Burning The Map
Burning The Map
Burning the Map
was born in Chicago and raised in suburban Crystal Lake, Illinois. She attended the University of Iowa, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
Laura returned to Chicago and became the third generation of the Caldwell family to attend Loyola University School of Law. After graduation, she spent a month with two girlfriends in Italy and Greece, a trip that spurred the idea for Burning the Map.
Laura began her legal career at a large Chicago firm where she became a trial lawyer, specializing in medical malpractice defense. Later, she worked at smaller firms and eventually became a partner.
Despite juggling trial work and a relationship with an equity trader (who is now her husband), Laura began taking writing classes and weekly writing workshops in the mid-nineties. Her work has been published in Woman’s Own, The Young Lawyer, The Illinois Bar Journal and many other magazines. Burning the Map is her first novel.
Laura has taken a sabbatical from her practice and is currently teaching legal writing at Loyola University School of Law.
Burning the Map Laura Caldwell
I lucked out by getting the most wonderful editor, Margaret Marbury, and the most amazing agent, Maureen Walters of Curtis Brown, Ltd. A thousand thanks to both of them, as well as everyone at Red Dress Ink.
Much admiration and appreciation to my writing instructors and fellow workshop members, especially Pam Sourelis of Green Door Studio and Jerry Cleaver of The Loft.
I am eternally grateful for everyone who took the time to read drafts of this novel and offer their suggestions including: Beth Kaveny, Suzanne Burchill, Katie Caldwell Kuhn, Christi Caldwell, Rochelle Wasserberger, Ginger Heyman, Ted McNabola, Kelly Harden, Kris Verdeck, Trisha Woodson, Kelly Caldwell, Joan Posch, Alisa Spiegel and Edward Worden.
Thanks also to everyone who offered moral support and guidance, especially Margaret Caldwell, William Caldwell, Kim Wilkins, Kevin Glenn, Miguel Ruiz, Karen Billups, Beth Garner, Dave Ellis and Mary Hoover.
Lastly, and most importantly, this book is for Jason Billups, who makes everything possible.
PART I: ROME, ITALY
PART II: IOS, GREECE
PART III: MYKONOS, GREECE
PART I ROME, ITALY
Our taxi bumps and jostles its way along Rome’s cobbled streets, swerving around centuries-old buildings, narrowly missing women shopping at the outdoor markets. The scent that gusts through the open windows is old and heavy. Lindsey and Kat wrinkle their noses, but to me it’s a sweet, familiar fragrance—bread and dust and wine and heat. The way Rome always smells in the summer.
I haven’t been to Europe since my junior year in college, most of which I spent in Italy sodden with Chianti and wide-eyed over a bartender named Fernando, yet I’ve always considered Rome my second home after Chicago. It’s a place that sticks with me, so that an image in a movie or a line in a song can immediately send me back here in my mind. Now I really am back, and I feel the first twinge of optimism I’ve had in months.
The taxi driver continues his Formula One maneuvers through the slim stone streets, winding toward Piazza Navona. The Colosseum appears before us, a towering, earthy structure with gaping holes like missing teeth. I raise my hand to point it out to the girls, but the driver accelerates and flies by it with all the reverence of passing a 7-Eleven store.
“We are definitely going to crash,” Lindsey says through clenched teeth as a pack of mopeds streaks alongside and passes the taxi.
I laugh for what feels like the first time in a long time. “No, he won’t. This is how they drive here. He knows what he’s doing.”
Lindsey gives me a long look, which was designed, I’m sure, to wither her underlings at the ad agency where she’s been crawling up the ranks for the last four years. “What he’s doing is trying to kill us. You know some Italian, Casey. Tell him to slow down.”
Lindsey, or Sin, as we call her, has always been a pragmatic, cut-through-the-crap type of person, but all that cutting seems to have sharpened her edges. Lately, she often borders on a state of irritation, and I find myself holding my breath around her, afraid to piss her off. Her nickname is something of a misnomer, since she’s the most straight-laced of all of us. The name should have been bestowed on Kat instead.
I lean forward in my seat. “My friends find you attractive,” I say to the driver in rudimentary Italian. In fact, I think I may have referred to him in terms usually saved for food, but he seems to get the point.
The thirtyish, swarthy, perspiring man slows the cab considerably and gives Kat and Lindsey a meaningful look in the rearview mirror.
“Grazie,” Kat calls to the driver, trying out one of the Italian words I taught her on the plane.
I’d also told Kat and Sin that one of the most important Italian words they could learn was basta, which, loosely translated, means “get the fuck away from me.” It would come in handy for some of the Italian men, I explained. Lindsey had nodded intently, mouthing the word, but Kat told me I was nuts. She wanted to meet Italian men, not tell them to take a hike.
You know that stereotype about how most men are like dogs, wanting to mate with hundreds of different women, while we gals pine away for the split-level suburban home, minivan and offspring? Well, Kat blows that one out of the water. She constantly has at least three guys on deck in case she gets bored with the current one, and I don’t think she’s been celibate for more than two weeks since I met her eight years ago.
By the time the car rolls down one of the side streets that lead to Piazza Navona, I’m sweating along with the driver and sticking to the cracked leather seats like gum. Yet when the taxi stops outside the courtyard for Pensione Fortuna, the sight of its burbling fountain and abundant flowers rejuvenates me.
“It’s gorgeous,” Kat says. She pushes open the door and practically skips down the path between the flowers, looking like Maria from The Sound of Music.
Sin and I follow her, Sin lugging Kat’s suitcase along with her own. Lindsey can be like that—biting and impatient one minute, mothering the next.
The mothering is something I’ve looked forward to on this trip, since my own mother seems more like a teenage sister right now. For the last year, I’ve been trudging through my days trying to avoid lengthy, intimate discussions with her, while at the same time attempting to engage in them with my boyfriend, John, who’s been practically living at his law firm, slaving over a huge M&A deal. Meanwhile, since I blew off my corporate law class, I can’t even have an intelligent conversation with him about his work.
I’d found Pensione Fortuna when my parents came to visit me in Rome, and I’d hoped to bring John here this summer, figuring a few romantic weeks in Italy and Greece would be just what we needed. But he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, get away. So I turned to Kat and Sin, knowing that both had always wanted to go to Europe and had lots of vacation time racked up. I hadn’t seen much of them this summer, and to be truthful I’d been a little distant before then. I’d spent most of my last year of law school studying at John’s condo on Lake Shore Drive, painting and repainting the walls of my own apartment in an attempt to find a color that would uplift me, or holing up in the school’s library checking citations for obscure law review articles no one would ever read. Even though I’ve been out of circulation for a while, or maybe because of it, they quickly agreed to the trip: a few days in Rome and then a few weeks in the Greek islands.
I’m determined to make up for lost time with Kat and Sin. I don’t want to fall into the same trap my mother has. My father’s gradual withdrawal is destroying her, and I’m the one she talks to about her womanly needs and her upcoming face-lift, as if she can’t trust her friends with that information. But isn’t that what friends are for?
As we walk through the courtyard, I notice that it’s changed little since I last saw it. A few wrought-iron tables with linen umbrellas still surround the fountain, and the carved oak door to the pensione still stands open.
For a second, I flash back to my parents sitting at one of those tables, sharing a bottle of wine, laughing as they play their hundred thousandth game of gin rummy, but I can’t reconcile the image with the present.
“You coming, Casey?” Kat calls from the doorway.
I look at the table one more time, seeing my parents smile and raise their glasses, before I nod at Kat and shake off the memory.
Our room is sparse but cheerful, with three single beds covered in sunny-yellow spreads, the color reminding me of a recent paint I had on my apartment walls. It was cheerful all right, but I could never seem to match my mood to the color. I went next to an eggshell-blue that made me feel twelve years old, then to the current mossy-green. It gives the place a foresty feeling, which can be good or bad depending on whether I’m feeling lost at the moment.
The beds here are placed under huge French windows that open to the courtyard, while a bureau made of dark wood is pushed against one wall, a vase of fresh cut flowers on top. If they’d let me decorate, I’d put the beds on the other side of the room so you could lie down and see the flowering tree outside.
After a two-hour nap, it’s eight o’clock at night, and our stomachs are beginning to rumble. We decide to get cleaned up and hit the town.
“What’s with this dribbling?” Lindsey calls from the bathroom. “Is this really the shower?”
“Get used to it,” I say. I don’t know what it is about Europe, but as far as I can tell, the entire continent suffers from a lack of decent water pressure.
When I get my turn in the bathroom, I peer at myself in the mirror and sigh. I’d hoped that taking this trip, even just getting to Rome, would alter me, make me feel more alive, look more exotic. No such luck. Same old Casey.
I give myself a big smile in the mirror, thinking of those self-help books I’ve read that recommend acting happy as a means of transformation. The grin looks fake, though, almost lecherous under the fluorescent light, so I drop it.
As we get dressed for the night, we fall back into our old patterns—I can’t decide what to wear, Lindsey is ready in two seconds and talks me through my outfit decision, and Kat dawdles. Finally, Lindsey and I sit on the bed, waiting for Kat to make her finishing touches—a dab of perfume between her breasts, the application of jewelry.
“Let’s go,” Kat says at last, but as she turns around from the mirror, something glints and sparkles from her ears.
“Are those diamond earrings?” Sin asks, leaning toward Kat. “Where did you get those?”
Kat fingers an ear, a self-conscious gesture, which is strange for her. “Hatter,” she says.
“The Mad Hatter gave you diamonds?” I can’t keep the surprise out of my voice. Phillip Hatter is Kat’s stepfather, whom she’d nicknamed the Mad Hatter shortly after her mother’s marriage to him when she was nine. He’s one of those ridiculously wealthy Chicagoans who gets his money from a trust fund and whose name is always in the society pages followed by a phrase like “patron of the arts” or some other pompous description. His contact with Kat is usually limited to those occasions when his presence is absolutely required for a show of family unity. I do recall him being in Ann Arbor for our college graduation four years ago, seeming ill at ease and slightly mortified to have found himself in such a provincial setting. I don’t think he’s ever given Kat a gift on his own, so the diamond earrings seem a bit much.
Kat shrugs. “They were a present.”
“When?” Lindsey asks, her voice hard. “When did he give them to you?”
Kat shoots Sin a look I can’t read. “My birthday.”
“Oh, shit. I’m sorry,” I say. Kat’s birthday was in June, and I’d totally forgotten it. For months, I’d been completely consumed with the bar exam and my too-frequent, too-revealing chats with my mom. Menopause, hidden insecurities, vaginal dryness—my Catholic mother who used to shield me from anything she considered unpleasant suddenly has no censor on her mouth. Last week, during one particularly illuminating conversation, I’d learned that my father never really knew how to give her an orgasm.
Kat waves a hand at me, as if to say don’t worry about it, but she keeps her eyes on Lindsey. I begin to feel like I can’t understand some significant undercurrent.
