Coming of Age, Italy, 1996

Composed on the 11th of June in the year 2011, at 9:46 AM. It was Saturday.

For some reason, teachers liked me in high school. Except for one, apparently, which I only know because a family friend, who was also a teacher at my high school, told me one of my teachers didn’t like me but wouldn’t tell me which one. In retrospect, I think I know who it was, but at the time, I had to sit around worrying who and why, so she shouldn’t have told me anything, but I’m sure it’s one of those attitude twitches pseudo-grownups have that makes them try to reinforce the concept of amorphous, anonymous disapproval in chlidren. Then again, another friend of mine told me one of the girls in my class at Mount Holyoke was a man-hater, and thus, predictably, hated me, but my friend wouldn’t say who it was, which is fair, but she shouldn’t have said anything in the first place. Her motivation was less clear, but to the both of you, if you’re reading this, you know who you are, and in the future, keep it to yourself.

I digress. Most of my teachers seemed to like me, and two of them liked me enough to get me in the class trip to Italy after I had already dropped out of high school. Bear in mind that on my last day, as my mother was driving me out of the parking lot on the last day of my sophomore year and of high school in general, I rolled down the window, leaned out, and screamed, “Rot in Hell, motherfuckers!” at the collected studentry and any teachers who were leaving early.

Six months later, I’m sixteen and in Italy, with a bunch of high school students. It’s an interesting mix; there are two girls I would have sacrificed a toe to sleep with, a few people I know, and a few I don’t. The room arrangement that concerns me is out of a cheap bro-love movie: I, the dropout semi-goth angsty poet wannabe, am tossed in with the six foot two athlete super jock and the son of a liberal radio host, whose teenage rebellion consisted of becoming a young republican who wore a tie to school every day and looked like he would turn forty at a moment’s notice and claimed to have never masturbated. It was exactly like a sitcom, and that was just our room; the rest of the group did not disappoint, being mostly theater kids.

I don’t remember a single name of anybody on this trip. Actually, one: Gail, one of the teachers. Other than that, I don’t recall any of the students’ names, not the other teacher (I want to say Beth, but it’s a shot in the dark), not the Italian tour guide, not any of the surprising number of people we met in our trip. I don’t remember much of what we saw, aside from the gondolier in Venice falling off his boat, some pigeons, and dome or two in Florence. Or maybe they were in Rome. Also, beer in the vending machines.

The first lesson was that despite my exit from high school and the natural superiority of spirit that accompanies being well-read dropout, I was still woefully unequipped to play the social game. To nutshell the coming stories, the girl I respected and wanted to date was in love with my roommate Jock who was in love with the New Yoik Doll, whom everybody wanted to fuck and who wouldn’t give anybody the time of day because why should she, and I hadn’t the faintest idea what to do with the theater kids’ over-emotive and underage-drunk interactions, except sip brandy and smoke cigarillos on poker nights. As was to become a theme for many years, I ended up dragging one of them home and putting him to bed after he’d done a full American tourist at an otherwise quiet bar in Florence. He spent the walk lamenting some girl not loving him enough. I dropped him off at his room, he thanked me, drunkenly and profusely, and I told him, verbatim: “You don’t know jack shit about love.” I’m equal parts embarrassed and proud of this moment as the pseudo-adult I am today. On the one hand, I was right, since nobody under twenty knows much about anything. On the other hand, that was the only time anybody could be as stupidly and completely in love as he was and I had been. On the Beeblebrox hand, I spoke out of a then-ripe angst over my first childhood love and my first childhood girlfriend, who were not the same people, so despite being almost a year away from my first sexual encounter, I felt I knew the paths of the heart. Or at least the sand traps, if not the fairway, much less the green. You know where this metaphor is going.

Whatever I thought I knew, I was wrong, but not necessarily more wrong than he was, and I was less drunk, so I call it a win.

Since our roommate was an insane young republican, who either lied about not masturbating, or—in the far more terrifying scenario—didn’t, the jock and I became fast friends. A year after this trip, back in standard Bar Harbor, Maine, America, he would mock me in front of his jock friends at his graduation. By then I’d stopped caring about what the high school popularati thought of me, but it still hurt. I know why he did it, and I hope he grew out of it, because I liked him. If he didn’t, I feel sorry for him, because people like me think of pity as one of the finest forms of revenge. Dick.

Anyway. We bonded for some unholy reason, and stuck fairly close while Cancer Girl and New Yoik Doll battled for his chin.

