APEROL SPRITZ: A Love Story (Part I)

PART I

He never should have come to Milan.

There was something so utterly charmless about the city. A brutality to the buildings the grew tall and grey and ugly amidst the beauty of the classic Italian architecture.

A monument to what could have been if capitalism hadn’t had it’s way. But capitalism always has its way. That’s just the way it works.

He should have picked somewhere like Turin. It was more beautiful, it was more peaceful. Less tourists too. The people still had that veneer of iciness the north of Italy is famous for (at least amongst the southerners), but… it was better than the Milanese.

There was something Parisian about the people here in the most awful way. They walked with a pretentiousness that was as foreign to him as the language, backs ramrod straight, with a disdainful sashay like they were walking in a catwalk show that no-one else around them was important enough to be invited to.

They spoke with a curtness that offended his British sensibilities, no “please”, no “thank you”.

A world away from what he’d imagined. Old ladies saying “buongiorno” in the street, charmingly provincial Italian girls in flowing summer dresses, holding bunches of flowers for some inexplicable reason.

He called himself a romantic.

His ex called him an idiot.

At least the sun was shining.

A lot.

It was a heat that he simply wasn’t used to. Sure he’d had some holidays, gone to plenty of sunny countries — but this was the longest he’d spent in such heat and it was just… so bloody hot.

The air was thick, with smog and smells and humidity, every time he washed his hands it wasn’t more than five minutes before they grew clammy again. He was showering about three times a day and going through socks like nobody’s business. He’d had to work out a more robust laundry budget.

Despite all this, he was having a simply wonderful time.

He was hardly an architect, more of a pseudo-intellectual that had enough passing knowledge on a variety of subjects to sound interesting over a glass of wine — but he was in love with the buildings around him (so long as he ignored the skyscrapers and the ever encroaching influence of globalisation), he loved the intricacies and the details that the Italians had put into everything.

They might have a reputation for being lazy, but when they wanted to be, they were artisans of the highest order.

And so it was, as he was wandering through those delightfully narrow streets that Northern Europeans find so charming, on his way to join some acquaintances (they were hardly people he’d call friends, there was too much of a language barrier for something as intimate as that) for an apperitivo, and as the sun was flogging the city streets around him, following him even as he jogged awkwardly from shady spot to shady spot, that the muggy Milanese air hung still as it is often want to do, and this sticky dew became caught in those indistinct cogs of destiny and made the machinery of the world go haywire… He met Dede.

***

She had the classic Italian beauty he imagined was typical of the women Dolce & Gabanna hired for their campaigns, only 20 years after they’d left their modelling days behind.

The lines in her sun-darkened skin gave her a refined look, echoed by the simplistic way she dressed, slim cut silhouettes in patterns that bordered on the gaudy but never quite managed no matter how they tried. Her body was, from what he could see, lithe and toned, she gave the impression of tensile strength, both physically and emotionally. She had the sort of smile that could just as easily slip between warm and inviting and cold and mocking. All in all, he found her thoroughly intimidating. It will be of no surprise to you then, when I tell you that young Sam was utterly and ineffably in love from the second their eyes crossed paths.

Her eyebrow arched as she caught him staring. He felt a deep ravine open in the depths of his stomach, and could do nothing as his heart plunged down into it and got tangled amongst his feet, causing him to trip and stub his toe quite forcefully. She flashed him a laugh that was both charmed and malicious and it was all he could do not to fall into a puddle right there and then, giving in to the despair that only true, primal and thoroughly ill-advised love can bring.

He thought it couldn’t get any worse, but then she turned away, and it was as if he were back in England once again, and the clouds had passed in front of the sun with no intention of moving for at least 3 months. He felt spurned. He felt heartbroken. He felt like he’d organised a barbeque on a Sunday scheduled for mid-twenties sunshine only to have everyone cancel after waking up to the downpour, and he was left wondering what he was going to do with the 30 sausages in the fridge.

Just as he was resigning himself to the fact that the sausages were going to spoil, he, through blind luck it seemed, stumbled upon a recipe for sausage casserole. Metaphorically of course.

The statuesque woman was chatting with the fevered intensity that is common amongst the Italians with a number of others — mostly men and women her age, but there were a small contingent of younger, scruffier looking counterparts. And there, in that treasure trove of conveniently placed artists and other such creative riff-raff, was a face he recognised. The face he had so reluctantly come here to see.

