Inspiration for “The Last Ship”

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As I write, “The Last Ship”, these are the kinds of images I have in my mind as I walk with my characters through the fictional southern Italian town. Actually, though, the setting of the story is based on a town in the province of Salerno called Agropoli.  I spent time there visiting the extended family of some friends from Rome. So, many of the situations that Lilya finds herself in are similar to things I experienced while taking part in their family operations. The story is to be continued, so stay tuned! And I welcome feedback on the beginning, especially relating to the imagery of the setting. Cheers! And happy reading!

 

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The Last Ship: a story in progress

My thoughts built up like the clouds piling up behind the mountains, nearly catching up to the sun at its zenith in the summer sky. Shading my eyes to look over the land, I saw the rocky pilings of the small beach where, years ago, fisherman had made a life out of the frutti di mare from those true blue and ever clear waters.

I dropped my arm and as it fell back to hang lazily by my side, I took notice of the burn beginning to assert itself on my bare arms and neck. I hastily pulled the gauzy shawl up over my shoulders and turned for home.

Everyone was sleeping; that’s what one did in the afternoons of the Mediterranean summer. We had taken lunch on the veranda, quiet today, just the two of us, and then Leo had kissed my forehead, helped me haul the plates inside, and had gone off to rest in a wine and heat induced snooze. Usually, I sat on the cool fabric sofa with a book or a magazine, successfully reading a few pages before nodding off myself, but lately I had taken to wandering the hills that composed the terrain in and around town.

As I meandered, I thought extensively about what had brought us here; it wasn’t a complicated story. We had been living in Portland, the city where we had met each other not quite three years ago. I don’t think I ever would have fallen for a man like Leo if it had been another time or another place. But, the combination of his eyes, patience, and persistence had not failed to make me realize that timing really was everything, and his was the right hand to hold through the next part of life. I had been living with an aunt, one of my most favorite women to ever exist, and she had given me a job at her start-up that she shared with a male business partner. When he became her husband and moved into the condo, I realized that a menage-a-tois was not the kind of life I wanted to be living going into my thirties. So, nine months into our relationship, Leo and I began to share his small apartment located a block away from the harbor. It was the kind of neighborhood Portland was known for; up-and-coming, trendy yet inexpensive, artsy, full of musicians, artist and actors. Serious young professionals came here to eat and drink, but Leo, never being able to shut off his brilliant mind, decided that this was just the kind of place for a teacher to find inspiration everyday.

And then, one fine Fall day just over six months ago, we got a call from the Old World; he had not mentioned to me that he had been destined to become a winemaker according to his family’s legacy and tradition, and with the ailing of his grandfather, it was time for him to take his place as his father’s assistant so that he could be properly groomed and educated on how to one day run the family business.
“I know its a huge leap of faith for you to make, carina, I get that. I understand it one-hundred percent. But, if you come with me, I promise we will be embarking on the greatest adventure of our lives.” He was smiling because he already knew what I would say. Despite not knowing more than a handful of ill-pronounced words in Italian, and would likely not be able to find a job very easily, with a furtive glance around our little apartment, I nodded once, nodded again, and agreed to something of which I understood very little. What I did understand of Italian culture were that honesty and trust were of the essence when it came to family matters. Leo called me his family, and so away we went. It was like his grandfather always said: “A man has his God, his family, and his name. If he loses one of these, he has nothing.” But I didn’t learn this until a bit later.

Everybody has to have a beginning. For Italians, life begins and ends with family.
The thing about southern Italian families, though, is that they are everywhere and in everything. The first time we took dinner at an aunt’s house, I hadn’t expected twenty people, let alone thirty plus. And if the sheer volume of bodies wasn’t enough, the extreme level of noise at all times put me into sensory overload. I couldn’t understand them when the spoke, not a word, and their constant vying for Leo’s attention left me to manage the giving and receiving of kisses on cheeks to the best of my feeble ability.

