Off The Island

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

We never should have come here.

I am lying on a beach in the Mediterranean. I am lying on black velvet sand, gazing up at a cloudless, azure-blue sky. The water is so clear that no matter how far I swim out, I can still see the bottom—pink shells, blue bits of tiles, scraps of driftwood shaped like tiny angel’s wings.

We have to fucking get out of here.

Here is Stromboli, a tiny island that is the farthest south you can go and still be in Italy. It is the summer of 1990. I am a 19-year-old American college student with a Eurail pass, half of a round-trip ferry ticket, four traveler’s checks and no local currency.

The other half of the “we” is my friend Liz. This is all her fault. I wanted to go to Venice, maybe Vienna. But Liz wanted to go to the beach. Specifically, to “this beautiful island in southern Italy that’s a volcano, and where Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman fell in love and made a movie and—” and, as usual, Liz won. Liz’s parents were psychiatrists, and she possessed a Jedi-like power to convince. She would lay her mind control on people, while I would stand there mutely being alluring and/or intimidating until the velvet ropes opened, the drugs bestowed, the room upgraded, the charges dropped. We were a team: I kept my back to the wall, my eyes on the door and my exit strategy ready, and she made sure there was a reason for it.

Liz was a busty Korean chick, and I was a six-foot redhead with a punk-rock pallor and a wardrobe of Kim-Novak-in-Picnic sundresses. I didn’t realize this might be a problem until we got to Rome. I looked over my shoulder and there had to be 20 guys following us who erupted into a chorus of hoots, some words I didn’t understand and some gestures I definitely did. We fled into a nearby McDonald’s—down a long, marble hallway with fountains and elaborate planters and into an oak-paneled room where we ate fries under a giant crystal chandelier until the crowd dissipated.

As we waited for the train south, Liz’s wallet got stolen, and I chased after the thief across eight lanes of approaching headlights and into the labyrinthine subway tunnels. By the time I caught him, another crowd of males was following me, although this time I was glad to see them. I took the wallet and left the perp to the mob.

On the train, we shared a cabin with a half-dozen elderly nuns, who projected disapproval even while asleep and snoring. I spent most of the ride in the corridor, sharing cigarettes with a boy who looked like a young Italian Matt Dillon. He didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Italian, but we managed to get along.

We arrived in Palermo, a dark-toned city of narrow buildings and winding streets. Aside from an initial run-in with some cops who didn’t understand why anyone would eat lunch at 2 p.m. or how to handle a machine gun safely, we spent our days on the beach and nights at those cliff-by-the-sea nightclubs you see in ’60s Italian movies.

While we were vaguely aware of something called the World Cup, we didn’t realize we were at ground zero. When the Italian team played in La Favorita Stadium, you could hear the roar across the city, echoed in every bar, café and home with a screen or a speaker. We sat drinking Champagne on a football-field-size plaza; no one else was on the street except two guys riding a moped on their way to a Dionne Warwick concert. They offered us a ride to Cefalù the next day. Guess who said no. Guess who said yes. Guess who won. I admit that I wasn’t that resistant: After all, these guys had chosen a Dionne Warwick concert over the home country’s championship game.

We crowded into their Fiat, whipping along the postcard coastline as they blasted Suzanne Vega. Cefalù was Romanesque and rocky, terra-cotta walls and orange-tiled roofs dominated by a huge medieval cathedral. We saw the sights and went to the beach; after that, they were supposed to take us to the train station. Instead they took us to an empty house near the tracks. I opened the largest blade on my Swiss Army knife and announced that we were going to the train station. Now. They complied.


In a few hours, we arrived on Stromboli, a volcano looming up out of the sea with a village hanging off the side—a few dozen whitewashed buildings, wound around with scarlet flowers as big as my hand, 15-foot cascades of magenta blossoms, hillsides of yellow-budded vines. We found the one hotel, lazed on the lava-sand beach, and ate mussels and calamari on a terrace. This took almost all of our remaining cash, but we were leaving tomorrow anyway.

The next day, as we waited for the hydro back, Liz struck up a conversation with one of the locals, a small, laughing man with gray hair and a deep tan. I listened to the waves, thinking about what I’d do when we returned to Paris, then when I made it back to London.

“Lissa?” I should have just said no immediately. Actually, I did. Then came the pleading and Liz’s Lillian Gish sad-eyes-and-quivering-lip routine. I believe the phrases “I’ll never ask you for anything again” and “You can go, I’m staying” were used. This total stranger had offered to put us up for the night. He took us to a sprawling beachside house with lush gardens, where a man who bore a remarkable resemblance to Allen Ginsberg rolled his eyes and exchanged a few words in French with Liz before he disappeared into a courtyard.

Liz insisted that our new friend who brought us here was “the uncle of everyone in the village,” but I doubt that was why he kept hugging her. His raptures over my “beautiful” hair and skin “like milk” were unnerving. We had no money and no way off the island until the next afternoon. “Uncle” announced he was taking us to dinner. There was course after course of just-caught seafood and just-made pasta. Our wine glasses were topped off every time we took a sip.

We exited into unlit streets and a moonless night. And suddenly Liz and “Uncle” were gone. I ran toward the sound of her giggle, stumbling, turning blind until I saw the stripes of her shirt and grabbed hold. “We should go back to the house,” I said. “Now.”

But we didn’t go to the house. We kept walking toward the beach; suddenly, Liz was climbing up a ladder to a boat. As bodyguard/nanny, I followed. I heard the ladder fall to the sand; Uncle shouted something about us leaving in the morning. Fuck. It dawned on me that a redhead and an Asian might be worth something to someone wherever this boat was going at dawn. Think. There was a wood railing that might work as a club, but even if I managed to brain this guy, it wasn’t like we could jump into a cab and disappear. Think. Strategy. I shouted after Uncle …

“I need my bag. It’s in the house. It has my … money in it.”

He put the ladder back, and I tumbled down, dragging Liz, and ran for the house. If we could move fast enough, we could grab our shit, disappear somewhere into the dark and hide. But the lights were ablaze, “Allen Ginsberg” was there, and Uncle caught up with us. Liz and I exchanged a look. I began feigning illness while she prattled at Ginsberg in French. He turned on Uncle with an expression of great displeasure and a barrage of Italian, stopping long enough to direct us to a back bedroom. We locked ourselves in as Uncle and Allen argued.

I must have fallen asleep, because Liz was poking me awake. The house was dim and silent as we grabbed our backpacks and crept away. Outside, the sun was rising, rose-gold and heavenly like a Michelangelo ceiling as we headed down the beach.

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