Seven Years Since The MotelbyLettersFromTatyana©
This is an edited version of the original chapter. I made quite a few minor alterations to the text, but resisted making major changes. As a result, the chapter is still rather wordy in places.
I should also warn you that there is a long build up over the story (hey, it's romance), so no sex in this installment.
Alessandro drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair as he glanced around. Flat panel TVs, leather armchairs, and oversized, modern light fixtures dominated the room. However, his near-constant squirming on the stiff leather beneath him proved that the designers had not paid nearly as much attention to comfort as they had to appearances.
Not that he was complaining. The seats here were far more comfortable than those in the main terminal.
No one else in the room seemed to mind, either. After countless hours in similar rooms across the globe, he had reached the cynical conclusion that a first class airport lounge had the potential to bring out the ostentatious side of a nun. Women opened and closed their flashy designer handbags with blatant flicks of their wrists, no doubt hoping the overhead lighting would send rainbows flying from their jewels. Men's voices dominated the room as they spoke into their Blackberries, citing accounts with well-known companies while directing their assistants to set up meetings and calls. Both groups tried to appear as though they were carrying on as usual, but as he observed them, Alessandro could see each of them scanning the room to check out their competition.
Of course, not everyone was obnoxious. He'd spent the majority of his time eavesdropping on a nearby family. The siblings' teasing dynamic and the parents' playful banter reminded him of his own family, when he, his parents, and sisters had been in rooms like these on trips to visit his father's family in Italy. They'd had nothing but books and a deck of cards for entertainment, but they'd always enjoyed themselves. In fact, simple, playful moments in rooms like these were among his strongest and most cherished family vacation memories.
He smiled as he realized that at this time tomorrow, he'd be with his family. Unfortunately, he still had a flight to get through, and more time to spend in the lounge.
Thirty minutes earlier he had made a beeline to an empty seat in the corner. He had hoped that the location would keep him away from prying eyes and conversation, and thus far, his assessment had proved correct. True, the middle-aged woman across from him kept trying to catch his eye, but he could tell that she had no idea who he was. To her and everyone else in the room, he was just a well-built man in his mid-twenties wearing Puma sneakers, designer jeans, a fitted t-shirt with a vaguely familiar logo on it, and a ratty old baseball cap.
It wasn't that he minded granting the occasional autograph or photo request; he was flattered to think that his signature or a smile could make a fan's day. How many people are able to make someone else happy in just a few seconds?
He just didn't like being fawned over, as if he were some sort of god. He had been attracting increasing amounts of attention over the past several years, and found it mystifying. After all, he was nothing special; he mattered very little in the grand scheme of the world. Why weren't people fawning over the scientists who made wonder drugs, or soup kitchen workers, or soldiers or aid workers? Their work was vital, much more important than his. He was just a normal person, one who happened to have a career in an ever-brightening spotlight.
A voice from his left startled him out of his thoughts.
"Mr. Conti, sir? If you would come this way, please?"
Alessandro looked up into the face of the airline agent, and smiled. The man was there to lead him from the lounge through Rome's Fiumicino airport to the gate for his morning flight.
Alessandro stood and followed the agent, listening to the man's opinions on everything from the weather to the Prime Minister as they made their way to the gate. "Ah, here we are. Your plane, Mr. Conti... oh, no," the agent gasped.
Even without the man's gasp, Alessandro would have known that there was a problem. He and the airline had agreed that he would board last, so that no one would see him as they filed past the first class cabin on the way to their seats. However, the gate was still packed with people. They had started boarding only moments ago.
"There must have been a mechanical problem of some kind with the plane, Mr. Conti—they were supposed to all be on board by now. I don't know what happened." The man gestured to the passengers at the gate as he prattled on in Italian. "Would you like me to take you back to the lounge? And collect you when the plane is full?"
