tagErotic CouplingsLearning Italian - Lesson 04

Learning Italian - Lesson 04



Tomaso was an hour late to our first meeting. I waited for him in Piazza Cadorna after Italian class and having lunch with Anni. Anni is the only American I've met since moving here. She's younger and funnier and more courageous than I am, and she knows shamefully more than I do about men. She offered on the day I met Tomaso to follow us to whatever café we chose and to watch inconspicuously from a distance to ensure that he did nothing untoward. I imagine her doing this in a fedora and dark glasses from behind a three-day-old copy of Leggo. Declining, I gave her a quick hug (a gesture of affection I think I will always favor) and watched her bound down the steps toward the M2. She has an Italian fidanzato, who happens to be half American. He works a 9-5, and so she and I often kill the afternoon hours together. Not today.

Tomaso had had a meeting with a potential client. The potential client had shown up late. Then the meeting had gone over. Then the 65 tram had failed to appear when and where it should have. I received texts at every stage. I marveled at my own composure. In the same situation back home, I'd have long since been on my merry way. Life in Italy teaches patience.

I quickly discovered what a damned fool thing it was to do to try to meet a person for the first time outside of a train station. Most of the people one encounters outside of a train station appear to be searching strangers' faces for a glimpse of familiarity. I was no exception. But, out of the confusion, Tomaso strode toward me with a purpose. It's strange, but I'm certain I would have known him instinctively if I had seen him first. I smiled. He didn't.

He was annoyed at being late, annoyed with Milan and trams and clients. To be annoiato in Italian is to be bored, weary; not annoyed. To be annoyed is to be infastidito. Looking back, I suppose he was both. Most of the time.

He apologized profusely for having kept me waiting, even between the requisite kisses, and his voice caught me off guard. I don't know what I'd expected. I don't know that I'd expected anything. It was still a novelty to me then, hearing man's voice for the first time only after learning a little about him and arranging to meet. His was lovely. Anyway, I forgave him. I might not have done (I admit it) had he not been as handsome as he is, but, in point of fact, he is terribly handsome. He is also tall and dark; the trifecta. When he realized that I wasn't upset, he relaxed. And then he seemed to be embarrassed by his own demeanor and he smiled in spite of himself. I couldn't take my eyes off of him.

"I haven't been to Triennale in a while," he mused in a manner that suggested he'd like to be at Triennale imminently.

I came to. "I don't know what that is," I admitted.

He was surprised and said, "Well, come on. Let's go."

Incidentally, he might have gone with andiamo. For whatever reason, it is one of the first things I learned.

It wasn't far. The word "Triennale" is stamped all over the metro station at Cadorna to signify to tourists what reason they might have for alighting there, so it stood to reason. A coffee at Triennale is no better than a coffee anywhere else in Italy, but by taking me there, Tomaso proved that he has a certain appreciation for things. He at least has a certain appreciation for the fact that women have a certain appreciation for things. It wasn't about the coffee. It was about the idea of a modern art museum overlooking a sculpture garden. High ceilings and marble floors and white chairs at white tables beneath monstrously large images of American jazz musicians. The bar, situated in the center of the room, looks like an exhibit unto itself.

We spoke of trains. Until recently, we both seemed to have spent our lives missing them. He said that the last great station in Europe is Budapest's; that standing under the departures board there he'd fancied himself at the center of the universe, free to go anywhere he chose.

We spoke of language. He phrased it just the way I had done a hundred times over when he said that if he could do it all again, he would choose to become a linguist. I wondered how he could have known.

In short, we spoke of romance.

It takes no time at all to drink a coffee in Italy, and so our empty cups sat before us for the better part of two hours. I couldn't bring myself to say that I quite liked the sound of his voice for fear that, if I tried, I'd inadvertently begin waxing poetic about distant thunder or the cello's richness. So, instead, I said I liked his accent. He told me it comes from the awful manner of speaking that people carry with them out of Bergamo, the place where he'd grown up and to which he'd only recently returned.

"How long were you away?"

"Just a year. In Berlin."

"The creative collective?"

He laughed. "The home for lost geniuses."

