La Playa was the beach that Costanza’s father frequented as a boy. He had told her stories about spending the long afternoons at the Playa with his mates, the neighbourhood urchins of Via Trovatelli, a poor working-class street in Catania, swimming and carousing in the warm waters of the Ionian. The Playa held a special place in Costanza’s imagination. It was a hazy childhood memory with contours of sun and sea and of hiding in the sandy underbelly of the wooden planks where her father had changed into his swimming trunks. The Playa was where some years later her father had spotted a fellow youth, swimming and carousing with his own mates, an exuberant youth with the extraordinarily good looks of a young Hollywood actor, whom fate would eventually have it, became his brother-in-law.
All along believing that the Playa was the beach frequented by boys from poor neighbourhoods, she now discovered that the Playa was in fact the city beach of Catania, a long stretch of coastline dotted with colourful lidi where one rented cabins. The free beaches were “le spiagge libere.” Visiting Catania in the first hot week of July, renouncing the afternoon siesta, Costanza and her son Giacomo waited stoically in 37-degree heat in Piazza Borsellino, then boarded a bus bound for Playa 3, the furthest of the free beaches. Finding a window seat, Costanza was equipped with her green khaki explorer hat and a beach bag containing white bath towels from the pensione and a bottle of water.
The bus swerved the semicircle of a roundabout and went southward down a boulevard. The road was flanked on both sides with an endless line of eucalyptus trees, palm trees burnt by a relentless summer-long sun, prickly pear cactuses with pads branching out like tentacles, and intermittent oleanders with fuchsia blooms adding clusters of colour to the overall sun-hazy green. The grounds beyond the trees were burnt, sparse, littered here and there with empty plastic water bottles and plastic garbage-filled bags that marred, and by contrast, even highlighted the beauty of the Mediterranean flora.
They found a spot close to a lifeboat parked on the sand, and spread the white bath towels, the least beachy of towels, out on the sand. They shed their cotton clothing, Giacomo appearing in sports trunks and Costanza in a one-piece bathing suit. Giacomo entered the water quickly, swimming out, soaking in it for a long while, like a duck in a pond – a dip into the Ionian, into the waters that had brought his remote ancestors from all corners of the Mediterranean, where his grandfather had swum in his poor, carefree youth. Costanza spread the sunscreen on her legs and arms and lay back on the white bath towel. When the sun was too hot on her, she sat up, slung her sunglasses back to rest on her head, and looked out. In the distance she could see the coastline and the hazy silhouette of Mount Etna. It looked like a map, or rather periplum, the image of land sighted by the ancient seafaring peoples of the Mediterranean basin. Every ten minutes or so a plane took off from the nearby airport and roared and glided in the sky until it disappeared. She people-watched. There was a young Russian-sounding couple lying on the sand close by, their skin white-white, untouched by sun. There was a group of African youths in the water, black-black and well-bodied, not interacting with the locals in the water, the locals not interacting with them, but without any signs of racial unease or discomfort. There were children with pails and rakes, young women in bikinis walking along the shoreline, and a bikini-clad woman in her 60s, rake-thin and darkly tanned, sitting up on a beach towel of faded colours, whom she thought was odd – what with her Rasta hair, ears poked and cluttered with piercings and earrings, and smoking a cigarette despite the heat.
The sun peaked instead of waning in intensity in the late afternoon. Giacomo and Costanza decided to pack up and return to town. The bus stop was almost obfuscated by a sprawling purple bougainvillea from the adjoining lido, and the edge of the free beach street-level was littered with the ubiquitous empty plastic water bottles and other trash. The litter indeed marred the beauty of the flora and suggested neglect, as if punishing the sun for being too hot. After an interminable wait under the sun, a bus lumbered to a stop. The crowd that had gathered at the bus stop climbed in, not in single file, but as an undefined mob, hoping to find an empty seat. The bus had few seats, and they were already occupied, so that the new wave of passengers stuffed the corridor of the bus, resembling a can of sardines.
Five o’clock in the afternoon and the bus lumbered on Viale Kennedy, the palm-lined and kilometres-long boulevard of the Playa. Giacomo and Costanza were squashed in the midst of standing, sweating human bodies in various forms of beach attire, and were separated by what seemed like one big wobbly wall of bodies. There was a group of adolescent boys near the front of the bus, some sitting at the window seats, some standing and holding onto the overhead bar. They were rowdy, slapping each other on the face, head, back of the neck, and speaking in Sicilian dialect. Their eyebrows were plucked (which seemed to be in vogue in Catania, as Costanza had noticed a number of men behind coffee bar counters with plucked eyebrows). Costanza told them to be quiet, telling them that the bus was a public space, however packed to the gills it was. The boys were apologetic and contrite, but after ten minutes they started horsing around again, slapping each other in the face just to while away the time.
