Even after I had come around to Jamie’s virtues, I still felt conflicted about her unapologetic excessiveness. I wasn’t sure if I disapproved or was just jealous about how much she seemed not to care. She ate and drank the same way she danced: with abandon. Her body always made me think of the words “perfectly spherical”—she was petite and rotund, all belly and bosom with incongruously skinny limbs. She was insecure about her weight and talked about it a lot, even as we were sampling pizza and gelato all over town, eating as if we were trying to cram all of Italy into our mouths at once. Bologna, with its nickname la grassa (the fat one), is probably the worst place in the world to try to diet. It’s not famous for its museums or churches, but for its trattorie, which serve tiny handmade tortellini in broth, silky lasagna, tart Lambrusco on tap. It’s the capital of handmade pastas (the aforementioned tortellini, tortelloni, tagliatelle al ragù) and famous for its meats (mortadella, culatello, bresaola, speck, prosciutto from Parma). Our program organized cooking classes that were basically excuses to get drunk on wine and full on the food we had just folded by hand.
We all ate like pigs, but Jamie always seemed to go farther, get drunker, and eat more than anyone, even though she suffered from Crohn’s disease, a chronic condition that made it hard to digest food and lowered her immunity against bacteria and viruses. The Crohn’s wasn’t something that she liked to dwell on, but it wasn’t something she kept secret, either. She’d flippantly allude to her high school hospital stays and the drugs she was supposed to take, but she never made her incurable illness sound that burdensome. Even when she was suffering, she would minimize the seriousness of it. Once, as I was descending the narrow stairs from our program’s office, I came around a corner to find Jamie leaning against the cool plaster. Her face was as white as the wall, her eyes squeezed tight, her mouth in an awful grimace, and she was clutching her stomach.
“Are you OK?” I asked. “Did you eat something bad?”
“This just happens sometimes,” she gasped. “I’m all right, I just need to breathe.” Without the force field of laughter, I could see that she was soft and scared. I had known her only a few months at that point, not long enough to know her well—not even long enough to really know if you love someone. But I worried about her. As I got to know her, I got to see her vulnerabilities and her habit of making light of her pain, both physical and emotional. She shrugged off her Crohn’s like it was salsa verde, or an obnoxious professor, or the sporcaccioni (dirty old men) who hissed at us from the shadows of Via San Vitale. I guess I didn’t realize then how sensitive she really was, or how quickly her body would give her up.
Jamie wanted to be loved, in all the ways. She gave her cell phone number to the dudes from the club and they would call her right away, minutes after we’d left. We’d already be eating drunk pizza and she’d giggle mischievously between bites while they begged her to come back. Sometimes she would. In the light of day, she would laugh off her own licentiousness, but then I’d see the way she’d droop when her oblivious program crush talked about the hotness of Italian women while asking to borrow $5.
Some things are harder to laugh off, some things easier. She was always locking herself out of the dorm. She left her bags and belts and jangly jewelry all over town, as if everything pretty in life could be easily replaced. She bought herself a watch from a fancy Italian boutique and promptly lost it. So she bought the same one a second time. She lost that one, too.
I don’t think it’s just the 11 years of hindsight that allows me to see a leitmotif of loss running through that time. Sitting in the kitchen of her dorm suite on a rainy evening toward the end of the semester, Jamie sang me a song she had written, titled “To Bologna.” Will you be a little more empty with me gone? / Will you be a little less full without me? / I’ll think of you sometimes / When I catch myself quiet. The first time I heard her sing those lyrics, I felt closer to Jamie than ever before. Even though she laughed and I brooded, we both felt the same swirling anxiety about who we were in the world, worried about the time we were wasting, what and who we were missing, and who would miss us when we had left all this behind. Everything seemed so goddamn ephemeral, as fleeting as the fancy watches Jamie couldn’t keep on her arm.
When summer finally arrived in Bologna, it was easier to forget that we were coming close to the end. After class, we sat in the piazza and drank fizzy pink cocktails while eavesdropping on the old men arguing about politics. We tried on flamboyant hats: hot-weather chapeaus with plumes and gauzes, and dared each other to purchase the ones with the most Technicolor feathers. We explored the university’s secret courtyards and hidden libraries, which seemed suddenly illuminated by the summer sun. We ate gelato in the park until our stomachs ached and our fingers were disgustingly sticky.
In June, after our official semester abroad was over, I said goodbye to Jamie and Bologna. In the antiseptic lobby of our dorm, Jamie threw her arms around my neck and I squeezed her body to mine, the height difference between us placing her head right at my chest. “I’ll see you in the fall,” I said to the air above her head. I stared down at the pale pink part in her fine, sandy-colored hair. I was going to travel more, and she was heading back to the States to spend the summer at home in Connecticut. We both giggled at the idea of hanging out on the grassy hill of our college campus after our absurd Italian adventures. I grabbed my bags and waved to her without knowing it was for the last time.
A few weeks after she got home, before I’d even returned from Europe, Jamie’s parents checked her into the hospital, because she was having trouble breathing. I didn’t think much of my unanswered emails, but in July, a friend forwarded me a disconcerting message from Jamie’s mom, explaining that a virulent strain of mononucleosis was wreaking havoc on Jamie’s immune system, that her condition was not improving, and she might not return to college in the fall. I kept hoping that everyone was overreacting. But before the doctors knew what was happening, her mono mutated into lymphoma. Her family tried chemotherapy, but the treatments sapped the life from Jamie’s embattled body.
By the first week of September, she was dead. At her memorial in Connecticut, Jamie’s mom told us that when she had gone through the things that had come home with her from Italy, she had found a bunch of watchcases, their plush insides free of precious booty. She wondered why her daughter had thought to cart the empty boxes back across the Atlantic. She asked us: What was it Jamie had tried to save?
Right before we left Bologna, Jamie announced her intention to get a tattoo. She told us she was considering getting her initials, J.A.H., inked onto her wrist.
“Jah!?” We teased her. “You mean, like Rastafarian for ‘God’?” So instead, she got a solitary cursive J.
“Why?” I asked her, when she returned from the tattoo parlor. We were in the dorm, heading outside to study in the sunlight. I didn’t have any tattoos myself, and I was always curious what drove people to mark their flesh with something so indelible. “I want to remember Italy,” she said. “I want to remember this time.” In the next few weeks, I’d often catch her staring at her wrist, bending her hand back until it was perpendicular to her forearm, so that the ink stood out against the blue veins of her white skin. I didn’t understand it then, but now I believe that she was admiring the permanence of the thing, the memory becoming one with her body. She couldn’t have known that only one would last. ♦