New City Sugar Moon
New City Sugar Moon
Originally appeared in Unmapped
Jet lag wakes me at four o’clock in the morning in Naples and I’m refreshed. It’s my first time in Italy, the patria of Julius Caesar, the man who fucked up the whole world. In five hours our phone alarms will sound and we will run a circuit of outdoor markets circled on our tourist’s map. Something Belmont wanted to do, and since this trip is for me, I appease her. She turns over beside me and smacks her lips. I think of the word moglie, how I’ve been referring to her to waiters and bus drivers, the Italian word for wife, the difficult roll from one syllable to the next. I ease my weight from the bed and look out the window. Beyond the dome of the Piazza del Plebescito the first signs of day smudge the dark sky above the bay. I lie back down and cover my eyes with the pillow. Each time I shift in bed I see that it has grown lighter outside. It’s our second day in Italy, the country where I want to live. Belmont is unwilling to leave her family in Maine but the trip is a kind of not-honeymoon, a test of Italian waters. Moglie isn’t the right word for what we have.
We might have been aimless finding our way here. I would call it driven. We searched south of a given latitude and found a flight through Istanbul to Naples for six hundred dollars. We bought it immediately, brashly, working on our second bottle of wine, even though we’re generally ignorant of Campania. There isn’t much on Naples for the prospective traveler to excite himself. An acquaintance visiting Brooklyn told me to take off my watch when I arrive because the Neapolitans will steal it off my wrist. My banker rested his credit card pitch to tell me how Joey from Friends tells people he doesn’t like to “Va’ fa Napoli," or “Stick it up your Naples.” I started the Neapolitan series on the plane and it scared me. Thirty hours later we stepped off a red ATP Alibus at Napoli Bevorello, day-old sweat soaked through our sweatshirts, dragging our suitcases that snag on the uneven cobblestone and clatter to the ground.
The alarm tears me from the depths of sleep like a cymbal crash. The sky shines sickly into the flat. Dark clouds churn outside the window and spray a fine mist against the glass. I roll out of bed and stagger over to silence the ringing. In my stomach I recognize the same balled-up nausea I felt on the plane from Istanbul, when I had a panic attack sitting against the window with the hot sun glaring in at me. Belmont lies still in bed with an arm slung across her face.
“We have to go see your markets now,” I say. “It’s time to get up.”
“Please.” Her voice cracks, but she starts to get up.
Our host Valeria has left us a box of Leopoldo pastries in the fridge and we gobble them down between bitter sips of espresso. After a shower Belmont blunders through her luggage for clothes. She plugs in her hairdryer through an adapter and switches it on with an uncharacteristically strong gush of air, frightfully loud. The lights blink out. The hum of the refrigerator ceases. The radiator’s red light turns off.
I check my phone, which is miraculously still connected to wifi, and send an email to Valeria. Belmont retreats into the bathroom and I hear her crying through the door. I don’t bother to encode my email in Italian, I’m too exhausted, but I force a chipper tone.
Weeell! So far so good! Belmont just used her blow dryer in the living room socket and I think we blew a fuse. Is the fuse box (electrical box) underneath the door frame? I see a box but can’t seem to just flip the circuits back into place. Nothing happens for some reason.
I push send and sit on the couch staring at the drops of rain that have accumulated on the windowpane. The blue outline of Vesuvius grows out of the dome’s curve like an appendage. It feels so calm atop the pastel mountain of buildings, a space where the sky surrounds us on all sides. I lean back my head and almost slip back into sleep. I can hear Belmont moving around in the bathroom: dull, heavy sounds. My phone vibrates after only a few minutes.
Oh, don’t worry. You have to turn off the radiator and then You have go outside door. There is a red curtain. Its fine to use hair dryer but make sure to turn off radiator first
I wet my bare feet on the terrace and look around for a curtain. I unlock the front door into the elevator tower. Beside the balcony’s opening on the courtyard, a red drape covers shelves of tools and tangles of wire. Above the top shelf there is a white box, which I open, exposing a broken circuit indicator next to a switch. I turn the switch and the elevator jolts to life behind me. I jump, flip the switch back. I walk down the stairs to see if there’s any trouble. A pool of rainwater vibrates in front of the elevator door. I walk back upstairs and flip the switch again.
