The following essay was a Modern Love submission that was rejected. I heard the editor was looking for more humor pieces so I gave it a shot. I didn’t do anything with it for about a year and then entered it in Solas awards for Best Travel Writing. It just received an honorable mention. I thought you might enjoy reading it and I’ve added some photos.
No Age In Love
The first time a new widow has sex will probably be memorable. When it’s in Milan with a beautiful waiter, sixteen years her junior, it is indelible.
My friend Jeanne and I boarded the plane in Philly and would spend three weeks traveling the boot from top to bottom. Neal, my husband, was supposed to be my companion. He wanted to introduce me to his favorite country. His death, six months before, changed everything. Life without him was so unbearable I often wished for an accident or terminal illness of my own.
“Aren’t you excited?” Jeanne said, as the plane took off.
“I hope we plummet into the ocean,” I mumbled as I looked out the window and it was then that given my desire to buy the farm, Jeanne realized separate planes might’ve been prudent. She internally acknowledged her risk of becoming collateral damage.
On our first night the hotel concierge booked a table at a swanky restaurant. It was an effort to put on mascara. I wore sensible shoes.
“Our waiter’s flirting with you.”
“Please, I could’ve given birth to him. I mean, if I were a slutty fifteen-year-old,” I said, discretely tucking my clodhoppers further under the seat.
When he returned to our table I asked, “Were you smiling at me because I mispronounced the dish?”
“No. I was smiling because you’re a gorgeous woman.”
Jeanne grinned which prompted me to remind her of the facts. He was a handsome waiter in Italy. It was his job to flirt with middle-aged women.
When he deposited the check he also included his card. If we needed anything during our trip, we shouldn’t hesitate to call. As we walked back to our hotel, my friend repeatedly suggested I phone. After a couple of drinks at the hotel bar, beyond the bottle of wine we shared with dinner, I was properly liquored-up and I did. Salvatore invited me for a nightcap and I quickly changed into preposterous shoes, put on makeup and fixed my hair.
Entering the pub a few blocks from the hotel, I came to my senses. Surveying the crowd it was apparent that the only appropriate role for someone my age was as a chaperone to rowdy high school kids traveling abroad. Feeling foolish I turned to leave and there he was.
“Bella, let me get you a drink.”
Perhaps it was his unlined and glorious face or the impeccably tailored clothing that hugged his long lean frame but one drink became two and an hour passed as we sat on the patio and chatted. A light rain began in what was surely a cue that our evening should end and Salvatore ceremoniously opened his umbrella, placed his arm around my waist and pulled me closer to him and the protection of cover (of course he did).
“May I drive you to your hotel?” he asked.
“No. You can take me to your place.”
The next morning I expected the sick feeling to hit, one that occurred when a monumental mistake of the floozy variety was made. It never did. That night was like an IV drip of narcotics after months of acute appendicitis. I planned to exchange airy “ciaos,” the requisite cheek kisses and proceed to day two of the vacation with the big event being “The Last Supper.” Instead, a second evening with Salvatore followed. “Some widows drink to numb the pain,” I told myself, “I have sex with random waiters in foreign countries.”
The clear conscious was brief, though, as even an agnostic should not forget she’s in the land of saints and popes. As Jeanne and I waited for the train to Florence I noticed a group of people staring at my diamond and ruby wedding band. When we squeezed aboard the overcrowded, standing-room only car they did, too. The next hour we were surrounded by a band of professional pickpockets who strategically, with feigned casualness, placed their hands on our suitcases and handbags as the train bumped along. We eventually locked ourselves in the lavatory, removed all jewelry and buried our wallets deep in our American-sized luggage. I winced at the reminder of my marriage as I slid the ring off and then glanced in the mirror. I was sweating like a criminal.
“A stolen wedding ring seems appropriate,” I thought, yet was also relieved to see that Jeanne—who started the day with her naturally curly hair straightened like a board—was equally sodden and had morphed into Chaka Khan.
Arriving in Florence I had several missed calls from Salvatore. As I imagined our interlude was complete it was confusing and I called him back. “I’ll come to Firenze, if you want,” he suggested, and I did. Later that afternoon while sightseeing my lips began tingling. I asked Jeanne (a nurse) if she noticed anything unusual about my mouth. “Nope, looks normal to me,” she said as we began to climb the 463 steps of the Duomo. At the halfway point we were breathing hard and I was certain I felt my lips bouncing. Once at the top I turned towards my friend and she jumped. I was having some sort of allergic reaction as my lips and tongue were swollen and my limbs were covered with walnut sized welts. Running down the steps to find a pharmacy for the Italian equivalent of Benadryl I asked for directions from a tour guide.
