The Best Time I Thought I Was Going To Die In The Italian Woods
“You don’t have to speak Italian, it’s completely fine. Non ti preoccupare.”
The fact that my boss couldn’t get through the entire reassurance in English should have been a tip off. But it wasn’t. I accepted the job, an offer almost too good to be true: myself and my first-ever Serious Boyfriend would be working in Italy for a now-defunct government program that sent Italian government officials’ children away from them for a few weeks every summer.
A regular summer camp in most of its programming, we would teach English for three hours total each day. In return, we would be housed, fed, paid, and free to roam the Italian national park where the camp was located. “If you’re working, try to keep it professional, you know. No more than three glasses of wine with lunch,” my future boss — a British man named Peter who sounded like he was kind and handsome — had said on the phone. It was really and truly too much.
“Our colleague Nisel will come get you at the train station,” Peter explained. “She will email you shortly. You can stay with her for a night to sleep off the travel before heading up to join the rest of us at camp.”
Nisel’s message was short but emphatic:
hello MONICA!! i am picking you up on the day, tomorrow, at TERMINI, the large stazione in rome. you will know me because I will wear red and shouting your name! looking excited to meet you soon!!!!!
I had booked an incredibly budget flight that involved a stopover in Munich for five hours. My total journey time would be thirteen. On the flight over, I couldn’t sleep. I was too excited; anyway, I reasoned, I would have plenty of time to rest when I got to Rome.
When I arrived at the station, Nisel was not wearing red. I only realized I had been found when a five foot pile of curly brown hair barreled towards me shouting “MONICAAAA! MONICA!!! IT IS YOU! We have done it. I did not know for sure, because you have this sunburn. Too white. Anyway, we’re going to take you all the way to the bus, you have to go to camp early.” Hello, Nisel.
We crammed my suitcase into her truly tiny car and I was responsible for shifting gears while she steered with one hand and smoked out the window with the other. We passed famous landmarks and children eating gelato and teenagers acting horny in the streets. It felt like a cartoon.
The bus depot looked suspiciously like a post office, and I waited while Nisel and the woman behind the counter shouted at each other in an amiable way. Eventually, Nisel thrust a bus ticket into my hands and said words that sounded like “Ark Water Del Trombone.” “When the driver of the Pullman says this, you get out,” she said. “Buona fortuna.”
To pass the time I tried to use my bank card. The machine calmly ate it. I, less calmly, opened my wallet. Seven Euros. It occurred to me that I didn’t have any contact information for Peter — not the name of the camp, not his phone number, not the name that had been shouted at me earlier. Arcana Del Tuna?
I tried not to worry about my dwindling funds — I’d shelled out three euros on a coffee and pastry — and focused instead on how excited I was to sleep. At this point I had been awake for almost 24 hours, and was giving off an aroma you might describe as “rotting airport.” I squeezed into my seat between a robust, kind-eyed woman and the window, laid my head against a scarf, and… immediately the bus driver began pumping Italian pop music through the bus, loudly, aggressively. The syrup-y, intense pop continued for all four hours of our scenic, winding, nauseating drive through the countryside.
By the time the driver announced our arrival at “Arquinto Del Toronto,“ I was mildly delirious and had vomited once. The rotting airport smell had transitioned gracefully into something closer to “road kill with B.O.” The bus stop looked suspiciously like a closed gas station.
There was no sign of Peter as the other disembarked passengers met their families and friends and drove off. At last, I thought. A moment to myself. I sat at a picnic table and looked at the lush landscape around me. Dense woods, a lone road disappearing over the crest of a hill. How lucky am I? Just me and this beautiful afternoon in the Italian hills. It was 6pm.
I watched the sun set a few hours later with some alarm but mostly with exhaustion. It was rude of Peter to be so late, but I was sure he would be here soon. I had no phone with which to confirm this, and no money to take a taxi even if one happened to pass through this remote stretch of road through a national park. I lay my head down on the picnic table and basked in the dusk, wondering what it would be like to see my boyfriend again. After all, our teenage hormones had separated for almost two weeks now, a veritable eternity in Horny Years. In the fantasies I concocted I looked and smelled a lot nicer than I did at present.
