The Gelato Gamble

Returning to Italy to collect on a 20-year-old bet, a writer accepts a new wager.

July/August 1997

Reading time min

The Gelato Gamble

Illustration: Jamie Bennett

Karen e-mailed me just after my 40th birthday. She was going to France for a Zen retreat in the fall. She proposed meeting me afterward, in Florence, Italy. We could make good on our 20-year-old bet.

At first I was peeved: You single people, you're always jetting off to Zen workshops. We of the wife-and-mother set, we have "responsibilities."

Besides, the bet was dumb. In 1976, Karen Laing, '78, and I were sophomores at Stanford's campus in Florence, Italy. I was pear-shaped. She carried 112 pounds on her 5-foot-7-inch frame. Envious, I bet her that by the time she was 40, she would weigh at least 120. The loser would buy the winner ice cream at our favorite Florentine gelateria.

Karen's e-mail conceded defeat. Just shy of her own 40th, she tipped the scales at a whopping 124.

But I couldn't drop everything and buy a $1,000 plane ticket to collect ice cream. Could I? I e-mailed no; I e-mailed yes. Then I bought two plane tickets--one for me, one for my 2-year-old son, Ethan. I had decided to prove I was, in at least some ways, recognizable to my 20-year-old self.

A week before I left, a neighbor gushed, "You must be so excited!" I wasn't. I was pricing wrinkle-free blazers. I was worried about the number of Little Golden Books my carry-on would accommodate. I was expecting to be blown up in midair.

And I was hating myself. When I was 20, I packed trashy novels, thought I was immortal and didn't care if I wrinkled. When I was 20, I would have been excited.

Going through customs in Florence, I scanned the feet visible beneath a partition in the arrivals area. One pair wore Birkenstocks: Karen. When we were there as students, she was an art history major. Later, she took a job in Yosemite and fell in love with the wilderness. Now, she's a government biologist studying birds in Alaska.

I had last seen Karen when she visited me, five years before. Since then, she had lost her stepmother and two close friends, left her husband, bought her first house, become a Buddhist and let her hair grow down to her waist. I, who studied Italian communism at Stanford, had also changed. I had a third child, bought a minivan, gave up journalism to write children's books, moved from California to Pennsylvania and bought a bigger house.

We reached across the years to hug, my blue-eyed boy scrunched in between. After the bus ride to town, we walked, luggage and all, to the pensione. The pale sky was streaked with honey-edged clouds. The buildings glowed gold beneath tile roofs. It was enough to make me forget the price of the airline tickets.

Karen and I had four days to compare Florence then and now, eat ice cream, catch up. At 40, we spent less time talking about men and more on itemizing the plastic surgery we would have if we were the type of women who had plastic surgery.

"I'm happier than I've ever been," Karen announced at lunch one afternoon. "Me too," I assured her. I retrieved Ethan's fork from the trattoria floor for the third time in five minutes and wondered if that were true for either of us.

On our last night together, we trekked to a restaurant that turned out to be full. Ethan was cranky. Karen was tired. We sat down at the first place we came to. That's when Ethan forgot his potty training. All over my lap.

Soggily, Ethan and I walked back to the pensione and ate lunch leftovers. When Karen returned after dining alone, we agreed that Ethan owed us. "How about in 20 years?" she said. "Ethan buys dinner. In Florence."

I hesitated. A promise presupposed that the earth would still be spinning, that Karen would still be speaking to me, that my anxiety level would accommodate possible midair explosions and the limitations of my carry-on. It presupposed that, at 60, I'd be recognizable to my 40-year-old self.

I hesitated, but not very long: "It's a deal."

Martha Freeman, '78, writes children's books. Her latest is titled The Year My Parents Ruined My Life.

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