“Is it working?” I call into the flat.
Belmont turns the terrace light on and off.
I lock the doors and return to the flat, where Belmont sits fully dressed on the couch with crinkled wet hair.
“Do you feel any better?” I ask.
“I found another hairdryer in the bathroom.”
“We won’t do that again.”
“It’s raining anyway,” she says. “I don’t have to dry.”
We carry a rickety umbrella we used on the rainy way to the airport in New York. It envelops us with the odor of mildew but keeps out the rain that otherwise pricks my skin with cold. We follow our road Pizzofalcone, named after an early Greek colony and still one of the darkest and narrowest, around the Piazza del Plebescito and onto windy Via Chiaia, which runs west to the waterfront. The walls drip with tags: Romano bastardo, Ti Amo Rosalina. We pass a glass display for the Capri orologio studded with gaudy pink and green glass. The rain lets up enough that I give the umbrella to Belmont and the moisture doesn’t wet my clothes. Chiaia curls around a circular motorway under a low canopy of trees and connects us to a green stretch of park, the Villa Comunale. Belmont keeps a few paces ahead of me, following a man in rain gear running his black Labrador into the trees along a muddy path. Humidity stifles the air. My back starts to sweat. I scour the treeline for awnings, signs of a farmers’ market still open in this weather. On the outside boundary we come upon a stand selling hot dogs for three euro and ice cream for more. Now there’s the bay in front of us, the salt spray occasionally bucking up over the passing cars, and Belmont perks up. The sea is where she wants to be, that dank smell of beached seaweed, the saltiness on the tip of her tongue. I press a pedestrian crossing button and traffic immediately screeches to a stop. At the rail looking over the seawall of crumbled white stones Belmont closes the umbrella and leans out to face the Mediterranean. To our left the stone face of the Castel dell’Ovo has discouraged colonizers black and white since before the common era. To our right rises the southernmost ridge of the city of Naples, its crags garnished by bright plaster houses with balconies. In the sea I can just make out the saddle of Capri through the mist, the island for the wealthy, probably blooming with heavy oranges and lemons. It appears so close, even through the rain, like if I had the determination, I could swim to it.
I study Belmont’s face for signs of how she feels. Some color has returned to her cheeks. I sense a wistful glint in her eye as she peers out over the familiar ocean, the same water that sloshes up against the woods behind her home in Maine. It’s often difficult for me to guess what’s happening inside of her; when she’s happy, she doesn’t get manic like me, when my mind races and I want to do everything, talk quickly, drink deeply. Her happiness presents itself more delicately, maybe with a small smile after she states some wry observation or the kick of her head when she laughs. On the other hand, when she feels depressed she won’t fully refrain from speaking, she’s just as quiet as in moments of intense satisfaction, but she’ll be tired, she’ll walk slowly, regardless of my own pace. The sadness seems to hang off her like a physical weight dragging her down into sleep.
I look across the park to the line of pastel buildings rising over the treeline, large sections of paint chipped off, beautiful nevertheless in the way that an abandoned factory sleeps in the brush. Maybe she’s just tired like me and still enjoys everything around her. My eyes nearly brim from the joy I feel overhearing snippets of punctuated Italian and watching the cars throttling past like they were lifted from a movie set in the 80’s. How can she not be floored? But maybe she is; I can’t tell, but there’s a smile, and she looks so natural against the pearly sea, some loose strands of hair playing at the corner of her forehead. She could be Italian herself.
