[Musical Inspiration: Broad-Shouldered Beasts, Mumford & Sons]
Even in the dark, I spotted Stefano’s loose stance on the platform as my train from Rome pulled into the station. The guys I was used to spending my days with—engineers, lawyers, investors and other entrepreneurs—had more skills than him, for sure, but they didn’t look like that. I’d never mentioned it to John, but then again, why would I?
I jumped off the train and stood on tiptoes to reach around Stefano’s neck. He brushed my curls away from my face and looked at me, as if at a painting, up and down.
“Your hair is like that first summer you came with your family. Little Isabella, who couldn’t reach an octave.”
“I’ll grow it out,” I said. “That’s the point of cutting it: aspiring to long hair.”
He squeezed my hand as we walked to his motorcycle, speaking in Italian.
“Remember how you bailed out on overnight camp with Molly so you could stay? Amazing she forgave you.”
I shrugged, because I really didn’t need to be told what a great friend Molly had been to me.
“Is she coming?” he asked.
“We can’t come to all your parties. I only came because my flight connected through Rome. I was just in Moscow, closing our deal. We sold Quantro. I am now officially unemployed,” I said.
Stefano congratulated me and handed me a helmet as we climbed onto his motorcycle. I clung to his waist as we bumped over cobblestones, buzzing through the mountain and then up his pebble driveway lined with potted lemon trees. We ambled through the double doors, past the marble atrium, to a mahogany dining table surrounded by men in linen pants and women wearing leather shorts and couture mini-dresses. As of Thursday, this life—what John would’ve called “folly”—was finally in my reach.
After I greeted everyone with a kiss, Stefano led me up the grand staircase, tapping balloons tied to the banister.
“Is it true that you’re engaged?” I asked. The question had been burning a hole in my heart ever since Molly had told me the news so many months ago.
“She had to rush home to Portugal. I didn’t mention you were coming.”
“There’s nothing to hide here.” I felt good about the statement, like John might’ve been peeking at us from behind a door.
“I don’t understand you Americans.”
“Try telling her the truth sometime. Clean out your closet.”
“I can’t tell her my secrets; she’s in the local gossip circle. It’s easier to open up to you. Isn’t that the root of our intimacy—the distance between us? Here we are.”
The bedroom was larger than my apartment back in Boston.
“What secrets?” I asked as I plopped onto the King-sized bed and removed from my pocket the stone that I’d found years earlier in the sand, beside Stefano’s sleeping body. He picked it up to glance at it absently before putting it down.
“If you get everything you want before the party starts, you’ll have no reason to stay.” He got up and kissed my forehead. “Be ready by nine.”
An hour later, a live band played club music, while people started streaming in, flipping between lyrical southern European languages and rhythmic northern dialects. John would’ve found their accents an unnecessary complication. He would’ve searched out someone from Frankfurt, or any place they balanced their accounts and the trains ran on time.
I taught one of the bartenders how to mix the perfect martini, but it always tasted better after a day at the office.
When Stefano “accidentally” brushed by, I tried to pry the cigarette from his fingers, but he resisted.
“No, you need food. Look at you.”
I made a face when he pointed to a chicken leg. My big brothers had always grabbed for mine, so I treasured it until, years later, I realized that I didn’t actually like it.
Stefano stared at me, drinking my image with his eyes. When he heard yelling outside, he pulled me out through the French doors, dashed toward the beach, and climbed a rock from which he jumped high up and into the water, holding his nose like a child.
I sat on the sand to unstrap my sandals, then stepped toward the water, which shocked my feet. A wave soaked the edge of my dress, until I finally dove in. When I came up, Stefano was laughing hysterically in a splash cloud. Heads disappeared under the black waves, then popped up again, barely visible under the moonlight. The water cleansed my body, its chill refreshing on my eyelids, its touch pleasing on my skin. Surprises were all over: a wave that was bigger than I expected, my leg grazing a tiny fish, the rough surface of the rocks when I tried to stand, or their absence when I unknowingly edged deeper.
