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The Bus to Amalfi

Erling looked out of the window at the barely held together highways of Naples, motorcycles whizzing by his bus, and felt as if he were gonna puke. He could taste it all; the good scotch, the overpriced beer, the shitty table wine, the fresh seafood, and the acres of pizza.

He looked at his phone. There were no notifications, which was probably for the best. Taking his eyes off the road caused last night’s food to lurch further up his throat, not to mention the light from the phone which made his head swirl. Still, he wished she’d say something. He looked out the window as the bus passed by the ruins of Pompeii.

Tommy had really wanted to visit the brothel. For a guy who spent so much time talking about sometimes interesting Roman history facts, his focus for their trip to the best-preserved Roman city in the world seemed a bit immature. When they found the door to the former establishment of vice, it was closed and locked, so they had spent a not-insignificant amount of time walking around, trying to find another way in. What finally did satisfy Tommy were the penises on the walls of each of the homes, according to him, symbols of fertility.

After they had left the ruined city, they had gone to a restaurant across the street. Erling knew what they were getting into, they had pictures of their food on the menu. When they got in, they were given the classical Italian service. They twiddled their thumbs as they waited for a server to ask for their drinks. They twiddled them waiting for the bottle of house wine to arrive. They twiddled them waiting for their pizza to arrive. And they twiddled them waiting for the check. The whole time, the restaurant was empty and the servers could be seen deep in casual conversation with one another. When the check did arrive, it was too much, but Tommy convinced Erling that the servers would only make them twiddle their fingers longer if they complained.

As they exited the restaurant, they watched as their bus sped away on the opposite side of the street. Their bus wasn’t supposed to leave for another 10 minutes, but that was their bus.

They checked the timing of the next bus. It was supposed to be in 20 minutes, not too long. They leaned up against the wall of the liquor store, trying to perfect their cool guy lean: back to the wall, legs crossed, and looking vaguely into the distance. Of course, vaguely into the distance was exactly where their bus was supposed to come from.

It didn’t. 20 minutes turned to 40, 40 turned to an hour. At some point in that time, Tommy got the idea that there was a different bus stop that the bus might be going to. Erling pointed out that if there was such a bus stop, the bus would still have to pass by this stop and so they would have seen it. This logical flaw did nothing to convince Tommy, who believed he had perfected the cool guy stance about 20 minutes earlier and was now doing it out of boredom rather than practice. So Erling had relented, found another bus stop and off they went.

When they arrived, they waited more. Tommy started singing “Drunken Sailor” and since it was only mildly annoying, Erling just sighed and listened. Looking off into the distance, Erling saw that there was a preschool around here and mentioned it to Tommy, who replied that it was interesting. Erling was prepared to accept such a statement, but his boredom had other ideas.

“How is that interesting?”

Tommy shrugged.

“Oh my god, you don’t find that interesting, do you?”

“Not really, no.”

“So what about all the other times you’ve told me things were interesting? Were they not interesting either?”

“Some of them were,” Tommy said. “I guess you’ll never know which, though.”

Erling shook his head and paced away from Tommy. He looked down at his phone and scrolled through his messages. He smiled as he read through his conversation with Sofia. She had invited him to some little get-together, but he had declined, having already left for Italy. In response, she had hyped up Italy. She told him about a little seafood place on the banks of the Grand Canal in Venice, an unbelievable gelato place in Rome, and how jealous she was that he was going to see Pompeii. Erling thought about texting her but decided not to. Eventually the bus did come to take them back to the city.

There, they went to their hostel. The two of them showered and changed. Erling asked Tommy where he wanted to get food. Tommy said he wanted to hit up that seafood place again. Erling said that he wanted pizza again. He figured he could get good seafood anywhere, but pizza from Napoli? That was worth the trip.

They agreed on a compromise. Pizza first, then seafood, then back to pizza, with plenty of alcohol mixed in to help with the digestion.

The first place was a 20-minute walk from the hostel. It was a pleasant stroll along what seemed to be the busiest street in Napoli. The cars constantly honking, the motorcycles cutting through exactly motorcycle sized holes in traffic and the pedestrians constantly bumping them on the street caused such serenity in Tommy and Erling that they could not wait to get to their restaurant.

When they arrived, the restaurant appeared as a door in the wall, with only the name of the pizza place, the smell of dough, and the sounds of a hectic kitchen to mark it out as anything but someone’s residence. Outside of the restaurant waited 8 people. As they walked to wait in line, a man came out of the restaurant, ushered in the first two, and gestured to Tommy and Erling.

“Two? Five minutes.” The man said and escorted the other two inside without waiting for a response.

It was almost unbelievable that we would be seated in 5 minutes, given that the 6 people in front of them were all in pairs.