While we demonstrated to one another with what wit and intellect we'd been endowed, he seemed always to be testing me. I relished the challenge. In a chess match that did not actually involve chess, I think we would make worthy adversaries, but when he wanted me to speak Italian, I felt thwarted. "Parlo lentamente," I warned him, "perché scelgo le parole esigentemente." I speak slowly because I choose the words exigently. He laughed because I'd so eloquently, if somewhat peculiarly, stated my incapacity to speak.

The conversation was easy so long as he was on my side of the language barrier. We were lost in it and didn't care to be found, but, at length, I realized that the café was empty except for us.

"I think I have to go," I said suddenly, reaching into my bag for confirmation. I had the sensation that we might have been conversing since the previous Tuesday.

"Penso di dover andare," he corrected. I wasn't listening to the words, but I heard the tone of his voice; softer than before. The voice of disappointment, perhaps.

We had been playing out a scene, rehearsing the roles that had been written for us long before. And the scene ended with that line and with the realization that over the course of an afternoon we had become the characters we were imitating. I looked up at him, and I thought he would say something profound, but he didn't.

It was madness to want to stay.

"Walk me back?" I asked him.

"Of course."

By the time we reached the entrance, I had counted the hours backwards in my mind. I'd have to get back to Como by 19:20. Nine twenty. No. Shit. Seven twenty. That was when the last bus would leave for the village. I'd have to be on a train to Como then by quarter past six. Eighteen o'clock, for fuck's sake. I'd have to be at Cadorna a little before. It was six - no, four thirty. I went off script.

"I can stay."

The immediacy with which he countered, "For how long?" led me to believe he'd been waiting for his cue.

"An hour or so. A little longer." He might have thought I was being coy. "I have to be on a train by eighteen hundred hours."

"You mean six."

"I mean six."

"Great," he said. Improvisation was neither his forte nor mine. He looked around us, at the traffic passing, at the positions of the clouds, at me.

"We can just walk," I offered.

"Yeah, okay."

While we wandered Sempione, he told me about his refusal to wear T-shirts or shorts for fear he'd be mistaken for an American. He told me about coming home to care for a house that would one day be his, a house filled with old magazines and books and German model trains. It was all useless, he said. He couldn't understand the need to accumulate objects. Like me, he'd left home at some point with a single suitcase; the material aspect of his life reduced to some socks and shirts, half a dozen books (at least one with empty pages), some sentimental talisman perhaps, a pair of glasses, a handful of pens, and a laptop. Like me, he'd learned to live without the rest. He didn't want the house or anything in it.

What he wanted was to go back to Berlin.

Twenty-seven days later, he asked me to meet him in Milan. The request was not out of the ordinary. We'd been seeing each other a bit. We'd meet in front of Bar Marinoni and walk somewhere for lunch or a coffee. We'd pass the hours aimlessly when we had nowhere else to be. Once we went back to Sempione and lay in the grass under a tree and talked for a long time about camping equipment. On that day, for no reason at all, I foolishly let myself begin to feel. I found something strangely familiar in his chaste kisses, in the way his arm fit my shoulders.

I was seeing Claudio all the while, editing the documentary, spending long afternoons apart from the world below. Our relationship was developing in reverse from purely sexual to a close friendship (that was nonetheless physical). I smiled whenever I thought of him. I had begun to consider, truly consider, where things might be going.

On a Thursday he climbed the stairs and saw me through the kitchen window where I was chopping ingredients for a simple dinner I'd prepare while we worked. I was wearing yoga pants and a sports bra, and when he came through the door, he scooped me up in his arms and carried me to bed. "You're very sportive today," he said as he peeled away the fitted fabric. This man could make taking off my socks erotic. He proved as much. The sports bra fastened in the front but had two layers. He responded with incredulity to the second.

