This Is Growing Up
August 19, 2013 | by Justin Alvarez
I had only been in Europe for two weeks when I started to feel homesick.
I’d decided to study in Florence on a whim, after having vaguely planned my entire sophomore year on traveling to Prague to study film at the famed FAMU. But while for FAMU there was a separate application I would have had to fill out, Florence was a simple checkbox on the registration website. And student housing in Florence was even cheaper than at my university in New York.
The general idea was to get a handful of my general education requirements out of the way and maybe even try to pick up some Italian while I was at it. I flew over to Italy with my mother, who was looking for a few days away from Chicago to take in, as she called it, la dolce vita. “I want a gondolier to sing to me, like in the movies,” she said. The gondolier spoke on his cell phone the entire time.
We arrived at the Florence Airport mid-morning. On the cab ride into the city, the driver informed us that one of the city’s time-honored traditions was complaining about the tourists, and, even worse than the general run of tourists, the hordes of visiting college students. I soon found myself in a large apartment off via Guelfa introducing my mother to ten other college students and an Italian RA. My mother quickly pulled me aside. “Please don’t get into any trouble. You know what the driver said.”
We walked around the city for a few hours, opting for the main roads and a map and rather than weaving through narrow, crowded streets and alleyways with no names, until we found ourselves at the Ponte Vecchio, lined with its multitude of shops on stilts, and made our way up the steep winding path from Porta San Niccolo to the Piazzale Michelangelo. We joined the multinational swarm moving through the rows of buses, cameras in one hand, water bottles in the other, and found ourselves a spot along the balcony and a view of the entire city, framed by distant hills and highlighted by the bright Tuscan sky.
“You sure you’ll be okay here for three months, so far from home?” my mother asked.
“I haven’t been home for over two years,” I said, dismissively.
“Well, I got you a present, just in case.” She said it was at her hotel.
We made our way back, not able to find the path we had taken but never feeling lost. She handed me a package and told me not to unwrap it until I was at my apartment. I opened it the second I walked out the hotel doors.
I glanced at both sides of the street, groups of people coming and going, sure of their direction and moving with remarkable ease. I felt lost for the first time in the city–it only took half a day in the Old World–and I looked around for a sign that would orient me. The box set of The O.C. Season Two in my hand offered no assistance.
Like many teenagers my age, I had been swept up by the teen soap opera that was so much better than it had any reason to be. The show’s creator, Josh Schwartz, was only twenty-seven, the youngest person in network history to create and produce his own one-hour series, and for a budding filmmaker like myself, it was hard not to fawn. It filled in the void left by Dawson’s Creek only a few months prior, and everyone has to have a guilty pleasure to escape to on the worst of days. However, I had no intentions of revisiting the spray-tan excesses of Southern California when I had the opportunity to immerse myself in, as the program director constantly referred to Florence, the “cradle of the Renaissance,” and I promptly hid the DVD set in my desk’s bottom drawer.
For the first few days, my new roommates and I wandered the city with no set plans, hitting the sights. We visited the Duomo, with the largest brick dome ever constructed, and the Uffizi Gallery, where George Emerson carried Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View after she witnessed a murder in the Piazza della Signoria (“Oh, what have I done?”). We ate at a restaurant right off the Central Market that opened at noon and closed whenever it ran out of food. Mary McCarthy once called Florence “a city of endurance, a city of stone,” but we found it wonderful all the same.
Classes started, but it still felt like an extended vacation, and most nights we frequented the bars (a luxury for those of us who had yet to turn twenty-one). It wasn’t hard to locate the ones targeted to foreign college students, hawking ten-euro cards good for three cocktails.