Of course, they weren’t seated in 5 minutes, but in 4. The people ahead of them had been taken in hurriedly. When it was their turn, they could barely keep up with the waiter’s speed walking. He sat them down at a table crammed between two other tables.

The interior of the restaurant did not give the appearance of a restaurant at all. There were white walls with nothing written on them. It was almost as if the place had been one giant kitchen and they had, at one point, decided they needed room for customers.

About a minute after the two of them were seated, a waiter came up to ask what they wanted. Erling pointed to a pizza on the menu that had anchovies. The waiter shook his head.

“Mozzarella or Margarita.”

The waiter didn’t seem to want to explain himself, much less in English, so Erling and Tommy decided to go for one of each and a half liter of wine for the table.

The waiter walked away and came back with two pizzas, a pitcher of wine, and two glasses. The waiter placed the pizzas in front of each of them, poured the wine into each of the glasses, leaving the pitcher in the middle of the table, and scurried himself away.

Erling and Tommy ate the pizza as they saw the people around them doing. They would use their fork and knives to cut out little squares, leaving the crust entirely intact. To Erling, good Italian pizza was strange in that it tasted more like pasta with red sauce than pizza. There was barely any dough and you could taste each of the individual ingredients. When Erling mentioned this to Tommy, Tommy replied that he could see why people liked that sort of thing, but that he preferred good American pizza, which was mostly grease flavored.

Tommy finished his pie first and spent the remainder of the time snacking on his crust and making a dent in the wine. Erling was the slower eater and felt no reason to hurry up. He wanted to enjoy his meal. It seemed to him that Tommy could not have really even tasted his food.

A few minutes after Tommy had finished, the waiter placed the bill on the table with the simple remark that the tip was not included. This upset Erling. He understood the practicality of such a statement. This place clearly had a lot of tourists and a lot of them may forget about tip, because tourists are naturally idiots. At the same time, it seemed to go against all taste to seemingly ask for tip.

Nevertheless, Tommy took up the bill and they agreed on a tip of around 15%. It was a good tip in Italy. They gave it, not because the service was good, but because it was efficient.

When the waiter came back, the two friends were all but tossed out of the restaurant, so that the waiter could keep the machine chugging along smoothly.

The two of them looked at where they were in Napoli. The seafood place they wanted to go was about a half hour walk back in the direction they had come. Erling felt he could still eat after the pizza, whereas Tommy acted as if he hadn’t eaten in days.

This time they decided not to walk along the main street. Instead, they walked back along the dingy side streets. It was a bit longer, but those streets had much more character. They smelled distinctly of exhaust and cigarettes. Hanging above them, from the balconies of the crammed together apartments were clothes lines with all sorts of garments on them. Yet, unlike the main street where such compactness was only a function of commuting, the compactness of the apartments was how these people lived, their lives forever stitched to one another by laundry.

The seafood place was part of a fresh fish market. At your seat, you could see all of the fish you were going to order on ice. It reminded Erling of a fish market his uncle used to take him to back in Norway. It was in a bay by the side of the fjord. You could tell that all the fish was fresh caught because you could watch as large men moved the fish in large nets from the old boats right to the back of the old restaurant. But that still wasn’t the freshest seafood Erling had ever had. No, the best was when his uncle would come back from a fishing expedition with his share of the haul, having picked the highest quality fish from the catch.

When the waitress came, Erling ordered the fried octopus and Tommy had the shark steak, while the two of them split a half liter of the house red. Erling didn’t like the fried octopus too much. It was just a bit too chewy on the inside, so he let Tommy keep stealing pieces of octopus and he stole shark from Tommy himself. Neither one of them switched dishes, but it was soon clear that they each had stopped eating their own dish in favor of the other’s.

When they finished eating and were trying to get the house red down despite their now mildly foggy minds, Sofia came back to the forefront of Erling’s brain. He wanted to know what Tommy thought of her. Being both single guys, it would be no surprise to Erling if Tommy had fancied her. And yet, for some reason he didn’t want to ask directly.

“Tommy,” Erling gave him a wry smile. “How would you rate the girls in our class?”

Tommy stroked the beard that he used to have before replying, “with what rating system? Holistically or purely hotness?”

Erling chuckled at the remark, “holistically.”

Tommy took his time. He swirled the wine in his plastic cup, took a drink, and gave a satisfied, “aw”. He looked at Erling as if he were going to answer the question, then rested his hand on his chin, looking thoughtfully off towards the frozen seafood.

“Okay, I’ve got it.” Tommy said. “No, wait.”

Tommy drank the rest of his wine and filled the cup back up.

“Okay, now I’ve got it.”

“And?”

“Well, top 5. Starting from the bottom, to make it more dramatic,” Tommy smirked.

Erling nodded. He could do without the drama.

