This is a lost love letter to a tree in Venice, and the graffiti of Bob Marley and his radio across from it. This is a lost love letter to the bench with the broken slats from which you—I, we—could contemplate both of these oddities. There are only three trees in Venice, did you know that? At least that’s all I counted. Trees don’t belong on a sinking island, there’s nowhere for their roots to hold on to. This is a lost love letter to roots.
If I could close my eyes and take you with me, I could still walk you from our whitewashed apartment in Dorsoduro all the way to the zattere—even now I remember, four years after we’ve gone. Down the narrow rickety stairs which also serve as a shrine to every Sophia Loren picture ever pinned up—across the square and to the right, not to the left (unless you wanted a haircut, I suppose… the barber there likes Lady Gaga, a lot), past Gio’s Pizza where Gio Uno and Gio Due laugh at my Italian, across the bridge, down the dirt path on your left that winds through this tiny park supervised by Bob himself, and then we dive hand in hand into the maze of leaning houses with laundry strung like Christmas lights above our heads. If we remember to take the second right and the first left and that next right, we’d dash past the bursts of flowers outside the flower shop—we’re running now, how could we not—and across the wide paved hopscotch and the second tree in Venice and Vivaldi’s angels frozen fiddling in stone on the very edge, the very end, of the zattere. That’s how we’d go, if I could take you with me.
And if I close my eyes long enough to dream, and you’re still here, I’d take you to meet Luca because that’s really what I search for in my memory. Ridiculous, yes. Three days and I’ll remember this boy forever. But I was sixteen and in love with Italy, and when two boys my age, sitting on that broken bench by the tree, call out “Bueno seeeerrrrraaaa” isn’t it natural that I say it back to them? You might tell me to hurry because we have plans to go to San Marco, but Luca has a white grin that splits his face in half and his hands are quick and fly when he gets excited, and Marco is round-faced and round-eyed and earnest and knows more English than the rest of them. When Andreas comes the next day, you give up and laugh along with me, because he’s a jokester and that translates just fine. Alice comes too, eventually, with hair even curlier than mine, but better tamed. Her role in life is to make people wait for her, and she’s worth it.
I speak no Italian except French that I added extra vowels to, but I have a English-Italian Italian-English dictionary, and for three heady days that’s how I romp around with four Venetian teenagers, making up for my lack of language by laughing too much. They like me, for some reason, more than they should. Luca introduces me to Cesare Cremonini and the snails crusted on the deep walls of the canal. Andreas and I giggle together and he scornfully pulls out a English worksheet from school that has the English for ti amo on it—burns it to ash, who needs school—but his face when I tell him what the words mean is priceless. We amble off into the warren that is residential Venezia, he lets me wear his mother’s bracelet, and he carries the ever-vital dictionary in a fanny pack that he found on the street and thinks is hilarious. Later, down a narrow alley, Luca flies after us—Niccòlo is with him, golden-curled and sea-eyed, a forward on their soccer team—and off we go for free pizza and to find Marco, eternally waiting for Alice.
Do you want a drag on this Marlboro? That is my first bitter mouthful of smoke, in a light-soaked and anonymous piazza. My first cigarette and my first Italian grandfather, grinning and gaptoothed, who adopts me late afternoon near the vaporetto on our way home and announces that he learned English twenty-five years ago and it’s finally worth it, è vero. You can share him, if you like, he seems like a universal nonno, but we’re going to be late home and my father is suspicious of my wanders because he grew up in New York and wariness is in the water supply. At night, the light filtering in through my window undulates bright blue, and we can sleep as if submerged. I will never forget that snapshot of night in this city of water.
Day three, and we wait for Alice. They had school, but Luca and I sit on the edge of the canal and get yellow blossoms of pollen all over my jeans. My puppy crush unfurls and I haltingly ask hai una regazza? which is what my dictionary says I should I ask if I really want to know the answer. Perhaps it’s lucky he doesn’t understand. I won’t explain, I think I’ll just watch his strong hands drum the stones next to our knees. The light is dying, this is my favorite time of day, when the sun is sloppy over the walls and the water, and makes our shadows ribbon out at our sides. Will you wait for me as I say goodbye? I take pictures of them, to remember, and then I go around and hug them and kiss their cheeks, because that’s what Italians do, right? As it turns out, some Italians—Andreas, the big jokester, still with his fanny pack—decide that planting one right on the mouth is a better option. A kiss from an Italian! But the wrong one—Luca, no, really, I’d rather have kissed you, I swear.
Walk back with us, Luca and Alice and I, everyone still faintly surprised. My dad yells from the window because we’re late, and I hug them both and desperately try to tell Luca—well, something, how does one explain the superficial passion of a three-day crush, that I’m sorry his friend kissed me before he could? I can’t, I haven’t got the words in English, never mind Italian. I watch them walk away, and (well, if we’re being honest) feel like something’s slipped away.
We leave at 4:35 the next morning, the sky is bruised and the stars are in the water. The speedboat that takes us to the mainland picks up speed as we exit the canals, and though it’s bitterly cold, you should stay outside with me and watch the lights of the island fade into a shimmer, a mirage, and then nothing. I like the way the wind snaps at my face and pulls my hair. I like feeling alive like this, nerves sparkling, flying headlong into the dark.
Caro Venezia, my freckles and I tried to find roots with you too; we scrabbled to plant ourselves, though like those trees, we seemed a little odd. I never had their last names—I haven’t found them since. I’ll be back in about six months, and my darling sinking island, my hopeless hope is that they’ll still be on that crumbling bench, smoking and waiting for Alice, that I will walk up to them and say “buona sera” and we will be just as we were in those three days, years ago. Dear Venice, this is a letter about our lost love, faded love, a dream frozen in this picture that’s tacky on the back from too much tape. There we are—I touch it sometimes as if it would suck me in—next to Vivaldi’s angels and the Grand Canal, awkwardly crowded on top of one another. Of course my memory is softened, blurred by time, but I’d like to think they’d still know me if we came to face to face in that melted afternoon sunlight; I like to think that spray-painted Bob Marley would quietly turn his radio on as we start to remember each other; I like to think that, however slender, my roots have found a fertile earth on that island.