The wine was a spumante, some obscure label that meant nothing to any serious Italian. Still, it was wine, golden in the light with a swirling sweet taste. I hoped she would approve. Stella waited for me to pop the cork and then brought forward the glasses. After the right explosion of sound and smoke the wine pooled into the bowls, splashing up to the brims. I wiped the lip of the bottle, set it down and took the glass Stella offered.
I looked at her. I wanted to speak, to say something poignant, but no words came. Stella stared back at me with those Italian eyes of her, went to speak, said nothing. Her eyes dipped towards her wine.
“What shall we toast?” Stella raised her eyes again and found mine. Her glance was almost a challenge.
“Let’s just toast this moment. You. Me. The wine, and the discreet absence of time.”
Stella nodded, her full Roman lips parting with a smile. While her front teeth were turned slightly, it was a beautiful smile.
“Poetic,” she replied. “Salute.”
We clinked glasses and sipped the wine. The bubbles worked their way into my sinuses as the sharp taste prickled my tongue. It was dark outside the confines of our room and the air was firm in its February chill.
Stella sat down on the bed. I took the chair from under the old desk against the wall, set it down with a creak and then sat facing her.
The collar of her sweater dipped to show all her slender neck. I knew she’d put it on for me. Olive skin spilled out of that sweater, her finely-sculpted collar bones disappeared behind the thick black flow of her hair. Outside, cars shuddered along ancient cobble streets the Romans had laid. Beyond the city, the sea was soft and eternal as it lapped the shore.
Stella’s eyes fixed on me as she took another sip of wine. The flaking white paint of the walls and the faded cream of the hostel bedsheets were ghostly against the fullness, the vitality of her. I felt a sudden chill roll beneath my skin from my spine out to my fingers and felt ghostly as well.
“You know I’ve come to love you.”
Stella’s voice was tight, but her eyes never wavered. I took a long sip from my wine to blunt the edge of her words. It hurt to look at her, those eyes, but I couldn’t look at anything else.
“It… it isn’t fair that you go.”
“I know” was all I could say. In my mind, I was already gone.
Sweet lies suggested themselves to me – don’t worry, Stella, I’ll be back or why don’t you come with me, knowing full-well that she could not. I swept such poison aside with another sip of wine. I had sworn to be honest with her, nothing but honest, and that’s what I would do. This time, I’d get it right.
“No”, I said, perhaps more bluntly than I’d hoped. “It isn’t fair. It probably wasn’t fair to let this happen at all.” I smiled sheepishly. “I guess I just couldn’t resist you.”
Stella blushed and turned her head down to one side, a sweet, innocent gesture that sweetly and innocently emphasized the curve of her breasts. Feeling like the Great Bastard of the World that I probably was, I relished the gesture, recalled and anticipated the taste, the heat of her skin. I tossed back the rest of my wine and refilled my glass.
“God, Stella – you don’t make it easy.”
“Good.” Her answer was sharp and her eyes went hard as she gave it.
“I guess it’s no easier for you, is it?”
“Aaron. Please, tell me something. I know you’ll be honest.”
She was right. Knowing that eased the ache, if just a little.
“Did you come to Italy with a plan to be with a girl? For a, what do you say – a holiday fling?”
“It was something I considered, yes.”
“When we first met, what did you want from me?”
“Please, Aaron. Tell me.”
I paused to put words to my feelings.
“When I first saw you at the club, dancing with your friends… the way you move is very sensual. Sexy. You know your body so well, every inch of your gorgeous curves and how to control them. The way you looked in that outfit… it was rapture. Do you understand this word?”
“Yes. Go on.”
“In that moment, I could only think about what your body would look like, taste like, how that body would feel pressing against mine. I could picture those soft lips of yours whispering my name in my ear. When our eyes met, I felt that you were thinking something similar. Was I wrong?”
“No.” Stella blushed with the admission.
“Stella, please don’t be like that. There’s more. When I asked you to dance I wanted to have you, yes, but then we started talking, and then we were sitting down to talk, and talked for hours. It was amazing. The way you paint pictures as you speak, the way you described the hills of Tuscana…”
“I love Tuscana. So much space, freedom, like a body to explore every inch of.”