My nakedness established, he stood back from the bed and stripped out of a black t-shirt and shorts. He hadn't yet caught his breath from the climb when he fell on me, made love to me as though he were starved for it. It had been a week. I was sure he'd been with his architect and probably others besides, but for me he was starving. It was my name he whispered. It was my language he spoke when he told me I was beautiful (not that I would have minded Italian). His forearm was behind my back, cradling me, keeping my body from sliding up on the bed, away from his. And although he was ravenous, he was kind enough to let me go before him. Twice. When he kissed me I thought of our first, of how it had come across as a selfless act. I raised my hips up off the mattress and altruism left the room.

He was himself again after he'd had his way with me. He lay on his back and pulled me into his arms. It had begun to rain. I drifted off for a few minutes, and, when I opened my eyes, he'd located my sports bra and was holding the offending garment at arm's length, trying to figure out how it worked.

"It's a tease," he said, casting it aside. "You're quiet. Tutto bene?"

I propped myself up on my elbows so that we were face to face. He ran his fingers through my freshly mussed locks. "I'm not sure how much I'm supposed to tell you, but I think I'm supposed to tell you..."

He grinned. "You have a new lover?"

I winced. I'd never liked that word. "If I did."

"There are no rules," he said. "You can tell me as much or as little as you want."

"But I should tell you something."

He shrugged.

"Do the others tell you?"

"Yeah. Usually."


"I don't know. When they want." He took my hand the way he had that day on the Viale Geno.

"Do you want to tell me?"

It occurred to me then that there really wasn't much to tell. "His name's Tomaso," seemed a logical place to start anyway.

"What else?"

"I like him," I said aloud for the first time. "I like his voice, especially, which I know is weird."

"You're weird."

"We're both weird." I leaned in to kiss him. "He's not my lover, anyway. He won't be, but I just wondered if you would want to know things."

"I mean, I try to be honest. It works mostly. You know about my other lovers. They know about you. Everybody is sort of aware of the situation."

"Jesus, I haven't told him."

"But he's not your lover, you said, so I think it's okay. Why do you say he won't be?"

"He's leaving Italy."


"I don't know. Soon."




"I don't know!" I buried my face in the pillow to muffle this sudden attack of frustration. "There is something there. Maybe, but I try not to think about it because he is leaving." I punctuated the last three words emphatically. "Lui sta per partire. It would be meaningless."

"It doesn't have to be meaningless."

"It would have to be temporary. I don't want temporary."

"Everything is eventually temporary."

"Can we curb the existentialism?"


"Nevermind." It was absurd, if I thought about it, being there, salty and spent with my head on his shoulder, confessing my repressed desires for another man. "I don't want to pursue something that I know is only going to last a few weeks, at most. He's set on leaving. I'm not going to ask him to stay."

"Berlin isn't so far away."

I knew he was right. About Berlin. "Also, he hates everything," I persisted. "Milan, his job, English grammar, his own accent, the house he grew up in, t-shirts, Dutch tourists, bees..."

"That's a lot of hatred."

"Too much hatred."

"Still, you could—"

"Okay, I'm sorry I brought it up. Let it go," I said, silencing him with kisses. "Anyway, we always meet in Milan because he lives all the way in Bergamo. Where would we do it? Sempione Park?"

He looked at the ceiling and smiled, imagining it. I slipped beneath the covers to reclaim his attention and discovered that I already had it. Dinner and documentaries would wait. We forgot about Tomaso for a while.

For twenty-seven days, there were little messages and rendezvous (pronounced with the 's'), coffees and strolls and unexplored intimacies. On the twenty-seventh, Tomaso met me in the usual place wearing a blue button-down shirt that suited him perfectly and the backpack full of camera equipment he'd need for a shoot that evening. He kissed just one cheek, as had become our custom. He seemed distracted.

He was the only thing quiet about Milan as we weaved through droves of pedestrians along the steaming pavement in search of a bar that might have air conditioning. There wasn't one. We took the last two seats at the end of a long table in a place that used rough plywood as room dividers.

I teased him for ordering a smoothie.

He took all of the sugar packets from a little dish the waitress brought and shuffled them around on the table between us. Something wasn't right. I lay my hands on his wrists, but I didn't say anything. I just waited.

"I'm leaving for Bruxelles on Sunday."

I refused to let it sting. "What about Berlin?"