We continue until the sidewalk ends. The Villa Comunale narrows and terminates at a traffic circle. We cross both streets on either side of the park, walking in the shadow of more confident pedestrians, and turn back against the buildings facing the bay. We pass by empty cafés and trattorias on the lookout for the Via San Pasquale, where the antiquarian market opens each Tuesday. A dark-skinned woman crosses in front of us walking two shivering Chihuahuas in rain jackets. Each block leading north into the city meets the road with a set of stairs. One woman on the third story wheels laundry out on a line to dry, confident enough that the rain has ceased. Her sheets flap in the breeze, reflecting ghosts of white onto the stucco walls.
“Look,” I say to Belmont. “How beautiful is that?”
“So pretty,” she says.
We cannot find the market, even once the rain has stopped, and return to the quiet flat for some rest before going out again. By afternoon the darker clouds have blown away and a translucent layer of cotton makes the Vomero appear ghostly from the terrace. Down on the street it is still dark; the overcast sky sinks the city into a kind of half-twilight, through which traffic passes on the roads with headlights. We walk up the Via Toledo and find the pastry shop where Valeria bought our breakfast, and then we find it again, twice before we stumble into the Piazza Dante. A chain. And on the street just before the poet, a Burger King. The prices are comparable to the pizza available in nearly every restaurant; that is to say, too expensive. My muscles jitter from too much starch and caffeine. I crave something more substantial.
The Piazza Dante looks more like the rocky slopes of Purgatory than the paradisiacal expanse of the Piazza del Plebescito outside our flat: Via Toledo, now jammed with auto traffic, runs up its western edge, past a glass and steel metro stop and a tall bronze statue of Dante wearing the crown bestowed to him by Virgil when he could follow no longer into the heavens. Behind the monument several blue and white umbrellas shelter wooden displays of books for two or three euro. I leaf through the Italian editions, translations of Classical authors, Renaissance works of science, modern classics. I search for Elena Ferrante but can’t find anything published in the last fifty years. Belmont floats through storefronts where they sell antique woodenware but finds nothing to rouse herself. We pass under a narrow archway on the left of the Piazza and find a second, greener gathering place behind the passage. A less extravagant bronze of Bellini stands beneath the shade of spindly branches, identifying the place as the Piazza Bellini on our map, only two blocks south of the Archaeological Museum.
We had decided to visit museums later in the week, when we are supposed to get rain, but now, far enough north that a walk back later would be troublesome and without anything definite to do the rest of the afternoon, we decide to visit to have one less thing to do later. We walk the few blocks up from Bellini and collide with a street as broad as an interstate with traffic surging past in both directions. Across the street we see the museum, tall and stately, painted Mediterranean coral and planted out front with scaly palm trees. Belmont stares into the street, unresponsive. We rest for a moment against a waist-high graffitied wall before entering the building beneath a clock face decorated with fanciful numerals. It’s almost five.
The collection itself comprises a large number of works salvaged whole from nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum, many of which are more intact than anything I’ve seen before in the single sunny atrium of Roman statuary at the Metropolitan. We weave our way through a display maze of blue panels in the main hall, keeping close to an English-speaking guide in front of us who identifies all the different provenances and people depicted in stone. In one of the wings I linger too long with the mammoth busts of the Caesars, one especially of Julius, whose vacant eyes project absolute ambition, and I find that I’m actually afraid to stand directly in front of it, that maybe its bulk will snap the supports holding it in place and crush me. Belmont moves on efficiently. The museum staff start roping off secondary galleries. We hurry upstairs to see the mosaics, unibrow portraits of nobles and fish tangled around cats’ claws, which draw a few smiles from Belmont before they force us out.
It’s already dark outside. The traffic, as much a character of the city as its people, slows to a crawl in front of the museum. Belmont’s eyes droop and I try to console her, too brusquely, it turns out, because when I rub her shoulders and bump her with my hips she steps out of reach. Past the Piazza Bellini, its trees now glowing orange in the lamplight, we enter the old city of narrow, crooked roads and spontaneous squares. We run into a pizzeria with a Michelin Star. They are closed at the moment but will reopen in an hour. My stomach rumbles.
“Do you want to wait?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
“Would you rather go somewhere else?”