“Yes! Like that, just the way you said that. There was so much beauty in you, too, I wanted to know it all. Inside and out. And you wanted to know me, too. But when I went to kiss you, you put your fingers to my lips to hold me back, but smiled at the same time.”
“I did it as much to control myself. I wanted you, I didn’t think I could stop myself. It frightened me.”
I didn’t know that” I replied as she blushed. “It felt like you were in complete control – of me as well, I couldn’t resist. You gave me your number and kissed me on the cheek, then you left. That night all I could do was think about staying, for you. I’m a backpacker, a tumbleweed – I’m not supposed to think of staying.”
“But you did. You’ve been here a month.”
Stella could put such emotion into her voice. I closed my eyes and could see the her face looking at me filled with love, like the Madonna. Her fingers grazed my cheek, gently bringing me back to the moment. I opened my eyes to see her kneeling forwards on the bed, resting on one hand, her face close.
“Oh Aaron… my friends, they told me to watch out for you, that you only wanted sex. I knew better. If it was only sex you were after, you would have found someone else that night. You wouldn’t still be here with me now.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle.
“Here I thought your friends didn’t like me because I’m not Italian.”
Stella slapped my knee and laughed, a sound that rolled across the room like the waves on the shore close by.
“No, they thought you were the devil.”
“They were right.” I smiled my best, wolfish grin and kissed the back of her hand. Shortly after I started courting Stella, one of those friends had taken me aside and explained she had recently been hurt by a boy who cheated on her. Stella didn’t need a foreigner like me licking her wounds with a fleeting tongue.
The defensiveness felt like an attack and stung. It was important to know, though. It wasn’t until the end of the second week that we allowed our passion to erupt in a flurry of kisses and touches. Even that had filled me up; we had gone no further, holding that taste in our mouths and savouring it.
We said everything with our lips and eyes, our fingers both exploring and texting the feelings growing within and between us.
I had told Stella my flight home was coming up fast, but we both chose to ignore it and focus instead on the intoxicating love we were brewing. Time would wait. At least, it was good to think so.
Time ignored us and came anyway; in the morning, I would leave. This night was all the time we had left.
I felt sad that it would happen in a paint-flaking hostel room and with a cheap bottle of Spumante. There was so much we still needed to share, to say, to feel together – all the things that could only be absorbed through osmosis over a lifetime spent together. And I was leaving. I felt the burn of truth in my eyes and licked them with hers.
“Stella, I am grateful this wasn’t a fling.”
“Aaron – what am I to you? What is this between us to you? Does it mean anything?”
“Too much. Leaving is like tearing roots from the ground, but I have to. I’ll go home, you’ll stay here. I’m sure that somewhere down the road, we’ll have moved on with our lives. But right now, I can’t feel it. All I can feel is you and I don’t want to go.”
“Are you saying?” There was desperate hope in her voice that shattered me like glass.
“No. I did the long distance thing once, it was horrible. And I’m not going to live in Italy. And I know you don’t want to leave, either.”
For the first time, Stella looked frail, like a blossom caught in the first snowfall of winter.
“Then… this is all we have?” Her eyes began to water. Picking up the pieces of my shattered self I went to her, wrapped her in my arms. Stella’s control collapsed and she gasped in sadness, the warm tears pouring out onto her cheeks.
“Stella, no. We will always have this, this moment” and my words sounded hollow in my ears, like brittle candy. I shoved them aside and took her face in both my hands. What needed to be shared was beyond the limits of words.
Our lips joined, tender at first but the stream hurtled forward and became a torrent. There could be no barrier between us, and we tore away the layers of clothing and fear until we were revealed to each other completely. With eyes open wide we joined, started directly into each other’s souls, salt tears of sorrow and joy staining our cheeks and mixing together sweetly. We soared together and grasped each other and cried out as though in the embrace of death. When it was done there was the sick feeling of things which have withered and died. We held each other in the silence, warm where we touched beneath the cool air.
Stella got up on unsteady legs and dressed.
“Don’t”, she said. “Please, don’t.”
With one last kiss she let go. As I closed the door behind her, all warmth left the room. My sleep was empty and stale, like the glass on the desk. The air was still cold the next morning when I left for Rome.