In July of 1999, I sat on a bench atop the Palatine Hill in Rome, as alone and grief-stricken as I have ever been. I was twenty-one years old, and just weeks earlier my friend had died.
On my perch overlooking the Eternal City, I found myself studying instead my feet, which were covered in dust. I had walked mile after mile that day, passing hours alone. This was the first moment I’d paused since morning. I bent over and adjusted the strap of my sandal, and a sharp line of clean skin revealed just how dirty my feet had become. Faced with this visual confirmation of my weariness, I cried in silence.
Many think of travel as a balm to sooth a troubled soul and ease the trauma of personal loss. It distracts us from the routine into which our grief has become wedged and reminds us that beyond our loss the world goes on and we with it.
Some very old Romans would disagree. The Stoic philosopher Seneca says we simply transfer our problems to a different place when we travel. “You ought to change your soul, not your sky,” he writes. Only when you achieve interior wellbeing, “when you’ve extracted the evil from yourself,” does the whole world become hospitable. This occurs when we simply accept what we can’t control and so free ourselves from passions that make us suffer, such as grief. We must remind ourselves each day that those we love are mortal and may die. To desire someone who is gone, the Stoic Epictetus tells us, is to long for a fig in wintertime. It just cannot be.
The Stoics are right about travel, of course. As I learned on the Palatine Hill that day, it cannot blunt pain or loneliness or despair. But that does not mean I gleaned nothing from it. Travel made my grief so sharp that I realized I’d have to arrange my life around it.
I met Mike in 1994, when I was sixteen and coming off a horrible year. I was awkward and full of angst, terrible at making friends and floundering in a large public high school in the conservative Appalachian South, on the outskirts of Knoxville. I spent my lunch breaks avoiding eyes in the library, where I buried my head in books. I didn’t mind being alone; I’ve always been drawn to solitude. But too often in those days this skewed toward isolation. I had no sense of belonging in the world.
That summer, I got a job at a small fast food restaurant in the local shopping mall, back in the days when malls were still lively hubs of suburban life. Most of the workers were college-aged and had formed a devoted coterie. This little nook of the world provided me at last with a good supply of friendship.
The best of these friends was Mike, who was slowly working his way through the local university, a large state school. With him, I acquired the habit of sitting up far too late into the night having the kind of vulnerably frank conversations we can have only when we are young, before we’ve fortified our hearts. I danced at parties at his apartment while he and the other boys played music and sang amid the boisterous din. I danced with him while giddy on wine the night I skipped my prom. He was the only person I’ve known to consistently call me by a nickname—Stevie because I adored Fleetwood Mac. He too was sad and intense and wild. And though he filled his rooms with friends and offered them unstinting generosity, he seemed to have been on his own for a long time. I loved him in all sorts of ways.
Even now I’m not sure what we were to one another, whether what I was to him matched what he was to me. Once, when my heart was broken, he held my face in his hands and kissed my forehead with such tenderness that it still dissolves me.
After high school, I, too, enrolled at the university, where I found a different sort of love in books and classrooms. I gradually quit the restaurant, but Mike and I still found each other on campus. I spent my days tucked away in one of the library’s small study rooms, where he would station himself across from me with his finance books as I studied long dead languages, a subject that at last made me feel I was wrapped in the right skin. As college went on, this unexpected passion increasingly consumed me. Perhaps it even pulled me away from Mike.
The last time I saw him it was late winter and so cold, a few months before I wept for him in the heat of the Roman summer. We were at a party in an old Victorian house near the university, camped out together on a windowsill. Decked in a thick wool sweater that didn’t suit him, he announced he was moving to Boston, where he’d gotten a job. This was strange and shocking. Mike wasn’t the sort of person to just up and move away—he’d never even been to Boston. He needed a change, he claimed. We said goodbye amid his promises to visit soon. And then he was gone.
That spring, I won a scholarship to go to Italy and diligently set about plotting my path. I’d be there for a month, most of it by myself in Rome. I’d never left the country before, had never even been on an airplane. I didn’t speak the language and thought all Italians ate spaghetti Bolognese every day.
A month before I left, two days after my twenty-first birthday, Mike shot himself. Boston had not been the change he needed, after all. Now I diligently set about asking myself all the questions people do when someone they love chooses a violent, self-inflicted death. I felt certain I’d wounded him in some unforgivable way, a fear that still sometimes panics me in the middle of the night. There were things in our friendship I should have done but did not do, nights I should have acted differently. The time I left and couldn’t tell him exactly why, the time he rushed away and I didn’t insist that he explain. For all our talk, we’d never spoken of the things we needed to say the most.
I fled from everyone the summer Mike died, as I packed up my rage and grief and took them with me to Rome. I carry them with me still.
That day on the Palatine was my sixth, maybe seventh day in Italy. My sorrow had transformed the famously beautiful cityscape into something strange, and the crowded sites only amplified my loneliness. There would be no shortcut through my grief, no easy end to this agony—there would be no end at all. If Rome wouldn’t assuage me, the only way forward was to give the grief a home.
