Racing the Sun CHAPTER ONE
We’ve all thought about how we’re going to die. My friend Angela Kemp, whom I’ve known since we played in saggy diapers together, is convinced she’s going to choke to death on something. Every time we go out to eat, she searches the restaurant for the person most likely to know the Heimlich maneuver and tries to sit by them. It doesn’t seem to matter that I know the Heimlich maneuver; she just wants to know she’ll be safe if it happens.
Personally, I’ve always thought I’d fall to my death. I think it all started when I was seven or eight years old and had dreams of my house turning over and me falling from the floor to the ceiling, dodging couches and tables. After that, my dreams turned to me falling off of balconies, getting trapped in collapsing elevators, and being in horrific plane crashes. Actually, it was never the crash that killed me, nor was it the scariest part of the dream; I was always sucked out of the airplane before the impact and fell to my death in a horrible rush of cold air and mortality.
It shouldn’t surprise me, then, that I think I’m about to die in this moment, and by falling, no less.
In fact, I’m sure there’s no way I can possibly survive this. It’s not just that I’m in a taxi that seems to be coughing black fumes out of its tailpipe every two seconds, or the fact that the driver, with a mustache so big that he looks like a walrus, is looking more at me and the two other backpackers in the backseat than at the road. No, it’s because, as we round the corners of the “highway” toward the postcard-worthy town of Positano, we’re going full speed and there’s nothing but a sheer cliff on my side of the vehicle.
“Shit,” I swear, trying to hold on to something, anything, that would keep me in the car and prevent me from falling to my death, like my sordid dreams foretell. I look over at Ana and Hendrik, my Danish traveling companions for this leg of Southern Italy, and they don’t seem all that concerned. I’m especially not going to grab on to big, blond Hendrik since Ana has a problem with random girls touching him.
Not that I’m random at this point. I met up with the couple in Rome and spent a few days with them there before we took the train down south. I know they have plans to keep going all the way to Sicily and hunker down in some beach hut with a bunch of goats (I don’t know, but whenever Hendrik talks about their plans, goats are involved somehow), but I’m starting to believe that Positano is the end of the line for me.
And it’s not just because I’m certain I’m going to die on the way there. It’s because I am flat fucking broke. We all knew this day would come (and by we, I mean my parents and I). After all, I’ve been traveling for six months around the world and even though I’ve been trying to spend as little as possible, the world isn’t as cheap as you’d think.
It probably doesn’t help that I went a little overboard in Europe and had a mini shopping spree in every city I was in. But I like to think of my new shawls and sandals and jewelry as souvenirs, not just clothes. I mean, do you get to wear your postcards or ceramic doodads or tiny calendars with pictures of the Eiffel Tower on them? No. But you can wear a scarf you picked up from a market in Berlin.
But, of course, in hindsight, maybe I should have managed my money a bit better. I just thought that my savings were enough. And then, when my parents started bailing me out, I thought I could coast by on that. Just for a little while. Until I found out they sold my shitty 1982 Mustang convertible to help pay for this trip. After that, they just stopped putting money in my account.
I’ve now eaten into the money that was supposed to pay for my return ticket home, a ticket I didn’t think I’d have to buy until I got down to Morocco, or even Turkey.
So, Positano, Italy, on the Amalfi Coast, might just be the end for me.
If I even make it out of this cab. As we round another bend, I can see crazy people parked on the road and selling flowers. Not the side of the road, but parked on the actual road. So now people are swerving around them, but when Italians swerve they don’t slow down—they actually speed up.
I decide to close my eyes for the rest of the journey and hope I get there in one piece.
Even though the journey from Sorrento to Positano doesn’t translate into many miles, it still feels like it takes forever for us to finally get there.
The walrus-mustached cab driver pulls to a sudden stop, abrupt enough that I fling forward, my curly blonde hair flying all over the place.
“Amber,” Ana says in her deep accent. “We’re here.”
“I gathered that,” I say, and awkwardly pretend to search through my messenger bag for euros, though I don’t really have any euros to spare. Thankfully, Ana thrusts some bills into the driver’s hand and we clamber out of the cab.
