There were valleys they told us to steer clear of, where little girls weren’t allowed to go. Witches lived there, and bandits, and women who murdered all passing strangers. If we bounced our ball too loudly in the street, the neighbor ladies would try to scare us, tell us how old men snatched up girl-lovers, then stuffed them into dog kennels when they grew too big.
The boys at school knew how to get there and said they might take us, but we had to promise to be brave. Swear on your mother – you’re not allowed scream. They drew maps in pencil, marked the exact spot with an x: you had to take the main road, through town, past the sign for wild animals crossing and then jump into emptiness, plunging off a jagged clay outcrop over the grass. They were fearless, exploding into lung-tearing laughter. Even if you get hurt – swear on your mother. In class, they bragged about not getting tetanus shots. They grasped the rungs on a rusty ladder with scraped, infected palms; I’d write notes that I snuck into their books, asking what they saw, wanting to merit their secrets. My favorite story was the one about the straw cradles among the trees; they’d been there since the time of the great harvests. My friend Roberto would say that when families worked the fields and couldn’t watch their babies, they’d hang them in the branches, tilting in the wind. One child, forgotten or abandoned by his parents, never returned to the ground and stayed an infant forever.
I didn’t go to the valleys until I was thirteen and still in Sunday school, and the nuns asked us to clean up an old abandoned villa there, as volunteer service. My friends and I arrived with our brooms and rags and cleaning solutions, and just inside, we felt the insects crunching beneath our shoes. The floor was black with them, the windows covered in dried scum, the flies reeking of incense and sacristy. After a few hours, my fingers were peeling from the cleaning fluids and wrinkled and soft with soaking, and the nuns told me I wasn’t cut out for this sort of work.
I’d be back a few years later. I’d lost a stupid bet with my friends on who would lose her virginity first. My penalty was going to the foreigners’ party and staying the night.
That’s what we called them, the foreigners: they were the new guys who came along with the crude oil and the opening of the wells. They arrived from Texas, from Sicily, from the villages of Eastern Europe, and many of them barely knew Italian. They worked for plants with difficult names, like those of the large pharmaceutical companies. I’d be in the coffee bar getting an ice cream, or standing in line at the post office and I’d pretend not to hear while they spoke in their broken Italian. If someone stressed a wrong syllable, I immediately felt embarrassed, my stomach clenching. It still happens. I’d see them at the bar sometimes, playing arcade games. One day, one of them asked me for a cigarette, and I slipped it from the pack I’d just bought for my mother. He leaned over me to light it, and I noticed a pale threading across his wrist. A tan line, a broken friendship bracelet. Like the faded butterfly on my belly, the decal I’d applied one summer so people would know I’d been to the sea, but his was more elegant. When he’d approached me, I noticed we shared the same smell, of hairspray and vanillin and fresh, pungent hair gel. I was flooded by nausea, the longing to see him again.
The party was at that same house in the valley. Me and my friends called it ‘Villa Mosca’, the house of flies. It belonged to a French family that was never there during the August festivals and the mayor had always hoped they’d agree to let the town use it for a summer community center.
But over time, Villa Mosca became a bed & breakfast; the French family decided to renovate it, with government funds allocated after the 1980 earthquake.
Now they rented out rooms to workers who did eight-hour shifts at the nearby plants and usually stayed in the area a month or two before leaving again. They never made their beds and they tossed their used rubbers in the bathroom garbage can; the cotton tablecloths were stained from the unripe pomegranates they broke open and didn’t eat. The cleaning ladies would talk about their mess at the supermarket, complaining how certain men had terrible manners. None of us hung out with them or knew them really, except two boys in our class, who stopped going to school after crude oil became such a big deal. They had both been held back twice but were now almost the legal age to work. At first, these two would show up for gym class to play volleyball with us even though they weren’t in school anymore; the teachers pretended not to notice. I liked it when they came; they’d always been nice to me. I didn’t love it when we had PE, but I liked the sound we all made together, our sneakers squeaking on the rubber floor; I liked how our t shirts stuck to our backs while we jumped around, how they’d crack jokes, swearing they could see my bra.
At the end of the summer, these two friends would leave for a training program up north, where they’d study soil composition, safety techniques, and what to do in case of an explosion. If they did well on the final, they’d head to Egypt for a week of work – they’d already bought their 50 SPF sunscreen. ‘And we’ll come back really, really dark – like you,’ they told me. So dark, I wouldn’t recognize them.