I marched the streets of Rome, camera and guidebook in hand, intent on keeping my feet and mind in constant motion. I plodded through the Forum, hiked the Capitoline, and trekked through the Campus Martius. I studied triumphal arches and temples and altars. I admired the Pantheon and mounted the Spanish Steps. I watched the tourists at Trevi Fountain and threw in my coin. I ascended the cupola of St. Peter’s, and I winded the path to the Sistine Chapel. I made my way through one labyrinthine museum after another, regarding the beatific faces of saints, emperors, and gods. I walked the ancient cobblestones until cramps sent spasms of pain through my feet and legs. I went and went and went, and Mike went with me, my grief carving him into places and landscapes and pieces of me he’d never see.
Evenings were hard. I was staying in a quiet little hotel in Trastevere far from the hubbub and crowds of central Rome. My room had two twin beds, a sink, and a closet, with a framed print of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss—not a place for spending time. I found a little restaurant a short stroll away. It was bright with clean white linen, and the waiters were kind. Most nights, I made my way here, where I recorded the day’s twists and turns or scribbled my scattered thoughts. I noted my favorite words (alacrity, twilight, marmalade) and jotted down fragmented lyrics that even now I recognize as songs Mike used to sing. Each night the waiter brought me something new to try, tagliatelle ai funghi or cozze al vino. I’d drink a glass or two of wine and then make my way back to collapse in exhaustion on my bed.
I wasn’t so lucky every night. One evening I found the restaurant closed, so I descended down the hill to a busier part of Trastevere. There were families out late and children running through the piazza. It was full of music and laughter and people at ease. I couldn’t stay there with my discordant grief. I found a takeaway food shop and retreated to my room, where I sobbed as I ate.
Grief attuned me to moments of fleeting beauty: birdsong at the Villa Borghese, the crisp water from a public fountain, the city’s noise as it woke me through the window in the morning, the clink of silverware on plates echoing through emptied streets, ripe summer figs. Even as these reminded me I was alive (Go, live!), they whispered to me of the fragility of life—how constantly we teeter on its edge and how easily we stumble into loss. The poignancy of human life stems from the inescapable comingling of love and beauty and pain and loss within it. Mike’s suicide had taken a razor to my soul, causing it to smart at the touch of something beautiful. And there was so much beauty in Rome.
Even now, a dusk-lit vista, a tree budding in springtime, a giggling child—anything fragile and beautiful—sends my mind in a flashback to a night spent sitting side-by-side with Mike on the floor of his little galley kitchen, the two of us talking while our friends laughed in the background.
“I don’t believe God exists,” he told me, serious and almost angry. “I’ve tried, but it’s not in me.”
I had never felt a strong conviction about God either way, but I’d never actively disbelieved. “Don’t you think the world is beautiful, not so much the people as the world itself?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered resolutely. Though neither of us had seen much of the world, the mountainous terrain of East Tennessee where we both grew up is lush and lovely enough to leave us breathless.
“You’ve never thought maybe something had a hand in that?”
“It only makes me more certain he’s not there.” He looked at me with such sadness. But I didn’t understand then how beauty can cause a soul to ache with longing for all the things we cannot keep.
When I departed from Fiumicino Airport at the end of my month in Italy, I sat near the back of the airplane next to a woman who was obviously distraught. She wept as she told me she was returning to America to bury her father, from whom she’d been estranged for many years. I listened for as long as she needed, told her how sorry I was (and indeed I was), then let her be. I plugged my headphones into the jack on the armrest and proceeded to the first music station I could find. Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” swirled around my head as I watched the white clouds pass beneath us.
It has been almost two decades since those weeks in Rome, and I’ve now spent half my life grieving for my friend. I have carried him with me through countries and continents, from white beaches in Mexico to Santorini’s dizzying caldera to the burnt red Australian Outback. I have not spoken of Mike often. I’ve never been able to articulate him adequately to another, perhaps because he remains so inscrutable even to me. He has become fixed as a question lodged permanently in my mind.
The truth is I am starting to forget him, as do many who long survive the dead. I have so little of him left, no words he wrote, no handwriting. There are a few photos, all of us young and full of storms. Packed away, there’s a T-shirt he bought me on vacation, the one thing I have, apart from myself, that he ever physically touched. His voice is largely gone, coming to me only in certain phrases, snippets from long ago conversations. His laugh was exuberant, but I can no longer hear it. Online, he is nothing more than birth and death dates.
Travel always makes me think of Mike, and I’m grateful for this reminder that once he was and once we were. I do not want ever to stop grieving for him. These twenty years of mourning are the price I gladly pay for the brief time he made my life beautiful.
Stephanie McCarter is a Classics professor and writer in Tennessee. Her essays have appeared in Literary Hub, The Millions, Eidolon, Avidly, and Gucci Stories. She is newly trying to figure out how Twitter works @samccart1.