“I was with you on your birthday when we had dinner with your mom and the Hatter. He didn’t give you anything then.” Lindsey stares at Kat.
I glance down at the floor for a second, thinking that I wasn’t invited to that little dinner party. I can’t blame them really, since I didn’t even call Kat to wish her a happy birthday, but I’ve always been included before, and hearing about it now smarts a little.
“It was later,” Kat says. “Now let’s get out of here.” She picks up her purse and heads to the door.
I look at Lindsey, who doesn’t move, still watching Kat as if she’s trying to decide if she should say something more. She gets up from the bed then, silently following Kat, and I trail behind, wondering what I missed this summer.
We purchase paper cups of beer from the McDonald’s tucked in a corner of Piazza di Spagna. Beer at McDonald’s—just another reason to love Italy. We carry them, looking for a seat on the Spanish Steps, a gorgeous run of wide stone stairs that’s topped with a two-towered church and crowded with bushes and people.
“Basta,” Sin keeps saying to the young boy of about fourteen who’s tailing her and mumbling declarations of love in Italian. “Basta!”
She loses him eventually, and we find an open spot on the steps. As I sit down behind Kat and Sin, I make sure to tuck my dress under my legs, but I know it makes little difference, since most of the men in the piazza are looking at us as if we’re parading around naked. While this probably sounds unfeminist or downright sad, I rather like the ogling from the Italians, the crude sort of flattery that comes from their eyes so squarely on you that there’s no hiding what they’re thinking.
For the moment, Lindsey has dropped the diamond earring interrogation, but I know Sin. She won’t let it go for long.
“Get a load of those pants,” she says, jabbing Kat in the arm and gesturing to a woman in black leather pants and a flimsy camisole that shows off flawless breasts. “She’ll sweat her ass off if she has one.”
Kat laughs, and she and Sin start talking, quietly pointing out one woman’s shoes, another’s dress, the distinguished man in the suit smoking a cigar. Talking about someone else—it’s the way they always smooth over a rough spot. But it’s also the game everyone immediately learns to play in Rome—gawk and be gawked at. Do it too much and you’ll convince yourself you’re the most poorly dressed person in the city. I’m glad to see Kat and Sin getting along. It’ll be a much better trip for all of us if they do, but watching Kat’s long, amber locks mix with Sin’s short, dark hair as they tilt heads together and laugh only reminds me of hearing about Kat’s birthday dinner after the fact.
I lean back and make myself take a deep breath. Light sparkles from the stars and the apartment windows overlooking the piazza, making the place look like a glittering movie set. The Spanish Steps had been a favorite hangout of mine when I lived here, and for a second, being back makes me feel like I did then—fairly confident and actually anticipating the future. Well, the immediate future, anyway. I don’t want to think about my parents or even John, who I miss a bit already. I certainly don’t want to think about the job that awaits me at Billings Sherman & Lott, one of those oh-so-cool firms featured in a Grisham novel. My law-type friends are green that I landed the gig, but I’ve been working there for a few months part-time, and the thought of going full-time feels oddly like a prison sentence.
“Case, come down here,” Sin says, reaching behind and grabbing my leg.
I scoot down the step as fast as if I’d been offered free shoes. Once I’m level with them, the three of us huddle together, giggling like schoolgirls, talking about the cute guys and the great clothes until we’re interrupted by a shout.
“Hey you! Americans?”
I glance down to see four men, all good-looking, who’ve just pulled up to the base of the steps. It was just a matter of time before this happened, especially since Kat is with us. All the guys are on very large, expensive-looking Vespa scooters, with the exception of one on a Pepto Bismol pink moped that’s on its last legs. The leader of the pack, the one who called to us, is so gorgeous it’s silly. He looks like an Italian poster boy—shiny black hair, deep-set liquid brown eyes, full pink lips, the works.
“Biscuit,” Kat says.
Biscuit is Kat’s irreverent word for a hot guy, or a hot boy for that matter, since she doesn’t discriminate on the basis of age.
“How can you tell we’re Americans?” Kat calls in her best come-hither voice, cupping a hand around her mouth.
“The most beautiful women are Americans.”
“Oh puh-lease,” Lindsey says, but Kat is sold.
“Come with me,” she whispers as she stands and throws her hair over her shoulders.
I glance at Lindsey, ready to say, “It’ll be fine,” or some other platitude that she usually looks to me to provide when Kat is on the prowl and we’re dragged along, but she doesn’t turn to me this time. Instead, she mutters, “Jesus Christ,” and heads down the stairs.
We learn that Alesandro, the poster boy, had attended boarding school in London, hence his perfect English. His friends, Massimo and Francesco (of the lame moped), have quite good English, too, making it easy enough to talk. The fourth, Paulo, speaks no Inglese whatsoever, and he stands there kicking a foot back and forth while he watches the group. I make an effort to have a brief conversation with him using the minimal Italian I’ve retained. Unfortunately I can’t get past the, “How old are you?” “Where do you live?” stage.
“Why don’t you ladies join us for a cappuccino? I know a very good coffee bar near the Pantheon,” Poster Boy says.
“As long as we can get food and beer there,” Kat says without a glance at Sin or me.
I smile at Sin, geared to reassure her, to tell her that they’re just a bunch of harmless pretty boys as far as I can see, that we’ll be perfectly safe. Again, her eyes don’t seek mine. No conspiratorial grin comes my way.
Poster Boy makes room for Kat on his scooter, and Massimo, a tall, lean guy with an angular face who’d been making eyes at Sin, does the same for her. But she just stands there with a hand on her hip.
“Can we talk about this?” she asks Kat, who’s already climbed behind Poster Boy. I take a step toward them, but neither seems to notice.
“Please,” Kat says, practically bouncing up and down on the seat. “We need to eat, so we might as well have them take us somewhere.”
“Any of them could be Italy’s version of Ted Bundy,” Sin says.
Kat responds with a shout of laughter.
“Oh, all right.” Sin climbs cautiously on Massimo’s scooter.
Poster Boy’s machine roars to life, and he takes off with Kat, while Massimo and Sin follow closely behind. I watch them pull away, two trails of blue-gray smoke shooting from the scooters, Kat’s hair flying in the wind.
I turn around and realize that I’m left there with Paulo and Francesco. I prefer to ride with Paulo, who has a state-of-the-art scooter that could fit a family of five, but he’s facing in a different direction.
“He does not feel comfortable because of his English,” Francesco explains to me. He’s a shorter, solid guy with inky-black, wavy hair and kind eyes.
Paulo and Francesco exchange a few words, and then Paulo is off. Francesco straddles his tiny pink moped, gives me a smile and waves his hand toward the two inches of space behind him as if he’s inviting me into a palatial villa. I suck in my stomach, perch on the minuscule seat and hang on like hell.
I’ve always been the sane middle between Kat’s desires run amok and Sin’s inability to let hers run enough. The first time I knew I’d found my place was freshman year in college. I hadn’t known them long, so I was more the type of friend who passes you a beer rather than one who holds your hair back when you throw up after too many. But they were tight. They’d known each other only six months longer, yet they gave the impression of having been friends since biblical times.
One night, though, something was off-kilter. They’d brought me along to a party given by some senior guys I thought were godlike at the time. The apartment was chock-full of smoke and people and Zeppelin music so loud you could feel the bass in your stomach. I walked into the kitchen to find Kat sitting at the table with two guys, a bottle of Jaegermeister between them. Though easily fifty pounds lighter, Kat was matching both guys shot for shot in some kind of contest. About eight people hung around the table chanting and cheering with each drink. Sin was one of them, but she stood slightly apart, her arms clamped over her chest, her face tense, eyes staring.
“Don’t,” she said to Kat when another shot was poured, but Kat waved her away with a lazy arm that seemed to float.
I watched this for a minute. I don’t know why Sin didn’t speak up more, tell her to fucking knock it off, but that’s how it is between those two. It’s as if Sin can’t comprehend Kat’s behavior, or maybe she wishes she could be more like her. Either way, at Kat’s craziest moments, Sin seems to lose her usual strength and drop into the background.
I didn’t know the whole pattern that night. I just saw one friend about to pass out on her face and another about to combust. So I leaned over Kat, poured a huge triple shot in the plastic cup she was using, and chugged it.
“There,” I said, trying not to gag. “She won.”
The guys protested, but the crowd around us burst into applause. I pulled Kat from the chair and out the door into a chilly Michigan night.
She slung her arms around my neck in a stumbling hug. “You’re all right,” she said, her words a little slurry.
“Thanks,” Sin said, when she came out with our coats. She squeezed my hand and shot me an open, relieved kind of smile I’d never seen on her before.
I hadn’t done much, at least I didn’t think so at the time. But I had earned my role in our little group that night. I’d found my place.
The piazza surrounding the Pantheon is aglow in a warm, gold light that shines from the fountain in the middle. Francesco knows the owner of the bar and is able to get us a table just to the right of the fountain. Kat, Lindsey and I order Moretti beers, while Poster Boy orders cappuccinos for his crew.
Once we sit, Poster Boy places his arm around Kat in a way that strikes me as proprietary rather than friendly, but she doesn’t seem bothered. She keeps touching him—her fingers grazing his hand, her head resting briefly on his shoulder—and even the way she gazes at him when he’s talking seems more a stroke than a look. She’s always been a flirt, but this is fast. Maybe it’s the change of scenery, being on the other side of the pond for the first time.
I keep glancing at Sin to see if she’s noticing this, but she seems more loosened up than usual, too. She asks the guys questions about living in Italy and kids them about their need to tie sweaters around their shoulders.
Meanwhile, Francesco pays little direct attention to me, which is slightly insulting, but just fine, since I’m not looking to hook up. I let the conversation swirl around me while I stare at the Pantheon, a huge circular temple made of stone and cement. The interior design classes I took in college taught me that it’s an engineering marvel because of the massive domed ceiling that lets light onto the marble floors, but what really baffles me is that it was originally built in 27 B.C. Ironic, because it’s now surrounded by cars and cell phones and platform sandals.
As a History Channel junkie, John would have loved it here if only he could have ripped himself away from the office for a few weeks. Lately, I’ve wondered if he enjoys his work more than he enjoys me. As I sip my beer, I start to review the moments we’ve spent together during the past few months, then going back further, to come up with the last time we’d had fun together, real fun, not just the getting-dressed-up-to-go-to-a-cousin’s-wedding-and-drinking-bad-table-wine kind of fun. I want to remember the belly laughs, the accidental fun, the spontaneous good times at the end of an otherwise crappy day. We’d had those times at the beginning—the pub crawl we arranged with John’s neighbors during a blizzard; the time John surprised me with a weekend trip to Manhattan because I was depressed about a bad grade; the New Year’s Day that we drank every bit of leftover alcohol in his place and watched football and movies for fourteen hours. But where are those times lately? Absent, it seems, lost somewhere in the desire for career advancement and the late nights at the library.