“Is your family always so confrontational?” I had asked Leo on the way back to his parents’ house. He had smiled and looked at me from the corner of his eye.
“That wasn’t anything serious, carina. They were just happy.”
I felt my eyebrows raise, but I continued to look straight ahead, contemplating how one could possible tell the different between felicity and belligerence at family dinner. I shuddered to think what actual anger would look like.

For the first year, we shared residence with his parents. His sister had graciously vacated the ground level apartment for our use and had gone to stay with a cousin in the city center during her summer break from university. I realized, however, that just because we had our space didn’t mean that it was actually our own. We had family guests calling on us, or rather, on Leo, just about every minute of the day. There was business to be discussed, family matters to be exacerbated, stories to tell, food to be exchanged, and everything in between. Most of the time, they just smiled politely at me, from time to time to acknowledge my presence, but I was otherwise more of a ghost who wasn’t quite privy to the conversation.
It was strange; I understood it and I didn’t at the same time. Therefore, I was quite at a loss at what exactly I should do. I felt it would be rude to sit on the couch and be for myself, but I also found it tiring to sit with them and be useless to absolutely everyone, including myself. So, I tried to do a bit of both, and hoped I wasn’t offending anyone either way. Cultural limbo, I called it. And it was exhausting.

One night as we lay in bed, I remarked that his cousins would likely come to bed with us if we gave them the slightest allowance. He smiled, kissed my forehead, and assured me that I was completely correct. “Who wouldn’t want to go to bed with you?” he asked with a huge smile. I looked at him, took it as a rhetorical question, and switched off the lamp. And for the next several hours, I lay there next to a snoring native, wondering how in hell I would ever manage to be part of this family, part of this world, part of something of which, the more time went on, I understood less than I had previously thought. Before I finally slipped into sleep, I remember thinking that Leo would be my guide; as long as he gave me an example, I would eventually be able to follow.

Treptower Park: a short story

Treptower Park

“Oh and Babe? Meet me in Treptower Park? Tomorrow after work?”
The text had come just before I had picked my bare feet up from the cold wooden floorboards to tuck under the duvet.

Treptower Park was an intriguing, if not ironic place to meet, for it is the memorial to the soviet soldiers who died in the fight to liberate Berlin. As I contemplated the relevance of this symbolism, I also thought that, at this time of year, if nothing else, it would be beautiful-If I made it there before dark.

The commute to Treptower Park from the Mitte neighborhood wasn’t a long one, it was just inconvenient. Especially after work, when the city’s workplaces emptied into the subway stations and buses.

Friedrichstrasse to Tempelhof. Change Trains. Suedkreuz on the Ring for fifteen minutes.
I sat alone with my thoughts, the last to snag a seat in an otherwise packed subway car.

It was true that Mathias and I had been struggling along for awhile; struggling from the pressures of entrepreneurship, mostly. He was compulsive and manic, obsessed with his work and passionate about his contributions. And I was absorbed in my own world of writing and orchestrating, perpetually calculating my days precisely, never really finding the time to waste a moment by actually living it. But, there had finally begun to shine a light at the end of the tunnel.

By the time I had crossed under the archway that stood as the entrance to the park, the twilight was already fading fast. I quickened my step, hoping to find the meeting place before the place became entirely under shadow. I knew he would be waiting at the end of the cobblestone path, standing in front of the weeping widow statue where dying roses were scattered at her feet. He greeted me, as always, with a small smile and a quiet voice.

