You grew up too young. You grew old too soon. You started the process in reverse. You grew up again. (This time for real.) Then you met him.Billabong Boy.
You were done with a certain subject. Over it. Kaput. Finished. You felt no need to discuss it ever again. You were so over that particular topic. You now had a voice-one you had learned how to use. The lesson was a hard one. You left a husband to find your voice. You left a home. You left a life. You returned to school to find your voice. You weren’t going to waste your voice. (Cause you were so, so, so over it.) No, now you had something better. You had important things to say. Of course, you had to say them in words containing three syllables or more. Call it polysyllabic.
Bil-la-bong – noun Australian: A branch of a river that leads to no other body of water; a blind or dead-end channel; a dried-up watercourse.
Bil-la-bong – noun American: The pattern of all your relationships.
But now you were a writer. Or a teacher. Or an investment banker. A realtor. An engineer. A dancer. A dreamer. (Oops you’d always been that.) A bird. An anchor. A plane. A boat sailing with the wind. You woke up. You went back to sleep. You practiced your voice. Polysyllabic. You became a new thing every day. What you were didn’t matter. What you were was the only thing that mattered. You became your own mistress of the universe.
You bought a house, got a dog, planted flowers. All by yourself. All for yourself. Then you sold the house. You bought another. That one, you decided, would be your home. You planted flowers and vegetables. You got another dog. You fell in love. You fell in love. You fell in love. He broke your heart. Again. And again. And one more time. But you still had your house. You still had your dogs. You said what you wanted to say. You were whatever you wanted to be. And you were finally just you. Polysyllabic.
You were now over many things-not just it. You no longer sat on the edge of boardrooms in very high buildings. You no longer went to meetings in which you were too afraid to breathe never mind to use your voice, meetings in which you looked down at the ground twenty-nine stories below. Back then you avoided the thought-that high building thought. Now you roll your eyes at the memory of the thought. You always did like drama.
But now you were over that too. You and your voice whistled along, then one day, it came. It was a creeping fear. Suddenly, sometimes, you were afraid that your voice would turn into voices. Plural. (A voice becomes scary when it’s plural.)
So you went to Italy, the logical thing to do. A place older than time itself, a place where multiple voices were expected, demanded, revered. The voices sang in the cobblestones, echoed in the narrow lanes, bounced off the Mediterranean’s cliffs. You planned to listen to the voices with friends-of the male variety. But, no, not like that. You’d evolved past that. You now knew that boys and girls could be friends, especially when the boys were gay and/or your married stepbrothers. You and your voices were safe.
But, let’s be honest here, it started in the airport. The men (not your brothers, you were a big girl and traveled alone) had a scent. The scent involved style, pheromones, and cologne the way only Italians can produce it. The scent was subtle; these men didn’t wear it. They exuded it. From their genes, from their blood, from-dare you suggest it-their voices, the scent drew you in. It wafted by, made you lean, made you want to smell more, until you were so close you could lick it, taste it, imbibe it, make it a part of you. You wanted it in your body, in your blood, in your genes, in your voice. You looked a man up and down. A man looked you up and down. The glance slowed, lingered, and-suddenly-you recalled what people were made for: It. But, remember, you are still only in the airport here.
Next: Rome. Oh dear God. Rome. Its magnificence is impossible. Church bells clanged, guitarists strummed, crowds clapped, dogs barked, gulls cried, sirens wailed-all echoing, echoing, echoing, and yet all simultaneous. Creamy buffalo mozzarella, flakey bread steeped in the juice of garlicky olives, and tart white wine brought tears to your eyes. You did not need to see, however, to balance on the uneven cobbled lanes beneath your kitten-heeled boots. (This is Rome, you’re dressing the part.) Perhaps your innate balance came from caressing the Vatican’s silky marble, which millions of fingertips before you had touched. Or maybe it was the satin of ancient wooden pews that embraced you. Or perhaps you found your bearings in the humid heft of cool night air pressed against your skin on your way to the trattoria. But probably it was the weight of a cigarette between your second and third fingers that centered you. This is Rome (when in Rome...).
And then, and then, and then: The Amalfi Coast. It is the most beautiful place you have ever seen. Like your first Italian meal, at your first glimpse of the towering cliffs and the perfect blue Mediterranean, you have tears in your eyes. What are you, a cliché? Actually, you answer, “No.” Italy seems to be the only place that has not yet become a parody of itself. An Australian writer taught you that phrase, “parody of itself.” His name is Tim Winton. So perhaps it figures that the next person you meet will be Billabong Boy. An Australian.
A full moon glossed the Mediterranean. Silver waves played lightly on the sand. Dance music thumped across the mostly empty beach club floor. You’d been watching him. He’d been watching you. You’d heard his twangy Aussie accent, the kind that made an American girl like you swoon. Not to mention that all your life you’d been a sucker for a surfer, and his t-shirt sported that surfer logo: Billabong. You wanted to run the flat of your hand down the cotton to see if it the shirt was as softly laundered as it looked, to see if the back beneath the shirt was as hard as it looked. But you had long ago given up on surfers.
The kind of man who had replaced your surfer type was the sort of guy who exuded dynamic energy. You knew by now though that the dynamic man is always, and you mean always, trouble. (The man who broke your heart again, again, and again had proven it.) The men who light up a room generally attract lots of women (and men). And, that night, the man who had a mondo job at the biggest-name software company in the world, surfer looks, and an Australian accent, had people swirling around him constantly.