And so here is Positano. I’d been so busy closing my eyes and praying that I’d never really gotten a good look at the town.
It’s fucking charming. I mean, it’s beautiful and stunning and photogenic as all hell, but its charm is the first thing that comes to mind. The cab dropped us off at the top of a hill and you can see just how packed the town is, with building after colorful building crammed below the cliffs, staggered down the hillsides, tucked into every nook and cranny. It makes you wonder what crazy person decided to put a town here, of all places.
The one-way road leading down to the beach is narrow, with cars and pedestrians and patio seating vying for space, and lined with stores that beckon you to come inside. Actually, knowing Italy, the minute you walk past, some shopkeeper will come out and literally beckon you to come inside. Like, you can’t say no (maybe that’s how I’ve ended up with so much stuff). In the distance, the Mediterranean Sea sparkles from the sunlight—glitter on water—and hydrofoil ferries glide over it with ease.
“Wow,” I say softly, trying to take it all in. “This is like the movies.”
“Yes, it’s very nice,” Hendrik says blankly. He’s never really impressed with anything. When we saw the Colosseum, he said he thought it would be bigger. Well, I thought it would be bigger, too, but that didn’t stop me from being overwhelmed by the structure and history of it all. “Luckily the hostel is at the top of the hill.”
That is lucky, considering if it were at the bottom of the hill on this one-way road, I’d have to lug my overflowing backpack and duffel bag uphill to catch a cab or bus when it’s time to leave. Then again . . . I have a feeling I’m going to be here awhile. I have enough money to stay at this hostel for a week, and then I’m officially fucked.
I try not to dwell on that as I follow the Danes down the road for a few minutes as cars and the ubiquitous motorcycle zoom past, narrowly missing me. Even being on foot and walking at your own pace, there’s something so dizzying about this place. All these houses, the color of burnt orange and pastel yellow and faded rose, looking down on each other. When I turn around and look behind me, the steep, rocky hills rise up into the sky.
It feels like the entire town could topple over at any minute.
This could be a metaphor for my life at the moment.
After we’ve settled into a rather pleasant-looking dorm room (pleasant compared to the fleabag we stayed at in Rome), Ana and Hendrik invite me to go with them down to the beach. I really do want to go and explore, but I have a feeling they’ll want to eat at some restaurant, and that would cost more euros than I can afford. As much as I hate it, I have to stick to my weird Italian granola bars and fruit for as long as I can. Besides, I’m sure the lovebirds would rather stroll on the Positano beach with each other and not have some broke, frazzle-haired American girl tagging along.
So they leave and I take my time exploring the hostel. It’s small, but even though it’s the only one in town, it’s not as packed as I thought it would be. It’s the beginning of June, too, so I thought all college kids and post-college kids (like myself) would be flocking to this area. I guess not.
That’s fine with me. After living out of a backpack for months on end and never really having any time for myself, strolling around a quaint but quiet hostel would be awesome—just one of the many little pleasures of a traveler’s life.
I end up back at the reception desk where a girl with shiny, poker-straight, chocolate-brown hair is sipping some lemon drink. I get major hair envy over anyone with straight strands.
“Buongiorno,” the girl says with a smile once she notices I’m there. Then she remembers I checked in a moment ago. “I mean, hello. Amber, right? From San Francisco?”
“San Jose,” I correct her, finding her easy to talk to already. I’ve always been a fairly quiet girl, but that changed real quick once I started traveling by myself. “Listen, I was just wondering. Well, I mean, I know you work here, right?”
She nods. “I hope so, otherwise I’ll be in a lot of trouble.”
“Right. I was just wondering, how did that happen?”
“Oh,” she says and leans back in her stool. I notice how sun-browned her skin is and gather she must have been in Italy, or at least someplace warm, for a long time. She breaks into a wide smile. “It’s kind of a long story.”
I lean against the counter. “I’ve got time.”
And so the girl—Amanda—launches into the story of her current life. She came here on a whim with a friend of hers but fell in love with Positano so badly that she didn’t want to leave. Her friend ended up going back home and she asked the owners of the hostel if there were any way she could work for them. They told her she could work the front desk full-time in exchange for room, board, and little bit of extra money—all under the table, of course. She jumped at the chance.