Alessandro shifted his carry-on bag on his shoulder as he glanced around. Returning to the lounge wasn't an option. While he didn't think he was anyone to write home about meeting, people in the lounge might think otherwise, especially after seeing an agent escort him out of the room; even if they didn't recognize him at first, some inquisitive passengers might begin to quiz him. Remaining here with the agent wasn't an option, either; people were beginning to look in their direction, curious to see who had a private escort through the airport.
No, he should board now with the rest of the first class passengers.
"Uh, no, that's okay. I'll just board now. Thank you so much for your help today. I really appreciate it, and it was a pleasure talking with you." Alessandro smiled as he shook the agent's hand.
"Er, Mr. Conti, sir?"
"Could I, um, could I have your autograph? I saw your movie last year, Gran Premio, and my daughter is a fan. She would be so pleased if, well, if—"
Alessandro smiled. "Sure." He signed the paper the man held out for him and thanked him again before walking down the gangway onto the plane.
It was only after settling into his first class seat that the magnitude of his impending trip hit him. Up until this point, he'd focused on seeing his sisters and parents. But now....
He stared out the airplane window to his right, willing his mind to focus on a slopped splotch of yellow paint on the tarmac. He needed to relax.
He let out a small groan as he turned back to face the seatback in front of him. It was no use. In less than twenty-four hours he'd be in his hometown for the first time in seven years. He fidgeted at the thought, bouncing his left leg up and down, but stopped as he noticed the disapproving look coming from the middle-aged, bearded man who had just sat down to his left.
As Alessandro glanced at his new seatmate out of the corner of his eye, an unexpected wave of relief swept over him. They hadn't taken off yet, and the man had already pulled out a stack of printed journal articles to read.
An academic. Excellent.
Alessandro sent out a silent thanks to the god of airline seating arrangements as he glanced at the name on top of the first article: Journal of Econometrics.
Alessandro didn't know what econometrics was, but he did know that if this academic was anything like his fathers' ivory tower friends, he would be fairly ignorant of pop culture. The man would probably conclude that Alessandro was just some punk kid flying home on daddy's dime. No matter how much that latter thought annoyed Alessandro, he wasn't about to correct him.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Alitalia Flight 614, non-stop service from Rome to Boston. We are expecting a full flight today, and will need all available overhead compartment space to accommodate your carry-on luggage."
The too-cheerful flight attendant rattled off a list of boarding instructions in Italian and then repeated the same announcement in English. Alessandro frowned, his moment of happiness cut short by the reminder of his trip home.
For as long as he could remember he had worked hard to control his emotions, and with practice he had become a master at it. With his job, it was a necessity. He was adept at hiding emotional turmoil behind several masks: deep-in-thought Alessandro, smiling-and-happy Alessandro, intently-listening Alessandro....
But going home? He had no clue how to handle that. Worse, he knew that he would be able to use one of his masks for all of fifteen minutes before his family called him on it; they had always been a close-knit group, and they kept few secrets from one another. He was at a complete loss, and was beginning to panic—an unfamiliar and altogether unwelcome feeling.
Why did facing people he had known his entire life seem so much harder than standing on stage in front of a crowd of strangers?
He shifted in his seat and accidentally splashed some of his water across his tray table, earning another glare from his seatmate.
Smooth, he thought. Real smooth, Alessandro.
As he stared at the water snaking its way across the table, he found himself wondering just what awaited him in his tiny hometown of Stalton Harbor, Maine—winter population: 3,000; summer population: 8,000.
Ever since he had decided to go home he'd been dreaming of a true Maine meal: a big helping of steamers, an ice-cold Portland-brewed beer, new potatoes, one of his mother's late June strawberry-rhubarb pies, and homemade vanilla ice cream. He frowned as he realized he would miss the corn on the cob and blueberry pies that would come later in the summer, but then perked up as he remembered that it was soft-shell lobster season. Those little buggers were just starting to shed their winter coats, and he was more than willing to save them the task of completing new ones.
He closed his eyes and tipped his head back against his chair, imagining consuming his feast on the large front porch of his family's sprawling, shingled, white-washed nineteenth-century Queen Anne cottage, drinking the last of his beer as the setting sun cast purple shadows over the Atlantic.