“Casey,” Lindsey says, bringing me back to Rome, back to the now. “Ready to order dinner?”
She leans across the table. “Are you okay?”
I haven’t told Kat or Sin about the distance I feel growing between John and me, probably because a different kind of space has grown between them and myself as well. But now with Sin looking at me, some concern in her eyes, I wish that we were alone, just the three of us, so I could spill everything out—my parents’ problems, this thing with John that I can’t put my finger on, the way I’m terrified to start working for a living. But Massimo and Francesco turn to me, too, waiting for me to answer Lindsey’s question, so I just nod again and take the menu from her hand.
Kat orders spaghetti carbonara, a rich, egg-filled pasta. She’s one of those criminally thin people with a perpetually high metabolism. I opt for a light caprese salad to try to whittle away some of my post bar exam girth, and Lindsey orders the same. When the food comes, she offers bites to everyone at the table, although only Kat accepts. The tomato and mozzarella, dribbled with olive oil and sprinkled with basil, taste ridiculously fresh and healthy, two foreign concepts, since I subsisted the entire summer on various members of the Frito Lay family.
Once I’m finished, I notice that Francesco sits silently while Kat is busy making faces at Poster Boy. Lindsey, surprisingly, appears to be enjoying her conversation with Massimo. My side of the table is overly quiet except for the clinking of glasses from other diners and the lilting Italian music wafting from the bar.
“Pretty hot, huh?” I say to Francesco.
His mouth turns up slightly at the corners, and his eyes skate to our friends. “It seems to be getting that way.”
I follow his glance to find that Poster Boy and Kat are now kissing like they’re alone on a couch somewhere. I wonder if I should stop her, maybe reach an arm across the table or toss some cold water like you do with unruly dogs, but I’m suddenly unsure of myself, of my role. I try to meet Lindsey’s eyes, but she’s talking to Massimo, her back turned to Kat.
“So,” I say, looking back at Francesco, who wears an amused expression.
“So,” he says, mimicking me, and we both crack up.
Silence settles between us then, during which I try to focus on Sin’s explanation of her job to Massimo and ignore the forms of Kat and Poster Boy, which have become a single, entwined mass across the table.
“You are going to be a lawyer?” Francesco finally asks. I’m startled for a second, but then I vaguely remember hearing Lindsey mention my new job to the guys while I was drifting off about John.
I only nod and sip my beer, not sure that he wants a real answer, and a little nervous that he might expect me to follow in Kat’s footsteps and lock lips with him.
“What kind of lawyer will you be?” he says, without a trace a flirtation.
“A litigator,” I say, thinking this sounds pretty interesting, even if the thought of doing it every day doesn’t particularly interest me right now.
“What is ‘litigator’?” He’s apparently confused with the English and unaware of how cool I am.
“Trials. In front of a judge,” I say.
Actually, what I’ve learned is that litigation really means taking a million depositions about car accidents and medical treatments, compiling page upon page of tedious written discovery, attempting for years to make a settlement, and then maybe, just maybe, eventually trying a case in defense of some company or some person lucky enough to have an insurance company behind them. But for some reason I want to impress Francesco—and maybe myself—about the job that’s waiting for me, so I embellish my soon-to-be reality, prattling on and on about fascinating lawsuits and standing before a high-powered judge every day. Total crap. I’ll probably see more of the library than I ever will the courtroom, and even if I do work on a big case, it’ll be on the grunt end for a very long time.
“And this is what you love to do?” Francesco seems to be going deeper than the surface conversation, making me squirm a little. On the other hand, his question flatters me. John assumes I’ll love the law as he does, so we’ve never truly discussed the subject of whether I’ll actually like my chosen profession. I’ve never even told John that I always wanted to be an interior designer before I convinced myself that the law would bring money and a decent lifestyle easier and faster.
“I haven’t started yet,” I say to Francesco.
“But you believe you will love it?” He holds his head a little bit to one side and waits for me to speak, those nice brown eyes watching me.
“It’s a job.” I squirm again and glance away. Sin is still talking to Massimo, and luckily, Kat and Poster Boy are chatting again instead of giving each other tonsillectomies.
“How do you like Roma?”
This is a much less complicated topic, and I give Francesco a smile. “I love it. I went to college here for six months.”
“Ah. So you know Roma?” He leans back in his chair and crosses his legs so that one ankle rests on his knee. He strikes me as someone who’s completely comfortable with his body, a trait I envy.
“I do. I have such wonderful memories of this city.”
“Why are the memories so good?”
I think about this for a second. “I was in school and in a new place. Everything was simple.” I close my eyes for a moment, remembering how my life was then—sleeping in, going to a few classes and spending the rest of the day exploring Rome, drinking wine and mooning over my favorite bartender.
“Things are not simple now?”
I open my eyes and shift about in my seat. I’m out of practice talking about things like feelings and wants and desires and realities. Somewhere along the way John and I had stopped doing that, too.
“Life gets more complicated as you get older. There’s more to worry about.” In one swoop, my memories of Rome are replaced with the prospect of fourteen-hour workdays.
Francesco pauses a second, his eyes never leaving my face. “I think life is what you do with it. How you decide to live it. It can be simple or not.”
I want to say, “Easy, Pollyanna” but instead I opt for, “It’s not that easy.”
I look at his face. Can he really want to have this conversation with me, some American girl he just met? He leans toward me, and the humid air seems to lighten and swirl with his nearness. I guess he does.
“It’s not that easy,” I say, “because you have responsibilities as time goes on.” Awaiting me when I get back are loans to pay, my family to deal with. Hell, I’m not even sure what to wear to work. I’ve perfected my student wardrobe—jeans, khakis, two pairs of leather boots (both black, one high-heeled, one low), and nearly every sweater put out by Banana Republic in the last three years. That’s all I’ve really needed. But now, I’m entering the world of pinstripes, pumps and pearls, and I’m clueless. Petty, I know, but this is the stuff I think about.
“If you are happy and living how you want to live, responsibilities can be a joy, not a job,” Francesco says.
“You’re reading too much Deepak Chopra.”
“Scusi?” Francesco cocks an ear toward me, and he looks adorable in that earnest, coffee-shop guy kind of way.
“Nothing.” I start asking him about his family, his work, what he wants to do with his life. He tells me he’s from a big family and works in his uncle’s restaurant supply business, which is how he knew the café owner and could land us this table. His two best friends are his sisters, both of whom live in Milan and work in the fashion industry. I glance down at my cotton dress as he says this, wishing I’d worn something fantastically hip, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He’s going to school at night to get his college degree, he tells me, so that someday he can open his own business. He wants to have something to hand down to his kids.
Francesco smiles when he says “my children,” as if he knows them already. It reminds me of the dinner I’d had with some high school girlfriends recently, when I’d felt left out listening to them talk about their babies and husbands. They seem to be adults already, worrying about adult things like preschools and mortgages and car seats, while I fret about whether to have another glass of wine and what to wear to John’s holiday party.
Our conversation continues to flow. I try to seem disinterested so that I don’t give Francesco the idea I’m as fun as Kat, but he intrigues me. He doesn’t seem to have the quick temper of many Italian men, and he says he loves women. Of course, he could be lying through his perfect white teeth—lying being another characteristic Italian-male behavior.
“Casey,” he says, briefly laying a hand over mine. “I think we could be friends.”
“The way they’re friends?” I jab a finger at Poster Boy and Kat, who’ve begun full-throttle kissing again.
He laughs. “Different than that. Better.”
I’m not sure what he means, so I give sort of an embarrassed guffaw, yet I don’t want to doubt him. I want to believe that this man finds me interesting and stimulating. Logically, I know I shouldn’t need a man to make me feel good about myself, but lately being with John has made me feel like putting on a housedress and curlers and schlepping off to a Tupperware party.
I shove all thoughts of John out of my mind and try to concentrate on what Francesco is saying. Something about the differences between American and Italian women. There seem to be many.
At this point, Poster Boy announces that he’s going to give Kat a tour of Vatican City at night.
Kat beams a smile at me as if this is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to her, when I know for a fact it’s not. She has hundreds of crazy stories about getting it on with rock stars, sneaking into movie premieres and getting ludicrously expensive gifts from men of all ages. But I’m glad she’s happy, and there’s no denying how hot Poster Boy is.
“Would you like to come?” Poster Boy asks the rest of the group.
Francesco barely glances at me before he answers with a definitive, “Sì.”
“No!” I say, more harshly than I intended. I’m not a big fan of people answering for me, and I’d suddenly envisioned myself in an Italian housedress (okay, it is cuter than the American version), beating out a rug on the side of a dirty pensione, while Francesco yells at me to cook his favorite fusilli arribiata. When I see everyone’s surprised looks, I add in a nicer tone, “I need some sleep.”
Francesco nods graciously. “I will take Casey to the hotel.”
I give him a smile, not wanting to ruin his image of me, not wanting to erase the talk we had. I’d actually enjoyed the last hour more than any other in recent memory. Still, I do have a boyfriend at home. “That’s all right. I’ll walk back with Lindsey,” I say.
“Actually, Case,” Lindsey says, a sheepish grin playing on her mouth, “I think I’ll go check out the Vatican, too.”
“Oh,” I say, stumped. Sin is usually not the type to follow in Kat’s footsteps. She has little tolerance for men. She gives them a whirl now and again, but her hopes are always too high, or the guy’s ambitions too low. Her one major boyfriend, a charming, curly haired guy named Pete who was as short as she, she’d dumped about two years ago.
“Sorry,” Lindsey whispers, leaning across the table to squeeze my hand.
Kat sees the gesture and wakes up from the sexual stare she’s exchanging with Poster Boy. “Are you cool with this, Case?”
“Sure, sure.” I push back my chair, which makes a screeching sound on the pavement. I tell Francesco I’ll take him up on the ride.
“We’ll see you in a bit,” Kat says, her hand on Sin’s shoulder.
I nod, but I don’t expect either of them until dawn.
On the ride home, I try to remain aloof. Well, as aloof as one can get while straddling the end of a battered moped designed for one, and clutching Francesco’s midsection like a life preserver. He chatters over his shoulder, pointing out famous churches and hotels and mansions.
“You know, I’ve lived in Rome,” I tell him when we stop at a light. “I know all these places.”
“Oh,” he says, a mocking tone in his voice. “You know them all? You have been everywhere?”
“Yep.” I match his tone with a smug voice of my own. I was zealous about seeing everything when I lived here. I’d fallen in love with the sculpted fountains and the steeples shooting from the churches.
Francesco revs his sad little bike, which answers with a chug and a whine before it starts moving again. “Tomorrow night we will take you and your friends to a place maybe you have been, but you have never been there a notte, at night.”
It sounds mysterious, but I refuse to take the bait. “Fine,” I yell into the wind so he can hear. “Whatever you want.”