One day I went to see them at the plant where they’d been hired; we were in the main office, a prefab earthquake shelter thrown up in the ravines. The sun beat down on the tin roof, I could feel the pulsing heat, burning; there was a layer of fine, yellow dust on the floor, careless, contaminated sand, like what you find under pinball machines in bars by the sea. The boys made me a coffee from the espresso maker and showed me the computers and registries with all the employees listed; there weren’t any bosses around and for a short while, this life of theirs seemed intriguing. Though they didn’t have permission, they took me to the top of the hill where the first well was going up. I was out of breath from the climb and my feet were scraped inside my sandals; my toes, my purple painted toenails, were filthy; I tried rubbing my feet against my calves. Nail polish is silly, these two always told me, but I wouldn’t listen. The well was a dark exoskeleton that gave off a smell of old metal, like a wet washing-machine drum when the door is opened at last. In another shed, there were Plexiglas cases smeared with men’s grease. One of them, Camillo, set a lump of stone-coal on my palm: it was heavy and very warm. I tried to decipher the numbers and writing scrawled on the label of one of those cases, but I couldn’t make out anything. Difficult names, memorized in Geography class.
Before we said our goodbyes, Camillo asked if I’d really be going to that party at Villa Mosca on account of that bet. I nodded, and he took back his stone and told me not to drink too much.
We’d kissed in elementary school, one Valentine’s Day. He put his lips on mine and then he opened them in a rigid circle like a little puckering fish in an aquarium, waiting for food, and I did the same, and then we stood there a couple of minutes, holding hands. On an eighth-grade school trip to Pompei, I suddenly felt his breath on my neck while we both stood staring at the shape of a dog buried under lava. He whispered in my ear that it had to be fake. ‘You really think we could end up like that?’ he puffed in dialect, and I smiled and shook my head.
As a boy he’d grown famous for his collection of fifty snails, all of which starved to death. He came to the soccer field and interrupted our game, telling us to look inside his cardboard box with its pile of collapsed shells. They looked like little marble ashtrays, dented from too many stubbed-out cigarettes.
His mother asked a therapist from another town to come see him; my friend had always been passionate about animals. He spent his time rescuing unconscious goldfinches from construction sites, and I really liked him.
The day of the party, most of that afternoon, I put on makeup, then took it off again; after the third time with remover, my eyes were watery and red. I put on my velvet choker, a flowery dress, and glitter on my cheekbones, arms and eyelids – I wanted to be a record cover.
What I remember from that night: I wasn’t met at the door by the foreigner who’d asked me for a cigarette, the one smelling of vanillin, with the wispy tattoo on his wrist; none of my male friends were in that house; instead there were other guys from town who worked for one foreign company or another, places that had provided a job for my classmates’ fathers and uncles, provided they voted for the right candidate in the local elections; my girlfriends were sitting on an upholstered couch, engrossed in a card game and drinking Bacardi Breezers; we were practically dressed alike. As soon as they saw me, they pointed to a room, the door open, and I recognized the room full of flies that I’d cleaned up for the nuns, so many years before. The floor tiles were the same, but there were double-glazed windows now, and no more dried-fly stink, and no more crunching. I stepped inside the room, went and lay down on the bed. From the other room, someone screamed, ‘Aces High,’ braying, then there came an awful sound, an involuntary snort, and I wanted to escape. It was the same sound pigs made at the sight of the blood bucket. Many years ago, the neighbor ladies would take that pigs’ blood, drained on cool September days, and use it for pudding mixed with chocolate, honey, and pine nuts; I’d pretend to take a mouthful but then I slid the slime into a paper napkin while they were laughing. I didn’t deserve such an awful moment.
Or maybe I did: I’d come up with the idea for this stupid bet, who of us was going to lose her virginity first, and then I bet anything it would be Maria – and she was offended. In town they said we were slutty, and we accused each other of this as well. Maria wasn’t the first, but she did lose her virginity soon after. She hadn’t cried, she’d just let out something like a squeal, which she did again, there in the school bathroom as she told us, and I burnt my hands on the radiator while she spoke. We lived near each other, and on the way home she told me the boy held a pillow over her face the whole time, that she’d almost thought she was suffocating. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘He couldn’t stand my freckles.’ Maria had a galaxy of barley-colored dots spreading over her nose, forehead and cheeks, some of them as large as angiomas, and still visible under her foundation.
Now she was out there, playing cards. I could hear her braying as I lay in the bed in that room, my hands pressing down on my stomach, trying to flatten it like I was trying on my mother’s too-tight jeans from when she was my age, the ones she still had, from the seventies. It really bothered me that I was fatter than she was back then.
