I’m sitting on the beach with my mother’s cousin and we’re watching the waves rush towards the shore; rush away from the shore; rush towards the shore; rush away from the shore. My toes are in the sand and I smell salt rising from the sea; sunscreen rising from my skin. It’s almost sunset, but the sky is still light and in the distance, a group of young men is fishing at the water’s edge. They cast their reels into the waves. They shake them in anticipation. They draw back empty hooks.
“You know,” says my mother’s cousin. “Summer season will be over soon.”
“Yes,” I say.
“I’m going back to Rome this week. All the other tourists will be leaving, too.”
“I suppose they will.”
“This part of town will be empty and sad. You’re on the outskirts, you know. It’ll just get worse in the winter – gray and cold and isolated. Only the locals will be left, and they’ll all be in city centre. The centre is far from where you live.”
I fall silent and look out at the waves. We’ve had this discussion before. I don’t like this discussion. It’s a dose of reality that I’ve been avoiding, preferring to bury my feet in the sand and stare down at a public transportation schedule that shows three pick up times; make multiple trips on my bike to the supermarket; dig through websites to find the best way to get from this beach town to any of the larger ones in the region.
Small town life – I’d forgotten what it was like. Twelve years of living in huge cities has taught me to scrounge every penny but allowed me to luxuriate in the wonder, the glory that is car-free living.
“What will you do?” asks my mother’s cousin. “When I’m no longer here and you need to go to the store for something big. What about meeting people your own age?”
Ah, yes. That old chestnut, too. Act I of my new life in Terracina has been quiet, filled with interesting characters – 99% of whom are over 45 years old. Because it’s high tourist season, I meet only adolescents or people my parents’ age in town. But I know there are people my age. I see them in the Facebook group for this city. They’re here. Where are they? I’ve seen a couple – literally, a couple. But it’s a different thing, making friends when you’re at a certain age. When you’re a kid, all you need to have in common is the fact that you’re both alive. As an adult, you need a little more – you should be neighbors, coworkers, classmates. I work from home. But I need friends. What is life without friends? Nothing. I’ve got to find some.
Down the beach, one of the young men has caught a fish. A crowd gathers round and claps. He holds the reel up high – his good-size, silvery catch wiggles angrily. My mother’s cousin looks on appreciatively. I stare down again at my feet; red-painted toes digging into the piles of small black pebbles.
She’s totally right, and I know it. If I’m going to live here indefinitely, I need a car. It’s silly to think otherwise – setting a ridiculous limit for myself. And what about the travel writing? I’ve got to travel to do that. I’m not in Osaka where I can just walk down to the train station and zoom anywhere in Japan. I’m not in New York where a subway will take me from Brooklyn to Queens and Manhattan and back in time for dinner. I’m not even in Dublin where I can get a quick bus to the airport. What am I going to do – pester the DiVecchios to drive me around? Nonsense. I need a car. I need to drive.
I hate driving. I’ve always hated driving. Or, rather, I’m afraid of driving. How’s that? I’ll make three international moves, sky dive, eat poisonous globe fish, and deal with Japanese children, but drive? Dear god, no. Driving is my pathetic bugaboo – next to snakes. And mayonnaise. And Michael Douglas.
Sure, I drove when I was a teenager; had to as there was no public transportation in Crystal River. And, yes, I enjoyed the freedom it gave me – WHO WANTS TO GO TO TACO BELL, BISHES?! – but the actual, physical act of driving? Hate it. Hate it. Nervous people like me don’t belong behind the wheel. Maybe my imagination is too vivid. I don’t know. When I moved to New York, I breathed a sigh of relief – no more parking, no more traffic, and no more visions of car crashes behind my eyes at night.
Okay. So just deal and get back behind the wheel because it’s necessary, right? Well, right. But there’s something else. Not only have I not driven in years, but back in 2004, I was involved in a terrible car wreck. I’ll spare you the disgusting details, but it was a very painful nine months before I could walk normally again. Wheelchair, walker, cane, physical therapy; the whole sad bit. Sure, I’m doing the cabbage patch in 5 inch heels now, but as a result of what happened – and what didn’t happen – I suffer from a little car-related PTSD. I haven’t dozed off inside a car in six years. Potholes make me get into prone position. What can I say? I’d like to be a bigger girl about this, but people heal the way they heal.
“Talk to your upstairs neighbors,” says my mother’s cousin. “They’ll know where you can get a good deal on a used car.”
The very thought of sitting behind a wheel makes me breathe heavy, so I try instead to breathe in the salty sea air; deep calming breaths. She’s right and I know it. I have to drive again. Put on my big girl pants. Get back in the saddle. It’s the last step, really. After my car accident, I was afraid of walking down flights of stairs for a long time – I still don’t love it – but I do it. I used to be afraid of jogging on my steel-enforced leg but now I do that, too. I’ve done loads of things that scare me and I know by now that the only way to do it is to just do it. Go through the motions and go. Get a little Fiat 500. Be European. Put a scarf around my hair. Drive to the market. Drive to the capital. Find friends.
Everybody does it.
Why can’t I?