I tell myself I’m not interested, that I’m only accepting because if I want to see my friends while in Rome, they’re obviously going to be a package deal with Poster Boy and his crew.
Francesco pulls into the courtyard, and I climb off the scooter as elegantly as possible.
“I will call you early tomorrow evening,” he says, “and we will make arrangements to pick up you and your friends, sì?”
“Sì,” I reply.
He moves toward me, and I panic for a second, thinking he’s going to kiss me on the lips. Then I get a weird shot of hope that he is going to kiss me. Instead, he plants a soft, chaste kiss on each cheek, the Italian greeting, which is about as sexual to them as cleaning a closet. He smiles at me and gives the scooter another lame rev.
“Tomorrow,” he says, and putters away into the night.
I’m surprised to hear Lindsey and Kat clomping into the room only an hour or so after I crash, but I’m too tired to find out what brought them home so soon. The next morning I wake them at eight o’clock, determined to show them all of Rome within the next two days, since we’re planning on leaving tomorrow night for the Greek islands.
“It’s too early,” Kat moans, looking as stunning as the night before.
While my appearance always does a nosedive by the time I get up in the morning, Kat is blessed with long, black lashes and smooth skin that never blotches. Her perpetual good looks come in handy, especially on Sunday mornings at 7:00 a.m. when she starts a twelve-hour shift as an ICU nurse. She still goes out every Saturday night without fail, and she almost always picks someone up, but it never seems to affect her nursing. In fact, she’s won awards. She even gets flowers and cards from her patients and their families.
“Too bad,” I say to her now. “We’ve got lots to see.”
Lindsey groans and props herself up on her elbows. “You are not going to believe the shit those guys pulled last night.”
I immediately sit on the edge of her bed, ready for some of the good girl talk that’s been missing from my life. I’ve certainly had no interesting stories of my own. “What happened?”
“Apparently—” she shoots a mean look at Kat “—the boys’ idea of a Vatican tour was to drive by Saint Peter’s from a mile away and point at it.”
I cover my mouth, trying not to laugh.
“Don’t even,” she says, before she continues. “Then they just sped away, and when I asked Massimo where we’re going he tells me Monte something.”
“Monte Mario,” I tell her. It’s a nice neighborhood just outside the city limits. “And then what happened?”
“Well, it was obvious they were looking for an evening of Love American Style,” Lindsey says, again glaring at Kat, “which I guess I should have expected the way those two were making out at the table—but I really did think we were going to the Vatican. One minute we’re cruising along real slow, and Massimo’s being nice, telling me things about Rome. Then we pull up to a light, the two guys talk in Italian, and the next minute they floor the scooters and start flying down the street away from the Vatican.”
We both look at Kat, waiting for an explanation. The way she was tonguing Poster Boy at the table, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was groping him on the scooter.
Kat gives a guilty shrug. “Alesandro asked me if we wanted to have a beer at their apartment, and I said ‘sure,’ assuming he meant after the tour. But before we got anywhere Sin started arguing with Massimo at a stoplight.”
Lindsey snorts. “He made a comment about bringing me home the next day before work, and I didn’t appreciate the assumption.” She throws off her covers and starts going through her purse. “I thought those guys would be different, but they’re the same as the ones back home. I don’t have time to mother some post-college idiot into adulthood.”
“Oh my.” Kat rolls her eyes and waves off Lindsey’s speech. “That’s fine, but you jumped off the scooter and stalked away in the dark. I was worried about you.”
Sin turns around with a serious look, but after a second she gives a bashful kind of half laugh. “I guess the seven beers I had helped a bit.”
“We chased her,” Kat explains, laughing now, too, “and we had to talk her back onto Massimo’s scooter.”
“Yeah. By that time they wanted nothing but to get the hell away from us.” Sin slumps on Kat’s bed.
“And I was none too happy about it,” Kat says. “Alesandro was a hottie, and I came on this trip to have a good time, damn it.”
They’re giggling now, leaning against each other and looking like the best friends they are. I used to fit in that picture. “The Three Musketeers,” we used to call ourselves unoriginally.
“What happened with you?” Kat says. “Did Francesco make a move?”
“No, no. Perfect gentleman.” I tell them about his promise that the guys will pick us up that evening and take us somewhere off the beaten path. “So,” I tell Kat, “if they still want to do it, you’ll have another shot at Alesandro.”
“I hope they don’t,” Lindsey says. “I want absolutely nothing to do with Massimo.”
“Maybe they’ll have more friends,” I say, “or maybe they’ll take us someplace where there’s lots of people. It could be fun.”
Sin narrows her eyes a little. “You’re really selling tonight with these guys. You’re sure nothing happened with you and Francesco?”
“Of course not.”
“Don’t hold out on us,” Kat says.
“There’s nothing to hold.” I look at the two of them slumped on the bed, and I think, there’s nothing to tell about Francesco, not really, but there’s John, there’s my parents, there’s—
“All right. Well, I call the bathroom first.” Lindsey heads for the shower.
Kat groans and rolls off the bed. She moves to her suitcase and starts sorting through her clothes.
I sit there for a second, thinking that at least they didn’t refuse to go tonight. Because I want to see Francesco again more than I can admit.
All day we hike around Rome, making the requisite stops—Castel Sant’Angelo, Trevi Fountain, Piazza del Popolo, Sistine Chapel, and at least a dozen other churches. The majority of Rome’s treasures are religious, whether the cathedrals themselves or the baubles and sculptures collected inside. Although I consider myself a lapsed Catholic, I still find the interior of a church soothing. It’s like walking back into childhood, a world of orderly rules and schedules. I love the cool marble and the impossible, enormous quiet, despite the teeming city outside.
“Pete always wanted me to pretend I was a virgin,” Lindsey says, as we stand in front of a portrait of the Virgin Mary just inside the entrance to one church.
Kat and I burst out in giggles at the thought of cute, little Pete making such a request. We get shushed by a passing couple who might as well have the word tourist plastered on their heads what with the rain slickers tied around their waists and the five guidebooks they’re juggling.
“So why didn’t you?” Kat says in a whisper.
“What was I supposed to do? Get drunk and pretend I was in a dorm room?” Sin shakes her head. “I told him he was an asshole, but I think he was just trying to mix it up a bit, have some fun.” She shrugs and walks to a white marble sculpture of an angel.
They haven’t dated for two years, but it doesn’t stop Lindsey from bringing up Pete every so often. An open, vivacious guy, he was the one man Lindsey had seemed to care about. Everyone loved to have him around, until Lindsey decided he wasn’t going anywhere in life. He was happy running the family business, a large fruit and vegetable market in Buck-town. Lindsey, on the other hand, wanted to run with the moneyed set, the kind of people who worked out at East Bank Club and owned second houses in Aspen. So it was so-long-Pete, although Lindsey doesn’t seem able to say goodbye.
I follow Sin to the statue of the angel, whose placid face and soulful eyes make it look like it needs a break from centuries of standing in the same position. “You ever talk to Pete?”
She looks surprised at the thought, then turns away and walks down the marble aisle toward the altar. “Of course not,” I hear her say.
The heat is unrelenting, but it gives us an excuse for frequent stops at neighborhood bars for tè fredda—sweet Italian iced tea—and snacks. About three in the afternoon, we’re thirsty again, but because of the siesta, we trudge around forever looking for an open restaurant.
A few women pass us, walking arm in arm, then a few young girls holding hands.
“Lot of lesbians around here,” Kat says.
“They’re not lesbians,” I say, laughing. “That’s just what women do in Rome.”
Kat stops and watches the girls enter a store. “I like that.” “Let’s adopt that custom.” She links her arms through Sin’s and mine, pulling us forward until we all fall into step with each other, our hair flying behind us, and I feel like we’re Charlie’s Angels. Three good friends on the town.
It reminds me of a day we’d spent a few years ago, right after we’d graduated from college and moved to Chicago. A doctor Kat worked with had invited her to a party during Old Town Art Fair. The three of us hit a few other bashes first, making the rounds in khaki shorts and halter tops, drinking keg beer. When we stopped at Dr. Adler’s, though, we knew we were out of our element. For one thing, the house was a stunning brownstone with a manicured front lawn and an interior so full of antiques that I held my breath as we made our way through the living room. For another thing, the women wore linen skirts and wide-brimmed straw hats, the men tailored pants and nice shirts. Conversation seemed to lull as we came in. Everyone was at least fifteen years older than we, and in comparison we looked like hoochy mamas with our tight little shirts, holding our plastic cups of beer.
“Stick with me,” Kat said after Dr. Adler’s wife gave us the once-over, her mouth curling in distaste as she pointed us toward the backyard.
“Like we’re going to mingle,” Sin said under her breath.
We made our way out back and stood, joined at the hip, while Kat made pleasantries with the doctors and we sipped wine that Dr. Adler described as “good, but not as superior as the ’92.” Finally, Kat was able to make an excuse for us to leave, and when we got outside the front door, we all burst out laughing.
We keep walking arm in arm now until we finally find an open bar called Mel’s on a winding cobbled street off Piazza Cavour. It’s small and quaint, with old posters of Italian movie stars plastered to the walls. We order our food and slide into a table under the front awning. When our teas and food arrive, we dig in as if we hadn’t just eaten a few hours ago.
“Oh my God,” Kat says. “Did you see the biscuit?”
I glimpse a guy walking through the door and get a glimpse of sandy-blond hair.
“Wish me luck,” Kat says, pushing back her chair.
Neither Sin nor I say anything. We both know she doesn’t need it.
Kat trots into the bar. Within seconds we hear the rumble of a man’s voice, the peal of Kat’s laughter.
“Great,” Lindsey says. “We’re going to be here forever.”
“Yep,” I say with a certain degree of resignation. Since Kat is widely known for her ability to meet men under any circumstances, Sin and I usually spend a lot of time standing around until Kat decides whether she wants to do something about it. Usually, we talk and make jabs about Kat’s libido, but Sin says nothing this time, she just keeps eating her pizza, pulling off the whole slices of tomato, which seem to offend her.
Kat comes out of the bar in record time and introduces us to Guiseppe, who looks like he could be an underwear model. He’s got a stunning body, a jaw so square you could use it as a ruler, and jade-green eyes under eyelashes that are longer than Kat’s.
“Buona sera,” Guiseppe says to us with a slight bow.
“He designs leather!” Kat gushes, with such wide-eyed enthusiasm you’d have thought he was next in line to be the pope.
Sin and I shake his hand and drag our chairs around the table to make room. When Guiseppe and Kat take their seats, there’s a pregnant pause, as if we all know that someone should talk, but none of us can figure out whose turn it is. I keep expecting a look from Lindsey that says, take over, please, and get us the hell out of here, but she doesn’t even glance at me.
Finally, Kat says, “Guiseppe wants to come sightseeing with us.”
