My mother used to say that I had an advanced case of “Prince Henry the Navigator Syndrome,” and she was more prescient than I think even she knew. When I was a kid I absorbed ridiculous amounts of historical and geographical trivia, even before the onset of nightmarish insomnia made those useful distractions a necessity. Crumpled National Geographics and outdated Britannicas taught me about anything I wanted to know, anywhere in the world, but that didn’t make me want to actually visit any of the places I studied. Home may have been a disaster zone, but it was still home, the devil I knew as opposed to the unknown vast outside universe. The few family road trips I was subjected to as a child were sagas of hellish torture and crushing boredom. One summer, Modesto was a wretched sauna, Yuba City a muggy, sweaty armpit, and Arcata took the crown of Nastiest Refuge for the Crazed Legions of Plague-Ridden Killer Insects-or so I felt at the time. I garnered little sympathy from my stepfather on these occasions; one of the most vivid memories I have of him was enduring his withering, exasperated scowls as I whined pathetically all the way up the highway toward our next rest stop.
Of course, Prince fucking Henry was royalty, so that coddled little bastard could lounge around all he wanted in that cozy castle retreat in westernmost Portugal. He could watch the caravels sail in from India or Africa or America, and he was anxious to leech out the conquistadors’ tales of foreign lands for the sake of his own cartographical amusement. I’d always tried, all those years, to not be insulted by Mom’s unintentionally accurate caricature of me, but it annoyed me then and still rankles today, ten years after her death. I was trying to explain all this to Frankie in her dorm room on the night after I returned to school, still reeling from the potent stimuli of the weekend’s mild rock deviance and harrowing sexual fear. I hadn’t meant to spill out random family history to a girl I that I was apparently-according to Olivia-supposed to mistrust, but like everything else at that time, I had no idea what really mattered, and anyway, I never failed to rise to the challenge of out-weirding anyone else’s exotically bizarre family stories. Anyway, the Italian Front had been quiet for a good twenty-four hours, but I could feel it stirring in its sleep ever since I got back from the train station, so when the action finally began I was more than ready.