“So how long are you staying here for?” I ask.
“My three months is up in a month.”
I make a frowny face. “That sucks.”
She shoots me an impish smile. “I’ll be back. Luca is making sure of that.”
“Who is Luca?”
“The man I’m going to marry.”
And then she launches into another story, this one far more exciting than the last one. On her second week of working here, she ended up running into a local cop. He was hot, and it was love at first sight. Now that she has to leave the country (Americans can only be here for three months at a time), Luca is building a case to bring her back in seven months. If they can prove they’re serious about each other and intend to marry one day, she can get a permit to work here for longer.
“Wow,” I tell her when she’s finished. “I was just thinking this town was like a movie set, and now this is like movie love.”
She blushes. “I know it’s rather fast. No one takes our relationship seriously, not even his mother. But I do love him and he loves me and I know this is the right thing to do. So why not take the chance, you know? If it doesn’t work out, at least I’ll have a hell of a story.”
“You already do have a hell of a story.” I’ll admit that even though I think it’s sweet and romantic, the jaded and cynical side of me thinks it is a bit ridiculous that she’s doing all of this for a man, that you could even fall in love that fast. But that’s probably because I’ve been screwed over by men a few times already on my travels.
“See,” she says, pulling out her phone and showing me a picture. “This is Luca. You’d stay for him, wouldn’t you?”
I let out a low whistle. Luca is hot. Dark-skinned with piercing, light eyes. And he’s tall, too. Not that that’s too out of the ordinary—it’s just that everyone warned me that Italian men would be short and hairy. So far, I haven’t found that to be the case at all.
“Nice,” I say to her. “Well, I wish you both the best and hope it all works out.”
She shrugs. “Life works out the way it wants to.”
“Uh-huh.” And then I remember the real reason why I came to talk to her. “Listen, I’m having some financial difficulties at the moment. You know, overdid it a bit in London and all that. Anyway, I was wondering if you knew if there was any work available for someone like me?”
Her eyes narrow slightly. “Well, there’s no work here.”
Relax, I think. I’m not after your job.
“Oh, I don’t mean here, per se. I just meant in town. Or in the area. Even Sorrento or Salerno.”
She purses her lips and thinks. “Well, there would be jobs in Salerno, but you don’t want to work there. Have you tried the English café down the street? Sometimes they need English speakers. There’s also a work notice board for foreigners. Usually the jobs posted are one-offs for guys, like a day spent painting a house or something like that. But sometimes you can get lucky.”
This sounds promising. “And it’s just down the street? It’s a long street . . .”
Amanda smiles, pulls out the hostel map, and begins to mark up a path for me. “Follow the road all the way to here and then take these stairs here. You’ll come to Bar Darkhouse. Beside it, kind of tucked in the back, is Panna Café.”
“Thank you,” I tell her, folding the map before shoving it in my bag.
I walk down the streets with an extra spring in my step. The air is fresh (when you’re not inhaling diesel fumes) and the sun is warm, baking my bare arms. I’m feeling a bit optimistic about the whole money problem now. If Amanda can find work here, I can, too.
That should also go to say that if Amanda can find love here, I can, too. But thankfully, that is the last thing I’m looking for. I’ve had enough fun and heartbreak during this trip, falling for boys who either have their hearts set on someone else (like Josh in New Zealand) or who love you and leave you (like the Icelandic boy, Kel, who I spent a sex-filled week with in Prague). No, the next guy I was going to fall for was going to be a Nor Cal boy when I returned back home to San Jose. No drama, no heartache, no tragic goodbyes.
No fun either, I think to myself, but I quickly push that thought away.
The café is easy enough to find but it takes me a while to get there. The town is so pretty and tightly packed with storefronts, and I want to linger in every single one of them. Eventually, I get there and order an espresso at the bar. Unlike most cafés in Italy, this one actually has tables and chairs where you can sit down and sip your drink, obviously catering to tourists. But at this point I’ve gotten used to doing quick shots of coffee while standing up. It’s at least more efficient.