“Your land is beautiful,” a woman said to Stefano.
“It was once a vineyard,” he replied. “My family bought it from an old farmer.”
“Nice of you to support organized crime,” she said.
In the dark, and with his face turned away, Stefano couldn’t tell that I could hear them, but he still wasted no time in rushing to my grandfather’s defense.
“He wasn’t in the mafia. Don’t make assumptions,” he said, his tone uncharacteristically defiant. This was the surprising thing about Stefano, how and why he occasionally turned off his willingness to bend or flow.
After a few minutes, Stefano spotted me and called out for a race, like in the old days, but everything was dark, and there was no clear beginning or end. Unable to recall why those races had always seemed so important, I said maybe later. When my shivering kicked in, I plodded out. I peeled off my dress, dried off, and put on one of the kimonos in a stack on the beach, then moved my stone from my dress pocket to the kimono pocket. Sand oozed up between my toes as I passed the torches on my way toward the patio.
Shedding water and sand, I sat on a bamboo couch and flicked a blue balloon floating beside my head. The string curved and contorted, then straightened out as the balloon returned to its original spot. Music had shifted to solo piano—Debussy—providing the musical equivalence of my moonlit view of the trees by the beach. I knocked my feet into each other and created a pile of sand on the patio floor.
As people in kimonos migrated from the sea to the pool to tell stories, Stefano fell beside me in his shorts, a gold cross hanging on a leather strap around his neck. He leaned over to cover my shoulders with his sweater, drops of water from his hair dripping onto my chest.
“When do you graduate?” I asked.
“The real question is, what’s next. Everyone expects me to go into my grandfather’s business, but that was his success.”
“I get it,” I said. “You need something of your own.”
He shrugged. Making plans and following through, the way John did, was too mundane and unpoetic for him. Thoughts of the future killed the moment.
Stefano looked over at the pool, where the group was quieter now, smoking, kissing, and whispering. Stefano called out to the server to toss me a Bacio: chocolate and hazelnut wrapped in silver foil with blue stars. I didn’t tell him that I didn’t eat them anymore, or that John was the chocolate-lover now. This single vice—a reward after biking—exposed the well-kept secret of his human weakness, but it wouldn’t have survived the trip back, so I dropped it on the table.
Stefano’s eyes lit up. “Look at you, all grown up. So, you sold that damn business, eh?”
“Yeah, the buyer sells chemical analyzers, but this is their first foray into organic food testing. Five years of my life, and it’s all over.” I added, in a triumphant voice, “I’m free.”
Already it was too many words; he leaned back to pick a fig off the tree hovering over us.
“The girl gets what she wants. I always said that about you.”
“I was so nervous about what to say when people ask me my job, but nobody here talks about work,” I said.
“Work isn’t the center of our lives.”
“Have these people ever supported themselves? Do they ever get bored with this?”
Stefano peeled the fig with his fingers, juice running down his hand.
“What’s next for you?” he asked, leading the witness, perhaps, toward our mutual unspoken destination, but there was no way to know, because his bass was so inherently seductive, that it was in a sense opaque.
I said, “I have all sorts of ideas, but then, when I really stop and think about them, they’re all so…small.”
“Everything’s pretty small if you think too much about it,” he said.
“I’m just so tired. I wake up every night from strange noises, the heat, the cold, or this crazy thirst. I was already sleep-deprived before the sale, and now I’m just wasted.”
“You always loved travel,” he said.
“Travel is escape from work,” I said. “Without work, how can there be travel?” Anyway, Molly and I had always travelled together, so what now? “I want to feel the way I used to feel. I had this image in my mind of what post-sale life was going to look like, but now that I’m here, I can’t see more than a few feet in front, and I’d just like to know which way to head.”
“I’m confused,” Stefano said. “Was your dream to build a startup or to sell it?”