God bless you Alberto, he thought to himself as he sauntered over to say hello, God bless you, you irritating bastard.

On the topic of things that are irritating, the Southern Europeans have a habit that Northerners find both equally reprehensible to be a part of but intensely charming to be on the receiving end of.

The generally considered etiquette when arriving later than others to drinks in England is a simple one. One enters the establishment and locates one’s drinking partners, who at this point are likely half a pint in and discussing something incredibly specific. Once one locates one’s acquaintances, it is normal to approach the group and proclaim a general greeting to all those gathered. An “alright” followed by a sharp tilt of the head upwards is the accepted practice, but a curtly delivered “lads” or “chaps” is also acceptable.

The group will then acknowledge your presence with varying degrees of warmth, from the returning of the upward head-tilt in silence, a raising of the pint glass (with or without head-tilt), an equally curt “alright” or if one is feeling particularly sentimental, a brief “alright mate?”.

At this point, one must return this warm welcome by informing the group that you’re going to go ahead and “grab a pint”, which will be met by indifference before a quick return to the conversation as you slink away.

Once you have acquired said pint, your job is to return to the table in the least conspicuous way possible. More often than not, one of the members of the group will be part-way through a detailed telling of a story which you will have zero context on. The etiquette here is to return any nods or glass-raises that you are greeted with in total silence. One then waits until they have gathered enough general context on the conversation to interject with a comment, joke, or even story of one’s own (though the latter is often frowned upon as an opening gambit unless one is very intimate friends with the gathered group, or at least in higher social standing than the majority in attendance).

Now, one is part of the conversation, and an enjoyment of the evening’s revelry can begin, until another late-comer joins, at which point it is time for one to repeat the earlier ritual, but this time stood amongst your instead of before them.

So it is, so it has always been and so it always will be.

The Italians however, have a very different idea about friendship, and it was one that still surprised him no matter how often it happened.

In Italy, when one approached the table of one’s compatriots, all conversation would cease. The people gathered would stand, and greet the newcomer individually, and with gusto. Ten minutes would be spent as each person asked how the other was, how work was coming along, and my isn’t it hot today?

This was the case even amongst a group such as the one he faced today, where almost all of them were strangers to him, though they clearly all knew each other well.

He’d been part of such welcoming committees many a time now, but this was the first time he’d been on the receiving end of it, and as mentioned earlier, the practice that had heretofore seemed vulgar and unnecessarily sentimental, was quite inexplicably charming when he was the one being greeted.

The creative riff-raff greeted him with a cold disdain he’d come to expect of Milan, Alberto met him warmly, clasping an all-together too clammy hand on his bicep, the other placed on the back of his head, as tender as a lover. The women closer to middle-age were also distant, but in a less studied way than the others — theirs was a coldness that had become refined through years of social etiquette, dashed with enough warmth that one could never accuse them of being rude, but with a consistent vein of haughtiness that comes with being born into money and the certainty of knowing one could have anything in the world they desired.

The final person he greeted was the woman who had so intoxicated him before. Despite the heat he felt himself shivering and was painfully reminded of the ravine in his stomach that the rest of his internal organs were tumbling into.

He leaned in to kiss her cheek, and his hand rested gently on her waist. Through the silk of her dress he could feel the warmth of her skin, his little finger brushed the top line of the underwear she was wearing, and as it did he felt the irresistible urge to close his hand tight and pull her to him, claiming her as his. He decided to resist this uncharacteristically brutally masculine urge as he thought it would be quite unseemly.

As he drew closer, he could see the fine powdering of her make up, how it had caught itself in the gentle wrinkles around her eyes, how some of her mascara had caused a couple of eyelashes to clump together in the most inexplicably attractive way. Her sweat mingled with her perfume, salty and floral, mixing with the smell of cigarette smoke that drifted from her coyly curled lips.

Her impeccably manicured hand laid itself on his shoulder, and slid almost imperceptibly down to the top of his chest where it rested as gentle as birdsong and as heavy as a tome of romantic poetry.

Something electric infused the air and he felt the stirrings of desire below the ravine of his stomach as he breathed in sharply, trying so hardly to conceal his hunger. Her eyes purred as she felt the effect she had on him, never breaking contact with his.