After I ask the British barista if they’re hiring and get a big fat no, she points me to the corner of the café where the notice board is. Though most of the postings are actual flyers for parties or advertisements for ceramic sales, there are a few work notices.
One of them looks fresh—none of the phone number and e-mail strips on the notice have been torn off.
Need help. Want English speaking woman. Two children. Must be good to young children and help with language. Fluency needed. Italian is helpful to have. Please e-mail Felisa. Locate to Capri.
I quickly take the notice off of the board before anyone else notices. Like hell I’m going to compete for this job. Even though I’m not really sure what it entails other than possibly teaching English to two kids, or what it pays, or if it includes room and board, I’m not going to give up the opportunity. If it doesn’t work out, then I’ll just put the ad back.
I immediately connect to the café’s Wi-Fi on my cell phone and write an e-mail to Felisa. I make myself sound as good as possible: Graduated from San Jose State with a B.A. in English. Worked as a receptionist for a prestigious manufacturing company (before I was fired). Great with children (I think I babysat once when I was fifteen). Willing to work on Capri, provided help with housing is included. Spent a great deal of time building up life skills while traveling Southeast Asia. Know how to bake a mean tiramisu.
That last part is a lie but I thought they might find it endearing.
I press send and then wait.
And when I realize I’m not going to get a response right away, I head to the bar next door, taking the work notice with me.
I don’t get a reply until the next morning. I didn’t sleep well, between obsessing over how to get home and trying to ignore the sounds of Hendrik and Ana having sex. You’d think I’d be used to public dorm room copulation by now, but I’m not. It’s one of those things you don’t want to get used to because then that means you should probably reexamine your life.
When I check my e-mail on my phone, all bleary-eyed, I see that Felisa wants me to meet her at the dock at four this afternoon. It doesn’t say anything else. Not what she looks like or if I need to bring anything or where we’re going. I mean, the dock? She’s not actually thinking of doing the job interview on the island of Capri, is she?
But as many questions as I have, I’m also excited. Because this is promising. And it was so easy. One e-mail and bam! I might just be teaching English to two cute Italian children. I bet they’re just darling and say mama and eat politely. Sure, I don’t have a lot of experience with children, but I figure I might become a mother one day so this is good practice. I mean, the maternal instinct has to be in me somewhere.
I tell Ana and Henrik that I’m meeting someone down at the dock. I haven’t told them about my financial problems and don’t plan on it, so they’re a bit suspicious about this meeting, even when I try to play it off as if I met a guy yesterday and I’m meeting up with him again.
I mean, it could be true, in a way. I assume that the children will have a father and he might want to interview me, too.
I leave at three o’clock because the hill takes its time to wind down, and Italians walk slowly (yet drive frighteningly fast). I’m at the dock with plenty of time to spare.
Positano is absolutely gorgeous from the water and the pebbled beach is packed with bronzed men in Speedos and brightly-striped umbrellas and chairs. Tiny boats and Jet Skis zip back and forth, sloshing the low dock with water. I stand there and wait, my face to the sun, still pinching myself that I’m here, in Italy, and it’s a gorgeous day.
Time seems to drag on a bit. I look across the dock and slowly realize that no big ships are docking here, only small boats. I look over to my left and notice a large hydrofoil pulling out from the area around the rocks.
Oh shit. Is that the dock she meant? Have I been standing in the wrong place this whole time?
I whip out my phone and look at the time. Four ten. Just fucking great.
I’m about to start running across the beach toward the bigger ships when a woman yells out. “Hey you!”
I stop in my tracks, pebbles flying everywhere and getting in my sandals, and see a woman striding toward me. She’s short and round with gray hair pulled off her face, showcasing her very sharp nose. She’s still beautiful, though, in an older, classy woman way. Or she would be if she didn’t look so scowl-y.
“Show me your hands,” she says in a thick accent, stomping over to me, and for a moment I’m afraid that this is all a misunderstanding. Is she mistaking me for a thief or something?
But I have no time to say anything. She grabs my hands, turning them over and back again. “Okay, fine,” she says and peers at my face. Her eyes are a light gray. “You will do. Come on.”