"Well, yeah, I'm going there, but I got a cheap ticket and a friend's going to host me for a couple of days."

He looked at me then for the first time that afternoon. Maybe for the first time ever.

"Do you want to have kids?" he asked.

I'm not sure why I flinched. I knew the answer to this question. I'd gotten it right three hundred and seventy-four times before. But something about the earnestness in the way that he asked caused me to doubt, caused me to respond, "I don't know."

"Because I feel like I should, you know? I have a lot to give, and I should..." He trailed off and his gaze fell once again upon the sugar. "I don't know what I want."

I clung to composure and resisted the need to assure him that I understood. In essence, I did my best not to be me. He'd wanted to meet me for this; to see my reaction, to know whether it was a mistake to leave me behind. I might have said that it was. I might have shed quiet tears and brushed them away with the backs of my hands. I might simply have admitted that I didn't want him to go. Instead I played the stoic. Instead I read my lines without a hint of true emotion.

"I didn't know what I wanted either. I still don't." I put the sugar packets back into the little dish, took off the bangle bracelets I wore and set them between us. He ignored them. "You have to go," I said.

He nodded.

As he walked me back toward Cadorna, I lamented that we'd never chanced to spend an afternoon in my garden on the lake, conversing about the depth and importance of things.

"Conversations like that never really take place," he assured me.

"When was the last time you had a great conversation?"

"It was a long time ago, and I thought the woman I had it with was the one."

"Are you afraid that if you and I had a great conversation, you'd think the same of me?"

He stopped in his tracks and I turned to him and he looked at me in such a way as to make me think he could see straight into my soul.

"No," he said. We continued on.

We parted ways in the exact place where we met. He kissed my cheek and held me close, and then he let me go.


Two nights later I wrote him a letter I would never dare to send. In it, I confessed to having held back. I wrote that I wished I'd tried harder to convince him to spend a day on the lake and a night alone with me. I wondered if he had been as dishonest with me as I'd been with him. I wanted to think so. I signed off with kind regards.

I dreamt that night he was with me in my room with a view. He stood in the open doorway, staring out over the water, while I pretended to sleep. "This is not a date," he told me when he came to bed. I turned to him with my eyes still closed and wrapped my arms around his neck.

"What is it?"

"Un appuntamento."

"Un appuntamento is between me and my dentista," I argued. I drew my leg along his until my thigh was over his hip. I discovered as I did so that I was wearing jeans. He was down to his underwear. I could feel his cock agonizingly near to where I wanted it. "This is a date."

He kissed me the way he had in Sempione, his lips never parting. His hands were expressive, seductive, a pianist's hands. He pressed his fingers along the length of my spine so that I arched toward him, against the striking solidity of his chest. Clothed, he was unassuming, though broad-shouldered. He had a leanness that hinted at his having been a scrawny kid. Half-naked and in my imagination, he was anything but scrawny. I traced the lines on his stomach with the tips of my fingers and a feminine fascination. His hands moved lower. The depth of his voice made me shudder when he moaned.

I pushed him gently onto his back so that I could be on top of him. Moments and movements were missing, as were words. He grasped at the waistband of my jeans, but I shook my head. His impossibly dark eyes held my gaze as I reached behind and undid the clasp of my bra. I kept the front modestly in place until he took it away.

"Can I compliment you?" he asked. It was a strange question. I shook my head, as I'm wont to do when asked strange questions. He drew me in, lavished on my breasts the kisses he'd denied me, and my body moved against his of its own accord. It was pure sensuality. The kind that might only exist in dreams. He took his time the way I imagine he might have had this ever actually happened. And by the time I felt his hand slip between us, I wanted him desperately.

"We can't," I whispered. Because even in dreams I am often a fool.

"Why not?"

"We don't know what it's like," I said.

He laughed. Somehow I knew he wouldn't have laughed. He would have argued, perhaps, told me it didn't make any sense. He might have thrown his hands in the air and proclaimed that he was the king of not knowing what it's like or some such thing. When, instead, he laughed, the dream ended. I woke in the darkness, reached for him in an empty bed where he had never slept.

And found that I could no longer recall the sound of his voice.

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