Caught in restricted space, Costanza could do nothing but look at the people she was crammed closest to, arms extended upward and hands clamped on the overhead bar like her. Some girls had pretty eyes and long noses. The juveniles that Costanza had reprimanded had old-world, semi-delinquent faces. Costanza noticed a bald, blue-eyed man, the same man she had seen on the bus en route to the playa. He had looked at Costanza with love-struck, dead fish-eyes. With obvious chivalry he had suggested that she leave her heavy beach bag in the vacant corner where he was standing so as to free herself of the burden, but she had politely declined with grazie, va bene cosi’. Now, she quickly averted her glance to avoid meeting his. A hulking man hovered behind her with bad breath and body odour, which the heat inside the bus only amplified. The bus lumbered to a stop. A man and a woman climbed in, the man wasting no time in telling one of the noisy juveniles to give up his seat to his pregnant wife. A Senegalese vendor, a vu cumprà, also boarded the bus, hauling in his folded cardboard vending table and two big bags of merchandise and trinkets.
The bus moved slowly and stalled in traffic for long stretches of time. It eventually stopped, but the doors didn’t open to let in more passengers. Standing at the bus stop at Lido Il Ciclope, whose sign depicted the face of a cyclops, were some blonde Eastern Europeans, who seemed out of place with their untanned skin, and a very tanned lesbian couple, who looked annoyed that the bus doors hadn’t opened. The “man” of the couple, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and bermuda shorts, was fat and sported a buzz cut. The Senegalese vendor in a deep African voice and in Sicilian dialect commented on the scene so that his fellow passengers could hear: “Voli fari u masculu, ma non e’ masculu, e’ una fimmina brutta! Ha! Ha! Ha!” he laughed with self-satisfaction. He gesticulated in the Italian manner by bringing the thumb and fingers of his hand together and rocking it back and forth.
The frequent stalling of the bus in traffic, the heat, and the congestion imposed on the passengers the forbearance of cattle. Behind the driver, Giacomo in his light-blue flat cap turned around to see where his mother was wedged in. He had been to Catania as a child, but now, as a young man, the baroque grandeur of the city, the vibrant colours of the fruit and vegetables, and the variety of fish culled from mare nostrum at the open-air markets stunned and dazzled him. It all belonged to him as an inheritance and he was grateful to his mother for the trip she had bestowed him.
The bus moved slowly along Viale Kennedy. The Senegalese vendor, feeling squeezed in and tired of standing, sat down on his big merchandise bag, an inflated pillow accommodating him comfortably for the tortuous ride. The bus door opened at a stop and new passengers stumbled in, trying to find a smidgen of space. Costanza’s love-struck, fish-eyed admirer lost his cool seeing the Senegalese vendor get comfortable and occupy more space, and in a dragging voice in Sicilian said—“Vadda a chiustu, sa’ sittau! Au, susiti!” The Senegalese resisted the angry command to get up grimacing, his eyes blood-shot and puffy from long days of selling his wares under the sun. He got up, anyway. To his relief, the fish-eyed admirer got off at the next stop, but not without shouting Au! Au! and banging at the exit door because it wouldn’t open, until it did. As soon as he got off, the Senegalese sat down again on his merchandise bag, mumbling that his aggressor was a crazy man, a familiar face, having seen him often on the same bus to and from the playa, pointing his index finger to his temple to mean crazy, “Lui e’ nu pazzu, u conosciu!”
The bus gained momentum as traffic loosened on Viale Kennedy. It passed the docks and the harbour where Costanza’s grandfather had worked unloading cargo from ships, and into the old grey baroque city.
At Piazza Borsellino, the passengers emptied out of the bus, the release of a bottled-up wave. Giacomo and Costanza crossed the street into Villa Pacini, a public garden frequented by old, grizzled men in sandals sitting on old, time-rusted benches, resigned to the headless statues of illustrious men, empty wine and beer bottles and cigarette butts strewn everywhere, and Africans standing under the bridge selling trinkets – the public garden that had once hosted the sea before it had retreated. Giacomo and Costanza felt a sense of homecoming as they approached the empty fish market, the smell of the salty sea permanent on the cobblestones, and on empty wooden and metal tables that daily displayed the culled local fish, even fish from faraway waters swimming into warmer ones.
Silvia Falsaperla is a freelance writers in Toronto. She is currently working on her first collection of poetry.
“A Crowded Bus on Kennedy Boulevard” was a finalist in the 2020 Accenti Writing Contest. For details on next year’s contest, click here. Click here to know more about the 2020 Accenti contest winners.