“Well, to build it, of course,” I stammered.
“So, the dream was already realized. Selling Quantro simply ended it.”
I turned away and ate the chocolate from the table.
“Where’s the irreverent thinker I used to know?” Stefano asked, squeezing my knee. “You always had conviction.”
“Things were clear. Why accept arbitrary rules when I could figure out the truth? I used to feel so strong.”
“Strength is an action, not a feeling.”
“I’m not afraid to take action; I just need to know what action to take,” I said. “There’s this huge job opportunity, but I’d have to move to New York. If I turn it down, I’ll always wonder if I was just too scared. Success requires you to push through that fear. New York is the ultimate. I want something to aspire to—some risk and mystery, living back on the edge: the threat of a low-sales month, the thrill of closing a deal. Adventure…”
“Isn’t that why you chose to build Quantro instead of moving here? You’ve already done that.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I guess there’s no point. I set out to do something and I did it.”
Stefano gazed into my eyes with a hurt look that he had hidden up to now.
“Tell me, was it everything you expected? Was it worth it?”
I swallowed slowly before responding.
“My father made me promise I’d never be dependent on a man. I had no choice.”
The group by the pool burst out in laughter.
His eyes softened. “What do you want now?”
“I want a lot, but everything has consequences...”
“Start with the answer and then make your way around the rest,” he said.
“What answer? I can get what I want, but what if I make the wrong choice? If someone else would make the decision, I’d be fine, I’d work it out. Why do I have to be the one to decide everything?”
“Maybe you’re not so powerful as all that,” he said.
“I’m going around in circles. Every option kills an option.”
“Life goes on. You know: always a new day.” He bit into the fig and licked the drippings off his lips.
“Sure, there’s always another deal. We always said that when a sale fell through. But a sale is a sale, not something to be optimized like your life. With all these possibilities, I have to pick a path. One path. One job, one city.” One man. “That means losing all but one.”
“We’re still young. We don’t have to have it all figured out,” he said.
“I always dreamed of thirty as the pinnacle: face, body, confidence, independence, money, and career…hitting it in all dimensions,” I said, without mentioning my thirtieth birthday, the last day Molly spoke to me.
“I don’t look at life that way. It’s hours, one after the other—an experience, not a project to finish or a school paper to be graded.”
We sat in silence, Stefano draped over the couch, leaning against me, his cologne falling over me like a blanket. John would’ve said that anyone who needs that much cologne is hiding something.
The faraway waves rumbled in rhythm. Stefano lit a cigarette, looking up into the sky as he blew out smoke. Couples in towels drifted back inside, and then the patio fell quiet again.
“Molly asked for an investment in The Bomb,” he said, handing me the limoncello which I drank out of the bottle. “I can’t ask my family for more cash. Why does that restaurant always need money? What’s the problem?”
“It’s all the boring stuff—the business side. She hates that. It hampers her artistic vision.”
“You’re a problem-solver. So, now that you finally have time for other people, why don’t you be her friend and help her do what she has to do.”
“She needs to talk to me first.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
I shook my head. “It’s a mess,” I whispered, but admitting this fact while omitting the cause provided no relief. I stared at the yellow swirls in the bottle as my view blurred.
Stefano didn’t deal in intangibles.
“Something happened. I told her to watch her spending, but she’s incapable of letting anyone go or accepting a lesser space for the restaurant. You know Molly. So, now she can’t pay her rent and The Bomb is being evicted. She sent me to negotiate with the landlord, who’s this big-shot entrepreneur in Boston. John Baker.” I took a deep breath, trying to anticipate how bad the words would sound out loud. “I got to know him. We had so much to talk about. I’ve never known anyone who understands business so well. At some point, I just…”
I’d spent years telling the men in my life about Stefano, but this was my first time telling Stefano about someone else. All the other people in our lives were just entertainers killing our time before the real show. I was confused now as to whether John had interrupted my relationship with Stefano, or whether my being with Stefano here was breaking in on my relationship with John. Had I come to Italy to tell Stefano about John, or to be with Stefano? Betrayal is never ideal, but decidedly worse when you don’t even know who it is you’re betraying.