His lips turned to kiss her cheek, he could feel her, the anxious heat radiating off her, and whether by accident or by design, she turned her face too, and as he planted his kiss, the very corner of her lips pressed against his, sweet and soft, still wet with crisp white wine.

He thought he felt her shudder with pleasure and felt himself doing the same before having the delicious moment cut woefully short.

Her hand fell away from his shoulder and her waist pulled away from his hand. She completed the second kiss as perfunctorily as any and all of the women before, and the deafening heat that had been running riot between them had turned to a tundra of ice, ripe with sharp and glistening edges that threatened to cut without mercy if he took but one misstep.

He drew away feeling as though he’d been thoroughly ravished before being thrown out like rotten meat to the guard dogs and was left wondering why his chest was aching in a way it hadn’t in years.

***

There were no seats left, so after an awkward fumbling attempt at asking the couple at the table behind them in Italian if he might please borrow their chair, he managed to squeeze in next to Alberto. He sat and pulled himself closer, the metal legs of the chair scraping against the concrete with a volume he hadn’t expected.

Everyone was looking at him.

Overall he felt thoroughly embarrassed.

Alberto smiled the winning smile he was so famous for, the one that had charmed countless young men and women into his bed and out again before the morning came, before clasping his hand onto his friends shoulders and proudly declaring to the gathered audience “Sam here is a sculptor!”, which earned a few approving nods from the Riff Raff and some appraising looks from the older women. One in particular however seemed not to have heard, or noticed, or cared, which was a shame for Sam, as hers was the only opinion he really cared about at that moment.

“So you are not Italian?” asked one gentleman to his left who looked as if he’d attempted to come across as rakishly debonair but simply ended up looking like he didn’t understand the purpose of an iron.

“No” said Sam, suddenly feeling a little ashamed at his presence in this very Italian crowd.

There’s something to be said about moving to another country. It teaches one patience and understanding, it makes one question one’s values and develop them in accordance to or contrary to the values one comes across in one’s new home. It is exciting and a worthy endeavour that is full of beauty and adventure and new foods. It is also a desperately lonely existence.

When one is far from home one clings with more rigour to one’s supposed national identity. It is our comfort blanket in times of confusion and chaos, it reminds us that there is a place where we are not an outsider, where we will be welcomed with open arms and the language around us is wonderfully familiar. No matter if one is not in the least a patriotic person.

No matter if one, in fact, left their country for the precise reason that they hated it, that they felt like an outsider, where there was no one to welcome them, and understanding the words being spoken around them drove them only to new levels of impotent rage at the unspeakable pettiness, selfishness and greed of human kind.

All faults of one’s home country are pardoned (with the exception of course being when one meets a fellow emigrant from one’s homeland and many a jokes are told about the particular peculiarities of the place one was born), and when added in with the melancholia of loneliness, one becomes quite defensive about the whole thing, which goes quite a way to explaining what happened next.

“I knew it!” said Crumpled Shirt, as if he were a detective from a 1970s crime show that had fooled everyone around him into thinking he was but a bumbling moron, only to reveal that behind the stammering and poorly ironed clothing, lay a rather shrewd mind, “I knew straight away! You’re American!”.

Alberto tensed, a tigress ready to pounce and devour its prey — this afternoon being an unintentional social faux-pas — but he was too late.

“Excuse me?” asked Sam.

Anyone who has spent any time at all around an Englishman knows that the words excuse me followed by a question mark and often accompanied with arched tone and arched eyebrow, are dangerous words indeed. A threat veiled behind that particularly cold brand of British Politeness. An invitation to a duel of words, that, more than likely, will end in a severely wounded ego at best, and an end to what was up until that moment an enjoyable evening at worst.

Unfortunately for this particular dishevelled gentleman, he hadn’t spent much time around Englishmen at all, and so, much to Alberto’s chagrin, he continued, obstinate in his ignorance.

“Yes yes, your accent, you must be an American!”

Thus, he tried in oblivious enthusiasm to ring his own death knell.

Luckily for him, someone decided to grasp the clapper before all sense of social order was lost.

“He is British you foolish little man, his accent is remarkably and unmistakably British — which you would know if you had been studying your English as I have instructed you to. No-one will buy your paintings if you make such idiotic errors.”