I don’t remember which came first. I believe Cancer Girl, because she was in the same group as Coast Guard Girl, which people close to me might interpret as a euphemism disguising disdain, except the other options are Alien Neck Girl, which just sounds weird, and Girl I Wanted to Bang a Decade After Meeting Her is a little wordy (and my girlfriend would disapprove, I’m sure). I’ve lost the picture I took, but for some reason she could suck in the skin on her neck around her tendons to a point where you wondered if she wasn’t born of this world. She also loved her country, which is also mine, but I hold no great fondness for it, while she would happily place her life on the line to protect it, and she was a five foot six short-haired brunette, and that’s been my thing for as long as I can remember. She and I had the best rapport out of any of my relationships on this trip, but she was from a far away land (New Hampshire, or something like that) and since I can’t remember her name, even the modern age of unparalleled stalking abilities leaves me with so few leads I don’t even try.

Cancer Girl had survived cancer, and gave me my first personal introduction to a person who put the moves on life because she had come so close to losing it. She was a touch on the crazy side, but not excessively crazy for a teenage girl. I fell for her too, but she was infatuated with Jock, and taking life by the testicles failed her in this effort, because he just thought she wasn’t as hot as New Yoik Doll.

New Yoik Doll was exactly the kind of girl men like me often go to jail over. Stunningly hot, obviously young, developed enough to frame in a viewfinder and post on Facebook with the caption “Maybe jail’s worth it. Am I right? Am I right?” to attract a slew of self-conscious comments to the tune of “LMFAO!!!eleven of course, man, of course!” I wouldn’t say she knew her precise effect on the men around her, but she knew that she could ramble on about whatever pointless nonsense was in her head at any moment and every guy around her would smile and nod and laugh and agree with her. Given that we were all teenagers, and Jock and I were from Maine while she was from New Yoik, she probably could have gotten us goosestepping for a few blocks before we questioned ourselves.

This girl and her group of New Yoik friends only started hanging out with us because I approached them, and I only did that when I realized they were speaking English, as their brooklyn accents were so thick it just sounded like a bunch of swallowed consonants and dragging vowels and I thought they were French. Once they were on the bus and I had sussed out a few nearly English words, I figured what the hell, as—even for me—being in another country mutes some of the self-consciousness involved in being an awkward teenager, so I regaled them with the definition of “wicked” and how people are weird, and we merged groups. Ultimately, my frustration with their frivolousness and my inability to even attempt to have sex with them soured the relationship, and they gave me my second most unfortunate nickname after “Petey”, namely, “Rat-boy.” It’s as accurate a nickname as I’ve ever had, since even now a few days without a shave, a bad haircut, and a light rain leave me looking like a rat. Still, it cut. Soon after making cross-state introductions, I found I preferred to spend my time with Cancer and Coast Guard, who I think were from New Hampshire, and more interested in the New England frivolousness I was used to.

Cancer pursued Jock with a vengeance. I imagine two bouts with cancer gave her the impression there wasn’t a lot of time to bag a good man. He did what most guys do when a woman gives them uninvited attention: assume she’s nuts and run after a younger, unattainable girl from Brooklyn. But that would come later. Before that, we discovered our teachers thought it would be great idea to let us loose in a bunch of dance clubs. Apparently every other teacher of every other school also thought it would be a good idea, so Jock and I were invited to hang out with the girls in the New Hampshire group at some local spot where all the cool people several years older than us hung out. Nobody else came, since the theater kids were busy trying to inbreed and Young Republican wouldn’t know what to do. So the two of us got the entire tour bus to ourselves as a ride to the club. We sprawled out in the back and discussed how many other middle class teenagers from Maine were getting personal transport to a club in Italy that night, or ever would. We decided none, and clinked our champagne glasses. There may not have been champagne, but there are only three witnesses and the driver didn’t speak English, so even if this is a padded recollection, I’m going with it.

Sketchy is just shy of a perfect description for the club we entered after leaving our perfect transport. I paid twelve dollars for a Coke, which in my experience up till then suggested there would be a waiter coming shortly who didn’t need to write down my order to remember it. There were corners full of broken glass, there was probably a lot of cocaine, and I saw a woman being manhandled by a pop-collared twenty year-old only to be saved from the situation by an equally pop-collared twenty year-old who proceeded to hang all over her, while she wore an expression suggesting that she would deal with being groped as long as she wasn’t being beaten. I saw three fights almost start, and then they started accosting our women.

I say “our women” specifically because this was a pretty raw and foreign assault on people we cared about, and it was giving a face and a situation to our unmanaged and, in the traditional American style, unexamined and unadmitted man-feelings. The Italian kids had no such problems. We attempted to intervene, but the girls, being surrounded by incredibly hot Italian guys, just waved us off and said it was fine. We tried going to our chaperones, but no, no, everything’s fine, despite the fact that a couple of the Italian kids tried to set fire to our hair while we were dancing with the girls. So we sat in a corner and watched, knowing the situation was about to get out of control, unable to get anyone to believe us, itching to throw down, and savagely outnumbered. We were the only guys in our group, and we were just then understanding and dreading how awful we could potentially be, and we were watching others of our gender become exactly that awful.