After fifteen minutes, someone came in, lay down beside me, drew two fingers across my sternum, went lower, and I crossed my legs. He told me to keep them crossed even when we fucked. A habit I’ve stopped now, even though all the men I’ve gone to bed with say they like it. I wasn’t thrilled with his accent, so I asked him not to talk. He was barely taller than me, which felt wrong. I wondered how often I’d seen him, on the streets, someplace else, in his work clothes, at what distance. He stroked my hair and I lost the purple elastic I always used; a cleaning lady would mention it at the supermarket, and my mother would pretend she didn’t hear.
At the news they’d be drilling for oil right outside our town, that money and opportunity would follow for all, that we wouldn’t have to emigrate, that it was worse having a landfill and there’d be no health risks, that crude oil would be our thing, everyone flipped out, but deep down they hoped.
The disappointment only spread later, like an odorless gas seeping through the pipes, and the only complaints heard were from old people wandering around anxiously in the fog. At night, they wouldn’t have to raise the rolling shutters to see red lights in the distance, weasel eyes shining in the dark before bursting into blinding, bright-red flames.
To survive the long winters, we’d grown accustomed to our woodpile in the garage, though at this point we heated with natural gas. And so I’d known since I was little that it took lighter fluid to start a fire with wet wood, yet every time, we were still amazed by the first flames and their unexpected color, not red and yellow but a formless, feeble-green licking at the moss. For all of us living there, the petroleum plant was like that, a necessary, pretend fire. It changed the flavor of water and other things; tumors arrived, unexpected medical findings and statistics, new secrets to share. Tell me what you saw and if you were frightened. Tell me where. Mark it with an x. ‘What’d they die from?’ I’d ask my mother on the phone when she told me about the funerals she attended, and she’d answer, ‘You know, from that. That.’
No one was expecting the foreigners when they came, and I still haven’t gotten over their being gone, even if Villa Mosca closed a few years after I started college and moved away from my mother’s house; even if the oil companies with their difficult names left for other places, in search of new deserts, new puddles to dirty.
I come back to visit my mother sometimes and I almost never go out, just to get her cigarettes when her leg is hurting and her scars from old operations are warning her we’re due for a change in the weather. The town’s full of children whose names I don’t know. None of the women my age have had children – we skipped our turn. The neighbors always have South American music playing on the radio, blaring into the night.
On my fall break before exams, I saw my friend Roberto again at the coffee bar, leaned over the counter, and I slapped him on the shoulder. He told me everything: how he’d lost his job after the last plant shut down over political squabbling. The engineers went back to Texas, the laborers, to Poland. He’d been told he could do some work on wells in Siberia for three months – he was a specialist by now – but he’d never been on a plane before and preferred just getting unemployment. He passed the time hunting wild boar with old men from town. Once they put on bulletproof vests, climbed into an open Jeep, then peered out, rifles leveled. ‘We looked like ISIS,’ he said, and I laughed. He always had a story for me about how people lived in the old days. I learned from him that peasants, the ones who hung their children in the trees, would mash up poppy seeds with milk for their children, so they’d sleep through a toothache.
The walk home is always the same, two kilometers uphill, past broken street lamps and yards full of wild flowers; I still wonder about some of those abandoned houses, the construction work begun on the pharmacist’s house, the doctor’s house, the lawyer’s, all projects with the same architect, never to be finished, a landscape of cement columns left standing, like sacrificial pawns in a chess game, the barbed wire scratching our legs if we come too close, all the new caves to hide in, if you girls don’t behave they’ll come and get you and stick you in a dog kennel, bites from rabid animals after their owners have fled, and all the valleys and their dismal, virgin crashing, I’ve always been careful, I swear on my mother.
The last time, before leaving, I saw the boy who kissed me on Valentine’s Day; Camillo kept bees now at Villa Mosca, and with his e-commerce website, he exported his honey even to Japan. I went to buy some jars to bring back to the city; he gave me a clumsy hug through his white sting-proof suit. He rolled up just one leg to show me his calf covered in scabs and bee stings. I ran my finger over them: they were like hard pebbles under his skin, and I asked if it was all right to keep touching them and he trembled because it tickled, his laughter cavernous inside his astronaut helmet. He showed me where he did his work, and then he took me to see the bees. They were delicate and languid, moving from cell to cell; they seemed incredibly clean in all that liquid. I immediately spotted the queen. I pointed to her, certain, intrigued by how different she was. My friend pulled out his phone and took my picture; he was pleased I’d recognized her on my first try. I was the exception, but every time he asked me to pick her out again, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t seem to repeat that magic.
Image © Max Sang