Sin and I are quiet, but our silence is probably for different reasons. For Sin, it’s just another round of dealing with Kat’s string of men. For me, though, it means an end to my role as the one who knows Rome, the keeper of the Italian knowledge. I’d enjoyed being teacher all day. It meant Kat and Sin needed me in some fashion. But now that there’s a Roman onboard, it’s over.
Guiseppe, it turns out, is a very pleasant, mild kind of guy who happens to know all sorts of Rome trivia. I find myself warming to him as he gives us informative tidbits at each stop.
“Did you know,” he asks us in carefully pronounced English as we stand in front of the Vittorio Emmanuel Monument, a white marble monstrosity that looks like a wedding cake, “that this was built by the monarchy of Italy, whom the people hated?”
Actually, I did know this, but Guiseppe looks at each of us as if he’s really trying to help, so I keep quiet.
“We do not like this,” he continues. “It was built from marble stolen from the Colosseum and the Forum, and it is ugly.”
“That’s terrible,” Kat says.
Guiseppe looks down at Kat, pulling her close to him. “But you are not like this monument,” he says. “You are beautiful.”
“All righty,” I say in a loud voice. “It’s time we got back to the hotel.”
Sin turns to me. “Which way is home, Case?”
I point to the street behind us, happy to be needed again, and Lindsey and I set off toward the pensione, Guiseppe and Kat trailing behind us. By the time we make it back to Pensione Fortuna, my feet are killing me, and I’m dying for a nap.
“I’ll join you,” Lindsey says, yawning as we stand outside the pensione door.
“Well, it was nice to meet you,” I say, holding out a hand to Guiseppe.
He shakes it, but a perplexed look crosses his face.
“We’re going to take a nap, too,” Kat says, putting her arm around Guiseppe’s back.
His face rights itself, as if everything’s been cleared up.
I stifle the desire to roll my eyes, less than thrilled that I won’t be able to walk around our room in my underwear and grungy but comfortable Chicago Bears T-shirt. Still, I’m too tired to take Kat aside and protest, and since Lindsey only lets out a small groan and heads in the door, I assume she is, too.
Once in the room, I change into a clingy white T-shirt and some cute running shorts. Guiseppe may be Kat’s guy, but he’s still a guy. I get more time with him than I ever wanted, though, when Kat and Sin huddle in the bathroom. I figure Kat is probably primping while they analyze Guiseppe’s potential.
“Kat is very beautiful,” Guiseppe says. He sits on her bed, across from me.
“Yes, she is.”
“Very beautiful,” he says again, nodding.
“Yep.” I pray they’ll get out of the bathroom soon so I can take out my contacts.
Kat bursts into the bedroom then, her hair piled up casually on her head. I dive into the bathroom before Lindsey can shut the door.
“What are the odds that they’ll actually nap?” I ask Sin as I peel off my contacts.
“Slim,” she says through a mouthful of toothpaste, “but I could sleep through a train wreck right now. This jet lag is killing me.” She spits, rinses and leaves the bathroom.
After she’s gone, I close the door and stare at myself in the mirror. Without my contacts, I look hazy and ill defined, but it feels familiar.
When my head hits the pillow, I fall asleep immediately, only to be awakened a half hour later by muffled smooching sounds coming from Kat and Guiseppe. I glance to my left at Lindsey, who’s snoring, blissfully unaware. I turn back to my right and my worst fears are realized. The sounds aren’t coming from lips on lips, but rather Guiseppe’s lips on Kat’s perky breasts. Kat’s head is thrown back, her mouth open, her face holding a look of pure rapture. Guiseppe is bent over her, working with all the fervor of a newborn infant.
I close my eyes again, not entirely surprised. I’d expected some activity, and it’s certainly not the first time Kat has fooled around within spitting distance of me. It’s just that she usually confined the contact to kissing, and it usually occurred after bar-hopping during our undergrad days, when I was too loaded to give a rat’s ass. But this? This seems too nuts even for Kat.
I steal another glance in their direction, hoping that it was just a momentary lapse of discretion. Instead, I find Guiseppe’s form hidden entirely by the blanket and way below Kat’s gravity-defying boobs.
“Kat,” I say in an exasperated whisper. “For Christ’s sake!”
“What? What’s wrong?” As if a complete stranger wasn’t performing oral sex on her in the company of her two friends.
“Give it a rest, will you? I’ve got to get some sleep.”
Kat lugs Guiseppe up by his shoulders. When he emerges from the sheets, his golden hair is tousled, his pouty lips decidedly glistening.
“Sorry,” Kat says to me, but when she looks at Guiseppe, she starts giggling.
I feel like a second-grade teacher, yet I can’t help barking, “Quiet. Please.”
Kat and Guiseppe try to feign seriousness, but it’s hard to quell their delight.
I pull the covers over my head and squeeze my eyes shut.
Francesco has not called.
I began watching the clock at approximately 7:30, when Guiseppe exited, amid a flurry of kisses from Kat. Since that time, Lindsey and I have listened to Kat’s play-by-play of every word or action spoken or performed by Guiseppe since their chance meeting at the coffee bar.
Kat has already forgotten about Poster Boy Alesandro, and has plans to meet Guiseppe tonight at a disco in Trastevere. Wanting nothing to do with Massimo, Sin has also opted for the Trastevere plan.
“Come with us,” Sin says as she lounges on her bed. Naturally, she’s already dressed for the night, looking cute in trim black pants and a fitted blue halter top. Outside the open French windows, I can hear the low roll of conversation, an occasional burst of laughter, a few lines from a song—Piazza Navona heating up for a Friday night.
“But I promised Francesco.” I realize how pathetic it sounds. I came on this trip for some girl time, which at least one of my friends is trying to give me. Why am I making such an effort to see some guy I just met, especially when I have a nice enough boyfriend at home?
No answer comes to mind. To keep myself busy, I refold the clothes in my backpack while I try to decide what to wear. It’s easier than looking at Sin, who is way too good at reading faces, mine in particular.
“So what if you promised him?” Kat says, coming out of the bathroom in a lacy bra and thong. “Nothing happened last night, right?”
“No, of course not, but you guys should come with me. What if Alesandro and Massimo are there and expecting you?” Meanwhile, I keep looking at the phone, wondering if Francesco will even want to hang with me after his friends got the cold shoulder last night.
“I really don’t think they’re dying to see us, and if they do…” Lindsey shrugs “…they won’t find us.”
I have nothing to say in return. I can’t explain this desire of mine, not even to myself.
“Go with Francesco if you really want to,” Kat says.
Sudden panic at the thought. I make my fingers continue folding socks into little balls, but what I’m thinking is that I can’t be alone with Francesco, not without chaperones. For the last two years, the only man I’ve been alone with, other than John, is my dentist.
I turn and face them. “Come on, you guys. Just come with me for an hour or two. I really want to do this.”
“Why?” Sin says.
“Let’s stick together,” Kat says. “This is supposed to be a girls’ vacation, after all.”
“No shit, Kat. I’m surprised you remembered that.” It flies out of my mouth before I can stop it.
She freezes, looking like I slapped her.
Lindsey doesn’t say anything, but she’s watching me.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that you guys had no problems leaving me last night,” I say.
“You were going to sleep,” Lindsey says.
“It’s not like you thought twice about me.” I try to keep my voice light, wondering why I’m arguing, since I may never hear from Francesco again. I’m ready to retreat when I see Lindsey’s face harden.
“Well,” she says, “you haven’t been setting much of an example lately.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” But I know. Some sick part of me wants to hear her say it, though, because in some fucked-up way it’ll mean she missed me as much as I’ve missed them.
“Hey,” Kat says, walking toward us. “Let’s not get into this. Not now. Casey, if you want to go with Francesco, do it. Let’s just make it an early one so we can get up tomorrow and do some more sightseeing before we leave for Greece tomorrow night.”
Neither Sin nor I answer for some time.
“Yeah,” Sin says, finally breaking the silence. “Just go.” She gives me a lopsided smile with one corner of her mouth, which means she’s trying to be nice.
“Okay,” I say. “What time should we meet back here?”
“Midnight,” Kat says. “Will that work?”
“Sure,” I say, and I give Lindsey a small smile in return.
Just then the phone rings. I lunge at it.
“Pronto,” I say.
“Casey.” Francesco’s voice is so soft that he breathes my name more than he speaks it. “How are you?”
“I will pick you up at 9:00,” Francesco says, “and we will have a special dinner, as I told you.”
I push down the flicker of excitement that rises in me, trying not to notice how odd it is, how long it’s been since I’d felt that particular rush. “What about Alesandro and Massimo?”
“They will not be joining us,” he says, without explanation.
“Where? I mean, what kind of place are we going? What should I wear?” Something similar to terror replaces my excitement as I realize that this sounds more and more like a date. I know I should protest, explain that I have a boyfriend, and traipse off to Trastevere with my friends, but I can’t. I just can’t get those words out of my mouth.
“Wear whatever you like,” Francesco says in his liquid-honey voice. “It does not matter.”
Easy for him to say.
I immediately begin trying on every article of clothing packed by myself, Kat or Lindsey. They both attempt to offer advice, neither commenting on my obvious anxiety, but their pearls of fashion wisdom do little to calm me. To make matters worse, because of the weight I’ve put on this summer, I can’t wear the majority of their clothes for fear that the seams will explode and take out everyone within a mile radius. This leaves me alone with my meager wardrobe. I can think of fifty outfits in my closet back home that would be perfect for tonight, while I cringe at everything I packed.
I finally decide on my most slimming skirt and a sleeveless white top with a loose, semi-sheer black shirt over it.
“Are you nuts?” Kat says. “You can’t wear that black thing. It’s one hundred fucking degrees out.” She gives me a disgusted look while she fastens the diamond studs into her ears.
I glance at Sin, still on the bed, who notices the same thing and scowls at Kat. Those diamond earrings again.
“I’m trying to hide my arms,” I say, mumbling as I climb on a spindly wooden chair, where I attempt, unsuccessfully, to get a full-length glimpse of myself in the foot-long mirror above the dresser.
“Oh, please,” Sin says. “Your arms look fine. What’s gotten into you?”
“About ten pounds,” I say.
She sighs. “I remember at Michigan when we used to have to beg you to wear a coat over your little outfits, even in the dead of winter.”
This is true. I dressed like a slut in college, most of my clothes more suited for a provocative music video. I always groan and roll my eyes when I look back on pictures of myself in those getups, but the sad thing is that I was happy and completely confident in them.
“Oh God,” Kat says, brushing out her long chestnut hair, a grin taking over her face. “Remember that blue dress that was up to your crotch and showed every bit of your tits except the nipples?”
Lindsey gives a shout of laughter. “And what about that silver bustier she used to wear with the black pants?”
“Times change,” I say, smiling despite myself. This, I like. This reminiscing about how we used to be, even if it is at my expense.
“So,” Sin says, and I can hear the shift in her voice from lighthearted to something more serious. “Did you call John yet?”