It is hard to say how I bypassed total panic and transitioned, a few hours later, still at the gas station, into “I guess I’m sleeping under this picnic table,” but it happened somewhere between 9 and 10pm. Well, I thought to myself, I’ll just put the suitcase in front of me to hide me from any ne’er do wells driving by, use my towel as a blanket, and let the top of the table shield me from the elements. I guess this is my life now. Looking back, I would venture the answer was sleep deprivation.
I was in “Arkinko’s Del Tanto“ or something like it, possibly abandoned forever, certainly reliant on the charity of whoever was opening the gas station tomorrow. I thought about my mother, a Champion Worrier, across the world and missing out on this truly incredible opportunity to fear for her daughter’s safety. What a rip off.
Whenever headlights passed by me, I straightened my back, a keen pupil hoping to impress her teacher and get a damn ride back to her damn boyfriend and maybe some sleep and also, now that I thought about it, some food. A car passed maybe once every hour. I got my towel out and really started to think about sleeping under the table in earnest.
I must have dozed off, because I woke up some moments later to headlights in my face. A pickup truck was headed towards me. I made a mental note not to be too rude about Peter’s completely unforgivable tardiness, and started packing my towel back in my suitcase.
As the truck slowed to a crawl, the face that peered suspiciously out at me from the driver’s window was not a familiar one. My empty stomach dropped. I felt acutely and horribly the dangerous remoteness of the setting and the stupidity of my lack of phone and how no one in the world knew where I was right now. No one except this bearded stranger, who had driven a few feet away and parked his car under the lights of the gas pumps.
I sat frozen in my seat, fishing around in my purse for…a weapon? A phone I knew not to be there? I found the greasy wrapper of my pastry from earlier. The man opened the door of his truck and looked at me, curiously, before reaching back into his car. He turned to me, shut the door of his truck, and put on a pair of latex surgical gloves.
A thing I know about myself now is that if I think I am really and truly going to be murdered, I will immediately burst into soft tears.
The man in the surgical gloves closed the door of his truck and started walking towards me impossibly slowly. I thought about my mother again, literally pictured her making one of those devastating pleas on television for my return, or eventually, closure. I thought about how maybe my boyfriend was comically close by, completely unaware I was about to be abducted, the parts that had gathered, once, to form his overly dramatic nineteen-year-old love scattered in some forgotten ruins. I pictured the heroic but futile efforts I would make to fight this man in the gloves. I made a pact with myself to poke out at least one eye before I was overcome.
He reached the end of his truck and paused, presumably wondering whether to disembowel me here or drive me into the hills for something worse. Eventually he stopped shifting on his feet and made a decision.
The man filled his car with gas and drove away. Italy is a nation of hypochondriacs, and I guess the idea of touching a bare gas pump had been too much for this man, the idea of helping a crying woman alone in the dark station even less appealing.
Peter arrived not long after the stranger departed, pulling into view at almost 2am. “Sorry!” he said brightly. “Dinner went late!” Peter was just as kind and handsome as he’d seemed over the phone and, like a good British man, perfectly oblivious to any indications of complicated human emotion. We drove in silence…for about two minutes. The camp, in what turned out to be Arquata Del Tronto, turned out to be around the corner, maybe a five-minute walk from where I had been waiting/picnic table camping/confronting my own mortality.
“I have good news,” he said as we drove through the gates. “Everyone stayed up to welcome you!”
Unshowered and awake for more than 30 hours, I emerged from the car to the screams of 70 Italian children, aged 4 to 10. I smiled at them all and immediately began to cry. My boyfriend carried me upstairs (becoming a hero to the children in the act of doing so) and I collapsed into bed, crying myself to sleep like the True Loon I am.
I had an amazing summer.
Monica Heisey is a writer and comedian in Toronto. She is on Twitter: @monicaheisey.