By Anna Bottino
This pack is heavy.
Not the kind of heavy that inflicts a stinging cramp in the nape of your shoulders, or an ache in the small of your back.
It’s the kind of heavy that carries with it the following contents: your dirty clothes, your pathetic collection of street-vendor souvenirs, your dead, cracked cell phone along with the unpaid bill, your shoes that have become soggy (from stepping in puddles so inconveniently placed between the cobblestones), your wallet (if you can even call it that anymore as it’s merely a piece of cloth filled with coins) and how can I forget the ever so lovely emotional baggage; baggage that you promised yourself you wouldn’t pack, but nevertheless ended up thinking about along your walk… The list goes on.
I’ve never been one to complain. I’ve never been one to cry.
But as I hike up this hill in a place that is supposed to be beautiful, supposed to be life changing, supposed to bring about this paramount sense of clarity, giving a person the will to live a life far more inspirational than the pathetic one that inspired them to pack a bag, buy a plane ticket, and come here, I feel the tears scratching their way to the surface of my eyes.
I sit down, taking a break from my self-pity, finding solace on a steep rocky ledge bordering the sea.
The Mediterranean is so clear. The waves appear peaceful as they meet the rocks on the shoreline. They crash, creating that swoosh that soothes the ear and calms the mind. The salt from the crashing waves rises from its encounter with the land to meet me on this ledge, sitting, waiting for a sign. A cool mist touches my lips. I instinctively open my mouth to taste its salt.
I feel the tears tuck themselves back into the sheltered, safe pockets of my eyes. I silently pray that they stay there for a while. I’ve gathered some perspective from the ocean salt. It’s time to move forward.
I stand, place my backpack atop my shoulders, and continue my ascent.
It’s come to the point where I can just barely see the top, the hostel that I am in search of becoming more pronounced, more real. I chose the place because of the breathtaking photos I had come across online, and because of the price (mostly because of the price). I now realize why I had struck such a deal, as someone who has researched the area would have known where this hostel is located, and the strength and endurance required to get to its location. No matter. I’m almost there.
As with most hikes, the last leg of the journey is the most taxing. The ground begins to slowly shift from slightly to severely vertical. My breath becomes short, my heart noticeably beating. It feels like a rock in my chest pounding, trying to inch its way up from beneath my ribs, begging for me to take a break from this adventure and face reality.
I am dangerously close to the top of this hill, close to laying down and resting my back, my shoulders, and my over active mind. I’m trying hard to stay positive in light of the pain that is becoming noticeably unbearable.
“This isn’t the kind of pain a child should have to bear.”
She meant the pain of having to grab her mother from up under her shoulders as she’s screaming in her ears like a small, defiant child. She meant the pain of having to deny her mother’s requests over and over again…
“Please kill me… please I can’t do this anymore.”
She meant the pain of having to drag her own mother out the door. She meant the pain of having to tell her mother that she is letting her children down just so that she will find the courage to get in the shower. The pain of having to hide Advil, Benadryl, razors, shoelaces, forks…
“Beautiful isn’t it?” A woman says behind me, her British tone looming in the air. She just wants an affirmation, a human exchange both familiar and comforting. I try to give her what she wants, politely nodding and putting on my best smile. I’m not in the mood for small talk. I just want to get up this hill.
I walk on. It shouldn’t be so hard. After all, I am in Italy. The beauty and awareness I behold alone of where I’m standing should keep me mentally grounded. It should allow me to walk without the weight of this pack bothering me. It should allow me to smile and appreciate the scenery.
I feel the tears leaving their safe place.
I had a safe place once. It was in my room. It was comfortable. My bed sheets smelled like the warmth and security of home, and later on they smelled like sweat and peanut butter because I wouldn’t leave my bed. In my room there was a silence that penetrated through the world happening outside the door. Once in a while, a knock would lightly introduce itself, followed by screams and pleading. She was desperate. I would ignore it and turn on a show, usually about a family in a nice house. The family would have two kids, a dog, and a husband who loved his wife (but only modestly the way conventional husbands do). The kids’ mother would make dinner every night, always with a dessert. The mother would be kind, careful not to hurt the egos and spirits of her children, and wise enough to teach them a lesson when the opportunity presented itself. I would pretend that I was a part of their family. I would pretend that I was on the screen, only thinking about the next meal my mother was going to make while the knocks turned into bangs.