After eating his fill he would stumble up the stairs, climb into his old wrought-iron bed under one of his great-grandmother's patchwork quilts, and fall asleep to the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks below. When he woke up from what he was sure would be a good night's sleep he would go for a run through the wooded trails that rose up behind the house, and watch as the rising sun greeted the early morning exodus of fishing boats from the harbor.
He would spend the afternoon on the porch, drinking iced tea on his favorite white wicker rocking chair and reading an old book from his father's library, before feasting on local delicacies for dinner and repeating the entire glorious process again.
He might even find time to squeeze in a nap on one of the second floor sleeping porch's hammocks.
By the end of his daydream, his parents' house seemed more relaxing than all of the resorts he had been to in the last few years combined. He was beginning to wonder why he hadn't gone home sooner.
He was roused from these pleasant thoughts by the sound of a young woman's voice.
"Holy shit! You're Alessandro Conti, aren't you? I can't believe it! Alessandro Conti! On my airplane! I can't wait to tell everyone about seeing you—but I doubt they'll believe me. Oh wait, here, use this."
Alessandro looked beyond his confused looking seatmate—who had apparently moved on to an article from the Journal of the American Statistical Association—and up into the face of a young woman.
She looked to be around his age, twenty-six, and was bouncing up and down on her toes while grinning down at him.
She was also holding out her boarding pass in front of his seatmate's nose. It took the wheels in Alessandro's head a bit too long to realize that she wanted an autograph.
His heart sank as he looked beyond her. The line of passengers moving through his first-class cabin had ground to a halt. Worse, about a dozen sets of eyes were focused on him. He could tell that the majority of them had no idea who he was, but... oh no, one of them holding a magazine that had a cover story about his latest film.
He smiled at the woman as he took the pass from her. He chatted with her for several seconds after signing his name, but was relieved when the flight attendant arrived to shoo the passengers along.
So much for flying incognito.
Turning away, he sank low into his seat and focused once again on the tarmac outside. He tried to return to his happy thoughts of home, but he couldn't. Instead, his mind turned to the not-so-pleasant things that awaited him, like the stares he was sure to get.
In some respects, the hometown stares were nothing new. His father was an author, and had won a Pulitzer Prize a couple of dozen years ago. While this face hadn't changed the opinions that anyone in Stalton Harbor held, there were always a few summer tourists who would point and stare at his father, or drive by their house hoping to catch a glimpse. As Alessandro had grown, some of the stares had been directed at him, in a sort of reflected glory.
His mother's family also attracted local attention. In the 1800s her family had been one of the wealthiest to build a summer cottage in Stalton Harbor, which had until that construction boom been home mainly to farmers, fishermen, and shipbuilders. Since that heyday of summers past when Maine had been a popular summer destination for wealthy "Boston Brahmin" families, many of the older families had sold their homes as newer generations proved unable to solve heated ownership arguments or lost the family fortunes. Some of the grand old homes had been turned into B&Bs, resulting in the current harbor-side row of tidy white houses, lipstick pink geraniums, creaky wooden signs, and parking lots full of out-of-state cars. Those that remained private tended to turn over every ten years of so, their ownership and never-ending renovations moving with the tides of new fortunes in Boston.
His parents' home was one of the few exceptions, and in the twenty-seven years since his mother had moved to Stalton Harbor, she had evolved into a local institution of sorts, filling the void left by her deceased yet still beloved grandmother. During the winter her old green Subaru could be spotted at the local library where she volunteered; during the summer her rusty, hideously-purple bike could be seen parked outside the small art gallery she owned and operated.
Being the oldest member of his mother's family had meant taking up the family mantle of unofficial town leadership that had been handed down for generations. It had been a terrifying prospect to him when he was a boy.
He wasn't sure how people in Stalton Harbor would react to him now. He hadn't given it much thought when he booked his flight home, or if he had, he had assumed that they would treat him as they always had. But what if they didn't? A small part of him—the part that always prepared for the worst-case scenario—feared that he would be the subject of stares and awkward autograph requests from people he'd known his entire life.
