When I was sixteen, we went to visit the Italian family who had sent their daughter to live with us for a summer; she had been our exchange student. She wore her jeans faded and tight. She once sat in my Dad’s lap as a joke, or at least that’s how we choose to remember it. She had wavy dark blond hair and wore the high-heeled sandals I begged my mother for. When staying with us, her chatter was ripe with stories about Milan and fashion. She was 18. I was 14. My parents dragged us to the sights we’d seen dozens of times. We lived here, we didn’t want to be tourists. Yeah, yeah, that’s the Empire State Building. Yeah, yeah, that’s Washington Square. Yeah, yeah, this is what New York pizza tastes like. Here, try a bagel. She was a nuisance, not an educational experience.
Then my parents made my sister and I take her to our community pool. She wore a purple string bikini. She didn’t bother with a tee-shirt.
Italians girls in the 80s didn’t shave.
Her purple string bikini bottom was outlined by blond-ish black pubic hair. She didn’t notice anyone staring. She seemed all too happy to be there showing off that bikini when my friends and I weren’t yet allowed to wear them. (Although in retrospect, do I really know what an 18-year-old Italian teenager from Milan is thinking when visiting a suburban community pool in New Jersey? No I don’t, but at 14, I hadn’t learned empathy.) She threw down a towel just like any other teenager and slathered on baby oil. She looked at my sister and I who were busy trying not to notice her full breasts, narrow waist, and round hips. “Ciao,” she said and pulled out a book with a couple kissing on the cover. She got lost in the sun. My sister and I (and our friends) stared at her pubic hair and the ease with which she laid there.
I pulled my shirt down to my knees.
Two years later, my family visited her family at their summer home in Lake Como. It was a old storied home carved into a hill. Her mother served us chicken in aspic. I remember candles, dark wood, and lace. It was an event, I remember. It was gourmet, my parents told me. It tasted like chicken-flavored jello.
That is my only memory from the visit.
In the faded album I’ve carried with me from home to home, there is one page allotted to the Lake Como visit. Not one person. A sixteen-year-old’s vision of travel. And the only notation in the album? “A good time! I guess!”
Today, I concentrate and try to conjure the smell, the sights, and whatever transpired to make it “A good time! I guess!” I cannot even remember where we slept or what we did. Even at 48, all I see is the teenage girl so confident in her purple string bikini.