There’s a particular tone of voice that mothers use when they watch their kids at the pool — a queasy combination of “have fun” and “don’t die.” It’s how my mother sounded when I was leaving the country last year.
“Be safe,” she said as I was packing. “Remember what happened to Jill Carroll.”
I did remember. Jill Carroll is the journalist held for 82 days by masked gunmen who ambushed her car in a notoriously dangerous district of Baghdad. I, on the other hand, was going to a friend’s wedding on the Italian Riviera.
Like all mothers, mine worries. When I got my driver’s license, she explained how to get wherever I wanted without taking a single left turn. When I said I might not have children, she expressed a disarming readiness to “harvest” my eggs against my will. There are times when my mother warns me of so many dangers that I find them irresistible. A few years ago, I had friends take my picture in “hazardous” situations. In one, I am standing on a boulder by the sea, pointing to a road sign that reads: “Caution: Extremely Dangerous — People Have Been Swept From the Rocks and Drowned.” The idea was to send them to my mother, but I never could bring myself to do it.
Before the wedding, I took a train to
My last morning there, I walked to the train station and
checked the board that listed arrivals and departures. My train was 30 minutes
late. When I checked again, it was 80 minutes late. Each time the numbers on
the board fluttered, my train magically receded farther from the
I bought some Peanut M&M’s and tried not to be annoyed. When I turned around, there was a woman walking toward me, a beggar. She had legs the color of butternut squash and a look that made you wonder if she’d ever baked children into pies. Her swinging bag hit a man square in the face — a tourist in a floppy hat who had been sitting on the platform — and she didn’t even stop.
My hands started to sweat; the Peanut M&M’s slid around in my fist. Perhaps the worst time to be approached by a beggar is while you’re eating Peanut M&M’s. The way they tumble carelessly from their golden wrapper. Playful. Abundant. Incriminating.
She had set her sights specifically on me — a young woman alone, an easy mark. So when she asked for money, I said no.
She got louder. She talked faster.
I said no again.
She pulled out an empty baby bottle and waved it in my face, yelling.
But, I thought, this woman was in her 60s. She was no needy young mother. Instead, I suddenly felt she was an angry, older mother confronting an ungrateful child: me. I didn’t understand what she was saying, but I got the unnerving sense that she was scolding me for taking last-minute trips in foreign countries, for hiking through forests alone, for hanging out at Internet cafes in the middle of the night, for making all those unnecessary left turns. How could I possibly do that to my mother?
And then she hit me. A hard, backhanded slap on the shoulder from a woman I had never met. I took a step back, and the postcard rack behind me teetered. She stared. I stared.
Then I hit her back. The tourist in the floppy hat applauded.
The woman shoved the baby bottle back in her bag. “Tu sei cattiva,” she said. You are wicked. She pulled down the lower lid of her right eye. I was cursed.
The train finally arrived. It took me to a bus, which took me to an airport terminal, where I was supposed to catch a shuttle to my hotel to sleep before an early-morning flight. But there was no shuttle. The terminal was empty except for a man in a business suit.
I waited. No one came. I showed the man in the business suit the address of my hotel. My Italian was too thin to explain much else. He left, and I sat in the terminal alone. Half an hour later, he reappeared, said nothing, picked up my bag and led me to his car.
I got in, trying not to think about Jill Carroll and being cursed. When curses are directed at other people, I absolutely know for a fact that they are complete hogwash. But I’m considerably more open-minded when it comes to curses directed at me.
Neither of us talked. We didn’t even make eye contact. When we reached the hotel, he took my bag to the front desk and I kissed him on the cheek. By the time I found my room, I was in tears. I’d had fun. I didn’t die. I wondered if I’d ever tell my mother.
Allison Silverman is co-executive producer of “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central.