The outcome was a bit of a blur, but basically, one of the girls was grinding between three or four of the Italian guys, and—probably because she was a fifteen year-old girl—she decided that maybe a few of those hands were in inappropriate places, and tried to get away from them. They weren’t so eager to let her go. Fortunately she managed to get the attention of her friends, and they managed to free her and everybody rushed out. The chaperone later said, it got a little out of hand in there, nobody saw it coming, we’re all okay. Jock and I just looked at each other and went home. I tore off my button down shirt in frustration and to express some kind aggression. Jock was already in bed, but said he wanted to do the same thing, but he only had one good shirt. The homoerotic undertones of the situation were lost on us both.

Try as we might, we never convinced the girls that, at least in that brief, tarnished moment, we were right, and they should have listened to us. Ten years later, I stopped trying to convince girls of such things, and I expect he did too.

Before we parted ways with the New Hampsters I think I passed notes from Cancer while trying to subtly suggest she look elsewhere. In the end, she gave me one of those hematite rings to give to him. I didn’t want to bug him about it at the time, so I just wore it after our groups parted ways, leaving him unmolested in his pursuit of New Yoik Doll.

One of the moments that sticks in my brain in that painful tale is the late night conversation, probably one of my earliest 3 a.m., insane with caffeine and exhaustion conversations. We were listening to her, or at least I was listening to her, saying those little agreeing things guys say when they don’t give a damn but are pretending they do so they can keep staring at a girl. That was about it. I could tell Jock was trying to use his body language to actively suggest sex, but to no avail. She was using her body language to suggest she was hot and we should hang on every banal, barely comprehensible topic of the current ten seconds. Despite Jock’s impressive stature and better looks, he was as powerless as I in front of this future model from a savvier city. He may have had a better shot if I hadn’t been around, but I wasn’t going to give up my shot. We were temporary, cross-caste bros by that point (about ten minutes past the second half of act two), but “bros before hoes” is utter bullshit, unless the hoes in question are literally prostitutes and you can buy more. If you pay attention to classical literature, you’ll notice men only kill each other over other men when the other men are dead, while they merrily kill each other over women who are still alive, and sometimes over women who just got lost on the way somewhere. Think about it.

After that conversation, I essentially cut ties with the New Yoikers by responding to the head girl’s question, “Why don’t you do what I say?” with “Because I don’t like you.” I got to know the theater kids, and thought about New Hampshire. At some inebriated point, we tried to think of all the words that ended in “-ation.” I’ll give you a hint: there are a lot of them, and, ironically in this particular venture, only one of them is masturbation.

The other club we went to was supposedly THE dance club of europe, so we figured we’d give it a shot, even after the previous club. We all got in on this one, and danced the night away. This is the scene of one of my proudest moments, wherein I convinced the girls from another tour group that I was Italian. If you’re sixteen and on a trip to Italy, here’s what you do:

1. Find a confused looking huddle of girls speaking English.

2. Walk up to them.

3. Say “Baila? Baila?”

4. Wait for them to say, “Sorry, we don’t speak Italian.”

5. Say, “Oh, Americanos! I speak, ey huh, American. Come, we dance, baila is dance.”

6. Grab the hot one and dance with her.

7. Do not run into her at the airport two weeks later when both your tours are going home.

Eventually the hot one decided she’d had enough grinding with this sub-par faux Italian and I went and danced to Smells Like Teen Spirit by myself. At some point I was clapping to a shitty techno song and my standard, pewter ring hit the hematite ring and shattered it. I realized I was an asshole. Then I got a drink and realized I was okay with.

In a nutshell, this was the moment the seed of modern Pete was planted, though its shoots would wilt for years to come.

On the way back in the airport, I think the girls from the club actually liked me more when they discovered I was a lying American. In my first moment of cool, I shrugged when they found me out and said, “Hey, who wouldn’t?” and was rewarded with giggles.

After this, I owed my teacher a hundred bucks, and fifty to one of the the theater kids, which I fully intend to pay if I ever see him again. As I mentioned, Jock wouldn’t admit to knowing me when he got back with his Jock Friends. I never reconnected with Cancer or Coast Guard, and never intended to see the New Yoikers again. In fact, the only person I had any serious contact with afterwards was Young Republican, and it was an unfulfilling relationship.

The plane ride back was long. The bus ride was probably longer, and on this bus ride I sat next to another girl whose name I can’t remember, and whom I would never see again. I think I’d spoken to her a few times on the trip. She was tall, at least five ten, with long blond hair. She was shy, and quiet. I hadn’t noticed before, but she was pretty, behind a wool coat sweater and glasses that were too big for her face. She smiled easily and we talked about music and movies, and I realized I was getting sick, and my ears hadn’t unclogged yet from the descent. It was late, and we were tired. I asked if I could put my head on her shoulder, and she said yes. We rested against the window and watched the rain until we fell asleep.

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