“Pharma-see-uh?” I gasped, as my throat tightened.
“It’s pharma-CHI-uh,” Jeanne corrected, in what had to be a shout out to her Italian heritage. Obviously, even when things were dire, proper pronunciation was paramount. We eventually called the hotel doctor who gave me a shot of medication which quickly began working. My lips no longer brushed against the tip of my nose and end of my chin. The doctor asked what I was allergic to and I told her to my knowledge, nothing.
“This isn’t nothing,” she said tersely.
She was correct and I concluded it was the pox of the merry widow.
Later that evening Jeanne casually mentioned that for someone who wanted to die I certainly rushed to the pharmacy. I rolled my eyes and stated the obvious: I didn’t want to die a heinous death, gasping for air with a gargantuan tongue and distorted face. She could be such a stickler.
The next day I called Salvatore and told him Florence was out. My face was puffy and I’d spent too much time thinking about him. What began as an escape from grief had transitioned into something more complex. I’d started to care. The futility of a relationship with a much younger man and guaranteed hurt when it ended—and I knew it would end–had snapped me into survival mode, a place where any potential pain was to be identified and avoided.
“It was fun! Arrivederci!” was my new attitude.
Salvatore was not so flippant.
“I want to see you again,” he repeated during multiple calls and by the time we arrived in Rome it was, “I must see you.”
Determined to erase our encounter, Jeanne and I filled our days with all Rome offered and my amnesia appeared acute until we reached the Vatican. I planned to light a candle in memory of my very Catholic husband even though his upbringing, which included daily mass as an alter boy, seemed like serious overkill. In his eyes my dogma-free childhood was parental neglect but I often pointed out the residual effect: I wasn’t ruled by shame. He usually countered that a little contrition never hurt anyone and as I walked through Saint Peter’s Basilica, surrounded by tangible icons of good versus evil, I flashed back to my indiscretion. It was as if the environment pulled it from where it was buried in my brain and I wondered how many “Hail Marys” a priest might assign me.
My susceptibility to vicarious Catholic guilt was horrifying.
As we moved south the opportunity to meet faded. By the time we were in Sorrento and soon headed back to the States I knew the memories of my vacation fling would quickly wane.
Salvatore had a different plan.
He called regularly and our conversations would end with him asking me to return or allow him to visit. I would point out the obstacles of geography and age and he would reply, “Bella, there is no age in love.”
We became friends on Facebook and I watched as he opened his own restaurant. He invited me to the opening night party but I declined. In the event photos lovely, dewy girls surrounded him and although we’d never talked about anyone we were dating, his options seemed greater than mine.
“You belong with someone your age,” I told him.
“Every man in my family marries an older woman,” he said. “My mother is older than my father, my brother’s wife is older. It’s what we do.”
Although I wanted to believe there was a genetic marker portending a happy life for us, I doubted the scientific backing of our May/December pairing.
But, much can change in five years and I gradually became stronger–the ache of loss transitioned into gratitude for what I once had. I was ready to take risks and when Jeanne announced plans for her upcoming wedding in Tuscany I knew I would see Salvatore. I even daydreamed about living in Italy part time, but didn’t share my impending visit. He’d been disappointed more than once with tentative plans made in moments of weakness or too much wine that always dissolved when I came to my senses.
I visited his Facebook page daily and allowed myself to recall touching his taut stomach and the feel of his legs entwined with mine as we talked. I didn’t worry that he’d grown even more attractive, while that same stretch might not have been as kind to me. During one of those times there were new photos of Salvatore that reflected a palpable bliss.
He had gotten married.
His bride wore a white lace gown that hugged her lithe, narrow frame. Salvatore held her against him while they danced, so perfect they could’ve been on the cover of a bridal magazine. He would have the life he deserved with a partner his own age and the children I knew he wanted. I would never forget those two nights that soothed my pain but there would be no reunion for us, only friendship.
I don’t agree with Salvatore. There is absolutely an age in love. He was exactly where he belonged and finally, after five rough years, I knew I was, too.
“We all become explorers during our first few days in a new city, or a new love affair.” Mignon McLaughlin