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The Jet Set

Jan is from Sweden, a town called Lulea near the Arctic Circle. He says that when the sun comes back after six months' darkness, the townspeople troop from street to street to see which of their neighbors has succumbed to scurvy or suicide.

It's still dark here. I am alone on the platform at half past five. Four broken ribs and the cold air make breathing difficult. Sparks fall from the power lines as the first tram of the morning approaches. I haven't been to Sweden yet but suppose it can't be much colder than this. Several workmen who were sealing cracks in the pavement by light of an oxyacetylene torch scuttle back, wait for the sleek white tram to pass. In nine hours' time I will be in Rome.

This time I did it in the American West, as agreed. A skiing holiday in Wyoming. Actually, it may not have been a holiday at all. I awoke splayed at the bottom of a black diamond run, legs buried in snow, one boot pointing toward the tree that must have broken the fall and no recollection of how I got there or who with. The only doctor in Jackson Hole was away for the weekend; I was tended by a vacationing allergist from Connecticut. It was easy for him to miss the signs of internal bleeding, the broken bones, the punctured lung. Everyone agreed that what followed was not his fault.

Jan did it on Mt. Etna. According to eyewitnesses, a tall blond man ambled past the guards and threw himself on the lava flows, camera and all. The story made the Denver Post - I scan the international pages while waiting for a flight out.

Shortly after I leave, Jan arrives Stateside, hires a blue Nissan and drives north. He loves the high desert strewn with juniper and chamiso brush, the straight reservation roads. I imagine him driving through the night past mountain hunting lodges and ranches lit silver by the birch moon.

Bereavement: I am upgraded to first class. From Rome I take the overnight train to Sicily and sleep on a fold-down bed alongside a mustached grandmother and her small brown charge. The girl talks at me until it is clear that both my vigor and my grasp of her childish Italian have been stretched to their limits. Long-legged student backpackers smoke by the windows. One of them sings as the train is loaded in pieces on a ferry. Several minutes later I recognise the tune - a country standard, "Mama Tried" - and realise he's been reciting it in heavily accented English.

Only a few people get off at Giardini-Naxos. I've never met Jan, never seen more than a blurry photo of him, but can not imagine him standing in this station. Six months ago I was in Reykjavik, before that Quito, before that Krakow, and so on. Sicily seems too cheerful and cluttered for a Nordic soul accustomed to cold and antiquity.

At the post office I give the clerk the name on my passport. "C' pacchetto per me?" I ask. "Do you have packages for me?" He returns, bored, with a box and a telegram. The tender first hairs on his upper lip and chin have never been shaved. He slips in a pamphlet offering boat tours to Stromboli.

In the toilets I change into the black shantung dress which has been to each of these solitary funerals on most every continent in the last twelve years. It's tighter around the chest, is that from the milky swelling of gravida or a consequence of knitting ribs? Fishing boats hang in the pellucid tide and look as if they're floating in midair. I have a craving for heavy restaurant Chinese food, redolent of pork fat and mushrooms, and know there is no chance of finding any here nor in the next town where I will stay the night and contemplate the slowly advancing fires on Etna.

Past the bead-bright boats and dock there's an outcrop of coral rock. Jumping, I just make it. In the box is a plastic bag. In the bag, ashes that look like clay litter. I scatter a handful. Jan dances on the eddies and wavelets, makes cloud and foam in the otherwise perfect surf. I open and read the telegram: NEXT YEAR WE'LL MEET IN FIJI. Wondering at his recent island fixation, I leave to catch the next coach to Taormina.

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