“Not yet.” I get down from my chair, having decided to go for beauty over comfort and stick with the outfit. I don’t mention that my plan is to not call anyone for at least a week or two. Not John, not Gordon Baker Brickton, Jr., my newly assigned partner and boss at the firm, and certainly not my mother. This trip is intended to be an escape. Avoiding phone calls with anyone from my real life is a means to that much-needed end.
“Why not?” Sin says, refusing to give up.
“I think he’s out of town this weekend.” This is a total lie. He’s in Chicago, and I know exactly what he’s doing right now. He’s in his apartment, puttering around the kitchen, making chicken Alfredo. He’ll work on a file while he eats at the kitchen table, and then he’ll head to Stanley’s to meet his buddies for one or two beers—at the most. He’ll be missing me by now. I’m sure of that. Despite his crazy schedule lately, he turned all moony and sad when he realized I was leaving for three weeks.
“The place won’t be the same without you,” he’d said a few nights ago as we stood in his living room, his pale green eyes big and turned down at the corners.
I get a sick flash of guilt, but I’m not sure if it’s caused by my memory of John that night or the way I’m now trying to push it out of my head.
“Signorina, Francesco…here…for you,” the hotel concierge says in halting English, with a heavy Italian accent.
“Yes…sì…grazie,” I mumble into the phone, knocking over the bottle of my Fendi perfume in my nervous state.
“You smell fine,” Lindsey says from the bed, where she has patiently counseled me through the difficult decision of whether to apply more perfume. I love her for this and for dropping the topic of John. “You look fine, too.”
I fuss with my hair in the mirror. “Are you sure?”
“Positive. Do you have MILK?”
I check my purse—Money, ID, Lipstick, Keys. “Yep.”
“So, go already.” She rises from the bed and, collecting her purse, yells, “Kat, let’s go!” in the direction of the bathroom.
“Two minutes,” Kat says, and Lindsey sits back down. We both know that Kat’s two minutes are more like twenty.
I inhale deeply, as I’d been taught to do in one of my self-help books. I imagine that these inhalations bring the desired calming effect. “Here I go.”
I take only three steps before it hits me.
“What am I doing?” I ask Lindsey. “What am I doing to John?”
She gives me a very long, very pointed look, during which I regret the question and fear she’s going to set me straight. So straight that I won’t be able to live with myself if I go out with Francesco. A moment goes by, then another.
Finally, she says, “You’re not doing anything to John. You’re going out for a drink with a nice Italian boy, which was what you wanted to do so desperately an hour ago.”
Neither of us acknowledges the cutting side to her supposedly light remark. Another silence. The phone rings again. Saved, I think, snatching it.
“Francesco…here…for you,” the concierge repeats.
“I’ll be right there.” I enunciate the words for fear Francesco will leave, yet I don’t move for the door.
“Go,” Lindsey says, and she actually gives me a wink.
The tiny elevator, which usually takes an eternity to run from the third floor to the first, brings me to the lobby in record time. I’m trying to catch a glimpse of my hair in the reflection of the metal doors when they open. Francesco, dressed in tan pants and a silky white shirt that probably came from his fashionable sisters in Milan, is conversing with the concierge in what appears to be rapid, raucous Italian. They gesticulate, shrug and nod all at once, as only Italians can do. Their conversation comes to an abrupt halt as I approach the desk with what I hope is a nonchalant, I-do-this-all-the-time look on my face.
Francesco turns to me. His hair is still wet, the black waves shiny, lying close to his head. “You look beautiful,” he says, drawing out the last word so that it sounds like “bee-yootee-ful.”
“Thank you. Grazie,” I say, surprised to hear my own voice coming out demure, even more surprised to find myself dipping my head in sort of a bow. I’m not usually a demure woman. This is some redheaded-stepchild part of myself I have yet to meet. It makes me wonder if she has other relatives that are usually kept in the basement, away from the guests.
If Francesco drove his scooter in a meandering way yesterday, tonight he’s in a full-steam-ahead race. I clutch him around his middle as we speed along the cobblestone streets of Rome. Charming enough to stroll down, but hell on the ass if you’re the second person on a one-man moped. I’d tried not to touch him. I tried to simply place my palms on some Switzerland-like neutral area of his body, but the dangerous speed and the bumpy effect of the cobblestones made this full-body grip from behind a requirement. So now, my breasts lie on his back, my hands hold tight to his waist. He feels so different from John who is softer and certainly not as reckless.
As the scooter hugs a particularly curved street, both of us leaning to one side, I’m sure we’re about to crash. One part of me wants to yell at Francesco to slow down, and either take it easy or take me back to the hotel and forget he ever met me. At the same time, I’m exhilarated to the point of wanting to throw my head back, like some sappy character in a romantic comedy.
I can feel Francesco’s taut, lean stomach muscles under my fingers. I clasp my hands together, one over the other, to stop the sudden, random urge to let them migrate lower. The scooter jostles over a pothole and the side of my hand nicks Francesco’s belt buckle.
“Okay?” Francesco shouts over his shoulder. “You okay?”
“Fine. Bene,” I yell into the wind.
We speed down the Corso, past grand hotels and designer boutiques. The city isn’t as crowded as it normally is because some of its residents have left on holiday already. Still, the sidewalks are relatively packed with couples, families out for a stroll, and bunches of tourists.
Francesco stops for a light. “You see there? You see this bank?” he says, pointing to a solid, stone building with an ATM machine outside. “This is where Mussolini was hung.”
“Oh.” I’m imagining Mussolini dangling from a rope, his bald head at a sharp angle, when Francesco guns the bike. I seize him around the waist again.
After a minute, we putter to a stop at a neighborhood grocer. “Un momento,” Francesco says, untangling himself from my limbs.
He disappears into the shop. I attempt to lean against the parked scooter in a feminine James Dean kind of slouch, but the damn thing starts to tip over. I scramble to upright it, grabbing the handlebars and pulling with all my strength, which, admittedly, isn’t what it used to be. I finally succeed in straightening the thing, and I’m searching for the kickstand when Francesco returns, brown bag in hand, a bottle of wine peeking out.
“Trouble?” he asks, dark eyes laughing.
He relieves me of the handlebars and adjusts the kickstand without looking down.
“You are perspiring,” he says in a matter-of-fact voice.
Mortification makes me mute. Of course I’m perspiring. Between the ninety-degree heat, the damned black shirt, Francesco’s proximity and my grapple with the bike, I’m a sweating mess.
“I will be back.” He places the bag on the street and returns to the store.
I stand by the scooter, mopping my forehead with my hand. Breathe, I tell myself. Breathe.
Francesco returns with a fistful of napkins.
“Let us see what we can do.” He says this in a low voice as he gently starts dabbing at my cheeks, temples and collarbone with the napkins. I am paralyzed with embarrassment, my arms hanging limp at my sides. I feel my face become a deeper shade of fuchsia, and my heart beats like a rabbit’s, making me sweat all the more. Francesco doesn’t seem to notice. He keeps dabbing me with a light touch, like an artist sponge painting.
“Now,” he says after a minute. “You have to remove this. It is too warm.” With slow hands he slips my camouflage shirt from my shoulders.
Francesco’s face is only inches from mine, and when I look, he’s staring directly into my eyes. I return his gaze, unable to turn away.
I am undeniably cooler without the shirt, but I feel bare in more ways than one. John and I don’t really baby each other, at least not lately. We take care of ourselves—we go to school or work, we pay our own rents, buy our own groceries and clothes—and when it’s all done, we spend time together. Being pampered like this leaves me exposed, my nerve endings jangling.
Francesco takes a step back and looks me up and down with a quick, appraising glance. “Now,” he says with a nod, “you are better.”
And he’s right.
Francesco and I are on the road again, and this stretch seems more comfortable. I feel lighter now that my black shirt is tied around my waist. My mind seems lighter, too, though I still have my arms wrapped around Francesco, anticipating a possible collision. I’m all too aware of my breasts pushing against his back as the scooter stops briefly at a corner.
I turn my head to the side, and without letting myself think about it, I rest it against his shoulder. The scooter starts to fly again, and Rome whizzes by—myriad fountains, marble statues, larger-than-life doors with gigantic handles, streets that look like alleys. Neon lights blaze from the trattorias and bars, illuminating the history of the place.
The rigidity that has settled in my bones and head over the last year seems to thaw a bit. Yet with the thaw comes an army of questions from some unused corner of my brain. What about John? Will you tell him about this little excursion, this man you are hugging? What happens when you get back, when you have to start work, when you can no longer escape the world? I lift my head and let the wind snarl my hair around my face, trying to forget these questions, the ones with rifles in hand that are waiting to fire holes in my flimsy curtain of contentment.
It pisses me off that my good feelings are so fleeting, so damned hard to hold on to. Like so many of the other uncontrollable parts of my life, I have little mastery over my emotions. Lately, it’s been even worse than usual. I’ll find myself in a situation where I should be ecstatically happy—my law school graduation, for example—and yet, inexplicably, I can’t match my mood to the circumstances.
My parents threw a party for me after the ceremony at the apartment of one of their friends, a place with a rooftop deck and a view of Wrigley Field. My family was there—my little brother, Danny, who as a college sophomore is not so little anymore, and a handful of cousins and aunts and uncles. Kat and Sin were there for a while, too, spending most of their time fending off Danny and one of his friends, both of whom had made too many visits to the beer cooler. I was touched that my girlfriends had made it, especially Kat, who normally worked Sundays.
The sun was out. There was a game at Wrigley, so we could hear occasional surges in the noise of the crowd. It was hypothetically perfect, but the tension between my parents was thick as they circled the party like planets at opposite ends of the solar system. John hadn’t shown up yet. He’d already missed the graduation ceremony because of some technology merger he was working on, yet he’d assured me over the phone that he’d be there for the party. “Right there at your side,” was how he put it. But he wasn’t. As the party swirled around me, I felt incredibly alone. I drank more champagne, but couldn’t get a buzz. I tried listening to my uncle’s advice about office politics, but it just depressed me further. I wanted nothing more than to flee. Instead, I resigned myself to sitting at a table piled with gifts and plates of food.
“We are almost there,” Francesco says now, as he slows for a stop sign. He throws me a smile over his shoulder, and I notice how white his teeth are against the improbable pink of his lips.
“Great,” I say, pushing away all the memories and squeezing him tighter because I’ve suddenly discovered a day, or at least a night, that I want to stick around for.
I feel a flash of wariness as we slow down again and pull into the circular drive surrounding the Colosseum. The actual Colosseum. This massive, ancient auditorium, a popular tourist destination by day, is now completely deserted and locked up for the night.
Gravel crunches as Francesco maneuvers around the back of the place. He stops, and an eerie quiet descends as the chugging of the bike dies. The only sounds I hear are the revs of the spitfire Italian cars hundreds of yards away. Francesco busies himself, gathering random items from the basket on the front of his scooter. I see a blanket, the wine and bread he recently purchased, another bag.
