Mother Goes to Italy

Lottie and Sara-Marie only crossed paths once in their lives for a total of thirty minutes on an Italian beach in June. And yet these strangers had quite a bit in common, right down to the cellulite along the backs of their thighs. Age was the most significant feature dividing them – Lottie had thirty years on Sara-Marie. So while the 19-year-old showed off her smooth, pre-baby abdomen in a bikini, Lottie’s stretch marks (painted along her stomach like the veins of a leaf) had confined her to a one-piece that day. What would’ve passed as age-appropriate back in Connecticut made her look like a downright nun at these European beaches. It was one of the first things she’d noticed at the start of her trip. 

“There are so many naked bodies on the beach just out on display,” she’d told her son with childlike fascination over the phone on her first night in Montpellier, “and they’re all shapes and sizes too, there’s no shame or sucking in.”

Her son was back in Connecticut with his fiancée and they were worried about Lottie. Those at the start of a marriage can’t help but look at the end of one in comic shock — this word, “divorce,” is such a looming threat, that they have to dispel it as some alien thing. Lottie didn’t appreciate her son’s concern – the moment he discovered his parents were splitting up, he’d begun to act more like a husband or father to her, rather than a son. But that was an oedipal can of worms she didn’t feel like opening on such a fine summer day.

By noon, most of the hotel guests had spilled onto the beach like liquid tipped from a glass. Towels and umbrellas bearing the hotel’s navy-blue logo nearly covered the caramel-colored sand. The Mediterranean opened before them like a refreshing burst of mountain air, its waters as thin as glass and dyed an iridescent green. Curt waves rumbled up to the sand like a needle threading through silk. No wonder so much had been written about this body of water.

Once the divorce was finalized, Lottie decided it was time for a vacation – the indulgent trip to Europe she never went on with her husband. It all felt a little too “Eat, Pray, Love-y,” but as Lottie laid back on her plush hotel bed that first night, she figured there were worse people to be than Julia Roberts. Besides, she had no intention of converting or falling in love. She had every intention of gaining a little weight, catching up on her reading, and sitting on the beach all day. And every time one of the beautiful staff members in their crisp, linen uniforms would ask her if she wanted another Fanta, she would reply with an indulgent, si.

Sara-Marie arrived at the beach just past noon with her friends. Lottie got her first glimpse of the black-haired girl as they had their cabana set up nearby. The linen-clad staff members were responsible for towing umbrellas, chaises, and drinks out to the tanning guests as needed. It was that sort of hotel. Lottie wondered how these three girls, who couldn’t have been past 20, could afford to stay there. 

Given the popularity of the beach, there was very little real estate left, so the girls were set up directly beside Lottie and, whether she liked it or not, she was in an opportune spot for eavesdropping. The striped umbrella shading the trio only partially obstructed their bodies from her view. Three pairs of legs mysteriously stuck out from the bottom, reminding Lottie of that magic trick of sawing a woman in half.

Lottie quickly learned by their accents (or lack thereof to her ears) that they were American. In customarily loud English, they were going over their plans to visit a local vineyard, Giardini di Cataldo later that day. Given they talked about a wine tasting with all the giddiness of cheating on a diet, Lottie had to assume they were over 18 and under 21, just as she’d suspected.

“A beautiful Italian man telling me what wine to drink,” one of the girls was saying, “that’s all I ask for.” 

“Oh, that’s all?”

 It should be noted that Lottie was in Italy now, having cut her stay in France short. It wasn’t so much France’s fault as it was an issue of timing. Her first few days away from home were wildly lonely – this just so happened to take place in France, but it could’ve just as easily occurred in Italy or Timbuktu had they been her first stops.

It was something like homesickness, an affliction she hadn’t struggled with since sleep-away camp. She used to comfort her son that homesickness always passed with a little time and chocolate. But she hadn’t expected to require such a pep talk in a five-star hotel in Southern France at the age of 59.

So she ran from this loneliness all the way to Italy, hoping it wouldn’t find her there. Given the short notice of her arrival, she wound up in a tiny room on the ground floor, facing the road instead of the famed Amalfi coast. But now, with a bit more time and chocolate under her belt, it was better. She realized her error in attempting to orchestrate a life changing event – those things could only happen naturally. This three-week trip could not be her reentry into single-dom, a middle finger to her husband, and proof of independence to her son all at once. That was asking a lot of France.

“All I ask for is a proper buzz,” Sara-Marie’s other friend went on, her voice slightly muted by the angled umbrella. 


“It’s not alcoholism until we leave Europe.”