The words were crisp and cold and barely accented despite the Italian lips they issued from. It was the woman who had so enraptured Sam before. He tried to catch her eye so he might give her a nod of thanks but she had lost interest once more and was engaged in a murmured Italian conversation with the woman next to her.

“I am sorry Dede” replied the admonished painter, but she had no interest to spare for his apology either, so he slouched back into his chair, taking great interest in the way the half melted ice cubes in his glass moved as he swirled his drink.

***

Not being the type of people to let a silence lie undisturbed for long, chatter started up again. A waiter with the sort of nondescript handsomeness that Sam had come to expect of the Italians came and asked him what he’d like to drink.

He hesitated.

“He’ll have an Aperol Spritz” said Dede to the waiter brusquely, barely registering his inordinately handsome face (for the second she had turned her attention to him, Sam felt himself becoming unexplainably jealous, and the waiter’s features transformed, in his mind, into a veritable tableau of male beauty — his cheekbones sharpened, his jaw grew stronger, his lips plumper and his eyes became imbued with a mysterious feline femininity, eyelashes so lush and beautifully rich that not even the most talented of make up artists could hope to imitate with mascara) before turning to Sam.

This is an important moment dear reader, so I implore you to pay attention.

Dede turned her head to face Sam, and as her neck twisted, highlighting the wrinkles there, the freckles born of a little too much sun, Sam found himself wanting more desperately than anything to kiss those deep folds with the tenderest of kisses. Barely a brush of the lips.

The sun slid across the lenses of her sunglasses as she pulled them down, and her startlingly green eyes (flecked with gold he noticed with a start) rose like the sun above the frames of her dark glasses. She fixed him with a look of such intensity that Sam fancied himself Job’s wife, fleeing God’s wrath at Sodom and Gomorrah, unable to turn away and now eternally rooted there, a pillar of salt forever more.

Her lips parted as she prepared to speak, and Sam watched hungrily as they pulled apart, sticking together, peeling away from each other with such agonising slowness that Sam thought he would simply burst there and then from the sensuousness of such a delightful detail.

“You are in Italy, so you will drink like an Italian” she said, clear enough to be heard by the entire group, but for Sam it seemed like a secret shared between old and hidden lovers, for everyone else had simply ceased to be solid in that moment. Those words were not an instruction for him, no, they were an invitation to a tryst, the unlocking of a door in his mind that he, until now, was unaware was locked or even existed at all.

That door swung open and through the frame he saw a garden of carnal pleasures, where peaches hung full and round like women’s buttocks, and he longed to reach out, to bite into one, and feel the hot, forbidden juices drip down his chin.

And as she finished, her lips curled up into a smile that was at once the mischievous look of a young boy who had decided that very moment to do something he knew he very much shouldn’t — and yet bore every inch the unshakable confidence that comes with having reached a point in life when one knows that anything they could desire is there for the taking.

Sam felt the urgent hardness between his legs, pressing tightly against the cloth of his underwear, and the guilt and the fear of it being seen made his arousal only worse.

As if she knew this, as if she revelled in his humiliation and his excitement, she winked at him with the sort of conspiratorial grace no actress had, in Sam’s humble opinion, been able to echo on the silver screen.

He thought he might climax there and then.

And as quick as she had let him in, as quick as she had parted her thighs for him and led him deep into her heart, the walls came up again with the sunglasses, and her attention on him disappeared as suddenly as an April shower.

Sam felt something in his heart go. He felt his manhood tremble and shrivel inward, his humiliation now complete, and Milan felt an awful lot colder than he remembered it being.

Sam wasn’t always the most astute of men. He was still somewhat inexperienced with the fairer sex, blooming late into his sexuality, and it gave him a naivety that would be charming if it didn’t make him seem so pathetic. 
 
 He didn’t know if this was simple friendliness on her part. Perhaps it was harmless flirting, or perhaps it was harmful indeed, done with intent to excite and then shame. Or perhaps, just maybe, it was an invitation.

There were many things Sam didn’t know, and with the few things he did, he was often wrong.

But there was one thing he knew with certainty, and one thing that he was, unfortunately, undeniably correct about.

On that hot and humid Milan day, when the seat of his trousers stuck unpleasantly to the backs of his legs, when even the most enthusiastic of dogs was reluctant to take a walk, when, as was said before, the cogs of destiny grew sticky and threw themselves into disarray — that day when Sam met Dede — his fate was sealed.