“Well, number 5 would have to be Jackie. I mean, she’s very attractive and kind of funny, but we never really clicked, you know?”

Erling found this a little off-putting. He always felt quite good around Jackie and said as much. Tommy shrugged and said he didn’t know.

Erling asked about number 4. Tommy said it was Hailey. He said he hadn’t spent much time with her, which is why she’s so low on the list, but says they’d had a couple of nice chats and plus she had an amazing butt.

Erling didn’t disagree with the assessment, but he hadn’t spent much time with her either.

Number three was Rachel. They agreed that they both liked her. She was attractive and had a good sense of humor.

Number two was Henrika. Erling had forgotten about her. Tommy said that they had made a connection while they were on a recent hiking trip. Also, she was unbelievably cute.

“And number 1?” Erling asked.

Tommy hesitated. For some reason that made Erling more nervous than it should have. Tommy couldn’t possibly know who number one on his list was, could he? Erling took a big gulp of wine to calm his nerves.

“Emma,” Tommy said and Erling let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “She’s got these beautiful blue eyes and she doesn’t put up with any of my bullshit.”

Erling smiled. Tommy didn’t even notice. He seemed to be in his own world. He came back down.

“And who are your top five?”

Erling rearranged Tommy’s list a little bit. Some girls went higher, some went lower, but all that really mattered to him was who was on top.

“Sofia, interesting,” Tommy said. “I think I’ve only talked to her like twice ever.”

“Yeah, we’ve hung out some,” Erling trailed off a bit. “Don’t you think she’s the most attractive girl in our class?”

Tommy said that she was very attractive.

The conversation died down. The two of them finished their wine.

When they had finished their wine and paid, Erling found a bar on the other side of the city, supposedly in the party district. The two of them decided they would walk there. They had been to the party district in Rome and they wanted to compare the two. The walk over was quiet. Each of them looked to the stars and wished they could be looking at that light polluted sky with someone else.

When they arrived at the bar, there must have been a couple hundred people in the street outside. The ones that weren’t drinking were wearing masks, not that many of them weren’t drinking. And there wasn’t just one bar on the street, there were several.

The two of them put on their masks and went inside the bar. Everyone inside the bar was wearing a mask. To get a spot along the bar from which to order, they had to go to the very end. A bartender came over to them, wearing a mask covering only his mouth, and they ordered two beers. The beers were given to them in red plastic cups and they were told to drink it outside.

The two of them loved the atmosphere there. Despite the pandemic or perhaps as an outright rebellion to the idea of social distancing, people moved from group to group without a care in the world. New friends met, old friends said hi, and everyone drank.

Erling and Tommy could have joined in with the mess of humanity. Erling convinced himself that he didn’t need to join in. It was safer not to with the virus and such. So the two of them drank their beer and watched the mess of humanity entangle itself, while they sat back and watched.

When the two of them had finished their beers, they tossed their cups into overflowing trash cans. They were headed off to the next pizza place. It was supposedly the number 1 ranked pizza place in Napoli.

“Is Sofia seeing anyone?” Tommy asked.

“No.”

“Then why don’t you ask her out?”

“Because we’re good friends and I don’t want to ruin it.”

Tommy nodded, “interesting.”

The way to the pizza place was crowded. There were little clusters of people every few meters. Every once in a while, some seemingly drunk motorcyclists would cut through the crowd. The first time it happened, Erling pulled Tommy out of the way, acting like he had saved his life. The second time it happened, Tommy pulled Erling out of the way, acting like he had saved his life. The third time it happened, the two of them both moved out of the way without so much as looking behind them.

The pizza place was crowded inside when they arrived and there was a large crowd gathered outside of it as well. When Erling went to put their name down for a table, the man asked how many and he said two. The wait was going to be about half an hour. Erling turned to Tommy who nodded. They said they would call their name.

Erling got the impression that it wasn’t as good as they had been recommended. For one, it wasn’t unique. It boasted three locations. One here, one in Rome, and one in New York City. Another thing that bugged him about it was all the great reviews posted on the windows. Now, obviously great reviews didn’t preclude your restaurant from being good, it just meant that there might be some bit of herd mentality in the ratings. Lastly was the type of place it was. It almost looked like fine dining. Everything was that fancy mahogany color and there seemed to be cloth tablecloths, which seemed highly impractical for a pizza place.

Next to the restaurant was an open-air bar. There were two interesting things about this bar. First, was its location next to the pizza place. It felt so organic, the built-up demand for booze from the waiting area outside the pizza place was perfectly supplied by this little bar. It reminded Erling of those little bugs that ride on the backs of bigger animals, taking care of all the little parasites. The more interesting thing was the price of an Aperol Spritz: 1 euro.