“Molly won’t speak to me,” I said. “She’s written me off.”
“She won’t forgive you for dating her landlord? That doesn’t sound like Molly.”
“I should’ve told her, but then months went by and it got more difficult. How many times do I need to say I’m sorry? I just want to explain it to her so we can work it out.”
“There’s nothing to explain,” he said. “You succumbed to temptation.”
“It wasn’t really like that. He got me out of the office and taught me how to snowboard. He gets my drive, but he’s shown me what I was missing. The more I scratched, the more I found. It’s real.”
“That doesn’t mitigate your mistake,” he said.
“My mistake wasn’t in being with him; it was in not telling her. Is that enough to kill a friendship?”
“Instead of helping her resolve her problems, you made them worse.”
We sat in silence. Stefano had no patience for drama unless there was upside in it for him.
“I’ve tried everything to show her how sorry I am,” I said.
“So, you keep trying. Sometimes there’s no end product—just the process.” No end product? John would’ve laughed. “And what about this man—he trusts you here all alone?”
“Trust travels,” I said, wondering if I’d be worthy of it. Of course, if John really trusted me, he wouldn’t have flipped out when he found my ticket with the stopover in Rome: Why are you going? What’s your objective? How could I have explained to John that the big surprise in life always seemed to be which feelings dissolved over time, and which condensed to greater potency.
It must’ve been three or four in the morning, and most of the guests had drifted inside. Stefano handed me the limoncello, but I pushed it back.
“Why aren’t you drinking? I’m not going to finish the bottle alone,” I said.
“Too much alcohol doesn’t mix with my pills,” he said.
He looked at me curiously. “My pills. You know.”
“No. What are you talking about? Pills for what?”
“For depression. You knew that. I’ve been taking them for years.”
I pulled back from him. “What?”
“Since my father died. It’s no secret; you’ve seen me take them. Everyone knows.”
“Everyone knows? What do you mean everyone? Does Molly know?”
He didn’t respond. I rubbed my eyes and turned away, allowing my head to fall.
“Stefano,” I pleaded, to let him know I got it. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you. I was so anxious about being a good executive—”
“Good student, actually,” he interrupted.
“You were in business school when he died. Don’t you remember?” he asked.
He smiled at me with soft eyes. I looked away, and it took me a moment to recognize that his pity was directed not at himself but at me. My mouth felt dry, but I didn’t know where the bottle was. I tried not to blink. He sighed apologetically, as if he had hoped all these years to keep my very essence a secret from me.
“I’ve been such a bad friend,” I muttered.
“You’re good at other things.” He put his hand on my arm. “I know you by now, Isabella. You’re loveable just the same,” he said with a kind smile.
I wiped my nose on the sleeve of my kimono. “How charitable.”
“We’ve been friends for fourteen years, and in all that time I haven’t been able to hold a romance for over a year. It makes you think about the power of friendship.”
“Doesn’t bode well for your engagement,” I laughed, still sniffling.
“Tell me about her.”
“What do you want to know? When we walk in the room, every head turns. She lights up the space.”
“Are you in love?” I asked, without considering whether I was prepared for the answer.
“I used to think she was strong, but silent isn’t strong. It’s just silent. Intimacy isn’t dependence. I want someone lying next to me, not on top of me. Nothing but sweat between us.”
“She doesn’t stand on her own?” I asked.
“She reads. All the time. But then she has nothing to say about it—nothing to teach me. I was trying to keep my options open, but she threatened to break up, accusing me of being incapable of commitment, and somehow we ended up engaged. She’s hungry for my name, but she doesn’t understand that I can’t give her whatever it is that she wants from it.”
“She sounds manipulative.”
“She’s beautiful,” he said. “Everyone is jealous of me.”
