by Randy Byers
My niece recently returned from an educational adventure called Semester at Sea. She and roughly 500 other college students paid a princely sum (well, my sister paid it in Jolie's case) to board an erstwhile cruise ship now refitted as a school and spend a semester sailing from port to port all the way around the globe. Between stops, the students studied the upcoming country in courses chosen from a varied curriculum that included history, economics, literature, politics, and art. They embarked in the Bahamas and landed finally in Seattle.
My family came up from Oregon to greet Jolie on her return. We joined the crowd of other families at Pier 66 as the ship docked, and we spent the next seven hours waiting for Jolie and her luggage to clear customs. I looked at the hordes of shiny students lining the rails of the ship, dressed in wholesome college sweatshirts and Vietnamese straw hats, and I contemplated (more than a bit enviously) the mind-altering, soul-broadening experience they'd all just been through. I'd thought about Jolie often while she was away, savoring a vicarious, not to mention premature, nostalgia for her encounter with fresh and distant lands. As I gabbed with my Mom about this and other things to kill the time, I got my first clue that I'd been living in an alternate universe for a couple of months.
Jolie sent me postcards from several countries. The first was from Venezuela, where she swam with freshwater dolphins in the Amazon and visited a tribe she'd studied the previous year in an anthropology course at the University of Oregon. The next postcard featured the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, where she was off to shop at the Rialto, someone named Constance (apparently a new friend) was getting a massage, and the weather was great. I've been to Venice, and I smiled at memories of serene mornings in stony plazas.
It was a more than a little surprising when the next card, also from Venice, was addressed to my housemate, Denys. Jolie has certainly met Denys, but it did not seem to me that she knew him well enough to warrant correspondence. It didn't make sense, but I was too tired from a frazzling day to figure it out. Maybe the laser-printed label represented a glitch in her address database whereby Denys' name had been substituted for mine. I expected Denys to express surprise when he saw it, but the thought was swept away by the river Lethe in a trice.
A postcard arrived from Kenya: on safari, cool animals, having the time of my life. Another from Vietnam, where the War Crimes museum appalled and the people always smiled. The last one came from Hong Kong. She and some others had traveled to Beijing and the Great Wall. My letter had reached her in Hong Kong, see you soon in Seattle.
Venezuela, Venice, and Vietnam. "Is she only going to places with names that start with ëV'?" my neighbor asked me. It struck my fancy. The V-names conjured visions of decaying jungles and sunken cities, alien customs and twilit epiphanies.
"Venice?" my Mom said, as I gabbed to her about my vision. We sat on a bench on Pier 66 in the summery spring sunshine. "I don't think they went there. I don't think they went to Europe at all. Did they? That's strange."
I remembered my befuddlement at the card to Denys. But it was from Jolie. It had her signature on it. I laughed uncertainly. "A secret, extracurricular escapade, perhaps?"
Hours later, after we got Jolie packed into the van and were headed down to Portland for a celebratory dinner, I thought of it again. "Did you go to Venice?" I asked her.
She looked startled. "Um. No."
"Really? But I got a postcard from you from there!"
Her face had the confused look of someone who has returned from a long, intense journey that is already beginning to feel like a dream. "Venice? I don't think so. Where's Venice?"
The map of the world crumpled on her face. "We didn't go anywhere near Italy. Did we?"
A couple of days later, I thought of this puzzle again and searched my stack of unfiled paper for the card. There it was. Signed J-O-squiggle. A couple of things clicked into place. John Hedtke and Constance Maytum had spoken of an upcoming trip to Venice. John would have sent a card to Denys.
The signature on the card was John's, not Jolie's.
I suffered a giddy moment while one world evaporated and another sprang full-blown from the void. I examined the new world. It was richer for John and Constance's visit to Venice, but poorer for the subtraction of one V-land from Jolie's experience. Two V's are not so meaningful as three. The meaning fairly vanishes, taking with it a few twilit epiphanies.
It is, perhaps, a better world. It has been released from the brain-lock I put on it, freed from the confines that my empathy for Jolie's adventure had built from the evidence of coincidental postcards and the consonance of a consonant. This world has more people in it, more life, more surprises. Still, there is the unavoidable sadness at the loss of that other world, where I might have sat with my niece on a sunny morning, drinking coffee and reminiscing about the narrow streets and broad plazas of Venice.
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