The sun is still high at 5:00 PM when Amy and I arrive in Lingua, but air in this town is warm like drooping eyelids.
Legs of unoccupied terrace furniture cast toothpick shadows towards the sea, tables and chairs strategically arranged to accommodate what one assumes is a swelling tourist season some other time of year. A single pair of hand-holders amble down the boardwalk, striped cardigans knotted over their shoulders. To their left, beach stones endure the constant steady slap of the surf — too lazy, apparently, to crush the stones to sand — and to their right, a row of nearly identical ristorantes declare “GRANITE” and “PANE CUNZATO” and “PIZZA” with no particular gusto in faded, peeling paint.
The thought that this place exists every day of the year is unfathomable.
A crew cut, tanned, sleeveless employee stands At Ease, militarily, in front of Da Alfredo’s, hands clasped behind back. In my head I practice: Tavolo per due per favore.
“It’s OK,” he interrupts my preparatory inhale, “you can speak in English.” My turtle mouth snaps shut. I am the opposite of a mystery.
“I thought I might practice my Italian,” I say with an all American forgive-my-ignorance smile.
Next to the Employee, a leathery grandfather stands with one hand on the gelato display. Next to the grandfather, a mini-skirted waitress with a brunette mermaid braid leans on her hip. Bemused glances are exchanged between all three of them.
The Mermaid and the Employee watch Amy and me like a play. They watch us chat with the Grandfather in fake Italian (essentially Spanish with a Pizza!Pasta!MammaMia! intonation). They watch us linger long past the last bites of our shared entree while other tables host patrons with khaki trousers and sheery fabric dresses and skinny leather straps of appropriately-sized handbags that, unlike our human-sized strappy packs, are definitely not containing a week’s wardrobe or toothbrushes or napkin-wrapped croissants from yesterday’s continental breakfast.
Amy and I agree that toddling off into the darkness of the south beach, while everyone else was strolling back north to their cottage BnBs, would be a marquee cherry on top of a conspicuous cake. We decide to walk in the socially appropriate direction and then loop around to the beach from a back road.
“Oye chicas!” The Employee calls after us when we are about a block away from the restaurant. “A dónde van?”
“Oh yeah? And which hotel is that?” Still bemused. We are the opposite of a mystery.
“It’s a very exclusive hotel, I can’t remember the name.”
“I see, I see. Look,” glancing over his shoulder, “You know where I work. And it’s no big deal or whatever but all I’m saying is that if you want to come back in like ten or so minutes,” hands, in posture of Your Humble Servant, overlap on his heart, “I have a tent.”
I defend the original forgot-the-name-of-our-hotel story.
“Right. No need to explain. It’s no problem. For me it’s OK. So, five to ten minutes, I’ll be there.”
Making a little “o” with his thumb and forefinger, he adds, “El mundo es así — ” and he holds up the tiny world.
We walk the loop, circle back to the restaurant, and give The Nod to the Employee who spots us from the kitchen. He comes out to us — loitering at the edge of the restaurant terrace pretending to contemplate the dessert menu — lights a cigarette, claps his hands and says in English, “Lez go.”
No one watches us slip behind the restaurant down the unlit path behind the back road. No one watches the Employee dive behind an unremarkable bush and reappear with a blue nylon duffel on his shoulder. No one hears him say to us, “Lovely ladies. I do not have so many important things to do on this island. If you steal this tent, I will come and find you.” No one watches him tell Amy: “Both sides mi amor, this is Italy,” when we Kiss-Kiss goodbye at the edge of the beach — he heading back to the low glow of the boardwalk, us into the the darkness.
We didn’t think anyone heard the unzip of our nylon door at dawn. We didn’t think anyone saw us tiptoe down to the water and dip beneath the surf as the sun dripped up from it, light spreading silently and stirring nothing.
Nothing to see here, little Lingua, you have eternity to be a lonely paradise. Why pay mind to the passing of time?
We definitely did not think anyone watched us collapse our lucky abode back into its blue duffel and march it back to the field behind the back road. We wrapped our lucky lighter in a piece of paper ripped from my journal and wrote a note to our anonymous friend, tucked just inside the zipper.
We are human caricatures of Deers in Headlights.
A man, young, dressed in clothes that one assumes were expensive before they endured several rough nights (or one rodeo), is standing a literal stone’s throw from the Secret (Not-So-Secret?) hiding spot.
“My tent?” His Italian accent is thick.
“No.” My English is entitled, as in, How Dare You suspect we are not the rightful owners of this tent?
“Oh. Sorry. Sorry.” His eyes dart sideways and down and his hand rubs the back of his arm.
- The bag cannot be left in the Secret-Not-So-Secret-Hiding-Spot because the Vagabond clearly knows it is often hidden there and will steal it.
- The bag cannot not be left in the SNSSHS because we gave our word that we would return it precisely there.
- The bag cannot be returned to the restaurant because the Employee made it clear that his owning of the tent was not a fact he wished to share with his Employers
- We have to catch a ferry in one hour
We walk, slowly, past the SNSSHS and stop around a corner, just out of eyesight from the Vagabond. We wait. We debate. We draw no conclusions. After a few minutes, we peer back to see if the Vagabond is still hovering. He is gone.
We don’t know if anyone watched us re-bury the tent in the SNSSHS. We don’t know if someone saw us walk to the roadside and hold our thumbs to the breeze until we were scooped up by a car heading counterclockwise round the island towards the main port.
We don’t know if our mysterious hero ever found his bag, smiling at our note and lighting up a cigarette with our lucky lighter, basking in his random act of kindness.
Or if, as I write this, he is on a mission to hunt us down.