioned toward the partly submerged rocks off the port side of the boat. “These rocks all have names, and stories as well,” I said. “For instance over there is pietra bianca and pietra nera. White rock, black rock. Eons ago they were a young couple deeply in love, trying to swim to the shore. But angry Jupiter turned them into stone. This sad tale represents destiny, or the hand of fate, from which no one escapes.”
“In other words, shit happens,” Kathryn said.
I laughed. “Or it could be that Jupiter gave the couple a precious gift.”
“How so?” Howard asked.
“They were frozen in place when their relationship was still fresh and exciting, before it had a chance to fade or to fall apart. The two lovers are bound forever in sweetness.”
“That’s an interesting way of looking at it,” Molly said.
“Oh, come on,” Susan said. “Who in hell wants to be a lifeless rock out in the ocean? I’d rather be moving around.”
“It’s a romantic allegory, sweetie,” Molly said.
“Shut UP,” Susan said.
Giacco emerged from the cabin, with a big green bottle of Pellegrino and white plastic cups. He put the bottle down on the deck, and pulled individual cups loose from the stack and handed them out to us, one by one. Then he unscrewed the bottle, and poured.
“Alla salute!” he said. We raised our cups in acknowledgement.
I got into a playful mood, don’t ask me why. “Now over there, at the base of the promontory is the Poseidon Spa. Near that site archeologists uncovered a white marble statue of Sappho, which they carbon dated to 500 BC.”
“Whoa,” Molly said, her right eyebrow arching way up. “What the hell do you know about Sappho?”
“Well, back then she was a poet as respected and admired as Homer. Plato actually called her the fifth muse. She was one of the first to write from the first person point of view, describing love and loss as it affected her personally.”
“Do you know her poetry?”
“Just a fragment or two.”
“Let’s hear one, then.”
I thought for a moment. Then I recited:
"Go, and be happy
but remember (you know
well) whom you leave
shackled by love…”
“Hey, I think I’d like to know more about this Sappho chick,” Susan said.
“Shut UP,” Molly said. Then she turned back to me. “And you say there was a statue of her over there near that beach?”
“Come on, spill the beans. I smell a rat here.”
“All right. It wasn’t Sappho but rather a representation of Cythera, the Roman goddess of love. From which the beach takes its present name.”
“You devil you,” Molly said.
Howard looked out at the horizon, off the starboard rail. “What’s that way out there?” he asked.
“Ventotene,” I replied. “It’s usually called the prison island because in 2 BC Emperor Augustus exiled his promiscuous daugher Giulia Agripinna there, and later Nero did the same to his wife.”
Giulia, I told the group, was confined to Pandateria, a large villa on the northern tip of the island, which was constructed of white marble and full of beautiful frescoes, luxurious thermal baths, and of course many servants as befitting a woman of her stature.
“Sounds like a lot of laughs,” Molly said.
“Apparently it was, since she got pregnant.”
“Yes. Augustus may have called her ‘the disease of my flesh,’ but she was a witty and intelligent woman loved by the people of Rome. The farmers and fishermen of Ventotene admired her as well and regularly brought her gifts of fruit, vegetables, fish, and meat. And she liked men. Lots of them.”
Kathryn and Howard went to the front of the boat, and reclined on the cushions on the deck. I sat down, leaned back, crossed my ankles, closed my eyes.
As we moved around Punta Imperatore the sea became choppy. The boat rocked roughly, port to starboard and back. I held onto the rail. The Ames couple looked pale. Molly and Susan kept their eyes on the looming cliffs, the layers of solidified lava. Here and there were white gulls, perched on outcroppings. Finally we arrived at the bay of Sorgeto.
Those who are the first to descend the steep stone steps to the beach arrange rocks in a ring to form a pool, which is constantly fed by a boiling thermal spring. You sit or lie in the middle where you feel heat on one side of your body and cool sea surges on the other. You look up through the faint wisps of rising steam at the sheer sedimentary cliffs far above.
You might prepare what they call pollo fumarole. At home you sprinkle salt, pepper and rosemary on a chicken. Wrap it up in several layers of thick foil. When you get there, put the package directly over the steaming rocks, let it sit for an hour and thirty minutes. A bottle of chablis will make it even better.
Then take a nap in the warm sun. You will have happy dreams.
The couple from Iowa are getting more and more uncomfortable. Kathryn leans over and vomits into the sea. Howard pats her on the back, as if that would cure her nausea. Howard speaks quietly to Marcello for a few moments.
“We’ve got to turn back,” Marcello announces.
Molly and Susan look disappointed.
“All right,” I said. “But why don’t you two join me in a swim to the beach? I’ll show you that fumerole. We’ll wait for Marcello to drop them off and then return. It won’t take long.”
Molly and Susan brightened.
“Hey, that’s a friggin’ GREAT idea!”
We dove off the side, began swimming in the choppy water.
The rocky beach was deserted. I learned later that they’d put up a barrier to the entrance of the steep staircase that descended from the top of the cliff. Beach closed. Falling rocks. PERICOLOSO!
“Be very careful,” I said. “Boiling water.”
We found a spot where the sea was comfortably warm, and reclined, each of us bobbing gently in the surge of waves. Molly on my left, Susan on my right. We dove into a long conversation about New York City, the crowds, the mobs in the subway, the constant flow of traffic, and here, the shock of this strange unearthly place. And then:
“Tell me, John,” Molly said. “What’s it feel like to be lying between two nearly naked lesbians? Isn’t this one of a guy’s favorite sexual fantasies?”
“Well, actually we’re not exactly lesbians,” Susan said. “We’re bi, both of us. And here we are. What do you say, cowboy? Are you game?”
Molly grinned. As if to say, yes, let’s see what this guy John says to that!
“I’d say, girls, that I’m flattered, truly, but I’ll have to pass.”
“Why?” Susan said. “That girlfriend of yours is in America doing God knows what, and here you are all alone, and nobody around. You’ll never see either of us again. So she’ll never know.”
“You love her that much?
“Let’s just say that I’d like to be able to say—truthfully—that I’ve never been unfaithful to her.”
“But come on. Be honest. You find us attractive, don’t you?”
“Absolutely. Very much.”
“And you aren’t going to do anything about that big bulge in your bathing suit?”
At that moment, just in time, I saw Marcello’s boat. Thank God!
“Time to go,” I said. I rose, dove into the waves. Oh, Lord!
Back on the boat, moving toward the fishing village of Sant Angelo, Giacco ties a length of nylon cord to a scuffed surfboard. Impossibly thin cord. It’ll never hold up, anyone can see that. But Marcello says nothing, he just watches with his hand on the boat’s wheel. Giacco’s fingers tremble as he tries to knot the cord.
He throws the surfboard over the side, and Susan leaps into the water. She grasps the board, and shouts that she’s ready. Marcello pushes the throttle. The boat moves forward and the line is pulled taut. Susan is pulled, cutting a frothy wake. She screams with delight. Then the line snaps.
What a bummer!
Marcello pulls the throttle back, and circles around. A look of utter disgust clouds his face. Giacco goes below, returns with a coil of bright yellow rope, about a half an inch thick. Why didn’t the fumbling dunce use that in the first place?
With the new rope secured, we try again. Susan is pulled violently through the choppy water, and she screams with delight. Then it’s Molly’s turn.