“Maybe you’d be better off alone,” I said.
“Basketball is fun, but I need soft legs wrapped around me at night.”
“Of course you do,” I muttered.
Stefano stood up to kiss two women good night. After they left, a hand pushed my hair away, and then I felt a short kiss on my ear from behind. I wondered what physics defined the transition of a kiss to something more than just a kiss. Was the guilt in his intention or in my desire? He stood behind the couch and touched my shoulders like he had rights to my body, comfortable handling it as he pleased. I leaned my head back while he squeezed my shoulders from behind, slowly and with increasing pressure, deep into my tissue. My muscles melted.
“Let’s play a duet,” he said, rubbing my neck. “We can play that four-hand fugue we wrote for the Bach festival. Did you forget it?”
“Of course not.” Whenever I needed to feel his presence, I replayed the repetitive sixteenth-note patterns as a mantra.
Stefano was in no apparent rush to get to the piano. He breezed his fingers through my hair until I fell into that euphoric state between consciousness and sleep, where dreams just start to take shape. After our morning piano lesson, he’d always headed out with his surfboard, occasionally disappearing for days, his unpredictability creating a welcome intensity of existence during the boredom of those long summer days. That first summer, after my piano recital, we’d fallen asleep on his bed, wrapped around each other. When his father arrived home early from a business trip, we dove underneath.
“What if one day, we could do this—you know, sleep together in our own bed,” he’d whispered, rubbing his scratchy unshaven cheek against mine. But the three overfilled duffels beside his bed, ready for college, told the more immediate tragedy.
The lights in the house flickered off. We were alone. Stefano pushed aside some balloons and sat beside me on the couch, his foot on top of mine. This experience, sitting under the summer stars with Stefano post-sale, was one that had played out in my mind for so long that the reality became just one more version of the story line. Nothing else mattered. The back of his long fingers grazed my fist, which opened like a flower for him. He rubbed his thumb over each of my knuckles. His piano-touch was new after all these years, yet still familiar.
After laying flat, he pulled me down beside him. I could feel his breathing through the thin robes. We’d spent many nights sleeping beside each other, both as lovers and later as friends. The magic was that we could still do this now, when others would’ve said it was inappropriate. We were innocent; that was what John didn’t understand.
“I shouldn’t have said you’re loveable,” Stefano whispered.
“No, I mean—that’s not what I meant to say to you,” he said.
“I’m so sorry about my insensitivity.” His nose was directly in front of mine and his eyes were blinking slowly, so close that I thought his lashes might touch my face. His fingers twirled my hair with a tender touch, the way he played Chopin. He moved it out of my eyes.
“What I meant to say is that I love you,” he said, his breath dancing on my cheek. He slipped his hand under my kimono to the back of my leg.
“You had your chance,” I said.
“That’s not true. You chose your business over Italy, always so busy, going off to do your thing. You weren’t ready to love me the way I loved you,” he said.
His fingers found the nook in the back of my neck, and then he pulled me down and kissed me on my lips with such intensity that, even though I knew it was just his way, I couldn’t help wondering if he had maintained that singular kiss just for me. I weaved my fingers through his damp hair. I’d dreamed of this for so long that I had a surreal experience, fantasizing about a scene while it was unfolding in reality.
Stefano had a loose way with his hands, touching me without restraint or apology. I pulled him in closer, my fingers pressed against the skin on his back, while the stone in my pocket jabbed into my thigh.
“It doesn’t matter how many years go by,” he whispered. “You are the one, forever at the top of my list. My one.”
“The difference between you and me is, I don’t have a list,” I said.
“This is all I’ve ever wanted,” Stefano said, which would’ve been credible if he had ever used his limitless resources to have visited me in Boston these last five years. Then he said, “Your lips are delicious,” which I thought at first was a joke.