Alessandro closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to conjure up images of steamers and rocking chairs again. But instead of some sort of idyllic scene he saw a vision of the thing that terrified him most about heading home. More than the stares. More than autograph requests.
He saw the image of Margaret Barnes.
He inhaled sharply, and then let out a short, snorting laugh before stopping and glancing sideways at his seatmate. Luckily, the man hadn't noticed a thing; he was scribbling away on a page filled with Greek letters and complex equations.
Margaret Barnes. Or rather, Maisie Barnes, as he and everyone else had always known her.
Maisie, everyone's favorite girl next door. Quite literally, his girl next door.
Her ancestors had helped found their harbor town, and her extended family dotted the peninsulas and islands that ran along the coastline. Her family farm was one of the last in town, and occupied the land directly to the west of his family home.
Maisie was also the girl—woman now—who had haunted his dreams for months. The dreams since he had broken up with Isabella—one part heaven, one part hell—made it impossible for him to classify Maisie in this, his little game of mental preparation for the week ahead.
Was their meeting something to look forward to, like the ocean-side meals and crisp ocean air runs? Or was it something to dread and prepare for?
Her image flitted across his mind. Much to his annoyance it had developed a habit of doing this, even when he was awake. Usually he did his best to push her out of his mind but this time he pulled her back into his consciousness, allowing his mind's gaze to settle on her.
She was shorter than he, about 5'7". She was thin, but not Isabella thin. His ex, Isabella, was a model. Isabella was strikingly beautiful—dark hair and eyes, and a thin frame that made her look amazing regardless of what she wore—or didn't wear, he thought as he reflected on some of the high points of their long relationship. But Isabella wasn't exactly... feminine. He felt guilty thinking it, even now that they were no longer together. Yes, Isabella had breasts, and yes, she had what he guessed one could call hips. But sometimes she seemed a bit... boyish?
He remembered a costume party where they had run into a man in drag as an Isabella impersonator. Alessandro had done a double take when he saw the faux-Isabella—the face had been a bit off, but their figures had been almost identical. Isabella had thought the entire thing hysterical, and had insisted on a picture that showed Alessandro with an arm draped over each of them. She had dubbed the picture, "Alessandro and his two Isabellas," before giving it a place of honor on their living room mantle.
But Maisie was different. There was no way a man could ever imitate her figure. She had that type of healthful appearance that came from a childhood spent waking up to morning chores on a farm, from the runs she had taken along the rocky coast each afternoon in their youth, and from years of eating what grew on the farm: fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, and cheese from their temperamental yet lovable goats.
He remembered her as she had looked the last time he had seen her, naked and asleep in bed in a cheap motel room. She had had a trim waist, but with a tiny, almost imperceptibly rounded belly that he had adored and worshipped that night, one that had shown that while she may go for a daily run to clear her head, she still enjoyed settling down to an actual meal. She wasn't one to subscribe to Isabella's diet of coffee and cigarettes. Soft, natural, and feminine, that was Maisie.
Her waist had flared out to small but round hips, which in turn melted into long and shapely legs that had still had a hint of teenage coltishness to them on that night. Legs that, for the past month in his dreams, had been wrapped tightly around him, her heels digging into his backside as he moved above her, drinking in the sight of her soft, creamy-white breasts as he pushed into her and she arched under him, as he brought her to the brink of orgasm and then listened as she called out his name....
Alessandro gripped the arms of his seat. He puffed his cheeks out as he let out a breath, trying to relieve the tension coursing through his body. Pushing the not-exactly-airplane-friendly image from his mind, he looked around and noticed that he had missed their takeoff. He shifted in his seat again, hoping no one noticed that his pants were suddenly uncomfortably tight.
Peering next to him, he was relieved to see that his seat mate had tilted his seat back and closed his eyes.
Alessandro turned to look at the clouds, hoping something a bit more... appropriate would enter his head.