“Come here. I want to hold you in the dark. One last time.” I came to him and took a deep breath. His leather jacket was cold against my cheek. I closed my eyes. He smelled of cigarettes, our favorite neighborhood bar, and the coal oven in his apartment.
“No flame burns forever,” he whispered. I looked up at him. “You and I both know this all too well.” The moment had come.
He sighed, sliding his hands down my shoulders, my arms, clasping my hands in his. His eyes searched mine.
“I’ve never been so lost,” he murmured. His forehead found rest against mine. I squeezed my eyes shut as the tears came. “I never tried to trick you, babe. I just wanted to work it out. But I was just swallowed up by doubt.” He sighed. “If only things were black and white, cause, really, I just want to to hold you tight without holding back my mind.”
The first tear broke loose and rolled down my cheek. I let go of his hand so I could wipe it away before it froze to my face.
“It’s alright,” I whispered, “I understand.” I shook my head. “No flame burns forever. No, they don’t. At least they say they don’t.” I searched for his eyes. “Most won’t even last the night.”

He looked away, hiding his own sorrow for the fate we had come to meet. Behind him, the statue continued to mourn the loss of good men.
“I do love you,” he whispered above the noise of the stealthy wind.
“And you know I love you, too. And I always will.”
“That is a gift I will never deserve,” he replied with a sad smile.
I took a deep breath of the cold night air and shrugged.
“I guess you only ever told me one lie, when it could have been a thousand,” I murmured, turning my face towards the far end of park where the monument stood at great heights, tall and proud.
“Might as well have been a thousand,” he said. I could feel his eyes on my cheek. I closed mine before looking back to him.
“It was never a lie. Every time I felt it, I said it. I’ve never lied to you.” His eyes were blazing ice blue in the darkness.
“Matthias, we could talk this round and round. But there’s no point, is there.” My voice was as cold as my fingertips, stuffed deep in my coat pockets.
“I guess we didn’t have to come all the way here to talk about this,” he said finally.
“No, it’s the perfect place,” I said shaking my head. “Remembering a man and mourning his loss is just what happens here.” My voice had grown softer, though the the ice in my throat felt solid enough to throttle me. He looked at the ground as the wind blew scatters of leaves across our feet.

Scattered to the wind. That’s what we had become. All the time wishing to stand as strongly as the monument behind us, we had merely been leaves on the tree beside it, awaiting our time to turn, fall, and be taken by something stronger than ourselves.
A tragedy in a place to remember tragedy.
I reached out my hand and placed it gently on the soft, cold leather of his jacket. The white of my skin contrasted brilliantly with the cracked and worn black. “If only I could hear you laugh, one last time.” He smiled a small smile that faded quickly.
“Good bye Matthias,” I said softly. I looked over his shoulder to the weeping woman. “May you find peace.”

I turned to go, my own words echoing in my ears. I thought I heard someone calling my name on the wind, voices from the past calling me back. But the past was gone, encrypted on blocks of stone, or disintegrated in the flower beds. And still, the voices followed as my steps drummed a rhythm on the cold stone walkway.

At the subway station, the scream of the metal cars sliding to a stop on the rails chased away all I had been hearing. As I walked to the open door, I glanced over my shoulder, expecting Matthias to be coming up the stairs. He didn’t appear, and the car doors slid shut.

But he wouldn’t appear. How could he? He had been gone since that dreadfully cold night a week before Christmas when a semi-truck had smashed through the Christmas market in front of the Remembrance Church. He had been there, out for Glühwein with a few friends after calling it an early day from the office. He and many others had been at the right place, celebrating the festivities of the season, but at the very wrong time. I had been on my way to meet him in Treptower Park when I got the call. By the time I had gotten to the hospital, hearing the screams of the ambulances echoing through the halls of the building, he was already lost.

I would therefore never know what he would have said to me if we would have met each other in Treptower Park that night. Imagining that he would have told me the last of our story has trained my heart to let him go. And some days, I think to myself that he is walking the streets of our old neighborhood, on his way to someone or something. And still, because it has become a habit to answer an impossible question, I go to Treptower Park once a month to walk among the sadness and loss that the place signifies so well, all the while trying to conjure the words he might have spoken.

As the subway lurched forward, the now black expanse of the park whirred past before disappearing entirely.
It was gone. He was gone; another ghost in a city that was always remembering.

Remembering, and yet moving, traveling forward everyday.