“I’m starting to get hungry.”
We go back to way we came and pop into a restaurant with red walls and dark wood tables. We sit down and a waiter brings us menus. Another pizza place. Belmont looks up with an expression of pain.
“If we’re getting pizza, we should just wait for the Michelin place.”
We stand up and walk out, the server yelling after us, but we ignore him and increase our pace back toward the labyrinth of streets in old city.
We pass the next forty-five minutes tracing a square around the district, lighting upon souvenir shops with tables crammed with ceramic popes and pulcinellas and continuing on past bars filled with people standing up drinking. Belmont walks half a block ahead of me. The gravity that sticks us together seems to have slackened. Once we complete our circuit we sit on a bench in the center of a cobble square where a little boy dribbles a yellow soccer ball back and forth. I turn around in my seat and watch the mopeds zip by on the narrow street.
“If you lived here, would you drive a moped?” I ask.
“I would never live here,” she says. “It’s as bad as New York.”
The boy loses control of his ball, which comes bouncing toward us.
“Ecco,” I say to the boy, pushing it back with my foot.
He asks us a question I can’t understand while he comes closer and smiles shyly.
“Non capisco,” I say. “Do you understand English?”
He shakes his head. Something behind our back catches his eye and he takes off running across the street.
“I don’t like not having a plan,” she says. “I don’t like wandering.”
“I can’t help the rain.”
“This is what you wanted.”
“Do you want to try the markets again?”
“It’s too late now.”
The front door of the restaurant is open, but inside a waiter asks us to come back in ten minutes. We start off toward our bench but Belmont exclaims in the direction of an alley.
“Look,” she says. “Here, kitty!”
An orange cat peeks around the handlebars of a red Vespa parked in the alleyway. We approach slowly, Belmont clicking her tongue as we get closer, and sit on a ledge behind the Vespa. The cat jumps down and takes a few steps toward us, meowing, before hopping up into Belmont’s lap. She scratches behind his ears.
“I hope the dirty kitty doesn’t have fleas,” she says. She looks over at me, smiling.
Our waiter is a tall, curly haired man, quintessentially Neapolitan. We order two big Peronis and ask his recommendation for pizza. I follow his lead to the mozzarella di bufala, but hesitantly, thinking it will be spicy like buffalo chicken. Belmont goes in for a margherita, despite the waiter urging her to the bufala. We receive our beers, which taste crisper than any alcohol in the United States.
When our pizzas arrive. I’m surprised that mine is different than I expected, the buffalo referenced to indicate the source of the cheese rather than the style, but I prefer it this way, and so does Belmont, always covetous of my food, cutting up her own floppy margherita. We split each in half to share and wolf them down alongside a small glass of grappa and a shooter of limoncello. Somehow the Neapolitans create dishes with only a few ingredients so pure that I experience a narrowing of my field of vision. I eat, and I’m eating, and I laugh that it’s so good, and then I’m finished. I bask in waves of euphoria. Dessert is a piece of fruit. At certain times I almost sense Belmont warming to the city, she’s so amazed by its food, its prices. I almost glimpse bursts of excitement under the quiet surface. I almost picture a life here.
While walking, Belmont admires the tall gables up high on buildings and the mess of plants that hang down from balconies. She takes a picture of one with dark, spiny leaves that she intends to ask her mother about. We stop at an outdoor pub for a drink behind the Piazza del Plebescito. Despite the clouds, the air is warm; we drape our jackets over the backs of our seats. The beers end up costing more than we anticipate, all that we have on us, including the change, so we head back to the flat sober with exhausted legs. Belmont emails her father pictures she snapped with her phone and captions. She stresses how affordable it is here. I ask that she forward me all the messages so I can send them to my own family, who haven’t said anything since we arrived safely. Belmont’s captions are inscrutable: View of a castle. Rooftop. Everyone hangs their laundry here. I forward them along adding a few words of my own. So beautiful. The gorgeous bay beyond. The dome is almost within arm’s reach.
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