Erling mentioned both these points to Tommy, who agreed that the second point was by far the more interesting. When they got their Spritz’s, they were not quite as impressed. They were about a third of a liter, mostly ice and Tommy finished his in about one sip. Erling gave him a look.

“What?” Tommy was now chewing on the ice. “I was thirsty.”

Across the street was another bar and when Erling had finished his drink, they went over to it. Tommy ordered first and got a pint of La Trappe. Erling ordered himself a bottle of their cheapest beer.

The two said “prost” and took a sip of their respective beers. Erling’s beer was beer by the only the most technical of requirements. It was almost flavored water.

“Do you know how much this cost me?” Tommy asked Erling.

Erling asked and Tommy said 10 euros. Erling said his cost 7.

“And I thought I got ripped off,” Tommy laughed.

The two of them drank their respective beers. Tommy noted that his La Trappe wasn’t his favorite. It was a darker beer and he didn’t favor those types of flavors, but at least he got to try something new for his money. This last point caused Erling to roll his eyes.

By the time their names were called, Erling had finished his beer and they were again called in for pizza. The waiter took them to their table, where they asked for a half liter of house wine to split and two pizzas, one margarita and one parmesan. This pizza took a long time to come. When it did eventually arrive, they had already finished the wine.

They ate the pizza. It was good enough. They moved on.

Walking towards the last bar, Tommy asked Erling if he had ever been in love. Erling said he never had been.

“Because I’ve been thinking about your Sofia thing,” Tommy was now watching the stars sway back and forth in the night sky. “And I think it’s probably worth ruining your friendship.”

“Really?”

“I mean, like you’re friends right now,” Tommy took a second to figure out what he was going to say next. “But it’s better to be not friends. Like that feeling of being totally with someone. It’s a good feeling. Like, I gave that good feeling up for this and maybe I was wrong, because that’s the better feeling, you know?”

“Why’d you give it up then?” Erling somehow understood every bit of that. Perhaps it was that he was also drunk.

“I wanted to explore…” the two them arrived at the bar, held up two fingers and were directed to some outside seating. The two of them thanked their waitress and sat down. “…other girls. And the world, I suppose. But like, the other girls were a big factor. And now we’re here and drunk. And I don’t see where my point was. I think I must have dropped it somewhere.”

While Tommy was trying to find his point inside the drink menu, Erling rolled the idea around in his head. Tommy could clearly be dismissed as an idiot and a drunk, but somehow there was a clear argument in what he was saying. He did feel better when he was around Sofia. She made him laugh and she clearly liked him. Why shouldn’t he ask her out?

Then he remembered his original argument. They were in the same friend group. All of his friends were her friends and more hers than his. If he were to lose them, he’d end up with nobody, except maybe Tommy.

“Would you marry her?” Erling asked.

“I don’t know.”

“No way. There was a reason you broke up with her in the first place.”

“Yeah, and if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have ever gone to Italy.”

With that thought, Tommy ordered an Aperol and Erling ordered a 12-year-old Lagavulin.

Tommy shook his head, “Who orders good scotch when they’re already plastered?”

When the drinks arrived, Erling took a sip of his scotch. He could tell it was scotch. That being said, he couldn’t tell that it was good scotch.

“Ooh, this is the good stuff” Erling said.

Tommy gave him a knowing smile.

The two of them finished their drinks, paid, and went back to their hostel. Behind the counter in the lobby were drinks.

“Due birre per favore?” Erling asked the receptionist, who didn’t seem to understand him. So, he asked again. Again, the receptionist didn’t understand him. Tommy took over and asked for the beers in English, paid, and they made their way to the balcony upstairs.

On the balcony were a group of Germans. With them, Tommy and Erling talked about the usual German stuff: Volkswagon and beer. Soon, Tommy told them he was heading to bed. Erling called him a pussy, but it didn’t work. A little bit after Tommy left, the Germans left and Erling found himself sitting all alone.

As he sipped his beer, he looked up at the blurry stars in the sky. Each one shone so large, it seemed as if the night sky was blanketed by a sea of white. It was so beautiful, Erling thought. He wished someone were there with him. He wished Sofia were there with him.

He took out his phone, pulled up his chat with Sofia and typed out “wish you could be here to see this. Miss you.”

He read over those words several times, checking for spelling mistakes. He must not have been as drunk as he thought. He had got it right the first time.

He hit send.

The next day in the bus, he looked at the words he’d sent the night before and wished he could have never sent the last two.

He put the phone away and looked over the bay of Naples. A day before, it had been full of depth and color. The blue at the top of a crashing wave was far brighter than the blue in the little curve. The mountains were littered with trees of various shades of green and rocks with multifaceted greys.

Now it looked as if someone had turned the contrast on his eyes down a peg. There was blue sea, green trees, and grey rocks. In the sky was a yellow orb.

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