May 17, 2007Sometimes I think that all I have of Gaia is the dream.
My mind is suspended partway between sleep and wakefulness, a contented smile lingering on my lips, eyelashes fluttering lightly as my conscious self begins to dawn.
Then my eyes flash open, the smile disappears in pain, and a pile of imagined letters flutter before me.
* * * *
Three years ago, I was immersed in the war that had drained most of my energy and, it seemed, all of my emotion. I was stationed in Afghanistan, in the Kabul office of the State Department, and spent long hours translating clipped recordings of conversation from Pashto and Farsi, languages I had studied while at the university but only mastered once my life and life's work depended on it.
From scratchy audio files to shards of handwritten notes, my work combined the monotonous exercise of an archeologist dusting off an ancient stone with the keen awareness that a missed word or nuance could get someone killed. I knew that guessing right might put a wanted man in the crosshairs of an American drone, but guessing wrong could annihilate an innocent family instead.
Spending long days briefing my civilian leaders, who briefed their military counterparts, in the subtleties of culture and tradition of the locals, was tiring and exhilarating, all at the same time. I knew I was expected to have the talents of both a linguist and a cultural attaché, to be mindful of Afghanistan's civilian and government traditions, and careful not to step on the toes of the indigenous military powers. It was a tricky balancing act, to say the least.
Spending month after month worrying about other people's egos – both American and Afghan – left little time to worry about my own ego. I needed a break. Rotating back to the States was still a ways off so a quick R&R in Italy seemed like the best way to re-balance my life.
After eighteen months on station, short periods of rest were not hard to get approved, so I took a week off and headed for Positano, on Italy's Amalfi Coast. I had heard and read about the little fishing village turned Europhile getaway, and it seemed like the perfect prescription for what ailed me.
I stuffed my rucksack with clean clothes then reached for my laptop and satellite phone. I hefted the computer, looked at it with resignation, then slid it back into the desk drawer, pleased that I had cut the cord that bound me to it. I was not so successful with the sat-phone, knowing that I couldn't be out of touch with the station completely.
A driver handling a dusty station truck took me to the Hamid Karzai International Airport on the edge of Kabul, where I transferred to a military hop out of country. Another stop and another plane, and I landed in Rome aboard a commercial flight dropping into Leonardo da Vinci Airport. I gave half a thought to spending a night there, but the din of activity reminded me of what I was trying to get away from. Instead, I boarded an Italian train to Sorrento, where I transferred once again, this time to a small, un-air-conditioned taxi for the drive to Positano.
As the car left Sorrento, the countryside smoothed out and the long strip of blacktop in front of me provided time to unwind and begin to reset my inner engine to a slower speed. Not long afterward, the cabbie embarked on a narrow winding strip of road that hugged the ridge of mountain that rose to unseen heights on my left just as the mountain fell into the sea immediately to my right. It was not exactly mountain goat territory, but I did occasionally wish that the driver would slow down and prevent the tires from screeching their way around the dead man's curves.
We were on the Viale Pasitea when, suddenly, the car came to a stop and the driver hopped out to retrieve my rucksack from the trunk. On my left was a long line of single story shops and cafés; on my right a sheer drop into the Mediterranean Sea. I couldn't see the hotel that was my destination, so I asked the driver.
“Dov'é la Casa Albertina?”
The driver pointed to a narrow opening between two of the shops, and I saw a set of stone steps inclining upward and off into the slope of the hillside.
I retrieved my bag and ducked between the shops and started the climb to the hotel. It was a bit of a struggle but, when I reached the summit and looked back over my shoulder I was blown away by the scene that draped before me. The Mediterranean Sea sparkled below and for infinite miles to the horizon. The azure sky above and the multi-colored roofs of the buildings beside and below me were ample proof that I had chosen the right place for my R&R.
After checking in with the smiling desk clerk, I retired to my room. Tossing my bag on the bed and throwing the drapes open I took in the scene that would be mine for the next five days. Every room in Casa Albertina had a private balcony with several chairs and a small table. I pulled on the handles of the huge windowed doors and stepped out into what seemed like a Mediterranean fantasy. The balcony looked down on the beach hundreds of feet below, and on the town which surrounded the green and gold dome of the local church, the Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta.
It was a breathtaking introduction to life in Positano and, for a moment, I couldn't believe I was actually here. It was far more captivating than even the most romantic descriptions had prepared me for. I leaned on the low stone wall that encircled my balcony, wanting to memorize the scene and make it a part of my whole being, something that I could take back with me to Kabul.
The thought of the war, the State Department work, and Kabul itself invaded my thoughts for only a moment, then I shifted back to Positano, confirming my plan to be here, not there – at least for this short time.