This pack is getting heavier. The nice woman who had commented on the view earlier has decided to turn back. She smiles politely at me as she descends the hill, passing my sweaty, aching body, making me feel even more sorry for myself.
I sit down again, this time on a very uncomfortable rock. The rock’s edges are poking into my skin, nearly piercing the thin layer of cloth around my thighs. Even resting hurts.
When the tears pour over, my mouth reluctantly cracks into a frown, as if the water escaping my eyes gives the rest of my face permission to rip apart the façade of a smile frequently on display, contorting into wrinkles and catching the tears and snot that drip down.
I just can’t understand why she wanted to die. She had me, she had my brother, she had my father. We needed her. I needed her. And the way that she died. Lying there face up, wrists slit, her blood covering the floor. I never knew blood could be that color. She had knocked on my bedroom door earlier that day. I should’ve answered. I found her there, in her bedroom alone. I called an ambulance, did all of the things I was supposed to do. In silence, I waited for the paramedics to come, for the police to question, for the day to worsen. I sighed, as a veil of relief rested upon my shoulders. I had a thought. It floated in the air like a feather that resists touching the ground, moving left to right in a pendulum-like state. It was sinfully casual, light, and private.
Finally, some peace.
I look over the ledge.
I take the pack off. I’m about 100 meters from the top. I unzip it and start to sort through its contents. I can’t carry this pack anymore, at least not in its entirety. I open the main pouch and scrounge around. I take out a poster that I had purchased in Florence, a commercialized map of Italy. Before I even think about it, I toss it into the ocean below. It hits the rocks, disappearing into the sea.
The shoes in my pack are old and useless. I toss them over too.
I toss some old jeans.
I toss a sweatshirt.
I toss my cellphone bill. I’ll never pay it.
I toss my wallet.
I toss a picture of her.
I stop tossing. I try on the pack. It’s no lighter than it was before. I take a few steps and try to grasp exactly how much weight needs to be eliminated. Surely there is more in this thing that is useless.
I take the pack off again. The sun is in my face, warming my eyelids and drying my old tears. I close my eyes and hold my head up to the rays. I had done this once before, at her funeral. The sun was shining that day, which seemed odd because funerals are supposed to be accompanied by rain. As my brother and father laid dirt on her coffin, as they said their final goodbyes, I closed my eyes and faced the sun. I liked it because even when my eyes were closed, encompassed by the darkness of my lids, the sun found its way through. It created a golden glow, a circular beam of light that felt personal. It was like hope.
Sitting here now, I can’t find that same feeling. I squeeze my eyes tightly, so much so that I begin to see spots. My face starts to contort again, my forehead wrinkling, my eyes watering.
“Are you alright?” I turn around, awoken from my thoughts by a man who’s standing behind me.
I try to piece together words that sound logical; words that make the situation seem less severe than it appears. He’s looking at me like I used to look at her.
“Yeah, this pack is just heavy.”
I hope he’ll be satisfied with my reply. I hope that he’ll assume that I’m just a normal girl having some ordinary difficulties.
But instead, he politely clears his throat, looking almost amused. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. He slowly removes one from the pack, as if he’s trying not to scare me. He puts it in his mouth, lights it, and hands it to me. He lights another for himself.
I don’t know what else to do, so I take a long, deep drag, trying to adopt the nonchalant experience of holding a cigarette, trying to be European, trying to show this man that I am really not crazy. As soon as I breathe in, the smoke pierces my throat, creating a dry sensation. It feels like there’s a knife lingering in the air, air that I’m desperately trying to breath. I cough loudly.
“Are you hiking to the hostel?” he asks. I now notice the suppressed Italian
accent. I notice it by the patient fluctuation of emotion and concern weaved into his
questioning, carved by his mother tongue.
I nod, continuing to cough.
He smiles, taking a smooth pull, “It’s closed for the season.”
Alone and embarrassed, I let the frustration boil through my skin. Like hot water steaming through a teakettle, screeching and begging to be relieved from the heat, my anger festers and snarls, too hard to hide. The man remains calm, a bystander, smoking quietly as my hands find my hair, squeezing and pulling at the long, knotted strands. I can’t help but feel incinerated, used, battered and beaten. I have so much more planned, so much more that I need to see and think about. This can’t stop me.
I take the pack off and hurl it over of the ledge. The pack soars in what seems like slow motion, hitting the water hard. It sinks down into the sand, into the rocks. It finds a home at the bottom of the sea along with the rest of its contents, alone, not bothering anyone with the weight that it holds.