Empty mailboxes and blank postcards share no details.
Everyone counts on these facts. This she knew.
That summer of ’44 she was blogging for a food and wine touring group. She packed light, just the necessities; a few summer dresses, tanned and toned thighs, a comfortable pair of aviators. On her fingers she wore several of her sterling silver rings. In the bottom of the bag she tucked some hiking shoes and climate gear for explorations and in the last minute she threw in her flats and changed into a pair of black strappy sandals with the zip back and low heel.
Everything else she planned to buy in the local shops. What she didn’t have would give her reason to go into town and meet another shopkeepers, to track down another pretty place. She never tired of smelling of fresh basil and ripe tomatoes and wet earth in the markets. On her shoulder she hung her laptop, on her hip her iphone, and all the necessary charging equipment and manuals and a box of beeswax candles rounded out her carry on.
They met in the farm kitchen around the cold stone slab where the owner was teaching couples how to seal the edges of the ravioli with milk and bind the layers with gentle fingertip pressure. He stood behind her and slipped his hands under her arms, intentionally brushing against her hips with his lower arms and settling in with his chin casually bumping her temple and his hands mimicking her moves with the dough.
Months later, months that felt like days, she returned home and intentionally placed into the bottom of the middle drawer a faded picture postcard of the Umbria villa, and underneath she tucked the cork from the fat-bottomed bottle of Sangiovese they filled over and over at the local bar on those long sultry nights of one brief but unforgettable summer of travels.
Neither had ever been discovered. Both had been touched.
This morning, the morning air was damp and cold, carrying the dirt smell of fat earthworms announcing the spring temps just a few degrees warmer than the winter of the previous week. Everyone felt gratitude and almost harbored a hunger for the sweat from the sun and the blinding blue skies. It was the time of year when skirts and sandals need to be worn mid-day but the mornings still flaunted the power of ice and dared the bare skin to expose itself to nature. The body had to pull a sweater tightly across the chest and grip a warm mug of coffee, keeping the the steam rising to warm the chin and with each sip the taking warmth to the belly for safekeeping.
Every year when the very first day of humidity returned she felt the unstoppable pang of wanting for summer in Italy.
She reached under the slider and in the center of the old chest of drawers and carefully scooped up the cork, put it to her nose, and found her self strangely saddened in finding no trace of the red, no reminder of the hours of merry making and loud conversations shared across little tables lit with the crooked, spitting, dripping candles.
She looked at the postcard wedged into the small space and as she traced the craggy line of the cliffs down to the sandy beach, she thought she was prepared for the stillness radiating from the cardboard scene. She found it odd no hint of the sea and certainly no spray touched her face when she took a minute to reconstruct the simple days they’d created while exploring the beaches and the sea together during that lovely summer.
Yes, it had been a long time ago. But it happened. It really did. This was the proof.
She turned over the photograph, and audibly sighed when she realized the half-scribble half-printed mesage was missing from the reverse. As she flipped the postcard in her fingers, she felt a piece of her had gone missing but had been surrounded and captured in her throat when she found his penmanship smudged and crammed on the back of it. His words shaped her vision of the rest of the Italy she would never return to see, and his words vibrantly painted the scenes of the Europe and later Russia and the Netherlands and half the world she had cut off the idea of ever visiting.
The postcards arrived haphazardly in the post box over the years, sometimes a handful at a time, all dropped into the care of some family he had visited. Sometimes, when he neared a bigger town, a few would be left at a random post overseas.
Sometimes there’d be nothing delivered to her red box for weeks on end, and she’d rest her mind believing if there were none, he must have finally settled in, settled down, settled for another life.
And just when she was sure she could forget about him, his words would be staring back at her from the dark mailbox. She’d pull open the metal door at the end of the drive, and one would be there, standing straight up, always affixed with more postage than needed and always decorated with his signature quarter note and the letters DEF penned in next to it.
As she pulled each card into the light she found the colors of local parades and church processions with gold crosses shone off the paper. Over the next year, she grew familiar with the advertisements for local wineries touting flavors and soil specialties of the regions of Italy. She enjoyed countless scenes of cobblestones and church altars and tiny cottages on green hills. One year, he’d written so many tales about his travels, his trips to the mountains, to the sea, to the little fishing villages and to the vineyards and the villas she thought she could certainly open a tourist shop and sell pining young travelers glorious trips abroad.
One place after another, he made time to share snippets of his journey, the meeting of the local growers, his awe at the shared confidences by men who learned the secrets of the vine from old men, men who had inherited the cellars and the casks from great great grandfathers.
She could see him laughing in the sunshine, soaking up the lore and planning his return trips through the same valleys so he could meet with these new friends again.
As each postcard arrived she read it over and over, drew lines with her index finger on the fading map she had hanging above the mantle and with this simple process she learned how far he had gone, what direction he traveled and how long it might have taken him to get from the previous stop. Over her years, the matted and framed boot of Italy had moved from house to house as her life took its place over her dreams.
Later, when Italy had taken its fill of his questions the postcards came from random countries. Each post card sent traced his reckless drive to see the countryside and touch the coastlines. She followed through the postcards, his crossing of borders and waters and city limits. She marveled at the distance he made the fall and how he never returned to work. He was a like a man possessed then, soaking up the history and hugging the old ladies sitting in the sun and giving back his own travel stories a barter for a bottle of wine.
He easily conveyed seeing the crazy men he’d met wielding machetes in Argentina and he traded for a place to sleep. He gestured widely, to create vivid stories of the hectic pace of the boat races and described the size and the engineering of the boat he’d built and sailed with his the crew along the same path as the World Cup race in San Francisco. He shared a laugh while carefully constructed characters and dangerous run ins with wild life for fresh crusty rolls and home made tarts .
Alone, for at ten summers, he granted his adventurous tales during after dinner drinks with a few neighbors for a warm blanket and a quiet place in the barn to put his pounding head to rest after he’d taken more than his share of the grape to bed with him.
She read each brief missive over and over, and scanned them into her flash drive then touched them to her lips before burning them in the fireplace.
In the warmer months, she ripped them into pieces and carefully dropped them into various refuse bins in the bathrooms of the cafes where she sat to write on mornings during the week.
It had been a long time since she had opened the box to trace the letters on the cork.
It had been a long time since she had tried to pull the spice of the wine to the back of her tongue.
It had been ages since she had touched that v in her neck where he used to touch her softly and kiss her after.
It had been a long, unforgettable summer again this year. And she knew the salty pangs of regret were standing at the ready if she let her guard down.
Her children were growing and beautiful, her husband solid and strong. They made her a better person than she was, but it was one Italian summer that made her more than a mother and wife.
#for Reticent Mental Property. Picture credit to the vast internet reserve of red mailbox images.