The stones in the piazza set into the mortar look heavy—they’re set deep and worn smooth, shining like burnished silver. Behind me, the town rises onto a steep, narrow peninsula. I can only see the horizon to my left, to the north, where a jagged coastline curls in and out of view and a stone jetty juts out to sea in the foreground, protecting the pint-sized harbor from the waves of the Mediterranean.
I clearly remember the boats on the piazza. They lay at rest, a dozen or more dinghies neatly leaned against each other with their folded nets beside them. Their exuberant colors reflect the buildings rising above: burnt orange, pale yellow, magenta. They are beached for the night—or perhaps for the season—it is mid-November and the weather is turning; wind and rain have come and gone for the last few days. Everything in town seems to be shuttering up, embracing a season of rest.
At 9 p.m. we find the only open restaurant in town. The waiter greets us outside: “Ciao, per due?”
“Per due, grazie,” I say and let my girlfriend, Paige, follow him to the table on the piazza. We are in young love—she is 19, I am 22—and earlier in the evening, out on the jetty, while looking out to sea and indulging in a glass of Chianti to bolster my blood, I tell her for the first time that I love her, and she says she loves me too.
We sit down to dinner. The windows are open to the soft shush and slosh of the sea. We order two glasses of the house red. Earlier in the day, walking here from Monterosso, we passed rows of grapes terraced onto impossibly steep hillsides. Those grapes are used to make wines such as this. They receive enough water, but not too much, and it is the harsh conditions—the beating sun and steep, sloughing soil—that concentrate the sugar into the fruit and make it smell of earth and olives and sun.
We sip the wine and talk of what we notice around us—the glowing buildings above, the quaintness of the harbor before us. As I smile at the woman I will marry six years later, there is nothing else I can imagine desiring in that moment. There’s a synchronicity about it: We are in the right place, with the right person, at the right time, and soon we will be served just the right food.
It is easy enough to go to a fine restaurant with ambiance, gracious service, and sumptuous food. It is harder to be fully present in that restaurant, not distracted by what you left at home, or what you must return to, not conversing about another part of your life while eating your meal. And it is even harder to manufacture intimacy, to be fully attentive with your entire being to the person who is sitting in front of you. Rarely, do they all line up to create that perfect moment.
But that perfect moment does arrive in Vernazza, Italy, and it lasts until the food arrives, a stew filled with clams and fish from the local catch for Paige and a Genovese pesto for me. It is then that Paige is afflicted with a terrible stomachache (perhaps from the earlier bottle of street wine) and has to leave for our room across the piazza.
I stay at the restaurant. I try to eat my pasta slowly. But my mind is already away, thinking of her.
Sometimes, I wish that such perfect moments would stretch out longer, last further into the night, and avoid being cut short by circumstance. But then I remember: It is their ephemerality that makes them shine; it is their stunning brevity and sudden alignment that sears them into our memory.