by Emma Petersen
I’d become accustomed to his ability to roll a cigarette and drive at the same time, but this time, I watched him with a certain awe. I remember the moment like the flash of a camera that burns into your eyes. We were the only car on those barren roads at 4:00 in the morning. Roberto, my host father, sits almost silent in the driver’s seat next to me. The only sound he makes is a short grunt as he licks his cigarette paper to secure the tight roll. I watched the slight roll drift slowly from his right hand to his left. He always smoked with his left hand when we were in the car so the smoke never stuck to my clothes, but I knew he preferred to smoke with his right hand. My host father was the greatest tour guide I’d had in my entire time on the island of Sicily, and I had taken nearly every important tour of every building in Catania. Roberto always spoke to me in Italian, not because he was unable to speak English, in fact he spoke over 7 languages close to fluently. When I arrived at the Di Giunta home, I asked to be spoken to in English only for emergency. What better way to learn a language, right? However, Italians liked to show off whenever possible, and so when they meet an American it is common to speak in proper English in order to display your knowledge base and fluency. I rarely got to have conversations in the native language because of this, except with Roberto. He was the one of the two people who spoke in Italian first, and translated if I needed it. Nobody can truly be themselves in another language, and I wanted to meet everybody as they were. Roberto was a business man, and he dressed like one: tight fitting suits, designer shoes, oil slick hair. He never said what he truly did for a living, all he’d say was “I work in business with a lot of people around the world.” It seemed rehearsed and almost robotic when he said it. I ended up creating the fantasy of him working with the Mafia, and I never heard him deny it. He’d just shake his head so that the thick black locks on top of his head would graze his brow, which he quickly slicked back with the comb which was always at the ready in his back pocket. I had become enthralled with watching the smoke trail out the window as the man I had come to call Papa exhaled, that I hadn’t even noticed the Jeep stop.
“Attendere per Mario”, he said under his breath.
I inhaled his words alongside his second hand trail. The words burned far worse, and deeper than the smoke ever could.
Mario lived on my favorite street in the entire town of Catania, it led to everywhere. I stepped out onto the cold bricks made of black volcanic rock, my own personal wonderland. I had walked this street up and down at least 100 times, but this time my heart throbbed at the sight. There was a lump in my already dry throat as I glanced down the road and saw the gelato shop that I went to almost every afternoon that summer. However, when I looked at it this time I didn’t see bright colors and familiar faces, instead I saw a closed and lonely store lit only by a dim street light 10 feet away.
I am hauled out of my focus when Mario comes down to the street and greets me with the usual “Ciao, Beddo!” and a kiss on each cheek. I responded with a fleeting kiss in return.
We’re back on the road which means that any moisture left in my throat travels instead to my eyes. I will not cry, I promised myself. I remember passing Alberto’s house in a quick blur. Alberto’s first words to me were “Welcome to the jungle, baby.” After he leaned in for what looked to everybody else like a customary kiss on the cheek, but only he and I know that he’d leaned a bit too far to the left and quickly stole a kiss.
I’ve never met anybody quite so American as Alberto, he knew every word to every Axl Rose, Stephen Tyler, and Ozzy Osborne song. He always talked about is dream of shipping off to America. It was impossible for him to get more than five sentences out without at least one lyric slipping into the conversation.
“I could go home with you, and finally see America!” He was hopelessly romantic for a seventeen year old, but then again, I suppose Italians are inherently so. Alberto insisted on being called Albert because it felt more American, but I always called him Berto just to see the corner of his mouth curl up like the end of a wave settling into shore. He hated it, but never forced me to stop.
I had just told Berto goodbye the night before. We drove through Catania listening to Gun’s and Roses at a volume so loud our ears should have bled. Afterwards, we went to the beach behind our favorite club, and ate burgers while talking about nothing, and if you’ve ever been to a Sicilian beach at midnight then you’d know just how possible it is to get so caught up in the nothingness of your life. When we finished eating we must have walked half a mile down the shore. We re-set up our makeshift picnic brought out some beers, and listened to the waves lap late into the night. We talked about how it might feel to be thousands of miles apart after becoming so close. We talked about how he wanted to go and how badly I wanted to stay.
When I think back, I remember how little I truly got to do. The exchange program came with copious amounts of restrictions. “No leaving your designated town without permission from your region chair, no drinking, no dating, no driving, never be out of the house without a host family member.” I could go on and on forever with my recitation of the rules. I memorized them. I’ve always followed the rules set before me, but it wasn’t until I met my new, Sicilian self that I wanted to break them.
I set my own rules so I didn’t get out of hand: always stay with somebody I know, no hard liquor after midnight, keep my phone on at all times. I realized that this could be my only chance to figure out who I am inside.
“Travel broadens the mind” my parents told me, “Just go and have a blast, this is your chance.” I took a leap of faith right off a cliff and into the salty sea water of the Mediterranean, and we I touched the water for the first time I realized that they were right.
I flashed back to my current reality of Mario and Roberto chattering on in Italian. I caught flakes of the conversation of the conversation, but ultimately wasn’t listening. I was focused on trying not to feel. I would never look at home the same again. My heart belonged to two places, and I could never fully belong to once place again. My family was split between two groups of people that didn’t know each other, and their only connection was me.
Suddenly my heart bolted up to the peak of my throat and I realized that I could never stay home because my home was split in half and each half lived on a different side of the world. I could never be content in just one place.