I enjoyed a simple dinner on the terrace of the hotel's restaurant. With its access to the sea, my first meal had to be some sort of fish. After querying the waiter as to what's good – “Tutti” he said, with a typical Italian shrug, “everything” – I settled on a plate of thin noodles and crab meat, a specialty of the Amalfi Coast. The delicate noodles were dressed in lightly salted butter, and the crab meat was flaky and also dressed in a butter sauce. Although the serving seemed large when it arrived at my table, I surprised myself by quickly finishing it off.
Lazily settling back in the chair, I sipped at the second glass of white wine brought out by the waiter. Normally, I preferred red wine but the dish demanded something softer and fresher, so the local Fiano di Avellino was a perfect match. I relaxed a while, taking in the moments approaching sunset. With the fresh air and fresher aromas of lemon trees surrounding the hotel, I gazed out at the sun as it settled down on the sea, leaving a yellow orange blaze across the horizon.
Some wine, the scent of bougainvillea. How could I not be relaxed at that moment?
I sipped from the glass and let the cool liquid glide down my throat. Placing it down on the table, I looked up and saw that, while I was taken in by the sunset, I had failed to notice the young woman leaning on the stone railing of the terrace, facing out to sea, her back to me.
Long brown hair hung down across sun-tanned shoulders, shoulders exposed by the green, pink, and blue sundress she wore. She breathed a long sigh and leaned her head back to stare up at the sky above that was slowly dimming in the fading light. She turned around, faced my direction and, for a brief second, smiled slightly, then strode quietly across the stones to a small table by the edge of the terrazza.
A waiter appeared behind her bearing a tray with a glass of white wine, a bowl of olives, and a basket of bread. I could hear them speaking Italian, but it seemed like it wasn't her native tongue.
“Efcharistó” slipped from her mouth, confirming that she wasn't Italian.
But what language was that?
Her attention was drawn to the wine and olives, but mine was drawn to her. Her complexion was smooth and lightly bronzed, like the toned shoulders that held the thin straps of her dress. Her dark brown hair was simply cut and straight, but worn long, and her willowy legs stretched out beneath the table in a languid pose. Long slender fingers encircled the wine glass as she tipped it to her mouth. I could not see her eyes from my angle, but my imagination greedily filled in the details.
I felt like a voyeur, sneaking looks in her direction, but was captivated by her and couldn't resist. At one point she leaned over to straighten the buckle on her sandals, leaning in my direction, and when she sat back up she glanced in my direction again. This time, her smile lingered a second longer, enough to give me a pleasurable chill.
“Buon giorno,” I offered in her direction, still not sure of her nationality or language.
“Hello,” she responded in easy English. Possibly an American? Thoughts of “come here often” crossed my mind, but I winced at my own lack of originality. Still, I was desperate to keep the conversation going and had no idea what to say next.
The young lady made my effort a bit easier by continuing to look in my direction, an act that also made me slightly nervous. I was never one for easy lines, and what meager skills I had in that department abandoned me now.
“It's a beautiful sky,” she said. But I blushed because I was staring at her, not the sky, and maybe she was trying to get me to look away.
“Yes, amazing,” I replied. Wow, my lack of creative thought was stunning.
Without enough encouragement from me, she turned her attention back to the plate of olives and bread on her table, sipping occasionally from the wine glass.
“People say Positano is the most romantic place in Italy,” I blurted. Bad opening. What was I doing talking about romance?
She giggled a bit, but covered her mouth, and batted her eyes twice. It seemed like she was willing to forgive my faux pas, but what I really needed was a big hole to fall into.
“So I've heard,” she returned, “although I've never had the opportunity to test it.”
And I realized that she was throwing me a lifeline.
“My name's Danny.”
“Gaia,” she replied. Now I knew it; she's Greek, but her mastery of English suggests American too?
For a few moments, it seemed that conversation had stalled, and I felt once again the pressure to restore it. The seconds ticked by, seeming more like hours, and I had to face the reality that I had nothing interesting to say, at least not across the terrace.
So I decided to close the gap. Closeness would enhance conversation.
“If you're alone, may I join you?”
She didn't speak, but lifted her glass in the age-old salutation, and smiled back at me. That was enough.
I rose from my chair, stepped quickly toward her table, and took a seat across from her. Now I could see her eyes, even in the fading light. They were brown, but with a glint of green flecks in them. The subtle hint of red lipstick lit up both her eyes and her skin, and I breathed a sigh of thanks to the gods of Positano.
That all happened in 2004, that and more, and here I was again back at Positano, still infatuated with Gaia, still wondering what had become of her.