And then she starts to storm away, hiking up her skirt so it doesn’t brush against the pebbles.
What the fuck was that?
“Um, excuse me,” I call after her, unsure whether I should follow or who she even is. “I think you have me mistaken for someone else.”
She shakes her head and keeps walking. “No. You are Amber. Come or we miss the boat.”
“Felisa?” I ask and then run after her, my soles slipping all over the place. “How did you know who I was?”
“Only tourists would go to wrong dock,” she says. She eyes me over her shoulder. “Also, I Google you. You have many pictures.”
Well, I have been updating my travel blog quite often. At least I know someone’s looked at it.
I walk fast to keep up with this woman. I’m a short girl with short legs, and though Felisa seems to be the same height, she walks like a giraffe, with impossibly long strides. It’s not long until I’m panting, totally out of breath, and we’re standing in front of one of the hydrofoils. A few people are dragging their luggage onto metal ramps that move with the swell of each wave.
“What are we doing?” I ask.
Felisa hands two tickets over to the man collecting them.
“You come to the house, you meet the children. And Signor Larosa.”
So many things happening at once.
“Wait, wait,” I protest, reaching out to grab Felisa’s elbow.
She shoots me daggers so I quickly let go, but at least I’ve stopped her.
“Sorry,” I say quickly. “I didn’t know I would be going to the island. How would I get back?”
“Tomorrow there is a ferry. Many ferries.”
The ticket guy is eyeing us warily now.
“But where do I stay? I don’t have any money. I’ve paid for my hostel here in full.”
“You stay in the house.”
“Signor Larosa’s. Where the children are.”
“Is he their father?”
She shakes her head. “Older brother. Long story.”
“How much older?”
“Older!” she yells. “Now come on, we will miss it.”
The ticket guy clucks his tongue in agreement.
I sigh, feeling all out of sorts, and follow Felisa onto the ramp and inside the ferry. She takes a seat on one side of the main aisle in the middle of the ship. I notice that everyone is kind of arranged the same way, with few people on the outer edges. I wonder why but there are bigger things to wonder about.
I sit down next to her. “Okay, let’s start again.”
“You start tomorrow, when you get your things back from Positano.”
“But you haven’t interviewed me yet. You don’t know if I’m right for the job.”
“You are on the ferry right now, aren’t you?” she asks, giving me a sharp look. “Then you are right for the job. You could have said no. Also, you have nice, strong hands and you need those when handling children. Now I have to bring you to Signor Larosa and see how you are with him. And the children.”
“Why is it important to see how I get along with him?”
She sighs, as if I should know all of this. “He is difficult. So are the children. But he is even more so. Hopefully he will pretend you don’t exist. If you annoy him, you will know it well.”
“And who are you?”
“I am the housekeeper,” she says with a slight tip of her chin. “I have kept the children and the house in line since their parents died. But now is time for the children to learn proper English. Signor Larosa speaks it well, as do I, but it is not good enough for them.”
“His parents, who made it their wish in their will. So we are looking for a teacher. The last three we had all left. Stayed one week.”
Oh, Jesus. This is starting to sound like the beginning of a horror movie.
“In the ad I asked if you were good with young children. You said you were.”
Actually, the ad said, good to young children. And of course I thought that meant if I spoiled them with candy and gave them gold stars for effort.
She waves her wrinkled hand at me. “It doesn’t matter. They will be less of a problem.”
“Their brother. Desiderio Larosa,” she repeats impatiently. She turns her head and peers at me, as if searching for cracks. “If you can handle that man, then you can handle the children. Then you can handle anything.”
At that she presses her lips together, closes her eyes, and appears to fall asleep right in front of me. She doesn’t even wake up when the hydrofoil picks up speed and starts to rock back and forth violently, waves splashing high against the sides of the boat. I spend the whole ferry ride wondering if I can make it to the bathroom to puke in time and if we’re all going to die on the high seas. That would be a change from falling to my death.
I’m also wondering who this mysterious Desiderio Larosa is, and just what the hell I’ve gotten myself into.