One night a friend and I wandered into a bar on via del Proconsolo and quickly chatted up the bartender. He wanted to know what was a special American cocktail, and I explained all the mixes that went into a Long Island Iced Tea. He was confused by the name, and asked me how I would describe the drink in one word. I told him it was “strong” and that name stuck for the rest of the semester. We closed out the bar and our new friend, Mario, led us to a late-night dance club. I didn’t know what time it was as we stumbled out the doors into the cool evening air. We walked along the Arno, where Mario promptly stopped to relieve himself. “Fuck the Arno!” he yelled, then tried to explain some story about the love-hate relationship Florence has with the river, after several floods. Sharp flashes of light greeted us as we walked into the dance club, and I quickly drifted into the crowd. Sweaty bodies, hands reaching for the ceiling, the scent of cheap cologne, and the bass vibrating my entire body. Plastic cups filled with anonymous liquor, someone shouting in my ear, repeating the same phrase over and over. I didn’t understand a single word.
I found myself back on the street, walking along deserted streets, supporting myself on stonewalls, until I found myself back at the Arno. Huddles of people walked past, speaking foreign languages. “Fuck the Arno!” I yelled, but the words felt empty.
This cycle continued for the first few weeks of school. We would go to class, then either grab dinner off the Market or cook pasta in the apartment. Someone would go out to the Chinese restaurant around the corner and buy each of us a euro bottle of wine. Then we’d walk the fifteen minutes to the bar on Proconsolo. Mario gave me three drinks (Strongs) for every one he marked down on my card. Our RA was never home.
Classes were harder than I anticipated, and my poor Spanish crept in during my Italian sessions. One day, I walked into the McDonalds and ordered whatever the cheapest thing on the menu was. The rancid oil from the burners smelled like home. I sat down in a plastic chair with my grilled cheese, which was composed of a slice of cheese between two inverted hamburger buns. I picked at my fries. I raised my eyes and glanced at the tourists around me. I was the only person eating alone.
One night, we came home early and in my mounting inebriation I suggested we watch an episode of The O.C. There might have been a couple of seconds’ silence as my roommates looked at each other, bewildered, before they nodded their heads. “That sounds like a great idea.”
The second season, as any devotee knows, begins with the Cohen household in shambles, under renovations, a dull metaphor for the torn relationships amongst all the show’s main characters. A married couple not on speaking terms; one son on a sailboat to Portland; the adopted son moving in with an ex-girlfriend who may be pregnant with his baby; the show’s two main couples no longer together. While the first season focuses on the past of our lovable brute from the mean streets of Chino, Ryan Atwood, who is adopted by the well-intentioned Cohen family of hoity-toity Newport Beach, season two attempts to answer the question of how Ryan is to plan for his future and leave his past behind.
Some nights we still found ourselves on Proconsolo, but other times we were content with a bottle of wine and the show’s doe-eyed stare offs and indie rock soundtrack. We sang along to the theme song. We felt homesick during the Chrismukkah episode. You would think we’d never left New York.
Spring break was approaching, and all our conversations revolved around all the cities we could visit. A train though the Alps into Switzerland; a cruise over to Croatia, only ten years from its War of Independence. Istanbul was on everyone’s wish list, with our parents pleading, “Is it safe?”
I received an email from my father to call him immediately. When I reached him, he was quiet for a while, but I could hear the television in the background. “Your grandfather has cancer.”
A scene from episode fourteen was up on my computer screen, Seth Cohen freeze-framed at Summer Roberts’s bedroom door in a Spiderman mask because he doesn’t own a raincoat and looks stupid in hats.
“What’s the weather like there?” I asked.
“It’s getting warmer,” my father replied.
I flew out at the beginning of the spring break, staying overnight in London with my girlfriend. We sat around her flat, talking about this and that, avoiding the reason for my trip. I landed in Chicago and it felt fitting that it was raining. I stood outside the terminal without a jacket on. I hadn’t been home in over six months.
We drove to the hospice. My grandfather had decided to reject any treatment and had quickly taken a turn for the worse. The only thing I can remember from that day is his eyes, barely in place in his emaciated face. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I held his hand for an hour. My aunt placed her hands on my shoulder. “He missed you.” Mostly, I heard from my family, “You don’t visit enough.”