“Come,” he says, gesturing.
“Come where?” A nervous giggle escapes my mouth.
“Come,” he repeats with a grin. He turns away, walking with his arms full.
“Francesco,” I call after him. “What are we doing?”
He gives me an exasperated look. “We are having a picnic,” he says, as if this were the most normal thing in the world.
“Um…okay, but where? It’s almost ten o’clock at night.”
He turns again and keeps moving until he reaches an arched entrance protected by medieval-looking prison-style bars that are driven into the ground.
I follow with tentative steps, feeling as if I should tiptoe. Is this legal?
Francesco drops to his knees, the blanket and bags at his side. He grasps two of the bars, shakes and jiggles them with practiced movements of his arms, and miraculously slides them upward. He stands, holding the bars up about four feet.
“This way.” He gestures with his head toward the opening he’s created.
I do as he says, and duck under the bars. Francesco kicks the blanket and the two bags in after me, then scoots inside with one graceful movement. The bars make a violent clang as he lets them fall.
I jump. “Will we be able to get out?”
“Of course.” He gathers the bags, hands me the sack with the wine and takes my elbow. “It is okay.”
I glance around. We’re in some sort of anteroom, a dank place with a trodden dirt floor. Across the way, a long, dark hallway stretches into the building. I look back at Francesco, ready to ask him exactly where we’re going to have this picnic, but he leans in and kisses me. Not on the lips or even on my cheek, but on my forehead. The gesture is simple, tender. I close my eyes and breathe in his scent from the crook of his neck, a woodsy, chocolatey smell.
He takes my hand, leading me down the hallway in silence.
The hall opens up, and as we keep walking, the sky seems to open above us. I realize we’re at the edge of a round pit, the very center of the Colosseum. Francesco stops, drops my hand and spreads the blanket on the ground. He kneels on it and starts to lift things out of the sacks—wine, bread, a tomato, a chunk of hard white cheese and two squat glasses—the kind that Americans use to rinse their mouths after brushing and Italians use for wine. He uncorks the bottle and pours a dark maroon wine into the glasses. Out of his pocket, he withdraws a small knife and cuts off neat triangles of cheese, using one of the brown paper bags as a plate.
He sets the knife down and raises both of the half-full glasses, holding one of them out to me. “Salute,” he says, the customary Italian toast. “To tonight.”
I sink to my knees and, taking the glass, I touch it to his, making a pleasant clink. I take a sip and feel the wine warming my insides, loosening me again. He offers a piece of cheese, and I take it because although I’m not hungry, I want something else to do with my hands.
“How did you know how to get in here?” I ask.
Francesco shrugs. He keeps cutting the cheese and tomato, breaking off chunks of bread, offering them to me.
I rest one hand behind me on the blanket, sipping the warm, spicy wine. The only light in the place is from the stars and the streetlights peeking through the stone arches. As I look around, it strikes me that thousands of people have died here. Thousands more have enjoyed themselves, watching the festivities, reveling in the prime of their lives. And they’re all long gone.
I suppose that this is the prime of my own life, although until tonight it hasn’t felt like the prime of anything. The days and months have raced by me like a high-speed train, making everything vague and fuzzy.
Francesco moves behind me. I can sense him coming closer, and I lose the air in my lungs.
He spreads his legs around me, sheltering me, and I feel the gentle weight of his breath as he speaks into my ear. “Lean back.”
I allow my rigid back to decline like a beach chair a few degrees, but I land in an awkward position, my head against his chest, my legs too far forward. He touches my hips, urging me back until I fold into him, nearly cheek to cheek now, with the back of my head resting on his shoulder. He keeps his hands on my hips. I feel my blood pulsing there.
Francesco’s earlier reluctance to tell me how he knows the way in here makes me suspect that this scene is from a well-worn bag of tricks, and I wonder what’s next. I remind myself that this is probably where he takes all the foreign girls he picks up, but my warning does no good. I’m still enthralled with this place, with his breath in my ear.
We sit like that awhile, Francesco doing nothing except supporting my body. My lungs start working again. I relax, but I’m intensely conscious of his arms around me, his chin grazing my ear.
Then he tightens his arms and I think, here it is, the come-on from Francesco I’ve been expecting since last night. His breath grows even heavier in my ear. I can’t decide whether to run or return the gesture, lost somewhere in the purgatory between sheer panic and complete acceptance.
I don’t consciously decide to do anything, but then I’m turning my head toward Francesco’s so my ear pushes against his mouth. I hear him whisper Italian phrases I can’t understand.
I feel my own breath catching in my throat, and then I feel a kind of melting. My uptight, button-up, worry-about-everything persona that I’ve been wearing like a cloak dissolves, and for a moment, I feel like someone I barely recall, someone I desperately want back.
Francesco nuzzles my cheek, my ears, my neck. My awareness has grown so acute now that I imagine I can feel my lashes resting on the soft skin under my eyes. My mouth opens in an O. I arch back into his hips, his mouth. I haven’t felt like this in so, so, so long. When was the last time? I hazily search my memory in that small cabinet of my mind where this feeling was filed away years ago. Did I ever feel this way with John? John is like a comfortable old flannel shirt that you love to put on in the winter. But this—this is a black silk shawl, clinging to my bare shoulders.
I hear a moan escape my lips, and it startles me. Some force flows out of me, turning my body over, pushing Francesco’s shoulders until he lies flat on the ground. Our tongues and lips clash, soft groans from both of us, low gasps of Italian words from him, hands searching. Our bodies roll on the thin blanket that covers the hard ground.
I lose my sense of time, and it’s bliss. Sharp and clear, as if everything in my life has stopped and focused on this instant.
After what may have been twenty minutes, or two hours, our faces separate, our eyes lock.
“Thank you,” I say, because even if this was part of Francesco’s frequently utilized seduction repertoire, he’s given me a momentary peace, a sliver of life.
“Bella, bella,” Francesco says, holding my eyes. “You are beautiful, but you do not know.” He laughs. “And you make me tired.”
He falls back on the blanket. I lean over him, turning my head and placing my temple on his chest where his shirt has become unbuttoned. The tawny, tanned skin of his stomach rises and falls, trying to catch up.
I fall asleep with his shirt clenched in my fist.
I feel simmering heat and roll over to escape it. So hard. The bed is so hard.
“John,” I murmur, reaching for his hair, which I always tousle in the morning. But I’m greeted by thick waves, not John’s smooth, thinning locks.
As I sit up, my back screams in pain. Everything is foggy. I awaken a little more, realizing that my contacts are gripping my eyeballs like hubcaps on tires. I blink rapidly to dispel the haze…and it all comes back in a sharp second. Italy, Rome, Francesco, who is still in the throes of sleep, limbs outstretched, face turned to one side, mouth partly open. To me, there’s nothing more adorable than a sleeping man, stripped of all the society-taught, sports-induced toughness.
I study him, comparing Francesco’s posture to the way John sleeps, always on his side in a tight fetal-like ball. John never moves, with the exception of one hand that always seeks me out, no matter where my erratic positioning takes me.
The irony of it hits me then. I’m thinking of John while I’m sitting here, clothes askew, gazing at a near stranger who I spent the night with. I remind myself that I didn’t “spend the night” with him as in a euphemism for sex. There was no intercourse, nothing even close, really. It was more of a combination roll and grope, but my memories of it make me blush.
It’s not that John isn’t tender or considerate. He’s both of those things. He’s even quite well-endowed. It’s just that sex has become, for lack of a better word, routine. It’s like watching a favorite movie over and over. The first few times, you think, Oh! Here comes the good part! I love this part. After a while, though, you know exactly what’s about to happen down to the minute details, and it doesn’t particularly excite you anymore, but you watch anyway because there’s nothing better on. I’m sure that I’m as much to blame as John is. Lately, I just haven’t felt sexual enough to try and break out of it. Yet now I have these feelings from last night. I’d almost forgotten it could be like that.
I stretch and look around me. Sun streams through the eastern arches of the Colosseum and over the raw, broken pieces of the upper rim. Our blanket is twisted beneath us, the cheese congealing, the disks of bread hard.
I glance at my watch. Christ, it’s 5:40 in the morning, and I was supposed to be at the room by midnight. Kat and Sin will be asleep, but still, I need to get back.
I nudge Francesco, clearing my throat to make some sound. What if he’s one of those people who wakes with a start—confused and angry? But no. He brings his hand to his head and groans. His eyes open slowly, like a man with nowhere to be and no commitments.
“Buon giorno, bella,” he says, fixing his lazy, lidded eyes on me with the look of a cat who’s gotten in the bird cage and plans to stay.
He pulls me to him and into another kiss. My instincts are to fight it, because John and I have an agreement to always brush our teeth before an a.m. kiss, but Francesco seems to have no such requirement. His tongue seeks mine again, his hands roam, but I keep seeing John curled in his bed.
“Francesco,” I say, gently pushing his chest with an open hand. “I can’t.”
“Okay. It’s okay.” He moves a strand of hair that’s hiding my eyes. He gazes at me, and I feel myself being drawn, pulled back to him. I want to be all over him, but my thoughts of John are stubborn in the harsh light of day.
I don’t explain this to Francesco. How can I?
“I’ve got to get back,” I say.
A sharp clang comes from our left, followed by muffled Italian. Our heads jerk in the direction of the sound. About three hundred feet away guards in navy-blue are opening the largest gated entrance.
Francesco jumps to a crouch, shoving the corked wine bottle, his knife and the errant bread and cheese in the center of the blanket. He gathers the edges and swings the package over his shoulder like a hobo. I’m frantic, tucking my shirt in, smoothing my hair, retrieving my purse.
Francesco grabs my hand. Bending over like soldiers avoiding an attack, we creep away from the guards and toward the gate we entered the night before. As he rattles and raises the bars for our escape, I take one last glance around, and it dawns on me. I finally have a story for the girls.
I slip onto the back of Francesco’s scooter with much more ease than the night before. I rest my head on his back as he darts through early-morning traffic. The city is quieter now than it was in the night, the antiquity more evident as the new sun spotlights the dirt, the film that covers everything, except those pieces lucky enough to be deemed landmarks and restored. Most of the businesses are still shuttered, but we pass a bakery with an open door, and the scent of baking bread wafts into the street.
I squeeze Francesco around the waist. He strokes my hand with his fingers. At a light, he glances over his shoulder with a quick smile, making my stomach bounce like a tennis ball. We take a sharp turn and he grabs my thigh, as if to hold me on the bike. His touch makes me flush again. I adore this part. The part where everything is new and electric, where every syllable, gesture and glance count.
It was that way once with John, wasn’t it? Our meeting two years ago in a smoky bar, packed to the gills, both of us standing directly in front of a band. They were called Beef Express or something like that. One of those names picked at random from the Yellow Pages or the side of a truck. I was watching the band and, at the same time, keeping an eye on the TV airing a college basketball tournament. It was the one sporting event I got enthusiastic about because my alma mater usually kicked ass. Kat was there, too, but she couldn’t have cared less about the game. She’d already met someone.