“Not alcoholism until we graduate.”

Lottie wanted to put her orange soda down and walk up to those girls (the daughters she never had, the girlfriends her son had brought home over the years), to inform them that alcoholism was alcoholism.

Instead, she wondered at how simple it all must’ve seemed to them. Was 19 really so easy? She often tried to remember how she felt when she was that age. With all the time that had lapsed since then, she could only remember the best of it – the potential, the dreaming, the ruse of infinity. Life was easy to grasp and, come to think of it, so was she. At that age, Mrs., Wife, Mother, Ex, Dependent had not been added to her list of identifiers just yet.

“I had a boyfriend, but I don’t know who it was,” Sara-Marie had changed the subject. Lottie, having missed a few key words, had no idea what they were talking about now.

 “What did he look like?” one of her friends asked.

“Faceless, everyone in my dreams are always faceless.”

Ah, a dream. It must’ve been very lonely to only ever dream of faceless people. Lottie was amused by the unusual level of attention the friends paid to this story – most people, including herself, dreaded hearing a play-by-play of someone else’s dream; right up there with going through someone’s vacation photos. Lottie took another sip of her orange soda. Sara-Marie continued.

“We were at a restaurant, and I proposed. You know that thing where the guy puts the engagement ring in a glass of champagne?”

“I think that’s so tacky.”

“Well, in the dream, I hid the engagement ring in a little cowboy hat and gave it to him.”

You gave him a ring?”

“I’m sorry, are we not focusing on the cowboy hat?”

“What’s going on inside your brain?”

“So much. Haven’t even gotten to the weird part. So, he says no. And then he gets up to leave and turns into a mouse, and I chase him around the restaurant.”

They laughed and Lottie hid an accompanying smile behind her book. There was more to these girls than liquor and vacation. Lottie wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d dreamt of something similar in the middle of her divorce that had merely slipped her mind upon waking. 19 wasn’t simple; it was messy. She then remembered the nervous, almost rabbit-like energy that lived in her chest at that age. Self-doubt and constant panic inside a perfect body, as her mother had once described it.

“Further proof that men are rats,” one friend went on.

“Correction – apparently they’re mice.”

“Another Fanta ma’am?”

It took Lottie a moment to realize this last voice was directed at her as opposed to her neighbors. She was so tied up in their chatter, she’d forgotten that she was at the beach as well. She turned to address the man crouching at her shoulder, his linen uniform betraying him in the heat and exposing a bit of sweat on his neckline. Lottie confirmed that she did in fact want another Fanta. Si. 

By the time she’d recovered her pose behind her book, ears trained back to the girls, she realized they were getting up to head into the water. She caught her first glimpse beyond their legs – sunburned shoulder blades, chipped nail polish, plump, gravity-defying skin, knees just slightly scraped from certainly happy adventures. Everything about them was 19. 

One of Sara-Marie’s friends broke the fourth wall and asked Lottie if she could watch their things while they were in the water. It took her a moment to realize they were talking to her. 

“You don’t mind, do you?” one of them pressed.

One thing Lottie had noticed upon hitting her 50s was how quickly strangers seemed to trust her, apparently seeing her as a wise old woman now that she’d wrapped up her childbearing years. These days, only men in their 70s made passes at her; or men in their 20s, who looked at her as a mother-once-removed. It seemed she couldn’t get away from that damn oedipal can of worms.

But transitions from one stage to another always seemed to sneak up on Lottie. The day she wore her favorite skirt to school in the seventh grade and one of her male teachers told her she was distracting all the boys in class including himself – that day hit her with the same amount of whiplash as the day that a young man on the train asked her if she had any granola bars in her purse when she was 52. It was no wonder these young girls looked at Lottie not as the women they would one day become, but as the mothers they still clung to and trusted to watch their wallets and phones.

Lottie, of course, nodded in agreement. The two friends were all giggles and thanks as they rushed into the water, covered in more skin than swimsuit. Sara-Marie lagged behind, pretending to fuss with the ties on her swim top.

“Sorry about that,” she said, “thanks again.” She over-pronounced each word, and Lottie realized these girls didn’t even know if she spoke English. She was both shocked and unsurprised at how quickly they trusted. 

“It’s alright, I’m not going anywhere,” Lottie waved her book at Sara-Marie as if to prove her point.

Play It As It Lays,” Sara-Marie said this with the familiarity of recognizing a song on the radio.

“Have you read it?” Lottie had only just started it herself.

“Many times.”

Lottie blushed. Sara-Marie was better read than her. She felt embarrassed to have so quickly chalked this young woman up to something she was not. Joan Didion would’ve been ashamed.