That night, I took my father’s car and drove around the neighborhood, past the public library I used to walk to every day on my break from school, and turned left to the late-night Baskin-Robbins, where the drive-thru was backed up with high school students leaving the football game. I drove past my alma mater and into Libertyville. I turned left onto Milwaukee Avenue, past Mickey Finn’s, where a friend saw Vince Vaughan once. I drove on to the Independence Grove Forest Preserve and parked the car on a side road. I climbed over the fence and made my way through the damp grass toward the Des Plaines River, a mist rising from the darkness ahead. I remembered coming here some weekends during high school. Occasionally, we’d swim in the lake, but mostly we just walked around, relishing the fact that we weren’t supposed to be in the park after dark. The air was sweet. I lay on the grass, the wet blades cool on my back. I should have never left Chicago.
That was how the week continued. I never called any of my friends in the city; I didn’t know what to say. My grandfather’s health deteriorated, but my flight neared. By this time, he was intermittently awake and too weak to speak. My family sat around in silence, holding vigil; occasionally someone told a story from our past. “When you were born, Justin, your grandfather was at a bar and told everyone, ‘I have a Stones.’” I never shook the nickname.
Some of the stories were more recent, stories of parties and weddings and random dinners that I wasn’t able to attend. It had seemed easy to decline these invitations from nine hundred miles away, and while my family repeatedly told me how much I had been missed, it was hard to shake off the knowledge that at times I may have been forgotten. I tried to follow the stories, but too much had happened since I left for college, and I didn’t have the energy to ask them to repeat what everyone else already knew.
Visiting hours ended. I hugged my grandfather good-bye. I felt how thin he had become; he gave me a faint smile. “What am I, an orphan?” he whispered, one of his favorite Rodney Dangerfield catchphrases. I hugged him again.
I imagined this is what hell would be like, the silent corridors reeking of piss and moldy clothes, the drone of the television sets filling the oppressive air, the occasional jello plate or pudding cup served on a plastic tray. I looked back at my grandfather, motionless, floating among the blankets and clothing that engulfed him.
The evening passed, the morning came. The sun rose. I didn’t sleep a minute.
Driving on I-94 to O’Hare, my mother decided we should stop at the hospice once more, since it was only a few minutes off the highway. I pleaded that I would miss my flight.
I wish I could tell you I don’t remember the details of that day, but every moment feels as though it were yesterday. My grandfather’s contorted face as he gasped for air, the convulsions, the few seconds when he lay motionless only to sit upright once again. My family cried–wailed–and I tasted the salt of my tears on my lips. Who was I to sob along with my family, who had been by my grandfather’s side the entire illness? I was an outsider, a fraud; why was I the one holding his hand as he took his last breath? Our eyes met, only for a moment, his pupils growing as blood vessels burst. I wanted to apologize for leaving, for all the missed phone calls and unannounced visits. The last time I saw him I hadn’t even said good-bye, pissed off over my family’s comments that I should cut my hair.
It was selfish; I knew that none of that mattered. I kept my eyes on his face, even as his grip loosened and his mouth settled. Even as the doctor called time of death.
A week later, my mother pulled up to the curb at O’Hare. As I said my good-byes to my family, she whispered in my ear, “He waited until you came home to die.”
The second season of The O.C. never came close in quality to the first. There was the occasional great moment, sure, but how long can you really sustain depth in an environment defined by its superficiality? Everyone loves the promise of a new beginning, but, once settled, you’re relieved as much as saddened by something’s demise.
I returned to Italy. I barely passed my classes, but otherwise everything was back to normal. We went to the bar on Proconsolo most nights until the last week of school, when Mario mysteriously disappeared. We finished the DVD set of The O.C., and just as the first season had ended with a wedding, the second closed with a death.
The last night out in Florence, I lost my camera. I wandered for an hour, retracing my steps, down each dark and quiet alleyway, passed the train station and the closed market. I realized I had left my keys in my bedroom and I sat on the front steps, waiting for someone to return home. I wondered about the person who had found the camera, who may have clicked through the contents of its memory card. There was comfort in knowing that there was someone somewhere who for a moment, only a few moments, acknowledged my existence, each and every out-of-focused photograph, mistakes meant to be deleted.
What would a coming-of-age story be without a few fuck-ups?