You walked to a staircase on the edge of the dance floor that opened to the beach beyond. You lit a cigarette. You leaned over the rail and exhaled smoke into the cool night air. You stared at the silver sea. You listened to the waves crash, punctuating the dance rhythm that thumped out behind you. You turned back to the dance floor to look for him in the center of the throng, and you caught him staring at you.
“Come here,” you called. (Your voice! Your voice! There it was, just when you needed it.)
And then he was there, like he’d always been there. He leaned beside you. You observed his long back.
“At last,” you said, “Someone whose language I share.” You smiled at him.
“Si, si,” he grinned.
You were tired of saying grazie, grazie, and of mixing your tenth-grade Spanish with your freshman French with your weekend Italian. You had always confused your romance languages. (Bil-la-bong.)
You sighed. He smiled. Then you both turned to watch the Mediterranean’s show. The setting could not have been more romantic, more beautiful, more perfect. You started to think that this was one of your dreams, or a film. Surely, it was a film. But the man beside you appeared real, and he did not appear to be an actor.
You (plural) talked. You talked. And you talked. For hours. About what? Everything. Nothing. It was easy. The easiest thing you could ever remember.
You (plural) flirted. You flirted. And you flirted. For hours. And you remembered what if felt like to play. You (singular) had not played in a very long time. The play first disappeared from your life sometime around the time that you first lost your voice. But, your voice was in solid working order that night. You had already exchanged childhood memories. You had told him how when you were ten years old, every day you walked to the beach. Each day, you walked along a cliff path, ran down a long staircase carved into stone, and you ended at the sea. This place reminded you of that time. This place reminded you of happiness. He told you that you were happiness. His happiness. That night.
You moved on from childhood to adolescence to previous relationships to professions to insecurities to securities to the price-to-earnings ratio of Microsoft stock. You (plural) appeared to be in deep, as deep as the Mediterranean beyond where you sat, side by side, on cool marble steps that led to dark sand.
“Oh dear God,” he suddenly says, his arm now around your back, yours around his. (Yes, it was as firm, as lean, as long, as you had imagined.) “What?” You ask, noting his alarm.
“I’m staring into your cleavage. Oh dear God.”
You laugh. You say, “Good.”
“No, no, not good,” he says.
You reach up to his face and note that his teeth are not bleached like so many Americans’. You like that. Your thumb caresses his cheekbone.
“Come to the beach with me. Let’s go,” he says.
You smile. You think about it. You remember that you’re supposed to be over it. You look to the dance floor, wonder where those stepbrothers are. You have only just met this man, after all. You inhale the cool tang of September sea air and you smell the must of Rome on the wind. You think of the first church you saw there. A baptismal was imminent. A mother carried her infant up the marble steps of an old stone cathedral. The scene embodied iconic Italy. Ceremonial bells tolled, relatives snapped photos, dogs danced and barked. The mother paused on the threshold of the church, fully accessorized. She balanced her baby, adorned in antique lace on one arm, while her dark, handsome husband held her elbow. She planted her fire-engine-red stiletto heels, and she stood proud and smiling, shouting out instructions to her milling brethren all the while. You thought: Yes. Yes, this is the way life should be lived. This chick’s got a voice.
Then you look at this man beside you, and you think: Yes.
“Oh no,” he says, again.
“What now?” You ask.
“I’m still staring at your cleavage.”
“Wait ‘til you see the rest of me,” you whisper into his ear and laugh.
“Oh, but I can’t,” he groans.
He looks down. He releases your hands. He covers his eyes. He drops his head.
“What’s wrong?” You ask. “What is it?”
He looks at you. He looks you in the eye. At least he does this.
“I’m getting married tomorrow,” he says.
You fall backwards. It’s a good thing that you are already sitting. You feel as if the remaining wall of the Coliseum has just crushed your spine.
“No, no, wait,” he says. “How do I get out of it? I don’t want to do it. I can’t do it.” He tells you.
You’ve both been drinking vino rosso for hours, and suddenly you are both sober. You both realize what has just been said.
“Tell me,” he says, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to do it. My fiancée. All these people. They all came to Italy for this.”
His head is in his hands. He scrubs the sides of his face. He is crying.
You look at him. You know you should get up, right now, and walk away.
He takes your hand back into his. You see his friends milling about below where you sit. They look lost without his vivacious gravity. A man, it must be his best man, circles, watches, waits. You try to say something. Where are all of your syllables now?
“I’m so sorry,” he says.
You observe his best man watching the two of you. You look away, towards the Italian night. You are mute.
You think of the woman, the bride. You remember your own wedding. You remember its moments of perfection-the plaintive cries of bagpipes as you watched cars drive, one by one, down the long avenue. You remember the dress. You remember your father said to you, “It’s too late now.” You remember how drunk you got. You remember how drunk you stayed. You remember your years of silence that followed. You remember the aftermath.
But this woman here, and her family and her friends-and his family, and his friends-these are people who have, as he said, “traveled all the way to Italy for this.” They are not you.
Although you, too, have traveled all the way to Italy.
You remember the aftermath.
“I can’t do it alone. I don’t know how to do it,” his shoulders sag.
He still holds your hand. His best man still circles below.
You sit motionless. You sit silently.
“Please,” he says. And then, finally, he stands. He squares his shoulders. His t-shirt flutters in the breeze.
“Please,” he says. “Let me hear your voice.”
Bil-la-bong – noun Australian: Apparel worn to surf.