I said, “They’re not for eating.” He ignored me, so I continued. “I mean, how would I explain it to John if I came home with no lips? I guess I couldn’t explain, because I’d have no lips.” My grin grew, until I couldn’t help but sit up and snort. I moved to the cocktail table, leaving Stefano’s body strewn over the couch.
“Come back. Why are you so far away?” he mumbled, caressing my arm in an attempt to pull me back down toward him. “I know you, Bella, like nobody else. I’ve loved you since you were a girl. We always imagined this.”
Stefano sat up and stroked my bare leg which was slipping out from the kimono. I looked at his stubble face as if for the first time, and heaved his hand off my leg.
“Why do you want to be with someone who hurt Molly?” he asked.
“It’s kind of a package deal. You can’t order á la carte.”
“Tell me one thing great about him,” Stefano said.
“John is a wise man.” John had foreseen this, and if I hadn’t booked my ticket through Rome, there would’ve been no fight. I checked my watch and wondered if he was awake. What time was it back home?
“You think I should be more like him, don’t you?” Stefano asked.
“I think I should.”
I looked out toward the water, as if, from this perspective, I could see all the way to Boston. My former employees were disappearing from my life now that the sale had gone through. We had spent hours together, working toward the same ends, but I knew so little about their lives. At some point, the buyer would move operations to Moscow, and they’d have to find new work. I never asked them what they thought of the acquisition, even though John had urged me to talk to them.
I said, “I need stronger character.”
“Isn’t character a strange thing? You can’t see it just by looking,” Stefano said.
The lights of a distant cruise ship dotted the horizon.
“Two men say they’re in love. One cherishes his love and the other plays around. Then there’s all the grey area in between: those little lies you can’t verify, the looks, the pause, the facts that can’t be explained away...”
I was remembering back to my days with Stefano himself—the doubts and murkiness that never existed in my life with John.
“Maybe there are some things we’d all rather not know.” He was likely remembering those days himself.
“I’ve always thought that people can deal with reality.” I glared at him.
“Whatever reality is.” He lit a cigarette.
“It’s what people create in their minds in order to live with their internal contradictions,” I said, brushing my curls off the back of my neck. “The rationale to allow themselves to do what they want. People are good at getting what they want, just misguided about what that should be.”
“Why did you come all the way to Italy? I thought this was what you wanted. We always talked about this day,” he said. “You’re independent now. You don’t need to work. This was the grand vision.”
“I was in a bad place. I needed to clear my mind. I needed a friend.”
“What does the evicting man offer you? Not this.” Stefano waved his arm at the beach and his villa. “If this guy destroys Molly’s restaurant, she’ll never forgive you. She did everything for you. Do you know, she’s the one who got you into Sloan? One of your college professors whispered to Admissions that you were too arrogant, and not enough of a team player. But she convinced them to let you in.”
I stared at Stefano to check that he was telling the truth. “She never told me…”
“Of course not. She has your back, and you should have hers. Think of someone else for once, Isabella. You can’t just run off with the man who’s crushing her dream.”
“There are other ways for me to make it up to her.”
He opened a pistachio while holding his cigarette. “Oh yeah? How’s that?” he asked, popping the nut into his mouth and throwing the shells into a bush.
“The how is the easy part.”
The helium in the blue balloon had started to dissipate, so the string was no longer taut. When I untied the string, the balloon hovered overhead, its string dangling within reach. I leaned over for a pistachio and caught sight of my grey speckled stone in a big basket. I checked my pocket to see if it had fallen out, but it was still there, so I pulled it out and rubbed the edge, pushing until it pierced my skin. The basket was full of these stones, identical, just tossed on top of each other. They were there for the taking. The basket was overflowing, and I had extra space in my backpack. I could have as many as I wanted.
I glanced at Stefano, then tossed my stone into the basket with the others. Stefano noticed a drop of blood on my finger, so he dabbed it with the white edge of his cigarette. Then he held my hand, lay back and closed his eyes. Overhead, the sky was changing from black to a deep blue as morning yawned and stretched.