a braided narrative
I used to be afraid of matches. Not just the flame that would ensue from striking one, but the actual wooden sticks themselves. In kindergarten, a fire marshal had given all twenty or so of us bright-eyed, runny-nosed five and six-year-olds a demonstration about fire safety. Under no circumstances were we allowed to touch or play with any sort of fire-starter, no matter how attractive the purple and white hues at the base of the flame would be. Of course as an adult, I know this mentality was silly. Matches alone don’t ignite fires; people do.
But my fear, as well as my ignorance of this fact was effective in keeping me from starting any fires well into my adolescent years.
My mother was always adamant about my sister and me not sitting in the passenger seat while we were under the age of twelve, and so the backseat of the minivan was where much of our sisterly bond was cultivated. Another thing my mother was strict about was having us in tow for whatever errands she had to do that day. I don’t remember where we went, but I do distinctly recall coasting along the freeway, homeward bound while my sister and I played a series of hand-games, recited little jokes, and orchestrated annoying songs that likely drove our mother up the wall.
One day, our van eased to a stop as we maneuvered into the left turn lane and waited for the light to turn green. I averted my attention from the game my sister and I were playing to the car ahead of us. I couldn’t see much of the driver from behind, but I could see that he had a rather disheveled look about him. I turned back to my game, undeterred.
“Don’t look!” my mother suddenly cried out. I could sense the urgency in her tone.
Of course I looked up immediately upon these words. In his hand, the same Disheveled Man held onto a glass bottle and took a great swig of God-knows-what. Actually, I didn’t have to be God to know what it was, or to get at least some idea. Alcohol. The word practically oozed of debauchery in my young mind. Neither of my parents drank and any discussion of it was preluded with some sort of disdainful tone.
Much to my mother’s relief, the light finally turned green and our cars went their respective ways.
Thirteen years later, the sunlight from outside the windows streamed into our hostel room, beckoning me to rise for a final day of traipsing in Rome. My two friends and I had been backpacking for about two weeks – we’d flown to Berlin, taken a rail from Berlin to Prague, and again flew to Italy, taking a series of trains from Venice to Florence and finally, to where we were now. I loved nearly every second of it. I loved being at the mercy of those who spoke a language not my own. I loved relying on my mediocre geography skills to get me from point A to point B. And I loved watching the scenery I observed from my train car window transition from vineyards and the fields of Tuscany to more populated metropolitan hubs. It was like flipping through a sketchbook of one single changing image that “moved” with the rapid flip of each page.
But today, I was counting on my fingers how many more times I would have to sleep on a bed or couch that was not mine. Five, I was almost certain.
As was customary in my morning routine, I quickly skimmed through my email, Instagram and Facebook apps on my phone, all in that order. My fingers flew across the keyboard, swiping left and right every second. Time was precious. My mom insisted that I give her regular updates about where I was, how I was, and what I was doing. Over the years, I’ve learned that the less information I gave, the better. The “don’t look” warning from my childhood sort of translated into an “Ignorance is bliss” sort of policy I maintained when it came to giving my parental unit periodic updates on my life.
I tapped at my iPhone screen, composing a brief Facebook message to my parents’ shared account. If I recall correctly, the message contained the words “still alive,” “having fun with the travel companions,” and a brief report about some of the sights I’d seen within the last few days.
As I looked back on all that we’d seen and done, I let out a semi-exhausted sigh, mentally bullet-pointing through today’s itinerary. The Vatican (again), the Trevi Fountain (also again), the Spanish Steps, the Coliseum, and the Roman Forum. I glanced around the hostel room that my two travel companions and I were sharing with two other girls. Everyone else was still asleep, and I longed to burrow further into the sheets a couple hours more. At the moment, I preferred the warmth of the hostel’s linens to the warmth of the Mediterranean climate outside. But instead, I tapped to the home screen page, curious as to what my friends on the other side of the Atlantic were up to.
A part of me was telling myself to not look at my updates. Maybe I was having one of those aha-moments where I would decide to unplug and live in the moment. After all, it didn’t matter, at least not really what everyone else was doing, right? I was in Italy, several hours ahead of my life back home. Surely I could live the next few hours not knowing who got engaged, who had broken up, or yet another long-winded post about why marijuana should be legalized.
Indeed, there was the marijuana post, along with 72 comments underneath it. Ah yes, another couple I knew had recently become engaged. But I stopped scrolling when one particular headline a former high school teacher linked from the Ventura County Star caught my attention: “Ventura educator struck and killed by vehicle while jogging.”
Chris Prewitt. Teacher, water polo coach, husband, and father. It’s an odd thing, being able to put a face you once knew to a name in the newspaper’s obituaries.
I remember doing a mental double-take when my assigned study hall teacher first addressed me back in my high school freshman days. Mr. Prewitt was mostly deaf and used cochlear implants, and his speech was a little less enunciated as someone with normal hearing ability would speak. We exchanged names and that sort of pleasantry, but otherwise I mostly kept to my work for the rest of the semester. To be quite honest, I thought of him rarely in the time that had elapsed since we’d parted ways.
I smile, thinking about how much I’ve changed and how life’s changed for me since that first day. I wore considerably less eyeliner, fit into my pants a little bit better, and had read and done a plethora of things over the last seven years.
I kept this piece of news I had come upon that morning from my traveling friends. It was tragic of course, but it didn’t change the way I saw Rome. It didn’t make the city streets more somber, it didn’t make the Coliseum less grandiose, and it certainly didn’t make gelato taste any less decadent. It was something I didn’t think about again until we de-boarded our plane from Rome to London late that evening. I had made it home that night. Elsewhere in the world, someone I knew had not, I thought, thanks to another driver driving under the influence.
I wonder how different my life might have been had I heeded my mother’s advice to not look when we were on the freeway that day all those years ago. Probably not that much different, I answer myself. Willing myself to not look at my news feed would not have prevented a death any more than not seeing the drunk driver one car ahead of us thirteen years ago would have kept him from driving erratically.
As I think about it now, Mr. Prewitt’s daughter was just a little older than I was when I first developed a fear of starting fires. But it wasn’t just the dangers of fire or alcohol that had been instilled into me at such a young age. I remember obediently heeding the crossing guard’s command to look all four directions before crossing the street. As I grew older, smoking and swearing became the new vices I should avoid. As my life went on, it was up to me to pick and choose which stop signs to follow, and which ones to treat more like optional road signs, if such things exist.
I can understand my mother’s natural desire to shield me from the darker aspects of the world. Perhaps back then it served a purpose but now, there is no option to shield my eyes when I am confronted with an unpleasant person or situation. Simply choosing not to look when life hands you unideal circumstances does not make them disappear.
Strolling through the quaint alleyways of the less crowded parts of Rome, my friends and I congregated by a water fountain, occasionally kicking a soccer ball back to two Italian boys playing in the street, clearly undaunted by oncoming Vespas. Outside a pizzeria, sophisticated young couples and older, stylish gentlemen took long, deep inhales from cigarettes. I must admit, when I get a whiff of cigarette smoke nowadays, the scent sends me straight into nicotine nostalgia. Glasses of wine almost always accompanied the entrees set out on the tables. Sometimes a group of presumptuous European men will catcall or make what I can only assume are derogatory comments to the female American tourists.
To say that all the things I’d been cautioned about growing up were suddenly made “okay” thanks to the context of Italy would be naïve. But to immediately label them all as vices would be equally naïve.
I’d like to imagine that were Mr. Prewitt living again, he would employ a “When in Rome” philosophy that I’m not sure he had had the chance to employ in his lifetime.