Hot summer nights: ‘I was alone on holiday, and this was my last night on the island …’
It was high summer on the Italian island of Procida, too hot but somehow still green, and I was eating dinner at a beachside cafe that spilled on to the black sand of the west-facing Spiaggia di Ciraccio.
I wasn’t supposed to be here. Ten days earlier, a long-building romance with a screenwriter from Milan had ended abruptly. It had begun when our knees touched in his car. Long emails full of agony and promise followed, made all the less real for jumping between English and Italian, but then stopped. A short trip to Naples to try things in a new context was cancelled. I was desperately sad, but had already booked my flight to Italy and, as it happened, a friend was staying on the island nearby. So, I tagged along.
We were staying on the top floor of a pink two-storey villa with white balconies; it looked like a cake. I slept in a bunk bed at the back and, each morning, woken by goats in our courtyard, we had black coffee and quartered peaches. I started to feel OK. Then, three days in, my friend, too, decided to leave. She had met a man, this time from Rome. He had a motorbike. She showed me a photo on her phone. That evening, she caught the ferry to the mainland and two men moved into the flat below mine.
I wasn’t surprised she had left; I was terrible company and the trip had already been a catalogue of errors. I had left my makeup bag in a cab. In Naples, I paid €22 for a meal because the restaurant charged by weight. On Procida, we spent every evening on a red-tiled rooftop cornered with yellow broom flowers, talking to kind people who didn’t want to hear the screenwriter story more than twice. We all drank hard and fast above the din of scooters, but I couldn’t get drunk. I felt too alone. After my friend left, I spent my remaining two days swimming around the two grey sea stacks that split the beach, eating pizza and rabbit, and removing the black sand that filled my shoes. Then I ran out of data on my phone.
There is nothing wrong with being abroad, alone. For a long stretch, whenever I felt a bit lost, I would go to Italy by myself. I spoke the language and knew the landscape, so it felt like home, even on my own. The trips in my 20s had been more successful: train-hopping along the Italian Riviera’s Cinque Terre; Naples (twice), Venice, Rome and Florence. Then I turned 30 and went to Milan, which landed me here. But it was my last night, so I wanted to make the most of it.
I returned to my beachside cafe, took the same table at the back and ordered rabbit, two beers and a limoncello. Afterwards, I rolled two cigarettes for something to do. It was quite late, but the idea of going back to the villa alone depressed me. Another drink. A swim, perhaps.
Just then, a hand appeared at my table, holding a lighter in the colours of the tricolore. I turned around to see one of the men from the flat below. He was about my age, slim and tanned, with either green or blue eyes – I couldn’t tell. He hovered for a moment then sat down. He told me he was from Rome and where he was staying. I pretended I didn’t know. I was surprised this was unfolding. I still hadn’t replaced my lost makeup and had a patch of sunburn like a birthmark on my collarbone. Still, I was buzzy from the limoncello, so I let it happen. We talked for about 10 minutes, mostly in Italian, and then he suggested we go back to the villa for a drink. He pointed towards a scooter parked outside. I agreed, because that is what you are meant to do, isn’t it?
On the back of the scooter, my heart was pounding violently. When we got to the gates of the villa, I climbed off and stepped back. I had changed my mind; I wanted to be alone. I told him I needed to walk, making a gesture with my finger about feeling dizzy, but that I would drop in later. His face fell, although not so much that it looked crass. Relieved at how easy it was, I walked up the road in the dark.
There was a walk I had read about online, which takes you east, over the crest of the island, through alleys without pavements, past orange trees and bougainvillea. Just before the Santa Margherita church, you can look down at the pastel-coloured Marina Corricella, shaped like a smile and, at night, lit up so well that it looks like a screensaver. I had my second cigarette here and began walking back. It was about midnight, the night mild and starry.
Outside the villa, I saw his lights were still on. I crept through the courtyard, past the goats and went upstairs – alone, but fine with that. The next morning, I slipped out, and walked to the port to wait for my ferry back to Naples.