“Are you traveling alone?”
“Huh?” I ask, not realizing it’s only going to prompt the security minion to heighten the spotlight on me that accents just how unattached I am to anyone on this planet.
“Yes. It’s just me. Alone.”
He smiles sadly at me. But this is nothing compared to how my relatives will look at me. To get into the headspace of the Southern Italian mentality–even more nuanced than just the plain Italian mentality–taking the budget, direct-to-Naples airline Meridiana is a great way to dip your toe.
After the standard cattle call at the check-in gate, the desk agent informs me just as I’m about to walk away that: “The plane is delayed. We’ll be boarding at ten.” It was supposed to take off at seven. I am instantly acclimated to the bottlenecked ways of the Neapolitan pace.
Once I get to the terminal, the amenities are few, with only a Panini Express, Starbucks and Hudson News to keep me entertained. The wifi is scant, the outlet charging station’s every orifice fitted by every other traveler’s plug. It’s going to be an endless wait. But I power through it, read an entire book–Chloe Caldwell’s I’ll Tell You In Person–then think about adding to my credit card’s tally by paying the overpriced fee of $29.95 for Amy Schumer’s The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo. I refrain, some part of me lamenting the fact that this is the only type of literature that sells in American airports. That and Michael Crichton/James Patterson fare. I won’t contribute to the expected purchases of the “common man” demographic.
Instead, I spend $45 at Xpress Spa for a pedicure, and throw in a pack of face masks while I’m at it. After all, if I put one on in the airplane bathroom, maybe I’ll look fresh enough when I arrive so as to avoid family members making a quintessential remark about appearance (“Hai sonno?”, “Sei distrutta!”, “Come ti sembra vecchia!”, etc.). I want to defy everything, including the belief that you are pathetic, as a woman, for traveling alone and that you generally look rode hard and put away wet upon disembarking a plane.
As I’m getting to the end of my book, a guy in his late twenties reading The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker jokes that we’ll have to swap titles soon at the rate it’s taking to board the plane. I tell him he wouldn’t be interested in what I’ve got as a way to infer that I definitely won’t be intrigued by his literary taste. And in this moment, I already become nostalgic for America and how women can freely be “cunts” to strangers.
I’m rudely awakened to the need to feign pleasantries when I sit next to an Italian man somewhere in his sixties spilling over the coveted aisle seat. He lets me in and quickly delves into the particulars: why I’m going to Naples, where I live in New York, what I do for a living. But he’s not really interested. Like all Italian men of the old school, they are not truly listening. Especially to a woman traveling alone. “Engaging” me is a clandestine way for him to talk about himself, an act he finds so natural he’s not even aware of it.
Boxing me in with his portly body, which at no point does not touch me or invade the alleged personal space of my seat, he tells me about the three restaurants he owns in Pennsylvania. And, unfortunately for me, this means he speaks English fluently. As I nod along, he starts to dive into the type of anecdote that only a Southerner (we’re talking of America, too) would.
“I had these two gays working for me and it was terrible.” I do not encourage him in any way to continue explaining why it was terrible. Maybe he assumes because I have Southern Italian blood running through me, I will empathize with his plight of employing gay men. So he persists, “I didn’t know the first one I hired was gay, then he refers his friend to me for the dishwashing position. One day I walk in on them in the back room kissing–I tell you it was disgusting! I had to fire them.”
I don’t ask how he managed to terminate both of them without a reason other than their sexuality. Italians are jovially strategic enough to get what they want. A part of me feels guilty for not firing back at him for his archaic, narrow-minded views–saying something “shocking” like, “I’m a lesbian”–but I know with people of this nature, moving a mountain would be easier than changing a mind. So I stay quiet and hope he’ll stop talking. He does not.
“Your father would’ve done the same thing,” he insists, appealing to me based on what familial information I’ve mistakenly offered about myself–that my father is a 64-year-old restaurateur. I don’t want to believe he’s right, shutting him out with my only armor: headphones.
Throughout our journey, he either snores or performs such presumptuous acts as turning my reading light on or pulling down my tray table when the food comes. And though you may be thinking sarcastically, “What a chivalrous asshole,” the utter gall of this man to condescend to me via physical gestures is just one of many things that wouldn’t happen to me if I wasn’t a woman traveling alone–looked on even by any “normal” person (meaning not Southern Italian) as weak and unable to dig up a real enough connection in my life to go somewhere with someone other than myself.
But this perception of me as an emotional leper augments by a thousand when viewing me through the eyes of a sixty-something Neapolitan who believes in Book of Genesis sexuality and that all women past the age of twenty-six are day old bread. Still, I know he’d fuck me in the bathroom if I intimated it was a possibility.
As the food–automatically above average for being served on an Italian airline–is set on our trays, Antonio (as I’ve long ago found out his name is) informs me that the orecchiette has been delivered to its consumers three hours too late. I console him by saying, “Better than Domino’s” (he had previously expressed a very specific contempt for Domino’s and Papa John’s, boasting that if any of his American friends had it at their house, he would throw it in the trash–it was the one detail about himself I was charmed by).
He chuckled at my assuagement and proceeded to dredge up another narrative about his Calabrese ex-wife and how all Calabrese women are overly jealous. Yet something told me Antonio’s eyes were congenitally wandering (in addition to being crossed). I stress-eat everything on the tray and ask for three complimentary glasses of red wine. Finally–mercifully–the food and alcohol puts me out, until the flight attendants come around with coffee.
Antonio has fallen asleep and the sadist in me wants to plug his nose so he’ll cease snoring. I listen to every song on my phone that can be experienced without an internet connection, mainly Blur, The Smiths and, weirdly, Lily Allen. I almost wish I was on my way to Britain. Pub culture smiles at loners.
I manage to finagle the cursory form of rest known as “plane sleep,” not waking until late morning, when the aircraft is soaring above the Bay of Naples. I can’t help but smile at it; it’s truly a sight to behold.
After the rigmarole of deboarding, getting my passport stamped at the excuse Naples calls customs and waiting for luggage, I stood outside in search of my uncle–the go-to for airport pickups. A half hour passed. No sign of mio zio.
The slowing of a mint green Fiat in front of me briefly made me think it could be him. Alas, it was Antonio.
“Need a lift?”
No woman travels–let alone exists–solo in Napoli. And it was then I appreciated the value of aloneness, so much more preferable to the company of dolts.