Going Back by Anna Krauthamer
When I was studying in Prague, I planned a trip to Positano, Italy, because I believed I had to go back there while I was already living in Europe. That semester, Positano wasn’t as far from me as it usually is. I had been to Positano many times before with my family, but this last time I went alone.
My parents went to Positano, a small town on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, for the first time in the eighties, several years before my sister and I were born. Then they took us back the summer when we were five, again when we were six, seven, eight, eleven, fourteen, and eighteen. My mother never wanted to go anywhere else. I don't blame her. Positano, a fishing village built into mountainous coastal rock, leads down to the water; there's just one main road. The town itself, all its buildings painted some pastel color, is tucked into the mountain's folds. As you walk up the main road to get to the top of Positano, the higher you are, the better your view of what lies around and below you. You see haphazard rows of white and peach, from this distance, tiny structures that make use of their mountain's every square inch, and surrounding the buildings, ancient green and grey landscape. Beneath all that, you see the sea, separated from the town proper by a rocky gray beach dotted with what looks like, from this height, little orange beads.
Positano has one main beach, with little grey stones and sea glass instead of sand. Everyday we were in Positano my family went to the beach, where we would rent orange lounge chairs from an old man we knew as Capitano. He was there every other time I had gone to Positano, starting when my sister and I were five, always coming by our chairs to give us slabs of frozen coconut or to remind my sister and me, then burgeoning swimmers, how to say “someone help me please” in Italian, but when I went down to the beach last fall, another man who's now responsible for those orange chairs told me that he had died.
Just farther up into the town, barely off the beach, there's a restaurant called Le Tre Sorrelle that my family ate at almost every night for three summers in a row. We had prosciutto and cantaloupe and watched the beach at night, the orange umbrellas drawn and the water strewed with wooden fishing boats straggling toward the horizon, until everything else around us was quiet. After dinner we'd walk back up to the lovely small hotel, the Villa Rosa, that we'd stay at every summer, in the same set of rooms every time. Ours had a terrace that looked out at the ocean, and sitting there at night, high above sea level, the black sky blending in with the black water, you have a sense of being very small.
Positano was my favorite place in the world. Before I went back, on my own from Prague, memories of hiking up to Positano's peak with my parents and sister were part of a hazy impression of sunny days and late nights with my laughing family, eating gelato and pizza and fresh fish caught that day, of the annual summer Fiesta with fireworks set off from those straggling wooden fishing boats and the rainbow reflections in the black ocean, of our parents buying us matching sundresses, of learning to swim in the ocean with my father and learning to paint from a leafy terrace with my mother.
My family isn't the only family to become less happy as the years go by. Elizabeth and I changed from carefree children to adults. It got harder and harder for my parents to climb the mountain. The summer when Lizzie and I were eleven, we flew out from New York with only my mother; my father had to stay behind a week so he could bury his father. We went back the summer before I started high school, and I was so excited about the next four years and everything beyond. We went the summer right after those four years ended, but my life wasn't where I'd thought it would be. I wasn't going to college that fall—I didn't know then if I'd be going to college at all, actually—and my fear and sadness over how things seemed to be turning out began to overwhelm the joy of being in Positano.
I remember arriving back last October. It was my first time in Positano when it was not summer. I got in late on a Saturday night, and it had been a hectic journey. I missed my flight from Prague to Rome the previous night, and almost didn't go at all, but I wasn't willing to give up on seeing Positano again. So I got another flight the next morning, then took two trains to Naples, another train to Sorrento, and it should have been a simple bus ride from there to Positano, but I missed my stop and had to take a cab from a nearby town. It'll be worth it, I thought, as my trip became more and more complicated. I'll be back, I told myself. As the cab entered the town and drove down the streets I had walked on countless times, I recognized the local grocery shop whose mozzarella my father swore by, the desert place whose items looked so good but, to my sister's and my chagrin when we were finally allowed to try them, were really full of bitter rum I didn’t then appreciate, the salon where I'd get my hair cut every summer. There's no extra room to build anything new in Positano, which means that everything was still the same as it’d always been.
When I stepped out of the cab, in front of the hotel I'd stayed in many times before, I willed myself to feel the way I had before in Positano, but it didn't work. When I went to bed that night, in the same rooms my family had once occupied, I told myself it'd feel different in the morning, after I had slept, but I still felt nothing: it was like trying to summon a stranger's sense of being in her favorite little town to which I had inexplicably decided to travel. The next morning, as I walked up and down the streets, went back down to the beach and back up to the mountain's peak, I kept on trying to access the joy I had always felt before there, but it never worked.
It rained that day, so the beach was empty. I had never seen it rain in Positano before. Next to the beach, there's a big stretch of gray concrete where ships arrive, and the gray stone blended in with the gray water. It was very beautiful. If you go a bit farther away from the beach, there's an empty trail whose cliffside drops into the ocean. I walked the trail down to a remote, totally empty, lagoon. I watched, from that distance, the quiet beach with its closed orange umbrellas, and realized everything that had changed outside of Positano’s protected, dreamlike world since the first time I had been there. I tried closing my eyes and pretending that it was ten years ago, that it was another hot summer in Positano, and that my family was waiting for me somewhere back on the beach among the orange umbrellas, but I felt silly; I could not forget that when I opened my eyes again it would still be October and I would still be alone. My trips to Positano, with my family, in the past, had condemned me now to grasp for something irretrievable. I stood up and started walking back to the hotel.
I left the next morning on a bus to Sorrento. I had run around Positano all morning buying presents, visiting the stores my mother loved, and barely made it to the bus stop on time. But the bus was late. Still, my panic remained, ten, twenty, thirty minutes after the bus was supposed to arrive, and I began to realize I would probably never return again; I would probably never want to return. The whole time I was there that weekend, I had waited to feel like I really had come back, and when I saw the bus approaching from off in the distance, making its way around the curvy treacherous road, I looked at the town and realized I was saying goodbye.
A couple of days later I Skyped with my parents. It’s been a long time since my parents were last in Positano. They wanted to hear about everything; they were so excited to see their favorite town again through my eyes. “It must have been so nice being back,” my mother said, picturing me, I'm sure, on the beach, in the Villa Rosa, and on our terrace looking at the town she loves and, I know, misses very much. I told her that it was just like she remembered it.