Sara-Marie went on, “I wrote a paper on it last semester. I want to be a feminist.”

They both laughed at how this sounded, as if Sara-Marie were saying she wanted to be a dentist or a landscaper. And then it sounded like they were laughing at feminism, which they both knew they were not, so Sara-Marie further clarified.    

“Full-time, I mean. That’s what I’m studying in school.”

To be 19, drowning in feminist literature and dreaming about the future. Lottie almost said this, then realized how old and grumpy she would’ve sounded if she had. But it was a beautiful thought, a beautiful life. Lottie was content to think about it, flattered that this girl had handed her dreams over to a stranger for a quick peruse. This kindness alone helped Lottie to properly remember the infinite power she’d felt at that age. The power of things untried. She was grateful to Sara-Marie for reminding her of this.

“Well, I think Joan Didion would’ve gotten a kick out of your dream.”

Once again, they both wondered at how this sounded aloud.

Lottie clarified, “the dream you had last night, I mean.”

Part of her felt like these women had known she was eavesdropping the whole time and there was no use in pretending.            

Sara-Marie pointed to the now empty cabana in recognition of the conversation that had just happened there – as if place and memory were two inseparable things. 

“I’d like to think so.”

Sara-Marie was backing away. She didn’t want to spend anymore of her formative years talking to a 50-something divorcee. She had friends to join in the water, skin to burn in the sun, a fresh liver to ruin at a vineyard later that afternoon.

Sara-Marie had woken up a little homesick that morning. She’d decided to stay in Italy an extra month after her abroad program ended and was supposed to be having the best weeks of her life. But she was flying back to Boston the following Tuesday, and with the pre-memory of home so upcoming, she began to think of her mother’s arms and her father’s stack of New Yorkers forever resting and thumbed through on the coffee table. Here she was, waking up from a ridiculous dream in a beautiful, salt-stained hotel that they were paying for, during a perfect Amalfi June, and she was missing her father’s rice pilaf. But as her mother liked to comfort her, homesickness was like HPV – keep an eye on it, and it usually goes away on its own after a while.

Still, sometimes it was strange for Sara-Marie to think that she was in the middle of this thing people talked about so much – youth. College is going to be the best years of your life, people would tell her. Abroad was the best semester of my life, the seniors on campus would say, as if talking about ten consecutive orgasms they’d had in one night. It was a lot to live up to. 

As the ageless waters approached her ankles like magnificent spindles of liquid neon light, Sara-Marie looked back at the woman guarding her belongings on the beach – this woman named Loretta (Lottie for short) whom she would never know. Lottie wore a white one-piece and looked all at once natural and glamorous which had made Sara-Marie initially think she was European, maybe from Paris. Sara-Marie imagined Lottie came to this hotel every summer – knew all the staff by name and spoke fluent Italian with just a touch of a French accent. She looked so perfectly content – maybe it was the swimsuit, or the age, or the way she merely raised an eyebrow to get a refill on her Fanta, but she seemed to have a grasp on all of the things that Sara-Marie was desperate for.

The only clue that Lottie wasn’t Parisian after all was the book between her fingers, casting strict, afternoon shadows across her face. Sara-Marie had only noticed this upon inspecting the stranger her friends had so flippantly left all their earthly possessions with. For whatever reason, their shared interest in Joan Didion made her more comfortable leaving behind her wallet – as if the writer herself had introduced the two women. And because of this, Sara-Marie felt the inclination to tell Lottie about her dreams. Sometimes it’s easier giving them to a stranger than a mother or a friend. For a moment, it made Sara-Marie feel less lonely. 

As the water rose to her knees, she watched Lottie reach for her refreshed Fanta back on the sand and take a long, decadent sip. Sara-Marie decided she’d order one when they sat back down. Her friends called to her, and she finally turned from Lottie to join them where they were treading a bit further out – feet just lifted from the rocky sea floor, heads bobbing up and down with the buoys, water sifting at their necks like elegant cloaks fanning out in endless wisps of an unearthly emerald color that would long outlive them all. 

Isabella Barrengos

Raised in California, Isabella studied writing, anthropology and classics at Bates College in Maine and now resides in New York. Her work has been featured in CRAFT Literary, Your Impossible Voice, Capulet Magazine and Wild Garlic.

Raised in California, Isabella studied writing, anthropology and classics at Bates College in Maine and now resides in New York. Her work has been featured in CRAFT Literary, Your Impossible Voice, Capulet Magazine and Wild Garlic.

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