“Who’re you rooting for?” John asked with a crooked smile that I would later become intimately familiar with. He was cute in a bookish sort of way—cropped light brown hair, washed-out, greenish eyes, a preppy shirt with every button fastened except the very top.
“Indiana. Have to root for the Big Ten.”
“The Big Ten.” He groaned. “You know they’ll choke. They always do.”
“Fuck off,” I said, but with a light, funny tone and a coy smile. I was a great flirt back then. John and I started talking, going head to head on Big Ten basketball versus other conferences, but after a while there was a pause in the conversation. I acted like I didn’t notice and filled the space with an intent look at the game. The band screeched on about bodies burning in a field.
“I’m John,” I heard him say when the song ended with a cymbal’s crash.
I turned to find him stretching out a hand, his crisp blue, button-down shirt turned up at the cuffs. His arm was tan, which surprised me, the hair there golden.
“Casey,” I said, meeting his hand, trying to make sure my handshake was firm, rather than one of those lame, fingers-only shakes.
“What do you do for a living?”
“Northwestern Law School.”
“You’re a law student, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said. He moved closer as a waitress jostled him from behind, and he smelled clean, fresh, as if he’d just showered. “What about you?”
“Lawyer.” He made an embarrassed sort of laugh. “M&A.” And then, as if I might not understand, he added, “Mergers and acquisitions.”
“I know what M&A means,” I said, sounding a little huffy. In reality, I was trying to cover up how daunted I felt to meet someone roughly my age who actually made a living practicing law.
“Sure,” he said, coloring a little. “Sorry.”
“No problem.” I graced him with my best smile. I liked his blushing.
I heard my name being called and turned to see my friend, P.J., another law student, pointing toward the door. “We’re out of here,” he yelled.
P.J., who’d been hanging out with Kat and me for a year by then, gave an exaggerated shrug, as if to say, “Who knows? Who cares?”
I glanced at John. “I guess I’m going.”
“Are you sure? Why don’t you stay for the rest of the game?” He smiled at me, his lips slightly parted, and for some reason, I wanted to lean into them. “I’ll take care of you,” he said in a joking tone.
But I sensed he was serious, and I stayed.
Thinking back on that now, that somewhat self-conscious meeting that led to a smooth transition straight into a relationship, makes it seem even more alien for me to roll into my pensione at 6:00 a.m., all hot and bothered and mascara stained. Yet in a strange way, I’m proud of my current state, because this sordidness smells of sex and lust, and I haven’t had that particular scent for as long as I can remember.
Francesco drops me off in front as the early-morning commuters begin to surface. Their presence doesn’t prevent him from snaking an arm around my waist and drawing me into an extended kiss while he still straddles his bike.
When I finally pull myself away, he says, “I want to show you more special places of Roma. I will come back in a few hours.”
“I can’t.” My voice sounds unconvincing. “I’m sightseeing with my friends.”
“No,” I say, although right now I want nothing more than to spend my last hours in Rome with him.
His brow furrows as if we’re experiencing a language problem.
“I’m taking a train to the coast tonight,” I say, feeling the need to explain. “To Brindisi. And then a boat to Greece.”
“But then you must spend today with me.” He puts a hand to my cheek, a feather touch, and kisses me again.
When I open my eyes, I find myself shrugging and agreeing. The girls will kill me, but I’ll have to kill myself if I don’t see him one more time.
“Eleven o’clock,” Francesco says. “I will be back.” He kisses me once more before he sputters off into the day.
The concierge, a different one from the night before, raises his eyebrows as I burst into the lobby. I give him a quick half smile, feeling undressed and dirty from his leer. Rather than wait for the elevator under his scrutiny, I take the stairs two at a time.
When I open the door, the room feels dark and cool. Kat is sleeping in a little pink T-shirt on top of her sheets. She seems to be without Guiseppe, but one can never be sure where guys are lurking when Kat’s around. Lindsey, though, is wide-awake. She’s sitting on her bed, headphones stuck in her ears, a Scott Turow novel resting on her knees. She’s studying it with intense concentration, as if she’s reading an ancient scroll depicting the hidden tomb of a pharaoh.
“Hi,” I whisper, waving my arms, trying to catch her attention and avoid waking Kat, although the fact is that Kat could sleep through an avalanche.
“Sin,” I say a little louder. “Sorry I’m late.”
I cross the room and stand right next to her, but she won’t look up from her book. She’s ignoring me. I feel my stomach drop.
I despise fights. I suppose it has something to do with the utter lack of conflict in my family. Even now, in the midst of their problems, my parents rarely duke it out. Instead, they stifle, pout, avoid and cry a lot. I guess I just never learned to do confrontation well, which is one of the reasons why I’m so nervous about practicing law. Litigation is inherently confrontational, a world of egos and bullshit and fighting for fighting’s sake. I didn’t really choose to go into it. Instead, it seemed to choose me during my summer associate position, when the firm kept pairing me with the trial group, telling me that my outgoing personality was perfect for it. Maybe, but I’m not well-suited for clashes with friends.
I nudge Lindsey with my knee, and she finally looks up at me, clicking off her Walkman with a punch of her finger.
“Where were you?” she says, her voice hard and demanding, and it hits me that Sin should be the trial lawyer, not me. She’s much better at intimidation and interrogation.
I try to ignore her tone. “I’m so sorry I’m late, but you won’t believe it. It’s the best story. We—”
“You were supposed to meet us here at midnight,” she says, interrupting me. “Last night.”
“I’m really, really sorry.”
She gives a short, bitter laugh that sounds like gunfire.
“We fell asleep,” I say, wanting to make this better, to tell her all about my night, but she shoots me a look that could wither roses.
All at once, my natural inclination to avoid conflict dissipates. She had reason to be worried when I didn’t come home last night, maybe even to be annoyed, but she’s ruining the first honestly good mood I’ve had in months.
“What?” I say, my voice a fierce whisper. “How come Kat gets to pick up every guy from here to Munich, but when I meet one person, you act like the Gestapo?”
Our voices have roused Kat, who sits up on her cot, watching us in silence. I wonder for a second if she heard my comment and is pissed off, but I dismiss the thought. If there’s anyone who hates confrontation more than me, it’s Kat. Like me, she probably gets this trait from her parents. After they divorced, they both kept a room in each of their homes for her, but they were more interested in dating and their careers than they were in Kat. She’d tried to scream and yell, she’d told me. She’d thrown some fantastic tantrums, but the parent of the moment would simply ship her back to the other like a UPS package. Kat doesn’t scream or yell much anymore.
Now she sits on her bed, biting a thumbnail, and I can almost imagine her as a little kid with her thumb in her pretty mouth.
“Well, for one thing,” Sin says, “you have a boyfriend.”
“I’m well aware of that,” I say in a haughty tone. How dare she remind me?
“And for another thing, Kat always comes home when she says she will. She’s around when you need her. She’s a friend.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s just that…” Lindsey stops, pursing her lips as if trying to gather the right words in her mouth. This makes her look like my mother right before she’s about to lay some doozy of a revelation on me, like how she’s started masturbating again after a twenty-year hiatus.
“It’s just that what you did last night,” Sin says, “blowing us off—it’s basically what you’ve been doing for the last two years.”
Her words hit me like a slap. I sense some shred of reality there, but it seems like an overstatement, a gross generalization.
“I’ve never said I’d be somewhere and didn’t show up.”
“No, maybe not like that, but you’ve been avoiding us since you started dating John. You never call. You never have time to go out with us anymore. And when we finally do get together, once in a great while, it’s like you’re not really there. You’re just different. You’re not like you used to be.”
I can’t believe she’s saying this. Maybe I’ve been a little detached lately, but I’ve been studying for a goddamned living. My life hasn’t exactly been a Martha Stewart picnic.
I turn to Kat. “Is that what you think, too?”
“Oh, honey.” She rises to come to me, putting her arm around my shoulders. “It’s just that we wish you were around more. We wish it was like the old days.”
“That’s not fair,” I say, jabbing a finger at Lindsey. “You haven’t been around all that much either, you know.” Lindsey’s been putting in ten-to twelve-hour days and lots of weekends at her ad agency. She wants to make vice president within the next year and be the youngest VP ever.
“That’s true,” she says, “but I’m going to change that. I have to.”
“Well, things will never be exactly like they were in college, and you can’t expect them to be.”
“Maybe it’s not fair, sweetie,” Kat says, “but what Sin’s talking about is true. You’re not the same person we used to know. I mean, I know you’re in there somewhere.” She squeezes my shoulders. “I just haven’t seen you in so long, and when I do get to actually go out with you, it doesn’t seem like you’re having much fun.”
“I had fun last night.” I shake her arms off me.
“It’s okay,” Kat says. “We just miss you.”
I know what she means. I miss me, too, sometimes. I drop my head in my hands.
But as I sit there, some realization dawns. I raise my face. “Wait a minute. You’ve felt like this for two years, and you’ve never said a word?” I’d been a tad mopey for a while, particularly this summer, but they’re talking about two years. The whole time I’ve been dating John.
I leave Kat’s side and walk across the room to the window. Across the way, I see a couple on their terrace reading papers, eating grapefruit.
I turn back to Kat and Sin, sitting side by side. It’s me against them right now, and I hate it.
Kat looks down, then back up at me. Sin shrugs. “We knew you were in love with him.”
“You’re supposed to be my best friends. How can you be pissed off at me for years and not say a word?”
Kat blinks a few times like a stumped contestant on Jeopardy.
“We were just hoping it would go away,” Sin says.
Her words feel like a betrayal. All this time, I keep thinking. All this time they’ve been holding it back. We used to be the kind of friends who said anything and everything to each other, the minute the thought occurred to us.
“Hideous,” Kat would say when I came down the stairs of the sorority house in one of my slutty outfits. “At least take off the fuck-me pumps.”
And Sin didn’t know the meaning of holding back, which was something I’d come to love about her. It was Sin who helped me decide on what law school to attend. I’d narrowed it down to Northwestern or Harvard. I was enamored by the thought of Harvard Law School. I liked simply saying those words, and I imagined the tingle I’d get every time I told someone, “Yes, I attend Harvard. Harvard Law School.” I’d only gotten in because my father’s boss was an alum who happened to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, but that didn’t bother me. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to move to Boston.
I was debating the subject one night about a month before our college graduation. Sin listened to my list of pros and cons for about ten seconds before she held up her hand and said, “You’re not the Harvard Law type.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I sat back and crossed my arms.
“C’mon,” she said. “Harvard Law is Birkenstocks and environmental activism and people whose ancestors went there before them. You’re not about that. You’re…” She threw her hands up. “You’re Steve Maddens and aerosol hair spray, and you’re the first person in your family to go to law school.”
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