top of page
  • Writer's pictureRia Gualano

Purple Sunglasses

Purple Sunglasses. Source: Lan Gualano

Frowning clouds hung so low I could wear them as a hat. My wide eyes drank in a wider world. With each short breath, I inhaled cold air laced with something that smelled like rotten grass. My nose was permanently crinkled.

The square was a ghost town. I was the only child in sight, a pink, sequined ball racing through the Red-Light District of Amsterdam. My parents flanked my sides, holding my hands with unusual firmness.

Silence was a fishnet over cobblestone streets, and our footsteps clinked in sync like droplets of rain on the surface of a pond. As an only child, I was the house princess. My nose was running? It was wiped, the threat of discomfort immediately neutralized. I was craving a cup of warm milk before bed? It was delivered within a moment.

At home, I was a Barbie dictator, commanding a troop of 200 dolls and a handful of unlucky friends whose ideas paled in comparison to my carefully constructed battle plans. Every afternoon, dolls in hand, I barked orders at playmates in my pink room, sitting on my pink rug, with a closet full of bedazzled pink outfits.

“You wanted to be picked up all the time,” my mom says, a smile tracing her lips. Her glasses reflect my blush as she recounts the past. “In Europe, all the kids were walking, but you didn’t want to. It would be shameful to push you around in a stroller when one and three-year-olds were running around behind you. You were an American. You didn’t like walking.”

“Why is the lady dancing in the window?” I squeaked, pointing at a building. It registered in my brain: a doll’s house. A dozen windows covered the main wall, and in each window stood a life-sized Barbie.

Peering down from her tower, one of them waved at me. My arm waved back but I was entranced, gaping at her flexible body as it wriggled hypnotically to an invisible melody. Then, like the subject of a painting disappearing further into the world of her frame, she was gone.

“Where’d she go?” I whispered, afraid to shatter the silence. My eyes were seared into the spot she abandoned.

A few seconds later, my dad poked my stomach and crouched down. “Look, she’s coming to meet you.”

A young woman with wild brown hair emerged from a toy store, which I thought was oddly placed among large posters of naked women and signs for “Live Sex Shows.” She wore a short black dress that made her thighs bulge. In her hand was a pair of purple sunglasses, which she offered with a smile and an accented, “Hi.” Her face was softly lined, and something like age but dressed like understanding filled the cracks.

I placed the oversized glasses on my undersized head. She nodded, retreating to her toy store. When my body unfroze from excitement, I waved goodbye to a thudding door.

“Woah,” I gasped, touching the sunglasses reverently. My parents guided me onwards, past rippling red velvet curtains and glowing red signs. Storefronts were populated with angels, sticks in hand, halos of crimson smoke evaporating into the ever-gray sky above their heads. I marched by on autopilot, still dazzled by the encounter with the woman from the window.

During my three years living in Germany, I plodded, waltzed, and leaped from city to city, country to country. I was like a fish who was raised to breathe the air above a row of tanks, and I swam to a new one every weekend. By the time I was eight, I had visited more tourist landmarks than most of my high school classmates will in a lifetime.

As a princess-enthusiast on the hunt for magic, I was more eager to explore certain landmarks than others. Castles were high on my must-see list, but my fascination didn’t last long. I showed up at the “Cinderella Castle” expecting to see pumpkins, evil stepsisters, talking mice and royalty; instead, my ballerina shoes twirled through the castle’s entrance and stumbled into dusty tapestries, rusted teapots and saggy furniture.

My dad recalls, “After your third castle, you realized: no princesses, no queens, no kings. Only musty old buildings.”

Just like that, my castle phase reached extinction faster than Atlantis disappeared into Disney’s watery past. But it didn’t cause my rose-tinted glasses to crack. Ironically, it took a different form of natural disaster for my perspective to take its first dent.

Pompeii is a city famous for its unfortunate destruction during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, thousands of years ago. Even without the threat of a volcanic eruption, it was blistering outside. My feet were tired; my legs felt like they were lifting bags of coal. My face was a pool of sweat. My nose was a slippery waterslide, and my pink sunglasses couldn’t seem to climb back to the top. Exhausted and overheated, I leaned on a sharp rock until our tour guide emerged and lead us to a cluster of ruins.

Tall, jagged remains of walls looked like a skeleton of broken teeth. Walking along Pompeii’s eroded streets, I felt like I was peeking into the city’s casket. We turned the corner and entered a room that must have been its graveyard.

Then, I saw it.

My heart beat against its cage. The color drained from my body. Directly in front of me was a form that resembled a human; the figure hugged its knees to its chest, hands clasped in prayer as it braced for a cloud of ash.

“That used to be a person,” my mother whispered in horror, sticking her camera in its face.

I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t unsee the person trapped beneath the ash. The tour guide’s musical tongue continued flicking hushed Italian phrases, but the narration faded to a dull hum beneath my buzzing thoughts.

My trip to Pompeii filled my brain with question marks. Before that, I had known death existed. It was a soft pop song playing above the noisy café of my youthful, sparkly adventures, drowned out by a hundred voices. But on that coast, I felt utterly alone in a room full of tourists as I stared at death for the first time.

My faith in magic was fleeting. As a believer, I was flatlining.

So, by the time I arrived in Paris, I was a little disenchanted. I climbed the Eiffel Tower and gazed at a yellow-tinted world, then shrugged my shoulders.

Paris has many identities; to some, Paris is the Eiffel Tower. To others, Paris is Disney. To still others, Paris is art and culture and music.

To me, Paris will always be a woman with pink hair. She sat across the room in a café somewhere below the view of the Tower, her pink bob grazing cavernous cheekbones. Her lips were a deep red as if painted by a rose and then dipped in shimmering pixie dust. When she kissed her coffee mug, her lipstick became a mermaid that dove in and swam circles around her coffee.

I blinked once. Twice. I had never seen someone with pink hair before, and hers was vibrant. Everything about her screamed magical. I frowned, unsure how to react. Then, my eyebrows shifted and I grinned.

I’ve spent my life searching for magic, and the definition of the term has changed many times. When I was 5, I worshipped sparkly tiaras. When I was 17, fantastical magic became romantic love. I chased it to a city skyline at sunset, yellow grass tickling my knees, where I danced with a boy made of wind. A year later, when morning finally came, I opened my eyes and once more dreamt about the magic from my childhood.

I glued my purple sunglasses onto my sober face and let my mind drift back to Amsterdam’s gray sky full of windows. I melted into a time when I had only read about the people in Pompeii and could believe they were just dreaming, a woman with pink hair had mermaids swimming in her coffee, and the lady dancing in the window was simply brightening a grim day with her art.

8 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page