My badge is a small plastic square. Every few weeks, it moves a shade toward the next color in the spectrum. Red melts into orange, which blooms into yellow, and then green, and then blue. It has a safety pin on the back, but this is a token of passage from one level of swim lessons to the next, and there’s nowhere to pin it. Yes, I could probably pin it to my flesh, but swim lessons aren’t that hardcore.
The smell of melting cheese, roasting garlic, and baking bread permeates everything in the small pizza parlor. In the back, a large man with sandy blond hair–a man I erroneously call “Big Dog,” mistaking him for a man my father works with at the iron works–flours his hands and tosses pizza dough high into the air, making perfect circles every time. Working behind the counter, impaling receipts on a thin metal spike, is a woman with close-cut, bleach-blonde hair and a number of tattoos ringing her bicep and forearm. Next to her, running the show, is Maria. Her black hair is tied back loosely, and she projects the kind of calm, friendly confidence rarely found in hot, busy kitchens. She is an immortal. Twenty-five years later, she will not have aged a day. One gray strand of hair will be the only indication that she is vulnerable to natural decay.
When our pizza is ready, Maria brings it to us herself. I’ve progressed from a child’s seat that clamps on to the table to sitting in an adult chair, just able to reach the pizza in the middle, to an adult who drinks too much Chianti and expounds on inappropriate topics too loudly, but she always greets me with a smile. No matter where I’ve been, or how long I’ve been gone, Maria always reminds me that I’m home, even if I’m not.
By the way, the pizza is the best there ever was or will be.